The day Bucky was deemed fit enough to leave the secret base that SHIELD claimed was a research facility but was probably, based on the pool-sized bathtub and all the little bottles of lotion, a spa, Steve and Romanoff came to pick him up.
In hopes of looking sane, Bucky was wearing his finest grey sweatpants and black SHIELD-issue t-shirt. His hair had been freshly cut, and he’d shaved. They had even let him put laces in his sneakers. Steve and Romanoff watched as he tucked the rest of his belongings into the bookbag Steve had brought with him.
Bucky had maybe had a grand total of three conversations with Romanoff in the months that he’d been in the facility/spa, all of which had been both subtly threatening and incomprehensibly cryptic. Steve, on the other hand, had been there nearly every day.
Leaning his wide shoulders against the door frame, Steve looked concerned and happy and handsome, gazing at Bucky with a tiny smile on his lips, and a strange surge of affection went through him. He’d been getting that a lot when Steve was around. He might not remember most of his life before he had been made into the Soldier, but he did remember that — remembered Steve’s... Steveness.
He had tried to describe it to one of his many therapists once, but she hadn’t quite understood what he meant when he said Steve made him feel like he had bubbles in his chest. She’d given him prescription-grade antacids instead.
“Need a hand?” Steve asked as Bucky fumbled with the bookbag’s zip.
“Yeah,” Bucky deadpanned, “the left one.”
The room went dead silent. Steve goggled at him; Romanoff’s eyes darted from Bucky to Steve as though she thought she might have to launch herself between them.
Finally, Steve asked, “How long have you been waiting to say that?”
Bucky shrugged. “A couple of weeks.”
Steve snorted and shook his head. “I’ve really got to hand it to you,” he replied, “you know how to keep a secret.”
Bucky couldn’t help but grin. “This is really getting out of hand.”
“I’m going to wait in the car,” said Romanoff.
When he wasn’t off being Captain America, Steve’s life was pretty boring. He watched a lot of TV. He went running every morning and called Wilson in DC at least once a day. He collected stamps and drew still lifes and had at least four different fantasy sports teams.
Steve’s two-bedroom apartment was nice, simple but cozy. Bucky had been pretty impressed until he had found a catalogue tucked away in a bookshelf and had realised that Steve — or maybe someone from SHIELD — had just straight-up ordered everything from Ikea. Page eighteen of the Fall edition was an exact match for Bucky’s room.
“How are you feeling?” Steve kept asking him.
Fine, Bucky always answered. And it was true; he was fine. Mostly. But he also wanted to say weird. He felt weird. He was staying with a guy he'd once been ordered to kill before something instinctual had kicked in and he'd felt like he had been gutted from the inside out — the same guy whom he'd found himself coming back to again and again, until he had worked up the courage to ask for help after the nightmares and the shaking and the all-encompassing terror had gotten to be too much.
SHIELD had released him into Steve’s care because they’d said that he was as good as he was going to get, but he didn’t know what he was supposed to do next. Steve didn’t kick him out, so he stayed.
There was another reason why it was strange to be living with Steve: because Steve didn’t seem to know how to live with someone. Whenever Bucky walked into a room, he froze, like he’d been caught doing something bad. He was either blurting out questions in way that made Bucky feel like he had missed half the conversation or completely silent; the second day he was at Steve’s apartment, he was pretty sure Steve only said four words to him.
“What do you want to do?” Steve asked him on the morning of the third day.
Bucky’s mind went horribly blank. “What’d I used to do?”
“Um.” Steve seemed taken aback by the question. He frowned thoughtfully and scratched his head. “Go dancing. Go to the pictures. Work. Play cards. Listen to radio shows. Play darts with some guys from the neighbourhood. Go on adventures—”
“Adventures?” Bucky interrupted.
“That’s what you called them.”
“What’d you call them?”
“Getting me into trouble,” Steve said wryly.
His gaze turned inward for a moment, as though he was looking at something only he could see. Bucky’s stomach twisted, and he pushed away a plate of half-finished toast.
But then Steve blinked and smiled at him. “Sometimes you’d come to art class with me.”
“Yeah?” Bucky asked, curious; that sounded more alien to him than the adventuring. “Was I any good?”
Steve laughed. “You were awful. You used to draw these little comics... The teacher would get so mad. She said you couldn’t come anymore unless you took it seriously.”
“I’m guessing that didn’t work,” Bucky said.
“Not one bit,” Steve replied, still smiling.
He tried to remember it but couldn’t. The first time he could remember using a pencil was when one of his doctors had asked him to write his thoughts in a journal, and his fingers had felt clumsy, his writing like chicken scratch. He remembered feeling embarrassed (because somewhere, deep inside, he had known that he had once had nice handwriting, the kind people had always complimented him on), and he had written that down — right before he had snapped the pencil in two. The doctors had called that progress because he hadn’t tried to stab anyone with it.
Yet he knew Steve was good at drawing. Steve had wanted to be an artist; Bucky had a memory of buying him nice graphite pencils at an art supply shop, but it was fuzzy, like looking at a watercolour painting. He couldn’t find any art supplies in the apartment, though, so he didn’t bring it up, worried that maybe it was something someone had put in his head.
On the sixth day, Steve asked him, “Do you remember sandwiches?”
“I’m traumatised, not a child,” Bucky replied, glaring from over the top of the book he’d randomly grabbed off of Steve’s shelf. It was about presidents. Steve had a lot of books about presidents.
Steve looked uncertain. “Yesterday you seemed confused by spaghetti.”
“Because you put ketchup on it,” said Bucky. “Who does that?”
“I do,” Steve replied. A flash of annoyance crossed his face. “It tastes good.”
“It really doesn’t,” Bucky said, shaking his head.
“Fine, then you make dinner tonight.”
“Fine, I will.”
Steve crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine,” he repeated.
“Fine,” Bucky shot back.
He curled back onto the couch, resolutely opening his book where he’d left off but unable to focus on the words. Steve stomped away in the direction of his bedroom, but a few seconds later, he was poking his head back into the living room.
“Bucky,” he said.
“Yeah?” Bucky asked. He waited a full thirty seconds before glancing up, just because.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Steve said, looking like a sap.
Bucky’s heart leapt into this throat. “Me too.”
“‘Chicken tikka,’” Bucky read out loud.
“Tikka,” Steve repeated, correcting his pronounciation.
Bucky scowled down at the takeout menu. “What happened to normal pizza?”
“I’ll just order what I like,” Steve said, gently pulling it from his hands. “See if you like it too.”
“No,” Bucky said a little too loudly. He yanked the menu back. He wanted to choose his own fucking pizza; it hadn’t been that long ago that he wasn’t allowed to choose anything. “Besides,” he added more calmly, hating the stricken expression on Steve’s face, “ketchup on spaghetti, remember?”
It worked: Steve rolled his eyes, the tension in his shoulders loosening. “You’re never going to let that go, are you.”
“What kind of best friend would that make me if I did?” Bucky asked.
“Choose your stupid pizza already, jerkface.”
But the moment Steve slipped his phone out of his pocket to place their order (two extra-large pepperonis), it began ringing. “Oh, uh,” Steve said, growing still, his eyes darting nervously from the screen to Bucky, “I need to take this. Hold on.”
He disappeared into the kitchen while Bucky awkwardly sat on the sofa clutching the menu, and when he returned, less than five minutes later — four minutes and twenty-nine seconds, according to Bucky’s internal clock — Bucky could tell something was wrong: he was quiet and contemplative, his earlier playfulness gone.
“That was Fury,” he said heavily.
“You have a mission,” Bucky deduced.
“Yeah,” Steve sighed.
Bucky bit his bottom lip. Too many confusing feelings swirled in him at once. He didn’t want Steve to leave, even if it was to save the world or whatever. They’d only been together for eight days, and it didn’t feel like enough. A childish part of him said that Steve was his, not SHIELD’s. He wasn’t supposed to go without him.
But it wasn’t Bucky’s mission. He wasn’t an asset anymore. He wasn’t the Soldier; he was James Barnes.
“Where to?” he asked, feigning disinterest.
“They don’t usually tell us until we’re in the air,” Steve said, raking a hand through his hair. His face was blank, but he was radiating tension.
Bucky nodded. “When do you leave?”
Steve glanced at the window as though Wilson was going to show up and personally fly him to where he needed to be — although for all Bucky knew, that was the plan. “Now,” he said.
Bucky’s stomach twisted with nerves. He waited quietly while Steve slipped into his bedroom to pack, and he remained in the exact same position, his feet on the floor and his back stick-straight against the couch cushions, until Steve returned twenty-two minutes and sixteen seconds later, carrying a black gym bag.
“Bucky,” Steve said.
“Steve,” he replied, arching an eyebrow.
“Do you need me to stay?” Steve asked.
He said it almost as though he was hoping Bucky would say yes. The expression on his unsmiling face was strained, his blond brows drawn together. The fingers clutching the handle of his gym bag were white.
“Go fight the good fight,” Bucky lied, climbing to his feet. “I’ll be okay.”
He was taken aback when Steve pulled him into a one-armed hug. “I’ll be back soon,” he promised, stepping away too quickly. Bucky already missed the feel of him. “If you need help, call Agent Hill. Do you remember how to use the phone?”
“No, Steve, I forgot how to use the phone because I’m an idiot,” Bucky said.
Strangely, that made Steve’s face soften. He cuffed Bucky on the chin. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”
“So no wild parties then?” Bucky asked.
“It’s sad you’ve forgotten that I’m your only friend,” Steve said with exaggerated pity.
Then, squaring his shoulders like it was the hardest thing he had ever done, he moved toward the door. He gazed back at Bucky like he was going off to war.
“Bye,” Bucky echoed.
And then he was alone.
He sat back down on the couch, listening as Steve’s footfalls grew more and more faint. Outside, birds were chirping. Someone down the road beeped the horn of their car. Sunlight trickled in through the window behind him, but he was cold.
“Stupid Steve,” he muttered.
Bucky was eating a nutritious lunch of soda crackers and orange juice when his phone began ringing. It was the phone Stark had presented to him shortly after he had been released from the facility; Stark, who had talked a mile an hour but acted like giving Bucky a palm-sized computer was no big deal.
“Thanks,” Bucky had said, weighing it in his right hand.
“Sure,” Stark had replied. “I’ve already installed Twitter, Whatsapp, and, of course, Zombies vs Plants — just trust me on that one, you’ll love it — oh, and Instag— wait.” He had snatched the phone back while Bucky had just stared at him, uncomprehending. “You don’t believe photographs will steal your soul, do you?”
Bucky had blinked and then scowled. “I was born in 1917.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Stark had said. “So you are afraid of photos, is what you’re saying?”
The phone rang and rang. Bucky stared at it for a moment before picking it up with his left hand and using his right to hit the little green button on the screen, just like Stark had taught him.
“Hey, Bucky,” replied an unfamiliar voice.
“Hello?” he repeated, this time more slowly.
“Oh. You don’t remember me. It’s Maria. Maria Hill.”
Bucky had a flash of a tall, dark-haired woman. “I remember you, sorta,” he said.
“Great! How’s it going?” She sounded awkward. “Whatcha up to?”
“Uh.” He glanced back at the TV; he was on his twelfth episode of Cake Boss. “Nothing much.”
“Have you had lunch? I can come by and bring you something.”
Stark’s Avengers Tower was forty-three minutes and six seconds away by car in mid-day traffic. Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Did Steve ask you to check up on me?” he asked through gritted teeth.
“No, no, no— well. Okay, yes, he did, but—”
“Tell him I’ve burned down the building,” he snapped before hanging up.
Three days passed.
Bucky made himself go outside once. He walked all the way to Prospect Park and got a hotdog. He sat on a bench in the sun and took off his baseball cap, having nearly forgotten that he had cut his hair short months ago and didn’t have to worry about it being embarrassingly greasy anymore.
His favourite part of New York was that no one ever tried to make small talk with him, not even the people at the food carts. He was neither the Soldier nor James Barnes; he was just another anonymous guy on the street. Once, on a mission in rural Slovakia, vendors and locals had kept trying to talk to him. At the time, he hadn’t been allowed to speak without being spoken to first, but these hadn’t been orders — they’d been questions like how are you and are you having a good morning. They’d scared him.
After a few hours, he wandered back to Steve’s. It was a long way back to Williamsburg, but he didn’t mind. He kept an eye out for threats and walked along the quieter side streets.
When he arrived home and no one had attacked him, he felt silly for the six knives he had hidden in his clothes. Three would probably do it next time, he thought.
Back at the facility/spa, his doctors had told him to name his feelings. Sad, he thought, gazing around the empty apartment. Lonely. He already missed Steve’s terrible cooking and half-finished conversations. He missed eating dinner at the coffee table and going through the long list of movies and TV that Steve was determined to get through. He missed Steve’s stupid smile and the way he always laughed at Bucky’s bad jokes and the way he threw his dirty socks on the floor and how sometimes he didn’t feel like talking.
Missing Steve seemed really, really familiar, like it was the one thing that all parts of Bucky had experienced. Like he had been missing Steve for almost a hundred years.
Would you be creeped out if someone slept in your bed while you were gone? he texted him that night, leaning in the doorway of Steve’s bedroom. Steve had made his bed before he had left, of course; you could have bounced a quarter off of it.
There was no answer. Bucky figured that was a yes.
Hours later, he woke up in his own bed from a nightmare about falling. He fumbled with the phone on his nightstand. It was just after three AM; he still hadn’t gotten a reply to his text. The silence hurt like he’d been physically punched in the stomach. What if Steve—
Taking a deep breath, he burrowed down into his blankets and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to mute the worried voice in his head.
But he couldn’t shut it up. Steve was out there, doing God knew what with God knew who to watch his back. Bucky had firsthand experience in knowing that he wasn’t invulnerable, that all it took to take him down was a bullet to the heart or head... Wilson and Romanoff hadn’t been modified the way Bucky had been; they couldn’t watch Steve’s back like he could. What if Steve fell into water and no one could hold their breath long enough to pull him out? What if they ran out of bullets and no one with Bucky’s hand to hand skills was around?
What if they’d sent him after HYDRA?
Bucky’s eyes snapped open.
“Steve,” he said into the darkness, just before he fell sideways out of the bed.
He crept into the bathroom and flicked on the light. His skin had a grey, ashy pallor. His hair could stand a good brushing. He was wearing a t-shirt of Steve’s that he had dug out of the laundry bin. His eyes seemed to be permanently red-rimmed, and most days he forgot he had to shave; he only washed daily because he’d been walked to the showers each morning at the facility. Disgust stirred in him.
Down the hall, the door creaked open.
Bucky went still. Carefully, he reached over and switched off the bathroom light.
Utterly silent, he padded down the dark hallway, clutching a pair of trimming shears in his left hand. There were knives in the kitchen, a pistol under Steve’s bed, and a series of rifles in a hidden compartment in Steve’s wardrobe; there was a fire escape against the living room window and a large drainpipe outside his bedroom that he could crawl down if he had to. He could withstand up to two hundred joules of electricity, and it took twice the normal dosage of benzodiazepines to knock him out; if they had armour, he knew he had to aim for the vulnerable areas surrounding their joints.
HYDRA wouldn’t get their hands on him again.
Something in the living room made a bang. It was immediately followed by, “Ow! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
“Steve?” Bucky called, the tension draining out of him.
Bucky turned on the light.
Steve was standing in the middle of the room, cringing and blinking rapidly as though the light stung his eyes. He must have bumped into the side table, because the mug Bucky had left there earlier was in pieces on the floor. The right side of his face was covered in purple bruising, and his lip had been split. He tried to smile anyway.
“Hey, Buck. I didn’t wake you up, did I?” His gaze darted over Bucky’s face and body. “You’re okay,” he said, almost to himself.
“What the hell?” Bucky blurted.
Without waiting for a reply, Bucky spun on his heel and headed to the kitchen. They had a bag of peas in the freezer, he remembered; on autopilot, he also retrieved the first aid kit that he’d seen Steve stash under the sink ages ago.
When he returned to the living room, Steve was slowly easing himself into the armchair. Bucky stood in the doorway, clutching the first aid kit in his right hand and the ice-cold bag of peas in his left; the freezing sensation barely registered, but he didn’t like the feeling of moisture seeping into the interlocking joints.
There were small tears all along Steve’s distinctive Captain America armour, and he was favouring his right arm. “It looks worse than it is,” he insisted as Bucky stared at it. He gestured at himself. “I got most of this running from an explosion.”
“That makes me feel a lot better,” Bucky said flatly.
He stepped closer. Steve winced but didn’t pull away when, after a moment of hesitation, Bucky pressed the bag of peas against his cheek. Almost instantly, some of the unbearable sense of wrongness inside of Bucky began to fade.
“Hold this,” he ordered, and Steve’s larger hand replaced his own. “Now strip.”
Steve’s eyebrows shot up. Well, one of them did; the other was hidden behind the bag of peas. “What?”
“I need to fix your arm.” Bucky tugged at the collar. “How do you—”
Steve twisted away. “There’s a zip— Hold on—”
“Where’s the— Jesus, is this painted on? Who designed this thing.”
“Says the guy who owns three pairs of skinny jeans.” Steve seemed to find what he was looking for. “Here.”
He practically peeled off the top of his uniform, letting it hang around his waist.
“Fucking hell,” slipped out of Bucky’s mouth before he could stop himself. He stared at the expanse of smooth muscle under his hands, at how Steve’s shoulders suddenly seemed wider and stronger. A fine sheen of sweat covered his abs.
A memory slammed into Bucky out of nowhere: opening his eyes and seeing Steve’s familiar and yet completely different face hovering over him, Steve’s big hands lifting him up, Steve shouting at him to leave without him.
Suddenly, he was experiencing a whole new feeling. ‘Bubbly’ wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
“What?” Steve asked, looking startled. He looked down at himself.
“Uh, you look like you took a licking,” Bucky lied, snapping his mouth shut. He tore his eyes away from where they’d wandered down to Steve’s tapered waist and rummaged through the first aid kit.
Steve was silent for a long moment as Bucky spread antiseptic cream on the long scrapes up and down his arm.
“Christ, Steve,” Bucky grumbled, “weren’t the Avengers supposed to be watching your back? You know you gotta let them look out for you. You can’t be the hero all the time.”
“It was remnants of HYDRA,” Steve told him quietly as he fished out a fresh bandage.
Bucky’s stomach dropped. The fingers of his flesh hand trembled. “They say it was okay to tell me that?” he asked, unable to stop his mouth from curling into an unhappy moue as he tried to focus his attention on Steve’s injury. “Aren’t you worried that I might freak out?”
Steve’s gaze sharpened. “Are you going to freak out?”
“No,” Bucky said. “But they wouldn’t even speak the name HYDRA when I was locked up.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Once he had become semi-coherent, one of his doctors had asked if his nightmares were about HYDRA finding him again. He’d said no. They hadn’t believed him, even though it was truth; he wasn’t worried that HYDRA would take him — he was worried that they would take Steve, turn Steve into whatever it was that he was now.
“Guess they thought hearing the name would send me into a downward spiral,” Bucky drawled bitterly, smoothing down the ends of the bandage. He looked up and gave Steve a smirk, but it faltered when he took in Steve’s earnest gaze.
“I don’t care what ‘they’ say,” Steve replied. He put a hand over Bucky’s. “You deserve to know what’s going on. And you’re strong enough to hear it.”
Bucky’s head snapped up. “Don’t be so sure,” he couldn’t help but sneer. “You’re the one who told Hill to keep an eye on me, remember?”
“That wasn’t about you,” Steve said. “That was about me.”
Bucky frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I wasn’t ready to be away from you.”
Steve ducked his head. His hand was still covering Bucky’s, and, heart pounding, Bucky turned his palm upwards, lacing their fingers together.
“You’ve already been through the worst that any person can ever go through, and you’ve come out on the other side.”
“Only because I’ve been in months of intensive therapy,” Bucky pointed out.
“No, you were getting better when you came back to me.” Steve insisted. “You just need some extra help.”
Hot tears pricked Bucky’s eyes. He blinked them away quickly. “I don’t remember you being this much of a sweet talker,” he said. “But then again, I don’t remember much of anything.”
Steve chuckled. “I’ve gotten a lot better at pep talks since I became Captain America.”
“And a lot more modest, too,” Bucky said solemnly.
“Why is it that you’re the one with amnesia, but I’m the one who forgot that you were a huge asshole,” Steve muttered. He jerked back as Bucky slathered the cuts on his face with antiseptic cream. “Ow!”
Steve’s speech almost made Bucky forget that HYDRA was out there looking for him, but he remembered the next morning, when he snapped awake at dawn, tense without knowing why. He swept the apartment for bugs and security risks, but he didn’t find any. When he poked his head into Steve’s room, he found Steve curled up on his side, his face creased as though he was in pain. His cuts and bruises had already healed.
Everything in Bucky screamed at him to close the blinds and lock the two of them in the apartment until the outside world had forgotten about them.
One of his many doctors had told him to go with what felt natural, so he did.
“Bucky,” Steve called after Bucky had been hiding for a few hours, “can I come in?”
Without waiting for an answer, Steve peeled back the bed sheet and peered into Bucky’s pillow fort before crawling inside. He carefully sat next to Bucky, who was leaning his back against the couch, his legs drawn up.
“You look ridiculous,” Bucky said as Steve crossed his legs and hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself smaller.
Steve sent him a pointed look. “Says the grown man who built a pillow fort in the middle of the living room.”
Bucky rolled his head back against the seat of the couch to stare at the ceiling, which was the flat sheet from his bed. “Okay,” he agreed, “maybe I’m overreacting.”
“Just a little,” Steve said. He paused. “Where’d you hide the keys to the front door?”
Sheepishly, Bucky pulled them out of the front pocket of his hoodie and dropped them into the palm of Steve’s hand.
They sat in companionable silence for a while. Bucky clenched and unclenched his left hand, listening to the small clicks of his metal joints; when he glanced over at Steve, he was gazing off into space with a small frown on his face. There was something familiar about their sitting side by side in a small place.
“I guess we used to make forts a lot when we were kids, huh?” Bucky asked, chewing on his bottom lip.
Steve blinked at him. “No, you hated forts. Said they were for babies. We usually played pirates or Lewis and Clark.”
A tight fist gripped Bucky’s heart. The expression on his face must have been bad, because Steve prodded him with his elbow and asked, “What?”
“Whenever I think I’m starting to feel like myself—”
He broke off, hanging his head, not sure what he was trying to say. The words just didn’t come. He was feeling incredibly sorry for himself when Steve suddenly let out a long sigh through his nose.
“You’re telling me you really felt like yourself just now?” Steve asked. Bucky glanced up. Steve was looking at him with bright eyes, his mouth a flat line. “Hiding under a blanket?”
That stung. “You sound like Wilson.”
“Yeah, well, Sam’s a smart guy,” Steve replied. “Don’t tell him I said that, though. It’ll go to his head. But—” His shoulders drooped. “When I woke up, I wanted to hide. I did hide for a while. Trust me, all it did was make things worse.”
“Look at you, all wise and shit,” Bucky mumbled. He clenched his hand again and dropped it to the floor heavily. It made a dull thud.
“We can sit here for a while, if you want,” Steve said. “But then you gotta come out and face the world.”
Fear, Bucky thought, putting a name to what he was feeling. It was exhausting being afraid all the time.
“‘Pretending your problems don’t exist won’t make them go away,’” he murmured. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“Did one of your therapists tell you that?” Steve asked.
Bucky shook his head. “Wilson said it at a meeting.”
“See, told you he was smart,” Steve said fondly.
Bucky stared at the floor for a moment. “Five minutes,” he said. “Can we have pizza for dinner? With the thick crust?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve flashed him a lopsided smile. He shuffled closer until their shoulders were pressed together. “Sure, buddy.”
It was a month into living with Steve that Bucky felt confident enough to go to and from the VA on his own. Usually, Steve walked him there, waited patiently in the corridor until the meeting was finished, and walked him home.
“You’re sure,” Steve repeated for the tenth time.
Bucky rolled his eyes. This was worse than when Steve had gone on a mission on the other side of the world. “I’m sure. It’s a twenty minute walk.”
“You have your keys?” Steve hovered over him as he tied the laces on his sneakers. “Phone? What’s my number?”
“One-eight-hundred-fuck-off,” Bucky replied, angrily pulling on his jacket. “Jeez, take a breather. Didn’t I read somewhere that I was the one who always babied you?”
“You never babied me,” Steve insisted. “You had my back. They’re two completely different things.”
“Steve, having my back means you gotta let me do this,” Bucky said. He laid a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I’ll be back before you even know I’m gone.”
Nineteen minutes later, Bucky was slipping into his usual seat in the back of the hall at the VA. Wilson had personally introduced Bucky to the woman running his weekly meeting, but he still had yet to say anything other than a mumbled hi. The other vets generally left him alone.
Even after five meetings, he found it hard for him to relate to people sharing their stories. Some of them seemed worse off than he did; others had been in recovery for years. Then there were those whom he couldn’t help but sneer at and think, ‘You call that a problem?’
There wasn’t anyone else there who was missing half his life like he was. Most of the vets could remember all the terrible things they had witnessed. Unlike them, he only recalled bits and pieces of his ‘service’; he remembered a chair and cold and pain, and he remembered killing people, but their faces were a blur. He had spent half a year in agony, first as his brain had healed itself from the damage done by electroconvulsive therapy, and then as what had had happened to him had fully hit — but he’d also had a team of doctors to help him after. And Steve. Steve hadn’t left him alone in there.
But still, Bucky went to the meetings. He’d had enough therapy to know that it was good for him. Or would be good for him eventually. Besides, it had been really hard to tell Wilson no. The man could make the Pope feel guilty.
When he left the VA, Steve wasn’t there — just like he’d promised. A smile spread across Bucky’s face; several of the other vets leaving the hall backed away quickly.
He floated toward home on that feeling. He was only a few blocks away when he realised that something was wrong. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He quickened his pace, and the footsteps behind him sped up too.
Someone was following him.
HYDRA had found him.
Everything seemed to slow down. He turned the corner into a dirty alley, sliding the hilt of the knife in his sleeve down into his metal hand, and—
“Shit, watch where you point that thing,” Fury swore.
Bucky’s flesh hand was pressed against Fury’s throat as he held him against the brick wall of the corner shop. Fury’s sunglasses dangled from the end of his nose, and his good eye was wide and angry. Bucky wrenched back, gasping for breath, and Fury slid back down to the ground.
He had been seconds away from jabbing the blade of his knife into Fury’s jugular, just like the Soldier had been trained to do. He would have slit his throat and then dragged his bleeding body further in the alley with his left hand (no fingerprints), staging it to look like—
“Soldier,” Fury snapped, and Bucky’s head jerked up. “You with me?”
“Don’t call me that,” Bucky said, his voice trembling. “Why are you following me?”
Fury’s face was inscrutable. “I wanted to see how you were.”
Bucky scowled even as he could feel his heart slowing back down to a healthy rate. “You couldn’t’ve asked?”
Instead of answering, Fury’s eye flickered over him. “You look different.”
“I got a haircut,” Bucky said.
“I know,” Fury replied. “I had to requisition the scissors and trimmers.”
“Oh,” Bucky said. “Then why—”
“What I meant was, you look calmer. There’s a little less crazy in your eyes. Rogers has been good for you.”
“Wish I could say the same, pal,” Bucky drawled.
Fury’s face hardened. “Call me ‘pal’ again.”
“Sorry, sir,” Bucky said quickly. He remembered killing Fury; he also remembered Fury coming back from the dead, looking good as new. “It’ll never happen again.”
“It had better not.”
A car backfired down the street. Bucky jerked in its direction despite knowing what it was, all his senses on high alert, and when he glanced back, Fury was gone.
“Weirdo,” Bucky said.
“Superhero party,” Wilson announced, dropping his overnight bag on the floor. He raised his hand for a high-five, which Steve reciprocated. “Let’s do some shots.”
“Firstly, it’s ten in the morning,” Steve reminded him, dragging Wilson’s bag further into the living room. “And second, alcohol doesn’t work on me.”
Bucky paused the TV. “I’ll drink with you,” he said.
“Nope, nevermind,” Wilson replied, vehemently shaking his head. “I could use a dry weekend anyway. My family came up last week, and my sisters have iron livers.”
Bucky waggled his eyebrows at him. “That’s weak. Afraid I’d drink you under the table?”
“More like afraid you’d get drunk and murder me in cold blood,” said Wilson.
“Like you wouldn’t have it coming,” Bucky said with a snort.
“Okay, house rules,” Steve broke in irritably. “I can’t believe I have to say this, but no one’s murdering anyone, all right? We’re going to have a nice, pleasant weekend.”
Bucky felt a warm glow when Wilson caught his eye and rolled his eyes like Steve was the biggest stiff on the block. It felt strange to like someone other than Steve; he didn’t have a history with Wilson, could only remember meeting him when Steve had taken him to SHIELD, even though he’d been assured that he had tried to kill him more than once.
Wilson and Steve immediately began catching up on what they had missed in the few weeks that they had been separated. When Bucky got out of the shower, they were glued to the TV. Watching—
“Is that guy eating a person?” Bucky asked in disbelief.
“Yeah,” Steve said without tearing his eyes away from the screen. “It’s art.”
Bucky didn’t like how rapt either of them looked as the television character served another character a fillet made of human flesh. The future was strange. “I’m going to take a walk.”
“Okay, see you,” Steve told the TV.
“Bye,” Wilson mumbled between bites of popcorn.
Bucky went to Prospect Park and sat by the lake until the afternoon crept into evening. When he calculated that he had an hour and a half until sunset, he began making his way back home.
For blocks from his building, he heard:
Bucky flung a knife in the direction of the voice.
It was by the grace of God that he missed and the knife sailed straight past the man who had called him by rank, burying itself into the font of the newsagent. Bucky had been aiming for his chest.
Surprised, Bucky glanced down at his left hand. Maybe it was malfunctioning.
“I probably should’ve seen that coming,” the man said, reaching up to touch the cut on his cheek from where the blade had nicked him.
“Oh, come on,” Bucky growled. He angrily ran a hand through the front of his hair before glancing around; the street was far from empty, but no one appeared to have seen him flash a knife. “Don’t you guys have anything better to do than follow me around?”
Something about this guy looked familiar. He was older and balding with a wide, thin smile and keen eyes. His suit and shoes looked expensive, and something told Bucky that he had at least two guns on him, though he couldn’t spot them. Bucky felt shabby next to him in his hoodie and jeans.
“Fury said you were better,” the man said, looking him up and down, “but I hadn’t really believed him. The last time I saw you, you were locked in a padded room.”
“I remember you,” Bucky said. He tilted his head as a fuzzy memory came back to him: this man standing over him, telling him it would be okay. “You visited me once. Said dying sucked.”
The man beamed at him. He had deep laugh lines in the corners of his eyes. “That’s right. I’m Director Coulson.”
That made Bucky frown. “If you’re the director, then what’s Fury?”
“It’s complicated,” said Coulson. “How are you feeling?”
“I was fine until people started jumping out at me left and right,” Bucky sneered.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Coulson replied, though he didn’t look apologetic in the least. “I was worried that if I called you in, Rogers would try to intervene. It’s hard to get a straight answer from him about you. No pun intended.”
“No— what?” Bucky asked.
“Anyway, you look good.”
“Thanks?” Bucky said.
Coulson leaned in. “So you do feel better.”
“I guess.” Bucky licked his lips. “Not a hundred percent but—”
“Good enough to be of help?”
Bucky looked at him blankly. “Huh?”
Coulson studied him for a moment. “As Director of SHIELD, I’m formally inviting you to join the Avengers,” he announced.
Bucky stared at him for a beat, waiting for him to add ‘just kidding.’ When he didn’t, Bucky said, “No offense, but that sounds like the worst idea ever.”
“I—” Coulson broke off and frowned at him. “Trust me, I know when something’s a bad idea. And this isn’t one.”
There’s something bad inside of me, Bucky wanted to say, but instead he replied, “You don’t want me. I’m dangerous.” He clenched his left hand into a fist, feeling the metal plates shift.
Coulson shrugged. “I’ve met worse.”
“I literally just almost killed you,” Bucky pointed out.
“But you didn’t,” Coulson said smugly. “And, anyway— you couldn’t have. See that woman over there?”
Coulson nodded to a small lady sitting at the bus stop far down the street. She was studying an MTA schedule, her face creased in a frown.
“That’s Agent May. You wouldn’t have gotten within two feet of me.”
First, Bucky felt impressed. Then stupid. He hadn’t spotted a threat. He probably should have, though, given the leather jumpsuit.
“She’s good,” he admitted grudgingly.
“She’s the best,” Coulson agreed.
“Is that—” Bucky squinted. “—is that a jet pack strapped to her back? Because I can jump real—”
“You know,” Coulson interrupted, “when the Captain asked me to help you, I almost said no.”
It was like he’d been in dunked in cold water. “I know,” he said.
“No, I had a different plan for you,” said Coulson, as though Bucky hadn’t uttered a word. “We used to have a place for people like you. We called it the Fridge.”
The Fridge. Freezer. Ice. Terror pulsed through Bucky’s veins. He could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. Steve had promised—
“But HYDRA destroyed it,” Coulson added, “so...”
Bucky was so incredulous that for a moment he forgot to be afraid. “Are you saying you only helped me because you didn’t know what else to do with me?” he demanded.
“And now you want me to join your team of superheroes,” said Bucky, “even though you didn’t want to help me, and you can’t come near me without a bodyguard?”
“The Captain trusts you to handle yourself, and that’s good enough for me.”
Was that what Steve had told SHIELD, that Bucky was well enough now to go back into battle? Was he the one who suggested Fury see if it was true? “Maybe I’m playing the long con,” Bucky replied, smirking meanly. “Maybe I’m waiting for him to drop his guard.”
“Oh, his guard was dropped a long time ago,” Coulson said. “I’d say about a century ago.”
There was something in his tone that made Bucky stiffen with a different kind of fear. “My relationship with Steve’s none of your beeswax,” he snapped.
Coulson’s gaze dropped down to Bucky’s chest. He looked amused. “Nice Captain America t-shirt.”
“It’s laundry day,” he replied defensively, zipping up his hoodie until the shield was covered.
What Bucky didn’t mention was that seven out of the ten new shirts he had in Steve’s dresser were Captain America-related. It had started off as a joke, but somehow it wasn’t funny anymore. (The other three were sweaters, all of which he had stolen from Steve, stretched out and smelling of his shampoo, like freshly-cut grass and sunshine with something distinctly masculine underneath, but, well, Steve never seemed to notice. He’d once told Bucky that when they were kids they’d shared clothes all the time, before Bucky’s growth spurt, which turned out not to be a euphemism for Zola’s experimentation but rather an actual growth spurt that had hit Bucky at age nineteen and had made him shoot up nearly six inches.)
“Of course it is,” Coulson said. “You know, I have that same t-shirt.”
It was dark when Bucky got home. Exhausted, he immediately shed his clothes and climbed into bed without bothering to check if Steve and Wilson were back from wherever it was they had gone (though the moment he opened the door, all of his senses alerted him that he was alone). He leaned over the bed and dug his phone out of his jeans; there was a message from Steve saying he and Wilson were going out for the rest of the day.
It wasn’t long before he heard the front door open and close. He heard Steve saying something to Wilson, who was crashing on their couch, and, soon after, Steve was leaning in Bucky’s doorway, dressed in his sleeping t-shirt and pajama bottoms.
“Hey,” Bucky said without getting up.
“Move over,” said Steve with preamble.
Bucky squirmed over to one side of the bed, and all two-hundred-plus pounds of Steve climbed in next to him, settling on his back. It felt both familiar and unfamiliar all at once. This Steve was all big bones and solid muscle, and the bed creaked under their combined weight.
“How was your day?” Steve asked, knocking their shoulders together. He seemed in a good mood; he was always in a good mood around Wilson, Bucky thought pettily, a sour taste in his mouth. “Sam and I went to a Giants game, and then we got completely lost getting back to Brooklyn. It took us three hours to—”
“Coulson asked me to join the Avengers,” Bucky said to the ceiling, folding his hands on his belly. His left one was cold to the touch.
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve’s head snapped in his direction. “What?”
“He came to me today. Asked me to join your team.”
Steve beamed at him, that silly, lopsided smile, and Bucky’s stomach fluttered, his tongue suddenly seeming too big for his mouth.
He could have easily leaned into Steve and kissed that stupid grin off his face. They were inches apart, and Steve had that soft look in his gaze, that happy quirk of his lips, like Bucky was the best thing he had ever laid eyes on. And Bucky wanted to kiss him so bad. He had never wanted anything as much as he wanted Steve.
“I said no,” Bucky told him.
Steve’s smile faltered. “Oh,” he said. Even his hair seemed to deflate. “Uh, why?”
Bucky licked his lips. “Don’t think it’s a good idea for me to be out there. You know, with weapons. And people.”
“Bucky, we live in New York,” Steve said. “You’re surrounded by people and weapons every day. I’m pretty sure that guy we asked directions from yesterday was a drug dealer.”
“Dammit,” Bucky muttered. That explained why Steve had steered him away so quickly. Irked, Bucky scrubbed his face with his flesh hand. He should’ve had better instincts than that. He’d been an assassin, for God’s sake.
But that was the crux of the problem: Bucky didn’t know who he would be if he walked into battle. The Soldier would finish the mission with ruthless efficiency, but Bucky might lose the parts of himself he had regained — and Sergeant Barnes might crumple before he even made it to the field.
This was why he couldn’t join the Avengers.
There was a knock on the door. “Hey,” Wilson said, sticking his head in before either of them responded, “where do you keep your spare towels?”
He stared down at Steve and Bucky crammed together in the bed, his eyebrows raised to his hairline. Worriedly, Bucky glanced at Steve. Technically, Bucky hadn’t done anything, but Wilson was Steve’s best pal after him, and he didn’t want them to stop being friends just because of him.
“Rogers,” Wilson said, “if you’re sleeping in here, I’m totally taking your bed.”
“Sure, why not,” Steve replied. He flashed another smile at Bucky. “Buck? Wanna have a sleepover?”
Wilson pumped his fist. “Superhero slumber party.”
“Goodnight,” Bucky said loudly. He pulled the sheet over his head and rolled onto his side, facing the wall.
“I can’t believe you stuck me on that couch when you had a free bed,” he heard Wilson say. “You’re a terrible friend.”
Romanoff’s hair was curly and brown and tied back into a bun. Today she was wearing a red dress and orange tights, her feet tucked into flats that looked brand new. Bucky couldn’t tell if she had dressed up for dinner or if this was part of her new persona; every time he met her she seemed like a different person. But Steve liked her, and even though Steve had shitty taste in pretty much everything, something told Bucky that he was a good judge of character.
His thoughts were confirmed when she thrust a tray under his nose and announced, “I brought brownies.”
“Really?” Wilson and Steve asked simultaneously, looking suspicious and shocked, respectively.
“Hey, I can bake,” she said.
“You mean you can buy a mix and add milk and eggs,” Wilson corrected.
“Same thing,” she insisted, smirking. She waved the pan in the air. “Want one, Buck-E?”
It took Bucky a moment to realise she was speaking to him. “Oh, uh,” he stammered, taken aback by her friendliness.
“From Wall-E? Get it? Buck-E?”
“I know what it is, I went through Normal Human training,” Bucky said. Carefully, he reached out and took a brownie with his flesh hand. It was chocolatey and delicious. He liked chocolate, he decided.
“Normal Human Training?” Steve repeated, as though it was a HYDRA method of torture. He leaned forward intently. “What’s that?”
Bucky wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “My doctors made me watch movies and read books and catch up on what I missed and whatever. You know, how to be a normal human. Normal Human training.”
“Hey, me too,” Steve said eagerly.
“They tried that on me,” said Romanoff, arching an eyebrow. “It didn’t go well for them.”
“Is there a German word for that moment when you realise that you’re the only sane person in the room?” Wilson muttered.
The oven dinged, and Steve slid a frozen lasagne inside, one that was meant to be big enough to feed two genetically altered men, a soldier, and an assassin. Even in Steve’s hands it looked huge.
Bucky wondered what Romanoff and Wilson thought of their green and white kitchen — which Steve thought was lavish but Bucky knew was pretty shitty compared to a lot of other people’s (Pierce’s) — with its plain Ikea flatware and the painting of a bowl of fruit that Steve had hung over the sink. The apartment was barely big enough for the two of them, much less the addition of Steve’s friends; Wilson had already grumbled about how cramped it was, and he had only been there for a day and a half.
Steve started to put the brownies away for later, but Bucky asked, “You know what HYDRA would never let me do?”
Suddenly, Steve froze. His face pinched as though he was in pain, and he reached forward but then stopped himself. “What’s that?” he asked gently.
“Let me eat my dessert first.”
Wilson threw back his head and laughed, and Romanoff grinned, ducking her chin.
“Real cute,” Steve muttered, flushing, but he handed Bucky the tray.
They were nearly finished with the brownies when, an hour later, Steve jumped up from the couch and ran into the kitchen, shouting, “My lasagne.”
Romanoff leaned forward and dropped her voice. “Rogers is doing better.” She glanced pointedly at Bucky, her eyebrows arched.
“Yeah,” Wilson agreed. Bucky looked between the two of them, confused. “He seems more... here.”
“What are you talking about?” Bucky asked. “Of course he’s here.”
“Man.” Wilson shook his head. “When I met him, he was the saddest son of a bitch I’d ever met.”
“You weren’t there when he first came out of the ice,” said Romanoff.
“I can imagine.”
“He was a walking tower of misery.”
Steve? Miserable? The worst Bucky had ever seen Steve was when he had been in that cell, unable to summon the energy to get up off the floor, and Steve had held his hand for hours and hours— there was a flash of something else under that, though, of a smaller Steve at a funeral, of Steve looking with longing at a poster—
He followed Wilson’s gaze, glancing back over his shoulder; in the kitchen, Steve was bobbing along to the music in his own head as he dished out the lasagne. It wasn’t graceful; Steve was a terrible dancer. Bucky felt the corners of his mouth curl up.
“I kinda miss those days,” Wilson mused. “He was a lot less embarrassing back then.”
When Bucky finally turned back to his plate, Wilson had stolen half his brownie and was sneakily licking chocolate off his lips.
“I hate you,” Bucky told him.
“You love me,” Wilson said flippantly, dusting crumbs off his fingers. “I light up your life.”
“Speaking of the love that dare not speak its name...” Romanoff began. She turned to Wilson and waggled her eyebrows. “Want to see the new gun I got?”
“Is it badass?” Wilson asked, his expression very serious.
“Is my middle name Alianovna?” she replied.
“I honestly have no idea,” said Wilson.
A part, a big part, of Bucky was curious, too, but he fought it down. He didn’t know how much of that was the Soldier and how much of it was James Barnes.
He didn’t have to fight it much, however, because Romanoff pulled an enormous rifle out of nowhere and placed it on the table.
“How—?” Wilson started, his eyes rounding. “Where’d you hide that?”
“It’s longer than you are tall.”
“Is that the TDI Vector Submachine?” Bucky asked. He had fired one once. In Bulgaria, maybe; or perhaps it had been Bosnia. He could still smell the gun residue.
“No guns at the dinner table,” Steve yelled from the kitchen.
“Sure thing, Dad,” Romanoff shot back. She grinned like she had made a great joke.
“Congratulate me,” Bucky ordered a few hours later. Since it was Wilson’s last night in New York, he and Romanoff had gone to hit up some Brooklyn bars, leaving Bucky and Steve — the ‘old fogies,’ he’d called them — to clean up.
Steve looked confused. He was up to his elbows in soapy water. “Why?”
“Because I behaved like a normal person tonight.”
“I hate to break it to you,” said Steve, “but you’ve never behaved like a normal person.”
Bucky smiled to himself as he dried the dishes. “We used to live together, right? Did we ever have dinner parties?”
“No.” Steve shook his head. “We didn’t have anyone to invite — we didn’t have that many friends outside of each other. Besides, we were dirt poor. Most nights we had a hard time finding enough food for our own dinner.”
Bucky could remember being hungry. He remembered opening empty cupboards in his kitchen, and eating stale, tasteless rations in the mud while listening to shots being fired in the distance; he had a flash of sneaking his own food onto Steve’s plate and then lying about it. But he also remembered the thick shakes HYDRA had made him eat three times a day. They’d tasted like chalk and had dried out his mouth.
“We should do this again,” he said.
Steve smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and Bucky realised that this was the first time he’d talked about the future. “Yeah, we should.”
The seasons changed quickly. It was only a few weeks before it autumn moved into winter, and something about the cold and dark put Bucky in a bad mood. Maybe it was the memory of Russia, or maybe it was having been frozen on and off for seventy years and only being released for bouts of torture and murder. It was hard to say.
“Bucky,” Steve said, looming over him, “get off the couch.”
“No,” Bucky replied. He stretched out on his back to prove his point. “I’m busy.”
“Watching every episode of The Simpsons isn’t busy,” Steve sighed.
Steve crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at him. “It’s not healthy. I’m worried about you. You’ve been wearing your PJs every day now for a week.”
“How dare you,” said Bucky. “It’s been five days.”
“Come on, let’s go out.”
What Bucky really wanted to do was sit on his ass in front of the TV at eat pie, but when Steve excitedly rocked back on his heels like a dog who’d just been told that he was going on a walk, he rolled over until his feet were planted on the floor. If Steve wanted to go out, they’d go out.
“Is that my sweater?” Steve asked when Bucky came back into the living room fully dressed.
He licked his lips, and Bucky ignored how that went straight to his cock.
“Half my clothes started off as yours,” Bucky pointed out. He tugged the sleeves down over his freezing fingertips. “I thought you knew. I’ve been wearing ‘em for months.”
“You know, Natasha bought me that one,” Steve said. His voice was fond. “She called it an old man sweater.”
Bucky glanced down at himself. He hadn’t even thought about how it looked when he had grabbed it out of Steve’s wardrobe, only that it was heavy and warm and stretched out from Steve’s body. “It matches my jeans.”
“Your jeans are black,” said Steve. He chuckled before playfully running a hand over Bucky’s head, mussing up his hair, like Bucky had been making a joke.
Bucky never knew quite what to do when Steve suddenly seemed to be bursting with joy, like Bucky’s presence alone was enough to make him happy. He ducked out of his range, saying, “Watch it, I just figured out how to get it the way I like it.”
“You like it sticking up?” Steve asked.
“It’s cool,” Bucky protested.
Steve gave him a look. “You have amnesia.”
“How do you even know what cool is?”
“I’ve always been cool,” said Bucky. He tilted his head back. “You’re behind the grind, pally.”
Shaking his head, Steve said, “I dare you to say that to Sam or Natasha.”
“I’m hard boiled,” Bucky drawled. Smirking, he pointedly fixed his hair back into place and then ran the pads of his fingers over his stubbled cheeks. The synthetic nerves in his left fingers tingled.
Steve’s gaze turned hot. And yet Bucky was completely surprised when Steve leaned over and kissed him.
Maybe it was unfair to say it was the greatest kiss of Bucky’s life up until that moment, but he didn’t really have a point of comparison. It wasn’t that Steve was all that great at it — it was a little too wet and desperate — but it made every nerve in Bucky’s body light up like a Christmas tree. He grabbed at the thick muscle of Steve’s arms, his shoulders, fisting the soft material of his t-shirt, while one of Steve’s palms cradled the back of Bucky’s head as he licked into his mouth, the other sliding down over his waist.
“What’re you doing?” Bucky murmured when they broke apart. His voice shook. His hands were shaking, too, pressed up against Steve’s firm and muscled chest; he could feel Steve’s heart beneath his ribs.
“Oh no,” Steve said, his eyes widening, “I was only joking about the amnesia. Did you forget what kissing is?”
“I know what you’re doing,” Bucky told him, beginning to feel irritated. “What I mean is, why?”
Steve looked at him for a long moment. “Really?” he asked finally. “Because, uh, I think I’ve been pretty—”
“You deserve better,” Bucky said. He averted his eyes, not wanting to see Steve’s pitying look. “There’s something wrong with me.”
“There’s something wrong with everyone,” Steve replied. “Even Sam.”
“Even Sam?” Bucky demanded, his head snapping up. “What does that mean?”
Steve looked pained. “Don’t be jealous.”
“I’m not— don’t change the subject.” He dug the fingers of his right hand into his hair. “I’m not okay, Steve. I’ve done things. I’ve killed people,” he said quietly. “I don’t remember what it was like to be someone else.”
I’m not a whole person, he wanted to say. He wasn’t sure he had ever been one, even before HYDRA.
“I died, too,” Steve snapped with such vehemence that Bucky recoiled. “Do you think you’re the only one who’s not okay?”
Bucky startled. “W-what? What are you talking about?”
“I crashed that plane into the ocean thinking that I wasn’t coming back. I thought I was giving up my life to save everyone else’s — but then I woke up. The world had moved on, and the only people who ever really cared about me had died or forgotten who I was.”
Steve looked away his jaw working. “One of the few comforts I had was that you had died a hero. I used to pretend that you were looking down on me, that I was making you proud. Sometimes it was the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning.”
All of a sudden, things made sense. Steve telling him he had hidden himself away; Wilson and Romanoff’s comments about how miserable he had been. The way he looked at Bucky like he didn’t seem to know what to do with him.
“Steve,” Bucky said, feeling sick.
“And now you’re back, and—” Steve sucked in a sharp breath. “And—”
One of the two identical Stark Phones on the table suddenly began blaring what Bucky vaguely recognised as rock music. It was loud and annoying, and at the way Steve turned to glare at it like it had personally offended him, he thought the same.
Rubbing his eyes on the back of his hand, Bucky snatched it up. “What d’you want?”
“Hey there, tall, dark, and robotic.” It was Stark; Bucky involuntarily felt the muscles in his face pull into a grimace. “Put the Cap on the line, wouldya?”
He passed the phone over to Steve without saying a word.
“What?” Steve asked Stark gruffly. “I— yeah. Yeah. Now?”
Bucky glanced over at him. Steve hung up the phone and scrubbed his face with his free hand. “I gotta go,” he said. “The city’s under attack.”
Without waiting for a response, he spun on his heel and marched into his bedroom. Bucky stood stock still in the living room, unsure what to do. Should he try to finish their conversation? Did he want to finish it? His chest ached like he had taken a punch to the solar plexus.
He was still standing there when Steve came back out carrying his gym bag.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Steve said, his voice firm.
“Sure we will,” Bucky said bleakly.
But Steve paused in the doorway. His back was one long line of tension.
“It’s okay that you don’t remember, or that you’re not the same,” Steve said, turning to face him. Bucky swallowed thickly. “I’m not the same either, and I— I still like you. I think we changed together. I wasn’t expecting that.” He looked away. “This is new and scary to me too.”
Bucky opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Steve gave him a final half-smile and closed the door behind him.
A few hours later, someone knocked on the door.
Bucky swallowed past a sudden lump in his throat. Steve wouldn’t knock.
When he answered, Romanoff and Wilson, their expressions grave, were standing in the hall. Even though they had only seen each other a few weeks ago, Romanoff’s hair now was short and blonde, and one yellow eyebrow was singed off; Wilson had a bruise blossoming on his jaw but otherwise looked the same as always. They were wearing identical blue t-shirts and sweats, as though they had cleaned up together and then had come as quickly as possible.
“You saw?” Romanoff asked quietly.
Bucky’s heart felt as though it dropped all the way to his feet. He gripped the door with his left hand until it creaked. “No, what— where’s Steve?”
They exchanged glances. “You weren’t watching it live?” Romanoff asked.
“I don’t like the news,” Bucky said. “It’s too sad.”
Wilson and Romanoff looked at each other again.
“Will someone tell me what’s going on?” he demanded. It was starting to become difficult to breathe; the room was starting to spin.
“Aliens have captured the Captain,” Wilson said.
“I’m sorry, what?” Bucky asked.
“Aliens,” Wilson repeated slowly. “Have. Captured. Captain. America.”
“Aliens,” Bucky echoed, not certain he had heard right. “Like, from outer space?”
Romanoff looked at him like he was a moron. “Yes, Barnes, from outer space.”
“There are aliens now?” Bucky demanded. “What— since when—” He looked between her and Wilson, his mind whirling. This was what he got for watching Netflix instead of the news. “Aliens?”
“You’ve met Thor, haven’t you?”
“Who?” Bucky asked.
“Is this really freaking you out this much?” Wilson asked, his brow pinched. “You’re a Soviet super soldier with a metal arm who was born nearly a century ago.”
Bucky frowned at him. “So?”
“I’ve gotta say, I’m on Barnes’ side for this one,” said Romanoff, her arms crossed over her chest. “Everything you just said sounded normal to me.”
Wilson rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and distinctly muttered something about needing new friends.
Abruptly, Romanoff slipped under Bucky’s outstretched arm and headed into the apartment. “Let’s move before your neighbours alert the media that aliens have captured Captain America and we have a panic on our hands,” she called over her shoulder.
“What? Why?” Bucky asked in alarm as he and Wilson followed her into the living room.
“You were frozen during the Battle of New York,” she said. “Let’s just say that the public has a love-hate relationship with aliens right about now. And with us.”
“They destroyed Manhattan,” Wilson explained.
“‘They’?” Bucky echoed, frowning. “Not you?”
“I was getting my ass shot at in Iraq,” Wilson said. “And—” He looked pointedly at Romanoff. “I’m not an official Avenger.”
“Take it up with Stark,” she grumbled. She brushed blonde hair out of her eyes. “He’s the one bankrolling this operation.”
“It’s not Stark that’s the problem, it’s Fury. Stark would love to have me around to watch his back.”
Romanoff’s face hardened. “Nick has a hard time trusting people. For obvious reasons.”
Bucky pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, drowning out their arguing. All that time he had spent being afraid that HYDRA would find Steve and him... In the end, it hadn’t been HYDRA who had taken Steve after all.
The world was full of hidden dangers. And so was outer space, apparently.
The only way they would ever be safe was if they locked themselves in a secret underground bunker somewhere where not even SHIELD could find them. But that was no way to live; neither of them would ever be happy like that.
He couldn’t hide anymore. Steve needed him.
“I’m coming with you,” Bucky announced.
Wilson and Romanoff broke off their bickering to glance first at him, then back at each other.
“Is that a good idea?” Romanoff asked. Her gaze flickered over him, coolly assessing. “We didn’t come here so you’d help us get him back. This was a courtesy call.”
“We thought you might be freaking out,” Wilson added.
“If you think I’m going to wait here while Steve’s in trouble, you’ve got another think coming,” Bucky growled.
“Do you even remember how to fight in a team?” Wilson asked him.
“I’ve been in a war or two.” Bucky scratched his chin. “Does the Cold War count as a real war?”
“Gee, I hope so,” said Romanoff. “I killed a lot of people during that one.”
“Weren’t you like five when the Cold War ended?” Wilson asked. He shook his head violently and held his hands out. “Nevermind, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
Romanoff looked back at Bucky. “All right, Barnes. You’re in.”
That was how Bucky found himself being shuffled to the armoury in Avengers Tower. It was a circular room lined with glass cupboards, inside of which were guns, grenade launchers, armoured uniforms, and powered-down robots. Like everything owned by Stark, the room was tinged in red and gold; Bucky doubted there was anything inside the cupboards that wasn’t stamped with the SI logo.
The man himself was waiting for them, wearing an ironic (at least, Bucky thought it was ironic) Iron Man-shirt and jeans. Another man was with him; he was short and stocky, and of one of his legs was in a cast.
“Stark,” Bucky greeted.
“BuckyBot.” Stark nodded at him. He sounded tired. “You’re looking better. Someone might almost mistake you for sane.”
He was the third person in the past few weeks who had said that. Bucky wasn’t sure he felt better. “Thanks,” he replied. He struggled with a compliment of his own. “Your beard is pointier than usual.”
Stark looked pleased. “Thank you.”
“Barton,” Romanoff said sharply. She was tugging on a black leather jacket; Bucky hadn’t even realised she’d left the room to go get it. “You should be in bed. You’ve had enough painkillers to take down a horse.”
“I’ve had worse injuries,” Barton said, though his eyes were glassy. He jerked his thumb in Bucky’s direction. “Who’s the pretty boy?”
“Bucky Barnes?” Stark replied.
Not an ounce of recognition appeared on Barton’s face.
“The Winter Soldier?” Stark prodded.
Barton shook his head. “Is he someone I should know, or...?”
“Get out of here,” Stark said. He threw his hands in the air. “Jesus Christ.”
Romanoff sighed. “I apologise for him,” she said as Barton, who threw an obscene gesture at Stark as the elevator doors closed, left the armoury. “Did you fix Falcon’s wings?”
“No, ‘Hi, Tony, thanks for taking care of the last wave of alien invaders while we looked for our missing leader’? ‘Hi, Tony, the last time we saw you, you were covered from head to toe in potentially toxic alien blood, so it’s good to see that your face hasn’t melted off’?”
Romanoff fixed him with a withering look.
“Nothing?” asked Stark. “Anyway, you’ve been gone almost a whole three hours, so not only have I repaired the wings — and you’re welcome, by the way —”
“Thanks, man,” Wilson said sincerely.
Stark visibly faltered. He narrowed his eyes at Wilson like he wasn’t sure whether or not he was being made fun of. “Yeah, sure, don’t worry about it.”
He pulled what looked like a black backpack out of the cupboards. When he pressed a button, a set of wings unfurled out of it. Something about them seemed sleeker and more refined than Bucky was expecting, or maybe remembering. There was a small Stark logo near the breastplate.
“Are those new?” Bucky asked.
He reached out to touch one of the metal feathers, and Wilson knocked his hand back. Given that it was his metal hand, he was surprised that Wilson didn’t break his fingers.
“If you come near these wings, I will. Take. You. Out,” Wilson warned.
“As I was saying,” Stark said, “while you were off having group showers, I pinpointed the exact location of our erstwhile Capsicle.”
He handed Wilson a tablet. Wilson glanced down at the screen and his eyebrows shot up.
“Do they have Steve in—” Bucky grimaced. It felt too ridiculous to say. “In space?”
“He’s in New Jersey,” Wilson said.
“Oh,” said Bucky.
“Yeah, I’m disappointed too,” said Wilson.
“Wait a minute.” Stark looked from Bucky back to Romanoff. “Is he going with you? I figured you brought him here so I could babysit him.”
Bucky clenched his fists. “I’m going to help rescue Steve.”
“Are you,” Stark said.
“If these are super aliens—”
“They’re really not,” Stark interrupted. “Trust me, my toaster is smarter than they are. They only managed to get the Cap because they outnumbered us. They hit him over the head and dragged him off.”
“Who let them get close enough to hit him over the head?” Bucky demanded, gritting his teeth.
Wilson and Stark both pointed at Romanoff. “Cowards,” she muttered.
But she didn’t seem particularly upset as she opened one of the cupboards and took out a rifle. She offered it to Bucky, butt-down. “Take this. We tried night-night guns on them, but they didn’t work; the only thing that stopped them was bullets.”
“What, suddenly you don’t want to kill people?” Stark asked.
“It’s not—” Bucky bit his lip. “I’m not—”
Wilson was looking at him with entirely too much empathy. “You don’t have to if you’re not ready,” he said. “We can do this without you. Rogers’ll kill us anyway when he finds out we let you come with us.”
“Come on.” Stark nodded toward the elevator. “We’ll go get cookies and milk.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Bucky snapped.
Glaring, he grabbed the rifle with his left hand, and as soon as he did, the world around him seemed to slow down. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for — for something; he wasn’t sure what. To freak out, maybe, or to suddenly feel complete, like all he had been waiting for was for someone to shove a weapon into his hands. To either be broken Sergeant Barnes or the inhuman Soldier.
When neither of those things happened, he cracked an eye open. Everyone was staring at him.
“You okay, man?” Wilson asked, his voice gentle.
Bucky cleared his throat. He threw the rifle’s swing over his shoulder; clutched in his powerful metal hand, it seemed to weigh nothing.
“Can I still get cookies?” he asked.
“Well,” said Stark, “I feel comforted.”
The spaceship had crash landed in an abandoned shopping mall on the outskirts of Trenton. Several stories high, with thick black smoke billowing from the site, it looked more like a black beehive than something that had successfully travelled through space. A wall had been scraped away, revealing black hexagonal cells tinged with blue.
It was very alien. Bucky couldn’t help but gape as he stopped halfway down the plank.
He only jerked back into motion when Romanoff began shooting, taking out the aliens closest to their plane. The first beetle-like alien she hit squirted green slime everywhere as it sank to its — well, Bucky hesitated to call them knees, but there were knee-like bends in their spindly legs.
“Ew, they’re gooey,” Wilson said, darting up into the air. He cringed. “I just washed these pants.”
“Sorry, I forgot to warn you that they’re pretty gross,” said Romanoff. She looked at Bucky and dropped her voice like she was sharing a secret. “There are some hot aliens though. Wait until you meet Thor.”
Bucky’s eyebrows shot up. “Yeah?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s just your type: tall, blond, and virtuous.”
“Is he also stupid like Steve?” Bucky asked, thinking about how Steve got himself abducted by giant alien bugs.
“Honestly?” Romanoff said. She looked thoughtful. “It’s hard to tell with him.”
Without warning, Romanoff and Wilson charged ahead, heading for the ship’s hatch; Wilson in the air, shooting aliens from overhead, and Romanoff on the ground, taking them down with kicks and flips, alternating between sending them convulsing to the ground with electric charges and straight up firing bullets into their torsos. Green ooze flooded the shopping centre’s pavement.
Bucky looked through the scope of his rifle at the aliens guarding the hatch. The weight of the trigger was as familiar as breathing, but was that from his time as a sniper in the Howling Commandos, or from when he had been HYDRA’s asset?
Something moved in the corner of his eye. In the distance, Romanoff was fighting off four at once. She braced her back on one alien to kick another, sending it flying back. But the alien behind her latched onto her with its pincers, which looked sharp enough to tear her in two. Her face twisted in pain.
Bucky didn’t hesitate. In a matter of seconds, he fired.
The aliens dropped one by one, green gunk oozing from the bullet holes Bucky had just put in their heads. Romanoff glanced in his direction and nodded her thanks.
By the time Bucky made it inside the ship, Wilson and Romanoff had cleared him a path. Inside, it was floor to ceiling honeycomb cells, and it was so dark he wondered how Wilson and Romanoff were able to see anything at all; even Bucky could faintly make out that he was standing in the middle of a corridor that split three ways. He used the butt of his rifle to smash the face of the first alien he saw, sending it to the floor, bleeding from the open wound between the insect-like eyes that took up most of its head; seconds later, he dropped the next one coming at him with a heavy kick to its abdomen.
He crouched in the corridor, waiting for more. He could hear the sounds of gunfire in other parts of the ship; presumably, Wilson and Romanoff had each taken a corridor. Bucky chose the quietest one — the middle one — and took off at a run, his footfalls barely making a sound.
A blue light shone at the end of the tunnel. Bucky slowed to a walk, bracing himself. The aliens had had Steve for six hours now. Even with his super healing—
He stepped into a bright room. Steve, looking alive and well, still in his Captain America suit but missing his helmet, was fixed to a cell with some kind of blue vine. It had wrapped around his wrists and ankles, and a larger arm was spun around his torso, pulsing and moving in increments. There was red blood matted in his hair.
Bucky hadn’t made a sound, but Steve still looked up when he came into the room, like he could feel Bucky’s presence. He took one look at the gun in Bucky’s hand and went utterly still.
“Bucky?” he asked carefully, his voice rough. “That you in there?”
“It’s me, dummy,” Bucky replied without thinking.
And in that moment, he realised that it was him. It was all him. Just like when he picked up the rifle, battle hadn’t made him into someone else. It wasn’t the Soldier in there, killing every target in sight with ruthless efficiency because it was what he had been designed to do; it wasn’t the former shell of Sergeant Barnes, cowering because everything hurt too much. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he knew exactly who and what he was.
He was James Buchanan Barnes — a little older, a little more damaged — and he was there to pull Steve’s sorry ass out of the fire.
“Who else would come all this way?” he added with a smirk.
Steve’s face lit up. “For a moment I thought I’d have to take out these guys myself.”
“I know you’d really hate that,” Bucky said dryly.
He grabbed the vine around one of Steve’s wrists with his metal hand and pulled as hard as he could. Even his synthetic nerves picked up that it was firm and warm, like flesh; it made his skin crawl. He managed to pull it up just far enough for Steve to slip his hand out from under it, and together they quickly snapped off the rest of the vines.
The moment Steve pulled his shield free, a high-pitched wail erupted above him.
“That’s not good,” said Steve.
Within seconds, they had six aliens in the room with them. Bucky fired but the shot didn’t take down the creature — he ducked as it launched itself at him, sweeping out a leg to send it flying to the floor.
A whistling sound pierced the air, followed by Steve’s shield bouncing off of not one, not two, but all six aliens, taking them all out.
Impressed, Bucky’s eyebrows twitched upwards. He and Steve made a good team.
“Steve,” he said, very seriously.
“Yeah?” Steve asked as he tanked his shield out of the crumpled and gooey body of an alien.
“You’re, like, in love with me or whatever, right?”
“Uh, guys?” said Wilson. “Not that this isn’t sweet and all, but you know the comms are still open, right?”
About a dozen expressions flashed across Steve’s face before finally settling on grim determination. “Yeah, I am.”
“Good,” said Bucky. An alien charged into the room; he shot it before it got within twelve feet of them. “Because it’d be real embarrassing if it was just me.”
“Bucky,” Steve said vehemently, “that’s the worst way to—”
He shut up when Bucky kissed him.
“You’re a jerk,” Steve said when they parted.
“Takes one to know one,” Bucky replied, but he grinned, and Steve grinned back, as bright as the sun.