Not Coming for the Kill
Got a letter from a messenger
I read it when it came
It said that you were wounded
You were bound and chained
You had loved and you were handled
You were poisoned, you were pained
You were naked, you were shamed
- Tea Party - The Messenger
The nightmares came as no surprise. In fact, Steve wondered why they hadn't shown up before. For the first week after his unexpected return, Bucky spent his nights in a deathlike slumber, ready to wake at the slightest noise, but otherwise with the deep repose of a man utterly exhausted. When Steve's own regular replay of bad memories forced him awake in the thinnest hours of the night, Bucky would be asleep beside him. And when sleep wouldn't come again, Steve would take comfort from the familiar line of Bucky's profile against the pillow, his sleeping face looking as he had always known it, without any of the estrangement of amnesia and mistrust that was there in the waking hours. On those nights, Steve could believe that the Bucky Barnes he knew was still there, just waiting to emerge from the scar tissue once the worst of the damage healed.
Don't push him, Cap, Sam had said, the wise advice of a man who knew all too well that the road home for a soldier was sometimes far more than mere distance. Just be there for him. Let him come back in his own time.
Steve, only two years into his new life, knew that bitter road all too well. Bucky's dreamless nights gave him hope that maybe the trip would be a little easier for his best friend.
But after the raid on the bank vault in Georgetown, things changed. Steve woke one night to the sound of grinding gears and muted whimpering as Bucky fought off the Winter Soldier in his sleep. His metal hand was clenched hard enough to strain the joints, his face scrunched with pain. The war had always given Bucky nightmares, more so than any of the rest of Steve's team. He never spoke of them back then, but Steve could guess well enough what they entailed: the feverish torment of those days in Arnim Zola's lab, the stark horror of everyday murder on the battlefield, the livid faces of his targets as he unerringly sent bullets into their eye-sockets. Steve might have been the one that was weak physically, but he had always been the serious one, possessed of a steady spirit to make up for his small build. Bucky had been the dreamer, the joker, the one who was plenty capable as a fighter, but liked being a lover better. The war had turned him into a grim-faced shadow at Steve's side, and more than once Steve had thought to himself, When we win, Bucky's going to need time. When we get home, I'll take care of him for a while. When the war is over...
For Bucky, the war had never ended.
Steve didn't think Bucky remembered the hours he spent shivering against Steve's chest, the dry sobs and the cold sweat when ghastly visions visited him in the darkness. He didn't remember Steve's soothing murmur, the broad strokes of his hands down his straining back, the quiet reassurances of his name spoken over and over again against his temple. He didn't remember clinging to Steve with his own ferocious strength, didn't remember the fragments of Russian that he spoke in a confused jumble. Steve was glad for the fast healing that came with his abilities, and that the livid bruise from the pressure of a metal arm around his ribcage always faded long before dawn. Daylight would come, and Bucky would sleep again.
At first, Steve wanted to take the nightmares away. If some kind of magical pill or modern technology could ease Bucky's suffering, he would have taken it in a second. But slowly, day by day, Steve began to realize what was happening in those dreams, and probably in all the other ones that didn't make Bucky cry out in the middle of the night.
Bucky Barnes was remembering himself.
You could almost touch heaven
Right there in front of you
Liberty just slipped away on us
Now there's so much work to do
Oh the door that closes tightly
Is the door than can swing wide
Not expecting to collide
The memories did not come in great quantity, and not in any kind of order. One minute Bucky would be talking with Steve, the next he would be frozen in place with a fixed expression. On coming out of the trance, he would have turned over some new piece of his memories. It was a strange collage of things: old girlfriends' names, his mother's prized enamel hairpin from the old country, one of Dum Dum's dirty jokes, Steve diligently ironing his shirts on a sweltering August morning with the ragged Brooklyn skyline framed in the window behind him. Less often it would be some fragment of the Winter Soldier's life, snapshots of rooftops and narrow dirt roads, the smell of burning vehicles, the shivery hiss of a bullet leaving the rifle in his hands. They were two different puzzles, two different pictures, and he could not line them up to match. So they jumbled together loose in his mind, both reassurance and frustration.
If he could complete them, then he could reconcile the two men, the two lives, the two names. Somewhere in the overlap between them was the Truth. Because the man Steve called Bucky could not believe anything. Certainly, he looked like the man in the Smithsonian's exhibit. Without a doubt, he felt a strange thrill when Steve called him by that name. But Bucky couldn't trust it. It might have been planted in his mind, it might all be lies, it might only be a delusion he desperately wanted to be true. For seventy years Hydra had written whatever they liked on his slate and washed it off again as often as they pleased. In the frozen emptiness between missions, the Winter Soldier did not dream. And now, emerging from that clammy fog, he tried to find the shadows of the original writing, of the man reflected in Steve Rogers' yearning, patient gaze.
And so he welcomed the good and bad dreams alike, because while Bucky did not remember the act of dreaming, he sometimes remembered the dreams. And they had a vivid truth to them that he found he could trust, especially when he tested Steve to find the most reliable path through his memories.
With one exception.
"No," Steve had said, when Bucky asked if they had been lovers.
Liar, Bucky's mind had answered, as with unerring swiftness he remembered an embrace in a cold forest in Italy, one that lasted too long to be just relief or reunion. Steve was too tall and all different shapes, but he had smelled the same; somewhere under the blood-dirt-sweat-smoke smell of battle clinging to his clothes, Steve had smelled like Home. Bucky opened his mouth to say thank you and then didn't close it again, stealing the sensation of rough gold stubble on the corner of his mouth. Or at least if we weren't, it wasn't for my lack of trying. The memory that followed was of a broken streetlight, a rain-slick London sidewalk, and one passionate kiss that Bucky thought might have been worth the whole hideous war. For once the memory came to him whole, complete, and slotted into the jagged frame of his past.
For a minute I let my guard down
Not afraid to be found out
I completely forgot dear
What our fears were all about
Oh no, there's no need to be without
If any man in London that night deserved to get howling drunk, it was Sergeant James Barnes. Two weeks ago he'd been strapped to a table in a Hydra prison camp, his arms studded with purple pinpricks from countless injections, his life hanging by a quickly-fraying thread. It had taken him almost two days to come to grips with his own rescue, which was not surprising when that rescue featured a Steven G. Rogers magically transformed into a mortal Hercules, and Nazi scientists with a habit of ripping their faces off.
Somehow he had landed in a London pub, cleaned up, shaved, and with an exceptionally good glass of whiskey in front of him. It might have been luck, it might have been providence, but all Bucky Barnes knew was that it had been delivered by Steve. For the first time since his draft notice arrived in the mail, Bucky began to think he might make it through the war after all.
He wasn't too fond of taking orders, or even of the military, really. But he wasn't going to complain about doing his duty when so many others were doing the same, and he had it on good authority that he made the uniform look good. So he pretended he had chosen to sign up, and he took comfort in doing so, thinking maybe Steve would quit trying to go get his skinny ass killed if Bucky could serve for both of them. Besides, Steve was safer in Brooklyn, and the Army was never going to take him. The only thing that got Bucky through the initial shock of his first battle--and the slow grating pressure of war that followed--was that Steve wasn't there. Steve was safe at home. Steve won't have to do this, he won't have to see this. More than that, he wouldn't have to see Bucky splattered with the blood and brains of his comrades and his enemies alike, and he wouldn't ever see the increasingly flat eyes that greeted Bucky's face in the washstand mirror every morning.
It didn't work, of course. Steve had been a wheezy spindle-full of skin and bones, but he had nerves of steel, and an unrelenting focus when there was something he wanted. Or, in less complimentary terms, he was as stubborn as a cross-eyed mule. Of course he wound up in the middle of everything, Bucky figured. Steve always wound up in the middle of everything. And Bucky wasn't yet used to looking up to meet his eyes, and he hadn't yet figured out how to protect a Steve who was strong enough on the outside, but still the same obstinate idealist on the inside.
But as a newly six-foot-holy-jesus-inches tall Steve settled on the barstool beside him, Bucky thought he might have it sorted, after all.
"So before you even ask," Bucky said, rattling the ice in his glass, "I'm coming with you."
"I wasn't going to ask," Steve said, with a smile that was still the same, even in a squarer jaw. "If you stayed here you'd probably just knock up some girl and wind up settling down and be bored stupid in no time."
"My odds of knocking up anything are pretty slim, if Agent Carter's reception is anything to go by." Bucky glanced sideways at Steve. "And stop looking so goddamn smug."
Steve tried to shift his expression to innocent, which was even worse. Bucky rolled his eyes and ordered them another round.
It was several rounds later that Bucky staggered out into the damp London night--or more technically, the very early London morning. A light rain had fallen, the streets gleamed like an oil slick. Though he had matched Bucky drink for drink, Steve wasn't even flushed, much less tipsy, and it was his arm that was keeping Bucky on his feet.
"I think you overdid it," Steve said, as he helped Bucky take the first halting steps to the hotel SSR had commandeered for barracks.
"You only live once," Bucky argued, trying to focus on the herringbone-weave of Steve's uniform fabric. It wriggled around like bits of living punctuation marks.
"And it's gonna be short if you keep this up." Steve caught Bucky's cap before it could slide off his head, and pulled his friend upright. "C'mon. You can walk. I'm not carrying you all the way home." He made sure Bucky wasn't going to tip over, and took a couple of steps ahead.
"You will." Bucky was still standing there under the broken streetlight, somehow ominous in the puddle of shadows. "I think you're going to be carrying me from now on."
Steve didn't answer at first, not until he had walked back to take Bucky by the shoulders. The streetlight behind him worked just fine, and it painted a halo of incandescence around Steve's hair, gilding his edges until he seemed to glow from within, like a painted Saint's icon from Bucky's childhood. He was a vision of power and benevolence, and he took Bucky's breath away.
Or maybe, Bucky considered, he was still just really drunk.
"Even if I do," Steve said, giving Bucky a little shake for emphasis, "I won't even come close to paying you back for all you've done for me."
Bucky blinked hard. His eyes were stinging, and Steve's beauty was almost painful. "I didn't do it because I wanted you to pay me back," he said. "I did it because..." Bucky trailed off. He had learned the language of love from big-band drivel and dirty magazines, and none of it suited Steve. Instead he tucked his hands into the front lapels of Steve's uniform, leaned up to close the distance between them, and kissed him.
Bucky couldn't say it was the first time he'd thought about kissing Steve, because he'd thought about it a lot. He had never dared to, of course. Steve got into fights often enough with thugs who equated his slight stature with femininity, and he'd thrown plenty of punches (that rarely landed) for being called queer. Bucky had heard about the disastrous Captain America show in Italy, and he had a good idea of the roadshow's camp and spangles, so he knew that Steve's new stature wasn't really protection from that. In some ways it made it worse. But he hoped that now, at least, Steve would understand. I never thought that about you, Bucky thought, and tried to say, with his hands and his mouth and the pressure of his body. I just know how you always made me feel.
For a moment, Steve went utterly still. And then his lips went soft against Bucky's, and there was surrender in the way his hands framed Bucky's back, in the rise of his hipbones, in the yielding heat of his open mouth. Bucky took the invitation, letting Steve crush them together with his newfound strength and welcoming it, hearts thundering as the world and its wars vanished around them.
But not for long. With only a shudder of warning, Steve let him go and stepped back, looking past Bucky and out into the empty street. He was flushed in a way that liquor couldn't make him, and in his eyes was something Bucky had rarely ever seen, even when he was small. Fear.
"Steve--" Bucky began, taking a step forward in the hopes of crossing the sudden chasm between them. "It's not--"
Steve's smile was as false as war-office propaganda, too-bright, too shallow. "You are so drunk," he said, with a hollow little laugh, and pulled Bucky's cap brim down to cover the look in his best friend's eyes. "I gotta get you back to barracks before you ruin both our reputations."
And with that, Bucky's offer was dismissed. Steve understood, Bucky realized, with the cold logic of a much more sober man. He just didn't feel the same.
They never talked about it again.
If there's a chance I would take it
This desire I can't kill
Take my heart please don't break it
I will crawl to your foothill
I'm frightened but I'm coming
Please baby please lay still
I'm not coming for the kill
It was after dawn when the Winter Soldier woke up. Memories of the night before came to him in segmented flashes, unclear, but with the overall impression of unease. It had been a rough night. Whatever memories his subconscious had uncovered, they had not been good ones. Bucky remembered the taste of his own blood in his mouth, and his heavy metal arm ached with nerves it no longer had. In his dreams, he had been cold. Frozen down to the core, utterly alone.
But now, he was neither cold nor alone.
Steve was still asleep. There was no knowing how much rest he had gotten the night before, easing Bucky's troubled sleep by sacrificing all of his own. Steve was big on sacrifice; it made him feel worthwhile. Both his parents had died for the greater good, and Steve had made a lifelong habit of trying to do the same, with only Bucky Barnes to keep him from succeeding. Barely two days after Bucky fell, Steve made his best attempt yet. His latest one almost worked, and Bucky had almost been the instrument of it too, a fact that made Bucky's blood run cold. What if I had finished my mission, and killed you, and only realized what I'd done after you were dead? Did you even think what that would do to me? Steve hadn't thought, Bucky knew. Steve had only made it clear, twice over, that a world without Bucky was a world he didn't really want to live in. And in spite of that and Hydra's torments, now here they both were, somehow still alive. And warm.
On that London night in 1943, Steve had pushed Bucky away. But now it was his warmth pressed against Bucky's back, his arms around him, his slow, even breathing fogging up the surface of Bucky's metal shoulder. Bucky slid his hand down Steve's arm, feeling the power in it even at rest, the blue veins a faint lattice just under his skin.
It could have been like this for those two years, Bucky thought. It might have made the war easier. What were you so afraid of? What are you still afraid of?
Steve, of course, did not answer. But his sleepy fingers intertwined with Bucky's, his arms tightened to hold him closer. Bucky wasn't sleepy, but he sank back against Steve, and tried to forget the cold decades in-between.
The past, however, was not a thing easily discarded or obscured. In some ways it was much like the folder peeking up from behind the headboard, jostled loose from its hiding place by the force of Bucky's night terrors. The file folder was old and yellow-tinged, but Bucky could see a fragment of a Cyrillic stamp, and a cold fist seemed to close around his heart. He slipped out of Steve's embrace, pulled out the old KGB folder, and flipped the cover open to look down on his own frozen face.
Why would you hide this from me? he thought, a bitter taste rising up in his throat. Everything regarding those lost decades was here, from Bucky's x-rays to his arm specs to his psychological evaluations. There was a brittle purple mimeographed photo of his old dogtags; another photo, black and white and merciless, showed the ragged remains of his arm before it was removed. None of that was as blunt as the kill list, or as infuriating as the smug letters from Zola to his associates. He had been so pleased to take Captain America's best friend and turn him into Hydra's ultimate weapon. They had all thought it so amusing. It was the best joke in Hydra. Have you heard the one about Sergeant Barnes?
Bucky's blood was burning, his throat had closed. The edges of the folder warped under the crushing grip of his hands--both flesh and steel. He turned back to look at Steve, wanting to demand answers, to shake him awake and then keep shaking until he had confessed every hidden truth. Why didn't you tell me you had this? Why didn't you show this to me? Why didn't you want me to see it?
But he didn't. Steve's answer lay in the cramped curve of his body, shaped to make a protective shield around Bucky while he slept. It was in the way he made a bed--already not quite big enough for him--provide room for both of them. It was in his exhausted face, the fact that he was still sleeping long past sunrise. It was in the way his arms were still outstretched, waiting for Bucky to lie back down again.
I won't even come close to paying you back for all you've done for me.
"Dammit, Steve," Bucky breathed, and closed the folder on his past. Just for once, I wish you'd think about protecting yourself, and not someone else. Bucky weighed the folder in his hands, and looked at the empty place in Steve's arms where he had been sleeping. And then he carefully slipped the folder back into its hiding place, leaned back against the headboard, and waited for Steve to wake up.