You take the arm off four days later.
You lift wallets instead of shoplifting. You won't be able to fit all of the things you need into your pockets. You have a list.
Lists are important. Lists mean objectives: all of the things you need to do, tucked into the palm of your hand. Boxes you can tick to confirm a thing has been done. Even if you forget, you know it's been done. Someone ticked the box; someone crossed off the line. Linear lists are best of all. A then B then C, and a reward. There were often rewards, at the end of lists. Lists are on your list of good things.
It's a short list, but you'll make it bigger. Lists like to grow.
Your list has these things on it:
At least one screwdriver;
One (and here you've written pry bar, but you aren't sure if this is the English term for the object you're thinking of, and you don't know if they come as small as you need);
One bottle of cleaning solution;
One ball of string;
And one bottle of disinfectant.
You come out with more than you intend, but you find everything on the list. There is a pry bar. There is a very small multi-head screwdriver to go with the large multi-head screwdriver. The attachments are so tiny that you think they must be used for watches, for jewellery, for delicate things. You also find miniature needle-nose pliers. The symmetry is pleasing, even if you're certain you won't need them. Large and small, like nesting dolls. Someone once showed you: матрёшка. Little painted faces getting smaller. Look, someone had said, taking out all the dolls but the smallest one, and closing the largest one around it: This is you. This is me. Mother Russia looks after us. Or maybe: This is you. You are empty, and there is only a very little person inside you, rattling around.
You don't remember how the story ends, either way.
You hope what you've chosen will be enough. You have a line of memory in your head, chopped up. Images: click. Dialogue: click. You remember when they cut off your arm in the snow, skin like lace hanging from the bones of your elbow. Everything below: shards. They left it out there, in the snow. It's still there, you think. It must be. You remember when they cut off your arm again, in the lab. Higher, that time. Maybe another time after that. You watched, when you could. You tried. The Russians let you, called you храбрый, said: молодец! You always wanted to, but the Americans didn't let you. You don't know what you'll find when you get the plates off. If you can get the plates off. If. You have to. They must have come off, to be repaired. You remember the hiss of a welding torch and the smell of butane. They must have.
The clerk has eight piercings in her face and the sides of her scalp are shaved. The curls in the middle are green. She says: big project, huh?
Very big, you agree. The biggest.
Good for you, she says.
She helps you when you fumble with the money one-handed. You don't recognize the people on the bills.
It's okay, she says. You got strong hands, it'll come back.
What will come back? you ask.
Fine motor control, she says. You just got home, right? From a tour?
Tour, you think, tour, tour bus, tourism, tourists. Tour of duty.
How'd you know I was a, you say. Your mouth makes a shape around soldier but your throat doesn't make the noises.
A vet? she says. Combat boots. Your arm. I mean, I don't mean to be rude or anything. But you didn't take your hand out of your pocket. And you got the look, I guess. Ma looked like that, when she came home. Don't worry. It'll come back.
You take your receipt. You say, a beat too late: thanks. And then you say: Your ma. Tell her. Tell her she did good.
Going to war? says the girl. Or coming home?
No, you say. You. She did good.
The piercings move in her dimples when she smiles.
The apartment isn't yours.
It isn't anybody's. The building is, maybe. The water runs but there are boards on the windows. Black mould on the walls, smoke rings on the ceiling. Linoleum. Rolling balls of dust and cat hair scuff away when you open the door. You catch them and drop them out of the window, and then you clean the floor. A perfect ten-foot circle. The floor is blue under the dust: slate blue. Rocks and birds are that colour, sometimes. You like it.
The drop-cloth goes down, and then your tools. All in a row. You rearrange them until you like how they look, and then you disinfect them all. You disinfect your arm. You disinfect your right hand. Your hair is in the way, so you tie back as much as you can. You tuck the rest behind your ears and disinfect your hands again.
You don't want to do this.
The arm is yours. They gave it to you. It's yours. It's the only thing that is. The Americans, they misunderstood. They saw the arm and thought: that is the whole person. That person is a weapon. But the Russians said: this is a person with a tool. Here. This is your weapon. This is how it works.
You didn't mean to kill him, the first one who showed you, the one who bent your wrist with gentle fingers. His hyoid snapped like bird bones. You remember: the crisp little noise. The scramble. Someone trying to breathe; stopping. Someone trying to laugh, and forgetting how: hhhhhhh.
You didn't strangle the next one. You wanted to learn.
It was yours.
It's yours, and you don't want to do this, but you have to.
You weren't allowed to watch, but you know this: there are things in your arm that aren't yours. Things the Americans put there, after they'd taken you out of you. The thought makes you crawl, inside. You think you'll shiver right out of your skin if you think too hard about the things in your arm. You want them out.
They won't come out, the Americans said. Threatened. They won't come out, so don't try. It's all hooked up together. The wrist bone is connected to the arm bone. The tracker is connected to the pharmacological dispenser. The pharmacological dispenser is connected to the incendiary device. They won't come out. So don't try.
Inside the arm are these: two trackers, two electromagnets, one small bomb, one remote detonator, and eight dispensers. Three of these are on timers. One of them seems to have no effect; it may be empty. The other two are unpleasant. One is a stimulant. The other is a sedative. They tell you when to wake up and when to sleep. The sedative is set to dispense in two hours and forty-seven minutes.
Of all the lists you know, this is your least favourite. This is the list of all the reasons the arm needs to come off.
You half-expect to be electrocuted when you insert the pry bar under a plate in your biceps. The body remembers. Maintenance comes with shocks. But: nothing happens. You feel very brave. You look inside the arm.
You close your eyes, and swallow, and swallow. Your heart batters at your ribs. Your stomach tries to crawl into your throat. You tell them: stop, stop. Your systems must obey. They must be calm.
Your upper lip is damp with sweat.
You look inside.
It's not encouraging. There are circuits and wires and little glowing lights. Most of them are red. You think this is bad. You remember putting your hands into a bomb: wires and red lights, and numbers counting down. There are no numbers here. You wait for one hundred and twenty seconds, but your arm doesn't explode.
You pry off the next plate.
Between that plate and the next, you are seized with something. You don't know the word for it in any language. It's something like anger and something like fear and something like nausea. There is a vicious spirit in your hand. Plates rebound off of nearby surfaces: ping, ting, tong. You make music.
It takes thirty-eight minutes to strip your arm of plates. You look at your weapon. You can see all of its parts. Wires for nerves and fibres for muscles and shiny titanium bones. Your poor naked weapon. You think about separating it from the rest of you. You think about it alone and cold and apart. You want to put your hand on your wrist and tell it that everything will be okay. But you can't lie to yourself. You can't. It's just. It's yours.
The plates around your shoulder don't come off when you put the pry bar beneath them. They're screwed into your bones. There's no one around to hear the small animal noises you make when you take them out, but you're ashamed of them anyway.
There are four screws in your collarbone. You estimate it will take one minute per screw.
It takes a lot longer than four minutes.
There are six screws in your scapula. You don't think you can take them out. You make a fist around the screwdriver and almost throw it across the room. You look at your blood on the head, on the handle. It's just a tool. It did nothing wrong. It doesn't deserve to be thrown.
It turns out you're a lot more flexible than you thought you were. The screws come out.
The arm won't come off afterwards.
You shove the screwdriver under the plates. You make yourself bleed more. There is a terrifying noise. You realize it's your noise: snuffling, choking, whimpering. The rough saw of your breath. You make yourself quiet.
When you've settled, the solution comes to you. Sometimes the arm becomes jammed. Sometimes, when this happens, you rotate it all the way around to line up the pieces of the joint. Maybe, you think. Maybe if you go the other way, the pieces will un-line-up.
It works. You make a noise in your throat. A good noise. A good noise also comes from the arm. A satisfying clink-clunk, like something has come loose in your shoulder. The arm falls, and then catches on the wires.
You aren't prepared for the pain.
You bite your cheek bloody. It drips down your chin, onto your hand. The tool. The wire-cutters, in your hand. You make more noises. You tell yourself to shut up. Something is beeping.
You drop everything. You slip on the drop-cloth: sweat and plasma.
You throw the arm.
You throw it and you throw yourself. Your weapon, across the room. Your body, under the sink. Slam the door.
There is only the sound of your breathing and your bleeding.
There is only that sound for a very long time.
When you come out, you come crawling. Scared, like a baby monkey. Your toes try to grip the dust-gritty floor. You come at the weapon sideways, your heart slamming at your ribs. You have never kicked someone to death. You wonder if you will kick yourself to death from inside.
The weapon does not blow up when you touch it.
All the lights have gone out.
You touch your arm and you cry. Slow, at first, and then you make a little hiccoughy noise, and you can't stop. It's dead. It was yours and now it's dead. The things the Americans put in it are probably still alive. Like parasites, eating. They don't know that it's dead. Your throat convulses, but your stomach is empty. You gag anyway, and then you cry some more.
You don't know how long you lay curled, touching your own fingers. It's night when you come wading up out of the wet dark. Maintenance has been neglected. Chagrined, you see to your body.
The screw-holes have closed; so has the hole you bit in your cheek. Your body does this when you aren't paying attention. It steals time for itself. When you step back into your eyes, you are almost always healed. You wish your body would suck the blood back into itself. Surely it needs it.
The water that comes out of the taps is red-brown and smells of metal. Your body is strong, but you worry. You use the rest of the disinfectant to clean yourself instead.
Your socket is very, very clean.
It's metal. The skin of your shoulder folds over hard edges inside. There must be more metal you can't see. A skin bowl, holding all the metal in. There's a smooth round cup in the centre, and grooves like a labyrinth around it. You look at the ball-joint shoulder of your weapon. You want to slot it back into your socket. Pop: like a doll.
All the wires hang out, limp. Little dead bird feet. You clip them flush to the metal.
Tiredness sneaks up on you. You only notice when you you drop the wire cutters. You put your hand on your cheek. On the back of your neck, under your hair, where it's warm. Your hand is very cold.
You think: I'm cold.
You can't remember when you weren't.
The sofa you wake up on smells of decomposing animal. Cat urine. Or maybe it's you. Four days of sweat. Fear and exertion. Potomac mud in the creases of your clothes. Potomac water, in your hair. You sniff beneath your right arm, the sofa, the socket. You smell like trenches – trenches? – but you aren't rotting. The socket smells clean: iron filings and alcohol.
There is a puddle of sunlight on the floor, in the circle you cleaned. Someone said to you once: try. Try what? The sunlight cure. Lay in the sun for half an hour, and if you don't feel even a little bit better, I'll give you a nickel. You don't have a nickel, you hypocrite. Don't make me sit on you, Barnes.
When you step back into your eyes, the puddle of sunlight has moved.
You put the weapon in it before you leave.
The thrift shop is full of tiny old women. They stare at you without looking. Some of them are wary. Like maybe you will pull a gun on them. (You have two guns. You won't.) Some of them are something else. You don't know the word. The opposite of hungry. Like they want to take the fullness they have and give it to you.
You know what you look like: combat boots and filthy trousers, clean shirt with one arm turned inside-out and tucked down your side. Greasy snarl of hair pulled back with a string. You stand out. You need to blend in. You think about what people looked like on the street. Try to make yourself unobtrusive: don't look here. This body is small and quiet. You choose clothing you saw young men wearing: soft blue jeans, long-sleeved shirts, a hat with a brim. Socks. A leather jacket, cracking under the collar. A backpack.
The tiny old woman at the counter looks at you: up, down, sideways. She gives you a discount. You don't know why. You thank her when you leave.
You find an empty bathroom. You find the lights: flick. There you are. You flick them off. In the dark, you wash what you can reach. Change your clothes, dancing in bare feet on cold, wet tile. There's nothing to be done about your hair. You tuck it under your cap.
You thought you would feel better, once you were clean. You feel worse. Your socket makes a staticky thump-thump feedback out of time with your heartbeat. Your head feels like a rotten pumpkin. Your hand shakes when you bring it to your forehead. Clammy. Hot. You drink out of the tap and wonder if you're shutting down. Maybe there was vital life support in the arm. Maybe they lied: maybe it wasn't a bomb at all. Maybe it was a pacemaker.
Fresh air is an improvement. You'll walk, you decide. Walk it off. You'll die or you won't. What you won't do is run back to the apartment, try to fit your poor dead broken weapon back where it belongs. The place where it was is empty. The emptiness is yours too.
It helps, the walking. The edges of your body are different. Your left side weighs forty-seven pounds less than before. Five blocks later, your stride feels almost natural. You watch people. You notice that the ones who walk wide and swinging draw attention. Men trying to make themselves too large. You adjust; keep your legs beneath yourself. Hunch a little. Walk from the hips, not the shoulders. This is how not to walk like a killer. This is how to walk like a human being.
Just when you think you have the hang of it, you turn the corner, and you stumble like a drunk.
Smithsonian Museum! the sign says.
Captain America: Living Legend! the sign says.
Meet the Howling Commandos! the sign says.
You have to sit on a bench or else you'll fall down.
The man you almost killed is not an overgrown child in a costume. Not a junior agent. Not a vigilante. The man you almost killed has a museum exhibit. The signs suggest that he is a source of national pride. A man of history. A household name.
He said he knew you. Knew. Not circumstantially. Not in passing. The man said he was your friend. A handler wouldn't have said friend. Wouldn't have taken three bullets and lifted a girder to save you. Wouldn't have stopped fighting.
Wouldn't have let you beat him half to death, waiting for you to recognize him.
You glare at the signs until your eyes cross.
And then you walk inside.
матрёшка: matryoshka; little mother. These dolls.
молодец: brave lad, fine man. You might say: attaboy!
They made you forget. So: you'll remember.
You aren't expecting anything. (Except you are.) You don't know what to expect. (Except you have a notion.) You've never been inside a museum. (Probably.) Exhibits, you think. Things under glass. Things behind cordons. Things preserved. It makes you uncomfortable.
The first room is ephemera. Objects collected over a lifetime. Objects with no significance, except: Captain America owned them. Captain America owned these books. Captain America rode this motorcycle. Captain America scribbled on this notepad.
Provenance. None of it special. You don't have the context.
The next room is. Confusing.
The next room is Steven Grant Rogers.
There's a list of all his medical problems. It's not a good list. You wonder how he managed to live long enough to be Captain America. You think: Steven Grant Rogers couldn't unscrew the parts of him that hurt him. You don't like to think about that.
There's a screen on the wall. Little Rogers, Big Rogers. People stand and compare themselves. No one is as tall as Big Rogers. Not while you're watching. You look at the birth dates on the wall: twenty-four years as Little Rogers. Just three as Big Rogers, before the ice.
You wonder if Captain America is small in his dreams.
There's a theatre. It's empty, almost. Two young girls right at the front, whispering. You listen to the British agent talk about Rogers. You think: I know that voice. Maybe. Maybe she was your handler. Maybe you were supposed to kill her. Maybe you did kill her. You don't know. You feel dizzy. You feel warm.
The next room is.
The next room.
Your face, on a glass memorial. There are dates on it. You're not close enough to read them. You watch people pass it. One of them cries: an old man. A young woman leads him away. The crowd clears.
Your face: young. Serious. Looking into the camera, or past it, but aware. Young. So young. You almost don't know this face, it's so. You don't know. Did you ever feel that invincible? You look confident. Bulletproof. So very self-assured.
So very dead.
Except you're not. Somehow.
You watch the war footage. You watch it again. Your breath comes up short in your chest every time you see yourself. You, walking. You, leaning over a map. You, laughing. You try to imagine laughing like that. You can't. Maybe if the film had sound, you could. You don't know how you laugh: high, low, in your nose, in your throat.
You watch Rogers. Both of you, always watching him. Like you're – he's? – afraid. If you – if he – if you take your eyes off of him for a moment, he'll disappear. Big man like that: he couldn't. Little Rogers, though. Tiny. Delicate. Something wrong in the spine, but flexible like a cat, maybe. Double-jointed. You watch yourself watching Rogers and think: yes.
That's when you get angry.
You had something before you had the weapon. You had. You had a name. It was yours. Someone gave it to you. You kept it safe. Until: you don't know. Until someone took it.
You had two arms. Two arms and a name. Someone took your arm. Maybe the same person, your name.
They were yours.
Not just an arm. Not just a name. You had other things that were yours. Things every person starts with. You had a home. You had a mother. You had a father. You had – siblings?
You had Rogers.
You had ephemera. Objects collected over a lifetime. Objects with no significance, except: James Buchanan Barnes owned them. James Buchanan Barnes used this rifle. James Buchanan Barnes wrote this letter. James Buchanan Barnes darned this sock.
You think you'll die, you're so angry. You'll die, right here. Go to your knees. Curl up underneath your own expiry date. Surely your heart can't beat any faster. Surely it will stop. But it doesn't. Pulse at your throat. Static in your socket. You look: James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. You look: 1944. You listen: Howling Commando. You listen: in service of his country. Died. Died.
On the screen, you laugh.
There is no sound.
You tell yourself who you are. Each step, a name. They made you forget. So: you'll remember. James. Buchanan. Barnes. Bucky. James. Buchanan.
The door of the apartment is ajar.
You close your eyes.
You could run. There are a thousand places you could hide where they would never find you. The city is a sprawl. The city has basements. The city has old old places too dangerous for regular people. All cities have these. You're sick with something. You need maintenance, nutrients. Rest. You should run.
You push the door open. There are men inside.
They're touching your arm.
They look up. One says, asset. One says, neutralize.
You're on them before they can stand up.
Before, when you had two arms and all your strength, it wouldn't have been fair. For them. You would have spread them thinly across the slate-blue floor. Now, maybe it's fair.
You saw a fox in a trap once. It writhed and twisted and barked. It screamed. It tried to chew its own leg off. You shot it because it was so loud.
You're not loud. But you think of the fox, writhing.
One of the men punches your socket. He thinks: weakness. Rifle-shot crack, when he breaks his hand. He staggers. You stagger. Feedback thump-thump. It doesn't stop you from breaking his face.
The other two don't make the same mistake.
When it's over, you make two lists.
The first list is: something everyone in this room shares. You set your nose. Now there is only one list.
The list is: the ways you are compromised. Four fractured ribs. One broken rib. Two broken toes. A scalp wound: blood in your eyelashes. Maybe a concussion. The rotten pumpkin feeling, except worse. You throw up in the sink. Just water.
You don't sit down. If you sit down, you won't get back up. You think on your feet.
They want the weapon back.
They know what you look like.
They know where you are.
They want you dead.
You don't want to be dead. You might be dying, but you don't want to be dead. Now that you're out. Now that you're a person, almost. Correction: now that you're a person. Now that you know. You can't remember, but you had person things, once. Mother. Father. Name. Forgetting doesn't erase them. They still were.
Two steps to your arm: Barnes. Bucky. Five steps to your backpack: James. Buchanan. Barnes. Bucky. James. You're so tired. You want to sleep. You put your arm in the backpack. You can sleep when you've done this, you promise yourself. It's the only thing you can do. The only thing you know.
This, you say to the unconscious men, to the slate-blue floor, to the black mould:
This is going to hurt.
You can remember doing harder things.
That time in Texas. Cuba. The Australia mission, when your handlers lost you in the scrub. The clean-up after Budapest. Swimming to shore with a dislocated shoulder and a very large man.
This, though. This is working its way up the list.
It's dark, at least. You think: this is not dignified.
You have only one arm. You are very weak. You have to rest between balconies. Crouching on the rail, and then springing. Catching the next level with your fingertips. Hauling yourself up. You grit your teeth and shake the sweat from your eyes. You want to lay down. You don't lay down.
You do this eleven times.
You're about to open the balcony door when your arm starts beeping.
Your first thought is relief: oh, thank god, it's alive. But: it isn't. It can't be. Things don't come back to life. You didn't. You never died. It was dead and now it isn't.
The beeping gets faster.
You think: fuck.
You scrabble the backpack off and throw it as hard as you can from the balcony. You almost aren't fast enough.
The explosion blows you back against the sliding doors. The glass holds. Bursts of pain across your front. The pieces of your arm trying to slide back under your skin. Or: it's angry. It's trying to hurt you back. You're sorry. You're sorry.
You slide down the glass when your legs won't hold you up any more.
You think: not like this.
You're so close.
Not like this.
You wake up falling. Boneless. And then: ow. Not boneless. Your head strikes the floor.
Someone says: jesus christ.
You lose time.
Someone says: bucky?
You open your eyes.
James, you say. Buchanan Barnes. Bucky.
That's you, the Falcon agrees. I don't know if you remember me. I'm Sam. Can you drink some water for me, Bucky?
He helps you sit up. There's something soft behind your back. Behind your head. The water tastes much better than the water from the apartment tap. You only have a little. You don't want to be sick.
Sam says: I'd like to take your shirt off and see where you're bleeding. Is that okay?
Your shirt is stuck to your skin. When it lifts: tink tink tink. The shrapnel that was in you. Your body pushed it out.
Well, that's encouraging, says Sam. Man, am I glad you're like Steve. How do you feel?
Sam laughs. He says: Sounds about right. But hey, you're here.
We're here because we're here because we're here, someone in your head sings.
Sounds about right.
Steve's coming home tomorrow, Sam says. I was cleaning up when I heard the, well. Was that you?
You don't know how to answer. You didn't make it. You didn't set it off. But it was yours, what blew up.
HYDRA, you say. There was a bomb in my. In me.
Jesus, says Sam. It wasn't attached at the time, was it?
No, you say. I took it off. Yesterday. I didn't want to.
I'm glad you did though, says Sam. Hey, you feeling up to food roulette, or do you just wanna get some rest?
Can't, you say. The bomb. They'll know. They'll come.
Shit, the Falcon says. I hate these guys so much.
You make it to the car. But barely.
When you wake up, it's morning. Sunrise sky. Red, like everything is burning. Sam is speaking quietly into his phone:
—malnutrition city. He's so skinny I can see his spleen. Yeah. No. I think they had him on something, he's clearly in withdrawal. Hasn't stopped shaking all night. What? Well. If you think it's. No. I just don't want to blow anyone's cover, is all. Okay. Okay. I trust you. Okay. I will. You too, Nat. Thanks. Bye.
You must make a noise. Sam looks at you.
Hey! he says. Welcome back. Hope you slept all right. I can't sleep in cars for shit. You okay if we drive somewhere? Friend of Steve's is going to help us out.
Sure, you say.
You sound like a rusty door.
Sam digs around under the seat. Comes up with a water bottle. He says: here. He says: slowly.
You take a sip every quarter mile.
Sam slings your good arm over his shoulder. He helps you take one step at a time. You're too tired to think your name. Sam knows it now. He can remind you, if you forget.
I know, Sam says. I know, man. This sucks. One step at a time. Come on.
You grit your teeth.
A woman opens the stairwell door. Hand to mouth.
Oh, honey, she says. You'll be here for Clint.
Sam says: Yes ma'am.
He's just one more floor up, she says. Habibi, help them with the door.
Thanks, ma'am, says Sam.
A little girl runs past you both. She walks backwards up the stairs and looks at you. Or maybe at Sam.
Are you superheroes? she asks. Mama says we're not supposed to know that Mr. Barton is a superhero, but Auntie Zita says that no one who isn't a superhero has that many visitors who wear spandex.
Sam makes a strange noise. You think: laughter.
You bet I am, says Sam. Left my spandex at home, though. It's my day off.
The girl looks at you. Climbing backwards. The sequins on her headscarf, glinting.
I'm retired, you say.
Sam chokes again.
The girl holds the stairwell door open. She runs home when you're through. You can hear her bare feet slapping the stairs, down, down.
Bark bark bark bark bark.
Shut your face, somebody says. I got it. Ow. Back off, doofus. Personal space.
The door opens. You think: this is Clint. Don't forget.
You must be Sam, says Clint. And – hoo boy.
A large yellow dog puts its nose in your crotch.
Lucky! says Clint. Hey, we talked about this, consent is sexy. Get in here before you fall down, kids. Coffee?
I love you, says Sam.
No problemo, says Clint, and then peers at Sam. Dude, did you drive all night?
Possibly, says Sam.
Aww, says Clint. You make bad life decisions. Let's be friends.
Sam walks you over to the sofa. You don't need any help lying down. Gravity, and there you are. You close your eyes. You hear: sorry for crashing your place, but Natasha said it would be all right – yeah, it's cool, Nat's my auxiliary brain twin, whatever she says goes – gotta pick up Steve in a bit, ridiculous, we'd still be on ventilators – how's he going to handle, y'know – I have no earthly idea, man.
The dog licks your hand. Climbs onto the couch, settles on top of your hips and noses under your shirt. Falls asleep, just like that. The dog is very warm. After a while, your shivering stops. It's quiet. You close your eyes.
You wake up when the door opens. Someone says, low: it probably looks a lot worse than it is. Someone's breath hisses through their teeth.
When you open your eyes, Captain America is kneeling beside you.
He doesn't look like someone shot him three times and broke half the bones in his face. He looks like he did on the helicarrier. Solid. Big. Big man trying to be small. Tired. Worried. But: smiling.
Steven Grant Rogers, you say.
“Bucky,” says Steve, and touches your hand.
We're Here Because We're Here is a sardonic marching ditty from the First World War, not the Second, but I've read accounts of WWII soldiers singing it to annoy their superior officers. It's basically the military version of The Song That Never Ends. You can hear a 1916 recording of it here.
Thanks for reading! Y'all give me life.
Sam says: the only way out is through. Steve says: whatever you need, Buck, I'm here for you. Clint says: aw, biology.
You're standing on the shoulder of a road. You are cold, cold, cold. Snow up over your boots. Snow on your shoulders. Snow in the trees above you, making the branches creak. The world is white except for you. Your dark jacket. Your dark hair. It's so cold.
You're thinking about the cold when you hear the car.
Inside the car is someone important. You don't remember your mission debrief, but you know. Someone important is in the car, and you need to tell them. Tell them what? You don't know. But it's desperately important.
The car is going too fast. It's going to miss you.
You step out into the middle of the road. Slush, over your boots. Your feet are soaked.
The car comes and comes. You think: it's not going to stop. It can't brake. It can't possibly. It will slam into your cold, cold body and shatter it like ice on the surface of a pond. You're a deer in the headlights. You can't move.
The road is slick with half-melted snow. Tires locking and sliding. The back bumper swings so close to your legs that you could step onto it. Ride it down the street, out of the cold, into another place. It slides and judders and fishtails before the sound: all the pots and pans in the world coming together. Unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects. It stops. Steaming, ticking. It groans. Above you, the branches stop creaking.
You walk towards the car.
There is someone important inside.
You wake up shivering. You don't know where you are.
And then: you're shivering because you're cold. You're cold because the dog is gone. The dog which is Clint's. Clint's is the place where you are. You blow out a long breath through your teeth.
Sssssshh is apparently the dog's name. It comes, clicking. Claws on hardwood. Your fingers are suddenly very wet. You wipe them on its head.
As soon as you drop your hand, the dog licks it again.
“Gross,” you tell it.
There's a clatter from the kitchen, and someone says, “Just shove him a bit if you want him to leave you alone.”
You pat the side of the couch. The dog jumps up. Lays on your legs. Puts his nose back under your shirt and sighs. He blinks slowly at you. He only has one eye. Lucky, you think. The dog's name is Lucky.
“He's all right,” you say.
“You think that, but he's just buttering you up. You must smell like treats.” Clint comes around the sofa, holding a pitcher full of coffee.
“I smell like blood,” you say.
“Same difference,” Clint says.
You squint at him. Small-boned, but compact. Sturdy. Old bruise on his jaw. Wearing sweatpants too long in the leg, and a pale pink tee-shirt that says 'SWAG' in flowery letters.
“The girl said you were a superhero,” you say.
“It's laundry day.”
Clint sits cross-legged on the low table and looks at you over his coffee. He looks for a long time. You aren't sure what he's looking for. All of you is here. You don't know how to hide it.
“So,” says Clint, “On a scale of one to I-can't-even, how badly do these guys want you back?”
“I don't,” you say. You frown at the ceiling. There are a lot of holes in it. “I don't think they want me back. I think they want me dead.”
Clint grimaces over the coffee pitcher. Swallows. “That doesn't make any sense.”
You make a see-sawing motion with your hand: yes, maybe, who knows. “They said it was my last mission. The helicarrier.”
“Ugh,” says Clint. “Well, okay, not ugh. That's actually a good thing.”
You flop your head to the side and look at him.
“No, really. Trust me, people who want to kidnap you? They're going to be methodical and sneaky and have a rocking awesome plan, if they're any good at their jobs. People who want to kill you, they usually come in guns blazing and hope one of the bullets hits you.”
“How is that better?”
“Because they'll be stupid.” Clint grins, bright and vicious. “And stupid people make lots of stupid mistakes.”
Stupid: like three men thinking they stood any chance against you. Stupid: like destroying the arm and hoping it would kill you. Stupid. Risky. Desperate.
“Yeah,” you say. “They do.”
The sickness – the withdrawal, Sam says, like you're backing out of the world – might be the worst thing you've ever felt. Sam explains what's happening to you, after you tell him what was in the arm. It helps, knowing. But. Once in a while, secretly, you wish for the chair.
At least it was quick.
But Sam says: the only way out is through. Steve says: whatever you need, Buck, I'm here for you. Clint says: aw, biology.
Lucky, when you're feverish in the middle of the night and your only entertainment is having silent conversations with the dog, says that he wishes his human mattress would lay down for longer than an hour.
You pace a widow's walk from window to sink. Ten steps there, ten steps back. Every 1800 steps, you drink a palm-full of water from the sink. This way, you don't get sick. On the second day, Steve brings you bottles of something that tastes like chalk. It has real calories. You keep two of them down. You'd celebrate, if you didn't feel like you were dying.
The rice experiment doesn't go nearly as well. You don't think you've eaten real food since the Americans bought you. Before that, you remember: syrniki, solyanka, pirozhki. Vodka, if you were good. When you worked protection detail on a handler's household, his wife showed you how to make medovik. He was angry, when he found you. His wife made fists on her hips and asked if you'd kill a man slower with flour on your hands. No? Then he's staying. And don't tell me you need him. You'd just play chess and win and then be very smug. Out!
She made you hold a baby, you remember. She put a soft cloth over your metal arm so the baby wouldn't be cold. It smelled like milk and talcum powder. It cooed at you and then fell asleep.
You were terrified.
You washed very well before you went back into the chamber, but the next time you woke up, you could still taste honey between the plates of your fingers.
You decide you're strong enough to take a shower. Clint says: push the handle all the way to the left and pull the pin.
The water coming through the hose makes a sound like a bone saw. You bang your elbow on the toilet tank. The water hitting the back of the stall sounds like a machine gun. You shiver on the floor for a full minute with your hand over one ear. The sound doesn't scare you. But it doesn't belong here. This place is safe.
In the end, you take a bath instead.
While the water rises, you wonder what you did before. In Brooklyn. Did houses have showers, in the 1930's? You think: probably not. Maybe you had a bathtub. Maybe you only had a basin. In Russia, they let you share a shower block with the mercenary team. In America, they hosed you down.
Once, while you were waiting for extraction, you used a jacuzzi to clean yourself. You didn't like the smell. You nearly had a heart attack when the jets came on. But it was warm.
Clint's bathtub doesn't smell like chemicals. It doesn't have jets. And it's warm.
The static in your socket goes quiet when you're underwater.
You don't get out until the water is cold.
There are clean things for you, outside the bathroom door. Soft clothes for sleeping in. Too big. Clearly Steve's.
Everyone is getting ready for bed when you come out. Quiet voices. Someone laughs. Outside, below, you can hear cars passing. They sound like waves. Everything is dim and warm. You think: there's a word for this. You think: домашний? You think: domestic?
Steve is setting up an air mattress next to the sofa. The coffee table is pushed up against the wall.
“Is this all right?” he says. “I can move it further away, or into the other room, if you're not comfortable. I know I'm sort of a stranger to you right now.”
“You're not, though,” you say.
You watch something happen behind his eyes. You want to say: you know me. You want to say: I know you best of all. It isn't much, but it's all I have. I don't know anyone else. But the words won't come. He's the same way, you think. Both of you reaching. Standing like scarecrows in your heads.
“Just,” you say. “Just move it a little. So I don't step on you in the middle of the night.”
The tension is gone. Snap: like a thread. Steve snorts.
“Wouldn't be the first time,” he says.
“Did you sleep on the floor?” You picture Little Rogers shivering on cold hardwood. It gives you a moment of distress.
“No, no. Well. I was a really restless sleeper when I was a kid. I'd start flailing around, and, um—” Steve makes a rolling gesture with his hand, “—just fall right off. Used to drive you crazy. You'd make me sleep on the wall side, but then I just kicked you a whole lot.”
You try to imagine yourself as a small child. Doing your best to keep Steve from getting hurt, even in his sleep. You can't do it. You just see yourself now, but smaller. A tiny you, beard and all. Maybe Steve would hold onto your empty sleeve and pull you along. So you wouldn't get lost. So he wouldn't lose you.
Steve can't do that now. Your sleeve is tucked inside your shirt. The cuff just peeking out under the bottom hem. You feel. You feel frustrated. You want something. You don't know what you want. You grab Steve's sleeve and pull.
That is Steve's ear. That's your cheek, touching it.
Those are Steve's arms. Around your shoulders.
Your brain supplies five ways to escape the hold, and then it short-circuits. You don't know what to do with your body. There are fine baby hairs at the nape of Steve's neck. You stare. His arms are still around your shoulders. His arms are—
You mash your forehead into his neck and grab the back of his shirt. His arms, tighter. Your feet are between his feet. You feel very, very small. Clinging like a bird to a wall. Except: the wall is holding you up. If Steve lets go, you're going to fall. You shake. Twitches all down your spine.
You think: he should be smaller. This is wrong. You should be able to curl around him. He should be able to hide behind you. You can feel the twist of his spine under your hands. (Hands?) He smells familiar. Maybe it's his aftershave. Maybe you've smelled it on someone else before. But. Maybe your body remembers. Maybe you know him.
You did, once. It stands to reason: you can know him again.
When you stop shaking, Steve lets you go.
But he doesn't let you fall.
Домашний: domestic, homey.
Syrniki: fried quark pancakes. Quark is basically cottage cheese. Much like kholodets (meat jelly), they sound mildly horrifying, but they're amazing.
Solyanka: a salty-sour-spicy soup, made with meat, mushrooms, olives, and all the vegetables. You want this on your winter missions.
Pirozhki: Russian-style pierogis. Plain pirozhki are typically made with egg and cabbage or egg and meat, or you can stuff them full of meat, potatoes, onions, rice, etc. You can also make dessert pirozhki with fruit or jam in the middle, but I doubt Our Hero had a chance to try one of those.
Medovik: honey cake. It's made in alternating layers of dough and sour-cream icing.
Steve sleeps on the edge of the air mattress. Sleeps like a child. You expect him to sprawl, to take up space. He curls into a comma. One hand against his chest, the other under his pillow. There's a gap between the mattress and the couch, but if you dropped your hand, you could touch his hair.
He tried to offer you the mattress. You stayed on the couch. Steve wouldn't fit, if you traded. Besides. You like it. You're up off the ground. You have your back to a wall. There's a dog. Claws and air mattresses, you think. Not a good combination.
Lucky sighs in his sleep. Everyone is sleeping but you.
And then: you are.
There is a woman on the porch.
The porch is attached to a house. The house is attached to pale fields. You don't know the crop, but you know it isn't ready to harvest. The house is old: grey stone walls, moss on the roof. One level. The trees are old too. They stoop. The wind has been blowing them that way for years.
The woman isn't old. She might have been beautiful, once. Still is. Beautiful like a moth under glass. Lifeless. She has long hair that curls all the way down to her hips. Shiny and smooth, like someone just brushed it. A black shawl on her shoulders. Her eyes are pale: silver-green. You don't know that now, but you will. There's a name for that colour.
She isn't old, but she's in a wheelchair. Tiny, skinny. All tendons and elbows. She's younger than you, probably. You're only— You're only—
She's younger than you.
In front of the woman, sitting on a low stool, is a nurse. Wide white skirt, hiding both of their legs. Blonde hair, tucked up under a cap. You watch: she lets go of the woman's hands. They are laid nicely in the woman's lap, one over the other. Very still. Lady's hands. Good hands: piano fingers, your mother would have called them. (Your—?) No rings. Veins like trails of water.
The woman's arms begin to rise.
Up: smoothly and evenly to her chest. Her hands curl. Twist, just slightly. Her fingertips point to her wrists. Her thumbs point: hitching a ride to nowhere. Her knuckles press into her collarbones. Her shoulders hunch inwards.
Her expression never changes. Not even when the nurse takes her hands. Guides them gently back to her lap. One over the other. Lady's hands. Her shoulders roll back out. Perfect posture. Swan neck. Empty eyes.
The arms begin to rise again. The shoulders are beginning to draw together. Smooth as hydraulics. But: the nurse is already going inside.
You follow her.
At the top of the stairs (stairs?) there is a room. The walls are sea-foam green. It's full of tiny wooden ships. Afterwards, when you've killed the man in the room and laid him carefully on the floor, you look at them. Rigging like strands of hair. Anchor-chains like threads. Cannonballs the size of poppy seeds. Each of them has a name: Norske Loeve, HMS Victory, Cutty Sark.
The nurse surprises you in the hall. She rounds the corner: eyes cat-wild. She hits you with a cast iron frying pan. Your jaw, and then the back of your head. You go down. You get back up. You take the frying pan. You don't know if you kill her. Everything is blurry.
When you stagger out of the house, the woman's hands are still up. Pressed against her chest. Fingers touching her wrists, thumbs pointing nowhere. Shoulders hunched. Everything curled inwards.
You crouch in front of her. On one knee: like you're proposing. You hope no one comes out of the house and sees you. (Who?) You look at her eyes. Pale silver-green. Like. Like the underside of leaves. You think: celadon. You saw it on a paint tube, once. Before the. Before.
Every ten seconds, she blinks.
You reach up. Her wrists: sparrow bones. You don't think of your hands as being one thing or another, normally. Now, they feel huge. You feel like you could cup the world. The woman's tiny, tiny hands in yours.
You pull them gently down. Into her lap. You rest your hands on top. Her hands: one over the other. Your hands, one over the other. Lady's hands, both of you. You watch her eyes. Eight, nine, ten. She blinks. There's nothing in them.
You raise her hands to her chest. Twist them just slightly. Point her fingers at her wrists. Her thumbs: to nowhere. Knuckles to collar. You let go. You wait.
You wait a long time, but her shoulders never slouch.
You wake up sweating. Your hair stuck to your forehead, your cheek. In your mouth. Feedback in your socket. Too slow, not in time with the rest of your body. You press three fingers into the cup that held your joint. You want it to stop.
It didn't happen like that, you think. The woman wasn't in the same place as the ships. She had a nurse, but the nurse was black. It was. Raining? She was. She was in France. When were you in France? You glare at the ceiling. The harder you try, the more it slips away. She was in France. She was—
Steve was with you.
You go stiff as a board. Every muscle in you, tensed. Lucky grunts.
Steve was with you. Damp on his shoulders. Drying. He'd been inside. You could hear voices, muffled. The door opened: loud. Someone says: la nuit, tous les chats sont gris. Laughter and glassware. Steve with a towel in his hands, running it between his fingers. The door shut behind him. His collar was damp. You stood up: Steve a warm line at your side. You, looking at the woman. Steve, looking at you. He said something to you. You can't remember what it was. Maybe: come inside. Maybe: are you hungry? Maybe: everyone's waiting.
You can't remember.
You can't breathe.
Lucky whines. Licks your stomach. Whine-barks.
Someone's hand on your hand. Your shoulder. Steve's face, in your face. In your face, you think. What a strange phrase. English is ridiculous. In your face: like he's living in your skull. Like he's under your skin.
На меня посмотреть, says Steve. Дыши́. Один, два.
No, that's not right.
Steve says: Breathe with me, Buck. In two three four. Out two three four. That's it. In two three four. Again. Good. I've got you.
Steve brushes your hair back from your face. Your muscles relax. From the very bottom of your lungs: one long breath out.
“I remembered...” You make a face. “Something. It was all muddled up.”
“Dreams are like that,” says Steve. “Even when they're things that actually happened. I read that it's your brain cleaning house when you're asleep. Trying to sort things and – make connections between them, I guess. Whatever brains do with all the information we put in them. Sam could probably tell us.”
You think of a little maid in your head. Tidying up in the dark. Putting reels on a projector, all out of order.
You feel bad for her. She has a hundred years of junk to wade through.
“What did you remember?” Steve asks. Soft and careful.
“Killing someone,” you say. He winces, but he doesn't stop moving his hand in your hair. “And the house in France.”
“The stone one, in the field. With the woman on the porch.” You tap your fingers on your leg. “It was raining.”
Steve rests his chin on one hand and frowns. After a minute: “Oh, god! Dernier's cousin's place! I'd forgotten about that. Dum-Dum got drunk and climbed onto the roof.”
“I didn't remember that,” you say.
“Well, I'd be surprised if you ever did. You were pretty drunk too. Morita was yelling in about sixteen languages.” Steve grins: white teeth flashing. He straightens up: voice deeper, accent different. “ 'I swear to Christ, Dugan, when you get down here I'm going to tie your testicles in a bow and mail you to the Nazis.' And you said—”
Your hand on cold glass. A bit of the label, coming up under your fingers. Worrying at it. Trying to peel it off and failing.
“ 'Really selling the dismount, Fresno,' ” you say. You stare at Steve. Like he was the one who said it. Like he put it in your head. Your mouth opens: closes. You want to stare down your brain and make it tell you what it just did.
Steve leans forward. You can see his wide eyes in the dark.
You shake all over.
“I don't remember,” you say. “But I said that. And I was – I was holding a bottle?”
“Yeah. It was...red wine? I think? Huh. I wonder how that works.”
“Maybe it's like,” you say, but you lose the analogy between your brain and your mouth. Something about birds. It's always birds. You don't know why. You don't even like birds.
“Like songs?” Steve suggests. “You can't recite all the words, but you know what line is coming next if you're singing it.”
“Maybe,” you say. You think: I wish it was that easy. If he could say something to prompt you, and: tick, tick, tick. All your memories in a row. If Steve could be a repository for the holes in your head.
Steve was there for twenty years of your life, and you slept for a long time. But. You're ninety-eight. Maybe ninety-nine. There are a lot of conversations Steve can't start for you.
Most of them, you don't think you'd want him to.
“What did you say to me on the porch?” you ask.
“Oh, geez. Uh, I came out, and then...I must have asked you what was wrong. You got up and left suddenly.”
“The woman,” you say.
“They didn't mention her,” says Steve. He looks away. The hunch of his shoulders: shame. “I never even asked her name.”
You think: I did. You think: I talked to the nurse.
It's not in your head. But you knew it, once. For all that's worth.
“Go to sleep, Steve,” you say.
“You'll be all right?”
“Yeah,” you say. “I'll be all right.”
You think you're not, yet.
But maybe you can be.
la nuit, tous les chats sont gris: literally at night, all cats are grey. In the dark, all people look the same.
Hа меня посмотреть: look at me. Дыши́, oдин, два: breathe, one, two.
I live in hope that all the not-English is grammatical -- my nana continues to spin in her grave at my appalling Russian. Бабушка Екатерина, прошу́ проще́ния.
You catch Steve looking at you. Not for anything in particular. Not through you. Soft eyes. Just looking.
“What is it?” you say.
“Nothing,” says Steve wonderingly. “There you are, that's all.”
When you wake up, you can hear rain. The dog is gone, and there's a blanket covering you to the waist. Steve is sitting on the mattress by your feet, leaning against the sofa. Reading.
You think: friends since childhood. He should be familiar to you. You should know him like the back of your hand. The little movements of his body. The way he turns a page. Maybe if he was small, it would be easier. You knew him longer when he was small than when he was large. You wonder how long it took him to get used to his body, after. You wonder if he broke things when he moved. You wonder if he was clumsy.
He isn't clumsy now. He is precise, and gentle, and very, very quiet.
He's also very high strung. He jumps when you say his name. But after: the smile.
“Hey,” he says. “How are you feeling?”
“Functional,” you say. You feel tired and sick and your head hurts, but the rotten pumpkin feeling is gone.
“Can I get you anything?”
You shake your head. You think: a time machine. A very nice gun. A distraction. You say, “I went to the museum.”
Steve's whole face goes soft and sad. The edges of his mouth stay turned up, like he doesn't know what to do with them. “Yeah?”
“What if.” You stop. Make shapes around words. You play with the tassels on the blanket. “What happens if I never remember. You. Me. Everything from before.”
“I'd have a pretty selfish request, if so,” says Steve. You look at him. His face is very earnest. You frown.
“Like what?” you say.
Steve tries a few syllables. Pauses. You're glad you're not the only one who's struggling. Finally, slowly, like he's pulling it up from his toes: “Whoever you end up being – I'd like a chance to get to know you. Better. Or all over again. I'd like to you to be happy. And I'd like to be there when it happens.”
Your face tries to do something complicated. You press your lips together.
“You might not like whoever I am," you say. "Or might be.”
Steve's expression is all open and bright. The sadness sliding from his face. “I don't think there's much chance of that. You were always the one who put up with me.”
You can't imagine that.
It must show on your face. “No, really,” Steve says. “I was such a righteous little shit.”
Sam, from the doorway, sleepily: “That hasn't changed, Rogers.”
Steve grins at you. As if to say: see?
Sam shuffles down the stairs and flops on the air mattress. He makes Steve bounce.
“Clint,” says Sam, “Snores like the damned. And he cuddles.”
“Coulda bunked with us,” says Steve.
“I'll take the human octopus over the human furnace, thanks.”
There is a loud noise in the loft. Clint stumbles downstairs, yawning. Lucky follows him. He goes into the kitchen and comes out with the coffee pitcher. Waggles it side-to-side. Brows raised.
Steve taps his ear. Clint shakes his head. Steve flails his arms.
No: not flails. Gestures. Makes careful shapes, with his hands.
“What, really?” Clint says, as if Steve said something.
You think: oh.
You think: that's language. The hands.
Steve points at Clint. Cups the top of one hand with the other and wiggles his fingers. Points at Clint again. Grinning. Clint rolls his eyes. You sit up.
“What did you say?” you ask.
Steve does it again. He doesn't look away from Clint. “I called him an octopus.”
You try to do it. You frown at your only hand.
“Hey, man,” says Sam. “I know a few vets who sign with one arm. They improvise. It's cool.”
Steve says something to Clint with his hands. Clint gives him a thumbs-up. Steve says to you, “Try this.” His hand: like a claw. Fingers curling and uncurling. He moves it across his chest. You try. Your hand is a small animal, swimming.
Clint waves. You look at him. He points at you: makes shapes with his fingers. He points at himself. More shapes. He does it again. You squint. You do it with him. Your hand up straight, thumb curled against your palm. Two fingers up together, thumb over the others. All your fingers curved, like a C.
Like a C.
That's your name. In your hand. Your name is a motion.
B-U-C-K-Y, Clint says.
C-L-I-N-T, you say.
S-A-M, you say. S-T-E-V-E. You drop your hand into your lap.
Lucky licks it.
You make a disgusted noise.
“How do you say your dog is gross?” you ask.
Steve shows you.
Clint laughs until he cries.
Later, you say: “Are you.” You stop. You don't want to be rude.
“Deaf?” says Clint. “Legally, yeah. When I'm not wearing my ears. Voices are really muffled without them, like...I dunno, being underwater. You know how you can only hear certain sounds when you're swimming?” He takes out a hearing aid to show you. “Tony made these for me, they're great. I don't miss too much. But, uh. I don't like wearing them all the time.”
Clint gestures at your left side and says, “I figure you get that.”
You get it.
The arm was yours. You didn't want to give it up. Everything is easier with two arms. But. It would have been nice to take it off, sometimes. To be smaller. To just be you. No machines.
You slide underwater in the bath.
You listen, but no one is speaking.
Sam and Clint leave. They come back with bags.
Some of them are groceries. Sam has food for you to try: puréed fruit, protein powder, some kind of peanut butter made for famine victims. Sam says it'll help your body relearn how to digest solid food. All of them look better than the breakfast smoothies. You never want to see those again.
Steve says that he eats around 8000 calories a day when he isn't on a mission. Clint chokes.
Sam says to you, “Well, if you're anything like him in the metabolism department, no wonder you can barely move. You might be getting 1000 right now.”
The other bags are clothes. Pants, tee-shirts, sweaters. A leather jacket that isn't falling apart. Things for blending in.
“I'll pay you back,” you say. You think: somehow.
Sam shakes his head, and Clint says, “Nah. It's on Steve's dime.”
“Seventy years of back pay,” Steve says. He looks shy. “It's absurd. You're doing me a favour, letting me spend it on someone.”
“Try something on,” says Clint. “See if we got the size right.”
You go into Clint's room. He leaves some clothes outside the door. Boxer shorts, black jeans, fuzzy socks. A long-sleeved tee-shirt that says “Feisty Grandpa” on it.
When you come out, Clint gives you two thumbs up. Steve looks at Clint and says, “You think you're funny.”
“Where did you even,” Sam says. “I took my eyes off of you for ten seconds.”
“I'm the goddamn Batman,” says Clint, and Sam tackles him off the couch.
You feel 75% more human once you start eating the famine food. You have to pace yourself with small spoonfuls. The texture is moderately awful, but you like it. The salt makes your body remember how to be hungry. Steve hovers. Sam takes him for a walk.
Sam says goodbye in the afternoon. He has to go back to his work in DC, but he says that he'll visit. You shake his hand. You thank him twice. You think: you might have survived without him, but. Just. Him being there was very good. He claps you on your right shoulder and tells you to stay out of trouble. He tells you, but he looks at Steve when he says it.
Steve mutters where's the fun in that? when they hug goodbye. Sam sighs.
You can't sleep.
Every time you fall asleep, more memories come. Your brain, cleaning house. Some of them you know are true. Some of them are all cut-up and jumbled. The little maid is throwing files in the air. Every time you wake up, static twisting in your socket.
You're so tired.
You're so tired.
For a soldier, Steve sleeps like the dead. You think: special operative. Never saw the trenches. Had a team. Never learned to sleep with one eye open. Just a kid. You think: god. Just a kid.
You try not to think about what that makes you.
You climb over the arm of the couch instead of stepping over Steve. You want to go outside, but you don't want to open anything. The balcony windows are locked. You knew they were. You locked them yourself. You check anyway.
The floor is warm, but the wall under the window is cold. Past the railings: New York at night. It looks like a postcard. Yellow points of light. Swaths of dark. Rain on the glass. Across from you, a woman is curled up on her window ledge, reading. Lamplight around her. The rest of her apartment is dark.
Thump. Thump. Thump-thump.
You press your fingers into the socket as hard as you can. You stuff fabric into the hole. Stop, stop, stop.
“Does it hurt?” says Steve.
You jump. You turn.
He's barely moved. Still curled on his side, chin propped up on his pillow. Watching you from behind it.
“No,” you say.
Steve manages to make a face that's both sceptical and disappointed.
“It doesn't,” you say. “It doesn't hurt.”
“It's doing something,” Steve says.
“Feedback,” you say. “The wires. I cut them but they're still plugged in.” They think there's an arm. They try to move it and they can't. They're just trying to do their job.
“Like a phantom limb?”
You think about your arm having a vengeful ghost. You think about it haunting you. Cold metal fingers on the back of your neck.
You stop thinking about that.
“It's just,” you say. “Annoying.”
Steve gets out of bed. Walks over to you on his knees. Good balance.
“Does that help?” he asks. Like it can hear him, the static gets worse. Thump-thump. You dig your fingers in harder.
“Not really,” you say.
“Can I,” says Steve, and doesn't finish. You think: see it? You think: touch it? You think: help?
The collar of your shirt is very loose. You pull it down over the socket and tuck it where your armpit used to be. You think Steve will be upset. You didn't look like this when he saw you last. His friend is missing pieces. His friend has new parts. But: he only makes a very small noise.
There are eight pinholes where the wires live. Steve twists his hands, puts a finger over each one. He looks at you. It's a hopeful sort of thing. He drops his hands after a few moments. He says: “I thought it might help if I grounded the wires.”
“It was a good idea,” you say.
Steve hums. He taps his lips, peers this way and that at your socket. Like he's trying to solve a puzzle. Or measure you for a suit.
“Tell me if this is uncomfortable,” he says, and then—
His thumb, slow hard drag from your socket to your jaw, following the tendons in your neck. His other thumb, the same slide, but further back on your shoulder. Your mouth falls open. No sound comes out.
The fourth time he does it, drag press twist, something goes 'click' where your collarbone tucks under the socket. The pain punches a grunt out of you. And then: warmth.
Steve doesn't stop. Drags away from the metal, along the line of your muscles. His thumbs like rays of light. Your socket, the sun. Crackling sounds when he presses harder. When he slips a hand under your shirt and digs his knuckles in beside your spine, you look down to see if you're glowing. You feel like the light is going to spill out of your head. Your back: pop, pop, pop. A vertebrae high up in your neck: POP.
You close your eyes. When you open them, Steve is holding out a glass of water.
“Any better?” he asks. He fixes your shirt while you drink.
You listen to your body. You rotate your neck, and nothing crunches. You can lift your left shoulder higher than you could before.
The static isn't as bad.
“How did you,” you say. You think your eyes are very wide.
Steve's knee, touching your hip. Looking at his hands. “Before the serum, sometimes my right arm would – not quite fall asleep, but close? I don't know if it was bad circulation or pinched nerves or what, but you used to massage it to get the blood going. Dunno how to fix the electronic parts, but—” He shrugs. “I figured it couldn't hurt.”
You shake your head. “How come you always know what to do?”
“Lucky guesses,” says Steve. “Well, and I've known you my whole life, that helps.”
“How did we meet?” you ask, and then: “Wait, don't tell me. I want to remember on my own.”
“Sure, Buck,” Steve says. A little too fast.
You can't remember him from before, not when he was small. Only Big Rogers, in your memories. You remember Big Rogers jumping over a lake of fire. Trying to stop a tank with his shield. Throwing a ticking grenade back over a hill. Jumping off the roof of a building. You remember that one more than once.
You squint at him.
“It involved you doing something stupid, didn't it.”
Steve fidgets. “What? No.”
“You're a terrible liar,” you say.
“That's what everyone says,” Steve mutters. “I guess I'll have to get Natasha to teach me.”
“Don't,” you say. You like that you can tell. That he's transparent. You don't know him, but you can see right through him.
Maybe that means you know him a little, after all.
“You just want to beat me at poker,” Steve says.
“You caught me,” you say.
His nose wrinkles and his eyebrows draw together, but the bottom half of his face is still smiling. Teasing. He swats your leg gently and looks out the window. You look too. The woman across the street is putting away her book and turning off her lamp.
You think: if it hadn't been for the museum, you would still believe him. The back of his hand against your leg. His thumb underneath your jaw. He isn't pretending not to be afraid of you, because he isn't afraid. He sleeps in arm's reach. He sleeps when you're awake. He trusts you.
You trust him.
Something rises in you, sunrise-slow.
You trust him.
You don't remember trusting, but you must have, once. To know what it is. With the Russians, with the Americans, there was only obeying directives and not obeying directives. You shot what you were ordered to shoot. You burnt what you were ordered to burn. You didn't think about trusting your team, your handlers. Or not trusting them. They just were.
A big moth thumps against the window in front of you. Once, twice. You don't startle, but you come back into your eyes. You watch the moth flutter away.
You catch Steve looking at you. Not for anything in particular. Not through you. Soft eyes. Just looking.
“What is it?” you say.
“Nothing,” says Steve wonderingly. “There you are, that's all.”
Yeah, you think. Awe in your throat.
Here I am.
The sign Steve uses for "octopus" is this one. Here's Bucky's one-handed version, which is coincidentally the one I was taught. I chose to have Clint fingerspell rather than use name-signs, because it's not my place to pick those.
Regarding deafness: I'm HOH, but am not currently active in the Deaf community. I have deaf extended family; some of Clint's lines (and Bucky's no-machines-just-me sentiment) were paraphrased from discussions with my grandfather. I've tried to be as respectful as possible in regards to signing, Deafness, and the follies inherent when a mostly-hearing person tries to write a Deaf character -- it is in no way anyone's job to educate me, but if I've made any serious gaffes in this chapter, please don't hesitate to tell me!
Regarding Steve: I like to think that Steve – having, in canon, some unspecified level of hearing loss pre-serum – knew a fair amount of ASL. The state of interwar ASL was, relatively speaking, pretty sad; it was still being overshadowed by stigma and oralism (*spits*). But! Steve could have learned through friends, Deaf families, and by attending deaf clubs. New York had at least a dozen of these in the 40's, and they were very popular. (Some of them featured drag vaudeville shows. You cannot make this shit up.)
See you in a week with Chapter 6, my dears! Thank you all so much for reading.
You breathe like Sam taught you. In: you push your belly to the ceiling. Out: you push it to your spine. In. Out. Her small dry hand on your forehead. You curl your toes in the sunshine.
Now featuring hypertext! Hover over the Russian words to see the translation. If anyone has any trouble, let me know.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The woman comes the next day.
Her red hair is pulled into a ponytail. Two flat braids on the side of her scalp. She is wearing blue tights and a man's button-up shirt and she looks very young. She doesn't look like the woman who shot you. She doesn't look like the woman you shot.
She signs to Clint when he opens the door. It's too fast. You can't catch anything.
“Why,” says Clint.
She looks at you. Clint looks at her.
“Okay,” he says. Like the word is heavy. “Okay. Hey, Barnes?”
You stand up. The woman watches you. She is very hard to read. Her face says nothing at all.
“This is,” Clint says, “A friend. She wants to talk to you. That okay?”
“Yeah,” you say.
Steve stands up. Clint, pushing him out. Clint, determined. Steve, confused. A terrier bullying a mastiff. The door shuts behind them and then you're alone with the woman.
She takes a pillow off of the couch and sits on the floor by the windows. Pats the ground in front of her.
“Sit with me,” she says.
You don't need a pillow, but you take one anyway. You sit. Your knees are almost touching hers. Children laughing, outside. You watch the woman's earrings catch the light. They chime faintly when she moves.
“What do you want?” you say.
“I want to tell you a story,” she says. “You can ask questions after.”
“Okay,” you say.
The woman puts her hands on her knees.
“Once upon a time,” she says, “There was a beautiful girl. She was her father's only child, and his only comfort after the death of his wife. She lived with her father in a beautiful red castle at the edge of a beautiful lake. On this particular day, she left the castle in the evening and walked to the pier, where she looked over the water. The sun was setting into the lake, and all the water looked like blood.
“As she was watching, the surface of the lake was disturbed. A man's head broke the surface. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, but he certainly didn't belong in the lake. She thought he must be in trouble. 'Who are you?' she asked. The man said nothing. 'Are you all right?' she asked. The man said nothing. 'Let me fetch my father, who might help you,' she said, and at last the man spoke. He said, 'Only you can help me. Only you can make me happy.' ”
“I don't like where this is going,” you say. The woman's face is very blank.
“It has a happy ending,” she says.
“Okay,” you say.
“So – the girl, she asks again who the man is. This time, he says, 'I have lived in this lake for hundreds of years. I am the sea king.' ”
“The sea king,” you say. “He lives in a lake.”
“He downsized, let him alone,” she says. “Anyway, he tells her all about what it's like down at the bottom of the lake; how still and quiet it is, how the storms never reach it, how lovely it is. She wants to see it, but she knows her father will worry if she disappears. She tells the sea king to go fuck himself.”
“Good,” you say.
“But – the sea king looks very sad. So sad. Sadder than anyone ever has. He says, 'At least give me a token, so that I might think of you at the bottom of the lake, where it is very lonely and I am very sad.' Being a good-hearted girl, she takes the blossom out of her hair, reaches out her hand, and—”
“He grabs her,” you guess. “I really don't like this story.”
“He grabs her,” the woman agrees. “He drags her all the way down to the bottom of the lake. She stands and looks up. There are flowers on the rocks, but they have no scent. There are things flying overhead, but they're fish, not birds. It's all very strange.”
“How does she breathe?”
“Shush,” says the woman. “I know that, but she doesn't. So, the sea king takes her into his banquet hall, sits her down, and starts to play his harp. It's so very, very sad, this harp-playing. She realizes she'll never see her home or her father ever again. And then, suddenly, the music isn't sad anymore. It's the loveliest thing she's ever heard. Do you know why?”
“No,” you say, but you have an idea.
“It's because she can't remember,” the woman says. “The sea king took all her memories away. He took away the red castle, and the pier, and the sunset on the lake. All she knows is the bottom of the lake and the harp and the beautiful man. So when the sea king asks her to marry him, she says, 'Yes!' and then he puts a crown of sea-lilies on her head.”
You clamp your teeth together.
“So: her father wastes away of sorrow over the years, and she has seven children, and—”
“No, shut up, let me finish. She has seven children. She's deliriously happy. She has her beautiful children and her beautiful husband and her beautiful lake bottom—”
“Where all the dead things sink.”
“Maybe she likes dead things, don't judge. She's happy, yes? Because she doesn't know anything else. And then one day, she hears church bells. She can't remember what they are or where they come from, but she knows she has to go up there and find out. She'll die if she doesn't. She begs the sea king to let her out of the lake, just for a few minutes. He doesn't like the idea, but she begs and begs, and finally he lets her go.”
You imagine her: wading out of the lake in all her wet clothes. Or maybe she's naked. Hidden by her hair. Stumbling. Lake weeds between her toes, snail shells behind her ears. Following the sound of the bells.
“She enters the church,” the woman says. “She sees an old man at the front, and she doesn't know who he is, but she falls to her knees. All she can hear is bells. She stays there on her knees until the service is over, until there's only a few people left, praying. Suddenly, the church goes dark. All the icons of the saints around the room all turn their faces to the wall. She feels a hand on her shoulder.”
You notice that you're clenching your own hand hard enough to hurt. You stop.
“ 'Please come home,' says the sea king. 'Your children are crying. I am so lonely without you. Please come home.' The girl says nothing. 'Please,' says the sea king. 'Your children are waiting.'
“ 'They will wait in vain,' the girl says. 'I will never come back to your realm.' The sea king pleads and begs and weeps, but she won't even look at him. Finally, he goes. The saints turn around. The candles flare up. The old man turns around, and she recognizes him. It's her father! She remembers everything. She takes his hand, and they go out into the sun together.”
The woman folds her hands together and stops talking.
“What?” you say. “Is that it?”
“But—that isn't—it can't stop there. What happened to her? What happened to her children? How did she live afterwards?”
The woman shrugs. “Nobody knows. That's how the story ends.”
You don't want that. You want to know how she felt, coming to the surface. Who loved her after she was broken. What she did after she remembered. Did it hurt? Did it ever stop hurting?
“It can't stop there,” you say, very small. The woman is pressing fingers between the bones of your hand. Massaging. You didn't notice her take it.
“Stories aren't instruction manuals. They just tell you that someone has been there before you. You're the one who has to figure out what to do with what you have. So,” she says, “James,” she says, “What are you going to do?”
“I don't know,” you say.
“That's very zen of you,” she says, “But you should probably give it some more thought.”
I don't know, you think. I don't know, I don't, I don't know. I want to eat real food. I want to tattoo my name onto the back of my hand. I want to finish a whole book. I want to take apart a radio and put it back together. I want to see Steve laugh again. I want to laugh.
“Who are you?” you say.
“The sea king,” she says. “The girl in the red castle. Your sister. Your father. Whoever you want me to be.”
“Tell me,” you say, “Who you are.”
“The itsy bitsy spider,” she says, and smiles.
Your heart feels like it's going to stop.
You remember. The red girls. You stood behind them and held their arms and said: like this. You knelt down and said: hit me as hard as you can. You gave them rubber knives and said: here or here or here. They recited poetry while they took turns at the vaulting box, the rings, the bars. Running barefoot. Singing: Наш паровоз, вперёд лети! В коммуне остановка. иного нет у нас пути, в руках у нас винтовка!
The song made you uncomfortable, and you didn't know why. Now, you do. Maybe. Were you remembering? You think: I fell from a train. You think: the museum said that. (Did the museum say that?)
“You taught me how to make coffee on a stove,” she says. “Before they took you away.”
“How many,” you say. You stop. You don't know how to finish. How many got out? How many stayed? How many died?
She shrugs. “If any of us are left, they don't want to be found. Yelena is alive. I spoke to her last year.”
“Which one are you?” As if it matters. As if you could remember their names for longer than a week. As if they didn't tease you: старик! No, I am Olga, that is Ekaterina.
“Natalia,” she says. “I was the one who always pulled your hair.”
“It was very long then,” you say. They let it grow, when you weren't running missions. Those were quiet years. You and the girl-children. So little supervision. You could have done so much more.
“A good handle,” she agrees.
“I'm sorry,” you say.
You think: I'm sorry for hurting you. For teaching you how to hurt things. For not getting you out. You think: for not gathering you all up into my arms and running. We could have stopped everyone in the building. We could have taken an army. We could have.
You say, “I'm sorry.” You don't know how much of the rest comes out of your mouth.
“You're sorry for being careful,” says Natalia. “For teaching us how to survive. For treating us like big people instead of small machines. For not doing the impossible.”
“Yes,” you say. “Even so.”
“We forgave you,” she says. Smiles. It reaches all the way to her eyes this time. “They said you could smell fear. They said you'd kill us if we disobeyed. You were so big and awkward. You, the monster – you stuttered every time we laughed. They didn't say you were like us. They didn't say you were scared too.”
You feel something go hard in your jaw. You lick your teeth.
“I,” you say.
“Oh, for god's sake,” Natalia says. She opens her arms. “Come here, старик. Steve will make faces at us for years if we don't hug this out.”
You put your arm around her. She's so, so tiny. You can feel all her muscles like ropes under her skin. She could snap your neck before you saw her move. She feels like a miracle. Last time you saw her, any of them, they were children. Like dolls. They were always like dolls in your head. Like the boy in the story who never gets any older. But now: you can imagine them bigger.
“You grew up,” you say. Breathless. “You. You did okay?”
“I did okay,” she says. “I mean, I saved the world at least twice. That has to count for something.”
“Yeah,” you say, into her hair. Your cheek against her long earring. It chimes. Something thick in your throat. “Yeah,” you say. It does, it does, it does.
“It was Clint, you know,” Natalia says. Your head is on her leg. Her hand is in your hair. Your feet out the balcony doors, in the sunlight.
You don't know what she's talking about, but you say: “He's a good man.”
“Yes,” she says. “He was supposed to kill me, but he saw what I could be, maybe, if someone gave me a chance to be a person.”
“Do you ever think,” you say, and stop. You say: “About what they took.”
“I used to,” Natalia says. “But then I realized I was letting them win. Wasting time thinking about it? They were taking even more.”
“But.” You think about the years. You try to work it out, but you can't. The numbers slip away. Too many gaps. “I lost. A whole life. I want—”
Natalia waits, but you don't know what you want.
“Would you want it back?” she says. “Would you rather have survived him, and married a woman who reminded you of your mother, and had ten babies, and died in your sleep before he woke up?” You make a noise in your throat, but Natalia talks over you. “I'm not saying you should be grateful to them, James. If anyone is allowed to spend ten years mourning, it's you. But why should you? Why should you let them have more of your years?"
You open your eyes. Natalia is bending over you. Lips drawn back, almost a snarl.
“You want to beat them? Go ahead. Kick them in the teeth. Light the body on fire and piss on the ashes. And then walk away. Try everything. Do something. Learn how to fly a plane. Drink cherry soda until you're sick of it. Kill a few plants. Break a few plates. Be a person.”
“I don't know how,” you say.
“Nobody does,” Natalia says. Her face, softer. “That's the big secret. Children think the adults know what they're doing. They think they'll know too, when they're older. But everyone's just faking it. We're all children. There's only one rule: you have to start somewhere. What are you going to do?”
You breathe like Sam taught you. In: you push your belly to the ceiling. Out: you push it to your spine. In. Out. Her small dry hand on your forehead. You curl your toes in the sunshine.
“Do you know,” you say, “How to make medovik?”
Natalia smacks Clint with a wooden spoon. He hides behind Steve.
“Hey, Buck,” says Steve. “You've got a little,” he says, and points at his nose.
You wipe it off: sugar and sour cream. You think about licking it off your fingers. You put it on Steve's nose instead.
He smiles like the whole world owes him a favour.
Natalia gives you a book before she leaves. Small, hardcover, with a ribbon.
"До свидания," she says. "Всего хорошего."
"Спасибо," you say.
“Do svidaniya,” Steve says carefully. Natalia pats his cheek.
When she's gone, you open the book at the ribbon.
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form – no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing.
“Are you okay?” says Steve.
“Yes,” you say.
He pretends he doesn't hear your voice crack.
Steve is out running errands. You and Clint are chilling. That's what Clint says: chilling. He says it's slang for hanging out. Relaxing. He shows you the sign: crosses his wrists, touches his collarbones, and slumps a little. Sighs. He says: relax.
But, you say, chilling is already a word in English. It means frightening. Clint tells you about modern slang while he does the crossword. You pay him half a mind while you read. You appropriated the book from Steve. It's good, even if you don't understand a lot of it. Someone is shouting on the street below. You ignore it. You're chilling.
Clint stops talking.
You look up. The shouting is louder.
“Bro, you stole our building!”
“You cheat the boss, bro!”
“Futz,” says Clint, and gets off the couch. Clint doesn't swear very much. You wonder if he works with children.
“Did you?” you ask. “Steal the building?”
“No,” says Clint. “I bought it. Mostly legally, even. Ugh, these guys are like cockroaches. You cut off the head and the body skitters around for a while.”
The shouting stops when Clint climbs out onto the fire escape. He tips out over the railing. You fight the urge to rush over and grab the back of his shirt. He shouts down, “Can you come back next week? I've got a friend over.”
You think: a friend.
You think: why. I've sweated all over your couch. I've used your hot water. I've stolen your dog.
You think: chill.
You think: those don't sound like nice people. A friend would help. But. You don't want to make trouble for Clint.
Somebody shouts, “Невозможно!”
You get off the couch.
Clint slides down the wall when you lean over the railing. You look down. Six men in matching outfits look up at you. Holding baseball bats. They look like they intend to use them. You infer that they want to use them on Clint's face.
“Эй!” you shout down. “Что с вами!”
“Bro's got a Russian bro.”
“Hey bro, you sticking it to a bro?”
Clint snorts loudly into his knees.
“I'll be sticking a knife up your nose if you don't fuck off,” you say. “There's kids in here. And Clint Barton is a good man. He lets people stay in his house. Which he didn't steal.”
“Bucky Barnes defending my honour,” says Clint. “My life is complete.”
“Bro,” one of them says, with feeling. Another one produces a rude noise. They make threatening gestures with their baseball bats.
You're swearing at them in Russian when the motorcycle pulls up.
Steve Rogers, on a motorcycle. Shield on his back. No helmet. Plastic bags hanging off the handlebars. He turns off the engine and kicks out the stand. Stares. The men stare back.
“Bro,” someone says, and throws his baseball bat at Captain America.
Steve breaks it in half.
Someone says “yo yo yo yo” and someone else says “bro bro bro” and then there is a lot of running.
A sound comes out of your mouth. You don't know what it is. It happens again. Clint is staring at you. Steve is looking up at the fire escape, eyes crinkled at the corners, grinning.
This is what James Buchanan Barnes sounds like when he laughs.
The story Natasha tells is called Agneta and the Sea King.
Наш паровоз, вперёд лети! В коммуне остановка. иного нет у нас пути, в руках у нас винтовка: Our locomotive, fly forward / At the commune is a station / We have no other way / in our hands is a rifle. This song was written in 1917, but it remained popular through the decades. You can listen to a children's choir singing it here.
Старик: old man.
До свидания: goodbye; Всего хорошего: take care; Спасибо: thank you.
The poem is, of course, Walt Whitman.
Невозможно: literally 'impossible'. Colloquially: No way, bro!
Эй! Что с вами!: Hey, what's the matter with you?
Thank you for reading! College is kicking my butt, and my mother is about to undergo serious medical treatment, so I am hoarding all your lovely comments and kudoses like gems. You guys are the highlight of my day. <3
“Thing is,” says Steve, “Tony can be a little...intense.”
“I can handle it,” you say.
“That makes one of us,” he says, and the elevator doors open.
Steve gives you a cell phone. There are five numbers in the contacts: Steve's, Clint's, Sam's, Natalia's, and yours. Steve shows you how to text your number to everyone.
Steve is called Captain Sassmerica in Clint's phone. He programs you as Feisty Grandpa.
You send him a frowny face.
He texts back: ♥ ♥ ♥
Saying goodbye at the door is awkward. Clint gets embarrassed when you try to thank him. You're not sure what to do. Should you shake his hand?
Steve mutters couple of emotionally constipated punks and drags both of you in for a hug.
I C-A-N-T B-R-E-A-T-H-E, Clint signs behind Steve's head.
W-U-S-S, you reply.
The little girl almost runs into you on your way down the stairs. Her headscarf has purple skulls on it today. You think: her name is Habibi. You're proud of yourself for remembering.
“Wow,” she says. “You don't look like an undead hobo anymore.”
“Thanks,” you say.
Habibi looks looks at Steve. Her eyes get very large. She looks at you again. Squints.
Her eyes get even bigger.
“No way,” she says.
“Are you going to tell anyone you saw us?” Steve asks.
“Not if you take a selfie with me,” says Habibi. “Are you going to tell my mom that I harassed a stranger?”
“Not if you take a selfie with us,” says Steve.
Which is how you wind up with a photo of Steve, Habibi, and you as the background on your phone. Steve is making a goofy face. Habibi is sticking her tongue out. You're smiling.
You smile more, when you look at it.
When you reach the motorcycle, Steve takes off his leather harness and gives it to you.
“I can't wear the shield while you're riding pillion,” says Steve. “You'll have to wear it for me.”
You worry that the harness will slip off your left side. You try it on. You lean forward. It doesn't move around. You hold your hand out for the shield.
“You know how to put it on?” Steve asks. He gives it to you.
No, you think, but you try anyway. You've watched him do it. Your arm: one smooth arc. It's heavier than it looks. It takes you three tries before it catches.
You remember holding it, before. Your hand through the straps. It was—
You look down at your hands. Hand. Your left hand, holding the shield. The metal was cold. In your right hand, a gun.
“When did I,” you say.
“Use it? A lot, first couple of months. When I was still learning how to throw it. You were always fetching it out of trees.” Steve's shoulders come up a little: embarrassment. But he's smiling. “One time I got it stuck in a wall so hard that we had to break the wall to get it out. You wouldn't let me have it back for a week.”
“I picked it up,” you say. You frown at the motorcycle. “On – a train? The train. Before I fell.”
You wish you hadn't said it. Distress, in all the lines of his body. He tries to hide it, but you see it before it's gone. You think: Bucky Barnes lost Steve Rogers seventy years ago. Steve Rogers lost Bucky Barnes two years ago. His wound's fresher than yours.
“I'm sorry,” you say, but Steve's saying “I'm sorry” at the same time. An awkward pause occurs.
“What are you sorry for?” says Steve.
“I'm sorry I reminded you of the day I died,” you say. “And you're—”
“I'm sorry I didn't save you,” says Steve.
You stare at him.
“Rogers,” you say.
“Have you been blaming yourself—”
“I was right there—”
“I was going to fall whether you were there or not—”
“But if I'd just—”
“If you'd fallen, would you have blamed me?”
Steve looks like he's run into a wall.
“No,” he says. Slow and quiet. Like he's having a revelation. You suppose he is. “I just – I wish I'd – I wish things had been different.”
You think: me too. You wish he'd reached harder. You wish you'd jumped for his hand. You wish you'd stayed away from that cargo door. You wish you'd both paid more attention.
You don't want to say any of those things aloud.
“There was a war on,” you say instead. “We both might have been dead a week later.”
“Yeah,” says Steve, “But at least you could've punched Zola a few times before we went.”
This, you think, might be a first.
You rode a train. Lots of trains, probably. You've been transported in cars, trucks, personnel vehicles – or on top of them. Drove the same. You've been on planes and you've flown planes. You rode a horse, once.
You don't think you've ever been on a motorcycle.
You like it.
You like it a lot.
Steve makes you wear a helmet, so you make him wear his. You ignore his protests about the serum. You've seen what happens to motorcycle riders in a crash. You don't think the serum can rebuild the top half of his skull.
You remember Steve driving like a lunatic, during the war. Someone taught him how. It wasn't you. Now, he drives very carefully. He never goes more than three miles over the speed limit. He doesn't tailgate. He moves with the bike. You move with him.
The motorcycle is very loud, and so are the cars around you. It's good noise. Empty noise. There's nothing in it. No meaning for you to parse. Just – sound. It fills up the hollows. Good smells all around you: Steve's leather jacket, food stalls, flowers. You don't need to think for a while.
You jerk back into yourself when Steve turns off the engine.
You look up.
Way, way up.
You can just barely see the top of the building through the fog. Glass and steel to the sky.
Steve greets the security guard by name. He waves to the woman behind the desk. Everyone smiles at him. Steve makes people happy.
You catch glances. People staring. Looking away politely. You realize you're still wearing the shield. You wonder if you should give it back to Steve. You wonder if anyone recognizes you. You watch the girl at the desk, fingers flying over her keyboard. Already focused on her work. You think: probably not. She's already forgotten you. So will everyone else.
You get into the elevator.
“Welcome back, Captain Rogers,” someone says. You look around until you find the cameras and the intercom.
“Thanks, JARVIS,” Steve says. “I'll try to stay longer than 24 hours, this time.”
“We are always pleased to have you, Captain, regardless of the length of your visit.”
“Is that because I make Tony take breaks?”
“I couldn't say, sir,” says the ceiling, in a way that means yes, definitely.
“JARVIS is an artificial intelligence,” Steve says.
“A robot?” you say.
“No, he doesn't have a body.”
“Forgive me, Captain, but it might be more correct to say that the building is my body,” says JARVIS, “I appreciate the distinction nonetheless.”
You're inside a hundred-storey robot.
Your life is very strange.
“Thing is,” says Steve, “Tony can be a little...intense.”
“I can handle it,” you say.
“That makes one of us,” he says, and the elevator doors open.
You step back. There are things in the hallway. Arms. Enormous. Metal. Moving. One of them is—
One of them is wearing a dunce cap.
“Hey, guys!” says Steve. You peel yourself off the back wall of the elevator. “Did Tony send you to meet us?”
The arm on the left spins its hand and chirps. The one wearing the dunce cap wiggles. Like a dog.
“Okay, lead the way. Buck, this is U and DUM-E, they're Tony's robot pals.” Steve fingerspells the names as he says them. The robot on the left nudges Steve. “Sorry, assistants. I'm coming, I'm coming, don't rip my belt loops.”
Steve and U start walking down the hall. You look at DUM-E. DUM-E looks at you. It doesn't have eyes, but it looks at you. You wonder what it did to merit a dunce cap.
“What,” you say. “Something on my face?”
The robot moves very slowly. It pinches your shirt hem between its fingers. It tugs. You don't like the feeling. It doesn't feel like a human pulling you. You grab one of its fingers instead.
When you catch up with Steve, you're still holding hands with the robot.
“Aww,” says Steve. He grins. “Look at you guys, making friends.”
Steve kneels down in front of DUM-E, like he's talking to a child. You let go of its finger. “Hey, since you're already in trouble, want to do me a favour? I'll make it up to you later.”
“Can you go in ahead of us and pinch Tony for me?”
Steve holds the door open. Both robots speed through.
“Ow,” you hear, and then: “Ow!”
You follow Steve in.
The man in the middle of the room is rubbing his arm and glaring at Steve. “Someday, that joke is going to get old.”
“You're just jealous that the kids like me better,” says Steve. “What did DUM-E do?”
“Connected the wrong wire and damn near electrocuted me. Who's the strong and silent type?”
You know how this works, now. You put your your hand for him to shake. You say: “James Barnes.”
The man stops shaking your hand. Doesn't let go. Stares. Everybody is staring at you today.
“Jesus Christ on a raptor,” he says. “You actually are.”
“So when you said you were bringing a friend,” Tony says, “You could have specified that it was your dead BFF.”
“I didn't know how secure the line was,” says Steve. He takes a coffee mug. You shake your head when Tony offers you a cup. He raises an eyebrow.
“Can't have caffeine,” you say.
“Ye of little faith. JARVIS locks down my phone calls like Fort Knox. And – seriously? Steve metabolises it instantly and you can't drink it? My Kona is wasted on you two.”
“Your hospitality isn't,” says Steve. “We've been laying low at Clint's.”
“Oh, god. How is McHuman Disaster? Does he still have a phone with a cord? I haven't seen him since Christmas.”
“He's good. How are you? I heard about your, uh, AIM adventure. You could have called me in.”
“Yeah, and you could have called me in for your DC adventure, mon capitaine. I'm fine, I had heart surgery, Pepper's mostly fine...”
“Heart surgery! Tony—”
“So, hey, Barnes, how's your second life treating you?”
Tony is very close to you. He's also very loud. You manage not to flinch.
“Wasn't ever dead,” you say.
“Frozen?” Tony asks.
“Oh, good, I was starting to think you'd gone down with Spangles and he'd been hiding you all this time.” Tony turns to Steve. “You weren't, were you?”
“Only for the last week,” says Steve.
Tony grinds to a halt. Working something through. You aren't sure what. You know, though, when his shoulders draw in and down, and his hands clench in his lap.
“The files are all online,” Tony says. “Remind me to thank Nat, I was having a hell of a time hacking into SHIELD. Requiescat in pace and all that. You've read them?”
“Not all of them,” says Steve. Warily.
Tony looks at you. “They say the Winter Soldier killed my parents.” Steve opens his mouth. Tony says quickly: “Not that I believe it. I mean, come on, it was a car crash. I'm supposed to buy that Sarge here was the only HYDRA goon capable of shooting out a tire? Please.”
Steve is quiet.
“I remember a car,” you say. You look down at your hand. “I can't. I don't know who was in it. There was snow.”
Tony blows a raspberry. You look up.
“I don't care if they made you hold a pillow over his face,” he says. “I'm not saying you did. It just doesn't make sense from a resource-management perspective, if nothing else. But I read what they did to you. I'd have done – a lot worse things than that, in your place. I mean, I did. When I was kidnapped. It's not even remotely the same level of – but if you, you know.” Tony flings his hands in the air. “Ugh, I'm no good at this stuff, let's do it again some time. With about six bottles of whiskey.”
You peer at Steve. “Am I allowed to do that?”
“I'd say no, at least for a few more weeks, but it depends what your serum does to your metabolism,” says Steve. “I haven't been drunk since 1943.”
“Kill me.” Tony covers his face with his hands. “There's two of you. JARVIS, call Banner, we need to develop super-booze.”
“I could probably get a buzz from pure ethanol,” says Steve. “But in all seriousness, Tony – Bucky has a problem we were hoping you could help with.”
Tony perks up. “An engineering problem?”
“Yeah. Buck, you wanna—”
“It's my arm,” you say. “It thinks it's still attached.”
“Ugh, feedback loops suck,” Tony says. “Come into my lair. Let's drop some science.”
You're expecting a laboratory. White walls, fluorescent lights, drains in the floors. A metal table. Maybe a metal chair. Below ground.
You're not expecting windows. You're not expecting plants. You're definitely not expecting the bright pink Victorian fainting couch. You make a noise. Steve makes a noise.
“Hey, nobody likes hospital chic,” says Tony. He flails his arms and screens appear in the air around the room. He sits on a wheeled stool, beckons the screens closer, beckons you. You sit on the edge of the couch.
“C'mon, let's see what we're working with here,” Tony says. “JARVIS, turn up the heat a few degrees. Barnes, strip.”
You pause with your hoodie in your hand. “Everything?”
Tony rolls his eyes. “I mean, knock yourself out, but above the waist is fine.”
You skin off your shirt and feel Tony go tense beside you. His knee next to your knee, like a rock.
“Now, see, I was assuming you had a stump,” Tony says. His voice is very thin. “Because that would be the logical attachment point. The files say you were brought in with one, so I thought, uh. Jesus. How did they even rig this? A ball joint this small wouldn't have been able to support jack, let alone—that thing weighed, what, forty, fifty pounds?”
“Screws,” you say. “Here, and here.”
Tony looks grim. You think he's going to snap off the head of the pen he's holding.
Steve just looks ill. “Did you have to...”
“Yeah,” you say.
“Oh, god. Buck.” Steve takes your hand in both of his. You press your lips together. You squeeze back.
You got through it. You did it. You did.
“Okay,” says Tony, “Okay. Setting aside the horrific ethical problems and the fact that no person in history has been subjected to as many human rights violations as you – I am personally offended. On behalf of the world. That arm was the Porsche of prosthetics. That was the fucking Sistine Chapel of cybernetics. Do you know how many people could have been helped if they standardized the technology and sold it to medical communities? And instead they've – they've taken this engineering masterpiece and just – it's like, you've got this championship racehorse that's faster than all the other horses, but you're tired of messing around with the saddle every time, so you just spot-weld it to the goddamn horse, and who cares if it's a little slower now because it's in agony? It's still faster than all the other horses. Fuck.”
He's breathing hard. You think about blood pressure. You hope his heart surgery wasn't that sort of heart surgery.
Soft classical music starts playing from the speakers. Tony lets out a laugh that's mostly breath. You stop crushing Steve's hand.
“Thanks, J,” Tony says. He shakes himself all over like a dog. “Right. Let's get this show on the road. Tell me if anything hurts. JARVIS, start preliminary scan. Did you clip these wires yourself?”
“Sir, if I may draw your attention to Screen C.”
“Oh,” says Tony, and then, “Oh. Um.”
Steve leans forward. Looking at something over your head. “Tony, what is that?”
“What is what?” you say. You try to look.
“There's a tracker in your left knee,” Tony says. “Don't worry, it's not currently sending or receiving a signal, but we should probably—”
Your vision blurs. The sides go white, then black. You're going to pass out. You're not going to pass out.
“Get it out,” you say. Your voice sounds strange. Echoing. It's coming from a long way away. “Take it out. I'll do it if I have to.”
“You will not.” Tony taps his ear and walks away. “Okay. JARVIS, call Dr. Traoré. Sit tight, kids. Hey – Djene? Look, I need you. Yes, immediately.”
“Bucky,” says Steve. You look at him. “Tony's trying to keep you from panicking, but – you deserve to know that there's another tracker showing up on the screen. We'll get both of them out. I promise.”
You swallow and swallow.
You don't ask him where it is. You don't want to know. You think you'll be sick, if he tells you. On the other side of the room, Tony gesticulates. Talking to someone you can't see.
“I hate this,” you whisper. “I hate this so much.”
“I know,” says Steve. “But just think – once it's over, you'll never, ever have to do anything like this again.”
Because that makes it so much easier, you think. What an empty statement. When it's over, it's over. Thanks, Steve. Appreciate it.
But, strangely, it helps.
“Talk to me,” you say.
The waiting is the worst. You feel like you're going to shrug right out of your skin. Steve watches you pace. Tells you war stories. Most of them you remember. Some of them you don't. Tony barricades himself behind his computer screens and mutters a lot.
“Dr. Traoré has arrived,” says JARVIS, finally. You sit down hard. Tony is there before the elevator doors open.
“Djene!” Tony says, but you barely hear him. You're looking at the woman.
At first, you can't figure out why her gait is so strange. She's taller than Tony. She bounces. Like she's walking on clouds. You don't understand what's happening below her knees. Tony steps out of the way and then: you see.
She doesn't have legs under her skirt. She has two curved black blades. They compress under her weight, as if they'll snap. They don't. You don't know what they could be made from. You don't know how she balances. Only three inches of her is touching the ground.
You try not to stare when she walks over to you. She clicks like she's wearing heels. Metal treads on the hardwood floor.
“Sergeant Barnes,” she says. Offers her hand. You shake it. Her grip is firm. “Djenebou Traoré. I understand you have some squatters you need evicted.”
“Yes, ma'am,” you say.
She sits on Tony's stool and crosses her legs. Her skirt hitches up a little. You can see the black globes of her artificial knees. “We have three options for your pain relief, all of which are tailored to Steve's physiology. Local anaesthetic alone, local plus drowsy, or local plus general. Which would you prefer?”
“I want to be awake,” you say.
“You must be related,” Dr. Traoré says. Grins. A gap in the front of her straight white teeth. “Steve always wants to be awake. And he watches.”
“The human body is very interesting,” says Steve. He sounds defensive. You think: the museum had his sketchbooks. Artist. Of course he would.
“Can I?” you ask.
“Of course,” says Dr. Traoré. “But if you feel nauseated or uncomfortable, please, for the love of god, look away. Or tell me. I'm trusting you, just giving you the local. Don't kick me in the face.”
“That was one time,” Tony mutters.
“Be a dear and fetch a drop cloth,” says Dr. Traoré. “Sterile, please. Not one your robots have been frolicking on.”
That reminds you.
“Where are they?” you ask.
Steve looks at you. Searching. “Hey, JARVIS? Can you bring DUM-E and U down here?”
“Certainly, Captain,” says JARVIS, over Tony's protests.
The robots come whizzing out of the elevator. DUM-E has lost its dunce cap. You can still tell them apart. U goes to Steve. DUM-E comes to you. You pat it while Dr. Traoré lays out her tools on a surgical cart.
DUM-E puts its fingers into your socket and chirps.
“That's not a port,” Tony says over your shoulder. “You can't uplink with the POW.”
“Not a robot,” you say to DUM-E. “Sorry, buddy.”
DUM-E makes a descending series of beeps. It keeps exploring your socket anyway.
“That's an interesting piece of equipment,” says Dr. Traoré. She flicks a syringe to get the bubbles out. “Do you have synthetic muscles, normally? The attachment point doesn't look independently sustainable.”
“Metal plates,” you say.
Dr. Traoré makes a face.
“I know, I know, I'm working on it,” says Tony. “I'll have a much less awful prototype ready by the time you finish mucking around in the wetware.”
“Good,” she says. “Shoo. Nobody likes a backseat surgeon.”
“Shooing,” says Tony, and leaves.
Dr. Traoré says: “Barnes, I'm going to need to steal your trousers. Strip everything but your underwear, please. And put this on.”
Steve ties the surgical gown at your front. It gives you a hint about where the second tracker is. You think: some of the American team had theirs just under their ribs. You probably do too. You don't want to think about taking it out. But. It could be worse. It could be in your brain.
You lay down. Dr. Traoré bends your right knee. You don't know why. She swabs your left knee with orange liquid and you think: oh. So you don't feel like you're tied down. Your arm is straight and rigid down your side. You shake it out. You tuck your hand under your head.
You're on a bright pink sofa. There's a robot playing with your hair. It's going to be okay.
“JARVIS, I need scans and a laser mark, please,” says Dr. Traoré. She peers at something over your head. “Good, thank you.”
“Your playlist, Doctor?” says JARVIS.
“If you would.”
Soft electronic music starts playing. Steve taps along on his leg. You watch the side of your knee open like a mouth. Wet and red inside. You answer the doctor's questions: Did you feel that? No. How are you doing, Barnes? Fine, ma'am. Can you point your toes for me? Yes.
“Ugh,” says Dr. Traoré suddenly. “Amateurs. Steve, herd the puppies away ten feet, I need to kill this with an EMP before I can take it out.”
Your thigh twitches, and then—
Her forceps coming out of your knee, holding a bloody disk the size of your thumbnail.
“Congratulations,” says Dr. Traoré. “It's a boy. You want I should crush it beneath my heel?”
She grinds it into dust with her blades.
“This one will be trickier,” says Dr. Traoré. Steve covers your legs with a blanket. More orange fluid below your sternum. “For me, not for you. You can help by breathing as evenly as you can. Deeply, if you want, but evenly as possible.”
You try. It feels strange, after she gives you the shot. Like there's a hollowness under your ribs. You're not sure if you're doing it right. You feel your pulse thump faster in your throat.
“Common reaction,” she says, when you tell her. “Just try to keep breathing normally. I know, it's hard. I had my first daughter by caesarean. After they dumped anaesthesia into the epidural, I couldn't feel my whole ribcage. Bugged them until they let me watch the monitor to be sure I was getting enough oxygen. Doctors are the worst patients.”
“How old is she?” asks Steve.
“Sixteen,” says Dr. Traoré, “And her sister is fourteen. You can only imagine the competing noise level. Tony did me a favour, calling me in on a Saturday.”
Steve laughs. He asks more questions about her kids. Dr. Traoré talks while she looks inside your body. You can't watch this time, but you can feel her movements. Smooth. Confident. You watch Steve watching her. Steve, looking inside you. He's interested, not worried. Dr. Traoré has done this, you think, hundreds of times. Thousands.
She jokes about diapers. Steve complains about gender-stereotyped toys. The music makes sounds like bells. Somewhere, the robots are moving.
Four songs later, you feel another EMP. Your stomach jerks. Dr. Traoré, holding the tracker up to the light.
“Is that all of them?” you ask.
“You're officially tag-free,” she says.
You hold out your hand. She drops it into your palm, blood and all.
You crush it between your fingers.
Steve wipes off your hand with a wet cloth while Dr. Traoré stitches you up. Three neat knots in your sternum. She uses a flashlight to look into your eyes. Switches sides. Does it again.
“Three, no more than four hours for the sutures,” she tells Steve, “Unless they don't seal that quickly, which I doubt. Don't let him sleep all night in them. I don't want to go digging them out tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma'am,” says Steve.
“Good. Barnes? Think fast.”
Dr. Traoré throws a swab at you. You fumble at it a full second too late. It hits your chest and bounces off.
“That's what I thought,” she says. “Your adrenal system is toast, Sergeant. Probably a dopamine deficiency, too. I recommend a healthy diet of tea, food, more tea, and absolutely no stress for about six weeks.”
“Djene,” says Steve, “We'll be staying with Tony.”
She grins. Quick and sharp. “Then I would invest in a manual door lock, Steven-my-dear. Now, both of you, lay down and take a nap. Doctor's orders. JARVIS, if either of them tries to get up before 3:00, set off the sprinkler system. And don't let Tony in.”
“It would be my pleasure, Doctor,” says JARVIS.
Steve flings himself onto the other sofa. She laughs. The robots follow her to the elevator.
You're asleep before the doors close.
I finished writing last night, so the last chapters will be out in the next few days.
Thank you all so much for reading. Group hug!
“You'd,” you say, “Show me.”
“Uh, yeah. The helping is kind of dependent on the showing.” Tony spins a wrench between his fingers. Points it at you. “Hey, you want a job? Number one dogsbody. Lab assistant. Fire extinguisher. I'll pay you in jellybeans, you can replace Dumb and Dumber, it'll be great.”
One of the robots makes an offended noise.
Steve's thumb on the side of your neck. His palm on your shoulder. He says: Buck, Tony wants us.
You sit up like you're an old, old man. (You are. You aren't. You feel like one.) Groaning. You feel the stitches pull in your abdomen, your knee. Steve helps you up. Helps you get dressed. You stagger a few steps with him before your knee remembers it's supposed to bend. It doesn't hurt. It's just stiff.
You hope whatever Tony's doing is quick. You want to sleep for a week.
“After you,” Steve says. He holds the door.
“Finally,” says Tony. “The kids keep trying to bogart it. They think I'm building them a new baby brother.”
Tony steps to the side, and—
There's an arm on the table.
Tony's saying, reflexes aren't as sophisticated as your old one mind you I've only been down here three hours give me a week and – but you barely hear him.
You trip. Grab Steve's arm. You're breathing very fast. Tony's mouth has stopped moving. He looks concerned.
A new arm means a fitting. A fitting means bone saws. Pain. Metal poisoning. The hose, until your fever breaks.
You know that Tony isn't going to do any of that to you. He probably doesn't even have a bone saw. You saw how he looked at your socket. His eyes, like he wanted to make it better. He was angry that someone hurt you.
Your heart slams at your ribs. Your pulse, in your throat. You can't make it stop. You know he isn't going to hurt you. It won't stop. You're dizzy.
“Whoa, Sarge,” Tony says. He and Steve, holding you up. Steve is taking your hand away from your throat. “Sit down before you fall down. I don't speak panic attack, you've gotta tell me what I did wrong.”
“Just,” you say. “I can't,” you say. You breathe. It's more like panting, but you're getting air. You say: “Just give me a minute.”
Tony steps back. All you can see is Steve. His big blue eyes.
“Bucky,” he says. “Where are you right now?”
“Don't know,” you say. You feel like you're going to shake apart. Steve's hand on your shoulder. Just above the socket. The static is bad. Spitting and twisting. Like it wants to claw at Steve's hand.
“Come sit down,” Steve says. He tries to steer you to where you can't see the arm.
“No,” you say. “No, I need to—”
It appears your body has different ideas. Standing is no longer an option. Steve catches you. You lean against him. You hate the sounds you're making.
“It's 2014,” says Steve, very quietly. Right into your ear. His breath is warm. You can smell coffee. “It's April 17th, 2014. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. You're in New York, on the eighty-fifth floor of Avengers Tower. We came here on a motorcycle.”
“From Clint's,” you say. Your teeth, chattering. Surely you can stop shaking.
“That's right,” Steve says. “What's his dog's name?”
“Gross,” you say. Steve chuckles. You drop your forehead onto his shoulder. His big hand on your spine. Up and down. Very slowly. You try to match your breathing to it.
It's a long time before you can look over his shoulder at the table.
When you do, it's just an arm.
It doesn't look anything like the weapon. There aren't any plates. There are black cords that look like muscles, and cables like tendons. Only two joints in the fingers. The tips have little moulded nails. It doesn't look human. It still looks a lot more human than the weapon ever did.
You don't know.
You think: I can't. I can't. I can't if I don't know. I need to know.
“I want,” you say. You stop.
“Yeah?” says Steve, and Tony says, “Anything but a pony, I honestly don't think it would fit in the elevator.”
“I want to know how it works,” you say.
“That's it?” says Tony. “Oh, my brother from another mother. Yeah, that is not a problem. Hell, this is just a prototype, you can help me build the next one. If you want.”
“You'd,” you say, “Show me.”
“Uh, yeah. The helping is kind of dependent on the showing.” Tony spins a wrench between his fingers. Points it at you. “Hey, you want a job? Number one dogsbody. Lab assistant. Fire extinguisher. I'll pay you in jellybeans, you can replace Dumb and Dumber, it'll be great.”
One of the robots makes an offended noise.
“Yes, really,” Tony says, before you can ask. “You people and that expression, I swear. Everyone makes that face when I tell them they have an apartment here, it's not like—”
“A what?” says Steve.
“See?” says Tony. “Exhibit A.”
“What kind of apartment?”
“An apartment. Personalized, climate-controlled, rent-free – and don't tell me you refuse to live in it. Don't be like Clint. Own the suite. Become one with the suite. Hey, stop with the look. I had, like, twelve extra floors, what else was I supposed to do with them?”
“I think,” says Steve, “We should leave the arm business until tomorrow. Buck?”
“Yeah,” you say, with feeling. You push off from Steve. You can stand on your own. Marginally. There's some swaying involved.
“I'll take that as a hint,” Tony says. “Did I say tour? I think I said tour. I'll retroactively say tour. Come on, kids. Let me show you Casa del Capsicle. Not you.”
You turn. DUM-E is behind you, hanging its hand. It looks very sad. You pat it, and then you follow Tony and Steve. The last thing you see before the elevator doors close is U dragging the prototype off the table.
“Because it's you,” says Steve, “I have to ask. Is there some combination of red, white, and blue in the colour scheme?”
“No,” says Tony. “I have standards.”
“Is the furniture all from the 1940's?”
“That would be creepy and also kind of rude. What do you take me for?”
“The guy who made my helmet play The Star-Spangled Man during a firefight.”
“Hey, we needed a distraction, and it worked.”
“Well, it distracted me.”
You separately think of the phrases old married couple and bickering like.
The elevator doors open.
Steve breathes, “Tony.”
You follow them into the apartment. Dark hardwood floors. The space is all warm colours. Minimal furniture. Paintings on the walls. Abstract. Nice to look at. You're not sure about the floor-to-ceiling windows, but Tony says, “Those dim to opaque, by the way, totally bulletproof” and then you like them a whole lot.
In the largest room, there's an easel set up in front of the window.
“Tony, I can't accept this,” Steve says.
“Well, too bad, because it's yours. It's just going to collect dust if you don't want to live in it.” Tony pats the nearest sofa. “Think of it as your hazard bonus for the New York thing. Or for not killing me during the New York thing. And – Cap, seriously, you've been working non-stop since you thawed out. I'd consider it a public service if you'd take a vacation. Maybe do some heavy lifting for me. Reach items on the top shelf. Whatever.”
“Tony,” says Steve. Quiet and grave. “I'm going to hug you now.”
“Nope, no, I don't do hugs, supersoldier cooties, n—augh!”
I think I can see your house from here, you text Clint.
You totally can, he texts back. And then: Oh no he didn't.
He did, you say. It's a very nice apartment. As an afterthought, you add, I have a job now.
Aw Bucky no, says Clint.
I'm helping Tony build my arm, you say.
The pause is very long. You think you might have to send it again. Finally:
Sorry, I'm just not used to the idea of tony stark BEING RESPONSIBLE.
You smile. You show Steve. He takes your phone. Types something, hands it back.
Bucky brings out the best in everyone. -S
Your phone buzzes.
Oh, so that's why you're such a massive nerdlord.
I take no responsibility for him, you type, and wait for Steve to finish cracking up on the sofa.
You have an appointment with Dr. Traoré in the morning.
“I know I said no stress,” she says, “But—”
“Doctoring is overdue,” you agree.
She asks you questions. You list the injuries that have healed. You tell her about the withdrawal. What Sam thought was in the arm. When you tell her about the feeding tube, she has a lot more questions. You tell her what you've been eating. She seems pleased. She helps you write out a schedule. In a week, you can try adding solid food to your diet. You're looking forward to that.
She draws your blood, takes your blood pressure, asks for a urine sample. It's not very stressful after all.
“Tony gave me your files,” Dr. Traoré says. She taps two nails against her right knee: tick tick, tick tick. “I would have preferred to wait until you were ready to share that information yourself, but I understand why he did it. Your case is – unique. It's difficult to see the line between your right to privacy and a medical intervention. That said, I haven't read them yet, because I wanted to ask your permission first.”
“I don't know what's in them,” you say.
“Do you want to?”
“Not really.” You have a general idea. You're not sure if you can stomach knowing everything, just yet. You have enough anger sitting hard in your chest.
“You can read them,” you say. “If it'll help.”
“I suspect it will illuminate some things,” says Dr. Traoré. “At the end of the day, what will help me most concretely are brain scans. Which are a couple of magnitudes less fun than pulling your toenails out, I know, but...”
“Yeah,” you say. “So let's get it done.”
“You're my favourite,” she says.
You have reservations about the machine.
“This is an open MRI scanner,” says Dr. Traoré. “As opposed to a closed MRI scanner, which feels like being in a coffin that someone's pounding on with a sledgehammer. MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and no,” she adds, when you open your mouth, “It's not going to rip out your shoulder, because the socket is made of a non-magnetic titanium alloy.”
You have less reservations about the machine.
Dr. Traoré gives you tiny earplugs and shows you how to put them in. She says they'll block the sound of the MRI and let her talk to you. She helps you onto the bed.
“Remember,” she says, as she fits a plastic cage over your head, “You can call uncle as many times as you need, but then we'll need to restart, which means more time in the machine. Your call, but it'll be easier on your nerves if we can get through it on the first try.”
“How long?” you ask.
“Twenty to thirty minutes,” she says. “I'll update you every five. Speak up if you need anything – I'll hear you.”
The click of her blades as she walks away. You think: Okay. It's fine. Just chill in a gigantic magnet for half an hour, Barnes. No big deal. You can do this.
You lay in the stupid machine with your stupid head cage and try to breathe.
For maybe eight minutes.
“Barnes, I'm getting elevated heart rate and respiration out here. You okay?”
“Not really,” you say. Your palm is sweating. You're trying so hard not to move. All your muscles hurt.
“Do you want to stop?”
“No. Keep going.”
“All right. Deep breaths. I'm here if you need me.”
You let out a long breath. Pull in another one, slow and careful. Try to relax your hand. You curl and uncurl your toes. That helps most of all. You don't feel so trapped. The blanket over your legs is very soft. It's nothing like the tank.
“Twenty. Just a few more minutes, James. You're doing great.”
The last five minutes crawl.
“You,” says Dr. Traoré as she helps you off the bed, “Are a total rock star. I've had big tough graduate students who didn't do as well as you. I feel like I should give you a sticker.”
“Sticker?” you say.
Steve aspirates his tea when you walk in with a sticker on your forehead that says: I'm a SUPERHERO!
“It went okay, then?” he says.
“Yeah,” you say. He helps you peel the sticker off your face. His nails are longer than yours. “I saw my brain.”
“The future's pretty great,” says Steve. He puts the sticker on the fridge. “What did you think?”
You hop up on the counter backwards. You fell off the first time you tried, but you practiced. You like being taller than Steve.
“It's got a few holes in it,” you say. Lesions, Dr. Traoré said. She said they're preventing you from accessing all of your memories. But the memories are still there. In theory.
You know they are. You remember more every day. But: only the war, or after. You've got nothing before the factory. Before the table. You wonder if they did something to your brain, back then. Something even the serum can't fix. Maybe you'll never remember growing up with Steve.
“If anyone has a shot at recovering from that,” Steve is saying, “It's you.”
“Yeah. She said the serum gives us more...” You frown. You try to remember the word she used. Doubtfully: “Neuroplasticity?”
Steve nods, though. “I got brain damage on a mission, one time. I was blind for a month while it healed. She said the damaged brain cells weren't actually growing back, but the healthy ones were making new connections a lot faster than normal. A regular person might not have recovered.”
“Good thing you're not a regular person,” you say.
“Regular people don't normally have to fight crazy civil war re-enactors with cannons,” says Steve, “So it kind of balances out.”
You report to the first floor of R&D at noon.
You've been here before, but you barely noticed it. You were panicking a little, in your defence.
It's very...Tony. Clean and shiny. Chrome and glass and more chrome. Blue-tinged lights. Blue-tinged screens hovering above the tables. Black marble floor. You rub at it with your shoe, but it doesn't slip. Coated with something.
There's a steaming mug of something waiting for you on the bench. It smells like coffee when you get closer.
“Decaf, rice milk, honey,” Tony says. “Totally safe for recovering supersoldiers. I cleared it with Djene.”
You take a sip.
“Holy shit,” you say. You're making this for Steve. You're making this a lot.
“You have low standards, if you think that's good. Wait until you can have vanilla lattes.”
“I eat peanut-flavoured vitamin paste eight times a day,” you say. “My standards are in the basement.”
“Hey, swearing and a sense of humour, we're going to get along just fine. Want to learn how to manipulate holographic projections with your brain?”
By your brain Tony actually means your hand, but you're not all that disappointed. He scans the prototype arm and blows it up huge in the middle of the lab. You practice making it bigger and smaller, twisting it, turning it, taking off pieces and putting them back on. You practice until you don't feel anxious when you look at it.
“Important question time,” Tony says. “What do you want it to look like?”
You think about Dr. Traoré's prosthetics. “Black.”
Tony makes a face. “Basic black?”
“It goes with everything,” you say.
“Point. Well, that makes things easier. I can just set up the 3-D printer to make the shell once we're done with the core. Speaking of which...” Tony bounces on his heels like a kid. “I need specs.”
“Details! What do you want in it? What do you want it to do?”
“Do?” you say. You feel like a parrot. “I just want an arm.”
“No repulsors? No atomic watch?”
“Radar? MP3 player?”
“Spring-loaded bowie knife?”
“I was kidding.”
“Maybe a compartment?” you say. Spring-loaded anything is silly and dangerous, but you wouldn't mind having an extra pocket.
Tony sighs. “You and Djene. The boringest.”
You perk up. “You built her legs?”
“Pfft, barely. I had great suggestions, but she just goes, 'Tony, fuck your spinning rims,' and—”
You choke on your coffee.
“Feel like ruining your day?” Tony says.
“Well, those wires are clearly still driving you up the proverbial wall. I can get in there and disconnect them, but...”
You think about pry bars and swallow hard.
“How much,” you say, “Is that going to suck?”
“You might want a buddy to hold your hand. Just saying.”
You firm your jaw.
You took the weapon off without Steve. You survived your MRI without Steve. You can do this. You can do this.
You're not sure if you can do this.
You end up half naked on the pink couch. DUM-E looking over your shoulder anxiously. You're not sure if robots can be anxious. Maybe you're projecting.
The faceplate is surprisingly easy to remove. You're not sure you could have done it without a mirror. Tony frowns, presses, twists. You feel it slide out of the grooves.
“Okay, aaand—” Tony stops moving. “Ooh.”
You feel warm liquid slip down your side.
You close your eyes.
“Please tell me that's not blood.”
“It's not blood.”
You open your eyes. “Really?”
“Just plasmic discharge, it's fine. Well, you're fine. I think your pants are a lost cause.” DUM-E hands you a tissue. Tony rolls his eyes. “For god's sake, get a towel if you want to be helpful. JARVIS, what am I looking at?”
DUM-E comes back with a towel. You clean up your side. You try to look into your socket, but you can't bend the right way. There's a blue glow coming out of it.
“A battery, sir,” says JARVIS. “It appears entirely safe to remove.”
“Let's disconnect our little friends first. Barnes, brace yourself, I have no idea what this is going to feel like.”
When Tony disconnects the first wire, you feel a sharp pop! Almost pleasant, like cracking your back. And then: static spills out from the socket. It rushes tingling up your neck, across your torso. One long shiver from crown to fingers. A small confused noise from your throat. When your eyes can focus again, Tony is staring at you.
“Want to bet,” he says slowly, “That this is wired into your spine?”
“No,” you say. Dry as dust. “Really.”
Tony clacks the pliers at you. “Ready?”
“Do I get a sticker for this?”
“How old are you again?”
“Old enough for a goddamned sticker, sonny-boy.”
“Get through this without punching me and I'll give you a lollipop, gramps.”
“Ooh, hey, meet your radial nerve. That looked fun.”
“You'd better not be lying about that lollipop.”
Tony is lying about the lollipop.
After the last wire is dropped into the hazardous waste bin, you get a bottle of guava juice and a lot of concerned patting from DUM-E. U brings the prototype over and drops it in your lap. Like a cat with a dead bird. You don't panic this time. You finish your juice and fiddle with it until Tony comes back.
The battery slides out, all sticky blue light—
And you almost fall off the couch.
The feedback is gone.
You maybe hyperventilate a little. Tony clips a blood pressure monitor to your finger and makes you lie down.
Your shoulder feels big and hollow. Like your heartbeat should be knocking around inside it, echoing. You breathe and breathe and breathe. You never knew how an absence could feel so good.
While Tony is distracted, you pull out your phone and take a picture of the inside of your socket. You hesitate before you look at it. You don't know what to expect. You wonder if you'll see inside your chest.
You frown at the screen.
You're still frowning at it when Tony comes back.
“Wondering where all the meat is?” Tony taps the back of the metal bowl. You feel the vibration deep in your chest. “Under here.”
You point at the photo with your thumb. There's a bulge at the front of the socket, and a flat plane at the back. “Is that my collarbone?”
“Looks like it.”
“This,” you say, “Is such a mess.”
You're amazed that you survived it. This much work, so close to your heart. Metal cupping your bones. Holding back your insides. You think: it's so stupid. They should have used your stump. You want to go back in time and smack the guy who designed this. You're sure he's long dead. You don't care. You're going to find his grave and make Lucky pee on it, even if you have to go to Russia.
Tony screws the faceplate back on. It doesn't serve any purpose now, but it's nice not to have a gaping hole in your shoulder. He runs away when you try to give him a hug.
You send the robots after him and go home.
When you let yourself into the apartment, it's dark. A faint glow, towards the living room. You take off your shoes and go looking for Steve.
You find him in front of the windows, painting.
He's sitting on one of the barstools from the kitchen. There's a tiny lamp on the easel, turned down low. Just enough for him to see the canvas. Outside, it's dark, but the sky is lit. Electricity, reflecting. Everything a dusky blue. Yellow smears of light. You can't see any stars.
You watch him for a long time. If he did this around you, it's from the time you don't remember. Before the war. The museum said he went to art school. Worked for the Federal Art Project. He must have been talented.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve says, without turning.
“Hey, yourself,” you say. You come into the room. You stand beside him and look.
New York at night.
It's very, very good.
“It's funny how it comes back,” Steve says. “I haven't painted since – three, almost four years ago? From my perspective. I thought I'd have to start all over again, but...” He gestures with his paintbrush. “My hands still know how, I guess.”
Muscle memory, you realize. The one thing they could never burn out of you. You always knew how to fire a gun. How to look after yourself. It's a little bit amazing, when you think about it. Even when it makes you feel sick.
“Did you have a good time with Tony?” Steve asks.
“He's insane,” you say. “I like him. He took the wires out.”
“Really? Can I see?”
You roll up your sleeve and twist off the faceplate. It's easy, now that you know where to press. You show him.
You expect him to be happy, but he looks very confused. You watch his hand move.
Steve pulls a lollipop out of your socket.
Someone has written “you're welcome, gramps!” on the wrapper.
“What the hell?” Steve says, but you're laughing too hard to explain.
You don't have time to enjoy the lack of feedback. There are some very bad days, afterwards.
DUM-E runs a blender unexpectedly, and Tony spends twenty minutes coaxing you out from under a desk. You don't even know what it reminded you of, but your brain didn't like it.
You lose time after a nightmare so bad you don't want to remember it. It takes three days before you can sort out what's real and what's not. Steve reminds you of someone, while you're down in the well. You can't look at him without panicking. He leaves encouraging notes all over the apartment, but he stays out of your way. When it's over, you don't leave his side for 24 hours.
Tony comes up too fast on your left one evening, when you're tired and overstimulated. You almost break his nose. Reflex. Your violence upsets you more than your fear. You can't stand the thought of hurting him. Your body has hurt too many people.
You know none of it is your fault. You can't not know, the way Steve tells you. You weren't enough of a person to make a choice. Still, it was done with your hands. With your brain. You can't make it up to the people you hurt. Killed. You can't take it back. But. You can make sure you never hurt anyone else, as long as you live.
You hope it's enough. It's all you have to give.
You come home from an appointment with Dr. Traoré to find an empty apartment. The whiteboard by the door, in Steve's architect scrawl: Avengers emergency, home soon. You plan to bawl him out for taking a mission on his sabbatical, but when comes in wearing his uniform, smelling like smoke and looking like death, you keep your mouth shut.
He drops his shield on the armchair.
“We found where they were keeping you,” Steve says. High and tense. “We found—”
You know what he found. You don't want to hear him say it.
You reel him in. Pull him down onto the sofa. Onto you. Your arm around his shoulders. He feels, all of a sudden, very small. He makes a noise you can't interpret into your shirt. You stroke his back when the shuddering starts.
“How can you just,” Steve says. He stops. You wait. His voice, crackling like an old record: “How can you be so – I want to tear them apart—”
“Because,” you say. “Steve,” you say, “They aren't worth my fucking time.”
Your week looks like this:
Every morning, you go to the gym with Steve.
Mondays you work with Tony.
Tuesdays, you meet with your therapist. (His name is Carl. He's seventy-one and ex-Navy and very nice, even when he's calling you on your shit.) You work with Tony in the afternoons, except when you can't.
Wednesdays, you work with Tony.
Thursdays, you work with Tony.
Fridays are Tony and then Carl.
Saturdays are for you. Sometimes Carl assigns you homework. Sometimes you read. Sometimes you just nap. Sometimes you call Clint over the internet and talk in ASL. Steve's been teaching you. You learn fast.
Sundays are for you and Steve. You go walking in disguise. He grows a beard and wears big sunglasses. He starts talking in French if it looks like someone might recognize him. You surprise yourself: you know how to speak it too. You play silly tourists in the art galleries.
Every night is movie night. Documentaries, sometimes. You and Steve, catching up on the chunks you're missing. Natalia joins you when she's in town. She brings Russian films with bad subtitles. You make the mistake of falling asleep once, and you wake up with shiny green polish on all your nails. You expect Tony to make fun of you, but he just gives you a thumbs-up. You appear to have passed an initiation ritual.
Steve plays internet radio roulette while you're in the lab. He says he's trying to broaden his cultural horizons. You've come home to thrash metal, Wiccan hymns, disco, African blues guitar. Jewish rap. Bluegrass. You catch him dancing to Cab Calloway in the kitchen. You make him show you the steps. He says you were a natural, once, but you don't remember it. The only dances you remember are the waltz and the ба́рыня. The mercenary team taught you on a long mission. You aren't strong enough to teach it to Steve, and your balance is off. But you will, you think. One day.
It creeps up on you when you're not expecting it. Ambushes you on a sweltering Thursday. You're on the roof with Tony and your Starkpad and the arm. Running calibration tests on the fingers while Steve and Pepper swim laps in the pool. You're being nitpicky. You want it to be perfect. Tony is very patient about it.
When it hits you, you almost drop the arm.
“Yo, Barnes,” Tony says.
“Yeah,” you say. Vaguely. You feel, for a second, like you're dreaming. And then: everything slotting into place.
“Yeah,” you say. “Yeah. I just realized something.”
“If it's about your slavering man-crush on Capsicle, don't worry, I already know.”
Later, you'll replay the conversation and make DUM-E steal Tony's pants for that, but now, you're barely listening.
You're thinking about your list of good things. When you came out of the Potomac, there were less than ten items on it. Fifteen, maybe. You try to make a list in your head now. A new list. A list of all the good things.
Not because there isn't enough.
There's too much.
You could write for a week and never come to the end of it, you think. And if you ever did, you could just list names, over and over. Your people and their endless good. You could write their names until your hand went numb and it still wouldn't be enough.
Steve asked you, your first week in the Tower, what made you happy. You couldn't answer. You know what it means, of course. You're not simple. Happy means contentment. A sliding scale from peace to delight. But you didn't know how it felt in your body. You couldn't get the shape of it in your mouth.
But now: you know.
Happy is a list of good things too big to hold.
Despite your shoulder, despite HYDRA and nightmares and the holes in your memory that just won't fill in – you're happy.
Fuck you, Arnim Zola, you think, and smile.
“What next?” you ask.
“Uh, hang on – have we run #17 today?”
You have. You run it anyway. You bring up the diagnostic code manually. JARVIS could do this, but you like knowing how to problem-solve yourself. If anything happens, you won't be trapped with an arm you don't know how to fix. You run the diagnostic to the end, and add a calibration routine. The arm flexes on the table. Much smoother than last week. Tony watches it like a hawk. You try to think of diagnostics you could run. You can't. You've run them all twice.
You look at the arm.
You look at Tony.
“Is it—” you say.
“Are you—” Tony says.
There's ten seconds of silence, and then: both of you screaming like girls. You grab Tony's arm. He grabs yours. You muss up his hair. He dances on the spot.
DUM-E sprays both of you with the fire extinguisher, and you don't even care.
Tony calls everyone up for a celebratory dinner. Even Natalia comes, fresh home from a mission. Scrapes on her forehead, a flower in her hair. Tony hands out chocolate cigars. Steve explains that people do that when the birth of a baby is announced. You glare at Tony over the canapés.
You get your revenge. When Steve shoves his half-melted cigar between his teeth and does his best mob boss impersonation, Tony gets eight hundred dollar scotch up his nose.
You put the arm on four days later.
ба́рыня: literally "landlady." A traditional Russian dance. It has a thousand variations, but this is a pretty good example.
Just the epilogue to go, folks! Stay tuned!
Thanks so much for reading.
“I have a surprise for you,” you say.
Six Months Later
“Sergeant Barnes,” says Dr. Traoré. You shake her hand. “Long time no see. Thanks for coming.”
“Good to see you too, Doc,” you say. “How're the girls?”
“The bane of my existence,” she says, grinning. “Aimee's decided she wants to be a tattoo artist. You would not believe the magazines that come in the mail. More importantly, how are you?”
“Been better,” you say. “Haven't you heard? Captain America went back on duty last week.”
“Heart attack city, huh?”
“I feel like I'm going to have a stroke every time the uniform comes out of the closet,” you agree. “So, no better time to schedule my exam.”
“Ooo, anxiety in vivo, you do spoil me. Get your butt up here.”
You hop onto the MRI bed. She glances appreciatively at your left hand. “That's looking substantially more swank than the last time we met.”
You pluck imaginary lint from your scrubs with carbon-mesh fingertips.
“Thanks,” you say. “I made it myself.”
“I've never seen anything like it,” says Dr. Traoré. “Not only have you rebuilt connections around the lesions, this, here, this is a zone of amplified neural connectivity. You see growth like this in babies, when their brains are still developing.” She shakes her head. “I want to cut out your brain and study it, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.”
“I'm sure you say that to all the boys.”
"Only the superhuman ones. How are the headaches?”
“A lot better,” you say. Muscle tension. Months of nothing, and then fifteen pounds of arm. Your neck, trying to compensate for the wrong weight.
“And the dreams?”
“Regular stuff. Hardly any flashbacks, just stupid, random things. Nightmares – still pretty often.”
Dr. Traoré makes notes in her usual looping scrawl. When she looks up, her expression is more tentative.
“How about the memories? Anything...new?”
Your smile is so big it hurts your cheeks.
“I think Doc has a crush on my brain,” you say when you walk in the door. Steve looks up. He's got charcoal on his nose.
“I guess that means you're all grown up,” Steve says. “You used to charm the ladies with your face.”
“You're a riot.”
You come around the sofa and almost sit on Clint.
“When the hell did you get here?” you say, smacking his ankle. He lifts his feet so you can sit, and then puts them right back down in your lap. You resist the urge to steal his socks. One is green plaid. The other is pink with tiny hearts.
“About twenty minutes ago,” says Clint.
“Bosnia. I'd be there too, if somebody—” Clint flaps his purple cast at Steve, “Didn't decide to bench me.”
“Friends don't let friends go into combat zones with multiple compound fractures,” says Steve.
“Going to annoy him into submission?” you ask.
“If you mean 'provide inspiration,' then yes. Draw me like one of your French girls!” Clint sprawls across the couch. You grab his feet. “Wait, I'm not actually going to take my – hey! Aw, socks, no! Come back!”
Clint goes up to his own suite. You corral Steve before he can get any ideas.
“I have a surprise for you,” you say.
You hand him a blindfold and a pair of sunglasses. He puts them on without asking. You pull his watch cap over his ears and bundle him into his jacket. November in New York: you're not a fan. You've had enough of being cold.
“You'll have to hold my hand,” you say.
Steve grins blindly. “Why, Mr. Barnes, I never thought you'd ask.”
“That's Sergeant to you, smart guy.”
“After you, sir.”
No one recognizes either of you. Steve's beard is gone, lost to his renewed Avengering, but his cap and sunglasses are a good enough disguise.
It's not enough to stop people from staring when you pry up a manhole and climb down after Steve, but you don't mind. They'll see something stranger before they get home. This is New York.
Steve dances, does martial arts, and wields a challenging weapon with grace and dignity, but guiding him blind through a quarter mile of half-collapsed subway passages is a task. You're both sweating by the time you help him drop into the tunnel. It's damp. Just a little warmer than the streets. The sound of your breath echoing wildly. It sounds like some subterranean beast, breathing with you.
You take off Steve's blindfold, and turn on the flashlight in your phone.
“I know it's not quite right,” you say. You're about to add, 'see, the first place we met isn't there anymore, so I brought you here instead,' but Steve's strangled “Buck” cuts you off.
He turns and turns, staring at the tunnel walls like they're made of gold. When he completes his rotation, he stares at you the same way. Poleaxed. He looks like he's been hit with a brick.
“Bucky,” he says.
“That's me,” you say. “Don't wear it out.”
“Bucky,” he says again.
Steve's grin is slow to start, and then: blinding. He pulls you in and hugs you like you've just come home from war.
“You remembered,” he says into your shoulder. “You remembered.”
“You're one lucky son of a bitch,” you say. “Only got a few of these. Might have remembered the first time I met Lorna MacIntyre instead.”
“Don't even talk about Lorna MacIntyre,” he says, and lets you go. Gazing around at the tunnel again, like it holds the secrets of the universe.
“God, Buck. How long have you been hanging onto that one?”
“About a week,” you say. “Wanted to be sure it was right. And I had to find it again. How the hell did you discover this thing in the first place?”
“What I really want to know,” says Steve, instead of answering, “Is how you knew my name, and how you knew I was planning to go down here.”
You blink at him. You wonder if he's messing with you. You wonder whether he's lost his mind.
“We made plans together,” you say. Patiently, like you're talking to a kid. “Two days before, when we met the first time. You were poking around by the Chinese laundry on Atlantic. I said I had a flashlight, and you said you'd found an old subway tunnel, and I said, 'hello new best pal' and then you—”
It all comes back to you in a rush. Like someone's just boxed your ears. Thick cottony silence, and then: you're laughing. The sound of you echoing. Bouncing off the corners and coming back whole, until all you can hear is your own voice.
You remember: Steve climbing. Trying to impress you. Walking along the top of the fence like an acrobat, arms straight out, careful footwork. Doing well, until he wasn't. The hollow thud, like someone dropping a watermelon. Panic in your throat. You tore your hands to shreds trying to get over the fence. Thinking you'd see brains when you hauled yourself up.
“I'm the one with amnesia,” you manage at last, “But you can't remember the first time we met—” Steve's confused facade starts to crack, and you almost can't: “—because you gave yourself a concussion within the hour.”
Steve closes his eyes. Slowly covers his face with his hands.
He says, muffled: “Oh my god.”
“Your life in a nutshell,” you say. “I cannot fuckin' believe you. I'm surprised your mother ever let you out of her sight.”
“She didn't much,” says Steve. “Not until this kid named James Buchanan Barnes came along.”
“He must've been a real decent guy,” you say. “Saving you from yourself since 1925 and all.”
“He sure was,” says Steve. “You know what I'd say to him, if he was here today?”
“I dunno, Steve. What would you say?”
Steve's face is suddenly so bright and open and earnest you can hardly stand it. In all your life, you don't think you've ever seen him this happy. He's only wearing a little smile, but there's sunshine coming out of every pore. His eyes big and wet in the dim light. Your own eyes, prickling. Whatever he says, you think it's going to make you cry.
“I'd say that he's my hero,” Steve says, and—
Yup. There you go.
You blink at the arched ceiling. Sniffle twice. You pull yourself together.
You punch him in the arm, really hard.
“You,” you say, “Are such a goddamned sap.”
“What can I say?” Steve grins. “You bring out the best in me.”
“The best of the worst, maybe.” You turn around and start walking. “C'mon, Rogers. Enough nostalgia. I can't feel my toes.”
Steve catches up with you and grabs your hand.
You raise an eyebrow.
“What?” says Steve, defiantly. He doesn't look at you. You can't see his ears, but they're pink. You can tell.
“Nothing,” you say. “Just, good to know the face still works after all.”
He shoves you with his elbow. You shove him back. He kicks your ankle. You hip-check him into the tunnel wall.
But you don't let go.
Not even once.
And that's a wrap!
Thank you all so much for reading and enjoying this story. Posting my work online for the very first time was terrifying, but my experience has been beyond wonderful. I couldn't have done it without your kind words of encouragement and incoherent noises of delight.