But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
- The Shield of Achilles, W.H. Auden
Screeching metallic whine rises up inside, the sound of gears stripped and grinding against each other. Shrieks up along his spine, echoes in his head, cascades back down, and then fades into silence. All that’s left is his hollow heartbeat. He stares at the picture of himself a little longer, a buzz building to crescendo in the back of his mind.
Everything he knows is a lie.
But this isn’t, can’t be. That man doesn’t lie to anyone, didn’t lie to him, because here’s proof. That man was his friend.
The word rolls around in his head like a tumbleweed in a dust storm. Over vast empty stretches of desert, blank, featureless. The meaning is obscured. He had a friend once. He was a friend.
He hears the scrape of the metal as it bends around him, the shrill wail of it collapsing under the weight. He might throw up if he stays, so he rushes for the exit.
He had a friend once. Someone he’d tried to kill.
After he had pulled the man out of the water, left him on the bank of Roosevelt Island, the soldier had gone to ground, found an SUV in a parking lot and drove it to a dark spot under a bridge, climbed in back, and lay down. He was in shock, his arm broken, his wet clothing lowering his body temperature to unsafe levels. He curled up, shaking, but he knew he’d heal.
There are things he knows, but he doesn’t know how he knows them.
Two days passed, after which he could move the arm again, so he went back to the old man’s house. Names don’t mean much to him; he remembers them solely by their roles, and the old man was the one in charge. Pulled the crime scene tape down and looked around. Something had happened here, he knew that, too. Someone he killed. Or helped to kill. He can’t remember. But he knew the house, he knew to go there, so...some fragment of certainty has guided him here.
He smashed the safe open with his metal arm, took the money, jewelry, and bearer bonds there, didn’t look at the documents but knew to take them as well. He rifled through closets until he found some clothes that fit him well enough to get him to a store where he could buy more, make himself nondescript, hide the arm. Plastic bags so he can stash all this stuff somewhere.
What little food in the refrigerator and cupboards he ate all of, hunger gnawing through him in a way he could not remember before. In the basement he found another bathroom, so he curled up in the safest place, the tub, knife in hand, to sleep for the night. There were no dreams these nights, nothing that he can remember, but there’s a constant noise in the back of his head, the scraping metallic screech, and the voice of his target: “You’re my friend.”
He knew me. I knew him.
These words, I and me, are unfamiliar to the soldier, he hasn’t thought them in...he can’t remember if he ever did. He is the soldier, the asset. There is no room for I and me. There is only an assignment and when that is over, cold darkness.
Through the night he woke again and again to that shriek, and that voice, and still another voice, the one that he didn’t recognize. Was it the voice of James Buchanan Barnes? How would he know?
In the morning, he came up with a plan. Any safe houses or bolt holes would have been compromised, or in danger of being compromised. His legend would have been burned. There would be no Hydra location left for him to return to; even those who survived or hadn’t been taken would have gone underground.
No place that was left to him. So he went in search of the man who was his friend. That was something at least he could hold on to.
He knows how to acquire a target. He knows how to hide the soldier and interact with people, enough to complete his mission. To shut down the screaming, clanging din this time, and find out more about Steve Rogers, Captain America, and James Buchanan Barnes. It leads him to this exhibit with this intel and that makes him run for cover.
It’s pouring rain outside when he finally gets out of the building, but there are still people everywhere. When he puts his back up against the wall, the metallic wail comes back to him, comes up from inside him and escapes his mouth, and he slides halfway down the wall.
The dissonance is like the clanging of the cryochamber door, it echoes through him, ricocheting. A woman comes over to him and asks him, “Hey, hey, are you all right? Do you need help?” He doesn’t know if it’s the rain or tears, but he wipes at his wet face and breathes, attempting to control the sobs that won’t be controlled. “I could call 911,” the young woman offers.
Shaking his head violently, he says, “No. No!” Someone’s standing behind her, a man and a kid, and the man reaches for her as the soldier says, “I’m all right.”
“Leave him alone, honey,” the guy says, adding, “he doesn’t need anyone bothering him.” She hesitates to leave him, but finally steps away and the guy says to her, trying to keep his voice low but he hears it anyway, “I told you not to get involved.”
“Shut up,” she says with exasperation. “Not getting involved isn’t a lesson I’m going to teach Jason.” He assumes she’s talking about the kid.
An image flashes inside his mind, ghostly and pale but elemental enough: the man, Steve, says to him, “I can’t just sit by, Buck, when someone’s in trouble.” He’s small and skinny, like the pictures in the exhibit. Bleeding from his mouth and his clothes a shambles.
He hears his own voice in response: “It’s not gonna help anyone when you get yourself beat to a pulp trying to defend them.” He reaches out a hand and puts it on Steve’s shoulder. “I’m the one who’s gotta worry about you. Okay?”
Shuddering, he stands up and stumbles off to find someplace less exposed. The soldier may not want to find Steve Rogers, but Bucky will.
Steve swipes his hand over his mouth, once, twice. He thinks he might be sick, but he hasn’t experienced this sensation ever since the change, so he’s kind of forgotten what it was like.
“What the hell did they do to him?”
Sam meets his eyes; he looks like he’s about to gag. “This is some fucked-up shit right here.”
They’re looking at a...chair, if you could call it that, in the safe-deposit vault of an old bank near the Capitol. There are tools Steve can’t even begin to imagine the function of, pieces that obviously fit over someone’s head, straps on the arms and legs. Syringes. Monitors, electrodes. A biteguard. It’s like the sinister version of Howard Stark’s lab when he was changed, like a vivisection chamber. Nothing here looks as if it is used for anything good.
Natasha had called him with the location, one of many operational outposts the remnants of SHIELD and the FBI had uncovered during mop-up. “It might be worth a look, but...” her unsteady voice had trailed off and after a lengthy pause, she’d resumed with, “if it’s anything like some of the other sites we’ve found, it could be more than you’re ready for.”
At the time, he’d thought, well, how much worse could it have been than that grotesque Soviet file she’d passed to him? Famous last words.
Sam sucks in a raggedy breath and walks over to a table near the chair, covered with papers and photos. He motions to the FBI guy in the corner and gets a nod of approval, then picks something up and looks at it, holds it toward Steve. It’s a schematic of Bucky’s metal arm, and underneath that a grainy photo of the way the metal socket was fused to his gnarled and twisted flesh.
“I really am going to be sick,” Steve says harshly and drives a fist into the chair. The top section flies apart into a couple dozen pieces and Steve walks over to the wall of safe-deposit boxes, resting his head against the cold metal, the sharp poke of handles, buttons, number plates digging into his skin and quelling the need to puke. The FBI guy takes a step toward him, then seems to think better of it, and resumes his place. Chastising Captain America for destroying evidence is probably the last thing he wants to do.
He’d been so consumed with guilt when Bucky died, but it was nothing compared to the way this knowledge now lays waste to the very heart, the very soul of him. Seventy years of torture, of suffering. Maybe Sam had been right, maybe there was no way to save someone who’d been treated this way.
He bangs his head lightly against the metal a few times, until Sam’s hand closes over his shoulder and his gentle voice says, “Steve, man, come away from here. Let’s get out of here and regroup.” Sam leads him away by the arm and it’s only then that he realizes he’s crying.
Outside the bank the sidewalk teems with agents, most of them moving equipment and boxes labeled “Evidence.” How many sites are there like this one, places where Hydra was doing its dirty work right under everyone’s noses, or with their complicity? Of course, there were none like this, because this was where they tortured Bucky, where they made him sit in that chair and take whatever punishment they’d devised to keep him in line.
They’re still waiting to hear where the actual cryochamber was; Steve’s not sure if he wants them to find it, if he can handle seeing that thing.
Sam sticks him in the passenger seat of his new SUV and gets in on his side, closing the door as quietly as he can, as if loud noises will rattle Steve and he'll lose control. His friend sighs with deep resignation.
“You have to let go of this idea that it’s your fault.” He’s staring straight ahead when he says it, and there’s an edge to his voice, like he knows that Steve is not going to let go of that idea no matter what and he’s getting fed up with saying it.
“If you knew what happened, then you’d know it is. It was true seventy years ago, and it’s still true now.”
“That’s bullshit, man, it’s just bullshit. You could not have prevented him from being captured and experimented on, you were barely even this guy, this supersoldier, at that point. What could you have done differently? Everything you’ve told me about him is exactly the kind of thing every soldier since the dawn of time has done -- put himself on the line doing his duty. You think he didn’t know something terrible could happen to him the day he got his papers?”
Sam cuts him off with a “Steve!” gritted out between his teeth and a slam of his hand on the steering wheel. “I’m gonna slap you upside the head if you say it one more time.”
He knows Sam’s right and he knows Sam’s also wrong. They’ve been doing this for days now, ever since he got that folder from Natasha. Steve’s guilt consumes him, Sam hollers at him for it, they call a truce, and then they do it all over again. The worst part is that he knows Bucky would sneer at him for it and tell him Sam was right. If he had a voice... Steve can’t stop seeing that face mask bounce to the ground, what he has come to think of as a muzzle. Keep him silent, keep the essence of the man pushed down ever further with whatever means you could. The dark glasses and the eye black and the muzzle kept him faceless, characterless. Keep him obedient when you torture him. He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to stem the tears that threaten again.
Steve clears his throat and finally looks at Sam. “I don’t know what to do. I thought I had a plan...”
“We’ll figure it out. This has just thrown you. Everything you talked about before, we can still do.”
“I used to know him well enough to know how he thought. What he would do. But now I can’t even imagine what his next steps would be after he pulled me out of the river.”
“Steve, man, listen. You can’t know what to do because there’s no precedent for this. None. In the history of the world, no one has ever had to deal with a situation like this. It’s insane. But that history that’s causing you so much pain is actually an advantage -- you fought side by side with him for a long time, you grew up together. That will help you figure it out, but you can’t until you let go of this blame. It obscures your vision.”
He nods a couple times to show he’s listening. Sam is the voice of reason about these things, but Steve no more knows how to let go of his crushing sense of responsibility for this than he can change back to that scrawny little guy before the serum.
“Tell you what, let’s go home, get something to eat, go for a run -- or you know, you run, I’ll stroll -- and then we can start again.”
“Yeah. Yeah, we can do that.” Helplessness is so unfamiliar to Steve, having no direction, no ideas. Not being a leader. “I appreciate you keeping me in line.” He gives Sam a wan smile. “I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect it to be this hard.”
“Well, maybe that’s another advantage you’ve got. It is hard for you because he meant so much to you. He’s working from a blank slate. You have the benefit of his history. You loved each other.”
Steve turns his gaze out the window as Sam puts the car in gear. “Yeah. Yeah, we did.”
Bucky giggled beside him on the merry-go-round. Every time Steve counted another star, Bucky shouted a different number, then laughed, until Steve finally gave up because he lost count again.
“Geez, Buck, stop it.” Then he burst into a giggle fit himself. The merry-go-round spun lazily as Bucky gave it a light push with his foot. Funnily enough, he didn’t feel sick, even with all the spinning.
“Why, Steve Rogers, I do believe you’re drunk!” Bucky poked him in the side, but not hard, because he would never do that to Steve.
“If I’m not, then you just wasted a whole lot of money on hooch.” He coughed. “And anyway, you made me that way.” He took another sip of the whiskey Bucky had brought to the park. They would get in so much trouble if they were caught here, but then, most of the things Bucky talked him into doing would result in trouble, so he was used to it. Still, everyone had been doing crazy things ever since war had been declared in Europe, so he hoped that if a flatfoot came along and discovered them, he’d just shoo them off with a warning or something.
Bucky hauled himself up by a bar and loomed over Steve. “’s good stuff, though, right?”
“I wouldn’t have anything to compare it to.” He peered at the label in the dark, but he couldn’t read it. Even if drinking would have been legal for most of his life, he still wouldn’t have wanted to, with his health issues and all. The first time he’d tried some bootleg whiskey Bucky had scared up in his mysterious way, Steve had coughed so badly that he was unable to breathe, and it had taken him hours to recover. Bucky had avoided ever bringing it up again. But somehow this night, when Bucky had shown up with a bottle and an invitation to lie outside under a warm velvet sky and count stars, Steve had thought, why not? The fact that he frequently thought “why not” when Bucky convinced him to do stupid things hadn’t exactly assisted him in making an intelligent decision.
“Where did you get the money for this?” Steve asked. He couldn’t imagine that the little odd jobs Bucky took here and there provided him enough money to spend on good booze, after he’d given most of it to his and Steve’s rent, his parents, and bought some food. Things may have evened out in the past couple years, but no one Steve knew was what you could call flush, let alone dependably employed.
“Aw, you know, pick stuff up here and there.” He took a swig from the dwindling bottle and Steve glimpsed the dark wetness of his lips in the faint street light. Steve knew every curve and line in Bucky’s face, and his mouth was one of Steve’s favorite studies.
“You’re not running paper for that bookie again, are you?”
“Nah, nah, not that. I don’t want the hassle from Mr. Goody Two Shoes here.”
“I just don’t want you thrown in the clink, is all. I don’t have a lot of friends. So I’d like to keep the ones I do have.” He wished he had his sketchpad here now so he could ask Bucky to stay just like that, let him draw by the pale light this face and body Steve so admired.
Bucky lay back down and started counting, laughing as he went, “One...two...threefourfive.”
Steve said, “Sixteen!” and Bucky burst out laughing. He wasn’t sure why they were laughing at this point, but he felt loose and...well, stupid.
“You’re a skinny little punk, is what you are.”
“Do you think we’ll go to war, too?” Steve asked abruptly. It had been on his mind constantly, as it was with almost everyone who remembered the Great War.
Bucky shrugged elaborately. There weren’t many people who could get as much mileage out of a shrug as Bucky Barnes. “If we do, it won’t matter for you. You’d never have to worry about going.”
“Thank you for the compliment.”
“Ah, I didn’t mean it that way. I just want you to be safe, you know that.”
“I do.” Steve could feel that familiar warmth creep through his belly, up into his chest, something that happened whenever Bucky talked about taking care of him. He sighed dramatically. “It’s just, I’d want to do my part.”
“Of course you would.” Bucky’s voice had become dry and sharp.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve asked peevishly. He hoped he wasn’t a sloppy drunk, like Bucky’s dad, but there was only one way to find out, so he took another swig.
“Don’t get yourself in a tizzy. I just mean...You’re the best fella I’ve ever met. Whatever’s the right thing to do, that’s what you’ll want to do.” Steve turned his head to gaze at him, and Bucky closed his perfect mouth in a tight line before turning his face away. “I can never figure out what you’re doing with a dope like me.”
Steve was too lightheaded to think straight, but he pulled himself upright. “You’re not a dope. You’re swell. Nobody could ask for a better friend.”
Bucky sat up too, his face exceedingly close to Steve’s, and Steve’s heart began an erratic marching tempo in his chest. “Is that all I am?”
He wasn’t sure he understood, or if it was the booze making him thickheaded. “What do you mean?” The martial beat slowed and his chest grew tight -- Steve fretted that he might be about to have an asthma attack.
“Ah, never mind,” Bucky answered, sweeping a hand through his hair. They both looked up at the sky, acutely awkward in a way they had never been before. Steve tried to figure out what he’d said to make Bucky uncomfortable.
“So, where did you get the money?” It was easier to change the subject. And anyway, he really was curious what Buck was up to. He’d moved into their tiny apartment after Steve’s ma had died, trying to help make ends meet so Steve could attend art classes. And that had allowed Steve to see just how hard Bucky worked for them both, and for his parents, as well. Only a fraction of his money went to himself; it was always other people he did for. But lately he’d taken to disappearing from time to time, but not on dates that Steve could see. And he’d had the dough to take them both out for an occasional meal and maybe a double feature.
Bucky polished off the last of the whiskey and made an exaggerated “oh no!” face at him as he shook the bottle, then laughed and threw it in the sand. Steve would pick that up before they left, of course. “You really wanna know where I get the money? Might not like what you hear,” he said.
“Uh, yeah,” Steve said, nervous but too stubborn to show it. His deepest fear was that Bucky might turn to petty crime in order to help him out, or worse, something more significant.
“You know the fairies hanging around those dark little bars and around the hotel? Sometimes I go out with them.” His eyes glinted in the light, a mean sparkle to them, but Steve was pretty sure he was trying to get his goat by saying such a thing.
“Don’t call them that, it’s not nice.” Steve shook his head, which made him dizzy, and squinted one eye closed, scowling at Bucky. “Stop pulling my leg,” he said sternly.
Shrugging, Bucky made a sour face and said, “I figured you’d act all wet. You asked. I told. Believe what you want to believe.”
“But why would you...why...I mean, what would you do that for?”
“A sawbuck, usually.” Bucky was positively leering at him by then. He didn’t care if men were like that, but he wasn’t sure why Bucky would tell him this -- to shock him or something, he supposed.
Steve’s eyebrows felt like they shot up to his hairline. “They pay you to go out with them?”
“That’s not all I do, Steve. Don’t be so dim. Some of those fellas have good money, and they’ll give you a five-spot or a ten for a little attention, especially if you’re a good-looking swell.” One thing you could say for Bucky, he was aware of his own allure.
Bucky was truly exasperated with him now, his usual humor slipping away and exposing something harsh, raw. Steve had long ago learned that he got this way when he was trying to say something he didn’t feel smart enough to do justice to. He had always talked about himself as if he wasn’t clever, compared himself to Steve and believed he came up wanting. If he hadn’t been so drunk, Steve would have been able to figure out how to steer this conversation back to something easier, lighter, but he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around what Bucky was telling him and what he should do about it.
“Do you really need me to spell it out for you?” Now he was just plain angry. He couldn’t even remember a time when Bucky’s anger had been directed at him his way.
“Isn’t that just--”
“Don’t you even say that. It’s not like that. I don’t mind. They get a little company, I get a nice night out, and just because I get some money doesn’t mean I’m selling myself. And it’s not like I’ve done it all that much. Just when we really needed help.”
“I thought you liked girls.” Steve wondered how many nights he’d believed Bucky had been out with girls that were in fact time he’d spent with those types of fellows. It would certainly explain why he’d given up trying to get Steve to double date with him all the time.
“I do like girls. I like them a lot.You can like both types of people.”
“Oh,” was all Steve could muster. His head was swimming, and it wasn’t just from booze.
With a fluid motion, Bucky knelt in front of him, his face close, and poked a finger into Steve’s chest. “I don’t even really have to like them, but usually I do. They don’t expect anything. They don’t ask a lot of questions. If I don’t like them, I just -- I just pretend I’m with you.”
It was like he’d been hollowed out inside, like all his bones and sorry excuse for muscles had evaporated into thin air. “Me?”
Bucky rocked back on his heels, then took Steve by the shoulders. “Oh my God, Steve. You are the dumbest fella on the planet. Just the stupidest. Do you really not understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
“No, I don’t!” He thought about one of the guys who modeled for their figure-drawing classes from time to time, a fellow one of the other students said was a queer, but that didn’t help him put into perspective what Bucky was saying. There had been more than a few times when Steve had wondered if he himself didn’t have a crush on Bucky, had tried to pretend it was just because they were so close and sometimes his hero-worship got the better of him. But that was just boy stuff, nothing like what Buck was saying to him now.
“I like boys too -- no, I like one boy in particular.” He poked Steve’s chest again. “And since you took your stupid pills today, I will tell you that that boy is you.”
Then Steve realized that Bucky hadn’t been looking at him with anger; he’d been staring at him with an intense longing, that he’d been trying to find a way to open himself up to Steve, risking their lifelong friendship for the sake of being honest about it. Steve didn’t know what touched him more: Bucky’s admission or his bravery in making it.
“So do you...you’ve kissed those guys, right? Kissing a fella wouldn’t be strange, then?”
That sideways grin returned, the one Steve had drawn so many times from memory. But instead of giving him a wisecrack in return, Bucky just leaned in and put his mouth on Steve’s, tenderly at first, then more firmly, pulling Steve closer to him. It wasn’t weird at all, really, it felt like when he put pencil to paper, a conviction flowing naturally from inside him to the surface. This was what he’d wanted without knowing he’d wanted it. Bucky pushed Steve’s mouth open with his own, slipped his tongue inside. Hot, tingling shocks swept through Steve’s body. He melted into Bucky, let him shape and re-form him, create someone new inside this once-familiar body. As whirls of desire coursed through him, he realized he was growing hard, shifted himself so Bucky wouldn’t notice.
When Bucky broke away and pulled his head back, he eyed Steve’s lips and said, “I always thought you might be a good kisser.”
Steve ducked his head, suddenly shy at being scrutinized this way, worried his body was betraying him. He’d heard Bucky jerking off sometimes at night in their tiny bedroom, and Bucky was probably amply aware of Steve doing the same; the room was minuscule and they were practically on top of each other already, you couldn’t avoid hearing the sharp, quickening breaths and the rustling of sheets, no matter how hard you tried to ignore it. But that hadn’t prepared him for this kind of intimacy. “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to be out here doing this,” he said, staring down at his hands. Maybe he would feel less acutely awkward if they were on home turf.
“Yeah, I think if we’re gonna keep necking, we should go home.” Bucky waggled his eyebrows. “Because I want to keep necking.”
Steve hoped -- with a little bit of fear thrown in for good measure -- they were going to do a lot more than that. He let Bucky pull him by the sleeve out of the park, and they walked quietly back to the apartment. Every once in a while, Steve would glance over at him, and Bucky would meet his eyes, smirking or grinning.
As soon as they were inside, Bucky grabbed his shirt front and pulled him close for more kissing. Steve thought, I could get used to this, while at the same time wondering if he would get used to it.
If someone had stumbled upon the hundreds of sketches he’d made of Bucky over the years, they would have instantly known what Steve thought of him. But all the time spent looking at him, studying him, didn’t mean Steve had ever felt he had the right to hope for him in quite this way. Those moments were esoteric, a phantom desire for an unobtainable object.
“Do you know how this goes?” Bucky asked, his mouth shining and wet, his eyes glittering. From anyone else, that would have been condescending, but from Bucky it was just the way he always took care of Steve, forever trying to make things as easy on him as possible.
Steve shrugged and glanced sideways. “You’re the expert, apparently.”
“Ah, don’t be that way, Steve. It never meant anything.” He heeled off his shoes and undid his belt.
“I’m not...I’m sorry, Buck. I didn’t mean it that way, really I didn’t.” As Bucky stripped off his clothes, Steve stood frozen, only going so far as to take off his shoes. It wasn’t that he hadn’t seen Bucky unclothed, or never been unclothed in front of him, either, but this was so far outside the realm of normal he couldn’t really make sense of it. He couldn’t bear having Bucky see him this way, now, and be disappointed or change his mind.
Laughing, Bucky asked, “You gonna make me take your trousers off? You’re scrappy, I’ll give you that, but you’re still no match for me.” He moved toward Steve, but Steve stepped back.
“I just... Give me a minute, okay?” Oh, who was he kidding? It would take a lot more than a minute.
To Bucky’s great credit, he figured it out right away. “You think I won’t like I what I see all of a sudden? As if somehow this is going to change the way I look at you?” He put his hands around Steve’s waist, tilted his head, and looked down at him with such warmth it made Steve hitch up a breath. “You dumb goof. Don’t you know I think the sun rises and sets on you?”
Steve finally turned his eyes up to Bucky’s, and his throat tightened, positively ached with the longing. He shook his head, but moved close to let Bucky peel off his shirt and trousers, then stood shyly in just his undershirt and shorts. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Hey now. Cut it out,” Bucky said, and pulled Steve toward his bed, but then stopped and pushed their two twin beds together. “More room for hijinks.” He laughed again, but it helped Steve to see that Bucky was almost as nervous as he was.
“So like I said. Do you need to know about the...the details?” Bucky asked.
Steve had no idea why, but that made him bust out laughing. “I think I can figure it out.” His laughter apparently spread to Bucky, because he also erupted into a laughing fit. “Geez, what’s wrong with us?”
“I dunno. Too much to drink? Just maybe?” Bucky wiped a hand across his face.
“We shouldn’t have drunk so much if we were going to fool around.”
“I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have had the courage to actually fool around if we hadn't.” Bucky grinned at him.
How could that be? Steve wondered. Did he think Steve would reject him? Or just that he thought he was now damaged goods? Bucky had never been a nervous guy, worried about someone’s perception of him or about putting the moves on a gal.
Oh. I'm not a gal. I'm not just someone.
He pulled Bucky toward him and kissed him again, before Bucky tugged him down onto the thin mattress, his hands roaming over Steve’s shoulders, his chest, his belly. “Can I show you something?” Steve asked, and Bucky’s eyebrows shot upward. “Not that. Jerk.” He kept thinking of Bucky telling him that the sun rose and set on him, that he wasn’t good enough for Steve, and he thought it was time Bucky understood something, too.
Steve dug around in his bottom dresser drawer, pulling out a couple of his old sketchpads. Sucking in a deep breath, he pulled the pages back to show Bucky one of the hundreds of sketches of him Steve had made over the years. Most were portraits from the chest up, but a few were full-body studies. The majority were just pencil or charcoal, but in the pastels, he’d intensified the deep blue of Bucky’s eyes, the shine of his dark hair. At first Bucky was silent as he flipped through the first book, but as Steve opened the second one, Bucky put his hand over Steve’s.
“You’ve been drawing these all this time? And you never let me see them? They’re...they’re amazing.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you’ve done this. I can’t believe this is how you see me.”
“Don’t you know I think the sun rises and sets on you? I always have, Buck.”
Bucky swallowed, shaking his head and laughing. “We’re a couple of big idiots, aren’t we? Come here,” he said with a low growl and pulled Steve to him, hooking his leg over Steve’s hip. They stayed that way a while, kissing, more and more intensely, until Bucky began grinding against him and Steve groaned in stunned pleasure.
Bucky pushed him onto his back, then moved his hand down into Steve’s shorts, making Steve gasp out loud; Bucky responded with a dirty chuckle. “Well, I gotta say one thing, Rogers -- you might have come out all scrawny and small in the rest of your body, but this part turned out just fine.” He ran his hand up and down Steve’s cock as he kissed Steve’s throat, his chest, and then his belly, before pulling Steve’s shorts off.
“Oh my God, Buck. I didn’t--I don’t know if--” Suddenly Bucky’s mouth was on his dick. Steve nearly shot off the bed, would have except Bucky held his hips down. In his wildest fantasies of what sex might be like, he had never really imagined this. Certainly never gone so far as to imagine Bucky’s mouth on him, licking and sucking. He tried to glance down to see Bucky’s face, but all he seemed capable of doing was staring wide-eyed at the far wall, vaguely aware of the faint music on the radio, the sound Bucky’s mouth made on him, his own helpless moans. Within minutes, he came, groaning with both pleasure and embarrassment at how quickly it had happened.
But he didn’t have time to be ashamed, because Bucky made his way up Steve’s body again with kisses and nips, until he reached Steve’s mouth. He drew back and stared at Steve, putting his hand on his neck, stroking his thumb across Steve’s throat over and over. “Good, huh?’ he asked, his voice thick and...well, sultry, Steve thought. In one night, he’d found himself using words he’d never thought would become part of his vocabulary.
“I’ll say.” He waited for the tremors to subside before asking, “Can I do that for you? Is that what you’d like?”
“Yeah, yeah. You can do that if you like. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. I don’t want...well, I don’t want you to do anything that’ll give you trouble.” Typical Bucky -- always worrying about him. Sometimes Steve thought Bucky took better care of him than Steve did of himself. But then, how many times had Bucky sat there with him, rubbing his back and trying to help him breathe after an asthma attack? How many times had he sat next to Steve’s bed, helping him with homework, after he’d been out of school for days with another illness?
He touched the side of Bucky’s face. “I’d like to try.” Just picturing Bucky writhing beneath him caused pulses of silvery shivers to run up and down his spine.
Bucky grinned and lay back on the bed, letting Steve crouch over him and slide his shorts down, tangling his fingers in Steve’s hair. Bucky’s body was familiar and foreign, hard angles and soft contours, pale and dark. The hair on his chest feathered down a dark trail toward his hard cock, which lay against his belly, moving up and down along with the panting breaths Bucky took. Taking a deep breath, Steve put his hand around Bucky’s cock and then ran his tongue along it before taking the tip in his mouth. It was salty, musky, and that made him almost hard again.
He looked up to see Bucky bite down on the side of his hand, heard him gasp, “God, Steve, that feels so good.” Knowing he could make Bucky feel that way gave him a jolt of courage, so he commenced doing the same thing Bucky had done for him -- licking, sucking, squeezing with his hand. It seemed to work magic on him, Bucky kept muttering, “Yeah, Steve, Steve, yeah,” until his hips thrashed and he said in a voice thick and sweet as syrup, “Jesus, Steve, I’m sorry, I can’t control myself, oh God!” Steve pulled away as Bucky came, despite the fact that Bucky had a death grip on his hair. He was out of breath, unable to swallow the pulses, though he wasn’t going to let off the pressure and motion of his hand, either. Not when he could see what it did to Bucky.
When Bucky was spent, Steve slid up beside him and pulled his sticky hand off Bucky’s cock. They were both breathing shallowly, laughing shyly.
“Is this what it was like for you, on those other...dates?” Steve asked as Bucky put his arms around him and pulled him close, tucking Steve’s head under his chin.
“No, it was never like this. With anyone, ever. It’s different when it’s someone you love.”
“Wow,” Sam says, rubbing his mouth with his hand. Steve has finished telling him about how their friendship had changed before the war. He hasn’t told him all the details, but he has said enough to help Sam understand why this means so much. He needs to tell Sam all of it, even things he has kept private for so long. “So,” Sam adds, “he was more than just a friend to you.”
Steve has never really thought in those terms before -- of quantifying relationships, of more and less, friend or lover. “I don’t really think of it that way. I suppose most people categorize relationships, but I never really did. He was just everything to me -- my friend, first and foremost, whatever aspects that entailed.”
Sam gives him a little smile. “I guess that’s why you’re Captain America, man -- you’re just, like, the most enlightened guy ever.”
His cheeks grow hot and he drops his head. “Far from enlightened.” Sometimes it annoys him, the way people want to believe he’s somehow better than everyone else. “I have plenty of character flaws.”
Relaxing back onto the sofa, Sam takes a long pull from his beer. They’ve been up very late by this point, but it’s been such a long time since he’s had someone to confide in, that he could feel this at ease with, enough to tell his most important secrets to. Sam has no idea how often Steve thanks his lucky stars that he’d been out for a run that day, on the same route.
“So you say. Ain’t no one going to believe that, though.” He clicks off the TV that neither of them is watching anyway. “But I appreciate you telling me all this. I know how hard it must be to talk about.” He seems lost in thought for a moment. “This suggests a different way to find him, though, don’t you think? If he made the choice to save you, something’s in there, some piece of memory he’s holding on to. If he starts to remember, he might go back to those places -- that playground, that building, those streets. Something we can work with, at least, if you were that close.”
“I don’t know. Seeing that chair, reading those files and knowing what they’ve done to him, I wonder how far gone he really is. I thought I saw something in his eyes at the end there, something coming back to him. Who knows if, once he’s gone to ground, he can come back up. He’s had handlers, programmers, all these years. Now he has nothing.”
“Since when have you ever given up that easy? Shit, Steve. This guy was more than your friend, he was your lover, he knew a part of you no one else did.”
Categories again. But Bucky transcended categories, Steve thinks. Steve finishes his own beer off and sets the last of their sizable collection of empty bottles down on the end table. He may not be able to get drunk, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love a good beer. That was another great thing about modern times -- microbrews.
Sam leans forward, elbows on knees, and tilts his head. Steve’s seen that look before, when he is with the support group at the VA, but he doesn’t mind Sam using his techniques on him; in fact, he thinks it’s probably helped in more ways than he can really comprehend right now, with everything so mixed up in his head. “You know, all the stuff I read about you, and Barnes, they never said how you met.”
“Stuff you read?” Steve arches an eyebrow and grins at him.
“Well, of course. After they dug you out of the ice, I don’t think there was a magazine or newspaper wasn’t running a story about you and the Howling Commandos. It was a pretty good story, but now that I’ve gotten to know you, I can see how much spin they put on a lot of it.”
“Yeah, they always did.” He’s been thinking about that lately, about leveraging his fame and the discussion about Captain America as hero after the Insight disaster, but he’s still avoiding reporters -- the personal is so much more important to him right now. And with their security detail, it’s easy to hide. At some point, the NSA and the FBI will let him get back to normal -- or as close to it as possible -- but for now, the fellows in the dark suits and black SUVs are a comforting barrier between him and the media. He’s said what he needed to say for the time being. Anything more he wants to say is for Bucky.
“You know I was always sick when I was a kid, right?” Sam nods. “I’d seen Bucky around the neighborhood, even though I didn’t know him. I wasn’t in school a lot. And anyway, I never figured he’d be a friend; I didn’t have any friends in the first place, and even as a kid, Bucky was charming, he had all the adults wrapped around his finger, kids followed him around. A boy like that would never hang out with a kid like me. But...even before the Crash, we were poor, my mother and me. I always wanted to play at recess, but they kept me back so much of the time. So sometimes I’d sneak off to the park and get on the swings, climb on the slides or the jungle gym, all the stuff I wasn’t supposed to do.”
“Little Cap, rebel with a cause.” Sam laughs and shakes his head.
“My mother was always telling me that I shouldn’t swing too high. Said it over and over. ‘Don’t swing too high, you’ll hurt yourself.’ Of course one day I ignored her, kept going higher and higher on the swing. I think I was about six, seven maybe? And lost my grip and went sailing, landing on my hands and knees. I was a bloody mess, there was sand and dirt in the places where I’d torn my skin off. I tried hard not to cry, but the tears came anyway, because it hurt like hell and I was terrified of going home and my ma seeing what a mess I was, knowing how angry she would be. Some of the other boys started picking on me, knocking me around, and I wasn’t in any condition to fight back, so I was taking my licks. But just when I thought I wasn’t going to get out of that, along came James Buchanan Barnes to my rescue.”
“Kids like that, the charming ones, the popular ones, they’re usually the type to do the beat-downs.”
“I know. I thought at first he was going to hit me, too. But he waded in and started knocking heads, saying something that he would say many, many times for the rest of our lives: go pick on someone your own size. As I got to know him, I saw where that came from. His dad wasn’t what you’d call abusive, but he had a temper, and like a lot of men in that neighborhood, drank -- Prohibition did nothing to stop people who really wanted to drink. He’d blow a lot of his paycheck every week, usually Friday night, and if something Bucky did or said rubbed him the wrong way, out came the hand. Buck just did not like seeing anyone get knocked around. So he helped me home and told me he’d wait till Ma came home, and he’d tell her it was his fault.”
Sam’s thoughtful for a while, assessing all that, and then says, “You idolized him, but it never occurred to you that he idolized you too.”
Steve starts to demur, to deny that Bucky could have idolized him, but he realizes that yeah, it’s the truth. He’d seen it when he went to the Smithsonian that day, watched Bucky’s face in the old films that played throughout the exhibit. Sometimes, when he was in the background and unaware the camera was on him, Bucky would look at Steve with such love that it crushed Steve’s heart; he’d seen the same thing in the much rarer shots of Peggy, as well. He’d loved two extraordinary people, but it had been almost impossible for him to accept they had loved him in return until he’d been confronted with the evidence. “You can see why this is so hard for me. To know he doesn’t remember.”
“You loved someone who went on to live their life without you, who has trouble remembering you sometimes now, and you loved someone else you thought had died, and who doesn’t remember you. That’s...man, that’s a heavy, heavy load. You said you didn’t know what would make you happy, but seeing the way you look when you talk about him, helping him would be a good start toward figuring that out. ”
Once again, Steve is amazed by his perspicacity. Sam’s managed to turn Steve’s sense of despair at the task of saving Bucky completely around, and now Steve’s ready to regroup and go at it again. He smiles approvingly. “I see what you did there.”
That earns him the biggest grin he’s ever seen on Sam. “They schooled me well.”
Sam gets up and corrals all the beer bottles to take to the kitchen. “So, Brooklyn.”
“Yeah, Brooklyn. I don’t know if he’ll be drawn back there, but we can see. Maybe we can pay a visit to Stark while we’re in New York. You should meet him.”
“He ever going to return the wing schematics? Or do you think he’s trying to build a better set?”
Steve shrugs and gets up to head to bed. As much as he enjoys staying with Sam, having someone to talk to, he can’t wait till he can settle someplace again, pick up the things from his apartment -- which he is never going back to live in, after everything that had happened -- and get back on mission. Peggy would have told him, back during the war, that he “must crack on,” and there’s a certain appeal to treading water here with Sam, slowly picking up the pieces, but he needs to focus again.
Sam is one of the best listeners he’s ever met; Steve had never thought he had so much to say until Sam started eking it out of him, bit by bit. At the bedroom door he looks over his shoulder and says, “Sam. Your friendship has meant a lot to me. I hope you know that.”
Sam nods, then says, “You know, it took me a long time, with Riley. I was so stuck in my own grief, I couldn’t really see any future. It took me a long time to see that I didn’t want to let go of that, because I thought to let go of it, to not feel that pain every moment, was like letting go of him, forgetting him. I didn’t want to forget him and what he meant to me.”
Steve gets what he’s saying. He nods in thanks, and closes the door.
His biggest worry is that if Bucky doesn’t want to be found, all their resources wouldn’t even matter. He puts on a worn t-shirt, pajama pants, and slips into bed, lost again in the sea of his confusion at what Bucky’s become.
With Sam, Steve can concentrate on the action, keep focus. He has a friend, he has someone he can trust and who can guide him. But when he’s by himself, he’s as lost as he was when he first came back. There is nothing for him to put his back up against anymore, no clear enemy. He’s not alone anymore, and the people who meant more to him than anyone else are alive and in this world, but Steve is lonelier than ever. Hope is the thinnest of threads for him now, something it would take only the weakest pull to break.
When he’d awakened and found out where he was, he’d looked into retrieving what he had left at home, believing that someone must have kept something of his early life. But the landlady had thrown everything out, unaware that her previous renter had become famous, and Steve had left home almost immediately after the change, believing he’d go back there eventually. There were a few things salvaged from the USO tour, and of course his compass with Peggy’s picture, but none of the thousands of sketches he’d made, his family belongings, or Bucky’s letters home had survived. It’s the letters he misses the most, the mementos he wishes the hardest for.
Bucky had always thought he wasn’t as smart as Steve, but Steve had known that to be untrue. He had a way with a phrase, he was a keen observer of other people, and he was just plain funny -- capable of making Steve laugh even in the worst of times. There had been only a handful of letters before Steve was off on tour and then to Europe himself, but he’d cherished every one, read them so often the already-thin paper became transparent and torn as he memorized parts of them. So much Bucky had written had been forgotten, though, in time’s wake.
But he remembers the letter Bucky had written first, while on the troop ship over to England, describing how crowded and disgusting it was, how surprised he’d been that he hadn’t got seasick himself. “The strangest thing was hearing music one night shortly after we left port. There was an improbable phonograph on board, and we ended up having an all-male dance that night. That was something I never thought I’d see.” Improbable phonograph had been such a perfect Bucky phrase.
Bucky had carefully addressed his letters to S. Rogers and not used a greeting, so that when censors read them, it wouldn’t be apparent they were to a man. He often waxed poetic about the things he saw on ship or in England, or told Steve how much he missed him, reminisced about their childhood. It was a part of the last letter he remembers most clearly, all these decades down the road:
“I know how hard it is, to feel you’ve been left behind and can’t do your part. You are the best of what people can be, your compassion and generosity and strength are what I carry with me every day here, and hope that I can be half as good as you, half as brave. I wake up every morning thinking of you, and go to sleep the same way every night. Even if I don’t make it back, I’ll have lived a life with you in it, and who could ask for more?”
He’d wondered, at the time, if Bucky had been convinced he might never come back. Now he thinks of what Sam said, that Bucky had idolized him; thinks that maybe keeping a part of Steve alive within himself is what helped him survive the torture back then, and the despair of his captivity as the Winter Soldier. Even if he didn’t know he had it, maybe that has helped him.
Bucky could never give up on Steve, so he can’t give up on Bucky.
And Sam’s right. Steve Rogers has never backed down from anything before. Bucky might not know he needs Steve, but he does. I just have to prove that to him.
Things bleed through.
The conditioning only holds so long. It’s unstable under pressure. He had handlers for that.
Sometimes he can’t hear over the clanging din inside his mind; other times it’s empty. He was made for one purpose, he knows now, and without that purpose he is nothing. But he can’t tell which is worse -- the noise or the lack of it. This is what it’s like to have no memories of your own, no identity. He holds on to only the things he can name at this fixed point in time.
One moment that bleeds through is the first time he saw the man, Steve Rogers. He chased him across rooftops, through buildings. The soldier thinks maybe that’s where he should go. Retrace his route and see if he can find fragments left behind.
He shouldn’t remember where it is, but like everything these past few days, pieces of the old past and the new past coalesce in his mind. He finds the location, watching from a roof across the way. There are government agents there somewhere; he can smell them. A board covers the window Rogers broke chasing him, and holes pock the outside wall, crime tape crisscrossed over them.
He recalls it now: Rogers throws the red and blue shield at him, he catches it, throws it back. Jumps off the roof. Then they wanted to put him on ice again, but the old man said, “Wait.” He’s good at waiting, so he stays on the roof, watching.
When it’s time, he starts over to the building, saying out loud, “Switching to dark approach.” He moves to turn off his comms, but there’s no earbud, no microphone, no one on the other end to tell of his actions. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t supposed to report his choices. How long will it take for him to get used to this? Everything is a dark approach now, he is silent not because it helps the mission, but because he has no one to communicate with.
He should feel free now, but instead he’s just trying to find some way through a long tunnel with no endpoint and too many branching paths to choose from.
It’s easy enough to remove the board over the window. Silently he slips into the apartment, pulls the blinds down. He’ll replace the board before dawn. Someone’s cleaned up the crime scene, but the tape is still up.
He clears all the rooms and hallways first, then sits down in the living room. He doesn’t know what he expected, but the apartment doesn’t provide a sense of who lives here at all. The old man -- Pierce, he has to remind himself -- had a place that seemed like it belonged to him, but this doesn’t feel like it belongs to anyone. There are some pictures here and there, a lot of books and old records, but nothing that says this is someplace that Steve Rogers lives.
Not that he knows, right now, what Steve Rogers is really like. Does Rogers not belong here any more than he does? They are both men out of time, forced to live in a world they never really asked to. Made to be weapons.
Yet he feels like he knows this place. It makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck, but it’s like...like he’s lived here. Or he can see it through someone else’s eyes. Usually he can assess a target in an instant, but this man eludes him. Maybe that’s the problem, maybe he should stop thinking of Rogers as a target, and instead think of him as the friend he once was.
So, what would a friend do in another’s home? He goes to the refrigerator, finds only a few things that don’t require cooking, something he can’t do without calling attention to the fact that he’s here. Opens cupboards to see what’s inside. This isn’t a kitchen where someone cooks a lot; it’s not a place where someone has guests. On the refrigerator there are some postcards, but nothing written on the backs of them; Rogers must have bought them on his travels, rather than receiving them from someone. For some reason, that gives him an ache in his throat.
He takes a few energy bars and a protein shake from the refrigerator, and sits down next to a bookcase to eat. None of the book titles interest him until he lights on one of a handful that are about Captain America. With each page he leafs through, he finds himself more and more engaged, but unlike the exhibit, this isn’t overpowering, it doesn’t topple him into sensory overload.
There are very few pictures in the book of Rogers as a boy, but more than a few of him as a scrawny, solemn, frail young man, especially once he joined the army. It had taken the soldier a long time to grasp, seeing the photos at the exhibit, that they’d deliberately turned Rogers into what he was when they faced off. They had changed him physically, but not mentally. The soldier wants to know if that means he was this way before, too. The photos couldn’t have told him that; only Rogers can.
He flips past the chapters on the first few months of Rogers as the supersoldier, until he hits a section about himself. There’s a picture of Rogers surrounded by a number of soldiers, and next to him is Barnes. “Me,” he says, trying out the word.
Rogers’s face is turned toward Barnes’s, and they’re smiling at each other. We’re smiling at each other. It’s a look of such pure devotion that it makes him feel sick. He puts down the food and closes the book. Getting up to look around the room, take a break from this trip down a memory lane he doesn’t remember walking, he pulls out some DVDs, all of them a variation on Captain America’s story. One has a sticky note on top that says, “This is hands-down the worst of the bunch. Don’t watch it alone! It might actually kill you. Call me when you want to see it and I’ll bring mind-altering substances. --Clint”
So he has new friends now, even if no one sends him postcards. That pleases the soldier, though he’s not certain why he would care. After some more examination of the items on the shelves, he returns to the book, flips through the rest of the pages. A small voice tells him that he shouldn’t read any of the quotations about himself. Then he spots a picture with a woman who’s identified as Peggy Carter. She’s standing with Rogers, both of them in Army uniforms -- he’s not wearing the Captain America gear -- and they’re looking at each other in the foreground, a lot of other people in the background who don’t seem to notice them. Or they’re not noticing anyone else, he’s not sure, it’s just the way they’re staring at each other. There’s a jolt of recognition in the back of his brain, zapping him like a taser, and he flips back to the picture of Barnes -- himself -- and Rogers he’d seen before.
They’re looking at each other the same way. In both photos, they are people in love.
He runs his hand through his hair, staring off in the middle distance. It’s one thing to know you had a friend, you were a friend to someone, but it becomes larger than he can comprehend to think he was in love and someone was in love with him. He was Bucky, and Steve Rogers loved Bucky, the same way he loved Peggy Carter.
What had he done to be worthy of that?
Not wearing this dark soul. Not murdering hundreds of people. Not being a monster.
Sharp, crushing pain presses up behind his eyes, pounds in his head along with the echoing, metallic screech. He puts the book down and stumbles into the bedroom. Everything here looks as nondescript as everything else, but there are some large paper pads on the nightstand. He flips through them -- pencil sketches of landscapes, people. A number of drawings of Peggy Carter, young and then old. And then himself. Picture after picture of his face, young and open and happy. How could he ever have been that man?
He sets the pad down on the bed and curls up beside it. The sheets have a human scent, warm and musky. There are some clothes tossed on the side of the bed, as if Rogers had hurriedly changed. He pulls the t-shirt to his face, inhaling the scent of this man who was his friend, who loved him, hoping it might bring back some glittering shard of memory, an identity that recognizes the smell.
For a while he stays that way, his metal fingers tracing the swirls of pencil on the sketchpad, his real hand clutching the shirt, until he falls asleep on Rogers’s bed.
Through the night he dreams: he’s on a merry-go-round that spins faster and faster, and then he’s suddenly slipping off the side, falling into a deep, icy canyon. Then he’s reaching for a hand, and Steve shouts his name, but he simply falls and falls and falls.
A short while later he wakes to a blood-red sky. Startled, he looks around wildly; he’s forgotten where he is until he remembers the shirt in his hand, and he leaps backward off the bed. He has to get out before there’s too much light. But he stops before leaving, turns back, and pulls one of the sketches of himself off the pad, stuffing it into his pocket.
This new life terrifies him, but what he’s lived can’t be life. So he’ll do what he knows: destroy everything and wipe all traces of himself away.
Maybe Rogers will know how to rebuild him.