The Winter Soldier wakes up.
Moving stirs dust; he’s still alone. Midday, twelve noon by the sun. Concrete floor, no joint pain but legs could use a stretch. Right arm nearly healed, mending nerves reconnecting. If he focuses, goes still as the humid air he can feel the million tiny processes natural and not that knit him back together. It reassures him. Is it meant to reassure him?
The maps led him here, layers of them. Through the window he sees Brooklyn Heights from six stories up, the other warehouses down this street, the brownstones, carriage houses, cobblestone streets, pedestrians. The target stepped out the red door of the third house on the block looking down to adjust his paisley tie and the shot caught him right in the forehead, all it took to get the job done. The Winter Soldier’s finger curls, slides smooth over the tip of his thumb, nothing like the pull of metal. It was snowing that day.
There’s another map. Lower down, beneath blood on a freshly snow-powdered doorstep. A decision that wasn’t, really, no more a considered choice than taking a familiar route home, darting off Court and down this street, past the tall stone church, dark red roses crushed as he leapt up to catch a window ledge and slip inside. Crouching by the window within the rectory, watching the police cars race by through the glass. A broken thorn he had to tweeze from his fingertip with his teeth. Thicker gloves after that, part of the uniform.
Maps can’t be erased. Land can be wiped clean, the surfaces can be changed, but the ground is there, dirt and clay and stone. Cobblestone beneath worn out shoes, tall cherry trees that spattered the streets with pink blossoms in spring. Stained glass windows and dust between smooth paving stones, called up by pounding feet to blur an April day’s dry sunshine. Shiny new cars in carriage houses before they weren’t garages anymore.
Running down this street, pace calibrated so he wouldn’t leave Steve behind, the Ruspoli brothers at their heels until Bucky insisted, “You can’t beat up a kid in front of the house of the Lord, you can’t, you can’t,” tired from the chase, crying every word but sanctuary. The words just as much for Steve as for the Catholic boys who crossed themselves and said, “Next time, Rogers.”
“God is watching,” Bucky yelled to their retreating backs, and at his side, gasping for air, Steve said, “I’m sure that’s blasphemy somehow,” and, “Thanks.”
“You can’t,” the Winter Soldier says, savoring the echo. He knows the words. He was there. Dust in his choking throat and thorns in his fingertips and the cry of a woman at the red door, calling out the target’s name, a little boy behind appearing her. “God is watching.”
That’s what helps, being on the ground, being in the world. He knows he was a part of it. He knows they were a part of it together.
Captain America. The mission. The man on the bridge. Steve Rogers. Bucky’s best friend.
Metals meeting, fist to shield. Help up disguised as a handshake, a scrawny kid with a black eye who wobbled even after Bucky got him up off the dirty ground.
He found the corner where they first met, Henry and Orange Streets. His feet knew how to get there even though the sights were unfamiliar, a dry cleaners where there used to be a cobbler, a pair of high-rises where a park had been. He stood there with a cardboard cup of coffee and thought the memory through, traversed every inch of it until his cup was empty and the burn in his fingertips faded. His flesh and blood hand remembered Steve’s smaller one in it and his metal fingers curled and clenched to catch a shield that wasn’t there either.
The Winter Soldier’s being followed, of course. It took a little while after the helicarriers came down, after he left the mission - Captain America - Steve bleeding on the shore. Mission failed. Pierce down, HYDRA in disarray. No orders came to him and he didn’t intend to seek them out. But it couldn’t last.
He passes a bright advertisement on a plywood wall, a lurid shot of a golden beach, sky obscene blue, and feels sand between his fingers, remembers a palm tree, something knocked loose in him after a fall. Gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses and a boy with a soft mouth who looked after him until they came for him again, a stun gun to the Winter Soldier’s throat and the boy’s body sinking underwater. This isn’t the first time he’s remembered things he wasn’t supposed to. He wonders what island it was, how much he’d remember if he went back.
He avoids taking the train when he can so it’s a long walk to Red Hook. He lets his boots lead him to right churchyard, sees the trees just planted and full-grown, double negative images. The goggles he wore enhanced his vision, lightened the dark and sharpened his focus to laser-like sight, but he prefers this, the bounce and echo of past and present. It grounds him, reminds him he’s a still point. In the church he lights a candle. He doesn’t remember why he wants to do it, but his flesh and blood hand says take the match and his metal hand doesn’t disagree.
He flicks his wrist to kill the flame to smoke and the other hand’s already on the knife in his waistband, sliding it open to aim it at the Kevlar abdomen of the agent his body knows he’s done hand-to-hand training with in the past. The Winter Soldier lands the blade inch-deep into armor and Bucky stops it there and lets it tease at flesh, the man’s terrified exhalation pushing it just through.
“You can’t run from us,” the agent grits out. “We have men outside. You’re outnumbered.”
The Winter Soldier says, softly to hold the vestibule’s peace: “God is watching.”
A bullet hits his shoulder with a metallic cling and he lets the agent drop, turns toward the source with muscles tensed and sees through the open arched door a flash of blue, a pair of wings. He’s unarmed and unprotected but his body says fight and his feet follow orders, taking him out into the fray, catching the closest agent and letting steel and flesh and muscle do what they know as easy and natural as reciting memorized lines, smooth swings and punctuating cries, moves he’s made a thousand times. He lets his body fight until the black-armored men litter the ground and there’s only loud breathing and the cries of birds in the air, two familiar men he’s fought to kill before staring him down.
“These friends of yours?” asks the Falcon, guarded. He gestures to the bodies on the ground, wings out echoing the churchyard angels.
“I don’t have any friends,” the Winter Soldier says. Captain America, the failed mission, his best friend looks wounded. The Winter Soldier sees the man in the helicarrier facing him down and Bucky sees Steve at his mother’s grave and both of his hands curl up into fists, wanting to touch.
“Now that’s just sad,” says the Falcon. “Steve, this guy better be as savable as you think he is. I don’t wanna fight a sad guy.”
“Bucky,” says Steve, his voice broken, unshielded.
The Winter Soldier’s body answers, “Yes.”
Steve takes him home.
Midway through the journey the streets through the windows start sparking connections, split second echoes of newsboy-capped kids selling papers on street corners, storefronts with faded 7-Up signs underneath the dirty bodega awnings, stoops he lingered by or passed. He. They. These aren’t the Winter Soldier’s memories. The Winter Soldier hasn’t been here but Bucky must have. He feels the new/old map swelling up, giving the buildings around him foundation, depth. Something to hold on to.
“Left here, Sam,” Steve says, and then they turn down Middagh Street.
The Winter Soldier’s hand digs into the seat hard enough to nearly press through the leather.
The spring damp of the day dissipates into the fog of dawn, thick humid summer sunshine, icebox wind, snowbanks three feet deep. Every season assaults him at once, every inch of pavement brings up something new, another step he’s taken down this street, walking home from long days at the shipyard, meeting Steve at the corner, parting in early mornings before going to work, fixing up the creaky wooden fence and scrubbing moss from brick to get a break on rent. The crunch of leaves and massacre of white blossoms beneath his feet until they were blown away in the autumn wind. Hanging around outside the theater next door, meeting cute girls in the post-show crowds, getting in good with a few actors who’d comp them admission to plays. Mending Steve’s clothes because they taught him well at the orphanage, telling him he looked real pretty getting ready for church on Sundays and ducking, laughing when Steve swatted him. Steve’s good bean soup after rough days at the yard, listening to radio shows together with the windows open on cool spring afternoons, sitting in the courtyard in summer watching Steve labor to perfectly capture the crawl of ivy down brick with his pencil and sketchpad.
They cross Willow Street and Sam parks the car at the dead end overlooking the wide expressway below, the watchtower in the distance. The Winter Soldier stares at the cars passing beneath them, trying desperately to focus on something that doesn’t carry the weight of decades he’s lost, but he’s shaking. He’s shaking. The old theater is boarded up and the white blossoms on the tree out front are dying this time of year and he knows everything he is and ever has been and all he can grasp bears heavily down on him, too heavily.
“Oh God,” Steve says next to him, blue eyes wide and scared when Bucky turns to him, body helpless to ignore his voice. “I thought it would help to see - I’m so sorry,” he fumbles out, but the Winter Soldier can’t look at anything around him, all of it too much, too crushing. He curls his shoulders inward and makes himself small, less to be seen, less to be found and caught, the sounds of war everywhere inside his skull, earth and cold wrapping up around him. Something awful in him cries for a chair, stiff leather strapping his wrists down, a plastic bit between his teeth, anything to make the assault stop - until there are hands on him. These hands make sense, big and warm and familiar, pushing everything else away and pulling him close into sanctuary. Into Steve.
“You sure you should be doing that?” Sam asks from the front seat, from miles away.
“Looks like I already am,” says Steve. He’s a still point, an anchor. Bucky lets himself be held, and holds on.
The panic passes, he forces it to. The Winter Soldier narrows the world down to a point and builds out: he’s huddled in, surrounded by Steve like armor. They’re in the car, on grey leather seats. The nuisance, the Falcon, Sam is in the front seat, concerned but tense. They’re on a street Bucky’s walked a thousand times but that doesn’t matter now. Bucky, that Bucky, isn’t here. The Winter Soldier understands pavement, brick walls, city traffic noise. The Winter Soldier has had base camps, places to lie in when his body dictated resting periods. This is where he is now. This is where he’ll rest. Steve is here. The mission is over. Steve is here.
He’s able to nod when Steve asks, tentative, if he wants to go inside or somewhere else. He’s able to take each step, let himself be led, takes the guidance as an order and gives in to it. His feet know the steps up into the apartment; familiar and not being led by Steve, this Steve. He was smaller when they lived here, thin back and trembling shivering shoulders in winter for Bucky to hustle upstairs to threadbare blankets and home. There’s a burst of laughter and he tenses, tries harder to block out the memories of a full courtyard, smoke drifting up from the night’s giddy crowd of theatergoers after a show.
Maybe Steve remembers too, he must - “It’s just kids,” Steve says, his mouth quirking in a little smile. “There’s a playground on the other side of the Grant, they must have knocked down the creepy old house that was there. You remember it?”
“The cat lady,” Bucky says, his voice hoarser than he expected it to be. He clears his throat, thinking about the old lady with her frizzed white hair, how she would yell at them for causing a ruckus in the late afternoons when they got too rowdy but somehow always sleep through the late-night show crowds. “She was mean.”
“You loved those kittens, though,” Steve says, his smile growing. “Even though you used to lie and say we should catch them for soup.”
“You too good for kitten soup, Rogers?” Bucky says, almost easily. He’s said it before. When he smiles it feels like stretching long-dormant muscles, a pleasant ache. They’re at the door to their place, and Bucky hasn’t been home in so long.
“I don’t feel afraid of this guy anymore,” Sam says drily. “You two want to come inside? All that driving tired me out,” he adds, giving Steve a pointed look.
“Thanks for driving, Sam,” says Steve very sincerely, then, looking back at Bucky, “Come inside. I’ve spruced the place up a bit, it won’t be like you remember exactly.”
Nothing ever is. For the first time, though, that’s beginning to feel okay.
The dissonance between what Bucky expects and what the Winter Soldier sees is nearly enough to make him waver in the doorway. Only the frame to lean against and his boots stop him, firm on the ground as he assesses his surroundings, dual images warring. It was small when it was theirs, two rooms with barely enough space to waltz in (the night they tried, music floating in from a house down the street, stumbling and the big bruise on Steve’s hip from the bedpost, Bucky telling him he had to learn to dance). They used to crowd around the old stove in winter, warming their hands, throw the windows wide in summer to coax a breeze in. There was a crack at eye level in the plaster on the north wall that Bucky covered with a pin-up of Rita Hayworth.
They’re gone now, Rita and the split in the plaster and the wall itself. The apartment’s thrice as big as he remembers it, walls knocked down to open it up, sunlight streaming through larger windows. He’d ask if it were even the same place if his feet and body didn’t know it like his own skin.
Steve chances touching him, guides him inside to sit at the small kitchen table. There are yellow curtains up and past them through the window the sky looks even bluer. “It’s nicer, huh?” Steve says. He joins Bucky at the table, something careful about him, easy movements like he’s trying not to startle a cornered animal. “I’ve been here for a few weeks. I thought you might make your way back to Brooklyn at least, I wanted to be here. Stark had bought the whole block by the time we got here. He might have actually done it by the time I got off the phone with Pepper.”
“Stark,” the Winter Soldier says, voice soft. He knows Stark, confusing layers of memory there all crumpled together until he breathes out, sets his fist to the table, grounds himself, unfolds them. A cocky young playboy in the late 1980s, one of a throng around a target he’d just taken down from a bridge. Monagesque air warm that night, light breeze carrying the screams. A bomb in his hands and the insides of a car, staying only long enough to watch the explosion light up the road. An ally at the head of a table, strategizing before going on a mission with Steve and the Howling Commandos. Different times, different men.
“Yeah,” Steve says. His fingers tap on the table like he wants to lay them over Bucky’s knuckles. “Tony, he’s Howard’s son. We’re - colleagues, I guess. Or were. I’m not sure how well the Avengers Initiative is holding up now that SHIELD is down.”
“What does that mean?” the Winter Soldier asks. Sam sets two steaming cups onto the table between them and he recoils automatically.
“It’s just coffee,” Sam says, eyebrow raised. He looks a little offended. “I make a good cup. Kenyan roast.”
The Winter Soldier leans forward to look at it, the steam eddying over the black surface in a gentle pattern like new snow over concrete. “I was in Kenya once,” he says. It had been very hot there, even at night.
“Oh yeah?” asks Sam. “For what?”
“An assassination.” Steve’s sipping his coffee, so Bucky follows suit. It’s good, better than the cheap junk they got during the war.
“Good talk,” Sam says. The Winter Soldier shrugs. Sam looks at Steve. “I’m gonna do an equipment check, let you two have some time alone. To chat about assassinations or whatever. The good old days.”
“Thanks, Sam,” Steve tells him, watches with some fondness as he retreats to one of the bedrooms that wasn’t there in the forties, then turns back, has another sip of coffee. The Winter Soldier shakes off the feeling that he just watched Sam walk through a wall. He wonders if the coffee has any honest effect on Steve or if it’s the same as it is for him, just something warm to hold, a play at normalcy. Caffeine doesn’t do much for his body these days. HYDRA just shot him full of amphetamines when necessary. “SHIELD being down means I’m pretty much on vacation,” Steve says. “My plan was to find you and go from there. I didn’t know what shape you’d be in so I couldn’t really plan beyond that. I just hoped you’d be okay.”
“I’ve been better,” the Winter Soldier says. Steve still looks hopeful, and Bucky just wants to see him smile again, wipe the gloomy look off his face. He looks out the wider window, over the empty courtyard. No other tenants, no theatergoers, no path shoveled through snow. The ivy’s nearly eaten up the theater’s outside wall, thick over the mossy brick. He tries to focus on one thing, on now, says, burying the hesitance he feels: “I never would have agreed to these curtains.”
“They’re cheerful,” says Steve, laughing, startled. Bucky meets his eyes, smiles a little, and his mission, Captain America, his best friend Steve smiles right back.
They stay in that night. Steve has a pot of bean soup in the fridge (“He’s been keeping that in stock,” Sam says significantly, but still asks for seconds) so they all have that for dinner with good bread from the Italian bakery still in business down the street. It’s delicious, better even than Bucky remembered. Fresher tomatoes and a few more spices in the mix, just enough to improve on the original. Steve and Sam mostly banter through dinner, Steve keeping up a steady flow of conversation about things inconsequential and not.
Most of it goes over the Winter Soldier’s head, other bits nudge at memories.
Steve talks about Dr. Banner teaching him about Indian spices (Banner, a problem in Harlem, the Winter Soldier diverted at the last minute to handle a job in Kyoto).
Hearing from Peggy Carter’s niece and going out for coffee with her (Bucky watching Steve and Peggy, her warm smile at Steve and a familiar possessive tug Bucky could ignore but never stop).
Hand-to-hand training with Pepper Potts and how she’d kicked Steve’s ass across the room and then they’d spent ten minutes apologizing to each other until JARVIS via Tony sent down whiskey gingers with maraschino cherries and a stack of romantic comedy DVDs as a distraction (training with Steve at the base camp, learning the new ways his body moved, just learning the new shape of him, teaching his eyes to adjust, to stop automatically looking Steve in the throat instead of the eye, to stop wanting to feel at what he still wasn’t used to seeing).
Now that he’s with Steve everything makes so much more sense. Now that he’s with Steve everything is so much more confusing. The Winter Soldier remembers things and Bucky tries to forget them. Steve smiles at him from across the table a hundred times over a hundred days and the Winter Soldier wonders what Bucky succeeded in forgetting.
“I thought it would help if it was familiar,” Steve says, gesturing to the twin beds, one on each wall. The Winter Soldier remembers snow through the windows, stacks of blankets, beds pushed together. Steve’s thin shoulders trembling and the rattle in his chest that Bucky felt against his palm.
“Yeah,” he replies. “It helps.”
They spend a week in Brooklyn, taking it slow. Steve goes out running every morning early while Sam stays behind and teaches the Winter Soldier about different varieties of coffee beans and how to make the perfect omelet. It’s soothing almost, learning brand new things, not having to add new layers to memories. Just building something from scratch, creating a foundation and working up. He knows part of it is that they don’t want to leave him alone and he can’t blame them.
Still, he can make a pretty good breakfast by now. Sam says that was their plan all along, compliments his fried potatoes and calls him the Winter Chef. He heads out for his own run as soon as Steve gets back.
Every morning the Winter Soldier wakes up to Steve in the bed across the room from him and every morning Bucky wants and needs and neither of them are satisfied.
Steve drives him to Coney Island. Steve takes him to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. They take walks in Prospect Park and by the lake Steve brings out sandwiches and Cokes, a sketchpad and pencil and a Kindle. “I thought we could have a picnic,” Steve says. “Just relax. We’ve been doing the memory tourism pretty hard.” He passes over the Kindle, shows him how to turn it on. “I put your favorites on there and some things I thought you’d like. Some poetry.”
“Thanks,” the Winter Soldier says. He takes the Kindle. It’s open to the Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, a portrait of a handsome young man on the black and grey screen, letters in script. He asks Steve, “Was I in love with you?”
Steve blinks at him, no emotion on his face that Bucky can read until everything is there: shock, fear, confusion. Regret. He says, “Not that you ever…told me.”
“Were you in love with me?” Bucky asks. He pretends that it isn’t him saying it, that it’s just memory tourism. He just needs to know, so he can get better.
Steve swallows. He says, “Not that I ever told you.”
“But were you?” Bucky asks. It’s so calm around them, a quiet day by the lake. Nothing like in Washington, the crash and holding his breath, grasping for Steve underwater even though he didn’t fully understand why. Just following his instincts, doing what his body told him to. Knowing that he needed Steve to live, he just needed to figure out why.
He can’t remember if they’ve ever been here before, in this spot. It’s a new foundation to build from.
“Yeah, Buck,” Steve says, his voice hoarse.
Bucky looks right at him, holds his gaze when he nods and says, “Me too.” He wants to remember this.
Steve stays slow and careful with him, a gentleman as he’s always been. It takes days before he’s sure, before either of them are completely sure, until Bucky has to ask, “So I kiss you, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“It triggers some Soviet kiss-bomb and I find out you were still a spy gaming me all along,” Steve suggests. Bucky laughs. It feels good, but not as good as kissing would. He remembers kissing. It was awfully nice.
Sam looks up at them from the couch where he’s reading on Bucky’s Kindle again. “If this goes on much longer,” he says, “I’m going to kiss him myself and find out.”
On a breezy early summer day Steve and Bucky sit in the courtyard and have coffee. Steve sketches him, tugs his silver arm across the table and has him spread his fingers out, pencil working over the page to capture the details. Bucky casually tilts his palm up, takes Steve’s hand. “We used to do this in the spring,” he says, “I remember.”
Steve smiles, holds his hand. “Me too. The coffee’s better now.”
“Company could use some improvement, though,” Bucky says, lets the corner of his mouth tilt up in a grin.
Steve laughs. “Jerk.”
Bucky rises from his chair and kisses him like he’s wanted to do since they were teenagers.
Steve kisses him back.
There are no kiss-bombs.
Bucky wakes up. His arm is around Steve’s waist, hand curled into a fist against where his heart beats. There’s no rattle in Steve’s broad chest, just a fast, steady heartbeat. The old peeling wallpaper is gone, replaced by pale blue paint. The beds are pushed together like they used to do in winter, but it isn’t winter anymore. Steve is his best friend and he’s more than that, he’s everything at once. And Bucky’s okay.