The Secretary is angry.
He is angry because the Soldier has been bad and gotten himself injured and left evidence behind on his last mission. He is angry because the Soldier’s handlers were angry and punished the Soldier by holding him down and hitting and pushing into him. Most of all he is angry because their punishment tore up the Soldier’s insides and now the Soldier can’t walk.
“You’re a weapon,” the Secretary says, hand wound tight in the Soldier’s hair. There’s something in his voice that the Soldier doesn’t know the name of, something sharp. “What’s the use in a weapon that can’t even defend itself?”
The Soldier does not say he’s always been told hurting his handlers is bad. He doesn’t ask why he should fight back when they make his insides bleed, but not when they hit or kick or shock him. The Secretary doesn’t want excuses so the Soldier doesn’t use words. He just waits for more hurt, wondering if he’s supposed to defend himself now.
But instead the Secretary lets go of his hair and turns away and mutters something about “cleaning house” as he leaves the infirmary. The Soldier watches him go, then stares up at the ceiling, trying to work out the parameters of this latest indirect order.
The Doctor comes to the bed to check the Soldier’s stitches. She warns that it’s going to hurt and any movement may make the injuries worse. When she’s done she takes something called a lollipop from her desk and gives it to the Soldier as a reward for behaving.
The next time she gives the Soldier a lollipop, she stays beside the bed and rests her hand on his thigh. It isn’t damaging, so he doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t think to.
By the time he does think, many weeks and lollipops later, during a physical, it’s too late. If he hits her now, she might talk about all the times that he didn’t. He’ll be punished, maybe decommissioned. So he stays quiet. The sugar tastes like bile on his tongue.
The doctors in the SHIELD hospital don’t have candy. They bring trays of food three times a day and sometimes parts of the meals are sweet, but no one lays a hand on him.
No one can. The Captain never leaves his bedside.
The Captain says his name is Steve. He names the Soldier Bucky and he says they are friends. The Soldier doesn’t sleep for three days after that, waiting, because he knows the things friends do.
But Steve doesn’t. He sits by the bed and talks and smiles and sometimes uses his phone—he shows Bucky a game called Angry Birds—but he does not touch. Even when the Soldier falls asleep, he never wakes to blood or seed on his thighs or blankets. There’s no ache down his throat or between his legs.
The Soldier remains vigilant. He knows that he’s very stupid. Once a handler called him a dumb animal. And like a dumb animal, he never realizes he’s stepped into a snare before it tightens around him. He knows the things that lurk behind smiles and soft words like dark water, ready to rush in and drown him.
But Steve’s smile never, ever falters, even when the Soldier makes mistakes. His last handlers were never kind when he was bad. His friends didn’t hesitate to drive home a lesson by striking him. There’s something in the Soldier as the days pass at this hospital, a sort of warm light, and the doctors suggest that it could be called hope. Hope that Steve is really, truly different from a handler. Hope that life as Bucky is better than life as the Winter Soldier.
He holds that hope for a long time and it never flickers out. When they say he’s better, he believes them. When they call him Bucky, he believes it. And when they ask if he’d like to stay with Steve when he leaves the hospital, he doesn’t even think before he says yes.
That’s a mistake.
There’s a lot of work involved in leaving, a lot of forms to fill out and people to speak to. Steve apologizes as Bucky taps his fingers against the armrests of the discharge wheelchair, bored, and offers his phone. “If you want, you can play A—”
“No,” Bucky says, very loud and very fast. He knows that trick. It used to be he wouldn’t see it coming, that he’d look at a book or he’d play with a phone or slip out of the freezing air and under a blanket without thinking. And it would be too late by the time he noticed a hand at his hair or sliding over his stomach: he’d have stupidly permitted it, and then he couldn’t fight back.
Not now. Not ever again.
The Captain apologizes, brows together, and steps away. Another doctor comes out to talk, but the Captain keeps casting glances to the Soldier. Maybe he’s concerned. Probably he’s calculating.
The Soldier looks up and down the hall. What was light and soft in his chest is now heavy and twisting in his stomach. He doesn’t know whom to report this to. Everyone seems to answer to the Captain. He bites his tongue until there’s hot blood throughout his mouth.
It tastes like sugar.
The Captain’s apartment is smaller than some safe houses the Soldier can remember, but it’s much cleaner. It has a lot of doors. The Soldier examines the one attached to the room where they place his belongings and finds that it locks from the inside. It isn’t a very good lock: he’s broken hundreds just like it over the years. But a lock buys a second, and breaking locks makes a warning sound. He can utilize that.
“Are you hungry?” the Captain asks. There are five feet of space between them, much wider than the two feet maintained between the Soldier’s hospital bed and the Captain’s chair. The Captain has sustained this distance ever since he offered the phone, but the Soldier does not lower his guard. “I can make something. You’ve gotta be sick of hospital food.”
“No,” says the Soldier. He has learned enough about human interaction now to realize that isn’t a polite answer. He ought to say No, thank you. I’m not hungry. But no is direct. No is simple. And if he says no, they can’t say he wasn’t clear. They can’t say he let it happen.
Silence falls between them. Time passes and each second feels abrasive against the Soldier’s skin.
“Where will I sleep?” he asks. He will have to take steps to safeguard the area.
“Here,” says the Captain. “And if the bed’s uncomfortable, just tell me, all right? I must have gone through a dozen mattresses before I found one that—”
“No,” says the Soldier immediately. Beds aren’t for weapons. If a weapon is in a bed, nobody’s sleeping. Hospital beds are the only exception and even that isn’t a guarantee.
The Captain makes the same face from the hospital. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “The windows? They lock, Buck, and I’ll be right down the hall—” He indicates another door and the Soldier just stares, trying to work out the trick.
“But this is your bed.”
The Captain shakes his head. “No, this is your room.” His voice is soft and he gestures to the other door again. “My bed’s in there.” He pauses, hesitating. “If you don’t want to sleep alone—”
There’s a rush of nausea through the Soldier, a sting in his eyes. His mind is flooded with all the things he had to do just to repay gifts like extra food or disinfectant for injuries or candy. He can’t imagine the restitution for a whole room.
“Bucky?” says the Captain.
“I don’t need a room.” The Soldier stares at the floor. He’ll be struck now. Better to take a blow than to owe the Captain. Blows are acceptable. Other things are not.
“I don’t want a room,” he says quietly.
The Captain smiles but it isn’t a real smile. Maybe he’s worked out what the Soldier’s just realized: if the Soldier won’t take that bed, the Captain can make him sleep in his. The Soldier’s heart goes very fast and very loud, body tensed. He’s been here for five minutes and he’s already exhausted. Can’t the Captain just try to force himself on the Soldier so the Soldier will know it’s all right to fight back?
“Okay,” the Captain says. “You can have the couch, if you want. Or you can take my bed and I’ll—”
“I don’t want a bed.”
There’s another deafening silence before the Captain offers to show him the rest of the apartment. There’s a television and books and records and with every step the Soldier’s stomach sinks lower and lower. There’s nothing essential here: no weapons, no combat gear, no training room. Anything the Soldier interacts with will make him indebted. Every move he makes brings him closer to springing the trap.
He refuses to step into the bathroom. Not while the Captain is there. He knows what will happen; he can hear the words of the last Commander in his mind. You’ve had a long day, don’t you want to get cleaned up? Here, I’ll help with your gear. No, stay in, you’re still filthy, let me…
“Here’s the toothpaste and razors and all,” the Captain says, opening the medicine cabinet. “Aspirin, if you ever need it. It’s extra strength but I still have to take twice the recommended dosage before I feel it. The extra towels are in the linen closet—”
Aspirin, the Soldier knows, dulls pain. No one has ever offered it to him before. No one’s ever done something that hurt enough to feel he warranted it. Not yet.
When the tour is concluded the Soldier sits on the couch and tries not to touch anything. The Captain sits beside him, so the Soldier relocates to a chair on the opposite end of the room. He answers attempts at conversation first in monosyllables and then with silence, and eventually the Captain turns on the television and finds what the Soldier remembers is called baseball. The Soldier does not watch.
After three hours pass, the Captain excuses himself and steps in the bathroom, closing the door behind him. The Soldier moves quickly.
He takes a knife from the kitchen, small and sharp and easily concealed. Slipping it into his sleeve, he returns to the couch and lies down, pretending to sleep. If the Captain tries to touch him while he’s sleeping, it cannot be something he’s inadvertently allowed. He can slit the man’s throat and he probably won’t be beaten or wiped for it.
When footsteps return to the room, the Soldier does not tense.
The Captain doesn’t touch him. The Captain doesn’t even approach. Instead, the footsteps go in the direction of the chair where the Soldier had been seated. The television is still on. The Soldier tries not to hear it and that’s not very hard, because his heart is still so loud.
There is no movement from the Captain for another two hours and twenty-six minutes.
The Soldier has maintained the façade of sleep throughout that time. He has remained vigilant. It has not been easy: the position is not comfortable and he is cold, but most of all he is exhausted. His body has been on alert since the hospital discharge and even with his stamina, fatigue was inevitable.
The Captain’s voice is quiet, almost inaudible over the television. The Soldier is instantly wide awake but he displays no reaction.
The television switches off. “Bucky?”
It will start now. The Captain will walk over and it will start. Maybe he will stroke the Soldier’s hair. Maybe he will kiss him. Or maybe, because he thinks the Soldier unconscious, he will not bother with those things. The Soldier is not sure how it typically begins when he is sleeping. It doesn’t matter. The Captain will lower his guard and the Soldier will cut into his throat.
But when he hears footsteps, they do not approach his body. They indicate movement away from him. He has memorized the layout of the apartment and the footsteps seem to stop in the kitchen. The Soldier hears the opening and closing of cabinets and goes rigid. His theft will be discovered and he will be punished.
He still isn’t sure what constitutes an acceptable punishment, beyond that his insides don’t bleed.
The Soldier waits, rigid. There is a faint clanging of pans in the other room. A sizzling of flame.
Branding is a rare punishment. It’s likely an acceptable one.
The footsteps will return and it will hurt. The Soldier waits. And waits.
Pain does not follow.
When Bucky wakes, the room is dark. There is a blanket over his body and he’s twisted in his sleep, winding it tight around him. For a moment he lies still, half-conscious, huddled in warmth. There’s a pleasure in waking up without having to cough ice from his lungs, to have cushions below him instead of a floor and a blanket above instead of—
The Soldier bolts up except there’s still fabric around him and so he finds himself on the floor, breathing in short, ragged gasps as he kicks free. The knife is still in his sleeve; it makes shallow cuts as he struggles and he can feel blood trickle down his wrist.
He can’t feel blood between his legs. He can’t feel anything amiss there but it’s not a comfort because there’s a blanket, the Captain put a blanket on him and that’s not fair, it’s not fair, he wasn’t awake, he couldn’t say no. He couldn’t.
The Soldier is shaking, hands clamped over his mouth, bruising his flesh, trying to stifle the broken, gasping sounds slipping out of him. His eyes are hot, stinging. His heart is even louder than when the Captain showed him the bed.
It’s not fair.
He shuffles away from the blanket crumpled on the floorboards, wrenching his eyes shut as though that can make it disappear. His stomach aches. He thinks he might be sick, but he can’t be sick. Then he’d be punished for that and now that he’s accepted the blanket—he didn’t accept he couldn’t accept he wasn’t awake it was a trick—he can’t argue about the punishments he’s given.
And there’s nothing to be sick, anyway. There’s nothing inside him.
At the hospital, they left trays of food by the bed if he was sleeping when they came in. With HYDRA, they’d shake him awake and stick tubes or straws in his mouth. There’s no food by the couch and no rawness in his throat as if liquid or anything’s been forced in it. Maybe the Captain planned to give him food, but switched to the blanket when the Soldier didn’t wake. Maybe he thinks hunger will drive the Soldier to take something without permission and indebt himself.
Maybe he just wants to see the Soldier beg. Some technicians used to do that.
He would beg now if he thought it would help. If the Captain were here, the Soldier would kneel before him and let him kick the Soldier’s ribs and stomach and then ask to lick his boots clean, the way one handler had liked. If it meant they could pretend the Soldier hadn’t taken the blanket—he was asleep the Captain cheated—he would let the Captain inflict every injury the Soldier gave him on the helicarrier back onto his own body.
But if the Captain just wanted to hurt the Soldier that way, he wouldn’t have given him the blanket.
The Soldier puts as much distance between the blanket and himself as he can without leaving the room. Hiding is asking for worse punishment. He tries to make himself as small as possible, tries to make the rest of his body as still and steady as the metal arm, and waits.
Soon enough the Captain will wake, and the Soldier can’t deny what he’s done.
The Captain stands in the doorway for twenty seconds before he speaks. “Bad dream?”
The Soldier knows that game. Nightmare? Can’t sleep? Come here, you have to lie down to be functional for the mission. It wasn’t a common trick because most missions didn’t allow him time to sleep. He doesn’t understand why the Captain’s using it now. The Soldier already accepted the blanket. He can’t say no anymore.
“You know, you can wake me up whenever you need me,” the Captain says. He has not moved from the doorway. “I won’t mind, Bucky. I want you to feel safe.”
There are bloodstains on the Soldier’s sleeve from the knife. He has concealed the blade under his pant leg now, between his skin and his sock, and positioned the sleeve so the bloodstains are hidden from view, arm pressed against his knees. He cannot damage himself without orders. And if the Captain discovers his arm is injured, he may want to check the rest of the Soldier’s body.
“Do you want breakfast?” the Captain asks.
There is no right answer to that question. The Soldier isn’t meant to ask for scheduled rations, only to wait until they are provided. And if this is not a scheduled ration, then agreeing will mean accepting another gift. He can’t afford that.
“You slept through dinner,” the Captain says. “I put your plate in the refrigerator—did you see it?”
The Soldier does not speak.
“I’ll make us something,” the Captain says finally, just when the silence is starting to hurt. “Okay?”
After a moment’s deliberation, the Soldier gives a very small nod. The Captain said us. The Soldier used to take rations at the same time as the rest of the mission team. If the Captain requires it as well, it is likely mandatory and therefore safe.
“I’m so happy you’re back, Bucky,” the Captain says. “I missed you so much.”
The Soldier does not speak.
“No one’s ever going to hurt you again,” the Captain continues. He hasn’t moved at all. “You don’t have to be afraid, Buck. You’re safe and I’ll never let you go.”
The Soldier doesn’t understand why the Captain bothers with threats when he’s already won with the blanket.
The Captain gives the Soldier the same food that he is eating, which cements the Soldier’s belief that this food is safe. After, the Captain asks if he enjoyed it, which the Soldier cannot answer. If he says yes, he may be given more and restitution will be expected. If he says no, he will be punished. In the end, the Soldier just shrugs.
“Is there anything that you’d like?” the Captain asks. “Any food or—or anything? I can get you whatever you want.”
The Captain must think the Soldier is even dumber than his last handlers used to tell him he was. Maybe that’s because the Soldier failed his last mission.
When the Captain excuses himself to make a phone call, the Soldier slips into the room holding his belongings. It is not his room. It isn’t. He changes shirts and stares at the bloodstains on the sleeve of the discarded one. The Soldier doesn’t know how to remove bloodstains from clothing. That was always handled by technicians. He has soiled the garment and in doing so, has left evidence of the weapon he’s stolen.
He hides the shirt beneath the mattress of the bed that isn’t his. Maybe the Captain will not notice that it’s missing. The Soldier was given a lot of clothing when he left the hospital. He has a flare of panic when he thinks about that, but he doesn’t remember the agents who provided his clothing ever playing with him, so clothing is probably not a gift. Even if it is, he can’t go without it. That would display the injuries to his arm and would invite the Captain’s touch.
He tries to think of something that could make the Captain reluctant to touch him.
The Soldier is capable of inflicting disfigurement, but his skin never scars when it heals. Amputation risks death by exsanguination, even for him, and to lose limbs without replacement makes him far too vulnerable. Vaguely the Soldier recalls overhearing disparaging remarks toward HYDRA’s heavier employees over the decades, but he doesn’t gain weight easily. It’s difficult just to take in enough sustenance to maintain his body. To do anything more than that would surely surpass acceptable food allowances.
“Bucky?” asks the Captain from the hallway. “You okay?”
The Soldier shrugs. He returns to the room with the television and the blanket. Delaying the inevitable makes his stomach hurt.
Except the Captain does not touch him and does not sit beside him on the couch. Instead, he moves to one of the shelves and picks up a book, offering it to the Soldier. The cover is a photograph the Soldier recognizes from the Smithsonian, displaying the Captain, the Soldier, and the rest of the Captain’s men.
“I don’t know how much you remember,” the Captain says. “And a lot of people wrote about us. But this is one of the best. So I thought, if you ever got curious and I wasn’t around—or you just didn’t want to talk—you might like this.”
The Soldier considers throwing the book, but his hands won’t move. He knows that he’s meant to say thank you. He can’t. He can’t say no, either. He’s trying very hard not to shake and if he says anything, he thinks it will be unavoidable.
And maybe that would be better. It would get the punishment out of the way and probably the retribution as well. But he can’t speak, no matter how terrible the anticipation, no matter how many minutes pass, no matter how often the Captain asks if he’s all right. He can’t move.
And he can’t help but wonder if killing the Captain and going back to the life he knew wouldn’t have been better than all this waiting.
The Captain doesn’t like it when the Soldier goes still and silent. The Soldier’s vision gets black around the edges when he realizes that, heart hammering as the Captain will not stop inquiring as to his wellbeing. It’s better when they want him slack and quiet. It’s over faster and it hurts less.
“Do you need to talk to someone?” the Captain asks.
The Soldier stares down at the book. His metal hand is digging into the cover and he is trying not to crush the spine in his grip.
“—you have a therapy appointment tomorrow—” the Captain is saying. “I can call them now if you want or—you haven’t met Sam—well, you have, but—you’d like him, he’s nice, he might be able to hel—”
“No,” says the Soldier. The Captain is very strong and will want to do the things that hurt the most and the Soldier cannot fathom adding another person to the equation. “No, I’m sorry. I—please don’t.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. There’s a burning in the back of his throat. He thinks he may be ill.
“Don’t be sorry.” The Captain’s hand reaches out like it might touch him, but he pulls away before the Soldier can flinch.
He can’t flinch. Struggling makes it worse. But if the Captain wants him to fight…
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” the Captain says. “Do you understand, Bucky? You don’t have to be sorry. I just want to help you. What’s wrong? What do you want?”
“I want,” the Soldier says, “to read this book.” He thinks that’s the right answer. He thinks the game will not start until after.
“Please,” says the Soldier. His eyes sting but nothing is coming out, so it’s not bad yet. Not unless the Captain has different rules than the last handlers.
He opens the book and reads the first page. His hand will not move to turn it, so he reads the page again. And again.
By the fifteenth read, he has its contents memorized.
By the thirty-eighth, the Captain excuses himself to make a phone call. The Soldier can move then, and flips to the back of the book.
There are four hundred and seventy-six pages. If he takes two hours to read each page, it will take him forty days to finish. Maybe that will not be suspicious. After all, he is stupid and he has been exposed to electrical head trauma often. Maybe the Captain will grow sick of waiting and find someone else to entertain him.
He reads the first page two hundred and forty times in total before he moves on to page two. At some point the Captain comes back into the room and sits, watching. The Soldier tries not to notice him. As the Soldier reads, his hair keeps slipping into his face and he brushes it back again and again. His nails scrape at his ear as he does.
The Soldier does not cease except for when the Captain makes lunch and dinner. By the time the Captain excuses himself to rest, the Soldier has reached page six. He stops reading for the night, but he does not sleep. The blanket, folded, lies on the back of the couch and the Soldier stares at it as the hours slip by.
“I’m going for a run,” the Captain says in the morning. “If you want to come along—”
The Soldier shakes his head. He has started page seven.
“I’ll make breakfast when I get back. Is there anything you want me to pick up?”
He shakes his head again. His hair drifts to his face and the Soldier brushes it away.
The Captain’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
The Soldier stops reading when the Captain leaves. He stares at the wall, the fingers of his right hand stroking against the pages of the book. The pages toward the middle have a different texture. Glancing down, the Soldier flips to them and finds that they contain pictures.
Some of the pictures were in the Smithsonian. The Soldier had not really looked at them when he was there, beyond confirming that the face of James Buchanan Barnes matched his own. Now he can’t stop looking. Every photograph of Barnes is also a photograph of Rogers. They stand very close to each other and smile and Rogers always has a hand on Barnes’s shoulder or back. Even in the picture of Rogers before the serum, they are positioned that way.
He thinks of a technician’s hand on his back, a doctor touching his thigh, a commander gripping the back of his head.
He was the Captain’s before he belonged to any of them. He was the Captain’s even before the Captain could physically overpower him.
It doesn’t matter how slowly the Soldier reads, then. He is the Captain’s to use and it is inevitable.
When the Captain returns, the Soldier is on page one hundred and forty, because what difference does it make? His hair keeps slipping and the tip of his ear is scraped raw from the friction of brushing it back.
“Here,” says the Captain. He has a shopping bag. “I thought this might help.”
The Soldier is still even when he feels the Captain’s hand on his hair. He waits for his head to be wrenched back or shoved down.
The Captain pulls his hair gently back and binds it in place with something the Soldier can’t see. “Better?” he asks.
The Soldier does not speak.
“I got you this too,” the Captain says, pressing a small package into the Soldier’s hand. It reads “Salty Black Licorice.”
The Soldier raises his head and the Captain must see the question in his eyes.
“It’s candy,” he explains. “Well, that’s what you always called it. I couldn’t stand the stuff. None of the other kids could, growing up. But you used to inhale it. I saw it and thought of—”
The Soldier does not plan to stand up. He does not plan to walk to the bathroom and lock the door behind him. And he doesn’t plan to take out the knife and slice through his hair, hacking it off just above the thin cloth band the Captain has placed in it. But that is what he does.
After, the Soldier sits huddled in the bath, hair strewn over his shoulders and the floor. There is knocking and the Captain’s soft, persistent voice. He cannot leave the room without the Captain discovering his weapon. But he supposes it doesn’t matter.
It’s not a surprise when the Captain breaks the door to get in. He has many questions and the Soldier hears none of them.
“Please just do it,” the Soldier says quietly. The cut hair itches horribly against his neck. It’s all he can feel.
“Do what, Bucky?” the Captain asks. He is very pale. He’s still not touching the Soldier even though he stands very close and it’s clear that he wants to.
“I took your blanket,” the Soldier says. “And your food. And your book and your space and—and—and I hit you and shot you and I owe you. I know it. You can do what you want. I won’t cry or scream, I won’t fight. Not unless you want it. You can call your friend or—please, I just don’t want to wait.”
It takes a moment for the Soldier to realize, as the Captain slumps back against the wall, face in his hands, that the man is crying.
Crying wasn’t something anyone at HYDRA ever tried.
He can see why the Captain is crying: it hurts the Soldier to watch. He feels like he is back on the helicarrier again and the Captain is falling into the water beneath him. It hurts so much and the Soldier feels sick for causing it, as if shrapnel is digging into his chest.
That’s not fair, the Soldier thinks. He’s sick and shaking and frightened but the Captain is crying, slumping to the floor, and the Soldier has to walk to him, has to kneel and wrap his arms around the man’s trembling form. He didn’t know crying would make him do this. It isn’t a trick anyone’s played before.
That’s not fair at all.