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To Stop My Mind From Wandering

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Of course Steve was going to go after Bucky; of that there had never been any question. Not that he knew where to start – all he had was the dusty file Natasha had given him and an awful lot of determination that he would not let his best friend down again. He would bring Bucky home and support him in any way he could. But first, he needed to find him.

His apartment in DC was a mess; Steve stayed long enough to put the front door back on its hinges from where Kate – Sharon – had kicked it down, and to pack a small bag of things he might need knowing that it might be a long trip. He sighed as he cast a final look around the empty apartment, frowning at the mess by the bedroom door. The holes in the wall (and the stain in the floor) would have to wait for his return.

Steve compiled a list of possible cities Bucky might have gone to after leaving him on the banks of the Potomac; those with known Hydra bases or safe houses. He was itching to get out of the city, to get onto Bucky’s trail. It was agony to know his best friend was out there somewhere in the world alone; Steve needed to find him.

+

Leaving the man – the mission – the mission who was a man who was also important, so important, more important than this mission… which was terrifying because nothing had ever been more important than a mission before… leaving That Man on the banks of the river, had been almost impossible. The man was breathing, air replacing water, and his mind had concentrated on that as he compiled a list of his next movements.

He couldn’t stay. A unique opportunity had presented itself. With the hellicarriers aflame and the whole city in chaos, with silence on the comms and no handlers nearby to pick him up, he was able to walk away, to walk free – and he could think. The mission had set his mind on fire and it terrified him.

He’d needed to get away, get somewhere safe, which was relative and probably non-existent, but really he meant away from the sirens and the smells and everything that was firing his senses. He needed to concentrate and evaluate and at least attempt to begin to deal with the landscape of images and emotions and noise that was consuming his brain. His survival instinct took over; his whole body screaming with pain and adrenaline.

The mission…. The man had said that he was a person, someone with a name. A friend. Thinking about it made everything hurt but he couldn’t ignore the huge holes that had been punched through his mind; memories pouring through like water or light with no way to stop them. So he’d needed go somewhere he could hole up and try to make sense of what the fuck was going on.

First he had gone to the vault. Not to go back – he was never going back – but just because it was as good a place as any to begin. His handlers were all missing, work stations abandoned and doors open, a few bodies littering the hallways. Something had gone badly wrong but he just didn’t care. He walked right in, checking he was really alone before going through drawers and cupboards, taking anything that might be valuable or useful. When he found the first aid kit, he remembered that his functionality would be improved if he popped his right arm back into its socket.

Judging by the fact that he managed to achieve it on the first attempt, it probably wasn’t the first time he’d had to relocate his own shoulder, although he deliberately forced back the thought that, while he couldn’t quite remember having done it before, he somehow knew how to do it. There was a lot of knowledge simmering below the surface; things that he knew, but he didn’t know how he knew them. If he tried to focus on anything specific the thoughts flittered away out of reach, leaving behind frustration, emptiness and nausea. So he focussed on the matter at hand, utilising the adrenaline coursing through his system to get through this and get out.

He stockpiled ammunition, any money that he found, and a coat that would do until he was able to change his clothes and burn the ones he was in, determined not to leave any trace. He let everything wash over him, working his way through each room until only the chair remained. He paused for a moment, staring at it, knowing it was the reason that his mind felt both too empty and too full, that he was missing so much, was because of the chair. Then he let his rage overtake him, and by the time he walked out of the vault, there was nothing to suggest there had ever been a chair at all.

There were seven safe houses across Washington D.C. and he chose the one on the furthest outskirts of the city, figuring it was the least likely to be in current use. Each safe house came with food, running water, a choice of clothes, a small incinerator to deal with any soiled items, as well as a few other useful things an agent needing a safe house might require.

He wasn’t sure who might be coming for him so he determined not to linger. Even if all attention should be on the parts of the city that burned, he knew it was unlikely they would allow their asset to wander free for too long, and sooner or later someone was going to figure out he was missing. Once inside the safe house, he moved quickly; shedding his clothing and standing in the tub, washing himself down until the water changed from browny-red to clear. He steadfastly avoided the mirror and forced himself to swallow the rising panic at the water rushing from the showerhead, trying to hold on to the fact that there was no one else in the room, that the water ran tepid, almost warm, and such a thing would never have been allowed before. All the same, it was a relief to step out of the tub once it was over.

The old clothes went into the incinerator, as did the towels. What injuries he had he strapped up quickly, knowing that in a few hours they would be scarred over and raw. The clothes he chose from the cupboards were non-descript, easy to move in, practical and comfortable.

A final check before his departure revealed a holdall of money in one of the cupboards. The currency and value meant nothing to him, although by instinct he checked some of the notes, verifying that they were old and non-sequential. He filled a second bag, a rucksack, with everything he had taken from the vault, plus some cans of food. In a drawer he found some boxes containing a small glass rectangle that Knowledge told him was a phone, even though it bore no resemblance to anything he might have once associated with that word. He pocketed it anyway, in case it proved useful.

Then, with a baseball cap pushed over his head, he left. Stepping out into the street he looked, for the first time in a long time, just like any other American minding his own business.

+

James Buchanan Barnes.

Standing in the hall of the Smithsonian exhibit, staring up at a face that was both completely alien and far too familiar, he almost choked on the anger and resentment and fury that consumed him as he finally understood everything that had been taken from him.

The mission hadn’t been lying.

Steve.

Steve Rogers.

Captain America, Captain Smart Ass who should have stayed home and not been a punk and gotten himself caught up in all that shit but then that was Steve all over. Always pushing back, pushing hard, pushing…

He closed his eyes, sucking in a deep breath as his brain overloaded with image after image of a scowl, a laugh, a pout, a grimace, a shy smile; expression after expression on the same face of That Man and it was too much. Too much. He pushed it all down because it was enough to acknowledge that the mission – that Steve – had told him the truth. He was James Buchanan Barnes.

There had been another word, another name, that the mi… Steve… that Steve had used. “Bucky” tasted strange in his mouth. He wasn’t ready for that. James Buchanan Barnes. He would work on that, try to get used to owning a name.

He felt lost, the world suddenly too big with everything unfamiliar and a danger.

They’d known each other their whole lives; Steve had said that, and the museum exhibit said that. Steve knew him. What else did Steve know? He needed more information. Maybe Steve could help him with that. He needed to find Steve Rogers.

+

Sitting on the roof across from the apartment building, he was struck with the eerie sensation of remembering a memory. He knew he had been there before; some echo of old unrelated data; of waiting on that same roof top patiently for his target to show himself. He had watched a shadow shinny up the outside of the building and through a window into the room where his target was hiding. Something about that made his lip curl; dumb punk scaling walls like the drop wouldn’t hurt if he missed his fucking footing…

Slipping through the same window was easy.

Steve wasn’t there. The apartment was still and draped in darkness, and the muted dry scent in the air told him the place was empty. Leaving the two bags by the window, he moved carefully through the apartment, eyes on every shadow as he went from room to room; living room through to kitchen, just the one bedroom with its neatly made bed, and finally the bathroom.

Out of habit he swept every room from top to bottom, discovering a series of bugs as he went which he took great pleasure in destroying beneath the sole of his steel-toe-capped boots. He took note of the one-set-of-everything in the kitchen, the lonely toothbrush in the glass over the basin in the bathroom. The dust on some books on the shelf but not others gave away reading preferences, while the turntable sat incongruously alongside a laptop and the flat screen TV. There were surprising hints of personality amidst the overbearing anonymity; pictures leaning against the wall, ready to be hung, some tins of paint, still sealed, shoved under the kitchen sink.

On the mantelpiece were two photographs; one was of a woman – and at the sight of her, he thought of a tongue sharp enough to cut you deep and red lipstick that had no problem telling you what she really thought of you. The other he recognised as a still of the same film from the exhibit; of Steve and James Barnes – of himself – and he was doing something with his mouth and eyes and cheeks that he wasn’t sure he was actually capable of now.

He ignored the armchair by the window in favour of the sofa so he could see the door, sitting down stiffly, hands resting on his knees. If there was one thing he was extremely good at, it was waiting.

It was quiet but never silent; the building was too alive for that. If he closed his eyes he could feel his way by sound alone out of the door onto the landing, past the door of the other apartment which also stood empty. Down the wooden staircase which creaked even though the feet were on the next floor down – unconsciously he cocked his head to the side at the sound of a man, probably holding something, jogging up the first flight of stairs, past this landing and carrying on to the floor above, two at a time before the footsteps went into one of the third floor apartments.

There was a baby on the ground floor, and a mother trying and failing to croon it to sleep. Outside the city murmured with cars and three kids giggling as they chased each other down the road. A jogger went past, then another going in the opposite direction. The tripping feet of a couple laughing together. He lost time as day turned to evening turned to night and the building breathed and sighed and settled around him. And still Steve didn’t come back.

+

It seemed cruel to Steve that they should start in Brooklyn, but it was as good a lead as any. While there weren’t necessarily any active Hydra bases in New York, there was evidence in the file that the Winter Soldier had gone AWOL some time in the 1960s and had been found wandering around Brooklyn. Reading about it had been a punch in the gut much harder than any thrown by the Winter Soldier, especially when it had been noted that twenty men had been required to bring him in on that occasion. Steve knew, he just knew that for a moment, for whatever reason, something had triggered a memory or an echo or some sort of emotional response through all that shit Hydra had done to Bucky and he’d broken free, had tried to find his way home. Meanwhile Steve had slept on, unaware, in the ice.

Tony had opened his doors, proclaiming “mi casa su casa” which apparently meant Steve and Sam could stay as long as they liked. Sam had whistled a fair bit at the sheer size of the floor – the whole floor – Stark had set aside for Steve. Which, of course, was just the beginning because then Stark insisted on giving The Tour, and last Steve had seen of either of them was Stark leading Sam into a lab promising that of course he could make new wings, better wings, wings that had flashing lights and rocket launchers and made a cool noise when you pressed a button. Steve left them to it.

He’d allowed himself one night to sit on Tony’s sofa, listening to the man chatter on, feeling oddly grateful for the way Stark could apparently fill any silence. His own understanding of Tony meant that he wasn’t fooled by the apparent feckless whimsy. Just like Steve, he’d been feeling and hurting a lot recently, and there was a certain brittle edge to his expression. So they’d chewed the fat and drunk Tony’s ridiculous whisky which tasted good because it was expensive, even though it didn’t do anything for Steve. And then they’d stood to make their good nights with murmuring of early starts in the morning – even though Steve suspected Stark was actually retreating to the nearest lab rather than his bed.

Then Tony had turned to him and put a hand on his shoulder, an echo of their first meeting but far more welcome on this occasion, and he looked uncharacteristically serious for a moment. It seemed as though he was about to say something and Steve really wished he wouldn’t. Whatever it was, whether to wish him luck or to offer help or to tell him to give it up as a hopeless case because whoever Bucky was now, chances were if he didn’t want to be found then Steve didn’t have a cats hope in hell…

Something must have showed in his face because Stark shot him a wry smile before telling him to sleep well.

+

Something about the holes bothered him.

He had sat on the sofa facing the door for an indeterminate amount of time. The night had waned and the light in the apartment had gone from inky blue tinged with the orange of the street lamp to a milky grey blending into yellow as the sun rose along with the temperature. He hadn’t been thinking of anything in particular, his brain zapping through any number of pointless thoughts and images that he had long ago trained himself to ignore, to be good and to sit still so as not to draw attention to the fact that he was thinking at all. Eventually the thoughts went away anyway, or else were taken. He licked his lips, preferring the edge of bitter salt to the vague stale echo of rubber, and he reminded himself that if he had anything to do with it, no one would ever take another thought of his ever again.

But his mind kept returning to the holes.

The holes in the wall troubled him, like the holes in his mind which allowed thoughts to stream like the sun through the windows of Grand Central, splashing images onto the distorted walls of his mind.

If he turned around he would be able to see the dust stirring in the air, the stillness of the room disturbed by the three points in the wall where outside and inside were not divided by bricks and plaster. On the chair and the floor was a fine layer of plaster dust, mixed in with dried blood – the coppery tint in the air barely detectable even to him. Someone had attempted to clean the worst of the mess on the floor between the living room and the kitchen hallway, but using completely the wrong tools, while the holes remained just as they had been created and they bothered him.

In the middle of everything cluttering up his mind was the sounds of a man, drunk, legs stumbling up stairs, just another Friday night. One of James’s memories, cascading into his brain whether he wished it or not. Memories of loitering outside a yard for the whistle to sound the change of shift and then the stream of men all heading to the nearest drinking establishment, all pursued by boys and girls, despatched by their mammas to separate man from rent money before it disappeared into the cash register at the bar.

The money went into the mason jar in the kitchen and he went onto the fire escape so he was well out of the way when George Barnes came home, either happy and sweeping his wife into his arms and twirling her round the room, proclaiming her the sweetest darling that ever did breathe. Or else silent and brooding. Either way, James would disappear down the fire escape and over to Steve’s, sneaking through the window and slipping into the bed next to him. Steve would complain about him yanking all the covers, but he’d soon settle, and he could remember long eyelashes on ivory cheeks.

In the morning when he returned, he’d get a clip round the ear and a demand to know where he’d been all night, and Mam would say “leave the boy be, George”. And sometimes, very occasionally, there had been holes in the wall where there hadn’t been holes the night before. It would stay there like a shadow, a pointed reminder; until one day George Barnes would roll up his sleeves and James would watch him as he mixed together some powder and water and patch up the echo of whatever had been thrown against it. Then George Barnes would kiss his wife and ruffle his son’s hair before going out and everything was as it was before.

The images left him gasping for air, his temples throbbing as reality rearranged itself around him. He got up from the sofa and approached the wall, flesh hand reaching out to brush against the ripped paper and crumbling dust and plaster clinging to the wall, the textures against his fingertips forcing his focus on the present.

He could patch them up. He should patch them up.

It would be something to do, something good to do for Steve, before Steve returned.

+

He ate before he left the house, opening one of the tins without much caring what was in it and consuming the cold contents with the spoon he found by the sink in the kitchen. He washed his face, still avoiding the mirror, before grabbing some notes from the holdall and taking a steadying breath.

Judging by the sun it was the middle of the afternoon. The city was never quiet, but it wasn’t rush hour. Most people were off the streets anyway after recent events. He knew how to blend in along with the other human beings moving along the sidewalk, not paying attention to anything other than their feet or the phones in their hands. He noted how people stared at them, reading intently, or spoke into them, or clutched them tightly with wires snaking up to their ears so they could hear whatever wisdom was contained within. Evidently this society relied heavily upon the little glass squares and he determined to riddle out how his worked when he returned to the apartment.

Most of the stores in the immediate area sold groceries or food to take away, and he stored that information away for later as it was likely the cans in his bag would run out before Steve’s return. He didn’t want to stray from the apartment too far or be away for too long, and he disliked the way people jostled him, lost in their own self-importance. Whilst it had been his intention to be invisible, to blend in, he struggled to remember a time where crowds hadn’t parted to let him through, where people didn’t avoid coming into contact with him. Right now the world was too much, with too much noise, too much light, too many people all moving in all kinds of directions, and there were a thousand places a sniper could be hiding because he spotted them as places he would choose if it were him; a hundred ways to break the necks of those who brushed past him not because they were a threat but because this was the city and there was only so much room on the sidewalk.

He was about to turn back, deciding that the whole thing had been a terrible idea and that going out at night and finding somewhere he could break into would be a much better way of doing things; but then he spotted a little store at the end of the block that looked like it might do. It was a relief to step off the street, trying not to tense at the jangling bell over his head, forcibly reminding himself that shops had bells to let the owner know they had a customer, not for anything sinister.

The shop was lit gently by spotlights rather than strip lighting, and there was the smell of paint and wood and hard work that reminded him of a garage long ago; of a skinny youth balanced on a pile of car tires, blue eyes peering over a sketch book at him, while two flesh hands moved under the bonnet of some car, and there was a scab on the back of his left hand where he’d caught it on a loose nail. The scab would scar over because he picked at it instead of leaving it be, and bile began to rise in his throat because his left hand was metal, it was metal now because they took it…

He clenched his right fist to drive the memory away, to focus on the here and now, hoping his brain would behave long enough for him to get what he needed and get back. He could fall apart and drown in thoughts when there was a solid door between him and the rest of the world.

“Can I help you, there, son?”

It helped that the voice was new. It was relaxed and friendly and spoke of a soul at peace with the rest of the world; that treated those as one hoped to be treated, and he found himself exhaling and opening his eyes.

The man who had spoken was wiping his own hands with a rag, having stepped out from the back at the sound of the bell. There was grey hair to go with the gentle smile and general air of pride and hard work. It made him breathe a little easier, allowing some of the tension to drain from his shoulders.

“There are holes in the wall.”

It was a clumsy way to begin, because the words didn’t come easy while his mind struggled between past and present, and he had only just suppressed his cringe at being asked a direct question. His voice was rough, shaping the English words carefully.

He found himself trying to explain, that the holes were his fault, that he’d put them there, and that he wanted to fix them so that – and here he had paused briefly, Steve’s words echoing round his head – he wanted to fix them so that his friend didn’t have to.

The guy nodded like people came to him all the time about high-powered rounds that could penetrate a brick wall from the opposite roof top. As he stepped forward, shoving the rag into the pocket of his overalls, the man passed some meaningless comment about it being good that he was going to fix it for his friend – except maybe it wasn’t that meaningless because there was something soothing in his chest at the man’s words. This guy was nobody; he was about as threatening and powerful as a newborn kitten, but his smile was genuine and he seemed untroubled by present company. This guy wanted to help him fix what he had broken.

He learned that the man’s name was Jeff, and was grateful when Jeff kept a respectful distance as they moved around the shop. He answered the store-keeper’s questions about the nature of the holes as best he could, watching how Jeff’s brow furrowed before the man would click his fingers and head off to fetch something else. In the end, he had drywall mud, plaster board, sandpaper and a filling knife. His head was swimming as the items were rung up, unable to do more than thrust a handful of bills towards the man because he just couldn’t deal with numbers and Jeff could have said anything and he wouldn’t have questioned it.

He planned to return to the apartment over the rooftops and that leaving would be out of the question for the foreseeable future. If Jeff thought his behaviour odd in anyway, it was carefully concealed beneath a cheery and apparently genuine wish for him to have a good day.

All the way back to the apartment his skin itched and brain burned. He lost time and sense, and when he finally came back to himself enough to take note of his surroundings, he found himself in the bathroom, lying at the bottom of the empty tub, enamel cold against his cheek. He found the bags abandoned by the window which must have been his point of entry, while the couch had been dragged across the front door.

There was a purpling and bloody scrape across his right knee cap which opened up when he peeled off his trousers, and his knuckles were bruised. It was tempting to just leave it be, to just curl up back in the tub where his body had sought sanctuary, but he forced himself to move; forced himself to clean the cuts and return the sofa to its original position. Only then did he slump down on the cushions and allow the exhaustion to overtake him.

+

Brooklyn was a dead end.

It wasn’t as if there was anywhere he could wait, any fixed point that Bucky might head for where Steve could meet him. Their apartment was long gone – torn down and replaced with an office complex; same with the block Bucky had grown up in. Nothing remained of their life before the war, and that served only to depress him even further.

For three days, he had walked the streets of a city that he had once known like the back of his hand, sometimes thinking he recognised the shape of what might have been the grocery store where he’d had his first job, except that now it was a Starbucks, or the undertakers that had buried his Ma that was now a jewellers. That life, to him, was only a few years ago, but as he stood in the street with the cars whizzing past while strangers barely spared him a second glance, the seventy years had never felt so long.

It felt worse staying in Midtown at the Tower and going back to Brooklyn every day and, as Sam had delicately pointed out, they couldn’t hang around on the street and just hope that Bucky walked by.

It was a relief when Natasha got in touch about a base in Copenhagen that had mysteriously been destroyed. Steve agreed to board the next flight and meet her out there, while Sam just sighed and said he was glad he had renewed his passport recently.

+

Eventually it was hunger that drove him to pay attention to the world again.

He was vaguely aware that his body required a certain amount of calories and nutrients to operate correctly, and that his handlers had been both careful and efficient to ensure that he got what he needed. When they weren’t around there were specially issued cans to be consumed as instructed, similar to the ones he had taken from the safe house. But in the absence of feeding tubes or any other information, he’d had to rely on guesswork as to how much he should be eating.

Judging by the pain in his body he’d been doing a shit job of it. He wasn’t sure what was hunger and what was pain caused by something else. He was used to his left side aching from the weight of the arm, and there were lingering twinges from the hellicarrier. His body was usually pretty quick to heal itself, but the scabs on his arms and knees were taking their time which he knew was down to him not eating enough.

He was just so fucking tired and his head hurt, and he was not entirely sure how long he’d been there in Steve’s apartment, waiting, lying on the cushions while time and space whirled around him in and out of focus and fuck he just wanted it to stop. He wanted it all to stop. He wanted Steve to come back and just either tell him what was real or just put him out of his misery or something because breathing in and out was almost too painful. He felt useless and broken and still the holes remained.

When he began to take note again of the world turning beneath him, when he realised that, for now, he was back in the present, he dragged himself over to his bags and the cans of food. He opened the first one he pulled out, which turned out to contain some sort of yellow fruit, sickly and sticky on his tongue. His stomach growled as he finished the tin, and without hesitation he opened another. The third can was different, containing a deep red liquid - a soup - gloopy and sharp to taste. It occurred to him after a few attempts at trying to eat it cold that a little heat would go a long way.

Now that his mind felt a little sharper, he gazed around the kitchen, looking for anything familiar, anything that might actually be for heating food. Frustration rose because for fuck’s sake this was a fucking kitchen there should be food heating equipment in here somewhere! There was a large silver ice box for cooling it, so it seemed like common sense that there should be a hob or an oven here somewhere.

Eventually, after a lot of searching, he found the oven set into the wall, rather than in its own unit which, according to James’s memories, was where ovens were usually situated. It had a glass door that pulled down as opposed to a metal one that swung open, but no buttons or clues as to how you went about switching the damn thing on.

As for a hob, there was a black glass panel set into one of the kitchen surfaces, stark against the other marble worktops. He skimmed his fingers over the smooth façade, noting some white symbols but not able to translate them. Out of sheer petulance and frustration, he prodded at one wavy line before springing back at the sudden angry beep emitted in response. At once the previously dormant black glass seemed to spring to life with red flashing zeroes. Tentatively, he pressed the same mark again, prepared for the beep this time, only for the glass to go back to black once more.

Throwing his hands up in frustration and swearing loudly, he stalked away from the ridiculous and infuriating kitchen, having decided that, clearly, Captain America must live off takeaway.

+

Copenhagen was a false alarm.

“Mysteriously destroyed” turned out to be a gas leak, while “Hydra base” was actually a warehouse that, to all intents and purposes, had been empty since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Natasha had clicked her tongue in disgust, threatening a miserable death on her source. Steve didn’t know what to think. He felt as though he was second-guessing himself; that maybe Bucky wanted them to think it was a dead end and that it hadn’t really been a gas leak it was just staged to look like a gas leak. Voicing his concerns had Sam laughing out loud, bent over clutching his knees, while Natasha pointedly looked elsewhere, mouth twitching.

Eventually Sam had calmed down enough to ask Steve if they were seriously talking about the same guy who ripped a steering wheel out of his car, who liked to make things go boom and probably, when it came to stuff like this, had the same sense of subtlety as “Captain All-Stars-And-Stripes America”; and maybe Steve had blushed but mostly he had been annoyed. Well, ok not annoyed, maybe he had just been pretending to be annoyed because dammit, Sam needed to stop laughing otherwise Steve was going to start laughing and that wouldn’t do any good at all.

+

Quite often he woke in the night, crouched against a wall with gun drawn against the shadows storming through the windows to take him back. He dreamt of the chair, of Zola smiling at him while they took it all away again. The air would be filled with the stench of blood and fear, ashes filling his mouth while he watched himself kill nameless people over and over again.

For days and days he would sit, not moving, trying to stay awake, and fearing the voices in the dark. But he always sank down eventually, eyes drooping to take him back to that place where a skinny boy with scraped knees looked at him with sharp eyes, and he would beg the boy to forgive him, to make it stop, but the boy never said a word.

Then he would startle awake once more, breath ragged in the otherwise silent apartment, and he would wonder where Steve was, wonder when he was coming back.

+

When he eventually remembered the phone he had taken from the safe house, he removed it from its box and plugged it into the wall socket in the living room, watch it beep into life, colours flashing and swirling. He tried not to dwell on how easy it was for him to slip the sim card into the back, how holding the phone seemed to come naturally when he couldn’t even operate a fucking oven. If it had been necessary for his handlers that he know at some point what and how a phone worked then so be it; he could utilise that knowledge now.

He scrolled through the menus to turn it to silent mode, annoyed by the constant chirping and whirring, before searching for wifi networks, tempering his frustration at how uncannily familiar this all was. At the top of the list was ROGERS-SG-18 and it took him three goes to hack the password, not entirely surprised when it proved to be his own date of birth. He rolled his eyes because someone really should have taken the time to sit Steve down and explain to the guy about at least attempting to be subtle, for the sake of maintaining security if nothing else.

The phone proved to be a really useful tool. It allowed him to order food from the store on the corner without him actually having to leave the house, which meant that within twenty minutes he was tucking into a whole pizza, steaming hot and with amazing scents rolling of it, and all he’d had to do was count out some of the notes from the holdall and hand them to the delivery guy. No words required.

It meant that time was now a tangible thing that passed, with the phone advising him of the day, the month and the hour. It meant that when he zoned out and back in again he had a rough idea of how long his mind had been far afield. He hadn’t yet decided whether that was a comforting thing or not.

It allowed him to look up “fixing holes”, which directed him to some instructional videos that talked him through, in patient and calm tones, just what do with the stuff he’d bought from Jeff’s store; showed him how much mud to use, how to use the knife to skim it so that it was flush to the rest of the wall. He could pause and replay it over and over. He kind of liked the chatter filling up the room, talking him through his actions as the holes in the wall receded and disappeared.

There was a certain peace to be found with the smell of the mud and the scrape of the knife, focusing on the job at hand until it was done and the wall was fixed. He stood back to admire his work, knowing that it would take a few hours for the mud to go off and then he’d need to sand it smooth.

Afterwards, with his fingers stiff from the rapidly-drying mud, and conscious that he was covered in muck and dust, he retreated to the bathroom to clean himself up. This time when he stood in the tub the water went grey and murky from the plaster rather than rusty from blood. That felt important.

That night as he curled up on the sofa and closed his eyes, it was because he was consciously welcoming sleep rather than giving in to it.

+

As Steve was out in Europe with Natasha it made sense to stick with her and help clear out some of Hydra’s rat holes. There was always the chance to gather more data, wipe a few more off the map and maybe even attract Bucky’s attention, assuming Bucky was out there like them.

He couldn’t imagine Bucky not being out here, though he knew Sam’s sympathetic look by now, had heard him and Natasha talking not quite far away enough, about how some things you couldn’t ever come back from, and Natasha had spoken about cats and elephants taking themselves away to die.

Steve ignored it, buried it, operating on autopilot. They found a base, formed a plan, stormed the place, largely threw the plan out of the window, blew a lot of stuff up and then moved on to the next. Any Hydra agents they found usually crunched their pills before Steve or anyone else could ask them what they knew about the Winter Soldier, wheezing their last words which were always the same, and Steve felt poisoned with it.

+

It was one thing to fix the holes, but now they stood out more than ever; grey smudges stark against the magnolia.

And who the fuck had decided magnolia was a good colour to put on a wall! There was no way he was going to repaint that shit - it was drab and dire and soul crushing, and he was sick to death of looking at it.

He’d looked through the paint tins under the sink but none of them were quite right. He was looking for a blue; a particular shade of blue. It was hard to describe and he certainly didn’t know the name of it, but he’d know it when he saw it. A calm blue, cool but warm, turbulent but compassionate, not baby blue but like the sea on a warm day. A blue you could drown yourself in, that could look into your soul and know you. The perfect blue.

(It was possible he was looking for the same blue as a certain set of eyes but if that was the case he wasn’t going to dwell on it right now, not when that particular set of eyes weren’t here for him to compare. Not that he needed them to be because he’d know that blue anywhere. He’d know that blue in his sleep.)

It took him a lot to leave the safety of the apartment, through the front door, this time, down the stairs and out into the street. Late morning, sun warm on his face, feeling determined because at least this time he had a destination in mind. He tried to be a little more forceful about his presence so that even those with their noses in their phones looked up by instinct so they could step round him, and he was prepared for the jingle of the bell as he entered the store. It meant his heart wasn’t hammering quite so hard and he felt far more grounded this time.

Jeff greeted him warmly which surprised him, the man smiling broadly as he enquired about the holes. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected but it hadn’t been that, for the man to be so invested in his project. He stumbled over his next words, feeling hot on the back of his neck and aware of a vague ringing in his ears, trying to quash the sense of panic because this man knew and remembered him from just one encounter well over a week ago. He was aware that in another life, that before, that would have been a very bad thing.

But Jeff prattled on regardless, or maybe the man did detect his discomfort, as the shop keeper stayed on his side of the counter, agreeing that of course painting was the next step. He kept his tone light and volume low and he asked about the colour. Shade cards were produced when he answered that he wanted a blue, and a specific shade of blue at that. He ignored the comment about him being a man who knew what he wanted. You have no idea, he thought. That it needed to be blue was about the only thing he was certain of right at that moment and if he spent too long thinking about that and its implications he might unravel and he was so determined to keep it together this time.

It turned out that he wanted Cornflower blue; warmer than periwinkle and cooler than azure, according to Jeff. Like that meant anything at all, but he chose to keep his thoughts to himself because it was the perfect blue. It would be cooling in the heat of summer, but it was warm enough for winter as well, even with bare wooden floorboards.

And with the paint came all this other stuff about prepping with sugar soap, and using rollers, not brushes. Except for cutting in; he’d need a brush for that, especially against the skirting boards. Was he planning on doing the skirting boards? He almost laughed out right because he hadn’t planned on doing any of this, he just wanted answers from the guy who lived there, wanted to know more about this James Barnes who was apparently him, a fact that was becoming harder to refute with every trickling memory jogged by smell or sound; that this whole enterprise had started from the vague recollection of something he didn’t even know was real or not because the exhibit hadn’t mentioned whether or not his father had ever punched a hole in the kitchen wall on a Friday night. Besides which, he wasn’t even sure Steve’s apartment had skirting board. It had never really featured as something he might have needed to have taken note of which seemed like a gross omission on his part.

Some of that must have shown on his face because Jeff had steered the conversation on without waiting for him to answer, bagging up the paint and the tray and the roller and brushes, cheerfully suggesting that he could always come back.

+

James decided that he liked painting. He had pushed all the furniture to the opposite side of the room and set down the plastic sheet Jeff had told him to get to save the floors from being spattered with paint. He’d washed the walls first with the sugar soap, taking a moment to enjoy how smooth the recently-sanded former holes were, before tipping some paint into the roller tray. He’d loaded the roller, pausing a moment before deciding to hell with it and just going right ahead.

At some point he’d taken the decision that he needed music; that you can’t work in silence, Stevie, a little tune won’t do no harm, you gotta whistle while you work which meant that the turntable was now playing some Benny Goodman. He’d taken his shirt off because it was getting in the way, and he was itching for a cigarette.

The magnolia was almost gone and the blue looked fucking amazing in its place. He set the roller aside and took up the two inch brush to cut in along the edges and down by the skirting board. Yes, there was a skirting board, running all round the bottom of the room, pretty inoffensively but undeniably there.

Which meant that he was going to have to go back to see Jeff and get some paint and a brush to do the woodwork.

At no point did he stop to wonder whether Steve even liked blue.

+

James hated the kitchen and he was fairly certain the feeling was mutual.

As if the fucking metal sink with its weird faucet and nasty habit of giving him static shock wasn’t bad enough, there was everything else to contend with. The super-spy hob, for example. He’d found the instruction manual in the kitchen drawer, along with manuals for every other irritating piece of technology in the whole apartment, and honestly he’d dealt with nuclear reactors that were easier to operate.

With its shiny black glass surface and weird-ass buttons-that-weren’t-actually-buttons; buttons that only responded to the warmth of his right hand, at which point the glass would transform into glowing red discs, all arty and ridiculous and just as fucking slow as the kerosene stove that niggled in the back of his mind. Memories of chipped enamel swirled in his brain; a kettle with a dent in the spout that took forever to whistle. But even that would have been better that whatever the hell this … this thing was. A hob in disguise. A hob that pretended it wasn’t a hob. He hated it. He… might have accidentally smashed it. Which was its own stupid fault for not having proper buttons.

Then there was the big white thing with the round door that, according to its corresponding manual, was not where Steve hid his clean clothes (though no one could have blamed him for thinking that when that’s what he’d found when he opened the door – a whole rumpled pile of vaguely damp clothes just stuffed into this odd metal cupboard). It allegedly washed clothes, though he had no clue where Steve had hidden the mangle. Having searched everywhere, he’d eventually rigged up some rope over the tub in the bathroom to hang the clothes up to dry.

The tub, at least, was enamel and not metal. When he used it - trying to guess at the depth in the absence of a plimsoll line and not wanting to use more than his share of the hot water and get Steve in trouble for it – he at least didn’t have to worry about the sting of static shocks or the terrible screech of metal on metal. There was also no shower head over the tub which was an absolute blessing. The tub could stay, and in the meantime he would continue to steadfastly ignore the glass box in the corner of the room which the paperwork from the drawer told him was a shower cubicle, but bore more than a passing resemblance to something else.

On the subject of ice boxes, the fancy-pants one in the kitchen didn’t appear to need its drip tray emptying daily, even though he found himself checking automatically on more than one occasion. He tried not to let these phantom impulses phase him; he knew they were instincts even older than sleeping with a knife within reach, that came from the same place as waking suddenly to listen for a cough or a wheeze that wasn’t there, that wouldn’t ever be there.

On the nights that happened he would check the empty bedroom anyway, satisfying his mind that the bed was devoid of anyone, either five foot four or six foot two, before going to the kitchen to get water, and every damn time that stupid fucking sink with its fucking twisty faucet would zap him and he was going to rip it off the wall one of these damn days.

He was saved from doing just that by Jeff, who told him about reclamation yards and how you could find just about anything you wanted on the internet. He’d gone in to pick up one of those gas camping stoves he’d seen when buying the paint for the skirting boards (gloss, not matte and the brushes were soaking in white spirit just like he’d promised Jeff) and on impulse, he’d vented about the damn bitey sink, wondering whether he could rig up some sort of rubber insulator.

Old butler-style sinks were apparently very popular these days. Very vintage, whatever that meant. Anyway, using the phone like Jeff suggested, he’d found an old yard just outside Baltimore that agreed to deliver the sink right to his door, and take the old one away. It meant ripping out the entire sink unit and cupboard, because apparently 2014 kitchens were all linked together in one big construction, with the evil sink just resting on the worktop, but Bucky was fairly confident that between Jeff and Youtube, he’d be able to build something to replace it. The sink from his memories had had a shelf with a curtain beneath it. A horrible curtain with a hideous floral pattern. He didn’t necessarily need to go down that path, but he was sure he’d be able to rig up something.

That evening found him whistling cheerfully as he cooked himself some dinner on the little gas stove. In one afternoon he’d solved the problem of the hob and the sink, and that made Bucky extremely happy.

There was something comfortingly familiar about cooking over a camping stove, even though no one could accuse Steve’s apartment of being anything like woods in the ass-end of war-torn Europe. But he smiled to himself at the images that floated to the surface. It reminded him of Steve, face illuminated on one side, laughing at something; and how later, when Bucky pressed his face to the warm skin of Steve’s neck, there would be the lingering scent of wood smoke from the fire. It was the sort of memory he didn’t mind jogging as he brought the soup to boil in a set of billy cans.

+

Bucky wasn’t at all sure about the sofa. He’d been sleeping on it for a while now and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was almost as if it wasn’t lumpy enough. Every time he sat down, he expected to feel a lump in a certain place on the back, not to mention the uncanny sensation of expecting a spring to be almost coming through where his left thigh rested against the leather. It was almost too comfortable.

And Steve had it in the wrong place, he was sure. Bucky set it length wise, moving the chair away from the wall because it made sense to put it by the fireplace under the lamp so that there would be plenty of light for darning socks. Steve might be built like a tank these days, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have to take care of his eyes, and darning in poor light was a one-way ticket to a headache.

So he moved the sofa and ignored its lack of lumps while he surfed through various DIY websites to get some ideas, looking at all the different kitchen designs and pondering how Steve might feel about a wine rack. He didn’t feel at all guilty about the large crack in the glass monstrosity hob-that-wasn’t-a-hob, but it did need replacing. If he was going to replace the glass, he might as well replace the marble while he was at it.

+

Hot water; that was something Bucky could get on board with. It had very nearly been a complete disaster because the helpful drawer that had contained so much paperwork about ovens and showers and washing machines had totally failed him as to the purpose of the big white box on the wall of the kitchen, apart from taking up a lot of room and occasionally rumbling away to itself. He had fully intended to rip the damn thing down as part of Operation Kitchen Sink, but had decided to snap a photo of it with his phone and take it down the hard ware store to ask Jeff. Just in case.

“Oh no, son,” Jeff had exclaimed, shaking his head. “That’s the boiler”.

Well wasn’t that a turn up for the books; each apartment now had its own source of hot water. That made sense; and he began to notice that it rumbled specifically whenever he used the tub. He remembered the building superintendent back in Brooklyn who only fired up the boiler in the basement when he felt like it. More often than not, he didn’t feel like it so they’d had to boil water on the kerosene stove.

Flickers like these didn’t hurt so much these days. Knowing about standing ankle-deep in lukewarm water and strip-washing because it was the middle of a New York winter and the pipes were frozen again no longer resulted in a blinding headache and he was better at stamping down on the vague rising nausea he had learnt to associate with the displacement in time. It meant that just by breathing deep and balling his right hand into a fist to feel the bite of his nails in his palm, he could focus on Jeff’s face and the fact that he was standing in a store in Washington; that it was 2014 and there were little machines for heating lots of water that didn’t require coal to run.

He’d been picking up some grout so he could make a tile splashback behind his new sink, feeling more relaxed than he could honestly remember ever having been in the past few months, now that the shitty bitey sink was gone and he had a nice simple way of heating soups so he didn’t have to keep ordering take out. As he stood at the counter his eye fell upon the basket by the cash register, filled with brightly coloured balls that looked as though they might be made of plaster. Bucky looked up quizzically at Jeff who smiled as he finished ringing up the grout.

“Oh, those are bath bombs.”

Bucky froze, sure that must have heard wrong. A chill went down his spine and he tried to resist the desire to drop into a crouch and find a safe exit. He was aware of his heartbeat quickening because what the actual fuck was a bomb doing on the counter in Jeff’s hardware store?!

In his periphery he was aware of Jeff talking to him, the calm resonance of his voice completely at odds with the word “bomb”, and Bucky fought to focus on what was being said. Apparently, they weren’t actual bombs, it was just a turn of phrase, a marketing thing because of how they behaved when mixed with water. Jeff kept talking as though it was perfectly normal to have a guy with a metal arm – a metal arm that had actually managed to put a mark in his counter, and now Bucky felt like shit because Jeff was nice and didn’t deserve to have his counter broken over a crappy metaphor.

“My daughter makes them at the group she goes to,” and Bucky knew enough to sense awkwardness in tone when he heard it, as though Jeff had started to speak thoughtlessly and was now unsure how to finish his sentence. “A group with other people who are blind or visually impaired. They make stuff to raise money for their drives and things,” and with that, Jeff coughed and pressed the total button on the cash register.

Jeff had never spoken about his family before and Bucky felt kind of bad that he didn’t even know Jeff had a daughter, even though there was no reason for it to have come up before now. All the same, Jeff had been so helpful to Bucky with the whole decorating thing, even though he had no reason to take an interest in his customers the way he had with Bucky.

After all that, Bucky couldn’t very well leave the shop without buying one.

+

When Bucky was very young, he’d stayed at his Grandma’s a few times and that had meant a bath in the metal tub set up in front of the old woodstove in the kitchen. The bath didn’t have a plimsoll line like the tub back at his home, because the water came from the pan on the stove rather than out of the faucet and there wasn’t an allowance to adhere to. Such luxury meant that the tub got to be filled right up so that when Bucky got in, he could imagine he was swimming in it, the water coming right up over his shoulders and if he held his nose he could duck down and blow bubbles under the water.

It was just an image in his mind, a snapshot of the green stove, the flagstone floor and the strong capable arms of a woman whose voice he couldn’t even remember, a grandmother who passed on before Bucky made it to seven years of age.

Baths were never meant for pleasure; the apartment he grew up in got its allotted hot water – assuming the super had fed the boiler with coal – and that never extended to the luxury of a bath. You learnt to wash quickly in cold water, sometimes having to break the ice that had formed overnight in the jug on the wash stand. It was functional, taking off the layer of muck from the school yard or the garage, or just so that your hands would pass muster before supper or else it meant a clip round the ear and your mother washing them for you, which was never a good thing.

It was the same at the apartment he had shared with Steve; their tub was mostly used for washing the white shirts for Sunday Mass. The only time it had ever been filled to the top was when Steve had developed scarlet fever and the quickest way to bring his temperature down was an ice bath in cold water using the block of ice from the ice box.

So, standing in front of the tub in Steve’s bathroom in 2014, Bucky felt a certain amount of consternation at the thought of running a bath full of hot water right to the top. Logically he knew Jeff would never try to get him in wrong by telling him a bare-faced lie about water allowances, and besides that, he now knew that the hot water came from the apartment’s own boiler rather than a boiler for the whole building, which meant that in terms of allowance, then he’d be troubling no one seeing as he was currently the only person using that particular boiler. But it was a very big bath; big enough to accommodate Captain America.

Jeff had been pretty clear; fill the tub to the top and throw in the bath ball (they had decided between them that they were calling them bath balls now – balls that you threw in the bath and they apparently made everything smell nice and could even help with muscle aches and pains. Allegedly. Bucky was a little sceptical about that but there was no harm in trying) before getting in yourself.

He filled it to a couple of inches below the overflow, allowing for the displacement of water when he climbed in. The air was swirling with steam and the mirror was already fogged over as he took the plastic off the ball which was pink and yellow, and he caught a faint hint of something fresh and sharp, something pleasant and new, just before he threw it in the water.

It certainly fizzed, the water bubbling as it began to change colour; pink and blue and purple with blotches of yellow, swirling and spreading out like spilled paint. As Bucky breathed in, he was caught by the scent of oranges and sugar and other sickly unidentifiable scents which were warm and fuzzy and undeniably pleasant. When the ball finished doing whatever it had been doing, the water settling and the fizzing dropping away completely, Bucky climbed into the multi-coloured steaming water.

He had been prepared to need to make a sudden exit, for being surrounded by water to trigger hell-knew-what kind of response from his fucked up brain. But nothing happened. The water was hot, the skin of his legs turning an angry pink, and he briefly considered how hot very rarely reminded him of anything bad. When he finally sank back in the water, he couldn’t help the soft sigh that escaped him because he owed a huge apology to Jeff. He could feel the muscles in his left side begin to unwind now that the water was taking the weight of his arm.

He exhaled deeply as he surrendered to the heat and the scent and the sheer bliss of being in a hot bath, eyes closed and mind almost still, apart from the thought about whether, in 2014, it was still considered appropriate to send flowers to people as a gesture of thanks.

+

Steve was tired. He’d been to Copenhagen, to Minsk, to Siena, to Krakow, over to Bruges down to Lisbon and he was just so tired.

He’d been on a cycle of blow shit up and no sleep for over three months and everything hurt, and they were no closer to finding Bucky than they had been back in Brooklyn.

Maybe Natasha, and Sam, and even fucking Tony Stark were right.

Bucky just didn’t want to be found.

+

The walls were fixed and Steve still wasn’t home.

The kitchen was finished, with the new vintage butler sink, all smooth and gleaming along with a separate faucet for hot and cold water, and the damn thing didn’t twist at all. The secret glass hob was gone, replaced by metal rings you could actually see and didn’t require a college education to operate. The unit was set into a wooden surface that Bucky had chosen because it was warm and familiar and a hundred times better than the cold ugly marble that had been there before; and there was a useful little cupboard underneath the sink that Bucky had built, with shelves for those tins of paint and the bottles of cleaning fluid that had been in the old cupboard but now the door knobs were wooden like the surfaces rather than chrome… and Steve still hadn’t come home.

Bucky had been as good as his word and had sent flowers to Jeff’s daughter, whose name was Alice, and Bucky had gone into the florists himself and had chosen all the flowers in the bouquet based on their scent rather than their colour. The next time he’d gone into the store Jeff had told him how happy Alice had been with them. So now he went into the store at least once a week just to say hello and to pick up more bath balls, and it occurred to him that maybe, just maybe Jeff was his friend.

And Steve still didn’t come home.

And Bucky missed him; missed him without even knowing how he missed him because the last time he’d seen him, Steve had been spitting water onto the riverbank and he’d nearly died and how could you miss that? But Bucky knew him, he knew Steve.

When he thought of Steve, his mind supplied him with a wealth of information.

He knew his smile, his real smile that wasn’t to be found in any grainy film footage from the war. Knew that the photo of them on the mantelpiece was from that time Gabe and Dernier were telling each other dirty jokes in French instead of discussing the impending mission and Steve knew it, whispering the punchline to Bucky with the most innocent expression on his face and of course Bucky had cracked up and it was that moment that Steve had immortalised for ever on the mantelpiece.

He knew the way Steve drew his mouth into a pout, that he had a stubborn streak a mile wide and that trying to get the guy to do something he didn’t want was like trying to move a mountain. Knew how he looked first thing in the morning with the sun coming through the window, bathing him in gold and that it made Bucky’s heart hurt because how could so much good be just for him?

He knew how it felt to kiss up a spine bent with scoliosis, and how absurd it had been to miss it once that spine straightened itself out. He knew the ghost of lips against his own throat, how his name sounded when being gasped into the dark by a voice that was trying to be silent and utterly failing.

He knew how good it had felt to look up from Zola’s table and see those eyes, those cornflower eyes, staring back at him because even though he was certain he had finally died, at least Steve’s eyes had been his final thought.

He knew that he had gone right to the very edge; that he had been in so much pain and he had been completely terrified and lost, and there had been nothing but darkness and confusion for such a very long time; and then at the end there had been Steve, and he’d known him.

And Steve still wasn’t home.

+

Even though his offer to crash at his place had been genuine, the relief in Sam’s voice when Steve politely declined the invitation was almost palpable, though Steve couldn’t find it in himself to even pretend to be offended. He understood. After four exhausting months of running round fuck-knew-where, he was home and he needed to go upstairs to his own front door just as much as Sam needed to sleep in his own bed, away from the superhero life he had somehow stumbled upon.

So they hugged, Sam clapping him on the back and telling him to rest, that it wasn’t the end and tomorrow would be a fresh start, and then they’d broken apart and said their goodbyes.

The stone building didn’t seem to have changed all that much in his absence, though he winced at the sight of his letter box stuffed full of mail. Steve ignored it for now, deciding it could definitely wait until morning.

His mind was already on the shower he was going to enjoy when he got in, glancing at his watch and wondering whether it was too late to order takeout, when he came to a juddering halt on the landing outside his door.

Unless he was very mistaken, there was music coming from his apartment.

Steve’s stomach dropped at the uncomfortable sensation of déjà vu. It couldn’t be Fury; he had just left the man in Sicily. And Natasha would have sent a text rather than just drop in on him and give him a heart attack in the process. But irrespective of the who or the why, there was definitely music coming from his apartment.

As he worked his way toward his own window from the outside, Steve determined that maybe he should just admit defeat with this place and move somewhere else. Sam probably wouldn’t be too angry if he pitched up on his doorstep. Or maybe he could find a hotel. But he knew he’d never be able to sleep without knowing who the hell it was that had invaded his home this time.

The window was already slightly open, and he was certain he’d closed it when he had left four months before. His feet made no sound as he landed lightly on the wooden floor. But before he made it to the living room, a voice called out to him.

“Ah, shit, you came in through the window didn’t you?”

And Steve nearly dropped his shield because he hadn’t heard that tone of voice in so very long.

Bucky stepped into view – and it was definitely Bucky, his Bucky, with his hair still long, but wet and combed back as he had evidently recently washed it. He was wearing loose pyjama bottoms with what looked like the pattern of his shield all over them, but no t-shirt, which meant that Steve’s attention couldn’t help but be caught by the red scars where metal met flesh.

“You know, they invented front doors for a reason, pal.”

Bucky crossed his arms over his chest, shooting Steve a wry smile, and Steve didn’t know what to do with that. So he stared at Bucky a bit more, at how much better he looked, at the way he held his shoulders – relaxed, but also nervous, wrapping his arms round himself for both comfort and defiance.

“Bucky,” he stuttered, voice kicking into gear, even if actual sentences were beyond him at this point. And at his name, Bucky’s smile turned soft, almost shy, and he ducked his head.

“Yeah, it’s me, Steve.”

And god, Steve needed to hug him right at that moment. He looked at Bucky, standing large as life in the middle of Steve’s living room like he owned the joint, and he made sure to ask, to check that it was ok that he hug Bucky, hug him and never, ever fucking let go.

When permission was granted, with another smile and gentle blue eyes that Steve had missed so damn much, he meant to make good on his word. Crossing the room carefully, projecting his every move in case he startled this strange apparition that had appeared so unexpectedly, he started by resting his right hand against Bucky’s cheek, warm and rough with stubble and so very real and alive. But then Bucky sped things along a little, pulling Steve to him, clamping his hand to Steve’s back and letting his forehead fall onto a broad shoulder, and it was so achingly familiar Steve thought he might burst.

They stayed like that a long time, breathing each other in, taking in the warmth and smell and heartbeat of the other because there were no words. Not for them, not at that moment. Steve just knew that finally, he was home.

Eventually they broke apart, neither going very far, just enough so that they could see each other’s faces, see their smiles reflected back at them. And Steve had a million questions on his lips, starting with whether Bucky would mind if they got something to eat because he was absolutely starving, when something over Bucky’s shoulder caught his eye.

“Did you…. Did you decorate?”

+

In the summer of 1940, Steve had come home to find Bucky wearing an old pair of work trousers and no shirt, painting the walls in the living room.

It had only been their home, their place for just the two of them, for a couple of months. They’d looked high and low for a somewhere because Steve couldn’t sleep on the couch cushions forever; and with Bucky getting on well at the garage they were able to pool their meagre funds. Rents weren’t too bad as long as they didn’t mind sharing the one bedroom. Plenty of people did it, because space came at a premium. There had initially been talk of putting a second mattress in the living room and rigging up a sheet or a curtain to give the illusion of privacy, but they’d never quite got round to it.

Besides, sharing space and heat with Bucky was something Steve wasn’t ready to give up. Not quite yet.

Bucky hadn’t been shy about his feelings on the place. The ugly cream paint was peeling and the pipes feeding the large enamel sink in the kitchen burped and rumbled for a good few seconds before the water appeared out of the faucet. But the wooden surfaces were sturdy and the old kerosene stove would be a good source of heat in the winter, especially as there was only one radiator for the entire apartment, and the window in the bedroom didn’t quite sit straight in the frame and had to be stuffed with newspaper to prevent a draft.

And yes, the sofa was more lump than cushion, the green fabric almost worn through in places, and you had to be damn careful when you sat down, unless you wanted to be speared by an errant spring, but it was better than sitting on the floor because it wasn’t like they had money for a new sofa.

The apartment came with its own bathroom as well, which was gold dust when a lot of tenements had to share. Also the walls weren’t too thin which meant they only heard the neighbours when they were shouting, and so far no one had complained about Bucky’s music or Steve’s constant coughing.

Bucky was listening to music that afternoon. The window was open and there was a cigarette hanging from his lips as he hummed along to the wireless. Usually Bucky didn’t smoke when Steve was in the apartment, as even the asthma cigarettes seemed to set him wheezing, but Bucky had obviously forgotten about the time, deeply absorbed in his task, and Steve paused on the threshold, watching spellbound as Bucky carried right on. The muscles in Bucky’s shoulders shifted as he reached up to brush along the wall where it met the frame of the bedroom door, and to Steve’s amusement he noticed that Bucky was using one of Steve’s art brushes.

“Don’t tell me you spent the whole afternoon painting with that!” he exclaimed, enjoying how Bucky jumped slightly before turning round, eyes wide just for a second before the guy grinned. Bucky quickly extinguished the cigarette before waving his arms wide, pleased with his handiwork.

“You like it?” he beamed, and god Steve’s heart hurt so much just looking at Bucky. There was a smudge of paint on his collarbone, blue to match the new colour on the wall. He tried not to gaze too long, tried not to get caught up in Bucky’s chest, the stark pink nipples and the ripple of muscles that led all the way down to his belly button. Steve forced his eyes up to Bucky’s cheery carefree smile.

“Did you rob a bank, Buck?” Steve quipped in lieu of an answer. Paint wasn’t cheap and there was a reason everything round here was cream or brown. Bucky rolled his eyes good naturedly, walking over to where Steve loitered by the door.

“Nah, a shipment got damaged down at the yard and we all went down to take a look.” That was typical. No shop wanted to sell damaged goods so whenever a crate went over, all the locals descended looking for a good deal. The colour was nice, much better than the cream, and Bucky had done a decent job of it, even if it must have taken him ten years using that brush.

“Look’s swell, Buck,” Steve smiled, because it was a nice colour and Bucky looked so damned happy. Now that he was closer Steve could see there was more paint on his hands, and some on his nose too.

“You got a little spot, there, though.” Steve reached up with his finger without really thinking about it, but suddenly everything felt very hot because Bucky was standing right close to him, and Steve could see the deep blue of his eyes. Eyes that were slightly blown as they stared back down at him, and Steve dropped his gaze to the shadow on Bucky’s jaw where he hadn’t bothered shaving that day. Steve swallowed, heart beating a tattoo in his chest because usually he only ever saw Bucky this close first thing in the morning just before Bucky woke up, a few stolen moments were all that Steve allowed himself because if Bucky knew, if Bucky even suspected for a moment…

“Stevie…” Bucky’s voice was deep, soft and rich, and Steve could feel each huff of breath soft against his cheek.

It was Bucky who moved first, Bucky who leant down to brush his lips against Steve’s, just like Steve had imagined so many times before, and it took Steve a moment to react. But then he reached out, reached up, forgetting that Bucky wasn’t actually wearing a shirt to hold on to, so instead of cotton his hands met the smooth warmth of Bucky’s sides; Steve could feel him sigh as Bucky pressed in for more.

In the summer of 1940, Steve came home to Bucky.

+

Jeff hadn’t seen James in two weeks and he was beginning to get worried.

Ever since the kid had stumbled into his store – and he was a kid, despite the eyes that were far too old and the shoulders that carried much too much of the world upon them – he had felt a strange affection for him; affection that had only increased as he’d gotten to know him.

He recognised the look of a vet when he saw one, saw the fear and the confusion of someone who spent far too much time in the noise of their own head. So he determined to help the kid out any way he could, even if it was just with some plaster board and some tins of paint. As he knew from his own family life, comfort was found in the unlikeliest of places.

And James had become a genuine high point in his week. Watching the shadows slowly recede, to be replaced with some colour in his cheeks and a bit of light in his eyes was something of a privilege. Sometimes he slipped, had bad days and looked all the worse for wear the next time Jeff saw him, and Jeff could only carry on like normal and hope that James had someone – the elusive “friend” that James had once referred to as “Steve” – could only hope that Steve was looking out for him.

The past weeks had been good, though. James had come in as usual, purchasing a fresh supply of bath balls, promising to report back on the newly developed blue one (Jeff hadn’t told him, having been sworn to secrecy by his daughter, that it contained a smattering of gold and silver stars in its core) and they’d parted ways with a cheerful wave. But since then, nothing, and Jeff couldn’t help but be concerned.

He looked up hopefully as the door to his shop jangled obnoxiously loudly, already knowing that it wouldn’t be him because James took great care to jingle the bell as little as possible when he came in. However in the next moment all coherent thought came to a complete stop because, unless Jeff was very mistaken and there was more than one person wandering the earth looking like that, then Captain America had just walked into his store.

In two strides, America’s greatest war hero was at the counter, and it took Jeff a couple of seconds to realise there was someone else with him. Bucky grinned at him, holding up his hand to wave a greeting.

“James,” Jeff was impressed at how he kept his tone level and bright, like this sort of thing happened to him every day. “Good to see you, son, was beginning to worry where you’d got to.”

“I’m afraid that’s my fault,” Jeff’s attention returned to… right… he hadn’t imagined it. Captain America was still in his store. “Steve Rogers,” and then the man extended his hand for Jeff to shake, introducing himself like it wasn’t glaringly obvious who he was. Jeff shook it anyway, trying get his mind to behave because he’d just made the connection between Bucky’s friend Steve and the Steve stood in front of him.

“Bu – James tells me you’ve been helping him with some DIY stuff while I was out of town,” Steve turned to look at James, and Jeff wondered why he’d ever been worried about James sending his daughter flowers, because the warmth and love and everything that was just in that one glance was the sort of stuff that made the world go round.

“I just wanted to let you know that it looks amazing, and I wanted to thank you.”

Jeff could feel the depth of those words and everything they meant; that it wasn’t just about paint and plaster. James was important, was clearly the centre of Steve’s turning world, and now Jeff came to think about it, he did bear more than a passing resemblance to that best friend who had fallen to his death in 1945. But that was none of his business, and he’d make damn sure it would continue to be none of his or anybody else’s business.

So instead he smiled and shrugged, because James had done all the hard work and it had been an absolute pleasure to give him the tools for the job.

Though he was definitely going to tell Alice that Captain America had bought one of her bath balls. Because to not tell her would be just rude.