Six Months Later
“Sergeant Barnes,” says Dr. Traoré. You shake her hand. “Long time no see. Thanks for coming.”
“Good to see you too, Doc,” you say. “How're the girls?”
“The bane of my existence,” she says, grinning. “Aimee's decided she wants to be a tattoo artist. You would not believe the magazines that come in the mail. More importantly, how are you?”
“Been better,” you say. “Haven't you heard? Captain America went back on duty last week.”
“Heart attack city, huh?”
“I feel like I'm going to have a stroke every time the uniform comes out of the closet,” you agree. “So, no better time to schedule my exam.”
“Ooo, anxiety in vivo, you do spoil me. Get your butt up here.”
You hop onto the MRI bed. She glances appreciatively at your left hand. “That's looking substantially more swank than the last time we met.”
You pluck imaginary lint from your scrubs with carbon-mesh fingertips.
“Thanks,” you say. “I made it myself.”
“I've never seen anything like it,” says Dr. Traoré. “Not only have you rebuilt connections around the lesions, this, here, this is a zone of amplified neural connectivity. You see growth like this in babies, when their brains are still developing.” She shakes her head. “I want to cut out your brain and study it, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.”
“I'm sure you say that to all the boys.”
"Only the superhuman ones. How are the headaches?”
“A lot better,” you say. Muscle tension. Months of nothing, and then fifteen pounds of arm. Your neck, trying to compensate for the wrong weight.
“And the dreams?”
“Regular stuff. Hardly any flashbacks, just stupid, random things. Nightmares – still pretty often.”
Dr. Traoré makes notes in her usual looping scrawl. When she looks up, her expression is more tentative.
“How about the memories? Anything...new?”
Your smile is so big it hurts your cheeks.
“I think Doc has a crush on my brain,” you say when you walk in the door. Steve looks up. He's got charcoal on his nose.
“I guess that means you're all grown up,” Steve says. “You used to charm the ladies with your face.”
“You're a riot.”
You come around the sofa and almost sit on Clint.
“When the hell did you get here?” you say, smacking his ankle. He lifts his feet so you can sit, and then puts them right back down in your lap. You resist the urge to steal his socks. One is green plaid. The other is pink with tiny hearts.
“About twenty minutes ago,” says Clint.
“Bosnia. I'd be there too, if somebody—” Clint flaps his purple cast at Steve, “Didn't decide to bench me.”
“Friends don't let friends go into combat zones with multiple compound fractures,” says Steve.
“Going to annoy him into submission?” you ask.
“If you mean 'provide inspiration,' then yes. Draw me like one of your French girls!” Clint sprawls across the couch. You grab his feet. “Wait, I'm not actually going to take my – hey! Aw, socks, no! Come back!”
Clint goes up to his own suite. You corral Steve before he can get any ideas.
“I have a surprise for you,” you say.
You hand him a blindfold and a pair of sunglasses. He puts them on without asking. You pull his watch cap over his ears and bundle him into his jacket. November in New York: you're not a fan. You've had enough of being cold.
“You'll have to hold my hand,” you say.
Steve grins blindly. “Why, Mr. Barnes, I never thought you'd ask.”
“That's Sergeant to you, smart guy.”
“After you, sir.”
No one recognizes either of you. Steve's beard is gone, lost to his renewed Avengering, but his cap and sunglasses are a good enough disguise.
It's not enough to stop people from staring when you pry up a manhole and climb down after Steve, but you don't mind. They'll see something stranger before they get home. This is New York.
Steve dances, does martial arts, and wields a challenging weapon with grace and dignity, but guiding him blind through a quarter mile of half-collapsed subway passages is a task. You're both sweating by the time you help him drop into the tunnel. It's damp. Just a little warmer than the streets. The sound of your breath echoing wildly. It sounds like some subterranean beast, breathing with you.
You take off Steve's blindfold, and turn on the flashlight in your phone.
“I know it's not quite right,” you say. You're about to add, 'see, the first place we met isn't there anymore, so I brought you here instead,' but Steve's strangled “Buck” cuts you off.
He turns and turns, staring at the tunnel walls like they're made of gold. When he completes his rotation, he stares at you the same way. Poleaxed. He looks like he's been hit with a brick.
“Bucky,” he says.
“That's me,” you say. “Don't wear it out.”
“Bucky,” he says again.
Steve's grin is slow to start, and then: blinding. He pulls you in and hugs you like you've just come home from war.
“You remembered,” he says into your shoulder. “You remembered.”
“You're one lucky son of a bitch,” you say. “Only got a few of these. Might have remembered the first time I met Lorna MacIntyre instead.”
“Don't even talk about Lorna MacIntyre,” he says, and lets you go. Gazing around at the tunnel again, like it holds the secrets of the universe.
“God, Buck. How long have you been hanging onto that one?”
“About a week,” you say. “Wanted to be sure it was right. And I had to find it again. How the hell did you discover this thing in the first place?”
“What I really want to know,” says Steve, instead of answering, “Is how you knew my name, and how you knew I was planning to go down here.”
You blink at him. You wonder if he's messing with you. You wonder whether he's lost his mind.
“We made plans together,” you say. Patiently, like you're talking to a kid. “Two days before, when we met the first time. You were poking around by the Chinese laundry on Atlantic. I said I had a flashlight, and you said you'd found an old subway tunnel, and I said, 'hello new best pal' and then you—”
It all comes back to you in a rush. Like someone's just boxed your ears. Thick cottony silence, and then: you're laughing. The sound of you echoing. Bouncing off the corners and coming back whole, until all you can hear is your own voice.
You remember: Steve climbing. Trying to impress you. Walking along the top of the fence like an acrobat, arms straight out, careful footwork. Doing well, until he wasn't. The hollow thud, like someone dropping a watermelon. Panic in your throat. You tore your hands to shreds trying to get over the fence. Thinking you'd see brains when you hauled yourself up.
“I'm the one with amnesia,” you manage at last, “But you can't remember the first time we met—” Steve's confused facade starts to crack, and you almost can't: “—because you gave yourself a concussion within the hour.”
Steve closes his eyes. Slowly covers his face with his hands.
He says, muffled: “Oh my god.”
“Your life in a nutshell,” you say. “I cannot fuckin' believe you. I'm surprised your mother ever let you out of her sight.”
“She didn't much,” says Steve. “Not until this kid named James Buchanan Barnes came along.”
“He must've been a real decent guy,” you say. “Saving you from yourself since 1925 and all.”
“He sure was,” says Steve. “You know what I'd say to him, if he was here today?”
“I dunno, Steve. What would you say?”
Steve's face is suddenly so bright and open and earnest you can hardly stand it. In all your life, you don't think you've ever seen him this happy. He's only wearing a little smile, but there's sunshine coming out of every pore. His eyes big and wet in the dim light. Your own eyes, prickling. Whatever he says, you think it's going to make you cry.
“I'd say that he's my hero,” Steve says, and—
Yup. There you go.
You blink at the arched ceiling. Sniffle twice. You pull yourself together.
You punch him in the arm, really hard.
“You,” you say, “Are such a goddamned sap.”
“What can I say?” Steve grins. “You bring out the best in me.”
“The best of the worst, maybe.” You turn around and start walking. “C'mon, Rogers. Enough nostalgia. I can't feel my toes.”
Steve catches up with you and grabs your hand.
You raise an eyebrow.
“What?” says Steve, defiantly. He doesn't look at you. You can't see his ears, but they're pink. You can tell.
“Nothing,” you say. “Just, good to know the face still works after all.”
He shoves you with his elbow. You shove him back. He kicks your ankle. You hip-check him into the tunnel wall.
But you don't let go.
Not even once.