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Part One: Bucky

X.

James Buchanan Barnes has been following Steven Grant Rogers around since the very first atoms came together to create life. (Neither of these names are, of course, their real names. Those, they cherish and protect, only really talk of them when the burden of immortality begins to press against them and they need to find comfort in a constant. Constants are rare for them, beyond a few little things. Most slip from their grasp, no matter how hard they try to hold on.)

But he’s getting ahead of himself. What he meant to say, then, before melancholy overtook him, was that he’d been following Steve for a very, very long time. It's an understatement to compare Steve’s nature to a sun (even if Bucky often feels like a sunflower in his presence; his body, whatever body it may be, turns towards him and relishes in the warmth that Steve radiates), or a lamp in a dark room (which makes Bucky the moth, unable to turn away even if he wanted to) but words are inadequate as always when trying to describe Steve Rogers.

If someone were to ask Bucky what it was exactly that made him follow without question, he probably could not answer you. He would bite at his lip, a habit he’d picked up only very recently, in the last century, maybe-- and say something like It’s Steve, or more than likely, Why wouldn’t I? But no one asks and so he does not answer, only thinks sometimes, that he is selfishly glad that he has an eternity of this, of following Steve through the passing of time and of loving him and knowing him in more bodies than he could ever count.

He knows (in the same way he knows the heady touch of Steve Rogers’ heart beating against his own-- intimately and without question) that he will continue to follow Steve, just as he has since The Beginning, until the atoms that form his very being fall apart and become something new, until his consciousness splinters and cracks clean through. And even then, even when there is nothing left of him but the dust motes that settle on Steve’s skin, the breeze through his hair, he’ll still follow.

But he’s getting ahead of himself again.

 

1. The rock’ll be a tree

They are bugs of some sort, live barely long enough to see more than half a dozen sunsets between them. Bucky is something that floats and twitches, has more leg than consciousness, really, and Steve is-- well, later they see the irony in Steve being a caterpillar, thin and prickly, that curls up inside his cocoon and comes out the other end all dusty and beautiful (Steve has gone through a variation of this process a fair number of times by this point. Not every life, not even most, but enough). So they don’t do much of anything, tiny brains not self-aware enough to be conscious of any of their previous lives, just float on the breeze and think food sleep food till they both end up inside a house.

At this point in recalling the story a few hundred lives later, Steve (currently going by Steph) grabs Bucky’s hand and pats it in a way that is really rather patronizing, says something like,

“I know how hard this is for you.” Which she most certainly does not, since she died a quick death from the swat of a shoe. So when Bucky is desperately begging Steph to ‘Get rid of the fucking spider!’ he feels righteous in his overwhelming fear of the goddamn things, since he was wrapped up and eaten by one of the bastards. But Steph, the asshole, just smirks at him, fake-seriousness gone in favor of squinty-eyed glee. To which Bucky absolutely does not whine,

“Steph no, don’t laugh, you know why I hate spiders. I have genuine reasons to!”

“You understand that you’re like, a thousand times bigger than they are now, right?” She says.

“That is not the point,” Bucky hisses, “It was traumatic for me. Like you with the sunflowers,” he adds, which makes Steph shudder and glare at him. But ultimately she does remove the spider from their shared flat and later on runs her fingers through his hair when he’s curled up against her chest and says,

“You understand I was messing with you right, Buck? I know you don’t like ‘em.” And he does understand, didn’t mind at all really, so he mumbles confirmation before he falls asleep, dreams of dusty moth wings and floating on a breeze and there is not a single spider in sight.

 

2. The Schwarzschild radius

In a universe where the rules of physics are steady and unwavering he remembers reading a book once, about black holes. It had said,

 

 

‘Theoretically, anything could become a black hole. In 1915 Karl Schwarzschild devised a formula for working out the radius of a sphere that any one object must be condensed into in order for it to become a black hole. He named it ‘The Schwarzschild radius.’ The formula is as follows: Rs=2GM/C2 where G is Newton’s Gravitational constant, M is the mass of the object in Kilograms, and C the speed of light. Rs is therefore the radius. So a human with a weight of 55 kg must have a radius less than 0.1 nm (nanometre) before it could deform space-time and become a black hole. A black hole with a mass that small would blink in and out of existence within less than a second.'

-A Beginners Guide to Black Holes, R. Zadden (2001)

 

But that was just a technicality in that universe. It could happen, sure, but it never would. The odds were too low, their universe too stable.

In a world that is simultaneously very similar and yet so utterly different from that one though, Schwarzschild’s theory becomes a common fact of life. The people that live here experience death far differently. They a born, they live for as long as fate permits them to, and then (if they haven’t already by other means) they die, their bodies falling apart to become miniscule black holes that are there and then gone again before a second could pass. It should be brutal, should leave the planet’s inhabitants curled in fear of what was to come. But instead they revel in it, celebrate their death with carnivals and parades where people sing old songs of existence and nonexistence, bumper stickers are bought with slogans on them like my black hole is bigger than yours, or honk if you’re a hole lot of fun! It is an excitement, for them- to be able to cease to exist in this way before the dullness of a normal death could take them.

So you are biding your time, not yet having met Steve in this life (which sometimes takes a while), when it happens: a dull throbbing in your fingers, an insistent itch that never quite passes over into pain. You knows what this means, but you’ve not yet met Steve, so it can’t be your time, not yet. You ignore it.

You notices your surroundings for the first time then, the gaudy décor that comes with not-quite upmarket hotels, leaning towards a theme of ‘baroque’ but not quite making it. The restaurant is all washed out gold and burnt reds, more cutlery than any of the customers will actually use already laid out on the tables, art prints picked at random and dotted around the room in too-expensive frames.

There is a family sitting across from you. They are brash and loud and you can’t take your eyes off them. You watch carefully, notice the mother’s delicate wrists, just a little too small; the skin at her temples taught and unnatural, fingers like dead branches snagging at the youngest child’s coat and pulling. The father is absent, mostly. He is thick with age, brown hair receding, and when he looks up for a breadth of a second you see no sign of life in his eyes. He is dull.

Your attention shifts to the children, utterly lacking in any sort of personality, a singular entity made up of four small bodies, screaming and frantic, unaware of anything beyond the material at their fingertips. You scratch at your hand absently, watching the family interact and you wonder, briefly, if you could ever have something so human. Steve is-- he is more than enough, he is soft and perfect and an inevitability, but in all their lives they’ve never once even talked about children. Scared, maybe, to see them die before they ever will.

A waiter nearby catches your attention and you finally turn away from the family to wave for the bill, all thoughts of them forgotten.

The air outside is clammy, thick between your fingertips. You can’t resist rubbing them together, soothing the itch that has spread now, curling around the veins in your wrists. There is an endless current of bodies that surround you, heading towards fixed destinations and you wince, teeth aching almost unbearably when a single body pulls out of the crowd just far enough that their weight presses against you uncomfortably. They apologize, too late, as your hand is shaking imperceptibly and the itch is heavy in your shoulders. This is when you start to panic.

-

Everything is quiet. You push through the crowd, against the current and into the street, distantly aware that there should be sound but it’s just beyond your grasp. Cars have stopped, narrowly avoiding hitting you, and drivers begin to open doors, mouths open but soundless. Someone grabs at you and you fall back, thinking of mothers with brittle bones, of shirts with stretched collars, of a life without ever having met Steve. But then the hand is there again, soft knuckles against your jaw, and you think Thank God, because it’s him, small and thin this time but so so solid and if you hadn’t already been crying you would now. Steve’s mouth crooks up in little half smile and he points to his lips with the hand that isn’t cradling your head.

“It’s okay.” He mouths, and the relief is palpable. You can stop fighting this now, Steve is here and he probably won’t be long after you, and you can just… let go.

You curl against Steve as a shock rocks through you, sharp pain-- it’s pain now, no longer an itch but a burn that presses against your skin, rots through the gum around your teeth and burns through your organs. The last thing you feel is a dry press of lips against your temple before silently, you fall apart.

You are, for a moment, in possession of a desperate hunger. And then you are gone.

(They talk of that life often. Even though they hadn’t met each other till the very end, even though those deaths were among the most painful they’d experienced, it was nice to have known others that love death as they did. That is, to welcome it without fear, as the beginning it tended to be.)

 

IX.

He doesn’t pretend to understand their existence, has mostly avoided thinking of it, even on the cold nights that Steve’s soul (and body, whatever it may be) huddles against his own and asks,

“Do you ever wonder?” And he’ll answer,

“No,” like he always does, “I try not to think of it.” Because there was never a bearded man who told them their purpose, never once a lightning bolt that came zipping out of the sky, nothing to tell them how to live like this. So they muddle along, flit through their lives without much of a clue about what exactly they’re here for, doing their best to live the only way they know how (By taking it one life at a time, Steve says.)

Sometimes Bucky resents their existence though, the loneliness of being one half of an entire species. He worries a little, that the love they have for each other isn’t their own. He thinks that maybe them falling together like they did, like they do, over and over, is maybe not of their own free will at all. He doesn’t like the idea of fate, that they could be born into the world with the intention of being wrapped up in each other. He prefers the illusion of autonomy, even if maybe it is just a childish fantasy; the reality that their existence together -just the two of them- could be a predetermined event or an inevitability of their isolation together. The idea is uncomfortable, and a chill runs through him at the idea.

When he is feeling particularly bitter (like now, face smashed into a shag rug and cheap vodka puddled on the floor) he thinks about free will and loneliness and not understanding anything, and he curses every deity he’s ever heard of and then some, curses ancestors he’s pretty sure don’t exist-- he curses the whole goddamn universe.

Not more than a few months later he remembers that moment and wonders if that was what did it. But when he tells Steve the corner of his mouth turns down and he says,

“Don’t think of it.”

 

3. Can’t choose a thread to begin

Bucky is sixteen and resolutely ignoring his mom’s attempts at reasoning with him while she drives him to school. It’s the fourth time they’ve moved in two years and unlike his older sister, who manages to gain a loyal posse wherever she goes, the people he’d call his friends don’t extend very far past her, his mom and their dog.

“C’mon, it’ll be a good way for you to make friends while learning something too.” She flicks her gaze to him for a second then looks back at the road.

“Please just give it a try, for me Buck.” And he’s absolutely powerless against his mom’s not-even-subtle manipulation, so he sighs as loud as he can make it and mumbles a yes in her direction, watching her mouth twitch up in a rare smile.

-

There’s about a dozen people in the room when he gets there, and most of them seem only to be TA’s learning so they can work with disabled kids. He grimaces, slumps down by a desk at the back of the room where he can maybe nap a little till the teacher turns up.

He’s just settling his head in his arms when someone sits down next to him, way closer than necessary. He sits up so he can glare at the person, when he actually sees them, which-- oh. The boy is probably his age, even if he is about a head taller and three times heavier than Bucky, and he’s wearing a varsity jacket for the school the next town over. He’s blond and flushed and goddamn beautiful. He’s also looking at Bucky with wide eyes, like he’s the crazy one, not someone who was minding their own business till some (admittedly hot) asshole decided to practically sit in their lap.

“You’re a bit close there pal,” he says, motioning to where their thighs are touching, and Bucky watches, fascinated, as the guy’s entire face flames red. He pushes his chair back with way too much force, causing the metal to grind loudly against the floor and most of the people in the room turn their heads, which only makes the guy go redder.

“Oh god, I’m s-so sorry.” He says, voice a little too loud for how close their sitting, “I didn’t mean to, it’s just. Just so good to-- Bucky, hi. God.” Which makes absolutely no sense because Bucky is like ninety-five percent sure he’s never met this guy in his life.

“What?”

“It’s, ah-- oh.” The guy says, face falling a little, “You d-don’t know me, right. I’ve, um, heard about you from, from--” he trails off, fingers scratching at the tops of his thighs.

“Track, right? I came third at nationals two weeks ago.” Bucky offers, and the guy mumbles an affirmation, his nails making that grating zipping sound against the denim. Bucky tries to ignore it, settling back down against the desk. He lasts maybe thirty seconds before he sighs and looks up.

“Please stop,” he says. The guy’s fingers still, and his shoulders tense, but he stays quiet. The teacher comes in a few minutes later, introduces herself as Mary-Elizabeth and begins to show them the ASL alphabet, and then Bucky is too busy trying to make his brain remember the signs to bother worrying about the twitchy guy next to him.

That’s the first time they meet.

The next class is three days later, and the guy comes and sits next to him again, even if he gives Bucky a little more room this time. He fidgets for a bit, picking at his jeans and tapping his foot and being generally annoying, till finally he huffs and blurts out, still too loud,

“Steve,” then pauses for a second, fingers fluttering over his thighs, “Uh- I mean, I’m Steve, my-- my name is Steve.” Red starts to creep up his neck again and Bucky is both exasperated and kind of amused at the guy’s inability to function.

“And you know my name,” he says, turning away for a second to check the time on his phone. When there’s no reply he looks back up at Steve expectantly, only to see that Steve is staring at him, looking vaguely irritated. Bucky is about to ask what the fuck he did when the teacher comes in and he decides to leave it.

Mary-Elizabeth teaches them the importance of lip-reading in conjunction with signing, and Bucky watches Steve instead of her for the entire lesson, trying to figure out why the lines of his shoulders are suddenly curled inward, the tips of his ears flushed pink. He’s still no closer to understanding what the fuck he did when the class finishes and Steve bolts out the room before Bucky can even say anything. Bucky is caught between bemused and vaguely annoyed.

Anyways. That’s the second time.

The next few times they meet are just as confusing, split between enjoyable conversation and weird stiltedness that always seems to creep up on them. One minute he’ll be talking about a new film he’s seen, Steve genuinely engaging with him, and the next he’ll be staring at Bucky with a constipated look on his face, or just outright ignoring him altogether. It’s irritating, mostly, that he can’t get a read on the guy.

By their sixth lesson Bucky is becoming increasingly frustrated with Steve, having been complaining for the past five minutes about his Mom’s totally unnecessary suggestion to lay off the sweets Buck, I can see your belly through that shirt, only to look over and see Steve doodling in his notepad, obviously not listening at all.

“Okay, what the hell is your problem?” he huffs, shoving at Steve’s shoulder. Steve startles and drops his pencil on the table, ignoring it roll off the side and to the floor.

“Bucky?” he says, all wounded eyes and confused head tilting, which makes Bucky feel bad, which only irritates him more.

“You keep ignoring me!” he says, aiming for angry but getting something closer to a whine. He consciously doesn’t fold his arms or slide down in his seat, which he wants to do, just watches that familiar pink rise on Steve’s cheeks as his eyes widen in realization.

“Oh, no, it’s just-- I’m not ignoring you, it’s only,” he pauses, takes a breath like he’s steeling himself then says, “I’m deaf, a bit. Or, going deaf I guess, I have Meniere’s? I don’t know if you know what-- I can’t hear very well.”

Bucky immediately feels like the biggest asshole. And a fucking idiot, they’re in a signing class, duh.

“I’m sorry man, I just thought you were gettin’ bored of me.” he murmurs.

“No! No, if you want to get my attention Bucky, just poke me or something. I can hear most of the time anyways, the ringing just gets a bit loud sometimes.” Steve says, his smile way too sad for Bucky’s liking. He’s gonna say something, but Mary-Elizabeth comes in, and so he focuses on her. And if he decides to pay a little more attention than usual to what she’s teaching, well then that’s his business.

-

“So who’s the girl?” his sister asks him from the doorway, smirking when he jumps hard enough to knock his knee against the underside of his desk.

“Ow-- what the fuck Rebecca, don’t sneak up on me like that!” he hisses, “And what the hell do you mean, a girl?”

“You were putting, like, the barest minimum of effort into that signing class mom is making you do, and then all of a sudden you’re spending hours practicing? You barely even do your homework Bucky, why else would you suddenly be so interested?” she says, coming in his room and flopping on his bed. She tilts her head towards him, her expression suddenly serious,

“Or is it a boy?” Which makes Bucky’s throat catch, his heart thud against his ribcage, but Rebecca just smiles at him, a little fond,

“Don’t panic, I won’t tell mom. I just gotta say though, the way you look at the guys on the shows you watch makes it kinda obvious.”

“So you don’t…mind?” he asks, voice wobbly. She watches as Bucky swipes a hand across his eyes, sniffling a little, then gets up off the bed and pulls him into a bear hug before he can escape.

“Of course I don’t mind, dumbass. It’s a part of who you are. I didn’t care when you went through that weird phase of only wearing yellow clothes, did I? And this is nothing compared to that.” Bucky laughs a little wetly, shoving at her shoulder.

“You pinky swore you’d never bring that up again.” He says, and she grins, all teeth.

“Yeah but my toes were crossed, didn’t count. I’m gonna to be bringing that up for the rest of your life baby brother. When you bring boys over to meet, I’m gonna say ‘hey, James likes to pretend he’s punk, but it’s all a lie. One time he went three months only ever wearing yellow. Even his b--’” Bucky pushes her shoulders hard enough that she falls back on the bed, giggling.

“You won’t! Or I’ll tell mom about the weed you’ve got hidden in your wardrobe.” He says. Rebecca’s eyes narrow.

“Bucky.”

Rebecca.

“Okay, fine, ruin my fun. You still didn’t answer though, who’s the boy that’s got you actually working for once?” she asks. Bucky knows she won’t let this go if he doesn’t tell her, so he groans loudly, says,

“Ugh, you suck. His name is Steve, and he’s got, uh,” he clicks on a tab on his laptop and reads out the Wikipedia page, “Meniere’s disease, so he has ringing in his ears and he can’t hear and stuff. I thought I’d learn properly, so it’s easier to speak to him.” He looks up from the laptop screen to see Rebecca’s eyes crinkling, smile crooked.

“Don’t.” he whines, covering his face in his hands.

“But Buckyyyy,” she whines, drawing out his name, “That’s so nice of you. You’re so sweet my teeth are rotting. Look.” She bares her teeth at him, laughs when he throws a cushion at her head.

“Right, why did I even tell you that.” He puts one hand on her face and the other on her stomach and pushes her off the bed, satisfied with the squawk she makes when she hits the floor.

“Go away Rebecca,” he says, but instead she just giggles some more.

--

When Steve sits down next to him before their next lesson, Bucky takes a breath and taps him on the shoulder. When he has Steve’s attention he carefully signs

hi s-t-e-v-e nice meet you my name b-u-c-k-y. Steve barks out a surprised laugh and Bucky worries he might’ve messed that up, so he signs

you think i sign bad? (which he'd looked up pretty much straight away) but Steve only laughs harder, hand slapping against Bucky’s chest. He calms himself after a bit, mostly serious if not for the twitch of his lips.

“That’s real nice of you Buck, to do that for me. But uh- there’s a reason I’m in a signing class you goof. I have no idea what you just said to me.” Steve says. Bucky marvels at Steve’s ability to make him feel like a fucking idiot for actually trying for once.

“Oh.” He says dumbly, suddenly unsure of himself. He’d spent the past week throwing himself into learning as much ASL as he could that he didn’t really think about what came after that, let alone what to do if Steve didn’t know fucking sign language, ugh. He’s desperately regretting his enthusiasm, just about ready to hide under his desk in embarrassment when Steve leans over him and presses a chaste kiss to Bucky’s lips. Their noses bump and Steve is back in his seat faster than Bucky can blink, but Steve had just kissed him.

“Oh.” He says. Steve’s cheeks are tinged a little pink and his eyes are wide like he’s surprised at himself and Bucky feels kind of how Steve looks. He also wants to do that again, but then other people start to filter in the classroom and so he doesn’t. Steve’s face starts to look a little uncertain though, so Bucky reaches across to where Steve’s fingers have started twitching against his thigh and squeezes them in a way he hopes is reassuring.

Steve must get the message because the grin he turns on Bucky is practically blinding, and right before Mary-Elizabeth comes in and shushes them all he says,

“You’re adorable,” and Bucky is too busy hiding his own blush to protest.

-

After that, making a fool of himself in front of Steve becomes sort of a pattern. Not that Bucky minds all that much since the majority of his embarrassment occurs in Steve’s bedroom while they explore each other’s bodies-- Bucky falls off the bed more than once in his eagerness, leaves too-dark bruises on Steve’s neck that linger for a week afterwards. It takes them a few tries before they even get to third base, because Bucky comes in his pants the second Steve’s hand goes near his belt.

Not that Steve even gives a shit, usually too busy wrapped up in Bucky to even notice the embarrassing stuff he does. Rebecca says that Steve’s obliviousness to Bucky’s idiocy makes them perfect for each other, and he has to agree.

From then on life is pretty good to them. They graduate from high school each with a certificate that says they are at least semi-functional at signing, end up going to the same college, much to his mom’s chagrin. She makes an attempt at persuading him otherwise, says something about ‘other friends’ and ‘co-dependency’ but he’s not really listening at that point, already set on going wherever Steve is.

By second year they end up renting a place together, with a guy called Clint who they’d met at the disability society (which Bucky only got into on Steve’s insistence that he was a translator) and his dog, a lab that only barely passed his assistance training. They never find out the dog’s actual name since Clint only ever signs pizza dog at him.

Not everything is perfect though. While the medication does help Steve with his vertigo (which Bucky only ever saw once when Steve forgot his tablets and ended up collapsed on the bathroom floor, puking his guts out for hours and totally unable to stand while Bucky panicked down the phone at the 911 operator) and Steve handles losing his hearing with relative calm all things considered, only spending a single shaky week hidden in his room before he signed to Bucky that he was ready to go back to school again, there are other things.

Even with meds and therapy, Steve’s anxiety is something he never manages to shake. Most people assume the source is his deafness, but Bucky knows better, even if he doesn’t totally understand it. Seemingly innocuous things set him off; a documentary on Buddhism has him on the verge of a panic attack, fingers scratching hard against his thighs; he avoids looking up at the stars as much as possible, claims not to like being reminded of space stretching infinite above them; and death, more than anything, absolutely terrifies him.

Bucky never really gets close to understanding why. Just helps him through the panic attacks, and when he finds him up at 3am, painting a blurred picture of him and Bucky submerged in something that isn’t quite water, faces solemn with something that isn’t quite fear, he just sits with him till he’s finished. When Steve’s done Bucky pries the paintbrush from his fingers, setting it on the table, then he takes the painting and puts it away in a cupboard that contains more than a hundred of the same image.

He clears away the table, then pulls Steve back to bed with him, curls around him and pretends not to hear the steady drip of tears against the pillow.

-

The day they get married dawns cold and wet, snow settled overnight, thick enough that most guests have to trek to the church in boots and parkas. A steady leak drips through the church ceiling during the entire ceremony, and everyone is freezing. But then Steve signs his vows while Bucky translates (which he'd insisted on, claiming not to want to subject everyone to his inevitable shouting), voice a little shaky,

“Bucky has heard this story many times by now, but I’m going to make him tell you all about it. I lost my hearing fully during our last year of college. Go to bed early one night, and the next morning, nothing. And you know what the last thing I heard was? Bucky, in the shower, singing RENT of all the fucking things.” Bucky’s voice cracks a little, and Steve grins at him while the guests laugh. “When I first told Bucky that he freaked out. Kept apologizing for it over and over, till I told him what I’m gonna tell you all now. That that was the moment I knew I loved him. The last sound I hear is him butchering Take me or leave me, and to me, that was goddamn perfect. That’s how I knew.”

He laughs as Steve says ‘I do’ way too loud, and then he signs it and they kiss each other with cold lips and Bucky finds he doesn’t regret a thing.

(Not even inviting Clint and his inevitable plus one, who eats most of the buffet pizza before anyone can get to it)

 

The car crash that does it isn’t so bad. The lorry comes out of nowhere and he barely has time to realize what’s happening before it’s over. The last thing he hears is Steve’s too-loud rendition of Seasons of love.

 

VIII.

He wakes up with his face still smashed into the carpet, hand sticky with spilled vodka and a headache just this side of bearable. For a second he wonders where Steve is and why he hadn’t helped Bucky out of his clothes or at least off of the floor before he remembers: an artists’ convention, week-long, which was why he was drunk and maudlin on a Tuesday night anyways. He resents himself a little, for how clingy he is right now. It reminds him vaguely of a sister he’d had in a previous life when she’d become pregnant, which--

He rests a hand against his stomach and panics, pictures children that’ll die before they do, or worse- be doomed to a fate like their own, that is, until rational thought intervenes. Right, he thinks, laughing a little hysterically, not possible in this body, not in this life at least. He lets out a shaky breath, tells himself to stop being so goddamn ridiculous, and makes his way downstairs to pour some coffee (he and Steve had on multiple occasions discussed the possibility that caffeine addiction could cling to them through death and rebirth. They hadn’t yet disproved the idea).

-

He’s not long finished cleaning up the house (and himself) when Steve comes in the door, suitcase in one hand and half a dozen bags of new art supplies in the other. He’s sweating, shirt clinging to him nicely, and the second he sees Bucky his eyes light up and everything in his arms gets dumped on floor as Steve all but vaults over the couch to get at him.

Damn,” he says, as Steve’s hands go to his waist and he starts nosing at Bucky’s jaw, “You missed me big guy?” His voice is a little shakier than he’d like, though. Because this isn’t them, at all. They have never had issues being away from each other, never been so desperate for each other, not like this. When their time together is literally infinite it means that they can often go years without seeing each other, safe in the knowledge that in the grand scheme of things that’s no time at all.

So a week should be nothing, and yet here they are, clinging to each other like it’s been a life time. Steve kisses him, licks into his mouth like he’s desperate, fingers bruising against Bucky’s sides, wetness against his cheeks and that's when Bucky realizes that something is very wrong.

 

4. Teeth to void

Some are harder than others.

There is no memory of previous lives this time round, nothing but pain, endless and all-consuming. There is no Bucky. There is no Steve. There is only Candidate B41, and pain.

He is born too early, his legs and one arm deformed beyond use, blind in one eye, jaw misaligned, heart and lungs barely functioning. The doctors shake their heads, tell his mother (while she scratches at the needle marks on her arms, her thighs) he’s not made for this world. They ask, ever so gently, if maybe the body could be used for scientific purposes.

“Sure,” she says, sucking on a tooth, “Do I get paid for that?”

She gets her money, gets her high, dies in an alley some weeks later while a few blocks over her baby boy lays frozen in a tank. He stays that way for four months. They want to make sure he is strong enough to undergo the surgery. When it’s time they warm him up slowly, take blood and feed him through a drip. He does not cry.

The first operation is the most delicate: a black metal heart that looks like liquid tar is inserted between his ribs where it twitches, thuds and--

There, a heartbeat. The procedure was a success. Well done.”

The rest take years to complete. He has been gifted with a serum that allows his healing time to be half that of a human, but still, it takes time. His useless legs are cut away at the thigh, replaced with thick blades. A new arm is fitted to the deformed one that never grew past the elbow. They coat it in metal to stop the skin wearing away and slot the prosthesis over the top, where they solder it to his bones, his flesh. The organs, even those that worked, are slowly replaced, his lower jaw ripped out in favor of a new one that fits just right (“An overbite is ugly B41, you will thank me later,” says the doctor, and then later: “Hold still, we need to sever the tongue.”). A brand new eye is the last thing they give him, slot it in place while he’s strapped to the table, awake.

“Perfect.” The doctor whispers, sewing the eyelid closed to allow for healing. He grits his metal teeth and wills himself to pass out.

A month passes and the stitches are dissolved, the eye open. He stares at his reflection in the observation window. The eye is black, like his arm, his legs.

They are always black.

-

He is pushed into a room some time later, confronted with a crowd of men in suits. The doctor says,

“This is B41, just as we discussed. Come, look, he really is a marvel.” The men are eager, trip over themselves to poke at him, see how he works. He wills himself not to shake.

“Can it fight?” One man asks, dragging a nail down the side of his jaw. But the doctor shakes his head, says,

“Ah, no. He is only the prototype for prosthesis. There are others who we have been training for combat and intelligence, he is simply to test how much of a body can be replaced before it can no longer function.” Fingers pinch at the flesh of his stomach.

“A great deal of his torso is still human, is this not counterproductive? Surely it is better not to have flesh that is easily damaged surrounding his organs?” Says a voice. The doctor’s answer is gleeful,

“No not at all, retaining muscle around the torso ensures fluidity of movement. His organs however, are almost entirely machine. His ribs were replaced even, they have hinges to allow for easier access. Someone shoots at this,” the doctor taps his chest, “Then he may bleed, yes, but no bullet can pierce his organs. He is all but invincible.” There are murmurs of excitement, fingertips pressed all over, and a whimper slowly makes its way out of his throat.

The men still. The doctors eyes narrow and he says,

“Do not be disturbed, it is merely a side effect of his time with us, he is fearful. This is something we have all but eliminated in candidates T15 and P97, with whom we have been testing the interaction between memory loss and decreased fear response. It is promising. Would you like to-”

The doctor does not finish his sentence. There is the flash of a red light against the doctor’s head a split second before the observation window explodes inwards and the doctor falls to the floor. There is a spreading puddle of blood that stains the shoes of the men in the room, which they do not protect, only stare in fear (an emotion he only recognizes from the glimpses of himself he’s seen while on the operating table) as men swarm the room like ants after crumbs, pushing them to their knees and cuffing them.

B41 does not understand. This has not happened before. He feels-- he is-- relieved, that the doctor is a corpse at his feet (Something in the back of his mind whispers nothing stays dead forever, but the thought is gone within seconds). He can’t help the croak he makes as he falls to the floor, shaking with the knowledge that even if he is put in prison now, or captured and studied some more, that man will never touch him again.

He stays that way, curled forwards into a ball, till he feels eyes on him and looks up (and up) at the man that is crouched in front of him. His jawline is defined, blue eyes clear, palms big and calloused where he holds them out between them, and abruptly, for what is maybe the first time in his life, B41 is embarrassed. He offers his hands and says,

“I’m going to touch you now, is that okay?” and B41 wants to curl up in a ball and hide from this man with a defined jaw; with two working eyes and a heart that beats like a metronome. B41 has never been ashamed of his body before, so focused on avoiding pain that he never cared, but now he is confronted with how absolute his differences are, how far from human he is.

He nods though, despite his brain telling him that he’ll taint the man if he lets him (he is dirty and broken and this man is his polar opposite), because he craves a touch that doesn’t grab at him like he is an object, that isn’t the foreshadowing to pain. So he nods, and the man smiles with his white teeth and rests a careful hand on B41’s right shoulder, doesn’t hesitate or flinch when it whirs under his touch, black plates rising just enough to press against his palm.

“You’re safe. No one is going to hurt you again, okay? I’m going to help you stand up now, and we are going to get you some clothes to put on and a warm drink. You must be cold, huh?” He says, carrying on talking even as he helps B41 to his feet and starts to walk him from the room. His voice is soft and careful like he’s talking to a child, which he’d resent if it wasn’t for how nice it was to be spoken to without condescension for once. As they leave the room he sees that most of the suits are gone, only the men in black remaining, watching him, with a look in their eyes that he is intimately aware of. He has, after all, been the subject of pity since the day he’d been born.

-

Later, after the doctors have tested him for injuries (and balked over his body), he is released into the custody of the man. He introduces himself as Steven, says that he’s on a team of people who’ve been working to shut down Lernaean Inc for years. They knew some of what was happening but had no proof, that is, until one of the scientists managed to avoid being killed after his retirement, then told the police everything. Now B41 is going to live with Steven, which is unorthodox, but he is not violent like the others, doesn’t require immediate medical attention, and where would he go otherwise? Not to a facility, Steven says.

B41 is only half listening to this, staring out the window at the blur of the world that passes by them, too fast for him to see. He is happy, maybe, to see this world that he’d been hidden away from for so long, even if it is overwhelming. He spots a field of cows and must make a sound because Steven startles, fingers drumming on the steering wheel.

“How,” he begins, fingers twitch, runs a hand through his hair, “How long where you in that place for?" As far as the doctor was aware, B41 could not speak. He was not aware that when B41 was put in his cell (not frozen, that was only for priority candidates), with a mattress, a toilet, and a tiny TV, he used his time well. He’d spend the days left in there watching hour after hour of people speaking and begun to train himself to do the same, curving words around his metal tongue, ignoring the click of it against his teeth.

So he swallows, takes a breath, forms the words.

“Since birth,” he says, and watches Steven’s face drain of color, fingers twitch against the steering wheel.

“Fuck.” He says. B41 does not know this word.

-

Steven’s apartment is up five sets of stairs, which they realize very quickly aren’t easily navigated when you lack knees. When they finally make it up, B41 having been carried, mostly, Steven shows him his room, gestures at towels and sheets and also the bathroom and says something he doesn’t hear. Then they go to the kitchen and Steven says food so B41 sits at the offered chair, opens his mouth for the feeding tube and waits--

And waits while Steven’s entire body twitches, and his hand reaches towards B41 before he reigns himself in, lets out a breath that sounds like it hurts.

“Okay, I’m not-- that’s not how we do things now, okay? Here,” he holds out a banana, waits for him to take it before he gets his own, sitting and eating it without ever taking his eyes off B41. The thing is though, it isn’t like he doesn’t understand how most people eat; he’s watched whole programs about cooking on his little TV. He remembers laying on the operating table and watching a technician eat berries from a little bag, remembers sharp nails digging into the flesh at his temple and the doctor’s voice.

“No B41, you do not need that food, you have the tube. That food is for humans,” he’d said. He looks at the banana in his hands. If he’d known the phrase, B41 would’ve said ‘Fuck. Him.’ As it is, he just bares his black teeth eats the thing.

After, things start to get better. He learns what positive touch is and-- and

He begins to

Things start to-- to--

But no, this life is not one with a happy ending. He throws up the banana minutes later, discovers that years of feeding tubes mean he is unable to consume solid food. He barely sleeps, scared of vivid dreams where Steven drags him back to the facility and into the doctors arms, says,

“It’s okay B41, I’m only doing what’s best for you.”

He is not let outside, not the way he looks. In case he scares the public, he is told. He stares at himself in the mirror for hours on end, thinks disgusting. Broken glass bites into the knuckles of his flesh hand on more than a few occasions. This, he thinks, staring at the blood trickling down his arm, is the closest he’ll ever get to human.

Steven finds him after work one day, deep gouges wherever the metal fuses to his body, like he'd been trying to rip it from his flesh. A shoelace is strung around his neck and tied to a curtain rail.

He is cremated, his ashes given to Steven, who takes them home and puts them on his kitchen counter, hands shaking. Later, after half a bottle of vodka and an argument with his landlord about late rent, he grabs the box and throws it out of his window. He does not remember come morning.

Steven, in turn, is fired from his job not more than three years later for having driven to a crime scene half a dozen units over the limit, rum still sticky on his fingers. Six months after that his body is found, washed up on a river bank.


VII.

It happens like this: he wakes up on a day that could have been wholly unremarkable, curled around Steve with his head on his chest and the gentle thud of Steve’s heartbeat against his ear. The house is mostly silent, only broken by the soft snores from their dog Marlow at the foot of the bed and the quiet ticking of the long-case clock Bucky had inherited from his father (a clockmaker this time round. He’d given it to them as a wedding present, their names engraved in the pendulum). The day could have been wholly unremarkable, were it not for the heavy burden of knowledge that settles within him upon waking--that this life is his last. He shakes awake with tears already streaked down his cheeks, consumed with fear.

Steve wakes up when Bucky grips at his forearms, nails digging grooves into his skin, but it only takes a second of bleary eyed confusion before he focuses on Bucky and curls one arm around his back.

“Buck?” he asks, voice sharp with worry. But Bucky doesn’t hear him, just sobs wetly against Steve’s neck and tightens his fingers around Steve’s wrist till he’s sure he’s drawing blood. They stay like that till light begins to filter in through the curtains; Bucky shaking apart in Steve’s arms, frightened like a child, and Steve confused but mumbling soothing nonsense into his hair, waiting it out.

He can’t explain it properly when Steve asks, that the knowledge comes to him not through a bush on fire or a demonic voice from the radio, but a stray thought that shadows him through his dreams that night. He remembers a death, near the beginning, when he’d been something small and young and without memory. It was the only time he could remember ever being afraid of death, he’s sure there were others that he can't recall, but at the time he’d been incoherent with fear, and he thinks-- wouldn’t it be awful, to face death with the knowledge that you would not come back, and have to face your life as you had lived it and think, okay. That’s me, those are the choices I made, and somehow find it in yourself to be okay with that.

The idea is gone within seconds, and he slides into another dream, of poppy fields and gasoline-soaked carpets. But other thoughts follow him through the slipstream, clinging to the dreams that flit by faster and faster, a snake that Steve had once been becomes a rope around his neck, the air from one universe becomes another’s and he chokes on the poison, the atoms that form him vibrate and pulse with electricity flowing beneath his skin. The images flow and evolve until finally they amass together in a single idea:

He is going to die. Permanently.

 

5. Filthy rags impure with sin

“…not The Devil. A devil, one of many. There ain’t no big bad in charge of all the others. It’s just half a million dickheads who got lost on their way to the afterlife. So selling your soul definitely ain’t all that. Guy I sold mine to was called Bradley or somethin’, goes by ‘The Stabber’ now, he’s not so bad. I just gotta do some secretary work, walk the hell-dog, and help out with a few stabbings. Oh-- what do you mean you’re not so sure about the stabbing? You are selling your soul to a devil. It’s not all a fuckin’ walk in the park…okay so I do walk the hell-dogs in the park, but you get my point.

Bra- I mean, The Stabber’s primary interest is stabbing, right? So that’s my job. If you sold your soul to, say, Harriet, your business would be strangulation, if you settled on Charlie it’d be stoning. Which I wouldn’t recommend actually, unless you got some killer stamina, stoning really does take it out of you.

…Well, that’s great, thanks for calling the devils 4 u hotline. You got any more questions? Nah? Cool, I’ll just put you through to the sales team then. Alright. Bye.” The phone rings.

“Devils for you, this is Jacob, how can I help?” A shrill voice begins to lecture to him about the merits of repenting and giving his soul back to the good side (does the good side have Stephanos, though. The answer is no, no they do not. And really, what’s the point if Stephanos ain’t there?). He slams the phone down and winces when he hears a crack. That’s the third one this week. He really needs to get laid.

“Steph!” he calls down the hall, loud enough that his voice carries over the screaming, “You got a minute?”

(Bradley gets tired of him at some point, stabs him in the neck -no surprise there- and Jacob watches Steph’s face twist in righteous fury (or as righteous as someone who uses Galatians 5:19 like it’s a fuckin’ to-do list can be) and throw himself bodily at Bradley. He gets a knife to the gut for his troubles, chokes up blood when he laughs against Jacob’s side.

“That was fuckin’ stupid.” He slurs, and Jacob nods emphatically. Or, he would, if his spinal column were still attached. Steph’s head is heavy where it rests against his shoulder. (Bradley mumbles something about co-dependency. If he weren’t dead, Jacob would probably ignore him.)


6. Skin sewn on sheets

The first time Bucky is forced to live without Steve doesn’t go so well. They are young, barely been through a hundred lives between them, and the thing is, most of the time? Their deaths are pretty close together. Usually within a year of each other, though sometimes it takes a little longer. So when Steve dies of a brain aneurism, is there and gone within the space of maybe five minutes, Bucky acknowledges it and moves on. They are used to losing each other by now, are melancholy after the death of the other but safe in the knowledge that they’ll meet again within time, they tend not to mourn. Instead, they wait.

So James Barnes, nineteen and bitter, but not quite angry, with regret for only having had a year with Steve, joins the marines. It’s the logical thing to do. They agreed some time ago that they would never shorten their lives when the other died first, but this is something to keep his mind occupied, and if he does get killed in action it’s no skin off his back. So he ships out, and he fights, and he waits.

A year passes, and he starts to get twitchy. People comment on his bravery as much as they do his death wish. He loses his arm disarming a bomb in a residential area, ignoring his lieutenant shouting at him down the radio. Miguel Figueroa’s angry spitting is cut off when he hits something he shouldn’t have and the bomb blows, taking most of his left side with it.

Later, he’s in a hospital bed, staring at the empty space where his arm should be when Figueroa slips in the room.

“You dumbass motherfucker,” he begins, dropping into the chair to the side of the bed, “You aiming to get yourself killed, Barnes?” James lowers his eyes and stays silent. Only then Figueroa sucks in a sharp breath and he realizes, too late, that Figueroa was joking.

“You fuck. You know you’re not coming back right? Even with the new space age fuckin’ prosthetics there is no way I can let you back out there if you’re just trying to get yourself killed.” James shrugs. It wasn’t like he was trying, he didn’t plan to lose his fucking arm and half the skin on the left side of his body. He just--

“Fuck you Barnes. What happened to you is god-awful and I’ll do whatever I can to help you out man, but I’ve seen that look before. People who look like you do right now? They don’t make it out.” He goes silent then, hand coming up to rest on James’ chest in a way that is uncharacteristically gentle. When he raises his head he sees something like betrayal written across Figueroa’s face.

“What the fuck happened to you that made you this way James.” He says it like a statement, like he knows (but how could he know, no one could ever understand what this feels like apart from Steve) and James can’t help but catch his eyes then, knows his gaze is hard and cold and nothing like the man Miguel knows-- he’d pretended for a while, but the more time passed without Steve the more exhausting it became to be someone else. It’s been fifteen months since Steve died, and he’s given up pretending for the comfort of others.

He knows he has started to unnerve people, has heard nurses outside talking about him; say It isn’t like shock, it’s something else entirely. Like he doesn’t care and God. Those eyes. Figueroa must see some of that now, because he doesn’t hold his gaze for long, pulls his hand back from James’ chest like he’s been burnt.

“Maybe you should leave.” James says. He expects that he’ll have to argue with him, but Figueroa stands abruptly, stance somewhere between ready for a fight and terrified.

“I’d tell you to take care of yourself if I thought you’d listen,” he says, opens his mouth again and falters. Then he leaves the room and doesn’t look back.

-

He recovers, in time.  The doctors let him go home with the promise of weekly physiotherapy that he never takes up. He’s been without Steve for twenty-eight months and thirteen days when he understands fully that he isn’t going to be seeing him any time soon. His next immediate thought is of the knife in his cutlery draw, the razor under the bathroom sink, but it lasts only seconds before he remembers their promise to each other. He knows Steve wouldn’t want him to cut off his life early, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

He tells himself lies. We’ve been together a long time, maybe a break is good, and human lives are short, it’ll be over in a blink of an eye, though he knows full well that in a human body he’ll feel every second of it. He works in a local library to make ends meet, takes a second job at a bar just for something to do.

Some older veterans come in one night and apparently recognize one of their own, because they nod at him and they drink (and they drink. None of them claim to be dealing with their problems healthily), and they talk to Bucky about the death they saw and show him their ruined bodies.

At first he’s confused, unsure why they are so open about their experiences with him, till he begins to understand that this is as much for him as it is for them; they are giving him an opening to talk about himself. So he does. It’s a quiet night anyway, so he tells them while he cleans glasses.

“Not much of a story, really. Lost the arm in an explosion, honorably discharged.”

“There’s something else though.” one of the guys says, scratching absently at burn scars on his neck.

“A friend of mine died. I’d known him a real long time, but not-- not long enough. He was the reason I signed up.” James says, notes how most of them nod and look down at their drinks solemnly, but the guy with the burns tilts his head a little, scrutinizes his face.

“Why you still around then?” He asks, his eyes serious and unblinking. James’ breath catches in his throat and for a moment, he can't answer. This guy is way too perceptive for his own good. He thinks that maybe it’s because he’s is coming from a similar place to James (but still so different. Bucky wishes for a beginning in death, what this man wants is the opposite). So he’s honest with him, as much as he can be.

“I made a promise to him a long time ago that I wouldn’t when he left. Guess this is me keeping my promise,” he gestures at himself and the bar around him and smiles a little sadly. “It ain’t much, but it’ll do.” The guy nods like he gets it, and Bucky is starting to think that maybe he does.

It’s almost closing when they finally leave, consciously not touching James, but thanking him for the drinks and telling him they’ll be back soon. The man with the burns nods at him before he goes, tells him,

“You’re doing good. I’m sure he’d be proud of you.” And against all odds, it helps.

After that they come by most nights and James finds himself accidentally gaining some friends. He spends the next two decades distracting himself by volunteering with them at rehabilitation clinics and homeless shelters, free time mostly spent at the bar with a gradually expanding group of veterans. Somewhere along the way it sort of becomes a thing, a fortnightly meeting where thirty soldiers with varying degrees of issues come to drink beer and complain. When death finally takes him, the method doesn’t matter so much as the relief he feels; like taking a breath of fresh air after holding it for a too long-- a life time.


7. Pick me up with golden hand

They do believe in karma, sort of. For every godawful wretch of a life they get a dozen easy, mundane, soft lives as a kind of retribution. He’s not entirely sure they’d have stayed as sane (relatively speaking) as they have so far if that wasn’t the case.

The both agree then that the life that immediately follows is an apology of sorts from the universe. They end up as bear cubs, retaining only enough memory to know, when they first stumble across each other out by Chinitna Bay while their mothers are catching salmon, that they are really happy about it. They must weigh less than sixty kilograms between them when they first meet, chasing and tumbling after each other through the shallow water, snatching fish from older bears that are easily half a ton heavier than they are. They curl around each other once they are too tired to play, staying that way till dusk falls and their mothers urge them to move on, then they bump noses and go their separate ways.

Years and years later, when Bucky is old and his fur greying, he gets his paw caught in a trap. Steve just happens to be passing, fate decides, so when a hunter comes after him with an old rifle and a sharp grin, Steve lunges and the guy doesn’t really have a chance.

Ultimately they don’t last much longer after that though, even if they do stick together. Bucky’s only got three working paws and Steve had been a runt, never grew as big as he should’ve, so when another hunter crosses their path a year or so later, the inevitable happens. It’s not bad though, quick and relatively painless, and it isn’t what they remember of this life. Instead they remember wet noses and salmon chasing, summer evenings spent dozing on the river bank. It’s a welcome relief.

 

VI.

He knows that they are picking up tics and habits that are starting to stay with them between lives— Steve’s recklessness with his own body is something he’s always been predisposed to, reasoning that death is only temporary for them, so why not do what they can to help in the meantime?

(after the sixth time he dies helping some variation of a cat out of a tree Steve finally concedes to Bucky that maybe he should save it for the bigger things.)

But then sometime after the life when Bucky had hung himself with shoelaces and Steve had followed him three years later into the Harlem river already halfway to alcohol poisoning, Steve goes right back to it, and then some.

It’s remnant of Buck’s death-wish the first time he’d had to live without Steve, except he never stops. Its not just Steve though— one too many deaths by explosion and Bucky has developed a consistent fear of loud noises, he favors his right arm even during the times he doesn’t lose the left, and his bitterness isn’t the most attractive personality trait, he's aware.

Bucky is also self-aware enough to notice how often they end up with mental health problems now, especially if they retain their memories; the burden of knowledge really too heavy to be born with. Even when everything goes well, one or both of them will invariably end up depressed or something similar. So it’s not new, the anxiety and the despair that has begun to plague him after that night he’d woken up with the knowledge of his death. But the consistency of his fear is starting to become a problem; he spends too long after the dream barely leaving his room, jumping at every noise that could mean his death, pacing back and forth in agitation when his inability to leave the house becomes unbearable.

It takes maybe a month of quiet terror before he is finally able to tell Steve, though not from lack of trying. Steve knows him well enough that when Bucky tells him not to ask he doesn’t, though he can see how tense he is as the weeks go on and Bucky still won’t leave the house. Finally, he wakes up one morning after downing half a bottle of jack the night before and is confronted with Steve, eyes watery, hands shaking, and even though he can’t remember he knows that he must have told him.

Bucky’s head hurts and he feels like he’ll puke, but he pushes it to the side for a moment, manages to sit up and pull him into his arms. Steve lets out a desperate sob against his chest and Bucky hushes him, strokes his fingers through Steve’s hair and realizes, maybe for the first time, that this isn’t just going to affect him. If he goes, if he dies and leaves Steve then Steve will be alone for an infinite amount of time, or even if he obtains a permanent death at some point he’ll still have to live a dozen, a hundred, a thousand possible lives on his own before that happens. Bucky shivers at the thought and holds Steve closer.

After a while Steve manages to pull himself together enough that he can sit back, rubbing at his eyes, then kiss the corner of Bucky’s mouth with the barest brush of his lips.

“We’ll fix this.” Steve says, big hands cradling Bucky’s face, “I can fix this.”

 

8. Through a silver storm

He’s lived more than a thousand lives by the time he first experiences not feeling right in the skin he’s born in. He’s the son of a king, dubbed ‘the doll prince’ by media obsessed with his soft face and clear blue eyes, so different from the rest of his family-- all dark hair and harsh features, blue blood almost visible beneath their skin.

When he goes missing at the age of fourteen the public is notably distraught. His face is plastered across the news, an unwelcome reminder of what had likely happened to a boy that looked as he did. There are speculations of revenge or ransom, but no demands are ever made, so thoughts flit back to his pretty face, and no one says a thing.

It never crosses their minds that maybe the prince just-- ran away. Why would it? He had the perfect childhood, days filled with people fawning over his pretty features, how soft spoken he was, how lovely. Dignitaries politely suggesting he meet their daughters, discussion over his head of how many hearts he’d break. At fourteen his sisters loath him for the love that he takes from them (the love that he never wanted).

-

The first time his father hit him it had been when he’d found James smearing his mother’s blush on his cheekbones, draped in a soft cotton dress he’d taken from one of his sisters wardrobes. His father had clenched his fists, jaw twitching, and said,

“Get that off. Now James, then come down to dinner.” And James had said No, why can’t I wear this?

And: Don’t call me James.

The first time his father hit him his hand was closed in a fist. The first time his father hit him he knocked James’ last baby tooth free like an omen and, knuckles smeared bloody, he’d hissed,

“You are not a child anymore.” His father was wrong about many things, but not that.

The first time his father hit him was also the last. James was gone before sundown.

-

Anatoliy finds them half-starved in the woods four miles out of town. The first thing he asks for is a name, so--

Janna, she tells him, shaking. But anticipated laughter does not come, and neither does recognition. Anatoliy introduces himself, wraps a blanket around Janna’s shoulders and asks for another thing.

“Promise me,” he says, pulling a bag of berries from his pocket and pouring some into her hand, careful not to spill any. “Promise you’ll say yes, when the time comes.” She doesn’t understand what he means till much, much later. But in the meantime she nods, thanks him for the berries and watches him as his red hair disappears into the undergrowth.

She pours the berries into her mouth and falls asleep with a name on her tongue.

-

Janna feels thick with sleep when she wakes. Her eyelids are heavy and her chest heaves with each labored breath. There is a crunch of leaves underfoot and she raises her head, groggy, to see a boy not much older than she is, staring at her with wide eyes as blue as her own.

“Hi,” she croaks, her throat dry with-- what-- oh. The berries.

“Hello,” the boy says, interrupting her thoughts, “I’m Stefan.”

“Janna,” she says, testing it on her tongue. It’s not any easier to say the second time round.

“You’re the prince right? Boy like you shouldn’t be in the woods on your own.” Stefan says.

Suddenly brave, she says, “I’m a girl,” and Stefan tilts his head in confusion while he scrutinizes her face. She keeps her eyes fixed on his, waiting, and finally he shrugs.

“Okay. You wanna help me catch some squirrels?”

-

Her breathing is picking up, heart thudding against her chest hard enough that it feels like it’s bruising. She chances a glance behind her, sees some movement a few yards back and pushes herself to go faster, turning just in time to catch sight of a low hanging branch and ducks. Only she’s not quick enough for that to actually work and ends up sprawled on her back in the mud. Someone flicks her between the eyes.

“Stupid. You should watch where you’re going.”

“Fuck you.” She grunts, aiming for irritated but evidently not quite making it, since Stefan just drops to the floor and settles with his knees bracketing her hips, hands coming up to cradle her face.

“If you’d like to.” He says, grinning like the devil he is. She knees him in the stomach. He groans and rolls off her onto his back, allowing her to swap their positions and straddle him.

“Stupid,” Janna says, “You should watch your soft spots.”

Ngh, did you have to do it quite so hard?” Stefan retorts, hands coming up to grip her waist even as he’s grimacing in pain.

“Absolutely, you should know better than to leave yourself vulnerable to an attack as simple as that, Stefan. I’m only trying to help you learn.” Stefan stares at her for a second, before cracking a wry grin.

“I must thank you, then, princess, for helping me so kindly,” he says, smirking as she attempts to roll her eyes while her cheeks flush pink at the pet-name (he knows what it does to her, the bastard). She slumps forward till her arms fall on either side of Stefan’s head and kisses him, soft and easy. They stay that way for a while, till the sun begins to shine through the trees overhead and Stefan pushes himself to sitting.

“As much as I’d like to stay here kissing you, mama actually sent me to fetch you so we can go sell some stuff at the market. We shouldn’t leave it too late.” he says, and she notices for the first time the bag of food he’d left by the tree behind them. She presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth then stands, pulling him up with her.

She is twenty and her family is just Stefan and his mama and the goats out back, but they love her as she is, not as what they want her to be. She takes their love and curls it around her like an armor on the days her skin feels too tight (too rough, bristles on her chin and calluses on her fingers that Stefan helps her smooth away with blades for the former and home-made creams on the latter), she remembers that Stefan doesn't care if she's not as much of a girl as she wishes she could be, if she smears Sarah's lipstick on her lips even on the days she has more facial hair than Stefan does. And that helps her not care.

 -

It should be dangerous going into town, but her hair has grown into curls that fall to her shoulders, and her cheeks and chin have become rounded with good food, softening her features even more so. It means she'd not have to worry about people thinking she's even a boy, let alone the lost prince-- after all, who would expect to see the kings son six years after his kidnapping, only a town over and dressed like a peasant's daughter? Her father, maybe, after the last interaction between them, but even in the unlikely event that he leave the palace, ("Mud," he'd often say, "Does not go well with my boots.") Janna doubts he'd even want to have her back, not as she is now. She feels a vindictive sort of pleasure in that.

So. A good mix of willful ignorance and little interaction with the townspeople outside of customers lends itself to keeping her hidden. The closest she’s ever come to being found out was when a stable boy had slid a hand up her skirt in one of the local bars one night, fingers dangerously high up her thigh. Janna’s resulting panic had lead to a full blown bar brawl that Stefan had pulled her from, limping with a cracked rib and a split lip that kept re-opening every time she grinned at Stefan, but the stable boy was knocked out on the floor without finding out her secret so she counted that as a win.

-

The day is relatively uneventful; they sell a good amount of stock, and the weather is good, so they can wander the streets afterwards, buy some berries from another stall to eat on their walk home. Then a poster tacked to the wall catches her eye. It’s advertising for local men to sign up to become a guard at the palace, claims that the places are limited, but the benefits bountiful, which she doesn’t doubt. Her old family haven’t ever been entirely in the public’s favor and it’s an obvious that this is an attempt to change that. She turns to Stefan, meaning to laugh at it with him, but what she sees makes her pause. Because Stefan has a look on his face that he only gets when he’s made his mind up about something, specifically something foolish that he knows Janna will try to stop him doing.

“Don’t even think it,” Janna says, poking his chest, “Don’t you even fucking think it, Stef, I swear to god.” Except then he turns guilty eyes on hers, jaw twitching, and she knows that he’s already made his mind up. Fuck.

Stefan gets the job, because of course he does, he’s likeable and he’s strong as an ox, they’d have been stupid to turn him down. He works for them for a few months without issue until one day he comes home with an invitation crumpled in his hands and a pleading expression on his face.

“It’s a masquerade ball, no one will know it’s you,” he says, fingers tilting Janna’s chin up to catch her eyes, “I wouldn’t ask if I had another option, princess. They told me to bring my wife along.” And she’d argue with him, shove him, point out how foolish it is, except then she notices his wording. She sighs.

“Wife, huh? I feel like that’s the sort of thing you share, Stefan.” Janna says it just to watch a slow blush crawl its way up his neck, his eyelashes flutter.

“It wasn’t--” he starts, falters, “I know we can’t, I mean it’s just easier to--” she interrupts him with a kiss, just at the crease of his mouth where it tilts up into a smile, then another on his lips.

“Don’t panic, I was just messing with you. I know you’d marry me if you could.” She runs her fingers up the soft edge of his jaw, through his hair. “But I can’t do it Stefan, I can’t go back there. I’m sorry.” She says, curls in against his chest to avoid seeing his disappointment.

She lays awake for a long time that night, mind filled with memories of the palace ballroom, of women in beautiful dresses that flutter round them that she’d wanted so desperately to have for herself. When she dreams, it’s of silken fabrics stained with red berries, and of Anatoliy, so long ago now, saying promise you’ll say yes.

When she wakes Stefan is watching her carefully like he does when she has nightmares, but Janna understands.

“I guess,” she says, stifling a yawn against his chest, “I guess you’re going to have to find me a dress then.” And Stefan’s smile is blinding.

Sarah is not so enthusiastic as Stefan (who immediately sets about spending far too much money finding clothes for them both to wear, new makeup for Janna to use), bemused and a little worried for them both, but ultimately she agrees that they can go after a quiet discussion with Stefan that she can’t help but overhear. Sarah does not fall for his pleading eyes like Janna does, but she does love her like her own child, and when he tells her how much it’d mean to Janna, she folds with a sigh and a wry grin.

“You’re a good boy Stefan. Just-- life has made Janna hard, and maybe it’s time she be soft for once. Maybe you can protect her while she does that?” Sarah says. Stefan hugs her gratefully, says thank you mama, and yes, I will, I promise.

-

The month passes quickly, filled with long days at work to pay for the clothes, late nights practicing the dances required of them (not that they need to, they’ve danced since they were kids, and they’re good. Stefan just thinks they should be the best). The ball is a fortnight away when Stefan comes home late from work one night, cheeks flushed with excitement, paper-wrapped packages clutched in his hands. Janna narrows her eyes.

“What did you do?” she asks, but Stefan just shakes his head, hands her the largest parcel to unwrap. She peels it open with shaky hands, finds inside a gown; basque and skirt made of beautiful golden silk, then underneath that a dark leaf green cloak with delicate gold leaves embroidered across it. Then Stefan hands her a mask, a green so dark it’s almost black, with gold ribbon to tie.

She stares, for a while. Until Stefan starts to look worried like maybe he’d picked out something she didn’t like, except that’s wrong. She sets the dress down carefully on the dining table, moves around so she can take Stefan’s hands in her own, grip tight, and say,

“I love you, you know that? I love you so goddamn much.” She repeats it until she begins to weep, until Stefan does too, a little, and they stay like that for a while. Then Stefan shifts a little on his feet, spots of color high on his cheeks when he gestures at the smaller parcel on the table.

“There’s more if you wanted to open that,” he says, so she does-- abruptly understanding the flush on Stefan’s cheeks. Her fingers find a soft brassiere made of cream silk, then matching briefs, stockings, even a corset to help with the illusion of a waist. It’s all beautiful, and probably cost far more than they can afford, but she pushes that out of her mind for the moment in favor of gathering it all to her chest and turning back to Stefan.

“I think maybe I should try it on to see if it all fits. Would you like to help?” She says, not waiting for an answer before moving past him to their bedroom. She knows he’ll follow.

He comes up behind her once she’s naked, takes the brassiere from her hands and helps her into it, fastening it and spreading his hands over the expanse of her back, fingers careful-- he’s always so careful with her. She tilts her head to smile at him over her shoulder, notices that he’s hard, but ignores it for now. Stefan is quiet while he dresses her. The only sounds are his breathing, slowly picking up, and the soft rustle of fabric as he helps her into the corset, pulling the laces as tight as he can without hurting her.

He drops to his knees then, smiles as her own cock twitches with interest. His breath is warm against her skin when he leans forward to pull on the briefs, then the stockings, smoothing them up her calves and thighs till they are in place.

“Step back a little,” he says, eyes clear and bright as he watches her, “Let me look at you.” So she does, smiles down at him with her hips cocked, and when he reaches a hand out to stroke her thigh through the soft nylon quickly steps out of his reach.

“They fit nicely, Stef. But I think I should take them off, wouldn’t want to ruin the pretty fabric.” Janna says. Stefan flops backward with a groan.

-

The air is cool and sharp against their skin on the night of the ball. Janna tugs the soft velvet of her cape closer to her chest, presses a finger to her reddened lips and adjusts the mask one last time.

“Ready,” she tells Stefan, gripping the fabric of his coat a little desperately between her fingers when he offers her his arm. He nods, and they follow the other guests into the room.

They mingle and chat with the men that Steve works with and their wives, avoiding the royalty for the most part just as a precaution. Not that it matters, since Janna knows how she looks right now, knows there is no way in hell anyone could ever think of her as anything else other than what she is. And she can see, when the music picks up and they begin to dance, that people are looking, knows that they are beautiful together and they are drawing glances and she should feel worried but she’s not.

She’s vindictively happy in fact, especially when she catches a glimpse of the king half way through the night, looking so much older than when she saw him last, and his brow furrows ever so slightly but he doesn’t recognize her. Stefan spins her then, dips her low and she throws back her head and laughs and laughs and she thinks that she’s so so glad she said yes.

She remembers when she’d been cold and lost and Stefan had asked her if she’d wanted to hunt squirrels-- and she realizes, abruptly, that maybe the yes Anatoliy had been talking about was thatone.

-

In the distant future when her bones creak and her hair has faded white, she falls into bed with Stefan after a long day of work. And then:

She finds herself dreaming. Leaves crunch underfoot and she’s running, not away from anything but towards someone. Who? There’s a name on the tip of her tongue. Her fingers are stained purple.

She sleeps.

 

V.

Bucky makes a friend. Steve is off doing-- whatever it is he’s been doing so much recently. Research, Bucky thinks, though he’s not sure how since it’s unlikely there’s any books in the library on their unique problem. Anyway, Bucky is in a coffee shop overdosing on too-sweet caffeine, only there because Steve had talked to him the previous night about facing his fears or something. (Bucky had dozed off halfway through, but he understands the gist of it. He’s been hiding away in their house for a long time now, too long, and really it doesn’t matter if he’s in the house or not when he dies.)

He shouldn’t be scared of leaving the house, none of the humans seem to be, and their lives are so short. But as much as he tells himself that, he’s still shaking with terror, with the desperate need to make himself move so he can get back to the house where it’s safe, literally only a five minute walk away but he needs to move to do that, which apparently isn’t happening any time soon.

So. He’s been sitting in the same spot with the last dregs of his cold coffee for maybe two hours when someone clears their throat above him.

“May I sit?” He looks up, sees a beautiful woman with dark, kind eyes, smiling down at him. He nods mutely, watches her sit gracefully, crossing her legs and resting her hands on the table: nonthreatening. She reminds him of a friend of Steve’s in another life (he wants to laugh. Of all the human lives to end on it couldn’t have been the one where he had a metal arm and Steve wore tights) and he relaxes, ever so slightly. Her presence is calming.

“I noticed you’ve been sitting there for a while, ah-” she pauses, waits.

“James Barnes,” he says, tucking his shaking fingers under his thighs.

“James, then. I’m Sarah, a psychiatrist at the hospital just across the road and saw that youseemed to be having a little trouble. Did you need some help? Would you like me to call someone for you?” she asks him. He doesn’t answer for a little while, thinks about finally managing to get up but going back to the empty house and feeding Marlow and just. Sitting there, till Steve gets home. But the idea of calling him home from work just because Bucky doesn’t want to be by himself is even worse, so instead he grits his teeth against the steady wash of panic and says,

“No. But could you maybe-- speak. To me? For a bit.”

“Of course I can James.” Sarah says gladly, “Have you heard about the current medical research into Atropa Belladonna? It’s a type of poisonous--

She talks at him for a long time, until his mind is calm and he’s relaxed, until he can eventually begin to join in the conversation with her. When he’s finally able to stand and get himself home, she gives him her number and tells him to call her if he ever needs to talk.

 

9. Scream of nations echoing affinity

Sometimes they talk about morality, discuss the benefits of being good people, what that means to them. For the most part, they live their lives relatively neutral. They don’t go out of their way to do bad things, but neither do they try exceptionally hard to do good. They are too wrapped up in each other usually, their focus so insular that other beings -whose lives are so different than their own it’s almost incomprehensible- aren’t hugely important to them. Obviously there are exceptions though; you live as long as they have and your whole goddamn life becomes an exception.

So every so often they stumble into a life that provides them with different genetics, specific environments, or particular people to nurture their less favorable characteristics. Steve is selfish, sometimes, when his need to protect Bucky or to be with him overtakes his need to be good. He’s also got anger in him (Bucky usually meeting him step for step with his own bitterness) and righteousness, regardless of whether he’s actually right or not. Not the worst personality flaws, not usually at least. It just takes the right set of circumstances and--

They are both girls this time round. They grow up in an orphanage together, go through school together, run away with each other, share their first love with each other (discover they're more interested in girls together), and end up, without much of a protest on their part, in a motel room smeared with blood. It is not their own.

Stella (to Bucky’s ‘Becky’) crouches down to wipe the spray of blood from her glasses with the dead man’s shirt, then replaces them with a huff.

“We were too messy. This is going to be a bitch to clean up,” she says, pulling on some rubber gloves. Becky stares at her from under her bangs, eyebrows raised incredulously.

“We? Babe, there was no we about this one,” Becky says, reaching out to pick some flakes of dried blood from Stella’s hair, wipes her hand on Stella’s shirt, “That, was all you.” Stella grimaces.

“Okay I may have got a little carried away with that one. I just. Just can’t deal with that shit-” she waves a hand at the pornography they’d found under dead guy’s mattress. It’s awful shit, not remotely legal. Becky has an idea.

“Maybe we should leave this one for the cops to find,” Becky says. Stella’s mouth twists downward in a frown.

“You know I’m not in this for the fame, Becky.”

“No, no. That isn’t what I mean. I just think that if we keep killing them and getting rid of their bodies, people assume robbery or mistresses or something. But if people see them for what they are then maybe we can use it as a warning to others,” she says. Stella chews at the inside of her cheek, mulling it over.

“To prevent other guys doing the same shit? Scare them into not acting?” she asks, and her eyes go bright with excitement, “You know that’s-- that might just be the best idea you’ve ever had, Beck.”

-

An unidentified female tips off the police about some commotion in a house, doesn’t give her name. Then other calls start to trickle in; an elderly neighbor calls 911 about red smears on the front door of 47, something scattered across the garden that she can’t quite make out; a man walking his dog calls, shaken, to tell them about a blood smeared door, and pornography littering the garden. When the police arrive they find nothing out of place through the whole house, not until they reach the bedroom.

There they find Mr Mitchell’s body cut up and laid out on his bed, pornography half pulled out of drawers and his internet history open for them to see exactly why the murder had occurred. A post-it note is stuck to computer screen, just says: You're Welcome.

-

As much as Becky wishes they could stay and watch the cops’ reactions from afar, people from the suburbs are nosy, and despite how meticulous Stella is, she isn’t infallible. There is always the risk that they’ll be found out. Thing is, she knows how the news would portray them if they got wind that two girls were killing men; they’d be dubbed ‘those lesbian man haters’ or something, and people would dig into their past, the orphanage, to figure out what horrors there made them what they are.

Thing is. Thing is, they’d only be half wrong. Nothing bad happened to them at the orphanage, not at all. It was what had happened to the other girls that helped flick the switch from anger to hatred (to blind fury). They were never adopted, Stella too volatile, no matter how sweet she looked, and Becky was too intensely protective of Stella to even consider letting themselves be separated. The only time they’d tried, Becky’s foster parents had ended up with a dead cat on the porch and the back door slamming shut behind her as she snuck out and back to the orphanage. They didn’t try again-- turns out foster parents aren’t looking for kids that kill their pets.

So they were never adopted or fostered, but never really had anything to complain about either; aside from the fights that Stella got into, and the one incident with the cat, they were pretty good kids for the most part, and the women who worked at the orphanage let them be. The other girls, not so much. The sweet girls, the pretty ones who would make perfect daughters, they tended to be adopted relatively fast, and were never seen again. Except sometimes they were, and they paid attention to the girls, and noticed how they looked when they came back, how changed they often were. Becky would often sit with the girls, chatting softly, while Stella went to argue with the women in charge. Who, more often than not, shrugged at the accusations and said ‘the girls haven’t said anything’.

Which means that when Stella is eighteen and pushed out into the world with barely a pat on her back, dragging Becky along with her, they need to come up with a way of getting money. Becky’s idea was only the logical next step, really. Who’d miss an old abusive father? So they started with the men they knew from the orphanage, the worst of them, the ones that sent the girls back with bruises on their skin and the light gone from their eyes.

They find them and they watch them for a while, then Becky usually slips poison into their coffee, takes as much money as she can find while she waits for them to die and Stella to cut them up into pieces and dispose of them however she felt was best. (The last time Becky was in charge of bodies she’d tried to push the pieces down the trash disposal. Needless to say, it hadn’t been pretty).

They do manage to go a long time without getting caught. They are in a motel room when it happens, curled up under bed covers against the frigid air. Then suddenly there’s lights and noise and a voice calling for them to come out with their hands above their heads. They stare at each other, breathless, for just a moment. Then they’re moving, getting dressed, grinning wide and feral.

“So, you know that film we watched the other month,” Stella says, pocketing a knife.

“Don’t say it,” Becky replies.

“Okay but, that film, what was it called?” she prompts.

“Bonnie and Clyde,” Becky answers, ignores the increasingly loud shouting from outside.

“Right,” Stella says. She comes forward to press a quick kiss to Becky’s mouth, “So. Bonnie and Clyde, yeah?” Becky huffs and tugs on Stella’s ponytail, says,

“You’re a goddamn cliché, you know that?” But ultimately: “Yeah, Stel. We can do that.”

Becky gets a vague sense of deja vu when she follows Stella through the doorway, like maybe she’s done this before, followed her into death. She wouldn’t be surprised.