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to memory now I can't recall

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[ PROLOGUE ]

As sad a face as I have ever seen, says the old woman softly. Hello, old soldier. Do you remember me?

He shakes his head in reply, No.

The two of them have been left alone, at her request. The acquiescence had been begrudging and accompanied with murmurs of this being a good day; her arched eyebrow had imparted that she is of a mind with him, about such things. It is unclear which of them had been the subject of discussion. Perhaps both.

They are so different and not, he thinks; one old and the other ancient, almost-ghosts in each their own way.

He helps her drink from the glass that has been left on her bedside. The water sloshes. Slosh, slosh, plink. He thinks of time as a river: the many crossing currents, the pull and the pounding, the violence inherent. He has been marked differently by the passage than her, yet they are all bodies borne down from the furore and falls and froth like so much driftwood, so near now to being washed out to sea.

She pats his metal hand. She has shown no fear of him, not once. Her bones and skin and breath are fragile, even to those parts of him which are still flesh. Her fearlessness does not demand respect but expects it.

He wonders if it comes of having seen enough of life to no longer fear it. Maybe this is why the hours and days and years have been taken from him, again and again.

A flash-memory:

—a bullet catches him in the side, and he turns about to find a grim-set grandmother on the other end of the barrel.

What little of his past that has come back piecemeal has so far been from the time of pain and death. Everything else remains a pretty story from the mouths of others.

As if able to guess the direction of his thoughts, she murmurs, I do keep a gun close at hand, you know. It's all very proper.

He suspects she is more likely to injure herself attempting to shoot an intruder, but he can appreciate the need to have the ability.

For all that she sought to be alone with him, she appears to be content with the quiet, and he finds her company unexpectedly restful. The room smells of powder and slowness, old things interspersed with new. Death is not a stranger in this house, yet it is a kinder death than the forms to which he is accustomed. It seems a miracle, suddenly, that she has made it here.

When she begins to drift off, he hears her say, If I ever hold a gun to your head, ask me to tell you about my grandmother's swan.

He frowns. He has no expectation of visiting her again. He does not know if she is still speaking to him, or to some other ghost known only to her. He nods, even so, even though her eyes have already drifted close. He listens for a while longer, tells himself he is only checking that it is, indeed, sleep.

There cannot be many left, these fragile breaths in a fragile body.

Perhaps not even enough for Rogers to make this request of him a second time.

He salutes her, as befits a fellow soldier, and leaves her to whatever dreams swim through her well-deserved rest.

 

 

Blue eyes regard him gently when he pads into the living room. The television is on, muted; all other lights are off.

"Can't sleep?"

He shakes his head. Sits on the unoccupied end of the couch.

"Finished that book?"

He nods and places it on the coffee table. There are two more left on the bookshelf by the window he has not read. By the time he finishes them, there will be new ones waiting.

The two of them sit in silence for a while.

"You know you don't have to return them, right? If there's any particular one you like, you can keep it in your room."

He stares at the soundless television, not bothering to respond. He does not know why the physical location of the book matters.

There will be a mission this week, he knows. The exact date has yet to be decided, and until then he will not be formally invited. But he had performed well in the last mission, and all three specialists he meets with every week have confirmed him to be field-ready, if the field is where he wants to be.

It is.

"The brain is an incredibly complex organ," Dr. Banner had said, in the beginning before anybody had dared allow less indestructible civilians near him. "The processes and factors involved in memory-creation are still not fully understood today. Between needing to keep your semantic memory intact, and the risk of destroying your ability to form memories altogether, HYDRA probably interfered with your ability to access long-term memories, rather than destroyed the memories themselves.

"Chances are, the memories are still in there. And maybe one day, now that you're not being zapped over and over— sorry, I'm fine. I saw the chair they had you in. That's. No one should be put through that. And the thought of some people calling it science— The fact that you're functioning at all is a miracle. And there's every chance your brain will find the way back to those memories again. But, you know— it's all right of it doesn't."

Back in the comfortable dark, he leans back, consciously relaxing his posture. He likes this couch. The cushions are comfortable.

Some nights, he has the voice to ask, "Got another story for me, Rogers?"

Other nights, like this one, he puts his hand on his lap and taps his fingers twice. This is their general signal for, give me more.

"Gabe's birthday in '44," come the words, after a thoughtful pause. "We were in Landolfi, this little village in Italy. Jones and Monty got so drunk they couldn't walk. Dum Dum had lost a shoe, somehow, and Dernier was swearing the place blue. You ended up helping Monty while I helped Gabe. Dum Dum wouldn't shut up about his shoe, and Gabe ended up throwing his shoe at him. It was night-time, so of course there was no finding the shoe again. Now we've got two guys missing one shoe each. Then Monty started singing “God Save The King”, so of course Dernier started singing “La Marseillaise”. I was trying to keep them quiet so we wouldn't wake up the people in their homes, and then you got so fed up with the complaining that you took off your own shoes and made Dum Dum and Monty put them on so they had shoes on both feet again, and you just went without. Then Morita threw up in someone's flowers; he always insisted, after, that it was because of the smell of your socks." The story ends in wistful chuckles.

He shifts. It unsettles people when he stays still for too long, so he's taken to moving in small but noticeable ways approximately three times an hour. His body has learned the habit.

The body on the other end of the couch shifts as well. Movement in echo of movement.

"I don't remember," he says.

"It's okay."

He wonders what miracles are supposed to feel like.

He taps his fingers twice.

 

 

He had asked, once, "Were we lovers?"

Rogers had said, no, his tone definite despite the strange look of anxiety that follows.

He considers asking, then why do I know what you taste like? There are many ways of storing knowledge and his body recognizes Rogers in a way consistent with physical intimacy, with sexual contact.

But his memory is suspect, and Rogers had said, no.

He thinks pressing the issue would bring Rogers pain. He's done more than enough of that.

 

 

Grand Central Station. Park Avenue. US Postal Service trucks. Stark Avengers Tower. The streets are crowded and noisy, invasively real in a way that comforts him, a mess of cell phones and greasy paper and beady-eyed pigeons. Familiarity is almost a physical weight, push-filling his lungs.

Then somebody jostles him. On his left side.

Something is wrong. He knows because he feels the touch. Feels the scratch of cardigan and a faint hint of body heat; feels the fine details scraping over skin, the gentle impact on flesh and bone.

His arm. His arm. His left hand; pale, slightly pink, a mirror match of the other one. The palm has lines that fade when he stretches the hand back, and grow deeper when he curls his fingers in, crinkling skin. His nails are evenly trimmed, clean. Something about this is unusual. His back muscles release and contract, confused, because the distribution of weight is off; he's at once heavier and not.

Sounds go... distant. He walks until he sees a private, hidden space, some kind of unused service entrance; he tucks himself into a handy shadow and shuts his eyes tight. He breathes in and out, slow and deliberate. His head feels like it's made of liquid; he half-expects his brain to start dribbling out of his ears.

He does not blank out entirely, he knows how he feels after those episodes, but it takes him a while to open his eyes again. The immediate area remains empty of people, and steadily growing darker in the fading afternoon, which he's glad for (though light, on its own, is one thing that has never really bothered him). The dark is... comforting.

He looks down and his left arm is normal again. Metal and wires. He finds that he's leaned his back against the grimy wall. He imagines Rogers making a face at the dirt on his clothing. Though, in reality, Rogers generally refrains from commenting on the state of his clothes. The only times he's reacted strongly are when the damage had extended to flesh.

My name is James Buchanan Barnes, he recites silently. He follows it with, Steve Rogers is my friend. The latter is entirely his own addition, though he is aware the words themselves are merely a reverse of what Rogers often tells him. But 'Steve Rogers is my friend' feels more true than the first statement, and eminently more useful.

He does not know what it means, 'My name is James Buchanan Barnes.'

He repeats it, anyway. He has nothing else.



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[ CHAPTER ONE ]

 

It starts, and ends, with a touch.

 

 

BUCKY BARNES

He comes to in the dark.

Under the crumbled remains of half a damn building, or so it feels like. Sadly, this isn't even the first time this has happened to him in recent months; he grimaces and takes a deep breath and has to stifle a groan. His head hurts something mean, and that's nothing to say of his torso, which feels like a bunch of HYDRA goons had just been whaling on him. Since this had, in fact, been the case before the building decided to make a closer acquaintance of his body, he is careful not to make a sound. The HYDRA soldiers who'd been close to him would be under the rubble, too, but some of them might have gotten clear, he has no idea how big the explosion—

There had been an explosion, hadn't there? Only way to explain the rubble. He doesn't remember setting anything off, he'd been too busy trying to get away—and that brings up a bit more detail: of somehow breaking free from his escort while they were taking him to wherever they were going to hold him, then a blind sprint down unfamiliar corridors, not having much of a plan beyond 'get away'.

Finding himself in a dead-end with only one door, so of course he'd gone in, and the soldiers had followed him. All his weapons and outer clothes had been taken when they were captured, of course, so he'd been hoping to find weapons, and all he'd seen were—boxes, filled with strange stuff, he'd scrambled through them and tipped a shelf over—

That must have been it. A live explosive in one of the boxes, maybe, and it had gone boom when it hit the ground. He's lucky he hadn't been eviscerated, he must have been standing pretty close.

No sound from outside, though he's not entirely confident his ears are working right. He wiggles around, biting his lip at the pain around his middle even as he's surprised to find himself able to move. He pushes at chunks of concrete until he works out the loose ones. Keeps pushing, while hoping the heap above him isn't about to come crashing down. There—a hint of cooler air. Not much light, but the explosion might have taken out all the fixtures.

He listens carefully. When he's pretty sure he can't hear any movement, he wiggles all the way out of the rubble pile. His body hurts and he's more than a little light-headed, but he doesn't want to be trapped in like that any longer than he has to be. It probably ain't safe to stay under the rubble, anyway. Dust and concrete roll down, dislodged by his movements. The sting of scraped skin is just icing on top. Still, he gets out and finds himself in one piece.

He stays lying down for a moment, on his side and resisting the urge to curl into a ball. There's some blood on his shirt —still damp— but he doesn't know where it's from. Not enough for him to be bleeding out, at least. More of a concern is the deeper pain around his ribs, his stomach. They'd bruised something important, at the very least. Breathing hurts enough that he suspects a fractured rib, too.

He grits his teeth and struggles to his feet. The nausea almost sends him down again, and he clings to larger chunks of rubble for support.

There's barely enough light to see anything. As he'd guessed, there's a good portion of the wall and roof missing. Instead of open air, it looks like rock on the other side of the concrete, which means he's in some part of the base that's underground or dug into the mountain. There's a lone strip of light near the door. He blinks and frowns.

The room seems... different. Not that he'd had much of a chance to look at it, before, what with trying to fend off a dozen grabby and punchy HYDRA goons. He has a strong feeling the door is not where it's supposed to be, unless he's somehow gotten completely turned around—but, no, he's sure the room itself is different.

Haltingly, he picks his way across the mess of concrete and spilled boxes and unidentifiable bits of metal. He tries to pay attention to where he's going, so naturally he ends up treading on a body.

Dead. And very solidly pinned under a large chunk of ceiling. He looks back at the pile of rubble. He has no idea how he's still alive, if he'd been near the centre of that. He picks up the gun still clutched in the soldier's hand. He doesn't recognize the model, which is not unusual when dealing with HYDRA.

He spots a dark shape nearby, at the very edge of the radius of exploded concrete. At first, he thinks it's another body, but a closer look reveals it as a jacket. Thick and black, suitable for winter. He doesn't know what it's doing there—had one of the soldiers inexplicably decided to remove his jacket in the middle of a fight? It looks to be close to his size, though. The air feels a lot colder than it had when he'd been running for his life, plus he most likely has some internal injuries to consider.

He pulls on the jacket.

He's contemplating the great expanse of floor between him and the door when he hears movement from behind him. Instinct has him twisting around, his body a bright explosion of pain, just as a gun goes off and he feels the bullet slice the top of his shoulder. The unfamiliar gun in his hands is large and unwieldy, but he undoes the safety easily enough and fires back.

Unfortunately, he'd braced the gun with his body; the recoil is harder than he'd expected, and the butt of the rifle punches him right where he's already hurting a lot.

"Fuck!"

He stumbles backward, gasping loudly and struggling to breathe. He manages to check that his shot had taken care of the HYDRA soldier— it had, he'd aimed more by instinct than anything else but the man had shot at him while still half-trapped under the rubble— then there's a dull thump and a distant sense of hitting something, and then he finds himself on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

He's not sure how long he stays there for, keeping himself breathing evenly without moving his chest too much. There's a ringing in his ears, and the thought slow-creeps over him that he might have hit his head on the way down, which wouldn't have helped any.

It takes him far too long to realize that the buzzing and whining he's hearing also contains words.
"—Soldier, tell me you're still in one piece—okay, two pieces—I looked away for one damn minute—still alive—next time Iron Man suggests making a distraction—not a damn challenge."

He tenses, prepared to fight. An unfamiliar head pops into view.

"Easy there," says the man. "How bad are you hurt? 'Cause I don't think even you can just shrug off explosions." Bucky's gotten used to hearing a whole range of accents in the front lines, not to mention languages, but the sweet echo of home in the man's voice puts him at ease, despite himself.

Bucky forces himself to smirk. "Nothing that'll slow me down. I just need a minute."

That gets a snort. "Like I haven't heard that before."

Probably not HYDRA, then. At least, he hasn't tried to shoot Bucky yet, which Bucky is willing to work with.

Sharp eyes look over Bucky carefully. "No earpiece, huh? I lost mine in the rush down. Because somebody couldn't wait five extra seconds to clear the upper catwalk. "

Bucky hopes he doesn't look as confused as he feels. The man's talking to him like they know each other. Is he a prisoner? Intel had said the facility's a research outpost, not a factory that might be using POWs for labour, but Bucky knows better than anybody how POWs make good lab rats too. The guy isn't acting like a prisoner. The only other people around would be HYDRA. But if he's HYDRA, why isn't he taking Bucky in? There's a chance he doesn't realize who Bucky is, maybe assumes him to be a fellow HYDRA soldier, but just about every HYDRA operative Bucky's met has recognized the Howlies on sight. He wouldn't be surprised if the Red Skull's been spreading their pictures around.

"Ready to get up?" asks the man.

Bucky takes a careful, shaky breath, and nods, clasping the proffered hand tightly. His helper is unexpectedly strong, pulling Bucky up with relative ease and then steadying him while he gets his breath back.

Maybe HYDRA's trying to trick him. Lull him into a false sense of security. He remembers some of the hallucinations he'd gotten while he was on that table: his mother's hands on his face, gold hair under a flickering light bulb, the soothing scratch of a 2B pencil working just out of sight.

The drums in his head are slowly but determinedly picking up the pace. He blames all the pounding for only just now noticing the weapon strapped to the man's back. A bow? And a quiver of arrows to go with it.

Thanks, he wants to say, but ends up groaning, "Ribs," because he's fairly certain he's got worse than a fracture.

"They hurtin' like a sonuvabitch?" Bow-guy shakes his head sympathetically. "Maybe next time you'll try not to be where the explosions are. At least have more sense than Cap."

He brightens. "What about Cap?"

Bow-guy turns his head, frowning at Bucky irritably. "What? I don't have my comms in, remember? They're attached to my hearing aids." He glares when Bucky continues to stare at him uncomprehendingly, though it softens when a sudden flare of pain through Bucky's stomach has Bucky breaking out into sweat. "I'm deaf right now. I can't hear shit you say unless I'm looking at your mouth."

Oh. "Sorry," says Bucky, which seems to take Bow-guy aback. "You said something about Cap?"

"Yeah, passed Widow two levels back, she said he's clearing out the last room. The place stopped shaking five minutes ago, so I'm pretty sure they're done. No sign of those submersibles, I'm afraid." Bow-guy pulls Bucky's right arm over his shoulder. He seems to be avoiding Bucky's left side. The bullet-graze on his right shoulder smarts, but Bucky doesn't say anything. Bow-guy's left arm goes across Bucky's back, gripping his left hip, and his right hand draws out a pistol. "We'll just go meet them outside, seeing as neither of us has comms."

Bow-guy starts them towards the door. It doesn't escape Bucky's notice that Bow-guy is careful to not jostle his ribs more than necessary. Not the usual soldier, unless America's suddenly run out of guns. Another one of the SSR's specials? Despite the low temperatures, Bow-guy's arms are bare. Some part of Bucky's mind can't help noticing that they're really, really nice arms.

Bucky's glad he's probably not HYDRA; Bucky would be sorry to kill him.

 

 

The base is full of smoke, making it hard to see anything clearly. Also, dead bodies. A whole lot of dead bodies. Bucky's gotten used to them, since entering the war, but he still averts his eyes. Bow-guy doesn't seem perturbed. There are a lot more bodies than he remembers. How long had Bucky been under that rubble? Long enough for Cap to get free, evidently. And the other Howlies as well, from all the damage.

It's not until they get outside that the small suspicion that had been growing in his mind becomes pretty hard to ignore.

The trees look weird. He's a city boy through and through, but even a city boy figures out how to tell trees apart from their shape and their leaves, how good each type is for cover. These are not the trees he'd scrambled past on their approach to the base. He's not even sure he's in the same part of the world.

In lieu of panicking, he tries to come up with plausible questions for Bow-guy that won't give him away. Maybe Bow-guy thinks Bucky is someone else. Maybe Bow-guy is HYDRA and thinks Bucky is another a fellow HYDRA operative; they like to wear those masks, covering up their people so no one knows who anyone is.

Thoughts rear from the ever-present thread of fear, inescapable no matter how well he knows they're illogical: they turned me into HYDRA I've been HYDRA all along oh God oh God they turned me into HYDRA like he promised he would oh God what have I done—

He clenches his fists when he feels his hands shaking. Focus. Bow-guy probably thinks it's from the pain. It's not not the pain. The wound on his shoulder is aching. He's suddenly glad the coat he'd picked up is black, so he doesn't have to see how much blood's soaked into it.

The world is confusing but if he keeps his thoughts out there instead of in his head, he'd be able to hold it together. For a little longer, anyway.

Trees. Soil. Clouds. HYDRA base.

Well, what used to be a HYDRA base.

It quickly becomes apparent that Bucky hadn't been the only one to set off an explosion. Most of the base is underground and built into a mountain (and yeah, that doesn't look like the same mountain, either, what the fuck is going on) but the parts that are above-ground are now only so much rubble. There are a few places where the mountain-side has been blasted outward, and the ground has telling depressions that hint at collapsed structures down below. Bucky gets the urge to whistle, despite himself, imagining the amount of firepower it would have taken to cause that kind of damage.

Someone's still fighting the good fight, at least. Maybe the SSR had sent in a second unit while the Howlies were busy being captives.

The two of them pick their way across the concrete-strewn ground. Bucky is now glad for the support; his legs don't feel too steady under him, and the world doesn't seem to be cooperating, the ground tilting at unexpected moments. He notes how Bow-guy doesn't seem upset or angry about the destroyed base, which is another point towards his not being HYDRA.

Unless HYDRA agents really don't care about anything but their goals. They take their own lives when captured, why would they show any concern about one lost base?

Then Bow-guy waves his free arm and calls, "Over here!" and Bucky spots a group of people conferring on top of a shallow hillock. Bucky's vision narrows until all he can see is one person, the most important; the relief is so strong and sudden, he almost gasps from it.

Unable to help himself, Bucky tries to step towards the familiar figure in red, white, and blue. "Steve?"

Steve's head whips around to look at him, despite being in conversation with—is that a robot? He just stops talking, possibly mid-sentence, which seems sorta rude, but Bucky doesn't care because Steve is here. He can handle a world of strangeness so long as it's with Steve. And good timing, too, finding Steve, because the drum-regiment inside his head has reached the back of the eyeballs.

The friendly expression on Steve's face is frozen, strange. He's staring at Bucky like—like he doesn't recognize him. Bucky's heart kicks up, up his throat and out his chest, racing.

(what if Steve doesn't know who he is what if HYDRA got Steve—he's going to be sick—what if Bucky never got out what if they'd made him forget Bucky what if Bucky only dreamed about knowing Steve what if what if—)

A woman with bright red hair steps between him and Steve. "Who are you?"

"Bucky?" Steve's eyes, at least, are familiar. His body is still something Bucky's getting used to, but those eyes haven't changed at all. Bucky starts breathing again, rustling a fresh wave of protests from his ribs; Steve knows who he is, Steve will help stop the world from moving about so much. "Bucky—where are you, right now? What's the last thing you remember?"

How did Steve know Bucky is lost? And anyway, it's Steve who gets them lost all the time. If he focuses only on Steve, he might not throw up. Steve's voice has that commanding officer tone to it, and Bucky's been a soldier long enough to respond automatically.

"We were captured by HYDRA," he reports, "I got away, ran without knowing where I was going. They were running after me. I went into this room, looked like it was for storage. I was looking for a weapon, anything I could use. There was a crash. I pushed one of the shelves over, I think. And then a blast. Don't remember that part, I just woke up with parts of the wall and most of the ceiling on top of me."

"Yeah, we all felt the blast," says the robot. There's something strangely judgemental about its face, or maybe it's the glowing eyes. "It shook the whole building. Possibly the entire mountain."

"Oh man," says Bow-guy. "Uh, Bucky, can you take off that coat?" He steps to the side to give Bucky space to do so. Bucky's legs wobble, left all on their own with his whole weight.

"Why? It's cold." Not that low temperatures really bother him anymore. It's the principle of the thing. "Steve, I don't feel so good."

"I'm sorry, Buck," says Steve. Damn, he's working the puppy eyes. "It'll be just for a minute." Steve steps closer, at least, ignoring a sharp look from the woman.

Bucky shakes his head —and yikes, was that bad idea— and unbuttons the coat. He misses his blue coat, those HYDRA bastards better not have damaged it. Shrugs off the heavy black fabric and holds it in one hand. All of them, Steve included, stare at him, like they've never seen a beat-up guy in a threadbare shirt before. "What?"

"Sorry about this," says Bow-guy, right before he rips Bucky's sleeve off.

"What the hell?" yelps Bucky.

The silence grows morasses-thick. Steve's eyes look on the verge of bugging right out of his body.

Bucky looks down at himself, trying to see what they're all staring at. His left arm looks fine, though kicking up goose-bumps from the cold. His shirt is now stained dark. Bucky swallows. "Oh, that's a lot of blood."

"Right,” says the woman, “try not to kill me for this.” She’s next to him before he even registers her moving. There’s a faint sting, and all of a sudden he has a shallow cut down his left bicep.

"Oh my God," says Steve, under Bucky's heartfelt, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what the hell is wrong with you people?"

A droplet of blood wells up at the end of the cut. They're all still staring.

Bucky's vision goes bendy and grey. The familiar Steve-spangled star bounces right towards him, and an unfamiliar electronic voice says, "So I'm guessing that wasn't just your regular garden-variety blast," and then he's out.

 

 

He wakes to Steve's worried face hovering anxiously over him.

"So I had this really crazy dream," he rasps, and watches Steve's expression rearrange itself, "but from your mug, I'm guessin' it's not a dream." His eyes want to slip close again. He stubbornly blinks them open. "What happened?"

Steve tells him.

Fifteen minutes later, he's sitting up and clutching a half-finished glass of water in one hand. He hadn't realized just how bad he'd been feeling earlier, until now, having been pumped full of liquids and the contents of one banana bag. At least he'd slept through having an IV put into and taken out of him. His chest and shoulder are wrapped tightly with bandages.

Steve leans forward, his elbows resting on the recliner; one hand is holding up the small orb they had apparently located in the exploded storage room.

"Let me get this straight. I touched some kind of alien device in that HYDRA base and it brought me temporarily to the future?"

Bucky gives Steve his best, you better not be jerking me around, pal. He hurts in a lot of places and he's not sure all of his words are coming out clear. But, he has to admit, the swank plane interior and the sleek medical devices beeping away on one side of his reclining-chair-turned-bed are making a pretty strong case for the truth.

"That's the gist of it," says Steve, before he waves over the red-haired woman. The woman, naturally, smiles at Steve and doesn't even glance at Bucky. She takes the orb and strides back to the front of the plane.

Bucky pokes at the bandage on his arm. "Was this from the explosion?"

Steve gives him a look. "No, this was from outside. After we asked you to take off the jacket. Um, Natasha," he nods in the direction of the woman, "apologizes for cutting you, by the way—"

"No, she doesn't!" says Natasha.

"But we had to check if you were, um, real."

"That a common problem?" asks Bucky bemusedly. He peels up a corner of the bandage. She must not have cut very deep; there's barely a line. He takes the bandage off completely.

"You'd be surprised. These days it's real easy to steal someone's identity. And I've seen robots that look exactly like people."

"Robots," repeats Bucky, shaking his head. The ensuing pain makes his eyes water. "Ow, fuck. I gotta stop doing that."

Steve gives him a sympathetic look and fusses with his blanket. "I'd offer you aspirin for the headache, but Bruce says if it's better not to put stuff into your system until we're sure it won't interact with the time-travel, um, energies. Well, he said 'magic', but Tony has imposed a ban on the word, and it is his plane."

"Damn right it is!" calls a male voice from the front.

"'s fine," says Bucky.

"What do you remember? Since waking up?"

"Guy with a bow. Seeing you." Bucky frowns. "Uh. A robot? There was talking, but I don't know what I said to whom."

(It's all muddled up inside his skull, like the days right after Steve got them out of the factory.)

He'd passed out on Steve, he knows that. He thinks he slipped in and out of consciousness for a while, because there are snatches of hearing the other people talking about him to Steve.

He thinks he should be panicking, at least a little.

Only, if he's to be honest with himself—he's tired. He's been tired for what feels like a lifetime, going from one mission to another. Right now he's warm and comfortable and Steve's right there, so he's content to... be still, until he's given a good reason to come up swinging again.

"The robot is actually, um, Stark. Tony. He's Howard's son. And the guy with the bow is Clint."

The idea of Howard having a son sparks up some interest, but there's something more immediate nagging at him. He stares intently at Steve's face for a full minute before he narrows his eyes. "What's wrong?"

He shifts up a little, or tries to—Steve's giant paw is on his shoulder, anticipating. Hard to believe there had been a time when Steve sitting on him couldn't have stopped Bucky from moving.

"Nothing's wrong," says Steve with a small smile. "Well, other than you being pulled out of time."

But Bucky's seen Steve in all his moods, has seen him quietly proud and exhausted by illness and sarcastic and stoic and spitting bloody in some back alley. Knows every iteration of Steve's face.

Steve only smiles this way when his heart is breaking.

A few neurons fire feebly in Bucky's brain. He wants to smack himself for not thinking it earlier, but he's amazed he'd been able to string full sentences together, before. He really hadn't realized how badly off he'd been. "So—the alien tech got you too? You touched it?"

Considering the sheer insanity of some of their plans, using weird and unknown alien tech to escape HYDRA feels like a natural progression, really. But—he hasn't seen any of the other Howlies, none of whom would miss the chance to rib him about passing out in Captain America's arms, and Steve looked pretty chummy with these other folks—

"No, Bucky." Steve's hand and gaze drop away, the latter shifting to the nearest window. The sunlight is almost painfully bright off the sea of thick fluffy clouds. Sky's no match for those baby blues, though.

Bucky looks at Steve's hand, now resting on top of the clean white blanket. There are fading bruises over the fingers and knuckles. Of all the things to stick in his otherwise slippery memory, he has a flash of the back of Steve's hands when Steve had caught him: a scattering of cuts and abrasions, bleeding still at the time. Now all he can make out are a few places where the skin is pink and new.

Steve's miracle of a body, which no one had tested or knew the full effects of before sending Steve to figure it out on his own. Steve doesn't look much older, except in his eyes. But that doesn't really mean anything.

He grabs Steve's hand. Ignores the way Steve practically jumps out of his skin. "Tell me."

Steve sighs. His posture softens at Bucky's touch, like he's forgotten what it's like to have Bucky's fingers curling around his. If his friends weren't sitting at the front of the fancy airplane, letting them have what privacy can be had in a flying metal tube, he'd get Steve to lie down next to him.

He remembers, suddenly, the conversation he'd had with Steve just two missions —a week?— ago. He pushes those memories down. He's made his peace with— that. Nothing's changed between them, and nothing ever will. Nothing can change, because neither of them will let it.

It seems like Steve is quiet for hours, thinking, though it can't be more than a few minutes. Bucky doesn't push. He rubs circles over Steve's healed knuckles instead, the familiar motions helping with his own headache.

"Schmidt had a master plan," says Steve. Bucky snorts, because of course. "A fleet of planes, full of bombs for major cities. He himself was going to pilot the one for New York. I went after him. We fought, and I won, but the plane got damaged. It was on autopilot, flying at full speed, and if it reached New York, a lot of people were going to die. So. I crashed it."

"You crashed it?" repeats Bucky. The headache creeps back up. "You crashed it. Steve. Tell me this means you pointed it at the ground and parachuted out?"

Steve ducks his head, his face flushing. "I couldn't risk it going back to autopilot. The plane had to go down, Buck."

"Don't." Bucky covers his eyes with his free hand. "Just. Steve." He makes himself take deep breaths.

"It worked," says Steve, as if that's the part Bucky's concerned about. The rest of the words rush out, like Steve thinks if he says it fast enough Bucky might miss what he's actually saying. "So, uh, I crashed it into the Arctic, and the plane froze over. I was frozen along with it. They couldn't find the wreck for a long time. Seventy years. When they did, they thawed me out, and somehow I was still alive. This was, um, about three years ago. So. That's how I'm in the future."

"I'm still at the part where you crashed a damn plane," says Bucky. "Where the hell was I during this absolute genius of a plan?" Sure, he has a bad habit of letting Steve get away with his harebrained ideas, but even he has a limit.

Is Bucky old now? Is that why Steve looks at him like it hurts to look away? Well, Bucky gets that; but he thinks if he can keep this knowledge when he goes back, the reassurance that Steve would be all right in the end, he can begrudge the years their passing.

Steve's fingers twitch hard against his palm. Steve's face can occasionally manage to remain impassive when he's lying; it's a real pity he has about two dozen other tells.

Bucky stares at him. Steve practically flinches, at the same time as his grip on Bucky's hand tightens to the point of pain. Bucky feels like something is carving a chunk out of his insides.

"I died," he says, quietly. "Oh, Stevie. I died on you, didn't I? In the war?"

Now he gets why Steve's been looking at him the way he has, why Steve has barely taken his eyes off him.

Steve swallows, a muscle working in his jaw. "Bucky. Bucky." The bones of Bucky's fingers are practically grinding together, but Bucky can't bring himself to care, and the physical pain is almost comforting next to the void yawning open in his chest. "I'm so sorry. It was my fault, I should have saved you. I tried, but it happened so fast—"

"Steve." His voice when he's trying to sound stern always comes out sounding a lot like his Pa's.

"And there's—I should tell you—"

"Stop. Just—give me a second, okay?"

He stares at the shiny ceiling curving above him. The plane's engines are a quiet hum in the background, so unlike the groaning beasts that have been spitting them out over remote locations all over Western Europe. He thinks he can see the other people, Steve's friends in the future, watching television. And isn't that a fine thing, watching television on a plane flight?

"How long am I here for?" he finally asks.

Steve starts. "What?"

"You said the thing that brought me here, it's only temporary. How long?"

"Thor —he's the one in the cape— isn't sure, just that the, uh, energy is still there and doesn't feel permanent. He'll know once he takes a closer look back home." Steve bites his lower lip. "At least a few days. He said—there's time, you're not going to disappear at any moment."

It sounds like something Steve had asked specifically. He's aware of Steve staring at him, eyes big and desperate, and earlier he'd wanted to warn Steve about giving his future-friends the wrong impression. But, well, if they know Steve is reuniting with his long-lost best friend, then they probably think it's understandable.

He should be scared, he thinks. He's mostly numb.

It'll sink in later, he's sure.

Actually, he might even be a little bit relieved. He's done his best not to think about it, but a part of him has always known, maybe, that he wouldn't be walking out of the war.

"Don't tell me how it happens," he pushes out, before he can think better of it.

Steve looks at him in surprise. "Really? I mean, Thor's going to find out what the rules are, so maybe it's okay for you to know—"

"I don't want to," says Bucky determinedly. "Look, there's only so many ways this can go. All that science fiction stuff I read? I can guess. Do you have any memory from back then of, you know, listening to me talk about a surprise trip to the future?"

Steve gives him an exasperated look. "Of course not."

"Figured. Because you would be handling this a lot better if you had." Bucky shifts a little on the bed, ignoring Steve's sputtering. "So. You didn't know about this- until now, obviously. Which means I never told you, or I don't remember it when I go back. So maybe my memory gets wiped."

A small wince passes Steve's face, for some reason. Bucky forges ahead, hands gesturing in the air as he talked. "In which case, it doesn't matter what I find out, and I still don't wanna know. But until your friend tells us more, we have to consider the chance that I'll remember. And if I know what happens to me, I might end up changing it, even if I don't mean to. Which—okay, this is giving me a worse headache than a collapsing building did, but I'm not about to go changing the past, least without a damn good reason. So we have to keep to the past that you remember, okay? Since you're the, whatsit, the commonality in both points of time."

Steve frowns at him, and another voice chimes in, "You never said he was a smart cookie, Rogers. Odes to his sense of humour and big blue eyes and ability to shoot a man from over three hundred paces, sure, but nada about his brains."

A dark-haired man ambles into view and stands behind Steve's chair. He gives a small wave. "Tony. Stark. Welcome to the twenty-first century, Bucky-bear."

"Thanks," says Bucky dryly. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Stark. I should probably tell you that you look like your old man, but actually, aside from the hair, you don't look much like him at all."

For some reason this seems to cheer Stark up a lot. "Thanks. You're the first person in years who's said that. Here, have a lollipop."

Bucky doesn't expect to be tossed an actual lollipop, which lands on his chest. He's surprised Steve hasn't let go of his hand despite the arrival of his friend —teammate?— but he's not about to let go first, especially since Steve's warm (if crushing) grip is the only thing convincing him he's awake. He peels the wrapper off the lollipop single-handed and pops it into his mouth.

Stark blinks at him, face curious, then continues with, "Yes, time travel is always tricky, because even the smallest difference can have unforeseen consequences. Or there would be, if we assume that the past can even be changed. Until we know more, I second the good Sergeant's decision to not give him any critical timestream-altering intel. Thor's gonna try talking to the, uh, alien device, when we get back to New York."

"'S always New York, huh," says Bucky. The lollipop is cherry, familiar in a way he hadn't been expecting. The sugar helps a little with his headache.

"The device is sentient?" asks Steve.

"I don't say this often, but I'm going to hand that question to the highly advanced multi-dimensional life form in a cape," says Stark.

Bucky drifts off a little, staring outside one of the round windows and sucking lightly on his free candy. Stark and Steve chat about taking Bucky off the medical devices, a tower, something or someone called Fury.

Stark has gone back to the front of the plane, Steve quiet and holding Bucky's hand between both of his, when Bucky remembers the important thing he should've already said.

"Wasn't finished, earlier," he mumbles, sleepy again now his head isn't being stabbed by glass shards. "Meant to say—whatever happened to me, Steve, it wasn't your fault."

Steve chuckles, sharp and unhappy. "How do you know?"

"Because just last night, I was sitting in the rain freezing my ass off and listening to my stomach rumblin' with the thunder. The war's been awful and horrific, the worst thing I've ever gone through since the moment I got shipped out. I've never blamed you for any of it. The only thing that's stopped me losing my mind is having you there with me. So, stop beating yourself up, 'cause I know you have."

"If it had been anybody else, asking you to get back in the fight after what you'd already gone through, you would have said no," Steve points out.

Bucky sighs tiredly. "Pal, if it hadn't been you in that place to begin with, all of us would have been too dead to be asked anything." It occurs to him that Steve might still not get it. "No one was coming for us, Steve. 'Least not until the war was over, and most of us wouldn't have made it that long. And whatever happened to me —will happen to me—I have no doubt in my mind that you did your best to save me."

"Wasn't enough," whispers Steve. There's a terrible blankness on his face that Bucky's never seen before. Bucky brings his other hand around, bracketing Steve's hand between his palms.

"Well. That's war for you," he says quietly.

"Yeah," says Steve, ducking his head. "Yeah, that's what it is."

 

 

Bow-guy stands up and walks over when Bucky, bored, asks Steve if he has a deck of cards. The pack Bow-guy produces looks a little battered, but the cards themselves are in good shape. Bucky knows because he checks them carefully; he doesn't feel any distinctive differences between the cards. Doesn't mean they don't have other marks, of course.

Steve agrees to gin rummy, and Bow-Guy sticks around to watch.

"Y'know, you're taking this whole thing real calmly," says Bow-guy. "Also, call me Clint. Bow-guy sounds like I wear a bow-tie."

Bucky shrugs and knocks his cards. "We're fighting against weapons that vaporize people into nothing. My best friend was a hundred pounds soaking wet when I got shipped out, and the next time I see him he's six feet tall with arms bigger than my head. At this point, I ain't really ruling anything out."

Steve gives him an amused look and lays off a deadwood. "When you put it that way."

 

 

He falls asleep again at some point and wakes up when Steve slings one of Bucky's arms over his huge shoulders and half-walks, half-carries him out of the plane and into a car. He protests a little, but seeing as all that comes out are annoyed little grunts instead of words, he's not surprised Steve ignores him. He tries to get a good look at the plane and gets an impression of something big and sleek and shiny. Stark Industries.

The car is black and unassuming in the way that immediately identifies something as important but pretending not to be. He's surprised to find that he and Steve have been given their own car. Surely the team —he's pretty sure Steve's friends are, in fact, his team, he recognizes that sort of camaraderie— is supposed to be split evenly between the two cars, but the rest of them pile into the other one.

Steve greets the driver by name —at least, Bucky hopes "Happy" is the man's name— and confirms that they're going to "the Tower".

Bucky wiggles out of Steve's hold in order to slump against the seat by the window. Steve doesn't say anything, just scoots closer and rests a hand on Bucky's back. The inside of the car is nice, if a bit heavy on the leather, but Bucky is more interested in everything outside.

The area around the airport is full of trees, the asphalt of the runways clean and smooth. Steve tells him it's a private place, mainly used by Stark Industries, and the commercial airports are on a completely different scale of huge. The car glides over wide roads, roads built over other roads, encountering traffic a few times and going through a few perilous turns as if determined to keep things exciting.

Bucky drifts in and out. His body wants him to rest but he clings to wakefulness through the cotton-soft wall between him and the rest of the world. Thus his first view of New York City in the future: a half-vision of metal giants growing out of grey fog; will-o-wisps of headlights on horsepower marking mysterious, fleeting routes; pictures captured in light and words winking in mid-air; a deep pervasive hum as of a sleeping machine under and within the multitude of concrete skins. Then there is the heat from his plush seat and the press of Steve's hand, slowly easing the ache in his body.

The dream-like quality to the world makes it strangely easier to take in. There's a part of him that remembers, or rather never forgets, the things he'd seen when he'd been HYDRA's science experiment, and despite his efforts to ignore it, he harbours a deep, deep fear, maybe permanent, that they've caught him again and he's trapped in a dream. Those dreams had never felt like dreams, though, because of course they'd wanted him to think they're real, only they're always wrong. So it stands to reason that something that feels like a dream is either actually a dream or at least not HYDRA, which is just as good.

Sometimes he thinks he should tell Steve. There was a time when he wouldn't have hesitated, when Steve had known the ins and outs of every nightmare, every shadow Bucky saw in the night.

But. Steve has more than enough to worry about. And there's always the chance he'll decide Bucky is too damaged, and send him home to keep the others safe from him or, more likely, for his own good. And Bucky's not leaving the war until Steve does, he's not.

And. There's that shred of doubt, the worst of what HYDRA did, that leaves him always wondering if he's still back there, really, on that table, and everything since then has just been a really good hallucination; if they're listening to everything that comes out of his month, and it's not really Steve he's talking to but some HYDRA scientist. He'd given them ammunition against him before he'd figured out how good they are at playing with people's heads. When he's busy and active and talking to people, he feels less this way, choked and tangled by doubt. But the other times—he both hates silence and craves it, now.

So he fights HYDRA in spite of what they are, because of what they are: the enemy that never goes away. They say it themselves- there will always be another head. He doesn't think Steve's realized this yet. Well, his Steve. Maybe this older one has. He has the look.

Bucky can't forget what they did, and he can't stop fighting, because fighting feels like all he has. He can't tell Steve about the things inside his head, just in case, just in case, the briar HYDRA left behind, but he can fight beside him, fight and hopefully take his demons with him when he goes down.

Well, if this really is the future, it seems like he already has.

"We're here, Buck," says Steve quietly. Bucky pulls his eyelids open, not realizing he'd closed them. He gives Steve a look in case Steve tries to carry him again, and stumbles out of the car under his own power.

"Whoa," he gasps, looking up. And up.

'Tower' is right, he thinks dazedly. He'd seen the skyscrapers going up, every time he'd gone into the city, steel and concrete fingers looking to give Heaven a good earthly poke, so it doesn't surprise him to see how many more of them there are now. It's still a sight, though.

He does a full turn. Steve doesn't hurry him, quietly thanking their driver and waving the car off. There aren't many people out. He looks at the sky and realizes it's only morning. There are a lot of cars, though. A lot. And bikes. Buses. He's not sure how all of them can fit on the roads, never mind where they'd park. No one's paying them any attention.

He sniffs. "Air's smokier."

"Yeah," says Steve. "There isn't even much traffic today."

Bucky looks at the Tower again. Frowns a little. "What's the big 'A' for?"

"Well, you know how sometimes you get given a name and it sticks?" Steve flashes his cheesiest Captain America smile. "Some stuff happened- long story, I'll tell you later, you'll enjoy it- and we, my team whom you've met, are now called the Avengers. This is Avengers Tower. Though officially it's still Stark Tower."

"Stark, huh?" says Bucky. "Guess Howard did pretty good for himself."

"He did. But most of this is Tony. Howard set the game but Tony—he didn't so much win the season as take over the entire league."

Bucky slants him an amused look. "Sore spot, huh? You have that look when you've said something stupid and you're really regretting it."

"Yeah. Tony and I didn't get along well, at first. But we're good now." Steve nods at the Tower. "What d'you think?"

"s not bad. Reserving judgement until I see it from further out, in the middle of all the other buildings." He glances sideways at Steve. "I'm gonna guess that you hate it, though."

Steve winces, though it's with a grin. "It's grown on me."

"No need to pretend, Rogers. Don't forget who had to listen to hours of you talking about the Empire State Building when it was going up."

The fresh air —well, free-flowing air, anyway— has revived him a little, but his body reminds him that he's been moved through seventy years and at least one load of concrete in the last twelve hours. He takes one more deep breath, disproportionately in love with every note of smoke and garbage and dust after months of European forests, and says to Steve, "I'm ready to go in."

After the plane, it's not surprising that the lobby would look like a fancy hotel, too. Bucky's eyes, practised now, pick out the security guards standing unobtrusively at strategic points.

Basic hadn't taught him that; clearing out HYDRA bases with Captain America had.

There's a gorgeous dame in a suit sitting behind a big desk. She smiles when Steve greets her —by name, naturally— and responds in kind. Her eyes glance at Bucky, and visibly widen when Bucky throws in his own "Good morning", leaving out the ma'am because Steve had, and smiling instead.

"Good morning, Mr. Barnes," she responds. But of course, Stark must have gotten here ahead of them. "Please, go on up."

"Thank you." Steve leads the way to the elevators. "There's actually a private entrance that lets you bypass the reception completely, if you have the authorization, and we usually take that. But I wanted you to see it from the front." He gestures at the first half dozen of closed elevator doors. One of them opens with a cheery ding and lets out a handful of people. A few glance at Steve and Bucky, but they mainly ignore them. "Oh, I should have explained. Most of the Tower is offices and labs for Stark Industries. The residences and Avengers-related stuff are at the very top. Only the last two elevators go up to the private floors.

"Good morning, Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes," says a cool, electronic-sounding voice when they enter one of the elevators.

"Hey, Jarvis," says Steve. "My floor, please."

"Of course, Captain." The doors close and there's a faint whirring sound, even quieter than the fancy plane's engines. Bucky can only barely feel them moving. "Sir has asked me to inform you that the team has convened in the communal living room. They welcome your presence once you have settled in Sergeant Barnes."

"Right." Steve looks at Bucky apologetically.

"It's fine," says Bucky. "Your best friend just time-travelled in from the past, of course you need to have a meeting. I'm guessing this isn't a military gig, unless the military's gotten way more flush since our time." There's something mesmerizing about watching the floor numbers shoot up. Double digits now. He'd only been in a skyscraper twice before, and he's sure it had taken twice this time to go up one floor. "I know you'll tell me what I need to know later. Stop worrying, you'll give yourself wrinkles. I'll sit quietly in your apartment until you get back. Maybe leave me a book or the radio or something, if you're gonna be a while."

When he looks back at Steve, Steve is smiling at him in that soft, helpless way that unfailingly kicks up a storm of insects in Bucky's stomach. "I think I can do better than that, Buck."

The elevator chimes softly before opening. Bucky steps out, expecting a hallway lined with doors, and finds himself walking into—a large living room?

"Not exactly an apartment," says Steve. "More like each of us has our own floor."

"Damn," whistles Bucky. "How the hell did you swing this?"

"Stark," says Steve, like that explains everything. "I tried to get him to let me pay rent, but he said he owns the building, so he can decide who gets to live in it, and also it's not lost revenue when he built the floor specifically for me to live in —which, um, he apparently did—but I got him to at least let me pay for my own utilities."

At this point, Bucky's reached the couch, and he stares down at it because, between the plane and all the people in suits and the look of the reception downstairs, he'd half-expected some plush, classy affair, with leather or fur or solid gold armrests or something. But the couch is—not exactly like their old couch, from their old apartment, it's bigger and has thicker cushions and is probably not in danger of falling apart if someone sneezes too hard. Yet he can tell, right away, that Steve had been the one to pick it out, and why Steve had gotten it. He swallows and kicks off his shoes, sprawls himself over it, barely remembering the once-habitual motion from home.

God, he can't remember the last time he'd sat on that couch. Can't remember the last time he'd sat on any couch, come to think of it. Probably in one of the abandoned homes the Howlies had temporarily requisitioned for the war effort, and they were never in those longer than a night or two.

There's no spring poking his ass, no ominous creak behind his head. But his back welcomes the gentle contours of the cushions, the cloth is soft to the touch, and best of all, it smells of Steve, comforting steadying and warming him down to his bones.

"Bucky." There's something tremulous in Steve's voice. He gently shifts Bucky's legs so he can sit down, and as always Bucky tucks his feet under Steve's thighs. Maybe Bucky has to bend his legs further and there's a lot more thigh to burrow under, but it's good. This, too, is another piece of home.

God, he misses home. Misses a damn lot of things from before.

"Forget the future—I'm happy enough to be out of the muck," sighs Bucky. If his voice has a telling thickness to it, he knows Steve won't pay any mind. "Speaking of which, I should have taken a shower before I got on your furniture. Bet I smell awful."

Steve pats him on the knee. "I'll show you where the shower is. But you know I don't care. I'm just—" Steve clears his throat. "I'm really happy to see you, Buck."

Right. He keeps forgetting. How would he feel, he thinks, if he'd lost Steve, and then unexpectedly got him back?

Well, he'd be pissed it's only temporary, for one. Steve's stoic calm is a stark reminder that Steve's got plenty of practice at putting up with the unfairnesses of life. As for Bucky—fear of loss, fear of losing Steve, is familiar, as old as their friendship, but Bucky figures there's still a difference between scared of losing and really lost.

"Shower," he says into the silence, before the weight of their unspoken thoughts can steep for too long. "Now that I'm thinking about it, I really want to get clean."

"I'll show you where the bathroom and closet are, and sort out food while you're showering."

"If you prefer, Captain Rogers, I can have something delivered," says the electronic voice he'd heard in the elevator.

Bucky blinks up at the ceiling. "Robot?"

"I think Jarvis prefers Artificial Intelligence," says Steve. "And it's JARVIS, all capitals."

"Indeed," agrees JARVIS, sounding pleased. "I do not have a physical form of my own, as such, but I am present in all areas of the Tower, and run the environmental controls, general infrastructure, and security for the private residences. Along with addressing Mr. Stark's every whim and need, of course."

Bucky blinks. "Did you just sass Stark?"

"I like to consider it an employment benefit. A perk, one might say."

Bucky beams at Steve, delighted. "Looks like you fit right in here."

 

 

Once he's focused on the goal of shower, shower, shower, Bucky doesn't let himself be distracted by the guest bedroom Steve leads him to—

"Steve, this room is huge," he says, staring at it from the door. "Are you sure you're not trying to stick me in the master bedroom?"

"You're welcome to look at my room, if you want to check," says Steve dryly. "But I asked Tony to build all the bedrooms on my floor close to the same size. Technically, the largest room belongs to Sam. Uh, Sam's a friend of mine. He used to be a soldier, too, now he helps veterans get back on their feet after they get home. Officially, he's not one of the Avengers, but he helps out sometimes. He splits his time between here and Washington DC, where he is right now for work, but he'll probably be here tomorrow once he hears about you."

Bucky feels a pang at the realization that Steve must be pretty close to the guy to be sharing a home with him. Resentment rises up, and Bucky hates himself for it; Steve deserves to have all the friends he can get, and it's not as though Bucky wants him to be alone. Steve should never be alone. Steve hasn't made any effort to hide how much he's missed Bucky, or how hard he's taken Bucky's loss. Bucky should be glad Steve has friends in the future; he needs looking after, and he especially needs people who won't put up with his crap.

"Sam has to share his bathroom, though," continues Steve, "while you and I have our own en-suite." Steve finally gets Bucky to enter the bedroom by looming behind him until he steps over the threshold.

—or the closet stuffed full of clean fluffy towels—

"How many people do you have living here?"

Steve gives him a bemused look. "Three, including you, but all the bathrooms have their own closets."

Steve pushes two thick towels into his arms, and after a moment Bucky concedes it's probably a good idea, considering how many months of muck must have built up on his body.

"Put anything you need cleaned into the hamper. And that's a heated towel rack," says Steve, pointing at a column of metal bars curving out of the wall. "Dries towels real quick. I know, heated towels don't sound like much, but once you use one you'll see why it's one of the great inventions of the modern world."

—or the ridiculous array of options for soap, shampoo, aftershave—

"Steve, I don't even remember the last time I saw a mango, and now I can make myself smell like one?"

"Mango for your body and apricot for your hair, if that's what you feel like."

"You're not planning on eating me, are you?" He opens a drawer and finds a razor in a plastic package, next to an old-fashioned razor that looks brand new. Another drawer contains a hair dryer.

"This aftershave is, um, really good."

The strange note in Steve's voice has him looking up from the drawer of combs. "Wait, are you blushing?"

"No!"

—or the bathroom itself, which may be bigger than their old apartment in Brooklyn.

There's a bathtub against the far wall, looking like one of those claw-foot tubs except with pipes for easy filling and draining. The shower is inside a cube of rippled glass jutting out of the wall. Steve slides the glass door open and shows Bucky how to detach the showerhead, how to change the options for water, the additional towels for his hair and face and hands.

It's how he's imagined luxury hotels to be like. Not the kind of place he'd ever expect to call home.

Steve leans against the doorframe with his hands in his pockets. "If you're unsure about anything, just shout. Or call for JARVIS and he'll answer your questions."

"Wait, he's in the bathroom too?" asks Bucky.

"I'm afraid I am everywhere, Sergeant Barnes," says JARVIS. "If it helps, I only take notice of the private quarters when specifically called upon, or in the event of an emergency."

"Huh." Bucky shrugs. "Good thing I'm used to the army, then."

Steve hovers at the door as Bucky picks out a plain white bar of soap and the least potent-smelling shampoo he can find. Bucky understands, really; Steve must be coasting on the same sense of disbelief Bucky is, like if he looks away too long the last few hours will suddenly become untrue.

He walks into the shower and sets down the toiletries, checks that the towels are within easy reach outside. Strips off the stolen jacket, then winces when he tries to take off the shirt. He'd forgotten about his ribs.

Bucky looks over at Steve. "A bit of help, Rogers?"

"Right," says Steve, visibly shaking his head. "Of course."

He gently peels off Bucky's shirt, and then helps him take off the bandages. Bucky takes a deep breath and decides it doesn't hurt nearly as much as before. Probably just bruising, after all.

Steve is still lingering by the door. Bucky throws him a wink and a smirk. "You're welcome to watch, Rogers. Maybe you can help me scrub my back."

He looks down to undo his belt and unceremoniously drops his trousers. He hears a strangled, "Right, sorry," followed by the door shutting close. He laughs and shakes his head.

It's not until he's working in his second round of shampoo, the water streaming across the floor still yellow-brownish, that he admits to feeling a slight whinge of disappointment.

His hands are shaking. It's the cold, he thinks, and turns the heat up until the steam stops him from seeing his reflection in the glass.

 

 

Damp and feeling the cleanest he's been in a long, long time, possibly ever, Bucky throws his old clothes and everything he's used into the hamper, then grabs a fresh towel to wrap around himself before going into the bedroom. (Steve turns out to be right about the heated towels.) He has a vague plan to roll around in the bed for a minute, because the damn thing looks like a cloud that's been coaxed into a cuboid shape. But he ends up standing stock-still, in the middle of the room, staring at nothing.

It's too quiet.

He breathes in and out, glad suddenly for the lingering pain in his ribs. He feels the absence of the dirt on his skin more than he'd ever felt the dirt itself. The calluses on his hands and feet have been softened by the water.

He looks around him. Everything is so clean. He can see the city out of the wide windows, he can even hear the distant traffic below and at least one helicopter above.

But it's too quiet.

It becomes imperative, suddenly, that he lay eyes on Steve right this minute. A set of clothing has been left for him at the edge of the bed. He quickly pulls them on.

(If he'd had room to feel anything other than the itchy, urgent need to see Steve, he'd be surprised at how well the boxers, pants, and shirt fit.)

From the way Steve practically leaps up from the kitchen stool when Bucky opens the door, Bucky's not the only one affected by the brief separation. They look at each other. No words needed to reach an understanding: mildly embarrassed, mainly relieved, no reason to make a big thing out of it. Carry on as normal.

Steve shows him the rest of the floor- an entire floor- then sits him down in the kitchen and pulls out more pans than the both of them have ever owned. Bucky expects Steve to be getting irritated by now at the number of times Bucky's made him confirm that his apartment is an entire floor but Steve just smiles each time and says it again. He also keeps glancing at Bucky every ten seconds.

Bucky can appreciate the feeling, but, "You're gonna burn those eggs if you don't pay 'em more attention, Steve."

Grinning sheepishly, Steve transfers the two eggs onto a plate and cracks another two into the pan. He plucks a couple of pieces of toast out of a very shiny toaster, adds them to the plate, and slides the plate over to Bucky. There are already a couple different kinds of jam on the counter-thing that Steve had called an island, but Steve pulls open a tall metal door—

"Holy crapper, is that your icebox?"

"Sort of. Refrigerators these days have a separate section for freezing stuff- no, Bucky, you can look at it later. Eat your food while it's still hot."

"Yes, Ma."

—and pulls out a bright yellow tub of butter, which he places next to Bucky's plate. Bucky glances at the second pan on the stove, which is sputtering promisingly and filling the kitchen with the smell of bacon. Steve grabs a pair of bright blue tongs and shuffles the bacon around. Bucky wonders if Steve is used to feeding lots of people, now, because he moves like someone used to multi-tasking. Back home, Steve had done more of the cooking, between the two of them, just because Bucky had worked longer hours, but it's not like they ever had people visiting.

It had always been just the two of them.

Bucky is halfway through his first egg, the yolk exactly as runny as he likes, when Steve dumps a rasher of bacon on his plate and another egg. The bacon is as crunchy and salty as he can wish for; he maybe has to blink and breathe deeply for a few seconds, and also stuff half a toast into his mouth because he's getting that ache in his jaw from all the saliva flooding out. He doesn't even complain that Steve's served him orange juice because orange juice, sweet and sharp and cold going down his throat.

He doesn't really pay much attention after that, focused on wolfing down the food like they're still in an army mess. Steve mutters, "Slow down," a couple of times, but doesn't really stop Bucky, and once all the food's served he joins Bucky at the island with his own plate.

By the time Bucky resurfaces, there's nothing left on the plates but crumbs. "Wow, we ate a lot."

He'd stopped counting the bacon, but he's pretty sure he's had half a dozen eggs and as many slices of toast. Since most of it had been served to him piecemeal, he hadn't really paid attention to the quantities. He half-expects his stomach to hurt, at least, if not eject the food entirely, but he actually feels... satisfied, in a way he hasn't felt in a long, long time. He tells Steve so.

"Yeah, enhanced metabolisms are a pain," says Steve.

"No, I knew that," says Bucky, "I've spent months forcing you to eat extra rations. Or have you forgotten the time you passed out in the middle of a swamp? I was talking about me."

"Oh." Steve blinks at him. "Well, you did just come from active duty and military rations. Not surprising you'd be hungry."

Bucky shifts on his stool, mildly embarrassed. “Just don’t let me eat you outta house and home, pal,” he jokes weakly. He tells himself that Steve’s refrigerator had looked full.

“I don’t think the two of us plus all the Howlies could manage it, Buck,” says Steve with a smile. “Besides, there are bigger eaters living in this building.”

“I bet. That big guy in the red cape can probably finish off two of me.” Bucky spins himself on the stool. “C’mon, Rogers. Tell me more about this new friends of yours.”