The Soldier doesn't run from the mission. He walks; a slow, aching shuffle away from the mud of the river. Some distance away, he finds a solid tree to lean against while he forces his right arm back into the socket and he doesn't scream. He just wipes the water coming from his eyes off his face, and vanishes.
Vanishing is something he used to do more, he thinks. His awareness for vanishing is tailored more to an time when cameras in public were around the necks of tourists or were heavy black boxes mounted above store fronts, not tiny things in everybody's pockets. He used to travel on buses and trains and aeroplanes, a fake passport in his pocket and a false smile on his face, a wolf blending in to the flock of sheep. His weapons in those cases were more discreet; a poison, a knife, a garotte. He doesn't know when that changed, when the missions became about terror rather than efficiency.
He doesn't know much of anything.
He keeps walking. The sun is low, now, the smoke haze bringing on an early, blood-red sunset. Sirens still wail in the distance and a helicopter circles maddeningly, like a buzzing fly. He keeps to the back alleys until the dusk falls completely, and then, to the shadows.
The door to the old bank is ajar. This is wrong, he knows. There is no guard outside the vault, and the cage gate swings freely at his touch. The doctors and specialists responsible for his maintenance lie in a neat heap, stacked out of the walkway. The chair remains, but it's a hollow metal carcass, the computers that surrounded it stripped away and taken, their connective cables dangling loose, communicating nothing. Everything here is redundant, decommissioned, obsolete. Even him.
He takes what is left that is useful – a bag with someone's running clothes, a mobile phone, a quantity of money and a few credit cards – and burns the rest to ash.
He watches the conflagration from a rooftop nearby. The fire fighters do their best, but they're stretched thin; most of their number are still pulling bodies from the Triskelion. When he's certain nothing salvageable remains, he leaves.
He spends the next few days learning how to be invisible in the current era without any programming or training. It's challenging, but a sufficient amount is similar that he's able to put down any fumbling to being a foreigner. He overlays his English with enough of a Russian accent that he's charming, not unintelligible.
There's a thrift store where he parts with a portion of his money. The staff are flatteringly sympathetic and helpful when he spins them a tale of woe – his luggage was lost, with the airports all closed, he may never get it back, and he is tired of wearing the same clothes he flew in. He chooses shirts with long sleeves, a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, a belt, underwear, socks, and a pair of gloves to hide his prosthetic from curious eyes. Having dumped his tac gear for the running clothes back at the bank, he's now clad in things that are completely new, civilian, unremarkable. His boots dried out from their dunk in the river and seem serviceable enough, if water stained, so those, he keeps.
On a recommendation from the chattering sales clerk he eats at a local café, drinking something caffeinated, sweet and drowning in whipped cream and munching a delicate pastry crusted in sugar and fruit. He didn't scream when he set his own shoulder, but it's hard not to make noises while putting the food and drink in his mouth. Hydra, it seems, knew the power of caramel shots and baked goods, and kept them well away from their asset.
James Buchanan Barnes, the mission had said. It's not hard to look it up on his purloined phone. He'd acquired a cable from a bodega that fit the little socket, and the café staff don't mind him charging it.
“You a history student?” the girl who clears his empty mug away asks when she catches sight of a picture of the mission on his screen, black-and-white, from a battlefield long ago surrounded by dense academic text.
“Da. Sorry, yes,” he answers, feigning embarrassment.
“You know, the Smithsonian has a big exhibition on. You been?” she asks.
“No, I arrive this week,” he answers. “You give me address?”
His hopeful expression feels rusty and forced but seems to work, since she snags a napkin and scrawls a map and directions on it. On the other side, she writes a long string of numbers and a name.
The museum is exactly the kind of place he's kept his distance from. It's big, it's public, and it's well covered with surveillance equipment. But it does have the answer he's looking for, that low-res scans on the internet on his tiny phone screen weren't telling him.
There's a face on the wall, taller than he is, and it's his face.
He stands there for a long time, just looking at the face, then watching the loop of footage of him at the mission's – Steve's – side. They're laughing together. He doesn't remember laughing, though he recognises it in others.
They took that from you, he thinks, and his parted lips close, guarding against another involuntary sound, keeping it back. He doesn't know what that sound would be, but the potentiality of what it could be scares him.
Tearing himself away from the display, he circulates the exhibit once, twice, three times. He watches the recorded interviews of men and women from decades past, talking about a war that was long enough ago for their recollections to be coloured with nostalgia. He doesn't know what the shape of the bald truth would feel like, though, because there's a void in his head where it was. It used to be black and empty. Now, there's a man, sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes angry and bloody, sometimes laughing and wry, sometimes painfully earnest.
James Buchanan Barnes, he says. Bucky.
The Soldier mouths the words along with him, then walks out into the sun.
He knows the cards won't be good forever, so he draws out a little money a day from each of them. Not the same amount each time, not from the same machines, but enough so that when the card is declared stolen, or when the dead owner's bills finally become overdue, he won't be left short. He could just steal another, but he'd rather not take from someone he doesn't actively have a grudge against. He figures a man responsible for his past cryofreezing and current barbiturate withdrawal is good for it.
He buys another sugary coffee thing, this one slushy and icy, and a big sticky bun the size of his hand.
When the barista asks for his name, he says James. It doesn't feel quite right, but that's okay.
James hasn't exactly been sleeping rough, but the motels he's been staying at aren't the kind that ask questions. The room has its own bathroom, at least, with a tiny mildewy shower stall where he sweated and shivered out the worst of the drugs.
The world still feels fragile, slightly over-bright and loud, but it's better than it was. He's not going to punch a hole in the wall every time someone's cell phone rings any more.
A more pressing problem now is the pain he's in. The first few days while he healed the damage from the fight, it made sense that his body ached. There was no team of people patching his hurts, drugging him down so he'd be pliant for the procedures. There was no one but himself to set his shoulder, to dab at his abraded skin with a damp cloth, to force his wounded body to actually sleep rather than simply give in to sedatives.
The pain he feels now is different. It's a steadily building ache that centres at the join between his body and his prosthesis and fans out to encompass his shoulder, spine and ribs. The skin is warm to the touch, and every movement that involves the left side of his body is accompanied by a surge in that pain.
Wrong, something is wrong. Major damage, report for maintenance, his brain tells him.
But there is no maintenance. No team of people to sedate him while they poke and prod beneath the surface.
He buys asprin and swallows it, and it does nothing.
He goes back the next day to buy more.
“You don't look so good, mister,” the clerk tells him.
“Toothache,” he says, because that's a safe enough thing to admit to.
The next day, just sitting up in bed jerks a cry from his lips unbidden. His shirt is damp and in the bathroom mirror, he sees it's blood.
There's a thin line of metal, like the edge of a knife, protruding from his skin. It runs the length of his left collarbone, from the top of his sternum to the edge of the arm. The part that bisects the scarring is bleeding heaviest.
This is not something asprin will fix.
Wrong, his brain repeats, like a recording of a blaring alarm on a loop.
No shit, he thinks back.
The mission, Steve, is still living at Dupont Circle. The window that looks out over the fire escape is shiny and new but not difficult to open, even though he's breathing through his gritted teeth against the pain.
Not quietly enough to go undetected by supersoldier hearing, apparently.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve says. He's holding the shield and he's looking hopeful but it's tempered by caution. That's good. The last time they fought, Steve was a little short on caution.
“I need help,” James says, letting the bag slip from his shoulder. It hits the floor with a metallic thunk. That'd be the handguns. “I need... maintenance,” he adds, not knowing a better word.
“Is that blood?” Steve asks, alarmed.
“Yes,” he replies.
Steve puts the shield down, leaning it against the wall. “C'mon,” he says, leading the way.
Steve goes white when James takes his shirt off. He swallows a couple of times.
James looks down. The metal's sticking out further now, a good quarter inch. The cut skin around it stings and rubs and bleeds, unable to heal up the way it wants to.
“I can't fix this,” Steve says, once he's breathed in and out very carefully for a few seconds. “But I know some people who can help.”
“I'm not going back,” James says. “I won't.”
“No, you won't. I promise,” Steve says.
He doesn't know why Steve saying something firmly in that voice is so calming.
“They're people I trust and they'll want to help you,” Steve continues earnestly and James realises that Steve's waiting for an answer.
“Okay,” James says.
“Do you want something to eat?” Steve asks.
“You got coffee? And pastries?” James asks, hearing a wistful sound in his voice that surprises him. It probably shouldn't. He's practically been living on café food.
“I can find something,” Steve says, his mouth curling up at the edges.
James is drinking strong coffee and eating apricot preserves on toast when the flying man arrives. The towel Steve taped to his skin is pinking through with blood but he feels better than he did when he climbed through Steve's window.
“Hey, man, how you doin'?” the flying man asks carefully.
“It hurts,” James says.
“No kidding,” the flying man says. “I'm Sam. Could you maybe let me take a look? Just to see what we got, here.”
James sets down the toast and reaches up to peel back Steve's makeshift dressing. There's no rush of fresh blood like he thought there might be. The towel seems to have absorbed the worst of it.
Sam doesn't look sick like Steve did. He just looks at the metal and James's shoulder and nods.
“So, I'm guessing that thing's pretty heavy,” he says, gesturing at James's left arm.
James shrugs with his right shoulder and reclaims his toast. “I guess,” he says. It didn't used to feel that way. It used to feel like the strongest part of him. Now, though, there's something hooked into the wrong chorus in his brain that makes him want to keep it still, keep it close. He's barely used it in the last two days.
“And I'm guessing that they put some kind of support in there for the rest of your bones, to anchor it to,” Sam continues.
He shrugs again. He doesn't remember, but it makes sense.
“I can't be sure, because without x-raying you to see what they did, I just don't know, but either you shook something loose in your battle with Captain Stupid over there,” he says gesturing with his head to where Steve's hovering back in the doorway, “or, and this is my real suspicion – your body's rejecting the metal.”
James swallows the last mouthful of his toast and it sticks a little on the way down. He chases it with coffee then reaches up to touch the edge protruding from his skin.
“I know it sounds weird, but you're in the same club with a guy whose body had pushed out the bullets inside him by the time the EMTs cut his suit off, so, I think it's a fair guess.”
“I... I don't remember,” James says.
“The surgery?” Sam prompts, when James runs out of words.
“Any of it,” James replies. “I didn't know this was here.” His fingers are sticky now, tacky with blood rather than sugar.
“I think there's gonna be more of it,” Sam says gently. “Your collarbone's just pretty near the surface, which is why it poked out there first. What it means is you need to be somewhere where people who know more than me about medicine can take care of you.”
James's eyes snap to Steve. “You promised.”
“And I meant it,” Steve says. “I'm not turning you in. We're going to New York.”
Sam and Steve bicker over transportation. They seem to have decided firmly against public. This is fine. James would have vetoed that anyway because of the cameras and identity checks. The others seem to think James's injury and bleeding everywhere would be more of a concern and draw unwanted attention.
“Can't take the bike,” Steve says, and Sam just looks at Steve like he's declared the most obvious thing in the world.
“I could hold on,” James volunteers. They both ignore him. Perhaps it's just as well.
“I suppose we could hire something,” Steve ventures.
“And have to pay to clean all the blood out after,” Sam says.
“You could try gluing it shut,” James says, poking at the metal again.
“Your body is pushing out pieces of metal. I doubt it'd see superglue as much of a challenge,” Sam snarks. “Just ask Stark. We're going to him, anyway. Might as well bleed all over his upholstery, too.”
Steve makes a grumbling noise but pulls out his phone.
Two hours later, the three of them are all in the back of a limo with dark tinted windows and leather seats. Steve lays down a couple of towels before James sits, but it's not terribly necessary. Leather wipes clean well. That's why Hydra dressed the Soldier in it for decades.
They all startle in equal amounts when a thin, transparent screen pops up.
“See you caught your ride,” the man on the screen says. “Hey, man, don't slash my seats,” he adds.
James concedes the knife in his hand would be pretty useless and hides it away again.
“The bar is all yours and thanks to the wonder of technology, I've lined up some entertainment. See you in a few hours,” he continues, and without so much as a fare-thee-well, he vanishes and is replaced by a candy coloured confection of animation.
Sam snickers. “Oh, man, this is gonna be fun.”
“Friendship is magic?” Steve asks. “Are those meant to be horses?”
“It's an experience, is what it is,” Sam says. “Has Stark got any snacks in there?”
Chocolate coated almonds, James decides, are an acceptable form of caloric intake.
By the time the limousine swings into the private parking bay under the tower, the end of the metal strip closest to James's arm is poking out completely. He's had to take off both his shirt and the towel because the movement of the car on the road surface kept tugging and wiggling it, making it feel like a loose tooth that wasn't quite ready to come out, yet. The leather upholstery's tacky with blood but there's not a puddle of the stuff, so Stark should be able to clean it up okay.
“Wow, okay, well, as a fellow member of the 'metal crap in my body' club, I have to say welcome,” Stark says, peering at James's shoulder with avid curiosity. “You have a good trip up?”
“It was four hours of singing ponies,” Steve says flatly. James knows he's fronting. He'd caught Steve tapping his foot at least twice.
“The chocolate was good,” James says.
Stark cracks a winning smile. “A man after my own heart. Right this way. You okay with elevators? It's not too future-science for you?” Stark asks.
“They had elevators in the 1940s,” Steve says.
“Yeah, but they were worked by steam power, or some shit, weren't they?” Stark asks, his hand twirling in the air. He's clearly pulling Steve's leg and from the frown on Steve's mug, he knows it, too.
“Hand cranks,” James says, surprising himself.
There's a moment where Stark almost buys it. James wonders if it's because he's the one who said it or because he's got no trouble at all keeping a completely straight face.
Steve nods thoughtfully. “Turned by monkeys,” he elaborates.
Stark rolls his eyes. “Get in the damn elevator,” he says.
“That's not good,” the new man says, looking at the metal. “What's your pain level at, right now?”
“Pain level?” James asks.
“Right, okay, one to ten, one being fine, ten being unbearable, where are you at?”
James thinks for a good minute. “Six,” he decides.
“Should be an eight, at least,” the man mutters, but scribbles something on a notepad anyway. “And what's the functionality on that thing like right now?” he asks, pointing his pen at the arm.
Wrong, James's head clamours.
“I haven't been using it,” he admits hesitantly. “Something's not right.”
“I see you've got some bruising, there, along the join,” he ventures.
“He's been poking at it,” Sam says.
“It's hot,” James tries to explain. “And it itches. Deep. Can't scratch it.”
“Right, well,” the man pushes a hand through his hair, carding the curls out then smoothing them flat. “I think pain relief is the first priority. Then some scans to find out how deep and where all this crap is. I don't think it's safe to just wait for it to work its way out. It's metal, it's not intuitive, and even that one bothers the hell out of me,” he says, pointing at James's collar bone. “There are a lot of nerves and blood vessels nearby that could get damaged if you move wrong.”
They want to drug him down. They want to send him to that twilight place where ghosts and fragments torment him, where reality frays around the edges and cohesion turns to mush.
“That's not going to be safe for you,” James says slowly. “My handlers, the technicians... they used to drug me. I used to hurt them, a lot. If I lose track of where I am, who you are... I might hurt you.”
James doesn't want to hurt them. He wants the metal gone. He wants more chocolate almonds and slushy coffee and maybe even another episode of the relentlessly chirpy pony show.
“You won't hurt me,” the man says with a smile. There's an edge to that smile. James knows how that feels; it's mirrored on his face right now. “And I'd rather use a local anaesthetic, anyhow. I want you to know what's going on and to be able to answer questions. Does that sound all right to you?”
James thinks for a moment. “Yes,” he agrees.
There's no chair. There are a couple of needles, tiny, sharp pinches that are there and gone, and then there's a blessed numbness around his shoulder that's like taking a deep breath of fresh air.
James sways a little but Steve is there to buoy him up.
“I'm okay,” James says and pets a little at Steve with his right hand. He looks at the man, Bruce, and quirks that sharp edged smile again. “I think eight's probably about right,” he concedes. “Couldn't really judge until it dialled back.”
Bruce returns the smile. “Glad it's working. We've got maybe ten minutes until it wears off, but that's only if you run exactly like him,” he says, nodding in Steve's direction. “Given that we don't know what they did to you, at the beginning or since, there's no way to judge how small the window really is. Sorry.”
“Get me some more of those chocolate almonds from the car and we're square,” James says.
Stark, who's been quiet up until this point, poking at his holographic screens, pipes up. “Oh, I'm way ahead of you there, sport. There is an actual metric fuckton of those being delivered in, say, twenty minutes,” he says. “For now, time's a-wasting, let's get this done. If you could just stand there, arms out at shoulder height, or as close as you can get. JARVIS, do your thing.”
A blue laser light traces every contour of James's body. It doesn't hurt or tickle, but he does instinctively close his eyes when it passes across his face. A sniper needs to preserve his eyesight.
“Couple more passes, you're doing great,” Stark says.
He and Bruce are tapping on their clear screens, murmuring to each other and pointing things out. The laser seems to be focussing in on his arm, now, scanning slow and steady and occasionally passing several times over the same area, as though double checking its initial findings.
James wobbles again and Steve's arms are suddenly around him. Usually, unexpected physical contact, especially from behind, would make him lash out automatically. Instead, his body stills and relaxes back, allowing Steve to take some of his weight.
It makes no sense.
His head aches a little and he shuts his eyes against another pass of light. Opening them again seems too much effort. Steve's arm moves up and James can feel the relief when his hand spreads to take the weight of the metal arm. A soft sound slips past his lips, a questioning noise. Steve makes a shooshing sound in reply. It's very calming.
James loses track of time a little and then he's being guided down to sit on a rolling stool.
“Good job,” Stark says, handing James a box of chocolate coated almonds. “We got what we need. You guys just... chill there for a bit.”
“Tony,” Steve growls.
“Oh, fine. Suck all the fun out of life,” Stark grouches.
James really couldn't care less about Stark's sense of humour. He's got a mouth full of chocolate and Steve's hand on the back of his right shoulder.
“You need anything?” Steve asks.
“A bucket-sized caramel macchiato and a cinnamon roll,” James answers. “And maybe more of that horse cartoon.”
“You got it,” Sam says. “There a Starbucks in this building?”
“Fifth floor, but don't bother, they deliver for me,” Stark says, after he's finished giggling into Bruce's shoulder.
“I need some air, anyhow. I'll walk,” Sam says. “No, you stay here, he needs you,” he adds, and behind James, Steve settles.
They give up on the stool fairly quickly. In a corner away from all the shiny science things, there's a battered sofa with a thin blanket thrown across it that smells like motor oil and solder.
What he and Steve are doing definitely counts as affection. Though he doesn't have any personal experience with it that he can recall, James has somehow wound up with his head in Steve's lap and Steve's fingers scritching gently through his hair. There's a humming kind of quiescence that hasn't abated even though the pain is back full-force.
“This feels like... something,” James mumbles, tilting his head into Steve's touch. “I don't remember... but it's right.”
“I used to get hurt a lot,” Steve says softly. “You didn't, much, but the times you did, you'd always settle for me. Couple of times, over in Europe, I'd hold you still so they could stitch you up. We didn't often have any morphine, and it didn't do much for you, anyhow. Makes sense, now. You run through it too fast, like I do.”
Despite James's appropriately enormous coffee, he's kind of sleepy. Not foggy or lost like the drugs used to make him, but something like relaxed. He doesn't even mind when Sam comes over to check him over.
“This is nearly out,” Sam says quietly, and huh, he's right, the irregular metal piece is more or less clear of his body.
“I know it's tempting, like picking at a scab, but let it come out on its own, don't pull it,” Sam cautions.
James makes a grumpy noise. Steve reaches down and wraps a wide, warm hand around James's right wrist.
“He'll leave it alone,” Steve says.
“You're not my boss,” James grumbles.
“I know the circle must feel pretty big to you already but I'd like to consult with a colleague,” Bruce says apologetically. “She's an expert in tissue regeneration. She might be able to give me a better idea of how to proceed.”
“You think that's wise?” Steve asks.
“I trust her,” Bruce says simply. “And the consequences for just letting the rest of it work its way out like this bit did,” he says, tapping the freed piece of collarbone metal with a finger, “are kinda bad.”
“I'd rather not do that again if I can help it,” James says. The cut across his collarbone is scabbed closed and itchy with healing, but the rest of him aches in a persistent, all-consuming way.
“Whatever we work out for the metal implants, the first step is pretty cut-and-dried,” Bruce says. “We need to remove the arm.”
James feels himself freeze up. All he can hear for a while is the rush of blood in his ears. Sound slowly comes back like he's surfacing through water.
“...okay?” Steve is asking when he draws a ragged breath.
“I'm fine,” James says. “They're right, it's gotta go, I just...” He sucks in another breath.
“As interested as we are in the mechanics, we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't need to,” Stark says seriously. “I used to have a device that kept shrapnel out of my heart. Right here,” he says, tapping his sternum. “I held onto it for a long time, it became part of my identity, but in the end, I had to let it go. Probably one of the scariest things I've ever done, and I've done plenty. But I had time to think about it and I was ready. We can't afford to wait this time.”
He holds out a thin clear tablet, loaded with what James knows must be the scans from earlier.
“If you see here,” Bruce says, pointing at an area below James's shoulder, “there's tissue left. The bone is coated in the same metal that your collarbone was, but it's distended, like it's starting to fail in the same way. And here, at the point the metal ends, the soft tissue extends beyond it here and there.”
Sam draws in a sharp breath. “You're right, we need to get that off him, asap,” he says.
“What does that mean?” Steve asks, his brow furrowing.
“I'll have to wait to hear back from Helen Cho,” Bruce says. “But this isn't simple failure. It's regrowth, beyond the original amputation site. One of the reasons the arm is failing isn't just that the support structure is being rejected, it's because the new tissue is pushing down into the arm itself, into any crevice or gap it can find, like a plant sprouting up between paving stones.”
“It's growing back,” James says numbly, struggling to believe the evidence before his eyes.
“We don't know how much it will regenerate, or if it'll even be a usable limb if it does, but... yes.”
There's no actual surgery or tinkering that night. Bruce is waiting for his friend in Korea to wake up and Stark's busy pulling apart the scans of the mechanical parts of the arm, figuring out exactly how everything works as a unit.
“Your apartment should be ready for you. I got someone to go up and fill the fridge hours ago,” Stark says casually.
“Yeah, go relax or something.”
“I have an apartment?” Steve asks.
“Yeah, sure you do. Don't be weird about it, just... go,” Stark says, making a shooing motion with his hand. “Eat ice cream. Order some pizza. Watch some more ponies.”
They end up doing all three.
“It's not going to run away, you know,” Sam says, folding a slice in half and taking his time to chew it.
“It's good right now. So I'm eating it right now,” James explains.
“You grow up in the Depression on cabbage soup and turnips, then go to war and eat K-rations, you don't take your time to savour it when someone sits a hot, fresh-cooked meal in front of you. You just eat it fast and stab the guy who tries to mooch it from you with your fork,” Steve says matter-of-factly, his eyes shining.
James nods along. He shares the sentiment even if he doesn't remember the specifics of developing it.
Maybe it's a bit of overkill to twirl his smallest knife out of its holster and stab it into the coffee table next to his plate as punctuation, but it makes Steve laugh, so that's something.
“Hi there,” says the Asian woman on Stark's tablet. “I know you're in pain, so I'm not going to give you a lecture.” The smile lines around her eyes crinkling together makes James think that maybe she gets accused of that a lot. “Dr Banner and I have talked and we're pretty much in agreement. We think we know what's going on with your body. We don't exactly know how, but if we knew that, then we'd be able to make treatments that'd put a lot of the medical profession out of a job.”
It's a joke, so James smiles.
“Have you ever heard of something called stem cells?” she asks.
James shakes his head.
“Think of them as the building blocks of a person. When a foetus is growing and developing in the womb, stem cells are the things that turn into all the other cells that make up our body. Adults have them, too, and a lot of scientists think they're the answer to medical treatment of the future – cancer and immune treatments tailored to a patient's individual bodies by using their own stem cells.
“I've thought for some time that the serum that Captain Rogers received activated and supercharged his stem cells. That the scientists who designed Project Rebirth were able to remake his body into one where every potential was realised by stimulating those cells to fix what was faulty. If those cells are still switched on, it explains his healing factor and his stamina. If I'm right about that and your own serum works in the same way, then your body is simply doing what it's meant to do – mending the damage and expelling the foreign material.”
“It's not so strange as you might think,” Bruce chips in. “We see it in other species all the time. Reptiles, amphibians. Even in humans. If a young kid loses a fingertip, but a small amount of nail bed remains, stem cells in the nail bed that are responsible for growing that nail will often grow the whole fingertip back, nail and all. What your body is trying to do is just... bigger. For your physiology, probably not impossible. Just gradual and time consuming.”
“All we have to do is give it room to grow,” Stark says.
“I am really glad I got you guys hooked on ponies and not on '80s era Astroboy right now,” Stark says, gently levering up yet another plate and laying it next to its brothers.
James raises an eyebrow.
Stark shrugs. “Just a super depressing episode about the robot kid finding love, and well, she's basically a walking bomb that they have to disassemble completely to stop going nuclear. He keeps her legs.”
There's a bit of an awkward silence.
“Yeah, I always thought that was pretty weird, too. And I like robots. If someone said, hey, have these robot legs, I'd be all, sure, hand 'em over. But he's a robot too, and he puts them on in place of his legs, which if you think about it, is like grafting your dead girlfriend's limbs to your own body.”
“Do you actually listen to yourself when you're talking?” James asks.
“The egotistical thing to say would be yes, every fucking word, but the reality is, if I say anything that's actually useful, JARVIS remembers it for me, so no, not really,” Stark says.
The plates are mostly gone now. What's left is a solid metal skeletal base surrounded by servos, blinking LEDs and pistons. Without the shielding, it's loud – a cacophony of whirs and clicks and crunches. It looks more like one of Stark's helper bots than anything human.
“Getting close, now,” Stark hums. “You ready, Brucey?”
“Ready,” Bruce says. He's standing back to give Stark room to work but he's leaning in, curious. “You've got a leak, there,” he adds.
“Yeah, I see it,” Tony says.
The tap of fluids against floor makes James look down. Rather than the honey-yellow of oil, it's bright crimson.
“Don't worry, it's fine, we knew that might happen,” Stark says.
Steve's hand squeezes James's tight, almost crushing. “Just look at me,” Steve says.
James does. Steve's smiling but he looks white around the mouth again, frightened.
“I'm okay, Steve,” James says. He's telling the truth. The locals are doing their work. He feels better than he has since they scanned him. “C'mere.”
He leans his head against Steve's firm shoulder and Steve lets out a ragged sigh.
“When this thing's off 'a me, I'm doing a Starbucks run,” James says.
“When this thing's off you, you're going to lay on the couch and let someone else go to Starbucks for you,” Steve corrects.
James pokes him in the side with his finger.
“I know, I'm not the boss of you,” Steve says fondly.
The arm is finally off after three hours and a dozen or more local injections. The clipping of the neural relay is the worst part, like one of the Widow's stings jacked right into his spine for an unbearably long moment.
“Okay, bleeding first, science second,” Sam says, muscling his way through with a kit of supplies and some much needed real-world perspective.
His arm just... ends, mid bicep. The flesh looks red and raw where it isn't white and pasty, parts of it torn and other parts strangely shaped, as though moulded like clay. The bone juts out slightly from the flesh, capped with bulging silver metal that he presumes carries on right up to his shoulder socket, under the muscle.
Despite the cooling puddle on the floor, Sam doesn't seem worried.
“It's all sealing off well,” he says looking closely, patting away the blood to see better. “Shouldn't need to stitch anything, but we'll need to pad the hell out of it to protect it while it heals.”
“What about the metal?” James asks.
“You'll need surgery at some point,” Bruce says. “Sooner, rather than later, on the arm in particular, since that's obviously what your body's healing factor is focussing on. Without removing the metal, it won't be able to go much further, not without hurting you more. As for the rest, we'll keep scanning you regularly so that we can remove it if more floats free, but the fact of the matter is, your body doesn't want it there and it's all going to come free eventually.”
“Why didn't it do it before?” he asks.
“Maybe it did do it before and you just don't remember,” Bruce says bluntly. “Maybe eventually they worked out how to prevent rejection without suppressing your healing factor and that was part of the cocktail of drugs they gave you when you were active. They had decades to develop it and tailor it to your metabolism without having to worry about ethics or guidelines for safe practice.” Bruce shrugs. “The bad guys have that advantage.”
He leans on Steve heavily when he stands. His body wants to list to the right, as though he's standing on a sloping floor and trying to stay level.
“Feels weird,” he says once he's stabilised a little. When he steps forward, there's a hitch in his gait.
“It's not the anaesthetic or the blood loss, it's your centre of gravity,” Bruce explains. “You'll be all over the place for a while. That thing was heavy.”
“And gorgeous,” Stark says from where he's bending over the arm. “I mean, evil, yeah,” he backtracks. “But gorgeous. Like some bird with iridescent plumage that just wants to drink the blood of the innocent.”
Bruce's eyes close slowly and he heaves a heavy sigh.
“You wanted Starbucks?” Steve reminds James when they're wobbling their way over to the sofa. It still stinks of mechanic's workshop, but it's familiar, now. Comforting.
Steve sits and James snuggles up against him. “Mmm, maybe in a minute,” he says and almost immediately falls asleep.
Two days later, he's waking up from another nap, this one very much drug induced.
“Hey, Bucky,” Steve says, squeezing his hand.
“Numb,” James manages.
“Yeah, we gave you a fresh shot of local before bringing you round,” Bruce says.
James tries to crane his head to look but Steve's other hand holds him in place.
“Just try not to move, please, Mr Barnes,” Dr Cho says from somewhere behind him. “The machine's still repairing the surgical site.”
“You get it all?” he asks.
“Right up to just below the joint,” Bruce confirms. “The metal around the joint itself looks pretty solid, so we decided to leave it until later. When it deteriorates or when you've healed up more, we'll go back in for it. Whichever comes first.”
“Shame you can't just grow me a new arm with that thing,” James mumbles.
“I hope that we'll have that ability soon,” Dr Cho says. “For now, the damage done today should be healed up within the hour. As for growing the arm, your body seems to know what to do and now that the metal's out of the way, it shouldn't have trouble working out where to go.”
Steve passes him a big cup with a straw – it's one of those slushy coffees, made just how he likes it.
“You're my favourite,” James says. Maybe his smile as he says it is a little goofy, but Steve's is, too.
The new skin over his stump is velvety soft and very breakable, delicate tissue that the slightest bump or jostling tears. The padding to prevent this is a source of irritation.
“I've gone from a robot arm to a pillow arm,” he grouches. “I have to take it all off whenever I want to change my shirt and then put it all back on again. And I can't do any of it myself.”
“Pillow arm's less painful,” Steve points out.
“Try regrowing bone and talk to me again,” he says.
“Hey, I think it's definitely over halfway now,” Steve says, peering at the freshly uncovered skin.
“Yeah, of my humerus,” he grimaces. “That means, if the docs are right, there's the whole forearm and hand to go.”
Steve's hand catches his and squeezes. James sighs and squeezes back.
They've been living in the fancy apartment for a couple of weeks, now. Sam flew back home once the robot arm was off and James pulled up all right the next day, and Helen Cho was only there for the surgery to free up his arm.
He still doesn't remember much, but his body tells him that it wants to stay close to Steve, the way it wants strong coffee and sweet things, so he does. After Sam leaves, he lasts one restless night in his enormous, very soft bed with its silk sheets. The next night, he shuffles next door at one in the morning.
“Hey,” Steve says, blinking up at him with a slow sleepy smile. “You all right?”
“Can't sleep,” he replies with a shrug.
“Pain bad?” Steve asks, brow furrowing.
“No. I just...” he trails off, shrugging again.
“C'mere,” Steve says, flipping back the covers.
It's easy, so easy, to give in. Steve arranges their limbs so they are comfortably intertwined and nothing is pressing on his bandaged arm.
“There,” Steve says. “I've got you. Now just relax.”
And he did.
It's settled into a gentle pattern that they follow now without thinking about it. Steve holds him and strokes his back and murmurs gently until the last of the knots in him loosen. When James wakes, whether from dreams or pain or just the void of sleep, it's easier to ground himself with Steve there.
He doesn't know why this morning's different, why he wakes up in Steve's arms and thinks beautiful instead of just warm and gentle and safe.
He's never done this, but it can't be complicated, can it?
James sees Steve's sleepy eyes widen, just a little, as he leans in to press his mouth to Steve's.
Steve's very, very still for a long moment, then he sucks in a breath and his mouth falls open, slick and soft. They move slowly against each other, each movement echoed, like a non-verbal call-and-answer. Steve's hand slides up to cup James's cheek so, so carefully and James whimpers.
“I don't remember this, I'm sorry,” he confesses in a ragged whisper.
“It's okay,” Steve assures him.
“I wish I did,” he says.
“There's nothing to remember,” Steve says in a hush. “This is... something new. Something we didn't do before.”
“Was I nuts?” he demands.
Steve laughs, a bright and happy sound. “Maybe we both were,” he says. His thumb traces the curve of James's cheek and he shivers.
“But it's right?” he asks. “It feels right.”
“Feels right to me,” Steve assures him, and claims his mouth again.
“James?” the barista calls out and James shuffles forward to collect his order. She's put it in a cup tray without him even asking about it, which he's grateful for. When he has to ask, people's eyes always fly to the loose place in the last few inches of his sleeve where his arm isn't, not yet, and it's embarrassing for everybody. He doesn't like admitting his weakness, sure, but he feels worse for making someone earning minimum wage dollars, run off their feet churning out coffee, feel guilty for not noticing he's missing a hand and accommodating that.
“Thanks,” he says, smiling. It's a real smile, one that creases the skin around his mouth and his cheeks and his eyes, and the girl returns it briefly before rushing back to the coffee machine.
Steve's waiting at the table he snagged while James was lining up, an expression on his face that's halfway between concerned and curious.
“She called you James,” Steve says.
“Yeah,” he confirms.
“I didn't know you went by James,” Steve says, his frown deepening. “You never did... before. I didn't think.”
“It's just the name on my card,” James says, tucking it back in his wallet now that his hand is free from drinks.
“I should have asked,” Steve says. “I know things are different now.”
“Steve, it's okay, don't worry about it,” James says. “I don't mind. I... I like it. When you call me Bucky. It was strange at first, but everything was. It was new. Now it's just... you.”
“You put up with a lot. If you want to be called something different, I can do that,” Steve says.
“Call me Bucky,” he says, smiling without even having to think about it. “And gimme that pastry. You want one, you can buy your own.”
Steve smiles back and surrenders Bucky's baked goods, but only after he's taken a big, greedy bite.