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A Contest of Stories

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“Bucky!”

The word comes from very far away, drowned in pain, detached from meaning. He’s been in pain for longer than he knows now, time stretching thin like a worn rubber band. His eyes are open, probably - staring at the ceiling, at the machine that’d whirred and cut away at the other men, hanging over him like a threat. It is a threat - but they hadn’t asked him any questions, hadn’t asked any of the others questions neither, just chatted among themselves as if they hadn’t been cutting open dead bodies right there on the same table he was lying on now, oh god, waiting his turn.

“Bucky!”

No.

It’s quiet now. Earlier there’d been a hubbub that he’d barely heard, drowsing, lost in pain and confusion and fear. They’d been sticking needles in him, and the needles were attached to coiling wires, and they’d shocked each muscle group in turn, that was what they’d said they were doing, cooly writing notes as he shuddered and spasmed. After they took the needles out he’d seized for hours, trying to get Sergeant 32557038 out through his teeth, his jaw barely loose enough for him even to whisper it.

But it’s quiet now, all of them run off, leaving the room to get darker around him. Sometimes lights flash over his face: fireworks. Sometimes there’s the rattle of gunfire, or - or a train over wooden tracks, the clatter of the elevated line in summer, far off like he used to hear it out his bedroom window and just as unimportant. He’s shivering, muscles unlocked just far enough for him to feel the cold seeping through the thin shirt they left him with, sleeves rolled up for them to get at his veins, pinned by thick leather straps to the operating table.

“Buck, wake up, wake up .”

No.

He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to hear that sickly sweet voice again, asking him to describe just how it felt to have his heart trying to beat out of his chest, or his head to hurt so bad he’d thought they’d actually cut his skull open. Then in German, in between the questions, to the other doctors: “This formulation is rubbish anyway. How can I be expected to replicate Erskine’s formula under these conditions? You see how I am forced to work. ” or “ If he dies overnight, don’t wake me. The autopsy can wait until morning.

“Sergeant,” he mumbles, because it made Herr Zola suck air between his teeth impatiently, and that’s about all he has left, “three two five five se -”

A hand slices through the air above him and slaps him hard across the face, twice. He grunts, surprised and strangely wounded. It doesn’t hurt but the sting of it is sharp and humiliating over the aching weight of the rest of his body. He blinks, hard: and focuses, actually sees for the first time the pale face of Steve Rogers, looming huge and anxious over him.

“Is, is that -” he asks, and Steve says, “It’s me, it’s Steve.”

“Steve,” Bucky repeats, and feels delight curl all the way through him. “Steve!”

The table shakes a little, as Steve does something he can’t see. Abruptly the straps over his legs loosen, and then the ones over his chest and stomach. There are hands all over him and after a moment Bucky realizes they’re just Steve’s hands, and stops fighting them clutching at his shoulders, pulling him up off the table.

“Steve,” Bucky says again, and slides abruptly to his knees. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even hurt.

“Come on, you gotta get up,” Steve says, but he kneels down next to Bucky and takes Bucky’s face in his hands. He’s got gloves on, and the leather is soft and good smelling, and underneath them Steve’s hands are shaking. They feel better on Bucky’s skin than anything else has in his whole life, and he leans into them, presses his cheek against Steve’s palms.

“I thought you were dead,” Steve says roughly, and touches his forehead to Bucky’s.

Bucky’s eyes have slipped closed without him noticing, and they weigh a thousand pounds when he lifts them open, Steve’s face swimming back into focus. He’s colored green from the light streaming through the windows, green like the people he paints, but with his nose and eyes in the right place. At the thought of it Steve’s eyebrows start drifting towards his chin, and his nose turns upside down. Bucky giggles.

“How’d you get here, Steve?” he asks, and puts a fingertip on Steve’s left eyebrow, tries to push it back to where it belongs.

Distracted - turned to look out back towards the hall, shoulders back, head up, one hand dropped to the gun on his belt, leaving a cold spot on Bucky’s face - Steve answers, “I joined the Army.”

Bucky lets Steve tug him up onto his feet, follows him out of the lab and into the dim hallway, crisscrossed with thick beams of light and the thin haze of smoke. It smells like smoke, but mostly it smells like a cave: cold and damp, the indefinable scent of old stone and brick. Steve’s got on a spiffy looking leather jacket Bucky’s never seen before and he looks good, he looks good but it gets cold standing on subway platforms, that deep bone-biting cold you can’t do nothing about, just stand there and shiver. In the foxholes Bucky used to wake up shivering like that, dog miserable, everything in him only focused on getting warm, getting dry, getting out of there. Back home -

“Where we going, Steve?” he asks, and gets one hand on the cuff of that nice leather jacket. Steve barely slows, just tugs Bucky along down the length of the platform. Where’s the train? They’ve been waiting hours for the train to come. “We going dancing?”

“Army don’t teach dancing,” Steve answers, absent. He’s got a radio in his hand, and he’s saying urgent things into it: “Basement level, west side. No, it was blocked. Okay. Okay. They’re coming back? Fuck . No, it’s already done, just wait for my signal.”

“I’m not dressed,” Bucky protests, and pulls on Steve’s sleeve, gestures to himself with his other hand. He looks like a stewbum, he smells like he’s been sleeping rough on the Bowery. He pissed himself the first day in the isolation ward, after they’d put something in his veins that made him feel like his blood was boiling, pain so sharp and unreal he thought he’d die from it. They’d hosed him down but he can still smell it on himself, feel it in the stiff, grimy drag of pants and underwear against his skin. “Steve, let’s go home, I’m not dressed. Steve? Steve, let’s go home, come on.”

Shit ,” Steve spits, and grabs Bucky by the front of his shirt, shoving both of them into a little office and Bucky up against the wall. The door’s ajar; Steve’s pressed against him from chest to knees; his hands fisted in Bucky’s shirt, holding him still.

“Aw, sugar,” Bucky says fondly, and takes hold of Steve’s hips, angles for a kiss. He sees Steve’s lips pull back from his teeth, some sort of wordless, silent hiss, and Steve covers Bucky’s mouth, and with his other hand draws a gun.

There are footsteps in the hallway, running footsteps. Shadows flicker over Steve’s face. Soldiers in the hall, eight or ten of them, tense German trickling into Bucky’s ears. He barely breathes; he’s staring at the gun in Steve’s hand, at Steve’s finger on the trigger. His nose is full of the smell of Steve’s glove, and the gunpowder stink laying on top of the leather. There’s a gun in Steve’s hand. There’s a gun in Steve’s hand.

 

 

 

“Steve,” he says, muffled. Steve presses closer against him, really pinning him now, like he’s trying to shut Bucky up with his whole body. His eyes flicker over to Bucky’s and back towards the open door, waiting, listening. The footsteps pass. Then fade. No more soldiers come.

“Steve,” Bucky says again, and sticks his tongue out. Steve’s hand twitches, even though he’s got gloves on and can’t feel Bucky’s tongue sliming up his palm. It’s enough that Bucky can shake him off, lean forward into Steve’s face and ask, very quietly, “Are you real?

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve says, grave and tense. His hand drops, holds the gun ready at his side. He’s flush against Bucky, solid and real and undeniable.

“Am I dead?” Bucky asks, just as quiet. Steve shakes his head, his mouth doing something like it doesn’t know whether to turn up or down.

Bucky lets his head drop against the wall, almost too scared to hope it’s true. After a moment he reorients, keeps his head still as it tries to spin right off his neck, focuses back on Steve. “We’re not in Brooklyn,” Bucky tells him, hoarsely.

Steve looks at him. Anyone else would laugh. Steve only shakes his head again, and eases away from Bucky - who stays where he is, hands flat against the cold brick. Out the window he can still see flashing lights, and for the first time realizes that there’s a firefight going on out there, that there are tanks grinding over the wet earth and the odd searing sound the blue weapons make before they fire. They’re busting out. Being busted out, being liberated, and Steve Rogers is leading the charge.

Bucky looks him up and down, takes in the leather jacket, the olive drab underneath, the precarious helmet. “You really in the Army?” he asks, baffled. “ How ?”

Steve grins, wide and crooked. “Tell you about it later,” he says. “We gotta go.”

They stick close together when they slip back out into the hallway. Steve leads the way, confident like he’s leading Buck around back home, all the back alleys and shortcuts locked away in the treasure map of Brooklyn he carries around in his head. The gun’s back in his hand, and Bucky’s eyes follow it, unmoored by the sight.

Steve’s holding the gun all wrong. He keeps bringing his thumb back over the stock and then slipping it over the trigger again. He holds the radio more comfortably in his free hand, and its faint crackle leaks a sound into the corridor like the inside of his lungs in winter. The sound worries Bucky. “Can you even shoot that thing?” he asks.

“I get by,” Steve says stiffly, which means no.

“Give it here,” Bucky says, and says it again a little louder when Steve doesn’t answer. They’ve moved to the interior of the factory, no more shafts of light tricking Bucky’s eyes, just a long dark canyon of cold stone and soft noises that have Steve jumping every few seconds. “C’mon, give it here, Steve.”

Steve gets it this time, and shoots a glare over his shoulder. “You ain’t even walking straight,” he says.

Bucky holds his hand out, shakes it impatiently, and after a moment Steve lays the pistol into it. “Ammunition,” Bucky tells him.

Steve hesitates. His hand clenches around the radio, his other hand around air. “That’s all there is,” Steve says, and fear squeezes Bucky’s throat.

“How many bullets left,” he says, and then, “ Goddammit , Steve.”

“I lost count!” Steve hisses, like Bucky couldn’t tell from the look on his face. Damn thing’s not even cocked. Bucky pulls back on the slide and even that effort staggers him sideways into the wall, fireworks going off behind his eyes. “Bucky,” he hears from far away, and feels Steve’s hands grab his arms, and Bucky’s free hand comes up automatically to grip Steve’s elbows. He’s going to throw up.

It rolls through him like a wave, more sick terror and just plain old sickness than his body’s ever held, even after the first time he ever killed a man. He holds on to Steve, pulls himself hand over hand up that thread between them, forcing himself back into his own body. “You know which way outta here?” Bucky asks, eyes closed, teeth gritted around the wave of vomit choked back in his throat.

He wants to crush Steve against his chest, hold on to him until he’s sure Steve’s real. The pistol feels real enough in his hand, warm from being cradled in Steve’s palm. A better fit, to have it in his own.

As if on cue, the radio crackles. Bucky opens his eyes. “Barber,” the radio says, tersely. “Come in, Barber.”

Steve lifts the radio to his mouth, holding Bucky’s gaze. “Copy,” he says. “Go ahead, May.”

That’s as far as he gets: two Hydra soldiers round the corner, moving quickly and quietly, guns up but not forward, and Bucky shoots one in the throat and the other in the gut, one quick step forward to put another bullet in his chest, right over the heart. The first one doesn’t die right off; he thrashes about, gurgling in that way Bucky’s learned means he’s drowning in his own blood. Before he might’ve put the man out of his misery, but now he just stares down at the pistol in disgust, mourning the extra bullet.

Fuck ,” Steve exhales, the sound of it muted by the crack of the gun in the narrow tunnel. Bucky reaches up, scratches at his ears, comes away tacky. He stares it, the gray smudge of blood on his fingertips in the shadowed corridor. He looks over at Steve, who’s watching him wide eyed, and for a moment comes unstuck again: Prospect Park, dappled sunlight across Steve’s face, the sound of a gramophone calling across the grass, taking Steve’s hand in his own -

Steve takes his hand, and when they hurry past the bodies of the Hydra soldiers, Bucky doesn’t spit on the dead one, or the one he’s leaving to die slow and alone in the darkness.

Three bullets on the Krauts they surprised back there: no more than four left in the magazine, if Steve had fired only a single shot. He lets Steve take the lead, his vision strobing in and out, his hands shaking around the pistol. His feet too large for his body, his limbs stone, scuffling clumsily over the cold brick.

Steve’s flat out running by the time they reach the factory floor, and Bucky manages to shoulder past him to be the first one through the door, pistol up and ready. There’s nothing, and for a moment Bucky’s frozen, stunned by the silence: no clanking machinery, no watchful footstep on the catwalk above, no shallow, choked breathing of the men next to him. There, the assembly station where Bucky had been beaten until he couldn’t stand. Where Herr Zola had sniffed and shrugged and said, “Might as well bring him down,” and then the guards had dragged Bucky away. But Steve’s here now, treading right over the spot Bucky had thrown blood up all over the floor, leading the way to, to -

Bucky stumbles hard on the metal-grated steps. He stares through the rusty metal to the fuel cylinders below. Someone’s dropped something on the floor. It takes a moment for him to realize the heap of clothing is someone’s body. A prisoner or a guard, he can’t tell, because smoke’s begun to filter across his vision: smoke or the fine bewildering screen of sunspots - like when he squinted up too long at the sky, as if he could see the sky; how he’d been able, when his vision blurred like this, to believe it was warmth he felt.

It is warm, though. Steve’s hand lands on his arm, pulling him up; maybe that’s the heat, his hand, a comfort. Steve meanwhile still on his radio, which crackles. The faint voice Bucky hears on the other end has changed.

“Pops,” Steve is saying. “It’s time to celebrate.”

Celebrate, Bucky thinks vaguely, and then the factory explodes around them.

He’ll realize later that Steve must have busied himself planting explosives before coming to look for Bucky, but what he thinks of at the time is the Fourth of July. They go off in each corner of the factory floor and all the places in between, thudding in his chest like fireworks, that fire spreading thick and hot through Schmidt’s machinery. Stingingly hot, like the sun in summer or a fever in winter or the scald of water from a kettle spitting steam.

He flings an arm over Steve’s head by reflex, but Steve shakes him off. He’s got the radio up and almost trips himself, looking around. His cheeks look flushed and his mouth is open the way it does when he’s trying to get a better breath, like he’s about to have an attack of wheezing. “We’re going to get you out of here,” he says. “Come on.”

They ascend the stairs. Steve pushes Bucky up ahead of him, one hand on his ass, and Bucky feels laughter climbing his throat but then has to focus on not tripping and falling down the steps. His hands fumble for railings. His legs feel weak, the inner twang of them gone as slack as if he’s just run a race. Or as if in a nightmare, where the finish line brings just another start, and again, and again.

“Roger that,” Steve says on the radio, and Bucky says, “Ha, Rogers.”

“You okay?” Steve says, ignoring the joke, though Bucky hears a strain in his voice like worry, worry that he’s making a joke, that he’s not here, so he tucks his chin down and clambers up the last step.

“Who’s that?” Bucky asks, trying to be serious.

“The cavalry,” Steve says, and when Bucky throws a glance over his shoulder Steve’s giving him a look. “What’d you think, it was just me?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, at least is going to until he looks up and sees - who is that - no, he knows who that is. It’s Herr Zola and Herr Schmidt, making their own way up the rickety steps towards the roof.

Far away, Bucky hears muffled crashing, cracking, a boom, a hiss. He’s gotten used to the sounds of explosions from the battlefield but this is different, this is like the creak of an oil tanker, like rusty pipes, pressure letting loose. So much pressure inside this factory and yes, now he hears it. Shell impact is different outside because all you hear’s the whistle, really, the whine, the roar. Inside it’s as if the explosions take place in a drum. The thump-thud redoubles. As always, he’s not exactly scared. He’s thinking: I have to tell someone about this. This sound, it’s unlike any other sound. This is an unbelievable thing. I will have to get out and tell Steve about it. Except Steve is hearing it too.

Steve slams right into him, barely rocking Bucky off his feet. He looks but he’s slower to see through the smoky gap in the platform. The radio still crackles, pressed to his good ear. He has his head tipped, intent. He sees Herr Zola and Herr Schmidt.

“Hey!” Steve shouts.

No, Bucky want to say, no, no , but Herr Schmidt pauses in their headlong flight up the stairs, and turns and looks across at them. So does Herr Zola. Schmidt’s glare skewers Steve first and then flicks to Bucky; his look of puzzlement turns into a peculiar smile.

He says, “Ich hatte große Hoffnungen für diese Formel. Sie sollten keine Probleme haben, das Ergebnis im nächsten Labor zu wiederholen, oder?

Steve doesn’t understand German - he’s limited to smatter of Yiddish he’s picked up from Bucky’s family, can say ‘meshuggana’ mostly because Bucky calls him this all the time, meshuggana, crazy idiot, a term of affection. But he squares up anyway and says, “Stop! If you surrender now, we won’t harm you. “ Geben Sie auf ,” he says. His voice sounds hoarse and low in the gloom, and Zola and Schmidt stare at him. Bucky grabs for Steve’s shoulder.

Schmidt shrugs and hefts his gun. Nonchalant, as if there isn’t fire below his feet, in the way he does everything. Once Bucky saw him blow casually into the fingers of his gloves before sliding them back on, and then shoot a new prisoner in the head. Not even straight between the eyes, but carelessly like he’d been backhanding someone across the face. Bucky’d never even learned the name of the dead man, he’d been so fresh; no one had known, and then they’d had to pick his body up and put him out with the rest.

Now Schmidt’s smile looks frozen, puzzled. He says to Zola, "Dazu ist es mittlerweile bei den amerikanischen Truppen gekommen? Schade, dass wir ihn nicht mitnehmen können um zu sehen, was Sie tun können, um ihn zu… verbessern."

Meshuggana, Bucky thinks, because Steve has planted himself and continued, shouting heedless across the walkway between their platform and Schmidt’s. “You may not respect the Geneva Conventions -” and of course they don’t, Bucky can tell that Steve has seen the factory, he knows they don’t, “- but we do. If you surrender and come with us, we won’t do you harm.”

Schmidt’s head snaps back like he’s been punched. Steve smiles, reflexively - relieved. But then Bucky sees that, like Max Shmeling when he faced Joe Louis, this snapback is the prelude only to renewed onslaught. Schmidt’s head is tipped back because he’s begun to laugh.

“Charming,” Schmidt says, in English this time, “but we must be off.” He nods at Zola, who’s staring at Bucky - who points one tremulous finger across the smoky air, his spectacles glinting in the dim, reddish light.

Bucky feels it like a blow to the heart. His knees go weak. He grabs at the railing to steady himself and remembers, belatedly, he’s still got the gun in his other hand. They’re in range. He can make the shot easily. He can -

He doesn’t. His hands shake. His finger’s on the trigger. He can -

“You’re not going anywhere,” Steve says. When Bucky looks over at him he’s got his eyes locked on Schmidt and Zola, backs turned, making leisurely progress up the stairs, like they know exactly how much they’ve got to fear. Steve hits the button on the radio. He probably can’t even hear whoever’s on the other side; it’s pressed up against his good ear. He says, “Light it up.” There’s a pause, a crackle, and he says, more urgently: “Yeah, I’m sure - I got eyes on the Skull, light it up .”

“Steve,” Bucky says, but it’s drowned out by a sudden boom. The platform shakes, shakes like they’re really on a train, and Bucky almost loses his grip on his gun, and Schmidt and Zola are rocked backwards too, all of them awash in red light, glaring like sparklers, like flares he sees in the night when planes dip to strafe them. They assembled those planes in factories like this. Bucky sometimes tried to make sure - they all did - that the shells they stocked in their bellies were duds.

That hadn’t ended well for him. Anyway, whatever’s gone off now was not a dud.

The world shakes again. Steve’s yelling something that Bucky can’t hear: he’s still looking across the platform at Zola, Zola’s turned around, he’s on his way up the tunnel on the other side, and Bucky has to do it, he has to shoot. He never misses; he almost never misses. He brings up the pistol, still cocked, and sets up to shoot and -

- the platform tilts and trembles. Bucky’s pitched forward like a start in track. Forward. The gun spirals out of his grasp and plummets so fast he can almost believe a part of himself went with it, like his heart has dropped out of his gut, a rollercoaster feeling. He lurches forward but there’s another blast and it’s too late, he’s falling -

It occurs to him in a moment that because he’s let go of the gun, he can grab for the railing instead and this choice, if it is a choice, saves him. He’s hanging now by one arm, swinging, and he’s deliriously weak. Searing heat buffets him. Then he feels the clasp of Steve’s hand on his arm and there’s Steve, both hands wrapped around Bucky’s.

“Hang on,” Steve says, throaty with strain. He’s not strong enough to pull Bucky’s weight, even as thin as he’s gotten in the factory, but it’s not stopping him: he’s hanging on with all he’s got, boots skidding over the metal. Bucky wants to answer something sarcastic, because it’s not like he’s going to let go, but he doesn’t. Instead what Bucky thinks is this: that he can’t let himself go, he can’t leave Steve. So really, maybe it is Steve who pulls him up.

He swings up his free hand. He feels the jackknife in his own aching ribs as he turns his body into a folding blade and flips himself up onto the platform. He slams into Steve and they roll backwards, landing with Steve on top of him. Bucky groans.

“You’re all right,” Steve says, staring down at him.

“Unh,” Bucky says.

“You’ll be all right,” Steve says firmly. “I can get us out.”

“How?” Bucky motions across the gaping divide between platforms, now licked by flame.

Steve looks around, like he hadn’t noticed - his eyes flickering over the stairs, the hell below them, the little windows too high above his head. He gets to his feet, stricken. Bucky’s coughing, crying from the smoke, the grating under his back starting to burn, but then -

“There’s an air duct!” he shouts, and then coughs too, bent over with coughing even as he reaches for Bucky’s hand. And there is, one level down where the catwalk dips over the big machinery and hugs the wall. The duct’s hidden behind a hanging banner with the twin icons of swastika and hydra on it, and smoldering but not yet on fire. Bucky pulls it back and Steve throws his whole body hard against a panel until it gives. The opening that appears is narrow. They tussle briefly and Steve finally has to push Bucky ahead of him to get him to enter first.

“Stay behind me,” Bucky says.

“I’m right here,” Steve says back, and shoves him again.

Inside the duct it’s black and grimy and feels exactly like the inside of his head except that it keeps surprising him with hidden bumps to remind him that it's not as easy to navigate. He pays close attention to where he puts his hands. As they move further away from the fire, icy cold grows on his palms, numbing him. He wishes he could turn to see if Steve is all right, why he’s so quiet, why the whole world is so quiet.

He hits the end of the line head first, skull knocking painfully against something he can’t see. He goes down onto his elbows, clutching at the hurt for a second. Steve says, “What? What is it?” and Bucky says, “Hang on,” and then he’s scooting awkwardly onto his butt so he can kick once - twice - and then the grate goes sailing off into space and Steve and Bucky go tumbling after it.

He hits the ground and Steve lands on top of him, knocking the wind out of his lungs. There’s an open sky over his head for the first time in weeks, months, he doesn’t even know how long, and it’s with the last of his strength that he lets Steve get him up on his feet and hustle them both towards the treeline and cover. Falls again, mud churned up under his hands and smearing all over his face, wet forest smell, that’s all she wrote, and the radio in Steve’s belt crackles to life.

“Barber!” it says, frantic. “Barber, come in!”

“I’m here, May,” Steve says into it, somewhere Bucky can’t see, crouched over him from the sound of it. “We’re both here.”

“Oh thank god,” May says fervently. “All clear, we’re regrouping as planned.”

“Gonna need a minute,” Steve says, and his knees make two dull thuds in the earth as he sits heavily next to Bucky’s head. Blindly, Bucky reaches up, and after a second he feels Steve’s skinny, bony hand wrap around his own and hang on tight.

“Whoever’s on that radio sounds just like Mabel May,” Bucky says wonderingly, and from a distance he hears Steve laugh.