The apartment in Kiev is thick with dust, fridge empty, air in the faucets. Steve touches the tiny dining room table and tries to imagine Bucky sitting on the couch, thumbing through the few books on the shelves.
"He probably didn't even live here," Sam says, crouching at the front door. He picks up letters dated from five months ago, the Cyrillic script incomprehensible to Steve. Sam drops them on the pile of magazines that Steve had stepped over in his eagerness to find any evidence of life inside. "Unless his alias was Ivan Shevchenko and he liked to read Nature Genetics in his free time."
"Does it look like there's anything useful in the letters?"
"It looks like the power company's not too happy with him if the number of bills he has is anything to go by," Sam says, offering a wry smile. "Sorry Cap."
Steve looks around the apartment one last time. Six weeks of chasing down leads all culminating in this dead end.
"Let's move on," he says.
Natasha meets them in St. Petersburg by knocking on their hotel room door at 3AM. Her windswept hair is pulled back into a ponytail and she's wearing a long coat. She says, "Look, I've got to take care of something else for a day, alright?" which confuses Steve in his half-asleep state before he realizes that she's talking on her earpiece. "I'll call you back later," she concludes and shuts the door behind her.
Sam opens up a bottle of water to pour into the Keurig tank. "Coffee?"
"Dark roast if they have it," Natasha says and drops the slim duffel bag she's carrying onto one of the chairs. Steve goes for the hardcopy files they've collected while Sam pushes buttons on the coffee machine.
"Thought you could do with a bit more ammunition than they'd let through on civilian planes," Natasha says, indicating the bag.
"Much appreciated," Sam says. Steve doesn't like to think about their extremely close call in Moscow--Sam's left ear is still taped against his head.
"Is this it?" Natasha asks as Steve hands her the folder. Sam rummages around in his bag as she starts to flip through the pages. He produces a hard drive that she absently takes.
"I haven't seen this encryption in years," she says after a long moment of looking at the papers
"But you know it," Steve insists.
"Sure," she says, not even looking up, "Just give me an hour."
One hour stretches into four. Steve accidentally falls asleep listening to Natasha and Sam bicker over the best method of programming the de-encryption code for the files they've pulled off one scientist's computer. He wakes up to Natasha pushing gently at his shoulder.
"Breakfast?" She points towards the desk where there's a plate of eggs and rye toast. Natasha has a piece of sausage sandwiched between two slices of the rye toast and she's eating it as she takes a seat back on Sam's bed and looks at his laptop.
"Out for a run."
Steve heads into the bathroom to take a piss and splash water on his face. He pauses with his hand on the doorknob and takes a breath to steady himself before pushing it open.
"What did you find?" he asks.
Natasha looks at him--really looks at him. "You can't unlearn what you learn," she says.
"I want to know," Steve says.
Steve sometimes remembers the worst years of the depression, when he was twelve and his ma was still alive. When Bucky was the orphan boy who had a smart mouth, like he'd come out of the womb swinging his fists and aiming to hit. He'd face down boys twice his size and come out on top with a black eye and a cocky grin. What he lacked in strength, he made up for in speed--until he started high school and shot up four inches against all odds and malnutrition.
Steve remembers being sick the winter of 1930 when every drugstore in Brooklyn was selling tonic at a whole week's salary. It was hard enough feeding two (sometimes three) people on a nurse's wage so Steve spent half a month trying his best not to cough and let on that he was sick again. He had half collapsed walking home and Bucky had grabbed him under the arms, his panicked voice lost in the violent force of Steve's sudden coughing, blood and phlegm collecting in the palm of his hand until he blacked out.
Bucky had gotten him the medicine. Steve had been too delirious to ask how and it wasn't until he'd recovered that he realized that maybe he didn't want to know. Bucky was the one who came to his side when the bullies started circling, the one who showed him how to dig for clams and what restaurants gave out free food at the end of the day if they could look sad enough. He couldn't add thief to the list of reasons why he idolized Bucky.
Not even when his ma started to make soup with actual chicken meat instead of stock and bones, not even when there were apples in the kitchen when there hadn't been for months--not when Bucky was lying on the other end of the narrow bed with his head on Steve's leg, reading the latest Dick Tracy in an exaggerated villainous voice and grinning at Steve like he wasn't sick, like this was great fun, like there was nowhere else in the world he'd rather be.
"This procedure looks like it's specifically designed to cauterize certain sections of his hippocampus," Bruce says, reading something to the right of his screen. He looks into the webcam, at Steve and Natasha. "They were trying to suppress or destroy specific connections because they needed him to remember his previous missions and his training but didn't want him to remember anything else. If these are actually his brain scans, then there's some definite scarring from man made cuts."
"What does that mean?" Steve asks.
"In a normal human, I'd say it was a lost cause. It's like breaking your spine. You don't expect to recover from paralysis." Bruce takes off his glasses and rubs at the bridge of his nose. "With his enhanced healing? I'm not sure."
"Is there a chance?" Steve asks, "Any chance at all?"
Bruce doesn't answer for a while, just keeps looking at whatever he's pulled up on his computer screen. When he speaks again, it's quiet. "I don't want to give you false hope, Steve. If there is a chance, it's very very small."
Steve stares at the keyboard, unsure what to say. His chest feels tight--he hadn't known how much he'd been counting on Bucky being able to remember until it suddenly didn't seem like a likely option.
"They froze him down any time he wasn't on a mission," Bruce continues, "That continuous freeze-thaw cycle probably wasn't helping him either. But anything is possible--his physiology and your physiology, it's not the same as everyone else's."
"Thanks Bruce," Steve says, "I really mean it."
Bruce nods. "Hope you find him soon, Cap."
"You all right?" Sam asks as they're packing up to head back out on the road. There's a HYDRA complex a hundred miles to the north, close to the Finnish border that Natasha thinks might be tracking Bucky if he hasn't yet gotten rid of the device they implanted in his arm.
"Yeah," Steve says even though they both know it's a lie. He pulls his backpack over his shoulders and fits the shield into it's holster. Sam doesn't say anything else but Steve figures he knows what Sam would say if he did: if you want to talk…
"Thanks," Steve adds, looking over his shoulder. Sam just nods.
The compound is abandoned. There's a pile of charred papers in the middle of the attached hangar, one that's big enough for three helicopters that aren't present. The computers have been gutted and smashed--hard drives all gone. Only the skeletons of desks remain--a flowery mug with dusty coffee still in it, a family photo that someone had forgotten to take down.
"Someone was in a hurry," Natasha says, gun in hand, prodding at the splayed wires of a smashed up laptop with the toe of her boot. Sam's going through the drawers.
Steve goes back into the hangar. He starts to kick through the burnt paper to the bottom of the pile, ash flaking up into the air around him. His shoes and his pants get black with soot but he keeps kicking--maybe he will see a flash of white if he goes far enough--maybe it'll tell him that the other files were a lie, that they never cauterized Bucky's brain. The papers go fluttering and he keeps kicking until he's coughing through the soot--there's a hand on his shoulder and Sam says, "Hey, Steve--hey."
Steve stops. He feels stupid for throwing a tantrum in this abandoned warehouse in front of Sam and Natasha. He presses his fingers into his eyelids before stepping out of the pile. "I'm sorry," he says, "I'm just a little frustrated."
"No problem," Sam says, "Come on."
They'd walk into Manhattan sometimes, to go look at the skyscrapers being built. Somehow Bucky always had a little extra pocket money and they'd share an ice cream or a pastry on the few times a year that they'd have the chance. The train cost too much because it was brand new--they were jealous of the boys who bragged about going into the city on the subway on a monthly basis even though they knew it probably wasn't true.
Steve would take a notebook with him and they'd stand on street corners like they were in the unemployment lines while Steve sketched out skylines and storefronts. When Bucky laid down on the park bench next to him with his hat over his eyes for a midday nap, Steve stopped drawing the trees and the shacks that had sprung up along the lower reservoir in Central Park.
He tore out all the pages he'd drawn of Bucky before Bucky could look at his notebook because it was weird and unnatural and Steve was ashamed of how captivated he was by the lines of Bucky's hands, the curve of his smile, everything.
It wasn't like anyone ever talked about it. Maybe brief snatches of conversation from the gossipmongers down the hallway about an old friend who had been institutionalized. "What a shame," Steve remembers hearing, "How deceptive. I had no idea."
"Do you think they'll do electroshock therapy?" Steve remembers hearing, "I have a niece who did that for her seizures and she's much better now."
He kept his mouth shut and tried not to look at Bucky too much.
It would have been easier if Bucky hadn't been the way he was. If he hadn't spent so much time teaching Steve how to throw a punch and protect his vitals. If he hadn't brought his ma flowers every week she was in the hospital in her last months of life--stolen off front porches and public parks, no doubt--just to see her smile. If he hadn't let Steve cry into his shoulder without saying a word because Bucky was the last and only thing he had left in the world.
If he didn't smile at Steve like they were perpetually sharing an inside joke, if he didn't sling his arm over Steve's shoulders, if he didn't catch Steve's wrist and pull him up the hill every fourth of July and say, with both their faces upturned towards the fireworks: "Look, it's for your birthday."
"Make a wish." Bucky would laugh because this was the Great Depression and candles were too valuable to waste on nonexistent birthday cake and Steve kept his eyes on the sky and wished for the same thing, every time.
Natasha gives them a lift back to DC in the Stark plane Tony had lent her.
"If you need my help, seriously, just tell me." Steve says, hand braced on the door wall just before he climbs out of the aircraft. "This isn't that pressing--I mean it's been months by now so he's probably long gone."
Natasha looks at him and smirks. "Stark's under the mistaken impression that he's in charge during your absence, but besides that, we're doing fine."
Steve manages a smile back. He ducks out the door and follows Sam out.
"I'll call," Natasha calls after him as the door starts to close. "Good luck!"
They're in Richmond, chasing a rumor about a man with a metal arm when the footage goes live. A bomb had been detonated in Stark Tower and a firefight had broken out in the streets beneath. The security system was jammed, the reporter says, Stark Industries employees have been taken hostage.
"I'm calling." Natasha's voice sounds tinny like she's on a burner phone or maybe the cell phone towers have been compromised. "I guess two heads have grown back."
There are no flights in or out of Newark or JFK. Sam decides to take his wings and Steve rents a motorcycle.
He shouldn't have been away on his own self indulgent chase--not when his friends were obviously in danger of retaliation from HYDRA for how much they had started looking into international affairs. He should have been focused on the big picture.
He hates the tiny part of his brain that says that Bucky might be there but he can't help but to hope anyway.
In the aftermath, Steve has to wear a sling on his left arm for getting shot twice in the shoulder. He decides to stay with the other Avengers while they figure out what to do next. Tony holes up in his workshop into the early hours. Steve wakes up several mornings in a row to hear Pepper having a hissed argument over the intercom outside his door because Tony's forbidden all non-scientists from accessing the workshop floor.
Steve walks into the kitchen one morning to find Sam making omelettes with Bruce, chatting about the aerodynamics of his wings. Natasha's reading something on her laptop and eating a bagel. "Hey," she says.
Steve gets a cup of coffee and sits across from her. She keeps typing. "How's the arm?"
"I heal fast," Steve says.
She keeps typing. Steve takes a sip of the coffee before reaching to take a banana from the fruit basket in the middle of the table. There's a copy of the New York Times too.
"I don't think I mentioned," Natasha says, finally looking up from her laptop. "Sorry he wasn't there, Cap."
Steve's surprised--he hadn't mentioned Bucky at all and he thought he'd done well focusing on the job. He swallows the banana and plays dumb though he knows she'll see right through him. "Who?"
She gives him a look. "It's not like I'm going to mock you or anything. I get it. Maybe you feel a little bit less lonely knowing that he's still around."
"He could be dead for all I know," Steve says.
"I think the Winter Soldier is pretty hard to kill," Natasha says, spreading cream cheese on the other slice of bagel. "And it's pretty likely that HYDRA doesn't have him or he'd have been brought to the fight. So he's out there, somewhere. He'll turn up."
"You make it sound so easy," Steve says.
"Trust me," Natasha says, "If there's anything the Winter Soldier is good at, it's finding people."
It's four in the morning and no one else is awake--except maybe Tony who's still tinkering away at his machines. Steve lies and stares at the ceiling for nearly fifteen minutes before he finally gets out of bed.
He takes the shield and his phone with him but nothing else. It's probably a stupid idea walking around outside at this time but he's not too concerned.
The two block radius surrounding Stark Tower is eerily vacant--a construction crew has left their equipment sitting near where the Hulk had torn up half a city block. Some of the cars parked in the area haven't been claimed or towed yet and Steve can see bulletholes riddling the sides.
He never thought that New York could be a battleground for so many wars--he feels a little sickened by it. But he keeps walking, shoving his free hand into his pocket.
The sun is breaking over the edge of Brooklyn by the time that Steve reaches the bridge. A couple of runners are out by now, giving him a long look as they go past, like they're not sure if he's the real Captain America or some overeager fanboy with a replica shield.
Steve doesn't care. He keeps jogging slowly, retracing the steps over the same bridge that he'd walked a hundred times in his youth. He keeps his eyes to the middle distance, and breathes with the rhythm of his steps.
In the years following his revival, Steve has thought about Bucky at least once a month. It used to be more. The weeks after he'd woken up, he thought about Bucky for hours--going over countless times in his mind everything about the train: what was outside, what was inside, what he could have used to save Bucky. If he should have jumped off that train too--if his supersoldier strength would have let him survive the fall.
He was thankful when he was given a new mission, a new team, and a new America to protect. He still thought about Bucky sometimes in those early days--but in the context of war memorials, the timbre of a man's voice on the subway train, or the smell of stale frying oil. Bucky had been a fry cook for half a year and he brought home greasy fries and the crusty ends of meatloaf at the end of the day. The job barely paid enough but the free leftovers helped to tide them over until Bucky found a better job down at the docks.
These days, he associates Bucky with the winter months: the damp cold that seeped through thinly insulated walls, the smell of cold smoke whipped up by a drifting wind. He thinks of Bucky when the leaves start to drop, thinks of his voice as he came in the door, it's a real cold one out there Mrs. Rogers, do you think you'll need more firewood? Steve was bedridden and couldn't fetch it for his ma like the other boys his age.
If he were a better person, he would have pleaded with his ma to adopt Bucky, to make him a real brother and then he'd be her real son--the one she deserves. But Steve was a bad son, the worst kind of friend, and he loved too selfishly to let go.
He'd been back to Brooklyn a couple of times since being pulled from the ice, but he'd never really stopped to look at the details of what had changed, nor had he been back to where he used to live. He slows down as he gets closer before coming to a complete halt, looking down the street where he had spent his childhood.
The shops have all changed. The corner store where Steve used to buy candy has been replaced by a trendy looking restaurant. First floor apartments have been replaced with storefronts--there's a new Chinese restaurant and a laundromat in the place where a furniture store used to be. But the buildings are still the same.
He starts walking down the road. Here's the tree that Bucky had tried to climb on a dare and nearly broke his arm falling out of. Here's where John Catoni lived. Steve had been too scared to go outside during the summer months because John would be waiting for him--scared right up until the point when he met Bucky.
He stops in front of his old apartment. He'd helped his mother plant tulips during a spring when the pollen didn't trigger his asthma too badly. He wonders if they're still the ones growing in the front, between the neatly trimmed shrubs.
He stops by Green-Wood cemetery and lets his muscle memory take him to where his ma and pa are buried next to each other.
He used to come here by himself sometimes with a notebook to draw the trees or the birds that hopped right next to him to pick bugs out of the grass. He came a lot to clear his mind after he and Bucky started living together--after Bucky started coming home late reeking of liquor and sex, back when they were fighting over how much Bucky was drinking and whether or not Steve should quit his factory job, the one that made him cough hard every morning like he was dying of TB.
But sometimes Bucky came too--they'd reminisce about his ma and Bucky would watch him draw until he fell asleep in the grass, his head pillowed on Steve's thigh like it was the most obvious place to put it and Steve would draw Bucky's closed eyes and the soft curl of his fingers until the want rose up so far that Steve was choking on it, something that closed its grip around his neck and squeezed--until he had to nudge Bucky's shoulder just to watch the vulnerable moment when he opened his eyes, and say, "Come on Buck, let's go home."
It's getting to be late morning when he leaves the cemetery to go to his last destination. Sam texts to ask where he was and if he needed a ride. Steve texts back that he's okay. They needed to come up with a concrete plan for retaliation. Steve figures that he has to close this door behind him for now if he wanted to be able to fully focus.
The building where he and Bucky had shared an apartment has been torn down and rebuilt--the new building is now managed by some real estate conglomerate. Steve doesn't know if he feels disappointed or relieved--maybe a bit of both. The street has been obviously gentrified with nice bricks and clean concrete. Everything looks crisp, newly made. He almost doesn't recognize the place.
There's a bodega at the end of the street that he slips into to grab a bottle of water before he heads back into the city. He opens the bottle as he closes the fridge and goes to the front to pay.
By chance, he glances to his right, at the stacks of gum. And farther down his line of sight, at the far end of the aisle--
His hair is shorter but raggedly cut, like he'd taken a pair of scissors to it himself. He's wearing clothes that are too big on him and there must be some hologram on his metal arm--but that's his face. Steve would know anywhere, in any lifetime.
Bucky looks at him for a long moment before he turns and disappears behind the shelves of chips. There must be a back door--Steve throws a twenty at the cashier and doesn't even bother to take the water with him as he lunges at the space where Bucky just was.
"Sir?" the cashier calls, "Sir!" Steve shoves the back door open and runs into the alleyway behind the building. Bucky jumps onto the roof of a garage and vaults onto a fire escape. Steve follows.
Bucky is on the roof before Steve can pull himself up onto the fire escape with one arm, wincing as he brings his other arm up to leverage himself. Bucky takes a running leap onto the next house and Steve swears under his breath as he races up the fire escape. It's no trouble for him to make the same jump that Bucky did, and he catches the sight of Bucky swinging into an open window.
Steve jumps for the fire escape before Bucky can close the opening--not that he wouldn't just smash through the glass first and pay the owner later--but the window is still wide open. Steve looks inside. He can't hear any shouts of surprise and decides to climb in through the window.
Steve's vision blacks out for a moment as his already injured shoulder crashes through the plaster. His sight is fuzzy as it slowly returns but yeah--there's the metal arm.
"Bucky," he says, pushing away from the wall and holding his hand up unsteadily, "Look, Bucky I don't want to fight you."
Bucky doesn't say anything in response, but at least he doesn't move towards Steve either. He just stands there, looking at him.
"If you came here," Steve says, the stupid hope in his chest betraying him, "Does this mean you remember something? Anything?"
Silence. Bucky's face is terrifyingly blank.
"Please," Steve says and he doesn't know if he's pleading with Bucky or with God and his throat feels tight and it takes effort to say the words, "Please Bucky."
"I want to help you," Steve says because this silent, unmoving Bucky scares him more than anything else.
Bucky moves--one fluid motion and he has Steve pinned up against the wall by his throat, metal cold against Steve's skin. He looks into Steve's eyes and Steve doesn't even struggle.
"Let me help you," Steve says even though he doesn't think Bucky is actually listening. Steve can feel it--a fine tremor running through Bucky's hands, a set to his jaw.
"Let me help you," Steve whispers and Bucky's face crumples, the entire facade falling away like a sheet of ice. He lets Steve go and turns, heads towards the front door.
Steve moves on instinct to grab his arm--the real one. "Bucky."
Bucky stops moving, but he keeps his eyes on the floor.
"Please don't leave," Steve says and hates the way his voice breaks. He steps forward, into Bucky's space. Bucky doesn't move away but he doesn't look at Steve either. Steve moves slowly as he brings his arm around Bucky, pulling him into a hug. Bucky tenses, like he's five seconds from tearing away and running out the door.
But then he relaxes. Slowly. And he lifts his arms and awkwardly puts them around Steve like he's learning how to hug for the first time.
The wall is pretty broken. Steve figures he should leave a note and goes for a pen and a piece of paper when he sees the contract still on the desk.
"You're subletting this place?"
Bucky stiffens in front of the window he just shut and for a moment looks like he'd like to open it and jump right out. But instead he just says, "Yes."
"Does that mean…" Steve starts, but trails off. If there is a chance, it's very very small, he remembers Bruce saying.
If Bucky knows what he was about to ask, he doesn't give any indication. Instead, he sits on the couch and watches Steve.
"Is there anything you want to know?" Steve asks.
Bucky puts his hand on the armrest, his finger tapping lightly against the fabric as he looks at Steve without saying a word.
"Okay," Steve says, finding that it's him this time who can't meet Bucky's eyes. He can't look at the blank expression any more, not when he remembers Bucky's smile. "Do you want lunch? I can make some food."
"Are you going to call them?" Bucky asks, his head tilting. "Your friends."
"Do you want me to?" Steve asks.
"No." The answer is immediate.
"Then I won't," Steve says.
Bucky doesn't take his eyes off Steve. It's disconcerting--sitting across from a stranger wearing the face of his best friend.
"Why don't I make some lunch?" Steve says, stepping away from the desk and towards the kitchen. Bucky doesn't react one way or the other, just watches him.
It takes him longer than usual to make a sandwich since he's only got the one functional hand and the newly bruised shoulder injury. He manages to slice the tomatoes and grill the cheese sandwiches into paninis and ask Sam via text to cover for him--so by the time he comes back into the living room, Bucky is curled up on the couch, fast asleep.
Steve sets the sandwiches down on the coffee table and takes a seat at the desk. He takes the piece of paper that he had initially pulled out and picks up a pen, intending to write the note to the actual tenant of the apartment about the damage to their wall before he turns and looks at Bucky.
He'd seen Bucky sleep more times than he had anyone else in his life--the light sleep of his youth, the snoring liquor-induced sleep of his indulged vices, the troubled restlessness that arose after Steve had found him strapped to Zola's table. He looks more familiar in his sleep than he has any other time--breathing lightly through his mouth, eyes flickering from side to side under his eyelids. Steve's hand starts to move of its own accord, like it has a hundred times before, to capture onto paper the face of his best friend,
"Where are you?" Natasha asks the moment that Steve picks up.
"I can't really talk," Steve says quietly, looking at Bucky's still sleeping form. "Look, I think I might be out of commission for a few days.
"Not gonna happen," Natasha says, "Fury wants us all packed and shipped to Russia. We have a new lead on their headquarters and he wants us to hit before they know we know."
Steve doesn't look away from Bucky, but gets up and moves away so he doesn't disturb him, "Natasha, if this were any other time I wouldn't even put up a fight but I really need the next few days."
Silence. And then: "You found him, didn't you?"
"Please don't send anyone. He didn't want me to call any of you."
"And you didn't ask yourself if that was a trap?"
"He's sleeping right now," Steve says, "I don't think he's in the state to hurt me right now."
"Steve," Natasha says levelly, "He is not Bucky. He is the Winter Soldier. I wanted him found but I really don't think you should be alone with him."
"Please, just trust me on this one," Steve says, realizing how stupid and naive it sounds even as it comes out of his mouth. "I just need some time alone with him."
"Hm," Natasha says noncommittally and hangs up. Steve looks at his disconnected phone and wonders if he should wake Bucky up to warn him.
His phone vibrates. I can delay 24hrs convince him to come or we're coming 4 u.
By the time that Bucky wakes up, the sun is starting to go down. With nothing else to do, Steve has tried to clean the entire apartment with one hand and through some sheer force of luck, managed to find all the ingredients in the fridge to make his mother's shepherd's pie.
Steve doesn't notice that Bucky's awake until after he's set the table--Bucky hasn't moved from where he'd been lying on the couch and he's still watching Steve silently. "Are you hungry?" Steve asks when he finally notices.
Bucky sits up and swings his legs over the side of the couch. He's stiff again--hard to think that this was the same man who had swung easily up a fire escape or punched Steve in the side of the head hours ago.
"Are you tired?" Steve asks. He hates this already--the silence, the stupid questions like he's addressing a child.
Bucky sits at the table and waits. Steve puts on an oven mitt, pulls the pie out of the oven where it's been keeping warm and manages to bring it over with one hand.
"How did we meet?" Bucky asks unexpectedly.
Steve feels a rush of relief at the question. Progress, if only just the tiniest bit. "Um well. We were down farther east, over by the docks where my ma told me to pick up a package from her sister and I was having trouble lugging it home. And there was a group of boys who didn't really like me--they found me trying to take the box back home and they took it from me. This was over by the orphanage because you saw them bullying me and you didn't like it so you told then to back off. And then they beat me up but you beat the biggest one of them up so the rest of them ran away." Steve doles out a generous portion of the pie to Bucky as he speaks and pauses with the spoon in the dish for a moment afterwards before adding, "Sorry, I'm not a real good storyteller."
"Did the package get delivered?" It's such a flat intonation that it's hard to tell if it's a question at all.
"Yeah," Steve replies, his heart sinking somewhat. It wasn't the point of the story. "Yeah, you helped me bring it back. And then we figured out we were in a lot of the same classes together."
Bucky doesn't ask any other questions after that, just starts to mechanically eat the food.
"It's my mom's recipe," Steve says, serving himself some. "You used to really like it. She couldn't make it often, not with how expensive meat was. We had it without the meat once but it wasn't nearly as good."
Bucky makes no indication that he'd heard. It's like talking to a wall.
"Do you like it?" Steve asks.
No reply. Not that Steve was expecting one, he supposes.
"How long is your sublet?" Steve asks as he hands over another washed plate. Bucky wipes it down and keeps his eyes on the cupboard where he's putting the dishes away.
"How long have you already been here?"
"Do you want help looking for an apartment?"
Steve washes the last of the forks.
"The name on the contract," Steve says, "Is Mikhail the name you go by?"
"I don't need a name," Bucky says, "The Winter Soldier is sufficient."
Steve squeezes the last of the suds out of the sponge. "Is it okay that I call you Bucky?"
Bucky closes the utensil drawer but doesn't look at Steve. "Fine."
Bucky wanders down the hall and a moment later Steve hears the shower start. He stands in the middle of the kitchen, once more with nothing to do, wondering how the hell he was going to convince Bucky to come with him without a fight.
He gets around to finally writing the note apologizing about the smashed drywall and leaves his phone number. He leans against the kitchen counter, looking down the hall. If he brought Bucky back by force, he was sure that Bucky wouldn't trust him any more. Even if there was a chance that Bucky could recover his memories, Steve wouldn't gamble with Bucky's trust.
He had to think of something to say--the right thing to say--that could trigger something in Bucky's head. One out of the thousands of memories of their decades together. Needle in a haystack.
The water turns off within five minutes. Bucky doesn't even look in his direction as he walks from the bathroom to the bedroom in a few short steps.
Come on Steve. Think.
His mother's funeral: Bucky standing next to his side as the few people who knew her from her work in the hospital came to give their condolences. The day they moved into their apartment: Bucky claiming the bigger bed because he was bigger--only to move Steve's stuff onto it because you're probably going to be using it more anyway with a punch to the arm and a smirk.
The look on his face when Steve found him strapped to that damned table. The freezing months leading to intercepting that train, Bucky's face falling away from him.
He moves down the hall, ready to say something--and stops at the doorway. Bucky's curled up under the covers, his hair still wet and his back to the door. He doesn't stir when Steve calls his name softly.
Steve doesn't know what to do. He's running out of time but he can't bring himself to wake Bucky up in fear of driving him away somehow.
He cautiously gets onto the bed, next to Bucky so he'll know the moment that Bucky wakes up. There's a book on the nightstand and he picks it up. Moby Dick. The bookmark hasn't moved past the second page.
It takes him five minutes to realize that he's been reading the same paragraph over and over again without taking any of it in. Steve shuts the book and sighs.
It'd only come up once when they were in Germany: Gabe helping him pitch the tent while the rest of the Commandos were setting up perimeter.
"You know, it's okay if you--" Gabe said, and made an obscene gesture with his hand. Steve's eyebrows furrowed, an objection rising.
"With you know," Gabe added, jerking his head in the direction of where the others have gone. Steve's stomach clenched in fear--what had Steve done to make it obvious, how could Gabe have known?
"Nobody's gonna tell," Gabe said, hammering in a stake. "Not like it means anything anyway, right?"
Steve willed his heart to beat slower, for the stricken expression on his face to go away. He breathed in as he knelt to hammer in another stake and said, "It's not like that."
He thinks he knows all of the people Bucky has been. The youngest Bucky--angry at a world that had abandoned him and always looking to pick fights. The Bucky who turned on the charm with a cocked hat and private laughter for the girls who rotated in and out of his life. The Bucky who somehow always knew when Steve was in trouble, who handed over his handkerchief for Steve's bloody nose and called him a punk and a pipsqueak in the same breath he'd use to smile at Steve.
The Bucky who covered his back in the Hürtgen woods, who carried a gun and had once said if I had a choice, I would go stateside tomorrow morning. And then he said but you're here, like that was the end of an argument. He rarely smiled any more but he'd looked at Steve like all he saw was the tiny kid Steve used to be, something bright and fierce in his eyes like the Nazis were some dumb bullies who had chanced on the wrong schoolyard fight.
But in the moments when he thought Steve wasn't looking, he'd stare quietly off into space, lost somewhere in a space that nobody else could see. Steve hurt for him in those brief snatches of silence because he could try to keep Bucky safe from the bullets and shrapnel but couldn't save Bucky from himself.
And then he couldn't save Bucky at all.
He doesn't remember falling asleep but he must have because it's dark when he opens his eyes next. He watches the shift of headlights through the blinds against the ceiling and listens for Bucky's breathing. It's soft and almost inaudible. Bucky's awake.
He should say something. He's running out of time. But instead he listens to the tick of the clock in the living room and indulges himself for just a moment--pretends that his best friend is awake next to him and they're staring up at the same ceiling, talking about something stupid like what they'd like to eat if the depression was ever over or how the Dodgers were going to pummel the Yankees into submission this year.
"I went to your exhibit at the Smithsonian," Bucky says, quietly. His voice sounds different from the clipped monotone from earlier.
Maybe it's easier to talk in the dark when they can't see each other.
"James Buchanan Barnes." There's a hand on the inside of his right elbow, slowly sliding down his forearm until it reaches his wrist. Two fingers rest there, at his pulse point as Steve's heart starts to beat faster. Steve turns his head to look at Bucky and Bucky looks back, half lidded eyes gleaming faintly in the dim light. "He must be important to you."
"You're important to me, Buck," Steve says steadily.
Bucky doesn't say anything but he strokes his thumb against the back of Steve's wrist. Steve's pulse jumps. Bucky just watches him, assessing.
"What happened to your arm?" Bucky asks.
"Got shot," Steve says, "HYDRA trying to take over Stark Tower. I heal fast though. It's probably better by now."
Bucky shifts, his hand leaving Steve's wrist. And then there's cold metal against his neck, Bucky's palm pressed up against his throat.
"You don't even know me," Bucky says, low warning.
"I know you're not going to strangle me to death," Steve says.
Bucky's hand doesn't tighten. It just sits on his neck, slowly warming against Steve's skin. And then the fingers curl gently, thumb brushing up against the bottom of Steve's jaw. Steve's breath hitches.
"I don't know why," Bucky says, wonderingly.
Because you always looked out for me. Because you stole medicine for me, because you curled around me in the cold, because you stood by my side where no one else would.
"Come home with me," Steve murmurs. He reaches out and catches Bucky's real hand. Bucky lets him. "We can figure everything out together."
Bucky smiles. Steve can barely make it out in the dark, but it's lopsided and wistful. It's the first time he recognizes his friend in the familiar face.
In the morning, Bucky is gone.
Natasha stands in the entrance of the apartment building, arms crossed. Steve isn't all that surprised to see her.
"How much do you think that dry wall's going to cost?" she asks, falling in step next to him. He opens the door for her and finds one of Stark's many cars illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant.
"It doesn't matter. I'll pay for it." Steve climbs into the passenger seat.
Natasha gets into the driver's seat and starts the car.
"For what it's worth," she says, "I'm really sorry, Steve."
Fury debriefs Steve and Sam in the plane, over the roar of the engine. Both of the usual Stark jets had been mangled in the attack based on some insider information from moles that Tony's still trying to weed out. They have to travel out separately so as to not arouse suspicion--Tony stays behind but not before outfitting them with better transponders on a newly encrypted frequency with signals passed through his own private satellites.
"Tired of getting stuck with me?" Steve asks, managing a pretty good approximation of a smile.
"Well, I guess it could be a lot worse," Sam says, grinning back.
"There's too many," Natasha argues, "We can't go guns blazing--we'd be killed in two seconds flat. They've got too many fire doors, too many escape routes--"
"But if this is the last HYDRA base, then it doesn't matter--" Clint cuts in.
"Look me in the eye and tell me you think it's the last HYDRA base."
"If you want to go covert, the big guy's not going to be of much use."
Steve ignores them in favor of studying the blueprint that Natasha has brought back. She's right--there are a lot of fire doors that could be closed on them to impede their way if they decided to force their way through. But the headquarters is laid out in a way that it wouldn't be too hard to breach and hold the control room. There's a lot of tech in the surrounding area--rooms dedicated to server space and wide swaths of monitors chewing through a lot of energy.
He won't admit it to himself but he's thinking about Bucky, about what Natasha had said about how HYDRA tracked his arm, wondering where Bucky is now.
"Listen up," Steve says, "Here's what we're going to do."
"Hey," Natasha says to Steve as she steps out next to him on the balcony of the hotel room. "None of the others are blunt enough to say it but we're probably all thinking the same thing."
Steve turns his head to look at her. She looks him in the eye. "Are you feeling compromised, Captain?"
Ah. Steve licks his lips and smiles. "I was wondering the same thing myself."
"These are unusual circumstances."
"I think our status quo is 'unusual circumstance.'"
"So it's slightly more unusual than normal. You going to answer the question?"
"No, I don't think I'm compromised," Steve says. "Work always comes first."
Clint and Natasha set off an hour earlier than the rest of them. "Keep in touch," Clint says, throwing Steve a salute as Natasha hits the gas pedal.
"How are you feeling?" Steve asks Sam.
"About to go storm a secret base," Sam says, snapping together pieces of his wings that he's been cleaning and regreasing. "Trying to figure out how my life turned out this way. But not complaining."
"So I heard about Barnes," Sam says, "Think he's going to come back?"
Steve shrugs and stamps on the part of himself that wants to latch on to that thought. "Hope so."
In so many ways, Bucky had been the perfect complement to Captain America who had a bright shield and blue uniform that was so easy to distinguish against the grey rubble and dull moss. And maybe Bucky had been part of the mythos: picking off snipers and enemy soldiers who dared to turn their weapons on Captain America, leaving behind clean kill shots and an easy way forward.
"We're in position," Natasha says into his earpiece.
"Bruce," Steve says, "Time to think angry."
The Hulk tears into part of the concrete bunker, ripping the door off its hinges. Sam's up in the air, covering their backs as the Hulk smashes through the bulk of the resistance and Steve takes down the ones getting back on their feet. There are alarms blaring all around them. Even if Steve could understand Russian, there's too much confusion and yelling for anything to be intelligible.
"We're in," Natasha says, "We might have a live one too. Give us twenty minutes."
"That's pushing it," Steve says as the Hulk bellows in pain and stumbles back from the door he's just knocked off. Sam yells a warning and all three of them dive out of the way as a blast of fire sweeps the space that they just occupied.
"Grenade!" Sam warns, taking to the sky and dodging bullets as Steve leaps behind a wall. The grenade explodes with a ringing blast and a soft patter of displaced soil that Steve can barely hear. He throws his shield at an operative who's sneaking up on the Hulk--can barely see through the smoke--before ducking and weaving towards the others, intent on retrieving his shield.
There is a very distinct muffled boom from deep inside the bunker--Steve's earpiece sputters static before going dead.
The intelligence retrieval mission turns into a rescue.
The Hulk doesn't hold back this time. Steve's a blur of movement--he aims to incapacitate and slow down--Sam will take care of the rest.
They tear through the base--Steve in the lead seeing as the Hulk doesn't have a good memory at the best of times. The Hulk has to pry through some of the tire doors with his bare hands--growling through the pain of blistered fingers when they open to flaming rubble.
"I'm not feeling so good about this structural integrity," Sam yells, shooting at the HYDRA agents stupid enough to follow them into a burning building. And as if the universe wanted to prove his point, part of the ceiling collapses behind him, a sheet of fire standing between them and the way they came in.
"Keep going," Steve says because god help him they are not leaving anyone behind.
Natasha and Clint are trapped in the server room--someone on this side melted the metal doorknob into the doorjamb and piled heavy furniture in front of it. Steve shoves the furniture out of the way and the Hulk wrenches the entire door frame out of the wall. The server room is dark with smoke and the acrid smell of burning plastic. All three of them have to duck low for actual, breathable, air.
"Natasha?" Steve yells, "Clint?"
There's weak coughing from the far end of the aisle of half collapsed, half melted electronics. Steve squints.
"Over here," comes a much closer voice to his right. Clint and Natasha emerge out of the smoke--Natasha's face is pale and she's holding her left side.
"You alright?" Steve asks as Sam moves forward to help carry part of her weight. She smiles weakly at him.
"Part of the job."
"Let's get out of here," Steve says.
"Out, to the left, immediate right. Door all the way down," Natasha suggests. Half the ceiling collapses in a shower of embers behind her. Time to go.
Fury sends them a plane at the nearest airfield and Steve doesn't need to be told twice to get out of Russia. Sam does a bit of emergency surgery on the plane using a local anesthetic while Natasha grits her teeth and interjects relevant details during Clint's after action report.
"Nothing," Steve repeats.
"Blank. Every single one. Like they knew we were coming," Clint says from the pilot's seat.
"Think it's Tony's mole or unrelated coincidence?" Bruce has on a jumpsuit that's too big for him. His hands are wrapped in bandages and he's holding on to a cold pack.
"Stop moving," Sam says to Natasha. She grunts.
"The only reason they'd blow up one of their own bases is if they already moved," Natasha says. "Unless they've downsized massively, I don't think they could conceal a headquarters with so many operatives coming and going if it's not this one. We just lost our best lead but it might actually be good news."
"They were organized enough to attack Stark though," Clint says.
"Smaller teams move faster, though," Bruce points out.
Silence. The plane drones on, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.
"I don't like having to move without information," Natasha says.
"Maybe there's something we missed," Steve says.
Between the attack at Stark Tower and the fiasco in Moscow, Steve hasn't been back to his new apartment in DC in weeks. He'd bought more pairs of underwear and socks and thrown them away than he had in his entire life--the younger version of him would have probably been horrified at all the waste. It'll be nice to finally take a shower and get the soot off his skin, spend the day doing laundry instead of getting shot at.
The warm water feels good against his skin. He leans against the shower wall and watches the water turn dark with ash before clearing. He forgets the shampoo and uses soap in his hair because old habits die hard.
He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and pauses. He's exhausted but he gets out the shaving cream anyway and one of the disposable razors he always uses too many times before throwing away. It's a calming sort of ritual to get rid of his stubble, listening to the faint rasp of blade against skin and watching the shaving cream dissolve into the basin full of water.
It's astounding, really, that he's in his apartment for a full twenty-some minutes before figuring out that there's someone else there.
He stands in the doorway of his bedroom, clutching a towel around his waist and staring at the man curled underneath his covers. It's stupid that he can tell who it is, just by looking at the shape of his shoulders, the crook of his neck.
Bucky rolls over, sheets bunched up under his arms. His face is more open than Steve has ever seen it since finding him again. He leans against the side of the door, unable to speak.
"Hi," Bucky says, quietly.
"Bucky," Steve says. They just look at each other--and Steve sees the moment that Bucky's vulnerability dissolves into the all-too-familiar blankness of the Winter Soldier. His mouth tightens, his eyes focus harder on Steve like he's searching for weaknesses. Steve hates it.
Bucky gets up, pushing the covers off. He's wearing one of Steve's SHIELD training shirts and a pair of boxers that Steve recognizes as his own. They'd shared clothes back before the war--when he'd borrow Bucky's shirts that hung like a tent off his narrow shoulders--but this is a different lifetime and this isn't the Bucky he used to know.
"Would it be alright with you if I stayed here for a while?" Bucky asks. It's probably the longest sentence that he's spoken to Steve.
"Yeah," Steve says, "Yeah of course."
He slips past Steve in the doorway to get into the hall. He's so close that Steve can feel the sleep heat radiating off him. He stops and looks at Steve, and Steve can't tell if the look Bucky gives him is clinical or appraising. "Thanks," he says and heads into the living room with sure steps like he's been living here all along.
Steve takes a deep breath and slowly loosens the grip he had on his towel. He throws on sweatpants and one of the few shirts still in his dresser and hurries back out into the living room.
Bucky's sitting on the couch with one of Steve's sketchbooks in his hands. Steve watches him flip through the pages--flicking quickly through some and lingering on others. It's clear this isn't the first time he's picked up the book.
"Are you hungry?" Steve asks, wandering into his kitchen and opening the fridge--nothing but condiments and a half empty jug of milk. Bucky must have been living off cereal.
"No," Bucky says. "Did you draw these?"
"Been drawing since I was a kid," Steve says. He digs through the pile of mail on his kitchen counter, looking for the food delivery advertisements he usually threw away. "The Smithsonian has my old sketchbooks and I feel weird asking for them back. But I might do it if it might--you know--" He stops there momentarily, unsure how to phrase the next part of his sentence before settling lamely with, "--get your memory back."
Bucky gives him a look. "I wouldn't hold my breath."
"What do you remember?"
Bucky shifts so that he's facing Steve, still holding on to the sketchbook. "Fragments."
Steve forgets about finding food. He just looks at Bucky, willing him silently to go on.
"Sunlight on hardwood. It's worn. Someone scratched letters into the polish. SGR."
"Our old apartment. You did that," Steve says. He puts his hands on the counter and leans forward. Bucky looks at his face--god he can't imagine what expression he must be wearing right now. He breathes in deeply. "Anything else?"
"It's cold. It's never going to be warm again. I'm carrying a gun." Bucky's head tilts and he smiles in a way that is not smiling at all. "That could almost be a memory from after, if I didn't have both my arms."
"The war," Steve says, feeling numb.
"I have a lot of other, more violent memories," Bucky says, "You don't seem to be interested in any of those."
Steve swallows. "I just want to help you remember who you were, Bucky."
Steve wakes in the middle of the night at a half strangled shout. He's disoriented and staring at a still unfamiliar ceiling when he finally realizes why he's sleeping on the couch and flings the blanket off.
Bucky's lying in bed with his eyes wide open. Steve approaches slowly, murmuring, "Bucky, it's Steve, it's just me, you're okay, you're safe"--but he isn't surprised when Bucky's metal hand grabs him by the shoulder and his teeth are bared like he's going to take a chunk out of Steve's throat if he's not careful.
Slowly Bucky's grip loosens until he lets go of Steve entirely.
"You okay, pal?"
Bucky's breathing slowly evens out and he stares at Steve for a long moment before asking, "When they injected you with the serum, did it hurt?"
"Yeah," Steve says without hesitation. "It hurt like hell. It felt like every single one of my muscles was tearing apart. I thought I was going to die."
"I think I liked you better before, when you were little," Bucky says, "Is that stupid?"
Steve actually laughs. "God no. That's the best thing I've heard all month."
Bucky smiles at him a little lopsidedly. Steve can barely make it out in the dark.
"I've never slept this much," Bucky admits quietly, "Do you think there's something wrong with me?"
"I'll ask a doctor I know," Steve says. He had been planning on cornering Bruce anyway.
Bucky closes his fingers around the wrist of one of Steve's hands. Steve puts more of his weight on the bed and says, "I doubt there's anything wrong with you though." Bucky shifts so that he's closer to where Steve's sitting on the bed. Steve debates a moment before adding, "I saw your medical records."
Bucky laughs lowly--a mean sound that reminds Steve that this man with his hand around Steve's wrist is still a stranger.
"They cauterized part of your brain, but my friend thinks that your brain might be able to regrow. Maybe you sleep so much because your brain is regrowing."
"Brains don't regrow."
"You gonna argue with the doctor now, smart guy?"
Bucky's thumb slides up Steve's arm. "Lie down," he murmurs.
Steve hesitates, trying to make out the expression on Bucky's face.
"I'm not gonna strangle you," Bucky adds.
"When you put it that way," Steve says, trying to lighten the mood. He swings his legs up and leans against the headboard.
Bucky puts a hand on his thigh. Steve freezes--stops breathing.
He could lie. He could say that they were and take what he could get. It would be a hollow victory--taking something that didn't belong to him. It would be so easy.
But he wouldn't do that to Bucky.
"No," Steve says, "You were my best friend."
Bucky looks at his face, assessing. Then he slowly removes his hand.
"What happened to the dog?"
Steve squints into the darkness, waiting for Bucky to elaborate. Bucky's hand is back on his arm.
"The yellow one. Your ma hated her."
Steve remembers. "Christ Bucky, couldn't you have picked a happier memory?"
Bucky turns onto his back and looks at the ceiling. "I take it she died then."
"That's--well--yes," Steve says, "Someone shot her. It was the Great Depression. People did all sorts of crazy things."
"Zola," Bucky says, "Is he dead?"
Steve thinks of the green glow of computer monitors. "Yeah. Good riddance."
A long silence. Steve half tricks himself into thinking that it feels companionable. He figures that Bucky must have fallen asleep and he's half thinking about moving back to the couch when Bucky speaks again:
"Tell me a story."
The first time that Bucky had dragged Steve on a double date was after they'd moved in together. Bucky worked as an appliance salesman for a while and Steve painted signs. The New Deal had really pulled through and they were seeing extra cash in their pockets for the first time.
Bucky's girl was named Betty and she brought along one of her friends named Patricia. Bucky had been going steady with Betty for two months--which was a long relationship in his books, so Steve didn't want to mess it up. Patricia was nice and very pretty with her long brown hair braided back.
But between tripping up the stairs in front of the movie theater and having a coughing fit in the middle of the film, Steve didn't leave a very good impression. He also paid too much attention to the movie instead of Patricia and somehow managed to eat all the popcorn.
"Gotta teach you how to treat girls right," Bucky had said afterwards, ruffling his hair. "Didn't know you liked popcorn that much."
"Jerk," Steve replied, punching him in the shoulder. Bucky only laughed and caught him in a headlock, digging his knuckles into Steve's scalp until he'd yelped uncle.
(What Steve does not tell: after the date, Bucky had kissed Betty under the showtimes, right there in public with his hands on her waist and her arms looped around his neck. Patricia had said, "Oh come on Betty, let's get a move on," while Steve had looked away, hands shoved into his pockets, trying not to want too much.)
Steve wakes up in his own bed, on top of the covers. There's a quilt draped over him--one that takes Steve a couple moments to recognize as one that he'd bought on a whim but never took out of the packaging.
Bucky's side of the bed is crumpled but Bucky is nowhere to be seen. Steve yawns and puts his feet on the chilly hardwood just as the fire alarm in the entryway goes off. With the bedroom door open, it suddenly smells like burning.
Steve grabs the broom from the storage closet in the hallway and jabs at the fire alarm until it turns off. Bucky hovers in the doorway to the kitchen, looking pained. He's wearing one of Steve's hoodies and walking around in his bare feet.
"Making breakfast?" Steve keeps his voice light.
Bucky scowls at him but goes back into the kitchen. The mess of burnt eggs is still smoking faintly in the pan. Bucky looks at it, eyes narrowing.
"Want some help?"
"I made coffee," Bucky says shortly, scraping the mess of eggs out into the trash.
Steve washes out one of his dusty mugs and pours himself a cup. It's a little on the strong side, but not bad.
"Bucky." Steve suddenly realizes, setting the mug down on the counter. "Where did you get the money to buy all of this?" He's sure he didn't have eggs yesterday and the bread on the counter is definitely new.
Bucky shrugs, shoving his hands into his pockets.
"Okay." Steve decides. "Rule one of living in this house. No more stealing. Let me know if you need anything--actually, I can give you my debit card. It's real convenient." He pulls out his wallet and takes out the red card, which is different from the silver card for reasons that Steve isn't really sure about. "You show storekeepers this tiny card and put in a passcode and they just deduct it from your bank account."
Bucky looks at him but takes the card.
"My passcode is--" Steve stops, embarrassed for a moment before continuing, "It's um. Zero three one zero."
Bucky examines the card before putting it into his pocket. He turns and opens the cupboard to pull out the cereal.
Steve gets a new pan out and opens the carton of eggs left out on the kitchen counter. No way he was letting Bucky eat cereal again.
"That's my birthday," Bucky says quietly.
Steve nearly misses the side of the bowl with his egg. It splatters half into the bowl, half dripping down the side. He turns to look at Bucky who's fiddling with the strings of his hoodie.
"Turning, what, ninety-six, ninety-seven next year? Might want to start thinking about investing in some life insurance."
Steve gets a faint smile in response. It's enough.
The last birthday they'd celebrated was Bucky's back in 1942. Bucky dragged him out on the town and insist that Steve drink his weight in beer as a present to him--even though Steve had already given Bucky his present of a wristwatch that had taken him months to save up for. Hell, he was wearing the damn thing even as he bought round after round for the two of them, tucked into the corner of Bucky's favorite bar.
Steve doesn't remember much of that night--remembers throwing up somewhere on the way home and Bucky's hand on the back of his neck laughing and saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," while Steve called him a jerk and groaned. He remembers the pancake mix and thinned frosting that he'd cobbled together in a halfhearted attempt at a cake that he could barely stand to look at, he'd been so nauseous. But Bucky struck a match and lit something even if Steve was pretty sure it hadn't been a candle, because he remembers looking at Bucky through flickering light in his stupid drunken stupor and thinking I want him, god help me, I want him and biting his tongue so hard that he drew blood.
When the buzz in Steve's head dimmed into a spectacular headache and they were sitting on the fire escape talking about nothing at all, Steve saw this moment stretch out long into the future--a delirious idea that they could live together and be twenty-five forever.
But then Bucky closed his eyes, tilted his head back against the sooty wall of their building, and said, "Steve, I enlisted."
"It's a trap," Fury says the moment that he hears.
"He could be a valuable source of information," Natasha points out.
"He's my best friend," Steve says, "If you want him, you're going to have to go through me."
Fury and Natasha look at each other before looking back at Steve. Steve knows how he must sound right now, practically flaunting how emotionally compromised he is. But he knows they'd find out sooner rather than later and he'd rather be upfront about it.
"Steve," Natasha starts.
"I know," Steve says, "I know. But I can't turn my back on him." He swallows. "You don't understand, what it's like--to watch your friend die. And then you get a second chance."
Fury considers him for a long moment before sighing. "We'll have to take precautions."
Surveillance, he means. But if it gets the Avengers off his back, Steve is willing to go along with it.
"Steve," Natasha calls from the front door. Steve takes his helmet back off as she walks down the stairs towards him.
"Listen," she says, "When Clint--"
She stops and bites her lip, just looking at him. Eventually, she pats him on the shoulder and says, "Be careful, Cap."
Bucky isn't always in the apartment when Steve comes home. But he always comes back in the evenings and hangs out in the kitchen, obliging when Steve asks him to chop this vegetable or stir the soup. He's quiet and Steve doesn't know what to say so they listen to the pot boiling or the sound of the knife against the wooden chopping board. Sometimes when the silence moves from companionable to unbearable, Steve turns on the television or the radio and they listen to the news together.
Steve looks forward to when nighttime falls--when they both curl up on Steve's bed with the lights out and Bucky strings more than five words together at a time, haltingly piecing together time and place. Steve listens to Bucky's voice, staring up at the dark ceiling and seeing visions from a lifetime away.
It's not always about Bucky--sometimes it's about the Winter Soldier. Sometimes it's about both--Bucky's convinced for an entire night that they'd grown up near Moscow despite remembering the tulip garden Ms. Baumann kept at the end of the street and the neighborhood baseball games that Steve would always be picked last for, unless Bucky was a captain. Sometimes Bucky reminisces about something idyllic (scraping together enough money to go on the ferris wheel at Coney Island and what it was like to be at the very top, looking at Manhattan from so far away) before he details a particularly gruesome kill (on a train, choked him to death with his metal arm, eyes bulging and spit dribbling down to Bucky's wrist)--and then going completely silent, curled in on himself and refusing to say anything else. And then in the morning he'd be even more distant, looking through Steve like he didn't want to be there.
Steve doesn't know what to do. Bucky draws more and more into himself but he always comes back to the apartment.
The Smithsonian doesn't put up as much of a fight as Steve expected them to when he asks for some of his old stuff back. It takes them a month to get his request up the chain of command and for his material transfer paperwork to go through the system. They call him on a Tuesday morning to tell him that they've gathered all the stuff they could find that wasn't on display and that he can pick it all up at his convenience.
Steve doesn't look through the stuff until Bucky gets back from whatever he does during the day. They sit together at the dining room table, eating stewed tomatoes and cheese sandwiches. Bucky starts to take the things out, one by one.
An old sketchbook. Some of Steve's old medical records--the boring ones that don't spell out a dramatic story like the ones in the exhibit. Some of Bucky's old clothes that Steve kept for Bucky, before he'd been called off to basic training himself. Bucky looks at those for a long time--the suit with the wide shoulders that Bucky had spent a month's salary on, the fedora he'd found at a pawn shop that Steve had teased him about, but privately thought made Bucky look even more handsome.
And in a rare playful mood, Bucky drops the hat on his head and looks up at Steve with a familiar rakish grin that makes Steve's breath catch and his chest ache. "How do I look?"
Steve swallows his sandwich, smiles with some effort, and says, "Good."
Steve tracks his expenses every week because he's never going to get used to the idea that he has more money that he knows what to do with. Natasha showed him how to log in to his online banking accounts and advised him never to trust banks at the same time.
He's also curious. He doesn't think that Bucky would put giant charges on his debit card, but he'd like to know what Bucky does when he's away.
The transactions off the debit card he gave Bucky are dull: charges under four dollars at the same convenience store a few blocks away, once for eleven dollars. Sometimes he withdraws twenty dollars at an ATM. Sometimes he eats lunch at fast food places, all within a five block radius of the apartment.
It feels invasive, like he's snooping where he doesn't have a right to be even if it's his money. It makes him feel guilty, like he doesn't trust Bucky. He does it twice, and then stops.
He and Sam don't run around the mall any more--they've decided that routine is dangerous with the spectre of HYDRA looking to cripple what's left of SHIELD. Sam sends a route with a meetup point every morning on Steve's phone. Bucky never wants to come, just watches Steve pull on his running shoes and go out the door.
"Nothing from Fury yet, huh?" Sam says by way of greeting. He's getting restless--hell Steve's getting restless too. They fall into sync, starting with a light jog.
"No leads," Steve agrees.
"I'm sure Natasha will turn some up," Sam says.
Steve thinks of Bucky sitting on his couch at home. "Yeah," he says.
The worst part of having Bucky back is that he doesn't.
He wants to talk to Bucky more, but Bucky during the daytime rarely replies except with a patiently blank look like he's just humouring Steve. Steve hates that look so much that he doesn't really say much any more and feels horrible about every subsequent moment he's not trying to tell Bucky something about who he used to be or trying to get him to talk. Bucky says less and less these days, rarely offering insights as to what he's remembering, if he is at all.
It's not like Bucky isn't a physical presence in his apartment--Steve finds gum wrappers on the coffee table and dark hairs collected in the drain of the shower. Bucky still misses the hamper most days when he takes off his clothes and takes up more space than he should when they sit on the couch or sleep on the bed. But his silence is as unnerving as the practiced blank look on his face and it all makes Steve feel like he's acting in some sort of twisted play, waiting for the moment when they can finally break character and go back to what they used to be.
On the worst days, Steve wishes he never found Bucky at all. Because he looks across the table to see the slack mouth and cool expression on his best friend's face and realizes, you're in love with a dead man.
Bucky brings home two printed bus tickets and leaves them on the kitchen counter. Steve looks at them as he puts the groceries away into the fridge. Bucky leans expectantly in the doorway.
"I thought we could," Bucky says, and gestures at the tickets.
"Yeah," Steve says, picking them up and reading the departure date. He'll have to move around some of the training exercises he had planned but he doesn't care. "Yeah, of course."
They used to take long train trips in France sometimes--when the army gave them leave. Five hours from the front lines to Paris in the empty supply trains, bundled up in their coats with the wind seeping in through the open doors. There were no passenger cars available until they switched to a civilian train in Strasbourg. Bucky would lean against his shoulder and give him things to draw. They'd start out simple: a dog that they'd seen earlier in the week sniffing around the cook's tent, the bombed out church where they'd listened to the army chaplain give a service the previous day. Steve's fingers were clumsy when he was wearing his winter gloves and he couldn't get in the fine details but it was a good way to pass the time.
And then Bucky would request something lewd, leaning into Steve's ear and whispering, "a real curvy, real naked girl," or "a pinup with her legs spread," and burst into laughter at Steve's scandalized, "Bucky!" He smiled so rarely these days that Steve sketched out the rough lines, just to surprise Bucky and keep that stupid grin on his face for a moment longer.
But the last time they were in Paris, when he should have been out on the town and chasing skirts like the other GI's, Bucky called it quits for the night the same time that Steve did. Steve paid for their tab and they walked back. Steve was about to ask whether or not Bucky was feeling alright when Bucky preempted his question with, "I'm just tired, buddy, nothing to worry about."
"You're starting to scare me a little," Steve admitted, draping his arm around Bucky's shoulders (how strange was it that he could do that?), "You're not coming down with a cold or pneumonia are you?"
"Think you're confusing me with you there, pal." Bucky smiled at him, the sort of smile that barely touched the corners of his lips. "No I'm just tired. Tired of pretending all the time. Just tired of everything." They walked on, past a group of giggling girls speaking rapidfire French to a group of American soldiers they'd picked up. "I want us to go home," Bucky said, turning his face so that his cheek pressed against the crook of Steve's neck. Steve could smell the beer on his breath.
"Come on Bucky," Steve murmured, squeezing Bucky's shoulders, "Give it another year and then Hitler will be dead, yeah? We can go back to Brooklyn. You can find a nice girl to settle down with. I'll start illustrating comic books. I'll come over for dinner every night until you get sick of me."
Bucky laughed softly into Steve's neck. "I'd never get sick of your ugly mug."
"Good," Steve said, "You'll have a bunch of kids. A daughter. I'll spoil her and take her into the city all the time. You'll resent me."
Steve could feel the smile on Bucky's face. And then Bucky asked, "And where's your girl?"
Steve swallowed. "Yeah," he said, "Me too. Dark hair. She'll throw a mean left hook. We'll have a son." He kept his voice steady. "I'll name him after you."
"You're such a sap," Bucky said, but it was too quiet to be his normal joking tone. His arm was around Steve's back and Steve must have imagined the way that Bucky nudged his nose against his jaw, soft breathing against his skin. His chest clenched and he pushed down hard on the idea because there was no way Bucky was--Steve would never project his own perversions on his best friend.
"Just another year," Steve murmured, stepping away to open the hotel lobby door.
A week later, they were informed of a new mission: rumors of a train carrying Zola to Munich. Steve doesn't like to think of all the promises he could never keep.
Bucky sleeps on the bus. Steve reads classified files about new tactical surveillance technology that Natasha had forwarded him. He doesn't understand any of the technical phrases but he's okay with the translations Clint's written into layperson underneath each one. When he's done with that, he considers pulling out the book that he'd packed.
Bucky shifts in his sleep before settling with his head on Steve's shoulder. Steve doesn't move for a long moment, but eventually puts his arm around Bucky, his fingers pressing against the cool metal of Bucky's left elbow.
The bus barely makes it out of the Holland tunnel when his phone chimes with a text from Tony: Pepper insists I offer you guys a place to stay.
I don't think that'd be a good idea, Steve texts back.
Your loss, Tony texts, with an attached picture. Steve opens it to find one of the ultramodern apartments in Stark Tower, complete with a gorgeous view of Central Park. Let me know if you change your mind..
Steve follows Bucky through the city. He stops at where the old movie theater used to be, the diner he used to work at which is now a sushi joint, and the YMCA where Steve used to take art classes. He looks at Steve every time he pauses, waiting for Steve to give him an explanation.
It's like a dam has burst in Steve's chest. He can't stop talking--he points out the corner where he'd got beat up on the regular before Bucky found him, he takes Bucky to their old high school and shows him where he used to smoke with the seniors when he thought Steve wasn't paying attention He brings up the most inane of memories (this is where you traded half your baseball cards for a Honus Wagner, this is where we were when we heard about the war, this is where you bought a harmonica you never played and I was mad at you for weeks for wasting the money) just to keep talking because it's a miracle that Bucky's finally really asking.
Bucky still doesn't say much but he's actually looking at Steve rather than through him and smiling a little when Steve makes a joke. It's progress. Steve will take anything.
Bucky runs out to the Duane Reade down the block while Steve orders room service. The food arrives before Bucky does and Steve spends five minutes chewing on fries and wondering if Bucky's finally decided to leave before the door opens and Bucky comes in with a plastic bag.
He opens it and pulls out a pair of scissors. He sets it down on the table in front of Steve. Steve looks up at him.
"My hair," Bucky says, running his fingers through his now mid-length hair. "Will you cut it like you remember it?"
Steve touches the scissors. "I've never cut hair--we could go to a hairdresser tomorrow morning--"
"Please," Bucky says.
Steve picks up the scissors and the copy of the New York Times that the hotel had left on the desk. "Let's do this in the bathroom," he says.
Bucky sits on the side of the bathtub and Steve spreads the pages on the floor. He takes off his shoes and his socks and stands barefoot on the newsprint.
"Okay," Steve says, "Look at me real quick."
Bucky turns his head to look at Steve. He looks lost, shoulders hunched and his eyebrows drawn together the tiniest bit. Steve touches Bucky's hair, swallowing against the lump in his throat.
"Okay," he says, "I'll try my best, pal."
Bucky smiles, rusty. Steve's sketched Bucky so many times that it's not surprising how easily he remembers Bucky's hair: shorter on the sides and slightly longer on top. Just enough so that Bucky could run a hand through his hair with pomade and have it stay back.
"Did I have other friends?" Bucky asks.
"Yeah. You were a real charming guy when you weren't picking fights," Steve says, dragging wet fingers through Bucky's hair. Bucky leans into his touch and Steve can't help but to scratch lightly at his scalp. Bucky used to like that--back when they were kids and none of this meant anything. He keeps talking. "Let's see. There was a big guy named Matthew from when you worked down at the docks. You used to play poker with him all the time. There was Randall, you knew him from the racetracks. He kept you in line when you wanted to go betting--I liked him for that."
"Was I involved with anyone?"
"Hell, Buck." Steve starts to snip at the hair, hesitantly at first and then taking off bigger chunks. "You were a real hit with the ladies. Never the same girl on your arm every week." Bucky stays quiet, keeps his eyes on the tub while Steve works. "Um. I think your favorite was Mildred. She was a real firecracker, kept you in line when you went you dancing."
"What'd she look like?"
Steve laughs. "Blonde hair, blue eyes? You had a type, Barnes. Hitler would have approved."
Steve can see the edge of a smile on Bucky's face from this angle. He combs his fingers through Bucky's hair to sweep away the loose hair.
"What about you?" Bucky asks.
"Me? I was a scrawny little thing. No one was interested." Steve tries to feather the hair like he'd watch barbers do it in the past, to texture away the blunt cuts of the scissors. "Bucky," he says softly, "I was lucky enough just to have you."
The phone call comes in the middle of the night. Steve fumbles for the phone as Bucky shifts on the other side of the bed.
"What convenient timing you two have," Fury says the moment that Steve picks up, "Get yourself and Barnes to Stark Tower, right now. No arguments" He hangs up.
Steve looks at the disconnected phone before turning the light on. Bucky squints at him through the sudden brightness.
"I guess something happened," Steve says and starts to change into his normal clothes.
The blank look that Steve hates is back on Bucky's face. He watches Steve lean in for the retinal scan in the garage of Stark Towers and press his hand against the fingerprint identification pad. "Welcome, Steve Rogers," a mechanical voice says as the elevator hisses open to the admit the two of them.
"I'm really sorry," Steve says even though he's said it five times already. Bucky still doesn't say anything in reply, just looks out of the window as the elevator shoots up towards the roof. The whole of Manhattan is laid out around them--but given the Winter Soldier's track record, it's probably not the first time he's seen this city from this point of view.
The door opens again. "Hello, Captain Rogers," JARVIS says. Bucky jerks his head up, looking around. "May I offer you or your friend something to drink? The others are in the study."
"No thank you," Steve says, moving forward. Bucky follows him.
"Good of you to show up," Tony says to Steve with his eyes on Bucky, "And you even brought mystery man Barnes with you."
Steve ignores him, but steps instinctively between Bucky and the others. He looks at Fury. "You want to tell me what's going on here?"
"Pepper, could you kindly escort Mr. Barnes to the living room?" Fury asks.
Steve is about to protest when Natasha cuts in with a pointed look at Steve--this is not the time. "I'll keep Barnes company."
"Natasha," Steve warns.
Natasha holds up her hands, "I'm not going to do anything Cap."
Bucky looks from her to Steve but he doesn't move, like he's waiting for Steve to give permission. "Okay," Steve says, not sure if he's addressing Natasha or Bucky. Bucky turns and follows Natasha out the door.
"We found a HYDRA base in New Jersey," Fury says, "They've been ramping up their activity which is how we found them, but also signals that they're likely to launch an attack soon."
"Could be tomorrow, could be next week," Fury says, "We want to launch a preemptive surprise attack."
"Where are the others?" There's only him and Tony in the room, with Natasha outside.
"Big guy's doing some soul searching in India," Tony says, "Fabio's apparently too busy with Asgardian politics. No idea where Birdboy is. Looks like it's just you, me, and Natasha." He takes a sip of his drink, looking at Steve's face before grinning and adding, "Oh yeah, I feel just as confident as you do, Gramps."
"What could they attack?" Steve asks, "Couldn't we move it?"
"By all means," Tony says, "I'd love for them to bomb Stark Tower again. I really missed those days."
"I get it," Steve says, "What about Sam?"
"He's coming," Fury says, "He's bringing something you left behind."
"Hey," Steve says. Bucky's sitting on the couch in the dark, looking out at the nightscape of the city. He turns at Steve's voice.
"I know you don't trust these people," Steve says, taking a seat next to Bucky, fiddling with the strap of his shield. "And I'm real sorry I got you into this mess Bucky. But I don't know anywhere safer for you to be."
"It's the New Jersey complex," Bucky says, "Romanov told me."
"Yeah," Steve says, "I'll just be gone for a while, then we can go back."
"You're real optimistic, you know," Bucky says. Steve looks up at his face.
"How come you never asked me for any information?" Bucky asks.
"I wouldn't--you're my best friend Bucky, I wouldn't do that to you."
"Romanov asked," Bucky says, "She asked about a lot of things."
Steve closes his eyes and fights down the initial burst of anger. He keeps his voice light. "I'm gonna have to have a talk with her."
"If you asked," Bucky says, "I would have told you."
"I wouldn't. I didn't."
"You trust me too much," Bucky says, "Nobody else here does."
"They don't know you like I know you, Buck."
"You put too much faith in everyone," Bucky says softly, "It's gonna get you killed someday."
Tony picks an unobtrusive black town car for a change. Steve is still not completely comfortable with the idea of letting JARVIS drive but his attention is taken up by the blueprints and statistics that Natasha displays for them off her tablet.
The base isn't too far away from where SHIELD had been housing Zola. They barely scrape together a passable plan: Tony and Steve to distract and cause maximum mayhem while Sam covered Natasha on her way in to disassemble the explosives and gather intel. Three different routes, in and out of the base. Steve would have to set the alarm off first to clear the way and draw guards.
"We're heavily outnumbered," Natasha warns.
"Like that's ever stopped us," Tony says, his Iron Man mask snapping over his face.
Steve doesn't mind taking down enemies with Tony--Tony's got a good sense of where Steve's blind spots are and has enough ammo on him at any given moment that he can do pretty good damage to anything in the general vicinity. He's good at controlled chaos even if he does have the tendency to get distracted with his own thing during a team fight.
Setting off the alarm is the easy part: Tony blasts a hole through the door like it's made of paper. There's a shout from around the building and bullets start raining down on them.
Steve ducks behind his shield, reflecting bullets. He catches sight of a silhouette on the roof with a gun and tilts his shield just right--two bullets ricochet and hit the the silhouette. Steve's not paying attention though--he keeps his back to the wall, moving towards the door to slam his shield down on anyone who exits.
"On your three," Tony says and Steve swings the full weight of his shield on the man who's about to bludgeon him. Gunfire from the open door--Steve blocks just in time as Tony shoots off an arc beam, exploding the ground in front of the open door. Steve hears yells, but the gunfire is still trained on him, enough that he has to keep moving fast, backing out of the fight.
"Tony," he calls out.
"On it," Tony says. Steve sees him rise into the air, scanning the ground around him for the shooter pinning Steve. HYDRA operatives take the lapse in attention to surge out of the base, scrambling across the open parking lot to find positions to shoot at both of them.
"Well this is great," Tony says, firing ammo at rapid pace. Steve ducks behind his shield and grabs a gun from a fallen body. There are operatives swarming out of other exits.
"Please tell me you're having a better time than us," Tony says over the intercom.
"Keep it up," Natasha says, "Let's hope there's no self-sacrificing explosions this time around, right Cap?"
"I think we're incredibly outnumbered out here," Steve says, shooting more wildly than he would have liked, "So if you could hurry up."
"I'm with the Cap on this one," Tony says as he picks up a HYDRA operative and drops him on another.
Natasha curses in Russian before she says, "There's too many in here. You didn't draw enough of them out."
"Are you kidding me?" Tony asks, firing his arc beams at the operative who just grabbed his boot and tried to smash him into the ground, "I think we should abort."
"Um," Sam's voice is accompanied by gunfire, "I don't think that's an option any more."
"What are we doing Cap?"
Steve throws away his now empty gun and grabs another, running for the entrance, "Rendezvous--we have a hard time fighting if we're split up."
"Great idea, run into the nest of vipers," Tony supplies, but he takes out an operative aiming at Steve at the same time.
"A little help would be nice," Sam says, sounding strained. More HYDRA operatives pour of the base.
"Like a clown car," Tony comments to Steve. Steve ignores him and flings his shield, knocking out two agents. The shield returns to his arm just in time for him to duck into a defensive stance as someone turns gunfire on him.
"This is going south, really fast," Sam says.
"Guys," Natasha says, "I'm at the first bomb. I could set it off."
"What's the time delay?" Steve asks.
"None, as far as I can tell."
"No," Steve says, "Don't you dare."
"I have to do it now or I won't have a chance in five minutes."
"What's the cover in there?" Tony asks.
"Open space," Natasha says, "Fold out table. Even you couldn't rig anything up, Stark."
"I'm okay with this new plan," Sam adds.
"No," Steve says again, "No, absolutely not."
"You really want all four of us dead, Cap?" Natasha asks.
"Hey," Tony says, "I think we've got company."
The operatives hurling magnetic grenades and shooting at Tony suddenly seem to be dropping like flies. Tony takes the freedom to fire at the shooters pinning Steve down--two are stunned by the arc beam blast and the fourth still has a finger on the trigger when a bullethole appears in the very center of his forehead.
"I do believe Capsicle's boyfriend is here," Tony says, "I'll have to ask how he managed to break through seven layers of Stark security later."
Steve whirls--scanning the space around them and taking out someone with an elbow to the face at the same time. God, this was not a good time. Sniper fire hisses past his ear and hits the operative coming up behind him right between the eyes.
"We're coming in," Tony says, "Don't do anything stupid."
Bucky appears seemingly out of nowhere, guns drawn, every shot finding its intended target. He moves without fear, like he's daring the bullets to hit him. He has a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder, face betraying nothing as he methodically takes out HYDRA agents one by one.
"I'll also have to ask him how he broke into my weapons testing cabinet," Tony adds.
"Tony," Natasha says, "Can we trust him?"
"So far he seems to just be interested in shooting the bad guys," Tony clears out the last of the group standing near the doorway with a well aimed blast, "We should probably take him with us to keep an eye on him though."
Steve doesn't even care that Natasha doesn't trust his opinion--hell he probably wouldn't either. He moves towards the door, dispatching an operative in the way and shouts, "Bucky!"
Bucky doesn't seem to respond for a moment, too caught up in shooting the stragglers trying to run away. But then he shakes his head like he's trying to dispel a thought and turns towards them. There are two operatives who lift their guns but he just grabs one in each hand, throwing them across the parking lot like they don't weigh a thing.
Steve goes first, then Bucky, and Tony makes up the end. The hallways inside are clear--the majority of them must have been drawn to the firefight outside just like they'd planned. But when they get closer to where Natasha and Sam are, they start running into trouble.
Bucky moves in a way that maximizes his efficiency--doesn't blink as he shoots or tears through the knobs of locked doors with his metal arm. He's bleeding from some wound on his head that Steve can't identify, the blood pooling into his jacket.
When they finally burst into the control room, one of Sam's wings is broken--not that he can fly very far in this tiny room. He's hidden behind a barricade of desks and chairs. Natasha is nowhere to be seen.
"Door on the left," Sam says when he sees them. Tony disappears through the door to help Natasha out. Bucky drops the Stark guns that have run out of ammunition and arms himself with HYDRA weapons. He moves with a familiarity that neither Steve nor Sam have and disappears into another room when Steve takes out operatives who have Sam pinned down.
It could have ended much, much worse.
Steve finds Bucky standing in a room marked as a vault on the blueprint. Steve walks past a first heavy door and a second set of bars before he reaches Bucky, who's standing on front of a chair bolted into the center of the room.
Steve doesn't have to stand next to Bucky for long to understand. The dark machines on the chair surround the head--the perfect shape for a skull to fit inside. Straps and a reinforced steel cuff on the left side. It smells like blood and piss.
"Bucky," Steve murmurs, touching his arm. Bucky's been staring at the chair, unmoving since the moment that Steve walked in. "Hey, buddy."
Bucky makes no move to indicate that he had heard. Steve slowly puts his arms around Bucky's shoulders, making deliberate movements so that Bucky knows what he's doing. "Let's get out of here, yeah?" He gently turns Bucky towards the door. Bucky lets him.
"It'd be nice to take a shower," Steve says, just to make conversation. The haunted look on Bucky's face breaks his heart. "I definitely haven't missed having things blown up on me. I'm glad you showed up though, you really saved us in the nick of time. Natasha was talking about blowing herself up."
Bucky relaxes minutely the moment that they get out of the room. He seems to come back to his senses and suddenly stops in the middle of the hall, saying, "Wait."
He turns and heads back into the room. Steve watches him through the open door. Bucky doesn't hesitate, just closes his metal fist around the black machines, crushing them into useless wires and circuitry. He rips them off their stands and drops them onto the ground, pulls a gun and fires eight times for good measure.
Bucky looks at the mangled metal for a few minutes longer before holstering his gun and walking back out of the room. Steve can't read the expression on his face.
"Okay," Bucky says, "Let's go."
In the morning, Steve goes in for a debrief with a Fury who looks like he's five seconds away from having a stress aneurysm. Tony's quiet in the corner, squinting at his tablet and completely ignoring the team in favor of muttering to himself.
"On the bright side," Steve says, "We're all alive. HYDRA's down one base."
"They have a few more left," Natasha says, "I couldn't sleep so I went through some of the intel Sam and I gathered."
"I want to know how Barnes broke through security," Fury says, "And how he knew exactly where to go."
"If it weren't for Bucky, some of us would be dead," Steve says.
"I'm glad he was on our side this time," Sam agrees.
Steve is resolute. "He was at a HYDRA base. If they had a codeword or the ability to turn him against us, there was no way he would have fought with us to the end."
Fury looks unconvinced. "It's possible he's playing the long con."
"And take out half of HYDRA's remaining forces while doing it?" Natasha asks, "Seems like a rather extreme sacrifice just to gain our trust."
Fury looks at all of them, and then decides. "We're putting him under surveillance until we can determine that he's not a threat."
"Under surveillance" apparently meant putting him in the same type of glass chamber that had once housed Loki and the Hulk. Steve is angry the moment they let him into the room. Bucky sees him come in and stands up, arms behind his back like he's standing at attention.
"You shouldn't be in there," Steve says, pressing his hands against the glass.
"I'm dangerous," Bucky says, like he's repeating something that someone else said to him.
"You're just as dangerous as I am," Steve says and tilts his forehead against the glass, "God Bucky, I can't believe they did this to you."
"It's for the best," Bucky says, too placid.
Steve slams his hand against the glass. The guard swings around, staring at him, gun half-drawn. Bucky watches him with that blank expression, the one HYDRA taught him, the one that he wore when he wasn't Bucky. Steve hates it, hates this so much that he's choking on it.
"Bucky," he says and can't get any farther because he knows his best friend is somewhere in that glass, because this is supposed to be his second chance but he's failed before and he keeps failing. Because Bucky deserved so much more than this empty shell of a body with a mind that's been frayed to bits, because he never got the happy ending that Steve so desperately wanted for him.
He's crying. Hands pressed against the glass looking at the man who used to be his best friend, unable to breathe because his entire being hurts with the weight of how much he misses Bucky.
Bucky's hand presses to his own through the glass. Steve sees it through his half blurred vision, unable to lift his head because he doesn't want Bucky to see him like this--not when he needed to be the strong one.
"You deserve better," Steve says, fleetingly proud of how steady his voice is. He wipes his tears with one quick motion and looks up at Bucky. "I'm going to get you out. We're going to go home."
Fury refuses to let Bucky out until at least a week has passed so he can observe his behavior outside of contact with any potential handlers. "I don't want him having any contact with the outside world," Fury says, "So you be careful what you say to him, Rogers."
Steve brings Bucky his meals, sits with his back against the glass, and tells Bucky everything he can think of from their past. He tells the same damn story about how they'd gotten lost at the stadium during their first Dodgers game three times, but Bucky doesn't seem to mind. He doesn't say much back, but he smiles sometimes. He smiles at him when Steve says something funny, he smiles at him when Steve comes into the room, he smiles at him when he thinks that Steve isn't paying attention.
He tells the same stories he had told Bucky already, about the first time they met, about the shitty apartment they rented together. And then he tells him about finding him in Zola's lab. He tells Bucky about watching him in the months afterwards, about never bringing it up and how sorry he was that he never did, that he never said anything to Bucky because he thought everything would be fixed when they left Europe. He tells Bucky about the last train trip, about watching Bucky fall to his death and clinging to the side of that train by some stubborn will to live when the rest of him wanted to jump after Bucky.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, "I should have come for you, I'm sorry."
And Bucky presses his hand against the glass, not saying a word but just looking at Steve. He's not the Winter Soldier and he's not the Bucky that Steve knows either---but he looks at Steve like he understands and it's enough.
Fury wants Bucky to wear a tracker. Steve tells him to shove it where daylight can't touch it and earns a round of golf claps from Tony.
"I'm serious," Steve says, "You try to come near him with a tracker and you'll be fighting both of us."
Fury looks at him like he wants to argue the point when Natasha steps in. "It's not like the guy went on a rampage in DC when he didn't have a tracker earlier. He did save us. Cut him some slack. The Cap can handle it."
Tony lets him borrow an obnoxiously ostentatious car. It's the type of car that Bucky would have really liked, had he been born into this century. Bucky looks at it for a few minutes before getting in.
Steve starts up the car. "Don't think I've driven in the city before," he says, looking over at Bucky. Bucky's looking out the window.
"First time for everything," he concludes and they start their way home.
Steve makes dinner. Bucky helps him chop up the romaine lettuce for a salad and washes the tomatoes. They eat in silence, sitting on the same side of the table.
Steve comes out of the shower on a morning not long after they've come back to DC and finds Bucky sitting on the bed with a half full duffel next to his feet. He stops in the doorway but doesn't even have to ask the question before Bucky takes a deep breath and speaks.
"I think I might leave."
"What?" Steve asks, seized with fear, "Why?"
Bucky looks at Steve for just a moment before he focuses hard on the ground. "I'm scared of you."
Steve feels like the world has been swept out from under his feet. "Bucky I--"
"No," Bucky says, "I'm not scared of you in the way you think. I'm scared of what you mean to me."
"Bucky," Steve says.
"Listen," Bucky says, rising to his feet. He's looking at Steve now, or at least trying to make an effort to, because his eyes keep jumping between Steve's face and the wall behind his head. "I came to you because I knew you were important to me but I didn't know why. I slowly started to remember everything--so much more than I ever let on. But you have to understand, Steve. For such a long time, I was a thing. I wasn't a person. I could do things that people can't do. I didn't know if I could be a person again. Maybe I still don't. But I made my choice, back there, in that room." Bucky's not looking at him at all. "Now I have to try being a person."
Steve reaches forward but Bucky takes a step back.
"You make me want to be a person, Steve," Bucky says, "More than anything. But can't be the person you used to know. He--I might have been a good man. But now, I'm the kind of person he wouldn't trust. And he'd be horrified to know that I was here, in your life."
Steve's shaking his head but he doesn't make another move forward, afraid that Bucky's going to take another step back.
"You were the most important thing in his entire life," Bucky says and laughs, scrubbing at his face with his wrist. "More than you ever know. He loved you so much, you couldn't even imagine."
"Bucky," the words break as they rise, "I know you. We can work through this together."
"Maybe I can become something good again," Bucky says, "God you make me want to try."
Steve closes his eyes. His voice is small. "Please don't leave."
Bucky steps close. He touches Steve's face, warm hand against Steve's cheek. Steve turns into the hand, presses a kiss against Bucky's palm. Bucky's looking at him now, the saddest look in his eyes and Steve doesn't know how to stop him.
"Just once then," Steve says, "For me."
Bucky catches his face and both hands and kisses Steve. Two lifetimes of wanting too much and getting too little--Steve never imagined that it would turn out like this: Bucky holding him tight like he wants to stay forever, the uncertain knowledge that Bucky would be gone come tomorrow morning. Steve kisses back, hands at Bucky's waist, and hopes that he can convey even a fraction of how he feels.
"Can I touch you?" Steve whispers. Bucky looks at him before slowly drawing away. He pulls his shirt over his head and kicks off his pants. Steve watches him, cataloguing the scars across his chest, the junction where metal met skin--commits everything to memory because he might not have a chance later. He reaches forward and touches Bucky's collarbone, tilting his head to kiss the side of Bucky's neck. Bucky closes his eyes and catches Steve's wrists, pulling them both onto the bed.
"Bucky," Steve says, swallowing. "I've never."
Bucky kisses him and for just a moment sounds like his old self. "I'll show you."
He flips the two of them so that Steve's the one lying on the bed and noses along Steve's jaw. The towel unravels and Bucky slides a hand across his stomach, fingernails scratching lightly through the trail of golden hair. Bucky kisses him and wraps a hand around his cock. The sensation of the new angle plus the fact that it's Bucky makes Steve gasp into Bucky's mouth. Bucky breaks away to slide out of his underwear and Steve watches him.
"Do you know what you did to me?" Bucky asks, voice low. "Ever since we were little and I knew there was something different about you, how I kept trying to impress you." He crawls on top of Steve and Steve feels a thrill at the way Bucky's cock touches the inside of his thigh, the slick tip trailing precome against his hip before Bucky aligns himself with Steve. Steve's hips jerk involuntarily and he makes a whining noise that he didn't know he was capable of.
"All those girls, god I couldn't stop thinking about you. Trying to get away from you, trying to make myself normal. But you were there, easy as breathing and I could never get away. I could never want to."
"Bucky," Steve breathes. Bucky scrapes his teeth against Steve's collarbone before moving down his chest. He kisses Steve's nipple, licks it with the pad of his tongue and Steve arches, breath hitching. Bucky's hands spread over Steve's sides, and he presses his forehead against Steve's stomach, just breathing for a moment.
"I dreamed about this," Bucky says, and kisses all the way down until he's mouthing at the top of Steve's cock. Steve clenches at the covers, head pressed back into the mattress. Bucky covers his teeth and goes down as far as he can, his hand curled around the base of Steve's cock, his thumb running along the underside. It's too much, everything is too much--Bucky rubs his tongue lightly against the slit of Steve's cock, cheeks hollowing with the effort to suck. Bucky's other hand comes up and touches the space under Steve's balls, cool metal trailing down and that does it--Steve feels like he is flying apart under Bucky's mouth and hands--his breath coming in panting sobs, eyes squeezed shut with the effort of remembering as he lets himself go in the warm wash of pleasure.
He spends the rest of the night touching Bucky. He keeps the light on into the early hours of the morning so that he can see everything that he's been waiting his entire life to have. Bucky watches him, kisses him, keeps the pain shuttered and for that Steve is thankful, even if it is a kind lie.
There is a childish part of Steve that thinks that if he doesn't go to sleep, morning won't come and they can spend eternity like this. But he's weak and he falls asleep half on top of Bucky, fingers tangled tightly together like it's enough to make him stay.
When he wakes up in the morning, Bucky is really and truly gone.
He doesn't tell anyone for three days. He goes to work, sifts through the intel that Natasha sends him and writes reports about bases he remembers from Germany because half the hits from New Jersey trace back to the first bases established in the early days of the war. He smiles when he's supposed to and feels absolutely nothing inside because it's easier than dealing with losing Bucky again.
Sam asks how Bucky is when they head out for their morning run. Steve smiles tells him that Bucky's okay and deflects the discussion to a local sandwich shop Sam has been telling Steve to try, before speeding up his pace. When Sam looks at him strangely, when he asks Steve if everything is alright--Steve gives what he knows is the right answer and a half-hearted smile.
But it's not long before Natasha corners him at his apartment, a bag of Chinese takeout in one hand and a six pack in the other. She doesn't ask to be invited in--just walks in, sets the bags down on the kitchen counter and says, "I've been covering for you because I thought this was a temporary thing but clearly I was wrong."
Steve closes the door and shoves his hands into his pockets.
"I hope you're hungry," she says, pulling out cartons of lo mein and sesame chicken and rummaging through his cupboards for plates. She partitions food onto two plates and opens a beer. She presses it into his chest and pushes him out of his own kitchen. "Sit."
Steve does what he's told. Natasha puts a plate in front of him and hands him a fork. She sits across from him and steals one of his sketchbooks and a pen.
"Do you know where he went?"
"Did I do the right thing?" Steve asks, "Letting him go."
Natasha leans back and looks at him. "I guess that depends on why."
Steve drags his fork through the noodles but doesn't eat anything. "He's had enough people in his life tell him what to do," he says, "I didn't want to be one of them."
He looks at the pattern of grain in the wood table. He can't meet Natasha's eyes.
"But what if he was waiting to see--what if he wanted me to fight for him?" Steve drops the fork, puts both hands in his lap, "I don't know where he is. I don't know if he's safe." He looks up. "I really fucked it up this time, didn't I?"
"Let's make a list," Natasha says, "Everywhere you think he might have gone. We can keep an eye out."
"We have to take out the rest of HYDRA," Steve says, "He's not safe until they're gone."
"One step at a time, Cap."
"Right," Steve mumbles, and then, "How many times am I going to do this to him?"
Natasha leans forward. "Steve, look at me." Steve lifts his head. "Maybe letting him go was the kindest and hardest thing you could have done for him. From everything that's happened--after his time in the containment chamber, he has to know that you would never willingly abandon him."
"I loved him," Steve blurts out, one hand clutching at his hair and it's such a relief to be able to say it out loud after all these years of keeping it a dirty secret. "I love him."
"I know," Natasha says, "He knows."
Steve presses his face into his hands. Natasha touches his shoulder.
"Come on Steve," she says, "We've got work to do."
Steve remembers being eighteen and coming to terms with the idea that he wouldn't love anyone the same way he loved Bucky. Remembers thinking that it'd be hard to marry anyone knowing that he wouldn't love them with his whole heart. Remembers resigning himself to the idea of watching from afar, stupidly clinging to the idea that Bucky's happiness will have to substitute for his own.
These are the moments that Steve wants to forget: Bucky's face silhouetted in the morning sun, Bucky's smirk around the cigarettes he tried his best not to smoke, Bucky's arm around his neck, their heads bent together, five thousand iterations of Steve's name in Bucky's voice. Because it hurts more than it ever made him happy. Because if he went back in time he would follow Bucky down all the same paths, make all the same stupid decisions until they were face to face in a falling airplane, Steve dropping his shield and calling out Bucky's name.
Natasha picks the German base for them first because she thinks it'll be the easier one to take out. She's right--the base is empty. There's a scattering of useless papers across the desks where they've been cleared out in a hurry. The far reaches of the base are overgrown, weeds pushing through cracks in the cement and broken infrastructure. Here is where an explosion had scorched the concrete walls--maybe circa 1945 when the Commandos had stormed this exact location once before.
There's some modern technology set up here, but everything worth extracting has been taken out. Like rats from a sinking ship. Steve's boots crunch against broken glass from computer monitors and he wonders if Bucky had ever come here.
"Nothing," Natasha says, sounding disappointed.
He writes to Bucky sometimes. It's stupid and Steve knows that it's not helping him move on but maybe he doesn't want to move on.
He thinks that maybe Bucky is still in DC, maybe he still drops by Steve's apartment once in a while. The evidence is thin but Steve is okay with deluding himself that the milk drops in level one day or that his sketchbook is moved from the dining room table to the coffee table. He draws familiar Brooklyn skylines, the shapes of baseball players mid-swing, the stray dog they used to feed, everything he can think of. Hope you're eating well, he writes, Please stay safe. Always signs off with Love.
The last base is in southern California, on an island a few miles off the coast. Natasha can't find any blueprints of the building but draws an approximation of what she thinks it'd be like, based off the shape of the island and the HYDRA architecture that they've run into before.
Bruce is back from India. Clint turns up in Los Angeles. It should have been an easy mission.
Steve doesn't know how he manages to lose Sam in the fighting. His comms are down--ripped out of his ear and smashed against the wall when he had to fight his way out of a chokehold. There's a bullet in his foot that had ricocheted off a door before lodging itself in between two bones. It's better than having the bones in his feet shattered, he supposes. He walks through the pain, creeping along the wall with his shield half raised, trying his best to remember what Natasha had drawn.
The sounds of fighting are a long way off but Steve's leaving bloody footprints that could lead even the stupidest of agents to his location. Natasha had told them to rendezvous at the control room once someone found it--but that wasn't any help to Steve if he was cut off from the rest of the team.
He hopes Sam is okay. He knows that Sam is good at being cautious and watching his own back.
He rounds a corner and spots the backs of two operatives. He flings the shield, calculating the trajectory so that it catches one in the back of the head and reflects off the wall before catching the other on the neck. There's nowhere for it to reflect to return, so he moves forward, grabbing a gun from one of them and picking his shield back up.
Natasha would have called him careless. Bucky would have called him stupid. Either way, he doesn't register the soft footsteps coming up behind him until there's an explosive pain at the back of his skull and everything goes dark.
He comes to, hands cuffed in thick steel on either side in a chair that seems vaguely familiar. His mind is moving too sluggishly for him to fully comprehend.
"He's awake," someone says.
"Sedate him," another voice says.
There's a sharp prick in his arm that Steve almost can't distinguish from the pounding pain in his head and then he falls into blessed silence.
If Steve could rewrite their story, he would write it this way: a too small apartment in Brooklyn, no war. Afternoon sunlight coming in through the windows. Bucky, stretched out on the bed, the sheets bunched up around his bare chest. An arm held out, a smile on his face and low voice just for Steve. "Come to bed."
If Steve could rewrite their story, they would already be dead, curled around each other in the same grave.
The next thing he's aware of is a strong arm around his shoulders, a familiar voice in his ear that he's sure he's imagining, "Always gotta be looking out for your stupid ass."
"Bucky," he says or he thinks he says because he doesn't know where his thoughts stop and his voice begins.
He wakes up for real in a hospital. He slowly comes back to himself, becoming aware of the faint chatter at the nurse's station outside his room, the sound of his own breathing, the metallic sickly smell of hospitals that he's always associated with his mother.
There's no one else in the room with him. Steve closes his eyes and falls back asleep.
The next time he wakes, Natasha is in the room with him, sitting in one chair with her feet up on the other. She looks over at him and says, "Sam's gonna be pissed. We had a bet about who you'd wake up for."
"What happened?" Steve asks.
"You got yourself captured and we got ourselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered," Natasha says. She swings her legs down and sits properly. " It's a real miracle we've been successful at anything."
Steve knows that he probably imagined it, knows that he shouldn't mention it, but he can't help himself. "Bucky?"
"Stormed the base while we were trying to strategize the best way to get you out," Natasha says.
Steve stares at the ceiling. "I thought I imagined him."
"He left you on the balcony without saying a word to anyone," Natasha says, "I'm sorry Steve, I would have talked to him for you."
Steve tries to sit up but is hit with a wave of dizziness. Natasha puts a hand on his shoulder and forces him back down.
"You have a grade A concussion and got pumped full of enough horse tranquilizers to kill a bull," she says, "I don't think you're going to be going anywhere anytime soon."
"Will you look for him?" Steve asks. Bucky's somewhere in this city and Steve can't even get out of bed.
Natasha's expression softens. "We can try, Steve."
Fury gives him the after action reports of the other Avengers. "I'm sorry Cap," he says, "But you have to understand why we consider him dangerous."
Sam notes that he lost Steve early on, when Steve had run ahead without waiting for backup. He uses the word reckless and Steve doesn't blame him.
Natasha describes the aftermath with clinical detachment: someone who obviously knew the base very well had dispatched most of the HYDRA operatives with effective kill shots. Bucky had walked in and out without a single shootout.
Natasha details the room where they must have held Steve: necks snapped, several stab wounds to the commander's torso, leaving him to bleed out slowly with half his bones broken. Bucky had treated this room personally, been more vicious than Steve could ever expect.
He stops reading halfway through.
He goes back to DC. Fury puts Bucky on a potential list of dangerous fugitives that they should track down and Steve doesn't protest.
HYDRA is gone. The next mission is to slowly rebuild what's left of what should have been SHIELD. It's not something that Steve really wants to be a part of.
Steve looks at apartments in Brooklyn for a while, but then decides against it. He signs up for a weekend art class and builds a box garden for his balcony instead.
He plants tulips.
Steve's just come back from a run in the mall when his phone rings. He sets down the glass of water and looks at his phone--Caller Unknown.
His heart jumps a beat because he knows--he knows.
"Hi." Bucky's voice. Steve's chest tightens at the sound of it and he's cradling the phone with both hands.
"Hi," Steve says.
"I wanted to see if you were okay," Bucky says, "You were real beat up when I brought you back."
"I'm okay," Steve says, "Fast metabolism. Had a nasty concussion for a while but that went away."
"I'm sorry I didn't call earlier," Bucky says.
"Where are you?"
Bucky doesn't answer.
Steve amends his question, his voice soft. "You doing alright, Buck?"
"Sure thing," Bucky says.
Steve wants to reach through the phone and touch Bucky's face, wishes he had a tracker on this call. But he has Bucky on the line and he has to try, he knows he has to try.
"Listen Bucky," Steve says, "Come back. Please come back. I don't care about what you used to do. I don't care about any of that. We can work through all of that together. It's just--" He swallows, "I've been miserable without you."
"I'm not the person you remember," Bucky says, half like he's trying to convince himself.
"I know," Steve says, "I'm not the same person you knew either. Can you--can you give us a chance, Bucky?"
"You don't know the half of what I've done. I'm not a good person, Steve."
"I don't want a good person," Steve says, gripping the phone tight. "I want you."
Bucky sighs into the phone. Steve maybe catches the sound of the wind across the faint static.
"Come home," Steve says.
There's a knock at the balcony door. Steve looks up.
Bucky drops the phone and smiles.