i've learned of many pains and woes from these years of my own life
but why is it that i'm still aching inside?
– Glow, English lyrics by кran
Growing up, Steve wasn't quite sure what to think of about his blank wrist. His mother, Sarah, had a name on her wrist – his father, Joseph Rogers – and Bucky had a name on his wrist when Steve met him, but there was no name on his.
“There will be a name there one day,” his mother told him when he asked. “Everyone has someone out there for them; they're just not always born at the same time as you.”
Steve thought about that, but it wasn't exactly true. Bucky's mom didn't have a name on her wrist and neither did the nice lady who lived three apartments down from them. The only difference between them was that Bucky's mom had gotten married to a man who never said anything about the name on his wrist and the nice lady, Miss Johnson, hadn't.
“Just because they don't have a name on their wrist doesn't mean that there isn't someone waiting for them.”
Steve was five and thought that his mother had the answers to everything.
– – –
When Steve was eleven, the stock market crashed. That was when his life started to fall apart.
Steve classified his life as Before and After. There was life Before where things might not have been easy, but that was a time when he was happy, when his mother smiled and his father was a little bit distant but a steady constant in his life. After, there were shouting matches in the night and his father came home smelling of smoke and cheap whiskey; his mother would be in the kitchen in the morning with bruises.
He knew better than to ask.
When things got really bad, when his father was yelling and throwing bottles, and his mother was working, Steve stayed with Bucky. Things weren't good with Bucky, but at least his parents weren't yelling at each other and at least Mrs. Barnes never stood in the kitchen with blank eyes and bruises on her arms.
He could hear his parents yelling at each other through the thin walls of the apartment. He wanted to cover his ears with the pillow on Bucky's bed, but Bucky was there beside him turning up the radio and that was enough.
Mrs. Barnes gave him a sympathetic look when he had to leave in the evenings.
“If you ever need anything,” she said, her voice soft and her eyes imploring. “You know you always have a place here, Steve.”
“I know.” He tried to smile but his cheeks hurt too much.
She nodded, not looking convinced, and ruffled his hair, “You should get home, your mother will be worried about you.”
She never mentioned his father.
– – –
His father never laid hands on him, but Steve knew he was the focus of most of the arguments. If they weren't arguing about his health, how expensive it was to treat him, then he was yelling about how worthless Steve was. He tried not to let it show how much the words hurt him.
“You're perfect the way you are,” Sarah said. She ruffled his hair at him and smiled, but it looked painful and wrong; her cheek was swelled up and an ugly shade of blue-black. “Don't listen to anything he says about you.”
Sarah kissed his forehead before tucking him into bed and leaving the room.
Steve lay there for several long hours, staring at the ceiling. His father had fallen asleep on the couch, drunk, and smelling strongly of liquor. Steve had long since gotten used to the smell.
But the words he'd said when he'd stumbled into the apartment kept playing across the ceiling, like they were written in smoke.
“Damn worthless kid doesn't even have a name on his wrist; kid's broken and you know it.”
Broken? Yes, yes he was. Steve knew that. It was in the tone of the doctors when they tut-tutted over how underweight he was, how his immune system wasn't good enough, the asthma, the heart murmur; he wasn't going to live past his fifteenth birthday, the doctors said. It was a shame, they said, but perhaps for the best that his wrist stayed blank.
Blank. Steve heard the word everywhere, always whispered behind hands. If you were a blank, then you weren't worth anything.
He looked at his blank wrist and wished for a name to appear. Maybe then he wouldn't be such a failure as a son, maybe then his mother wouldn't look at him with those sad eyes.
No matter how many prayers he sent, a name never appeared.
“Do you ever regret it?” Steve asked.
“Your father?” Sarah blinked, pulling Steve closer so that his head was resting on her shoulder. “There are times I do, yes. But he gave me you. That's more than I could ever ask for.”
“He hurt you.”
Her grip tightened, just a hair but Steve noticed it. “We're all hurting right now. It's not... it's the drink.”
But that wasn't true, because his father had had that haunted look on his face before he started drinking – sometimes. There were times Before when he would sit and stare at the wall for hours and not say a thing, but he would snap out of it when Sarah laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. Then he would start, look around and see her and smile, place his hand on hers and squeeze.
Those were good times, those times belonged to Before. It wasn't Before anymore.
Even then, the smiles never seemed to reach his eyes. His eyes always had this distant look to them, like the sky that you could never reach.
Steve's parents taught him that, just because there was a name on your wrist, you didn't always get your happy after.
Steve stood in the doorway to the kitchen and living room, watching his father with empty eyes. He tried to picture the happy, smiling man that he saw in pictures but he couldn't. All he could see was a man who was too drunk to care about anything except his own misery.
“S'no wonder you got no name... who'd want... want a cripple piece o' damaged goods like... like you?” He kept hiccuping, tried to take a drink from the bottle he was holding and slopped most of it down his front. He didn't notice. “Should've just left you... worthless bit of goods what you are...”
Silence, except for Joseph's continued mumblings, fell over father and son. Steve didn't move from his position in the doorway, watching until his father passed out on the couch. The bottle fell to the floor with a loud clunk.
You should just die, that voice in the back of his head said. Then none of this would matter.
He was a Blank. He was no good to anyone.
Mr. Barnes was stoic as always at the funeral. He stood there the entire time, just staring off into space, even as they lowered the coffin with his wife's body into the ground. Bucky was trying not to cry, but Steve nudged him and a couple of tears slipped out.
He didn't say anything about it.
The only people present were Steve, Bucky, Sarah Rogers, the priest, and Mr. Barnes. Steve's father was passed out at home. It didn't feel much like a home anymore.
Steve and Bucky had helped pay for the funeral; they'd been scraping together money from any odd jobs that they could perform. It was expensive, but they'd somehow managed.
Afterwards, life went back to how it was before.
right for once.
Life was hard. Bucky's father passed away a few years earlier, same illness that took his wife – Consumption, people whispered, that's what it was – which left Bucky alone. Even though he was old enough now, life was still hard and difficult and he had nowhere else to go; he moved in with Steve and his mother.
“Why not go find your soul-mate?” Steve asked, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Bucky glared at him – and probably would have kicked him too if it wasn't for the fact that Steve was twenty-one, built like a tooth-pick, and spent more days of the week bedridden than he did on his feet. “It's not that easy.”
“You've got his name on your wrist which means he's got yours.”
Howard Stark. That was the name on Bucky's wrist. Everyone knew who the Stark family was; they were like American royalty – rich, famous, big weapons contractor. Isaac Stark was always in the papers for some reason; the last big party he'd thrown, what new developments he'd made, anything really. His wife, Helen, was at the top of fashion.
It was also common knowledge that they had a son, Howard.
Steve didn't really understand why Bucky just didn't try to find him; if he did, then he'd get out of this hellhole that they were stuck in, barely scraping by and always about to be turned out onto the streets. Steve couldn't hold down a job but he'd managed a couple of small commission pieces for magazines and newspapers – there were people out there who'd take his art and pay him for it. His mother was working overtime at the hospital, trying to eek out just a little bit more.
“Yeah, well, y'know that people fake the names on their wrist?” Bucky was staring at the wall, looking like he was fancying whether or not to kick it. “They'd probably just think that I was faking it. Besides, this is where I belong. If he really wants me, then he can come find me.”
Steve rolled his eyes, “Idiot.”
Steve was alone. Well, except for Bucky.
They got kicked out of the apartment a few days later. Steve left most of the stuff behind, packing a handful of photographs of his parents during better times, some clothes, and his art supplies. Really, there wasn't much that was left anyway.
Nothing but unhappy memories and a reminder that there was no one waiting for him. He was alone.
After that, Bucky and him got by mostly on odd jobs. Bucky managed to get a better paying job doing some factory work and Steve managed a couple of free-lance jobs as an artist, nothing too strenuous. His health was remained as poor as ever.
Doctors were hard to pay for and they didn't have the money anyway, so there wasn't much that they could do besides try and manage the symptoms as best they could. Steve scraped by and the two of them made the best of what little they did have.
They often didn't stay in one place for long; bouncing from one cheap apartment to a shelter or another cheap apartment. Steve cooked when they could afford it, other times they'd line up at a soup kitchen and hope that they got something.
Steve knew about the stash of newspaper clippings that Bucky kept in his suitcase. He didn't say anything about them, but he knew the subject of all of them: Howard Stark.
“You should just go find him, I'm sure he's looking for you.”
“He'll live,” Bucky replied, turning over on the thin mattress to stare at the stained ceiling; it was leaking in one corner. “You, on the other hand, keep picking fights and getting beat up in alley ways.”
“I can look after myself.”
“Sure you can.” Bucky snorted and rolled over, ending the conversation.
Steve stuck his tongue out at him. He really could look after himself. Bucky, though, Bucky had a shot at something special, something Steve would never know, and he was willing to throw it all away.
He could almost hate him for it.
Blank. The only good thing about him was that there was no name on his first. That was a lucky thing. No one to mourn him when he died; he'd thought that was a good thing in war, no one to write home to, no grieving widow or sweetheart to worry about.
It wasn't enough. He was too weak, too skinny, he had asthma and his heart wasn't very good either. If they put him out on the field, he'd just be dead weight.
Steve was used to doors being slammed in his face. He'd never have a partner, someone who loved him unconditionally, because he was worthless. He stood up, he tried to do the right thing, but all it got him was a punch in the face – usually more than one, he refused to give up – and another person telling him that he should just give up.
He never did.
It didn't matter how many times Steve tried, there was no one who would give him a chance. If it wasn't his asthma, it was his heart; he wasn't strong enough, he'd just be in the way. He'd heard it all before.
'S no wonder you don't got a name on your wrist.
Who would want a scrawny, sickly thing like him? It didn't matter what his mother had told him, he wasn't the kind of guy women were lining up to dance with. They'd probably worry about stepping on him.
But Steve didn't let that stop him. He'd keep pushing himself, he'd keep standing up for people who couldn't; it didn't matter so much if that meant he got beat up for it. He wasn't the one who needed to beat up people smaller than him to prove a point.
“You know, sometimes I think you like being punched.”
Bucky hauled him to his feet, watched him with a concerned eye as he dusted himself off and wiped the blood away from the corner of his mouth. That was Bucky – always coming to his rescue.
“You get your orders?” Steve asked, keeping that twinge of resentment he felt out of his voice. Of course Bucky got in with no problems; he could charm anyone he met and he had the advantage of being fit and healthy, no asthma or heart problems to speak of.
“107th, Sergeant James Barnes, shipping out tomorrow morning.” Bucky looked proud of himself, a smile playing about his lips. He was planning something.
Steve snorted, “I should be going with you.”
“Don't be like that; c'mon, it's my last night and I've got plans to see the future.” Bucky threw an arm around Steve's shoulders, pulling him forward and shoving a newspaper into his hands.
Steve flipped it open to find an ad for the Stark Expo. Normally, he would have said something, but there was a spring in Bucky's step and he was grinning so much that it had to hurt. Steve hadn't seem him this happy in a long time.
“Finally decided that you'd go after him?”
Bucky shrugged, “Figured I'd at least get one last look; no point to introducing myself since I'm shipping out tomorrow. Maybe when this is all over there'll be a chance for something.”
Steve rolled his eyes and didn't reply.
He didn't notice Steve slipping away when he spotted the recruitment posters.
If he could fight and make the world a better place – help end the war – then it would be worth it. Maybe if he got out there, he could make a difference. There was no one waiting for him and there never would be; there was no one to mourn him if he didn't come home.
He would fight. He couldn't do anything less.
Steve couldn't help but smile at that; she certainly didn't take kindly to men treating her like she was anything other than the trained government agent that she was. He could respect that.
There was just something in the way that she held herself that demanded respect. It was also a little intimidating. But the little quirk at the corner of her mouth that betrayed her amusement made Steve smile, just a little, just like how she punched a recruit flat on his back when he gave her lip.
She definitely had quite a bit of iron in her; it took a lot to stand up like that. Not to mention making her way in a man's world.
Steve wondered, sometimes, during training, if maybe there was a chance for him to have that happiness that he saw in all the old movies. The ones where all of the battles were fought, the war was won, and at the end the couple met, revealing that they had been destined for each other the entire time.
Of course, the snag for that little fantasy was that Agent Carter obviously had a name on her wrist. There was just no way someone like that could be broken the way he was.
“What are you waiting for?” Agent Carter asked him, when they talked about dancing on the way to his procedure.
“The right partner.” I think I found them.
She smiled and, Steve thought he'd imagined this, pulled a little on the cuff of her uniform, revealing her left wrist.
There was no name there.
He had a chance.
He wanted to do something. Steve hadn't felt this angry before. But a good man was dead. A man he knew, respected, looked up. It wasn't fair.
The serum might have worked, but he still didn't have his chance. Or, at least, not the way he'd originally thought of it.
The tights were just uncomfortable.
She was, Steve blushed to admit it, pretty. Fair haired with bright green eyes, the way she carried herself reminded him a little bit of his mother. She didn't have the same iron to her that Peggy did, but there was a strength there in the way that she walked, carried herself.
“I, um, it's very nice to meet you.”
Steve thought he looked like an idiot.
“You're going to want to get used to this,” she told him, once they were done with a flurry of cameras and reporters. He was still in the stupid uniform. “The government doesn't want anyone to know that you're a Blank – well, besides those who already know. I'm your cover.”
“Oh.” He hadn't thought about that.
Sharon just smiled, “Go get changed. Those tights can't be comfortable. We can talk more then.”
“I haven't found him yet,” she said. “I was told that if I helped you out, that they'd help me find him. Chances are, he's probably somewhere overseas right now. I mean, he'd probably be about your age and almost everyone I know is trying to help out somehow.”
“That why you volunteered for this?”
Sharon hummed thoughtfully, “I chose to do this for a lot of reasons. I wanted to do something to help out; I could've gone to work in a factory, but when I tried, someone swooped in and asked me if I 'wanted to fight for my country on the most important battlefield of the war.' I kind of expected that it was some experimental all-women unit, not this.
“But when they briefed me on what I was supposed to do, I said yes. I wanted to help and if I can help by doing this, then I'll do it. Maybe I'll find him and maybe I won't; I'm not going to let the thought of the what ifs ruin my life or stop me from doing what I can.”
“Senator Brandt approached you too?” He could believe it, the man seemed to have every angle covered.
“He's in charge of this entire show, so yes he did,” Sharon shrugged. “What about you? I saw you in the papers when you caught that Nazi.”
“It was either this or be stuck in a lab. At least this way I'm doing something.” Steve couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Sharon gently placed a hand on his arm and squeezed, “You'll get your chance, don't worry about that.”
The two of them fell into a comfortable silence after that, just watching the rain as it hit the windows. They were sitting in a little lounge, overlooking the streets of New York below them. It was the first time in a long while that Steve actually felt content.
“I don't know – maybe?”
“Oh, I know that tone. Who's the lucky lady?”
Steve looked down at his hands, feeling his cheeks flush, “I met her while I was – before all this happened. She's got a mean left hook; you just look at her and know that she's gonna go places. She's wonderful and, well, beautiful.”
“Do you know how she feels about you?” Sharon was leaning forward eagerly. “She sounds like an amazing person.”
That made Steve smile just a little, “Yeah, she really is.”
Leaning close, Sharon pressed a kiss to his cheek, “Take care of yourself, Steve. And good luck.”
She pulled back with a wink, pretending to dab at tears with a handkerchief. But her eyes were bright and her smile was real. He'd miss her; she was a good person.
Steve managed a smile for her, leaning in to kiss her cheek as well. “You too. I hope you find him.”
“Oh I will, don't you worry about that.”
As she walked away, chatting with the reporters for a few moments before blending into the crowd of New York streets, Steve could almost picture what life might have been like with her. Sharon might not have had Peggy's iron or her left hook, but she strength too. He'd miss her.
But he wasn't hers and she wasn't his; another Steven Rogers would be lucky enough to know just how wonderful a woman she was.
He meant it when he wished her the best. She deserved it.
He could do this. He was going to do everything he could. Schmidt was out to dominate the world solely because he thought he was entitled to it. Schmidt didn't care who he hurt, who he had to step on and over, to get what he wanted.
Steve was going to stop that. He might have just been a kid from Brooklyn who got a chance, but he had the power to make a difference.
He was going to damn well do that.
him than he'd been before.
“What made you change your mind?”
Eventually they'd managed to find one of Bucky's uniforms that had survived and was in decent condition. Of course, Bucky still was bruised and dirty and there wasn't much that could be done about that beyond attempting to clean himself up.
Bucky sat down next to him, still looking ragged and bruised but better than he had before. It helped that he was smiling, a little bit of the mischievous glint back in his eyes.
“Well, when they were experimenting on me, it was kind of all I could think about, y'know? And, well, I kind of thought that if I could just make it out of this alive, I'd do it. I'd tell him. 'Course, I thought that I'd have to write back to the States until you told me he was here.”
“I thought you'd like to know.” He didn't feel so bitter; he had a chance, maybe, at something with Peggy. Maybe it wouldn't be perfect, but it was more than what he deserved.
“Yeah, well, thanks.”
The two of them just sat there for a few more minutes in a comfortable, friendly silence.
“Well, here's hoping that I don't make a complete fool of himself,” Bucky said eventually, standing up and dusting off his uniform.
“You'll do fine,” Steve rolled his eyes and stood up. “You always do fine. I'm the one who can't figure out how to talk to a girl without making myself look like an idiot.”
“Dunno about that; you manage with that pretty agent just fine.”
Steve blushed, “You think?”
“She likes you. I guess it's part of the charm.” Bucky shrugged as they walked across the camp, towards where Howard had his little workshop set up. “But hey, congratulations. I was starting to worry about you.”
“Yeah, at least now I know I'm not the only one making sure you're not making stupid choices because you're the self-sacrificing type of guy. You'd jump in the way of a tank if it meant that someone else would walk away from it.”
Bucky paused, thoughtful, “If you jump in front of a tank, I'm going to punch you for being an idiot.”
When they entered Howard's makeshift workshop, the man in question was buried up to his elbows in the engine of a Jeep. His sleeves were rolled up past his elbows and there was grease smeared on his arms and face; his shirt and vest were probably not as clean as they'd been when he started.
Steve rapped his knuckles against the table as they entered, “Mr. Stark.”
Howard jumped, dropping the wrench he'd been holding, “Rogers, what can I do for you?”
“I've got someone who wants to meet you.”
“You do, huh?” Howard was wiping his hands on his pants, which didn't do much. His eyes drifted from Steve to Bucky and Steve could've sworn that the world had just jerked to a stop under his feet.
Quite suddenly, Steve felt awkwardly like the third wheel on a bicycle.
Howard had zeroed in on Bucky, “You are?”
For his part, Bucky stood a little straighter with a grin playing at his lips, “Sergeant James Barnes. I thought I'd kept you waiting long enough.”
“Are you jealous?” Peggy asked, sitting beside him.
“A little, he's my best friend. But more than that, I want him to be happy. Howard makes him happy, so that's all that matters to me.”
Peggy smiled, “I'm sure he'd say the same thing about you.”
Steve smiled and flushed just a little. The two of them fell into silence after that, just watching the happy couple as they talked.
Despite the lingering bruises, Bucky looked more alive than Steve could ever remember him looking. He was laughing at something Howard said, ruffling the millionaire's hair affectionately. Howard tried to look affronted, but it didn't work because his face broke out into a huge smile.
And Steve thought that war was an ugly thing, but at least there were still beautiful things in the world. He glanced shyly at Peggy and smiled.
Sometimes, he knew, they snuck off for a moment or two alone. They'd come back with silly grins on their faces and clothing a little mussed up, lips red an sporting suspicious marks on their necks. But that was just how things were. Steve never said anything about it.
So long as Bucky was happy – and, obviously, Howard made him happy – then it was fine. They had a job to do and they'd get it done.
Steve's eyebrows were in his hairline, “Really? You and Howard?”
“Well, why not?” Bucky shrugged. “We've talked about it; his father's pretty set on the whole you find your soul-mate, marry 'em, and have kids schtick. It's not like we're gonna marry anyone else.”
“How are you even going to have kids? You don't exactly have the equipment for that.”
Bucky shoved him, “Shut up. Howard's got a friend who's willing to help us out with that. I like kids. It'll be fun; you can be an uncle. How's that sound?”
“Sounds good to me.” Steve smiled at the thought.
“You thought about asking Agent Carter? You know she's got a thing for you, right?”
He blushed, “I... I know. I was thinking about it. You know, when all of this is over.”
“Then we'll just have to take Hydra out and end this war.” Bucky nodded to himself, “Shouldn't be too hard.”
“Alright, let's get this done.”
He should've – he could've done something.
It was all his fault.
Steve stared at the red liquid then downed it without a single thought. It tasted bitter but he was still stone cold sober.
All his fault.
He hadn't been able to face Howard when they got back. All those promises broken. It was his fault. He'd let Bucky down; had let him fall. There was no excuse for that.
He should have done something.
Steve tightened his grip on the glass, a wave of anger crashing into him. The glass cracked under his grip but he didn't care. He'd make Hydra pay.
No matter what it took. He would see to it that Hydra was completely destroyed. He would do it. For Bucky. For Howard. For everyone whose dreams and lives had been crushed by Schmidt's unquenchable thirst for power.
He swore he would end Schmidt.
The ice and sea were rushing up towards him, Steve could see it through the large windows and there was a bitingly cold wind whipping at his hair and face through the broken panes. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath right before the plane crashed into the ice.
Steve was thrown forward against the console before he was knocked back into the seat and then he hit the floor.
There was water rushing in. Cold. He tried to breathe but inhaled water instead of air. Choking. It was cold... so cold... then...