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(un)broken circle

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A lot was taken from James Barnes, after that fall he took in 1945. Some would claim that everything had been taken from him, and for a while he would have agreed. But as became clear, there is a distinction between what he was made to forget, and what was taken.

And what was taken wasn't everything, but if you could have asked him, he would have told you it came very close.

He remembered - feeling wrong. Missing something.

Falling. A face. Falling.

Cold. Falling. Pain.

Pain. Cold.


After months spent in a near daze wandering the eastern seaboard and nearly a year of more active exploration of eastern Europe, the man once called the Winter Soldier returned to Washington, D.C. He was more aware now than he had been the last time he was here, capable of subterfuge better suited to a spy than an assassin, and he remembered things. People.

His trackers were at least a week behind him, which gave him time to build up his disguise a little: a haircut, a shift in posture, a borrowed uniform, an unconscious employee, a stolen ID card. Once he had that, he just had to wait for the right moment.

"Hello, dear," Peggy Carter said sleepily, eyes fluttering open to peer up at him. "Oh, you're not Angelo... are you?"

"I'm Sebastian, I usually don't get here until after you're asleep," he explained in a soft voice, a hint of southern twang added to further disguise himself. "But there was a family emergency, Angelo had to go home early, so they called me in."

"Oh," she said quietly, the panic flowing out of her. She peered at his face as he looked over the equipment around her bed. "You do seem... familiar, somehow."

He stilled. "Maybe you woke up one night and saw me," he suggested. "I try to stay quiet, but nobody's perfect, right?"

"Yes, yes, I suppose that must be it," she muttered agreeably, still watching him. "If I may ask - Sebastian, was it? What are you staring at me so avidly for?"

He started. "Staring? I - " Was he? "Well, I've just been wondering for a time now, and I suppose since you're awake I can ask... about your Ring."

"My Ring?" She blinked, then looked down at her hand. On the third finger of her left hand, situated just below her second knuckle, was a blotchy ring of blue-purple skin that resembled a bruise. "Oh! It's really..." She lifted a hand to her mouth to muffle a sob. "He's really..."

"Ma'am?" he asked cautiously. He hadn't anticipated this.

Peggy swallowed around the lump in her throat, mumbled a choked, "It's nothing, it's just that sometimes I... I forget."

His mouth thinned involuntarily. "I understand."

She watched him carefully for a moment. "You do, don't you?" He cleared his throat, moving on to another instrument, and her attention went back to the Ring. "He was - is, I should say - in some ways, the best man I ever knew. And in some ways the most foolish." She smiled fondly, and he watched her, ignoring the strange clench in his gut. "You know what happened to him, don't you? Every American boy knows his story."

Bucky nodded; he'd been the museum, read the biographies, watched the biopics. He knew the story.

She coughed for a few seconds, then continued. "Well, now that he's back, he comes to see me. Every week, no matter what else he's doing, he comes to visit with me, and hold my hand. So that our Ring never fades, you see," she explained, and something about that made his gut clench more - this is true, familiar, you know this. You... did this? "So that I know, even when he's not here, that he's really alive." She sighed, rubbing her thumb against her Ring. "That's the sort of man he is."

She peered up at him. "Does that answer your question?"

He blinked. "Ah... no ma'am, as it happens it does not. I wanted to know what happened to your first Ring."

She frowned. "My first - oh. You misunderstand. My Ring isn't this far up because I had another one once." Her thumb shifted down to that empty space, the implication of a Ringmate lost. "That's where Steve's first Ring was."

He stopped. Moving, thinking, breathing: all of it stopped. "Steve's."

"Yes. Don't you remember?"

He forced himself not to spin around too fast, not to give up the game now, when he was so close. He turned slowly, a confused frown on his face. "Ma'am?"

Peggy smiled. "Calling me "ma'am" makes you sound more like yourself, Sergeant, not less."

"I - I don't know what you..."

"Making me talk about Steve reminded me. The things he said the last time he was here... they sounded impossible. And his Ring was still - " She grabbed at his arm, and he only barely resisted breaking her wrist to get free of her grip. It would have been so easy; already her hands were shaking from the effort of sudden movement. Her bones were so thin... but he did nothing as she pushed up the sleeve of his borrowed scrubs. Latex gloves had hidden his hand, but now she could see the silver gleam of his arm. "Oh," she said sadly, "that's why."

"I don't know what you're talking about," he insisted. Something was gnawing at him, eating him from the inside-out, and all he knew was that he didn't know what it was, and didn't want to know.

(This was, in several ways, a lie.)

"You really don't." Aghast, she let go, and fell back against her pillow with a wheeze. "I'm so sorry," she said between hoarse, bed-shaking coughs, and he fled before she could say anything more.

He remembered - feeling wrong. Missing something.

Someone tsked over his arm. A damn shame, to lose an arm. To lose that arm...

Come now, another said. This is a blessing in disguise! That Ring there would only draw attention our way - now, his other half thinks him dead, and we have the opportunity to experiment with those metal prostheses of yours.

But won't the freezing interfere?

Perhaps, perhaps not. I did refer to this as an experiment, did I not?

The conversation, overheard six months prior, when he had been injured and his trackers got too close, that prompted this investigation:

"So, I've been meaning to ask - that ring you wear sometimes, is that a widow's ring?"

Laughter. "Is that what they called 'em back then? That's cute."


"Hey, I'm just saying. But, uh, yeah, it's a remembrance ring."

"Can I see it?"


An exchange. Silence, contemplation.

"It was your partner, Riley, wasn't it? Your Ringmate."

"Yeah. The squads we worked with teased us something fierce about it. Y'know, married couple working together kind of stuff. ...or maybe you don't."

"No, I get what you mean. Were you?"

"Were we - what, married? Wasn't legal back then, Cap. And anyway, it wasn't like that."


"No. I mean, don't get me wrong, we were the real deal: closest person to my heart, lost a part of myself when he died, honest to god Ringmates. But it was platonic."

"Yeah." An exchange. "It's a lovely ring. Look anything like the real thing?"

"Do they ever?"

"Right." Silence, awkward, an answer avoided. "So, why only wear it sometimes?"

"Honestly? I take it off when I can't bear the pity. You know the look on a person's face, when they realize you've lost your Ringmate? Seeing it on every face that looks your way - some days I can handle it, some days I can't." Nods. Silence, understanding. "So what about you, you got a widow's ring of your own?"

"I..." Silence, shocked. Huffed laughter. "Can't get anything past you, can I?"

"Give me some credit, man. You've been dancing around it this entire conversation."

"Guess I have."


"Yeah, I have one. One of the first things I bought after I woke up. Doesn't feel right to wear it anymore, considering..."


He left before they could speak further.

He didn't want to know.

(The first lie.)

He remembered - feeling wrong. Missing something.

The asset won't cooperate, they said.

What's got it so worked up?

We don't know. The arm?

The technology in that arm is the most advanced in the world.

Yes, but something about the arm bothers... it.

Then fix it. Make it look like skin, give it a new paint job, give it a damn Ring for all I care, just get it working!

Left hand for marriage, right hand for friends.
Pale ring for lightness, dark for passion.

There was a nursery rhyme lilt to the words, when they came back to him. Research on the Internet informed him that it was part of a rhyming story about Rings, an old wives' tale meant to tell children the significance of Ring handedness and appearance.

All superstitious nonsense, apparently; a study had been done in the fifties that showed Ringmates rarely reflected the story, or any other like it. Ringmates might have bruise-black rings and a gentle, easy friendship, or a pale circle of scar tissue and a deeply sexual relationship. Or they might defy definition altogether, with a Ring both blood-red and callus-rough, and a relationship not quite platonic or romantic in nature.

He looked for photographic evidence of Steve Rogers's first Ring, not knowing why he searched.


In every picture of Steve Rogers available on the Internet, he was wearing gloves.

He remembered - feeling wrong. Missing something.

The target stared.  Asked: Bucky?

Watching old footage of the Avengers, as part of his research:

"You and Miss Potts, you're really not Ringmates?" Silence, hesitation. "You just... you seem like the real thing."

"Well, ah, thank you for the flattering assessment of the stability and permanence of my relationship, but no. Nooo. No-ho-ho, we are not Ringmates." As an aside: "Isn't it sickening, he believes in true love."

"Of course I do. That's what Ringmates are."

Another aside: "He's adorable, I'm gonna puke." To him: "No, no they're not. Ringmates are codependent obsessives, people gullible enough to believe a little sympathetic skin condition means you're in love, and forget everybody and everything that says it might be a bad idea." A quiet protest from a third party; a drink. "If there were a god, I'd thank him every day that I am, have been, and always will be Ringless."

"I think that might be the saddest thing I've ever heard."

"Look. Cap. I get it. You're from an older time, you want to believe the fairy tales you grew up on, but they're just not - "

"I had two Ringmates, Stark, and they were the best people I ever knew." Silence, stunned. "And I love them more than words can say. If you try to tell me that wasn't real, you're gonna wish you hadn't."

He shut off the video. He didn't want to see that.


Or anything like it.

(Liar liar.)

He remembered - feeling wrong. Missing something.

Doesn't feel right to wear it anymore, considering...

Steve caught up with him for the last time at the Smithsonian, peering at the only picture he hadn't thought to look for: Steve Rogers, before the serum.

It was blurry, poor quality, and his hands were small and thin. But he could see them. The Rings.

"I've gotta admit, I didn't think I'd find you here," Steve said, four feet behind him.

"You aren't a very good spy, then," he said, not missing a beat. That was easier, now. Being was easier. "I've been here four times. Only noticed this today." He moved aside, the gesture offering what he couldn't say: permission to get close, reassurance that he wouldn't be harmed. Trust, or something like it.

Steve approached, glanced at the picture. Smiled faintly. "I as gawky as you remember?"

"No," he said quietly. Steve's eyes bored into the side of his face, waiting - hoping? - for confirmation that he did remember. "But I'm told pictures exaggerate things."

Steve shrugged. "I wouldn't know." He hummed neutrally. Steve was still watching him. "So... if you weren't trying to see how I used to look, then...?"

"The Rings." Steve's breath caught. "You're always wearing gloves with the Commandos. I've seen the second one, from the other side - "

"You've seen Peggy?" Steve asked, alarmed.

He nodded. "She recognized me, for a minute." He sighed. That clench in his gut was back, that gnawing hunger, that missing piece aching inside. The thing he knew he didn't know and had told himself he didn't want to know. "I know what that one looks like, but not... not the other."

"Not ours," Steve said, again knowing the thing he couldn't say. He nodded. Steve sighed, breath shuddering out. "Walk with me?"

They left the museum and its reminders behind, wandered the open, vulnerable Mall in silence until they found a quiet, half-protected corner that satisfied most of his paranoid requirements. He sat down, cocked his head at Steve. Surely a walk wasn't all he was getting?

Steve sat down, heavy with... guilt? sorrow? Some burden he didn't like seeing Steve bear. "I wish I could show you. It was - it was so - but people assumed things, back then, about where your Ring was, what that meant about you. Two men, with Rings on their left hands? We were used to hiding it." He bowed his head over clasped hands. "There's just the one picture of me, and you've seen it. I - I don't think there are any of you. I'm sorry."

A sinking feeling. He stared at nothing, remembering the photograph, willing it to clarify, to give him more than just blurry proof of existence. "I can't remember it. I wish..." Gears whirred, and his metal hand clenched into a fist. Too hard; something started to protest, and he ignored it, squeezed harder. Something stung at his eyes. He wished... he wanted...

Hands were on his hand. Flesh hands, hands that could be hurt. He relaxed, pulled away, but they didn't let go.

"Steve," he said, because who else would dare? Of course they were Steve's hands. He wedged his flesh hand between Steve's, tried to pull them apart. "Steve, don't."

"You won't hurt me," Steve said. It rang true like all his promises, but it couldn't be.

"I won't try to," he corrected, still struggling. Steve was stronger than his flesh arm. Not stronger than his metal arm, but close enough to make it difficult. "I don't want to," he said, finally pulling his metal hand free, and one of Steve's with it, "but that doesn't mean I won't."

Steve sucked in a breath, sharp and loud. For a moment, he thought he'd proven his point, hurt Steve without trying. He tried to pull back, but Steve clung tighter, laced their fingers together, and he realized that his right hand felt strange. Not an itch, exactly, or any type of pain he recognized, but... strange. He looked down.

There was a mark on one of his fingers.

Two of their fingers.

There were a dozen things he wanted to say, nonsensical things like never thought I'd have this again and thank god and I've missed this so much and (you) (you) (you). What came out instead was a wooden, kind of dumb-sounding, "Oh."

Steve laughed and laughed and laughed, until suddenly he was crying too.

He frowned, wanted to - to comfort, to reassure, but he didn't know how, or what was wrong. "What?"

"Sorry, it's just..." Wiping at his eyes with his left hand, Steve laughed again, voice choked. "That's what you said the first time."