James is naked and kneeling under the kitchen table, hands and ankles bound with pairs of cuffs that attach to each other with a chain. He's nervous. It's his first night with the Secretary, the head of American HYDRA, and James doesn't want to screw it up.
"Want some milk?"
The Secretary holds out a glass, looking down at James inquiringly. There are two fingers of milk at the bottom.
James gulps, trying to figure out the best way to answer. This is a test—it has to be. He hasn't been allowed to want anything since he became HYDRA's whore.
"Well," says the Secretary with a shrug, "It's there if you get thirsty. Consider it a midnight snack. Good night." He turns and leaves the room, leaving James alone in the dark.
James frowns. He'd expected the Secretary to use his body; isn't that what James is here for?
Perhaps the rules are different here. James will have to learn them.
Or perhaps the Secretary is just tired.
James waits until all sounds of motion have stopped upstairs before venturing out from underneath the table. His range of motion is limited by the cuffs, his balance thrown off further by the shakiness in his legs—but he is thirsty, so thirsty, and hungry too after his long, cramped journey, locked in a cage in the back of a truck with nothing but a bottle of water and a pack of saltines. He needs something more substantial in his stomach. Milk, at least, has both protein and water.
The refrigerator door is easy enough to open. Getting the glass is harder. It's sitting on the top shelf, and James barely manages to wrap his fingers around the base, which is slippery with condensation. He grasps it carefully, holding his breath as he pulls it off the shelf, stabilizing it in his palms before he lowers it down to his chest.
With a sigh of relief, he nudges the fridge door shut and lifts the glass to his lips, tilting it upward by pushing on the base—only to realize he'll need to tilt it much farther back for the milk to reach his mouth.
James bites down a cry of frustration and strains to get the right angle, the chain attaching his cuffs together pulling taut as a droplet of milk dribbles into his mouth.
It happens even before James realizes it: the glass slips out of his fingers and shatters on the floor, the sound like a gunshot in the still night.
James drops to his knees, shaking, his fingers hovering over the glass shards. Milk spreads out on the floor in a slowly growing puddle.
"James," says the Secretary behind him, tone laced with disappointment.
James freezes and quickly bows his head. "I'm sorry, sir," he whispers. He hadn't even heard the Secretary come in.
The Secretary clucks his tongue as he examines the mess, and then he grabs James' hair and pulls up. "Look at me."
James lifts his watering eyes and meets the Secretary's stern glare.
"You were trying to get the milk, hm?" the Secretary asks, tightening his grip.
James swallows. "Yes, sir. I—I'm sorry. It was an accident."
"An accident," the Secretary echoes, roughly thumbing away the tear trickling down James' face. He hums. "I believe you. Still, you've made a mess, and you need to get punished. We haven't tested out the modifications we made to the Chair yet. Now is the perfect opportunity."
James starts to shake from head to toe. He can't help it. Not the Chair, please, please—the tube, the whip, the cage—anything but the Chair—but he clamps his mouth shut, because begging only makes things worse.
"Don't worry about the milk," says the Secretary, turning James around by his hair toward the hallway. "Renata will clean it up in the morning."
…“Bucky. Bucky, it’s all right, listen to my voice. Your name is Bucky, and I’m Steve. You’re in a safe house with me and my team. Can you hear me? Focus on my voice, good, good. See me next to you? I turned the light on…"
James gasps, scream dying on his lips.
He's warm. He's sitting in a bed with soft blankets and fluffy pillows, and—he's wearing clothes, a full set of them. Steve gave them to him after his bath—
James' thoughts come to a screeching halt.
Steve had rescued him. Freed him from the cage, from the house, from HYDRA. They'd gotten in a van, and Steve had called him Bucky. Then, they'd gone to this house, and Steve had helped him take a hot bath. He'd said, "I'm real," and told James that they were friends, and James—no, Bucky. Bucky had believed him.
They'd gone to bed together. Not—like that, though. Just laid there on their backs side by side, holding each other's hands, not touching otherwise.
Steve's still talking, the low timbre of his voice a balm to the ringing in Bucky's ears. "…come back to me, use your senses…use them one by one…try to identify what's around you…deep breaths…"
Bucky does as instructed, forcing air into his lungs. Besides Steve's voice, he can hear the low hum of hot air blowing in from a vent located to his left. He can smell a faint trace of lavender from the conditioner in his hair; feel the soft flannel pajamas against his skin; see a sealed bottle of water on the night stand, and on the floor, there's—
Sharp, scattered shards of pottery embedded into the carpet.
Bucky's breath hitches. He remembers now. He'd woken up, and he'd been thirsty. He'd reached for the water bottle, but then he'd hit the lamp and knocked it over, and…
Bucky turns toward Steve, who's sitting next to him on the bed. Steve's hair is mussed, and he looks scared.
"Hey, Steve," Bucky whispers, clearing his throat.
Steve looks like he's about to cry from relief. "Do you know where you are?"
Bucky jerks his head in a quick, sharp nod. "House. With you and your friends." He swallows the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry. I broke the lamp."
"Don't worry about that, it was an accident," says Steve, and his brow furrows as Bucky shudders. "Bucky?"
Bucky's hands fist in the sheets, and anger rises in him like a viper, striking sharp and quick. "It was a test."
"What do you mean?"
"The milk," says Bucky, his face hot with residual humiliation. "The milk was a test, just not the one I thought. I failed it. Because—because there was no way to win."
Steve says quietly, "Bucky, I'm sorry. I don't know what you're talking about. Can you—can you tell me?"
Bucky licks his parched lips, blinking back the tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. "I don't…please, Steve."
Steve looks like he's about to protest, but then he closes his mouth, his expression smoothing out into gentle concern. "Okay, Bucky. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want. Stay there. I'll go and get some supplies to clean this up."
Bucky eyes the broken pieces of the lamp guiltily. He swings his feet out of bed and kneels on the carpet, careful to avoid cutting himself as he gathers the largest shards and puts them together in a pile.
Steve returns when Bucky begins to hunt for the smaller pieces. He doesn't get angry at Bucky for disobeying him. Instead, he silently squats next to Bucky and wraps the shards in newspaper, dropping the bundles into the trash can, one by one. He stuffs the electrical components into separate bags, murmuring, "Tony can probably do something with these."
Bucky watches from the bed as Steve vacuums the last miniscule pieces. Steve steps out into the hallway to put away the vacuum and the trash, then re-enters the room, giving Bucky a tired smile. "I think there's a few hours left before we need to get up. Do you want to try to sleep?"
"Okay," says Steve, and he shuts the door and turns out the light, crawling under the covers with an exhausted sigh. He curls up on his side this time, his back to Bucky.
"I'm sorry, Steve," says Bucky, his voice cracking as he slides underneath the sheets. "I'll—I'll do better."
Steve flips onto his back and reaches for Bucky's hand, gently squeezing it. "It wasn't your fault, Bucky. Should never have had a lamp that fragile sitting where anyone could knock it over. I blame Tony. This is technically his house."
"Who's Tony?" Bucky dares to ask.
"Mm," says Steve. "Stark. Our—benefactor, I guess? He's got money. And a heart, though he doesn't like to admit it."
The name "Stark" rings something in Bucky's memory, but he can't pinpoint exactly what it is.
"Let's go to sleep," says Steve, slurring his words drowsily. "Good night, Buck."
"Good night, Steve," Bucky whispers. He laces his fingers with Steve's and closes his eyes, listening to Steve's breaths deepen and slow into an even rhythm. Bucky lets the sound lull him into a light doze, hoping it'll be enough to stave off any more flashbacks or nightmares.