The Soldier stares at the ghost in the faded WWII reel and wishes the bottom of his stomach was falling out, or his head was spinning with the pain of recollection -- anything at all other than this empty, blank wilderness. He knows those eyes, that bone structure; he knows the freckle high on that forehead, but objectively, like a snapshot he had seen once in a book, devoid of emotion.
He watches the man who wears his face smile at the giant blond soldier next to him, dip his lashes to shade his eyes, tilt his head to hide the wistful twitch of his mouth. He watches the blond man look at 'Sergeant Barnes' with an emotion that The Soldier has never seen before directed at him, but recognises it from behavioural training on eliminating targets -- affection, deep and pure and true. Something in The Soldier twists, ugly and jagged, wanting to stab the man wearing his face right through his mouth for earning that. How strange. The Soldier does not remember feeling emotions. He doesn't remember what emotions that aren't fear feel like. He is cold and empty, like he has always been.
So why does that beaming, happy face look like the brightest star in the sky, immolating everything else all the way to the horizon?
The Soldier remembers nothing about this man. Nothing but the twist of urgency when he saw him fall, the jab of terror as he made the fingers of The Weapon release his hold and let him plummet down into the freezing water after him.
He now knows that the man is called Steven Grant Rogers, also known as Captain America, a relic of bygone days, a symbol of the American dream. What he doesn't know is who this man is to him.
What he doesn't know is who he is to Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, Captain Rogers' best friend, the man who wears his face.
What The Soldier does know is that he has no place to go. No orders to follow. The connection in his mind has snapped, like it was wiped out, an explosion of static like a transmission gone dead. He feels nothing, no compulsion to obey, no need to act in any particular way. Something in the back of his mind directs him to stay hidden, off-the-grid. He knows enough about instincts to identify it as a particularly strong predilection for self-preservation. He wonders if it's a leftover from his programming, or from whoever he used to be before he was grafted onto The Weapon. Either way, it means he disappeared, just the way he was taught -- stole the clothes on his back, gloves from a table by an open window on the sixth floor of a high-rise apartment building, food from the rejects of a deli closed for the night.
It means he should not be standing here, in the middle of a crowded room with obstructed exits, risking discovery with every second he remains rooted to the spot -- but.
But. He'd had to know.
And now he does.
The facts are these:
1. He is wearing a dead man's face.
2. He remembers cold, freezing, all-consuming. He remembers it thirty-four times.
3. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes was clearly in love with his best friend, Captain Steven Grant Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, and died in the process of protecting him.
4. The Soldier's mission had been to eliminate Captain Steven Grant Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America.
5. Captain Steven Grant Rogers knows his face. He called The Soldier 'Bucky'. He asked him not to make him do this. The Captain gave him a name, and looked at him with an emotion The Soldier had never known.
6. Captain Rogers was kind. It was a weakness that a soldier should shun and uproot, but it had run deep in the Captain's eyes when he looked at The Soldier, in his voice when he spoke to him, in his hands when he lifted the wreckage and freed him.
7. The Soldier could not kill him. It had been a direct order and he had disobeyed it. This had never happened before.
8. The Soldier is lost, and directionless, and no one is looking for him, and he has no purpose. It is terrifying.
9. It is possible that the man he was before The Weapon was Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, Captain Steven Grant Rogers' best friend. The Captain's weakness can be exploited in these circumstances. He did not kill The Soldier even though he thought The Soldier was his best friend who had thus turned traitor on him with every move he made closer to completing his mission.
10. The Soldier has had enough of darkness and cold to last him another lifetime.
Decision made, The Soldier dips his head, letting his long hair obscure his face in place of the mask he lost on the battlefield, and walks out of the building. He has never driven a car, always been taken places by his handlers, but he looks at a truck and somewhere behind his eyes gears shift and muscle memory makes his hand twitch. His mind tells him how to jimmy the lock and twist wires together until the engine roars to life.
"Nice job," someone says in his head, pleased and warm. The Soldier ignores it, just like he has ignored the voice so many times before. It did not help. It was not needed.
Before they brought him to this city, there had been talk about New York, a tower called by a name The Soldier remembers but does not remember being told.
Stark. "Write that down," the voice in his head says. The Soldier ignores it. He does not need a written record.
He also remembers his handlers planning another version of his orders, a hit in New York.
"That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb not to run away from a fight," the voice says. The Soldier ignores it. Captain Steven Grant Rogers is not 'little'. It is not helpful.
New York. It's a mission or as good as one. It will not be the first time The Soldier has taken advantage of a weakness to achieve his objective – even if his objective is murky and unclear at this time.
No matter. It will come to him. He is good at being flexible. No deadline for this mission. (No target, no end goal. He ignores the shiver of fear at the unknown. At least it doesn't have the Cold at the end of it. Anything is better than the Cold. Anything.)
The Soldier turns the steering wheel and shifts his right foot forward.
Some time later, a sign advises, "Maryland welcomes you!" The Soldier's mouth twitches. He doubts that very much.
He drives on.
The Soldier does not make his move immediately. Watch and observe – it's been drilled into him at a stage he doesn't remember but the message keeps holding him back when he might plough on from impatience. He watches, and observes, and the facts are these:
1. Stark Tower is not a residential building. Employees go in and out all day long, thousands of people dressed in all manners of styles scuttling through the doors and spreading out inside. From what The Soldier can see, he determines that the building has likely been turned into Stark Industries' New York headquarters.
2. Which leads to security measures – metal gates at every entrance, pass key swipes, guards, probably retinal scanners in the elevators. The Soldier has read up on Anthony Edward Stark. He assumes there are more sophisticated security measures inside the building that he isn't aware of.
3. The delivery bays are likewise protected by guards and ID swipes. Even the drivers have them; The Soldier stands still and watches as a scanning device unfolds from the computerised entrance gates and scans the vehicle and the drivers before they are allowed to proceed.
4. Anthony Edward Stark is one paranoid bastard.
5. There are three employee parking garages and two delivery bays, all of which get utilised almost constantly.
6. Those do not explain the concealed entrance on the north side of the tower, tucked away behind a clever optical illusion impossible to see from the street – unless someone stays in one place for most of twelve hours and happens to notice a certain motorbike with a very familiar rider disappear into what seems like solid wall.
7. The Soldier does not doubt that there are cameras everywhere. The only reason he has not yet been discovered is that neighbourhood buildings do not have nearly as good security protocols and The Soldier's eyesight has always been well above-average.
8. The hidden entrance is used by a very small and select number of people. Thirty-six hours later, The Soldier has identified only nine different people going in: Anthony Edward Stark, often accompanied by Doctor Bruce Banner; Captain Steven Grant Rogers; a blond white man The Soldier does not recognise, but believes to be military from posture and pace and reaction to light bouncing off a passing car's windshield; Natalia Alianovna Romanova; the black man who fought off The Soldier in Washington, minus his metal wings; Virginia 'Pepper' Potts; a middle-aged white man with thinning hair, often seen in the presence of the blond man The Soldier does not know; a tall dark-haired white woman who moves like she is used to command, also likely military.
9. It will be almost impossible to enter Stark Tower unnoticed from the ground.
10. It will be impossible to enter Stark Tower unnoticed from the air. The scanners The Weapon detects are even more numerous and finely-tuned than those on the ground.
11. If he wants to enter the building, he will have to allow himself to be seen – and scanned, and recorded, and can kiss his anonymity goodbye. That is, if they don't just kill him outright.
The Soldier analyses the data he has gathered for the next three days. He sleeps on top of an apartment building in Brooklyn, tucked around The Weapon, which aches in the cold. (Not as much as it aches in the Cold, however, and so The Soldier bears it gratefully.) He spends the days wandering around the hauntingly familiar city, stopping in the mouth of an alleyway ("I had him on the ropes." "I know you did."), and in front of a red-brick building ("Thanks, but I can make my own way." "That's the thing – you don't have to."), and outside a barber shop ("That's a stupid haircut." "Now what kinda thing is that to say to your best friend?" "Honest." "Jerk."), and tries not to listen to the voices, he tries, but they're louder than ever. He wonders if this is what going insane feels like. He wonders if that's what's going to happen to him now that there's no one left to wipe him when his brain starts malfunctioning too badly.
It's still better than the pain of the wipe, so maybe he can learn to live with the voices. Maybe then he won't be so alone.
On the fourth day, The Soldier walks into the familiar-yet-foreign barber shop, and asks for a haircut, paying with the money he swiped off a drug dealer who tried to follow him back to his lair. He breaks into a local apartment, showers and uses the resident's razor to swipe away the stubble he had never been allowed to grow for too long before. He looks at the face in the mirror and marvels at the change. This man looks so young. The Soldier feels like he has lived forever, yet this face remains mostly unlined, if marred by a scar or two that his clean shave has revealed. He can't look at that face too long; after several minutes, he starts to lose himself, and he walks away from the mirror before The Weapon smashes it to pieces.
He steals a pair of pants and a long-sleeved cotton shirt. It is blue. He finds the fact pleasing, even if before this moment he does not recall that mattering one way or the other.
He keeps the leather jacket he stripped off the drug dealer. When he leaves the apartment, he tumbles the lock behind himself. He has no orders to do it, but if he is going to pretend to be a dead man he might as well start by acquiring some mannerisms. It feels like something the man who had looked after Captain Steven Grant Rogers as a child might do.
Then he walks into Manhattan, through the enormous entrance to Stark Tower, between sliding glass panels and into a hall drenched in light.
"Hello," he says to the woman behind the massive circular desk dominating the lobby. He tries out a smile, encouraged when the woman does not scream and call security, but eyes him speculatively instead. "I am here to see Captain Steven Rogers."
The woman's eyes flicker, something peering from behind the bland façade that makes The Soldier re-evaluate her threat levels. (It makes no difference to him. Even if she is armed and hostile, she could not harm him before he snapped her neck, but it is useful to know that she is not just some receptionist, but more likely a security plant.)
"Is Captain Rogers expecting you?" she enquires pleasantly, eyes drifting down his body, clearly sweeping him for weapons. There is no way she can see The Weapon, not covered as it is under layers of cloth and leather gloves. The Soldier almost feels sorry for her--
He pulls himself up, shying away from the emotion. It is not useful.
"No," he says, answering her question. "But he'll want to see me."
She eyes him again before reaching for the telephone.
The Soldier takes a deep breath.
"Bucky Barnes," he says.
Five minutes later, The Soldier eyes the tall dark-haired white woman standing in front of him, one hand on her weapon and the other hanging loosely at her side, clearly ready to counter an attack, and wonders if he miscalculated. He is so tired of death. It's strange to think in terms of 'wanting' something, but the fact is inescapable: he doesn't want to kill again.
He tries smiling at her. From the unimpressed look on her face, he can see it isn't working.
"You've got some nerve," she says flatly.
The Soldier watches her, scenarios flashing through his mind. "Fuck, marry, kill," the voice in his head taunts. The Soldier smirks darkly. He says nothing.
The woman watches him for long, long minutes. The Soldier wonders if the wait is designed to make him crack. If that's the case, the tactic will fail. He is used to silence. Used to waiting, too.
In the end, she lets go of her weapon and folds her arms in front of her chest, squaring her long torso and strong shoulders.
"What do you want?" she says.
Her blue eyes attempt to skewer through his outer shell, burrow underneath into his presumably soft underbelly. Since The Soldier doesn't have one, that tactic is useless, too. The Soldier debates not answering, but maybe showing some animation will help his case.
"To see Captain Steven Rogers," he reiterates.
He makes sure not to move, to stand still with his arm hanging by his side and The Weapon powered down. He is sure he is being scanned right at this moment; sure that he can, and likely would be gunned down if he even looks to be making a move.
The woman's expression does not change.
"Are you here to kill him?"
The question is simple, logical. They are right to be concerned. It still comes as a surprise that they asked him his intentions, instead of neutralising him from the get-go.
The Soldier takes another deep breath. Operating without standing orders is terrifying; he finds himself in need of more oxygen than usual. His chest feels tight, the world brighter than standard. Adrenaline making him hyper-aware, helping him take in more of his surroundings in case he needs to act fast and hard.
"No," he says. It's the truth.
The woman raises an eyebrow. "What do you want with him, then?"
Lie? Misdirect? Hide behind prevarication?
Or tell the truth?
Two weeks ago, he would never have made this choice. (Two weeks ago, he would never have been allowed to make a choice at all.)
"I don't know," he says. Inside his chest, his heart is beating double-time, so loud that he can't believe no one has heard it trip. It pushes blood to his muscles, his brain, prepping his body for action. The Soldier forces it to stand at ease, not fall into an instinctive battle stance.
It's a good thing, because in the next moment the door to the interrogation room (nicer than any The Soldier has ever seen, but that doesn't hide what it is) flies open, and in strides Anthony Edward Stark, all flashy suit and flashier grin and eyes that spark with intelligence and shrewdness. All of a sudden, The Soldier is convinced that if he had tried to lie, his plan would have crashed and burned before it even got started.
"Interesting," Stark declares. "JARVIS says he's telling the truth, but how do we know he isn't still programmed to think it's the truth, until all of a sudden it isn't?"
The dark-haired woman closes her eyes and rubs the bridge of her nose with one hand.
"Stark," she sighs. "Will you let me do my damn job? You hired me, remember?"
"No, Pepper hired you," Stark argues. "And anyway, that would make me your boss, and you should do what I tell you."
The woman raises both her eyebrows. The Soldier fights down the urge to grin. He's seen that look before, even if he isn't certain where exactly.
"Actually, that means Pepper is my boss; and does anyone ever do what you tell them?"
Stark pretends to think about this.
"Point," he concedes, shrugging like he couldn't care less. The Soldier would be taken in by the show of casualness, if he had happened to look away from Stark's eyes, which are just as sharp and calculating as when he walked in. "Anyway, back to you, Red Square. Surely you're not dumb enough to think that you can just show up and we'd let you take a crack at Cap? What's your game?"
The Soldier considers. How much to reveal?
Before he can make up his mind, the door crashes inwards again, this time leaving a fist-sized dent in the wall. Captain Steven Grant Rogers stands framed in the doorway, chest heaving, cheeks flushed, eyes feverishly bright.
"Bucky," he breathes, broken and aching, and something inside The Soldier stirs. ("Steve?" "It's me." "Steve.")
"Steve," The Soldier says, and for reasons he cannot for the life of him identify, he grins and adds, "I thought you were smaller."
Captain Rogers' face goes slack with shock, desperate hope burning in his eyes.
"Oh God, Bucky," Captain Rogers says.
It all happens very fast. Before The Soldier realises what is happening, before he can take action based on the squawks and protests coming from the other two people in the room, there are arms around him. Strong, heavy arms, and a too-hot body pressed flush against his front, and a smell in his nose that is driving him insane, that punches through walls and words and orders, through the clean slate, through the blankness, until a word makes itself known in The Soldier's head, reasserts itself and refuses to be banished. "Home," his mind whispers, and The Soldier feels trapped, caught, ensnared, but the mere thought of moving away from his position is abhorrent.
"Cap," Stark hisses. The Soldier opens eyes that he hadn't known had closed, and watches Stark making distressed flapping motions. Beside him, the dark-haired woman's face has gone white, and her grip on her pistol is white-knuckled. It's pointed at the floor at the moment, because Captain Rogers has The Soldier covered nearly from head-to-toe, hiding him from the room. The Soldier wonders hazily if she will shoot him, once Captain Rogers moves back.
"Aw, hell," someone drawls from the doorway. The Soldier cannot see the newcomer, because Captain Rogers' hold has him turned half-away from the entrance, right into where the spot with best lines of sight would be – if there weren't a mountain of a man hanging tightly onto him, obscuring most of them. The Captain's breath shudders out of his body; and then, to The Soldier's warring emotions, he pulls back. The Soldier does not know how to feel about that. It had been strange to be touched so much; The Soldier does not remember being held like that before, without expectations or inflicting pain. He hadn't known what he was supposed to do about the way Captain Rogers had clung to him, almost like—
Oh, it's no use. The Soldier does not know emotions, can't name them when they're directed at him. There had been no vocal inflection to read, no facial expression to take into account. Just touch. What is he supposed to do with that? Is he just supposed to know what it meant?
Meanwhile, Captain Rogers has stepped back to look at the newcomer, which means The Soldier can see him, too. It's the black man who fought him before The Fall, before The Soldier defied all the training drilled into him and let himself let go. The man is breathing heavily and leaning most of his weight on the door frame. He is covered in sweat, but it's definitely him, even without the field suit. For the first time, The Soldier notices that Captain Rogers wears nothing more than running shorts and a t-shirt, neck and armpits damp with sweat – a sharp contrast to the soaked-through shirt that clings to the black man's body.
"Damn it, Cap, you know I can't keep up with you when you get like that. Swear to god, I'ma take the wings next time, see how you like them apples."
Captain Rogers opens his mouth to reply, but the man talks right over him, eyes narrowed on The Soldier.
"I leave you alone for five minutes," the man drawls, and The Soldier watches, fascinated, as a splotch of red climbs up Captain Rogers' neck and face, turning him into a human tomato. For some reason, The Soldier wants to laugh at that.
For another reason entirely, and not one he can identify, The Soldier wants to punch the black man right in the face.
"Look, Sam, it's not like that. He came here. He found us."
"Uh-huh," Sam says, eyes narrowed on The Soldier. The Soldier looks back placidly, an urge filling him that he doesn't understand, to do exactly the opposite of what this man clearly expects him to. "You'll excuse me if I remain unconvinced in the purity of his intentions."
"Unless it's to make an honest man out of Cap here," Stark pipes up.
"T-Tony," Captain Rogers splutters, sounding scandalised.
Stark holds out his hands, palms-up. "What?" he asks. "I saw that footage. Sure, he punched you around a bit, but if he wanted you dead, you would be. Anyway, I was mostly looking at you, and let's just say that you didn't put up too much of a fight."
The Soldier has no idea what is going on, but Captain Rogers' face looks like it might catch on fire any time now; Sam looks like he is torn between laughing and scowling; and the dark-haired woman has put her gun away and is looking at the ceiling as if expecting answers from a higher power.
Besides. Stark is not wrong. The Soldier hadn't wanted to kill the Captain. Not even when that should have been the only thought existing in his mind – completing his mission.
Captain Rogers takes a deep breath, turning towards him. His eyes are very blue. All of a sudden, that is the only thing The Soldier can focus on. It's as if the rest of the world falls away and they are left alone, just the two of them.
(He can still smell the Captain on him, the musk of sweat and that unnameable, sweet scent that for some unknown reason makes him want to cry.)
"Why are you here, Bucky?" Captain Rogers asks, sounding pained.
The Soldier looks at him, and wonders if this isn't the biggest mistake of them all. But the truth is, "I had to see you."
Captain Rogers looks pleased, eyes warm and mouth quirked in that smile that The Soldier had coveted so deeply as he stood rooted to the spot in the vast museum hall.
"I am going to barf," Stark declares. He turns on his heel, waving an arm in the direction of the dark-haired woman. "Come on, Hill, let's give the lovebirds some room. If he tries to kill Cap again, it'll be that oaf's own damn fault."
'Lovebirds. Something strange is happening to The Soldier's face; it feels too hot, like the arms of the mindwiping machine closing in on his skin, except there's no pain and The Soldier is unafraid, even if his stomach is turning funny flips inside him. Love? He doesn't—
"Oh, for the love of God," Captain Rogers sighs. He steps towards the door, half-turned, as if making space for The Soldier to walk next to him. "Come on, Buck. Let's go some place we can talk."
The black man called Sam stares at The Soldier through half-lidded eyes heavy with suspicion. The Soldier grins at him. He doesn't know why he does it, but it's an urge that requires no blood, no pain. He doesn't see a reason not to give in to it.
"Motherfucker," Sam mutters to himself in their wake, and The Soldier hears slow, hesitant footsteps following behind them. The back of his head itches; he hates that he is leaving his back so open to attack, but there's nothing he can do about that now. He has thrown the dice.
Time to see how they roll.
Warning for PTSD in this chapter. (Then again, this is a Winter Soldier fic, I'm AMAZED it took me this long.)
Steve – The Soldier had better learn to call him by his proper name, if he wants this ruse to last – Steve said he wanted to talk, but he must have a different definition of the verb, because he just stands there, staring at him until The Soldier feels like his skin is trying to squirm off his body. He feels uncomfortably like a bug under a microscope, a horribly familiar sensation. The Soldier longs to move, stretch his limbs, even swing The Weapon around, make sure it's still attached and somewhat functional. It's not like The Soldier would miss it disappearing – the skin around the graft aches from the pull of heavy metal, raw and irritated, same as always – but still.
Restless, he gives in to the urge and gets up, prowls to the edges and corners of the room, takes in the utilitarian décor, the sparse touches of someone wanting to make this place more homely. The Soldier wonders who it was, whether Steve was the one to poke through home stores for that particular mushroom-shaped lamp – if they even had those anymore. The Soldier is a little behind on the particulars of twenty-first century shopping.
There are things in the apartment that seem suited to Steve's character, or what little The Soldier knows of it – books everywhere, for one thing. There are so many books, on topics that span more than any normal person's range of interests – not that The Soldier is any kind of authority on normal people's behaviour. There are books on politics, art, movies, philosophy, military history – including, in pride of place in the middle of the coffee table, a well-thumbed copy of a book The Soldier actually recognises – Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Something sparks behind his eyelids, the vision of a short, slight young man curled up on the threadbare covers of a narrow bed, chewing thoughtfully on the end of a pencil as he turns a page. The Soldier doesn't know if that's memory or just an image he'd seen somewhere in this new world that he actually remembers, but something about it makes him feel warm and content, so he doesn't question it too much.
More books are piled up, twenty-high by the side of a wide, comfortable-looking reading chair, turned to face half-into the room and half-out of the floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto the spread of Lower Manhattan beneath them. A curious light floats above the chair, its base all the way into the far corner of the room and the shade angled on the thinnest of metal rails spanning the distance. It's fragile yet solid; The Soldier finds it aesthetically pleasing, and wonders if that is what people mean when they say, 'I like it.'
Everything is so much more difficult when he is expected to have an opinion about it.
He tries it out. "I like this," he says, heart in his throat as he points at the lamp with one of The Weapon's fingers. Is he allowed to express an opinion?
Then again, who is there to stop him? Who is there to stop him from doing anything he wants? God, what if The Weapon woke up on its own, what then? What could he do?
"Buck," Steve says, suddenly close to his left shoulder. The Soldier spins, heart hammering, forcing The Weapon to stay down by sheer terror-infused effort.
"You shouldn't do that," he warns.
Steve merely watches him, face inscrutable. The Soldier tries backing away, still shaken by the realisation that there is nothing, no one who can stop him doing exactly what he wants, up to and including tearing this tower down piece by piece. Up to and including smashing this man's skull in.
Anything out there still looking out for him, God or devil – he doesn't care, just please don't let him do that.
Steve stays still and lets him move back, hands hanging loose by his sides, body at ease.
"I'm sorry I startled you," Steve says carefully. "I thought you saw me move."
The Soldier hadn't. Too distracted, damn it! This was why he hadn't been allowed to think for himself before, wasn't it?
It had been easier.
Even so, The Soldier would do just about anything to keep this freedom.
"Buck," Steve says again, when The Soldier doesn't answer. "Buck, how much do you remember?"
And there it is. The question he had been dreading, had hoped to avoid – of course it would be the first thing Steve would ask. The Soldier is beginning to realise that Captain Steven Rogers is far from the simple, dull-witted man The Soldier had been briefed on. No; even in the heat of battle, it had been clear that the Captain has a fine strategic mind, and he thinks riptide-fast on his feet. Of course the intelligence would not be confined to battle conditions.
Of course he would see right through The Soldier's ruse. Captain Rogers, The Soldier realises, is not the man to see what he wants desperately to be there, not even in emotionally-fraught situations such as this. He is too much of a soldier to allow himself that delusion.
He is, to The Soldier's surprise, someone The Soldier can respect.
Can trust to lead him straight.
Well. That certainly changes things – though not as many as The Soldier might have thought.
"Not much," The Soldier says, picking his words with deliberation. "Fragments. Voices. Half the time, I don't know if they're just in my head. Steve." He breathes in, bracing himself. "I'm not him."
Steve's face crumbles. His mouth sags down, like the weight of that revelation is too much for him to bear. The Soldier feels like he just destroyed something, smashed it to pieces and stomped on the wreckage. Is this what his life is going to be like from here on in?
"No, you are," Steve says. The Solider tries to parse out his tone. Desperate? Stubborn? Insistent?
Can The Soldier really do this? Pretend to be a man he isn't?
Maybe he can. It's what Steve wants. And anyway, The Soldier has nothing else that Steve wants. Nothing he can repay his kindness with.
He can do this, for him.
In a way, this is the easiest thing The Soldier has ever done.
He takes a step towards Steve, and another, and another. Steve watches him with careful, hopeful eyes as The Soldier closes the distance between them.
As he reaches up, curls flesh and metal fingers into Steve's thin t-shirt.
And then draws him down, pressing Steve's mouth to his.
Steve kisses him desperately, like air, like the only thing left in the world.
It's the best thing The Soldier has ever felt – at least, it is for the five seconds or so that it lasts.
Then Steve pushes The Soldier back, heaving in desperate, gasping breaths. The Soldier stands there, confused and cold, and watches Steve wage war with himself.
"Buck, what are you doing?" Steve says at last, voice gone raw.
The Soldier doesn't understand.
"It's what you want," he says.
Steve, if possible, looks even more winded.
"This isn't what I want," Steve shouts. The Soldier steps back, watching him carefully. He has made the Captain angry. Caution seems advisable.
"Why are you lying?" he asks. He is so confused.
Steve flushes, red splotches high on his cheeks. His eyes look wild. "I'm not lying," he says, voice raised. Then, as if catching himself, he breathes deeply, visibly trying to pull himself together. "Bucky. You don't know what you're doing."
Something hot and expansive takes over The Soldier's chest, growing as if it might burst free. He tries to waylay the explosion. "The hell I don't," he says instead. "This isn't new. I've done this before." It's true, even if The Soldier does not remember the particulars of the experience.
Steve's face pales; he makes a choked sound deep in his throat.
"That isn't--" he stops, closes his eyes. His fists clench until his knuckles turn white. "Look. We're not getting each other right now. I think we need to take a break, cool down."
Without waiting for a response, he turns on his heel and marches out, leaving The Soldier standing still in the middle of the room. The Soldier nods belatedly, the sensation in his chest shrinking in on itself until it's small and tight, a heavy load. Fine, then. This avenue seems exhausted. He failed.
It doesn't happen often. At least this time there is no one to punish him for it – except for circumstance. Because he's going to have to come up with a new plan now, one that does not involve Steve, or anyone else he has ever met.
He is alone.
He remembers the layout of the building, the path they took to get here burned into the blank slate in his head. Things are starting to pile up in there; routes and muscle memory and landmarks he's seen, so at least he knows his brain isn't faulty, just full of holes that were taken out, incised from existence. Never mind. He is going to make new memories, and this time, there's no one to take them from him.
Even if The Soldier wants them to. Like the sick disappointment in the Captain's face from scant minutes ago. No matter. It's The Soldier's fault; he will have to carry that failure with him.
Leaving is easy. No one stops him, even if he is aware of cameras following his every move. He walks out and stands outside the entrance, looking up at the sky. The light is fading, night falling softly all around him. It seems appropriate.
He turns right and starts walking. It seems as good a direction as any. He walks and watches the city lighting up around him, the soft gold of store windows inviting shoppers inside, the street lamps illuminating his steps. New York at twilight is beautiful, the promise of dreams coming true in the excited smiles of passers by, eager for the night, shifting from one pool of light into the next. The noise is ongoing, never stopping, the heartbeat of the city strong in The Soldier's ears. He likes it. He likes the illusion of life, not something he can understand but something he can appreciate.
He walks for hours, but he doesn't get tired. Manhattan passes under his feet, shifts around him, until he is on the Brooklyn Bridge, heading out into the surrounding boroughs. The skyscrapers twinkle into the distance, and it's cool out here over the river, but it feels good on his skin, cleansing away the grit he feels on him even though he has waged no battle today. There is a strange freedom in having nowhere to be, no destination. Lonely, too, but that is something The Soldier is used to, something he can ignore. He hasn't known anything different for as long as he can remember, and let's face it, the time before is useless to him now. It obviously does not matter to Captain Rogers, even though he didn't kill The Soldier when he had the chance. Maybe he just doesn't like death. The Soldier can understand that.
The steady whoosh of passing vehicles is a soothing accompaniment to his travels. He does not expect the rhythm to shatter, nor the screech of brakes behind him, the slam of a door. He looks behind his shoulder, assessing threats; just because there shouldn't be anyone coming for him doesn't mean there isn't.
He turns all the way around when he sees Steve run towards him, car left parked haphazardly across one entire lane. Steve reaches him quickly – his pace is stunning, so fast, faster even than The Soldier's own. Steve comes to a panting stop before him, shoulders heaving under his thin shirt. For one surreal moment, The Soldier wants to take off his jacket and throw it over the Captain's shoulders, admonish him about catching cold.
"Goddamn it, Bucky," Steve says, sounding exasperated. "You can't keep making me chase you like this."
Captain Steven Rogers is, possibly, the most confusing man The Soldier has ever known.
"But I left. It was what you wanted," he says.
The Captain places one of his hands over his eyes, then slides it down and lets it drop to his side. "We used to be a lot better at communication, you and I," he says. He doesn't sound angry about that; actually, he sounds amused. The Soldier blinks, waiting for anything to start making sense. Maybe, against all likelihood, something eventually will.
"I didn't want you to leave, you dunce," the Captain elaborates. "You blindsided me. Do you know how long—no, let's not, this isn't the time. Look, Bucky. I don't want you to leave. I never want you to be any place I don't know where to find you. I realise this is a tall order, and that it's never gonna fly with you, but—what I'm trying to say is, please don't leave. Come back with me. Tony says he's got a spare room with your name on it, you can stay for as long as you want, until you get your stuff together. I can help you look for your own place, if you like. Just. Please don't go."
The Soldier takes all that in, tries to understand. "You don't want me to leave," he says, just to make sure he's got it right.
Steve huffs out a laugh that seems slightly hysterical even to The Soldier's untrained ears. "No, I don't want you to leave. That is the farthest thing from what I want."
"But you don't want me to stay with you."
Steve looks confused for a second, before his whole face turns bright red. "Uh," he says, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans and looking down at the ground. "I do want that. I'm sorry I made you think otherwise. But, I don't want you to feel obligated to stay with me. Not unless it's what you want, too."
The Soldier thinks about this.
"I don't know what I want," he confesses. It feels huge, like he is laying himself wide open, unprotected against a coming hit.
Steve smiles at him. It's crooked, and tentative, but it's very obviously honest.
"Then we keep as we are until you do know. You don't have to—Buck, there's no rush. You have all the time in the world, now. You can figure out what you want, what you think about things. Hey, we're gonna have so much fun helping you with that. Did you know there are over one hundred flavours of ice cream in this century? I swear to God, I didn't think there could be more than ten, back when we grew up."
The Soldier feels his mouth move, lift in the corners. That sounds—intriguing, actually. "Really?" he asks, feeling a shiver of something slide down his spine. It feels sparkling, like bubbles popping all over his skin. He doesn't know the name of that emotion, but he knows pleasure from pain, oh yes, he does.
"Really," Steve says. His hands are still in his pockets, his shoulders back, chin up. His body is open to attack, and the fact that he can stand that way before The Soldier is at once admirable and a little worrying, like the Captain has no sense of self-preservation at all.
Well. He did fall into a river instead of killing The Soldier. It's not like The Soldier is going to forget that anytime soon.
The question bursts out of him, uncontrollable. It's really the only thing The Soldier wants to, needs to know. He doesn't understand. Why would someone go to such lengths for the thing that tried to kill them?
Steve sighs, smile slipping off his face. He looks calm and resolved, like the soldier he is.
"Because you're my friend," he says, and again he means it, just like back on that falling aircraft taking them both down with it. He takes a deep breath, looks The Soldier right in the face. "The thing is, Buck, you were right. I do want you. You took off before I could explain, but—here's the thing, I don't care who you are now. I know you. You are James Buchanan Barnes, Bucky Barnes, the man I love. I know you're not the same guy I knew before, but whoever else you are now, whatever else you carry with you, it doesn't change the fact that I love you. All of you. And I want all of you, not just the man you used to be. You are Bucky Barnes to me."
The Soldier does not know what the hell he's supposed to do with that.
Steve seems to see that, or some of it, at least, because he smiles again. It lasts shorter than the last time, but it's there, and The Soldier sees nothing in it that he recognises as demand, or entreaty, or any kind of order.
"I'm not telling you this because I expect something from you. I just want you to know – Bucky Barnes, you can do nothing, d'you hear me, nothing to make me stop loving you. So just be you. And know that you can come to me any time you need, for anything. I mean that. You're not alone. I know that you can take care of yourself, and that you can make your own way. That's not the point. The point is, you don't have to. I told you. I'm with you till the end of the line, no matter where that happens to be."
The Soldier has no reply to that. Something is going on inside him, something big and scary, and he can't cope with processing that and formulating an answer at the same time. He stands there, feeling a sting behind his eyes, not knowing what he's supposed to do, how this should go. Everything is new to him.
He does remember the one request the Captain made, however. It's a small thing, and there is no reason why The Soldier can't give it to him, when the Captain has given him so much already. So he nods, and walks forward, and past Steve, and towards the car.
Sam gets out from the passenger seat as The Soldier nears, looking disgruntled but resigned.
"I'ma take the back seat on this one," he announces, climbing into it. The Soldier lowers himself into the vacated spot, still warm from the man's body. He stares through the windshield as Steve walks back to the car, and decides not to mention the slight shaking in Steve's shoulders that he can see plain as day, despite the darkness. He doesn't really have a leg to stand on.
Steve slides into the driver's seat, strapping on his seatbelt even though The Soldier is pretty sure he doesn't need it. Maybe it's habit; The Soldier wore his, too, on the drive down, but that was more to blend in than necessity. The car rumbles to life, peeling off the curb and smoothly back into traffic.
The Soldier doesn't know what will happen next. It seems to be the story of his life, these days.
As long as he's got the Captain next to him, though, he thinks he can manage that just fine.
More warnings for PTSD and flashbacks. Our boy is starting to come back, but it's really not the happy occasion I wanted it to be. Why won't he let me make him happy? :(
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Soldier takes Barnes' name. He seems to have taken everything else of his already, so what's one more piece? And anyway, that is the name Steve gave him – Steve, who arguably knew Barnes the best. So The Soldier takes it, and closes his eyes, and lets Barnes open them again. The others still circle him warily, but he is 'Barnes' to them, too, when they do address him.
He is still mostly left alone but for Steve. Barnes is grateful for that – dealing with people, having to speak and opine and try to understand what they're saying leaves him exhausted. He might have been alive for the past seventy years, but he remembers no more of them than Steve.
That night, as he prowls the dark corridors of the tower, he hears the music. He enjoys walking, he has discovered; even when it's in an enclosed space, it still helps him clear his head as well as stretch his limbs – or at least quieten the clamouring in his brain, of things crowding up inside where it always used to be so empty. So he walks, and listens, and every now and again, he catches whispers of voices, fragments of noise.
When it comes, the music is loud, full of whining guitars, a jangling beat, a man's deep voice singing, '"There must be some kind of way out of here," said the joker to the thief. "There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief."'
He listens, and something clicks open in his head. A boy, long, flowing hair, blown pupils in the middle of startlingly green eyes; he dances with abandon in The Soldier's vision, in the crosshairs of the sniper rifle. The Soldier watches him for as long as he can get away with, before the lights come on in the apartment above the boy's, and the figure of a middle-aged woman comes into view through window curtains left open. She throws her bag onto the couch, kicks off her heels, cranes her neck from side to side. One of her arms lifts, and she loosens her hair from the severe chignon, running both hands through the heavy golden tresses as she arches her back.
The Soldier squeezes the trigger, and watches impassively as the body crumples into a heap on the orange-and-purple carpet.
Steve finds him hours later, crouched into the darkest corner of his room, head cradled in his hand and The Weapon's palm. His body is shaking, and Barnes can't make it stop. Those hadn't been his arms. They hadn't been his thoughts.
But he was the one who pulled that trigger, and he doesn't know why.
Steve stays with him, even when it's clear that Barnes can't speak, can barely stand the breath in his lungs, the pinch of his skin. The weight of The Weapon on his side sickens him; he would claw it off of with his own fingernails if it would make the slightest difference. Steve stays, sitting with his back to the wall a good distance away, on the side of Barnes' arm, and Barnes is so unspeakably grateful for it, to not be alone – even when he should be, he deserves to be – that he nearly chokes on the words that won't come.
Steve falls asleep after a couple of hours of silence, steady breathing and steady pulse, so damn trusting it makes Barnes come up in cold sweat. He gets up just long enough to fetch one of the unbelievably soft blankets laid out over the back of the sofa and spread it over him. He doesn't want Steve to catch cold.
Then he goes back to his corner, and spends the night watching over him.
Steve isn't happy with him when he wakes up and finds him like that. He lectures about sleep and rest and how much Barnes needs it, but Barnes can't bring himself to be sorry. His night has been more restful than all the ones he's had in the tower so far, and he is no longer shaking, gone still and calm as he focused on Steve's stillness. Steve makes him get up anyway, and put on a sweatshirt and a pair of running shoes that have magically appeared in his closet, and bundles him out of the door. The sky is still dark as they make their way a dozen blocks west to Central Park; after the first two, Steve nudges him into a gentle jog that carries them through the gates and down the concrete pathways.
That is the morning when Barnes discovers the other thing to keep him sane, apart from Steve Rogers. The slapping of his feet on the ground, the green all around him lighting up with the first rays of the sun, the smell of wet soil in his lungs; from one step to the next, Barnes feels alive for the first time since he can remember.
He has no idea how long they run, but damned if Steve isn't still fresh as a daisy even with the sun crawling its way up the sky. Well. That's just...insulting.
"Race you to that tree," Barnes says, and takes off before he gets an answer. He grins at the startled, disgruntled yelp he hears behind him.
And then Steve is there, passing him, pulling ahead, and Barnes is not having that.
They race to the tree and keep going; Barnes' chest burns and his legs feel rubbery, but he keeps going until they have lapped the whole park thrice around. Steve comes to an easy stop by the huge tree Barnes had appointed as the gatepost, breathing gratifyingly hard. Barnes may be near collapsing on the wet grass, but he feels good, better than he has in ages.
He feels free.
Steve eyes him closely, seemingly happy with what he sees.
"Breakfast," he declares cheerfully.
Barnes wrinkles his nose, looking down at himself. "I reek," he confides, embarrassed.
Steve's smile is bright and white and more blinding than the sunlight beaming down onto Barnes' aching body.
"So we'll have it to go," Steve says. "We'll get extra joe, Tony will love us for it."
Barnes huffs. "You, maybe," he counters.
Steve gives him a funny look, sharp and focused and digging under the layers of disinterest Barnes has wrapped himself in.
"Are you somehow under the impression that Tony doesn't like you?" Steve asks after a moment, lasering in on the issue Barnes has done so well pretending doesn't bother him.
Barnes stares him down. "Steve, no one likes me. They put up with me because they like you."
Steve's eyebrows climb to his hairline. His eyes are wide and impossibly blue.
"You seriously believe that?" It's not so much a question as it is a statement.
Barnes echoes his look. "Ya think I'm a sap?" he says. "I've seen the way they look at me. They think I'm all balled up. They're right. Probably waiting for me to double-cross ya and try to bump 'em off."
Then he blinks for a while, because Steve suddenly looks way too thrilled for what Barnes's been saying.
"What?" Barnes says warily.
"You're gonna be just fine, Buck," Steve says, clapping him on the metal-covered shoulder. Barnes locks his body not to jerk away, but he must've made some kinda move because Steve's hold gentles, until it's just his hand on the seam where the metal of The Weapon leeches into his skin.
For the first time in forever, it doesn't ache.
After a moment, Steve nudges him into walking towards the exit, then falls into step with him.
"For the record," he adds once they're moving, "no one thinks you're some hard-boiled bastard. They've been trying to give you the space you need to find your balance, feel safe. They think you've been through a hell of a rough time, but no one's holding that against you. We know it wasn't your fault. They fucked with your brain, made you do their bidding. That doesn't make you a monster. It makes you a victim."
The shaking is back in Barnes' body, hard enough that Steve has to stop them and turn Barnes to face him again.
"Oh, Bucky," he says on a sigh, and then it's back, the sensation of Steve's arms wrapping around him, pulling him tight against Steve's hot, big six body. Steve surrounds him, his breath on Barnes' neck, his fingers gentle on Barnes' back where they rest against his sweatshirt. Steve breathes, and Barnes breathes with him until his lungs stop sucking air in like they're collapsing and level out. Tentatively, he brings his hand up and curves it around Steve's back, holding onto him as tightly as he dares.
Barnes doesn't know what love is. The Soldier didn't, and he hasn't been Bucky Barnes long enough to have gained the ability to tell emotions apart well enough, his or anyone else's.
But, he wonders. He wonders if this stillness inside him, this sense that all he needs is right here, that if Steve is with him, then nothing can go wrong – he wonders if this is what love feels like.
"Now," Steve says, still so close to him that Barnes can feel his voice thrumming through his chest, a delicious vibration that makes his spine turn into jelly. "How about we get breakfast for everyone, and we have it in the kitchen at the tower?"
Barnes waits for the tight sensation of a vice around his chest to form at the thought, for the automatic refusal to form on his tongue – but there's nothing. It simply doesn't come.
"Okay," he says, making himself let go of Steve's shirt. "Yeah. Let's do that."
"Good," Steve says, pulling back. For the briefest moment, there are lips brushing against Barnes' temple – and then Steve steps back, a little flushed but just as steady as always, an anchor for Barnes to tether himself to until the storm calms. He gathers Steve's smile deep inside himself, where he hoards all the little moments when he feels like he might have done something right for once.
Shoulder to shoulder, they walk out of the park.
The song Bucky hears that takes him back is Jimi Hendrix' All Along The Watchtower.
When the two of them turn up at the tower's communal kitchen with arms laden down with bagels, croissants, pains au chocolat, two tiers of coffee, and as much fruit as two supersoldiers can carry, there is a long silence that grates on Barnes' nerves, making him twitchy.
"Wow," Stark drawls, hands clasped around his mug that's clearly and helpfully marked at various levels with 'shhhh', 'almost', and 'now you may speak'; a quick glance reveals it to be just under half-full. Why don't all people come with handy guides like this? Barnes is sure his life would be so much simpler.
Stark makes grabby hands for the coffee in Steve's possession as soon as he sees it, but Steve holds it up just out of reach.
"Jarvis, which top-up is he on?" Steve asks with a dry, amused lilt in his voice that hits somewhere deep inside Barnes' body, cracking through yet another barrier.
"Number three, sir," the wall speaks. Barnes had been briefed, when he arrived, on the computer—correction, the artificial intelligence that ran Stark Tower, but this is the first time he has seen anyone interact with it directly, even though he's been here nearly two weeks already.
Steve looks mollified at the answer, handing the coffee over. "Tony has a habit of refilling that mug when the level dips under 'almost'," he explains for Barnes' benefit. "Three practically doesn't count. Known him to go as high as fifteen."
"One time," Stark protests testily, clutching the hot coffee to his chest. "And I wasn't feeling like talking to people."
"So you tweaked the level to send the message?" Barnes says. He is surprised at himself for engaging, but that is an ingenious solution.
(Except that even Steve might balk at Barnes carrying around a mug like that, permanently full of coffee.)
Stark looks just as surprised as him, eyebrows rising. "Exactly," he says after a moment, jabbing a finger in Barnes' direction. "See, Rogers? Robocop gets it."
"Don't call him that," Steve grumbles, with the air of a well-worn argument.
"Don't mind," Barnes mutters. (Well. Apparently it's a day for surprises.) "Except. I'm no cop."
"I was more interested in the first part, anyway," Stark says absentmindedly.
Barnes really does not want to go there, so he pushes the food in Stark's direction, hoping it'll shut him up. Stark's bloodshot eyes swivel to the egg and bacon bagels immediately. Success! Amazing. Maybe he's getting the hang of this socialising thing.
Sam stumbles in just as Steve is handing Barnes a pint of freshly-squeezed orange juice. Barnes takes it and sticks the straw in his mouth as an excuse to not talk.
Sam takes one look at the two of them and his whole face falls. It's way more dramatic than anything Barnes has ever seen.
"Can't believe you went running without me," Sam whines, throwing himself in one of the free chairs and crossing his arms in front of his chest. "That's it. The romance is dead."
Something heavy and full of spikes settles in Barnes' gut at the words. Before he can get up and leave, however, Steve rolls his eyes and shoves another pint of juice at Sam.
"Stop pouting, it's not a good look on you," he says.
Sam's face immediately rearranges itself as he accepts the glass.
"Excuse you, everything's a good look on me. I'm a handsome devil and you know it."
Barnes drags his eyes over him, testing that theory. Well. Sam's not wrong, as those things go. Great bone structure, powerful shoulders, long legs, muscled chest. Barnes would--
What? He chases after the thought, but it's gone, washed out along with the spike of interest it had caused.
Steve's laughter jerks him out of his musings, makes Barnes turn to look at him. Steve laughs too little around him. It makes Barnes sad. It makes him want to try harder.
"You keep telling yourself that, buddy," Steve says, a gentle tease in his voice.
Sam glares at him. "Oh, that's how it is?"
Steve smirks. It's not an expression Barnes has seen on him before, but it's a good look, that's for sure. Now there's a fella who can make just about anything look good.
"Oh, that's how it is," Steve agrees, turning back to the juice maker. It's mesmerising to watch him – sparse, controlled movements, almost like dancing. For some reason, the thought makes Barnes want to laugh.
Stark accepts the pint he's offered with a grunt, which is when Barnes realises that his dark, thoughtful eyes are fixed unerringly on The Weapon. Barnes stills, fighting the urge to draw the sleeve of his hoodie over The Weapon's hand, even though it's securely covered by a black glove.
Stark notices him noticing, but does not look away. Instead, he gestures with his half-eaten bagel.
"'S bothering you, isn't it."
The constant buzz of the juicer whirs to a stop.
The world narrows down to a pinprick, just Stark's voice booming in his ears.
"'S bothering you, isn't it."
It echoes through his mind, and Barnes grits his teeth and yanks himself out of the moment with an effort that leaves him weak.
He is allowed to feel – he reminds himself that, and
breathe, okay, and
He is allowed to admit to it. Nobody will punish him for it, or look at him with sickening speculation before ordering a wipe, a do-over, or sticking him back under in cryo until he remembers his place and forgets he ever had a thought unconnected to his orders.
'It's not weakness to ask for help.'
Yeah, that one? Is not going to be easy to put into practice, but god, Barnes has to start sometime, and
He is safe here.
No one will harm him--
And the truth is
The truth is
"Yeah," he says, so quietly that he has to make himself repeat. "Yeah. It bothers me."
He looks Stark straight in the eye. Stark doesn't flinch.
Barnes likes him better for it.
Stark hums to himself, doesn't sound surprised to hear that. He probably isn't, the nosy bastard. Then, he winces, like he's bracing for a hit.
"Look," he says, heavy with resolve. "I know it's not my place, and I have been told before I'm too meddlesome for my own good, thank you, Rogers, but – I could take a look at that. I mean. If you wanted. I'm pretty good with machines, and I know what it's like for one to be fucking you up."
Despite himself, Barnes shoots Steve a look. Steve is rolling his eyes, but there is a half-smile lurking over his mouth that turns into something wider and reassuring when he catches Barnes looking. Carefully, Steve shrugs and nods, which Barnes takes to mean that Steve approves of Stark's proposal.
(Knowing what he's read on the internet about Stark's ever-shifting interests, Barnes is frankly surprised it took him this long to angle for a look at The Weapon.)
There is a layer of cold sweat over his skin that his clothes catch on when he shifts in his seat, straightening his back. It's not comfortable, but he feels too relieved to have come out of that battle swinging for it to matter. Besides, Stark is still waiting for an answer, and leaving now to change his shirt would give the wrong impression.
Hey, look, he's learning! He'll be damned. That's progress right there.
"I'd like that," he says roughly, forcing his throat not to close around the words. "Thanks, Stark."
Stark waves a hand, like offering kindness to strangers is something he does every day. Maybe it is. Maybe kindness is a more common occurrence than Barnes has thus far experienced.
"Don't mention it. We can make a day of it, get Doc Foster out here. She'll kill me if we don't call her for this. How's Friday looking for ya?"
Barnes strangles the urge to laugh before it gets too far. "Yeah, I think my schedule is open," he says dryly.
Stark looks startled for a moment, then grins beatifically.
"Well, hi there," he says cheerfully. "Big Red has a sense of humour. Didn't think you had it in you, buddy."
Barnes rolls his eyes.
"Who you callin' 'buddy', pal?" he growls.
Stark blinks at him. Barnes is abruptly aware that the rest of the room has gone quiet, the ominous lull of a storm about to break.
Shit. He's fucked up, but he doesn't know what to do about that, how to fix it. Clearly, teasing was confined to between friends, and it's not like he fits that description.
"Who you callin' 'pal', friend?" Stark drawls, an unholy light in his eyes.
"Who you callin' 'friend', jerk?"
"Who you callin' 'jerk', asshole?"
Across the kitchen, Steve drops his face in his hands.
"Oh, God," he groans, derailing Barnes' next volley. "I knew this would happen. They're getting along. This can't be good for anybody's health."
Sam snorts, while Barnes and Stark grin wolfishly at each other.
"You're all right, Barnes," Stark declares magnanimously, saluting him with his half-drunk coffee.
"Well, you're still a dick," Barnes counters, and it's much sooner that Stark cracks up this time, nearly knocking over his chair.
"Fuck off, asshole," Stark bats back. Despite the words, Barnes is bewildered to detect the same note of fondness as he had observed in Stark's earlier interaction with Steve.
Wow. This revelation is going to take longer to sink in than Stark's offer to help, he thinks.
"Ya know, Rogers, I don't envy you one bit," Sam says thoughtfully from across the table. "I'm glad I don't gotta get involved in this time bomb waiting to happen."
Steve mock-glares at him. "Thanks so much, Wilson, you're a fount of comfort," he deadpans. It doesn't affect the smile in his eyes when he looks at Barnes.
Barnes smiles back. He can't not.
"I'm sure I gave you two a room," Stark complains, wrinkling his nose at them.
Barnes doesn't even try to tamper down his smirk at his and Steve's unanimous, "Shut up, Stark."
Yep, the story is now [COMPLETE]. I think half the delay in getting this part done was dithering over what more I could do with the story before accepting that this is pretty much all I want for them. :)
Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who stuck with me and read along as I wrote this. You are all stars. <3 I have had the best blast.
Steve comes awake with a start, broad, bare shoulders shivering in the cool of the bedroom. From the armchair backed into the far corner, Barnes watches him as impassively as he can manage. The fact that Steve stirs now, almost twenty minutes after Barnes slunk his way into the room, is nothing short of shattering – even in his sleep, Steve evidently decided that Barnes presents no danger to him. Barnes is torn between being floored by the show of trust, and punching Steve for being so cavalier with his own safety.
"Buck?" Steve mutters when his eyes land on Barnes in his shadowy perch. "You okay?"
No 'What are you doing here?'; no 'What's going on?' Just a simple 'Are you okay?', like it's the only thing that matters to Steve.
Barnes is coming to understand that yes, actually, it is; and also, what must be going through Steve's head, because Steve being okay is quickly becoming the driving purpose behind pretty much everything Barnes does.
"Is this love?" Barnes hears himself ask. His voice is quiet, rough, tentative like he doesn't know what answer to expect. He would be terrified – except the only thing he dreads is Steve's absence from his life, and he'd do anything to prevent that, up to and including confronting the emotions inside him that feel like they might well tear him apart with their overwhelming, all-consuming presence.
Steve sits up, suddenly looking entirely too awake. His eyes are shining softly, a look in them that makes Barnes' chest burn like something is trying to take it over, burst its way out of him.
"What, Buck?" Steve asks, just as quietly. He turns to face Barnes properly, legs crossed beneath the covers, arms settling on his knees. He is wearing a white tank top over his pyjama pants. Barnes understands. He can't sleep without at least a t-shirt anymore, something to keep the warmth in.
They are a pair, the two of them.
"This—feeling," Barnes forces out, dragging his eyes away from Steve's naked, smooth, lusciously-muscled shoulders. "This—the way just watching you settles me, makes me feel content. The way I look at you smiling and my chest feels like it's caving in on itself. The—how light I feel around you. Wanting to—touch you, wanting your arms around me. Looking at you and hoping you want to stay close to me as much as I crave it."
His stomach is a tight ball of nerves. Is it supposed to feel like this? It's not—unpleasant, exactly, merely makes him feel—alive, present, grounded in this moment. Steve, because he is the best man Barnes knows, doesn't make him wait long. He throws back the covers and slides out of bed, comes closer and drops to his knees next to Barnes' side, his face level with Barnes' chest. His eyes are—Barnes feels like he ought to look away from the intensity of that gaze, but he can't, welded to the connection between them, the energy humming in the space between their bodies.
"Bucky," Steve says, and Barnes feels like his heart is breaking at the pleading in his voice, the longing, the hope.
"Yes," he says, accepts that's who he is, Bucky Barnes, all-in and to hell with the rest. He isn't leaving, not unless Steve makes him.
Steve lifts his hand and gently, so gently that Bucky barely feels the touch, places it on the side of Bucky's face, cradling his cheek in his palm. His thumb strokes Bucky's cheekbone just once, like it can barely believe it's allowed. Bucky holds very, very still, hoping the touch doesn't disappear. It feels so good.
It doesn't. Steve's hand stays there, warm and solid, reassuring in a way no words have ever been.
"I'd like to kiss you," Steve whispers. "Please tell me if I can kiss you."
Bucky's heart slams triple-time against his breastbone. This is nothing like that time he tried to seduce Steve into taking him in. This is deliberate and ephemeral at once, and it holds him enthralled, desperately afraid one wrong word from him could break the moment.
"Yes," he whispers, wanting it, craving it, ceding control to the only man he can imagine wielding it over him.
Steve doesn't lunge forward like Bucky thought (wished) he would. He moves slowly, like a mountain range, inexorably drawing nearer until his breath washes over Bucky's mouth; until at long, long last, his lips press to Bucky's, drawing them the slightest bit apart. A hint of moisture slips through, catching at Bucky's top lip; it's like being scalded with sensation, his whole body coming alive, thrumming with the need to get closer.
The sound he makes is shocking, completely unrestrained. Like wildfire, awareness spreads through him until it engulfs him, leaves him unmoored and shaking, adrift in the world. He grabs onto the only solid thing in it; the fingers of The Weapon tangle into Steve's tank top, while his own curl around Steve's bicep, revelling in the heat that seeps into his skin, the flex of mouthwatering muscle under his hand. Steve lets out a helpless whine and presses closer, licks into Bucky's mouth with more purpose, fanning the flames within. The slide of Steve's tongue on his rocks Bucky to the core; the vibration of Steve's moan against his teeth is enough to make him gasp for breath.
Steve sways closer. That this perfect combination of unbreakable body and steely, stubborn willpower is shaking against him, pressing in as if seeking a port in a storm, undoes Bucky more effectively than any words, any declarations ever could. He wants to say Steve's name, wants to somehow explain what Steve does to him with this faith, this trust, this loyalty, but the breath is bunched up in his throat and all he seems capable of is clutch at Steve and keep him exactly where he is, and not an inch further away.
Some blissfully wonderful minutes later, Steve draws back just a little, enough to break the kiss and press his forehead to Bucky's, breath stuttering deliciously over Bucky's skin.
"Can't believe this is happening," Steve mutters. His voice is shredded, and Bucky experiences a jab of visceral pleasure right in the gut, that he can make Steve sound like that from wanting him.
"Good?" Bucky ventures, surprising himself with how rough his own voice sounds.
"The best," Steve answers immediately, knee-jerk. It sends warmth unspooling through Bucky's whole body, buoying him forward to peck another kiss against Steve's welcoming lips.
After another minute or ten of trading soft, drugging kisses, Steve pulls back again to briefly press his mouth against Bucky's temple.
"I don't know," he says into Bucky's hair.
When Bucky does nothing but look at him blankly, Steve sends him a crooked smile. "Your question about love," he clarifies. "I don't know if that's what it is. All I know is that it's the same for me. I crave you, Bucky Barnes, like I haven't craved air to breathe. Given we're both in the same spot, I reckon we're ahead of the curve for once."
Bucky grunts, snagging his arm around Steve's neck and reeling him in to kiss him deeply, until Steve yields those delectable, addictive sounds that Bucky could stand to hear all night long. He wonders how much sharper, deeper those would be when he's got his hand wrapped around Steve's cock, stroking him slow and tight while he sucks a mark into his chest, and has to break away from Steve's mouth to gasp down desperate gulps of air. Steve watches him in concern until Bucky mutters the confession into his jaw; abruptly, Bucky feels himself flush hotly all over at the desperate, high-pitched moan that falls from Steve's mouth.
"Wanna find out?" Steve rumbles, tangling his fingers with those of The Weapon—no, with those of Bucky's metal arm. It's not a weapon anymore, not unless Bucky wants it to be. Much like him. It can no more be blamed for the orders it carried out than its host's brainwashed mind. It deserves a second chance as much as he does.
It looks like Steve is all-too-willing to give it one, because here are his fingers rubbing over the smooth metal knuckles, the rounded joints, lavishing care with his touch that Bucky doesn't know what to do with, apart from gratefully accept. Steve raises an eyebrow at him, his face delightfully flushed as he bites his bottom lip.
"Can we?" he breathes out, pupils widening with what Bucky can only interpret as desire, while his fingers gently test the strength and resolution of their metal counterparts.
And Bucky? Bucky gives him the only answer he has; the only answer he will ever give where it comes to Steve.