The phone rang right after Steve finished his early morning jog, and he was panting a little as he answered his StarkPhone. “Hey.”
“Bucky? What’s wrong?”
Bucky almost never called when he was away. The lines would be tapped, he insisted. Never mind that Tony Stark had made super-encrypted StarkPhones for all the Avengers.
“Do you think we could put Andrei Nikolaevich in one of the drawers at the morgue in the basement of Tony Stark’s Home for Brainwashed Agents?”
“Andrei Nikolaevich. My old Soviet handler. And Natasha’s later on.”
Shit. “Did you and Natasha kill him?”
“No.” Bucky sounded faintly offended. “He’s not important enough for anyone to bother killing anymore. Natasha and I just dropped by to – just to see him, I guess – and he was dead. Natasha thinks maybe a heart attack. Two or three days ago, she says.”
“Okay.” Steve took a swig from his water bottle.
“And if we just leave him,” Bucky said, “no one will find him till he starts to smell, probably.” His voice grew quieter. “Natasha’s upset. She told me about how he used to frighten all the Red Room girls, talking about how if they weren’t smart they’d die alone and lie unburied and vultures would eat their faces, and now it’s happened to him. Except the vulture part. Even his cat hasn’t nibbled him.”
Steve’s confused emotions settled into sympathy, and not just for Natasha. Bucky sounded unsettled himself. “I’ll talk to Tony,” Steve promised. “I’m sure we can put Andrei Nikolaevich in the cemetery at the Home.”
“No,” Bucky said instantly. “Just in one of the drawers at the morgue. Just for a while.”
“Okay.” Steve was puzzled. “Do you want to cremate him?”
“We’ve got to bury him in Russia,” Bucky explained. “In the Russian earth. He was always so afraid of ending up in foreign soil.”
Steve had first learned Andrei Nikolaevich’s name from the Winter Soldier’s Soviet file. He was the man who once let Zola operate on the Soldier without anesthesia – the handler Bucky always referred to, disdainfully, as Andrushka. Fucking Andrushka didn’t protect state assets when the Soviet Union fell, which let Hydra steal the cryopod with the Winter Soldier in it.
He was also the ex-handler whom Natasha sent a Christmas card every year, inscribed Fuck you, Andrei Nikolaevich. “It’s festive,” she had said.
Steve wouldn’t have guessed, beforehand, that either of them would mind leaving Andrei Nikolaevich to rot. It baffled him that they had bothered visiting him at all.
But they brought his body back to Tony Stark’s Home for Brainwashed Agents in the Quinjet that Tony had expropriated from Coulson after the mind-wiping incident. It landed quietly on the lawn, and they rolled a sheet-covered gurney down the ramp between them. Natasha carried a brown cat with a smushed face and a single baleful eye. Bucky held a bust of Lenin under one arm.
Bucky hefted the bust as they approached. It had only a stub of a nose left. “Andrushka’s apartment was full of the things,” he said. “I thought I’d take a souvenir.”
“When I was little, he used to send us on ‘missions’ to rescue them,” Natasha said. The cat turned its single yellow eye toward Steve as she spoke, as if it were sizing him up. “That was just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and everyone was throwing out their busts of Lenin, so we’d collect them off curbs and alleyways and bring them back to Andrei Nikolaevich.”
She smiled slightly as she said it, any lingering upset hidden again behind the mask of Natasha Romanov, Earth’s Calmest Avenger. Steve moved to put an arm around her shoulders, but the cat hissed at him.
“This is the cat that didn’t eat Andrei Nikolaevich’s face?” Steve asked.
Natasha looked startled by this description, Bucky a little embarrassed. “The window was open,” Bucky said. “I think it’s a stray cat he fed sometimes, probably does the rounds in the neighborhood. We could have left it to fend for itself,” he added, to Natasha.
Natasha ignored him. “Did you get us a drawer?” she asked Steve.
They took the elevator down to the basement morgue. Bucky set the bust of Lenin down in a corner. The cat jumped out of Natasha’s arms and prowled around its tiled confines while Bucky and Natasha transferred Andrei Nikolaevich efficiently from the gurney onto the slab of the drawer, which would slide into the wall for safe-keeping.
The blanket slipped off as they moved him, exposing not only his face but most of his torso. He was a little old man in a crumpled white shirt, which strained slightly over a potbelly but sagged around him otherwise, too big for his shrunken body. His face looked slack and sad.
“He’s so – small,” Steve blurted.
“He used to be bigger,” Natasha said, at the same moment that Bucky said, “Always has been.”
They glanced at each other, then away. “You used to be smaller,” Bucky said, and Natasha pulled the sheet back up over Andrei Nikolaevich’s head, smoothing it down gently.
She stood like that for a moment, her hands resting on the pale blue sheet. Then she pushed the drawer into the wall with a clang, and Bucky closed the stainless steel door.
The click sounded very final, and yet they lingered. Natasha rested her hand against the door, and Steve noticed for the first time how delicate her hands were.
He wanted to put an arm around her shoulders – to comfort her, as she had often comforted him. But when he made to do so, she moved, shrugging him off before he’d even touched her shoulder.
Suddenly Bucky barked out a short laugh, and they both looked at him, startled. “I used to tell him I’d freeze him one day,” Bucky explained. “See how he liked it.”
“Too bad we can’t bring him back and ask,” Natasha said.
Natasha ran her hand down the polished metal of the door. Her fingers lingered on the handle. “I always thought I’d be the one to kill him,” she murmured.
“What were you waiting for?” Bucky asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, and sighed, and her breath trembled slightly. The cat wandered back to rub its face against her ankles. “I thought he might apologize someday.”
“And you were gonna kill him right after so he couldn’t sober up and take it back?”
“No.” Natasha’s mouth curved into a self-mocking half-smile. “I guess I never really thought I’d kill him. I just never thought he’d die.”
Another little silence followed. The cat rubbed its head against Natasha’s shin, and Natasha knelt down to fondle its battered ears.
“You want to come back to our place, Nat?” Steve asked.
Bucky added, “We’ll get some vodka and make pirozhki and…”
“No,” she interrupted. She didn’t look up. “I’m still going to go see Yelena. He was her handler too.”
“What do you think she’s going to do?” Bucky asked. “Get him a real Red Room funeral?”
The cat lifted one paw to Natasha’s knee. Natasha’s attention remained on its ears. “That’s what he would have wanted.”
“They’ll never do it,” Bucky pronounced. “They don’t give a damn about him anymore.”
Natasha’s head jerked upward. She glared at Bucky, a look that epitomized the expression if looks could kill, and Steve took a half-step forward, ready to intervene if she sprang at Bucky.
But then the cat bumped its head against her knee. Natasha looked down at it, as if startled it was there, and then swept it up in her arms and stood up. She crossed the room to the old metal staircase in three long steps.
Bucky said something in Russian. Natasha paused, just a for a moment, and then began to climb the stairs with quick heavy steps that clanged on the metal. “I’ll bring back a bottle of vodka,” she said.
“Do you think Yelena will bury you in the Russian earth?” Bucky called.
But the only reply was the clang of Natasha’s boots as she climbed the metal steps. The heavy door at the top squeaked open, and clanged shut; and she was gone.
Bucky kicked the stainless steel wall. The clang reverberated in the tiled morgue, echoes multiplying as Bucky kicked the wall again and again, until Steve put his hands on his shoulders and actually jerked him away from the wall. Bucky turned around and brought both fists down on the slab in the middle of the room.
Steve tightened his grip on his shoulders, but it wasn’t necessary: Bucky didn’t renew his assault on the slab. He pressed his knuckles against the cold metal and stood still.
The echoes died away into silence. Steve eased his grip on Bucky’s shoulders.
“You can’t blame her,” Bucky told Steve, as if Steve was the one who was mad. “She’s known him since she was a kid. People never really get over their parents even if their parents are shit.”
“Sure,” Steve said. “Let’s go outside, Buck.”
He said it in his most Captain America voice, the one people obeyed without even thinking about it, and sure enough, Bucky let Steve lead him up the stairs. But he kept talking as if there had been no interruptions. “So now she wants to be a good daughter. Give her father figure a good burial. This is fucking Antigone shit.”
Steve was pretty sure that Antigone had wanted to bury her brother, but this did not seem like a good time to interrupt.
“What does Nat think, Yelena will forgive her and they’ll cry over the grave together? Antigone dies at the end. And Natasha’s going to all this trouble for what? He wouldn’t have gone to this much trouble for her. Natasha was telling me on the plane – in the Red Room, if the girls died on their missions, the Red Room just left them there, and the other girls never knew what happened, it was like so-and-so had just disappeared into the abyss. Unless it was a heroic death, a good example, and then there’d be a big funeral and pomp and circumstance.”
“Maybe she wants to be better to him than he was to her,” suggested Steve.
Bucky scoffed. “Toss him in a construction site and let them bury him in the foundation. Plenty of Russian earth there!”
Steve could see daylight through the double doors at the end of the hall. “Did you suggest that to her?” he asked.
“No,” Bucky said bitterly. “I didn’t think of it till now. Fucking Andrushka.”
Bucky thrust open both of the doors at the end of the hall. They burst forth into the sunshine, an early autumn day in Virginia, the lawn still bright green and the trees just touched with gold. In the sunshine, even the army surplus tents that housed the Home’s excess patients looked cheerful.
Bucky took about ten steps out onto the lawn, then flopped down in the grass. “Fuck Natasha,” he said, but he sounded calmer now. He ripped up a handful of grass and tossed it like confetti. “Fuck Andrushka. He couldn’t even die without inconveniencing everybody,” he said.
Steve sat down next to him. “I think you dented the morgue wall.”
Bucky looked startled, and frowned, and then squinched his face as he remembered. Steve bumped his shoulder gently against Bucky’s.
“What did you say to her?” Steve asked.
“Hmm?” Bucky was picking bits of grass off his hand.
“The part you said in Russian.”
“Oh.” Bucky’s hand dropped flat on the ground. “I told her Yelena was going to kill her. Her old Red Room sister, you know. She’s still pissed as hell Natasha left.”
He collapsed backward on the grass, looking up at the sky. Steve lay down next to him. Long cirrus clouds streaked across the blue.
“It just kills me,” Bucky said, “that she’s putting herself in danger for his stupid corpse and he’s not even alive to approve. He’s not going to pat her on the head at the end and say, ‘You have done well, young grasshopper.’ It’s like watching Skye look up at Coulson all big-eyed hoping he’s proud of her, only sometimes Coulson really is, and even if he were alive Andrushka was never fucking capable of being proud of anyone.”
Steve couldn’t bear to say something even so tepidly positive about Coulson as he’s better than Andrei Nikolaevich. “You know Coulson’s already offering to ‘help contain the overcrowding’ by taking patients off our hands,” Steve said instead, gesturing at the tents on the lawn. “So we can get everyone inside before winter.”
“Fuck Coulson.” Bucky sat upright again. “Tell him we lived in tents all winter during World War II, and it was a hell of a lot colder back then.”
Steve smiled. He glanced over at Bucky. Bucky was shredding a long piece of grass. Most of his hair had worked its way out of his ponytail and fell in his face. A soft breeze rustled through the yellow-tipped leaves in the trees dotting the lawn.
“It was just a rough flight back. With Natasha,” Bucky said. “Talking about the Red Room.” He gathered his hair back into its usual ponytail. “Andrushka used to complain I wasn’t like the Red Room girls. You know. ‘They’re respectful. They call me Andrei Nikolaevich. They don’t laugh at me when I get drunk and fall down the stairs.’ Like hell they didn’t. You know a bunch of six-year-olds would have thought that was fucking hilarious.”
“Yeah,” Steve said softly.
“Do you know what she told me? She hated me when she was a kid. Not that we ever met, but Andrei Nikolaevich used to hold me up as an example. ‘The Winter Soldier could’ve made that shot. The Winter Soldier wouldn’t cry about a broken arm.’ This example she could never live up to. And it was never real, I wasn’t like that, of course I fucking cried when I had a broken arm. Andrushka just made it all up.”
Steve was getting a lump in his throat. Natasha never talked about her childhood, but he felt nonetheless that somehow he should have known. “Do you think we should have stopped her?” he asked. “If you really think Yelena will kill her…”
“We couldn’t have stopped her, Steve. Not for long.”
Which was probably true.
“Anyway,” said Bucky, “I think Yelena wants to kill Natasha the same way Natasha wanted to kill Andrei Nikolaevich. She doesn’t really want to kill her, but she wants to want to kill her. You know?”
“Yes,” said Steve, after a moment of hesitation.
Bits of grass clung to Bucky’s black pants. Bucky picked them off with careful attention. “It’s just,” he said, and he glanced obliquely at Steve and then returned his attention to his task. “It’s weird that Andrushka’s dead.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed.
“Can you pick up that bust of Lenin for me?” Bucky asked. “I left it in the morgue.” He shrugged, a quick jerk of his shoulders. “Just a souvenir,” he said.
Bucky tucked the bust of Lenin in the corner of his bedroom, thus bringing the furniture count in his room up to three: bed, bedside table, bust of Lenin.
And then, somehow, everything seemed to go back to normal. Every morning, Steve and Bucky did PT. Then, at least two or three afternoons a week, they headed over to the Home.
It was an hour each way, there and back, and one evening when they were eating dinner in the cafeteria Steve suggested that maybe they should just move there. “Once the overcrowding lets up.”
“So you could torture yourself by seeing Rumlow every day?” Bucky scoffed.
Rumlow lived in the TAHITI wing with the other former Hydra agents that Coulson had mind-wiped. They had no contact with the other patients in the Home – because the other patients were patients, and would be released once they had recovered from the brainwashing that forced them to serve Hydra.
Rumlow, and the other denizens of the TAHITI wing, had been willing Hydra agents. They were prisoners.
Bucky rarely bothered to visit the TAHITI wing; he probably wouldn’t have come at all except that a dog he had rescued from a Hydra facility, an excitable mutt named Rascal, had ended up living there because he couldn’t cope with the more crowded, changeable conditions in the rest of the Home. But Steve went every visit, impelled by guilt. If he had insisted that the Hydra agents ought to have proper trials, Coulson never would have had the chance to mind-wipe anybody.
“I’m not torturing myself,” Steve told Bucky. “I’m just…”
He couldn’t think of an appropriate verb. Bucky filled in the rest of the sentence for him. “Checking to make sure he’s not plotting vengeance on Coulson for mind-wiping him? Or just generally plotting genocide.”
“I think he’s too depressed to plot anything.”
Bucky was using a breadstick to capture the last tomato sauce from the lasagna. “Good.”
“You want him to be depressed?”
“If that’s the only way to keep him from plotting genocide? Sure.”
Steve supposed that wasn’t unreasonable, exactly, but still.
“I don’t think he’s half as miserable as you think, anyway,” Bucky added. “I see him every time I play fetch with Rascal, and Rumlow’s not half so bad when you’re not around. I bet he’s playing it up to try to make you feel bad.”
Steve was silent.
Bucky pressed his advantage. “If he thought you didn’t want him to be happy, I bet he’d get happier just out of spite.”
“Maybe,” said Steve.
“As happy as he could be while he’s imprisoned for life, anyway. And covered in burn scars. And in pain all the time.”
Bucky sounded as though he might be enjoying this recitation of Rumlow’s woes. Steve’s voice flattened. “Those probably all make it pretty hard to be happy.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. He stretched across the table to steal one of Steve’s cookies. “That’s why it’s such a waste of your time to try to cheer him up.”
“I like it better when you pretend to be supportive,” Steve told Bucky.
That was something that had changed. Bucky and Rumlow had never liked each other, and Steve knew that Bucky’s private opinion was that Steve’s visits to Rumlow were a waste of time; but before Andrushka’s death he had at least tried to see the point of them.
Another thing that was different: when they got back to their apartment, Bucky went straight to bed, rather than staying up to watch TV with Steve.
“Watching TV” was Bucky’s term for it, and they did generally have the TV on: right now they were working their way through Bonanza.
But they kept the sound to a low murmur, and all the lights off in the apartment except the flicker of the TV. Bucky often fell asleep in the first episode, leaning against Steve or sometimes even putting his head in Steve’s lap, in which case Steve would stroke his hair slowly, his own head tilted back against the couch, watching the dim headlights of the passing cars swoop across the ceiling until he drifted off to sleep.
It was a way to fall asleep together without actually sharing a bed, or saying anything that might make someone listening on the other end of a listening device sit up and take notice. (Sleeping together in the sense of having sex in the apartment was of course completely out of the question. They didn’t even talk about sex; they talked about “going camping,” which meant do you want to go away somewhere we don’t have to worry about listening devices and have sex?)
But now Bucky closed his door and locked it, and Steve wondered if Bucky were really sleeping in there, or if he climbed out the window and spent the dark hours of the night walking through DC like a shadow, trying to wear himself out enough to sleep.
They got a smattering of postcards from Natasha. Went to the Louvre today, on a postcard with a picture of the Great Wall of China and a postmark from Samarkand. Eating sushi in Nagasaki.. There were little hearts on the I’s. Maybe you were right about the cat.
Bucky read that one and then went to the window and stood a long time looking out, the late afternoon sunlight slanting across his face.
“You want to get pirozhkis for dinner?” Steve asked. He meant it as an invitation to talk –about Natasha, or Andrushka, or anything to do with Russia that Bucky wanted to talk about. “We could walk over to that place by the park.”
“Piroshki,” Bucky said, unable to resist correcting Steve’s Russian plurals. Then he added decidedly, “I want pizza. Let’s order in.”
Which meant he didn’t want to talk at all. They didn’t talk about important things in the apartment, even though they swept it weekly for listening devices. They hadn’t found any lately, which just convinced Bucky that they (whoever they might be) had gotten better at hiding them.
“’Course, they didn’t have any bugs in Andrushka’s apartment, either,” he had commented, at the end of their last sweep.
“Really?” That didn’t fit with Steve’s vision of the hyper-paranoid Red Room which never allowed any flies to truly escape its web.
“If they had, they would have noticed he was dead. But we checked, just in case.” Bucky sounded tired. That was when Steve first really noticed those dark circles under his eyes. “No one ever cared about him much.”
Bucky’s late night walks (if he was taking late night walks) caught up with him about a month after Andrushka’s death. He came down abruptly with a bad cold, and for once Steve didn’t have to wonder if Bucky was still in the apartment behind his closed door, because he could hear Bucky’s hacking cough.
Around three a.m., when yet another coughing fit woke Steve from his fitful doze, he stumbled out of bed and knocked softly on Bucky’s door. “Buck? You okay?”
“Yes, Steve, I’m just coughing for fun.”
Steve smiled briefly at the sarcasm. Another coughing fit followed, and Steve’s smile faded back into concern. “I’ll get you a glass of water if you’ll open the door.”
“It’s unlocked.” Bucky was hoarse.
It was. Steve fetched a glass of water and went inside.
He rarely entered Bucky’s room. It looked even barer than usual in the dim light that filtered in through the blinds. The chipped bust of Lenin in the corner gave the room an abandoned air, even though Bucky sat in the bed in the other corner.
He had his knees drawn up and his right arm slung around them, and his hair fell in his face in sweaty clumps. Steve sat gingerly on the edge of the bed and set the water glass on the bedside table, next to a book.
“Wind in the Willows?” Steve said, reading the title.
“Rebecca gave it to me,” Bucky said, and coughed wetly. “Last time I visited her.”
Steve smiled at him. Bucky coughed again. He took the glass of water and drained it, and then stared down at the empty water glass in his hand.
“In the orphanage,” he said, “we weren’t allowed to get out of bed after lights out. I’d lie awake listening to you cough, and I couldn’t even get you a glass of water.”
It had been ages since Bucky told an orphanage story. “Bucky,” Steve said gently. He put an arm around Bucky’s shoulders.
“Do I need to see a doctor?” Bucky blurted. His face crumpled as he succumbed to another coughing fit. His body shook with coughs, and Steve squeezed closer, and kissed Bucky’s stringy hair when the coughing fit subsided.
“I’m not sure,” Steve said.
He understood Bucky’s aversion to doctors better now that he had seen so many victims of Hydra’s medical experiments: the young man whose limbs had been replaced by useless limp tentacles, the girl who was permanently attached to a respirator as a result of a failed attempt to give her gills.
The tentacled boy had died soon after they rescued him: he had been the reason they built the morgue, in fact. But the girl with gills still lived in the Home, her internal organs so damaged by Hydra’s experiments that she frequently needed surgeries – although any reference to surgery, no matter how gently introduced, no matter how many tranquilizers she took, still made her scream.
“Why don’t we try some home remedies first?” Steve suggested. He put a hand on Bucky’s back. “You take a shower and see if the steam won’t loosen some of that phlegm. I’ll make a pot of chamomile tea and roast an onion for a poultice, like my mom used to when my chest got stopped up.”
Bucky wrinkled his nose. “The kids used to call you Skunk,” he told Steve.
Steve grinned. “What? Are you afraid the DeathLoks are gonna tease you?”
“Aw, I could take ‘em,” Bucky said, and Steve was pleased to see that he was smiling.
Steve stood up and clapped him on the back. “Come on, soldier. Get your shower.” He picked up The Wind in the Willows. “If you’re good I’ll read you a chapter or two. Mr. Toad still your favorite?”
Bucky lumbered out of bed. “You can read ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ if you want,” he said generously.
The onion was still roasting when Bucky emerged from the shower, but Steve had the chamomile tea ready. Bucky sat down at the kitchen table, his head bent over the mug to breathe in the steam, and Steve laid on a hand on the back of his neck to check his temperature. “How’m I doing, doc?” Bucky asked.
“Not bad,” Steve said. In fact Bucky seemed a lot better, as if the mere prospect of avoiding the doctor had put him on the road to recovery.
“Will I have to go to the doctor?”
“Not unless you’re a lot worse in the morning,” Steve temporized. He didn’t want to make a promise he couldn’t keep. “It’s better not to introduce any germs to the Home when it’s so overcrowded…”
“That’s another thing that should’ve happened in the orphanage stories,” Bucky mumbled. “Disease ripping through the overcrowded orphanage. Kids dying in the halls with scarlet fever. You only survived ‘cause I smuggled you up to the old pigeon loft on the roof, away from the infection.”
Steve was out of practice dealing with orphanage stories. When had Bucky last told one?
“But I had to sneak down to the kitchens to feed us,” Bucky said, “and along the way there were corpses just lying in the hallway, and no one had time to bury them.” He yawned. “I dunno if scarlet fever is bad enough for that. Maybe it oughta be typhus.”
Probably when Steve had asked for one, during his own nervous breakdown. “The poultice won’t be ready for a while,” Steve said.
Bucky yawned. “It smells good.”
Bucky rested his head on the kitchen table, lifting it occasionally for sips of tea. Steve puttered around, washing the neglected dishes, switching out the sodden dish towel, wiping up the sink.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t use onions like this at the orphanage,” Bucky said. “When you got sick.”
Steve slid the final soup bowl slowly into the drying rack. “I guess,” he said, “we wouldn’t have had a way to roast an onion in the orphanage?”
“We could’ve done it in the furnace room, if the janitor was drunk enough not to notice,” Bucky said. “But we never would’ve wasted an onion that way if we could’ve gotten one. Food was so scarce, we would’ve eaten it raw.”
“Sure,” Steve agreed.
Bucky didn’t speak for a while. He coughed a few times, but much more weakly than he had been coughing earlier. “You wanted ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,’” Steve remembered, and settled down at the kitchen table next to Bucky with the book in hand.
But Bucky caught his sleeve before he could begin reading. “You know what’s wrong with the orphanage stories?” Bucky said. “They’re too…” Another cough interrupted him. “Too sentimental.”
“Really.” That was a word Steve never would have applied to the orphanage stories.
Bucky nodded seriously. “It’s always about how bad the adults are,” he said, “the director and the matron and the janitor. But really the other orphans ought to be just as bad.”
“There was that story where the other orphans threw me down the stairs,” Steve objected.
“But that was just one story,” Bucky said. “Mostly it was the directors throwing you down the stairs. When really, the directors shouldn’t’ve even been there most of the time. We should’ve spent most of the story fighting the other orphans for food and blankets and…” He started to cough again.
Steve replenished his chamomile tea. Bucky sipped it and stopped coughing and sighed. Steve turned over Wind in the Willows in his hands.
“We shouldn’t have really been friends,” Bucky said. “In the orphanage. How would we have ever learned how to really be friends in a place like that?”
Steve didn’t like this train of thought. “It’s a good thing it’s just a place you made up, then.”
“I didn’t make it up,” Bucky said. “There are real places like that.”
The timer on the oven tinged. Steve thankfully abandoned the table to remove the onion from the oven. “Go lie down on the couch,” he told Bucky. “It’ll take me a minute to finish up the poultice. I’ll bring it over.”
Despite the stubble on his cheeks, Bucky looked young and almost sweet once he had snuggled down on the couch. He smiled at Steve when Steve brought over the poultice and settled it on his chest. “You gonna stay home tomorrow too?”
Steve brushed Bucky’s hair off his forehead and shook his head. “Coulson’s coming in for a meeting. I have to be there.”
“You know you don’t have to go to every meeting with Coulson,” Bucky said.
“Yes, I do,” Steve said.
Bucky looked much-improved when Steve got home that evening, which was good, because Steve was in no mood to play nursemaid. He swung a bag of take-out Chinese onto the coffee table with such force that he knocked over a mug.
“Bad day at the office, honey?” Bucky chirped. He righted the toppled mug. “Good thing that was empty. Can I have more tea?”
“Make it yourself,” Steve snapped.
Bucky looked at him reproachfully and rose with a martyred air.
“I’ll get the tea,” Steve snapped, embarrassed by his own misdirected bad temper, but irritated rather than chastened by his embarrassment.
Bucky settled down to investigate the take-out. “What the hell did Coulson do?” he asked.
“He wants…” Steve began. He turned on the electric kettle with exaggerated gentleness because he was afraid he might break it otherwise. “He wants us to give him Rumlow. All the TAHITI patients.”
Bucky had been unloaded a box of lo mein directly into his mouth, but now he stopped, noodles hanging from his lips as he stared at Steve. He swallowed and said, “Why? He wiped all the intelligence value out of Rumlow’s head himself.”
“Allegedly,” Steve said, gripping the edge of the sink, “it’s all for the Home’s benefit. We can use the TAHITI wing for other patients and maybe get the tents off the lawn.”
The water boiled. Steve poured Bucky’s tea.
“We could use the space,” Bucky said.
Steve upset the boiling tea over his hand. “Bucky!” he yelled. He stuck his burned hand under a cold tap. “We can’t give Rumlow back to the guy who mind-wiped him in the first place.”
“Not till we know what’s in it for Coulson,” Bucky said. “He’s not offering out of the goodness of his heart just ‘cause he knows we need more space.”
“What do you want me to say, Steve? I don’t give a fuck what happens to Rumlow. If it were up to me, we would shoot him.”
Steve felt like Bucky had punched him in the stomach. It was too much, on top of the rotten day, and he sagged against the sink.
“He was a traitor,” Bucky said. “Not just to SHIELD, to…” He gestured with his fork. “To humanity. He wanted to kill twenty million people, Steve. Or maybe more, who knows how many times they planned to shoot off the helicarriers? Just ‘cause it could kill twenty million people at one go doesn’t mean they’d stop there.”
“He didn’t actually manage it,” Steve protested.
“Not for lack of trying, though. I bet a court could get him on conspiracy to commit genocide, at least. Is that an actual criminal statute? There’s gotta be something in the Nuremberg laws.”
“He’s going to be locked up till he dies,” Steve said. “Isn’t that enough punishment? Especially after the mind-wiping? We can’t turn him back over to Coulson,” he added, reverting to his original point, “when Coulson’s the one who mind-wiped him.”
Bucky shrugged. “It’s not like Coulson’s going to mind-wipe him again.”
“If Rumlow had done that shit in the Soviet Union…” Bucky made a throat-slitting gesture. “One time the GRU caught one of their own men spying for MI6 and they strapped him to a gurney and burned him alive.”
“That’s what Andrushka said, anyway. They showed him the recording when he was in training and he used to cry about it when he was drunk. Not that I’d want Rumlow burned alive,” Bucky added, with the air of one making a generous concession. “A bullet in the back of the head is fine.”
Steve stared at him. Bucky levered an enormous knot of lo mein into his mouth.
Suddenly Steve just didn’t want to be in the room with him anymore. He snagged his jacket off the back of the couch.
“Where you going?” Bucky asked around a mouthful of noodles.
“Out,” Steve said.
Bucky swallowed. The noodles bulged in his throat like a python swallowing a mouse. “You’re running away because you know I’m right,” he pronounced.
Steve slammed the door behind him.
“In the orphanage,” Bucky said, “we used to have porridge for breakfast.”
It was the next morning. Steve had been out till four a.m. trying to jog off his general rage. Bucky had made eggs and toast for breakfast, which Steve hoped was a peace offering, although it was hard to tell when it came accompanied by an orphanage story.
“Watery porridge,” Bucky said, spreading jam on a slice of toast. “More water than oats or anything. And we thought it was bulked out with sawdust, only no one could ever prove it.”
“Bucky,” Steve said. The jog hadn’t improved his mood. “I really don’t care about the orphanage.”
Bucky settled the jam knife carefully on the lid of the jam jar. He looked at Steve, and after a long moment he said, “You know I didn’t mean I’m going to kill Rumlow. It would’ve been a good thing if Coulson put him on trial years ago and the jury voted to execute, but it’s too late now.”
Steve scraped up the last bits of eggs with his toast and didn’t reply. Bucky threw down his own fork.
“Fuck you,” he said, and he got up and snatched the motorcycle keys off the wall.
Steve rose from his chair.
“Where are you going?”
“To the Home,” Bucky snapped. “I’m not going to stick around and ride in the car and listen to you sit there in sanctimonious silence because you think I oughta care more about that traitorous son of a bitch who ought to be grateful he’s even alive.”
The walls rattled when he slammed the door.
Steve washed the dishes slowly. He wiped down the table and the countertops too, and then went ahead and cleaned the kitchen floor, and then the rest of the apartment floors.
He was hoping that the routine of cleaning might steady his feelings, as the jog had not, but it didn’t really.
It had never bothered him that Bucky didn’t like Rumlow: Steve knew well enough that Rumlow probably deserved it, that he himself only liked Rumlow now because he felt so crushingly guilty about the mind-wiping. It never would have happened if he hadn’t let his hatred of Rumlow overpower his belief in the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.
And perhaps that was why Bucky’s attitude infuriated: it reflected his own earlier failings, which had landed Rumlow in the Home in the first place. He could so easily imagine history repeating itself.
Steve’s meeting with Pepper that morning relieved his mind of that worry, at least. “Of course we’re not letting Coulson take the all the patients in the TAHITI wing,” she said. “Tony suggested that we might be able to relieve the overcrowding if we adapted a couple of floors in Stark Tower for patients who are approaching release. It would be a better launching point than the Home, don’t you think? It’s easier to find a job in New York City than in Albertsville.”
Albertsville was a hamlet about two miles from the Home, the closest outpost of civilization. The patients coveted day passes to visit, because it boasted an ice cream parlor and a fudge shoppe and three antiques stores (before the Home opened, Albertsville had thrived on the seasonal tourist trade), but it certainly didn’t offer much in the way of employment opportunities.
“Yes,” Steve agreed. “That’s a good idea.”
He had a long chat with Rumlow, too. He didn’t allude to Coulson’s suggestion – there was no reason Rumlow needed to hear about that. The conversation focused instead on the new tricks Rumlow was teaching his dog Lucy, who, Rumlow recounted eagerly to Steve, now knew the words for nearly thirty different objects. “There’s a border collie that knows a hundred and twenty or some shit,” Rumlow said, “but in a year or two Lucy could probably give her a run for her money. Couldn’t you, girl? Couldn’t you? Good girl! Here you go!”
And Lucy dashed across the TAHITI lawn, chasing the orange Frisbee that Rumlow had tossed.
Fortified, therefore, with the knowledge that Rumlow was safe in his relatively cushy prison and going to remain so, Steve went in search of Bucky.
And couldn’t find him. The motorcycle was in the parking lot, so he ought to be in the Home, but he wasn’t hanging out with the DeathLoks or eating in the cafeteria or helping out in Simmons’ lab. He wasn’t even in the TAHITI wing – Steve checked, in a sudden burst of concern that he might have gone specifically to gloat to Rumlow about the fact that Coulson wanted him back.
But no. He hadn’t been there, either.
The sky had darkened; the air smelled wet and heavy with approaching rain. Steve stopped beneath an oak tree in the freshening breeze and tried to think where else Bucky might go. He never went near the hospital wing: too many doctors for comfort. Sometimes he chatted with Dr. Charles, but it wasn’t one of Dr. Charles’ days at the Home. And sometimes Bucky and Natasha walked to the Albertsville ice cream parlor, but Natasha wasn’t back yet; they had gotten a postcard of Machu Picchu just the day before, with a postmark from Athens and the message, We should go swing-dancing when I get back, whatever the hell that meant. How long could it take to ask Yelena if the Red Room would bury Andrushka?
Steve was already on his way to the morgue.
When Steve first entered the morgue, Bucky was sitting on the floor right below Andrei Nikolaevich’s drawer, but the moment he saw Steve, Bucky clambered to his feet. He looked wary, edging toward pugnacious, as if he suspected that Steve had come down here ready to continue the fight.
Steve hadn’t. He stopped halfway down the stairs and said, “I thought maybe we could borrow some raincoats from Tony and walk over to Albertsville. Get some ice cream.”
It was a peace offering, and also a calculated attempt to get Bucky to talk. He was much more likely to speak freely on the trail to Albertsville than inside any building where the walls might have ears.
“Ice cream,” Bucky echoed. The pugnacity had faded from his face. For a moment he looked so sad that it almost made Steve want to cry; and then Bucky snapped a smile on his face, and said, “Why not? Might as well get a last cone before it gets too cold.”
A light rain had begun to fall when they left the Home. Steve was glad: the rain was liable to keep patients off the trail, and Bucky was much more likely to talk about Andrushka if they didn’t run into anyone.
For the first mile or so Bucky didn’t say anything. Then, abruptly, when the pattering rain had lightened to a mist, he said, “Steve. If I ask you something, will you really think about it and answer me for real instead of just giving me some psychobabble bullshit?”
“Sure,” Steve said.
There was a moment’s pause, and Steve had the impression that Bucky was gathering himself, as if he were about to leap off a high dive, and then Bucky said, “Do you think I’m a bad person?”
Steve was aghast. “What do you mean?” he asked, but that was mostly to buy time: it was not an unclear question, and he was suddenly afraid that his answer might have to be yes.
“Well, you know. With Rumlow and everything,” Bucky said, and rubbed the back of his neck. “With Rumlow and Andrushka. I’ve just been thinking about it. Since Andrushka died.”
Now Steve’s confusion was genuine. “Since Andrushka died?” he parroted.
“I used to treat him like shit,” Bucky said.
“Well, yes, but…” Steve felt he was on firmer ground now. “He did let Zola operate on you without anesthesia.”
“So?” Bucky said. He glanced at Steve, and saw the confusion in his face, and explained, “He didn’t do it because he hated me. He did it because he was afraid of Zola, and he could never say no to anyone he was afraid of.”
They walked on a little ways beneath the dripping trees, and then Steve ventured, “Do you wish you’d been nicer to him?”
He tried not to sound incredulous, but it seemed so out of character that some of his incredulity might have slipped into his voice. Bucky didn’t do regret.
“I always treated him like shit,” Bucky said again. “And it never bothered me till we found him dead, but now…” He fell silent again. He removed his right hand from his pocket and pushed his hair out of his face. “He grew up in an orphanage. Did I ever tell you that?”
“He’d get drunk and cry about it,” Bucky said. “Like how one time he went up on the roof to hide and he found another orphan who had frozen to death up there, and Andrushka never told anybody because he was afraid the other orphans might eat him.”
“Eat him,” Steve echoed.
“The dead boy,” Bucky clarified, “not Andrushka himself. Or maybe Andrushka, too. He’d talk about how the big boys would threaten to eat the little kids, to keep them in line. There weren’t enough adults to look after the kids ‘cause everyone was at the front fighting Nazis. So the bullies ran the orphanage.” He glanced at Steve sideways. “So you see why I was saying my orphanage stories were sentimental.”
“Because we were friends,” Steve said, remembering what Bucky had said earlier.
“Because in Andrushka’s orphanage,” Bucky said, “you would have just died.” He kicked a pebble along the wide dirt path. “And I would’ve become one of the bullies. Like I did after my team died. After Grisha died.”
“But…” Steve began.
“Oh, don’t give me this bullshit,” Bucky snapped.
“You don’t know what I was going to say,” Steve protested.
“But you were gonna say something like Oh Bucky, but you were so traumatized, weren’t you?”
Honesty forced Steve to nod.
“But that’s not true. Or it is true, but it’s not a good excuse. Look at Grisha, he went through so much shit with the Purges and then the war and then he got sent to the gulag after I fucked up a mission, and afterward he was so sick and weak he couldn’t even eat some days. He’d lost a lot of his teeth and his stomach was shot. And he could have hated me, he could have blamed me, he could’ve told me that it was all my fault, and he never did.” Bucky let out a faint quivering sigh. “And then he died and I got stuck with Andrei Nikolaevich and I treated him like shit.”
Steve didn’t answer at once. A thin fog rose from the path, obscuring the gravel, and making it difficult to pick his way through the puddles.
After a while Steve said, “Do you feel like you didn’t live up to Grisha? He was kind to you even though he’d suffered in the gulag. But after you’d suffered too, you weren’t kind to Andrushka?”
“Yes,” Bucky said, and he sounded immensely relieved that Steve had understood.
Steve thought some more. His pace had slowed to a crawl: he wanted to finish this conversation before they reached Albertsville. “I think that’s not quite the same thing,” he ventured. “I think if someone had tried to turn Grisha over to the likes of Zola – I think he would have done anything he could to stop them, even if it meant being cruel. I don’t think he could have survived so much if he hadn’t known how to protect himself.”
“But that’s not the same thing,” Bucky said. “Being cruel to protect yourself is different than…” His voice petered out, and then came back with a more aggressive edge. “I don’t regret telling Andrushka I’d rip out his spine if he let Zola have a crack at me again. But there wasn’t any point when I told him I wished the other orphans had eaten him ‘cause then I wouldn’t have to listen to him cry about it, or when he told me he wished he was dead and I said we’d all be better off without him and I could help him find a tall building.”
Steve laughed. He didn’t mean to, but it burst out of him, more appalled than mirthful, but still a laugh, and Bucky smiled a little. “I thought it was funny too,” he said. “Isn’t that what it means to be a bad person? To think cruelty is funny?”
“I think,” Steve began, and grew thoughtful again. They were almost to Albertsville – there was a large stone by the side of the trail that marked the last quarter mile – and Steve sat down on it, although it was still wet from the rain and cold enough that he could feel the cold through his raincoat.
“I think there are a lot of ways to be a bad person,” Steve said, “and I know that I’ve been some of them. After the Triskelion fell,” he said, “when I rejoined SHIELD, even though I knew they were locking up Hydra agents without trial, because I thought defeating Hydra was more important than anything else – that’s something bad people do too, isn’t it? They’re so sure of themselves that they think they’re above the law?”
Bucky looked troubled. “I don’t think you were bad,” he said. “Misguided.”
“I don’t know. How many people have to suffer before a misguided choice is just plain bad? It wasn’t just people like Rumlow we locked up, either, there were innocents too. We weren’t making any distinction between real Hydra agents and brainwashed ones then.”
“Because you didn’t know,” Bucky urged him. “You can’t blame yourself for not knowing, Steve.”
“But shouldn’t I have known? Don’t you think I should have thought, ‘If Hydra’s best assassin was my brainwashed best friend, maybe some of their less elite agents are brainwashed too?’”
Bucky’s mouth took on a mulish set. Steve waited a few moments, and then settled back on the rock and said, “I’m not going to tell you that you’re a bad person either, Buck. No matter how good of an argument you make. I know we’ve both done some shitty things in our lives, but I don’t think that means that either of us are bad, forever and ever, world without end, amen.” Steve smiled sadly. “Although I’m sure Rumlow would think that’s self-serving, given how much suffering my choices caused him personally.”
“Well, fuck Rumlow,” Bucky said petulantly. “That fucker deserved every bad thing I ever did to him.”
Steve didn’t reply. Bucky flopped down on the wet grass beside him and didn’t speak for a while either.
“I worry about ending up like Andrushka,” he said at last. “Dying all alone because he drove everyone away. He’d do this unforgivable shit, like that surgery, and then he’d cry and be sorry, but he never really changed. He was just as bad to the Red Room girls. And here I am,” Bucky said, “sorry that I treated Andrushka like shit now that he’s dead and it doesn’t even matter, but I still hate Rumlow just as much as ever.”
“And that bothers you.”
Bucky had lowered his head so that his hair hid his face. He nodded. “And you’ve forgiven him,” he said. “And it drives me crazy, because I just can’t.”
“But it wasn’t… it’s not like I chose to forgive him,” Steve said. “Natasha and I found him and figured out he was mind-wiped and somehow I just wasn’t angry anymore. Like how you found Andrushka dead,” Steve said, the parallel suddenly striking him, “and all of a sudden you started to feel bad about treating him like shit.”
“I guess.” Bucky tugged at a strap on his boot. “He just looked so small,” Bucky said, “and so helpless, and I thought about what complete crap his life was and how I only ever made it worse, and I just wished…” He breathed out. “I don’t know. It’s not even that I felt so bad about how I treated him. There are some things I wish I hadn’t done, but you’re right that he brought a lot of it on himself. But I felt bad about how bad his life was when he was a kid, and how it never got better. I just wished things could’ve been better for him. It just seemed sad that anyone would die all alone like that, even though Andrushka deserved it if anyone did.”
Those didn’t strike Steve as the musing of a bad person, and he almost said so, but he held himself back at the last moment: it seemed like the wrong moment to say it somehow. “Yes,” he said instead. “He had a sad life, didn’t he?” And suddenly he felt sorry for Andrushka too, which he had never expected to feel.
Bucky rubbed a hand across his face. Then he looked up at Steve, although this let the water from his hood drip into his face. “It’s too cold for ice cream,” he said.
“I think the ice cream shop does hot chocolate,” Steve said.
“No,” said Bucky. “I want to go back to the Home.”
Steve knew for a fact that the ice cream parlor had hot chocolate, but all of a sudden he didn’t want to go either. He didn’t want the warmth and the smell of the waffle cones and the hot fudge. It seemed more fitting to walk back to the Home in the rain, and be sad about Andrushka for a couple of miles – for the child in the orphanage who had been afraid that the bigger kids would eat him.
“We can stop at the cafeteria for tea when we get back,” Bucky said.
Steve nodded. “We’ll be cold,” he agreed. “We’ll need something to warm us up.”
Natasha returned a little before Thanksgiving. She had a black eye and a hoarse voice, as if someone had punched her in the larynx, and a swagger that dared anyone to ask her how it happened.
“They don’t want him,” she told Bucky.
They were eating pizza in the cafeteria at the Home, next to one of the dark windows. The days had grown short.
“It took you two months to figure out they don’t want him?” Bucky asked.
Natasha fixed him with a cold stare. She kept chewing her pizza, and Bucky sat back and folded his arms and waited.
Natasha put her pizza down and gazed out the darkened windows – or perhaps at her reflection against the darkness. “I had some other things to figure out,” she said.
“So what do you want to do with his body?” Steve asked, trying to sound as businesslike as he could. The question couldn’t be put off much longer: like the rest of the Home, the morgue was growing crowded.
Natasha and Bucky looked at each other. Bucky made a little gesture, as if inviting her to go first. She reached inside her black leather jacket and produced a small cloth bag. “I brought a bag of Russian earth,” she said.
Bucky nodded. “He always used to carry one,” he said, “in case he died on foreign soil.”
“We all used to do that too,” Natasha said. “All the girls in the Red Room. He made it sound so terrible to die outside of Russia, even though he must have known that most of us would.” She tossed the bag of earth in the air lightly, like a hacky sack. “The last thing I said to him was Fuck you, Andrei Nikolaevich.”
“How about we put it on his tombstone?” Bucky suggested.
Natasha stared at him a moment, and then laughed. She shook her head. Her precisely trimmed bob batted against her cheeks. “Let’s just put his name,” she said. “He was always afraid of being one of the nameless dead.”
“Just his name then,” Bucky agreed. “That’s better than he would have done for us.”