He remembered nothing. After the first few weeks, he asked to be called James.
Steve knew even that was a concession.
James had his own place. He had a cell phone, and he usually returned calls. He was utterly reliable in the field. He could assess any situation with one cold glance and then he invariably took whatever action would resolve it fastest. One encounter with AIM ended abruptly much earlier than expected when James cocked his head consideringly, smiled a little, and calmly shot the leader between the eyes. Afterwards Sam muttered to Steve, "You know, I'm glad that guy's on our side."
"Me too," said Steve, with utter honesty. He pretended he didn't understand the look on Sam's face.
That guy. James. Not the Winter Soldier. None of them ever said that name.
Sometimes James would vanish for a few weeks at a time. The first time it happened Steve was all ready to drop everything and go after him. The only thing worse than the thought that James had simply left was the fear that he'd been taken.
Natasha stopped his panic by showing him a news item on her phone. The article, in French, was about the discovery of a hidden Hydra cell based in Marseilles. Someone had tipped off the authorities. When they'd arrived at the location they'd found the door to the secret bunker wide open, the relevant evidence spread out on a table by the front door, and the bodies neatly piled in a side room, each one shot once in the head.
Steve put the phone down.
"Don't push him, Steve," Natasha said. "Some things you do for yourself."
Steve heard in the way she said it that she was telling him something she knew from experience. That was enough to make him bite his lip and thank her. He didn't like the thought of Bucky—James—going after Hydra alone. But, he reminded himself, he didn't have to like it. Sure, every instinct he had wanted him to push James about it, the way he would have pushed Bucky, the way he knew from long experience he could push Bucky. But James asked for so little. If he wanted to be left alone to do things for himself, Steve could swallow his instincts and give him that.
When James reappeared to join them on a mission two weeks later, Natasha was the only one who brought up his vanishing act. "Good vacation?"
Steve was prepared for—anything, he didn't know. Bucky (James, if he didn't stop making that mistake in his head then sooner or later he was going to make it out loud) didn't always react to things in normal ways.
But James just smiled close-mouthed. "Does you good to get away," he said.
Steve looked round, distracted, until Sam caught his eye and raised his eyebrows. Then he faced forward again. He made a conscious effort to keep his voice steady and light when he said, "Hear the weather's pretty good in the south of France."
"Sure," said James after a moment. "Been working on my tan."
Steve was grateful to Natasha ever after for finding the opening. It was only a small moment of unbending, but it was a turning point.
"Looks like there's someone in there after all, huh," was how Sam put it.
James talked now—not much, but more than he had before. Sometimes he smiled about things that weren't successful mission outcomes. So far they hadn't succeeded in making him laugh, but Steve and Natasha were in a competition to see who could do it first. James smirked and put up with their clowning tolerantly, even past the point on one Hydra-hunting expedition where Sam remarked, "Man, if I was you right now I would shoot them both and not even feel guilty about it."
"Biding my time," said James.
There was a moment of horrified silence on the comm.
Natasha was the first to crack up. Steve grinned, listening to her giggle helplessly in his ear, and knocked out three Hydra goons with one well-aimed shield toss. "Nice of you to warn us," he said.
"You know me," said James's voice in his ear. "Friendly that way."
James wasn't precisely friendly, ever. But Steve thought it was more not knowing how than not wanting to. That mission was the first time he stuck around longer than ninety seconds after Hill finished debriefing them, but not the last. Steve practiced acting like he didn't mind either way—practiced not pushing, taking his cue from Natasha and Sam, who were both good at it—and it worked.
He realized he wasn't the only one mentally timing James's willingness to stay with them on the day when he came all the way down the street to get a coffee with them and Natasha murmured after he left, "Seventeen minutes. New record."
Strangely enough, James behaving like a person instead of—something else—made it easier to do what he'd asked and call him James without thinking about it. Steve supposed he'd been imagining the old Bucky, the man he remembered, hiding just under the blank surface. But he was coming to see that the man under the surface was someone different: quieter, colder, with a darker sense of humor.
If there were occasional glimpses of something dear and familiar—if something in the way James stood or spoke brought memories flooding in—Steve did his best not to cling to it. Making mental catalogues of the places where James and Bucky overlapped wasn't fair. He was who he was. Steve tried to take him on his own terms.
The first time they succeeded in making James laugh was also the first time he joined the rest of them for burgers. Natasha won the competition, with a quip in Russian that both she and James refused to translate, and at the burger place James and Steve between them ordered so much food they had to put some of it on the next table over.
"Supersoldiers," said Sam with a headshake.
"You want to drag all two hundred and forty pounds of me home after the hunger knocks me out, be my guest," said Steve. "Otherwise, I gotta eat."
"Does that actually happen?"
Steve nodded with his mouth full of burger. He swallowed and said, "Supercharged metabolism. I can skip a meal if I have to, but safer not to risk it. One time in the war—"
He stopped. They all knew why.
"Go on," said James. He was giving Steve an ironic look, eyebrows raised.
Steve took another bite of his burger to cover the moment, swallowed, and said, "One time in the war I didn't eat for a couple of days. Low rations, we were all running on adrenaline, I thought I was fine—started to feel a little light-headed in the middle of a German forest, woke up in an infirmary bed back at base two days later. I'd passed out. The guys had to stuff me up a tree and finish the op without me."
Natasha snorted through a mouthful of fries.
"Yeah, go on, laugh," said Steve. "The serum takes a bit of getting used to. They had to lug me home between them, and then they took it in turns to come into the infirmary and yell at me."
Bucky had been last in, when Steve had already listened to five lectures including one in French. He hadn't even yelled. He'd just given Steve a very long, level look that made Steve feel about knee-high, the same look he'd used to wear when Steve was insisting he was fine to get out of bed, he was hardly coughing at all anymore.
"Don't do that again," he'd said finally, and Steve had nodded with his best meek look.
Steve risked a glance at James. He was onto his second burger, chewing and swallowing the last few bites. He seemed to feel Steve looking at him. He looked up and said, "I don't burn through fuel quite as fast, but that doesn't mean I don't need it."
"Yeah, we can tell," said Sam.
James smirked and reached behind him for one of the plates they'd left on the next table.
Steve didn't know what else he'd been hoping for. Natasha squeezed his knee under the table. When Steve looked at her she gave him exaggerated come-hither eyes. He wasn't fooled. He knew comfort when he felt it.
Steve and James were going the same way after the meal. It wasn't a great neighborhood for walking through after dark, but they were hardly going to get jumped by anything more dangerous than they were. Not much chance of autograph seekers either. Steve shoved his baseball cap back on his head out of habit. It was a warm night. James was still wearing the big shapeless gray jacket he usually wore. Steve tucked his hands in his pockets as he walked.
"Thanks," he said. "For coming out."
"My pleasure, Cap," said James.
They went on in silence for a while.
"Something on your mind?" said James eventually.
Steve said, "You never use my name."
There was a pause.
"Don't want to make this any harder for you," James said.
"Nice of you."
James shrugged one-shouldered. "Not really. Wouldn't know what to do if you started crying."
Steve smiled crookedly. "I probably won't have hysterics if you call me Steve like the rest of my friends."
"Wouldn't want to risk it," James said. "The Widow might actually bite me."
"She's not poisonous."
"How do you know?" James gave him a sly look. "She ever bitten you?"
"No!" said Steve. "Well—" They'd kissed that once, but it hadn't been—James was smirking. Steve rolled his eyes. "Stop trying to tease me."
"Not just trying, Cap."
"And stop changing the subject."
James shrugged, smirk falling away. "Worth a shot," he said. "Fine. I'll call you what you want. You did as much for me."
"You don't have to," said Steve, suddenly uncomfortable. He wasn't supposed to push. "I'd rather you didn't, if you don't want to."
James didn't say anything for a little while. They walked on.
When James next spoke, a few blocks from Steve's building, it wasn't what Steve expected at all.
"I do remember you, you know," he said. "A little."
James inclined his head. "You're...familiar. But it's not proper memories. Just something I saw once. Like… a reflection in a mirror, in a dark room, long ago."
"James," said Steve, swallowing Bucky. He was trying not to choke up. It was the only acknowledgment James had ever given him of the past, of them—
"Very long ago," James said. He glanced at Steve. "See, now you're crying, what am I supposed to do with that? If the Widow doesn't get me, Wilson will."
Steve swiped the back of his hand across his face. "Something in my eye," he said. "I won't tell them if you don't."
James nodded and looked down. He didn't say anything else. Steve wouldn't have caught the grimace that flashed across his face if he hadn't been looking.
They stopped outside Steve's apartment building. "Well, this is me," Steve said.
James snorted. "You sound like the end of a date. Are you going to ask me up for coffee?"
"Want some coffee?" said Steve immediately.
"No," James said. Afterwards, as if he'd just remembered it, he added, "Thanks."
"You're always welcome here," Steve said. "Any time. You know that."
James nodded once. "Night, Cap," he said.
"Listen—" said Steve.
James paused halfway through turning away and gave him that same ironic look from the burger place.
Undeterred, Steve said, "I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're my friend." James kept looking at him. "That's all."
James shoved both his hands deep into the pockets of his gray jacket and walked back towards him. Steve lifted his chin, didn't flinch and didn't break eye contact, even when James got right in close. It felt like they were having a staring contest. Steve wasn't sure why, but he wasn't going to lose.
After a second or two of watching him, James reached up and took the baseball cap off Steve's head. While Steve was still blinking at that he leaned in and brushed their lips together. It was a brief dry touch, barely a kiss at all. Steve was too surprised to react. Then James put the hat back on Steve's head and stepped back.
"Night, Cap," he said again, and walked away into the dark.
Steve stared after him for a long moment.
His mind was working fast as he let himself into his apartment. James was—and he had—but Bucky had never—
Steve spent some time turning over old memories, trying to think of a time, any time, when Bucky had shown any interest in—well, in men at all, never mind him. He would have known, he thought. Or—perhaps he wouldn't. Bucky had always been capable of keeping things to himself when he wanted to. He hadn't, usually, not with Steve, but he'd had a hell of a poker face. Still, he must have known that he could trust Steve with anything—hadn't he?
Unless there'd been nothing to tell.
But then that meant—
Steve went round in circles in his head for a while before he admitted to himself it was pointless. Maybe Bucky had been keeping secrets, and maybe he hadn't. Steve would never know. The truth he had to live with was right now was James: that level stare, the light, deliberate kiss.
Steve's racing mind didn't present him with any useful conclusions about that either. In the end he turned out all the lights and forced himself to go to sleep. Maybe in the morning he'd know what to do.
Morning came and Steve still didn't know what to make of it. He nearly called James's cell before he remembered that he wasn't supposed to push.
Fine. No pushing. He'd just wait. If James said anything else, then—then they'd see.
It was a good resolution. But James didn't say a word about it. The kiss might never have happened.
"So this is an interesting one," said Hill at a mission briefing a few months later. They'd all stopped pretending that Hill's special personnel division at Stark Industries was anything other than a superhero coordination unit. SHIELD was gone and someone had to do it. Tony Stark called it Superhuman Resources, but then that was Tony for you.
'Interesting' from Hill, was big. Natasha leaned back in her chair and raised her eyebrows. Sam folded his arms. James didn't react at all, but then he never did in briefings.
"Spit it out," said Steve.
Hill grimaced. "You might or might not be aware that SHIELD was responsible, among other things, for collecting and analyzing all the Asgardian technology we could get our hands on."
"Oh, I remember," Steve said.
Hill coughed and avoided his eyes. "Among other things," she said, "after the battle of New York, we—SHIELD—acquired Loki's staff."
"And by SHIELD you mean..."
"Right," Hill said. "It went into a vault in the basement of the Triskelion. Except, what do you know, we went and opened the vault post-demolition and it wasn't there."
"It was probably never there in the first place," Natasha said, and sat up straighter. "You've found it now, I assume."
Steve listened carefully to the details of the retrieval mission, and then Hill started in on the warnings. Neither Steve nor Natasha needed to be reminded that the staff was dangerous, or to hear Hill rehashing the details of what it could do, but Sam's forehead creased as Hill went over the various mind-bending powers that were just the ones they knew about for sure. Hill added, "There were a couple of references to it in the Hydra files Natasha released onto the internet—helped us track it down. We don't know exactly what they were trying to do with it—"
"Building weapons," said James quietly.
Hill gave him a nod of acknowledgment. "Since it's Hydra, probably. What we do know is that they figured out the big shiny stone in the middle is what's powering it. Their notes were full of warnings not to touch it."
"Like the Tesseract," said Steve.
Hill nodded. "That seems likely. So here's my best advice: don't touch it."
The bunker was in Hungary. Hill had told them to expect a full complement of guards and God alone knew what else. A Hydra weapons development facility was always full of unpleasant surprises. But it was empty.
Steve began to believe it wasn't a trick when even James lowered his gun and started looking around with a baffled wrinkle between his eyebrows. Hydra didn't seem to have left so much as vanished. Chairs were pulled out from under tables as if people had only just stood up, and the computers were all still switched on. Steve picked up a mug sitting out on a workbench. It was half-full of lukewarm coffee.
"I think I saw a movie like this once," Sam said.
Steve put the mug down. "Let's look around. Stay alert."
The installation was only two rooms. There was no sign of Loki's staff. At the far end of the main room was a row of glass-fronted observation cells. They gave Steve an ominous feeling, but they were empty too.
"The poor twins," said a voice behind him. "You won't find them easily, you know."
Steve spun around, shield at the ready. Natasha, Sam, and James all had weapons trained on the thin figure in green that had appeared in the middle of the room.
The man looked around theatrically. "I hope you realize that if you all fire at once you're just going to hit each other," he said.
"Loki," said Steve.
"Oh, no," said the man in green. "Loki's dead. Hadn't you heard? I'm sure Thor told you. I'm only an image. A ghost." He grinned at them, that mad mirthless grin.
Steve didn't relax. The image—if that was what it was—looked injured. He waggled his hands in the air and Steve saw that they were very faintly transparent. Loki smirked at him and passed his arm through a table. "See? Ghostly. Just a projection."
"Why would there be a projection of Loki here?" Steve demanded.
"I imagine I left myself bound in my staff to keep an eye on it in case someone tried to do something stupid. It is mine. I don't know, though, you'd have to ask me." Loki raised his eyebrows. "Except you can't! Because I'm dead."
"What happened to the people here?" Steve said.
Loki's expression sharpened into a sly sweet smile. "Something stupid."
"Such concern," Loki said. "Were they friends of yours? I can't say I found them interesting. Here."
He took a step to the side, and Steve saw that the staff was suspended in a complex metal apparatus behind him. He didn't know how he'd missed it before. The stone that powered it was glowing faintly blue.
"How the—" said Sam.
"It was hiding," Loki said. "You're welcome. It's what you came for, isn't it?"
"What does it do?" Natasha said.
Loki grinned at her. "Interrogating a ghost?" he said. "The same question as Hydra, as well. What does it do, will it do it for you... why yes, you know, it will. If you dare."
Natasha tilted her head slightly.
"Such curiosity. What does it do?" Loki spread his arms wide. "It can sway the hearts of men. That's what I made it do. And you may remember that it can close an uncloseable door. It could, oh," he shrugged extravagantly, "It could do much more. Set a few things right. Undo a mistake or two, perhaps. Bring back the dead," he added, eyes lingering on Sam, whose jaw tightened. "Or the living," Loki purred, his gaze moving to James. "Anything you want."
"Are you saying this thing grants wishes?" Steve said.
Loki turned back to him with another big mad smile. "Have you ever thought of turning back time, Captain?" he said. "I know, it's a personal question. I have terrible manners." His smile grew bigger still. "Go on, take it. I'm sure my staff will be in safe hands with the Avengers."
The ghost flickered out of existence. Its laugh lingered in the air after it vanished, a final staccato rattle of amusement.
There was a long moment of quiet.
Finally Sam said, "Jesus."
Steve exchanged a glance with Natasha. "What do you think?"
"Thor said he was dead."
"You don't sound convinced."
"I really wish I was convinced."
James hadn't said anything since the image of Loki appeared. Steve glanced at him, but his expression gave nothing away. It very seldom did. Steve didn't think he was all that shaken. The Winter Soldier had been sleeping in ice when the Battle of New York was happening. James had less reason to react to Loki than the rest of them. He turned his attention back to the staff.
"Right," he said. "Let's secure the thing and—"
He saw movement in the corner of his eye.
Natasha was the only one who reacted anywhere even close to fast enough. She was too far away for her lunge to make a difference. "Wait, stop, don't—" said Sam, and Steve hurled the shield, but James just ducked and rolled under it, and that brought him right up to the apparatus holding the staff.
He wasn't expressionless now. The look on his face was one of grim determination. He reached out for the stone with his flesh hand.
There was a brilliant flash of light and a sound like a thunderclap.
The whole room shuddered so fiercely that Steve was knocked off his feet. He had to close his eyes against the light, but he could still see James's silhouette printed on the inside of his eyelids. His mouth had been opening in a soundless scream.
When Steve opened his eyes again all the colors he could see looked lurid and wrong. It took a few seconds for the world to fade back into its normal tones. Sam and Natasha were both getting to their feet, looking as shaky as Steve felt. James—
James was a crumpled pile on the floor beneath the staff.
Steve froze halfway through forcing himself upright.
"Whoops," said the thin green figure, flicking back into existence next to James's still form. "You know, I didn't think it would take long, but I really thought it would take longer than that."
"Get away from him—"
"I'm nowhere near him. I'm not even here. Dead, remember?"
James was already shifting; Steve heard him make a faint noise. His own body was processing the aftermath of panic as fast as it processed everything else, but his mind was still on high alert. A guy like Loki liked seeing weakness, and Steve didn't like giving bullies what they wanted, so he did his best to meet Loki's eyes levelly and not look as disturbed as he felt. Loki just smirked at him. "You'd better be careful," he said. "He's been through such a lot. One should avoid putting undue strain on a delicate mind, don't you agree? It might..." the smirk sharpened, "...snap."
Loki vanished again, gone between one eyeblink and the next. Steve eyed the staff suspiciously. If the projection could flash in and out of existence at any time it chose—
James groaned and shifted again and Steve forgot to care about anything else. He darted forward and then hesitated. They all knew James didn't like being touched without warning. He had to settle for hovering as James pushed himself up on his knees and elbows and then slumped into a sitting position with his head in his hands.
He sat like that for a moment and drew in a couple of gasping breaths. The staff didn't seem to have harmed him at all. He was winded, but he was fine—
Then James raised his head and looked around the room. Steve saw him take in the apparatus, and Natasha, and Sam. He was staring. His eyes got wider and wider.
"What the hell?" he said.
He looked down at himself. After a second he lifted his metal arm, flexed the fingers, touched it with his flesh hand, and then twisted around to stare at his own left shoulder. When he looked up again Steve could see panic on his face. He stepped closer without thinking. James jerked his head up to look at him, and then relaxed all at once. "Steve, thank god," he said. "What the hell is going on?"
"James?" said Steve.
James frowned at him. "Who're you calling James?" he said. "What are you, my mother?" Steve didn't say anything. "Steve?"
Steve couldn't say anything for a moment.
"Bucky," he managed at last, and heard Sam breathe in sharply behind him.
Bucky stood up. He shrugged his left shoulder, hard, and the metal plates of the arm all resettled themselves. Steve could see the fear flash over his face, but it wasn't there in his voice. "The one and only," he said. "Why are you looking at me like that? What is this place? Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?"
In uncharacteristically clipped tones, Natasha said, "Securing Loki's staff is our priority, Captain."
Bucky frowned. "What staff?" he said. "You mean this thing?"
All three of them spoke at once. "Don't touch it!"
Bucky looked taken aback. He held up his hands. "All right, all right. Not touching it, see?"
Steve saw him notice again the metal gleam of his own left hand and startle. He took a deep breath. "What's the last thing you remember, Buck?"
Bucky let his hands fall. "Right before the mission in the Alps," he said promptly. "We were about to jump onto a moving train—your damn fool idea. Going after the Red Skull's lieutenant." He grimaced. "Way you're looking right now, I'm guessing that was a while ago."
Steve pressed his lips tightly together. He nodded.
Natasha said quietly, "Steve."
Steve met Bucky's eyes and said, "The staff has powers we don't understand. Hydra was trying to use it somehow. We came to retrieve it. You got a hand on it, it flashed and knocked us all down, and now—you're missing some time, Bucky."
Bucky looked at whatever expression was on Steve's face for a moment and then nodded slowly. "Okay," he said. He glanced uncomfortably down at his left arm again. "I guess you can tell me all about it later. How do we secure this thing, then?"
The staff went into a narrow black box with every form of shielding technology known to Tony Stark built into it, and the box went across Natasha's back. They trekked cross-country towards the extraction point in uncomfortable silence. Sam kept giving Steve worried looks, and once Bucky picked up on it and glanced between them a few times he started giving Steve worried looks too. Between them Steve felt like something being stared at through a microscope. They both knew him too well. When Natasha fell behind a little Steve dropped back to join her, grateful for the excuse.
He realized immediately that she'd slowed on purpose. "Natasha—" he said.
"Careful what you say to him," said Natasha crisply. She was always at her most professional when she was worried. Steve knew she was letting him see it. "Loki's never been above telling the truth when it suits him."
"I know," said Steve. "I'll be careful."
Hill picked them up in a small fast state-of-the-art Stark plane. Bucky was visibly shocked by it as it came in to land, and it took Steve a moment to think himself back into 1945 and realize why. Bucky recovered before Steve could say a word to explain or reassure him. He seemed at ease again by the time the plane touched down in front of them.
Without saying a word about it, Sam went and sat across the aisle, leaving his usual place on Steve's right open. He caught Steve's eye and mouthed you okay? at him.
Bucky was still examining his surroundings. Steve watched him take in the plane's plush interior, and the computer displays up front where Natasha was speaking urgently with Hill. He wore an expression of wary neutrality. It was almost but not quite James's normal blank look. The difference was subtle, but Steve could never have confused the two. As the plane took off Bucky finally slid into the seat beside him. The rising hum of the arc-technology-powered engines probably stopped the others from hearing his voice when he leaned in and muttered, "This might be a stupid question, Steve, but—what year is it?"
Steve had never felt any sympathy for Fury's predicament when they defrosted him before. How did you break the news of seventy years gently? He knew damn well that lying wasn't the way. Undue strain, he heard Loki say again.
"It's been a while," he tried.
Bucky gave him a flat look. "Yeah, I can tell," he said. "It says Stark Industries on everything in here, but last time I checked your good pal Howard wasn't even close to building anything like this. I've never seen anything like this before, either." He wriggled his metal fingers at Steve. "You don't look a day older, but I'm guessing that doesn't mean much. That serum, huh?"
Steve made a face.
"Tell me how long," Bucky said.
They were flying back to New York. Some shocks couldn't be avoided; Bucky wasn't dumb. Unless Steve wanted him to do the same thing he'd done and end up face to face with the twenty-first century in the middle of Times Square—
"It's 2014," he said.
Bucky blinked. "I think I'm going deaf. I could swear you just said it's 2014."
"It's 2014, Buck," said Steve. "It's been seventy years."
Bucky's eyes widened and he sucked in a breath, but he didn't argue, didn't look worse than the regular kind of shaken. After a moment he said, "How—"
"It's a long story," Steve said. "We—we were both in deep freeze for a while." God. Would James have just taken Steve's word for it like that? Steve didn't think so. Bucky was still looking at him, still waiting. "I'll explain, Bucky, I promise," he said.
Bucky watched him a few seconds longer and then smiled and knocked their shoulders together. "Okay."
Steve tried to take the comfort as it was meant, tried not to be distracted by how different it was to anything James would do. James had touched him intentionally exactly once.
Back at Stark Tower they got swept up in a hurricane of urgent containment procedures. A team of scientists in hazard suits arrived to cart away the staff, and Natasha—the nearest thing anyone had to a neutral expert on Loki—was dragged off to a meeting about the projection's appearance. Steve wondered what they were going to tell Thor.
Hill paused in front of Bucky, giving him a level sort of look, which Bucky returned curiously. "I understand we have a situation," she said.
"Hell, don't we always?" said Sam.
Hill smiled sharply. "That's true." Someone who looked very young indeed to Steve was standing at her elbow and clearly only just resisting tugging at her sleeve. Hill nodded at Bucky. "We'll sort this out, James. You two keep an eye on him," she said. She left in a flurry of sharply-suited Superhuman Resources personnel. The room emptied out to just the three of them.
"Keep an eye on me? What does she think I'm going to do?" said Bucky. "And why does everyone keep calling me James?"
"It's how you introduce yourself these days," said Sam. "Speaking of—Sam Wilson."
"I'm guessing we've met. Sorry," said Bucky, and held out his hand to shake. When Sam took it Bucky gave him a flash of his toothy charming-strangers grin. "Bucky Barnes."
Sam grinned right back. "Yeah, we've met," he said. It was only after Bucky turned away to throw himself down on a bench that the surprise showed on his face.
Sam had never seen Bucky smile properly, Steve thought. Sam had never seen him touch anyone willingly, or try to be charming. Sam knew Steve's stories from the journey they'd taken to bring Bucky home—but Sam didn't know. Back before they'd found Bucky—James—Steve had told his stories half-imagining that one day soon he'd be able to introduce his friends to each other. He'd wanted to say, Bucky, this is Sam. He'd thought Bucky would look at them and grin and say you mean you managed to make a new friend all by yourself, Rogers? Well, about time.
He'd known Bucky would like Sam.
James seemed to like Sam as much as he liked anyone. Worked well with him. Didn't dislike him.
Sam came and put his hand on Steve's shoulder. "What are you gonna tell him?" he said quietly. Bucky wasn't likely to overhear. He was absorbed in examining his left hand again, flexing the fingers individually and then the wrist, watching the metal plates slide over each other.
Steve had been thinking hard on the plane. "The truth."
"What that thing said, Loki's projection or whatever it was—"
"Yeah," said Steve. "But I can't lie to him, Sam. I'll tell him the truth. I have to."
Sam nodded. "Your call, Steve."
"It's the right call."
"I didn't say it wasn't." Sam kept a steadying hand on Steve's shoulder. "I can talk to him, if you need me to. Natasha would do it. Or we can get a pro down here. It doesn't have to be you."
"Yes it does," said Steve. "Can you—"
"I'll be here," Sam said.
Bucky looked up when Steve walked over. "Why the long face?" he said. He waggled his metal fingers at Steve. "This thing is nuts. It just feels like part of me. Did I lose the arm in the war?"
"I—no," said Steve. "I mean—maybe." It wasn't clear when or why Bucky'd had his left arm amputated. The earliest Winter Soldier files had dozens of gaps, and by the time they became coherent in the 1960s the metal arm was just there. They only knew Zola had built it because James had told them so. He'd shrugged when pressed for details.
"I don't know," said Steve.
Bucky's lips parted slightly, looking at him. His forehead wrinkled. Steve stood where he was, not knowing how to go on.
"Okay, Steve," Bucky said at last. He said it gently. As if Steve was the one who needed someone to be gentle. "Let's have that explanation."
When Steve didn't move he said, "Sit down, come on."
Steve sat. Fixed his eyes on the opposite wall. Took a breath and couldn't begin.
"I can see it's not pretty, Rogers," Bucky said. "It's okay. Tell me." His right hand came and settled over Steve's left. "Come on."
"You fell," said Steve. "On that mission in the Alps. You fell. Five hundred feet from a moving train into a glacier. No one could survive that." He curled his hand around Bucky's, remembering. "I couldn't catch you. I thought you were dead. I thought you were dead, Buck."
"Not your fault," said Bucky immediately. "I knew the risks."
"If you try to tell me you didn't sit around blaming yourself I won't believe you. Tell me someone talked some sense into you."
Steve hung onto Bucky's hand for dear life. If he started to laugh he thought he might also start to cry. "Peggy," he said. "Peggy did it."
"Good," said Bucky. "Then what happened? I don't feel dead. I wasn't dead, was I?"
"No," said Steve. "You—Zola's experiments, when you were captured—"
Bucky lowered his head. Steve couldn't see his face, but he could feel Bucky's grip tightening. "Got it," he said.
"I didn't know. Zola's information put us onto the Red Skull's real plans. He meant to drop Hydra bombs on major US cities. I got myself onto the plane by the skin of my teeth. Fought him—took him down. Then I had to put the plane in the ocean."
He could feel Bucky's hard look without turning his head. "With yourself still in it?" Bucky said.
"It was the only way," said Steve.
"What, the Red Skull didn't believe in parachutes?"
"I had to be sure," Steve said. "It was my choice."
Bucky subsided, but he muttered, "Don't think you've heard the last of this."
Steve let out his breath in a ghost of a laugh. "We won the war a few months later, but I was somewhere under the Arctic at the time. They didn't fish me up and thaw me out till a few years ago. Hell of a surprise all round when they figured out I still had a heartbeat."
"I'll bet it was," Bucky said. "Where was I when all this was happening? Frozen in a glacier?"
"No," said Steve. God, if only. "They—Hydra picked you up. They had you. You were a prisoner."
Bucky's grip on his hand tightened again. "I was afraid of that," he said. Steve risked a glance at him, but he didn't seem to be in danger of snapping from the shock. "But once the war ended—"
"No one knew you were alive, Buck," Steve said. "Hydra went into hiding and took their secrets with them."
Bucky bowed his head. "How long," he said quietly.
There was no sense in dragging it out. It wouldn't make the facts any better."Longer than I was in the ice," said Steve. "We found you a couple of years back. They hurt you, messed with your head. You didn't—when you saw me again, you didn't know me."
"God," said Bucky. "God, Steve, I'm sorry."
Steve was surprised into brief unhappy laughter. "You're the last person who should be sorry."
"I know you now, though, don't I?"
A reflection in a mirror in a dark room long ago, thought Steve. He'd never in his life been more tempted to lie.
"No," he said. "You—no. Not really."
There was quiet. Bucky didn't let go of Steve's hand. "Well," he said eventually. He squeezed Steve's hand once and released it. "I guessed it wasn't pretty and what do you know, it wasn't pretty."
"It's all right, Steve," Bucky said. "No, don't give me that look. You're here and I'm here so it could be worse. You've been sitting around blaming yourself, haven't you? But not everything that happens under the sun is your fault. Hydra did it." He paused. "They pay for it?"
"Oh yes," said Steve.
Bucky smiled a brief, hard smile. It was the first thing Steve had seen on his face that made him look like James. "Good."
Hill sent them all home eventually, though not before she'd cross-examined Steve and Sam separately about what had happened when James touched the staff. She tried to talk to Bucky about it too, but he didn't remember anything before waking up under the impression that he'd just been standing in the Alps about to zipline onto a train.
"So where's home?" Bucky said once they were out of the Tower.
"You've got your own place," said Steve. "I'll show you."
Bucky followed him willingly enough. He kept looking around as they walked through the city, first dubiously and then with some pleasure. "What?" said Steve.
"I feel like I fell into one of those World of Tomorrow magazines," Bucky said. "What are those gadgets everyone's playing with?"
"Cell phones," Steve said. "You've got one—check your pockets."
Bucky fished through his jacket pockets until he recovered James's phone. "What's it for?"
"Telephone you can carry around with you. Plus a radio and a camera," said Steve. "Bunch of other things, too."
Bucky started poking at it to see what he could get it to do. Steve kept taking glances at him. He looked solid in a way James never quite did. People's attention always slid away from James, or past him without seeing, as if he were only a shadow. It was something like the invisibility Natasha could summon up at will, but James wore it all the time.
Bucky, though, Bucky was there. He walked with a swagger and took up more space than James ever did. Steve watched him hold up the phone and take a picture of a street sign, poke it a few more times, toss it in the air and catch it again. He smiled wide at a girl walking past them, who smiled back, slightly surprised-looking, as if she hadn't expected herself to do it. And he was walking close enough to Steve that their arms bumped occasionally. He caught Steve's eye while Steve was sneaking a look at him and raised his eyebrows.
Steve shook his head, and Bucky snorted. "I got something on my face?"
"Didn't know how to tell you," said Steve after a second, "but it's really horrible. It's probably frightening the kids—"
"If you're talking about my nose, Rogers, I swear to God."
"I didn't say it," said Steve, and smirked at Bucky's unimpressed look.
They kept going. Bucky was reading the advertisements they passed now, mouthing words to himself and occasionally pulling baffled faces. "I'll probably get lost next time I try to come this way," he said. "Nothing looks familiar."
Steve shrugged. "It's still New York. They didn't move the streets. And there's a map in your phone if you need it."
"Is there anything not in my phone?"
"Well, Natasha's doubles as a grenade."
Bucky fumbled the phone and nearly dropped it. "Oh, very funny," he said sourly to Steve's best attempt at a mild look.
"No, really, it does," said Steve, covering another smirk, and got an elbow in the ribs for his trouble.
Steve left Bucky at James's apartment with instructions to call him if there was a problem. He supposed he ought to start thinking of it as Bucky's apartment again. It was a strange thought. He'd spent so long training his brain out of old habits. Now the man he'd known for the last few months might as well have never existed. He'd wiped himself out of the world as thoroughly as Hydra ever had. Steve had seen the determined look on James's face before he'd reached for the stone. He'd known what he was doing, all right. He'd done it on purpose.
It was gnawing at him, and he wasn't sure why.
He wasn't even halfway down the block when his phone started ringing. He answered and Bucky immediately said, "So you didn't mention that in the future I'm crazy."
"You're not—" Steve began.
"You ever been in here?" Bucky said.
Steve was already turning around. "You need me to come back?"
"Yeah," said Bucky. He sounded badly rattled. Steve shook his head hard as if he could shake the echo of Loki's voice out of it. "Please."
"On my way."
Steve took the stairs up to the apartment two at a time. Bucky was standing outside his own front door and eyeing it unhappily. "What's wrong?" said Steve.
Bucky looked at him and the corner of his mouth twisted. "Take a look."
The door swung open when Steve pushed it. Bucky followed him in, but he stayed just behind Steve, like he was letting Steve shield him from what was inside. Steve's first glance around, he couldn't see why—it wasn't a big place, and James apparently mostly hadn't bothered with furniture, but there was nothing that was obviously wrong.
Then he looked up.
The apartment was an open loft, modern style, kitchen and living space downstairs, bed up on a landing. The stuff on the walls started by the stairs. Steve could see newspaper clippings, computer print-outs, postcards. When he went closer one of the first things he spotted was the article about the Hydra base in Marseilles.
There was writing everywhere.
James had scrawled on the paper and on the walls in between in multiple languages. English and Russian predominated, neat cursive scribbled over with chicken-scratch Cyrillic characters, black ink and red. "You were hunting Hydra, Buck," said Steve, "it's what we do—"
Bucky shook his head. He was hovering near the front door like he didn't dare go any further. As soon as Steve was far up enough the stairs to see the walls around the bed, he understood why.
The clippings and printouts were pinned up floor to ceiling, so thick they were practically wallpaper. String run between drawing pins connected different patches of wall, criss-crossing the whole thing in a crazy spider's web. Between them and underneath them was more writing, most of it in Russian, letters wavering like the hand that wrote them had been shaking. Steve saw the grinning Hydra skull and tentacles in half a dozen places. Most of them were print-outs, but some of them had been drawn in and shaded black by a human hand. The bed, in the middle of it all, was a bare mattress on the floor. There were two guns on the floor beside it, and more in easy reach hanging on the nearest wall.
Once he'd seen them Steve saw, like a picture coming into focus, the random patterns of bullet holes that punctuated the mess pinned to the walls, the scatters of brick dust that lay everywhere. The heaviest concentration was directly opposite the bed. Scrawled right there in huge red letters, pockmarked by brick dust and written over a dozen different bits of paper as well the wall, was the word DISOBEY.
Steve looked around again, and now he was looking for it, it was everywhere. Disobey was written on the corners of postcards and in the white spaces of old museum flyers and across the faces of the people in newspaper photographs. It was tucked between the lines of printed-out Wikipedia articles and along the margins of pages torn from books. When James woke up here, no matter where he looked, he would have seen it.
Steve swallowed hard.
He recognized all the guns but one. He crouched down by the mattress to pick up the small pistol that James had never brought out in a fight. He emptied the magazine: one bullet.
A footstep behind him made him turn. Bucky was at the top of the stairs. Steve quickly put the pistol down and hid the bullet in his hand.
"I'm just wondering what exactly I was planning to tell the landlord," Bucky said. He nodded at the mess. There was a slightly hysterical edge to his voice. "Though if the landlord was the little guy who flattened himself against the wall when I passed him on the stairs earlier, I think I could tell him anything I liked and he'd just say 'please don't hurt me'."
"You're not—" like that. "You're not crazy."
"This look like the home of a sane person to you?" Bucky said. "Honestly?" He glanced around again. "I can't believe you let me have a gun. Christ," he went on, half talking to himself, "I can't believe you let me out without a straitjacket."
"Don't talk like that."
"Don't," said Steve, and he didn't know when he'd grabbed hold of Bucky's arm. "Don't talk like that about him."
Bucky didn't flinch, didn't pull away, didn't say a word. He just looked at him.
Steve was the one who had to look away. He let go of Bucky's arm.
Bucky said carefully, "Him?"
"I—I guess," said Steve. "He—you—asked me not to... not to act like he was you." He sighed. "This is really confusing, Buck."
"I'll say," said Bucky. He scrubbed his hand backward through his hair. "Look, I won't say a word. But I don't wanna stay here, Steve."
"There's room at my place," Steve said.
He looked around again at the wallpaper of Hydra activity, the scrawled Cyrillic writing, the bullet holes. Disobey. There wasn't so much as a pillow on the bare mattress.
He wished he'd known James was living like this. He would've...
He would've tried not to push, he supposed. But he didn't like the thought.
It was nice, having Bucky around at home. He seemed to like Steve's apartment. He laughed at the sheer amount of stuff that Steve had somehow acquired, messed around with every gadget till he'd figured out what they all did and broken the toaster, and got a little quiet when he found the framed page from a Captain America comic book from '43. Someone had given it to Steve a few months after he woke, trying to be nice. Steve remembered having the same reaction at the time. The yellowing page was so obviously old.
They spent the first couple of evenings on do you remember. Bucky didn't seem to mind, though he hadn't spent nearly as much time as Steve putting a shine on these ghosts. He contributed a few things Steve had forgotten—names he'd lost, jokes that had slipped his mind. Steve figured out he'd better avoid d'you remember-ing the war after the time Bucky gave him a look that was amused and dark at once and said, "Yeah, that was last week."
He looked like James, right then.
Steve didn't let himself think about it. If it had been unfair to hunt for Bucky in James, it was crazy looking for James in Bucky.
Anyway, he didn't seem to be on the verge of snapping. The keys to James's apartment stayed on the table by the door, untouched. There was nothing to go back for: the guns, maybe, but Bucky hadn't seemed to want them. They'd brought James's civilian clothes here with them. Bucky wore them mostly without comment, though he did sniff at the total lack of color. The clothes were dark gray, dark brown, the occasional dark khaki. Clothes to disappear in.
"I guess even black was too much like actually picking a color," Bucky said on the third morning, holding up a greenish-brownish long-sleeved shirt. He tossed it aside. "Christ, Steve, you know what, give me one of your t-shirts. I've spent too long in olive drab for one lifetime."
"Might not fit you," said Steve, chucking over a white t-shirt from the pile of clean laundry.
"It'll fit me fine," said Bucky, proving it by tugging it over his head. He came out the other side with his hair a mess, grinning at Steve. "It's you they don't fit. Might as well be painted on. Show-off."
"Hey, he says, but I'm not hearing a denial." Bucky shrugged his left shoulder hard—he did that a lot, and Steve was getting used to hearing the clicks and whirs of the metal arm recalibrating afterwards—and went and finger-combed his hair in front of the mirror. "So," he said without looking round, "I have a question."
"An important one," Bucky said. He turned around then. "And you have to tell me the truth."
Steve braced himself, trying to ignore the quiet dread rising. "Go on," he said. Bucky hadn't asked him anything much about the past. He hadn't said a word about what he'd seen in James's apartment since they closed the door behind them. Steve couldn't lie to him, wouldn't lie to him, but he didn't know what he'd do if Bucky asked a question and then couldn't bear the answer.
Bucky looked at him very solemnly and said, "Steve, do you ever actually go outside?"
"I mean, apart from when you're fighting evil," Bucky said. He wasn't trying to hide his smirk now.
"I go outside! I go running—"
"In the morning," Steve said. "You're usually asleep." Bucky had never been a morning person. Steve kind of enjoyed creeping past him just before dawn to slip out for his run.
"Right, in the morning," Bucky said. "Bright and early so there's less risk of having to talk to anyone, right?"
"Hey!" said Steve. "I met Sam when I was running."
"I'm proud of you," Bucky said. "When's the last time you went on a date?" Steve didn't say anything. Bucky's eyes widened slightly. "You're kidding, right—not right before I shipped off, that's just tragic—"
"No," said Steve. His social life wasn't quite that bad. It was close. He almost went to push his hair out of his eyes, and that was a nervous habit he'd lost ages ago. He didn't even wear his hair that way anymore. "It's been a while," he admitted. "I've been busy. Evil doesn't fight itself."
"You are one sad sack when I'm not around," said Bucky decisively. "And I'm not staying cooped up in here forever. This is still New York, isn't it? Gotta be something to do in a city this size. Let's go somewhere." He grinned at Steve. "You can show me the future."
The way it ended up, it was more like Bucky showing Steve the future.
After the Chitauri invasion Steve had finally faced up to it: he was never going back, and he had to find some kind of way to live. Systematic had seemed like the way to do it. He'd started with the big picture. It'd been long past time he took a real look at the country whose name he carried, and it had done him some good being out on the road alone, going where he wanted and stopping to breathe when he needed to. It was very different to being a performing monkey for the USO.
Along the way he'd gone to see the few old friends who were still alive, plucked up his courage and tracked down Peggy, and spent that Thanksgiving with four generations of Moritas. After that he'd bought books, taught himself how to use the Internet, started making his notebooks full of catch-up lists. He'd watched the movies, listened to the music, gotten his hair cut the way someone his age should wear it. Slowly, slowly, he'd started to feel like he knew what he was doing.
Bucky took one look at Steve's current notebook and then laughed for a good ten minutes. "Trust you to make this boring," he said. "Come on, let's just—"
Bucky's approach to exploring the twenty-first century turned out to consist of wandering around till something caught his eye and then going to have a look. The more bright lights and buttons to push something had, the more likely it was to draw his attention. Bucky'd always been crazy about technology: Steve had half-forgotten—how?—the teetering piles of science magazines and cheap sci-fi novels he'd kept under his bed as a kid. And the science fairs, god, and the books he'd brought home from the library and never shut up about. After the second time Steve got bored standing around in an electronics shop while Bucky had a look at everything, he decided enough was enough did some research online.
The next day they went to the science museum. Steve let Bucky take the lead exploring. He found he couldn't stop smiling. Somehow just watching Bucky's face light up when he found out about something like the moon landing made the whole world look sharper and brighter. After that Steve started leaving his notebooks at home. Never mind what he ought to know. How many people got a chance to see the future like this?
It was much easier to like the twenty-first century when trying to think which bits of it to show Bucky next. They made a rule never to eat the same kind of food twice, and managed to go eight days before they did a repeat—Vietnamese, which Bucky liked so much he couldn't resist going back for more. Bucky was delighted by just about everything. About the only thing he couldn't get on with was the music. "What is this crap?"
They were in a pizza place. Steve listened for a second. "Elvis Costello," he said.
"It's just noise."
The waitress overheard him. "You sound like my grandma," she said.
Bucky's face was a picture. Steve laughed about it for the rest of the day.
Neither of them brought up James's apartment, or Hydra, or the decades Bucky was missing. James's keys lay where Bucky had left them, gathering dust. He seemed to have forgotten about them.
He was happy, as far as Steve could tell. He liked this world. Maybe he wasn't all sunshine all the time, but Steve remembered the mess he'd been after waking up and finding the war he'd been fighting had been over for decades, and Bucky was handling things a hell of a lot better than that. Sure, he had a few black moods, and the same kinds of nightmares Steve got, plus some he wouldn't talk about beyond a muttered, "Zola." But he didn't seem to be brooding on the in-between, the years he couldn't remember. He didn't ask the questions Steve was most afraid of. He hadn't shown any signs of snapping, either. It looked like the projection's warning had just been Loki trying to screw with Steve's head, which was a relief.
It was two weeks before Hill called Steve into Superhuman Resources again. It was maybe the best two weeks of Steve's life.
"Am I invited?" said Bucky when Steve got the call.
Steve nodded. "James was—You were working for..." the thing which Tony Stark was funding which didn't exactly have a name, though Steve still thought of it as the Avengers Initiative, "well, with me, but you don't have to do that anymore if you don't want to. War's over."
"Hydra's still out there, though."
"Doesn't have to be your fight."
"Does if it's yours." Bucky stretched and sighed. "And fun's fun and all, but I'd feel like a lazy bum if we kept doing this forever. Especially if you're off fighting bad guys without me."
"It's been fun, though," said Steve.
"Yeah." Bucky looked pensive for a moment. The expression sat oddly on his face. "We really never did any of this before, huh."
Steve didn't answer. Didn't need to.
"Was he," Bucky hesitated. "Was he anything like me? At all?"
"Sometimes," said Steve eventually. "A little."
"I'm benching your team," said Hill.
Steve saw the way her eyes skimmed over Bucky as she said it. "With respect," he began immediately.
"With respect," Steve repeated, "ma'am, I don't see why that's necessary." He knew without looking that Sam had folded his arms and nodded, backing him up. Benching them was crazy. If Superhuman Resources had a problem, it was that none of the original Avengers were exactly team players. Steve knew damn well that his four-man team was Hill's most reliable spec ops squad. Hydra was out there, AIM had gone suspiciously quiet, and he knew of at least three major operations coming up they'd be needed for—
"You only ma'am me when you're pissed off," said Hill. "Did you know?"
"Maria—" said Steve.
"Look," said Hill, "you think this is ideal? It's not ideal. Hydra is splintering and it's making them more dangerous, not less. We keep hearing reports I don't like the sound of about the twins, whoever they are, AIM you know about, we've got these RAID people to worry about now too. Thor's a nervous wreck—all right, that's unfair, Thor's in mourning, the point is he's not reliable—Dr Banner is emergencies only, Tony is Tony, Hawkeye is in Europe." She shrugged. "There's War Machine, but technically he doesn't work for me. You guys are my best. You think I want you grounded? I don't. Just for starters I have a briefing ready to go regarding what we're going to do with that staff. It needs to be moved from its current location and you're the ones I trust with it. But I'm not sending you out there short-handed, and I'm not sending you out there compromised."
"Yes, compromised," said Hill. "You care about your people, Steve. It's what makes you a good commander. And you just lost one of your people."
Steve didn't say anything.
He hadn't been thinking about it. Hadn't let himself think about it.
"I think we need to assume that whatever happened when James—Bucky—touched that stone is permanent," Hill said. Her voice was uncharacteristically gentle. "Moving the staff can wait. We can still use the Black Widow for covert ops. I'm telling you to take some time."
In the quiet that followed, Bucky shifted uncomfortably and then spoke up. "I can still do my job, ma'am," he said.
Hill pushed her hair out of her eyes and sighed. "Mr.—Sergeant Barnes. I don't know you," she said. "I do know that you've never used that prosthetic arm in a fight and the rifles you're used to are all antiques. If you want James's job, and if Steve vouches for you—we can probably use you. You'd need to be field certified again first."
Bucky lifted his chin. "Just try me."
Natasha put her elbows on the table, rested her chin on her hands, and said, "Not a bad idea." She glanced at Steve and smiled a brief sharp smile, and then she met Bucky's eyes. "Either you need to relearn your body—the sooner the better—or you don't. Easiest way to know would be to test it."
Hill had a meeting to go to, so it was just the four of them in the practice rooms. Bucky seemed taken aback when it was Natasha who took to the practice mats against him. He glanced over his shoulder at Steve. Steve put on a neutral expression. Bucky shook his head and turned back to Natasha. "You sure about this?" he said. "I don't wanna hurt you."
Natasha smirked. She did look very small opposite him. "I promise not to hurt you either," she said.
Sam had a minor coughing fit. Steve had to slap him on the back a few times.
Bucky gave them another dubious look. "Well, all right," he said. "Whenever you're—"
She took Bucky completely off-guard. He went straight down onto the mats with Natasha's hands snaking down to strike at pressure points, and only just managed to twist out of the way and get back on his feet. There was a careful, considering look on his face as he and Natasha circled each other again. Steve watched, as detached as he could ever be with these two. His mind slipped into the necessary calm of professional assessment, where his friends' bodies were only forms moving in space. In this frame of mind he could see attacks made and gaps yielded almost before they happened: advance and retreat, forward and back, spaces appearing and disappearing between them. Without Steve having to think about it his mind predicted the rare open instants where the shield well-aimed could disable them both.
It was easy to make comparisons this way.
Even after James had stopped behaving like a killing machine, he still fought like one. No one ever said the name, but they all knew it was the Winter Soldier who was in the field with them on missions, the unstoppable weapon, the shadow man, like something out of nightmares.
Bucky's fighting style was a mixture of army training and street brawling; he was quick on his feet, good with his fists, not afraid to fight dirty. He was good. He had been the best hand-to-hand fighter in the Howling Commandos. But it had never been clearer that he wasn't James.
He wasn't using his superior strength particularly well—Steve didn't think he was really aware of how much stronger he was than he had been in 1944. He wasn't anywhere close to James's normal speed either. He fought like a soldier, but not like the Soldier. Sam was frowning as he watched. Natasha kept circling him, aiming occasional flurries of blows and kicks, doing her own assessment. Bucky was keeping up with her for now, and the suspicious look on his face said he knew she was going easy, but Steve doubted he realized just how easy.
When she came in with a lunge at Bucky's left side he blocked it—a ringing noise, Natasha's boot hitting metal—and ducked away. He ignored the tempting opening for a counterattack she was dangling in front of him. Smart. Steve didn't think the metal arm was bothering him, but he was using it as if it were just a normal human arm. He didn't have James's knowledge of the bizarre not-quite-human movements it could make, the force it could exert, the amount of punishment it could endure. James could beat Natasha in an even hand-to-hand spar. Steve doubted Bucky could.
The match went on for another few minutes in the same holding pattern. Bucky wasn't doing badly, but you had to be better than 'not bad' to handle the Black Widow. Steve knew the moment Natasha decided to finish it—not from her face, which was expressionless, but from the very slight adjustment in her balance that he only spotted because he'd fought beside her so often. Bucky got no warning. Natasha picked a moment when he was already slightly off-balance from blocking a feint to his right side and simply doubled her speed. Next to Steve, Sam winced.
Natasha's face remained expressionless. Bucky fell back before the assault, only barely managing to fend her off. There were no openings to attack now. Bucky's eyes were wide: now he realized how easy she'd been going—he didn't stand a chance—
Steve saw the tackle coming but Bucky didn't. This time when he went down to the mat she was on him immediately, thighs around his throat in what Steve knew from experience was a hell of a chokehold.
He'd seen enough. Bucky wasn't ready to be back in the field, not yet.
He opened his mouth to stop the match—
He only got the first syllable out.
Bucky rolled over and slammed Natasha down. His left arm came up and sharply backwards to break her thighs' grip around his throat, one of those strange mechanical movements that were hard to predict and actively uncomfortable to watch. Natasha grunted in pain and rolled away just in time. Bucky threw himself back to his feet and lunged for her almost too fast for the eye to follow. Steve tensed. If there was a problem—
Natasha was no longer in control. It wasn't just that he was stronger and faster; it was that he didn't ever hesitate, didn't make mistakes, didn't stop. Steve saw her eyes widen very slightly—the closest Natasha ever came to having a tell—and he called out, "Stop!"
Bucky didn't stop. He didn't react at all. Sam hissed out a breath between his teeth and glanced at Steve, clearly waiting for an order to step in. Natasha blocked, ducked under the metal arm, twisted in a smooth pivot that ended with a kick straight into Bucky's face.
There was a crack; breaking nose.
He hadn't even tried to dodge it.
He kept coming.
The two of them weren't on the mats anymore. Natasha was being forced back against the wall. Steve didn't consciously decide to run forward. He was just there, reaching out open-handed to grab Bucky and drag him back. Bucky instantly turned and lashed out with his metal fist. His other hand dropped his hand to his belt for a knife—
—that wasn't there.
He stopped. He didn't just stop; he froze. He and Steve stared at each other. Blood was streaming from Bucky's nose.
The whole thing had taken twenty seconds, tops.
Behind Bucky, Natasha straightened up carefully from her defensive crouch. Sam moved to her side, circling wide around Bucky and Steve. Bucky's head turned, watching him move. Steve could see white all the way around his eyes.
"Buck?" he said.
Bucky swallowed hard. "Sorry. God, I'm sorry," he said to Natasha. His voice was stuffed up from the broken nose. "I don't know what—are you all right?"
Natasha relaxed slightly. Not all the way. "Fine," she said.
"Are you all right?" said Sam. "That looked a little intense."
"I just—I dunno what—" Bucky looked at his hands as if they belonged to someone else. "What was that?"
"Muscle memory," said Natasha. She met Steve's eyes. He nodded.
"You're bleeding, Buck," he said.
Bucky touched his nose carefully and winced. "You've gone and ruined my good looks," he said. His voice didn't come out as steady as he probably wanted it. Natasha shrugged. "I think I deserved it," Bucky added, and he definitely sounded shaky now. "Wasn't expecting you behind me—" this to Steve "—but I—what was I—" he looked down at his hands again.
"You were going for a knife," said Steve.
Bucky made an unreadable face and then winced again. His nose had to hurt. "I usually have a knife?"
"You usually have six or seven, man," said Sam. "That we can see."
"That you can see," said Natasha. "I've never managed a definite count, but James carries at least a dozen."
"What, in case there's a shortage?" Bucky said. He avoided everyone's eyes as he added, "Don't answer that."
"I think," said Steve, "we'd better save the firing range for another day."
Natasha went to speak to Hill. Sam took a look at Bucky's flat expression and Steve's worried one and asked a question with his eyes. Steve shook his head very slightly, which was enough for Sam to jog after Natasha, leaving them alone. "Come on," Steve said. "Someone'd better look at that nose."
"Okay," Bucky said. He'd gone from shaken to grim. He didn't say a word to Steve in the elevator down to Medical on the twelfth floor.
Steve knew everyone in Medical and everyone knew him, but it was lunchtime. He couldn't see anyone except Dr Patel, who tended to spend her breaks doing paperwork. She looked up with a smile when they came in. "Cap!" she said. "What did you do to yourself now—oh."
It struck Steve a moment later than it should have that James had never set foot in here. The rare occasions when he did pick up injuries on missions were the ones where he was most likely to disappear immediately after the op was done, even before debriefing.
"Mr. Barnes," said Dr Patel, recovering quickly. She stood up. She was probably assuming the worst. "Did Loki's staff—"
She knew about that, then—well, she would. Bucky lurked behind Steve and didn't say anything. His nose wasn't bleeding anymore, but it looked a mess. "Nothing like that," said Steve. "He, uh, overdid it up in the practice rooms. Nothing serious, but we're all worried about his pretty face."
Dr Patel looked relieved. She quickly took her cue from Steve's tone. "We can sort that out," she said cheerfully. "You just come over here and let me have a look—"
Steve stood back and let her take over. Whether it was luck or medical expertise he didn't know, but she'd struck exactly the right tone for handling Bucky in a dark mood, something halfway between motherly and flirtatious. He could see Bucky relaxing under it. After a moment he even smiled and started flirting back. Steve settled onto one of the chairs and leaned back, closing his eyes for a second, grateful for the chance to think.
He'd been almost as shaken as Bucky by what had happened in the practice rooms. It had looked like—for a second he'd thought—
But no. Just muscle memory. James's ghost in Bucky's body.
Steve shivered and opened his eyes.
It was definitely Bucky sitting on the examination table and grinning at Dr Patel as she sponged the blood off his face. She was laughing at something he'd said. She seemed totally charmed. Steve had come in here to have a broken nose set quite a few times—he healed fast but he didn't always heal right, one time they'd had to break it again to get it back to the original shape—and he knew how bad it could hurt, but Bucky didn't make a fuss when she got to work. He sat still under her hands, hissed a few times in pain, and once cursed under his breath and then quickly apologized, looking embarrassed. Steve hid a grin. Bucky'd always had a dirty mouth.
"Now, I'm afraid I don't know quite how fast that'll heal," said Dr Patel when she was done. "Faster than average, not as fast as Cap, would be my guess. I could take a look at your file?"
"Be my guest, Doc," Bucky said, sounding about as stuffed up as you'd expect. He rolled his eyes at Steve's snort. Dr Patel went off to look for the file. Bucky slumped a little when she was gone.
"Buck?" said Steve.
Bucky shook his head. Softly, he said, "Feels real strange having someone else inside your skin." He looked at Steve. "That was him, wasn't it? The other me."
"Looked like it," said Steve.
"I didn't think at all," Bucky said. "If I'd been thinking I couldn't have—but I just did it. A dozen knives, she said. How many of those guns from his place did he keep on him?"
"Most of them," said Steve, determinedly not thinking about the little pistol on the floor by the mattress and its single bullet.
"What's he so afraid of?" Bucky answered his own question before Steve could do it: "Hydra, I guess. But—"
Dr Patel came back in carrying the file. It was pretty thick, Steve thought absently, considering that James had never been in here—
The doctor paused in the doorway as she was looking through the file. Her forehead creased and she swallowed, mouth very flat and tight. Steve recognized the look. He suddenly knew which file it was, had to be. It was the closest thing they had to medical records for James. And he'd worn that look himself, the first time he read those pages.
Bucky looked up and said, "Something wrong, Doc?"
"N—no, not at all," said Dr Patel. "Just—checking. I think we're all done here. You should be fine in no time—"
Bucky frowned and stood up. "What is it?" When she didn't answer he said, "Doc, what's—is something wrong with me?"
"Bucky—" said Steve.
"Nothing is wrong with you," Dr Patel said firmly, and snapped the file closed.
Bucky didn't look reassured. "Give me that," he said. When the doctor didn't move he snatched the file out of her hands. Steve made an abortive move towards him—to stop him, maybe, he didn't know. Dr Patel had flinched all over when the Winter Soldier lunged at her.
Bucky was already walking away. He hopped up on the table, legs swinging, and flipped the file open.
Steve knew the opening page he was looking at. He could see it in his head. The first sentence began The Hydra assassin codenamed Winter Soldier, born James Buchanan Barnes, 1917, is credited with over 50 kills between 1951 and 2014...
He knew it was coming and yet it still hurt to watch Bucky's expression change. He'd half-forgotten, over all these months of James's cool blank quiet, how easy it had sometimes been to tell exactly what Bucky was thinking.
Steve saw him mouth the words soundlessly. Winter Soldier. He looked up, looking for Steve, eyes very wide, and Steve couldn't say a word.
He could see now what he'd done, the lie he'd told without meaning to. He'd said prisoner. He'd said they hurt you, messed with your head. But he hadn't talked about the killing. He'd never said the name. He hadn't lied. He'd told the truth as he saw it, and he'd swear before God and the nation that it was all the truth that mattered, but—he'd known, hadn't he. He'd known Bucky wouldn't see it that way.
"Bucky," he managed at last.
Bucky shook his head, once, and looked back at the file. He was very pale. His lips moved but he didn't say anything. He turned a page, and then another, and then he was flipping through it faster and faster, and Steve felt like he was back on ice, blood frozen in his veins. Bucky stopped on a page near the end.
The Project Insight report, Steve thought. The photographs.
He finally remembered how to move. He walked closer to Bucky and reached for the file. It took Bucky a second or two to let it go, but then he looked up, and he saw Steve, and his hands went slack. "Doctor," Steve said, without looking round. He put the file to one side. "Can you give us a moment."
He heard the door closing, but he couldn't look away from Bucky's face.
"I'm sorry," said Steve, and then stopped, not knowing how to go on.
Bucky just kept looking at him.
At last his eyes narrowed. "I thought it was just that he was crazy," he said. "I thought that's what you didn't want to talk about."
"He's not—he wasn't crazy," Steve said.
"Sure," said Bucky. "Just a murderer and a traitor."
Steve stiffened. "He wasn't either of those either."
"Are you fucking kidding me," Bucky bit out. "Are you crazy, because it seems pretty fucking clear to me!"
"He went over to Hydra and he killed people for them," Bucky said. "For years. For decades. It says in there he assassinated a president, that true?" A red flush of anger was appearing across the tops of his cheekbones. Steve could see his pulse jumping in his throat. "Case fucking closed, Steve! It's not a secret, is it? Your friends know, everyone knows, the doctor knows. I could ask anyone in this building, I bet, and they'd tell me what kind of guy I ended up—what kind of guy you've got at your back now—so that's what that was in the practice rooms, was it? That's how Hydra's killer fights?" He looked sick. "He was mad, he was a murderer, he betrayed his country—"
"He never had a choice!" yelled Steve, and his voice cracked on it. He hadn't meant to shout it, not right in Bucky's face. Bucky flinched back. "They never gave him a choice—not for a moment—they tortured him and they used him, they sent him out like he was a, a thing, they hurt him—"
Bucky stared at him. "You do think he's me," he whispered.
"You think he's me," Bucky said. He stood up, hands in fists at his sides. Steve didn't back down. "You give him all these breaks, you won't let anyone say a word against him, when it's obvious what he is, when you know what he's done, but you're dumb, you're so fucking dumb and you think he's me—"
"Is he?" said Bucky over him. "Is he me?" He swallowed. He looked like he was about to cry. "Did I do all that?"
"No," said Steve. "No, Buck."
"How can you be sure?"
Bucky saw it and leapt on it. "You're not sure," he said. "You're not sure at all." He grabbed Steve's shirt collar in his metal hand and glared. "So that's what you think of me, is it? You think I'd turn? You think I'd kill for the Nazis? I'd die first." His hand tightened in Steve's collar. "I'd rather be dead, Steve, get it?"
It was only on the last syllable that his voice broke.
Steve very carefully put his hand over Bucky's metal wrist. It felt the way it always did; tense or relaxed, metal was metal. Bucky looked down at Steve's hand and back at Steve's face, and his expression was pleading.
Steve chose his words carefully. He didn't want to lie.
"Bucky, it doesn't—it's over now, right? It's done. He's gone." Gone for good, like Hill had said. Steve tried not to think about it. He tightened his grip on Bucky's wrist. "It doesn't matter."
Bucky avoided his eyes. After a moment he said, "You really think we're not the same?"
"I do," said Steve.
"Then tell me one thing he's done that I wouldn't do."
Steve said the first thing he thought of. "He kissed me one time."
Bucky went very still. When he looked up there was a wild look in his eyes.
"Well, that doesn't prove anything," he said, and that was all the warning Steve had before Bucky's mouth was on his.
It wasn't anything like the dry deliberate careful brush of James's lips. There wasn't anything careful about it at all. Bucky kissed hard, mouth open. His hand was so tightly twisted up in Steve's shirt the collar began to tear, and when the force of it made Steve stumble back Bucky went with him. His mouth slipped away from Steve's to his cheek and jaw, and then came back again just as desperate as before.
Steve didn't know what to do. He'd had half-formed ideas of what—if James had ever kissed him again, he'd thought he'd—but this was Bucky, and—he put both hands on Bucky's shoulders and shoved him back.
They stared at each other. Bucky's breathing was coming fast. Abruptly he turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
Steve knew him well enough not to follow.
He took a moment to get his head straight before he went and knocked on the door of Dr Patel's office. He apologized to her. She apologized back. "I didn't expect him to—"
"It's Bucky," said Steve.
He gave her back the file. He didn't want to leave it lying around where anyone could see it.
Then he went home.
James's keys were missing from the table by the door.
Bucky had taken his clothes as well, Steve discovered. And two or three shirts that were technically Steve's. He felt a kind of relief when he saw that. Taking the keys was a message too. It wasn't like Bucky couldn't break into James's place if he felt like it. He was angry, but he'd let Steve know where he was going.
After a bit of thought, Steve sent a text message. All right?
His phone beeped almost immediately. fine.
mind if I join you, Steve sent.
It was strange how empty his apartment seemed without Bucky in it. He'd been living alone for ages before this.
Steve left it a day or so, because he knew from long experience that Bucky in a certain kind of black mood didn't appreciate being hovered over. It had never happened often, but when Bucky did lose his temper, or when something really got to him, it could take days for him to settle down enough that he was willing even to talk to Steve beyond a curt, "Leave it alone." Steve had sometimes thought he almost enjoyed stewing.
He didn't feel he justly could leave this alone for too long, though. He didn't like thinking of Bucky there in James's apartment, sleeping on that bare mattress, with disobey glaring down at him from every wall. He couldn't imagine it was helping. He went over the next evening, pretty sure he was going to get shouted at some more, pretty sure he deserved it.
Bucky opened the door when he knocked, and sighed. "I shoulda known," he said. "Don't look at me like that. You can come in."
James had exactly one chair. Bucky dragged it over, and Steve sat on the stairs. "You okay?" he said.
Bucky glowered at him, then slumped and passed a hand over his face. "No," he admitted. He nodded at the mess on the wall that started behind Steve's head. "Been reading. The stuff that's in English, anyway."
"Never thought you'd lie to me," Bucky said.
"I didn't," said Steve, and then corrected himself. "I didn't mean to."
Bucky looked at him. "No, you didn't, did you," he said.
There was quiet for a moment. The people in the apartment below were playing music. Steve could hear it floating up tinnily through the floor.
"Well?" said Bucky eventually.
"You gotta understand, Buck," said Steve. "He's—what you said about him, it's not true. It's not like you think."
"He didn't murder dozens of people on Hydra's say-so?" Bucky said, and then, "Christ, Steve, don't get angry with me. If it wasn't like that no one'd be gladder to hear it."
"They tortured him for seventy years," Steve said. "They sent him to kill me, and he knew what they'd do to him if he failed, and instead he saved my life. He turned on them, you get it? After everything they'd done to him. He's—he was one of the bravest men I ever—" he stopped. Breathed. "I won't hear a word against him, Bucky, I won't. What he did, they forced him to do. No one forced him to fight back."
"That how you see it?"
"That's how it is."
Bucky looked away. In the quiet the music coming up from the apartment below changed, picked up the tempo.
"What kind of name is Winter Soldier, anyway?" he said at last.
"He never picked that," Steve said. "He asked us to call him James." Bucky hissed. "Not because—he didn't try to pretend he was you. He didn't want to make things harder for me. He said that. But Buck, he didn't remember ever having a name. They called him the asset." He swallowed. "God, I—just look at this place!" He jerked his head back at it, all of it, the papers, the writing, the bullet holes, disobey. "Can't you see how much he hated them?"
"Yeah, Steve," Bucky said at last. "I can see."
He slumped and sighed and rubbed his eyes with his flesh hand. When he looked up he seemed calmer. Steve didn't feel calm at all. Bucky knew, of course. He shook his head, stood up, came and sat down next to Steve on the stairs. After a moment he put an arm around Steve's shoulders. "Take it easy," he said. "Don't like to see you looking like that."
"Sorry," said Steve, looking down at the floor.
They sat like that for a while. The music from the apartment below changed a couple more times.
"Even if—even if it hadn't been you," Steve said at last, mostly to his feet, "I'd say the same. I'd say the same. No matter who they'd done it to. He was a hero."
Bucky breathed out long and slow. The arm over Steve's shoulders tightened. "Was he me?" Bucky said. "Honestly."
"He didn't think so."
"Not what I asked."
Steve said, "I don't know." After a moment he admitted, "I didn't know him well enough to know."
He turned his head and met Bucky's eyes. Tried to smile.
Bucky was startled into a laugh. "God, Steve, that's about the worst look I've ever seen on your face."
"Sorry," said Steve, but he was smiling crookedly after all, just from hearing Bucky's laugh.
"He's got my handwriting, you know," Bucky said. "The English, at least."
"Yeah," said Steve. He hadn't known that, till he'd seen this place. "Muscle memory, I guess."
"I fight like him and he writes like me?"
Bucky nodded, like Steve had confirmed something important. Downstairs, the tinny music kept playing.
Bucky consented to come back to Steve's apartment to sleep on the couch cushions that night. He still wasn't happy. Steve could see the dark mood like it was a physical thing hovering over him. But at least he wasn't stewing over it all alone.
They hadn't talked about the kissing. Steve didn't even realize until he was halfway to asleep that he hadn't brought it up. He'd meant to. Hadn't had a plan, exactly, but when did he ever. It seemed like something they ought to talk about. He rolled over onto his back, eyes open. Maybe more than just talk. If Bucky wanted.
But he hadn't said a word, had he? He'd acted like it hadn't happened. If it didn't prove anything—if he had wanted something from Steve, back then—
James hadn't said a word either.
Steve stared at the ceiling in the darkness.
He found he was thinking about James, the way he hadn't let himself since Bucky woke up after touching the staff. He truly hadn't known James all that well. James hadn't let him. Hadn't wanted him to. Hadn't wanted anyone near him, ever—
—the way Bucky went, when he was miserable, when he was angry: a snarled leave it alone for leave me alone, or a straight I don't want to talk about it when a girl he liked had had enough of him or one of Steve's constant illnesses had shaken him up worse than usual. He'd stew in it for days, for weeks—but he always cheered up again, didn't he? Maybe a little brittle and self-conscious at first, but Steve'd known him forever and he knew if you waited it out Bucky came around. And after all nothing back then had ever really been that bad, had it.
He had to correct the thought: one thing had been that bad. After his stint as a Hydra's prisoner Bucky had been grim and quiet for a long time. It'd been a long time before he'd really come back to himself, months before he'd started cracking jokes again—
I do remember you, James had said, the night Natasha made him laugh with a joke in Russian. Sleeping on that bare mattress with his message to himself written up everywhere in Bucky's handwriting. Disobey. A gun in reach with one bullet in it. I'd sooner be dead, get it. And the grim look on James's face right before he'd reached for the stone—
Steve felt for a moment like there was a fist curled around his heart and squeezing tight.
He shouldn't have left James alone with it. He should have pushed.
They went back into the Tower a couple of days later. Sam and Natasha weren't there: Steve and Hill were the ones there to watch as Bucky demonstrated expert competence with a dozen different firearms he'd never seen before. The only times he hesitated were when he looked down at what his hands were doing.
"He's good enough," said Hill. "I'll be in touch." She hesitated like she was going to say something else before she left, but whatever it was, she seemed to think better of it.
"Well, that was fun," Bucky muttered afterwards. "Christ."
"Let's go out," said Steve impulsively. They hadn't left the apartment since Bucky had seen his file.
"We can get food," Steve said. "Vietnamese, you liked that."
Bucky shrugged his left shoulder, resettling the plates of the metal arm. "Okay," he said, without enthusiasm. "If you want."
It wasn't much, but Steve could work with it. They went for pho, and then they ducked into a bar that was showing the baseball on TV, and by the time Bucky was onto his second beer he'd relaxed enough to start up a conversation with a group of girls who came in all dressed up like it was still the old days, with their hair in victory rolls. Bucky laughed a little incredulously when he saw them, and he kept catching Steve's eye again as they talked, but the girls were good-looking and friendly and Steve could see him starting to enjoy himself. A bit of Bucky's charm and sweet talk got them invited along to a club the girls knew. It turned out to be playing the old tunes that Bucky actually liked, and some of the girls knew how to dance. Steve guessed that explained the outfits. The whole thing was silly as hell, but not in a bad way. Bucky got a kick out of being one of maybe three guys in the place who could actually dance, and Steve got a kick out of watching him show off.
He couldn't imagine James doing this. Smiling, dancing, flirting with strangers. Forgetting to be unhappy. Any of it. Did that mean this was better?
The girls waved goodbye to them at the end of the evening with some cheerful chatter about doing it again. "Thanks," Bucky said, as they stumbled back into Steve's front room. "I needed that."
"Any time," said Steve. He'd needed it too. "Coffee?" He was already making some for himself.
Bucky laughed. "Yeah, please. You're not a bad date, Rogers."
"Like to think I've improved," said Steve. And—hell, there, that was the moment, wasn't it? He turned around to catch Bucky's eye. "Want to do it again sometime?"
Bucky laughed again, uncomfortably. "You sound like—"
"I am," said Steve. "I'm asking."
Bucky stared at him.
"You did kiss me," Steve reminded him.
"Thought we weren't talking about that."
"Guess we are now." He tried a smile. "Put me out of my misery here. I'm asking. How about it?"
"You sure know how to spring things on a guy," Bucky said weakly.
Steve didn't dignify that with an answer. He wasn't the one who went around kissing people out of nowhere. But Bucky just kept staring at him and didn't say anything else.
"Don't worry about it," Steve said at last, when it became obvious that Bucky was stuck for anything else to say. "Here." He handed Bucky his coffee and tried not to think about the curl of disappointment inside of him.
Bucky closed both his hands around the mug and looked down into it like it was something strange.
"Goddammit," he said abruptly. "I'm not scared if you're not."
Steve's heart leapt. "I'm not scared," he said.
He wasn't afraid at all. He felt the same way he felt when he was about to jump out of an airplane: light in his stomach, heart pounding in his chest, ready for anything. He grinned at Bucky, knowing Bucky would get it. Bucky started to grin back. He put the coffee down on the counter and lifted his eyebrows at Steve: a challenge.
Steve crossed the room in two steps and kissed him.
Bucky laughed, startled, into his mouth. He got a handful of Steve's jacket and pulled him in close. He smelled like Steve's soap that he'd been borrowing, and under that like himself, and there was a faint prickle of stubble on his jaw, and it could have been anytime, Steve thought, anytime in their whole long lives; it could have been '44, or '41 before Bucky shipped off, or all the way back in '38, or maybe even earlier. Bucky leaned back and Steve didn't get what he was doing until he'd pushed himself up onto the kitchen counter, not breaking the kiss once. Steve followed his mouth up and back. Now he was craning his neck a little, now Bucky was taller than him, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to be up on his toes to get both hands into Bucky's thick dark hair and kiss him harder. Bucky kept grinning into it, irrepressible, and Steve knew why, felt like doing the same. It'd been a long time since the decades on his shoulders had weighed so little.
Bucky urged Steve to lift his arms, pulled his shirt off over his head. "Well, would you look at that," he said.
Steve snickered. "Nothing you haven't seen before."
"Shut up," Bucky said, but there was no sting in it. He was smiling, eyes crinkled at the corners, as he chucked Steve's shirt down on the counter next to the forgotten coffee. Steve hooked both arms around his neck and pulled him back down for another kiss. Bucky's hands slid down his bare back and—
Steve startled, just for a second. Bucky's metal hand was cold against his skin. He'd forgotten about the prosthetic arm. In his head it belonged to James.
Bucky caught on, of course. He paused and lifted his hand away. "Sorry," he said. "I can't—sometimes I almost forget it's there, and the rest of the time..." He made a face. "I can't get used to it."
He slipped down off the kitchen counter as he spoke. Now he was an inch or two shorter than Steve again. "It's okay," Steve said, but Bucky was all folded in on himself, head tucked down and arms crossed. The moment was gone; time was heavy again. "Buck?"
Bucky gave him a rueful smile, little twist to the corner of his mouth. "Sorry."
Steve's eyes were drawn to his right hand, which was rubbing and rubbing the metal of his arm. He reached out without thinking to stop it. Bucky's fingers stilled under his touch. Steve could feel how tense he was.
"It's okay," he said again.
Bucky looked down at himself, at the metal emerging from the left sleeve of his shirt—Steve's shirt, that he was wearing. He shrugged his left shoulder hard, making all the plates resettle. "Guess he must've been used to it."
"You'll get the hang of it," said Steve.
"Not just the arm," Bucky said, but didn't explain, just grimaced and pushed himself away from the kitchen counter, away from Steve altogether. Steve's body turned without his say-so, trying to follow him. He had to hold himself back. He felt awkward in his skin in a way he hadn't in a long time. He picked up his shirt, thinking maybe he ought to put it back on.
"Think I'll hit the hay," Bucky said without looking at him.
Steve didn't say anything, but Bucky must have somehow heard him not saying anything, or maybe heard him thinking, because he turned around. When he saw Steve stuck standing there with his hands full of his shirt, his eyes went soft.
"I—that's a yes," he said. "We'll do it again sometime. Yes."
"Yeah?" said Steve hoarsely, gripping the fabric tight.
Bucky gave him a flash of a smile. "Yeah. Just gimme a break. Rain check. I need to think."
"All sorts of things," Bucky said. He hesitated for a second. Then he came back over to Steve. He put his good hand on Steve's bare shoulder and gave him a quick dry kiss on the lips. It was over almost as soon as it began. "Don't look so worried," he said. "I mean it. Worrying's my job."
Steve was surprised into laughter. "So it is," he said. "Guess I forgot."
Bucky was sacked out on the couch cushions when Steve went to bed, but he must've got up again later. Steve could hear him moving around in the next room for a long time, and the thin line of light under the door flicked on and off.
Steve didn't sleep either. His mind kept going in circles, wondering what Bucky was worrying about—there were so many options—and then going back over the kitchen. He kept thinking of the heat of Bucky's mouth, the smile crinkling up the corners of his eyes—
He only knew he'd drifted off to sleep when he woke again, slowly, half dreaming at first. Bucky's voice was rising and falling as he talked softly from somewhere off to Steve's left. It was so familiar that for a few drifting moments Steve forgot where he was and thought it was still '38 in Brooklyn. There had been plenty of long illnesses where Bucky had sat by Steve's bed and talked himself hoarse just like this, the sound of his voice filtering through fever dreams in a comfortingly senseless hum.
Words faded into his consciousness eventually. "—could see me now," he heard. "Maybe I should've just asked you for a date when we were sixteen."
Steve's hair was stroked back from his face by a careful hand. Felt nice. He tried to say so and it came out as a mumble.
"You awake?" Bucky said.
"Mmm," Steve said, not opening his eyes. "Talking to yourself?"
Bucky said what he'd always said. "No, talking to you. Not my fault you weren't listening."
Steve opened his eyes then. Bucky was a shadow sitting on the side of the bed. The room was dark, crack of light from a street lamp coming through the curtains. The digital clock on the bedside table gave off a faint red light that Bucky's metal arm reflected back as a reddish gleam. Steve yawned at him. The clock said it was three in the morning. "Done all your worrying?"
"Think so," Bucky said.
He was quiet for a while. His hand moved slowly in Steve's hair. Steve's eyes slipped closed again.
"Can I have this?" Bucky said after a while. Steve cracked an eye open and saw he was holding the notebook from the bedside table.
"Sure." Steve didn't need it anymore. Hadn't touched it in ages.
There was the sound of tearing paper, and Bucky's weight shifted on the bed while he felt around for a pen. After that Steve dozed for a while, listening to the scratching sound of Bucky writing by the faint light of digital clock and street lamp. Bucky didn't get under the covers, but Steve could still feel the heat of his body. He rolled onto his side so he could press their legs together through the blankets. He heard Bucky laugh softly, and got a hand carding through his hair again for a moment or two, followed by a careful press of lips against his forehead.
Then Bucky went back to writing.
Steve couldn't have said when he fell asleep again. The soft noises of pen moving against paper were in his dreams as well.
Light was pouring through the gap in the curtains when Steve opened his eyes again. He'd slept like a log. It was well past the time he normally went for a run.
It wasn't until he saw the little pile of torn-out pages on his bedside table that he remembered Bucky'd been in here last night. The memory of Bucky's hand in his hair and the soft murmur of his voice felt like half a dream. Steve reached over and picked up the top sheet of paper: his own handwriting informed him that he'd meant to look up Ghostbusters, the Rolling Stones, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
It was late enough that Bucky might even be awake. Steve got out of bed and padded into the next room. The couch cushions were still on the floor, tangled mess of blankets around them. Bucky wasn't sleeping on them.
He wasn't in the kitchen either. The bathroom door was open; he wasn't in there.
He wasn't in the apartment.
Steve turned as soon as he realized to the table by the door where they'd left James's keys—
—which were lying there, untouched.
When he called James's—Bucky's—phone, a tinny ringing started up in the kitchen. Steve ended the call and stood there staring at nothing for a moment. Bucky could've gone any number of normal places. He might've gone to the store, or for a run, or just wanted to get out by himself for a bit. He definitely hadn't been kidnapped by Hydra right out of Steve's apartment—no. No. There was no reason to get worked up.
But if he'd decided to do something dumb like—hunting Hydra by himself—
He called Natasha. The phone rang twice and then stopped abruptly mid-ring.
Steve took it away from his ear and stared at it. It looked—wrong. The brightly colored smiley-face sticker Natasha had stuck on one corner seemed faded and gray. So did the skin of Steve's hand—and the blankets and the couch cushions, the pictures on the walls, hell, the walls too. There had been glorious sunlight pouring through the windows a second ago, and now there was no color at all in the room apart from one lurid splash of green—
Steve spun and faced Loki.
"What the hell did you do?" he demanded. "Where's Bucky?"
The green figure was flickering a little, transparent in places. Steve caught a glimpse of skull through the translucent skin of his face, and then that vanished too. "What did I do?" Loki said. "I'm a dead man, Captain America."
"Like hell you are," said Steve. He didn't know what had cemented suspicion into certainty, but he was pretty damn sure.
Loki tilted his head a little and smirked.
"I didn't do a thing," he said. He gestured at the faded, unreal-looking room. "I'm flattered, actually, if you think this is me. I'm good, but no one's this good."
"What's going on?"
"The Mind Gem reacts to the desires of those who use it," Loki said. "I thought it would be amusing leaving it with you people. This is very amusing. Possibly a little too amusing. Take a look out the window."
Steve kept his eyes on Loki as he stepped towards the window and took a quick glance outside. The New York street was—
Steve turned back to Loki at once—he wasn't dumb enough to let himself get distracted when someone this dangerous was in his apartment—but he could still see it. Gray unrealness was spread over the whole morning. People had gone still halfway through taking a step, with their mouths still open to speak to one another; there'd been a child suspended in air, about to fall over, and a pigeon with spread wings caught still in the sky. It had looked like a photograph of a street.
"It's like this everywhere," Loki said. "And I do mean everywhere. A whole universe stopped in its tracks."
"Who—" Steve said, but it was obvious, wasn't it. He knew now where Bucky had gone. Loki raised his eyebrows. His ghostly image was still flickering, disjointed, images of muscles and bones and nerves appearing and disappearing through his skin. He seemed less relaxed than he had been in the Hydra bunker. This was hard for him, Steve thought suddenly. Whatever Bucky was doing with the stone was strong enough to mess with Loki's powers—
"Why am I not affected?" he said.
Loki shrugged. "I really have no idea what is going on in your pet killer's poor confused head," he said. "Or why the Gem would stop time for him. It doesn't always solve your problems the way you think it will. Especially if you don't know what you're doing." His skin kept going translucent as he spoke. Steve could see the web of nerves and blood vessels around his eyeballs. "Perhaps you ought to go and calm him down before he hurts himself."
Steve narrowed his eyes. "You want me to," he said. "You're—helping me?"
"I am," Loki said. "Mere self-interest, believe me. This sort of thing could tear reality as we know it to pieces. I want to rule the universe. I would prefer that the universe keep existing for me to rule. So go and hero, hero. It's what you're good for, isn't it?"
But Loki had vanished.
Steve grabbed his shield and strapped it over his back. He didn't bother with the rest of his uniform, just jammed his feet into the sneakers he'd left by the door. The staff was at the Tower. The sooner he got there the better.
His bike wouldn't start. There was nothing for it but to run. It was a little like his morning runs, the burn in his lungs like an echo of how it had felt not to be able to breathe, his muscles crying out as he pushed them to their enhanced limits. He tried not to look too hard at the motionless shapes of the people around him as he raced through the frozen streets. They were all so still, and the faint gray haze seemed to be under people's skins. It made them look washed-out and corpselike. Occasionally out of the corner of his eye Steve caught a dim bluish flicker in the air, forking like lightning, but silently. It made him think of ice. Ice closing over the world, hardening overhead, fading everything to blue-gray darkness. That happened in his nightmares sometimes, and he didn't know if the picture came from his imagination or from a glimpse of cold memory.
Once he knocked into a frozen woman as he took a corner too fast. She was standing on teetering high heels, but she didn't move at all, and pain bloomed all along Steve's side, as if he'd slammed himself into an iron wall. He automatically looked at her face, starting to apologize, and—there was water on her face, a cold motionless gleam, and her mouth was all twisted up. She'd been crying. Steve backed off a step, and then another, and then turned and ran faster than before. He had to duck and weave through still crowds of people like a petrified forest. On one jammed and motionless road he took to the tops of the cars: it was faster, and it was easier not to look at any of them.
What was Bucky doing?
He was out of breath—something that didn't happen to him often—when he reached the Tower. The A at the top had caught a passing reflection of morning light and was holding onto it, illuminated in sick blue-gray instead of Tony's favored red. Steve held up his pass to the pad next to the entrance he and his team always used, but of course it stayed dead and JARVIS said nothing. And Tony wouldn't have any doors that just worked on hinges, Steve thought sourly: that would be much too old-fashioned.
He ran around to the other side of the building. The glass sliding doors to the main hall were half-open for a young woman in a suit who was just walking in on her way to work. Steve punched the glass, but like the woman he'd bumped into earlier, it was as solid as iron. In the end he squeezed around the woman in the doorway, trying not to get too close, though she would never know.
Inside the Tower everything looked normal, if you ignored the grayness. The frozen people here were smartly dressed and clutching paper cups of coffee, all ready for a day's work at Stark Industries. Steve made for the emergency stairs. Thank goodness, the fire doors did work on hinges, and he could force them open; there wasn't much in the Tower that didn't rely on JARVIS otherwise. And the minute he was into the secure section of the building it was obvious that something was very wrong. Steve didn't have to wonder where Loki's staff was. He just followed the direction that the frozen people from Hill's security division were running. Down.
On the fifth level below the ground he passed a crowd of people he knew hurrying Dr Patel along in their midst. They were heading along a long winding corridor. Steve dashed past their still, anxious-looking figures. The corridor was lit by white strip lighting that was faded as gray as everything else. It twisted and turned, but Steve had a good head for space and proportion and soon he was pretty sure he wasn't under the Tower anymore. This installation had to be tangled in among New York's sewers and subways. More secrets. More hideaways. This wasn't SHIELD, Steve reminded himself; wasn't Hydra either. He wouldn't be working for Superhuman Resources if he didn't trust the setup. He'd known there had to be vaults somewhere for Loki's staff to go into. He'd known Natasha and Clint still used their covert skills.
Something in him still didn't like it.
He passed massive metal security doors, all of them hanging open, and more of Hill's people, this time with guns. He knew he was getting close when he saw Natasha. She'd been frozen while running flat out, head down, face caught still in a grim expression. After her came Tony Stark—still in his underwear, mouth open around a soundless shout—and then Hill, wide-eyed and stock still with a pistol in her hand.
The door at the far end of the corridor had been wrenched off its hinges. Steve stumbled to a halt in the ruined doorway.
The staff was cradled in a metal contraption, surrounded by sensors. It hadn't been affected by whatever was making the rest of the world look gray. The metal casing gleamed gold, with unpleasant greenish undertones. The stone cradled between the spikes at the end pulsed very slightly blue. It was the same blue light that had flickered at the edges of Steve's vision from time to time as he ran here.
For a second as Steve looked at it he had an unaccountable feeling that it was not a stone but an eye, and the eye was looking back at him.
Bucky, where was—
"Bucky," said Steve, feeling relief roll right through him. Bucky wasn't anywhere near the thing. He was sitting against the far wall. He looked up at Steve, and—it was a trick of the strange light that made his eyes look the same alien, pulsing blue as the stone. They weren't that color. Steve knew they weren't.
Relief quickly gave way to anger. "What the hell are you doing? You shouldn't be here."
"I know that," Bucky drawled, and he got to his feet.
"This thing isn't for messing around with," Steve said. "Come home."
"'M not messing around," said Bucky. He tucked something into his pocket—the notebook, Steve's notebook. He was wearing James's big gray coat. He looked, Steve saw, very tired.
He tried to keep his voice calm, gentle. Tried not to push. "Come on," he said. "There's a small army out there, you know. This kind of thing gets people scared."
Bucky tilted his head slightly. "That how you talk to him?" he said.
"All—sickly nice. Like he needs the kid glove treatment. When I know you're about ready to spit nails." Steve opened his mouth. "Surprised he doesn't punch you right in the face," Bucky went on, half to himself. "I bet he wants to sometimes. I would."
"Buck," said Steve sharply. Bucky's attention snapped back to him. "You telling me you don't need kid gloves right now? I woke up this morning and the whole world had stopped. It's not just them—" jerking his head back at Hill and her people in the corridor. "I ran here through the city, and everything was just—frozen. What are you doing?"
"Everything?" Bucky repeated, and he gave the staff a nervous look.
"Loki was in the apartment when I woke up," Steve said. "He's a bad guy, one of the worst. The staff used to be his. He said you'd stopped time across the whole universe, that you could tear it apart that way. He was scared, as far as I could tell." He licked his lips. "He said it reacts to what you want, but not always how you want it. I don't trust him, but—guys like that don't scare easy. It's powerful, and we don't know how it works. You shouldn't have done this. You need to stop."
"I didn't even touch it yet," Bucky said.
Steve went cold all over. "Yet?"
Bucky shook his head slowly. His hand went back to the pocket where he'd tucked the notebook. "I was just—"
He took a step or two towards Steve in the doorway. The movement took him closer to the staff as well. Steve measured the distance in his head, trying to judge the angle. If he threw the shield—but Bucky (Bucky's body, James's body) was as fast as he was—
"Buck, please," he said. "Just get away from it and come home."
"Sorry," Bucky said softly. "I didn't know it would do this." He glanced at the staff again. "I guess I just wanted more time."
It took Steve a moment to understand the way his throat dried up and his stomach lurched at the serious look on Bucky's face. Fear, real fear, wasn't something he felt all that often. "No," he said. "Bucky, stop. We'll talk about this."
Bucky shook his head. "I can't see a way around it, Steve," he said. "I thought he was crazy." Steve immediately opened his mouth to argue. Bucky ignored him. "I saw that apartment, and the way people acted around me, and I thought... I thought he had to be crazy." Bucky grimaced. "But he's not. It's what you were trying to tell me, wasn't it? He's not crazy, he's scared. He's scared shitless."
"I'm scared shitless."
Steve was cut off mid-sentence, mouth still open.
"Hydra's still out there, aren't they? Hydra still wants him. Disobey," Buck said. "He's scared they'll take him back. He's scared it'll all happen again. But he's wrong, you know. It wouldn't be the same if they got him again. He knows how to fight them. He got out." Bucky licked his lips. "It wasn't him who broke in the first place, was it? It was me."
Steve made a wordless sound of protest. Bucky ignored it. "It was me. The guy I am right now. I'm the one who fell off that bridge, I'm the one who got captured—"
Bucky looked sick. "The way I see it? I'm the one who became the Winter Soldier. He's the one who stopped."
He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something else, and then closed it again. He looked pale and drawn. There were dark bags under his eyes. Steve stared at him, at the odd blue light of the stone reflected in his eyes and the slight tremble around the corners of his lips. His flesh hand was knotted tight in the pocket of James's jacket, and his metal fingers flexed next to his thigh. Steve stared at him. He couldn't think of a single thing to say that would make it not true.
Hydra hadn't known what they were doing, when they started—couldn't have known. But they'd had plenty of time to learn. They'd had it all their own way. Steve hadn't been there to stop them; no one had. They'd done what they wanted, made the killer they wanted, taken their time and figured out exactly how to break Bucky—this Bucky, who smiled easily and laughed easier and flirted with pretty girls on the street, who liked to show off on the dance floor, who licked his fingers when he was done eating, who'd looked up from an exhibit in the science museum to catch Steve's eye, wide-eyed and grinning with excitement, and who'd smirked against Steve's mouth when they finally, finally kissed—
"Don't—don’t let them win, Bucky," he said. "Don't drive yourself crazy with this. Forget it, okay? It's over. Just forget it and come home—"
"I already forgot," Bucky said. "I don't remember a thing about it. Just because I can't remember it doesn't mean it didn't happen, Steve! What's to stop it happening again?"
"Me," said Steve.
"And if you crash another plane into the Arctic instead?"
Steve couldn't say a word. Bucky flinched away from his expression. "Sorry," he said. "Sorry."
He took another step towards the staff and gave it a nervous sideways glance. Steve found his gaze drawn to the thing too. The Mind Gem, Loki had said. A thing like the Tesseract, maybe even worse. People shouldn't have that kind of power.
"Feels like it's watching me," Bucky said quietly.
Steve tried to move—tried to go to him—and found he couldn't. He couldn't budge from his spot in the door. The blue light in the stone pulsed, and Bucky was right there with it, and Steve was just trapped there to watch. Like the train, he thought, when he'd been there just to watch Bucky fall—like the gun with a single bullet next to James's bed, which he might never have known about until it was too late—
"Don't," he said. "Please don't. You don't know what it'll do."
"It stopped time for me," Bucky said. "I think it likes me."
"I'm begging you, Buck."
Bucky hesitated. Steve saw the indecision pass across his face.
Then his jaw tightened. "I'm not letting them win," he said. "They didn't win. He did. He got out."
"He's not..." you, Steve couldn't say.
Bucky clearly heard it anyway. He smiled suddenly, an odd bright flicker of a smile. "How would he know?"
Steve glared. "That's not funny—"
Bucky ducked his head. "It is a bit," he said. "Tell him—tell him—just because he can't remember, doesn't mean it didn't happen."
Steve tasted misery in the back of his throat, tried again to move, to go to him—or throw the shield, or knock him down, anything, just to get him away from the damn stone. All he could think was that he couldn't lose Bucky again. Not now.
"Steve, I," said Bucky, all soft and careful and final, and then he shook his head and went on in quite a different tone of voice, "I ain't saying goodbye."
He turned away, reaching out with his metal hand for the stone. Steve knew he tried to say something. It might have been no or stop or wait, something. He couldn't hear himself over the roaring in his ears. There was a dizzying flash of light, turning Bucky into a dark silhouette against horrible electric blue. The room lurched sickly like the whole world had jumped abruptly sideways—
Steve opened his eyes. He'd been knocked to the floor.
There was no longer that strange grayish quality laid over the whole world, and he could hear shouting starting up in the corridor behind him where Hill and the rest of them were.
None of that mattered. The Mind Gem had left Bucky a still crumpled shape beneath the staff. Steve scrambled forwards and gathered him unresisting into his arms. He was breathing. He was still breathing. Steve clung to him.
Just as Hill skidded into the room with Natasha hard on her heels and the unmistakable sound of Tony Stark losing his temper happening somewhere behind them, the unconscious man opened his eyes. Familiar blue-gray. He blinked at Steve a few times.
"Cap?" he said.
Steve swallowed hard, blinked back tears, and nodded.
James closed his eyes for a second and then turned his face away. "It didn't work," he said, so quietly that the sound of the chaos going on in the corridors outside the vault was almost enough to drown him out.
Then he was pulling away, forcing Steve to let him go. He stood up and took in the room around him—not the room he'd last seen the staff in—with one quick cool glance. Then he turned to face patiently the small army which had come to subdue him.
In the chaos that followed, Steve didn't talk much. Natasha took over for him, running interference, defending James in front of Hill and her people.
James didn't talk much either. He was a still point in every room, a silent presence in his big gray jacket. He took care to keep his hands where everyone could see them, and never once met Steve's eyes.
He only asked one question. He wanted to know how much time he was missing.
Afterwards Steve went home to his empty apartment.
He cleaned the place up, picked up the couch cushions Bucky had been sleeping on, folded the blankets and put them away. Loki didn't put in an appearance: probably back to trying to rule the universe, wherever he was. Steve knew he ought to make a full report.
He went on doggedly tidying up. Made his bed. Picked up a dirty plate from a sandwich he'd eaten yesterday morning and took it into the kitchen. There were two mugs full of cold coffee sitting out on the counter. Bucky'd never drunk the coffee Steve made last night.
Steve stared at them for a while. Last night felt like it had happened a hundred years ago.
Eventually he washed the plate and the mugs and put everything away.
He put on a load of laundry. James's dark grays and greens and browns were mixed in with Steve's clothes. Well, they needed washing. Bucky'd been wearing one of Steve's t-shirts in the vaults earlier. James probably wouldn't want it anymore. Steve could get it when he gave James's clothes back. He stood looking blindly at the washing machine for a few minutes.
He shook his head hard and went to get the bleach. It'd been a while since he scrubbed the bathroom.
As he walked through the apartment he saw a faint gleam in the very corner of his eye, one he'd grown so used to he barely registered it anymore. James's keys in their spot on the table by the door. Steve went on into the bathroom with the bleach. He put it down by the sink. He paused.
He turned right around and walked straight back through the apartment and then out the door, not even pausing as he snatched up the keys one-handed. By the time he reached the stairs, he was running.
New York was up and running again and as loud and busy as ever. There was no sign anyone realized that for a little while that morning time had stopped. Steve thought in passing of the crying woman as he wove his bike through traffic. He probably wouldn't be able to find her again. He hoped someone had helped her.
He took the stairs two at a time. James's landlord flattened himself against the wall as Steve passed, looking terrified. Steve couldn't even bring himself to stop and apologize. He knocked hard on James's door, and waited, still catching his breath, and then knocked again.
Steve thought for a second about not pushing. He could go away again, wait patiently for James to come to him, be careful. It had worked so far. It had sort of worked.
And then he thought: to hell with that. He had the keys, didn't he? He was holding them so tight they were cutting into the skin of his palm.
The lock clicked as the key turned. As he stepped through the door Steve suddenly thought that James might not even be here. He didn't have his keys, after all. Maybe he'd gone somewhere else. In which case Steve was just being a fool, turning up like this all ready for he didn't know what—dramatic, like Peggy had always said—
"Cap," said James.
He'd been sitting on the one chair in the bare room, cleaning a gun. He got to his feet as Steve looked at him. His voice was level, but Steve thought he detected a very faint hint of surprise.
"Something wrong?" James said. His eyes went to the space behind Steve as if he expected to see hostiles chasing after him. His hands were already moving, swiftly reassembling the gun he'd been working on. "Tell me—"
"No," said Steve. "There's nothing coming after me. Nothing wrong. You can stand down."
James lowered the weapon. "Okay," he said, and then he just kept looking at Steve. Waiting.
Steve knew exactly what he wanted to say. He'd run through all of it in his head on the way here. But he realized now he didn't know how to begin. James's silent blue-gray stare didn't make it any easier. Steve met it anyway. He didn't look away.
"Those my keys?" said James eventually. He was avoiding Steve's eyes now.
"Yeah," said Steve. "You left them at my place."
James flinched almost invisibly and nodded. "I wondered," was all he said.
"Here," said Steve, and held them out.
"You can leave them on the counter," James said.
Steve dropped his hand, disappointed. The keys jingled.
No, damn it. He wasn't going to let it go like this. "Listen," he began, at the same moment as James said, "I—"
They both stopped.
"Go on," said Steve.
James shook his head. "I've got something of yours as well," he said. He nodded at the kitchen counter. The notebook Bucky had borrowed was there. "Found it in my pocket," James said. "You better take it with you."
He sat down on the chair again. His head was down: his attention was back on the gun. Steve was stubborn but he wasn't stupid. He could tell when he wasn't wanted. He went and put the keys down with a clink on the counter and picked up the notebook. He had to bite down hard on the inside of his lip to stop himself saying anything else.
He looked at the notebook in his hand. Bucky must've already decided what he was going to do when he asked for it. Less than twenty-four hours ago. He'd been in Steve's bed, talking softly to himself with his hand stroking back Steve's hair, and he'd already known. Steve remembered the warmth of him, how good and straightforward it had felt. The sound of the scratching pen after.
He had his back to James. James couldn't see his face. Steve was glad of that.
He flipped the notebook open. The pages were crammed with Bucky's handwriting, that strong clear old-fashioned cursive. Steve started to read. After only a sentence or two he had to stop and close the book again. "Did you look at this?" he said, without turning around.
"No," said James behind him. "I knew it was yours."
Steve turned around and held it out. "It's not mine," he said.
"If it's his," James said evenly after a very slight pause, "then it's more yours than mine, Cap."
"He left it for you," said Steve. James didn't react at all. "It's yours. James. He decided what he was going to do and he left it for you." He knew there was anger leaking into his voice when he added, "You stubborn—will you just look."
James blinked at him a couple of times. Steve didn't move, just stood there holding it out and waited. Finally James put the gun aside. He came and took the notebook out of Steve's hand. Steve folded his arms for lack of anything better to do with them. James opened it to the first page.
Steve knew what was written there: James Buchanan Barnes, three times, in Bucky's handwriting, identical to the handwriting that had written disobey all over the walls in here. He watched James's eyes widen very slightly. He hadn't known that their writing was the same. Steve could have told him, given the chance. Steve could have made the chances, if he'd pushed.
After a second James turned the page. Steve watched him read. It was very quiet in the apartment. The downstairs neighbors weren't playing their tinny music today. James read, and then turned another page. The sound of paper moving was very loud.
He looked up abruptly. "This is for me?" he said.
"Who else?" said Steve.
James sat down, right where he was, just sat down on the floor. He turned back a page to read it again. Quietly Steve came and sat down next to him, close by but not touching. James lowered the notebook very slightly, angling it so Steve could see if he wanted. Dear James, or whoever you are, Steve read.
Steve tells me you don't remember being me. I don't remember being you either. I guess that makes us even. But I don't think we're all that different. I hope we're not. I hope I'd do what you did, when you fought back, but—something scribbled out, thick dark lines—I know that when it counted I didn't. Steve said you're one of the bravest men he ever met, and I trust him. I hope there's some of me left in you, the way there's some of you left in me right now. Anyway I'm going to try to do the right thing—
James turned the page. His metal fingers were blocking part of the opposite page from Steve's view; he read what was closest to him instead. ...don't think I can write down everything I remember. I want to, but I'd just be putting it off, and it wouldn't make it easier. Here's what's important, anyway, if you want it—
After that it was a list. Steve could see, right there in the first entry, a date he knew: Becca's birthday, with the year. He remembered perfectly Bucky's wide-eyed excitement over getting a little sister, when he was seven and Steve was eight. It had been right after they first got to know each other, and it'd been all Bucky talked about. Bucky'd written several lines about it under the date. Steve could've told James about Becca, if he'd tried, or if James had asked—
James's head was bowed over the notebook. He carefully touched the page, right under the date, with the fingers of his right hand. "She's still alive," he said quietly. "Rebecca Barnes. Becca. I looked that up."
"I looked it up," James said. "I don't know anything about her."
"You can ask me," Steve said. "Anything I know about, I'll tell you. Just ask. Becca—" He paused. He hadn't really thought about Becca in years. It was Bucky he'd been close to, not his siblings. He guiltily remembered resenting her when they were children, just because Bucky liked her so much. He'd known even at the time it was wrong. "She was a firecracker," he said. "You always looked out for her. You always protected her. You were a good brother."
James nodded without lifting his head. He licked his lips a couple of times. "If—I—" he said, and swallowed. "A little girl. With black hair and a bloody knee, was there..."
It wasn't even a question. James's voice didn't lift for it, and he was mumbling as he trailed off, like he had something to be ashamed of. Steve put out a hand without thinking about it and touched his shoulder. "Yeah," he said. "That's Becca."
James took a deep breath and then let it out again slow. "It's his life," he said. "Not mine." He looked down at the notebook and his left hand flexed—shine and reflection of metal moving—like he was about to close it.
Steve put a hand over the page to keep it open. "It's your memory," he said. "You remembered that, just now."
James made a very quiet sound that might have been strangled laughter. "I don't know anything about it—I don't even know what she did to her knee—"
"You think that's what matters?"
"I don't know what matters!"
The words came out too loud. James stopped and grimaced, self-mocking, shoulders tight. It was the most emotion Steve had ever seen him show. For a second he didn't know what to do—but that was nonsense, wasn't it? He knew exactly what he ought to do. He put an arm around James's stiff shoulders and pulled him close, same as he would've for Bucky.
He didn't know for sure how James would react. He wasn't entirely expecting what happened, which was that James shuddered hard all over and then slumped against Steve's side. Steve couldn't see his face anymore, but he could feel him shaking. "It's okay," Steve said. "I got you. It's okay." After a moment James stiffened and tried to pull away. Steve didn't let him. He hung on stubbornly, fingers pressed against the metal of James's left shoulder, repeating again and again that it was okay.
In the end James gave up and leaned into him. His face was hidden against Steve's shoulder. His breathing was ragged. The notebook was lying open on the floor. Steve thought of last night and moved his hand to James's hair. He pretended not to hear the gulping sound James made that was probably a sob. He stroked carefully, like Bucky had. He knew it felt nice. Maybe it would help.
He kept talking as well—not saying anything much, just repeating himself. I got you. It's okay.
"Sorry," said James at last, and this time when he pulled away it was clear he meant it. Steve let him go. "Sorry," James said again, not looking at him. He got to his feet.
"Don't be sorry," said Steve. "I'm your friend."
James nodded, grimacing slightly.
"I'm your friend," Steve repeated. He stood up.
"I get it, Cap," said James. "You don't have to pretend."
Steve glared. "You calling me a liar? Because I might take that personally."
James looked up with a startled expression. "No—I just—" he licked his lips. "Thanks. But I'm not him. I know."
"You think that means I'm not your friend?"
James didn't answer. Instead he said, "What they did to him, it should never have happened. I'm... I should never have happened."
"So you decided to fix it?" Steve hadn't come here to pick a fight, but he found his voice was rising. "You wiped yourself, James. You were gone."
"Yeah, that was the idea," said James. He was glaring too now. "And Bucky Barnes gets his life back. You think that's not better? Wasn't he your friend?" He spread his arms. "Look—look at me! I'm half a person. I'm a weapon without a name. I've got a handful of pictures in my head that don't mean anything and that's it, I'm—I'm barely alive to begin with. He was alive, Cap. He deserved to be alive. He deserved to live."
The words hit like being kicked in the stomach. That day in the Alps, when Bucky fell, he'd deserved to live. Every day after that, when Hydra had him, he'd deserved better. He'd deserved to live.
James looked bitterly satisfied with whatever he saw on Steve's face. Steve took a deep breath and forced his voice to stay steady. "Yeah, he did," he said. "He deserved to live. And so do you."
"I'm telling you, I'm not him," said James, like that was the end of it. "I don't remember being him. I don't know the things that mattered to him. I don't—"
"He asked me to tell you," said Steve, "just because you can't remember it, doesn't mean it didn't happen."
James fell silent.
Steve bent and picked up the notebook. Held it out. "James Buchanan Barnes," he said. "It's in there in black and white. You sure that's not your name?"
James looked at the notebook and still didn't speak.
"It's your writing," said Steve.
A few long seconds went past. Neither of them moved.
At last James reached out and took the book from Steve's hand. He went and sat down—on the stairs, this time, right where the crazy wallpaper of articles about Hydra started. Steve could see disobey written right above his head in Bucky's—James's—handwriting, and some spidery Cyrillic characters next to it. He sat himself down next to James while he read. It was the same place he and Bucky had sat together, after Bucky had seen his file.
James read for a long time. Steve noticed that sometimes he stopped and went back, read a few pages again, and then again. Sometimes he lowered the notebook and stared at nothing for a little while. Once he said, "I remember—"
James shook his head. "Not now," he said.
He kept reading. Bucky had written a lot in the time he had. Perhaps he hadn't slept at all. There'd been dark circles under his eyes this morning. There were still dark circles under James's eyes now. Steve resisted the urge to peer over his shoulder. He wondered what Bucky had said. He'd always been better at putting words on paper than Steve.
Slowly it grew dark outside. Shadows crept across the floor of James's empty apartment. Downstairs the neighbors started playing their music.
Steve clasped his hands together and waited. He wasn't going anywhere.
A nudge to his ribs woke Steve up. He hadn't realized he'd dozed off. James was giving him the cool, ironic look which meant he thought something was funny. "Sorry," said Steve, and yawned. "Long day."
James nodded, just once. The book was resting on his thigh, closed, with his left hand keeping it in place. The room was mostly dark.
"Okay?" said Steve.
James nodded again. He took the book in both hands, holding it as carefully as if it were made of glass. "Do you want this?" he said.
A part of Steve did—wanted it badly—but he shook his head. "He didn't write it for me."
Immediately James tucked the notebook away into a pocket of his gray jacket. Inside pocket, Steve saw. Somewhere safe. He was glad he hadn't accepted it.
"There's..." said James, and didn't say anything else.
Steve thought about not pushing, and then he said, "Spit it out."
James laughed quietly. "You kissed. You kissed him." Steve went still. "Last thing on the list. He thought it was important."
Steve nodded. "It was." Bucky glaring down at his coffee; lifting his head in challenge; the crinkles around his eyes when he smiled. Only a day ago, but Steve already knew that those were memories he'd keep close to his heart forever, the same way he kept the knowledge of how Peggy's lipstick had tasted the first and last time she'd kissed him.
James didn't say anything else. Steve turned to look at him. "Well?"
"Sorry," said James. "Just curious, I guess. I didn't mean to—"
Steve kissed him.
"—pry," James finished, half a gasp. Even in the shadowy room Steve could make out how wide his eyes were. His mouth worked like he couldn't figure out what to say.
"You started it," said Steve.
James swallowed. "He did?"
"No, you did," said Steve. "Months ago. You kissed me first." He stood up. Without even having to think about it, he held out his hand.
"But," said James, looking up at him, still wide-eyed. Steve raised his eyebrows. Made it a challenge.
James took his hand. Steve pulled him to his feet and into his arms, no hesitation, and kissed him again, not hard but firm, made it clear what he was asking. What he was offering. James kissed back, but then he broke off to say, "I'm still not the same, Cap. Steve. I'm still never going to be him."
"I know," said Steve. "Will you do me a favor and trust me?"
James didn't say anything.
"Or else," said Steve, and flattened his hand against James's chest, over his heart, feeling the shape of the notebook in the inside pocket, "will you trust this?" Him. Yourself. Steve didn't know for sure which he meant. Maybe never would.
James kept looking at Steve for a long while. Finally he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, like a man who was about to throw himself off something high and wasn't sure about the landing.
"Yes," he said.