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Winter's Ending

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He followed Steve up the stairs, his dog trotting along beside him, and Steve showed him into a small, plain bedroom. He looked around, eyes taking in everything he saw and cataloging it all. Bed: double. Neutral spread. Pillows. Single window: eighty-eighth floor, likely doesn't open, no balcony. Pictures on two walls. Bedside table with lamp. Bureau. Small wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Framed photographs. Closet: open, empty except for some books on a shelf. Bathroom: small; single vanity, toilet, shower-and-tub combo. Toiletries on the counter.

Steve said, “This'll be your room for now, okay? I have another guest room that has a private bath, but it needs some setup before you can use it.”

He nodded. Looked around the room again, his brain automatically marking the danger spots and noting which of the furnishings and decorations could be used as weapons and how. He said nothing. He didn't know what he wanted to say.

Steve reached down and rubbed Max's head. “If you need anything, anything at all, come get me. Okay?”

He nodded. Waited. Steve clearly wanted something, but was nervous about it. Finally Steve said, “Bucky... I know I shouldn't push, and I don't want to freak you out, but...” He swallowed hard. “I don't know how long it's been for you. But for me, it's been a couple of years since... since you fell. And I thought you were dead until D.C. And I...” He paused, swallowed again, cleared his throat. “I'd really like to hug you, if that's okay.”

He blinked. Of all the things he might have expected Steve to say, that definitely had not been on the list. He wondered when the last time was that he'd been hugged. He couldn't remember. He didn't think that was allowed. He stared at Steve for a long moment, feeling oddly hollow somewhere in his chest. He struggled to breathe, struggled to think, struggled to put words together in his mind. And finally he gave up. “Yes,” he said simply.

Steve stepped forward, his movements certain but slow, and when they were almost touching, Steve lifted his arms. They went around his shoulders, warm and sure. Uncertain how to respond, he closed his eyes and let instinct take over. His arms came up, his hands resting against Steve's back, and Steve pulled him in close, wrapping around him tightly.

He stood there, very still, breathing in the clean smell that emanated from Steve's skin and clothing, and feeling the desperate way Steve clung to him, the shuddering that accompanied Steve's every breath. He wasn't sure he was doing it right - he was fairly certain that Steve was crying, and he wasn't sure but he didn't think people were supposed to cry when they hugged - but Steve seemed to be all right with it, so he stood there, waiting.

At last, though, Steve let him go, and so he dropped his own hands and Steve stepped back, trying to wipe his eyes surreptitiously. “Thank you,” Steve said softly. “I missed you, Bucky. I missed you a lot.”

He didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything. At last, Steve reached out and clapped his shoulder, giving it a warm squeeze. “Try to get some sleep,” he said. “And come get me if you need anything. All right?”

He nodded, and watched as Steve left the room, pulling the door gently shut behind him as he went.

Max hopped up onto the foot of the bed, turned a couple of circles, and settled in with a low whuff .

He wasn't tired. Or, rather, he was tired, but there was so much going on in his mind that there was no way he would be able to sleep. He stood at the window for a long time, staring out at the city, trying hard not to think about things, because all of the thoughts would settle better that way, and some of them might find their way into some of those empty places in his mind that needed filling. The cityscape wasn't doing the trick, though, so he looked into the closet, poking at the books on the shelf.

He didn't recognize any of the titles - but that wasn't terribly surprising. He finally chose one at random - one that looked like the first in a series, just in case it was good and he finished it. He looked at the bed for a long minute before settling himself in the floor, his back against the wall in the corner. That felt better. Safer.

He opened the book and began to read. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

***

Darcy was sitting on the side of the bed when Steve came down, waiting. He thought he'd done a fairly good job at straightening his face before entering the room, but from her expression, he knew immediately that she saw right through him. Wordlessly she held out her arms, and he couldn't help it: he came to her, curled himself around her, and slumped onto the mattress, holding her like a child holds a teddy bear and letting the hot, painful tears fall into her hair.

She held him tightly, her fingers stroking his head and neck, and she let him cry, whispering gentle words into his ear, encouraging him to let it out, letting him know that she wouldn't let him go. Once the storm of weeping was finally past, he took a deep, shuddering breath, and shifted, rearranging them so that her head was pillowed on his shoulder, her arm stretched across his torso. His breath still shuddered in his chest, and she continued to pet him with gentle, soothing strokes.

Finally he spoke. “He's so fucking broken ,” he whispered.

I know,” Darcy murmured. “I was afraid... when you told me how he was in D.C., I knew it would be bad, but this is....”

I don't know if I'm equipped for this,” he admitted.

You're not,” she said simply.

He raised his head, looking down at her with an expression of deep consternation. “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence.”

It's not about confidence,” she replied, rolling onto her stomach and propping herself up on her elbows to face him. “I have every confidence in you. I have every confidence that you'll absolutely do everything in your power to help him get better again. But Steve, you're not equipped for this. I'm not either. In fact, the only person in this tower even remotely equipped for this is Sam, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't have everything it's going to take. But that doesn't mean you can't help him, and it doesn't mean we can't get help for him.”

Steve paused, considering. “Getting him doctors, you mean.”

Darcy nodded. “Doctors, medications, whatever it might take. Steve, we will do whatever it takes . But you're not going to be able to do everything for him. You , by yourself, are not equipped to fix him.”

He dropped his head back onto the pillow, sighing. “You're right.”

Of course I am,” she said easily, settling back into his arms.

***

The halls were full of the icy chill of winter as he made his way silently over their cobblestoned floors. He wasn't worried about being seen; he was a past master of moving in the shadows, plus he had his invisibility cloak. He stepped quietly, passing the portraits as they snoozed in their frames and listening carefully for Mrs. Norris, who diligently prowled the halls, looking for students out of bed, or interlopers like himself.

He didn't know how long he stalked the corridors before he found what he was looking for, but at last he located it. He pushed the wooden door open and there, in a puddle of moonlight in the middle of a dusty, disused classroom, stood his goal.

He slipped into the room, pushing the door closed behind him, and let the cloak slip from his shoulders, tossing it onto a nearby table. He stalked toward his goal.

He circled the mirror, examining it carefully. It looked fairly ordinary, if ornate: gold (or more likely gilt) framed, slightly taller and wider than himself, it looked like nothing more than what it was. He stood to one side of it, examining his reflection from an angle. He studied his own face. His hair was long and matted, his beard scruffy. His armor was dirty and scuffed, and a couple of spots were in need of repair. He couldn't see his metal arm in the glass from this angle, but it was probably damaged as well.

He was damaged. He needed repair.

He shook his head, glancing up at the engraving across the top of the mirror. erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohs i . He wondered what it meant; it was no language he recognized. He shrugged. That wasn't his problem; the meaning of the engraving was outside the parameters of his mission. He moved, placing himself directly in front of the mirror, and he looked into it.

His reflection looked back at him, tall and strapping and young, clean shaven and closely-shorn, dressed in Army greens. A tag on his chest read “BARNES” and he smirked out of the mirror like he knew all the secrets of the universe and a few more besides.

He stared at the brash, cocky fellow in the mirror, utterly unable to comprehend what he was seeing. And then the reflection shifted slightly, turned, glanced over its shoulder. It raised its arm, and a small figure joined it.

Short and skinny, the blond child wrapped his frail arms around the reflection's waist, and the reflection draped its own arm over the narrow shoulders. The boy couldn't have been more than five or six, and he stared out of the mirror with huge, hungry blue eyes. Even without the sound of wheezing, it was obvious that the boy struggled with his breath; the reflection paused to rub the child's back soothingly, and it seemed to help a little.

He didn't know how long he stood there, staring at that strapping young man and his tiny, frail charge. It had to be hours. He couldn't understand. Why did it hurt to look at them? Why did he feel such a desperate longing? What was going on ?

And then his thoughts were interrupted by a voice.

So - back again, Bucky?”

He was caught! He gasped and spun in place -

and nearly brained himself on the corner of the bedside table. Max sat up on the bed, whining in question. His heart was pounding inside his chest and his breath coming in short gasps.

He couldn't think, couldn't think, couldn't breathe, couldn't remember, and all he knew was steve will keep me safe steve promised to keep me safe . He scrambled from the room, barely managing to keep his feet under him on the way down the stairs, and he froze in the doorway.

Steve and Darcy were lying on the bed, curled up together, asleep in the moonlight that poured in the window. He felt a whine building up in the back of his throat. He needed Steve. Steve promised. He needed - needed -

He moved slowly, stalking through the shadows like the very night itself, and rounded the bed. He stood there, staring down at them for a very long time, watching them sleep, matching the rhythm of his breath to theirs.

And then, very carefully, he lowered himself onto the side of the bed.

When the mattress shifted, so did Steve. He froze, but Steve didn't wake, so he continued, laying himself down and stretching out on the ridiculously soft surface. And then he curled himself up again, sliding across the comforter and pressing himself, slowly and gently, against Steve's back.

Steve didn't wake. Darcy didn't wake.

He breathed out a long, slow sigh. Safe.

He slept.

***

When Steve woke the next morning, the first thing he was aware of was Darcy's warm weight in his arms. The second thing was that they'd fallen asleep on top of the covers. The third thing was that there was something hard pressing between his shoulder blades, and something else against his butt. Two somethings, actually. He turned his head carefully, trying not to disturb anything, and breathed a soft sigh of surprise and relief when he realized what it was.

Bucky was curled up in a fetal ball, his forehead pressed against Steve's back, and the two hard things pushing against Steve's butt were his knees. He must have slipped into the bed somehow during the night, though Steve couldn't imagine how he'd managed it without waking either of them. He wondered what had brought Bucky to his bed, but couldn't help the small part of him that was grateful he'd come. The fact that he was there, and making himself vulnerable in sleep, told Steve more than anything else about where his mind was.

He trusted Steve. They were going to need that trust for the foreseeable future; it was going to be a long road to get Bucky healed.

Steve closed his eyes again, murmuring a prayer of thanks to the God he wasn't always sure he still believed in. He had a chance, however slim, and however rocky the road might be. He had a chance. He clung to that beacon of hope as he drifted back to sleep.

***

Darcy woke with a slow stretch and a yawn. Without opening her eyes, she rolled over - and fell off the edge of the bed. Before she even had a chance to register that she was falling, she hit the floor with a bang that brought both Steve and Bucky out of the bed immediately, both of them automatically searching for the threat. She waved a hand from the floor. “Nothing to see here. Move along.”

Darce?” Steve gasped, his heart pounding in his chest. “The hell are you doin'?”

Practicing for the goddamn Olympics,” she snarled. “The hell's it look like I'm doing?”

He came to her side and hauled her up out of the floor as Bucky, looking bemused, leaned against the foot of the bed. “Did you actually fall out of bed?” Steve asked. “Christ, Darce, you really are a danger to the living and the dead.”

I told you so,” Darcy replied, grinning cheekily. She rubbed at her face. “I don't think I broke anything. Are my teeth still there?” She opened her mouth wide.

Steve gripped her upper incisors and tugged very gently. “Looks like.”

Well, there's a load off,” Darcy grumbled. She rubbed at her face again, then leaned around Steve, cocking an eyebrow. “Morning, Bucky.”

Bucky gave her a gentle smile but didn't speak. Darcy figured that was good enough. She yawned again. “Well, since I'm up, I guess I'd better have a shower and run down to the pet store.”

We'll make breakfast,” Steve said. He nudged Darcy in the direction of the bathroom, then reached out and clapped Bucky on his metal shoulder. “Come on, Buck. Eggs or pancakes?”

Bucky shrugged slightly, and Steve said, “Both sounds good to me, too.”

As it turned out, there was no need for a trip to the pet store; they were just finishing breakfast when JARVIS announced a delivery for Bucky, and when Steve went to the door, one of the building's porters was just coming out of the elevator with a cart. On it rested three large bags of some kind of gourmet dog food and a box full of dog supplies: a collar, a leash, food and water dishes, and a variety of toys and treats. There was no indication of who had ordered the supplies until Darcy filled the water dish; the paint on the bottom of the dish reacted to the cold water and a picture of Iron Man appeared on the bottom of the bowl. She and Steve cackled over that one, and Bucky gave that same gentle smile but didn't speak.

In fact, Darcy realized as she was getting dressed for work, Bucky hadn't spoken at all that morning. She mentioned it quietly to Steve while Bucky was upstairs showering, and he promised to keep an eye on the situation, so she headed down to the labs. Steve got the laundry out of the dryer and folded it, carrying Bucky's clothes upstairs so he would have something of his own to wear when he got out of the shower. Then he put away his own things and Darcy's.

Max came downstairs once Bucky got out of the shower. Steve called him into the kitchen to see where the water and food dishes were, then led him into the master bathroom and put him in the tub. Several minutes and a couple of very strong disagreements later, Max was bathed and Steve went into the bedroom to change into everyday clothes.

When he came out, Bucky was sitting on the floor in front of the sofa, Max in his lap, staring out the windows. If it hadn't been for the fact that his right hand, which rested on the dog's head, was very softly fondling the dog's ears, Steve might have thought him a perfectly lifelike statue. “Hey, Buck?” he said softly, moving to stand near his friend. “Do you have anything that you want to do today?”

Bucky shook his head. Steve said, “Well, if you think of anything - anything at all - let me know, okay?”

Bucky nodded. Steve stood there for a moment, watching him, before he felt the itch strike in his fingers. He said, “I'll be right back,” and turned, heading upstairs. He slipped into the art studio and picked up his good sketch pad. Then he came back out again, locking the studio behind him. Bucky was still where Steve had left him, and Steve grabbed a pack of pencils off the little table near the easel, plopping himself down in one of the big chairs. He settled himself carefully, took a deep breath, and let himself fall into the paper.

Neither of them moved or spoke for a very long time after that, but the silence between them wasn't awkward; it was the same silence that had lived between them so many times in the past, when one or the other of them had served as a model. Steve let his mind drift, briefly, to those last halcyon days before the war, when he and Bucky had been taking art classes together at the Institute and hunting up WPA jobs to keep themselves in food and art supplies. He remembered the first one either of them had gotten, and how proud they both had been when they'd happened to be in the library one day, and a poster that Bucky had designed promoting children's literacy had been hanging there over the shelves.

Then he remembered the day they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They had been in class, and Steve could almost remember the exact angle of the sunlight as it streamed in through the skylight, lining Bucky's face with gold as he flirted with a pretty blonde girl who was working on a sculpture.

His heart sank a little bit and he shook himself out of his reverie, looking down at the sketch in his hands and then back up at the subject. Bucky was still staring out the windows - or possibly into some unfathomable distance inside his mind.

Steve turned the page in his sketchbook and started anew.

***

Just after noon, a quiet tap came at the door. Bucky didn't react, but Steve put his sketch pad aside and went to answer it. Bruce Banner stood there with a tentative smile on his face. “Hi,” he said, his voice gentle as usual. “Darcy said I should come by and say hello to your friend.”

You can come in,” Steve said, stepping aside and opening the door wider, “but I don't guarantee you'll get anything back. He hasn't actually said anything today.”

Bruce nodded. “He may have days where he's uncommunicative,” he said. “And he may have some days where you can't get him to shut up. Those kinds of mood swings are common in abuse survivors and people with significant trauma to the brain.”

Trauma?” Steve asked, surprised.

Bruce nodded. “Darcy and Natasha both told me what they know of what was done to him. Involuntary elecro-stim, at the kind of levels needed to cause that much amnesia...” He paused, shaking his head. “Frankly, Steve, I'm surprised they didn't just turn his brain into so much oatmeal.” He paused, studying Bucky, who had not moved. “Natasha seemed to indicate that he might have been... exposed to a variety of the serum.”

Steve sighed. “It's the most likely explanation,” he said. The serum was still such a touchy subject for Bruce, but dancing around it would do nobody any good. “When the one-oh-seventh was captured in Italy, I found him strapped to a table. Zola had been doing some kind of experiments on him. He never would say, afterward, what had happened, but... Bruce, he fell off a train in the Alps doing a hundred miles an hour. There's no way an un-enhanced human could have survived it. He should have...” He swallowed, waving an expressive hand. “He should have been so much spatter on the ground.”

And yet here he is, relatively unharmed except for the loss of limb, and having survived years of the kind of torture that should have left him a drooling vegetable.” Bruce shook his head. “For something that was supposed to be a one-off, that serum sure does keep cropping up all over the place.”

Like a bad penny,” Steve said bitterly.

Well,” Bruce said, “I'm actually here with... a suggestion.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “I'm listening.”

Darcy was telling me a little bit about the struggles he's having, and the fact that he's going to need help, and... well, I have a contact who might be just what you need. I thought I'd come talk to you about it. I'm almost certain he'll be willing to come and assist, but I don't know how you feel about... mutants.”

Steve blinked. “Mutants? You mean like Logan - Wolverine?”

Bruce nodded. “Yes. People who - unlike you and I - were born with the extraordinary abilities that they have. I've done some work for one of them - Charles Xavier. He has a school for young mutants - he calls them gifted - upstate. And he has some of the most extraordinary mental abilities I've ever seen. If anyone could help Bucky, I think Professor Xavier could.”

Steve gnawed on his lip for a long minute, considering. Then he walked around the couch, crouching down to get Bucky's attention. “Buck? Dr. Banner says he knows someone who might be able to help you with... everything that's going on inside your head. Would you be all right if he called this person? No one will be upset if you say no, but if you say yes, I'll be with you every step of the way. What do you think?”

Bucky stared at him for a long time, and just when Steve was starting to think that he might not respond, he gave a short nod. Steve let out a gentle breath of relief. He looked up at Bruce. “Please,” he said. “If you think he can help... please, call him.”