They find the shield on the third day. They don’t find Steve.
On the fifth day, Hill is still assuring the press that the search parties will find Captain America alive. By the seventh day, they stop believing it, and Sam has to turn off the television and throw out the newspapers, leaving such gems as How Many Times Can One Man Die? and Martyr or Madman, Dead or Alive? unread. On the ninth day Fury gives him the shield for safekeeping and he spends a sleepless night cleaning and repainting it, if only to convince himself that Steve is going to need it again.
On day thirteen, there is a much-broadcasted memorial service at the White House. Sam doesn’t go. (Ostensibly because the world ought to know from experience that Steve is harder to kill than they think, but also because he missed a step going down the stairs in his house and spent half an hour hyperventilating on the floor, trying to push the too-familiar sensation of falling from his stomach. If you hadn’t been grounded, says a tireless voice in his head, you could have saved Steve and he would have been all right. He’d be here now.)
On night fourteen, Natasha invites herself into his house after he ignores five calls from her. She makes herself a cup of tea and sits down, spreading a stack of files and papers across his kitchen table. “Did you know,” she says, quite conversationally, “a bunch of crazies showed up and picketed the funeral?”
Sam shrugs, peering at the documents over her shoulder. “Dicks will be dicks. Can’t be helped. Did you go?”
“No,” says Natasha. “I was busy looking for these.”
She shoves a file into his hands. She is in full combat gear, and her hair is frizzy and windswept as if she’s been running, and Sam doesn’t know if he has ever seen anyone so beautiful or so terrifying. He opens the file and feels his jaw drop. “Who did you steal these from? The FBI?”
She doesn’t answer. He leafs through the contents of the dossier, frowning. There are police reports, and autopsies, and several blurry photographs. Two top-secret bunkers thought to belong to HYDRA have been blown up in the last three days. Eighteen corpses have been recovered. An image captured from CCTV footage shows a man-shaped shadow skulking in a doorway with a pistol in each hand and an assault rifle strapped across his back, and a glint of silver shining beneath the hem of his left sleeve.
“Barnes,” Sam says. He slaps the file shut, forcing the rattle of gunfire from his consciousness. It will return later, as soon as Natasha is gone. “You think he’s got Steve?”
“It’s a long shot. The man doesn’t remember him at all. If he’s alive and free—“ That doesn’t bode well for Steve, he thinks, but can’t bring himself to finish the sentence.
She tilts her head up to study his face. Her narrowed eyes are green, and dangerous, and omniscient. “You giving up, Wilson?”
“No.” It’s only half a lie. He has spent all day chest-deep in the Potomac, and his feet keep moving and his mouth keeps giving orders, but the place in his heart that once believed with iron-clad faith in Steve’s invincibility has gone dark and silent. “’Course not.”
“Good.” She gets up, gathering the files together. “I’m going to find Barnes and bring him in, for his own sake and for Steve’s. I—you could say I owe them both a debt.”
She does not elaborate, and Sam has worked a helping profession long enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. Instead, he watches her pace around the kitchen in tight circles, like a sleek, restless cat caught behind bars. She is a spy and a killer and she is wanted in more countries than he has fingers to count them on, but for some reason he feels safer with her around. “If you want in,” she adds, “I know someone who can fix your wings.”
He clenches his hands into fists under the table, pacing his breaths. He doesn’t tell her that the nightmares have started again. He doesn’t admit that he runs through scrubby desert grass every night, screaming Riley’s name, only to find that the man lying dead is wearing Steve’s face. He certainly doesn’t say that he almost enjoys the dreams, because they are the only times he gets to fly again, to feel the wind beat at his face and hear the swoop of his wings as he whirls and cartwheels across the sky.
He says, only, "Do you want me in?"
She gazes out the window into the quiet street, her face unreadable in shadow. “My usual partner’s laid up in Minsk with three broken ribs and a concussion, so yeah, why not.” She’s quiet for a second or two, fingers tracing arcane patterns across the windowpane. He doesn’t remember having seen her fidget like this before. “Besides, I trust you.”
He hardly knows her, but trust is a scarce commodity in this line of work, and he understands what it must take for her to say this. He understands so well that he’s already sunk. His mother always said that his utter inability to turn away someone in need was going to get him killed someday. But his own death doesn’t scare him much, just other people’s; and he knows, better than most now, that guilt hurts more than gunshot wounds.
"All right," he says. "I'm coming with you."
Home is not a place. This is the first piece of intel the Winter Soldier learns after he goes on the run, when the man he saved wakes up and asks him, “Where are we?”
The Soldier does not want a new handler. All the same, he gives this man his mission report in full, since there is no one else left to hear it. He failed to defend the helicarriers. He failed to kill the man with the wings. He failed to hunt down the Russian. Under cover of night, he found his way to an empty flat thirty miles from the Triskelion with one unconscious dependent in tow (wounds: multiple, severe; status: critical), and converted it into a fully-functioning safehouse with the help of some stolen funds. They have been here three days.
Naked relief crosses the man’s sweaty, bloodless face. The Soldier, knowing what he needed to hear, has given it to him. His friends are unhurt. Project Insight lies mouldering at the bottom of the Potomac, where divers who fancy themselves treasure hunters are already scavenging for keepsakes. As far as the other side is concerned, everything has gone according to plan. The colour is already returning to the man’s cheeks when he asks, “What about you?”
This is not one of the usual questions. The Soldier does not know the answer. “Are you hurt,” the man prompts.
This is also strange. But of course, this man is different from what he is used to. He is not HYDRA, and does not follow the standard operating procedures, and did not even try to save himself when he could. As far as agents go, he is probably defective, and must be given as much aid as possible. “I am functional,” the Soldier reports. When this produces a tiny crease between the man’s brows instead of the intended reduction in facial tension, he struggles to find terms that will be understood. “I’m not hurt. I… don’t hurt.”
The man might be concerned about his dislocated arm. The Soldier flexes it, and circles it in one way and then the other, to prove that it is in full working order. Dislocations are classified as mild injuries. Easily self-remedied. No medical attention required. The man’s shoulders relax infinitesimally, but he is still frowning. “You saved me,” he says. Slow, halting. “You brought me here.”
His expression is wary. He must be wondering if he is a captive. He is Steven Grant Rogers, formerly known as Target-01A, Level 6, and he has been shot and stabbed and hunted across the country like a wild wolf, and it is now up to the Soldier to convince him that he is safe here. Bucky Barnes would know how to do that, but he is dead and pouting from a museum wall, and the Soldier has no protocols for such unfamiliar objectives.
He does the only thing he can. “No,” he says. “The target has been eliminated.” He holds up the proof, in the form of a clipping from this morning’s paper.
The man’s eyes widen. The Soldier has read the article sixteen times himself, enough to know every word by heart. Hopes wane as fruitless search goes on for Captain America’s body, the headline screams. Captain Rogers is believed to have been killed by the covert operative known as the Winter Soldier aboard one of the Project Insight helicarriers earlier this week. Toll-free hotlines are now open for tips and enquiries.
“Well, honestly,” says the man, looking affronted. “You’d think they might have learnt better when they dug me out the first time.”
In hindsight, the Soldier thinks he might still be delirious.
They bury their tactical gear in a vacant field behind the safehouse. As evidenced by the three bullet holes in it, the man’s spangled suit is mostly useless in a fight and looks absurd to boot, and with HYDRA on their tail, it seems safer now to leave all clues to their identities behind. It is cold out, and the Soldier wishes the man would stay in bed, but he insists, as with so many other things, on coming out to help.
He looks sad as they fill the hole with soil and gravel. The Soldier does not like it when the man looks sad.
He stitches some bedsheets together into a makeshift jacket to cover his arm, lifts a passer-by’s wallet, and goes to buy them both something to wear. The department store is too crowded and a sales clerk hovers at his elbow the whole time he is shopping, asking if she can help. He knows that sometimes you can get free clothes at homeless shelters, but the man tells him they are not homeless, even though they are, really; and that is how the Soldier knows that home is not a place. He brings back the new clothes and cuts the tags off with one of his knives and the man puts them on, eyeing himself in the mirror. “Why are they all black?”
The correct answer: Night camouflage, a concept his new handler clearly does not grasp. It is already on the tip of his tongue when he realises that the man’s tone of voice and facial expression indicate that he is joking. People do that sometimes, even when they are sad, because laughing is better than crying.
The Soldier shrugs. “Because it looks nice.”
The man smiles then, small and surprised, and a heady sense of triumph shoots through the fried circuitry of his brain.
Some of the components in his metal arm are loose. When this happens, he is supposed to tell his handler that he needs repairs, but they have no access to a technician and he is fairly certain this man does not have the know-how to fix him. He would only get those frown lines around his eyes and mouth again—or, worse still, blame himself for the damage—and the Soldier sees no need for that. So he waits for his patient to fall asleep, then finds himself a screwdriver and a hand mirror and goes to work.
It is easier than he expects. It is his arm, after all, and it has been attached to him longer than he can remember. Instinct tells him what to do, and his flesh fingers are nimble and steady, tightening a couple of screws and tucking an exposed wire back into place. He puts the screwdriver down and goes to close the arm back up, and then his thumb brushes the inside of one of the plates and he stops.
Something is there, a blight on the cold smoothness of the metal—something that feels like a series of tiny notches. It gives him pause. He does not think it is functional, nor does it seem like part of the arm’s design. He manoeuvres the mirror as close as he can get it, frowning, and cranes his neck to examine the damage.
But all he can see is a single line of dots and dashes etched onto the inside of one of the plates near his elbow, so tiny he needs all the enhanced acuity of his vision to make it out. As it is, he can just barely read it:
… — . …— .
Morse code, he realises. S-T-E-V-E.
He does not know how the name got into his arm, but he thinks he has seen it before.
He is standing under the fierce desert sun with blood on his hands, sweating in his Kevlar layers. There is a Jeep parked beside him, and young operatives are climbing in and out, their laughter ringing out across the road. They are celebrating. They have blown up an embassy and killed a diplomat and made a clean getaway with no injuries of their own. One of them—a scrawny blond kid, the smallest and youngest of the team—nearly took a blade to the kidney as they were closing in, but the Soldier had dived in front of him in time, catching the knife in his own bare hands. That must be where all the blood is from.
When his handlers question him, he will have no satisfying explanation for them. His backup team is dispensable. He alone has tangible value to HYDRA. He will be punished for placing himself in unnecessary danger. All he knows is that his wounds close up in a matter of hours, but for the kid, it might have been life or death.
The agents have unloaded a cooler full of beer bottles. The blond one shuffles up to the Soldier, staring at his feet, and offers him one. It is not time for the Soldier to eat or drink yet. He says nothing, does nothing, until the kid ducks his head and scurries away to hoots and whistles from the rest of the team. The Soldier ignores them, heading instead to the other side of the Jeep where his maintenance kit is stowed. He pulls out a cloth, prises the plates of his metal arm open, and starts to wipe the dried blood from between the electronic chips that make up its innards.
He feels it, then, S-T-E-V-E, written in dots and dashes on the inside of his elbow.
There is no one called Steve on his team. He does not know a Steve. But he glances back at the blond kid with his beer bottle, and then he remembers another boy like him, so small he only came up to the Soldier’s chin, with eyes like the desert sky. They are standing in the shade of an apple tree in someone’s orchard, and he has the vague feeling that they are not supposed to be there, but the boy’s laughter is exuberant and his smile threatens to overwhelm his whole face. The Soldier reaches up to pluck an apple from the lowest branch of the tree, and they share it, taking it in turns to bite into the cool, crispy fruit. Juice runs over his chin and Steve goes on tip-toe to wipe it away with his sleeve, and then he loses his balance and wobbles and Bucky steadies him and they’re kissing.
Steve’s mouth is as sweet as the apple, and he kisses the same way he fights, sloppy and spirited and clueless. His fine, bird-boned hands come up to fist themselves in Bucky’s hair. Bucky rocks into him, walking him backwards so Steve is pressed against the tree. The bark is rough under his hands—his two flesh hands—but Steve’s skin is mirror-smooth, and Bucky tilts his head and pushes deeper, deeper, and Steve moans into his mouth, tiny wordless whimpers as the leaves rustle like tittering chaperones around them.
Under their combined weight, the tree trunk creaks in protest. Something small and hard hits Bucky in the back of the skull, and tumbles to their feet.
He yelps. They spring apart. Bucky stares down at the offending apple, startled and put out, as Steve starts to giggle uncontrollably. His face is like porcelain stained pink, and his hair is coming down into his eyes. “Hey, Buck,” he says. “I think you just discovered gravity.”
Gravity. A numerical constant to be factored into the complex set of calculations he performs when he sets up his rifle and scope for a long shot. Also a synonym, albeit a far-off one, for the way he had felt about the boy called Steve.
He lets the cloth fall to the sand, and shuts the plates of his arm with a loud clang. No one must ever know.
When the Soldier tells Steve not to let his friends know he is alive, they almost come to blows again.
He explains the situation, slowly and in words of few syllables, while Steve paces up and down the single bedroom in their flat. This man is not like any handler the Soldier remembers. He is stubborn and reckless and does not know the first thing about keeping himself alive: a singular failure of evolution. “HYDRA is still looking for you,” he says. “They have people watching all your contacts, and undercover agents in every hospital. They’d knife you in your sleep.”
“We have to try and get to Sam at least,” Steve pleads. The Soldier is supposed to refer to his handlers as sir or ma’am, but he has the feeling that if he addresses this man as anything but his name, it would upset him. A great many things seem to upset Steve. “I dragged him into this. He needs to know that he’s got nothing to blame himself for—“
Steve stops mid-stride. His expression is equal parts confusion and indignation. “What are you talking about?”
“If he was really your friend,” the Soldier hears himself say, “he wouldn’t have let you fall. He would have caught you. He would have saved you. And now,” he adds, his voice getting louder, “he’ll come after you, even when everyone tells him you’re dead, and he won’t stop until he finds you.”
He is shouting. He wants to hit Steve the way he did on the helicarrier, over and over and over, even though it will not accomplish anything. He does not want to accomplish anything. It is a bit like how Pierce used to hit him when he disobeyed orders, not to damage him but to hurt him, so he would understand that he had made someone angry. Steve has made him angry.
But Steve sits down hard on the edge of the bed, as if he has been hit, and the Soldier feels bleak and dead inside and wishes he had never raised his voice. “Yeah,” says Steve. He laughs, but not in mirth. “Yeah, can’t argue with that.”
The Soldier stares at his own hands. One metal, one flesh. One whirring, one trembling. Both are lethal. Before today, he did not know that his tongue, too, had the power to wound. “I should have tried harder,” Steve says.
And then, “I should have known.”
And then, “I should have jumped down after you.”
Somewhere close at hand and impossibly far away, a train rattles over a ravine full of snow. The sky is white and the mountains are white and the ground is white and red and white. A bone saw purrs in his ear, and it is the same noise as the clamour of the passing train. The Soldier is perspiring, even though the room is cold, alpen-cold.
“Then,” he says, “they would have taken you as well, and made you just like me.”
Among the horrible thoughts that haunt his mind, this is the worst of the lot. He turns away to hide his face. Steve reaches for him, then seems to think better of it and lowers his hand again. “I thought you were dead,” he says. “I thought going down with the plane was the only way I’d ever see you again.”
He pauses, swallows. Over the course of his interminable career, the Soldier has lost his faith in the concept of linear time. Years pass like a heartbeat in the gentle winter of cryosleep, while hesitations like these last decades, centuries, eternities, like the deep breath in the instant before he pulls the trigger.
Steve says, “I was in love with you, Bucky.”
Panic is impermissible.
There must be an appropriate response to declarations such as these, but his handlers and programmers have not seen fit to install such knowledge in the spare, efficient brain of their Asset. Neither does the Soldier know how to break it to Steve that the man to whom that nickname belongs died in the snow a long time ago, red and white and a shred of blue. He does not understand why someone so kind should have to lose so much.
He sits down on the bed next to Steve, because he does not like to loom over him. “I’m not angry anymore,” he says.
It is not true, but truth does not have to be a sledgehammer. It can also be a Swiss Army knife, always shapeshifting, taking different forms for different needs. Steve makes a noncommittal noise, not quite credulous, not quite dismissive; and they stay like that for a long time, shoulder to shoulder. The Soldier listens to the sound of Steve’s regular breathing, and regulates his own to match his companion’s.
It is strange, sitting like this without talking. But there is a comfortable quality to the silence, and the Soldier thinks he does not mind it.
He wonders if home can be a person.
He is in the chair, and a technician is prising his arm open. This came before the desert, or maybe after. Maybe it was last week. Time is perverse, and so are his memories.
His breathing is shallow, his pulse frenetic. A nurse watches his heart monitor with pursed lips. They will not discover his Morse code. They must not. They cannot. This time he almost did not discover it himself, even though he has been out of cryo nearly a fortnight. The notches are miniscule and look like random scratches unless he ghosts the pad of his index finger right over them, like a blind man reading Braille. He must have lived a hundred lifetimes alone, without the boy called Steve and the apple tree, only because it never occurred to him to open up his arm and look inside.
His pulse continues to spike. His handlers do not notice. They are pleased, he thinks, because he has killed the president.
The tech slides his plates back into place and snaps a thick metal cuff around his wrist. It is over. They have not found his secret. His heart slows, but not very much. He knows some kind of pain is coming next. “You did a good job this week,” one of his handlers tells him, an older man whose name he has forgotten. “In return for your loyalty, you may have a little reward.”
A cup is held to his lips. He takes a cautious sip, and then a bigger one. Champagne. The taste is not unpleasant, nor is it unfamiliar. He remembers a pub in London, a red dress and a starched brown army uniform, and the burn of unshed tears in the corners of his eyes.
His mouth opens. He asks, “Who is Steve?”
A terse silence falls over the laboratory. The tech and the nurse exchange a look over his head that they think he does not see. The older man stares at him, looking as taken aback as if the Soldier has spit champagne down the front of his tailored suit. Guns rise around him. His heart speeds up once more. Guns mean fighting. He is ready to fight.
Then the group of onlookers shifts, and a small figure pushes to the forefront. “Let me deal with this, sir.”
It is the stooped, bespectacled doctor with the kind eyes and the touch like poison. The Soldier shrinks away from him. This man is syringes and scalpels, needles and flame, endless trips to the operating theatre and the closed ward with the electrified door. “He is a memory belonging to the last inhabitant of your body,” he tells the Soldier now, perched on a stool beside the chair. “A man called Sergeant Barnes. They are both dead, and need concern you no longer.”
The blow is palpable, like the force of a bullet entering flesh. The Soldier tries to find words, but his tongue might as well be covered in sawdust. “There was an apple tree,” he croaks. He can still taste the sweetness, feel the press of lips against his own.
The doctor gives him a pitying look. “Some ghosts are harder to exorcise than others,” he says. His singsong voice is plodding and unflustered. “I am sorry to hear that they have troubled your programming. But we can delete them, no problem at all. They are not yours to worry about.”
A strange burning in the back of his throat, like bile. An ache in the vicinity of his chest. A weakness in the sinews and tendons of the flesh parts of his body. He wonders what manner of wound could produce symptoms like these and why he does not remember receiving it. He wonders if he is going to die. It doesn’t matter. They will just find another way to boot him up again, and Steve will still be dead and somebody else’s ghost.
“You do that,” he whispers. There will be pain for a while and then he will forget and they will let him sleep. “Take it away.”
The doctor smiles at him sympathetically, and motions for the tech to lower the electrodes around his head.
Later, as they clean up his vomit and walk him to the cryo chamber with a sedative already dripping into his veins, he wonders why he can taste apples on the tip of his tongue.
The Soldier slips out before dawn for supplies and surveillance, and returns at noon with two bags full of groceries. Steve is sketching on a napkin in the living room, but he is frowning and his foot jiggles constantly beneath the coffee table. “Took you a while. Where’d you go?”
The Soldier wonders if he is supposed to deliver a full mission report. He doubts so. Steve has not given him any orders, after all, but he seems displeased—no, worried—and the Soldier can see why leaving him alone for seven hours might have been a bad idea. Increasingly, Steve seems like the sort of person one should never leave unattended at all. “I went to spy on a few places I know,” he explains. “Then I stole us some more money and bought the things you wanted.”
They have come to an unspoken agreement that Steve is to be in charge of food. The Soldier knows that he is supposed to eat three times a day, but beyond scavenging in dumpsters for half-eaten burgers, he has no notion of what to eat or where to get it from. Yesterday Steve wrote him a list of things he said they needed if they were going to live here for any length of time—things like eggs and pasta and milk—and offered three times to go to the supermarket with him, but he hadn’t phrased it as an order, so the Soldier told him no. Steve is at the top of HYDRA’s hit list and wanted by quite a few government agencies as well, to say nothing of his impressive catalogue of injuries. Anyone with even the slightest smidge of sense would stay hidden.
“What places?” Steve asks. His eyes are fixed on the Soldier, not in the way one marks a potential threat, but like how one might stare after a balloon in the sky, watching as the wind carries it away.
“HYDRA bases,” says the Soldier, reluctant. He had hoped to avoid this conversation until later. “I’ll destroy them and take down the STRIKE teams. Then you can go home and be alive again.”
Steve stands up abruptly, and the Soldier forgets what else he was about to say. “Did I get the wrong food? There were… a lot of choices.”
Steve waves the groceries away. “These are fine, whatever. Buck, you are not raiding a bunch of HYDRA bases by yourself. Where are they? How many are there?”
The Soldier’s heart twists pleasantly whenever Steve calls him Buck or Bucky, even though he knows that it isn’t him, really, just the dead man whose body he is operating. “Three in Washington,” he says. There are more elsewhere that he remembers only vaguely, but for the purpose of protecting Steve, getting rid of the ones in D.C. will be a good enough start. “I can handle them. You don’t have to worry."
“Like hell I don’t,” says Steve. A thin line bisects the space between his eyebrows, and the contour of his jaw is more pronounced than usual. “You barely even know who you are. Half the time I wake up in the middle of the night and you’re not there, and I wonder if something else has happened to you, if you’ve gone and left me again, and I—“
He trails off, rubbing his face with the back of his hand. After a few seconds it becomes evident that he can’t or won’t finish his sentence. The Soldier is at a loss for words. Perhaps impromptu absenses are not permitted after all. Perhaps he ought to restrict his missions within stricter parameters.
He says, "If you like, I won't go places without telling you first."
Steve flings up his hands, and the Soldier knows this must be the wrong answer. “That’s not the point. You know what I feel, Buck?” He steamrollers on without waiting for a response. “I feel like I’ve been losing you all my life, like I pissed off Zeus or someone and now I’m Sisyphus on his goddamn mountain, except instead of pushing a rock I get to grieve for you over and over. And every time I think I have you back, it just gets worse. But,” he adds, pulling his mouth into a hideous mockery of a smile, “I guess it’s good practice, right? So I’ll know how to give you up for good when the time finally comes? ‘Cause that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing since I watched you get on that fucking ship to London.”
He picks up the napkin he’d been sketching on, looks at it unseeingly, and tosses it on the floor. From long habit, the Soldier backs out of his way. Things never end well when his handlers are angry. But this time there is no urge to run, or to beg for clemency. All he feels is a desperate need to make things better somehow, and a helplessness worse than any he has felt since the beam fell on him on the helicarrier, because he doesn’t know how.
“Christ,” says Steve, half under his breath. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
"I can do that," says the Soldier. "I'm good at forgetting."
Steve rips a hand through his hair, so that the front bit stands on end. His shoulders heave. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Just,” says Steve. “Just let me come along and we’ll go destroy those bases together, all right? Is that so much to ask?”
This is an imperative, the Soldier realises, even if it is not worded like one. It is his responsibility to keep Steve safe—this kindest and gentlest and sweetest of handlers—and he cannot do that if they are separated. This seems like a new type of mission, but he thinks he might have trained for it before. The memories are not eroded, just locked away in an obscure, primitive part of his mind, and any moment now they will resurface.
He picks up a pencil from the coffee table and retrieves the napkin from the floor. On one side of it, Steve has sketched an image they have seen in the papers every day since the first: a helicarrier in flames, disintegrating as it crashes into the flank of the Triskelion. The Soldier turns it over with scrupulous reverence and scribbles down a set of coordinates on the other side. He touches Steve’s wrist, careful to use his flesh hand, and pushes the napkin into his palm. “We can go tonight,” he says.
There is a curious feeling in his fingertips where they brushed Steve’s skin, like an itch, but not irritating. Gravity: a number, a constant, an unsatisfactory synonym. Steve looks down at his wrist, his lips slightly parted in surprise, and the Soldier wonders if he felt it too.
After a short pause that feels too long, Steve asks, “What kind of base is this?”
The Soldier struggles to find the right words. Explaining things to Steve is not like delivering a mission report. He can say whatever he likes and Steve will not hit him, but there are some things—many things—he must not talk about, because Steve’s mouth will flatten into that thin line and his eyes get gloomy and downcast. “It’s mostly a storehouse these days,” he says. “They’ve got some equipment there that we have to destroy first, before anything else. To make sure that—that even if they capture us, they can’t—“
He waves his hand feebly; an imprecise, meaningless gesture. He does not know why he does it. “—Can’t hurt us,” he finishes, unable to think of a suitably harmless euphemism.
Steve looks down at the napkin. Then he balls it up in his fist, the muscles corded along his wrist and all up his arm. “They won’t hurt you again,” he says. “I won’t let them.”
“Okay,” says the Soldier.
He does not know why he says this, either.
The bank façade is deserted when they approach from across the street, pistols tucked in their jackets. The Soldier keeps close to Steve, staying at his right so he can protect him with the arm if necessary. Steve eyeballs the building, noting escape routes and potential ambush points. “What did they keep in here?”
"Me," says the Soldier.
Even with HYDRA exposed and in tatters, there are a dozen low-level operatives still guarding the vault: techs, mainly, half-familiar faces who used to hover at the edge of his vision while he sat in the chair and stuck his arm out for repairs. They recognise him immediately, even in his street clothes, but only a few have the presence of mind to whip out their weapons. “It’s him!” one of them yells, quite unnecessarily. “It’s the Asset!”
Steve lets fly his fist, and there is no more talking.
Within the first fifteen seconds of combat, the Soldier updates his initial appraisal of the techs from ‘guarding’ to ‘staying at their posts because no one told them better’. He had been hoping for a better fight. Leaving Steve to deal with them, he weaves his way alone through the bullets and clawing hands towards the inner room. He has only been here once that he can remember, the morning the helicarriers were launched, but he knows there must be more memories, barred up in the same place in his mind where all the other missions have gone. His thoughts cannot find them, but his feet remember to avoid the loose tile that squeaks, to step over the bumpy places where wires are buried in the floor. This is where they woke him up, and put him to sleep, and made him forget the things in between.
The chair is still there, a dark, skeletal shape against the grimy wall. He is supposed to sit down and wait. One of the techs will come and flip a switch, and the chair will whine to life like a thing from a nightmare. Then the cuffs will clamp his wrists in place so nobody gets hurt when the procedure begins. He is the only one allowed to hurt. He will scream, and scream some more, and just when he thinks he cannot bear it any longer, that this time the darkness closing around him will be permanent, the pain recedes, and his conciousness surfaces for air. The faces around him stay the same, but he will have lost the names that go with them.
(Sometimes, electricity is fire caught under his skull. Other times it is the bitter cold of a ravine he knows, white and red and white. It always tastes the same: of bile and blood.)
“I think we’re done here,” says a voice behind him, a sound that does not belong in the half-darkness of the lab.
His reaction is instantaneous and unstoppable, like a missile or a sneeze. He pivots on his heel, gears whirring in his arm, gun rising to rest with its muzzle between Steve’s eyes. They are standing close enough that the Soldier hears the soft hitch of Steve’s breath, senses the tension in his arms and chest as he shifts into fighting stance. He braces himself to block the blow, but none comes.
“Bucky.” That old name again, sweet and forbidden. The Soldier does not know how to read the silent plea in Steve’s eyes. “It’s me.”
"But I'm not him," the Soldier breathes.
Steve looks winded. For a terrifying moment the Soldier cannot remember who either of them are supposed to be, if this man is his mission or his handler or his friend or all of the above. Missions are simple. It is the rest of it that is hard. There is a name written on his body and he wants to touch it, to let it ground him, but no one can see him looking.
“Fair enough,” says Steve, after a beat or two. His voice is steady and sniper-calm. “You’re hardly the only one who’s changed. Sleeping for sixty-odd years does play havoc with a person’s mind, you know.”
“You don’t understand,” says the Soldier. His hand, his weak, human hand, is slick with sweat on the pistol grip. Someone like Steve, with his clean, sweet, unbroken mind, could never wrap his head around the idea that HYDRA has dismantled the man called Bucky and installed a monster in the rubble of his body. “This is different. I can’t ever be him again.”
“I know,” says Steve. “You don’t have to be. I’ll call you some other name if you want, and we can start over. Be strangers. I’ll pretend like I never met you before. Whatever makes you happy.”
"Yeah. Bit of a tricky concept, but you’ll get the hang of it.” Steve smiles, rueful and impossibly gentle. “Come out of it, pal. Put the gun away. You’re not theirs anymore.”
His warm fingers brush across the Soldier’s cold metal ones, a light, barely perceptible touch, like the flutter of a bird’s wing. The Soldier doesn’t know why it sets his heart racing. His chips and gears were made for brute force and destruction, not for anything like this. His gun hand is unsteady and he does not know which he fears more: that he will accidentally pull the trigger, or that he won’t be able to do it on purpose.
He takes a deep breath. He lowers the pistol.
Steve follows the movement of the gun with his eyes. Then his gaze sweeps to take in the room at large, alighting in turn on the equipment and the wires and the scuffed places on the chair that mark the rare occasions when the Soldier struggled against the cuffs. “Is that how—“
Again, he does not finish the sentence, but his voice rises in the way it does when people ask questions and the Soldier knows he is still supposed to answer. He nods yes.
Steve’s jaw tightens. “I see.”
He says no more. He is standing, the Soldier notes, in the same spot Pierce used to sit during mission reports and debriefings, and it cues up a flood of thoughts that are not so much memories as fragments of images, lightning-flashes of déjà vu. Time has always been stranger than usual in this room. “C’mon,” says Steve after a moment. “Let’s go see if there’s anything useful in here, then we’ll blow this place up.”
The Soldier has barely moved a step when he becomes aware that they are not alone. The air changes in subtle ways when a person enters a room, little things like temperature and pressure and smell, and he does not need to look around to know that one of the techs has made it out of the carnage. He turns, fingers tightening on his pistol again. The man is half concealed behind the heavy double doors to the lab, with a gun aimed at the Soldier—not a real one, just a stun gun, the sort they used to wrestle him into submission when he was being difficult. HYDRA has never wanted to kill him. They just want their fist back.
There is a bang. The tech hits the floor. The Soldier looks down at his fingers, which are nowhere near the trigger. Then he looks at Steve.
“Sorry,” says Steve, planting himself firmly in front of the Soldier. Smoke drifts from the barrel of his gun. “Guess I missed a spot.”
The tech is still alive, gurgling ineffectually on the tiled floor. Blood is spreading down the side of his abdomen, where a bullet might take hours to kill him, days if he is unlucky. “You’re a terrible shot,” the Soldier observes.
Steve kicks the stun gun away. His face, so earnest seconds ago, is a mask of distaste. “That’s the one that called you the Asset.”
“They all did.”
The look in Steve’s eyes is unlike any the Soldier has ever seen him wear. He is almost unrecognisable as the boy under the apple tree. Looking at him now, one remembers that he is the most wanted fugitive in the world, who does not like it when people refer to his Bucky as a thing, and whose bullets—like the Soldier’s own—go precisely where he wants them to. There are no accidents with this man, only forethought and execution. “You can finish him off,” Steve says, “if you want.”
A shiver steals over the Soldier and settles, hot and unfamiliar, in his chest. He brushes his finger over the secret in his arm. “Wants don’t come into it,” he says, but he looks down at the tech and pulls the trigger anyway. It feels like a tiny victory, a subtle shift of a scale back towards equilibrium.
Steve comes away with an armful of classified files, the Soldier with several new guns and boxes of ammo. Most of the techs are still unconscious. The Soldier dispatches them with a bullet each, and lobs several grenades over his shoulder into the laboratory on his way out.
They run helter-skelter down a maze of narrow streets as a dozen different alarms go off, and the burning bank lights up the sky behind them. Steve’s face is flushed with triumph, and try as he might, the Soldier cannot look away.
His handlers ask him a sequence of questions whenever they wake him from cryo, before they unfasten the reinforced manacles that keep him chained in place. “Who are you?” They wipe him before they put him to sleep, so the answer is always the same. I don’t know. “What day is it? What time?” I don’t know. “Where is this place?” I don’t know.
If he gives the wrong answers, they look at one another nervously, and some of them back away. They do not release his bonds, then. They do not send him on missions. They wipe him and put him back to sleep.
Sometimes he gives the wrong answers on purpose, if only to see his handlers as frightened as he is.
When Steve wakes the next morning, the Soldier asks, "Who are you?"
Each night, while the Soldier prowls the perimeter of the flat or dozes in the hallway, Steve sleeps curled in on himself in the bed they’ve arranged in the most defensible room of the safehouse. He sits up now, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and his brows come together in a delicate knit. This is the sort of frown that means he is concerned that the Soldier is sad or hurt or does not remember him, not the sort that means he is angry. “Some dead guy, apparently.” A wry smile twists his mouth in its fleeting grasp. “No, don’t mind me. I’m your friend.”
"That's impossible," says the Soldier. "I don't have friends."
Sometimes his handlers lose their temper when he contradicts them. Sometimes they laugh as if he’s performed a funny trick. Steve does neither of those things. He pushes the blanket away, his frown deepening. His hair is mussed in a way the Soldier likes. “Then who do you think I am?”
The Soldier hesitates. The Morse code is burning a hole in his elbow. He can taste apples on his tongue, sweet and crispy between his teeth; he can see the forget-me-not eyes smiling up at him, the boundless blue of a summer day. These memories do not belong to him. Nothing belongs to him.
He says, tentative, "Are you my programmer? My—maker?"
Steve stares at him. "Your what?"
It is the most sensible theory. The Soldier has seen brand logos and trademarks on the guns he uses, and he thinks the notches in his arm might be something like that, a developer’s copyright. But Steve looks so aghast that the Soldier knows this cannot be right, he must have made a mistake. “My maker,” he repeats. “I’m a computer program. That’s what they told me. Like a robot. They downloaded me into the Sergeant’s body when they found him dead, back in ’45.” He strains to speak against the growing lump in his throat. He is going to upset Steve again. “So I look like him, but I’m not. I’m not even a person.”
There is a silence so profound he feels suffocated. Steve’s shoulders are hunched up around his ears. He is either going to cry or throw up. “Did you—do you believe them?”
“I did,” says the Soldier, wretchedly. He wishes he had never started this conversation. “I tried to. But it just—it doesn’t make sense.”
He holds his breath. He is not allowed to say this, ever. He does not remember what is supposed to happen to him if he does, but he knows it is painful and drawn out, and they do not stop until they are convinced that he understands what he is. But Steve only nods, prompting him to go on, and he thinks maybe this time will be different.
“I keep remembering things,” he says. “Things that couldn’t have happened to me on a mission, like—like dancing with girls in a big noisy hall, and going to the pictures, and teaching this skinny little kid to ride a bike.”
Steve’s mouth twitches. The Soldier dares not bring up the orchard. He has no right to talk about something so intimate, something that happened to two strangers a century ago. “They told me,” he goes on, “that these things—these memories—they were just leftover pieces of the Sergeant in my brain, like a virus you can’t erase from a hard drive. Like a dream. They did happen, but not to me.” He swallows. “But that never felt right. They were too vivid. Too real.”
The name on his arm is real, too. Real enough to have left a mark on an adamantium alloy. Wishful thinking doesn’t do that.
“You’re not a program, Buck,” says Steve. Something tingles inside the Soldier’s chest at the sound of the name, so soft, so private. “Those memories are yours. Those bastards lied, they fed you all that crap so you wouldn’t go off and start thinking for yourself, because they knew you’d turn on them the instant you saw through them. It’s a load of bull. I promise."
The rush of hope is almost too much to bear. The Soldier is dizzy and his vision has blurred over at the edges, and if he were not already sitting down his legs might have deposited him on the floor. “I remember them sawing the Sergeant’s arm off.” He keeps on talking, as if speech might make it true. “He screamed and screamed. It was horrible. I know they didn’t find him dead.”
"And," says Steve after a moment, without meeting his gaze, "you remember that I let you fall."
"You didn't," the Soldier says. He has seen this, too, in dreams and visions and nightmares. He does not like these memories, but every one of them is precious now, a jigsaw-piece of truth. “You were trying to reach me. But you couldn’t.”
Steve’s eyes are very wide, and very blue, and very bright. “I should have been faster,” he says. “I’m sorry, Buck.”
While Steve had been unconscious, after the Soldier plucked the bullets out of him and stitched him up again, he’d paid a visit to the museum. He had discovered a whole exhibit dedicated to Bucky Barnes, whose memories the Soldier has long claimed as his own. He can see why Steve was in love with him. He seems like the sort of person it is easy to love, like Steve himself.
His face is wet. "I like it when you call me that," he says.
My name is Bucky, he reminds himself over and over, a hundred times an hour. I am a person. I won't forget again.
The second mission goes better. There are more guards, and a self-destruct mechanism they manage to disable with about four seconds to spare, but there are no painful memories in this building, nothing like the chair in the laboratory. They leave behind a few explosives of their own and run, just to the end of the street, where they stop to admire their handiwork.
Bucky feels the explosion building in his bones—a tense, heavy anticipation, like the way the air feels when a storm is coming—before he hears the boom, and he throws up his arm on instinct to shield Steve from the falling debris. The roof of the building caves in with a subdued whoosh, a giant letting out a sigh, and flames leap from the remains of the bunker, red-orange fingers clawing towards a starless sky.
“Blowing things up together,” Steve says with a little smile, as they duck into a back alley to avoid the police cars speeding up the main road in a cacophony of sirens. “If you ignore the fact that we’re smack in the middle of Washington, D.C., it’s almost like nothing’s changed.”
A light rain is coming down, pattering on Bucky’s upturned face and the asphalt underfoot. The words are thick with irony. He imagines them tasting the way the wet earth smells, bracing and bitter and rusty. “Well,” he says, “just one more to go.” Steve knows this already, but he holds it out again as a palliative, having nothing else to offer.
“You know it won't be over even then,” says Steve.
Bucky pulls them into a disused bus stop to keep them dry. His arm is chilly at the seam where it meets his flesh, and he is glad for Steve's proximity. "It'll be over for you," he says, as they sit down on one of the benches. "You'll be safe once we hit the third hideout. You can go back to your life, concentrate on your art, go draw comics for a living or something."
There is a strange tenderness in the way Steve looks at him. "And you?"
He shrugs. He imagines cutting a glorious, bloody swath of vengeance across the map, destroying everything HYDRA has ever built so they can never trouble Steve again, but he knows by now how that will be received. "World's a big place," he says. "And I have a very useful skill set."
Steve's expression goes dark, and it is as if a cloud has drifted between Bucky and the sun. "So do I."
It's bothersome, Bucky thinks—typical, but bothersome—that he knows an almost infinite number of ways to kill a person, but has no notion how to cheer one up. "What is it you want?"
He knows, from the length and quality of the ensuing hesitation, that Steve discards his first two or three answers before he responds. “Who knows,” he says. "You wouldn't read about stuff like this in a museum, but y'know, when I lost you on that train, I just about went berserk. I told everybody I was going to wipe HYDRA from the face of the earth. And after I crashed the plane, I lay awake in the ice for—it was days, maybe, I lost track—thinking, at least I got what I wanted."
At some point in the last few seconds, Bucky’s flesh hand has come to rest on Steve’s knee without his conscious knowledge. "Do you ever wish," he says, slowly, "we'd both died for real?"
Steve considers this. "Not you," he says. "Never you. Me, maybe, once or twice, before I found you again. But this isn't so bad." He makes an all-encompassing gesture round the bus stop. The rain is sheeting down, curtaining them from the rest of the world, and above the slap and patter Bucky can still hear the sirens in the distance. "I don't mind being alive."
Bucky smiles. "We’ll get the hang of it someday."
Steve hesitates. Then he touches the hand on his knee, and Bucky wonders if he ought to remove it, but then Steve's arm comes round him and his fingers are gentle on the nape of his neck. Some reflex tells Bucky to lean into it—and it has to be a reflex, because he knows this is called a hug but he has no memory of ever having one performed on him—and he lets his head tip forward onto Steve's shoulder. Steve's jacket smells like soap and sweat, and his short nails scrape carefully along the tendon in Bucky's neck, up under his hair, to the place where skin ends and scalp begins.
The feeling defies description. It does not hurt. It does not feel like when the nurses hold his arm to put a needle in it, or when one of the kinder techs offers him a hand to help him out of the chair after a wipe. Bucky does not know what to liken it to, except perhaps standing in a thunderstorm after a mission and letting the rain beat down on his closed eyelids, washing him clean, but even that never felt so good.
"Is this okay?" Steve murmurs.
His breath is warm against Bucky's cheek, and Bucky nearly loses his words. "Yeah," he says. "I—I like it."
Steve makes a soft, contented sound, and they sit there a long time, until the rain stops and the last of the fire trucks have driven away.
They blow up the third hideout, walk down several streets with the fumes of the explosion still clinging to their skin, and get on a bus that Steve says will take them out of the city.
Bucky's pistols are tucked inside his jacket, and his pockets are full of grenades. There is a bloodstain on the cuff of his jeans where someone bled on him, but it passes as mud, and in any case no one on the bus gives them a second glance. He doesn't know where they are going. Steve has a big backpack full of the files they stole from HYDRA, and long lists of coordinates, and hand-drawn maps with places circled and labelled, and Bucky is content to follow wherever he leads.
"Look at that," Bucky says, reaching for a newspaper someone has jettisoned on an empty seat. Steve partially uncurls himself from where he's been drowsing with his cheek cushioned on Bucky's flesh shoulder. "You've had a funeral."
He reads part of the article aloud. Half the streets in Washington have been closed off for a controversial parade. The president has given a speech. Some eccentric billionnaire in New York City is proposing to build a monument that will be seven storeys high, run entirely on clean energy, and intermittently shoot red, white and blue fireworks in the shape of Steve's shield. Steve cackles at that, but he sits up straight when Bucky shows him a side story about a group of cranks who don't believe he's dead. It wouldn't be the first time that dude fake-died on us, someone's written on the Internet. Let's hope it doesn't take us another sixty-five years to unearth him this time.
"I have to get a message to Sam," Steve says, looking pensive again. Bucky starts to protest, but he shakes his head. "I know, I know, it's not safe, but we have to try. People do stupid things when they think their friends are dead, okay?"
Bucky thinks Steve is speaking from personal experience. He does not have the heart to object.
He falls asleep as the bus rattles on, and dreams of red.
He has been brought out of cryo for a special task, not to kill anyone this time, but to train a fresh crop of young assassins. He is made to understand that these are no ordinary agents; they are the last survivors of a frighteningly rigorous selection process and they are to be moulded into killers like him, silent and deadly and remorseless. He is sparring with a woman and everything about her is red, from her hair to her lips to the ballet flats on her feet. When she slips past his defenses and slams a switchblade into the meat of his shoulder, he bleeds red, too.
Partway through the session she manages to jam the parts in his metal arm, and he has to take a breather, letting it recalibrate and whir back to life. The light plays on the shiny metal as the plates move smoothly against each other, and the sight dredges up a half-formed thought from a dusty archive in his mind. There is something in his arm besides chips and wires, something so important that he must guard it with his life, and even the technicians do not know about it (but he must not look at it now, no, there are always people watching).
"Do you know a Steve?" he asks the woman in Russian. He has been talking to her all morning—try to get inside my reach; yes, yes, good; use my momentum against me; never, ever telegraph your movements—and his voice is less raspy than it was when they hauled him out of the cryo tank last week.
She looks puzzled, impatient, already eager to get back to the fight. "No. Should I?"
"He tastes like apples," he says, "and his eyes are the blue of the ocean."
"I have never been to the ocean," she says. She takes up her position in front of him again, graceful and cat-quick, and her eyes track his hands as he pulls out a knife.
"Neither have I," he says. The more he thinks about it, the further the taste of apples recedes from him, until he isn’t even sure if he has ever eaten one.
The message arrives at six-thirty on a Tuesday morning. Alive, it says. Don't tell anyone. Got some things to see to, so am pulling a Nick. Delete this asap, you're being watched. –SR
Sam doesn’t recognise the number, and the sender’s phone has been turned off by the time he tries to call back. It takes considerable effort to walk calmly into the kitchen where Natasha is dozing at the table, head pillowed on his laptop, and not yell like a lunatic. "Nat? We've got a—I don't know what this is, could be a prank, could be a trap, could be real—"
She comes awake in half a second, reaching automatically for the phone even before her eyes are all the way open. He doesn't know how she does it: she's been on his computer eighteen hours a day, hacking into CCTV feeds left and right and datamining hundreds of declassified SHIELD files, trying to locate all the HYDRA bases in the vicinity so they can maybe predict which one Barnes will hit next. No luck yet, but if she isn't giving up, neither is he. "That's exactly how he texts," she says, one eyebrow arching. "No emoji, no chatspeak, just like a proper old grandpa."
They've received dozens of anonymous messages in the last few days, suggesting that they look here or go there or just give up the search already. Pretending to be Steve is a new one, though. Natasha sounds as indifferent as she always does, but she's eying the text in a way that usually means her mind is whirring, calculating probabilities and generating deductions. "It's probably just a joke, right?" Sam asks. He doesn't think he'll survive the rush and ebb of false hope this time. "Some random dickhead doing it for attention?"
"Probably," Natasha says. "Not that they'd know about pulling a Nick, would they?"
She flips his laptop open and starts tapping away, fingers flying over the keys. He pulls up a stool and watches her face, cataloguing the way she presses her lips together in concentration, the slight widening of her eyes. Even someone like Nat has tells, though they're subtler than most. "What are you doing?"
"Tracing the number," she says. "It's telling me that the message was sent—" a map appears on the screen with a blinking dot in the middle of it, and she zooms in with a flick of her fingers—"half an hour's drive away from downtown Manhattan."
She looks up at him, and there is nothing remotely insouciant about the way her eyes shine now. "Well," she says, "we've got to go there to pick up your wings anyway, right?"
He stares at the tiny dot on the map. Steve could be there, or the Winter Soldier with his guns and gadgets, or both of them. They're trying to find a very sharp, very angry needle in a haystack the size of the USA—an almost impossible task to begin with, and even if they manage to narrow the hunt down, they're probably going to get their fingers bloody. But it's not like they have anything better to do.
He shrugs. Part of him wants to let out a whoop, to pick Natasha up and spin her around the room—this is, after all, the first good thing that's happened to them all week—but he can't do that yet. They don't know anything for sure, and the disappointment might kill him, might kill them both. "Yeah, I guess," he says, affecting nonchalance with a herculean force of will. "But you do know my car's still less one steering wheel, right?"
She grins. "What, that old piece of crap?" she asks. "Good thing I've got mine back from SHIELD."
Steve keeps a notebook full of names, and they cross them off one by one. They are dead now as far as the world is concerned—angry ghosts risen from empty graves—and no one sees them coming.
They hit three safehouses in a place called Manhattan and the agents who live in them are not too ashamed to beg for their lives. Their eyes alight on Bucky with one part recognition, three parts horror, and they go on their knees and whimper, please, sir, let me live, we went on ops together (Moscow 1998 Pyongyang 2003 Odessa 2009 New York 2012), please sir won't you try and remember?
Bucky lets Steve knock them down and finishes them off afterwards, bullet to the chest or the head or straight between the eyes if he feels like showing off. It's funny, really, how they are all desperate for him to remember when some of them have built their careers on making him forget.
(Steve does not find it funny. Bucky watches his eyes when he fights, and he thinks, We are more than ghosts, we are poltergeists.)
Their tenth day in New York finds them on a low brick roof at sundown, watching the entrance to a derelict building on the outskirts of town. Between the intel they unloaded from the bank and the babbled confessions of dying agents, they've worked out that underneath the building lies a hoard of illicit HYDRA weapons, stuff dating all the way back to the Red Skull's time. The leaks suggest that there could be over twenty operatives guarding the place. Bucky has the feeling that he's been here before, in one of his abortive lifetimes, and he thinks it might be closer to thirty.
He chews some gum to pass the time. He doesn't remember having tried gum before, but he likes it: the sweet, over-processed fruitiness is comforting in its way, and the constant motion helps keep his mind from straying off into darker thoughts. Steve lies on his stomach next to him, sketching something on the last page of his notebook. He keeps it covered with his left hand, and his eyes skitter several times to Bucky and back.
Bucky thinks Steve might be drawing him. That thought is comforting, too.
They close in at midnight, past the padlocked gate and the grubby sign that says STATE PROPERTY: NO TRESPASSING.
At first glance, the building is a labyrinth of disused offices, as empty and forlorn as the street outside. After ten minutes' careful inspection, they discover a file cabinet with a hollow back in one of the rooms, and Bucky shows Steve where to push to slide the hidden door open. "Welcome to Narnia," Steve says dryly, as they step over the threshold and into a brightly lit lobby. "You've been here before?"
The buzzing white fluorescence is harsh after the darkness outside, and the air smells faintly of some antiseptic wash that puts Bucky in mind of his underground lab. Wherever Narnia is, it can't be pleasant. "Yeah.” This memory feels crisper than the others; it might have only been three or four wipes ago. "I was on an op in New York when the aliens came. I think we took cover here."
There's a lift and a door that leads to a stairwell, both requiring a passcode to enter. Bucky goes over to look at the keypad, trying to remember the code, but Steve doesn't move. "The aliens," he repeats. "You were here when that happened?"
"Just for a couple of days," Bucky says. Long enough to destroy something called the Avengers Initiative, if the sky hadn't opened up to belch sorcery and death at them, but Steve doesn't need to know that. "Why?"
Steve shrugs. "Ships in the night, and all that."
He doesn't explain what he means. Bucky turns back to the keypad, pressing his knuckles into his eyes. He has a vision of the lean, dark-haired agent with the tasers standing in this same spot, punching in a series of digits to summon the lift, but he hadn't thought to watch closely and anyway, they must've changed it by now. He scrubs a hand through his hair, frustrated. "I don't know the passcode."
His handlers would have hit him for that, but Steve seems unbothered. "We can do it the old-fashioned way."
"That'll set off all the alarms."
Steve makes a can't-be-helped motion with his gun hand. He looks naked without his shield. "Think we can manage?"
His hair has grown out in the weeks they've spent on the run, and a couple of stray locks are flopping into his eyes. Bucky pushes them out of the way with one careful, exacting sweep of his metal forefinger, in case they get in his way when he's fighting. "With me here," he says, "probably."
Steve smiles. "Go for it, then."
There is something about that smile, some kind of enchantment perhaps, that makes sensible people fall over themselves to do dangerous things. Bucky lets out a long exhale and double-checks his own gun. Then he plants his feet, and reaches for the knob.
The door comes away from its hinges like a piece of cheese. Bucky registers a long, steep flight of stairs leading down to a basement. An alarm is blaring somewhere, and shouts are erupting from below. Steve hurtles down the steps, taking them three at a time, and Bucky yanks out his pistol and gives chase.
He does a split-second scan of their surroundings as they burst into the basement, finger already clicking on the trigger. Six immediate targets, office attire, automatic rifles. More coming up behind. Endless rows of shelves and crates, closely packed, and a low ceiling—no room to manoeuvre. Only one escape route that he can see: the doorway through which they've just come, leading to the stairs and the lift.
Well, he thinks, if he survived falling off a mountain, he can live through this.
He drops four of their six assailants, their return fire pinging ineffectually off his arm. Steve vaults onto a shelf and kicks it over, pinning the other two to the floor. There are more coming at them. Steve ducks down behind a towering stack of crates, shooting as he goes. "Over here!"
Bucky flings himself to the ground and rolls sharply towards him as a barrage of bullets hits the wall behind them. Several ricochet off the far side of their makeshift barricade. He throws a dummy grenade out across the floor—he hasn't got any real ones left—and returns fire as the agents scatter, his cybernetic circuits humming. Several men are creeping towards the exit. "Steve," he prompts, pointing. "They're getting away."
Steve's seen them. "Got it," he says. "Cover me."
He swings himself over the crates and makes a dash back to the door. Bucky's pistol is empty, so he grabs a rifle off the floor and fires off a round at the mooks lunging after Steve. One of them manages to reach the door, but Steve sends him flying back with a kick to the jaw, and Bucky picks him off from behind the crates. It's hard to take his eyes off Steve, for more reasons than one. His face is flushed and shiny with sweat, and the jut of his jaw is vaguely reminiscent of the old propaganda pictures Bucky'd seen at the museum. (He'd spotted himself in some of them, too, a figure in blue skulking at the edge of some of the bigger posters, either gazing starry-eyed at Steve or looking as if he's bitten into something very sour, and he wonders what that dichotomy says about him.)
A muffled explosion goes off behind one of the shelves, drawing his attention back to the present. He turns to look, and promptly gets a faceful of thick white smoke.
He flinches back. The gas gets in his mouth and nose, searing his throat, stabbing into his eyes and swelling them half-shut. He drops down on reflex behind the crates, pressing his face to the cool floor, yanking his shirt up to try and block out the worst of the smoke. He can't see a thing, not even the gun in his own hands. "Steve?" he chokes, feeling panic rise up in him like vomit. "Steve! Where are you?"
There's no answer. Blinded, he abandons his post and starts feeling his way to the door. His eyes are burning, tears streaming down his face. A blurry shadow raises a gun in his direction, and it's all he can do to gauge the trajectory of the bullet and turn his body so it bounces harmlessly off his metal shoulder. "Steve!"
Their assailants are stampeding each other, rushing to the door for fresh air. Amid the grunting and cursing, he hears Steve's voice from somewhere close at hand. "I'm all right! Get back to the stairs!"
Cool, clean air wafts against the side of his face. He staggers towards it, elbowing someone out of the way and tripping up two others, and all but falls through the stairwell door. A hand shoots out to steady him, and he spots the glint of Steve's hair through the smoke. It's thinner here, the air easier to breathe. He can hear feet pounding overhead, in the corridor that leads back to the empty offices, and he realises with a lurch that some of the targets have gotten away.
Steve coughs, rubbing his eyes on his sleeve. "They made it to the lift. Eight of them, maybe more. Some took the stairs. How many inside?"
"Couldn't see." Bucky's throat feels like cut glass, his voice a grating rasp, but at least Steve looks unhurt. "Watch it, they're coming."
The tear gas is beginning to dissipate. The noise from upstairs has died away, and he hears them clearly: five sets of footsteps, a head-on approach. He glances at Steve for direction and they take up positions on either side of the door. Steve is down to his backup pistol—he's got six shots at the most—and half of Bucky's clip is empty. Bucky reaches down to check that his knife is in his belt, pressing his fingers to the handle like a touchstone.
The figures clear the smoke, and beneath his swelling eyelids he sees them outlined in the doorway: three men and two women, moving with the sort of wild desperation that reminds him of roughed-up children with their backs to the wall. They all have M4s, except for the woman in the middle, who's training what looks like a ballpoint pen on Steve. A faint blue light gleams at the tip, where the nib ought to be.
Bucky thinks he's seen that shade of blue before. And then he's not in New York any more, but on a train in the middle of the Swiss Alps, and there's a dark figure in a faceless helmet advancing on him, twin guns strapped across his chest. Steve's shield is awkward and heavy on his arm, and wind is gusting from the hole in the wall, ripping at his hair—
A shot goes off, and he snaps back to the base in Manhattan. Steve's bullet hits the man closest to Bucky, and he goes down. The others keep coming. Bucky doesn't know if Steve hasn't recognised the weapon (unlikely, he thinks) or if he can't bring himself to shoot a woman (unlikelier), or if he'd noticed Bucky's momentary lapse of attention and had to take out the attacker closest to him first. Gritting his teeth, Bucky fires wildly at the woman and she falls, but the laser gun is still in her hand.
There's no time to call out. Bucky launches himself clear across the doorway and collides hard with Steve, knocking them both to the floor. Steve shouts something he doesn't catch. He throws his arm up to cover their heads, plates grinding hard against each other. Then there's a soft popping noise, one he's heard before, and something hot and cold tears into his sensors.
He feels, rather than hears, the scream ripped from his lips.
There is pain, not GSW pain or stab wound pain or broken bone pain, but pain like he has only ever felt in HYDRA's chair with current flowing through his brain. It seems to rise through his circuits to consume skin and tissue and muscle, and he can't move, can't breathe, can't even think. There are strange lights dancing at the corners of his eyes, and his vision is going dark and fuzzy round the edges. Steve is yelling his name. He glimpses the pistol firing over his head, sees their remaining attackers go down one by one. The shots seem to resound in his ears for a long time after, when everything has gone silent.
Steve rolls him over on his back. He forces air into his lungs, lets it out slowly. Steve's face is a distant halo of light far above him, faded and indistinct, like a figment of a dream after waking. His hands cup Bucky's face, a light, trembling touch. "Bucky? Hey, hey, stay with me."
Bucky manages to pull his head up off the floor to examine the damage. His stomach turns. Half his plates are smashed and mangled, hanging limply from his arm like strips of peeled-off skin, and he doesn't think he's hallucinating the curl of smoke that rises from the exposed wires. His pressure sensors are screaming. He isn't even supposed to have pain sensation in this arm, but somehow it hurts anyway, a diffuse burning sensation that envelopes his whole side.
He sags to the floor, the last of his strength giving out. Steve catches him round the back of the head before his skull connects with the tiles. "Not as bad as last time," he mumbles.
Steve gathers him up in his arms, pulls him to his feet. "We gotta get you out of here," he says. Even his voice is shaking. "C'mon, Buck, just try to hold on, okay? You're gonna be fine."
The room pitches around him, and the motionless figures on the ground seem to move. Leaning heavily on Steve, Bucky tugs at his sleeve with his good hand and manages a vague motion at the bodies. "Pick it up."
Steve retrieves the laser gun from the woman's unresisting hand and slips it into his jacket. They make it up one flight of stairs, and then Bucky's head reels and he finds himself sprawled across the landing, the ceiling lights gyrating above him. Steve curses under his breath and comes to kneel beside him. "M'alright," Bucky mutters. "M'okay, but this is gonna take a while, why don't you go, you said a bunch of them got away—"
"Shut up," Steve says. His arms come to support Bucky round the shoulders and under the knees, and after a few seconds Bucky realises he's no longer on the floor. He's not moving, but the stairwell shifts erratically, as if he's become the centre of gravity and the world is turning around him. His arm throbs with every step Steve takes, but he doesn't complain. They're back above ground now, walking down the Narnia corridor, moving through the maze of derelict offices. A succession of doors creak open before them, and Bucky tastes fresh air on his blistered tongue.
Steve comes to an abrupt halt in the entryway, his arms going tense around Bucky. "Goddamnit."
The sky comes into view above Steve's tousled head. Blurry figures stir behind trees and bushes, and Bucky glimpses a couple of rifles trained on them. He squirms a little, warring with the urge to say I told you so. "Drop me."
"Shh." A bullet arcs through the door, sending bits of glass flying around them. Steve ducks back into the building, into the deepest part of the shadows criss-crossing the hallway, and drops into a crouch to cover Bucky. "Okay, Plan B. You got your knife?"
Bucky gropes for it, his fingers clumsy and uncooperative. He wants to ask if Plan B involves Steve charging full tilt at the shooters without covering fire, but before he can find the words, he hears a shout and a birdlike shadow swoops across the lawn.
They both turn to stare. Bucky's first thought is that it's a very small unmanned aircraft, but then a smatter of gunfire illuminates the yard, and in the staccato bursts of light he recognises the winged man he threw from the helicarrier. Steve spots him in the same instant, and he lets out a sharp, hysterical laugh. "Sam!"
The man does a graceful somersault in mid-air and hurtles downward in a kingfisher dive, twin guns raised above his head. Steve picks Bucky up again and carries him back to the door, gazing upward like a child watching a firework display, gunfire lighting up his face. Two or three shooters hit the ground. Another tries to run, but a tiny dark figure materialises at the edge of the road and knocks him down, and he doesn't get up again. The flying man lands several feet from the door and furls his wings with a noise like a thunderclap, coming towards them at a run. "Steve, you okay?"
Bucky lurches free of Steve's grip and lands on his good arm. He yanks his knife out, crawling toward the far corner of the room as best as he can on only three functioning limbs. He doesn't know these strangers, but he knows they work for SHIELD, and that's good enough for him. They might try to arrest him, which would be the worst of his problems; they might put him in prison, or maybe wipe him and send him back to the cryo tank, and he can't live through that again, he won't.
"Bucky, don't," Steve says. His fingers close around Bucky's uninjured wrist, firm but gentle. "Put the knife away. They're my friends, they won't hurt you."
Bucky drops the knife and huddles against the wall, trying to make himself as small as possible. The pain is reaching a crescendo. The man called Sam kneels down next to him, staring at his mangled arm. He's taken off his goggles and doesn't look frightening any more, just nervous and worried. "Holy shit."
Bucky gestures feebly at his arm, feeling the need to explain himself. "I need," he breathes, "I need repairs."
"You need a hospital," Sam says.
But hospitals are full of doctors and surgeons and machines that make strange noises, and Bucky flinches, turning his face into Steve's shoulder. "We can't," Steve says. His voice is rough and full of pain. "He's wanted, we can't just walk him into the E.R."
"We can take him to Banner and Stark," says another voice, a woman's this time, cool and precise. "The car's parked out back."
He looks up. It's the redheaded woman he shot on the bridge, the one who nearly garrotted him. But something stirs and coalesces in his memory at the sight of her, and he realises he knows her from elsewhere, in one of his old lives. "Natalia?"
"I guess so," she says. She rests a slim hand on his good shoulder. Her touch is gentle now, no more red, and he tucks himself against Steve's collarbone and releases his grip on consciousness.
He dreams of the name inside his arm.
He has stolen the laser gun twice before. Once, from the scientist who made it (he blew up her lab and held her down in a vat of some boiling liquid until her legs stopped kicking; he did not know what the liquid was but it was there and he is nothing if not efficient), and once more, from his handlers, just long enough to use it on himself.
It is 1949 and his mind, while broken, is still held together with staples and bits of string. The technicians have not figured out the right voltage to use on his hippocampus and Arnim Zola will not risk killing his protégé. He does not know his own name, but he knows there is a man called Steve who is by turns tall and strong and golden as the sun, or tiny and scrappy and lacking any shred of the fear that binds most people to the road of common sense. Every time the Soldier tries to work out something from Before, his thoughts always come back to this Steve. Logic suggests that he must be someone important, the key to everything. The gravitational constant.
So he steals the gun and ties several layers of protective material around the muzzle, so the laser won't short out all his circuits the instant it touches him. He pries open the plates of his arm near the elbow and, gripping the device hard in sweaty fingers, lets the laser bite into metal. He's done the math right: it doesn't hurt, and he feels nothing except an odd, itchy sort of pressure. The technicians examine every last inch of him before they put him back to sleep, but no one notices the series of dots and dashes tucked away in his arm. His secret is safe.
The next time he wakes up, it is 1952. He no longer knows who Steve is, but he still has his mantra, seared hot on his body in Morse code.
He is lying on a bed so soft that it threatens to swallow him whole, and there are people arguing across him.
"—the goddamn thing's plugged directly into his spine, we could paralyse him if we take it off—"
"—fairly sure we'd still paralyse him if we try to fix it when it's still plugged in—"
"—maybe if I sever the wires first, turn off some of these circuits—"
A familiar voice, cutting across the others like a flash of lightning in the dark: "Can you guys help him or not? If you can't, I'll take him to Fitzsimmons."
"We might just manage it if you stopped breathing down my neck, Capsicle. I've got heart problems, remember?"
"Yeah, Steve, go grab something to eat, you look ready to pass out."
I'm fine, Bucky tries to say, or maybe it's don't go away, but his mouth refuses to move and he's drifting off again.
The day is cool in the shade of the apple tree, but he's perspiring like a marathoner and all the blood is rushing to his face. He leans in for a second kiss, pressing his sticky forehead to Steve's, their noses jostling gracelessly against each other. Steve slips a small, bony palm under the crumpled tails of Bucky's shirt and slides it up his stomach to rest over his chest, where his heart strains against his ribs as if threatening to leap out into Steve's hand. His mind registers each of Steve's movements with the slow-motion clarity peculiar to dreams, drinks in every one of his soft, strangled noises, and he feels as if he could stay here and kiss him forever, forget everything and let the rest of the world slip away.
He jerks himself away. That can't be right. He doesn't like forgetting. "What are we doing, Stevie?" he asks. "Can't stay here."
Steve cocks his head to one side, favouring his good ear. His lips are red and tempting. "What, is someone coming?"
"Nah. But we gotta go. I got something to do." He racks his brains, trying to remember what it is. "Got a big dumb lout to look after. Can't leave him alone too long, else he wanders off and does something stupid."
Steve's eyes narrow, and for a moment Bucky's afraid he might get angry. But already his mouth is curving up into a smile, slow and playful in spite of himself. "Yeah?" he says. "But we were just getting to the good part."
They have grown old outside this dream. But in the orchard they are fifteen and sixteen, still young enough to believe that the good part will last forever, perhaps with a bit of rationing here and there. Tonight they will climb on the fire escape outside Bucky's house and Steve will curl himself into two of Bucky's coats to keep from catching a cold, and they will kiss again when everyone has gone to bed. There is an intimation of this in Steve's smile, a promise of mischief in the glint of his desert-sky eyes. "S'okay, Stevie," Bucky says. The colours of the orchard are starting to blur and run together, like a painting dipped in water. "There's gonna be more. But I need to wake up first."
(His arm itches with static, and he can hear the unfamiliar men bickering over him again, but warm, callused fingers are holding his right hand and he can't remember the last time he felt this peaceful.)
There are three escape routes from the airy, sunlit room in which Bucky wakes: the door, the floor-to-ceiling windows, and the air vent. A needle is stuck in his flesh arm and a bag of some clear liquid is dripping into his veins, but it doesn't hurt. Steve is dozing on an armchair by the window, a sketchbook and pencil lying at his feet. The room is warm, and he can hear faint music from somewhere outside. Not a cryo chamber, then. Good.
He flexes his legs and tries to get out of bed, but a plasticky, mechanical voice emanates from the walls, not loud enough to disturb Steve. "Sergeant Barnes, I suggest you sit back down. You have been gravely injured."
He sits down instantly, his heart racing. He looks around for a CCTV camera, but can't see one. "S—Steve?"
Steve comes awake at once. "Bucky," he says, his face lighting up. "How're you doing?"
He gets up and comes over to sit on the edge of the bed. Bucky leans instinctively into him, still dizzy and disoriented. His head is sore, and his arm feels oddly sluggish, like a new piece of machinery not yet broken in. "I'm all right," he says. "Whose safehouse are we in?"
"This? This is Stark Tower. Tony and Bruce live here, they're the ones who fixed you up. You've been out for three days." One of Steve's hands rests lightly on the small of his back, and the other skims down the length of Bucky's metal arm, so gentle the sensors report nothing but a tickle. The touch is tremulous, like his smile. "See, good as new."
But his eyes say, I thought I lost you, and the slight tremble of his bottom lip says, again. Bucky dips his head, too ashamed to meet his gaze. He moves the arm experimentally, making a fist with stiff fingers. Everything seems to be in working order, but when the plates shift against each other, they hum at an unfamiliar pitch. "What did they do to it?"
"Your circuits were fried," Steve says. "That's why it hurt so much, because the feedback into your spine was going haywire. They replaced most of the wires and a couple of those computer chip things."
Bucky frowns. The surface of the arm is shinier than usual, and the miniscule nicks and stains that have accumulated over the last few weeks are gone. "The plates too?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "They're from the same stuff Tony uses to make his suits and they're really—"
"Where are the old ones?"
His voice is sharp and too loud. Steve looks surprised. "In the lab, I guess. Why?"
"I need them," Bucky says. His chest feels taut and heavy. If he misplaces the name, how will he find Steve the next time he forgets him? "Please. It's important."
"All right," says Steve, giving his hand a bracing squeeze. He clears his throat, looking around the room. "Uh, JARVIS? Could you tell Tony that Bucky needs the pieces of his arm back? If he wants to keep them, persuade him."
"I'll do my best, sir," says the computerised voice. "I can be most persuasive."
There's no sound of a butler or assistant walking away, just silence. Steve catches Bucky's bemused look and makes him one in return. "Anyway," he continues, "we didn't botch that mission as badly as I thought. Turns out Natasha cut the lift cables, so hardly any of them got away."
This is news to Bucky. He smiles with a faint, obscure pride. "And," Steve adds, "you saved my life, and managed not to die. All things taken into consideration, that's a job well done."
"You've got low standards," Bucky says.
"No, I celebrate small victories. Big difference."
They're interrupted by a soft rattle at the door. Bucky tenses up, wondering if it's one of the doctors who repaired him—no, no, they treated him—but what comes into the room is not a human at all, just something that most closely resembles a bendy telescope on wheels. It navigates the corners of the room with exaggerated care and rolls up to the bed, a translucent plastic bag dangling from a pair of pincers. It stops next to Bucky, gives a loud chirrup, and drops the bag in his lap. The metal shards thunk against his knee.
"Um," says Bucky, unsure what—if anything—he is supposed to say. "Thank you?"
The device chirrups again, clicks its pincers at him in a gesture remarkably like a wave, and begins to reverse laboriously from the room. Bucky watches it go, fascinated. "Does everything run on robots here?"
"Oh, you haven't seen half of it," says Steve, as Bucky peels open the plastic bag and sifts through its contents. "What d'you want these for?"
The plate with the Morse code is near the bottom of the bag. Bucky curls his flesh hand around it, feeling the cold metal begin to warm up to skin temperature. It's badly warped, and the edges are black with scorch marks, but he can still feel every one of the dots and dashes he'd carved into it back in the forties. Safe now, he thinks.
"No particular reason," he says off-handedly. "Guess I wanted a souvenir."
Steve gives him an incredulous look, and Bucky starts to laugh. He can't remember the last time he did that, and God, it feels good.
"All right, let me guess," Steve says, settling himself on one of the couches in the lounge. "You want to punch me for making you worry, and hug me for being alive, and right now you can't decide which one you want more, so you're just gonna sit there and sip your espresso until you make up your mind."
"It's beer, actually," says Sam, lifting his mug in a toast. There are at least seven lounges in Stark Tower that he knows of; this one is just down the hall from Bucky's room and comes equipped with a coffee machine that dispenses nothing but booze, no matter what buttons he presses. "And yeah, that sounds about right. Do you have any more hot Russian friends I should know about?"
"He's not actually Russian," says Steve. "But he's the last one, if you were hoping for more."
He's smiling in a tired, satisfied sort of way, which aptly sums up how Sam feels at the moment. They've been driving nonstop for most of the last week, and he doesn't know which is the best reward: putting on his wings and getting to nose-dive into the wind again, or fighting side by side with Natasha as if they've been doing this all their lives, or seeing Steve alive and happy and reunited with the man who'd once been his whole world. "Two's more than enough," Sam says. "I've got something of yours, by the way."
He rolls the shield out from behind the beanbag he's been slouching on. It's heavier than it looks, and he ought to know, given that he's spent all week listening to it clank around in the backseat while he and Nat took turns driving. Steve looks astonished. "You found it?"
"Yeah," Sam says. "Well, some diver did, not me, but Nick told me to keep it in case you came back. He said you tend to do that."
Steve hefts the shield on his arm, testing his weight, and sets it down beside his chair. It seems to belong there, like a witch's familiar crooning at her feet. "It was nice being dead," he says, "but yeah, I can carry this for a while longer."
Sam smiles. "Just so you know," he says, "Nat and I want in. Can't let the elderly wander off unattended."
They've talked about getting out before, about art school and the VA and a house with no government surveillance. But things are different now, and Sam knows that this mission is just beginning. Steve looks a little choked up. "You don't have to do that."
Steve shrugs in a way that makes a valiant attempt at sang-froid but falls hopelessly short. "Well, if you feel like it. We could always use some eye candy on this trip."
"Speak for yourself," Sam calls, grinning, as Steve gets up and beats a hasty retreat with his shield clutched to his chest. "Oh, and Nat's driving, and I already called shotgun."
It's always difficult to have his feet back on the ground after he's been flying, but high places and fresh air help. Natasha finds him on the tower roof later that night, drinking in the lights and noise of Manhattan from fifty floors above street level. "It looks like we might have a few days off," she says, by way of greeting. "Barnes is doing well, but Steve and the others want him to rest up a while more."
Sam raises an eyebrow. "Oh? You got any plans, then?"
She smiles. She must have come straight from the shower: her hair is frizzy again, curling damply under her chin, and it's adorable. "You mean besides ungluing myself from your laptop, and eating something with real vegetables in it, and sleeping for twelve hours straight? Not really."
Her eyes glint up at him, expectant. You can do this, Wilson, he tells himself. What's the worst that could happen? She might kill you, but that'd be a privilege. "Well, then," he says, clearing his throat, "what about dinner and a movie? Cliché, I know, but we could totally use some normalcy after all the shit we've pulled this month."
She tilts her head to look up at him sideways, and the corners of her lips lift a little. "Yeah," she says. "Yeah, we could."
JARVIS informs Bucky that Steve has given the laser gun to his doctors to poke at from behind a safety glass. With some help from the robot on wheels—who, as it turns out, is called Dum-E—Bucky ghosts into the lab in the dead of night and appropriates it for ten minutes. His arm now reads:
… — . …— .
And below that,
-... ..- -.-. -.- -.--
Steve's name, and then his own.
"You don't have to buy groceries anymore," Steve says when he finds Bucky in the kitchen, fidgeting with a paper bag. "JARVIS says we can eat anything we find in the fridge, and we're leaving in a few days anyway."
"I know," Bucky says. "I just needed to get something."
It's Sunday, and the supermarket was more crowded than the ones he's been used to. If it hadn't been for the importance of his errand, he might have just turned around at the entrance and fled back to the Tower. As it is, he needed several minutes alone in the elevator to calm himself when he got back, and it's a relief to see Steve walk through the door, whole and solid and real. Steve comes over and peers in the bag. "Apples?"
"Yeah," Bucky says. It's nearly impossible to hold Steve's gaze, so he looks down at the floor and crosses his arms, tracing the outline of his new elbow plate. "For that day in the orchard."
Steve is silent for so long that Bucky's afraid he doesn't want to talk about this; that the kiss under the apple tree, which has sustained the Winter Soldier through innumerable lifetimes, is only an embarrassment for him. But when Bucky chances a look up at his face, he doesn't seem displeased or even discomfited. His eyes have gone wide, and a faint pink blush is stealing up his neck to his cheeks. "You remember that?"
Bucky plays with the hem of his sleeve. "I never really forgot. They tried to take it away, but it kept coming back."
"I didn't think you knew," Steve says, hesitant. "What we used to be. Hell, I didn't think I understood it myself. And I didn't want to bring it up if you didn't remember. It wouldn't seem right, like—like pressuring you to be someone you no longer were."
Bucky wonders if Steve has thought about that day as often as he has, if he's ever been able to taste an apple without being forcibly reminded of Bucky's hands on his face, Bucky's tongue pushing against his own. But he doesn't have the words to ask something like that. He only says, "Did we ever kiss again? When we got older?"
"A couple times," says Steve. "But things weren't the same. We always had to date girls for show—or you did, at least—and then my mother died, and you got drafted and it all went to hell." He grimaces, and Bucky pushes a stool out of the way and goes over to him. Steve's hands hover between them for a moment, irresolute, and then come to rest on the waistband of Bucky's jeans. "Things were simpler in the orchard. It was before the war, and I was between colds and barely felt sick at all, and I had you all to myself."
"But the war's over now," Bucky says. "And you don't get sick any more, and you still have me."
Steve smiles. "Stuck with you," he agrees. "Good thing I got a strong stomach now."
They share the fruit, passing it hand to hand the way they did in the orchard; and afterwards, when Steve presses a small, tentative kiss to the corner of Bucky's mouth, he tastes of apple juice, and his eyes are still the same blue of the ocean.