And my blade is sharp
A bad combination
In the dark
--The Black Keys (Sinister Kid)
Recently acquired domesticity aside, most of the time Bucky was still the soldier. He had been the soldier a hell of a lot longer than he had been Bucky Barnes, and though Bucky’s memories ran deep and some of them had come to the surface as he passed his days—and nights—in Steve Rogers’s company, the soldier remained right there. So close you barely had to scratch the surface to find him looking back at you.
The soldier knew he was a captive even if his jailer didn’t know it. He regularly checked the rooms of Steve’s apartment for bugs and destroyed them, checked for cameras and did the same, and he almost never found them anymore. It was to be expected; every tiny microphone, chip and tiny camera he destroyed was costing someone somewhere a lot of money. Even clandestine spy organizations like those Fury had his fingers in couldn’t continue to rationalize the expense of such surveillance indefinitely.
It did not make them safe. Steve thought it meant they were safe when Bucky didn’t find anything hidden in the landline phone or tucked behind the fire alarm in the bedroom, but the soldier knew it meant no such thing. If it meant anything at all, it meant that they were coming down to the wire. It meant that a more lethal solution to the Winter Soldier problem would soon become necessary. Bucky put himself in Nick Fury’s shoes and he knew what Nick Fury would do if he couldn’t watch the soldier or listen to the soldier or in any other way track and monitor the soldier’s behavior; he would send operatives to kill the soldier. It was the most logical and expedient solution to the problem because the problem was trust and no one trusted Bucky Barnes these days. Bucky Barnes was in a position to compromise their star-spangled hero.
Overall assessment of current threat level was therefore difficult to quantify. Impending doom, was Bucky’s analysis of his own current situation. He smiled just a little in the dark and wondered how long he would have to wait until they came for him.
The only logical reason why no one had yet been sent to neutralize the soldier was that his death also risked compromising Captain America. He had survived it once and remained strong because he had still had much reason to fight, but it was unlikely that he would continue to function in a normal and productive way if such a thing were to reoccur at this date and time. There were too many other stressors involved; time displacement, loss of all other social and familial attachments, culture shock and mild PTSD among the most obvious.
And betrayal. Steve would feel himself betrayed by the only people he viewed as his friends in this new century.
There was a very good chance that if Bucky were to be killed, Captain America would become useless to his country.
Neutralization of codename Winter Soldier therefore would require mitigating pretext.
Bucky tried to be afraid of dying and utterly failed. Fear was useful in the average citizen; it kept them alive. Fear was not useful in an operative like the Winter Soldier. Fear had been one of the first things to go in the scrap pile during his programming. He remembered fear, but he did not experience it.
Strike that. He remembered Steve on the helicarrier. Steve so earnest. Steve begging Bucky to know him, to remember him, to remember himself. Don’t make me do this. Fear had been inside him then. Followed by rage. Blind rage. But then fear again, still, fueling the rage… then tempering it. He hadn’t been afraid of anything in a very long time until Steve.
Bucky shifted in the chair where he was sitting, looking out the window into the nighttime city. In the glass his reflection looked back at him; unshaven jaw, long hair pulled back from his face, eyes dark and deep. In the next room, Steve was sleeping, blissfully oblivious to where Bucky’s mind was at.
Steve; the sleeping jailer. Bucky; the big, mean guard dog.
Steve seemed to be the only man alive who did not view their current living conditions in this manner.
SHIELD was dead, but at its heart HYDRA had thrived for a very long time. Long enough to teach SHIELD the way of turning one severed head into many more. Bucky didn’t trust Fury or his friends and agents, the Avengers, those people Steve Rogers now counted among his friends. They were the only ones who knew definitively that the Winter Soldier was alive and well, living with Steve Rogers in his D.C. apartment and someone had to have ordered the surveillance. Steve was a public figure though, and he considered that. Steve wasn’t just the scrappy kid from Brooklyn who was too dumb to know when to walk (or run) away from a fight anymore, he was a celebrity. He was Captain America, Avenger, protector of the world, a 21st century Lazarus.
Captain America occasionally ventured out in public with Bucky beside him. Bucky had taken to accompanying him on his daily run. Sometimes they went for walks, talking about the past or what was new in the world or what had changed or not changed. Mostly Steve talked about the past. Bucky’s past was bloody and painful. He had more of it between 1945 and the present than Steve did. They had both been put on ice, but Steve hadn’t had anyone to wake him, plug him in, program him with a mission, point him at the target and fire. They didn’t often talk about that though. It was possible—even likely—that there were others out there who knew that someone was secretly living with Steve when Bucky considered that 99.9% of everybody had a cell phone with a camera in it attached to their hand. Even possible that some of those people would have figured out who, no matter how unbelievable it might seem, that was.
So, perhaps it wasn’t Fury or one of his minions watching and listening. But it seemed most likely. Ockham’s razor was a truth he had often found merit in and it was, after all, the simplest answer.
Restlessly, Bucky stood and paced in front of the windows. He knew that in another life, he would have lit a cigarette and sat in the open window smoking it over the fire escape. Bucky had picked up a smoking habit in the military that he had not passed on to the Winter Soldier. The soldier had never had leisure time to develop such a useless habit. In another life he might have also lay in bed beside Steve when he couldn’t sleep himself until the sun came up. He would have watched him sleep and wondered what he dreamed about.
Do you think of me? he thought, aimless pacing becoming steps with more purpose. Do you hear the wind howling like a wolf in your mind before you drift off? I do.
He found himself standing in the open doorway of the bedroom looking in at Steve with no clear memory of deciding to go there. He leaned against the doorframe and stared at Steve asleep on the bed. There was light outside filtering yellow and sickly through the thin white curtains, drawing golden lines through the blinds over Steve’s sleeping face. Over his back. Over the sheets and the mattress, across the floor to mere inches from the toe of Bucky’s left boot.
It’s a cold wind, he thought. It’s a frosty alpine wind, Steve. It tastes just like adrenaline and snow and a little bit like you.
A ridiculous and sentimental idea, but very true all the same.
Perhaps it was different for Steve though. Perhaps Steve dreamed about Peggy Carter before he drifted off to dream. Young, beautiful Peggy with her crimson lips and her flashy scarlet dress. Peggy with a go to hell shine in her eyes and a gun in her hand, her aim true.
Either way, sad dreams to be sure.
But maybe Steve dreamed about other things. Puppies and footprints in the sand and the smell of leather and the Dodgers in May.
If Bucky could dream that way, he would have slept more than he did.
He knew that he should leave Steve. He had known it for a long time. Almost from the start. By staying with him, he forced Steve to make a choice; Bucky or everyone else. It wasn’t fair and Bucky had found himself caring about such things lately. At least regarding Steve. It was selfish to stay with him. Bucky had never been a selfless person though, not in any aspect; his heart rebelled against the idea even as his quick, efficient killer’s cruel mind calculated the cost and found it to be too great.
So far, his heart was still winning that debate.
He set the coffee pot to brew and went back down the hall to shower and change.
The past months had not been blissful, so it was a good thing Steve had never set himself up for domestic bliss; he would have doomed them from the start. He could hardly complain though. Whatever he had—whatever they had—it was a hundred times better than the alternative. He’d lived through that alternative already, and though it had been brief, at least for Steve, it had cracked him open like a raw egg.
Still, when he woke up early before the sun had even begun to lighten the sky and found himself alone, Bucky slipped away quietly to God alone knew where, Steve couldn’t help feeling like it was all some monumentally cruel joke. The joke was on him. Here was Bucky, this stranger inside the body of the person he loved most in the world. This man, this soldier wearing Bucky’s face like a mask, his skin like a shroud, speaking with his voice… touching with his body. Was he even the man Steve had known at all anymore? He wasn’t alone in asking that question, he knew, but in the beginning, it had been easier to say yes.
He still believed it, and maybe he believed it mostly because he needed to, but then he’d ask himself, Does it matter?
No. It did not matter. He loved him still.
Bucky remembered most things now. He still wasn’t the same. He had fought their brainwashing and conditioning from the start. He had still been fighting it even after he’d been so destroyed by it all that he would lie docilely back, open his mouth and not fight the restraints. Inside, he was fighting. Left alone long enough, his memories returned and, like the rest of him, the serum that had made him like Steve accelerated the healing of his brain. So he was Bucky, but he was Bucky after seventy years of hell. After seventy years of experimentation and torture. Seventy years of being “the asset”, a tool that’s only major function was to kill as efficiently as possible. He had outgrown the man Steve had known as a boy.
Steve had rarely ever wanted to kill anyone like he wanted to kill someone for all the damage that had been done to Bucky. He had killed before, but he believed in his heart that they had all been bad people and that he’d had no choice. If he could resurrect Zola or Pierce or any of the other faceless others who had manipulated and shaped Bucky into the Winter Soldier, Steve thought he might happily murder them all.
The scientists and agents who had kept Bucky all the years Steve was frozen and thought dead had twisted him, but they hadn’t unraveled him. The man who slept beside him was still Bucky, he was just Bucky washed up on the shore of the world after an apocalyptic storm. He’d had to evolve to survive. They had made him believe for years that he wasn’t even a person. He didn’t believe that anymore, but Steve still remembered how it was in the beginning after he found Bucky dozing outside his door.
There was no guidebook for this. There was no manual. He was feeling his way along in the dark, hoping not to step on a landmine.
The apartment smelled like coffee when Steve was finished with his shower. Through the door, he could hear the alarm clock across the hall beeping shrilly. He stood in front of the sink and wiped condensation off the mirror with the swipe of a hand. As he stepped up to the sink, he noticed a few long, dark hairs laying on the edge of the counter. There was more hair, a lot of it, in the little trashcan on the floor.
Bucky had cut his hair off at some time in the night. He sometimes did that when it got too long. He never cut it short, never went to a barber for a haircut, but when it got long enough that it became an annoyance, he would gather it into a ponytail with one hand, take up the scissors in the other and cut it off.
Steve found it charmingly eccentric of him, though he was aware most people wouldn’t see it that way.
He smiled to himself and brushed the few hairs off the sink into the trash with the rest.
He drank his coffee and ate eggs and toast sitting on a barstool at the counter while he thought about Bucky and wondered where he’d gone. Where did he go when he slipped out like this? He never left a note and he never volunteered to explain it when Steve saw him again. Steve had almost asked him before, but he always stopped and changed his mind. He wasn’t afraid of Bucky and Bucky would tell him, he was sure, if he asked, but he was afraid. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know where Bucky went in the latest hours of the night.
It worried Steve that whatever it was, it might have something to do with HYDRA. Something left over from all the brainwashing, hypnotherapy, conditioning, sleep deprivation, torture and entire decades spent in cryogenic suspension. Steve was rarely surprised by how screwed up Bucky was. After some of the things Bucky had told him, he would have been more surprised if Bucky had easily bounced back from it all. So he worried that whatever was taking him out of the apartment in the middle of the night two and three times a week could be connected to that. Zola had done a real number on him. The tradition had been passed down once he was gone. It was not impossible that Bucky was still responding subconsciously to some sort of programmed or conditioned imperative buried deep in his mind and that scared Steve. If that was the case, did he really want to know?
Could Bucky still be out there taking assignments? Assassinating people?
Steve doubted it. It wasn’t that he didn’t think HYDRA capable of such insidious subterfuge; he knew better than almost anyone how capable they were. HYDRA wasn’t gone either. SHIELD was dead, but HYDRA survived out there somewhere still. They had become powerful by knowing when to bide their time. HYDRA knew how to play the long game. But if Bucky had still been their puppet, Steve would be dead. It wouldn’t even be difficult for him. All he would have to do was take him by surprise; move in close, hold him down like he sometimes did, then crush his throat with his unyielding inhuman hand when Steve leaned in for a kiss.
Bucky still hadn’t come home when Steve left to go for his run. He jogged downtown to the park and ran laps like he did most every morning until the sun rose and the sidewalks started to fill up with people. He met Sam and they ran together for a while, then they walked to a diner they liked, took a table in the back and ordered coffee. Sam also ordered oatmeal and fruit.
While they waited, he looked at Steve, who was gazing out the window at people passing by. “You doing all right?” he asked.
“Sure,” Steve said. He glanced over and caught Sam eyeing him doubtfully. He sighed. “I’m fine.” He shrugged. “You know how it is.”
“I know how it is,” Sam confirmed. “That’s why I ask. I mean, aside from the whole frozen for sixty-odd years time travel thing and brainwashed psycho boyfriend thing, I know how it is.” Sam cleared his throat and looked amused. “That’s why I ask.”
Steve huffed out a laugh. “Recovering brainwashed psycho,” he corrected. He sipped his coffee. “He’s recovering.”
“Right. So, is that recovering like you recover from pneumonia or recovering like ‘My name’s Bucky and I’m a recovering alcoholic’?” Sam asked.
“What’s the difference?” Steve asked.
“Alcoholics are always recovering,” Sam said. “They don’t ever recover.”
“Oh,” Steve said. He frowned and looked back out the window.
“I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean to—”
“No. No, it’s okay.” Steve drank more of his coffee and made himself smile for Sam. Sam didn’t look like he was buying it, but he let it slide. “I never really went through the combat fatigue or uh… I guess it’s called something else now, but you know what I mean.”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” Sam said. “PTSD.”
“Right,” Steve said. “I never went home though, so I never had any post anything. Neither did Bucky. Then what happened… well, happened. So I think maybe… I think maybe that’s all it is. Mostly. I mean, what happened to him, it’s got to be even worse than the war and the war was bad enough.”
“Something’s wrong though, huh?” Sam asked. He hadn’t touched his own coffee yet and it wasn’t steaming anymore. “Something’s going on or you wouldn’t be thinking about it and all distracted and shit like you are.”
“It’s nothing,” Steve said. “He just… He doesn’t sleep much. I mean, neither of us do, but he sleeps less. Sometimes he’s gone when I get up in the morning. I don’t know where he goes.”
“Maybe he’s just walking. You know, clearing his head,” Sam said. “Some guys have a hard time sleeping. Not just because of the bed being soft, but because of other things. You’re vulnerable when you’re sleeping. Anything can happen. Some guys have night terrors and nightmares and things, but some get insomnia.”
“You think that could be it?” Steve asked, hopeful.
Sam shook his head. “Hell if I know, but it’s possible. You ask him about it?”
“You think he’d lie?”
“No, I just… I don’t know if I want to know.”
Sam raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s the worst it could be?”
“I don’t know.”
The waitress brought Sam’s breakfast and the conversation turned to other, less serious things after that. Sam asked about Peggy Carter and Steve said he should go visit her; it had been a while. Steve asked about Sam’s veterans group and Sam none-too-subtly hinted that Steve should attend. It might help.
Steve was willing to admit that it might, but he wouldn’t go, so he made no promises.
After breakfast, Sam had to go to work, so Steve caught a cab across town to the nursing home where Peggy lived. He bought flowers at a stand before he went in, purple daisies.
The nurse at the desk smiled at him sympathetically when he came in. “She’s sleeping,” she said. “She hasn’t been well.”
“All right. Can I just leave the flowers?” Steve asked. “I won’t wake her up.”
“Sure. It’s okay. If she wakes up, maybe…” The nurse shook her head. “She’d be sorry to miss you. She doesn’t have a lot of people.”
Steve nodded and went on down the hallway to Peggy’s room. The nurse was both right and not; if Peggy was in her right mind, she would be sorry she’d missed his visit, but if she wasn’t—as was the case more and more—she wouldn’t even know to miss him. If she wasn’t in her right mind, Steve was usually still dead to her and had been for seventy years. If she wasn’t in her right mind, Steve was someone she had mourned and put to rest.
He wasn’t quite sure which was better for her at this point.
He threw out the flowers he had brought her the last time—pink carnations that had dried up and started to turn brown around the edges—and replaced them with the daisies. Peggy was asleep on her back with her head turned toward the wall away from the window light. The curtains were drawn and the blinds were closed and she was a frail, quiet thing in the bed, a shallow silhouette of the vibrant woman he had known and loved.
He sat down in the chair by the window and looked at her. It made him sad and she seemed tired more often when he came to visit. She was not long for the world and he knew it. With her passing, one of the last few relics left still tethering him to the world he’d been born into would pass with her.
Looking at Peggy in the bed, smaller than he remembered, quiet and still and ancient, he sometimes experienced a surreal sensation of confusion and he wondered if it was anything like what Bucky felt when he said he sometimes caught himself looking at Steve, convinced that there was too much of him. Peggy had lived a life, from all accounts, a good, long life, but for Steve, that time was a snap of the fingers. For Steve, she had gone from being a beautiful, vivacious young woman, a force to be reckoned with, to a weary husk of a creature it hurt his heart to look upon, and it had happened in a blink.
It had to be strange to her as well. Steve gone, a hero dying too young, then in the twilight of her life, returned to her much, much too late, exactly the same. He was ninety-five and he was twenty-seven. She was dying now of old age and he was only really getting started.
Peggy made a soft sighing sound in the bed, an indrawn breath as she came awake, and turned her head on the pillow. Steve met her eyes and sat tensely, waiting to see which Peggy had woken up.
“You’re late,” she croaked, her voice raspier than usual with sleep. She smiled at him in that sweet, yet still sad way she always smiled at him when she first saw him. “Be a dear, Steve, and pour me a glass of water.”
Steve let out a breath, relieved that Peggy would not be crying. Peggy knew him, knew how he came to be there. She wouldn’t need to be soothed and that was good. He never wanted to upset her.
He went to the water pitcher on the table and poured her a glass of water.