The boy seemed to have fallen / From shelf to shelf of someone's rage.
- John Ashbury, “A Boy”
That first night, Steve panics.
In all of his life - including not only the stuff people would expect, like storming the HYDRA factory alone or crashing the Valkyrie, but also being a kid and so sick he could literally hear his mother praying through tears a few feet over, and the days and nights it was him praying and her gasping for breath that eventually left her -
In all that, through all that, this is the first time Steve's hands have actually shaken so badly he has to stop and sit and make himself calm down before he can do things like pick up a pencil, or dial a telephone number, or punch letters on a keyboard.
He needs to do all of the above. There are . . .things. There are things he needs to do.
First there's people he needs to contact, to tell, and suddenly he's never been so grateful for anything as he is for text messaging. Because if he had to say things out loud - well that would be hard enough if he didn't think that Bucky's hearing's probably, almost certainly as good as his is - which means no, the wall between them and the closed interior door is not enough to block out the sound.
So texting, text messages - they're good. Steve likes text messages. And emails.
And then there's -
Well. He should probably make lists of things to do, because his head is running around in circles. And crashing into things on the way. Hard.
He has no plan. Not because he hadn't tried to make one. He'd tried to make lots of plans. Plan, adapt, plan again, tried to think of every contingency.
And then he'd thrown them away, because there wasn't much point. What could you plan for? He couldn't guess the possible contingencies, the situations, the potentials. And he sure as sure hadn't figured on what's happened now, on coming back to his place and finding Bucky here. He hadn't even hoped for that.
He hadn't realized he could.
Which means part of him's demanding why? over and over again, terrified there's a catch somewhere, something that's going to blow up. And with everything other part of him he feels like he's fifteen, feverish and lost. Again.
Which hadn't been that much fun when he'd been fifteen, feverish and lost - but is worse, much worse, here and now.
Bucky hasn't said much. Almost nothing. He followed Steve in like a ghost, watching Steve like while Steve might be using English words, he's speaking a strange, impenetrable language and one where Bucky only understands one word in twelve. Steve's pretty sure his own speech - babble, really - seems . . .
Actually he doesn't even know how it had to look from the outside, but it definitely showed he was nervous.
Three words. No, yes and no - answers to are you hungry, get everything and need anything respectively, after Steve'd shown Bucky the extra bedroom - set up in probably Steve's most ridiculous gesture of overconfidence or desperate hope.
Steve'd been the one to close the bedroom door. He didn't think Bucky would have and wasn't . . . comfortable with the idea that Bucky might think Steve thought he needed watching.
Except now he worries that Bucky might have thought Steve was locking him in.
He hesitates. In the end, he tells himself that if Bucky wants to leave, an interior door isn't going to stop him, but he still can't decide which way would be right.
When he sends the text out, to Sam and to Stark and to the last number he has for Natasha (who he hasn't seen or heard from for months and who might as far as he knows have fallen off the edge of the earth, but she deserves to know), the replies he gets are different.
Sam sends back wel l hsit, the perfect example of answering a text fast and clumsy, and then text or call? and Steve answers don't call as soon as he sees it.
Stark's "reply" is Steve's seldom-used email suddenly getting a receipt and shipping invoice from Amazon.com and about six emails from something called JSTOR, both full of titles of books and articles that, to be fair, sound like they might be pretty relevant. Far be it from Stark to not be . . . .Stark. At least he didn't feel the need to say anything stupid. That was a blessing.
To Steve's surprise, he also gets a text from Natasha almost immediately; it says, Well done. He frowns at it, and texts didn't actually do much, and she must be sitting on her phone right now because he's only just hit "send" before the screen says, Next time I see you, Steve, we have to talk about the limits of your perspective. They're cute, but they're probably not going to serve you very well here.
Requests for elaboration get silence. He wonders where she is, what she's doing, but then the phone's showing him Sam asking for what exactly happened and Steve puts Natasha out of his mind.
He taps out the story in as few words as he can and typos enough he's ready to throw the phone against the wall by the time he's managed to comprehensibly tell Sam that Bucky just showed up, right here, told Steve he remembered remembering him but didn't actually remember him, and came inside when Steve asked him to.
well shit the text screen flashes again, correctly typed this time. Even with the panic, Steve fees his mouth twitch smile-ward; it was reassuring to know he wasn't the only one caught out and flat by this. And then the window slides up with a new message, this one demanding, well? i can't read your mind, steve, you want help I need details. how is he. what's happened. do i need to get iron man on standby to save your ass. that kind of thing.
As always, there's something reassuringly real and solid about Sam, even when he's only there by grace of the tenuous thread of a smartphone. Steve snorts softly, shakes his head and texts To start with, you will never need Stark on standby to save me.
never say never comes back quick because Sam's a faster touch-screen typer than Steve. Steve decides to ignore it.
Second, give me a minute. He scrubs a hand over his face, sits up and rolls out his shoulders for a second and tries to think how to say it, how to put it, what's useful and what isn't, what's there and what's just wishful thinking.
Thin, he texts back. And I mean underweight. Said all of three words, and I mean literally. No expression I could see. Has no stuff except what he's wearing and the weapons I'm pretty sure he's hiding in it.
Steve closes his eyes, tries to drag more impressions out of the few minutes before he closed that door. No noticeable injuries, he types. Not filthy but likely been a couple days since last shower.
And then he hesitates, and adds, And this is me reaching so take it with a grain of salt but after he decided to come in I don't think he had any idea what should happen next at all. I mean none. No idea what would be behind the doors. No idea what I would do. Nothing.
And then this time - with no response yet from Sam, who's probably thinking - Steve really hesitates, but adds, Watched me like a bomb with a trigger you can't see.
Then Steve gets up, takes his phone and himself to the kitchen and starts pulling down stuff to make coffee. Caffeine's as useless as alcohol these days, but coffee's comforting and there's probably something to be said for the placebo effect. Besides, he needs something to do with his hands.
The phone buzzes; Steve turns it over to read, well last time you ran into each other you did kind of decide to let him beat you to death, steve, and thats the kind of thing that might make someone think you're potentially irrational. And Steve smiles, a bit unwillingly: he knows the tone of voice Sam just used.
Then the screen reads, damn this is gonna get annoying to text this much really fast and Steve sighs.
Pretty certain his hearing's as good as mine now, Steve replies. I can hear my neighbours' conversations in detail. Or at least, he thinks, he used to be able to when he had neighbours. The places on either side of him have been bought recently, probably by someone who plans to rent them out and hasn't got around to it yet.
Neighbours. It occurs to him that neighbours, whenever they show up again, could be a problem.
ok you're right not good plan, Sam's screen shows. talk tomorrow. right now BASICS some of which you should recognize: change = scary. change one thing people start looking for certainty other places. old places usually. familiar dynamics familiar surroundings familiar experiences. can get pretty extreme: theres convicts who get caught again on purpose b/c they only know how to live in prison and the change on the outside is too big. considering we dont know that much about his normal that doesnt let you predict anything except unlikely to be GOOD. so among other things let me tell you BE CAREFUL and damn it i mean of yourself.
Steve can see the look Sam has to be giving him, or at least the text-covered screen of the phone. He ignores it and takes his coffee to the arm-chair in the living-room. He sets the mug on the side table and leans forward, his elbows on his knees, trying to think.
They don't know much. Even Natasha's files were relatively sparse - everything from the outside or out of the mouths of informants, turn-coats, and all of it . . . outside. Bases, sightings, locations of deaths; a quick gloss on how you use the same assassin (and the word use snags on the edge of Steve's mind and tangles up in part of his thought) for more than fifty years. Thin notes on cryogenic freezing and memory erasure.
It gives Steve a timeline. Logistics. It doesn't tell him anything about how Bucky sees the world now. What they made his world into.
You're my mission.
Steve grimaces. He doesn't want to think about that, about the last moments on Insight C. For him there were only two moments that matter, and everything else - he'd be just as happy to forget.
That thought rattles around his head uncomfortably for a moment; he sighs and picks up his coffee, rubs between his eyebrows with a knuckle and tells himself to get over it. Tries to comb through thoughts and memories to try and find something useful.
You're my mission.
And suddenly Steve wonders why that mattered. He frowns at his coffee, tries to put timing back together.
By then, the Insight helicarriers were falling, one of them into the Triskelion. Pierce was dead. Natasha'd already dropped the database and, according to Banner, broken Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and something called Tumblr from the sheer traffic. It was over; HYDRA, at least as it had existed, was done and all its best on their way to being something to make the cleanup crews lose their lunch.
And there's trying, wanting to kill Steve because he upended the world and broke everything, sure. Steve can get that. Except Bucky didn't need a reason to do that. He didn't need a lens, a frame to present it in. He used one anyway, and the frame matters.
Even if Bucky didn't know Pierce was dead he knew the helicarriers were going down; he could have been gone, out, safe, the minute Steve put the new targeting blade in. He had to know that staying risked his own death. Had to know there wasn't much point, that the plan was dead and gone, and frankly there was a good chance Steve was going down with Insight C so - what makes finishing a mission that important? So much so that you can't even leave that one in a million chance? What makes doing anything that important?
What happens if you don't.
Next question: what does it take to convince someone that's going to happen even after the whole thing's gone to Hell? What does it take to make it so that even with everything in flames, they still don't dare leave something undone? What, and how much?
It's a question that leaves a sour, rotting taste in the back of Steve's brain. He picks up the phone again and types into the text-box, I think his 'normal' means being watched. Always. ALWAYS. Being told what to do. For EVERYTHING. Probably suffering if it didn't get done.
The "probably" is a cowardly word, actually. He shouldn't've typed it. But he did, because he doesn't want to let go of that cushion. That shield.
He puts the phone down, picks up his mug instead. It's not very heatproof, and the tips of his fingers burn. So does his tongue when he takes a drink - sugar, no cream.
Consequences. That's what makes a mission matter. And maybe it's what makes someone listen to a house tour like it's a mission-briefing and not think you're allowed to close your own room door.
something tell you that? says Sam's next text.
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. And he's not trying to think like Bucky now, he knows, he's trying to think like Pierce and he'd honestly rather wade through shit hip deep.
But to use your asset, you'd have to take him out of the freezer, and you'd have to let him go out into the world. Sure, you send backup and maybe half their job could be to keep an eye on him, but get them in arms' reach and killing them wouldn't make him break a sweat - and kill him from a distance and your favourite weapon's gone. So somehow you have to know he'll come back.
And now Steve wonders if Bucky really spent the last four months running from, hiding from him.
Following this train of thought is turning Steve's stomach, badly, and he stops. Doesn't need to go further down that way anyway. He's got enough to work with for now.
Hunch, he texts back. Tell you tomorrow, too long for text.
Then he drinks most of his too-hot coffee, puts the mug down and sits with his head in his hands for a while trying to think of what the hell to do now.
By oh-three-hundred, he has to admit he doesn’t know. That thinking about it isn’t giving him any new ideas and that tired’s snuck up on him and wrapped its hands around his throat. Steve puts his phone back in his pocket, washes his face, brushes his teeth and then sits on the edge of his bed for a while. And the door to the other bedroom stays closed.
When he eventually gets undressed and lays his jeans over the standing clothes press (and hadn’t that been hard to find) that doubles as a clothes rack, he pulls out the phone again to put it by his bed where it lives, charging through the night.
Sam hasn’t said anything all this time, which is probably a good thing. But Steve pauses with the phone in his hand and then texts his admission of current defeat, and the words I honestly have no idea how to do this, and if he’s not sure he could explain what “this” is in words, he’s pretty sure Sam’ll get it. And he’s right.
The return text is steve, if there was an expert in HYDRA memory-erasure based trauma and deprogramming in ninety year old repeatedly frozen supersoldiers i’d already be giving you their number. hell i’d already have called them for you. NOBODY knows how to do this. congratulations: you're now a leader in the psychological field.
And then, after Steve doesn't answer for a minute or three, what are you doing now?
Going to sleep, Steve replies and plugs the phone in. Everything he does seems loud in the night silence, especially now that all the other lights in the place are off except the tiny bar that comes out from under the other bedroom door. And, Steve remembers, he’d been the one to turn that light on.
are you SURE you don’t want me to call stark? or natasha? or anybody else? just in case? That text comes with an emoticon, little happy yellow smile sticking out its tongue, but Steve knows Sam isn’t really joking. And Steve allows that if it was his friend who'd just told him that he was going to sleep without anybody to watch, in a situation like this, he probably wouldn’t be joking either.
I’ll be fine, he says, and then puts the phone on sleep-mode for the night before he turns off his bedside lamp.
Thinking doesn't work. His head is full of noise that never resolves into sound. Real sounds - city sounds, building sounds, human sounds - bounce off the surface and then go. Their meaning fades and then it's gone. Leaves behind the noise.
And everything wrong. But it - doesn't matter.
Everything is wrong, but everything has been wrong since the day the world shook so the wrongness is not new. Constant. Complete. Not new.
Here - is new.
He came here. Chose to come here, worked to come here. Borders, nations, continents - trains and ships, waiting in the dark - not difficult but . . . long. Far. Days and nights moving, waiting, coming closer and closer to places full of people who saw-noticed-cared instead of . . . away. Further away. Didn't go, didn't disappear, came here gave up fighting the impulse that makes no sense -
Thought-shape like a shiv to his brain and he can't answer. Sees no answer. No answer to a choice that doesn't make sense. Chose it anyway and now, here, this - why?
His head aches. Beyond the door Rogers moves, goes from one room to another and back. Runs water. Moves a chair. Drops something on a table; picks it up again. The only living moving thing anywhere near, Rogers drags attention back in like there's a line. Like a wire, movement to nerve-ending, every motion lighting up the brain.
Beyond the circle of motion everything is quiet, filled with sleeping people or empty space, nothing.
He came here. Chose to come here.
There is no mission. There has been no mission, there will be no mission, there can't be, they're over. No one left - There is no one to order one. And even if -
Even if. His hands close and tighten. Even if.
(No. There is a snarl, scream, hiss: No. No going back no thought no reason not again no. Never. Never. No.
Mixes in with the noise, makes it worse, head aching stomach churning but - no.)
He left Rogers on the bank. Then, now, he came back here. His head aches. Why.
Counter: Why not.
Why to why not.
There are no missions; there is nothing else. There is a face and a voice shaking everything apart, fracturing what he knows, and there is a man who won't fight back, who he can't finish, can't kill. Can't let die. That's all.
So: why not.
He sits, facing into the room. The room is rectangular, normal-sized for the building type. There is a single bed along the wall opposite the door, under the window. An armchair in the opposite corner. A bedside table, a lamp. A long table beside the armchair, wooden, decorative. A closet, open, empty.
Illumination comes from one incandescent bulb in a fixture in the ceiling. Only one. The light, tinged with orange. The walls - hanging framed photographs of landscape, terrain. Main room, adjacent dining-room, adjacent kitchen. Hallway: one side two rooms, this one and Rogers'; other side bathroom and smaller space with a closed door.
Knowing this gives him nothing.
Why. And why not. And - memory. But not remembering. Remembering memory.
He keeps his eyes open to stare at the wall because when he closes them the images are worse, the pictures and moments and tastes and sounds. With his eyes open they catch the edges of his mind like a serrated edge, spatter like blood. With his eyes closed they close over his head like a flood. But he can't hold them. The moment he turns to look they dissolve and leave him drowning and clutching at pieces.
Rogers fell, but in memory Rogers is above him and he falls. Can feel the fall, feel the desperate twist, feel the air, feel the cold, feel the ground break him.
It never happened. He has never fallen.
He does not remember, has never remembered falling.
In memory there are trees, and the river is the wrong river. In memory there is snow. In memory there is skin and bone where he has only known metal. In memory there is fear of a kind he doesn't know and pain he has never felt.
He remembers that was in memory. For a moment. For - hours. A handful of hours. If he could reach it, it might be there again, and maybe there would be more.
But then it's gone and he knows Rogers fell, because he left Rogers on the bank, not quite dead. Should have killed him. Didn't. Should have let him die. Didn't.
He sits in the room until the sounds outside briefly increase and then stop, and the other light he could see under the door disappears. It's 0327.
He turns off the light and stands in the dark to let his eyes adjust. This is a city, urban; the light pollution that comes in every window, even the ones with blinds and curtains, is more than enough to see by. He opens the door and listens for human breath. Suspends his to hear better.
One, to his right, in the other room. He steps into the hall. Underfoot carpet changes to wood.
Rogers doesn't close the door to sleep. It stands eight inches ajar. Enough to see everything past it, standing in the right place.
This room is a few feet bigger than the other, closer to square, the bed wider. Dresser in the corner. Clothes laid over something beside the dresser. Round woven basket beside it, deep and tall. Books on the table by the bed, some with bookmarks some page-face to the tabletop, the floor beside. Everything else neat.
He goes no closer than the doorway. Rogers sleeps to one side on the bed, face to the door, one arm underneath the pillow, the other arm in front. The front hand is empty. Impossible to tell with the other. Shallow, slow, sleeping breaths: either asleep, or practiced at faking sleep.
Not likely the second. Rogers is asleep. Unwary. Young: handful of years younger than thirty. Frowns in sleep; the line between brows says habitual.
He steps back away from the door. In the two rooms the floor is carpeted; out here, wood, the risk of noise increased.
Detail, not difficulty.
In the bathroom the floor is tile. Behind the bathroom sink is a wall of mirrors; he steps back and out faster than he meant. Catches the second step just before it lands and creaks wood against moving wood. He stands in the hall. He can see all of this room from outside.
From outside: square room, one window, frosted glass. He moves by.
Kitchen - tile, steel, dishes, knives. Pots and pans hanging from a rack above a centre counter. Cast iron, some. Window out over a balcony, with the door in the adjacent room. Dining room with table, chairs, small desk beside one wall. Computer, phone, both locked with pass-code. Pictures in frames on the desk, black and white: a woman with dark hair; two men standing together.
One of them is Rogers. The other's face is his. The same picture is in the Smithsonian, blown larger and framed with a plaque to explain who it is. What it is. Where. Why.
He looks at his own face in a picture from a place he can't remember and feels the -
When he blinks he is staring at his own hands. But not here, beside a desk, standing; he is far away, on his back, staring at skin and metal, the metal he's never seen and his skin crawls and he stares. At -
Hard to breathe. Hard to see. His head spins, like blood-loss. Vision fades in and out; he puts his right hand on the back of the chair at the desk to keep from falling, to stop the crash and the noise that would be body and picture-frame hitting wood floor without control.
He puts the picture down. Flat. On its back. Right now his right hand is shaking too much to prop it where it was. Right now his left would shatter the glass. He puts the picture down flat on its back and waits until he can breathe. Then he lets go of the chair. Turns around.
The main room is open. A low table in the centre. A couch, a chair, both stuffed full and covered with leather. A record turn-table in a polished wood case. A long flat shelf on the wall above a television on another low set of shelves. Two low tables. More pictures, most photographs in colour, some painted, all meaningless. Objects, all without purpose, on the shelves and on the tables: a small model plane; empty vase; empty bowl; small statues, figurines; magazines; a sketchbook; a flat, low dish.
The dish holds a pocket-knife, old, wooden-body, the wood scratched, metal caps on each end dented and scratched, but the whole carefully polished.
He picks it up without meaning to. The objects are without purpose, decoration. He passes them by, ignores them. But he discovers he's taken the knife.
It is in his hand. It is . . .fam -
He opens it.
The blade isn't straight. The blade is warped like it's been bent and straightened and he stops, turns it over, sees line of blade to case to -
It shouldn't open. It shouldn't be easy to open. The warp in the blade should stick against the side. But it didn't when he opened it.
He closes it, and it doesn't stick. He opens it again. The blade moves; there is give where it's fixed. A fraction. Press the blade one way and it slides in. Pull the same way when it opens -
He closes the knife and puts it back. It clatters softly against the pottery of the dish because his right hand shakes. His fingers don't want to uncurl from around it. He makes them and steps away.
A car passes outside, old model, louder; the noise makes him start, sends his right hand to the knife in its sheath along his spine. But it's only a car. This is a city. There are many cars here.
And the pocket-knife is still on the shelf. Where it should stay. Where Rogers put it. Where it is.
But he knows how to open it.
He takes it. It fits in his hand. He can open it. He knows the trick. He takes the knife and goes back, back to the room he came from. He closes the door and stands with his back to it, left hand on the door-handle, and doesn't know why his heart-rate is elevated, why he's struggling to breathe - not poison, not injury, not -
He goes back to where he sat before. After a while it becomes easier to breathe.
The metal caps on the pocket-knife catch the light that comes in the window from the street-light. He turns it, over and over. He waits for a blink of his eyes to bring the things he doesn't remember, but it's nothing. Except that it fits in his hand and he knows how it works.
After some time - he forgets to track how long - he slides it into his right pocket, beside the knife already there. Then he sits and waits.
He doesn't know what for.
The first morning he oversleeps; he wakes up to a lot of text-messages full of increasing concern from Sam, one from Pepper explaining that if he could wake up and text his friend in DC Tony would appreciate it a lot, one from Stark saying more or less the same thing but nowhere near as polite, and one from Natasha just saying Live through the night, Rogers?
Steve sighs. He sends out a mass text saying I’m fine, I just slept in, sorry if you were bothered to all four of them and hauls himself out of bed.
He feels hungover, or at least, he feels a little like what other people describe as feeling mildly hungover, with faintly aching head and queasy stomach. He wouldn’t know. For the first part of his life, drinking more than one or two beers felt like asking for something to go wrong, for him to end up sicker than he could afford to be, and for the second part - well, if you can't get drunk, you can't get hangovers.
The sore neck is probably just tension. And he can’t exactly blame his body for being tense.
Bucky’s door is closed. For just a beat Steve pauses outside it and his hand half-rises to the handle almost of its own accord, but then he steps back, away, and takes a shower instead.
Shower, breakfast, a few more texts, and the door stays closed. Three or four times at least he hesitates, almost knocks, and then leaves it alone. He just can't think of how it would go. What he would say. What he could hope to hear back.
honestly do what you normally do, is Sam’s advice. let change settle into something else predictable and make a new kind of familiar.
That’s pretty much a loss for the day - Steve never sleeps that late, to start with, and he’s too unsettled himself to figure out the normal pattern of, well, anything - but Steve takes it on board. He’s got a pretty strong feeling Sam’s advice in any normal version of this scenario would be “go in there and talk the guy into admitting himself to a psychiatric facility”, and that anything else is trying to salvage bits and pieces of ideas out of the second-best options.
Sam’s seen the same files Steve has. The same pictures, of clean, orderly facilities that look almost like any other kind of hospital if you don’t know they’re pretty much torture chambers underneath; the same people in their lab-coats and scrubs with their clipboards. There’s nothing normal about this. Sam knows that as well as Steve does.
Steve finds an extra towel, a new razor and an unopened toothbrush. After thinking he adds a fresh bar of soap and stares at his closet, realizing that for the first time he and Bucky can probably share clothes, or at least could if Bucky weren’t so thin. Jeans - a pair that shrunk in the wash more than he thought they would - and a long-sleeve t-shirt get added to the pile that Steve leaves outside Bucky’s door, which once again he doesn’t knock on.
Once or twice he hears movement, or sees the shadow of it under the door. Then it’ll be silence again. And the door doesn’t open.
Steve goes for his run in the evening, which is probably the hardest thing he’s done in a long time. It turns out to be a good call. The exertion siphons off some of the wound-up feeling, and he turns for home home feeling maybe a bit more balanced. A few blocks away he slows to a walk and calls Sam.
It takes a few extra blocks to cover everything, and he's right - Sam says, outright, "Look if this was anything but what it is, man, if you couldn't talk him into committing himself I'd call the cops to do it for you. Now that's just going to get people killed and make everything worse, I know that, you know that, but that's what you're working with. So, you know, on the one hand that's terrifying," and Steve can hear the wry smile Sam's got on, "but on the other hand don't feel to bad about feeling overwhelmed."
When Steve gets back the pile of clothes, towel, toothbrush and soap are gone, but the door’s still closed. Or maybe it's closed again, not still.
Steve checks: there’s a pear, some slices of bread and a Gatorade gone from the kitchen. That’s it. He marks food as something weird, at least, maybe a problem - there’s leftover pizza in the fridge, some Chinese, a lot of different bits of cold-cut meat for snacking, cheese, stuff like that. Hell, there's canned soup in the cupboards. All that - it makes how little’s missing, and what it is, seem pretty strange.
Steve makes supper, tries to watch a documentary on orcas that turns out to be more depressing than he can take so he shuts it off, sketches a little and goes to bed. He sleeps fine. He wakes up remarkably non-dead, although he can't say much for the tone of his dreams.
With small variations for wakeup times and exactly what’s missing from the kitchen, that’s the next four days.
He remembers that this has happened. That the comparison itself comes from memory. He doesn't remember breaking the surface but he remembers staying on hands and knees, coughing and vomiting mud and water and blood to make room for air. Hands against the ground. Red and brown. Staring at both until extraction.
Extraction meant treatment. Simplest most expedient way to remove remnant of sand from his lungs. He heals quickly. That makes it simple.
That isn't memory. Knowledge. Extraction meant report - explanation, why, what went wrong, what dragged him so close to death. Report. Consequences.
Memory is drowning in mud. In his head.
Snow, trees, pain. The smell of cooking food he doesn't know; the smell of burning bodies that makes him want to gag like he's never known before. The smell of wet and mud, of lemon with the window of a kitchen showing daylight with the silhouette of a woman in a brown dress, heat, his left arm screaming with pain he can't ignore.
The chair. Too much light. Rogers but too small too frail laughing until the coughing starts - coughing turns to wheezing and there's fear-panic-terror and his head full of light and fog, his left hand around someone's throat - his hand, silver against flesh tightened to kill, die fucking die you Nazi son of a -
The chair. Cold.
Memory chokes. If he reaches then it's gone. Then there's only blankness like static in his head. Then there are . . . words. Not his.
Gift to mankind.
Sometimes the memories stay in his head. Sometimes they bleed into his eyes. The chair in the corner is broken because for a moment he thought it was a face, the face that goes with the voice except when his left hand came away there was splintered wood instead of blood, skull and cerebral matter. Memory leaks everywhere like mud.
He can't make it stop.
The first day Rogers stays in the building until 1815. There are the noises of movement, of water running - little (taps), more (shower). Dishes in the kitchen. Both the vibration and the alert-tones of a smartphone, standard, no personalization. Rogers stops outside of the door seven times. The pauses are different duration. One comes with the sound of something made of cloth being left on the ground, blocking a small section of the space under the door.
He waits until Rogers leaves before he opens the door to see.
The first time he ate after he left Rogers on the bank, it stayed down for fifteen minutes before he threw it up again. Some things stay down longer. Some don't. Failure to eat ends in consciousness changing badly or failing completely; over months he's learned to eat something, to keep down what he can against nausea and any pain. With the condo empty, he takes what he thinks he can tolerate from the kitchen. He takes up the pile of towel-clothes-toothbrush-soap, too.
He closes the door. Changes clothes. Puts the old ones by the broken chair.
After that, Rogers wakes at 0530 and leaves to run; returns, showers, dresses, uses the TV, the computer, cooks. Leaves in the afternoon. Rogers' phone alerts throughout the day and into the night. The lights outside this room turn off by 2200.
He doesn't bother with the light inside this room. Doesn't need it, night or day. He goes in search of water, or food, or a container, or relief, only when Rogers isn't here. He could leave.
He could leave.
He doesn't know anywhere else to go. And memory chokes and suffocates and blinds and makes no sense no story no picture just pieces, pieces and confusion that crawls in front of his eyes and obliterates the world and mixes with thoughts and things he knows have happened.
your name is james buchanan -
It wasn't like this before. But before he was -
Before he might be found. Before meant moving, changing, abandoning and finding new places to rest and wait and hide. Like running ahead of a flood. Now he stopped. Now it catches up. Now he's drowning.
Sometimes it's hard to breathe. Sometimes it's hard to stop gasping for air. Sometimes even if his stomach is empty he retches. But quiet. Silent. The last bit of control he has. His head hurts and he is here and he doesn't know why and he is drowning in his head, in snow and cold that digs in from his skin to his bones and then spreads like blood on snow soaking through.
He doesn't sleep on purpose. But sometimes his eyes close and he wakes up with time passed and his back against the closet wall. Isn't sure if that counts. And the chaos in his head doesn't stop then. Just paints itself in front of his eyes and makes less sense. Less order. Less meaning.
Rogers wakes at 0530 and sleeps by 2200. Day one, day two, day three, day four, day five.
"It's a waiting game," Sam tells him. "Be patient. Not to go all Daoist on you, but sometimes sitting still is the most effective thing you can do in these circumstances." Sam pauses and adds, "I should send you a book-list."
"Wait till I get home and text you what Stark already ordered for me," Steve says, a little sourly, not bothering to point out that his awareness of Daoism more or less extends to knowing it's Chinese and not much more, so the comparison is kind of wasted on him. "I got an Amazon shipping list about five minutes after I notified him. Speaking of, any news on the wings?" Steve adds, shifting the focus for a second. Partly because he's actually curious; partly because he doesn't like acting like all Sam's around for is giving him advice.
"Yeah, actually," Sam says, "mostly a lot of technical back and forth. Man seems really dedicated to showing up the original manufacturer. I'm afraid this suit's going to end up doing my taxes or making lattes or something."
"That would be Tony Stark, yeah," Steve agrees. "Probably comes with a built in stereo and wireless connection."
"And you're changing the subject," Sam notes. "I mean that's fine if you want, but don't think I didn't notice."
Steve sighs. "Yeah, I know," he says. Thinks a bit. "In general, waiting is not a problem. I won't lie and say I'm not edgy, but that doesn't matter. The food thing - that worries me, though. I know you noticed - "
" - that you eat a lot and ideally you seem to have a snack every hour or so? Yeah, I did," Sam says. "I've never mentioned it because it makes sense - second law of thermodynamics, conservation of energy. You've got to be getting it somewhere."
Steve shrugs, habitual motion even if Sam can't see him.
"I can actually get away with not doing that for a while, but eventually I pay for it, and paying for it's pretty miserable. And the stuff coming out of my kitchen would leave you hungry, let alone me."
"Well," Sam says after a second, "if he does keel over from heart problems, make sure you warn the hospital you take him to." The tone to his voice makes it clear that's Sam's way of saying I got nothing and Steve glances heavenward.
"Thanks," he says. "That's very helpful."
"Let me know what Stark sent you, I'll tell you if it's bullshit or helpful and add anything else I can think of," Sam tells him. "And make sure you're taking care of yourself. Put on your own oxygen mask first and all that."
"Yeah," Steve says. Hears Sam snort.
"Try sounding less convincing, Steve. I don't think you're giving me your best effort here. I mean it. You keel over, what's he got? He sure as shit isn't gonna let me take over."
As irrefutable arguments go - "That's playing dirty," Steve says, letting his tone be his surrender.
"Where I come from we call that common sense. I think they call it more or less the same where you come from, too. You've got the hard road this time - you don't get to nobly sacrifice yourself once and then die your way out of the aftermath, you have to make sure there's enough left to keep going tomorrow."
"I got it, Sam," Steve says. And he does. He doesn't like it, but he does.
When he puts his phone away, he looks at his half empty coffee and throws it in the nearest garbage can. Then he does take a run, not for routine or condition or anything else, but because maybe if he runs fast enough for a while, he won't have to think.
The condo's still quiet when he gets back. Nothing much different. Nothing to catch the eye. The paper towels in the bathroom garbage are the only sign anything happened, and it's pure luck Steve looks. Pure luck he notices they've been used to wipe up blood.
He crouches down to take a closer look at them, pulling them carefully one by one out of the metal wastebasket. Mostly they show the smear of wiping along a smooth surface, the spots of mopping something up. A couple look like they've been pressed to something, though. Something seeping blood, and more than a little.
He hesitates. He hesitates a long time outside the door. He reminds himself that you can't clean up after yourself if you're dead, which means Bucky probably isn't, and if someone else were dead inside the apartment there would have been a lot more blood. And it's not like he doesn't know the smell of death - and it's not here.
It's still hard to step up to the door and tap on it with one hand, the other on the door handle. Hard to say, "Bucky?" and when there's only silence to make himself ask, "Can I come in?"
Steve feels like a kid. He feels like he hasn't felt since the radio told him Germany had invaded France and smashed their way through to the French coast and the whole world changed on him, suddenly coming into focus and purpose. Horrible as it was, it turned the world into a place where something needed doing, and it was clear what it was - even if it did take the rest of the country a while to wake up and figure that out, and even if it took a long and unexpected path to take him where he could do it.
Now - now something still needs doing, but only God knows what, Steve doesn't. He can only guess and hope he's not wrong. Pray he's not wrong.
It feels like a long time before Bucky's voice says, "It's your home." The words are somehow wrong, his voice toneless and strange. Steve has to pause and take a breath - two - before he can turn the handle and open the door.
And he says, "But it's your room," as he does it, and he's glad he finished the words before he really saw the other side. It's still true and he'd still have meant it, but his voice might have gone strange. Might have been less believable. For however believable it was anyway.
Two of the framed pictures are broken. There's an ugly-looking hole in one wall. One of the doors to the closet is broken and off its runners. The blood's mostly on the glass in the picture frames; Steve thinks there probably used to be a lot more around the hole in the wall, and that's where the paper towels came from. The broken picture-frames are one on top of the other on the low narrow table that runs between the door and the arm-chair, and the is on its side, one leg broken, one side collapsed.
Other than the pictures, the blood's on Bucky. A smudge on his face, some on the shirt and the jeans, mostly on his right hand where the skin is cut and torn up, up to around his wrist and forearm. A little bit beading on the reflective surface of his left hand.
He's sitting on the floor at the foot of the bed, and Steve hates that the first thing he thinks of is a puppet with its strings cut. It's not true, anyway. Bucky's sitting straight and there's still all the tension Steve hasn't seen him without since he left for Europe, it's just that he's just . . . sitting, arms loose, legs bent a little, like he fell down there and braced himself just that much.
He looks up, when Steve comes in. Or at least he raises his eyes, meets Steve's - for a second. Maybe two. Bucky's eyes are red-rimmed, dark circled and sunken and his jaw and cheekbones too sharp, face too thin.
And there's something in the look on it Steve doesn't understand. Like the look of someone waiting for something to happen - something they don't want, but can't do anything about. Can't stop. Bucky looks at him like that for a second or two and then his eyes slide away until he's staring straight ahead again.
Steve doesn't know what to do. He doesn't. There's nothing he can reach for to help him with this. He doesn't know what the right thing to do is, what's going to help fix it and not mess it all up. And there's no one to ask, not before enough time has passed that doing nothing's the answer by default, because he doesn't think he has that much time to decide, before something's . . . gone, before some moment passes. Something needs to be done, and Steve doesn't know what it is.
But he can't do nothing.
"Bucky," he says quietly. "You're bleeding."
Bucky raises his eyes again and looks like it takes a moment to understand the words, like they're not what he expects; then he looks at his right arm, almost disinterested, like someone looking at a caterpillar they found crawling on their shoe.
"It'll stop," he says. His voice is indifferent, but his hand opens from its half-curl and he looks at it like he's looking at something new. Something he hasn't noticed before.
It turns out that right or wrong or even the last mistake, there are some things Steve can't do, isn't capable of doing, and standing around while Bucky bleeds is one of them. "I'll be right back," he says.
There's gauze and medical tape in the bathroom, in the kit under the sink; there's also antiseptic wipes and antibiotic ointment, and a lot of other stuff. Old habits die hard, and a stocked kit is one he got from his mom even before the war hammered it home. This one's got a lot more stock, admittedly, because it's not make-do and odds and ends brought home, hoping nobody would notice, but it's still the habit he got from her. Bucky probably heals as fast as he does, Steve figures, but that doesn't mean cuts don't need to be cleaned out and looked after.
Then it strikes him that actually, some people probably thought it did. The idea comes like a bad taste in his mouth and he has to keep from viciously kicking the door to the cabinet under the sink as he closes it. There hadn't been any bravado in what Bucky said, no emotion at all. Just . . .assessment. Like it was routine, deciding whether or not an injury's important enough to bother with. If the bleeding will stop by itself before it causes actual . . . damage.
Steve wishes he hadn't thought of that. Now's not a good time for anger, that's one thing - maybe the only thing - he's sure of. That no matter the real reason, Bucky'll take it wrong, and if now Steve thinks maybe there's a range of action taking it wrong might lead to, the whole range is bad.
So he makes himself take a few deep breaths and let it go and forget about it, forget about people he couldn't get at anyway. At least not right now. Right now, Bucky's bleeding in the other room, and Steve can do something about it. That's what matters.
Bucky hasn't moved, except now he's staring through the floor. There's a line between his eyebrows; when Steve sits down in front of him he flinches like he's startled, suddenly focusing on Steve's face as Steve rips open one of the little packets of antiseptic wipes.
"Can I?" Steve asks, gesturing to Bucky's right hand. For a minute Bucky looks like he doesn't understand the question. Maybe he doesn't, Steve thinks, maybe he actually has no idea what Steve's asking if he can do - but he extends his right arm and watches Steve take it carefully, avoiding any of the lacerations, so he can hold it still.
There's no reaction when Steve starts on the deep scraping cut furthest up Bucky's arm. There's no splinters, but there's dust from the drywall to be wiped away and in some places cleaned out. At first Steve thinks Bucky's watching him do it, until he looks up to reach for another wipe and realizes that Bucky's looking through his arm, through what Steve's doing.
And whatever he's thinking, whatever he's seeing, the look on his face - it's not, it's not quite as bad as the last minutes on Insight C, before the fall and the river and the black-out afterwards. Not quite. But if Steve felt young and lost outside in the hall -
If Bucky'd ever looked like this before, Steve'd been too young to know. And he wouldn't've wanted to. He doesn't want to now. He would even take the rage, or the blank determination to kill, over this -
It's not even fear. It's beyond fear. Being afraid comes with wanting to run away, to fight back, to kill the thing that scares you before it kills you. What's in Bucky's face has passed that and Steve, Steve wishes there were something he could just hit until that look goes away and never, ever comes back.
Wishes there was something he could say. Something he thought would help, and not make it worse.
Steve looks down at what he's doing until he's finished, until every scrape and cut is clean and the ones that don't want to stop bleeding yet are bandaged with gauze and tape, and then he lets go of Bucky's arm. Carefully. Because right now he wouldn't be surprised if, had he just let go, Bucky's hand hit the floor as hard as its weight could make it.
"Bucky?" he says, one last question, hoping maybe this time Bucky will come back from wherever he is and answer. Bucky's gaze shifts to his face, only a little more focused; then Bucky closes his eyes and swallows. "Is there something - " Steve starts, and then stops, because Bucky's eyes are open again, looking away from Steve. And there's something about him that feels to Steve like he's reaching back from that blank, helpless dread, and Steve doesn't want to be the sound that drives him away again.
"Snow, and trees," Bucky says. Eventually. He looks sidelong at Steve. Braced. But still talking. "Mountains. There were snow and trees - don't know where."
A knot twists itself up in Steve's chest and climbs up into his throat, but he manages to ask, "There a train?" without his voice going strange. His voice needs not to go strange. He needs to stay calm, and normal. And he can.
He doesn't know what Bucky expected, but it doesn't seem like it was a calm question back, or even a question Steve was really trying to keep calm. Bucky maybe blinks, or maybe it's a flinch, because his breath hitches with it, but he slowly nods. Once.
Steve swallows against the knot, the choking and fights for the same calm. "That was, um," he says and has to stop and take a breath. "We were in the Alps. The train - intel said there was - said Zola was on board. It was our job to capture him. You, and me, and - " he stops, stops himself from listing five dead men Bucky probably can't remember right now, " - the others."
He wonders if Bucky even remembers who Zola was, or if years passed and that got lost, too, even if Zola'd made him into this.
It takes another deep breath to keep going, to keep it matter of fact when he says, "It was a trap. We almost got out of it, but I - I let my guard down. Turned my back but there was still a guy alive with a power weapon, it blew out the side of the train. Took you with it. I tried to get to you, but I couldn't - I didn't make it."
He can't actually look at Bucky now. "The fall was hundreds of feet onto rocks or into a river," he says. "We were - I was sure you were dead. I was certain I'd just watched you die. We didn't - " he stops. "I didn't - "
"I remember trees," Bucky says. His voice is distant and mostly without any kind of inflection, except maybe confusion. "Snow. All around. Trees and snow and cold."
Steve tries to clear his throat and go on. Tries not to see, to let memory get him tangled up in wind and blasts and a scream. Tries to sort himself out, because this isn't the time for his memory, his mess. Not here and now.
He can't do much but he can give . . .answers. Sense. Truth.
"Zola must've figured you survive," he says, and his voice is only a little rough. "He knew what he'd done. We didn't - I - " he stops and takes a breath and says, "You'd never been hurt. Not since the factory. And you either didn't know what all they did or wouldn't tell me, so we didn't know how long it should have taken you to recover from that."
He looks up and Bucky's looking down at both hands, fingers spread, wearing that same look that's painful and lost at the same time, that Steve doesn't know how to deal with; he makes himself stop talking, because he's babbling now. And justifying himself. And that's not -
That's not the point.
Steve's mind skips a track in the silence because it can't, can't stay there; he doesn't have anything to else he trusts himself to say but he can't stand leaving things here.
So his mind skips to how he can see Bucky's ribs and he says, "Bucky - you're not eating enough. I think you've lost weight since you came here. What you're taking from the kitchen isn't enough, believe me, I've been keeping track."
While Bucky stared at his hands it seemed like his breathing had almost stopped; now he inhales and it feels sudden and he says, "Food doesn't . . .work." His voice is different, less distance and more edge, and his eyes aren't so far away. His gaze focuses on Steve for a minute.
He looks . . . tired, maybe. Worn, instead of pained. Or maybe just pain that's familiar and comfortable, in a horrible way, instead of new and overwhelming. "I can't tolerate most of it," he elaborates. The phrase sounds like something carefully learned and not often used.
"You had to eat before, Buck," Steve says, pushing very carefully. "Not even we can live on air and we're definitely not solar-powered."
"Liquid," Bucky says. His exhale is almost a sigh. "Mostly. All necessities in it." The fingers of his right hand flex and release, like he's testing the pull of the medical tape against his skin. "Don't know what it was."
Steve has a suspicion that whatever it was, to start with it was pretty vile and to follow up, he's not going to be able to replicate it or even want to try. But there has to be other things - there's stuff designed for places hit by famine, for all kinds of people who can't handle normal food.
Sam might know. Come to think of it, Stark might; for all Steve knows, Stark's got a factory somewhere making the stuff.
"Well." Steve stands up, because it's the next thing he can think of to do. "We're going to have to figure something else out. I really don't want to have to take you to the hospital because your heart gives out and you collapse or something."
He holds out his hand. Bucky looks at it, and then at him, and doesn't take it; instead he braces against the wall and reaches out for the bed-frame to push himself to his feet. Steve thinks about maybe suggesting clean clothes, then figures he can bring that up later.
"What happens if you can't?"
Bucky's question stops him, stops Steve as he turns for the door. He didn't expect it, though now that he thinks about it he's not sure why not. And now Bucky's face is blank, so much so that he might as well be wearing a mask again.
It's a fair question. What happens if you can't? What if you can't figure this out, Rogers? It's a fair question, but it's one he only has one answer for, one he can only take one answer for, and it's the one he gives.
"We will," Steve says.