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Winter's Ending

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Her hand was warm and, just like she promised, she let him hold it as the elevator rose. The dog seemed unconcerned, but there was tension and fear roiling in his gut as they went higher and higher. The man in the blue suit was in this building. He would probably be there when the elevator door opened. He might say that name

(bucky)

again, the one that held so much hope and so much longing. He swallowed hard, and the woman glanced at him. “It's going to be okay,” she said, her voice calm and even. He liked her voice. It had a very nice sound.

She gave his fingers a quick squeeze as the elevator slowed to a stop. There was a soft ding, and then the doors slid open. The dog trotted out immediately, pausing a few feet away to turn and look at him, as if asking, are you coming? But he felt frozen in place, his eyes taking in the room, memorizing the details out of habit. Before him stretched a huge sitting area, scattered with comfortable chairs and couches. The wall to the left was all glass, and a door opened up onto a massive platform that looked like part patio and possibly part landing pad. To the right, there was a long table and, past that, a counter set with several stools. On the other side of the counter was a brightly lit kitchen, and standing in the kitchen was the man in the blue suit.

Today, the man was wearing a white tee shirt with an unbuttoned red button-up over it. His blue jeans looked comfortable and were splattered with paint. His feet were bare, his toes curling against the tile floor. His hands were thrust into his pockets as if he didn't know what to do with them and was afraid of making the wrong move.

The woman said, “Hey, Steve,” in that same calm tone. “I've brought a friend home. Come and say hello.”

The man came forward, moving toward the middle of the room, taking care not to make sudden or threatening movements. “Hey,” he said, and his voice was a balm. “I'm glad you came.”

***

Darcy nudged Bucky gently forward out of the elevator. The dog came back to them, nudging at Bucky's knee with its nose, and Bucky absently patted its head with his left hand. Steve fidgeted nervously, obviously wanting to do a thousand things and afraid to choose the wrong one. Afraid of triggering an attack, afraid of triggering flight. Afraid that at any moment he might wake up to find this all a figment of his imagination.

Darcy cleared her throat. “Are you hungry?” she asked. After a moment, Bucky nodded. She said, “How about if I fix you something to eat? Would you like that?” He nodded again, and she started to move toward the kitchen, but he didn't let go of her hand. She turned, her eyebrows raised, and it only took a second for her to take in the expression of utter terror on his face. She moved back to his side. “Hey,” she said softly, laying her other hand on his right shoulder. “It's okay. Nobody here is going to hurt you. I promise. You're safe here.”

He swallowed hard, and for a moment he looked like he wanted to cry. She had to restrain herself from hugging him. She didn't know how he would react, and also he was a little bit gross from sleeping in alleys. She gave him a smile. “What if you come and sit down, right over here? You'll be able to see me in the kitchen, and you and Steve can talk. Or Steve can talk and you can stare at him. Okay?”

He looked at her, looked at the seat she was indicating, took a deep breath, and nodded. Darcy made a shooing gesture at Steve and he backed away quickly, leaving the path open wide. Then she guided Bucky to the seat, giving him a gentle push on his right shoulder. He dropped into the chair, and the dog came and sprawled on the floor beside his feet. Darcy squeezed his shoulder. “I'll be right there in the kitchen, okay?”

Bucky nodded, watching her as she gave Steve a significant look and then went into the other space to make food. Steve shuffled nervously for a half-minute more before finally dropping down into a seat opposite Bucky. The two men stared at one another for a long time. There were so many things that Steve wanted to say, but he had no idea where or even how to begin.

***

The woman went into the kitchen to cook. The man finally sat down in a chair across from him, but didn't speak. His face was desperate.

He shifted slightly in his seat, and felt the weight of the shield against his hip. In a flash, two things occurred to him. The first was that this man wanted to speak but was afraid of getting it wrong - which meant that if he wanted help, he was going to have to find some way of asking for it. The second was that he had a way to start the conversation. He took his backpack off, putting it in the floor between his feet, and then shrugged out of his jacket. Then he pulled the strap of the messenger bag over his head. He held the bag in both his hands for a long moment, staring at the man who was staring at him. Then he held it out in front of him.

The man blinked. “Is that... for me?” he asked, tentative and almost shy.

He nodded, pushing it out toward the man again.

The man took the bag, flipped it open, reached inside, pulled out the shield. “Oh,” he said softly. He ran his hands across it, his fingers running over the scars from their last fight on the carrier. And then he said, “Thank you.” The man placed the shield in the floor, letting it lean against the leg of his chair, and offered the bag back.

He took the bag, rolling it up and tucking it into his backpack. Then he looked down at his hands, not sure what else to do. He wanted to speak, wanted desperately to speak, but his words were all jumbled up in his head and he couldn't make them calm down and form sentences. He picked at one of his fingernails.

The man took a deep breath and spoke. “I want to help you,” he said, his voice trembling. “But I don't know what you need.”

He didn't need . He wasn't allowed to need . He was a tool. He was allowed to have mission requirements - guns, knives, armor, food, cash - but needs were outside of his experience. Wants and likes were not things that he understood, were not things he was permitted to have.

Only he did. He had needed a bag, wanted a sandwich, liked a shower. He had made decisions. He had decided not to kill the doctor who set his arm, decided to take a shower, decided to go into the museum, decided to save the shield, decided to come to New York. Decided to speak to the woman.

He would not delude himself and claim not to be afraid. He was terrified. But the woman had been kind to him, and she had promised that no one here would hurt him. And the man... the man was good. The man, surely this man, who wore the suit and carried the shield and wanted to stop people from dying, this man would not hurt him. This man had fought to disable, not to kill; this man had saved him from certain death when he had been trapped. This man would never lock him into the chair, would never use the mind-wiper, would never put him away in the cold.

He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, fought with his words. “I knew you,” he said.

***

The expression on Bucky's face was heartbreaking. Whatever he was thinking about was absolutely terrifying to him, and Steve wanted nothing more than to take his friend - his brother - in his arms and hold him close, the same as Bucky had for him when they had been small. He wanted to make the fear and the pain go away, to make Bucky whole again. But there was nothing he could do, so he dug his fingers into his knees and waited while Bucky struggled.

And then Bucky said the three sweetest words Steve thought he'd ever heard. “I knew you.”

Steve nodded. “Yes,” he said simply. “You knew me. Me and you, we've known each other our whole lives.”

Bucky shook his head. “How?”

Darcy gave him a sharp look from under the kitchen counter, where she appeared to be throwing together something involving wieners and sauerkraut. His lips twitched at that; trust Darcy to remember him telling her what the nuns always used to feed them for dinner. But her expression was clearly a warning: don't push too hard . Bucky's mind was clearly a delicate thing.

He took a deep breath. “Me and you, we grew up in Brooklyn,” he said. “My dad died in World War I and my ma was a nurse in a TB ward. She caught it when I was about eight or so, and she died. And I came to the orphanage, and that's where I met you. I'd been there a coupla days and my face got in the way of somebody's fist, and you stepped in to protect me, because I was little and skinny and I woulda ended up a smear on the pavement.”

Bucky stared at him. He closed his eyes for a moment, an odd expression crossing his face, and he said, “I... thought you were smaller?”

Steve couldn't help the smile that bloomed. “Yeah,” he said. “That's what you said to me the first time I saw you again, after it happened.”

Bucky shook his head, not opening his eyes. “But I don't remember,” he said, his right hand creeping up to tug at his hair. “I don't remember what happened.”

“I, uh.” Steve paused, wondering how much to say. “I used to be little. Skinny and short and sickly. But I... I wanted to join the Army. Real bad. Because my dad was in the Army, and you were in the Army, and I wanted to be like... well, both of you. So I volunteered for this experiment, and they... they made me bigger.”

Bucky looked up at him then, his eyes haunted. “Did it hurt?”

“Yeah,” Steve admitted.

His left hand made its way into his hair, tugging. “Did they make you forget?”

Steve shook his head. “No. They didn't make me forget anything.”

***

He bent forward, pulling hard at his hair. He wanted to remember. He wanted to remember so badly but there were huge blank spaces where everything should be. If he reached, he could almost feel the shapes of things, but the things themselves were gone, like outlines in dust after objects were removed. Reaching for the memories and finding only the shapes was terrible and terrifying, and he pulled harder, trying to ground himself, wanting it to stop.

He heard the man speak, but couldn't make out the words or form a reply. And then suddenly there were hands on his: small and gentle hands, with delicate fingers that wound between his own, untangling his hair from his grip and smoothing it down, soothing touches against his scalp to ease the self-inflicted pain. And the woman's voice was whispering in his ear. “Don't,” she said softly. “Don't do that. You don't have to do that. You'll hurt yourself.”

He opened his eyes, staring at her. She was kneeling beside his chair, holding both of his hands in hers, her thumbs running across the backs of his fingers. Her expression was calm, sympathetic without being pitying. Behind her, the man looked worried and confused. He looked down at their hands, at the way she was holding his left hand just the same as she was holding his right. He looked back up at her. “Is it awful?”

She tilted her head just a bit. “Is what awful?”

He twitched his left arm a little bit in reply, and she glanced down at it before shaking her head. “You mean your arm? No. It's your arm. Why would it be awful?”

“It isn't mine,” he said. “They put it there.”

“Well, it's yours now,” she replied. “And while I'm pretty sure the circumstances surrounding it are pretty terrible, the arm itself is just an arm. Granted, it's a super-high-tech arm and when Tony Stark sees it he's going to have conniptions and probably try to poke it with a stick, but it's still just an arm.” As if to prove it, she ran her hand up to his elbow and back down again. Then she took his hand, unfolding the clenched fist and running her fingertips across the palm, over the wrist. “See?” she said. “Just a hand. Fingers. Thumb. Wrist, forearm, elbow. Just an arm.” She reached up and rubbed gently at his head. “But I'm betting it's really strong, isn't it?” He nodded, and she said, “So if you pull on your hair with it, you're going to hurt yourself. And I don't want you to hurt yourself. Neither does Steve. Okay?”

He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Okay.”

“Come and eat,” she said. “The food is ready.” She tugged gently at his metal hand and he stood, following her obediently into the kitchen. The dog trotted along behind. The woman put two wide plates on the counter and then put a plastic bowl in the floor with food for the dog. He watched the man seat himself on one of the stools and pick up a spoon, so he copied the movement, seating himself and picking up his own spoon.

He looked down into the bowl. Then he looked up at the woman. “What is it?” he asked.

She smiled. “Hot dogs and sauerkraut,” she said. “Nothing fancy, but I thought you might find it familiar.” She went to the sink and began washing up. He stared into the bowl for a long time before taking the first bite.

It wasn't familiar. He'd never had it before in his life. But at the same time, it was as though one of those empty spaces in his mind suddenly had the ghost of a shape in it. The hot dogs were firm and sort of tasteless, but the sauerkraut was sharp and salt-tangy and vinegary and amazing.

“Oh yeah, we used to eat this all the time when we were kids.”

It took him a moment to realize that he was the one who had said that. The spoon fell from his hand into the bowl and he cringed. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry.”

“Hey, it's okay.” This time it wasn't the woman coming to calm him; it was the man. His touch was warm and soothing, but terrifying at the same time.

He looked up, desperate. “Please, I'm sorry, I don't want the machine, I don't want to go back in the cold again.”

***

Steve couldn't help it. He pulled Bucky to him, wrapping his arms around his friend. “Nobody is ever gonna make you go into the cold again, I swear it,” he said softly. “I don't care if I have to burn the whole world down, Bucky, they're never gonna touch you again.”

Darcy laid a hand on his back, feeling him tremble, and rubbed it soothingly. “It's okay,” she murmured, adding her reassurances to Steve's. “It's all right. We want you to remember. Remembering is a good thing.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head hard and pushing at Steve. “No, if they find out I remember they put me in the chair. Wipe him and start over. But I can't help it, I don't want it, I don't want to do it, please don't make me do it.”

Steve cupped Bucky's cheeks in his hands, forcing eye contact. “Nobody is going to make you do anything you don't want to do,” he said, and the touch combined with the look and his Captain America voice was enough to get Bucky's attention, to knock him out of the spiral of panic. “I need you to say this with me, Buck, so you understand. I need you to understand this. Nobody here is going to hurt you. Nobody here is going to make you do anything you don't want to do. Okay?”

Bucky was still for a moment, trembling, before he managed to nod. Steve said, “I need you to say it for me, so I know you understand. Nobody here is going to hurt you.”

He struggled with it for a moment, but finally managed. “N-Nobody here is going to hurt me.”

“Good. Now. Nobody here is going to make you do anything you don't want to do.”

He swallowed hard. His voice this time was a bare whisper. “Nobody is going to make me do anything I don't want to do.”

“That's right.” Steve nodded. “No more machines. No more cold. I promise.”

“No more machines. No more cold. You promise.”

“That's good,” Steve said, one hand stroking Bucky's hair back from his face. “That's real good, Buck.” He squeezed Bucky's shoulders gently. “Think you can eat some more?”

Bucky looked at the bowl of food. He looked at Darcy. Then he looked at Steve. His eyes shone. He nodded. Steve released him and Darcy guided him back into his seat, bringing him a glass of water.

They finished their food in silence. Darcy had the thought - private and unshared - that Bucky ate like a prisoner, hunched over his bowl as if afraid that someone would take it from him. She couldn't find it amusing in the least, because what it told her about him was that he had been a prisoner, and he had reason to fear the loss of his food. Just the thought of the terror on his face when he begged them not to torture him for remembering what he used to eat as a kid made her sick to her stomach. What had he been through? What horrors had he suffered that he didn't even remember, knowing only that any slip meant the machine and then the cold?

What machine, and what cold?

Steve had a folder, all in Russian, that Natasha gave him; she hadn't wanted to pry, but now she wondered what was in it. She wondered if Steve had even read it all the way through. This was definitely going to have to be priority one if they were going to save Bucky Barnes from himself.

Bucky finished eating, setting his spoon down carefully. Darcy took the bowl, rinsed it, put it in the dishwasher. Then she said, “I don't mean to be rude, but do you know how long it's been since you had a shower?”

“Today is the sixth day,” Bucky replied immediately.

“Well, I think that's more than long enough, don't you?” she asked, giving him a smile.

He said, “I couldn't. I had to get to New York. And then I had to wait.”

“Wait for what?” Steve asked, moving into the kitchen to wash up his own dish.

“By the door. People come in and out through the door. I saw the man with the wings, and the red-haired woman. And I saw you. But then I didn't see you and I...” He trailed off, shaking his head.

“You didn't know if you could talk to them?” Darcy guessed.

He nodded. “I hurt them,” he said, his voice small and anguished. “I didn't want to. He said it was the mission. A tipping point between order and chaos. HYDRA's going to give the world the freedom it deserves.”

Steve shuddered hard, hearing those words coming out of Bucky's mouth. “HYDRA is a lie,” he said fiercely, “and everything they told you was a lie.”

Darcy raised a hand. “Steve,” she said softly, “I think he knows that. Or else he wouldn't be here. Isn't that right?”

Bucky nodded, desperate again, his eyes pleading with her to understand. “I didn't want to,” he said again.

“I know,” she assured him. She reached up and touched his cheek with her hand. “It's okay. Nobody is going to be angry with you. We know they made you do it, and you didn't want to. It's not your fault, okay?”

He nodded, and his head dropped down again, his hair curtaining his face. Darcy said, “Let's get you into the shower, how does that sound?”

He nodded again. And then he said, “That sounds good.”

***

This shower was as good as the last one. Perhaps even better. They brought him to the man's apartment - his home, the home of the man in the blue suit - and he looked around with interest as he followed the man, with his dog beside him and the woman behind them. There was an easel by the window, surrounded by well-used art supplies, and he wondered what was on the canvas. It was angled away from the door, so he couldn't see. Maybe they would let him look at it later.

The man led him into a bathroom with a huge, glassed-in shower stall. He dug into a cabinet and pulled out a towel, a wash cloth, and a plastic-wrapped toothbrush. “Everything you'll need is already in there,” he said. “I'll get you some clean clothes. If you want a shave, we can do that after; all I have is a straight razor.”

He nodded. “Thank you,” he said softly.

The man nodded. “Just call out if you need anything,” he said, then stepped out of the bathroom and pulled the door shut.

The dog lay down on the floor and relaxed with a soft whuff. He stood there for a long time, staring around himself. He was standing in a bathroom that belonged to the man in the blue suit. The man in the blue suit had promised no more machine, no more cold. Had promised to protect him. Had spoken kind words to him. Had given him food, let him have a shower. The woman had promised that no one would be angry, that no one would hurt him, that the people here would help him.

He put everything down. He stripped out of his clothing, carefully piling every piece of weaponry that had been secreted on his body in the sink. He started the water in the shower, adjusted the temperature, stepped under the spray.

There were two bottles of shampoo. One of them smelled like spice and the other like strawberries. He chose the strawberries. There were two soaps; one of them smelled of peach and the other of sandalwood. He chose the sandalwood. He watched as the accumulated dirt and filth of his travels rinsed off his body and down the drain. He crouched to rinse out the arm. He shut the water off, dried himself, and wrapped the towel around his waist.

He stepped out of the shower and looked at himself in the mirror. He ran a hand over his face. He looked down at the dog, who was now asleep on the floor. Near its head was a pile of clean clothing: a plain black tee shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and an unopened package of boxer briefs. Everything was slightly too big for him, but he put it on anyway. It felt nice, all of it. The sweatpants were warm, and the tee shirt was soft from multiple washings.

He realized, quite suddenly, that he was wearing clothing that belonged to the man in the blue suit. In his home, in his bathroom, wearing his clothing. He shook his head, meeting his own eyes in the mirror. He spread his dirty shirt out on the countertop and piled all the weapons into it. Then he folded it up like a bag, tying the corners together. He opened the door.

The man in the blue suit was sitting on the side of the bed. He looked up. He looked... worried.

He held out the makeshift bundle. “Here,” he said.

The man came and took the bundle, peering inside. He blinked. “Is this...?”

“Everything I had,” he said. “You promised.”

“I did promise,” the man said. “You don't need these here, because no one here will hurt you.”

He nodded. “I believe you,” he said. “Steve.”