Sometimes when you stand on the ground and prepare to jump, you think about how it will feel to launch yourself into the air. You think about that split second when you’ll be free and suspended. Then you jump, and it’s over too quickly before you can register and relish that freedom. You’re back on the ground.
As Bucky falls from the train, tumbling over and over (ground, sky, ground, sky, ground, sky) he thinks about that elusive feeling of suspension. Always chased and never caught. He’s surrounding by air on every side now, and part of his brain tries to relax so that he can feel what it’s like to fly.
Unfortunately, the rest of his brain thinks it has something to gain by kicking his legs and reaching for handholds even though there are none. There’s nothing but the train tracks above and the gorge below.
Also, he’s screaming, he thinks. Yeah, he’s definitely screaming.
He can’t even control the way he falls, just feet over head over feet, again and again, and then suddenly he sees an outcropping of ice-covered rocks reaching out of the mountain for him. He reaches back, but he’s too far away.
He continues to fall, and the small part of his brain that knows what’s happening to him (versus the panicking part of his brain and the part that’s still looking for solutions and hand-holds) sees that the ground looks much closer than it did a second ago.
“Hail Mary, full of grace.” He tries to force his screaming mouth into the shapes of the familiar words, but they garble and distort what he wants to say. It doesn’t matter anyway; it’s not like he’s going to redeem himself in the last seconds (minutes? How long has it been since he fell off the train?) of his life. Not after all the blood he’s spilled. He shifts his thoughts to what he actually wants on his lips as he dies.
“Steve!” he shrieks. Then everything goes black.
Bucky lifts his eyelids and sees white through the dark of his lashes. Every bone, every muscle, every drop of blood feels like it’s burning. He closes his eyes.
Bucky lifts his eyelids and sees white through the dark of his lashes. His lashes are covered in ice. He feels frozen to the core, but it’s quelled the burning. He’s so cold; he feels like the very breath is frozen solid in his lungs. His arm hurts, despite the ice blanket. He closes his eyes.
Bucky lifts his eyelids and sees darkness. He blinks several times, his eyes dry and stiff and feeling like he’s crying rivers of ice. It takes him a while to focus, and when he does, he sees stars above him.
He doesn’t know where he is or what’s happening to him.
“Ste?” he gasps, his throat raw and bone-dry. It focuses him. Steve. Where is Steve? Bucky has to get to Steve, and then Steve will take care of whatever needs to be fixed. Steve will carry Bucky back to Allied forces on his back if he has to – he’s practically done it before. He focuses his energies on sitting up, but his back feels like it’s been crushed, and his head isn’t much better. He tries to use his arms for leverage, and discovers that he can nudge the right one in the snow. The left one isn’t responding.
Slowly, he turns his neck, splitting pains shooting through his body, and sees something on top of his arm. It looks like there’s been a rockslide since Bucky’s fallen, and his whole body is covered in iced-over stones and slate. His left arm, in particular, is crushed underneath the weight of a huge boulder.
He tries to move it again, and he thinks he feels the bone scrape directly against rock. The sensation makes him choke, and he feels his throat open up and sputter vomit on his chin.
Bucky closes his eyes and prays for death.
Bucky opens his eyes again when he feels his something pulling his hair. He sees a swarm of people dressed head-to-toe in black all around him, masks making it impossible to tell if they’re staring at him or looking around the bleak landscape.
He hears voices, not in any language he recognizes, but he’s not even able to follow the cadence of the conversation. He’s numb and splitting from the pain at the same time. He feels the pull at his hair again, and he realizes that he’s being lifted off the ground. His hair, which Steve’s been after him to trim for weeks now, is frozen to the tundra.
He moves his mouth, but his jaw doesn’t cooperate. He tries to talk, and he hears an undignified whine slide through his lips. The voices hush and then pick up again. As he wakes up more, he starts to interpret tone; these people are anxious. They’re all men. And none of them are happy.
The world in front of his vision changes and moves, and he only becomes aware that his body has been placed on some sort of platform several feet above the ground when the world stops moving and his view is different from before.
The platform starts to move, propelled by several black figures, and Bucky sees that the boulders and rocks and snow have been pushed aside, leaving a bloody outline of a human being on the white ground.
He also sees something blue and something light pink. It looks like a glove. He wonders what it could be.
The next time he wakes up, he’s so groggy and nauseous that he can’t move his head without setting everything spinning. He slips in and out of consciousness several times before the grogginess fades and he can stare at the ceiling for several seconds without wanting someone to put a bullet in his head.
The detail, ‘ceiling’ registers slowly, and then he remembers, ‘sky.’ There should be sky above him. He fell; he’s been at death’s door for…days? There should be no ceiling. Something is wrong.
He tries to push himself up again, but he can’t. Craning his neck allows him to look down the expanse of his body and see that he is both naked and strapped to a platform with soft (but durable) gray bindings.
His breathing picks up as he starts to panic, and he hears a monitor at his left emit a high-pitched beeping noise.
Turning to look at the source of the beeping noise is difficult, but he manages. He turns his head, looks, and blinks because the images don’t make sense.
He sees a clump of white bandages balled against his shoulder, no blood in sight. He remembers the pain and thinks that obviously there’s supposed to be blood. His arm has to be bloody with how much it throbbed, even when the rest of his body shut down with systematic organ failure induced by freezing temperatures and.
Oh God, his arm isn’t there.
Confused, scared, pained, cold, and unsure if he’s dead or not, Bucky starts to scream again. He screams as the black figures file into the room, press buttons, shout at him in harsh syllables, and stick needles into his neck and arm and.
Oh God, his arm isn’t there.
Like falling down the rabbit hole as the drugs in the syringes take effect, Bucky’s vision narrows to a pinprick of light surrounded by dark, his teeth still stretched wide around a guttural scream.
Bucky doesn’t open his eyes the next time he wakes up. He’s more lucid this time, and he remembers slowly all of the previous times he’s opened his eyes. He’s never been prepared for what awaits him when he lifts his lids, so he takes time to prepare himself.
He’s a dead man, even if he isn’t actually dead yet. He doesn’t question how he survived the fall any more than he’s been questioning a lot of things lately.
Like why he never feels tired.
And why he barely feels pain, even when he’s been nicked by a German’s bullet.
And why he can slow his heartbeat at will and pull the trigger of his Johnson rifle in the calm between beats.
But he does know that he’s dead, because Steve would be here if he had any hope of surviving whatever is happening to him.
He doesn’t know what’s happening to him; he’s going to have to open his eyes for that. Opening his eyes, however, will force him to confront whether or not his arm is missing, whether or not the bandages on his shoulders cover a messy seam which covers an empty socket. He chooses not to know; to exist in this space between agonizing questions and more agonizing answers.
“I see you are awake, beautiful boy,” a sibilant voice cutting harsh with ethnic consonants tells him. The voice is seated at his right, and Bucky knows that it’s time to face the next phase of his death.
He opens his eyes to his agonizing answers. A man is sitting next to him, smiling incongruously, and scribbling something down on a clipboard.
“I am Vasily Karpov, and I am so glad to see that you are awake.” He finishes his note and clips the pen to his white jacket. “You were being very naughty there and refusing to open your eyes, kotyonok.” He brings a cold, bloodless hand to Bucky’s face and trails a sharp-nailed finger from his jaw to his temple.
“We have been waiting days to talk to you,” he says with a smile, and this time, Bucky reads the cruelty and the poison in it. Stomach churning, he turns to his left. He examines the bandaged stump, the bandages now yellowed with iodine in places.
On his right, the man presses a finger into the hinge of his jaw and chuckles.
On his left, he’s crippled.
The straps hold in down, and he can’t get away from whatever is happening to him. Or, perhaps that’s too passive and fatalistic. From whatever is being done to him.
His throat still raw from screaming, Bucky doesn’t talk for over a week. He stays strapped to the platform, getting sores from the metal and the cloth of the straps. They feel him something that looks and tastes like thin broth from a spoon, and more than half the time, Karpov insists on feeding him personally. He thinks about refusing the broth, but it’s so obvious that they can force him.
They use a bedpan when he has to relieve himself. They sponge him down periodically. They never give him clothes or let him cover up what should be just between him and God and a few loose-legged girls back in Brooklyn. Nor do they let him cover up the remainder of his arm.
The bandages are changed twice daily, and Bucky doesn’t look at what lies underneath. When they finally stop bandaging it, simply covering it in a layer of putrid-smelling yellow iodine, he tries and fails to confront it.
“You heal fast, kotyonok. Still, we are lucky that we found you when we did.” A smell of oranges washes over Bucky, and he sees the man eating fruit from the corner of his eye. He still refuses to acknowledge Karpov, which seems to delight the man.
“So beautiful,” he says as he presses a nail into Bucky’s chest. “Just like your movies,” he adds wistfully. “What a shame to hide something so lovely behind the red, white, and blue oaf.”
“Fuck you,” are Bucky’s first words in captivity. Not for the first time on this table, he worries about Steve. If Steve gives half as many damns about Bucky as Bucky gives about Steve (and he’s never doubted that Steve does love him like a brother), then he’ll be torn up by Bucky’s death. He thinks about Steve mourning his mother, and how he’d looked like someone tore the sun right out of his universe, and his heart throbs with guilt.
While Bucky is glad to give his life for Steve, possibly even has, part of him would rather Steve goes first so Steve doesn’t have to live with that pain. Even thinking about their roles being reversed shatters Bucky.
He hopes that Steve is safe in a camp right now, Agent Carter on his lap and his stupid shield between him and the world. Planning to win the war. Gritting his teeth and bearing Bucky’s loss.
Opening Bucky’s pack and reading the goodbye letter to Steve that all the men have already pre-written to their parents or sweethearts.
It occurs to Bucky that if he is going to be alive for any length of time (he’s exhausted himself waiting for the shot to ring out or the knife to enter his chest), he too should probably start mourning Steve. Broken, captured, and alone, it doesn’t look like he’s getting back to his punk.
“’Fuck you.’ Do you have anything else of this nature you wish to express, kotyonok?” Karpov asks him. His fingers trail down Bucky’s chest to a cold, pebbled nipple and squeezes. It hurts; he’s never been hurt there before. “Because this is the last time you will speak this way to me. I assure you.” He slaps the pained skin, and it humiliates more than it stings. “So please, the floor is yours.”
Bucky finally looks at his arm. The yellowed skin is crisscrossed with thick, black stitching, and only part of the socket is intact. He doesn’t know how much damage is from the boulders and how much damages is from the hacked surgery in this lab that feels millions of miles away from his unit and his sleeping bag and his CO. He doesn’t know if the operation saved his life, or if it’s going to end his life quicker.
The words spill out of him as he finally digests the idea that he’s alive for the time being, and he’s being held and treated by this sick fuck and an army of black, hooded men with objectives so far off Bucky’s radar that he can’t even begin to understand.
“Fuck you, you twisted, Ruskie son of a bitch,” he says. The anger builds under his skin, and he relishes it; it’s better than pain and sadness and bewilderment. “Where the fuck am I? What the hell are you doing to me? You’d better fucking let me go, or I’ll kill all of you, even with one arm. I’ll put a bullet in the brain of every cocksucking bastard in this godforsaken place!” he screams, throat throbbing, as he struggles against the straps with renewed effort.
“Don’t hurt yourself, kotyonok,” Karpov says with an oily smile. Bucky thrashes all the harder.
“And you’d better not fucking touch me again, you dirty, fucking pervert. Keep your hands away from me, or I’ll fucking bite ‘em off.”
He feels more like himself than he’s felt since he was with Steve. His accent roughs his syllables, and he laughs maniacally, letting the rage ride him and keep him in this beautiful, furious moment before he has to go back to dying.
“You’re gonna fucking lose this war, and my boys are going to kill all you sorry sons of bitches. Hitler, Schmidt. Whoever the fuck you work for. No, seriously, who are you fucking working for, because you have Hydra goons, but you’re no one I’ve heard of. And I’ve heard of all the big shots. You’re small time, asshole, but my boys’ll get you anyway.”
This time Karpov’s smile looks a bit strained.
“Let’s just say that I’m contracted to work with Hydra. I worked for Zola, but now, I suppose, that your ‘boys’ have taken him, I work for myself.”
“I’ve been tortured by Hydra before; I know all your shit. Do your worst. Or fucking kill me now. But don’t keep me strapped to a fucking table getting bedsores and pissing into a bowl,” Bucky yells.
Karpov stands to leave and brushes his fingers against the sweat breaking out on Bucky’s forehead.
“Kotyonok, I don’t use Hydra’s methods, just their money. You may have survived Zola’s plans for you, but I assure you, you’ve not yet encountered anything like Department X.” He lowers his face and brushes a chaste kiss against Bucky’s hairline, and Bucky slams his head backwards, hitting Karpov in the mouth. He cuts his head on Karpov’s teeth, but he must have done some damage to the other man as well, if the way he’s slapped full-handed with the force of the man’s entire arm has anything to do with it.
The next time Bucky tries to mouth off, they bring in a device with wires and nodes that they place across his chest. Then they crank it on and electricity courses through his body, whiting out his vision and making him forget where he is for several minutes. When he figures it out, he opens his mouth to respond to Karpov asking him, “Is that all?” and a mouthful of blood and the tip of his tongue fall out.
It’s not all. Every time Bucky speaks, the vitriol that pours out of his mouth is almost involuntary. They shock him; they beat him; they break the fingers in his hand. They lance him; they inject him; they burn his feet.
Bucky thinks he’s been in this room, on this table for months. He wishes that he had a cyanide capsule stashed under a false tooth, because he’d be long gone by now. But the American army isn’t fucked up (benevolent?) enough to give their soldiers these things, and Bucky doesn’t even know if it would stop Karpov. He’s reasonably sure that they’ve already brought him back from the dead once.
Alternative option: this is hell. It actually makes a lot of sense. He really would have thought that taking care of Steve counted for something though.
He hasn’t worn clothes in months. He hasn’t walked in months. His goddam arm stump is healed and useless, what information he knows about the Howling Commandos is long outdated, and he starts to think that maybe he should try cooperating with these people. If he’s in hell, he has to give up some time; if he’s still of this earth, then maybe he can find a way to die.
“What do I have to do to get off this table?” he asks Karpov the next time the man sits with him and feeds him. He obediently slurps the broth from the spoon, looking innocently up at the man and feeling his stomach churn in disgust.
“You must stop fighting me, kotyonok. Then I can start my work.” He swipes a finger over the broth on Bucky’s bottom lip, bringing it to his own lips and darting his tongue out to taste.
Bucky forces down his nausea and says, quietly, “I’m done fighting. I want to get up.”
“A wise decision. Unfortunately, I must have proof. You’ve not been easy to subdue,” Karpov says. He sounds like he doesn’t mind at all. The sick fuck’s probably been getting off on Bucky’s torture.
“I’m done,” Bucky promises again. And then, to show how sweet and agreeable he can be, he asks, “What does that word mean? The one that you call me. Kochy-”
“Kotyonok,” Karpov says just as sweetly. “It means kitten.” Bile rises in Bucky’s throat. Karpov puts the bowl of broth down and runs his hand down Bucky’s side, stopping only when he gets to the reinforced strap which pins Bucky’s hips to the bed.
Bucky shuts his eyes and thinks of Brooklyn.
When he’s finally unstrapped, fifteen Hydra goons are standing by with firearms pointed at various parts of his body. He understands why they think he’s going to try to run or kill them (he’s threatened to do both), but his muscles are already atrophying, and he can barely put weight on his legs. As it is, he has to lean on the table he’s become so intimately familiar with, and his legs feel like they’re being stabbed with thousands of tiny needles.
“Take the American to his cell,” Karpov instructs someone, and a black figure grabs Bucky’s arm and pulls him forward. Between the pricking feeling and the lack of an arm for balance, Bucky tips forward and falls to the ground, smacking his face on the tile and, probably, breaking his nose.
His face slides in the blood pooling from his nose. One of the Hydra goons kicks at his side, and another grabs him by the hair, which now falls into his eyes, and yanks him up. Another grabs him from behind and drags him, feel trailing through the blood and across rough concrete as Bucky’s head lolls forward to keep the blood from sliding down his throat and choking him. He catches sight of Karpov as he’s dragged from the room, and the man looks exuberant.
He wants to set fire to these people, this facility and everything in it (including himself) more than ever. But he keeps calm and pliant, determined that he’s not getting strapped to that table again. ‘What would Steve do?’ he asks himself for, conservatively, the thousandth time. Steve would be smarter than them. Steve would pretend to play along, learn their routines, and escape. So that’s what Bucky will do.
Well, actually, Steve wouldn’t have allowed himself to be strapped to the table in the first place, and would have busted out of here through the use of force by now. But Bucky isn’t Steve. Bucky is nothing like Steve, so he’s along for the torture and the degradation.
He hopes that Steve is safe and warm right now. Well-fed. Maybe even well-loved by Agent Carter. It’s been a few months; that’s more than enough time for even Steve to get in her skirt. He wants Steve to enjoy the things that aren’t for him anymore.
His ‘cell’ is four feet by six feet. It’s six feet high, which means that Bucky’s hair scrapes the ceiling as he paces back and forth in the small walking area not occupied by the pallet that’s supposed to serve as his bed.
He’s had enough lying down. He sleeps sitting up, propped in the corner. He wedges the stump of his shoulder into the right angle where the walls meet, because that feels like the most vulnerable part of his body.
When he’s not thinking about Steve or wishing he were dead, he tries to shed some levity on the arm situation. While it was difficult to come to terms with, he knows that it’s not the worst thing going for him at the moment, and he never expects to make it back to a normal life where missing an arm with be an impediment.
“Good job losing your left arm, dumbass,” he mutters to himself. “Now you’ll have to finally learn to write with your right hand like the nuns wanted you to.” It’s funny, because he won’t write anything ever again.
“The only thing you’ve ever been good at is shooting, and you can’t shoot a rifle with one hand. Excellent career planning.” It’s funny, because he’ll never hold a gun again.
“Nice job-” And then he usually breaks down.
He investigates the cell for screws or nails. Somehow, the walls are a solid sheet of metal without any seams, which he knows from feeling his way over every inch. The pallet he sleeps on doesn’t have any zippers or buttons. His best bet, he thinks, is the single fluorescent light bulb which can only be operated from outside the cell.
He smashes it one night when he doesn’t hear any guards in the hallway outside, and grabs the biggest piece of glass that he can find in the dark with his fingers trailing through the mess and incurring tiny slices. He grabs the sliver of glass, raises it to his throat, and yanks it backwards.
Blood spills onto his hand and down his throat. He gasps wetly and brings the glass back for another cut, but it falls out of his slippery hands and he can’t recover it in the dark. Desperate, he grabs a handful of shards from the floor and grounds them into the wound as the door flies open, hitting his foot, and Hydra goons pour in.
After the surgery to repair his neck and throat (and hadn’t the glass shards been a fun complication), Bucky spends another three months strapped to the table in the lab. He knows that it’s three months, because Karpov keeps a count on the blackboard that Bucky doesn’t remember being there last time. It must be at least six months since he’s fallen. When Karpov slides his hands through Bucky’s hair, now nearly grown to his chin, he pretends that it’s Steve’s hand.
“You know what you need to do to prove I can let you off this bench,” Karpov tells him. Bucky blinks slowly, no energy to care left in him. He opens his mouth and Karpov’s fingers flutter at the fastenings of his pants. Bucky absently misses pants.
“Bite me, and I will make your life thus far with us feel like a stroll in the garden,” Karpov mutters, seemingly checking over his shoulder to make sure that they’re alone.
He keeps his mouth open as Karpov pushes in, knowing that it was always going to come to this. He chokes on the taste and the feeling of something cutting off his airways, but he doesn’t fight. He wants to move again. He’s actually going to be good this time; just let him pace in his cell.
This time, his cell is made of metal bars. He doesn’t try to break them; knows that they’re probably like the reinforced straps. The light from the guard station a few feet away trickles in, but Bucky doesn’t have his own light. He spends most of his days standing and propping his weight against the bars, falling asleep and waking up later with harsh red marks where the bars cut into his armpit.
He doesn’t know what they want from him. He’s offered information, all outdated of course, but they don’t seem to care. He wondered for a time if he was being held for ransom of some sort; trying to get Zola or something important back in exchange for Sergeant Barnes, which the United States would never agree to anyway. But they really don’t seem to have a plan for him besides using him as their personal punching bag and pincushion, and trying to drive him insane with loneliness and, well, boredom.
“I’ll die of boredom, Ma,” he used to say dramatically to his mother. She’d make him cross himself and then give him a list of chores. It was real easy to find something to do when chores were at stake – he’d go down to the docks and watch the men, or he’d find some boys in the neighborhood and play jacks, or he’d go over to Steve’s and they’d make up stories taking turns about which one of them could be the hero.
The boredom of his youth feels continents away from this boredom. ‘Boredom’ isn’t even an appropriate word for it. Bucky’s days are empty. Apart from Karpov, no one talks to him. He sits or stands for fourteen hours without anyone to talk to, any books to read, or anything but blank walls and blank men to look at. The other ten hours, he sleeps restlessly, dreaming about ice and blood and Steve in his place.
The short, bitter conversations with Karpov are actually a godsend, even though he knows that Karpov wants him to think that. Usually, Karpov restricts himself to talking about how Bucky’s almost ready for the “next phase” and caressing him inappropriately before leaving. Occasionally, he dismisses the guards and makes Bucky kneel and take him in his mouth through the bars.
“Can I have some clothes?” Bucky asks for the hundredth time after he’s been in his new cell for several weeks. Karpov pretends to think about it as he tugs on a lock of Bucky’s hair. It’s going to be as long as a dame’s soon.
“You’re going to have to prove that you’ve very good, kotyonok,” he tells him. Bucky gapes at him, shocked that he’s actually gotten somewhere, before sinking to the ground. “No, no. Not that. Come with me.”
He takes Bucky to the lab and makes him lie down on the hated bench. This time, though, he’s on his stomach.
“I won’t strap you down,” Karpov says in what he likely thinks is a reassuring voice. “Arch your back for me, beautiful boy. There you go. Perfect.” Bucky knows what’s going to happen and he hides his face in the crook of his elbow, willing himself to go elsewhere. He’s had a lot of time in his own head, and he’s mostly effective at putting up walls and going someplace less bleak when he’s being electrocuted or beaten. He’s even starting to lose track of time, slipping from one miserable day to the next. It works out.
When he raises his head, he thinks that only seconds have passed. But his ass burns, and his back is cramped, and Karpov is staring down at him with a puzzled look on his face.
“I was not aware that you spoke German,” he tells Bucky. Bucky squints at him in confusion. He knows a little German from being a German POW twice now, as well as some ‘handy phrases’ Steve had insisted the Commandos learn before going behind enemy lines. He knows he wasn’t speaking it though; he didn’t say anything while Karpov climbed on top of him.
He ducks his head again, unsure if Karpov is done with him. His brain tries to conjure up an image of Steve, still his light in dark places, but he squashes it quickly. He doesn’t want to associate a hair of this with Steve. Steve would be disgusted with him if he found out.
“You can get up now,” Karpov says, still sounding bemused. Bucky pushes himself into a crouching position with his arm, and then swings his legs off the side of the table.
“Pants,” he says imploringly. Karpov reaches forward and briefly takes ahold of Bucky’s completely limp dick, looking at it sadly before squeezing and letting go.
“Such a shame to cover this up, but I am a man of my word,” he says with regained confidence. “Besides,” he says as he puts Bucky back into his cell. “You’ve lost all your muscle tone.” He pinches at the skin over Bucky’s flat and undefined stomach wistfully, and then walks away.
There’s blood in the bucket when Bucky relieves himself that night. It doesn’t matter; he gets soft black pants and a black cotton shirt the next day.
The next week, he’s strapped into a device that looks like one of the usual electricity machines. They enjoy seeing how many volts, and for how long, he can take before he screams, blacks out, or both.
(If there’s anything that Bucky’s learned from Hydra, it’s that unconsciousness and screaming are not mutually exclusive).
He gets a rubber grip to bite down on like normal; after losing part of his tongue, it’s standard procedure. Unlike normal, this machine tips him backwards and presses against his head. He wonders where the nodes and wires are.
“It’s okay, kotyonok,” Karpov tells him. He runs his thumb over the rubber between Bucky’s teeth, caressing both his lips and the torture aid. One of the goons in black twitches away from the scene, and Bucky wonders what facial expressions they make underneath the masks when Karpov touches him like this.
“Just relax. Make your mind amenable. It’s starting.”
What’s starting?, Bucky wants to ask. He keeps quiet. The Hydra goons talk to each other in German and Bucky can’t understand them, but he thinks they’re talking technical babble.
He sees them flip the switch as the electricity courses through his head, stunning and disorienting him.
Steve. What’s going.
He opens his eyes, panting heavily, and sees Karpov staring at him. Well, they’re all staring at him, but Karpov’s is the only face he can see.
One of the Hydra goons gets in his face and yells at him in German. Still having trouble focusing, Bucky squints at the man and shakes his head.
“Say something in German,” Karpov orders him. Bucky gapes, feeling drool slip from the corner of his mouth as one goon pulls the rubber away.
“Ich spreche nicht Deutsch,” he says pathetically. He’s not trying to be a smartass by saying he doesn’t speak German in German; it’s just one of the few phrases he can dig up with his brain feeling so crispy. He also knows that he’s badly butchered the words. Steve’s the linguist between the two of them.
The goons continue to shout at him, and he shakes his head, trying to get rid of the floating, tingling feeling. He actually isn’t in pain, which is unusual for a bout of electrocute-the-American.
They strap him into the machine the next day. Again, it doesn’t hurt, and he isn’t aware of more than the first few seconds of voltage to his brain. He doesn’t know what they’re trying to do to him, but the focus on his brain is suspicious. They’ve moved on from simply wanting to hurt him and control him, and now they’re trying to hack into him somehow.
They strap him into the machine the next day. This time, one of the goons sets up an audio recording device and aims it at him.
He sees the switch flick on, and then his vision clears and the electricity is off. They turn off the recording device.
Bucky leans his head against the machine, panting for some reason, as they hit buttons. A minute later, his own voice is played back for him.
“Schalten sie es aus!” his voice yells. Something icy slides down his spine. “Ich werde ihnen sagen, was sie wissen wollen! Stoppen sie das! Das!”
That night, the goons are especially quiet as they move around his cell. They think he can eavesdrop, he realizes, but the honest truth is that he understands maybe one word in twenty. And that’s even after spending seven…eight…God knows how many months trapped here. It might even be a year.
It doesn’t explain what had happened on that recording device. What are they doing to him, he wonders, that that came out of him? The electricity machine does something strange to him, makes him lose track of time and sensation, but it’s not wholly different from his ability to do that on his own when he’s screaming in the wake of a nightmare and they plunge his head under water to shut him up. He can make himself go away for that, too.
To his knowledge, he’s never started speaking in tongues before. But it happens, right? Pentecost and all that?
They’re trying to teach him German. He doesn’t quite follow the logic. Are they trying to make him German? Make him work for Schmidt and Hitler and Hydra? Because that’s not happening; Steve will kill him first, and he’s grateful for it.
For the first time, he wonders if the war is still going on. It’s been a while, and things were looking good for the Allied forces when he fell.
Maybe they’ve won.
Maybe they’ve lost.
Except, he realizes when a goon grabs his wrist dangling from the bars of the cell and wrenches his arm back inside, they sounded confused. Karpov, especially, was confused. Is the language thing some sort of unforeseen side effect?
And why would Karpov want to make him German? Karpov is clearly Russian, and he’s also clearly not beloved among the Hydra goons. Is he trying to make Bucky Russian? The Russians are on the Allied side, not that that means anything when there’s clearly some partnership between the two still existing in Hydra.
The goon thrusts a piece of bread through the bars and drops it; it lands face-down on the ground, sticking with the gluey protein paste it’s spread with. He picks it up and eats it, and then ignores their jeering when he wipes up the remaining protein goop with his finger and eats that too.
He searches his mind for the German words to tell them off. He comes up with nothing.
“What are you trying to do to me?” Bucky asks the next time he’s strapped into the machine. Karpov seems neither pleased nor disappointed with the project thus far, though very, very curious.
“That’s not a question for you to ask,” Karpov responds. He adjusts the plate that goes over Bucky’s forehead.
“I’m not going to fight for you. Whatever you’re doing, you send me out into the fight, and Captain America will take me down,” he says confidently.
Karpov’s lips twitch.
“Captain America, still? He died nine months ago, kotyonok.” Bucky shudders and looks up at Karpov with wide eyes. He positively beams back. “I would not lie to you. He is dead. I suppose I have not kept you up with current events. And, incidentally, you have won the war. Congratulations; not that it has any matter on what we do here.”
Bucky feels his chest constrict. Steve can’t be dead. If the war is over, Steve has to be back home with Agent Carter. Nine months…that’s enough time for a baby. Steve has to be in the States with Carter and a baby on the way, ink still drying on the marriage license. If that’s true, then Bucky died for all the right reasons.
If it’s not…
“No,” he growls. The feral note in his voice disguises the brokenness. “No. He’s not dead. He’s unkillable.”
“We certainly wondered after we found you still alive. And Zola didn’t even come close to Erskine’s work. But, in fact, he is not match for a…what was it, a plane crash?”
Hot tears prick the corner of Bucky’s eyes.
“No,” he continues to insist. Karpov sighs.
“Go get the telegram,” he tells a goon. The black figure leaves and comes back with a brittle half-sheet of paper. Karpov holds it in front of Bucky and his eyes blur the words before he focuses and remembers how to read them.
“CAPTAIN AMERICA DEAD IN ATLANTIC STOP SCHMIDT KILLED PLANE DOWN NUKES FAILED STOP CONTINUE EFFORTS TO BRAINWASH SERUM RECIPIENT THREE STOP”
“This is a lie,” Bucky says through gritted teeth. “This is a fucking bullshit lie cooked up by-”
One of the goons steps forward with a blunt cane, not unlike a police man’s nightstick, and clubs Bucky upside the head. He can’t move away because he’s already strapped in.
“NO,” he screams. The man steps forward again and hits Bucky between the legs.
“Quiet him down,” Karpov tells the man. He winds up and smashes it into Bucky’s chest and lungs, and he feels like his sternum is shattering.
Then he wakes up in his cell. His chest is fine. He’s wearing a different shirt. And a Hydra goon is standing at his cell and speaking to him in German.
The black figure goes away as Bucky looks around and tries to figure out how he got here, and a minute later, Karpov comes to the cell.
“Who are you?” he asks. Bucky blinks.
“I’ve been your prisoner for nine months,” he says slowly. Is this a trick?
“The American is back,” Karpov calls behind him.
Apparently, Karpov and the goons are curious enough to want Bucky’s thoughts on the matter. They sit him down on a stool in a lab where he’s never been, and set up a projector.
They show him footage of himself curled into a ball in his cell, which Bucky only does when he’s sleeping. The Bucky in the footage is awake, though.
“Was ist dein Name?” one of the goons asks him on the reel.
“Mein Name ist Axel,” movie-Bucky replies.
Bucky thinks he can translate those phrases; for the other ten minutes of dialogue, however, he’s lost. He sees himself and hears himself, but he has no idea what’s coming out of his mouth in the footage even though he logically knows that he said those things.
“What do you think?” Karpov asks him when they finish the viewing. Bucky shrugs.
“You’re the one messing with my head.”
“You are not familiar with Axel?”
“Axel?” Bucky repeats. He thinks he knows the answer to his next question, but, “Who is Axel?”
“That was Axel,” Karpov says pointing to the projection screen. “Axel has been visiting with us for a week. Ever since Barnes learned that his friend was dead.” Bucky tries to get up, and one of the goons punches him in the stomach. He doesn’t want to talk or think about this. He needs time to grieve. Put him back in the cell.
“But you say Axel is not known to you?” Karpov inquires, rubbing his chin.
“I don’t know any Axels,” Bucky responds.
Karpov stands up and waves his hand to indicate that Bucky can go back.
“Then we have found something very interesting. It isn’t what we hoped, perhaps. But it may still prove fruitful.”
It’s hard to tell when he loses time and the thing happens. He refuses to believe he’s actually becoming a different person in that time. But he starts to test it. He makes marks on his body with his nails and teeth, and even though he heals very quickly, they sometimes disappear outright, and he knows that he’s lost some time.
Whenever he’s strapped in the chair, he wakes up somewhere else. Whenever Karpov pushes him to his knees or takes him somewhere away from the goons, he wakes up without remembering the end of it.
If there really is an Axel, he’s helping Bucky out. He can’t even hate the fact that he’s apparently sharing…what? A body? A brain?
Whatever is happening, Axel shows up more and more during events that Bucky would rather not live through. He’s put up with them for so long, and now, finally, a tiny form of salvation has come. He gets to sleep through his torture and rape, and wake up mostly healed.
He feels bad for Axel though. If Axel is actually, and this is a weird thing to think, a sentient personality, then Bucky knows exactly how he feels.
The first time that Bucky questions not Axel’s existence, but his motivations, is when Karpov pushes him against the tiled wall of the room where they hose him down periodically. He parts the globes of Bucky’s ass and rubs a wet finger against his hole.
Bucky shuts his eyes and tries to call up Axel. Perhaps because he’s consciously trying to black out, it doesn’t work. His breath leaves him sharply as Karpov pushes inside.
“Unclench, kotyonok,” he commands gently.
“Shit,” Bucky says to release some of the tension. Karpov’s hands freeze on him.
“Barnes. Interesting. I was expecting Axel.”
“Maybe Axel is tired of being molested,” Bucky bites out because he’s thrown off-balance by the pain and the disgust. Karpov threads his fingers through Bucky’s long hair and uses the grip to slam Bucky’s head into the tile.
“Axel is much better at this than you are,” Karpov tells him like he thinks Bucky will actually care. “He likes it.”
Without having met the guy, Bucky is almost positive that Axel doesn’t like this. After all, they share a brain and a body in some form or another. They have to have some things in common, and the fat that being violated by Karpov is a degrading, vile thing seems like it would be a universal bad.
What is Axel doing? Bucky wishes, for the first time, that they could communicate. In order to do that, however, he probably has to understand what Axel is first.
Axel certainly has more freedoms than Bucky. He starts waking up outside his cell. He’s sitting at a table with some Hydra goons and eating actual meat. He’s in a shower – a real shower – and the water is warm. He’s sitting on a chair that’s suddenly appeared in the cell.
It’s obvious that everyone likes Axel better than Bucky. Karpov likes his responsiveness, as he describes to Bucky in great detail; the Hydra goons like that he’s German and apparently a model prisoner.
He never back talks (which Bucky still can’t help sometimes).
He combs his hair with his fingers and makes an effort to look like a clean person (which Bucky doesn’t bother with).
He jokes and tells stories and gambles with the Hydra goons (which Bucky obviously doesn’t do, the extent of their relationship being a contest to see who can knock him out the most).
Bucky gets majorly depressed around the one-year point in his captivity. Apart from still being a prisoner and not being dead yet, he thinks he’s sharing his body with a Hydra enthusiast.
Bucky wakes up one day and he’s outside. Wind is blowing on his face.
He thinks he’s still in the cell at first, but then he realizes that the metal bars around him belong to a fire escape.
He sees stars above like the last time he was outside.
He bolts upright and looks around. He doesn’t have any weapons or any bags. Checking his pockets, he finds that they’re full of bread. There’s a bottle of water on the fire escape with him, half-empty, along with a light gray shirt.
He looks down at his chest and discovers that he’s wearing a dark gray shirt. He’s never had more than two shirts at a time throughout his captivity. Something catches his eye on the shirt, and he prods at it to see that it’s red.
After he takes a gulp of water, he un-wads the shirt and a bloody nail falls out of the folds.
“We escaped,” is written in large, messy lines on the shirt’s front. The message is written in blood.
He feels a faint sting at his ankle, and lifts the cuff of his pants to see a very recent scab.
Axel’s written the message in their own blood. It’s ingenious. But what is he thinking; Axel fucking escaped. Bucky’s tried, of course, but he’s never come close. Axel did it. Fuck that model prisoner bullshit, Bucky laughs hysterically, Axel got them out.
He has no clue where he is, so he jumps off the fire escape and takes the bloodied shirt and the nearly-empty bottle with him. He walks around the dimly-lit streets and sees signs in what he thinks is Russian. Unfortunately, neither he nor the other person living in his body are fluent in Russian, he’s guessing.
He heads in the direction that he thinks the train station is, and he feels exhausted already. Axel probably hadn’t been asleep long before Bucky resurfaced. Damn, he wants to know how they got out.
Actually, he has a lot of very pertinent questions. Are they running to Russia or from Russia? Where have they been for the past year? What was Axel’s plan after curling up on the fire escape?
Bucky nibbles on a crust of bread as he finds the train station. Of course, they don’t have any money, so he waits in the dark for a slow-moving train to pass his hiding spot and then he jumps and grabs for the ladder attached to a car.
He travels for hours, the wind cold against his face and snow drifting from the sky for a few minutes before stopping and then starting over again. He’s in a thin shirt and thin pants, but he barely feels the chill.
He knows that traveling for hours in Russia doesn’t get you very far on the map, but he’s anxious to try the first bigger city they barrel through. He jumps off the car, getting a brief flash of déjà vu about the last time he’d fallen off a train, and hits the ground at a run.
He has no idea how close he is to Hydra, or how far away. But in a bigger city, hopefully, there will be ways to earn money, and that will give him a way to get back to America.
Back to America. It doesn’t seem real. For the first time in a while, he wonders if he’s dead. The idea that purgatory might be clinging to a moving train in the Russian winter doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
In this scenario, he knows exactly where and what heaven is. Heaven is an apartment, or, no Steve has Army money now. Heaven is a house in Brooklyn with Steve and Agent Carter and there’s no way they don’t have at least one baby by now. And Bucky knows that Steve won’t mind if he stays there for a while to shake off the year of hell. Steve might even have a guest room with Bucky’s name on it.
“Steve’s dead,” he reminds himself sadly before he can spiral out too far. “Steve’s not in Brooklyn. He’s in the fucking ocean because you weren’t there to watch him.”
It’s nice to think of his little Heaven all the same. If they’re both dead, what’s to stop if from coming true?
Bucky picks pockets, which is a shitty thing to do, but he’s a hoodrat from Brooklyn deep down and of course he knows the technique. Unfortunately, no one’s wallet or purse has much money in it. Bucky’s knowledge of Russian isn’t vast, but he’d make an educated guess to say that their economy sort of blows right now.
He scrapes enough cash together to buy more food (which is even harder to steal and more preciously guarded), shoes, and a train ticket to Krakow, which he knows is in Poland.
Sitting on the train, barely anyone gives him a second look despite the fact that he’s still not dressed weather-appropriately and has exactly one arm. Everyone seems so beaten-down and concerned with their own problems that he’s not attracting any suspicious glances.
Bucky knows that he’s going to have to sleep eventually, but he’d prefer to be in Poland before he chances it. The adrenaline’s been riding him hard for hundreds of miles and multiple days, and he pushes himself to stay focused.
The train slows down when they get to the border of Poland, and people around Bucky start stirring and mumbling. He’s not sure what the political situation is, but if he’s going to be asked for some sort of paperwork or identification, then it’s time for him to disappear.
He gets out of his seat and heads for the lavatory when lights on the train flicker and then cut out. The passengers collectively gasp, and some children start crying. Bucky’s always had good instincts, and right now, his instincts are telling him to get the hell out of there.
Abandoning the lavatory plan, he makes for the first window he finds and fumbles with it in the dark. It doesn’t help that the sky outside is also pitch black.
He decides, fuck it, and pulls his fist back to punch through the glass. Someone behind him grabs his arm, and he feels the prick of a needle against the back of his neck.
“Sie haben uns sehr viel Mühe gemacht,” someone says as Bucky’s eyes roll into his head and he collapses forward, breaking the window anyway.
He wakes up. He’s strapped to the table.
Apparently purgatory was just a fever dream.
“I am very cross with you, kotyonok,” Karpov tells him from the corner of the room. “This is not acceptable.”
Bucky opens his mouth to retort, and then catches himself. He thinks of Axel’s cleverness in pretending to follow the rules and kissing up to the goons. Bucky can’t stomach the same routine, but it inspires him nonetheless.
“What happened?” he asks. Karpov approaches him and frowns. “Did he do something?”
Karpov opens and closes his mouth several times. He seems to scrutinize Bucky closely.
“You are telling me it was all Axel?” he asks.
‘Sorry, man,’ Bucky thinks to himself. ‘I’ll go next. Sorry for getting you in trouble.’ Then he wonders if Axel can actually hear him. He can’t hear Axel; how does this work?
Because the escape that Bucky truly did not mastermind, as much as he ran with it once he got his head in the game, has convinced him that Axel is real and crafty and something that isn’t going away. He’s something that Bucky can use. They can become allies, because they both want the same thing.
To get out.
“What was Axel?” he asks, letting the grogginess from the drugs show in his voice.
“The fact that we found you on the border of Poland,” Karpov says through clenched teeth. Bucky lets his face show surprise.
“Uh, not me. I guess he was trying to get to Germany. Cause he’s, I guess German, right? As much as someone who lives in an American’s body can be.” He stops himself from rambling before he gives it away.
“Of the two of you, you are the one I would expect to attempt an escape,” Karpov says. Bucky’s bitter laugh is real.
“Where would I go?” he asks. It seems to get through to Karpov.
“Yes, where would you go?” he asks meanly. He chuckles. “Well, we will have to watch Herr Axel more closely. You may go back to your cell,” he says as he snaps his fingers and two Hydra goons come forward to unstrap him.
“Can I have some paper?” Bucky asks as he swings his feet to the floor.
“Why?” Karpov sounds bored, probably already thinking of ways to make Axel scream.
“I want to write to Axel,” Bucky says, remembering the note on the shirt. While he was clinging to the train, he realized that it means Axel can speak English.
“No,” Karpov dismisses him.
“You’ll obviously be able to read them; they’ll be in plain sight. I just,” Bucky hesitates. “I need to find out who’s in my head.”
After studying him for several moments, Karpov nods. “Interesting. I had not considered that. I suppose you may write to him with supervision.”
Whatever weird science project this in turning into for his jailer, Bucky doesn’t care. He needs to learn about Axel. Their cooperation is likely the only chance they have of getting out of here. And now that he’s had a taste, he wants to get out of here. He’s ready to risk his life again for the chance.
The Hydra goons bring a single sheet of paper and a crayon to his cell that night. They titter as they hand the materials over, and Bucky ignores them. He sharpens the red crayon using his teeth, getting wax mixed in with whatever else is trapped between his teeth.
He spits out a gob of waxy saliva, and it looks like blood.
He takes his time thinking about what to write, and when he finally decides, he picks up the crayon in his right hand.
Shit; the mechanics of this are already screwing him over. He can’t write with his right hand, especially after going more than a year without writing a single thing. The thickness and slipperiness of the crayon itself further complicates his task.
‘Axel,’ he painstakingly writes. ‘This is Bucky. Heard you tried to escape. Sorry it didn’t work. Hope your English is good.’
It feels like he’s sending a telegram, but he can’t bother with flowery language or even subjects in some of his sentences.
He sleeps and wakes up unchanged twice, and on the third time, Axel slips back. When Bucky floats to the top again, he sees that Axel has written a message back.
Surprisingly, Axel appears to be right-handed, and doesn’t scribble like a child. Bucky flushes.
‘Bucky,’ the words say. 'I speak English. Sorry for the escape – did not mean to get you in any trouble. Do you know what is happening to us?”
Bucky’s heart races. He turns the paper over to the back, because he can’t fit his scrawl into the bottom of the paper.
‘I got captured a year ago. Prisoner of war. Being kept here and tortured.’ He sorts his thoughts out and then continues. ‘Karpov trying to brainwash me I think. Created you instead. Sorry for all.’ He underlines ‘all’ several times, trying to convey how apologetic it is that Axel has to live this life alongside Bucky.
Sometime later, there’s more writing on the paper. He notices that whenever he loses time now, he wakes up with bruising and scabs. Apparently Axel isn’t the favorite anymore
‘Karpov told me. Think they were trying to make you a weapon. That helped make me, but not the only thing. Ask Karpov about split personality. Tut mir Leid für deinen Schmerz.’
Bucky spends nearly a week convincing one of the Hydra goons to translate Axel’s message to him.
“It says, ‘I am sorry for your suffering,’” the goon tells him. Bucky rubs his fingers over the words and thinks that he finally has someone else to live for again.