This is a dream: your best friend pulls you from the brink.
Your best friend pulls you from the brink and he's like a propaganda movie hero, all-American and all bravery (stupidity), six feet tall and built like a tank with a bomber jacket and fatigues as if he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a soldier or Superman. You know it's a dream because even though you're not really sure which of your memories are real and which are the places you go to when the scalpels are out, you know Steve Rogers like the back of your hand and you know the bony ridges of his shoulders and spine by heart.
You lean heavily against your best friend’s side and you remember the way he felt pressed against your chest when you were fourteen and he was eighteen and you ran from the orphanage because you couldn't fathom a life where he moved on and you stayed behind. That's not how it should work, is it?
He drags you out of a burning factory camp and lets you go as soon as you're able to stand on your own two feet without swaying or needing support or just plain-old dropping face-first into the mud. There are other soldiers and there are the men who steadfastly refused to call you anything but Jim, the men who saw you cough up your lungs as pneumonia burned through you like wildfire (like it did through Steve when he was frail) (when he was real), the men who saw you not putting up much of a fight as the guards dragged you to the science wing or whatever the fuck it was called, where the screaming was loudest and the floor was splattered with blood.
This is reality: you don't remember the exact moment you break, but you remember that you do. You remember offering all the answers and all the intel you've been privy to, which is not much but should be better than nothing if it gets you a sweeter deal. You're a Brooklyn boy through and through and you're a pragmatic, and between you and Steve you know you were never the good one or the noble one or the one who would stand up for what was right.
You were the one who got his nose broken by a jealous boyfriend more than once, the one who gave promise after promise just to get a pretty girl to uncross her legs, the one who Steve didn't think of as a bully only because you were on his side and one person's bully is another's knight in shining armour.
You break and you start talking, and when it's not what they want you start bargaining, and when it's not what they want you start begging.
You talk about the men in your unit and your superiors and your orders and who gave them, about all the Allied forces' field bases of command you know about. You bargain your life for the life of the men in your unit since they're healthy and fit and braver than you, for the life of the men you shared a cell with who fought for you when you were being taken away and tried to stage a prison break just to get you out. You beg them to stop. You beg them to let you be useful, more useful than a lab rat. You beg them to have some goddamn fucking mercy and kill you already, and then you beg them to spare your life because the truth is that you don't want to die like a slaughter animal.
You dream about your best friend coming to your rescue.
This is a dream: you walk at your best friend's side and watch him be a leader like he was born to it, and you start to realise that in a world where Steve Rogers can fight his own battles and doesn't need a knight in shining armour (a bully), where tired and tortured and sick and injured men follow him on nothing more than a promise and a few inspired words of encouragement, where he is over six feet tall and built like a tank and can hold you up when you trip and start to collapse, where he looks at you like a broken thing that can be fixed —
In a world like that, where do you fit in?
Something tells you it's not at Steve's side. Still you stick to him like glue.
You march for thirty miles even though your entire body screams in protest, joints creaking and bones aching and you feel like your heart wants to skip right out of your chest. You feel a hundred years old. You don't ask how long you spent in the factory and how long in the isolation ward, and no one volunteers the information.
They all look at you like a freak accident, and you know why. Of the prisoners taken to be experimented on or interrogated or just tortured, no one ever made it back. Over the constant hum of the factory you told yourself you could hear the shots, sometimes, and you could picture it as if you were there: bag over the head, face to the wall, hands tied behind the back and the firing squad consisting of a bored mook in a mask that covers his entire face, and then one shot and blood and brains and skull shards hitting the wall and then nothing.
They look at you like you don't belong, which is true. You don't. You're not one of them. They're united in their agony and their survival and their dogged refusal to give up. You're held together by skin that feels pulled too tight over your bones and nothing more.
The only one who doesn't look like you don't belong is Steve. He looks at you the way a praying man looks at a holy statue (and fittingly enough you feel like your expressions are stiff and carved in stone), with wide bright eyes and a disbelieving smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. He keeps touching you with nothing more than honest friendly affection and a reassurance that might be desperate, though you don't know who he's trying to reassure.
That's how he looks at you.
It's a nice dream.
This is reality: they give you blood that doesn't belong to you and the doctor smiles down at you and after some time you learn enough to understand that he's talking about making you stronger, making you better.
'Anything,' you say, and: 'Please.'
This is a dream: you catalogue the changes in your best friend, from the way he holds himself (the way a soldier would hold himself except when he's sleeping, which tells you he hasn't been in the Army long enough to spend any time in the trenches) to the way he looks at the men he rescued single-handedly to the way he speaks up when he wants to be heard in a crowd.
You have no idea where he learned to speak up. He used to drown in crowds, and the more he fought to be heard and seen and listened to the more he disappeared and it was your job to pull him through.
It felt nice to be needed.
The men he rescued flock to him and when he says he's a captain, no one questions it. It's like you're the only one who can see his uniform is not a real uniform, his fatigues don't have the wear of anything a soldier would wear for more than a week, his boots are only now getting dirty and everything about Steve Rogers screams fraud. He doesn't get the slang the boys use and the way he talks about everything related to the military and the war sounds textbook, abstract. He sounds just like the kid you remember from Brooklyn, who wanted to fight in a war because it was the right thing to do.
You know that real soldiers couldn't give a flying fuck about the right thing. You know real soldiers go on survival instinct and killing the other guy before he kills you, because you fought in a war and you saw men die and Steve Rogers is a damn fraud.
You ask. He tells you. You nod along.
You listen to a story about secret government projects and runaway German scientists and Steve surviving boot camp (that, right there, should be what tips you off; Steve Rogers would never survive boot camp) and an amazing procedure taken straight out of a penny dreadful. He even met Howard Stark. How likely is that? There is a beautiful British spy who seemed to pay attention to him when he was still small and fragile and useless (his words, not yours) (are they?), and you laugh at his starstruck expression when he talks about her. You take your cues from him and act the way he wants you to act, because you're not sure you remember how to do anything else.
It's not real, anyway, so who the fuck cares.
This is a dream: you meet the beautiful British spy and she has eyes for no one but Captain America. You meet your new squad and they would go through fire for Captain America. You're Captain America's second in command, and you disappear in his shadow.
They give you a rifle and they give you a gun, a new uniform and a new purpose (a new target).
You watch Steve through the scope of your rifle and you wonder how much shit you'd be in if there was an accident. Friendly fire. It happens to the best snipers, doesn't it?
It's not a long distance. The air is still, so you don't have to account for wind speed and you don't have to adjust the angle and you watch him, and then you pull the trigger and a Hydra mook drops dead.
You taste ashes on your tongue.
He thanks you.
He thanks you, and all you can feel is the knife you carry strapped to your forearm, its comforting weight and the warmth of it — it's warm from your skin, and that's the only way you can tell there is still blood in your veins, blood and not ice.
In your dream you wonder if there is blood in Steve's veins, after his amazing wondrous metamorphosis, or if there is nothing real about him. A part of you wants to see. A part of you wants to taste his blood and compare it to the taste of your own; you have a few tricks up your sleeve, too, don't you? They gave you blood that wasn't your own and now your body feels alien, so maybe you're just as real as he is, which is not at all.
Maybe, in your dream, neither of you are human.
This is reality: you catalogue the changes in the man who is pretending to be your best friend. You write them all down. You write down the locations of SSR bases, the names of all ranking officers you have met, all the orders you have received and all the orders Captain America has received and shared with you because he shares everything with you. You write down your own speculation. You write down all usable intel. You write down everything you know about your squad and its members and their weaknesses.
There is a woman who works for Phillips. She's blonde and slender and smiles like some of the girls you remember from Brooklyn, decades and decades ago when you were less than the sum of your parts.
You hand her your report.
She says, 'Thank you for your service.'
You don't know her real name or her alias, but you don't need to know. What you need to know is that she will deliver your report to your superiors, the superiors you chose (the superiors who broke you). You wonder if the woman is German or if she's like you, a lost and abandoned American child. Maybe she's both. Maybe she's neither. Back home you'd flirt and ask her out and probably, likely, get her to uncross her legs. This isn't home; nowhere is.
Afterwards, you meet Captain America in a bar. The rest of the squad are getting drunk, and you take note of how fast they start to slur their words.
You don't bother buttoning your uniform all the way up.
A long time ago you wore it like a badge of honour. Now it fits ill.
This is reality: your orders are to get Captain America onto that train, and you do it.
Your orders are to kill Jones, but you get separated.
Your orders are to keep up your cover no matter what, but you're a Brooklyn boy born and bred and when push comes to shove you don't want to sacrifice yourself for any of your employers — the old ones and the new, the good guys or the bad, the ones who'd leave you to starve as a child and the ones who starved you to see how long you'd last — and you don't want to die.
You pick up the shield; you want to survive.
You fall, instead.
This is reality.
This is reality: you wake up.
You're in a small, empty recovery room wearing nothing more than a white hospital gown. You tear the IV line out of your arm and stagger out of bed. The floor is cold beneath your feet. You take in your surroundings. Out the window you can see you're on the third, maybe fourth floor. It's bright outside; middle of the day.
There is a noise outside, an alarm siren, and you drop down into a fighting crouch and reach for a gun you don't have, instincts going into overdrive. You know how to take care of yourself. Soldiers do.
The door opens and three men walk in, all tall and uniformed, their name tags in Cyrillic script.
You don't move. You have no weapons, but you know you're going to put up a fight.
'Do you remember who you are?' one of the men asks in heavily accented English.
You set your jaw. Three-two-five-five-seven. Sergeant James Barnes.
The man smiles.
This is reality: in a dream your best friend pulled you from the brink.
You don't remember the exact moment you broke. You're given a rifle and you're given a gun, a new uniform and a new purpose. You don't want to die.
It's the only reality you need.