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Street Level Magic

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The scars of my knowledge and regret are rising off my flesh as yours are.
I know you’re out there in my night as I am out there in yours.
Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen war or not.
There are many ways to see too much.
—Henry Rollins

 

The soldier had memories for the first time that he was aware of. He didn’t know what to do with them when they didn’t go away. No one came to find him, there was no one to debrief him, no one to wipe him, reset him, give him directions, no commands, no mission; nothing. He had a memory of a man who had a name for him that wasn’t “the asset” or the more dramatic, strike-fear-into-the-hearts-of-men title “Winter Soldier”, but the name meant nothing to him. Nothing beyond the way Captain America—Steve—looked when he said it.

Like his heart was breaking.

Heartbroken: there was an interesting concept. The soldier couldn’t remember experiencing it himself, though he must have at some point or Steve couldn’t have looked at him like that, thrown down his shield and offered himself to him.

For the first time to his knowledge, the soldier had his freedom and he had a name. He didn’t know what to do with either of them.

In New Jersey, a homeless man gave him a can of pork & beans and the soldier realized he was hungry, so he pried the can open with his metal fingers and ate. A woman gave him a ratty, stained blanket and he crawled into a doorway down a dark alley and listened to the strays fighting and fucking until he lost consciousness in exhaustion. He supposed most people would call it sleep.

On a TV mounted to a wall in a bar, the soldier watched news footage of Steve and Natasha Romanov and Steve and Sam Wilson and Steve and Nick Fury and Steve and Alexander Pierce and Steve… and his mind felt like it had been hijacked. He couldn’t shake the idea that Steve was much too tall, too big, too healthy in all of the pictures of him that he saw everywhere. There was no reason why he should think so, either. Steve Rogers hit really hard and he fought like the devil. If he were any smaller, the soldier wouldn’t have had such a hard time dragging his deadweight to shore.

It was getting cold outside. The soldier didn’t know what time of the year it was and he barely felt the cold anymore after so much of his life spent frozen in stasis, but the people he passed wore thicker and thicker coats and some nights it snowed. He woke in alleyways behind dumpsters with frost in his hair and on the tips of his eyelashes. The chilled metal of his shoulder where it met flesh burned until he could get somewhere to warm it up.

He dreamed when he slept, which was something he had never done. His mind had never been full enough for dreaming. There had never been enough subconscious information backed up in his brain to need the cleansing of dreams. They always wiped him before that happened, reset him back to zero, ready for a new mission.

No one came for him. No one, except for Steve it seemed, was looking for him, and Steve wouldn’t find him because he didn’t know where to look.

The soldier sometimes dreamed about Steve, but he was almost always too skinny. A stubborn, angry kid who didn’t weigh an even hundred pounds, but never had let it stop him. He never won the fights, but the gamey little shit didn’t back down. In Steve’s mind, perhaps that made every little battle a draw.

It was noble and brave, but stupid. Except he thought he remembered that Steve had been smart. Perhaps he had just lacked the necessary survival instincts that usually came in such small packages; had the same instinct for self-preservation as a rat terrier.

Sometimes what the soldier thought he remembered felt like a story he was telling himself.

He replayed that day on the carrier in his head sometimes. He couldn’t help it.

You’re my friend.

You’re my mission.

You… are… my… mission.

It was easy to get stuck in a loop. When the vague, painful peeks of memories long ago wiped away wouldn’t form into anything more substantial, he wished that he could reach inside and rip them out. They were maddening and meaningless, sitting there like ghouls with their fingers in his brainstem.

One night a cop roused him from a park bench and demanded his name. The soldier very deliberately did not kill the man, though he invaded his space more than he was comfortable with and postured like an angry dog. The soldier growled in the back of his throat in response, but he didn’t kill him. He didn’t know why either.

Then he told the cop that his name was Bucky, and after that he knew that he was going to let Steve find him.

His mind was like a computer, everything that happened to him like files in the hard drive. His files were supposed to be safe; they were encrypted and protected by passwords. Only a few people could access them, delete them, overwrite them or upload new ones. He was operating with a faulty system now. There was no admin, no one to keep order for him, delete the unnecessary rubbish and replace all that empty space with commands. He had no mission, no purpose, no direction.

Steve—the Captain—had hacked the system. He would have to be the one to fix it.

The system wasn’t perfect, but the soldier was used to it.

He wouldn’t allow the cop to arrest him for vagrancy, but after he knocked him out, he left him unconscious on the park bench under his blanket.

~~*~~

Steve told himself that he hadn’t given up. He wasn’t giving up. He wasn’t going to give up. What they asked him to do was important, necessary to weeding out all the little heads of HYDRA so they could be severed, never to threaten the world again. To do it though, he had to stop looking, sometimes for a long time. Sometimes for months.

He would have liked to be able to blame the trail going cold on those little missions that dragged him away from searching, but the truth was the trail had always been cold. It had only gotten colder and colder, and it hadn’t started in a great place.

Someone saw the Winter Soldier in New York, in Brooklyn, in New Jersey, in Boston, in Miami, New Orleans. Someone even claimed to have seen him in Nebraska and, though Steve knew it couldn’t be true, he went to Nebraska and looked just to be sure.

HYDRA might have been looking for their Winter Soldier, too, but Fury—with some occasional help from Steve and the others—was keeping them much too busy to spend resources on a thorough search.

Sam would sometimes remind Steve that what he was doing was hubris. He couldn’t know what he would find when (if) he found Bucky, or if there was anything of Bucky in the Winter Soldier. Bucky might be gone. In fact, it seemed likely. The body was a shell that now housed the Winter Soldier, who might have given Captain America a pass once, but probably wouldn’t do it a second time.

Steve would remind him in turn that the Winter Soldier could have killed him easily, but had chosen not to. That choice proved to him that there was hope, that it wasn’t just his imagination or a pipedream, because if Bucky could make one choice like that, he could make another and another, and pretty soon it could become habit-forming. He told Sam that Bucky had recognized him. Maybe not completely, but enough, which was something and meant that he couldn’t just give up on him.

Secretly, he wasn’t so sure that Bucky had recognized him at all.

He had looked so afraid in that moment before Steve fell into the water. Steve was scared to think that he might never know why.

He remembered another fall; Bucky falling backward into the snow, toward the rocks, Steve watching him grow horribly smaller until he just disappeared. He had screamed and that scream had echoed in the chambers of Steve’s heart until it had felt like it would burst in his throat. He had never felt such terror and loss.

He would let Bucky give him two black eyes every day for the rest of his life just to know for sure that it hadn’t, in fact, ended that way.

Steve bought a bottle of water from a machine on his way home after his run and poured most of it over his head before he entered the building. He took the stairs—he didn’t trust elevators anymore—and noticed someone sitting in the hallway as he walked toward his door. Sometimes homeless people found their way inside where it was warm, but they usually didn’t make it much farther than the lobby. Still, he wasn’t surprised until he got close enough to see that whoever it was, they were sitting with their back against his door.

Waiting for him?

“Hello?” Steve said as he approached.

It was a man, sleeping from the looks of it, with his head down on his updrawn knees, long, greasy hair hiding his face. There was something viscerally familiar about him; the shape of him, the color of his hair, the way he sat there like a child who had fallen asleep on timeout.

A soldier asleep at his post.

“Bucky,” Steve said. He said it softly, but the man tensed.

Slowly, Bucky lifted his head and stared at him with the Winter Soldier’s cold, calculating eyes. They were the same color as Bucky’s eyes, dark greyish blue with flecks like gold at the bottom of a pond, the same shape with his same long, dark eyelashes making him look almost like he had been playing with his latest girlfriend’s eyeliner. Steve couldn’t imagine the Winter Soldier had had many girlfriends in the past seventy years. His eyes were ice cold now, and unwelcoming under a strange combination of confusion and wonder.

There was no recognition in that unflinching stare and Steve felt that like he was inside a plummeting elevator.

“Hey, Bucky,” he said, voice soft and cautious. It was how he would have spoken to a frightened dog that was known to bite or an insane person. He supposed Bucky was a little bit of both these days. “What are you doing?”

“Waiting for you,” Bucky said. His voice was hoarse and ragged, like he hadn’t used it in a very long time. He licked his lips and swallowed. “I’m not going to kill you,” he said.

It didn’t sound like he was trying to reassure Steve of this fact, just making it known.

“Okay,” Steve said. “That’s good.”

Steve followed Bucky’s line of sight to the nearly empty water bottle he was holding. He offered it to him and Bucky snatched it, drank it quickly, not taking his eyes off Steve.

There were so many things Steve wanted to say to him, so many questions he wanted to ask. He tried to land on just one, but he couldn’t, his mind racing. He was trying desperately to patch his memories of Bucky Barnes, his friend whom he had loved his entire life, into the figure of the man before him and he couldn’t quite do it. The pieces wouldn’t fit together without some ugly overlapping.

“What do you want, Bucky?”

“I don’t want anything,” Bucky said. “It’s not part of my programming.”

He slowly pushed himself up from the floor, using the door to Steve’s apartment to brace himself. It wasn’t a particularly aggressive action—he didn’t actually look like he was in good fighting form—but Steve still took a step back and kept an eye on his hands, especially the left one. Bucky saw him watching him, noted his caution, but didn’t comment on it.

“You knew me,” Steve said, all of his coalescing thoughts crashing to a halt, settling on that one. “That day on the carrier. Project Insight. You knew me. That’s why… why you stopped. Why you looked so scared. Because you knew me.”

“No,” Bucky said.

He was leaning against the door and looked like he was barely remaining upright. Steve wondered if he was wounded, though he didn’t look like he was. He had no visible injuries. He wasn’t bleeding. He closed his eyes, blinking, and they remained closed a little too long.

“No, you knew me,” Bucky said softly. “Then. I know you now. A little. Not much. But I shouldn’t know you at all.” He glared at Steve through the lank strands of his long hair. “Why? Why do I know you? Why do I know you? They erased it all. Everything. You shouldn’t be in there anymore, but you’re still there. Why? Why can’t I get rid of you? Why won’t you go away?”

Bucky was shaking but he still tried instinctively to lash out when Steve reached for him to keep him from sliding down the door back onto the floor. Steve caught his arm, blocked the blow so easily that a more fully functioning Winter Soldier would have been disgusted with his own weakness, and propped him up against the wall while he dug his keys out of the pocket of his sweats. When he had the door open, he hauled Bucky inside, kicked it closed and took him to the couch.

“I could kill you,” Bucky muttered in his ear as Steve was lowering him to the couch. “You should be more careful.”

“You said you wouldn’t,” Steve said.

“Maybe I lied,” Bucky said. He was slumped against the armrest. His eyes were blazing fever bright. “You were my last mission. I failed.”

“It’s okay,” Steve said.

Bucky scowled at him, but he relaxed like Steve’s acceptance had given him permission. He watched Steve leave the room and come back with a glass of water. When he took it, he watched Steve while he drank it.

Steve sat in the chair at the end of the couch. “I think you’re dehydrated,” he said. “Probably hungry. You look like you’ve lost a lot of weight. When was the last time you ate anything?”

“Tuesday,” Bucky said. He didn’t seem very surprised by Steve’s unprofessional diagnosis, but he tried to think about it. “I remember hearing someone say it was Tuesday. A woman gave me a sandwich. I don’t know why.”

Probably because you look like you really need one, Steve thought, but did not say.

It was Friday. Bucky hadn’t eaten in three days.

Steve got up again, took Bucky’s empty glass and went back into the kitchen. “I’ll make you a sandwich, then. You still like ham and cheese with mustard?”

“I… don’t know,” Bucky said.

Which Steve translated to mean I don’t care because that was what he made it sound like.

“I’ll make you ham and cheese,” Steve said. “We’ll order up some real food later.”

Steve got bread out, got the cheese, the ham, the mustard, and he was assembling the sandwich when he glanced up at some movement in his peripheral vision to find Bucky standing there. No, leaning there. He was leaning in the doorway, watching him, his expression one of such lost perplexity that Steve wanted to go to him, put an arm around him, comfort him in some way, but he didn’t.

He knew better. Bucky—or whoever he was now—would not welcome him as he had before. Steve had been pulled from the ice and awakened to a new world, but he was basically still the same person he had been when he had gone into the freezing water in 1945. The world had changed, but he was the same. Bucky wasn’t. In the seventy years between falling from the train and showing up malnourished and half-conscious on Steve’s doorstep, Bucky had been turned into someone else. This guy didn’t hug, didn’t talk much, didn’t smile or laugh or joke or tease or flirt, he certainly wouldn’t want to cuddle.

Because Steve didn’t feel like being punched in the face today, he went back to making the sandwich and didn’t touch him. When he finished, he gave the sandwich to Bucky and put everything away while Bucky looked at it and didn’t eat it.

“Why?” Bucky finally said.

Steve closed the refrigerator door and looked at him, raising an eyebrow. “Why what?”

Bucky just stared at him.

It didn’t matter. Why any of it? “Because…”

Because I thought I had lost you and that was the worst moment of my life. Because you’re not dead and I still can’t believe it. Because I want to help you remember. I want you to know me again. Because I love you more than I can ever say…

Steve cleared his throat, ignored the heat of his flushing face and did not say anything that he was thinking, because he knew he would just sound like a sap to himself and Bucky would think he was weak, possibly pathetic, definitely barking up the wrong tree.

“Because you need help,” Steve said. He shrugged. “We’re both out of time. Out of our element. Besides, you’re not going to kill me, right?”

Bucky didn’t look like he believed his answer, but he took a bite of his sandwich and staggered back into the living room to sit down again. Steve followed him and sat in the chair, watching Bucky eat and watch him back, neither of them saying anything. When he finished eating, Bucky lay down on the couch and stared at Steve sitting there as his eyes got heavier and heavier. He watched him until he couldn’t keep them open any longer.

He slept without dreaming.

Chapter Text

who put me here—
it seems a little brutal
some sort of supernatural man
with the power to fashion his
Fantasy into a Beast
—Austin Kleon

 

Bucky woke to the sound of raised voices. He woke up in the same position on the couch that he had fallen asleep in and his entire body felt weighted down. He opened his eyes, but didn’t otherwise move, and lay there listening.

“You can’t just trust this guy! He shows up here out of the blue like that and you don’t even wonder if maybe he’s up to something?”

“He’s not. He came to me.”

“HYDRA’s still out there, Steve. They’re getting more desperate, too. You don’t wonder if maybe they sent their super soldier here to take you out all Trojan horse style?”

“Sam, will you keep it down? He’s sleeping.”

“Steve, come on, he’s not a pet.”

“I know that!”

Bucky’s eyebrows lifted at the sound of real, sharp anger in Steve’s voice. He didn’t know for certain, but it seemed wrong. Steve got angry, but he didn’t… Except maybe he did. Bucky couldn’t really trust the things he thought he knew about Steve.

“What did you think we were going to do when we found him?” Steve asked. “Did you think I was going to kill him?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t think it was a catch and release mission though. The guy’s dangerous, man. You know that better than anybody.”

“What I know is that he could have killed me. I would have let him kill me if that was what he had to do, but he didn’t. He didn’t.”

“You say that like it’s the answer to everything. He killed a lot of people before he didn’t kill you.”

“He can remember who he is. I know he can.”

“Fine. I guess we’ll find out if that’s true. Just… look, be careful.”

Bucky watched legs pass him as Sam left, heard the door open and close, then watched Steve’s legs appear as he walked over to the chair nearby and sat down. He huffed out a sigh and sat with his face in his hands, his elbows on his knees. After a minute, he felt Bucky watching him and looked up.

“Hey,” Steve said. He sat up and tried to look casual. “Ah… how long have you been awake?”

“I don’t know if I can remember,” Bucky said instead of answering him. “I know I can’t be who you want me to be. Even if I remember, I won’t be.”

“No, of course not,” Steve said. “I mean… well, you’ve been through a lot.”

“I could pretend.”

No.” Steve looked horrified by the idea. “No… don’t do that.”

“I won’t. But he’s right. You shouldn’t trust me.”

Steve fidgeted a little, uncomfortable. “I know.”

But you do anyway, Bucky thought. It was a weakness. A very dangerous weakness. Oddly, he did not feel compelled to exploit it.

“You were asleep for two days,” Steve said after awhile.

He said it like he thought two days was a long time.

Bucky grunted in acknowledgement and got off the couch to look for the bathroom.

Steve followed him to the hallway and said, “There’s towels if you want a shower. And I guess you can wear my clothes until… well, I mean, we’ll get you something of your own. But you could probably wear mine.”

They were approximately the same size; height, weight, body type. It seemed like Steve expected an answer of some kind to acknowledge this fact. “Probably,” Bucky said.

He went in the bathroom and closed the door, leaving Steve still standing there in the hallway. Bucky stood on the other side of the door, staring thoughtfully at the towel hook mounted to the back while he tried to organize his thoughts. It wasn’t easy. Sam’s voice kept repeating in his head the things he had been almost shouting at Steve.

Trojan horse style…

Trojan horse…

He killed…

Killed a lot of people…

Killed a lot of people before he didn’t kill you…

Didn’t kill you…

He didn’t kill you…

At the same time, he was assessing the value of the tri-pronged hook on the back of the door as a weapon.

He was supposed to take a shower. Steve hadn’t made it an order, merely implied it, but it was a directive. The soldier had been made to understand the nuances of implied directives early in his programming. He had no mission, but Steve expected him to take a shower, so that was his current assignment. It was simple enough.

An overwhelming sense of relief washed over him and Bucky let out a sighing breath. He stripped and got into the shower.

The shower was glass—thick, but easily breakable. The showerhead was detachable at the end of a long metal covered hose—a serviceable enough garrote. Bucky stood beneath the water and let it burn him until the pain of it washed away the static voices, violent imperatives and vague memories clamoring for dominance in his head. He could think.

Sam was a threat to him that should be eradicated, but Sam was Steve’s friend and killing him would make Steve a threat to him. Except Steve was weak; Bucky was Steve’s weakness. Steve would be upset if Bucky removed the threat of Sam, but he would not in turn attempt to eradicate Bucky. In spite of his exceptional physical capabilities, he was compromised by his emotions; the threat he posed was minimal. Which in turn meant that the threat Sam posed was minute because Sam would not act against Bucky in defiance of Steve, and Steve would not take his advice and act against him himself.

Assessment of overall threat was therefore insignificant.

Threat posed by Sam Wilson, codename Falcon: None.

Bucky turned the water to cold. Ice cold. He gritted his teeth against a scream as the cold water hit his burning hot skin and the pain of it rushed through him and made him shake.

Why was he here?

Purpose. He needed a purpose. A mission. He was nothing without direction.

HYDRA was still active. HYDRA was looking for him. He was a valuable asset to HYDRA. HYDRA would give him purpose. HYDRA would give him a mission.

Why was he here?

Because…

Because Steve knew him.

Steve knew him.

Steve knew him and gave him a name.

I would have let him kill me if that was what he had to do…

You’re my mission.

Self assessment of status of codename Winter Soldier: Compromised.

There was a loud knock on the bathroom door and Bucky tensed for a moment, forced himself to relax from his instinctive urge to attack and reminded himself that it was what people did to request entry. He knew that. He had sometimes knocked on the doors of his victims before he killed them. A deception. Such courtesies lured humans into a false sense of security. It was a conditioned weakness.

The knock came again, followed by Steve’s voice through the door, “Bucky? Are you okay in there?”

Bucky turned the water off, shook his head to cast water out of his hair, then got out and crossed the bathroom to the door. He pulled it open and Steve’s eyes widened and he took a step in retreat like Bucky had threatened him. Bucky was completely sure that he had not and looked between Steve’s face and the folded clothes he was holding with a vaguely uneasy sense of curiosity.

“I am okay,” Bucky told him. It was a lie, he was compromised, but he knew that wasn’t the answer Steve wanted.

Still, the answer he gave did not seem to reassure Steve very much. He stared at Bucky, his big blue eyes wide in something like fear, and moved toward him cautiously. When he got closer, Bucky noted Steve’s accelerated heartbeat, his dilated pupils, the flush on his skin turning it pink beneath his tan, the nervous way he sucked his bottom lip between his teeth and avoided eye contact.

Weakness.

He was aroused.

Bucky glanced down at himself, naked and dripping water on the tile floor and the carpet just outside the threshold. He returned his gaze to Steve and their eyes locked. Bucky found Steve’s reaction to his nakedness strange and surprising. He tried to remember the last time anyone had looked at his body with anything other than clinical detachment and found that he could not remember it at all. It must have happened to the man he had been, but the memory of it was gone. The memory of the memory was gone. There was nothing there. Nothing surfaced.

Except Steve, who now stood staring at the carpet between them, holding out the clothes he had brought. This, too, was strange. He clearly wanted to look. He badly wanted to look, but he wouldn’t.

It was illogical. Bucky did not care if he looked. Over the years, a million eyes belonging to half a million strangers had stared at him with less interest than Steve showed by looking away. Their fingers had touched him like he was property and, like property, he had not been capable of refusing it. Steve wanted to look, but he was ashamed of his desire, so he denied it and thought it was in deference to Bucky’s modesty.

Bucky caught his lips turning up at the ends in a faint smile and discovered that he was amused. Genuinely, truly amused.

“You can look at me if you want to,” Bucky offered. It felt bizarre, granting permission for such a thing.

Steve closed his eyes and shook his head quickly in the negative. “I just… I’m sorry. I just brought you some clothes. I… I thought… well, there are towels.”

“Yes. You said that,” Bucky said. He took the clothes Steve held out to him. “Thank you,” he remembered to say.

“Sure,” Steve said, then, “Bucky, I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Bucky asked.

“Just… you know,” Steve said.

No, he didn’t, but he had almost no interest at all in pursuing it, so he didn’t ask for further explanation.

“So… you want to do something today?” Steve asked.

Bucky frowned at him, unsure of what to say. It was a simple enough question, but there were many possible variables. Go where? For what reason? To do what? The question was unclear enough that it could mean anything. It could be a trap of some sort. Steve had many friends and even more acquaintances with reasons to want the Winter Soldier dead, imprisoned, contained, or even controlled.

But Steve was guileless. If he meant to betray Bucky, his voice and his body would give him away.

It occurred to him that this was probably not true for most other people. He wondered at his ability to so easily read this man, who was nearly a total stranger to him. He wondered about it for a moment, then put the thought away to be examined later and stepped back into the bathroom.

“If you want to go somewhere—do something—I will go with you,” Bucky said. He judged this to be a satisfactory answer from the pleased way Steve smiled.

Steve was still looking down at the floor like it was thoroughly fascinating when Bucky closed the door in his face.

~~*~~

Steve took Bucky to the Smithsonian. He had some half-baked notion that the Captain America exhibit might jog his memory. If he saw himself the way Steve remembered him, the way Steve had known him, the way Steve had seen him, maybe… maybe he’d remember something. It didn’t have to be anything big, just something small. Anything at all.

As Steve watched Bucky looking at their pictures, reading the panels with their story on them, watching the footage, he realized that what he had hoped for was a little like trying to bargain with God. Bucky wasn’t uninterested in it, but he didn’t turn to Steve and smile his smile, tell him he remembered, crack a joke, tease him, or do any of the things one expected from a miraculous recovery of memory. Steve told himself he hadn’t expected that because that would have been foolish and stupid, but he was still sick with disappointment when it didn’t happen.

Bucky read it all, looked at it all, listened to everything, but he did it like it was all something that had happened a long time ago to someone he had never known. It was probably the exact same way that the tourists felt about it.

Except, as they walked through the exhibit, Bucky seemed to become more and more frustrated. He didn’t say anything and his demeanor didn’t change, but Steve still got that impression. He was watching him all the time for a reaction, any kind of reaction, and Bucky caught him at it more than once.

Finally, they stopped before a panel of photographs: Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, Dr. Erskine, Colonel Philips, and others Steve was less familiar with. Bucky didn’t fidget—Steve was pretty sure it was one of those things that wasn’t part of his programming—but he wasn’t looking at the photographs so much as staring through them, and tension was rolling off of him in waves.

“What do you want from me?” he finally asked, voice soft and almost pained.

“I don’t, Bucky,” Steve said.

Bucky turned his head in a sharp motion, like a bird of prey, and stared at Steve through the hair that was constantly falling in his face. “You said you don’t want me to pretend,” he said. “You want something though. What do you want?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “Nothing. Look, we can leave. Do you want to leave?”

“I don’t remember being him,” Bucky said. He jabbed a finger at the picture of Peggy. “You were fucking her… or…” He cocked his head, examining Steve’s face, and Steve felt like his expression was being catalogued, referenced, searched for on some databank. “No. But you wanted to,” Bucky finally said. “I don’t remember that, I know it because there’s a film clip showing you with her photograph inside your compass—sentimental attachment—which isn’t something people do with a casual or work acquaintance, even one of the opposite sex. I know it because of the look on your face just now. I don’t remember it, but I could fake it if you want me to.” He pointed at Howard Stark. “I killed him. I don’t remember that either, but I know it’s true.”

Steve knew it, too. It was in the file that Natasha had given him before he and Sam had first started looking for Bucky.

“This was a bad idea, I guess,” Steve said. “I’m sorry.”

Bucky curled his lip back in a silent snarl. “Will you stop saying that?”

That annoyed Steve, though he knew that it shouldn’t, or that if it did, it was probably a bad idea to let it show. He couldn’t help it though. “Why the hell did you come find me?” he suddenly demanded. “Why? You could have gone back to HYDRA. They’d have been more than happy to reprogram you or whatever it is they do I’m sure.”

“Reset,” Bucky said. He seemed utterly indifferent to Steve’s aggravation. “Reset back to zero. Full temporal recollection wipe down. I am overdue for one, yes.”

“You know, I have noticed that you never answer my questions,” Steve said.

There was a flicker of amusement around the corners of Bucky’s mouth. It was so quickly gone that Steve could have imagined it.

“I do know that,” Bucky said. He glanced back at the photographs in front of them, looked disgusted and turned away. “I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?”

“I don’t know is the answer to your question: Why did I come find you? I don’t know.”

“I don’t think I believe that.”

Bucky glanced at him out the corner of his eyes, shrugged and started walking away.

Steve hurried to catch up with him and they left the museum. “Let me guess, lying isn’t part of your programming, right?”

“Lying to a handler is not. Lying to anyone else is permitted, sometimes encouraged, often necessary.”

“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to talk like a person for half a second.”

“Of course it wouldn’t.”

“But you’re not going to.”

“You said that you don’t want me to pretend. That would be pretending.”

Steve sighed and didn’t say anything else until they reached his car. “Fine. Smithsonian was a bust. What would you like to do instead?”

Bucky just stared at him over the roof of the car until Steve unlocked it. Then he got in without a word.

Trying to connect with Bucky—this Bucky—felt a lot like banging his head repeatedly against a solid brick wall. Steve tried to imagine what it must feel like for Bucky and found that he could not. He didn’t know anything about how his mind worked or how he thought anymore. He was… What was that thing Banner had said about Loki? That his brain was a bag of cats. Something like that. It wasn’t entirely right for Bucky—he seemed too calm about everything for his mind to be a livewire—but it was an adequate enough expression of the pure alien strangeness of him. And perhaps that cool, blank page exterior hid a rioting back alley catfight on the inside. There was no way to tell.

Steve got in the car, started it and pulled out of the garage onto the street. He pointed the car back toward home because he just didn’t know what else to do.

“I don’t understand you,” he said after awhile.

Bucky didn’t say anything. He watched the street outside as they passed.

“I wish you… If you could talk to me, maybe…”

“It wouldn’t matter,” Bucky said. “You can’t fix it.”

“I could do something,” Steve insisted.

“Seventy years is a long time. If you want to undo it all, it might take you another seventy years.”

“Fine. Then it’ll take me another seventy years.”

“Maybe I don’t want to be fixed.”

Steve glanced at him and narrowed his eyes. “So you can want things now, huh?”

Bucky glared out the windshield and did not reply.

Steve smiled to himself. “Say the first thing that comes to your mind. Chinese or Italian?”

“No,” Bucky said.

Steve sighed and his smile melted away. “This is going to be a lot of work,” he muttered.

He ordered pizza, extra cheese and pepperoni, and Bucky didn’t say anything about liking it or disliking it, but he ate several slices and Steve called that progress. Sam had helped him set up a Netflix account so Steve could watch all the movies that had become cultural icons in the years he had missed, and Steve debated with himself over The Fifth Element and Fight Club. In the end, he decided to go with Fight Club as it was more likely to appeal to Bucky and it did not contain aliens.

Not long into the movie, he started to regret his choice. It wasn’t the violence that did it or the language (though both still managed to shock him on occasion), it was the main character’s state of mind. It worried him that Bucky might relate a little too much.

Bucky sat beside him and didn’t speak, but he seemed to have his attention focused on the film rather than the wall behind the TV, so Steve left it on to the end.

“Well… that was weird,” Steve said as the credits rolled.

Bucky didn’t say anything. He had a can of Coke Steve had offered him when they were eating dinner that had gone flat. He picked it up and drank it.

“I’m sor—” Steve caught himself, cleared his throat and just sat there.

“I liked it,” Bucky said after several minutes of silence.

“You… did?” Steve said. He grinned. “Oh. Well, okay. You want to pick the next one?”

Bucky crushed his soda can in his left hand and got up to throw it away. “No.”

Progress, Steve reminded himself in response to the deflating sensation in his belly. Baby steps. Progress. This is progress.

They watched True Romance when Bucky returned from the kitchen, which Steve liked even if it was excessively violent and sometimes vulgar, but Bucky did not. He sat through it, but Steve was pretty sure he only did that for Steve, because when it was over, he got up and went to stand looking out the window.

He didn’t pace, but he still looked like a caged animal standing there, staring out at the blackness beyond his own reflection, the monuments lit from below in the distance. Steve had given him a long-sleeved shirt to hide his metal arm when they were outside and he still wore it, the fabric straining tight at the shoulders when he put his hands behind his back. He just stared into the distance like that, like he had tuned out the world and was trying to tune into another frequency, and Steve wanted to be able to do or say something that would bring Bucky back to him, but there were no magic words for that. He couldn’t fix everything about him that was broken with a touch.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said.

I’m sorry I don’t know what to do with you. I’m sorry this happened. I’m sorry I didn’t search harder for you. I’m sorry I didn’t find you. I’m sorry I didn’t save you. I’m sorry… I’m so sorry.

“For what?” Bucky asked. His question felt a little too predictable.

“For what they did to you,” Steve said.

“Oh,” Bucky said. He raked his hair back from his face and turned his head to study Steve over his shoulder. He frowned. “You know, sometimes I feel like you should be smaller. Like your picture at the museum. It’s not a memory, but…”

“I was,” Steve said, eager for anything. “I was sick all the time, too.”

“You got beat up a lot.” Bucky’s thoughtful expression turned inward, then he nodded and returned his gaze back outside.

“Sometimes you saved me,” Steve prompted hopefully.

“I know,” Bucky said.

Not I remember, but I know, which was not the same thing at all.

Chapter Text

Death is a good disguise
for late at night
Wrapping all games in its calm garden
But what happens
when the guests return
& all unmask
& you are asked
to leave
for want of a smile
I’ll still take you then
But I’m your friend
—Jim Morrison

 

There were a couple of days of complete peace and isolation; just Bucky and Steve in the same space, circling each other like caged things, each waiting for the other to pounce. Steve went for a run every morning and because Bucky was bored, restless and unused to such inactivity, he went with him. People stared at them as they ran laps, making a game out of trying to outrun each other. It pleased Steve that Bucky could keep up with him, sometimes even outdistance him.

Dogs didn’t like Bucky, which was something they discovered together when a woman’s coiffed French poodle got away from her and, rather than run away as any intelligent creature would do, it gave chase and ended up being kicked into the reflecting pool. The dog was uninjured and Steve (Captain America) spent much too long apologizing to the woman in Bucky’s opinion. It was an opinion he kept to himself.

He did start to remember things, but they were small. Sometimes they were so small that they were barely anything; a smell, the cadence of a specific accent, the taste of something sweet. The more clear memories and scraps of recollection eluded him when he tried to reach for them. It was like trying to excavate shadows. In the night sometimes, when he was sitting in the dark, listening to the sound of Steve’s even, healthy breathing in the other room and the occasional blare of a car horn outside, he caught little memories in the net of shadows on the walls if he just let them come on their own.

He remembered Steve, with his eye turning black, holding the lid to a trashcan like a shield. He remembered a girl with dark hair and a heart shaped face, lips too red and smile too perfect. He had no name for this girl. He remembered Zola, small, chubby faced man, beady eyes behind spectacles. A chipmunk of a man, but cold as permafrost to the core. He remembered falling through the drifting snow, the touch of fingers in his hand slipping away as he tried to hold on, a train growing smaller and smaller as it got farther and farther away. He remembered falling, but he didn’t remember landing.

“You don’t like the couch?” Steve asked.

His voice in the dark snapped Bucky out of the snippets of disjointed memories playing like a film in front of his eyes. His attention focused on the silhouette of the man standing there, took his measurements automatically by eye, and he tried to remember what he had said.

“I don’t sleep very much,” he said.

“Don’t need to or don’t like it?” Steve asked.

Bucky thought about it. “Both,” he said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “The dreams are the worst part, I think.”

Yes,” Bucky said. “Yes, they are.”

Steve moved into the room and sat down in the chair across from Bucky. The light through the window was enough to let them see each other.

“What do you dream about?” Steve asked.

“You sometimes,” Bucky said. “Sometimes they don’t make much sense. I never had dreams before.”

“That’s… wow. Messed up,” Steve said. “Might explain some things though.”

“Like what?”

“Like… I don’t know. Dreams are supposed to be really important. It’s like your brain disposing of all the garbage. I’ve heard people can go insane if they don’t dream.”

“I don’t think that’s what happened to me.”

“Well, sure, there was definitely more to it than that, but it probably didn’t help.”

“No,” Bucky agreed. “What do you dream about?”

Steve seemed surprised by the question. “Oh, well… lots of things. The past sometimes. Mostly just a lot of crap that doesn’t make much sense. I think it’s pretty much the same for me as it’s always been. They’re just dreams.”

They sat quietly together for a while. Bucky wondered if Steve was sitting up with him because he couldn’t sleep either, or because he thought Bucky was up to something more than just sitting there in the dark thinking his thoughts. He knew Steve worried about him, about his state of mind, about his ability to save him from himself, and about the possibility that he might never get his friend back. Bucky didn’t know what he was supposed to do about it; he couldn’t be something he wasn’t. He had told Steve that already, but Steve had an eternally optimistic little boy living inside him who wouldn’t believe it in spite of all the evidence.

Bucky didn’t try to be that guy either. Like the memories, it wasn’t something he could force. Like the memories, it wasn’t something he was sure he even wanted.

They—HYDRA—had stolen those memories from him as cleanly as if they had killed him. First kisses, first dates, first dances, learning to drive, wearing his uniform for the first time, going into battle, being saved, saving people, his mother, his father, Steve; everything he had cared about, just gone. Wiped away. They had replaced it all with a compulsion to kill and maim like he was some psychopath from a horror movie, some serial killer with a hatchet. Which was essentially what he was without a mission. They had hollowed him out like a piñata and stuffed him with bullets and blood and pain. They had destroyed him so completely that he didn’t even know what to do in the face of Steve’s love and desire. He found Steve’s devotion confusing. If it had only been desire, he could have figured it out, but the desire was so tangled up in who he had been that he didn’t dare touch it.

Bucky could only tell Steve that he wasn’t that guy anymore so many times before he started to annoy himself.

“Do you ever worry that they’re looking for you?” Steve asked.

Bucky blinked at Steve and focused his attention back on him. “Who?”

“HYDRA,” Steve said. “I mean, we’ve destroyed a lot of their operation, but it’s pretty unlikely we’ve got everything. Some of them will have gone to ground like they did before. Do you ever think maybe… maybe they’ll come for you?”

“It wouldn’t be a good idea for them,” Bucky said. “Strategic assessment of a mission like that would be… is… The outcome is unlikely to fall in their favor. If considered objectively, the chance of their losses outweighing any potential gain is incredibly high. The short answer to your question is yes, I’ve thought about it.”

“Ah… yeah, I can tell,” Steve said. “Look, I’m not going to let it happen. I just—I thought you should know that.”

“I do know that,” Bucky said.

And more importantly, he wasn’t going to let that happen. The dreams were bad and a lot of the time he was confused or bored or lonely—all things that were new to him and not at all pleasant—but he had reached a point where he would not give any of it up without a hell of a fight. He would never again lay back docilely in a chair, open his mouth and allow his mind to be wiped clean and white.

“Thank you,” he said. It seemed like the thing to say.

“They have no reason to think you’re alive anyway,” Steve said.

“There is probably a way to track me implanted somewhere,” Bucky said. He watched Steve’s lips thin and his eyes sharpen in anger at the idea. “A large portion of my body was crafted by HYDRA. There is metal all along my left side to help with the balance and weight of my arm. It’s not inconceivable that some part of me is programmed to send out a beacon. The Winter Soldier is a highly valuable asset. I don’t like to brag, but you might even call me irreplaceable.”

Steve was glaring off into thin air, an expression on his face that indicated he was thinking about approximately twenty things at once, when he abruptly tensed. His eyes snapped to Bucky and lit up with a sick hope that Bucky was coming to hate.

“What?” Bucky asked.

“You,” Steve said. “You just made a joke.”

“Not a very funny one, apparently,” Bucky said.

“Yeah, but… but you just made a joke,” Steve insisted.

Baffled, Bucky spread his hands, palm up. “So?”

“So… I have to make a call.” Steve jumped up from his chair and disappeared into the bedroom, presumably to locate his cell phone.

Bucky let his head rest back against the back of his chair and closed his eyes. In the bedroom down the hallway he could hear Steve talking to someone with the unlikely name of Pepper. The archive of his mind immediately supplied him with information regarding Tony Stark: Only son and heir of Howard Stark; deceased. Stark Industries, genius, philanthropist, inventor, member of vigilante group; Avengers. Codename: Iron Man. Currently linked romantically to Pepper Potts, known relationship status: unmarried but exclusive, shared domicile.

As he ran through his stored knowledge, he felt phantom straps tighten across his chest, his legs and around his wrists. He had no sensation beyond pressure and impact in the left one, but he remembered it. Remembered fighting some faceless something, some lurking, looming thing in the darkness waiting for him to break. He couldn’t fight it with his hands or his body, all he could do was refuse to give it what it wanted. A voice he thought was his own, ripped ragged from screaming, said Three, two, five, five, seven… A mantra against the encroaching darkness. Against the ice. Against the winter.

It wasn’t real, it was a memory. Not even a very solid one.

Unless the chair was the memory. The window, the blaring car horns, the sound of Steve sleeping down the hall. Maybe that was the dream and the straps were reality bleeding through the cracks.

“I need your help,” Steve was saying to the person on the other end of the phone. “Yeah, it’s three a.m., but everyone knows you don’t sleep much. Oh, well… sorry about that. You didn’t have to answer. No! Don’t hang up!”

Steve walked back into the living room and Bucky heard him sigh. He didn’t open his eyes, but he tracked his movements through the apartment by the sound of his footfalls and the disturbance he made in the air as he moved.

“It’s important, Stark. Yeah, well you owe me. I don’t want to, but you’ve got me backed into a corner here. I did not mention it. You know you’re in New Y—sorry… Okay. You will? Okay. Thanks. Sorry I interrupted… you know… things. Ah… sure. Alright. Bye. Thanks a… gain.”

Steve frowned at his phone, then put it down on the table.

“What now?” Bucky asked.

“He hung up on me,” Steve said.

Bucky raised an eyebrow without opening his eyes. He could not have been less interested in Tony Stark’s telephone etiquette.

“Oh, right,” Steve said. “We’re going to New York.” He waited for Bucky to say something, but when Bucky said nothing and didn’t even look up at him, he went on, “Stark’s the best guy to find out if there’s anything…”

“Transmitting a signal,” Bucky supplied.

“Yes. And he can disable it. I mean, I think he can. He should be able to. It’s kinda what he does.”

“Fine.”

“Fine?”

“Yes. Fine.”

“Oh. I thought you’d be more...”

“Reluctant?”

“Difficult.”

Bucky opened his eyes, shook off the crawling sensation of the memory lingering on his skin and got up. “Let’s go to New York then.”

Steve stared at his back as he walked toward the door. It took him a minute to shake himself into action, but when he did, he followed after Bucky. “What, you mean now?” he asked. He grabbed his phone off the table and looked around in a frantic way. “Right now?”

“You want me to go to New York and let Tony Stark dissect me,” Bucky said, “then yes, we go now.”

He stopped at the door and didn’t open it. Instead, he leaned his back against it and watched Steve dash into the bedroom to put on clothes he hadn’t been sleeping in, back into the living room to get his car keys, find his shoes, put them on. He did it all like he expected Bucky to leave him behind and disappear in the meantime.

“The window of opportunity is closing here, Rogers,” Bucky said.

It amused him to watch Steve try to move faster, almost trip over the coffee table, stop to retie his right shoe, and finally reach the door panting like he had run a marathon. Bucky hadn’t moved from his place against the door. Some of his amusement must have showed because Steve scowled at him.

“That’s… You’re a jerk,” he said.

This declaration seemed to surprise him almost as much as Bucky’s “joke” from a little earlier. Thankfully it did not compel him to pull out his phone and make another call.

“It’s a long drive. Let’s go,” Steve said. He reached around Bucky to open the door.

Bucky let him and followed him out.

~~*~~

It was a little after nine a.m. when they got to New York and Steve was already irritated when they walked into Stark Tower. Whether or not HYDRA was tracking Bucky remained to be seen, but Nick Fury was definitely monitoring Steve. He called him when they were only twenty miles out of D.C. and tried to order him to return to his apartment. Bucky was not allowed to leave the city. He was still considered a hostile threat to national security and while he had been permitted to remain in Steve’s custody as long as he was contained and posed no active threat to civilians, Steve was in violation of something or other if he took him to New York.

Honestly, Steve had stopped listening around the time Fury said, “That’s an order, Captain,” in that infuriatingly condescending way he had. When he started naming the laws he was breaking and regulations he was violating, Steve hung up.

The phone immediately started ringing again. Steve took his eyes off the road long enough to glare at it.

Bucky rolled down his window, picked up the ringing phone and chucked it out.

“Hey!” Steve said. He twisted around to look back, then snapped his attention back to the road as a truck honked. The car swerved back into the right lane. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Bucky said nothing and stared at the passing roadside.

“Thanks,” Steve said.

“Sure,” Bucky said.

Stark Tower—which Tony Stark insisted was now called Avengers Tower, like the destruction of his name on the side of the thing had been intentional redecorating—was full of people. Steve worried about how Bucky would handle that, but while he remained constantly watchful—hypervigilant even—he seemed to take it mostly in stride. Steve and Bucky were issued visitor’s passes in the lobby and told to wait in the waiting room. Mr. Stark would see them when he was free, which could be awhile because they did not have an appointment. The receptionist frowned at Steve like he had said something incredibly filthy when he told her this. She did know who he was, yes, but she was not impressed and he would still have to wait.

“He does this on purpose,” Steve muttered. He sat down, but Bucky remained standing and watchful. “Wouldn’t want me to go thinking I’m important or anything.”

Bucky glanced down at him and frowned. The next time Steve looked up, Bucky was at the reception desk again, talking to the receptionist, who was smiling and talking with her hands, giving him directions. He walked back to Steve and stood beside him quietly.

“Did she tell you where he is?” Steve asked.

“He’s on the top floor,” Bucky said. “She said we can go right up.”

Steve sighed and stood. “Do I want to know how you did that?”

“Threatened her life, home and happiness. Obviously,” Bucky said.

“You’re joking again,” Steve guessed.

Bucky shrugged. “I told her it was an emergency.”

I told her it was an emergency,” Steve said indignantly.

“Guess she didn’t think you were very nice,” Bucky said. “So, we going up? She might start to believe I was lying about it being an emergency if we don’t.”

Steve made an exception to his new dislike for elevators with the elevator in Stark’s building for the sake of time. It would take even Captain America awhile to climb over two hundred flights of stairs. Besides, he figured if anyone could build a better elevator, it was probably Tony Stark.

Bucky didn’t seem to have an opinion on the elevator and no particular aversion to them. He was once again his tight-lipped and brooding self. Steve was baffled as to how he had managed to charm the receptionist when he couldn’t, but figured it was just one of those spy/assassin things. Or part of his “programming”.

He made a mental note to ask Natasha about it the next time he saw her.

The elevator doors opened and Tony Stark was standing there waiting for them, arrogant grin on his face, Nirvana T-shirt, big glass of Coca-Cola loaded with ice, garnished with a red and white striped bendy straw. “If it isn’t my favorite star-spangled lab rat,” he said. He turned and walked back down a hallway, clearly expecting them to follow. “JARVIS told me you were coming. I see you brought company. Who’s the simian menace?”

Steve hurried after Stark and Bucky followed him at a little distance, eying their surroundings mistrustfully. “He’s… This is Bucky.”

“Ah, right. Yes. Big, angry, brainwashed guy, metal arm, kills people for fun,” Stark said. He turned into a room, a metal door sliding out of his way without any clear command for it to do so. “I’ve heard about your outreach program for wayward homicidal whack-jobs. News travels.”

Along one wall were several of Stark’s Iron Man suits standing at attention and near that there was a bar. Stark went to the bar and started taking out glasses to make them drinks. “So, what’s your poison?” he asked. “I hear you can’t handle your liquor, Rogers. That’s a shame. So, chocolate milk?”

Steve stepped around a robot, which for some reason was wearing a dunce cap, and rolled his eyes. “I don’t want anything.”

The glass wall that had been destroyed when Loki tried to take over the world with his army of aliens had been replaced. Bucky walked over to it and peered out at the city. He appeared unmoved and unimpressed, almost bored.

“Fine. Spurn my hospitality if you must. You there! Buck Rogers. Thirsty?”

Bucky turned his head and studied Stark quietly for a minute. Without any change in expression, he said, “Water is fine. Thank you.”

Stark whistled lowly. “Wow. Just… wow. So, that’s creepy.” He got a bottle of water out of a small fridge and poured some over ice in a glass. “What exactly did you want me to do with him?” he asked Steve as he circled the bar with Bucky’s glass of water. “And more to the point, has he had his shots?”

Bucky took the offered glass from him without a word and continued watching the city below. He appeared to not be listening, but Steve knew better than to think that was true. Bucky was more aware of his surroundings in his sleep than most people were in their most wide awake moment.

Stark might joke—in Steve’s experience, he did little else—but Bucky did make him nervous. It was probably wrong of him and definitely uncharitable, but Steve couldn’t help finding that a little amusing.

“So, what’s the deal here, Rogers?” Stark asked. He made a point of walking away from Bucky and putting Steve between them. “You said it was important. That I owe you—and I have to say, if anyone owes anyone here, pal, it’s you who owes me. In case you forgot, I saved the world. Subsequently racked up about a million nervous conditions, too, but forget about that. Spill. Mandy may have mentioned the word emergency, which is pretty melodramatic for you… though I hate to imagine what you would consider an emergency. You know… all things considered. JARVIS?!”

“Yes, sir?” replied the cultured, vaguely British sounding voice of the JARVIS.

Bucky cocked his head and looked around for the source of the voice, determined it was coming from tiny speakers and did not belong to a real person—or a threatening hostile—and returned his attention outside. He sipped his water.

“What’s the name of the receptionist in the first floor lobby?” Stark asked.

“Maria Galway, sir.”

“Shit,” Stark muttered. “I could have sworn it was Mandy.”

“It isn’t, sir.”

“I’m trying to memorize them,” Stark explained to Steve. “Pepper thinks it’ll improve morale… you know, with the staff.”

“It probably will,” Steve said. “Unless you call her Mandy.”

“Yeah,” Stark sighed. “So, what’s up?”

“I need you to check Bucky for any…” Steve gestured with one hand. “Bugs?”

“What, like parasites?” Stark asked, eyebrows shooting up. “He has lice, doesn’t he? I knew it! JARVIS! Spray the tall dark and scary one with the delousing stuff, double-shot, stat!”

“What? No!” Steve said.

Bucky turned from the windows and leveled a murderous look on Stark. “No,” he said calmly.

“Sir, I don’t know to which ‘delousing stuff’ you are referring,” JARVIS said.

“I do not have parasites,” Bucky said, annoyed. “He means tracking devices, self-destruct devices, explosives of any kind, anything that sends out a signal that might be intercepted by HYDRA.”

“Oh, oh, those,” Stark said. “Those are not what we commonly refer to as ‘bugs’ in the twenty-first century, Captain Clueless. Unless someone implanted a microphone in his ass—highly unlikely, even for Soviet spies, assassins and freak potatoes like that Arnim Zola douchebag. JARVIS, give the Terminator here an MRI. We’re going to make our way to the infirmary.”

“Yes, sir.”

Stark went to get his glass of Coke and waved for Steve and Bucky to follow him out as he sucked soda through the straw. They got back on the elevator and it immediately started to descend once they were inside. Telling JARVIS where they were going was probably the same as hitting the buttons, Steve decided.

“You have an infirmary here?” he asked.

Stark sucked once more on his straw, the soda rattling with bubbles at the end. “This place?” he said. “It has a salon. It has two bars—”

“Three, sir,” JARVIS said.

“Three bars,” Stark said. “It has an arcade. A bowling alley. A movie theater that shows all the best shit all day long. Movies you can’t see anywhere else? You can see them here. Sushi! That’s the third bar.”

“That would make four, sir,” JARVIS said. “Sushi bars are not technically bars.”

“That’s right,” Stark said. “They’re like salad bars or those things for Chinese food with all the plates.”

“Buffets?” Steve said.

“Yeah, we got one of those, too,” Stark said. “Point being, we’ve got everything and since people are always getting shot and blown up and set on fire around here, an infirmary, well it was just a good idea.”

The elevator stopped and the doors slid open on a hallway that looked almost exactly the same as the hallway they had just left. Stark handed his empty soda glass to a waiting robot with a tray when they stepped out.

“And here we are.”

Chapter Text

We, afflicted by ourselves,
gladly afflicting, gladly
needing to be afflicted.
We, who sleep with our anger
laid beside us like a knife.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Antistrophes

 

In the infirmary, neither Stark nor Steve could convince Bucky to take a seat in the examination chair. It reminded him too much of the straps and the thing lurking outside his vision in the dark, waiting for him to break, knowing that he would, knowing that it had all the time in the world for it to happen. It made him think Three, two, five, five, seven… No one really wanted to push him too far, so he ended up sitting at a long metal table with his arm stretched out on it while Stark sat at his left and examined him.

Stark did something with an electromagnet that made the metal arm go completely dead on the table. Bucky snarled and got to his feet, ready to attack the man for it. Stark had disabled his arm, caused him damage, weakened him; Bucky’s instinctive reaction to this was violent in the extreme. Steve had to grab him and force him back into the chair, putting himself between Bucky and a wide-eyed and retreating Tony Stark.

“Bucky, stop!” Steve shouted. When that got him nowhere, he put his face down close to Bucky’s—perilously close to his teeth—and looked him directly in the eyes. “Stop. It’s just temporary. It’s temporary so he can work on it.”

Bucky looked between Steve and his useless arm, then nodded. He settled back in his chair and forced himself to relax. “Temporary. Alright.”

Cautiously, Stark returned to his seat. “You okay now?”

“Fine,” Bucky said.

“No other outbursts like that gonna happen if I open this thing up, huh?”

Bucky looked away from him and the arm at the floor. “It’s temporary?”

“Sure is,” Stark said.

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Bucky said.

“I can’t tell you how reassuring I find that,” Stark said dryly.

There was a three-dimensional diagram made from the MRI of Bucky’s body that JARVIS had taken while they were in the elevator suspended over the table in front of Stark. He consulted it as he worked and could not seem to help himself when he commented on the absolute brilliance of Arnim Zola’s design. Freak potato or not, Stark couldn’t deny he had been a genius. Not on the same level as he was, he was quick to add, but the design of Bucky’s arm was amazing.

“You know that stuff my dad made your badass shield out of?” he asked Steve. He tapped just under the smooth, polished outer layer of metal that made up the outside casing of Bucky’s arm. It was jointed and moved smoothly like the chitin back of a millipede and Stark had had a hell of a time removing it without cutting into it. “This is made of that same stuff. Bet that hurts like a bitch when he hits you with it.”

“Vibranium,” Steve said. “And yeah, it did.”

Bucky smirked. Steve caught him at it and their eyes locked, then he smiled, too.

Stark rolled his eyes. “It must be love,” he muttered. “Okay, so we’ve got something here, not sure what exactly. It’s pretty old tech. Probably installed when they first fitted you for the prosthetic. It doesn’t appear to be active. Does it JARVIS?”

“No, sir,” JARVIS said.

“And it’s not an explosive.”

“It appears to be similar to devices that transmitted radio frequencies circa 1960.”

“Except it’s a lot smaller and more sophisticated. Same idea though.”

Stark was feeling around in Bucky’s arm close to where it joined at the shoulder with his flesh. He caught something, twisted and yanked it out. Pain shot down Bucky’s left side and he hissed a breath through his teeth.

“That hurt?” Stark asked.

“Yes,” Bucky said.

“Huh. That would explain the remarkable range of movement you’ve got with the thing. The arm’s fused with your nerves and muscles; responds to muscle tension.” He held up the little device he had removed on the end of a set of forceps. “Well, congratulations, it’s a… frankly, I don’t know what it is.”

Stark dropped it into a metal bowl and it made a clang. Bucky and Steve both leaned over to look at it. It was round and flat, about the size of three fifty cent pieces stacked together with a small red bulb in the center and several tiny metal hair-like wires protruding from all sides. There were bloody scraps of Bucky’s skin and muscle tissue still connected to the fissured ends of the wires.

“Might take it apart and get a better idea of what it’s about,” Stark said. “Not much point to it other than my own curiosity though because it’s completely obsolete. Cutting edge for the 60s though, you bet. Science fiction levels of amazing for the 40s, which is when I’m betting this was implanted.”

“Could it reactivate?” Steve asked.

“I really doubt it. It’s badly corroded. I don’t think it’d even work,” Stark said. He looked between Steve and Bucky, recognized the worry on Steve’s face despite his efforts to conceal it, and sighed. “I’ll have it destroyed. My curiosity will just have to remain unsatisfied. JARVIS, send one of the dunce bots in here to dispose of this. Treat it like biohazardous waste.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s put you back together, then,” Stark said. He started doing just that and Bucky sat very still and endured it. “I’m going to give you some antibiotics in case there’s infection. You probably can’t even get infections, can you?”

“I don’t think so,” Bucky said.

“Well, I’ll give you some anyway. Think of it as an extra boost to the immune system. You want some pain killers? I’ve got those, too.”

“I’m not in pain.”

“So?”

“Stark,” Steve said. “Just fix his arm.”

“You are an absolute buzz-kill, you know that?” Stark said. “You guys can stay in the suite below us. You’ll like it. There’s a bed and I’ll have JARVIS get some people to stock the fridge. There’s a Jacuzzi. Bet that will be awesome after the seventy year deep-freeze, right? There’s TV with all the channels, a killer view, room service, little soaps shaped like seashells… Anyway, it’s not a problem. Pepper will love it, too. This guy’s like that mean dog you think will like you if you keep feeding it, and she will feed it if it lets her.”

Bucky looked over at Steve. “What the hell is he talking about?”

“I think he’s inviting us to stay the night,” Steve said. “Stark, we’re not—”

“Sure you are,” Stark said dismissively. “I need him here overnight for observation.”

“You just made that up,” Steve said. “You’re not a doctor.”

“Maybe not, but you brought cyborg boy here to me, you didn’t take him to a doctor.” Stark finished reattaching the outer cover of the arm and sat back. “There you go. How’s it feel?”

“I can’t move it,” Bucky said.

“Oh, right. Sorry,” Stark said. “Just a minute.” He reactivated the arm. “There. Now how does it feel?”

Bucky flexed it and moved his fingers. “The same,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Any time,” Stark said. He hopped up and headed for the door. “So, I’ll get you a key for the room. Do whatever you want. Make yourselves at home. Except seriously, don’t hit people, okay? Use your words. If that doesn’t work, then do the hitting thing. If you must. But you know… try not to get me sued. It’s kind of a pain in the ass.”

When he was gone, Steve sat in the chair he had vacated next to Bucky and said, “We don’t have to stay here. Stark’s… But we can leave.”

“Or we can stay,” Bucky said. “It was a six hour drive here; it will probably be another six hours or more to return.”

“So, you want to stay here?” Steve asked.

“I would rather not spend another six hours in the car today,” Bucky said. “If that means we stay here, then yes. I suppose I want to.”

“Okay,” Steve said.

They sat there like that for a little while, long enough that Bucky’s mind started to drift. He first took stock of himself. Physical status: Fully Operational. He was, however, hungry and a little exhausted. Not so much that it couldn’t be ignored, but enough that he planned to take care of it once Stark had returned with the key. Steve was watching him in a way that Bucky had become familiar with: eager, hopeful, sad, a touch quixotic. There was a niggling little slippery fish of a memory in there somewhere in his mind, somewhere in their shared past a long time ago, that made him think that expression was not new to Steve’s face when he was with him. It was insubstantial and elusive as a sense of déjà vu.

Steve suddenly leaned in toward him and kissed him. Bucky blinked in surprise, both at Steve’s nerve and at his own passive acceptance of the kiss. He didn’t tense or push him away; it didn’t even occur to him. He opened his mouth under the press of Steve’s tongue and let it lick inside over his own. Steve cupped the side of his face in one hand to pull him into it and Bucky went, but his heart started to pound with reverberating thumps in his chest that it took him a moment to recognize as fear. Not of the kiss, not of Steve, but of the demand in the kiss, the need.

Come back to me, Steve begged with his tongue in Bucky’s mouth. Come back to me, please come back to me, in every breath that puffed between their lips and over their teeth. His lightly caressing tongue stripped Bucky down to a raw nerve. Come back to me.

Bucky put his hands on Steve’s shoulders, gently pushed him back and turned his face away to break the kiss. “I can’t,” he said. He dragged both hands through his hair and sat back. “I can’t.”

Steve’s face flushed with sudden embarrassment and he got up quickly from the chair and left the room, the back of his hand pressed to his mouth, his eyes closed and his body tense. The door closed softly behind him.

Bucky watched him go and knew he was feeling rejected and ashamed. Steve had interpreted Bucky’s words and reaction as rejection, and that made sense even if it wasn’t entirely true. Bucky let him think it anyway because it meant he would stop. He would probably never stop hoping to see his friend in Bucky’s eyes again every time he looked at him, but he wouldn’t kiss him again thinking to turn Bucky back into that man. It wasn’t very nice, but so be it. Letting him continue to believe the alternative was far more cruel.

A few minutes later, Stark stuck his head in the room and looked around. “What happened?” he asked. “Is that brooding thing of yours contagious? Because Rogers is out here brooding up a storm. Which isn’t completely new for that guy, but when I left like… ten minutes ago? Yeah. He was in here mooning over you like… like I don’t know what. Something that moons. Whatever—everything alright?”

“Fine,” Bucky said.

He got up and Stark backpedaled out of the room as Bucky walked out. Steve was waiting just outside and he glared death at Stark while carefully not making eye contact at all with Bucky. He was still blushing faintly pink with embarrassment, but he otherwise pretended that nothing was wrong.

“I’ve got the key,” Steve told Bucky. “We’re on the… What floor are we on, Stark?”

The key was a card and there was a picture of Iron Man on it. There was nothing to indicate floor or room number.

“Ah… well, I’m on the second to the last floor. And the top floor’s my work area—my lair,” Stark said, smiling to himself. He clearly liked the idea of having a lair. “So, you guys are under that. Which is… JARVIS, what floor are they on?”

“Accommodations have been made for your friends on the two hundred and eighth floor, sir,” JARVIS said.

Stark pointed at Steve. “There you go. And just so you know—since there’s trouble in paradise right now—there are two bedrooms and a really excellent sectional couch. I sleep on mine all the time.”

Steve looked like he was going to say something, probably to refute the “trouble in paradise” comment, but then he just sighed and said, “Thanks, Stark. For everything.”

“Don’t mention it,” Stark said. He clapped Steve on the shoulder and headed back down the hallway. He turned around and walked backward as he was leaving. “Seriously, don’t mention it. I don’t want to wake up one morning and find myself the owner of a cushy freak hotel—no offense. It’s not charity Rogers, just paying it forward. I got work to do though, so I’ll catch you later.”

They went to the two hundred and eighth floor. They rode the elevator in tense silence and Bucky waited for Steve to apologize to him, not because he needed to, but because it was his way. He could tell Steve was thinking about it, but he didn’t apologize. He didn’t say very much at all.

Steve was playing with the TV, trying to find something to watch that likely fulfilled his catch-up-with-pop-culture criteria, and Bucky was in the kitchen leaning on the counter while he ate slices of smoked turkey deli meat when Steve finally broached the subject. He turned around on the sofa and stared at Bucky over the back of it, across the counter. Bucky stared back and ate another rolled up slice of meat.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Steve asked. “I mean… what happened back there? Because maybe we should. It feels like the kind of thing you—”

“No,” Bucky said.

“I just feel kind of bad about it,” Steve said.

“Why?” Bucky asked, head slightly cocked to one side.

“Because… I should have known and—”

“It’s not important,” Bucky said.

Steve stared at him silently for a while. Then he nodded and turned back to the TV.

Bucky finished eating, drank some water, then went to find the closest bedroom to lay down. It was only a little after noon, but he hadn’t slept much at all the previous night, and after everything he’d been through already today he was drained. Steve was exhausting. He didn’t mean to be and it wasn’t even his fault, but he tugged at emotions that had long ago atrophied and memories that pulled at Bucky like he was taffy. He had caught himself longing for the cleansing calm certainty of a reset several times throughout the day. More than he wanted to sleep, he wanted to be left alone.

Except when he was alone, he still couldn’t sleep. The memories started to rise to the surface like water in an overfull sponge. He remembered Steve watching him, wanting him… and he had known. That was a very far away memory, deeply buried, but he touched it and it flooded back. Steve, when they were growing up, in the days before he became Captain America, everyone’s hero, had just been a guy. Not a very big guy. Small and sickly and angry. He had felt things deeply and he had been in love with Bucky Barnes as long as either of them could remember.

Bucky had known. He had known all along. He remembered it.

It was the 1940s and homosexuality was illegal. It was dangerous. Gay men and women died sometimes, sometimes horribly, and no one really cared.

Steve had always been brave to the point of stupidity, but even he wasn’t that brave. It wasn’t the law he feared, it was Bucky not feeling the same way, but more… he was terrified that Bucky would hate him for it.

Bucky had known all of that, too. He remembered it. He remembered that he hadn’t been perfect, hadn’t been as nice and wonderful on the inside as Steve believed. Steve idolized him. Put him on a pedestal. Worshipped him like stopping idiots from caving in Steve’s head in back alleys made him some kind of hero. Inside, where no one really knew him, Bucky had watched Steve destroying his heart for love of him and a dark, secret part of him was proud that he never wanted Steve and Steve always wanted him.

Only later, after Steve was different and Zola had done his initial experiments on Bucky, did Bucky actually look at Steve in his new, prettier, healthier body and consider it, but Steve had a girl by then and there hadn’t been any time.

Bucky didn’t feel bad about it, not even now. Back then, he had just been human, no better or worse than most. He hadn’t wanted Steve because he wasn’t attracted to him, but he had cared about him. It wasn’t the way an idealized version of Bucky Barnes would have thought because in Steve’s blind-loving fantasies, Bucky would have loved him back the way he wanted him to without consideration for his appearance, because he was above such things. Never mind that Sergeant Barnes had been a bit of a slut back in the day—Bucky remembered that too, and it made him smile faintly on his bed at the top of Stark Tower. Self-sacrifice when it came to the pleasures of the flesh had not been something he made a habit out of, which wasn’t noble or honorable maybe, but it had been real.

It was amusing to remember and a little bit sad, but Bucky wasn’t that guy anymore, even if he remembered being him more and more. If he one day remembered all of it, he still wouldn’t be. There was seventy years difference between that man and the creature he was now and no erasing any of it. The memories couldn’t be erased anymore and the blood on his hands would never wash off. He didn’t feel particularly bad about any of it, but it was still there, sitting heavily in the room wherever he went, watching and very deliberately being ignored.

Sergeant Barnes hadn’t needed anything from a woman—or a man—but their pretty flesh and bone moving beneath him, their mouths on him, a certain gleam of appreciation in their eyes when they regarded him. It wouldn’t have been hard for him to fall into bed with Steve and not worry about the consequences. It might have even amused him to imagine Steve still thinking of him as that hero with his head above the rest.

Bucky wouldn’t do that. He would have pretended at one time to be that man for Steve if he had asked, but while pretending, he wouldn’t have touched him. Now, he wouldn’t touch him because he wouldn’t pretend, and he didn’t want Steve’s hands on him if Steve looked at him hoping to see someone else.

There was a digital clock on the nightstand beside the bed and Bucky glanced at it as he was getting up. It read 9:14 p.m. He didn’t remember sleeping, just lying there, but he had lost track of a lot of time somehow.

Steve was asleep on the couch. The TV was on and playing a movie that looked like some kind of car racing action adventure. His blond hair had fallen into his eyes and rested like feathers on his forehead. His eyelashes were like fans, long and glossy like something used to beat back the desert heat. He looked small again in his sleep. It was an illusion of the harsh light, but even knowing that did not change the impression of frailty.

Bucky caught himself leaning over to brush the hair back from Steve’s face. He checked himself for a moment, then continued. It was softer than it looked and Steve turned into the touch of his hand in his sleep.

If Bucky had been anyone else, Steve could have been dead right then and there.

The thought was fleeting, but still there. Still ingrained into the core of who he was.

Bucky’s hand lingered, Steve’s pulse beneath his jaw thumping lightly, calmly against the tips of his fingers, the heat of his sleeping skin warming his palm. He snatched his hand away and went back to bed.

This time he slept. In his sleep, he could feel the darkness like a hand closing around him, fingers clenching around him, restraining him and squeezing the air from his lungs.

Something moved in that darkness. A black creature made of shadows. Walls and windows couldn’t stop it. It crept along the floor on all fours. A man? A spider? A little of both. Something created for the purpose of infiltrating Stark’s beloved tower, fooling all of his snazzy technology, his scanners and alarms, his locks, his security, even JARVIS, the all-seeing eye of Stark’s perfect world couldn’t see it. Bucky couldn’t even see it, only feel it creeping toward him in the dark, its menacing strangeness turning his spine to cold jelly.

HYDRA had finally sent something to retrieve him. Something more frightening than the Winter Soldier. They never should have removed that thing from his arm, never should have opened it up to begin with to fish around inside, they should have left it alone. Investigating the secrets of HYDRA, stealing them, disabling them, that was forbidden. They couldn’t allow it. They would have to take him back, fix him and replace the outdated tracking tech with something new. Something even Tony Stark was no match for. They had sent this thing to do it.

Bucky tried to get up. He couldn’t fight it lying prone and still on the bed. He told himself to do it; get up: Engage Hostile. He was frozen in place, fascinated by the thing in the dark scuttling toward him on the floor.

“Bucky! Jesus, Bucky, come on! Stop it!”

Steve’s voice barely penetrated, but then he smacked Bucky hard across the face and Bucky surged off the bed at him. It wasn’t a mindless attack—he had control enough of himself that he didn’t hit Steve—but he forced him back, then kept going until he had Steve pinned to the wall, his arm against his throat hard enough that Steve had to tip his head back.

“You were screaming,” Steve said roughly. He lifted his hands to gently push Bucky’s arm back so he could breathe. “In your sleep, you were screaming.”

Bucky eased back, but he didn’t let him go just yet. He glanced around the room, searching for evidence of the shadow creature. “What did I say?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Steve said. “It was… just screaming.”

Bucky started to shake and stepped back, letting him go. Steve put a hand on his arm and Bucky shrugged him off. He didn’t leave him alone though and when his hand returned, this time to Bucky’s back, he let it stay.

“Come on,” Steve said, walking with him back to the bed.

Bucky sat down on the edge of the mattress. When Steve started to take his hands back and turn away, he grabbed his wrist and pulled him back. Steve went completely still, barely breathing, and didn’t move.

“Bucky?”

Bucky shook his head, but he didn’t let go of him. He wasn’t sure what he wanted or expected, but there was something. He couldn’t shake it. It had obviously been a dream, but it wouldn’t go away. It clung on and he felt sure that if he was left alone again, if he slept again, it would creep back through the walls on its spindle spider legs and he would start screaming all over again.

“Okay,” Steve said. He climbed up on the bed with him and sat close enough that Bucky could feel him against his right side. “Try to relax. Maybe lay back down.”

Bucky lay back down on the bed on his side and stared at the glass along the one wall. It was the highest point of vulnerability in the entire room. Steve lay down beside him. He didn’t touch him, except for where his left arm rested against Bucky’s back. He just stayed.

“You want me to leave?” he asked after a few minutes.

“No,” Bucky said.

“You want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“You think you can get back to sleep?”

“No.”

Steve didn’t say anything else for a while. He wasn’t asleep himself, Bucky could tell by the rhythm of his breathing. He put a hand out tentatively to rest on Bucky’s back. When Bucky didn’t tense at the touch or make him stop, he left it there.

“Okay. Then we’ll just lay here,” he said.

“Okay,” Bucky said.

Chapter Text

Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we’ll never get used to it.
—Richard Siken, Scheherazade

 

They returned to D.C. the next day. Stark apologized again and again as they were on their way out that they hadn’t been able to meet his smoking hot girlfriend. He used those exact words and made them sound like a vaguely dirty innuendo. There had been some sort of crisis at work and Pepper had stayed late, then been too tired to entertain guests when she got home. Something JARVIS had assured them both would not have been prudent to attempt in any case since there was a small domestic disturbance taking place in Steve and Bucky’s suite, according to the computer’s readings of their respective vital signs, activity and volume level of their voices.

“It was not a ‘domestic disturbance’,” Steve said, doing his best to ignore Stark.

And utterly failing, as was often the case.

“Sure. Whatever you say, buddy,” Stark said. “None of my business anyway.”

“It’s really not,” Steve said.

Bucky had no opinion on it one way or the other it seemed. He was being quieter than usual, even for him.

“Except it kind of is,” Stark said.

“No, it’s not,” Steve said. He slapped the key to the room into Stark’s hand. “And we’re leaving anyway, so thanks for letting us stay. I’ll see you next time Mars invades the planet.”

“Dude, that is not cool. I told you, I have a condition,” Stark said. He backed away from Bucky as he left the room behind Steve, then followed them down the hall to the elevator. “Besides, Mars? Please. There is not and never has been life on Mars, John Carter.”

“Well, wherever they were from,” Steve said. “JARVIS, we’re leaving. Ground floor, please.”

“Yes, sir,” said JARVIS.

“Hey, don’t talk to him like that,” Stark said.

“I’m quite used to it, sir,” JARVIS said.

The elevator doors slid open and Steve and Bucky got on. “Thanks again, Stark,” Steve said. “I mean it.”

“Destroy the device,” Bucky said.

They both looked at him.

“Already done, son,” Stark said.

Bucky frowned at him.

Stark pretended not to notice and like it didn’t bother him. “Catch you on the flipside, Rogers. Next time, you’ll have to stay. Meet the missus.”

“I’ve met her,” Steve reminded him. “Briefly.”

The elevator doors closed on Stark’s grinning face.

The drive back to Steve’s apartment was a little longer than the drive into New York had been because it was the part of the morning that was busiest for commuters rather than the crack of dawn. Steve tried to find some music for them to listen to, but Bucky showed no interest in music, be it reggae or grunge rock, so Steve turned it to a station he liked that played early rock music from the 60s and 70s and left it.

There was tension between them now that hadn’t been there before Steve had made an ass of himself and kissed Bucky. It was something he admitted to himself that he shouldn’t have done and, while Bucky had been nice about it when he told him no, Steve couldn’t help feeling like something was different and it was his fault. Like Bucky was mad at him for it. He wouldn’t apologize for it though. He wouldn’t. He had wanted to do it for a long time before Bucky was lost, then the desire had resurfaced—with a slightly new twist—when he had him back again.

If Steve never got to do it again, at least he had done it, and he wouldn’t be sorry.

Maybe Bucky wasn’t mad about it, though. It was hard to tell. Steve hoped not.

When they got to Steve’s place, he put the key in the lock on the doorknob, unlocked it, then the bolt, and was about to open the door and walk inside when Bucky shoved him aside and walked by him. Steve stumbled and was momentarily stunned, then hurt. It was childish, but it was also mean and the kind of thing he would never expect from Bucky, not even Winter Soldier Bucky, no matter how mad he was.

Then a gun went off inside his apartment and Steve jumped to attention and ran inside.

Natasha was there, a smoking gun in her hand, and Bucky was holding her aloft by one arm, his metal fingers clenched tight around her forearm. She had discharged the weapon into the ceiling when Bucky grabbed her and deflected the bullet intended for him.

Steve stared at the hole in his ceiling and hoped Mrs. Hopkins who lived in the apartment above had not been in. Or at least, not in her living room over the spot where the bullet had entered through her floor.

Natasha made a pained sound through her clenched teeth and swung her leg around to kick Bucky. The blow connected with his metal shoulder and his only reaction was to growl at her and clench his fingers around her arm.

“Bucky, don’t!” Steve said. “Put her down, please.”

“She tried to shoot me,” Bucky gritted out.

“I’m sure it was an accident,” Steve said. “Natasha?”

“He came at me the second he was through the door,” Natasha said. She whimpered in pain and tried again to kick Bucky. “I was ready for him, though, yeah. I’d be a damn fool not to be ready for him to—”

“Please, Bucky, she’s my friend,” Steve said.

Natasha’s pain and helplessness weren’t moving him at all. Bucky’s expression was blank, eyes cold and angry, promising death. She would never convince him to let her go, but Bucky sometimes listened to Steve. He would do things for him that he wouldn’t do for anyone else, including show mercy.

Bucky reached up with his right hand and took the gun away from Natasha. Then he dropped her. He didn’t lower her, he wasn’t gentle about it; he dropped her and she hit the floor hard.

When Natasha got her breath back, she crawled over to the couch and sat on the floor with her back to it, cradling her arm. “I have to say, I don’t think I like your new attack dog much, Rogers.”

Bucky crushed Natasha’s gun in his left hand and threw the pieces down on the floor.

“It’s… been a weird couple of days,” Steve said with a shrug. “You okay?”

“I’ve been better,” Natasha said. She winced and rolled the sleeve of her shirt up to reveal the flesh of her forearm already turning purple. “I’ll live. Barnes doesn’t look too pleased by the idea, but I will. I’ve had worse.”

Bucky didn’t look pleased or displeased by the idea. Now that she had been disarmed and sat nursing herself on the floor, he appeared mildly annoyed but largely indifferent to the whole business.

“I’ll get you an icepack,” Steve said.

He hurried to get it out of the freezer, half convinced that he would find Natasha dead on the floor when he returned. She was still alive and drawing breath though and Bucky hadn’t moved.

“Thanks,” Natasha said. She put the icepack on her arm and closed her eyes for a moment in relief. “Next time, I guess I’ll wait in the lobby.”

“What are you doing here anyway?” Steve asked. “I thought you were in Europe.”

“I was,” she said. “Then I came back—not permanently, just some business to take care of—and I hear this crazy story about the Winter Soldier living here… with Captain America. Fury’s… well, he’s furious. Pun one hundred percent intended. Sam’s worried about you. I got to hear all about how worried about you Sam is because the man won’t admit that he’s worried, too. He is, if you’re wondering. So, it made me worry. So I came to check up on you.”

“You really shouldn’t have,” Steve said dryly.

“Well, I called, but no one answered,” Natasha said.

“Oh, right.” Oops. “I have to get a new phone.”

“I called the number here, too,” she said. “No answer. I mean, we all know you can handle yourself, Steve, but this guy is…”

“Dangerous,” Steve finished for her.

Bucky snorted in an amused way and walked out of the living room. Steve heard him in the kitchen opening a bottle of water.

“Yeah,” Natasha said. “He is. Obviously. You know the last time I locked horns with that guy, he threw me into a car like I was a feather pillow. I barely slowed him down. The time before that, he wasn’t even after me and I got shot.”

“You’re alive, though,” Steve pointed out. “I mean… Okay, I know. I know. Still, he could have killed you any one of those times, right? But he didn’t.”

“Which only means he had someone more important to kill at the time,” Natasha said. “Just… Look, be careful, okay? I know I’ve got to be like the tenth person to tell you this, but you can’t trust that guy.”

“Fourth, actually,” Steve said. “You’re only the fourth.” He shrugged. “I don’t have a lot of friends that aren’t dead or in their nineties.”

“Really? Who—”

“There was Sam, of course. Fury, Sam again, then Bucky, now you.”

“He told you that himself?” She seemed genuinely surprised. “Huh. That’s… something.”

“I guess,” Steve said. “Really, are you okay, though?”

“I’ll be fine,” Natasha said. “I’ll get it looked at.”

“Okay. I’m really sorry,” Steve said.

“I know you are,” she said. “So, where were you?”

“I took him to see Stark. To see if there was anything inside him. You know, implants. Things like that.”

“And?”

“Nothing much. He’s fine.”

“Physically, he’s in remarkable shape, yeah. Otherwise… I’d keep an eye on him. Maybe sleep with a gun under your pillow.”

“I’m not doing that,” Steve said.

It was absolutely ridiculous, and not necessarily because he wouldn’t shoot Bucky with it anyway and it would therefore be useless to him. He didn’t like to kill people and, unlike Natasha, if there was another way he would find it before he shot anyone, even a housebreaker. Even a super soldier assassin. He had shot people before, sure, but he never wanted to be so screwed up in the head that he started keeping guns in his pillowcases.

Natasha sighed and got painfully to her feet, using her uninjured arm to brace herself on the sofa. “Alright. Well, there’s not a lot more anyone can do if you insist on keeping him here, Rogers. You know that.”

“I’m not—He’s not a pet,” Steve said. Sam had stressed this to him himself and Steve found it weird and really annoying that he seemed to be the only person he knew who actually believed it. “I’m not keeping him. He came to me, I let him stay. He can leave. He’s not a prisoner.”

“He probably shouldn’t leave if you want him in one piece,” Natasha said. “You’re really the only friend he’s got. Definitely the only one in his corner.”

Steve scowled at her and crossed his arms over his chest. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Natasha had reached the door. She opened it and looked back at him. “I think you know what it means.”

She left and Steve stood there frowning for a few minutes. Of course he knew what it meant. It meant, like it or not, Bucky was now his responsibility. It meant he had been given an ultimatum behind the not-so-thin veil of a threat.

Steve found himself not feeling so sorry about what Bucky had done to Natasha’s arm after all.

Bucky was standing in the doorway between the living room and kitchen watching him when Steve looked up. “You heard that?”

“Yes,” Bucky said.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. “I’m not going to let them do anything to you.”

“Neither am I,” Bucky said. “I’ll leave if it’ll make things easier on you.”

“What? No! Don’t do that.” He took a step toward Bucky before he remembered the mistake of the kiss and halted. “I mean… Hell, I missed you. Don’t disappear, alright?”

Bucky studied him with narrowed eyes. After a minute of it, Steve became uncomfortable, his skin crawling and making him restless. When Bucky moved toward him, he nearly jumped. He forced himself to stand his ground as Bucky moved into his space and crowded him.

He still flinched when Bucky took his chin in his hand and leaned in close to him. “I didn’t miss you,” he said just above a whisper. “I didn’t miss you, do you understand?”

Steve turned his head and pushed Bucky’s hand away. “I know,” he said. And it hurt to know it, but he did. “I know, alright? You don’t have to—”

“I think I do have to because I don’t think you do,” Bucky said.

He swatted Steve’s pushing hands aside and took hold of his face. He was gentle about it, cupping his face in his hands and not hurting him, but Steve couldn’t pull away without a struggle. He didn’t struggle.

“I’m not your Sergeant Bucky Barnes,” Bucky said. “He was a good guy, really, wasn’t he? I’m not a good guy, Steve, I’m a villain. Those things the Winter Soldier did, I did them. I don’t even feel bad about them. I don’t feel anything about them.”

“That’s because you don’t remember—”

“But I’m remembering. I will remember. I still don’t care. Maybe one day I’ll feel shame, but maybe I won’t. I can’t be that guy for you.”

“We can’t go back,” Steve said softly. “I know.”

Instead of trying to pull away from him, Steve stepped into him. He wondered at his own nerve. Wondered if he’d be shoved away or told no again. He slipped an arm around Bucky’s neck, let his fingers thread up the back into his long hair and smiled when Bucky’s eyes widened and he let his hands drop from Steve’s face.

“I don’t care,” Steve said.

He didn’t, either. If they could go back, he wouldn’t have this. He would never have had the chance at it. None of it. Not a single kiss. He had loved Peggy, he would have married her and been content, but he was in love with Bucky. A lot had changed for both of them in the last century, but that hadn’t changed much at all. The love had changed a little, become deeper, sadder, more clear and more certain; it had matured with time. It had not gone away. Bucky was different and yes, he had done horrible things, but Steve was different too, right down to a cellular level, and he wasn’t proud of all of his choices either. The difference was, he could honestly say that they had been choices.

“You think I don’t know you,” Steve said, “but I know you. I know you.

Bucky pushed him and Steve felt his heart sink, sure that he was pushing him away again. He might even hit him this time. Then his back hit the wall beside the kitchen entryway and Bucky was there, his body pressed up against Steve’s, holding him there caged against the wall. Bucky ran his hands up his sides, forcing his arms up, above his head, and laced their fingers together. In Steve’s left hand there was the warm, alive flesh of Bucky’s fingers, but in the other, nothing but cold, unyielding metal. If he fought, he could get away, but he didn’t want to get away.

Then Bucky was kissing him, his teeth scraping, nipping, his tongue in his mouth demanding Steve respond and meet it. He did and the kiss became a breathless tangle of tongues and clash of teeth. Bucky was so much better at it and the knowledge of that sent a shock of awareness straight to Steve’s gut; two parts anticipation and one part quiet dread.

“Bucky, wait,” he panted, turning his head against the wall to make him stop.

Bucky leaned in and ran his tongue along the side of his neck, into the hollow behind his jaw where his pulse was strong. The only indication he gave that he had heard him at all was a sound of inquiry in his throat.

“Just… I don’t… I never,” Steve stammered.

Bucky’s laughter rumbled against his skin. “I know,” he said.

Steve shivered at the puff of his hot breath, and God, he didn’t laugh anymore. “You—What?”

“I know you never,” Bucky said. “When would you have been able to?”

“Okay,” Steve said. He squirmed against the wall and caught his breath when Bucky pressed against him, ground against him lightly. “You… You know what you’re doing, right?”

“It’s not rocket science, but yeah,” Bucky said.

“Alright,” Steve said.

Bucky tightened his hands in Steve’s, forced his body taut against the wall and flush with his own, and kissed him again. Still kissing him, biting a little at his lips until Steve bit him back out of simple self-defense, Bucky pulled him away from the wall. He grabbed him and backed him through the living room, down the short hallway and into the bedroom, where he shoved Steve down on the bed. Steve started to sit up, but Bucky climbed up on the bed over him and he had to lay back.

There was a brief struggle over their clothes. Bucky’s hair got caught in the band of Steve’s watch, which then suffered an untimely death when Bucky impatiently ripped it loose and chucked it out the door. Steve ended up naked, stripped down to nothing and licked and nipped into a shivering, moaning mess. Bucky still had his pants on, pushed down his hips through no real design as they fumbled over the bed. When he thrust into Steve the first time, the zipper scratched a long red line up his inner thigh, but Steve didn’t even feel it. He tightened his legs around Bucky’s waist, clung to him and tried not to scream.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t anything like Steve had imagined it, it was rough and frenetic and dirty and not even a little bit romantic. Bucky didn’t forget that it was his first time and he was careful not to hurt him, but he didn’t go easy on him either. It was nothing like Steve had been led to expect from all the conversations about sex he had overheard growing up. It was better and exactly what he needed.

He tried not to be loud and Bucky didn’t make that easy for him either. He seemed to enjoy it and pulled Steve’s hands away from his mouth, swallowed his moans in deep kisses. Bucky cradled his head against his shoulder as Steve’s orgasm built. He was whispering to him that it was going to happen, though he wasn’t completely sure what he was talking about, and Bucky whispered back that he knew and told him to bite down.

When it was over, they lay side by side catching their breath. Bucky was on his stomach, his hair a tangled, sweaty mess, his eyes closed like he was dozing, though he was wide awake. There was a red imprint of Steve’s teeth in his right shoulder. Steve lay on his back staring at the ceiling, still humming all over with aftershocks of pleasure, the sweat on his skin going cold, making him shiver.

He felt hollowed out. Cored like an apple and left limply to die. Like his stomach would make the thumping sound of bongos if he were to tap it. He could feel his heart beating everywhere. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant sensation.

He took a deep breath and let it out as he said, “Ouch.”

Bucky snorted laughter into the comforter bunched up under his face and turned his head to look over at him. “You’ll be alright,” he said after a second to consider.

“No, I’m great,” Steve said. “I am. But still, ow.”

“You’re sore,” Bucky said.

“Yeah, kinda,” Steve said.

“You’re tired,” Bucky said.

“Yes,” Steve said.

“You’ll get over it,” Bucky said. “I’ll be nicer to you next time.”

Steve started to push himself up, then winced and didn’t. “You… Wait. What?”

“You heard me,” Bucky said.

“Oh,” Steve said. He stared thoughtfully at the ceiling for a while. “You know, you’re kind of heavy. Because of the arm and—”

“You want to be on top next time?” Bucky asked.

“Can we do it like that or—”

“Done. You’re on top next time.”

“We are not negotiating about this,” Steve said, finding himself a little bit scandalized by the idea.

“Sure we are,” Bucky said. “We just did.”

Steve sighed. “Fine. Scoot over. You’re laying on the blankets.”

Chapter Text

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the ones who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.
—Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck

 

Bucky slept in the bed with Steve that night, then every night after. They didn’t speak of it, it just happened naturally, and when Bucky woke screaming in the night, destroyed a pillow or broke a lamp, Steve reminded him where he was and calmed him back down. Bucky learned to accept the comfort even when he didn’t want it, and Steve figured out pretty quickly that Bucky wouldn’t have a lot to say the next day and it wasn’t his fault.

The dreams that reminded him of who he was and who he had become were the worst. There were no words to fix it. It would fade into the background eventually, but he always knew it would happen again. Sometimes sleep was like lying down in a field of landmines; he was always taking a chance that he would roll over on one.

One morning, Steve woke up to find the bed beside him empty and wandered out into the living room to see Bucky smashing something on the floor. “What are you doing?”

“Bugs,” Bucky said.

“What, like roaches?” Steve asked.

Bucky looked up impatiently and shook his head. Steve was still half asleep. His recovery time from unconsciousness was not as quick as Bucky’s, so he tried to be more understanding. It was a thing people did.

“No,” Bucky said. He shoved a tiny microphone in Steve’s face and watched Steve blink a little before focusing on it. “The other kind.”

“Oh,” Steve said. Bucky could almost see it click. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. He crushed it in his hand and looked around. “I found three surveillance cameras—one in the kitchen, one in here and one in the bedroom—”

“The bedroom!” Steve said.

He was wide awake now. Good.

“There were bugs everywhere. Found one inside the phone,” Bucky said.

Steve looked down at the landline phone that sat on the table next to one of the chairs. Bucky had taken the receiver apart. That was where the bug had been. He had known to look for it because it was where he would have put one.

“Found a tracking chip on your shirt,” Bucky explained. “There are probably more. So I tossed the apartment.”

“I can see that,” Steve said, looking around.

“We should destroy your clothes,” Bucky said.

“What?”

“You can get new ones.”

“Yeah, I will,” Steve said. He sounded dazed and a little distracted. “There was a camera in the bedroom?”

Bucky’s lips quirked in an amused smirk. “Yes, there was.”

“I’m going to kill Fury,” Steve said.

Which Bucky translated to mean he was going to yell at him and threaten him with bodily harm, or perhaps loss of his cooperation in whatever covert schemes Nick Fury was involved with. He did not actually believe that Steve would kill the man, not even for this.

“They’re not going to like it,” Bucky said.

“When I kill Nick Fury?” Steve said. “No, probably not.”

“No. They’re not going to like it,” Bucky said. He gestured between them with one hand. “As I understand it, they considered you to be my warden. They’re not going to like it that they were so completely mistaken.”

“I don’t really give a damn if they like it or not,” Steve said. He was good and angry. His face was a little red and his expression was murderous. “They heard everything. They watched everything. I’m going to kill them. That’s just… that’s it. I’m going to.”

Bucky rolled his eyes and started cleaning up the destroyed surveillance devices. “Go pick something to wear and I’ll check it all for trackers. Then we’re throwing the rest out with the trash.”

They picked the tracking devices off enough clothes for a few days, threw the rest out, then Steve went to confront Nick Fury. He returned to the apartment several hours later and he was still angry, but there wasn’t any blood on his hands.

Bucky made a habit of tossing the apartment for such devices at least once a week. At first, he found many, but as he continued doing it with systematic determination, the number dwindled until he stopped finding them at all. This did not mean that Bucky stopped looking for them. The minute he did that, Fury would win, which Bucky wasn’t about to let him do.

He entertained the idea of taking out Nick Fury and his little operation himself more than once out of simple annoyance. It would have been the more expedient course of action. It would not, however, have been the best. Steve was mad about being watched and monitored, but he wouldn’t take it well if Bucky were to kill the man. Bucky was discovering that what Steve wanted mattered more and more, which was sometimes inconvenient, but he could work around it.

A little more than a month after Bucky found the first cameras and bugs, Steve went on a mission to South America with Natasha Romanov and Bucky wasn’t allowed to go with them. The team didn’t trust him and it would have just caused friction, Steve told him. Bucky could believe it; he didn’t trust them either. Except when it came to Steve. Steve had an uncanny ability to foster loyalty in such people. The same people who would have loved to put a bullet in Bucky’s head would take a bullet in their own to protect Steve Rogers.

Which was fine. It meant that Bucky didn’t feel like he had to go on the mission.

Steve was gone for several days to South America (the Buenos Aires area; mission with possible HYDRA connections; likelihood of success: High) and one day while he was gone and Bucky was bored and feeling restless, he went to visit Peggy Carter. If asked why, he couldn’t have said. If asked what he expected to get out of it, he would have said nothing. As he understood it, her condition was erratic and unpredictable, so he couldn’t even count on getting any straight answers from the woman.

What he wanted from her… well, that was complicated. She was in a position to fill in some of the gaps and holes for him, though, and if he hoped for anything useful from her, he hoped for that.

“Sergeant Barnes,” the withered, frail woman said when she saw him. “You’re looking very well for a man who is supposed to be dead.”

Bucky sat down in the chair beside her bed. The old woman regarded him frankly, with interest but no fear. He searched her wrinkled face for a feature or an expression that might trigger a memory, but nothing came to him. He only knew that he had known her because he had read about it, saw her picture and her history beside his own at the Smithsonian, and because Steve had had a girl in the war and there was no other girl in his life but this ancient creature in the bed.

Peggy Carter had been younger than him when he died, Bucky thought. It was surreal to see her as she was now and to think of himself as unchanged by comparison.

“Are you going to kill me, Sergeant?” Peggy asked.

Bucky tilted his head to one side, considering her question. He was not there to kill her. She posed no threat to him. Even when she had been younger, a founder of SHIELD and a strong adversary to HYDRA, he had never been asked to kill her. She hadn’t known it—how could she?—but she had always been exactly where they wanted her to be.

“No,” Bucky said.

“Then why are you here?” she asked. She looked around like she expected someone else to show themselves, but they were alone. “Does Steve know you’re here? That you’re alive?”

“He knows I’m alive,” Bucky said. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”

She sighed. “That’s good,” she said. “He would want to know.”

Bucky nodded. He sat there quietly with her for a long time. He didn’t know what to say to her or how to ask her the questions she might know the answers to. Her brain was corroded and feeble sometimes. The nurses had told him so. She was sick and sometimes she didn’t remember that it was 2014 and not 1945 or ‘46. It probably didn’t help matters when Steve visited her and he looked no older than he had the day she had lost him to the ocean. Now Bucky sat there by her bed and he was just as young in appearance as he had ever been, though different in many very telling ways.

It must be so confusing, he thought, and found that he could empathize.

“He fell apart after you died,” Peggy said abruptly. “He didn’t let it show, but I could tell. He was different. I always wondered if you were the reason he flew that damn plane into the ocean. We could have found another way. Even with so little time, we could have found one. I think he wanted to do it that way, though.”

“Why?” Bucky asked.

Peggy smiled and looked at him kindly, but with exasperation. “Don’t you know?” she asked. “He loved you. Sure, he fancied me. Can you blame him? I was a knockout.”

“Yes,” Bucky said. He remembered the pictures.

“You’re still sweet, even now. Look at you,” she said. “He was willing to settle for me because he couldn’t have you. Do you think I didn’t know that?”

“I don’t think so,” Bucky said.

“Oh, it’s true. Women know these things,” Peggy said.

He hadn’t been denying it was true, only that he hadn’t considered it. He doubted if Sergeant Barnes had known it, though. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would have crossed that man’s mind.

“You should go, Sergeant,” Peggy said.

He frowned at her and didn’t move. “Why?”

“Because I fear I’m about to embarrass myself here shortly,” she said. “I go in and out like a bad radio station these days, you know. I feel it coming on. I would rather you were not here to see it. I think I might be terribly frightened of you. Finding you, who are supposed to be dead, sitting by my bedside. Let’s try to avoid that, if we can.”

Bucky stood up and started to leave. He paused at the door when she called to him.

“You may come again, if you want,” she told him. “I don’t get many visitors these days. I seem to have outlived all of my friends and acquaintances.”

He understood that she was asking him to come back. He nodded.

“I remember you being a better conversationalist, Sergeant Barnes,” she said.

Bucky felt himself smiling. “I’m sure I was,” he said.

“And a shameless flirt,” she added.

“Yes.” He remembered that, too. It did not change the fact that he no longer was either of these things. “I’ll come back,” he decided.

“You do that,” she said. “Off with you now.”

He left and as the door was closing behind him, he heard her say softly, “Take care of him.”

Steve took pretty good care of himself. Bucky doubted that he would ever be called upon again to rescue him from a bully in an alley. He understood though; there were different kinds of bullies and Steve was always forgetting how small he was.

The landline phone was ringing when Bucky got back to the apartment. He picked it up. “Yes?”

“Hey,” Steve said, sounding surprised. “You answered the phone.”

“I know how to answer a phone,” Bucky said.

“Yeah, but… Never mind. I’m flying back. I mean, Stark’s flying me back,” Steve said.

“In a plane or with one of his suits?” He was just curious.

“Plane. I’ll be there in… Stark says three hours.”

“You’re surprised that I’m still here,” Bucky guessed.

Steve was quiet, then he cautiously said, “Yeah. A little.”

“Don’t be,” Bucky said. “I’ll see you in three hours.”

XXX