Hell Bound

Start by pulling him out of the fire and
hoping that he will forget the smell.
He was supposed to be an angel but they took him
from that light and turned him into something hungry,
something that forgets what his hands are for when they
aren’t shaking.

When is a monster not a monster?
Oh, when you love it.

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23. Chapter Twenty Three

My house was an unusually boring place. When I was by myself, I just watched a lot of TV and took naps in the middle of the day. But now I had two guests to entertain, and I didn’t have the slightest idea about how to keep them busy. Thankfully, Graham was fully capable of keeping himself occupied. He ended up spending half the morning mowing the yard even though I insisted that he didn’t need to. But Bucky wasn’t as easy to keep busy. Mostly because he couldn’t sit still for very long. He followed me into the kitchen when I started breakfast, and I had to give him a long lecture about ripped stitches just to make him sulk back to the couch. He seemed miserable.

Then I remembered the night before when I mentioned that Russell had given me a book and Bucky was interested in looking at it. So while he was silently sulking on the couch, I went to the shelf to find it. It was the first one Graham picked up when he got there, and he’d shoved it back into place and abandoned it in favor of something else. I located it and tossed it onto the couch beside Bucky. Ten minutes later he asked me for a pen and busied himself by reading and scribbling in a notebook for the rest of the day.

I didn’t ask him what he was up to. I never even cracked the book open. I wasn’t even sure what it was about and why he felt it was interesting enough to take notes. If that’s even what he was doing. Every time me or Graham walked into the living room, he would casually move the notebook out of sight and barely acknowledge us beyond brief eye contact or a nod.

After we finished dinner I tried to get them to watch another movie with me. But Graham had gotten into whichever book he decided to read, and Bucky was still busy with the book Russell gave me. So I sat on the couch beside him until I got bored enough to attempt sleep.

“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” I said.

“Eh,” Graham replied in acknowledgment. Bucky looked up like he was confused or had lost track of time. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs again as he glanced between me, the book, and Graham.

“I need to speak to you,” he told me. “Alone.”

“We can talk later,” I assured him.

“Where’s the MP3 player at again?” Graham quietly muttered from the armchair. He was stretched across it with his feet within Bucky’s reach. He was either very trusting or not very bright. I shot him a glare even though he wasn’t looking at me. He turned a page, and I wanted to chuck another pillow at his head.

“On the desk in your room,” I growled. Then I turned to head up the stairs.

“Thank you,” he called after me in a singsong voice.

“Bite me.”

“I’ve never actually been into that.”

“Oh, for the love of God.”

“Ouch!” I heard him yelp from below. “What was that for?”

“Show some respect,” Bucky warned. Then I smiled to myself. Graham definitely learned his lesson about keeping his feet so close to Bucky's arm.

“Alright. Alright. Sorry. It was a joke.”

“I could kill you with that remote control.”

“Alright, I get it. I’m sorry.”

Once I was back in my room, I realized I didn’t want to be there. Or at least I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t really want to talk about whatever Bucky wanted to discuss with me. But I still wanted to talk to him. I spent over half a year wondering where he was and if he was okay. And now he was downstairs, and I was upstairs instead of with him. But I didn’t want to invite him into my room either. But only because I didn’t want Graham to make any stupid comments about the MP3 player. Or that I wanted Bucky in my room for any reason other than I just wanted to talk to him.

Which wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t want him to know that.

So I got ready for bed, and then I laid there for a long time staring at the shadows and thinking. I almost wished I’d brought a book. I wished I’d gotten back into reading again so I had something pass the time. I wasn’t even sure about what I was waiting for. I just knew I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t sit in the living room watching TV. I was bored with my life.

I stared at the shadows on my ceiling until Graham walked up the stairs to his room. I wasn’t sure if he’d actually use the MP3 player, but I was hoping he was too distracted to hear me if I got up. I waited a few more minutes to give him a chance to get to bed. I didn’t know how long he took to fall asleep, but I was hoping he was listening to music at least.

I climbed out of my bed and opened my bedroom door. I listened, but the house was silent. There was still a light shining from downstairs, so I figured Bucky was still awake. I crept down the hall and turned to walk down when I paused. He was already on the stairs, clutching at the banister as he tried to pull himself up.

“What are you doing?” I asked as I rushed down to his side. “You shouldn’t be moving.”

“I needed to talk to you about the book,” he told me.

“Come on.”

I wrapped my arm around his ribs and tried to help him up the stairs. I wasn’t very much help at all, but we managed to make it to the top, and he could walk the rest of the way on his own. When we reached my bedroom, I shut the door behind us and turned around to face him. He was looking around the darkened room at the shadows on the walls.

“Familiar?” I asked. He nodded slowly.

“I remember,” he said.

“How much?” He shook his head.

“Just—flashes.” He limped over to the other side of the bed and sat down with his back to the window. He rubbed the exposed sheet between his fingers. “I slept here,” he said. “On this side.”

“Yeah.”

“I remember your skin.” I walked around the bed and stopped just in front of him.

“What about it?” I questioned since that was an unusual thing for him to remember. He moved his hand out and gripped my wrist. He ran his thumb over my skin and focused on that.

“It was warm.” He moved his hand to my waist and pulled me in closer. “And damp.” He slid his hand up the back of my shirt to the small of my back and my breath caught in my throat. “Right here.” My breathing had gone ragged, but I nodded.

“Yeah, I guess so.” His eyes moved back to my face, but then he seemed to snap to attention as he let go of whatever memory he was seeing.

“The book,” he said. “I left it.”

“We can look at it tomorrow. It’s late. It’s dark.”

“The kid. I don’t want him to overhear.”

“We can stay up here. He won’t question it.” His eyebrows furrowed.

“He won’t?” I shook my head slowly.

“Adults usually don’t question why other adults are alone together. He’s twenty-three, remember?”

“He’ll think…” He stopped when my eyes went wide. The man had his hand on the bare skin on my back and was just telling me how he remembered me being damp and warm, and he was worried about what the kid would think. Then he stood up, but he kept his hand on my back so I didn’t move away. He stood over me, our faces just inches apart, and I was finding it very difficult to breathe again. “There’s a code,” he said in a low voice. “In the book.”

“Can I ask you something?” I asked. I was too distracted to think about codes.

“Yes.”

“Graham said that—the other night he told you that he thought—that you looked at me like I was the most beautiful and important person in your life. He said you told him something. I want to know what you said.” He studied my face for a moment.

“Johanna.” It was “Yo-honna.” Not Jo. Which somehow felt more personal than even the nickname used only by the people closest to me.

“He also said that we shouldn’t…”

“Be dumb, I know. He said that I should be clear. Just in case I didn’t get another chance.” I nodded.

“Right. And what did he tell you?”

“That I shouldn’t keep it to myself. But it’s not…”

“It’s not what?”

“Either of us could die—tomorrow—without having said a word. But if saying it is what’s going to get you killed, should you still do it?”

“What makes you think it would get me killed?”

“You already said you won’t let me go. You know I can’t stay here. I’ve done—so many terrible things. I’m not just running from them anymore.”

“I know, and I know I can’t go with you. But I want you to know that you have a place. A home. That you could always come back to—If that was ever a viable option for you.”

“Is that really the kind of life you want to live? What if they never come and you stay here in your little house with your job and your friend? I wouldn’t be able to come around. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you if I was alive. That’s not really—much of a life, is it?” I had a feeling the word he wanted to use wasn’t “life” but “relationship.”

“I don’t want to stay here in my little house with my job and my friend. I care about Graham, but I want him to not depend on me. I care about my job, but I’m just a fill-in for Sam until he comes back or they find someone more permanent. I have nothing here. No goals. No future. Just a sad, empty little house.”

“You’d have even less with me.”

“I never asked you to take me with you. I just want…” I bit my lip and shook my head.

“What?” he asked.

“To make the best of the time I still have with you before you disappear again.” He stepped closer and filled the space between us. I could feel his heat and his heart beating, and I had to take a deep breath.

“And what happens when I’m well enough to leave? Are you going to defend yourself if they come for you? Are you going to wait around forever for me to come back if they don’t?”

“I’ll fight to the best of my ability, but I won’t hide from them. And—I don’t know if I can wait either. Steve will never stop fighting for you, and I’ll be right beside him.”

“You’ll get yourself killed.”

“What’s the alternative? I hide until HYDRA loses interest or kills me or one of my friends or my sister? Let my friends fight my battles for me? Stay here where I have nothing and no future or purpose? I’ll fight because it’s the right thing to do. Not because I…” He moved his head lower and barely brushed his nose against mine.

“Promise me you won’t fight because you…” I nodded.

“I’ll fight because you deserve so much more. Not because I don’t want to lose you.”

“What makes you think I deserve more?”

“Because I know what they did to you. What they made you do.”

“And you think I didn’t like it? That I didn’t have a choice?” I moved my hands up over his shoulders and into his hair. It was so hard being this close to him without touching him.

“If you had a choice they wouldn’t have had to make you forget. They wouldn’t have set up ways to control you.”

“But you think I didn’t like it? All the killing, all the power, the death?”

“Bucky.”

“Does it make you uncomfortable? Because that’s who you said you’d fight for. I liked killing, Johanna. That woman? The scientist? Her name was Beata. I remember her. I remember when she jumped off that bridge. I remember the sound of her body hitting a car below. I remember feeling angry at her because she denied me the satisfaction of killing her.”

My breathing had gone ragged again, and I moved my hands back down onto his chest. His hand slipped out of the back of my shirt, and he gripped both of my wrists. But neither of us moved again. I didn’t push him away from me, and he didn’t try to make me go.

“I killed them,” I admitted.

“Who?” he asked.

“My squad. My whole team. I killed all of them.” He shook his head, confused. “That’s what I’ve been dreaming about. That’s why I keep having nightmares. I see myself kill them.”

“They died in battle.”

“Maybe. But—it was Russell who shot me. I spent the last six years of my life trying to figure out why he didn’t kill me. He could have shot me in the face, but he aimed for my shoulder. Not to kill me. To subdue me. He shot me to stop me from killing them.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t—control it. It was like there was something in my head telling me what to do.”

Something seemed to click, and he moved away from me. He sat down on my bed, and I stood there as I tried to work passed the shock of admission. The dreams started after HYDRA fell. I played with the idea of them being false. My mind was just trying to work through survivor’s guilt. The trauma of the event with HYDRA had triggered something. But the dreams got more vivid. More real. I wasn’t experiencing the guilt of a survivor. It was the guilt of a murderer.

I just wasn’t sure why I remembered it wrong for so long. Had I done it subconsciously? Did I lie to myself about what really happened to stop myself from feeling all this guilt? Is that why I couldn’t stop dreaming about it now? Because I knew it wasn’t real? Or did they make me see it differently all those years my therapist fed lies into my head?

I moved forward and took the seat beside him. I pulled his hand onto my lap and gripped his metal fingers between mine. I wasn’t sure if he could even feel me, but I wanted him to know I was there for him either way. If he still thought of himself as a monster, then he had to know I was one too.

He turned to look me over. He had that confusion on his face again. It was obvious he was looking at me differently now. Something made sense to him. He’d noticed it before but could never quite put his finger on it. Now he knew.

“You think you’re the only person who’s done terrible things?” I asked him. I looked down at out entwined fingers and the strange contrast of metal weaving through flesh and bone. “Maybe that’s what you actually saw in me when we met. You said you saw something familiar. You knew I was a soldier before I told you. There was a darkness in me, you said. But I don’t think you saw me as a soldier. I think you knew I was a killer.”

“It doesn’t change anything. Even if it’s true.”

“I think it does, Bucky. It means I understand. Not entirely obviously. I don’t remember wanting to hurt anyone, but I remember believing that I had to. I don’t know how it happened or why. I just know that—all that matters now is what we do here. I’m not saying their lives didn’t matter. Just that we can’t change what we did to them. But we can change the present. And maybe the future too.”

“What do you want me to do, Jo?” he asked. It was the first time I’d called him that since he came back. I liked it when he called me Yo-honna because it was intimately close. But when he called me Jo, it felt familiar and safe. I wondered if that’s how he felt when I called him Bucky versus James. One was intimate, and one was familiar.

“I want you to choose for yourself,” I told him honestly.

“And if I decided to go back to that life?” he questioned.

“As long as you understood the consequences of your choice. And that you’d likely get killed or imprisoned. I think you’ve earned the right to choose who you want to be.”

“And if I went into the other room right now and murdered your friend?”

“I obviously don’t want you to do that. And I think if you did make that choice, you would have to know that I’d never forgive you.”

He sighed heavily and dropped back onto the mattress. I released his hand but leaned on my arm so I could look down at him. He shut his eyes and rubbed his face.

“I said, ‘She is,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“When he said that I looked at you like you are the most beautiful and important person in my life, I said, ‘She is.” He looked back at me again, and I probably looked completely dumbfounded by his answer. Whatever I had expected, it wasn’t that.

“Why?” I questioned, shaking my head. “What about Steve?” He sat up again and leaned against his metal arm. The position probably pulled on his stitches and hurt, but he didn’t move. He put himself at my eye level.

“Steve is—important,” he said. “I can feel it. He’s important to whichever part of me is still James Barnes. But I’m not just James Barnes anymore. I’m not—the Soldier either. I’m someone new. Whoever this person is—that’s who you know. That’s who you cared for. Steve cares about Barnes. I care about him because Barnes cared about him. But you never knew him. You care about me—because of me. You’re important because I care. Not James Barnes or the Solider. Me. And Steve—doesn’t need me to look out for him anymore.”

“And you think I do?”

“I know that you do.”

I watched his face while he spoke. It was weird hearing him call Steve by his name again. And he was right. He wasn’t James Barnes or the Winter Soldier, but someone new. And that’s the man who reached out to me, and the one I had come to care so deeply for. I understood why that would stand out to him. The same way I wanted to be loved for who I was now and not who I was in the past.

It still didn’t answer my question about whether or not he just liked me because I was the first person to show him kindness. I guess that didn’t matter either. It was still me. He came to me. I was never the sort of person who believed in destiny or anything like that. It could have been anyone and maybe he would have liked them too. Maybe they would have cared about him as much as I did. But those were all what-ifs that didn’t matter. It was me and not anyone else, and neither of us could change that or really know what would have happened with someone else. So I took a deep breath and put my hand on his chest again.

“James?” I started.

“Yes?” he answered.

“What do you want? I’m not asking what you think is logical or what you think you or I need. What do you want? Selfishly. Just for you.” He shook his head and made that partial smile. Then he looked down at the sheets.

“I want you to be safe. To not need me to keep you that way. For them to forget who you are and what they ever wanted from you.” I almost laughed.

“I don’t think that counts as selfish.” He shook his head.

“Fine. I want to regain—something. I want you safe but close by. So that I can be near you without putting your life in danger. Without being afraid of hurting you.” I nodded slowly again.

“I guess—that kind of counts.”

“And I want to be honest with you and admit that I hate sleeping on your couch.” Then I actually did laugh.

“I wasn’t going to ask you to go back downstairs. And I wouldn’t have made you sleep on it at all if you weren’t in pain every time you tried to move. And I’m sorry that I keep hogging all your space.” He smiled and shook his head. But it was a full smile this time that was soft and real and reached his eyes.

“I’m sorry I threw you into the coffee table.” I put my hand on his cheek and tried not to kiss him on the lips.

“Don't be. Let’s just get some sleep. There’s plenty of room for the both of us.”

I moved to the other side of the bed so he could lie down. He got comfortable under the blankets and then stretched his arm across the bed so I could rest on him even though we had more than enough pillows. I rest my head on his arm and put my hand on his chest. The arm came down over my back, and I decided I could live with all the things Graham would say if I asked him to help me get Bucky up the stairs. I wasn’t going to let him sleep on the couch again.

 

 

Mmhmm mmhmm mmhmm

I forgot what I was going to say. I feel like it was important.

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