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I can’t remember how this started (but I can tell you exactly how it ends)

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Open your eyes. Look at the targets’ pictures on the monitor, read the mission profile. Eat the food they put in front of you, choose your weapons, stand still while they secure your tactical gear.

Wait. Something’s wrong.

The soldier scans the room, the strike team’s faces, but detects no complications. He watches the technicians as they put the maintenance equipment away. The soldier’s mind is still fuzzy from recalibration and his body aches, dull and ancient, from...something. A fight? He doesn’t remember. He moves his real arm around and around to analyze its performance, but it functions, though a passing thought tells him its function was impeded--broken, perhaps, in that fight.

It’s eerie and familiar and makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He knows he should trust his instinct, instinct is a valuable tactical tool, but everything in here tells him the situation is normal. He’s not allowed access to his maintenance records, so he can’t verify why he feels this way.

They get in the transport, and Rumlow speaks on a mobile phone. The soldier watches him. Roger that. “Roger that,” Rumlow says. The soldier shakes his head. Roger, Rogers--the soldier’s target is called Rogers. Now Rumlow will say something else, the soldier knows this somehow, and it will be about him. “Yes, sir, the asset’s compliant.” His eyes dart to the side, as if he expects the soldier to react to this. He’s unstable. Erratic.

After a quick tactical briefing, the soldier takes the grenade launcher to the air strip. He knows exactly what each enemy who tries to stop him along the way will do. Every life he takes is like checking off a box on a list, because he’s taken them before, he must have somehow. Then he engages with the man with the wings and his mission, Captain America, two more boxes checked off the list. He’s seen them before. His target calls him

Bucky?

Who the hell is Bucky?

and the dispatch over comms indicates they’re heading for the server control tower on helicarrier C, but he already knows that. He heads up there before his target can reach it. Wait. How does he know that’s his target’s goal?

They’ll meet on the gangway. He’s seen this before. Rogers comes toward him. “People are going to die, Buck.” I can’t let that happen. “I can’t let that happen.” He acts as if the soldier has any say in this, as if they’re...friends, and can work together to stop it.

You’re my friend.

He shoots him once, twice, three times. It won’t stop him. The target--Rogers--still completes his mission. The soldier needs to complete his. Or

or he doesn’t

no one will know he’s failed the mission. Why hasn't he heard from anyone since Rogers engaged with him? Catastrophic mission failure, and he didn’t

doesn’t

have an extraction plan for that.

The helicarriers are on fire, exploding around them. “I’m with you to the end of the line,” Rogers says, and something cuts through the static in his mind, shakes the glitch in his processing out, and then he’s diving in after him because this is his mission, it must be his mission, it was always his mission to save Rogers. Steve. Steven Grant Rogers.

He walks in the direction of the bridge and steals an SUV. Rogers broke his arm. That’s why his arm hurt this morning.

No. That’s impossible. It doesn’t make sense.

He drives outside the city, watching as the emergency vehicles pour into it, wondering if he’ll be caught. By Hydra, by Rogers’s team, by anyone. He turns on the car radio and listens to the breathless reports of the destruction. Rumors that Captain America is dead. His breath stops in his lungs, his chest aches worse than his arm. Rogers was alive when the soldier left him on the bank. He was supposed to leave him, that’s what he did

before

the last time. But how could he have done that before? It’s illogical.

He finds a safe house not yet compromised and settles in. His mind is twisting, turning. He should sleep, but he can’t. This is the place he should have woken up in this morning. This is the exact place he was when he went to sleep.

///

Open your eyes. Look at the targets’ pictures on the monitor, read the mission profile. Eat the food they put in front of you, choose your weapons.

Wait. Something’s wrong.

These are the same mission parameters as yesterday, the same operational structure. The soldier wheels around, grabs the technician by the throat. His metal hand will crush it instantly and the technician knows precisely how quickly he will die. “What did you do to me?” the soldier snaps, as the technician claws desperately at his arm. The rest of the strike team turn their guns on him. The soldier swears at them in Russian.

He pulls the technician to him so their noses are touching. “What. Did. You. Do.”

“I don’t know what you’re asking!” he squawks when he’s finally released, crumpling to the floor. The soldier doesn’t bother to look at the guns pointed at him. If he wanted to, he could wipe the floor with all of them in less than six seconds. They think they’re a threat, and he allows them to. He no longer feels the need for obedience, but he doesn’t know why. Obedience is part of the function of a soldier.

“Is there a problem here?” Rumlow shouts, shouldering his way through them to confront the soldier.

Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. That’s the problem.

“This is the same as yesterday,” he says, a statement of fact, and makes a fist with his metal hand. Rumlow takes a half-step back. Their fear of him has never given him pleasure before, but it does now. That’s...peculiar.

“Whoa, easy there. You want me to get Pierce?” he says, as if talking to a stray animal. “He won’t like that, not today. We got a job to do. Get your shit together, soldier. Gear up.”

“Project Insight. Captain America. Black Widow.” He pauses, lost in thought. A boy, small, with a bloody nose and bloody knuckles and red-rimmed blue eyes that are wet with tears he won’t allow himself to shed. “Steven Grant Rogers. Level six targets.”

Rumlow stares at him as if he’s lost his mind. But...hasn’t he? His mind was questionable already, that’s why they put him in the chair for recalibration. But I knew him.

He’s unstable. Erratic.

The soldier stands still and allows them to secure his tactical gear. They get in the SUV and Rumlow’s speaking to Pierce. The soldier knows exactly what he’ll say, each word as Rumlow speaks it. He knows there will be combat by the time he reaches the pilots. He knows Rogers will be on the helicarrier and then on the gangway and then in the river. Every step, every shot, every punch he’s made before.

This is implanted in his mind. It’s not really happening because it can’t be happening. Maybe he’s in cryosleep and this is the dream they gave him for those endless nights. What purpose a dream like this could have, he doesn’t know. But those were never things meant for him to know--why they gave him languages to speak or skills he could use, like flying the jets. Everything has a strategic purpose. It must.

He pulls Rogers from the river and stares down at him. Should he stay here with Rogers until his team retrieves him? He remembers...someone saying that Captain America might be dead. Maybe he’s recalling orders that he should stay here and make sure he’s safe, orders he doesn’t remember receiving.

“You know me.” His name is James Buchanan Barnes, and Steven Grant Rogers was his friend. It’s true. He knows it’s true.

So he stays with him, kneeling down with his fingers on Rogers’s pulse, until he sees the helo circle nearby. When they get close, he goes for cover in the trees, and watches as they fly him away. The soldier must have dreamed all this, and the dream was telling him to make sure Steve Rogers was safe. He was always supposed to make sure Steve was safe.

///

Open your eyes. Look at the targets’ pictures on the monitor, read the mission profile. Eat the food they put in front of you.

Wait. This is not how it’s supposed to be. He completed the mission, and he stayed.

The target’s picture is frozen on the monitor. Steve. He’s supposed to kill Steve and his friends, not save him. But the soldier is his friend. He’s James Buchanan Barnes. I’m James Barnes.

Bucky?

I knew him, but they said I didn’t. Yesterday? That’s why his mind is fuzzy, because he was wiped. Yesterday. But he’s woken up here now for

three days

the same mission, the same operations area, repeatedly. They’re asking him to choose his weapons, holding out his tactical gear. He stares at them. They’re terrified of him, and he smiles at that. The technician goes white when he does.

“What did you do to me?” the soldier asks quietly this time. “Why is this experience repeating?”

The technician trembles. Maybe he’s never spoken to them before. He can’t recall, because it wasn’t worth recalling. The soldier

no, he has a name, it’s Barnes

steps forward and the technician stumbles backward. “We’ve done nothing out of the ordinary. Just standard protocol for recalibration. Maintenance.” He hates the soldier--Barnes--it’s obvious.

“You wiped my mind. There was something I wanted to remember.” He hears the strike team cock their guns. Irrelevant, background noise. He requires answers.

“We were ordered to. Sir.”

Barnes laughs at that. Everyone glances at everyone else. He’s never laughed or smiled, so they believe he’s malfunctioning. But he is, isn’t he? Because he can’t keep waking up day after day in the same place and everything’s been reset. That’s impossible. It has to be a glitch in the maintenance protocols.

“What did you perform differently this time? Is this an implanted memory, or simply a cognitive malfunction?”

Is there a problem? Rumlow steps in. “Is there a problem? What do you think you’re doing, soldier? Stand down.” He puts the gun in Barnes’s face.

Barnes considers him for a moment before he shrugs and says, “Missing intel.” He can’t remember ever shrugging before, either, and Rumlow clearly notices this.

“Are you compromised? Because I can call Pierce if you are.” Barnes knows what that means.

They get in the SUV, and Rumlow hesitates this time when he tells Pierce that they’re on schedule and the asset is compliant.

This is valuable intel, though. He learns there are minor variations, each one dependent upon his actions. Ripples in the pond if he throws in a pebble. Each day repeats for them, but only Barnes is aware that it is repeating and everything’s happened before. That must mean it’s all in his mind. Something’s gone wrong in the process of wiping his memory or putting him into cryofreeze. Or he just wants to remember the last thing that happened, make it better so he can hold on to

to Steve Rogers

some memory they don’t want him to have, something that got knocked loose on his last mission. Something potentially dangerous to them? That might explain why he no longer cares to be obedient. His mind is making a dream out of a failed mission. Maybe he’s malfunctioned like this before, maybe that’s why he was in stasis for so long the last time.

They get to the Triskelion and it’s the same thing. He takes the grenade launcher and heads for the deck. This time when the security team tries to stop him, he knocks them out instead of killing them. He sees the pilots heading for their planes. Instead of destroying the planes and shooting the pilots, he slips behind cover until he finds one he can fly up to the helicarrier--where he knows Steve will be.

He cocks his head when Steve shows up on the gangway. Each time Barnes has kicked him off the side, he’s managed to survive. That must mean it’s a dream. And if it’s a dream, he can’t choose an alternate profile, can he? Or maybe he can.

“Please don’t make me do this.”

“It’s not in the mission profile,” Barnes says, and Rogers hesitates, the sad, haunted look in his eyes softening.

“I can help you,” Steve says at last. “You don’t remember me, and you have no reason to trust me, but I can help you. At the very least I can get you away from them.

“I must complete the mission.”

“No, you don’t, Buck. You don’t have to complete it.” Maybe this is the turning point, Barnes thinks. Maybe instead of waiting with Rogers on the bank of the river, he’s supposed to let him swap out the computer chip without interference. He steps aside.

Rogers switches the chip out and turns to him. “You’re my friend. I want to help you.” He puts his wrist to his mouth and says, “Charlie carrier lock. Fire now.”

Barnes just stares at him. Maybe he’s allowed this to go too far. The punishment will be beyond anything he’s ever known if...whatever this plan of theirs is fails and he’s back in that chair.

“James Buchanan Barnes,” he says. Rogers smiles.

“Yeah. You were my best friend. You fell off a train in the war and they--you survived somehow and they made you something you’re not. Something like me, a super-soldier, and you’ve been a prisoner of war ever since. You were born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, and you were a sergeant in the 107th Division of the US Army. This is not who you are. You’re not an assassin.” His voice is so soothing. There’s a sound coming from his comms. Rogers listens, then says again, “Negative, fire now.”

If they stay here, they’ll both end up in the river again. But he doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to stop looking at Steve Rogers’s eyes. There’s something about those eyes, his face, it’s like looking at the sun after coming out of cryofreeze, warm and full of the life he’s been denied for so long.

Outside, the carriers start blasting away at each other. The gangway shakes and shudders and with a groan it gives way, dropping them both to the bay beneath. A girder collapses on top of him, just like before, but this time it gets Steve as well. He looks over at Barnes, says, “One, two--” and on three they both lift it and crawl out from underneath. He remembers this. He remembers that they were a team. There was nothing they couldn’t do together.

They stand there panting, staring. “Something will happen in a few seconds,” Barnes says. “Tell me now, what does it mean--to the end of the line?”

Steve gapes at him. He takes his helmet off. “It was something--” and then a huge piece of the carrier crashes down next to them and sends Steve hurtling into the boiling water below.

 

This time Barnes holes up in a different safehouse, far outside the city. There’s no broken arm to heal. Steve has not put him in a chokehold. So he should be able to stay awake. He’s changed almost all the variables.

He tries to order it in his mind. None of this makes any sense. If it’s a dream, how can he control what happens? He shouldn’t be able to make conscious choices that affect the course of the dream, because a dream is the unconscious. But it can’t be reality, either, because

because in reality no one could survive a fall into a mountain canyon and get their mind wiped and have a metal arm

there is no such thing as super soldiers who live until they’re ninety-six. And if it’s reality, what is he supposed to do? Just live this day over and over until something stops it? And why him? Until this day, he’s been a good soldier, he’s done what’s asked of him and performed efficiently and helped the greater good.

The greater good. It’s hazy, but he remembers Pierce saying his work has shaped the century. He’s been useful. A gift to mankind. But he’s still a tool--an important tool, yes, but not one important enough to change the fabric of reality, to reshape or alter concrete events of such significance. “Tomorrow morning we’ll give it a push.”

But they also told him he didn’t know Steve Rogers, and that’s not true. So they lie to keep him

the asset is compliant

in line, a well-functioning weapon to be pointed in the direction of Captain America and his team.

He can’t go to sleep. If he doesn’t sleep, he can’t reawaken in the same place, he can’t dream. They can’t do something to him in the mind-wipe that starts this whole thing happening.

Back in the war, Barnes drank

coffee, lots and lots of coffee, Steve, that’s what we need

and ate things he hasn’t had for seventy years, outside of the few times they let him out of cryo for long missions. And even then there were handlers to watch him, to perform maintenance on their treasured asset. He changes clothes and heads out to find a coffee shop. There are dozens of items he can pick from to drink and eat, all things that have been forbidden. It almost makes him sick with the choices. He settles on a cookie and a regular coffee; both of them taste like heaven, the cookie sweet and crumbly and its icing silky on his tongue, the coffee strong, pungent, almost bitter, a perfect complement. He goes back again and again for refills. He must stay awake, must know if he’s dreaming or imagining this.

There’s a television on, and it’s showing what happened today, revolving photographs of Captain America and his team. They credit Rogers with stopping the project before it killed millions. The others on his team are the man with the wings, whose name is Sam Wilson; the woman with the red hair, who is Natasha Romanov; and a man he believes he’s seen before, who wears an eye-patch and is called Fury, Nicholas J, Colonel Nick Fury. He’s listed as deceased. Then a grainy image flashes on the screen, taken a few days ago, it says, but it’s Barnes in the mask. Fury was his target. He barely remembers, but the pictures tell him everything.

He stays until the shop closes, but instead of going back to a potentially compromised safehouse, he holes up under a bridge near Rock Creek Park. He won’t shut his eyes. He won’t. He doesn’t.

///

Open your eyes. Look at the targets' pictures on the monitor, read the mission profile.

No. No.

He stayed awake. He knows he didn’t fall asleep. He’s the soldier, the asset, he’s trained to stay awake and alert, to wait for hours or days in one position to eliminate a target. There’s no discomfort too great, no obstacle too big, for him to overcome. He’s superior physically and mentally.

But here he is and they’re staring at him. “Is there a problem?” Rumlow barks at him.

Barnes swears at Rumlow in Russian, grabs his gun, and starts shooting. Within four seconds he’s eliminated the entire strike team and has shot the technician’s leg. He stands over the weeping, screaming technician and asks, “What did you do to me?”

He wails that he doesn’t know what Barnes is talking about. Every goddamn time, he thinks. What a useless piece of shit.

That’s a voice and language he hasn’t heard in-- No. He’s never spoken like that.

“You did something to my cognitive functions during maintenance. You created some kind of--of distortion or malfunction. To make me think I’m repeating days. That this keeps happening over and over again.” The technician stares at him in horror. He has no idea what Barnes is saying.

“Then it’s a dream. Where am I really? Am I in cryosleep?”

“No, you’re not in fucking cryosleep, you murderous fucking maniac! You’ve been out of cryofreeze for days! We just did standard maintenance on you last night, you freak!” He’s still wailing and rolling around on the floor. This is useless. Barnes shoots him in the head.

He wants to know what Steve meant by “to the end of the line.” It sits inside him, warm and soothing in the face of all this turmoil, and he needs to know what significance it had to him before he became...what he is now. Steve said this is not what he is.

On the opposite side of the gangway, Steve stares at him, bewildered, hurt. “But you didn’t remember me yesterday when we fought. How can you remember that now?”

Barnes cocks his head to the side. How does he answer that? “It was in a dream I had.”

Steve lowers his shield, steps forward. “It was something you said to me, when we were young. When my mother died. I told you I could get by on my own and you told me I didn’t have to, that you were with me to the end of the line.”

Of course. He remembers now. Steve was small, and heartsick, and still as stubborn as a mule. “You can replace the server chip now,” Barnes says and steps aside. Steve is confused again and hesitates, so he motions at him to hurry up. It might still be a dream, but helping Steve destroy Hydra has got to mean this can’t be something they programmed into him. Doesn’t it?

“How did you know?” Steve asks, turning toward him and then saying “Charlie lock” into his comms.

“Something will happen in twenty-two seconds. Head back the way you came. Get out now.” He finds that he really likes Steve’s face. But they have to leave.

“But Bucky--”

“No, Steve, you have to leave now.” He doesn’t want to see Steve get hurt. But the carriers still fire on one another before they get out, and somehow they both end up in the river again.

///

He would think he’s in hell, except he’s already been living there for the past seventy years.

Improvising tactics is what he excels at. He needs a plan.

///

The first day, Barnes kills everyone in the room, heads to the Insight location, and kills as many Hydra agents as he can before he gets to Steve. This time the Charlie helicarrier doesn’t collapse around them, but it ends the same way.

The next day, he waits till they’re in the SUV to kill everyone; that throws his timing off and he’s only able to catch Steve once the carriers start burning.

After that, he dispatches the team as fast as he can, tries to get to Steve before he even reaches the Charlie carrier, but somehow that ends up nearly getting Steve killed right away.

He keeps expecting this to stop, that at some point he’ll stumble on the missing variable, but it doesn’t stop, which means he must chart specific events against possible movements to create a timeline and achievable objectives.

That afternoon he’s in the wind, hunkering down in a café while he watches first responders heading to the river. A bus going by has a sign on the side of it: Captain America: The Living Legend and Symbol of Courage. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He asks the waitress where that is, and heads over there when he’s finished his meal. It’s virtually empty because of what’s unfolding in the city.

So this is who he is. This is who Steve is. He buys the booklet in the gift shop, keeping his head down so no one will recognize him, even though he knows he couldn’t look less like that young man if he tried. He pores over every page, committing facts to memory. Some of it he even remembers on his own, in an indistinct way.

This is not a dream, he believes now. And it’s not something they put in his head. He’s trapped in some kind of distortion, possibly a Hydra project gone wrong, and as far as he knows, he’s the only one who experiences it. What’s the project objective, though? What end game could he possibly be playing toward? He has to do something, but he has no idea what.

For the first time he can remember, he’s frustrated and angry. There are no mission parameters, no briefings, no tactical operations command. No objective. All he’s doing is spinning his wheels. He throws the booklet in the trash and goes to sit on a bench, staring at the reddening sky as the Potomac burns.

///

He kills Pierce before Romanov can get to him.

So much for that plan.

///

He rescues the launch technician before Rumlow can get to the controls.

He sabotages the helicarrier bays before they can launch and the SHIELD crews can die.

He helps the pilots take out the Insight crews before they can put sights on targets.

He walks away before it even starts, as if this is his ticket to freedom and fate is showing him a door he can escape through.

He still wakes up in the fucking bank vault. Don’t that beat all.

///

He remembers now, what “to the end of the line” meant. How he’d said that to Steve when his ma died, and how Steve had looked up at him, a sad, sweet smile, because he always smiled when he was sad. And then he’d turned his gaze down to the key in his hand, and Barnes had said, “Now, you gonna let me in or what?” And he remembers how many ways he’d meant that phrase, the pounding in his chest from his desires.

They’d gone inside and Barnes had made Steve an early supper even though he didn’t want to eat, and they’d sat on the couch till evening crept on, listening to the radio, Barnes with an arm around Steve’s bony shoulders, the way they often sat. When it was time to go, Steve gave him that dear, sad smile once again, and Barnes couldn’t help himself, he did what he’d wanted to for so very long, just leaned in and kissed Steve.

He’d expected to get walloped, but Steve had just kissed him back, clutching at him like he was falling into a chasm. So that was all right, and it stayed all right for a long time until they were ready for more than a kiss. And they’d loved each other just fine until Barnes had gone off to war.

Now he thinks about that when he opens his eyes and he’s staring at that monitor again. The only thing good in this is Steve. As much as he wishes it would stop, at least every day he gets to see Steve’s face, hear his voice. Each time they meet, Barnes asks Steve for some new piece of information, some memory he can try to access when it’s over and he’s alone. More and more of him, the two of them, flows to the surface each time they meet.

He loved Steve. So he wonders if that means the way he and Steve were together is central to ending this day. If he goes back to Steve

or Steve comes back to him

does the whole thing shift? It’s enough, maybe, right now, to just be closer to Steve. Because he gets closer and closer to remembering himself, too. Until he can figure out what he’s supposed to do, figuring himself out may be a decent alternative.

He loves the way Steve looks at him when he helps him swap out that server blade on the control tower, the tender way he speaks to him, and he relishes the way Steve touches his shoulder or his face, halting and shy, as if he can’t believe his good fortune to have stumbled upon an exquisite treasure in the midst of all this chaos.

Eventually, he lets Steve pull him close for an embrace. Then later, Barnes grabs Steve by the front of his uniform and kisses him, and the sparks that effervesce along his spine, the blood that burns inside his veins like cold embers being stoked back to life, leave him wondering why the hell he’s waited so long to discover this. He still tries to alter the variables, but always with the goal of being able to hold Steve at least once in case the day resets.

Every time Steve kisses him, it’s as if he’s being...repaired, as if the dark thing that’s been torn and shredded inside him is slowly being pieced back together.

This is who he was, who he is, who he can be. So why doesn’t that make a difference?

///

Barnes sits on the bank of the Potomac, far upriver from the Triskelion, watching everything burn. He takes another bite of his sandwich. It’s the best sandwich in the history of food

"I got one number thirteen here for James, with capicollo, mortadella, salami, prosciutto, provolone, pepperoncinis"

even though he has no idea what most of the ingredients are and he can’t remember even eating a sandwich in the past seventy years. He licks the oil and mustard from his fingers and sighs. Then he takes a drink of his grape Nehi. He was pleasantly surprised to find they still make that.

If he understood what was happening, he might be able to strategize a new operational approach. But he’s still here, and he’s still resetting after each day, just as if the technicians are adjusting him in the chair. He doesn’t understand it any more than he did the first day.

He really doesn’t want to think about the options that are left for him to take now.

///

There’s one thing left to try, one variable he hasn’t put into play when he and Steve meet on that helicarrier, which could change this up.

Barnes stares up at the sky. It’s not like he believes in God, but he’s asking, he’s really asking, for some help here. Because he doesn’t want to do it. He screams up to the sky, the yowl of an animal being cornered. “Don’t make me do this!”

It’s not like he expected an answer, but whatever’s controlling this thing, fate or God or karma or whatever the fuck runs the universe, seems to be forcing his hand, like it’s watching a game. If there is a God, then he absolutely hates the bastard. There was a church, once, and robes and catechisms and bibles and beads on a string, but whoever ran that show, they abandoned him, left him here.

He’s never been helpless before.

Barnes goes through all the motions from the first day he remembers: kills the pilots, kicks Steve and his friend over the side, fights Steve after he swaps the chip. And then he pulls out a knife and stabs it

not in his shoulder this time, we’re not fucking around now

into his neck, thrusts it down and across. Steve grabs his throat and goes down, blood pouring out of him, and his eyes are accusing, haunted. Barnes kneels at his side, his hands on top of Steve’s, saying “I’m sorry, I love you, I’m so sorry” over and over, until the life goes out of Steve’s blue, blue eyes. Barnes can’t even see anything by that point, his own eyes blurry with tears and blood, and as soon as he’s sure Steve’s gone, he takes the gun from his back and puts it in his mouth.

But he opens his eyes again the next morning. Swell.

///

So if getting rid of Steve, if getting rid of himself, doesn’t change it, then god dammit, he wants to go back to kissing him. The image of watching him die, the blood pulsing out between his fingers, won’t leave him, and he needs to atone for that. He hasn’t tried taking Steve away. He can’t imagine how that could affect things, but if he takes Steve away from here and keeps him safe, maybe he can wash that hideous image out of his mind.

One thing he’s learned from talking to Steve all this time is how much guilt and blame he carries for Barnes

Bucky?

being here. For Codename: Winter Soldier. And Bucky remembers that Steve was always like that, always a little bit angry and believing he was responsible for everyone else, somehow, as if he could carry the weight of the world on those narrow little shoulders.

“Steve, come with me. Swap the server blade and leave with me. We have to get out of here before something bad happens. Your friends are all right. I’ve taken care of everything.”

Steve looks at him like he’s lost his mind. Which is to be expected, because all things considered, he’s not completely certain he hasn’t lost it either and he’s yet to figure out a way to say these things without sounding like a lunatic.

“But you--yesterday you didn’t even remember me. How--”

“I know, but it’s been a very long day. And I remember you now. So just swap the blades and then we have to go. Please just trust me. This is what I’m good at. I’ve taken care of everything and it will all be fine.”

“Bucky, I can’t--”

“I know, you can’t trust me. I don’t blame you, I’ve given you no reason to trust me. But for once in your life, do as I fucking say.”

Steve gawps at him. Maybe this was the wrong tactic, coming on so strong. Steve always dug in his heels when confronted with force. But Bucky has already tried to get him away from Insight day dozens of times now, and none of the other methods took. Even knocking Steve out and dragging him along didn’t work; as soon as they got to the bottom level Steve was awake again and fighting with him.

Bucky grabs Steve by the arm and hauls, and miraculously, this time he follows, though not without some grumbling. When they’re clear of the area, he takes Steve to the SUV and shoves him in the passenger seat.

“I’ve taken care of everything. Your friends are all right. I swear to you, they’re all right. This whole thing will blow in a couple minutes and we need to be far away from it.” And if they aren’t, it won’t matter, because they’ll be back at the beginning tomorrow, anyway.

“How can you be sure?” Steve asks as they speed away.

“I just can. Please don’t ask me to explain till we’re clear. You’ll just think I’m crazy and then we won’t make it out. They’re shutting down streets already.” There are police everywhere, and he knows damn well that some of them are Hydra.

For the rest of the ride, Steve stays silent, constantly glancing over at Bucky, stupefied. They get to a house Bucky had scoped out days and days ago, and Bucky takes him inside. It’s a nice place, and he knows no one will be here for the remainder of the day, probably even for a few days, since he saw the person who lives here leave with some luggage and he’s been using it for days. He drops his utility belt on an armchair and unstraps the webbing and holsters, puts his weapons down.

Steve’s looking around the place, trying to figure out what Bucky’s doing here and how he would have found it, but he does the same, setting his shield against the sofa. They sit down at last, Steve shaking, confused. “What the hell is going on?” Steve asks. “What is this place?”

“I remembered you,” Bucky says simply, because direct was always the best approach with him. “I remembered you after you said my name, and they took it away from me the way they always took you away from me. I tried so hard to hold on to you, but I couldn’t. And then...then I woke up and I was supposed to kill you but I couldn’t do that either. At first I didn’t know why. I found this place on an op...before...the owner’s away, but I just wanted to get you somewhere safe, and yeah, I broke in, but I needed you where they couldn’t know I had you and--”

“Slow down. Slow down,” Steve says softly, and reaches out for him. Bucky can’t help himself, he’s overcome having Steve so close and being out of that helicarrier, so he takes Steve’s hand and next thing he knows, he’s straddling Steve’s lap and has his face buried in his shoulder. “Oh my god, Buck. What is this? What’s happening?”

“This is me remembering you, jackass. I remembered you before I even remembered my own name. But they wanted me to kill you and I tried, I really tried but now I’m stuck here and I think I’m supposed to save you.”

“You’re not making any sense.” But Steve has his face buried against Bucky’s neck and who cares about sense.

“It won’t make any more sense if I slow down and explain it, believe me. I’ve tried.”

“All right,” Steve whispers along his skin. Bucky shivers. “I just want to understand. So I can believe this isn’t a dream. Are you really here? You don’t know what it was like to see you yesterday. In spite of everything, just to see you again...”

Bucky wants to laugh at that, but he would sound hysterical if he allowed himself. “I’m really here. I know you need explanations, I know. I wish I could tell you something that didn’t sound insane, but I’ll try, just let me figure out how. Let me hold on to you for a little bit first.” They stay that way, Steve’s warm breath on his neck, his heart beating underneath Bucky’s. His hand on the back of Steve’s neck, Steve pressing fingers to the small of his back, up under his jacket and the under shirt.

“The truth is, I don’t know what’s happening. Only that this morning they gave me my mission profile, and it was you and Romanov. But I remembered. I’m not going to be their puppet anymore. You gave me my name back, and I want to earn it. You jogged something loose.” Maybe that’s what set all this in motion--Steve giving him a particle of himself to remember. He knows how cruel the universe is now, but touching Steve again after all this time is at least some small comfort against its plans for them.

The scent of him is intoxicating, and Bucky marvels at how warm and smooth Steve’s skin is. Bucky pulls away and looks at him, running his fingertips over Steve’s lips, red and dewy like a berry.

“When you figure out how to explain it, I’ll believe you. I don’t care if it sounds insane.” Steve strokes through his hair and Bucky’s suddenly ashamed of himself, how dirty he is and how gamy he must smell. If he keeps waking up after they’d wiped him, that means he was on the drip last night, and those drugs always made him sweat--not to mention what the chair did to him.

And he’s absurdly hungry. “There’s food in the icebox. Are you hungry? I’m starving. The stuff they feed me isn’t exactly...food.” He moves, but Steve grips him tight around the waist.

“I am, but I don’t want to stop touching you. You’re here, you’re really here.” He passes his hand over his eyes, takes a breath that almost sounds like a sob. “Although--could we turn on the TV, just for a minute? I need to know they’re all right, and I need to check my comms.” Then Steve touches his cheek, smooths his hair back, and Bucky leans in to his hand.

“Of course,” Bucky says, and tries to get off his lap to walk over to the television. Steve’s laughing and pointing something at it.

“Remote control,” he says sheepishly.

“Oh.” There are still so many things he forgets about the 21st century, things he’s seen or used, but they just don’t stick in his mind. They watch the news and Steve checks his secured phone. Steve’s arms are wrapped around him and Bucky’s legs are tangled up in Steve’s while they watch the information scrolling across the bottom of the screen. The news people say repeatedly that Captain America is not presumed dead, but that he has been taken to an undisclosed location for safety. Both of them laugh.

“You thought of everything, didn’t you? When did you have time?” He puts his phone down, shaking his head.

“Like I said, it’s been a really long day.” Bucky gets some stuff out of the icebox, cold chicken and eggs and a spinachy looking vegetable. Even after all these years, he could recall how to cook eggs just right. Normal people have no idea how significant such small things are, how much they help you remember what you were.

“It’s called kale, it’s insanely popular these days,” Steve tells him and puts it in a pan to steam. When it’s done they sit at the table and eat quietly, mostly staring at each other, constantly reaching across and touching. This is the longest, best time Bucky’s had with Steve; whatever he did right this time, he’ll have to try to remember so he can do it again--if he’s stuck here for the foreseeable future, this is the way he wants this day to play out.

“Did I have a sweet tooth before?” Bucky asks. “I don’t remember it, but lately I can’t stop eating things like pastries and ice cream. There’s ice cream in the freezer, I think.”

“No, you never did,” Steve says, and kisses the back of Bucky’s hand. “But you know, when I first woke up, I did too. I always thought it was because I was depressed. Maybe it’s a symptom of what we’ve...been through.” He opens the freezer door. “Oh my god. Rocky Road! You picked the best house to burglarize.” Bucky gleefully grabs spoons and they eat straight from the container, just leaning against the counter and each other.

“We’re cleaning this place up and replacing everything, right?”

“Of course, you dope, what kinda chiseler you take me for?”

When they’ve finished, Steve peels away the top half of his uniform, and helps Bucky out of his jacket. Steve’s under shirt is the same dark blue Bucky remembers, stretched tight against his chest and shoulders, and Bucky’s breath catches in his lungs at the sight of him. Steve pulls him back to the sofa and into the same position on his lap.

In all his attempts to get Steve to run off with him, Bucky hadn’t actually thought beyond the idea of just being together. But it’s not like he doesn’t remember now what they’d offered each other, way back then: what it was like to press his naked body to Steve’s, or to have Steve’s mouth on his cock. What it felt like with his mouth on Steve’s pert, round little rump, or when Steve fucked him into the mattress until he nearly cried. All the ways they’d made each other feel, all the love they’d lavished on one another. He wants all that again, but he’s afraid to take it, because what if that causes a different reaction? What if the day he keeps repeating twists again and it’s more horrible than he could ever contemplate?

Then Steve kisses him and anything he might have had resembling resolve vanishes. Bucky wants to consume Steve and Steve seems to want to do the same to him. But when Steve starts to pull his shirt away, he tries to climb off.

Steve holds him fast. “What’s wrong?” His eyes are dark, hurt, and his hands shake, afraid this dream is over.

“You don’t want to know what they did to me, Stevie.”

He strokes Bucky’s hair. “Can you tell me? Can you talk about it? Because I do want to know. Maybe I can help you.”

With a bitter laugh, he says, “No, you can’t. It’s just going to hurt you to hear about.”

“Tell me. I need to know.” Maybe this is it, then. Maybe that’s what this whole thing is about, he’s supposed to help Steve with his guilt and unhappiness.

In a cracking voice, Bucky tells Steve about being unmade and reshaped, about being carved out and filled up with something he never wanted inside him. What it felt like to hear his name for the first time in seventy years, and to know that he had been someone’s friend. To know that he was meant for more than this.

“Christ, I can’t--if you hadn’t followed me--”

“No, don’t. Don’t do this. They took away my will, my choices, everything I believed in. Don’t you do that to me, too. I wanted to follow you, I chose that. I believed in everything you were doing, I believed in the fight. It was never your fault.”

And then it hits him. That Steve was willing to let go, to allow himself to die, because he thought he couldn’t save Bucky on the helicarrier that first day. That that was the end of the line for him. Now Bucky really thinks this must be what the reset is for.

Steve tries to hold back the tears, he was always so determined never to cry, even when his mother died, but now they’re here and Bucky’s the shitheel who brought them on. He groans. “Fuck, Steve, this is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. It was better when you hit me.”

“When I--what? I hit you? When?”

“I’ll explain next time. Don’t worry, I’ll be back, I’m like a bad penny in that regard.” He leans down before Steve can ask him anything else and kisses the tears away. He keeps kissing, down his neck, to his collarbone, pushing the under shirt up.

Steve’s breath quickens and his hands are all over Bucky’s body, long smooth strokes, giving him gooseflesh, not to mention a hard-on.

“This place got a bed, Goldilocks?” Steve asks, and Bucky nods. He’d feel guilty about abusing someone’s home except that he knows it won’t matter tomorrow, anyway. Even if this is it, if this is the magic that undoes this curse, they’ll be gone before the bears come back and find them in their bed.

“Oh, screw the bed, I’m not waiting that long,” Steve says, low and dirty, and then he’s pushing Bucky down onto the sofa, stripping the shirt off him and working at the pants, and Bucky doesn’t even have time to be ashamed of the arm and the scars. He expects Steve to stop, gasp, or even pull away, but all Steve does is kiss his scars, working at his own shirt and his uniform pants. Although both of them have to stop and undo their boots before they can shuck their clothes and underwear completely, laughing at their awkwardness. “Boots before pants, Rogers, geez.”

“We’ve forgotten a lot in our old age, haven’t we?”

Next thing Bucky knows, Steve’s got him pushed back semi-sitting on the couch and his mouth is on Bucky’s cock. This was supposed to be about him making Steve feel good, he’s not sure if this will fuck with the reset button or not, but he kind of can’t do anything about it--it feels so good that he’s paralyzed by lust. He hooks his leg around Steve’s back and Steve moans, the vibration making him shudder, toes and fingers curling. Steve does little swirly things with his tongue and sucks him almost all the way down, while Bucky winds his fingers through Steve’s spiky hair and tugs. Steve always liked having his hair pulled on, and his fingers dig even harder into Bucky’s hips. “Jesus fuck, Steve, fuck” is all he can say, over and over, his eyes almost rolling back in his head, until Steve licks him just so and he’s spilling into Steve’s mouth. It’s like after their fight on the bridge, he’s all breathy and weak and disoriented but Steve doesn’t let off, just works him until he’s soft and almost in tears over how good he feels.

As much as he wants to know what it’s like to have Steve fuck him again after all these years, he doesn’t want to try rooting around for something they can use as lubrication, so he just hauls Steve up into the same position and dives down on his cock. He remembers this, remembers how incredible it was to have Steve--small or big, it never mattered--writhing beneath him, his feeble little whimpering noises and please, pleases as Bucky stroked him with his tongue and his hand. He runs the backs of his fingers up under Steve’s balls, cups them in his hand. When he slides his metal hand up inside the cheeks of Steve’s beautiful, shapely ass, Steve digs his fingers into Bucky’s back and makes the filthiest noises. Then he slips a finger inside him, Steve’s hips jerk up, and he explodes into Bucky’s mouth, salty and hot and bittersweet. Bucky laughs as he sucks him dry, listening to Steve muttering above him with half-formed curse words.

He climbs up into Steve’s lap. They press their foreheads together and Steve wraps his arms around Bucky. He’s sleepy, so sleepy, but he’s terrified of what will happen when he wakes up. Steve says tenderly against his neck, “I can’t believe I’m here with you again. I can’t believe any of this. But I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy in my life.”

If that’s why Bucky is reliving this goddamn day, then he’s done his job, at last.

///

When he opens his eyes, Bucky wants to cry. Maybe he is crying. They’re all staring at him as if he’s suddenly started tap-dancing and singing a song. He wipes at his eyes, and yeah, there are tears there, so of course they’re completely panicked. Codename: Winter Soldier isn’t exactly programmed to cry, so this is a major failure of the conditioning. He kills them as quickly as he can, because it’s just annoying to be stared at like that.

There may not be many good things in this day, but being able to kill some of the people who’ve tormented him for so long over and over and over again is definitely helping him work out some issues, as they say nowadays.

Bucky gets twelve more delirious, wonderful, hot days with Steve, rediscovering everything he loved about loving him. Sometimes it’s slow and tender and sweet, other times they fuck like rabbits in heat, but then it all goes pear-shaped.

Every single time, he makes some error he can’t identify when he’s with Steve, and Bucky never gets him back to the house. He never even gets him off the goddamn helicarrier.

So if he’s not supposed to ease Steve’s suffering and rid him of guilt or remind him of what they meant to each other, maybe he’s supposed to help someone else, someone he can’t identify as being important. Bucky tries saving every single person who died that day through a process of elimination, which is a bigger task than he was really prepared for.

Eventually he admits defeat and goes back to Steve, so he can enlist his help to save all the people who would otherwise die. Timing-wise, it’s just too much of a job for one fella to help them all at once. Steve’s always confused, always gets stuck on the fact that Bucky didn’t remember him before, but he always helps. He even gets his friends on board.

“Let me get this straight. You want me to blow up the helicarriers before they launch? And we’re...gonna run around the Triskelion, trying to get people out?” Steve always asks, like he’s trying to understand the plot of a complex story. Bucky remembers this now, how he’d sometimes butt heads with Steve in the war when they were planning strategy, but in the end, Steve always deferred to his NCO’s experience.

“With me, yeah. Come on, it’ll be just like old times with the Howling Commandos, only us two. We’ll be heroes. You like being heroes.”

“Buck, I’m thrilled that you remember us, I thought you didn’t, but--what are you doing here? I don’t understand.”

“Having the worst goddamn day of my life?” He puts his hands out, palms up. “I got enough charges to blow up half the city. I have everything all timed out, down to the second. We can do this. Together.”

Steve just stares at him.

Really, it’ll be fun. We’ll save everyone!”

Steve lets him take his hand and they run toward the launch bays. He sighs, even as he runs. “Yay?”

///

Sometimes it’s enough, to remember those few nights they had together, and to see Steve’s face each day, the way his eyes light up as soon as he catches sight of Bucky. To work together the way they did in the war, and watch those fuckers, who have cost them both so very much, burn. But then it starts to wear on Bucky, because nothing changes, day after day after day. Not that killing Pierce and Rumlow and the rest of them isn’t fun, but it gets to be a grind.

He can’t figure out what he’s doing wrong.

///

Simply for the hell of it, he goes back to fighting and killing everyone. Because honestly, he was just getting bored.

///

He shoots himself in the head as soon as he wakes up.

and

He shoots himself in the head after they get to the Insight launch.

and

He jumps from the helicarrier to the concrete below.

and

He jumps into the fire.

Not even a scratch. Ain’t that just the bee’s knees.

///

After a while, killing himself’s just as dreary and boring as anything else. Bucky decides to skip Insight altogether and see the city. He stashes his weapons, takes the biggest guy’s jacket to cover up, and goes to restaurants or hops on the tour bus to visit the memorials and museums and galleries. The World War Two memorial gives him the creeps, with its plaque to the SSR. He hates seeing his face in bronze every bit as much as he hated seeing his picture at the Smithsonian.

He goes to matinees, introduces himself to the Internet, watches TV. Some days he takes long, nearly scalding baths with fragrant, fancy soaps and he almost feels like he’s warm again, and he gets takeout and eats it in bed. There’s so much music to catch up on, and not all of it’s terrible. He wishes he could create an online identity so he could correct some of the erroneous information on the web about himself and Steve, but he’ll just have to do it over and over again, so it’s not worth the trouble. When he first asked the librarian how to do it, she had commiserated with him. “It’s terrible when someone’s wrong on the Internet, isn’t it?” she said with a laugh, and gave him a flirty smile. Well, that was nice to discover he could still be charming to a dame and catch their eye.

For the most part, playing tourist is kind of a relief; it’s pleasant not to have to worry about what’s happening on the Potomac and whether Steve’s okay. By early evening each day a lot of services have shut down because, well, part of the city has blown up and the Winter Soldier did a lot of damage in the real yesterday, but over the course of time, he checks off almost everything on his list.

Once in a while he shows up just before Steve makes it out and engages with him. Sometimes he takes Steve somewhere safe nearby and they neck for a bit before Steve’s overdeveloped sense of responsibility leads him back to his friends. It doesn’t stop Bucky from trying to get Steve back to the house, but he doesn’t push it.

And yet. Now that he feels almost human again, now that he’s almost James Buchanan Barnes redux, it’s hard not to have Steve Rogers by his side. He wants to elbow Steve in the ribs about some tourist attraction and say, “Hey, how about that?” or have Steve explain paintings to him in hushed, reverent whispers. He wants to argue with him about architecture and the use of public spaces and how the US has turned into a police state. He wants to throw down over who makes the best sandwich.

Basically, Bucky wants to kiss him all the time and he wants

just wants

he just wants Steve. It’d be better to spend this whole fucking never-ending nightmare doing the wrong thing with Steve than doing something right without him. And for that, he needs intel.

///

Bucky shoots the grappling hook at Wilson and yanks him down hard. Wilson twists, tries to get up and fly, but Bucky holds him down.

“I’m not gonna hurt you!” he shouts, but Wilson is emphatically not listening. He leaps up and head-butts Bucky, and they stagger backwards. Bucky kicks out and knocks him down, then pounces on him. Wilson is terrified, absolutely terrified, but he drives his knee right into Bucky’s nuts. He supposes he deserved that.

Gasping for breath, Bucky punches him in the head with the metal arm to knock him out. Right about now Steve should be climbing back into the helicarrier. Maybe he should have started with the Widow after all.

A few minutes later, they’re sitting on the landing strip, Wilson propped up against the wheel of the jet he flew up here. When Wilson opens his eyes, he starts to flail, but Bucky’s tied him to the landing gear.

“Just listen to me. Just listen.”

“What the fuck!” is all Wilson can say. Clearly this is not going as well as Bucky’d hoped.

“I know you’re a friend of Steve’s. I need to ask you a few questions.” He pulls out a small package from inside his jacket and offers it to Sam. “Trail mix?”

///

Now that he knows where Steve and his squad have been hiding, he can waylay him before he even gets to the Triskelion. At first it’s a little tricky, because he’s waking up at pretty much the same time as Steve is getting ready to break into the Smithsonian and steal his uniform. But after enough time he figures it out. He’s explained it multiple ways, how this day has been repeating and the things he’s done to change it, and Steve almost always listens to him. Sometimes he even lets Bucky drag him away to watch.

And honestly, it’s okay. As this terrible day goes, this iteration’s one of the better ones, because most of the time he ends up with Steve and he tells him the whole awful story, and Steve is his best friend again. Steve wants to help, to fix it. He loves being with Bucky and looks at him like he won Bucky at the shooting gallery on Coney Island. Really, he can’t ask for more than that, can he?

“How many days do you think this has happened?” Steve asks, one eyebrow raised almost to his hairline. Bucky doesn’t miss the “think” there.

“I lost count. Maybe four, five hundred, easy. The thing is, I coulda been doing this for days before I became aware that something was wrong.”

“I just...that’s impossible, Bucky.” But it doesn’t stop Steve from sliding his hands around Bucky’s waist, up under his tactical jacket and the under shirt. Like he’s got to prove to himself that Bucky’s not a mirage.

“Yeah, I know, you always think that. But I can prove it to you.”

“Then prove it.” This time Steve seems almost angry, which is a nice change of pace over stunned stupid or the pitying eyes. He hates the pitying eyes. Bucky kneels down on the ground and motions for Steve to sit. They haven’t done this before, either.

“I know that Sam came out this morning where you were standing by yourself and told you that I was the kind you couldn’t save. I know that you have three server blades that have to be replaced in order to make the helicarriers’ targeting systems recalibrate and destroy each other. I know that Sam has the Bravo server blade, and you have Alpha and Charlie, and I know you had a hell of a time on your first year back remembering that it was Alpha and Bravo now, not Able and Baker. I know that Nick Fury is still alive, even though I almost killed him, and he’s inside that plant. I know that Natasha Romanov is disguised as someone on the World Security Council and is headed to Pierce as we speak. I know that Maria Hill is waiting for you, and she and you and Sam are joining Romanov there to take them down. I know that you stole Sam’s wings from Fort Meade not that many hours ago.”

Steve inhales sharply, presses his hand to his mouth, staring at Bucky with laughably wide eyes.

“I know that we were poor Brooklyn boys who became friends and then lovers when we were older, and so really we were the richest fellas that ever lived because we had each other. I know that you were infuriating and sweet and stubborn and gentle and that no matter how angry you made me, you were my whole life. And I know that when I died, you blamed yourself, and that you died not long after me, and even when you woke up you still blamed yourself. That your heart broke because you fell in love with Peggy Carter and she was old and frail when you came back to her. I know you told Sam and Natasha that even when you had nothing, you had me, and I know that that’s as true a statement about us as there will ever be.

“I know that this morning, you were thinking of the time I told you I was with you to the end of the line. And I also know that when I said that, it was the first time we ever kissed. I know that you thought I didn’t know you even though I looked right at you, and in that moment, you were right, but I remembered you later and they took it away from me, the way they always took everything. I know that you’ve lived the past year as if you weren’t alive, because you’ve been so alone and so sad and so empty and that you long for someone with shared life experience.”

Steve wipes his eyes and nose on his sleeve. He really hates that he keeps making Steve cry. Steve’s hands shake as he puts them over Bucky’s. But this feels...different. Something’s different, though he can’t pinpoint what.

“All right,” Steve says in a quavery voice. “I believe you. I don’t know how this can be, but I believe you. What do we do to stop it?”

Bucky scoffs. “That’s the damn problem. I can’t figure it out. Nothing I do changes it. At first I thought it was a dream, that I was in stasis and somehow they’d put it in my head. Because you know, I was pretty messed up in the noggin already. And then when I couldn’t make that work as an explanation, I tried changing the play--at some point I’ve killed everyone who was left alive, or left alive everyone I previously killed, or variations thereof. Nothing works, and I always wake up in the bank vault and they’re showing me my targets and giving me the mission profile.”

“Well, there’s gotta be something different we could do. I mean, maybe I’m the--the fulcrum on which everything pivots, instead of you.”

“You always say that. Every time we’ve discussed this, you say that. I’ve done all I can think of for that, too. Pierce and Fury and Romanov and Wilson and Rumlow. Maria Hill. Sharon Carter. The head launch technician. The fella who sits at the fucking security booth in the parking garage, and the coffee barista in the lobby. And let me tell you, she is a fuckin’ piece of work, that one, and has never thanked me, even when shit’s blowing up around her.”

“Yeah, I think I know the one you mean,” Steve says with a grimace.

“I tell ya, Steve, if there was a shoe-shine guy, I’d try him, too. So yeah. Every fulcrum I can come up with. I’ve tried rescuing you, not rescuing you, taking myself out of the equation, killing you, and killing myself...it always resets.”

“You killed me.”

Bucky swallows and swallows, trying to get control of himself. “Yeah. It was--I don’t wanna talk about it. I killed myself right afterward, because if it didn’t reset, I wasn’t gonna live in a world where I’d done that. You know?”

“Yeah, I do know.” Steve brings Bucky’s real hand to his mouth and kisses his fingertips. “I can’t imagine how horrible that must have been.” Only Steve would feel sorry for someone who’d just confessed to murdering him.

Bucky puts his hand to Steve’s cheek and runs his thumb across those lush, perfect lips. “If it was something like remembering I loved you, or you wanting me, we’d have fixed it a long time ago.”

“What?” Steve breathes, like he’s just been punched. “Are you saying...”

It makes him laugh and he raises an eyebrow. “Oh yeah. I’ve tried variation after variation on that theme as well.” He’s overjoyed when Steve blushes from his neck to the tops of his ears. “We were like a coupla teenagers. As experiments go, those were my favorite.”

Finally Steve regains some composure. “Buck. There has to be something you haven’t done. Something that will stop this from happening.”

He shakes his head violently. “No. No. There’s only one thing I haven’t done and it’s something I can’t allow to happen.”

Steve gets that look on his face. The Captain America look. That fucking put-your-dukes-up look. “Tell me.”

Taking a huge breath, he says, “I have never let Hydra succeed. I can’t take that risk. Because if they win and it doesn’t reset, then they will have killed millions of people and will be on their way to killing millions more. And they will have killed you--I will have killed you--for real this time, and no one will ever know the truth.

“And this is the thing, Steve. I would rather relive this day for eternity than watch them win and you die, or see you be enslaved to them the way I was.”

The way Steve’s staring at him almost destroys him. There’s so much love in his eyes, and if Bucky ever doubted that Steve truly loved him, those doubts would be erased in that look.

“So you said that we--that it’s already in motion. That Hill and Fury know where I am and that you’ve sabotaged the helicarriers and there’s a backup in case anything went wrong.”

“They should blow in about...eleven minutes, I think.” He checks the secured-comm SHIELD phone he’s stolen, and sure enough, Romanov’s confirmed that Pierce is down, and evacuation is in progress. He hopes, like always, Pierce suffered as much as Romanov could make him. Knowing what he knows of her, it’s likely.

“Can we go watch? I mean, I’d like to be there for my team in case there are any variables we haven’t accounted for, but I’d also love to see this thing go down in flames.” He loves that little “we” in there.

“Just like watching the fireworks on your birthday, huh?”

“Something like that. I’m not gonna lie, this is...freaking me out. I’m worried someone could die who shouldn’t.”

“I understand. This is all new for you.”

Steve scoffs.

As they walk toward the Triskelion, Steve keeps glancing over at him. Bucky laughs and puts his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Stevie, I’m okay. I really am. All that matters is that they can’t hurt you now.”

“I just...you know how I am. I want to solve this for you. Fix everything.” He hefts his shield. “Be the hero, I guess, for all the times you were my hero.”

He laughs again and stops walking long enough to kiss Steve. “I meant what I said. Eternity knowing I can do this once in a while? That’s a little bit of heaven. I think I’ve gotten to a place where I’m mostly fine. Because I remember who I was, and I remember you, and in a way I’m free from them. It’s hard to explain, but just knowing all this about myself again, it’s almost enough. I think I’m...Steve, I think I’m as close to being happy now as it’s possible for me to get.”

They find a vantage point to watch Project Insight burn, though Bucky has to keep reassuring Steve that his friends are all right. Steve constantly checks his phone until he gets verification. After the first responders have set up a staging area and things settle down, Bucky takes him to the house, because he wants to keep him safe and all to himself.

They spend the afternoon and evening talking, eating, laughing. And fucking, too, a lot of fucking, sweet and hot and tender and dirty, all at the same time. Bucky had almost forgotten what it was like to have Steve beg him so pretty for his mouth, or to have Steve shove him into a wall and pin his arms above his head and fuck him so long and hard his legs gave out. They use every position they ever knew, and find a few new ones to try, and it’s almost like these past long months have never happened.

It’s very late when Steve wraps himself around Bucky, his skin pearlescent with sweat. He’s the most beautiful thing Bucky’s ever seen, every damn time Bucky looks at him. “You said before that you were almost happy,” Steve says. “Even with everything they’ve done to you, even with all that you suffered, you can be content, trapped here like this, knowing what you know?”

“I was trapped somewhere else for seventy years without you. Being stuck in this day with you is a pretty fuckin’ swell alternative, if you ask me.”

“Even if we’re not together all the time?”

“Just knowing you’re here is enough.”

“And it’s all going to happen again tomorrow? Just like this?” Steve pushes Bucky’s damp hair back, kisses his forehead and nose and lips.

“It’s the same, but different, if that makes sense. Like, today was different from the other days where I stopped you before you got there. At least in enough ways that now this is a different ending. It’s a good ending.” He licks some of the sweat off Steve’s throat, sucks on his earlobe, and Steve moans, probably getting ready for another round.

“Promise me that you won’t stop trying to get me to believe you. Because even if I don’t remember that we were together, I like knowing you’ll remember.” His eyes are so earnest and forlorn.

“Cross my heart and hope to--no, I’m not gonna say that. I had enough of dying to last a lifetime.”

///

Open your eyes. Look at the target’s pictures on the monitor.

Wait.

That’s not the monitor. That’s a TV. The news is on and Steve’s face is on the screen. The bottom says, “Insight Disaster: Who’s to Blame?”

Bucky hears a snuffling sound on his right. He turns his head, and Steve is there, snugged up against him, his hand on Bucky’s chest. They must have fallen asleep on the couch, and they’re all tangled up in each other, still in their underwear, disheveled. Then Steve moves the hand up and bats it around on Bucky’s face, as if he’s both drunk and blind. Bucky laughs, and Steve opens his eyes.

“You’re still here. It didn’t reset, did it?” He sits up abruptly, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Bucky, you did it. Jesus, you did it. And we’re both here together. Holy shit!”

Bucky can hardly hear him, his heart’s pounding so loud and so fast. It seems every bit as impossible that it’s over as it did when it began. Bucky leans forward on the sofa and switches channels. They’re all running the same thing. Steve checks his phone, then holds it up for Bucky to see all the text messages from Romanov, giving him status updates. Fury’s demanding he come back for debriefing and to bring Barnes. So it really is over. Holy shit, holy shit.

And Steve’s here, and they’re both alive, and Bucky remembers everything. He’s a human being with a past and a nonrepeating present and a future. Although a human being who really needs to clean up someone else’s house and replace everything they took.

“What changed this time?” Steve asks, and sweeps him up in a hug.

“Hell if I know.” He wants to laugh hysterically, wants to stand out on the lawn and scream at the top of his lungs that it’s over, wants to-- He grabs Steve and hauls him off the couch, starts dancing with him around the living room. Steve’s still all left feet, but he grins and laughs and follows along to their musicless dance.

“Guess I must have finally completed my mission, whatever it was.” He kisses Steve, long and deep, as they rock back and forth. “I’m just glad that you were with me to the end of the line.”