If this be not love, it is madness, and then it is pardonable.
The Old Bachelor, Act IV, scene x - William Congreve
Calle del Transbordo, (Transshipment Street), El Chorillo corregimiento , Panama City, Panama
Three months after Hydra fell.
Sam was having a bad bout of 'traveller's stomach' (He called it Montezuma's Revenge, though Steve was pretty sure that was Mexico, not Panama. Sam just muttered something about super-soldier intestines and then threw up again), so Steve...went out alone. The sun was brilliant in a hazy-blue sky, the heat incredible, the air like a wet and gently-steaming blanket laid over all. Puddles shimmered like mirages in the street, and damp laundry hung limply from a sagging line, barely stirred by the slow breeze.
Inside was worse: so close and still that Steve could smell his own sweat and, more faintly, the chemical burr of the deodorant he'd smeared on, and the soap he'd washed with. He could smell sewage and cooking smells and smoke, asphalt and damp plaster, rust, brine.
And blood. He could smell blood, just the slight, slaughterhouse tang of it, so ugly-familiar. The sunlight was almost tangible, coming through the dirty window of the one-room apartment, yellow as old newspaper. That was familiar, too, that sunset gold glow, and for a heartbeat, Steve hesitated, caught in a film-reel flicker of memory. Summer. Brooklyn. The Barnes family in the kitchen, moving in that complicated dance of people who lived in small spaces. Bucky turning from scrubbing his nails at the big, low sink, flashing a grin….
A car roared by outside, staccato sound of a catalytic converter gone bad, and Steve blinked, coming back to the here and now, sweat tickling as it rolled down from his hairline.
In the corner, Bucky hadn't moved, didn't seem to be breathing, and Steve felt his own breath catch and stall in his throat, felt his heart leap in his chest as he took a fast step forward. "Buck-"
Then Bucky moved, a hard, startled flinch into the wall behind him. His hands came up, fists clenched, head back and eyes wide, teeth bared. An animal at bay. His skin was too pale, his face gaunt, his eyes too deep in shadowed sockets. Steve stopped. "Bucky...do you know me?" he asked, as quietly - as calmly - as he could.
Bucky's gaze flickered, from Steve's face to his body, scanning from head to toes and back; over Steve's shoulder, at the door, toward the window, back to Steve again. He was breathing audibly now, almost panting, and Steve could feel his own breathing speeding up to match, nerves stretched tight as he waited.
"You are...you're...the m-man. From before. From...the...c-carrier. You ff...fell."
"We both did. Yes, that's me," Steve said, and he ached to moved close. "You...pulled me out of the water."
Buck's chin jerked up, silent acknowledgment, but Steve could see the muscles along his jaw bulging, could hear, faintly, the grinding squeak of Bucky's teeth scraping together.
"Why…. Do you know why you did that?"
Bucky shuddered, and cast another wild-eyed look around the room - toward the window - and Steve knew what he was going to do before he did it. He could feel his whole body tensing to stop it.
"I can't- t-talk about this, I don't want- to talk about this," Bucky rasped, and then he moved, in an elegant, almost balletic sequence that Steve couldn't hope to intercept. He spun out from the wall, fist going out to sweep Steve aside, and in the same perfect arc, smashing through the side of a stubby cabinet on the wall. His hand emerged holding the straps of a backpack, and Bucky leapt, one foot hitting the tiny, two-burner stove, his whole body pivoting on that point, dancer-quick - launching him up and out, straight through the window.
Sunlight poured in, and Steve was at the splintered sill, barely noticing the glass that sliced his palms. The broken shards were like diamonds on the sidewalk below, and Bucky was gone.
Eminönü Ferryboat Docks, Istanbul Boğazı (The Bosphorus), Istanbul, Turkey
Seven months after Hydra fell.
Steve just missed reaching him, on the docks. There were locals and tourists everywhere, a sea of sunburnt faces, graphic t-shirts, children, vendors, noise. Bucky slipped down to the waterfront and was gone in the blink of an eye, and Steve stopped, gaze searching, his fists clenched at his side.
A small boat - some kind of fishing boat, with a cabin forward and the sea nearly on a level with the open space aft - chugged out from between the big, bright ferries, heading, as far as Steve could tell, south-east. Into the Marmara Sea. Going where?, Steve thought. There were a half-dozen coastal towns along that edge of the Yalova province. Or he could turn inland, to Gölcük or Izmit, or go out across the sea entirely, to Greece, to Cyprus….
Steve turned away abruptly, just trying to breathe. No. A little boat like that, it would never go so far. It had looked sturdy, but that was a trip of a day or more - two days, longer, if they took a care not to overload its little engine. Steve hadn't noticed gas cans in the clutter on the deck, and surely it would take several refills to go that far.
Steve took a breath, and then another, dragging the salt-laden air into his lungs, settling himself. He had to think, and he had to calm down. There were other boats tied up here, noisy with swarms of tourists and residents, and Steve realized they were selling food. Fish sandwiches, cups of drink, rapid patter back and forth, fishermen raising their voices above the hubbub, Balık ekmek! Balık ekmek! Fish in bread!
Steve dug a crumpled 20 lira note from his pocket and joined a line, ending with two warm sandwiches and a cup of şalgam, a tangy, purple juice made, he was told, from turnips and carrots. Steve found an empty place at a tiny table and ate, his gaze fixed on the horizon. On the tiny curl of white water, the wake of a boat.
An hour - two - and he'd eaten three more sandwiches, texted Sam that he was fine (Sam was nursing a badly sprained ankle), switched to water, and was starting to get looks from some of the vendors. Scruff and a baseball cap and sunglasses only went so far, when you were this tall, this big - this American. Steve finally wandered away, down toward the water, towards a little collection of boats, bobbing at dock. They were old, with worn paint and cracked tires lashed to the sides, improvised dock buffers. Old men in canvas pants and shirts with the sleeves rolled up off of tanned, muscled forearms stood in little groups, smoking, or sat, tailor-fashion, with nets or gear in their laps, doing repairs. They all glanced up at Steve and then away, and Steve saw the hole where the boat - where Bucky - had been.
Ten minutes of stilted conversation and one old man - missing tooth and missing pinky finger - finally told Steve what he wanted. His mate had gone off with the asker, the man said. The soldier. Gone off to Yassıada, the island. Freedom and Democracy Island, another one said, rolling his eyes.
Steve nodded his thanks, looking out toward the haze of the sea, where no island was visible. He walked away and found a bench, a small crowd of people waiting on the ferry. He pulled out his phone, and read. An island of exile, of monks, then later of a writer and poet. Later still, schools for the Turkish Navy, and then, in nineteen-sixty, a hastily arranged court, putting on trial the president, prime minister, others of that administration. Some were later put to death.
Steve stopped reading, shutting off his phone and then putting it away when his tight grip caused the case to creak warningly in his hand. Trials. Executions. Had Bucky been a part of it? Been forced to be a part of it? Was he...revisiting things that he remembered, trying to spark more memories, following a trail of blood and death, back and back and back?
Steve forced himself up and moving, down the pier and back again. Over and over, ducking into shadows as the afternoon waned and the day went down in a froth of golden-white clouds, the sun a disc of crimson in the city haze, glinting like blood off the water. Ten, fifteen random passes along the ferry docks before a hand suddenly curled into his collar and jerked him backward.
He crashed into a stack of crates and pallets, staggering, and Bucky was there, leaning into Steve's body, rigid forearm tight against Steve's windpipe, his other hand in a fist against Steve's shoulder, the black blade of a knife inches from Steve's cheek.
"Why are you following me? Do you want to die?"
"You w-wouldn't kill me, Bu-"
"Don't call me that," Bucky snapped, and then stood very still, just looking. Steve looked back, panting under Bucky's weight, fingers hooked in the layers of clothing Bucky wore. He looked...better. Not as thin, not as pale. Color on his cheekbones, a little pink from the sun. Like a day on the beach, oh God, a day at Prospect Park, lying in the first green fuzz of spring grass, soaking up as much sun and warmth as they could get into their winter-cold bones.
"Sorry," Steve said, and Bucky shifted, just a little, his thigh between Steve's, the open sides of his jacket bracketing Steve's hips. Steve could smell him - salt and sweat and musk and Bucky, mint somewhere under it all, and smoke. Gum and cigarettes, Christ, that was Bucky, a stick of spearmint gum forever in his shirt-pocket, in the hopes his ma wouldn't nag him about smoking.
"Why are you looking at me like-? What am I to you?" Bucky hissed, his eyes narrowed in fury, his arm jerking higher, forcing Steve's chin up.
Steve grabbed at his coat, at the layers of cotton under it, t-shirt and Henley, close-fitting and damp with sea-spray.
"You're my friend," Steve said, choking on Bucky's arm, on his own rising fury and despair. "My best friend. You saved me...a hundred times."
Bucky stared at him - shoved himself away, suddenly, the furious scowl on his face dropping away, smoothing out to a dead-eyed blankness.
"I'll kill you if I see you again. Get away from me." And then he was gone, darting down the narrow street, moving fast in the blue-brown twilight. Steve gasped in a burning gulp of air and took two - three - jogging steps after him….and then stopped. No. Not now, not - like this. Bucky didn't know him. He had to wait.
Šehidsko spomen mezarje (Martyr's Memorial Cemetery), Kovači, Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina
Thirteen months after Hydra fell.
Bucky almost slipped by him again, and this time it wasn't even intentional. This time there was rain and cold and darkness, and Steve being just a little too comfortable, settled in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, eating börek - cheese and meat and potato pie - and watching gap-year kids and 'professional' trekkers skitter out of the rain and into hostels and tea houses. He made a mental note to bring Sam - fighting off a miserable head-cold in their hotel room - some börek. The heat of it would make him feel better.
It was dark outside, the rain almost horizontal, misting up from the ground, and Steve nearly missed the dark shadow that dropped down from a second-storey window. With a start, Steve realized that it was Bucky, skulking away. He slapped some money down on the table and stood up, yanking the zip of his jacket up snug to his chin, and settling the brim of his cap down low, hoping it would keep the rain out of his eyes.
He followed the shadow as it slid along side-streets and through shadow, avoiding light like some deep-sea creature, flowing as easily as liquid into spaces where no person should logically fit. They crossed the Miljacka river on a bridge that seemed medieval, Steve loitered on the near side until Bucky's gliding figure reached the other end. The streets were lined with pale, red-tiled buildings, leaning into each other as the land tended upward, until they were on a hill, with the lights all around, misty in the rain. Bucky darted off the road, toward a patch of darkness littered, it seemed, with ghostly-white stone columns.
Steve followed, stumbling a little over the uneven turf, and putting his hand out to steady himself. He felt cold, rain-slick stone, rough with lines of raised text…oh. A cemetery. Steve looked up, blinking the rain out of his eyes, at a sea of white grave markers, slender and upright, clustered around some kind of gazebo or monument further in, with a graceful curve of white curb and walk around it, under the shadow of some kind of evergreen. And Bucky, stark against the white of the stone, standing perfectly still, his back to Steve.
Steve stood still, as well, and watched for a long moment, but Bucky didn't seem to be doing anything. He just stood there, in the rain, his hair like black water down his back, slight gleams from the surrounding streetlights striking sparks off his jacket, off the straps on his boots. A shadow among ghosts.
Steve finally stirred, moving carefully down into the bowl of markers, making a little noise, because he didn't want to sneak up on Bucky; didn't want to spook him, either. Or make him feel threatened, or….
Damnit, Steve thought. There's no right way. Just...go.
When he stepped over the curb, onto the walk, a pebble grated under his foot and Bucky whirled, crouching, purely on the defense. A black-bladed knife was in his hand, coming out of the hidden sheath, spinning in his fingers. Just like in D.C., just like under the bridge.
Steve felt his own muscles tense, involuntary , but he didn't have his shield, and he wasn't wearing armor. He didn't want to fight, God, no. He stopped, instead, and spread his arms wide, hands open, showing he was unarmed. He watched as Bucky's gaze swept over him, taking in the weapons Steve did carry, concealed just like Bucky's, but still put away. Not a threat.
"Buck, do you know me?"
Bucky stayed motionless for a moment, and Steve could see the rain beaded on his lashes; how they trembled, as Bucky scanned the cemetery, his gaze flicking fast, here, here, there. Then he straightened marginally, the knife still in his grip but held a little down, now. At ease.
"I know you. I...know. Why are you still following me? I told you-"
"If you know me, you know why. I'm not here to hurt you, Bucky."
"You'll be hurt, if you don't stop."
"Are you gonna hurt me? C'mon, Buck. I'm your friend."
"But I'm not. I'm not him. I'm not...that man. That hero, that-"
"Of course you are," Steve said, and he couldn't help it, he stepped forward. Engraved in his bones, that impulse; impossible to ignore. Closer still, his fingers tingling, aching to touch. He could see the dark smudges under Bucky's eyes, and the worn edges of his clothing. He could see Bucky's hand was shaking, holding the knife; the rain drops shivered on the blackened metal, sparkling minute reflections. "Please, Bucky. I promise...I can help you. You weren't...it wasn't you. What they did-"
"How do you know that? Do you know that? Do you know why I'm here?" Bucky said, and his voice was a rasp, desperate, thick with some emotion - pain? fear? anger? - that Steve couldn't place. "I'm here because it was me. It was me. I stood in these hills…." Bucky waved his hand, a furious gesture, the knife slashing the air. "With a rifle, and I shot...I shot them. Soldiers, and civilians. Old men, Steve. Women. Children. I...I remember-" Bucky stopped, his face twisted in an agony of memory and emotion, his chest heaving, and Steve did it again, moved forward, reaching out, uncaring of the razor edge of the knife that gleamed dully in the cold, humid air.
"No! No." Bucky was panting now, his lip trembling and maybe that wasn't rain on his face, maybe that wasn't just the cold…. "I shot children. I saw her, I saw...them...and I shot them, and I remember - I didn't feel anything. I didn't feel anything."
"God," Steve whispered, and his hand closed, finally, on Bucky's shoulder and squeezed hard, trying to tell him, with that touch, that Steve was there - that Bucky wasn't alone. "It wasn't you-"
"God," Bucky parroted, and fury twisted his mouth, made it ugly. "It wasn't not me. I did that in the - before, I did that...for you. I remember, doing that for you. Dealing death from a hill-top, bullet to the brain, to the heart. It was always in me, it was always...me."
"No, no-" Steve said, helplessly, and he tried to pull Bucky to him. Bucky made a noise, inarticulate and animal, painful to hear. He shoved Steve away, hard enough to make him stumble and go down on one knee, icy paving under his fist, water soaking into his jeans.
"Yes. I remember...oh God, what I remember. You have to go."
"I won't leave-"
"Steve," Bucky said, wild-eyed, his hair like slashes of ink across his face. He went to his knees, the knife spearing down between two slabs of stone, embedded. "Steve, you have to go. I remember, and I can't- It's too much, it's...coming, it's a monster, Steve, please, I can't - I can't hurt you...again, Steve, please!"
And for that moment, Bucky's anguished face staring at him, as pale as the stones around them, Steve knew - it was truly and only Bucky there. His friend, his comrade in arms, his...Bucky.
"I won't go far. I'll be in the town. I won't abandon you, Bucky!"
"Go," Bucky - no, the Soldier - roared, and his left fist smashed down, shattering the pavement, and Steve leapt like a runner, up from his crouch, threading between the markers, racing down and down and away. Leaving Bucky to his memories and his fury and his pain, because Steve would not - would not - add to them; would not put himself in harm's way, if it meant Bucky would suffer.
A scream, like the dying scream of a wounded wolf, followed Steve, wending through the drenched air, shivering over his skin and sinking, like the knife, into Steve's heart.
Piata Ramnicu Sarat (Ramnicu Sarat Market), and Strada Fizicienilor, Sălăjan, Sectorul 3, (Physicists Street, Salajan, Sector 3) București, Romania
Twenty-two months after Hydra fell.
Steve watched Bucky buying plums in the market; that easy smile, his hair tucked back behind one ear, just part of the week-day crowd of mothers and babies, shouting kids, lounging teens. Steve watched him drop most of the plums into a bag that already held other shopping and saunter casually on. He lifted one dark-purple fruit to his mouth and took a luxurious bite, smiling, a little, at the taste of it, before wiping juice from the corner of his mouth with his thumb.
He looked good. Really good. Well-muscled, good color, his clothing comfortable but new, nothing worn, nothing.... Well, nothing to mark him as out of place; nothing to draw attention. He could be...anyone. Any mother's son. Any man's brother. It made Steve's heart hurt, to see him like that, pretending so hard to be just another person in the world, while holding so many dark secrets close to his heart.
Sam said something over the com, and Steve had to step away from the window to get his gear, to get moving to the apartment that Bucky was using, because other people - other forces - were already in play.
Bucky's place reminded Steve a lot of the place in Panama: simple and worn, with second-hand furniture and old appliances, clean, if a little cluttered. Candy bars lying on the little ice-box made Steve smile for a fleeting moment; Bucky still had a sweet tooth.
But then he saw the picture of himself, taped neatly into a notebook filled with scribbled English and Cyrillic, German and French, Spanish and something that might be Romanian. Eastern European languages, written in a hand that shook, that pressed down too hard, that wavered over the page or lingered so long there are fuzzy blobs of ink. Steve doesn't know exactly what the words say, but he can guess. He can guess.
Then Sam talked in his ear, and Steve replied and something…the air had changed. Or the light, or...something. Steve just knew, and he turned, and there's Bucky. His shopping bag was on the floor, and a pack of pencils and a plum have spilled out. And Steve thinks how that's just like it should be, just like it always was, Bucky bringing over a paper bag of apples or bananas; Bucky finding pencils or charcoal or pen and ink for Steve, handing them over with a shrug and a grin, arm around Steve's thin shoulders.
It doesn't go as planned; it doesn't end like Steve wanted it to. But he's here, and Bucky is, and they've both stopped running. It's all Steve really wanted, after all.