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too late to apologize

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He wants to talk about it all the time. When the UPS delivery guy looks at his glistening fingers accepting the package, he wants to say, Yes, that's a cybernetic robot arm, yes, it's a weapon. While he's waiting at the VA for a checkup, he wants to tell the guys around him, Sorry, I'm here because I shot a lot of people just like you. When he's in his therapist's office, he wants to tell the receptionist, I'm here because I murdered people, a lot. Instead, he sits quietly until Dr. Rubin comes out into the lobby and says, "Mr. Barnes?"

"I'm not supposed to talk about it," Bucky says, toying with one of her fiddle-objects. She has half a dozen on the table next to the plush chair where he's sitting, sculptures with moving parts, mazes trapped under plastic with metal balls to shunt into the center from the rim. Ever since he came back, he's jittery, hyped up, moving all the time. He used to feel calm, always calm, so—this is better.

Dr. Rubin nods. "Because of the clearance issue?"

"Yes." Then Bucky shakes his head. "No. People don't want to know. People—they don't need to know."

There's a couple with a little girl in the apartment downstairs. She's a cutie, a regular Shirley Temple with her hair all in ringlets and deep dimples in her brown cheeks. They used to know their neighbors, back when it was just him and Steve, and there was a girl who looked like Becca down the hall. Bucky'd pick Sarah up, give her a little toss, put her giggling back on her feet when she shrieked. He's never even said hello to Shirley Temple. What would he say? I've killed kids younger than you. I've watched their parents burn. Shirley Temple doesn't need to know that shit. The world's terrible enough.

"That must be very hard, holding all that in," Dr. Rubin says gently.

He shrugs. "I was an assassin for 70 years. It's not really the stealth that's an issue."

Dr. Rubin cracks a smile. Tony Stark signs her paychecks; her security clearance has to be out the roof. Yet, here she is, sitting unarmed in a closet-sized midtown office with everybody's least favorite ex-international-criminal. It makes him feel a little better about not being out gunning for justice, too. "Did you want to kill anybody today, Mr. Barnes?"

Bucky picks up one of the sculptures off the side table. It's a sphere of interlocking rings that spin and shift in his grip, tinkling faintly against each other and more loudly against the metal palm of his left hand. "I never wanted to kill anybody," he says, and it goes through him like a pike in one swift, nauseating thrust. "But, uh—that asshole who cut in front of me at Starbucks, maybe. A little."

Out of politeness, Bucky ignores his minders. For a while, he thought they weren't very good at their job, but it turns out they're supposed to be keeping an eye on Bucky, not keeping an eye on Bucky. "We have better ways of doing that," Stark explained when Bucky asked.

They were having lunch outside at a fancy restaurant. No one had programmed Bucky with the knowledge he needed, like how to use all the forks, but he was able to surreptitiously search for the information on his phone under the table. "Isn't the government worried about the—me?" he said quietly.

Stark shrugged. "The government's kind of busy rooting out their little termite infestation, so you're my problem now. God Bless America and the free market system." He blew a kiss dramatically towards the street like he was tossing a rose to an audience, even though it was just a sidewalk cluttered with oblivious weekend tourist traffic.

Bucky spent the first five minutes of his subway ride home reading about the post-crash economy, and the next twenty trying to get reception and failing. Even in the future, they still couldn't get on top of the most basic shit.

That day's minder sat across from him, reading a newspaper. It seemed like bad cover when Bucky got on at Lincoln Center, but as they trundled toward Chambers St, Bucky's respect steadily grew. He waited until they'd transferred to the 2 to lean across the aisle and say, "You mind if I take the business section?"

The heavyset woman next to Bucky's minder glared at him, but the minder just nodded and handed it over. Bucky read about Facebook and Roth IRAs until his minder cleared his throat loudly and said, "Hey, man, this your stop?"

So, Bucky's polite. He doesn't ditch the minders. He's training them, too—when the time comes that he has to slip the lead, they won't be prepared.

Bucky owns the clothes on his back and the gear in his pockets. Not the tech—that's all courtesy of Stark, who's no doubt using it to track him as well as making use of a convenient test dummy for assistive software—and not the furniture, which came with the apartment when he rented it, and probably not the wardrobe, which Steve picked out for him. He hasn't seen Steve in a while.

"You could call him," Stark said the last time they got lunch. "He'd stop harassing me."

For Stark, that was tactful, so Bucky said, "Sure, I could," and left it at that.

Bucky didn't have a will when he went off to war, because everything would be Steve's, anyway, as long as Steve stuck it out with his lungs and—it would be Steve's, that was the point. The list he makes, the one he tucks under his mattress and saves in the notes section of his phone, is better than a will.

CAN TAKE ME OUT:
- DR. ILONA RUBIN
- NATASHA ROMANOFF
- PEPPER POTTS
- HULK
- THOR
- TONY STARK

He puts the ladies first, because they're usually in the city and they won't play around. The Hulk could crush him, sure, and so could Thor, but he's in Asgard all the time. Stark wants to protect his investment, so Bucky puts him last.

DON'T CALL:
- SAM WILSON
- STEVE ROGERS

It'd be a waste of Sam's time, and Steve—well. They always said they'd be together till the end of the line, but at the end of the line, you've gotta get off.

Natasha calls Bucky a week after he saves a copy of the list in his phone. "I'm hurt, Barnes," she says. "You put me after someone's bubbe?"

"She has my psych files," Bucky explains. "If I were just picking who got the first shot, I'd choose you."

"You really know how to treat a lady," says Natasha fondly.

It was Bucky who shot first, of course. He remembers that.

"How much do you remember?" Steve asked him all the time. Used to ask him, before Bucky moved out. The questions made Bucky agitated. He didn't like Steve calling him Bucky, the way Steve always got in his space, treated him like—something he wasn't. He was ready to bite anything that got near. It wasn't Steve's fault, except when it was.

On his third appointment with Dr. Rubin, he said, "What if I can't ever remember?"

She was quiet for a moment before she said, "We're not yet computers, Mr. Barnes. Human memory is imperfect and flawed as it was when you were a child. Do you know what you want from your memory?"

Bucky thought about that for a while. Dr. Rubin didn't say anything; she just let the silence stretch out between them without even glancing at the clock. She was very good. Bucky would have been honored to work in the field with her, except he always worked alone. He was still alone, even in Steve's apartment, with Steve's friends coming and going in the front room when Bucky gave permission. Steve had a lot of friends, but he seemed lonely. Different from the old days, when Steve mostly got himself beat up by the neighborhood assholes but seemed happy enough to be just the two of them on their own. Bucky said, "Can I ask you—what's your first memory?"

Dr. Rubin smiled at him. It was the first time she'd smiled in a session other than coming or going, and right then, Bucky knew that he liked her. "I went to the circus with my parents to see the clowns," she said. "I grew up in Hungary. It's my only memory of my father."

"I'm sorry," Bucky said.

"I ate too much candy and threw up all over him, after," Dr. Rubin said. "I don't remember that, but my mother always told me. She liked to bring it up at family dinners, particularly, and to my husband before we married. I remember that more than the clowns."

Bucky said, "I'd like to be able to tell a story like that."

He can't get it right in his head, that's the thing. It's like those stories you tell all the time when you're a kid—how the girl down the block took a tumble off the steps and broke her hip and spent half the year in a cast. You tell it differently all the time, and in the end, it's no longer a story about a fall or a cast; it's just part of her history, same as it is yours. The girl was named Janey, and she was friends with Bucky's sister Becca but in Bucky's class, and Bucky had to take her homework for that whole half a year. He had a crush on her at first—she was real pretty, with red hair that stood out bright against a pillow case and freckles that faded out of the light—but proximity took its toll, and by the end of the year they were just friends, Janey with a limp and Bucky with a slightly better math grade, and that was that.

Bucky doesn't remember the name of their math teacher, but the search engine on his phone says that's normal when he asks.

The memories aren't usually dramatic, unlike like the first time he loses his phone in the couch cushions—they're small and sneaky. He takes a package from the UPS guy and it's the exact same weight as a bomb he planted ten years ago. One of the guys at the VA looks just like the guy in the Army recruitment office in Brooklyn, but the kid is maybe 20 and that Brooklyn was in 1942. Dr. Rubin's receptionist looks like a nun in the parish where he and Steve grew up. He wants to tell them the truth, whatever the truth is. The desire wells up in him like a river behind a dam.

"You're fixing what you did for them, right?" he asked Natasha the next time she shows up in his apartment unannounced. "I wish I could do that. I wish—"

"You want an assignment?" Natasha says, raising her eyebrows.

Bucky shakes his head. "I want to say I'm sorry."

"You killed them, Barnes," Natasha says. "It doesn't really work like that."

"I know," Bucky says. "I was there."

He was. He set that bomb. He signed the papers. He knelt down in the pews and said his prayers. He did what he was told, and now he's here, a puppet with the strings cut, wearing pants with zip pockets and a threadbare hoodie that he stole from Steve. Who probably stole it from Wilson.

The next day, a bike courier knocks on Bucky's door around noon and scares the shit out of him. Once he gets his breathing under control, he answers the door, signs for the package. It's thin, square, with a little bump in the middle. No exciting memories attached. Inside is a USB stick with a Stark Industries logo. Bucky plugs it into his laptop: it shows up as MIXTAPE on his desktop.

In a folder labeled FOR YOUR TEARS are twelve different covers of "Too Late to Apologize."

Bucky goes for a run every morning and when he gets back today, Shirley Temple and her mom are dragging a granny cart of groceries up the steps. He steels himself, asks, "May I help you?"

"Yes!" Shirley Temple says, shoving fruitlessly at the bottom of the cart where it dangles over the lip of the step. "We bought too much!"

"Manners, Q," Shirley Temple's Mom says to her. To Bucky, she says, "Thank you, hon. I'd really appreciate that."

Bucky hauls the granny cart up to the front door and then to 3B, where Q and her mom Terri and her other mom Graciela live. Terri gives him a Capri Sun. "My dad's a vet," she says as Bucky struggles to get the straw lined up with the little hole. "You doing okay, now that you're back?"

"Getting there," Bucky says, only squirting a little Strawberry-Kiwi on himself. "Thanks for asking."

Q looks up at him, big-eyed, and says, "Mama, I want a Capri Sun, too."

On the day Steve gets arrested, Bucky goes to his appointment with Dr. Rubin first thing and says, "I thought about murdering somebody today."

"Yes?" she says.

Bucky sighs. "He pissed on our doorstep. The people who live in my building—they're good people, nice people. Kids. He could have at least gone for the bushes, you know?"

Dr. Rubin nods. "What did you do?"

"Broke into the tool shed around back," Bucky says. "Hosed off the steps. The guy was gone, anyway. Whoever it was. I think it's harder to go outside like that if you're a girl."

"The garments are not generally in favor," Dr. Rubin agrees.

Bucky's quiet for a while. They're quiet together. He picks up one of the mazes and tilts it around for a while, trying to steer the little balls toward the heart of the labyrinth. "I wouldn't have murdered him if I'd caught him," he says, finally. "Just—I can wash the piss off steps. I don't want to deal with people who piss on steps. Who does that? I have ripped out a guy's spine, but I've never pissed on anyone's home."

Dr. Rubin smiles.

"I wouldn't piss on Hitler's home," Bucky says softly. "A bomb would be more efficient, and it would be a waste of my piss."

"Ah," says Dr. Rubin warmly. "There's the Bucky Barnes I've come to know."

Bucky goes to the big Trader Joe's in Union Square for toilet paper and peanut butter cups. When he gets out, his minder is across the street, conspicuously reading a newspaper in the middle of the sidewalk. Bucky has to squint to make out the headline, which is CAPTAIN AMERICA ARRESTED IN ZUCCOTTI PARK.

"Oh, come on," he mutters beneath his breath.

He's learned enough to pull up the wikipedia article on the Timeline of Occupy Wall Street before he goes underground, and by the time he gets home, he's up to date. This is the fourth anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park and Steven Grant Rogers is an idiot.

Brainwashed or not brainwashed, Bucky is still a pro, so he goes home and puts away the toilet paper, four rolls in the cabinet and two on the back of the toilet because there's still half of one on the spindle. Then he puts on Tony's mixtape—just loud enough to fuck with the bugs, but not so loud Q will have any trouble getting to sleep tonight—and stashes his phone in the couch cushions. Next he ditches his watch, his tennis shoes, his jeans, swaps them for cargo pants and a light-colored hoodie. Casual. He pulls his hair back into a ponytail, straightens his spine, and like that, he walks right past his minder at the bodega and toward the sprawl of Prospect Park.

Steve's bail is set at an amount that makes even Bucky balk, but needs must. He takes a suitcase full of unmarked 20s from his bolthole in Gravesend, then heads back to the city. To Manhattan Central Booking.

"Why the fuck would you pay the bail in cash, Buck?" Steve says. "Why would you do that?"

Bucky hasn't seen Steve in four months. He's got that serum-perfect complexion even 32 hours post-arrest, but there's definitely a stubble situation going on. "You can't punch me here. We're in a police station."

Steve looks taken aback, like how dare Bucky even suggest such a thing, even though his hands are balled into fists at his sides.

"It's not dignified," Bucky clarifies. "Come on, now, let the nice lady give you back your stuff, check your wallet—no offense, ma'am—we'll get out of here."

Outside, it's bright and sunny but not too hot—a perfect day hovering between summer and fall, a bustling but not hectic interlude between the lunch rush and commute crush. They head uptown together, Steve leading with his hands in his jacket pockets, his shoulders hunched, Bucky following with an easy stride. He's on top of the world. He just got Captain America out of the slammer, legally, and he's going to hold it over him forever.

"Where'd you get the money?" Steve says.

"Don't worry about it," Bucky says, dodging a protruding food truck.

"I'm gonna pay you back," Steve says. His shoulders tense further. "I'm gonna pay them back."

"Excuse you," Bucky says. "I definitely stole from the rich to give to the poor. Well, the government, but I bought you, so—you're poor, right?"

Steve laughs, sharp, bitter. "No, I'm a millionaire. War bonds, remember?"

"Are you saying that Captain America is the 1%?" Bucky says. "God Bless America, Stark is right." Steve whirls around, furious, and then somehow, it's like all the energy goes out of him. Bucky checks behind himself before he realizes—oh. "Steve. I'm sorry."

"You're right," Steve says. "We were poor. We were hungry, we were weak, but we're not anymore. Everything's changed."

Bucky rolls his eyes. He reaches out with his left hand, the cold metal one, and pulls Steve into a doorway before someone with a briefcase shanks one of them. "Not everything," he says. "I'm still here, pulling your punk ass out of trouble, just like old times."

"You didn't let me pull your punk ass out of trouble," Steve says. Like it's been weighing on him this whole time.

Bucky says, "Not everything's about you."

Bucky sneaks back into his apartment, just to fuck with Tony, and for the next two days, he goes about his business like normal. Then Sam and Natasha show up and kidnap him.

"We're taking you out to dinner," Sam says. "You could get away if you really wanted to. Make a scene out of it."

"You get a choice," Natasha says. "Hot pot or Italian."

Sam says, "I want hot pot."

Bucky's never had hot pot before, but it's pretty good. "Is this a reward?" he says around a mouthful of bok choy.

"This is 'thank you,'" Sam says. "I told Steve I wasn't going to bail him out of jail, but the guilt would probably have gotten to me in another day or two. You know, he's got the—" He points to his eyeballs, glances at Natasha.

"Sad puppy eyes," she supplies. "Where'd you steal the cash from?"

"It was gold, first," Bucky says. He shrugs and dips a chunk of fish in the sauce. "I don't remember."

He forgot how good it feels to lie sometimes.

"I want to apologize to you," Bucky says to Steve.

"For breaking into my apartment?" Steve says. His voice is muffled against Bucky's metal palm where it's clamped over Steve's mouth. Bucky has him pinned real good, down on his belly, hands trapped behind his back, feet tangled in the sheets. Steve could toss Bucky off, if he really tried, but he doesn't. That's why he's on Bucky's DO NOT CALL IN CASE OF MURDEROUS RAMPAGE list.

Bucky shoves his fingers into Steve's mouth so he'll be quiet. Steve bites. "Stop it, that's bad for your teeth."

Steve mutters something that sounds like, You're not my mother.

"I'm sorry I tried to kill you," Bucky says. "You're pretty much the only person I've tried to kill and failed."

That's not true, Steve says, probably.

"You live two blocks away and leave your key under the mat," Bucky says. "Which is stupid, by the way. You're going to get yourself killed."

Steve spits out Bucky's fingers and says, "The key's for you, dumbass."

"Oh," Bucky says.

"I'm sorry I let you fall off a cliff and get turned into an evil robot," Steve adds mournfully.

"I'm not a robot," Bucky says. "According to Wikipedia, I'm a cyborg."

Steve grunts against Bucky's palm. "So you read Wikipedia now?"

"Unlike you, I was intermittently defrosted." Bucky tightens his grip on Steve's wrists, then abruptly lets go and rolls off of him. "Stop being such a martyr."

"I thought this was apology hour," Steve says to his pillow. "You woke me up for it and everything."

Bucky smiles at Steve, and briefly, everything slots into place: lying in bed like this in their apartment in DUMBO, where the heat always went out in the winter and they always had to get up early to get any time in the bathroom in the hall. Then they're back in Steve's California King bed and Bucky's an ex-assassin and Steve is out on bail. It's still Brooklyn: the bed takes up the entire room. "What's up with this bed? Who were you trying to impress?"

"Tony bought it," Steve says. "He owns the building."

"Probably mine, too," Bucky says. Then he pauses. "Does Tony know you got arrested in—"

Steve sighs. "He framed the front page of the New York Times and had it couriered to me. It's in the hallway."

"That asshole," Bucky says affectionately.

Bucky is almost late for his appointment with Dr. Rubin, which is a first. She's standing in the lobby waiting for him when he skids in from the elevator. "Mr. Barnes?" she says.

"It's Steve's fault," Bucky says as he follows her down the hallway toward her office. "I'm gonna tell you all about it."