He stared at himself in the full length mirror. Water dripped off the ends of his hair and skin, pooled around his feet on the chilly tile. There’d been no mirrors for a long time. He touched the arch of his nose, traced a finger over his lips. The man in the mirror was strong, firm and tall like a tree rooted into the earth. He dragged his fingers down over his neck, found his own steady pulse, then the hard curve of his collarbone.
A bone that had been broken once. All his bones had broken. He found the grooves of scar tissue, the cool flex of metal. He had looked at a lot of pictures today, but none of them were enough to bring back the memory of another arm. This was his as surely as the breath leaving his lungs had been. Wasn’t it?
He left the arm behind. His chest was unyielding, but he could find the thrum of his own heartbeat. The planes of his stomach were flat. He had sat in a fast food restaurant not an hour before and eaten the first meal he’d chosen himself in long memory. It had tasted of grease, the kind of empty calories they’d never allowed him. It sat uneasy in him now.
Reluctantly, he palmed his cock and balls. Limp and light and vulnerable compared to the rest of him. Had he really once touched others with this thing? Trusted them in such a naked, fearless way? Memory, soap bubble thin, suggested a tanned thigh and a flash of red lipstick. A warm wet welcome far kinder than his own clinical touch.
He turned away from the mirror. It didn’t tell him anything new anyway.
The hotel bed was as large as his old cell. He couldn’t bring himself to sleep naked, too aware of the eyes that might even now be seeking him. Gun under his pillow, knife in a sheath strapped to his thigh. Boots, laced and ready, standing sentinel beside the bed.
He slept like a livewire, jumping and twitching. It was the first time he slept above ground.
There were a lot of firsts that week. He counted them as firsts, anyway. The river had wiped everything else away, left him stained and tattered on the banks with no one tugging at his leash. He counted them as firsts.
First walk without intention under an indifferent spring sun. First cup of coffee, small and hot, the previously illegal stimulant producing a tremor he didn’t like. First donut, sweet and crumbling, which he liked very much. First like and dislike, opinions tiny and mutinous cracking through an armored shell.
First theft for only his own ends, some suit wearer’s wallet, taken painlessly and used to augment his tattered wardrobe. First clothes that he’d picked himself, swaddling layers that weren’t armor, but were. First nap in the sunshine on the hotel balcony, first book cracked over his thigh. First dream. First nightmare.
They piled on each other, these fresh experiences, interweaving. He watched television, practiced unfamiliar phrases and studied nuances. A cheap laptop, both slower and yet more open than anything he’d used before, allowed him into other arenas.
The name James Buchanan Barnes brought too much information. He read through it all anyway. First time feeling the chill of the grave on the back of his neck. First time, he stared himself down in the mirror and said,
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.”
It didn’t sound as official as it had in that other star spangled voice.
“Your name is Bucky.”
It was a child’s name, a careless laughing nickname. It didn’t fit his hollow eyes or the lank fall of his hair.
He repeated it until it lost it’s shine. Until he thought he might be able to hang it around his neck.
“Name?” A barista demanded after he ordered his hot chocolate.
“Bucky,” he told her and dredged up something else. First smile.
“Bucky,” she repeated back to him and smiled back.
He drank his hot chocolate beside a fake fireplace. Pop of memory: fire in a pot bellied stove in a falling down shack with bombers wheezing over head. Strong hands on his shoulders, a deep laugh, the glance of lips at the corner of his mouth.
It occurred to him for the first time that he had been loved once. The asset was as detached from humanity as a lizard in the desert. But Bucky had been born. He had a mother, father, siblings. He’d known the touch of a woman, camaraderie of friends. Someone had loved this flesh once, held it close and whispered kind things in its ear. Someone had been tender.
First tears, quickly dashed away. He had never been the weepy sort, he decided.
He moved on. There was a homing impulse, hammering away at the back of his brain. Return to base. Secure the mission. It once would have overridden everything else, pushed him starving and dehydrated miles beyond what a body should endure to fulfill orders. Now, it was just a faint buzz, ignorable as he got further and further away from Hydra bases. He moved through the Midwest, comfortable in the anonymity of roadside hotels and sleepy, suburban sprawls.
He liked Target with it’s clean abundance and frittered away hours picking up objects and determining their uses. Engrained instincts forbid him from buying too much. Easier to leave if he wasn’t weighed down. His first frivolous purchase took two months, a package of baseball cards. He fished through them, easily memorizing statistics and faces. A skill used for targets, turned to simple pleasure.
He started going to baseball games. He ate concession stand food and kept a hat drawn low over his eyes. The crowd unsettled him, but he learned how to find spaces to sit that isolated him without making anyone else wary.
“You dropped this, mister,” a kid handed him a fluttering dollar bill as he left a hot dog stand.
“Thanks,” Bucky reached for it, then hesitated. “You know what. Keep it, kid.”
The boy ran off, crumbled bill in one hand and a grin plastered wide on his face. Bucky rocked back on his heels. He’d given something away. Let go of what was rightfully his. It settled easy on him and something tight unwound from his chest. He was the type of person who gave things, even when he had very little.
He started keeping change in his pockets and filled every empty cup on the sidewalk. Each rough throated thanks clicked pieces back together in his head. He remembered an empty belly and chill skin, but there’d been shared roll, broken stale between two even though he could have kept it for himself.
His let his hair grow and grow, caught it back in a ponytail holder, studied his exposed face and wasn’t sure what to make of it.
The soles of his boots wore thin. He bought sneakers, upturned toe for running and white clean socks. Without the heavy leather, he felt untethered. Free to run.
He ate more than he should and didn’t work out as much as he needed to though he kept up some semblance of routine. Muscle turned sinuous, still strong, but no longer razor defined. He blended in better and better, a glove over his strange hand and sweatshirt sleeve pushed low over his wrist.
At a college baseball game outside of Des Moines, a man with a cap pulled low over his eyes sat down beside him. Bucky looked down at his own scuffed sneakers. They matched the man’s beside him. It had been nearly a year.
Bucky looked up, caught the tightness around Steve’s eyes and the empty spread of his fingers, held upwards and defenseless on one knee.
“Not my home.”
“Yes, it is.”
Bucky watched some green kid strike out, bat flying out of his hands in annoyance. The world was saturated in sun and popcorn butter. Steve’s body tilted in a silent plea. Bucky could feel a second set of eyes, several rows up. The Falcon, most likely.
There was a hotel room a mile away. Bucky went back to it, gathered his bags and slid into the backseat of a low slung car. Falcon was behind the wheel, one line of tension. Steve sat in the passenger seat. He was smiling, but as soon as the car was outside of city limits, he fell into a boneless sleep.
It was the first time anyone had dared to sleep with Bucky at their back.
“You better be everything he thinks you are,” Falcon warned.
Bucky shrugged and stared at the rearview mirror. Steve’s face had imprinted on his dreams, but it was different like this. Real and unyielding. Half thoughts, vanishing traces of another life anchored themselves to those cheekbones, the curve of his lips.
The apartment wasn’t in Washington or Brooklyn. A graceful tower thrusting upward in the middle of Manhattan with cranes busy as bees around a flower. Retinal scan in the garage and a dozen other identity checks before they reached the elevator. Falcon was identified as ‘Sam Wilson’, Bucky as ‘James Barnes, Lazarus Two’ and Steve as ‘Fearless Leader’ in a crisp British accent.
“Tony thinks he’s funny,” Steve scowled.
Bucky stood in the corner of the elevator, pulled tight. The elevator was confined and armed. He could feel waiting bullets behind the walls. They got off on one of the highest floors, stepping into a bird’s paradise. A great glass wall showed the city gleaming. A television was mounted on one wall with a couch pointed at it, but there were two armchairs facing the window.
“You should get some sleep,” Steve told Sam.
“I don’t like leaving you alone with him.”
“Uh huh. See you later, Sam.”
Steve looked Bucky over.
“You look tired.”
Bucky tilted his head to one side. He wasn’t sure what tired felt like anymore. He barely slept, traveled more often than he stayed still and often lost track of days entirely.
Steve walked down a hallway. Slowly, Bucky followed him. He identified two potential exit points beside the elevator. There were a few doors, all open. A bathroom, pristine. A bedroom, lived in with the covers unmade. An office, computer dormant and scuff marks from a rubber ball that sat on the desk. Steve sat in that chair, restless and bounced a ball off a wall. It was just....there for Bucky to see. He would be barefoot, a frown tugging just so on his lips, and he wouldn’t miss a single catch.
“This is yours,” Steve let the last door swing open. “I didn’t do much with it. You can put up whatever you want, okay?”
The room had a bed, a nightstand, an old fashioned alarm clock and an antique wooden bureau. The closet stood empty, hangers waiting. The whole room was a held breath.
“Okay,” Bucky said, agreeing to nothing, but anxious to close the door and seal himself into this space.
This was his room. It wasn’t a cell. He investigated and there was nothing behind the walls. No cameras, no wires at all. There was a wi-fi signal, password locked. A dark blue comforter lay over the bed’s clean sheets.
He hadn’t meant to sleep, but he wound up burrowed beneath that warm thick blanket and his eyes weighted closed.
The next few days, it seemed all he did was sleep. Steve greeted him whenever he emerged, offering up food. Bucky ate it without more than a preliminary sniff. He was at Steve’s mercy, tucked away in this nest above the city. Poison was the least of what could be done to him. Anyway, the food tasted good. Steve’s repertoire was limited, but focused on high protein delivery.
“Do you remember anything?” Steve ventured to ask on the fourth morning.
Bucky stared down at the swirl of scrambled eggs and ketchup.
“Yes,” he swallowed. “Slivers.”
“We met when I was five and you were six,” Steve started slow. He described two boys at play, chasing each other through long forgotten streets. “We liked the same pulp magazines. You’d steal them sometimes, share them with me under the stairs.”
A musty smell struck Bucky, dust, sandy hair and ink smeared fingers. It settled in alongside the mist of rain on his upturned face, a taunting yell across an empty lot. That was early childhood, a melted chocolate in the palm of his long gone hand.
After that, every time Bucky emerged, Steve gave him back a piece of himself. His parents’ names, the apartment cluttered with too many young bodies and boisterous dinners. The slam of his fist into a bully’s face, far less accurate than one he could throw now, just as likely to damage himself as the other guy.
There was always Steve beside him. Different than the pillar of a man who gave him the stories. A streak of stubborn, all jutting bones, rattling coughs and challenging blue eyes that always pushed Bucky to do better. Be better.
They had a world of two. Sam lingered sometimes, but he was often quiet or failed to address Bucky when he did speak. He was Steve’s right hand man now. Bucky wasn’t jealous. Wasn’t sure he knew how to be. He wasn’t sure he even liked Steve. Certainly, he hated him sometimes. The memories didn’t exactly slot neatly into the asset’s programming. Bucky often woke in the middle of the night, certain that his mind had been at war with itself and unsure who had triumphed.
Bucky woke to Steve’s puttering and fell asleep to his music infiltrating through the door. He ate what Steve fed him and watched whatever Steve put on the television. Eventually, he followed Steve out of the apartment. They went running. Steve was fast and infatigable, but Bucky was used to pushing this body. He kept pace, sweating and aching.
“Stop,” Steve came to a halt, one hand shooting out to cease Bucky’s momentum. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
The questions seemed to needle under Steve’s skin.
“You don’t have to be in pain.”
Bucky rolled that thought over and over in his head. He could feel the barely there pressure of Steve’s hand on his chest. It was the first time someone had touched him with care.
He ran with Steve the next morning. He stopped when his muscles screamed in protest. Sat down on the lush grass and turned his face up to the sun. Steve tossed a water bottle at him and kept going. Bucky drank it in two long swallows. It tasted different somehow. Sweeter.
Slowly, Steve forced their world a little wider. People began to turn up in the apartment. Always with the announcement of the voice Steve had identified as an A.I. called JARVIS. Bucky discovered he had opinions about people. Not vague impressions or skill judgements, but actual solid feelings.
He didn’t like Tony. Tony was bombastic and made Steve shift uncomfortably around the apartment. Twitchy and fast talking, Tony touched everything while spouting out pronouncements and judgements. He didn’t seem the least bit afraid of Bucky, studying his arm with a hawk’s gaze.
“I could make it better,” he’d announce and Bucky would melt away. He’d hear Steve quiet-yelling Tony out of the apartment after that.
Pepper was better. She was afraid, but was also the type of person who stared down her fears. Her stops were shorter, usually to take Steve away somewhere, returning him with charcoal smeared hands and bags of takeout food that carried the world inside them. Bucky didn’t like her exactly. Respect, he decided. He respected her.
“Probably a bad idea,” was the first thing Bucky heard Bruce say.
“I’m full of them,” Steve admitted as they came in the door. “Bucky, this is Dr. Bruce Banner.”
Bruce held out a hand. Bucky shook it. That was a first too.
“Steve thinks I can teach you something,” Bruce shrugged as if the idea struck him as ridiculous though his eyes were sharp behind his glasses.
“Okay.” Okay was Bucky’s mantra. It was nearly neutral, letting him slip slide around decisions, but filling the conversation gap.
“It’d be better if you came to mine, you guys don’t exactly have a quiet space. I’m the floor below you.”
“I can come with you,” Steve offered, tight smile.
Bucky shook his head. He wanted to see more of the building without Steve catching him casing the place. Bruce was small, older and delicate. A doctor, but one with faint webs of scarring that suggested self-stitching and old, baggy clothes. Bucky thought he could go into this man’s space and emerge the same as he went in.
The apartment was laid out just like Steve’s, except the glass wall was rendered half as transparent, shading darker.
“I’m not crazy about heights,” Bruce shrugged when he caught Bucky looking.
Where Steve had an office, Bruce had an empty room with mats on the hardwood floor and soundproofing on the walls. He lit a candle and sank down into lotus position on one mat. Bucky copied him.
“Look at the candle, empty your head and breath,” Bruce flexed his hands. “That’s really the best advice I can give.”
Bucky stared at the candle. He imagined it licking up into his brain, setting ablaze the complexities of his myriad identities. He listened to Bruce’s slow deep breathing and mimicked it until it felt natural in his chest.
Eventually, Bruce eased into a series of yoga positions. Bucky was flexible from far harder training. He followed along, a little bewildered. It wasn’t until they repeated the pattern a third time that he found he was still breathing deep and even. The mess of his head was quiet.
After that, he went to Bruce’s every afternoon. Eventually, yoga led to lunch and Bruce told him about the places he’d traveled. Whenever Bucky seemed interested, Bruce would follow up with a book for him to read. Fiction, physics and travel guides that Bucky read slowly.
“You never liked reading before,” Steve remarked off handed.
“Huh,” Bucky smoothed a finger over the spindly words. They didn’t change. He could pick this same book up a thousand times and this page would say just the same thing. A story that had nothing to do with him. “Guess I do now.”
Books of Steve’s turned up on the kitchen table after that, an implicit invitation. Fantasies and mysteries, mostly, philosophy occasionally.
“I think what they did to me, made me smarter,” Bucky told Bruce over cups of bitter tea.
“I read the files. Nothing you were implied entire consciousness, let alone enhanced intelligence,” Bruce frowned, “they made you mindless.”
“Why do I understand more now then?”
“You were a teenager who went to war. Now you’re a man who’s been through hell. Bound to make you see things differently.”
Bucky finished his tea.
One morning, there was a god in the kitchen. He wore a long red cape, an enormous hammer settled on the table and devouring a steak with boyish grin. Steve sat beside him, poking the hammer with grinning curiosity.
“You’re Steve’s shieldbrother,” the god leveled Bucky with a curious glance. “I have heard much about you. I am Thor.”
“Okay,” Bucky sat down across from him.
“I am visiting my Jane, but she has told me to ‘get lost’ while she finishes her work. Steve was kind enough to give me refuge and this snack,” Thor sighed. “I admire her mind, but sometimes it is inconvenient.”
“You can stay,” Steve said around a mouthful of food. “We were just gonna watch the game.”
Baseball wasn’t Thor’s sport. He watched with increasing confusion.
“Why doesn’t this baseman tackle down the runner?”
“It isn’t a contact sport,” Steve explained patiently.
“Then where is the challenge? Surely anyone can hit a ball with a stick of wood.”
“It’s harder than it looks.”
“I cannot believe this. Take me to a field and we shall see.”
Which was how they wound up breaking into a high school baseball field on a quiet Sunday afternoon with a bag of borrowed equipment bouncing at Thor’s side along with Mjolnir. Steve gave Bucy the bat first, throwing him fast pitches. The first time one connected and it sang through Bucky’s bones.
“Let me take this turn,” Thor held out an eager hand, squaring up to the plate with studied ease.
Steve tossed a hard pitch. Thor swung, missed and laughed.
“I see now,” he hefted the bat again. “It did not look nearly so fast on television.”
After that Thor hit the ball with an average that would have made the Yankees weep.
“I will try pitching!” Thor declared when they’d lost three balls to the woods.
“Try a few warm ups first,” Steve wisely told him, stepping back.
Thor put a hole through a chainlink fence on his first fastball.
“Your Misgardian metals are flimsy,” Thor bounded up to the fence, plucking at a loose wire. “Why would you use steel for such a thing? It is so easily bent.”
“Not for us,” Steve hid his smile behind a hand. “Look, maybe we shouldn’t push our luck. We already damaged the place, let’s call it a day.”
“If you insist,” Thor’s shoulders took a visible slump.
Bucky wondered how someone with as much energy as Thor took to being cooped up all the time. He seemed like the type of person that needed a lot of space and activity. Tentative, he reached over to Steve and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Tag,” Bucky declared then took off running.
He heard Steve shouting instructions to Thor as he took off toward the woods. They were three grown men, far more used to punches then taps and the game deteriorated into shoves and tripping feet. Thor was faster than either Steve or Bucky, but he was a juggernaut at high speeds, slow to turn and often over reaching in his exuberance. Steve retained a nimbleness from the muscle memory of a smaller man, going so far as to climb a few trees to evade reaching hands. Bucky’s keen senses gave him a thin edge forward, his uncanny knack of being just out of reach.
None of them tired easily and the game trailed into the dusk. A tiny part of Bucky strained to hear his mother’s voice, calling him home.
Instead, he got Steve jumping on his back and baring them both down to the ground.
“I’m sorry it had to come to this,” Steve solemnly declared before digging his fingers into Bucky’s ribs and scrubbing lightly over them.
For a frozen second, Bucky ran through defensive moves that would render Steve unconscious or break his back. Then his nerves caught up with the sensation. Tickling. It tickled. It was bizarre, bordering on uncomfortable and then....
“Quit,” he demanded, but the word was broken over a sharp bark of noise.
“No,” Steve’s grin went wide and mischievous. “Say uncle!”
“Never!” The script emerged full born into his mouth and he squirmed away, still gritting out that gut shaking sound.
Laughing. He was laughing, shaking with great waves of it. The first to rise from his throat. He could hear Thor joining in, picking Steve up and gently shaking him.
“I will save you!” Thor boomed and Bucky laughed all the harder as Steve slapped ineffectually at Thor’s hand.
They returned to the apartment with grass stains and wide grins. A slender woman with curly hair was waiting by the elevator. She smiled when she saw them, reaching up to pluck a stick from Thor’s hair.
“I guess you found something to do.”
“I had fun,” Thor agreed, sweeping her into a kiss so passionate it almost looked satirical.
Bucky definitely liked Thor.
The last of the tower’s residents returned in a pair. The spider, her hair grown longer and allowed to turn wavy, brought with her a wary eyed man, quick to smile and slow to mean it.
“Clint,” he offered.
“And are you still Natasha?” Bucky asked.
“For a given definition of the name,” she shrugged. “Who are you these days?”
“Bucky,” he said dryly, “for a given definition.”
“Glad we’re all semi-solid on our identities,” Clint rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you two go be vague at each other in the other room while I pump Steve for information?”
Natasha settled in Steve’s chair, legs folded under her. Bucky took the one beside it that he had begun to think of as his own. He and Steve sat here in the evenings sometimes, watching the sunset while Steve drew and the radio muttered in the background.
“We’ve been living in Seattle, but I got to hate the rain,” she offered.
“Steve won’t let me go back to Brooklyn. He thinks it’ll ruin the good memories.”
“Do you have any of those?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure what makes a memory good. Just having them is novel.”
“Yes,” she propped her chin in her hand.
She took him to the gym and they fought. It was interesting to spar without intention of injuring. They were probably too careful with each other, but it was better than the alternative. Sometimes interspersed in kicks, she would speak to him in Russian. Not of fighting, but giving him vocabulary he’d never had a use for before. She gifted him with the words for sports, poetry, foods, arts and idioms. It was as if he’d never heard the language before. It slowly loosened it’s hold on his dreams and became just another series of words.
“I’m going to take her to the ballet tomorrow,” Clint confided when she left the ring to shower. “You want to come with?”
He didn’t like the ballet. Natasha watched it blank face as if that could hide the tremors of joy and ravenous interest. Clint fidgeted and at the intermission, snuck Bucky a sip from his flask.
“She loves it,” Clint shrugged and took his own slug of liquor. It was the first drink Bucky had had. It burned and mellowed in his stomach. “And she deserves some happiness sometimes.”
Bucky nodded. The next day, he went down the garage. He found a mangled mess of metal shoved forgotten under a tarp. He ran his hands over it and remembered Steve leaning over the handles with a feral smile on his face and the Commandos at his back.
Further digging revealed a well kitted out workshop and manuals. Greasy and struggling, he wasn’t surprised that Tony arrived as if summoned by engineering incompetence.
“Could just get him a new one,” Tony squatted down, picking up a discarded bolt.
“Steve doesn’t like disposable things.”
Tony tossed the bolt in the air, catching it up again in one easy motion.
“You can say that again. Here, you’re doing that backwards.”
Tony was easier to swallow when he had a project. They worked on the bike together at odd hours. It seemed whenever Bucky couldn’t sleep, Tony was also awake. He was beginning to suspect that Tony only slept in odd intervals or whenever Pepper sat on him.
It only occurred to him when Tony came down with bloodshot eyes and a drink fisted in one hand at 3am that maybe he wasn’t the only one with nightmares. Instead of letting Tony set his hands on the bike, Bucky held out his arm.
“You might as well,” he said roughly.
Tpny didn’t wait for clarification, he ran his fingers over the metal plates, dirty fingernails catching at the seams.
“How much can you feel?”
“Pressure,” Bucky flexed his fingers, “extreme temperatures, but hot and cold feel the same.”
“Enough to be useful, but not enough to feel normal,” Tony nodded as if that’s exactly what he’d been expecting. “JARVIS, run scan.”
Bucky waited, but nothing seemed to happen. Tony seemed satisfied though, releasing Bucky seconds later.
“Show me the diagram,” Tony spread his hands wide and between them a hologram appeared. With a gesture, it spilled open, showing the inner workings of the arm in intimate detail.
Bucky had seen glimpses of the interior before, but only when it was damaged. It was weirdly beautiful when intact, wires wrapping about each other like DNA and tiny servos churning away to keep the movements smooth.
“I can do better,” Tony assured him. “Increase the input until you can’t tell it from your natural arm.”
Bucky rubbed the metal fingers together, tried to imagine them chafing warm against each other. He could remember having two hands now, how he’d clenched them together through thick woolen gloves to keep warm.
A few days later, Natasha kicked him in the balls while they were sparring. He’d had her cornered and maybe she’d panicked or miscalculated in the tight space. Her heel connected. He registered the pain, then shoved it aside as unimportant, continuing the match without acknowledging it. When the bell rang time, she dropped straight out of her tense battle stance.
“That must’ve hurt. Sorry.”
The tip of her nose twitched. He waited. That usually signaled an uncomfortable question.
“Did they do anything to your genitals? Numb them?”
“No,” he frowned. “I practiced blocking out the pain.”
“What about pleasure?” It was frank, said with arms crossed over chest. Not a signal, but a genuine inquiry.
“It didn’t come up.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Have you tried since?”
He told her about the mirror all those months ago. For the first time, he put words to the formless feelings. How the body wasn’t quite his, how he often thought it as borrowed flesh. She listened, her muscles tense.
“I understand,” she said quietly and he was certain that she did. “Come with me.”
She led him to the bathroom in her apartment. He hadn’t been there before, but wasn’t surprised to find it mostly undecorated. In Clint’s tower suite, the second bedroom held her few possessions. This was a place holder, a blank sanctuary when she required it.
“Take a shower,” she handed him a towel. “Touch yourself. Just see if you can.”
He held the nubby fabric and didn’t move.
“I’ll stand guard.”
She stayed outside while he shed his clothes and stepped under the water’s hot spray. When he’d tugged the heavy plastic curtain into place, he heard her open the door and sit down in front of it, her very body a blockade against the world. Music, tinny and sad from her phone speaker, blocked out any sounds he might make.
It wasn’t the first time he’d taken a shower while someone stood watch, but it was the first time it made him feel safe. Protected.
He chased down every iota of dirt first, soaping his skin to an irritated red. The air grew thick with steam. Reluctantly, he slid his hand down and cupped his penis. It lay flaccid it in his hand. Had he really once done this every day? He must’ve, the memories clear on his furtive walks into the woods on long missions. He’d once been desperate for this. What had he thought about? Women he’d known?
He tried to imagine an anonymous woman, undressed her and laid her out on a bed. He lay down beside her, but nothing happened.
“Don’t think,” Natasha’s voice floated in on the steam. “It’s like meditation.”
So instead, he pictured staring into a flame as he touched the head of his cock. He leaned his head against the wall, played his fingers from root to tip. Slowly, slowly, it grew harder as if it too had to remember what all this was about. The sensations were his own, a tingle at the base of the spine and the tightening in his stomach. A defined image did come to mind, emerging from the flame. Someone elses’ hand sure on this same flesh, a steady hard grip and an uneven breath echoing in Bucky’s ear. Some formless person that pressed him against the wall and concentrated on Bucky’s pleasure.
His orgasm startled him badly, an overload of sensation that made him cry out with it. He had forgotten that something good could feel as intense as pain. It sent him to his knees, the water washing away the evidence. He couldn’t breath in the thick steam, gasping to find purchase. A fan turned on, the shower curtain drew back and Natasha sat down on the lip of the bathtub. She didn’t seem to care that her shorts were soaking up the water. Instead, she reached out, arm around his shoulders. His head settled on the rock of her thigh and his eyes closed on their own volition. With vicious certainty, he knew she understood. Her body too had become a foreign country and she too had worked to reclaim it.
Soon after she bundled him up in Clint’s castoffs and sent him home. They didn’t speak of it again. Didn’t need to. They had forged a bond between them that day that thrived in silent understanding.
“She’s a good person,” he said once, off-handedly to Clint. Clint has frozen for a moment, eyes alone moving to track where Natasha was stretched out in a lawn chair like a lion surveying it’s territory.
“Welcome to the smallest club ever,” Clint recovered and clapped Bucky on the back. “With two of us maybe we can get pins or jackets or something.”
A few days after the shower incident, Bucky’s back cramped up on him. He wasn’t sure the two were entirely unrelated. Since then he had felt more present in his body which came with the good and the bad. The aches he usually shoved aside had become annoyingly present.
“Back?” Steve asked, sympathetically when he came out one morning, hobbling a little. “Used to happen to you sometimes when we slept rough. Trick vertebrae or something.”
“How’d I fix it?”
Steve’s arms settled around him, pulling him close into something like a hug. Bucky tried not to tense, even as Steve placed his broad hands on either side of Bucky’s spine. Just Steve, he reminded himself and then he didn’t have to because Steve was squeezing down hard and something shifted and popped and all Bucky’s muscles went to water.
“Oh,” he panted.
“Better?” Steve took a step back and Bucky almost stumbled on liquid knees.
“Yeah,” he managed. “Thanks.”
Steve cracked Bucky’s back once a week or so after that. It was almost as good as masturbating. Though that was a thought that Bucky carefully did not share.
“I’ve got to head out,” Steve said over breakfast one morning. “Tony has a lead to chase down and he’s about as subtle as a brick to the face left on his own. You’ll be okay here?”
“Sure,” he tossed off and privately began to worry.
As soon as Steve departed in a cloud of anxiety and lists, the apartment went stultifyingly silent. Bucky walked from room to room, any sense of permanency vanishing without Steve’s presence. Just when he thought he might go half-mad, JARVIS announced Sam.
“Steve’s out,” Bucky started.
“Yeah, man I know. Want to go running?”
“He send you to babysit me?”
Sam shrugged loosely and frankly, it didn’t matter why he was there. A run sounded good. They went a different route than the one Steve preferred. They wound up keeping pace with the Hudson, watching sailboats drift by. It was far easier to keep up with Sam’s lope then Steve’s ground eating strides. When Bucky drifted to a stop, Sam followed suit.
“I keep wondering what you think about all this,” Sam said to his bottle of water.
“All of what?” Bucky stared out over the water.
“Modern era. Internet and Miley Cyrus. Steve seems to like it or at least claims to. Adjusts easy too.”
“He was always like that. Adapted quick. Or wanted people to think he did.” It sounded right though Bucky couldn’t give specific examples.
“And you didn’t?”
“I did what I had to do.”
“So modern times is just something you have to get through?”
He tilted his head back and watched the clouds.
“I’m alive. I prefer that to the alternative.”
“You should come by this afternoon.”
Bucky served coffee at the VA for an hour, listening to Sam counsel a tight clutch of young men and women. Their stories washed over him, familiar, yet distant as the moon. Bucky waited for comment on his arm, but many of the veterans had their own prosthetics and they knew the etiquette.
“Where’d you serve?” A young man in a wheelchair asked.
“Seemed like everywhere by the time I was done,” he handed him a coffee and got a smile in return.
Bucky made his way home, a song plaguing him. He couldn’t pin down the words or much of the melody, just a twist of a phrase that he hummed. It was pathetically metaphorical of his whole damn life, memories surfacing in that grainy unfulfilling way.
By the next morning, he was sick of his own company and thrilled to stare at Bruce’s candle. He wanted to ask Steve if he’d always been like this. Had he always prefered company or had his broken mind denied him the once easy pleasure of his own time?
“You’re not relaxing,” Bruce said mildly.
“Sorry,” Bucky mumbled.
“Hate to interrupt, but we have a situation,” Natasha’s voice echoed through JARVIS’ speakers. “Giant robot rampaging through lower Manhattan. Given the lack of the Captain, let me say Avengers assemble. That includes you, Barnes.”
“Steve’s idea of a catch phrase,” Bruce heaved himself upward. “Let’s go save the city or something.”
Natasha was waiting in the kitchen with a duffel bag she tossed at Bucky.
“Change in the car.”
Clint was behind the wheel. They made an odd team, Bruce deep breathing in the passenger seat, Bucky sliding into an unfamiliar uniform and Natasha loading a stockpile of guns that disappeared after she turned on the safety. With Thor off world, they were woefully underpowered.
“What’s the briefing on this thing?” Bruce finally asked, one eye cracking open to reveal a toxic green.
“Some third rate scientist pitching a shit fit over a cancelled project. He’s remote operating the robot and the F.B.I. are close to his location. We just have to keep the robot busy or down it until they get him,” Clint glanced away from the road. “Welcome to the dog and pony show, Barnes.”
Sam was in the air when they pulled up to the scene. The robot swatted ineffectually at him, lumbering over cars and breaking up the pavement. Bruce barely made it out of the car before the transformation started. Bucky had seen it on tape, but in person it was really something to see his steady companion become a furious mountain.
“You don’t get used to it,” Clint launched himself out of the car and onto its roof.
“Aim for the joints,” Natasha put a semi-automatic in Bucky’s hands. “If something starts going bad in your head, get back in the car.”
It was all instinct after that. Easy to duck down low, take aim and move position. He got a good line of perforation around one knee joint as the Hulk climbed up the thing’s back.
“He’s got the right idea!” Sam shouted down. “Neck is a weak point.”
“Barnes!” Clint shouted and then started running towards him. Bucky locked up trying to make sense of the sudden charge. “Launch me!”
The idea clicked and he dropped the gun to link his fingers. One of Clint’s feet banged into the cradle, the other onto Bucky’s shoulder. One massive toss upward and Clint was grabbing hold of a robot arm, shimmying rapidly upwards.
The fight seemed to go on and on, the robot a clumsy adversary, but well armored. Bucky ran out of ammo and took to punching directly into the knee while the Hulk pounded the insectile head into oblivion. Natasha laid a tripwire and eventually they got it to the ground where it went abruptly still. The Hulk squirmed out from under the bulk that had collapsed on top of him, then shuddered and shrank into a rumpled scientist once more.
“Giant robots,” Sam landed, sweat leaving trails through the dust on his face. “Seriously?”
“Apparently,” Clint snorted. “We’re living in some black and white horror movies now.”
“Doc’s out,” Natasha wiped the sweat from her eyes.
The three Avengers stood around Bruce’s body. They looked exhausted and without their usual strong arm resources, not up to the task of carrying 190 pounds of depleted mutant. Bucky knelt down and lifted Bruce in one smooth motion. The car proved to be toast. Which was how they all came to ride the subway, Bruce draped over Bucky like a drunk who’d walked through a disaster zone. An old woman offered them all a Werther’s sucking candy.
“They had these in Germany,” Bucky recalled as he sucked on the butterscotch. “Steve thought they tasted like burnt caramel, but the guys liked ‘em. We’d find them in desk drawers at outposts.”
“They taste the same?” Sam asked around a yawn.
“Corn syrup instead of sugar,” Clint stood in the center of the aisle, stockstill despite the rocking of the car.
“Americans,” Natasha sighed.
“Hey,” Clint and Sam protested in unison.
JARVIS let Bucky into Bruce’s apartment, assuring him that the doctor would be fine with some rest and was used to Tony dumping him onto his bed without much ceremony. Bruce tried a little harder, at least straightening him out and tossing a blanket over him, then turning off the lights on his way out.
“Celebratory drink?” Natasha passed him a shot of vodka when he got off the elevator into Steve’s apartment. Sam and Clint were already slung around the kitchen table, cards in both their hands and a shots lined up.
“Welcome to poker night,” Sam downed the shot fast and then poured the next one.
They played hand after hand, Natasha’s blank face and Clint’s easy laugh equally good at hiding their intentions. Sam lost his stack of pennies with smiling annoyance while Bucky struggled to remember which cards were good and which were bad without showing that he was utterly lost.
“Flush,” Sam declared and then rested his head on the table.
“Sleep on the couch,” Bucky declared, glad for the out. “There’s extra blankets somewhere.”
Sam was a quiet sleeper, but his presence was enough to chase away the silence in Steve’s absence. They ate breakfast together in the morning and just as Sam was leaving, Pepper clicked in on high heels.
“My museum partner abandoned me,” she slid her phone into her pocket. “What are your thoughts on modern art?”
“What period are they calling modern these days?”
The art didn’t do much for him, but he liked the museum itself with it’s spiral walkway. Pepper walked slower than her usual, stopping altogether in front of some pieces with her hands planted wide on her hips. It was a gesture so reminiscent of Tony that Bucky had to wonder who was copying who with it. Whenever she stopped, he made a point to look too though he wasn’t sure what she was seeing.
“It’s more important what you see,” she gestured wide at the mobile before them. “Otherwise, it’s a lecture instead of an experience.”
She brought him to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch, ordering far too much.
“I’m used to Steve,” she said ruefully when the plates stayed full.
“He’s coming back tomorrow. We can pack it up and bring it back.”
“Of course. Leftovers in your fridge probably get eaten.”
Left overs. He remembered again that roll split in two, but now there was a face beside him. He and Steve had eaten that stale bread as a feast, filling their cramping guts during a long winter. They both were reluctant now to leave food on their plate though until this moment, Bucky hadn’t known the why of it.
“I’m a jigsaw puzzle,” he blurted.
“Hm?” Pepper looked up from her phone.
“My mother used to put them together. Cardboard pieces and there were too many people in our house to keep them where they need to be. She was forever short a piece here or there. Holes in the picture.”
“Oh,” Pepper put her phone away and put a hand on his elbow. “We’re all missing a few, for what it’s worth. At least you know where yours went.”
“Doesn’t mean I know how to find them again.”
“Tony operates on about half his pieces most of the time. You’d be surprised how much you can do with a handful.”
Steve came back quiet, eating cold noodles over the sink when Bucky offered them up.
“You okay?” Bucky finally asked.
“Yes,” Steve smiled at him. “Fine.”
“You don’t,” Bucky halted unsure of what he could say that would be different than all the other times he’d tried to convince Steve he wasn’t alone. “You’ve been carrying me along while, Rogers. Let me shoulder the load for a bit.”
“There’s no load,” Steve denied, but Bucky didn’t move. He waited out Steve’s breakfast and trailed him into the living room.
“Where’d you go?” He prodded.
“We met up with Fury,” Steve collapsed into his chair, the back of his hand going to his forehead, the jut of his elbow superimposed over a dozen other memories of him just like this. In this chair, after a battle, on his mother’s couch. “Hydra has tendrils everywhere. We cut a few down, but it barely makes a dent. They know we’re looking, so they’re burrowing deeper.”
Bucky sat down in the other chair, stared at his friend’s face. Unchanged by time, yet blown wide by everything he felt when he wasn’t paying attention.
“You have a team.”
“I know,” Steve’s lips twitched. “Avengers. Prophetic, wasn’t it? It’s an endless cycle of man bites dog, dog bites man.”
“Don’t compare Hydra to dogs. You like dogs.”
“I do,” Steve laughed once weakly, then froze. “Yeah, I do. I don’t think I mentioned it though.”
“You let that one....Bones. He stayed with us at camp for weeks and you made sure he got adopted by a local family before we shipped out.”
“Yeah! Yes.” Steve was leaning forward now, eyes bright. “I forgot about Bones. Some kind of mutt he was, ate nearly half my rations.”
“You’ve got too soft a heart, Rogers,” Bucky chided.
“Sometimes,” Steve allowed. “Sometimes. You been remembering a lot while I was gone?”
“Sort of,” Bucky reached over and tapped his knee lightly. “Don’t take it as an invitation to go off again though.”
“Promise next time you can come with me. You’re better company than Tony. Nice job on that giant robot thing.”
“The Hulk did most of the heavy lifting.”
After that, their conversations were peppered with a new question. Steve, tentative at first, and then more sure of the response would relate something then follow with ‘Remember?’. More and more often, Bucky would say ‘Yes’ instead of ‘No’. Many of the memories were dim, but they were real and confirmed by Steve’s inquiries.
“Through the mirror darkly,” Natasha peeled an orange with quick flicks of her fingers when he put words to it.
“That’s the Bible, isn’t it?” Clint stole a slice, earning the flick of her nail across his forehead for his trouble.
“Nat actually reads it when she’s stuck in hotel rooms.”
“It’s useful for code.”
“They used to make us memorize pieces of it for Sunday school,” Bucky closed his eyes, summoned up a stiffly ironed shirt and a cloud of chalk. None of the verses came back, but for the first time that felt...natural. Like a memory that time would have taken.
Winter descended and where scar tissue met the metal arm started to ache. It wasn’t a deep pain, just the steady throb like a rotten tooth. Though he didn’t voice the complaint, he must have telegraphed it. Bruce got in the habit of dropping scarves around him like he was a coat rack and Steve kept the apartment heat up high enough that Tony stripped down to his undershirt when he visited.
A blizzard hit in the thick of January, shushing the city’s bustle and slowing down the world. Bucky, be-scarved and bundled in a thick coat, walked through the pristine drifts in the early hours of the morning instead of caging himself on a treadmill. After a mile or so, Steve caught up with him and they waged a snowball fight in the empty street that followed them back to the tower. Melted snow dripped down Steve’s face and puddled around Bucky’s feet.
“Hey, you remember-” Steve began.
“Yeah, but let’s not just now,” Bucky decided on a whim. “Let’s just make a fresh one today.”
Steve eyes widened, but he didn’t protest. Bucky made tea and dug out a pack of Oreos he’d managed to keep hidden for most of the week. They watched the snow fall through the window as the city went dark and they talked about new things. About Central Park and the Guggenheim. About the fucking Yankees and the goddamn Mets. About Tony and Pepper and Clint and Natasha. Eventually, Steve told him about Peggy, showed him pictures of her life after they’d left her behind.
The day fell to their chatter and they fell asleep in their chairs, woke up stiff necked with it the next morning. Steve groaned and plucked at his shirt.
“Hate sleeping in my clothes. I’m gonna shower. Can you get coffee started?”
“Yeah,” he made his way sluggishly to the kitchen.
Steve walked by, shirt fisted in one hand.
It was hard to say why the cluster of freckles, that small constellation, caught Bucky’s eye then. He’d seen Steve’s back several times over the last few months. Maybe he hadn’t really been looking or maybe it hadn’t been since his memories had become less quicksilver. All that he was sure of was that he knew those freckles. Intimately.
“Stop,” he said hoarsely and Steve stopped dead in his tracks.
“Nothing. Just...don’t move.”
Bemused, Steve stayed obligingly still. Even when Bucky lifted his hand delicately traced over the starburst. Steve’s skin had never seen much sun, but these freckles had been born on him. Six in a half-crushed circle and a dark one near the center. Bucky knew that center spot. He had fit his mouth to it.
He had kissed this shoulder, many times. His hands had settled on Steve’s stomach, concave then and drawn him close. These freckles had been his once. Magnetized, he leaned forward and just once, brushed his lips over the center. Steve’s breath caught and held.
“Oh,” Bucky rested his forehead against the wing of bone and sinew. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was a long time ago,” Steve sounded asthmatic for a trembling second, then he sucked down another breath. “Before we went to war. I didn’t think it...well. It didn’t matter anymore.”
“Of course it matters,” Bucky snapped. “You...matter. You’re the only thing that does. I spin around you, warped moon around a stubborn earth.”
“I let you go. I had to,” the flashes came as he talked, the pieces tumbling together. “You found Peggy and she was amazing and you were happy, so I let it go. We were never...we couldn’t be anything then.”
“You did what you needed to do,” Bucky said firmly. “I’m not betrayed. Jesus, Steve.”
“It doesn’t change anything,” Steve spread his hands wide as if he could pull the information back into himself.
“It does for me,” Bucky stepped around Steve, looked him in the eye. “We live in the future. I’m a shattered mess with blood on his hands and you’re haunted. Everything has gone wrong and we came out the other side still alive. With each other.”
“I noticed,” Steve summoned a smile. “And I’m glad you’re with me.”
“I am with you,” Bucky said firmly. “Any way you’ll have me.”
The way of a kiss came naturally. Bucky shoved away any past intimacies that wanted to rise up and take him from the present. What mattered was this kiss, in this place with this man. When he slid away, Steve looked struck, his lower lips a little damp.
“We shouldn’t,” Steve began.
“Why not?” Bucky challenged.
“There’s a lot of reasons,” Steve offered up none of them. Instead he laced a hand around the back of Bucky’s neck, moving aside the thick tangle of his hair.
“Tell me about them later. When we’ve already made all our mistakes.”
They stick to kissing, locked tight together on the chill tile of the kitchen. Steve pulled away in slow stages, returning for a few more light pecks before disappearing into the bathroom. Clinging to the sink, Bucky collected himself in shallow breathed stages.
The molasses progress, so sweet and slow, that followed finished off whatever dissociation Bucky had with himself. It was hard to separate from the flesh when Steve’s hand was drawing circles over Bucky’s back or his lips were pressed to the arch of Bucky’s shoulder. Steve forced him to be present with the intensity of his gaze and the tentative pressure of his touch.
Lost in a fog of affection, Bucky turned up early to Bruce’s later that and found him standing in front of a bathroom mirror, scissors whirling through dark curls.
“You hard up enough that you have to do that yourself, doc?”
“Guess I’ve gotten to prefer it. Don’t trust anyone else.”
Bruce didn’t tell him to leave, so Bucky stayed and watched the cascade. It was an even enough job.
“Hey, do me next?”
“I’ve never done anyone elses’.” Bruce set down the scissors, shaking loose tenacious stray hairs.
“I don’t need anything fancy. It’s just starting to weigh me down.”
He closed his eyes against the flash of the scissors, concentrating on the tug and the flutter that followed. Away went the ponytail and the loss of the weight made his scalp tingle. Bruce left it a little longer than Bucky had kept it during the war, but not nearly as long as the Winter Soldier’s curtain.
Bucky looked in the mirror and saw only himself.
“Thanks,” Bucky hugged him and after a momentary stiffness, Bruce returned the embrace with an awkward pat on the back.
“You could’ve just tipped me.”
Steve didn’t comment on the haircut, he only reached out and brushed a few escaped tendrils aside, then let his thumb take a leisurely pace down the side of Bucky’s face.
There was a far larger reaction when Bucky led him down the garage and pulled the tarp off the motorcycle. Tony had insisted on being present for the moment, but he was uncharacteristically quiet. They hadn’t modified the bike much, aside from an arc reactor where the gas tank had been.
“I thought it exploded!” Steve was on his knees in an instant, inspecting every part.
“Someone salvaged it,” Bucky had assumed it was Steve himself.
“Wilson,” Tony shrugged. “He told me where to find it when we were running the salvaging operation.”
“Thanks,” Steve clapped Tony on the shoulder, then reached for Bucky. “Coming?”
The bike wasn’t really built for two, but they had practice putting two bodies where one belonged. Bucky curled up tight against Steve’s back, bracing himself. The take-no-prisoners style was exactly the same, Steve slicing and dicing down the road like he owned it. The speed made Bucky giddy, the corners so sharply taken that pedestrians looked alarmed.
The city passed them by and reluctantly turned into tree lined parkway. Steve showed no signs of slowing, so Bucky settled in for the long haul.
When they stopped at last, pulling into diner, Steve was slow to dismount.
“Sometimes I imagine just going,” he admitted, finally trailing Bucky into the chicken soup and coffee scented air. “Cross country. Just too much to do here first.”
“We’ll do it, one day.”
The booth wasn’t large enough for Steve, so their legs got tangled up beneath the table, their plates mixed together. It took them twice as long to get back, Steve retracing their rambling route in the dark.
That night, Bucky didn’t go to his bedroom. By mutual decision, he crawled in beside Steve instead. It had been a long time since they were naked in front of each other and much had changed since then. They slipslided against each other, slick with sweat and the lotion Steve fumbled out of his bedside drawer.
It was far far better than furtive sessions with his own hand. Steve had surety in this that Bucky hadn’t expected and in return, Bucky gave Steve all of his meager supply of gentleness. They feel asleep filthy, woke up sticky and clammy, but did it all over again before cramming themselves into the shower together.
The new level of intimacy didn’t solve everything. Bucky still had black days when he retreated to his bedroom and Steve’s relentless good mood sometimes cracked and showed the wounded flesh beneath. When Tony finally stripped down Bucky’s arm, he built in the promised upgraded sensors and they left Bucky raw all over again. Natasha took to slapping him on metal bicep to desensitize him until he almost put her through a wall. He apologized with gifts of strong espresso every morning for a week.
“Maybe Tony could dial it back for you,” Steve suggested when he returned with the empty porcelain cup and a hangdog expression.
Bucky took Steve’s hand in his bionic one. He closed his eyes and felt each one of Steve’s strong fingers, the warmth of his skin and all the pulse that screamed ‘Alive! Alive! Alive!’ He opened his eyes,
“Okay,” Steve brought their joined hands to his lips and kissed Bucky’s knuckles.
“Okay,” said Bucky. And for the first time, he meant it.