Monster

154521017
“Have you ever asked yourself, do monsters make war, or does war make monsters?” -Laini Taylor

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9. Nine

If I had to pick my perfect housemate, it would be Steve Rogers. He didn’t stay over every night, but whenever he did, my house always ended up cleaner than it had been. He was quiet too. We talked in soft voices because we could never think of what to say and didn’t want our discomfort overheard. But Steve cooked, he cleaned, and when he was upstairs, he didn’t stomp around and shake the light fixtures.

My ex-boyfriend, Agent Oscar Harmon, used to be the exact opposite. Whenever he came to stay, which was often, he would leave behind a trail of garbage. He would walk around upstairs, stomping so hard the light fixtures rattled, and I could never think straight. He didn’t cook, he didn’t clean, and he sang. All the time. He sang awful.

He was the only boyfriend I had since I was discharged. He was a SHIELD agent. Although, technically he was Hydra. I didn’t know that at the time. No one did, but I'd seen something in him. A hunger for power and control. Something was off about him. And not just because he stomped around my house like a triceratops singing at the top of his lungs, but because he’d shoved me into the fridge over an argument about dirty laundry. I suspected he never wanted to love me at all, just to own me.

So I’d pinned him to the floor with my favorite pink knife against his throat. I knew he was better trained than I was and could have easily tossed me aside. I was Special Forces and a medic. I was trained, and I thought I was damn good at what I did. But he was a Marine and much bigger. He wasn’t the least bit threatened by my bedazzled pink switchblade. He just laughed in my face, and I had to resist every urge to nick his skin and make him take me seriously.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d battled that urge. But it was undoubtedly the first time I didn’t act on it.

I made him leave my house, and he went to SHIELD to complain about my violent behavior. They did an inquiry. Concerned about my tendency to snap under pressure. But they allowed me to keep my gun and my knife and told me they’d be keeping an eye on me. Nothing ever came of it because I never snapped again.

After Hydra fell, Oscar disappeared into the wind, and I hadn’t seen him since. Our breakup happened long before Hydra’s fall, but he was the one who started the running joke about my bedazzled switchblade. I always kept it on me just in case I ever saw him again. I thought I could have shot him without feeling any remorse, but the thought of him dying with my pink knife sticking out of his chest was more comforting. In a hypothetical kind of way.

Aside from him, the only other person I lived with outside of the military was my sister. My parents were always obnoxiously loud, but Clara was an easy roommate. She tended to mind her own business. She complained a lot, though.

The point was just that I didn’t know a whole lot about living with other people.

Having Steve in my house was more enjoyable than bothersome. Even though he was always worried about overstepping and intruding. He was a nice guy and kept his distance. He only used the upstairs bathroom to shower, never touched my things, and cleaned up after himself and washed his own dishes.

We never clicked enough to be comfortable with affection. Both of us were too quiet and withdrawn as it was. Technically, we had a lot in common, but we weren’t supposed to talk about those things. So our conversations always fell short. We both hoped no one was watching. Or it was attributed to a romantic rift.

Steve was sitting at the kitchen table again but wasn’t any less tense than usual. His shoulders were always squared and his eyes alert for danger. He spent the entire day with me for once, even going outside for a while so anyone listening could hear us laughing. Even then he always had his eyes on the shadows.

I made him some tea in the hopes that it would relax him before he had to leave. Clara always drank tea and said it was the only reason, besides coffee, that she didn’t murder Tony. She also said she gave it to him whenever he was stressed. Tony probably just told her it helped to make her feel better. Tony wasn’t a soldier, but he wore the marks of war just like we did. Tea wasn’t enough.

Steve took a cautious sip and winced from the heat. He looked up at where I was standing at the counter again.

“Mm, thank you,” he said. Steve didn’t strike me as a tea drinker. But the fake Jo I’d constructed in my mind did.

“I figured fairy princesses are the kind of people who offer tea,” I whispered. He smiled and took another sip.

“I wouldn’t know. Can’t say that I’ve ever met one.”

“But you have met Thor.” For the first time since I met him, he laughed genuinely. But it faded quickly. He set the mug back down on the table and conveniently looked at his watch.

“I better get going. Sam didn’t want me to be late. You know—stuff.” I nodded quickly. I hated not being part of “stuff.” I was locked in a job waiting tables while they hunted for Barnes or dealt with the repercussions of the incident.

“Yeah, of course. More stuff. Will I be seeing you again tonight or are you just going home?”

“I might come by late. It just depends on how things play out. So don’t wait up for me.”

He stood and headed into the hallway. I followed to walk him out. We paused in the entryway with the door wide open, and he leaned in to peck my cheek with a nervous kiss. It was the most he ever did, and I was grateful for it. Romanoff made a few suggestions over text, but Steve looked scandalized and wouldn’t tell me what she said. The only time he ever seemed comfortable was when I had nightmares, and he’d let me steal his warmth long enough to go back to sleep.

It didn’t bother me because I wasn’t sure Steve could open up to anyone enough for a relationship. I figured that was why he wouldn’t talk about the other girl. But I did think that partially living with a guy for a few weeks would initiate some sort of friendship. The only time we ever bonded was when our pasts came back to haunt us. But there was never a need for words. It was probably the healthiest relationship I ever had. And it wasn’t even real.

Steve was a nice guy, though, and sometimes when we were playing our roles, I’d believe for a moment that he wasn’t so strained. But Steve wasn’t a very good liar, and being in my house was taking him away from the environment he’d built around himself. Steve was meant to be fighting and protecting. Even when he was asleep, he was as rigid and straight as an arrow. He would get up at the slightest creak or rustle from the raccoon in the attic. He would sometimes pace in the middle of the night. I never complained because I did the same thing.

I tried to put myself in Steve’s shoes. His discomfort was likely caused by his missing friend. I imagined myself losing the person I loved the most and waking up alone, only to be thrust into battle and shoved into a job I never asked for. Then to find that person again. To see them tortured and brainwashed. I didn’t have to imagine why it kept him up at night.

Steve gave me a quick, nervous smile before turning and heading down the driveway to the motorcycle parked on the curb. He climbed onto the bike and kicked the engine to life. It rumbled loudly, and I returned to the kitchen. He’d left his half-empty mug on the table, so I took it back to the sink. A shadow moved from the corner of my eye.

I tried not to freeze. Years of training taught me to be alert for danger. A civilian waitress probably wouldn’t have reacted at all, but I felt my hair stand on end. I paused. Then set the mug down in the bottom of the sink and felt for the bracelet around my wrist. When I turned around, the shadow was standing in the archway, hiding under a dark jacket and baseball cap.

Steve asked me to keep the house as dark as possible. No porch lights. No lights in the backyard. He advised me to turn them off and on as I went through the house. Barnes would be more likely to show up if there were plenty of places to hide. It appeared that Steve was right. But they were all wrong about one thing. They said he wouldn’t show himself to anyone but Steve.

I jumped back against the counter and put my hand over my heart. It was pounding with fear, and I was itching to reach for the panic button just to get out of there. But I knew it just might scare Barnes away for good, and Jarvis was monitoring me anyway. Tony probably already knew I wasn’t alone. We were prepared for this. So I just had to do what I was asked.

He stood just outside the glow of the kitchen light. His shoulders were straight and tense. He was breathing hard, and I couldn’t make out much of his face except for the scruffiness of a growing beard. I couldn’t see enough of him to place a resemblance to the man in the photos, but who else would sneak into my house in the dark?

“Bucky?” I asked. His head moved just a twitch.

“You know who I am?” His voice was low, careful of every word. But despite the rawness of his tone, there was something else in the way he was breathing. An urgency.

“Steve told me about you.” He took a step forward, and I took a step back, sliding my body along the counter. He paused.

“You’re afraid of me.” I took a moment to answer.

“Most people are afraid of strangers in their house.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you. I didn’t know where else to go.” He reached out, and his hand caught in the light, illuminating the blood that dripped from his fingers. “I need help.”

“Oh my god,” I said as instinct kicked in and I rushed forward. His hand shot back to his side. I paused when I realized what I’d done. He was afraid too. “Let me help you. Please?” He hesitated and looked down at his hand. He flexed his fingers as if he wasn’t registering the pain. The blood was flowing freely enough to leave small droplets behind on the linoleum.

“Can you fix it?” he asked.

“I can try.” I reached for him, but he jerked back. “I won’t hurt you. You can trust me.” I put my hands up to show him I was unarmed. “You know Steve? Captain America? He trusts me. He wouldn’t let anything happen to you.” I didn’t know how true that was, but he looked back at me again. His eyes were shaded by the hat, but he looked like a cornered animal. Finally, he stepped into the kitchen. “Sit down on the chair, okay?”

I pulled one away from the table, and he cautiously limped to take a seat. He rested his other arm on the table. I kept an eye on it. “I’m going to remove your jacket. Is that okay?” He looked up at me and gave a single quick nod. He still seemed uncertain.

I reached forward and gently unzipped his jacket with shaking fingers. I dragged it down to reveal a light cotton shirt that probably didn’t keep him very warm at night. He flexed his fingers again, spreading them out over the table. That was the weapon I had to be careful of.

He let me pull the jacket back and helped slide his arm out of the sleeve so I could examine the gash just above the crease of his elbow. I ran my fingers over his skin, assessing the deepness of the wound and making sure no vital tendons or arteries were punctured. His skin tensed when I touched him, but he didn’t pull away. Luckily, the slice had just skimmed over skin and muscle. But it was in a very soft spot, which explained the amount of blood still flowing freely.

“I can stitch it for you,” I told him. “I used to be a nurse. Or at least, I would have been.” That was a lie. “It doesn’t look too bad, but I want to make sure that skin comes back together.” He nodded. I ran my fingers down his arm, and he chewed on his lip, watching me with narrowed eyes. I hovered over the purple discoloration on his wrist. “What happened to your wrist?”

“Broke it,” he said.

“How long ago?”

“I don’t know. A few weeks. I heal fast.”

“It doesn’t matter how fast you heal if the bone is out of place. It needs to be set. If you ever want to use it again.” His expression darkened.

“I don’t know how,” he finally said.

“I can do that too. It’d be better if I could get you in for an x-ray, but I can probably locate the break with some poking and prodding. It’ll hurt but—I can do it. And you’ll want to keep it wrapped for a while. I can't make you a cast.”

I moved and went to get another chair so I could sit beside him. I gently took his arm and set it on my lap. He tensed again, and I looked back up. His face was a lot closer now, and his nostrils were flared.

“Trust me,” I said. He just nodded once.

I poked at the bruises until I could locate the break in his bone. He didn’t flinch or move at all, and the fracture felt clean. I could set it with enough pressure. He wasn’t going to like it, and I didn’t know if the pain would set him off. So I took a deep breath and wrapped my hand around his arm, placing my other palm over the fracture.

“Okay,” I warned him. “On three. Are you ready?” He nodded once. “One, two, three.” Then I pressed down with my palm and yanked his arm back. He grunted from the pain as the bone snapped back into place. He pulled away from me and cradled it against his chest. “I’m sorry.”

He looked surprised that I apologized, but he said nothing. So I went to find my first-aid kit and set it down on the table beside his arm.

“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to help with the pain. Ibuprofen might help with the swelling, but not much else. Not unless you want me to take you to a hospital,” I told him. His eyes darted to mine in panic.

“No,” he said firmly.

“I didn’t think so. Are you hurt anywhere else? I noticed you were favoring one leg.” He made a fist with his left hand, and my fingers twitched for the bracelet. But he relaxed and spread his fingers out again.

“No,” he said.

“The limp?”

“Bruised.”

I nodded and opened the box. My knee bumped into his while I dug around for what I needed, and he quickly moved away. When I turned back to him, he was staring into the dark hallway behind me and holding his broken, bloody arm to his chest.

“So—can I ask you something?” I started, reaching for his hand to pry it from his body. I took a bandage roll and wrapped it around his wrist. He didn’t answer. “I just wanted to know why you came to me instead of Steve. He’s sort of—been hoping you might show up.”

“I know him,” he told me. “I don’t know how. I know that I’m supposed to kill him.”

“So—is that why you came to me? Because you think you have to kill him?”

“I needed help. I didn’t know where else to go. I needed information too. You were the only option.”

I tied off the bandage and secured it tightly around his wrist. Once I was finished, I began cleaning off the blood that dried to his skin and pooled in the crease of his elbow. I moved his hand into my lap and set it there. He didn’t flinch when I cleaned the cut.

“I only know what Steve’s told me about you, which isn’t very much. He’s not much of a talker.” I smiled at him, but he was still gazing across the kitchen. Glaring more like it. I wondered if he could even smile anymore, and how long it had been.

“I’ll take whatever you can give me,” he said. I nodded slowly and reached for a packet with a needle in it. I decided not to tell him anything unless he asked directly. I didn’t know enough about Steve to make it sound authentic. But he didn’t voice anything as he watched me prepare.

“I’m going to start now. It’ll hurt a bit, okay? But I promise I got top marks for this.” He didn’t answer, again. So I slid the needle through the cut and looked up to judge his reaction. His nostrils were flared again, and he’d gone stiff. His gloved metal fingers were clenched into a fist, but he didn’t try to stop me. So I tied off the first stitch and moved onto the next one. “Are you going to tell me what happened?” I asked, starting the second suture.

“It was an accident,” he repeated.

“You didn’t hurt anyone, did you?”

“I didn’t mean to.”

My most fatal flaw was that I acted on instinct, and so did he. I reached up and turned his face toward me. His body froze solid like a rock. He wasn’t accustomed to unexpected physical contact. At least not in a way that didn’t end painfully. His jaw tightened, and his breathing went ragged.

“What did you do?” I asked. “Did you hurt someone?”

“I didn’t mean to,” he repeated in a colder tone. I was too worried about what he might have done to notice the threatening tone his voice had taken. Warning me away like a hissing alligator, preparing for an attack.

“You have to call the police.”

I said exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time. Hydra tried to turn him into a machine, and all I had to do was push the right button. What was moments ago only a confused man, was now a weapon. I heard the other arm power up before it jerked forward and slammed into my chest. I fell back off of the chair and walloped the counter hard enough to smack my head and rattle my teeth. Before I could react fast enough to reach for the bracelet, his metal hand had me pinned to the counter by my collarbone. He was breathing heavier, and his eyes darkened violently. He wasn’t the same man I’d just been talking to. This was the Winter Soldier.

“Bucky,” I said softly, trying to pry his unmovable fingers from my collarbone. They were digging into my skin. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m not your enemy. I’m just a civilian.” I knew that since Hydra was involved, the word “civilian” probably didn’t matter to him. He got his target regardless of who was in the way. So I tried something that might break through the haze. He could break my bones if he really wanted to. He wasn’t trying to inflict pain. Only make a point. “You’re hurting me,” I said through gritted teeth. He released me and stood up. I slumped against the floor and rubbed my fingers over my aching bones.

“You’re just like him,” he murmured as he stepped back toward the darkened hallway. The jacket was still hanging from his shoulder, and the needle dangled by the threat still attached to his skin. He held the bandaged wrist to his chest again. “He wouldn’t want me to hurt anyone either.” Then he walked into the hallway and disappeared into the shadows.

“Bucky, wait,” I said, jumping to my feet. But it was too late. He was already gone. So I dropped back against the counter and rubbed the forming bruise on the back of my skull. I shut my eyes and tried to breathe slowly. What was it Romanoff called him? A ghost.

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