“It’s been a long seventy years,” Bucky whispered to the ceiling.
From the open window came in the hot night air of Wakanda, rich with soil scent and memories of rain. Birds cooed in the distance, soft, and the canopy was soft too, like whispering velvet growing in the fog.
“I’m going to say this only once, so I need you to listen,” Bucky said, even lower. “Please, Steve, just listen to me till the end, because I have to tell you something about me—something even you don't know.”
The silence too was rich and thick, and Bucky could breathe it in and out of his lungs. He shifted on the little bed, a little, so his voice would be loud and clear on the recording.
“I don’t mean the Soldier,” he went on. “This one you already know. Maybe not all the details, but—” his voice faltered. “Enough.”
The way Stark had looked at him was another memory to add to the list. He counted them and catalogued them like pinned butterflies. Only he couldn’t exactly chloroform them first, so they twisted in silent agony against the wall of his brain. But still—pinned.
He swallowed thickly.
“I met you when I was a kid,” he said. “I didn’t know then, about what was going to happen to me. I still don’t mean the Soldier—not the war either, if you were wondering. What I’m trying to say…”
His voice died again. The tortured butterflies were straining in his mind.
“God,” he scoffed, then scrubbed his hand over his face. “I can’t. I can’t.”
His tears were hot against his palm; he hadn’t felt them come, and was the surprised too by the grimace of pain twisting his mouth, the way his fingers had clamped over his face. He forced himself to let go and lie back. Breathe and stare at the ceiling.
“Steve,” he tried again. “I met you when I was a kid and you were my friend—No. No. Goddamn.”
Silence. He sniffled, only once, very loud, and winced.
“Sorry,” he murmured, “I’m sorry, Steve, I’m sorry. Again. For good this time. Gonna be a shitty recording. Sorry.”
His breath was still shuddering out of him. He waited for a good fifteen minutes.
“I met you when I was a kid.” A straining exhale. “And I haven’t left you since. Not even during those seventy years, not really. They had to carve it all out of me—my own damn self along with you, ‘cause it was all or nothing. And I only had to see you again to be given back to myself. We’re a package deal. Right?”
It was getting easier, or worse, maybe. “And you—Jesus, Steve, I know you love me, alright? It’s not something we said out loud back then. We still don’t. But we’ve told each other enough even without words, these past few days. That’s still not the h—” he swallowed again, “—the heart of it.”
He began shaking then. It started almost imperceptibly and took hold of his whole body by increments until his teeth were chattering.
“Do you know,” he said, “it’s going to hurt you—I’m sorry—I have to say it so you can understand—do you know, at some point, they used food. To break me in, I mean. They starved me for—weeks—they wanted to try it out, see how long… and then they’d put this plate of food on the floor. Just out of my reach.”
His heart was going to hammer his ribs out.
“And they would make me do—all sorts of things—to earn it. Never the whole plate, either. Just a morsel and then they’d take it back. They wrung the soul outta me that way. With no effort at all. It’s so easy to starve someone. So easy you could do it and not even notice.”
He parted his lips and left them parted for a long time. His eyes were wide. The shaking had only barely subsided so it didn’t look like spasms anymore; it had turned into something more vicious, hidden deep in his muscles, tremors that attacked his very nerves.
“Once you asked me—” He’d almost bit his tongue. “Once you asked me if I’d follow Captain America into the jaws of death. Do you remember what I said? I said no. That I’d follow you instead. And I don’t think you understood then, what it meant. You just heard your pal telling you he wasn’t going home to let you fight a war by yourself. You didn’t understand a thing. It was exactly the kind of thing they asked me, later. ‘If you eat this bite, Sergeant Barnes, we are going to tear out your nails. Are you sure you still want it?’ And God, how fast I said yes. Oh God oh please yes. Give it to me. ‘You will have to thank us after every finger.’ Yes I will. Tear me to pieces. I will worship you. As long as I can have it. Just a taste. Even knowing that you’ll take it right back—right back outta my reach…”
He screwed his eyes shut, real hard, then took a deep breath and let it out. The trembling calmed down a little.
“Back in Brooklyn you had no one,” he said, “no one but me. So I could still lie to myself. Even without acknowledging I was doing it at all. I guess I thought something would happen. Some kind of miracle. You don’t really worry at that age. You always think it’s gonna turn out fine.”
He swallowed. “And then there was the war. When you came for me I thought—”
Suddenly he was suffocating again.
“—I thought—” he let out like a strangled animal.
He forced himself to start breathing again, a bit more erratically. “—but I didn’t fool myself for long. We got to camp and there was Peggy goddamn Carter looking at you, and everything I never let out was shoved right back.”
He hid his face behind his hand again. “Are you getting it yet,” and Jesus he almost sobbed, “because I don’t—it really hurts, I—I’m sorry—I’m sorry—I’m sorry.”
“I keep telling you I didn’t let myself admit it and it’s true,” he went on, “but it’s also a lie. It was like a story without words. I could tell myself it didn’t exist but it was growing anyway. And since I hadn’t learned its language it was devouring me even easier.”
Inhale. “You have to understand—” this part was always going to be difficult—“you have to understand it’s not sex. Jesus. Of course sex featured in there somewhere I suppose—but only like a footnote in this huge goddamn Bible of you, writing itself in my head. What I’m feeling, I think it’s the same kind of thing you’d feel for God. If you really knew Him, I mean. An emotion you can’t name and it’s so beautiful it’s atrocious, because it’s consuming you.”
He was crying again, gasps ripping out of his mouth like death rattles.
“I don’t believe in God. I can’t. You take up the whole damn space. Christ it hurts,” he moaned, “Christ it fucking hurts. And Steve, I thought—I know you love me. Your friends—and Tony goddamn Stark—everything you did for me… but when Peggy Carter died I was glad!” he shouted.
The birds outside fell quiet.
“I was fucking glad! Because she was the last thread—the least thread—it was only you and me now. And the way you fought for me, God. Even as I kept trying to fucking kill you. I started thinking maybe if I told you… you would understand. I didn’t even—I don’t even want anything from you in return. Anything more than what you’re already giving me. I’m not sure you can feel that, what I feel. I’m not sure anyone can. Hell, I’m not sure it even has a name.”
He blinked, a little stunned, soaked in sweat.
“Wow,” he said, hoarse. “I said it, didn’t I? You must be thinking it’s a load of bullshit. That I’m some kind of pathetic failed poet lamenting an impossible love under a balcony. And maybe that’s all I am. Maybe I just need you to laugh at me and it’ll go away.”
He wasn’t done yet.
“There was Peggy,” he started again. “And I didn’t—couldn’t exactly say anything, could I? You had someone. It wasn’t like she was keeping you to herself. You still wanted me on your left. Where I’d always been. And these past few days it’s where I’ve been, again. Because that’s what you want from me.”
“Steve,” he was hoarse for talking so much, “Steve, I carried this shit through Brooklyn and I took it into the war with me and I came out of the ice still carrying it, but as long as I could keep fighting by your side, it was almost enough. Jeeze, I only told you about the pain, didn’t I? So goddamn maudlin. But it wasn’t just pain. The thing about starvation is—you get to see heaven. Not touch it, not taste it, God—but see it, at last. Feel its warmth, even. I spent my whole life by your side, and you loved me, even if it wasn’t the kind of overgrown abomination I have in my heart—you loved me.”
He shut up for a while, after that. He was almost done.
“You kissed that woman,” he said. “Sharon? I think that’s her name.”
“Steve,” and his voice was almost all gone, “it’s not your fault. You didn’t know. You couldn’t know, because I didn’t tell you, because what good would it have done? It’s not like either of us could change anything. And again, it’s really not your fault. It’s so easy starving someone, you don't even notice.”
The last words were almost a relief, even though he said them in a small, shameful voice.
“But it’s been a century and I’m very tired.”
He lay still for a very long while afterwards. Then he got up and turned off the recording and watched the sun come up over the jungle.
“You sure that’s what you want to do?” Steve asked.
Bucky looked at the cryochamber. Almost there. He was trembling with anticipated relief. He was so fucking selfish, but did it matter when no one else knew?
“Can I at least ask you why?” Steve said in a very low voice.
Bucky had the recording in his hand. His metal arm was gone, but his right hand was still strong enough to make the fragile electronics implode in his grip. The slight crack reverberated up his bones.
Seriously, like he would have done that to Steve.
Lying was easy; he’d lied to him his whole life. “As long as I can’t trust my head, it’s better if I go back under.”
He lay in the chamber, waiting for the ice to come, clutching broken pieces in his hand, starving all the while.