For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
- Wilfred Owen, "Arms and the Boy"
There is a man who lives inside the Soldier’s head.
The Soldier does not know much about the man. The man is an American, and he fought in one of the few twentieth-century wars the Soldier had not—if only because he did not exist yet. At some point, a war pitted their home countries against each other, but that did not put much of a damper on things. They are good friends.
Sometimes the Soldier is waiting somewhere high up for hours, days on end, and the American talks to him. They discuss how the wind, his breathing, the minute pulses of his heart, the curvature of the earth affects the trajectory of a bullet. The conversations are often very fruitful, and they both enjoy the company.
For a while now, the American has been quiet. The Soldier is alone inside his head. He misses him, but he understands the need for silence. His handlers do not like it when he speaks out loud, so most of his conversations are inside his head. He understands, but his head is a lonely place now.
Sometimes the American stirs, but it occurs sporadically, at random, in response to unpredictable things. People—targets—are predictable, but the Soldier has never quite pinned the American down. He is erratic—sometimes, he is friendly and converses with the Soldier freely, and at other times, he is begging the Soldier to stop what he is doing. Sometimes, he is screaming, and he does not stop for days. Even then, the Soldier prefers the noise to the silence.
Unpredictable as the American is, the Soldier has noticed a few consistencies. The American rarely stirs on missions in rural places—he is a creature of the cities. The city he usually thinks of is one that the Soldier’s handlers never sent him to. The American conjures up memories of streets packed with pedestrians. Newsies hawking the Times. The El that passes overhead, plunging the entire area into semi-darkness. A thin man with a deep voice and hands too big for his body.
When the Soldier swam in the river, the American was at his loudest. He shouted at the Soldier, recited names like they were prayers, begged him to dive down and pull the limp body out of the water.
But the American is quiet once again. The Soldier has been travelling east, away from the chaotic aftermath. He would normally return to the handler, but the handler is gone. The handler is gone, the doctors are gone—everyone is gone. The Soldier remembers that there are handlers and doctors in the cold, distant east.
He is in a city now. The Soldier cannot help but linger here. It is east, but still too far west to be near the blistery, isolated compound in his fragmented memories. The American’s memory is not confused or broken up or pock-marked. Sometimes the Soldier has to ask him to remember things for him, but the American does not respond to him right now. He does not explain why the Soldier knows this city.
The Soldier has been here before, years ago. Although he cannot remember exactly when, he is positive that it has been at least twenty years. Perhaps twenty-five. There had been violence and chaos and revolution, and his handler had sent him out to add to the violence and chaos and revolution. The Soldier remembers a place here. Underground, dark, damp, and quiet. It is a secure place—one of the few where he has memories of rest. Pain, yes, but also decades-long nothingness.
He finds the secure place in a neighborhood full of falling-apart buildings and worn-down people. He blends in here. He, too, is desperate and hungry and exhausted. He does not have to do anything different to disappear into the crowds. The Soldier can understand why the American likes cities. He likes them too.
The secure place is empty when he finds it. Long abandoned. The rooms are gutted. No wires or scientists or old computers. Only the grey walls and the grey dust linger. Here is the kind of cold that speaks of a room long untouched by human warmth. Not the right kind. Not the numbing, all-consuming cold he misses like food, like sleep.
He stops at the center of the compound where the cold used to be. It has left little scuff marks on the floor, but he does not need to see them to know exactly where to go. He stands there and waits. For what, he does not know. For the handler. For orders. For rest. He does not know.
There is an old body here. A woman. Most of her has rotted away already, but it is clear that she is a woman, and she died because someone shot her in the head. The American in his head stirs, tugs to the forefront the sensation of a pistol’s recoil in his cold hand. Not someone, then. Him. The woman died with her eyes wide and her mouth bent into a circle. She fell with an expression of disbelief and lay there for twenty-five years until the expression of disbelief rotted off her face.
They make strange companions—she, the Soldier, and the man in his head.
Move, damn it.
The American is upset. Clamoring. He shouts at the Soldier to move, but he is weak, and his voice is small. The Soldier is also weak. The American is desperate. The Soldier has not eaten anything in days. The Soldier is dying. The American is dying.
The American pushes at the Soldier’s mind ineffectually. The hours pass on. His own body weighs on him. The cold arm pulls him down. He is tired. He has not slept in a long time.
Don’t you fucking die on me.
The American is casting about, looking for something that will make the Soldier pick himself up, move, leave, eat, survive. They look at the dead woman, her mouth still gaping open. She cannot believe the Soldier would kill her. She cannot believe she is dead. The American had known another dying woman. Many dying women.
The Soldier sits at an old woman’s bedside. Briefly he catches a glimpse of victory-red lipstick and a neatly pressed uniform, but the American pays more attention to the clean linen sheets, clouds of steel hair, and the lingering scent of flowers. The woman smiles at the Soldier, pushes his hair back from his forehead, and chuckles. “Now, I’ve seen everything,” she says. “But I’m not nearly as surprised as I should be.”
The woman’s expression clouds for a moment. Her hand drops down to his cheek, and she brushes her thumb over a thin scar just below his eye. Her fingers are cool, and the Soldier imagines that he can feel her blood pulsing underneath her thin skin.
He says nothing, and the woman eventually composes herself. “I’m afraid Steve has beaten you to the punch. He brought me flowers. Asphodels.” The Soldier knows this. He watched the woman’s nurses throw them out after they began to brown. “He’s still much too prone to dramatics. Do you remember that?”
The Soldier shakes his head.
“Oh, well.” The woman huffs a breathy laugh. “My memory’s not what it used to be either. I remember you sometimes, but not very often. I’m afraid I might forget you again the moment you leave. Would you mind staying for a while? I do enjoy knowing who you are.”
The Soldier complies, and the woman returns her hand to his hair, carding the tangles out with her fingers. They sit in silence until the sun has set low enough to send slants of yellow light through the window. The American is quiet too, but the Soldier is still aware of his presence. He seems to be bothered by the scene: the woman’s light fluttering breath, her flesh clinging close to her bones, and the steady, almost imperceptible weakening of her heart.
The Soldier can feel his agitation, and it is a strange thing. The American has watched him kill time and again—they are both soldiers, and death is nothing new—but the patiently waiting woman unnerves him more than anything else. There had been another woman in the American’s life. She had withered slowly in a bed, and the American had watched. This scene reminds the American of that other woman.
The old woman opens her eyes and says, “I keep a journal. Anything I don’t want to forget, I write down. It helps.” She gestures to her bedside table, and he pulls out a small notebook and pen. The first page tells the story of a long airplane flight spent sitting next to a man who was prepared to die.
The Soldier stops reading, and she tells him to find an empty notebook. Of the many notebooks in the drawer, only one is blank.
“Do you remember being James Barnes?” the woman asks.
The Soldier does not.
God doesn’t so much as shudder when Sarah Rogers dies, but he’s always been a callous son of a bitch anyway. Bucky never expects much from him or anyone, so when all their prayers fall short, he’s ready, knowing that Steve won’t be.
His mother’s death blindsides Steve in the worst possible way. Even when the room was full of the stench of sickness and blood for weeks on end, Steve hadn’t fully accepted that someone else’s grasp on life might be more fragile than his own. It’s understandable, really. Anyone would get real cozy with their own imminent mortality if they damn near hacked up their lungs every winter.
Bucky makes sure to be there for him when the realization hits, and the falling apart starts. Steve waits until a full month after the funeral, when the landlord finally decides that grief can’t make up for the overdue rent.
Bucky stands with Steve on the curb, feeling sweat trickle down his spine. Steve stares vacantly at the worn stoop of the apartment for an hour, long enough to have Bucky worrying that the heat’s going to get to him, or his asthma will act up again. Bucky sees the exact moment when the realization hits Steve.
He stiffens, his head tilting up, and this stricken expression appears on his face. He looks at Bucky, oddly bewildered, and curls his fingers into Bucky’s jacket to anchor himself. He breathes his name as if for the first time.
Sometimes Bucky thinks that the only reason Steve has managed to stave off death each winter for nearly two decades is because he doesn’t want to leave Bucky by himself. If Bucky isn’t around—what will what happen when the next illness comes calling?
“I’m here, Stevie.” Bucky says, slinging his arm around Steve’s shoulders and pulling him close. He doesn’t comment when he feels Steve’s back seize for a moment. Steve hates letting people see him cry. It’s an admission of vulnerability.
A week after the funeral, Bucky moved into his own apartment at one of the rooming houses near the navy yard. The rent is cheap, and now he’s only a short walk away from his job.
Steve doesn’t bother protesting when Bucky takes him back to his apartment. Bucky is thankful for small mercies. Neither of them can weather another one of their long circular arguments about friendship and pity.
As Steve enters the apartment, hesitating briefly at the threshold, Bucky realizes that Steve has never been here. He moved in a week after the funeral, and Steve had been too busy pretending not to be grieving to visit.
Bucky watches Steve move around the unfamiliar space, inspecting the rusted-over pipes, running his fingers along the molding wallpaper, noting the places where the floorboards have almost completely rotted away. The room is silent except for the muffled scrabbling of the rats hiding in the walls.
“It’s not much, but if you stand by the door, you can see the ocean.” Bucky says.
Steve walks over to where he is standing and looks at the thin strip of grey ocean and grey sky between the buildings.
“It’s nice,” he says and smiles.
There are many empty buildings in the city, in the falling-apart neighborhood. A few days ago, a world-killing metal creature tried to fly a city into the stratosphere. The flying city was in the next country over, and the people here are nervous. They say that the world-killing creature is dead, but do they really know?
Maybe that is just something governments and heroes say to make people feel safe when in reality, the world-killing creature is still alive and looking for the next city to fly into the sky. Governments, people, heroes—they all lie. And the people in this country—large, so very close to the first country, full of people so poor and unimportant that no one will really mind if a world-killing creature comes to slaughter them—the people here know this, so they pick up their lives and flee west.
The Soldier understands. He himself is a creature that has been killed and revived endlessly for almost a century. Who is to say that the world-killing creature cannot do the same? And if a world-killing creature is out there, looking for another target, why not this city?
And the result—empty buildings.
The Soldier occupies a room on the second-highest floor. The American has to dissuade him from taking the apartment on the top floor. That apartment is occupied by a family too poor to flee. The Soldier has gotten used to inflicting violence simply because someone stands in his way.
The American does not like this. The American has compromised and talked his way through obstacles his entire life.
The Soldier indulges the American because he will miss him if he becomes upset and stops talking. It is an easy mindset. The American is like a handler who does not like killing and does not inflict pain.
Sometimes the Soldier thinks that the handlers do not truly understand what they have created. He does not mean himself. The Soldier is a simple creature, blunt and unwieldy. Like a hammer. A fist. A grenade thrown carelessly into a crowd.
But there are other subtler weapons—the girl with bright hair. A scalpel so thin and precise that she manages to slip past even the handlers’ watchful eyes.
She visits him every so often. Sometimes the Soldier notices her, but he guesses that most of the time, he does not sense her presence at all. It is astonishing that she, a bright-haired and beautiful child, can wander the compound without drawing any notice. That in itself indicates the full extent of the doctors’ success in creating their delicate weapons.
The girl is here again. She is not standing in her usual place in the shadow of the open door. The handlers like to leave an obvious escape route available to the Soldier. It is their method of testing his conditioning. The others include answering questions about his childhood, demonstrating the cold arm’s full range of movement, and running simple missions.
The girl steps closer. Into the light, in full view. The customary blankness on her face is gone. Instead, there is something akin to joy. The show of emotion is surprising.
“Rurov, Pyotr Ivanovich,” the girl says, “Asphyxiation due to broken sternum.”
The Soldier nods, and she leaves with an almost-smile on her face.
A week later she returns with Smirnov, Aleksandr Mitrich. A couple days after that, she rattles off a list of names too long for him to remember and concludes with acute hemorrhaging. The Soldier had burned down a school that day.
The girl brings him names as frequently as she can. It is a gift perhaps. More likely it is a bribe, but to what end, he does not know. The Soldier is rarely granted such luxuries.
Sometimes the girl will come with names that do not belong to the Soldier. She says, “Romanov, Alian Sergeich. Romanovna, Nadezhda Ivanovna. Hemorrhaging due to lacerations to the throat.”
The Soldier asks, “Your first mission?” and she looks surprised that he is even talking. The occasion calls for such gestures. The handlers imbue much significance in first missions.
“Yes,” she says. “Yours?”
“I do not remember.”
The first time Bucky kills a man, he’s surprised by how how utterly mundane it is. A blind shot in the midst of a frantic skirmish. He’s too far away to tell what the poor bastard even looks like. He just fires, and the man drops to the ground.
It’s unnerving how Bucky’s bullets always find hearts, heads, and throats. A twitch of his finger between breaths, and another man dies. When his magazine is empty, he replaces it with a new clip. Sight, shoot, reload, rinse, repeat.
After the flurry of action dies down, they trudge back to the main camp. It’s just a simple recon mission.
The next couple of weeks go the same way. Poke the enemy with a stick, see what happens, retreat, rinse, repeat. Some of them die. There’s an exhausting pointlessness to the whole exercise, and all it accomplishes is racking up more casualties, but Bucky doesn’t question orders.
He’s never been good at anything in his life before, but he’s good at death. Maybe this is all he’s made for. He starts to notice that a lot of the others avoid him. They cross themselves when he makes eye contact. When he tries to talk to them, they look a little to the left, over his shoulder.
Bucky understands. Really, he does. The soldiers in his unit click rosary beads and tuck cheap talismans into their pockets. This whole ugly killing business means that the dead are all around. Soldiers die young and angry. They die for no discernible reason. If anything lingers, it sure as hell isn’t going to be nice. It’s better to be superstitious and cover all bases.
And he hears them talk about his witch eyes—shifting, pale, all-seeing. It’s not much of a leap for some of them to decide that there’s something unnatural about Bucky’s aptitude for death.
The American has to remind the Soldier to eat and drink. The Soldier buys—don't steal that, Jesus—food with money that he finds in a space under two loose slats in the floorboards. The Soldier scouts the rest of the building. It is clear that most of the occupants in the building had left in a hurry. Most did not even pack any of their belongings. There is food still in cupboards and refrigerators. Money tucked under mattresses, hidden in locked drawers, folded between the pages of books.
The American is clearly disturbed by the sight of this. He remembers being poor. The people who used to live here were even more desperate than the man had been. They would not abandon their savings lightly.
The American seems convinced that the circumstances of their leaving are less innocent than a simple fear of a world-killing creature. Not exactly something worse, but something more immediate. An intimate sort of danger.
The Soldier senses the American’s disquiet, but he remains in the apartment nonetheless. It is strategically located. He can hear everyone coming up the stairs. No working elevator. Should someone come for him, he would be long gone by the time they made it this high. He would prefer it if he were at the very top, but the American was adamant. The Soldier is not allowed to displace anyone just because it is convenient for him. The second-highest floor is not the best, but it is still very good.
The apartment is fairly bare when the Soldier finds it. Not because the original occupants had time to pack, that much is apparent. Rather, they did not own much in the first place. Two cabinets with assorted pieces of cheap dishware. Various appliances. A refrigerator. An old couch. Empty plywood shelves. A small rug on the floor.
The American insists that the Soldier find a mattress to put on the floor. You know, for sleeping. The Soldier does not sleep on mattresses. The Soldier does not sleep. The American refuses to budge on the matter. Everyone sleeps. The Soldier does not. They argue. They compromise.
The Soldier finds a worn-thin one in an abandoned room on the second floor. He drags it up to his room, even though it is a waste of time and energy, and he should be leaving for the cold place in the east.
The American assures him that if he leaves the city, he will never talk to him again. So the mattress goes into his room, and he positions it so he can knock it into anyone who tries to come in through the window. He does not sleep in it, but it satisfies the American well enough.
The American insists that the Soldier buy food. Perishable food. Food that is not just sustenance, but exists to indulge in the simple pleasure of eating. The American instructs him as he cooks food on the stove. The Soldier stores the perishable food in the refrigerator and eats it. He leaves the silly indulgent food on the window sill and does not eat it.
The Soldier watches fat grey pigeons land on the window sill and peck at the pointlessly sweet pastry. The American in his head is huffy, but they are compromising. If the American cannot compromise, how is the Soldier supposed to learn to? That is what the Soldier tells him. Don't even try. I know what you're doing, you sly bastard. He does not know what the American is talking about. He is not doing anything. Not at all.
The Soldier is not used to this inactivity. Yes, he has patiently waited without moving for days on end, his rifle a comforting weight in his hands, waiting for that inevitable instant his target lets their guard down. It is what he is best at. Some handlers do not know this, and they send him on rushed, frantic missions. He does not like those so much. They tend to go wrong.
But he is not on a mission. He is not lying in wait. He is simply staying in one place, existing for its own sake. There are no orders, just the occasional reminder from the man to eat and drink. It is a strange state to be in. He has never been idle. There has always been a purpose, a mission, and when there is nothing more for him, he sleeps in the cold.
That's not normal.
Well, what is? His only frames of reference are the brief glimpses he catches on longer missions. People with families. They always drop their guard around their family. Stalking a politician and learning that he takes thirty minutes out of his day to walk his daughter to school. Eavesdropping on conversations over home-cooked dinner. Watching through his sniper’s scope an old couple sitting on their porch, quietly enjoying the other’s presence.
He cannot imagine himself in such scenarios. They both politely avoid mentioning what came after—the bullet, the domestic picture shattered. The American concedes that the Soldier would likely never have this…normalcy. The thought seems to depress the American, but the Soldier does not know why.
He asks the American what he does when he is idle. Smoke cigarettes. Drink bootlegger swill. Go dancing. Watch a picture. Make time with a girl. It is difficult for the Soldier to imagine anyone filling up their time with these things.
A sort of flutter when the American shrugs. A flash-image of the thin, deep-voiced man.
Bucky is finishing cleaning the dirt out of the nasty cuts on Steve’s face from a fight with a guy twice his size. He doesn’t even know how it started.
Steve still hasn’t come down from the haze of the fight. He sits rigidly with his face taut and his fists clenched. From what Bucky can tell, he hadn’t even managed to get a good punch in before the other guy began to really whale on him.
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” Bucky says, trying to keep his voice light and joking, but it comes out exasperated instead. They’re out of bandages. The best thing he can do is dab away the grime with a damp washcloth and pray the wounds won’t fester.
“I was playing the long game.” Steve mumbles. “Catch him by surprise when he lets his guard down.”
Bucky gusts a sigh. He can’t remember if it had been this bad before they started living together. He doesn’t think so.
It’s the proximity, he thinks.
Before, he wouldn’t know about a fight until Steve turned up scraped and bruised but bandaged. The blood and dirt would be all cleaned up. He never got the impression that the fights Steve picked ever got real bad. And the thing is, picking a fight with Steve is exhausting. No one can possibly keep it up forever. Sure, Steve is small and mouthy as hell, but he’s a tenacious son of a bitch. If nothing else, most guys get tired of knocking around a five-foot-four punk who just doesn’t have any quit in him.
Steve’s the kind of person who never learned common sense, and in all honesty, that’s the best part about him. So Bucky just kind of left him to it. Steve picks his fights because he hasn’t been beaten down, not yet, and who is Bucky to get in the way of that?
Bucky never thought much whenever he disappeared for a couple days. Maybe after a month, he’d get nervous and poke around the neighborhood for him. But Steve had his own life, and Bucky didn’t have much reason to interfere with whatever he got up to.
It’s a different story seeing just how bad he looks right after a fight. The first time Steve stumbled home with blood gushing out of a gash in his fool head, Bucky damn near fainted. He thought Steve was dying, for Christ’s sake. He gets to thinking that maybe Steve should stop, ain’t that the strangest thing? Now he can see that there’s a very real possibility that Steve might actually bite it after one of these.
The problem is Bucky wears protectiveness on him like a patchy, too-big coat, and they both know it. They’ve been having the same spats for months, and nothing’s sticking. But despite the new layers of irritation on their friendship, he doesn’t regret them moving in together.
“Hey,” he says, softer this time. Steve’s still a little defensive, gearing up for another fight. “Let’s go out somewhere. See a picture, get a drink, do something. I’m getting a little stir-crazy cooped up in here all day.”
“Sure. Where to?” Steve is smart enough to recognize an olive branch when he sees one, and he’s kind enough not to mention that they really don’t have the money to make such indulgences. It’s an olive branch of his own, Bucky supposes. The rent is due, and Bucky’s been skipping meals, telling Steve that he’s not hungry, sneaking cigarettes to tamp down the stomach pangs.
Bucky has already started calculating in his head how many days he can tighten his belt a little when a flash of inspiration strikes him. He starts to grin. “I’ll be right back.”
Bucky leaves the apartment and hurries back. Steve is waiting for him on the couch with one foot shoved underneath the cushions. Bucky plops down next to him, pressing into Steve’s side. His hands are cupped around something, and Steve cocks an eyebrow at him.
With a grin and a flourish, Bucky unfolds his hands to reveal a couple of round brushes and four half-empty tubes of watercolor paint: deep blue, light green, dark purple, and a color somewhere between orange and yellow.
Steve goes completely still, stares at the paints with wide eyes. Bucky deposits them in his lap, and he runs his fingers over the neat labels and the colorful smudges around the caps.
“Where did you get these?” Steve breathes.
“Lindy Hughes on the fifth floor has a brother living in Manhattan who’s taking evening classes with the Art Students League. I called in a little favor, so she gave them to me. Didn’t have much use for it anyway.”
“I’ve never used paints before,” Steve says.
Bucky grins and starts to ramble on about going to Prospect Park, finding a spot that’s real picturesque, and letting Steve cut loose. He can paint the pigeons or the strolling couples or the families laid out on blankets.
But Steve doesn’t move. He keeps stroking the paint crusted underneath the twist caps, as if they aren’t quite real. Some of it crumbles away and stains his fingertips green.
And then Steve’s head snaps up, snatching his sketchbook and his new paints, and he’s scrambling out the window onto the fire escape. Bucky follows him out and leans on the railing. The sun is hanging low, sitting on the water, peering at them between the buildings. The tenements are huddled so close together that Bucky can touch the next building if he leans far enough.
There is a man sitting on his own fire escape a couple floors down. His sleeves are rolled up, his tie is undone, his collar is loose on his neck. He curls a cigarette up to his face, and the smoke mingles with the onion fumes from someone’s kitchen window.
A song rises above the ever-present grumble of the navy yard. A girl in the next building—Bucky can see her through her open window—has her radio going, and she’s singing along in a harsh croon. The music is too muted to be comprehensible, but Bucky knows swing. He knows it down to his very bones, and he’ll probably still know it even when he’s dead. He sees her dance, swinging her arms, stomping her feet, bobbing and swaying.
Steve sees her too.
They don’t go out that afternoon. Bucky spends the rest of the day watching Steve paint the neighborhood.
The night before he ships out for basic, he and Steve go to a dance hall, and Bucky whirls every single girl and even some of the guys around the room. The band is really swinging tonight, and every dancer is filled with a wild frenetic energy. He thinks they’ll have to replace the hard wood flooring tomorrow. There is music and laughter and tinkling glass everywhere, and by the time Bucky collapses in a chair next to Steve, his cheeks hurt from smiling too much.
Even though Steve has never really enjoyed dancing or the loud music, he loves watching everyone else move. He’s brought his sketchbook with him, and Bucky peers over his shoulder to watch him catch the whorl of a girl’s skirt with quick flowing lines. There’s a couple sketches of Bucky on the page. Steve has drawn his eyes crinkled, his mouth stretched wide and open in a silent laugh, his head tossed back as he moves.
Steve looks up at Bucky, grinning, and they’re both a little drunk. Maybe a lot drunk.
He catches Steve’s wrist and pulls him out of his chair. The alcohol has left Steve in a good humor, and he lets Bucky guide him through a couple songs.
He bites his lip, and Bucky glimpses a familiar flash of challenge in his eye before Steve is taking the lead. His movements are clumsy and less assured than when Bucky was leading, but he’s enthusiastic and has a nice sense of rhythm once he’s relaxed. They’re both grinning and a little out of breath when they land back in their seats.
Steve is looking at Bucky with widened eyes like he’s just realized something. Bucky recognizes that expression: the flushed skin, the almost fever-bright eyes, and the quiver in his limbs as his blood sings and urges him to keep going, dance all night, dance until his legs give out, dance forever.
Steve understands now why Bucky loves it, and Bucky understands why Steve loves drawing. He wants to save the moment. He wants to keep it so he can flip back to it again and again without having to worry about wearing the memory thin.
Bucky snags Steve’s pencil and doodles a little cartoonish drawing of Steve wearing Dick Tracy’s fedora, trench coat, and hard-eyed squint. He doesn’t have much artistic talent, but he’s a fair hand at recreating the styles of the newspaper comic strips.
Steve laughs when he sees the drawing. Bucky feels light and giddy in a way that he hasn’t been in a long time. He doodles another one of Steve as Buck Rogers, falling asleep and waking up five hundred years in the future.
“I’ve always thought it was a funny thing how Buck Rogers is a combination of our names.” Bucky says.
Steve cracks a smile and nudges him. “Do one of me as Flash Gordon. I like his comics more.”
Bucky draws Steve in a long flowing cape, slashing his sword at a giant reptilian monster. They both giggle like they’re twelve.
“I’ve been kidding myself all these years.” Steve says, shaking his head. “You’re the real artist of the duo.”
“Finally I get the acknowledgement I deserve.” Bucky does one last drawing of Steve in blue tights and a red cape, holding an automobile over his head.
They head home after that. Every so often, Steve breaks out laughing because he’s still so tickled by the idea of him being one of the big macho heroes in the comics.
The drinking buzz makes them both feel ten years younger. When they turn in for the night, they squeeze into Steve’s bed. They used to do that, but at some point, they simply stopped. When Bucky nearly falls out twice, he guesses it’s because he got too big.
Even though it’s January, and the stove really does nothing against the cold this time of the year, Bucky feels warm. He lies with Steve’s bony elbows and knees poking into him, and for the first time in months, he falls asleep content.
She finds him during one of his test missions. The handler is sending the Soldier out on more of them now. He has not slept in the cold in months. It makes both of them very nervous.
“You talk in your sleep sometimes,” the girl says without preamble. “In English.”
The Soldier does not respond. She crouches in front of the target’s cooling body and ruffles its hair. He realizes that she’s noticed too. The test mission targets tend to be male, underweight, fair-skinned, and blond.
“What do I say?”
The girl replies with a name, a rank, a serial number in perfect English. “Do you know him?”
“James,” she says in her American accent and then again, “Djeyms,” with her usual inflection.
He knows that if an officer ever orders him to shoot a civilian, a comrade, an innocent—hell, even a child—he would obey without question or hesitation. The all-encompassing, thoughtless obedience trained into him scares the shit out of him. Sometimes Bucky wakes up filled with the terrifying certainty that if ordered, he would even shoot Steve—
The American flinches away from the last memory and withdraws deep into the Soldier’s mind. The Soldier is alone.
He does not realize how much his daily routine is determined by the American. Not just directives to eat and drink. Occasionally a sight or a sound would shake some of the American’s memories loose. He likes when that happens. When he is in one of the American’s memories, he feels grounded. He understands what it is to be someone with connections and history. The memories feel more vibrant and fully formed than his own experiences.
Sometimes he wanders around the city, looking for something that will cause the American to stir and share a conversation, a sensation, a long-buried thought. It is hard to tell what works and what does not. Seeking out new bits of sights and sounds and smells to test what the American responds to—it is a pleasant distraction.
Here is what the Soldier has discovered so far:
Certain faces, certain foods garner a response. Red lipstick. An old woman dying slowly but gracefully next to a vase of asphodels. The smell of paint, sweat, warm beer. A long skirt spiraling around a girl’s legs. Watching two people kiss. Cigarettes used to get a lot of reaction, but people have started to smoke less in recent decades.
It is nice to be able to remember, even if the memories belong to someone else. All he has are glimpses. An understanding of his role. Scraps of sensory information left over from previous missions. An instinctual sense that he has existed for a long time—an eternity perhaps.
The Soldier becomes aware of the fact that he has not eaten anything in a week. It is easy to forget. For once, the hunger pangs overwhelm all else.
The Soldier realizes he has not felt pain in a very long time. Not since the last mission. The pain was omnipresent—and then, gone. It leaves him feeling oddly bereft. Disconnected. Nothing to block out the hunger pangs and the little shoulder twinges whenever the cold arm moves.
The hunger makes him sluggish. His limbs feel heavier. He walks to the refrigerator and eats the assorted bits of food the American had convinced him to buy. The unpleasant feeling dissipates. This is the first time he has eaten at his own behest. The significance is not lost on the Soldier.
There were other things that the American had asked of the Soldier. Sleep, for one thing. He decides to indulge the American just this once. He lies on top of the mattress and closes his eyes. He stays there for an hour. He does not fall asleep. It is impossible for him to sleep without the cold.
Two experiments—one successful, one not. The Soldier writes down the results in the notebook the old woman gave him. He cannot rely on his own memory, and the American is no longer around to remember for him. If he writes things down, he can just read what he is supposed to remember.
Yesterday the Soldier wrote down a note to himself to eat at noon. It goes like this: Eat food at noon. Today he saw the note and ate a piece of bread. He writes: Experiment: Successful. Now he will always eat at noon because even if he forgets, the written note is there to remind him.
The Soldier writes down everything he wants to remember. The sensory information that triggers the American’s memories. What those memories are. The foods he eats. The results of his small experiments. Observations of the neighborhood. Sometimes the family who lives on the top floor become loud enough for him to hear what they are saying. He writes down what they say.
He discovers a lot of things after he starts writing these things in the notebook:
The Soldier prefers food that is not too flavorful, food that fills his stomach quickly, food that is easy to clean off of the cold arm. He does not eat a lot of the food that the American likes.
The American remembers things the most when he is feeling an emotion that is closely associated with a strong memory. Memories that have a similar emotional impact are grouped together in his mind, even if they are not related in reality.
The family on the top floor is usually very quiet because they are in hiding. They rarely leave their apartment. They rarely raise their voices. They only speak louder than normal when the husband tries to convince the rest of the family to take their chances and make a run for it. The wife always protests. Even then, their voices barely rise above a whisper.
The Soldier is in a small bar he found in a side street down a small set of stairs that was marked by a sign with lettering too faded to be understandable. The sign does not need to be replaced because the only people who come here are the ones who already know where to find it.
The Soldier is here to conduct another test. This is what he writes in his notebook: Drink alcohol until inebriated or until money runs out.
He has a lot of money because a man with an expensive camera, sunglasses, and a backpack dropped his belongings in front of the Soldier when he followed him into an alley. The Soldier feels somewhat bad for this. Technically he did not steal, but he doubts that the American would approve. He does not, however, feel bad enough to let the boon go to waste.
The Soldier writes, Six glasses of alcohol. No discernible effects.
The target from the Soldier’s last mission appears on the television set above the bar counter. He is being interviewed for a news broadcast. The target is an important person. He even has his own museum exhibit. The Soldier has killed many people like him.
The target spoke to the Soldier, and the American, repeated a name over and over. The Soldier did not know the name, but the American would not stop saying it, not even when the Soldier ran from the target. Who the hell is—
The American had not gone quiet until the Soldier’s handlers wiped him, and then, he woke up, mumbling a string of words that meant nothing to him. Sergeant. 32557038.
The target was warm. The target bled. All sensory indications pointed to the conclusion that yes, the target was a tangible physical presence. The Soldier had felt flesh and bone and muscle underneath his blows.
Here is the problem: the Soldier has been malfunctioning for a long time now.
His body breaks down more quickly than it used to. He cannot process information properly because he has been wiped too many times. The Soldier is an outdated model.
When he saw the target, he understood that his brain had finally begun to deteriorate in earnest. This target has already been dead for seventy years. He is not a target at all, he is a specter, a fragment of a memory. The specter lives in all the American’s memories. Even if he is not physically present, he is still there, lingering on the peripheries of the American’s thoughts.
The Soldier drinks seventeen glasses of alcohol and feels nothing. No discernable effects. Experiment: Failed.
The specter is talking about destroying the world-killing creature. His voice is slow and clear, but it is still obvious that he is exhausted. It has been months since the world-killing creature disappeared. The reporters ask the specter again how he killed it.
I didn’t, he says. The others did. The red witch tore out its heart and crumpled it in her hand. The red man destroyed all the places where the creature’s soul lived.
The reporter says in a voice that makes the others titter, What did you do?
I saved civilians.
A different reporter. Why aren’t we talking to someone who actually did something?
The man behind the bar changes the channel. Running men kick a ball across a field. The Soldier feels oddly relieved. He writes in his journal.
Here is how the world-killing creature dies:
A superior world-killing creature is created. It destroys the original and continues to exist even after it fulfills its intended purpose. The only way for this world-killing creature to die is for another to be created. And this goes on and on.
They are in a dark room next to rows and rows of dusty boxes. The Soldier cannot look directly at them, so he looks at the girl instead. Her eyes do not seem to glance off and away from the neat labels as she rifles through the files. She pauses at one slim folder and hands it to the Soldier.
“Alexeev, Lyubov Ivanovna. One of the other Black Widows. She was a good one,” the girl says. “She would’ve grown up kind.”
The Soldier taps the file against his hand in a silent question. “If she had asked,” she says, “I would’ve died so she could live, but she didn’t.” The girl touches the spine of the folder with the tip of her finger. “Djeyms, there’s someplace better. Dead or alive—I just know it’s not here.”
The girl turns back to the boxes and pulls out another file. “Barnes, James Buchanan. Hypothermia.” The Soldier looks at the whites of her eyes and her mouth twitching in shock. The girl turns the open file to him. His eyes slide away from the rows of text, and she nods sympathetically.
“He has your face, Djeyms,” she says quietly and swipes a hand under her eyes. It’s a strange gesture, and the Soldier mimics it. She smiles and presses her hand into his cheek. The skin of her palm is damp.
There are other signs that the specter is not real.
Perhaps the specter was implanted into the Soldier’s head. That would make sense. It is almost eerie how flawless it is. It has the kind of body that can only exist in the imagination. The body of the quintessential Aryan soldier.
The Soldier had not minded being so evenly matched. Normally such a prolonged fight would have incited the wrath of his handlers, but he was already slated for termination. Any more punishment was rendered null by the nearness of rest.
But the American’s reaction had been…painful. This is it, isn’t it? I’ve finally fucking cracked. It’s the same damn face. Broader shoulders, larger hands, longer legs, straight spine, strong heart, healthy lungs. The nose is a little straighter, and the jaw is wider. But Jesus, it’s a spitting image.
The Soldier had felt pity for the American. Trapped in the mind of an assassin for decades, and now this specter from the long-dead past comes back to haunt him. This specter with a thin, deep-voiced man shadowing his every footstep.
Another specter had appeared on that last mission. The most disturbing part of this one was that she did not belong to the American. She does not exist in any of the American's memories. She does not exist at all, but the American knew her. The Soldier did not, but she is still one of his.
He knows this in the calm efficiency with her pistols, her precise understanding of his weaknesses, the sharp impact of her body against his. One of his. One from a long-cold program, and yet she looks exactly the same.
The quiet relief of the American upon seeing her told the Soldier that she must have been important to them. Perhaps the Soldier had been the one to kill her. He half-expected to find a leaking bullet wound somewhere on her body. Buried ghosts resurrected. Further proof that he is defunct, malfunctioning.
It is not just the specters. It is him eating once a day, drinking water at every odd hour, lying still on the mattress for an hour at night, and yet his health is still deteriorating. It is him finding it harder to move his body and to remember things.
He has conducted many experiments, but only the eating and drinking experiments seem to bear fruit.
The Soldier misses the American. A companion, a witness to vouch for his existence. Once the Soldier dies, the American will too, but the affirmation, however temporary, is still a comfort. In the American’s absence, he feels…unmoored. The American’s memories always seemed more substantial than reality.
When the Soldier had visited the old woman, the target—the specter—had reappeared. He was announced by the rumble of a motorcycle engine in the street. The Soldier was on the roof of the next building by the time the specter settled at the woman’s bedside. He arranged a bouquet of blue flowers in a vase on her dresser. The woman laughed when she saw them—morning glories, some corner of the Soldier’s mind had noted.
He watched the specter talk to the old woman for a while. There was the faintest buzzing in the back of his head. It told the Soldier to fire at the specter’s unprotected chest. The American was horrified at the prospect and kept the urge tamped down.
The specter sat in the chair, exposing his back to the open window.
The Soldier watched the woman’s visitor press his face into her hand, his shoulders heaving. He did not understand why the specter would do that—leave his neck so close and vulnerable to the woman. The Soldier had not dropped his guard once around her. Every instinct inside him told him that she was very dangerous. Even old and bed-ridden. But the specter paid no attention to the threat she posed. It irked the Soldier that the target, who had been so difficult to kill, had so little regard for his own safety.
It was almost nightfall, and the neighborhood shuffled as it settled down for the evening. The American grew restless. He pushed at the edges of the Soldier’s mind, but neither of them knew what he wanted exactly. All the Soldier had was the vague certainty that he would know once he found it. He dropped off the roof and walked down the street, away from the specter and the old woman.
Carter sits across from him, watching him with hooded eyes. Bucky’s never seen her so—not vulnerable, never that—unguarded? He can’t quite find the right word to describe the easy looseness in her shoulders, her hair falling out of its pin-curls, her stockinged feet pressing into the wooden table leg. It’s surprising to him that she can’t hold her alcohol.
That languid ease of hers is infectious. He tells Carter half-remembered stories of all the scrapes Steve would get himself in. The tepid alcohol buzzes pleasantly in his throat.
“You know,” Bucky says to her, “sometimes I sent Steve little doodles of him as comic book heroes. He was always stuffing sketches into his letters, so I thought I’d return the favor. He liked the ones where I made him big and heroic, and there were a lot of those sorts of comic book heroes going around. Everyone likes a hero in wartime.”
Carter smiles. “Don’t tell me.”
“Yup, I sent Steve drawings of him as Captain America.” Bucky says and listens to her laugh, loud and crisp. “It was a real trick seeing Steve’s face on a body much too big for him, seeing that silly little drawing come to life. I thought I’d gone ‘round the bend.”
“It certainly was a sight. One of the nurses looked like she might faint on the spot.”
“Little Stevie making the dames swoon.” Bucky mimes wiping a tear from his eye. “He’s all grown up now.”
“All grown up indeed,” Carter says, quirking an eyebrow. Bucky snorts into his drink. “He mentioned that not many women before have, as you say, swooned over him.”
“You’ve seen him. He would need to be either a sweet-talker, rich, or a damn good dancer to get a dame to look twice at him. And well, he’s none of that.”
“Somehow, it is still surprising. He is—striking.”
He shrugs. “He’s gone around with a couple of dames, but I never got the sense he was ever really trying.”
“He mentioned waiting for the right person,” Carter says. Bucky feels oddly keyed up. Energy frizzes uncomfortably in his fingertips.
“Well, he sure as hell didn’t look for her. I can count on one hand how many dates Steve’s landed himself.”
“I see.” Carter’s looking at Bucky like she’s just now realizing something. He shifts nervously.
It’s just too convenient.
It would be impossible for Carter to not be aware of her weakness to alcohol. And if Bucky knows anything about Carter, it’s that she doesn’t simply slip up. She can’t afford to make mistakes. She wouldn’t let her guard down around him, an acquaintance at best.
He looks at her with her bottom lip pressed into her glass, bright red and stretched back to reveal neat rows of white teeth. The empty pub. The dishevelment. The odd vulnerability. The easy atmosphere of candor. The gently probing questions. Bucky can’t help but admire how masterfully Carter maneuvered him.
“If you want to know something, just come out and ask it,” he says. “It’s about Steve, isn’t it? He’s not a goddamned spy if that’s what you’re asking.”
She smiles, genuinely this time. It crinkles her eyes and folds the skin around her mouth, and it would be unattractive if Carter wasn’t so stunning already. Bucky doesn’t even know how he managed to be fooled by the cookie-cutter grin she had on her face earlier. “I underestimated you,” Carter says.
“Then what the hell is this about?”
“You needn’t worry. I’ve never doubted Steve’s loyalties. But make no mistake. The fact that Steve survived at all is nothing short of a miracle. Your rescue was a suicide mission, but he didn’t even hesitate. I sent him to a rash and tragic death—a hero’s death,” she taps a nail against the side of her glass, “but that was all he really wanted.”
“You thought he was going to die, and you just let him go?”
“Yes,” she replies without a hint of uncertainty. “Steve is a very smart man, but that’s not why I trust him. I know many smart men, but Steve…he is a good man. Stubborn and loyal to a fault. He was ready to march alone into enemy territory simply because there was a possibility you might’ve been alive. You mean a lot to him. Others have noticed, and well, they will wonder.”
“If you’re implying what I think you are, then you’re blind as hell. He’s completely over the moon for you.”
Carter swirls her drink in its glass and drinks the rest. “Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Captain America’s image is of vital importance. If enough rumors start circulating, well, drastic action may be required.”
Bucky groans. He hates to admit it, but Carter makes good company even when she’s trying to screw with his head. He downs the rest of his beer. “Jesus, I’ll take the fall if anything happens. Is that what you want? Well, then you have your answer. I’ll take the discharge, the court martial. Hell, half my old unit already thought I was sleeping with Jones. This ain’t new.”
“You’d do that for Steve.”
“Yeah, hell, have you met the guy? Tell me you wouldn’t.”
Carter sets down her glass. “I wouldn’t,” she says, a hint of steel in her voice. “If it came down to it, I wouldn’t. But I would also do everything in my power to stop things from reaching that point.”
He can’t fault her for that. If anything, Bucky respects her more. Carter—she cares deeply, but she’s ambitious, ruthlessly so. She’s the kind of person who could reshape the century simply by existing. Carter and Steve, of course they’re drawn to each other. They can’t help it.
“I love him,” he tells her empty glass, “but you know that already.”
“I do,” she replies, and they let his confession sit between them.
He loves Steve. God help him, he loves him, and he knows Carter would be better for Steve. Bucky’s feelings make him self-destructive, and that’s not what Steve needs, not when he’s got enough crazy inside him already. But Carter isn’t like either of them. She’s smart and rational, and she can balance out Steve. She can make him sane. They can change the world together.
And Bucky can’t see himself in that picture. He can’t imagine himself existing outside this world of violence and death and bullets. Once Gabe asked him what he’d do once the war’s over, and he told him that he’d wait for the next one to start and sign right back up. Even then, he doesn’t think that’s likely.
“I don’t think I’ll make it to the end of the war,” Bucky says.
Carter understands the silent request—of course she does. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
The Soldier watches the girl smoke a cigarette. She offers it to him as she cleans her knife on the target’s shirt.
Her hair slowly surrenders to the day’s humidity, frizzing out of its smooth curls. She touches the target’s cheek and runs a fingernail down the side of his cheek. He had shuddered when she slid her knife into his throat, but he died quietly nonetheless.
Marlboros, a disgusted voice in his head says, A lady’s brand.
The Soldier accepts the cigarette and takes a long drag. The smoke scrapes and burns pleasantly in his throat. Lighter fluid on his tongue. Smoke twisting in fat grey coils above his head. Beside him, the girl slides her fingers through the target’s hair and murmurs, “Nikolaev, Foma Petrovich.”
He looks at her flat-line mouth, rigid back, tensed stomach, tucked-close arms, her unnatural stillness. The Soldier reaches over and touches her wrist with the cold hand. The girl sighs. “Romanovna, Natalia Alianovna. My name.”
The purple beginnings of a bruise forms on her arm where metal touches skin. They both ignore it. The Soldier takes drags out of her Marlboro until the cigarette burns down to its filter.
“Natashenka,” he says.
She smiles and tucks her nose into the crook of his neck.
Bucky takes to being a soldier well. Too well.
He knows now that Steve would be horrible at it. He’d never shut up. He’d always argue and question and challenge. But Bucky knows how to roll over like a trained dog. The sergeant likes him because he can keep his mouth shut, he doesn’t fidget, and he doesn’t ever miss. It’s all in the eyes, they tell him. He can see more than everyone else.
Maybe it’s all that practice Bucky got, trying to pick Steve out from a crowd of people at least two heads taller than him. That’s a cruel thought, he knows. He’s never really been nice before, but he can feel basic training grind him into a colder, harsher person.
“Look, Ma, I’m a real soldier now,” he says aloud.
Packard cracks a smile and says, “Nah. Not till you actually start killing Krauts.” Packard’s been here longer, and he always seems to know more than everyone else.
Bucky thinks of the gangster pictures he used to like. Guys in boxy suits who don’t think twice about popping a cap in the head of anyone they don’t like. “You ever kill anyone?” he asks.
“Yeah.” Packard flicks cigarette ash into Bucky’s hair. “A bootlegger sold my little brother some rotgut—gave him Jake leg, so I killed him.”
“The bastard had it coming.”
“Not the bootlegger. My brother. I put him out of his misery.” Bucky doesn’t know if he’d do the same. He hadn’t when Sarah Rogers spent nine months dying in slow motion. “How ‘bout you?” Packard asks. He’s looking at Bucky now, gauging him.
“I put a dog down once.”
Packard nods. “It’s basically the same thing.”
They fall silent and go back to smoking. Bucky likes Packard. He always sneaks extra food out of the mess tent, and he’s not picky about his cigarettes. But he doesn’t think he’d like Packard if they met back home. He’s just enough of a bastard to be one of those guys who’d look at Steve and see a punk who needs to be put in his place. If they were in Brooklyn, Bucky probably would’ve killed him.
But they’re in basic, and everyone’s either already a sadistic son of a bitch or quickly learning to act like one. Bucky has a little bit of a bastard inside him too now, so he and Packard get along just fine.
The family living on the top floor is comprised of a man, a woman, and a child. They are lean and grey-skinned in a way that indicates a lifetime of malnourishment. They do not own any firearms. The Soldier does not think they even know he is living in the same building as them.
Even if they do attack him, they are clearly civilians, untrained, easy to overcome. The child can be used as leverage if necessary.
He does not think they will pose a threat at all, however. Their behavior is consistent with fugitives. They rarely leave the building, and when they do, only at daybreak and in the early hours of the morning. They make very little noise. Deliberately, carefully, not the natural quiet of trained professionals.
Their clothes rustle. Their feet shuffle on the floor. They speak to each other because they do not know how to communicate with nonverbal signals. It is comforting to listen to them. The noises are a reminder that they are alive.
More often than not, he finds himself in the good company of Gabe Jones, who is in a white unit of a segregated army seemingly on a clerical error. Everyone would kick up a big fuss about this and demand that he be assigned to a different unit if it weren’t for the fact that Jones is the only one who can speak, read, and write in French and German fluently. His value as a translator doesn’t change the fact that no one wants to count a Negro as a comrade, so he’s usually assigned to latrine duty until there are documents to translate or prisoners to interrogate.
Seeing as Bucky has clearly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a steady rifle hand, he and Jones are kindred spirits in a way. Misery loves company, as they say. They usually share a pup tent. Sometimes the nights are too quiet, and Jones sketches out the stories of his home. Big family, small house, quiet adults, loud children. Every part of himself shared with someone else. The first time he had a set of clothes that was his and his alone was when he started Basic. He laughs and says it’s a relief, but Bucky can’t really believe him.
Bucky doesn’t talk about Steve, but Jones knows about him. He gets letters in big clumps whenever the offices in London manage to send someone to the front. Steve rambles about the rations, the propaganda reels, and the recruitment offices. Bucky sends back letters full of meaningless descriptions of cigarettes and how the snow sits differently on the trees in Austria. Sometimes Steve attaches drawings of loose hair and sweaty clothes and swinging bodies, and Bucky realizes that he hasn’t so much as thought about dancing in months.
“It’s too different,” he tells Jones once. “I had a different body in Brooklyn. I was tall and a little too skinny, but I fit into my own skin better. Now, I don’t know.”
They’re sitting in a tiny bar in a tiny town somewhere near the Italian border. The beer tastes horrible, but the melancholy makes Bucky knock back more pints than he should. There aren’t a lot of locals here. The entire room is filled with uniformed men chatting up the few dames who ventured out tonight. A few other units have already passed through over the past months, so the girls here are polite and canny. There’s a man nursing his drink in a dark corner who looks a little like Steve if Bucky squints. He’s blond and wiry, but he’s too tall, and his nose is too straight.
Jones coughs pointedly, and Bucky realizes he hasn’t heard anything that he said. “You know, that’s why no one wants to share a tent with you,” Jones says gently, but there’s a sharpness to his smile.
Bucky frowns, and Jones starts ticking points on his fingers. “You don’t chase skirts. You’ve been staring at that man the entire night. You’re clearly stuck on someone back home, and the only letters you get are from someone named Steve.” He nods at Bucky’s stunned expression. “It paints a pretty damning picture.”
“They think I’m a fruit.”
“Why do you think we’re paired together so often?”
Bucky opens his mouth to deny the insinuation. He closes it. He can deny all he wants, but at the end of the day, he and Gabe are in the same boat. The military’s fine with queers and Negroes as long as they march in line and stay away from the normal soldiers. If anything, Gabe has been at this for a hell of a lot longer. His entire life.
Jones has that pitying smile on his face. He smiles all the damn time. He smiles when he’s sad or bored or hungry or tired. He smiles the widest when he’s scared. Bucky wonders what his face must look like when he’s safe at home.
Bucky must have a hell of an expression on his face because Jones pats his arm sympathetically and says, “The fairy and the Negro. We make a happy couple.”
There is an entry in the notebook in his handwriting. It is benign. Ate a plum at 3 pm. Slightly overripe. The seller said that it is late in the season for plums.
There is another plum in the refrigerator. The Soldier eats it. It is soft and overly sweet.
Here is the problem: the Soldier ran out of money a week ago. He could not have bought a plum. He has a backpack that he does not remember acquiring. The American specifically ordered him to not steal. He has followed this directive even when the American is gone. But now he has not.
Here is the problem: the Soldier does not remember writing this. He does not remember buying plums or the backpack. He has never eaten plums before. There are no other unusual entries in the notebook. A small thing but disturbing nonetheless.
Here is the problem: the Soldier’s memory is becoming increasingly unreliable.
The American is screaming. The world is falling down. The handler’s voice echoes smooth and soothing. The Soldier has to scream back to drown out the noise. The mission. The mission. The m—
The target is talking to him.
The targets speaks, and everything else goes quiet. The American lowers his voice, recites a name like a prayer. The handler’s directive repeats endlessly, but it is suddenly distant. It has no hold on him, and the Soldier thinks, This must be the first.
The first man the Soldier followed. The first to walk the earth. The first to ever speak. The first handler. An influence that runs so deep, it wipes away all else.
The handler recites a phrase to him. The end of the line. He says it with such gravity and certainty that the Soldier can feel himself coming undone, the winding pathways inside him unraveling. The American is dead silent. The weight of the handler’s voice pulls him down, and The Soldier does not struggle. He goes willingly.
Sometimes, Bucky thinks, when the Soldier is watching a target through the scope of his rifle, he fixes on a detail that evokes one of Bucky’s memories.
The Soldier sees everything fresh and bright and strange. Sometimes he even refuses to make the kill because that one little detail would be the only familiar thing in a terrifyingly alien world. Bucky would have to finish the job for him.
There’ll be a man in a ridiculous suit sipping champagne. A skinny little kid clutching a rifle much too large for him, staring up at Bucky. A woman crouching in an alleyway that stank of garbage and piss. A man stepping into his shoes as he kissed his wife goodbye. The whites of a teenager’s eyes standing out against his face as Bucky pulled the trigger.
It doesn’t happen all the time. Too often if he’s being honest.
Through the open window, there is a woman getting ready for the day. She squints into the mirror, stands on her tiptoes to get a better angle. Her name is Zhang, Xinru. There are bandaids on the backs of her ankles because her only pair of shoes is too large for her.
The woman sometimes says hello to the man who sits in the shade of his doorway with a set of wooden baubles laid out on a cloth on his lap. She makes her living selling cold sodas. They think of each other as something similar to comrades in arms, spending the long humid days hawking their wares to indifferent tourists.
The woman loads her cooler of melted ice onto the back of a motorbike, and the Soldier considers, briefly, lending a hand. She would thank him maybe. He would laugh and say that it was no trouble at all. She would insist that he accept something, so he would take a soda gone flat from the heat. An American brand with a foreign label. The classic color scheme, the font, and the logo—all the same but speaking a different language.
The woman wobbles and rests her hands on her knees. Bucky thinks, The Soldier has the strangest sensibilities, and fires, watching her fall.
The Soldier’s target is hiding behind a woman. She is sharp and watchful. A canny opponent with few weaknesses. He imagines her younger—a girl. Sun-flushed and visibly joyful despite her attempts to hide it. A light spray of freckles on her arms.
He aims at her abdomen and watches her drop to her knees. The American whispers a name he does not recognize. Romanovna, Natalia Alianovna.
There is a tightness in the Soldier’s throat when he says, “Natashenka,” and he does not know why.
Basic training should bother him more. It’s an ugly business—breaking down a generation of patriotic, idealistic boys into their component parts, stripping individuality from their backs so they can fit neatly into the mold of a soldier.
Bucky kicks his shoes off and pulls his shirt over his head. Some of the others stop once they’re in their skivvies, but the sergeant snaps at them to take those off too. They all know that they don’t need to be completely naked to be issued their new clothing, but most of the recruits are too scared to protest. The cockier ones mouth off about the sergeant abusing his power to satisfy his perverse fantasies.
The sergeant sweeps the room, taking note of anyone who looks back at him a little too sharply, and then, he stares each of them in the eye, one at a time.
There’s a certain power given to the only clothed person in the room, even if most of them aren’t aware of it. Eventually, even the self-fashioned hotshots wilt and look away. The method is crude but effective, and soon the sergeant has a room full of subdued men.
Bucky thinks of Steve. He would refuse to back down simply because he dislikes authority on principle, the idiot. The sergeant catches Bucky when he smiles. For some reason, Bucky is bolstered by the thought of Steve Rogers. He would be the smallest man in the room, but he would be the only one with enough balls to maintain eye contact. Even when Bucky knows exactly what is going on, he looks away eventually, but he never stops smiling.
He notices that everyone in the room is staring at one kid in particular. Bucky remembers him vaguely from the flurry of introductions on the ride over—Hampton, he believes. Pasty, freckly, and weedy in a way that suggests he hasn’t quite grown into his body yet. He looks to be barely old enough to enlist. Hampton’s the only one in the room who’s hard.
Judging from the look of horror on his face, he’s discovering inclinations he’d never even thought of before. Or the poor kid could simply be reacting to the bizarre but oddly sexual situation of being naked and scrutinized in a room full of other naked men. Some of the others are starting to smile, shark-like.
They are issued shirts, pants, socks, underwear, shoes, and a canvas bag to put them all in. They’re also given a bucket with toiletries inside and a sewing kit. Earlier, they had watched their knapsacks and suitcases be ransacked and then sent home. Bucky understands the message here too: their possessions and their bodies belong to the Army.
Once everyone is clothed, some of the others begin to circle Hampton who’s still embarrassingly hard. Bucky doesn’t watch. The shame and helplessness from earlier makes them cruel now. He stares at the sergeant, who observes the proceedings with mild interest, as if he’s looking at a particularly intriguing experiment rather than the humiliation of an eighteen-year-old kid. Maybe it is to him.
Steve would protest. He would jump into the fray, not caring that he’s hopelessly outnumbered. He’s stupid like that, but Bucky’s always been the cowardly one. He’s looking to save his own skin—nothing more, nothing less.
That night, Bucky lies on his side and watches Hampton in the next bunk run his fingers through his freshly shorn hair. He listens to the steady sound of fake sleep. The quiet and the dark make men reflective, and Bucky wonders if this too is a tactic. He imagines a conference table in DC, surrounded by brass sipping muddy coffee and discussing the best ways to break a man—like they would a feral dog.
Somewhere in the room is a faint rustling and grunting as two guys jerk each other off. Making fun of the queer is all well and good in daylight, but at night, the reality of the coming months without a single dame in sight becomes apparent. At night, two horny guys can pull each other off, and no one will breathe a word. Bucky doesn’t have to see Hampton’s face to know that he’s red. Whether it’s from shame, anger, arousal, or some combination of the three, Bucky doesn’t know.
There’s a long sigh, some muffled swearing, and finally, silence. Hampton shifts in his bunk, and in the dim lighting, Bucky can see that he’s hard again. For a moment, he considers slipping out of his bed, walking over, and bringing Hampton off. It wouldn’t really be any different from touching his own dick, and the poor kid needs all the pity he can get.
Bucky should probably be thinking about something else. The war and blowing the heads off Nazis. Things good little soldiers are supposed to think about at night. But all he can think about is Steve.
Even though Bucky knows it’s stupid, he wishes Steve is here with him. He wishes he could follow Steve in whatever idiotic crusade he takes up. He’d probably keel over before the end of the first month. Bucky hadn’t thought he even had it in him to be homesick, but here he is. He lies on his back, closes his eyes, and tries to ignore the quiet groan coming from the next bed over.
What disturbs the Soldier the most is the child. Usually children fuss loudly, but this child does not. She snuffles and murmurs but does not cry. Some long-buried instinct tells him that should not be. It is unnatural.
The Soldier understands when he stops hearing even the faint sigh that the child makes every time she breathes. The man and the woman grieve quietly. They muffle their voices in their hands. They bite down on strips of cloth to keep everything locked up inside their chests. Even then, the silence is imperfect.
A couple weeks later, the Soldier realizes that he cannot hear any sound from the apartment above him.
The summer heat breaks halfway through October, and for a few weeks, the days fall in the blessed middle ground between too hot and too cold. Steve still has both of his jobs, but they still can’t pay off their debts.
They read newspapers about the war in Europe and listen to the pacing shoes of the Lewinson family in the room above them. Word of the Nazis killing Jews by the tens of thousands buzzes through the rooming house, and the anxious sounds of the Lewinsons only grow louder and more frequent. Steve is all stiff shoulders and righteous indignation and sweeping statements: “We gotta do something, Buck.”
And Bucky does think that the Nazis are horrible, but he has other things to worry about. He’s back to the usual procedure: smoke cigarettes, lie to Steve, skip as many meals as he can, rinse, repeat. He’s dropping so much weight these days that he’s worried he’ll wake up one morning to find he’s disappeared completely. It only gets worse when Bucky’s boss decides he’s too weak to do the work and fires him.
They’re desperate by the time the war rolls over America.
A week after the radio is filled with panicked reports of Japanese planes swooping like greedy seagulls over Pearl Harbor, they both enlist. Steve is still hung up over his goddamn principles. He talks about fighting for what’s right, standing up to the bully. Like the whole war’s suddenly a macrocosm for his back alley scraps.
Bucky lets him ramble on about fighting the good fight, but he doesn’t buy into it one whit. All he cares about is that the army will feed him three square meals a day and pay him a decent wage.
Bucky has lost weight and muscle mass over the past months, but he’s still pretty healthy. He passes the physical examinations that had stopped Steve cold with the doctor stifling a chuckle as he stamped a 4F on his form.
And Bucky is secretly thankful for the influx of hale hearty young men full of patriotic spirit so that the recruitment offices aren’t nearly desperate enough to take Steve.
During the psychological examination, the doctor asks all sorts of odd questions, and Bucky answers them without much thought. He wonders how Steve would answer, and he’s glad that he never made it this far. The doctors would take him in a heartbeat if they ever got a sense of Steve’s sheer righteousness.
At one point, the doctor peers over his clipboard at Bucky and asks, “Are you a homosexual?”
It is, Bucky later learns, one of the many strange things that the military likes to call queers. Another one they like is “sexual psychopath,” which they put on the dishonorable discharge paperwork.
“What’s that?” he asks.
The doctor blinks at him and rephrases, “Do you have sexual intercourse with men?”
“No,” Bucky says.
“Do you like girls?”
“Yeah,” he says.
The doctor nods and starts on the next set of questions.
Bucky walks out of the enlistment office with a 1A on his form and orders to report for duty next week. Steve congratulates him warmly, but neither of them is really happy. Bucky’s starting to think that this is one of those fights that’s too big for himself, too big for Steve, too big for everyone if he’s being honest.
“So we’re not talking about it?”
Bucky looks at Steve, tightly wound with concern and trying so hard not to show it. “About what?” he asks, carefully.
“About well,” Steve flushes a little and gestures at himself. A half-formed memory surfaces. Steve making the same motion at a smaller, weaker body. Steve saying, “I know who I am already,” tinged with shame and refusing to admit it. If Bucky was brave, he might have kissed him that day.
“Well,” Bucky says slowly. “What happened?”
“I—well, there was this serum. It made me bigger, better.” Better.
“No one forced you? You volunteered, right?” There’s this horrible image in his head of some maniac snatching Steve off the streets and shoving needles full of strange drugs into his bloodstream.
“I signed up. It gave me a chance to fight.” Steve’s shrinking into himself a little, bracing himself.
Three years ago, Bucky would’ve been scared shitless because Steve would get himself killed one day because Bucky can’t always be around to pull him out of trouble. But all Bucky can do is be grateful.
At least Steve had a choice. Of course his dumb ass would volunteer, but god, at least he chose. Bucky can still feel whatever Zola pumped into him crawling under his skin. If God is conspiring to make them both lab experiments, Bucky’s grateful as hell that it was Steve who got to choose.
“You’re a fucking idiot,” he says, “but I’m glad you’re alive.”
Steve’s looking at him, studying him, and Bucky says, “You’re not gonna say anything about this either?” He knows he’s different. He’s colder, harder, and meaner than he was in Brooklyn.
“No,” Steve says, all puffed-up pride and indignation, and Bucky could cry. There’s a shininess to Steve that says that the war hasn’t gotten to him yet, and Bucky’s so fucking thankful for these small mercies. He doesn’t know if he can handle seeing a Steve Rogers who’s too tired and cynical to care.
“You okay, Buck?” Steve asks.
“Yeah,” Bucky says.
The handler hears the girl call the Soldier by name once. She disappears on a mission for a week and returns with bruises on her temples. She starts to call him Djenya instead of Djeyms after that.
The Soldier is not dying, but there are certain things that he should be able to do but cannot. He does not know he is hungry until his body begins to break down. He does not become thirsty. He does not age. He does not feel emotion—at least, not in the way he should. He knows that now. In the American’s memories, he can feel the insistent tugs of a physical body. A silent war of fears and desires with no end, no victory. Skirmishes until the day he died.
The Soldier understands that it is not normal to be this detached from himself. He does not feel the need for food and water, but he will die without them. He has learned how to survive, cut off from the signals his body sends him, operating solely on experimentation and guesswork.
He is still missing something.
He is not dying, but he can no longer trust his mind. Every day he is losing at least a couple minutes to the blankness. There are more dead spaces in his memory. There are more entries in the notebook that do not belong to him. Food that he does not remember buying continues to appear in the refrigerator. He eats the food despite the growing sense of unease. There are two toffee bars on top of the refrigerator now. He does not touch them.
He notices that the surrounding neighborhood has emptied out.
Once, he finds himself on the outskirts of the city, walking east. Once, he finds himself in the secure place touching the dead woman’s forehead where the bullet entered. Once, he finds himself on the top floor. Each time, he returns to his apartment, and the shivers do not stop for hours.
He is not dying, but—
Here is the problem: it is impossible for the Soldier to sleep without the cold.
The Soldier creeps up to the top floor. The only recently occupied apartment is the one with the front door torn off its hinges. The family has been silent for a month now.
He does not know what he expects. Perhaps the man and the woman have followed the other people who picked up their lives and fled from the world-killing creature.
He does not think that is likely.
Maybe they would flee, but they are trapped by their fear of the more immediate danger. He still does not know what it is. He thinks that he would have found it during the times he roamed the city. Maybe he has, and he just cannot remember.
The apartment is cluttered in a way that proves his evaluation. There are plates of food rotting on the table. Clothes hung carelessly on top of chairs. If they had fled, they would take at least some of their belongings with them.
The child is on the couch with a pillow under her head. The Soldier does not look away from her.
Her eyes are closed. She has light wispy hair curling around her scalp. Her flesh and her skin cling close to her bones. She has been dead for a long time now. Despite the cold of the recent months, rot creeps over her skin. It is easy to see where the decay has taken hold.
The Soldier picks up the child and carries her out of the apartment. She is so small that he does not draw any scrutiny carrying her.
He does not carry the child with the cold arm. Only the warm one. The soft flesh one. It is still a weapon, but somehow less so. The cold arm is just as much a part of him as the warm, but sometimes he gets the sense that he does not have full control over it. He uses it less frequently even though it is superior to the warm arm in many ways. Stronger. More durable. Fewer pain receptors. His warm arm is obsolete hardware by comparison.
The cold arm is a part of him, yet he always feels like the handlers had somehow ingrained their will into the metal muscle fibers. He cannot trust the cold arm for tasks such as carrying broken-down children.
He needs a place where she will not be disturbed. Burial is traditional, but the cemeteries are too open, too exposed. Leaving the city to find an isolated patch of ground would not work either. There are roaming packs of feral dogs outside of the city. They would dig up her body within days.
The Soldier takes the child to the secure place. He walks down twisting corridors, his steps echoing against bare walls. He walks until he reaches the room where the cold used to be. Somehow, he expects it to be different.
The woman with her expression of disbelief is still lying on the floor. The dust he disturbed on his first visit has settled back into place. There are still scuffs where the cold used to be. The Soldier misses it.
He lays the child down on top of the scuffs. It is a hard place to be for the rest of eternity, but it is the best that the Soldier can give.
The cold has always been the place where the Soldier could find peace. He hopes that maybe it will do the same for the child. It is somehow fitting—the woman and the child lying side by side on the concrete floor. The Soldier wishes that he could do more.
He finds that he is severely limited when it comes to this. Peace. He is not an instrument of comfort.
The Soldier touches the child’s forehead with the warm hand. He feels sorry for the child. The emotion is a small victory. It is not something that the handlers would ever implant into him. It actively hinders his functioning. Something gained second-hand. A byproduct of the American’s presence in the Soldier’s head. A victory that is hard-won. Bitter.
The Soldier still longs for the cold. He knows that if he were to meet a new handler, one that could put him back under the cold, he would not hesitate to go back. Even though they would inflict much pain, he would still go back—if only for those decades of respite.
He returns to the apartment on the top floor. The Soldier is tired. He does not know how he has been able to continue this long. He checks the other room. The child’s parents are in the bathroom. They are sitting on the floor with their eyes open.
Here is the problem: the Soldier knows that he is broken. He is in peak physical condition. There is nothing wrong with his body. The Soldier is the problem. A malfunctioning model.
Steve recovers eventually, but his stint in the hospital eats through all of their savings. They’re working as much as they can, but the pay is so low and the hours so sparse, and they were barely scraping by even before they had the hospital bills to worry about.
Steve mumbles his excuses about the other guy offending his principles, but Bucky’s spitting mad.
“That’s bullshit, and you know it, Steve,” he snarls. “This has got nothing to do with your fucking principles.”
Steve’s body is one rigid line. He unwraps his bandages with jerky motions, letting it spool in long loose coils on the floor. His mouth is tight, and his jaw is clenched. “It has everything to do with them,” he says evenly.
“Oh, really?” Bucky barks out a short harsh laugh. “Because people’s principles get offended all the time, and they don’t do anything about it. They do the smart thing—they run like hell.”
Steve’s expression flickers a little, betraying the deep well of anger he’s trying to hide. “They shouldn’t have to.”
Bucky slams his hands down on the table. It groans in protest, and Steve stills. “The only person in this entire city who’s too fucking stupid to run away is you. And the only reason you’re not dead is because you’re too goddamned lucky for your own good.”
“So I’m just supposed to stand by and do nothing.” Steve says flatly.
“If you don’t, you’re gonna get yourself killed.”
Steve glares at Bucky. “You’re such a fucking hypocrite,” he hisses.
“I’m just telling the truth.”
“And what, like you haven’t been wading into fights with me all this time?”
Steve is standing now, his fists clenched, and suddenly he seems all of six feet tall. Bucky feels himself being pushed on the defensive. “That’s different.”
“Of course, it is.” Steve says bitterly. “Because you’re big and strong, and you’re not going to die if someone roughs you up. But me, I’m delicate, aren’t I? You treat me like a dame who can’t even finish her fights properly.”
“You would have died if I hadn’t found you.”
“I’m always dying. If someone doesn’t kill me, it’ll be the pneumonia, or the scarlet fever, or the asthma, or the rheumatic fever, or the heart palpitations, or something else entirely. You don’t get it, Buck. If I wait until I’m taller or stronger or healthier to stand up for myself, I’m going to spend my entire life running.”
Steve is flushed down to his neck, and his breath heaves a little unevenly out of his chest, but he hasn’t backed down one bit. He scowls up at Bucky like he’s just another obstacle that he needs to overcome, like he’s just another bully trying to knock him flat. The thought sends a chill bolting down Bucky’s spine.
He softens his voice. “I’d rather see you live a long, cowardly life than go out in a blaze of glory before you’re thirty.”
And Steve heaves a sigh and rubs at the crease between his brows. He looks him in the eye and says, “If I didn’t fight, would you even give a damn about me?”
And he’s right, the bastard. Bucky’s never met anyone like him. Steve’s a figure of absolute good. He may be bafflingly stubborn and idiotic for someone so goddamn intellectual, but he’s never strayed from his moral code. It’s one of the best things about Steve, how he doesn’t let anything, not even himself, hold him back.
It scares the hell out of Bucky. He knows that one day Steve is gonna end up in a fight that’s way too big for even him. Bucky wants more than anything to be right next to him when that moment comes. Maybe he won’t be able to change much, but God, at least Steve won’t be alone.
“I don’t want to see you become a martyr,” he says quietly.
Steve looks him steadily in the eye. “You won’t.”
It is easy to kill a thought. All it takes is the right memory—the certainty of a gun pressed into the forehead of a man with his too-big hands clenched into fists. The Soldier—Bucky—feeling the recoil shudder through his hand. Everything made simple. Everything narrowed down to the smooth weight of the CO’s—the handler’s—orders. (He misses it.)
The handlers needed pain. Pain and endlessly repeated words. But in the end, it was much simpler than that. A fall to kill a man. A memory to kill a thought. The creation of a world-killing creature to kill its predecessor. The death of James Barnes to kill Steve Rogers. The resurrection of James Barnes to kill the Soldier. And this goes on and on.
Bucky does not stop shaking for hours. It has been days, months (years?) since he died. He drops to his haunches and settles his head between his knees, forcing himself to breathe.
The Soldier—there one moment, gone the next.
The family—Jesus Christ.
The man and the woman stare at him with their eyes and their mouths gaping open, and he can’t stop staring back at them, at their throats, ridged and swollen. The cold hand opens and closes. He studies the articulated joints and the knuckles as they brush up against each other. The places where the cold arm meets his shoulder twinge slightly. The metal plates whir quietly as they shift into place.
It is his now. It’s the only part of his body that does not feel pain.
Eventually the handler officially introduces the girl to the Soldier.
He talks to the Soldier about the outstanding success of this candidate. He understands when they speak to him without meaning to. The handlers and doctors have given up much for the sake of their country. They will remain trapped in this compound with nothing but their projects to keep them company for the rest of their lives. It is a noble but lonely existence.
The handler rubs a hand over his eyes, checks the time, and mumbles out an order.
The Soldier breaks the girl’s arm. Her expression does not change.
“See?” The handler says to the Soldier, “She doesn’t feel pain.”
Bucky returns to the Soldier’s apartment. It is spartan, tactical, but here and there are the oddly personal details. The mattress, the bathmat, the plywood shelves propped up on cinderblocks, a stack of forklift pallets next to the table. He stares at the newspapers taped over the windows and the yellow flowers dappling the wallpaper.
There is a loose floorboard next to the stove, and under it is a black backpack. It is sturdy, practical, almost brand new. The contents: a cheap ballpoint pen, a cheap ballpoint pen cap, several grenades, an empty toffee bar wrapper, a torn-out magazine page with Steve’s face on it, the notebook that Carter gave the Soldier.
There is writing inside the notebook.
The American. Gone.
And a later entry:
The child. Sleeping in the cold place.
Bucky puts the backpack and notebook back where he found them.
He walks out of the Soldier’s apartment. Walks out of the building. Walks down into the cool belly of the dead HYDRA facility. The path is carved into his muscle memory. Bucky has only been here once since the 1989 revolution burned so brightly it consumed itself entirely. He doesn’t know if the Soldier has visited since—well, whatever the hell had happened. Since he disappeared. Fell asleep. Died.
The corridors are grey and quiet. His breathing echoes off the walls. The child is in the cryofreeze room. A sleeping child would have been no problem, but nothing can ever be that goddamn easy. Christ, what the fuck did he expect? He closes his eyes and forces himself to calm down. The child is dead.
Bucky moves the father and the mother to the cryofreeze room. He isn’t the Soldier. The dark and the quiet and the dead scientist make him uneasy. It is macabre. He can’t imagine drawing any comfort from the scene, but the Soldier had. Somehow. He tries not to think too deeply on it.
But this is the best option for the family. Anywhere else would draw attention. No one would ask questions if three fresh bodies turned up in an well-hidden, abandoned HYDRA facility.
He stands in front of the family and breathes slowly. They are laid out next to each other. The withered child curled into a ball in the place where the cryofreeze machine used to be. The father and mother with their wide-open eyes and their crumpled throats. This is a country full of people who are too insignificant to be mourned if a world-killing creature strangles them.
Steve in front of him. His face all busted in, but that isn’t anything new. Steve’s always been bruised up in some way or another because the moron never shut his goddamn mouth. Hell, Bucky doesn’t even know what Steve looks like without cracked ribs or a shiner or a broken nose.
He could almost convince himself that this is like every other time Steve got smart with the wrong guy. But he’s got a goddamn bullet hole in his leg, and he’s got another bullet in his stomach—a gut shot, Jesus Christ. Fire and metal and ash raining down around them like some maniac’s vision of a biblical plague. Like waking up in a nightmare.
Bucky’s standing above Steve, and his arm is up, his fist is clenched. He can feel this urge. He can feel his muscles tensing. Bring his fist down. Strike again and again until Steve stopped. He never knew when to quit, but right now, it would be so easy to force him to stop. Stop fighting, stop getting back up, stop moving, stop breathing. God, Bucky wants more than anything for Steve to just stop.
Then the world groans and falls to its hands and knees. Steve falls with all the fire and metal and ash. And there isn’t a single corner of hell that Bucky wouldn’t follow Steve into, so he jumps in after him, falls with him.
The Soldier hits the water. The American writhes like an animal in its death throes.
Don’t you fucking let him drown.
In his carelessness, the American destroys the paved roads that the Soldier’s handlers constructed for him. The Soldier’s thoughts are too fragmented and scattered to exist without infrastructure. This much he knows.
A decade after the Soldier’s creation, one of his handlers watched a general come home from war and settle down to build highways. Magnificent roads that reached across seemingly endless swathes of land to connect distant cities. The handler admired him deeply. Such ambition. To connect a disparate nation with just asphalt and ingenuity. Why, any man who owned an automobile could drive from one coast to another without a second thought.
So the handler built his own highways into the Soldier’s mind. Constructed them out of marble and white limestone. Painted murals and carved frescoes on the roads themselves. Hung hundreds of suns in the sky to light the way.
And every handler after him added to it. They built meandering dirt roads and straight railroad tracks. Bridges over rivers and tunnels through mountains. Fenced off the tangled wild lands that constantly threatened the advance of civilization. The Soldier’s mind holds the life’s works of dozens of men.
All undone by the target, the specter, the first—the Soldier slams the cold hand into his head, forcing his thoughts to recalibrate. A single instant of clarity, dissipating even as it forms. He barely has a chance to cling to it before it slips away entirely. The handler’s safety is the top priority.
Protect the handler. That much the Soldier can do.
He drags the handler to shore. The American watches the handler closely. He studies the rise and fall of his chest, the shuddering of his throat as he coughs out the water collected in his lungs, the unmistakable motions of a body still working to survive. The American does this without thought. Checking on this handler’s health is an act ingrained into every thread of his being.
Alive. Oh thank god, he’s alive.
The Soldier stays where he is, looking at the handler. There are screaming people in the river. There are already helicopters swarming the sky.
Return for debrief and reconditioning.
He can feel the other handlers’ directives buzzing angrily.
Return for debrief and reconditioning.
The Soldier hesitates, staring at the first.
Return for debrief and reconditioning.
Fuck that, the American says.
Return for debrief and reconditioning.
The Soldier returns for debrief and reconditioning.
The walk back is difficult. The American had paused in his rampage at the sight of the first handler alive and breathing, but he began anew the moment the directives reasserted themselves.
The Soldier understands. The American has been in this body long before the Soldier was created. The destruction of the highways in his mind is a tragedy, but perhaps it is necessary. Every so often, a fence—chain-link, an unbroken line going on for miles and miles, beautiful in its utilitarian simplicity—falls, and he stumbles into a flash memory of the American in his former glory. The Soldier gets the sense that he must be a bastardization of what the American once was.
The Soldier continues on until he’s in the room with the sickly yellow lights and the thousand reflecting panels. The doctors are here. The Soldier looks at their white coats, their white gloves, their white masks on their white faces, the whites of their eyes. They flutter around him like birds. They are afraid. The world is falling to its knees.
They did not think he would come back. The Asset, one of them says, at least we still have the Asset.
One of the doctors reaches out to pat the Soldier’s head. This one always comments about how beautiful his hair is. He closes his eyes and feels her hand rest gently on the back of his neck.
The American swipes at one of the gleaming white columns holding the train tracks in his mind aloft. The Soldier looks on as an empty freight car falls and crumples on the icy bottom of a ravine.
The homesickness is new. Or it isn’t. He catches himself, sometimes, longing for the cold and rest. He’d been sick for Steve at one point, and then Steve came back, and Bucky kept right on missing him. But that’s gone now, he tells himself. The sickness is still there, just different. A fresh layer of paint on an old house.
One of the curtains has been opened in the Soldier’s apartment. The apartment is filled with floating dust motes and sunlight. Bucky draws the curtains to a close before he sits on the couch and takes off his shoes.
There’s been an unmarked box outside his door for days now. There’s toffee sitting on the top of the refrigerator. Bucky hasn’t touched either of them.
Water is different, he thinks. Harder somehow. He can taste rust and chlorine and something else. The air’s clearer. Not necessarily cleaner, maybe. There’s supposed to be more pollution and dirt and grit in the air these days, but it doesn’t seem like that.
He doesn’t know why it bothers him. He’d tugged the curtains open when someone started shouting in the street—that’s all.
Bucky used to love it when sunlight poured into the apartment, and he could see the daily routines of the folks living in the building across from him. He used to sit on the fire escape and wave at the neighbors. He used to sleep with the windows open.
Now he’s afraid of open windows and toffee and a cardboard box that really has no business being in the hallway.
Bucky opens his front door and takes the box inside. He’s not crazy. He’s not.
There’s a note: Take care of these for me.
There’s a tube of red lipstick. There’re four notebooks. Three of them are filled with Carter’s neat handwriting.
One of them is blank except for another note on the first page: I must confess, I find myself living in the past more than I do in the present. Seventy years in the future, and I’m just now discovering that I’m not much of a pragmatist.
Bucky turns to an empty page and writes. The old rooming house. The chrome hatches at an automat. The elevated lines criss-crossing the city. New York, even though New York’s still there, just different. And Steve who’s also still there, just different.
Maybe Bucky does miss him, but there’s no room for it now.
All of them get shipped back to London almost the moment they get on base. Medics flutters around them, but miraculously everyone keeps quiet about Bucky’s little stint as a lab rat. Steve and Gabe might’ve had a hand in that. He chooses not to think too deeply on it because no one attempts to question him on illegal human experimentation.
Steve isn’t so lucky. After he debriefs with the brass, he spends another couple of hours getting poked by SSR flunkies. He comes back with a pensive look on his face and tells Bucky, “Stark ran a couple of tests. Said he has no idea when my body would start breaking down, but it’s a hell of a lot longer than everyone else. Who knows, I might not die until someone kills me.”
He doesn’t look excited at all. And well, Bucky can see where he’s coming from. Steve’s entire life has been dedicated to making it the next day until the years slowly rack up. But neither of them had any delusions about his chances.
Steve Rogers would not have lived to become an old man.
And in a matter of moments, all of that is undone. Who the hell is Steve now? It’s not the height or the muscles that disturb Steve the most. It’s the effortless way his body simply exists now. Organs that had never worked quite right performing at their highest capacities.
And now they’re telling him that he might live longer than all of them. That they don’t actually know if his body could ever fail. The prospect must scare the hell out of him.
The girl steps in front of both of them and smooths her hand against the Soldier’s hip. The handler does not notice her arm brush against him, he does not notice her hand slide the Soldier’s knife between his ribs, the handler does not even seem to notice that he is dead.
“Lukin, Aleksandr Vasilyevich.” The girl gives the Soldier’s knife back to him. “No one will notice if we disappear.”
The Soldier accepts the offering. “Natashenka.”
The girl nods and turns to the open door. He steps closer to her and says, “Romanovna, Natalia Alianovna.” Somewhere inside him, a creature howls with grief.
The Soldier waits in the compound until a blond man in a grey suit finds him and speaks to him in American-accented English. The man wrinkles his nose as he toes the girl’s body with his shoe. “Such a waste. She would’ve been a useful asset.”
Bucky learns of Carter’s death two days after the fact. He probably wouldn’t have known even then if he hadn’t glanced at the little newspaper kiosk on the main road. On a skinny little column of an American newspaper, there was a small picture of her in her mid-50s and some title announcing the death of the founder of SHIELD.
He walks home after that, takes out her tube of red lipstick, and reads one of her entries.
Steve talked about his mother only once that I can recall. It was exactly ten years after he discovered that she had contracted tuberculosis. A little over a year later, I realized that Steve was no more ready for Bucky’s death than he had been for his mother’s.
Bucky pulls out his own notebook and scrawls out: Until 1943, Steve Rogers hadn’t breathed easy once in his entire life.
Until 1928, he ate half a pound of raw liver every day so the anemia wouldn’t kill him. In 1931, rheumatic fever burned red rings into his arms, and the aspirin the doctors had given him made ulcers tear into his stomach lining. In 1934, it was scarlet fever with pneumonia right on its heels.
In 1935 he found the handkerchiefs his mother had coughed blood into hidden in a slit in her mattress. He came to my apartment with the stained fabric twisted between his fingers. I was afraid he would catch it too. It would have been a cruel stroke of cosmic irony: the only inheritance that Steve’s mother could give him was her disease.
It’s a goddamn miracle that he even managed to make it this far, but I still feel like he was cheated somehow. You moved on from him, but I don’t think he’ll ever move on from you.
Bucky goes to sleep rolling the tube of lipstick in his hands, wondering, absurdly, if Peggy can somehow read his entries in the notebook she’d given him.
“I used to be normal,” Bucky says aloud, his voice rusty from disuse. He half-expects someone to respond. No one does. Not even the Soldier, and Christ, Bucky’d killed him, hadn’t he?
Maybe he could convince himself that it’s for the best. The Soldier’s finally out of his misery, how lucky. But Bucky can’t get over the goddamn toffee.
Here’s the kicker, the final nail in the coffin, the punchline to a horrible joke that no one’s bothered to explain—the wrapper’s been opened. He can see the little squares of toffee candy inside. A couple pieces are missing. There’re even indents that are clearly teeth marks.
Sometimes Bucky finds himself cataloguing the contents of his pack, dismantling and cleaning his rifle, refolding his clothes. He just gets this itching in him—this need for order. Sometimes his own belongings aren’t enough. Sometimes he’s organizing everyone’s gear.
He and Steve are doing just fine. They’ve settled into old habits. They don’t think too hard. They let things slide. Steve’s noticed these new impulses of Bucky’s, but he knows what to look for. It can’t be explained away easily, so Bucky doesn’t.
Bucky finds Steve’s new sketchbook. There’s Morita sprawled on the ground with his arm raised, his wrist cocked, as he flicks a knife at a tree trunk. Carter’s mouth and the hair curling at her nape. Gabe standing just out of the circle of firelight, his shoulders tilted in quiet grief.
He bites the inside of his cheek. He hadn’t thought Steve drew anymore.
There aren’t any drawings of Bucky. Steve hadn’t bothered with self-portraits either, except for a detailed study of his left hand. Maybe Bucky should’ve been paying more attention.
Steve’s behind him, breathing light and fast. Even though the sun had set hours ago, a memory of the afternoon heat still lingers like a warm palm pressing down. Most of the others have wandered away to check out the river, but Morita’s still there, watching because he always does.
“You draw differently,” Bucky says. Steve’s sketches now are precise and detailed, like a cartographer’s. Looking at his art used to be an almost voyeuristic experience, and for the first time, Bucky thinks that maybe Steve left a bit of himself behind in Erskine’s machine.
“I had to relearn how to draw,” Steve says his tone light. “Everyone thought it was the muscles that threw me off the most, but it was actually being able to see properly.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything, and Steve forges ahead without him. “Stepping out of that machine was a real trick. Everything was so crisp, and I didn’t even know colors could be that bright. Peggy,” he clears his throat a little, “she had this red lipstick on, and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I’d never seen red before I saw her lipstick.”
Occasionally someone, likely a well-meaning sort, would say, “After the war,” because they got it in their head that bringing up home would do desperate men some good.
Gabe’s the type. He talks about homecoming like he’s already standing on his front stoop, breathing in the scent of magnolias, and his face goes smooth and flat, and Bucky gets the sense that this is the closest he’ll ever get to seeing Gabe in repose.
It shouldn’t, but it surprises Bucky that Steve’s the type too.
“So what,” Bucky says, low and cruel, “You’ll go home. Settle down. Marry her.”
“Well, yeah.” Steve flushes a little and then says, carelessly, thoughtlessly, “Isn’t that what we’re all going to do?”
Bucky glances over at Morita on the other side of the camp, still watching them with sharp eyes. Morita shoots with his right hand even though he’s left-handed, and his accent is so careful and flat that it has to be practiced. Morita likes baseball and apple pie and Cary Grant as if he’s proving a point.
Morita’d talked about it just once. “When the president started drafting us into the army,” he’d said, turning his knife over in his hand, “the newspapers ran a quote of him saying, ‘Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.’ And I guess everyone suddenly decided that there’s nothing more American than dying for your country.”
Bucky looks down at his hands. It’s in moments like these that Bucky feels a strange affinity with Gabe and Morita—the way kindred souls never fail to acknowledge each other. The three of them—hard-edged and waiting for the war to finish gnawing on their bones. Condemned to fighting for their country until they prove they’re good enough to live in it. Or until they die. Whichever comes first.
He sighs. “You’re such a fucking idiot, Steve.”
Bucky sits on the ground with a pistol in his hand and stares at the ceiling. He keeps his injured arm curled close to his chest. The radiating pain grounds him. A reminder that he is alive. To live is to suffer, Morita had once declared. Getting drunk made him morbid. It also made him sing. They banned Morita from drinking a mere three months in. God, is he even still alive?
He laughs. Jim Morita, who wanted to be a doctor. Who got drafted before he got the chance to apply to medical school. Who sat by the fire with his feet propped up as he rattled off the names of muscles and organs and bones. Who sat alone for thirty-eight hours in a stinking foxhole with his buddy’s corpse grinning at him before HYDRA finally snatched him up.
Jim Morita who sometimes talked about Danny Sakaguchi. Who talked about meeting him at the Fresno Fairgrounds before their families got relocated to Tule Lake. Jim Morita who was not allowed to drink because they were afraid he might kill himself.
The Soldier’s ghost is standing in front of Bucky. She’s standing at a distance, aiming her pistol at his head. He laughs again.
“My, my,” he tells the ghost, “you haven’t aged a day.”
“Djenya,” she says.
“Sorry, you’ll have to come back later.”
Her mouth tightens ever so much, and she rolls back a little on her heels. “Hello James.”
“Don’t worry, he’s still around. Just,” Bucky tilts his head to the side, “sleeping.”
“He’s not dead?”
He taps his temple with the muzzle of his pistol and says, “He’s up here.”
“That’s not what I asked,” she says.
Bucky falls back until he’s lying on the ground, his head pillowed on the arm of a dead scientist. Her pistol tracks his movement. Swift, precise, no wasted movements. “Then alive!” he says to the ceiling, “No one seems to fucking die these days.”
“Drop the gun, James,” she says flatly, but he can tell he’s unbalanced her.
Bucky laughs. He can’t quite get the hysterical edge out of his voice. “I’m not going to shoot you.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about.”
“You can say it,” Bucky tells her. “I’ve cracked up. Gone mad. Lost my mind.” He laughs again. “And my marbles.”
She doesn’t respond. Just rolls her weight back and forth on the balls of her feet. Bucky looks down after a while. Eye contact just makes the whole scenario even more uncomfortable. She, an old friend and comrade to him, and he, a stranger and an interloper to her. The two of them together with both of their pistols aimed at Bucky’s head.
There’s a dead scientist next to his foot. He’s got flat features and a five o’clock shadow, and if Bucky squints, he could be Morita.
He doesn’t even know why the hell he’s so stuck on Jim fucking Morita. Jim Morita’s old and dead in the ground. All the Commandos are, except Steve and Bucky. Bucky who’s sitting alone in a room with six dead people, and Steve who’s diving into the next crusade. Goddamn messes, the both of them. They can’t even grow old and die properly.
“If I die, he dies too, right?” Bucky asks.
“Drop it, James,” Just the right amount of bite in her voice to be scathing, but Bucky knows her well enough to know she’s afraid.
Bucky says to the ghost, “He misses you. He doesn’t know it, but he does.”
Her expression is carefully blank, but there’s the faintest flush on her cheeks. It makes him dizzy with just how glad he feels. She’s here. Improbably, implausibly, impossibly, she survived. Survived, and my God, the her now is so much more alive than Bucky remembers.
“Jam—” she closes her eyes briefly to gather herself, “Just put the gun on the ground, Bucky.”
Djenya, the woman says to the Soldier.
The name he knows. The handler who had given the name to him patted the Soldier’s cheek affectionately every time he used it. The familiar syllables make his body go loose and compliant, and his head dips forward. The woman does not touch him.
The name he knows. The woman he does not.
Natalia, the American tells the Soldier. One of yours.
The Soldier looks at the woman—Natalia. She is tense. Muscles coiled but not overly tight. Breathing even. Feet spread. Center of gravity low to the ground.
An image of her running amid parked cars and pedestrians. He took aim, fired, watched her drop to the ground. And her face tilted up to his—eyes bright, mouth stretched wide, cheeks flushed—as she pressed him into the mat and pushed a dull blade firmly into his neck.
One of his. Perhaps.
Natashenka, the Soldier says and steps forward.
She blinks. He is close enough in her space to see the shallow irregular breaths in her throat. He reaches and pushes the muzzles of her pistols away from his forehead.
Natashenka, the Soldier repeats and takes another step. She has to tilt her head up to maintain eye contact with him. The long smooth arch of her neck. The red in her hair. The muzzle of one pistol pressed into his chest, the other into his neck.
Don’t go looking for another handler, Djenya. They lied to us. We never needed any of it. The orders. The handlers. Cryofreeze. The pain. It was all just— the woman stops, looking young, painfully so. I just—don’t try to go back. Please.
She leaves after that.
The Soldier stands in the middle of the room with the doctors sprawled all around him. Dead white birds. Her fingers kneading into the knots in his shoulders. Long hours of stillness with no company except his sniper rifle and her light breathing beside him. The cold staved off by her simple presence. He misses her.
Bucky wanders the city. He walks amidst the press of pedestrians and the frenetic energy, and he stops to take in the quiet paranoia and the strange language. Bucharest is both familiar and alien. These days he spends as little time as possible in the Soldier’s apartment. He can’t help but feel like an intruder in a dead man’s home. Maybe the Soldier felt the same way. A trespasser in a dead man’s head.
There is a bar just off the main road where the locals gather. It’s too early in the day for the regular crowd. The barkeep sits with his chair tipped back and nods at him when he enters. When Bucky doesn’t say anything the barkeep turns back to the small TV set mounted on the wall. A tinny voice recounts the events of the Cold War.
He can’t help but wonder if the Soldier had frequented this place. Did he sit at the corner table? Did he order a beer? A whiskey? Did he watch the TV or the patrons, or did he just stare at the far wall? Why would the Soldier even drink in the first place?
Bucky misses Steve, suddenly. Misses him like tonguing the gap where a tooth used to be. He has to breathe carefully, he’s so sick with it. Sometimes he finishes a meal, or he’s falling asleep, or he sees a bit of cellophane wrapper stuck in a street gutter, and the light hits it just right. It’s only in those moments that he has to stop and close his eyes and feel the aching rise up inside him. He misses Steve like the Soldier missed the cold. God, he wishes he could just—
There’s the sound of breaking glass.
There’s the red insides of his eyelids. There’s his cheek pressed into wood sticky with dried beer. There’s the murmur of conversation and an exasperated voice, louder than the others.
The voice is saying, Ach, you clumsy idiot.
The sticky tabletops, the nicotine smell clinging to the walls, and the low scratching of the barkeep absentmindedly scraping his nails against his cheek. The atmosphere is comforting, somehow. If Bucky keeps his eyes closed and ignores the sound of the TV, he could easily be back in 1937.
Men taking off their hats and loosening their ties as the inside of the bar grows humid with sweat and smoke. Bucky sitting alone, heady with hunger and the smell of cheap beer. The dance halls would be filling up right about now. Steve would be roaming the streets with his sketchbook out, looking to catch a few strollers in the light of the late afternoon sun slanting between the buildings.
Bucky opens his eyes.
It’s raining when they get a week’s leave in London. Bucky spends the entire walk to the hotel trying to avoid getting wet. There are some dames flitting amongst the other servicemen, flashing come-hither smiles. Some of them glance his way, but all he really wants is a hot bath and a cup of coffee.
The hotel room has two beds and not much else. Bucky stares at the soft sagging mattress and thinks about the last time he slept in a real bed—the contentment, the tipsiness slowly seeping out of him, Steve’s hair tickling his nose and his knee shoved up against Bucky’s thigh. Another lifetime when the two of them slotted together neatly. Bucky goes to sleep on the floor.
The door lock clicks, and Steve walks in with his jacket slung over his arm, shaking rain water out of his hair. He stops short at the sight of Bucky lying on the floor. Neither of them say anything for a while.
Steve sits on the edge of the bed, still sopping wet, and takes off his shoes. His shirt clings close to his skin, and his hair lies flat on his head. He looks at his socked feet leaving damp circles on the rug. There’s red lipstick smeared on his mouth.
Bucky sits up slowly and moves to sit next to Steve. Their shoulders press into each other. He thinks about a wine glass filling up, the rust gathering at the end of a water pipe, a girl’s skirt flirting around her knees, a pomegranate skin splitting open, the blood rushing under his own skin, Carter’s alcohol-softened smile.
Steve’s looking at him now, and Bucky leans into his space, kisses him. His mouth is rain-chilled and unmoving. Water plinks off the end of his nose and onto Bucky’s skin.
He closes his eyes and thinks about Carter—her spine curving forward, her ankles crossed under the table, her crisp enunciation when she quietly asked him what he’s willing to sacrifice for Steve. Everything. Nothing.
Steve’s controlling his breathing, keeping it deep and slow. Bucky breaks contact and moves to the other bed. When he touches his mouth, his fingers come away red. Some of Carter’s lipstick had rubbed onto him.
They don’t talk about it. They’re good at that.
Steve stands before him, and an all-encompassing terror sweeps into him, knocking his legs out from beneath him. He can’t believe he forgot the warmth of him. He can feel the heat rolling off of Steve, furnace-like, from clear across the room.
There’s a bright but wary hope in every rigid line of Steve, and the Soldier’s notebook is in his hands, and it makes Bucky suddenly, inordinately angry.
He’d watched the slow deterioration of the Soldier’s sanity in his own handwriting, and he’d wondered how much of the Soldier had bled into him. He’d read a seemingly innocent entry about plums that had been scratched out and covered by other barely comprehensible words—I am not malfunctioning.
The Soldier’s thoughts and pleas and confessions are not for Steve’s eyes. He can only be grateful that Peggy’s notebooks are hidden at least. They are his and his alone.
Steve’s looking at him now, and he’s breathing slowly in the way that he sometimes does when he’s angry, and he doesn’t want to show it. Or when he’s trying to keep from crying. He only really did it around strangers—never Bucky. He supposes that maybe he really is a stranger now.
There are landmines in Bucky’s head. Old and buried and detonated by documentaries about Soviet Union satellites. He can’t help but wonder how much of the Soldier has bled into him. Perhaps too much. The handler’s directive pulses enticingly on the fringes of his thoughts. There is a newspaper and a terrorist bombing with his face on it. He did not commit the crime—probably.
It doesn’t matter. This isn’t Steve’s crusade to win. When the opportunity presents itself, Bucky runs like hell.
The air is thick and lazy with heat. They lie stripped down to their skivvies, sprawled on the floor, trying to catch breezes on their necks from the open window. Steve has been drawing Bucky for hours. It’s flattering, even if Bucky knows that it’s mostly because Steve has little else to draw when they’re in their apartment. He has dozens of sketches of the beds, the kitchen, the wall moldings, and even he would get sick of drawing the same stretch of ocean for months.
Steve has smoked almost all of his asthma cigarettes because something about the humidity makes him breathe a little too fast. Neither of them likes the cigarettes because they put a strain on Steve’s heart, and the pungent smell lingers for days after, even if they keep the window open. Eventually they just learn to ignore it. Sometimes the cigarettes mess with Steve’s vision, and he draws the outlines of strange shapes on Bucky’s shoulders and ankles.
By now, Steve has gotten through almost all the paint that Bucky got from Lindy, even though he rations it carefully. He’d do most of the drawing with his pencil and add little hints of color here and there. The water makes the graphite run a little, but Steve always takes it in stride and says it “adds character.”
They only have blue paint left so Steve paints blue into Bucky’s eyes and the shadows along his jaw. When he draws his mother, he adds blue to the folds of her starched dresses.
Bucky looks at Steve as he draws. The air seems to shiver it’s so heavy with moisture. A little furrow has formed on Steve’s brow as he frowns at his paper. A line of sweat wanders down his cheek.
“Have you ever drawn a self-portrait?” Bucky asks.
Steve blinks at him as if the thought had never occurred to him.
“Come on,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes, “Don’t all artists do at least one? It’s practically a requirement. Like still lifes and figure drawings.”
Steve thinks for a long time. Bucky imagines Steve sitting in front of a mirror, looking at himself, and seeing the bright sharpness in his eyes or the way he tilts his chin that makes him seem taller than he actually is. “I think so. Once.” Steve finally says.
“Yeah.” And of course Steve hadn’t done that many. A self-portrait would be too narcissistic, and he’s not nearly an interesting enough subject to draw more than once. Bucky wants to shake him.
“Jesus, Steve. You’ve gotta do more than that. What’ll happen when you’re a big famous artist, but no one in the future knows what you look like ‘cause you’ve never drawn more than one self-portrait?”
“Come on, Buck. You know that’s not going to happen. I don’t make art that sells.”
Steve’s always got that goddamn chip on his shoulder, but you wouldn’t know that if you looked at his art. He draws to distract himself, calm himself down. The products are too sedate to be deemed patriotic enough and not cheerful enough to appeal to anyone’s escapism.
Bucky’s listened to Steve talk about the painters in Europe pushing any artistic boundaries that they can find, but that isn’t happening here. American painters are supposed to capture the geometric lines of skyscrapers and machines or idyllic images of farmers.
From what he hears, Steve would do much better in Europe, but even there, their emotions are often much more violent and explosive. Impressionism giving way to bold new abstraction.
“Well,” Bucky says, “Aren’t self-portraits supposed to help you learn about yourself? Reflect about who you are or something?”
Steve clenches his jaw and gestures vaguely at himself. “I know who I am already.” He doesn’t glance down at his scrawny arms, his unimpressive height, his skinny chest, but Bucky knows what he’s thinking about anyway.
“Course you do, but you might discover something new. Just draw one, Stevie. Even I’d be bored with staring at my own face for so long.”
Steve cracks a smile. “I’ll never get tired of your ugly mug.”
“Well, then once you’re done, you can go back to drawing me, but until then,” Bucky reaches over, snags a pillow from the couch, and presses it into his face, blocking Steve’s view.
He hears Steve sigh with exaggerated exasperation, but he stands up and leaves to find the little hand mirror in the bedroom. Bucky grins into the fabric of the pillow.
Steve settles back down next to him, sitting cross-legged, straight-backed. He props the hand mirror up against the side of the couch. Bucky settles his head on Steve’s leg, his cheek sticking a little to the sweaty skin. He maneuvers his head until it’s angled so he can see the paper. Steve grumbles absent-mindedly about Bucky being too warm, brushes his dark hair out of the way, and begins to work.
Bucky enjoys watching Steve draw. Most artists work in lines and sharp distinctions, but Steve exists in a soft blurry world where everything blends together. Emotive, almost gentle, dreamlike versions of reality. It can be hard to tell what he’s drawing other than the impression of an elbow here or the dark curve of a nose there. Sometimes he has trouble differentiating between red and green, and his eyesight isn’t too good, but that doesn’t make him any less of an artist.
Bucky dozes off to the sounds of Steve’s breathing and the steady scratch of pencil on paper.
He wakes up a little while later, pulled slowly out of sleep by the dim awareness that the sun has gone down. The air has cooled marginally, and he feels only uncomfortably warm rather than unbearably hot. He becomes aware of the sensation of fingers carding through his hair.
“I think I’ve learned something new,” Steve says quietly, noticing the change in the cadence of Bucky’s breathing.
Steve had sketched out the scene from the mirror without any extra flourishes or fancy details. The light slanting in from the window. Steve’s sketchbook in his lap. His elbows and knees sticking out a little awkwardly. Bucky’s head on his leg. Steve’s right hand holding his pencil. His left curling absent-mindedly in the strands of Bucky’s hair. The places where their skin touch. There are matching expressions of serenity on their faces.
It’s a surprisingly intimate scene.
“I like it.” Bucky says.
Steve is breathing slowly and deeply through his nose, and Bucky realizes that he’s tense. They both are.
Something about the state of undress, the physical closeness, the expressions on their faces reminds Bucky of walking home in the evening and catching sight of a guy taking his girl home. Like he’s witnessing a private moment that he’s never supposed to be privy to.
Something shifts inside Bucky, and he thinks, Oh.
Steve seems to have come to the same conclusion while Bucky was sleeping. His palm lies flat and warm against Bucky’s head, but his spine is rigid. He’s waiting for Bucky to decide the next course of action, and damn it, Bucky doesn’t know what the hell to do. Steve has always been the decision maker with Bucky forever trailing behind him. They’re in strange new territory.
Bucky sits up, placing inches of distance between the two of them. Steve slouches a little, but the expression on his face doesn’t change. There’s the line in the sand, and Steve has always respected Bucky’s boundaries.
“You’re not going to add in any blue?” Bucky asks just to have something to say.
“It’s a bit much, don’t you think?”
“Maybe,” he says after a pause.
Bucky thinks about all the portraits Steve’s done of other people with their deliberate splashes of color. The landlady and her little green finance book, Lindy’s eyes glinting a feral yellow, the purpling bruises on Bucky’s face after a fight, a girl's pale skin glowing in the blue night. He thinks about the sweat on Steve’s chest, the fine hairs on his back, the ridges of his ribs sticking out. He think about running his fingers down Steve’s jaw and kissing him.
Steve nods and echoes Bucky. “Maybe.”