James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes. The words are as foreign the few times he dared to roll them over his tongue as they are in print. He returns a second day, to see if sleep would make them more familiar, then a third, then a fourth. He only dreams of the taste of metal or blood (or both) on his tongue, the machine that made him forget, and falling, and "Bucky" is still as unfamiliar as everything else around him.
Nearly every photograph of Captain America — Steve Rogers, apparently, just as he is supposed to be James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes — before the serum had "Bucky" stuck to his side, and many of those after. He recognises the face, the features, but it is as if there was a different spirit inhabiting the body in those photographs. There's a smile that seems to wide for the photograph, and a hand resting on Steve Rogers' shoulder that looks far more comfortable with affection than with carnage. He can't look at those photos; he doesn't know what to do with them.
The only photo he can look at is the one of…of him. Sepia-toned with age, clean-shaven, unsmiling but not unhappy. It is the closest to the face he sees in the mirror, and the only photograph that does not fill him with something he did not dare to call fear.
No one is looking for him, yet. Steve Rogers is still in hospital, SHIELD and HYDRA are both cut off at the head. He is unshackled and unarmed for the first time in decades, and he cannot stop coming back to this museum. It is a sluggish process, but he is beginning to remember.
He sees his mind as layers and layers shielding a vulnerable core that this museum recounts in disconcerting detail. The layers should have been made of something strong, like concrete or steel, but they were glass, bulletproof at best. His handlers never expected that a bullet called "Steve Rogers" could pierce through.
There were cracks in these layers before, but those cracks could be sealed. They never seemed to extend farther down than the previous layer, and never all the way to the core. If they ever did get to the core, he can't remember, but he doubts it. He doesn't remember ever feeling like this. Captain America took a hammer to the entire operation by shouting Bucky? like it was the most precious word in the universe, and directing it straight at him. The crack cut through layers of glass decades deep and pierced something vulnerable. Something HYDRA never wanted him to know existed.
When they wiped him again, it very nearly worked. It might have, too, if the glass hadn't broken beneath their feet and he hadn't watched Captain America fall. Any other fate, any other death, and he thinks he would have completed his mission. It had to be a fall. That fall shattered the new layer and pressed the crack deeper.
He remembers a fall, but it was the other way around. It was cold, he could smell the coal smoke fuming from a train, and he could feel himself fall. He had dreamt of that fall every night since he dived into the water to save Steve Rogers. He should have let him drown.
SHIELD, HYDRA, it is all the same to him. He was the weapon and they were the ones who pointed at the target. And yet, he desperately wishes one of them, either of them, were around to wipe his memories again, deeper this time, and move him far away from Steve Rogers because he can't seem to do it himself. He can't claw the feeling from the pit of his stomach, the ache like a blueing bruise where something is absent. The ache is something from his past, from the vulnerable core, that will not leave the Winter Soldier alone. It is the only part of him that he might concede is James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes.
He should have known better than to come back a second time, let alone a fifth. In the back of his head, he thinks he knew he was going to get caught, but when it happens it is still such a shock that he reaches for the knife at his thigh, ready to slice the neck he should have sliced when he had the chance.
"Bucky," a voice behind him says softly, and he has never felt more naked than he feels now, remembering that he has left his knife at the safehouse since he started coming to the museum. His vague impressions of the 1930s/1940s did not have this many metal detectors. He barely got his arm in the door, let alone a knife.
"How did you find me?" he asks, hoping his words can eviscerate Captain fucking America, because he really doesn't want to do it with his teeth.
The lack of fear or nervousness on the man's face makes him both calmer and more angry somehow. The smile makes him queasy.
"Lucky guess. I come here a lot too, probably for the same reason you're here."
To remember hangs in the air, even though neither of them dare to say it. It hurts like a bullet to his centre of gravity and hates that his most basic instincts need him to remembered by Captain America.
"Don't call me that."
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry. Is there something you would like me to call you, for now, at least?" Steve Rogers asks, with a small smile that is almost pleading, and he can't remember the last time he got to choose anything before he chose to save this man, this weakness of his that his handlers might have even killed him for.
He glances back at the war memorial, and finally forces out, "James. I guess."
"Okay, James. That's good. I'm Steve, Steve Rogers," he says with another smile, bigger this time that makes him — James — want to run.
"I figured that part out," he says, forcing a joke that he immediately regrets because Steve is just staring at him like he can't believe he's real, and it hurts so badly that James doesn't think he ever really knew pain before meeting Steve Rogers.
He has to go. He has to leave, to get back to the safehouse where he feels just as vulnerable as he does in public, but at least it's away from Steve. At least he can think without his thoughts getting too loud there.
"Stay away from me," James finds himself saying.
Steve just looks sad. "I can't do that, Bu—James. I'm sorry, but I just can't."
James tries to leave, to step past him, and Steve's hand closes on his arm. He doesn't flinch at the hard metal beneath the clothing, or the chill clinging to the metal that has to be seeping through the layers. James gets 15 points into a list of ways he could incapacitate Steve and bolt, but something stops him. Maybe it is the fact that he knows now, beyond any doubt, that Steve would let him do it.
"Please. I'll give you all the space you need, I swear, I just…take this," he says, pressing a folder towards him.
"You want to remember, or you wouldn't be here. This…might help."
"I don't want your help," he says, venom in his voice wavering at how earnest Steve looks. He remembers that earnestness on a skinnier body, a memory in his brain that feels more intrusive than those of blood and pain.
"Just, promise me you'll at least take a look. Please. Just one look."
"I'm not promising anything," James spits, but he takes the folder anyway, and he knows that Steve knows that it is as close to a promise as he can get.
Steve smiles again, acknowledging the not-promise, and molten fury flows through his body. Fury and something else, something forgotten. Something that is a lot more deadly than anger, something he sees in the photographs of James Buchanan Barnes that he can't bear to look at.
Steve's smile wavers, and the sincerity takes over again. "It's…good to see you, James."
James doesn't reply, he just tucks the folder under his arm and pulls away from Steve's hand, realising belatedly that it was slack to begin with. He strides towards the exit, mind on the safehouse that doesn't feel safe, the mattress that feels like a brick, and dreams where he falls, and falls, and falls.
Just before slipping out of eyeshot, he glances back over his shoulder. Steve's smile returns in full force, and James nearly breaks into a jog to escape that grin slowly shattering his world.
"So, let me get this straight — you know where the Winter Soldier is and you aren't, you know, doing anything? You do remember the Winter Soldier, right? The HYDRA assassin who spent the better part of your acquaintance trying to kill you? Wacky metal arm? Any of this ringing a bell?"
Steve envies the ostrich for its avoidance techniques. If it had been up to him, he would have only mentioned it to Sam, but apparently expecting to have a conversation in a private room of Stark Tower is naive when there is an AI loyal beyond measure to the asshole with his name on the building.
Jarvis is exactly why he has Tony (appalled), Sam, Bruce, and Natasha (pitying), and Clint (feigning disinterest) surrounding him. He has to wonder how long it will be before Thor bursts through the door from wherever he is with Jane to express his own sympathies.
"You know Tony, sometimes I really don't like you," Steve says, just resisting slamming his head down on the table.
"Only sometimes?" Sam mumbles.
"I represent that remark. But seriously, Cap, come on. He tried to kill you, like, a lot."
"He saved me," Steve insists, looking away from the concern that makes him feel worse than Tony's idiocy. "He pulled me to shore. I'm not hunting Bucky down for something beyond his control."
"He's not Bucky, not anymore," Natasha says, voice more gentle than he has ever heard it. It may as well have been Sam to say it because he has already heard this a hundred times.
Steve shakes his head. "You weren't there. Maybe he's not all Bucky, but some of him is. He tried to leave and I stopped him, but I was barely holding on. It was just a hand on his arm, not even a grip, and he stopped. He listened. I can't keep away from him, all right? He's my…best friend." He doesn't mean for his voice to crack.
He sees Bucky — James, it's James for now — every time he closes his eyes. The fear alongside the defiance in his eyes, each as they surged with his words. He can see James looking back over his shoulder long enough to double his speed, to jog off as if Steve would follow him. He didn't, and he wouldn't, not yet.
No one says anything, not even Tony who hates not having the last word on anything. It almost makes him smile, but instead he shakes his head again. When he raises his chin to look at them all, the stunned silence is reflected on their face. He wonders if the shock is from the fact that James — the Winter Soldier, the guy who pumped bullets into him, Bucky — is still himself in there, somewhere. He thinks it's more likely the fact that they have never seen him as anything less than perfectly professional.
"You're gone on him," Clint says, finally, smirk plastered across his face.
"Captain America's shield isn't the only thing that's hard around the Winter Soldier," and ah, there it is, Tony getting the final word in.
His face heats up, but that sets them all laughing, and Steve feels the weight in the pit of his stomach knowing that even if they think he's an idiot, they understand, at least a little, how much this means to him. He lost everything, and finally, finally, something was coming back, even if in fragments. He has never known that anything so broken could be so beautiful.
The only person who doesn't laugh is Natasha, who cracks a smile too clinical to be anything other than a front. Her eyes give her away, and she is staring at Steve like she is looking for a truth behind the laughter filling the room. It was just a joke. He still has to look away.
He doesn't know Steve Rogers, not quite, but there is something so undisputably him about the fact that, when James opens the folder when he's absolutely certain he wasn't tailed, there is more cash than he has ever seen in his life contained in a single envelope. Find somewhere safe is written in large, carefully-written, blocky letters, the kind where you can tell that the writer's usual scrawl is borderline chicken scratch.
He didn't feel safe in the safehouse, now that there was no HYDRA to organise it and plenty of former agents probably looking to hunt him down. The money they gave him on a job that was supposed to be done before Steve Rogers could so much as blink at him was running thin.
Desperation makes men take stranger's money and use it, which is the only reason James ducked into the first hotel that didn't look like it had a rat infestation. He kept his hood up and sunglasses on and booked the room under Steve Rogers, because it almost made him laugh. When the clerk at the front desk asked "like Captain America?" he wanted to laugh even more, because no, nothing like him at all, but he just nodded and shoved enough money at him to let him stay for two weeks.
He doesn't look at the rest of the folder. He eats, he sleeps, he dreams about falling again, and again, and again, and he sees Steve's face everywhere. He begins to feel human again. It aches like the place where his metal arm meets his shoulder does when it rains. But there is also a warm, delirious lightness. HYDRA never let him be anything more than a weapon, and maybe this is why.
He tries not to think about Steve, but it's like that face, that smile, has been imprinted into everything around him. Every time he gets close to the folder he hears the name "Bucky" swaddled in an emotion he doesn't want to name because it hits too close to a home he didn't know he had.
It takes him a week to cave.
He should have shredded the folder when he had the chance. Even then, it just would have taken a little longer to tape back together before he could read it. He doesn't know where the point of no return was, but if he were to hazard a guess, it was probably when his mask fell off and everything else began to fall after it.
He settles down on the bed too soft to sleep on properly, but perfect for this. Page after page of information, some with CONFIDENTIAL stamped across the top and others where a hand (a shaking hand, a nervous hand, Steve's hand?) had highlighted sections. The information is dense regurgitation of war records and school records that bleed together.
He stops at a report from school, a write-up about his fighting getting out of hand. There is a note at the bottom, about how defending Steve Rogers is admirable, but telling a teacher about the situation is a lot less dangerous than picking fights. The next report is dated a week later. There are only a few more before he either stopped fighting or the teachers gave up on writing him up for it. The latter seems far more likely.
"Steve Rogers. Steve. Steve," he says aloud, quiet and embarrassed. The name echoes back in his head in Steve's voice, in the voice of the speakers at the museum, in his own voice that must be from decades ago because he sure as hell doesn't sound like that now.
He pushes forward, wading through official paperwork that does little to remind him of anything much at all. When he reaches the end, disappointment courses through his brain. He remembered more from the few words he exchanged with Steve Rogers than any pile of paperwork could give him.
He knows he's James Buchanan Barnes, but he already knew that. Hair colour, eye colour, two perfectly normal arms, death from falling off a train on a mission to destroy HYDRA — things he either knew or guessed. He defended Steve Rogers before he became Captain America, he did well in school, and he went to the hospital a lot on dates that correlated with the dates of the fights he was written up for. Numbers, dates, statistics, facts, names — he has worked in those for years. All you need is a few of those to make a kill. This file could be describing a target for all he knows, with his face pasted into the file.
He's ready to tear it up, to throw it across the room or out the window, to shred it with his knife like he should have done in the first place. He almost doesn't notice the package tucked behind the endless stream of useless numbers and names and places he can't remember.
If that doesn't help…again in the big, blocky, trying-too-hard letters.
He flips the file open, eyes drawn to a small post-it note, in what has to be Steve's real writing, because it says sorry this is so hard to read, and fuck, he's just as talented at making letters look like scribbles as he always was.
And James remembers.
He remembers it, half-hazy, like a camera out of focus. He flips through the rest of the pages, eyes scanning the text without reading it, just to take in the shape of the ls with loops so wide they could be os and the as so small that they're barely visible on the page. The writing of an adult for whom the childhood penmanship lessons never took off. The writing of someone who thinks faster than they can write so only they can read it.
Except, James doesn't have any trouble reading it.
The memory sharpens. His elbows resting on a table, two sheets in front of him, one half-finished in perfect script his teachers must have loved, the other complete but illegible to the untrained eye.
"You know, for someone whose drawings ought to come to life, you sure can't write for shit," words of the past leave his lips, and the warmth in them, the teasing, the gentleness is all Bucky and none of the Winter Soldier. Then, Steve raising his eyebrows, pretending not to be asmused, but his lips still quirking upwards.
"If you did your own homework, that wouldn't be a problem." The voice is chiding, but also appreciative, at the compliment and the complaint, both of which he has heard before.
"Hey, it's not a problem for me. I could read your writing when we were kids, and it hasn't changed, so we're fine," the words, not as foreign as they should be, slip past his tongue, and he's whispering to an empty hotel room and smiling in a city block destroyed at least in part due to his actions.
He remembers Steve tackling him from across the table and them wrestling on the ground, Steve's arms so delicate he could snap them. He lets Steve win, and they both know it, but it still makes Steve smile. "Hurry up and finish copying my homework."
He drops the file in front of him and leans back against plush pillows that even the shred of Bucky forcing his way into his mind doesn't ever remember feeling.
He remembers. These are his memories, not just stories told by people to make him compliant. HYDRA woke him up, memory wiped clean as snow, and told him he was a killer, here's your gun, put a bullet in this person's head by next week. He didn't remember being a killer, but he still knew how to use a gun and how to fire one so that a person stopped breathing, so that was good enough for him. Now there are memories behind everything, a deeper truth behind layers of shattering glass he keeps nicking himself with.
"Steve. Steve. Steve. Steve."
Instead of sounding more ridiculous the more he says it, it begins to feel real. It starts to take on meaning. Steve Rogers is Captain America, but really he's the boy who never outgrew his terrible writing and fighting any battle that came his way. Steve Rogers is the reason he skated by in school, and he is the reason Steve Rogers lived long enough to graduate.
When he reaches for the file again, he peels off the post-it note and reads the text beneath. He has heard the phrase "takes your breath away" before, but he never imagined it being so literal. Pages, endless pages of the same scrawl, the same shaky hand that steadies by the end of each paragraph. Sketches interrupt the blocks of text, labelled and cross out and relabelled over and over again until the writer got it just right.
He just skims, at first, looking through all the pages again. There are sections, loosely, and each seems to be titled with a terrible joke (if you can even call it that). From what he can tell, they are stories. Some of them with small illustrations. At the end of all the pages, there is another post-it note.
I hope this helped. Sorry if it ' s overwhelming, I could never sleep in hospital beds. You know where I am if you want to talk.
His number is written in the neat, blocky letters again that he thinks draws the clearest distinction yet between Captain America and Steve Rogers. He doesn't crush the post-it note, but instead puts it on the nightstand.
He flips from the back, and a series of pages without text, just with illustrations catch his eyes. He should start at the beginning, but he starts at the pictures, trying to make sense of them. They're sketches, done by a skilled hand on paper that's so old it has to be the originals.
Hands, lots of hands. Wrists, forearms, the muscles of arms, shoulders, backs, legs, a neck. All the same model, done over and over again. He doesn't have to compare his hands to the sketch to know it's his. He can see the places that some veins stick out more than others, the scar on the webbing between his middle and ring finger that he always assumed was from a contract gone bad, but a tiny note on the side of the page says you never could ride a bike like a normal human being.
He stops. There's a sketch from the back, a figure that has to be him because if he knows anything, it's his body, honed carefully to a weapon. He never thought that maybe HYDRA found him like that, and decided that this was what an ideal weapon looked like. The blankets pool around his waist, sunlight brightening a patch of skin. He is awake, eyes closed but with a laugh on his lips.
He drops the file and bolts out the door, recalling the area in his mind to figure out where he can get a half-decent burner.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (20:23:04) Were we lovers?
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (20:25:34) No, just close
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (20:25:54) Why not?
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (20:30:02) I don't know.
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (20:30:12) Why do you ask?
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (20:30:49) Some of these drawings are very…
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (20:31:09) Intimate?
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (20:31:20) Yeah.
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (20:32:34) I've always liked to look at you.
James doesn't reply. It left him with more questions than answers, and he has to tear his eyes away from the sketch of him smiling against his pillow. It's still there, in his brain, and he can almost remember it. Maybe it was one of those things that happened so often that all the times blur. He remembers being warm, even with the breeze from the cracked window blowing over his back. The room smelled faintly of cigarettes that he had stopped smoking near Steve because of how they made him cough, and clean linen, and strawberries.
He flips back to the beginning of the notes and starts to read.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:44:12) Rogers?
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:45:23) James?
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:45:54) I'm reading about Coney Island.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:46:02) Did you only go on the Cyclone because I went on the Wonder Wheel first?
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:46:23) Oh wow, I didn't even remember that
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:46:52) But yeah. You didn't really like heights, but on the Cyclone it didn't much matter when you were going that fast. The Wonder Wheel was different.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:47:32) I remember. They stopped it when we were at the top. You tried to convince me they did it every time, but I was certain you did it to drive me crazy.
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:48:42) I might have done.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:48:59) I knew it!
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:49:20) Did you hold my hands?
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:49:39) Yes
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:50:22) Yeah. It helped, you know. I remember. I could smell popcorn and yesterday's rain in the air. You were smiling. I stopped worrying about the height.
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:51:14) James…
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:51:48) Sorry. Some things are coming back too sharp. I think I liked them better out of focus.
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:52:55) It's okay. I just didn't know that it helped. Guess I was a little busy worrying about not throwing up on your shoes.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:52:20) You did, though.
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:52:49) At least I waited until I got off the ride though, yeah?
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:53:28) Yeah.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (01:53:48) Go to sleep, Steve.
From: Steve Rogers To: Blocked (01:54:13) Probably a good idea. Good night.
He wants to destroy the phone. He wants to crush it in his hand or set it alight or shred it to pieces. He wishes he had been smart enough to do that to the file in the first place.
He should have at least read it in sections. Slept in between stories, in between sections, anything to take away from this endless stream of information. The documents did nothing for him, but these notes, written in Steve's handwriting with Steve's voice reading them aloud in his head, with Steve's fucking smile punctuating every happy story and his twisted, desperate frown every sad story.
He is remembering. Story by story. Where Steve's story falls short, or where it is only one perspective, his brain catches up, he fills it in. He'll remember a colour here or a scent there. He will remember how he felt when Steve was drawing him or when they were chasing that dog across the street to try to keep it safe.
A rush of colours, scents, tastes, emotions, and Steve Steve Steve tinting every aspect of his memories. They are mostly retold through Steve's mind, but even those that aren't, those that he finds in between, can't escape at least the thought of Steve. Even when Steve isn't there, he remembers wishing he was.
When Steve fell into the water, inhaled lungfuls of water that James left him on the shore to cough up, he must have felt like this. Surrounded, pressure from every side, unable to think, breathe. Feeling his life slip away. James feels the life he was always told was his slip away and this forgotten life, Bucky's life, slip in.
From: Blocked To: Steve Rogers (02:32:18) I still don't like heights.
He forces himself to put the phone and folder away and start fresh tomorrow. It takes him hours to fall asleep, because all he can think about is how badly he needs to hear Steve's voice now that he knows at least a little. When he finally falls asleep, he does it on the bed instead of the floor, and he dreams of ferris wheels and million dollar smiles.
Memories. Funny things, aren't they? James understands why he was never meant to have them.
He ' s holding Steve and they ' re both crying, but he ' s crying because Steve is and Steve is crying because they ' re standing at a grave he never wanted to live long enough to see. He ' s small, not fragile but small enough that it scares Bucky to hold him too tightly. Even the strongest, and yes, Steve is the strongest, but even the strongest can shatter at their weakest. Bucky is terrified because he never imaged Steve at his weakest and he could not have been less prepared.
James could choke on the irony. Steve isn't the one in danger of shattering anymore. The memory shifts again.
He's making breakfast, and it is totally natural. He makes breakfast a lot. Thinking about Steve's cooking brings the taste of definitely-not-overeasy eggs and burnt toast to his tongue, but he always eats it anyway. He is grateful that he can usually do the cooking. Steve's face, all sincerity and gratuity and admiration, makes the process worthwhile.
James stares at the microwave in his hotel room. It changes nothing in him, but then again, they did not have microwaves then, did they? A stovetop might inspire more. When he asks Steve, Steve tells him his chicken noodle was the best, and that he still craves it every time it gets cold.
Steve is sick, sick, sick and it happens far too often. They worry every time that it's TB but it never is, but he has to wonder how much more Steve's body can handle. No cold he can't fight, no flu he won't face, no case of mild pneumonia he'll let stop him from cracking a smile at Bucky whenever he walks past. Steve isn't fragile but he sure as hell feels like it sometimes. All Bucky can do is scrounge up enough money to get some meds and keep up a constant stream of chicken soup. Steve loves it, he says. Bucky thinks that anything hot that doesn't make you vomit tastes good when you're sick.
The serum was good for Steve. Maybe he looks different, bigger for sure, but he's the same Steve that never backed down from a fight and loved chicken noodle soup and couldn't cook to save his life. The only difference is that Steve wasn't going to live past 30, no matter how much soup and meds he got. Steve got bigger, but he's not all that different, not really.
Pain. Unbearable pain. He wanted to kill every piece of shit Nazi and here they are burning him up from the inside out. You shouldn ' t be able to do to people what they ' re doing to him. He can feel his lips moving around his name and social security number but he ' s starting to forget both and he just wants the pain to end. He has nothing to tell them . But they ' re not doing this for information, no, no, you don ' t need this much pain to get information out of a man. This hollows a man out. Steve was the one who loved T.S. Eliot but Bucky hopes desperately that he never lives it, never truly knows what it is to be a hollow man, shape without form.
He thinks that Steve probably did find out. He doesn't think it's arrogance to say that he had to have found out when he wasn't able to stop Bucky from falling. Hollow men hollowing out men. The cycle goes on.
He asks Steve if he still reads poetry. He knows the answer before he gets it, even though he doesn't know the exact words. Till human voices wake us, and we drown. James smiles. He never much liked T.S. Eliot, not then. He might start to.
Then the pain stops long enough for him to recognise that it will start again. And there are hands on him but he hears his name and it's Steve, Steve standing over him. Except Steve never stood over him, Steve wasn't here, unless he too was in the twilight kingdom and T.S. Eliot was right about everything. Then he is coming into consciousness and all he can think is that Steve is bigger and Steve is here and he doesn't care how big or small he is because Steve is here to save him like he has always been.
When James wakes up, it's still dark, and the clock across the room tells him it's just past four. He just slept after the fourth day with the notes. He had to pace himself, to break, to eat and sleep and walk outside in the fresh air while reading because so many memories at once threatened to drive him crazy.
He went to Coney Island yesterday and went to the top of the Wonder Wheel himself. It wasn't the same. Every memory was tinted with Steve because that is how they are meant to be. He was saving the last page for when he woke up, but he could barely scrape together any sleep for how anxious he felt.
He pulls the folder from under his pillow and flips to the last page. His breath catches in his throat.
It's a photograph. He didn't think any existed that weren't at the museum, but here it was. Steve, post-serum, sitting at a bar and Bucky leaning over him, smiling at him. He wonders who the photographer is, but mostly he wonders how Steve is smiling back. The memory is fuzzy, but he thinks it was the same smile.
Before James can stop himself, a smile to rival the one in the photograph splits his face. It startles him so much that a laugh huffs out after it. His last laugh was in a different time, a different layer, one where his face was covered in steaming blood. It makes him feel sick, remembering that. Remembering the body count of the Winter Soldier. Remembering how his best friend almost became an number.
He looks over at the post-it note on the nightstand. You know where I am if you want to talk. Leave it to Steve to keep his apartment even after an assassin had killed a man in his front room. Any sensible man would have found a place with better security than a lock on the door. He has never been more glad that Steve doesn't have a sensible bone in his body.
He perches on the second highest stair leading to the hallway of Steve's apartment when he hits call. The chime is faintly audible from where he's sitting, and it doesn't get past one ring before Steve picks it up.
"Bucky? I mean, shit, James," he stumbles.
He laughs, and the sound makes him feel warm even though the crisp, early-morning made his metal arm cold enough to chill the rest of his body. Steve makes a startled sound on the other end of the line and it strengthens his purpose, reminds him of why he's here. He keeps his voice low in case he chickens out, but he doesn't think he's going to run this time.
"There are a lot of holes in my memory, but I'm pretty sure the Steve Rogers I knew didn't say words like that," he says, and Steve's laughter might not be the most beautiful thing in the world, but it comes pretty close. "And…Bucky's fine."
Steve hesitates. "Is it?"
"Yeah. I'm certainly not a James."
"Are you a Bucky?" Steve asks. He might not have a sensible bone in his body, but he's the smartest guy Bucky knows.
"Not completely, but I'm getting there. Lotsa spaces to be filled still but, well, I'm not thinking about eviscerating you so much anymore."
Steve laughs again, and Bucky thinks that any version of him from the 1930s onwards would have melted for that laugh.
"Thought so too. I figured out some other things, too."
"Oh?" He sounds nervous.
"Remember the first question I asked while going over the file you gave me?"
The confidence he is projecting is all the bravado of himself that he can muster, the bravado that made him score with nearly every girl he fancied, and that same bravado that he doubts Steve ever believed, but always let him play up. He is terrified, because what he is about to admit to tastes more like poison than the memories of his hits. He can see death at the end of each, but he thinks that if he had the choice, he would take the bullet. He'd take a quick death over slow torture any day.
Steve is hesitating again. "Yeah. You asked if we were…" his voice catches and he doesn't finish the sentence. Lovers hangs between them, and it might have always been like that for him.
"Yeah. Well, I figured it out. We weren't lovers, like you said. But I was in love with you. Love," he spits out, or tries to at least. The venom isn't there, but at least his voice doesn't crack.
"Buck, maybe this isn't a conversation we should be having over the phone."
"Well, then, you better invite me in."
"What?" he chokes.
The gasp is loud enough that Bucky can hear it through the walls and he can't stop the laugh that bubbles up his throat, as Steve curses like he never did before (one change that he registers as in improvement, because Steve always needed to loosen up). The sounds of crashing come from behind the closed door at the end of the hallway, of a man falling at least once to the floor even with superhuman balance, and the door swings open to see a sleepy, harried-looking Steve Rogers.
It has been nearly two weeks since he saw him last, and before that it was half-dead from bullets and drowning. This Steve Rogers, hair sticking up and eyes droopy but forcing themselves open, mouth slack as he spots him on the stairs, reveals another wave of blurry memories of bright colours and endless laughter.
Bucky tilts his head, and without so much as closing his door behind him, Steve covers the hallway in three large steps. Bucky pats the stair he's on, and slowly, as if nearing a wounded animal, Steve lowers himself down next to him, keeping his space.
"It's good to see you," he whispers, like if he speaks a few levels louder that Bucky will bolt. He just nods.
"So, here we are. My last memory was of loving you, and most others before that were the same. I'm glad, mostly, to be remembering. I wish I didn't remember that," he admits, looking at his knees. These pants have a bloodstain that never worked itself out. Or maybe one version of him just left it there. There will always be holes in his memory.
Bucky shrugs. "'Cus it means I get to relearn love and heartbreak in the same day. I'm pretty out of it, but I don't think that's the intended turnover rate," he says, cracking a smile. Steve doesn't smile back.
"You can't think that, that…your heart will break."
Bucky scowls, face twisting and he does look at Steve this time. "I'm still piecing together my mind, where it's your friend and where it's the guy who killed like he was born to do it. I didn't even remember that I had a heart until recently, I can't top that off by trying to figure out what you think."
It is the most he has ever said to Steve in one go, this time around at least, and they both register it. Finally, finally, Steve smiles.
"I'd never break your heart, Buck. But you're just getting it all back, I don't want to confuse you more," Steve says. Maybe if he didn't have to be a martyr for every cause, things would have been different.
"You're right, I'm just getting it all back. I don't know what love is, but I know I love you, and the meaning is starting to take shape. You're the only thing I know for certain. Please," Bucky asks, his voice cracking.
Steve hesitates, and he has to wonder how long it will be before the hesitation fades. He leans over, careful to avoid touching with his metal arm, and cradles Steve's face with his hand. Steve frowns, little wrinkles showing up in his forehead, and reaches for the metal hand, placing it on his neck.
It would take the barest pressure to choke him to death, a single, sharp slice to cut his jugular. But Bucky isn't thinking about that, not much at least. He's thinking of the smile that Steve tries to stop from curling over his lips. He thinks about how he still smells like soap and how his facial hair has started to come in. Then he kisses him, and he doesn't think much of anything.
It's warm and chaste, a press of cold lips against sleep-warmed ones. Steve's hands slowly slip around his waist, tentative, and he leans in closer. The kiss deepens, but stays slow. It's all heat and slide and familiarity. Even though they have never kissed, it's as natural as breathing for both of them.
Steve slows the pace, but Bucky tries to increase it, tries to taste every part of his mouth, tries to replace all higher brain function with SteveStevestevestevestevesteves. He tastes a hint of blood that probably ins't there, and he yanks away, panicked and terrified. Steve immediately backs up, raising his hands in front of him in the universal symbol of calming.
Bucky shakes himself, chancing a smile. "A little much, I think. Great. Really great but. Slow would be good. I don't think my heart has beat this fast since right before I died."
Steve pales faster than should be possible, looking nothing shy of horrified. Bucky laughs so hard that his stomach hurts and Steve's neighbours bang on the walls, begging for the last few minutes of sleep before their 6am alarms go off.
He reaches for Steve's hands tentatively, holding them in his own between them. "All right, I'll work on my sense of humour.
Steve redoubles his grip on both hands, soothing over the metal knuckles with a promise that I'll get used to it. Bucky believes him, too.
"You don't have to change anything about yourself, Buck."
"Not even the mass-murderer bit?"
Steve shakes his head. "That wasn't you," he asserts.
"You really believe that, don't you?" He doesn't, but Steve always thought more of him than anyone else.
"Because it's true." There is no trace of doubt in his voice, and the sincerity alone is enough to pad the nebulous definition of love in Bucky's brain.
"I'm beginning to get why I never let you outta my sights," he admits, and Steve lights up.
He leans in again, to kiss that smile softly, until his own lips mirror it and he can't tell where he is and where Steve is.
They kiss until alarms start going off in neighbouring apartments, and dogs start to bark, and showers start to run so that the hot water heater in the hall creaks dangerously. They kiss until one neighbour makes a mildly annoyed noise and steps over them to get downstairs.
When Bucky finally, finally pulls back, it is only to say, "Invite me in. Let me see if I can remember how to make some chicken soup. Just keep me away from the knives."
Steve swats him lightly across the chest, but pulls Bucky to his feet and leads him into his apartment, never once letting go of his hand, even as he gives him the "grand tour" of his box of an apartment.
This, holding hands with Steve Rogers, trying to stop thinking about safe evac routes, and planning the best chicken noodle soup the world has ever seen, might not have been the perfect picture of what he once was, but this is the James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes of today, and it is one that he hopes will constantly change, as long as the first stays the same.
He is rebuilding his life with Steve at the centre of his universe. It makes sense, considering he's pretty sure that is exactly how it was the first time he lived it.