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Of Soldiers and Souls

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He stared at the to-go, paper cup in his hands, the heat from the black coffee seeping into his palms. He desperately tried to focus on the feeling of the warmth, to drown out everything else assaulting his senses. Unfortunately, being an ex-assassin and super soldier…his mind processed everything searching for signs of danger. The group of three, young ladies at a table nearby were talking animatedly and laughing. A man sat in a lounge chair behind him typing away on his laptop. The smell of ground coffee, the older lady standing in line’s strong floral perfume and excessive sugar in the air made him take shallow breaths. A car alarm started going off at least one street away causing him to almost jump out of his seat. The wooden table he sat at had nicks and dings from prior customers, flawing the finish. Inside the coffee shop, the air was warm but unpleasantly so for him. He dared not take his jacket off though, no matter how uncomfortable he became. The metal arm would attract unwanted attention.

He sighed, rubbing the heel of his right hand into his eye. He was supposed to be out running around the lake with Steve and Sam. A much needed break from the indoor track and treadmills of the Avengers compound. The fresh scent of spring, the warm sun and the feeling of not being trapped indoors should have invigorated him. Instead he felt drained. The nightmares last night had attacked in waves that left him thrashing in his bed, screaming to escape them. Finally, having overheard from his room next door, Steve came into his room and woken him. There was no sleep after that though. The faces of victims…the memories of torture endured…all lingered at the edges of his mind, waiting to devastate his sleep. Normally he would loved to have raced Steve and tease Sam for being slow but today…he just needed space.

It had been six months since Steve convinced him to stay at the Avengers compound in upstate New York. Little by little he was healing physically, mentally and psychologically. Some days were better than others. It helped having both Steve and Nat encouraging him. Besides those two and Sam, the others gave him a wide berth. Probably for the best. Stability was not his strongest suit right now.

His eyes did a quick, repetitive sweep over the lobby, more habitual then actually necessary. After running for a short bit, he told Steve and Sam he would meet up with them at the usual stopping point. He said he was too tired to run. Steve seemed to hesitate about leaving his best friend alone but gave in and took off with Sam on his heels. Realistically, he should have found a bench outside to sit on…to stay away from people. His feet, strangely enough, carried him to the small town’s local coffee shop. It was perfectly decorated in an Adirondack theme- lots of wood panels and furniture, flannel fabrics and a fire going in a firepit tucked into one of the walls. It should have been relaxing. Yet he felt anything but relaxed.

Sitting with his back to the wall, near the door, he wondered if he should just leave and head to the meet up spot. Everything in here was too much. The heat was beginning to suffocate him now. The sharp sounds of the steam wands and grinders were grating to his ears. The coffee tasted bitter, bringing forth unpleasant memories. So many people talking and laughing…didn’t they have jobs? Other places to be? It was around nine in the morning but the traffic coming in and out was unending. A business man suddenly dropped his coffee cup near the register, spilling coffee all over the counter and floor. A cry went up from the baristas and those nearby, trying to help clean up the mess. The impact though…the sound of the cup hitting the floor caused him to jerk. The sound was loud and sharp. Like a gunshot. The dark stain on the floor. In the right light, it could look like blood. Another victim. Another death by his hand. Panic rose up in his chest. The horrible memories from his dreams took their cue and entered to ravage his mind. So many faces. It had felt so easy at the time. They meant nothing. Just the mission mattered. He always completed his mission. He closed his eyes, trying to push the images away. He had to get out. He could not do this here. His chest felt constrained. His head began to swim. He had to get out. Everything was in overdrive. Current and past blurred together. Not now, please. He could not lose control…not here. Too many people…too many witnesses. He had to leave now. He needed air.

“Hey, handsome. I’ve never seen you here before.”

So focused on keeping himself controlled and outwardly calm, he completely missed her approach to his table. He wanted to groan, tell her to get lost, not interested, whatever it took to make her walk away. But, even after all these decades and Hydra brainwashing, a flash of memory- his mother practically beating into him the importance of respecting women- came to the forefront of his mind. A small smile touched his lips at the memory. His mother had been livid with him for throwing mud and splattering it all over the neighbor girl’s pretty, new dress. Steve had stood next to him, taking the scolding also so his best friend would not be alone to face the wrath of Mrs. Barnes. At the time, he had been terrified but looking back now, he fondly regarded it. His memories from before Hydra were painstakingly slow to return, particularly childhood ones. He would have to remember to tell Steve about the memory.

Unfortunately, the nostalgic smile on his lips, his visitor misconstrued thinking it was because of her. She placed a flat palm on the table, leaning her hip against the edge. “I’m Catie. What’s your name? Or should I just call you sexy?”

He peeked at her from the corner of his eyes, keeping his gaze focused on the cup still in his hands. She was very pretty- bright red lips, smoky eyes, full rack in a tight work-out top. He tried to open his mouth to say something but the panic in his chest restricted his airway. He felt like a fish out of water. Hands trembling ever so slightly. The desperate need to escape came back redoubled. She stood in his way. How could he get by without causing a scene? Where was Steve when he needed him? Oh God! His stomach whirled and twisted making him feel nauseous.

“Hey, sweetheart, thanks for saving a spot for me.” Someone slid into the chair next to his.

Could this get any worse? He swore silently to himself. Why were these women trying to practically kill him now? He needed to get out. Now. Tears pricked at his eyes. He could not keep this up. The panic…the memories repressed…the feeling of helplessness was threatening to drown him. Someone was going to get hurt. He only could hope it was him.

The lady next to him turned to the first. “Hey, Catie. Nice seeing you again. My boyfriend and I are having an importance discussion so if you don’t mind giving us some space.”

His left hand was clenching the cup too tightly, the cup giving way under the metal’s pressure. He needed to relax. He needed air. Why could they not just leave him alone?

Catie huffed and stomped away without a backward glance, the bell from the door chiming signaling her exit.

“I’m going to put my arm around you, ok? I’m going to move slow…tell me if I hurt you.”

Before he could counter her, tell her he just needed to get out, he needed air…it was too late. Her right arm went across his broad shoulders, tucking him closer to her chest. He could not focus on it. Their faces, the blood, the panic, it was becoming unbearable.

Her musical voice softened, closer to his ear. “Breath with me, sweetheart. Follow me. In…Out…Focus on that.”

He tried, he was not sure why but her voice pulled at him. His mind focused on her melodious voice encouraging him, the feeling of her chest expanding and contracting against his left arm, the scent of lemon wrapping around him. Without warning, she placed her left hand over his. He tensed, the unexpected touch catching him off-guard. She was touching his metal hand! He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the disturbing sensation. She needed to let go, but a small piece of him yearned for the contact…to ground him...suddenly feeling less alone. 

“Listen to me.” She whispered out, her warm breath hitting his neck. “I want you to focus on the feeling of the sunshine hitting you through the window. It’s warm, isn’t it? So rejuvenating. Now take a deep breath and focus on the smell of the coffee. That’s it. Focus on those, nothing else. Deep breath in. Deep breath out.”

He followed her instructions unquestioningly, taking a deep breath when she did and releasing it when she did. The feeling of the sunshine on his face felt pleasant. Instead of the coffee, he focused on the lemon scent coming off her. The fresh, citrusy smell was inviting and oddly nostalgic. Something about lemonade in summer tickled the back of his mind. Unconsciously he found his left hand releasing the paper, coffee cup and allowing their fingers to intertwine. It took several minutes for him to fully calm down. His breathing steadied. The panic in his chest dwindled. The haunting memories regressed to the deepest parts of his mind. His hands ceased trembling. During this time, her cheek lay against his shoulder, her exaggerated breathing a reminder for him to follow.

Once fully under control and calm, he sat up straighter to look at his heroine beside him. Somehow in the span of several minutes, she helped alleviate the panic and fear he had been fighting since his nightmares that night. Feeling his shifting, she sat up and he got his first real look at her. Something fluttered within his chest. Her dirty-blonde hair was up in a ponytail. She had alabaster skin and a few freckles across her cheeks and bridge of her nose. Her upper lip was just slightly fuller than her bottom with a sheen of gloss on them. Her eyes were amber and warm as honey set in long lashes. Guessing, he would say she was probably twenty-six or twenty-seven. She was definitely pretty, not the typical beautiful, but he did not mind staring at her.

“How are you feeling?”

“Bet…” He swallowed, clenching and unclenching his right hand. “Better. Thank you.”

She smiled, a warmness conveyed in her expression and voice. “Are you meeting someone here?”

“No... At the park.”

“Ok. I’m actually heading that way. If you want to walk me there, I would like that. It got a bit loud in here for my taste and I wouldn’t mind getting some air.”

It did not go unnoticed how she phrased her offer. She was giving him the opportunity to escort her verse offering to walk and keep an eye on him. Since going to the compound, it always felt like people were waiting for him to lose it. How they phrased things, how they acted around him made him aware that he was the unstable one needing help. Now this pretty lady was giving him the option to choose to walk with her or stay here. A choice. A small one but still he got to make it. Although it was no real choice at all.

“Yes ma’am, I’ll walk you.”

Her smile broadened at the ‘ma’am’, making her eyes sparkle. “Well aren’t you quite the gentleman.”

He decided then and there she was beautiful.

She released his left hand from hers, which he had not realized he was still holding, and stood up. “Let me grab my stuff quick, that ok?”

He nodded. Seeing her stand up now, he had not realized how short and curvy she was. She could not have been taller than 5’3”, making her almost an entire foot shorter than him. Her body was the perfect definition of an hourglass figure. With the form fitting jeans and a green, long-sleeve shirt she wore, it showed she had been well-endowed with certain assets. He needed to stop ogling her as she walked away.

Quickly she grabbed what looked like a large purse from a nearby table and slipped a book into it before walking back over to him. He rose as she approached and moved towards the door, making sure to hold it open for her.

A soft, light giggle escaped her as she stepped by him. “You sure know how to treat a girl, sweetheart.”

The beginnings of a blush started to form on his cheeks. Falling into step with her, he made sure to stand on her left side and closer to the street. A faint memory appeared, something the old Bucky would do, and he impulsively acted upon it. Carefully but purposefully he snagged her left hand and put it in the crook of his arm. Butterflies erupted in his stomach, a nervousness settling over him that he had not experienced in decades. Was this safe to do? Did she want this? He used to be so confident with women. Now, he was a shell of his former self…only bits and pieces lingering.

She glanced down at her hand around his arm then up into his dark eyes before smiling. “I could get used to this.” A wink followed her comment then she turned back to focus on the sidewalk.

His heart fluttered and a goofy grin spread across his face. Maybe his instincts had not forgotten everything.

A breeze off the lake blew a few stands of his shoulder-length, dark brown hair across his face. The air clung to the last hints of winter’s chill but the sun compensated, burning brightly in the clear, blue sky. Most of the trees had their leaves back, a few with buds. The promise of spring flowers and a renewal in the circle of life. They walked in comfortable silence as they passed the downtown store fronts. A few others walked by them, no one giving them more than a single look.

“Thank you...” He softly said, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “…for earlier.”

“You’re welcome.”

After another few steps, he ventured to ask the question hanging over him. “How did you know?”

“About what?”

He stopped, turning to face her. “How…how did you know I needed help? And what to do? I’ve never calmed down so quickly.”

She tilted her head up to meet his eyes, a soft, sad smile on her face…like she understood. “I’ve been helping my older sister for a few years now. She…well, let’s say her last boyfriend was an asshole and didn’t treat her right. She is still suffering with PTSD because of him. I saw you and recognized a few of the signs but weirdly…I just knew.” With her other hand, she cupped his cheek, staring into his eyes. He could not help it, he leaned into her touch like a sapling desperate for the sun’s rays to provide a necessity for life. It had been so long since someone had touched him gently like this.

She opened her mouth as if to say something then closed it. Withdrawing her hand from his cheek, a mischievous glint entered her eyes. “Besides, I went to school with Catie. She’s a man-eater. You didn’t seem interested, so I guessed you wouldn’t mind my intervening.”

He chuckled as they started walking again, keeping her hand tucked in the crook of his arm. He was not ready to lose contact with her.

“Can I ask you something else?”

She squeezed his arm. “Sure.”

“What were you reading? I saw you put a book in your bag.”

A blush blossomed on her cheeks as she bit her bottom lip. “Only if you promise not to laugh.”

“Promise.”

“The Odyssey.”

“The…the classic? The Greek story, right?”

“Yeah, I’m kind of a huge history nerd…and I just love the story. My friends make fun of me about it.”

“I wouldn’t make fun of you for that, doll. It just shows you have a sophisticated taste.”

Her blush deepened, eyes downcast, but a smile on her lips. He decided making her blush and smile could be his favorite new pastime.

They approached the small city park, just at the end of the main street. It was nestled amongst oak and elm trees against the lake’s edge. A small playground stood in the middle with a swing set and a few benches and picnic tables scattered about. They stopped and stood on the sidewalk in front of the park.

“Thanks for walking with me. My house is just up the street.” She turned her face up to meet his gaze.

Everything in him screamed to fight for more time with her. Since she first spoke to him and had him follow her breathing, a tranquility hovered over him that he had never experienced. Besides, he liked being with her. A sense of the old Bucky was coming back. “Do you want me to walk you there? I don’t mind.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be meeting someone?”

He shrugged. “They can wait…actually, they probably won’t be here for a while anyway. One of them is slow.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“We…we were going to run around the lake for our cardio today. I wasn’t feeling well so I declined but I’ll make up for the miles later or do twice as much tomorrow.”

“Run around the lake? That’s at least seven miles!” Her eyes widened and scanned his body rapidly. “No wonder you look so good!”

He blinked, caught off-guard by her comment but then a shit-eating grin grew on his lips.

At that same moment, her mouth dropped open and she covered her face with her free hand. “Oh my God, I can’t believe I said that out loud. I’m so sorry. I swear I’m not trying to hit on you.”

“I wouldn’t mind if you did, angel. I could easily return the favor.”

She laughed, a lovely, musical sound. “You’re good for my self-esteem, sweetheart.”

Using his left hand, he tucked a few fly-away strands of hair behind her ear. They stood smiling at one another, encased in a bubble of their own making. In the moment, a sense of hope and anticipation filled him. He would have given anything to know what she was thinking of right now.

“Bucky?!”

He swiveled to look behind him, down the sidewalk. Steve and Sam were walking towards them, sweat coating their shirts. At the call, she slipped her arm from around his and he immediately lamented the loss of her touch.

“Hey, you ready to head out, Buck?” Steve asked as they approached. He could see the two guys not so subtly assessing the lady next to him. A twinge of jealousy arouse that he shoved back down.

“Um, yeah…I…” He started but she interrupted, placing a hand on his arm.

“It’s ok. I usually walk home. I’ll see you around, sweetheart.” She held his eyes, patting his arm reassuringly. Then she turned to Steve and Sam, giving them a courteous smile and walked away.

“See ya, doll.”

She turned around and held his gaze for a moment before breaking out into a beaming smile and chuckling. Turning back, she continued on the sidewalk away from the main street.

“Dude, is that why you ditched us?” Sam asked, eyes following her.

Steve spoke up before Bucky could give a sarcastic retort. “What’s her name?”

Bucky froze. It felt like the world around him stood still momentarily. How had he not gotten her name during their time talking? It had been so easy, so effortless. It felt like he had known her for years. “Aw, damn it.”

“Shit, you didn’t get her name?” Sam asked in horror. Suddenly he cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to her. “Hey, beautiful. What’s your name?”

She spun around but continued to walk backwards as she replied. “Alesha!”

A part of him wanted to melt. He knew her name. He took a step towards her, locking eyes. “Can I see you soon?”

She stopped, hands on her hips, as if debating what to say. After a hesitation, she put a hand up and beckoned him over with a single finger. His feet started moving before his brain caught up. He jogged over to where she waited, coming to stand in front of her.

“Hand.” She said, digging in her purse.

He held his right hand out, unsure what that had to do with anything. In a moment, she retrieved a pen out of her purse and took his hand in hers. She wrote on the back of his hand but his entire focus was on the sweet smile on her lovely face and her pretty, glossy lips.

“That’s my number. Text me. I always have Wednesdays off if you’re free then. I often take my dog to the local walking trails of you wouldn’t mind skipping your run and walking with me.”

“I would love to, Alesha.” The taste of her name on his tongue felt like pure sugar.

“Ok. I’ll wait for your text…Bucky?” She held her hand out as if to shake his but instead he grabbed and kissed the back of it, a teasing smirk on his lips. The scent of lemon enveloped him once again and he could not help taking a deep breath.

Her blush returned and she bit her lip. “Oh, sweetheart, you’re going to make me swoon.”

“I promise I’ll catch you, doll.”

She laughed as she squeezed his hand, he kept her hand trapped in his, then took a step back. “I really need to go…bye, Bucky.”

“Good-bye, Alesha.” He regretfully released her hand and watched, as she smiled then turned around and kept walking. Her hips swayed with each step as her ponytail bounced. Dips and curves outlined her form in appealing ways. After a long moment of admiring her form, he turned around and headed back to Steve and Sam who both were grinning broadly at him.

“Are you ready now?” Steve asked jokingly, clapping a hand on his best friend’s shoulder. “You always had a way with the dames.”

“Dude, you had better call her.” Sam put in, following behind.

As soon as they got into the black SUV parked along the street, Bucky grabbed his cell phone and text her, unwilling to wait longer.

-Hey, doll. What if I don’t want to wait until next Wednesday to see you again? Can I see you sooner?

A few minutes went by with Bucky in the back seat, his heart pounding, until his phone chirped.

-Hey sweetheart. You play your cards right, I may have a few hours open on Sunday.

-I’ll take it.

-Ok. Let me text you this evening and we can confirm a time and place. Sound ok?

-Whatever works for you, angel. I’ll be happy with just ten minutes to see your beautiful face.

-I’m swooning right now…and you aren’t here to catch me. So unfair. ;) I’ll text you later.

-I’ll be waiting.

Bucky sat back with his head against the head rest and looked out the car window. It had been decades since he felt this light and happy. Rationally he knew he should not be getting a head of himself but there was something about her that made him feel …alive…hopeful…vibrant…peaceful. He tapped his phone against his leg, excited energy coursing through him. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on the warmth of the sunshine on his face and the lingering scent of lemon that reminded him of her. Thinking of her hand in the crook of arm and her hand cupping his cheek, he could not help the easy smile that slipped onto his face at the memory. He could not wait to hear from her tonight…and Sunday could not come soon enough.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Alesha put her Chevy Trailblazer in park then took a deep breath, trying to steady her heart rate. Normally she thoroughly enjoyed walking her dog in the walking trails, it felt good to walk amongst nature and just be away from everything. Under the sun and nestled amongst the trees, her spirit always felt revived. Such peace could be found to sustain her to get through another week. Today, though, she was slightly nervous…ok, more than slightly. Butterflies threatened to explode out of her stomach. She checked the time on her cellphone. 12:58pm. She was two minutes early. Before she could delay any longer, a wet nose poked the side of her head making her smile.

“Ok, ok. We’re going.”

She got out of her car, pocketing both her keys and her cellphone then opened the car door behind the driver’s side so her dog could jump out. The chocolate lab leapt out, tail wagging ready to explore.

 “Come on, boy, let’s go.”

There were only two other cars in the small parking lot leading to the trail head. One was a small sedan while the other was a black SUV. A second glance at the empty SUV and something within her told her he was already here. He…Bucky…James Buchanan Barnes. A supposedly dead WWII hero. Which made absolutely no sense. After meeting him on Wednesday, her mind had gone into overdrive. She had immediately recognized Captain America even without the stars and stripes on. Her friend, Becca, was obsessed with the man…to the almost creepy point. Something in seeing Steve Rogers and hearing the name Bucky had triggered a memory that once she was home, sent her straight to her laptop researching. How was Bucky alive? She thought this would have been all over the news. The thing that really got her was that he wanted to see her again. She had tried to conceal her shock and surprise. Guys rarely asked for her number and it had been years since she was on a date. Why her? She was not anyone special. Yet she could not deny the tug on her heart and his open, excited expression while he asked to see her again. After the panic attack, he had been truly charming in a way that captivated her. No man, especially whom she just met, had treated her as such an old-school gentleman. Honestly she had loved it. Their flirty texts had made her smile so broadly and realized she wanted to see him again just as badly. She had text him later that evening and they agreed to meet for a walk on Sunday. So here she was. God, she hoped this was not a mistake.

They had agreed to met at the picnic tables just next to the trailhead. As she rounded the corner, her eyes were immediately drawn to him. He wore a pair of dark wash jeans over sneakers with a black Henley long-sleeve. His shoulder-length hair was ruffled like he had run his hand through it once too many. As he looked up and noticed her, a genuine smile broke out on his face. She could not help but wonder if he thought she was not going to show. That made her heart ache for him. Her responding smile seemed to ease some tension and he walked over to meet her. Over his shoulder she glimpsed two others. Steve Rogers stood, arms crossed, watching his friend with a concerned look. The other guy, Sam maybe, sat on one of the picnic tables scanning around them. They both wore what she assumed were work-out clothes, sweatpants and long-sleeves with sneakers. She noted her own dirty sneakers, faded jeans and hoodie. It was almost embarrassing how long she had spent trying to decide what to wear. Which was stupid. This was not a date.

“Hey doll,” Bucky greeted bashfully, sticking his hands in his front pockets. She noticed he wore a set of motorcycle gloves.

“Hey sweetheart, thanks for meeting me here. Have you been here before?”

“Ah, no.”

“Oh great. It’s one of my favorites. The weather is pretty nice so I was thinking about doing the longer trail…but if you need to leave before we can do one of the shorter ones…” She rambled, aware of the awkwardness and trying to diffuse it.

He shrugged, not having removed his eyes from her like she would disappear if he did. His eyes were the most vivid blue, like the sky on a sunny day. It would be so easy to continue to just stare into them…but that most likely would not help the awkward moment.

“Well, ok then. Ready?”

Before she could direct them towards the correct trail, the other two men approached. It was instinctual, she took a half step back feeling intimidated. She was only 5’3” and all three of the guys were at least 6’ and bulky. They would easily squish her like a bug. To her surprise, Bucky was by her side in a flash and standing partially in front of her protectively. A feeling of gratitude and warmth filled her. She wondered if he even realized he had moved or if it was subconscious. Whatever it was, a sense of relief filled her. Not that she guessed freaking Captain America would hurt her but at least her new friend was looking out for her. That feeling slipped away as she noticed the looks of concern and mistrust being thrown back and forth.

“Steve…don’t…” Bucky begged but was ignored.

“Alesha, right?” Steve asked and waited for her nod before continuing. “Do you know who I am?”

“Captain America.”

“Do you know who he is?” Steve nodded towards Bucky who cringed slightly. Steve held her gaze unflinchingly, eyebrows furrowed.

“Bucky Barnes.”

That got their attention. All three stared at her a long moment making her shift uncomfortably.

“What? My family went to the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian last year. I may have done some research to confirm after meeting you guys last week.”

“And…you’re ok with…this?” Bucky asked hesitantly, watching her.

She shrugged, hoping it came off looking casual. “Yeah, I mean honestly I’m a bit confused because you’re supposed to be dead…you’re not a vampire or zombie are you?”

That earned a snort from Sam and two confused looks from Steve and Bucky.

Steve placed his hands on his hips, shaking his head. “I don’t know about this, Buck. You’re supposed to be in hiding. It’s only been a year.”

Bucky ran his hand through his hair, sighing. His shoulders slumped and he stared at his shoes, defeat written all over him.

The other guy was surveying her, head cocked to the side slightly. He seemed curious. He broke the awkward silence surrounding the group. “Why do you want to hang out with Bucky?”

That startled her. “Well…that’s generally what you do when you want to get to know someone.”

He smirked at her instant reply. “Aren’t you curious about how he’s not dead?”

“Yeah.” She shifted her eyes to meet Bucky’s blue and to see the turmoil rolling in them. “But… that’s not my business. If you want to tell me you can, otherwise I don’t need to know. Truthfully I liked walking with you. Its been a while since…well, walking with you was fun…it felt nice.”

His eyes lit up but before he could respond, Steve spoke up.

“I’m sorry, Alesha. You seem like a nice dame but I don’t think it’s safe.”

Bucky visibly tensed, jaw clenching as his eyes narrowed at his friend. Instinctively she reached over and placed her hand on Bucky’s arm. There was no rational thought behind it. It just happened. She was not sure if it was meant for a reassuring touch for him or to ground herself. With the touch, he glanced down at her and seemed to calm marginally. He shifted so he stood closer to her but made no further move.

“I can go if I need to. It’s ok.” She murmured, trying to hide her disappointment. Over the past few days she had been both anxious and excited for this walk…and it was going nothing like she planned it to.

“No, it’s fine. It’ll be fine.” Bucky seemed to direct the last part towards Steve.

Sam, Alesha was still guessing that was his name, stepped forward  looking at each of them purposefully. “Its just a walk. Why don’t we stay as a group though? I’ll admit, I’m curious to learn more about her.”

“What’s your name?” Alesha asked.

“Sam Wilson…wait, how come you know these dudes’ names and not mine?”

“Were you born before the ‘50s?”

He raised an eyebrow, watching her skeptically. “No…”

“Then you’re too young for my interest. Sorry, hon.” She could not help the teasing smirk that accompanied her statement.

“What?”

Bucky spoke, unable to hide the amusement in his voice. “She’s a history nerd.”

“Oh…oh, that’s cold.” Sam shook his head, lips turning up slightly.

“I’ll get you a warm pack for that burn.” Alesha deadpanned. Her and Sam stared at each other for a long moment before he started laughing and a triumphant smile broke out on her face. Both Steve and Bucky had small smiles on their faces.

“I like you.” Sam smiled at her, eyes bright. “Even if you are a dwarf.”

Alesha placed a hand over her chest in feigned horror. “Dwarf? Please, I much prefer the term ‘hobbit’ if you’re making fun of my height. Then I can eat all I want and still look adorable.”

Sam threw back his head laughing and smacked his leg. “Oh shit, girl. If Bucky screws this up with you, can I call dibs on you next?’

She could feel Bucky tense next to her, her hand still on his arm. It was apparent Sam meant the comment jokingly but Bucky looked ready to pummel the guy. “Don’t hold your breath. So, are we walking?”

“Yeah, let’s go.” Bucky placed his hand on her lower back and directed her towards the trailhead she started towards before the messy, awkward conversation started. Steve and Sam followed behind, Alesha could sense and hear their footfalls. As she started walking, Bucky put his hands back in his pockets and she immediately missed the warmth on her lower back. She scolded herself mentally as she looked around for her dog.

“Trigger, come!” She called out. Two seconds later, the chocolate lab ambled out of the woods and came to her side. “Good boy, ok you can go now.” With a woof, the lab started along the dirt path but stayed within sight of her.

“His name is Trigger?”

Smiling, she shrugged as she met Bucky’s eyes. “Yeah, my grandad  named him. Trigger was his hunting  dog.”

There was a hesitant pause. “Was?”

“He died five years ago. So now I take care of Trigger.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thanks. I miss him but I’m ok.”

They walked in companionable silence, their arms just a couple of inches away. The sun streamed down brilliantly, warming her face. Spring was here and it felt amazing. With the snow finally all melted, grass and flowers were beginning to show green shoots in the ground. The trees around them had a few early leaves and buds to celebrate the renewing warmth. It was Alesha’s favorite time of the year. A time of renewal, of growth, of new life. Something her own personal life lacked.

She could feel Bucky’s glances thrown her way because, truthfully, she kept glancing at him. Having it confirmed that he was Bucky Barns, the WWII war hero, sent her mind whirling. How was he alive? It had to be something similar to what happened to Captain America because he looked about the same age as the pictures from the Smithsonian. What she had told them was true though, she had no intention of pressing him for answers. She had learned to keep her questions to herself and to wait until the other person was ready to share. It had helped with her sister and the trauma that she went through. That did not mean her mind whirled and fought to figure out solve those questions.

“Oh my God!” Sam finally exclaimed exasperated from behind them. “Are you two going to talk or just walk? I’ve got some questions if he’s too scared to talk.”

Alesha laughed as Bucky muttered something under his breath beside her. “Ok, Sam, what do you got?”

An easy, rolling conversation started with questions thrown back and forth. She spent a good part of that talking about herself, which normally made her uncomfortable but she understood that she had to pass some unspoken test. Sam’s quick questions were easy to answer with Steve occasionally asking for clarification. Bucky kept silent but watched her answer often. She explained how she was a middle child, older sister and younger brother. Her siblings and parents lived in Albany while she lived with their grandmom here in the small town. Her grandparents owned an old farmhouse and after her granddad’s death, her grandmom refused to move. Unfortunately, she got into a car accident soon after that affecting her mobility. The worst part was dementia began to take hold. It came to a point where it was unsafe for her to live alone. Thus Alesha moved in. She continued to work at a local diner during the day so she could make sure to be home to help in the morning and evening. There was two years of university under her belt but she had to drop out years ago after her sister needed help and then ended up moving in her with grandmom, so she never picked it back up. She asked a few questions about them, understanding they could not be completely open with her. They were staying at the newly finished Avengers facility. Sam frequented the townhouse he still owned back in DC when he was working at the VA. Steve was debating getting rid of his apartment in DC but had yet to pull the trigger. Pretty soon Sam and Alesha began debating Star Wars verse Star Trek and in what order you should actually watch the Star Wars movies. Sam was in the opinion the original three were the classics and they to be watched first while Alesha defended that you had to watch them in numerical order. Steve and Bucky just walked and listened. After almost an hour of walking, they arrived back to the trail head. Steve and Sam said good-bye to her, Sam a bit more enthusiastically and Bucky walked her over to her car, Trigger walking behind them.

“I’m sorry.”

She almost stumbled, surprised by Bucky finally speaking. He never said a word during the walk and an uneasy feeling that he regretted meeting up with her had sunk in. “What? Why?”

He refused to meet her eyes. “It didn’t go exactly as I had hoped.”

“You didn’t think it’d turn into a double date?”

He snorted, a smirk emerging. “Double date…I just thought…”

“Hey, it’s ok. They are protective of you. I get it. Really, I didn’t mind.” They stopped at her car. Bucky still had his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped. Her heart broke for him. She did not know what had happened but it was clear he was suffering with something. Memory of his panic attacks in the coffeeshop and the hovering of Steve during the walk only confirmed it. Something within her wondered how many people he felt able to open up to and call a friend…probably few. She helped Trigger into the back seat and closed the door before turning back to Bucky. His face was impassive as if preparing for bad news and to turn tail and run.

“Are you busy on Wednesday?”

His eyes widened as he shook his head.

“Why don’t you guys come over for dinner and a movie? I usually have the house to myself so you don’t have to worry about others around.”

“Are you sure? You don’t…if you don’t want to see me again…”

She could not help it, his uncertainty, his shame was almost visibly hanging over his shoulders. She moved closer and put her hand on his arm. “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it. Can I see you on Wednesday, Bucky?”

“Anything for you, doll.”

A blush crept up on her cheeks. Something about him calling her ‘doll’ made butterflies erupt in her stomach. “I’ll text you my address, ok?”

He nodded, a genuine smile lighting up his face and erasing the doubt and despair prior clouding it.

“Ok, see you then sweetheart.”

“Bye, doll.”

She squeezed his arm before stepping back and getting into her car. As she drove out, she gave a quick wave to him before pulling out of the parking lot. A smile stayed on her lips. Suddenly she could not wait for her week to begin.

 


 

Wednesday arrived with an extra dose of spring. In celebration, and she knew she looked cute, Alesha wore a coral maxi skirt with a soft, teal blouse. Trigger laid on his bed in the living room while she bustled about the kitchen. Her grandmom was out with her group of friends playing bingo, like every Wednesday. Her cousin, who had recently moved into the spare room, was out doing God only knows what and really she did not want to know. Truthfully, she tried to pretend he did not live there but that only worked so well.

A knock on the front door brought a beaming smile to her face. She hurried over and opened it to reveal Bucky holding a bouquet of tulips and lilies with Steve and Sam behind him.

“Hey guys, come on in.”

They stepped in and she was reminded of how small she was compared to them. It felt like standing next to professional football players…or Avengers.

“Ah, these are for you.” Bucky awkwardly handed them over, clearly uncomfortable.

“They’re lovely. Thank you. Its been years since anyone gave me flowers.” They smelled like heaven and sunshine and she could not help sticking her face in them. “Alright, kick your shoes off, make yourselves at home. Dinner should be ready in a minute.” She wandered back to the kitchen to retrieve a vase for her flowers. They were going to look wonderful on the desk in her room.

“It’s smells great. What did you get?”

She smiled over her shoulder at Bucky who had followed, now leaning against the doorframe. In the black Henley and jeans, arms crossed loosely, she thought he could be a model. Those brilliant blue eyes, sharp jawline and muscled body usually only found in magazines, the word ‘hot’ was not enough to describe him. After a moment, a shit-eating grin emerged on his face and she realized she had been ogling him instead of actually answering his question. Embarrassed  and cheeks hot, she turned around fill up the clear vase with water for the flowers. “I made a lasagna. Its cooling now and the breadsticks should be out of the oven in a second. A salad is already on the table. Does that sound ok?”

“You made all this?”

“Well the breadsticks I bought premade but the lasagna and salad I made from scratch.”

“Did I just hear you made lasagna from scratch for us?” Sam called out, sounding from the direction of the living room.

“Yes! I hope that’s ok!”

“Damn…we gettin’ spoiled tonight!”

Alesha shook her head as she arranged the flowers in the vase. She glanced up and noticed Bucky watching her with his lips turned up slightly. “What?”

“You didn’t have to do all this.”

“I know.” She walked over and placed the flowers on the table. “I wanted to.” The timer went off for the oven and she hurried to pull the breadsticks out. They smelled like garlic amazingness and her mouth began to water. Looking around the counter, she realized she forgot to grab the basket for them. Moving over, she opened the upper cabinet to grab the small weaved back but froze with her arm outstretched. It was one shelf higher than normal. Which was fine…but now she could not reach it. Who knew just a few inches could make such a difference. Before she could move to grab a chair, a warm presence snuck up behind her and reached over to retrieve the basket. The warmth radiating off his frame covered her from head to foot and she suppressed the urge to lean back into him. Bucky set it down before her then moved to lean against the counter, a teasing smirk on his face. If his movements had been purposefully slow as he stood behind her, she chose to ignore it…for now.

“You’re welcome.”

She rolled her eyes and swatted his chest playfully. “Yeah, yeah. Its nice to have tall people around.”

“I’m not tall. You’re just short.”

“Didn’t your momma ever teach you not to insult the cook?” She teased back, putting a napkin in the basket and placing the breadsticks in. The teasing felt fun and effortless.

He whispered sadly, eyes staring off into the distance suddenly. “I’m not sure. I can’t remember.”

That was not what she expected to hear. What was she supposed to say to that? What did that even mean? She stopped her actions and watched him. There was so much unsaid, something that haunted him. She could see it in his eyes. The urge to reach out and touch him, to try and sooth his pain and comfort his soul overwhelmed her. As she opened her mouth to respond, Steve and Sam came around the corner.

“Hey, your grandfather was a vet?” Sam asked, plopping himself down on one of the dining chairs, oblivious to the silence he walked in on.

“Yeah,” she redirected her attention to the dark-skinned man, seeing Bucky blink rapidly as if waking up from the corner of her eye, “he fought in Vietnam and Korea. Ended up retiring a Major.”

“Huh. We saw the framed medals on the wall. Which branch?”

“Army, all the way.”

“Come on, Air Force, baby! That’s where it’s at!”

“You keep your delusions. You guys ready to eat?”

The four gathered around the kitchen table after Alesha placed the lasagna and breadsticks to accompany the salad. To her surprise, Bucky pulled out a chair for her and made sure to wait until she sat before he did. Whatever is said about old school chivalry, she found it endearing. Whatever had passed between them minutes ago seemed to dissipate. He gave her a small smile which she returned, hoping she had not unintentionally ruined their evening already. She really did want to get to know him. After just a few bites, the guys were praising her culinary skills.

“I’m going to guess you don’t get home cooked meals often.” Taking a bite of a breadstick, she savored the garlic flavor and warmth that accompanied it.

“No, there’s a catering crew but this is so much better.” Sam said through a mouthful of lasagna.

“I can’t even remember the last time I had lasagna from scratch…” Steve mentioned. “I think it was before the war. Buck, I think your mom made it after church.”

Bucky stilled, eyes unforced as he stared down at his plate. A awkward tension slipped into the room. After a long moment Bucky whispered. “She…always overcooked it…that first layer was tough.”

Steve chuckled, beaming. “Yeah, almost lost a tooth once.”

Sam took another bite and moaned. “God, this is good. If you keep cooking like this, I’m going to marry you.”

“Sorry, I don’t accept marriage proposals after just meeting someone.” Alesha quipped. “I’m glad you like it. Next time, I’ll make my favorite fudge brownies for you guys.”

All three stared at her with wide, hopeful eyes which made her laugh. Her grandmom always said the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.

Once done eating, they cleaned up the kitchen quickly and retired to the living room for a movie. There was a short two-seater couch with a recliner placed on each side facing the TV. The house was an old farmhouse, built in the 50s with wood paneling walls and a sense of history. Over dinner it had been decided that Steve and Bucky need to be introduced to Star Wars, especially after the heated debate a few days prior. Alesha popped in A New Hope, yes she conceded to start with the first film made, even though it felt so wrong. Steve and Sam had taken over the recliners, leaving the love seat for Bucky and Alesha. After turning the table lamp off next to her, she leaned back to enjoy the movie. It had been a couple of years since she watched them, only her dad would watch them with her and he traveled for work continuously.

As the opening credits rolled by on the screen, words floating through space, Alesha felt the nervousness rolling off Bucky in waves as he sat rigidly, hands clasped in his lap. With a glance, she noticed his face was impassive staring ahead but not at the TV screen. A trickle of worry and concern slipped in. Was a movie not a good idea? Had she said or done something wrong? Everything seemed to have been going so well while they were eating. He had even contributed some to the dinner conversation. What changed?

Leaning over, she put her mouth near Bucky’s ear and whispered. “Everything ok, sweetheart?”

He blinked rapidly for a moment before turning his head slightly to see her. He gave a curt nod, lips pressed in a thin line.

“Relax then.” She smiled at him before putting her head on his shoulder. “This ok?”

A half second later, he sighed softly and shifted to lean back against the couch and wrap his right arm around her, his hand landing on her hip. “Thanks, doll.”

“Shhh…I’m trying to watch this movie.” She teased, swatting his chest. Pulling her legs up and tucked them beside her, she leaned further into Bucky’s chest, heat radiating from his core that made her feel like he was a human space heater.

They watched the movie sitting like that, her tucked into his side. A few times he even chuckled during the movie which made her heart swell. She had not been looking for a relationship, even if she did get lonely sometimes. It just did not feel like the right time to be actively searching. So much of her time was devoted to taking care of her grandmom. But this, watching a movie with his arm around her, this she thought she could easily get used to. This was something she really hoped she had the opportunity to enjoy again. Even if they only remained friends, she enjoyed his company and proximity. She could only hope the feeling was reciprocated.

Soon enough the movie finished and Alesha sat back up to turn the light on. “So what did you guys think?”

Steve and Bucky stared at each other for a moment before breaking into matching grins.

“How many more are there?” Steve asked, unable to suppress the excitement in his voice.

“Five…and they get better.” Sam replied smugly, putting his hands behind his head.

Alesha rolled her eyes smirking. “I guess you guys have to come back next week for episode 5 then.”

“Really?” Bucky softly said, his eyes full of hope as they met hers.

She placed her hand on his that lay on his thigh. “Of course. Sounds like I owe you guys those fudgy brownies too.”

Bucky grinned, placing his other left hand over hers.

“Oh, boo, you might be my new favorite person!” Sam exclaimed, getting up off the recliner, a huge smile plastered on his face.

Steve rose also, watching Bucky and Alesha. “We probably need to start heading back. Thank you for having us over Alesha.” He leaned down to pet Trigger whom had immediately laid down at the captain’s feet as the movie started. Who knew Captain America was a dog person?

“Thank you guys. It’s been awhile since I’ve done something fun like this.” To her surprise and joy, Bucky stood up then took her hands and helped her off the couch. She could definitely get used to this chivalry. Following them to the door, she scratched Trigger behind the ear as they got their shoes on. Steve gave her a thoughtful smile as he said good-bye, the first out the door.

“Come here, I’m a hugger.” Sam said, pulling her into a hug, making her giggle.

“I’m a hugger too.” She confessed, arms around his torso.

“You tell Mr. Grouch here what we can bring for next time. And don’t say ‘nothing’.” Sam teased as he stepped towards the door.

Alesha huffed playfully, putting her hands on her hips. “I’ll try to think of something. Bye, Sam!”

“Bye, boo!”

As Sam walked out the front door, she turned to Bucky who stood staring at the ground, hands in his pockets. “Can I get a hug?”

Immediately he brightened and opened his arms. She stepped into his embrace and loved the feeling of his solid chest against her and his strong arms around her. It felt warm, comforting and safe. Only with one other person had she felt this in an embrace, and it had been five years since she received a hug from her granddad.

“You give great hugs.” She mumbled against his chest. “I think I’ll demand a hug every time I see you.”

He laughed, tightening his hold on her fractionally. “I’ll hold you to that.”

She leaned her head back to look at him. “It’s a deal. Thank you for coming. I had a wonderful time…and those flowers are gorgeous. I’m going to keep them in my room so I don’t have to share them.”

“My pleasure. I enjoyed…this…being with you. Thank you.”

Blushing, she stepped back. “Of course. Text me when you get home?”

“You sure? Are you worried about Steve’s driving?”

“No,” she swatted his arm, “I just…maybe I want to say goodnight then.”

He paused, watching her, eyes going soft. “I’d like that.”

“Hey Romeo! Get moving!”

Alesha smiled at Sam’s yelling while Bucky looked upward as if praying for help. “Go on. Text me, ok?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She watched Bucky walk out to the SUV. Did they ever drive anything else? As they pulled out of the driveway, she waved then stepped back into the house once they were gone. She felt lighter and happier than she had for a while. Not that her life was awful by any means but it had been so easy to relax and joke with them. The memory of being cuddled up to Bucky made her smile. That was definitely her highlight of the night.

 


 

An half hour later, she received the greatly anticipated text as she lay in her bed reading.

Bucky: We’re back. Close call but we’re alive.

She snickered as she replied.

Alesha: Well I’m glad to hear it. I’d hate to have to come out and rescue you. I’m already in bed with a good book.

Bucky: That sounds perfect. I’ll let you get back to it. Goodnight, doll.

Alesha: Night, sweetheart. Text me in the morning?

Bucky: Sure! Sweet dreams.

Alesha: You too! 😊

Bucky: Stop texting me and read.

Alesha: 😉

She put her phone down and picked her book back up. Yet the words seemed to float by as she thought of the bright blue eyes and delightful laugh of the man whom suddenly made her heart swell with his chivalry and hopeful demeanor. She could not wait to see him again.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Restraints cutting into his skin. Plastic mouth piece gagging him. Pain. Screaming…his screaming through the mouthpiece. Not again. Searing pain that radiated through every cell of his body. He was being burned alive. Knives were driven through his head. Eyes squeezed shut, unable to block out the scorching pain. Please, no more. What light of the faintest memories he recalled dimmed. Darkness. Numb. Nothing mattered. Pain stopped. Chest heaving. Everything hurt. He opened his eyes, blinking through the tears. Ready to comply.

Gasping, Bucky shot up like a rocket. The sheets about him looked like a wresting match had occurred. Sweat coated his naked torso. His chest rose and fell rapidly, trying desperately to put oxygen back into his lungs. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees and putting his head in his hands. Focusing on his breathing, he tried to will away the nightmare. To separate himself from the images his mind conjured to torment him. Would he ever be free of them? Was this his punishment for all the blood he spilled, all the lives taken, all the evil he had done? Steve liked to remind him that it was not his fault. He was brainwashed. He was a victim. Yet he, Bucky Barnes, pulled the trigger. He was the Winter Soldier. He was the fist of HYDRA. Even if he never asked for it.

Laying back down, he reached over onto the nightstand and grabbed his Starkphone. 4am. Well shit. He had only been asleep three hours. There was no way he was going back to sleep after this. At least he had not woken Steve up in the suit next door. Unwilling to get up though, he scrolled through his past texting conversations with Alesha. He wondered if she knew how much their fun texting meant to him. When a notification for a new text appeared, he had to forcibly calm himself and open it like a normal person instead of like a man denied food for two weeks and finally receiving a meal. His eyes caught on her last text sent before she went to sleep. A stupid smile spreading on his face as he reread it.

Alesha: Good night, sweetheart. Can’t wait to see you tomorrow.

Tonight was going to be the third time he went over to her house for dinner and a movie. Christ, she was a damn good cook. Reminded him of his own Ma with what few memories were coming back. His favorite part of the past times he had gone over was the way she leaned against him, her head on his shoulder and his arm around her while they watched the movie. After that first time, they quickly found themselves back into that position the next time. Not that he minded. At one point she had looked up at him, eyes sparkling as she laughed at something on the screen. He wanted to lean over and kiss her…to taste her contagious joy. Unfortunately, his babysitters were sitting on the recliners both watching the movie also. He knew Steve meant well, but just wanted to keep him safe…yet it was smothering. The urge to run flared up occasionally, to escape the ‘good intentions’ and be free for a moment. But it was Steve…his best friend, who would always be with him until the end of the line. So he stayed, even if it felt like an unintentional prison. She made it worth it. How had be become so sweet on her so quickly? It baffled him. What surprised him even more was the sweet smiles and genuine affection she returned to him. He was not worth it…but he was selfish enough to not turn it away.

Groaning, he rolled out of bed. It was pointless to stay here doing nothing. He might as well go destroy some punching bags. See how many he would tear apart. Tony kept threatening to start charging Bucky for each bag he tore apart, if he exceeded the limit of three a day. Challenge accepted. He almost smirked thinking about the frustrated look on Tony’s face. At least the exertion would settle him. He was not missing the chance to see Alesha tonight.


 

“Hey guys!” Alesha warmly greeted as she opened the front door. Trigger wagged his tail excitedly at her feet, the chocolate lab thrilled for the company. Alesha’s own excitement bubbled up and spilled forth, a ray of sunshine to tear through the darkness haunting Bucky’s mind as he admired her. “Come on in, dinner is ready.”

Bucky did not mind staring at her as she gave Sam a generous hug. The dress she wore was a long white dress with a large floral print, the sleeves just barely covering her shoulders and a scoop neckline. Spring’s warmth settled over upper New York so the dress fit well with the season. Even Steve and Sam wore short sleeve t-shirts to offset their jeans. Self-conscious, Bucky still wore a long-sleeve Henley over his jeans. Never before had Alesha given him reason to think she disliked or was affected by his metal arm, on the contrary, she would just as easily touch it as his flesh arm. He just hated it. Hated what it stood for. What it had done. He did not want something covered in blood and pain to taint someone as pure and sweet as her.

 “Hey, Bucky.”

Her smile was radiant as she turned to him next. He could not help but smile in response as she hugged him. “Hey, doll. Everything alright with your grandma?”

“Yeah,” she laughed, directing everyone to the kitchen, “everything got cleaned up. Heaven forbid she miss BINGO tonight though. She made me scrub the floor to get everything off.”

“What happened?” Sam asked as they settled around the small, wooden kitchen table.

Alesha brought over the large pot and set it in the middle of the table. After she took off the lid, Bucky immediately began to salivate. A peek into the pot showed a beef stew…and did it smell divine. There were huge chunks of meat and potatoes with veggies in the broth. Warm rolls sat in a basket on the table already.

“Wow, Alesha, this smells amazing.” Steve commented, scooping stew into people’s bowls. He was trying to be more friendly towards her which Bucky appreciated. Steve had run a background check on her before they even met up at the park for the first time. Always protective of Bucky, even when he was just a scrawny kid in Brooklyn.

Alesha settled between Bucky and Sam, across from Steve at the table. “Thank you. Don’t fill up too much though. I have ice cream and freshly made cookies for later if you guys want some.”

“Boo,” Sam groaned dramatically, glaring at her. “You gotta stop feeding us like this. I’m not gonna be able to fit into my suit.”

“I’m sure you can just go running with these two and you’ll be fine. Maybe one day you’ll be able to keep up.” She winked at Bucky, making a small smile appear on his lips. Even Steve was trying to hide a smirk through a spoonful of stew.

“Oh hell no! You don’t get to tease me about that. I get it enough from these two idiots…and don’t think I haven’t noticed you ignored my question earlier.”

“Mmm? What question?”

“What happened earlier with your grandmother?” Steve repeated the question.

She tore a roll in half, averting her eyes. “Its nothing. Just something silly.”

“Not nothin’ when something is on fire.” Bucky mumbled, just loud enough for all to hear.

“James, don’t you tattle on me!” She swatted his arm, a blush on her cheeks. “The way you were texting earlier you’d think the house was on fire.”

“Nope, now you gotta share, boo.” Sam said through a mouthful of stew, wagging his finger at her.

“Fine. My grandma wanted some bacon this morning with her eggs. I stepped out to grab my phone in my room. When I was coming back downstairs I heard her start screaming. Somehow she managed to set the grease in the pan on fire. Still not sure how she did it. So I grabbed the pan and tossed it onto the driveway to let it burn itself out. See, not a big deal.”

“Alesha, you did good but it could have been a serious problem.” Steve pointed out, leaning back in his chair to examine her. His eyes swept over the kitchen quickly looking for damage. Bucky already scanned the room when they walked in, having heard the story earlier when they were texting.

Her shoulders slumped. “I know. I’m thinking my grandma can’t be working in the kitchen alone anymore…I was hoping we had more time.”

A sad look crossed Steve’s face and Bucky wondered if his friend was thinking of Peggy and her own struggle with losing her memories.

“It’ll all work out.” Alesha interrupted the silence. “Anyway, how did the mission go? I know you can’t share specifics. Everyone come back alright?”

They spent the rest of the time eating talking and laughing about Clint ‘accidently’ shooting Tony while in his suit during the mission. Alesha had been a God-send during that time while everyone besides himself were gone on the mission. Prior times, Bucky would sulk around the compound, avoiding agents and just anyone in general. He knew Fury wanted him out in the field…but he was not sure if he was ready for that. What else was he supposed to do though? It’s not like he could get a ‘normal’ job after everything he had been through. Yes, he wanted to destroy HYDRA, tear it down brick by brick until not even ashes of it remained. Was he ready though to shoot and kill without reverting back into the Solider? Could he work as a member of a team? Or would he only be seen as an asset?

During the two days the team was away, Alesha had convinced Bucky to watch TV with her even though they were apart. They flipped channels until they found something they both wanted to watch then would be on the phone talking and watching it together. It almost felt like they were really together in person. He was sprawled on a couch in the common room with his phone pressed to his ear. She said she was lying on the couch, curled under a blanket, phone against her cheek. Her ceaseless chatter during the movies and shows should have been irritating but he found himself smiling at her commentary and adding his own occasionally. He knew she was trying to draw him out, to not let him dwell and be moody. On more than one occasion he wondered about taking Steve’s motorcycle and driving over to see her. To not be alone. To see her smile and feel alive even for a short while. But he remained at the compound.

After everyone finished eating and they cleaned up the kitchen, the group headed to the living room. Tonight’s plan was to watch Star Wars VI, The Return of the Jedi, to continue the super soldier’s education in movies. It seemed a pattern had emerged in placement of everyone. Steve took the recliner on Bucky’s left as Alesha slid into her spot next to him on the couch with Sam on the recliner to Alesha’s right. The lights were dimmed and the movie began. The storyline of the series was interesting, if only good verse evil was so black and white. He wondered on which side he would be placed. Was he good? Was he evil? Could he be both?

Suddenly on the screen a strange looking figure appeared, not unusual for the movies, heading towards the frozen Han Solo. The figure turned a dial and the frozen Solo turned red before falling to the ground, freed of his prison. Being unfrozen for Bucky was never that easy, never that simple. He wanted to scoff, to laugh at the absurdity but the memories poured forth unrelenting into his consciousness. It had been over two years but he could never escape the memory. The physical pain. A haunting of his soul.

The cold still flowed through his blood, tore through his muscles. His eyes felt heavy. Lungs were sluggish to properly work. A light shone in his eyes caused him to flinch. Voices surrounded him. Opening his eyes painfully, three men in white lab coats stood before him, two holding clipboard. Words spoken but he barely comprehended them. Everything hurt. He closed his eyes, wishing, hoping, praying for the blissful, numb darkness to take him back.

“Soldat!”

His eyes slammed open. What drew his attention were not the weak men staring intently at their experiment. Behind the lab coats, sitting innocently in the center of the room was a metal chair. A strange machine hovered behind it. Straps hung off the chairs. He was sure he had never seen it before. Yet everything in him screamed to destroy it, to escape it, to kill these white coats then himself. Why could he not tear his eyes away from the damned chair? Then his body began shaking as his troubled mind heard the next command from the lab coats.

“Prepare to wipe him.”

Terror flooded him. Unaware of his surroundings, Bucky leapt off the couch and tore into the kitchen. He gripped the countertop, his chest heaving and mind fighting back haunting memories. He could feel it. The straps. The plastic mouth piece. The biting cold his body fought off as it thawed out. Then pain. Intense pain that felt unending. Perhaps this time it would kill him.

“I’m safe. I’m warm. I’m safe. I’m free.” He chanted to himself, hoping the words would sink in. Fighting to shove the memory back into the recesses of his mind, he focused on the feeling of the countertop underneath his hands. Steve had learned prior it was better not to touch him, otherwise he might earn a black eye or punch to the ribs. When the memory faded, only then could Bucky be approached.

“Bucky?”

A warm, musical voice called his name, pulling him from his internal struggle. Alesha. This was her home. Once his mind remembered where he was, he almost collapsed onto himself. Christ, he just had a flashback around her. She must think him mad. No one was hurt, right? There were no sounds of grunts of pain or crying.  He turned around to see her standing a few feet away from him. Beautiful as an angel with honey eyes, she watched him carefully.

He opened his mouth but all that came out was a chocked sob. This was it. She would turn him away, call him a monster and murderer. What else could he expect?

Except she did not. “Oh sweetheart,” she cried, wrapping her arms around him. Her arms went around his waist, her head on his chest. With a mind of their own, his arms encircled her small frame, pulling her closer. She was so warm. Her scent of lemons surrounded him, cradling him closer. Hunching over her, he pressed his face against her neck, needing the comfort given, needing her warmth to fight off the chills coursing through him, needing her to ground him in reality.

“Buck?”

He knew if he opened his eyes what they would see. Stevie’s bright blue eyes full of concern and pain, ready to move heaven and hell for his childhood friend, willing to take any punch or hit until he got his Bucky back. It was too much. Bucky did not deserve this kind of loyal friendship.

“Buck, I think we should head out.”

The Soldier growled. His arms tightened around the woman who held him, who kept him from shattering into a million pieces and succumb to his memories. It was irrational. Normally he needed space or his fighting instincts took over. Not in this moment though. The silent peace seeping into his body from her presence pushed back his darkness. He did not want to fight. He just wanted to feel warm and safe. Something he had not experienced for a long time.

She chuckled, a light sound to offset his darkness. “It’s ok, sweetheart. Let’s go.”

Shaking his head, he pulled her even closer, if it was possible. He needed her right now. Could they not see that? Images of the various forms of torture he endured flashed across his mind. The beatings. The starvation. The dark, cold rooms he survived punishments in. Each felt like a stab to his soul, leaving an imprint of darkness until it consumed him. A whimper slipped out before he could help it. He feared his instincts would take over if he let her go, that he would fight or flee and lose the people who were important to him.

“Buck, we should…”

She interjected, turning her head slightly to see. “Steve, its fine. We’ll be right back, alright?”

“Where? It’s not safe. He might need to be contained.”

Of course, he is not safe. Bucky took a deep breath. The good Captain looking out for the innocents. He was supposed to, that’s what Captain America did. But Bucky swore if Steve tried to separate Alesha from him right now, he would beat his friend down. Steve was just trying to help the way he knew how but by containing him, it only made the Soldier snarl and growl at the end of its rope in Bucky’s mind, seeking freedom.

“I’m taking him upstairs. Just give me a few minutes, ok? We’ll be fine.”

“Ales…”

“Steve!” She barked at him, running a hand through Bucky’s hair. “It’s fine. I promise I’m not planning on jumping his bones. Our clothes will stay on.”

A harsh bark of laughter came from the living room followed by Sam’s voice. “I don’t think he’d complain if you do, boo.”

Her voice softened, a whisper into his ear. “Baby, I want you to follow me. Trust me. Can you do that?”

He nodded, wondering what she had planned but trusting her. Realistically he barely knew her. Yet it sat there in his gut, like a lead weight. He trusted her. She would take care of him. He almost whimpered again as she slipped her arms from around him, but she made sure to hold one of his hands. Without a word, he followed her, keeping his head down. Steve’s heavy questioning gaze was on him but he could not look up, he could not meet it. He hated when Steve saw him like this. His friend blamed himself for what happened even if none of it was his fault.  Bucky barely paid attention as they quickly ascended the stairs and she guided them to a room at the end of the hallway. Once inside, she shut the door behind them and tugged him to a bed. He froze. What was she doing? He could not get into a bed with a dame like this. Steve was right. He was not safe. He should go. What if he did something to hurt her? He would never forgive himself.

“Sweetheart, trust me.”

And with that softly spoken command, his resolve broke. She scrawled into the middle of the full-size bed, then laid down on her back, head propped up on a pillow against the headboard. Her dress lay flat on her, keeping her modesty even if the dress was tight showing off her delightful curves. He hesitantly followed, tremors taking hold of his body.

 “You’re doing so good, baby. It’s going to be ok.” She guided him to lay next to her, resting his head on her full chest and hugging their bodies together. Her heartbeat was strong and rhythmic. The rise and fall of her chest, a reminder to breathe himself. Her body was warm and soft. A hand began to run through his hair gently while she softly sang. The motion felt so good, it instantly relaxed him. Her voice was beautiful as she sang, like a sunrise over the ocean. Her words flowed around him as sunbeams danced through her window, settling his mind and soul.

 

“So let your heart sweetheart be your compass when you’re lost

And you should follow it wherever it may go.

When it’s all said and done you can walk instead of run

‘Cause no matter what you’ll never be alone.

Never be alone.”

 

After her song, she continued to hum for some time. How long they laid there he was unsure but it was the most content, most at peace he could remember being…ever. She was an angel. She deserved better than wasting her time on him. Someone so broken. Someone dangerous. A monster. He did not want to give her up. It was selfish. It was wrong. He felt safe for once. She did not treat him like he was broken. A shell of his former self. She made him smile and laugh. She was too good for him. If she knew the truth about him, she would be right to run. She needed to run. To be safe. To be happy. To sing so beautifully.

“Sweetheart, I can hear you thinking. You’re supposed to be resting.”

He rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. He needed to stop this, to end this. She cared for him and he was certainly sweet on her. No, he needed her. This had to stop before she got hurt and his heart broke even further when she finally rejected him. Christ, it was the last thing he wanted…but when had life ever been easy or good to him. Finding Steve had been the only redemption in his damned life.

“Hey, hey. What’s going on, Bucky?” She scooted over to his side, her hand drifting up and down his back soothingly.

“I’m not a good person, Alesha. I…I’ve done horrible things. You shouldn’t be around me. Steve is right. I’m not safe.”

She tried to meet his eye but he kept his eyes downcast. “I don’t believe that.”

For some irrational reason, anger bloomed in his chest. Her statement made with such confidence and assurance. What did she know? He laughed darkly as words poured forth, a torrent of pent up frustration, pain and anger.

“You have NO damned idea. You live here in your nice house and have an easy life. What would you know? My life for the past seventy years has been nothing but pain and blood. If I wasn’t being tortured or experimented on, I was either frozen to sleep away until my next mission…to kill, to murder. That’s what I did for seventy years. I was an assassin for the worst, most evil organization spat forth from hell itself.” He flexed his metal arm, hearing the mechanics whirl. “I’ve killed so many people. I deserve…shit. I deserve death. I’m so fucked up. I’m a murderer and monster. HYDRA took everything from me and turned me into something evil.” The torrent ceased abruptly, words drying up in his mouth. He sat motionless, listening to her steady breathing. In direct opposite to his own ragged breathing.

Slowly he felt and heard her rise from beside him. His eyes stayed glued to the hardwood floor beneath his feet. His whole monologue he dared not look at her. How could he? It was something no one should have to hear. His pain, his torment, his burden to bear. Surely this would scare her off. To his surprise, she pushed his legs further apart and stepped between them. His arms dropped but he still refused to look at her.

“Fuck HYDRA.”

His head snapped up at her harsh remark. Blue eyes were seized by amber eyes full of determination.

Tear trails marred both of her cheeks. Gently she cupped his face, forcing him to not look away. There was such conviction in her tone, such resolution, his mind tried to rebel but could not as she spoke. “You listen to me, James Barnes. You ARE a good man. You are one of the gentlest, sweetest men I have every known. Even if you purposefully do things to annoy Sam. Steve Rogers, Captain freaking America, is your best friend and would do anything for you. He wouldn’t do something like that if he thought you evil or a monster. I don’t care what HYDRA told you or made you do. That’s not who you are anymore…and everyday you choose to be Bucky, to live a happy life and push through the trauma, you are giving them a huge ‘fuck you, HYDRA’. So you keep choosing to live, to laugh and be the best you can be now. And I don’t EVER want to hear you call yourself a monster because the man I like a lot is anything but that.”

He opened his mouth but she glared at him.

“The only thing I should be hearing right now is ‘yes, ma’am’.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The corners of his lips turned up. His arms circled once again around her waist, astonished at the woman before him. She heard everything and still thought he was a good man? She still was sweet on him? How was he so lucky to find a dame that cared about him? Let alone one willing to deal with all his shit. There was no doubt left, she was an angel sent to Earth for him. There was no other explanation.  

“Good. I know this won’t be easy. I know this stuff takes time to accept. But I want you to know I’ll always be here for you and if you ever need to talk, I promise to listen. You can tell me anything and everything and I promise not to judge, ok?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re cute. Lastly, I want you to call or text me anytime you have a nightmare or flashback. I recognize the signs of PTSD enough to guess you suffer with both. You’re not alone. I’m pretty sure I‘m not the only one who cares about you. You just have to trust us and let us in…and this,” she traced a hand down his metal arm, “this doesn’t scare me. I like you for who you are right now.”

He tilted his face, pulling her closer and pressed his face into the crook of her neck. “Can…can you sing that song again…for me?”

“Of course, baby.”

She began singing while running a hand through his shoulder length hair. His short beard rubbed against her skin on her neck and shoulder but she did not seem to mind. As she sang, he peeked around her room without moving his head too much. Her room was on the smaller side, not surprising since the farmhouse was older. Her bed took up most of the space, there was also a small nightstand, a dresser, small closet and a bookshelf. What caught his eye was the many books spread about along with a few sepia colored maps on the walls. A knitted blanket lay at the foot of her bed. The comforter on her bed was a deep blue in contrast to the white pillowcase and sheets peeking out.  There was a simple elegance and old world feel to her room. There were several picture frames on the dresser showcasing people that must be important to her. Maybe one day he could ask her who was in the photos. For now he just wanted to absorb the serenity with Alesha in his arms and singing to him.

After the song ended, she hugged him tight before chuckling. “We should head downstairs soon. Don’t want Steve or Sam to think I’m taking advantage of you.”

“Don’t worry, doll. I’d be a willin’ participant.” He gave her a rakish grin and a wink.

She laughed, pressing her hands against his chest. “Come on, trouble.”

As she tried to pull away, he held her prisoner in his firm embrace. He nuzzled her neck and tickled her sides making her squeal and laugh. He could not help but laugh along with her and her frantic exclamations.

“Oh my God, stop, stop! Your beard tickles! Ah! You win!”

Finally he relented, pleased to see a beautiful flush on her face. She was gorgeous with a soul, eyes and smile that warmed him to his core. He had never met a dame like her before. They held hands as they headed back downstairs, he was loathed to let her go after everything that just happened. He needed her close, a physical reminder of everything she said to him.

As they reentered the living room, Steve rose from his recliner, Trigger laying at the blonde’s feet. He probably had been petting the dog non-stop as a distraction from racing up the stairs and intervening. Steve scanned both Bucky and Alesha as if assessing for injuries and overall wellness.

“You guys could have kept watching the movie. You didn’t have to wait for us.” Alesha broke the tense silence, looking between Steve, Sam and the paused movie.

A smile emerged on Sam’s face as he quipped, always one with a smart remark. “Now, we’re supposed to be educating both of the old guys. Besides, who else am I supposed to argue with about who is uglier- the Sith Lord or Jabba?”

“Jabba, he could actually eat you.” She laughed, squeezing Bucky’s hand. “Do you guys want to keep watching …or is it too late?”

“I’m game. Nothing going on early for me tomorrow.” Sam said.

Steve and Bucky shared a look then both shrugged.

“Awesome!” Alesha happily said. She leaned over and scratched Trigger’s head before heading back to her spot.

“Buck?”

Bucky turned to Steve who had his back to the others, a minor shield to give them the resemblance of privacy. He answered Steve’s silent question, keeping his voice low so only the two super soldiers could hear. “I’m…better. We talked. Knocked me over the head some. She sang to me, Stevie.”

“Good. She’s a nice dame. I’m happy for you.”

“She even had me lay my head on her chest…Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she’s got great breasts.”

Steve blushed, rubbing a hand on the back of his neck. “I’m about to go crazy worrying for you and you’re feeling up on your girl. Somethings never change.”

“Punk.”

“Jerk.”

Steve clapped him on the shoulder as he walked back to take his seat next to Alesha. They continued the movie but Bucky found his thoughts straying to what Steve said. His girl. Was that what Alesha was? He liked the sound of that. A lot. Tightening his arm around her waist, he weaved their fingers together. She quickly smiled at him before returning her focus to the movie. Did she think she was his girl? She mentioned she liked him a lot. They had never discussed anything and this was so different than what he somewhat remembered from doing in the thirties.

Once the movie ended, the guys got ready to head back, the night getting later than anticipated. She stepped away as they were getting their shoes back on at the front door. She appeared with a huge Tupperware stuffed full of cookies and a sheepish grin.

“I completely forgot to pull these out earlier so you’ll have to take them back with you.”

Sam chuckled as he hugged her and took the cookies. “I ain’t gonna turn away your cooking.”

“Better not. I’d find where you live and hide them in your bed. Cookie crumbs everywhere are not fun to sleep on.”

“Boo, you come to my bed, eating cookies is the last thing we’re gonna be doing.” He winked and wiggled his eyebrows at her.

A low growl erupted from Bucky’s throat before he could stop it. If Sam tried anything with his girl, the man would never be able to get into his stupid suit again. He could see Steve watching him out of the corner of his eye but he did not acknowledge it. Possessively, he took a step closer and slung an arm around Alesha’s waist.

“Alright, get outta here.” She swatted Sam’s arm, ignoring the sudden tension from Bucky. Looking over at Steve, she smiled.  “Drive safe.”

The two headed towards the SUV parked on the street, arguing about how many cookies they could eat before Clint got a hold of them.

Bucky twirled her around and pulled her into a hug. Her short frame let him lay his cheek easily on the top of her head. It felt warm and safe to hold her and be held by her. Like nothing wrong to happen in this moment.

“Sweetheart, text me when you get there, ok?”

He nodded, not wanting to leave the moment as they stood just outside the open door in the front porch. The sun had set and the moon shone brilliantly through the clouds. It was peaceful. Chirping of crickets could be heard along with the buzzing of the streetlights. He wished he could stay in this moment…on second thought, he preferred the moment where they were laying on her bed and his head was on her chest.

Suddenly the screeching sound of tires and the heavy thump of bass turned up too loud assaulted their ears. Instinctively, Bucky pushed her behind him, ready to fight and protect. He turned to look at a silver sedan pulling up into the driveway. A second later, three men stepped out. Two glanced their way then headed towards the side door, while one lingered behind, staring at Alesha.

“Hey, Allie. You going to join us, tonight?” He called over, waving a six-pack of beer. He was built like a long distance runner but slightly pudgy. Grease stained jeans matched his grubby hands. A ballcap sat crooked on his head, emphasizing his tilted head as he stared at the two on the front porch.

“Damn it.” Alesha mumbled before responding, stepping slightly to the side of Bucky to see the man better. “No, Tyler. Thanks for offering.”

“Uh huh. See you inside.” With that he turned, not even hiding the fact he was eyeing her lecherously and scanning Bucky as a threat.

“Don’t worry about him. He’s just one of Bryan’s friends.”

“Bryan, your cousin?” He remembered her talking about a cousin who moved in recently that she did not like. If this were the guys he spent time with and brought back to the house, no wonder Alesha did not like him. Without even meeting the cousin, Bucky determined he disliked the man and his friends. Especially this…Tyler…he felt slimy. No way in hell was Bucky allowing him anywhere near his girl. Perhaps he needed to pay a visit and…inform the idiot of his rules. Lay one hand on her and he would lose that hand. Period.

“Yeah. It’s fine. Once Trigger is done out here, we’ll go to bed. They usually just hang out in the basement and drink. Grandma is staying with her sister tonight.”

He shook his head, glancing over her shoulder to look into the house. His senses were on high alert sensing danger. “I don’t like it. It’s not safe.”

“Hey, look at me.” She tipped his chin down. “I’ll be fine. I promise to call if something feels wrong. Ok?” He nodded hesitantly, wishing nothing more than to whisk her away. “And what were we talking about earlier that you have to do.”

“Fuck HYDRA.”

She rolled her eyes. “Sure. No, the other thing.”

He sighed, pressing his forehead to hers. “I call or text, doll, if…if a nightmare or flashback happens. I’ll talk to you or Steve.”

“Thank you.” She kissed his cheek.

His heart felt like bursting with joy. A simple kiss should not have felt so good. He probably had a stupidly goofy grin but he could not help it. When was the last time someone kissed him? Here was an angel and she kissed him. He certainly did not want to leave now but knew Steve and Sam were waiting in the SUV.

“Good night, angel.”

“Night, sweetheart.”

He strode purposefully down the driveway towards the SUV, even if he wanted to turn around and steal his own kiss but from her lips this time. Once there he gave Alesha a final wave before slipping into the back seat. The scent of cookies wafted through, apparently Steve and Sam already consuming some. All the way back to the compound his thoughts whirled with memories from the night, how she felt in his arms, her singing to him, her chaste kiss on his scruffy cheek. She was perfect. An angel. His girl. He was one lucky bastard.