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And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me

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The Soldier waited at the pre-arranged pick-up location, his flesh arm cradled in his metal one. Both were broken, but to different degrees. It didn’t exactly bother him to think about the possibility that the flesh might be beyond repair, that another piece of him was going to be swapped out for a superior make. It’s what happened. When your knife’s handle breaks, you replace the handle. It’s still your knife.

He held the flesh arm gently, though, just in case it was salvageable.

No one came to meet him at the pre-arranged pick-up location.

He waited for two days, back up against the metal fence of the closed store. He sat after only a few hours and stayed sitting, through daylight and night. He didn’t close his eyes.

Maybe they just hadn’t told him what the next mission was. Maybe they assumed he knew. People who gave him orders sometimes forgot there wasn’t a thinking mind behind his eyes anymore. This last set of owners were particularly bad at keeping that knowledge in their minds. The Soldier had had to listen to too many speeches, useless air puffing up useless words.

Or maybe this is what happened when he failed a mission. Maybe this was the punishment they had never bothered to express out loud to him. Maybe the worst thing they could think of to do to him was to let him loose to try to remember how to hold his broken flesh and keep it from smelling.

He stood. If this was his punishment, he would embrace it. He always did. It didn’t take memories or humanity to know that. He would always take it, whatever it was, and he would be proud for as long as they let him remember.

Time to heal the broken flesh. He could find a way.

* * *

He found a clinic for the poor and felt at home sitting in a waiting room surrounded by people coughing and bleeding. When they asked for an x-ray, he carefully pretended to flinch and they kept their touches light, their eyes sad when they landed on him.

It helped that he had fished a pair of dog tags out of a bedroom a block away. It was a good cover story. The doctors and nurses accepted that there was so much they could do and no more for a homeless vet, it was a line of events they were used to.

They splinted his arm and he declined further examination. He would have liked to have someone look at the area on his left torso that had turned a dark purple and hurt slowly when he breathed too deeply, but he would have had to take off his shirt. There would have been no explanation for the metal arm, not even with the cover story. A homeless vet doesn’t have tech like that.

They let him go.

Somehow, his flesh still hurt. It wasn’t the pain of the broken pieces or the dull ache in the metal arm. It was something...bigger. Something that hurt in a way not localized to his flesh but associated with it.

His thoughts turned to Captain America suddenly--but not him, a miniaturized version of him, covered in a sheen of sweat and a sickly pale color but blinking and happy, a grip on the hand that had settled on top of his on the bed--and the pain eased. It was like a tightening ache escaped on the air as he breathed out.

He’d found a way to fix the broken flesh, he could fix this hurt too.

* * *

The arm healed. He went to the Smithsonian to see what he could learn about Captain America. The images on the walls swam strangely, as if he could see the figures moving up to the frozen second and could hear the next words afterward. He stood in front of Gabe’s face and knew what Gabe said next, he knew the heroic tilt of the chin was in imitation of the real hero in their midst, he could hear him say so and then Steve threw a piece of paper wadded up at his head but it didn’t hit Gabe, it hit--

The Soldier blinked and the frozen moment settled back into the photograph in front of him.

The bigger pain was back and it was clenching hard on something inside him. This was not the way to solve this, the Soldier decided.

When he stood outside in the sunlight and breathed in and out a few times to orient himself around the big, shapeless pain, he thought: I have better ways of acquiring information than this.

* * *

The Soldier found Captain America so easily that he wondered if perhaps he was meant to find him. He waited, watching for the edges of a trap to reveal itself. Captain America went for runs in the morning with Sam Wilson, Falcon. He ate the same meals every day. He never startled when various spies appeared behind him--not Black Widow and not Fury and not Maria Hill--and he smiled sometimes. The Soldier counted how many times he smiled, how many times his expression fell when no one else was watching. The tally carried forward in the Soldier’s mind with no emotion, but the bigger pain kept aching.

On the third night, the Soldier eased the window of the second floor bathroom up and climbed through. He padded silently through the house and opened Captain America’s door, mindful of the creek he knew to expect from his surveillance. He climbed on top of the bed and was straddling the Captain between his thighs quickly and mercilessly. At the same time, he covered Captain America’s mouth and nose and watched his eyes spring open, unclouded by sleep, and register the attack. He tried to kick out but the Soldier’s thighs gripped him hard. He tried to gasp and maybe speak and then passed out. The Soldier carefully levered his unconscious body over his shoulders and returned through the hallway and out the bathroom window again.

* * *

He chained the Captain to a brick wall of a ruined building in the middle of a forest. He sat on the gravel and dirt in the middle of what once was a floor and waited.

The Captain woke quickly and tested the chain before he saw the Soldier. All the tension in his body evaporated once he met the Soldier’s eyes and he slumped downward, back up against the wall.

"Oh, thank god," he said. He repeated it twice, quiet. Like a secret.

The Soldier had not experienced this before. No prisoner had ever woken with those words on his lips, not with the Soldier waiting for him. It was not memory that told the Soldier this. It was a fact, like the sky being blue and his feet staying firmly on the ground.

"You are going to tell me what I need to know," he said. He didn’t need to menace. He never had. He was a menace.

"Anything," said the Captain. "Anything you want, Bucky."

The Soldier waited. Nothing was right, everything the Captain did was wrong and mistaken and didn’t match anything the Soldier had been programmed to know. It also spurred a thought in the back of the Soldier’s mind in a voice almost like his own: 'Aw, Stevie.'

It said it with something akin to pride.

"I could torture you," said the Soldier.

"Alright," said the Captain, too relieved still. "But please let me tell you."

The Soldier frowned. He walked away into the forest to try to stamp down that tightening in his flesh again, the one that was somehow bigger than pain. Captain America would be there when he got back.

* * *

Captain America was there when he got back but he wasn’t chained anymore. He looked a little sheepish about that.

“Sorry about the chain,” he said, shrugging. “Those don’t tend to hold me these days.”

The Captain handed him the broken manacle as if the Soldier would want to save it as a souvenir or possibly to avoid waste.

“Why haven’t you left?” the Soldier asked, turning over the bent metal in his hands.

The Captain waved a hand vaguely in the Soldier’s direction. “You’re here,” he said simply.

The Soldier tried to understand and found there was nothing in him that could comprehend such stupidity. Nothing that could speak, at least.

“I want to know more about James Buchanan Barnes,” he said. “I went to the exhibit, but I didn’t--” He frowned, not liking any of the words that could have finished the sentence. “It wasn’t helpful.”

Captain America was still sitting with his back against the crumbling wall and he looked down at his hands, folded in his lap.

“I could tell you the day you were born,” he said finally. “What your first word was. I could tell you about how your ma sat with mine while mine died slowly because I was small and there was only so much I could do.” He raked a hand through his hair. “I could tell you all sorts of things, Buck.”

“What was the word?” the Soldier asked. “The first word.”

“Oh,” said the Captain, smiling a small smile, tucked away in the corner of his mouth. “It was ‘mama.’”

It had not occurred to the Soldier before that his flesh had come from someone else’s. He had assumed it was like the metal of his arm, that it had been built. He looked down at his two hands and wondered about the woman he had spent his first word on.

“More,” he said simply.

“OK,” said Steve.

He started talking.

* * *

What Steve knew about Bucky was wide enough to fill a lifetime. The Soldier thought that might have been the problem, the reason for Captain America dropping his shield into the Potomac. It wasn’t clear whether there was a memory in their twenty-plus years before the war that didn’t tie them back to each other, even if they hadn’t been in the same room at the time. Steve could describe the first girl Bucky had kissed in loving detail like he’d been the one who kissed her just as much as he could recite a list of odd jobs Bucky Barnes had had and tick off the ones that had hurt and the ones that had been blessings and the ones that had been hard to find. There wasn’t a corner of Bucky Barnes’s soul that Steve Rogers hadn’t crept into, that was clear.

Steve’s voice grew hoarse after a couple of hours. He kept talking.

The Soldier’s allowable memory was sharp and clear, but he wasn’t accustomed to learning this kind of intel and he wasn’t used to retaining anything. He could feel himself shedding the useless freight of these details--of Bucky’s favorite pizza, of Bucky’s taste in beer--even as he took new information in.

There was too much to learn.

“Enough,” he said, sharply. His head swam and the clenching pain was worse than it had been before. “This solves nothing.”

Steve stopped on command and propped his head up, wedging his elbow into the crook of his crossed legs.

“I dunno about solving anything,” he said quietly. “I wasn’t trying to solve anything.”

The Soldier hadn’t realized he was angry until he swung out, wildly. The flesh hand made contact but the metal one got caught in Steve’s other hand. The Soldier flipped upwards, over Steve’s head, kicking out the crumbling wall Steve had been leaning against. One forearm was pressed against Steve’s throat, gripped from behind.

“I need--” he tried to say, but Steve elbowed him in the gut--right where the lingering purple bruise still ached--and he lost the words in a gasp.

Steve flipped to a standing position and took two steps away from the Soldier, hands up.

“Don’t wanna fight you,” he said.

“Did a damn fine impression of it anyways,” said the Soldier, rubbing at his side.

Steve froze, looking too intently at the Soldier. He replayed what he had just said in his head and found the words suddenly alien. The tone--the accent, that was alien to him.

He frowned.

“This has been useless,” he said. “It accomplishes nothing.”

Steve shrugged. “It’s one way to spend an afternoon,” he said.

Steve held out a hand. The Soldier took it, let Steve pull him to a standing position. Steve’s hand lingered on the Soldier’s metal one. The Soldier had to look down at the point of contact, but he couldn’t feel it, not like the flesh one could. It felt like a soft pressure, like a ghost.

“Bucky,” whispered Steve, also staring down at the point of contact. “Can’t you--”

“I have to leave,” said the Soldier. “I have to--I’m going to leave.” His voice sounded strange in his own ears, though. His breath was coming too quickly--but, oh, the pain, the clenching pain inside had eased a little.

Intel. It was all intel.

He took his hand away and stepped back.

“I have to--” he started to say, but the pain was back and it hurt so much.

“Leave, yeah,” said Steve sadly. “You said.”

The Soldier walked away, feeling Steve’s eyes on his back the entire time.

* * *

Still, no one came for the Soldier. It didn’t make sense, he was their greatest weapon, they said so. He was worth money, they said so. He was their best.

What had they kept him for if this was all he was going to be now?

Two weeks after he left Steve in the woods, he decided that he couldn’t be a soldier, let alone the Soldier if he didn’t have a war to fight anymore. Soldiers wear their colors on their sleeves, they go home to orders. If he didn’t have colors--besides the red of the star on his shoulder but wasn’t that blood, he’d always assumed it was blood red--and he didn’t have orders, he couldn’t have the name.

Besides, it was summer and he went to a desert. No more ice, no more Soldier. He cut his hair in a gas station bathroom somewhere on Rt 70, shaved in the mirror.

He told the waitress in a diner to call him John.

He told the man in front of the motel to call him Jack.

He told the man at another gas station to call him James and it tasted sour in his mouth. The other names hadn’t tasted at all, so he stayed with James.

”It’s the King James Bible,” he told Steve, pointing to the words on the page. “So there. It’s mine and I’m king.”

“But your name is Bucky,” said Steve.

His face was thin where it should have been chubby, even Bucky could tell that. But he’d known since he knew anything that Steve was sick, Steve was always sick, and Bucky punched anyone in the teeth who said that made Steve weak.

“Shows what you know,” said Bucky. They fit curled up together in the back of the closet with Steve’s dad’s flashlight, the one he brought back from the war. They had to crank it every couple of minutes to keep the light on and they always got tired after a couple of times and so they sat in complete darkness.

“But your name is Bucky,” said Steve again, brow furrowed. “Your name ain’t James.”

“I’m a James sometimes,” explained Bucky, with all the wisdom of seven years old. “But I’m a Bucky for you all the times, see?”

“You’re a Bucky all the time, don’t mess me around,” said Steve, beginning to get annoyed. He didn’t like to be messed around, everyone knew that.

James didn’t like remembering. But at least he knew to connect the bigger pain, the ache, with it now.

* * *

No one came for James either. He stayed in the desert, letting the pain clench at him sometimes and the memories wrack him other times. He bounced between them and they both hurt.

The sand got into everything and it made the gears of his metal arm begin to grind audibly, especially at the joints he never did figure out how to fix. People looked at him funny when he walked past.

The desert was good for lying under the sky and feeling pain, but it was hell on the circuits.

James left the desert and headed east, towards the sun when it was fresh.

* * *

Steve had told him about Brooklyn and his voice had been fond and James wanted that. So he went to Brooklyn. He waited until nighttime to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was chilly and the lanes were unfamiliar, but the smell of the water and the steel of the suspension wires were old friends.

”Ain’t gonna hold, OK,” he said to a woman, and tried to pull her back.

“Don’t be silly, Bucky,” she said. She turned toward him and knelt down in front of him so that their eyes were on the same level. He had told her she shouldn’t tell him what to do if she was so high up, he couldn’t see her. She loved him so she remembered.

“Do you remember what an elephant is, Buck?” she asked.

He nodded and wiped his nose which was running profusely.

“When my mother was still being courted by my father, a man named Barnum--”

“Our name’s Barnes,” interrupted Bucky.

“--yes, but this man was named Barnum,” she continued, smiling patiently. “He had the biggest elephant in the whole world and other animals too.”

“Did he have a lion or a tiger?” asked Bucky. “Can’t have both,” he corrected before she could speak. Obviously. You can’t have a lion and a tiger, that’s cheating. He always told Steve that when they played that they were animals.

“He had hundreds of animals, all sorts,” said the woman. “And he lined them up and they walked across this bridge.”

Bucky forgot about wiping his nose, his sleeve frozen on his nose. He could picture it, all the animals in neat formation and the biggest of them all, the elephant at the front.

“And if they could walk across the bridge and it didn’t fall,” the woman finished, “so can we.”

And that was sound logic, Bucky approved. And he loved her, so he would go.

James reached out a hand to steady himself. He hadn’t been prepared for that memory and it hurt more than most.

He touched a hand to his face and found that it was wet. Was he crying for the woman, long dead and long forgotten?

He hadn’t known he could cry.

Intel, he told himself. It’s all good intel.

But it sounded hollow even to him.

* * *

When Steve returned to Brooklyn--which was sort of an inevitability--James scoped the new apartment. He was pretty sure one of the twelve year old girls he had trained for the Black Widow program would have been able to break those defenses on her first day. Natasha, surely, would have had Steve’s throat slit before she’d even broken a sweat and she could have done it before James ever taught her everything he knew. Yelena would have laughed at the simple deadbolt lock.

For a few days, James started to speak to Natasha or Yelena before he remembered they were long gone. Lying on his stomach on the rooftop across from Steve’s apartment reminded him so strongly of missions with both of them. Natasha would sometimes clean her nails with her bowie knife. Yelena asked so many questions, but answering kept him awake when they’d been waiting for days.

”I don’t know!” he shouted finally.

Yelena blinked, but that was the only sign of how surprised she was. It was enough, though. She was still young, no matter what else had happened to her. She could wade through blood, but she still had so many questions about the rest of the world.

“I don’t know what kind of bird it is,” he said, firmer. Less angry. “Probably a sparrow.”

“I don’t know that one,” she said, slower and more careful. She looked at him sideways, not making direct contact. Ready to fight him. She was always ready to fight him.

“Only thing I know about sparrows,” he said finally, “is that they’re everywhere. Other birds go extinct, but we always have sparrows.”

Yelena looked closer at the bird.

“Good,” she said. “But I like spiders better.”

James looked down the scope of his empty rifle. There was a bird on Steve’s window ledge, but it wasn’t a sparrow. It was a pigeon and he’d never talked about a pigeon with Yelena.

At least he remembered her now.

* * *

While Steve slept, James picked the front lock. He crept into Steve’s bedroom just as silently as he had done the last time. He pulled the handcuffs out of his back pocket and had Steve locked to the headboard before he had a chance to wake up.

“You always woke up slow,” said James, settling onto the windowsill of Steve’s bedroom window. It was enough distance from the bed and from Steve spread out half under the sheets, half open to the world.

Steve blinked sleepily once and then tried to sit up. The handcuffs clinked loudly and he shook the arm they were attached to.

“Really?” asked Steve, pushing himself awkwardly into a seated position with his other hand.

“Really,” confirmed James. “I have some more questions.”

Steve sighed. “Shoot,” he said.

James raised an eyebrow.

“Not literally,” clarified Steve. “You know what I meant.”

“The woman with the brown hair, about this long,” said James, holding a hand up to his shoulder. “The one who told me elephants walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. Whatever he had been expecting, it had clearly not been that. James pressed on.

“She told me not to be scared because the elephants had walked across the bridge when her mother was younger,” James explained. “She loved me, I think.”

“Sounds like your mama,” said Steve. “I don’t know how long her hair was. She usually kept it up.”

“Was I scared of bridges?” asked James. It would have been strange to be afraid of the bridge so long before he got to the one in the Alps with the train and all that ice. But look at him now: living his memories backwards. Maybe he lived his fear all out of order too.

“You were never scared of anything, I don’t think,” said Steve. “Didn’t seem scared to me, at least.”

James watched Steve for a moment, like he had through the scope of his rifle.

“I think I was,” he said finally. “Sometimes I hear you gasping for breath in my mind and you’re not even there and I’m still scared you won’t be breathing in a minute.”

Steve clearly wasn’t breathing now, he was waiting and trying so hard not to break the spell of the moment. James knew it, knew what he was about. He couldn’t remember everything, but things like that don’t need facts or specifics. He knew Steve all the way into the corners of his soul.

“I was scared when you showed up looking like that,” James continued, waving a hand at Steve’s body. “I wasn’t scared for you and your breathing anymore, but I was scared you’da figured me out for the mook I was.”

“You weren’t--”

“Yeah, but I was and you never saw it, did you?” said James. “Anyway. I was scared the whole time.”

“Me too,” said Steve quietly.

James stood and walked towards the bed, Steve’s eyes fixed on him the whole time.

“I was scared because here I had been thinking I was all that stood between you and the worst that could happen,” he said, “but then I leave you alone for a couple of months and you come out like a god among men.”

Steve shook his head.

“And I thought,” continued James--who was he kidding, said Bucky, “I thought that maybe if I’da left you alone when I shoulda done, back when Mrs. Dietrich said I was no good for you, maybe you’da always been--”

“Mrs. Dietrich was a gossip and a busybody,” said Steve stubbornly.

“--maybe you’da always been this,” said Bucky. “I was scared to have you take point, OK? I was scared that Howard made you all the guns in the world and you only wanted a sheet of metal like your old garbage can lids, like you could walk into battle with nothin’ but that. Only time I wasn’t scared--” and he had to swallow around the confession “--was the few minutes it took to fall through the air because dying a hero’s not so bad, y’know?”

Steve’s free hand reached out for Bucky’s metal one and Bucky took it.

“I shoulda known that was too good for the likes of me,” he finished.

“Nothin’s too good for you, Buck,” said Steve. It sounded like a prayer when he said it.

“There’s this pain, Steve,” Bucky said, letting Steve pull him closer. “It feels like someone’s got a grip on my insides.” He tapped on his chest with his flesh hand. “I’ve been trying to make it go away, but it comes and goes and some days I feel it so much I want to scream.”

Steve pulled him close enough that he could tip his forehead against Bucky’s stomach. The handcuffed hand could reach far enough to rest of Bucky’s hip.

“I’m so sorry,” said Steve and choked on the words. “I’m so sorry I didn’t catch you.”

In all the ways he’d thought about what had gone before--all the searching through the pieces of memory and fitting together disjointed parts--Bucky had never once thought of that. He could see it now, from the outside. Of course Steve would find a way to add this to the weight of the world he carried around on his shoulders.

“Aw, Stevie,” he said and wrapped both arms--flesh and the grinding metal--around Steve’s shoulders. “I’da been happy if it was only falling, you have to know that.”

Steve’s grip tightened on his hip. It wasn’t the answer that made it better, not from Steve’s side of things, but at least Bucky knew it was true.

“Hey,” Bucky said, his voice barely louder than a whisper. He was looking down at the bend of Steve’s neck and could feel Steve breathing through the thin cotton t-shirt. “Did you love me, d’ya think?”

Steve huffed a laugh. “Asshole,” he said, his voice muffled against Bucky. “More than anything.”

Bucky smiled for the first time.

“Could you--” he started to ask, still a whisper. Like a secret.

But Steve looked up and pulled him even closer, close enough that they fell back onto the bed, Bucky's arms bracketing Steve’s face.

“Always, Buck,” Steve said. “Till the end of the line.”