You heard the sound of it, cracking like a whip through the busy intersection, but you didn’t feel it; suddenly you found yourself on the pavement, in the middle of the crosswalk, with the echoes of car horns and someone screaming before it all faded to nothing.
When you opened your eyes again, you felt too good for it to be a hospital bed; the mattress was huge, comfortable and warm; when you saw him sleeping beside you, you knew it had to be a dream.
You smiled. “They must’ve given me the good drugs,” you mumbled sleepily, and he snuffled in his sleep at the sound, cuddling closer to burrow his head against your chest. Figuring you may as well enjoy the drug-fueled haze, you dropped a kiss stop his head and closed your eyes, smiling again when you heard him mutter “Love you, baby”.
Waking again to morning light, you frowned. He was gone, the bed empty beside you, though the blankets were rumpled, and you were still in the large bed of what you thought was your hospital hallucination. You shuffled out of bed and winced, glancing down at the white t-shirt you were wearing -- too long at the hem and too wide at the shoulders to be yours -- and pair of simple blue cotton panties that were much more your style. Lifting the shirt, you found a wide gauze bandage on your abdomen; there was no bleed-through, but when you touched it gently with your fingertips it made you hiss in pain.
So that recollection had been correct: you’d been shot. You were in the crosswalk outside your work building, going towards the parking garage across the street, and you’d been shot. Clearly, it wasn’t as bad as you had feared when you were laying there, growing cold and frightened as the light seemed to be fading. You were glad you were up and mobile, but now you were terribly confused; you didn’t seem to be in hospital at all.
You walked barefoot to the door, stepping into a living area brightly lit from the floor to ceiling windows looking out over the city. The skyline and surroundings were immediately recognizable: New York City lay spread out before you in all of its glory. That was when your knees buckled and you reached to grab arm of a nearby sofa to keep from falling to the ground. The sun in the sky looked to be at mid-morning, which meant that you’d arrived in a nice apartment in a New York skyrise after being shot in a crosswalk outside of your laboratory building… in San Diego.
“Hey, take it easy there sweetheart,” he called, and in a moment he was at your side, steadying you as you took great gulping breaths of air, trying to regain control of yourself.
It had to be a dream. It had to. But it felt so real: the sun on your face through the window, his strong arms around you, steadying you on your feet. The concern in his voice and etched on his face, even as he gave you the smallest reassuring smile.
Worse still, you recognized him. It would be hard not to -- his face had been all over the media world for the past decade. Posters, social media, internet video clips, late show appearances… he’d become iconic. By all rights you should have recognized him as the actor -- you weren’t crazy, you knew fictional characters weren’t real -- but looking at him, you could see the difference. There were stories in his eyes, the pai he had suffered, all he had been through; there was a confidence to his gait, the knowledge of strength beyond what even his new body should have offered. Clean shaven, hair a few shades lighter.
No, this was no actor. This was Steve Rogers.
“Steve?” you asked, voice trembling, a few octaves higher than it should have been.
“What is it, sweetheart? Are you okay? Do we need to go to the med floor?” he asked, arms tightening around you as his brow furrowed in concern and he said your name. “Just tell me what you need.”
“I’m… I’m okay…” you managed to mumble, just before you fainted dead away in his arms.
You surfaced back to consciousness with an inward sigh of relief. You didn’t open your eyes immediately, but the sounds the scents of a hospital were all around you, from the steady beeping of a heart monitor to the lingering of antiseptic in their air. You shuffled a little in the gurney, pulling the thin blanket up a little to fend off the chill of an air conditioner.
“... wound isn’t bleeding and her vitals are stable,” a steady male voice sounded quietly nearby. “It’s most likely just some lingering stress. I wouldn’t worry.”
“How can you be sure?” another responded. “What if there’s some internal bleeding, or--”
“You heard what Dr. Cho said,” another broke in, sounding terribly familiar. “They checked her over good, ain’t nothing to worry about.”
“‘Course I’m gonna worry, Buck,” the second voice replied. “Scared the hell out of me. Thought I lost her, you know. I can’t… not again. I can’t lose anyone, especially not…”
“We know,” the steady voice broke in. “You don’t have to explain it, Steve. We’ve all seen more than enough loss, you’ve got every right to be concerned about her. But Dr. Cho is an excellent physician and I have faith in her findings. You should too.”
You groaned a little; your shoulder was stiff from the way you were laying and you needed to move. The voices around you were familiar enough that your muddle mind was curious as to their owners; you had no family to speak of and you hadn’t made any real friends since graduating so many years ago. These visitors, you thought, must belong to your roommate in whatever hospital you had landed in, even though their voices struch chords of familiarity with you. You couldn’t resist a peek.
You opened your eyes to be greeted with a gentle smile, tempered with worried blue eyes.
“Hey, there she is,” Steve spoke softly. He reached and brushed your hair back from your face, studying your expression as though looking for signs of pain. “Back with us, baby doll? You gotta stop scaring me like this. Not good for an old man like me.”
“Where am I?” you asked quietly, pretending to ignore the way your voice shook.
“You’re down in med bay,” one of the voices called, the steady Brooklyn drawl completely recognizable now that you were fully awake. Bucky Barnes was standing right behind where Steve sat at your bedside, hands in his pockets and a sympathetic smile on his face. “Should’ve seen Stevie here, carrying you in like it was your honeymoon all over again. Gave everybody a good scare, fainting like that.”
“Dr. Cho seems to think it was just a stress reaction, nothing to worry about,” the first voice added in, and you could see Bruce Banner lingering in the doorframe. “Just get some rest, take it easy for a few days. The bullet may not have hit anything major but you still need to give your body time to heal.”
Bucky snorted. “Listen to him,” he told you cheerfully, nodding towards Bruce. “Always tellin’ us, ‘guys, I’m not that kind of doctor’, then doling out medical advice left and right.”
Bruce crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. “All things considered, I’d prefer it if I never had to,” he replied, earning a short chuckle from Bucky.
Steve squeezed your hand and you realized for the first time that he had been holding it all the while, one hand still stroking your hair.
“You need anything?” he asked you, nothing short of lovingly. “Maybe some water? Another blanket?” He looked so earnest and concerned; you couldn’t help but burst into tears.
“Am I crazy?” you whispered hoarsely. You had no one to ask but them -- the fictional men that surrounded your sickbed. “I’m crazy, aren’t I? Where am I? Is this a hospital?” Your voice was thick with tears and Steve had paled, gripping your hand tightly enough to almost be painful.
“Bucky just told you, sweetheart, we’re in med bay,” he said, clear alarm on his face as he tried to calm you. “The medical floor, at Tony’s Tower. We’re home, baby, just came down to medical to get you checked out after you fainted.”
You shook your head, trying to sit up. “No!” you shouted, feeling tethered in place by the wires and sensors of heart monitors, blood pressure cuffs, and medical devices you couldn’t name. “This isn’t real! None of you are real!”
“Guys, get the doc, quick!” Steve called to the others, trying to calm you as Bruce and Bucky ran from the room. The monitors were going crazy as you struggled to move, beeping and chirping in a symphony of bells and alarms, and you thrashed violently in the bed, trying to escape this strange fantasy turned nightmare.
“This isn’t real, it isn’t real!” you shouted, full-on sobbing.
Steve kept saying your name, trying to keep you stable. “Please, you’ve got to stop, you’re going to tear your stitches…!”
You didn’t even notice as Bruce rushed back into the room, and never felt the needle prick in your arm from the sedative he had brought in with him. It took effect almost immediately and you sagged in Steve’s arms, head lolling back as the world became dim and hazy.
Waking again, you found yourself in the same hospital bed, room barely lit with a lamp over your bed. There were restraints tied to the guardrails but they weren’t in place on your limbs, and you thought for a moment that the madness was over -- that perhaps you’d had a bad reaction to anesthesia or a painkiller and dreams the whole wild affair. Things could be normal now, maybe.
And then you saw him sitting there.
Steve looked terrible. You knew you must have been out of sorts for at least a day or two; if the stiffness in your limbs was anything to go by, the restraints must have only just come off within the past few hours. The time hadn’t been good to Steve; he was unshaven and his hair was dirty, dark circles under his eyes, and he was wearing the same clothes as he had been in when you first woke into this madness.
Seeing you stir, he cleared his throat. “Can you tell me your name?” he asked in a low, tired voice.
You answered quietly and he nodded with a rueful smile. “Right,” he agreed. “But you’ve been hyphenating for three years now.”
“Hyphenating with what?” you asked, though you were pretty sure you knew the answer.
“Rogers,” he said, and you leaned back against your pillow without responding.
Steve reached for a cup of coffee on the standard issue hospital table that had been pulled out from the bed; you could see in the light it was half-full, and if you had guessed, you would have said it was probably cold. He drank the rest of it in one go and grimaced before setting it back down.
“Do you know what year it is?” he asked.
You sighed and told him the year then added, “Early Spring, last time I checked. But I don’t know how long I’ve been out.”
“About four days,” Steve told you. “You’ve been in and out. This is the calmest you’ve been in days so Dr. Cho decided to let it ride, see if you’d be lucid enough to chat. Do you know where you are?”
“Looked like New York outside the window, but that doesn’t make sense,” you told him, and shook your head. “None of this makes sense.”
“What would make sense?” he asked, leaning forward and clasping his hands. “Tell me. Maybe I can help.”
“I shouldn’t be in New York,” you said, shaking your head. “I should be in San Diego. And you… you’re not real. You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t be real.”
He frowned; clearly, this was something you’d said a lot in the past few days of delirium. “I don’t understand what you mean by that.”
You shook your head as best you could, flat against your pillow. “Steve Rogers isn’t real,” you said, reaching to scrub at your eyes with balled fists. “Steve Rogers is a fictional character, from a comic book and a movie. You’re not even… you look like the actor that plays you… plays him, but it can’t… it doesn’t make sense!”
Steve closed his eyes; the stray tears that slipped from his lashes didn’t escape your attention. “Okay,” he said after a long moment. He opened his eyes again and nodded. “Okay. If I’m not real, then what about you? Are you real?”
“I’m a real person,” you told him, nodding. “The rest of you… even this place, they aren’t real.”
“From a movie?” Steve offered carefully. “We’re all from a movie that you saw?”
You snorted. “Jesus, that everyone saw. Like, a dozen movies. They call it a ‘cinematic universe’, a bunch of interconnected stories from comic books that… look, I’m not crazy… well I guess I have to be if I’m talking to a god damn fictional character, but not about this.”
“Tell me about you, then, if you’re the only real person here,” Steve offered, leaning back in his chair. “Who are you? What happened to you?”
You repeated your name, and Steve nodded. “I’m a researcher at the Bydder Lab in San Diego. I’ve worked there for three years.”
“So you’re from California?” Steve asked you, and you shook your head.
“I’m from New York,” you corrected, frowning at him. “I graduated from NYU and worked at the Genome Center out of school before I took the job in California.”
“Why did you leave the city, then?” Steve pressed.
You snorted again. “Why bother staying?” you replied, an edge of bitterness to your voice. “My fiance took off with my best friend. I didn’t have anyone or anything else keeping me here. I needed a fresh start, so I bailed when the opportunity came up.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed in a non-committal tone. “And after that? What happened to you, do you think, that you ended up here?”
“Somebody shot me!” you replied, almost defensively, sitting up in bed again. “I was just walking to my damn car and someone fucking shot me! I don’t know why! I’m not a bad person, I never hurt anybody, but there’s always some crazy guy with a gun on the news…”
“And you went to the hospital? Was there an ambulance, or…” he pushed.
“No! I don’t know!” you snapped, throwing your hands in the air. You collapsed back against the bed and shook your head. “I was dying,” you said after a beat, voice tired but calm. “I think I was dying. I was so cold, and… and then I woke up, here. But this can’t be real, it can’t.”
Steve nodded, watching you quietly for a long moment before speaking again. “I know this is what you believe is true. But can I tell you about what I know is true?”
You sighed. “May as well,” you told him.
He nodded again and picked up the coffee cup, eyes cast to his hands as he played with the waxy paper cup; it seemed as though he couldn’t even look you in the eye anymore.
He told you your name again and you gave a hollow chuckle; that much, it seemed, you could agree on.
“It is early Spring,” he continued slowly. “And you did graduate from NYU and work at Genome for a few years. But then you came to work in the labs here, at Stark Tower. You have lots of friends and people who love you here. Your best friend is Darcy Lewis, a lab assistant who moves between New York and a few other research facilities around the world.
“Seven years ago, I came down to the research floors in the Tower when Bucky… my best friend, who you’ve always said is one of your favorite people… when he needed some work done on his prosthetic. The lab made him nervous so I went with and that’s...that’s the day I first met you.”
Steve swallowed hard and even in the scant lighting of the room, you could see there were tears in his eyes threatening to spill over again.
“Three years ago, we got married,” he told you, and his voice seemed to shake a little on the words. “It was… it was the happiest I’ve ever been, I think, that day. And it’s only gotten better. A few days ago, I got back from a long mission that had gone pretty well. It was a beautiful day so once I got cleaned up, we decided to walk to a cafe down the street to celebrate and… and…”
He closed his eyes again, and you thought for a moment that if any of this was real, it would seem he was reliving that moment as he spoke.
“The gunman was from a Hydra splinter cell. We thought they were aiming for me and it was a bad shot, but based on the way you’ve reacted…” he went on, then sighed. “You were hit in the abdomen. It ruptured your spleen. You would have bled out but I picked you up and brought you home as fast as I could. They did emergency surgery, said that you’d heal up quickly because a person can live without a spleen and it was a clean shot. Now they’re thinking that the bullet was laced with something that’s caused… that’s caused a psychotic break.”
You nodded tiredly. “That much we can agree on,” you said, a few stray tears slipping down your cheeks. “I’ve definitely had a psychotic break, since I’m chatting with a fictional superhero and all.”
You turned away from him and onto your side, pulling the blanket up a little higher. “I’m going to go back to sleep now. Maybe I’ll be less crazy in the morning.”
“Can I stay with you?” Steve asked. You resisted the sudden urge to turn around and beckon him to you, to hold him close and try to soothe the pain so clear in his voice.
“May as well,” you agreed, and closed your eyes. You forced yourself not to turn to him, listening to the muted sounds of his own stifled tears until you drifted into fitful slumber.
You slept a lot in the following days. You kept thinking that maybe, just maybe, if you could fall asleep and open your eyes to a new day, the craziness of the whole situation would have left you and you’d wake back to the reality you knew. Steve was almost always there, stalwart at your side, expression growing more and more grim as each day you refused to acknowledge what he told you, that the world around you was real and this was actually your life.
The others came and went. Bucky would come down and try to chat, clearly becoming disturbed as you helplessly gazed at his prosthetic arm as though it were something new and novel you’d never seen before. As far as he was concerned, it should have been old hat to you by now, but you knew better. Watching the way it moved was startling in its own right; your minor had been in engineering when you were in college, and you could recognize the small machinations visible in the shifting plates. It was scientifically sound, so far as you could tell. That was the scary part, really -- that your clearly addled mind could create something so realistic that even the science added up.
Bruce was taking a clinical route, trying not to push you into another ‘episode’, as he had referred to your initial panicked outburst, but still seemingly pushing very subtly to search the extent of your presumed madness. He asked you about your work at Bydder -- apparently you were working on a very similar project there in the labs at the Tower -- and your family and friends. He took your history, the life you had tried to explain to Steve, only gently prodding to point out where your real life and this imaginary would you found yourself intersected.
Dr. Cho was very polite but also curt; she gave you the bare minimum of necessary information, sticking mainly to your physical health as she saw it and just ghosting on your mental state from time to time.
“We seem to be well past the hysteria stage,” she said lightly, using a small penlight to check the reaction of your pupils before jotting down a quick note on the clipboard she carried. “I think we can remove the restraints from the room at this point. Pending another toxicology screen, you’ll most likely be released home this afternoon. Captain Rogers has already been made aware.”
You glared at the doctor, her words making you prickle. It was so matter-of-fact and concise; it was irritating.
“Why’d you tell him?” you snapped. “Don’t you people have HIPAA here in superhero-world?”
“Captain Rogers is privy to your medical information as next-of-kin,” Dr. Cho reminded in a matter-of-fact tone. “He is your husband, after all.”
“Yeah? Well maybe he shouldn’t be!” you responded angrily. You didn’t know Steve -- he was a character from a movie and you didn’t know him. That they would share your personal information with someone you didn’t share a real bond with -- fictional or not -- was galling. “Who do I talk to about getting a goddamn divorce?”
The crash from the door startled you.
You hadn’t realized he had been approached the room, lingering in the doorway out of respect for your privacy to allow Dr. Cho to finish her exam without interrupting. He had just been stepping inside, a glass vase full of sprays of baby’s breath mingled with your favorite blooms in his hand, when you had spoken, and the vase dropped out of his hand to shatter on the floor.
He stared at you a long moment, wide-eyed and pale, before he seemed to physically startle and jumped back a few steps.
“Sorry, I… I’ll… just get something for the mess,” Steve said quickly, and bolted back out the door.
Dr. Cho frowned at you for a moment before forcing her face back into a neutral expression, clear disapproval shining in her eyes at your outburst. You only glared back until she left.
Steve arrived back a good twenty or so minutes later and you pretended to be asleep, refusing to open your eyes as you heard him shuffling around the doorway, cleaning up the mess of flowers, water, and shattered glass. He came to your beside afterwards and waited a few minutes before heaving a sad sigh.
“I’m sorry,” he said, voice quiet and pained. “I won’t bother you anymore.” You listened to him leave and curled in on yourself once he was gone, crying with a heartbreak you didn’t understand until you exhausted yourself.
When you woke again, Tony Stark was sitting in a chair near the foot of your bed, watching you with his arms crossed over his chest. He and the others had been away, Steve had explained a day or two before, assisting with some sort of peace deal in Geneva. You hadn’t asked about them, but Steve seemed to think your relationship with them important enough to offer the information. ‘Tony, Natasha, and Clint’, he had called them, as if your being on a first name basis with even more of the Avengers team was simply par for the course.
You had wished he could understand how crazy it all was, but of course there was no way to show him. It wasn’t exactly like you could reason with fictional characters.
“So what’s my actor like?” Tony said, spotting your eyes flicking open. It was night again and the room was dim, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Someone Clooney-esque?”
You snorted, reaching for a glass of water on your bedside tray. “He’s a Brat-Packer,” you replied, after downing half the glass in one go.
The face Tony made was all but horrified. “God. Not another Sheen kid, is it?” he asked, and you had to stifle a laugh.
“Nah,” you told him, shaking your head. “Solid actor. Got into some trouble, but cleaned himself up. Some decent rom-coms in the 90’s and a quirky detective flick with Val Kilmer that I bought on blu-ray. Honestly, I’m a fan.”
He quirked half a smile at you, but it was clear it was a little sympathetic. “So you really are this far gone, huh kid?” he said, shaking his head. “I was hoping Cap had gone a little dramatic on me and was exaggerating. You’re completely around the bend, aren’t you?”
“Hey!” you said, somewhat offended. “Talking delusions don’t get to comment on my sanity. Or lack thereof.”
Tony sighed and stood, arms crossed over his chest. He looked just as you would have imagined, had you needed to call an image of the character to mind: impeccable suit, neatly trimmed facial hair… All that was missing was drink in his hand.
He leaned against the windowsill. “Look around, kid. See that skyline? The only thing with a tenuous grasp of reality around here is you.” To punctuate his words, he uncrossed his arms and knocked on the wall. “See? Solid.”
You shrugged. “I’m not an expert on psychosis but I read that it can seem very realistic.”
“Oh really?” Tony said, challenge in his voice. He walked over to your hospital bed and pinched you hard on the shoulder. “How’s that, then?”
You yelped and flinched away. “Ow! That hurt, you ass!”
“Exactly!” Tony told you triumphantly.
Still rubbing your arm, you rolled your eyes. “It doesn’t mean anything. People get hurt in their dreams all the time, it’s still all an illusion.”
“People do get hurt in their dreams,” Tony agreed, nodding. “But they don’t feel the pain, do they kid?”
You opened your mouth to protest and then froze, frowning. That was something you hadn’t really considered. You’d had nightmares before, chased down by monsters or in cars running off bridges and the like, but you couldn’t remember an instance where you felt the actual pain of it. Fear, yes; lots and lots of fear. But never the pain.
“See?” Tony pressed. “Look, I’m no shrink, but I gotta think the first step to fixing whatever wires got crossed in your brain is admitting that you’re standing on solid ground here. This is the world, kid. It’s time to start accepting that as a fact.”
You had them stumped, it would seem, and it was a little difficult not to be a bit proud of that fact. Dr. Cho had released you from medical care with a clean bill of health, minus the still-tender gunshot wound and surgical repairs, but even then were healing with great rapidity. It was the cavalcade of mental health professionals that they paraded you past -- each one locked down tight into a non-disclosure agreement strict and strongly worded enough to put the fear of god into them, lest some news of Mrs. Rogers’ misfortunate ‘leak to the media’ -- that couldn’t seem to fathom what was happening.
Some claimed it to be a schizotypal personality disorder, but every part of your life leading up to this apparent collapse of mental faculties seemed to prove otherwise.
Others pointed towards late-onset schizophrenia, all but unheard of in a woman of your age.
There were a few who claimed it a reversal of imposter syndrome -- rare but not unheard of.
At least one proclaimed that you were faking it entirely, and it was all a ploy to garner attention from your friends and family. You hadn’t been in the room for that one, but from what you heard the others speaking about in low tones, you were fairly certain that Steve had broken the man’s jaw. Thankfully, the NDA covered such an instance as well.
The bare minimum diagnosis that most of them agreed on was that it was definitely a type of delusional order and they were at a loss at how to treat it if you continued to refuse to recognize that you had a problem and would not take the psychotropic drugs they prescribed.
But you could work. You could function.
When you were released from the med bay, Tony had already prepared for you a small apartment a few floors up from the labs where you worked. You couldn’t go back to the home that you shared with Steve -- you couldn’t be around him, couldn’t see what this was doing to him. The last thing you’d ever have wanted was to hurt anyone and it was clear that your inability to acknowledge the life he insisted you two had shared was eating away at him.
You just couldn’t give in. If you accepted it -- believed in this wonderful life they all kept telling you that you had, embraced the illusion -- it would crush you when you finally woke up to reality, a world where you had no friends or family to speak of and lived a lonely life of working all day only to return home to a quiet apartment, eat a frozen low-calorie meal, and watch an hour of mindless television before going to bed. This way, you could insulate yourself -- protect yourself from that future pain.
It wasn’t working.
You liked the people you were working with, the lab assistants that you had apparently hand-picked. They hadn’t been told the extent of your apparent problem, only that you had some personal memory loss but were able to continue your research.
Bruce had explained it to them; you’d eavesdropped from outside the door before you ventured in on your first day ‘back’ to work.
“She’s perfectly healthy and more than capable to continue the work you’ve been doing here,” Bruce had said in his steady, comforting tone. “But she may have to ask your name a few times. Please don’t be offended by it.”
“Is there anything we should not… not bring up?” a meek feminine voice asked in response.
“I would stay away from anything involving personal lives,” Bruce advised. “I know Doc has always been social with everyone, and you’ve all discussed your families together, right now she and Steve need some privacy.”
Apparently, that was what they called you -- what almost everyone at the Tower had called you, before this mess had begun. Doc. You tried not to let yourself like it; it had been years since anyone had given you a nickname.
“Is it true Doc’s moved out of the Tower?” someone else asked.
“Who told you that?” Bruce asked, voice suddenly sharp.
The questioner must have been visibly cowed, because he paused a beat before responding. “No-no one specifically, Dr. Banner,” he said. “It’s just… there’s been a few rumors, in the cafeteria… someone said she moved out, someone said they had her in lockdown or…”
Bruce sighed. “I don’t want anyone speculating on her personal life, got it? Just be kind, follow direction, get to work. Pretend like nothing’s changed and things’ll go back to normal, in time.”
You’d cleared your throat before entering, allowing the little audience to disperse, and got to work. Your research was a bit behind where you had been at Bydder, but that made sense; you had no social life, after all, no family, no husband; of course all of your free time had gone to thinking about the projects you were working on. Convenient for your delusion too, to not have to substitute in some junk science to pretend as though you’d gotten further along in the experiments. Further proof, you thought, that this was all some dream that was just going to slip away soon enough.
It was a quiet life, but it was good. Your lab assistants were friendly and chatty, so different from the quiet, sterile atmosphere you were accustomed to; you spend much of the day talking and laughing as you worked, and took the elevator to your little apartment with a smile on your face, more often than not. It was well over two months before you realized that Steve, who you hadn’t seen hide or hair of in some time, was not dealing with the situation as well as you were.
You walked to the elevator with Beth quite a bit, one of the newer hires in the lab who had come on just before your ‘accident’, as they liked to put it. She had been waitressing during the Battle of New York and had her life saved by the Avengers -- particularly the great Captain America; it had inspired her to change her life and find a way to do some good. She enrolled in college classes and when she graduated with lab certification, had immediately applied to work with you. You had, apparently, approved her application yourself.
“Are you going to see the movie tonight?” she asked, chatting amiably. One of the many secrets of Stark Tower was the auditorium size screening room nestled quietly on the 72nd floor; it was one of the perks of being employed with Tony’s company. About once or so a month, he’d offer a free screening of a recent film to all staff and their loved ones, popcorn and all. There was another, much smaller screening room up on the residential floors that was reserved for movie nights between the team and their significant others, but the staff -- from doormen to executives -- were all very pleased with what was offered to them. It was in no small part due to the fact that much of the team showed up to join the fun, of course.
You hadn’t attended a screening since your ‘accident’.
“No, I think I’m just going to stay home,” you told her with a smile and a shrug. “Apparently there’s a few Stephen King novels I don’t remember -- thought I’d catch up.”
Beth chuckled and nudged you with her elbow. “Some perks to amnesia after all?” she teased, and you couldn’t help but laugh.
Then you heard it: the heavy thud of footsteps down the hall, one a disordered, lurching gait and the other far more smooth, and then his voice.
“Jus’ wann’ see’er Buck, thas’all,” Steve was slurring.
“C’mon pally, this is a bad idea,” Bucky replied. “Let’s go up to your place, get you a glass of water or somethin’...”
Glancing towards the sound and back to Beth, you nodded towards the elevator, which had just opened.
“Why don’t you go on? I can wait for the next one,” you said quickly and Beth nodded. She shot you a sympathetic look before stepping inside and pressing her intended floor, the doors quickly sliding shut in front of her.
Steve stumbled around the corner just a moment later and stopped short at seeing you, stumbling just a pace or two before balancing himself against the wall. He didn’t speak, just looked at you with eyes wide in surprise; it might have been that he never expected to really find you, after all.
He didn’t look well -- even outside of being dead drunk, which was startling in its own right. You’d never seen him this drunk, you thought, quickly chastising yourself for such a silly thought; of course you hadn’t seen him drunk at all, they’d never shown that in any of the movies, but then…
The images came to you in a rush: Steve, cheeks pleasantly pinked, holding you close in a traipsing step on the dance floor of a ballroom decked out in gold and black. New Year’s Eve, you realized, with a full orchestra playing as glittery confetti fell from the ceiling and Steve, tipsy and sweet, leaning down to kiss you and whisper what a wonderful year it had been, and how many more you’d have, all of them even better than the last. You could almost taste the burn of the Asgardian mead from his kiss and in the here and now, you raised a hand to your lips absently as you stared at him.
Steve, holding you up as you stumbled into your apartment, the one you’d had in Chelsea before he’d asked you to move in. You’d been out bowling of all things and Thor had arrived with a small flask, getting Steve and Bucky just lit enough that the rest of you might have a chance to beat them in the game. You hadn’t, of course -- Darcy had kept arriving back from the little lane bar with some cheap liquor or other in her hands and far be it for you to refuse -- and you’d all been giggly as you piled into a cabs, Jane and Thor in one and the rest of you stuffed into another, first stopping at the Tower, where Darcy pulled Bucky out after her, before heading to your place.
You’d been wearing a dress, a babydoll printed with tiny little flowers. Steve had torn the back zipper taking it off you with mead-clumsy hands, and you’d laughed about it in the morning.
The two of you on a beach somewhere, a private island he’d arranged for a honeymoon. You’d had a pair of some sort of fruity drinks and Steve had winked at you before spiking his own with the tiniest flask you’d ever seen, a wedding gift from Jane.
“It’s only fair, right?” he teased, then kissed you, licking the taste of rum out of your mouth.
You hadn’t even realized you’d started crying, slow tears falling down your cheeks, your eyes widened in shocked memory. Steve’s own drunken expression broke at the sight.
“M’sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “M’sorry, baby, didn… didn’t wanna upset you…”
Bucky was there, holding Steve up to a good degree, and… glaring at you. You understood it; Bucky was the protective big brother that Steve had never had, and much as you had loved Bucky as if he were your own family, you were hurting Steve. Even if you had never meant to do it.
You put on the brightest smile you could manage, even as the tears kept falling. “Hey, it’s fine,” you said, unable to stop yourself from walking towards him. “I’m fine, see? You didn’t upset me.”
Steve shook his head and reached out to wipe a tear from your cheek with his thumb. “Yr’cryin’, Doc,” he said, voice full of sorrow. “Didn’wanna make you cry.”
You shook your head. “It’s okay,” you reassured him. “I’m just happy to see you, is all. I’ve been keeping to myself more than I should, haven’t I?”
Your words seemed to break something in him and Steve choked on a sob before throwing his arms around you, the weight of him making you stumble; you might have fallen if Bucky hadn’t been there, to keep you both on your feet.
“Miss you,” he said, shoulders shaking. “Miss you so goddamn much.”
“C’mon,” you told him, sliding an arm around his midsection. “Let’s get you up to bed, okay?”
Bucky had to support Steve’s weight for much of the stumbling elevator ride and walk to the apartment, but you kept close all the same. The mere proximity seemed to help, with Steve more relaxed just by having you near and not fighting Bucky’s attempts at keeping him upright.
The closeness was almost too much for you; the familiarity of it, the weight of him at your side, the scent of his cologne… it was a sense-memory overload. You couldn’t conjure any specific memories but you knew the scent -- as familiar to you as Christmas cookies in the oven or the aroma of a summer rain.
It only worsened when you made it to the apartment; you knew where to reach for the light switch, where to sidestep a low-lying coffee table, and where to steer Steve to get him into bed. You’d only spent a few waking moments there since you’d first opened your eyes to this completely insane reality, fainting within minutes, but you still knew the place like the back of your own hand. You tried not to think too hard on it, easing open the bedroom door and slipping inside ahead of Steve, with Bucky just behind.
As you neared the bed, Bucky let go of his grip on Steve and the two of you stumbled forward, landing together on the mattress. Steve immediately relaxed, winding his arms around your waist and pressing his face into the side of your neck.
“S’all I needed,” Steve mumbled, nuzzling as close as he could. “Needed m’girl t’come home, s’all.”
The calm, relaxed tone of his voice, drunken as it was, broke your heart. You had already been looking for an opportunity to slip out, to pull yourself from Steve’s arms and escape to your quiet little apartment. It might have been a little lonely, but it was safer there. As long as you isolated yourself, you couldn’t give in.
But it was so hard.
Bucky had apparently disappeared and close the bedroom door behind him, leaving you in the dim light of dusk, huddled on the bed with Steve in your arms. You listened to his breathing slow, knowing he was falling into a drunken slumber, and began absently running your fingers through his hair. Steve made a pleased noise and you could swear you felt his lips press ever so gently to your chest, his body curling a little bit tighter around yours.
You took the opportunity to look around the room, taking in your surroundings with a keener eye than you had been able to upon first waking in confusion. The bedclothes were grey, a relatively thin blanket over linen sheets of a slightly lighter shade; the frame was solid wood, stained dark, with matching bedside tables on either side. There was a photo in a silver frame on Steve’s side, and it struck you as out of place before you recognized what it was: a wedding photo. The two of you, in a candid shot that Bucky had taken while you were dancing; not the first dance, the one that stood on great ceremony, but a later one -- when you were both a little tired and a little slap-happy, his tie undone and your veil gone cockeyed in your hair. You were grinning at each other.
That pang of recognition was there again. You know that photo, that frame; it usually sat on a side table in the living room. It seemed that Steve had moved it into the bedroom sometime after you had left.
It was some time before you were certain that Steve was asleep. Much as you wanted to stay -- and you did want to stay, more than anything, much as it pained you to admit it to yourself -- you knew that you couldn’t. You carefully slipped out of his arms, pausing to press a soft kiss to his forehead, breaking your own heart a little to see the way he smiled in his sleep.
You tiptoed out of the bedroom, your shoes in your hand, closing the door behind you as gently as you could. When you turned and saw Bucky frowning at you from the sofa, you sighed.
“Waited all this time?” you asked, voice sounding as tired as you were feeling.
“Figured you’d pull something like this,” he told you sourly. He swallowed the remnants of what looked to be a glass of whiskey -- Steve kept it on hand, enjoying the familiarity of the taste even as it did nothing for him, and it hurt that you knew that -- then stood, leaving the empty glass on the coffee table. “Thought I’d stick around to see how long it’d take. Not good with breakin’ his heart the old-fashioned way, gotta make sure it hurts, huh?”
You closed your eyes and took a deep breath, trying to center yourself before replying. “I don’t need this right now, Bucky,” you snapped. You walked a few steps towards him before stopping, balancing yourself on a bookshelf to put on your shoes.
“Well it’s about time somebody said somethin’,” Bucky replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why are you doing this to him? To yourself?”
Irritated, you glared at him. “Are you new here?” you snapped. “I’ve already told you, all of you. I’m not--”
“Look, I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe at this point,” Bucky interrupted. “The fact of the matter is, it’s been almost four months since the day you woke up and decided you were stuck in some kinda bad dream. None of us seem to be going anywhere so it’s time you resigned yourself to the fact that the problem is with you, not with the rest of us.”
“Oh, it’s that easy?” you asked, straightening once you had your shoes on. “Just pretend like I’m somebody else, that the real me that I know all about doesn’t exist? Put on somebody else’s life and pretend like I have any idea what’s going--”
“Don’t feed me that bullshit, you’re remembering,” Bucky said, and you stopped short. You stared at him with wide eyes, unsure how to respond.
“You think I don’t know what that looks like?” he went on. “Like I haven’t seen the same expression in the mirror, a thousand times over? You remember. Maybe not everything, not yet, but it’s there. It’s coming back.”
You shook your head, tears in your eyes. “Bits and pieces,” you responded, voice suddenly rough and thick with emotion. “Not a lot, nothing even… nothing even linear, really, just… bits and pieces.”
Bucky sighed, expression going soft and sympathetic. He had been there himself, after all; of course he would understand.
“Then why are you fighting it so hard?” he asked. You had barely noticed that he had stepped towards, near enough now that he reached out and put a hand on your shoulder. You closed your eyes at the touch, a few stray tears breaking free to slide down your cheeks.
“You don’t understand,” you told him, shaking your head. “Bucky, I was… she… if I let myself want this life, if I let myself have it? Then wake up one day and I’m back to that other life, the one that I remember best, that feels real… Bucky, it’ll break me.”
You sniffled and wiped at your tears before continuing. “I have nothing. And no one. I could wake up at any second, all alone in some hospital room and remember this wonderful life here, full of people that I love and Bucky, Bucky I won’t be able to stand it. I won’t.”
Bucky let out a long breath and shook his head. “Jesus, Doc,” he breathed, and pulled you into a tight embrace. For the first time since arriving in this strange new universe, you let yourself relax and really feel. You wept in Bucky’s arms, for the life you remembered and the life that you were just beginning to recall, for Steve and all this had done to him, and for the person you were -- or had been -- so sad and alone.
Bucky simply held you and let you get it all out, occasionally rubbing a soothing circle on your back to help try and calm you. When you were able to stop, you stepped back out of his arms, embarrassed by the whole display.
“This won’t be good for him,” Bucky warned you quietly. “He went to sleep with you there. When he wakes up and you’re gone… it’s not going to be easy.”
“I can’t,” you told him, shaking your head. “Bucky… I just can’t.”
“So you’re going to keep isolatin’ yourself?” Bucky asked with a sigh. He understood the predicament you were in, but didn’t agree with your decision to play it safe. “Then your life here is no better than your life back… wherever… is it?”
“What else can I do?” you replied. “I have to… I have to protect myself, Bucky. You should understand that, at least. I have no idea what’s happened here, if this is a massive hallucination, or some kind of personal hell, or… or…”
“Hell?” Bucky echoed, brows arched in surprise. “C’mon, we’re not all bad,” he teased.
You gave a small smile. “You’re not,” you agreed. “But keeping myself from being a part of this life… keeping myself from Steve… that’s hell, Bucky.”
“So what if you’re wrong?” he countered. “What if it’s something else? A third option. I mean… look around, doll. Me an’ Steve, bein’ alive and kickin’... Banner and his bad side… the world is a pretty weird place. Weird shit happens, a lot of it we’re still trying to figure out. You could work on that.”
You frowned. “Work on what?” you asked.
“Figuring out what the hell is happening here,” Bucky pointed out. “C’mon Doc, you’re a genius. We got a couple more kickin’ around this joint. Bet if all of you put your heads together, you could get this all worked out in no time.”
Your eyes went very wide. “Oh my god, Bucky, you’re a genius!” you said, throwing your arms around him.
How is it that you had never thought of it before? You’d been putting in your time in the labs, continuing your work on the physics of man-made magnetic wormholes, and you hadn’t thought to test yourself -- to try and find out what was happening to you, and what had caused it. You had the world’s best research facilities at your disposal and you’d been simply going through the motions.
Bucky chuckled. “Far from it, doll. I think you got the widest share of the brains in this room.”
“I’ll figure this out!” you said excitedly, heading for the door. “I’ll figure it out and once I know, Bucky, once I’m sure… once I’m sure I’ll make it up to Steve, I swear it!”
It had been raining. You had been a little disappointed, at first, but th day proved so wonderful in spite of the downpour that you’d never frowned at a little storm since.
It started when Steve had accompanied Bucky to the labs for some work on his prosthetic; Shuri had sent Tony the specs for a few new ideas and improvements and he had fabricated the parts, but often ducked out of working in close quarters with Bucky. He had decided you had a delicate enough touch to do the job, and you were always pleased to help.
You’d tried making small talk but Bucky just seemed uncomfortable. His best friend, however, had been more than willing to chat; it seemed to put Bucky at ease, just to hear the easy conversation between you and Steve, and you had to hide your disappointment when the work was finished.
Steve had smiled at you, head cocked to the side and hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans.
“Do you have a break coming up anytime soon?” he asked, voice dropped just enough that your team of technicians couldn’t eavesdrop. “I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee.”
If you’d had more time that day, you suppose you might have found a quiet cafe somewhere, but with your workload and the convenience of the public cafeteria, it was simplest to sneak away that afternoon and tuck yourselves into a small table in the corner.
And again the next day. And the next. And the next.
It became a routine, everyday at one o’clock, if you were working and Steve was home in the Tower, you had a standing date. Then there were long lunches and nights you stayed late, invited upstairs to the private screening room for movie nights with the rest of his team or little impromptu gatherings. You never named it -- nothing concrete, no titles, no promises of exclusivity.
But you knew. And you were certain he did, too.
Then one day at coffee, a strange look passed over his face. “Doc…” he asked, frowning. “Have we… we’ve never gone out, have we?”
You blinked, surprised. “I’m not sure what you mean?” you said, uncertain as to what he was getting at.
Steve laughed, reaching out to take your hands in his own across the table. “What I mean is I’m an idiot, and I’ve never taken taken my best girl out on the town. We have to fix that.”
It was summer and he had an itch to be out of doors; there wasn’t too much in the way of real green space in the city, outside of a myriad of crowded city parks, but Governor’s Island offered a welcome respite from skyscrapers and traffic, and was usually a bit less crowded than the metro parks. The idea of sitting beside Steve and watching the sunset on Outlook Hill was more than a little appealing, so you’d arrived at the building you’d come to think of as more than simply ‘work’ early in the afternoon on a summery Saturday, ready for an adventure.
Of course, as soon as you you reached Steve’s door on the residential floors of the Tower, a crack of thunder sounded strong enough that you could swear you felt the building shake. Your face fell just as Steve opened the door.
“Was it supposed to rain?” you asked, frowning.
Steve sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I guess it was,” he said. “I’m so sorry, I should have checked the weather, I just got so excited with the whole idea of it…”
“It’s not your fault,” you said, standing on tip-toe to kiss him on the cheek in greeting before stepping inside. “I didn’t think to check either. Same reason, too.”
You hadn’t spent too much time in his apartment and you took a moment to look around, admiring the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows in spite of the rain, and the simple but elegant design of the place. You vaguely recalled him mentioning once that Pepper Potts, Tony’s fiancee and right-hand-woman, had decorated it for him, mostly in mid-century inspired furniture with all the modern conveniences in place.
“We can find something else to do,” Steve offered.
“I guess I’m not really dressed for us to go out anywhere,” you told Steve, turning to lean against the back of his sofa. You had dressed for a day out of doors: plain tennis shoes, a pair of denim shorts, and a red t-shirt with a faded print from a charity 5k you had done a few years prior. You hadn’t even brought a purse, tucking your phone and your wallet into your pocket.
You bit your lip, waiting for a response and feeling foolish for dressing so casually in the first place. After a moment you realized he was staring at you, a strange little smile on his face and a glimmer in his eyes you’d never seen before. When he walked towards you, he move lightly but with purpose, and suddenly you knew.
Oh, you thought, and then he was there, the warmth of his often over-heated body radiating towards you even in the chill of the air conditioner.
Steve reached up, tilting your gaze up towards his with his thumb and forefinger on your chin.
“We can stay in, if you want,” he offered, eyes gone dark as the searched yours. His strong hands drifted to your waist, settling there, hot and heavy. “I didn’t… I didn’t plan on this but… I’d really like it if we spent the day together, just the two of us.”
As if you’d ever refuse.
Steve undressed you slowly, strong hands tracing the path of every curve he revealed. He kissed slowly too, gentle yet claiming, lashes fluttering shut to enjoy every second and revel in each sensation.
He liked taking it slow sometimes, he would tell you later. It gave him a chance to really live in the moment and blot out the rest of the world. He wanted to commit it to memory in such a way that he could recall everything with just a thought: the scent of your hair, the way your skin felt so soft beneath his fingertips, even the taste of you. All of it.
You’d never spent the day in bed with someone before, sometimes making love, sometimes just holding each other or talking. Steve liked to be held; the big, strong super-soldier would cuddle close to you, falling asleep listening to the beat of your heart, feeling the calming motion of your fingers through his hair.
You’d known you wanted him. You’d known that you liked him, quite a lot. It wasn’t until that day that you realized that you were in love with him.
Even better when you realized that he felt the same.
You woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed in the bland, nondescript apartment Tony had arranged for you to stay in while you were avoiding the home you’d shared with Steve. You couldn’t even pretend to believe that it had been just a dream -- it had been too real, the detail far too great to be some imagined scene your mind had conjured to amuse you while you slept.
You remembered it perfectly now, every intimate detail of that day.
And you realized that you just could not live like this any longer.
You reached for your phone on the bedside table -- a different make and model than you recalled having in your San Diego life, but with the same ringtone and wallpaper -- and quickly thumbed through the menu to pull up Tony’s contact. It was only as it began ringing that you glanced at the clock and realized it was only have past three in the morning, and you considered hanging up but then thought better of it.
After all… it was Tony.
True to form, you were greeted with the sound of loud rock music and a cheerful, “Stark!”
“In your lab?” you asked.
Tony chuckled. “See? You do know me. What can I do for you?”
“I need the bullet,” you said.
“The what now?” Tony asked, and you could hear the clink of metal on metal as he worked on something as he spoke.
“I need the bullet,” you repeated. “The one they pulled out of me.”
You convened your team for a meeting early on the next workday. They seemed perturbed by the very thought of a quiet, organized meeting; apparently, your typical go-to meeting or announcement strategy was to call things out over the sound of the radio while you were all working. The thought of it made you smile; you could imagine it easily yourself working with them, comfortable enough to keep an open forum and not stand on ceremony.
But this was different. You weren’t that person -- not yet, not at the moment, not anymore, however you should think of it -- and the weight of the situation seemed to call for a slightly more formal setting.
They sat in chairs rolled over from their workstations, all of them facing you as you leaned up against your own desk. Their faces, each still bearing the vague familiarity that they had since you had first -- was it the first? -- time you had laid eyes on them, now gazing up at you with a mixture of curiosity and concern.
“I guess this doesn’t stand on much tradition here,” you began with a sigh. “But I wanted to talk to all of you about something very important.” They each nodded, a low murmur of acquiescence circling through the crowd.
“I knew you were prepped before I came back to work here,” you went on. “They told you I had amnesia, and that’s true to a degree. I remember very little about my life prior to getting hurt. But it’s not just that my memories are gone, it’s that they’ve… they’ve been replaced. Or so I’m told.”
There was another murmur among the group; you hadn’t really planned on telling them all of this, but in order to proceed with what you had planned, you needed them to understand.
“I woke up after surgery and nothing made sense,” you continued, pulling out your chair with a shaking hand. You sat down shakily, your knees suddenly weak just from confronting it all over again. “The life that I knew, the one I remembered, is not the one I woke to find. I didn’t remember anything -- any of you, anything of this place. But I did remember a life, everything, a world where none of this existed.”
Your team looked horrified; Beth had started to cry.
“I have been waiting for it to end. To wake up in some hospital bed and find everything back to normal, but it hasn’t happened,” you explained. “So I’ve decided to forego Occam’s razor on this and start considering what seems impossible: that something happened to me that caused the mixed-up memories in my head, that something was done to me.”
“You don’t remember anything?” Beth spoke up quietly, voice small and a little broken on your behalf. “Anything at all? Captain Rogers…?”
You gave her a small smile. “Bits and pieces have come back,” you said, shaking your head. “Not a lot. Nothing really concrete. And I can’t really tell if what I think I remember is real, or something I’ve imagined.”
“Oh god…” she muttered, hand reaching to cover her mouth in a mixture of shock and sympathy.
“But that’s not what we’re here to talk about,” you said quickly, standing up from your chair. You knew you’d start to cry if you let yourself dwell on it any further, or looked at the horrified expressions on your team’s faces. “For the time being, I’m putting my current course of research on hold and focusing instead on finding concrete evidence that there is a scientific explanation to what has happened to me. I realized that isn’t what you signed up for, and there are positions available on other projects for SI, so…”
“I think I can speak for everyone when I say we’re all on board,” one of the techs, a young man named Jared, spoke up. “None of us signed on for a specific project. We just wanted to help.”
“Yeah,” Beth added with a nod. “We’ll still be working for the greater good. And that’s what we all wanted.”
“Exactly,” Jared said, a flurry of agreement rising from the rest of the group. “So tell us, Doc. Where do we start?”
You reached into a drawer on your desk and retrieved a clear plastic bag. Resting in the bottom was a spent bullet, an inch-long slug with an oddly shaped tuliped point, still stained with blood. Stranger still were the small bits of metal and wire that rest alongside it, further pieces of shrapnel that Dr. Cho had removed from your wound.
Holding the bag aloft for your team to see, you nodded at it and said, “We start right here.”
You got to work that very day, and let the project consume you for days at a stretch. There was no going back now: come hell or high water, you would figure this out.
Steve was twitching. That should have been a clue that things were going to go badly but it was high adrenaline all around; hot intel had come in about an attempted bioterrorist cell start-up in Boston and there would only be a quick and dirty briefing before the team was i the air en route.
“We’re looking at a possible weaponized virus here,” Tony had intoned, the display screen behind him flashing photos of the suspected terrorists and architectural plans for the 20-story biomedical research company that was operating at a front for the cell.
“Flu?” Natasha asked, sounding terribly blasé about the whole thing. It wasn’t the first time they had faced some crazy bastard trying to murder the world in a real-life game of Plague, Inc.
Tony’s face went uncharacteristically grim. “Smallpox,” he replied, and a low collective gasp sounded in the room.
“Isn’t that something everyone would be vaccinated for?” Bucky spoke up, frowning. He still had the scar from his own inoculation, after all: a round little indentation in his good shoulder, one of the few blemishes that had survived Hydra’s version of the super-soldier serum.
“They stopped giving it in the 70’s,” Bruce spoke up with a sigh, pinching his brow. “It had been eradicated completely, so there wasn’t a need.”
“Then how did someone get their hands on it to weaponize?” Steve asked with a frown, arms crossed over his chest. His foot was tapping, as though he couldn’t sit still; Bucky noticed it but didn’t comment, even as a concerned frown crossed his face.
“Officially, there’s only one sample on ice, in a US lab,” Tony explained. “Officially, on paper. Everyone knew Russia had it during the Cold War -- it was an open secret. These days, there’s decent intel that everyone has a strain in the freezer somewhere.”
Steve swore and shook his head. “So what are we waiting for?” he asked with a resigned sigh. “Let’s go and get this over with.”
Steve kept to himself in the plane; there was a storm brewing inside but he ignored it, running over the images of the building layout he had seen in his mind. It had taken only a glance for them to become ingrained in his memory and he tried to use them as a touchstone, to keep his mind focused on the task at hand.
It wasn’t easy.
There hadn’t been any more drinking, not since the evening he’d happily fallen asleep in your arms, only to wake cold and alone once again. Bucky had seen to that, ensuring that not a drop of Thor’s gifted mead remained in the Tower and putting a silent moratorium on anymore being brought in. That was fine; Steve could do without the hangovers, after all, and the constant need to see you that it always brought up.
They’d kept him from barging in on you before, but Bucky hadn’t managed it that last time. Steve was unsure if it was really an inability to hold him back or just some sense of pity that allowed him to make his way down to your lab that day. He preferred not to think on it. He preferred not to think at all, if he could manage.
The day he walked into your room in the med bay and heard you exclaim that you wanted a divorce had broken something inside him. He’d known loss before -- far too much, really, for anyone to bear -- but it had always been by circumstance. Death and time had robbed him of those he loved. This was different.
You had chosen to walk away.
It ate at him now, not that someone would leave -- in some sick way, he had begun to expect as much, as loss had been the only prevailing theme in his life for longer than he could remember -- but that you would do it by choice. That you would do it.
He had been a bundle of nerves the day he asked you to share his life; he remembered it with perfect clarity, even as he sat in silence on the jet that was taking him and the others into the eye of the storm. His hands had been shaking as he showed Bucky the ring, needed that little bit of reinforcement from his best friend to have the courage to ask.
“You sure about this?” Bucky had teased with a smile, as if he hadn’t already known. There was something in the way Steve’s eyes light up if you so much as entered the room that had told Bucky that you were the one, even before Steve had realized it.
“I get it now, Buck,” Steve had replied earnestly. “This… all of this… me goin’ in the ice, wakin’ up all these years later? It makes sense. All that happened to me… so I could find her.”
You had wept when he asked, and for a moment he had been certain it was out of pity, and that you’d do your best to politely refuse him. But then you had thrown your arms around him and whispered the word yes, over and over again until your voice gave out and the joyful tears took over.
He’d cried that day too.
It seemed eons ago now. It wasn’t like with Peggy, when an instant for Steve had become decades for her, and he watched her wither away. She had been gone from him, right from the moment he had awoken. His Peggy had been gone.
It had been the same with his mother, and with Bucky. The most important people in Steve’s life had a terrible habit of leaving him high and dry, all of it happening in the blink of an eye: a bad cold turning worse, turning to the very disease his mother had tried to fight away from its other victims. A slip of a hand on mountain train. But this was different.
You were there. He could see you, speak to you, touch you… if you would allow it. But there was a terrible blankness in your eyes, an unwillingness there to believe that what you had shared had been real.
And it was eating him alive from the inside.
“How much longer?” he called, voice hollow. He didn’t care, really; it was just another day, another mission. That was how his life seemed to go -- downtime to mission, mission to downtime. He found he much preferred the missions these days.
It gave him something to do.
It gave him time not to think so much.
“Wheels down at Logan in twenty,” Natasha told him from where she sat across from him. “We’ll have a chopper from there to drop us directly on the roof.”
Steve snorted. “Not going for a subtle entrance, are we?” he asked dryly.
“Time is a factor,” Natasha responded, not noticing the odd tone to his voice. “Intel showed they may be readying the virus to deploy as early as tonight. Labs are on the top floors; we drop in through the skylights.”
“And if they deploy the virus throughout the building at first sign of us?” Steve countered, crossing his arms over his chest. He wasn’t typically so argumentative, and it caused Natasha to raise a crimson eyebrow.
“Every member of the team for this drop has already been fully inoculated,” Natasha reminded; Steve and Bucky had received the vaccine as children, as had Tony. Steve was unsure as to what Natasha’s history was in that respect, or Clint’s, but if she claimed they were safe, they most likely were. “If you had an issue with the plan, you might have brought it up at the briefing.”
Steve frowned and shook his head, leaning back in his seat. “I don’t have a problem,” he muttered. Natasha didn’t respond, but stared at him for a long moment before turning her attention elsewhere.
The problem was that they didn’t know the signs. Bucky hadn’t been there for the worst of it; he had seen Steve getting into his scrapes here and there, seen him act out a little after the death of his mother, but Steve hadn’t been fully alone then. He’d always had Bucky to lean on.
Peggy had seen it, to a degree. The danger had been part of what attracted her to Steve in the first place, though she had been loathe to ever admit it. He was hotheaded, and reckless; it was worse when he was hurting. She had recognized it the moment his jaw had set in a firm line and it became clear he would do his damnedest to ensure that Sergeant Barnes was well and truly gone before he ever gave up on him.
She’d been able to calm him, just a little. Keep him manageable.
But Peggy wasn’t there now, and Bucky didn’t know what it looked like when Steve was ready to throw caution to the wind for good. They’d all get a good look at it soon enough, up-close and personal.
They all lurched in their seats when the jet’s landing gear hit the ground with a rough bounce, and Steve was on his feet and gathering his gear before the plane had even stopped moving.
By the time the chopper dropped them on the roof of the laboratory building, Steve was more or less running on a hair trigger. He was practically bouncing in his boots, fists clenching and unclenching as they quickly tried to unpack all of the equipment necessary to get them into the building. The sound of the chopper hadn’t gone unnoticed; Steve could see through the domed skylights that the scientists-cum-bioterrorists were scurrying around.
Either they were destroying evidence or, worse, readying the virus to be dissemintated as quickly as possible. Whatever the case, Steve wasn’t waiting any longer.
“What’s going on here?” he asked, glancing back to where Clint was fussing with a gear bag.
“The fucking latch bars are snapped shut wrong and none of them will fucking open!” Clint growled back, uncharacteristically irritated. “We haven’t used this gear in weeks, who the hell we have working in supply?!”
“Can you fix it?” Natasha asked him, voice even as can be, stepping over to place one hand on his shoulder where he knelt.
Clint seemed to calm almost immediately, and heaved a sigh. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, it’ll just take a little time.”
“We don’t have time,” Steve mused, and promptly hopped onto the nearest skylight with enough force to shatter it, sending him directly into the lab below. He could hear the scattered swearing above him, even through the shrieks and shouts in the lab, where he landed in a crouched position, but still on his feet.
His shield was in the air in seconds, taking out two guards who had been heading for him and a lab-coated man with a large metal cylinder who had been making for the door. Alarm bells started ringing and more arms guards began pouring in. Bucky hit the floor through another skylight a few feet away, having jumped straight through to follow; Natasha and Clint glided down elegantly on strong nylon cord just moments later.
“Steve, you class-A fucking idiot!” Bucky shouted, face red and furious.
Steve ignored him. “I’m good here,” he called, neatly elbowing a guard in the face. “Barnes, get to the vaults downstairs, Hawkeye and Widow, round up anyone who’s making a run for it. We got air support?”
“Stark is overhead, watching for anyone who’s made it out,” Clint called, moving for the double doors that led to the stairwells.
“Good,” Steve called back,, zip-tying the hands of one subdued guard before moving on to the next. “Let’s keep this fast and clean, folks! Go!”
Bucky was already down a floor and replied over the communication line with a clearly irritated, “Would’ve been fast and clean if you hadn’t jumped through the god damn window!”
Steve didn’t bother to respond.
No one was really sure how the fire got started. In the aftermath, it was strongly suspected that it was some sort of failsafe in the building’s security protocols: burn the evidence if they were in danger of being caught. The only problem with that plan was that Steve and the rest of the team were following their usual plan of subduing and restraining -- meaning there were dozens of rogue scientists, special security, and syndicate peons scattered throughout the building either handcuffed or zip-tied, some even unconscious.
Much as the team despised what they had been doing, they weren’t about to leave them to burn. They swept the burning building, floor by floor, until they’d gotten each and every human waste of space out and into waiting police vans and ambulances. But for some reason, when they regrouped outside, the team found themselves one short.
“We got everybody?” Bucky asked, glancing around the parking lot that had become ground zero for local law enforcement’s wrap-up. The team had come to an agreement of sort with most large local law enforcement agencies; once all the bad guys were rounded up and detained, the team would leave to let the locals handle the rest. No muss, no fuss -- and best of all, no paperwork.
Saving the world a few times over had garnered them a bit of leeway in that regard.
“All the unfriendlies are bagged and tagged,” Clint confirmed, poking one particularly surly goon with the toe of his boot where he sat bound on the pavement, and earning a grunt in return.
“Then why am I showing one moving body still inside the Towering Inferno here?” Tony’s voice came over the communication line. He was surveying the scene from overhead, using the infrared abilities of his suit to peer inside the building; the moving body was showing up cooler than the atmosphere for a change, with the fire still blazing in spite of the firefighters working hard at dousing the flames on the west side of the building.
“Jesus Christ, where the fuck is Steve?” Bucky snapped, taking a quick headcount of those standing near.
“We didn’t get all of the virus canisters out,” Steve’s voice, only slightly out of breath, came over the communication line.
“Uh Cap? I’m no expert here, but I think maybe you should get out of the burning building,” Clint said, eyes flicking towards the blaze.
“The heat from the fire will take care of the virus,” Natasha advised, sounding too calm for the situation at hand. “You need to get out now.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Steve responded with a grunt. “We’ve got almost three full generations of people without immunity in this country alone, let alone overseas. Can’t take any chances. I’ll just get the last cylinders and…”
Bucky thought for a moment that the sudden disturbance over the line was simply static, until he realized the crashing sound was echoing out into the open. The building’s roof had given way and fallen down into the building, crashing through at least two floors beneath it.
There were nothing further over the communication line.
At four-thirty in the morning, you were still awake. It had taken weeks but you’d finally managed a digital reconstruction of the bullet that made sense. The only problem was… it didn’t make sense.
You were no arms expert but you had vague ideas of how bullets looked and worked, and it hadn’t taken much research to confirm what you’d already known. But this one had been hollow, with some sort of mechanical setup inside. There was a wire spring inside that seemed as though it would be tightly coiled until the bullet was fired; once shot out, it would expand inside and activate a mechanism involving two micro-magnets. There were no chemical traces outside of gunpowder; it was driving you a little bit mad.
The sleeplessness was not uncommon for you. It always seemed to crop up when you were working on a tough problem, or when Steve was away. You’d heard their transport helicopter returning from Tony’s private airstrip upstate some hours ago and had been happy at least that they were home. You hadn’t seen Steve since the night you had slipped out of his bed -- our bed, you had thought sadly -- and you’d done your best to avoid him since.
You ached to see him, and that was the worst of it: despite the gaps in your memory, the life you had known with him just out of reach and supplanted by another far lonelier world, the affection hadn’t waned in the slightest. You loved him -- just as you loved all of them, your friends, your makeshift family in the Tower -- but you had no empirical evidence in your mind as to why.
You sighed, giving up on your notes and any hope for sleep that night, grabbing a remote from the coffee table to turn on the morning news.
“Breaking news of Massachusetts this morning, where emergency crews are still fighting a five-alarm fire at the Brettner Laboratories building in downtown Boston,” a grim-faced man in a gaudy tie intoned. “We now go live to our local affiliate Nancy Loo with the story. Nancy?”
The screen shifted to a middle-aged Asian woman who nodded at the camera, standing several feet away from a fire engine.
“Thank you, Vincent,” she began. “I’m live here at Brettner Labs where local firefighters have been battling a blaze since early this morning. We’re told this began as a terrorism infiltration spearheaded by the Avengers team. The fire began not long after initial touchdown by the Avengers. According to local law enforcement, they suspect that the fire was intentionally set by Brettner personnel in a cover-up effort.”
“Where there any injuries, Nancy?” Vincent-of-the-bad-tie asked, coming in on a split screen.
“Two firefighters are being treated locally for minor injuries,” Nancy informed him. “We’ve heard from witnesses that one of the Avengers team, Steve Rogers, most commonly known by the moniker ‘Captain America’, was seen carried out unconscious from the building after the roof collapsed and loaded into an Avengers transport. We haven’t heard any updates on his condition so far…”
The television remote fell from your hand; you were on your feet and out the door so quickly, you forgot to close the door behind you.
You couldn’t wait for the elevator; you had to take the stairs, practically running them to burn off a little of the nervous energy. Your hands were shaking and you felt jittery inside, a cold sweat on your brow. You couldn’t be sure if your heavy breathing was from the exertion or if you were edging into hyperventilating. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Four. Four times. You remembered them all with sudden, startling clarity.
The first time, you were still just dating; you’d been spend nights together more and more and you were still lounging around Steve’s rooms in the Tower after he’d been called out in the middle of the night. It had been bad. They came back late afternoon with Steve bleeding out from multiple gunshots. That was the day you learned he had listed you as an emergency contact; they’d called you even before they landed.
Then there was the broken leg -- femur broken in three places, still only took hours to knit itself back together.
The day he had been nearly taken captive, and Tony had to blast the team’s way through a four foot thick concrete barrier to get to him. Steve had taken a hard hit on the way out, falling into the debris and getting a spoke of rusty rebar through his ankle. That one had taken longer; the bone had started to heal around the rebar and it had to be rebroken to remove it properly.
The last one had been pretty simple, just a fracture in his right wrist. Still you hd run for medical as soon as you’d gotten word that he was hurt and needed to stop there first before coming home, and he’d smiled o see you. He always said that you by his side did more for him than all the doctors in the world.
That they hadn’t even notified you this time was like a knife to the gut. Maybe that had been at his request; maybe he’d taken you off his emergency notification list altogether, even though you were still legally his next of kin. He’d send you the papers a week after you’d gone to stay in the bland little apartment that Tony had set up for you, with a little note saying that he wouldn’t argue if this was what you really wanted, but you could never bring yourself to sign them.
When you reached the right floor and finally exited the stairwell, you rn only a handful of paces before you smacked directly into Bucky, stumbling back to fall on your ass and glare up at him.
“Where is he? Is he okay?” you demanded, not even pausing for a breath.
“He’s fine,” Bucky said, reaching a hand to help you to your feet. He spoke in an easy, measured tone, clearly trying calm you. “Everything is fine, you just need to…”
“Bucky, where is he?” you snapped, voice rising a notch in tone and tenor.
“Captain Rogers returned to his quarters several hours ago,” Dr. Cho cut in coolly, stepping out of her office to greet you. “Please lower your voice. It’s early and Mr. Barton is still resting.”
You glanced back to Bucky. “Clint?” you asked.
“Second degree burns,” he explained. “He’ll be okay.”
Knowing that Clint was safe and so, apparently, was Steve, you wheeled on Dr. Cho. “Why wasn’t I notified that Steve was injured? We have a protocol in place, I’m supposed to be called as soon as you know that Steve will require medical attention.”
“Wait, no one called you?” Bucky asked, surprised. He had thought your panicke arrival had been slow-building, that you had known of Steve’s injuries and demurred coming to his side until you could no longer stand it.
Dr. Cho’s expression remained neutral and calm. “Given your current situation, we thought it best not to follow that particular protocol.”
“Don’t you give me that, Helen!” you shouted angrily. “Unless you had a signed directive stating otherwise, you follow standard goddamn protocol!” You had lunged for her, the amped up energy and anxiety running through your veins bursting out in a fit of anger, but Bucky caught you around the waist and pulled you back.
You remembered it suddenly: jealousy. Professional, yes -- you had known Helen, during your undergrad, when she was beginning her postsecondary. You had divergent fields but you had both had your sights on working with SHIELD; any advance one made only spurred the other on further.
But there was more than that. You were never certain if she’d had an eye for Steve himself, or if it was the way you had become closer to the others, more a part of their inner circle than she ever had, that had galled her. But the chilliness was always there, still lingering between you.
The disapproval in her gaze, that day months ago when you sat in your hospital bed, made even more sense than it had then.
“C’mon, Doc, he’s not here,” Bucky said, pulling you away from the scene of your outburst even as Dr. Cho stalked away on her sensible heels, back into her office. “We’ll deal with this mess later, lemme fill you in and you can go see Steve.”
“She should have called me,” you told him, shaking your head. You felt suddenly exhausted, overwrought and near tears. It was just too much. “I should have been here, Bucky, I should have been here for him. He hates hospitals, he shouldn’t have been alone!”
That was another memory, sparked by the situation at hand. He had confessed it quietly, that first time you’d met him in medical. That he hated hospitals -- that he was afraid of them. It reminded him too much of when he was young, when an illness would force him into a hospital and his mother would have to work, to afford his medical bills and to keep them afloat while he was ill, and he’d spend alone hours all alone in an empty children’s ward.
The loneliness, the fear. It would all come back to him.
You’d promised him then that you’d always be there for him, so long as he kept a promise of his own: that he’d always come home to you.
You knees buckled as you reached the elevator, and Bucky had to guide you inside with an arm at your waist, keeping you on your feet.
“I p-p-promised…!” you sobbed.
“I know, Doc, I know,” Bucky told you gently. “It’ll be alright, yeah? Stevie just got himself knocked upside the head. Minor skull fracture, they said. Mostly healed by the time we got home.”
“A skull fracture?” you asked in horror. “Oh god, should he even be on his own now? Shouldn’t he be monitored in medical?”
Bucky chuckled. “You know Steve,” he told you. “Long as he can walk, he’s not gonna stick around. Cho said he was good to go and he went back to his place to sleep it off. He’s fine. But I bet seein’ you would do him a world of good.”
You rubbed the tears from your face with the sleeve of your robe -- realizing, much to your embarrassment, that you were wearing a ratty old bathrobe, open over a novelty nightshirt featuring a screenprint of a sleepy Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
“Yeah,” you agreed, sniffling. “Yeah, I need to see him.”
Steve dreamed of you often. He’d always been a prolific dreamer and you featured regularly in his nighttime fantasies even when you were sleeping there beside him. It had gotten all the more frequent in the months you’d been away.
Sometimes they were memories, his mind putting on a tortuous little slideshow as he slept, running over some of his most favored moments with you, only to wake to the grim reminder of an un-creased pillow and an empty bed. Lately, there had been more nightmares than anything else. One recurring dream saw him as a ghost of sorts; you’d go about your day and he’d be standing right there beside you, trying to talk to you, get your attention, but you couldn’t seem to see or hear him at all. It left him waking in a cold sweat, more often than not.
A head injury at least provided him with a little relief: a deep, dreamless sleep. It almost seemed worth the pounding headache.
He was laying flat on his stomach, on top of the bedclothes, when you crept in.
Just entering the apartment had given you goosebumps. You hadn’t been back but once since the day you had fainted; Bucky had retrieved some clothes and nondescript toiletries for you when you had made it clear you had no intention of returning to set up house, even temporarily. It was just as you remembered, but carried an air of disuse. You’d heard more than once that Steve tended to avoid going home at night, staying in common areas into the wee hours of the morning or arranging things to crash at Bucky’s apartment.
Bucky had given you a rundown of Steve’s injuries as he walked you there, leaving you at the door to deal with FRIDAY on your own.
“This is not your current principal dwelling,” the AI had reminded when you’d asked that the door be unlocked.
You’d glared up at the ceiling. “This is my home, FRIDAY. Open the fucking door.”
The AI had complied, but not without a haughty little huff in response. You’d deal with offended building attendant systems later; you had greater concerns to deal with now.
Steve had left dishes in the sink and his boots by the door, both uncharacteristic of him; the knowledge came to you simply, no grand flashes of memory or sudden realizations. You just knew -- just as you knew how you’d find him, sprawled across the bed, still in the sweaty t-shirt and boxer briefs he wore beneath his suit, which was in a heap on the floor.
You fought the urge to clean up after him and simply slipped into the bed, sitting with your back to the dark cherry headboard to watch him sleep and think things over for awhile.
It had been a piece of laboratory machinery that had taken him down, Bucky told you. Steve had been three floors below the roof when it collapsed, stubbornly insisting he track down every last canister of a viral concoction before leaving the burning building. When the roof came down, it caved in the floors beneath it, and a glancing blow from an ultracentrifuge to his temple as it rained down from above had been enough to take knock him out.
He’d gotten some minor burns before he was found, but they’d all but healed very quickly, and his oxygen levels had improved all the way back to normal by the time the team had gotten him back to the Tower.
They’d taken their scans and x-rays, concluding there had indeed been a significant fracture, but there hadn’t been any brain swelling and the bone had started to knit back together almost immediately. Steve had needed a few dissolving stitches and some observation before he had been cleared to leave medical, but the healing he needed wasn’t physical. Bucky had stressed that to you on the walk down.
“He’s takin’ risks he shouldn’t, doll,” Bucky had explained. “Pig-headed as all get out. No reason for him to be runnin’ around in a fire like that. If they heat hadn’t killed the rest of that virus, it would have been contained enough for it to be handled by professionals once the fire was out.”
“He’s making bad decisions in the field?” you asked, frowning.
Bucky sighed. “Feelin’ more like he doesn’t give a damn if he makes it back or not. You gotta try and talk him down, once you feel better yourself. Can’t stand to see the two of you like this.”
So there you were, watching Steve sleep, in the very bed you once shared, wondering if you were making a mistake even being there. This was getting in far too deep; there wouldn’t be any going back, if you let yourself give in now.
But he needed you. How could you turn your back on that?
You were still watching him in silent contemplation when Steve shuffled in his sleep, his body recognizing your presence and drawing nearer of its own accord. He had just settled himself with his head in your lap when the vague, dreamy expression on his face had turned to a frown and he blinked his eyes open, staring up at you with a sleepy gaze.
“I hate dreams like this,” he half-spoke, half-whispered. His voice was hoarse, no doubt still raw from all of the smoke he had breathed in. Some things healed quickly; others took more time. The injury to his head looked like little more than a scratch, with a few oversized stitches that didn’t need to be there. His cheeks were still stained with soot, the outline of his cowl just barely visible; at least he’d made some half-hearted attempt to wipe it away.
“Why’s that?” you asked, using the sleeve of your soft violet terrycloth robe to clean up his face.
Steve closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. “You’re always gone when I wake up,” he said with a low sigh.
“What if I promised to stay this time?” you asked, dropping your sleeve so you could touch him without a barrier between you; his skin was warm and rough against your palm, early morning stubble on his cheeks.
Steve’s eyes opened again, wider this time in disbelief. “You’re really here?” he asked, voice shaking.
You smiled as best you could, trying not to cry. “I made a promise, didn’t I?” you told him. “I’m sorry I’m a little late. But you haven’t been keeping your promises either.”
Steve said your name softly and frowned. “What do you mean?” he asked, arching a brow and wincing at the soreness in his head.
“Jumping through windows without a line?” you asked, shaking your head. “Running around burning labs? You promised me you’d come home safe.”
Steve’s expression darkened and he sat up, pulling away. “Bucky put you up to this?” he asked, voice bitter and shoulders hunched. “He can be as concerned as he wants but it ain’t fair, tryin’ to play me like this.”
“Steve, no…” you began, reaching out to touch his shoulder, but he jerked away. “I’ve been remembering. Some things, not everything… bits and pieces mostly. Everything else is still there, what I woke up with, but other things are coming back. That came back, just tonight.”
“You can’t pretend like you remember,” he told you obstinately, refusing to meet your gaze. “It’s cruel, doin’ that to me. I’d do anything for you, Doc, but you can’t… you can’t…”
You racked your mind for something, anything that would convince him. Bucky knew most of what you shared with Steve; it was inevitable, as close as the two were. Best of friends by choice, brothers forged in battle. The only person in the world who had been closer to Steve than Bucky… was you.
But some things, you knew, Steve didn’t share. They were too personal, too private. Steve held them sacred -- and so did you.
He still wouldn’t look at you, but he didn’t flinch away when you reached out and touched him, gently caressing his cheek.
“I do remember,” you insisted, voice low and soft. “I remember some of the important things, I swear it. Things Bucky could never have told me.”
You felt a hot tear slide down his cheek, slipping over your fingertips.
“I remember,” you went on, voice shaking just slightly. “I remember the day it was raining. We were supposed to go to Governor’s Island, but it rained. I was so happy that it rained.”
Steve turned to you suddenly and sharply, eyes wide with surprise. He said your name in a low gasp and before you could respond, he crushed his lips to yours.
There was such an immense feeling of relief that came with finally giving in. All the time you had spent fighting this, fighting your every instinct in deference to a muddled mind… it had been exhausting. This, now… letting yourself be pressed back against the pillows, tasting the familiarity of Steve’s kiss… it was the most relaxed you’d felt since the moment you woke to your confused state.
You knew this. Maybe you couldn’t remember every kiss, every caress, but you knew this; you didn’t even have to think. You knew that Steve loved to hear your voice, that the sound of your gaps could draw out goosebumps on his skin; you knew that he loved to be touched, the feel of your hands gliding down his back, nails gently raking his skin. You knew where to kiss, where to nip with your teeth, just how hard to tug at his hair.
And Steve… he knew your body as well as his own, bringing you to mind-blowing highs and kissing and soothing you in the comedown. You couldn’t help the way you wept in his arms, finally allowing yourself what you had been longing for. When morning came, you would wake in the arms of the man you loved -- who you had loved all along.
Maybe something had robbed you of your memory, planted false ones in its wake, but it couldn’t remove the bond you had with Steve. Even with so much taken from you, you knew without question that Steve Rogers was the love of your life.
Nothing would ever change that. You could wake up tomorrow, back in the lonely world you could remember completely, and you’d still love him all the same.
You told him as much without realizing, between kisses and tears, your bodies moving in concert, a sweet symphony you’d hold in your heart for all of your days to come.
It was nearly noon before you were roused to wakefulness and as consciousness seeped in, you were afraid to open your eyes. There was a silent terror inside of you, fearing that once you greeted the new day, you’d find yourself in some hospital bed following a bad accident or even worse, in the lonely apartment you’d had in San Diego.
“You’re really here,” Steve’s voice broke gently into your ear, and you smiled, opening your eyes to find him curled against you in the bed you had once shared.
“I am,” you agreed, smiling still as Steve leaned to press a kiss to the corner of your mouth. You sighed happily at the gesture and found yourself kissing him long and deep before you even realized, morning breath be damned. You were finally allowing yourself to love him again; you’d take any and every kiss you could manage.
When Steve pulled away, he wore an expression with a mixture of hopefulness and trepidation.
“Are you going to stay this time?” he asked in a carefully measured tone.
“I suppose that’s up to you,” you told. You reached to gently touch his face, loving the way he closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. “Steve… Baby, can I come home?”
You gasped in surprise when his arms circled around you, pulling you close against his chest as he rolled onto his back and then again, to pin you beneath his weight against the mattress. You laughed, tickled by his hair as he nuzzled against your chest.
“Only s’long you promise me you’ll never, ever leave again,” he told you, and you laughed. He lifted his head to press his forehead against yours. “Never, ever, ever, you hear?”
“I promise!” you told him, giggling even as you peppered his face with kisses. “I promise, I promise, I promise…!”
A little more than six months since the day you awoke to confusion and fainted in your living room, you were finally home again.
It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon when you finally made your way into the kitchen. Steve was still in the shower; you had been sharing the warm spray but you had ducked out when your fingers had gone pruney, laughing at the way Steve had tried to pull you back in. You’d pulled a fresh nightgown from your dresser -- something a little more sexy, pale lilac silk with thin straps and a low back, the hem falling only to mid-thigh.
Eeyore had, regretfully, not made it through the night, ripped from collar to hem in a single swoop of Steve’s strong hands.
You could hear Steve whistling as he puttered around the bedroom and you took your time poking around the fridge. It may have been well into the afternoon but it was still breakfast-time for you and Steve, so you pulled out a carton of eggs, some butter, and a package of bologna. It was second nature; you hadn’t even had to stop and think.
Scrambled eggs. Buttered toast. Fried bologna. Steve was a creature of habit and a man of simple tastes; he was happy so long as the food was hot, and there was a lot of it. You were startled with a sudden memory of the previous Thanksgiving at the Tower; Tony had learned from previous years and catered in a record five huge turkeys for the occasion. Between the hyperstimulated metabolisms of Steve, Bucky, and Natasha, and the general gluttonous atmosphere of the holiday, there were still barely any leftovers.
You grinned to yourself; every new memory made you smile.
“That smells amazing!” Steve announced as he came out of the bedroom. He’d gone for a minimalist approach to dressing after his shower, wearing a pair of soft grey sleep pants that rode low enough on his hips that you knew he wore nothing underneath.
That certainly had potential.
His skin was still bright pink from the heat of his shower, his cheeks gone ruddy and even his chest a bright and cheery pink.
You laughed. “Look at you, Irish,” you said, and your jaw dropped even as the wods tumbled from your lips.
The memory came with sudden clarity: his birthday, early on in your relationship. A day in the park in the sunshine before returning home to the Tower, retreating to the soundproofed private screening room to blot out the night’s fireworks with Disney films, joined first by Bucky and then gradually the rest of the team as the night wore on.
Steve had been bright red, courtesy of the sunny day, and you had teased him mercilessly.
“Look at you, Irish,” you had told him, shaking your head. “Not even the serum can keep you from burning, huh?”
You’d called him that ever since, a little pet name shared between the two of you. You felt warm and bubbly inside just for remembering.
Steve smiled. “You just remember that?” he asked gently. He didn’t want to push or pry; in the moments when he hadn’t been wallowing in his grief, he’d tried to understand the medical side of amnesia and recovery. He’d had enough background in it with Bucky as it was; he knew you had to take things slow.
You nodded. “It’s been like that. Little things, bit by bit. I still don’t… Steve, I’m still on shaky ground sometimes. I don’t know what’s real and I have two different lives living in my head.”
“But you want to be here… don’t you?” he asked. He bit his lip, and you knew he was unsure if he wanted to hear the answer.
You walked to him slowly, slipping your arms around his trim waist. “I’ve never been so happy as I am right now,” you said honestly. “I want to be here. To be with you. Whatever else happens, you have to know that.”
You took a few days off; you decided you deserved it. You had a lot to re-learn. What little you remembered wasn’t quite enough to share space with Steve again. You had to get used to his idiosyncrasies -- just as he needed to get used to any of yours that were new after your brain got scrambled.
Steve just enjoyed having you home. He didn’t care if you didn’t sing in the shower anymore, as long as he could be there to wrap you up in a towel as you came out, or, better still, join you under the warm spray. He didn’t mind that you ordered black olives on pizza, as long as he could share it with you, seated in a cozy booth in his favorite pizzeria, hands linked beneath the table. He had no problem giving you your space on days when half-thought memories overwhelmed you and you needed to decompress, as long as you came home when you were ready.
“I just want to be with you,” Steve told you earnestly, as the last vestiges of a bad day eased from your mind and you slipped into the bedroom you were sharing once again. “Whatever you need from me, even if it’s just to get out of your hair for awhile, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes.”
You couldn’t help the easy smile that came to your face. “I’ll never leave you again, not for good. I can at least promise you that,” you told him, and slid into the bed beside him.
The best part of spending time away from your work was that you were getting to know and understand Steve in a way you hadn’t before. There were two things you had known to be true when you awoke to this strange new world: first, and most important, you loved Steve Rogers with all your heart and all your soul, and, second, and most frustrating, you didn’t know why.
Objectively, he was attractive. There was no denying that. The actor that played him on the other side of the universe was pretty easy on the eyes, part and parcel for his job description, and had put on considerable muscle mass for the role, so that was understandable. But this Steve -- the real Steve, if you’d even dare to think it, was beautiful in a way that went beyond his hard body and pretty eyelashes. There was something inside of him -- something innate to Steve himself, body and soul -- that you’d never seen in anyone before. He wasn’t just a perfect physical specimen; he was good. You could look in his eyes and know that the world was better for him being in it. He wasn’t perfect -- he was human and made mistakes like anyone else -- but he never stopped trying to be better. You could see why you -- or this version of you, her, whatever you were calling it lately -- had been drawn to him.
But there was more than that. You got butterflies in your stomach when he smiled at you. The touch of his hand at the small of your back could calm you in an instant. When his eyes would go dark, a little smirk playing on his lips, and he’d meet your gaze, it would send a delicious shiver up and down your spine. And when you slipped into bed beside him, the sheets cool against your skin and his delightful warmth surrounding you as he pulled you close, to hold you and whisper sweet things until you each drifted off… you knew that if heaven existed, it would be just like this.
Steve wasn’t perfect -- you knew that. You knew that. He drank the orange juice straight from the carton, and put it back in the fridge with little left. His socks somehow never seemed to find the hamper. He’d sketch in bed and you’d wake up to sheets marked with graphite from where he’d lost his pencil. He broke the spine on the books that he read and dogeared the pages -- even on your books, no matter how many times you asked him not to. Sometimes he’d take his frustrations out on you -- a bad day at work could translate to Steve picking a fight over something stupid. He’d always apologize though, and admit that it wasn’t really about anything between the two of you.
Not once since you’d come home had he failed to kiss you goodnight.
You were in love with him, completely. The you that was -- the one that he knew -- and the one you were now, with the muddled mind and confused memories. You loved him. You just didn’t know how to stop -- and you didn’t really want to.
Eventually you had to get back to work. You didn’t want to; Steve had been relatively mission-free for the whole time you had stayed home to re-learn your life, and you had luxuriated in spending the time with him. Steve wasn’t terribly keen on you leaving either.
Your alarm went off at seven sharp -- it was a nice perk to the job that your commute was an elevator ride and saved you so much time -- and Steve groaned to hear it. You’d both been away for an hour or so, cuddled close beneath your blankets and enjoying the dark your blackout shades provided along with the quiet of the early morning.
As soon as you reached and turned off the alarm, Steve flipped you onto your back and caged you in with his arms, having pulled the comforter over both of your heads. He whispered your name and nuzzled beneath your ear, even as you giggled.
“Stay with me,” he implored. “One more day, baby doll, please? Just one more.”
You sighed and let your eyes fall shut, enjoying his pleas for the moment, smiling when his gentle nuzzling gave way to soft kisses along your shoulder.
“That’s what you said yesterday,” you reminded, and Steve hummed.
“Yesterday was a great day,” he countered. “Let’s have another.”
“And the day before that,” you pointed out, and felt his lips pull into a smile against your skin.
“I can be very convincing when the need arises,” Steve responded, his knee gently nudging yours apart so he could settle himself on the bed between your thighs.
“I don’t think the need is the only thing rising this morning, Steven,” you teased, enjoying the way his laugh rumbled against you. When his lips strayed to your throat and you couldn’t hold back the soft moan that slipped from your lips, Steve grinned.
“Oh well,” you said, gliding your hands up the arm bare skin of his back. “I suppose I can be late…”
When you finally made it into work, somewhere around half past nine, you were smiling, hair still damp from your shower. Your technicians were hard at work already -- that had reverted to your initial wormhole project while you took some time away -- and greeted you cheerfully as you made your way into the lab. You decided to let them keep at it for the time being, and resigned to work at your pet project on your own for the day.
The specs of the bullet still had you puzzled. It made some small amount of sense, in that the pieces fit together as they should in the computer models you were working with while the actually bullet itself sat in pieces in a sealed bag on your workspace, but the function was still beyond your grasp. You knew at the least that it was a custom construction, so there was no tracing the manufacture through serial numbers and purchase receipts. At best, you could work towards breaking down the minute elements in the mass-spec, but you wanted to save that for a last ditch effort.
You were re-reading a report on the holographic digital screen before you when someone crept up behind you and with two pointed fingers on each hand, poked you hard in the sides. You jumped, arms wrapped around yourself in an automatic defensive position.
The words were out of your mouth before you even saw her, standing there with a grin and beanie pulled down over her waves of dark hair.
“Aha!” she declared triumphantly. “So you do remember me!”
You couldn’t help yourself; you burst into laughter and found yourself suddenly hugging the other woman with the force and affection of seeing a good friend after a long absence, and realized that to some degree, you were. Much as it had been with Steve, your mind and heart told you that this person was important to you.
The memories might have waned, but the affection simply couldn’t.
Pulling away, you punched her hard in the shoulder.
“Yowch!” Darcy yelped, rubbing her arm. “What the hell was that for?”
“It’s been over six months since I was shot and had my brain run through a metaphoric blender, and you just show up now?!” you demanded.
Darcy shrugged, hands in the air. “My bad?”