"I think someone's been in my apartment," Steve says.
Sam goes still, lowers his cup back to the table instead of drinking it. A stripe of sunlight that escaped the tree branches bisects his hand, slices the table and Steve's arm. Beyond the little patio people are rushing along the sidewalk. A car honks at the nearby intersection but that barely bothers him anymore.
"What makes you think so?" Sam asks. His fingers are wrapped around the paper guard on his cup, sunlight reflecting off his fingernails. His sunglasses are too dark for Steve to see his eyes.
He wants to say, "I'm not crazy anymore," but he's pretty sure that all crazy people say that, and he knows that Sam's giving him the benefit of the doubt. What makes you think so? is neutral, fact-gathering. Clint would probably ask, you losing your mind again, bro? and Natasha would want to go over to his apartment immediately, equally worried that he was right or backsliding. But Sam always starts by assuming that the reality in Steve's head matches the one outside it.
It's decent of him, and Steve appreciates it. But it doesn't change how much he wishes he could see Sam's eyes.
"Just little stuff," Steve says. He wrote a list. It's neatly folded in his pocket but he leaves it there. He has a hypothesis that mentally healthy people think meticulousness is a warning sign. Steve's pretty sure he was always like that, but he doesn't want to risk it. "The milk was different. I mean, it was the same brand, but I'd used some of the one I bought before I left. This carton was full. The bread was different too."
"In what way?"
He knows it's only more fact-gathering, but Steve still hesitates before he answers. "The tag was a different color." Maybe normal people don't notice things like that. He doesn't know anymore.
"Okay." Another neutral word. Steve has no idea what Sam's thinking. "Maybe Natasha used it and replaced it?"
Steve sips his own coffee instead of bristling. It's a reasonable question. He shakes his head. "She only came in to feed Gloria. And if she took something she would've said."
Sam grunts in acknowledgement. "Was there anything else?"
Steve's grateful Sam didn't ask if he might've forgotten how much milk he drank or the color of the bread tag, that Sam trusts his memory that much. But he's still careful what he answers, picking and choosing from the list he doesn't take out of his pocket. "The cups were in the wrong place." Sam's been in Steve's apartment so he accepts that, nodding. Steve silently congratulates himself and goes through the list again. He doesn't tell Sam that the bar of soap in the shower was a little smaller, because he's sure normal people don't notice things like that either. "My portfolio wasn't where I left it." It was about three inches further to the right, but Steve knows better than to say that. He can't tell if it was opened or not.
"All right." Sam sips his coffee, thinking. Steve toys with his half-empty cup and wishes Sam would take his sunglasses off already. A breeze makes the tree branches sway and the stripe of sun shivers on the table. "Do you want me, Nat and Clint to come over? Check your place out?"
Steve opens his mouth but closes it again without answering. He takes another sip of coffee while he wraps his mind around three people in the apartment with him. Three friends, his brain supplies, but that doesn't really change how thinking about it drags ice down his spine. The worst part is that he knows how irrational it is. They've all visited him plenty of times. But that was before he found milk he didn't buy in the refrigerator, and a whole list of things that were wrong.
He needs his space. Not just that, he needs his space in a certain way. Order and predictability. He always puts his portfolio directly under the window. He always has the larger mugs in the back and the small ones in the front. Knowing where everything is makes it easier, when he wakes up gasping in the middle of the night. Knowing he put his things back where he found them means he's actually there, not dreaming. It means it's not 2011 and he's not actually dying next to the wreckage of a burned out Humvee. It means he's still alive. Ghosts can't move things.
But someone did, and having three more people in his space right now, moving things, is more than Steve feels he can deal with. Even if they're his friends. "It's okay," he says. He chuckles, knows it falls flat by the way Sam tilts his head. "You're probably right, I just imagined it. Forgot how much milk I drank or when I bought the bread or something." He finishes his coffee in a long, unsteady gulp, then stands. "Thanks for agreeing to meet me on your lunch hour."
"Hey, it's not like it's a hassle to hang out with you." Sam stands up as well, still holding his disposable cup. He grins, though there's something sad in it. "Besides, I owe you. The mural you painted is amazing. The center's got a lot of compliments on it. A few people even took your card."
"Oh. Thanks. That's…that's great." It's not that Steve doesn't like the potential for more work, it's just that he still has trouble with compliments. All he can ever see in his own art are the mistakes.
"It is," Sam says simply. "And yes, you do deserve the praise. And the increased business, before you say you don't." He finishes his coffee, tilting his head back. Steve lets himself admire the column of Sam's throat, considers asking him to pose for him again.
"You don't owe me anything, Sam. I appreciate you listening." He forces a smirk. "Especially when I'm just being an idiot."
"Never said you were being an idiot." Sam puts his hand on Steve's shoulder. "You know, it's all right to say 'no'. You're not going to hurt our feelings if you don't want us to come over." He pats Steve before letting go. "You don't have to protect everyone."
"I know that." Steve shrugs, embarrassed. "It's just, I like you guys. And, it's a stupid reason that I want to be alone."
Sam shakes his head. "It's not stupid. You got a right to your needs, man. Whatever they are." He smiles. "I'm not even going to charge you for that one."
Steve chuckles, pleased that it's genuine. "Didn't you tell me it's unethical to counsel your friends?"
"That's why I'm not going to charge you." Sam gives Steve one of his bright, glorious grins, but it slides fast off his face. "You call us, though, if there's a problem. I mean it. Anything. It doesn't matter what time it is. You need us, you call. All right?"
Steve nods solemnly. "I'll call if I need you."
He doesn't call. Not even in the middle of the night when he's clawed his way out of another nightmare and his body aches and aches and aches where the shrapnel went in. There's a medal in the nightstand that he pulls out once a year because it's easier than explaining why he didn't. He fumbles for the box in the drawer until he can close his shaking hand around it and remind himself that it means he's home, safe and alive.
It helps, but not enough to let him sleep again. Steve leaves the box on the nightstand and gets up, walks into his living room. There's enough light to see by, limning everything in cold, silvery blue. His phone is on the counter. Steve picks it up and sends a text to Tony before he can second-guess himself. How are you?
He doesn't hold his breath while he waits for an answer—he knows how likely it is that Tony's nowhere near his phone—but that doesn't change the depth of his relief when the response comes less than a minute later:
Do you want a real answer? Or just to know I'm still breathing?
Steve smiles a little as he taps in the reply. Both.
It takes longer for Tony to answer that, but Steve's not worried anymore so that's all right.
Let's leave it at still breathing. Unless you want to meet somewhere for a drink. In which case, I could really use a drink and Pepper's poured all the alcohol down the sink again.
Steve grimaces, glances outside where the night is just beginning to die along the horizon. It's either too late or too early for alcohol. How about coffee?
You're such a fucking lightweight. I'll meet you at the usual place in an hour.
Fuck you, Tony. See you soon.
Tony's an asshole, but Steve is smiling when he goes to take a shower, and he feels almost normal when he leaves his building as the sun burns away the night's dark. It's going to be another beautiful summer day, he knows. He tries to let the brilliance of the sunrise infuse him, keep it inside like a little bud of happiness for later when the inevitable crash comes. He's doing better, he really is, but he'll never be the man he was. Most days he's okay with that.
Their usual place is one of those 24 hour restaurants with sticky vinyl in the booths and a constant odor of hot oil and burned coffee. Tony's at their favorite table, tousle-haired and exhausted with a three-day beard and grease on his The Offspring tee-shirt. His head snaps up when the door jingles, but his features resolve into a grin easily enough.
"You're late," he says cheerfully. "I've been here, like, five minutes."
Steve smirks. "I'm early, actually. It's not my fault if you have no sense of time and didn't bother to shower. Which I did," he adds pointedly.
"If we're on a date you should've told me." Tony taps out something on his phone, but then turns it screen down and pushes it aside. He leans against the padded back of the booth, avoiding the long gash in the material. "I dreamed I was bleeding out in the dirt again, only this time with the fun addition of watching Pepper burn to death instead of Corporal Hawkins. Your turn."
Steve winces in sympathy, then shrugs. "Same old, same old. I just…" He sighs. "Things haven't been great, lately. It's good to see you, Tony," he adds a moment later.
"Likewise." Tony doesn't need to say more than that.
The waitress comes over with coffee and they give her their orders without looking at the stained menus.
"Do you ever wonder if we would've been friends, if the convoy hadn't been attacked?" Tony asks a few minutes later, breaking the silence. Tony is terrible at silence, something Steve assumes was the same before Afghanistan, since he can't remember anything different. The only thing he really does remember from that day is yelling at Tony to stay down and the grit of sand in his mouth. He's not even sure if the rattle of gunfire or the explosions actually happened or are figments of his fucked-up imagination. The only other person he can remember is Tony. Even the men who took them both are nothing but indistinct, angry voices and vectors for pain.
The pneumatic door groans as it opens and Steve gasps and flinches, even though he specifically sat so he was facing the entrance. He forces himself not to watch the man shoulder his way in and shuffle to a table. Steve knows he's in no danger here, but it's like fear has leached into his bones, as inescapable as the memory of sand. The only place he hasn't felt at least a little on edge is his apartment, but that was before he found evidence of a stranger there.
"How was the funeral?" Tony asks, just as the waitress brings their food. The woman makes a sympathetic face and flees. "I wanted to go, but there was another fucking board meeting and Pepper said I'd blown off too many of them already." He lifts the top bun and squeezes ketchup all over his burger.
Steve shrugs. "They're not all that different." He looks away before the dripping red makes him too nauseous to eat. The man who startled him with the door is the only other patron, and at this time of morning he's probably at the diner because he has nowhere else to go. His clothes look worn but clean: a grey baseball cap, a lined, hooded leather jacket with a red long-sleeved shirt and grey tee underneath. It's too warm for that much clothing. Steve guesses that the outfit and the backpack he put next to the wall are the only things the man owns.
The stranger takes off the cap and puts it on the bench beside him, pushing his overly-long hair behind his ears. His eyes dart to the door, then to Tony and Steve and then away again. Steve realizes he's sitting the same way, with a perfect view that covers the rest of the diner and the door.
But the smile he gives the waitress is small but genuine when she comes over, and he asks for coffee with excruciatingly formal courtesy, like he's sure he's taking up space that doesn't belong to him. Maybe that's why he seems familiar; Steve's felt like that for a long time.
"Hey. Hey." Tony taps his shin with the toe of his designer shoe, wrenching Steve's attention back to him. "You in there?" He waves his hand in front of Steve's eyes.
Steve bats it away. "I just thought I recognized someone for a moment."
"You did?" Tony perks up instantly, leaning out of his side of the bench to look at the other man. "Ooh, he's pretty."
"Cut it out." Steve kicks Tony in the shin, only hard enough to make him jump and scowl. "I just thought I did. I don't know him."
"Oh." Tony deflates. He sighs, then picks up his burger and takes a massive bite. "I guess you didn't remember Private Lorraine either, then."
Steve shakes his head. "She was cremated. But there were pictures of her, from before. I don't know what I was hoping for. Maybe the circumstances…." He trails off, frowning at his food. He's had the eggs and sausage here at least a hundred times, but this morning he can't bring himself to eat any of it. "She was the last one. Of the survivors, I mean."
"I know." Of course Tony does. "She didn't survive, though. Considering you were there when they put her in the ground."
"Yeah." Steve clears his throat then sips more coffee, eyes straying to the one other patron. He isn't pretty. His blue-grey eyes are riveting, granted, but his features are too sharp and hard. He glances at Steve and his uneaten meal then away. "I should've remembered her. I should remember all of them. Or at least what happened to them. But I can't."
"Hey," Tony says again, gentle this time. "You'd just transferred in, and then you practically died, and then we were hostages in a cave for nearly three fucking months, with you basically dying the whole time. The fact you remember your own name after that is a damn miracle." He puts his hand on Steve's shoulder, shaking him a little when Steve tries to look away. "You did everything you could. Believe me. I was bleeding out in the fucking sand and I still know you did everything you could."
"Doesn't feel like it." Colonel Carter told him the same thing, when she pinned his Captain's bars on him. But Steve hadn't believed it then and still can't. If he'd done everything he could he wouldn't be one of the only two survivors. If he'd done everything he could he'd at least remember the men and women who died when he lived.
When he received his medal a few months later, he almost threw it away.
"It does to me," Tony says. "I'm alive because of you."
Steve smiles at him, because that's one thing he really is thankful for: this brilliant, beautiful disaster of a human being sitting across from him who he's lucky enough to call friend. "I think we both kept each other alive, Tony. One of the few things I remember is your incessant talking and forcing water down my throat."
Tony glances away, and his smile warps badly before it settles into one of his typical shit-eating grins. "I needed you alive. You were a perfect sounding board. I miss those halcyon days of you always agreeing with me." Steve smirks despite himself, and Tony keeps grinning around another bite of his burger. "So," he says, mouth half full, "you already know about my pathetic existence. Now it's your turn."
Steve hesitates, thinking of the neatly-folded paper in his pocket that he hadn't shown Sam. He glances at the other patron again. The man is sipping his coffee, his remarkable eyes focused on nothing. He's holding the mug in his right hand, the left is half-curled on the table like there's something wrong with it. "You'll think I'm crazy."
Tony shrugs. "I already think you're crazy. Spill."
"Someone was in my apartment when I wasn't there," Steve says, lowering his voice. "I know how that sounds," he adds quickly. "But, you know me. You know how I like everything a certain way, right?"
"Sure. Anal-retentiveness is next to godliness. You've got, like, two hundred coasters and you made me fuck you on the bed instead of the couch that one time."
"Tony!" Steve hisses, trying to ignore the blush creeping up his neck.
Tony grins, unrepentant and maybe a little wistful. "Don't look like that. You loved it. You know you loved it."
Steve nods, even though his blush gets worse and it's hard to meet Tony's keen eyes. "Yeah, but…You'd just got out of rehab and I was…. A relationship would've been a terrible decision for both of us."
"Come on, who doesn't love a good train wreck?" Tony stretches out so he can hook his foot around Steve's ankle. His grin is still wistful. "Admit it, it would've been fantastic while it lasted."
"While it lasted," Steve says. "I needed a friend, Tony. Not to get laid." He makes himself smile over the rim of his mug. "Besides, I don't think Pepper's into threesomes."
Tony barks out a startled laugh, just like Steve hoped, but then he grins again and waggles his eyebrows. "You'd be surprised, young padawan. But you haven't distracted me from how you were about to tell me that you're not crazy and someone was in your apartment."
"You were the one who started talking about the couch," Steve protests, then makes a face when Tony blinks innocently. "Anyway, my point was that enough little things were different that I could tell."
"What little things?"
Tony looks intrigued, not disbelieving, so Steve pulls the list out of his pocket and slides it across the table. He fidgets with his unused cutlery while Tony reads, unwilling to see the expression on his friend's face. "I'm not crazy," Steve says again when Tony hands the paper back to him.
"Oh you totally are, sugarplum. But that doesn't mean there wasn't someone in your apartment." Tony's fingers tap on the tabletop while he thinks.
His looking off into space catches the waitress's eye and she wanders over. "Something wrong with the eggs, honey?" She asks Steve.
Steve blinks at her, then remembers that he hasn't touched his meal. "No, it's fine," he says quickly. "I was just less hungry than I thought. Could I have a to-go box, please?"
"Sure thing. More coffee?"
"Is the pope catholic?" Tony says.
Steve glances at the man at the other table, still nursing his coffee. "Could I order the same thing I had for him?" He points, trying not to be too obvious about it.
The waitress looks surprised, then glances at the man, then turns back to Steve and beams at him. "Aren't you sweet? I'll put that right in for him."
"Aren't you sweet?" Tony mimics once the waitress has refilled their coffees and gone, then gives Steve a saccharine smile.
Steve rolls his eyes. "Fuck off."
"Fuck on. It gets better results. So," he goes on briskly, "I figure you've got a couple options with your phantom menace."
"Yeah?" Steve shoves aside his mild irritation because being annoyed with Tony only encourages him. This is one of the many reasons going out with him would've been a disaster. Steve loves Tony, but he doesn't need more spectacular train wrecks in his quiet mess of a life.
"One." Tony holds a finger up. "You assume that it's just you being crazy and don't worry about it." He pauses, wincing. "Actually, knowing you, you'll worry more. So forget that one. Two, you assume you're not crazy—or not crazier, anyway—and someone actually was sleeping in your bed and eating your porridge. So you stay at the Tower for a few days, and we'll put nannycams all over your apartment and see if anyone comes in. That, or upgrade your alarm system again."
"The alarm was working when I came home." Which is something important he hadn't considered. It didn't look like anyone had come in via the fire escape, but then at first it hadn't looked like anyone was in his apartment at all. Either the stranger had access to his code or...he doesn't even know what. "Do you think whomever broke in knows my code?"
"Good question." Tony stops, thinking. "What is it?"
Steve leans forward, whispers: "SSRM."
Tony's eyes narrow while he thinks about it, then his eyes widen in realization and he smacks his forehead. "That's your fucking transportation battalion, isn't it? The Strategic Services Reserve? Let me guess, the 'M' is for 'Monkey', right? The SSR Dancing Monkeys? Oh, my God," he goes on when Steve looks faintly chagrined. "Why didn't you just use your birthday? Seriously, Steve. Literally anyone with the brains to look at your Facebook page would be able to figure out the code for your alarm. Wait." He picks up his phone and looks at the lockscreen keypad, then gapes at Steve. "It's two numbers!"
"It was easy to remember."
Tony takes a deep, resigned sigh. "I bet that's the code for your ATM card, too. Isn't it?"
Steve shakes his head, his face hot. "It's my birthday."
"Oh my God." Tony lets his head fall back as he shakes it, as if appealing to the heavens. "Either your invisible roommate is dumber than you are, which honestly seems unlikely, or he's the most honorable break-and-enterer who ever lived. I'm assuming that fluffy hellspawn you laughingly call a cat was all right."
"Gloria's fine." Steve ignores Tony's insult, because he is feeling pretty damn stupid right now, as well as embarrassed. It's not like he's unfamiliar with technology; he just didn't have the mental energy to think of anything more complicated at the time. "I'll change them," he mumbles.
"Please. For the love of God." Tony shakes his head again and takes a big slug of coffee. "Awright. Here's the plan. I turn your apartment into a Big Brother set, you come sleep over at the Tower for a few days, and we catch your dastardly house sitter. How does that sound?"
"I don't know. All right, I guess." Steve fiddles with his fork as he watches the waitress bringing the man the food Steve ordered for him. "It's just, I only got home a couple days ago." He barely unpacked. His dirty clothes are in the washing machine. The idea of leaving again, of not being able to settle, is almost as bad as a stranger in his apartment.
"Doesn't have to be tonight," Tony says easily. "How about the weekend? That'll give me time to order the stuff, anyway."
Steve nods, relieved. "Yeah. That's good. Thanks."
He tries to watch the other table without being too obvious about it. The man looks startled when he sees the waitress coming with the plate, then confused and wary by turns. She grins like she's his grandmother, then points out Steve's table. Steve wishes he'd thought to ask her not to say who bought the food, but no one else has come in, so it wouldn't be hard to guess anyway.
The man sees Steve and Tony and for a second he looks absolutely horrified, like he's about to grab his pack and run. Steve has no idea why his measly gift of breakfast would upset this stranger so badly, but he gives him as warm a smile as he can and waves a little, trying to show that everything's all right.
He can't hear what the waitress is saying, but she's obviously trying to talk the man down, maybe telling him that Steve isn't a crazy stalker and there's no poison in the food. The man nods mechanically, eyes darting between the steaming plate and Steve. He's still clearly poised to run, until finally maybe hunger or the waitress' explanation wins, because he settles back in his booth and gives Steve a tiny, fleeting smile. For a moment it makes him look absolutely breathtaking. Steve's so astonished he almost forgets to smile in return before the man looks away and starts eating like he hasn't in days. He's still just using his right hand, determinedly cutting the eggs apart with the side of his fork. It looks like there really is something wrong with his left arm.
"Well, that was weird," Tony says.
"I'm pretty sure he's homeless," Steve says quietly. "He's probably not used to getting anything without some kind of catch."
Tony grunts around the last of his French fries that he's stuffed in his mouth. "Think he's a veteran?"
Steve hadn't thought about it, but he takes another glance and yeah, Tony's right. "I do, come to think of it. Look where he's sitting." Steve juts his chin, trying to be subtle, but of course Tony leans out again to look. "It's the best vantage point to see everyone, other than where I'm sitting."
"Hmm." Tony finishes his coffee, pushes the empty cup aside and takes Steve's. "Maybe that's why you thought he looked familiar. 'Cause he's a veteran."
"Maybe." Steve steals back his coffee for a sip, then replaces it in front of Tony. He shrugs. "Yeah. That's probably it."
Tony tilts out of his booth yet again, ignoring Steve's hissed admonishments. "I dunno," he says thoughtfully when he's finally back facing Steve. "I think I might've actually seen him before."
"You've seen him before?" Steve parrots. The blood drains out of his face and suddenly he's clammy and cold, the anxiety attack roaring out of nowhere just from those few words. "You mean…you mean…." He can't even say it.
"He wasn't in the convoy," Tony says immediately. He reaches across the table, taking Steve's damp, shaking hands. "C'mon, big boy, look at me. Look at me. That's right. Just breathe. Just breathe, okay? We're in this lousy little diner in New York and it's 2014 and there's not a Humvee or anything exploding anywhere. Nothing bad is happening. You got that? Everything's okay. You can feel my hands, right?" He waits for Steve's jerking nod. "Yeah. You're right here with me. And you're okay. Just keep breathing and everything's going to be fine."
Steve keeps breathing, gripping Tony's fingers until the wave of panic finally recedes and he can let go. He puts his elbows on the table and his face in his hands, still trembling with adrenaline. "S-sorry," he manages, voice shaking.
"Hey, not a problem, believe me. How many times have you had to talk me down, huh?"
Steve doesn't answer, just takes a few more deep breaths until he feels like he can lift his head. He finds a smile somewhere. "Thanks, Tony."
"Anytime." Tony slides Steve's coffee to him, then grabs it back when Steve shakes his head. He takes a gulp then smacks it decisively on the table—softly, thank God—but it still serves to completely break the mood. He flips over Steve's list, pulls a pen from his inside jacket pocket and starts scribbling. "So. I'll let you know when I have the equipment and we can set up Operation Goldilocks. Sounds good?"
Steve nods. His heart's still hammering and the thought of making plans beyond walking home feels like more than he can manage right now. But he has time, he tells himself. Tony's talking about the weekend, not tonight. It'll be fine. "I need to bring Gloria. I can't leave her alone two weekends in a row."
"Yes, by all means. Bring the demon. It's cute how sure you are that she even notices you're gone."
The waitress comes over and quietly sets a glass of orange juice down next to Steve's elbow. "On the house, dear," she says, then lifts away his untouched meal. "Let me box that up for you, hon."
"I think she's into you," Tony says as he watches her walk away. "She never gives me free juice."
"Next time you have a panic attack in public I'll make sure you get free juice, all right?" Steve drinks it all. He was thirsty, but it doesn't really make him feel any better.
"I'll hold you to that," Tony says absently. He's looking at the other table, but the plate is empty and the man is gone.
Steve leaves the to-go box open in the alley next to his building, then watches as two of the stray cats come skulking over and start eating. It makes him smile and that's another thing he holds onto, because he can feel the crash lurking like a shadow at the back of his skull. After nearly three years he's gotten good at tracking when it'll hit.
He saves a sausage for Gloria, who comes trotting over as soon as he opens his door. She sits there bawling at him until he crouches down and pets her, then makes sure to reassert her ownership by rubbing her cheeks against his arm. She tries to run off with the sausage, but Steve makes her wait until he cuts it up and puts it in a bowl for her. He's sure her veterinarian would be horrified, but Gloria was an alley cat just like the ones outside, so Steve figures she should get as much food as she wants.
He catches her and helps her onto the counter when her old joints don't quite make the jump, then pets her thick white fur as she wolfs the treat and purrs to beat the band.
Tony's asking if Gloria was all right is something else Steve hadn't thought of. Tony likes to exaggerate, but Gloria climbed in through Steve's open window one afternoon and decided he was hers ever since. She doesn't like strangers in her territory and is prone to swiping at anyone who comes at her too loudly or quickly. Which is why Tony thinks she hates him. She was pissed at Steve for leaving, but that's not unusual. She just puked a hairball on his pillow like she always does if he's gone for more than a day at a time.
So either it means no one was there except Natasha, or that whoever was there didn't upset Gloria enough for Steve to notice. He knows he should hope it's the former, but he doesn't want proof he's getting paranoid again. He's worked so hard to get his life back. Surely one more funeral couldn't have fucked up everything?
He grabs his phone and texts Natasha. Did Gloria act weird while you were here? Then busies himself with making toast while he waits for a response. He's not hungry yet, but knows he'll feel sick later if he doesn't eat. She still hasn't responded after he's spread peanut butter on the bread and eaten it.
Steve washes the dish and cutlery and puts it away, and then when there's still no answer from Natasha he deliberately leaves his phone in the kitchen and goes to do something else before he drives himself out of his mind. He has two illustrations to finish for a middle school novel about heroic cats (the protagonist looks like Gloria), and needs to come up with design ideas for Stark International's next print advertisement. Steve has somehow become the go-to guy for anything SI needs illustrated, and while he likes being able to eat he can't help thinking Tony's made him into a charity project. It helps that the work requests always come via Pepper Pott's office, but he's fairly sure she feels she owes him for saving Tony's life. He compensates by doing his absolute best work, and consoles his ego with assuming that they wouldn't come back if they didn't like what he did.
His plan is to draw Gloria in a heroic pose with the evil Lizard Queen under her paw, but as soon as he picks up a pencil it's like something takes over his hands. He starts drawing the man from the diner: his messy hair and sharp features and arresting, haunted eyes.
It's not a good picture. Steve's hands are shaking and he keeps having to redo the lines, but he can't stop, not even when he starts crying as he draws the stranger's hands. His tears hit the paper and mar the graphite.
Blood. He's bleeding, Steve thinks, though the wet spots look nothing like that. He drops the pencil and puts his hands over his eyes, weeping with a grief that's as inexplicable as it's impossible to contain. He doesn't know this man. He doesn't know him. The sorrow ripping out of him is terrifying because he has no idea why it's happening. There's nothing wrong.
There's nothing wrong.
Gloria jumps onto his lap, purring and leaning her front paws against his collarbones so she can headbutt his chin. Steve laughs and swallows and holds her as tightly as she'll allow, burying his face against her fur.
The burr of his phone receiving a text startles the hell out of him and Gloria protests when he squeezes her a little too tightly. He pets her in apology before gently putting her on the floor. He snatches the picture off the table and crumples it into a tight ball. He wants to burn it, but that's ridiculous so he just tosses it onto the floor for Gloria to play with. She pounces on it immediately.
The text is from Natasha. The cat seemed fine. Is she all right?
Yes. She's fine. Thank you. Steve texts back, grateful Natasha can't see his face. He's still wiping his eyes.
Naturally, his friend is too perceptive to leave it at that. Are YOU all right?
Steve stares at the phone, trying to figure out what he wants to answer.
He must take too long, because he gets another text first. Do you want me to come over?
Steve swallows, looks at the clock on the stove. It's barely 8:00 am. Don't you have to go to work?
I'm between assignments. Do you want me to come over?
Steve hesitates, then thinks of Sam. You got a right to your needs, man.
Yes. If it's okay. He feels like a wimp, but he hits the send key anyway.
Sam's at work but Clint's coming too. ETA 30 mins. :)
He doesn't expect a response to that so he isn't surprised when he doesn't get one.
He still feels awful, but it's not as bad already, just from knowing that in a half an hour he won't be alone.
"Someone was in your apartment? Seriously? You sure you're not losing your mind again?" Clint's peering into Steve's freezer like he's expecting to find an intruder behind the ice cubes. "Ooh, awesome." He emerges with Steve's tub of salted caramel ice cream, puts it on the counter and gets a bowl. "Want some?"
"It's not even 9:00 in the morning," Natasha says. Steve just shakes his head.
"I missed breakfast." Clint begins scooping huge globs into the bowl.
Natasha hands Steve a mug of tea, then leads him into the living room and sits next to him on the couch, cradling her own between her hands. "Sam told us," she says quietly. "You sure you're all right?"
Steve nods, then sighs when Natasha raises her eyebrows. "I didn't get upset about that."
"I don't know," Steve says honestly. "I think I remembered something. Or, someone."
Natasha takes a small, careful sip, then lowers her cup to her lap, her attention no less gentle for how it goes razor sharp. "Who?"
"I don't know," Steve says again. He takes a drink of his tea, rolling it over his tongue before he swallows, concentrating on the warmth. Gloria canters over with the paper dangling from her mouth, as if aware of his mounting distress. She drops the ball, sniffs at his and Natasha's knee, then jumps into his lap and cuddles in with her chin on Natasha's thigh. He pets her automatically as he shackles his thoughts, trying to relax under the rumble of her purr. "Seriously," he goes on when Natasha keeps staring at him. "It was just…eyes. And hands. Not anyone I recognized. Tony didn't recognize him either."
"We went to our usual place early this morning." He winces internally because he can tell by the way she sips her tea that she knows why they were there, even if she's too nice to say anything. "Someone else came in. It was pretty obvious he was another veteran. It was the way he watched everything, you know?"
Natasha nods, because she does know. She's never told Steve exactly how she makes her living, but whatever it is, it's more than close enough.
"So, this dude reminded you of someone?" Clint comes into the living room, carrying his bowl of ice cream.
Steve shrugs while he drinks his tea. "That's the thing. I don't know." He blasts out a miserable, frustrated breath, thumps his cup down on the table, sloshing liquid onto the coaster. "I don't know." He rakes his fingers through his hair. "I don't even know what I remembered. But I was drawing his hands, and…" He bites his lip, breathing through his nose so he won't start crying again. "And I just lost it. I don't even know why."
"You have enough reason to be upset," Natasha says. "You were already on edge. It makes sense that something as simple as seeing another veteran might have sent you over."
"Yeah, man," Clint chimes in. "It's always the stupid shit that freaks you out the worst, you know?"
"Yeah," Steve says, voice rough. He drinks more tea, pets Gloria. "I didn't mean to bother you. I just…I really didn't want to be alone."
"It's no problem, Steve." Natasha puts her hand on his thigh. "You'd do the same for any of us. And have."
"And you have fucking gourmet ice cream," Clint adds, then grins when Steve manages a smile. He flops onto the couch next to Natasha. "But seriously, bro. What are we going to do about Goldilocks?"
"Tony called him that too." Steve sighs. "I'm pretty sure—I'm almost certain—someone was here. And I can't…I need to know who it is." He doesn't say, I need to feel safe, because he doesn't have to, not to them. And because part of him is still unsure enough of his own mind that the words feel too much like paranoia.
"All right." Natasha sips her tea. "I'm assuming Tony had an idea."
"He invited me to stay at the Tower over the weekend, then put up cameras in case the guy comes back."
"How do you know it's a guy?" Clint asks.
"I don't," Steve says, blinking now that he really thinks about it.
"It's men more often than women," Natasha says dismissively. "The real question is, will he come back?"
"I don't know." Steve grimaces, annoyed at how that seems to be the only answer he can give. "He didn't take anything the first time, and he didn't hurt Gloria. Or at least not in any way I can tell." The cat is certainly pliant and happy. She stretches across his lap with her head still on Natasha's leg. "And he replaced everything he used up. So I think he just…wanted to stay?"
"Still creepy," Clint says.
"Yeah," Steve agrees on a breath. "And I hate it, the idea of a stranger being in my apartment when I didn't even know about it. But he could've ripped up my pictures, or stolen things, and he didn't." He thinks of Tony's despair over his ATM password, wonders how easily this person could've emptied his bank account, or if that's Tony's personal brand of paranoia talking. "He didn't take anything that he didn't replace."
"What'll you do if he comes back?" Clint licks his spoon clean then puts it in the bowl and puts the bowl on the coffee table. Gloria perks up instantly at the noise.
Natasha puts the bowl on a coaster before Steve can, then smiles as Gloria leaps onto the table to lap at the leftover ice cream.
"I don't know that either. Call the cops, I guess." Steve's smirk is pained. "That feels mean."
"He was in your place."
Steve shrugs. "He didn't take anything."
Natasha gives him a smile that's both incredulous and fond, then bends to pick Gloria's discarded toy off the floor. "Is this what you were drawing?" she asks, perceptive as always. "May I look at it?"
Steve opens his mouth to say 'no', but he has no reason to stop her. He nods.
She unfolds the ball and moves her cup and Clint's bowl to smooth the paper out on the table. Gloria follows the ice cream.
Clint puts his arm around Natasha's back as he leans in to look. The half-smile he's wearing freezes, then disappears. "Nat," he says.
She nods, then looks at Steve. "Where did you see him?"
Something in her tone pokes unpleasantly at Steve's chest. "The diner. He was the other patron."
"You sure this is the guy?" Clint taps the picture, next to one of the wide, troubled eyes. "Like, you didn't make this up. That was him?"
"Yeah." Steve looks at the picture again, but all he can see is how bad it is. As far as he's concerned it hardly looks like anyone. The hands are closer, he thinks, more accurate. But that doesn't make sense. He barely saw his hands.
"He's dead," Natasha says, looking at Clint. "He's dead." She crumples the picture again, tightly, then throws it across the room. Gloria takes off after it.
"Who is he?" The ball makes skuff, skuff noises on the floor as Gloria chases it, the mundanity of it in surreal contrast to how uneasy both Clint and Natasha look. "How do you know him?"
"We don't," Natasha says quickly. Too quickly. She looks at Steve and her expression softens. "It's classified, I'm sorry. But, he's dead. The man you saw…He can't be the same man you drew. He must have reminded you of someone else."
"He didn't," Steve says immediately. "He didn't remind me of anyone. He wasn't from the convoy." He clenches his fists, refusing to tumble back into panic. "Tony was there, and he saw him, and he said he wasn't—"
"Whoa, chill." Clint puts up his hands. "S'cool. We know. We know he wasn't with the convoy. Everyone with the convoy was accounted for."
He means dead. All of them, now. Everyone except for Tony and Steve. There's sweat at Steve's temples. He swipes it away, forces himself to keep breathing. The paper skuffs and he badly wishes Gloria would stop playing with it. "There wasn't anyone else. J-just me. And Tony. And…and…."
And the Ten Rings. He can't say it.
Natasha grabs him and yanks him into a hug. "It's over, Steve. Everything that happened is over. You're all right now. It was a long time ago."
"I know." He nods, nose buried in the soft fragrance of her hair. Her back seems so narrow under his arms. He hasn't felt this fragile in years. He can't stand it. But when he tries to let go she doesn't let him.
"It's been a bad few days. You've been hit hard. You don't have to be strong," she says.
"I'm not anything. I'm coming apart."
"Hey." Clint's hand is a warm, anchoring weight on the back of Steve's neck. "You're still here. In mostly one piece, even."
Steve's laugh is only a little bit strangled, and the next time he pulls away from Natasha she allows it.
"All right." Clint throws himself back on the couch then reaches for the storage shelf built under the coffee table. He grins and comes up with three video game controllers and tosses one to Steve. "Mario Kart? Plants versus Zombies? FIFA?"
"Mario Kart," Natasha says decisively. "Loser buys lunch."
Steve loses, badly. But he would've paid for lunch either way.
Natasha and Clint end up staying for dinner too, and by the time they leave Steve feels almost normal. But he has another nightmare that night anyway.
This time, though, the dream's different: He's still in the cave, because he's always in the cave in his nightmares. He joked to Tony once that it was like he'd left his soul back there. Tony didn't find that funny.
The difference in this dream is that it's not just him and Tony in the cave, alone between the interrogations and the threats. There's another man, his presence undeniable though Steve can barely see him. Tony is with Steve too, but it's not Tony who's holding him up so he can drink out of a reused plastic bottle. It's not Tony whispering words of encouragement while he manages a few sips.
Steve can barely see him, but he knows the man has grey-blue eyes and his smile is always sad. And when blood runs down his left arm Steve thinks, that's right. That's why he's dead, and it's so reasonable it doesn't even hurt until he opens his eyes. And then it hurts like hell.
Steve can't go back to sleep after that, but it's too early and way too much to expect of his friends to bother them again. In the end he puts on his workout gear and sneakers and goes out into the cool, unquestioning darkness, trying to outrun a sense of terrible loss he doesn't understand.
"'Lo?" Sam mumbles into his phone on the fourth ring.
Steve cringes. "I woke you up, didn't I? I'm sorry, I—"
"No, man, it's fine. I said you could call anytime, didn't I?"
"I still didn't mean to wake you."
"I know you didn't." Steve can hear the quiet sigh, the gentle murmur of his voice as Sam tells Natasha to go back to sleep. "But since you did, what's on your mind to make you call at five AM?"
Steve almost apologizes again, but bites it back. "I think I might be going crazy."
There's a pause, then Sam says, "Can you tell me why you think so?"
"I think I…." Steve stops, huffs out a breath. "I had another nightmare last night, but it was different from the usual ones."
He can hear the slide of bed sheets as Sam gets up, practically hear him listening in the silence. "How was it different?"
"There was someone else there, not just me and Tony." Sam's heard about his dreams so often that there's no need to elaborate. "Not a terrorist. But, another man."
"Yeah?" It sounds like Sam's getting dressed, and Steve winces.
"Yeah. But, I'm okay. You don't have to come over here."
"Hey, I'm up anyway, might as well get ready," Sam counters easily. "Can you tell me about the other man in your dream?"
That the problem, isn't it? "Not…not really. I couldn't really see him. But, he was helping me."
"Helping you with what?"
"He was holding me up so I could drink." Stating it matter-of-factly helps a little. So much of Steve's time in the cave is a blur of fever and pain, but the memory of his helplessness can still wake him trembling. "He was telling me something too. Just encouragement, I think. I couldn't make it out. But, uh…." he grits his teeth.
"Whatever you feel is fine," Sam says. "What you went through fucking sucked and you got every right to be sad or scared or anything. Just take your time."
"Thanks," Steve manages. He pulls up the memory of sunshine, of the cats happily eating in the alley, keeps his mind there until he knows he can speak. "But he—the new person—he started bleeding. It was running down his left arm, dripping off his fingertips. And…and I remember thinking in the dream that it made sense, because he was dead."
"And then what happened?"
"Nothing. I woke up and started crying. Again." He can't keep the self-disgust out of his voice. "And I couldn't sleep anymore, so I went for a run. Then I called you."
"Crying is a normal human response to a bad memory. Stop beating yourself up for nothing."
Sam's always telling Steve to be kinder to himself, but the idea his dream might be real is a shock. "You think it's an actual memory?"
"I didn't say that." Water runs from a faucet in the background. Steve can imagine Sam making coffee, holding the phone between his shoulder and ear. "Memory's tricky. Every time we recall an event, we alter it a little. So, while what you went through is unquestionably true, the way you remember it has probably changed over time. That's natural," he adds when Steve doesn't answer.
"So I made him up and I'm going crazy again. Or I never stopped being crazy."
"I didn't say that, either," Sam says, ignoring the acid in Steve's tone. "He might be an amalgamation of the people around you while you were a captive. Your subconscious might've grabbed him at random from every stranger you saw yesterday, or from everyone you've met since you were a kid."
"Then why did I wake up so certain he was dead? And why did I care about it if he's not real?"
"Probably because he represents all the real people you do care about, who did die," Sam says gently. "There's nothing wrong with that either, as long as you're not still blaming yourself."
There's no answer to that that Steve wants to give. "Okay." His grief feels specific, not like he's mourning in effigy, but it's nothing he can argue. "Was there anyone else, when you rescued us? Another prisoner? Or…a guard, maybe? Someone with blue-grey eyes?"
That's the real reason why he called, but he put it off because he already knew what Sam would say.
"No one alive. And no one with eyes like that. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Steve says. "I probably just made him up. I saw someone yesterday who must've reminded me of someone I knew." He tries to smirk. "You know how fucked up my brain is."
"I know you have post-traumatic stress injury and situation-specific amnesia. Which is actually your brain trying to protect itself from what happened." It's far from the first time Sam's told him that. "And you're healing, but it takes time. Just like any kind of injury."
"It's been almost three years."
"Yeah. But that's all it's been. You're so much better than you were, Steve."
"It doesn't feel like it."
"Steve," Sam starts on a breath, "when I first met you after you got back, you were in a cold sweat at the idea of leaving your apartment. You kept all the lights on because you couldn't bear to be in the dark, and you had that fancy Stark alarm on 24/7, in case someone tried to come through a window. You didn't sleep, and you could only drink water if it was ice-cold because otherwise it made you puke. You even told me once that you were only keeping yourself alive because Tony needed you."
Steve swallows. "Yeah."
"So, that's why I can say you're better. 'Cause you are. You are so much better, Steve. And you're still healing. So cut yourself some fucking slack."
Sam swearing is so uncharacteristic that it startles Steve into laughing. "Thanks, Sam. You're a good friend."
"Damn right I am." Steve can hear the grin in Sam's voice before he goes serious again. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. I am, thank you." Steve makes himself mean it, because he is. He is okay. There is nothing that's happened since the funeral that he can't deal with.
"Nat and Clint said you and Tony had a plan to catch the guy who broke into your place, right?"
"Yeah. I'm spending the weekend at Stark Tower, and Tony's going to set up cameras."
"Sounds like a Bond film. Let me know how it turns out, all right? And Steve," Sam adds before Steve can say goodbye and hang up, "thanks for calling me. You're my friend, and I appreciate you letting me help."
"Oh. Well, you're welcome." It feels stupid to say that, as if he's the one doing Sam a favor. But it seems to make Sam happy to hear it, and it's the least Steve can do.
It's still ridiculously early when Steve ends the call, but at least the sun is up, filling his apartment with light.
It's going to be another beautiful day.
Steve goes to the Tower Friday night, early on Tony's insistence. He also posts about it on Facebook, because Tony's sure that's how the intruder's been tracking him.
Pepper's at the Tower when he arrives, back from her latest business trip, and she takes one look at Steve and sits him on the couch and goes to make tea.
"Let her," Tony says quietly when Steve tries to get up and offer to help. "It makes her happy. And you look like hell anyway."
"Thanks," Steve mutters, but he stays put.
"Hey." Tony claps Steve on the shoulder. "Play your cards right and you might get a threesome out of this."
"Tony!" Steve hisses. He can't help glancing at the kitchen, where Pepper leans against the counter and pets Gloria as she waits for the tea to steep. It doesn't look like she's heard anything.
"What?" Tony's all wide-eyed innocence until he throws his arm casually across Steve's back like a teen at a movie. "Did I mention it's almost her birthday?"
"Her birthday's in May," Steve says. But it's already too late, because he's thinking about her long, lush body and her fondly knowing smile and Tony like an unwrapped gift between them. His face is hot.
"Exactly," Tony purrs like that made any sense. He turns his head so his lips are grazing Steve's jaw. When he speaks it feels like his voice rumbles through the bones. "You two would look so good together. Just saying."
Steve swallows. "Is that why you invited me here? I thought you wanted to help me."
"I do want to help you." Tony pulls back immediately, his eyes big and sincere. "I totally want to help you. But you're here and so is Pepper, and frankly you look like you could use the distraction. And the sex," he adds, like it needs saying. "You definitely look like you could use the sex."
"You're an asshole, Tony."
"Is that a 'yes'?"
Pepper comes out of the kitchen carrying a tray with three cups—proper cups, complete with saucers—of tea, a delicate bowl of sugar and a tiny jug of cream. There's even a plate with European gourmet cookies that Steve would never buy. He looks at Tony, with his messy hair and grimy Black Sabbath tee-shirt with smoothie stains on it, and the dichotomy between Pepper's neat white suit and perfect hair and tea and Tony's everything is so huge that Steve starts laughing.
"What?" Pepper asks. Her smile is bemused but still warm as she puts one of the cup and saucers in front of him.
"Nothing," Steve says quickly. "It's just…I can't believe you and Tony are together sometimes."
Pepper chuckles, but when she gives Tony his tea there's nothing but love in her eyes. "He's an acquired taste, but I wouldn't have anyone else. Three sugars, right?"
Steve nods. "Thank you." Of course she remembered.
"What can I say? I'm like a fine wine." Tony waggles his eyebrows as he takes a sip.
"Old, expensive, and likely to stain everything?" Steve asks, then grins at Tony's glare.
Pepper laughs, delighted, then smiles at him. "I've missed you, Steve. I wish you'd visit more often."
"I'm sorry." Steve drinks his own tea to hide his guilt. I didn't want to inflict myself on you. I don't understand why you'd want me around. It's the truth, but telling her would just cause more problems he doesn't want to deal with. "I'll do better," he tells her instead, because his issues aren't an excuse.
"Thank you." Pepper gives him a quick buss on the cheek before she sits down on his other side, neatly crossing one knee over the other. Gloria immediately jumps onto the couch and settles on her legs. "Tony said you're trying to catch a trespasser. I was thinking about that, how they knew Steve would be away for the funeral." She leans forward, looking around Steve to Tony. "They must know who he is, to assume correctly that he'd go to Private Lorraine's funeral. But that doesn't mean they'll know he's away now."
"Tony's convinced he reads my Facebook page," Steve says. "I posted that I was coming here." He takes a cookie and bites it. It's very good.
Pepper hums in acknowledgement, sipping her tea. Gloria's getting fur all over her suit. "That doesn't mean they'll come back."
"He will," Tony says. He grabs a cookie and pops the whole thing in his mouth.
"You're that certain?"
Tony nods, grunting affirmatively with his mouth full. He swallows, then puts his cup down on the table next to the saucer and spreads his arms. "The guy didn't take anything except food, and he replaced it, right? That's someone in it for the long haul, you know? He wanted to be able to come back."
Steve puts Tony's cup onto the saucer. "I think it's just as possible he didn't want to be noticed. There's no reason not to believe he moved on, went to someone else's place. That's what I would do."
Tony reaches for his cup, then frowns when it's not where he left it. "If you really believed that, you would've said so, instead of letting me come over this morning and spend an hour hiding itty-bitty cameras all over the place."
"Yeah." Tony's right, of course. If Steve really believed their Goldilocks wouldn't come back, he also wouldn't have drawn a loaf of bread in its plastic bag and a little carton of milk with the words Who are you? underneath, then left the paper on the kitchen table. He hopes Tony won't see it with the cameras, because it's not anything he can explain. He's not even sure why he left the note himself.
Maybe it's because he knows what it's like to be lonely, and something about the intruder's careful lack of presence made Steve think that they do, too.
"How long do you think it'll be before they show up, if they will?" Pepper asks.
"They'll come after dark, when everyone's home from work but before it's so late that they'll look suspicious," Steve says. He shrugs when Pepper raises her eyebrows. "It's what I'd do."
"And yet you used your birthday for your ATM PIN," Tony says.
"I use the day and month we met for mine," Pepper says.
Tony blinks at her. "When was that?"
"Your birthday," Pepper says. She sips her tea and smiles.
It's nearly eleven. Steve's back on the couch after dinner, petting his cat and wondering if he's brave enough to try to sleep. Tony's messing around on his Starktab. Pepper went to bed an hour ago.
The cameras in Steve's apartment are motion-sensitive. Tony's tablet is programmed to notify him if any of them turn on. So far it hasn't done anything.
"Where the hell are you, Goldi?" Tony moans at his tablet. Steve glances over and sees the inside of his living room, faintly illuminated in the light pollution from outside the window. "Looks like you were wrong, Pink Panther. Unless you have a way different idea of what constitutes 'evening' than I do."
"But it's a good thing if he doesn't show up, isn't it?" Steve scooches closer. Gloria paws at him when he moves. "Maybe it really was a one-time thing, and he won't come back."
"Where's the fun in that?" Tony murmurs. Suddenly he perks up. "Oh! Oh! Oh!" He bends over the tablet. "Door's opening! Ha! Got you, you mother—" He stops talking like he's been hit.
Steve leans closer. "What? What is it?"
"It's him," Tony says. When he lifts his head his eyes are enormous. "Look."
"Who's 'him'?" Steve grabs the tablet, tilts it so he can see.
It takes a moment to recognize him without the original context, and his face is all but hidden under the grey baseball cap. But that's the man from the diner. The one Steve bought food for, who stared at him like he was expecting something terrible to happen.
Of course he did. He thought Steve knew.
"Oh, my God," Steve says, his gaze fixed on the small screen. "He was following me. Why is he following me? What does he want?" The man is unloading a plastic bag he put on the counter, only using his right hand. Steve sees more milk and bread, a jar of peanut butter that's the same brand Steve usually buys, and a bag with some kind of fruit. It's normal and domestic and makes no sense. He only realizes he's clutching Gloria's fur when she hisses and claws at him. He lets the cat go immediately and she shoots off to another part of the room.
"I have no idea." Tony pulls the tablet back, then slides his hand into Steve's. Steve clutches it like a lifeline. "Everything's fine, big boy. You're okay. You're safe. This guy hasn't done anything but bought you groceries. No need to panic, all right? You're safe. You're right here in the Tower. I'm right here too."
"I know." He does. But he can't breathe.
"C'mon, buddy. With me, okay?" Tony gets up so that he's facing Steve without letting go of his hand. He takes Steve's other hand by the wrist, then flattens Steve's palm on his chest. "In for four, hold for two, out for four." He takes a deep breath through his nose and Steve follows him.
Steve's done this enough times that the reminder itself helps him ride out the anxiety attack, breathing evenly until he doesn't feel like his heart's going to pound through his ribs. "Fuck," he whispers once it's over, nothing left but the exhaustion and the uncomfortable ringing of his nerves. "Son of a bitch."
"You mean your stalker? Or just in general? Because, yes." Tony pats Steve on the shoulder as he sits, then leaves his hand there while they both watch the screen. While Steve was trying not to let his heart explode, the intruder finished putting everything away. He took his hat and jacket off too, and now he's in the living room, standing in front of Steve's bookshelf. Occasionally he runs his fingers down one of the spines. "If he starts touching himself, I'm calling the cops."
"We should call the police anyway," Steve says, but neither of them move. In Steve's apartment, the man from the diner pulls Steve's sketchbook down. He sits on the couch and leafs through it, turning each page as slowly and carefully as if he's touching a delicate artifact. He stops near the center of the book, as far as Steve can tell. Tony's cameras don't show what the man is looking at, but he stares down at the picture for a long time, then blinks and wipes his eyes with the heel of his right hand. Always his right.
It makes Steve think of blood and sorrow, but he doesn't know why.
"What's he looking at?" Tony asks.
Steve shakes his head. "I don't remember." It wasn't the book he'd used as part of his therapy; he'd burned that one. Tony set a nice little bonfire on the roof of the Tower and they'd both gotten very, very drunk as they watched it turn to ash. The symbolism had been extremely satisfying at the time.
This other sketchbook he's mostly filled within the past year. Steve tries to think of what he put in it. There are lots of sketches of buildings and strangers, and a few of his friends. But there's nothing sad in there. Just….
"It's a nightmare," Steve says, hushed.
"It's not that bad."
"No." Steve shakes his head. "I mean, I had a nightmare a few months ago. I couldn't sleep after, so I drew it. It was near the middle of the book." He remembers that now: idly thinking he'd need a new book soon, wondering if he should make the trek to the closest art supply store or just order it online. In the end he hadn't done either. "I think he's looking at that."
"Okay…." Tony sounds as bewildered as Steve feels. "So, was it really sad?"
"Not sad. Terrifying. I'd dreamed the rescue failed. You died. Everyone who came to help us died. I could even smell the blood, there was so much of it. I drew it to get it out of my head." He'd drawn a body in a pool of blood, and Tony lying on his back, blood soaking his shirt. In the nightmare he'd had to watch both of them die, helpless to do anything. The instant he finished the picture, Steve had slapped the book shut and shoved it back on to the shelf. He hadn't touched the book since, had done his best to never even think about it.
Tony juts his chin at the screen. "He looks like it's pretty sad."
The man clears his eyes again, shuts the sketchbook and puts it carefully on the coffee table. Then he puts his hand over his eyes and sobs, bent over his knees like his anguish is tearing him apart. Steve wants to comfort him. He knows that's crazy. "Who is he?"
Tony shrugs, but he starts tapping the screen immediately, freezing the playback and then swiping until there's a decent picture of the man's face. "I'm going to try facial recognition. Might not work with the hair, but it's worth a shot." He opens an app and copies the screen capture into it. "This could take a while," he adds apologetically.
It doesn't take a while. It barely takes long enough for Steve to coax Gloria back to his lap before Tony grabs the Starktab and yanks it up, gaping. "Holy shit," he says, quiet and uncomprehending. "Holy shit." He jerks the tablet away when Steve reaches for it, bolting to his feet and clutching the tablet in both hands. He glances at Steve then back at the screen again, eyes wide and anxious.
"Tony?" Steve moves Gloria to the floor so he can stand, then reaches for the tablet again. Tony steps to the side like it's a game of keep-away. Irritation prickles where Steve's fear was, feeding off the remnants of adrenaline. "Tony, for fuck's sake!" He snatches the Starktab, using his greater strength and height to wrench it out of Tony's hands.
He expects Tony to protest, but instead he blurts, "It's not my fault! I didn't know! I didn't know, all right? Don't…don't be mad at me."
The man in the picture Steve's staring at is the one from the diner. He's wearing an army uniform, standing in front of a furled American flag. Steve can't remember where his own military photograph is, but he remembers posing for it, feeling foolish and exhilarated and important all at once. The man in the picture looks like none of those things. Instead his eyes are bright and his mouth curves in a tiny, perceptive smile, as if he's seen right through the pageantry but is still enjoying it. He looks young but not naïve, not quite innocent. He's beautiful.
His name is James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant with the 107th Infantry Regiment. MIA in 2009. Presumed dead.
"Who is he?" Steve demands, heart pounding again. "What didn't you know? Do you recognize him?"
Tony looks like he's seen a ghost, but he hasn't. James is alive. Whoever he is, he's still alive. "You don't? You really don't recognize him?"
"No I don't!" Steve shouts. He tosses the Starktab onto the couch. "I saw him at the diner. Now he's in my apartment and he's supposed to be dead and I don't know him! I don't know him!"
Tony raises his hands and backs up a step. "Okay. Okay. You don't know him. That's fine. Just, calm down."
"I am calm," Steve grits at him. He's not kicking over the coffee table so he's damn well calm enough. "Is he from the convoy? Is he another dead soldier I should remember but don't? Did you lie to me about that?"
"No!" Tony shakes his head violently. "He wasn't in the convoy, swear to God. Remember how I said he looked familiar?" he doesn't wait for acknowledgement, goes on in a rush. "I just figured I'd seen him around, you know? Plenty of homeless people in New York. But that photo…." He nods at the tablet, laying screen-down where Steve tossed it. "I recognized him." Tony licks his lips, eyes wide and miserable. He opens his mouth, but hesitates before speaking. "He was in the cave, Steve. He was there when we were captured. He kept us alive and then helped us escape during the raid. And the Ten Rings killed him. I thought they killed him," he amends. "Everyone thought they killed him."
The cave in Steve's memory is a black morass. The raid stands out only because he could see daylight, but all he can touch of it is Tony supporting him as he tries to walk. "There was no one else in the cave, Tony." But he's thinking of the drawing he made, and the inexplicable grief he couldn't outrun, and Natasha saying he's dead, and it's classified, and his dream of someone bleeding.
There can't have been anyone else. Because if there was, that means…that means….
"I left him behind," Steve says, understanding sliding like ice through his veins. He committed a betrayal too terrible to fathom. "I left him behind. He was hurt, and…. How could you let me do that?" He stares at Tony, stricken. "How could you let me do that?"
"Because he was dead!" Tony reaches for Steve, but he steps back. Tony drops his hands into fists. "He was dead. We all thought he was dead. And you were dying, Steve. You were so fucking sick. You could barely walk and it was all I could do to keep us both on our feet long enough to get out of there. On the helicopter, Clint told me to fucking say goodbye…." Tony swallows and wipes his eyes. "It took a month until you could even stand on your own, and you remembered almost nothing about what happened. And I was so fucking happy about that. Because it meant you didn't—" He breaks off, sucking air through his clenched teeth. "Fuck. Fuck. Damn it."
"Would you have ever told me about him?"
Tony shakes his head. "Of course not. What kind of friend would I be to do that, huh? Dump all that pain back on you for nothing?"
"The kind of friend who'd respect me enough to tell the truth!"
"For what?" Tony snaps. "To give you someone else to mourn? One more death to stab yourself with in the middle of the night?"
"Yes!" Steve explodes. "Yes! You should have let me mourn him! You had no right—!"
"Yes I did!" Tony's voice is so loud that it's almost comical, how they both stand there afterwards staring at each other with wide eyes and their chests heaving. "Look," he says with strained calm, "There are very, very few people on this planet I respect, Steve. And you're one of them. But I love you too much to hurt you for nothing."
Steve glares at him, jaw working. Tony glares back, his eyes defiant and rimmed in red. "It wasn't nothing," Steve says. "James wasn't nothing."
"No he wasn't," Tony says immediately. "But telling you about him would've put you in a worse place than you already were. And I know damn well he wouldn't've wanted me to do that."
"You didn't even recognize him," Steve snarls. "How the hell could you have known what he wanted?"
"Because he was in love with you," Tony says, like it's obvious.
Steve gapes at him, then snatches the tablet off the couch.
He doesn't know what he expects to see, but the cameras just show an empty living room, then an empty kitchen when Steve switches to it. The camera in the bedroom only records sound, but it hasn't picked up anything. There's nothing from anywhere else in the apartment.
Steve's note is on the coffee table with a pen next to it. He can't make out if James left any writing.
"Did you lie to me?"
Clint blinks, then closes the door to remove the chain before opening it fully to let Steve in. He's in dorm pants and a white tee-shirt with a faded purple bullseye on it. His hair's sticking up and he looks half-asleep. Steve got him out of bed, but he's too angry to care.
"About Bucky," Steve snaps. He came here right from Stark Tower, and he's still so angry it's like fire licking at his lungs. He drops his duffel next to the door, shoves it against the wall with his foot. Gloria's meowing and scrabbling at the mesh front of her carrier. He puts it down and she wriggles her way out before he has the zipper completely undone.
"Who the hell is Bucky?" Clint scrubs his face. "Dude, it's the middle of the night. You gotta throw me a bone, here."
Steve grits his teeth. "Where's Natasha?"
"Right here." She strides out of the bedroom, knotting a bathrobe. It's purple, obviously Clint's. She glances at Gloria, now curled next to Lucky on the dog's bed in the corner of the living room, then at Steve's duffel and then back to Steve. "What's going on?"
Sam pads out of the bedroom behind her, wearing boxers and one of Clint's tee-shirts, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. He sees Gloria and the duffel and frowns. "I thought you were staying at Tony's. Are you all right?"
"No." Steve feels badly for waking Sam, but he couldn't handle waiting until the morning to confront them with this. "The cameras worked. We saw the man who's been staying in my apartment. His name is James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th," he grinds out, glaring at Natasha. There's a vicious satisfaction when he sees her eyes widen at the name. "Tony found him. He supposedly died in 2009, but it was him. He was at the diner, too." He switches his glare to Clint. "He's the man I drew. The one you said I couldn't have because he was dead."
"Steve." There's something low and awful in Natasha's voice. "Are you sure about this? You really—"
"Yes I'm sure!" he growls. "I fucking saw him in my apartment, just like I saw him in the diner. And I want to know why the fuck you and Clint decided to gaslight me instead of telling me the truth. I thought you were my friends. I trusted you. I trusted you. And then you turn around and do this to me? How could you do that?" His breath hitches. He's so furious he's shaking. "Did you lie to me too, Sam? When I called you? Did you know about Bucky and lie to me too?"
"No," Sam says immediately. "I swear, you and Tony were the only people I saw come out of that cave alive." He looks sincere, sounds just as honest as he ever did, but Steve has no idea if he can believe that anymore. Maybe he never could.
"Swear to God I thought he was dead, Steve," Clint says. He glances at Natasha and she gives a tiny nod. "I only saw him a couple times. And, he was dead." He steps closer, arms spread like he's trying to placate him. "Sam's team didn't find any other survivors."
"What about you?" Steve snaps at Natasha. "Were you sure Bucky was dead? Is that why you convinced me I couldn't've seen him when I had? Or did you fuck with my memories for some other reason?" He moves towards her and Clint smoothly steps in between them. "Get out of my way."
"He's not going to hurt me." Natasha nudges Clint aside. "Yes, I was sure Sergeant Barnes was dead," she says simply. "I assumed it was impossible that you could have seen him. It was more likely that you'd seen someone who reminded you of him, and that inspired the picture."
"But you recognized the man I drew."
She hesitates, then nods. "Yes I did. I recognized Barnes, who I thought was dead."
"Why didn't you tell me who he was? Why didn't you tell me I knew him?"
"Because I couldn't," she says flatly. "His identity's classified. You should never have met him in the first place. And just talking about him brought on a panic attack. Do you remember that? What good would telling you about his death have done?"
"He's not dead!"
"I didn't know that!" she shouts. It occurs to Steve that he's never actually seen her angry before. "All I knew was that you'd seen someone who'd triggered a memory of someone else. Someone dead. Someone I couldn't even tell you about!"
"So you said I hadn't seen him. Instead of trusting me or even giving me the benefit of the doubt, you just decided for me that I was wrong. Do you know why I called Sam at five the next morning? I thought I was losing my mind again, Natasha. I thought I was going fucking nuts, because of what you and Clint told me." He grits his teeth, swallowing. "Because you both fucking gaslighted me. I thought I could trust you. I thought you were my friends."
"We are your friends!" Clint says.
"Steven, please," Natasha puts her hand on his arm. "It wasn't like that—"
Steve wrenches away from her. "Don't touch me." He stalks across the room and picks up Gloria.
"You're not listening," Natasha tries again. "It wasn't like that! We would never do anything like that to you!"
"Well, you did."
Sam has Gloria's carrier, and he silently holds it while Steve carefully maneuvers her inside. He's not angry at Sam, but he can't look him in the eyes anyway.
He opens their door then snatches his duffel before anyone else attempts to help him. He tries not to slam the door too loudly and startle the animals.
Steve's apartment feels unused and empty even before he slides his key into the lock. He knows it's an illusion. That still doesn't change how fast he slaps the light on, though the only ghosts are in his head. Gloria bawls at him until he opens her carrier, then flounces off with her tail high, probably to go throw up on his bed again. His cat, he realizes suddenly, is just as unforgiving as he is. It's not actually a pleasant thought.
Steve's phone pings again with another text message while he's making sure the door's locked. He must've gotten twenty of them on his way home. He hasn't even looked at the screen.
He slaps the phone face-down on the counter, then takes off his shoes and places them neatly by the door. Gloria's still bawling and she starts pawing at his legs, so he gives her fresh food and water, and makes sure she's actually eating before he puts her carrier in the hall closet. She's had a lot of turmoil today with all the moving around. He should make a vet's appointment for her, just to make sure she's okay. The office is closed on weekends but he can leave a message.
The phone pings. He doesn't look at it.
The note Steve left is on the coffee table, flipped with writing on the back.
I'm sorry. I won't bother you again it says, in a messy phalanx of block letters. The words shiver like Bucky's hand was shaking. There's no name.
While Steve's staring blankly at the message it hits him that he was the only one who actually called James "Bucky". But Natasha knew exactly who he meant. He didn't even know he knew that name.
"Bucky," he says out loud, waiting for the recognition or terrifying ache of grief. "Bucky Barnes."
He takes the sketchbook off the shelf and carefully goes through every page, though he's not sure what he's looking for. Every picture he drew is exactly the same anyway. He tucks the note in over the drawing of his nightmare, then closes the book and puts it back.
Steve checks that he locked the door, then gets his duffel and brings it to his bedroom and methodically puts away the clothing he didn't wear, then folds up the bag and puts it away too.
He takes off his shirt to change into pajamas before he remembers the cameras that Tony put in.
Tony promised he would only use them to find out who was invading Steve's apartment, but Tony lied to him about Bucky. Maybe he lied about the cameras, too. For all Steve knows, Tony's been waiting for him to come home.
Steve yanks his shirt back on, then gets the stepladder from the kitchen. He goes through his apartment and pulls all the cameras down. He throws them all in a dark plastic bag and ties it shut before he puts them into the garbage chute in the hallway. He goes back into his apartment satisfied he's safe, until he has the sudden realization that Tony could have put in other cameras, ones he didn't tell Steve about. He might've told Clint and Natasha. Maybe even Sam, though that doesn't seem likely. Unless Sam was also lying. He said he wasn't, but what liar ever admits it?
Steve makes sure his door is locked, frantically thinking of all the places Tony could have hidden a camera. There's nothing tucked underneath the kitchen cupboards or hidden beneath the lip of the countertop. There's nothing he can see in the window frames or around the pictures on the walls, or on the top of his bookshelf or around the bathroom mirror. Checking the top of the kitchen and bathroom cupboards under the ceiling is more difficult, but Steve does a thorough job anyway. He doesn't find anything.
His phone keeps pinging.
It occurs to him that Tony could have put recording equipment inside the cupboards, or in anything in the cupboards. So he empties all the bottles of cleaning supplies into the sink, then puts all the dishes, cans and boxes onto the countertop. He looks inside each of the cupboards once they're empty. He still can't find anything, but Tony's really, really smart. Maybe he hid it inside one of the containers?
It's strange. Steve knows what he's doing is irrational, even while he's methodically tearing open the cereal and pasta he just bought and emptying it on the counter to search through it. He knows, but he can't stop himself. He opens all of Gloria's food cans, then locks her in the bedroom when she comes racing in and tries to jump onto the counter to eat it. Her food is probably not poisoned, but Steve's not sure. If she eats it and dies he'll never forgive himself.
He can't find any recording devices in the dry goods or the cans, but now he's worried about poison too so he throws out everything in the fridge. He hesitates with the food Bucky brought, but there was at least an hour after he saw Bucky on the cameras before Steve got back to his apartment. Plenty of time for someone else to sneak in and poison everything. It's better to be safe.
He's almost certain no one has snuck a transmitter into any of his coffee mugs, but he still throws them into another garbage bag, followed by the coffee percolator, electric kettle and his blender. He needs to get rid of the bags, but if he goes into the hallway someone might see him. He leaves the bags where they are, then checks to make sure his apartment door is locked again.
The next time his phone pings, Steve remembers that it was made by Stark International.
The damn thing's nearly indestructible, and Steve doesn't want to use a hammer in case the noise alerts his neighbors and they report on him. He manages to stab himself a few times while he's using a screwdriver to pry it apart. He throws the pieces away in the same bag as the food.
Obviously his laptop and television have to be destroyed next, because they're both from Stark International as well. His Blu Ray player isn't, but it's stupid to take chances. Same with the cable box and game system. Natasha and Clint were the last ones to use the controllers. They're spies; they would've had plenty of time to plant something if they wanted to. Steve destroys those as well. He's quiet, but he can't afford to be careful, and ends up giving himself a few more cuts.
He's exquisitely aware that he doesn't have to do any of this, even while he's yanking all his DVDs and games out of their neat order and dumping the disks out of their cases, looking for devices he knows he won't find. It doesn't matter. What matters is emptying his bookshelf: ripping off the book spines and shaking the pages over the floor in case a transmitter falls out. Bucky's note flutters out and ends up somewhere on the pile. He puts it on the coffee table for no reason at all.
Steve doesn't want to destroy his hung pictures, but anyone who wanted to bug his apartment would know that, so he methodically dismantles all the frames. His hands are shaking so badly that he drops a couple and the glass shatters on the floor.
He takes a box cutter to the couch, slicing the cushions and shredding the foam padding. He strips the armchairs to the wood.
He can't find anything.
After that he stands in the living room, clutching the box cutter and panting. His heart is hammering so hard he can barely breathe, sweat stinging his eyes.
This isn't working. Even if he strips the place to the walls, that still doesn't mean he'll be safe.
His apartment's not safe. He should leave. He needs to leave. But he has nowhere to go. All his friends have lied to him.
Gloria's scratching at his bedroom door and complaining loudly. As soon as he lets her out she runs back into the kitchen. Steve gets his duffel and starts grabbing his clothes out of his drawers. But what if someone snuck transmitters into his clothing? He can't take anything with him, he can't risk it.
His cat is nosing around the garbage bags. What does he do about her, if he runs? That's no kind of life for an animal.
What the hell was he thinking, when he adopted her? He should have left her in the alley. She was better off without him. Everyone is better off without him. If the Strategic Services Reserve had refused his transfer, no one in the convoy would have died, he's sure of it.
He ought to return her to the alley right now, but he doesn't know if she even remembers how to fend for herself anymore. The idea of her starving, frightened and alone is more than Steve can bear. But the idea of her starving or getting hurt because he keeps her with him is even worse. Maybe he can take her to an animal shelter, but who would want to adopt an older cat? She'll spend the rest of her life in a cage, if they don't just put her down.
Steve sits on the kitchen floor, slumped with his right side leaning against the door to the oven. Gloria heaves herself into his lap and starts purring and kneading. Her claws are sharp on his thighs and normally Steve would gently move them, but this time he lets her do what she wants. He pets her back, getting blood on her fur, then scratches under her chin and around her ears. She loves that, and she turns her head towards his fingers, purring like a little motorboat. He carefully puts both hands around her neck. He's learned how to strangle adult men to death, he's sure he can do it to one old kitty. It'd be the kindest thing. So much better than leaving her to suffer.
Gloria lifts her paw and touches his stomach, blinking contentedly at him and still purring, and that's what finally breaks him. She flops over on her side, resting against his belly as Steve pets her and sobs. She doesn't notice that tears are dropping on her fur.
The lock on the front door rattles, then the door bursts open, spilling Tony into his apartment. "Steve!" He rushes into the kitchen and all but throws himself to his knees at Steve's side. He startles Gloria and she scrambles off Steve's legs and runs.
Pepper comes in right behind him and then stops dead, looking around. "Oh my God."
"What happened?" Tony's eyes are huge with worry. "Are you all right?"
Pepper enters the kitchen more carefully, as if Steve will spook along with his cat. She looks at Steve and Tony, then pushes aside a garbage bag so she can kneel on the floor the way Tony is. "Steve? What happened?"
Steve wipes uselessly at his eyes. He can't stop crying. His words come in fits and starts. "Will you…l-look…after…Gloria?"
"What?" Tony frowns. "Why?"
"Of course we will," Pepper says. "We'll look after her for as long as you need us to."
"Thank you." Steve swallows around the misery clogging his throat. "Why are you here?"
"You didn't answer any of my texts. And then you stopped receiving them. We got worried," Tony says.
"Natasha woke me up when she called, trying to find you," Pepper says. "She said you were extremely angry when you left, and you didn't respond to any of their texts either." She reaches for him, but Steve flinches and she pulls her hands back. "What's going on, Steve? What happened to your apartment? Why are you bleeding?"
"I had to find the transmitters."
"What transmitters?" Tony asks, bewildered.
"Okay," Pepper says slowly, "We don't know about these transmitters. Can you tell me what you're talking about?"
Steve wipes his eyes. "Tony knows. He put them there."
"What?" Tony gapes at him. "No I didn't!"
"Tony, please. Let him talk," Pepper says. "Why do you think Tony put transmitters in your apartment?"
"I don't 'think', I know!" Steve says, angry. "There are transmitters all over my apartment and I'm not safe here anymore. That's why you need to look after Gloria. Because I have to leave and I can't take her with me."
"Okay. Okay, I hear you. I'm sorry. I shouldn't've said that," Pepper says. "It's just, Tony and I are trying to understand." She curls her fingers around Tony's wrist. "Why did Tony put transmitters in your apartment?"
"I didn't—!" Tony starts, then closes his mouth.
"You lied to me," Steve says to him. "Clint and Natasha lied to me too. I don't know about Sam. I don't think he lied but I don't know for sure. And you left cameras."
Tony's expression goes incredulous and angry, but then he glances at Pepper's hand on his wrist. When he speaks his voice is quiet. "You wanted me to, remember?"
"I didn't want you to spy on me with them!" Steve snaps. "All those electronics you gave me. You were using them to spy on me too, weren't you? And what about all the other transmitters, huh? Where'd you put them? How long have you been watching me?"
"What?" Tony looks as if Steve just hit him. "I didn't! I've never spied on you!"
"Tony, please," Pepper says, though she looks as shocked as he does.
Tony takes a breath. "I'm calm. I'm calm. Sorry."
Pepper lets go of Tony's wrist to take his hand. "Steve, I want to make sure I understand. Are you saying you're not safe in your apartment because Tony put in the cameras you used to find the intruder? Or because he lied to you?"
"He lied to me." Steve wipes his eyes again. "And then I found out that Clint and Natasha lied to me as well. Then I came home and I was putting my clothes away when I remembered the cameras. Then I realized that there were probably bugs all over the apartment. I got rid of a lot of stuff, but it doesn't matter. I'm not safe here anymore."
"I see," Pepper says. She glances at Tony unhappily. "I can imagine how your friends lying to you would make you feel unsafe."
Steve shakes his head. "I don't feel unsafe because of that." He rubs his forehead. He's exhausted, has no idea what time it even is now. "It's the transmitters."
Pepper licks her lips. "You mean, the cameras Tony installed when you were here?"
"No," Steve says, irritated. "Not the cameras. The transmitters."
"The ones you said I put all over your apartment," Tony supplies. Steve nods. "I didn't do that, Steve. I swear, I didn't do that."
"Yes you did!"
"That sounds terrifying, Steve," Pepper says before Tony can respond. "I can understand why you wouldn't want to stay here, under those circumstances."
"Yeah." He tilts his head to rest his temple against the oven. "I can't trust anyone."
"Oh, God, Steve," Tony says, stricken. "This is my fault. I am so fucking sorry."
"It wasn't just you," Steve says wearily. "Clint and Natasha lied too."
"What did they lie about?" Pepper asks.
Steve looks at her. She's changed position to sit cross-legged. Her expression is neutral but open, listening. He guesses this is how she runs her board meetings: making sure everyone gets a say. "There was another person with us, in the cave. His name is James. He helped keep me alive. He…." Steve swallows. "He almost died, making sure we got rescued. But I forgot him. And no one told me." He glares at Tony. "You let me forget him! He was there and you let me forget!"
"That must feel awful," Pepper says. "I know I'd feel terrible if I found out my friends had kept something that important from me."
"Yeah. It feels pretty fucking awful," Steve rasps.
"I'm sorry," Tony says again. "I'm so sorry, Steve. I thought I was doing the right thing."
"It wasn't the right thing!" Steve snarls at him. "He said he never told me about James so I wouldn't feel more guilt, over another soldier I couldn't save," he explains to Pepper. "Tony said he was happy for me, that I didn't have to mourn him."
"I was happy for you! You had enough people to mourn, Steve."
"You had no right to keep him from me!"
"I wasn't going to hurt you for no reason!"
"Tony, please stop," Pepper says, and he shuts up again. "You're right, Steve. Tony meant well, but he decided for you what you were capable of knowing. That wasn't fair."
Steve shakes his head. His throat aches. "I would've wanted to remember. He deserved to be remembered."
"Yes, he did." Pepper reaches for Steve's hands and he lets her take them. Her fingers feel so much warmer than his. He hopes he doesn't get blood on her. "James deserved to be remembered, and you deserved to remember him, even if it was painful. Tony denied you that right, and I can understand why you wouldn't trust him anymore."
"I never meant that," Tony says. "I swear to God I never meant that. I was trying to protect you, not make it worse."
"I know," Steve says. He does. It doesn't change anything.
"Can I ask you something?" Pepper says.
"You asked us to look after Gloria when we came in. Why us?"
"We're the only ones here," Tony says.
Steve frowns at Tony. "No, I asked you because I know you'll take care of her."
"We will," Pepper says. She gently squeezes his hands. "So, you trust us with her? You trust Tony with her?"
"Of course I do," Steve says. "I wouldn't've asked otherwise."
"I'm glad. I know how much you care about her." Pepper hesitates, then takes a breath. "Do you think, since you trust Tony not to hurt Gloria, you can trust that Tony really didn't want to hurt you either? That he meant what he just said, how he was trying to protect you?"
Steve goes still. Tony's expression is so hopeful it's heartbreaking. "Yeah," he says finally. "But he still lied to me."
"I know," Tony says quickly. "And it was a stupid decision and a really, really bad idea and I'm an idiot and an asshole for not letting you know about Bucky. I should have, and I am so, so sorry I was an asshole and didn't. But, I was trying to make things better, not worse. You have to believe me."
"I do believe you," Steve says. He lets out a breath, allows that knowledge to finally push aside some of the hurt and fear. He does believe Tony. Tony kept him alive. Tony's helped keep him sane. He's a disaster and occasionally an idiot, but he's a good man. A good friend. Steve's tension eases a little for the first time since he saw Bucky in his apartment. "Don't do that again."
"Never." Tony shakes his head. "Never. I swear. I will never lie to you again for as long as I live."
Steve nods, but he can't quite find a smile for him yet. "Thank you."
"Do you think that maybe Clint and Natasha weren't trying to hurt you either?" Pepper asks Steve. "I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem like something they would do, lie to purposely hurt you."
"It was classified. That's what Natasha said. They thought I'd seen someone who reminded me of Bucky, but that it couldn't've actually been him, because Bucky was dead. And she couldn't even tell me that Bucky had ever existed, that it was a real memory, because I wasn't supposed to know about him."
Pepper grimaces. "Wow, that's complicated. It must have been difficult for both of you."
"It wasn't difficult for her!" Steve snaps. "She and Clint fucking gaslighted me. They said I couldn't have drawn the same person I saw, that I was wrong. I wasn't wrong! I saw him! They had no right to do that to me!"
"You're right," Pepper says quickly. "You're absolutely right. They should never have done that. But, Do you think Natasha and Clint would have told you, if they'd been able to?"
"You know how secret squirrel that organization they both worked for is," Tony says.
Steve clenches his jaw. When he answers it feels like he's grinding it through his teeth. "Yes, they would have told me."
"All right. So, they would have told you about Bucky if they could have. That's good to know. And do you think they had any reason to believe he wasn't dead?"
Steve thinks about how fervently Natasha insisted that she didn't know Bucky survived. "No."
Pepper nods. "So, it doesn't seem like they had much reason to believe that you'd actually seen him, even though you had. Does that sound right?"
"Yeah." Because I'm crazy. Steve doesn't add that.
"I don't think they were gaslighting you, Steve," Tony says. "At least, not on purpose."
"I'm sure the effect feels the same, though," Pepper says to him.
Steve swallows. "Yeah. It does."
"I know," Pepper says soberly. "And I can't think of a worse way they could've handled the situation. But is it possible that their bad decision was assuming they were right, rather than purposely misleading you?"
Steve thinks about that, then lets his head thunk against the oven again. "It's possible," he says.
"I don't think they were trying to hurt you either," Tony says. "They fucked up really badly, but they weren't trying to hurt you."
"So…maybe no one's trying to spy on you?" Tony asks.
"Okay." The one word is all Steve can manage before he starts crying again. He puts his hands over his eyes, feeling overwhelmed and stupid and ashamed. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he snuffles. "I don't know what's wrong."
"Aside from everything?" Tony tentatively puts his arm across Steve's shoulders, and Steve leans into him. Tony gently bumps his forehead against Steve's temple. "Jesus, Steve. Give yourself a break, buddy. If I was in your place I'd be curled up in a puddle of alcohol on the floor."
Steve shakes his head mutely, hands still over his eyes.
"Shh, shh. It's all right." Pepper cards her fingers through his hair. "You're safe. You're not alone. You have friends here and we're going to help you."
"I wrecked my apartment."
"No kidding. You're incredibly efficient, you know that?"
"We'll help you fix it," Pepper says like it's no big deal, picking up the shambles he's made of his life.
Steve sniffs and wipes his eyes again. He feels sick. "I really hate this. I hate feeling like this. I thought I was better."
"You are," Pepper says. "But you've had a stranger invade your home, and then you discovered your friends were keeping information from you about the worst experience of your life. If anything, I think you showed remarkable control."
He hasn't felt this out of control since he was released from the hospital, but he's too tired to argue. He disentangles himself from Tony and slaps the stovetop to pull himself to his feet. Then he needs to stand still for a moment while the kitchen does a slow turn around him.
Tony and Pepper pop up like groundhogs, both hovering as if he's about to keel over. "I'm okay," he says. It's only true in that he's not about to pass out. "I just…" He gestures vaguely at his living room. "I need to clean up."
"I think the best thing for you right now would be to sleep," Pepper says. "It's late, and you look exhausted. It'll be easier to deal with everything after you've slept."
"Do you still have a bed?" Tony asks.
"Yeah. I didn't get that far. But—"
"That's great." Pepper interrupts him. Her cheer is only a little strained. Steve knows trying to fight both her and Tony on this will be useless, and he is exhausted. He washes the dried blood off his hands, then lets her lead him around the garbage bags in the kitchen and debris in the living room. Seeing the remains of his books makes him want to cry all over again. He clenches his jaw so he won't.
"We'll worry about it later," Pepper says quietly, because of course she saw the mess too.
"You don't have to worry about it."
"Uh, yeah, we totally do," Tony says, following them into the bedroom. "It's my fault that you got the sudden urge to redecorate."
Steve sits heavily on the bed. "It isn't your fault. It was my choice. You didn't make me do it."
"Yeah, well, we'll just agree to disagree on that." Tony gives Steve a small push. "C'mon, lie down before you face plant on the floor."
Steve does, fully clothed and on top of the blankets. "Thank you." He means for coming to find him and for offering to take Gloria, and for Tony's apology and for both of them helping him claw his way back to the world.
"Anytime, Steve. I mean that." Pepper brushes his hair back then kisses his temple. "I'm going to start cleaning up, all right?"
Steve sits up, gripped by equal parts chagrin and panic. "You don't need to do that."
He really wants to say, I don't want you to touch anything , but he thinks Pepper gets it because she says, "That's all I'm going to do. Just clean up. I'm not going to change anything, just get rid of the debris. Will that be okay?"
Steve thinks about that. He nods. "Yeah. But, I should help you. It's not your problem."
"Steve." She puts her hand on his chest to keep him still. "I need to do this. You've been through something terrible and I want to help you. Will you let me help you? Please?"
He's fairly sure she's manipulating him a little bit with the big-eyed earnestness, but he's also sure she means what she's saying. "All right. If that's what you really want." He manages a faint smile. "I won't stop you."
She beams at him like he's done her a huge favor. "Thank you." She kisses him on the cheek, then kisses Tony on the lips and murmurs something in his ear before she leaves.
Tony kicks off his shoes.
"What are you doing?"
"Staying." Tony flops down on the unoccupied half of the bed and rolls onto his back. "Just consider me your designated nap assistant."
"Don't worry about it, sweet 'n' low. You haven't slept, I haven't slept, you have a bed that you haven't destroyed yet, and I'm fairly sure neither of us want to be alone. So, serendipity."
"Serendipity," Steve murmurs. Tony's right: Steve doesn't want to be alone. He's not terrified the way he was when he was looking for transmitters, but he's still overwhelmed and reeling.
"Serendipity," Tony repeats. Then he reaches out to put his hand around Steve's arm. "I'm really sorry, Steve. You're one of the very few people I love in this entire stupid world. I would rather rip my spine out than hurt you. If it matters at all, I really was trying to protect you. I know it failed spectacularly, but…I just wanted you to be all right."
Steve puts his hand over Tony's. "It's okay, Tony."
"Just…don't give up on me, okay? Please? I know I'm an asshole and a dick and an idiot. But I'll do better. I promise I'll do better. I'll never lie to you again. Just don't give up on me." He sounds like he's trying not to break down in tears.
"I'm not giving up on you, Tony. You're my friend and I love you too." He hasn't let go of his anger yet, not entirely. He feels too raw for that. But he doesn't mean the words any less. "There's nothing you could do that would make me give up on you."
Tony clears his throat. "Yeah. Well. Ditto." He squeezes Steve's arm a little before he pulls his hand away. "Now, get some sleep before Pepper comes back, or she'll be pissed at both of us."
Steve smirks, then closes his eyes. Gloria pads in and jumps onto the bed, then curls up in between them.
"Stevie. Stevie. Come on. You gotta listen to me, okay? You in there?"
"Yeah," Steve says automatically, lifts his head with a supreme effort. He's freezing cold and he doesn't know where he is or what's happening. His entire reality is the man crouched in front of him, with his beautiful, anxious face and eyes like pieces of the sky. "It's loud." Steve should know what the noises mean, but his mind is full of static and thinking takes too much effort.
"That's the people coming to get you. You're gonna be rescued, but you need to go outside. You understand?" Steve doesn't, but he thinks he should so he nods anyway. "They'll be here real soon, but you need to be somewhere they can find you. You need to get Tony and go where they can find you. Do you understand?"
Steve blinks. There's sweat in his eyes. He soaking with it even though he's so cold. "Where's Tony?"
"I'm going to get him. I'm going to get him, Stevie. But I need you to wait right here until he comes, then help him get outside. Wait here then take Tony outside. All right?"
"You're bleeding." Bucky's left arm is covered in it, hanging limp at his side. The dim light makes it look like thick wine. Steve reaches for him, wanting to see the severity of the wound, but only manages to paw at Bucky's bicep.
Bucky flinches and cries out. "Ow. Ow. Fuck!"
"I'm fine," Bucky says quickly. "Don't worry about me. Stay here," he orders. "Don't let anyone see you until Tony comes, then go outside. Understand? Rogers!" he barks when Steve can't tear his eyes from the dripping wine color. "Rogers. I need to know if you understand me."
Steve wrenches his eyes to Bucky's face. "Okay, Buck," he murmurs. "Stay here then help Tony."
"Right. That's right. You got it." Bucky lets out a breath, pushes the wet hair off Steve's forehead, and then cups the side of his face. "So long, Stevie."
Bucky kisses him. It's rough and too fast, barely more than slotting their lips together. Bucky's are dry and chapped, his breath moist and hot in Steve's mouth. Steve is a little surprised, but this is Bucky, and kissing him feels as right and good as anything could in this place; an inevitability as ordinary and vital as air. Steve kisses back as well as he can, lax and clumsy with fever and exhaustion, and Bucky makes a small, aching sound before he pulls away.
"I love you," Bucky says. He strokes his fingers along Steve's cheek, and then he stands up and then he's gone. Gone, before Steve's sick, sluggish mind can form the words: I love you, too.
He's gone, and when Steve follows him (of course he follows him. How could he not?), he finds Bucky lying on his side in a pool of blood.
Steve is too weak to fight, which is the only reason Tony can wrench him away from Bucky and get him outside. He keeps trying to get up, go back, but nobody lets him.
Then there is nothing, and nothing, and suddenly Steve wakes up in a private hospital room and weeks have passed and Tony's looking at him like he's seen a miracle.
Recovering takes nearly all of his energy, so for a while just being free and alive and having his friend with him is enough. Until Tony comes into his room very, very early one morning, looking pale and small and sad. He sits next to Steve and doesn't say anything for a long time, keeping his bloodshot eyes on the wall.
"I can't sleep anymore," is what he finally says. "I could, for a few weeks, once I knew you weren't going to die. But now I can't anymore."
Tony shrugs, looks at Steve then away again. "I keep expecting to wake up back there." He rubs his chest where the thick knot of scar tissue covers his ribs. "Or, I dream about getting captured. Or getting tortured. Or you dying before we get rescued."
"I'm sorry," Steve says.
"Thanks." Tony blindly pats Steve's arm, leaves his hand there. "Tonight, I dreamed about Bucky. I watched him die, you know." Tony's tone is mild, like they could be talking about anything. But his next breath shakes and he wipes his eyes. "I watched him die. He got shot protecting me and all I could do was watch." He swallows. "You refused to leave. You kept trying to carry him, but you were so sick…." Tears escape down Tony's cheeks before he can smear them away. "I promised him I'd take care of you, no matter what. So I dragged you away. I hope you can forgive me for that."
A memory flickers, seething with pain. Steve shies away like a kicked dog. "I don't know who Bucky is."
Tony stares at him in horror, then all at once he relaxes, smiles like there's nothing wrong. "Never mind. I probably just dreamed it." He grins and changes the subject and never mentions Bucky again.
Steve wakes up with tears in his eyes and the smell of blood and bullet propellant lingering like fog. For a long, awful moment he has no idea where he is. Then Tony snuffles in his sleep and Gloria heaves herself up and resettles, and he knows he's home in his wrecked apartment.
He tries to hold on to his dream, Bucky's face and voice and the rasp of his lips when they kissed. It fades even as he grasps for it, until all he has left is the guilt and sorrow, and a loneliness so deep it could drown him. He wants to wake Tony up, mitigate some of the emptiness with the easy enormity of his presence. But Tony's still fast asleep and Steve doesn't want to bother him.
Bucky's alive, he thinks. He's alive. He was right here. But even that feels ephemeral, like all of this has been a nightmare he still hasn't woken up from.
He sits up slowly, concentrates on the smell of coffee and quiet click of laptop keys from the living room, uses it to dispel some of the sadness that's settled and stuck like cobwebs inside. He knows it's Pepper, and is a little surprised that just the fact she's there offers some comfort.
Steve stands up carefully so he won't wake Tony, but Tony's still dead to the world. He just rolls over and Bogarts Steve's pillow. His black fluff of bedhead reminds Steve of Gloria. It's enough to coax out a tiny smile.
Pepper is sitting on the living room floor, limned in sunlight and peering intently at a laptop screen on the coffee table. Steve assumes it's hers. A to-go cup of coffee is near her elbow, and an empty sandwich wrapper. The DVDs are back in their cases and lined neatly on their shelf. The pile of ripped books is gone, just like the shards of glass and dismantled picture frames. She's also removed all the ripped cushions and upholstery, leaving the skeletal remains of the couch and chairs. When he glances into the kitchen he sees that all the garbage bags are gone too. The countertop is so clean it looks newly installed. There are three, twelve-can boxes of the organic canned cat food Gloria likes, and two huge to-go cups in a recyclable cardboard drink holder.
The sketchbook is on the coffee table. It looks like she used glue to fix the binding. The top edge of the note Bucky left is peeking out from underneath it.
She grins at him when he comes in. "There's coffee on the counter and a sandwich in the fridge, if you're hungry." She looks and points needlessly at the kitchen so he can pretend he doesn't need a moment to collect himself. He doesn't know why her kindness should hurt so much.
His stomach is still clenched around his dream and the idea of putting anything in it is enough to make him want to puke. "Thank you. Maybe later."
"Of course. She turns the computer in his direction. "I was looking at couches and armchairs. What do you think of this set?"
Steve sits next to her on the floor and pulls the screen closer. The couch looks comfortable and cozy, in a restful shade of light brown. The armchairs look even cozier, and are just about his favorite shade of blue. The three pieces have to cost a fortune. "They look great, but I can't afford it."
"Tony can afford it," Pepper counters, then hits him with her big eyes again. "It will mean a lot to him, to help fix this, Steve. You know he feels responsible for what happened."
"He upset me. He's not responsible for the decisions I made," Steve says, bristling. "I already told you that. I'm not a child. I can deal with my own fuckups."
Pepper regards him silently for a moment. "Can I be completely frank with you?"
Steve blinks, but nods. "Yeah, of course."
She gives him a faint smile in thanks. "Tony is the one who fucked up, Steve. Even if he didn't do it maliciously, he still lied to you and the fact we're sitting on the floor here is a direct result of that. Now, Tony has his own issues, most of which I know you're aware of. Some of them come from Afghanistan. A lot of them go back much farther than that. But they all will make it absolutely impossible for him to feel that he's redeemed himself unless he does something for you that is both extravagant and extremely expensive. This,"—she taps the picture on the laptop screen—"is honestly not even going to begin to be enough to let Tony believe you'll forgive him."
Steve scrubs his face. "He doesn't have to buy my forgiveness. I've already forgiven him."
"I know you forgave him. You have one of the biggest hearts of anyone I've ever met. But Tony won't be able to accept that." Her smile is a little rueful and a little sad. "He changed his entire company after he got back from Afghanistan, because he felt so guilty about Stark International weapons falling into the wrong hands. He provided full scholarships to the dependents of every soldier in that convoy, and anonymously paid off their families' debts. Most of Stark International's charity work now goes towards helping victims of armed conflict."
"What happened to the convoy wasn't his fault."
"No, it wasn't. The same man who had Tony's parents' murdered arranged the attack to kill him. Tony heard Stane's confession. It didn't make a damn bit of difference." She gives a small, helpless spread of her hands. "He still feels responsible."
Steve puts his elbows on the table and puts his face in his hands. "So Tony will think I hate him unless I let him buy me furniture?"
She rubs his back. "And new electronics."
He sighs. "And new electronics."
"And replace your books and reframe your pictures."
Steve lifts his head. "Seriously?"
Pepper's smile is only a bit wry. "As a heart attack. Your studio didn't look disturbed, but there are also your kitchen items, and the food. But I can probably convince him that you don't need him to pay for your groceries for the next month."
"I don't need him to pay for my groceries at all!" Steve hisses, because Tony's still sleeping. "You're constantly hiring me to do art projects—isn't that enough charity for you?"
Pepper frowns in confusion, then looks surprised, then glares at him. "I'm not sure if I should be more insulted that you think my taste in art is bad, or that you think I'd risk the reputation of the company I run on a lousy artist."
"Sorry," Steve says, looking away. "I just…you send commissions my way all the time. I just thought—"
"That I was giving you make-work projects?" she interrupts. "Steve." She looks like she can't decide if she should hug or smack him. She ends up hugging him. "In some ways you're as stupid as Tony. And that's saying a lot."
Steve smirks and returns the embrace as tightly as he dares. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"And thank you. For the commissions."
"That's better." He can hear the smile in her voice before she lets go of him to pull her laptop closer. "So, do you like the couch and armchairs?"
"Yes," Steve sighs. "They're very nice. Thank you."
Pepper grins. "Thank Tony. He's paying for it." She clicks a few keys, then switches to a webpage full of different coffeemakers. "Tell me what you think of these."
"They all look the same."
Pepper gives him one of her exceptionally eloquent blinks, then turns the computer closer to her and starts typing. "Oh—Natasha texted me about an hour ago," she says, as if she'd truly just remembered it. Steve's not sure he appreciates the artifice, though he supposes he'd like it less if it was the first thing she'd sprung on him. "She wanted to know if she could bring Sam and Clint over later. I told them I'd ask you when you woke up." She looks at Steve. "They feel awful about what happened, but it's up to you if you want to see them or not."
"I don't know." He winces. "Do they know about the apartment?"
"Yes." Pepper nods, but she looks uncomfortable. "I hope that's all right. Tony told them you were safe, but he didn't tell them why you stopped receiving their texts. Natasha asked, and I didn't know how else to answer."
"Yeah, it's fine." It's not, but they would've found out eventually anyway. He forces a grin. "They'll probably notice I have a new couch."
"If they see it. They don't have to," Pepper says neutrally.
Steve pulls her laptop nearer to him and looks at the choices of coffeemakers to prolong having to answer. They're all ugly or ridiculously complicated. "I have no idea how to choose one of these."
Pepper reaches over and adds a shiny, elegant monstrosity of an appliance to her cart. It's easily six times as much as he would ever consider spending. "You'll love it," she says with confidence. "You don't have to see them unless you want to," she goes on a moment later. "You don't owe them anything."
"I know." He rubs the back of his neck. "I'm ashamed," he admits quietly. "I don't want them to see what I did."
Pepper puts her hand on his bare arm. Her touch feels as warm as it did in his kitchen. "Believe it or not, I can understand that. It can be horribly embarrassing, letting people see the places we're vulnerable. But if it helps at all, they've already seen you at your most vulnerable, haven't they? And I know how much they care about you."
She means during the rescue in Afghanistan, and after, when Sam decided to befriend him for no reason Steve could understand, then brought Clint and Natasha to befriend him too. Steve nods reluctantly. "I just feel really stupid."
"I wish you wouldn't." She puts her arm around him and leans her head on his shoulder. "You were triggered and had a bad episode. That isn't actually anything to be ashamed of. No one thinks any less of you, I promise."
Steve swallows. "I think less of me."
"Would you think less of Tony, if he'd been the one convinced he was in danger?"
"I wasn't convinced I was in danger."
She lifts her head to look at him. "You were convinced you were being spied on. How is that different?"
"Fine," Steve huffs. "No, I wouldn't think less of him."
"Would you think less of me? How about Natasha? Or Sam? Or—"
"All right. All right. I get it." Steve sighs. "You're saying I shouldn't feel ashamed, because they won't be ashamed of me."
"That's exactly what I'm saying." She looks pleased. "But that still doesn't mean you have to let them come over."
"I know. But it's okay. They'll have to some time, right?" He finds a smile somewhere. "At least they can help me move the new furniture."
"Oh, the delivery company will do that."
Steve's stomach drops, thinking of strangers moving things in his space. "When?"
"Whenever you like." She's still touching him, which helps stave off the panic. He knows, intellectually, that she won't let anything bad happen. "It can be as early as later this afternoon. Or Monday, or next month. It's up to you."
"Okay." He licks suddenly dry lips. "This afternoon is fine."
"Are you sure? I meant what I said, it can be whenever you feel comfortable."
He nods, forces himself to unclench his hands. "It's just the three pieces, right?"
"Right," she answers with relieving immediacy. "Tony will want to pick out the electronics himself, and the coffeemaker, blender and new mugs will be sent by mail. I'll let you know where your art can be picked up when it's ready, if you don't want it delivered." She smiles again. "And I'm hoping that you'll set up a wish list for your books."
"Okay." Three pieces. Even if the deliverers use the freight elevator, it still shouldn't take more than twenty minutes to remove the damaged furniture and bring in the new stuff. He can do that. "Thank you."
She beams at him like he's given her a gift. "You're welcome. Now, what would you like me to tell Natasha?"
"They can come over," Steve says before he spends more time worrying about it. "Just, after the new furniture comes."
"Of course," Pepper says seriously. She picks up her Starkphone from the table and pulls up the tiny keyboard.
"Will…" Steve takes a breath. "Can you stay?"
Her expression softens into something so sweet it's hard to look at. "Yes, we can stay. Tony and I can stay as long as you need us to."
Sam comes in first when Pepper opens the door, carrying an open cardboard box full of takeout containers redolent with the scent of Indian food. Steve's sure it's from his favorite restaurant.
Pepper and Tony exchange greetings with Natasha and Sam, but Clint immediately hands Steve a package of coffee and a mug with the logo for S.H.I.E.L.D. on it. "It's the kind you like," he says, nodding at the bag. "And Pepper said you needed new mugs, and you always use this one when you come over. So." He shrugs, eyes bright and hopeful. "Sorry I was a total asshole present?"
"You weren't. But thank you." Steve does love that mug, and the coffee is from a small shop that he almost never visits because it has bizarre hours, is nowhere near where he lives and the coffee is ridiculously expensive. He puts the coffee on the counter. He's absolutely sure the mug is freshly cleaned, but he puts it in the sink to wash later anyway. "Seriously, thank you. But you didn't have to give me your favorite mug."
"I know. I wanted to. And for what it's worth, I meant what I said. The apology, I mean. You didn't deserve to go through all that crap."
"Thank you," Steve says again. He remembers what Pepper said, but his reaction feels ridiculous now all the same. Pointless overreacting. He glances at the living room, the chairs and couch so new and clean they look like a display in a store.
Gloria's belly is full of organic cat food, but she still pads into the kitchen, sniffing the air. There's a neat round scattering of white fur where she was sleeping on the end of the couch.
Sam puts the box on the kitchen table and begins pulling out the contents. Gloria jumps to a chair then the tabletop for more sniffing. Sam glances at Steve over his shoulder. "How are you?"
There's an entire world full of concern in that question. Steve shrugs. "Fine." His face is hot.
Sam looks at him a moment longer, quietly assessing, then turns back to arranging the food. "I owe you an apology too."
"We both do," Natasha says. Her arms are full of a hardback book and a thin stack of paper. "Here." She thrusts her burden at Steve. "The book is from Sam. I got the food, but my present is a lot less interesting." She takes the paper and puts it on the counter. Her smile is full of knives, but they're all directed inward. She's not hiding her tension as well as she usually does. "You may not even want it, but either way I think we should eat first."
"Okay," Steve says warily. He looks at the book cover, then leafs through the pages. It's a gorgeous, cinderblock-heavy coffee table art book, one on early Baroque paintings. It's the kind of extravagant indulgence Steve would never buy for himself.
"Wow," Tony says with approval. He has an annoyed Gloria wriggling in his hands. "You could kill somebody with that."
Natasha smiles to see Steve kind of pet the cover after he closes it, but her eyes are fond. "I thought you might want one on early modernists, but Sam said he'd seen you looking at this one."
"I would've liked that too," Steve murmurs, then looks at Sam. "This is amazing, thank you."
"Pepper said you needed some new books. So, I figured I'd get you one." Sam grins at him, though it's uncertain around his eyes. "Like Clint said, it's a sorry for being an asshole present."
"None of you were. I was the one who made a big deal out of it. Besides," he adds to Sam, "you never said you didn't believe me or anything."
"That may be true, but I could have believed you more, if that makes sense."
"Pepper and I totally believed him," Tony says. "Ow!" He unhooks Gloria's front claws from his chest and puts her gently on the floor. "Begone, Satan."
"You did your best," Steve says to Sam.
"It doesn't feel like it." Sam nods his thanks to Pepper when she brings over a stack of plates. Steve is glad his paranoia didn't extend to smashing those too. "Truth is, you were absolutely right. Someone had broken into your apartment, and the man in your nightmare was real. And I should've given you more benefit of the doubt. I won't make that mistake again."
"Thanks. But, honestly, I probably wouldn't've believed me either."
"Doesn't change how I should've."
"I did," Natasha says quietly. "So did Clint. But we told you James was dead. And he wasn't."
"Did you know that when you told me?" Steve asks, because that's the crux of it: the exact depth of their betrayal.
"I think that conversation should wait until after we've eaten," Pepper says.
"Yeah." Clint looks relieved. "You also need to sign the non-disclosure agreement, bro."
"Tony and Pepper as well," Natasha says.
"It's always better to have awful conversations after you've eaten," Tony says. "'Makes it easier if you have to throw up."
The food really is from Steve's favorite Indian restaurant. It's delicious and he has to force himself to eat it. His stomach feels like it's full of barbed wire.
There's nothing to drink in his apartment besides water, so after they clear away the dishes, Clint volunteers to go on a beer run. It's obvious Tony wants to go with him very, very badly, but he just glances at Steve and stays put, which is nice of him. Steve knows how difficult it is for Tony to talk about anything important.
Steve watches Clint all but fly through the front door with some amusement and even a bit of envy. God knows he wouldn't mind being able to flee this conversation himself.
He signs the non-disclosure agreement all the same. Tony and Pepper do too. Sam already signed his back at the apartment. Tony mutters something about being in a spy movie. Pepper's the only one who smiles.
Natasha goes through each agreement like a lawyer, checking for their initials, while Steve sits between Pepper and Tony on the couch with Gloria on his lap, and listens to his heart slamming against his ribs.
She doesn't say a word until she's nodded at his signature on the last page, then taps the papers together and puts them carefully on the coffee table. Then she finally leans back in the new armchair. She watches him clear his throat.
"Did you know James wasn't dead when you told me he was?" Steve asks.
"I suspected it. I didn't want to know it." Natasha squares her shoulders. "What I'm going to tell you all is classified. You have no idea how many favors I had to pull to be able to tell you at all, agreement or no. You can't tell anyone else, ever. You understand?"
Steve nods. It's easy enough to agree, since he barely knows anyone else. "I promise." He hears Tony, Pepper and Sam saying it too.
"All right." She worries at her lower lip for a moment. "I'm just trying to figure out the simplest way to explain."
"I find that beginning at the beginning is usually simplest," Sam says.
"That's because you can afford for things to be simple," Natasha says.
"The beginning is that Agent Barnes was recruited out of the army by the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate—S.H.I.E.L.D. Like the mug Clint gave you," she adds with a wan smile. "After training, he was placed with the 107th Infantry in 2009. Officially, it was a transfer from his previous regiment. The real reason was to allow him to get close enough to the Afghan territories controlled by the Ten Rings." She falls silent, waiting until Steve nods before she goes on. "Among his skills, Barnes spoke fluent Russian. His cover was a textbook example of the failed American dream: A young immigrant from the former Soviet Union, who found a bed of nails instead of the land of milk and honey promised by all the bootlegged U.S. Television. Enraged, he goes AWOL from his unit and pledges his allegiance to a group of petty international thugs and wannabe dictators, who can give the capitalist running dogs the violent, bloody end they so richly deserve. His codename was Winter Soldier." She stops speaking again, waits.
"Codename with who?" Pepper asks, "S.H.I.E.L.D. or Ten Rings?"
"S.H.I.E.L.D.," Sam supplies.
"Love the name," Tony murmurs. He starts petting Gloria.
Steve isn't sure how Natasha expects him to react. He's not sure how he himself is reacting, really. "He was declared missing and presumed dead, not AWOL."
Natasha nods. "That was part of his cover. Ten Rings thought he was AWOL. The official story was what you found. He went MIA in November, after he'd made contact with the Ten Rings. He was with them for eighteen months, syphoning information back to S.H.I.E.L.D. His intel provided us the means to prevent several potential attacks and assassinations. No, I can't tell you who or where," she adds when Tony opens his mouth. "The last message we received from him was your and Tony Stark's names, status, and the coordinates of where to find you."
"The rescue mission was about two days after that message," Sam says.
Tony sits bolt upright, jostling Gloria, who hisses at him and jumps from Steve's lap. "Wait. No. It was my transmitter. I built a transmitter," he says to Pepper, though there's no way she can't know that. Tony's eyes are big and afraid. "The transmitter was how you found us. Clint said."
"It was," Sam says, and Tony sags in relief. "It helped us pinpoint exactly where you were. It would've taken a hell of a lot longer to find you otherwise. We might not've gotten there in time."
"Good. That's good," Tony murmurs. Pepper reaches across Steve to take his hand.
"How do you know so much about Barnes?" Pepper asks Natasha.
She shrugs one shoulder in a precise, delicate movement. "I was his handler." She pulls the signed agreements closer, smooths down the top page with far more attention than it needs. "I was supposed to be part of the extraction team, whenever S.H.I.E.L.D. decided they'd used him long enough."
Used him long enough. Her choice of words is telling. "This wasn't a mission you agreed with?"
She shrugs again, as eloquent an answer as Steve's ever seen. "It wasn't my place to agree or not. I was supposed to exchange information with him, nothing more than that. But…" She grimaces. "There were things the Ten Rings…required him to do that…." Her mouth works like she's tasting something foul. "He begged me to get him out of there, about two weeks before you were captured. He'd been ordered to shoot children in front of their parents. He'd killed the terrorist the Ten Rings had sent with him instead. He managed to make it look like he'd caught the man lining his own pockets instead of bringing the spoils back for the glorious cause. But there'd been other things, which he couldn't lie his way out of." She looks back at the paper, avoiding all their eyes. "We only met face to face a handful of times, but I remember how he looked. Every time, it was as if another piece of him was gone. That's how S.H.I.E.L.D. works. They will let you be ripped to shreds and tell you that you should be grateful because you made a difference."
"That's why Clint got out," Sam says. "And why I wish you would," he adds to Natasha. "They've taken enough. You've made enough of a difference."
"I adore you," she says to Sam, but her smile is fleeting. "The plan was to extract all three of you, but Winter Soldier never made it. I thought he was dead." She laces her fingers over her knees. "I was sure he was dead. And then you drew someone who looked enough like him that I wasn't certain anymore. I don't like not being certain. I especially disliked the idea that I'd abandoned someone who'd begged me to help them." The mildness of her words only accentuates how deeply upset she is, something Steve is both surprised and proud he knows. She finally lifts her head to look him in the eyes. "So I assumed you had to be wrong. That's not how I was trained, to dismiss something unexpected instead of investigating it. But it was easier if you were wrong, so I did." She smiles again, but this time it's fragile and sad. "I'm sorry. You deserved better from all of us."
"I wish you'd told me," Steve says. "I can understand why you didn't, but…." He sighs. "I wish you'd told me." He pulls tufts of Gloria's hair off his jeans. "I don't know what to do," he admits quietly. "If he was alive all this time, why didn't he try to find me? Why go to my apartment when I'm not there?"
"Not a clue," Sam says. "I mean, he could've contacted you via your Facebook, but he didn't do that either. I gotta admit, this cloak and dagger stuff makes no sense to me, but then again that's never been my thing." He looks at Natasha, eyebrows raised. "Does what Barnes is doing make sense to you?"
She tilts her head. "Yes and no. It would make perfect sense if you were a mark. As in, if he was looking for information he could use to integrate himself with you. Or to use against you, depending." She rubs her knuckles over her lips as she thinks. "But—and no offence, Steve—you're not that complicated a person."
"No offence taken," Steve says.
She nods. "Barnes is too good at his job to need more than a half hour or so in your apartment. Certainly there'd be no need for him to come back." She shakes her head. "Staying at your apartment like that…That's so unprofessional it's as if he wanted to be discovered. I can't understand it."
"Why would he be treating me like a mark? He knows who I am."
"Well, it's been three years," Sam says. "You've changed. Maybe he doesn't know you anymore."
"People don't change that much."
"Sure they do," Tony says.
"You have," Sam says to Steve.
Sam means it as a compliment, but sometimes Steve misses the man he was before Afghanistan so much he can't stand it. Other times he can't even remember who that person might have been. "It probably doesn't even matter." He goes to the shelf and gets his sketchbook and pulls the note out. He hands it to Natasha. "He left this Saturday night, saying he's not coming back."
Natasha frowns at it. "This doesn't look like his writing."
"He looked really upset before he wrote it." He tells them about his sketchbook, how Bucky knew exactly where to find it, and how he reacted to the drawing. "I think his hand was shaking."
Sam gets up to take the note from Natasha, then narrows his eyes in concentration as he peers at it. "That doesn't look like it's just adrenaline. I've seen other veterans write like that when they have brain injuries."
"What?" Steve all but lunges to his feet to snatch the note back, stares at the words as if they could tell him anything. Bucky's writing is less legible than his, but it doesn't look particularly bad. Just shaky. "Maybe that's why he didn't find me, because he's been in the hospital all this time?"
"Could be," Sam says. "It's not likely, though. I'm sorry," he adds, as if he can feel Steve's disappointment.
"It's fine," Steve says quickly. He didn't even know Bucky existed until yesterday. There's no reason for him to be upset that Bucky didn't try to find him earlier. People do change, and it's been a long time.
"Do you want him to come back?" Natasha asks him.
"Yeah." Steve's surprised at how much he means it. "I thought I'd be glad he was gone, but…he saved my life and I never got a chance to thank him. I'd at least like to do that." He also wants to stop waking up with tears in his eyes. He wants to be able to stop grieving. "And if he's struggling, I want to help. He's a hero. He shouldn't be sneaking into people's apartments just to keep warm."
"Steve," Sam says, "he shouldn't be sneaking into people's apartments."
"He shouldn't have to!"
Natasha tilts her head thoughtfully. "If he found you via your Facebook account, what if you posted a message to him?"
"What kind of message? And why would he keep reading my Facebook if he said he wouldn't bother me again?"
"Why is your Facebook public, anyway? You do know that anyone can see it," Natasha says.
"I didn't think about it," Steve says honestly. "I barely use it. And I don't post things that would embarrass me if strangers see them."
"You have, like, 200 pictures of your cat. That's pretty embarrassing," Tony says.
Natasha closes her eyes and presses her fingertips to her forehead. "After you find Barnes, I'm going to make sure you change the security settings."
"He'll keep reading your Facebook because he said he wouldn't bother you," Sam adds. "He never said he'd stop checking up on your life. And we know he already looked at your Facebook, or he wouldn't've known you were gone in the first place."
"It's worth a try, Steve," Natasha says.
Steve takes a breath. "I don't even know what to say to him."
"How about actually inviting him over?" Sam says.
Natasha helps Steve draft a post over the beers that Clint finally brings back. To Steve all it looks like is yet another vaguely meaningful quote like the ones his former high school classmates post all the time. Clint even finds an inoffensively pleasant picture of a rippling wheat field to type the words over before borrowing Pepper's computer to triumphantly add it to Steve's Facebook wall.
After he hits 'enter', Steve's too anxious to do much of anything. The others must sense that, because the gathering breaks up quickly. Steve accepts their hugs at the door, as well as a kiss from Pepper. Tony kisses him too, making a big show of it like they're in a movie. He cackles about it all the way down the hall.
It's a relief to close the door behind them and just listen to nothing for a little while. It's also strangely lonely. The apartment feels huge without his friends in it.
He shuts Gloria in the bedroom so he can open a window without her getting out, checking twice that the door's shut and the alarm is off before he climbs out to stand on the balcony. He breathes in the hot scent of the city in the haze of early evening. It won't be dark for a few hours yet, but he hopes Bucky has somewhere safe to sleep.
Maybe he read Steve's post already and really did understand what it meant. Maybe he's already on his way to Steve's apartment. Steve doesn't know what he's feeling right now, but the memory of that single kiss they shared is searing. He thinks he might even want it again. The only thing he's sure of is that he wants Bucky to be all right. Safe, he thinks. That would be a good place to start.
He goes inside when he realizes he's just looking down at the alley next to his building, waiting for Bucky to come.
True to Pepper's word, the boxes with Steve's new appliances arrive on Monday, along with a set of brightly colored coffee mugs in two different sizes. Steve spends a frustrating afternoon figuring out the combination espresso and coffee machine Pepper insisted he needed, but his first, triumphant cup of Clint's gourmet coffee tastes fantastic. He draws a cartoon of Gloria curled around a steaming mug to thank her. He could wait to give it to Tony to bring it to her, but puts it in an envelope and mails it instead. It's rare for people to get personal letters anymore, and he thinks she'll appreciate it.
He feels a little ridiculous with how proud he is of leaving his apartment to walk the few blocks to the nearest mailbox. But it's been a tough week and a tougher weekend, so fuck it; he's proud of himself. He figures Sam would approve.
It takes another two days for Steve's new electronics to arrive, all courtesy of Tony Stark and two guys who Steve vaguely recognizes from Stark Tower. They're still in their official security uniforms, which means Tony probably shanghaied them right out of the tower's lobby.
Steve realizes he should have expected that—the television is huge, and it looks like hooking it up to the cable box, Blu ray and Starkplay game console takes a degree in engineering—but he didn't. And even though both the men are friendly and almost fawningly polite, it's very, very hard for Steve to smile and answer questions he can barely hear through his thumping pulse while they wander around his space and move things. By the time they finally leave, Steve's hands are shaking so badly that when he tries to make Tony a coffee he nearly drops the mug on the floor.
"Whoa! Careful there, Bond martini." Tony takes the mug from Steve's hands and sets it under the spout of the coffee machine, then cheerfully programs it like he's done it his whole life.
"Yeah." Tony arches his eyebrows. "'Shaken but not stirred'?"
Steve pastes on a smirk for him. "'Feeling kind of both at the moment."
"Probably shouldn't be drinking coffee then." Tony passes him the first cup anyway, then makes his own. "I'm really sorry," he says, for what has to be 40th time. "I wanted to make sure you knew I'd be bringing people to help, but I had no way of contacting you." He tilts his head in the direction of Steve's new laptop, Starktab and phone, all lined up neatly on the counter. "That won't be a problem anymore, but…."
"I know. It's okay," Steve says for the 41st time. It is okay. Nothing bad happened. It's not Tony's fault that Steve's still jumpy as hell. "You brought me at least four thousand dollars' worth of new equipment. I'm not going to give you a hard time because you needed help with it."
"You're not giving me a hard time. Believe me." Tony pulls him into a careful side hug, keeps it light so Steve has every chance to escape. "Just…thanks for putting up with everything so I could do this, you know?"
Steve snorts. "You're doing me a favor, not the other way around."
"Uh, no. Remember the whole stress-induced spontaneous redecorating thing? Still on me. So, yes, you are totally doing me a favor here."
"Well, you're welcome then, I guess," Steve says, mostly because he doesn't have the energy to argue. He looks at the laptop, phone and tablet, still waiting to be set up to his specifications. Just the idea of it is exhausting.
As if on cue, Tony winces down a gulp of extremely hot coffee and says, "So! Since we got the guilt out of the way, what do you want to personalize first? Huey Dewey or Louie?"
"Louie, if that one's the phone." Steve keeps his sigh internal, glances at the clock on the stove. It isn't even that late, it just feels like he's been tense for days. "But, uh, could we leave the rest for later?"
"Later? Why do—oh." Tony smacks his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Yeah. Sure. And the phone'll just take a jiffy, I promise. It's pretty intuitive."
Tony thinks the coffee machine is 'intuitive', so Steve doesn't hold out much hope. But it's not too bad, mostly just following the directions on the screen. Tony makes sure all Steve's information downloads properly from the Starkether, walks him through some ways to optimize power, and ribs him about his passcode ("use your cat's name! No one knows that!"). By the time Tony gleefully christens Steve's phone with a texted poo-emoji, Steve's feeling better. But he's still grateful when his friend leaves.
The sky outside is grey and heavy with the promise of rain when Tony finally closes the door behind him. Hopefully Bucky will be able to stay dry.
Steve thinks about turning the window alarm on, but it's not dark yet and he doesn't want to backslide again, so he leaves the keypad alone. But he's still jittery enough that he knows there's no point in even trying to draw, because he won't be able to concentrate. He tries watching his new TV but he can't settle on anything, despite the amazing picture and sound. In the end he finds a classical music channel and reads the book Sam got him, forcing himself to pay attention to the text until he's reading it just because it's interesting. The pictures are beautiful, and Steve gets so absorbed he only looks up when the storm clouds have made it too dark to comfortably see. He flicks on the light as the first flood of rain hits the windows.
He goes right to the kitchen, guilty because it's late evening already and he normally feeds Gloria earlier than this. He opens a new can of food and waits for her to come racing in, bawling at her cruel mistreatment all the way. Only she doesn't.
Steve puts the bowls of food and fresh water on the floor then goes to find her. Maybe she got locked in a room by accident and just fell asleep. She might still even be hiding because of the two strangers in her territory. It's weird that she hasn't come out yet, but she doesn't like storms either and the rain is heavy and loud. She's probably under the bed. He very carefully keeps the kernel of fear wrapped tight at the back of his mind, because there's nothing to worry about. Not yet.
That works until he's walking to the bedroom and sees that one of the living room windows is open.
He stands there for a long, terrible moment, watching the rain running down the wall and trying to remember if anyone asked him if they could open a window. Tony would never do that, not without putting Gloria in the bedroom first. The space between the frame and the sill is maybe four inches, but the bedroom door is open and Gloria is gone.
Steve doesn't close the window even though his wall and floor will get wet, in case Gloria uses it to come back. He shoves his feet into his sneakers, doesn't bother tying them. He has to spend another few seconds finding his keys because he hid them when Tony's helpers came in. He can't leave without the keys because he won't be able to get back inside.
All the way down the stairs he fiercely tells himself not to panic. Gloria was an alley cat. She came in through the same window she just used to leave. She has to be down here, probably under a dumpster to keep out of the rain. She'll get sick, Steve thinks. He hasn't even called the vet to make an appointment from moving her so much, and now she's getting soaked in a filthy alley after strangers invaded her home.
He should've payed more attention, should have checked the windows after the men left. Should've gone with his instinct and turned on the alarm; it sounds if a window's not closed. He should've noticed that Gloria wasn't on the couch with him. What if she's hurt? If she's hurt he'll never forgive himself. He doesn't know what he'll do if he never gets her back.
He bursts through the fire exit into a twilight filled with pouring rain. He's gasping for air, his heart feels like lead. "Gloria! Gloria!" He knows it's stupid even as he yells for her. What cat ever responds to their name?
The to-go box he left is empty, filling with water. There are no cats in the alley. Probably all hiding somewhere dry. Maybe he scared them off coming through the side door. Maybe he scared Gloria and she ran away, and she'll spend the rest of her life cold, scared, hungry and alone.
Steve leans against the brick wall of his building, rain soaking him as he counts his breaths. He organized soldiers under fire (and failed, hisses the dark terror at the back of his skull. He failed them. He fails everyone). He can find one cat without losing his mind.
He rubs his cold, wet palms together, forcing himself to think logically. Gloria is an old, fussy white cat who has trouble jumping and loves human food. She can't have gone that far.
She doesn't like strange people around her and she would want to stay dry, so Steve goes to the end of the alley instead of the street. He stands there, looking at the small parking lot and hugging himself in the rain. There are so many cars for her to hide under or crawl into. So many other places she might've gone. He tries not to think of how infinitesimally small a single cat is, compared to the expanse of one of the largest cities in the world.
He whirls, hands up in fists like he's about to be attacked, and sees James Barnes.
The other man is wearing the outfit Steve remembers from the diner. The hood of his jacket is up, covering his baseball cap. The leather is dark with water. Water drips off the peak of his cap. He slowly lifts his left hand to push his hood down, showing more of his face. He uses the side of his hand instead of his curled fingers.
Gloria is tucked inside his jacket with her face poking out over the zipper. Her nose is very pink surrounded by wet fur. He's supporting her with his right arm. "I think I found your cat," he says.
"Gloria!" Steve runs a few steps towards them, but stops when Bucky retreats, eyes wide in alarm. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just…" He swallows. "I was really worried."
"I found her a couple blocks over," Bucky says. "I was bringing her back." He sounds like he's sure Steve will accuse him of stealing her.
"Thank you." Steve risks taking a step closer. Gloria starts squirming, yowling and trying to escape Bucky's jacket, so Steve goes close enough to grab her before she can leap to the ground and run away again. He holds her tight against his body with one fist around her scruff. He and Bucky are now more than close enough to touch, practically breathing each other's air. "Did you see my message? Is that why you're here?"
Bucky blinks at him, and God, Steve remembers those eyes. He remembers being this close, remembers warmth and longing like the only good things in the world. His heartbeat kicks up again, but it's not in fear.
"What message?" Bucky says.
"Oh." Steve clutches Gloria a bit tighter. She wriggles, claws poking him through his shirt. She must be miserable, all wet like this. Bucky's probably cold too. "We should go inside."
Bucky's expression flickers though embarrassment, chagrin and fear, before settling on a small, tense smile. "Naw, that's okay." He backs up. "I live pretty close. I was just going home."
"Where? Under a bridge?"
Bucky's face hardens. He backs up another step.
"No, no, wait! Please, wait. Don't leave." Steve goes closer again, can't help it, but Bucky stops instead of continuing his retreat. "I just…." He swallows. "It's wet and cold, and.... Come inside? Please? At least so you can get dry?"
Bucky looks down, the brim of his cap obscuring his eyes. "I said I wasn't gonna bother you."
"You won't." Steve doesn't dare let go of Gloria, so he turns to gently bump Bucky's shoulder with his own. "Come inside, Buck."
Bucky looks up sharply, startled. "Buck," he says. "You called me that."
"Yeah. I did." It was in his dream. "Please come inside, Bucky."
"Okay," Bucky says.
"You didn't have to do this."
They're both on Steve's couch, each with a mug of tea made by Steve's espresso/coffee machine. He is, actually, starting to love it. Bucky is wearing a set of Steve's clothes. He's still damp and rosy from the shower, cross-legged on Steve's couch. Steve's a little amazed he didn't bolt when Steve took his turn in the bathroom. Probably because his clothes are in Steve's washing machine.
"You were soaking wet. I didn't want you to get pneumonia. Besides, you saved Gloria." The cat is sleeping between them with her belly full and her head mashed against Bucky's thigh. Her back claws dig into Steve's leg every time he moves. She exhausted herself trying to escape from being towel dried. Steve left a message at the vet's office about a checkup appointment for her, so at least he knows she'll be all right.
Bucky shrugs. He cradles his mug in both his hands, though his left is clumsy and fumbling. It's too thin, curved like birds' feet. Steve wonders if it's painful but doesn't think he should ask.
Bucky watches the steam, maybe so he doesn't have to look Steve in the eye. His damp hair makes a curtain over his face, hiding everything. "She would've come home on her own. She was heading that way. I just wanted to make sure."
"She might've gotten lost or hurt anyway." Steve gently nudges Bucky's shoulder so he'll look up. "I really appreciate it. Thank you."
"You already thanked me." Bucky seems to hold Steve's gaze only with an effort. "And, I shouldn't be here. I broke into your place. I don't know why you didn't call the cops on me."
Steve shrugs. "It felt mean, when you barely even touched anything."
Bucky looks around. "Then why did you change everything?"
"That, uh…" Steve ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, shame heating his face. "That wasn't because of you." That doesn't feel enough like the truth, though, so he adds: "Well, it was because of you. But nothing you did. It wasn't your fault." He makes himself look up so Bucky won't think he's lying. "I didn't remember you." Bucky's eyes widen and Steve feels terrible. "I have…" He grimaces, because it still feels like an excuse. "It's called 'situation-specific amnesia'. It means I don't—I didn't—remember much of my time in Afghanistan. Including you." Bucky's eyes go wide again and Steve feels it like a gut punch. "I'm sorry," he says quickly. "I'm so sorry, Bucky. I never…." He swallows, pets Gloria, reminds himself that it's over. Bucky's right here. Steve doesn't have to grieve for him anymore.
Bucky puts his hand over his eyes. His shoulders shake. With his head down it takes a minute for Steve to realize he's actually laughing. "Bucky?"
"Oh, God." Bucky lifts his head, wiping his eyes and still laughing. Steve's sure there's an undercurrent of hysteria in it, but when Bucky smiles it's real. "That is…I don't know if that's irony or not. But…." He shakes his head. He's still smiling, but now all his laughter's gone. "Stevie," he says. "I didn't even remember my own name 'til maybe two weeks ago."
"Yeah," he says, voice rough. He picks up his tea and drinks, resting the bottom of the mug on the side of his left hand. He puts it back on the coaster with meticulous care. "I was…." He stops, scratches Gloria behind her ears and under her chin. She purrs and Bucky smiles. "I got shot a couple times, during the escape." He looks at Steve again, questioning. "I guess you don't remember that?"
"I've been remembering." Steve reaches out but doesn't quite touch Bucky's left arm. "You were bleeding."
Bucky nods. "Yeah," he says again. "There was nerve damage. That's why it looks like this. Can't really use it anymore. I got shot a couple more times too, after."
"I saw you, lying in a pool of blood. I know you told me to wait," he adds at Bucky's horrified expression. "I didn't listen." His smile is wan. "You kissed me. I wasn't gonna let you just go off after that."
"For fuck's sake, Steve!" Bucky snaps. "You could've been killed! What the hell were you thinking?"
"That I couldn't leave you!" Steve snaps right back. "And I tried…God, I tried so hard to carry you, but I couldn't. I was too weak. Tony had to drag me away." He blinks back the sudden tears prickling his eyes. "And then…I woke up in a hospital and I could barely remember being captured, or the cave…and you…you were gone. You were just—" He has to look away, throat working. "I'm sorry," he rasps when he can finally speak. "I'm so sorry I forgot you."
"Hey." Bucky puts his hand on Steve's leg. "You caught pneumonia on top of a really bad infection. You were barely conscious a lot of the time. It's amazing you remembered anything at all."
Steve shakes his head angrily. "It wasn't that. I forgot you 'cause it hurt too much to remember. And Tony…my friends knew about you. But they didn't tell me. That's why…." He gestures at the bookshelf, empty except for his repaired sketchbook, then at the new furniture and bare walls. "When I found out they'd lied to me I kind of freaked out. Wrecked a lot of stuff." He shrugs, but he can't meet Bucky's eyes anymore. "Like I said, it's not your fault."
"That sucks." Bucky's right hand is still curved around Steve's thigh. "I got shot, but I didn't die. Some of the Ten Rings rabbited, so they didn't die either. They found me, after."
"Oh, my God."
Bucky nods distantly. "Yeah. It was…pretty bad. They, uh, they were pissed I'd betrayed them. Helped you guys escape. So they, kind of took it out on me." He looks up again, gesturing at the side of his head with his left hand. "They attached me to this electroshock thing. I don't know if it was supposed to kill me or just hurt me or what. But, they did it for a long time." His smile is bitter and angry. "Like, a long time. Days, I think. Still can't really remember. But when they were done, I was…." He grimaces. "I was fucked up." He taps his temple with his crooked fingers. "I could barely walk, couldn't speak. They rolled me out of the back of a truck and left me in the middle of nowhere to die."
Steve gapes. "Oh my God! They did that? Why didn't you die?"
Bucky smirks. "I was found by a couple kids, like in a fairy tale. Their village had been raided a few times by the Ten Rings, so they weren't all that surprised to find an almost dead ex-prisoner that'd been dumped in a ditch. I'm alive 'cause of them." His smile looks painful now, and Steve wonders what he's remembering. "They thought I was Russian, 'cause that was the only language I could speak."
"And they still helped you?"
"Yeah, I know." He nods. "But I couldn't remember anything, let alone Soviet history. And I was too young to've had anything to do with the war. So I guess they forgave me, or felt too sorry for me to beat my already-fucked up head in or anything."
"I'm glad," Steve says.
"Me too, believe me." Bucky tightens his hand a little on Steve's leg. Steve links their fingers together. It feels natural, like he and Bucky have been doing this for years. "How did you get home?"
"I didn't," Bucky says it so matter-of-factly that Steve blinks. "Yeah, so. The only language I could remember was Russian…." He stops to look questioningly at Steve. "How much do you know about me?"
"Everything," Steve says. He nods at Bucky's astonishment. "Do you know Natasha? Natasha Romanov?"
Bucky goes still, staring at a fixed point only he can see. He says something in Russian, then blinks a couple times. His lips move like he's trying to form words. "Handler," he says finally, looking at Steve. "She was my handler." He has a Russian accent. "Redhead, right?"
"Uh, yeah. Yeah, that's her." Steve nods, trying not to be alarmed by the change in language. "She's my friend. She's, uh, close to two of the people who rescued me. I became friends with all three of them after…after I got out of the hospital. She told me about you."
"Wow." Bucky blinks a few more times, holds Steve's hand tightly. "Okay." He sounds American again. "So, you must know about my cover. That I was supposed to be Russian." He pauses for Steve's nod. "Yeah. And, that's what I remembered. That I was Russian. So it made sense that's where I was from. It took me a few months, but I finally managed to make it to Volgograd." He smirks, but there's nothing pleasant in it. "No one had a fucking clue who this scruffy, dumbass guy with a bum left arm was, of course. And around then I started realizing I could understand English, even if I could hardly say anything. And I started having flashes—" He cuts himself off, wincing. "Like, moments. Moments, more than real memories. Just…scenes. Like being with you in the cave. Or, walking to school, or watching a movie. I didn't know what they meant, but I knew they were mine, you know? My history. And it wasn't in Russia."
"I'm sorry," Steve says.
"Don't be. It was something. Something, finally, after more than a year of stumbling around with nothing at all."
Steve nods. It was bad enough missing months of his life. Missing decades would be hell. "How did you get back here, then? Did you go to the U.S. Embassy?"
Bucky laughs. "I wanted to, believe me. But I barely spoke English, had no I.D. and no name. Even if they believed me, what could they do? It's not like my face would've been on any milk cartons, you know?" He squeezes Steve's hand a little, as if in apology. "It took a while. I had to earn enough money to get a fake passport and visa, and then more to get a bunk on a ship going in the right direction." His grin is sharp at the edges. "I'm currently an illegal immigrant from Russia."
Steve frowns. "But, you're a citizen. I know about your military record. I saw your picture. I know you're—"
"Dead," Bucky says.
Bucky nods. "That part was a bit of a bitch, when I finally remembered I had an actual name."
"S.H.I.E.L.D. can help you. You worked for them. They're the ones who said you were dead in the first place. They can make you alive again."
"Yeah. Maybe." Bucky lets go of Steve to run his fingers through his hair. "That…didn't matter for a while, though. I didn't know I was Bucky 'til pretty recent." He looks at Steve again. "It was you. You got me back."
"How?" Steve frowns, confused. "I didn't even remember you until last night, I think. Not consciously."
Bucky smiles. It's small and shy, which doesn't make sense until he pulls something out of the pocket of his borrowed jeans and puts it on the coffee table. It's one of Steve's business cards. It's crumpled and water stained, but the name and phone number are still clear. "The painting you did, at the VA center. It…." He takes a breath. "You put me in it. Maybe you didn't remember me, but...I was in it. I was supporting you," he adds at Steve's blank astonishment. "I had your arm across my shoulders. Your head was down, so no one could see it was you. But, it was you. I recognized you. And…I recognized me."
"What?" Steve shakes his head. "No. No, I didn't I…I would've known—" He cuts himself off, standing. He looks automatically for his computer, where he saved the pictures of the finished mural, then remembers he hasn't set up his new one yet. "Wait here." He goes to his studio instead, takes his portfolio from its place under the window and brings it back into the living room. He puts it on the coffee table and unzips the cover.
The final rough draft of the mural is the first picture. Everything he painted on the wall is right there, in miniature black and white.
"There." Bucky's fingers hover over the two figures in the front and left of center, but he doesn't touch. "That's me. And you."
It is. It is, and God, how could Steve have missed that? It's Bucky: shorter hair and dirt on his face, but it's him, unquestionably. Steve knows he matched the hair color and eyes, remembers how important it was to get it right without even knowing what 'right' meant or why he cared. But he remembered. On some level, he remembered him.
And yes, Steve had painted himself, bedraggled and broken with his head hanging so no one could see his face. He'd done that on purpose, a memorial to the man he'd been. And Bucky was saving him, leading him out.
"I kept drawing you," he says softly, the words like ghosts in his mouth. "I kept drawing you and I didn't know it." He thinks of the portrait Natasha and Clint recognized, and the sketch of his nightmare with the dead soldier in the cave. How terrible and right it felt to put him there.
"You saved me," Bucky says. "You brought me back. I came to Brooklyn because you'd told me you lived here. I didn't remember that, but I knew this place was important. I went to the VA because it was cool inside and they had coffee, and I saw the mural. And I saw me, and I remembered my name was Bucky Barnes."
"Oh," Steve breathes. He can barely hear his own thoughts, for the blood roaring in his head. "Is that why you came to my apartment? To find me?"
Bucky nods. "I didn't…I shouldn't've done that. I know. But…I heard, um, Mr. Wilson—?"
"Sam talking to one of the people who wanted your card. He said you were going away for a few days. So I just…" He shrugs, like he can't explain it even to himself. "You have a nice cat. And I felt…safe, here." He pets Gloria, watching his fingers make trails in her fur. "I hadn't felt safe in a while. It was nice. Even if I had to hide when your friend came in."
"Gloria wasn't afraid of you." Steve pets his cat too. His and Bucky's fingers keep tangling. Gloria purrs loudly and stretches, poking his leg with her claws. "She's normally scared of anyone she doesn't know, but you didn't bother her. I'm glad you felt safe."
That gets him a flash of a smile. "Your window alarm code sucks, by the way. I mean, a toddler could've figured it out."
Steve smirks. "So I've been told." He threads their fingers together the next time their hands meet in Gloria's fur. "I'm glad you felt safe," he says again. "I'm glad you came here. I don't know if I would've ever remembered you if you hadn't."
"Sure you would've," Bucky says it like it's a fact, given. He's looking at their joined hands, his face still mostly hidden. "I meant what I wrote, about not bothering you again. You weren't supposed to know I was here in the first place."
"'Guess I'm lucky I'm paranoid enough to notice, then," Steve says. The casualness of his voice belies how heavily his heart's pounding. "My number's on the card. You could've called me."
Bucky shakes his head. "You deserved better than a homeless cripple who can barely remember where he's from or what language he should be speaking."
"How 'bout the guy who kept me and Tony alive for months, then sacrificed himself so we could escape? Do I deserve better than him?" He cups the side of Bucky's face to stop him shaking his head 'no' again. "Wrong answer."
"You're a punk." Bucky moves Steve's hand, but he doesn't let go of it.
"Jerk," Steve responds happily. Then, "You said you loved me, back in the cave. Do you remember that?"
Bucky sucks in a small, sharp breath. He looks terrified, but he gives Steve a single jerk of his head. "Yeah." His voice is rasping. "Yeah, I remember."
"Did you mean it?"
Bucky nods again, though he doesn't look any less afraid. "Still do."
"Good," Steve says. "Because when I remembered you, I remembered how much I wished I'd been able to say it back."
Bucky looks so astonished that Steve can't stand it, so he says, "I did. Still do." He strokes Bucky's cheek with his fingers. "And, I figure I've owed you a kiss for three years." He leans in, then Bucky does, and then Gloria squeaks, then hisses and scrabbles at them.
Steve and Bucky jerk apart and Gloria leaps to the coffee table then sits and licks her chest, deeply offended. Steve can't help but start laughing, then Bucky starts laughing too.
They're still laughing when they kiss, which turns it into an awkward clash of lips and teeth before Bucky tilts his head just so and it's suddenly perfect. Something in Steve's chest settles like he can finally breathe.
"Stay with me," he says when they break apart. "At least 'til the rain stops. Please. I already lost you. I can't lose you again."
Bucky's hand is on the back of Steve's neck. The weight of it is warm and sheltering. His eyes are like pieces of the sky.
And he says, "All right, I'll stay."
A few days later, Bucky meets Natasha for the second time since Afghanistan. She says something to him in Russian that makes him smile, then she hugs him fiercely, holding the back of his head and murmuring more Russian into his ear. No one says anything about the tears she carefully clears out of her eyes when she lets him go.
Tony hugs him just as fiercely as Natasha, then kisses the side of Bucky's head and apologizes for not recognizing him, not going back for him, not realizing he was still alive. He only stops saying sorry when Bucky puts his hand over Tony's mouth and says he forgives him.
Tony knows a surgeon who he's certain can fix Bucky's left arm. For free, since it's experimental and she needs volunteers. Steve's pretty sure it's not free and Tony will just quietly pay for everything, but he doesn't mention it. Bucky looks cautiously excited and Tony looks thrilled and bounds off to make phone calls.
Clint hugs Bucky because he likes hugging people, then thanks him for "saving his two favorite idiots so I could actually meet them." Pepper hugs Bucky in gratitude for keeping Steve and Tony alive. Sam just shakes Bucky's hand.
They don't stay long. Bucky is obviously overwhelmed, but he promises to attend a group session at the VA, and Tony's made him an appointment to meet his surgeon colleague, and Natasha's confident she can officially bring James Barnes back to life.
It's all good, but it's a lot to take in at once. Steve's not surprised when Bucky grabs Gloria and sits in one of the armchairs with her on his lap, petting her with his good hand and staring blankly out the window.
Steve goes to stand next to him, puts his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "You okay?"
Bucky nods. "Yeah. I'm good." He looks up at Steve and smiles. "Just…two weeks ago I was sneaking around your apartment because I wanted a connection to you. But I didn't think I could ever have more than that, you know? I figured that was the closest I'd ever get. And I was okay with it. I remembered you, and I knew you were all right, and it was okay."
"A week ago I was sure I'd never see you or Gloria again." Steve pets the cat, who rolls to present her belly. Bucky's jeans are going to have hair all over them. "It's funny—if you hadn't broken into my apartment, you wouldn't've known about her, so you wouldn't have recognized her to bring her home." He stops petting Gloria so he can card his fingers through Bucky's hair. "I'm so glad you did." He grins. "Never thought I'd say that either. But I'm so glad you broke into my place, Buck."
"Me too," Bucky says, leaning into Steve's touch. He laughs, then looks up at Steve, still smiling. "But I didn't bring your cat home. It was the other way around."