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Changeling

Chapter Text

“Don’t be absurd Winnie, he’s just bored,” George Barnes said, gently but firmly holding his wife’s shoulders.

“He’s different, George, I know he is,” Winnifred insisted, shaking herself free. “Why else would he stop speaking? They’ve taken him and given me a changeling. My family has been cursed for generations and it’s followed me. My grandmother’s firstborn was taken for a changeling, and her aunt’s firstborn, and my grandfather’s maternal grandmother’s—”

“Enough, Winnifred,” George said staunchly. “Malicious fairies are superstition, old country folktales meant to frighten children into obedience. James is not a changeling. He’s a bright boy. He knows his numbers better than any other child his age here. None of the other children want to talk about what he wants to; he’ll start speaking again when he finds someone he wants to speak to.”

Chapter Text

Bucky sat in the cafeteria, kicking idly at the table leg and pushing the stewed apples around his plate. He had liked the carrots and the ham and bean soup. Usually he liked apples, but these apples were wrong. Apples were supposed to be crunchy, not wet and mushy. The only good place for a soft apple was in a pie, and this was not a pie. He knew how apples were supposed to be, so when the lunch lady had scooped the stewed apples onto his plate, of course he had asked what they were. The boy in line behind him, Henry, he thought he was called, had squinted at him and said “They’re apples, dummy. Don’t they have apples in Indiana?”

“Of course we do,” Bucky had responded. “We just eat ‘em right, not mush ‘em up.”

“If you don’t like ‘em mushed up, then you don’t like pie. And if you don’t like pie, you’re not a real American,” Henry said, taunting.

“A’course I like pie,” Bucky said. “Pie ain’t like this. Pie apples are good, and these ain’t pie apples, these ain’t pie apples.”

Henry took a step forward. Bucky squared his shoulders and braced his feet. One of the teachers arrived and placed herself between them.

“Now boys, no fighting in school. Go sit down and eat your lunches.”

“Fine. But you can’t sit with me. My dad was right when he said not to try to make friends with any Irish because all you wanna do is fight,” Henry huffed.

“I didn’t want to sit with you anyway. I don’t like fighting and I don’t sit with people who call names,” Bucky said, secretly glad for a swift end to the confrontation. The other boys in second grade had grouped off long ago; he had done his kindergarten and first grade years in Indiana and none of his friends had come with him to Brooklyn. He didn’t know who’d back him up in a fight against Henry and his friends, if anyone. He didn’t much like fighting, especially when he didn’t know all the variables.

He had found an empty table and sat down to eat.

Bucky jumped a little when he heard a voice next to him. “If you don’t want your apples, I’ll trade my carrots for ‘em. I don’t like carrots.”

Turning sharply, he saw a skinny little blond boy standing at the end of the table, holding out a plate of carrots like an offering. Bucky stared for a moment.

“I’m Steve,” the boy said. “Steve Rogers. What’s your name?”

“James Buchanan Barnes, named after the fifteenth president of the United States,” Bucky rattled off. “But I like ‘Bucky’ better than ‘James’.”

“You mind if I sit down?” Steve asked.

“Oh, sorry. Go ahead. You don’t mind that I’m Irish?” Bucky said, looking back down at his apples.

“I’m Irish too,” Steve shrugged, sitting down across from Bucky. “So, do you wanna trade?”

“If you want my apples, you can have ‘em,” Bucky said, pushing the plate towards Steve, “but I think you should eat your carrots, too. You’re too skinny.”

“Everyone says that,” Steve said, sounding a little put-upon.

“Sorry,” Bucky apologized again. “My mom says I talk too much when I shouldn’t and don’t talk enough when I should. She said that I didn’t say a single word for six whole months when I was littler. She said it scared her a lot, so I tried to get better at talking, but now sometimes I say too much and end up saying the wrong things.”

“Well, you ain’t wrong,” Steve said slowly. “I am skinny. But I still don’t like carrots. You gonna eat ‘em or not?” He pushed the plate towards Bucky.

“Yeah, sure.”

They ate quickly. Bucky felt Steve’s eyes scrutinizing him for an uncomfortable few silent moments.

“You wanna be friends?” Steve finally asked.

“You wanna be friends?” Bucky echoed, a little surprised. He’d had friends back in Shelbyville, but Steve was the first kid in Brooklyn who had approached him about wanting to be friends.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I? You seem like a good guy,” Steve said insistently. “I liked how you stood up to Henry back there. I don’t like bullies. Henry likes to act big and tough, but I’ve never actually seen him fight anyone his own size. He likes picking on anyone smaller or weaker than him. He picked on me a lot last year, but he stopped after I finally hit him back. He busted my nose up real bad, gave me two black eyes, but he left me alone after that.”

Bucky paused a moment before speaking. “Yeah, ok. Friends,” he nodded.

Steve put out his hand. Bucky stared at it.

“You’re supposed to shake it, that’s how grown-ups make deals,” Steve said.

“Oh, ok. Deal. Friends,” Bucky said, grinning at his and Steve’s hands linked across the table.

“Friends,” Steve grinned back.

Chapter Text

“How come you always do that thing with the stick when you’re waiting to bat? You know, the one where you tap it against your shin. Doesn’t it hurt?” Steve asked Bucky as they walked back home one evening after a stickball game.

Bucky stopped, glancing down at his legs, taking note of a thin, dusty streak on his right calf which he supposed could have come from the old broomstick he was carrying. “I dunno, I guess it must not hurt. I haven’t really noticed myself doing it. Do I really hit my legs while waiting?”

“Just the one leg, but yeah, you do. Gimme your stick, I’ll show you,” Steve said, reaching over and grabbing the stick out of Bucky’s hands. Steve paused in front of Bucky and demonstrated, tapping the stick lightly against his right calf in a steady rhythm.

“Huh,” Bucky said, face twisting introspectively as he watched Steve.

“Just ‘huh’? That’s it?” Steve said, cocking his head to the side.

“I don’t know, I didn’t know I was even doing it,” Bucky said defensively, voice rising a little as he tried not to get too worked up. He knew he shouldn’t get upset over something small like this, but he was tired out from school and then he’d been invited to stickball with some of the other kids from his and Steve’s building and he hadn’t had dinner yet. Steve didn’t seem tired, and he’d had the same day, even getting in a couple at bats before his asthma proved too much and he had to sit out. If Steve wasn’t tired, then he shouldn’t be so tired that he couldn’t hold himself together. “I can’t tell you how come I do something I didn’t know I was doing,” he said sulkily.

“Alright,” Steve said, handing Bucky’s stick back. “I didn’t know it’d upset you.”

“I’m not upset,” Bucky said.

“You kinda are,” Steve pointed out.

“I’m not. I’m not upset. I’m not,” Bucky repeated, shaking his head.

“Ok, I’m sorry,” Steve said, face softening. He reached out and placed his hand on Bucky’s wrist. Bucky flinched away. “Not a touching day?” Steve asked gently.

Bucky shook his head emphatically.

“That’s ok,” Steve said. “I can still walk with you, right? We don’t have to talk, either, if you don’t feel like it.”

Bucky nodded, forcing himself to make eye contact for a moment with Steve so he’d know that he’d been heard and understood. Steve smiled and nodded back. Bucky was glad that Steve seemed to understand that sometimes it was just too much work to keep pretending like he wasn’t just a little bit different. It didn’t faze Steve any more that some days Bucky could roughhouse with the best of ‘em, and other days he’d barely be able to brush fingertips without flinching while walking next to each other on the way to school. Bucky guessed it was probably because Steve had his own, unique ups and downs. Weren’t they a pair?

Chapter Text

“I’m not stupid,” Bucky said angrily, crumpling the report card in his fist and trying to hold back tears. “I’m not. I just don’t know what they want from me.”

Steve gently wiggled the twisted paper out of Bucky’s grip and smoothed it out on the kitchen table. They had come back to the Rogers’ apartment because Bucky didn’t want to go home yet and have to show his parents his report card. Bucky’s grades in the scholarship subjects were solid, mostly A’s and B’s, one C, and an A+ in mathematics. Bucky really enjoyed math, even helping Steve with his studies when he mentioned that he was having some trouble with his algebra. He enjoyed learning, that wasn’t the problem. It was the citizenship section that he was worried about. “Does not play well with others.” “Inattentive in class.” “Fidgets.” “Speaks out of turn.” “Does not answer when called upon.” “Stutters.”

“‘Does not play well with others’? It might take you a little time to warm up to someone, but one you do…” Steve trailed off, reading down the list. “‘Inattentive in class,’ you got that comment in both English and science. In your science class? With all the stuff you’re always telling me about? You love science. How’d that happen?”

“It’s Mr. Belknap,” Bucky explained. Steve nodded knowingly. “He’s got a voice like an alley cat and I already know most of the stuff he’s teaching, so sometimes I bring a book from the library to read instead of the textbook. And he took away my pocket knife again,” Bucky sniffed, looking down at the table and tracing a knot in the wood with one finger. “He said if I can’t stop playing with it in class instead of paying attention, then I shouldn’t be allowed to have it, but I am paying attention. It helps me think better if my hands are doing something. And he said only my dad could get my knife back and that he’d have to bring my report card with him, signed and all.”

“Well, you just gotta show him your report card and explain it to him. I’m sure he’ll understand,” Steve said, trying to placate Bucky. Bucky was always trying to keep his spirits up when he’d get sick or discouraged with his drawing, Steve could at least try to do the same for his friend. “Look at mine. I’m failing physical education and the only reason I’ve got a C in mathematics is because you helped me.”

“Do you think you could help me try and be more normal?” Bucky asked, looking hopefully up at Steve. “Your report card doesn’t have any problems on it, so you must be doing something right.”

“I like how you said it’s my report card that doesn’t have any problems,” Steve said with a knowing smirk. “And besides, normal’s boring. Why do you want to be normal so much?”

“I just want to be treated like everyone else and for the teachers to not be such hypocrites,” Bucky said bitterly. “I see, I see how things are in the classroom, even if they don’t think I do. The other boys, if they get caught with comics in their textbooks, it’s just ‘boys will be boys.’ If I bring a library book in to read for when I’ve finished my assignment, then I’m being contrary. If I stutter during a presentation or can’t make eye contact with the class, they say it’s because I’m stupid. I could tell from Joey Valetti’s last book report presentation that he didn’t even do the reading but he still got a B on it because they said he did a good job presenting the information, even if it was sparse. Sparse! He cribbed somebody’s notes and put in a lot of stuffing about how everything in the book represented Jesus.”

Bucky paused for breath. Steve used the opportunity to jump back in. “I didn’t know you had it so bad, Buck. I guess only seeing you at lunch, recess, and outside of school makes a difference. You always look so happy when I see you after the bell. I’m sorry I assumed.”

“S’ok, Stevie. I am happy then, because I get to leave school and go do something I actually want to. I get to read the books I want to, I get to learn at my own speed, and I get to hang out with people I actually like,” Bucky said, a smile slowly creeping up.

“See? That’s the Bucky I know,” Steve said, smiling back. “I like this you. If you really need to pretend to be someone else when you’re in school, I can try to help you as best I can, but you gotta promise me that you won’t change permanently. Normal’s overrated. When we both graduate high school, we’re gonna team up and write comics about spacemen or something. We’ll both write the plots, and I can draw the pictures, and you can make sure the science is right, and we won’t have to be normal ever because we’ll work for ourselves.”

Chapter Text

“I’m not going back to school next year,” Bucky insisted, folding his arms tightly across his chest and slumping back in his chair.

“You can’t go to college if you don’t graduate high school. I thought you wanted to go to college?” George Barnes asked, placing his knife and fork down on his plate. This was not the conversation he had planned on having when he asked how school had been. Light dinner conversation. Not this.

“I used to, but I dunno anymore,” Bucky said, turning his head a little to the side. “I don’t think I’m cut out for school.”

“Why not? I know you could pull your grades up if you tried a little harder,” George said, trying to get a proper answer out of his son. When James hit his teenage years, he had turned moody. Well, not ‘turned’ moody, he’d always been a little odd. A bright boy, eager to learn and share what he’d learned, but definitely a little odd.

“I am trying. I am,” Bucky said, uncrossing his arms to drum one finger against the table. “But if I keep my scholarship grades up, I get bad marks in citizenship and the teachers yell at me for fidgeting. If I sit still and play nice how they want me to, then I can’t focus on my academics. I can’t win and I won’t go back if it’s gonna be another year of that.”

“What would you do if I told you I didn’t agree and that you had to continue your schooling?” George asked, part cautious and part prodding, to see how serious James was about this.

“I’d run away,” Bucky said, forcing himself to look his father in the eyes.

“You’d run away rather than go back to school?”

Bucky nodded.

“Well, if you’ve got your mind set on dropping out, then I can’t stop you. I’d hope that you’d be willing to keep living with your family for a few more years, though,” George said.

“I don’t actually want to run away,” Bucky admitted. “I just really don’t want to go back to school.”

“You’ll have to find a job if you’re not going to be going to school, you know.”

“I know. I’ll find something. I’m good with numbers, I could do someone’s books and accounting. Or if I can’t find a job like that, I’m good with my hands, I can do heavy work. They always need dockhands.”

“How about this: if you can find a job this summer and keep it, then you don’t have to go back to school in September.”

“I’ll do it, I promise, I will. I will. I will get a job. Thanks, dad. I mean it.”

Chapter Text

“Hey Steve, I’m home,” Bucky called out as he stepped through their apartment door. Their place wasn’t nearly large enough to need call out a warning—they had a combined kitchen/living room and one bedroom that you could see right into from the door—but Bucky liked the habit. He closed and locked the door, stretching and wandering over to the stove where Steve was prodding something with a wooden spoon.

“Ooh, cabbage again,” Bucky teased.

“Hey, at least I managed to get some meat with it this time. I managed to talk Mr. Lawrence down a few cents a pound on this ham,” Steve said, pointing to the skillet next to the stock pot full of simmering cabbage.

“And how’d you do that?” Bucky asked.

“Well, you’re not gonna like it,” Steve said, quirking his mouth into a half-frown. “I got laid off. Mr. Lawrence said that he can’t afford to keep me on any more if I can’t chip in to haul stock. I can stack cans on the shelves, but I can’t move whole boxes of them. So I asked if maybe I could get a little discount on the ham, seeing as I’ll be living on your income alone until I can find another job. He’s not a bad guy, he just can’t justify keeping me on with money as tight as it is for everyone. I understand. I don’t like it, but I understand.”

“That’s tough,” Bucky commiserated. “You wanna go out, find somewhere to dance and drink tonight?”

“Nah, I don’t think I really wanna deal with other people right now,” Steve replied.

“Hey, that’s my line,” Bucky joked. “I mean, I’ve been getting better about it, but still.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve teased back and pointed the spoon at Bucky. “How about you go change out of your work clothes and when you’re done with that, set the table for dinner.”

Bucky patted Steve on the shoulder and headed off to change.

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When Bucky finished clearing the table of their plates and silverware, he pulled the chairs out, setting them against the wall with their sofa, and pushed the table into the opposite corner.

“Whatcha doin’ that for?” Steve asked.

“Well, if you don’t wanna go out dancing, I figure we’ve got a record player. It cost enough, we might as well get our money’s worth out of it. C’mon, I’ve got some whisky and a few records, we can have our own private dance hall tonight,” Bucky said, stooping down to extract a bottle of whisky from a low cabinet. “You just don’t want to deal with people tonight, right? We can still stay home and dance?”

“We can stay home and try, but you know I still don’t know how to dance.”

“I keep telling you I’ll teach you. Why not now?”

Steve paused, considering. “Ok, yeah. But I get to lead.”

“No you don’t,” Bucky laughed. “When you dance with me, I lead. That’s the rule. That’s the rule.”

“Oh, and why’s that?”

“One, because you’re shorter than me, and two, because I never learned the girl’s part.”

“Wouldn’t that just be backwards from what you usually do?”

“Still never learned it.”

“Jerk.”

“You wanna dance or you wanna run your mouth?”

“Can’t I do both?”

“Well, I can’t exactly stop you from running your mouth if that’s what you wanna do,” Bucky said, choosing a record and setting the needle on the record player. The music crackled to life.

“What dance are you gonna teach me?” Steve asked, bouncing on his toes.

“I was thinking a foxtrot. Fairly simple steps, not too fast. You should be able to pick it right up.”

Bucky took up his position in the middle of the room and gestured to Steve to join him. Steve stepped up, toe to toe, and held out his left hand, placing his right on Bucky’s shoulder.

“You said you didn’t know how to dance,” Bucky commented, taking Steve’s left hand in his right and placing his own left hand gently gingerly on Steve’s side.

“I’ve watched you dancing enough to know where to put my hands,” Steve replied.

“Alright then, just follow the music and my steps. I’ll get you foxtrotting in no time,” Bucky smiled.

“How about we wait until the next song? We missed about half of this one talking,” Steve commented.

“Oh, hush,” Bucky said. “I know better than trying to start in the middle of a song.”

They took up their positions and waited. The first song wound down and the second began playing. Bucky stepped forward, gently leading Steve, who stepped back awkwardly, immediately tripping over his own feet.

“Easy there, Stevie,” Bucky said, catching him before he fell too far. “If I could master the foxtrot, I know you can.”

“You only got a twitch when you’re bored or have to sit still for too long, I’ve got a crook in my spine, so cut me some slack,” Steve kvetched.

“Do you not wanna do this after all?” Bucky paused and asked.

“No, no, I do,” Steve asserted. “I just ain’t as coordinated as you, especially goin’ backwards.”

“You wanna switch places?”

“I thought you said you hadn’t learned the girl’s part of the dance?”

Bucky shrugged. “If you’re gonna be uncoordinated, I might as well be uncoordinated, too. We’ll learn this thing together.”

“Ain’t that sweet of you?” Steve said, smiling warmly up at Bucky.

Bucky leaned in and gave Steve a quick peck on the lips.

Steve flinched, surprised. He lifted his hand to his mouth, fingers brushing his lips. Bucky’s eyes went wide and he stepped back quickly.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t have done that,” Bucky hastily apologized.

“Why not?” Steve asked matter-of-factly.

“Because you’re upset now, and I didn’t want to upset you. Because I assumed; you asked me to dance, and then you said I was sweet and those things together usually lead to kissing and I shouldn’t have assumed that’s what you wanted. Because I know you still go to church, and the priest told me at my last confession that me wanting to kiss you is a sin, is, is, is a sin, and that’s, that’s why I stopped going. I can’t go to confession if I can’t stop doing what I’m confessing about, but you’re still a good man and I shouldn’t put that on you like that,” Bucky listed off, wringing his hands and staring down at the floor.

“Bucky. Bucky. Buck. Please, stop,” Steve said, taking Bucky’s hands in his and squeezing. Bucky lifted his head, eyes still downturned, but face up towards Steve and ready to listen.

“Don’t say things like that about yourself. You’re good, too, and don’t you forget it,” Steve said firmly. “It’s not like the Church has never been wrong before, you should know that. Didn’t you do a school presentation on Galileo and how he discovered that the earth went around the sun, and not the other way around? So who’s to say they’re not wrong about us, too?”

“‘Us’? You too?” Bucky asked quietly.

“Yep, me too,” Steve nodded. “I just never thought you’d want me as any more than just a friend. The girls are practically lining up to dance with you when we go out, so why would you want or need me?”

“I want you because you’re a swell guy, Stevie. You’ve got a big heart, you always know the right thing to do. You never tried to change me except when I practically begged you to teach me how to be normal. I like your jokes, even if they are real groaners, because they’re so bad that I can tell that they’re jokes. And have you looked in the mirror? You’re pretty good-looking,” Bucky said, lifting one of his hands to Steve’s chin.

“If I’m so good-looking, how come you’re the only one who’s noticed?” Steve said wryly.

“They don’t know how to see the details,” Bucky replied. “They take one look at you, say to themselves ‘he’s too small,’ and move on without getting to know you. Anyone who takes the time to get to know you’s real lucky, you know that?”

“Aww, look at you, you’re blushing,” Steve grinned, getting up on his toes to peck a return kiss on Bucky’s mouth.

“Am not. Not blushing,” Bucky mumbled, blushing harder. “So, do you still want me to teach you how to dance or not?”

“Yeah, once this song ends and the next one starts, we’ll try again, and I’ll even let you lead,” Steve said, putting his hand back on Bucky’s shoulder.

The song ended and the record popped, needle reaching the end of the groove. They both laughed as Bucky walked over to flip the record.

Chapter Text

The draft letter sat in the middle of the table like a snake. Neither of them particularly wanted to touch it. Steve was sulking a little. Bucky was nervous but trying not to show it.

“If you don’t wanna go, I’ll take your place in a heartbeat,” Steve said tetchily.

“I’m gonna go,” Bucky explained. “I’m a red-blooded American, and if they want me in the Army, I’ll do my duty, but it’s war, Steve. You’d have to be a little crazy to want to go over there and get shot at. Your dad died in the Great War, you should know that it ain’t a walk in the park.”

“Maybe I’ll go back, try enlisting, then we can go over together,” Steve said.

“No you won’t,” Bucky said.

“Make me,” Steve grumbled.

“You don’t think I can?” Bucky responded. “I’ll pick you up and carry you out of the enlistment office if I have to. What about your asthma? Your spine? Your heart? Those rules exist for a reason, Steve. They’re there to keep you alive. A dead soldier’s no good to anyone and if you can’t keep up, you’re gonna get dead. I’d rather you be safe and alive here at home so I don’t have to worry.”

“And what about you? You don’t think I’d be worried about you?” Steve said, his voice getting louder. “What happens when you have one of your bad days over there? You can’t sit in a foxhole and stick your fingers in your ears whenever a bomb goes off.”

“Low blow, Steve, low blow. I haven’t done the fingers-in-ears thing since I was fifteen, and you know it,” Bucky snapped back. “And I have been working at the docks for, what is it, almost nine years now? I’m kinda more used to loud noises now. If I can handle the docks and the dockworkers, then I can handle the Army. I’m not stupid and I’m not a coward. Don’t you dare turn into one of them, Steve. Don’t you dare.”

Steve shut his mouth and averted his eyes. He balled up his fists and pressed them against his hipbones. Bucky stared at the floor, crossing his arms and hugging them against his stomach. Neither willing to concede, Steve grabbed a sketchbook and pencil and stalked off to the fire escape. Bucky sat on the couch, pulling his knees up to his chest, wondering what he’d do if he was actually declared fit for duty. Unlike Steve, he didn’t look sick. He was pretty good at faking it by now, and he would never be able to look Steve (or himself, honestly) in the face again if he deliberately funked it. He’d just have to do his best, no matter what.

Chapter Text

“They made you a Sergeant already?” Steve asked with mild disbelief.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Bucky drawled as he closed the apartment door behind him. “Sounds real good, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, of course,” Steve replied, still skeptical. “But I didn’t think they promoted that quick. How’d you manage it?”

“Turns out I’m a really good shot,” Bucky bragged. “Remember how you said you’d never use all that stupid calculus ever again in your life? Well maybe you don’t, but I do. Shooting straight’s just as much about wind speed and math as it is a good eye and a steady hand. Good thing I can do all of those.”

“Oh yeah, I can just imagine it. ‘Gimme a minute Heinz, let me pull out my slide rule’,” Steve teased, miming doing calculations on his arm.

“Punk,” Bucky teased back, giving Steve a playful shove. “I can do that in my head by now. I can also calculate how much time we’re wasting by arguing over this when we could be out eating real food, not powdered eggs and Army beef. I think you ought to treat me to a hamburger and a malt to celebrate my promotion.”

“It would be my honor, Sergeant,” Steve said, giving Bucky a little salute.

Chapter Text

If it had been anyone other than Steve, he would have politely declined. Bucky didn’t want Steve to worry. So he pulled his uniform jacket on over his undershirt, buttoned a couple buttons (to disguise the fact that he was only wearing an undershirt under it), and trailed after Steve. He’d much rather have stayed at the barracks. With so many of the men out celebrating the liberation of Krausberg, the barracks were actually quiet for a change.

And oh, God, did he want a little bit of quiet. It would be more than just embarrassing if he couldn’t hold himself together and regressed into old habits. He had almost publically broken down that first night on the march back to Allied-held territory, that first night out of hell. Steve had missed the part of the Army training where they were taught how to make different kinds of emergency shelters, so Bucky had had to walk him through building a lean-to, getting more and more frustrated as the sun dipped lower on the horizon and Steve hadn’t even thought to build up a layer of insulation over the ground, and then it was too late for him to build his own because he’d decided to try to help Steve before he helped himself. Steve had recognized the slight stutter coming back, the look of desperation and distress on his face and quickly but cautiously wrapped him in a bear-hug and pulled him into the relative privacy of his lean-to. “It’ll be ok Buck, I promise. Do you want to talk?” Bucky had shaken his head no and they settled in to sleep, Steve’s arms still wrapped around Bucky (‘for warmth,’ if anyone asked). He was doing a little better now, but how much of it was just a mask?

Bucky knew Steve would have understood if he had said no thanks, but he also knew that Steve would have worried the whole time, spoiling the atmosphere for everyone else. So he tagged along.

Bucky had started the evening at the same table as Steve and the rest of Steve’s hand-picked troupe, but the laughing, chattering, singing, tipsy soldiers in the suddenly too-small back room of the pub had risen in a crescendo of overstimulation. He had excused himself to the bar, ostensibly to get something a little stronger than the beers they had just finished. Really, he had to get somewhere, anywhere, quieter and less densely peopled. Give himself a chance to decompress a little before he did something that would get the psychiatrists poking even deeper into his head. He supposed a couple fingers of whisky might even help him relax a little.

Steve followed him to the bar a few minutes later. Long enough to let him breathe, but not so long that it would look like he was being ostracized from the group.

“See? I told you,” Bucky said, watching Steve walk up to the bar. “They’re all idiots.”

“What about you? You ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?” Steve said, a laugh bubbling up in his voice.

“Hell no,” Bucky replied, possibly a little too close to the truth. He amended his statement, turning it into a joke. “That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to run away from a fight? I’m following him.”

Chapter Text

Bucky screamed through clenched teeth, heel of his right hand pressed against his ear. He tipped his head to the side, trying to press his left shoulder against his other ear. He sat pushed into the corner of the tiny, too-loud, too-bright room, trying to make himself small, trying to drown out the noise, the constant playback of the discordant shriek of metal scraping against metal. The room was bare and white and empty, lit by fluorescent tube-lights that took up practically the entire ceiling. What did they want from him? They had given him medical attention, had stopped the bleeding and amputated his damaged-beyond-repair left arm. They had shot at him on the train, but they had saved him after he fell. Were they trying to break him in order to get information from him? He would die before he betrayed his friends. They had to know that. Had to know that. He hadn’t broken when they had him before, he wouldn’t break this time, either.

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The subject is proving difficult to control. Too much stimulus too quickly and the subject enters a state similar to catatonia; the subject seems unaware of his surroundings, rocking back and forth unproductively and repeating his United States Army serial number. When overstimulated, the subject does not respond to vocal commands. If touched, the subject lashes out violently but quickly returns to his catatonic state when the touch is withdrawn. Not enough stimulus and the subject remains capable of resistance. It is hoped that prolonged exposure to unpleasant stimulus will exhaust the subject’s defenses and leave him pliable.

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Aversive reinforcement shows promise. The subject appears to be learning to associate certain behaviors and actions with pain. If the subject fully complies with his handlers, the overstimulus is lessened and he is allowed a brief reprieve. Compliance is rewarded. Any deviation from orders is punished. The subject seems willing to obey in order to stop the pain. If this conditioning shows long-term success, then the next phase of the project will be considered.

Chapter Text

The subject has completed a full course of training and conditioning without lashing out at his handlers even once. The addition of electroshock and post-hypnotic suggestion seems to have been the pivot point. The recent Soviet influence on the project has not been all bad, it seems. Perhaps a joint effort between their scientists and our team would not go amiss.

Chapter Text

Phase two of the project has begun. The subject has been measured and fitted for the prosthetic. If the subject survives the, quite experimental, surgery, then our world will be in good hands, indeed.

Chapter Text

The East Germans have done good work for HYDRA, but Berlin is no longer as secure as the project requires. After the Uprising of 1953, it has been decided that the project will be moved to Moscow. There were complaints, initially, but they have been dealt with.

Chapter Text

The first test of phase three of the project was a resounding success. One year later and not even a whisper that the ambassador’s death might have been anything other than a suicide. We will move forward with more ambitious targets.

Chapter Text

The Asset’s current training and conditioning has proven no longer sufficient. The Asset disappeared during a routine mission and remained missing for two weeks. The Asset was located and recovered, but it seems that its memory is beginning to return. Experiments are being developed to test the efficacy of different benzodiazepines. Due to the Asset’s enhanced metabolism, it is suggested that, while the benzodiazepine species with shorter half-lives are more likely to provide the desired anterograde amnesia, they may be metabolized too quickly for use on missions. Other avenues of memory suppression must be investigated simultaneously. Until this problem has been resolved, the Asset will be taken out of cryosleep only for memory suppression tests. All missions are to be put on hold indefinitely.

Chapter Text

In accordance with the new policies of glasnost, the Soviet Union has withdrawn all State support, unofficial though it was, of the project. The KGB has been ordered to deny all knowledge of the project, the Asset, and of HYDRA. Without government funding, control of the Asset must revert to more basic practices, utilizing only what tools we already have or could acquire cheaply. According to early files, the East Germans had some success with aversive reinforcement; it is hoped that, having been supplanted by more effective practices and having been out of use for so long, the Asset has not grown resistant to this form of conditioning. This, however, is only a temporary setback. A new facility has already been located and a new direction for the project is being explored.

Chapter Text

The project has hit a setback. All attempts to control the newest Soldiers have proven unsuccessful. Though they came to the program as willing and loyal subjects, the serum seems to have made them uncompliant, ruthlessly single-minded. Even with the standard treatment undergone by the original Asset, the Soldiers remain far too violent. The Soldiers will remain in cryosleep until what point in the future a solution may be determined for their control and handling. The Asset, though imperfect, must remain in service until a viable alternative can be found.

Chapter Text

The Cold War did HYDRA a great disservice. The organization was allowed to diverge, developing along both Western and Soviet lines of thought. Soviet HYDRA was short-sighted, allowing the government to influence them, including the use of such blatantly false propaganda that we hardly thought to take them seriously. They were communists, far removed from the Red Skull’s ideology. Monitor them, but do not reach out to them.

It was only recently that we learned that Doctor Zola’s pet project had in fact succeeded under the control of the Soviets. It was in part due to their propaganda that persistent rumors of a ‘super-assassin’ were dismissed as false, as overblown as Jack the Ripper. Clearly the work of multiple agents, stitched together into a mythology meant to frighten the West. It was only after Doctor Zola’s algorithm was able to analyze decades worth of information that it became clear that the ‘Winter Soldier’ was real. Doctor Zola recommended that we bring in the Asset as protection for Project Insight.

The Russians are willing to part with the Asset, saying that it is more trouble than it is worth. Its last mission was in 2009; it completed its mission, but spared the life of the Black Widow, a highly dangerous witness. The only saving grace was that the Asset was masked and she did not see its face. The Black Widow must be monitored. At least, once Project Insight is up and running, the Asset will no longer be necessary. I believe it is worth the risk.

Chapter Text

It was the Asset, the Soldier. He was James ‘Bucky’ Barnes. It? He? Pronouns were confusing. Everything was confusing. The house was abandoned and boarded up, but the Asset knew how to enter without leaving evidence. Bucky just wanted to hide until the world didn’t hurt so much. Every sound was too loud, every light too bright. The leather of the Asset’s outfit had dried stiff and chafing. His mind screamed ‘Failure! Punishment! Pain!’ and he desperately wanted to drown out that voice. He retreated to the basement. Below ground, it smelled musty and did not provide easy escape routes, but it was dark and quiet. He could rest here tonight, allow his body to begin to heal itself.

He leaned against the wall, head bowed, eyes closed, hands pressed against his temples, silently reciting ‘my name is Bucky.’ If he repeated it enough, maybe it would begin to make some sense. If he repeated it enough, maybe it would become real.

Chapter Text

Christmas in New York. Bucky had to spend Christmas in New York one more time before moving on. He had always loved the lights on the tree at the Rockefeller Center. He remembered the first time he and Steve had gone to see the tree. He had been nineteen years old. It had been snowing softly, the lights twinkling through the flakes. He had just stopped and stared, entranced. His family had put up a tree every year with ornaments and tinsel, but no lights. But here, dozens of tiny stars lighting the cold New York night, this was surely what Christmas was supposed to be (Bucky was pretty sure Jesus would forgive him this little blasphemy if He came down and saw the Rockefeller Center’s tree).

The last Sunday before Christmas. It was overcast, threatening snow, the temperature just above freezing. Luckily for him, the wind wasn’t too bad. He hadn’t been able to get a new coat yet, instead layering the thin spring jacket he had stolen from Steve’s apartment over every shirt he owned. (He was either going to head somewhere warm for the rest of the winter or somewhere the exchange rate would be more friendly to his paltry supply of cash. Maybe both.) Despite the cold, despite the crowd, he had to go see the tree. It was part of his history, something not tainted by HYDRA. It was his choice to go. A little bit of beauty in his life, whether or not he deserved it. He wanted it and he was allowed, he was allowed to want things.

Tapping the fingers of his left hand against his leg, Bucky made his way through the subway crowd (he was ok with enclosed spaces, not so ok with large numbers of people in said enclosed spaces with him) and up to the surface at 50th Street. Past Radio City Music Hall. He reached Rockefeller Plaza and there it was, 85 feet tall, surrounded by glowing golden angels, and all beautiful excess. His breath clouded and dissipated as he stood, frozen in place on the sidewalk, open-mouthed with awe. Every inch of the tree, lit up and decked out in every color imaginable, a giant silver star on top, reaching into the sky. When he was more stable again, when he wasn’t being hunted, he’d have to bring Steve here and show him the tree. Even if Steve had already seen it (two years Steve had been out of the ice, the museum display had said, plus however many years it would take for Bucky to find himself again), he would just have to see it again. With him. Because that’s how things were supposed to be.

Chapter Text

Ok, so maybe he had panicked and bought the first black market passport he could get his hands on, but it wasn’t working out too badly for him. Bucky’s new passport declared him a Sokovian national, which was just as well, because with the recent turn of events, no one was looking too hard at a Sokovian passport. After all, who would want to pretend to be a refugee? If he could make his way undetected to Eastern Europe, then he could wend his way into a temporary refugee camp and allow himself to be resettled. His Sokovian was patchy and not quite conversational, but there had been enough Soviet influence on the tiny nation that Russian was taught in every school. He grimaced; he spoke Russian almost as if it was his mother tongue. (Almost better than English, he thought. He never stuttered in Russian.) He could pass himself off as Sokovian if he tried. Any idiosyncrasies could be put down to trauma.

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The old Eastern Bloc-style apartment building in Bucharest was nothing special to look at, but it was home now. Shabby but friendly, the lower floors sported houseplants in the hallways and neatly swept stairwells. Old women in the flats with the doors open so they could carry on their running conversations with their neighbors and so Dinu the cat (no one knew who, if anyone, he actually belonged to) could roam the building freely, collecting table scraps and head scratches as he went along.

Climbing further up the building, the stairwells were still neatly swept, but there were no plants and the doors remained closed. If you wanted to be left alone, you took one of the higher flats. It was an unspoken rule. Bucky lived almost at the very top of the building. He wasn’t unfriendly to his neighbors, he said hello when he passed their flats, but he didn’t linger to chat. He had been asked about Sokovia when he first arrived, but the look in his eyes, a shake of the head, and an ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ quickly stopped the questioning. (The pitying looks remained. Poor boy; to have survived a civil war only to lose everything in one terrible day.) It wasn’t that he disliked people, but he didn’t know anyone here and he wasn’t sure how to begin to make friends anymore. The Asset had no need for friends, so those skills had been viciously pruned and allowed to wither.

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The refugee advocacy group that settled him in Bucharest found him a job as a janitor, cleaning offices after the businessmen and women went home for the night. He appreciated the work. Sleeping during the day kept him mostly out of the public eye, and he was allowed to work alone. He didn’t much care for the smell of the ammonia-based cleaners, but he made himself work through it. If he could fight back the painful memories, then he could heal from them, right? Make new memories. Associate the sharp smell with cleanliness and constructive work, not punishment.

He had a job and an apartment. He had a routine. He shopped and cooked for himself, relearning what foods he did or did not like (plums were good, yogurt was bad. Cabbage was oddly ‘friendly,’ bringing a warm fuzzy feeling along with the characteristic odor as it boiled on his stove). He checked out books from the library every Friday afternoon before work. He wrote in his journals, every memory that came back to him, good or bad. He was beginning to have a life of his own again, and it terrified him a little.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Steve again, he just hadn’t wanted it to be like this. He wasn’t ready. He was already wrestling back his fight-or-flight reaction from being spotted in the market. He had to focus, get back to his apartment and collect his stash, his journals and his survival tools, before he allowed himself to run. Steve wasn’t supposed to be here, in Bucky’s apartment. Bucky froze, still gripping his bag of plums.

Steve turned, slowly setting down the journal he had been flipping through. “Do you know me?” he asked.

“You’re Steve,” Bucky replied cautiously. Not quite meeting Steve’s eyes; he couldn’t make himself do it, he was already strained enough. Would Steve remember? Would Steve still understand why? He’d find out soon enough.

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It had been a very odd and very stressful week. Bucky was exhausted. Steve had helped him, as injured as they both were, into the quinjet and got him settled in. Bucky scooted into a corner and pulled his knees up to his chest.

“Hanging in there, Buck?” Steve asked.

Bucky tried to speak, but the words in his head got lost before they found their way to his mouth. He eventually gave up and just nodded.

“Ok, that’s good,” Steve said, nodding back. “There’s a blanket around here somewhere, would you like it? I think I remember when we were kids, you used to like to curl up under a blanket on really bad days, and I’d say this counts as a pretty bad day, huh?”

Bucky smiled and nodded again, eyes still downturned. Of course Steve remembered. That’s what Steve did.

Steve found the blanket and tucked it gently around Bucky’s shoulders, giving his right shoulder a brief squeeze. Bucky inhaled deeply and sighed. He’d get through this. They’d get through this.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Steve? Are you sure everyone’s ok with this? With me living here with all the rest of you?” Bucky asked. “I mean, you’re not Captain America anymore, and I’m barely a month removed from the Trial of the Century. We’re not quite Avengers and this is the Avengers headquarters.”

“Yeah, of course. This is the best place for both of us until we can find somewhere of our own. It’s very private and everyone understands,” Steve assured.

“Even Tony?”

“He doesn’t hold grudges.”

Bucky snorted.

“Ok, he holds grudges until he gets distracted by something new and shiny and then he forgets all about them,” Steve corrected. “You’ve been living here with me for a month, what made you start asking this now?”

“You’re sure Tony’s ok about this?” Bucky asked. “Because I overheard part of a phone conversation he was having the other day and I know he was talking about me and he called me something and I’m not sure what it meant, I haven’t had a chance to google it yet. I’m not entirely sure I want to.”

“If it makes you feel any better, Tony gives everyone weird nicknames. He called me ‘Capsicle,’ ‘Caparooney,’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’ all within the first couple months that we knew each other.”

“Yeah, I don’t think this one was a nickname. It sounded more like an adjective, like ‘he’s Irish’ or ‘he’s an amputee,’ but I didn’t recognize the word, and it’s Tony.”

“My browser history is already irreparably tainted from googling things he’s said, so if you want me to look it up, I will,” Steve offered. “What word did he use?”

“He said something along the lines of ‘So, what, you think our one-armed bandit is autistic? Did they even have that back in Ye Olden Days? Wait. Actually, that would explain a few things I’ve noticed, like why he never laughs at my jokes. I thought he was just being deliberately difficult’,” Bucky recalled.

“You know, I think it really would explain some things,” Steve said after a moment’s thought.

“You know what it means?” Bucky asked, surprised.

“I don’t know if I personally can explain it very well, but I’ve got some links bookmarked that you can read over,” Steve explained, grabbing his laptop and waking it up. “Last year, while you were still frozen, Tony suddenly announced that he was going to donate to a group called Autism Speaks, but that caused a lot of backlash about having the Stark name attached to an organization with as much controversy surrounding it as Autism Speaks does. I thought I should read up on the controversy, because as you may have figured out, Tony doesn’t always think things through before doing them, and I wanted to know what he was getting himself (and indirectly the Avengers and honorary Avengers) into. In doing so, I learned a bit about what autism is. And don’t worry, Pepper managed to get that PR nightmare fixed up and the money went to a number of more-deserving organizations.”

“Well, I guess I’ll be settling into read,” Bucky replied, taking the laptop from Steve.

Chapter Text

Bucky shut the door behind him, hooking his shoulderbag onto the coatrack by the door. He leaned his back against the door, right hand twitching a little. He was finally getting used to being allowed to twitch, to give into his tics (he should probably practice calling them ‘stims’ now that he knew about that sort of thing) without fear of reprisal. He knew that Steve would never hurt him, but seventy years of on-and-off conditioning left a deep mark. It hadn’t been a bad day overall, really, just one bad part. And it was past now, he was home and he was gonna be ok. He pushed himself back upright just as Steve turned the corner from the hall into the front room, sipping a mug of coffee. Bucky liked coffee. The caffeine didn’t do anything for him, but he loved the smell. It tasted pretty good with cream and sugar, too.

“Oh, hi,” Steve said, looking up and noticing Bucky. “I didn’t hear you come in. How was school?”

“Eh, so-so,” Bucky said, wobbling his hand to give emphasis to his words.

“How are you feeling?” Steve asked.

“Also so-so,” Bucky replied, walking closer to Steve so he could sniff his coffee.

“Well that’s not ideal. How can I help make it better?” Steve said with a smile, holding out his coffee cup for Bucky to get a good whiff. “Have you eaten dinner yet? I’ve got a tray of mixed veggies roasting in the oven and pulled pork in the crock pot.”

“Mmm,” Bucky hummed. “I had a few slices of pizza on campus, but if those mixed veggies include that cauliflower you made last week, I think I could find room.”

“Yeah, I got some cauliflower in there. I decided to try that spice mix on potatoes, carrots, peppers, and brussels sprouts, too,” Steve replied. “And don’t worry, the peppers are on their own piece of parchment paper and I shook them separately. I know you don’t like them.”

“Aw, thanks,” Bucky said, giving Steve a quick kiss, tasting the coffee on his lips.

“Oh yeah,” Steve said, perking up a little. “I almost forgot. I got a little something for you. It came in the mail today.”

Steve walked over to the end table by the couch and picked up a small padded mailer. He tore it open (Bucky had declined a replacement prosthetic, deciding to wait until some nebulous time in the future when he felt like he could have one without being reminded about all the terrible things his original prosthetic had done and caused) and held it out. Bucky reached inside and pulled out an oblong, navy blue silicone pendant on a soft cord. The cord had a quick-release clasp, but it was long enough that he could pull it over his head without undoing the clasp. The pendant was about as long as his thumb had some heft to it, but it wasn’t so heavy that the cord would cause discomfort or chafe his neck. Bucky let the cord unwind and the pendant dangle freely. He held it up and scrutinized it.

“So, what’s this thing other than a necklace?” Bucky asked. “Somehow I don’t think you’d buy me jewelry unless it had some other use to it.”

“It’s a stim toy,” Steve explained excitedly. “I did some googling around and found a website selling stim toys for autistic people to help relieve stress or just for fun and I thought I’d get something for you to try out. I remember you doing things when we were younger that I guess would be classified as stims now, like spinning your pocket knife, or tapping your fingers or a pencil, but they didn’t have anything for those kinds of stims. This necklace is meant for chewing. I don’t know if you like chewing as a stim, but I thought maybe you might like to have an option for when you need to have your hand free. And since I know you’re still getting more comfortable with stimming, it’s discreet enough that it’s not immediately obvious that it’s a chew-toy. It could just be an artsy necklace.”

Bucky broke into a broad smile, front teeth just peeking out. He looped the cord over his head and placed the pendant between his incisors, giving it a tentative nibble.

“Thanks, Steve. I’ll I’ll try it out. Thanks,” Bucky said, pulling Steve into a hug, managing not to spill his coffee.

The oven timer beeped.

“Ooh, dinner!” Bucky said, dragging Steve into the kitchen with him.