Later, he’ll think of how naïve he was to ever think he could get through the war like this.
Right now, though, he’s been blessed with science and Peggy’s smile and he runs on optimism and stubborn determination.
Steve is going to rescue Bucky.
He’s running east, deeper into the German woods, east into enemy territory in his borrowed helmet and his pants that are tight over the spandex he didn’t take the time to remove.
It’s so easy to overlook that he’s in a war zone, even as he weaves and wends through trees and ducks under barbed wire. Even as he has to crawl through trenches lined with rotting corpses, it’s not entirely real. He hasn’t managed to make himself feel it, to internalize that these were people once. It feels staged, a distant bad dream that he’ll wake up from as soon as he’s back in camp.
Steve only gets the aftermath, the bodies arranged in macabre positions and the blood drying in the dirt. It’s not so bad, they expired long before he got here.
He didn’t have to watch them die.
He hasn’t had to watch anyone die. He’s been pampered, eating regular meals. Has to fill out his tights, has to look wholesome and strong for the audiences that never fail to fill the house. People don’t want to see the wiry underdog harrowed by the ravages of war. They want the rosy-cheeked farm boy, tripping over himself in his eagerness.
- - -
“Innocence sells,” says the sleazebag who’s signing his checks backstage one night in Oklahoma.
Steve knows this, and tells himself he doesn’t mind, but it sounds so dishonest when it’s actually said out loud. But he’s helping, and this way he doesn’t have to shoot other men, and that’s fine, because he wasn’t lying when he told Erskine he didn’t want to kill anyone.
Then they ship him across the ocean and he’s made to play to real soldiers.
Real soldiers. The kind he wanted to be.
Steve stands there in his bright colors in the rain and the mud, feeling stupid, and for the first time in months, he wonders what the hell he’s doing.
It occurs to him for the first time that he’s been so very wrong, that he’s let himself be carried along in the arms of pageantry. He’s had the terrible privilege of sitting in a tent with 40 beautiful women, insulated from the rain and the gritty vulgarity of a soldier’s life. He’s known nothing of shitty rations and amputated limbs and not enough morphine, and he hates himself a little, because the men out in the cold deserve to be safe and warm and fawned over, not him. Not Steve from Brooklyn.
He doesn’t feel like he’s earned this, because all he did was bear a few minutes of unbearable pain and then this was all handed to him.
These men though, they’ve killed and been shot at and run around in mud and snow and seen their friends die and cried for their lovers in the rain. They've killed so Steve didn't have to.
They’ve proven themselves, they do the work, but Steve’s face is the one they’re showing at the pictures.
He’s heard them, walking to the latrine and back. Hears them, raucous and bitter, complaining, itching for a fight. Filthy krauts, dirty Jerry, they hiss, desperate for a taste of Nazi blood. They spit into the mud and try to keep their socks dry.
He hears them and wonders if he’d be like that, by now, wonders if he’d ache to kill other men, out of anger, out of revenge. Out of spite.
Steve hasn’t proven anything.
- - -
So of course he gets Howard to fly him out and drop him into the woods, because he’s an idiot child in a man’s body, he wants to not be sent home with nothing more than a playbill to his name. He wants to be remembered as something more than a dancing fool, he wants to save people. Bucky.
He wants to not be a waste, because Erskine died with disappointment in his eyes.
He hits the ground running and revels in how good his muscles feel sliding over themselves, basks in this new physicality that’s been wasting away beneath the cling of his costume, that, up until now, has been for ogling and not for using.
War is best for ruining the bodies of vibrant young men, Steve muses, because he’d like to think he understands. It creeps into their bones, settles in far too soon, a sadness that eats away at their resilience before their time. It’s a battle no one can win, but they try anyway and tell themselves they can.
He’s no different, but he’s only now coming to see it. He’s too new, too perfect, too unblemished by this inescapable violence he inherited when the needles pierced his skin.
This is what I was made for, he thinks, his heart swelling with pride and sorrow.
- - -
He runs through the woods, and his body sings with life, even as he hears shells falling in the distance, even as he sees the red on the horizon through the pine trees, even as the smells of gunmetal and the blood of young men sting his nose.
How romantic, war.
He’s been trained for this, he’s sure of the capabilities of his body. He’s not worried about being injured, he’s not worried about dying. He’s as strong as ten men and twice as fast, they say, and he knows that the shock of the sight of him in action alone is enough to give him the edge in hand-to-hand combat. He’s ready for these eventualities. He trusts he’s been given what he needs.
He recognizes that perhaps this is foolish, that perhaps he should be terrified. He certainly doesn’t begrudge other men their anxiety, doesn’t scoff at the ones who shake at night and cry themselves to sleep (and there are many). He’s never taken their faith in him for granted. He doesn’t allow himself the luxury of ponderous self-doubt.
He tells himself it’s because he’s overwhelmingly grateful, but he’s never thought about it long enough to know otherwise.
Steve has never been eager for this life, he’s only been eager to do something meaningful. He’s always done all he’s able to do, and now he’s going to do more.
He’s ready now. He’s going to make them proud.
He’s going to become someone he can be proud of.
The forest grows thicker, and Steve slips beneath heady copses of stately pines that were here long before borders were drawn, long before trenches were carved and tanks were rolled over their roots. It would be beautiful here if it weren’t so eerie and sad, if there weren’t enormous tree trunks splintered by shells every 30 feet, if the sky wasn’t cloudy with smoke. The moon is half-out, and Steve is more grateful for the cover darkness brings than he ever could have imagined.
It’s winter, and the night air is bitterly cold. His breath fogs in front of him, and he can feel how his leather jacket’s grown stiff, how it cracks ever so quietly when he moves. He relishes the feeling of shivering without having to worry about his lungs seizing.
He hears gunfire that he wouldn’t have been able to detect before. It’s maybe 5 miles to the northeast, and it’s enough to slow him up, to make him cautious. He’s surprised he hasn’t encountered any resistance yet, but he unclips the holster of his Colt and wishes, once again, he was a real solder with a carbine.
He slows, measures his paces, stalks like a cat on the carpet of frozen needles. He scans, looking for movement, for changes in shadow and light.
And then he hears it, and thinks maybe he’s imagining things. But no, there it is, layered on top of the smoke and darkness.
He hears singing.
It’s not bold or clear or even nice to listen to, and it’s in German. It’s breathy and strained, and it’s coming from up ahead where the trees thin out again.
And then Steve sees him, shaking with the cold and gripping the stock of his Mauser with white knuckles. He’s alone, a solitary patrol, and Steve finds himself pitying him for getting saddled with such a lousy task. He turns in the half-light, a grey figure in a grey world, and his back is to Steve. Steve can only see him because the serum’s sharpened his eyes.
The soldier pauses to breathe, then starts his shaky song again.
Good, that’s good, he’ll be distracted, and Steve will be able to sneak on by. He’s eager to avoid a confrontation involving bullets. The soldier is nervous, his stance guarded and his posture tense - he probably hasn’t slept in a long time, and Steve is sure he has the tactical advantage.
Steve decides he’ll go in a gentle arc around where the man is stationed. He’ll stick to the sparse underbrush and he’ll be long past before he’s ever detected.
He crouches as low as he’s able and moves, but the man has stopped singing again, and the frozen ground crunches beneath his feet when he steps.
Steve turns his head to see the man looking back at him, frozen, a smoking cigarette still sticking out the side of his mouth.
He seems stuck, like he can’t really believe there would be anything to guard against on this bitter winter night, but Steve is right there in his silly helmet and his silly boots. He can’t see the man’s eyes, but it doesn’t matter, because the man chooses that moment to commit and Steve doesn’t need to know what he’s thinking anymore.
He’s really too close to use his rifle, but he tucks it tightly up into his shoulder anyway, fumbles for the bolt, and squeezes the trigger with an aborted click before he’s pulled it all the way back, even as Steve is ducking into a somersault.
He thanks god quietly for shitty German craftsmanship as he propels himself forward over rock and root and frozen forest floor, and then he’s upon his target.
The soldier is still tugging at the bolt when Steve closes a hand around his slender throat. He freezes for the slightest moment, because his training probably hasn’t prepared him for 240 pounds of Steve charging him at a full run. He looks at Steve for about two seconds, fear and helplessness written into his eyes –
And then Steve feels a sharp pain in his side, because the soldier has speared him on the end of his bayonet.
It’s superficial, he can tell, and even if it wasn’t, he’d heal up in a matter of minutes, maybe hours. Steve is more stunned than anything, because he’d been planning to knock the man out and leave him propped against a tree or lying in a heap under the night sky.
It’s silly, and he knows it’s silly as soon as he thinks about it, because there’s cold steel buried in his abdomen, but he looks up into the soldier’s face and can’t help but feel betrayed.
He can’t be more than 19, the planes of his face are still soft and gentle. He hasn’t yet settled into the bone structure of the man he’ll become, and underneath the dirt and grime, he’s just as fair as Steve. Steve can see now, up close - he’s slight of build, and his uniform hangs just a bit too large on his narrow shoulders, his helmet just a bit too loose on his head.
He’s just a kid.
It’s some horrible joke, Steve thinks, because he has blue eyes.
He could be Steve, once upon a time.
Steve looks into his attacker’s eyes and breathes through the pain of the stab wound, and the man looks back at Steve with some combination of horror and pride and disbelief at what he’s done.
But Steve is still alive, and he’s not screaming in pain or fighting back, so he twists the gun in his hands, and Steve gasps and grimaces in pain.
That shocks him into fighting back.
He backs off the blade and swings wildly at soldier boy’s cheek, and the force of the blow knocks him to the ground. The soldier seems to have gotten over his initial panic, because he thrashes and tries to grab his gun to jab up at Steve again. Steve loses his balance dodging and falls to the ground, lands hard on his left hip.
They could be two guys brawling in the woods, in better times, in another place far away. But this German soldier is baring his teeth now, he’s snarling at Steve, he’s fighting like his life depends on it, like he means to kill.
Because he does, and Steve is so stupid for thinking he could run through the forest tonight without hurting anyone, without killing anyone before he gets to his destination.
The noble hero.
The thought slows Steve up for a half-second and his eyes go wide and his face freezes, because he doesn’t know how he can.
It’s all the time the man needs to get the advantage, and he’s wrenched the bloody bayonet off the end of his gun and he’s going for Steve’s throat.
But Steve is quicker, and faster, and he has superhuman reflexes and his knife in hand.
He presses it into the man’s carotid, just under his jaw and next to the strap of his helmet, and drags the blade across his pale throat, pressing as hard as he can from his low angle.
He wants it to be quick, and he wants it to be quiet. It’s a miracle he fumbled the bolt, Steve knows, a lucky break there’s been no gunfire to alert his comrades, however far off they are, but he doesn’t want to take the chance he might cry out and reveal their position.
He tells himself he has no choice.
He pulls his arm away, pushes the man to the side, and he’s shaking. He looks at the blood on the blade, on his brown jacket sleeve, on the leg of his pants.
He’s never felt more helpless than he does now.
He wasn’t ready for this.
But there’s a wet spluttering, and the man is clawing at his foot, and there’s blood fucking everywhere, it’s leaking dark down his neck and it’s wet and shiny on his mouth, and his throat is gaping open. Steve can see the veins pulsing, something fluttering when he moves his mouth, and his teeth are dark with it -
Steve can’t breathe, and what has he done, he did it wrong, and he’s still trying to crawl. The man is wriggling, he’s pulling himself up an inch at a time, he’s clutching at Steve’s pants, and he’s moving his mouth -
He’s alive enough to move his mouth. He’s speaking, oh god, he’s trying to speak, and Steve doesn’t understand German, but he looks down in terror at what his hands have done to this poor creature and he doesn’t know what to do, because he did this -
But the man is bleeding all over his leg and he’s got terror and pain and fear in his eyes and he’s still mouthing. Steve doesn’t understand, he doesn’t lip-read, he’s just spluttering and his mouth is forming words he can’t parse, and what is he supposed to do -
He reaches for his knife, but he’s dropped it, Christ, he’s dropped it.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, CHRIST, I’m so sorry,” he half-sobs, “oh, God, forgive me, I’m sorry -”
He crouches and pats the ground frantically and there it is.
And he’s beyond horrified at what his hands are doing, because he’s turning the man over, and blood is sliding down the sides of his neck, slicking his collar, pooling on the ground, running in fresh waves over his throat –
The man is making this high-pitched noise somewhere between a wheeze and a whimper, and oh, god, he’s all fucking slashed, Steve, you idiot - and Steve presses a hand over his mouth to stifle him, because he can’t be making noise, and Steve doesn’t know if he’s pleading or begging for life or death at this point -
Steve rolls him flat onto his back, and he shakes violently under Steve’s hands and shakes his head with wide eyes and clutches weakly at Steve’s lapels-
Steve does it right, this time, he feels with trembling fingers where the breastbone is, and drives the knife in swiftly, just between the buttons, a litany of apologies still falling in a strangled whisper from his lips.
The man doesn’t move anymore.
His eyes are open.
Steve’s heart is pounding in his chest, and he’s trembling violently, he’s shuddering uncontrollably like his frailer self used to do in winter.
Like the cold has gotten into his heart and he won’t ever be able to get it out.
Steve wills his body to move, because he’s not safe here, and he’s acutely aware that his hours of darkness are finite, but he’s dizzy. He’s been breathing too fast, he’s been running on panic and shock, and he has to come down.
Steve feels it before he can swallow it back down, and he leans over and vomits in the grass until he’s heaving, until his stomach is sore and his throat is raw.
God, what he’s done.
What he’ll have to do again before this is over.
He thinks maybe Erskine wanted to spare him from this.
He couldn’t have imagined this back in the recruiting office. He remembers thinking Erskine a strange man for asking him if he wanted to kill Nazis, but he didn’t think about what he was asking.
He just felt, felt the frustration burning in his stomach, the jealousy welling up inside him when he saw Bucky, proud and handsome in his uniform.
The pride when they stamped that 1-A on his forms.
Steve wants to sob at his own folly, because he’s gotten his wish and now there’s no egress to be had.
He can’t give his new face back, can’t ever step out of his new skin.
He was made for this.
The way out is through.
He kneels, miserable, in the darkness, tasting bile in his throat.
He can’t stay here, he can’t mourn the life he’s snuffed out, because Bucky is in a cell somewhere, and no one is coming for him except Steve.
Steve understands now, why war is so exhausting, because there’s never any time, only obligation and crushing regret.
Steve plucks his knife out of the man’s chest, wipes it on his uniform jacket, and slides it back into the sheath where it rests heavy and warm against his thigh.
He wipes at his mouth, at his eyes.
He looks at the man he’s killed with his hands, smells the blood smeared on the grass.
He thinks he’s not a very good soldier.
He closes the man’s eyes – and this is the last time he’ll do it – because he has time and because they’re not so different, because nothing is more intimate than what they’ve already shared.
He’ll do better next time.
He thinks he might be going to hell.
He hears gunfire in the distance, and he’s reminded that he’s not alone in the forest.
Steve wipes his bloody hand on his pants, and turns his wet face skyward.
He forces himself to breathe in lungfuls of chilly air until he stops shuddering.
He grits his teeth and stands, resolute, on steadying legs.
He lopes on in the darkness, older and far away.