I came up stairs into the world, for I was born in a cellar.
The Old Bachelor, Act IV, scene vii - William Congreve
He didn't stop in Bucharest for any particular reason; it didn't remind him of anything, and it wasn't special in any way that a dozen other cities couldn't match or surpass. Mostly, he stopped there because he was just so damn tired, so sick and tired. Tired to the bone; sick to his soul.
He smuggled himself on board a cargo ship coming up the Danube, and slipped overboard in the middle of the night at Oltenița. Wet and shuddering with cold, he'd run overland toward the dim glow on the horizon: București. It enfolded him in autumn mist and blood-vivid leaves, swallowing him without a sound.
He seemed to fit, there. No one gave him a second look, as he prowled the night streets and ate shaorma and hot pretzels, warming himself from the inside out. He slept in a park, tucked under yellowing willow fronds, and bought coffee and dobrogeana, thick with sweet cheese and raisins, in the morning. And then he...lost track, for a little bit. Sometime later - the sun had moved, the rays slanting from the west, now - he came to himself crouching in the bay of a shut up auto repair, the smell of dust and old grease in his nose, a little like gun oil. His right hand was scraped and bloody across the knuckles, and his left shoulder ached, the thing attached to it heavy as lead, leaching his warmth. He curled it in under his dirty jacket and tried not to think about it. He climbed back out of the window he'd broken, his mouth dry, his body aching. He needed somewhere to hole up. Somewhere to hide.
Three days of searching found him cash (now he was a thief). and an apartment in a run-down building in Sector Three. He was up high enough for there to be sight lines in every direction; down low enough for him to get out, fast, even if it meant leaping from a balcony or window. He scrounged some blankets and stole some food and shored up holes in the uneven walls with boards scavenged from a junk pile. And then he stopped. For the first, long stretch of time, after all his busyness making the apartment liveable, and safe, he stalled out. He sat, for days (weeks? months?) in the most defensible corner of his room, knees drawn up tight to his chest, his gaze on the pale-yellow square of light that was his newspaper-shrouded window. He felt that if he were to do anything - move, or breathe, or think, too hard, or too much - he would shatter. He was shattered, and all the broken, razor-edged pieces of himself kept slipping and twisting and gouging him open, again and again.
Sometimes his brain seethed; so many pictures and voices, echoing and jumping, like a film strip gone off the reel, stutter-catch-flash of images in stark black and white and red. Or he'd simply be blank, a yawning pit of nothing so complete he might as well have been (was?) dead. The gleam of filtered sunlight off the metal of his arm sometimes made him violently startle, doing damage, and he learned to wrap it in swaddling scraps of torn t-shirts and fraying duct tape, out of sight; out of his mind.
In the worst of it, he gasped as if he were drowning, clawing at the walls or his own aching body, muffling screams into the fist his teeth would worry like a dog with a bone. And then he would just turn off, clockwork run out, and sit blankly lax until thirst or hunger or cold made him stir, feebly, back to himself. Only once, did someone knock on his door, and he didn''t know (didn't remember) what he said, what he did, how he looked. But they don't do it again.
That was winter in Bucharest.
He went out, late in the afternoon of a day in a string of blank days, hungry as a feral dog and looking, he thought, rather like one. He'd woken with a start in his corner, his clothing stiff with dried sweat and piss, newspaper and glass shredded on the floor. He'd broken the window, he supposed; there was no blood, and no bodies, so, not an attack. Just an attack. Had one of his funny turns, someone said, somewhere in his brain. Just a voice, a woman, American but with an accent, nothing special. But he felt a pang of longing so violent that he actually bent over, gasping and holding onto his belly as if to let go would be to spill himself out onto the floor.
But then it eased, and faded, and he went to shower, scraping half-heartedly at days of stubble, not bothering to untangle his hair; picking bits of filthy cotton out of the plates of the arm, peeling away brittle bits of tape, allowing it to move freely for the first time in...time.
He dressed in layers of musty clothing and went shakily down and down the stairs, around and around, until he was on the street. He walked, head down, picking a random direction up Strada Fizicienilor, ignoring the kids chasing a ratty ball on the sidewalk, ignoring the old woman, cigarette in hand, who called after him.
"Hei, hei, opt douăzeci și doi, tu ești în viață, nu-i asa? Ce surpriza!"
He agreed - it was a surprise.
He counted the meters he walked out of habit, avoiding other walkers and the cars that were parked halfway up the sidewalk, not meeting anyone's gaze, not touching anything at all. Gloved hands in his pockets and a hat jammed down over his still-damp hair, he walked west, on Strada Plutonier Ion Nedelcu, which seemed to have been named for a sergeant in the military. Sergeant Barnes whispered in his head, but he flinched from that - startling a woman pushing a baby in a buggy - and concentrated on the cracked sidewalk and the short grass and unfurling leaves that seemed to be fuzzing the city everywhere with a pale, bright green. Every muscle in him was weak and aching already, though he'd only walked for fifteen minutes, at most. He'd scraped a heap of empty cans (canned peaches, canned beans, some kind of meat paste and the moldering crusts of mass-produced bread) into his garbage that day, offended by the stink and the bugs. He vaguely remembered stealing them, a tall stack of boxes from the back of a loading bay, fuel for when he managed to remember he needed it. Not enough fuel, though, if the hollow concavity of his belly was anything to go by.
The Bulevardul Râmnicu Sărat was bigger - busier - with cars and trucks and people, noise and chatter. And everyone...most everyone...seemed to be wearing little twists of string or yarn on their coats, or around their wrists. Red and white, mostly, with a scattering of black or blue and white. He didn't have that little badge - he had no idea what it even was, the significance, the importance - and what if that got him noticed?
Bucky could feel his heart starting to pound, sweat gathering under his arms, and he hunched down around himself, head ducked, trying hard not to be seen and making himself all the more visible for his obvious unease. He stumbled over uneven pavement, nearly falling, and forced himself to stop, to fucking breathe for a minute; get his bearings, pull himself together.
At his feet were black and white plastic tubs of flowers in a dizzying rainbow of colors. He could smell them, sweet and musky and green, the water they were sitting in slightly chemical. He had no idea what kind they were, but they were...beautiful.
He stood there for some unknown space of time, until a voice filtered in through the noise in his head. It made him start, looking up and flinching away before he'd even really registered what they were saying; who 'they' were.
"Soldat? Soldat, te simți bine?"
"Ce?" Bucky said, and blinked. There was a woman - an old woman, all wrinkled-apple face and iron-grey hair - sitting on a chair in the middle of the flowers. She was nearly dwarfed by the ranked tubs, sitting in black slacks and an enormous puffy coat, her head wrapped in a scarf as bright as her flowers.
"Esti bine?" she said, and Bucky dragged in a ragged lungful of air.
"Eu ... Eu sunt ... Sunt bine."
The look she gave him, at that, was as old as time. As old as grandmothers and boys. "Dacă tu spui așa, soldat," she said, huffing a little, and Bucky flinched again, looking around to be sure, to be completely sure…. She seemed to realize she'd said something wrong, and she pursed her mouth up for a moment, thinking.
"Îmi pare rău, copil. Aici, aici - asta e pentru tine," she said, and reached into a pocket of her coat. Bucky felt himself go absolutely still, stiff with tension. He was poised to run, or defend, or attack, and she stopped, just sat and looked at him, something too knowing in her faded-blue eyes. "Oh, băiat sărac. Nu-ți fie teamă. Ești în siguranță aici."
"No, I'm not," Bucky whispered, and didn't understand why his throat ached, just then. Like he'd tried to swallow too big a mouthful of something, and it was choking him.
"Aici, acum, aici. Nici un rău, bine? Aici, uite-" She pulled her pocket wide, reaching in carefully and pulling out a crunched-up brown paper bag, with a row of straight pins along one edge. She opened it with exaggerated care, showing him. Inside was a tangle of strings; red and white, mostly, but some black and white, some blue and white. The woman, herself, had all three pinned to her coat, peeking out from under the collar. She delicately separated out one string of red and white, and then another, black and white, and took a pin from the bag's edge. With a deft twist of her gnarled fingers, she twisted the strings together into a little knot.
"Vii aici, soldat, tu ești prea înalt pentru mine. Vino aici."
"I-" Bucky hesitated for a long moment, and then he slid his feet carefully between tubs and went to one knee beside her. She smelled, pleasantly, of soap and tobacco and flowers. With slow movements, she pinned the little knot of strings to the grey canvas of Bucky's coat. And then, in a move quite clearly of sheer habit, she straightened his collar and patted his cheek. "Acolo. Aveți nevoie de ambele." Her hands were dry, and warm, and Bucky couldn't help it, he pressed into her touch for a moment, just a moment. Her palm cradled his jaw, and her fingers patted once, twice, gently.
It felt like his chest was going to crack open, and he stood, too fast, bumping one of the tubs and stumbling a little. "I- Îmi pare rău." The woman just shook her head, intent on folding the bag shut, and tucking it away.
Bucky looked down at the little strings. "Ce este? Ce sunt?"
"Sunt pentru primăvară, copil. Este Mărțișor, vezi?" Her hand touched the strings at her own chest, patting carefully. "Roșu pentru a face puternic, și negru să vă păzească de rău, și albul pentru puritate - pentru lumină.,"
Guard you from evil. But what do you do if you are the evil?
"Acum, te uiți la rece, băiete. Du-te și tu a lua niște ciorbă de burtă."
"Da doamna," Bucky said. He lifted his hand to the strings, touching them lightly. "Mulțumesc."
She smiled, nodding, and then looked past him, at the people who thronged around them, and lifted her cracked voice. "Ghiocei proaspete, garoafe proaspete, frumoase flori de primavara!"
Bucky nodded back, straightening his shoulders and stepping away from her, daring to walk tall in the crowds, to look people in the eye. He could see a stand filled with fresh fruit - apples, plums, berries like jewels - and his mouth watered.
"Dumnezeu să fie cu tine, soldat," the woman said, low enough Bucky knew she didn't mean for him to hear. But he did. That day, for the first time in a very long time, he smiled.
And so spring began in Bucharest.
Summer was...hard. The sharp reek of hot tar in his nostrils made him freeze up, breathing hard, listening, looking, waiting. His memories were murky and too dark, but a thread ran through all of them: a slim boy with wheat-gold hair and bloodied knuckles, earnest blue eyes and a smile like the sun. He kept expecting the shrill yawrk! of gulls, the rattle and roar of an elevated train, a hot, thin shoulder pressed to his, pebbles under his back, stars and smoke overhead. He kept anticipating someone he knew around every corner, and it made him jumpy.
He'd made himself an ID card in one endless night of stop-motion flashbacks and how-to memories that bubbled up out of his brain like noxious gas. Like rot from a pit. But he hated stealing; knew that sunshine-bright boy in his dreams (nightmares) would hate it, too, so he needed those skills - needed that ID.
He worked through the long, bright days at a warehouse; unloading trucks, stacking boxes and barrels, shifting things from here to there. It wasn't hard; they had machines to do most of it, and Bucky smiled to himself, sometimes, when the other men would curse or complain, mop their faces and strip to the waist, sweating. They accepted he'd been wounded in war; didn't want them to see. Accepted the long-sleeved t-shirts and the glove.
It felt good, to do something honest, something physical that didn't end in blood and broken bones. He went back to his room at the end of the day with his body pleasantly tired and his brain just humming, a low static that didn't hurt. Nothing there, for eight hours a day, but how to work the machines, how to talk to the others; how his lunch tasted at the rickety table set under a tall, stately tree, the breeze lifting his hair and curious ants investigating the crumbs of his sandwich.
He felt...not whole, exactly, and nowhere near healed, or even right, just...a little less ruined. To have himself down in ink and paper, a made-up name and his own stranger's face, seemed to anchor him, somehow, in the here-and-now. Enough so that when the memories came, the stuttering, muddy moments and words and deeds, he could...handle it. Mostly.
His biggest expense, beyond a new pair of better-fitting boots, and food, were notebooks. He bought them compulsively - obsessively - and he filled them the same way: page after page of scribbled words in a half-dozen languages; moments that ambushed him in the unexpected smell of tobacco or newsprint, cooked apples or musty wool, brackish water, blood, rot. Memories, he knew now, not hallucinations, or some kind of mental breakdown. Memories, as benign as how it felt to tie a tie, and as soul-killing as the noise a man makes when his intestines are spilled out over his knees. The slippery feel of silk in his fingers, and the slaughter-house reek of blood, bile, shit and piss. How candles would glow, golden and pure, against stained glass, and how bodies would bleed vapour in the cold grey of a pre-dawn winter, steam going up like candle smoke; sacrificial incense, abattoir miasma.
But as awful - as repugnant - as those memories could be, there were other things, too. Beautiful things, tender things. Memories that made him curl into his mattress on the floor, body clenched against the heart-grinding ache of them, a devastating, crushing yearning that left him breathless and gasping.
The bright red and green of ripe watermelon, ice-cold and sweet, juice dripping down his wrist. The smell of fresh-starched cotton, a white shirt crisp and clean against his summer-tanned skin. A woman, dark-eyed and dark-haired, pulling and pushing at a lump of dough, flour sending up little puffs, a child - a girl - curly-haired, standing beside her. Striped awnings and striped sticks of candy, Technicolor explosions thirty feet high, the taste of salt and butter across his tongue.
And through it all, at every turn, that boy, that man; tarnished-gold hair and summer eyes, long fingers stained with newsprint or charcoal, the back of a thin neck sunburned pink; thin cheeks flushed with hectic spots of fever. That boy, that man, always turning to him (to that other long-dead self, to that face in the mirror) and smiling, a thousand different smiles. And then he would remember that same face, broken and bloody, that smile gone, those eyes dimmed by pain, begging - pleading - with him. A sacrifice to the thing he had become.
The first time he remembered that moment, he had vomited; gut-twisting, back-wrenching heaves into the gutter, a warm summer rain thankfully washing it and him clean (as clean as he could ever be). The next time wasn't as bad, just a moment of complete disorientation, black spangles in the edges of his vision, cutting in.
After a while, sitting on his mattress, fitful breeze puffing through his opened windows, he could replay that memory, examine it, moment by moment, until the sick hurt of it dimmed to nothing. Until he could hear the man (Steve, he was Steven Rogers; Captain America, but Steve, first and last) talking to him. Promising him - comforting him. And he could - almost, almost - believe it was true.
He found a picture and taped it into one of his notebooks, and he wrote down everything about the man he could remember. Some of it didn't seem real; some of it didn't seem right. But he dutifully dragged pen over paper in the slanting scrawl that wasn't familiar, noting down habits and moments and turns of phrase between the details of the murder of a politician, the destruction of a family, the assassination that triggered a brutal civil war.
And every day, he would get up, and wash, and drink a cup of coffee and eat scrambled eggs, the dark yolks mixed with cas cheese curd, his toast unevenly browned in his second-hand toaster. He would make his lunch and secure his apartment and go to work.
Just like...anybody else. Just like he was a real human.
Going home, one evening, beer bottle dangling between his fingers, he was pleasantly tired from work, pleasantly full of sarmale. He threaded his way through the crowds with a practiced ease, no longer flinching violently from every car horn, every shouting vendor, every burst of music from a radio or bar doorway. The warm air was tinged with car exhaust and cooking smells, perfume and cigarette smoke, fresh-cut grass and overheated trash. It was disgusting and wonderful, familiar and heady.
At his building, he lifted his hand and waved at bunică Maia, the old woman who'd called after him, so many months ago. She was the building grandma, she knew all the best gossip, and her eagle eyes, behind ancient, cat's-eye glasses, saw everything.
She waved back, asking him where he'd been, what he'd been doing, was he walking around drinking in the street like some bum? And he just laughed, because...because she gave a damn, and because she saw him, and because, after all this time, he was still surprised to be alive.
And even more surprised that that...made him...almost happy. Less sad, at least. Less crushed by guilt and grief and rage.
He walked up and up, around and around, and when he got to his door, he found he'd been humming some song, a chorus or just a line of it coming to him, little ripple of memory that didn't sting.
"Hi-dee hi-dee hi-dee hi…." he murmured, and went inside, and shut the door.
And so summer waxed, and slowly waned, in Bucharest.
Autumn was a string of days bright and frost-edged, rushing wind and curling, dying leaves, and a chill that seemed to sink a little deeper than it should. Autumn was the sky going a paler, clearer blue, and the slanting rays of twilight seeming longer, somehow more gauzy-transparent; the color of old, white wine.
He found himself smiling more; at the man in the market who sold fresh fruit, at the woman making chimney cakes, at his co-workers who made sly, teasing comments about his lack of a woman. But he still walked his building in the middle of the night, compulsion and a skin-twitching sense of something watching driving him up, out of his bed, into the night.
He wanted, so badly, for it to be nothing. But his dreams were bloody, and his fingers cramped, sometimes, from the hours spent furiously writing, writing, writing. Spilling out his memories onto the cheap, lined pages in a desperate, futile attempt to keep things straight - to keep himself anchored. To stay here, in this time, now.
But the cold, seeping in, made him wake shuddering, and the faces on the street seemed...accusing.
Then, one day, it all fell apart; came down around him like a bomb-cratered building, and the distant, remembered whistle and crump of artillery was in his head; thumping through his bones, shaking him to his core.
And suddenly there was that man. That boy. That memory, breathing and solid and alive, not ten feet away. Steve, chin up, jaw clenched, and he knew (Bucky, his name was Bucky, James, Sergeant Barnes, sсолдат, soldat, the soldier)....
Knew a fight was coming. Just like always.
And autumn guttered out, a spent candle flame. Winter came early, that year.