The asset isn’t sleeping.
He is aching, bruised, bloodied. He is lying on the floor of the van and the vibrations of the vehicle carry through him, sparking little flares of pain across his body. There is perspiration cooling on his bare skin. It would be very easy to sleep.
But the Commander’s orders were to lie down. The Commander didn’t say the asset could sleep, so he doesn’t. He only shuts his eyes. That isn’t the same.
It’s better with his eyes shut. The asset still feels every little hurt, but it’s farther away. He can pretend he’s looking down at his body, tethered but removed, and imagine that it belongs to someone else. He’s allowed to pretend. At least, no one’s ever said that he isn’t. He’s never risked asking.
He studies his body like the doctors will when he returns to the base. His injuries are nothing significant. The bruises will be gone by the time he returns to cryostasis. He’ll still ache between the legs, still feel sick and sore deep inside his stomach, but he will endure.
He is hard. Somehow that’s the worst thing.
Release has trickled from inside him, tacky and itching on his thighs. The asset frowns and envisions it rinsed away. He imagines the same of the blood and sweat. Scrubbed off, as if with the technicians’ wipes, but in his mind the wipes are warm and the washing is gentle. In his mind, when they return him to the ice, they give him warm clothes and allow him to lie down.
In the ice he isn’t hard, so he isn’t ashamed.
The ice is still and quiet. The asset pretends that he can move within it, trailing his fingers over the frozen surface below him. There is frost creeping up the metal, and the nails of his flesh fingers scrape patterns into the back of his hand. He draws snowflakes. They’re pretty.
A hand that probably isn’t his is resting on the ice beside the asset. He raises his head and a pretty blond man is sitting beside him. “Hello,” the man says.
The asset smiles and then looks down, because he wasn’t told to smile. He waits to be punished.
“I won’t hurt you,” the man says. “I won’t touch you at all if you don’t say that it’s all right.”
The asset does not draw in on himself because he knows better. He knows how the man will touch him and he knows it will make him hard and ill and hurt. But he imagines the man’s hands on him, soft and pretty, and he wants even though he’s sick with the wanting. The asset doesn’t speak.
“Hey, it’s all right,” the man says. He places both of his hands down and flat, shifting back a little. There’s something moving under the ice beneath them. The asset thinks it may be sharks. “How do you want me to touch you, Soldier? I’ll only do what you want.”
The asset frowns, but the man’s eyes are clear and honest. He hesitates. When he speaks, his voice is small. “Can you touch my hair?”
“Is that okay?”
The asset nods. “You can touch me.”
The man reaches out. He doesn’t pull or tear. He doesn’t yank the Soldier’s head back like a handler might. He doesn’t even wind his fingers through the hair. He just pets, light and warm. The asset relaxes into the touch. He can feel it and he can see it, half in his body and half out. Sometimes he thinks his own hand reaches out and joins in. Their fingers brush and the man pulls away until the asset says that it’s all right.
The asset smiles again. This time he doesn’t look down.
Then there are rough hands on his shoulders and the asset is naked on the floor of the van. “Get up,” the Commander is ordering. “I didn’t tell you to sleep. Get dressed.”
He shoves with enough force to knock the asset back even as he says to stand up. There are red marks in the shape of his hands on the asset’s skin. For a moment the asset can see them, still hovering outside his body. He can see everything.
He’s still hard, and that’s the worst thing.
Steve Rogers. That’s the name the Smithsonian gives the man the asset left on the shore. There are many pictures of him: tall and broad with a smile the asset knows, though Steve Rogers did not smile on the helicarrier. In one photograph Steve Rogers is very small. Things blur as the asset looks at the picture, his vision going fuzzy and sparkling. He blinks once, then again, then again, and the world mostly rights itself except now he feels rain on his face.
There’s another face the asset knows, and the Smithsonian names it James Buchanan Barnes. Some dark space opens at the back of the asset’s skull, full of wind and cold. It deafens him to the surrounding crowd and the rush of air in his ears, the pounding in his chest, say Bucky. There’s a hand on the memorial photo, blocking the asset’s full view of the face. It can’t be his because it isn’t metal. But then he’s stepping back and the hand is moving and he remembers he has two, one made of flesh. It’s raining again.
When he sleeps that night, on a park bench, it’s as if he didn’t leave Steve Rogers on the shore.
“I told you,” he says, and his smile glitters like sunlight on steel. “You know me.”
“I don’t know shit,” says Bucky Barnes through the asset’s mouth.
Steve Rogers is stroking the asset’s hair, and the asset jumps before he remembers he said Steve could touch it. He watches Steve Rogers’s hand from overhead. It’s still scraped up and raw from the helicarriers. “I can help you remember,” Steve Rogers says.
“I tried to kill you,” says the asset. “I might do it again.”
“Good thing I was always too dumb to run away from a fight.”
He’s pursued whenever he’s awake. They don’t come with guns or stun batons or trigger words to make his arm go heavy and useless. They just watch with clear eyes and mouths that smile if they see the asset watching. When he runs, there is no punishment.
“Bucky,” the asset says. The name tastes like roasted peanuts and pressed shirts and grease. It’s not a bad flavor. “Bucky. Bucky Bucky Bucky.”
“Just go to me,” says the Steve Rogers in his sleep. “Haven’t I waited long enough?”
But he can’t go to Steve Rogers, pretty and perfect and healed. He finds the man who had wings instead. He doesn’t have them anymore. There’s a twinge in the asset’s stomach at that. It might be guilt. It might be the beginning of starvation; the asset can’t remember when he last ate.
“Sam Wilson,” says the man, extending his hand.
“Bucky Barnes,” says the asset. He doesn’t realize he’s reached out until he feels the man’s hand on his own.
It’s two weeks before he trusts himself to see Steve Rogers. Two weeks of eating and bathing and very much talking. Sam never runs out of things to talk about: violence and free will and conditioning and food and laundry and privacy and television. Bucky is present for most of it. Sometimes the air is full of words and the words press down on him and he has to go away, but as the days go by he’s in his body almost all the time.
Then Sam asks if he’d like to see Steve Rogers and he’s out again, watching himself pale and stammer.
“I’ll hurt him,” Bucky says.
“We won’t let you.” Sam speaks as though they could stop him, but he says it so well that Bucky almost believes him. “And you’ve gotta trust yourself, Bucky. I know you don’t wanna hurt him. I don’t think you will.”
Bucky stays in a far corner away from Steve Rogers, who says to call him just Steve. Steve doesn’t come near him. “I won’t touch you if you don’t want,” he promises, motionless. “I won’t walk over.” He says he’s happy to see Bucky, and he’s proud of Bucky for coming back to them.
“I remember you,” Bucky says.
“I knew that you would, Buck.”
“Can I hug you?” Bucky asks. He thinks his legs are about to give out, but even more than that he thinks he would feel safe if they touched. He would feel at home.
Steve feels just like he does in the dreams, warm and grounding and impossibly solid. He strokes his fingers through Bucky’s hair. He smells like detergent now, not like sweat and exhaustion as he had on the helicarrier. For a long time Bucky stands, breathing in that scent. With his eyes closed, his world narrows to the hand at his hair, their body heat and their breathing.
And the erection growing between Bucky’s legs.
He pulls away so hard that his arm slams the wall and cracks the plaster. He locks himself in the bathroom, bracing his body against the door in case Sam or Steve tries to break it down. They don’t try; they stand outside and ask what’s wrong.
After two hours, they stop asking.
After six, he falls asleep in the bathtub.
He dreams that he is back in the ice, but it doesn’t reduce the heat aching between his legs. Steve is there, stroking his hair again, and Bucky tries to squirm away but he never gets any farther.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asks. “Why don’t you want to see me?”
“I got excited,” Bucky mutters, covering himself. He tries not to feel it. He tries not to feel Steve.
So he remembers pulling down his pants in a safe house bathroom to find his underwear streaked with blood. So he can still taste bitter and salt coating his tongue. So he remembers feeling his insides burn and tear, remembers men releasing on his face until his eyes were nearly glued shut.
“I don’t want to do that to Steve,” he says, drawing in on himself. “I don’t want him to do that to me.”
There’s a moment of silence. Steve’s hand is still at his hair, but he isn’t petting.
“You let HYDRA do it,” he says, and he yanks hard.
When Bucky comes out of the bathroom, they have dinner waiting for him. They ask why he hid.
“I was afraid of hurting Steve.” It’s true. He doesn’t say how he was afraid of hurting Steve, but they don’t ask. So Bucky’s not lying.
“I trust you, Bucky,” Steve says from the other side of the kitchen. “HYDRA can’t make you hurt anyone ever again. And I know you don’t want to. Last time they told you to hurt me, you saved my life.”
“I shot you and broke your face.”
Steve laughs as though he hadn’t almost drowned. As though Bucky hadn’t left him to bleed on the shore. “Trust me, Buck. I can take care of myself.”
You didn’t, Bucky does not say.
“We’ll figure things out,” Steve promises. “You don’t need to be scared anymore. Now eat, would you?”
He eats. Steve doesn’t come any closer. Bucky’s glad—the more distance between them, the safer for Steve—but there’s a hole gaping in his stomach and the food doesn’t fill it.
When he sleeps that night, Steve is on the ice, stroking his hair again. Bucky ought to tell him to stop. He ought to walk away. In the dream, his scalp still stings from the last time Steve pulled his hair. But he stays put. As his body is leaning into Steve’s touch, he steps outside of it, settling down beside Steve to watch. It won’t hurt any less if Steve tugs on his hair again, but now he’ll see it coming. That’s almost the same as being asked first.
“You like that?” Steve asks. His touch is very soft. His smile is cold.
“You can touch me when I’m sleeping.” Bucky watches his own lips move, sees his eyes slide shut. “It’s safe. When I’m awake—I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You have hurt me,” Steve says. “You almost killed me. It’s a wonder I can stand the sight of you.”
Bucky doesn’t speak. He can’t look away from the hand at his hair. It’s still so gentle and yet he can’t keep from drawing his shoulders back, waiting.
“What’s wrong, Soldier?” Steve makes it sound like a dirty word. “Scared I’ll hurt you? Thinking of all the damage I could do if I fought back?”
The world slides around them. The ice becomes glass and metal and Steve’s hand clenches the fabric of Bucky’s shirt, yanking him back into his own body as he’s pushed down against the glass. They’re back on the helicarrier. This time it’s Steve pinning him.
His free hand finds Bucky’s metal wrist, forcing it down. “I don’t need the fist of HYDRA,” he says, mouth twisting, “to give you what you deserve. You’re the one with the knockoff serum, Buck. I’m the original. You were jealous, weren’t you? So angry that your scrawny little friend grew into something incredible. You were furious that I’d become more than just a bigger fuck-up than you. Did you jump at the chance to be their toy soldier? Beg them to put your crippled, worthless body to use?”
“They hurt me,” Bucky says. His voice is small. Steve wouldn’t have become their asset no matter how much it hurt.
“You deserved it.” Steve releases the metal wrist, making a fist. Bucky doesn’t move. “You deserve so much more.”
“You won’t hurt me,” Bucky says.
Steve is smiling, and his smile glitters like water. Once, when Bucky was the asset, he’d been bad on a mission and they made him lap up the puddles beneath their van for hydration. The water had been mixed with something else, acrid and stinging. He’d thrown up all night. That’s the sort of water he can see in Steve’s smile. “And why’s that?”
“Because you’re a good person.”
At that, Steve starts to shift his weight back. For a moment, they’re in the kitchen again. Steve’s laughing and saying that he trusts Bucky, that everything’s all right.
And Bucky’s intestines turn to snakes and start constricting around his heart.
Steve’s fist is still clenched, knuckles white, but his smile isn’t so cold now. It’s warm the way it is when Bucky’s awake. “Yeah, Buck?”
“You can touch me.”
Steve doesn’t hold back his punches. It hurts, but there’s something soothing in the honesty.
There’s comfort to be had in the dreams.
Bucky doesn’t call them nightmares because they aren’t, not really. When he wakes up his heart is pounding, skin and bed sheets drenched in sweat, but that’s how he always woke as the asset whether or not he could remember his dreams. His breathing rights itself quickly enough once he’s awake. Most nights he realizes his surroundings before he can even begin to check for bruises.
They’re dreams, nothing more. And they’re better than the alternative. Some nights, when Bucky doesn’t dream of Steve, he dreams of HYDRA. Of the games they used to play and the creative uses they found for their stun batons. There’s a reoccurring dream, a memory, in which the Secretary walked by two agents holding the asset down. He shook his head, but he laughed while he did it. Then he just walked away.
Even that’s not the worst part. Neither is waking up hard from those memories. The very worst part is the nights without dreams, when his mind is nothing but blackness. He can feel every second. It’s like the ice all over again, but without cold to numb him. He can only float, aimless, with nothing to tether him back to his body.
The dreams of Steve are grounding.
Things are perfect when Bucky’s awake. There are no missions. There are no punishments. The world is gentle and soft and sometimes when he reaches out, it dissolves around him like spun sugar. He feels as though his head is wrapped in cotton.
Sometimes he blinks and reality slides back into place. Sometimes he blinks and it’s hours later.
Steve is always there, though, even when it feels as if Bucky’s floating in water and the shore’s slipped out of view. He’s always soft, always smiling. Never angry, even when Bucky breaks something or spills something or reacts to a casual touch with violence. Not even when Bucky can see in his eyes that he wants to be.
It makes Bucky sick inside, seeing that flash that appears before Steve can bury it back down. He must be so angry, just like the handlers used to be. He must be boiling inside, and how long can he maintain it before the whole of him evaporates away and leaves just an empty husk?
There’s no risk of that in the dreams. There, Steve’s always honest.
When Steve says, “I’m so happy you’re back” at the breakfast table, he says, “You should have stayed dead” in the night.
When Steve says, “You’re doing so well” as they’re walking back from the store, he says, “All you’re made for is killing” as Bucky sleeps.
When Steve says, “I love you,” they’re standing in the kitchen. They’re making dinner. It’s the third of November and it’s raining outside. Bucky recounts these things because they are what Sam calls reality testing and he must be misperceiving reality. But he isn’t.
They’re making dinner because Bucky likes to be useful and because learning to cook is meant to help with his eating habits, which his therapists call disordered. Bucky had been recounting a memory from the war, a time he’d shot a HYDRA soldier about to shoot Steve. Steve likes it when Bucky remembers things. It makes him smile, which makes every returning memory sting a little less. Steve’s tasting the food and there’s sauce on his mouth and as Bucky reaches out to wipe it away, they’re both smiling.
Steve says, “God, I love you” and then he draws Bucky in until their mouths are touching, kissing.
Bucky isn’t sure how long it lasts. He can’t perceive time now; his mind has turned into egg whites sliding down to pool at the base of his skull.
Then Steve is pulling away, face flushed, eyes down. “I’m sorry, Buck—that wasn’t—I can’t take advantage of—”
“I liked it,” Bucky says.
“Did we—” Bucky begins. There are things he’s remembered that he’s kept to himself, things he’d decided couldn’t be real memories because Steve could never love a traitor like him. “In the war, and before, were we...did we kiss?”
“You remember that?” Steve asks. He’s still red but he’s shining like sunlight.
“So it was real.”
“That was a lifetime ago,” Steve says faintly. “I can’t ask you to take it back up like nothing’s changed, that’s not fair to—”
“I want to,” Bucky says, and this time he’s the one to bring their mouths together. Steve doesn’t pull away.
It’s a familiar dream, that night. He’s lying on the floor of a supply closet. There’s a little crack of light from under the door. It’s dark and Rumlow is fucking him. There’s another agent at his shoulders, holding him down. It might be Rollins. Bucky never got a good look at his face and he’s had so many hands and dicks on and in him that it’s hard to remember the specifics of any given lay.
The door is going to open and Pierce is going to stand in silhouette, watching. Rumlow and maybe Rollins will freeze as the asset stares at the Secretary, but Pierce will only shake his head and chuckle before shutting the door again.
Bucky begins to slide out of his body. There’s something entrancing about the look in his own eyes when the door opens, a shine bright and sharp as light on a knife’s edge, but wet. He likes to watch it.
He doesn’t get all the way out because moving pulls the face above his own into focus. His blood stops dead in his veins, crystallizing, the way it used to in cryostasis. He stares and vaguely wonders what his eyes look like now.
It’s not Rollins pinning him and smiling as Rumlow’s thrusts drag his body against the floor. It’s Steve.
It’s Steve and he’s grinning.
When Bucky wakes up, he’s left come on the sheets.
Steve wants to touch him.
It’s not sexual, not when Bucky’s awake. Steve doesn’t pin him down the way he does in the dreams. There aren’t any HYDRA agents shoving Bucky over an examination table or mag-cuffing him to a transport bench while he’s conscious now, but if there were, Steve wouldn’t laugh or cheer them on. He wouldn’t slip his fingers in alongside their dicks.
The most Steve ever does is kiss him, sweet and soft and close-mouthed so far. Most of the touches are even less sensual. A hug, an arm over his shoulders, fingers carding through his hair. A hand over his own. He rubs Bucky’s back, his knee, the aching junction where the metal melds into his flesh. Steve is gentle and warm and he never presses for more. He is perfect.
Except Bucky’s body feels like blown sugar, hairline fractures radiating from the lightest touch.
Except sometimes when Steve hugs him, Bucky doesn’t smell Steve’s detergent. He’s choking on the scent of the disinfectant from HYDRA’s medical labs instead, and the hands on his back feel like they’re sheathed in latex gloves.
Except Bucky remembers that they touched more than this before the war. One day, probably soon, Steve is going to want to touch more again. Everyone says how much better Bucky’s doing. They say it all the time. He wants to be better. To be normal. To touch without breaking. But his heart won’t slow down and his mind keeps slipping back to the dark corners of HYDRA bases.
Bucky won’t let himself flinch. He makes himself smile and lean into every touch of Steve’s. He pretends the contact isn’t like a wave of water over his head, and he must be very good at pretending because Steve never notices he’s drowning, even when Bucky swears he can feel water spilling from his mouth.
He pretends so well that one night, when they’re watching baseball and complaining about the Dodgers relocating to LA—Sam rolls his eyes and tells them to get over it already—he manages to lie down and fall asleep with his head resting on Steve’s lap.
It takes a long time for Bucky to realize he’s sleeping. Most of his dreams are in the ice or labs or just in darkness. This one is in the living room. In the dream, he’s still lying on the couch with his face against Steve’s thigh. The television is still on, but the images go murky and the sound grows indistinct. None of it strikes Bucky as odd until the hand stroking his hair begins to pull it.
When he’s forced to look up, he recognizes the cold smile on Steve’s face.
“So you’ll sleep on me, but you won’t open your damn mouth when I kiss you, huh, Buck?”
Bucky doesn’t speak. He hasn’t been given permission.
“I broke you out of HYDRA’s mind control,” Steve says. Now that Bucky’s looking at him, he isn’t pulling his hair anymore. Instead, he’s petting it again. Somehow that’s worse. “I took you in when you were filthy and worthless and out of your mind. I helped you after you tried to kill me. And you won’t even let me touch you.”
You’re touching me now, he doesn’t say.
“What’s the matter? You always used to be so eager for it.” His hand, still so soft, moves from Bucky’s hair and traces along his lips. “You can’t play the shy virgin now, Buck. Not after you’ve given everyone in HYDRA a free ride. Is that the problem? Can’t get it up without someone kicking dirt in your face? Hell, you should have told me you were into that. I’d have shoved you in the mud and let the Commandos have a go. I could call the Avengers now. I’ll bet Tony and Nat would just love to pay you back. You want that?”
“They hurt—” Bucky stammers. He’s talking back, flinching, but he can’t stop. “They forced—”
“Forced?” Steve doesn’t hit him for speaking without permission. He doesn’t squeeze his throat or pull his hair. He laughs, and it isn’t even a cold laugh. He sounds like he does when Sam makes a joke or someone on television makes a reference Bucky doesn’t understand. “Come on, you could have ended it any time. I’ve seen you in battle. You could have snapped all their necks without breaking a sweat. You’re really going to say they forced you? The only way any of that happened is because you wanted it, you little slut.”
And then Steve’s hands aren’t soft anymore. They’re hard and they’re forcing Bucky’s head back down. Steve’s zipper scrapes against his lips. “You liked it, didn’t you, Buck? You liked being their bitch. Otherwise you wouldn’t be soiling your sheets over the memories.”
“Stop.” Bucky’s eyes are stinging, leaving wet splatters on the denim of Steve’s pants.
“You can’t tell me not to touch you now. You already said I could.” One of Steve’s hands is at the back of Bucky’s neck, pinning him down. The other’s opening his fly. “You said all of HYDRA could, you little traitor. And I think it’s about time for you to start making up for playing whore to the people who tried to kill me.”
“Please.” He closes his eyes, more tears leaking out. And then Steve’s cock is pressing against his lips while his hand is shoving against Bucky’s head, and Bucky can’t fight back. He never did with HYDRA. Who is he to deny Steve?
“Quit complaining. Your mouth’s been in dirtier places.”
When Bucky opens his eyes, Steve’s fly is shut. He’s smiling down at Bucky, and his hand is soft again on Bucky’s hair. “Hey, sleepyhead. You’re just in time for the seventh inning str—”
Bucky’s able to blame the takeout when he runs to the bathroom and vomits. Thai’s a new food they’ve introduced him to, untested. Indigestion doesn’t explain why he’s shaking all over, but Steve doesn’t ask though Bucky knows that he wants to.
No one notices the wet stain at the front of Bucky’s jeans. Through his numbness, Bucky’s thankful. That, he has nothing to blame on.
Bucky can tell when Steve’s worried. He tries to hide it, but his body betrays him. He bites his lip and his skin is too tight, as if it belongs back on his pre-serum frame. When he’s worried, he smiles at lot, but the smile stops before it lights up his eyes.
It’s been two weeks since Bucky last let anyone put their hands on him. Two weeks since he last went to bed without locking his door. For the first eight days, that was to keep anyone else from noticing the wet dreams. For the past six, it’s been because he hasn’t slept.
At first, he physically couldn’t. The night prior, when he had dreamed, Steve had fucked him until he couldn’t move or cry out before pulling off his belt and taking it to Bucky’s back. He’d come on the welts and gashes left in his wake, every last stripe. It went on for what felt like hours. And it had taken actual hours for Bucky’s heart to settle once he’d woken. By the time he’d steadied his breathing, his own come had long since dried on his skin. That night, he just couldn’t sleep. Even though it would make Steve worry more, were he to find out. Even though Bucky deserved the dreams. He body was wound too tight and his eyes wouldn’t shut.
The same was true of the next night. After that, Bucky realized there was no dreaming without sleeping. After that, he kept himself awake.
It was easy at first. The asset wasn’t allowed to sleep whenever he wanted. He was trained to go up to four days without any rest, because on the fourth day hallucinations could begin and then his mission efficiency was compromised.
But now it’s not so easy. His body keeps trying to rest when it thinks his mind isn’t being vigilant. In the night, he can fix this by lighting matches from a box he stole from the kitchen and dropping them onto his skin. He heals too quickly to worry about Sam or Steve discovering the marks.
In the day, he has to be more careful. In the day, he usually bites his tongue until it bleeds.
If Steve knew he wasn’t sleeping, Steve would be even more worried. Sam would be worried too—though he doesn’t wear it the way Steve does, pulled tight around him like a coat in the wind—and would tell Bucky’s doctors. They might try and give him pills to make him sleep. Sam has those. He’s never said why, but Bucky thinks it’s because of Riley.
He hopes Riley was not as awful of a friend as he is. Sam deserves better than that. So does Steve.
On his sixth day without sleep, while he’s finishing his third cup of coffee, Steve sits down at the table beside him. Bucky can’t bring himself to meet Steve’s eyes. The longer he goes without rest, the colder all Steve’s smiles seem to be.
“You sleep okay, Buck?” he asks, but at first it sounds like “You can’t hide forever.” Words sound strange the longer Bucky’s awake.
“You look like hell, man,” Sam says flatly. Then he says more, but it’s indistinct.
Bucky can’t talk about the dreams. If he did, he’d have to talk about HYDRA. Then Steve would look at him with disappointment and disgust and maybe even hatred. He wouldn’t call Bucky a traitorous little slut out loud, not like he does at night, but he’d think it. And he’d go on pretending to love Bucky, because Steve’s a better person than anyone deserves, but the hate would smolder inside him until it burned him alive from the inside out.
“—you make me sick,” Steve is probably not saying. “Sometimes, Buck, I swear I’d rather gouge my eyes out than see you.”
Bucky nods. Nodding is usually safe.
“Great.” Smiling, Steve settles back. “He’ll be here around noon.”
“This time, don’t go relabeling all his arrows,” Sam adds. “We never heard the end of that one.”
Arrows. Barton. He is to be spending some sort of time with Clint Barton this afternoon, probably because Barton was also brainwashed and Sam and Steve find it healthy for them to interact. Bucky hopes they won’t be sparring. He lacks the stamina.
“I make no promises,” Bucky manages, forcing a smile.
“No honor among whores,” Steve doesn’t say, taking Bucky’s mug to refill it.
When Barton arrives, he has a yellow dog on a leash. Bucky can’t remember if he’s met the dog before. He reaches out to pet the animal with his metal hand, and there’s no growling or snapping. Barton lets Bucky hold the leash and when the dog jumps or runs, Bucky’s jolted back to full consciousness. He decides he likes the dog.
“You look like hell, Bucky,” Barton says as they walk.
Every step hurts and his arm feels so heavy, it’s a struggle to keep from sliding to the ground. “That’s the prevailing opinion.”
It’s too dangerous to answer that. Steve or Sam will find out if he says no.
“You’ve got nightmares, right?” Barton asks. “I still get them. All the agents who died when Loki came for the Tessaract, telling me how I failed them. Nat telling me I should have been stronger. Shit like that. They used to be so bad I’d puke every time I woke up. Thought I was gonna burn out my esophagus.”
“What did you do?” Bucky asks. He watches the dog wag his tail back and forth. Back and forth. Bucky’s eyes start to slide shut and he bites down until he tastes copper.
“Besides the therapy? A hell of a lot of training and shooting bad guys.”
Bucky doesn’t have missions anymore. He’s not allowed to train without supervision because they say he pushes himself too hard.
“You ever get high?” Barton asks. “I mean, can you?”
Steve used to smoke cigarettes for his asthma. Bucky can still remember the scent of the cannabis. He can’t recall the effect they had on Steve’s breathing, but he’d seemed to relax when he had them. “Did that help you?”
“Personally? Yeah. But it just makes some people wired as hell.”
At least then he’d have aid in staying awake. Bucky mulls it over. The dog is pushing against his hand and he absentmindedly pets. “What would it do to me?”
A shrug. “I don’t know that it would do anything. Nat got a knockoff serum too, back in Russia, and whenever we smoke together, she barely gets a buzz. You’d probably metabolize it before you had a chance to feel good or bad. But it might have a placebo effect? I don’t know.”
“Do you have any?” The dog is pulling on the leash, but Bucky doesn’t move. “Can I smoke it?”
“Oh hell no, I’m not sending you back to Captain America all red-eyed and reeking of weed.” Barton gives him a nudge to the shoulder to get him moving. “You like chocolate?”
“I don’t know.” It’s not one of the foods that’s been reintroduced to his diet.
“You like chocolate. Everybody likes chocolate. Let’s make some brownies.”
When the brownies come out of the oven, they don’t smell anything like Steve’s asthma cigarettes used to. They only smell of chocolate and warmth. Bucky remembers, standing in Barton’s kitchen, an apartment in the thirties and Steve holding a plate of cookies. But then he also remembers Steve calling him a slut and a killer and throwing boiling water into his face. His memories while sleep-deprived likely should not be trusted.
“How many do you eat?” he asks.
“Uh, one or two.” Barton is pouring glasses of milk. “I think I put a little more than usual in this, so one. But your metabolism’s, what, quadrupled? So I guess four.”
Four of the brownies later and Bucky feels nothing but an uncomfortable fullness in his stomach. It’s more food than he ever takes in during one sitting, and it’s very rich. He thinks he likes chocolate, though. Especially with milk.
“Can I?” he asks, glancing toward the rest of the pan.
“Go ahead,” Clint murmurs, reclining on the couch. He’s smiling at nothing in particular. The dog—Lucky, Barton had called him—sits before Bucky, wagging his tail and panting. Bucky does not give the dog any of the brownies, because chocolate is definitely bad for dogs and marijuana probably is as well.
He doesn’t expect much from the next four brownies besides an increase to the caffeine in his bloodstream. And maybe vomiting; Bucky hasn’t eaten so much at once since before the war.
And then the world goes flat.
There’s no gradual build up of sensation. Bucky is sitting, metal hand in Lucky’s fur and flesh hand around his glass, and suddenly everything is flat. Two-dimensional, as if he’s sitting in a photograph. His right hand still has the milk but he can’t raise it to his mouth: there’s no up or down when there are only two dimensions.
Someone is breathing very loudly. He thinks it’s the dog, but then the dog is trotting towards Barton. He moves as though Bucky is staring at an optical illusion, like a toy waved across a painted backdrop. The breathing does not quiet with the dog’s distance. It grows louder, joined by a pounding not unlike a heartbeat or a fist against flesh. It’s coming from Bucky’s body.
Except it isn’t Bucky’s body anymore. His tether to it is cut and all he can do is brush against it, feather light as the sweat beading across its skin. The only thing keeping him from floating away from himself, he thinks, is that up and down have ceased to exist.
Some of the more brazen HYDRA agents had called the asset a living fuck doll, a sex toy with a pulse. Steve has said the same, sometimes in the night and sometimes when they’re walking around the neighborhood. That’s what he feels like now: an empty vessel with its music box heart wound too tight.
Maybe this is a failsafe HYDRA programmed. Spend too much time away from them and break down. Maybe Steve and the others have grown sick of him and this is their method of euthanasia. It feels like a punishment. Some training exercises required the asset to be stabbed in the chest and this is that same sensation, stinging white hot and making every breath shallow. It must be planned. Otherwise how could he feel the hurt when he’s separated from his body?
“Shit,” he hears Barton say. “Bucky?” Barton is before him, then. His eyes are clouded but kind, worried. They must be someone else’s eyes. If Barton’s poisoned him, that means he knows how rotten Bucky is inside, and if he can see all that filth, how can he be so caring? He’s wearing someone else’s eyes. Bucky hopes they’re good eyes; Barton needs his eyes for his job. “Bucky, you’re having a panic attack. Have you ever had one before? Do you have any kind of medication on you for it?”
Someone shakes Bucky’s head.
“Okay, it’s okay. I’ve had them too. Listen, I know it feels like hell, but it’s not dangerous. You’re all right, I promise.”
His heart is so fast he can’t separate the beats. If a music box is wound too tight for too long, it ceases to play properly. The music dies off and an ugly grinding takes its place.
“Here, sit back,” Barton says, guiding the body by the shoulders. “It’s okay, don’t fight. You know if you fight I’ll just shock you ‘til your fucking arm short-circuits, Soldier. Be good.”
Bucky’s eyes are blinking rapidly.
“Here.” There’s a drag of fabric over Bucky’s shoulders, a blanket draped around him. It looks warm. His body is still trembling and sweating. “You’re doing good, Bucky. I’m proud of you. Stay with me, okay? Focus on your breathing, you little whore. Can you tell me what you need? Can you fucking beg for it?”
Bucky’s throat is frozen. He can feel shards of ice within it. Barton won’t like that. Bucky’s going to be punished if he can’t perform properly.
“Okay, that’s okay. You don’t have to talk if you can’t. Guess it’s expecting too much for a fuck toy to use its words. Listen, just breath as slow and deep as you can, okay? Just open your mouth and breath, slut, it’s not like that’s hard for you.”
He breathes. It hurts. Bucky watches his own eyes slide shut.
“—let him sleep it off?” someone is saying.
“We don’t know how it’s affecting him,” another person says. Eyes shut and barely coherent, Bucky leans toward the voice. Someone is running a warm hand over somebody else’s sweat-slick hair. He can feel it. “It’s too risky.”
“I’m sorry,” says a third voice. “I’m so sorry.”
“Bucky.” That’s the voice that belongs to the hand doing the petting. “Bucky, can you hear me?”
Bucky opens his eyes. The scene is spread out in tableau vivant beneath him. His body on the couch, wrapped tightly in purple fleece. Steve kneeling before him, hand on his hair. Sam half-seated on the arm of the couch, and Barton a meter back, the dog at his feet, a worried expression on both of their faces.
“Hey, Bucky,” Steve says, stiffly smiling. “Hey. You had us worried there. How are you feeling?”
He’s feeling like his blood has turned to ice. Bucky hasn’t slept in a long time, and Steve is sure to be angry at being avoided.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asks. His eyes aren’t cold yet. When it starts and his eyes aren’t cold, that means either a sucker punch or a soft kiss that turns to a bite or something worse. Bucky’s trembling. That will only make Steve angrier, but he can’t stop. “What do you need?”
“You’re going to hurt me.” It’s wrong to say that. It’s an appropriate punishment, no worse than what he let HYDRA give him, and far less than he deserves. But he can’t keep silent. Steve will lose his temper now and it will start. Better than waiting.
But Steve goes still and quiet.
“Aww, Bucky, no,” Barton says. The dog is pressing its nose against his leg, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “None of this was your fault, it’s mine. You can’t—”
“No one’s going to hurt you.” That’s the voice Steve uses when little kids recognize Captain America and come up to say hello. “No one’s getting hurt. We just want to make sure you’re okay.”
Right. It’s not hurting, what Steve does. It’s what’s necessary. But he’s never asked if Bucky’s okay before, has he?
“How are you feeling, Bucky?” Sam’s hand is on his shoulder, rubbing. The skin feels it much more strongly than the metal.
“Foggy,” says Bucky’s mouth. It’s not a bad description. It’s as though the air’s been replaced with translucent cotton fluff.
“Not surprising, man.” Sam bends into his field of vision, appraising. “You’ve eaten a lot, but you feel up to drinking at least? We can take you back home, get you some tea, help flush out your system.”
“I can put on movies,” Steve says. “There’s all my DVDs—you like Snow White, right?—or Netflix or anything you want. Come on, let’s get you up.”
“There’s no up,” Bucky mumbles, but Steve and Sam have his hands and he’s moving in an impossible way.
“Sure there is.” Steve’s guiding him to the door and it feels like his feet are mostly touching the carpet as Barton’s stammering out apologies and promising to email resources on anxiety.
“Long as none of those resources involve pot,” Sam says.
They lay him on their sofa and bring steaming mugs of chamomile. The taste makes him wrinkle his nose but the warmth is thawing his blood, making it circulate through his body once again.
It circulates fast, and they’re not halfway through the movie before Bucky’s struggling to stand and shuffle toward the bathroom. Steve pauses the film as Snow White’s explaining to the deer how to properly wash dishes, then throws Bucky’s arm over his shoulder to guide him.
Bucky expects the punishment to start in the bathroom—maybe Steve didn’t want to discipline him in front of anyone else, didn’t want them questioning his control—but Steve only shuts the door and leaves him to attend to himself. The soap dispenser is empty and Bucky rummages past Sam’s prescriptions and all of their toiletries in the medicine cabinet for a refill. His hands barely register any of the contact, seeming to float more than to touch. It’s as though he was disconnected from gravity when he detached from his body.
Steve is waiting at the door. “You wanna keep watching?”
Now it will begin. Bucky lowers his eyes. “What do you want to do?”
But the hand that takes his is soft. “Whatever makes you feel better, Bucky. All I want is for you to feel safe.”
“I don’t understand.” There’s a pattern to these things. He’s awake and everyone’s soft, hiding their true feelings. He sleeps and it hurts. He’d been awake for so, so long, every second a struggle to keep conscious. And now that fatigue is far away, hovering somewhere around his body without shoving down onto it. Isn’t he sleeping? Why should Steve spare his feelings in the dreams?
Hadn’t Steve said, before Bucky shut his eyes, that he couldn’t stand to be near him? Hadn’t Barton called him a slut and a toy? Was he sleeping then? But he’d been so tired. But it’s the dreams that hurt, but Steve’s holding his hand and not squeezing or breaking fingers or forcing him to—
“We can talk everything out when you’re feeling like yourself again,” Steve promises, guiding him toward the couch. “I don’t know exactly what’s upsetting you, Buck, but we’ll find a way to fix it. You can tell us anything.”
“Yes, you can.” Steve’s lips brush against Bucky’s forehead as he’s easing him down. “I love you, Bucky. I’ll always love you. Nothing’s gonna change that.”
But the past already has.
The movie starts up again, though Bucky sees none of it. He’s staring down at his own body, trying to determine his level of consciousness. Maybe he is sleeping. How can he be above himself while he’s awake?
And how could Steve forgive him for all that’s he done? He shot Steve. He beat him after Steve refused to fight back. He spent decades undermining everything Steve worked for, and he was HYDRA’s whore the entire time.
Who could welcome him back with open arms?
It doesn’t make sense. The hurting—that’s reasonable. That’s—is that real?
He glances to Steve and Steve is smiling so brightly, Bucky has to shut his eyes. He keeps them that way, as if that will make him sleep longer. As if he can hide from the truth in the dark forever.
No, that’s stupid. If he is dreaming, it’s a better dream than he deserves. It’s something he must savor.
Bucky opens his eyes.
Steve is standing over him now. His smile is made from shards of ice.
“Morning, sleepyhead. It’s like you’ve been avoiding me.”
He lays his arm across Bucky’s throat, and Bucky doesn’t struggle.
Steve’s free hand is over Bucky’s head, pinning his wrists against the couch cushions. He’s still pressing his arm against Bucky’s windpipe. It hurts.
Dreams don’t hurt, do they?
“Yeah,” Steve says. His voice sounds far off even though he’s right there, his face inches from Bucky’s. He’s not making eye contact. “Yeah, he’s out. I think it’s safe to let him sleep.”
There’s a second voice, indistinct, as if through water.
“I don’t know,” Steve says. “We’ll figure it out.”
Bucky thinks his eyes are watering. He’s very still.
And then Steve is smiling down at him. It’s a smile that could cut glass. “I missed you, Bucky. You really thought I’d let myself lose you again?”
He doesn’t answer. Every part of him is taut, waiting. Tensing makes it hurt more, but he can’t stop.
“You never ran away from HYDRA, you know,” Steve says. He sounds so hurt, and Bucky’s eyes are definitely watering. “You begged for their affection like a stray, but you try and hide from me.”
He sits back. Bucky is motionless, quiet. Obedient. But not good. Never good.
There’s so much pain behind the ice that makes up Steve’s skin, so much anger. It’s a wonder he doesn’t melt. “I’m so sorry, Buck. Here I thought you liked being their whore. You sure took their cocks without ever complaining. So what’s the problem now? Are you homesick? They made you too loose for even a super soldier to satisfy you?”
Bucky thinks Steve is reaching for his fly, but instead his hand slips into his pocket. It emerges with a stun baton.
“Remember this?” Steve asks. His smile is serene. “No one ever fucked you with one, did they? But it’d combine all your favorite things about HYDRA, Bucky: it’d fill you up and help you forget just how awful you are.”
Bucky tries to speak. Any sounds he manages are drowned out by his heartbeat.
“You don’t have to thank me,” Steve says. “Just take your pants off already, I haven’t got all day.”
His hand is sliding toward his waistband when Steve’s weight vanishes from his thighs. In its place is a blanket, slowly being draped over his body. Steve is beside the couch, smoothing out the blanket. He isn’t holding a stun baton.
“Hey,” Steve says. His smile doesn’t look cold now, just tired. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Don’t wake me again, he thinks, but his body won’t form the words. Maybe in reality, Steve’s pressing on his throat. Keep me here with you.
“You should rest,” Steve says. He’s moving to the light switch. Maybe that will hide them.
Then it’s dark. Steve is slamming the baton inside of Bucky and he can’t even scream, voice muffled by white hot waves of hurt.
“Yeah, looks like he’s out again,” Steve says, flipping it on.
The world disappears beyond the pain. The pain and Steve’s voice. “I’m not sure. I don’t think he’s really slept in days.”
The baton is withdrawing. It feels slick and Bucky doesn’t think there was any lubricant.
“—call the doctors in the morning,” Steve is saying. He’s forcing the baton back in. He’s also stroking Bucky’s hair. Bucky isn’t sure what hurts worse. “I’m worried. I just want him to feel safe.”
The baton activates again.
When it stops, Bucky is trembling uncontrollably, drenched in sweat. Hoarse, hushed gasps keep slipping from his lips and he can’t stop them.
Steve smirks. “C’mon, Buck, I know you’ve got more stamina than that.”
And the baton’s firing back up.
Bucky is whimpering, shivering. He’s curled up against something big and solid and it takes a minute to realize that it’s Steve. It feels too warm for that, too soft.
“It’s all right, Bucky.” Steve’s hands are on Bucky’s face. They don’t hurt. “It’s all right, I’ve got you. I won’t let anything get you, I promise. Not ever again.”
But Steve can’t promise that. Bucky can’t sleep forever. There are tears in his eyes, mixing with the sweat on his face. He’s aching between the legs, and he hates himself for it. This is supposed to be a nice dream.
“Do you want a glass of water?” Steve asks.
Water. He’s already soaking from every pore, drowning in the phantom pain that follows him even in his sleep. Bucky shakes his head.
“Do you want a shower?”
“Don’t let me go, Steve,” Bucky whispers, clinging, burying his face into Steve’s side. “Please don’t let me go.”
“I won’t, Buck. ‘Till the end of the line, remember?”
‘Till the end of the night, maybe.
An idea strikes him. He can’t say it out loud. The Steve in his dreams won’t want to risk it. The real Steve won’t grant him the escape.
“Need—” Bucky stammers, untangling himself. “—Bathroom.”
And Steve, perfect as always, gives him the privacy.
Bucky stands before the mirror, biting his tongue until blood spills down his chin. It hurts, and that means he’s woken himself up. He digs through the medicine cabinet, emerging with Sam’s sleeping pills in his metal fist. He’s clenching tight enough to crack the plastic of the prescription bottle. The bottle is mostly full.
It won’t kill him. He’s a super soldier. But he’ll sleep. He’ll sleep for days. Maybe wind up in a coma.
He doesn’t deserve the comfort. But he thinks of reality, lying on the floor with the stun baton inside him, seeing the disgust radiate from Steve’s eyes, and he swallows the pills.
Bucky closes his eyes, waits.
“Buck?” Steve’s voice at the door. He can’t tell which Steve. It doesn’t matter—he’ll be sleeping soon enough if he isn’t already unconscious again—but he can’t bring himself to move.
“Bucky?” Steve opens the door. His eyes are clear and warm and perfect, until they fall on the empty bottle lying in the sink. Then they go wide and scared. “Bucky.” He’s grabbing Bucky’s arms, his knuckles white. It hurts a little, but Bucky’s still swaying into the touch. “Bucky. What did you do?”
“I love you,” Bucky says. “I don’t want to lose you.”
Steve doesn’t seem to understand.
He doesn’t remember arriving at the hospital.
He doesn’t remember having his stomach pumped either, but his mouth tastes like sick and charcoal and at first, there is pain in his throat. Then there’s nothing but cold and numb. Bucky’s in a hospital. The pills aren’t in his stomach any longer. And no one’s going to let him near any more in the future. Steve might be too angry to ever let him sleep again.
Steve is at his bedside. Bucky waits for it to hurt.
Steve’s eyes are red-rimmed. There is no ice in his smile, because he isn’t smiling. He’s very white, the way he used to look when he was getting sick. But Steve can’t get sick anymore.
Their eyes meet. Bucky can’t help flinching. He’ll be punished for that too, and he’s already in trouble for so many things.
Steve doesn’t strike him or even touch him. He smiles, thin and watery. It’s not like the water in the puddles under HYDRA’s van this time. It’s closer to tears. “Hey, Bucky. You’re gonna be okay.” His eyes are still red and his skin is sickly pale.
Steve can’t be sick. So Bucky’s still dreaming.
Smiling, Bucky sinks back against the pillows. His throat hurts again, but that can be ignored. He’s dreaming. And Steve brought him to a hospital. He’s so perfect that there are tears in Bucky’s eyes as well.
“I love you,” Steve is saying. “You know that? You’re my whole world.”
“You’re mine too now.” He tries to sit up but his body’s so heavy. Maybe Steve’s pinning it down in reality, reprimanding him. Steve will happy that way. Bucky’s sure to be easier to punish without all the crying.
“I thought I was going to lose you again.” Steve sounds choked. Bucky tries to will him to feel better, but the dream doesn’t listen.
“You won’t lose me,” Bucky says. “I made sure. Now—Steve, we can do whatever we want. I can watch out for you too, like I used to. It’ll be like I never ruined everything and maybe you won’t be mad when you’re awake, because you don’t have to talk to me.”
Steve is staring. Bucky struggles to sit. Steve looks like he needs a hug and Bucky has to give him one before this dream turns too sad. He’ll be here for a while and he doesn’t want a nightmare. “Bucky,” he says, and it seems to take him a while to work out what to say next. “I’ll never be mad at you.”
“You really are, though,” Bucky says gently. It’s freeing to say it, to put it out in the open. And his tongue feels loose, maybe from the pills. “It’s okay. I was HYDRA’s whore and their killer. You should be mad at me. I’m mad at me. And now you can hurt me all you want, but we can still be together.”
“Bucky,” Steve says. Then his mouth moves a lot, but there aren’t any words, like a lock with pins that won’t align. “I—you’re—I’d nev—Bucky, I don’t want to hurt you. And I don’t want you to hurt yourself. What—whatever they did to you, it’s not your—”
“Don’t be sad.” Bucky’s upright now. The world is only spinning a little from the motion. He’s not sure if he can stand, so he beckons Steve closer. “I won’t feel it until I wake up. And maybe I never will.”
But Steve is still stammering, apologizing, promising that no one will ever hurt Bucky again. He looks so distraught, and that isn’t how the dream is meant to go. Bucky hasn’t seen him this upset since his mother’s funeral. Since the first time he told Steve that he was with him until the end of the line.
And then Bucky understands. He’d said it himself. I can watch out for you too. The dream isn’t about his comfort, not now that he’s taken hold of it. It’s about redemption, about doing what he can’t do while he’s awake because he’s too stained and worthless. Here, he can dream away all the blood on his hands and come on his thighs. Here, he can be all he should have been for Steve.
“Hey, it’s all right,” Bucky says, pulling off his blankets. “It’s all right, Steve. I’m here now. I’ll stay here.” He braces his hands on the mattress, standing on shaking legs. “How do you want me to touch you? I’ll only do what you want.”
Steve doesn’t answer. He reaches out and hugs Bucky so tightly that his breathing is restricted. He’s still trembling, apologies and condolences and promises spilling out of him, but his trembling will stop. Bucky will take him to the ice where it’s quiet and still and pet his hair until he smiles again.
This is going to be a very nice dream.