His heart fails four times before they stop. He desperately pushes away the dizziness that hits each time it happens, the faintheaded lack of oxygen that makes him weak at the knees. He knows better than to let it show. But there’s no way to control his fall as he loses consciousness, or the spasms of his arms and legs as they jolt him awake with the cattle prod and kick his belly as he lies curled on his side. Once, he thinks they drag him out of the street and into a shed to await pick up when the heart inside him fails, but it’s hazy. It might have been the only time he made it long enough to be sent outside the facility.
Mostly he remembers the surgeries, them cutting his chest open. He remembers their hands on his beating heart. It hurts.
They punish him for his failure. Electricity courses through him, great currents that make his flesh-and-blood heart stutter and stop and burst back alive with the next volt. “See how weak this heart is,” Zola tells him, smiling at him from above. “You must accept what we give you. You must rise above your frailties, Soldier. You have a mission.”
In early 2015, just before Captain America moves back to New York from DC, Bucky slips across the Atlantic, chasing his mission. He finds Captain America in the Ukraine, engaging a HYDRA cell.
The Captain’s body as he fights is fluid, the awkward edges that Bucky remembers all bled off and smoothed even. Bucky breathes out, feels the blood pool around his heart and spread back hotly through his body. Then he grabs one of the guns off his back and starts taking out the agents headed toward the Captain.
Bucky whirls with his knife against anyone who comes at him, but his attention is focused on the Captain, who’s fighting ten men in close quarters. This is annoying, if only because it seems typical of the man. Bucky knows he’s had arguments with him about this before.
Once he’s killed most of the HYDRA agents and the Captain’s incapacitated the rest, the Falcon looks between them and says, “I’ll check the perimeter.” He points at Bucky. “Don’t make me regret this, man.”
Bucky doesn’t acknowledge him. He stares at Cap’s chest and says, “Give it back.”
The heart-scar used to be a secret thing, hidden under clothes, a promise that only you and your loved one and your doctor knew. Bucky saw some of the changes as they happened but wasn’t exactly cognizant of them. Now celebrities broadcast their scars for the world to see, and millions of selfies are posted every day. Some wear it as a status symbol; others, vain, refuse to ever give their heart to someone else because of the scar it leaves.
Hipsters at a coffee shop argue about the cut like it’s just another thing you do. “So overrated,” says one. “Like love lasts long enough to even make it worthwhile.” His words are muffled as he bends down to adjust the cuff of his pants.
“I’d do it.” A kid in tweed stares at his phone and rapidly texts while he’s talking. “Told Bobbi we were here. Why is she always late?”
Bucky hunches in the corner of the shop, steadying his hands against a thick paper cup. Long sleeves cover his arms. He tucks his left hand under the table.
Captain America’s apartment in Tribeca is a small brick building wedged between two gleaming new high rises. The one on the west side isn’t completed. There’s a lot of construction going on in this neighborhood, cranes breaking the bones of old New York and cementing them back together in new patterns. Bucky’s spent more than a few nights in the half-finished condo next to Cap’s place since Cap moved north a month ago.
Before leaving DC, Cap had stopped by Sam’s house to tell him not to be a stranger. Bucky lay on Sam’s roof, lurking near the front door. He’d heard Sam say to him that he was surprised Cap had lasted as long as he had in Washington, even with Agent Carter there. “It’s been almost a year since the mess with SHIELD came out.”
Cap had smiled, sort of, as he stood on the front steps. It’s not how Bucky remembers him smiling. “Thought maybe Buck would show back up here and stick around.” He’d shrugged. “New York’s home, though. If he’s going to show, he might just as well there.”
Sam had leaned against his front door. “You know, you might try staying home long enough for him to do that sticking around. Just a suggestion.” He looked hard at Cap. Bucky followed his eyes to the stubborn expression on Cap’s face. “Yeah, thought so,” Sam said. He held out his hand. “You know you always got a place here when you need it.” Cap took his hand and pulled him into a tight hug.
Here in New York, it’s nighttime and the sky would be filled with stars if this were not the city. Cap is sitting on the rusty fire escape outside his open bedroom window. Bucky disapproves. Anyone could get inside in the late March night. Blue light from Cap’s phone gleams up in the dark. He stares down at it long after the screen has gone dim, long after Bucky has silently swung himself up onto the metal platform in front of him.
Bucky fists his hands at his sides to hide the tremors that seize them. When he has rested and eaten, they lessen more day by day as he fights through the lingering effects of withdrawal. He has not rested or eaten, however.
Cap is staring at him. Bucky stares back. “You didn’t tell the Falcon you had a mission today,” he states flatly.
“Bucky,” Cap breathes out. The word hangs between them in the cold, like a suspended gasp, before it falls away. In the nighttime light, his face should be shadowed and unreadable, but it is not. He looks like he wants to reach out and is struggling fiercely not to.
Bucky narrows his eyes. “You were not built to go on missions alone. If you insist on going after every HYDRA cell you can find, you have to take someone.” Bucky’s got blood crusted on his clothes from just a few hours ago. It’s not his. Cap’s not squeamish about killing, but he’ll look for another way to meet his objectives first, if there’s time and a choice. Bucky doesn’t feel the same way.
Cap has that mulish look, so similar to the first expression Bucky ever saw on his face that his heart jolts against his breastbone. He crouches down to eye level with Cap and slowly puts a hand on his knee.
“There are other things you could do. Buy a camera like you always wanted. Take photos and open a gallery. Take all that strategy that’s in your head and use your art skills to design something. Go to
school, be an architect. Something other than this.”
Cap is barely breathing. He can’t seem to take his eyes off Bucky’s hand where it touches his knee. Bucky doesn’t follow his eyes down. He doesn’t need to. Cap’s body gives off heat that seeps into his bones.
“You remember – what else do you remember?” Cap asks him. His voice sounds strained.
Bucky shakes his head. He remembers too much. He says to Cap, “If you’re doing this to draw me out, you need to stop. If you’re doing this in retribution for whatever happened to me, you need to stop that, too.”
“I can’t,” Cap tells him.
There’s a warm touch on Bucky’s hands, and he flinches minutely. He’s startled to find both of his hands on Cap’s thighs as he crouches in front of him on the stairs. The Captain has rested his hands over the back of Bucky’s, not gripping, just a light touch. He wonders if Cap saw the tremors that run through them. They’re still now. He says, “Let someone else deal with it.”
Cap swallows. “When have you ever seen me let someone else deal with it?”
Bucky’s chest burns. He pulls his hands back and curls one over the great scar bisecting his chest. Even though he can’t see or feel it through the two layers he’s wearing, he knows exactly where it begins.
He turns away.
After he’s dropped down from the fire escape, for a long time he feels the phantom warmth of the Captain’s hands where they covered his. He huddles in his blanket on the concrete floor of the half-constructed building fifty feet from Cap’s apartment and tries to still the shaking of his hands.
“Per istam sanctan unctionem, indúlgeat tibi Dóminus quidquid,” the priest intones. Bucky’s Latin isn’t all that good, but this is the third time he’s heard this service, and Mrs. Rogers’s bowed head says enough anyway.
He repeats the words in his mind as he crosses himself. “Through this holy unction, may God forgive all sins you have committed.” Lying in his bed beside Bucky’s chair, Steve breathes wet and heavy. His body is slight against the carefully mended sheets.
Much later, while walking through Central Park, Bucky says to him, “Did you say a prayer for me, Steve? When I fell?”
Bucky thinks about himself as the man he should be now: frail, made of brittle bones hung together in a shriveled onionskin sack of flesh. He missed Rebecca by mere months. She’s cold now in her grave, and the last thing she knew about her brother was that he didn’t die after all, but rather became the agent of death. He goes to visit her one November afternoon six months after she’s buried. The sky is bullet grey and unhappy in the neatly organized cemetery. Rain is coming. His hand twitches.
He shoves his hands in his pockets – his ma would have yanked them out and smacked them for showing such disrespect – and looks at Becca’s headstone. He doesn’t say anything to Captain America, even though he’s not sure how the Captain knew to follow him here. It’s been over eight months since Bucky pulled him from the river. He lets him stand there, just behind him, even though he doesn’t like it when people stand behind him.
Captain America says ruefully, “Everyone thinks that when we were kids, people just died all the time. Death wasn’t close until we went to war. It hung out in the peripheries. Even with my mom and her TB, she was the only one in the whole neighborhood that died that year.”
Bucky used to imagine coming home to his little sister after the war. How she’d cry and throw her arms around him. He used to imagine coming home to Steve. He imagined the relief of seeing Steve whole and breathing a thousand times. He’d throw an arm around him and yank Steve to his side the way Steve always hated, only because he barely reached Bucky’s shoulder. Steve would slide a new slip of paper into Bucky’s pocket to replace the one that he’d frayed to pieces over in Europe, and once they got home, Bucky would lay his head over Steve’s chest, listen to the stuttering beat of his heart, and shut out the world for as long as it would let him.
This isn’t what happens.
“Here,” Captain America says. He steps forward and places a key on Becca’s tombstone. “So you don’t have to live in some alleyway or abandoned building all winter long.” He clears his throat. “It’s going to get cold.”
Some long-forgotten reflex in Bucky wants to point out that he’s not the one who needs to worry about the cold, but Captain America doesn’t exactly need to, either. Bucky keeps his mouth shut and watches the Captain lay a bouquet of daisies on Becca’s grave.
What happens, of course, is that Steve takes the serum, gets big, and invades Austria to rescue him. All the history books agree on this. Captain America pulls him off that table and fights their way past Schmidt’s horrifying red skullface, and doesn’t see the scientist’s beady eyes peering out of the walls or feel the cold touch of his clinical hand brushing past them as they go.
Bucky walks back to American lines with Captain America at his side. He doesn’t know why he’s walking – they broke his left leg and dug out a chunk of muscle on his right thigh. Back at base, he refuses to see the medic. He has no new scars on his back where they cut over and over, shallow cuts, deep cuts, cuts that screamed while they stood with their watches making notes on crisp paper. There is no burn of drugs in his body or needle marks left on his arms. His flesh is smooth beneath the blood crusted in too many places. The only pain he feels is in his chest, beneath an old scar.
Captain America is greeted by a British woman. Agent Carter, he calls her. Her uniform is pressed and her lips are red and her hair is curled, and she looks at the Captain like she knows Steve.
Cap lasts six months in Tribeca. Then he moves home to Brooklyn, and somewhere between Tribeca and Brooklyn, Cap becomes Steve again. The first time Bucky swings himself up onto Steve’s fire escape at his new apartment in Brooklyn, he says, “Budge over. You take up too much space.” Sometimes it surprises him how easily the words come, filling the space mindlessly until something jolts him out of the old patterns.
“Hey, Buck. Coulda used the front door.” Steve knocks his shoulder against Bucky once he sits down. It’s just the way he would have before, but for the split second hesitation before he does it. Bucky smiles cheerlessly and looks out over the nighttime glow of the neighborhood. The sides of their thighs press together. The late summer humidity sucks at Bucky’s skin.
“I didn’t know if you’d show up,” Steve confesses.
“Didn’t know if I would, either.”
“I’m glad you did.”
Steve always sounds so sincere. Bucky sits forward and rests his arms on his knees. “How long have you been sitting out here waiting?” He shakes his head. “No, stupid question. Look, here’s a thought. Maybe I wouldn’t have to keep showing up if you wouldn’t do dumbass shit like taking on an active HYDRA cell with only Sam at your back, no matter how good he is.” He turns to look back. Steve’s face is less than a foot away. The space feels tight.
“At least I’ve been taking Sam,” Steve tries to joke weakly. Bucky pins him with a hard glare, and Steve drops the light façade. “We both died to take out HYDRA. Do you think I’m going to let it go now?”
“Did you ever stop to think there’s pretty much nothing HYDRA would like better than to get their hands on Captain America?” Bucky shifts his weight imperceptibly toward Steve. “What a catch you would be.” His voice has gone low in the dark night.
Steve is very still. Heat radiates from his body. “No,” he says, and Bucky grits his teeth together. “But I did stop to think that the one thing they’d like even more than Captain America is the Winter Soldier.” He’s twisting his entire torso so that he can face Bucky. “And I’m leading you right to them. Because you keep following me. Sometimes I think you should stay away from me.” His voice is deep and quiet, a little raspy.
Bucky lays a finger over his lips with a tiny, wry smile. He steps through the open window into the apartment to exit through the front door. On his way out, he grabs a small sketch from the edge of the table where Steve’s left it.
He doesn’t actively go looking for newspapers – there’s enough to sort through in his own head without bringing more stuff into it – but in those first months while he’s curled up in decaying buildings and shaking off the effects of the drug, there’s no way to avoid the entire world. It’s so present in 2014, constantly making itself known. Some articles are about him and the contents of the files that the Widow loosed on an ignorant world, others are more mundane.
“Sarasota teen in coma after brutal heart-rejection: can boyfriend be brought up on charges?” one reads. The article goes on to question if the boyfriend’s failure to call emergency services after the girl fainted with her heart still in her hand constituted willful neglect. Mostly the article focuses on the carelessness of kids these days. It warns of infection and unnecessary trauma resulting from using dull, unsterilized kitchen knives to make the cut.
Bucky considers this. He remembers Susan Jones. Every kid in his neighborhood growing up knew what had happened to her.
But he also stumbles on a piece in the New Yorker from the previous year about stories the journalist’s grandmother had told him, of how back in the old days, back in the old country, before the craze where every dating couple felt like they had to hand over their hearts, it was something rare and sacred to entrust your heart to another person. People died over it.
He looks down at his chest. He thinks of the way a knife felt in his palm, long before the US Army and HYDRA put one there. The knife wasn’t quite sharp enough, perhaps.
Bucky never used that key that Cap left on his sister’s tombstone. He doesn’t use the one Cap leaves on his sketchpad, either, on top of a little drawing signed with Steve’s initials, but he still makes his way into the apartment. At first, he does it when Cap’s not around. Slowly, he begins to stay when Cap comes back. He sits at the kitchen table and lets Cap make him a sandwich, eats Thai delivery and plays on his Starkphone while Cap reads or watches TV on the couch, sits in a defensible corner on the floor and stares at a blank wall for hours while Cap tries not to hover. He sleeps, sometimes, on the floor beside the couch.
It’s July when Cap decides to move out of the city back into Brooklyn. Bucky spends a morning trailing him around Brooklyn as he looks for a new apartment. He buys two ice creams from a food truck and waits for Bucky to lunge forward and snatch the second one out of his hand. He licks the melted trail of chocolate from his skin.
Bucky looks away and eats his cone. He agrees to accompany Cap back to the Tower for a meeting some of the Avengers are having. It’s the easiest way to get intel on what Cap will be doing over the next few months. Cap will tell him, of course, but he’ll edit. Bucky doesn’t like that. He doesn’t want pieces of Cap’s life; he wants to know everything.
Cap’s face lights up when Bucky agrees to come with him. Bucky tilts his head. “I didn’t think you wanted me there. It’ll be strange going in the front door.”
This makes Cap frown. “Bucky,” he says slowly, “have you gotten in some other way?”
Bucky shoots him a disbelieving look. “You’re my mission.” He bends over and reties his boot lace. “Let’s take the train in.”
As they sit down at the large table in the middle of a glass-paneled room, Cap frowns at Natasha. “Nat, stop looking at him like that. He’s not going to snap.”
Natasha doesn’t blink. On the other side of the table, she keeps her hands at her sides, out of view.
“It’s for your benefit,” Bucky tells him. “She wants you to see her look at me like that so you’re not too careless around me.” He swivels suddenly and stares at her.
“You ought to know better, Natasha,” he tells her. “We were crafted for things more precise than uncontrolled violence. We are the nightmares and myths that live in the shadows, not monsters of explosive rage. вы забыли все, что я учил вас? Have you forgotten so soon everything I taught you?”
His smile is mirthless. Her face is calm, without expression.
Beside him, Steve’s shoulders are drawn tight.
The first time he ends up at Stark’s skyscraper to have his arm fixed, Stark takes one look at the long, angry scar on his chest and whistles. “You must have been one hell of a lovebug.”
Granted, it took him five days to reach Stark’s workshop after he’d first infiltrated the tower. He’d made it into the living quarters, albeit unused ones, before some sort of gas knocked him out. “My apologies, Sergeant Barnes,” a smooth voice said as he woke up. His eyes felt like they’d been wiped with grit, but he snapped himself alert immediately. There was no one in the room. He’d been moved into some sort of holding cell. “My name is JARVIS,” the voice said. “You are quite secure here, I’m afraid, although you should feel welcome to explore for any exits. You did make it much further than anyone else has into my Tower. However, Sir designed this to contain the Hulk. In the meantime, if I can make your stay more comfortable, please do not hesitate to let me know.”
Bucky’s still not sure why Stark decided to let him out of the Hulk room, much less actually help him. He’s four days past when his arm really should have been examined, and it’s sending striping flares of pain into his shoulder and neck now as the plates grate over one another every time he moves.
He stays still, as much as he can when spasmodic quivers still wrack his body.
“I realize that your arm is painful. Is there a way to turn it off for the time being?” JARVIS asks. Bucky doesn’t understand why the voice in the ceiling is concerned with this until he realizes that JARVIS thinks the pain of the malfunctioning arm is causing his tremors. Bucky doesn’t bother correcting him.
The drug has worn off now – it’s been over five months since he broke free of HYDRA – and he remembers almost everything. This is the first time he’s been back to New York. Captain America’s in DC, planning a trip to Amsterdam to capture and hand over to the authorities a man named Pieter Vissar. Bucky had figured this out three days ago and simply handled the matter himself. It was just quicker that way, if a bit messier. He needed to be in New York to get to Tony Stark, who as far as he can tell is one of the few people not affiliated with HYDRA who might be able to fix his arm.
He knows there are pieces of his brain that don’t function quite right, not after the pathways had been seared away against even the healing power of whatever they’d injected him with. They’d stopped this kind of experimentation after they realized they were causing permanent damage that might impair his abilities as a weapon. They’d become subtler in their devices, physical pain giving way to punishment and reward.
Once the scientist had developed Z-325 and gotten the chair and cryo tank to a useable stage, his handlers hadn’t needed many other drugs. Z-325 took care of many things. Bucky’s body burned through it quickly. He grew used to the injections, given to him constantly lest he remember things he shouldn’t, things that have all rushed back into his head now.
His entire body shakes as he thinks about Z-325.
Tony Stark looks like Howard. Bucky last saw Howard on the side of the highway coughing up blood, his mangled car on top of his equally mangled body. There was a woman with him, Maria Stark, the mission intel said, and her eyes were soft and warm in a tired, alcohol-harsh face. Her neck was twisted at an odd angle. It was too late to matter that metal impaled her body.
Bucky had walked over to the car to ensure his mission was complete. Howard blinked up at him.
In Tony Stark’s workshop, Bucky blinks.
Steve’s mother had a box. She kept it on a shelf that was over her narrow bed.
Steve stood with his hands balled on his hips and stared up at it. He was too short to pull it down, so they’d dragged over one of the two wooden kitchen chairs and climbed up together. Even for an eight and a nine year old, it was a tight squeeze, and looking back, Bucky figures it was probably inevitable that they’d go tumbling down.
“Ouch,” Bucky exclaimed, rubbing his knee.
Steve rolled his eyes. “You’re such a crybaby.”
“I’m not a baby!” Bucky pushed Steve and scrambled over him to reach the box, now lying on its side on the bed. “Let’s see what’s in it.”
Steve scoffed. “Don’t be stupid. It’s a promise box. My grandfather gave it to my grandmother before they got married.”
Bucky wrinkled his nose. “What’s the point of a box that doesn’t have anything in it?”
“No, look at it,” Steve said. They settled themselves on the bed and crossed their legs. “There are hearts painted all over it.” He traced one with his finger. “See? It’s like saying that the person you give the box to is holding your heart. And if you actually do give someone your heart, then you can put it in here for safekeeping while you do it.”
Bucky took the box and turned it over in his hands. It was kind of pretty, he guessed. But, “I bet you could draw something better.”
The tips of Steve’s ears went pink. “Nah,” he said.
“Wouldn’t you die if you left your heart in a box?” Bucky asked skeptically.
Steve laughed. “No one actually does that, jeez. You have to be really quick about the whole thing, can’t just leave your heart in a box. My mother says that the box is –” He fumbled around for the word. “Symbolic,” he finished. His eyes lit up. “She says that the people who lived when Queen Victoria was alive were interested in doodads like this.”
A sulfur-laden breeze wafted in the open window. Someone shouted in Italian on the street below. “You think you’ll ever give your heart to someone, Stevie?”
Steve looked at his hands. “Don’t know why I’d want to. Don’t suppose anyone would ever want my heart anyway. It’s not very good.”
Bucky frowned. “I’d take it,” he said stoutly. “If it would make you not sick anymore.”
“I don’t think that’s why you’re supposed to do it, Bucky,” Steve said slowly.
“Well, I’m not planning on falling in love with any girls,” Bucky told him, the disgust plain in his voice.
Mrs. Rogers popped her head around the doorframe and smiled tiredly at them. She’d just gotten home from work and was still in her white nursing uniform. “You just wait until you’re a little older, James Barnes. You’re going to grow up to be a big hit with the ladies. The both of you are.”
Steve and Bucky glanced at each other sideways. “Yes, Mrs. Rogers,” Bucky said politely.
Steve’s cracking eggs into a skillet when Bucky wanders into the kitchen, and it’s April, two years past Project Insight. It feels like much, much longer – he hasn’t been awake this long in decades. This is the twenty-ninth night in a row he’s spent in Steve’s apartment, a new record. He likes Brooklyn better than Tribeca.
“Morning,” Steve says. “There’s a smoothie in the fridge for you.”
“You are so fucking domestic,” Bucky tells him, and he allows the yawn that’s been gathering in his jaws to break free. “Did you put pecans in it?”
Steve nods. He adds more butter to the pan.
“Chia seeds? Mango?”
“Yes, Buck,” Steve says, an exasperated smile in his voice. “Even remembered to add your leftover green tea from last night.”
“Huh.” Bucky grabs the smoothie and straddles a stool at the high round table in the kitchen corner. It’s just big enough to let the two of them sit at it. The broker who rented this place to Steve had advertised it as “luxury.” Bucky had raised his eyebrow when Steve told him that and inquired if it was the eat-in kitchen that made it luxury. “I think it’s smaller than your ma’s kitchen ninety years ago,” Steve had said with a small laugh. “Do you know they call these places ‘pre-war’ now? You know the kind of building I mean. Six stories, brick, fire escape on the outside.”
Steve reaches up and pulls out two plates from the cupboard next to the stove. Bucky tastes his smoothie. He spins on his stool, stretches experimentally, and decides that he’s ready to face the day, which is the real luxury here – slow mornings, the ability to yawn and stretch and slump over the table with a smoothie in his hand if he wants to. “So I’m thinking that I must have been extra good or something to deserve all this today. What gives, Rogers?”
Joining him at the table with the two plates of eggs and toast, Steve shakes his head. “You’ve been hanging out with Tony again. You’re starting to sound like him.”
Bucky shrugs. “He’s been working on my arm. Which reminds me that I have to stop at the art store today. The star is scratched and you don’t have the right shade of red for it. Need anything while I’m there?” He doesn’t know why he asks. Steve always says no and Bucky always buys him something anyway – new charcoals, an empty sketchpad, the special eraser Steve likes so much that isn’t sold outside art supply shops.
Steve’s mouth turns down. He’s stopped asking if he can paint over the star, but that doesn’t make his dislike of it subtle. “I wish you wouldn’t make yourself sound like a dog rewarded for good behavior. I can make breakfast just because I want to, you know.”
“’Bout the only thing you can cook,” Bucky says, but he kicks Steve’s shin lightly under the table with his bare foot and Steve’s eyes soften around the corners. “Are you still planning on going down to DC today?”
Steve nods. “Think I’ll take the 11 a.m. train down so I can spend a few hours with Peggy and then have dinner with Sam. I’ll be back tomorrow.” He sets his glass down. “Will you be here when I get back?”
There’s a tiny kitchen window next to the table. It looks out onto the brick wall of another building about ten feet over. It’s a cool, sunny day out. He’ll probably be here when Steve returns.
“You could come,” Steve tells him.
Bucky shakes his head.
“Sam would like to see you,” Steve tries. “And I’m sure Peggy would, too.”
Bucky stares at him flatly. “I’ll see Sam in two weeks when he comes up here for a month to train the new VA counselors in the city.”
“I tell Peggy about you, you know.”
“I’m sure you do. Every time. Every single fucking time you go,” Bucky tells him with sudden animosity. “And the answer’s always no.”
Steve exhales. “Want to ride in with me to Penn Station?”
Bucky exhales, too. “Sure. I have a session with Simmons today at 12:30. He has to file his monthly report with the court by Friday.”
Bucky likes to ride the train. The stink of old concrete splashed with sticky beer and acrid piss as he runs lightly down the stairs into the subway smells like New York to him, some constancy he didn’t know he knew until he remembered it. In a world that’s climate-controlled and micro-managed for comfort, he appreciates the chill of the subway platform in the winter and the sweltering heat in the summer.
Some days he gets on the train and rides it from end to end. Coney Island up to 205th Street on the D, 168th on the C down to Euclid Ave.
The train is full of tired people going home from work, kids sharing music after school, moms struggling with ridiculously oversized strollers, grizzled men with large black garbage bags in the corners. When he first followed Steve back to the city, he would sit on the train next to whoever sat down beside him, and he would force himself to relax as that person’s sleeve touched his. The scent of a woman’s perfume crowding into him, a man’s pants leg falling carelessly over the edge of Bucky’s glove.
He studied. Here on the train, people all tried to keep to their own space and politely ignore everyone else, but inevitably in cramped quarters they would brush casually past one another. And he could see that this was okay, so Bucky practiced being okay, too. He got a phone from Stark and stared at the screen the same way everyone else did. He let himself wrinkle his nose in disgust when the woman three seats over clipped her nails. He held onto the metal pole in the middle of the car as though he needed it to keep his balance against the rhythmic sway of the train in motion, and glared at the man sitting down a foot away when he didn’t offer his seat to the pregnant woman who had just stepped into the car.
One day he took his glove off. No one seemed to be paying much attention.
Steve doesn’t usually sit down on the train because he’s conscious of taking up too much space. This makes Bucky snort a little because it wasn’t always this way. For most of their lives, it wasn’t this way. But today is a Tuesday, 10 a.m., and the car’s pretty vacant, so Steve sits and Bucky’s shoulder presses into his.
The ad plastered next to the dirty window across from them depicts a stylized red heart with surgical gloves and a scalpel next to it. The words, “Don’t trust your heart to just anyone” are above it and under it, “Be safe. Be responsible. Call 311 or visit NYC.gov for a list of licensed professionals.”
After Captain America rescues Bucky and the other survivors of the 107th from Schmidt’s camp, the army offers to send Bucky back stateside. “Honorable discharge,” Colonel Phillips tells him. “You’ve earned it, son.”
“Buck,” Steve sighs when he hears about his refusal. “You have a chance to get out of here, rest, recover. Go.”
Bucky snorts again. “And leave your star-spangled ass? Try another one, Rogers.”
Steve steps closer. His small captain’s tent is close around them, and only one small lamp lights the evening gloom inside the canvas. “You never wanted to be here in the first place.”
“Found your draft papers, Bucky. You didn’t have to lie.”
“Yeah, well,” Bucky says, sticking his hand in his pocket. “I’m here now, so I might as well stay.” He pulls out of a piece of paper from his pocket. “Ain’t really got nowhere else to go.”
Steve’s face is so earnest. This conversation happens so many times over the years – in Steve’s tent, on the road, in deserted holy places.
“You could go home,” Steve told him. They stood in a bombed-out church.
Bucky sat down heavily in the front pew and sprung right back up. Behind him, a life-sized crucifix hung askew from a cracked stone pillar. “There’s no home for the likes of us, Stevie. You think the government’s going to let you go once this is done? You think whatever that crazy scientist did to – ”
He cut himself off. “You think I’m going to leave you out here, even if you’re healthy and don’t need me anymore? You’re big now, and you’re here, and so the home I would have wanted to go back to – it doesn’t exist anymore. Why the hell did you have to ruin it for me, Steve?”
The sound of his breathing was loud and rough in the silent church. Black crows sat on the jagged edge of the broken roof. Above him, through the gaping hole in the roof, the sky was bright and blinding. He turned his back to Steve and rested his forehead against Christ’s wooden feet.
He always knew how it would go, from that first moment Steve pulled him off that table. He would stay here in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, wherever the war and Steve would take him, protecting Steve until he couldn’t any longer, until he was dead and didn’t know anything else.
“Watch out for him, would you? He needs – he’s so stupid,” Bucky says, pressing his hands into his eyes. The flesh one is warm against his skin; his metal one is not.
Natasha stares flatly at him. “Why? Are you going somewhere?”
Bucky laughs, but there’s not much humor in it. “No. I don’t think so. But I can’t be sure.”
“I don’t understand,” she tells him. Stark’s gym is empty but for the two of them. A bead of sweat drops from Bucky’s forehead to the mat. “Explain.” Her lips are pursed, her gaze unrelenting.
“Natasha,” he says, his voice low. “каковы шансы? What are the chances of this happening? Of this being real and lasting? I died in the Alps, I died in the ice, I died in the chair a hundred times—”
“Stop it,” Steve is saying loudly. They’re having this conversation again. Bucky wonders if they’ll ever stop having it. Steve’s voice is too loud in his ear, his breath hot on Bucky’s neck as Bucky rests his forehead against the crucifix. “Whatever you’re thinking, Buck, stop it. I need you to stop it.” He quiets to a whisper by his last few words. Bucky shivers and turns. Steve is close, so close, and Bucky grips the muscles of Steve’s biceps and yanks him down.
Steve backs him into the crucifix and shoves his thigh between Bucky’s legs. His lips are warm and chapped and Steve kisses true, always has, giving over everything he has to give. “God, yes,” Bucky exhales into his mouth. He bites at Steve’s lower lip, and Steve makes a tiny sound that he swallows up, greedy, before Steve wrenches his mouth away.
“We can’t, Bucky,” he says. “Not here. Not where the others could see if they came in. Not in a church. Mother of God, we’re in a church.”
Bucky chuckles and swats him. “No cussing in church.” He pulls Steve back to him. Against his lips, he says, “Where else, if not in the house of God? I’d let you fuck me over the altar table.” Steve’s hand tightens on Bucky’s ass.
“I wish you’d go home and be safe.” Steve looks up at the broken rafters. A crow caws and flies away.
“Ain’t your dame, Rogers. I never treated you like that when you were small. You can go fuck yourself if you think you’re gonna pull that shit on me now. And I’m not going anywhere.” Bucky sits down on the first pew. The sun in the sky slides behind clouds.
With a frustrated sound, Steve plops down beside him. Bucky grins, bright and wide enough to maybe fool both of them. “Besides, the fun’s just getting going now that you’re here. We’ve got some Nazis to kill. Like hell I’m missing out on that.”
He traces the fold of the paper in his hands.
He pulls his mission from the river. The water is dirty brown. He doesn’t know why he dove after him, except that there’s a searing fire under his ribs where his heart must be that overpowers even the burn of the drug in his veins. It washes a river of fire through his body and makes chaos in his mind, all things feeling uncontrolled. He knows he cannot show this because someone is always watching, and he needs to regain control over himself. It doesn’t matter if on the outside he is stillness and coiled strength; his eyes will betray him to Pierce.
He drops Captain America on the muddy bank, then tromps off into the brush and sits down, hidden, to watch. Captain America’s chest rises and falls. It reminds him of something. He looks down at himself and opens the top of his body armor to peer at his own chest. There’s a great scar running ragged down his skin, ugly and keloidal.
He has to get up. He has to hide. They’ll be looking for him, and he does not want any more of the drug, he does not want the chair, he does not want to be wiped.
He glances back at Captain America, lying still on the riverbank, and knows somehow – perhaps it’s sewn into the scar cutting across his chest – that Captain America has a mark on his chest, too.
He takes a new arm from Stark. He’s living mostly in Brooklyn by this point, sometimes crashing by the couch in Steve’s apartment, sometimes not. Steve insisted on getting a two bedroom so that Bucky would have his own room. Bucky rarely uses it, but he thinks maybe he likes knowing it’s there.
It doesn’t seem like over a year and a half could have passed since he walked away from HYDRA.
The HYDRA-model version of his arm was weighty and prone to malfunctioning now that he wasn’t spending most of his time in cryo. Once he’s got the StarkTech, he’s limber in ways he wasn’t before. The new arm isn’t fused to his shoulder blade and spine like the old one. He becomes flexible. It’s half as many pounds as the last one; he has a sudden excess of energy that’s not spent simply by standing straight and hefting his own arm around. Stark’s neural integration is efficient and less reliant on mechanical and physical connections than tech. Something seems to click into place in Bucky’s body.
“That’s pain,” Stark tells him as he takes a glass of green sludge from Dummy and grimaces. “Thanks, boy. Pain, the absence of, really. Or, well, I don’t think your body is capable of not feeling some level of constant pain at this point. Your body is twisted. Twisted.” He jabs a finger in Bucky’s direction. “I mean, we’re talking such levels here that it’s got to be intentional. And that’s what I don’t get. You were their weapon. You want your weapons to function at optimal capacity. I know this, I built them for twenty years. They fucked you over good, my fine friend.”
Steve’s chair scrapes the floor loudly as he pushes it back and walks out of the workshop.
When Bucky rides the train, he knows all the exits and all the ways to create a distraction if he needs one. He scopes out the other riders to identify the weak ones and the strong ones, those he can use and those he would need to deal with first.
He takes his glove off. No one pays attentions. If he dressed all in black save his silver arm and its red star, they might. They would flinch back; some would turn away, trying to act casual until they felt far enough away to run from the Winter Soldier. They wouldn’t know that there is no far enough away to escape him.
He catalogues the situation.
Time to take control of one full car, population 200: 1.25 minutes
Collateral Damage: three cameras and nine bodies, two to subdue the rest, seven a consequence of cramped quarters
Damage to Soldier: irrelevant
Exit: through adjoining car. Multiple tunnels available.
He carries nine blades, two guns, one wire, and his arm.
So yes, he takes a new arm from Stark. It’s more powerful. It packs a stronger punch, with sensory intake that Bucky can increase and decrease at will.
“I just couldn’t not. This is a thing of beauty. Better not tell anyone about this, though. Less enlightened people might think it’s not the best idea to give better weapons to the world’s most brutal assassin,” Stark says to Bucky. “In other fun and exciting news, I found a garrote wrapped around my favorite coffee mug this morning.”
“Why?” Bucky asks. He looks at his old arm lying quiescent on the worktable.
“Uh,” says Stark. “Natasha doesn’t approve of my plans for your new piece of tech?”
“No,” Bucky says sharply. “Why do you trust me?”
Before Stark finishes his work with Bucky’s arm, he asks Bucky if he wants any designs or markings on it. “Bit of flash? Something classy, like red and gold? Mom tattoo? Captain America’s shield?” he offers with a hint of a smirk playing around the corners of his mouth.
Bucky cocks his head to the right. “I want a red star. Right below the shoulder, on the deltoid.”
“That’s – huh.” Stark actually looks up at him and locks eyes with him. “I’m not so sure that’s a healthy choice.”
“That, or no new arm.”
Stark holds up his hands, palms out. “Whoa, yeah. Okay. Unhealthy decisions, those I can work with. I’m good with those, in fact.”
After he drags Captain America from the river, he evades capture seven times in thirty days. The first six times are HYDRA, a strike team led by Rumlow’s second in command. He doesn’t know where Rumlow himself is. The seventh time is Captain America and the Falcon.
They find one of HYDRA’s boltholes after Bucky’s spent a few nights there. Bucky watches through a crack in the metal roof as the Falcon holds up a dirty blanket from the corner.
“Leave it,” the Captain says. “In case he comes back.”
The Falcon shakes his head. “He’s not coming back here, Steve.”
There’s no response. The Captain pulls a small piece of paper out of his pocket and opens it up. He looks at it for a moment and, as he turns away, lets it fall to the floor.
Bucky will retrieve it before he leaves.
Cap didn’t actually spend very much time in his apartment in Tribeca. Most of his time was spent on the road, looking for Bucky and taking out HYDRA cells along the way, since the two seemed to be fairly intertwined in his mind.
“I thought he would go after them,” Cap had said to Sam.
“Dumbass,” Bucky tells him later. Steve tells him to shut his trap and eat another egg.
“You hoped he would. Because that’s what you would do. Don’t try to do his thinking for him.” Bucky has learned to think of the Falcon as Sam.
Sam leans against the bedroom doorway inside as Bucky crouches on the rusted fire escape clinging to the side of the fifth floor walk-up. When he’d seen Sam show up on the sidewalk below, he’d vaulted over from the unfinished high-rise next door.
“You can’t know what’s going on in his mind, man. The fact that he’s apparently capable of any independent thought at all is pretty damn impressive.”
Cap looks pensive. “Or maybe they got him back. They’re looking for him as hard as we are. And HYDRA’s not the only group that wants to get their paws on him. Half of them want him to fight for them, the other half want to pick his brain apart for intel.” His voice is bitter. He hoists his shield over his shoulder. “I’m headed out. You flying or catchin’ a ride with me?”
Sam raises his eyebrows and mutters something about Stark. “Not all of us can simply fly about the skies over New York with impunity. I’d have half the NYPD up my ass if I tried that stunt. I’m just going to have to make it to Jersey the old-fashioned way.”
Cap flashes a smile. It’s half-hearted. This is obvious even across the room and through the dried water spots on the window.
“Hey, man,” Sam says. “We don’t have to do this. That base has been there for over fifty years. It can wait another few days.”
“No. It can’t. Not now that I know it’s there. He was there, Sam. They had Bucky there. I just – ” He swallows. “I hate thinking about what we might find there. What they might have done to him there.”
“Don’t torture yourself like that.” Sam lays his hand on Cap’s shoulder. “For now, we worry about taking out whoever’s still guarding that place. Then you can blow it to kingdom come, and that—that, my friend, is all you can do for Bucky right now. Let it be enough for today.”
Outside, Bucky remains motionless until Cap and Sam leave, and then he runs down the fire escape silently, jumping off from the second story. It doesn’t take long to get to Jersey City, even stopping to grab a few extra weapons.
The north Jersey base is an old leather-tanning factory. There are men guarding the obvious front entry under the guise of playing dominoes at a card table, and more men around the back. No one’s on the roof. Bucky shakes his head at such carelessness. It never would have happened before. HYDRA clearly hasn’t fully regrouped yet. He thinks perhaps that’s why he hasn’t been retaken yet.
From the roof two buildings over, he lines up his first shot but then stops. If he leaves them alive for Cap and Sam to get through, the scuffle will give him warning that they’ve arrived.
It takes three minutes to get over to the facility’s roof and down into the bowels of the building. Bucky disables the alarms. He’s just about certain that his old passcodes are still good – they want him to come home; they want him to report in the way he was trained to do – but he doesn’t use them. He knocks out three internal security men before they can get to their comms and shoots the two lab-coated scientists hunched over a bank of computers. He keeps it clean, one shot to the head each.
Through a wall of glass, there’s a chair. And in the corner, along the back wall, he sees the cryo tank. This room takes a little longer to get into. HYDRA wanted it secure.
He stands in front of the chair, motionless. Far above him, there’s the faint sound of something clanging, metal on metal. He estimates that it will take Cap and Sam seven and a half minutes to get down here. They’ll be distracted by the conference room with its line of hanging portraits.
Turning toward the wall, he sprays the chair’s control panel with bullets. The hiss and crackle of electricity is like a lullaby in the background as he sits down in the chair and closes his eyes. He rests his hands on the arms exactly as he has dozens of times over, plants his feet on the foot rest in their proper position, and focuses on the steady pulse of his heart.
Bucky is seven when Fr. Peter gently pushes a small, blond boy forward into the robing room and says, “James, please help Steve find the right size.”
Bucky rolls his eyes when Father turns his back but gets a blessing to put on his altar robe, and then he eyes Steve up and down. “Why are you so short?” he asks, and Steve juts his chin out and says, “Why are you such a jerk?”
Putting his hands on his hips, Bucky says, “Race you to the bell tower.”
Steve’s eyes light up. “You’re on.”
After, once Bucky’s not so scared anymore and Steve starts breathing again and their mothers have yelled at both of them and Fr. Peter has cuffed their ears and said, “Oh dear” – after all this, Bucky says, “What’s wrong with you?”
Steve shrugs. “Dunno. Lots of things. The doctors say my heart’s not strong enough. It doesn’t push enough blood, so I don’t grow right.”
With a frown, Bucky puts his hand over Steve’s chest through his thin shirt and the altar robes they’ve still got on. He looks at Steve skeptically. “I ain’t no doctor, but I think that’s a pack of lies. Seems all right to me.”
Five months after DC becomes an aerial battlefield and SHIELD collapses, Bucky drags himself into a rundown motel off I-95. The carpet smells like stale beer and smoke; the puke green of the floral curtains looks like a bedspread in Novosibirsk in the '70s, where he sliced open a man’s fish-white belly while his wife sobbed. “Let the lesson linger past the telling of it,” he’d been told.
Motels put him on edge, but the hole in his leg will heal faster if he digs the bullet out and washes the wound. He was taught to perform basic first aid on himself if it would ensure completion of the mission. He turns on the TV. A man in a suit says, “Look, there’s a reason no prosecutor, state or federal, has brought an indictment against my client. You all saw the files that Ms. Romanova uploaded. Sergeant Barnes is the longest serving POW in American history.”
“You’re saying that the Winter Soldier is no threat to American citizens?” The anchor looks dubious. Bucky starts to poke at his leg before forcing his fingers to straighten and leave it alone. Damage is minimal at this stage. It is irrelevant. He estimates that he has another nine days before the damage to his metal arm becomes relevant, but he isn’t sure. This was not the same arm he had the last time he was out of the ice this long. He was not built for long-term missions. That was fifty years ago.
“The Winter Soldier was a HYDRA creation of terror that died with HYDRA and Secretary Pierce. Sergeant Barnes was a puppet, and his masters are dead. What we are dealing with now is a man who gave up over seventy years of his life for this country.”
Bucky stares at the TV. The interview ends. The anchor turns to face another camera. “We’ll leave you tonight with the heartwarming story of a young man who lost his heart and found it again in a place he never expected, all due to the kindness of strangers. Two years ago, Brian Gomez was –” Bucky presses the power button on the remote.
Sitting in HYDRA’s chair in a ramshackle former tannery in Jersey, Bucky closes his eyes and listens to the beat of his heart. There’s the occasional cut-off yell, the ping of bullets hitting metal and concrete, the whistle of Cap’s shield slicing through the air and rebounding to him as the Captain and Sam get closer to this lowest, most secret room. He might as well have laid out a trail for them.
Sam skids in first. Bucky doesn’t open his eyes. He knows it’s Sam before he speaks by the tread of his feet. “Looks like we’ve got the main – whoa.” Sam breaks off. “Okay, Barnes, figured you had to be here somewhere. You know, given the bodies,” he says just as Cap barrels through the doorway, breathless, asking, “Is he here?”
The hitch in Cap’s breath tells Bucky he’s spotted the trails of blood running out of the scientists’ heads and Bucky himself. There’s a beat of silence, and then it pops. “You don’t – oh God, Bucky. You don’t have to be in that chair anymore. Ever again.” He’s been walking slowly forward as he speaks, until he’s inside the chair room. He slides down against the glass wall directly across from Bucky, knees bent and pulled into his chest. “Why are you in the chair?” His voice cracks.
Bucky opens his eyes. Cap’s hands fly up, as if to show he means no harm. They stare at each other. There are a hundred things Bucky could tell him about the chair. He could tell him that in the chair, there’s peace. In the chair, he has only to report on the mission and then let it all be taken away. He could tell him that when he’s in the chair, he can’t hurt anyone else. He’s the only one who gets hurt in the chair.
Instead, Bucky stands up and crosses the floor to where Cap is still sitting, stupidly defenseless on the cold floor, and unclips a grenade from his belt. He offers it to him.
Ten feet away, Sam relaxes but doesn’t lower his gun.
Bucky stops in the doorway that leads from Steve’s bedroom to the hallway. His body blocks Steve’s. “You get it, right, that just because I take off this arm and put on another one that Stark’s made me, that doesn’t erase everything. That doesn’t make me any less the Winter Soldier.”
He wants to close the inches between them. He wants to drop to his knees and press his face into Steve’s belly and soak him up, and then he wants to take his dick in his mouth and suck. His mouth tingles at the thought of the salty clean taste of him. Steve would put his hand on his head and try to hold back. Bucky would brace himself on the strength of Steve’s thighs.
He pulls his bottom lip between his teeth. Steve’s eyes follow. Bucky forces himself to walk away.
Once upon a time – no, it’s more concrete than that. It was 1938.
In 1938, Bucky catches Steve with his face buried in an unwashed pair of Bucky’s underwear. He’s just been fired from Connolly’s crew in the middle of another sweltering New York summer, and there’s no way Steve’s expecting Bucky to show up at noon.
Steve’s blush spreads down past the collar of his shirt as he fumbles between hiding Bucky’s shorts and yanking a light throw over his groin. Bucky’s standing in the doorway to his bedroom with his mouth hanging open.
“This – uh, this is not what it looks like,” Steve says, cherry red and panting. His dick tents the blanket covering his lap.
“My ass it’s not,” Bucky drawls. He leans against the doorframe and crosses his arms, as though they’ll be able to keep his heart from galloping straight out of his chest. He looks at Steve, sitting there on the bed with his pants pooled around his ankles and his shirt covering his bony chest, and his pants tighten. He wants –
“Take off your shirt, Stevie,” he tells him.
Steve straightens his shoulders. “Don’t mock, Bucky.”
“One,” Bucky says, shaking his head, never breaking eye contact, “you’re in no position to issue refusals here, Stevie. And two, I’m not mocking.”
Slowly, almost defiantly, Steve strips his top and tosses it to the side.
Bucky drops to his hands and knees. Steve’s adam’s apple bobs as he swallows. Bucky slinks forward. It should feel ridiculous, but the half-astounded, half-eager look on Steve’s face doesn’t allow for that. Bucky crawls toward him until his hands are between Steve’s feet. Bucky picks up each of his feet to slide his pants and underwear off. Unencumbered, Steve spreads his feet farther apart to allow Bucky room between his legs.
Bucky leans forward and licks a stripe up Steve’s cock. It jerks under his tongue, and Bucky moans. He swirls his tongue around its head like a lollipop. “Tell me,” he says. He gets his fly open, then spits into his palm and touches himself as he sucks Steve into the wet of his mouth. Steve tastes clean and salty, intoxicating. If Steve shoves him away after, he’ll weep later and indulge his craving now. The thick vein on the underside of Steve’s dick pulses against his tongue. He pulls off with a pop. “Please,” he says. Spit trickles out of the corner of his mouth.
Steve’s hands fist in his hair and pull him back down. “It’s the way you smell,” he gasps, bolder than Bucky could ever be. “Your sweat. How you smell when you’ve been smoking. Something sharp, like lemons. Always there. Just – your smell.” He bites back a guttural noise.
Bucky bobs his head up and down, encouraging. He looks up at Steve with his mouth around his cock, and Steve thrusts up harder. “Buck,” he chokes off. “And your underwear. It’s all those things. Just more.”
His hands clench tight in Bucky’s hair.
Bucky comes in fat white globs on the scar on Steve’s chest.
The rat-a-tat-tat of Bucky’s gun is a steady assault on his ears. He’s kneeling on sharp stones as his unit hurls itself against the fortified German position on the ridge. He learned to hate the sharp spines of the Italian mountains months ago, the endless slogging mud seeping into his boots, the sandpaper k-rations, the gruesome smell of their dead men decaying just out of reach under the German guns. Hunger gnaws like a rat in his belly, and he threw down his sniper’s rifle weeks before in exchange for a machine gun that killed fast and wanton.
He’s got warm blood soaking into his uniform where he’s on his knees, the green field long since black-brown with grit and sweat and blood. Next to him, Harting is bleeding out. He tugs feebly on Bucky’s leg. “Sarge,” he gasps. “Need a priest.”
Bucky keeps firing. He sees more panzers rolling in from the east. “Don’t have one. I’m sorry, buddy.”
Harting groans. Blood bubbles around his mouth. “Christ, it hurts. I’m – ” He coughs weakly. “– a goner.”
Bucky reaches down and squeezes his shoulder. “Hang in there, kid. We’ll get you a medic and you’ll be fine.”
With a short laugh, Harting says, “Don’t think that’s gonna help me.” His hand grips Bucky’s pants leg.
Over the ridge, the new panzers fire with fresh fervor. They blow a hole in the American line that men rush to fill, only to be mown down. Bucky can barely hear anything over the endless ringing in his ears and the screaming shells, but he keeps his rat-a-tat-tat going until the German tanks suddenly wheel and start firing on their own men. “What the fuck?” he says, startled into pulling back on the trigger. On Bucky’s right, someone whoops. Bucky blinks and shakes his head quickly, as though it will bring sense back to the world. “Ain’t right,” he mutters.
Men are running around lost, off their heads; Germans with a strange red mark on their tank are firing on other Germans; and still the shells rain down, sending rocks and men flying. Next to him, Harting is dying. Bucky puts his gun down. “You Catholic?” he says to Harting and receives a feeble nod.
“Okay then, ‘Our Father.’ With me now. Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificétur nomen tuum—”
Harting’s voice is faint beside him. “Thy kingdom come.”
“Fiate volúntas tua.”
“On earth as it is in Heaven.” Harting’s hand slips off Bucky’s leg. “Where are we?” he asks.
Bucky crosses Harting’s arms over his chest when Harting can’t do it himself. “Azzano. Italy. Just over the Austrian border. Come on, buddy, let’s finish it. Et ne nos indúcas in tentatiónem.”
“But deliver us from evil.” Harting draws in a short, wet breath. “Amen.”
“Amen,” Bucky echoes. “May God forgive all sins you have committed.” A round explodes directly over his head and the world flashes white, and that’s all he knows until he comes to at the muzzle of a German gun that flashes blue rays like he’s never seen before.
He goes to yoga at a studio in Park Slope. Yoga didn’t exist before, not for the likes of him, not in his world. Dr. Banner was the one who introduced him to it, but he didn’t like doing it in a tower room with just Dr. Banner. “Why does everyone think I want to shut myself away and be alone? All the things we missed, Steve. Why wouldn’t I want to see them, do them all now?”
His attorney and Stark’s PR team decide they can use this. The studio, the teachers, the clients – they’re all warned in advance that Mr. Barnes will be attending. He will be escorted by security, not because he’s dangerous but in order to allow the other clients to become accustomed to him without concerns. Tony rolls his eyes at this – “like you couldn’t take them out with one of your ridiculously long eyelashes” – and Steve huffs about Bucky being a war hero, and Bucky says, “Stop. Don’t sugarcoat.
“I killed their sons and daughters a year and a half ago in America’s capitol. People don’t care about what we did in the war, they don’t care that I murdered three prime ministers. They care that I caused cars to swerve off the road and crash into each other with their grandchildren inside.”
He watches Steve choke back something that looks a lot like “but it’s not fair,” and Bucky sees him at ten, when Bucky’s sister got measles and Bucky couldn’t play with him for a month. At twelve, crossing his arms over his chest and jutting his jaw out when ol’ Miz Lyons got kicked out of her apartment six months after Mr. Lyons died. At thirteen, as the scar on Bucky’s chest healed slowly. At fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, when Steve ended up sprawled on the sidewalk, bleeding out his nose, the same height as ever, while the other boys started springing up like beanstalks. At seventeen, when Bucky stumbled over to Mrs. Rogers’s place, drunk and wearing another blooming rainbow of welts and bruises from his dad’s fists. At nineteen, huddled in a miserable ball on the thin blanket of his bed with Bucky’s arm around him while his mother sat in their little kitchen and hacked her lungs up until she bled. At twenty-three, when the army classified him as 4F and rejected him. At twenty-six, when the army took Bucky away from the Commandos every few months and sent him somewhere for a few days, a week, somewhere Steve couldn’t follow, while Bucky did things he couldn’t tell Steve about.
They were both such good little soldiers, Bucky thinks distantly. He can be a good little soldier now, too. He goes to yoga at the studio in Park Slope and lets the women titter nervously around him while he slides into upward-facing dog. After about four sessions, the instructor asks the guards to wait outside the room, as their presence is disrupting the flow. Bucky wears sweat pants and a slubbed cotton tee with a loose V neckline. It dips low enough that the top of the long scar that cuts down his chest over his heart is visible. After the seventh session, the other members of his class tell the studio the security isn’t necessary at all.
A woman barely old enough to be in college, with her hair pulled up in a ponytail and an exercise band around her head, approaches him after savasana ends the class. She jerks her head toward the scar over his heart. “Did it hurt as bad as they say it does?”
“Oh, honey,” another woman says. She’s a bit older than the first. “Wherever he got that one, I don’t think it was that kind of relationship.” She rolls up her mat. “Or maybe it was, who knows. People get up to all sorts of things. But love always hurts at some point.”
Bucky sits in Steve’s kitchen and disassembles his gun so he can clean it. It’s three in the morning. He says, “You killed a lot of people today, Steve. Probably shouldn’t have done that.”
“Right,” Steve says. He’s standing on the other side of the table, fists clenched. Bucky’s pretty sure he can hear his nostrils flare in outrage. “I was supposed to let them capture you? Tell me, if they get their hands on you, what do you think they’ll do?”
Bucky runs the bore brush inside the barrel in smooth, repetitive motions. “Drug, wipe, cryo,” he says. “Start over.”
“Exactly,” Steve shouts. “You don’t want that.”
Staring down at his gun, Bucky says, “No.” This is why, against Iron Man’s advice, he’d killed their attackers, men who’d been taken and mutated and experimented on against their will. Once he’d started, he hadn’t stopped. It was them or him, and he’d spent many years where they were now and been as free as he was gonna get for two years, and he didn’t want to go back.
He wasn’t built for the hand-to-hand combat of fifty against one, though, and Iron Man and the Hulk had been distracted, doing their best not to kill the other two hundred. This was the difference between being the Winter Soldier and occasionally pitching in to help Steve’s friends – the Soldier could simply walk away and pick his battle another time, always the aggressor. Not so for defenders of the populace.
The pain of the wounds they put on his body didn’t register as significant – one of the first lessons he learned – but he was aware of their hands pulling at him, pulling him down, trying to bind him, their bodies an endless press around him. It felt like drowning, the way the cryo fluid did when it filled his lungs in the tank.
One of them had managed to hook some sort of taser into him, finally, bringing him down. He recognized its make. His handlers had carried tasers with that modification, designed to fell the Winter Soldier. They would kill a regular man. He’d caught a glimpse of the April sky through the bodies beating him down and wanted to live, wanted to be free, so he’d surged back up against them, taking down three more with his unbound legs. One of the men laughed.
He was still laughing when Captain America’s shield sliced through his jugular and his blood sprayed over Bucky’s face. On the TV screen mounted on the kitchen wall, this plays out on the evening news. Steve’s face is almost unfamiliar, set in ugly, ruthless anger, and he doesn’t pull punches or try to spare lives. His body is a blur of motion, and he turns their own guns back into their faces and lets them pull the triggers on themselves, and he doesn’t falter once until they’re all down in a pile around Bucky’s body. Then he kneels and says something the camera can’t pick up.
But the camera does catch the way his hands are covered in blood as he cuts Bucky free with his own knife before rolling him over on his side. One of the hybrids twitches, and Steve whirls and jams Bucky’s knife into his windpipe. The camera doesn’t hear the gurgle of his throat, but lying there with blood in his mouth, Bucky does.
Steve sits down at the table and buries his face in his hands. “I failed you before. Can’t let it happen again.”
In 1944, the Commandos receive word that Zola is on a train crossing the Alps. Two nights before, Steve sits down on his bedroll inside the tent he put up where they’ve made camp. He holds his boot upside down and lets a stone fall from it.
“Jim claims there’s an ice cream parlor in Fresno that makes a root beer float that would make your daddy weep.” Bucky grins at Steve. “Now you and I know there isn’t a shop anywhere in America that can touch Mama Granita’s down on Atlantic Ave. But I told him we’d try out his float, just to prove him wrong.”
There’s a small smile in Steve’s eyes. “That’s a nice idea. Thinking ‘bout when the war is over.”
Outside the tent, the others are chatting in low voices, telling stories they’ve all heard a hundred times before about their girls back home. They disperse slowly, and the embers on the small fire they risked die down. Bucky turns inward toward the heat of Steve’s body.
Before the war, sometimes Bucky takes Steve dancing, when Steve will allow it. Oh, they say they’re double dates with a pair of swell gals, but Bucky will dance with Rose or Ethyl or Doris and his eyes will never leave Steve sitting in a chair by the wall. Over her shoulder, he’ll stare at Steve until Steve locks eyes with him, and Bucky will draw his girl just a little closer to his body so that she giggles demurely and feels wrapped up in his attention, when it’s anywhere but on her. He’ll pull his lower lip into his mouth, against his teeth, so that it becomes red, glistening under the yellow light of the dance hall, and he’ll flick his eyes down Steve’s body.
When they get back to the apartment, Steve will push Bucky down between his legs, and Bucky will open his mouth.
Dugan clasps Steve’s shoulder briefly before settling himself at the bar and asking for whatever they had that would get him drunk the fastest. “There was always going to be a mission that went south,” he mutters to Bucky. “Cap’s got to understand that. Not his fault those men died today.”
Bucky sips his cheap whiskey. It’s his fifth, and he doesn’t have so much as a tingle in his body. He hasn’t been drunk since before the scientist took him. “Yup. You ever met Steve Rogers before?”
Jones joins them. “It was an ambush, that’s what. They knew we were coming. We’d have been done for if you hadn’t picked them off the way you did. That must have been close to 2,000 meters!”
“Nah,” Bucky says. “I kept creeping up. You lugs just didn’t notice.” He glances over at Steve, hunched at his lonesome table over an untouched beer. “Leaders have to make hard choices.”
“La malédiction du capitaine,” Dernier says quietly.
Shaking his head, Bucky says, “No. Steve Rogers’s curse.”
“Christ, you’re morbid tonight, Barnes.” Dugan pauses. “Maybe we should chase down Agent Carter and see if she wants to keep him company.”
Bucky raises his eyebrows at him. “That’s your superior officer you’re talking about there. Both of ‘em, actually.” He keeps his voice mild.
Dugan flips him off. “I wasn’t being dirty.”
“For once,” Jones says sotto voce as Denier chuckles.
“She makes him smile,” Dugan says sort of helplessly as he frowns at his commanding officer sitting by himself over in the corner.
“Naw, I got this one,” Bucky tells him, tossing back the rest of his whiskey. He throws a messy salute at Dugan and swings himself off the bar stool. He slings his arm around Steve’s neck and tugs. “Hey, Cap, you wanna make a break for it?”
“Leave me alone, Bucky.” Steve stares down at the table and traces a shape over the rough grain with his finger.
“Now why would I want to do that?” He lets his breath brush past Steve’s ear. “When I could get you all to myself for once?” He’s actually not in the mood for anything, but if it’ll distract Steve out of his melancholia, he’s game.
Steve downs the rest of his beer and slams the glass on the table. “I’m gonna get you all killed some day. Fucking hell, Buck, one day I’ll probably send you to your death. You oughta get away from me. Stay wherever it is they send you when they take you away from us.”
Bucky can’t quite suppress the shudder that ripples through him. He sits down. “Eh,” he says lightly, knocking his shoulder into Steve’s, “think I’ll take my chances with you. Been doing okay for nearly twenty years. Think we can get through a few more.”
It’s dark and grimy in the bar. Smoke curls gently around their noses. Steve doesn’t cough. Bucky taps his pack on the table, knocking out a cigarette, and lights up. “Pretty sure you’re stuck with me at this point. If that day out on Coney Island didn’t get rid of me, a few bombs ain’t gonna do the trick.”
Steve finally cracks a smile. “I tossed my guts all over you.”
“While I was stuck on the Ferris wheel forty feet in the air and couldn’t even wash it off.”
“And then we got jumped by the McCauley brothers and they broke your nose.”
“Because you couldn’t keep your damn mouth shut the week before about them stealin’ a chicken from Mr. Li’s shop.” Bucky leans back in his chair, stretches his hands behind his head, and sticks his legs out. His foot knocks Steve’s boot. “Until the coppers put bracelets on us and locked us all up together. One stinkin’ cell.”
Steve shakes his head and takes the cigarette from Bucky’s hand. “They didn’t let us out until two in the morning.” He blows the smoke out slowly through his lips. Something tightens low in Bucky’s belly. He looks down at where Steve’s still tracing a shape on the table, repetitive, and then looks back up, right at Steve. Steve looks back, and something hot flares in his eyes. There’s a moment that stretches between them where Bucky feels like he’s barely breathing, and then it breaks as Steve turns his head and watches some men playing darts across the room. “It was supposed to be a date,” he says very quietly. “A proper date. Instead you ended up wearing the insides of my stomach for twelve hours, in cuffs, with a swollen face.”
Bucky kicks him under the table. “And that’s why you’re a punk. But you still didn’t get rid of me, and you ain’t gonna now.”
Steve’s lips tighten. “Heard the middle McCauley brother bit it a month ago. A mine got him.” Bucky looks at him askance. “One of the girls from the show grew up near us. She writes me with news from home,” he explains before Bucky can ask. “Anne. Nice gal. You shouldn’t have been hanging out with me, Buck,” he says suddenly. “Never shoulda been. The whole world was ahead of you, and I kept dragging you down. Getting you in fights, ruining your dates. Even got you banned from being an altar boy for three months when we were twelve. Kept you breaking your back at the docks just so you could buy me medicine. You could have done anything. Gone anywhere, been a big man in the world.”
With a disbelieving laugh, Bucky says, “Pretty sure you’re the only one who thought that, Steve Rogers. Come on, Jones has been trying to get our attention. Buy me a drink, and I’ll let you take me home.”
Steve flips him off and takes the stool Dugan’s vacated for him in the middle of the Commandos. Bucky hangs back a minute at the table and traces his pointer finger over the unseen shape Steve had been drawing the entire time with his finger. It doesn’t matter that it’s invisible, nothing more than disturbed air molecules and smeared fingerprints on a sticky table – Bucky’s seen him draw it a thousand times.
Bucky pulls a crumpled-up piece of paper from his pocket. His mother is peeling potatoes at the kitchen table. His sisters are playing next to the couch where his dad is snoring. “Quiet, girls,” Ma says. “Don’t fuss your da.”
She jerks her head at Bucky’s swollen nose. “Nice way to come to Sunday dinner. Anything you want to tell me before I hear it from Officer Morgan’s nasty ole wife?”
“You know I love Stevie Rogers like my own son, no matter how much trouble he drags you into,” she says, pointing her finger at Bucky. “So don’t fuss when I tell you that there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to grow up from his boyhood friends and start thinking about making his own family. Now Sara Jane Thomas’s daughter is turning out fine and pretty. Maybe it’s time you—”
“Ma,” Bucky interrupts, “gimme a potato. I’ll help you peel.” He shoves the slip of paper back in his pocket.
“You want to believe that I did the things I did for seventy years because I was brainwashed. Because I thought I was fighting for right.” Bucky straps a knife to his leg. “Don’t.”
He watches Cap pick up his shield, every inch Captain America with his taut jaw and tight eyes.
“They told me to kill, so I did. They told me who. They told me when. And I did it.”
He slides a gun inside his black body vest and follows Cap out the door.
He never forgot. Not really. Not once he’s been out of the ice for a while, not once the drugs wear off. Z-325 burned everything away, and the chair cleaned up any remnants up after the drug did its work, but everything he did, everything he saw, everything he was – it only wiped over it, not erased it entirely.
He holes up in HYDRA safe houses across DC and its suburbs, changing every few days when he can control the shakes and vomiting enough to move. His teeth chatter so hard that he nearly bites his tongue off. That first evening, he broke into the Alexandria facility with the chair, even though he knew that’s the first place they’d look for him. His mouth guard was there.
He was so relieved when he jammed it into his mouth that he nearly cried.
It took every ounce of his resolve not to look for a stash of Z-325. He knew the pain the drug would bring would eat through the horrifying emptiness of withdrawal. The only thing stopping him was the sick realization of why the drug was named Z-325. It’s a petty cruelty in comparison to all the others, but it still made his eyes sting with impotent rage. Z for Zola. 325 for –
He hasn’t been out of the ice longer than a week since the '60s. He’d required too much maintenance after that amount of time, and it became easier simply to wipe him.
When they cut him open and remove his heart the first time, the way they lay their hands on his beating heart hurts more than the slicing open of his chest. Despite every effort he makes to stay silent, he begs them not to as they cut his heart out, and they don’t punish him for that because the scientist doesn’t mind hearing him. They insert a metal heart with metal valves inside him. He feels it jerk once, twice, in his chest, and then it stops. Black spots appear in front of his eyes, and his limbs, all except his metal arm, become very heavy.
Passing out this way, strapped to a table with the blood slowing in his veins, hurts far less than all the other ways they’ve made him lose consciousness. He’s not being beaten, his head is not held under water, electricity is not paralyzing him. As he fades away, he wonders if perhaps they’ll misjudge the length of time they can leave him without a beating heart and if he’ll ever wake up again.
Someone pats him on his metal shoulder. “Don’t worry, my soldier,” Zola tells him, sounding as though he’s far away, “we’ll try again when you’re back with us.”
“Ah-ah,” Zola snaps. “Let’s be careful now, shall we? We don’t want a repeat of the last time.” He takes the metal heart from his assistant and turns it over in his hands. He holds it up as if it were a trophy.
Bucky watches silently from his chair. His hair has grown long in the time he’s been here, long enough that they’ve hacked off the ends many times over already.
“You see,” Zola says, turning to Bucky, “the last time we tried this, your new heart malfunctioned. One of the valves blocked the flow of blood rather than facilitating it. We have improved the design.” He’s the only one who ever talks directly to Bucky as though in a conversation. “Just as your design will be improved when you have your new heart in place. You must cooperate with this, Soldier. I don’t understand why you continue to fight us. You know there is nothing left for you except us.” He smiles. “I shall be extremely displeased if you fail us in this.”
Bucky keeps his eyes lowered to the floor and fights his body’s cringe.
He rocks back and forth in his cage. “32557038,” he mutters to the walls. He knows they’re listening. “Sergeant James Barnes, 32557038.” In his head, he imagines his flesh finger tracing a shape on the metal floor. He could carve it into the metal with his left hand easily, but then they’d see because they see everything. “32557038,” he says, instead.
His chest bears an angry, jagged scar. Whatever they pumped into him so long ago in Azzano makes him heal quickly, but it doesn’t do a thing against scarring. He’s glad. In this, at least, his body doesn’t betray him.
They send him out to kill. Not on his own, not yet. His handlers curse and kick him. He manages to kill one of them. “What the fuck good is a weapon you can’t trust?” they say to each other in Russian.
Zola tips his head to the right when the handlers return Bucky to his laboratory suite. “He will be the greatest weapon we have ever known,” he promises them. He wrinkles his nose at the stink coming off Bucky’s body and clothes, dried piss where he urinated on himself when they chained his hands for two days, except for the two hours it took to carry out the execution, dried come where Polachev and Krutov jacked off on him after Polachev smacked him in the face with his dick. “Hose him down,” Zola orders. “I have a new heart for him.”
“You are very stubborn,” Zola tells him. He’s holding a clear glass box, and inside that box is the flesh and blood heart from Bucky’s body. Tubes coming in and out of the bottom filter some sort of fluid through it, but the edges are turning grey. “I build you a better heart, three times now. It is superior to this one.” He shakes the box. Bucky moans and tries to turn his head away.
“Yet you reject it. Your aorta won’t pump the blood back into the heart I have gifted you with. And the imbeciles I have to work with – they whisper about this heart, this frail human heart that I could crush with my hand right now. They say it’s not your heart at all. That it once belonged to someone else. Someone you loved, perhaps? Is this why you fight me so, why you will not give it up?”
He shakes his head. “I will help you overcome this weakness.”
Bucky stares up at him from where he is strapped down against the table.
Zola picks up a small vial filled with a clear liquid. “My own blend. I went through nearly three dozen men perfecting this, just for you. I’m particularly fond of the hallucinations it brings,” he says proudly, and Bucky begins to shake. The needle pierces his skin, the syringe plunges down, and a fire the likes of which Bucky’s never felt begins to spread slowly through his veins. All the beatings, all the wounds and cuts and lacerated flesh, all the electric shocks and drowning and suffocations, even the serum Zola had injected him with so long ago in Azzano – none of it was anything like this.
It’s like being frozen and burned from the inside at the same time, and his skin feels as though it’s melting and turning itself inside out, and no amount of hopeless thrashing can alleviate even one second of the pain. Tears squeeze out of the corners of his eyes, his eardrums rupture, and the healing wound bisecting his chest begins oozing blood. Zola takes his scalpel and slices him back open the rest of the way. He pauses to look with admiration and sorrow at the metal heart struggling in Bucky’s chest before he yanks it out.
The only thing not strapped tight is Bucky’s head. In a fit, he lifts it up long enough to see his own skin begin peeling away, leaving a burning mess of red muscle and blood. Red tentacles rise out of his body. Bucky opens his mouth and starts screaming and doesn’t stop.
The drug becomes his near constant companion.
The metal heart fails. They rip his chest open one last time and put his beating flesh-and-blood heart back into his body. He overhears the techs scurrying around say that it’s the fourth time. With the drug coursing through his body, everything is jumbled, and knowledge and memory fail him.
Zola tells him that he’s going to work for the Americans. “At a nice little agency they’ve just started. One day, Soldier, I’ll meet you there. You have a mission.”
Bucky stares at him blankly. He tries – 325 – 3255 – 325 – he can’t get any further. Zola pats his head. “There, there. You are trainable after all. Almost HYDRA’s perfect soldier. We’re so close now. Because I’ve figured it out, finally, the truth of the matter. Shall I tell you what I know?” He leans over Bucky and whispers in his ear, and Bucky freezes and then exhales slowly, a long sigh. A tear traces a path down his face as he shuts his eyes.
Zola claps his hands together once. “Now then, I have a new treat for you.”
To his left, Bucky hears something large and heavy being rolled into the room.
“Open your eyes, Soldier.”
Bucky does. He sees a long rectangular tank about the size of a body. The top is solid except for a round, clear circle near where a face would be. Burly men remove it from the wheels, and techs swarm over it, plugging wires in and hooking it up to electricity. One of the techs flips a switch, and a hissing fills the room. The faceplate ices over.
Zola steps back from the table where Bucky is strapped and gestures for one of the techs to release his bindings. They do so gingerly. Zola waves his hand as though this is foolish. “Our soldier is no threat to us.” Turning, he says, “Soldier, go sit in your chair. I’ve had some engineering done on it just for you.”
Bucky does. He notes, as though from far away, that there’s a device hovering over the top of it that looks as though it’s fitted to slide over a head. As soon as he sits down, the techs lock his arms and lower legs down against the chair.
“Open your mouth, Soldier.”
He does. Someone jams some sort of mouthpiece in.
“Close your mouth, Soldier.”
The Soldier feels hands on him. He is placed in a tank. The lid is shut. There’s a hissing sound, and his eyes shoot open wide as ice swiftly encases his body and his lungs are drowning in some sort of fluid and he can’t make a sound and it’s cold, it’s cold, it’s cold, it’s –
The April day Bucky rides the train into the city with Steve so that Steve can catch the Acela down to DC to visit Peggy, Bucky gets off first. He jumps on the F at West 4th to make his way to midtown for his appointment with Dr. Simmons. He’s got two more months of court-ordered therapy before Simmons signs off, and he already knows Simmons will. It’s written in the angle of his head as he listens to Bucky.
Simmons isn’t a bad sort. At their twelfth session, Bucky says to him, “The world wanted me to stay dead.”
To his credit, Simmons doesn’t blink or look away, although Bucky’s sharp eyes catch his tacit acknowledgement of this truth. HYDRA trained him to pick up all tells. There are few that he misses, but he has to admit to himself as he flexes his bruised jaw that he completely missed Natasha’s yesterday.
Simmons asks him why he believes that. Bucky’s laugh is short and hard. “Not what you’re thinking. Not as punishment for what I’ve done. Not even because my presence forces them to confront evils buried deep in our infrastructure.” He shakes his head. “It’s much simpler. The world wanted me to be dead so that it could preserve the legend of Captain America and Bucky Barnes.”
His lips twist up. “It’s a good story, isn’t it? The kid from Brooklyn who volunteered for the Army, and his best friend who became a hero and saved him, and then saved the rest of the world. The way both of them died, one right after the other. Rumors of matching heart-scars, or maybe just a simple tale of true friendship and devotion. Bad enough when their golden boy came back to life. But me?”
“What do you think about that?” Simmons asks.
Bucky looks at him sideways, his chin down, eyes steady. “Fuck the world.”
Before Bucky gets off the train, he feels Steve slide something into the pocket of his hoodie. He stands as the slowing rocking of the train signals the upcoming station. The doors pull open, and Steve waits until Bucky’s stepping through to call out, “I’ll be sure to give Peg a kiss hello for you,” and the door snaps shut. Through the smudged window, Bucky flips him off. The train whisks Steve’s smirking face away into the tunnel to Penn Station.
“Punk,” Bucky mutters, and he puts his hand in his pocket, feels the slip of paper, and jogs up the stairs to the uptown platform.
Bucky walks back to American lines by Captain America’s side. The further he gets from that place where he was held, the stronger he is. It’s as though he can feel his flesh knitting itself back together even as he strains it by keeping up with Captain America. Around them, the woods are splintered by shells and the ground is cold, caked mud.
When they make camp for the night, Captain America sets up the tent he’s sharing with Bucky some distance apart from the others. Men are milling about, far enough away that their words are indistinct, but their laughter and horseplay ring out now that they’re behind American lines again, even if they have a way to go before reaching the base. Some sit quietly on logs by their little fires, watching with thousand yard stares.
The Captain builds a fire and stands as the sun sinks behind the shattered trees. He turns his head and looks at Bucky for a long minute, unbreaking. With a smile, he slings an arm around him. “Thought I’d lost you there, Buck,” he tells him.
His arm fits comfortably around Bucky’s shoulders. It rests there, the way an arm does when the person hauling you into his side is taller than you. Bucky stares at the hand resting on his bicep, broad and golden, with Steve’s blunt nails and a healthy pulse of blood through the veins on the top of it. His belly churns.
He shrugs the Captain’s arm off. “Someone make you do this?” he says, gesturing jerkily at the unfamiliar body in front of him.
Captain America’s gaze turns puzzled, and then annoyed. “Of course not.”
Bucky’s laugh is short. “So you volunteered. Again. You signed up to be someone’s lab rat. Did you know what was going to happen to you? What the odds were you’d survive? The odds that you wouldn’t be some sort of vegetable on the other side? Did you even care?” He can feel his chest rising and falling quickly as his heart pounds out a staccato rhythm to match the fury burning through his chest.
The Captain is scowling now in the firelight, and, oh god, Bucky knows that scowl. He’s seen it for nearly twenty years on Steve’s face – the way his chin juts out, the way his eyes turn steely. But his chin was never so square and firm, his eyes never so clear and open, no squinting at all. “I’m not sorry I did it,” he says firmly, “if that’s what you mean. I can actually help now. I can do something useful.”
“Fuckin’ Christ, Steve,” Bucky curses, but Steve’s still talking over him.
“And how do you think it felt, Buck? Sitting there on my ass, reading your letters and all the things you weren’t sayin’ – what the hell they got you doing, Bucky? You got this promotion and that, and you’re a sergeant and you must think I’m some sort of dumb joe if I couldn’t figure out that you’re doing something special for the army, and I seen you pegging pigeons with your rocks when we were kids and throwing darts that never missed at the bars, and like hell they didn’t make you into their sniper. And I heard the things they don’t say out loud, how all they care about is that snipers shoot and make the target, no cover for them, no protection, just tossing ‘em out to be picked off as fast as you pick off Germans.” He’s breathing so hard that Bucky starts to reach out for an inhaler that isn’t there, to rub his chest into calm, and Bucky’s hands freeze halfway up in the air because there’s no hint of asthma, and this Steve is just plumb mad, not sick.
Bucky fists his hands and turns away. “So, what then,” he says, hurling the words back over his shoulder in the twilight. “You’re stuck now ‘cause you sold yourself to the Army. Do you have any idea how worried I was? My mother? Becca? They said you left and they didn’t know where, and I kept getting letters postmarked all over the states. The one thing I asked you was to stay safe. I needed you to stay safe. And you go off and get yourself all blown up big man, and you don’t even tell me about it. Guess I know where I rate. You don’t even tell me,” he repeats, as his voice cracks.
“No,” he spits when Steve begins to say something. “You shut your fucking mouth, Steven Grant Rogers, and you listen to me good.” He spins back around. “This isn’t a game. That man –” He points at someone in the distance randomly. “– he won’t be here in a week. Not the one next to him, either, likely. Well, you’re over here now, just like you wanted.”
Steve squares his shoulders, just like he’s always done when backed into a corner before he comes out swinging. “It was the right thing to do.”
Bucky makes a disgusted noise. “No,” Bucky scoffs. “It was what you wanted to do. What you’ve always wanted to do. It was the selfish thing to do.”
Steve’s skin is red and blotchy with the heat of his anger. The firelight flickers over his face. “Saved your behind, didn’t I?”
Bucky’s mouth drops open. There’s a long silence between them. Steve’s face softens, but he doesn’t take it back. “Yeah,” Bucky says, finally, quietly. “Yeah, I guess you did.” Steve reaches out. Bucky backs away, shaking his head. “I gotta —” He jerks his thumb behind him and trails off. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he wanders away.
He shoves his hands in his pockets and something crinkles under his fingers on his left side. There’s a piece of paper in his pocket. He didn’t put it there.
Because that’s how it is, and this is how they fight.
Bucky hauls back and socks Arnie Reynolds as hard as he can in the jaw. He’s so mad he’s seeing spots in front of his eyes, but that doesn’t stop him from kicking the soft of Reynolds’s belly as he goes down and spitting next to his head.
“Buck,” Steve grunts as he takes a hit on the thin of his chest just below his left shoulder, “I got this—”
“Don’t you fucking try to talk to me, asshole,” Bucky grits out.
He grabs the arm of another man just as he gears up to knock Steve’s head off. “Who the fuck are you?” he asks the guy rhetorically, just before he nails him in the mouth. The guy comes back swinging and gets in a few good blows before Bucky manages to pin his arm behind him and smash his head into the brick wall of the alleyway. “Three on one? What the hell you thinkin’, Rogers?”
He shakes his hand. A few drops of blood are welling up on his knuckles. He bares his teeth at the third guy. Steve, panting and pale, lurches toward him with his fists raised, and the guy’s eyes flicker back and forth between the pair of them and his friends groaning on the filthy ground, and he makes a rude gesture and takes off. Steve turns back to Bucky, grinning with a smear of blood on his lip. It’s already starting to swell.
Bucky scowls at him and stalks off toward the street where cars spray puddles at people on the sidewalks. “What was it this time?” he tosses back over his shoulder. “Did they insult the way you tied your shoes? Disagree with you over the color of the sky? Breathe on you the wrong way?” He doesn’t have to turn around to know that Steve is glaring at him, his jaw shoved out pugnaciously, as he trips forward an extra step to keep up with Bucky. It’s not fair, Bucky knows, that he’s intentionally going too fast for Steve to keep up when he’s already winded, but he doesn’t actually give a shit right now.
He slams into their tiny apartment and throws himself down on one of their rickety chairs at the rusted kitchen table. He knots his hands against his eyes and presses in. About thirty seconds later, Steve bangs in behind him and stomps into the bathroom the best he can when he sounds like he’s about to pass out. Bucky hates when he gets like this – his heart simply can’t keep up with the demands he places on it.
“I had it under control,” Steve tells him from the bathroom.
Bucky jumps up from the table and crosses the six feet to the bathroom. “It’s like you’re deliberately pushing my buttons. Why do you have to be like a tomcat spraying everywhere?” He yanks the wet rag out of Steve’s hand and pushes him down on the toilet seat. “Gimme that. Sit down and catch your breath.”
Steve reaches for it. “Stop treating me like I can’t take care of myself.”
Bucky bats his hand away and dabs at the cut on his lip. “Then stop being your fool self. At least wait for me before you lose your head the next time.” He slides his thumb gently over the puffiness, and Steve snaps, “Don’t soothe me.”
The rag hits the floor with a loud smack as Bucky throws it down. “You don’t want to be soothed? Don’t want to be taken care of for even two seconds? Fine.” He can feel his own heart beating out his fury through his entire body. He pushes his thumb into Steve’s mouth, heedless of the ripped skin, rough, ignoring Steve’s hiss, and he drags down his lip. Steve chases after it with his teeth and bites the tip of his thumb.
Bucky plants his hands and weight on Steve’s thighs where he sits on the toilet, and snarls into his face. “That how you want it?” Shifting his weight to one hand, he pushes Steve’s legs open and palms his dick. He laughs, short, when he finds Steve’s dick half hard. “Go on, then,” he says, “take it out.” He meets Steve’s eyes – “I ain’t gonna touch it again” – and watches the dark pupils widen over their bright blue. Exhaling heavily on Steve’s face, he looks back down at his crotch, at the sparse golden hair at the base of his dick, at the flushed swell of him.
Bucky bites his own bottom lip and leans down even closer. “But I’m going to fuck your pretty little ass sideways into next week. Just the way you’re begging for. And you’re going to take it, every inch of my cock splitting you open until you’re too full to think straight, to be such a cocky little punk, and then you’re going to take more.”
The sight of Steve splayed back against the toilet with his legs wide open and his cock rising from the V of his unbuttoned trousers makes Bucky swallow hard. It’s filthy and obscene, and he shouldn’t want it the way he does. There’s a burning low in his belly. He can smell the musk of Steve’s sweat and – “Get up,” he says, pulling him off the toilet. “Get on the bed.”
There’s a jar next to the two mattresses that they’ve pushed together. Steve tugs his shoes off and drops his pants, and goes down on his elbows and knees, and Bucky stumbles over one of his shoes because he can’t see anything but Steve, anything but the peach of his ass presented for him. “Christ,” he breathes out. He tries so hard to be careful, to not do anything that would break Steve’s frail body, and then shit like this happens and he just loses it.
Steve lets his head hang down between his shoulders, and he chuckles low in his throat. “Come on, Buck, you gonna keep your promises? Get over here. Let me have it.” He slicks his finger and twists back so he can slide it in.
The sound of it makes Bucky’s dick pulse. He loses his clothes and strokes his hands down the back of Steve’s thighs. The slight muscle there trembles under his hands.
When he pushes inside Steve, he tries – oh, God, he tries – to go slow, but he can’t. He can’t, not against the hot press of Steve’s ass against the fat of his cock, against the tiny, cut-off sounds that Steve makes every time he pulls back, against the spiraling need that shudders through his whole body. He snaps his hips into Steve sure and deep, and Steve is saying, “Come on, I won’t break, give it to me, I can take it, not gonna break, Bucky, just fuck me —” and it’s Bucky who breaks first with a low cry.
It’s Steve who gets up after and grabs the rag from the bathroom, rinses it out, and brings it back to wipe them up. Bucky lies slumped on the scratchy blankets. “Take your shirt off,” he mumbles into the wool. He wants to get a look at the bruises Steve is likely already developing on his scrawny frame. “Just give me five minutes, Stevie. Just lie down for a few with me.” He hates that he asks, but he can’t stop himself.
They leave the lamp next to the bed on. It was Steve’s mother’s. The shade is fraying a little on the bottom. Bucky settles into Steve’s left side, resting his head on Steve’s chest over his heart, the way he has for years. Steve’s heartbeat is finally slowing down, back to normal with its customary faint flutter every so often. Even with his ear directly over it, Bucky can never hear it pump as strong as he wants it to. He throws one of his legs over Steve’s and traces his finger down Steve’s chest, right next to own face. “I wish you’d let me —”
Steve shushes him. “Let’s not have that fight again, not now. It wouldn’t fix anything.” He cards his fingers through Bucky’s hair.
Once they’re behind American lines, even if they haven’t reached base yet, Steve strips down to his skivvies to sleep. This new body of his fairly radiates heat, and Bucky is cold in places he can’t touch from lying on that metal slab in a concrete bunker while the scientist’s clammy hands dug into his flesh. But the corded muscle of Steve’s arms, the heavy slabs lining his torso, the thick weight of his thighs – in them Bucky reads all the ways he failed Steve, all the ways he couldn’t give him what he needed, all the ways Steve refused to let him.
Steve lies down on his bedroll beside Bucky, facing him. His eyes are wide and questioning.
Bucky rolls over onto his other side so his back is to Steve.
“Buck, c’mon,” Steve says. The tent is filled only with the sounds of their breathing, in and out, and it’s – there’s something different about it that Bucky’s been trying to figure out for the last five nights. Steve says quietly, “Don’t,” and Bucky realizes what’s different here, what else is different now. Their breathing is synchronous in a way that was rare before. Steve could never quite catch his breath enough to settle into a steady breathing pattern, except when they were lying tangled up for warmth and comfort, their bodies sated and easy and falling into sleep. And now it’s one more thing Steve doesn’t need from him. Bucky’s heart has a pain in it.
“Are you glad you did it?” he asks. His voice is muffled in his army green wool blanket, but Steve’s hearing is sharp now and he’ll hear.
“Yes,” Steve replies. “Yeah, I am.”
Bucky would laugh if he didn’t want to cry. Because he knows that Steve isn’t happy he did this because it means he can breathe right and because he won’t die of measles or pneumonia now – all the reasons that Bucky should be happy about this because it means Steve should live. Should – but he won’t. No, Bucky knows Steve Rogers and knows that Steve’s pleased because he’s going to run out there and do some fool thing that gets him killed but will save two hundred people in the process, and that will be a life well lived to him.
Bucky closes his eyes and pictures his Steve back in Brooklyn, small and righteous, his fingers smudged with drawing charcoal rather than gunpowder, and stronger than any man had a right to be. Maybe it was always going to end up this way, somehow.
They say that when once you give your heart away, it’s never really yours again. You can ask for it back if you want, of course. You can try to reclaim it. But once someone else’s blood has flowed through it, it’s never really your own.
Careful mothers caution their daughters as they look with distant eyes back into their own pasts, “Be careful who you give your heart to, dearest,” and fathers hold their children on their knees and say, “Be even more careful whose heart you claim for your own.”
Bucky has a scar that cuts down his chest just to the right of his heart. It is keloidal and ugly, like HYDRA, but it wasn’t always.
Steve’s been on the train to DC for two hours when Bucky’s phone rings in the middle of his session with Dr. Simmons. The phone doesn’t wait for Bucky to answer it before JARVIS says, “Excuse me, Sergeant Barnes,” and Tony is talking over him. “Barnes, we’ve got some kooky not-quite-human-looking things crossing the Hudson north of the city. J, you sure they’re not zombies? They look an awful lot like zombies to me.”
“My apologies, Sir. The day you expanded your expertise to zombies must have bypassed me.”
Dr. Simmons leans back in his chair when Bucky looks at him and waves his hand as if to say, “I got nothing.”
Bucky knows this isn’t true. Dr. Simmons doesn’t like it when Bucky fights. He doesn’t try to stop him, of course. That’s not in his job description. It’s written in his posture, though. Bucky sighs. This is going to cost him another month of therapy, he can feel it. He picks up the phone and takes it off speaker to carry on a three-way call with Tony and JARVIS.
“Sir, they are human, or they once were. There appear to be 378 of them at the current time. I have identified nearly half of them. Facial recognition programs match most of those to the presumed escapees of the three prison breaks that have occurred in the last eighteen months from the federal correction institutions of Englewood, Big Springs, and Victorville. Preliminary imagery is indicative of some sort of alteration to each of these men. Some appear to have cybernetic limbs similar to Sergeant Barnes’s, while others show no visible alterations. However, I would note that they are swimming quickly and easily across the Hudson, which, due to the heavy, melting snows and spring turbulence, is at its most challenging stage of the year. ”
“Well, shit,” Tony says. “I’m suiting up. Thor’s offworld, the Widow’s … somewhere, and I think Hawkeye is with her.”
“Confirmed,” JARVIS says. “They are a minimum of thirteen hours away.”
“Steve’s stuck on a train, almost to DC by now. It’s a Peggy day,” Bucky says evenly.
“Oh yippee. Great. So I’ve basically got one Hulk who would break these poor suckers in half and a pretty pouting assassin for backup. I sent the green guy to roar at them. Go stalling tactics and all that.”
“I’m not pouting,” Bucky tells Tony and JARVIS.
Dr. Simmons raises his eyebrows. Bucky focuses on them. They’re grey and bushy and need to be trimmed. He likes that they’re not. In this pressed and polished world he lives in now, it’s good to have some imperfect things.
“‘Course you are,” Tony says. “It’s a Peggy day, you said it yourself. By the way, I’m going to be there in 45 seconds, so you might want to open the good doctor’s window if he doesn’t want me to blast it open so I can grab you. Seeing as you’re on the 78th floor.”
Bucky shakes his head and stands up, crossing the room to the window and taking Tony’s advice even as he says, “That’s rude, Tony. You think you can do whatever you want.”
Tony laughs. “I know I can. Devilishly handsome billionaire genius, remember? Don’t worry, JARVIS loaded me down with your favorite weapons.”
This makes Bucky smile. JARVIS didn’t, of course, because his favorites are already secreted on his body, but he appreciates the effort. “You’re the best, JARVIS. Why do you keep hanging around that loser Stark? I could show you a better time, baby.”
“I have but merely been waiting for you to ask, Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS tells him smoothly.
Tony squawks, “Traitors, I’m surrounded by traitors,” as Bucky looks at his doctor and says, “Sorry, gotta cut this one short. I’ll call to reschedule. Better catch me, Tony,” and he dives out the window, falling, falling, his breath being snatched out of his mouth and lungs, and it’s white below him with snow and the rushing river, the train thundering above him, and he smacks into the gold and red of Iron Man’s suit and clings for just a second with his eyes shut.
“Had a mind not to catch you there,” Tony says, “for trying to steal JARVIS.” His metal-gloved hands hold Bucky tight. “Didn’t feel like listening to Cap later on, though.”
Bucky finds the handholds Tony’s built into the suit and hangs on. “Go faster.”
“I’m going to have to listen to him anyway.” Tony heaves a put-upon sigh as he shoots through the sky, heading northwest. “You know how he gets when you’ve been in a fight.”
Bucky purses his lips. “He doesn’t like it when the Soldier comes out to play.”
Somehow even through the metallic voice of the suit, Tony’s voice suddenly sounds serious. “Is that what he tells himself? That it’s the Winter Soldier fighting?”
Bucky breathes in, four counts, out, four counts. The wind whips around his face. It’s cold. He tried to set Steve straight once, back before he’d even come in off the streets.
“I’m not safe, you know. I’d kill for you.” He said it one day almost in passing as they ate bagels at the kosher deli around the corner from Steve’s apartment.
Steve frowned. His shoulders went tight. “What do you mean, Bucky?”
“Anyone who would try to hurt you,” he said, because it was obvious, wasn’t it? “And I could teach you how to kill better, except I think that would make you sad. So I’ll just kill them for you.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Steve told him.
Flying through the air with Iron Man, Bucky says to Tony, “Steve’s an idiot. He always sees the best in people.”
“No, that’s not really true. He demands the best of people,” Tony replies, and there’s a long silence. JARVIS is, no doubt, feeding Tony stats through the suit; Bucky takes the time to focus. He identifies all the weapons he has at his disposal and where they’re located. He forgets about the morning and sitting in a leather chair on top of a plush cream rug. He runs through a quick series of isometric exercises to warm up his muscles. He asks JARVIS about the arm – “Functioning at full capacity, Sergeant” – even though he already knows this. He grows still and meditative. Thoughts flow across his mind and out again.
“I’ve got an idea to contain them. Your job is to corral them and keep them in one large group. Try not to kill these guys if you can help it,” Iron Man finally says as they come within sight of the hostiles.
“Acknowledged.” Bucky does not point out that killing is more efficient than incapacitation.
“Won’t look good for the public and your rehabilitation process,” he continues, although Bucky hasn’t asked for an explanation.
“Also,” Iron Man rambles, “they’re probably victims, too. Not sure if it’s HYDRA or AIM or someone we don’t know yet.”
“And if it matters, it’ll make Captain America sad.”
Bucky doesn’t bother responding.
“Jiminy crickets, I see why he doesn’t like it when you get like this. You ready?”
“Affirmative. Release me in three, two, – ” He lands on the top of a low building with a dull thud. Nearby, the Hulk roars a welcome.
Once Bucky had asked Steve if he said a prayer for him when he fell from the train. They were walking through Central Park. Trees were the same, squirrels were the same, trail was a lot cleaner. Maybe the trees were bigger.
“I don’t believe in those things,” Steve said.
“Do you know how many times I sat there with you and listened to the priest read the last rites over your stupid self?” Bucky said. “I even said them for you myself that one time in the war.”
Steve got that stubborn look in his eyes and in the set of his jaw. The serum hadn’t changed that, not one bit. “God only ever took you from me.”
“Did you care at all what I would have wanted?” Bucky tossed back.
“I didn’t want you dead, dumbass,” Steve shot at him. “If I’d said those words, then you’d really have been dead.”
Bucky smacked the back of his head. “You’ve got them all snookered again,” he said. “How do you always manage to get everyone thinking you’re so nice?”
Steve says to him now at three a.m., after the day’s fight with hybrids created from federal prisoners who hadn’t asked for what they got – “I bet they don’t think that anymore.”
Bucky dumps his weapons on Steve’s kitchen table and retrieves his cleaning supplies. He wipes down his favorite knife with a soft cloth. “I’ve been a soldier since the day the US Army put a gun in my hand and called me one.” He looks up suddenly and pins Steve with his gaze. “You been a soldier a long time, too. You can’t change the hypocrites who don’t understand that.”
He puts down his knife and starts taking apart his handgun. “Sorry you missed your visit with Agent Carter.”
The first time he ends up at Stark’s skyscraper to have his arm fixed, Stark takes one look at the long angry scar on his chest and whistles.
Bucky blinks. He should not have come here, perhaps. He had no other solution regarding his arm. Maintenance was required past what the Soldier was taught to do in the field. He wonders what this JARVIS said to Tony Stark that got him out of that room. Stark doesn’t apologize for keeping him there. Bucky doesn’t expect him to.
Stark grabs a set of goggles from his robot’s claw. “Thanks, Dummy,” he says without looking over. His eyes have fixed on Bucky’s arm. “What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you turn it off if it’s being a piece of crap?”
Bucky tilts his head. Stark seems to be waiting for an answer. “Without power, it’s deadweight. Also, I don’t know how.”
Stark taps it with a wrench. Bucky tries to keep very still as something bright and hot flashes up his arm into his body. “What’s it powered by?”
“I don’t know. My body, I think.”
“Is there anything you do know?”
There are lots of things Bucky knows, but he doesn’t have to answer if he doesn’t want to. So he doesn’t. Instead he says, “I know they tried to make my body a more efficient interface for the arm so that it would function more effectively. A better blood supply from a better heart.” He considers Stark. “They failed.”
Bucky ends up going back to Stark again, and then a third time. Stark laughs. “If Capsicle really wants to find you, all he has to do is come here. He has an apartment here, you know.”
“He doesn’t use it,” Bucky says.
“Yeah. Hey, you want a new arm? Instead of me just having to fix it all the time?”
“I’ll make a better one.”
“Faster, lighter, more powerful.”
“No,” Bucky tells him, glancing away from those sharp eyes. The idea of Stark – anyone – touching it for that long, of having to stay calm while his arm is taken from him again – “No,” he repeats. Starks goes on for as long as Bucky lets his jabber wash over him. Stark opens up the plate on the underside, and pokes around. Bucky watches him carefully.
“It’s still my arm, Mr. Stark,” he says finally. He can see the moment Stark processes his words.
Stark looks up at him. His face is not kind but not cruel either. “Huh,” he says. He pauses. “Did you just call me Mr. Stark? They can make you into a war criminal and world’s deadliest assassin, but they didn’t get you to stop addressing people politely?” He chuckles.
Bucky stares at him, unamused.
“What,” Stark snaps, sobering suddenly. “I’m here donating my very expensive time to work on a piece of equipment that might be rigged to blow up in my face at any moment, which is currently attached to a man who was brainwashed to kill people like me for longer than I’ve been alive, who refuses any sedative for this, but who could kill me probably with his right pinky before I even finish this sentence and who just might if I twitch the wrong way – and now you’re glaring at me on top of it all? Excuse me for being a little bit stressed.”
Bucky considers and then turns his arm further outward so Stark can dig under the metal plates. “Okay,” he says.
“Okay,” echoes Stark. There’s half a second of merciful silence. Then, jerking his head toward Bucky’s scar, “Any truth to the persistent rumors that Captain America got you started on that monster running down your chest way before HYDRA was even in the picture?”
Ten hours after Tony grabbed him from his freefall out of Dr. Simmons’s office to fly up the Hudson and meet the Hulk, Bucky is in the tower, sitting on a couch with a blanket he doesn’t need wrapped around his shoulders. Bruce stands awkwardly somewhere over his shoulder to his right. He looks like he doesn’t want to be here but also doesn’t quite want to leave.
Sam is sitting next to Bucky on the couch. He pats his leg. His wings are in their pack on the floor at his feet. He’d been Steve’s ride north, and turned out to be better than the rest of them at containing the hybrids. Once Steve had killed nearly half of them, that is.
Bucky stares at the news coverage on the screen. His pants are in tatters, dried blood striping his legs, and his flesh hand looks like a mess but he can feel it knitting itself back together. He’s very good at hand-to-hand, but fifty assailants up close and personal is a few too many even for him, especially when they’re not motivated to save their own lives. He was built for stealth and silence and precision, not mass combat. HYDRA knows this, of course. He supposes that’s why they sent so many. There are always foot soldiers to spare.
“Aw, flip that shit,” Sam tells Bucky. Bucky changes the channel.
“God damn fucking news helicopters,” Tony spits.
“Sometimes things have to be taken care of,” says Steve. His face is hard. “Did you see the way they ran for Bucky? It was a trap, and we fell for it hook, line, and sinker. They haven’t forgotten about him.”
Tony looks like he swallowed something bitter. “You mean I fell for it.”
Steve shakes his head. “I would have done the same thing. Not your fault, Tony. Someone had to respond.”
Bruce clears his throat. “Would it be too much to hope that this was their big, final push? Given how many of their cells you’ve taken out in the last two years?”
“They’ll never stop,” Bucky cuts in from the couch. His voice is a monotone. “If you cut off one head, two more shall take its place.”
The room falls silent. Bucky shivers.
On screen, Steve is yelling something as he fights his way to Bucky, taking down a hybrid with a well-aimed kick and slamming his shield into the ground through his throat in a spray of blood as the man goes down. His head rolls to the side and is swiftly trampled by the hybrids massing around them.
Sam glances over at Steve. “Nice work. Now they’ll all be asking if they should be more afraid of Captain America than Bucky here.”
Steve glares at him. “I will not let them have him.”
Tony snorts. “Oh, we know. Pretty sure the whole world knows that now. They’re going to say that Barnes is one step away from letting the Winter Soldier take over at any time and that, worse, Captain America’s going to stand right by his side when it happens.”
“So put your people on it,” Steve says, annoyed. “You’ve got a fleet of them for just this sort of thing.”
Bucky turns the TV off and shakes himself. “You can’t rule out that that perception was a secondary goal of the mission.”
He was wrong earlier. It’s going to cost him at least four more months of therapy with Dr. Simmons, if for no reason other than to allay the public’s fears. “I’m ready to go back to Steve’s apartment now,” he tells them all.
“Not sure that’s safe,” Steve says. He looks like he’s grinding his jaw.
Bucky frowns at him. “I’ll rephrase. I’m leaving and going to Brooklyn. It’s past one a.m. Post-mortem can wait until morning. Thanks for the coffee, Tony.” He drops the blanket on the couch and tells Steve to stop wrecking his teeth with all that grinding.
After he leaves the riverside and Captain America, he hides. Given what he has witnessed today, there is an 82% chance that HYDRA will need a few days to regroup. He has no doubt, though, that they will, and then they will come looking for their lost asset. He knows, too, that they will find him. It is inevitable, and when they do, they will inject his veins with the drug. He will be punished first for failure to complete the mission, then for disobedience in not reporting back directly, then again for failure. After that, they will wipe him and freeze him and start over. When they wake him up, they will greet him with the needles and the drug. This sequence always stays with him, no matter how many times they wipe him and drown his lungs in cryo and freeze his heart.
As night falls, he huddles in a ball on cardboard and some torn newspapers and a black garbage bag, blending in with the ranks of Washington’s homeless. He waits until it’s late and there are few passersby, and then he takes his small blade in hand and cuts a line down the ragged scar on his chest. He knows the pain is inconsequential – how many times has his chest been sliced open? – and it is far less than even the injuries Captain America gave him on the hellicarrier today.
Somehow, it hurts nonetheless. The burn of the drug slowly leaving his veins makes the scar feel as though flames lick its edges as he peels them back and peers into the cavity of his own chest. He doesn’t know why he saved his mission from the river, but Captain America makes his heart beat erratically. It pounds too fast and pushes blood through his body in a way that signals malfunction. This man is dangerous to him, his heart tells him.
Looking down, he’s surprised to see that there’s a beating flesh-and-blood heart inside of him. He doesn’t know why he thought it would be metal, like his arm. He’s confused. This heart cannot be his.
When they finally emerge out of the woods and march back into the American camp, the men there look at them with equal parts amazement and relief. Behind him, Falsworth guffaws. “We’re like Venus rising out of the fucking waters.” He sounds just as relieved as the men at base look. There’s clapping and cheering, and Bucky watches Captain America take it all in.
He wants to begrudge him this, but he can’t. It’s the first time he ever remembers getting to see Steve experience this kind of reception. He finds himself smiling faintly, as much as he has since Steve broke him out of that cell of horrors.
The crowd parts in front of them, and a smart-looking woman in a green uniform and red fingernails marches up to Steve. She barely reaches his shoulders. “You’re late,” she tells him in a tart British voice.
Something clenches tight in Bucky’s chest. He looks back and forth between her and Steve as they stare at each other, and Christ, the heat between them is enough to scorch Bucky standing two feet to the side. He’s never seen a dame look at Steve like that, and he thinks he ought to be ashamed of himself for not being happy for his friend, and maybe he would be if only Steve wasn’t looking back at her in the exact same way. Bucky narrows his eyes. There’s no way he’s going to let some broad push her way in now that Steve’s all big and golden and has a body to match what’s always been there inside him.
He clenches his fists silently at his side. They still haven’t broken eye contact. Bucky sees Steve swallow. The woman’s lips part slightly.
“Hey, hey,” he shouts suddenly. “Let’s hear it for Captain America!” He sets up the cheer and the men around him grab onto it and start hooting and hollering twice as loud as before. Steve breaks gazes with the woman and looks back at him. Bucky plasters on his best ‘what can you do’ smile and shrugs as he claps. He doesn’t let his scowl show until Steve’s turned back around.
The woman catches it on the edge of her sharp gaze as she spins on her heel and marches back to the command tent.
Bucky cleans his knife sitting at Steve’s kitchen table in the middle of the night. His hand is almost healed, more than enough to take care of his weapons. The Russians and HYDRA hadn’t needed to teach him that lesson. He took a couple of bad blows to the soft of his belly because he hadn’t been wearing his body armor. He probably should have been in a hospital after the day’s fight, but that wasn’t about to happen while he was still conscious.
Steve sits at his table and buries his head in his hands. “That was too close,” he mutters. “I shouldn’t have left New York.”
Turning his head, Bucky looks out the window. The spring night wind knocks against the building. “I’m sorry you missed your visit with Agent Carter,” he tells him. The flat of his back between his shoulder blades is twitchy. So is his hand.
Steve makes a sound that’s not really a laugh. “You don’t like it when I go visit her. You refuse to go see her yourself, even when we lived in DC. And half the time when I go down to see her now, you’re gone when I get home.”
“We didn’t live in DC, Steve. You did.”
“I know that – you had – things – horrible things, inhuman things – god.” His voice cracks. “And we didn’t save you. I’m so sorry, Bucky. So goddamn sorry. Blame HYDRA. Blame the Russians, the Nazis, HYDRA, SHIELD, blame the world. Blame me. But Peggy didn’t do this to you.”
Bucky starts cleaning his knife again. “I don’t blame her at all. You’ve got nothin’ but cotton wool between your ears if that’s what you think.”
Three months after Bucky gets back to camp, Agent Carter calls him into Colonel Phillips’s tent. The Colonel says to him, “I expect you to give the agent your attention. She has my full support in this.”
“Sir.” Bucky nods. Phillips leaves. The tent flap drops down with a whoosh, and it is dim inside. Bucky narrows his eyes. “Ma’am.”
“Have a seat, Sergeant.” She offers him a cigarette. He takes it, tucks it behind his ear for later, and leans back in the hard, metal chair. He spreads his legs just a little and pulls his shoulders back, the picture of relaxation, and keeps his breath steady in and out as he watches her tap her red nails. She seats herself behind Phillips’s heavy desk.
“You refused to see a medic when you returned.”
He stays silent, watching her.
“You were tortured for two weeks. You were the only one to walk out of there alive of the men who were taken from the cells, they told me.”
“I musta been born under a lucky star.”
“You have the highest sniper scores of the entire regiment.” The only movement of her body is her fingers, drumming slowly on the desk.
“Always had a good eye.” He refuses to look away.
“Mmm, yes, I suppose you’d have to with Steve Rogers for a friend.” She smiles slightly. “A handful, that one.”
“Ma’am.” Inside the tent, all the surrounding noises are muffled. She’s not supposed to see that, not supposed to have seen Steve as he was and accepted him for it. Bucky’s the only one who gets to do that. The rest are all idiots. She sees too much. He grits his teeth and tells himself he has to wait out this wretched interview.
She takes in a short breath and rests her chin in her hand. It doesn’t come across at all as soft or coy, somehow, even if it is more utterly feminine than anything Bucky’s seen in months.
“Sergeant, in other times, I would be more concerned for you than I can afford to be now. What I care about is the fact that I’ve yet to see you miss a target that you didn’t deliberately botch, that you are second only to Captain America in every training exercise you perform, at least until you remember that you’re not supposed to be that good; that you can drink a bottle of hard liquor in thirty minutes and walk straight out the door without stumbling if you want to; that you were cut to pieces by very clever and precise men who are far smarter than I’d like them to be, and you managed to march from Germany back into France immediately after hopping up off that table.” She leans forward. “I’ve been watching you, as you might have guessed by now.”
Her lips curve in a faint smile. “Breathe, Sergeant.”
Black spots float in and out of focus in front of Bucky’s eyes. He has to look away from her. She sees far too much.
“Now, then,” she says briskly. “I don’t know what you’ve told Captain Rogers, and what he’s noticed or what explanations he’s demanded of you, but I am not him and I won’t ask what they did to you. I will, however, offer you a job.”
“I’m sorry,” Bucky whispers into Steve’s neck. “I’m so sorry.”
Steve wraps a thin arm around his shoulder. The pillow has fallen to the floor. Bucky’s new army cap is sitting at a jaunty angle on the chair next to the bed. “You’re not allowed to die, you know. You’re my best friend. Family. Don’t you dare go over there and die on me. If your ma tells me she got one of those letters, we’re through. Right there, through.”
“He told me not to die,” Bucky tells Agent Carter. “So I didn’t. End of story.” He finally lights the cigarette she’d offered him. Smoke clouds around him in Phillips’s dim tent. It’s more because he needs to do something with his hands than because he wants a smoke.
Steve has asked him eleven times if he wants to go see Peggy with him. Every time, in fact, that he’s gone when Bucky’s been around.
“Am I supposed to be attached to someone just because she’s one of the only people left alive from the world we used to know?” Bucky shrugs. “I don’t need to see her.”
Bucky’s hands are always steady when they hold a gun, a knife, any kind of weapon. They know their task and have never failed him.
“You’re my friend,” Steve said to him. Bucky replied, “You’re my mission,” and his hands faltered. They have shaken ever since, except when he tosses a blade between them, throws and catches, throws and catches, until the blade lands with a gurgle in the throat of someone who would harm Steve.
They’ve just returned from South Africa to Steve’s apartment in Brooklyn. There was a stop at Stark’s for medical help in between that took several days. After over a year of Steve living in his Brooklyn apartment, it has a familiarity and warmth to it that Bucky likes. It’s hot inside, the way the city gets, sticky and cloying in the early August heat.
Steve had persuaded him to climb onto Stark’s quinjet with him. “Look, you’re just going to follow me. You might as well come with me and help me plan the attack,” he said with a note of exasperation.
Bucky paused in the act of loading ammo into his black bag. “I’m not cleared for missions after that last bungle with the hybrids.”
Steve stared at him incredulously. A small grin twisted the corner of Bucky’s mouth.
“You’re such a goddamn jerk,” Steve told him.
When they get back to the apartment, Steve kicks his boots off by the door, throws his shield onto his bed, and slams his way into the bathroom. Bucky follows more slowly, unsure why he’s even bothering to come in, unsure whether he’s going to stay. The sound of the shower running decides him, for the moment. He unstraps a few of his guns and sets them on the counter.
Steve hollers from the bathroom, “And you’d better be here when I get done showering.”
Bucky rolls his eyes. There’s no point in – he grabs a short throwing blade from the sheath on his thigh and hurls it into the wall next to the bathroom door. Marching over, he opens the door and lets the steam billow into his face. “There is no point in having this conversation again. You made a plan, circumstances changed, I altered the plan to accommodate the new facts.”
From behind the shower curtain, Steve says, “You nearly got killed.”
Bucky scoffs. “Hardly.”
“You were bleeding out from nine bullets.” Steve’s voice is getting louder over the sound of the water. Bucky vaguely sees him moving as he scrubs himself down. “It took you five hours to wake up once I got you on the plane.”
“The mission had to be completed first. I’ve had worse.”
The strangled noise that comes from behind the curtain indicates that Steve doesn’t think this is a very good response. Bucky watches the outline of him prop his hands against the wall and lean into them.
The water shuts off. The trickle of the drain seems very loud in the small bathroom. Steve pulls back the curtain and grabs a towel. Bucky watches him wipe himself off. His body is very golden in the yellow bathroom lighting. “I could have handled them. You didn’t need to get in the way.”
If Bucky hadn’t intervened, Steve would have been injured in four places before he finally decided there was no way to incapacitate without killing. Steve’s killed a lot of men. Bucky’s killed more.
“Yeah, well, I never asked to chase after HYDRA,” Bucky finally says, softly. He turns away from the hand reaching out for him, yanks his knife out of the wall, and slides it back against his thigh. It’s 5:15 p.m. He can make it to mass if he leaves now.
Inside the church, it is dim. The August heat is held at bay by its high ceilings. Candles flicker around him. He dips his fingers in holy water and crosses himself. The faint smell of incense hangs in the air. The smell has seeped into the bones of the church. Bucky fleetingly touches Christ’s feet nailed to the cross as he makes his way to the front right side and sits down.
The priest intones, “Glória Patri, et Fílio, et Spirítui Sancto. Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculórum.”
“Amen,” Bucky replies. He breathes out.
Shortly after Steve moved back to the city, Bucky had left his skimpy bed of blankets in the half-finished condo building and gone to get coffee. He likes the sweetness typical of all coffee in this era. It was a Sunday. He walked past a church, and the doors were open in the sunny September morning. People were going in. He climbed the steps into a beautiful building with high arches and massive stone columns and stained-glass windows.
It smelled like beeswax and long years of use, like being an altar boy wanting nothing more than for church to end so he could have Sunday dinner, chicken stew with potato dumplings, and then sneak out of his room and see if he could make it to Steve’s apartment before his parents found him out. It was the same every week, the service unchanging, his impatience as constant as the call and response between the priest and the congregation.
“It’s the saecula saeculórum,” Steve used to joke. The first time he’d said this, Bucky had stared at him cluelessly. “You know, the service. It’s so long. Like the world without end.”
It was so stupid that Bucky had started laughing and that set Steve off, and soon enough Fr. Peter was glaring at them the next time he turned around and picked up the gospel. Steve swung his legs on the bench under his altar robe and started snickering again once Fr. Peter turned his back.
Years later, he leaned forward slightly from his parade rest during a briefing by a pontificating colonel and whispered, “saecula saeculórum” in Bucky’s ear. Standing front and center, Bucky bit his lip until it bruised trying to keep a straight face. That night, Steve sucked his tender lower lip gently into his mouth. Bucky hissed and ground his hips upwards against Steve’s body.
“Sunday isn’t for playing,” his mother told him over and over again. She stood with her hands on her hips and sighed. “Pick up your marbles before your sister eats them, James. And if I find you’ve worn your Sunday clothes over to Mrs. Rogers’s again and torn your pants, I’ll have you over my knee faster than you can say ‘scram.’”
He grinned at her. “Yes, ma’am.”
She ruffled his hair and smiled back, as though against her will. “My darling boy,” she murmured as she turned back to the kitchen.
“I’m not a child, ma,” he told her as he grew taller and squirmed away from her hands. “Sunday still isn’t for playing,” she said, rapping his knuckles lightly with her wooden spoon. He looked over at his dad snoring on the couch. “I guess it’s for drinking, then?”
She pursed her lips and straightened her back. “Please take your sisters outside,” was all she said.
In that first church Bucky found while Steve lived in Tribeca, Bucky made it about thirty minutes before he left. He didn’t recognize any of the service. It was all wrong, the intonation was wrong, even the language was wrong. The Latin words were on his tongue to respond with, and no one said them the way he did.
He felt a sudden rage and stood swiftly to leave. The gears of his arm ground down against one another with a harsh, metallic sound. He’d stomped into Steve’s apartment through the window by the fire escape and snarled, “You always did have a terrible sense of humor.”
Bucky smokes his cigarette and tells Agent Carter that he must have been born under a lucky star. He cocks his chin up and smiles at her. She folds her hands on Colonel Phillips’s desk in front of her and replies that she doesn’t think luck had much to do with. “I’d be more likely to place my money on a handful of Nazi scientists, wouldn’t you?”
His hand clenches on his thigh where there is no wound or chunk of flesh gouged out.
“You see, Sergeant Barnes, your American army in its infinite wisdom has another idea. Their thought is that they’ll send Captain America to perform certain … tasks that need to be done. I have explained to your generals that he’s too conspicuous and that they’re better served by keeping his image clean. Killing in war is good.” She pauses, as though thinking of what to say next. “More covert actions are not.”
Bucky scoffs. He crosses his legs at the knee. “Steve would never do the things you’re talking about.”
She smiles slightly. “I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not Honor more.”
Inside Bucky’s chest, his heart twists. It thuds right up against his breastbone with angry respect for this woman who somehow understands and values Steve as no one else has, no one other than Bucky. He wonders if she even knows what she’s trying to steal from him, and fears the answer. “To Lucasta,” he says, miming a sardonic toast.
She taps her red fingernails on the desk and looks at Bucky sharply. “They have agreed with me insofar as we are able to provide an acceptable substitute.”
He bows his head as the priest intones, “Osténde nobis, Dómine, misericórdiam tuam,” begging God to show his mercy, and Bucky says, “And grant us Thy salvation” in the Latin words he knows.
It turns out that every day at 6 p.m., there’s a church in Manhattan that serves the old mass in Latin. Bucky looked it up on his phone. He comes once a week. He prefers the weeknight services to Sunday mass. The dimness of the sanctuary is peaceful in the evening. His skin has healed over, knit back together, from the nine bullets he took for Steve in South Africa. He woke up on Stark’s medical floor. To his annoyance, Steve made him stay two days. The new flesh itches.
The priest begs the Lord to hear his prayer. Beneath Bucky’s legs, the wood of the pews is worn smooth. Saints gaze down at him. Someone slides onto the pew beside him on his right. He tenses; his metal hand feels the cool solidness of one of his knives; with his right, he crosses himself as he says, “Et clamor meus ad te véniat.”
“Let my cry come unto Thee,” his companion echoes.
“Steve better not have called you,” he says to Natasha, his head still bowed. She bows her head, too, and crosses herself in the Russian fashion.
“Of course not,” she says quietly. “He has issues asking for help.”
Bucky looks up at Christ crucified hanging beneath a colored window. “There are places he can’t go.”
Natasha looks at him sideways. “Places he can’t go or places you won’t let him go?”
Christ’s feet have blood on them. Bucky glances down. Natasha’s hand is resting on the red-covered pew between them. He covers it with his own hand. Her eyes flicker over their hands; she allows it. “When you escaped the Red Room, did you fear what you would do?”
“No. I knew what I was.” Beneath his hand, hers is motionless. Her words are straight and simple like the litany of the priest, and Bucky echoes back his response with a faint smile. “I know what I am,” he tells her. She turns her hand over and laces her fingers through his.
Natasha says, “Come with me, kukla,” and he would, but he is frozen in place by her words, that name. “I know,” she says. “They called the Widows their dolls too. We were all their playthings.” Pulling her hand back from his, she turns it palm up and shows him the faint white scars slicing across it. “I used to collect porcelain dolls. Sometimes I smashed them in my hands.” She shrugs. “It felt good.”
Bucky stares at the web of scars. He raises her hand to his mouth and presses a kiss into the flesh. The corner of her mouth turns up. “I went through a melodramatic phase for a time.”
“Let us pray.” The priest finishes his petitions.
“Orémus,” Bucky murmurs.
She takes him back to Stark Tower. “JARVIS,” she says, “James is my guest tonight. All normal protocols remain in place.”
“Don’t worry,” Bucky tells her wryly, “I’m not about to get the wrong idea.” She spares him a glance over her shoulder as she walks further into her apartment. It’s more filled with color than he would have thought, huge splashes of bold brightness in artwork on the walls. Following her into what appears to be a guestroom, he waits as she bends down and starts pulling shoeboxes out of the closet.
“Has anyone ever used this room?” he asks.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She shoves the boxes across the wooden floor at him. “A few leftovers.”
Bucky opens the one closest to him and pulls out a pale doll in a frilly pink dress. The body and head are brittle. He can feel Natasha’s eyes on him. He stares at the doll in his hand. He remembers hands on his body, manipulating him like a piece of meat, forcing him to his knees, binding him to the chair, over and over until he let them, docile like a doll, and they laughed and said, “Good kukla,” and shot the burning drug into his veins while his heart thudded dully on. “Kukla,” he says, and spinning suddenly on his heel, hurls the doll into the wall and listens to it smash. Glass tinkles to the floor. Just as quickly, he reaches down for another doll and throws that one, too, and another and another, until he is crushing them in his hand as much as he is smashing them against the wall. Blood drips to the floorboards.
Natasha sits on the floor with her back to the wall and watches. There are broken bodies and shards of porcelain all over the floor in a glorious mess, and he is breathing hard, less from exertion and more from emotion. When he pulls the last box toward him, he takes out the doll all dressed in blue and tosses it to Natasha. She catches it reflexively, and then jumps up and heaves it smack into the center of all of Bucky’s broken dolls. There’s a loud crack as it hits the wall, followed by a loud hush.
She breaks it by laughing. He slides back against the wall and down to the floor, pulling her with him. He leaves blood on her hand. She wipes it on her pants while he begins yanking slivers of opaque porcelain out of his skin. “I know what I’m capable of, and it is not beautiful,” he tells her.
She leans against his shoulder. “People aren’t built to know their own capacity for evil deeds.”
“We all have it in us. I will spend every day of my life, every moment of borrowed time I have left,” he says, “making sure Steve never has to confront this about himself.” He feels her shift against his arm.
“You really believe with everything his life has encompassed, he hasn’t —”
“Natalia. Пожалуйста.” He lays his finger over her lips.
There’s glass all over the floor. “We can’t do this here.”
She stands without touching him and walks into her bedroom without a backward glance. She strips out of her bloody shirt. It drops to the floor. “They took you from me. I remembered you, but you did not remember me.”
His clothes join hers in a pile next to the bed. “I was never yours.”
She traces the scar on his bare chest and pushes him onto his back on the bed. Her body is strong against his and sucks him in deep.
“Natalia,” he murmurs, to remind himself, and for this one night she allows him this grace.
He finds out by mistake one winter’s night. He’s coming off a late shift that he picked up extra at the docks. Tomorrow, he’ll stop at the butcher’s and buy an extra cut of meat for Steve. There are a lot of dark alleyways, forever shifting as new cargo containers are offloaded from ships and emptied.
It’s the noise that catches his attention. He shakes his head. They’ll get caught and locked up if they don’t keep it down. He peers into the dimly lit recess between the containers. There’s a big guy on his knees in front of a much smaller man. The big guy’s got his dick out, jacking himself off, as the other one fucks into his mouth.
The glint of blonde hair tugs at Bucky’s attention. The small frame, the choked-off cough, oh god, the way he throws his head back against the metal container and the bright moon shines down on his face.
Bucky’s mouth drops open. He can’t look away as his best friend gets blown by some stranger and comes all over his face, thin white spurts that drip off the man’s chin.
Bucky swallows. He presses his hand over his own dick in his pants, letting the sensation jolt through his body for just a second, and then he’s stomping forward and grabbing Steve’s arm. “Jesus Christ,” he hisses. “What the hell are you thinking?”
Surprised, Steve yanks back. He flushes. From a boyhood spent in each other’s pockets, Bucky knows that flush spreads down his entire body. He’s pictured it in a different context many times. As the surprise fades, Steve’s chin comes up.
Bucky takes one look at the familiar set of his jaw and swears. “You are so fucking predictable sometimes.” He looks at the man still on his knees, who, with a groan, comes in a mess on the stinking ground. It splashes onto Steve’s shoe. Bucky pulls a disgusted face. He looks back at Steve. “And then sometimes you’re not.”
They fight under their breath all the way home. “I heard you fifty feet away, you asshole. You tryin’ to get caught, Rogers?” “What makes you think I answer to you, huh, Buck? It ain’t no business of yours what I get up to. You got your dames, and I got – this.” “And here I’m working my tail off to bring home enough food while you’re out sucking cock like some fairy—” “Fuck you, Bucky, fuck you and the goddamn self-righteous ship you sailed in on.”
They slam into their apartment with a bang. Mr. Zorowski bangs their ceiling, the way he does every time one of them makes too much noise. Steve marches over to his bed and grabs his blanket and his jacket.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Bucky spits.
Steve throws a withering look at him. “Getting out of here. If you think I’m going to spend the night in the same room as you, you got another think coming. Wouldn’t want to make you sleep in the same room with a fairy, right?”
Bucky sputters. “And where the hell do you think you’re going? It’s April. You’ll freeze out there. Sit your ass down, Rogers.”
With his bony shoulders as square as he can manage, Steve makes a disbelieving noise. “You should be glad. Since you clearly don’t think I’m even pulling my own weight around here.”
The look in Steve’s eyes – Bucky feels his heart seize. “Shit. I didn’t mean it, Steve, you know I didn’t. I just – how could you? I can’t – not this too. I can’t worry about one more thing.”
Steve shakes his head. He’s still furious, Bucky can tell, but there’s something else there. Sadness, maybe. “You don’t have to worry about this. I can take care of myself.”
Crossing the room, Bucky tugs the blanket out of Steve’s arms. “You don’t get it,” he says. “I don’t want you to have to. You think I’m pissed off because I saw you with your dick in some guy’s mouth? Instead of some girl’s? You got it all wrong, Steve. I’m pissed because you didn’t come to me.” His heart feels like it’s going to beat right out of his chest and march over to Steve on its own accord, if it manages not to crack apart first. He knows the room is cold – it always is – but it feels hot to him, like he’s run ten miles and can’t quite breathe right and is covered in sweat.
“Why didn’t you come to me?” he asks, bewildered.
“Oh,” Steve says stupidly, suddenly breathing just as hard as Bucky is. He reaches across the small space between them and touches Bucky’s chest tentatively. Bucky watches him swallow. He feels a bead of nervous sweat track down his own temple. Steve pushes Bucky’s jacket off his shoulders, and with a look of fierce determination surges into him. Steve’s bravery knocks Bucky over, and together they fall to Steve’s mattress.
Bucky’s imagined how it would be with him a thousand times, for years. How he would taste his skin, how frail his ribs would be under his mouth, how strong his heart would beat against Bucky’s own. He would lie beneath him and Steve would slide down onto his cock, riding him slow and long.
It’s nothing like that. Later, Bucky will remind himself that he’s lucky to take whatever he can get. Steve nudges him onto his hands and knees, slicks him up, and ruts into him to the jagged symphony of his breathing on the edge of an asthma attack. “Fuck, Steve, you’re gonna—” Bucky gasps as Steve’s hips snap against his ass. Bucky chokes on a groan and hangs his head low between his forearms.
“Shut up, Buck,” Steve tells him hoarsely.
After a week of naked nights, Bucky convinces Steve that they should push their mattresses together. Steve laughs at him. “Yeah, sure, ya sap,” he agrees. “You know, you’re gonna rip that pillow if you keep biting into it that way.”
Bucky flicks his bare hip. That he can touch Steve like this now, reach out and run his hands over his body, crowd up against him and shove his thigh between Steve’s legs and feel the crinkle of the sparse hair around his dick on his own leg – “You want Mr. Zorowski to hear this?” he covers with a cocky grin. “And I’m just thinking of efficiency, is all. Better for some morning blowjobs. I ain’t the one who sleeps all over you like a limpet.”
Sometimes Bucky wakes up early, before Steve, and allows himself to touch Steve’s back so lightly the sensation barely registers. If Steve stirs, he yanks his hands away until he settles again.
Three weeks later, Bucky pushes Steve’s legs back over his head and opens his ass with his fingers. Steve rolls his eyes and tells him to hurry it up. Bucky tweaks his nipple lightly and says, “We’re on my schedule, Rogers. Your turn to slow down and zip it.”
Steve’s face lights up with challenge. “Fuck your schedule,” he says, and he wets his lips and reaches for Bucky’s cock.
When the weather warms up in May, they go on a date to Coney Island. Bucky ends up with a broken nose, locked up in a jail cell wearing Steve’s stale vomit with the McCauley brothers and a remorseful Steve.
When they finally get cut loose from the holding cell in the wee hours of the morning, Steve shoves his hands in his pockets and says, “Don’t know how I thought it was gonna go. Stupid.” He kicks his shoe on the sidewalk. A drunk stumbles past them.
“Hey,” Bucky says, “at least neither one of us is ever going to forget this one.” He claps the back of Steve’s neck and tugs him forward.
Steve frowns down at the ground as they walk. When they get home, he pushes Bucky into the bathroom and fills up the bathtub. “Gimme your clothes, I’ll soak them. They reek.”
“So do I.” Bucky chuckles. Steve purses his lips again, still upset. “Aww, c’mon, Stevie. It ain’t so bad. Just a date that didn’t go quite as planned. There’s no one I’d rather be locked up with than you, at least.”
That wrings a small smile from him. “I just wanted to show you a good time.” He runs his fingers through Bucky’s hair. Bucky sighs and leans back in the small tub.
The next morning, Steve is sitting at their little table staring at his hands. There’s a blank sketchpad next to them, and a crumpled up piece of paper beside it. “Bucky,” he says, when Bucky stirs in bed. “I’ve been thinking.”
Bucky sits up. The blanket falls to his waist. He watches Steve’s eyes flicker over his bare chest, the pale scar on it, and back up to his eyes. Some nameless worry stirs in his gut.
“You know how some stories don’t have a happy ending?” Steve says.
The thing yawns wide in Bucky’s belly. His scar itches; he thumbs it.
“You don’t deserve all the shit you’re going to catch.”
Bucky stands up and crosses the short space to the table. He puts his hand on Steve’s knee. “What are you talking about? No one knows a thing.”
“You heard the kinds of things they were saying last night.” Steve’s gaze is steady, the way it gets when he’s made up his mind about something and won’t back down.
Shaking his head, Bucky scoffs. “They were just tryin’ to get a rise outta us. Don’t be more stupid than you can help.”
Bucky slams out of the apartment, comes back rip roaring drunk that night, and slurs at Steve, “No, no fucking way, I don’t accept this, you don’t get to make this choice for us,” as he collapses on the mattresses. They’re still pushed together.
Steve enlists his kid sister Becca to get him a date. They set him up with the older sister of one of Becca’s friends. If Bucky weren’t so mad at him about the whole thing, he’d laugh. He’s never needed help getting a date in life.
Susan’s a nice girl and pretty, too, but he takes her home to the apartment she shares with three other young ladies and leaves her at her door with a kiss on the cheek.
Steve’s waiting for him when he gets in. “Well?” he asks.
Bucky snorts and shakes his head at him. “You’re a punk.” Running his fingers through his slicked-back hair, he tosses his date jacket over the chair. “I always show a gal a good time, Rogers, you know that.”
Steve’s brows draw together but he shrugs like it doesn’t matter. Like hell it doesn’t. “You’re such a liar,” Bucky sneers.
Steve shoves his hands in his pockets, but he stands straight. “You been taking care of me your whole life, Buck. So much so that you don’t even get it when I try to take care of you for just once.” He stares hard at Bucky. “And if you ever call me a liar again, I’ll knock your teeth out.”
That night, Steve pushes Bucky to the mattress on his stomach, props his hips up on their pillows, spreads his legs, and licks into the center of him. Bucky buries his face in his hands and strangles the cries that want to burst from his mouth between his teeth.
It relieves Steve so much to see Bucky dress up and take some dame out that Bucky capitulates the way he always does in the end. He goes out on dates as the months pass.
He always comes back to Steve’s bed at the end of the night.
Steve says to him, “You know I can’t be your kept woman, Buck. You already pay for too much around here, watch me when I’m sick, take me home on Sundays for dinner with your family. I can’t stay here, waitin’ all day for you to come home and take care of me.”
Bucky grins at him with a pang in his heart. “Then come out with me on dates. The girls always have a friend for you.”
Steve cores an apple and tosses half to Bucky. “You know your girls aren’t interested in the likes of me.”
“They’re idiots,” Bucky tells him. He watches Steve bite into the apple. “Steve, don’t. It’s not worth it. The docks are dangerous.”
Chewing, Steve half-shrugs.
Bucky has to do something to occupy his hands. He shoves his feet into his boots and bends down to tie the laces. “So that’s how it is?” His voice is muffled by his shirt as it falls into his face. “I’m not good enough to take care of you, but you’ll take care of me regardless of if I want it or not?”
“You know it’s not like that.”
“It is. It’s exactly like that,” Bucky says as he straightens and jabs a finger in Steve’s direction. “I know how you’re built, remember? I’m gonna be late to work. I can’t handle you right now.” He waits a second for Steve to sputter at him about being handled, but there’s only silence. Steve is staring at the floor.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, and leaves.
Later, Steve curls into his back and whispers into his skin, “Don’t give up on me.”
Bucky doesn’t answer.
Careful mothers warn their children to be cautious when they give their hearts away, while careful fathers warm their children to be even more cautious about whose heart they take for their own. For once you’ve claimed a person’s heart, there will always be traces of him in you and, far worse, traces of you in someone else.
Everyone leaves their mark.
The thing is, Bucky does know how Steve is built. He knows that Steve is expansive, like the warmth and brightness of the sun. Where Bucky contracts inward, Steve bursts outward. Where Bucky’s little apartment and the cinema two stops away and the dance hall down on Atlantic Ave and a few extra dimes in his pocket to get his shoes shined like a big man or for some smokes seem like a good life to him, Steve’s life is writ large. He’s not built the way Bucky is.
As soon as their mothers find out, they get the hollering of their lives. Bucky’s thirteen and has gained three inches on Steve.
“I ought to take you over my knee and let you feel your father’s belt,” Bucky’s ma snaps. She glances at Mrs. Rogers’s frightened face. “But I can’t even do that right now, can I?”
Mrs. Rogers puts her hand on his ma’s arm. “Winifred, I’m sure Bucky meant well.” She kneels in front of Steve. “But, Steve, what were you thinking? How could you put your best friend at risk like this?”
“Bucky will be just fine,” his mother says, although Bucky can feel the worry in the way she looks at him and presses her hand to his chest. “I’m more worried about your Steve. It’s not an easy thing to do for even the healthiest.” She looks at the bloody knife on the table and winces.
But this is all background noise to Bucky. He feels short of breath, like no matter how fast his heart tries to pump blood, he’ll never get quite enough air. He looks at Steve, and Steve looks back, and even though Steve’s face is drawn tight with guilt, there’s a rosiness to his cheeks that Bucky’s never seen, a smoothness to his movements that reveals a sudden strength. Only the eager, bright gleam in his eyes is the same.
“C’mon, Stevie,” Bucky had cajoled. “It will make you feel better, and I’ll be fine. We can just trade back and forth, and then you’ll get big and strong.”
“I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work,” Steve had said, and they’d gone round like this for months. “People exchange hearts because they love each other, not to make sick people feel better.”
Bucky shrugged carelessly. Looking back, he can barely remember being so young and carefree. “We love each other. You’re my family. So it’s okay.” None of his arguments had gotten Steve to agree with him because Steve was stubborn like that, so Bucky had had to take matters into his own hands. After school one day when Mrs. Rogers was still at work, he’d grabbed her sharpest kitchen knife and sliced down his chest. The cold metal sent screaming pain through his body, but he’d managed to cut himself open and wrap his hand around his heart. “Steve,” he heard himself say faintly as he held out his heart in his bloody hand. “Quick, give me yours.”
As their mothers yell and fuss over them, Bucky smiles, a small, pleased thing. He wonders if this is how Steve feels all the time, breathless and scared and poised ready to leap into something really big, something bigger than his frail little body can contain. It’s so amazing that he can’t even feel bad about it when their mothers drag them to see a heart doctor that neither family can afford.
The doctor scowls down at them. “Children messing with things they don’t understand. Now you’re stuck like this for two weeks while your systems adjust and heal enough to repeat the process and set you back to the way it should be.”
Bucky sets his jaw. Things are the way they should be, now. It wasn’t right before.
He smiles for two whole weeks while he sits on the steps to Steve’s apartment building to catch his breath and watches Steve race around on Johnnie Tucker’s beat-up old bike and play baseball with the other kids in the street.
They get into arguments about this after, over and over. “No,” Steve says every time. “I saw what it did to you. The way your skin got clammy, the way you caught bronchitis just five days after I took your heart away from you. It was even worse for you than it is for me. Least my body is meant to hold my heart. It’s not strong enough for your body and those five inches and thirty pounds you got on me.” The inches and pounds change over the years, wider and wider apart, but the argument doesn’t.
Sometimes Bucky gets so mad that he won’t talk to Steve for hours afterwards; other times he simply wraps his arms around his knees and sits on his bed and thinks about the way Steve’s heart felt as it gamely chugged along inside him.
There’s a dispute that the published history books can’t resolve, see, and it’s been argued over for decades. It’s well-established that when Steve Rogers underwent the vita-rays, he had a scar bisecting his chest. It’s equally well-established that Captain America bore a very similar looking scar.
What’s in question is if it is, in fact, the exact same scar. Some argue that the serum heals all scars and would have erased that one, too. Others say that even the serum couldn’t erase the history of that kind of love.
Somehow, although there were many witnesses to the miraculous birth of Captain America, by the time anyone cared enough to interview them on this particular issue, no one could agree on what they actually saw.
“I’ve been foolin’ myself, and that’s okay, but I ain’t gonna drag you down with me,” Steve tells him as Bucky throws an arm over his thin chest and puts his ear over Steve’s heart in the dark of their apartment. “But I’m real sorry I’m letting you down, again.” Bucky feels more than hears Steve sigh.
Even though Steve can’t see his face, Bucky smiles for him because that’s what he has to do. “Naw,” he says. “You’re not letting me down.”
Winter comes again. Bucky’s leaving his job at the docks when he hears the rustle of clothing and hastily smothered groans. Bucky shakes his head, wry, and walks past. The twits are barely hidden in the shadows a foot back from the edge of the cargo container.
One of them says, “Shit,” in a low, need-edged voice, and Bucky does not need to peer down the alleyway to see the small frame, the blond hair, the fierce blue eyes to know who it is. Inside his chest, his heart clenches.
Bucky’s ma says to him, “Don’t fuss. Time you think about growing up. There’ll be a war here soon. Sara Jane Thomas’s daughter is turning out fine and pretty. Maybe it’s time you—”
“Ma,” Bucky says, leaning forward. “Ma, you ever just know when someone’s never going to let you down? Not because they’re perfect– ” he snorts “ – but because that someone’s got so much faith in you that it would be impossible for you to let them down. Do you know what that kind of belief does to you?”
She glances over at his dad, passed out at six in the evening and smelling like the bottom of a bottle. She smiles sadly and keeps peeling her potatoes. “Makes you feel like the rising sun, I’d imagine.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. He looks down at his lap and runs his fingers over the little sketch he took out of his pocket.
“Wait,” Tony says. “Just – are you telling me that he believes in God? Of all people, he believes in God? God the supreme being? That God?”
“What do you do mean, Bucky of all people?” Steve’s voice is annoyed. Bucky remains where he is in the hallway. If Tony cared to, he’d know that Bucky’s there outside his workshop beyond the door JARVIS is holding open.
He can practically hear Tony roll his eyes as he tells Steve to climb off his high horse. “I mean, of course, that with all he’s seen – aliens, for crying out loud – and everything he’s been through, that he would still think there’s some higher power floating around in the sky? I don’t buy it.”
“Tony, please tell me you haven’t put Bucky through the wringer on this. It might sound crazy to you, but he’s not crazy and he’s entitled to his own belief.”
“Of course not,” Tony says unconvincingly.
Now Bucky has to roll his eyes. He slides silently through the doorway and cuts their conversation off. “You’re a hypocrite, Steve.”
Tony’s eyes go wide and he laughs. “I knew I liked you, Barnes. Captain America doesn’t believe in God? Wait till the press gets their hands on that.”
Bucky looks at Tony and cocks his head sideways. “Humans have failed me over and over,” he says. Behind him, Steve makes a small noise. “God never has.”
“And how the hell is that possible,” Tony asks, swinging his arms wide. “You are just about the most failed person ever. Hello, Winter Soldier?”
Bucky smiles slightly. “I have no expectations of God. But I never said it was easy.”
He remembers being in occupied France with Steve, in an abandoned church with crows crying overhead in the broken wooden rafters as Steve pressed him back into Christ’s crucifix and kissed him with an open mouth. “That’s why it’s called faith, dumbass,” Bucky had told him.
Steve’s right, of course. He and Tony have talked about it, although Bucky wouldn’t call it being put through the wringer.
“Why do I have a lawyer? Why are you paying for him?” Bucky asks.
Stark flicks his eyes toward him under his welder’s mask. He’s bent over the arm.
“Why not?” Stark responds.
The hum of his tools fills the room. Bucky stares at his dark hair. He says, “I’ve done all sorts of evil things. Some of them affected you directly.”
Stark doesn’t look up. “Yeah, well, never said it was easy.”
He overheard Steve arguing with Tony about the lawyer. They weren’t quiet.
“How could you hang him out to dry like that, Tony? You just gave the public, the media, the government the Winter Soldier! You’ve got your damn lawyer talking about Bucky on TV and your publicists releasing statements every week about him. Hasn’t he earned some sort of break? And here you are throwing him smack into the middle of the firestorm that’s raging out there!”
Tony makes a derisive sound. It’s not very flattering. Bucky imagines him spreading his arms wide and gesticulating. “You haven’t learned a thing about this century, have you. We don’t cover up our sins anymore. There’s no hiding in the shadows.”
“You make it sound like he’s my dirty little secret.” Steve’s voice abruptly turns from sounding angry to sounding sad. “Anything but, Tony. You have no idea what I— Right now, though, I’d settle for him being safe. HYDRA may be number one on the list of people searching for him, but they’re far from the only ones. Whether it’s because they want to kill him or use him, doesn’t matter. I’ll chase them to hell before I let him slip ag— ” he swallows “ —let them get their hands on him again. And you’re leading them right to him.”
“No,” Tony tells him, his tone shot through with confidence. “This is how you protect him. You tell the world where he is. You feed them the pieces of his life that you want them to know. You give them enough so that they stop wondering, and then you give a little more, and you remain in control of the information. That’s the game of the 21st century, Captain Rogers. Better learn how to play it if you want to save your boy.”
Bucky sits above Steve on the fire escape. He lights a cigarette; the repetitive motion of bringing it to his lips, holding it away, flicking ash off it, stills the tremor in his hands. On the street below, a group of three girls laughs. The moon is high in the sky.
“It’s a relative world,” says Bucky. “Everything is dependent on something else. Nothing’s black or white for its own sake. It changes with reference to other things. I don’t remember it being like that.”
Steve leans back slightly. His shoulder grazes Bucky’s knee. “It’s still not. Some things are absolutes.”
Bucky smokes in silence. Steve lets him. When he mashes the butt of the cigarette into the metal stair, he finally says, “And that’s why they made the man Captain America,” but his mocking has a fond edge to it.
Three weeks later, after the Commandos have been safely returned from another mission despite the insanity of a few of them, Steve at the top of that list, Bucky goes looking for Agent Carter.
Finding her isn’t hard. She’s just walked out of a bar wearing that goddamn red dress again, leaving Steve staring dumbly after her.
“I’ll take your damn job,” he tells her tersely. “But I want something in return.”
Even standing in the dirt outside a filthy bar, the ground littered with cigarette butts and the stink of stale urine, she’s beautiful. Every time he looks at her – and he’s been looking at her lots the past few weeks – his heart twists a bit more painfully inside him. She could give Steve everything, and Bucky – Bucky’s the bastard who will fight with every last breath in his body to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“You promise that you’ll do everything you can and then some to make sure he doesn’t become nothing more than a symbol, some comic book figurehead, until Captain America’s eaten up everything that Steve Rogers had to offer.”
“Oh, Sergeant,” she says. She touches his wrist lightly. “I do believe you sell yourself too short. For Steve, I would have done that anyway.”
Bucky tells Steve that he doesn’t need to go see Agent Carter in the nursing home.
This is probably because he already has.
Of course, it’s not as though Steve’s going to fail to notice that Bucky disappears for a few days here and there. Nor is Bucky dumb enough to believe that Steve hasn’t marched up to Colonel Phillips and demanded to know where he is, which is why he doesn’t bother spinning any stories for him when he drives the jeep back into camp and stumbles out, stinking and sore, to find Steve waiting for him. He’s got his sketchbook on his knee.
“Under orders not to talk about it,” Bucky says shortly.
Steve glares at his sketchbook as though it’s responsible for the evils of the world. Bucky can hear all the things he wants to say – “I’m your commanding officer; I ought to be informed of your whereabouts and missions,” and “Where did you go?” and “Why, Bucky?” – but what he does say is, “Are you all right?” and Bucky is suddenly very tired.
The thing is that when the last of the ice melts away and he’s coughed up all the cryo-fluid drowning his lungs and the drug has started to flush its way out of his system, he’s not really surprised to discover that Bucky Barnes became the Winter Soldier. His fear was never about what he’s done or might do in the future. It’s about what he is, and what he knows he’s capable of.
Perhaps this knowledge is the true reason his hands tremble.
He’s in Paris. It’s taken him a week to slip into occupied Paris and find the target, and another three days to get set up in the 7th Arrondissement in the venerable building across the street. It gives him the cleanest view into the target’s apartment, not that Bucky buys that this is the target’s rightly owned home for even half a second. Nazis allow those who serve them to rape the city as they choose.
The target has moved his wife and children into the apartment. He’s not home very often. They are. Bucky lifts the window in the half-empty drawing room of the unit he’s snuck into and gets into position to wait for the shot. The sun is shining in his eyes as it moves across the late autumn sky; this is the fourth time in eleven months he’s made this wait for someone.
Behind him, the door snicks open. In one sinuous move, Bucky rises to his feet and spins to meet the intruder, bringing the barrel of his gun with him. “For fuck’s sake, Steve,” he snaps, lowering his rifle as his heart, so calm before, pounds into overdrive. Heat washes over him with the surge of adrenalin. “I nearly blew your head off. What the hell are you doing here? And where the hell is your shield?”
Steve looks at his hands, as though surprised they’re empty. “Figured if I got caught they didn’t need Captain America on their hands.” He looks at Bucky’s little sniper’s nest and through the window across the street at the children playing in the target’s apartment. “Bucky…” His voice is heavy.
“No, Steve.” Bucky picks his gun back up and kneels by the window. “You let me do my job. You shouldn’t have followed me if you didn’t want to know.”
They wait another three hours. Night falls. The shot becomes harder to make, but Bucky knows he can. He probably could have even before his time on the scientist’s table, but now it would take a hell of a lot more than nightfall to stop him. In the blackness of the night, even Steve’s blue eyes look dark and fathomless.
The target enters the room. Bucky tenses and tracks him as he leans down and swings the little boy into his arms. Bucky has a clear view through the half-drawn drapes of the target’s window. His blood races through his veins but his hands remain steady.
Steve’s silence covers the room like a thick carpet. It’s been growing for hours, heavy and awful. The target presents his back and Bucky counts down in his head, swallowing hard on ‘two.’ He reaches ‘one’ and Steve murmurs, “Not in front of the children, no.” The horror in his voice leaches through Bucky’s skin and seeps into his heart. He shuts his eyes and drops his rifle.
The target leaves the room, turning off the lamp on his way out.
Bucky comes out of his patient crouch and lies on his back on the dusty marble floor. “What do you want from me?” he says to Steve. “Go back, let me finish this so I can come back, too.”
Steve lies down beside him and rolls over, his large body hovering over Bucky’s own. His broad hands grip Bucky’s face. “I want the war to be over. I want to be back in Brooklyn with you. I want you to never have had to do any of these things.” He huffs a small laugh. “I want a thousand impossible things. But at the moment, I’d settle for you coming back now.”
“I can’t leave until I’ve completed the mission.” Bucky’s tongue darts out to wet his lips.
Steve shakes his head. “Not physically you can’t. But you can come back to me here, now. I’m right here.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” Bucky tells him, his voice low.
“I do,” Steve says.
Tears prickle the inner corners of Bucky’s eyes. “No,” he says. “No, you don’t. You don’t get to do this, Steve.” He pushes up against Steve’s shoulders, suddenly frantic to be anywhere but caught inexorably between his arms. Steve doesn’t budge.
“It’s okay, Buck,” Steve says quietly. Bucky pounds his fists against Steve’s body, harder than he’s ever dared before, and twists beneath him, trying to break free. The sound of his panting breath is harsh in the quiet night. Steve grunts and locks his arms around him as he rolls them over so that Bucky’s on top of him. Steve wraps his legs around Bucky’s and pins him in and lets Bucky spew all the venom he has to spit.
“Don’t touch me, no, don’t,” he moans, his voice caught somewhere between a whisper and a shout. “You don’t know what I’ve done, you can’t, who I am, deep down, I know. Look at me, even now I want to yell my head off and I’m not doing it, and you know why? You fucking know why? Because I can’t, because I know what’s at stake here, and I can’t tip the target off by causing a ruckus.”
He chokes on his own spittle, and it flecks Steve’s face. He’s glad. He’s so furious, filled with rage at Steve for daring to tether him to something solid and whole. “You shouldn’t be near me, god damn it, you don’t get to do this to me, don’t you dare.” A hot tear drips onto Steve’s chin from Bucky’s face.
When Bucky finally goes limp, Steve picks him up and curls around him on the too small, too short, lumpy sofa pushed sideways against the wall, and traces a familiar repetitive pattern in swirls on his back.
In the morning, they sit side by side on the sofa. Bucky says, “Go back to base before they think you’ve gone AWOL. I’ll be a day behind you,” and in the Parisian dawn, Steve nods his head once. His eyes are still dark, but he dredges up a smile.
Maybe Steve leaves, maybe he doesn’t. Bucky can’t be worried about that now. He has a job to finish. He packs up his gun. When night falls again, he leaves the apartment and uses the shadows to slide across the street and into the target’s bedroom. The children have been put to bed. The wife is downstairs; Bucky saw her through the front window. He’s not trained in using a garrote, but it’s silent and completes his task for him.
He’s a day behind Steve.
When he gets back, he reports to Agent Carter. Her eyes are dark and heavy, too, like Steve’s, but she accepts his report. He narrows his eyes. He bets she’s never carved her own heart out and offered it to someone else. He bets her chest is bare and unscarred.
It used to be a secret thing. Now the hipsters at the coffee shop Bucky likes two blocks away from Steve’s apartment chain their bikes to the rack out front near the outdoor table Bucky’s sitting at and argue about the cut.
“So overrated,” one says, and the other responds, “No, I’d do it. My sister’s friend swears she does yoga with Sergeant Barnes and he’s got one, she says.”
“So? Probably everyone did back then. Just like Captain America.” His friend seems bored.
“Dude, that’s what I’m saying. They both have one. Douche.”
“Shit,” his friend breathes out.
Bucky gets up from his table and saunters past them. Over seventy years ago, he’d sauntered in just such a way into the medical tent for his physical. He was two months overdue. Agent Carter had cornered him. Her hair fell in smooth waves around her face. He’d seen Steve draw the shape of those waves in his sketchpad.
“Sergeant Barnes. Come with me. We’re on our way to have your exam done. You may refuse, of course. If so, consider yourself off the team indefinitely.”
“Ma’am.” He snapped off a crisp salute and glared daggers at her.
She ignored him. “I don’t care what lies you tell in there, what you omit. Just get it done before you draw serious attention to yourself. You won’t be of any use to him then.”
Bucky is the first to look away. When they arrive at the medic’s tent, he unbuttons his shirt. He watches her look at his scar and wears the faintest smirk.
She narrows her eyes. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I have an appointment with Captain Rogers.” Turning on her heel, she exits, leaving the faintest trace of lavender behind and a bitter taste in Bucky’s mouth.
Bucky’s no fool. He sees the way Steve looks at her. A little hopeful, a little confused, a lot admiring. He thinks that maybe, if he lets Steve go, Steve would get to make a real life with her. Do all the things Bucky’s never going to be able to do with him, not just because he’s got a five o’clock shadow and a dick, but also because Bucky’s not right. He hasn’t been right since he lay on that slab under the scientist’s clammy hands, or maybe since the army put a gun into his hands and called him soldier.
But who’s he kidding. He’s not the kind of person who’s gonna let Steve go, and he probably never was.
Steve has not seen the scar on his chest, not in seventy-some years. The making of the Winter Soldier is written in files dumped on the internet for all to read; Steve doesn’t need to see the story written in deep marks on his skin, too.
The cheer is dying down and the men start to disperse. Some are taken away by nurses for treatment. “Bucky,” Steve says, turning back to him finally. “You need to be seen by someone.”
Bucky brushes his words away. He gestures with his eyes to the woman who looks at Steve like she knows him.
“Oh! Bucky, this is Agent Carter.” Steve smiles. He can barely look away from her, it seems.
She holds out her hand. “Sergeant Barnes, lovely to meet you finally.”
There was a moment on the table when the scientist leaned over his chest and traced his finger down the scar there. Bucky had shuddered from the terrible churning dread he felt in his belly.
He shakes Agent Carter’s hand, taking in the pleasure in Steve’s eyes as he does so, and wonders if he really made it off that table.
“Don’t try to redeem me.” The words are flat.
“Attack near Garrison, NY, 3 civilians killed: was the response fast enough?” scrolls across the bottom of the TV. “Eyewitnesses tell us that the Winter Soldier and the Hulk were allowed to roam freely as Iron Man handled the main action. Preliminary reports state that the Winter Soldier and the Hulk acted to contain and corral the hybrid men-machines that appear to have been created out of escaped convicts, but a closer look at available footage reveals the terrifying speed at which the Winter Soldier reduced the main attack force. Why did it take Captain America three hours to show up?”
Except for the news playing on the TV, Steve’s apartment is dark. Bucky flips on some lights. He sits down at the kitchen table and disassembles a gun for cleaning.
Steve swings his leg over the bar stool opposite him. His face is streaked with dirt and dried blood. He looks tired.
“Shower, Steve. Go to bed.” The rhythmic motion of cleaning and oiling his weapons calms Bucky.
Steve doesn’t move. Bucky flicks his eyes over to the TV. Anderson Cooper says, “We want to caution you that this might be disturbing footage.” A shaky video plays of Bucky leaping off the roof he landed on and stalking after a small breakaway force. He incapacitates them one at a time as he catches up to each of them, slicing through muscle with his knives, blowing out kneecaps and putting holes in the middle of hands gripping guns, while the hybrids scream and rage, until their leader refuses to go down without Bucky having to kill him.
Watching this on the screen, Bucky tilts his head. He can see all the ways he tried not to kill the man, wary of Tony’s warning not to use lethal force as it won’t play well for the public, but he failed in the end. On the screen, his face is expressionless as he executes the leader. The video cuts away just as a swarm of more than fifty of the hybrids takes advantage of his fight with their leader to pour themselves over him.
He resumes cleaning his gun. “You killed a lot of people today, Steve. You shouldn’t have done that.”
Anderson says, “Did today reveal another side of Captain America? Some are asking if this is the true face of the man who’s supposed to protect us all.” The TV flashes an image of Steve, his face twisted with rage, splattered in blood, yanking his shield out of a man’s belly. It’s a stark contrast to Bucky’s blank face as he goes down under the mass of fifty hybrid men all bent on taking him out.
Steve picks up one of Bucky’s knives. Bucky lets him. He can’t think of anyone else he’d let do that. Steve is twirling it between his fingers. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he finally repeats, incredulous. “What was I supposed to do? Let them take you? Because I saw what was going on – they weren’t trying to kill you. They were trying to capture you. And I’ll be damned if – ” He slams the knife into the kitchen table and leans forward, burying his hands in his hair. “Fuck.”
“I hated you, you know,” Bucky tells him. “You let me fall.”
Steve’s shoulders stiffen. He makes a noise. “You should hate me.” His voice cracks and he looks straight at Bucky. “You think that I don’t blame you? You picked up that shield, you fell off that train, you got yourself captured. You left me to finish that war on my own. What the hell was I supposed to do?” He hurls his words like knives at Bucky.
“Divebomb your plane into the Arctic in a suicide run, apparently.” Bucky smiles back at him, feral.
“Everyone thinks that the serum enhanced everything. So there’s this idea that Steve Rogers was some sort of great kid, and the serum magnified these wonderful qualities. Biggest load of crock I ever heard. You’re no saint.” Bucky picks up the knife Steve had slammed into the table and bends it in two with his metal hand, never blinking away from Steve.
The TV drones on in the background. TV-Steve twists a man’s hand backwards; his eyes are hard as the man’s own gun discharges in his face. The TV shows only Steve’s face, not the other man’s.
Steve’s face is hot and flushed. He wets his lips and leans forward. “It’s worse than that,” he says hoarsely. He reaches out and runs his finger over the tip of the knife Bucky has curved in on itself. A drop of blood appears.
“I – Sometimes I’m glad all those horrible things happened to you. I’m glad you went through all the shit you did.” Steve looks down at the blood glistening on his fingertip. When he meets Bucky’s eyes again, his own are red-rimmed. “Because if you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have you here now. You wouldn’t still be alive.”
Once, just after Bucky got back from Zola’s table the first time, Steve had stripped down to his green army pants and taken a knife in his hand. Bucky hadn’t even noticed the knife to begin with – it was the first time he’d seen Steve’s body since Steve turned himself into a lab rat. His torso was dense with muscle, thick slabs overlaying one another. In the chill air inside the tent, his nipples were dusty pink and taut.
“Jesus,” Bucky had said, looking at him. He groped for the back of the chair behind him, suddenly dizzy. It was like the ground had cracked under his feet, or like getting the wind knocked out of him after a long fall from a great height, leaving him disoriented. This was Steve now, and Bucky barely recognized him, this perfectly formed stranger.
The world righted itself when he noticed the knife in Steve’s hand. “For crying out loud, put that thing away.” Of course Steve would think that now was the right time to cut his heart out and give it to Bucky, as if Bucky hadn’t spent years begging him for exactly that. Now that Steve was big and healthy and the shoe was on the other foot, he’d sacrifice himself for Bucky the way he’d never let Bucky do for him. “I ain’t that sick. Just need a good night’s sleep.”
“They tortured you, Buck,” Steve said, his face pained. “Let me do this for you.”
Bucky scowled. “Fuck you, Rogers. You can take your pity and shove it.”
Now, seventy years later, he looks at the drop of blood beaded on Steve’s finger, and he reaches out and draws Steve’s finger to his lips. Blood smears his lips red. He watches Steve’s eyes darken as he lets go of Steve’s hand. His finger lingers on Bucky’s mouth. A few minutes ago, Bucky had told him he hated him for letting him fall. Bucky shakes his head. The movement jars Steve’s finger off his skin.
“I don’t mean that you let me fall from the train that day in the Alps. You didn’t let me fall any more than I meant to fall. Not talking about that kind of falling.” He picks up his reassembled gun. The bent knife he leaves on the table. This isn’t something he can explain. “If you’re not gonna shower, I’ve got dibs.”
He leaves Steve staring at his back.
The thing is that it wasn’t just once. Steve even goes so far as to cut his chest open and hold his heart out in his bloody hand. Bucky looks at him with tired eyes, wild eyes probably, turns around, and leaves his quarters. He bunks with Morita that night and lies there, his bedroll useless under his head and his legs crossed at the ankle as he smokes. They’ve just gotten back to London from a month in Germany.
The eerie blue flash of HYDRA’s ray guns streaks behind Bucky’s eyelids whenever he slips and lets them fall shut, but he’s got to leave again in two days, on his own, for one of his solitary missions. Steve found out. “Some things aren’t a two-way street, punk,” Bucky had said a few months ago. “I follow you, not the other way around. How it’s always been, and even Captain America can’t change that one.
“What if you break?” Steve had said, his voice low.
Bucky had flipped him off. “Nice vote of confidence.”
Steve hadn’t smiled. He’d pinned him with his steady gaze and shaken his head. “Seems like everyone does eventually. If you go on like this. Let me help.”
Seventy years later, Bucky accuses him of being no saint, but the truth is that Bucky’s the one who’s the farthest thing from being a saint that anyone could imagine. He’s selfish, so selfish, and one day he might just give in and try to claim Steve’s heart for his own.
It doesn’t matter that he’s seen the other things Steve wants, how he looks at Carter; doesn’t matter that Bucky has no intention of being anyone’s sacrifice; doesn’t matter that Bucky knows his own heart isn’t strong enough for Steve now, damaged as he is. Maybe he was always this way, he doesn’t know, but the cracks are visible now if you know where to look. He supposes Steve must know because he keeps trying to fix him, the way Steve Rogers always does, without a care for himself.
The night after Steve cuts his chest open, ten hours before he’s got to make his way back across the Channel on his own, he waits until Steve has bedded down before padding silently back down the hallway to his quarters. He’d gone to mass earlier. The army chaplains aren’t quite like Fr. Peter, but here in London there are churches steadfastly keeping their doors open despite the nightly pounding of the bombs. The colored glass in their windows quakes with nearby explosions. Some of them have been blown out. The priest entreats the Lamb of God, Agnus Dei, who takes away the sins of the world, to have mercy on all, and Bucky echoes, “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.”
In the darkness, he looks at Steve. He’s not even using his blanket. This big body of his radiates heat. His chest rises and falls, and the line running down it is barely even pink, though it was only 24 hours ago he sliced it open and offered his heart to Bucky.
Bucky slips across the room and sits down on the bed beside Steve. He holds himself motionless except for the one finger he cannot stop, reaching out to trace down Steve’s chest.
“Bucky,” Steve murmurs sleepily. He reaches up and pulls Bucky closer. Guiding Bucky’s finger up from his chest, he licks it slowly before sucking it into his mouth. Bucky exhales and chafes his thumb lightly over Steve’s warm lips. It feels like his entire body is inclining incrementally toward Steve. He wants to rub his skin over Steve’s and taste all the dark, hidden places of his flesh.
Steve’s abdomen flexes as he draws himself closer to Bucky, holding himself effortlessly midair so that he can nose at Bucky’s jaw and the tender skin below his ear. “You smell like church,” he says, and “Take your pants off.”
The cot is narrow, not meant to hold two soldiers, and Bucky’s dick juts into the hot space between Steve’s thighs. Even though it’s rough and pulls uncomfortably at the thin skin of his cock, Bucky can’t help pushing his hips down and dragging his dick against Steve’s body. A drop of sweat falls between Steve’s thighs, and Steve gasps and jerks his hips up as Bucky’s belly brushes past his dick. His hands are broad on Bucky’s ass. He flexes them involuntarily, and the strength in them makes Bucky bite down on his lip against the noise he makes.
Steve’s eyes darken. He says, “Can I – I need,” and Bucky says, “Yes.” The word is barely out of his mouth before he’s flipped over on his back and Steve is suddenly everywhere. His hands palm Bucky’s ribcage as he trails an uneven line of kisses across Bucky’s shoulders and chest. He presses his nose under Bucky’s armpit, making Bucky squirm and prickle with sweat, before mouthing his way lower. Bucky’s torso is littered with red marks from his teeth; his nipples are pulled taut. It’s like being caught in a storm and tossed back and forth in a relentless, rough caress.
Steve finds the thin white scar on his chest. He breathes over it. His mouth doesn’t touch it, his hands don’t touch it, only his moist breath. Bucky finds himself straining up, as though he can bring it up to Steve’s face, and it’s an unbearable moment of forever before Steve groans something that might be his name, and presses his mouth, open, against it.
He kisses every inch of it, lingering, bottom to top and back down again, before moving further down Bucky’s body, and Bucky shivers and thinks of the words of the doxology in the mass two hours ago, laudámus te, adorámus te. Steve spreads Bucky’s legs apart so he can lick the crease of his thigh and bury his face in the crinkled hair around his dick.
Bucky’s not sure how long Steve gives himself over like this. All he knows is that he’s thrusting up into Steve’s mouth and Steve’s dick is trailing a wet line against his leg and his teeth are chattering and he feels like he’s falling.
He thinks how much he wants to hate Steve for refusing him for so long, how maybe he even does sometimes for refusing his heart when Steve refused him nothing else, when now Steve offers his own so easily, meaninglessly, with this strong body and Carter and this war and that scientist with his clammy hands and all the things Bucky’s never going to have standing between Steve’s bloody chest and Bucky.
“Shh,” Steve tells him, and he surges up Bucky’s body and pins him down so that Bucky can wrap himself around him and rub his body against him until Steve makes a strangled sound and his body jerks and he hides his face in Bucky’s neck.
Seventy years later, Bucky traces a drop of blood beaded on Steve’s finger over his own lips and calls dibs on the shower after another fight with HYDRA. At the edge of the kitchen, he turns back to Steve, who’s still sitting at the table, his back to him. Bucky can see him staring at his finger and the faint smear of blood on it. “Everyone breaks sometime, Steve. I broke a long time ago.”
As he strips his armor and undergarments for his shower, his fingers feel the crease of a crisp piece of scrap paper in his pocket. He smoothes it out on the sink counter and leans down, pressing his forehead into it.
He goes to the nursing home just after Steve’s moved back north to New York. He waits in Peggy’s room a long time, very still, a shadow in the corner, until after she’s had her breakfast and the nurses have left and her eyes are clear.
This is the fourth time he’s come. Her eyes were cloudy the first three, and she did not know him. She screamed, the second time. He didn’t like it, and he left.
“Sergeant Barnes.” Her voice belongs to an old woman. It is dissonant in Bucky’s head. “For heaven’s sake, sit down. You’re giving me a crick in my neck.”
He sits on the edge of her bed. They stare at each other. Finally, “You survived,” she says, and he tilts his head sideways and says to her, “I won.”
She smiles at him. It is the smile of a person who has lived a full life, and a happy one, despite sorrows, and in that moment he wishes violently that her dementia would suddenly overtake her mind, right now. “You might have beaten me, Sergeant, but you wouldn’t be sitting at my bedside if you’d really won,” she tells him.
On his way out, she calls after him, “Have you found a way to make it worth it?”
He remembers later begging them, after his first kill, not to make him do this. They call him doll and pet his head. “Kukla, we are only showing you your own ability to take necessary action,” they tell him in false tones meant to soothe. He’d prefer the pain of their knives and saws to this.
Zola puts him on his stomach and carves open his spine. He fuses metal to bone. “You should not suffer, Soldier. Suffering leads to inefficiency.” Something clacks against Bucky’s vertebrae and sends numbness down his right side. “I have begun work on a new drug meant just for your unique physiology. You will not suffer any longer. We will take it all away for you.”
Bucky trembles. He’s glad Steve is dead so that he cannot see Bucky end up in the place where he’s already been going for a long time.
On the fire escape in Brooklyn, the evening is warm and quiet. The summer humidity wraps around Bucky’s knees and under his arms. He flicks ash through gaps in the rusted metal railing.
“I think there’s something wrong with me,” Bucky says.
Steve shoots back instantly, “Buck, there’s a lot of things wrong with you,” and then he starts, as though hearing his own words. His body freezes while chagrin spreads over his face, and Bucky stares at him and blinks and bursts out laughing, and Steve suddenly relaxes and starts laughing too, and they laugh until Bucky’s stomach wants to hurt. It’s been two years since Bucky pulled Steve out of the river. It’s time to be done dancing around his past as the Winter Soldier and how it fucked him over.
“I keep waiting for something. I have everything I need – food, money, a place to live that’s warm. This isn’t some fight slogging in and out of mud and misery every day. And even though I know that HYDRA and about two dozen other groups are still out there, trying to get one or both of us – I don’t know.” He exhales a long breath of smoke and passes the cigarette to Steve.
“I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Tell me how to live like this.”
Steve knocks his knee against Bucky’s. “I’ll tell you when I figure it out. Cross my heart.”
They sit in silence for a few minutes. Bucky says, “How’s your photography class going?”
“There’s going to be a student exhibition in two weeks when summer session ends. Just our final projects being displayed, but – ” He smiles slightly as he glances sideways at Bucky. “You’ll come?”
As though Bucky would miss it.
Steve leaves a fall course catalogue lying on the kitchen table. It could have just come in the mail. Bucky knows it didn’t. It took three days after getting back to Brooklyn for Steve to let go of the South Africa mission. Bucky still doesn’t quite see the issue – it’s simple in his head. He got shot, Steve didn’t. Mission a success.
“Nine bullets,” Steve yelled the last time he pointed this out. “You lost five pints of blood and took five hours to wake up. Just so I didn’t end up with a few broken bones or bullet holes. Mission not a success!”
Three days later, the catalogue appeared on the table. Bucky thumbed through it and left it open to the pages detailing the courses offered by the school of engineering. His court-ordered therapy will be over in September, even with the extra months that got tacked on after the incident with the hybrids on the Hudson. Stark’s lawyer had advised him to take the deal – no court proceedings, no trial. Just the stipulation so-ordered by the Southern District of New York, in which he agreed to weekly therapy with regular reports by Dr. Simmons filed with the court for the longer of twelve months or a sign off by Dr. Simmons.
At his most recent session two days ago, Simmons had asked him, “What next?”
Bucky cocked his head. He tapped his finger on his thigh where two of those nine bullets had pierced him through a few days ago. “I’m going to build something. I’m tired of taking things apart.”
Steve says, on the fire escape, “Tony will help.”
Shaking his head, Bucky says, “Naw. I want to do it on my own. I don’t need Stark’s handouts for this one.” Beneath his thighs, the metal is still warm from the day’s strong August sun. The night is still, no breeze to cool it down, and there is sweat prickling on the back of Bucky’s neck and down the line of his back.
Steve’s knee is pressing against his and he is telling Bucky that there are absolutes in the world, the solid, true knowns around which all relative things and the rest of the universe revolve, and he says, “My photography professor is going to host an exhibition of our work after class ends.”
“I’ll be there,” Bucky promises.
Steve leans against him and traces a pattern lightly into the top of his thigh, like a sketch on a piece of paper.
Two years after he dragged Captain America from the Potomac, Bucky sits in Steve’s kitchen and disassembles his gun so he can clean it. He says, “You killed a lot of people today, Steve. Probably shouldn’t have done that.”
“Right,” Steve says. He’s standing on the other side of the table, fist clenched. Bucky’s pretty sure he can hear his nostrils flare in outrage. “I was supposed to let them capture you? Tell me, if they get their hands on you, what do you think they’ll do?”
Bucky runs the bore brush inside the barrel in smooth, repetitive motions. “Drug, wipe, cryo,” he answers. “Start over.”
In 1944, two nights before the Commandos get word that Zola is on a train crossing the Alps, Steve and Bucky talk about visiting Fresno and Morita’s favorite ice cream parlor after it’s all over.
There’s a small smile in Steve’s eyes. “That’s a nice idea. Thinking ‘bout when the war is over.”
Outside the tent, the others are chatting in low voices, telling stories about their girls back home that they’ve all heard a hundred times before. They disperse slowly and the embers of the small fire they risked die down. Bucky turns inward toward the heat of Steve’s body.
Something cold and metal presses against his hand. The tip is sharp as it grazes Bucky’s skin between their bodies. Steve pushes the flat of one of Bucky’s knives into his palm. Steve’s eyes glint in the darkness. His chest is bare and inviting.
“Everyone breaks sometime, Buck,” he says, and Bucky closes his fist around the knife Steve has just handed him.
In late August 2016, more than a year after Bucky first visits Agent Carter, she asks him if he’d like her to apologize for not saving him. He doesn’t tell Steve, but he comes to see her almost as often as Steve does, although unlike Steve, he doesn’t come through the main entrance. More and more, she does not know him. Today, though, she does.
Movement at Peggy’s window catches Bucky’s eye and makes him stiffen. The almost cool morning breeze stirs the flowered curtains. Outside, birds chatter to themselves in the oak trees. He forces himself to relax.
“Did you know?” His voice is level.
When she answers after a long pause, her voice is tired. It catches on her words. “I did not. But – I knew what Arnim Zola did to you during the war, and I still let him work in my agency. For the greater good. I have since come to learn that there is nothing more dangerous than that.”
He looks away. “Steve came to see you last week.” There’s a faint thump above them. Bucky looks up.
She follows his gaze to the ceiling. “I believe one of the nurses said there would be men working on the HVAC today.” She smiles, wry. “Although it’s possible that was last week.”
With a slight cough, she nods her head. “They told me that Steve came here a few days ago. I don’t recall his visit. I think perhaps you’ve visited me more than I remember as well.” Bucky doesn’t confirm this.
She says, “If there is any piece of the Winter Soldier that is recognizable to you, Bucky Barnes, it is because against all odds you managed to preserve some measure of yourself in him, despite all that was done to you.”
The birds have fallen silent outside.
He replies, “Are you sure about that? Maybe, given the right set of circumstances, Bucky Barnes was always going to fall into being something else.”
“Not you,” Peggy tells him with steady eyes. She sighs and reaches her hand out toward him. She can’t stretch far enough to touch his arm, though the metal plates shift over one another in anticipation. “Sergeant, you are, perhaps, the only person who ever thought there was a real contest for Steve.”
Through the gauze of the fluttering curtains, he sees a dark shadow. Bucky narrows his eyes and tenses. Other than his right hand slipping into his jacket, worn despite the DC August heat, to grip one of his guns, he remains motionless.
“Oh, Steve loved me,” she continues, “just as he still does and always will. But it is that very constancy that marks him. He gave you his heart a very long time ago, did he not?”
Peggy looks over at his right hand, now at his side with the gun in it. She smiles. “Another reason to never come through the front door. So much easier to smuggle in weapons.”
He meets her eyes and holds up six fingers. “On this floor at least.”
“Oh dear,” she says calmly. “Are they after you or me?”
Bucky shrugs. “Does it matter? I have to move you.”
Shaking her head, she says, “You are not bound to me, Sergeant Barnes, despite your apparent feelings on the matter. You should leave me. I know you can slip out of here undetected, keeping your hard-won freedom with not a scratch on you.”
There are footsteps in the hallway.
“Go on, then, get out of here.”
He hands her his gun, safety off. “Shoot anything that moves.”
There is a secure room that is not on the floor plans. If he can get her there, backup will be here before they can breach it. Bending slightly, he cradles her in his arms. “Steve will never forgive me if I leave you.”
She laughs and pats his cheek. “Steve will never forgive me if any harm should come to you. I’m dying anyway. Let me go out fighting, living the way I do in my own head.”
“I can’t,” he tells her, and he opens the door. Fast moving shapes of men in dark tactical gear explode on the scene as the bullets start flying from their semi-automatics. He runs as fast as he knows how, using his body to shield Peggy. Her aim is still sharp. He twists around corners and leaps down three stairs at a time with her frail body pressed into his. The grip of his metal hand will leave bruises on her lined flesh. There is blood spreading rapidly over his clothes. He isn’t wearing body armor. Something is leaking inside him, some organ that should not be; he pushes away the blinding pain of it and concentrates on putting one foot in front of the other, just the way he was taught.
He has to lose them so that he can secrete her away safely. Regardless of who they came for, he’s the most desirable target. As long as she’s with him, she’s got a bull’s-eye on her forehead. He stumbles, and she says, “Steady on, soldier.” He is dripping blood, leaving a trail. Up a side set of stairs – there are footsteps pounding after them – and around three corners until finally he reaches a door that leads to another door, one that shouldn’t exist and doesn’t on any piece of paper or in any computer.
“I’ll lead them off. Go through this door and take a right. There will be another door. JARVIS will let you in and take you where you need to go. Stay there.” Her floral housecoat is bloody. As he talks, he binds the gushing wound in his thigh.
She grips his arm weakly. “Come with me.”
He shakes his head. “I’ll lead them right to you.”
“You’re going to get half a mile and collapse. You’ve lost too much blood.”
He smiles ever so slightly. “You and Steve both. Worrying about my blood loss after I get shot up.” He presses a folded piece of paper into her hand and closes her fingers around it securely. “You need to get there while you can.”
The footsteps and yelling are getting closer, and he’s starting to feel lightheaded. He knows that if he had left her, he’d be a on train back home by now; and if he went with her to hide in that room, JARVIS is strong and might be able to protect them both until rescue comes, or he might not; and if he turns around and keeps running up the stairs to lead them away from this floor before he staggers out into the open, there’s a 95% chance that they’ll take him down in under an hour but will never find her.
“I need you to remember something for me, Peggy. Please try.” He opens the door for her, taking care not to leave any trace of blood on the handle. “Give Steve that paper. And you tell him that this is not the end of the line, not a fucking chance of it.” He doesn’t know if she’ll remember or if this, too, will fade into grey haziness. He kisses her forehead. “Now go. You crawl as fast as you can until you reach that door.”
On her hands and knees, she moves through the doorway after he checks it. “Bucky.” She looks back over her shoulder. “You believe in God, I think. You have faith.”
He is focused on gathering strength to make a dash up the stairs and across the building so that he can jump from the third floor. At full strength, this would be no issue. Now, with at least seven bullets in him, one in his gut twisting through his insides – it is no matter. His assessment tells him it’s the best available option. The Winter Soldier has walked away from worse.
She says, “Then you know that he will never let anyone else touch you, never again. Not God himself, nor all his priests and all his kings and all his madmen.” She lets the door close quietly behind her.
He fell a long way down. There was snow by the river, and it turned red with his blood. The Russians came and dragged him away.
They saw his arm off. It is slow and he feels every long minute that passes. Hazy figures loom over him as he screams. He is bound to a cold metal slab of a table, and as the weeks pass and they cut him and inject him and riddle his body with electric current, he becomes confused. Did Steve get big? Did he drag him off this table before? Did he ever get off this table?
At night, huddled in his cage, curled around his wounds and burns, he rocks back and forth. “32557038,” he mutters to the walls. He knows they’re listening. “Sergeant James Barnes, 32557038.” In his head, he imagines his right hand tracing a shape on the metal floor. The stump of his left arm is useless, which worries him more than anything. He doesn’t speak Russian and his German is only passable, but the interest his captors are displaying in the stump is alarming or would be if he weren’t feeling so numb and tired. “We wait,” they say to one another. “ждем.” Another nods.
He’s not sure how long it is before the door opens one day – one night? – and a small man with a pig nose and beady eyes walks in.
Bucky focuses his eyes on the scientist and begins to thrash madly against his restraints. He moans, “No, no, no, no, no,” and screams when Zola puts a proprietary hand on his leg and smiles at him. His wrists and ankles scrape raw against the metal bands binding him.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Zola greets him. He claps his hands once, surveying him with pleasure. “Ah,” he exclaims when he sees the stump of his left arm. Picking up a sharp metal instrument, he pokes at it. Pain like searing lines of fire streaks through Bucky’s shoulder and down his back.
“Hold him still,” Zola snaps at the men standing around him. He tsks. “They left far too much of the arm here. We’ll have to address that.”
He picks up a clipboard that has a stack of papers on it, notes and measurements about Bucky’s body, and mutters to himself. “Yes, here and here. We can fuse it to his skeleton to bear the weight of the new arm. You know, Sergeant Barnes, I did not realize the last time we met how valuable you truly were. Captain America’s best friend. You should be proud. I can think of no one I desire more to continue my work with.”
He looks down at Bucky’s bare chest and traces the scar with a gentle finger. Bucky struggles to twist away but he is held tight. “Oh yes. You contain a great heart. You are a treasure indeed. When they told me they had recaptured you, I could scarcely contain myself. I snuck out of Switzerland and into Russia as fast as I could. Such foolish Americans to release me into custody, as though my work will be stopped by mere mortals. I suppose they told you your Captain is dead.”
Bucky freezes. For the first time since Zola walked into the room, he quiets. He stares at him.
“Ah, they did not. No matter.” He smiles. “I’m afraid he crashed a plane into the Atlantic a week after you fell from my train. I suppose Erskine’s serum couldn’t cure all his weaknesses.”
“I don’t believe you.” Bucky’s voice is hoarse, a mere scratch.
Zola rests his hand over Bucky’s heart. “You will. I could almost regret it. I should have liked him to be present to witness the great deeds you and I will perform.”
He pauses. “Forget James Barnes, Soldier. His life is over. Yours is just beginning. I will make you strong.”
When they land in New York after returning from South Africa, Steve has one of Stark’s choppers take them straight to the Tower for medical treatment. It’s two days before Stark’s medical team agrees to release Bucky to go home to Brooklyn. He doesn’t stay long – just enough time to argue with Steve while Steve’s in the shower – before heading back into the city to attend mass.
The crucifix on the wall of the church drips blood from its hands and feet. Christ bows his head and Bucky does, too, as he echoes the priest, “Sed líbera nos a malo,” and prays to be delivered from evil.
He leaves Natasha’s rooms the next morning and doesn’t return to the apartment until after the sun has set that night. He walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and turns around when he’s almost back in the borough to look at the bright lights of the city.
Steve is sitting on the couch with only a lamp on when he keys open the door. Bucky walks down the hallway and examines the place where he hurled his knife yesterday. At the edges of the clean line cut deep into the wall, plaster flakes away.
He turns and faces Steve. “Do you ever regret it? Taking the serum?”
Standing, Steve jerks his head sideways, a negative. “When they brought me out of the ice, there was no worse thing than waking up in a world where you were never going to be. So no. I can’t conceive of any way I’d be better off, if it meant you would have had to keep waking up in a world where I wasn’t there for you, over and over again.”
Bucky watches Steve’s eyes drop to his lips. He is suddenly, acutely aware of his own harsh breathing and the arrhythmic pounding of his heart. There’s no reason for it, no reason for this prickle dancing across his palms and fingertips, for the heat that his own heart is pushing through his entire body, except that Steve’s been doing this to him for eighty years and he figures it’s not likely to stop anytime soon, whether he touches him or not.
Steve closes most of the distance between them. Bucky lets his back press against the wall next to his knife’s damage. Steve stands an arm’s length away. Bucky can almost feel the heat radiating from his body. The apartment windows are open, and the air conditioning is off. Neither of them likes it. The unforgiving sultriness of the New York summer night curls around them both.
“You don’t get it,” Steve tells him. He steps even closer, into Bucky’s space. “I’d put my hand on a gun and pull the trigger and kill not just myself but you, too, if that’s what it took.”
Bucky shakes his head. He leans forward, unwilling and unable to stop himself. He wets his lower lip with his tongue and inhales Steve’s breath. “No,” Bucky says against Steve’s lips. “I want to live. I’ll fight to see this world, to have the chance, just the chance to live. And I’ll drag you with me until you cry out for mercy.” Steve’s lips are soft and slightly chapped, and the taste of them is familiar and clean even though he hasn’t tasted them in seventy-two years. They taste a little tired, like the end of the day, and he wants to lick into them.
One of Steve’s arms locks around Bucky’s waist, underneath the black material of his hoodie. His hand slides up, past the three silver knives tucked into sheaths under the cloth, and the other reaches out for the edge of Bucky’s face.
Turning his head, Bucky nips at the fleshy pad of Steve’s hand. A small guttural noise catches in Steve’s throat. Bucky brushes his mouth over Steve’s lightly, a slow back and forth that sparks something hot low in his belly. When Steve pushes forward against him and catches his lower lip between both of his, Bucky digs his fingers into Steve’s back and pushes right back. He rocks his hips into Steve’s.
“I want to live, too,” Steve tells him, gritty and intense. His hands bracket Bucky’s head against the wall, and Bucky grips the back of his neck and pulls him in.
The world and all he knew of it is spiraling around Bucky, sucking him down like a great whirlwind swirling in an endless storm of pain. Zola proudly holds up an empty syringe and says, “There, there. You are trainable after all.”
This drug that Zola’s invented – it writhes in his veins like snakes made of ice and HYDRA’s tentacles, whips of flame. His skin is melting and turning itself inside out, and no amount of hopeless thrashing will take away the pain. Zola raises his scalpel and slices down his sternum. Blood bursts from the cut. The metal heart inside him flutters weakly.
The only thing not strapped tight is Bucky’s head. In a fit, he lifts it up long enough to see his own skin peeling away from his body, leaving a burning mess of red muscle and blood. Steve is there, blurry and out of focus, at the foot of his metal table. Bucky whispers against the rawness of his throat, “I wish you’d let me give you my heart,” and Steve shushes him, looking winded and spent and too proud to cry. “Let’s not have that fight again, not now. It wouldn’t fix anything. There’ll be time later.”
“Yes,” Zola tells him, “the drug will cause hallucinations from time to time. They will fade as you become accustomed to its effects.” He leans over Bucky’s chest, peering into the bloody cavity, and sighs. Without warning, he reaches in and yanks out the metal heart. Bucky cries out and arches up against his restraints. He has only moments before his body will start to spasm and his vision grey out.
Zola holds up a clear glass container. Inside is Bucky’s human heart. “You continually reject my gift to you. Your aorta refuses to pump blood back into the metal heart I have given you.” He opens the glass jar. “I know what they say. They look at the scar on your chest, and they know of the scar on his, as the entire world does. This heart –” He grasps it with his hand. “– they say it isn’t yours at all. That this is Captain America’s heart, the last piece of him. And that that is why you will not yield.”
As quickly as he ripped the metal heart from Bucky’s body, he plunges his flesh and blood one back in. With a great gasp, Bucky draws in a shaking breath.
“Oh, my soldier. You will be like the winter, cold and deadly. We’re so close now. Soon you will be the perfect weapon, and all this, all this pain, will be a thing of the past. Because I know the truth of it. Shall I tell you what I know?”
He leans over the heart beating in Bucky’s chest, and Bucky goes very still. Zola whispers, “There is no piece of Steve Rogers left in this world. And every day he fades a little more from your mind as with each passing second your mind belongs more wholly to the new world order you shall help create. He carried his heart to his grave, and it died with him. It was never yours to hold or carry.”
Bucky exhales slowly, shuddering. He turns his head away from Zola. A tear traces a streak down his cheek as he shuts his eyes.
“I’ll leave you now to ponder this.”
Hours pass. Someone sews his chest back up. He takes no notice. They force him to drink water made bitter with vitamins; he swallows as they pour it down his throat. The sun sets and the sun rises and sets again, and still Bucky keeps his eyes closed against this awful world he now exists in.
“Open your eyes, Soldier.”
Bucky does. He sees the cryo tank being wheeled in, and a chair with restraints and a headpiece.
Zola gestures, and techs undo Bucky’s straps gingerly. Zola waves his hand as though this is foolish. “Our soldier is no threat to us. Soldier, go sit in your chair.”
“Open your mouth, Soldier.”
He does. Someone jams some sort of mouthpiece in.
“Close your mouth, Soldier.”
Peggy’s right, of course. He doesn’t get much farther than half a mile before he’s surrounded by a black-clad HYDRA Strike team. He thinks it’s the bullet lodged in the right side of his liver that’s causing most of the trouble. Too much blood. If only he could have reached the highway he can see through the woods surrounding Peggy’s retirement home and hijacked a car. He hopes she made it.
As the Soldier has done countless times before, he pushes the pain aside and draws on every last bit of energy he has left to become a whirlwind of motion, to fight them with everything he’s got and quite a few things he doesn’t. If he’s going down, he’ll take them down with him. Someone grunts, and another person yells in pain as his arm connects. He dodges more bullets and the butt of a gun. But once again – the last thing he sees is a blue flash, and then his body seizes and everything goes dark.
He wakes up in the chair. He doesn’t know how long it’s been, but he’s been out long enough that his wounds have been patched up and are starting to heal. At least a day, then. There’s a stabbing burn in his gut. His arms are strapped down and someone’s shoved the mouth guard between his teeth.
“You’re back,” Rumlow says. His skin ripples, heavy pink-silvery burns covering almost all of his exposed flesh. His words are twisted somehow, as though it hurts him to form them. His right leg drags slightly as he circles Bucky. “Doctor, the drug?”
Someone behind Bucky laughs and pats his head. Bucky jerks against his bonds. A gentle voice hushes him. “Shh, kukla, it’s over now. You can rest.” The tank sits still and dark in the corner against the wall. Bucky swallows convulsively against the memory of the cryo fluid pouring into his lungs, drowning him, freezing him, holding him close like a false lover.
There’s a pinprick in his neck. A burn spreads swiftly through him as the drug begins to flay his mind from his body. He arches up with a scream, splitting open his bullet holes. Blood drips down his torso and legs, and before his horrified eyes, it pulls with it huge strips of flesh. Somewhere in his mind he knows that this is the effect of the drug and not reality, but his body shrieks as the drug takes it apart. His mind will be next. The tendrils of the drug creep in at the edges already, dulling his senses and confusing him. From far away, someone says, “We’ll need to lock him down for transport.”
A soothing touch on the back of his neck and the whispered words, “Let go, Soldier,” and the drug finds the pathways it traveled for so many years and spreads insidiously through them. It murmurs to his mind and body a familiar welcome and dances through every defense he desperately tries to raise against it, stealing pieces of memory and washing away the things he loves. And it would be so easy. Easy to give in, to sink back under, to fade out, to turn off all the pain.
Except that his heart is still beating in his chest, and the one thing he owes Steve, the one thing he owes himself, is to keep going, to fight through and live with the knowledge he carries in him each day. He’s going to miss Steve’s photography exhibition, he realizes. As if from a great distance, he hears someone say, “Wipe him,” and then his lungs are filling with cryo-fluid and he can’t breathe and can’t scream and he is drowning, and his eyes are wide open as the world freezes around him.
When Bucky comes back from mass in the city, he shoves his hands in his pockets and looks at the wall where he hurled his knife yesterday while he fought with Steve about the mission to South Africa. He watches Steve stand and his eyes drop to Bucky’s lips. He lets Steve press him into the wall next to his knife’s scar. Sweaty heat prickles between them as he slides his hands onto Bucky’s bare skin beneath his clothes, past the knives tucked against his body, and kisses his mouth.
Through their clothes, Bucky feels the hard press of Steve against him. He rocks his hips into Steve’s, and bites back a broken sound when Steve’s strong hand squeezes his ass and pulls him closer. To his right, the bedroom is dark save for the light from the street coming in the window. He steps right, bringing Steve with him around the corner, across the room, and down onto the bed.
He manages to kick off his boots with a thud even as Steve is yanking the shirt over his head. The rest of their clothes land somewhere on the floor. Steve’s skin under him is hot to the touch. His dick brushes past Steve’s, and a shock of sensation kicks through his body. Steve’s mouth and hands are touching him everywhere, leaving his blood pulsing like a trail of fire.
He slides into Steve’s body with Steve’s legs bent back, and it’s like being unmade and refashioned. He locks eyes with Steve. Steve’s mouth has fallen open, his lips bitten red, as Bucky pulls out slowly and slams back in, burying himself to his balls. The bed rocks with them. There is only the sound of the mattress springs squeaking and their breath coming in harsh pants, and beneath all that, the frantic beating of their hearts.
Steve clenches around him. Bucky whimpers and bends down over his body as Steve surges up with a ripple of muscle to meet his mouth. “What are we doing,” he murmurs into Steve’s mouth, and Steve murmurs back, his lips pressed against Bucky’s, “I don’t know. I can’t stop.”
Bucky slides his thumb into Steve’s mouth, rough, and drags down his lip. Steve chases it and bites down. The clean sting of it shivers through Bucky’s spine as Steve drops his legs and rolls them over. Bucky’s dick slips out of his body and rubs the cleft of his ass. Steve’s breath breaks.
He straddles Bucky. The hot suction of his body sinking down, enveloping Bucky, makes Bucky lift his hips to meet him. Steve fucks himself slowly on him, and each time he speeds up, unable to help himself, and nears the breaking point, he slows back down again. Their bodies are slick with sweat.
Steve’s eyes are heavy-lidded, a look Bucky hasn’t seen in seventy-two years but that still makes his heart trip over itself. He thrusts up into Steve’s body faster and faster now, and Steve’s laugh ends in a gasp, and Bucky’s metal hand curls into Steve’s skin, marking it, even as his flesh hand finds the back of Steve’s head and draws him down.
Lying together after, Steve rests his fingertips on Bucky’s neck. His eyes are hard and clear as he says, “You are my absolute.”
Bucky flexes his arm against the twisted sheets and the metal plates slide with a mocking susurration. “There’s no such thing as a happy ending,” Bucky tells him, hushed.
Steve trails his fingers down Bucky’s neck and the seam of his metal shoulder joint where it meets flesh, and down across his chest. “Then I’ll take this instead,” he says.
He wakes up on Stark’s medical floor. It’s quiet but for the soft beeping of monitors. Steve raises his head from the side of the bed. There are bags under his eyes that even the serum can’t fight until he gets some sleep.
“Bucky,” he says. It’s almost a sigh. “Too many bullets. You have to stop that. Stop sacrificing yourself for the mission.”
Bucky turns his head on the pillow. He swallows the ice chip Steve places on his tongue and doesn’t say, “You’d do it, too,” when Steve tells him to stop.
Instead he says, eyes steady as he watches Steve’s tired face, “You are my mission.”
Late summer sunshine streams through the little kitchen window. Steve sits at the table, drawing. His camera rests a foot away from his hand. There’s a bigger table in the living room where it would be easier to sketch, but he always ends up back in the kitchen, the same way Bucky does when he cleans his weapons. Bucky wanders in for a drink and ends up picking up Steve’s camera and flicking through the photos.
“Nosy,” Steve mutters. “You always were.”
Bucky slings his arm around Steve’s shoulders, the way he used to all the time when Steve was small, so that he can peer down at Steve’s sketchpad. He can only do this now when Steve is sitting down. Standing, he’s too tall.
In the corner of the pad, Steve’s drawing a heart, one Bucky’s seen a thousand times. The aorta curves its familiar arch over the atria. Bucky puts his finger on the edge of the paper, and it does not shake. Steve bats it away. “It’s not done yet.” His pencil continues skritching away until he leans back, looks at Bucky, and tears the heart off the rest of page.
Bucky picks it up, folds it in half, and puts it in his pocket.
Steve’s leg is thrown heavily over Bucky’s bare body. But for the shifting of the shadows on the walls as the moon moves through the sky, time would seem to have no meaning in this space they’ve created between them.
Steve slides his thumb into Bucky’s mouth, rough, and drags down his lip. “Promise me.” He bites the words into Bucky’s skin and then brushes away the sting of pain with his fingertips. “Because I’ll burn the goddamn world.”
“Don’t soothe me,” Bucky tells him. Steve’s skin is flushed and hot against his own. “Don’t you fucking kiss my face and the side of my mouth. My eyes. You’re not allowed to, don’t you fucking,” he gasps as his body curves helplessly into Steve’s and Steve places his hand over the hammer of Bucky’s heart.
There is no promise he can make and Steve knows it as well as he does. Steve’s fingers trace a line down the great scar on his chest before the warm palm of his hand comes to rest directly over his heart.
Bucky exhales. The most he can say in this hazy, hanging nighttime is, “I’ll never let you go,” low and unwavering, and there’s a hitch in Steve’s voice, something not quite a laugh or a cry, when he swears, “I’ll find you if you do.”
It’s promise enough.