He doesn't realise he's made a sound until the moment has already passed and all he has is the aftermath still buzzing in the back of his throat. He rolls his tongue around, licking dryly at the back of his teeth, but there's no way to tell if he's been screaming or crying or just breathing through his mouth all night.
He rolls over to his side, limbs feeling like they weigh a ton, but as Steve goes to reach for the glass of water he expects to find on the bedside table, he freezes in shock.
The dizziness is only momentary as he sits up like a shot, heart squeezing in his chest as the anxiety kicks in. The palm of his hand presses hard against his sternum, but the pain he's waiting for never eventuates. No, perhaps it wouldn't with a body like this – a healthy body. A fit body. A body that shouldn't belong to him yet somehow… does?
Steve extracts himself from under the sheets – the very nice sheets – and inspects his arms and legs and the form hiding beneath his cotton t-shirt and boxer shorts. It makes no sense how or why he could look like this. It makes even less sense than the strange looking furniture dotted around the room, or the unfamiliarly styled clothes hanging on the closet door, or the flat silvery box on his desk with a picture of a white apple on it.
Is he dreaming? Maybe he's been reading too many science fiction novels lately? Have doctors found a way to transplant his brain into a new body and he just doesn't remember?
He's seconds away from losing his cool when he hears a man's voice yell somewhere outside his door. It's a sound of pain, and Steve wants to go out there to see what's wrong, help them if need be, but then there's movement and more voices. He's about to move to the door to try and eavesdrop when—
"Captain, I have been asked to inquire if you are feeling alright?"
He jumps, looking around to try and figure where the voice is coming from, but it eludes him.
"What—? Who—… who's there?"
"My name is Jarvis and I am an artificial intelligence program created by Mr Tony Stark. It seems that you must be having some trouble with your memory."
"You're damn right I am! What's going on and where the heck am I?"
"I think that might best be explained—"
Steve hears his name being called from beyond the door, and next thing he knows it's being flung open and a small group of people come tumbling in in a hurry. A red-headed woman is first across the threshold, followed by a goateed man, a dark-haired man wearing glasses, a blonde man with some sort of hearing device curled around his ear…
"Steve, are you okay? What do you remem—"
"Who are all you people and how do you know my name? And more importantly, what's happened to my body?"
A moment of silence follows and they all seem to gape at him in shock, then Goatee and Glasses start muttering something to each other about 'long-range weapons' and 'amnesia'. They turn, seemingly with the intention of leaving the room, and that's when he sees him.
He looks older. And…different. And not just in the way his hair hangs down past his chin or the several days' worth of scruff on his cheeks. No, there's something completely unfamiliar in the way he's carrying himself, in the shadow across his eyes…
Still. Steve would know that face anywhere. He's leaning heavily against the doorframe and looking at Steve like he's seeing a mirage in the desert, like he can't quite trust what's right in front of him. And something about his expression tells Steve that he was the one he'd heard yell out in pain. His heart twists up in his chest again, and surely if he'd been in his 'old' body he would have been having a pretty serious attack by now.
"Stevie? You remember me?"
"Like I'm ever likely to forget your ugly mug."
Bucky makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
"What's the last thing you remember, then?"
Steve has to think for a minute. "Well, I'm guessing that the pneumonia didn't get me this time."
"Buddy," Bucky says with a dark grin, "I've got one hell of a story to tell you."
The tale Bucky weaves is pure fantasy, except that it just so happens to explain everything, including Bucky's metal prosthetic, Steve's 'new' body, and the fact that they've both ended up seventy years in the future. Even so, he's left reeling. It's too much, and the fact that he doesn't recall a single moment of it has him balancing on the very edge of his sanity. The redheaded woman – Natasha – has some fancy device the size of a notebook that lights up like a cartoon. The way words and images slide across the surface of it is like magic, and Steve can scarcely believe it when she brings up actual footage of himself: Some of it old, some of it new, but all of it is definitely his (new) face and his voice.
Eventually they leave him to his thoughts. Natasha had shown him how to use the Google thing, so he spends hours searching for what he's missed. He only stops when he thinks his brain might burst from the overload of information, then unfurls from his position on the couch with an ease he doesn't dare take for granted – not when the last thing he really remembers is being so weak he could hardly stand. He visits the kitchen and takes his time devouring an apple, having been warned off the bananas and not game enough to tackle any of the strange things in the refrigerator. Some of the walls around him are made entirely of glass and the city of New York stretches out before him, so different from what he remembers yet still somehow familiar. It still feels a bit like he's in a dream despite all that he's seen and touched and tasted since he woke up that morning. Steve can't help but wonder how well his non-memory-altered self has adjusted to the whole future thing – has he slipped into it like a second skin? Or does he hate everything about it? As he is now, he can't say he hates the future, but he's still not sure what to make of it either. Then again, he doesn't think he could hate anywhere where Bucky is. Not really.
Retreating to his bedroom, he finds Bucky in his bed under the covers. It's not an unusual sight per se, but having woken up alone and with everything thereafter, he'd simply assumed that they had their own rooms and their own space. He's not going to complain, though. Sharing with Bucky is familiar, and familiar is something he's already aching for.
He treads lightly as he moves to his side of the bed, easing himself onto the mattress. He'd thought Bucky asleep, but then cool blue eyes blink up at him. There's still an edge of pain to his features and Steve isn't sure what to do.
"Can I get you an aspirin or something? Do they even make that stuff anymore?"
"Yeah, they still got it," Bucky mumbles against the pillow, "But it doesn't work on you and me. They'd have to give us enough to take down an elephant, and even then it wouldn't last long."
"Comparing me to an elephant? That's gotta be a first."
Bucky coughs up a laugh and then winces it away.
"Why're you hurt? You never said."
"'Member I told you those bastards brainwashed me? Well, while I'd broken free of that, up until last night my head still had more holes than Swiss cheese. So whatever happened to you happened to me, but in reverse. All the remembering is taking its toll is all."
"Do they know how it happened?"
"Tony and Bruce are workin' on it. If anyone's gonna figure it out it's them. But there was this rogue faction of Hydra that popped up recently, escaped under our noses. Supposedly they'd stolen the tech that'd been used to mess with my head before, so I think we've got our answer to that question now. But whether they were aimin' for you and got it right, or aimin' for me and got it wrong, that's anyone's guess."
Turning away, Steve ponders the likelihood of Tony and Bruce actually working out the particulars of what's happened to him and Bucky and, more to the point, finding a way to reverse it. (Reverse it on him that is, since he can't imagine anyone actually wanting to get rid of all their memories.) Bucky acts as if it's a given that they will, that they won't not figure it out or not find some sort of 'cure'. Perhaps that's just a perk of the future – that they have the means for finding the answer to every question. But Steve can't say for sure if that's a good thing.
"Do I even want my memory back? Be honest with me, Buck. So much seems to have happened… I saw you die, right? And then I died. Sort of. Maybe I'd be better off not remembering that stuff and I could just start over."
Bucky sucks in a short breath. "That's... Shit. Don't make me answer that, Steve. It's the sort of thing you should decide for yourself, right?"
"Then why do you look like I just kicked a puppy? Why wouldn't you answer that?"
"'Cause then I'd have to reveal what kind of a selfish punk I really am."
Using his metal arm Bucky pushes himself upright, then takes Steve's hand in his own flesh one. His eyes are intent and his lips pursed with seriousness Steve's not used to seeing, so he isn't sure how to respond or if he's to respond at all.
"After you rescued me from Zola's lab, after you got yourself this goddamn ridiculous body and got into the war and did everything you did, I mourned this version of you – the you from before. Don't get me wrong, you're still noble and loyal and sassy and as stubborn as you ever were, but there's more to it now. You've been through the sort of stuff that really changes you. Same as me. And while I might now remember the past and think back on who we used to be, I don't need that guy the same way I used to. It's selfish of me, like I said, but present-day me needs the Steve from yesterday. I ain't gonna tell you what to do, what choices to make, but… Uh, do it for the right reasons is all I'm tryin' to say, and not just 'cause you're scared."
He gets up and leaves before Steve has a chance to say anything in return, and Steve has the distinct impression Bucky had been going to say something different at the end there, but now he'll probably never know. He clenches his hand, the lingering warmth of Bucky's hold fading away, and it hurts. He knows - knew, even before the question left his lips – that when the time comes (since 'if' apparently isn't a possibility) his potential decision won't really be much of a decision after all.
Three days pass. Tony says he'll have his anti-amnesia stabilising mechanism-somethingorother ready to go by the end of the week. All the Avengers have made the effort to keep his spirits up in their own unique ways, eager to show him various wonders from the future. His – other Steve's? – friend Sam had even visited from DC and taken him out jogging. He'd baulked at the initial suggestion, until he remembered the body he was in now. He's since spent numerous moments just running and jumping around for the heck of it, glad to be free of the worry that his next exertion would have him keeling over because of his asthma, or his heart, or whatever else.
Despite the awkward end to their conversation, Bucky hasn't gone out of his way to avoid him or anything, which he's grateful for. Steve's spent just as much time with him as with anyone else, reminiscing about the old days, mainly, since that's what's fresh in Steve's mind. But Bucky's also had this guardedness about him that he hasn't been able to crack. Steve gets that Bucky's just trying to protect himself, but it's been making them both kind of miserable. Since that moment in Steve's bedroom, there's been something a little extra hanging in the air between them and neither of them wants to broach the subject. So they bite down on it, bottle it up, like they've always done. As he's recently learned, apparently their generation is kind of famous for it.
He's pondering over it for the n-th time, staring out the windows into a New York sunset, when there's a new presence at his side.
"You still in there, Steve?"
He looks over at Natasha with a faint smile.
"Where else would I be?"
"It'd be a straightforward question if you were anywhere but playing housemates with this particular group of reprobates."
She sits at his side and sighs. "Must be weird, knowing that all this has a time limit, so to speak."
"Weird isn't the word I would use."
She hums in agreement. "Still, if I were in your position… I think I'd be throwing a bit more caution to the wind. I wouldn't want to leave any unfinished business behind."
Steve loses himself to the view once again. His hands itch to sketch it, but his head is all over the place and the mood just isn't right. He doesn’t notice when his company leaves.
Bucky won't come to him, so Steve goes to Bucky. As it's been pointed out, he has unfinished business.
Somehow – he doesn’t know how exactly – he knows Bucky's awake, knows he's tracking Steve's every move through the dark of the room. He does nothing to stop Steve as he pads across the floor and slips between the covers, just follows him silently with his eyes and waits for Steve to say whatever he's got to say.
"There's something I want to tell you before it's too late."
The only response he gets is a blink of eyelids in the darkness.
"Obviously I don't know what your Steve's thoughts are, but I reckon that if my mind is still buried somewhere inside him, then I can't be all that far off… Maybe he's more confident, and better at talking to the dames than me, maybe he's already got a girl and just no one's told me about it, or maybe it's just the opposite – this is the future, after all. But either way, you were always it for me, Buck." He takes a steadying breath. "Even all that time ago, I always lo—"
Steve never sees it coming, but suddenly Bucky's too-strong arms have scooped him up and their lips press together with the lightest touch. The initial shock passes and they can't help but sink deeper, kissing with open mouths and tongues like he'd secretly seen couples doing in the dancehalls at the end of the night. Their bodies move together, chest to chest, hip to hip, and Steve gasps at the flurry of emotions he's feeling. He has to stop himself from pulling away, shoving away those thoughts of an era past. He's looked it up, knows this isn't illegal now, but the sense of taboo is still present in the back of his mind. In some ways it makes him feel all the more desperate for it.
Bucky buries his head in Steve's neck as his body shakes. Steve just squeezes his arms tighter around Bucky's waist and holds on.
When Steve comes to, he's surprised and more than a little weirded out to find all his friends standing around, staring at him expectantly. They're in one of Tony's many workshops and there's some kind of weird gun-looking thing pointed at his head, but nobody makes a move to explain anything.
"Um. Hey, guys. What'd I miss?"
Tony makes a choking noise and Clint cracks a sly smile, but it's Nat that does the talking.
"What's the last thing you remember? Think very carefully about your answer."
He frowns at that, not sure what she's getting at, but answers truthfully to the best of his knowledge.
"Well, we'd been chasing after the Goon Squad, but they slipped out from under us like the worms they are. Oh, and they stole all that brainwashing gear in the process. Still not sure what they're planning on that front… And then we came back here once we decided that we'd properly lost them?"
"So, what's the problem?"
"They used something from that 'brainwashing gear' to zap you and Barnes," Bruce explains, "You lost all your memories, and Barnes remembered all of his. That was a week ago."
"But we've fixed it now," Tony butts in, "And nothing really happened in the meantime. So really, you should just go on with your life as if nothing happened, okie dokes? Excellent. Glad you agree. Okay, everyone outta my space already. I need a little 'me' time."
Steve tentatively follows everyone into the elevator and they all assure him that everything's fine and he has no reason to worry. But when he realises that Bucky is not among the crowd, he suddenly isn't sure how far he can trust said assurances. He ditches them in the rec room and heads up to his own room, somehow not surprised to find Bucky sitting on his bed. It finally registers that Bruce had said Bucky got all his memories back, and he imagines he can see the evidence of it in his face, the extra weight of it, but there's something else in Bucky's expression that gives him pause.
Bucky gets to his feet slowly and moves to stand as close as he dares. Steve's heart thumps in his chest. Being so near to his friend like this, it's an endless tug-o-war between too much and not enough.
"Steve…" Bucky clears his throat. "There's something I want to tell you before it's too late."