When Bucky was eleven he caught a fever so bad he almost died. Steve told him, after, how the priest had wanted to give him Last Rites and the whole building had held its breath but Bucky remembered none of that. All he remembered of that week was a thick shivering heat that had draped itself across his aching body like a blanket, like a barrier with him on one side and the rest of the world on the other. Reducing the figures standing over him and the weeping coming from the corner to echoes of a place he was leaving behind.
He thought that must be where he was now. He was soaking and shaking and he couldn't catch his breath, couldn't get his eyes to focus in the artificial glare of a sickroom. There were men standing over him. He couldn't make out the words but he knew they were talking about him. One of them was a doctor.
“Pop?” He tried to reach out but something was stopping him.
The voices went quiet. There was a new noise now: something buzzing under his skin and filling his ears, getting louder and faster and almost drowning out the soft laugh from somewhere above him. There were fingers sliding through his hair and he couldn't see anything, just darkness and shapes reaching out from it.
There were hands on him and he couldn't move away. There was a voice and that was wrong too.
“Yes,” he was told. “Yes, I suppose you could call me that.”
Bucky was pretty sure he was already dying by the time they pulled him from his cell. His ribs were busted, his lungs felt like shredded wet newspaper, and he could barely get his feet under him as he was dragged along the corridor with angry shouts fading behind him. They were going to use him for target practice or sling him in the incinerator, or whatever else they did with workers who couldn't work anymore, and the only clear thought in his head was that the people back home who loved him would never know what had happened to him. There would be a knock on his folks' front door and a telegram and a new gold star to replace the blue one in their window and that would be it. They wouldn't even get a body to bury.
He was expecting the incinerator but instead they took him all the way to the other side of the factory, to a room that stank of carbolic soap and things left in the dark to rot. There was a narrow table with five black straps hanging from it and a guy mopping blood off the floor and Bucky found he could fight after all. It didn't make any difference.
He didn't notice the guy in the corner until they had him strapped down; a soft-looking guy with glasses and a clipboard he was frowning at, mouth a small displeased pout. He glanced across at Bucky and his expression grew even less pleased.
Good. “You a doctor?” Bucky's fingernails scrabbled against the table; sharp edges grated inside of him. “Yeah, you. You a doctor? Sure look like one. Nice clean shirt and fancy little tie. Or a—maybe a butler, huh, Fritz? Gonna—you gonna fetch me some schnitzel, you Nazi fuck?”
The guy smiled thinly and said something to the guards that Bucky's German wasn't good enough to catch. He turned away for a long moment, doing something with his hands that Bucky couldn’t see, and when he turned back around he was holding a syringe. Bucky's heart stopped dead in his chest. He was sick and this guy was a doctor with a syringe full of something, but it sure as hell wasn't medicine.
It wasn't just one syringe. Bucky snarled and wrenched against the straps, eyes fixed on the syringe the doctor set down beside others on a metal tray he handed off to one of the guards. “Hey, what the hell's in that?” he demanded as the doctor examined the row of syringes and selected one filled with a milky liquid, repeating it in German when they ignored him. “What is that?”
The doctor didn't even look at him. “Don't try to think about it. It's beyond you.”
There was a tray full of syringes and a small, soft hand he couldn’t shake off. Two fingers tapping at the exposed inside of his elbow and then a sharp push and acid clawing through his veins, right to the heart of him. There was a tray full of syringes but Bucky lost count after the third one and after that he could only scream.
He didn't die. They thought he would and he thought he had but he didn't die and the doctor looked at him differently after that.
The doctor's name was Zola and he was there every time Bucky didn't die. He told the guards where to cut and what to break and when to force Bucky's mouth open and then seal it and his nostrils shut until he swallowed something thick and cloying that caught against the back of his throat and left him vomiting up blood twenty minutes later. He held up syringes filled with different colored liquids and waited for Bucky's breath to grow short before he pushed the needle in. There was the smell of burning and a voice counting backwards in German, and someone in the room was making soft hurt little sounds but the machine above him was switched on and he couldn't see anything.
He heard them bring in other prisoners. There were distant screams and choking noises that seemed to go on for hours. He tried not to think about it. He saw things in the dark and tried not to think about them either.
He opened his eyes and Zola was there with his smile and his greedy eyes and his hands that were sometimes hot and sometimes cold but always slightly moist. Zola's face shifted and now it was Father Hallahan, the old choir master. His eyes had been greedy too, but his hand was always very cold and dry as he rested it on a bare arm, a knee, the sharp wing of a shoulder blade, and never anywhere else, but oh, how he'd wanted to and how they'd all known and never said a word.
Something split open inside of Bucky. Like thin skin caught between knuckle and teeth.
“Describe the sensation precisely,” Zola instructed.
Barnes. James. Sergeant. 32557038.
“Can you feel that?”
Barnes. James. Sergeant. 32557038.
“Can you feel that?”
He could hear music, just on the edge of his hearing, something soft and sweet with no kind of a beat but nice to listen to all the same. He hadn't heard music like that since he was last home and his mind followed it there. His folks and the girls. Mrs Lyznicki upstairs, who'd taught all four Barnes kids the piano and still offered Bucky a peppermint and a cigarette every time he stopped by. Danny Brown and the O'Reilly brothers. Big Charlie, who ran the news stand on the corner and always held back a copy of Black Mask for Bucky. Rita Watson, who worked behind the counter at Woolworth's on Fulton Street and could dance the Lindy better than anyone. Steve. Steve most of all.
There was the whine of something mechanical powering up and Steve was gone.
Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038.
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. There was something in the room with him that he couldn't see, could only hear its heavy breath and the padding of its feet as it paced back and forth in the shadows. It wanted something from him, just like Zola did and just like Hallahan had and Bucky didn't know what he had left for them to take. Little Becca stood at the foot of his bed and he screamed because she couldn't be here, it wasn't safe.
Damp fingers stroked his cheek. “Even in death you can help the scientific process,” Zola told him.
Even in death, but Bucky didn't die.
Barnes. Sergeant. 3255703.
Barnes. Sergeant. 32557.
There was someone in the room with him that he couldn't see. There was a voice and he knew that voice and he knew those hands pulling him off that table and onto his feet and here was Steve: the size of a house and wearing a costume and, sure, why not. Why not.
There was no way Bucky could walk but he did it anyway.
Somewhere between watching Zola escape with a lunatic who tore his own face off and Steve making an impossible leap through fire Bucky was starting to realize that this might not be a dream after all. Steve was here and he was enormous and he'd come for Bucky. He'd appeared out of nowhere and gotten Bucky off that fucking table and Bucky still didn't understand what any of this meant until he was outside and the yard was cold and wet and filled with American soldiers.
“Steve? Is—is this—What did you do?”
He wasn't looking at Steve but he knew that smile in his voice all the same. “I told you, Buck. I joined the Army.”
For all Steve's big talk, it quickly became clear that he didn't have a clue what he was doing. That wasn't really anything new when it came to one of Steve's harebrained schemes, especially the ones that somehow ended up working, but this time he had several hundred men looking at him like he was the ranking officer and Steve was looking at Bucky like he always did when he knew he was in over his head but was too damn proud to ask for help.
Bucky pulled him to one side. “Do you know where we are?”
“Krausberg.” Steve copied his low urgent tone and serious expression without seeming to realize he was doing it. He looked like an actor playing a soldier in a movie. “Austria, thirty miles north of the line. We need to get the wounded seen to.”
That was Mrs Rogers' son all over and he wasn't wrong, but Bucky shook his head. “We're in enemy territory and the enemy knows our position. We need to be somewhere else.”
Whatever crazy adrenaline it was that got him onto his feet and out of that factory had started to wear off, leaving a sour taste. His mouth was too dry to spit. Bucky absently noticed that his hands were shaking and his teeth starting to chatter even though he didn't feel cold. He didn't feel much of anything.
“We load the wounded onto the trucks,” Steve was saying. Christ, he was as tall as Bucky now, maybe taller. “Anyone who can't walk. Keep going and don't stop until we have to.”
“Two hours. Keep going for two hours and then regroup. Send out scouts. We're probably gonna wind up in a fight anyway, but we ought to avoid it if we can. I know that's a new concept for you.”
“Well, I'm adaptable.”
“I guess so.” It came out sounding bitter, and Bucky didn't know what to do with that. It looked like Steve didn't either and none of this was helping so Bucky gave himself a shake. “Okay, so we got a plan. Let's get them moving.”
There were less wounded than they had any right to expect and it didn't take long to get them loaded onto the trucks. Even so, by the time they were through, some mechanism inside of Bucky had shut down. His legs refused to support him and the world had narrowed to a few, blurry feet in front of him. He let himself be coaxed onto the last of the trucks; steady hand beneath his arm and familiar voice in his ear.
Bucky grabbed hold of Steve when he tried to leave and got caught on the sight of his own arm. He was wearing Steve's jacket. When did that happen?
“Bucky?” Steve said after a moment. “You need me to stay with you?”
He said it like he'd actually do it, the big dope, but Bucky shook his head impatiently. Struggled for the words he needed. “Dugan,” he said. “And Jones. And a Limey called Falsworth, maybe. Those are your guys. You aren't sure about something, you ask them. They'll help you and make it look like nothing. Dugan and Jones. They're your guys.”
Steve's face cracked open at that and Bucky had to look away. Steve's arm was warm and solid and completely unfamiliar in his grip. Bucky let go.
Steve cleared his throat. “Dugan and Jones?”
“And maybe Falsworth.” Bucky looked down at his hand; curled it into a fist and spread the fingers wide again.
He didn't feel much of anything.
The medic tried to get him to lie down once Steve had gone but Bucky jammed himself into the furthest corner and pushed his forehead into his knees. Screwed his eyes shut against the darkness and didn't think about anything at all.
The journey back to base was painfully slow. Most of the freed prisoners were suffering from a combination of exhaustion and starvation, but among them was a member of the Italian resistance, caught attempting to sabotage a supply line. On his advice they traveled a meandering route south along the roads least likely to put them in the path of German patrols. The temperature dropped and Steve tried to get Bucky to hang onto the jacket but Bucky wasn't the one with a big white star like a bullseye right in the center of his chest.
Besides, like he told Steve when he handed it back, the thing was so full of holes it wasn't like it was going to keep him any warmer than the walk would.
Steve looked even bigger and less like himself in the light of day. Like a hero from one of those goofy serials he liked so much; like something not quite real. He marched with Bucky at the head of the column and slowed his pace every time Bucky fell behind a step, catching his eye like he thought they were doing this together. Like he didn't even realize he was the star of this show. They didn't encounter a single enemy patrol. Every man who walked out of that prison camp made it back to base and most of them climbed down off the vehicles for that last stretch so they could finish on their own two feet.
It was easy for Bucky to slip away in the commotion of their return. Medics were threading their way through the crowd and someone was going to point him out eventually but he needed to do this first. He found a sheltered spot around the back of the motor pool where someone had dragged a bunch of crates together and piled up some well-thumbed copies of Yank and Eyeful. The ground was littered with cigarette butts and there were wads of dried chewing gum crusted along one side of one of the crates like barnacles on the hull of a ship. He would have to be quick.
Bucky took a deep breath and then skinned his sweater up over his head and let it drop next to the stack of magazines. He squeezed his eyes shut for the count of three and then made himself look down.
It took several seconds for what he was seeing to sink in. Sallow skin, dog tags, and chest hair; ribs and hipbones—both closer to the surface than they ought to be—and that was it. That couldn't be it. He looked closer: examined his arms from every angle, ran his hands over his chest and sides, and almost wrenched something trying to see his own back. Distantly, he registered the way his heart was starting to pound in his ears and the harsh trapped sound of his own breathing. He found faint bruising around the point of an elbow, some cuts and scrapes that he might have gotten during the escape. And that was it. Nothing worse than a kid might get after a fall on the school yard, nothing to show for what they did. That couldn't be it.
Eventually, he found what he must have been looking for: three pink circles on the front of his left shoulder. They sparked beneath his fingertips and for a moment he could smell smoke and feel leather straps biting into his chest. He could smell smoke and then burning flesh and feel the scratch of wool as they pulled his sweater to one side. The guard had a scrape on the soft part beneath his jaw: he must have caught himself shaving.
Three neat circles in a row. The one nearest his collarbone was a rosy pink while the one on the outside was so dark it was almost red and the middle one was an irritated shade somewhere between the two. They had worked their way outwards.
He ran his fingers back and forth over the shiny raised skin and listened to his breathing slowly even out. After a while he put his sweater back on.
It was nice back here. Quiet. Smell of gasoline and running engines instead of all those damn trees Europe seemed full of. He could stay here and listen to the distant sounds of camp and not have to worry about what his face was letting show or pretend that he still remembered how to act like a person. Pretend that he didn't see the guys watching him and wondering exactly what he did to come back from that side of the factory when no one else had. What he did to be in better shape now than when they fought like demons to keep the guards from taking him.
Bucky wondered about that too and then he made himself stop. He could stay here but he knew at least one person who would come looking for him eventually.
“You eaten?” Bucky asked Steve when he found him loitering outside the mess tent. He'd lost the helmet at some point and picking him out in the sea of olive-drab took longer than Bucky would have once thought possible.
“I was waiting for you.” Steve looked him over. “You see the medic?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said and then stopped, confused by the lie and how automatically it had fallen out of him. “I mean nah. I'll go later when they're finished with the guys who need it.” He could see Steve gearing up to argue so he lowered his voice and sharpened its edges, conscious of all the ears around them. “I just marched fifty-odd miles across two countries. I'm not about to drop dead any time soon.”
Steve got a pissy look on his face. “More like forty. You were snoring in the back of a truck for the first ten while the rest of us were marching.”
That little punk. Bucky wasn't finding much funny these days, but Steve always had been his exception. It wasn't enough to make him laugh and shove Steve like he might have once done, but he found half a smile from somewhere and Steve looked like he'd just won the goddamn lottery. Jesus, this kid. What was Bucky even supposed to do with this kid?
“So, you gonna buy me dinner or what?”
The mess tent was packed with jostling bodies and the wet industrial stench of cheap food cooked in bulk. It was how Bucky always imagined an orphanage would smell though he hadn't realized it until his first week of Basic. When they reached the front of the line they discovered the source of that smell was meatloaf and a pile of rubbery grey mush calling itself string beans. Bucky would swear he'd eaten more meatloaf and string beans since he joined the Army than in the twenty four years before then combined. That was probably something he'd complained about once.
The two of them wound up with seats on the second of four long narrow tables when a group of guys spotted Steve and scrambled to their feet. Steve started to protest until Bucky kicked him hard in the ankle and sat down.
“Captain.” One of them nodded, all of eighteen years old and painfully solemn in the way Bucky remembered Steve being at that age. “Sergeant Barnes.”
Bucky nodded back, feeling like shit when he realized he should know the kid's name but couldn't call it to mind. “Private.”
Steve echoed him and then sat down, looking aggrieved. “They didn't have to—”
“You just saved the lives of everyone in this place,” Bucky cut him off before he could really get going. “You too good to let them say thank you the only way they can right now?” That shut Steve's trap and Bucky did laugh then, almost. “It's not all about you, Rogers.”
He watched Steve chew on that along with his meatloaf and string beans. It used to be that eating too much or too quickly would give Steve a stomach ache, but that obviously wasn't an issue anymore because once he got started he practically inhaled the entire tray and then frowned like he was wondering where all the food had gone. He set his fork down slowly and folded his hands. His eyes skipped across Bucky's tray and then off to the side, where they were still serving, before turning away, only to return a minute later. The third time he pretended to be scratching the side of his face so he could cast longing looks at the food he got another kick.
“You're gonna put everyone in here off their food with those big sad eyes of yours. You look like a dog outside a butcher's window.”
Steve considered that, thumb rubbing along the side of his chin. “Huh,” he said. “Think you must've got me confused with the way you look whenever Annie Graham walks by.” He got to his feet. “Want anything?”
“Yeah.” Bucky's answer was pure reflex. “Dodgers tickets and a friend who's not such a wiseass.”
“Sorry. Fresh out.”
There was something kind of impressive about how much Steve could eat. Kind of horrifying too. Bucky picked listlessly at his own tray, his stomach a shriveled dead thing inside of him, and watched as Steve went through a second and third helping with no sign of slowing down. “Is this new or is this how much you'd have put away back home given the chance?”
“Little of both, I think,” Steve said through a mouthful of mashed potato.
Bucky glanced back and forth along the packed table but no one seemed to be interested in anything beyond the mechanical action of lifting fork to mouth. He kept his voice low all the same. “They tell you this was gonna happen before they did all this?”
“My appetite? Uh, no, it never came up.”
Yeah, Bucky bet it hadn't. “That's convenient. Anything else they forget to mention?”
Steve looked annoyed. “Not that I've noticed, but I'll make sure to keep you informed.”
“You do that.”
From the other side of the tent, meatloaf and string beans slapped against waiting trays. Two guys behind Bucky were arguing peevishly about baseball without either of them sounding like they had the first clue about the game except for how it was ruined now girls were allowed to play. Four seats away, a skinny fair-haired kid in the remains of a Polish uniform had fallen asleep at the table, cheek pillowed on his folded arms, and his neighbor was taking the opportunity to relieve him of his meatloaf. Bucky pushed a grayish lump from one corner of his tray to the other.
“Bucky,” Steve said, too calm and reasonable. “You know I had to—”
“What do you think this is anyway?” Bucky's fork shrieked against the tray and the grayish lump trembled. “Think this is meat?”
He didn't look up but he could tell the exact moment Steve dropped his eyes. “I don't know. Cut it open and see.”
Bucky put his fork down.
Steve went back to his own meal. His fork rose and fell a little slower than it had before and it looked like the food wasn't sitting entirely right with him. He'd get used to it: he was a soldier now, just like he'd wanted. Following in your father's footsteps must seem more romantic when he was a war hero who never came home instead of a guy like Bucky's pop, who had an explosive temper he turned on everyone besides his own family and a leg that didn't work right when the cold weather set in. He had gone real quiet when Bucky came home and said he'd enlisted. Proud but quiet.
He and Steve had gone together. They'd waited until Christmas and Steve's annual bout of winter flu were out of the way and then marched into that recruiting station like they had any idea of what they were signing up for. The recruiter must have had a quota to fill or something because he'd tried to get Bucky to sign up for the Marines, but Steve had his heart set on the 107th and it wasn't like the pay was any better than the regular Army. Outside, afterwards, Steve had glared at the poster of Uncle Sam and thrown off the arm Bucky tried to sling around his shoulders. It hadn't even occurred to Bucky that they wouldn't take Steve. Sure, he was a buck ten soaking wet, with weak lungs and a bum heart, but he was smart and he was stubborn and he was worth any ten of those 1A Joes back in that waiting room. Bucky had stood there helplessly watching the bitter clench of Steve's jaw and wondered for the thousandth time why no one else ever seemed to see that.
That guy Erskine had seen it, or so Steve believed. Bucky wasn't so sure. Steve had been singing the guy’s praises when he finally gave Bucky a straight answer about what happened to him, but seemed like if Erskine had really seen Steve then he wouldn't have thought he needed to put him inside the body of Charles Atlas just to make him worth something. He wouldn't have felt like he had the right to strap him down and inject him with God knows what and just hope it wasn't going to kill him or turn him into another Schmidt or worse. What else had they forgotten to mention? What else had never come up?
Steve could have died and Bucky would have never even known. He could have died and they would have all just shaken their heads and made a note of it on their clipboard and tried again. All part of the scientific process. There were always more rats in the cage.
A touch to his arm jolted Bucky from his thoughts and almost sent the metal tray flying. “What?”
“I was saying we should probably go get cleaned up. I can smell you from here and you don't wanna kill the doc when he finally gets a look at you.” Concern sat differently on Steve’s broader face; the expression just a fraction off and worse, almost, than if they'd given him a whole new face to go with the new body. No one who hadn't known him before would even be able to see what was wrong. They wouldn't be able to see what had been done to him.
“Bucky? You hear what I said?”
“Yeah. Sure.” Bucky scrubbed a hand across his face. His jaw was coarse with stubble and the left side throbbed sharp and unexpected beneath his touch; his fingers found the rough edges of a scrape across his cheekbone, dried blood clinging to it. When did he get hit? “Go on. I'm listening.”
“You all right?”
“Yeah, you kidding? 'Course I am. I'm just... just tired, I guess.” He said the words without thinking and it was only after they'd left his mouth that he realized how true they were. He felt worn down to his bones.
Steve glanced at the food still on Bucky's tray and then up again, those two lines between his eyebrows deepening. “You wanna go somewhere? I don't—” Steve made a face that was entirely familiar. “I just meant— I got a tent. They said I've got a tent that's just mine. Perks of being a chorus girl around here. You could lie down for a while. If you want.”
Steve's hands lay on the table between them. Long fingers, broad palms, and scars across the first two knuckles of his right hand from every time he'd thrown a punch and cut himself on the other guy's teeth or missed and hit something even less forgiving. Bucky had spent years trying to teach him how to land a punch; longer trying to teach him how to block since the idiot was too damn stubborn to run away. His hands hadn't changed, nor had the way he twisted his fingers together and dug his thumbs into his palms when he was trying to pretend everything was fine.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Okay.”
He didn't remember how they got to Steve's tent, just lay down on the cot when it was in front of him and curled onto his side. His breath shuddered in and then out again.
“Bucky? Bucky, can I...?”
There was a man standing over him and he was tall and broad and wrong, but his voice was the same and his hands were the same and for a moment all Bucky wanted was to reach out for one of those big scarred hands and tug until Steve lay beside him on the cot. Close his eyes so he wouldn't have to see what had been done to him and say I'm bored, tell me something. He could smell smoke and sickness and two grown men who hadn't washed in entirely too long, but the blanket under his cheek still carried enough of Steve that he could breathe in and pretend they were home. That beneath them were couch cushions and if Bucky listened hard enough he'd be able to hear his mom singing quietly to herself in the kitchen as she got ready for a new day. That he and Steve could stay safe and warm and ignorant until Evie was sent to call them to breakfast because the war had never come for either of them.
Bucky rolled onto his other side, putting his back to the rest of the tent. “They'll be moving us soon. Maybe you should find out when.”
The new position made his bruised face start pounding, hot and sharp. The ear on that side didn't feel right either but he stayed where he was. Steve's boots scuffed against the groundsheet he was enough of a big shot to warrant and then he said, “Yeah. Good idea. I'll let you know what I find out.”
Bucky didn't say anything. After a moment he heard the tent flap open and close again, and he was alone.