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The Fool in the Mirror

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Chapter Twenty-Two

Ending Credits: In Our Bedroom After the War – Stars

We Are Beginning

 

“Brain scans show minor localized damage to your hippocampus, but in comparison to the medical documents we have from Wakanda, the pieces that took a hit from the chair have regenerated, and are likely to continue to do so. Miss Maximoff’s ability to manipulate reality most likely took derailed memories and reset burnt-out neural pathways, but the real player in all this is the healing factor,” Dr. Cho explained, “The cases I’ve seen similar to this – only Captain Rogers and Dr. Banner compare in cellular regeneration. Whatever HYDRA experimented on you with, it’s close enough to the superserum to have made a difference, but not quite the formula – your healing factor isn’t as quick to the draw as Captain Rogers’, so recovery from injuries will be a longer process, and you’ll still scar. Nonetheless, your strength and healing are far above average human capability. It’s a knock-off, but a very good one.”

Bucky jiggled his leg. Dr. Cho hadn’t forced him into a medical gown, nor did she put him on a table or touch his head, but sitting in a medical setting – however upgraded to accommodate the medical needs of Avengers – put Bucky’s teeth on edge. Steve’s hand on his shoulder leveled him, but needling panic persisted.

Not knowing what was done to him, however, scared Bucky more than doctors.

“What does that mean for me?” he asked.

Dr. Cho met his eye, and did not falter as she said, “You are effectively a supersoldier. I’ve looked into the HYDRA files Princess Shuri retrieved, as well, and the information they recorded indicates that they were well aware that the experimentation on you was a success – and that there were many before you that were not.”

Bucky shivered, a lump in his throat at the notion of a trail of bodies behind his survival. Perhaps scenting his distress, Steve edged closer to him, stroking the pad of his thumb over the ridges of Bucky’s mating bite.

When Bucky could not find his words, Steve asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Dr. Cho replied, “That’s up to Sergeant Barnes. Medically?” – she returned her attention to Bucky – “Medically, I believe you will regain most, if not all, your memories, based upon the rate of healing we have observed thus far. As far as what may come with those...I expect you will experience some of what you did in Wakanda...nightmares, anxiety. I can recommend some therapists, if you’d like, but it’s a short list. Many of our SHIELD-vetted people have been named in the HYDRA files as double agents.”

“Uh,” Bucky managed, “then let’s skip that for now. At least until we’re sure who we can trust.”

“I understand,” replied Dr. Cho, “Unfortunately, we don’t have the tools to echo the care you received in Wakanda, but I hope you know that we’ll do our best to help you through this.”

Bucky muttered his thanks. He knew that there was little to be done. Due to the nature of his recent celebrity, anyone that had access to him, mind and body, would need to be heavily vetted. Who did so in light of HYRDA’s presence in SHIELD had yet to be determined. In the meantime, Bucky would tough it out at the side of his alpha. He wasn’t opposed to seeking medication for his fantastic dip back into generalized anxiety, but the superserum complicated anything he might be prescribed.

What a shitshow.

“Natasha wants us to meet her in her apartment,” Steve told him, as they left lab-turned-doctor’s office.

“Do we have to?” asked Bucky, “I kinda wanna go home and cuddle with my dog.”

“She says she wants to ask you something, specifically,” Steve replied.

Bucky sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb. “I guess, then.”

Quiet settled between them for a beat. Then, Steve said, “You never did tell me why Wakanda helped you. Even when Thanos came...they were reluctant to help. When they realized the threat truly came at the price of the entire world, that’s when T’Challa invited us. But – you were the first American that they allowed inside the country.”

“Wakanda’s espionage is the greatest in the world,” answered Bucky, “Like a lot of their stuff. When I was still a marine, I got stationed a couple different places for a little bit. Okinawa was one of them. You’d think that would be a quiet place, but we got some nutso scientist out there, roundabouts 2009. He built these little robot things that poisoned people, wanted to seize control, yadda yadda yadda, you know the drill. Anyway, these guys were quick as fuck. I took out as many as I could, and two of the ‘bots I took out were sneaking up behind these two dudes. They told me they’d never forget that I did that – and they didn’t. They were Wakandan war dogs, which I didn’t know at the time, but T’Challa took me in as a favor to them. Nick wasn’t happy to find out Wakanda had plants in SHIELD, but...with all this shit happening, I think they saved my life in more ways than one. Wakanda took me off a’ SHIELD’s hands –”

“And therefore out of HYDRA’s reach,” concluded Steve.

“Got it in one,” Bucky said.

Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s shoulders and pulled him in for a side hug, applying a kiss to the side of his head while carefully avoiding the scars. They didn’t hurt anymore – the healing took care of that – but Bucky jumped out of his skin at the hint of touch on the tissue nonetheless.

Fuck PTSD entirely, frankly, but here he was.

JARVIS let them out on Natasha’s floor. They didn’t even knock before the door swung open, where she stood in yoga pants and a loose, white tank top.

“Hello boys,” she greeted, “Vodka sodas?”

“It’s noon,” Bucky said.

“It’s never too early for vodka,” Natasha reasoned, “but suit yourself.”

Upon entry, they found Clint reclined on Natasha’s ugly couch, Lucky splayed out over his lap. He waved, then returned to whatever game he was playing on his phone. Natasha hefted her small body up to sit on the countertop, where she pulled her laptop onto her legs. She said, “I’ve been considering SHIELD’s precarious situation, and I wanted your opinion – mainly because this would affect you, Bucky.”

“Oh?”

“I want to dump the HYDRA files onto the internet,” she deadpanned.

“You want to what?”

“SHIELD is dead,” Natasha said, “We don’t know who we can trust. HYDRA’s records can only get us so far. Leaking them to public not only exposes them, but protects the people. Unfortunately, exposing HYDRA means exposing us, too. The files about what were done to you, and what were done to me, those will be leaked too.”

“You can’t withhold those?”

“I could,” Natasha said, “but as soon as I let a HYDRA leak go live, we’ll have hackers everywhere ready to find dig up as much information as they can. And as much as I hate to admit it, I am certain they would be able to get to us. We’re already compromised as is. But – I didn’t want to throw it out there without your permission.”

Well, fuck. On one hand, everyone that knew him, or knew of him, would see everything. He doubted Wakanda’s records would leak with the rest of it, and doubted hackers could get through to those, but no one needed Wakanda’s records to know what damage was done to him. The world at large would learn of the chair and of his memory loss, of HYDRA’s objective to create a supersoldier assassin wholly under their control. They might look upon him with pity, or they may consider him a danger to the public, another enhanced human being on the loose.

On the other hand, people deserved to know when a real threat, put into motion by powerful people, jeopardized the safety of their world. Alexander Pierce may have been dead (a missing person, according to the news cycle) but his legacy laid roots into a number of organizations. HYDRA existed in senators and scientists, in ambassadors and experts. A leak might not eliminate every rat, but it would take out enough of them to stall HYDRA’s growth.

Bucky glanced to Steve. He didn’t speak, but managed to communicate with a look and a shrug: it’s up to you.

“I think it’s better if everyone knows,” Bucky reluctantly said, “Maybe it’s not better for me, or better for you, but – it’s better for the world, I think, if it’s out there. If we don’t say anything, we’re letting bad people get away with bad shit, and who’s to say that that won’t come to bite us in the ass? Who’s to say they’re not gonna grow back some of those heads and try again? The best we can do is tell people what happened. What’s happening right now.”

Natasha nodded her assent. “That’s all I needed to know,” she told him, and let her fingers fly over the keyboard. From the side of her laptop, a jump drive stuck out accusingly. Bucky’s past and future, all in one place.

Ma would see what happened to him, he realized with a pang.

What a day this was shaping up to be. Bucky raked his fingers through his hair. Rather than watch Natasha work, he folded his body into the safety of Steve’s arms, out of shits to give about looking weak or compromised. He needed the warmth of Steve’s chest, the pressure of his arms around him, his alpha scent rolling over and around him.

Steve gripped him tight and kissed the top of Bucky’s head.

“It’s done,” Natasha announced.

From the couch, Clint lifted a coffee mug in a toast. He announced, “Here’s to blown covers,” and slurped audibly.

Bucky eased away from Steve’s chest. “I didn’t even think about that,” he said, “That’s your whole world, Natasha.”

“I know,” she replied mildly, “but it’s like you said. Something something greater good something something. I’ll make some new covers. I always do.”

A mere minute and a half after Natasha’s proclamation, Bucky’s new StarkPhone began to buzz. He drew it from his pocket to find notifications from Twitter and Instagram. Within the hour, articles would surface on every publication known to man, from the New York Times to Buzzfeed to the National Enquirer, some articles overblown bullshit with mere undertones of the truth, others intricate thinkpieces on what the HYDRA leak meant for the future of not only the United States, but of the entire world.

In the meantime, Bucky and Steve returned to their apartment, where among the eclectic furniture and Steve’s experimental art pieces and the teacup collection, Wanda and Pietro wrestled with Beans, both in socked feet and pajamas, despite the tilt of the afternoon sun spilling yellow light across the hardwood floor.

“How was doctor?” asked Pietro.

“Ugh,” answered Bucky, “and don’t look at the news. We’re gonna be all over it.”

“We know,” Wanda said, “Natasha asked us about leaking the files. Our faces are not as famous as yours. It will be harder for you.”

“What else is new?” Bucky asked, and slouchedinto his beloved couch. Beans abandoned the rope toy in Wanda’s hand in light of her favorite person making his lap available, and leapt onto the cushions to splay her shaggy body across his.

Despite his own advice, Bucky plucked his phone out of the side pocket of his athletic leggings and flicked through the onslaught of notifications. Multiple stories popped up on his news app from several different platforms, each one noting breaking and developing beneath headlines: “Senator Stern Implicated in HYDRA Leak” and “Black Widow Revealed to be Former Agent of KGB” and “Captain Rogers’ Omega: Darling or Dangerous?”

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

 

January 29, 2019

 

[2:55 PM] Becca: I have a feeling I shouldn’t read any of this shit

[2:55 PM] Becca: Am I correct in that assumption James

 

[2:56 PM] Bucky: Yeah I mean

[2:56 PM] Bucky: it was shit that was done TO me so if you want to go down that road, I’m not gonna stop you

 

[3:01 PM] Rachel: ngl I clicked on it when I saw your name and I’m just

[3:02 PM] Rachel: I’m really sorry

[3:04 PM] Rachel: I knew it was bad but I didn’t know it was that bad

 

[3:09 PM] Bucky: why don’t we all cleanse with a wholesome meme

[3:10 PM] Bucky:

[Image: Cheeseburger Oreos]

 

[3:12 PM] Judy: ugh fuck you

 

[3:14 PM] Becca:

[Image: Bird sipping “Unsee Juice”]

 

[3:16 PM] Rachel: I wish I could unsee what I saw today

 

[3:17 PM] Bucky: *sad trombone noise*

 

[3:19 PM] Steve: @Bucky

[3:20 PM] Steve:

[Image: A cat labeled “me” smiling at a waffle labeled “your beautiful ass”]

 

Bucky craned his neck to cock a brow at Steve, where he leaned against the kitchen island, half-on half-off a barstool with his phone in his hand.

“Thanks for lightening the mood, baby,” Bucky said, sincere. The last thing that he wanted was the sorrow of his sisters on his behalf. What happened to him happened to him, and it did not define him. His family worried, worried too much – he didn’t speak to them of what happened to him in Afghanistan for a reason. He didn’t want pity. Didn’t want sad eyes. Didn’t want the stench of his mother’s heartache for being an alpha unable to protect her children.

Steve tipped an imaginary hat. “You’re welcome, sweetheart,” he answered.

“You are gross people,” Pietro announced.

Bucky rolled his eyes as his phone pinged again in his hand.

 

[3:22 PM] Judy: f u c k y o u

 

[3:23 PM] Becca:

[Image: Bird sipping “Unsee Juice”]

 

Even with the soft weight of Beans in his lap and the happy scents of two young omegas and one wonderful alpha, the intensity of the day burrowed under Bucky’s skin like bamboo under the fingernails. He muttered a terse excuse and shifted Beans off of his lap, retreating to the safety of the bedroom. He and Steve hadn’t dismantled the heat den, though they washed the soft base of it after their four-day heat sex marathon. Without the pressure of light and noise all around him, protected in the sanctity of the nest Bucky built himself, he could recoup. He needed it almost as much as he’d needed his den in Wakanda, a place all his own, with all the right textures and all the right scents.

Wanda and Pietro meant well. They liked to come down from the apartment they’d made their own to play with Beans or Lucky, whichever dog happened to be available. Having animals near helped soothe them, which Bucky understood. He didn’t begrudge their presence here. If anyone could empathize with his experience, they could. They too fought against HYDRA. Scientists strapped them to tables and injected them with experimental substances as they had with Bucky. They needed help in whatever ways they could get it, though those ways overwhelmed the senses on Bucky’s bad days.

Today was not a good day.

Bucky tossed his phone onto the bed, out of his reach, and burrowed under the blankets lining his nest. He didn’t know how much time passed, but the scent of alpha came to him sometime later, concerned and protective, but as Steve always did, he waited outside the den. He waited for Bucky to invite him in.

Bucky wriggled out of his blanket nest and pushed aside one of the sheets. “We should probably stop meeting like this.”

“That mean I can come in?” asked Steve.

“Yeah, you big sap,” Bucky sighed.

Steve crawled in and spooned his body behind Bucky.

“I sent Wanda and Pietro home,” he said, “and they said they were sorry for stressing you out.”

“It wasn’t them,” Bucky said. “It was everything else. I used to be normal, you know?”

“So did I, pal. So did I.”

Bucky turned a face on Steve. “You liar. You were always something else.” Always extraordinary. Always different. Always a step above the rest. Bucky could give a speech on the exceptional human that was Steve Rogers, but Steve hated that kind of adulation, hated too many words saying too many kind things about him all at once.

Steve nuzzled along the back of Bucky’s neck. He applied a kiss to the spot between his shoulder blades, and, voice muffled by Bucky’s back, replied, “Same to you, sweetheart.”

“I think I might just be special to you,” Bucky told him, and rolled away to splay on his back.

Steve propped his body up on one elbow. With his free hand, he reached out to trace the curve of Bucky’s cheekbone. “Isn’t that enough?” he asked, “You’re strange and you’re wonderful. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure being special to even one person is special enough. Me, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn –”

“Bitch, me too,” Bucky said back.

“Okay,” said Steve, “So we’re a couple a’ kids from Brooklyn, and –”

“And we’re disasters,” Bucky muttered.

“We’re a couple a’ disasters from Brooklyn,” Steve went on, “and that’s nothing special. But you’re marvelous to me, and –”

“And you’re fucking fantastic to me.”

Steve poked Bucky in the side. “Stop interrupting me. So you’re marvelous to me, and I’m fantastic to you, and in the scheme of things, the universe is huge and we probably don’t matter all that much on a macro scale, but we matter to each other. Ergo, we are special.”

“That didn’t make any sense, but I love you anyway,” Bucky said, and leaned in kiss his alpha.

“None of anything makes sense,” Steve replied sagely. “Nothing but you. You make more sense to me than anything else in my entire life.”

And that was the kicker, wasn’t it? Nothing made sense, but being here, being holed up in the circle of his alpha’s arms in a den he made in a gigantic tower in New York, something that should have been absurd in the scheme of things, was a fixed point in time. Steve was a fixed point in the line of Bucky’s life. Whatever chaos befell them, whatever battles bracketed them in past and future, whatever rains fell and fires burned, Steve would be at Bucky’s side and Bucky would be at Steve’s, constant, unwavering, fixed.

To the end of the line.

** 

Moving Bucky’s belongings from his long-abandoned apartment (paid for by SHIELD for the duration of his stay with Steve, now paid until when his lease ended in two months) came bittersweet. Bucky alternated between boxing things up to take to Avengers Tower and tucking them into garbage bags to drop at donation centers. Mostly, he kept his books and keepsakes, the things he missed over the course of the past several months.

The things left in his drawers and on his walls and in his kitchen cabinets echoed a former life, not long passed, but nonetheless an earlier chapter. The Bucky that lived in this apartment closed off his past, taped it up in a box and labeled it irrelevant. Don’t think about it; it doesn’t exist. He prided himself on emotional distance from the people he helped and declared it professionalism. Maybe it had been. But maybe through all of it, he’d needed to feel.

The temptation to seal off the reawakened anxiety simmering in him hung over him in a great cloud, but this time around, Bucky shook his head and moved on. Like he told his INs, as he knew he’d told Steve – the work of recovery never ended. He needed to learn to take his own advice.

If Steve could hack it, so could he.

For a long moment, Bucky admired the curve of muscle on his mate as Steve hefted Bucky’s favorite armchair into the van, the sleeves of his red cotton shirt rolled up to the elbow, marker drawings spiraling out from the sleeves down to the tips of his fingers. He caught Bucky staring and smiled, grin stretching from ear to ear.

Bucky’s heart skipped a beat.

Fuck, his alpha was gorgeous.

As Bucky lugged a stack of boxes along, he caught a couple of paps lurkingout of the corner of his eye. They snapped pictures of he and Steve loading boxes into their dinky rental truck, and as they did, Bucky shook his head again. Since the release of the HYDRA files, the paparazzi took a renewed interest in his life, ostensibly in his well-being, but the truth was that they wanted a story and a crisis to exploit.

“You think they ever get bored?” asked Bucky.

Steve lifted his brows. “Not so far,” he answered. He leaned in for a kiss, but goosed Bucky on the way in – Bucky yelped, and smacked Steve’s arm.

By that afternoon, the pictures of Bucky sweating in the comfy clothes he slapped on for moving day roared across the internet. They focused not on his disheveled state or the hair unceremoniously piled atop his head, but on the clear outline of the mating bite on the side of his throat. Celebrity news outlets lost their minds, bouncing from “James Barnes is lucky to be Captain America’s mate” (“I’m not Captain America!” Steve complained from the bathroom, when Bucky read him the comment) and “Rogers better be appreciating that fine ass.”

The sound of the toilet flushing and the door smacking shut preceded Steve’s reentry into the living room, whereupon he flopped onto the couch and commanded, “Bite me.”

“Literally, or because somebody thinks you don’t appreciate my ass?” asked Bucky.

“Both, but mostly literally,” Steve answered, “I wanna take a selfie.”

“Ah, that explains everything,” Bucky said, though Steve explained nothing, and flipped up to straddle Steve’s lap. He leaned in for a kiss, laughed into it, and then licked a long stripe up Steve’s cheek. Steve protested with a Bucky, what – and then Bucky sank his teeth down into Steve’s neck. His breath hitched under Bucky’s ministrations as he lapped away gently leaking blood, a noise Bucky had come to expect upon the act of biting Steve. Steve didn’t ask for a bite every day, but he did when he questioned himself, when he needed the tingling sting of Bucky’s claim on him to dig into him and settle in his bones.

They kissed with Steve’s blood on Bucky’s tongue, and lingered with lips hovering over one another’s while their heartbeats thundered in their ears.

“Love you,” Steve told him, leaning in to nip at Bucky’s bottom lip. “Now smile for the camera.”

Bucky tilted his head to his ideal selfie angle as Steve thumbed his StarkPhone. Only moments later, the notification popped up on Bucky’s feed:

 

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now

The bite he gives me always heals, but I ask him for it anyway. [attached: image of Bucky and Steve mugging for the camera. Blood seeps around the edges of Steve’s fresh mating bite and stains the seam of Bucky’s lips. Bucky’s pretty sure it’s the smuggest either of them has ever looked in a photograph]

 

“You are the sappiest man alive,” Bucky said, but he couldn’t keep the fondness from his voice.

Before he could think to duck in to kiss Steve again (and hell, he was never gonna get tired of kissing Steve) Beans hopped onto the couch. She dropped a slimy tennis ball on their tangled laps, and, despite Bucky’s protest of, “Beans, we’re busy,” she wagged her tail.

“Ugh,” Bucky complained, “Wanna go down to the gym and throw the ball?”

Steve threw his head back and groaned. “Guess we got no choice,” he said, and then asked, “When’s Sam’s band playing again?”

Bucky checked his phone. “In a couple of hours. Why?”

“Just making sure we have time,” Steve said. He pointed a finger at Beans. “One hour,” he told her, “One.” Beans’ tongue lolled from her mouth in a hopeful smile. Her eyes flicked to the tennis ball still stuck between Bucky’s legs, and she wagged her tail again.

Light from the windows poured over the red sectional and Bucky’s leather armchair, beams broken by the bob of dust motes in the air. Multicolored dishes sat stacked in the sink. The uranium glass teacup cast a green shadow onto the hardwood floor. Steve’s sketchbook and several markers scattered over the kitchen table, while Bucky’s playlist hummed a gentle song over the apartment.

Slimy tennis ball aside, the aroma of alpha contentment curled around Bucky in loving shoots. Steve’s nightmares twisted down his arms in blues and greens and blacks, but his bite stood red against the pale skin of his throat, and a lazy grin lightened the shadows beneath his eyes. For a beat, Bucky let his eyes shutter closed and inhaled the scent around them, of Steve’s rainy, city-boy alpha scent, tempered with a flush of Bucky.

Then Beans howled a wookie noise of impatience, Bucky’s eyes shot open, and Steve laughed.

“We’re goin’, we’re goin’,” Steve said.

At three that very morning, Steve had shaken apart in Bucky’s arms. The strokes of his markers wavered and vibrated as he tried to slice through the choppy waves of a post-nightmare brain. Steve’s anxiety speared out and into Bucky’s, but he held tight to his alpha despite his own shades of fear. They didn’t leave to gather Bucky’s remaining belongings until a pot of coffee and a bag of bagels softened the edges of their sleepless night. Now, they lingered in the newly minted Rogers-Barnes homestead. Tonight, they would meet Natasha and Clint and Tony at the dive where Sam’s cover band would take them all by storm. Bucky might need to sit alone in a bathroom stall when the crowd overwhelmed him. Steve might glance down to find his omega gone from his side.

But Bucky would come back to him, to their friends, and they’d shout along to songs they barely knew but Sam could strum the bass line of in his sleep.

And at the end of the night, they would return to this place, to the living room with the teacups, to the bathroom laden with Bucky’s hair products, to the bedroom where Bucky’s den had yet to be broken down into its soft components. They would crawl into bed and fold into one another. Maybe they would stay up late talking nonsense, or maybe they would sleep and wake in a cold sweat, or maybe they would make it through the night without a hitch.

No matter the future, regardless of the past, against all odds and timelines: here stood Bucky and Steve, two separate humans, red and blue, who together, made purple.

There was always a fight, but no matter the battle, they would fight it together.

 

 The End