Once upon a time, a long time ago, a great man made a promise to him: there will come a day when you don’t have to fight.
Many things are different here, but the first and best is this: day no longer begins because he is being hosed down. When he wakes, it is because the sun-lamp is warm and soft colors are starting to play on the video wall. The AI that controls the world brings the light up slowly, mimicking a sunrise at the same general time each day; alters the temperature to match. They say it is to give him a proper “Circadian rhythm”. He is not punished if he does not get up, though. He can lay flat in the blankets and pull long ones over his head, and no one will play air horns and no one will drive stun batons into the center of his chest.
Did you rest well, Sir?
He has all his blankets arranged pleasingly in a pinwheel, white and brown and white and brown and white and brown and grey. He gets a new blanket every day, and no one ever takes them; they appear in his rooms through no visible mechanism.
Mr. Barnes? You have a visitor.
His whole body tenses and he shifts to high alert. Perimeter check. There is one mattress, on a low pallet. No one can fit under there. Four corners, all empty. Oh.
The flat panel by the door was displaying a big tree. Now it has Sam Wilson’s face. Incidental target, related to the compromised mission. Military posture, combat flight trained.
Oh, he thinks again, and shakes.
He wishes that he had more time.
Hey, man. How are you feeling this morning?
Nothing. The bed is soft. His blankets are warm. His skin is going numb, numb, numb, and he will feel nothing.
Where’s Steve, he asks.
He thinks that he would like to see him. They do not tell him that he does not know Steve. When he asks for Steve, Steve comes to hold him, or the AI that controls the world puts up many pictures of Steve’s big-nosed smiling.
The corners of Sam Wilson’s lips are turned up, but the edges of his eyes pull taut. Happy-sad. Like he has completed the mission but botched the objective.
Steve’s okay. He’s having a late start, so he asked me to come hang out with you.
He has a hard time, some mornings.
Hard to explain, man. Even super soldiers get sick.
Guess the serum don’t fix everything.
The happy-sad increases with each iteration, but Sam Wilson does not tell him to shut his fucking pie hole. He can ask many questions, and sometimes it is not lies.
I’m coming in, if that’s okay. We good today?
He tells Sam Wilson his designation, his status, that he is aware he is being decommissioned.
Yeah, you don’t have to fight anymore. You don’t have to hurt anyone. Especially me, please, do not hurt me.
The heavy door unlocks and Sam Wilson’s body follows Sam Wilson’s face through the gap. Sam Wilson has his hands spread wide to each side, no blunt instruments.
He really wishes they’d let him see Steve.
The numbness is spreading into his chest, burning like anti-freeze into his veins. He topples out of the bed to assume the position, shaking and shaking at Sam Wilson’s feet.
Hey. Hey hey hey.
Sam Wilson goes into a crouch, turns his palms up. No stiletto either.
You don’t have to do that. I’m not going to hurt you.
In this place, they never hurt him.
In this place, there are endless blankets.
I want Steve, he chokes out anyway.
Sam Wilson’s face looks as though someone has hurt him instead.
I know. I’m sorry, I don’t have Steve. What I got is breakfast. Okay? I don’t know about you, but I could use some pancakes.
Yeah. How bout we work on that breathing? You with me?
It is a simple task: in-and-out, count-to-three. Sam Wilson says he is performing adequately. He breathes in needles and blows out relief, over and over, until the trembling settles. He is still adequate. He is not decommissioned.
Finally, he asks: are pancakes food.
Sam Wilson is quiet for two long, off-count breaths.
Yeah. Yeah, they’re food. Flapjacks? C’mon. You had to have pancakes, back in the day.
“Back in the day”, a man told him, one day, you will eat like a king.
He says he wants ‘flapjacks’, and for a little while they will give them to him.
The kitchen is a small room that has many counters and two appliances. Icebox, oven. No one reprimands him when he opens all of the cabinets, checking what’s on every shelf. He can come here whenever he likes, and no one tells him not to eat. He follows Sam Wilson around the kitchen, opening every box Sam Wilson pulls out. Baking powder, he is informed. Butter. Salt. Milk. Flour. Sugar. Eggs.
He takes point at Sam Wilson’s elbow as they mix together a smooth white compound. It looks like thin glue but smells like bread.
Just you wait, Sam Wilson says. My Momma’s pancakes. Best you’ll ever have.
He nods. He has been waiting a very long time. He hopes he will be happy that this is his meal.
Jarvis, light her up.
He holds onto Sam Wilson’s shirt sleeve as the front burner makes a crackling sound. The AI that controls the world turns the flame on and they put a flat pan over the heat. Sam Wilson teaches him how to pour three circles onto the pan, one large and two small. His breath seizes when they bleed and overlap, but Sam Wilson says he has done it correctly.
Mickey Mouse pancakes. You ever see cartoons of Mickey Mouse? Maybe Steamboat Willie?
Unknown. Sam Wilson seems to be waiting, but he presses his lips together. When he does not want to speak, no one here forces him. A man called Clint Barton even taught him hand signals for ‘food’, ‘water’, ‘sleep’, and ‘toilet’. Sometimes his own voice just hurts his ears.
They flip the pancake and wait a few more silent minutes. When it is brown on both sides, Sam Wilson puts it on a plate, then makes a second one: another big circle, two small.
Bucky Bear. Like you.
He squints at the pan. Bucky Bear looks a lot like Mickey Mouse; neither of them have teeth or claws. He thinks Sam Wilson is not good at animals.
No one reprimands him when he says so. Sam Wilson even laughs, big and throaty, happy-happy.
Everyone’s a critic. Here, I’ll get the syrup.
He receives the Mickey Mouse plate and instructions to take a seat. There is a small table in the corner that is riveted to the ground, two low benches because he does not like chairs. He sits down at the table they have never used for interrogations, and rips off a chunk of the pancake mouse’s ear.
We have forks, you know.
He drops it instantaneously, snapped to the expression on Sam Wilson’s face. Still happy-happy, raised eyebrows, big smile.
You’re not in trouble, it’s okay. Here. Try some syrup on that bad boy.
Syrup is a bottle of brown liquid, viscous and slow. Sam Wilson drenches the pancake until every square inch is covered with it, then lays a plastic fork down. He stabs the mouse’s severed ear and nibbles at it.
Everything explodes with sweetsweetSWEET, syrup sliding perfectly over his tongue. The pancake itself is squishy and buttery and delicious, heavy enough to be substantial in a way he isn’t. He is grateful they don’t mind when he whimpers.
Told you, Sam Wilson says.
He nods. It’s so good. So good. Another bite, and it’s still so good. He cuts the pancake into smaller and smaller pieces with the side of his fork, around and around and around each circle.
Maybe, if he can make it last.
Maybe, if he can stretch it forever.
And then it is the last piece, bisected, dissected, dissolving into mush. If he eats it, this meal is going to be over. If he eats it, his task is going to be over. They said he could eat. But. He’s not ready.
He’s not ready.
Sam Wilson is at his right side, reaching for the plate.
You want me to take that?
The air has crystallized in his throat, rendered into stabbing spikes. The pancake is dissolving. He won’t ever see it again.
Please, he chokes. His flesh hand is on the plate. His metal hand snaps the fork in two.
Sam Wilson flies back as though he still has wings.
Okay! Okay. I won’t take it. You looked like you were done, so.
I’m not done. I want Steve.
Sam Wilson is still for three very irregular breaths this time.
Why don’t you talk to Dr. Kusowski about that? She’s coming to see you pretty soon.
Anything to keep the plate. Anything to have a purpose. Sam Wilson puts all the dishes except for his Mickey Mouse into the sink, and gives him a sad-sad look in the reflection of the dish water.
He is taken to a room with two doors and two clocks and two soft benches, one sheet of clear glass dividing everything in two. Hulk-glass, impenetrable. The AI that controls the world opens up an audio feed to the other half of the room so he can hear when Dr. Carolyn Kusowski enters. She is much shorter than him, petite frame, with a top heavy build and an awkward center of gravity. She says she is a therapist and she is here to help him feel safe. She is handling his final debrief.
He is supposed to be honest with Dr. Carolyn Kusowski. She does not yell at him if he does not report quickly, but she asks a lot of questions and waits until he answers. She asks about his plate. He tells her it is breakfast. Then he tells her about Sarajevo, because breakfast is not in proper chronological order. The children and their tiny hands. How he brings order by inciting chaos. How the men’s eyes burst like boiled grapes.
How did that make you feel.
I performed within parameters.
It sounds like it was hard.
It’s not hard. It’s as easy as anything. When it is cold and your breathing slows down to disguise the puffs, that’s hard. Even assets have to breathe, but the steam gives your position away. And sound, and light. He hunted men in the hills by the timing of the rapport. Pop-pop-pop of fire in the night.
How did that make you feel.
I don’t know.
He has twenty-eight minutes and thirty-four seconds and then it’s the late nineties, and then. Then. He finds the words congealing in his throat, dragging the report out every syllable he can. Memory gets spottier after Sarajevo. He thinks they started wiping him more. When he gets to the end it will be 2014, his one final mission that he compromised (failed), and it means that there is Steve but it also means the end.
Once someone said they were at the edge of the future, and now it is the future and there still aren’t flying cars, and Howard Stark’s son lives in this big tower and they promised him he wouldn’t have to hurt anymore.
James? Bucky. Mr. Barnes. Can you take a deep breath for me?
One breath in. A sudden swooping feeling, oxygen rushing down to his feet.
Yes. That’s good. Can you tell me what you are feeling in your body?
Tight. Tight tight tight. His heart is going very fast. He is supposed to be honest with the doctors but he is so scared.
I don’t want to be decommissioned.
Dr. Carolyn Kusowski leans forward in her seat. Her dark eyes are very attentive and bright. She starts asking more questions that make his mouth go dry.
Do you feel like hurting yourself or others?
Are there times you feel you are not in control of your actions?
The world peters out into a high, thin buzzing. Breathing escalates, until he no longer feels his stomach dropping down but instead he’s rising up. Light-headed, floating.
James? Bucky. It’s okay. No one’s upset with you. You’re allowed to have feelings.
Dr. Carolyn Kusowski speaks in a low, sonorous voice. She tells him things like his name and the date and that he is in Stark Tower. He does not care about 2014. He does not care about New York City. He cares that he has failed, he cares that he compromised the mission. Because.
He does not want to fight, but he’s scared to be decommissioned.
I know what I feel like, he says, quivering.
Like the Wonder Wheel, he tells her. The air gets nippy as you go up, up up up where nothing can ever see you, then you spin down the other side and your stomach goes through your throat. You can go around a million times, so long as your money’s good, but nothing lasts forever. End of the night the Ferris wheel stops and the operator makes everybody run for the train.
End of the line, and you have to get off.
Time moves differently for a while after that. He is aware some things have happened, but they don’t seem important. He remembers time again when it is two-thirty seven, and he is in the living room where the couch is very long. He asks the time again and it is two-thirty eight. That seems normal, so he sits up.
The AI that controls the world tells him that Dr. Carolyn Kusowski stayed until he was stabilized. He doesn’t have a clear memory of her leaving, but he doesn’t particularly worry. They tell him that this happens sometimes, that dissociation can leave him with minor memory loss. The AI that controls the world asks if he’d like to review the video feed of the past few hours. It cautions that there is a high probability it would contain ‘triggering content’.
He considers it until two-forty one and then discards the option. He doesn’t care about missing the doctor’s goodbye, and the video wall in here is playing Animal Planet and his favorite meerkat reality show. They don’t get any channels with “realistic” violence or weapons because they are afraid it would it would lead to ‘negative thought patterns’. He thinks that is ridiculous but he and Steve like the meerkat soap opera, because it is like any other daytime drama except occasionally the characters get carried away by hawks. He told Steve once their Sunday dinners would have been bearable if Aunt Margaret had been carried away by hawks. Steve had snorted Coke up his sinuses.
He misses Steve so hard it’s a physical ache.
Miss Romanoff is here to see you, Sir.
A small box with Natalia Romanova’s face appears in the lower left-hand corner of the video. It looks like she is now battling the dreaded puff adder.
Natalia Romanova. Level Six target. Secondary focus in Odessa; primary on the during his recent failed mission. She has very red hair and devices that disabled his left arm’s motor function.
She’s grown up very well, and he is very proud of her.
Sir? Shall I admit her?
Yes. But first, show me Steve? The goodnight post.
The meerkat matriarch vanishes and is replaced by Steve’s tired smile. He is wearing a dark grey singlet and fuzzy pants for night time. This video is the best one, Steve curled up in bed, whispering softly into the camera. He lays down on his side to mirror Steve, head pillowed in the palm of his human hand. Steve tells him that he is very strong and brave and Steve loves him forever and always.
Natalia Romanova waits until the vlog has ended before she speaks. She is very well trained. If he weren’t also well trained he would jump at her nearness.
Heard you’re having a tough time.
He shrugs. It is irrelevant. There is no point in telling a Widow that you have second thoughts about anything.
If that bothers her, she does not let it show. Natalia Romanova does not ask exhausting questions about what he thinks or how he is feeling in his body. She simply extends her small pink hand for him to clasp. It is littered with gun calluses.
You should eat, she says.
I think I did. I had a pancake. It went somewhere. I can’t remember.
I mean you should eat more.
She leads him back to the kitchen and gets him a second last meal, chunky soup from a can that is also a pot pie. Lots of things are combined in this century. Pot pie filling and soup. Potato chips and chocolate. Steve and a level six target.
She lets him watch the vlog again, projected onto the small space above the kitchen table.
Does it help, he asks.
Does what help?
Love. Should it make it easier?
I wouldn’t know.
Her jaw clenches, but unlike Sam Wilson or Steve, the Black Widow’s composure is legendary.
They watch the video a third time and then the meerkat soap opera for a while, until the ambient lights start dimming because it should be sunset. Natalia Romanova asks if he would like to go outside before the light is gone. He nods. She has strangled him with her thighs and is skilled enough to nearly garrote him, so they do not consider him a flight risk when she is present.
The door to outside is thick and heavy. Two feet of Hulk-steel, opened by a wheel lock. Natalia Romanova spins it with her whole body. She escorts him onto a skyline terrace, a little square garden built onto a small relief. All of the planters are covered in brown sheets.
He takes two steps out and halts at parade rest, instantly alarmed. The air is frigid and has ice crystals swirling around in it.
A fat piece of ice catches the edge of his eye. His nose. It melts and feels like tears.
Natalia Romanova’s expression is a worried-blank. He asks if she is going to freeze him.
No, she says. Sorry. I didn’t realize it was getting this cold. We can get you another sweater.
Once, not long ago, a man promised he would never be frozen again. That he would be as warm as he wanted, and no one would lay him flat, and no one would make him sit in chairs. And now he only wears sweaters, and he only sits on benches, and he can back down whenever he wants it.
He takes three steps back into the safety of the hall. He decides if he is being decommissioned, then he would rather spend the rest of his time inside where it is warm. The outside is nice, but he doesn’t know these buildings, and only this one, somewhere, has Steve.
Natalia Romanova escorts him to the bathroom, where there are ‘waterfall’ shower heads on three of the four sides of the stall and a bathtub big enough to liquefy two corpses. She instructs him to take a bath, because he has slept in those clothes long enough and his arm is waterproof and a good bath always makes her feel better. She disappears while the water is thundering into the massive tub and reappears with a jar of yellow pebble-sized crystals.
Citrus. I know people tell you lavender. But trust me. You’d prefer the stimulation.
The yellow salts melt into the water and turn it cloudy. Lemon-scented, but not noxious enough to be masking lye. He dips a flesh finger in and there is blossoming warmth, but no sign of irritation or burning.
It’s not toxic, she says. You can get in.
He looks up at the walls, momentarily frantic. The AI that controls the world has eyes in all rooms except this one; they say it is for privacy. He would like it if there were a video feed on the ceiling. That way he could play the goodnight video, watch Steve’s smiling-tired face as the Widow holds him under.
You can see Steve later. Right now, you stink.
Fear sweat. He can feel it prickling if he thinks about it. But she said later, so he can bathe now. He turns away as he automatically strips. Neither of them minds seeing the other naked, but that is a ‘boundary’ Dr. Carolyn Kusowski has told him to respect. He steps into the heat, one leg at a time and - please.
It’s like the opposite of cryo, overwhelming heat wrapping on all sides. His calves might be dissolving, lemon-scented to the bone. They said he would be as warm as he wanted but it’s so much. They said. They said.
Natalia Romanova seems to understand his mindless begging because she is right at his side, guiding him. She offers her pink scarred hands and helps him to sit down because he’s trembling too hard to stand.
Do you want me to wash your hair?
He can’t touch it, it’s too sensitive. Every inch of his scalp tingles down to his teeth when he tips his head back, growing heavy and warm as the water saturates his hair. He sinks in until his nose and mouth are the only features above the surface, breathing in lemon, cocooned in heat. The whole world is muted, and everything is golden for a long, long time.
Eventually, the water cools. Natalia Romanova cradles his head and lifts it above the line of the water so he can hear her when she speaks.
You should get out now.
He nods. Water tips out of his ears one after the other, a small mercy that helps him stand. After the Potomac his ears had plugged with brackish water for days, and infection that had destroyed his balance. Natalia Romanova gets him steady, then ushers him out to sit on the tub lip. She envelops his body in blankets, one short and one long. A short white one for his hair, and a wide brown one for his body.
When he’s less dizzy, she helps him stand up and rub the blankets all over himself, removing excess water and leaving his pale skin flushed and wrinkled. He takes the blankets with him to his bedroom and hangs them up on the inside doorknob. Blankets are precious and he is careful to dry them out so they will not get field rot. He is never punished for keeping them. He finds a new sweater and soft pants in the corner, thick underwear and wool socks; he suits up immediately to combat his damp hair. There is a comb too, and hair ties. Someone cares if it sticks to his neck. He is absurdly grateful.
He brushes his long hair slowly as he walks back to the living room, the start of a careful one hundred strokes. One for each blessing, each breath he still has. He has had food, debriefing, and warmth. He has had soft clothes and meerkats and kind touch. The only thing left that he has not had is -
Natalia Romanova has vanished in the same way clothes appear. In her place in the living room is actual, solid Steve.
Steve Rogers. Captain America. Level Six target, meta human, armed and highly dangerous. Preferred weapon, vibranium shield; enemy of the state.
His Steve, punk disaster, who never met a fist he wouldn’t run straight into. Loves dogs and detective comic books, hates cheap crusty acrylics. Mouth as big as his busted crooked nose. Heart as bright as a soul on fire.
Steve’s voice is rough with sleep or some other emotion. He is not wearing a singlet, but it looks like he came from saying goodnight. His white t-shirt is all wrinkled in the impression of bedsheets. Yet his eyes are still droopy, with dark shadows beneath.
You look like shit.
He comes close to observe, inspecting Steve from every angle. The redness at his orbital socket has healed, along with the lingering incision where his jaw was wired back together. Steve inspects him right back, leaning close, all but touching.
You look good. Smell good, too.
I had a bath. You should try it.
Wow, okay. Don’t have to rub it in.
Steve is smiling though, actual smiling, like the way he is in the video. His eyes are still tired but it doesn’t matter because this is real, Steve is real and he is here, and he’ll never have to break Steve’s jaw again.
He thinks, decommission is worth it.
Bucky? Hey. What’s up?
Can I touch you, he asks, all in a rush. He knows that he isn’t supposed to be touched, because of ‘bodily autonomy’ and ‘informed consent’, but he is the one asking and Steve is the one giving, so when Steve nods he folds himself into Steve’s lap, just like he never left.
I heard you were sick again.
Steve’s face becomes hangdog guilty, then happy-sad. Worse than Sam Wilson. Steve has always had a tendency to cry using smiles.
Not like that, Steve says. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.
Your lungs used to be bad.
I know. My lungs are fine. It’s just my stupid brain.
Steve takes out a small orange bottle and shows him what’s inside. Tiny blue tablets. They barely look like anything.
See? It’s okay. The doctor gave me medicine. We’re going to try it, see if it works on me. Maybe if it does, we can try it for you.
He nods and hugs Steve tighter, pressing his face into the crook of Steve’s neck. Steve’s skin smells musty and very slightly sour, but he doesn’t mind. Steve always smells sweaty when he’s been ill; it means the fever’s starting to break.
And you’ll be okay.
Yes. I promise. I’m sorry, Buck. I want to be there for you.
Steve’s broad hands, sweeping down his back. Steve’s rhythmic breaths, not a hint of wheezing. It’s 2014 and Steve’s sick but he has medicine, and the mission failed so Steve will be alive.
I’m ready, he whispers.
Before he can lose his nerve again. Before he can scream and beg. They never hurt him here, but they don’t always listen either, and he is so tired. This is the one dream he’s never had taken away.
Once upon a time, a great man was with him in an ignoble place, concrete and sterile and deep underground, and this man told him:
Your work is a gift to mankind. You are the best of us, because you make the sacrifices no one else can make. And when the time has come when this war is over, I promise you won’t have to fight any more. You can lay down your sword and we’ll exalt you with the highest honors. You will have good food and good drink, and a warm bed, and then you’ll come home and we’ll put you to rest.
He slides down onto the floor, one knee after the other, and assumes the position. Fearless, this time. He bows his head before Steve and places one hand atop the other on the back of his head, elbows tipped down. Awaiting the kill shot, or whatever else they have for him.
I’m ready to be decommissioned, he says.
He speaks quickly. He knows his voice is failing.
I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to hurt. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to rest. Please. I’m ready.
Steve’s voice has turned to choking. A bottle of blue pills clatters to the floor. They spill out like birdshot.
He squeezes his eyes shut, waiting for the impact. The only one that comes is Steve’s body, tackling him to the ground.
Bucky, oh my god.
Something hot and wet, falling on his face. Dripping on his nose and lips, dripping down his cheeks. It tastes like salt water.
No, Bucky. Please. Not this again. I can’t -- I can’t take it, god. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But I can’t - I can’t take it.
I don’t want to hurt you.
Then why do you keep doing this? Why can’t you just…we’ll get through this, okay? You and me. Just don’t ask me -- Jesus. Don’t ask me. Don’t ask me.
He feels Steve’s arms around him, not his neck, but his torso. Hears Steve crying, begging him to stay. He is so tired. So tired. But he’s grateful too.
He is not decommissioned.
The day begins again.