Bane by Wendy Videlock
Full of strength and laced
and all things
The day of Insight.
The Soldier lies. He tells them that Captain America is dead.
They exchange glances, faces twisted with a nauseated kind of elation. The white-coated men are not used to violence. The idea of Captain America being dead probably hits them hard, even though that was the mission they sent the Soldier on.
The Soldier feels bile rise and his throat tighten. He is angry that these men know nothing of violence. It is that more than anything else which pushes him into throwing the Chair to the ground, breaking it in a horrible crash of metal. Everyone startles, but the Soldier is too quick. Before anyone can react, he has punched one of the men and sent him to the ground.
The other, he grabs by the neck and holds him up.
There is begging. There has been so much begging over the years. The Soldier was never taught manners, but he knows how to say please.
Another man’s face fills his vision, long dead and wearing a Soviet uniform. He hears him say, “I have a daughter, please, please. I have a baby girl.”
This thought makes him drop the man in front of him, let him go to his knees gasping for breath. He will live.
This was supposed to be the Soldier’s last mission. He is supposed to do something different now. His long mission is over and the new one begins. He struggles to remember what the new mission is, but he knows it is different and important. He is used to carrying out missions he does not understand.
These men will not help him in his new mission. He goes to the supply cache and takes nutrient bars and ammunition. Any mission needs those. They will help. He changes into the drab civilian attire that is kept for the brief moments where the Soldier needs to pass as a human. It is not good for combat, but it has tactical value.
He leaves the communication devices in the cache and steals a phone from a civilian on his way to the train. The civilian is drunk, smoking a cigarette. He is leaning too close to a girl with hair like sunshine. The Soldier’s eyes are caught on the woman’s hair and the male civilian takes a hearty long drag of his cigarette in the time it takes the Soldier to move.
He takes the man’s phone, and his wallet too. He will need money to live.
That night, he sleeps in an alley. It is cold. He is used to cold, but it is unpleasant.
His shoulder aches when he wakes up. He heals quickly, but sleeping on concrete is always unpleasant after a major injury.
There should have been more injuries, he thinks. The Captain could have defeated him. He knows that.
He thinks, Bucky.
He searches the name on the phone. A man who looks like the Soldier shows up on images. There is a museum exhibit in town. Reconnaissance is important in long-term missions. He suspects that Bucky is part of this new mission.
At the museum, he spends a long time looking at the man in the pictures. Bucky. Well, okay, he thinks. He can work with that.
It is dark when he gets outside and starting to get cold.
South, he thinks. He is going to go south.
4 days after Insight.
Bucky has spent a lot of the past couple days on buses. They all smell slightly different, variations on bodies and plastic that swirl together like the passing street lamps on the road outside. He never quite fits fully into the chair—he is a big man, somehow bigger than he expects himself to be, and the buses are built to maximize efficient transportation of people. The people sitting next to him always manage to be in his space, even if only in small ways, but every brush of thigh or shoulder sends adrenaline straight down his spine.
He is sick of buses. He has dealt with more unpleasant things, but he doesn’t want to ride the bus anymore. When he shoves his hands in his pockets and slouches out in the line of people getting off the bus in Louisville he decides he isn’t going to take the bus anymore.
It is nighttime and a McDonald’s is lit up on the corner, lurid in the dusk. He licks his lips and wonders if he’s ever eaten there. He knows it is a restaurant, knows they are everywhere—his memories flip through a catalogue of hundreds of McDonald’s, menus in two dozen languages. He cannot think what it tastes like. He’s out of nutrient bars and he’s hungry, so he goes in.
Bucky has enough money for a burger and fries. He abandoned the phone and credit cards somewhere in West Virginia after spotting a white unmarked van parked in the rest stop the bus driver picked to stretch his legs in. It hadn’t been HYDRA, but the bolt of terror compelled him to seek out the most unpleasant-looking young man in the Cinnabon line and tell him to take the cards and spend as much as he wanted on them. He hoped the guy was going North and was stupid enough to actually do it. He slipped the phone into a young mother’s diaper bag. He had seen her get out a car with Canada plates, the bright daisies of her bag unforgettable.
Now he had nothing much left at all. When he asks for water with his meal, the cashier gives him a bottle and Bucky does not think to correct her until it turns out that pushes him past what he can afford. She takes it back and hands him a small cardboard cup instead. He tries out a smile on her, but she’s not paying attention to his face in the slightest as she puts his change and receipt in his right hand. He’s left with some food and about forty cents to his name.
He sits down with his tray and eats.
The salt of the fries is so sharp and perfect that he has to eat them one at a time, carefully. Reverent, he thinks, the word floating unmoored through his head. The burger is almost unpleasantly overwhelming, on the other hand— a cacophony of flavors, with savory meat, sharp vinegary pickle, spicy onion bite, sweet ketchup. He has been eating nutrient bars since leaving his handlers and before that, he was largely on the tube. He remembers an excellent meal, with vodka and perfect little black pearls of caviar, but that was in the Soviet days. He was less defective then.
Less erratic, he decides to think instead.
After he is finished, he goes to the restroom and locks the door. He washes himself, in a meager and inadequate way, in the sink. It smells like piss in here, but he’s reasonably sure that he does not. His stubble approaches beard status, ragged and uneven. His hair is greasy.
Bucky meets his own eyes in the mirror and thinks, I like french fries. I don’t like buses.
He leaves the McDonald’s and walks. It is a nice night, chill but not too cold. He enjoys himself. The highway is not very busy, this late at night. Passing cars blind him only briefly before retreating. Next to the road are fields and fields, lined with fence—they smell sweet.
He walks until he is well outside the city. He walks until he is tired. This fatigue confuses him a little. The Soldier doesn’t—the Soldier didn’t know much, but he knew his body. Bucky knows that he could walk for far longer than this without fatigue. But the knowledge of what should be never has any effect on what is and Bucky is tired.
The fence next to the road is smoothly painted white and it is the work of seconds to hop it. He walks deeper into the fields, grass underfoot. Smudges of buildings are on the far side of the field, so he walks away from them. There is a lean-to near the far fence and Bucky tucks himself up in the back of it. He sleeps. It is much more comfortable than the alley and as his own breathing stills, he falls asleep to the soft movement sounds of large creatures.
5 days after Insight.
He feels the softness of his lover’s hair against his face. Bucky smiles a little, helplessly fond of Steve even in the moments before consciousness, and reaches out for him— into nothing. His eyes snap open and two very large nostrils flare in front of him.
Bucky slowly brings his hand back into his own body and then goes completely still.
He smells grass and animal on its breath and feels the whuffle of its examination. A horse, he thinks.
Pashto swells in his ears, harmonized with Russian, and he smells rice steamed with raisins, gunpowder, dust, blood. The swoop of a rocky mountain pass overlays the bucolic grassy vision in front of him. He feels, even as he is frozen, his legs wrap around a sturdy little pony named Sado. Sado means wise and with typical humor, he was probably the stupidest creature the Soldier had ever encountered.
1990. He remembers.
He pulls himself up to get a look at this new horse, sitting cross-legged. This is no Sado, who was shaggy and ragged and small. This horse has the sleek, highly engineered look of something valuable and prized. Its coat is a glossy dark brown and when it shifts a little in response to Bucky’s movements, legs bracing in front of it, Bucky can see its muscles bunch. Bucky curls his metal arm into a fist just to feel those almost-muscles move.
“Hello,” he says. His voice is ragged and he clears his throat. “Hi there.”
He reaches up, very slowly and carefully, and rubs his human palm against the hard bone of its nose. The fur there is short and soft, almost like velvet. He rubs again, marvelling a little. French fries and soft things.
The sound of movement on grass startles Bucky a little and he looks past the horse in front of him. A spindly little horse— a foal— makes its way to the bigger horse. It doesn’t move in a straight line.
The big horse sidled a little away from Bucky, whirling around to meet its—no, must be her—baby. Her tail flicks and he hears the hiss. The foal presses its head into her neck before darting away again. Come chase me, Bucky imagines it saying.
Another swish of the mama’s tail and she bends her head to eat. With the increased distance, Bucky can see that there are other horses in this pasture. Some are gunmetal and some are golden. Some of the foals are laying down, their front legs tucked under them daintily. One is running tight little circles around his mother, bucking a little until she pins her ears and kicks up a back leg with no intent to contact.
Some foals are playing with each other, jumping up in quick little bursts, before settling back down. The mares are mostly concerning themselves with the thick grass, almost blue in the early morning light, but two of them lean into one another, neck against neck. One of them, nearly white, nibbles gently at the place where her friend’s neck meets the hump that begins her spine. That horse shakes out her neck and stretches. Bucky vividly hears a sigh of pleasure and sees a blue-eyed woman let her eyes close as a man’s heavy fingers loosen a pinned-up braid of thick dark hair. 1926.
“Hey,” he hears, distant but sharp. The noise ripples through the horses as some snort, some look up, and the skittish dance a little. A large man is making his quick way across the field. He has a shovel in his hand, almost threatening, and Bucky wants to laugh.
Bucky flattens his hands against the dirt and hunches his shoulders and makes himself small. He’s among animals and he can signal in an animal way.
The man quickly reaches him and says, “What the hell are you doing here?”
He pronounces here like it has two syllables, hee-yur.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky says. “I was walking down the highway and I was too tired to keep going.”
He wonders if he should get up and flee. He is tense in a way that the horses had banished, like he is back on the bus and smelling the cigarette-sweat smell of the man who sat next to him and kept encroaching on his space. He doesn’t know the means to get out of this situation that avoids revealing the deep well of violence in himself, though, and he doesn’t want to bring that violence here. He stays very still instead.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, when the man doesn’t say anything.
“Where are you from, son?” the man says. His voice is still suspicious, but notably softer.
“Not really from anywhere, sir. Not really going anywhere, either,” Bucky says. The sir tastes a little bitter in his mouth, but that’s what making people happy is, anyway.
Another long silence.
He risks a glance up, not moving his head at all and just looking through his eyelashes. The man is frowning at him.
Eventually, he sighs, sounding a little like one of the mares.
“I didn’t take yesterday’s sermon as a prophecy until now,” he says, “but I’d be no kind of Christian if I said Amen to the good samaritan yesterday and go, get on your way to you today. But you listen to me, son. I might be out here armed with a shovel, but the minute we get back to the house, I’m going to get my rifle and I’m going to be holding it, you understand?”
“I don’t understand,” Bucky says.
“I’m saying I have a hot shower and a hot meal for you,” he says. “And a story to tell Gale.”
Bucky stands, feeling a little dizzy. The man shifts his shovel to his left hand and holds out his right. It takes a Bucky a moment to remember the social cue, but soon enough he shakes.
“I’m Caleb. I manage the mares here at Queen Cat Farm.”
“Bucky,” he says. He feels that his grip is too light but he can not bring himself to tighten it. “I used to be a soldier.”
Caleb’s eyes go a little softer and it actually makes Bucky feel guilty. He was not intending to manipulate him. He was just offering the clearest thing he knew about himself.
“Well, Bucky. Follow me.”
Bucky follows and thinks that Caleb is nothing at all like his memory of Steve. He’s too big on the one hand and too small for a few years later. He is dark where Steve is pale and his voice sounds entirely different. But there is something about Caleb’s commitment to the idea of doing good and the straightforwardness in the way he is treating a strange man sleeping on the property that makes Bucky think of golden hair.
Caleb doesn’t really say much as they cross the field, approaching the sturdy-looking white barn with a green roof. There is a gravel road leading from the highway, curving around the barn and continuing onward, where there is a small permanent house and a mobile home tilted toward one another, a pickup with a horse trailer parked on grass mottled with yellow and brown beside them. It is very different than the perfect green of the pasture.
“That’s me and Gale’s house.” He nods to the full-size home. It has a cheery yellow wreath on the door, pastel eggs lodged in a circle. “And this one used to be Rodrigo’s, but he’s been gone a few weeks now. Would be mad at him for up and leaving the two of us with five three-month-old foals and five more yearlings near sale, but his folks needed him in Georgia.”
Bucky tries to look like he agrees, not entirely following everything Caleb is saying but letting the soothing patter sink into his bones. Caleb is speaking without saying much: it is the way you’d talk to an animal, but one you liked and wanted to soothe. Bucky is more used to commands to heel. This is by far the most human contact he’s had since that human contact meant HYDRA, meant a mission. This isn’t a mission, this is Caleb showing him his home.
“Lucky for you,” he continues, “this means we have a place for you to shower with a little bit of privacy. Gale listens to terrible music when she’s working and she has a deadline coming up.”
They head into the mobile home. It is a little dusty, but clearly hasn’t been abandoned too long. There are plenty of things that apparently Rodrigo didn’t bother taking with him — paper towels on the kitchen counter, a small television, an ugly floral couch. In the bathroom, there are towels hanging up and half-used toiletries in the shower stall.
Caleb goes underneath the sink and pulls out an already-open replacement pack for the razor by the sink.
“He left in a hurry,” Caleb says. “Now, you get yourself in order. The towels should be clean. I’ll bring you some sweats, which maybe won’t fit you too good but will at least smell a lot better. I’m also going to go get that gun I promised you. I’ll be back.”
And then, like Caleb said he would, he leaves. Bucky is alone in the white bathroom. He undresses slowly, folding his clothes and placing them on the covered toilet seat. There is an obscure pleasure in keeping them orderly to complement this tidy little home.
When he showers, he finds himself running his hands over his body, over and over, following the water with touch. At first, he does so with soap, his first memory one of hygiene protocols. The Soviets had expected him to be functional on his own but had recovered him from the snow almost mindless, whatever self-possession that remained shattered by what they had to do to get him ready to comply.
He finds him singing the children’s song they taught him as he bathes himself.
“Рот, нос, уши, и глаза, и глаза,” he croons and touches the relevant parts, the pads of his fingers running across his mouth, up to his nose, over to his ears, and finally settling on the soft, disconcertingly fragile skin of his closed eyes.
It feels good to touch—the skin of his hand and of his body both tingle, and he digs his nails slightly into his flesh as he moves on with the song, which feels even better. The edge makes the contact vivid and unavoidable.
Hands, he sings, and feels the interlocking plates of his left hand, the touch becoming mono out of stereo. Legs, and his flesh hand drops to cup the skin of his inner thigh, back of his wrist brushing against his soft dick. Head, he sings, head, and scratches across his scalp, a flash of the mares outside grooming each other. Neck, and his fingers following his jawline, down to the hollow where his pulse beats and his tendons press up against the skin.
Chest, he sings, and runs his nails down to his pec and across his nipple and he startles, because there is a burst of soreness he did not expect. The contact to one brings both of them to his attention and there is a tightness there, a dull thud that radiated from his nipples up to underneath his arm. His skin prickles and it feels very interesting, so he runs his nails across his nipple a little bit harder. The heat sinks lower, into his gut. He does it again.
He brings his left arm up to take over as he continues with the nursery rhyme. The metal is warm from the shower water, but still hard and alien in a way his nail is not. He presses his middle finger against his nipple and strokes it. Stomach, he sings, and his right arm sinks down from his pec and rubs the sparse line of hair right at his belly button. He shifts his weight, propping his foot on the soapdish built into the wall of the shower stall, and touches his knee, leans down further and touches his feet. The slight stretch feels nice on his back, but not as nice as the stimulation to his nipple.
He sings the last line of the song, absentminded and wanting to complete the task. Don’t forget how they’re called.
The next place he touches wouldn’t be in a children’s rhyme, though, and the Soviets didn’t teach him to touch there. He curls his hand around his dick and holds it for a moment, feeling the slight weight of it. There is an outsized importance to the handful that he doesn’t quite understand, rubbing with the palm of his hand until his cock fills and gets big enough that it can no longer be tucked safely in his hand. He presses it up against his belly and rubs, leaning his right shoulder against the wall, left hand still rhythmically manipulating his right nipple.
He feels good. The steam from the shower is heavy in his lungs and his skin feels tight. His eyes, squeezed shut, are filled with a strange red-black shifting nothing. A stream of water runs down from his hair, hanging over his face, The water tastes mineral and distinct.
He presses his palm against his dick harder, hunching his hips a little into his hand. He thinks of water that tasted like jet fuel and carbonized bodies, his mouth like blood—the water of the shower has gone entirely cold, like the shock of falling, and he curls his fist harder around his cock, feels Steve’s wrist under his hand even though he can barely see in the murky river, and comes with a grunt.
He likes french fries, soft horse noses, long showers, his own dick, and Steve Rogers living. He doesn’t like buses or cheeseburgers.
When Bucky turns the water off, his skin is pink and he feels like all the possible energy he could have mustered has disappeared down the drain. He stands on the bath mat and cannot even bring himself to reach for the towel. Rivulets of water run down from his skin and hair and turn the light violet a deep purple.
He leaves the bathroom, almost staggering, and collapses on the floral couch. He curls up so all of him fits, if only barely, and falls helplessly into sleep.
6 days after Insight.
Bucky wakes up. There is a soft flannel blanket draped over his naked body and he’s actually kind of astonished. Someone has come into the room, touched his body, and he stayed asleep. He hadn’t slept for any of the days between the alley and the pasture, unable to relax even the smallest amount in the cramped quarters of the buses.
The dick thing did a lot of work for his nerves, apparently. He sits up, blinking a little. It is dark outside, but the sort of dark that is leaning in and implying things about the oncoming dawn. He must have slept through the entire day and night.
His stomach is clenched hard with emptiness, his mouth is dry, and his bladder full. He goes to the bathroom to take a piss and leans over to drink water by the handful from the sink. It clears his head, to have water, but somehow makes him hungrier. For some reason, his nose is stuffed up a little and his head hurts, tension around his temple. It has been a long time since he has had little everyday pains like these—the pains of the Soldier were always rather operatic.
Thinking about that, his nose catches something that smells edible, despite whatever has it clogged. He follows it back into the narrow living room and sees a plate of pasta, covered in congealed red sauce and flakes of white, waiting for him on the coffee table. It must have been there all night, but Bucky nearly stumbles over himself in his eagerness to get to it.
He wolfs it down, tasting mostly sour and sweet, and ends up with splatters of red sauce. He goes back to the bathroom and wipes himself clean clumsily with toilet paper, not wanting to stain the towel. His nipples seem so dark against his pale skin as he looks at himself in the mirror to make sure he’s clean. He brushes his thumb over one of them, shivers, but doesn’t go anywhere with it.
Now that he is eaten and less desperate, he notices the sweats Caleb promised on the coffee table. He tugs them on and they don’t fit very well, elastic band digging into his skin and cotton material hugging his thighs and biceps.
He puts on the socks and boots that also seem to be waiting for him and then sits back down on the couch. He isn’t sure about what to do now.
His initial instinct, what has him sitting down, is that it is time to sit quietly and wait for Caleb to follow up. Maintenance has been executed and now the Soldier must wait for his mission.
But Bucky already has a mission, even if he’s still not precisely sure what it is. He figures the list of good things he’s been collecting is part of it. The horses had been a good thing. Yesterday had been the best way to wake up in his second attempt at life— or third, or sixtieth, or however many lives he’s actually lived now.
So Bucky stands up and walks out the door, the plates of his left arm shifting and resettling with nerves. Caleb is just a stranger, he tells himself. A good samaritan, like he said. He isn’t a handler. Bucky doesn’t have to obey.
The sky is fading out into a paler blue, though there is no sign of the sun itself yet. In the two big paddocks past the barn, the horses are all standing near the fence. From here he can see the layout of the farm. There is a gravel driveway leading up to the houses that curved around the barn on the one side and then went to the street. Going around the other side of the barn was a narrower packed dirt path, connecting to the driveway right in front of the pickup truck and trailer. This path went past an empty paddock parallel to the long straight barn before leading up to the two big main paddocks in front, both stocked with horses.
Bucky hears eager whickering, even from here. It wasn’t the aggressive loud neighs he remembers from Westerns, the high pitched squeals the movie horses made without even moving their mouths or twitching their ears.
These noises are warm and low, a sweet morning noise asking for whoever it is to hurry up with breakfast.
“Good morning,” Bucky says into the gathering light, his own tone reflecting the soft happy richness of the horses, before deciding that he wants to greet them properly. He walks up the path. As he approaches, he notices that all five mares are tied up to the fence, a good bit of space between them. The smaller, lankier horses in the field next door are tied up in a similar way. Four of the five foals are eating from buckets on the ground about ten feet in from the fence. The fifth, however—gleaming silver in the low light—has a black nylon bag on his face, strapped down. He tosses his face a little, but the bag doesn’t move
Bucky’s heart rate kicks up sharply. The sleepy morning attitude had not prepared him for ropes, hadn’t prepared him for a muzzle.
“Calm down,” he snaps at himself in a voice not quite his own. “Luckily, it’s just a horse. Horses don’t really care about the meaning-filled life.”
This does not reassure and he picks up his pace, until he’s right behind Caleb. Caleb is pushing a wheelbarrow with a heavy bag of feed in it, going down the line and scooping some into each bucket.
“Good morning,” Bucky grinds out. He wants to ask questions, but he doesn’t know how to make sense of what they are.
Caleb whirls around, eyes wide, and drops almost a whole scoop of grain on the grass. Bucky immediately goes to his knees to grab handfuls of the pellets and put them back in the wheelbarrow. He tries not to squeeze; he does not think they should crumble.
“Holy shit—pardon, but you scared the daylights out of me,” Caleb says, still gathering himself. After another beat, Caleb leans down to grab Bucky’s shoulder, the flesh one, about to draw him back to his feet, but Bucky flinches hard and nearly falls on his ass. Caleb drops him immediately and takes a pointed step back.
Bucky finishes getting as much grain as he can with handfuls and starts picking the pellets up individually. He can feel Caleb staring as if it is a physical sensation right at the base of his neck, spreading across his shoulders.
“That’s okay,” Caleb says finally. “The birds will get it.”
He is able to accept that as permission to stand back up again. He stands a little uneasily on his own feet, the rattling of the mares who have already gotten their grain contentedly eating breakfast unable to soothe him. The last mare in line throws her own bucket against the fence with a plastic clatter. She has a fire-red chestnut coat, with a perfect white diamond square between her eyes and a tiny paint splatter more of white right above her back right hoof.
“Cheeto, quit,” Caleb says. “Would you believe this horrible creature is the half-sister of my angel right here?”
The horse that Caleb was indicating with a tilt to his chin as the angel is perfectly unconcerned with anything that was happening in the world outside of her bucket. Bucky turns a little to look at her more closely, but he catches sight of the muzzled foal again and turns his body fully away from the pasture with a jerk.
“I thought you liked the horses,” Caleb says.
“Why did you put that muzzle on him?” Bucky says. “What punishment means that?”
Caleb looks at him oddly. “It’s a feedbag. There’s grain in there. He’s just a little bit greedy, is all. He’ll beat up on his cousins if we give him half a chance.”
“Will he hurt them?” Bucky asks.
“No,” Caleb says. He looks at Bucky for a couple breaths and then makes a clear and visible decision to keep going, feeding the aforementioned Cheeto and moving on to the rowdy, complaining yearlings.
Bucky looks at the little foal and tells himself that the muzzle is good. It is for breakfast. It is for the safety of the others.
“They muzzled me,” he says to the foal, but he knows Caleb will hear. The weight of the last seventy years is dragging him down into the packed earth, keeping him locked in place as Caleb carefully keeps moving with his chores.
He doesn’t know why he says it, other than the sense that if something bad had been happening to that little horse, he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone. He might act hurt. He might shy away from a hand or rear up to flee. He might pin his ears and bite or kick with his powerful haunches. But he could never say to someone that he is being hurt. He couldn’t make it exist like that, in the air, just ready for anyone walking by to pluck it up or leave it on the vine.
“Mmm,” Caleb says. It sounds like a thinking noise, not a communication noise. Closer to the noises the horses made than what Bucky put out into the world.
Caleb is about thirty feet away, feeding the last of the tied-up horses, when he makes the noise again and says, “big guy like you, betcha you could be a real help around here. I won’t pay you, but I’ll feed you and let you sleep on a bed.”
Bucky doesn’t understand the connection between Caleb’s words and his own, but he holds the memory of his own speech in his chest. There’s something pleasing, even, by the knowledge that Caleb listened without having anything to say. He has the last word and he can keep it.
Bucky likes the idea of food and he really doesn’t have anywhere else to be.
“I’m good at following orders. I’ve followed a lot of them,” Bucky says, with a tiny thrill.
“Mmm,” Caleb says again. Bucky smiles at his back.
7, 8, 9, 10, 11… days after Insight
Bucky has not quite wrapped his head around the passage of time. He has lived staccato for many years and the idea that each moment he lives is carried into the next one, onward into a future connected to a past is somewhat baffling. His life has been composed exclusively of events, the sort of things that people write books about or talk about on the news. He has had no life between them.
A person, he learns, has so many things that are entirely without note. He thinks to himself that these moments of his life will not be what he remembers, when he tells the story of this time. He will remember in events, in some perverse way similar to the in-and-out dance of cryo. He will remember meeting Gale, who has glorious black curly hair and a perfect smile, who draws like Steve used to and gets paid for it, who works mostly inside except when the comics are too frustrating and then she comes to visit with her husband’s horses.
When they met, she held out her hand for him to shake. Bucky stared at it, heart in his throat. He looked at her face and searched his memory for anyone in HYDRA that looked like her without any luck. He looked at her hand. He told himself that shaking her hand is the sort of thing that Bucky would do and if he ever wanted to find his way to Steve, he’d have to be able to feel skin again.
The thing that decided him, that made him reach out— she had some ink on a callous on her middle finger, a black splotch that must have been from the pen she used to finish and letter her drawings. It was hard to see against her skin, but Bucky was staring very intently at her hand. When he saw it, that familiar black mark, he reached out and shook it.
The feel of her hand, the look of the ink on her skin, the way she casually told Caleb that he was full of shit and they were going to pay Bucky, he’d remember those as events.
But the times she watches Bucky jog a yearling back and forth in front of the pastures, helping him get strong and sleek for the July sale, those are not going to be part of the story. He does this every day, twice a day, for twenty minutes, with each of the five yearlings. Sometimes eats an apple and sometimes she gives him a lazy civilian’s interpretation of a salute as she passes him by, on the hunt for her husband or just out to stretch her legs.
He spends more chronological time with Gale silently walking past him than he did meeting her for the first time, but when he tells this story he won’t mention the way the horses liked to lip at her hair like it might be food this time, even though it wasn’t before.
There are so many things he does every day, the white noise for when he is between events like the space between radio stations on the dial. Some of them flash into the sorts of memories that he imagines overtaking him suddenly in the future, like his current memories overtake him now.
Sometimes, unexpectedly, he will be in another time. 1977. 1985. 1963. It is always something small that does it. He watches a documentary on the Kennedy assassination with Gale and Caleb with nothing more than the happy-secret feeling of a joke he isn’t sharing, but one day he passes a blue-haired old lady sitting on a motorized scooter in Target wearing Avon perfume, and his whole body is back in the trunk of the car he hid in on his way out of Dallas, some unnamed HYDRA agent’s dry-cleaning cushioning his head. The man’s wife had smelled like honeysuckle.
Maybe these moments will rise up too, in this future he becomes more and more sure is coming for him. He tries to imagine it, the sorts of thing that will trigger him to remember that one horse is named Flaming Hot Cheetah and her sister is No Cat in the Wild and their mother, the mare that made this little farm, is the daughter of one of the most famous stallions in decades and her name is The Cat Came Back. He wonders what pain will lead to him remembering what it felt like to have his hand stepped on by a horse, the sharp vivid crack of small bones breaking. He hopes he won’t have occasion to remember that, hopes he will eventually learn the silly references that all the horses are named after and forget all the pain. But right now, he cannot imagine the life that is coming for him, but he knows one is coming. He knows he has a future now, that there is a purpose for him.
When he tells the story in the future, he won’t need to mention all the moments where he ambushes Caleb with a bad memory for the sole purpose of relishing his silence. His purpose will build a dam between his past and his present, it will hold back the need to throw some of the inexplicable slideshow of memories at someone who will listen. He thinks at first he is disappointed that Caleb only ever listens, never offers any contribution to his words, but the one and only time he tells a newly surfaced memory to Gale, she sits him down and makes him talk and talk until he actually just bolts.
Gale and Caleb stand on the tiny porch of the mobile home, but they don’t look up at the roof, because civilians never look up and Bucky knows that in the same way he knows that please doesn’t mean anything when it comes down to it.
“This is why I’m the horse person,” Caleb says, mildly, knocking at Bucky’s door.
“I read The Black Stallion for you,” Gale says.
“You had to make it a story,” Caleb says. “It’s not that. We should leave ‘em be.”
Eventually, Caleb convinces Gale to abandon the porch and Bucky turns on his back and stares at the dark sky, pricks of stars in it. He has seen much brighter stars in his long life and he knows that. He cannot call them to mind, but he has seen the stars. He remembers Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Marvel Science Stories and Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine and Scientific Detective Monthly. He remembers those strange names of the magazines he used to read voraciously, pretending he was floating in space. Reading a magazine isn’t an event, but maybe looking at the stars has to be because right now he remembers. The names rattle around his head with no referent, nothing to attach themselves to, those stories erased even as he tries to remember his own.
Maybe he’ll remember the names of the horses, in the future he knows is coming— Ghostface Chinchilla, with her mouse grey coat and cleanly trimmed blunt black tail; Laura Ingalls Wildest, who Caleb tells him shares a sire with No Cat in the Wild but that for horses, that didn’t matter—that for horses, only the dam matters, because she is more rare and special and the foal runs to her if he’s hungry; Weird Flex But Okay is the prettiest colt in the bunch and he wears a muzzle when he eats. They call him Flex and every time Caleb mentions him, Gale laughs.
Bucky is on the search for his story, but he’s instead inundated by anecdotes and vignettes, individual moments that don’t add up to anything at all. He doesn’t know how to reconcile the last 70 years and make it mean something, make it add up to something he can turn and tell—. Even though the story keeps sliding away as if written with ink on glass, he fairly quickly becomes sure who he’s going to tell the story to.
The first thing he did as himself was lie about Steve and a lie is just a tiny story. It will build, he knows it will. He will learn to tell the story and be the sort of person who can introduce himself and have it mean something. His body asserts him in countless different ways and each one surprises him, but none of it adds up to a person in the world.
He keeps trying the dick thing, always in the shower—it helps him to have the water beating down on his skin, keeping him on earth. He gets to know his body with both his hands, with the twitching feeling of muscles after he’s come. He likes the fact the water runs cold and tells him when to stop, because otherwise he thinks he could let his body do this forever.
His body does other things. He is tired without explanation some days, and some mornings he wakes up and vomits. He does not know if this is a normal thing bodies do, but he is living a very normal life right now and he can think of many images of Steve, sick and tired. Sometimes the fact he can choose to lay his body down to sleep feels foreign; sometimes chewing food and swallowing seems like incoherent nonsense invented by someone who did not realize the tidiness of a tube.
He decides to wait for each new thing his body does with the same openness he follows human orders, because he knows with minimal research that his instincts are often wrong about what is good for bodies. He will eat what it wants him to and he rests on command. He will pee when necessary and sit down when dizzy. He is still strong and steady enough to win what counts as praise from Caleb, a quiet and sincere “Not half bad, son.”
His body is a pretty good commanding officer, as they go. He is in pain but it feels like his.
Time passes, only it doesn’t, and Bucky is just itching for this to come together as a story he can tell Steve. He knows he has so much life to give ahead of him, but it feels impossible to understand until he can fit it into a self he can understand all at once.
56 days after Insight.
He wakes up with a sharp stretching pain on his sides, like someone was reaching a finger into his navel and tugging on his guts. He reaches down without thought and presses his palm against his belly button. Unexpectedly, it curves to meet him. His skin itches like wounds do when the scab falls off to leave a white crust behind. There is something solid behind his hand and his body is many things, but he has always felt something soft when he presses his skin against skin.
He is dizzy, but he pulls himself to his feet to go look at the mirror. He is naked, as he usually is. By the end of the day he is so tired that he cannot bring himself to reach for the towel. Instead he drips his way to sleep.
He is naked and he holds both hands to his stomach, framing what is a noticeable, perceptible bump.
Gravid, he thinks, and remembers the beginning of the story.
28 days before Insight.
“With thoroughbreds, the real money happens after the track. These creatures have been perfectly bred, perfectly trained, entirely designed to run—but that’s not what the industry actually is. That’s the prerequisite, but it isn’t the core of horse racing or the horse business.”
The Soldier looks at Pierce. Pierce likes to talk to him. The Soldier thinks this is very considerate. He often doesn’t follow why Pierce says the things he says, but he knows it is important. He tries hard to understand. Talking is important, he’s figured out, because Pierce is important and always does it. The animal cues of the guard's bodies read as submission to Pierce and from that the Soldier knows that talking is the sort of thing people do.
“The money comes from reproduction. It is the production that repeats, over and over, feeding and funding itself. Good studs make millions, covering hundreds of mares each season. Their real work is the continuation of the race.”
Pierce swirls his glass of wine a little, holding it carefully between three fingers. The wine is very red. Not like blood, the Soldier thinks. It is different. The Soldier couldn’t entirely place why the wineglass felt so wrong. The are other shiny things in his cell. The metal gleams in the light: his arm, the bars. The wineglass Pierce carries doesn’t fit in a prison cell and he hasn’t seen it before. There is a new piece of furniture, too. It seems soft. Softness doesn’t fit.
“I’ve always thought it must be confusing for them, though,” Pierce says. “Their whole lives they train for one task, one mission. They have one purpose. And then, all of a sudden, the purpose changes. The mission shifts. Everything that had to be done is done and the horse has to figure out a new way to be.”
Pierce laughs a little. He takes a sip. “Luckily, it’s just a horse. Horses don’t really care about the meaning-filled life, right?”
It feels like a question, so the Soldier nods. Pierce laughs again and drains his glass.
“Suddenly, instead of conquering the world, the mare has to just grow one life at a time. She doesn’t make the money, but without her, the whole thing wouldn’t work. She’s the most important part, even though she does it mindlessly and by pure instinct. Even running takes skill and training, but giving birth is just getting fucked,” Pierce says. “Do you understand?”
The Soldier shakes his head no.
“That’s okay,” Pierce says. He reaches out and claps the Soldier on the shoulder. The man with the gun behind him stiffens, shifting his grip. The Soldier feels his own breath quicken. “What happens now is we are going to give you a little something to keep you calm for the live cover. The Jockey Club mandates it and it will be for the best. People think that thoroughbred racing avoids artificial insemination just for economic reasons, to keep the rarity of a good stud’s sperm, but if you ask any horse person they’ll tell you that isn’t it. You need the transfer of energy. You need the life force.”
The Soldier is breathing really hard now, hyper-aware of Pierce’s touch.
“Look at you,” he says, sounding almost fond. “This will be for the best. We worked really hard to design this drug for you. They give something similar to other mares. It will take you to the next stage. You’ll get what you need to create life. You’ll take what we give to you, now and before, and you will give us the first soldier of the future. And they, once they have reached retirement, will give us the future even further still. You have so much life to give ahead of you. Don’t you think that’s only fair, after ending so much of it?”
With that, Pierce leans back and releases the Soldier. Immediately, the Soldier feels his panic response recede.
“Prep him and bring in the stud,” he says, and a white-coated tech comes cautiously forward with a needle. The Soldier watches it approach.
56 days after Insight.
The slide of the needle into his arm in the memory is indistinguishable from the almost painful prickles that flowed across his skin as Bucky breaks out into a cold sweat, stumbling over his own feet on the way to the bathroom.
He leans over the toilet to vomit but the pit of anxiety stays solid and hard in his gut, just on the edge of nausea. His stomach feels so unsettled with whirling emotions that he has a sudden irrational surge of fear about the baby.
That cascades into harsh breaths and a sharp pain in his chest like he’s dying and maybe he is dying, he thinks, squeezing his eyes shut so he doesn’t have to witness the world grey in front of him.
His eyes shut and curled on the tile floor of the bathroom, he thinks maybe I am dying, maybe I am dying, maybe I am dying. It gives a rhythm to his thoughts that his breath cannot resist—it evens out and he is able to relax his muscles, if only consciously and one by one.
This is an event, he thinks. This is something definitely going in the story. This is definitely something to tell Steve about, even if only to see his face for that brief moment of incandescent anger that he always had when he thought you were pulling his leg. Bucky knows it will fade once Steve realizes the truth, but he doesn’t know into what.
Pierce told him he was going to create life that would stretch ever further into the future. The future would happen to him, drag him forward in the inescapable wake.
He needs to see the horses.
Bucky scrambles to his feet and pulls on the sweatpants he took off last night before his shower over his naked hips, but does not bother with a shirt or shoes. The door slams behind him and he uses the sound to propel him into a run, feet raising dust on the path. The moon is light tonight and security lights trigger as Bucky passes the barn. He slows to a walk as he approaches the mare’s paddock. He touches his belly and decides with a twist of his lips that almost was a laugh at the fucked up joke that if he sleeps tonight he will sleep with them.
The mares don’t really sleep for more than two hours a day, mostly in brief little naps standing on their feet. He slips into the paddock and makes his way to the shape that meant The Cat Came Back, the lady who started this lineage. Gale bought her already pregnant, in an impetuous call entirely unsupervised by her horsewise husband, the one who actually moved them away from the city with the vague thought of buying animals and the certainty that he couldn’t take Manhattan for a single more day. Gale’s comics weren’t superheroes yet, but weird figures who had faces both too bulbous and too angular to be comfortable to look at. Somehow, they made her popular.
The Cat Came Back was a pretty young filly, without any record on the track. She was gunmetal grey, with subtle dappling like someone looking up to the sun from underwater. Gale thought she was beautiful and she found herself singing her name back at her in the stall before the action kicked off. Gale was pretending to know anything about horses to all these white men and she was pretending not to notice how they looked at her. She stood in the stall with The Cat Came Back and ran her hands over her glossy coat.
Gale had a terrible voice but sung anyway, at least in part to spite the men hovering in wait for her to fuck up.
“The cat came back when they thought he was a goner,” she sung. “Oh, the cat came back, he just couldn’t stay away.”
Gale couldn’t remember any more of the words but she repeated herself a couple times, enjoying the little flick of the horse’s ears in her direction. The mare was pregnant with some nobody sire whose stud fee was dropping ever steadily, but she was a classy filly with a famous stallion for her own daddy Gale told Caleb that was the reason she took the chance, but it was actually the way the mare leaned into the touch, just a little, when Gale scratched her neck.
The Cat Came Back used to be Cammie, but shortly after her first colt was born she became Queen Cat, more often Queenie, and stayed that way. Another one of the stud’s colts had just won the Breeder’s Cup and all the other foals skyrocketed in value. Entirely by chance, they made a significant amount of money on Queenie’s first baby. Then the second year she had a filly that, a few years later, won the biggest race a two-year-old distaff could possibly win. That year’s colt sold for even more than the first. At that point they decided they were going to do this and bought a small but pretty farm, filling it with just enough horses to make enough money to keep breeding horses.
This is Queenie, many years later, grazing placidly in front of Bucky. Her coat is still glossy, gunmetal grey. Her back is sloped with age, but she is almost entirely healthy. Every year lately, Bucky has been told, they wonder whether or not this should be her last baby. But she’s a good broodmare and a great mother and having babies is what she does.
There is a story about her, an amazing story. The type of story that only happens around horses. Bucky has heard her story countless times from Gale, with little bits of embellishment changing each time but the sing-song melody of the song in her creaky voice remaining constant.
Bucky watches her graze and feels his toes sink into the grass. He can see the blue sheen even in the moonlight and he knows now that isn’t blue grass, it is bluegrass. He has learned things he didn’t know before, about himself and a whole lot about horses. He remembers, now, very belatedly, riding an old French nag in the War and cursing a blue streak at her. She had dumped him into a puddle with ease, twisting her body out from underneath him .
Imagine that, he thinks, that he ends up here. He runs his metal nails over the skin of his belly and thinks about telling whoever this is inside him about the journey from then to now and then the journey moving forward. This thing, this potential—it’s not a person. He knows how that feels.
This is the moment, though, where he can decide. The thing about being a person is that you get to decide to be a person and right now, watching a horse who gave her name to a farm that she funded with her babies and her body, he wants to be the sort of thing that reaches out into the future and grabs it and decides, this is what I am going to say.
Each moment of the last seventy years has accumulated and become sediment in his body. It settles in his stomach now, swelling him with something he could never have chosen. Time encrusts his arm with metal and all of his muscles are fueled on the congealed power of other people. He was thrown off the train, thrown out of his life, torn away from the only one he wanted to live it with, placed in a world he did not belong, scrambled beyond recognition. All of this and yet, in this moment, he thinks:
I’m going to tell Steve that it started when he was six and I was seven and I decided this kid was my kinda kid. After that, a lot of things happened and a lot of things changed, but then that kid was 96 and I was 97 and he decided that the Soldier, well, that was still his guy. And then that Soldier decided that he was going to be Bucky and that Bucky was going to go south to find himself. The Soldier didn’t notice that he already had a self, but I’m not always the smartest guy. Then Bucky decided, then I decided that he wants to be the sort of person who has Steve by his side and he wants to reach out into the future and he wants to build a family, because why the fuck not, after all of this, why can’t he just decide to take it for himself.
That’s what he’s going to tell Steve, at least for now—it can always change.
14 weeks pregnant.
This time, we count up, Bucky thinks. No t-minus bullshit, no Insight as the birth of Jesus, just this is how long it has been like this.
His body, that weird son of a bitch, decided to start treating him well as he was circling around Avenger’s tower, unable to persuade himself to walk up to the front door. He feels good, a tingling burst of energy. He knows Steve is in town, right about now. Waiting for him to come back is what took the couple weeks between the decision and now—that and actually wanting to give Gale and Caleb some notice, because he’s learned something from television about manners that the Soldier never taught him.
He decided, he tells himself. He’s going to walk up to Steve and kiss him hello and take off the outrageously baggy hoodie and show him his belly and say, look what I did all by myself, want to join me?
That’s what he’s going to do. He’s in New York, now, and Romanoff is not, so he won’t have to deal with her yet, and Steve is and this is it, this is his moment. He walks to Avenger’s Tower, walking with such purpose, and then walks right past. He walks to the McDonald’s near Bryant Park and thinks, with a flutter of fear, that Steve has to choose him just as much as Bucky has to choose Steve.
He eats fries, one by one, and doesn’t order any burgers. He remembers the soft feeling of Queenie’s whiskers against his cheek and thinks: soft things. His own dick. Steve living.
He’s going to do it.
Post credit sequence:
14 weeks and 4 days pregnant.
Bucky has no explanation for the delay and the dithering, the time he has spent at the picnic table in Bryant Park when his feet are too swollen and he doesn’t want to walk in circles anymore. There was a day where he wandered around MOMA, just because, looking at every piece of art and just thinking of Steve. He’s a philistine, but his mind is made and he wants to see Steve, he wants to show Steve himself.
Four days and some evidence that maybe it isn’t only the decision that’s the thing, you have to have the momentum pushing you through and sometimes, maybe, the world intervenes and your decision doesn’t do shit.
Bucky is drinking 20 ounces of kale-based juice, because that’s what his body has decided he wants today and it is his preemptive reward for getting this close to Avenger’s Tower, for walking in the right direction, when some old intuition brings his eyes to the street, where an armoured truck jumps the sidewalk in front of him. Screams echo against the myriad planes of glass and steel, and the immediate scent of blood fills Bucky’s nose, and black-boot black-suit men pour out of the back, reaching for Bucky. He can tell they want him alive, they aren’t shooting him and he knows exactly why.
Bucky drops his stupid green drink, turns right the fuck around, and runs away, with Avenger’s Tower at his back.