Times Square at two o'clock on a Wednesday was crowded, but not impenetrable. Steve found a little sidewalk rest area outside the former SHIELD New York office, with a couple of metal tables and a line of potted plants separating the tourists from the mess of taxis on 7th Avenue. On the corner was a Payless, and next to it was a frozen yogurt shop, and next to that was an office building. The office-front was like many others in midtown, with a security guard behind a desk and modern art on the walls. Steve watched the doors and windows, and waited.
Wednesday afternoons in midtown were easy. Nobody looked at you funny if you sat outside for a bit, especially if you were dressed like a college student. Wednesday afternoons playing bait in front of a suspected Hydra cell were even easier. All Steve had to do was slump a little in his chair, pull out a battered copy of Swann's Way and a highlighter, and sit around like he was terrible at undercover work. It didn't hurt that he could do a little reconnaissance while he was at it.
It still took him nearly twenty minutes to realize that nobody walked into the building.
Behind him, taxis honked and pedestrians spoke excitedly in German, French, Korean. Next to him, a woman in a skirt suit touched up her eye shadow using the reflection in her StarkPhone. Two tables down from him, a man in dusty coveralls slumped down into his metal folding chair and rested his face on the rickety tabletop. Steve's watch said 2:30. Nobody walked into the building in front of him, and nobody left, and when Steve squinted he could see the tiny flicker of the SHIELD projection right at the base of the revolving door.
The woman in the suit finished perfecting her makeup but didn't leave. Instead she checked her phone and tapped her high heeled foot, checked her phone and tapped her foot. The man in dusty coveralls got up after ten minutes and wandered north, disappearing into the construction site that ran along 7th for blocks. The SHIELD projection flickered again, and for a second he could see a flash of broken glass and a twisted metal door frame. Steve bit his highlighter and frowned at his book, and wished Proust weren't so God-awful boring.
At three o'clock exactly, a tall man in jeans and a baseball cap came up to the projection and walked right through it. Steve sat up straight as if he'd been electrocuted. He picked up his phone. "I see something," he said. "I'm going to follow."
Natasha's calm voice said, "No, you're not."
"Nat --" Steve said.
"You're not," she told him, "because you promised me." Steve opened his mouth, and she said, "and Sam, and Clint, and Maria." Steve shut his mouth. Natasha continued, "The plan was to get spotted and come back in."
Steve said, "Maybe I haven't been spotted." That guy in the Apple store last spring hadn't known it was him, and Steve's disguise was much better this time.
"Please," Natasha said.
"We haven't seen Rumlow yet, or the other one," Steve pointed out. "The plan was to make sure they saw me. I have no confirmation."
Natasha said, "Trust me, they saw you."
Steve made a face at his phone. He was getting better at blending in, he really was.
"Don't look at me with that tone of voice," Natasha said. She sounded like she was holding back a smile. "You know you're a giant heroic walking neon billboard sign."
"I have no idea what that means," Steve said, which was a massive lie. He started gathering up his highlighter and his brick of a novel, because he might be stubborn but he knew when he was beat.
"It means fall back. You did your part, and now it's my turn."
Steve said, "All right." He shoved everything into his bag and stood up. "Heading toward Maria's position now."
"I'll see you on the flip side," Natasha said.
"I have no idea what that means, either," Steve said, and was rewarded with a slight huff of laughter. He hung up, and stuck the phone in his pocket.
It was only a little difficult to turn away from the SHIELD projection and the strange man in the baseball cap, and start walking south toward Maria's position. As he passed the woman in the suit, a thin, dark-haired man in a leather jacket came and sat down at her table, and she smiled at him. Steve turned away, and didn't watch them greet each other. It was private; not for him. He got to the corner just as the light turned red.
A small hand grabbed his wrist. "Captain Rogers," a woman's voice said. He turned and saw the woman in the suit, with the man in the leather jacket standing behind her. Up close, he could see she was young and petite and sweet-faced. The man in the leather jacket had something about him that set Steve on edge.
"I think you've mistaken me for someone else," he said, pulling his wrist gently out of her grip.
"No, I haven't," she said, her voice heavy with certainty. "My name is Ariadne, and this is Arthur. We've been looking for you." She'd been sitting next to him for an hour, goddamn it, and he had had no idea. Natasha was going to be so mad.
"You don't want to do this right here," he said. "There are civilians."
Arthur's expression twisted and then smoothed out into blankness. "We're not Hydra," he said. "You could call us an interested third party."
That didn't sound much better. "Whoever you are --" Steve said.
Ariadne said, "Bucky Barnes asked us to find you."
The bottom dropped out of Steve's stomach.
Ariadne must have seen something in his expression, because she stepped back and put her hands up. Arthur came up in front of her, nearly hiding her behind his shoulder. Around them, Times Square continued to bustle, with pedestrians ignoring them or giving them dirty looks for crowding the crosswalk. Steve said, "If you've done anything --"
"He's alive, he's safe," Ariadne said. She didn't come out from behind Arthur's shoulder. "But he's -- stuck, and he needs your help."
Steve knew he should call Natasha, get Tony to verify what they were saying, have Sam follow them. He knew he should meet Maria and help her finish the mission. Instead, he said, "I'll help."
Ariadne stepped out from behind Arthur, and said, "We can take you to him, but I'd rather not have any of your friends around. Take out your cell phone, please, and step on it."
Steve dropped his phone on the ground and smashed it with his heel. When Ariadne and Arthur started walking, he followed them.
Ariadne and Arthur led him to the subway, where they caught the 1 train going downtown. The train car they found was nearly empty, save for a group of schoolchildren at one end, and woman in a sundress and a giant straw hat at the other.
Ariadne settled into a seat, and looked up at Steve. She was so tiny, and he was so tall, that she had to lean her head all the way back. He could see the tendons standing out in her neck. "I am sorry we interrupted your work," she said. There was a wrinkle between her eyebrows, as if she really was sorry.
Steve looked at her but didn't answer. After a moment, she tilted her head back down, and folded her hands together in her lap.
At 23rd Street they hopped off and walked west. Ariadne and Arthur led Steve to a five-story building near 8th Avenue, old red brick with metal bars on the first-floor windows. Arthur rang the bell three times in quick succession, and then one long chime, and after a few seconds the door buzzed open. They walked up to the third floor and down a dim, poky hallway. At the end of it stood the third man from the Time Square rest area. Instead of wearing dusty coveralls, he was in a white shirt and pink trousers. He nodded to Steve and held the door open, ushering the three of them inside. Natasha was going to be so mad.
The inside of the apartment was completely empty except for a few folding chairs, an architectural model on top of a card table, and Bucky.
Steve jerked to a stop inside the doorway, staring. Bucky was here, alive. His hair was still long and he looked too thin and too pale, with that horrible metal arm. But he was as beautiful as Steve remembered, and he and Steve were in the same room, alive together, after months of hopeless searching. Steve breathed in deeply for what felt like the first time in a long time. Then he noticed that Bucky wasn't moving.
Bucky was laid out on a narrow mattress on the floor, his eyes closed, face relaxed. Asleep, maybe, except the Bucky that Steve knew wouldn't sleep when three people marched into his room. There was a tube running from his arm to -- some kind of machine. "What did you do to him?" he asked, turning to Ariadne and the man in pink trousers. This time, Ariadne held her ground.
"He came to my team," she said. "He asked us to help him."
"And this is helping?" Steve asked. He walked over to Bucky's mattress and crouched down, putting his hand out as if to touch. He didn't quite reach, though; he didn't dare.
"Well," Ariadne said, sounding chagrined. "Not right now." She walked over to the mattress, until her feet in their high heels were at the edge of Steve's field of view. He didn't look away from Bucky. "I thought the explanation would go better if you had proof he was alive and unharmed."
"Yes," Steve said. He lowered his hand half an inch, until he could feel the heat of Bucky's body on his skin. As always, it made something hot and longing uncurl in Steve's belly, but Steve had years of practice ignoring it. What was harder to ignore was Bucky's stillness, his unnatural calm. "But next time, warn a guy if his best friend's in a coma."
"I sincerely hope there is no next time," Ariadne said. "Come sit, and we'll explain everything."
Steve lowered his hand to Bucky's flesh and blood shoulder, feeling the strength of muscle and bone. Then he stood up and took a seat in the folding chair closest to Bucky's mattress. He watched as Ariadne, Arthur, and the man in the pink trousers arranged their chairs in a circle with his. They moved as if they knew each other very well, and trusted each other. Steve felt a pang, and wished for Sam and Natasha. "All right," he said. "I'm listening."
Ariadne turned to Arthur. He grimaced at her, and then said, "We're extractors. We go into people's dreams and take information."
Steve opened his mouth, looked down at Bucky, and then closed it again.
The man in the pink trousers said, "You are the soul of gentle, compassionate guidance, as always, Arthur." His accent was British, maybe from the same area where Peggy had grown up, and Steve felt a pang. The man's tone was somewhere between affection and contempt.
Arthur ignored the man. "Very, very rarely, we use dreams to put information into people's heads. I'll come back to the how in a minute, because it's important." He took a breath, and squared his shoulders. "A couple of weeks ago, our team was contacted by the Winter Soldier. He asked us to help him put an idea into his head, a process we call inception."
Steve shook his head. "Not to get his memories back? Not to find out what happened to him?"
Ariadne said, "No." She met Steve's eyes and Steve knew, suddenly and with perfect clarity, what she was going to tell him. "He asked us to make him Bucky Barnes again."
Even though he knew it was coming, hearing her say it still left Steve short of breath. "But something went wrong," he said.
Ariadne hunched her shoulders, and Arthur scowled. The man in the pink trousers crossed his arms and looked down at his feet. Steve felt anger begin to simmer in his chest.
Steve asked, "How often do things go wrong in your line of work?" They didn't answer. He said, "You go into people's minds, for what? For money? You take secrets, change who they are. You're just as bad as the people who did this to him in the first place."
"Maybe," Arthur said, "But we're the best help you have."
"No, you're not," Steve said. He stood up. "My friend and I are leaving now." He turned to Bucky's mattress, and then he heard the click of a gun safety going off.
"Captain Rogers," said the man in the pink. "Turn back around, please."
Steve turned, and saw that both Arthur and the man in pink had pistols trained on him.
"Sit down and let us finish," the man in pink said.
Steve sat, muscles tensed and ready to spring. If a bullet ricocheted and hit Bucky -- he kept himself still.
"Now," the man in pink said. "You're right that we're criminals. We do steal secrets, we sometimes destroy lives. But you're wrong about the money, just this once." He nodded toward Bucky's mattress. "My team and I owe your friend a debt. I believe we always have, although we didn't know it. Fixing what went wrong, returning your friend to himself -- it's a matter of professional pride, you understand?"
Steve shook his head.
"Well," Arthur spread his hands, although he kept his gun pointed at Steve. "That gets into the how of what we do. Right now, Sergeant Barnes is connected to a device called a PASIV. It causes him to sleep, and allows anyone else hooked into it to share his dreams. I was led to believe that this technology was invented by the United States government, but a few months ago there was an information leak at the Triskelion in Washington, DC." Steve twitched, and Arthur tipped the side of his mouth up in something that was almost a smile. "My professional community discovered that what we had always thought to be American technology was actually invented and perfected by scientists working for an organization called the Red Room, in alliance with the group you know as Hydra."
Ariadne said, "The thing about technology, especially something as complicated as a PASIV, is that you need to test it, over and over again. A machine that helps you sleep and reads your brain waves can evolve into a machine that can change your brain waves. A chemical compound that creates shared hallucinations can become, through much trial and error, a chemical compound that allows multiple people to share the same dream."
The man in pink said, "And tests, as you are intimately aware, Captain, require test subjects."
Steve looked down at Bucky's sleeping form, horrified.
The man in pink asked, "Now do you see how very much we owe him?"
Steve swallowed, and licked his dry lips. He opened his mouth. Before he could form a sentence, there was a knock at the front door.
Arthur and the man in pink moved to point their guns at the apartment door. Steve tensed, ready to spring. If even one of them had their back to him, he could get Bucky away, he was sure of it.
From outside the door, a woman's voice said, "Hey, boss?"
"Motherfucker," Arthur hissed.
The man in pink covered his forehead with his free hand. "She's using your code; this is your problem," he said.
"Yeah?" Arthur called. He stood up from his chair and crept forward.
Steve gathered himself. Arthur was three feet away, then two feet. One he was past Steve's chair, Steve could throw the chair at the man in pink, grab Bucky and run. He mapped it out in his head, the fight and the retreat after. Arthur was a foot away.
Ariadne said, "Captain." When Steve looked at her, he was almost surprised to see the gun in her hand. She was still sweet-faced, still kind, and she held the gun like a professional. "Where are you planning to go?" she asked.
Steve settled back down in his chair. "Nowhere," he said.
"Um, boss?" the voice outside the door said. There was another knock. "You wanna let me in?"
Arthur called, "Just a minute." He crept past Steve, past Bucky's mattress, past the card table with the architectural model.
"Only it's kind of awkward standing out here like a dumbass because you wouldn't give me a key or anything," said the woman on the other side of the door.
"You know," said the man in pink, "we should really do something about that."
"Ha ha, funny," said the woman outside the door.
Arthur reached the door and glanced back at the room. Whatever he saw there seemed to calm him, and he nodded. He yanked the door open and pointed his gun. A tall, dark-skinned woman darted past him through the door, and then turned and pointed another gun out toward the shadowed hallway. "Come in slowly, with your hands raised above your head," Arthur said.
"All right," Maria Hill said, and walked into the room.
Steve wanted to sag into his folding chair, but he kept his back straight. It was so comforting to see one of his team, to know they'd come after him. And if Maria knew, then Tony knew, which meant everyone knew. Which meant, if he could get Bucky out of here, they would have all the help they needed.
Maria's eyes flicked to Steve's and then away again. She said, "Hello, Eames. Long time."
Behind him, Steve heard the man in pink hiss out a breath. "Of all the shagging -- Arthur, put the gun down. Dylan, you too."
Arthur shot a glare at the man in pink -- Eames? -- and then dropped his gun down to his side.
"No way," the tall woman said. "She got the jump on me on the goddamn roof. Hiding up there is like hiding a T-Rex in Iowa. I am not putting down my gun."
Ariadne asked, "Did she hurt you?"
Dylan said, "No more than I deserve for getting caught out."
"You were good," Maria said, in that light tone she used when she was trying to intimidate people. "I'd like to try sparring sometime."
Dylan narrowed her eyes and didn't answer.
Eames said, "Maria, as lovely as it is to see you again, we're a little busy at the moment."
"I can see that," Maria said, taking another step into the room. Arthur and Dylan both twitched, and she raised an eyebrow at them. "May I close the door? I assume you all want privacy."
"It's private enough, since we own the building," Ariadne said. "But sure."
Maria slowly reached back and tipped the door shut. The click of the latch sounded very loud. She stood there watching everybody, hands raised in the air, looking perfectly composed and in control. Steve had the sudden overwhelming urge to hug her. He had the simultaneous urge to yell, because she knew about this world, she had kept the secret of this world, after everything they'd been through. He did neither, and instead curled his hands together tightly in his lap.
Maria said, "Eames, you fucked up."
Eames raised his eyebrows. "Did I?"
"You should have called me as soon as the Winter Soldier came to you. You should have called me as soon as you found out the Winter Soldier was Bucky Barnes. You should have called me as soon as he got lost down there." Maria tilted her head toward Bucky's sleeping form. "I assume he's in limbo?"
Eames said, "We don't know."
Something in Maria's face changed. "You don't know?"
Arthur said, "Eames," in a warning tone.
"Oh, come off it," Eames said. "Both of you, calm down and put your weapons away. Ariadne, you too. Let's sit like the civilized adults we pretend we are, and maybe we'll be able to fix this. It's only a man's sanity at stake."
Dylan tucked her gun into her waistband, still looking wary. Arthur looked sheepish for a moment, and then disappeared his gun somewhere so fast that Steve couldn't figure out where he'd put it. They backed away from Maria toward the circle of folding chairs. Almost as one, they turned away from her, giving the impression of ruffled cats smoothing their fur. Dylan went and grabbed two chairs, and everybody shuffled around until they were all arranged neatly in the circle. Only then did Maria move to sit down.
Maria's chair, by accident or design, was next to Steve's. As she sat, he said quietly, "Thank you for coming. I know you didn't have to."
Maria said, "The Winter Soldier is higher up on my list of priorities than Brock Rumlow. But you're welcome."
Steve took a breath. "If you knew about this and didn't tell me."
"I didn't know," she said, voice soft.
He looked at her.
"I promise, Cap," she said, and he believed her. "I had no idea. My connection to Mr Eames is a lucky accident."
"Yes," Arthur said. "How do you two know each other?"
"Never mind that," Dylan said. "Can you help us with Barnes?"
Steve said, "How about you all finish telling us what the hell went wrong?"
Arthur said, "We're not exactly sure."
At the same time, Ariadne said, "It's hard to explain."
Steve clenched his teeth together until his jaw ached, and breathed out through his nose. "You could try talking, and see what happens," he said, with all the patience he could muster.
Dylan, Ariadne, Eames and Arthur all looked at each other. Then Arthur threw up his hands and said, "Fine. Captain," he turned to Steve. "I was taught by the United States military that there are certain rules to collective lucid dreaming. There are multiple levels of the unconscious. There are certain ways you can play with your surroundings that will attract the dreamer's attention, and certain ways that will not. Projections are the guardians of the subconscious. Symbols matter, and if you understand those symbols you understand the dreamer. I thought those rules were laws. Immutable. Like gravity. But," he shook his head. "They're not. Your friend, Barnes -- the inside of his head is like nothing we've ever seen. We went down there and," he shook his head again.
"What happened?" Steve asked, ready to claw his way up the walls. If they would just tell him, he could make it right, he was sure. Bucky was right there.
"We don't know what happened," Arthur said, sounding frustrated. "He had no projections. The layers of his subconscious were all tangled together. We couldn't change anything about the environment except to close doors and lock pieces of him away."
Eames darted an alarmed glance down as Steve's clenched fists and said, "And we certainly weren't going to do that."
Arthur said, "We got lost down there with Barnes, and the Winter Soldier was --"
Maria said, "Wait a minute, the Winter Soldier and Barnes? That's not possible. Even dreamers with dissociative identity disorder, when they're dreaming, they --"
"That's what I'm telling you," Arthur said, looking frustrated. "None of it made sense. We didn't know what to do. We were lost, and the Winter Soldier was hunting us. And Barnes told us, go get Steve Rogers. So we did."
Everyone turned to look at Steve. "So hook me up to that thing," he said.
They all stared at him for a second, and he frowned back. What, did they think he was going to say no? "All right," Ariadne said. "Okay. Give us a second."
"Why?" Steve asked, suspicious.
"Because you train before you get on a rocketship to fly to the moon," Dylan said. "And none of us have any idea what we're training you for, but we want to do something before we throw you in there."
Training, dear lord. Steve asked, "You have heard about me, haven't you?"
Arthur, Dylan, Eames and Ariadne looked at each other. Ariadne shrugged.
Steve said, "Hook me up to that machine. Send someone with me, if you have to. Maria will go too." Maria shot him a look, but he ignored it. "I'll bring him back."
Maria said, "I'd like to have one of mine watching us, if I'm going to be following Captain Rogers."
Ariadne said, "That makes sense. Eames and I will both go with you."
"Fine," Steve said. "Let's get started."
"Are you going to wait for your -- whoever, to come stand guard?" Dylan asked.
Natasha stepped out of a side room and said, "No need for that."
Eames, Arthur and Dylan all pulled guns on her, and Steve bit down on a smile. Natasha was still in the sundress he had seen her wearing on the subway, but she had lost the giant straw hat. Her mass of red hair shone in the light from the window. He felt himself relax, and he started to hope. He loved his team so much.
After a second, Eames threw his hands up, looking disgusted. "You may as well come in." He put his gun away, and glared at Dylan and Arthur until they did as well.
"All right," Ariadne said. "Everybody's here, everybody's been briefed. Is there anything else?"
Maria said, "I'd prefer you not move us while we're under."
Arthur said, "Nobody is going anywhere."
Maria said, "Then I'm set. Steve? Natasha?"
Natasha shook her head. Steve got up out of his chair and crouched down next to Bucky's sleeping form. "I'm ready," he said.
After that, things seemed to move quickly. Dylan arranged them on their backs on the floor. She got four tubes out of the machine, and tipped each one with a clean disposable needle. She found a vein in Steve's arm, and stuck the needle in, and he lay back while she connected Maria, Eames and Ariadne.
It struck him, all at once, suddenly, that he was jumping into Bucky's dream. He might see Bucky, be able to talk to him, for the first time in -- six months, give or take seventy years. He took a deep breath, and tried to say, "Wait," and then Dylan pressed a button in the middle of the machine. He slept.
Steve was standing on the Brooklyn Bridge. The sun was bright behind him, and in front of him lay the skyline he remembered from his childhood. There were no boats on the river and no cars below him on the bridge. There were three other people on the pedestrian walkway. He recognized Maria. The man and the other woman looked familiar. He said, "It's lovely today."
The strange/familiar woman asked, "Do you know where you are?"
"Between Brooklyn and Manhattan," Steve said.
Maria said, "We're equidistant from the island and the mainland, on a pedestrian walkway. Between that cable," she pointed, "and that one."
The woman asked, "Do you know how you got here?"
Steve frowned. "You get here by walking." Something heavy was creeping into the back of his mind, spoiling the simple beauty of the day. He shook his head to try to get rid of it.
Maria said, "I don't remember walking."
"No," Steve said.
Maria said, "We didn't walk, and we didn't take a car. We weren't airlifted. How did we get here? Where are all the people?"
The heavy thing crept forward, from the back of his mind to the front of it. "There are supposed to be people. We were on twenty-third street and we didn't walk here. Something wrong."
"Nothing is wrong," the woman said. Her name was Ariadne, and the man was Eames. "You're dreaming."
"We're in Buckys' dream," Steve said. He looked away from them, out toward the skyline he hadn't seen since 1941. It was wrong, that there were no boats on the river. But it was so beautiful. This is what Bucky dreamed about, this memory had returned. If Bucky remembered, nothing could be that far wrong. "What do we do now?"
Eames said, "Now we walk." He offered his arm to Maria, and she frowned at him. He shrugged, and set off toward Brooklyn.
As they walked, more things became obvious to Steve. There was bright white sunshine over everything, but when he looked up at the sky he couldn't find the sun. The air was perfectly still, without a bit of breeze. There was no noise, not the honking of cars or the slap of water against the towers. Even their footsteps made no sound. They walked for long minutes without getting any closer to the shoreline, and then suddenly they were ten feet away from the pedestrian exit at Tillary Street.
Steve hesitated, and then stopped. Ariadne, who was next to him, stopped also. Eames and Maria kept walking. "Wait," he said.
Eames turned to him. "Captain, this is the way my team came before."
"I know, but," Steve shook his head. "Just wait."
"Is something wrong?" Ariadne asked.
"No," Steve said. He tried to explain, but no words came. "Just a minute."
Eames, Ariadne and Maria looked at him. Then Eames turned toward Tillary Street, his eyes wide. A scratching sound came from under the bridge, and a noise like something was walking toward them. "Listen," Eames said. "This is very important. Do not kill anything or anyone, do you understand? Not one single creature."
Steve asked, "Why would we kill anyone?" Then his eyes went wide. "Did you kill somebody? Is that what happened before, that went wrong for your team? Did you kill one of the people in Bucky's brain?" He saw red. His hands clenched into fists.
"No, we didn't," Ariadne said, voice firm.
But Steve didn't care what she said. "Something happened," he said. "You did something to hurt him, you --"
"Steve, Steve," Maria said. She stepped in front of him, getting between him and Eames. "They told you the rules were different, right? In anybody else's dream, it wouldn't matter."
"They went inside Bucky's brain and hurt him, Maria," Steve said. "How could that not matter?"
Ariadne said, "We didn't. Look, normally dreams are populated by something called projections. They look like people, and they kind of act like people, but they aren't people. It's like, the way a fingernail is part of a hand but you can cut it off. In anybody else's dream, you can destroy projections and it doesn't hurt the dreamer. But there are no projections here so we didn't kill anyone."
"Then why would you --" Steve started.
"Because," Eames said, "if at any point your friend's dream does start following what were to us, until about three hours ago, immutable laws of the universe, we want you to have enough sense not to get yourself torn to pieces."
Steve breathed in, and stepped back away from them with his hands out at his sides. "All right," he said. "No killing. Is there anything else you'd like to share, now that we're down here?"
"You're the one who wanted to jump right in," Ariadne snapped. "No, okay. If any of us die --"
"Why would you die?" Steve asked.
Eames said, "Oh, for Christ's sake."
"If any of us die in the dream," Ariadne said forcefully, "Well just wake up. That's all. It'll hurt, because our brains will believe -- whatever it is that happens to us. But then we'll wake up. And if you need to wake up for any reason, you can kill yourself or ask one of us to kill you."
Steve stared at her. She jerked her chin up and clenched her jaw. "I won't ask for that," he said.
"You think so, because you have no bloody idea what you're doing," Eames said.
Maria said, "I wouldn't bet against him." She gave him a tiny smile, and Steve felt warmed by it.
"Oh, stop being so goddamn smug," Eames said. "And nobody close any doors." He started off toward Tillary street and didn't look back.
"No doors," Steve said. "Got it." The scratching sound came closer. Whatever creature it was, it sounded heavy and huge. Steve could hear it breathing.
Eames reached the exit, and then disappeared.
Ariadne yelled, "Eames!" She started after him. When she got to the exit, she disappeared as well.
The creature sounded closer and closer, and Maria took a step back toward Steve. She said, "If whatever that is attacks us, I'll have to defend myself."
"I'll take care of it," Steve said. He took his shield off his back and held it in front of him, waiting.
There was a loud click and scrabble of claws on wood, and then a dog came up the walkway toward them. It was a pit bull, large for the breed, liver-colored, with the oversized feet of a puppy. It came right up to Steve, ducked its head under his shield, and licked his hand. It wagged its tail so hard that its hindquarters wobbled back and forth.
Maria looked at the dog, then at Steve. "Looks like you don't need your shield."
Steve stared at his shield, baffled. "I don't know where it came from," he said.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "I hate dream work," she said. "Let's go find Eames and Ariadne."
She walked to the Tillary exit, and vanished.
Steve looked down at the dog. It wagged its tail at him. He crouched down and scratched behind its ears, and rubbed along its neck. It didn't smell like a dog; it didn't smell like anything at all. But it looked like a dog and it felt like one, and it clearly enjoyed Steve's company. He asked it, "Do you know where they went, boy?"
The dog trotted up to the pedestrian walkway exit, and looked back at him. He wagged his tail once. Steve walked up and stood next to the dog, and together they stepped over.
Steve and the dog were standing in front of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, at the base of the hill near the stairs. Steve had been here once in 1943, to meet with members of the French Resistance. Bucky and Dernier had been with him. Now it was coming on sundown, and completely silent. There was nobody on the hill, or behind him on the streets of Montmartre. Only Steve and the dog.
"Where should we go?" Steve asked him.
The dog looked at him, and then trotted over to the closest staircase. Steve followed.
The last time he had made this climb, it had been full dark. Steve, Bucky and Dernier had had to borrow clothes from their shopkeeper contact in the Rue Becquerel, because all they'd had was their uniforms. The clothes had been too small on Steve and too big on Dernier, and Dernier had spent the entire time shushing Bucky's complaints and bemoaning their horrible French. Steve's chest ached, remembering. He tried not to remember a lot, these days.
The dog reached the top of the hill and looked back at him. "Yes, I'm coming," he said, and darted the last few steps to the top. When he and Bucky had come here before, they hadn't gone into the Basilica proper, but instead crept into the servants' rooms in the rectory. The priest had met them there, looking grave and old. War changed the nature of everyone, it seemed.
Steve turned toward the rectory, and then from behind he heard Bucky call, "Hey, where are you going?"
Steve whipped around and saw Bucky standing on the steps of the Basilica. Bucky was wearing a dirty undershirt and denims, and cleaning his grease-covered hands with an old rag. His flesh and blood hands. He looked young and painfully innocent, handsome and smiling and full of life. Steve stared.
"Why are you standing all the way over there?" Bucky asked. The dog trotted up to him, tail wagging cautiously. "Hi, there, handsome," Bucky said, crouching down. The dog licked his chin, and he laughed. He looked at Steve. "What, you don't like me anymore? Come here, we've got a train to catch."
Steve took a step toward Bucky, and when Bucky didn't disappear he took another. He walked right up to Bucky, and when Bucky stood they were nearly chest to chest. Bucky smiled at Steve for the first time in seventy years. "Hi," Steve said. He clenched his hands into fists to keep from reaching out.
Bucky rolled his eyes. "What's with you today? Yes, hi, come on. We're going to be too late." He grabbed Steve's arm and turned toward the Basilica.
"Too late for what?" Steve asked, letting himself be pulled. Bucky didn't smell like himself -- nothing smelled like anything here -- but his hand was solid and real on Steve's skin. It felt amazing just to be near him again, this beautiful young man who was the best friend Steve had ever had.
"Just too late," Bucky said. He led Steve up the steps, past the stone columns to the great doors of the Basilica, and they walked through into Grand Central Station.
Steve stumbled to a halt.
"Come on," Bucky said, yanking his arm.
"There aren't any trains running," Steve said, looking around. "I remember. They stopped the trains."
This was Grand Central as it had been just after the Chitauri attack, with a hole in the ceiling and the front windows smashed. The central ticket kiosk was a pile of rubble, and all the new digital track displays were dark. If it had been strange to see Bucky's younger self in 1940s France, it was even stranger to see him in New York in 2012. How did Bucky even know what it looked like? Had he been here? Could Steve have rescued him in the modern world years earlier?
"It's from you," Bucky said.
"What?" Steve asked.
"The memory, the train station. It's from you. I've never been here before." He looked around curiously. "Must'a been a wild fight."
Steve shook his head. "How did you --"
"I know you," Bucky said. "Plus you have the worst poker face this side of Dyker Heights. You're really here," he said, with wonder in his voice.
"Bucky, of course," Steve said. "Always. I will always come find you."
Bucky grinned. He reached out and put his hands on either side of Steve's neck, and leaned up the extra few inches to bring their mouths together.
Steve jerked back. "What?" he asked.
Bucky stared at him, smile gone, and then vanished.
Steve looked around for Bucky, but the train station was empty. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," he said. He dug his hands into his hair and yanked, and then he called, "Bucky!"
The sound echoed off the walls.
"Bucky!" he called again. "I'm sorry! Come back." Nothing and no one answered.
Steve went and sat down next to the remains of the central ticket kiosk. He put his face in his hands. He shouldn't have pulled back, even though Bucky wasn't a pervert like Steve had been. Even though Steve had gotten so good at hiding. And then he'd met Peggy, and it hadn't mattered that Bucky's smile made heat pool in his belly. He could forget, and love like a normal man, and be a good friend instead of a greedy one. It had even gotten easier not to look.
But he still shouldn't have pulled away. Not from Bucky, not now that Steve had found him again after all this time.
Steve heard the thump of a boot on the stone floor, and he looked up just in time to dodge the Winter Soldier's metal fist. He jumped to the side, stumbling on twisted metal and plastic from the ticket kiosk. The Winter Soldier came after him.
"Bucky, I'm sorry," Steve said.
The Winter Soldier took out his knife.
Steve backed away toward the main staircase, keeping the Winter Soldier in his sights. This man didn't have any of the happy innocence of the younger Bucky, but he did have Bucky's laser-sharp focus. He had Bucky's sad eyes. The Winter Soldier lunged at Steve and Steve dodged, running backward up the stairs. The Winter Soldier marched up the staircase toward him, and he launched himself over the thick stone railing, landing back on the floor where he started.
"I'm not going to fight you, Bucky," he said, holding his arms out at his sides. The Winter Soldier leaned over the banister and watched him, blank-faced and deadly. Then the Winter Soldier threw the knife so that it landed with a meaty thunk in the flesh under his collarbone. Steve hissed out a pained breath and staggered, too surprised to keep his balance. He fell backward as the Winter Soldier jumped over the railing and landed at his feet. He stared up at the Winter Soldier, panting, his shoulder on fire. He waited for the Winter Soldier to attack again, and as he lay there he heard a sniffle from the shadowed lee of the staircase. The Winter Soldier froze, his eyes flickering back and forth, and then he turned.
Not ten feet away from them, huddled against the stone base of the stairs, was ten-year-old Bucky Barnes. This Bucky was wearing a torn Sunday suit, and he had a bloody knee and tear tracks running through the dirt smeared on his face. Steve remembered this Bucky, and it knocked the breath out of him. This was Bucky as he'd been after Steve's first back-alley fight, the one that had cemented their friendship.
The Winter Soldier took a step toward Bucky, and Bucky glared at him, jutting his chin out. "I ain't scared of you," he said, but his voice shook.
"Hey, Bucky, hey," Steve said. He sat up, taking care to favor his injured side. Bucky looked from Steve to the Winter Soldier and back again, clearly terrified. "It's all right, he's --" not a friend, nope, not right now. "He won't hurt you."
Bucky sniffed again, and dragged his sleeve across his face, smearing dirt. "He hurt you."
Surprised, Steve asked, "Do you know who I am?"
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Of course I do," he said. "You think I'm stupid or something?" He turned to the Winter Soldier. "Go away. I don't want you here. You hurt my friend."
"No, Bucky, come on," Steve said. He stood up, and took a step toward Bucky, and then another. The Winter Soldier watched them but didn't move. Steve came and crouched down next to Bucky, keeping his injured side away. Blood was soaking through his shirt. He'd have to remove the knife soon, and bandage the wound, but not yet. "Do you know who he is?"
Bucky scowled. "He's a bad man."
Steve looked between them, lost. The Winter Soldier was staring at Bucky with a deep hunger in his face, the kind Steve had seen in mothers who'd lost their children. Steve said, "I don't think he's a bad man."
Bucky frowned at Steve. "You don't?"
"Look at him," Steve said. "Really look. Does he look like he wants to hurt people?"
Bucky looked at the Winter Soldier, and the Winter Soldier flinched and looked away.
Steve said, "I think he looks hurt, and confused. I think bad men trained him to hurt the way dog owners train their dogs to fight."
Bucky's face screwed up, and he sniffed again. "I hate dog fighting."
Steve smiled. "I know."
"But dogs don't have a choice," Bucky said. "People do."
Steve said, "I think somebody took his choices away. Can you imagine that?"
Bucky looked down, and picked at the scrape on his knee. He was quiet for a long time. Steve sagged back against the wall and concentrated on breathing steadily through the pain in his shoulder. If this didn't work, if Bucky didn't understand or the Winter Soldier attacked again, Steve didn't know what he would do.
Finally, Bucky turned to look at the Winter Soldier. He said, "It's okay." His voice was soft, like when he charmed stray cats out of alleyways. The Winter Soldier stared at Bucky, looking hungry and hopeless and sad, and shook his head.
"No, it's not," said the Winter Soldier.
Bucky frowned. Steve recognized the determined look on his face. This was one cat who would get charmed, or Bucky would know why.
"You're safe now," Bucky said.
The Winter Soldier shook his head. "No, I'm not."
Bucky stood up and took a step toward the Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier tensed but didn't move. Bucky took another step. "If anybody comes after you, I'll knock 'em down."
The Winter Soldier looked incredulous.
"You don't think I can?" Bucky asked. He took another step.
The Winter Soldier said, "No."
Another step. Bucky said, "Steve'll help me. He's big now. He can knock anybody down."
The Winter Soldier's eyes flicked to Steve, and then back to Bucky. "He won't for me. I hurt him."
"He will," Bucky said.
"Why?" asked the Winter Soldier.
Bucky came right up to the Winter Soldier and gazed up at him. "Because he loves me."
Steve's breath caught. The Winter Soldier looked at him, and he felt pinned by the weight of it. He nodded.
The Winter Soldier looked back down at Bucky. "Why would you ask him to?"
Bucky chewed his lip, a thoughtful pinch between his eyebrows. Then he said, "Because I love you."
Bucky reached up, and the Winter Soldier reached down, and they grasped hands. For a moment Steve saw a little boy with a metal arm, and a man in a torn suit with dirty tear tracks on his face. Then they faded into each other, merging until Bucky had completely dissolved. When he was gone, the Winter Soldier looked over at Steve and frowned Bucky's little-boy frown. "That's a hell of a scratch," he said, nodding at the knife still sticking out of Steve's shoulder, and the blood, and all of it. "You look like you could use some help cleaning it up.”
Steve laughed, and squeezed his eyes shut when he felt tears well up. "Yeah, pal," he said. "I really could."
The Winter Soldier -- Bucky -- the Winter Soldier disappeared the knife from Steve's shoulder, and then handed Steve a pile of gauze and thread and alcohol so he could clean the wound.Steve carefully took off his shirt and doused his wound in alcohol, while the Winter Soldier sat close by and watched him. It reminded Steve of the times that he had been wounded during the war, when Bucky would hover over him and cluck and frown, even though Steve healed five times faster than a regular man.
"I'm fine," Steve said, picking up the package of suture thread from his lap. It looked to be modern synthetic thread, but it was packaged like the braided silk thread the Commandoes had gone through in bulk.
The Winter Soldier handed him a suture needle. "Uh huh," he said.
"You don't need to stare at me like that." Steve threaded the needle and pushed it into his skin. He hissed.
"Stop that," the Winter Soldier said. He handed Steve a syringe. "Use this. Then let me stitch the wound."
Steve looked at the syringe, wary. "What's in it?" he asked.
The Winter Soldier rolled his eyes, looking like the child he had been. Steve felt a pang, and his breath caught. "We're in my dream, Captain Rogers. I could conjure a line of gatling guns along the mezzanine. I don't need to resort to poison. Use this."
Steve took the syringe, and dosed himself in the shoulder. In a second his entire left side felt hazy and pain-free. He nodded at the Winter Soldier, and then closed his eyes. There was a pause, and then he heard the Winter Soldier move closer. Steve felt pressure on his shoulder, and the rhythm of sutures. With his eyes closed, it was easier to believe this was Bucky taking care of him. He asked, "What train do we need to catch?"
The Winter Soldier paused in his stitching. "What?"
"You -- the other you, the older one. He said we need to catch a train. He said we were going to be late."
Silence, and then the Winter Soldier said, "We won't be late."
"Is it," Steve swallowed, and then made himself ask, "is it the train where you fell?"
"No," the Winter Soldier said.
Steve sagged in relief. He hadn't realized how afraid he had been until the fear went away.
Then the Winter Soldier said, "It's worse." Steve blinked, and opened his mouth. The Winter Soldier said, "Here, I'm done. Put your shirt back on, and help me find the dog."
The Winter Soldier led Steve into the hallway under the mezzanine, heading north toward the staircase to the food court. The shops were all closed, with their signs smudged to nothing. Each one had a mixture of mannequins in 1940s dress, modern expensive luggage, and tourist tchotchkes. Steve, who couldn't quite feel his left leg, stumbled along awkwardly beside him.
Steve said, "Wait a minute."
"No," the Winter Soldier said. He whistled and called, "Here, boy!" He didn't look at Steve.
"What do you mean it's worse?" Steve asked. He plucked at his shirt, now clammy with drying blood. "What train were you on that was worse?"
The Winter Soldier said, "Call the dog, please. I think he likes you better."
"Bucky," Steve said, and grabbed the Winter Soldier's arm. The Winter Soldier jerked away from him.
"Shut up," the Winter Soldier said. "Don't call me that."
"It's your name," Steve said.
"I don't have a name," the Winter Soldier said, his voice getting louder. He looked, suddenly, furious. "Bucky has a name. Bucky needs your help. Bucky asked for you to come here, and you pushed him away, you --" he broke off and looked away.
Steve said, "I'm sorry." He reached out, but let his hand hover in the air instead of trying to make contact. "I just know he's not like that."
The Winter Soldier glared at him, jaw clenching. Steve braced himself for a sock in the chin, but it didn't come. After a minute, the Winter Soldier said, "You're here to fix this."
"I will," Steve said. He had no idea how, but he would.
The Winter Soldier looked at him, and nodded. "Call the dog. Then we'll find your friends, and then we'll catch the train."
Steve stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled like he was calling a taxi. "Hey, buddy," he said to the walls, the hallway. "Why don't you come join us?"
There was the loud click of claws on marble, and the heavy sound of a monster coming closer. Then the liver-colored pit bull came out from around and corner and trotted up to Steve, tail wagging. Steve crouched down and ruffled the fur on the dog's neck. The dog licked his jaw, and then sniffed the blood on his shirt and whined. "It's okay, boy," Steve said. "We're okay."
The dog went over to the Winter Soldier and sniffed his flesh and blood hand. Then he nosed at the Winter Soldier's metal hand, and sneezed.
The Winter Soldier quirked a wry smile, Bucky's little-boy smile, and said, "Yeah, I know. You get used to it. You wanna help us find the others?"
The dog whuffed, and turned back to Steve. Steve raised his eyebrows. "Can you?"
The dog turned and trotted down the hallway.
Steve and the Winter Soldier looked at each other, and the Winter Soldier shrugged. "Guess he can," he said.
They followed the dog down the hall. It seemed to get longer and longer as they walked. The click of the dog's claws on the floor grew louder. The sound of Steve's and the Winter Soldier's boots grew and grew, until Steve wanted to put his hands over his ears to shut it out. They seemed to pass the same shops again and again: crying mannequins holding "I <3 NY" mugs and standing on bright pink Gucci bags; dark glass storefronts with sinister shadows inside; frozen yogurt stores with their tables and chairs knocked over onto the floor. The lights went dim and started flickering.
"I don't think it wants us here," Steve said.
The Winter Soldier glanced at him, and then away. "You turning back?" he asked.
"No, just saying," Steve told him.
Ahead of them. Steve looked over, and saw a staircase leading down, where before there had been only miles of hallway. The dog scampered down the staircase out of sight.
Steve and the Winter Soldier reached the top of the staircase and looked down. The floor below them was empty. Every sandwich kiosk and bakery counter that Steve remembered from 1940 and 2014 was completely gone, leaving a gaping expanse of pink marble floor that looked sad and spooky in the dim light. But off to the side, the Grand Central Oyster Bar entrance was lit up and gleaming. Steve could even hear faint music coming from the restaurant, something poppy and modern and cheerily awful. As Steve watched, the dog crossed the empty floor and vanished into the Oyster Bar.
Steve and the Winter Soldier looked at each other. Steve asked, "Do you think he found them?"
The Winter Soldier said, "You know that dog better than me, pal."
Steve frowned, but before he could say anything the Winter Soldier grabbed the staircase railing and hopped over, landing with a thump on the floor below. Steve rushed to catch up with him.
The Oyster Bar entrance was empty of people, although here at least were tables and chairs. The Winter Soldier looked to the left, then the right. "There," he said, and pointed. Steve looked.
Ariadne, Maria, Eames and the dog all sat around a large circular table in the middle of the main dining room of the Oyster Bar. Next to Eames sat Bucky, the handsome young man Steve had spoken with earlier, still wearing his dirty undershirt and covered with grease from the autoshop. Eames and Ariadne were laughing, and Maria had a small smile on her face. Bucky was gesturing, waving a fork around for emphasis. Steve ached, watching him. All that beauty and happiness, all that effortless charm. They had both lost so much, and this Bucky hadn't even gotten started with losing.
The Winter Soldier walked toward the table. He had to pass a line of booths on one side and an empty dessert cart on the other. As he walked, his metal hand hit the dessert cart with a tiny clink. Across the room, Bucky stopped talking and turned his head to stare. Maria, Eames and Ariadne looked too.
"There you are," Eames said, standing up. "Come join us. I regret that I can't offer you any food, but we have the best seats in the house."
Maria narrowed her eyes at them, and Steve belatedly remembered that his shirt was covered in dried blood and torn across the shoulder. "Are you all right? Where is your shield?" she asked.
Steve looked down at his hands, and then back up at her. "I have no idea," he told her. He hadn't thought about it since he left the Brooklyn Bridge. "And I'm fine, I'm --" he reached up to touch the sutures the Winter Soldier had made, and found his skin completely healed. He turned to stare at the Winter Soldier, who shrugged.
"Come in, come in," Eames said, waving. "We found your, well, I suppose 'brother' is the wrong word for it. Your you. And we've been keeping him company while he waited for you."
The Winter Soldier stopped ten feet away from the table. Steve came up next to him and stood there, watching. Maria raised her eyebrow, and glanced at the empty chair next to her. He raised his back, and shook his head. He didn't like the idea of leaving the Winter Soldier with no one. Maria shrugged, and settled back into her seat.
The Winter Soldier stared at this Bucky with the same hunger he'd shown the younger one. "Thanks," he said.
Eames said, "Of course."
At the same time, Bucky said, "I don't have a choice, do I?"
Ariadne frowned and looked at the Winter Soldier. Eames's smiling expression remained unchanged, as if he hadn't heard Bucky at all. Or as if he had expected this, and wasn't surprised.
The Winter Soldier lifted his shoulders into a shrug, and kept them there. "Not really," he said.
Bucky stood up from the table. "Don't talk to me like I'm stupid. This is why you brought everybody here." Steve looked at the Winter Soldier, surprised, but the Winter Soldier ignored him. "I'm the next step, I know that." Bucky's face twisted, and he looked down at the fork in his hand. "Thanks for letting me have a nice dinner first, I guess."
The Winter Soldier said, "You don't have to."
Bucky snorted and waved his hand. "'Don't have to,' he says."
"But you don't," the Winter Soldier said. He took a step closer. Bucky's eyes went wide, and he backed up so fast he knocked his chair over. The Winter Soldier put a hand out. "Okay," he said. "I'll staying right here, I promise."
"I know you've got that other me in there," Bucky said, his tone nasty-angry. His eyes were still wide and scared. "Did you eat him?"
Steve said, "Bucky, come on."
Bucky didn't look away from the Winter Soldier. "Steve, I love you, but shut the fuck up."
Steve felt himself go bright red. He looked at Eames and Ariadne and Maria, checking their reactions. None of them seemed to have noticed.
The Winter Soldier said, "You know I didn't."
Bucky swallowed. "You scared him," he said.
"Yes," said the Winter Soldier. "I'm sorry."
Bucky said, "You scare me."
"I'm sorry," the Winter Soldier said again. "You don't have to. I swear. You don't ever have to."
Bucky asked, "How will you fix it without me?"
The Winter Soldier shrugged. "We'll find a way."
Bucky scowled. "Don't act like it's not important."
The Winter Soldier scowled back. "Not like that," he said. "Not more important than you. None of this will ever be more important than you."
Bucky stared at the Winter Soldier for what felt like a long time. Slowly, he stepped out from behind the table and crossed the dining room. He said, "I'm still scared of you."
The Winter Soldier's face twisted up, the way Bucky's used to when he was trying not to cry. "I know."
"And if I want to leave," Bucky said.
"In a second," the Winter Soldier said.
Bucky reached his hand out. "Maybe after all of this is over, I'll go off on my own," he said.
The Winter Soldier said, "Okay."
"Get a house on a beach somewhere," Bucky said.
The Winter Soldier gave him a sad smile. He reached out a hand as well. "That sounds nice."
At the last moment, before their hands touched, Bucky knocked the Winter Soldier's hand away and stepped closer and hugged him. For a second they glowed brighter than the bright lights of the Oyster Bar. Steve thought he saw the Winter Soldier wiping grease off his face with a dirty rag and grinning. He thought he saw Bucky in kevlar and leather, looking determined. Then the light faded, and the Winter Soldier was all that was left.
The Winter Soldier turned to Steve, and gave him a small, tentative smile. "Hiya," he said, voice soft.
Steve breathed in, feeling pride and happiness down to his toes, and then he grinned like a crazy man. He clenched his hands into fists to keep from wrapping them around Bucky and spinning him in circles. "Hey, Bucky," he said, instead of cheering.
Bucky nodded and closed his eyes.
The lights went out, and then came back on again. Outside the Oyster Bar, a train horn sounded, and then came the clang and clack of the wheels as it pulled into the station. The dog whined, and then howled.
Steve saw Bucky cover his ears and hunch over until he was bent almost in half, and then the lights went out again. The sound of the train went on and on. The room began to shake. Steve heard the sound of cutlery hitting the floor. The dog yelped.
Steve reached out, flailing in the darkness, and found Bucky's metal shoulder and gripped hard. After a second, Bucky's flesh and blood hand covered his. Then, the shaking subsided. The train came to a halt with a screech of metal and a hiss of brakes. The lights in the Oyster Bar came back up, nearly shocking Steve with their brightness. He looked over at the table and saw that Maria was standing up with her gun drawn, and that Eames and Ariadne were clutching the arms of their chairs. He heard a whine at his feet, and looked down to see the dog curled around him, with its paws covering its face.
"Hey," Steve said, "it's okay." He pulled his hand away, and after a second Bucky let go. Then he crouched down and lay both hands on the dog's neck. The dog was trembling. "It's okay, boy. Look, we're okay."
There was the sound of chairs scraping on the floor, and then Ariadne asked, "Is everyone all right?"
"Fine," Maria said.
Bucky said, "Functional."
"I'm good," Steve said.
Eames said, "Yes, except."
Steve felt the dog's trembling subside. "Except what?" he asked.
"I believe this is our invitation to the main event," Eames said.
"In a minute," Steve said. Bucky gripped his shoulder.
"Of course," Eames said, "Only --"
"In a minute," Steve said. Bucky's fingers tightened on his shoulder, and Steve twitched. But then the dog opened his eyes, and Steve concentrated on rubbing its silky ears and that wrinkled spot between its brow ridges.
Maria said, "Steve." Her voice was heavy with fear and anger.
Steve looked up and froze. All around the main dining room stood masked people with guns pointed at them.
"Captain, I don't think they're going to wait for us," Eames said.
Steve slowly put his hands up.
The masked people herded Steve, Eames, Maria, Ariadne, Bucky and the dog together into a little knot at the center of their rolling mass of bodies and guns. Steve couldn't count how many there were. Each person had the same body type as every other, and taken together they nearly disappeared into each other, the way one crow disappeared into an entire flock.
Steve and the others were led out of the Oyster Bar and across the empty floor of the dining hall. On the other side of the empty hall was a large archway. Beyond it, Steve could see the sloped white nose of a maglev train. It had to be Bucky's train that was worse.
"Bucky," he asked. "What do you need?"
Maria turned to scowl at him, raising her eyebrows and waving at all the guns. But the masked crowd around them didn't try to silence Steve. After a minute Maria's scowl melted into a thoughtful frown.
Steve said, "Bucky, tell me."
Bucky didn't answer. He looked terrified.
Eames said, "I feel compelled to remind everyone not to kill the projections."
"Eames," Ariadne said, "shut the hell up."
The crowd around them didn't react. Maria slowed her walking pace and was prodded back in place by several guns. She turned around and walked backwards, and none of their captors reacted. She said, "We can't leave, but I wonder what we can do."
Ariadne got a thoughtful look on her face, and then held up a giant machine gun. The crowd around them kept walking.
"Holy shit," Ariadne said, eyes wide.
"They'd still drop us before we got even a third of them," Maria said. She held up a butterfly knife in one hand and a shotgun in the other.
Eames said, "And we're not to kill the projections."
Ariadne lowered the machine gun, and then held up a tranquilizer gun.
Maria asked, "Is that modified to fire multiple rounds at once?" She sounded impressed.
Ariadne said, "You can always dream bigger."
Eames put a hand to his forehead. "Oh, shag it," he said. He held up a tranquilizer gun as well. "I assume we should wait until we're on board, at least. See what we're up against."
Bucky kept walking through all of it, staring straight ahead, looking scared out of his mind.
"What do you need me to do?" Steve asked. "Bucky, please."
Bucky didn't give any sign that he had heard.
They were led through the archway, past the long sloping nose and up to the door of the first car. Maria shoved a tranquilizer gun into Steve's hands, and then walked ahead of him through the door and into the train. Eames went next, and then Ariadne. Bucky hung back, and Steve tried to wait with him but the crowd shoved him with inhuman force. He stumbled through the door, and then looked around, amazed. The inside of the train car was all glass and chrome and bright lights. Along one side was a line of blurry people holding guns. Along the other side was a wall of doors. The door nearest to them stood open, and inside it Steve saw an empty white room with no windows.
There was a scuffling sound from outside the train, and then Bucky was carried in. He had his eyes closed and his entire body clenched rigidly tight. Steve told the shadow people, "Let him go right now."
"Captain," Ariadne said in warning.
The shadow people carried Bucky past Steve and through the door of the empty white room. As soon as he passed over the threshold, Bucky started screaming.
Steve shot the shadow people carrying Bucky. They dissolved into pale gray smoke, and Bucky landed on his back on the floor, still screaming.
"Goddamn it, Rogers," Maria yelled. The shadow people lined up along the wall started shooting at them. A bullet hit Steve in the leg, and another hit him in the shoulder.
"Come on!" Ariadne yelled, and yanked him into the empty white room. Eames and Maria followed, firing behind them. Eames yelped when a bullet grazed his neck, but kept firing. Steve crouched down next to Maria's leg and started shooting people's feet and knees. More shadow people disappeared, puff, puff, puff, until there were only ten, and then only five, and then they were gone.
The silence afterward felt huge.
"I hate that," Ariadne said, and sat on the floor. Then she collapsed onto her back.
Maria reloaded her gun and looked around the edge of the doorway, checking their blind spots. She had a streak of blood across her face, but seemed otherwise uninjured.
Steve turned to look for Bucky. He found him curled into a ball on the floor, with his hands covering his face. Steve went over to him and crouched down. "Bucky, hey," he said. "They're all gone. You're safe." He reached out, hesitated, and then put a hand on Bucky's flesh and blood shoulder.
"They're gone," Maria reported.
"Oh, good," Eames said, sounding exhausted and faint.
"Shit, Eames," Ariadne said. Steve looked over and watched her scramble to her feet. She rushed to the doorway where Eames sat, cradling a wound in his abdomen. His belly and entire left leg were covered in blood.
"It's nothing, I assure you," Eames said. "And you know I would complain if it were truly --"
"Eames, hush," Maria said. Her voice was as soft as Steve had ever heard it. She knelt down next to Ariadne and touched Eames's hands. Ariadne handed her a stack of alcohol swabs and a squeeze-tube of skin glue. "You're going to be fine."
Eames huffed a small laugh. "Of course, darling," he said. "I have two dear friends here to nurse me back to health. Already I feel stronger."
Maria lifted up Eames's shirt and frowned at his belly. "Well, it could be because you're mostly healed already," she said, her voice back to normal.
"What?" Eames said. He stared down at himself, looking shocked, and then he looked over at Bucky. "Was that you? Can we count on it happening again?"
"What?" Steve asked. Beneath his hand, Bucky was completely still. "Who says it's going to happen again?"
Eames scooted himself up until he was sitting straight. He pulled a clean white shirt and a towel out of the air, and began swabbing at his bloody stomach with the towel. "We need to either travel to some destination or walk the length of the train, possibly both. And I don't think we've seen the last of our masked friends."
"They'll come back," Bucky said, voice quiet. He pushed Steve's hand away and sat up. "They always come back."
Maria looked grim. "How long do we have?"
"I don't know," Bucky shook his head. "I've never been able to hurt them before."
How many times had Bucky tried? Steve reached out again, but Bucky dodged his hand.
Ariadne walked over and sat down next to Bucky. "You have us now," she said, her voice low and steady and fierce. "If they come back, we'll send them away again. As many times as you need."
Bucky nodded at her and scrubbed his face with his hands. He squared his shoulders and stood. He took a deep breath, and then another. He said, "All right. Come on. Let me show you the rest of it."
While Eames changed out of his bloody clothes, Bucky took Steve, Ariadne and Maria out of the empty white room and down the hall of the train car. Without the shadow people lining the right side of the hallway, Steve could see that the entire wall was lined with windows. Right now they showed the dim interior of Grand Central's boarding area.
"We're not moving," Steve said. He walked up to the window. There were no other trains in sight, and no other people, just track after track and platform after platform.
"It never moves," Bucky said. "Not once it arrives."
Steve turned back around. The left wall of the train car had no windows. Instead, there were four doors set into the wall, each an equal distance from the others. Steve had seen them when he first came in, but he hadn't been paying attention. Now he saw that there were no knobs, handles, touchscreen panels, hooks, or anything else that would allow for opening the door. Bucky walked up to the door closest to the empty white room, and put his hands on it. Steve watched him sag until his forehead rested on the door.
Bucky said, "Inside here is -- some piece of my memory. I don't know what. I've tried to open the doors before, but it never works. The whole train is like that. Every door in every car has my memories, pieces of me. They put them here when they want to wipe me and start over."
Steve stared at Bucky, feeling so much anger build in his chest that he wondered if he might come apart at the seams. Some day soon, he would crumble every Hydra laboratory and office and armory and computer bank into dust. He would sprinkle that dust on the wind, and then light it on fire so the air burned. He would find the men and women who had done this to Bucky, or stood by while it happened, and he would bind them hand and foot and make them watch as he tore their organization apart.
Ariadne said, "Is that why -- nevermind."
Steve pulled his anger into a little ball and shoved it deep down where it wouldn't get in the way. Bucky needed him right now. Hydra would come later.
Bucky turned and leaned his back against the door. He didn't look as devastated as Steve felt. He didn't have any expression at all. "Why what?" Bucky asked.
Ariadne shook her head. "I've been trying to figure it out since we came down the first time. You remember Arthur and Dylan?"
Bucky winced. "Yeah, uh, tell them I'm sorry."
Ariadne flapped a hand. "They can handle it. But we came down here expecting you to follow the rules of dreamwork. You know, I'm the dreamer so I control the landscape, you populate the dream with projections that we can interact with, we both use symbolism to move through the dream, there are multiple dream levels."
Bucky shook his head. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"But that's the thing," Ariadne said excitedly. "Your mind is nothing like that, and I've been trying and trying to figure it out. I've been doing this for five years now, and you're the only person among hundreds who's like this."
Bucky seemed to press himself back against the door. "Maybe I'm special," he said, sounding bitter.
"But I think you are," Ariadne said. Her sweet face seemed almost lit up with the thrill of discovery. "You're the first person I've worked with in all that time who's had pieces of himself locked away. Maybe that destabilized the structure of your mind. Maybe what we thought of as the laws of consciousness came from people with intact memories and personalities."
"That's a lot of fancy talk to say I'm massively fucked in the head," Bucky spat. "Thanks, but I don't think I need to hear any more."
"Sergeant Barnes, you don't understand," Ariadne said. "If I'm right, it means we can heal what's been broken. We just need to open the doors."
Bucky stared at her. The hope on his face was painful to watch.
"How do we do that?" Maria asked.
Eames said, "That's the beauty of having someone like me on your team. You know I love to use my imagination." Steve looked over and saw him standing strong and healthy in the doorway of the empty room. Eames held up a rocket launcher. "If you'll clear the area, please."
Steve, Bucky, Ariadne and Maria all moved back, and Eames took aim. The impact rocked the train car and filled the air with fire. When it cleared, the door was singed but intact.
Bucky hissed. "There goes that plan."
Eames flicked a glance at him. "Sergeant. Indulge me a little longer."
Bucky threw his hands up. "Fine, do what you want." He ran his flesh and blood hand through his hair, and went to stand at the train door where it stood open, looking out at the platform.
Eames set aside his rocket launcher, and picked up a grenade. "Everyone take cover," he said, and lobbed it.
When the grenade didn't work, Eames tried an ax. He tried an ice-climbing pick. He tried C4 and dynamite. After Steve's ears stopped ringing from the dynamite, Bucky said, "It's no use. You're never getting through there."
"O ye of little faith," Eames said, but even he seemed wilted.
Bucky waved his hands. "What else can you even try, huh? Nothing makes any difference. We've been at this for an hour and nobody's even noticed."
Steve frowned. "Who hasn't noticed?"
Bucky gestured at the door. "The people in --" he stopped and his eyes went wide. "Inside," he breathed. "I know there are people inside."
Steve began to smile. "You know there are people inside."
"I can feel them," Bucky said. "I don't know much."
"What do you know?" Ariadne asked.
Bucky closed his eyes. "It's recent. From right before the Helicarriers fell. I'm in there," he said slowly. "And some doctors. And a dangerous man, and his ghosts. But it's like they're acting out the same thing over and over again. None of them have any idea what's going on."
Eames said, "So one of those ghosts couldn't, say, come and unlock the door for us?"
Bucky opened his eyes. "It can't be that simple. I've been trying for years. I tried so hard."
Steve stepped up to Bucky and waited for Bucky to meet his gaze. "You didn't have us before. You didn't have yourself."
"I tried so hard," Bucky said again.
"I know," Steve said, aching for him. "Try one more time."
Bucky closed his eyes again. A wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows. Beads of sweat appeared on his upper lip. Then he gasped, and the door slid open. Bucky ran to it and stood in the doorway.
Steve tried to go after him, but Maria grabbed his shoulder. "This is none of your business," she said.
He glared at her, but he didn't push her hand off.
"Oh my god," Bucky said. He turned and stared at Steve. He seemed near tears. "Steve."
"Bucky?" Steve asked. He took a step, and Maria let him go.
Bucky shook his head. "No, no, it's fine. It's." He covered his face with his hands, and breathed in deeply. "It's good," he said. When he looked up, he was smiling.
Steve smiled tentatively back. "Think you can do that with the others?" he asked.
Bucky grinned, the dazzling grin that Steve remembered, and said, "Watch me."
Steve, Maria, Ariadne and Eames hung back to give Bucky privacy. They kept their tranquilizer guns ready in case more shadow people came, and watched Bucky open the next door, and the next. Each time it seemed like an extraordinary effort just to get the door open. Each room that Bucky went to look at made him smile and cry. Each time, Steve wanted to go over and touch Bucky's hand, his shoulder, but he stopped himself.
After all four doors were open, Bucky waved them to the back of the train car so they could cross to the next one. Steve glanced through each door as they passed, but the rooms were white and empty now that Bucky had his memories back.
There were no windows in the doors between train cars, although they were unlocked and easy to open. Steve took point on the way into the next train car. When the door opened and the seething mass of shadow people came at them, Steve was shot first.
The bullet hit him in his hip, and he jerked but didn't fall. Behind him, Maria fired a steady stream of tranquilizer darts. He heard Eames and Ariadne firing as well, but didn't dare turn to look at them. A bullet hit his chest, and he sagged against the doorframe.
"Steve," Bucky yelled. "Take this!" Steve turned and saw him holding Eames's rocket launcher. Steve didn't think. He grabbed the rocket launcher, turned, and fired. There was a giant percussive boom, and the air seemed to catch fire. When it burned itself out, the train car was empty.
"Well," Eames said.
Steve used the doorframe to inch his way to standing. "I thought we weren't going to kill anybody," he asked, and then coughed. He felt heavy and drowsy and he hurt everywhere. He was breathing like he used to when he'd had pneumonia, before the serum. He took a step into the train car, and staggered.
"Hey," Bucky said, and put his shoulder under Steve's arm to hold him up. "Come on, you dumbass, sit down."
"Did I hurt you?" Steve asked. "They're a part of you. Did I hurt you?"
Bucky made a face at him. "They're a part of Hydra, not of me. You didn't do anything except get your fool self shot. Now sit down before I put you down." He nudged Steve gently toward the floor, and Steve let himself be lowered.
"So we can eliminate with extreme prejudice," Maria said. "That's good to know." She disappeared her tranquilizer gun and replaced it with what looked like a portable Bushmaster autocannon.
Steve frowned. "What design is that?"
Maria raised her eyebrows at him. "Mine," she said.
"It's beautiful," Steve said, his voice faint. He wiped blood off his lips.
Bucky crouched down in front of Steve and offered him a handkerchief. It was monogrammed JBB, in the neat cursive embroidery that Bucky's grandmother used to stitch all over everything. Steve tucked it into his pocket, and then wiped his hands on the hem of his bloody shirt.
Bucky said, "Jesus, you're a worse sap than you were before." But he looked worried, and his hands twitched toward Steve's chest as if he wanted to perform field surgery himself.
Steve quirked a smile, and then spoiled it by coughing. He said, "Who's fault is that, huh?"
Bucky stared at him, and then stood up quickly and turned away.
Shit, shit, shit. Steve hated how stupid he got when he was in pain. "I think it's healing," he said.
Ariadne broke off from where she was examining Maria's baby autocannon. "Well, if this car is anything like the last one, you have an hour to heal up."
The first door slid open.
Ariadne raised her eyebrows. "Or not," she said.
Bucky marched up to the door with his Winter Soldier walk, and stood in front of it. After a minute he shuddered all over, and then he turned and walked toward the next one.
Steve looked away, and found that Maria was watching him. He asked her, "How do you make stuff appear out of the air like that?"
She said, "I'm not entirely sure I could describe the mechanics. But basically, you just -- want it."
"That's it?" Steve asked, surprised. He'd been wanting things from the moment he arrived in Bucky's dream: for the Winter Soldier to stop fighting him, for Bucky to be safe, for the floor to stop shaking, for the shadow people to go away. That couldn't be all there was to it. Steve was proof.
Maria narrowed her eyes, and then flicked a glance at Bucky. "You want it, and you believe you can get it."
Steve felt his face heat. He looked away. He knew Maria had girlfriends sometimes, that she wouldn't judge. He knew him loving men wasn't illegal like it had been, but he couldn't, he couldn't --
"It only works with objects, though," Maria said. When Steve looked back up at her, she was polishing the barrel of her baby autocannon as if she hadn't just seen down to the center of Steve's heart.
Steve pulled a clean shirt and a clean wet rag out of nowhere, and set to tidying himself. Maria looked up from her baby autocannon and nodded at him in encouragement, but he shrugged it away. Some things weren't safe to want, but everything else was easy.
Bucky still wasn't talking to him, so Steve hung back when they went to the next car. He was the last to see that it was different. The walls weren't white, but a patchwork of blue and red square metal panels. Below waist height, the wall was painted to look like wood grain. It was remarkably ugly.
"Wow," Ariadne said, looking around. "It's very nineteen-seventies commuter transit."
Steve stared at her, baffled.
She saw him staring, and raised her eyebrows. "The architecture is getting older. Could be we're going back in time."
Maria asked, "Bucky, is there a pattern to the memories you're uncovering?"
Bucky hesitated, and then said, "Yes."
Steve knew that tone. It was the way Bucky used to get when he knew he had to talk about something but would rather stick fish hooks under his fingernails. Steve bit down on the urge to go stand in front of him like a protective wall.
Maria looked at Bucky. "Is the pattern significant?"
"I think so," Bucky said, and bit his lip. It was so familiar that Steve had to look away. "So far, each memory is a couple of days, or a couple of hours, and I think they're going backwards. It feels pretty disjointed, but. Technicians are getting younger, Pier--" he stopped, and Steve clenched his hands into fists to keep from punching the wall. Pierce was dead, dead, dead, and they were going to fix everything down here. "People are younger. Ariadne, I think you're right."
Ariadne didn't look happy about it.
Nobody else said anything as Bucky opened the doors.
The whole thing had a horrible rhythm to it: kill Hydra's shadow people, wait while Bucky struggled and shook and re-absorbed the memory of awful things, move along. In the next car, Ariadne had the pleasure of taking out Hydra's shadow people. She used some kind of concussive explosion that faded to the faint tinkle of modern pop music before dissipating into still air.
"Is that Rihanna?" Eames asked.
Ariadne tipped her chin up. "Yes," she said.
Eames said, "I suppose it's better than Edith Piaf."
Maria said, "You know I've heard that story."
Ariadne turned red.
"Got the job done, didn't we?" Eames asked.
"Barely," Ariadne muttered, and followed Bucky into the car.
This one looked the same as the one before: blue and red, covered in fake wood design, ugly. The car after that, Maria got to test her baby autocannon. By the time they made it inside Steve was almost used to the awfulness of the design.
Steve was standing with Maria and waiting when Bucky called from the end of the train car. "Steve, can you come here for a minute?" It was the first time he had spoken to Steve in hours.
Steve ignored Maria's single raised eyebrow, and trotted down the hallway. Bucky was standing in front of the last door in the train car, frowning at it. Steve asked, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I," Bucky shook his head. He looked at Steve. "There's someone in there, along with the memory. I think they're standing guard. I need you to shoot them as soon as the door opens."
Steve wanted to ask why this memory, why this door, but he didn't. He put his rocket launcher down and created a Sig P226. He cocked it and checked the sight, then stepped in front of Bucky and removed the safety. "I'm ready," he said.
The door slid open, and Steve shot the shadow person in the same instant. Then he saw what was in the room.
The door opened in the air outside Steve and Bucky's old apartment building in Brooklyn. It was evening time, and a memory of Bucky was sitting on the fire escape, smoking a cigarette. The memory was dressed in a peacoat and khakis like he'd just gotten home from Basic, his hair falling out of its brylcreemed hold. Inside the apartment, a memory of Steve sat at the tiny kitchen table, drawing propaganda posters. The whole picture was fuzzy and faded, like an old photograph, but Steve could see their expressions clear as anything. The memory of Steve looked tired and sick, and the memory of Bucky was staring through the window, watching him. Bucky looked like -- his face was --
Bucky pushed past Steve from behind and stood in the doorway. Steve let himself be pushed. Bucky couldn't have looked like that, but he had. The memory faded into nothing as Bucky stood there, and then he shook and sagged, hiding his face against the door frame.
"Bucky," Steve said helplessly.
Bucky whirled and crowded him back against the windows. "Do not say anything," he hissed, voice quiet and intense. "These are mine and I need them, all of them, I don't care if you think it's pathetic, or --"
"Who thinks you're pathetic?" Steve asked. Maybe Steve was perverted and wrong, but Bucky never could be. And if Bucky wasn't sinning, then maybe it was okay if Steve --
"Keep your fucking voice down," Bucky said. "It's bad enough to have everyone in here with ringside seats to the collapse of my goddamn brain. It's bad enough I have to ask your help when you clearly --" He stopped and tugged his hair, looking furious and humiliated.
"Who thinks you're pathetic?" Steve asked again, voice quieter. "All I saw was," don't say love, it's too dangerous, don't say, "friendship, all right? There's nothing to be ashamed about."
Bucky scoffed. "Don't play stupid. I know you."
Steve looked down. Bucky was standing too close, close enough that Steve could feel Bucky's breath on the side of his face. Close enough that he wanted to touch more than nearly anything. Steve said, "It doesn't matter what I saw. I want to help. With anything."
Bucky grimaced. "Yeah, okay."
"Anything, Bucky," Steve said. He waited until Bucky met his eyes. "If anyone comes after you, I'll knock 'em down, remember?"
Bucky watched him with big eyes. "Because you love me," he said.
"Yeah, I do," Steve said. It was easy to say, when he meant it like a pal.
"Even though I'm like that."
Steve said, "There's no 'even though' about it. I love you, full stop." And he did. He just needed a minute to think. A voice in his head said, coward, coward, but he ignored it.
Bucky watched him, and then seemed to relax all at once. Tension that Steve hadn't even noticed flowed out of him. "Okay," he said, nodding. "Full stop, okay."
"I mean," Steve said, "Would I be here if I didn't care?" He waved around at the awful train, the platform of Grand Central, the crew of dream spies behind them.
Bucky started laughing. After a minute, Steve joined him. It felt good, when not much had for a very long time. He laughed harder and longer than he needed to, because it just felt so good to be happy with Bucky, to know that he had made Bucky happy.
"This isn't any worse than humping it through the Bois Jacques in winter with holes in our boots and no clean socks," Bucky said when they had calmed down.
Steve said, "I could sell vacation getaways with that line. 'Come on our cruises. They're better than a week in hell.'"
Bucky cracked up again.
"No, no," Steve said, putting on his earnest Let's Sell War Bonds expression. "Listen, this Captain America gig, it's all wrong for me."
Bucky said, "True. You're pretty awful at it."
Steve made a mournful face.
"God, this isn't even funny," Bucky said, cackling. "There's gotta be something wrong with us."
It took a while for them to calm themselves. Bucky kept collapsing into giggles any time he glanced at Steve, and that would tip Steve over into laughter with him. But finally they slowed their breathing and stopped looking at each other long enough to be serious. Steve's face felt strange from smiling so much. It was a good strange, he thought.
Ariadne eyed them warily as they approached, as if they were dogs who had decided to get up and start waltzing. "Everything okay?" she asked.
"Oh, fine, fine," Steve said, leaning back on his heels and lacing his fingers behind his head. "We were just discussing my future career."
Maria said, "Good."
That got Steve to sober up in a hurry. He dropped his arms. "What do you mean?"
"I mean good," she said. "This job isn't worth it if it's making you miserable."
"It isn't making me miserable." How could it, when he had Sam and Natasha and Maria and the other Avengers at his back. He would never be so ungrateful.
"Please," Maria said. "I have been paying attention, the last six months."
"You," Steve said. "What." Eames and Ariadne looked politely away, but Bucky watched them like he used to watch baseball games.
Maria shrugged. "I figured it could keep until we found your friend. You wouldn't have been willing to leave before that anyway. But I was always intending to give you an out."
That didn't make any sense. "Maria, you were the Deputy Director of SHIELD. You're Tony's right hand at Stark Security International."
She said, "Yes, so trust me when I say, I don't want a single person working for me who isn't in it one hundred percent."
Steve had no answer for that.
Bucky said, "I get it. She means the job isn't worth it to her." He grinned at Maria. "I like you, ma'am."
She looked him up and down. "I don't like you, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility."
Bucky's grin, if anything, got bigger. "Good," he said.
The next car had yellow and gray plaid walls, chrome accents, and a glass railing that ran along the wall below the window. Eames scowled at it. "Ariadne?" he asked.
"Nineteen fifties passenger train," she said, staring around in fascination. "The plaid is American, but the lines are European."
"It's hideous," Eames said. "Of course you recognize it."
Steve looked away from the awful walls and noticed Bucky frowning at the first door in the car. He wandered over. "Everything all right?" he asked.
Bucky didn't look away from the door. "I think it's another old memory. There's a shadow person standing guard again."
"Well," Steve said, pulling out his borrowed gun, "let's take care of it."
This memory was clearer than the fuzzy, faded one Steve had seen before. In the memory, a teenage Bucky was making dinner for Becca, Ellie and Lou while he sang along to the radio. "Fare you well, daddy," he sang, drawing out the vowels like Ma Rainey, putting his dishtowel-covered hand over his heart. "Some day you'll hear bad news. If you look for your momma, she's gone with the farewell blues."
"No, Bucky. No bad news!" the memory of Becca said, giggling. Her giggles faded into nothing as the Bucky next to Steve absorbed the memory.
Bucky looked at the empty white room as if waiting for it to come back.
Steve said, "You were really great with them. You used to say it was good training for the passel of kids you were going to have."
Bucky lifted his arm, reaching toward the empty room, and then dropped it. He turned to Steve. "A whole passed, huh?"
Steve shrugged. "Then you got me and the other Commandoes. You said it cured you of ever wanting to take care of damn foolish reckless boy children again."
Bucky was quiet for a minute, and then he said, "You never scrubbed behind your ears enough. Coulda grown potatoes there."
He walked down the hallway, leaving Steve gaping after him. "There was a war on," he said.
"You ever see Agent Carter go a day without her hair curled and her lipstick perfect? War's no excuse. You were just a slob."
Behind Steve, Ariadne burst into laughter.
Steve had to come shoot the shadow guards of Bucky's memories again in the next car, and then three times in the car after that. The car after that, every door contained memories of younger Bucky: Bucky and Steve playing stickball, Bucky sitting around a campfire with the Commandoes, Steve and Bucky at the edges of a dance floor, Bucky sitting in church. After the memory of church, Bucky turned to Steve, his smile fading as he caught sight of Steve's face.
"What is it?" Bucky asked, taking a step toward him. "Did something happen? Do you need to take a break?"
"No, no, I'm fine," Steve said, dredging up a smile.
Bucky looked unimpressed.
"I really am all right," Steve said.
Steve said, haltingly, "You're here. You came back." He took a breath and looked up at Bucky. "I missed you."
Bucky's expression was soft, but he said, "You must have. You chased me in circles for months."
Steve huffed a laugh. "You knew about that?"
"Steve," Bucky smiled his 'you're an idiot' smile, the one he'd saved just for Steve since they were little kids. "Children in Siberia knew you were looking for me. The entire intelligence community watched while you used the entrails of Hydra's upper management to make friendship bracelets."
Steve went red. "I'm not that bad," he said, but he knew he really was.
Bucky said, "If you had lit your uniform on fire and run through the center of Sochi yelling my name, it would have been more subtle than your campaign to win me by spilling the blood of my enemies."
Steve rubbed his neck.
"Don't get me wrong," Bucky said. "It was great. Here I was, basically not even human, and Steve Rogers thought I was worth saving. Me." Bucky shook his head. "You don't know how much that helped."
Steve didn't say anything for a minute. Then he asked, "Is that why you went to Ariadne's team?"
Bucky looked at him, and it was so much like the way he'd looked on the fire escape, on the steps of the Basilia. Steve felt something welling up inside his chest, but before he could say anything, there was a huge echoing boom that shook the train until its joints rattled. Steve and Bucky both turned at the same time and ran back toward the others.
"What the hell was that?" Steve asked.
Ariadne looked grim. "Something from outside the dream. It's rare, but --"
There was another massive boom. Then Eames's whole body jerked and blood spattered out from a hole in his abdomen, and he disappeared.
"Eames!" Maria yelled.
Ariadne didn't say anything. She just took out her gun, aimed it at her head, and fired. She disappeared.
"Fuck," Maria said, and Steve braced himself. If Maria Hill was cursing, things were only going to get worse. "Someone must have found the apartment and subdued the Black Widow."
"And we're asleep on the floor next to Eames," Steve said. "I think he's been shot"
Maria looked at Bucky. "I have to help them."
Bucky said, "Go. I would join you, but," he spread his hands out.
Maria nodded at him. She looked at Steve, her expression unreadable, and then shot herself and disappeared.
Bucky looked around, expression grim.
Steve said, "They'll be fine. You don't know Maria." He tried to believe it.
Bucky stared at him. "What are you talking about? You're gonna go help them."
Steve said, "No, I'm not."
Bucky scowled. "Yes, you fucking are. Those are your people. They're your team, Captain, and you're not leaving them to deal with this on their own."
"Bucky," Steve said, his heart pounding. "I'm not leaving you down here."
Bucky waved around them at the dream of a train car. "You think I'm gonna get lost or something?"
"It doesn't matter," Steve said. "I'm not leaving you ever again."
Bucky said, "Steve, you have to."
"No, I don't."
Bucky waved his hands around in furious pantomime. "What is wrong with you? I will be right there, and you'll be able to protect my body from getting shot at."
"Bucky," Steve said, feeling desperate. "You don't understand. I can't lose you again."
Bucky made an inarticulate sound of rage and turned away to stare out the window. Steve wanted to reach out and touch Bucky's neck, the harsh angry line of Bucky's shoulders, but he didn't move. There was another monstrous booming sound, and the floor shuddered. Bucky whirled back around. "Please, Steve," he said. And that was it; the only argument Bucky ever needed. "It's not losing if I ask you to."
Steve said, "Then don't ask me to," but he knew he would go.
Steve thought of Bucky's memories of them. He thought of Bucky's smile on the steps of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, and the trust shining out of young Bucky's face after the fight in Grand Central. He thought of the Winter Soldier running through Europe; a man with no memory of Steve, who had still made Steve the most important thing in his world. Steve thought of his own cowardice, the years of longing, the way Bucky's memory had looked at him. Steve thought of the brief, gorgeous feeling of Bucky's breath on his lips.
Steve took a step and tipped his head down and kissed Bucky. He felt the hot perfect press of Bucky's mouth for just a second before he pulled away. He looked into Bucky's shocked face and said, "I'll come back. I won't leave you in here, I promise." Then he pulled out his Sig and shot himself, and fell into darkness.
Steve opened his eyes in the empty food court of Grand Central. Maria stood in front of him, her arms crossed. "You took your time," she said. "I was about to leave."
Steve looked around. "What are we doing here?" He wanted to go back.
Maria said, "I think Bucky's psyche is repairing itself. This is what would happen in a normal dream if you died on a lower level. We were -- four levels down? Now we're at level three."
Steve shook his head. He still remembered the feeling of Bucky's mouth, and the feeling of the bullet hitting his brain. "Levels?"
Maria said, "Nevermind. Lesson later. Rescue now." She pulled out her gun and shot him.
Steve woke at the base of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, and after a second Maria appeared next to him. He put a hand to his head. "Please don't do that without warning me," he said.
She said, "This is your warning," and shot him.
Steve opened his eyes on the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the Manhattan Bridge in front of him. Maria appeared next to him. He closed his eyes and waited for the gun to fire.
Instead of shooting him, Maria said, "When you wake up, follow my lead. If our attackers are here for Eames's team, I'll know what to do."
"And if they're Hydra?" Steve asked.
Maria said, "Shut them down."
Steve heard a gun fire and felt the impact of the bullet, and then he woke up.
Awareness came to Steve like the ground rushing up after a jump out of a plane. When it hit, he got lost for long seconds in the crispness of sensation: the chill, hard floor beneath him, the feeling of air in his throat as he breathed, the loud crashing sounds around him. And he could smell. The air smelled of garbage and car exhaust and gun oil and bodies and clothing and blood, and Steve wasted too much time breathing in. Near him, a man's voice grunted in pain.
Steve focused. People was fighting less than ten feet away from him. He heard the swift, light footsteps and flurry of blows that meant Natasha was still alive and fighting. Nearby to his right, Steve heard deep, heaving gasps of breath and a hitching sound like somebody was crying: two people, one sick and the other upset. Ariadne and Eames. He risked opening his eyes, but kept his body still.
At the corner of his vision to the left was a pile of men and women in civilian clothes. No more than five, no less than three. They seemed to be breathing, although several were bleeding heavily. Next to them lay the tall man in the baseball cap, the one Steve had seen walk into the old SHIELD office building hours ago. Was that still today? Next to the tall man, Arthur lay on his belly, body still, blood matting the side of his head.
When Steve looked the other way, he saw Ariadne and Dylan with had their hands pressed to Eames's belly. They were all three covered in blood, and Eames was unconscious.
He heard a shift above his head, where Maria was lying. She whispered, "Rumlow," and Steve felt red rage in his chest. There was a small shushing sound, like fabric on a hardwood floor, and then Maria was pressing something that felt like a knife into the palm of Steve's outstretched right hand. Steve took a second to locate Natasha's fight with Rumlow in his mind, and then he sat up, turned and threw in one smooth motion. He prayed that his aim was right, that Natasha wouldn't be hurt.
Steve saw his knife slice along Rumlow's arm, not enough to stop the man but enough to make him stumble. Rumlow, his face almost unrecognizable with burn scars, sneered at Steve and pulled a gun out, and then Maria drew her hand from behind Steve's back and shot Rumlow in the face.
Rumlow fell, and Natasha went down on her knees next to him. She looked exhausted, and she was bleeding from a busted nose and multiple scratches on her arms. She nodded at Maria and Steve. "Looks like the mission came to us, she said. "Thanks."
Maria pulled out her Stark Securities International ear com and held it to her ear. "Tony, I need you at my coordinates right now, and a medical team ready at the tower. And get Sam, tell him to move up his recon on the Hydra base. We were just attacked, and I want to know if anyone is left at the facility in Midtown."
Behind him, Steve heard Ariadne say, "Who is that? What is she talking about? We need an ambulance."
Maria said, "I don't fucking care if you're busy."
Steve looked at Natasha, checking in, and she gave him a tiny, tired smile. He smiled back, and then got up and went to Ariadne. She and Dylan had managed to shove a wad of clean white fabric over Eames's belly. It was already dark red and glistening with blood. Ariadne had tear tracks on her face, and Dylan was staring wide-eyed down at her hands. Steve said, "Our friend Tony has the best doctors in Manhattan, and he can get Eames there faster than an ambulance."
Ariadne shook her head. "I don't trust people I haven't met."
"I don't have time for this, Tony," Maria said, her voice ice cold. "One of my friends is dying, and you're going to save him."
Steve said, "He's on his way, he's just -- being Tony."
Dylan said, "That inspires me with not one tiny bit of confidence, Captain." Her voice was grim.
"Oh," Maria said, softer. "Well, thank you."
Steve said, "You'll see. If you can't trust him, trust me."
"I don't give a fuck about you right now," Ariadne said. "Go check Arthur, please."
Steve looked at her, then down at Eames, and then got up to check Arthur.
Maria said, "Yes, twenty-third street. We're on the third floor, facing south. One window opens out to the fire escape, and if that doesn't work there's a bay window at the south west corner that you can break."
Steve ignored Bucky lying asleep on the floor in the middle of all this chaos. He would go back, he would, but right now he had to take care of his people. He went to Natasha first and put a light hand on her shoulder. "What do you need?" he asked.
Natasha leaned into his hand the slightest bit, her head bowed. "I owe --" she shook her head. "I'm sorry. They got the drop on us. Used you all as hostages."
Steve asked again, "What do you need?" He wanted to say, I'm sorry we left you alone, but he knew from experience that it wouldn't go over well.
Natasha looked up at him. She said, "Go check Arthur, please. Ward stunned him and then kicked him in the head." Her voice was flat, like reciting a mission report, the way she spoke when she felt ashamed.
Steve grimaced, and went to check Arthur. Arthur wasn't bleeding anywhere except the small gash on his head, and he didn't have any visibly broken bones. He had some strange blue liquid under his eyes, which worried Steve. His pupils didn't dilate when Steve pulled his eyelids up, which worried Steve more.
"I think he has a concussion," Steve said. "And whatever this blue stuff is. Was he poisoned?"
Maria came up next to him. "It's SHIELD tech. It wears off. Natasha, what happened?"
Before Natasha could answer, there was the sound of an energy blast and breaking windows, and Iron Man came into the room.
"Holy fuck," Dylan said.
"Excuse me," Tony said to Ariadne and Dylan. "I need to take your friend."
Dylan said, "What, are you going to put him in a fireman's carry? He'll bleed out before you get to the hospital."
Tony tipped his faceplate at Maria. "Care to help?" he asked.
Maria said, "Ariadne, Dylan, I can promise you that Eames will be all right, but you have to do as we say."
Ariadne looked from Eames to Tony, and then said, "I vote yes."
Dylan said, "All right, goddammit, yes, what is your magic plan?"
Tony took what looked like a sheet of red and gold metal from off his shoulders, and it unfolded until it was the length of a person. "We need to get this under him."
Dylan said, "If that's the Iron Man equivalent of a motorcycle side car, I am going to light someone on fire."
Tony lay the metal sheet on the floor next to Eames, and then Steve and Maria and Ariadne and Dylan tipped Eames onto his side so that Tony could slide the sheet under him. Once Eames was on his back again, the sheet spread and folded up with mechanical whirring sounds until it became a red and gold cocoon that covered Eames completely. Tony said, "See you at the Tower," and the cocoon rose up on little pulse blasters and followed him out of the broken bay window.
Silence settled in his wake. Steve felt the heavy weight of post-battle fatigue, and he wanted to curl up next to Bucky's still body and join him again in sleep. Instead, he walked over to the pile of Hydra people in uniform and checked that none of them were waking up. There were three of them, and they all had blue seeping from beneath their eyelids.
"Oh, my God," Ariadne said, voice shaky.
"He'll be okay," Dylan said. "You saw that Star Trek business Iron Man pulled out. Eames is going to live a very long life, and you'll laugh at him every day of it."
"Oh, fuck," Ariadne said, and gasped like she was hyperventilating. After three hitching breaths, she said, "Okay, okay. I just needed a minute. I'm fine now."
"I know you are," Dylan said. "Superfine."
Ariadne gave a hysterical giggle. "God, don't make me laugh, not now."
Steve glanced over and saw that Dylan had her arm tight around Ariadne's shoulder. Maria was staring at the bloodstain on the floor, looking lost. She had her tablet out but wasn't touching it.
Natasha had curled into a slump on the floor and was holding her ribs tightly. Steve crouched down next to her again, and she gave him a tight, pain-filled smile. "See the blue on those Hydra soldiers? Dylan stole Ward's gun and iced them while I was fighting with Rumlow," she said. "It was beautiful."
"You're welcome," Dylan said. She sounded beaten-down tired. "How is Arthur?"
"He got zapped by a ray gun and he has a concussion," Steve said. "How are you?"
"Annoyed," she said. "You know this is my first job with these idiots?" She sounded steadier than she had a few minutes ago. She didn't let go of Ariadne.
Maria's tablet beeped, and Steve watched her slip her professional mask in place before she checked it. She said, "Dylan, Ariadne." The two women looked at her. "I have a team of Stark Securities people coming. They're going to take care of the bodies and clean up this mess. I've vetted every single one of them and I trust them with this assignment, but if you'd prefer they didn't know your identities, you should leave now. There's a black SUV downstairs at the mouth of the alleyway next to this building. I have a driver there who will take you to the Tower."
Ariadne and Dylan looked at each other, and then at Arthur. Steve said, "I can carry him down the fire escape. We're all going to the same place."
"This Tower of yours?" Ariadne asked. "What about the job? I'm not going back, I have to make sure Eames is okay, but we can't just leave Barnes here."
"We're not leaving anybody," Steve said.
Maria said, "One of my people is injured, two of your people need medical attention, our position has been overrun, and we may have attracted the attention of neighbors or the police. We're all going to the Tower, together or separately, and sorting ourselves out before we do anything else to help Sergeant Barnes."
Ariadne asked, "How long will it take?"
Maria said, "A couple of hours, no more."
Ariadne shook her head. She said, "That won't work. Somebody has to go back down there."
Steve's heart started to pound. "Why? Is he unstable?" Did Steve leave him down there unstable and alone?
Ariadne said, "No, but he's waiting for us. Dream time isn't like time when you're awake; it telescopes. It was bad enough when we had to wait to get Captain Rogers, and Barnes is even deeper now. It's probably been days for him already."
Steve's whole body felt cold. "I'm going back down there," he said. He walked to the mattress where Bucky lay unmoving. In the time it had taken them to finish a fight, Bucky's mind had been alone for days. Christ.
Maria said, "You know it will be much harder to move him if you're connected to the PASIV as well."
"Ask me if I give a damn," Steve said.
"Steve --" Maria started.
Natasha said, "Maria, it will be okay."
Steve turned to thank Natasha and saw that she had moved. She was still carrying herself like her ribs were broken, but now she had set of magnetic cuffs and was slowly bending the unconscious Ward's arms and legs so she could hog-tie him.
"You don't get to meddle when you have multiple broken bones," Maria snapped. "Give me that. Take a fucking break for once." She marched over and took the cuffs out of Natasha's hands. Natasha winked at Steve from her seat on the floor, and Steve grinned at her. "Fine. Rogers, do whatever you have to, but we won't be able to send anyone down with you."
"That's fine," Steve said. "Wake me if you need me." He went to the PASIV and began picking over the little tubes. He had no idea which one had been his. In all the chaos of waking up and fighting, he hadn't noticed when it pulled out or where it had fallen.
"Oh, no, my friend," Dylan said. "You are not using a dirty needle and hooking your idiot self up to my PASIV on your own. Sit down."
Dylan unwound her arm from Ariadne's shoulders and went fishing in a little makeup bag next to the PASIV. She pulled out a handful of alcohol swabs and started scrubbing her hands with them.
Maria finished cuffing Ward, and said, "My team can wait until you're done and gone."
Dylan didn't look up from where she was scrubbing her hands. "Your choice, Ariadne," she said. "After this, I'm not coming back to the States anyway. I miss Prague, and my sanity."
Ariadne huffed out a long breath. "Fuck it. Send them in. I can always go back to Paris."
Dylan removed the needle on the tube and replaced it with a clean one from a disposable package. She checked the PASIV, looking at a bottle of liquid inside the machine and a tiny screen with a rolling display of incomprehensible text. "All right, Captain, you can lie down now."
Steve scooted over next to Bucky's mattress and stretched himself on the floor. Dylan slid the needle in. The last thing he heard before she depressed the plunger and he fell into darkness was a man's pained groan and Maria Hill saying, "Grant Ward, you are the dumbest fuck alive." Her voice was filled with anger and deep satisfaction.
Then he was asleep.
Steve opened his eyes, and saw that he was standing on the pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a beautiful clear day, and he could see all the way past the Manhattan Bridge to the Statue of Liberty. Men and women crowded the walkway. Some wore dresses and suits like Steve remembered from before the war, and some wore skinny jeans and plaid like Steve remembered from last week. Nobody looked at him, and he didn't remember their faces once they passed by.
He looked down at the water. It was smooth as glass and a deep greenish-blue. He looked up at the sky and couldn't find the sun. He thought he might like to see the Brooklyn Promenade, and so he joined the flow of people walking south along the bridge.
When he got to the Tillary Street exit, there was no staircase. Instead, he took a step on the pathway and was suddenly back in the middle of the bridge, staring out at Lady Liberty. Steve frowned. He was sure that wasn't how it was supposed to go. He turned to ask someone where the exit was, but nobody stopped at his, "Excuse me?" or his waving hand.
Suddenly, Steve heard a barking sound and the rapid thump of paws on wood, and he looked up to see a liver-colored pit bull run toward him. Steve remembered, and laughed, bending down to hug the dog just as it crashed into him. He was in Bucky's dream. He was going to find Bucky and fix everything. He had missed the dog.
"Where were you, huh?" he asked it, scratching at the fur behind its ears. The dog's eyes went to slits and it leaned its head against his hand. "You want to show me where Bucky is?"
The dog whuffed at him, and then stepped away and started walking toward Brooklyn.
"I already tried that," Steve said. The dog, of course, didn't answer. Steve shrugged and walked after it.
Now that he knew he was in a dream, the people surrounding him were a little worrisome. Were these what Ariadne and Eames had called "projections"? Eames had said not to kill any, back when they had first started this adventure; did that mean they were dangerous? Steve examined them as he walked, but once he looked away he couldn't remember anything he had seen. After a while he gave up.
When he came within sight of the Tillary exit, he slowed down. The dog turned and barked at him. Steve said, "It's just going to zap me back to where I started."
The dog looked unimpressed. It barked again, and Steve shrugged and started walking again. The dog led Steve to an empty stretch of the pedestrian walkway. In the middle of the space sat a PASIV machine. On it, a note in Bucky's handwriting read, "Use me."
Steve woke up at the base of the steps of Sacre-Coeur Basilica, with a liver-colored pit bull standing next to him. He remembered the dream. He remembered everything.
"Come on, boy!" he called to the dog. "Race you to the top." He took off up the steps, and the dog charged after him, barking madly. He felt a high swooping joy inside his chest, and he felt the bright burn of hope, and underneath all of that an impatient excitement. Bucky, Bucky, Bucky, he thought.
At the top of the steps, the crowd of projections thinned. The dog led him past the columns and up to the great doors, and there, waiting on the marble tile, was a PASIV.
Steve woke in the main lobby of Grand Central station. The dog was still with him. They walked together through the halls and down the stairs to the food court. The food court was still empty of tables and chairs, with one exception: near the track gates, where Steve and the others had gone through to get to Bucky's train, was a little round Parisian cafe table with one rickety chair. The meagre surface area of the table was taken up almost completely by a PASIV machine.
Steve was standing on the train platform at Grand Central. In front of him was the shortest, strangest train he had ever seen. It still had the white swooping maglev nose, but after that there were only two cars. They both looked like the 1930s boxcars Steve had thought about hopping the summer after his mother died. He stared at it for a moment, uncomprehending. Where was the rest? Steve and the others had walked through what felt like miles' worth of train cars, and now there were only these two.
Then he remembered that the train was part of Bucky's mind, and most of it was missing now, and he broke into a run.
The door to the first train car was open, and he barrelled through at a sprint and ran toward the back. He barely noticed the surroundings, just put one foot in front of the other until he almost fell over Bucky, who was sitting with his back to the rear door of the train car, his face in his hands. "Bucky," Steve said, stumbling to a halt next to Bucky and dropping to his knees. "Bucky, is everything all right?"
Bucky twitched, and his head came up. "Yeah, fine. Why?"
Steve slumped down. His heart was pounding and his body felt hot and cold. "Nothing," he said, and giggled. This fucking day. Bucky gave him a baffled look, and it made him laugh harder.
"All right," Bucky said, shrugging.
Steve made an effort to calm down. Once he stopped smiling, he felt worried all over again. "Ariadne said you've been here for days. And the train -- it's all gone. What happened?"
Bucky looked around. Steve followed his gaze, taking in the old wood floor and bare metal walls, the hanging light fixtures and the bars on the windows. It was incredibly depressing. How long had Bucky been here? Steve opened his mouth to ask, and Bucky said, "I got bored, if you can believe it."
Steve snapped his mouth shut.
Bucky said, "All this time, all the pain and the memories and those stupid shadow people, and then you leave and I get bored. So I," he scratched his eyebrow, looking sheepish. "I started thinking about why I couldn't fight the shadow people on my own. Earlier, when we started, it was like no matter what they did I couldn't touch them. And the next car and the next, the ones you walked through with me, I still couldn't touch them. But I started to feel like I might be able to, and I couldn't figure out why. You left before I could say anything."
Steve swallowed. "I'm sorry."
"Shut up," Bucky said calmly. "I don't want your sorry. I asked you to go. Just. Look, am I making sense?"
Steve shook his head, and Bucky made a frustrated face.
"It's hard to explain," Bucky said. "When I say, 'I thought about it,' that's not really what happened. I mostly stood around and poked at reality and tried to make gravity go the other way, it wasn't anything so logical as thinking. But what I figured was -- the train is a prison for my memories, yeah, but it's also the process of losing them. Ariadne said it, we were going back in time. And the farther back I went and the more pieces of myself that got put back together, the more I undid what they'd done to my brain. I got stronger. And I wondered, am I strong enough to go the rest of the way on my own? So I tried it."
"That was a hell of a risk," Steve said, remembering the way the shadow people had subdued Bucky before. He remembered the way Bucky had screamed and screamed, when they put him inside the first room for reset. "What if you hadn't been able to touch them? They would have locked you in a room like before, and I wouldn't --" he stopped. I wouldn't have been able to save you, he wanted to say. "I wouldn't have known."
Bucky said, "I had to try."
And that was it, really. "Okay," Steve said. "I'm guessing it worked, whatever you did."
Bucky grinned. "Hydra gave me a lot to work with. My imagination wasn't nearly this good during the war. The most we had back then was TNT, grenades, fire and bullets. This time, I used amplified sound waves."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "Sound waves?"
Bucky said, "I laughed them to death."
Steve wanted, suddenly, desperately, to touch him. He wanted to put his hands on Bucky's face, to press their cheeks together, to breathe in time with Bucky's heartbeat. Steve wanted to kiss him, and keep kissing him, the strongest man Steve had ever known, and the greatest friend. It must have shown on his face, because Bucky's eyes went wide. Bucky lifted up his metal hand to Steve's face, and then flinched and dropped it. Steve said, "No, c'mere." He grabbed Bucky's metal hand and brought it up to his mouth and kissed the palm. He felt giddy and full of light. He felt like he could jump up and start flying any minute.
Bucky snatched his hand away as if Steve had burned him, and the light in Steve's chest winked out. He breathed in, and nodded, pulling his body away. They were still them, after all. They fell instead of flying.
"No, Steve," Bucky said.
"It's fine," Steve said. Of course Bucky wasn't interested still. It had been a long time, and they'd both changed, and maybe the handsome smiling memory of Bucky wanted to kiss Steve, but that didn't mean --
"It's just really difficult," Bucky said in a rush, "to be touched." He made a face like he was ashamed.
"Oh," Steve said. Well, that also made sense.
"But I liked that, what you did just now. And before, when you kissed me, I liked that."
"Oh," Steve said, feeling warm. "Well. Okay." Bucky narrowed his eyes at Steve, and Steve ducked his head and cleared his throat, feeling happy and horribly awkward all at once. "So you figured out how to deal with the shadow people. What happened then?"
Bucky watched him for another minute, and then said, "I got back everything. Lessons at St Catherine's, my first time showering with hot water, my first assassination as the Winter Soldier, all of it. I've been sitting here for, I don't know, a long time."
Steve hesitated, then asked, "How is it? How are you?"
"It's hard to remember to breathe sometimes, with all this inside me. But it's good, too. Is that weird? It hurts but it's so good, to be like this." Bucky laughed a little, and scrubbed at his face with his hands. "I don't know what I'm gonna do when I get topside."
"There are people out there who can help you" Steve said. "If you want."
"Maybe," Bucky said, and gave him a tired smile.
Steve smiled back. "So you're breathing. You have everything. Why haven't you woken up? Do you -- are you planning to stay down here for a while?"
Bucky's smile faded into nothing. "Stand up and look through the window behind me."
Steve stood, frowning, and looked out the square porthole window of the train door. Through it, he could see a tiny passageway to the next train car, and another window. Through that window, Steve saw Bucky as he remembered him from the war: blue trousers, sturdy boots, short hair, dogtags, dirty blue wool shirt. What was different about this Bucky, what Steve didn't remember because he hadn't ever seen it, was the missing left arm and the torn sleeve covered in blood, the tear tracks down Bucky's face, the gaunt bearded cheeks, and the complete defeat in his posture. This was Bucky as Hydra had found him, or made him. This was Bucky after he fell from the train.
Steve sat back down with a thump. "Bucky, oh my God," he said. He squeezed his eyes shut, and then opened them again to stare.
Bucky, this long-haired, older, sadder Bucky, nodded and said, "You see my problem."
Steve said, "I don't -- what are you going to do?"
Bucky shook his head. "I have to talk to him. You saw, with the others. The younger boy, he loved me, and the older one trusted me a little. I have to talk to this one, I know I do. I've just been gathering my courage."
"How long have you been gathering it?" Steve asked.
"About twelve hours," Bucky said. "I'm almost there."
"God, Bucky," Steve said again. "Come here." He reached for Bucky's shoulder. Bucky twitched, then he fell on Steve in an awkward hug. Bucky was stiff as a board in Steve's arms, but he let Steve hold him and bury a face in his long, tangled hair. His skin was warm. "I'm sorry I wasn't there," Steve said.
"You mean for my crisis of sitting down and thinking about stuff?" Bucky said, but his voice was shaky.
"I mean all of it," Steve said, his face still tucked against Bucky's hair. The train, the Hydra camp in Italy, the years of shadow people locking his memories away. "I'm sorry."
"Hey, no," Bucky said, pulling away. "What are you --"
Steve couldn't look at his face. "For all of it, for everything they did to you. And I'm sorry I was a coward about -- I mean, about --"
"Stop," Bucky said. "You don't have to say it. I'm fine, I don't need -- anything."
"I do have to say it," Steve told his clenched hands. "Just, if you think you're not the best thing that's ever happened to me, if you think you're not the most important --" he shook his head. "And I was so scared, when we were growing up. I'd look at you, and you were so beautiful and I was just so scared. And I'm sorry, 'cause it hurt you."
Bucky was quiet for a long time. Steve looked over from his own hands to Bucky's, where they rested in his lap. Then he looked up at Bucky's chest as it rose and fell with his breath, the shape of muscle and bone under the uniform. Bucky said, tentatively, "You weren't ever scared of anything. I remember."
Steve shook his head. "I was scared of getting arrested. I was scared of losing you. I was scared of being a pervert. I was scared of breaking Ma's heart. What if she found out about me? Bucky, I was scared all the time."
Bucky was quiet for a minute, and then he laughed. "Steven Grant Rogers, you don't have the sense you were born with." Steve looked up at his face, shocked. Bucky was smiling softly. "You think she didn't know how I felt about you? And she let me come around anyway. Aunt Sarah was a good Catholic, and proud of it, but she woulda fought an army of priests for me, and I wasn't even her own son."
"My ma?" Steve asked, wide-eyed.
Bucky leaned his head back against the door. "The very one. She still would have loved you to the ends of the earth if she knew."
Steve breathed in, and let the knowledge settle on his shoulders. His ma wouldn't have judged him. Bucky wouldn't have judged him. Maybe Peggy and the Commandos -- but he couldn't think that way. He asked, "Are you scared? Of being like that?"
Bucky said, "Maybe when I was younger. I got whole new worlds of scared inside me now. It changes how you think about things, you know." He swallowed, and ducked his head. "I'm scared I'll hurt you. But I ain't scared of loving you."
Steve looked down at his hands again. They had looked just like his father's until the serum changed them. His mother had cradled his hands in hers when he was sick. Bucky had grabbed his hands and pulled him along to baseball games, away from fights, out of the burning Hydra base in Austria. Steve's hands had reached for Bucky and missed. His hands could touch Bucky now. He asked, "After we wake up, may I take you dancing?"
Bucky laughed again, but this one sounded weak and sad. "I'm not much for dancing these days," he said. He lifted his head up, and cupped his chin in his metal palm. "Can't dance with someone if you don't like being touched."
"Coffee, then," Steve said. He looked up. "You must still like coffee."
"Yeah, Rogers, I still like coffee," Bucky said, rolling his eyes. "It's the part afterward that I'm not so good with anymore."
Steve felt the lightness in his chest again, the sense that he could fly. He said, "Come stay with me and my friends, and let me buy you coffee. Everything else, we can see what happens. Just come back with me."
Steve held his hand out and waited, holding his breath. After a minute, Bucky reached over and touched the tips of his flesh and blood fingers to the tips of Steve's. He said, "All right."
Bucky took his hand away after a minute, but Steve imagined he could still feel the warmth on his fingertips. Bucky said, "But you don't have to wait around for me. I don't know how long I'm gonna be." He waved at the door behind him.
Steve raised his eyebrows. "That's exactly what I'm going to do. I'm going to leave you all by yourself with a belly full of memories and another Bucky in pain on the other side of the door. After you declared your undying love for me."
"Don't you sass me," Bucky said. "It's not undying, it's just annoyingly persistent. And maybe I don't want you here."
Steve shrugged. "So ask me to go."
Bucky scowled. "What are you gonna do, huh? You can't fix this."
"Who said I wanted to fix anything?" Steve asked. "You seem to be doing just fine on your own."
"Yeah, I'm doing fucking great," Bucky said bitterly.
"Bucky," Steve told him, "you've been rescuing yourself since I got here. You are amazing."
Bucky glared. "Oh, well, as long as I'm amazing."
Steve pointed at him. "Who left me those PASIVs all over with the notes?"
Bucky hunched his shoulders. "I didn't want you to get lost."
"Well," Steve started ticking off his fingers. It gave him something to do with his hands besides throttle Bucky. "Who figured out how to kill the shadow people after everyone else left you here?"
Bucky said, "It only took me seventy years."
"Shut up," Steve said. He ticked another finger. "Who has absorbed years of painful, sad, scary, awful memories all at once just to put himself back together?"
Bucky said, "That's not something to be proud of. I had to."
"Who faced down two angry, terrified versions of himself and got them all to fit together?"
"Yeah, well not this one," Bucky said. "You don't get it. I failed him, all right? I left."
"Bucky," Steve said, and paused. He swallowed around the lump in his throat. "Did you really have a choice?"
Bucky hunched even further. "It doesn't matter. I left him all alone. He's been in pain for such a long time."
Steve reached out, slow enough that Bucky could move away if he wanted, and curled his hand around the side of Bucky's neck, right at the base of his jaw. Bucky's skin was warm, and it was a thrill to be able to touch him. Steve waited until Bucky leaned into his hand, until Bucky's shoulders came down and his chin lifted, and then said, "So go help him."
Bucky met his eyes, and nodded. He stood up, and Steve moved away to give him space. Bucky looked through the porthole window for a minute, and then squared his shoulders. He opened the door.
The other Bucky didn't look up when Steve and Bucky came in. He sat slumped against the wall, his eyes closed, curled protectively around the bandaged stump of his left arm. The other Bucky twitched when they walked closer, and turned his face away.
"Hey," Bucky said softly, stepping close. "Hey, it's okay now."
The other Bucky shook his head, but didn't say anything.
Bucky crouched down next to him, and then leaned against the wall so they were curled like parentheses around the other Bucky's wounded arm. "Hey, I'm here now."
The other Bucky opened his eyes. "It hurts."
"I know," Bucky said, his face twisted with sadness. "I know it does."
The other Bucky said, "I'm scared."
"I know you are," Bucky said, voice thick. His face twisted like he was trying not to cry. "I remember. You're so brave."
The other Bucky sighed. "I missed you," he said, and some of the tension in his body eased.
"I know. I'm sorry," Bucky said. "I missed you, too." He reached out and put his arm around the other Bucky's shoulders and held him close. The other Bucky huddled into him. "I won't leave you alone ever again. I promise."
The other Bucky sighed again, and he gripped a strap of Bucky's uniform. The two of them started to glow. They got brighter and brighter until Steve had to shield his eyes. When the glow faded, Steve saw Bucky sitting along on the floor, staring at his hands. After a minute, he looked up at Steve and gave him a tiny, shaky smile. "Let's go home," he said.
It turned out you didn't have to kill yourself to get out of a dream if the dreamer had control. Bucky just closed his eyes, and they were back in the food court of Grand Central Station. There were even more projections, but everybody ignored Steve and Bucky. Steve blinked, and they were on the steps of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica.
"I didn't ask before," Steve said. "Why here?"
"Huh," Bucky said, looking around. "You know, I have no idea."
"It is beautiful," Steve said, looking out at Montmartre. "You know I haven't been back for real since that assignment."
"I hear you've been busy saving the world," Bucky said.
Steve turned to look at him, and they were back on the pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was sunset, and the sky glowed pink and gold behind the buildings Steve remembered from his childhood. Steve said, "Saving the world looks a lot like sitting around moping when my best friend isn't there to keep me company."
Bucky made a face at him. "Don't get mushy on me, Rogers. I distinctly remember keeping you company with several bullets and a dunk in the Potomac."
Steve said, "It got me out of the house."
Bucky laughed, and looked surprised at himself. "Don't joke about that," he said.
"No joking, all right," Steve said, holding his hand up.
Bucky opened his mouth to say something else, but they were interrupted by loud, joyous barking. The pit bull came running along the pedestrian walkway toward them.
Steve crouched down to hug it. "There you are! I was wondering if I'd get to see you again."
The dog licked his face, wagging its tail so hard it almost pulled itself off balance.
"Stop that. Now you're just embarrassing yourself," Bucky said.
"Huh?" Steve looked up at him, confused, but Bucky was looking at the dog.
"What do you think, huh? Did I pass?" Bucky asked. The dog trotted up to him and sniffed his flesh and blood hand. It jumped up on its hind legs and Bucky caught its front legs. Suddenly it was tall enough that they stood face-to-face. The dog sniffed Bucky's ear, and wagged its tail slightly. Bucky said, "You don't have to decide right away."
The dog licked his chin.
Bucky smiled and tilted his face away. "I know. But you don't have to. You don't gotta do anything you don't want to ever again."
The dog went completely still, and then it began to glow. Steve saw an image of Bucky and the dog play-fighting. He saw an image of the Winter Soldier and the dog standing together, ready to do battle. Then the glow faded and the dog was gone.
Bucky looked at Steve, and whatever he must have seen on Steve's face made him grin. He looked like he had when they were teenagers, handsome and full of life, and Steve loved him so hard it hurt. Bucky walked over and leaned up, and this time it was easy for Steve to meet him. They kissed in the sunset on the Brooklyn Bridge until Steve woke up.
Steve opened his eyes and smelled new car, gun oil, and Bucky. He turned his head and saw Bucky lying next to him. Bucky's eyes were open, and after a second he looked over at Steve. He smiled shyly, and Steve smiled back.
The floor rocked. Steve looked around, and realized they were on the floor in the back of a van. He heard voices, but couldn't make out the words. He reached one hand over until the tips of his fingers were almost touching the tips of Bucky's.
"Hey," Bucky said quietly. "What happened to Eames?"
Steve blinked. He hadn't even thought of Eames in what felt like a long time. Maybe it really was time to get out of this business. "Tony brought him to the Tower. We'll make sure he's okay, and the others. That's where we're going now, actually."
Bucky said, "Huh."
Steve felt uncertain all of a sudden. "Is that all right? I know I asked you to come with me, but I'm not going to hold you to it if you need to be alone."
Bucky said, "And let you get into trouble on your own? No, sir."
Steve felt Bucky's fingers touch his, and the thrill of it reached all the way down to his toes.
Bucky said, "I owe everybody a drink anyway."
Steve said, "And then I can introduce you to my friends." He experimented with stroking his fingertips against Bucky's. It was scarier now that he was awake, but it felt better, too. More real.
Bucky snorted. "Yes, we should definitely introduce me to your superhero friends, who I have knocked off of buildings and shot."
Steve said, "They'll love you. They'll decide they like you better and steal you away from me."
"Not gonna happen," Bucky said, and shifted until their fingers laced together.
Steve closed his eyes, savoring the warmth and weight of Bucky's hand in his, the glow of happiness in his chest. He kept the feeling close through their ride to the Tower.
Just before the van came to a stop, Steve felt Bucky pull their joined hands up to his mouth. Bucky breathed against the back of Steve's hand, and then lightly kissed Steve's knuckles. The car engine turned off, and Steve opened his eyes, but Bucky didn't let go.