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Ghost Stories

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Steve doesn’t like bullies, on principle. But the truth is, it didn’t start that way—it wasn’t about justice, or decency, or righteous indignation.

It was about the look in the eyes of the people getting stepped on, the people getting trampled, the people getting lost.

So it cuts all the deeper, on the rooftop. It sears all the stronger when Steve recognizes strength, precision, endurance, capacity: sees the pieces of himself not born but made, reflected in this body, this person, this weapon when he catches the shield and stares, and Steve knows, somewhere deep, that the killing blow is more than possible, but less than imminent.

It slices through Steve’s soul when he returns the gaze, sharp above the colors, the shades of what Steve believes: it burns hot and catches, wildfire and sparking when he reads the only thing that lives, that breathes in the deadness that pervades behind those irises in the night.

It’s not You can’t beat me.

It’s more You can’t stop them.

Those eyes, Steve thinks, don’t add up to choice; don’t shout free will, don’t smack of the agency that’s necessary for real evil, and it haunts the space behind Steve’s eyelids because those eyes, those eyes

Those eyes speak different volumes.

______________________________

Most people figure it started with a kid at school; started with the sour feeling in his own gut the first time he’d been picked on, been kicked at, been knocked around for no good reason. It’d make sense, really.

But that wasn’t where it started.

It had taken him weeks to convince his momma to allow him to go: Bucky’d saved the coins and said, we gotta, Stevie, we jus’ gotta go, s’about phantoms, and Bucky was everything—Bucky was an angel sent into Steve’s life to make the world look brighter, to make the air softer when it caught in Steve’s lungs, so he’d begged and he’d begged and his momma’d finally thrown up her hands and told him if he got nightmares, she sure hoped James Buchanan Barnes was the one he’d go crying to in the middle of the night, because she wasn’t going to have nothing to do with it, and Steve had grinned like mad and run out the door and they’d gone to see the flick, and they’d gasped and gawped and it’d been swell as anything, it really had.

Except Steve had left the theatre, thinking real long and hard about the villain, the masked man, the one who sparked the screams from other seats: Steve had left the theatre, and thought about the look beneath the scars, and the wideness of the eyes, and the tightness in Steve’s chest that wasn’t caught up in his faulty ticker, but instead, weighed down in the way the world wasn’t fair.

Steve threw his first punch, later that week. He went home with a bloody nose—he’d stopped the hurt in the eyes of the boy the other guys had been beating on, and Bucky’s arm was draped close around his shoulders, the warmth of him pressed tight against Steve’s side, and maybe there were ways, Steve thought, things that could be done, that he could do.

Maybe there were ways to even the score, sometimes; to make the world a little bit more square.

And when they put the couch cushions on the floor, and burrowed under thin blankets in the night: when Bucky’d talk about haunted houses, and Steve’d make up tales about monsters and half-humans, when they’d gasp and giggle about werewolves and vampires, it always ended the same, amidst yawns and heavy eyes.

One more scary story, Stevie. And Steve couldn’t deny Bucky a thing, not a single thing, but he was always too darn tired to put much effort in, to make it more interesting than the things that came quickest, held closest to his little, lagging heart: the monsters were never monsters. The beasts were always redeemed.

Ghosts are loved, too, he’d said, one night, when Bucky’d snorted at the friendly spectre Steve’d made up to befriend a little girl in the cold.

Sap, you are, Bucky’d tsked at him, but his arm’d slung easy around Steve’s waist, and it was warm, and Steve’s chest got tight again—tighter, now, than he thought he could stand.

He broke his wrist, that week, because there were things he could do to make the score more even, but there wouldn’t ever be a way to make the heavy need inside his ribs give way.

______________________________

Once the truth starts to reveal itself, once it starts to become clear how deep the rabbit hole runs, how insidious the threads of betrayal weave through: once Steve realizes what they’re up against, once he starts questioning what it means to be an ally, he can’t stop himself from thinking about what it means to be the enemy: what an enemy reads like in flesh and blood and bone.

And he can’t shake the certainty, the shape of it in the cells that make his blood: an enemy makes the call to destroy without wavering. An enemy takes the shot without fear in his eyes. An enemy acts, because an enemy wants to.

An enemy acts because an enemy chooses that path.

But no creature chooses to be muzzled.

You don’t take a free man’s voice away.

______________________________

The Asset follows the Target across the territorial border. The Target, and the Widow, in the truck that is blue.

The Asset follows.

The Asset knows that the Widow thinks the Target foolish, naïve, quintessentially defective for his attempts to reach out, to rehabilitate the one she calls the Soldier, the Ghost. The Target leans against the vehicle as the Widow refuels the tank. The Asset watches from a distance, from ample cover.

The Target meets his eyes. The Asset stills.

“I ever tell you about the USO tours?”

The Target speaks so that the Widow listens; The Target bores into the Asset with his gaze, but the Asset is impenetrable.

The Asset feels as if its components are escaping its framework; as if its coming undone.

“Kinda common knowledge, Cap,” the Widow’s voice is distorted around the truck, discloses her exact location. Глупая.

“No, I mean,” the Target shifts. The Asset weighs the realignment of his muscles, assesses his strengths, his vulnerabilities. “What it felt like.”

The Asset knows the word feel. The Asset is unsure of how this differs from knowledge, other than being a form of the latter.

“Like a fucking dancing monkey, y’know? Out there on the tightrope, performing for the masses.”

The Target is clenching his fists. The Asset knows that the Target is unsettled, unfocused—awash with sentiment.

The Asset is unsure of how it knows this, but the Asset does.

The Asset knows.

“I always felt so,” the Target shakes his head, ducks it low, sucks his bottom lip and is smaller, suddenly—a malfunction, the Asset logs internally. Report and assess upon maintenance.

The Asset blinks. The Target is correctly proportioned, once more.

“I was doing good, but it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t what I was made for,” the Target continues, still watching the Asset, and there are sensations in the Asset's frame that are outside normal functioning, that are beyond suggested parameters.

“I felt—”

The Target’s voice changes pitch, changes tone. The Asset knows the word feel.

The Asset knows the word.

“Trapped, I guess,” the Target says, and there are holes burned in the Asset from those eyes, those eyes.

“This is about the Soldier, isn’t it?”

The Widow is tracing the rear perimeter of the vehicle. The Widow is carrying seven weapons on her body.

“I guess it’s,” the Target shrugs, looks down, and this should be inconsequential to the Asset.

This should be absolutely inconsequential.

“It seems kinda silly, now,” the Target’s lips quirk. “Could have been so much worse. I could have...”

“He’s not like that.”

The Widow’s tone is hard. The Widow’s tone is impenetrable.

The Target does not flinch. The Target has no holes. The Target is soft to the touch.

The Asset is unsure of how it knows this.

The Target turns his gaze “How do you know?”

“Beyond the generous parting gift of scar tissue he left me,” the Widow grazes fingertips at the hem of her clothing, on the left. “On top of a botched job and a dead engineer?”

The Asset is timeless. The Asset has shaped the century. The Asset has been informed of its skills. The Asset has been apprised of its relevant mission history. Control; redaction is necessary in all endeavors. Divergence from the objective is not tolerated.

But a scientist. Red hair. A single shot; target: eliminated.

The Target, this Target—he does not look away. It is in that moment that the Asset understands.

The Soldier is the Ghost. The Ghost is the Asset.

The Asset is the thing that the Target seeks to save.

But a Soldier makes an Army. This Ghost has cast a shadow.

But the Asset is the Asset. The Asset has shaped the century. The Asset is a constant. The Asset is timeless.

If the Asset closes its eyes, and thinks very hard, there’s an image, there’s a knowledge, there is a certainty: ghosts aren’t monsters. Ghosts aren’t terrifying.

Ghosts are loved, too.

The Asset is unsure of how it knows this.

The Asset does not know the word love. The Asset does not know, but he feels—

The Asset is malfunctioning. The Asset cannot be a Ghost.

The Asset returns to base.
______________________________

It’s instinct, it’s ingrained that Steve insists he take first watch while Nat sleeps off New Jersey, while Sam sleeps off the ambush of two fugitives on his doorstep. It’s just a rote thing, it’s just what he does.

Here, though, with the Winter Soldier perched on the windowsill in the living room, still and stoic, looking at him with a wideness in his eyes, the only thing that makes them anything but blank: Steve’s never been more grateful for goddamned instinct in his life.

“You can come in, if y’want.”

The Soldier doesn’t move, not that Steve was expecting him to. And in truth, he shouldn’t make the offer: it’s not his home, not his place to invite a trained killer, a hunted animal with terror in its eyes to settle on the chair and kick back with a Heineken.

His momma raised him better than to leave a guest lingering on the threshold, though.

His own heart’s trained him better than to turn from that much pain inside a person, weighing down a self.

“Did they do this to you?” Steve asks, throat tight, because it’s more than the arm, and the mask, and the fear: it’s all of it, and what it comes together to achieve. To undo.

The Soldier stares at him.

“They didn’t make you,” Steve tries again. “You existed before them,” and he doesn’t know where the words are coming from, doesn’t know the thoughts that are fueling them: just knows the words, and that they should be said.

“You’re real without them,” Steve leans forward, but doesn’t step closer—there’s a room between them, and Steve’s voice is barely a whisper, but it feels loud. The Soldier hears him clear as day, he knows.

“They don’t own you,” Steve adds, swallows hard, and it might be his imagination, but something flickers in those eyes: it’s there, and gone so fast, Steve’s pulse beats slower even as it hums, but Steve thinks: maybe.

Maybe.

“You’re stronger than them,” Steve says, and he doesn’t know this person, this mercenary, this ghost that doesn’t fade, this wraith that’s got a soul—he doesn’t know, and yet he knows: there’s something shared, there’s something in them that beats the same way, that courses through their veins in similar fashion; more and less than human, all at once, and maybe it’s foolish, maybe its dangerous, suicidal, reckless, beyond defensible: but Steve would call the man before him a brother before he’d call him an adversary.

“You’re better than what they want from you, than what they want you to believe you can be,” Steve says, and he means it. “You’re so much more.”

And this time, it’s not just in his head: Steve doesn’t think the Soldier knows it himself, but there’s incredulity in those eyes, disbelief.

Steve aches with it.

“You’re a person,” Steve breathes out, because Steve’s a person, and the man before him’s no more, no less. “You’ve got free will, you are your own—”

Steve’s voice breaks, and he thinks about Bucky on a table in Austria, thinks about loss and torture, about heartbreak and failure and hurting and Steve can damn well trace, can chart the way it turns to steel in his bones before the words, before the promise escapes his lips:

“I could get you out.”

Steve’s mouth goes dry as those eyes widen: they don’t change in affect above the line of the muzzle, the dark contraption covering that face but they get so big, and Steve feels the heavy thumping beneath his ribs like a mallet, like an omen: like an opportunity to change the tides here, where he couldn’t when it mattered more.

But that doesn’t mean that this—that the man before him, here; that doesn’t mean that this doesn’t matter.

“I don’t know how,” Steve admits, tries to smile, hopes against all reason that there’s a mind in there, a heart in there that can be soothed by the gesture, the expression, even if that face can’t show it—even if Steve couldn’t see it, if it did. “But that’s never stopped me before.”

And it hasn’t. It’s never stopped him: he found a way. It didn’t always last, and it wasn’t always right, but he always found a way.

And this Winter Soldier, he has to know: Steve, of all people, understands that ice isn’t enough to last, isn’t enough to stay.

“I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you,” Steve finds himself vowing. “Or take you, or make you do something you didn’t want, make you be anything but what you are, who you are.” Steve’s breath catches, and it’s grief, somehow, that washes over him: grief for this, and all that came before it. Grief that nothing changes. Grief that the world was always, and always would be, so unfair.

“I’d never let that happen,” Steve murmurs, steadfast: committed to this singular goal because it is all that matters: it is all that he still has to give. “Not ever again.”

Steve nearly jumps out of his skin when the sound comes, muffled and crackling, gravel on glass—drawing blood, opening a wound:

Почему?”

Steve blinks, heart thrumming as he meets those eyes, and they’re asking him more than the question that’s spoken, that’s given, and Steve wants, so damn badly, to read hope in that gaze, he wants

There’s a shift of floorboards, the catch of a latch down the hall, and the Soldier freezes; Steve can’t speak, can’t answer before he’s gone.

Nat’s in the room, nodding Steve’s way, looking unrested as she goes for a glass in the cupboard, before Steve can say, can own to the why.

His chest has been tight from the moment he woke up here: he needs, desperately, to even the only score he still can.

______________________________

There’s a call. There’s a change. There’s a limited window. There are two targets. There are six levels.

There is milk.

They are blinded by the idea that the Asset follows orders; they are blinded because the Asset continues to follow orders.

But the Asset had followed the Target and the Widow—the Target and the Other Target; the Asset had followed. The Asset had seen. The Asset had felt

The Asset had been summoned, after there was fire; after the Creator was destroyed.

they didn’t make you

After the Source of the Algorithm was terminated.

The Asset had been summoned, and the Asset had complied, because the Asset knows only to comply. To obey.

The Asset had then followed the Target and the Widow to the least secure of safe houses. The Asset had then watched the Target until the Target saw, until the Target met the Asset’s eyes and spoke words that made no sense and made the Asset feel—

They are on a bridge. The Asset has twenty-seven clean shots with which to complete the Mission.

The Asset does not take them.

The Asset does not know why.

Fighting the Target is natural, is fluid: is a dance, is the right partner and the Asset does not know what that means.

The knife in the Asset’s hand is an extension of the Asset.

The Asset can approach the Target, but the Asset cannot, he will not touch.

“Does this mean you haven’t had a chance yet?” the Target gasps, as the Asset draws the blade close to the throat, close, close: so close. “To consider my offer?”

Those eyes, again. Those eyes on the Asset made him feel—

The Asset’s cardiac output is untenable; the Asset is failing.

The Falcon’s trajectory promises to hold. The Widow approaches on foot. The Target stares at the Asset, barely blinks, and the Asset could reach, could grasp a neck, could draw a line down—

The Asset takes the Target to the ground, swipes his feet out from under him, and knows the that the Crossbones—the handler who works for the Handler—is coming.

The Asset retreats, and thinks.

Hopes.

The Asset thinks…

...that he hopes.

______________________________

Steve is on his knees; there’s a gun to his head; there’s a weight at his hip that shouldn’t be there.

It’s not until he’s cuffed, staring down, breathing hard: it’s not until he’s in the back of that truck that he knows, that he realizes what it is.

A knife. The knife he’d seen flickering, spun almost like an artform, almost beautiful in the light: the knife that’d never touched his skin, that had reflected those eyes like god in that street.

Steve’s swallowing around a weight he can’t describe; Steve’s dangerously close to tears for reasons he can’t give words.

But then Maria Hill is springing them, then the world’s in motion once again.

The weight at Steve’s hip is a promise; is a leveling: an unfair advantage.

It’s an evening of the odds.

______________________________

The Chair means horrible things; the Chair means terrible pain.

The Chair is routine.

The Asset does not know what it means, sitting in the chair, that there are images. That there are mental constructs surfacing of pain outside the Chair—horror on white, rather than steel; cold on snow, rather than the Chamber where the Asset sleeps.

The Asset does not know what it means, sitting in the chair, attached to machines, undergoing maintenance, that when its eyes are closed, it’s the Target. It’s a train. It’s velocity and gravity and momentum and loss and it feels, it feels

“Vitals spiking.”

The Technician—handled by the Handler, but not like the Asset is handled—speaks to the side; the Asset breathes, slows the pounding of the heart in its chest, except, except...

The images are from the Asset’s eyes. The images show two hands. Flesh hands.

The Target. The Target watches. The Target looks, screams a word, perhaps a name, that doesn’t register, but feels warm.

The Asset was made. The Asset belongs to its Handlers. The Asset shapes, the Asset complies, the Asset obeys.

But the images: they belong. They are the Asset’s own. They were seen by the eyes that the Asset sees through.

The Asset has nothing of its own.

But these images, memories: they predate the Asset.

The Asset does not have memories.

The Asset has that face, though; those eyes, the man, the Target

He comes before the Chamber. He comes before the Handlers.

you existed before them, you’re real without them

That face is proof that the Target wasn’t lying. That face belongs to the Asset before the Asset was made.

There was something, something before. That face belongs to the heart that desperately wants to race; that face belongs to the lungs that cannot breathe—that face is everything, that face is loss and wonder, that face means all the words the Asset doesn’t know, except the Asset is more, the Asset is a mist atop a sea: the Asset is not the Asset. Not at its core.

Not at his core.

The Asset is a man. The Asset is a being. The Asset was made, not born, and what the Asset is below was born, was raised, was hurt and held and loved, and the Asset doesn’t know what any of that means, except that whatever existed first, whatever lives underneath what he’s believed: that knows.

He knows.

It takes all that he is—and he is much, he is so much, he can feel it; it takes all that he is, and has been, and will be, to stay silent. To stay still. To take orders. To shape the century, one last time.

He has a Mission.

The Asset obeys.

______________________________

The masked face greets him, a few thousand feet in the air, but Steve feels grounded.

Steve reaches for the knife, and offers it. The Soldier doesn’t move—stares, blinks, but doesn’t take the weapon.

Doesn’t stop blocking Steve’s way.

They’re facing heavy fire—what’s left of the STRIKE team, Steve suspects, and he ducks, moves to dodge the stream of bullets that pierce the helicarrier and seek to bring him down.

He moves to grasp the shield, to lift it and deflect, but it’s out of reach in an instant, and before Steve can react, can retaliate, the Soldier has it in hand, has Steve’s frame maneuvered close behind the vibranium—is blocking him where it cannot reach.

Or so it seems.

“I want you to fight this fight,” Steve breathes, and it’s close to the Soldier’s face, it’s close enough that the breath from Steve’s mouth condenses on the muzzle’s latch.

“With me,” Steve pants, falters under the impact of bullets, harsh against the shield, rocking against his frame, and Steve’s not willing to stay like this, to risk the Soldier exposed to harm, so he stands, pulls them both out of the line of fire.

“Not because I told you,” Steve says, meets those eyes and locks onto them as quick, as earnest, and sure as he can: “Not because I need it.”

And he does, fuck: they’ve got minutes, and Steve’s gotta lock the last blade, he’s got to finish the mission, but he was never up here just for this fight—his mission was never singular, never unidimensional.

His mission’s breathing heavier than he should, next to Steve, and Steve’s got sweat, got blood running hot into his eyes but he thinks, he really does believe that he sees something real in the eyes that meet his own, that almost seem to drink him in: like they’re desperate.

And Steve knows desperate.

“Fight because it’s a choice you can make,” Steve whispers, hisses: urgent; pleading, but not for himself. Not like this: not now—Steve’s back after Azzano: Steve’s watching eyes wake up, so close to coming back from the brink of nothing, from destruction, from the stripping of soul from body without death to ease the way, and he won’t step away from that. He will not fail.

Not like this. Not here: not now.

“And if you choose to walk away,” Steve breathes out, “or if you choose to,” he swallows, hard, and he presses the knife into the Soldier’s hand.

Steve murmurs, prepares to make the dash from safety, can hear the engines outside waiting to see him move, waiting to take him out before he can confirm Charlie-Lock.

“People like us,” Steve says, huffs out the garbled, mottled truth that’s been festering, been souring and eating holes in his chest that should have released the pressure, should have made the tightness less, but they don’t, they can’t.

“We’re not,” Steve shakes his head, stares at his hands: broader, now, and fuller, and stronger, except the fingers: his fingers, artist’s fingers, Bucky’d called ‘em—the fingers.

They’re still there. They’re still his.

“I don’t know what we are. But we’re here,” Steve’s voice is rail-thin and it wavers, he thinks: there’s so much noise.

There’s so much ache.

“And we will fail, sometimes. We’ll fail to make the right choices. But we choose. We choose, and we fail, and we’re human,” Steve says, soft but with all the heart he’s got left to offer, because if he doesn’t walk away from this, he needs to know he made this right, he needs to know he gave everything to the Soldier, to the man who is scared and is shaking underneath the stillness of his frame, Steve knows it, he knows it: Steve needs to have given this man every chance to be whole.

“Whatever you do,” Steve exhales, prepares himself to turn, to leap from behind the steel, from behind the shield, to make a run at this, to save an unfair world just one more time.

“Whatever you choose, just make it yours.”

The Soldier’s eyes gleam, and his breathing is harsh beneath the mask, and Steve wants to reach for him, wants to offer comfort, but he can’t, here.

He fails, in that. Again.

The tightness beneath the ribs seizes; hard.

“You deserve—”

Steve doesn’t see the fist until it makes contact; not hard, not damaging so much as well-placed: it unbalances Steve, sends him straight to the floor, and it’s all he can do to keep the shield in place, to protect himself from prying eyes and angry guns, except he doesn’t have to.

The guns are following the Soldier. The guns are aimed and firing, relentless, at the Soldier as he sprints to the command console, and it’s then that Steve realizes where he was pushed, where the impact of that metal hand struck him down.

Right hip, at the belt.

He watches, slack-jawed; and he screams, as if the bullet that rips through the Soldier was tearing through his own flesh instead—but the Soldier places the blade nonetheless, and the mission holds, the people live, and Steve’s breathless, Steve’s riveted as the Soldier tucks, dives away from the barrage, smears blood on the metal walkway, and Steve springs up, moves to give cover, moves to protect and to save and to repay a debt he doesn’t deserve, he never deserves—

He never sees it coming, when the structure he stands on gives way.

______________________________

The Man on the Bridge is not a Target. The Man on the Bridge is a Captain.

The Captain.

The Captain means something. The Captain wants to help.

The Captain means more, though. Even than that.

And the Asset is not a thing—the Asset is not him: he is a Soldier, and this is his Captain. This is where his obedience, his compliance, his mission, his dedication, his loyalty, his devotion: this is where it lies. He doesn’t know how he knows that, but he knows, he knows that it’s true.

And the Soldier remembers falling—the Soldier remembers the Captain watching him fall, before there was the Asset to serve as thin gauze, makeshift cover for those wounds, pretending at healing where forgetting was quicker: and the Soldier knows what pain is, what fists around the heart feel like, because of the Captain’s face in those moments, for that loss.

And the Soldier watches the bearings, the beams and the girders give and the Captain falls: the Soldier watches, and remembers, and the fists around his heart are not things he’ll survive.

He dives; the Captain’s form is set adrift below the surface, but only just—the impact, the crumbling of debris have left him motionless, save for the currents, for the way the water toys with him: the Soldier reaches until it sears, until it bleeds from the bullet holes in his skin; grasps a hand.

He settles the body on the shoreline, heavy and waterlogged, and he scrambles—uncoordinated, unsteady, untrained but knowing: he scrambles to check for a pulse, thready; he scrambles to turn the captain’s head, to place a hand upon his chest and check for motion, check for breathing, and it’s not until the Captain chokes, coughs water to the ground beneath them that the Soldier realizes his own breathing is compromised.

It’s not until the rising chest beneath his touch starts to steady, if not to even, that the Soldier realizes he’s still holding his hand against that chest.

The memories that come to him are faint, but powerful, significant in a way he can’t describe: the heart beneath his hand is pumping heavy, too fast but stronger now, and the Soldier feels like that’s a miracle in itself, like that’s never been a truth he’s felt before—he knows with a terrifying certainty, though, that he has felt before.

He’s felt that heart; he’s touched that chest. He’s begged

“Bucky.”

It’s familiar, even as it’s foreign; it’s barely there, and the Captain’s eyes are closed, but it’s spoken with a warmth, with a need, with a sense of completion that the Soldier finds himself aching to know—

The eyelids flutter, and the heart at his palm pumps hard: those eyes meet his, and there’s recognition, disappointment, but then relief; then hope.

The Soldier feels things, in those eyes, that the Asset never knew.

“You,” and the Captain’s voice is barely a whisper; rough where the water stemmed his breath, tried to take him, but marveling, somehow, all the same.

“You’re here, you,” and he looks down, to where the Soldier’s hand still sits atop his chest.

“You saved my life,” he breathes, and his eyes, those eyes: “You didn’t have to.”

“Нет,” the Soldier shakes his head. “Мне это было нужно.”

For the first time he can remember, the words are stiff on his tongue, the sounds jagged against the backs of his teeth.

“Я должен был.”

The heart beats on, and on, and it touches something, it whispers something he can’t quite hear in the back of his mind: the Soldier strains for it, flinches at the touch of all the things he knows without comprehending, but it’s far, it’s very far, and he’s tired, suddenly.

Tired. He remembers, now, what tired means. He thinks he’s spent a century, being tired.

His attention shifts as the Captain’s breath catches.

“Oh god, they shot you,” the Captain’s struggling to sit up, eyes wide, so wide, so scared and all the Soldier knows is that the Captain shouldn’t feel that, not for him.

“You’re, are you,” and the Captain stammers, the Captain reaches for his body, for his face, for the mask: “Here, come on, let’s get this off—”

It’s ingrained in him, to leap backward, to protect cover, to maintain integrity of the mission; but the mission has changed, the mission is wrong.

The mission is this.

He still flinches, though. The Soldier still places enough distance between them so that the captain cannot take the mask.

There is a flash, in the Soldier’s mind: the sound of strings. A cape. Screaming in a dark room. Scary stories.

It’s gone, too soon, and all the Soldier knows is that he misses the feel of the Captain under his hand.

“Wait, wait,” the Captain looks frantic, and the Soldier only knows that’s unacceptable. “I’m sorry, please. I’m sorry, fuck, I...”

The Captain is staring at his own hands where they reach, like they betray him, and he withdraws, looks ashamed, looks helpless, and the Soldier feels as if he knows, better than most, what it means to be betrayed by oneself.

“I just wanted to help, I, I won’t,” the Captain is rambling, the Captain is gasping, and it’s not warranted, it’s not a thing the Soldier will allow because there’s a niggling in the back of his throat, in the back of his mind that speaks to danger, that speaks of death when the Captain cannot breathe.

“I won’t,” the Captain promises, looks wrecked somehow in a way that’s not earned or deserved, in a way that the Soldier doesn’t understand: “Not if you don’t want me to, if you’re,” he gestures at the Soldier like he’s a person, like he matters, like his choices are law when it comes to himself: motions to his face and then his frame as a whole and meets his eyes like he has something to atone for.

It doesn’t quite makes sense.

“I won’t,” the Captain says, “I promise.”

And it’s more than just a guarantee that the Captain won’t touch him, won’t take his mask, won’t steal away that shield: it’s more than that. It’s a vow, it’s a gift of autonomy. It’s the idea that pervades all that is this interplay, all that their exchanges have hummed with and breathed inside: the Soldier has a will, and it matters.

The Soldier matters.

And yet, the Soldier knows, more clearly than anything else, more than he can explain: the Captain.

The Captain matters more.

The Soldier moves closer, again; close enough to grasp a hand, or touch a chest, but he doesn’t. He won’t.

The Captain doesn’t move, either, doesn’t make that choice for him, but if the Captain’s breath brushes against the Soldier’s skin, well.

That’s a choice; that’s a thing the Soldier desires to keep.

“Woulda been the end of the line up there,” the Captain murmurs. “Without you.”

And the Soldier feels weight and heat in him, in those words: weight and heat they don’t warrant. Weight and heat that means everything.

“Will you let me help?” the Captain’s asking, and it settles the rising, overwhelming tide in the Soldier’s chest as the Captain’s hand moves to cover his own, but pauses, his expression conflicted.

“Will you,” the Captain looks at him, into him, maybe: or tries to; it strokes at something violent in him, though, makes him settle, makes him feel hope in a way he didn’t know hope could really live. “Can I...”

The Captain’s hand still hovers; the Soldier blinks, and makes a choice.

The Soldier shifts, so that the hand the Captain offers settles around the metal of his own.

“It’s okay,” the Captain is saying suddenly, low and deep like the sea that lives beneath, the sea that’s gaping, now, without the Asset to hold it steady. “It’s gonna be okay. You’re going to be okay, I promise,” and it’s only then, it’s only with those words and the pressure of touch against the steel of his wrist that the Soldier realizes his body is shaking, and the metal arm can be as stabilized as it wants: if the whole of him is trembling where it’s attached to the rest of his body, there’s no salvaging that still.

“We’ll make it okay,” the Captain tells him, and it almost feels intimate, like a promise made to someone else, someone the Captain sees stretched across the Soldier’s face, someone the Captain needs, and needs to find inside the Soldier to make it okay, to make himself okay.

The Soldier understands, between one breath and the next, that he’ll be that, if he can. He’ll do that, for the Captain, if he’s capable. If the option is there to take.

The sensors in his fingertips chart the Captain’s pulse: heightened, but within normal ranges, now—steady. He watches the Captain’s chest, notes the shift of the air with his breaths: deep. Safe.

The Captain is safe.

The Soldier feels the claws against his ribs loosen, just a little, just enough.

It’s the beat of chopper blades in the air that fights the beat of the heart he feels compelled to keep, to preserve: it’s the roar of impending rescue that sends the Soldier’s spine to a harsh line, that steals his breath and pulls him away.

“Wait,” the Captain tries, but the Soldier’s already in the brush, in the trees.

The Soldier watches as the Captain struggles to follow his path, to watch him, to find him; the Soldier watches until the Captain is secure with his allies, his friends. The Widow. The Falcon. Not the Sound, but the Fury.

It’s not until the Captain is retrieved, and the Soldier beats retreat, that he realizes.

Bucky.

That’s the word from the snow, from the fall. From before.

That’s the word, that’s the name, that the Captain screamed at him.

______________________________

The goal is to find out about the Captain. The aim is to fill the gaps of the mission brief, to understand the Mission that underlies his breathing, his being, the blood in his veins: the museum is his destination for these purposes, and these purposes alone.

The Soldier does not expect to find his own face, there.

The Soldier does not expect to find that his face is called “Bucky.”

The Soldier barely makes it out the door, into an alley before he’s heaving, dry and raw and full of acid, onto the concrete at his feet.

______________________________

Recovery, thankfully, isn’t a thing Steve has to consider or account for, in the aftermath of the Triskelion: hell, even without being who he is—being what he is, he’d have probably been alright, given time, because the real heavy hitting had been taken, had been absorbed by his own unexpected hero: guardian angel cast in shadows who took the bullets meant for Steve, who pulled Steve from the water, who broke free and made Steve believe, for a moment, in the way the world can change for good.

And even when Steve’d fucked up, even when Steve had reached, tried to remove the mask and check to be sure the Soldier was okay, that his wounds would heal like Steve’s, that his breathing was clear and his body was safe: even when Steve’d nearly driven him away for not fucking thinking about what it would look like to this man, this prisoner so newly freed, when a hand was raised to touch him, to grab and to take and to hold—even then, the Soldier had stayed, had consented without words, had made the choice to trust and Steve can’t articulate what that’d felt like, how that had spread like honey and fire and soft hands on his skin, that trust, and he was going to earn it, he was going to deserve it through and through, Steve promised

But then, the chopper had come to find him, and the Soldier had cut and run, and Steve’s been wrestling with the sickness in his own stomach, in his own chest and the loss of this thing that feels tied up in so much that lives beyond the Soldier, beyond the present: Steve’s been struggling with the weight of real loss—of opportunity, of the chance to redeem, of the chance to save a life where he couldn’t another; to teach a soul to live again where he’d lost his own beneath the snow.

Steve knows it’s selfish. He knows that. But he also knows that sometimes, it evens out: it’s okay, if he’s selfish, as long as selfish helps someone else at the same time.

The world’s not fair, and Steve’s long since made peace with the fact that he can’t always play fair if he’s looking to match it, to catch it in its tracks and set it straight, if only for a moment, if only where it doesn’t ease the tightness, doesn’t dull the ache.

Something’s better than nothing, or so they say.

Steve will blame the whirring in his head for missing the whirring outside it; Steve will blame preoccupation for what could have been a lethal mistake, a lapse in attention as he walks from his bedroom to his kitchen, spares a glance at the floor where there’d been blood stains, where there’s nothing now but echoes, and he wonders why he stayed here, why he insisted on coming back here

And that’s when his heart damn well stops. That’s when he sees it, just out of the corner of his eye, and it’s the mask, really, that halts the instinct to leap, to grab for the shield and go on defense, to start planning attack: it’s the mask.

Jesus,” he hisses, caught off guard, calming himself quickly as he takes in the figure seated at his kitchen table—still in his tacsuit, hair a mess, but eyes…different.

The eyes look different. The eyes speak really fucking loud.

“Hi,” Steve tries, starts again. “Shit, I was,” Steve clears his throat, looks away and makes for the Mr. Coffee. “I was worried, y’know,” Steve says, and he wishes the words were stronger, less shaky, but it’s the truth he hadn’t been able to speak, to admit until it was prove unfounded: he’d been afraid the Soldier’d gotten captured, that his handler’s had wrangled him, that he’d been found, been taken, or worse—

“But you’re,” Steve clears his throat, grabs for two mugs. “You’re alright?

Steve glances over his shoulder, where the Soldier is staring hard at Steve’s back, not violently but pointedly: trying to figure something out.

Steve swallows hard, but doesn’t look away until the Soldier nods, just a tiny incline of his head: he’s alright.

The breath that Steve lets go means something that Steve can’t quite figure: it’s deeper, heavier than he expects it to be.

“I take mine black,” Steve says as he pours fresh brew into the cups and carries them to the table. “Friend of mine used to, so that’s what I’ve always known, but,” Steve shakes his head, tries to bury the image of perfect lips and long lashes and utter bliss on reddened cheeks as Bucky would cradle the coffee like a blessing, like a lifeline—Steve buries the image down deep, where it belongs. The Soldier deserves his attention, deserves his help for more than penance, for more than making up the inches, the space Steve couldn’t reach, couldn’t grasp, couldn’t save the only thing, the only person who could ever have meant the whole world.

“But, yeah,” Steve recovers, going for the milk and the sugar and scrounging up a spoon. “Here’s… yeah.”

The Soldier just stares at him, and Steve wants to think the quirk of his brow is amused, but that’s probably just the wishful thinking that rides the heels of humiliation.

“Have you been able to bunk down anywhere?” Steve regroups, asks seriously, because he’s taking in the tacsuit, and it’s worn, it’s filthy, it’s—if the Soldier’s been in that since the helicarrier went down—

“Have you been eating enough?” Steve ventures, noticing just how lithe the body before him is: powerful, coiled and built for stealth, and undoubtedly amped up enough to deal with lack of shelter, lack of sleep, lack of food but he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t have to anymore, and Steve will be damned if the Soldier suffers, now; suffers ever again, if Steve can help it, because the world’s not fucking fair, but this.

This, Steve can help fix.

“I,” he gestures behind him. “Toast, there’s toast, and some fruit, might be a little overripe, do you want…?”

He glances at the Soldier, who’s still just watching him, and it’s a little unsettling—or else, it’s unsettling until Steve realizes that the Soldier’s watching him, he's choosing to watch him, has the freedom to move and to sit and to watch and he didn’t, before.

Steve wonders, idly, whether the Soldier can even remember what it is to chose what he wants. To chose to eat in general.

Steve breathes, deep: this is the kind of battle he knows.

He’s not backing down.

“Yeah,” Steve nods. “How about I make you some, and you can have it, or you can not, and that’s cool, I just,” and Steve knows he’s babbling, cuts himself off by clenching his jaw and pressing his lips together tight.

“Right, yes.” He turns to the toaster. “Breakfast.”

He takes a few minutes to slice up a peach that’s just shy of going off, butters the toast when it pops, and places it all onto a plate that he slides onto the table in front of the Soldier, next to the cup of coffee.

The untouched cup of coffee, Steve notices, and frowns, before it hits him.

The mask.

“Oh,” Steve draws out slow. “You’ll have to,” Steve gestures to the line of his jaw, where the mask holds to the face. “And I, “ realization starts dawning as he takes in the Soldier’s face, the conflict in the eyes, the disorientation, the creeping lines of fear that Steve can’t stand for, can’t bear to see here, where he’s safe.

“I’m going to hop in the shower, how about that? You,” Steve points to the food on the plate. “You go ahead, help yourself to whatever, okay? Whatever you want. And you can stay, or you can go, and you can come back whenever you need to. Or want to.” Steve inclines his head toward the slightly-cracked window that had undoubtedly been the Soldier’s point of entry. “The window’s open. Or the door, but I figure,” he grins, and wants to believe there’s a light in the Soldier’s eyes, too, as he does: “You might prefer the window.”

The silence stretches, and Steve wonders when he became so goddamned bad at this; wonders, more pointedly, if he’d ever actually learned to be good at it. The talking thing. When it mattered.

“Right. Dig in, I’ll,” Steve points behind him, and beats a retreat to the ensuite bath. “Yeah.”

Steve doesn’t spend long under the spray—because he doesn’t want to leave the Soldier alone if he needs something; because the heat makes him think of a different time, a different source of warmth, of comfort: a body near his body that was made to fit him, that was made to know his own and keep him close and he’d failed it, he’d failed—

He climbs out, towels his hair dry and slips on a pair of jogging pants as he peeks into the kitchen: empty.

Something in Steve drops out, gives way, but then he sees it: the empty plate, the empty mug, stacked in the sink.

The window left cracked, just enough to invite a breeze.

And he smiles, at that.

He makes a note to add peaches to his shopping list.

______________________________

As a Soldier, he thinks, it’s not surprising that routine is what he falls back on, falls into: it’s not surprising.

What’s surprising is the way it fuels him, the way it makes him feel dead and alive by turns, except the dead doesn’t make him feel hollow—it makes him well aware of the fact that he’s breathing, the fact that the man in the newsreels, the videos: that it’s him.

He is Barnes, James Buchanan. He was joyful, once. He mattered, however little, for however short a time.

He was born, not made. He lived; he didn’t function. He ached, he needed: not maintenance, but care, but touch—but love.

He goes to the museum, he wanders the city, he tries to recall without looking where he’s from, who he’s been. When it doesn’t work, when it’s too far buried, he stops at the library, he sits in on a lecture course at one college or another—he learns, and he sits in Central Park, sometimes, or in Times Square, surrounded as a test, isolated as a rule: he sits until it beats in his blood like the truth, until he recognizes details he hadn’t found on a page, hadn’t heard in a speech: he regains himself.

He unmakes a ghost, gives the spectre of himself weight again but he sticks to the shadows: he unravels the wrongs done, to his hands and by his hands and beyond his own mind, and he sobs for it, he chokes for it, he rages—he drives a stolen car to raze a lab across state lines, to stop, to revenge, to even the score of a world that’s not fair, to—

He does what he can. He waits until it’s a memory, every piece: he waits until it resonates, and then he goes. Then he cracks the window and crawls inside and eats peaches and toast and drinks black coffee as Steve showers, gives him space, and it tastes like a century lost and a benediction found, like burning and redemption, like death at his hands and rising from the ashes: he sees the Man from the Bridge, the Man from the Train, the Man from the Memories, the Captain, his Captain:

Rogers.

The name, fuck, fuck—the name slips like silk and honey and red wine against his tongue, like it’s made to suit his soul, and the Asset never knew those things: the Soldier didn’t grasp those things, but Barnes, James Barnes.

He can. He could.

He does; he will.

And sometimes he stays, places the mask back on because he’s not sure if this is right, if what feels more real than any other thing is in fact the truth, if he can trust himself at all; he’s not sure—there are still holes, still gaps; there are still things that clamp tight at the base of his throat and sting around the pump of his heart that might be the world and might be the dark, he can’t tell, not yet, and he needs to maintain something sure: but James Barnes feels light with the way this man looks at him—like he’s worth a sunrise, like he’s earned forgiveness, like he deserves to be saved, to be helped, to be known—and he wonders if that’s how it’s always been.

He wonders if that’s a memory, or if it’s something wholly new.

He hasn’t yet decided if he cares much either way, but the novelty of deciding at all: it’s unnameable, it’s like flying, or falling, and living nonetheless.

James Barnes doesn’t have to wonder whether he’d grateful or not, for that.

______________________________

Steve hadn’t realized how aimless his life had gotten, and how much it’d been weighing him down, until there’s a purpose again, and there’s so little weight, and the Soldier doesn’t always drop by, but he looks healthy, looks aware and alert, seems just a little better, every time Steve sees him.

And Steve’s been hard at work, taking Hydra down where he can, but this: this is the work he’s really cut out for. This is what a good man does, and he’d promised Erskine he wouldn’t forget that part: he thinks he might have, for a little while, and he puts the ache of thawing, of living up against the spark of something close to happiness at seeing the Soldier—someone who was mistreated, who was robbed, who was harmed and battered and barely existing as a human at the start: there’s genuine joy that rises in Steve when he sees the Soldier in jeans, a high-necked track jacket and yeah, maybe he doesn’t trust Steve enough, just yet, to take off the mask, but Steve respects that, Steve makes him breakfast—or sometimes, the Soldier makes it first, and Steve won’t even pretend that he second-guesses the motives or the safety of smiling, and thanking his guest for the gesture, because maybe Steve’s an idiot, maybe Steve’s a fool but he trusts this man, so much a reflection of himself, so much a mirror-image of all that could have been suffered and wasn’t because Steve was lucky, and this man suffered the flipside of that coin.

And more than that: the Soldier is recovering, is reclaiming what it means to be a person and Steve’s really just providing the bare-bones, the backup plan, the belief that it’s worth it, that this man is worth so fucking much because he’s still standing, still breathing, after everything: Steve’s not doing anything outlandish to make this work, but Steve himself is seeing his own recovery, his own grasp at what it means to be human again. He’s spent so many years, so much time loving and losing and hating himself for never reaching out the way he needed to, the way he burned to, down to his bones: and the world’s unfair, and some things can’t ever change.

But that had never stopped him before; that never stopped him from finding what he could change, and shaking it until it was cracked enough to make it new.

He’d forgotten, for a while, what it meant to fight for justice. What it meant to do right not by the world, but by people: not for a flag, but for a soul. He’d lost sight of that, for a little while—forgotten his momma’s voice in his head teaching him about kindness and respect. He’d forgotten.

Never again.

He’s drying off—the Soldier had been waiting for him that morning, had made him toast and cut a pineapple, had brewed stronger coffee than Steve had drank since the trenches, and had watched Steve eat like the motions, like his chewing held the answer to the universe. Steve should have found it unnerving.

He hadn’t.

But he’s drying off, now, having given the Soldier ample time to eat his own breakfast, and he hears it.

Key in the lock. Turn of the handle.

“On your left, dickhead!” Sam shouts to his right, down the hall toward where Steve’s wrapped in a towel, trying his damnedest to stop Sam from sauntering straight into the kitchen like he always does—

“Sam, wait!”

Steve comes up short where Sam’s stopped in the doorway, and his stomach plummets before he glances over Sam’s shoulder and peers into the room.

Empty.

But where Steve focuses on the crusts still sitting on the plate at the table, Sam sees fit to zero in on the black mask that had been abandoned next to the coffee mug.

Steve holds his breath while Sam puts the pieces together, moves to clear the dishes by the time Sam speaks, tone flat.

“You let him into your apartment.”

“He didn’t get to finish his toast,” Steve laments quietly, hoping that the Soldier finds something to pad his appetite elsewhere—suspects he will. Steve’s left dinners on the windowsill a few times, just because, and they’ve mostly disappeared as a matter of course, but the Soldier never comes to him sickly, or underfed. Steve figures he knows what he’s doing.

Or else, that he’s getting there.

He dumps the crusts in the trash and moves to rinse the plate.

“This isn’t the kind of guy you save, Steve,” Sam finally says, voice tight. “He’s the kind you stop.”

“I don’t know what kind of guy he is, Sam. I don’t think even he knows, not anymore. Not after what they did.” Steve sighs, because this isn’t an argument he wants to have, isn’t an argument that’s worth a damned thing because it won’t change him, it won’t change what he’s doing: it doesn’t matter whose case gets made, Steve’s not budging.

Steve’s not walking away.

“You know,” Steve starts, shakes his head and braces his weight against the counter by the sink. “I signed up for what was done to me. I volunteered, and there are still things about it, things about what I am, that I…”

He trails off, closes his eyes tight and wonders, not for the first time, if any of it was worth it; if he wasn’t a better man, a better human when he stood shorter, but fought harder: when he had his heart and soul as his shield in the flesh, rather than the stars and stripes as his shield cast in metal—he wonders, not for the first time, what the goddamned point was if he wasn’t strong enough, if he couldn’t save anything, not really.

For him, a voice whispers in the back of his head. It’s worth it if you can help him.

“I made the call, and it still didn’t sit quite right, but him?” Steve breathes out slow. “He didn’t have a choice.”

Sam’s head cocks critically; Steve can see it out the corner of his eye.

“You sure about that?”

Steve’s hands grip tighter, threaten to crack the countertop. The Soldier isn’t a monster; isn’t a ghost. The Soldier was loved, once, too.

Steve’s sure of that.

“First time he came here, he stared at the coffee I made him like he didn’t remember what to fucking do with it,” Steve starts, tries not to let that fact sting any more than it has, in the days, the weeks since it happened, since it starting plaguing his dreams: the overture to the train, to the falling, to the losing, every night.

“The first time?” Sam asks, tone sharp, but Steve barely registers the words.

“They say he’s been,” Steve swallows hard. “They say he’s been active for decades, Sam. And his eyes,” Steve’s breath catches as he thinks back to the rooftop, that first time. “You look at them, and it’s like they’re ancient. But then you keep looking, and they’re scared. He was so scared. He was scared, and he’s young, and—”

Steve’s heart’s racing for no goddamned reason, and he exhales slow to try to rein it back in check before he says it, the bottom line:

“He deserves better.”

Sam leans against Steve’s kitchen table, crosses his arms and considers him carefully.

“He’s killed people, Steve,” Sam states it plain, voice even.

“So have I,” Steve shrugs. “So have you. Being a killer doesn’t make you a monster,” Steve bites his lip, thinks about war, and life, and death: thinks about Bucky asking him, once, what it meant that he was so good behind a sniper scope, and the words Steve’d said then are as true right now: “It’s wanting the kill that manages that.”

Sam doesn’t have to say a word to convey his own skepticism: not at the declaration, but at the relevance to the context: to the Winter Soldier and his laundry list of hits.

“I don’t think he even remembered how to want,” Steve says, and he believes that with everything he is, everything he knows. “And maybe I can’t save him,” and Steve wouldn’t be surprised, really, because Bucky was the saviour—Steve was the fighter, the stubborn punk who just kept swinging. That’s what he is; that’s what he knows.

And the Soldier, Steve knows, is a goddamned worthy cause.

“But I can help, Sam,” Steve’s gaze flickers toward the fruit bowl, sees it’s emptier of peaches than it was when last he’d looked, and he fights a grin, because: yes. Steve can help him. Steve can throw as many punches as he needs, so that the man who lives beneath the hurting, beneath the horrors done, the phantoms slain—Steve can even up those odds so this man can win the match at the close.

He can do that.

“And as long as he needs it, I’m sure as hell not gonna stop.”

______________________________

James Barnes doesn’t matter to the wide world so much, so James Barnes doesn’t have to hide. The loss of the mask isn’t consequential to his life beyond his Captain. The Captain, for reasons unknown, thinks that he matters. The Captain thinks he matters in his kitchen, and in the newsreels, and in the stories, and in the dreams that James Barnes has at night and only remembers in snippets: his Captain’s the only one he needs to steer clear of, for now, without the cover on his face, without the touchstone to keep him steady before he finds himself lost, adrift again for all the things he thinks he feels when he sees those eyes, when he thinks he remembers a thing that can’t be true because it’s too damned good. It’s just the Captain he needs to keep some distance from.

His Captain, though: he’s come to need his Captain.

Except, that’s not true; it’s not a place he’s reached, a fact he’s learned.

That’s a thing he knows; has always known.

He goes to the museum, and watches the clips again—watches the eyes, and wonders if he could ever be looked at with that much heart again; wonders if he’s lost that chance.

He wonders if it means something, that Steven Grant Rogers weathered time with the compass of his morals, with his bleeding heart still intact—he wonders if that means some things don’t die, don’t fade.

He watches the apartment from the road, and only notices, the third night, that there’s something on the sill he tends to climb in through.

Sorry for the interruption, the note reads. I’ll make pancakes in the morning, if you want to give them a try. To make up for you missing out on your toast.

James Barnes smiles, slides the mask sitting next to the piece of paper into the pocket of his coat, and wonders, just a little bit more.

______________________________

“Let’s say that I needed to keep a person safe.”

Steve’s gnawing at his bottom lip as he waits for a response across the line—this isn’t a phone call he wanted to make, but the Soldier had been there that morning, had watched him with something like contentedness in his eyes as Steve’d flipped pancakes, had eyed the misshapen stack on his plate just a little bit ravenously until Steve had laughed and left him to it, and had downed them all by the time Steve emerged from the shower: he was poised, back to Steve’s approach where he stood by the plate of extra flapjacks near the stove, and while he’d frozen as Steve walked in, he didn’t run.

“Don’t worry, m’not lookin’,” Steve assured him with a grin. “Gonna brush my teeth. Finish those up.”

And the Soldier had. And Steve had felt happy for the first time in a fucking long time.

But he couldn’t shake the feeling that, whether or not the Soldier ever wanted, ever trusted him enough to show his face: Steve needed to do what he could to make sure the Soldier was safe, always safe and more than free to live in the open, to walk with his head high—to be without fear.

So: this isn’t a phone call he wanted to make, but it’s the only one he thinks can make a difference.

“S’weird,” the snark that bears down the line is damn well palpable. “But like, I have this feeling that somehow? You, of all people, could manage that one all on your lonesome.”

“I mean legally,” Steve huffs back. “Against,” Steve ponders the best way to phrase it. “Against the government, maybe?”

There’s silence, for a second, and Steve wonders if the call dropped.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” Tony’s long-suffering sigh trails off. “What kind of criminal mastermind are we talking, here?”

Steve bites at at corner of his mouth before laying it out straight.

“Torture victim turned assassin?”

“Yeesh,” Tony yelps. “You sure know how to hit a guy before he’s had his coffee.”

“You drink coffee all day.”

Tony doesn’t deny it.

“How murder-ish of an assassin are we talking?”

Steve thinks back to Nat’s estimates—it honestly hadn’t been something at the forefront of his mind when it came to the Soldier, when it came to caring what happened to this man, the victim of hate and manipulation: as much Frankenstein’s monster as Steve himself, but where Steve’d been met with compassion, and opportunity, the Soldier had only seen blood, and cold, and the worst that humankind can give.

Steve had never dwelled upon the body count: it would never have made a difference alongside the hurt endured.

“Couple dozen targets taken out over the past half-century?”

“That all?” Tony snorts, but his tone hardens: Steve suspects that Stark knows who he asking to protect. “And here I thought you were bringing me something interesting.”

“Stark.”

“High-profile hits?”

Steve thinks about it. “Possibly?”

“American citizens?”

“Probably,” Steve figures, given context. “Possibly people connected to S.H.I.E.L.D. High-ups.”

Tony’s quiet, like something Steve’s said has struck a chord, but fuck if Steve knows what might have made a dent in that scarlet-and-gold armor.

“I’m not a lawyer,” Tony starts, and Steve bites back a sigh.

“Meaning that I’ve totally read enough to be a lawyer, but I pay plenty of people to be very good at it while I do things that are infinitely more satisfying,” Tony tacks on, and Steve lets the sigh out, now—more goodnatured, more fond-if-exasperated than the one he’d held back. “So.”

“I’m going to guess duress of some sort, maybe entrapment, depending on the details,” Tony starts, ticking off the impending legal battles on his fingers, surely: Steve can damn well see it over the phone. “Oh, hell, brainwashing! Did’ya know that can be a defense?”

“Tony—”

“These people live in mansions on my dime, Cap,” Tony dismisses the attempt to wrangle his brainstorming. “Pretty sure they can keep your criminal boytoy out of prison, yeah.”

Steve doesn’t bother correcting the terminology. It’s not relevant, and it’s fucking Tony Stark. Won’t make a difference, either way.

“I’m sensing an and, here,” Tony eventually tacks on, his tone bone-dry. “Spit it out, gramps.”

Steve swallows, hard, because yeah.

There’s an and.

“His captors,” Steve admits it, throat tight. “Or the people who, who’ve handled—”

“Thank Jesus, now we’re talking. Security,” Tony exhales heavily in relief or maybe giddiness, Steve’s not sure—Steve’s not sure he really wants to know, to be fair. “I knew I answered your call for a reason.”

Technically, sir, I forwarded—

“Details, JARVIS,” Tony cuts off the AI’s interjections. “You’re speaking my language now, Rogers. Tell me what you need.”

Steve’s chest feels lighter—not looser, though, cause only Bucky could manage that—but it’s lighter, he’s lighter, all of a sudden, though he isn’t sure why.

He lists what he’s got in mind, though, and by the time he’s done, he’s oddly grateful for Tony Stark, who didn’t so much as balk at a single suggested provision.

“On it, Cap,” he signs off. “No sleep till Brooklyn.”

Steve snorts, and yeah.

Lighter.

______________________________

The memories are enough to make a man of him, now, and he is James Buchanan Barnes.

What he’s still not sure about, what he still needs to understand deep inside his bones, is whether or not he’s still Bucky.

Because there’s something very clear inside his memories, something clear inside his own eyes in the clips, in the photos that he knows, that he recognizes and that spells it out against his own soul: James Barnes was only ever Bucky, because he had his Steve. The person he was, the life that he led, the way that he breathed: it was all tangled up in that skinny punk, and if he’s going to call himself Bucky, if he’s going to admit to being that man above what he is, better than just James—though James is better than anything he’s been for decades—but if James is going to own that name again, it can’t be on his own.

If he’s going to be the Bucky who Steve Rogers screamed for, reached for; if he’s going to be the Bucky that the Captain sighed for the touch of on the riverbank, before his eyes saw any truth, then James has got to know.

He’s gotta know whether Steve is simply clinging to a memory; he needs to know for sure whether Bucky means anything, anymore, to the only person who was ever worth a damn.

He goes to Steve’s—has taken to watching him until his chest damn well aches with the pounding on the inside, the way his lungs don’t seem to know how to hold all that Steve is, all that Steve makes him feel and think and hope against hope to know

“Look,” Steve says, won’t meet his eyes, and James hates it, wants to look into that gaze and see himself inside; see Bucky inside. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

James doesn’t remember everything, but he remembers enough to know those aren’t good words. Of all the words in the world, those are not lumped in with the good ones.

“I,” Steve starts, stops. “Well...”

He clears his throat, and looks tiny, looks hesitant, and there’s a latent need in James to reach for him, to soothe the uncertainty, to make him remember that he’s strong, that he’s good, that he’s everything.

“I suspect you know well enough how to make your way, to be safe, to,” Steve’s saying, when James gets back to himself enough to listen. “To be okay.”

And James has fake IDs, James has passports and money, taken from safehouses, scoured from the labs he’d burned to the ground.

But James remembers knowing the difference between existing and living.

There’s a fine line, he thinks, between being, and being “okay.”

“But, if you find you need friends,” Steve nods, eyes still not lifting. “If you want to leave, and I mean, I don’t want you to feel like you have to, I—”

He breaks off, and his knuckles turn white against the wood of the table before he picks back up.

“I’ve come to really enjoy you,” Steve says, softly. “Being, here.”

“But you’re free to go, to do, what you want, where you want, and if that ever means you’ve gotta fight your way to the finish,” Steve taps on the folder lying there between them. “There are people, there are so many people in your corner, okay? Not just me.”

James damn near stops breathing, when those blue eyes meet his own: so fucking open. So goddamned full.

Just like he remembers. Sadder, yes: but the same.

“I mean, always me, you gotta know that, right?” Steve says, almost pleads it; James nods, and it draws a quirk to Steve’s lips, one that makes James itch, suddenly, to open his mouth: to smile in return where Steve can see it.

“I haven’t,” Steve shakes his head. “Well,” and the smile, or the hint of it: the hint of the smile turns rueful, sours at the seams.

“I’ve always been one to fight for the underdog,” Steve says, all self-deprecation, all the things James had never be able to stand, to stomach. “I’ve never liked a bully.”

An understatement. That much, James knows.

“Bucky used to,” Steve shakes his head, and there’s a flash, there’s a moment that might be wishful thinking, that might be James’ imagination, but he thinks—he thinks he does see himself in those eyes, just then: heartbreak. Yearning.

Jesus.

“My friend, my best friend,” Steve says, and it strains, and his smile looks now more like mourning, like it physically pains him to hold up, to maintain. “He used to ask me why I couldn’t just keep my nose out of trouble,” Steve laughs, but it hurts to hear it, to feel the ice of it like Cryo and ice and the long winters where Steve’s chest would rattle, and stop rising in the night.

“But it was like in the movies, in the comics and the books just like it was on the streets,” Steve presses on, and James remembers the theatre, James remembers the couch cushions and the end of the goddamned line.

“The people under attack, the ghosts in the stories we’d tell under the covers. Doesn’t matter who they are, or what they’ve done, what’s been done. Someone loves them,” Steve’s voice grows thin, and James can see himself clearly in those eyes for how they swim before they close, before they hide and Steve grates out:

“And they’re hurting, and I couldn’t, I can’t—”

Steve looks breakable, in that moment, and James feels compelled to hold him steady, to reach—

“And then,” Steve heaves a breath, and it’s shaky, and James stills: “I lost him.” Steve’s voice is empty, now, Steve’s voice is flat and inflectionless and that’s almost worse than anything else, because James remembers all the things that voice can do, all the things that voice can make a person feel.

“I lost him, because I couldn’t save him,” Steve says, careful, awkward around each word. “And I haven’t much known how to be a person, myself, without him.”

Steve breathes again, long and hard, like it was exhausting just to do it, just to say it, and James thinks maybe. Maybe it’s not just a memory for clinging to.

Because a memory can sting, he knows: but he’s not sure a memory can sear like that.

“But then I saw you,” Steve’s talking again, and his voice has something in it, and it’s amazing, what that simple shift, that return of Steve to the words: it’s amazing, to feel precisely what that does inside James’ chest.

“I saw you, and I saw me,” Steve says, leans forward with it. “I saw how it all could have gone if I didn’t have people in my corner, if I didn’t have Buc—”

Steve’s eyes do their flashing, one more time; James’ heart does its twisting right along with it.

“And I couldn’t let you hurt anymore,” Steve shakes himself, forges on. “Not if I could help it, not if there was anything I could do.”

Steve smiles, just a little; and if it’s sad this time, James knows it’s for him, and that feels significant.

“So. Thank you,” Steve says simply. “I didn’t realize I was,” he looks down, shakes his head, and gets to his feet.

“Forget it.” He stretches, and goes to the stovetop. “Thank you.”

James watches him, watches every motion of his frame as he moves, and recognizes the stiffness, the halting in his gait, the working of his throat: James knows him.

James knows.

“French toast,” Steve’s telling him with a kind smile as he slides a plate of fried slices his way. “S’good,” he assures. “You seemed to like the syrup with the pancakes.” And he slides the bottle of syrup over, as well.

“My,” he clears his throat. “My friend, he had a sweet tooth, too. Fucking loved French toast,” Steve crosses his arms, and nods to himself, more than to James, really. “Thought you might feel the same.”

James remembers French toast. James absolutely feels the same.

More than that: maybe James never stopped feeling that way to begin with.

Steve makes to leave the room, to let him eat his fill in private, to unhook the mask and dig in, but he pauses, just at James’ shoulder.

“We’ve got your back,” Steve’s voice is pitched low, but it shivers through with sheer sincerity. “Doesn’t matter who comes for you,” and James feels it, when Steve’s hand hovers near his arm, doesn’t touch, and James is grateful, he is so fucking grateful when Steve breathes out: “We’ve got you.”

James leans into the hand that lingers, and Steve’s breath catches; his touch is pressure, is a gentle squeeze of solidarity before he retreats.

James stares at his plate, but he feels too full to take a bite.

It takes him a number of minutes to process that the shower never starts; it takes a number of minutes for James to get to his feet, silent as he approaches Steve’s room.

He only means to be sure Steve is safe, that he’s okay—he doesn’t mean to pry, or to intrude.

But he cannot look away from what he finds.

“I’m sorry,” Steve’s whispering to an old photo in a frame, and when James narrows his eyes, he can recognize the still: from the museum.

It’s them.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you so easy,” Steve breathes, and his pad of his thumb is drawing heavy streaks on the glass above the face James sees, now: the face James knows, and Steve’s shoulders are shaking as he gasps out quiet: “Fuck, Fuck.”

And James wants to comfort him, wants to reach out and touch and hold and never let go: wants to breach the gap and make it so that Steve never doubts what it means to cover distance, to be enough.

His Stevie.

But Steve’s standing, and stripping, and placing the frame back on his nightstand, and James beats a hasty retreat, feet light where his pulse is heavy, and he knows.

He knows.

The ghosts aren’t only loved because they’re spectres, ‘cause they’re gone. A phantom’s got a heart in him with a mask on, and without.

And Steve was the one who always saw it, always knew it. And Steve is the one who saved the worst of him, for the sake of loving; who clung to the best of him, and called it the very same.

And James is not a phantom; not ever again. Bucky Barnes is not a ghost.

Not anymore.

______________________________

Steve’s collected himself as best he can, after taking an extra few minutes to shake beneath the spray; but he’s solid, he’s okay as he tramps out of his bedroom, hair damp and sweatshirt soaking through where he was still wet underneath. He rarely expects his visitor to stay, so to find no one seated at his table isn’t a surprise.

What is a surprise, is the stack of French toast sitting there—no syrup on it. Untouched.

Steve frowns—he’d always thought he made good French toast.

But then he sees it, notices: set just like it’d been when he’d left it on the windowsill.

The mask. With a note underneath.

Steve recognizes the paper as the back of a receipt from Safeway. For peaches.

Steve’s world stops turning before he reads the words; when he sees the handwriting. He knows that scrawl.

Oh god. Oh, god.

The words don’t make sense; the words can’t be there, the words aren’t real. The words—

Ghosts are loved can love, too.

Steve’s pulse is pounding harder than it’s ever done before: not back in Brooklyn, when it would trip, or at war, when it would race—no. Steve’s lightheaded. Steve can’t fucking breathe.

“One more scary story, Stevie.”

The sob that Steve chokes on is wretched, is warm: the voice that rumbles through him from just at his back is the whole world, is his whole heart, and Steve doesn’t know if he’s dreaming, can’t tell: all he knows is that his chest feels loose, the bands of his ribs giving way and leaving him unfettered, unbound.

Undone.

Steve gasps, and the tears on his face are a balm for whatever comes, whatever waits.

One more scary story.

Steve turns around.