The Stars They Sewed On Us
Author's Note:Inspired by Tsuki's wonderful art made for the Captain America Reverse Big Bang 2018, and her prompt: "I was really focusing on how the symbol of Captain America for Steve and the Winter Soldier identity for Bucky stripped them from who they were in the 40's." \o/!
Beta-help and cheerleading by Lim and Monicawoe. And thank you Alby and the other mods for being so amazing: this is my favorite challenge of the year. Most of all thank you Tsuki and all the other wonderful artists of the fest: I want to write for all of you!
Five minutes after the closing bell, Jerry's was hopping, brokers crammed against the carved mahogany bar in search of martinis. Bucky took off his hat and loosened his tie; he wanted a table today, and a good one. After a moment, one of the waiters gave a little wave and Bucky followed him to the back of the restaurant, to one of the heavy, round tables near the wall. He ordered whiskey with water and a pint of lager, then yanked a pair of glasses out of his breast pocket and slid them on to his nose. He scanned the menu. He was the mood for a steak, maybe.
He looked up by old instinct to see Steve coming toward him, hat in hand; he grinned when Bucky caught sight of him. Bucky was halfway to his feet, arms extended, by the time Steve reached the table. "There's the boy," Bucky declared, beaming and hugging him; he felt a welling of joy, the settling of an inexplicably rightness, as Steve clasped him, then roughly ruffled his hair, like they were ten again. "You look well, pal; you look well," Bucky said, and Steve did look well: healthy and prosperous and wearing a good blue wool suit. Bucky fingered its lapel appreciatively. "They must be treating you well over there at the, ahem, phone company. "
Steve smiled. "New York Bell."
"Bell, right," Bucky drawled. "Looks like they're paying you well enough, anyway. Which reminds me—if you've got a couple of nickels to rub together—"
The waiter materialized with a tray. Bucky took the whiskey and gestured for Steve to pick up the lager. "Oh, it's like you know me," Steve sighed happily, and reached for the icy glass.
"Only for about a hundred and fifty years." Bucky raised his glass and clinked it against Steve's; they sipped and then sat down at the table. "Seriously," Bucky said, after a quick glance around, "if you've got any cash burning a hole in your pocket, let me put you into some IBM: say, a couple thousand shares. I've got a feeling about it—nothing concrete, mind you, but..."
"I'll write you a check," Steve said, and then added, smiling: "Your gut's good enough for me, Buck." He took a deep swig of the cold beer. "I don't understand any of that stuff—shares and dividends—what do I know about money? Nothing. Aside from the fact that I never had any. I feel rich every time I take a taxi. Nowadays, they pay me my salary, I put it in the bank. Beyond that..." Steve smiled ruefully, shrugged. "So I'm glad to have you looking out for my interests."
"Well, I gotta." Bucky pressed his palm to his chest. "It's the only thing I was ever good at."
Steve laughed. "Bullshit. You were good at everything when we were kids; sports, school. I'm the one who had to make a career out of getting punched," and now Bucky laughed, too. "Seriously!" Steve insisted. "You've got a head for figures and you're not scared of words either; you could do anything you wanted. The fact that you've descended into the purple of commerce is your own get-out." He signaled for another round. "Though my bank account thanks you, it really does."
"Your bank account is welcome," Bucky replied, slouching back in his chair. "And the rest of you, too. You know, you could do something else, if you wanted; you don't have to keep getting punched, no matter how well they're paying you. I seem to remember you used to be able to do a thing or two with a pencil."
"Yeah, I wonder what that was." Steve grimaced, then drained his beer just as the next round arrived. Bucky studied his face: were there lines of tension there he hadn't noticed before?
He chose his next words carefully. "Look, feel free to tell me it's none of my business, but..."
Steve met his eyes. "There's nothing about my life that's none of your business, Buck."
"Well." Bucky considered; Steve had opened the door, but how to walk through it? "Just—you know, I keep waiting for a wedding invitation," and something complicated flashed across Steve's face. Bucky went on, mostly to give Steve more time to figure out how—or if—he wanted to answer: "I mean, obviously things have been crazy, and then you were in Russia and Peggy was setting up the L.A. office, and believe me, nobody knows better than me how one year can bleed into the next, but...you know. We're not getting any younger, any of us."
Steve's mouth worked for a moment before he said, "That's true."
"Just...I wondered, is all." He seemed abruptly to have run out of things to say.
"Yeah. Well." Steve frowned down into his beer for a moment, then looked up and said, "I don't think it's going to happen, Buck. We've missed the moment, Peggy and me. The war...things were possible during the war that aren't possible now. The world's changed. We've changed."
Bucky had to look away; his heart was banging wildly against his rib cage and he suddenly couldn't meet Steve's eyes. He hoped that Steve couldn't read his face, see the longing he felt.
"Oh, I'm..." but he wasn't sorry; not really. "I'm glad you told me," Bucky said instead.
"What about you?" Steve asked, tone lightening like he wanted to change the subject to something more pleasant. "Anyone special, or just the normal parade of beautiful—" Bucky looked up and didn't care what Steve saw on his face—hell, wanted him to see it; see everything.
"Oh," Steve said, and he was pinking up, ever so faintly: neck, ears. "I didn't want to— It's been so long—" He was struggling to speak. "Things change, people— I didn't want to presume."
It was an effort to force his voice out. "Do you want a steak?" Bucky asked, pushing the menu over.
"I would love a steak," Steve replied.
A watched pot never boiled and Steve Rogers never turned up before he did, but Bucky couldn't help but worry, because mostly when Steve wasn't where he was supposed to be, he was in trouble somewhere: getting his ass kicked or shoved up against a car being slapped. Things had gotten a bit better for Steve since Pearl Harbor, which had scooped up many of Brooklyn's more belligerent assholes: anybody spoiling for a fight could go fight the Japs. That left mostly old guys and guys with people depending on them and 4Fs like him and Steve, but Steve still had a real knack for pissing people off. And why else would he be late for the Dodgers?
Bucky was just about to start searching the streets around Ebbets Field when Steve materialized beside the stadium's rusted gate—sure enough, with a black eye and a bloody nose and his jacket ripped.
"The goddamned game's about to start!" Bucky yelled.
"I know!" Steve yelled back, and Bucky sighed and pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it over. "Thanks," Steve mumbled, wiping bright red blood from his nose. "Sorry."
"S'okay," Bucky murmured back; his own adrenaline was ebbing. At least Steve was alive. "Just." I was worried. "I didn't want you to miss it," Bucky said instead. "And hey, I got paid, so you know: I'll buy you a frankfurter if you want one," and Steve showed him a grateful smile.
They showed their tickets and went into the concrete gangway, then up several flights of stairs to the topmost bleachers. Bucky felt a familiar thrill as they stepped into the stadium and saw the enormous blue sky and the crowds of people. The band was playing at full volume, the loudspeakers hissed and crackled and let out an echoing hum. They made their way down the narrow steep steps and turned into one of the rows of benches. A pretty girl looked up at Bucky, smiling—and then suddenly forcing her smile as she noticed his pinned-up shirt sleeve: his missing arm. "Pardon us, miss," Steve said, and okay, Steve looked a sight with his bruised face and bloody nose, but the pretty girl looked past him, around him, right through him, like he didn't even exist.
So what. The hell with her. He and Steve sat in the sunshine—sun glinting off Steve's blond hair, brightening his bruised face—and Bucky began to feel a familiar itch of happy excitement. Summer, Steve, the game; he'd felt such longing for this. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, put one between his lips, and lit the match one-handed. Smoke filled his lungs, burning and good. "Lemme know if you see the frankfurter man," he told Steve.
"Will do," Steve replied, and then, with forced casualness, "We're losing Higbe, I hear. Army training," and the curse was out of Bucky's mouth before he could stop it. "Yeah," Steve agreed, making a face. "It shakes me a little, every time someone goes. Makes me feel—I dunno. But it's not our fault, is it? You can't help having one arm, and I can't help—you know, being what I am," and Bucky frowned, because they weren't on the same page at all. Steve was having one of his periodic bouts of shame at not being good enough to get shot in France. While he—
"I just don't see how we're ever going to win another fucking pennant," Bucky exclaimed. "What with Pee Wee and Franks in the navy, and Dapper and Red and now Higbe. And ain't none of the new guys pitch like Casey," and Steve looked at him and laughed, really laughed.
"Well at least somebody's got their priorities straight," Steve said, rolling his eyes.
"I do, I really do! Fighting—I don't need fighting, I've had enough fighting, I've been fighting for—" The world swam a little; the riot of colors blurring like the world seen through a rainstorm. "I don't see what you're so eager to fight for," Bucky said shakily. "We've got it good here, you and me: a beautiful day and frankfurters coming. It's like a dream," he said, and then, unnerved, "Is this a dream?"
Steve looked at him curiously; he had a cut Bucky hadn't noticed, high on his right cheek. "Is this your idea of a dream?"
"It is, yeah. It is," and then the national anthem started, and they stood up.
Six. Seven. He got off on seventeen and rattled the rusted scissor gate across. Bucky walked through the narrow and dingy maze of passages: one door after another. Steve's studio was nearly at the end of the last hall.
He knocked and waited: Steve usually left the door unlocked, but he didn't want to be responsible for knocking over an easel or a can of paint. "Come in!" Steve called after a moment, and Bucky carefully opened the door. The room was small, hardly more than a large closet: between the three easels and the two of them, there was hardly room to breathe. But light streamed in through the enormous window. The walls were haphazardly hung with Steve's artwork: partially-done studies and rough sketches. Steve half-turned toward Bucky, but didn't look at him. He was focused on the painting he was making: it was of the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. "Hey-gimme-a-minute," Steve mumbled, all one word, and Bucky smiled; that was his Steve, the old, distracted Steve from before the war. Steve with a pencil in his hand.
Bucky looked down at his own hands: he was carrying a large paper sack. "I brought lunch," he said, suddenly sure that was true; he put the bag down on Steve's narrow workbench and discovered that the bag contained two lidded cups of coffee and two sandwiches wrapped in butcher's paper. Pastrami and mustard, he hoped. The smell of the coffee got Steve's attention: he looked over with longing, put down his paintbrush, and extended his hand. "Yeah, yeah," Bucky said, mock-grousing, handing over one of the paper cups, "but take a break and eat with me. I only got a few minutes," and after a moment, Steve tore his eyes away from the painting he was making: it was of a pretty girl with dark hair, half turned away, her back all creamy skin. Steve took a sip of the good, strong coffee, then put it down and wiped his hand on a rag.
"Thanks," Steve said, as Bucky unwrapped his sandwich for him, and then he leaned in to give Bucky a quick kiss before picking it up and taking a bite. "Thanks," Steve said again, more seriously; it had taken him this long to fully detach from the painting he was making: it was of a rustic cottage in a thick copse of trees. Still, Bucky knew better than to compete for attention with a painting, when Steve was painting. Painting was Steve's life since the war: a thing he did well, a thing he could do with only one arm. "How's work today?" Steve asked, chewing, and then he grinned. "Anything you can tell me without violating security clearance?"
"I don't think they'd see me as violating anything, except maybe decency law," Bucky said, unwrapping his own sandwich. "Anything I tell you's pillow talk, ain't it? Or wait a minute...weren't you Captain America?" Steve's grin widened; a lot of people nowadays didn't like to mention the Captain America thing to Steve, like they thought they were being tactful or something, like maybe Steve somehow hadn't noticed that he'd lost an arm in the war and the fact of it would shock him. Idiots. As if Steve Rogers weren't prouder of his service than of anything in the world. "That comes with a lifetime security clearance, don't it?"
"Absolutely," Steve replied, straight-faced. "So what's Stark got cooking these days?"
Bucky paused a moment to let his own excitement register. "He's got the repulsors working," he told Steve. "I mean, he's really got ‘em working now." Bucky had driven Stark's new hovercar straight up off the ground and held it there, fixed, with no wobble at all. What a goddamned miracle that was: sitting in the air while Stark and the other guys hooted and danced on the ground below him. The altimeter installed next to the odometer had held steady, flashing 17 feet.
Steve looked pleased. "You know, I'm not at all surprised. Tony's a genius—" and then something strange flickered across his face, and his eyes twitched, blinking. "Howard. I mean Howard, of course," Steve said quickly, before Bucky could say anything. The sandwich sat in his hand, forgotten.
A pain stabbed in Bucky's left eye. "Tony?"
"Howard," Steve repeated. "Howard, of course; Howard Stark. You remember—" and of course he remembered. Howard Stark. Gray hair. Country road. Green Cadillac. Tony Stark—and Bucky was up, now, and stumbling back toward the door, hands raised to ward off—
Steve came toward him with his hands raised—two hands, both hands—and wearing a worried expression. He was all care and caution, like he was trying to placate a wild animal or something. But Bucky wasn't an animal. Or maybe he was. Maybe he was an animal. Maybe—
"What the hell, what the hell is happening here?" Bucky said, low and afraid.
Steve said, soft and urgent, "It's all right, it's all right, Bucky; please; you have to trust—" but Bucky groped for the doorknob and flung himself out and—
—against the wall of an alley off Proletkult Street, just around the corner from the Kirov Plant. Blood and sweat stung his eyes, and he fumbled, blindly, for the lid of a trashcan: anything to shield himself against the next blow. But the blow didn't come, and after a moment, he opened his eyes and saw Stefan there, looking immensely striking in his Red Army uniform.
"Sometimes I think you like getting punched," Stefan said with a sad shake of his head.
Bucky straightened, still breathing hard. "You ship out tomorrow?" he asked.
"Da." Stefan's cap with its red star was rakishly tilted to one side. "At daybreak I go to Kursk."
"I wish I were going," Bucky said with real longing. "Instead I'm stuck here gathering rusted scrap for the munitions factory—me, who was born in ‘17, a true child of the revolution."
"All work is important work," Stefan said solemnly. "And all workers are imp ...'''
"Men are dying to protect the Motherland and our beloved Workers-Peasants' Government! Lenin says no man has the right to do any less than his comrade."
"Well, you're about to be the last eligible man in Leningrad," Stefan told him. "Everyone else will be at the front—or in the Gulag," and now Stefan was wearing the face mask and leather tactical gear of the Winter Soldier. The skin around the Soldier's blue eyes had been crudely blackened, which made a striking contrast to his spikes of bright gold hair. The sight of him hit Bucky like a rough backhand, and he reeled back, eyes throbbing, brain shrieking with pain.
"No." Bucky hadn't realized how much comfort he'd taken from this never having happened. So many terrible things had happened—Christ, Steve had been killed—but he'd at least been spared this: they'd both been spared the agony of this. "Please," Bucky ground out. "Why are you doing this?" and the Soldier fumbled with his mask, yanking it off and flinging it away.
And it was Steve under there; just Steve. He looked desperate, even with the eyeblack.
"I'm not doing this; you're doing this. I'm just trying to help," Steve said inexplicably. "This..." and Steve waved his black-gloved hand around the alley, at the stark Soviet placards with their enormous blocktype sloppily pasted onto the crumbling walls. "This is your brain making this; your imagination—or maybe your memories," and that was crazy, except maybe it was true, because this wasn't 1943: Leningrad had been under siege in 1943 and he hadn't been there.
This was— "Later. Early sixties," Bucky said slowly turning around; he wasn't quite sure of the year. After the war, anyway; after he'd awakened in an stupor in an underground lab; after he'd noticed his metal arm and realized what they'd done to him, what they'd made of him; after the beatings and the endless nights spent on the cold stone floor of the cell, soaking wet and shivering from the hose; after the torture and the training and the retraining and the retraining; after he'd died peacefully and been reborn into himself; after accepting the horror; after the first mission—the first murder; some time after that he'd found himself in Leningrad, let off the leash a little, and he'd gone to a cafe and ordered a coffee (premixed in a huge pot with milk and sugar, Soviet style) and pishkis in a language he didn't know how he knew how to speak; in his new native tongue. And place that had been...well, right around the corner from here, and—
That was terrifying. If this world was coming out of his mind, then... He looked up at Steve's kind, worried face: all that goddamned sympathy for him. Christ. Don't think—!
DON'T THINK of the Champs-Elysées at daybreak, steam rising off the hood of a crashed car, the driver slumped over the wheel with his skull half-blown apart and—
DON'T THINK of the Estonian children screaming, their hands beating against the rusted gate as he dragged their teacher away, a dissident in hiding. No witnesses, because children weren't witnesses—
DON'T THINK of the screaming and the chaos in the square in the Plaza des Armas as you calmly fire, one shot after another, from the roof of the Correo Central: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, a massacre that would lead to the overthrow of the provisional government—
DON'T THINK of—but there it was, the enormous industrial furnace, burning orange and scorching the air around him with heat, and he hadn't wanted to but. they. had. insisted. and so he had opened his eyes and found himself here and—and—
Steve was here, too, gripping him and shaking him. His arms were iron; an anchor. Bucky squeezed his eyes shut like he could blot himself out of existence by wishing for it hard enough. He breathed through his clenched teeth. The smell of burning flesh and, "Get out of my head, Steve, please, for the love of—"
"No," Steve said softly, "but we don't have to stay here. Your could take us somewhere else. Take us anywhere," and then: "Do you remember our old apartment?"
"No," Bucky said.
"Sure you do," Steve said gently. "Think. You came to live with me after my mother died," and maybe he did have a vague memory of a brown room. A window with lace curtains. A closet of a bedroom at the back, barely big enough for the pallet that he slept on with Steve. Even that small bed had been a step up for Steve, who'd slept on a narrow settee in the parlour when his mother was alive, knees curled up and longing to stretch out. Bucky opened his eyes—
—and there it was, the brown room and the old settee, looking even smaller and narrower than in his memory, and Mrs. Rogers' plain wood furniture and lace curtains.
Steve was here, too, so big that he took up nearly the whole parlour. Beside him, the old settee looked like dollhouse furniture. Steve could never sleep on it now, not even if he folded himself clean in half. Bucky looked at him and asked, "Why did we used to put doilies on everything?"
Steve's mouth opened, then closed again. "I don't know," he said. "It was the style I guess. To protect the furniture," he amended, a moment later. "Doilies on the tables—and on the backs of chairs, the arms," and Steve was right, of course; even as Bucky looked, Mrs. Rogers' old armchair grew little crocheted coverlets over the arms and a larger piece up over the back.
"It wasn't very good furniture," Bucky said, frowning.
"No," Steve agreed. "But it was what we had." A single step took Steve through the crudely-framed doorway with its interior window—a tuberculosis window, though that hadn't saved Steve's Ma—into the tiny kitchen, with its iron stove and two-seat table covered with oilcloth. Bucky couldn't see how they could both of them get their knees under that table now—but how many meals had they taken there? How many loaves of bread had they eaten?
Steve was looking around the old kitchen with longing; of course, he'd never gotten to go home again either, after the war. Bucky watched as Steve fumbled to fill their chipped porcelain kettle from the rusted tap next to the bathtub—and Christ, that was a familiar picture: Steve putting up water for coffee. Steve moved with rapidly-increasing confidence around the greasy old black stove. It had provided not nearly enough warmth in the winter, Bucky remembered, and turned the apartment into a furnace the rest of the time. Christ, it had been too hot to breathe.
"You don't have to live inside your worst memories, Buck." Steve wasn't looking at him; Steve was carefully refusing to look at him. "Or I guess I mean to say...not all your memories are bad, right? I gotta be in some of them," and the back of Steve's neck was flushing red even as he focused, intently, on the kettle, the stove, as if they were demanding all of his concentration.
"Yeah," Bucky said thickly. "You're in a lot of ‘em," and the truth was that Steve was in every good memory he'd ever had: playing stickball with him at nine, riding the Cyclone with him at seventeen, stealing drunk kisses from him at daybreak after a long nights spent playing cards and drinking whiskey. The thought was enough to draw him across the room, and when Steve turned, Bucky slid a hand onto his side and leaned in to kiss him, just like in the old days.
They broke apart but stayed close, breathing into each other's mouths. "Steve," Bucky murmured finally, "what the hell is going on here?"
Steve pulled back and looked into his eyes. "We're unpicking your brain," he said.
"Oh," Bucky said.
"Shuri's unraveling the code, pulling it apart—"
"Like defusing a bomb," Bucky said, dispirited.
But Steve shook his head. "More like taking out stitches," he said. "So you can heal and—move on, that's your job. Ours is cracking the code. Yours is... imagining a life for yourself, Buck; picturing some kind of future. Anything you want—limited only by your own imagination."
A life? A—future? Bucky looked at the cheerful yellow tablecloth and the battered pots and pans hanging under the cabinets. A door opened up from the kitchen onto their windowless bedroom and the small bed that they'd shared, piled high with blankets and sometimes, in the winter, their coats, too. They'd been hungry and cold and tired and oh, so fucking happy here; so happy and young. Bucky could remember wanting so much more for himself and Steve. Now he couldn't imagine ever having been worthy of this—or ever being worthy of it again.
"This can't be my future, Steve," Bucky said quietly. "For one thing, it's the past," and Steve turned from the stove with the kettle in his hand, all at once losing patience with him.
"It doesn't have to be here," Steve said irritably. "It could be anywhere. New Jersey. Arizona. Paris," but Bucky was already shaking his head; he didn't deserve Paris, he didn't even deserve New Jersey. "Jesus, Buck," Steve swore, slamming the kettle down, and that was a familiar picture, too: Steve Rogers wanting to punch his goddamned lights out.
The courtroom was nearly empty: just a balding judge peering down from the bench at him through half-moon glasses, and his lawyer, a dark-haired woman in a navy suit. No jury in the jury box and very few spectators, which was good: he didn't want witnesses to his shame.
The judge fixed him with a look, his domed forehead creasing. "The decision to plead guilty must be your own decision, not your attorney's. Do you understand that, Sergeant Barnes?"
"Yes, sir," Bucky said. "I do."
The judge said, "Is it in fact your own decision to plead guilty?"
"Yes, sir, it is," —and there was a faint commotion behind him; one of the spectators; Steve; Steve, of course. Bucky turned and saw Steve struggling in the arms of two guards. He snapped his head back, searching for Bucky's eyes, and on his face was longing. "Buck," Steve pleaded.
The judge said, "If I accept your guilty plea you will be convicted of the crimes to which you are pleading guilty today, and you will not have a trial. Do you understand?"
Behind him, Steve said in a low, rusted voice, "Buck, please. Don't do this."
Bucky kept his eyes fixed on the judge. "Yes, your honor. I underst—"
"You don't understand," and Steve was pushing forward, half-dragging the uniformed guards clinging to him to the low wooden railing that framed the spectator section. "You haven't consulted a lawyer—but I have, and you're not guilty, Buck! You were a prisoner of war. You did things under duress. You—"
"My imagination!" Bucky shouted, turning. "Use my imagination, you said—well, this is my imagination, Steve! This is the best fucking future I can imagine for—"
The judge began banging the gavel loudly. "Order! Order in the court!"
"You're fucking up my imaginary trial, Steve!" Bucky yelled.
The judge glared and said, "Are we ready to proceed?"
"I am! But I don't know about this asshole here!" Bucky said, jerking a thumb back.
"Christ, you're still such a jerk!" Steve yelled. "And stubborn, and—"
"Order! Or I'll clear the court!" and Steve collapsed angrily onto a front-row bench with his arms crossed. The judge glared at him for another moment and then returned his attention to the papers before him on the bench. "Right, let's get on with it. To the charge contained in Count 1 of the indictment, the murder of Marie Wolkova in the first degree, how do you plead?" and his vision blurred, a little. Marie Wolkova. A petite woman in a white lab coat; a scientist; she wore wire-rimmed glasses and no makeup. She'd worked in the lab where they'd made him. She'd protested when the beatings had started; muttered about using honey instead of vinegar as they dragged him off to electroshock. She'd snuck him slices of bread in her pockets and told him that she'd written several sternly-worded letters to her higher-ups. At the end, she raised her chin and told him bravely that he wouldn't do it; couldn't. Her mouth had been quivering.
She'd been wrong, though. "Guilty," he said, voice a scrape, and then louder: "Guilty."
The judge nodded grimly and said, "To the charge contained in the second count of the indictment, the murder of Peter Woychenko in the first degree, how do you plead?" and Bucky stared into the nothingness of his memory: was Peter Woychenko the man he'd shot at daybreak from the roof of the Hotel Warsaw? Or was Peter Woychenko the diplomat whose throat he'd slit under the crumbling railway bridge in the Dnipropetrovsk district? Or was he...
"Peter Woychenko," the judge said in a carrying voice. "You killed him on the morning of May 5, 1954. His remains were found in the furnace of the Kombinat Takraf in Leipzig. His bones showed visible cut-marks," and Bucky sensed, rather than heard, Steve's soft, pained exhalation somewhere behind him and looked desperately at his lawyer, who returned benign sympathy.
"Does he have to be here?" Bucky pleaded. "Can't we get him out of here?" but the judge gave him the stinkeye and banged his gavel down, hard. "Sergeant Barnes. How do you plead?"
"Guilty," Bucky said.
It went on like that. Murder in the first degree: 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1961 again, on and on. "Guilty," Bucky gritted out, trying to ignoring the ragged breathing, the evident pain this was causing Steve. And then the judge said, "To the charge contained in count nine of the indictment, the murder of Alexander Constantin in the first degree, how do you plead?" and he remembered Alexi Constantin: he'd been a kid, practically. Charismatic, a leader in the Workers' Party, slight with a shock of dirty blond hair falling into his eyes, almost like, very like—and suddenly he was shuddering, doubled over and trying to suppress his retching, and there were hands on him, grasping at him. His lawyer and Steve—Steve—and that was—
"Steve, get out," Bucky choked. "Please get out of here," and then, to his lawyer, "Get him out. Make him go. I don't want him here, I don't want him to hear—" and Steve said, "Okay. Okay, Buck. I'll wait outside," and the slam of the courthouse door was like a cool cloth to the head.
"Sergeant Barnes," the judge said.
"Yeah," Bucky muttered, straightening. He could have sworn he was sweating blood, but the wetness on his fingertips was clear when he touched his temple. "How many more are there?"
The judged hmmed and looked through the papers. "There are twenty-six counts of first degree murder in the indictment. We're not counting the ones you've forgotten. So seventeen more."
"Seventeen," Bucky repeated mechanically. "Okay," he said. "Let's do this."
8. возвращение на родину
Afterward he found Steve sitting on the wide stone steps of the courthouse, smoking—literally fuming. He hadn't see Steve smoke since 1943. Steve had given it up after the serum—his body hadn't needed it anymore—and Bucky'd given it up around the same time, in solidarity, he'd thought. Now of course he realized that he hadn't needed it either; goddamned serum. Bucky collapsed beside Steve on the steps, snatched the cigarette out of his mouth, and began to smoke it himself. Steve glared, pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes out of his pocket, and lit another.
Steve blew a stream of smoke out of his nose like an enraged bull. "So did you get that out your system?" he snapped at Bucky. "How many years did they give you?"
"I dunno, like nine thousand," Bucky said, taking a drag himself. "That or a firing squad at daybreak—that's for the murders; they didn't get to the manslaughter or the assault."
"Well, that's great," Steve muttered, staring stonily down at the ground between his bent legs. "That's just great. Look me up if they ever let you out, okay? I'll probably still be here: you know, in the army, fighting a war in a stupid outfit—because what else would I be doing?"
"You don't have to get snippy about it," Bucky said.
"Snippy?" Steve repeated, voice straining—and Bucky actually raised his hands, lit cigarette still between his fingers, because he knew that tone: that tone led straight to a punch in the face. He watched as Steve took a deep breath and let it out slowly, struggling to get a hold of himself.
"Look," Steve gritted out, "I know I'm not supposed to want anything for myself. It's been made perfectly clear to me that I'm not supposed to want anything, because I'm not a person. I'm a leader, a symbol. America or something," and Bucky stared; he'd never heard Steve talk like this, not even during the depression, or when his Ma'd died. "And I've tried—I have tried—not to want anything. To be what they need me to be. To live in this—state." Steve raised his palms and gestured around emptily, and Bucky understood: this state of nothingness, of having and being nothing. "But when you came back, I thought maybe it would be okay to want..."
He trailed off without finishing, and so Bucky had to ask, "...what?" and Steve shot him a longing look, dragged on his cigarette and ground it, hard under his heel. Then Steve reached out again with his empty hands—and cupped Bucky's face, dragging their mouths together. His mouth tasted of smoke—like it used to—and Christ, he was shocked by the softness of Steve's lips, the scent of him up close. He'd forgotten...why was his heart juddering in this irregular rhythm? And what was that tightness, this strange heaviness—Christ, he'd forgotten—and he surged against Steve, wrapped his arms around him, because he hadn't been hard in years; decades, maybe. He'd forgotten what it was to want, because in his world sex was a weapon like everything else, something they used to hurt people. But Steve was pressing him back against the stairs, edges digging into his shoulders, the small of his back, still kissing him while working a hand into his pants and—
"I forgot," Bucky gasped, as Steve's hand closed around him possessively; he was seeing stars, drenched in memories; warm night, cold nights, laughing and doing this together. "I forgot, Steve," and Steve's thumb slid unerringly to the little spot that made his balls tighten and his stomach turn to water: his body was like a dog returning to its master. Steve was whispering softly and kissing his mouth, his face, body heavy against his and burning, a furnace, so hot and Bucky helplessly rocked his hips up and pushed himself into Steve's fist—and then came so hard it hurt, his whole system rusted from disuse, his body tingling and prickling with unfamiliar sensations. Steve gentled his grip, went affectionate, but didn't stop. Steve was touching him like he loved him, lips softly brushing the skin near his temple, near his ear, and for the first time in a long time Bucky felt benign and expansive about the world. The world had Steve in it.
"You know me," Steve murmured. "You knew me from before—and you never bought into this racket. And I know you, Buck. Do you remember when we were only two boys from Brooklyn? I was only Steve and you were only Bucky. Before the war. Before the SSR, before Hydra—"
"Before the serum," Bucky said softly.
"Yeah. Before all the stars they sewed on us."
"I think I'm nostalgic for colds," Bucky mused. "When was the last time you had a cold?"
"I had one when I went into the VitaRay machine. I'd had a cold since I was seventeen."
"It could be okay, having a cold. If it wasn't too bad. And you had a good blanket. And soup."
Steve sighed and sat up. "Can't we imagine something better for ourselves than a headcold? Maybe there's no going back, but can't we imagine some decent future for ourselves? No more fighting—and no prison, either. Not a homecoming but..." His brow wrinkled. "A new journey, maybe. A new place in the world."
Bucky propped himself up on his elbows. "You think I don't want that? Fuck, I want that. But how?"
Dana McCracken had a Ph.D. in American history and a dusty and cramped office in the basement of the Smithsonian. Her door was open, and Steve knocked, softly, on the scarred wood to get her attention. She looked up—they were in full gear, Captain America and the Winter Soldier—and her expression brightened. Instantly she got to her feet, nearly knocking over a pile of stuff that included a framed photograph, a recording of Irving Berlin's This Is The Army , and a rusted model of a UH-1H helicopter. The whole office was smothered in artifacts.
"Good, good," she said, coming around the desk. "I'm so glad you're here. We're all ready for you—though I have to tell you, you've caused quite a fight in Curatorial. Armed Forces wanted you, of course, but then Culture made a play, and MedSci came in screaming at the last minute because of the superserum. At the end we all compromised: it's gonna be Armed Forces," she reassured them, as if they'd been up all night worrying about it, "but obviously, we can loan out your uniforms when they do Comic Books, sign out your medical records and the VitaRay machine—" and even with the helmet, Bucky could see Steve's mouth working, no doubt offended at the idea that they'd been collecting his medical records. Bucky reached out with a gloved hand, touched Steve's arm and shook his head. Not worth it, buddy—and besides, Bucky was starting to see where this was going, and he thought he was maybe on board with it.
They followed her through the Smithsonian's underground tunnels past the boiler room and the furnace and some storage closets to a work room that reminded Bucky of the old garment factory where his Ma used to do piece work: long tables and empty tailor's dummies. There were also a couple of kids standing around wearing white cotton gloves and holding iPads.
"Okay," McCracken said, turning to Steve; she was practically bouncing on her heels, her plain brown ponytail bobbing; her grin was bright, benevolent, benign. "What first?"
Steve hesitated for a moment, and then said, "Well, this, I guess..." and reached up behind his back for the shield. McCracken and her research assistants suddenly went blank and awed, like they were only now really just realizing what they were being given; Steve flipped the shield over a couple of times in that effortless way he had, like it wasn't a giant, heavy, awkward burden of a thing—and then, sighing, offered it up. Everyone looked around frantically—who was going to take it from him?—and then the biggest of the kids wearing white gloves, a young guy with a brown beard, carefully took the shield from Steve's hands. And then one of the assistants affixed a barcode to the shield's underside, and clicked some kind of scanner, and someone else began quietly dictating notes into a device, like this was an autopsy or something, "Captain America's shield, Steve Rogers, 1943, vibranium..." and Steve sighed, then, and unbuckled his helmet, and lifted it off. The whole process started again.
Steve unstrapped and handed over his harness, then his shoulder armor, then his belt, each to be barcoded in turn. The scanner beeped. One of the assistants began dressing the tailor's dummy in Steve's uniform piece by piece: the mannequin turning into Captain America even as Steve stripped down to the white silk undershirt he wore underneath. Gaiters, boots, and then, with only a moment's hesitation, Steve stripped off his pants and handed them over. Then he stood barefoot on the checkered floor in his longjohns and grinned, shivering a little. "Your turn."
Bucky pulled off his goggles and his face mask, and handed them over to the assistant, who jumped back as if he might bite. "Right," Bucky drawled, and offered up the first of his guns—and to his surprise a little girl came up eagerly to take it from him. "Firearms," she said, and it took a moment for him to realize that she was announcing her speciality. "SIG-Sauer 220," she announced happily, unloading it and gracefully unchambering the round before bar-coding it. "Glock 17, more or less standard issue. Couple of Derringers, a COP 375 and what's that, an Intratec? Sweet. And here we have a Skorpion model 61. Can I see your knives please?" and Bucky shot a look at Steve, who sent him a wry shrug that said, hey, at least you still know how to show a girl a good time. Bucky sighed and began pulling out knives.
He'd had an idea that he might hold one or two of them back—the Gerber 6 inch, maybe, because you never knew what could happen—but by the time the nine knives were bar-coded and scanned and neatly laid out on a piece of green felt, he was feeling along the seams of his jacket, his pants, looking for any he'd forgotten: longing to get rid of them. It was a relief when he finally laid down the last one, and then he needed Steve to help him get out of his holsters and belts and leather tac jacket. The Winter Soldier's clothes weren't ready to wear: his handlers had dressed him, armed him, strapped his garments onto him—and now he found himself yanking frantically at the buckles, writhing and desperate to be free of them.
"Easy, Buck," Steve muttered, helping him jerk the jacket off his shoulders. "It's coming," but he half-flung himself out of the sleeves, nearly ripping the striped telnyashka he wore beneath. Panting, he ripped his boots off, thumping one after the other, sending his footwraps flapping. Then he was fumbling for his fly and shoving the black twill pants down over his shorts.
Good. Good—and Steve nodded sympathetically at him even as the assistants swarmed around them, collecting and cataloging his clothes. But— "This," Bucky said. "This. What about—" because he still had his arm, the Winter Soldier's arm, though he knew he didn't really have it anymore. A snatch of phrase flew through his head: And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off—but he didn't have to cut it off, not in this version of reality. It would just come off, if he turned it the right way—unlike the real thing, which had been pinned to his bones; the real thing, blown to blazes by Stark's rage. He seized the arm just above the elbow— "Buck," Steve said hastily, "wait, are you—" But yes, he was sure; he'd never been so goddamned sure of anything, and so he twisted and pulled and the arm came down, off, heavily, sagging down.
"There you go, there," Bucky said, hefting it. "Take it," and they did, though it took three of them to manage it. Once it was gone, he felt lighter, all over, lightheaded and rising up with the joy of being free of it. He turned to Steve, who was watching him, looking wary—and then his mouth crooked and they were grinning stupidly at each other, because here they were standing around in their underwear next to the mannequin versions of themselves, which were fully dressed.
"Okay, well, I'm following your lead here." Bucky tried to sound aggrieved, though he felt off-balance from joy; heart practically soaring. "I hope you've got some plan for the next part of this," he said, gesturing, "because I don't see how we waltz out of here with no clothes on."
"I don't, actually." Steve grinned; he looked giddy and free, on the verge of dancing away down the corridor. His longjohns, clinging to him, left nothing to the imagination, but Steve didn't seem to care. He'd left every bit of shame on the mannequin. "No plan, no idea what comes next—"
Dr. McCracken let out a little cough, then waved her fingers, and two of her research assistants carried over some brown boxes. "These are yours," she said, as they put them down on the long table, one before Bucky and one before Steve. "I thought you might want—" and opening the box was like being bowled over by sense memory: the faint smell, a homecoming. Colors they didn't make anymore, and those had been his favorite gray pants, once upon a time, and Jesus, that was his everyday hat, and not in bad shape either, the blocking held in the felt. The white broadcloth shirt had yellowed a little around the collar and cuffs, but he thought it looked okay.
Bucky lifted the shirt up, out of the box—and realized, then, that he couldn't dress himself: not one-armed. He looked to Steve for help—and saw that Steve was holding up that old windbreaker he always used to wear. It looked hilariously small now, but Bucky said, "You know what? Put it on anyway," and just as he suspected, Steve's clothes, when he pulled them on, somehow stretched to fit him: white shirt, tan pants and suspenders, and that old windbreaker on top. Finally, Steve slid his feet into a pair of battered brown leather shoes. Bucky's throat closed at the sight of him. Jesus, he was gonna be in tears in a minute.
"Now me," Bucky said, swallowing hastily, "I need help here," and Steve nodded and slid the shirt up, over his right arm, and over his shoulders, pinning up the loose sleeve over the stump of his left. Then Steve helped him into his pants and his jacket and ("Because it's you, pal," Steve said) all the traditional accoutrements: shoes and belt, tie— "Make it a nice knot," Bucky told him; "I'm trying," Steve said—and finally, the hat on top. Bucky absently raised his hand to adjust it.
"How do I look?" he asked, but Steve just stared at him and didn't answer; couldn't, he realized.
"Yeah," Steve said finally, his voice a wet scrape. "It's. We should go," and Bucky figured that Steve, polite boy, would say goodbye to the curators. But he didn't: instead, he paused before the fully-dressed mannequins. They were...frightening. The helmet with its stitched-on A, the enormous shoulders magnified by armor. The gauntleted arms, the shield. The other dummy was equally frightening: faceless in its black goggles and mask, bound into a lethal stillness.
Bucky stepped away uneasily. That...wasn't him. And it wasn't Steve, either—Steve was standing there with his shoulders slumped, hands jammed into the pockets of his his battered windbreaker. Staring up at Captain America. Shaking his head. Turning away.
"C'mon," Steve said, with his old familiar jerk of the head. "Let's get out of here," and let's face it, he'd follow the little punk anywhere. They went out through the Smithsonian's dusty corridors, up and out through the vastness of the exhibition space, their lives as history, and into the daybreak.
10. Грузовой вагон
They stood there for a long moment. "Whattya want to do?" Steve asked, and Bucky was conscious that this was the first real moment of freedom they'd had since the war.
"Well." Bucky idly rubbed his eyebrow. "I could do with a cup of coffee," and so they walked to the nearest restaurant and ordered two cups of coffee and a couple of cheese danishes, and by the end of that they'd decided that their best chance was to head out of the city and find a small town somewhere where the living was cheap. They had no money, but, "It's not like we ever did," Steve said glumly, and, besides, they had a bunch of skills between them. Legal ones, like welding and carpentry and electrical work, and illegal ones like boosting cars and cracking safes and breaking into secure military facilities, "not that we're gonna do that," Bucky said wryly.
"Never say never," Steve said shiftily, and in fact they did end up using their super-strength to wrench open the door of a freight car headed west so that they could stow away inside, justifying it by noting that, to be fair, it was the kind of thing they'd done before the war.
"I think I still have my card from the Machinists Union," Bucky mused; he was leaning back, braced, against the rusted wall of the train car as it shook and rattled down the tracks.
"Betcha haven't been paying dues, though," Steve pointed out, and they'd only planned to go as far as Pittsburgh, but it had been a long seventy years and they fell asleep to the rhythmic chug and sway of the train and nine hours later, woke up at the end of the line: in this case, the south side of Chicago.
"Rise and shine, ya hobos," a hard-hatted stevedore said, banging his fist against the door; his accent was sharp enough to open a tin can. "This car's going onto a truck for Wisconsin."
Bucky struggled to sit up. "You want to to go to Wisconsin?" he asked Steve.
"I don't know, do I?" Steve said, groaning and rubbing his head, but then he asked the stevedore whether there was work in Wisconsin and the stevedore allowed that his brother-in-law lived out there and he seemed to be doing all right.
The truck unloaded them outside a glass factory in Waupaca at daybreak. The glass factory wasn't hiring, but the foreman told them where the day laborers gathered, and so Steve went out for the day while Bucky—a less desirable hire at first glance, what with his missing arm—scouted out the lay of the land. By the time he met up with Steve again, Bucky'd found them a room for 30 bucks a night and had a line on a cheap house rental from Doris, the waitress at the local diner; Steve, sunburned and tired-looking, had eighty bucks in his hand for nine hours work, including tip.
"It's reassuring, actually," Steve told Bucky over a dinner of bread and soup heated up in the room's filthy microwave, "to know your true worth in the world," but they didn't have to live like that for long: later that week, Bucky managed to get himself a job at the big iron foundry. Turned out the International Association of Machinists still existed, and when they looked Bucky up in the system, they figured that his join date, 1938, was some kind of computer glitch. Oh, how they all had a laugh about that. Meanwhile, it was easier than ever to be a machinist, because everything was computerized now; it was just a matter of loading the machines up with raw stock and feeding in the measurements. Bucky'd figured that he could do with one arm what most guys could do with two, but he only ever needed one arm most of the time.
Meanwhile Doris set them up to rent a house from her sister. It was "a real fixer-upper," she warned, a little clapboard house that was longing for a little "TLC" (whatever that was), —but Doris's idea of "tiny" and "fixer upper" showed that while her intentions were benign, she'd clearly never lived in a three-room tenement with a tuberculosis window. The house had two bedrooms and a screened-in porch and a weedy backyard, and while the furnace could be a little temperamental, the roof was solid and the cellar was dry. They moved in on the strength of Bucky's salary: Steve, ironically, was having a harder time finding a full time job.
"Me with my one year of art school," Steve said glumly. "That and a nickel—well, even that doesn't get you anything nowadays. Not a phone call, not a subway ride, not even a lollipop."
"It's not that," Bucky opined, "It's that you don't talk to people. You've got to smile. Make conversation. People won't do anything for you if they don't like you—"
"No one likes me," Steve said mulishly. "No one's ever liked me."
"I liked you," Bucky said, and suddenly the air was thick between them, because it was the one indisputable fact in the universe: Bucky'd liked Steve since they were kids, and he'd been in love with Steve since he was seventeen. Steve moved towards him, drawn in, and stretched out his hand just as Bucky went on, "Though for the life of me, I don't know why," and the gentle outreach turned into a backhanded slap. "Ow," Bucky said. "See, that's why I'm the only one who likes you," and in fact, it was Bucky in the end who got Steve hired by going up to his foreman and saying, "Look, I've got this friend. He's as smart and strong as they come: worth more than any ten guys. If it ain't true, you can sack us both at the end of the week," but at the end of the week they both had jobs, and while the foundry was primarily interested in Steve's physical strength, Steve himself was kind of interested in learning how to make CAD blueprints.
Slowly, on the cheap, they put a life together: building a wardrobe of second-hand clothes and dragging old furniture in off the curb on bulk trash day. They made out like bandits at Goodwill, buying plates and utensils and a couple of old pots and pans for a grand total of six dollars. After a while, they splurged and bought some used lawn furniture, and after that, the house became a real home, because there was nothing Bucky loved more than going outside on a summer evening and having a beer with Steve out in the backyard. It turned every night at home into a homecoming, and then sometimes on Sunday afternoons he'd take long naps...
...out in the sunshine, the beer bottle dangling from his hand in the tall grass...
"Buck? Buck, it's me. It's Steve."
...and Steve was always on him to cut the grass out here, but he liked the way it tickled his...
The light turned the insides of his eyelids orange, but Bucky opened his eyes not onto a sunny afternoon in Wisconsin but upon the bright blue sky of Wakanda, as seen through the enormous glass ceiling of the lab. The light sparkled on the glass, and Bucky turned his head and saw a forest of skyscrapers and a city of mountains in a million shades of green. He blinked at this spectacular view for a long moment before slowly rolling his head the other way, toward Steve.
Steve was perched on the edge of a chair beside the bed, holding Bucky's hand in both of his. There were electrodes and wires feeding into both of their arms. Steve's hair was long, like when they were kids—so long that it wasn't even falling into his eyes the way it used to, but had been swept back and away from his forehead. Steve also had a pretty creditable beard growing: Steve had never been able to grow a beard before the war.
"Hey, Buck," Steve said, and his relief was palpable: on his face, in his voice. "How do you feel?"
"Good." Bucky licked his dry lips, and Steve hastily poured him a glass of water. Bucky took a few sips, the water cool and delicious against his lips, his tongue. Then he swallowed and asked the question, the only question that mattered, "Steve: was any of that real?"
Steve held his eyes: you could always trust Steve to give it to you straight. "No. None of it," he said. "I wish it was. I'd go with you in a heartbeat, if I could: to a little house, honest job. Someday, maybe," Steve said in a hushed voice, like making a wish. "But for now...your head's clear. All clear now, Buck. And..." Steve's face twisted in sorrow: a preemptive apology.
"They making me a new arm?" Bucky said, knowing he'd put it on—for Steve—when they did.
"Yeah. There's another war coming," Steve said, and well, sure, yeah: of course there was.