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The Night Has Seen Your Mind

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It wasn’t long before she regained consciousness. Oh, she gave no sign, cunningly keeping herself perfectly still, but he saw her heat signature change slightly as her pulse kicked up. 

She was afraid, but not as afraid as she ought to be. For a moment he wondered if he’d given her brain damage, but that seemed unlikely. No, she was just very competent, which meshed with what he’d observed of her before. (Had he? He had observed her. Surely. He knew her, that was the point of this whole thing.)

He pulled off his goggles, crossed the room, and crouched next to her, just far enough that she couldn’t reach him if she twisted her body around. “I don’t plan to hurt you,” he said, just above a whisper; his voice was rusty lately, with how seldom he used it. He didn’t really remember how people spoke to one another, but he was trying to fake it. They’d put the scripts in his head, before. He had no script now, and it was a source of constant low-grade panic, had been for the months and months he’d been out now. 

She didn’t react, but he knew she was listening. “I just want to ask you questions,” he went on, after a hard swallow to clear his throat.

She opened her eyes slowly. They were dark, sharpening into focus on him, and she made an expression like she was afraid, but something in him doubted its truth. “I don’t know anything,” she said, voice wavering. He didn’t need the knowledge of her heat signature to guess that she was not truly as frightened as she pretended.

“I remember you,” he said, gritting his teeth against the frustration that was welling up in his throat. “I remember you more than once.”

Her expression changed, and she looked resigned. “Well,” she said, mouth wry, “you’ve shot me twice, so that makes sense.”

“But you weren’t my mission,” he said, imbuing it with more certainty than he really felt. 

“No,” she said, “I was collateral damage both times.”

He flinched at the phrase, collateral damage; it was something that had been bandied about a lot, he sort of thought, in the shivery reflective way he got impressions of things— slivers, shards of memory, coalescing around various nebulous concepts. He couldn’t remember if he had been punished for it or encouraged to create it. Possibly both. 

“I remember more,” he said. “Just— pieces. But you were young. I— I think it was you.”

She stared at him. “They wiped your mind,” she said. “Again and again. How much do you get back from that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, and he was getting so tired of those words, even though he usually only said them to himself. They were enormous, like a huge obstacle, filling his whole vision, and anything else was only what he could glimpse around the looming hugeness of those words. “I don’t know,” he said, and this time he recognized his anger for what it was, and stood up, turned, and punched the wall instead of hurting this woman. He didn’t always know what his body was going to do before it did it; that also was a constant low-grade panic. He was pretty much constantly thrumming with panic, right on the edge of what he could take, and it spilled over into things like this sometimes. 

It had been easier when he had been killing people regularly. Working that kind of thing out during missions had helped. But he was done killing, for now. 

He blinked at the wall until he could move his body freely, nothing tensed or clenched or bunched in anger or overstimulation or terror. Breathing seemed to help it, but he didn’t always remember that. He let a slow breath out and turned back to crouch where he had been before. 

She had moved slightly, though she was convincingly lying as she had been before; she’d probably done something to her restraints while he wasn’t looking. He catalogued that; she was trying to escape and would probably soon succeed, if he was distracted a couple more times. Then she would probably kill him, if she could. 

“Is it you I remember or not?” he asked, flexing the fingers of his metal hand, listening to the soft susurrations it made, watching the metal bands move over one another while he observed her from his peripheral vision. The limb was starting to lose function, and he was remembering all the maintenance work they’d done on it over the years, and thinking that had probably all been important. If nothing else, it had a power source, he vaguely thought, that needed periodic replacement.

It didn’t help that he had to keep it covered to be inconspicuous. It had been designed to give him sensory feedback, and wearing clothing over it made it give off this constant feedback like a tactile version of screeching static, but worse than that the fabric rendered the heatsinks inadequate. It overheated frequently, which was most likely only hastening its malfunctions.

She was staring at his face, looking thoughtful. “Why did you pick me?” she asked. “Did you think I was an easier mark than Steve?”

Steve made him flinch all over. “No,” he said quietly. “If it is you I remember, then I know you are not an easier mark than S—“ He stopped, tried again. “Than S—“ He couldn’t say it. The silence stretched out a moment. He was scraping up against what he could handle. “He is impossible to track down, anyway,” he finished, dragging himself back with annoyance. He’d been trying for months to find the guy, who had spent that time trying to find him, and in the process screwing up a lot of carefully-laid plans. 

“Steve Rogers,” she said, and there was an intent edge to her tone. She had noticed his difficulty, his fixation, then. “I think if you’d just stayed still, he’d have found you, and then you could have had this conversation with him.”

A lot of other people would have found him if he’d stayed still, too, and he would most certainly not have survived to ask S— that man anything. He could say the name, he just needed preparation.

“Was it you or not,” he said, gritting his teeth against the feeling that he was going to fly apart at any moment. “Just— fucking— tell me— and I’ll let you go.”

There was a long pause. She was sizing him up, making a decision. 

“Yes,” she said finally. “I was a Black Widow agent for the KGB. I was very young. You were a legend. They pulled you out for a training exercise with us.”

He shook all over, and mastered himself with some difficulty. “There were— not just you,” he said, unable to make it into a sentence.

“There were others,” she confirmed. “There were six of us.”

“Girls,” he said, and his flesh and blood hand was shaking now. He shoved it down against his thigh and made himself be still. 

“We were fourteen, some fifteen,” she said. 

He breathed in, held it a moment, breathed out, not letting himself press his eyes closed— she would escape if he looked away, he knew that. “Some of the things I remember,” he said quietly, “I think are not true, but are false memories planted there to— I don’t know why. I, I remember— but I don’t know if it was real.”

“I can tell you what you did that day,” she said, impassive. 

He gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to know. But he had to know. “Yes,” he said finally. “Please do.”

“You hunted us,” she said. “It was a training exercise.”

He had to let himself close his eyes for a second, but opened them again and caught her just stopping her motion. She had some kind of small cutting tool and was working her wrist bonds open. But the anger, a little flare of anger at something so concrete and small, calmed him a little, flattened out his despair at having the memory confirmed. “Did I kill anybody?” he asked. 

“No,” she answered. “Injured, but not killed.”

He let his shoulders down a little bit in relief. “I maimed little girls,” he said, drawing the conclusion. He’d had to draw a lot of conclusions like that lately, and they were all collectively congealing into a great thick well of darkness behind his ribcage.

“They healed,” she said. 

“I didn’t hurt you,” he guessed, though he didn’t really remember that. 

“No.” She let herself give him a small, self-satisfied smile. “It’s not that you didn’t try. But you didn’t catch me.”

He breathed in slowly, breathed out, and stood up, backing away. But he didn’t turn his back on her. Once she was free, he’d have to kill her or let her go, and he had no interest in killing her. But he didn’t want her to leave yet, and he didn’t want her to kill him. He’d gone to an awful lot of trouble to set up this upcoming mission, and if he wasn’t there to deal with it, a lot of people would be in trouble.

“Did they wipe you too?” he asked. “Did you ever go into the—“ He shivered, couldn’t go on.

“No,” she said. “I have never had my mind wiped, not entirely.”

He set his teeth, disappointed; he had been hoping she would say yes, had hoped she was like him and had found herself again. Because obviously this woman had complete control, and that was what he wanted. “Is there anyone else?” he asked. 

She stared at him, a line appearing between her brows briefly. “Anyone else what?” she asked. 

“Like me,” he said. “Anyone else they did this to.”

Her expression very slowly shifted, giving him a glimmer of understanding before she was inscrutable again. “No,” she said. “There were others, but you are the only one who survived.”

He couldn’t turn to punch the wall, or she would free herself. He managed not to punch anything, but pulled inward on himself, hunching his shoulders, letting the tremor of frustration pass through him and out again. That was progress, he hadn’t done that before. “But you worked for those people,” he said, trying to salvage something from this, trying to get some kind of foothold. 

“Yes,” she said. “And I was conditioned, and given false memories, but they never wiped me. Not like you. You were a legend, to us, an example, a scary story.”

Another tremor went through him, but it didn’t pass out, it rebounded and went back through again, and he was shaking, and he had to— he was going to hit something. He slammed his fist down into the ground, cracking the concrete floor. “No,” he said. “I don’t— I’m not—“ 

He was going to hurt her. He shoved backward convulsively, slamming his back against the wall and holding himself there, trembling. “I know you’ve got your hands free,” he said unevenly. “You had better get loose and leave, I don’t want to hurt you.”

She stared at him for a moment, then moved deftly and sat up, the pieces of her restraints falling away. They both held still for a moment, staring at one another, motionless. 

He carefully and deliberately closed his eyes. “Go,” he said. “I can’t— I don’t wanna hurt you.”

When he opened them again, she was crouched in the window, staring at him. He shuddered hard, yanking back the impulse to attack her. 

“I don’t know how to fix what they did to you,” she said. “But I know some people who might.”

“I can’t,” he said raggedly, “I can’t— I won’t go back in a chair like that, I won’t— I can’t be around people.”

“We can help you,” she said. 

He swallowed it down, swallowed down the impulse to violence, as hard as he could, holding himself pressed against the wall. “Is it true?” he asked. “Am I — that guy? Is that me?”

“James Barnes,” she said. “It is true. I’ve seen the paperwork.”

“I don’t,” he said, shaking hard now, “I don’t remember him.”

“We can help you,” she said again, patient. Her eyes held little emotion, but there was a hint of sadness, maybe pity, and he shoved himself harder against the wall, focusing on the sensation of his legs pushing against the floor, of the pressure of the wall against his back. 

“How?” he asked. He was so tired, so frayed, so hopeless, but he was too angry to give up.

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “Over on 42nd Street near 9th Ave there’s a playground with a swingset. I’ll leave you information there, check the trees for a cache.”

He stared at her, and he could feel his legs weakening; he was going to lunge at her soon. “You need to go,” he said quietly, plaintively. 

“Steve is ready to burn the world down to get you back,” she said. “He’s trying to hunt down every single person who did this to you and kill each one of them. I’ve never seen him so angry.”

“I remember him,” he whispered. “But I don’t remember why.”

“You were friends since you were little kids,” she said. “You were best friends. You protected him when he was little, and you still protected him when he was big. He loves you more than anyone. And if I tell him I’ve seen you, he’ll tear the entire city apart looking for you.”

“I can’t see him yet,” he said, panic starting to beat at the last remnants of his self-control. “Fuck! You need to go.”

She looked at him, and nodded; he closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them she was gone. 

 

* * * 

 

Having given up his apartment was probably reasonable, but it felt weird to come “home” to Stark Tower. Steve was exhausted and the wound in his back wouldn’t stop bleeding and kept getting on the seats of the various conveyances he was in, and he kept having to lean forward awkwardly to keep from smearing blood all over things. 

Sam was so exhausted he had shut down almost totally. He was just staring blankly, reacting only minimally and only then when absolutely necessary, and hadn’t smiled in days, maybe a week. That wasn’t healthy, wasn’t good, and wasn’t Sam. Steve was feeling worse and worse about dragging him on this trip. At least he only had a sprained wrist. And he hadn’t at all resisted when Steve had said he needed to come back to Stark Tower with him for now, instead of getting himself all the way back to DC. 

Steve sort of wished he had the energy to appreciate that— Sam’s visits were real bright spots in his life— but at the moment, it was more that DC felt about as close as the moon. 

The cab (Steve remembered in time that tips were percentages and money was worth a lot less now; he was getting the hang of it but kept absent-mindedly forgetting) dropped them right at the big grand main entrance, and he nearly fell afoul of the automatic door with Sam to worry about. He managed it, and stumbled in past the reception desk toward the restricted elevators. 

“Captain Rogers,” the receptionist said, coming around the desk. “You’ve had a number of telephone calls, some letters and packages. The telephone messages have been transferred to JARVIS, he will have them for you in your suite. But the mail we held down here, since some of it seemed… well. Would you like to see?”

Steve rubbed his face with the back of his wrist. “Um,” he said. He waved Sam on, then remembered Sam probably didn’t have access to the elevators. “Uh, can I look at it later?”

“Some of it is most likely of actual importance,” the receptionist said, a little apologetic. She bit her lip. “I could, ah, I can get one of the security guys to bring it up for you.”

“That’d be great,” Steve said, “I’m about to fall over.”

“Oh, I understand,” she said, and retreated back behind the desk. He turned to follow Sam to the elevator and she made a little noise. He glanced back. “Should I, um, send up medical assistance?”

Steve blinked at her. Right. Blood. “Uh,” he said, “no, no, it’s okay, I just, I gotta clean up.”

“If you’re sure,” she said.

“I’m sure,” he said. He hefted his shoulder bag, the shield strapped to the top of it, and made his way to the elevators. 

Sam had fallen asleep with his head pressed against the wall. Steve touched his arm to wake him, and pulled him half-awake into the elevator. “Welcome home, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS said. “And Mr. Wilson, welcome to you as well. Will you be needing anything?”

“Sleep,” Sam said blankly. 

“Yeah,” Steve said, “about twelve hours in my bed would do it.” 

“You have numerous telephone messages,” JARVIS said, “and most of them are the standard sort, but a few are so unusual as to seem to warrant urgent attention. Would you like to hear them now?”

“No,” Steve said, “I don’t think I’d like to hear anything right now.”

“Understood,” JARVIS said. “Then I will save them for when you are next conscious.”

Steve held Sam’s elbow to steer him down the hallway to the correct door. There weren’t many apartments on this floor— Natasha had one, but hadn’t been here one time yet when he left, that he was aware of— but they weren’t labeled either. Or numbered. 

He opened his door with his thumbprint, which he’d initially thought was kind of weird but had gotten over, and steered Sam in, pulling his bag off his shoulder for him and dropping both in the entryway. “Do you want to shower?” Steve asked. 

“Yeah,” Sam said. “And then you, and then I’ll fix up your back proper.”

“Doesn’t really need proper fixing,” Steve said. “It’ll be closed before I wake up.”

“If you’re sure,” Sam said doubtfully.

“I’m sure,” Steve said. He pointed out the bathroom to Sam, and showed him the guest bedroom (thank God, there were already clean sheets on the bed). Sam had just gone into the bathroom (“I don’t even know what-all’s in there, soap or shampoo or whatever, there’s spare razors in the medicine cabinet”) when someone knocked on the door.

Steve shambled back over to the door, and yanked it open. It was one of the building’s security guards, with a cardboard box with letters and a couple of packages in it. “Huh,” Steve said, and took it, letting the door shut. He immediately realized what he’d done and yanked the door back open, startling the security guard, who’d walked a couple of steps away. “Thanks,” he said. “I meant to say thanks.”

“Oh,” the guard said, with a laugh, “of course,” and sketched him a little salute before continuing to walk away. 

Steve set the box down on the coffee table. He was about to walk away when he noticed that the topmost object was a postcard, an almost surreal photograph of a lit-up high-rise building with many towers, the foreground studded with silhouettes of pine trees, and in Russian it said, “Samara”, the name of one of the cities they had just visited. He stopped, stared. After a moment, he remembered how to breathe. 

He picked up the postcard and turned it over. It said “No. 16”, at the top, hand-written, and beneath it was a list of fifteen names, some in Cyrillic script, some in Latin script, both written by the same person in small, neat handwriting.

Each name had a long dash after it, followed by a couple of letters. “C.K.” was the most common. Two of them said “Inj.” One said “Abs.” 

Steve set the postcard down on the corner of the box, balancing it, and rifled through the rest of the box. He came up with more postcards, each one sent from one of the cities they’d visited. “No. 6” was Nuremberg, and had seventeen names on the back, all in Latin script but one, and all bearing the label “C.K.” but one, who said “Abs.”

Steve set that postcard on top of the other one. “No. 3” was Palermo, twenty names, all in Latin script, all “C.K.” 

Eventually Steve had ten postcards. All of them were lists of names. All of them were locations they’d visited. It finally occurred to him to look at the postmarks. All of them— 

All of them were sent between one and five days before he and Sam had visited that city. 

“Holy shit,” Steve said out loud, and sat down hard on the couch with the postcards in his hand. He remembered just in time not to lean back and wreck his upholstery. He really should have a slipcover on the couch, the way his lifestyle tended to wreck furniture. 

Most of the cities were places he and Sam had raced to in the wake of mysterious explosions. Each one, they suspected, was a HYDRA base of operations Bucky had destroyed. If not Bucky, someone else very, very angry. There was never much left to sift through. 

Steve rubbed the bridge of his nose, and looked back into the box. Eventually he found a letter written in the same handwriting, which had started to look familiar and he hoped it wasn’t wishful thinking. 

The envelope was addressed the same way as the postcards. 

“Steve Rogers / Capt. America

Stark Tower

200 Park Ave

NY, NY 10166” and the return address said, simply, “32557038”, which  made Steve swallow hard. 

That was Bucky’s military serial number. Popular culture knew that, he was starting to get over the jagged surprise of running into references to Bucky everywhere he turned. 

But. 

The handwriting was familiar. Steve turned the envelope over between his hands. It was postmarked from… New York. 11201. That was Brooklyn. Damn close to their old neighborhood. In fact… Might even be. 

Steve tore the envelope open carefully. A sheet of copy paper. Handwritten, ballpoint. 

Steve

Realized about halfway thru my world tour that you were following. Sorry, I had an itinerary, couldn’t wait for you to catch up. I sent my reports to you on postcards, hope you got ‘em all. Tried to get you on the phone but the number I had didn’t reach anywhere you ever were.

 I did try to minimize collateral damage on all this. I set those up pretty painstakingly and I just couldn’t risk you blowing it. Sorry, Steve. I’ll drop you another line when I’m done with all this, maybe apologize to you in person for the bullet wounds.

I think I know what you’d say if I could talk to you. I’ll turn myself in when all this is done but only when I’m sure I’ve taken down enough of HYDRA that they won’t put me back in that fucking chair. Either they’ll be so mad they’ll kill me, or they’ll be so dead there won’t be anybody left in the police department that gets me. The former’s more likely.

It’s real sweet that you’re looking for me, Steve, but there’s not a lot left of this Bucky guy. 

Yours &c—

 

There was no signature.

Sam came out as Steve was still reading. “I feel about six hundred and seventy per cent more human,” Sam said, wandering out into the living room with nothing on but a towel around his waist. Steve didn’t even have the attention to spare for the view. 

“Just a sec,” Steve said absently, finishing the letter. He turned it over to look at the back. “Jesus Christ.”

“That doesn’t look like a bill,” Sam said, leaning a hip against the couch. 

Steve stood up and handed Sam the stack of postcards and the letter. “See if that doesn’t blow your mind,” he said, and forced himself to walk away, to go into the bathroom and shuck off his filthy, bloody clothes, to turn the water on hot and put up with the stinging in his knife wound and finally, finally get his hair clean. 

He came back out towel-clad himself rather than getting blood all over his bathrobe (it had taken forever to find one that fit this freakishly functional body), and Sam was sitting on the couch, rapt. He looked up at Steve. “Are you fuckin’ serious,” he said. 

“I think he is,” Steve said. “I think that’s for real. The postmarks are almost all before we even knew we were going there.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. He flipped through the postcards. “Some of these, he’s got the names written with one pen and the statuses afterwards written in a different pen.”

“So he had a plan, going in,” Steve said, “and also had already started his report.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Jesus.”

“You said it,” Steve said. He picked up the envelope. “And here’s the craziest thing,” he said, pointing at the postmark.

“Where’s 11201?” Sam asked. 

Steve breathed out slowly. “Brooklyn,” he said. 

 

* * * 

 

 

Clint woke with a start. Natasha was crouching on the chair next to his bed, drumming her fingers silently on one knee, the other fist under her chin braced via elbow on the other bent knee. 

“Jesus,” he said, flailing up to a sitting position, needlessly grabbing the blankets to preserve his modesty. Shit, Natasha had seen him naked before. She’d seen him more than naked, she’d seen his innards before, that seemed even more intimate somehow.

“You need better window locks,” she said. 

“No, I don’t,” he said, disgusted, “I need a better dog. Did you at least put coffee on?”

“No,” she said. 

He looked closer. “Did somebody punch you in the face?”

“No,” she said, but drew it out very slightly, suggesting a coy lie. It was actually more precise an affirmation than a simple yes, conveying exasperation and good-natured teasing along with the truth. 

“It’s my job to get punched in the face,” he groused, and got out of bed naked. “You want coffee?”

“Yeah,” she said, following him to the kitchen, utterly unconcerned at his lack of pants. 

Lucky was asleep by the couch. “Some guard dog you are,” Clint said, which was unwarranted, but he was a little hung-over and if you couldn’t work that out by a little sarcasm directed at a dog, then what good was anything really?

Lucky got up and came over to put his nose in Natasha’s hand. She ruffled his ears politely, and he thumped the floor with his tail. “He likes me,” she said. “I don’t give him trouble so he doesn’t give me trouble. Anyway, Lucky is a very good dog.”

Clint rubbed his face and loaded up the coffeemaker, doing Natasha the courtesy of rinsing the filthy carafe and even giving it a quick wipe with the sponge. “You here because somebody punched you in the face, or what?”

“I didn’t get punched in the face,” she said, leaning against the counter. Clint remembered he was naked. She was kind of checking out his ass, or maybe she was regarding it in faint horror, she wasn’t giving him any tells to work with. “I got nabbed, drugged, dragged to an abandoned building, and interrogated in Russian.”

“What,” Clint said, almost dropping the carafe. He got it onto the hotplate and hit the switch, but it was a near brush with disaster. “Wait, what?”

“Yeah,” Natasha said, giving him a hint of widened eyes that suggested she was surprised too.

“How many people are there in this world who can get the jump on you like that?” Clint asked. “Like, four, five maybe? They gotta be superpowered.” He crossed his arms, thinking it over, thinking it was a little cold in here, he should at least put some underwear on, he wasn’t giving her all that much of a show. A little bit of a show, but that kind of obviously wasn’t what she was here for. 

She seldom was, but a guy could hope. It had happened. 

She shook her head. “You want to guess, you’ll be here all day and never get it.”

“Are they dead, at least?” Clint asked. And then it caught up with him. “Fuck, they’re not gonna come at you here?” But the jolt of alarm passed right on through. “Of course not, I’m the last fuckin’ person you’d come to, when you have Stark Tower full of superheroes.”

That won a laugh from Natasha, which was rare, and she came over and kissed his cheek. “Clint,” she said, “you’re something else.”

The coffeemaker started making happy burbling noises, so he wandered back to the bedroom to find underpants. “So somebody who speaks Russian,” he said. 

“Yeah,” she said. 

“Anybody I’d even have heard of?” Clint asked. 

“Oh,” she said, “yeah. Remember the story I told you about DC? And the guy who ripped the steering wheel outta the car, punched a truck, shot me, all that?”

Clint reversed right out of the bedroom to stare at her, underpants in hand. “And you’re not dead,” he said. 

“No,” she said. 

“The Man With The Cheesegrater Hand,” he said. “Captain America’s old pal, who’s got Steve chasin’ his tail all over hell and beyond. Abducted you.”

“And I was in mission mode at the time,” Natasha said, hopping up to sit on his counter. “So that was pretty rich.”

“Fuck,” Clint said, managing to get the underpants into their proper place. Natasha paused, staring at them. He looked down. They were Captain America boxer shorts. 

“Why do you have those,” she said. 

Clint shrugged. “People buy me weird shit, like I’m gonna not use it or something.”

“Wait,” she said, and pulled out her phone. 

“Aw, don’t,” he said, but it was too late, she’d taken a photo of him, star-spangled skivvies and all. 

“I just remembered I forgot to check in with Hill,” she said. “She’ll find that amusing enough to forgive me the inevitable worry. Anyhow. Yeah. None less than the Winter Soldier managed to hunt me down, drug me, and abduct me. Want to know what he was interrogating me about?”

“Prolly not a brownie recipe,” Clint guessed, getting out two mugs. Both were Hawkeye merch. Natasha raised an eyebrow. Clint shrugged. 

“He wanted to know what I knew about the Red Room,” she said. “Wanted to know if I knew anything about how to fix him. Wanted to know what I knew about him. This is the weird thing, he was way more coherent before. I saw footage of him from Russia last week and he was blending in like a normal person, I could barely recognize him.”

Clint poured the coffee. He just took his black, but Natasha liked sugar, a lot of sugar. He pushed the bag he kept sugar in over toward her and found her a clean spoon, and nearly burned his mouth getting that first precious sip down. “Gahh,” he said, “yeah, that’s the stuff.”

“You’re a disaster,” she said, as warmly as she ever said anything. It did actually kinda make a little warm spot somewhere around Clint’s heart. Could be angina, though. 

“You know his brain’s Swiss cheese,” Clint said. “I’m not surprised he’s got bad days and good days. But I dunno if this counts as a bad day, if he didn’t kill you.”

“He got the drop on me,” she said, “and that’s pretty impressive.”

Clint surprised himself with his own perceptiveness. “He’s hot, isn’t he,” he guessed. 

Natasha laughed. “Yes!” she said. “You’re getting better at this. He is kinda hot, if you like them unhinged, but mostly he’s got my attention because he bested me. That never happens.”

“True,” Clint said, “true.” 

“So here’s the thing,” she said. “What do you think I should tell Steve? He’s God-knows-where, been chasing this guy for months— and I call him up and say oh, he’s right here, he’s in the neighborhood, I stopped by for tea? Like, can I play this cool and try to get the guy to come in on his own? Or should I just hand the whole mess over to Steve right away?”

“Well,” Clint said. “Do you know where he is now?”

Natasha shook her head. “I told him I’d leave him some materials at a predetermined cache point, though,” she said. “I figured I’d get him a cellphone and like, a better hoodie, his was beat to shit, and maybe some food or something.”

“Give him a cellphone with Steve’s number in it,” Clint said. “And give Steve his number. There. You did your part.”

“That’s an idea,” she said. 

“I’m a human piece of shit, though, remember,” Clint said. “Don’t take advice from me on interpersonal relationships.”

Natasha sipped at her coffee, kicking her feet a little. “Solnyshko,” she said, sliding down from the counter in a sinuous display of lithe slender power. She snugged her hips up against his and kissed him, smooth and deep but brief. “You’re a lot of things, but you’re not a piece of shit, Clint. You just have terrible taste in women.”

“Are you callin’ yourself terrible?” Clint asked. It was always a good sign when Natasha spoke Russian to him.

She smiled against his mouth. “Maybe,” she said, and kissed him again. “Mmm.” Her phone vibrated and she broke off the kiss a little reluctantly. She frowned at her phone. “Steve is sending me Greek things because, presumably, he doesn’t know the difference between Greek and Russian,” she said. “We have got to get that boy an education.”

Clint peered at the image. “Greek to me,” he said, but it was just a guess. 

“Very good,” Natasha said. She had called up a search field and was translating the text. “It is in Greek and it says, ‘combining work with pleasure’, which I think is something Steve knows nothing about. Hm.” 

“Figure it’s the kind of coincidence that means somethin’, him texting you right after you get free from an abduction by his crazy pal?” Clint asked. 

Natasha sighed. “It might,” she said. She wriggled the phone back into her pocket. “I’ve got to decide what to do about Bucky.”

“Lemme know if I can help,” Clint said. He surveyed his somewhat pathetic cupboards. “Oh. Hey. Cereal. Want some?”

Natasha brightened a little. “Yeah,” she said. If they weren’t going to have room-destroying sex, which they hadn’t in a while and Clint sort of missed those days, at least they could have breakfast together. He kind of missed that. 

She curved her mouth fondly at him across the breakfast island, and kicked his foot when he told her what Kate was up to, and it brightened the day a lot to start it with her around. He had sort of realized how much he’d missed her while she was out of town, but it wouldn’t do saying it. 

“I’m glad you’re around,” he let himself say, finally, and she gave him one of her rare, slightly-crooked, genuine smiles. 

“I’m glad to be back,” she said. 

 

* * * 

 

 

Chapter Text

Even Super Soldiers had to sleep. Even Super Soldiers on the verge of a really important discovery had to sleep, especially when they were down a couple pints of blood and hadn’t slept in about a week. Steve passed out for about six hours, and woke up with his sheets smeared in blood but the wound on his back, as he had anticipated, healed shut. It was still painful, not healed inside, but it wasn’t bleeding, and there was no sign of infection. (He could theoretically get those, but it’d have to be some really ambitious bacteria.) 

He pulled on some shorts but no shirt, not wanting the fabric rubbing on his new scar, and shuffled wearily out into the main area. He drank about a half-gallon of water, put coffee on, and went back over to the little box, hands on hips, looking down. 

There were a bunch of little packages in that same handwriting with the same 32557 return address. Postmarks from all over, not just the countries where the postcards had come from. Steve sorted them all chronologically, lining them up on the coffee table, and interspersing the postcards where they fit in the timeline. Everything that didn’t look like it belonged, he threw back in the box and shoved under the table. (Seriously. Contracts for merchandising agreements. Like he gave a shit. Well, he did, because he took his job seriously, but no more than professional obligation demanded.) 

Then he went and poured himself an enormous mug of coffee. He’d learned to take it black, but he loaded it up with sugar when he could. Like now. He kind of liked it with cream too, but there wasn’t anything in the fridge, he hadn’t been home in months.

He took one of the knives from the kitchen and settled himself on the couch, using the knife to open the first chronological package. It had been postmarked in England, three weeks before the first postcard, which was postmarked in Denmark. This one was one of those little padded bubble mailers, about the size you’d put, well, a CD case in. 

That was because there was a CD in it, with a picture of a girl on the cover, with thick eyeliner and thin legs. Amy Winehouse. Back to Black. Steve wasn’t familiar with it. He opened it, pulled the CD out, pulled the liner notes out. There were no markings on the liner notes except that someone had underlined the track name “You Know I’m No Good” with a ballpoint pen. Either it was a statement, or the sender just really liked the track. When Sam was awake he’d listen to it and find out.

 Steve pulled the case apart. Behind the spindle that held the case, tucked against the back label, was a piece of paper, folded to near-invisibility against the edge of the label.

He pulled it out. In very small writing, in ballpoint pen, it said, “Where do I start?”

Sam was still asleep, so instead of firing up the stereo, Steve retrieved his laptop from the desk in the spare bedroom he used as a study (he had a third spare bedroom set up as an art room as well; it was the largest apartment he’d ever occupied, by a factor of three at least) and booted it up. He Googled the album, read up on the musician’s tragic life story, read some of the lyrics, and took a good hard look at the CD again, sort of faintly horrified. Was this a message? A woman who’d drunk herself to death before thirty?

He set it aside, reread the postcard that followed it. Denmark— Esbjerg, which Steve remembered sort of fondly as a pleasant city he’d experienced in a kind of hopeful purposefulness, back at the beginning of the wild chase. By this postmark, though— well, Steve’d have to check his itinerary, but the trail had been days cold by the time he got there, thinking himself hot on the trail. 

He had his computer right here. He could check his itinerary. 

Four days.

Yeah ok. 

Next package was a little smaller, but thick. Steve opened it carefully. It was… It took him some time to figure out that it was a developed roll of color camera film. Like many things, it had come and gone during his tenure in the Arctic, and so he had none of the familiarity with it that people assumed. The film was cut into strips, sprocket holes lining the edges, and each strip fed into a plastic sleeve connected to the others—  and then there was a set of prints, maybe four by six inches each. 

They were sort of touristy photos, like somebody would take with a not-very-good camera— a seashore, a lighthouse, some ducks on a river, a beautiful misty landscape, some trees, a flock of sheep. A sign, in a language Steve didn’t know at all, with smaller English writing underneath. He pulled the laptop over and Googled it. 

Irish. The sign was in Irish.

Steve had never seen Irish written, but he’d heard it spoken a fair bit, growing up. He’d forgotten that. He could still make pleasant small talk in Irish if he had to, but only the kind small children would be expected to make— yes ma’am, please, thank you, good morning, I am well, how are you— but he wouldn’t have had the foggiest notion of how to spell it. 

He got lost for a moment, perusing the Internet— Jesus Christ almighty, for a language as drawling as Irish was, it sure had a damn lot of consonants in it— before he went back to flipping through the photos. He used Google to hit up major tourist sites in Ireland, and managed to identify Trinity College in Dublin, the Cliffs of Moher (probably), some probable vistas of the Ring of Kerry, and he started to wonder why he had never managed to get to Ireland. It had been a childhood interest of his, though his mother had always told him there was nothing there. He and Bucky had always idly talked about going but the war had taken them to other places inst— 

Oh. Of course. 

Bucky had always wanted to go there. 

And eventually, there was a photo, in a mirror, a terrible photo with the flash on in what looked like the bathroom mirror in maybe a bar or something, and it was an indistinct figure of a man too washed-out by the flash’s reflection for any detail to be visible, except a distinctive curving lower lip above a distinctive cleft chin, eyes above in shadow, body lost in shadow and a dark overcoat. The right hand held a brightly-colored disposable camera (Steve had seen those, once or twice, just not often enough to easily recognize what the film looked like when it came out of them) out in front and to one side— a flesh and blood right hand, the left nowhere visible.

Steve set that one aside, leafed through the rest of the photos—oh, there was more of Dublin, okay— checked for any writing on the backs, then checked the envelope again. There was a bar coaster that said Guinness, with the impression where a damp glass had been set on it, and a train ticket stub from Dublin to Killarney.

Nothing in writing. 

The next piece of mail was a postcard from Kolkata, India, with a very cramped list of dead agents, postmarked a week later. 

After that was the postcard from Palermo, in Sicily, about a week later. 

Steve remembered his own frustration then, trying to predict where Bucky would strike next. He’d frightened some former-SHIELD data-analysis types, he remembered a little regretfully (he’d sent them pastries afterward, contrite), trying to get them to work out the pattern.

There was another package, sent three days after the Palermo postcard, with a postmark in Athens, Greece. It was another bubble mailer like for a CD. Inside was a little string of maybe quarter-inch polished stone beads, a little glass pendant shaped like a blue eye, and a folded up piece of paper. 

The piece of paper said something in either Greek or Russian, Steve didn’t know either language well enough to know, and then under that two words in the same script, with the now-familiar dash and the acronym “C.K.” after. 

Steve found his cellphone, used it to take a photo of the letter, and sent it to Natasha with the caption “what language is that in” and no further explanation. Looked like Bucky had combined his European holiday with a little business, taking out a sole operative instead of a cell in Greece. Or so he’d guess, from this.

He had to stop a minute, and rest his head in his hands. Give me a fucking return address, he thought, or a callback number, or something. This was torture. He picked up the mirror photo again, then put it down and drank his entire cup of coffee in one go. 

He went and refilled the coffee, came back, and went back to work. He Googled “souvenirs from Greece” and discovered that the beads were worry beads, something to occupy the hands with, and the little eye was a protective amulet. That was actually sort of touching. It could be construed as a message, perhaps. Or, it’s just that they were the most commonly-bought souvenirs in Greece.

This sort of thing really wasn’t Steve’s forte.

Two more postcards followed, the first a week later from Santa Fe, Argentina, and the second two days after that from Masaya, Nicaragua. 

Then there was another CD bubble mailer, containing a CD. The Velvet Underground And Nico. It had a picture of a banana on it. Steve had not heard of this one either, though he rather thought the banana looked a little Pop Art-ish. He popped the case apart the same way he had the first one, but the note slipped right out of the liner notes, fairly obvious this time, not really hidden at all. 

It said I didn’t hurt, kill, or frighten anyone at all today.

That I know of.

Steve set it down and held his coffee cup in both hands for a long moment. His phone buzzed and he picked it up to look at it.

“Greek,” Natasha had written back, “a sentence that means ‘combining work with pleasure’ and a man’s name. Should I find out who the man is?”

“No,” Steve wrote back, “I’m 99% sure he’s a deceased HYDRA agent.”

“Should I ask?”

“Not yet,” Steve answered. He stared at his phone for a while, then let himself ask the question he wanted to. “I’m back in New York, You gonna be in town at all?”

“Oooh,” she wrote, “how long have you been back?”

“About six hours,” he said. “I shouldn’t be awake yet but you know.”

“I do,” she wrote back. “I’m in Brooklyn. I can meet you later, or should I just come by?”

“Come by,” Steve wrote back. “Sam’s here.” Was everyone in Brooklyn but him? Was there a party? He was too tired and frazzled to work out how to make that some sort of joke over text message, and she’d have to know who else was in Brooklyn, and it wasn’t worth it. His heart lightened knowing she was nearby, though. He had few enough friends, and she had proven herself one of them.

“You dog! You finally hooked up?”

“Jeez. No. He’s in the guest bedroom. What is it with you?” Natasha was obsessed with Steve and Sam ‘hooking up’, as she put it. For his part, Steve was obsessed with Sam all right, but it wasn’t ‘hooking up’ he wanted him for; Steve was pretty aware that he was not the kind of guy who could move on easily. 

For his part, Sam was just Sam, and didn’t seem to be obsessed with anything, or fazed by anything. But it was one thing to be unfazed by a man’s obsessive search for his long-lost friend who was now a brainwashed cyborg assassin, and completely another thing to be unfazed by said man having an intense side obsession with everything from the way your jeans fit to the gap between your teeth. Steve never had learned properly how not to be totally creepy about liking somebody, and his coping mechanism was to ignore it.

“One of these days, rogers,” she texted back. 

Shaking his head, Steve put his phone down and drank most of his second cup of coffee. Finally he picked up the phone and wrote, “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” and sent it before he could think better of it. 

The postcard from Nuremberg. A largish envelope from Cordoba, Spain, containing… a checked cotton scarf with fringe on two edges, in red and white, and a rosary in a little plastic pouch. There was no note of any kind, though Steve turned the envelope inside-out trying to see if there was. 

The scarf, he spread out carefully on the couch cushions, and was eventually rewarded with a long brown hair caught in it. He pulled it out carefully and stuck it between two of the photographs so it wouldn’t blow away. Either Bucky had planted that, or he’d worn this scarf.

A postcard from Vientiane, Laos, with names transcribed in Latin script that Steve couldn’t read anyway. A postcard from Los Angeles full of names— all confirmed kills— and a day later, an envelope postmarked from Albuquerque, New Mexico, containing a t-shirt that had a picture of a flying saucer on it, one of those photos printed instantly on an inkjet printer of Elvis (likely an impersonator, Steve knew about those now) standing next to— Steve’s heart stopped— Bucky, recognizably Bucky, face shadowed by the bill of a baseball hat, squinting unsmiling at the camera, wearing black pants and a long-sleeved gray t-shirt, arms crossed over his chest. He looked skinny and worn-down. 

There was a note, scrawled on a torn piece of paper, but all it said was “what the fuck is up with television? I don’t get it” and no signature or other notation. 

The next thing was another package, a CD mailer again, postmarked in Memphis, TN, with a Johnny Cash CD (At Folsom Prison) in it, and this time there was a note just stuck into the case, that said “seriously just spent three hours watching what I now realize was children’s television programming and it fucked me up worse than torture what the fuck” and on the back continued “note: look into connections between HYDRA and network television executives they use the same science”, again with no punctuation. 

A door somewhere in the apartment opened and closed. Steve turned his head, but it was just Sam going into the bathroom. It was like eight in the morning, but there was no way Sam should be done sleeping. Steve finished the rest of his cup of coffee and checked the phone. Natasha hadn’t texted anything else. 

The next package sequentially was postmarked from Baltimore, Maryland a week later, and this package had a postcard inside it— the postcard bore an image of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway, and seventeen names. There was also a CD. 

Marvin Gaye. What’s Going On. Steve rubbed his face. He had that one, of course, digitally, because he’d enjoyed Sam’s recommendation of Trouble Man so much— he had a pretty good representative sampling of Motown now, having had an entry point like that. He flipped the case open and the little note inside said “actually sesame street is okay. Maybe it’s stockholm syndrome, I looked that up, I looked a lot of things up, but I don’t think it is, that’s one problem I’ve never had.” It continued onto the back of the page, and then there was a notation “p.s. They said you were frozen for a while, do you ever get warm again? I can’t.” 

The toilet flushed, the bathroom door opened, and Sam stumbled out, but instead of going back down the hallway to the guest bedroom he shuffled stiffly into the living room. “What the hell are you doing?”

Steve looked up at him. “It’s Bucky’s World Tour.” He fished out the picture with Elvis, and handed it over carefully. 

Sam took it by the edges, blinked blearily at it, got it into focus, and said, “Oh my fuckin’ god.”

“He’s sent me CDs, a t-shirt, photos of Ireland, a scarf from Spain, and some commentary on contemporary children’s television programming,” Steve said. 

Sam sat on the arm of the couch. He was not a particularly physically modest person, and at the moment was wearing nothing but a pair of bright red boxer-briefs that left little to the imagination, and Steve had a moment to think that in this light, he’d probably use primarily a russet brown for the color of that long muscled expanse of thigh snugged up next to him before he dragged his mind back on track. 

“Wait wait, Bucky sent you CDs,” Sam said. “Like, fuckin’, mixtapes? Is this a movie? Who does that?”

“No,” Steve said, “albums,” and he snapped Marvin Gaye’s case back together and handed it over. 

“Marvin Gaye,” Sam said. “Wait, of all the music in the world he sends you Marvin Gaye.”

“I know,” Steve said. “Something about me, people think I need Marvin Gaye albums. I guess there’s worse things to inspire in people.”

“That’s not all people think you need,” Sam said, but immediately interrupted himself, “Velvet Underground? Kid’s fucked up.”

“Oh,” Steve said, “I’ve never heard of that one. I was going to Google it.” He’d gotten distracted and forgotten to. “I like the pop art banana.”

“Pop art, very good,” Sam said, “it’s Warhol, that’s why. He took these fuckin’ crazy guys and was like record an album, and they were like okay, and I guess yeah, I can see how it’s important, but dude. The entire album is basically about drugs and sex but not, like, the fun rock-n-roll way. Like the crazy way. Like, man, New York City was fucked-up in the sixties kind of way.”

“Huh,” Steve said. 

“Aw no wait,” Sam said, and picked through the disassembled components of the first CD. “Amy Winehouse? Oh hell no.”

“Is it bad?” Steve asked. “It seems to have gotten all right reviews, even if her life was kind of tragic.”

“Girl was a goddamn beautiful disaster,” Sam said a little sadly, looking at the front liner notes, the girl with the puffed-up hair and the exaggerated eyeliner.  “Interesting choice, though. Her genius was largely in how she took all these influences, of people who came before her, jazz and girl groups and the thirties and the fifties and the sixties, and kinda stuck ‘em in a blender and skimmed off the good bits. I personally kinda thought she was a hack but she really spoke to a lotta people. I guess her songwriting was interesting, sure.” He turned the paper over in his fingers. “I just worry that this is who Bucky’s latching on to in the modern era. I don’t even think this girl made it to 30 before she fuckin’ drowned in booze.”

“I got that,” Steve said, gesturing absently at the laptop. “Johnny Cash, though, I’d meant to listen to him. He lived to be old, at least, right?”

“Did some drugs,” Sam said, “abused his wife a bit, but he got over that, so yeah, I guess. Sort of sweet, sort of fucked-up love story with the two of them. Good movie about it a while back. I like Cash all right. But, uh, generally his songs ain’t real cheerful.” 

Steve shrugged, reached for the next package. It was a thick greeting card-sized envelope and contained— four postcards. They were all obviously from a multi-pack of postcards, all bearing different photographs of African Safari, and lists of dead agents on the back, but there was a scrap of paper with a note— “sorry the report’s late like this, not much time to get to a post office”, and another longer letter.

Steve—

I remember enough now to know you were not just my commanding officer, not just some kid I knew— that’s why I’m reporting to you— but also that we were pals, I remember that.

But. Hey. I know you’re following me.

Stop it.

You’re only putting yourself in danger and spooking agents I was trying to lure out of hiding. Stay back and leave me be. Some of these hits were supposed to have follow-ups I couldn’t do because you showed up. 

I worked for you once, right? Trust me and let me do my job. You’re fucking it up.

No signature. 

Steve handed the envelope and its contents over to Sam, who was still on the arm of the chair, looking glorious as the morning light slid across his smooth expanses of skin— what is wrong with me, Steve thought, not for the first time, this is really not the time— and shook his head and went on to the next, which was another greeting card-sized envelope, postmarked Novogrod, Russia. It was indeed a greeting card. It said something in Russian on the front, with a cheerful cartoon of a bear. Steve resignedly set it down on the coffee table and stood up to take a picture of the whole thing on his phone. He sent it to Natasha and wrote “what the fuck does that say”, and sat back down to open the card.

There was a memory card taped in it, one of those rectangular SD cards like from a digital camera. “Well,” Steve said. “Shit.” It also had a scrawled notation in Russian inside. 

He carefully peeled the tape up and retrieved the memory card. He had a digital camera, a really nice one with interchangeable lenses; he often used it to take reference photos for drawings and paintings, but he was starting to get into photography for its own sake now that it wasn’t so prohibitively expensive per exposure, and you could instantly see results and tell if you needed to adjust any settings. People sometimes seemed surprised and expected him to be nostalgic for film, in yet another display of how stunningly stupid people could be about history. 

Next time someone interviewed him, he vowed to himself, looking for the SD card slot on his laptop (it had a cover and he kept forgetting where it was), he was going to derail the inevitable banality into a really, really frothy rant against anti-vaccination activists. He hadn’t torn into them in a while. Nobody, not even Natasha, seemed to have caught on that his occasional rants during interviews were calculated. If people were going to waste his time with stupid softball questions, he was going to wait until they were off-guard and spring something really inappropriately-passionate on them. Not that there was anything inappropriate about eviscerating anti-vaccination idiots. 

The look on Fury’s face after he’d done the tirade (on FOX, no less) about the lack of progress in racial equality had been kind of great, though. 

“Wait, wait,” Sam said, “are you just gonna stick that disk into your computer? What if there’s, like, a virus?”

“JARVIS will isolate it,” Steve said, “if it’s harmful, and we can study it. I’m not gonna not look at this thing.” He worked the cover out of the slot and stuck the card in. Nothing happened, and he sighed and clicked around until he figured out how to open the disk. It had inscrutably-named folders, so Steve clicked until one had files in it that looked openable. Videos. 

The first one was blackness and an odd clicking noise, and only a few seconds long. The next one was a blurry shot of a concrete wall, a slow pan into darkness, and nothing. The third one finally was something, a slow pan across a dim expanse of what looked like the inside of a warehouse. On closer inspection, there were signs of a firefight— gunfire-scarred walls, huddled lumps on the floor. Bodies. Pools of blood. Someone was breathing near the camera, and the camera shook with someone’s slow, heavy footsteps. 

“Before I blow this place,” a voice said, and Steve startled— it was Bucky, sounding fucking exhausted, hoarse and ragged and a little out of breath, “check this shit out.” He panned slowly across a—

“What is that?” Steve asked. 

“It’s a server rack,” Sam said, “that’s a fuckload of computers.”

“I would leave this because there’s probably important evidence in it,” Bucky said, “that I have no means of retrieving, but I know they’ll send a cleanup crew, and it’ll be gone anyway before you get here. So it’ll hurt them more for me to destroy it. I just wanted to record that this is where it was.” He panned back out across the facility. “I don’t remember where the fuck I am. I’ll put the location in the report.”

There were a series of videos, in sequence— the outside of a building, then interior shots visibly after firefights, then usually a video of someone walking around the interior and turning over each dead body to reveal the face, which was carefully captured on video. A time or two, the body wasn’t quite dead when turned over; Steve almost threw up one time when Bucky calmly captured video of the gut-shot, bloody-mouthed, terrified person, then without shutting the camera off put a bullet into the man’s face and walked on to the next one.

“I need a minute,” Steve said, not clicking on the next file.

“I need a lot of minutes,” Sam said, and they went in the kitchen and Steve made another pot of coffee and stood with his knuckles pressed against his mouth staring into the sink until Sam pulled him away and embraced him. 

“Hey,” Sam said. “Hey. He’s doin’ a job.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, too shaken to appreciate the brief warm press of Sam’s mostly-naked body against his. He took a couple of deep breaths. “Yeah.” He got his third cup of coffee and came back over to the couch, breathed deeply again, and opened the next video.

The next one started off in bright sunlight. It was just the camera pointing out a car window at an expanse of grassland. It was a sunset, and between the moving car and the setting sun was a herd of giraffes, striding majestically. 

“Ain’t that pretty,” Bucky’s voice said off-camera, and then there was a fumble, and the camera shut off. 

“Shit,” Bucky said immediately as the next video started up, “I don’t know if you’re gonna get those voicemails or not. I don’t have time, I gotta do this myself, but I don’t know if I’ll have much luck. So here’s a knowledge dump. Not gonna write this down.” The camera was pointing at a ceiling, and swung wildly around for a moment before settling down, pointing at a a fake-wood-paneled wall, then turning toward a mirror. The mirror made it plain, this was a restroom on a train. Bucky was sitting perched on the toilet, feet on the rim, looking grimly at the camera in the mirror. 

“HYDRA’s main squeeze right now is the Ukraine,” he said. “All that shit. They took most of it outta my head but I know I was there pretty recently, I know I did some shit there. I don’t know what. But it’s a carefully-sculpted pile of tinder that they’ve soaked in gasoline, and I think I was the match. It’s more than I can put out on my own. I’m gonna go try and kick some of the fuel out of the fire. Check me out and my metaphors, right?” He gave the camera a tired glimmer of saucy attitude, so old-Bucky it might have stopped Steve’s heart. 

“Anyway. I’ll probably get killed. So here’s the rest of the missions I gotta run— I gotta hit up the cell I know is in Hangzhou, the head guy you gotta look for if I don’t get there is called Pang Jianguo.” He sighed, looked off to one side. “I don’t, the method’s kinda—“ He gestured, metal fingers glinting, then scratched his head. His hair was still long and loose. “To get ‘em in one place I been doin’ one of two things. If I can get the codes, I send ‘em a message that sounds like party leadership calling them in for an urgent conference. If I can’t, I pretty much strut by, dragging my coat on the ground, darin’ somebody to step on the tails of it. Sometimes that doesn’t work so good either so I do the mama bird with a broken wing act and y’know, they all know how bad leadership wants the Winter Soldier taken down, so as soon as they see the metal arm they all lose their heads with bloodlust.”

“He sounds pretty good,” Sam said. 

Bucky looked back over at the camera. “I don’t know how you’re gonna do that, but you gotta get Hangzhou. Then either Volgograd or Samara. Shit, I don’t even know how to tell you what you gotta know to find them. I’m telling you, though. If you have the Black Widow on your team, which I have heard you do, she may be able to make the necessary connections, though she might have to die to pull it off. I mean, it’s not exactly like they don’t know she’s on a different team now. The HYDRA action will crystallize either around Volgograd or Samara.” 

He stood up. “Then the last place I have to hit is New York City,” he said, closer to the mirror. His accent had shifted, abruptly— he didn’t sound like Brooklyn anymore, he sounded clipped, almost foreign. “They will be waiting for me there, they have been expecting me to come there, I’ve been luring them there. They will be trying to trap me. If I can contact you,  you can make the best of it there. But that is in the future. In the present, I may not make it out of the Ukraine, so I am going to try to send you this report before I go in.”

The video shut off. There were no more. 

“He has to have made it out of the Ukraine,” Sam said sensibly. 

“He’s Bucky,” Steve said brokenly, sitting back and putting his hand over his face. “He’s, he just— he’s not like before the war but he’s just like he was toward the end, and you know, he was pretty fucked-up by the end.”

“I get the feeling he’s frontin’ a little,” Sam said. “Like, he’s probably not always as together as he’s playin’ in that video. But the fact that he’s aware enough to send you the best of himself, he’s definitely recovered a lot of memories at least. He’s a far cry from the pretty-much-robot we met.”

“He’s systematically and strategically taking HYDRA down,” Steve said. “Single-handedly. And my attempts to help only fucked it up.”

“Naw,” Sam said, “we batted cleanup, we got some good shit.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, “but we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.”

His phone buzzed. Natasha. “It’s a birthday card,” she said, “it says basically many happy returns, who the hell sent you a birthday card from Russia? And it’s not your birthday??”

“Bucky,” he wrote back. He set the phone down, and picked up the next postcard. 

 Dhzankoy, in the Ukraine. Steve squinted at it. No, they hadn’t gone there at all. This one had a list of agents mostly in Cyrillic script, but across the bottom it said a series of words in Russian underlined three times. Dhzankoy. Well, it was in the Crimea, and the region was in some turmoil, so there had probably been mitigating factors. 

This was when the trail had gone cold, Steve realized. Because they hadn’t heard of Dzhankoy, whatever Bucky had done there being obscured by the greater turmoil, and so  there had been the series of frustrating, tantalizing leads in Africa, then nothing. 

Steve hoped it wasn’t because things had gone badly in Dhzankoy.

The next postcard was from Hangzhou, sure enough. It was almost a full six weeks later, though. Most of it was written in characters, probably Chinese. A couple of the names were in Latin script, though. Why Bucky knew how to write Chinese, Steve wasn’t even going to guess. He’d always been pretty good with languages.

The next thing was a package, the last of the packages, postmarked Erdenet Mongolia, about three days after the Hangzhou postcard. Another greeting card. This one had just two pieces of plain card stock taped together. Steve used the knife to slit the tape, and was rewarded with another memory card.

He took a deep breath, pulled the first memory card out and set it carefully on top of the birthday card, and put the second memory card in. 

The camera was pointed at a seascape, off a balcony, and someone walked away from it as it started. “So here we are,” Bucky said, hoarse and out of practice at speaking, from the sound of it. “Dhzankoy. This is where I would call in backup, or preferably an airstrike to just nuke the fuckin’ place from space. These guys know me. They know I’m coming. They know my programmed-in weaknesses. I have kill switches, did you know that? I do.” Bucky paced back and forth next to the camera, an out of focus shadow just at the edge of its field of view. “There’s a chance if they get the pitch right they can kill me with the right words. Just, boom, shut me down. You know for years I thought I was actually a robot. No idea I’d ever been anything but what I was. Figured I’d been put together from scrap parts. They got control words for me, commands I can’t ignore. Most of HYDRA doesn’t even know that, now that whats-his-name with the gray hair, he’s dead. American guy.” An absent gesture barely in the camera’s field of view glittered with metal. “But they do, here, a couple of ‘em.”

Bucky suddenly swung into the camera’s view, and looked down at it, off-center, the camera struggling to bring him automatically into focus. He looked awful, gaunt and sharp-faced and tired, shabbily-dressed, arms crossed over his chest, metal hand bare. “I’m doin’ the thing they always do in movies. I’m totally monologuing and telling the hero the plan.” He shook his hair out of his face. “I never really figured on being the villain in the movie. But I had no idea how fucked-up the world could be. Did you ever realize how fucked-up the world could be, Steve?” He was unsmiling, intense, pained. 

“Doesn’t matter,” he went on. “I done a lot of harm in this world, caused a lot of trouble. I don’t have any backup to call in for this. I was kinda hopin’ I could get ahold of you but I don’t think you’re anywhere to get any of my messages. So I’m goin’ in alone and I’m gonna wreck what I can, and if I can drag myself out again after, I will. I was gonna save this one for last but I can’t, they’re gonna start World War III if I don’t take ‘em out right now. So I hope you got my messages about Hangzhou and Samara. I think it’s gonna be Samara, by the way. And after that they’re coming to New York, so I hope to hell you’re as good as I remember you being.”

He laughed bitterly, looked away. “If I don’t get out, this ain’t gonna get sent anyway,” he said, and reached down and shut the camera off.

“He made it out,” Sam said. 

Steve rubbed his forehead. “He was trying to reach me,” he said. “Why is there no return address, then? Why not a phone number or even an email address or something?”

“I don’t know,” Sam said kindly. He was sitting on the couch next to Steve now, not on the arm any longer, and he put his hand on Steve’s knee reassuringly. His hand was very warm from holding the coffee cup. 

Steve clicked the next video. Bucky was breathing loudly and the camera was pointing at a dark wall. Bucky made a pained little noise, very close to the camera, and the image swung wildly— he was rolling over, getting up from a position on the floor. The image swung crazily again— Bucky had staggered, fallen against a wall, and he made an awful little noise, strangled and pained. 

“Mission,” he grunted, “complete, got charges laid, just— gotta—“ The image spun, blurred, and Bucky was up, moving unevenly, staggering across a room. At one point a bloody hand came up into the field of view and smeared across a door before Bucky’s metal shoulder hit it and Bucky choked off another noise. 

He did his routine of showing the faces of each corpse he came across, only this was accompanied by awful heavy breathing and noises of pain. He was obviously pretty badly hurt, somewhere in the body, and bleeding. Three of the bodies still showed signs of life, and Bucky cut each one’s throat unconcernedly before moving on. It was hard to watch. 

At one point Bucky fell and didn’t get up again, and the camera ran for about two minutes, pointing at a distant dark warehouse ceiling, with no sounds of movement or breath whatsoever. 

Steve had to get up and walk away, leaving Sam sitting in front of the screen but watching him worriedly. Steve composed himself, looking out the window. Bucky had gone in alone and gotten badly hurt because Steve had been too busy chasing him to stay in a place where he himself could be found. It was sort of the textbook definition of unfair, or ironic, or something, Steve couldn’t remember. 

Finally there was a noise from the computer, and Sam said, “He’s up again.”

Steve came back and stood beside the couch, watching Bucky literally crawl out of the building— he must have the camera tucked into his jacket, it showed a crazy oblique angle of the ceiling but from the nature of Bucky’s motion it was clear he was on all fours and dragging a wounded limb, and from his breathing and occasional tiny noises it was hurting him a lot.

“You know,” Sam said, “why don’t you just let me watch this one and I’ll tell you how it ends.”

“No,” Steve said. Bucky bit off a whimper and shoved himself into a sitting position, human hand shaking as he set the trigger on a fuse. The metal hand was steady, at least, and he dragged himself up with it and staggered out a door, moving faster, breathing hard and plainly dizzy. 

Fetching up behind a brick wall, Bucky muttered something in Russian, and there was a beep-beep-whoosh noise, and suddenly the sound of an enormous explosion blotted out all audio input for a while. 

In the midst of it, the camera shut off. 

The next video was of a pretty, peaceful forest, misty in the early morning light as the rising sun began to strike sparkles off the dew. “Not dead yet,” Bucky said. “I hope you get my messages. I didn’t get everybody back there, I didn’t even get the most important ones. I got enough that it’ll help— I took out their main logistics guy before the strike, figured they knew I was coming anyway so it was worth the risk. You gotta get in there and mop up. That thing I keep leaving voicemail messages with, that’s the smuggest goddamn computer I ever dealt with, and I can’t convince it to just fucking forward them on to wherever you are chasing around like a fuckin’ chicken with its head fuckin’ cut off,  I don’t need you to fuckin’ follow me, I need you to fuckin’ help me.”

“Wait,” Steve said, hitting pause, “that’s JARVIS, he’s talking about leaving voicemails here— why the fuck didn’t they forward them to me?”

“Know what,” Sam said, “there’s like one more video, let’s finish this first.”

Steve subsided. “Fine,” he said, and hit play. 

“It’s gonna take me a couple more weeks to heal enough to take out Hangzhou,” Bucky said. “I hope they don’t find me. I can’t move yet. Listen, Steve. The inside of my head is like a piece of fuckin’ crockery after Mom got done pitchin’ it at Dad, but I remember more about you, I remember how important you were to me. I must’ve been important right back or you wouldn’t’a come after me that time. So I guess if I get a chance to send this I just wanna say that I’m sorry for shootin’ you and I wish, y’know— but I dunno if I’m gonna be okay enough to talk to you. I can talk to a camera, this ain’t so bad, but me and human conversations in person have mostly been with guns in between lately, I don’t think I can just talk. I tend to lose my shit and murder people. So I’d probably just try to kill you again if I saw you. So pre-emptively, I’m sorry about that, in case I do.” 

There was a pause, the camera looking passively out at the beautiful landscape. “You don’t get these, I don’t know why I send them,” Bucky said, and there was sudden vicious motion and the camera shut off. 

The next video was the typical post-mission mute report, panning over bodies in a sprawling office complex. Most of them were Asian. Bucky moved with ruthless efficiency, but there was a hint of a limp in the rhythm of his walk. None of these agents were alive, none needed dispatching. Bucky moved out, recorded as he set a timer on a fuse this time, and the camera shut off as he went outside into a dark nightscape. 

The last video was Bucky’s face; it took Steve a moment to parse what he was seeing. The camera was at one edge of a coffee table, and Bucky had his chin propped on the other end. His right eye was centered in the frame, his left eye half cut off, and his mouth and chin were visible, along with an expanse of table; his human hand was curled loosely next to his face. “I got one more to go,” he said. “Like 99% sure it’s gonna go down in Samara. Russia’s hard for me, Steve. A lot of information about me here. Not as bad as Ukraine, but they’re on the alert since then. Chance I won’t make it outta this one, so I’m gonna send this before I go in instead of tryin’ to squeeze one more report on it.”

He had been looking up, off-camera, but now his eyes slid slowly to the lens. He was lit strongly from the side, like there was a lamp there, and it picked out the color of his eyes, making them gleam a unreal pale blue. “I got this comfort, now, that whatever happens, I die knowin’ my name. I don’t think you can get how important that is. But, like, second place in the comforting thing is that I die knowin’ your name. Because I remember enough to know that whoever I was, I was because you were you, and that didn’t change when you went from bein’ some little kid to bein’ this big hero.” He sat up, and now the camera could only see his chest, which was featurelessly dark, in a dark-colored shirt. His metal arm swung into the picture as he pushed himself to his feet. “Goodbye, Steve. Maybe I’ll get to New York. I’m drawin’ them there. I figure if I don’t make it there, you’ll figure out what to do. I hope I’m not wrong.” 

The video ended.

The last two items were the final postcard from Samara, the first one Steve had noticed last night, and the letter, postmarked Brooklyn.

“Well,” Sam said brightly, “I’m just gonna go drink myself to death,” and got up from the couch and went to the kitchen. 

Steve moved the cursor back to the frame of Bucky’s face in the moment he’d looked at the camera in that last video, when the light had illuminated his irises. 

“Captain Rogers,” Jarvis said, with the little glimmer of warning lights that usually showed in the corner of the room whenever he activated, so that Steve didn’t startle out of his skin, “a visitor is approaching.”

Instead of a knock, the door just slid open, and Natasha came in. “Why is Bucky sending you birthday cards?” she asked, then saw him and stopped dead. “Hey. Nice outfit.”

“Nice knock,” he answered, pushing to his feet. But she came toward him and embraced him, unworried at his relative nudity. He was normally pretty modest but this was Natasha, who didn’t care, and he was too tired to make up the giving-a-shit shortfall on his own.

“I’ve missed you,” she said. 

“What’ve you been up to?” he asked. 

“Work,” she said. “Just got back in town to run an op for Stark, think I might stick around. I know what you’ve been up to, it’s been all over the place.”

“Bucky’s been sending me reports,” Steve said tightly, “and I haven’t been here to get them, and nobody knew to tell me.”

Natasha stepped back to look at him, hands on his arms. “Oh,” she said. He gestured at the computer, and she saw Bucky’s face there, and said again, “oh.”

“Each postcard is a mission report,” Steve said. “Or, well, I think an accounting of known operatives.”

Natasha made a beeline for Dhzankoy, picking it up. “Is this— Jesus Christ. He— is he suicidal? He went to Crimea?” She was reading the back, and grimaced knowingly. 

“He said, in a video report, that he had really been trying to get ahold of me because he didn’t want to go in there alone,” Steve said bleakly. “He survived it, but there’s a video report that’s really hard to watch where he’s literally crawling out of the facility and smudging blood everywhere. He passes out in the middle for like two, two and a half minutes, with the camera still rolling.”

“So before we finish beating ourselves up,” Sam said from the kitchen (he’d somehow magically put more clothes on; he had track pants and a t-shirt on, and Steve would swear he hadn’t left the kitchen), “we should probably listen to those voicemails.”

“Oh right,” Steve said. “JARVIS, you said there were voicemails.”

“I have sorted them for you into a visual representation,” JARVIS said, popping up a holographic screen just far enough away not to startle Steve. He was good that way, probably by trial and error. “This set are all from different numbers, but the speaker has a similar enough voiceprint that it’s clearly the same individual.”

Steve rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “In future,” he said, “I want to be alerted of any messages from that individual,” he said. “That was the man we were looking for, and the whole time, he was trying to reach me here.”

“I apologize,” JARVIS said, “I was not aware of whose attention I should bring it to. I thought it a sophisticated prank until very recently, when I discovered the correlation between the events he spoke of and news reports.”

“And the correlation was that he was talking about them before they happened?” Steve was looking at the voicemails, and yeah, a lot of them were junk, but there was a little collection of them pulled aside. JARVIS had, for some unnecessarily coy reason, marked them with red stars. Very cute. 

He listened to the first one. It wasn’t just a voicemail, it was a recording of the entire call, including the receptionist’s greeting. “Uh, I was informed that, uh. This is gonna sound kinda weird. Well. I was informed that Captain America lives here now.” It was Bucky, though he sounded a little… off. 

“That is correct,” the receptionist said. 

“Could you, uh, could you connect me to him?”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the receptionist said. “He does not take unsolicited calls. I could give you a voicemail to leave a message with.”

“Shit,” Bucky said. “Uh, pardon me. Um, he’s not in Europe, is he? He better not be in Europe.”

“I am not at liberty to discuss his whereabouts,” the receptionist said. 

“Oh,” Bucky said, “no, it’s just that I think he’s lookin’ for me. Damn it. Uh, sure, can I leave him a message?”

“One moment please,” the receptionist said. 

There was a quiet chime, and an electronic voice said, “Leave a message for Captain America.” 

“Steve,” Bucky said. “I hope you get this. Look, you’re the closest thing I got left to a commanding officer. So I’m gonna send you reports. If I can get in touch with you I can at least coordinate, if not collaborate. I’m not going on a crazy revenge spree, I’m trying to take HYDRA down with information only I have. Please, if you get this, drop me a line, I got an email I can check every once in a while, it’s an auto-forwarder kinda dealie.” He recited a string of random numbers and letters, then repeated it. Then he disconnected the call. 

“You can see,” JARVIS said dryly, “how I would have not understood the significance.” 

Steve turned and leaned his forehead against the doorway from the open plan kitchen/living room/dining area into the hallway with two of the bedrooms, not quite thunking his head on the wall but almost. “Yeah,” he said, “I can.” He looked at the datestamp. It was from the day the postcard had been mailed from Palermo. 

“He really sounds like… like a normal person,” Natasha said. 

“He sounds a little off,” Sam said. “I don’t think he’d be nearly so collected talking to someone in person. But it is a good sign that he can access that kind of conversational skill.”

The next message was from around the time he’d been in Los Angeles. “You’ve reached Stark Tower, how may I direct your call?” the receptionist said. 

“Is there any way you can connect me to Captain America?” Bucky asked. “I’ll sit here on hold or whatever, it’s just super important.” 

“I’m afraid that would be impossible,” the receptionist said, “but I can direct you to his voicemail.”

“He ever actually get that voicemail?” Bucky asked skeptically. “I left him one there like two months ago, I know he was in Europe then but he’s probably on his way to South America now, does he ever check in?”

“I am not at liberty to discuss his whereabouts,” the receptionist said, “but I can tell you that while he does check his voicemail, it may well have been more than a two-month interval since he did so.”

“I was afraid of that,” Bucky said. He sighed. “Yeah, lemme leave him a message. Listen, is there an email address or something I can try? This is really important, I mean people dying kind of important.”

“A lot of what he does is of that level of importance,” she said. “I believe he has a public-facing email address at captainamerica, no spaces, at avengers dot com.”

Bucky sighed again. “Subtle,” he said. “I like. Listen, friend, you’ve been a great help.” It was impossible to tell if it was sarcasm, he just sounded tired. “Stick me in that voice mail box, pal.”

The receptionist laughed. “Have a good day, sir.” The electronic voice gave the message about leaving a message for Captain America. 

Bucky sighed. “Hey Steve,” he said. “You don’t get these. Well, I gotta try. Listen up. Shit is getting real bad in the Ukraine. And it kinda might be my fault from before. And I know that’s on me, but I don’t know if I can— listen, I got an itinerary, here. And I gotta live long enough to finish it. It’s all gonna wind up in New York in, like, three months or so, maybe four, depends how long things take me— but only if I survive the Ukraine. And I gotta do it soon, I can’t wait til the end to do it or there might be nuclear war, I’m fuckin’ serious. So, uh. I need help if I’m gonna make it outta there. I need to talk to you.” 

He tapped audibly on something, hissed through his teeth. “Okay. Probably gonna do the African side-trip first because I know you-all don’t have contacts for shit out there, you’d never find those sleeper cells. But after that, man, I don’t wanna go back into a Russian warzone alone.” He hesitated a moment. “In movies this always works, I been watchin’ movies to figure out what-all I missed. This ain’t the movies though. So anyway, That email address. I hope to Christ to hear from you.” He recited the random string of letters and numbers again, and disconnected. 

There was a moment. “Well,” Natasha said, “fuck.”

“I flagged these to Mr. Stark’s attention around this time,” JARVIS said, “but he was unable to determine any importance and said it was probably some crazy, to use his words.”

“He wouldn’t know Bucky’s voice,” Steve said. He touched the phantom screen to play the next voicemail. 

“Thank you for calling Stark Tower,” the receptionist said, “how may I direct your call?” 

“Just,” Bucky said thickly, “can you— can you gimme— Captain America’s voicemail.” He was breathing harshly. Steve eyeballed the timestamp. He was in Dhzankoy, or thereabouts. 

“Certainly,” the receptionist said brightly. The electronic voice sounded obscenely cheerful over Bucky’s harsh breathing. 

“Steve,” Bucky said. “Jesus Christ, Steve. Look, I didn’t get ‘em all in Dhzankoy. I got hurt real bad. I made it out, I blew the facility, I got most of ‘em.” He panted for breath. “I got no backup. I got no mop-up. I’d tell you who you still gotta get but they’ll be uh— ungh.” He paused, caught his breath. “Under assumed names,” he gritted out finally. “Fuck, Steve, I’m hurt real bad. I got a report to send you and it’s gonna have to do.” He breathed harshly for a second. “You don’t get those either,” he said finally, and disconnected. 

Steve raised his head a little so he could thunk it back down against the wall. Jesus. 

Natasha had gone over to the table and surveyed the contents. She was reading the final letter now. “So we know he’s in Brooklyn,” she said. “And we need mop-up in the Ukraine. Leave that part to me, Steve, don’t worry about it.”

“He mentioned you,” Steve pointed out. “In, uh,” he thought back. “One of the videos. Said you might be able to do the operation in Samara but he thought you’d probably get killed. He did it, though.”

“I can do mop-up,” she said, “or I can coordinate it at least, we have domestic issues I need to attend to. I still have connections, I have visited some of them lately.” She tapped the corner of the letter on the table. “But Brooklyn. I was just in Brooklyn. Fascinating. I believe I have some insights to offer into this as well, but nothing concrete as of yet.”

She pushed to her feet. “Let me start my work,” she said, cracking her knuckles. “You should email him. I will see whether any of my contacts have leads on his whereabouts.”

“Don’t spook him,” Steve said, guts churning. 

She came over to him. “I’m not going to bring him in by force,” she said, “I’m going to put breadcrumbs out and try to get him to eat them from my hand. That is how we play this.”

Steve nodded. 

“You need a hug,” she said, and peeled him away from the wall to wrap her arms around him. 

He laughed shakily. “I kinda do,” he said. 

Chapter Text

Natasha hadn’t lied; Steve really was fixing to burn the world down. It was a darker side to him, and a bit self-indulgent, which was something she’d never known him to be before. 

“Hey,” he said, hearing her when he really shouldn’t have been able to, but she was used to that. She looked down, and he had tipped his head back and was peering at her through the grate of the lighting fixture in the kitchen on the common-area floor of the Avengers area. The apartments were on a couple of floors, but the lowest floor of the Avengers part of the tower had a bunch of semi-public rooms— a really comfortable lounge, a more formal meeting room, a big kitchen, a big dining room. Sometimes instead of rattling around their own apartments, the Avengers in residence hung out down here. Like Steve, who was at loose ends now that Sam had gone back to D.C. 

Steve definitely had kind of a crush on Sam, and Natasha was doing her best to encourage it. It was really, really good for Steve to feel something besides the awful jumble of fucked-up that the Bucky thing made him feel. 

“Hey,” she said, climbing down out of the ventilation duct and dropping lightly to the floor. She and Hawkeye liked to use the ducts to get around Stark Tower, initially mostly to piss Tony off, but even now that he’d made his peace with it (and installed sensors in there so JARVIS would know they were there), it was still a pretty good way to get around if you didn’t want to talk to anybody. 

Steve frowned at her. “Is that a bruise on your face?” he asked. 

She shrugged. “Probably,” she said. 

“You finished moving back in?” he asked idly, letting it fall. He was a lot more prosaic about her getting injured than Clint, which was hilarious given how chivalrous Steve had initially been and how opposite-of-chivalrous Clint’s reputation painted him. But then, she’d slept with Clint, not Steve. That wasn’t it at all, but it was a good superficial explanation. The real truth was that Clint was more idealistic than Steve, but it didn’t bear examining. 

“Eh,” she said, “not much to move.” Her apartment had been impeccably equipped from the get-go, and she’d taken nothing with her when she’d left. “I got a potential lead on your guy.”

Steve’s whole face changed, and turned away from his contemplation of the toaster to ask urgently, “What did you find out?” Steve had tried the email address Bucky had left in the voicemails, but it was an obvious use-and-burn email that he’d since burned. 

“It didn’t pan out,” she said, with the right level of disgust to dissuade him from asking further. “But it got me thinking, and I have some ideas.”

“About where he is?” Steve asked. “How to find him?”

“Not that,” she said. “I mean, that’s a work in progress. But I got thinking, you know… I met him before.”

“You said,” Steve pointed out. “He shot you.”

“Before that,” Natasha said. “I was a teenager. In my training program. With the other girls.”

Steve’s expression went guarded, careful, but hopeful— she never spoke of her past, and he’d never pried, but she knew he must be wild with curiosity. Everyone was, and she gave none of them any satisfaction. Clint was the only one who knew, and nobody ever thought to really ask him. He was habitually inarticulate enough and innately reserved enough that even if he did spill, he wouldn’t tell them much. 

“Really,” Steve said, and she could see that he was trying not to sound too eager. 

He was adorable and she couldn’t understand why Sam hadn’t climbed him like a tree yet.

“They took half a dozen of us,” Natasha said, “and let us loose on this training exercise, and set the Winter Soldier to hunt us. He was a figure of legend then, a terrifying bedtime story; none of us thought he was real. But he was, and he hunted us down like animals.”

Steve stared at her in blank horror for a moment, before a pained look settled across his features. “How many of your friends did he kill?” he asked. 

“None,” she said. “It wasn’t to the death. He merely caught them and incapacitated them. And it wasn’t— they weren’t my friends, Steve. And it was a training exercise, we’d been prepared for it.” She smiled, knowing it would amuse him— the same satisfied smile that had apparently surprised the Winter Soldier— and added, “I won, by the way. He never caught me.”

Steve looked bleak, but there was the hoped-for glimmer of fondness at her satisfaction. “You’re something else,” he said. 

“Of course I am,” she answered, smirking for his benefit. “But the thing is, I got to thinking— there were others like him, other experiments they did with brainwashing. I know,” and it took her more effort than she’d expected to say it, “that they brainwashed me to an extent, and experimented with implanting knowledge. But he had his mind wiped repeatedly, I know, and there were others like him but he was the only one to survive. I looked through the records.”

Steve looked cold and grim, like he did whenever the subject of what had been done to Bucky came up. “So what does that mean?”

“So it means,” she said, “that it’s possible for us to learn, maybe, about what was done to him, and maybe work out a treatment plan for him before we actually find him, so we don’t wind up causing more harm than good if we catch him and are unprepared.”

Steve sat forward, intent. “Tell me everything,” he said. 

 

* * * 

 

He’d been out of cryo longer now than he ever had before, he thought— it seemed like it, anyway. Things kept coming to him in flashes and fragments. A lot of those fragments were the city, which he was haunting now like a ghost— and it had the bones of the city he knew, whose names he couldn’t remember. It was different, and he’d done the math and knew how long ago his memories had been formed, but it was only slowly sinking in what that really meant. He kept finding streets and walking down them and expecting things to be there that weren’t. He knew how traffic worked now, with automobiles so common and horses entirely gone; he’d been in the world enough to see that change and recognize it as it happened. 

He checked the place the woman had said every day, and used it as a fixed point to navigate. The cardinal directions of the city were in his nerves, not in his memory; he hadn’t had to rediscover them, he’d just known. The buildings were different, the terrain subtly changed— whole neighborhoods gone under new bridge on-ramps, subway by-stations, high-rises— but the rivers were in the same places, and the main thoroughfares. The rhythms were different, but of similar wavelengths. He knew this place, knew it down in a layer beneath memory, and it was the surest thing to ground him. 

He also knew it well enough to stay invisible in it, to stay on the move, to stay out of sight and out of trouble. He could use it to get himself used to normal human interactions, or he could use it to hide in a crowd, or he could use it to find total solitude and a safe place where he could let the violence, the rage and the confusion bleed out into harmless aggression against objects that no one cared about. 

As places for a final showdown with HYDRA went, it was probably the best and worst, all in one.

On the second day there was something in the cache. A black backpack, with a red star sewn onto it in small neat stitches. He sat on his haunches, contemplating it; it was wedged into a crook in a tree. He’d been casing the joint for hours, watching since before dawn to see if anyone else was watching. That was how he approached the place every time. 

He studied the bag, and there were no heat signatures. A small electronic device, slightly magnetically resonant but powered off, no energy signature. Everything else was inert, non-metallic. He pulled his goggles off and looked it over visually, scanning for signs of tripwires, booby traps. But there was nothing.

He pried it out of its spot with a broken piece of broom handle, and it fell to the ground with a harmless thud. It mostly contained fabric, he surmised, from the weight and sound. 

So he grabbed it up and took it with him to one of his safe hiding spots— of course he didn’t go directly, so it took him an hour and a half to get there. The pack wasn’t heavy but something in it sloshed a little— a small container of liquid, he supposed. 

The space was cool and green, and he climbed into the little den he’d slept in a few times, in the hollow between a tree and a boulder in one of the parks. Carefully, he counted out ten minutes of complete stillness before he pulled the backpack to him and worked the zipper open. 

Clothes. She’d given him clothes, tightly packed into an efficient roll. Two soft t-shirts, one black and one a dark red. Five pairs of… underwear? He shook one out. Boxer briefs, navy blue. Five pairs of thick black socks. A pair of jeans, so dark blue they were nearly black, soft enough that they’d been washed once or twice but no more. A tube of deodorant. A disposable safety razor, a bar of soap, packaged together in a plastic bag. He’d been out in the world for more than six months now, he’d certainly mastered the concept of getting such things on his own, but he kept having to ditch almost everything and start over, so a new supply was really, really appreciated. 

The small electronic device was a cellphone. A note stuck to it bore a number, which might have belonged to the phone— he knew how phone numbers worked but couldn’t remember how many digits American ones needed. He did not turn it on, but slipped it back into the pocket; he would test it out when he was ready to be on the move. At the moment, it was inert, it was not transmitting anything, and so he was fairly sure it could not be used to track him. He was tired now, he had been awake for nearly two days, and he needed to rest. 

In another little plastic baggie next to the phone was a roll of bills, American money. He pulled it out and counted it. It was five twenties, five tens, ten fives, and ten singles. That was enough to buy food, to buy new shoes perhaps. Untold riches. He knew a dollar wasn’t worth what it used to be, but this was still plenty. He’d run out of what money he’d scrounged several days before, and was getting ferociously hungry. He wasn’t sure if it was just that he was out of practice, or that he needed more food now, but he really couldn’t go hungry the way he used to be able to, couldn’t eke out two days on a sandwich anymore. He got lightheaded after only a day, seriously weak by two. 

The last thing in the pack… there was food. All of it sealed. Survival rations, and the small bottle of liquid was… a 200ml flask of vodka. It had a note stuck to it, that read, “This will help,” in Russian.

He remembered her, remembered her coltish and skinny, fifteen or so, wide-eyed and lightning-fast. He remembered her. He remembered talking to her, and she had looked at him like a person, and it had confused him and warmed him, to be spoken to like a person. 

He remembered the man, too, remembered him blond and skinny and small, remembered the shock of him big and muscled, but those memories were so charged, so overwhelming, he couldn’t let himself think of them for long. All they had left was that the big man was who he reported to, and he had been operating on that premise for some time now.

Some of the memories of him small were okay. He’d been trying to let himself remember those as they came, letting himself set the fragments beside one another to see how they connected. Steve. Steve Rogers. Little guy. Skinny. Trouble breathing. Drew beautiful pictures. Funny cartoons, sometimes. 

His mouth remembered how to say “Steve” instinctively, shaped that word easily and frequently if he didn’t think about it. It had been easy on the telephone to say it, easy in the videos in certain mind-sets. But that didn’t mean he could think about it. 

He’d tried writing down things he remembered, but he kept having to leave the things he’d written, kept having to destroy them or abandon them. Maybe he could use the cellphone for that, put them somewhere online so he could find them again. That was a comforting thought.

He lay curled in his little den, warm and clean in a new t-shirt and clean underwear and new jeans, wolfing down something tasteless but nutritionally dense. Everything fit him more or less perfectly. A little too big, but not bad; the too-large shirt meant that he had room for his metal shoulder, which wasn’t much larger than the other but did need more space in garments because of the way fabric sat on it. 

He had to be careful how he covered it. It was air-cooled, and if the vents got clogged with fabric, it could overheat, and it would stop working, possibly permanently. It could usually handle a single layer of fabric over it, in reasonable weather at a normal level of activity, but if he had to use it any amount, it had to be out. That was fine when he was trying to be ostentatious, trying to draw attention, but it was really a problem when he was just traveling and trying to keep a low profile— always had been, even when he had techs to constantly maintain it. 

It also gave him unpleasant sensory feedback if he let fabric rub against it, but that was just something he’d resigned himself to. It wasn’t… exactly pain, although there was enough of that too; he’d cracked his collarbone at some point, and it radiated pain all through the bones of the metal shoulder, all along his back and down to his ribcage. It wasn’t healing as fast as he normally did, and he had begun to wonder if it wasn’t only the metal arm that got maintenance, but the human parts of him too. Maybe whatever serum they’d given him wasn’t permanent. It didn’t bear thinking about.

Most of the other wounds he’d sustained in his series of pitched battles with HYDRA had healed, though it had been a long time for those as well. He had no basis for comparison, though; normally he’d been put under and given medical care on his way into the cryo tank, and most of that was just a blur. He had no idea how long anything had taken, with no frames of reference.

The vodka burned; he sipped at it sparingly, and lay and remembered lying in a small bed with someone small tucked against his chest, listening to slow, labored wheezing, rubbing his hand, his left hand, not metal then, along a skinny upper arm in slow, soothing motions, warm skin against warm skin. Steve. He remembered Steve. That was Steve. 

There was a constellation of memories, but he was starting to recognize the smooth edges of the ones that were fake. They’d tried to give him fake memories of Steve, disturbing memories, memories of arguments. Some of those had sharp edges— Steve being too proud to take help, Steve insisting on fighting his own battles— but the smooth ones, those slid around, slippery and insubstantial. Some of those were of them in bed together, but touching each other, kissing each other. 

He didn’t know if any of those were real or not. 

He had a lot of memories of sex, and he knew some of them were real, but a lot of them slid around like that. He thought they were fake. He didn’t like to think he’d do some of those things— a woman, crying, trying to push him away, a boy frightened and struggling, a girl screaming through a bloody nose, blood on thighs, blood on breasts. Sometimes it was his blood, sometimes it was his tears, sometimes they were things that had been done to him. He pushed those away and they slid back, smooth-edged. They were fake. They weren’t real.

He hoped they were fake. 

He hoped they weren’t real.

He was starting to be able to tell the difference, but he wasn’t sure of that. It wasn’t that everything good was real and everything upsetting was false. Some of the sad memories had those jagged edges, or faded to white at the end, or struck suddenly. The false ones tended to fade to black, stutter to static. He had a jagged memory of a red-lipsticked woman smacking his face, and another jagged memory of biting his own right forearm to keep from crying out as someone fucked him. 

But he also had splinters of pressing a woman’s willing body up against a brick wall, hot wet kisses and soft giggling, a small clever hand down the front of his pants, a bright flare of release. He painstakingly pieced that one together and after a long, long time he had managed to reconstruct a whole plausible evening, remembered leaving his apartment— Steve— going out to a dance, talking to the girl, remembered going in the alley with her, remembered stumbling home drunk with his shirt buttoned wrong to Steve still awake, sitting at the table— they shared an apartment— he remembered that, they shared an apartment, Brooklyn, kitchen table, Steve drawing pictures, the bare light bulb, Steve looking fond but a little sad. 

Steve. 

There was a memory of kissing Steve, and he could not find the edges of it, could not find if it was real or fake. The memory was tinged with a feeling like being drunk, and he remembered the slide of Steve’s lip, the feeling of Steve’s skinny neck as he wrapped a hand around the back of it, the taste of Steve’s mouth and the texture of his tongue, the heat of his narrow body pressing in, the pounding of his heart under pale skin.

He didn’t know. He didn’t know if it was real. 

 

 

* * * 

 

 

“I wish I could drink,” Steve said morosely, not for the first time. 

“It’s cool,” Clint said, “I’m drunk enough for both of us.”

“You sure are,” Sam said. He’d come back up to New York after what had to have been the barest of check-ins down in DC. Some of it was surely because Steve so clearly needed the help, but he had to be interested in Steve’s regard, he just had to. Sam was actually really hard to read, though. Very open and honest, but so self-possessed it was impossible to know anything he didn’t want you to.

Natasha laughed and shoulder-rolled off the back of the couch. She wasn’t drunk— alcohol didn’t affect her quite right either— but she was pretending, a little. Clint, though— he was fucking hammered. He held it well, and he probably could still get a bullseye at a thousand yards like this (anger affected him a lot more than alcohol), but he was definitely hammered. 

She was kind of worried about him, but she was kind of always worried about him in a low-grade way. If he wasn’t drinking to excess he was accidentally getting involved with the Russian mob or letting ex-girlfriends con him into committing actual arrestable crimes or just generally getting the shit beaten out of himself, and always always always thinking everything was his fault.

“Look on the bright side,” Natasha said, slipping back to sit down on Clint’s other side. As she expected, he didn’t notice until he turned his head, when he startled to see her there. “No hangover,” she finished cheerfully, poking Clint in the side of the head. 

“Shit,” Clint said, still reacting to her presence. 

“Slows you down anyway,” she said. The clowning was working; Steve gave her a reluctant smile, and as his face went back to neutral some of the darkness stayed away. Sam was laughing uproariously, which was probably really helping Steve’s mood. He had such a great laugh, so genuine and honest like everything he did. 

“You’re not drunk,” Steve said. 

She cut a look sideways at Clint, then looked back at him, and raised her eyebrows, pointing to herself. “Me? No.” Since she was among friends, she decided to let on. “Alcohol doesn’t affect me quite right either, Steve.”

He looked interested. “No?” 

“They experimented on me in the Red Room,” Natasha said lightly. “I’ve been treated with all kinds of things. I can get drunk, if I try hard enough, but I’m not trying hard enough yet.”

“The more I hear about this Red Room, the madder I get,” Steve said, but he was more sad than angry. There had been information about it in the file on Bucky. 

“The men who did it are almost all dead,” Natasha said. “So we can turn our attentions elsewhere.” Bucky had, in his global killing spree, managed to take out most of the people who had been involved in that program, above and beyond the hundred or so HYDRA operatives he’d slaughtered. 

He was still a machine, still the implacable, unstoppable force she’d so admired as a teenager, and it was really disconcerting how into that she was.

“Yeah,” Sam said, and elbowed Steve lightly. Steve gave him a reluctant half-smile, and looked away. 

Natasha’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She nestled her shoulder against Clint, making herself comfortable, as she pulled it out— most of the people who texted her were in the room already, so it was either going to be a hilarious aside from someone present, or something important from a contact.

She had a lot of leads out— in Brooklyn, but also in Russia, and her few living contacts remaining in the Ukraine. Her phone had been pretty busy lately, and she’d been working those webs she’d just spent the better part of a year re-weaving pretty damn hard.

The others continued their conversation— Sam had changed it to be about sports, and Clint was participating with enthusiastic ignorance, some of which was surely feigned. It was actually hilarious how dumb some of the other Avengers let themselves think Clint was. The man was smarter than most of them, and had a bigger heart too. He just tended to get stuck on ideas the others didn’t, make leaps they didn’t, miss things they didn’t— he thought differently, and none of them really understood that it didn’t mean he wasn’t brilliant.

The phone buzzed again in her hand before she’d even unlocked the screen. The first notification was the program she’d set to let her know when Bucky turned the phone she’d left him on. 

The second notification was a text message, from that phone. She’d programmed it so a text message composition field to send to her would come up first thing, but she hadn’t expected him to use it so quickly. 

“thanks,” it said. 

She made a point of continuing to pay attention to the conversation, dropping small comments here and there, as she slowly thought out and composed her reply. “Tell me what else you need,” she wrote. “I didn’t tell Steve about our contact yet. He’s back in town, want his direct number?”

She waited for a reply until Clint made some dig about her texting her boyfriend and she put her phone away to avoid any questions. Her phone stayed quiet the rest of the evening. 

Clint was drunk enough to make a pass at her, and she considered it, but he was also drunk enough that it probably wouldn’t be worth her while. She laughed it off and got him to his bed. He had a little apartment here; Tony had offered him a big fancy one but he had refused, saying he had his own place and wouldn’t give it up.

Sam was staying with Steve, and she gave Steve a surreptitious double thumbs-up, but he seemed to just look confused. God damn it, Steve, she thought, make out with him already. But saying it out loud was probably crass. 

She retreated to her own apartment, pulling her phone out, intending to recharge it. It buzzed in her hand, and she looked down. Same number. 

“Are you his friend,” it said, no punctuation. 

“Yes,” she wrote back without hesitation.

She went into the bathroom and set her phone on the counter while she brushed her teeth. It buzzed as she was rinsing, and she picked it up to look at it. “Good,” he said. 

“We have been researching your condition,” she wrote back. “I think we can help you.” He didn’t write back. She removed her eye makeup, washed her face, and still there was no answer. She picked up the phone, thought for a long moment, and added, “Meet me somewhere this week?”

She had time to put lotion on and floss her teeth before the phone buzzed again. “Just you,” he wrote, “no S.” 

“Just me,” she answered. “Hey do you need a raincoat?” she added on impulse. 

It took him a long time to reply again; she’d changed into her pyjamas and was in bed before the phone buzzed again. She wondered idly if she’d been right to get him a phone with physical keys, figuring the metal hand would give him problems with a touchscreen. She didn’t know how dextrous that hand was; she remembered him pretty well, remembered the hand moving with disconcertingly humanlike effect, but there hadn’t been an opportunity to assess his actual dexterity on any of the occasions they’d interacted. 

“No thank you,” he wrote back. She smiled a little. Endlessly polite. Steve had regaled her— all of them— with hours of stories about Bucky. Bucky the ladies’ man. Bucky the loyal friend. Bucky the A student. Bucky the scrapper. Bucky the con man. 

Apparently his manners had survived brainwashing. 

She had plugged the phone in and gotten into bed when the phone buzzed again. “What do you get out of this,” it said. 

It wasn’t difficult at all to reply. “Steve cares for you,” she wrote. “& I care for him. & if I can help another Red Room survivor I will.”

There were no more replies after that, and no more information when she woke the next morning. She thought about it for a while, and sent him a location and a time to meet up, two days in the future. She punctuated the message with a smiley face, wondering if he’d know what that was. She knew they’d pushed information into his head; she’d received packages of information that way as well, before missions. But she’d had less of a blank slate to start with. She had no idea what kind of cultural context they would have given him. 

Not much, she guessed. It was easy to see they had figured on no longer needing him after that last mission.

She remembered that there had been others like him, a few— she’d been part of a program to turn out female spies and assassins, but there had been a parallel one for men, focusing on other skills. He had been the exemplar, and he’d turned out so well they’d bothered perfecting the cryostasis for him, but the others they had tried using the brainwashing and mental wiping techniques to ensure obedience. It had not worked nearly so well with the others. She remembered the others, she remembered being present once, quite young, when one had a complete mental breakdown and was put down right in front of her. And she remembered, years later, finding a facility with a stack of bodies of men who she knew had been from the program, almost a dozen of them, each killed with a gunshot wound to the head and then stacked like so much firewood. 

But the Winter Soldier, he had never been like the others. She had only met him the once. The others had all been blank, nearly uncommunicative even at the best of times, had all been hollow shells of men. But the Winter Soldier— 

He had taken his mask off, when the handlers had left them alone in the room, had rubbed his face and looked tired and asked wistfully for a cigarette. Had made a very dry joke about how that always surprised people, that a robot would smoke. She’d asked if he was human, he’d answered with remarkable unconcern that he really didn’t know. He’d been a shy uncertain sweet person with a broken abashed smile and perfect manners, waiting obediently and a little uneasily for his handlers, but most importantly he’d looked at her like she was a person, like he respected her, and that had blended together in her young mind with the triumph of the day— she had performed the best of anyone— and had been a formative experience for her. 

She got into the shower, remembering that sweet-faced young man with the wide-set blue eyes, the curving mouth that had occasionally remembered how to smile. It was probably the first time she had really noticed a man as beautiful— it was the first time a man had spoken to her as though she were an adult woman.

Maybe it was fucked-up of her, but she thought about him sometimes, always had; she’d forgotten about him as a thing for years at a time, but he was always there, deep down in the bedrock of her mind, in the places that came back every time from brainwashing, from unmaking. He was there— tall, long-legged, well-built, kind-faced, with strong sure hands and keen eyes. And a pretty, curving mouth. 

It added a whole new dimension to it to know who he was, to know he had a name, to know he was none other than Steve’s mythical, beloved best friend. Unbidden, the thought that the two of them might have, well— Steve was pretty clearly bi, it wasn’t far-fetched— came to her, and she thought about them, thought about how they would look together, and shivered a little. 

She leaned against the warm wet tile and brought herself off efficiently, with a low moan and a long shudder, thinking about Bucky’s mouth, Steve’s hands, and laying Bucky’s cockiness over the Winter Soldier’s quiet competence and how his body would feel on hers— ohhhh— 

She hadn’t done that in a while. And fuck, she’d had a rule about Steve, a really important rule, and shit, this was awkward. But she couldn’t really regret it, not with a long-overdue afterglow like that.

 

 

She went out into the main kitchen— she had a little kitchenette in her apartment, and sometimes amused herself by cooking her own food in there, but the main kitchen was bigger and better-furnished, and Sam liked to cook for people. She wasn’t disappointed; he was in there with a giant stack of pancakes and had finally managed to make enough of them that Steve had slowed down. 

“C’mon,” Sam said, beaming at her, “eat some pancakes, skinny lady.”

“You’ve already run ten miles, haven’t you,” she said, obediently taking a plate. He looked chipper, but not chipper enough to have gotten laid, and she shot Steve a look. He was oblivious. Both of them were obviously post-workout and post-shower, Steve still damp and glowing pink, hair tousled. But she liked to think that if they’d had any relationship breakthroughs they’d still be at it, not already on to breakfast. Sam wasn’t a super-soldier but he was no slouch.

“No,” Sam said, rolling his eyes. “I ran two miles. That guy ran ten.”

Steve looked innocent. “I gotta work harder for the same benefit,” he said. 

“Showoff,” Sam said. 

Natasha sat and ate her pancakes, amused at the by-play, but a little disgusted too. Finally she pulled out her phone (nothing from Bucky), and texted Steve. “Dude you two are so cute together,” she wrote. 

Steve continued to eat unconcernedly, but she saw his hand move a little and knew he’d noticed the text message. Eventually he pulled his phone out, glanced at it, did a double-take, and frowned. 

“What?” Sam asked, noticing his expression (he was watching Steve, God, it was obvious). 

“I think it’s weird when people text other people who are in the same room,” Steve said, frowning at Natasha. 

“Sometimes you just have to express yourself through emoji,” Natasha said. She pulled her phone out and sent Sam a tiny picture of a cellphone with an arrow pointing at it, and sent Steve an American flag. 

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a strange person?” Sam said. 

She smiled cheerfully. “Sometimes,” she said, and sent him an emoji of a tiny pile of poop.

Hey, it was in the selection, she was going to use it.

She had to wait until almost noon to get a chance to pry Sam away from the others. She got him to come with her to pick up the ingredients to make that night’s dinner, since she’d signed up to help him cook. They’d walked most of the way to the grocery store before she was sure Steve wouldn’t come out of nowhere to catch up with them, but Clint had lured him into a video game competition and he apparently wasn’t going to tear himself away. Clint had done it so guilelessly that Natasha wasn’t sure if he’d figured out she’d needed Steve distracted or not. Sometimes Clint played a deep game, other times he really was all surface.

“I have two things to talk to you about,” she said, “and one of them is professional and the other personal. Which do you want?”

Sam gave her a sidelong glance. “I think professional,” he said. 

“Okay,” she said. “Clint knows this but Steve doesn’t. Bucky found me. He’s here, in the city, and he’s lurking around, and he kidnapped me to interrogate me about a week ago.”

“Holy shit,” Sam said, stopping dead, which violated sidewalk etiquette. Natasha gently steered him to the edge of the sidewalk so nobody ran them over. “Did he hurt you?”

“No,” she said. “But he’s pretty obviously not okay. He was switching back and forth between Russian and English without noticing, he kept twitching uncontrollably, and he kept almost losing control of himself. Punching the wall, getting upset.”

“Yeah,” Sam said, “I bet he’s fucked-up.”

“But he’s coherent,” she said. “And when he knew he couldn’t control himself any longer, he gave me a chance to get out of there. He was on top of the situation, even if the situation was that he was gonna freak out.”

“I guess that’s a good sign,” Sam said. “All those videos, I figured he was probably at least marginally mentally-competent, but it’s hard to tell until you see him interact with somebody.”

Natasha pulled out her phone. “I’m trying to set up a meeting with him day after tomorrow,” she said, scrolling through her texts to find the conversation with Bucky. 

“Why haven’t you told Steve any of this?” Sam asked. “This is his guy. He’s going nuts about him.”

“Because in order for Bucky’s entire plan to work,” she said, “in order for the whole mama-bird-fake-broken-wing scheme to work, Bucky has to stay at least nominally on the run until HYDRA springs their trap.” Natasha gave Sam a look. “And you really think Steve is just going to passively accept that Bucky has to stay out there, in danger, alone and injured and broken and sick, with no obvious help, until the organization both of them nominally sacrificed their lives to bring down just strolls into their native city to come collect Bucky.”

“Fair point,” Sam said, and they started walking again. He glanced over at Natasha, who was looking back through the texts in her phone. “Wait a minute, you’ve been texting with him?”

“I dropped off a cache for him,” Natasha said. “Some clothes, some food, some money. He didn’t look like he exactly had all that shit together when I saw him. And I put a cellphone in there with my number programmed in it. He seems to have been able to keep it charged, so far, and he’s been texting me once in a while.”

“Was he the one you were texting last night?” Sam demanded, astonished. 

“Oh yeah,” she said. 

“God damn, woman,” Sam said, shaking his head, “you are cool as ice.”

“No point getting fired up about things,” she said. “Mostly he’s just been being really polite. And sticking to English. Probably because the phone keyboard doesn’t have Cyrillic so he hasn’t gotten confused.”

“That is hopeful, though,” Sam said. “That he’s that together.”

“And polite,” Natasha said. Sam didn’t say anything to that, considering her. She went first through the door into the grocery store, and picked up a basket. 

“I am dropping u off a new cache now,” she typed to Bucky. “A good sweatshirt, it’s cold at night. Any other requests?” 

She picked up a few small things for Bucky while they shopped. She was going to leave him another cache; she had the bag with her, already loaded up with more little things. One of the things was a drawing Steve had done, a sheet on which he’d doodled caricatures of Sam, of her, a really goofy one of himself hunched over a book with a pencil in his mouth (he still saw himself as smaller than he was, shoulders normally-proportioned, a little high and narrow, instead of the insane inverted triangle shape he really had), and a stunningly beautiful little drawing of a sparrow, shockingly realistic for something so simple. She’d asked if she could have it and he’d given it to her unhesitatingly. Now it was rolled carefully inside a small plastic bag. 

Her phone buzzed. “I am ok,” Bucky sent, “thank you.”

“I told you,” Natasha said, showing Sam her phone, “he’s really polite.”

“Except when he kidnaps people,” Sam pointed out.

“That only happened once,” she said. “To me. This week.”

“You have to tell Steve,” Sam said. “I think he’s watched the videos of Bucky at least a hundred times. And the one where Bucky’s injured, I know that one tears Steve up something fierce.” 

She made a sympathetic noise but stopped talking, because of the checkout line and the bored cashier who was paying far too much attention to the customers. When they were done checking out, she paused outside the door. “C’mere,” she said, and pulled Sam close to take a self-portrait of the two of them with her phone. 

“You sending him that?” Sam asked, but he made an appealingly squinty face, managing to look friendly. 

“Yeah,” she said. She sent it with the caption “Friends of Steve!” She figured giving him friendly intel might help him decide they weren’t scary.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “And this is about the personal thing I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh dear,” Sam said. 

“Steve is completely infatuated with you,” she said, “and thinks you’re not interested so he’s trying very hard not to let on.”

“I sorta picked up on that,” Sam said, giving her a stern look.

“Are you not interested back?” she demanded. There was a time for subtlety but this was definitely not it. 

“I would be insane if I wasn’t,” Sam said, “but I would also be insane if I did anything about it right now. Steve is in a real bad place, that’s not any way to start any kind of relationship.”

Natasha regarded him narrowly. “I don’t know from anything about healthy relationships,” she said. “Relationship foundations or whatever. I never had any of those. I just— there’s no right time, I know that. And his feelings for you are just one more bit of torture in his already ridiculously tortured life. And if he could just be sure of one thing—“

“He can be,” Sam said, “and that’s my friendship. I’m a much more solid support this way. I’m sorry, Natasha, I understand what you’re saying, but I am not about to dip into the minefield that is Steve’s incredibly fucked-up attitudes toward love and sex at a time like this. I got enough to do just as it is.”

She set her jaw. “You don’t have to dip anything into anything,” she said.

“We’re not goin’ there,” Sam said. “You have got to learn about boundaries. That’s the kind of thing where the other person has to initiate the conversation, Natasha.” 

She looked up, and put a hand on Sam’s arm. “Hang on,” she said, “I gotta grab something here,” and ducked into the liquor store. She bought another little bottle of vodka, better stuff this time, and packed it into the bag. 

“Is that for him?” Sam asked. 

“Yup,” she said. 

“Are you encouraging substance abuse?” Sam asked. 

“I have been brainwashed,” she said, “and have endured some of the things he has been through, and with our metabolisms it is not easy to get drunk, but that does not mean that vodka cannot be a momentary comfort.”

“Fair,” Sam said. He sighed. “There’s more to this, Natasha. Steve hasn’t talked about it at all, but I’m like ninety percent sure that at least one component of his relationship with Bucky was sexual. I’m not gonna make a move on a guy while I am in the middle of a round-the-world trip to hunt down his literally-crazy ex. I am not tryin’ to get destroyed.”

“You think Bucky would murder you in a jealous rage?” Natasha asked. OK she wasn’t the only one who’d figured they must’ve been doomed lovers. She felt a tiny bit less like a dirty old lady. 

“No, no. Emotional destruction. I think Steve would throw me over in a heartbeat,” Sam answered. “I mean, he’d feel sorta bad, but I can’t compete with like eighty years, there, no matter how fucked-up this guy is.” He paused, then gestured. “Shit, especially if this guy’s totally fucked-up. Steve’s got a sense of responsibility bigger than his shoulders.”

“Hm,” Natasha said. The thought had crossed her mind too, but she hadn’t really considered it from that perspective. Her analyses of interpersonal relationships tended toward the functional. 

“I gotta take care of myself, is the thing,” Sam said. “That’s a hard-won lesson but you gotta know it if you’re gonna be any good to anybody ever. It’s not selfish to look out for Number One. If you don’t take care of yourself, and you let yourself get torn apart, then you’re not there to put anybody back together again afterward.” 

Natasha considered him. “I get that,” she said quietly. “But Steve’s pretty sure you’re not interested and is beating himself up about it with what little is left over of his heart after he’s done having it break over and over again about Bucky and about the whole dissolution-of-SHIELD thing. So I’ll make you a deal. You make some kind of peace with Steve, let him know maybe even a little of what you just let me know, and I’ll get him in the loop on Bucky.”

“You can’t make a deal about that,” Sam said. “You really can’t.”

“I can,” she said, “because both of them have to happen, and I’ll do my end if you do yours. It’s not gonna be easy for either of us, but you know left to my own devices I’d leave Steve completely in the dark as long as possible because I’m a control freak. So you work through your issues and I’ll work through mine.”

Sam considered her at great length as they walked. “You’re good,” he said uncomfortably. 

“I’ve made it this long,” she answered.

 

* * *

 

He watched them walk away from the cache. The woman looked nonchalant, but he noticed she had checked every approach, and had cased the joint thoroughly, without ever really looking like she was. The man was the one from the photograph she had sent him (of course you could send photographs wirelessly through telephones now, it was the future)— a handsome, youngish black man, and from his demeanor and bearing, a soldier. He was situationally alert, but not on Natasha’s level. Still, he would be difficult to take in a fight. 

He remembered that man, but only dimly. They had wiped him after the bridge, but he remembered a black man’s hands, probably that man’s, on the steering wheel he’d ripped out the windshield, he had a fragment left of that man with a machine gun. And he hadn’t been wiped after the helicarrier; he remembered that man with wings, remembered tearing them off and throwing him down. 

So long out of cryo, and he was starting to both fray apart and coalesce. He had a self-assigned mission, but there hadn’t been any information download or mission briefing. He only had the things he knew, the things he had written down to memorize then torn up to keep secret— he had eaten some scraps, burned others, knowing his enemies were very good. He had scraped these missions together out of the chaos of his mind, and it was all going to end here in New York. He just… 

Couldn’t always remember exactly how.

The Winter Soldier was not trained in subterfuge, and from the shards he was getting back, James Barnes wasn’t either— but Barnes knew things, knew people, knew the world, knew how to stretch a dollar and how to charm a dame, knew how to put two and two together and sometimes, occasionally, get five while nobody was really paying attention. And no wiping meant he was starting to remember more things, starting to be able to keep the shards he pieced together, starting to be able to sort the nonsense from the real. He was starting to have what he realized now was a personality, a way of behaving, and he couldn’t tell what was really him and what was Barnes’ survival instincts of putting on charm, but he was clinging to it as the most coherent thing he was gonna get. 

He’d read a lot about this James Barnes and had come up with thousands and thousands of paragraphs about a hero, a brave soldier, a loyal faithful friend, all kinds of superlatives. They’d named a goddamn medal after him, put his name on schools and things. He wasn’t on Steve Rogers’s level, of course, but he was in the pantheon.

None of that had seemed the slightest bit familiar. The more he pieced together, the more he realized that was because it wasn’t true. James “Bucky” Barnes had been nothing so much as a survivor, and he was starting to strongly suspect that a large component of that was that “Bucky” had hitched himself to this Steve Rogers guy— who for all intents and purposes thusfar seemed to be the real deal all around, seemed to match up pretty well to the improbably large gaping painful tearing hole at the middle of this painstakingly-assembled psyche— and then done whatever he had to do to keep that going. Including a lot of dirty work that Steve Rogers probably had never fully known about. Because none of those histories, not even the most critical, had ever mentioned “Bucky” pickpocketing, panhandling, grifting, or even occasionally selling his mouth in alleys to keep the heat on winter, but he was starting to remember all of those things, and in pretty convincing detail, with the sharp edges that suggested no Department X pervert had put them there. And he knew not all of his confirmed kills had been as the Winter Soldier; sometimes, in the corner of the rifle scope, he could remember red, white, and blue.

So yeah. Maybe there was quite a bit left of this “Bucky”, after all. 

A lot had changed around here, but the street names seemed to be largely the same. The subway system was a lot more comprehensive, though. He taught himself how to ride those, for hours of entertainment. He rewarded himself with subway rides on good days, when he knew the confined space and rapid motion wouldn’t freak him out so he could enjoy the sights and see different parts of the city, his city— it was still his city, somehow, under it all. 

The woman didn’t seem to have left him a trap. She’d programmed herself into the phone as Natasha, and had set a picture to come up, a pleasant and bland photograph of her face as she smiled. In the photograph she had hair that curled around her face. She was very pretty, big eyes and full lips and a stunning heart-shaped face. In real life he was usually too busy keeping tabs on her threat level to appreciate that. 

But he remembered that once he had been a man who had liked to flirt with pretty girls, and not just throwing charm at them to get by. He’d really liked them, had really made some sort of connection. Or so he thought he remembered.

He still couldn’t remember how much of that was real memory and how much false, though. Sex was all wound up for him in slippery memories of good things and bad things all mixed together. He really wanted to not think about those things, but his body reasserted itself oddly sometimes— craving odd foods, needing exercise, and more lately, giving him vivid sexual dreams. 

So far he was able to shake them off most of the time, but sometimes he really had to think hard about anything else to stave off a weird hungry need. He could barely have a conversation, he was not going to attempt any kind of sexual interaction with another human. Or, really, with himself— he wasn’t entirely comfortable with losing himself to any kind of physicality. And not all of that… process… seemed to be working anyway. He could get aroused, and he remembered that, but he dimly knew there was supposed to be some resolution to it, and he didn’t seem to be able to get there. 

So he pushed the thoughts away as much as he could. 

Now, though.

He had waited long enough, he thought. He’d considered tailing the woman back to where she lived, but firstly she would definitely pick up on him, and secondly he knew fine well where she lived. She lived in Stark Tower. So did Steve. That was not a secret. And there was no way he would go anywhere near there. 

He didn’t want to. They’d figure out who he was and he’d never get out again. 

Worse, they’d know what he’d done.

And then his whole mission would fall apart. If HYDRA didn’t think they could get him, they wouldn’t try; they’d pull back, lick their wounds, and wait until they thought they could catch him off-guard. And then he’d die with no chance to take them down with him.

And so while he’d sort of vaguely figured once he got to New York, he’d just find Steve and everything would be okay, now that he was here he was realizing what a bad idea that was. HYDRA wouldn’t come arrogantly after the broken Winter Soldier if he disappeared into Stark Tower and the arms of the Captain America who had taken them down in the first place, and they would never have this chance again, never have so many personally enraged operatives so personally invested in something they had every reasonable expectation they could succeed in doing. 

HYDRA knew he would fall apart, and soon; they knew he wouldn’t make it indefinitely on his own. He’d always guessed he had some kind of kill-switch or failsafe built in, in case he ever went rogue, and they certainly knew about it. Something would bring him down on its own, and soon. 

He just didn’t know what. And there was no sense worrying about it. Obviously it wasn’t going to be something he could do anything about, or why bother? 

He swung out of his hiding spot and wandered nonchalantly over to the cache spot. Another bag. He retrieved it casually, and wandered off, not bothering to scan it this time. If Natasha wanted to trap him, she would probably succeed. And he just couldn’t make himself care enough to avoid it. He shouldn’t agree to meet with her at all, shouldn’t ever have turned the phone on, and certainly shouldn’t be going out of his way to find places to plug it in to charge it. 

But he’d figured out that he could use it to look at the Internet. He knew about the Internet; how, he didn’t know, but he’d either been given that information or allowed to learn it, at some point. And he knew, more or less, how to search. So he had been spending hours reading, learning, watching videos, looking at pictures. 

He had more information now, that he could remember acquiring, than he had at any point since… well, he didn’t remember when everything had changed, he just knew, vaguely, that there was a Before and an After. And the Before was James Barnes. And there was a lot of information about James Barnes on the Internet, more even than in the books he’d read, the museum exhibit he’d started off with. 

Some of it, it had taken him far too long to figure out, was fictional. 

There had been movies, and books, and a short run of a TV show, and they were fictional. And in some of them, Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers were lovers. (One of them had been a pornographic movie, but he’d only seen a couple of stills from it. Enough to get the gist.)

But they were fictional, and therefore of no help to him in determining what was real.

Well. Of all the things to drive him crazy, if it was that that did it, then it would be a nice change. He settled himself into his current hideout (on top of a building, in a little shack thing that housed the exhaust for a ventilation system that was currently turned off— the jackpot was that it had a power outlet that was not turned off) and plugged in his phone before he unpacked the bag. The bag this time was a drawstring bag, waterproof— that would be useful to cache food in so it wouldn’t get damaged by rain. 

A soft, new, black hooded sweatshirt  was wrapped around a number of small items. Food, again— a couple of apples, some small bars of chocolate, individually-wrapped things that claimed to be ‘energy bars’, whatever that meant. A small flashlight with a clip so it could hang from the bag. A very small plastic bag with a coiled-up bit of… cord? With thick ends? He pulled it out, unrolled it, and realized that they were the little thingies he’d seen people wearing in their ears— they plugged into the cellphone, and had tiny speakers. So you could listen privately to things. Like music. 

He’d had to ditch the tiny disc player thing he’d found in Hungary while he’d been planning his campaign; he only vaguely remembered the discs he’d found with it, and he’d sent the ones he didn’t hate to Steve. But he knew most people listened to music on their phones now. He could figure out how. It was a thought. Music was the first thing that had started coming back to him; he’d loved music, he knew that. 

Another little bottle of vodka. And a small plastic bag with a roll of money in it, and a folded piece of paper.

He pulled the paper out and smoothed it across his knee. Drawings. His breath caught. He recognized this— this kind of drawing— the little cartoons of people. The drawing of the bird. That was a drawing of Natasha, looking mischievous as she climbed something. That was the man whose wings he’d torn off. In the drawing he was smirking, so alive in just a few gestures, so full of grace and humor. And that— 

That was Steve Rogers, neither big nor small but just himself, hunched over a book in such a familiar posture that something inside his chest felt like it was tearing. 

He didn’t know what this feeling was, and it scared him for a moment— was his heart giving out? Then it clicked.

He was crying. He put the piece of paper down and put his hands on his face and sobbed— this was another new feeling, he didn’t remember feeling this before and he didn’t understand. It hurt, it hurt badly, but it wasn’t a hurt of the body. It hurt like the feeling had hurt when he’d begun to realize what had been done to him. 

It hurt like numbness shredding away to reveal a raw core of, of broken somethingness. He cried, curled around the pain, head pillowed on the new shirt, until he fell asleep. 

 

Chapter Text

 

“I’m done with all the chopping,” Natasha said, faking peevishness. Sam looked up from where he and Steve were at the table, where he was writing something. 

“In a minute,” he said. 

She came over, drying her hands on the apron she was mostly wearing to make Clint laugh, and looked at their list. “You got some good stuff?”

“I think I’ve about covered it,” Sam said. “But, I mean, some of this is your area, maybe you should look it over.” 

Natasha sat in the chair next to Steve and tugged the list over. “You said you researched this stuff?”

“I did,” Sam said. “So I made a list of all the different ways Bucky could be fucked up, from a psychological perspective, and a kind of matrix of treatment methods and coping strategies.”

Natasha scanned down the list of methods of coping with dissociation, techniques for grounding oneself, ways of reasserting control over a body whose instinctive responses had become overwhelming, and found herself nodding. “Honestly,” she said, “I use some of these.”

Steve’s eyes on her were concerned and kind, in that way he had of being sad for you that didn’t feel like condescension or pity. “I feel sorry for myself sometimes,” he said, “but I know now that what I went through is nothing compared to what could’ve happened. I don’t think I can even understand what happened to him.”

“He’s not gonna be the guy you knew,” Natasha said. 

Steve shook his head, then laughed ruefully. “I’m not the guy he knew,” he said. “I’m a foot taller, a hundred-some pounds heavier. He took that in pretty good stride, the least I can do is return the favor.”

“What if he can’t even talk to you?” Natasha asked. 

Steve looked down, away. “I hope it’s not that bad,” he said. “But the thing is, I made promises, okay. I’m not gonna expect him to just come back and be who he was.  I just need to know he’s okay, that’s all I need from him.”

“He might never be okay,” Natasha said. 

“I mean that I need to know he’s got somewhere to stay,” Steve said, “something to eat, he’s not in harm’s way. I can’t fix what they did to him but that doesn’t mean I can’t try to take care of him.”

“There are a lot of people who are gonna want to know where he is,” Natasha pointed out. “A lot of people who are going to blame him for the things he’s done, over the years.” She knew all about that; a whole lot of her past actions were public record now. It had been a hard few months.

“They’ll have to come through me,” Steve said stubbornly, and Natasha caught the look of stunned adoration on Sam’s face. 

She briefly contemplated just putting a hand on the back of each of their heads and mushing their faces together, but that wouldn’t go well at all. 

 

*** 

 

He lay in wait for hours, watching the rendezvous point’s environs. The woman, the Black Widow, Natasha was casing it too; he saw a flicker of movement from a rooftop, and later a woman with her hair tucked up under a cap strolled purposefully past the alley in question. She was the right height, the right build— it was surely Natasha, though her body language was masked. He had training at that, confirming an identity even when the individual was disguised; he knew this was her. 

There was a lot of information on her on the Internet too. And she’d put it there herself. That reeked of either courage or arrogance, and he wasn’t sure which, but he’d read it all greedily. There was information about Soviet conditioning there. Not a lot, but it was there. He’d chased down every link he could manage on that stuff. 

Something pinged his instincts and he watched carefully. The woman was still visible, walking steadily down the street, but he’d seen the motion on the rooftop too. Damn it. 

He pulled his phone out and typed, “Who’s your friend? Not Falcon?” Of course he’d looked up the guy with wings. That was also a recent declassification. No specs available. 

The woman was out of sight. In a moment the phone lit up. “I told Hawkeye to stay home but he follows me around. Do you see him somewhere? It’s probably him.”

“Does Steve know,” he wrote back quickly, heart rate kicking up.

“No,” she wrote back, “just Clint and Sam, I needed their help to get things together for you. Still willing to meet?”

This wasn’t just her, then, all of this kindness. But it wasn’t Steve. This didn’t have the enormous significant weight of Steve behind it. 

He made his way to a vantage point where he could make out the man on the rooftop. He searched the Internet quickly for Hawkeye, and correlated the SHIELD departmental headshot with the yellow head of hair glinting in the afternoon sun. “Yeah, it’s Hawkeye,” he wrote back, “and you should maybe tell him I could’ve shot him by now.”

“He’ll like hearing that,” she wrote back. 

“I wouldn’t really shoot him,” he added quickly. God damn it. He was trying to court these people as allies, or so he sometimes remembered. He couldn’t always remember why. 

He was falling apart mentally almost as much as he was coming together, and that was bound to get him killed, but he already sort of couldn’t see his way to getting out of this.  The problem was that he needed to force a confrontation soon. He knew time was ticking down on whatever killswitch they’d embedded in him, he knew he didn’t have much time left, with a crawling certainty, but he didn’t know how to get them to just spring the fucking trap already.

“I won’t tell him that,” she answered. He looked down. She was crossing the street now, hair a bright red beacon, phone in her hand and a bag over her shoulder, almost at the rendezvous point. He watched her slip into the alley, and in a moment his phone lit up again: “Are you coming, or did Hawkeye spook you?”

Instead of answering, he dropped to the ground and climbed over the low wall that led into the alley, checking to make sure she was alone and there was no clear field of view for Hawkeye to get a shot off. 

She heard him coming and turned slowly, hands up by her shoulders, palms outward, only her phone clutched in one. “Hey,” she said quietly. 

He put his back to the wall and looked at her. “Hey,” he answered. Now he could see in person that she was pretty, too. It was repeated exposure, wearing down his vigilance. She was the opposite of a trustworthy person, but somehow that reassured him more than anything else. 

“You look really good,” she said. He’d bought himself a second pair of jeans by walking into a store and trying them on like a normal person, gotten good at washing up and shaving in public restrooms. He’d shaved the day before. Not yet ready to get a haircut— someone he didn’t know touching him with scissors was one big thing thing, but being reclined and cradled in a big chair was something else even bigger and he didn’t know how his body would react to that, someone touching his head and supports around his neck, and being pressed down no thank you, he’d snap and burn down the building and probably torch an orphanage while he was at it, maybe murder some nuns.

So he kept his hair long.

He had remembered that he’d used to have a nice smile, and had practiced in a mirror until he thought maybe he could do it again. It felt weird, but he tried it now. “Some nice lady gave me a razor,” he said. “I figured it out.” He remembered using his eyebrows for expressions like that, remembered making the smile a little crooked, so he tried it and it felt natural.

She looked impressed; the smile attempt must have been somewhat convincing anyway. Her smile in return looked genuine, looked like his memories of how women would react to that face. “You sound good too,” she said. “You seem like you’re really okay.”

“Better at fakin’ it, anyway,” he said, and he knew that was his old accent, he’d gotten a lot more convincing at that too. He let himself come a little closer. 

“You have a place to stay?” she asked. 

“I got a few places,” he said. “I sleep dry, don’t worry about it.”

She nodded slowly. The way she was staring at him didn’t seem hostile, like it usually was when people did that; she seemed to be taking him in with some pleasure, which was novel. People were usually afraid. He fidgeted self-consciously. 

“I brought a, a kind of information packet,” she said. “Sam counsels veterans with post-traumatic stress as part of his day job, and he said what you were probably dealing with was way out of his league, but he did a bunch of research anyway.” She had a sheaf of papers in her hand, stapled, typewri— no, computer print-out, nobody had typewriters anymore. “Just, coping strategies and things to look out for and there’s a list of resources and things.” She held out the papers. He looked at them, bit his lip, thought about walking close enough to just take something from her hand. Instinct said no. Reason said yes. If she wanted to hurt him she already would have.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll leave the stuff, you don’t have to take it from my hand. This isn’t a test or anything.” She held the papers to her chest. “So, um, that phone. You can use it to browse the Internet, so we wrote down some websites that might help, support groups and things. If you’ll let me, I can show you how to get to it on there. Or I could get you a computer if that would be easier, but it’s hard to make those untraceable.”

“I know,” he said carefully, “how— how t’—  I found the Internet on the phone. I been usin’ it.”

She smiled again, a happy smile. “Good,” she said. “I figured— I didn’t figure they gave you a lot of background, this last time, so I didn’t know where you’d be starting from.”

“They didn’t give me much,” he said. “Figure they were gonna put me down after, no point wastin’ time on extra stuff if I didn’t have to blend in. But this ain’t the first time. I’ve had to catch up on the fly before, and this time I can remember doin’ that.”

She nodded, and slid the shoulder bag she had off her shoulder. “I brought you some other stuff,” she said, and tucked the papers into the bag. 

“You don’t need to give me more stuff,” he said. “You’re doin’ too much for me.”

“Steve would kill me if I did any less,” she said.

The name sent a little jolt through him, and his arm whirred without his conscious input. “You didn’t tell him you were seein’ me?” 

“Not yet,” she said. “It’s killing him, though, not knowing where you are— like I said, he’d tear the world apart to get you back.”

“I can’t be— that guy,” he said nervously. 

“He knows that,” she said. “I said as much to him, that you’d be so different now— and he said he showed up a foot taller and a hundred forty pounds heavier and you didn’t blink, so he oughta return the favor.”

“What’s happened to me is a damn sight less appealing than what happened to him,” he said, eyes narrowed. “Him bein’ tall and all was surprising but he was still him. Me, I probably look about the same, but I’m the bad kind of crazy. I’m holdin’ it together all right at this moment but that don’t mean I ain’t gonna have to tell you to run in a minute.”

“You’re a lot better than you were last time I saw you,” she said. 

“This is the longest I ever gone without gettin’ wiped,” he said. “This is the most I ever remembered at once.”

“Do you remember anything about James Barnes?” she asked. 

He took a steadying breath. “Yeah,” he said. “I— I got some things back.”

“Awesome,” she said, and she really did look happy. She really was a friend of Steve’s, if she cared like that. 

“Only thing is, I know some of that stuff’s gotta be fake,” he said. “They didn’t just take stuff out, you know? They put stuff in. And I can’t— there’s stuff I don’t know if it’s—“ 

“Oh,” she said, “oh man, I know about that kind of thing. Trust me, I do.”

“Yeah,” he said, some tension he hadn’t realized he was holding going out of his body. He sagged back against the alley wall. “I looked you up,” he said, looking at the ground, listening for her to move; he couldn’t not monitor her. “On the Internet. There’s… there’s stuff.” 

“I dumped it all,” she said. “Dumped everything HYDRA was hiding, straight onto the Internet.”

He nodded. “I’m on there,” he said. “A lot. I mean a lot a lot. And… fictional stuff too.”

“You have kind of captured a lot of imaginations,” she said. “But I imagine that makes it even more difficult.”

“I don’t know what’s real,” he said, and the frustrating was coming up again, up his throat like bile. 

She nodded. “I know,” she said. “Listen. Bucky. It’s okay.”

It felt like being stabbed, and he sucked in a breath. “Say it again,” he said, hoarse almost to silence. 

“Bucky?” she said. 

“Yeah,” he answered, holding very still and breathing. He might throw up. 

“Do you want me to call you that?” she asked. “Bucky?”

He shuddered, swallowing hard. He hadn’t really expected it to be this big a deal, but nobody called him by his name— his nickname? Was it? “I don’t know,” he said, shivering. 

“Sergeant Barnes,” she said.

He shook his head. No. He wasn’t a sergeant, he wasn’t in the Army anymore, he’d never really been that pleased about it. “That’s one of the weird ones,” he said, and it twisted with weird intensity in his chest. “That exhibit, that thing, it said I volunteered, but I…  I remember that I didn’t wanna leave him, and my mom and my sisters. And everything says I volunteered. But maybe they planted that memory, that I didn’t. I don’t know.” 

It was a long sentence. He swallowed hard at the end, still queasy. 

“Steve will probably know,” she said. 

He shook his head. “I remember that I didn’t want him to know,” he said. “But I don’t— I don’t know if that’s right. I remember— I remember stuff between the two of us that I don’t— I don’t think it was real. But some of it was. I don’t know.”

“If you talk to him,” she said quietly. “Bucky. James?”

He shook his head, feeling his mouth go tight, his eyes screw up. 

“Talk to him,” she said, “and I promise he won’t put pressure on you, he won’t trap you or bottle you up or anything.”

He shook his head again, but managed to raise his head to look at her. She had her back pressed against the other wall and was watching him calmly. She pulled her phone out. “I’m going to text you his number,” she said. “If you touch the number, it will make a new contact for him, and you can send texts to that number as well. If you send him something, text me to let me know, and I’ll tell him then what’s been going on. Okay?”

He nodded, and in a moment the phone in his pocket vibrated slightly. He didn’t like the vibrations, they reminded him of electric shocks, but he didn’t like phone noises either, and if it were silent he had no warning and found himself twitchily checking it too often. Her texts weren’t the only thing that he got notifications for now. He’d begun to follow a few social media sites, seeing that they were starting to become a major part of how people interacted now. Everybody on the Internet had something to say. It had been so long since he’d had anything to say, and he wondered what that would be like. 

“You know why I haven’t just showed up at Stark Tower,” he said hoarsely, with a shudder. 

“I think I do,” she said. 

“You doin’ cleanup in the Crimea?” he asked. “You know what’s, what’s up.”

“I do,” she said. 

“And you know I gotta go through with this,” he said. 

“Yes,” she said. 

“And S— Steve’s not gonna want it to go down like that,” he said.  She nodded. “So I gotta… keep some distance with him.”

“But you want to see him,” she guessed. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t.”

“You do,” she said. “Or you wouldn’t have tried this hard. Just text him, start that way.”

“Maybe,” he said. His guts were twisting, churning, and he might throw up. No good. “Hey. You got files on me, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. 

“Pretty sure there’s a killswitch,” he said. “In me, I mean. HYDRA wants to wait me out because something’ll get me before they do. Can you find out what it is?”

“I”ll try,” she said, coolly concerned. She looked him up and down. “You think it’s something built in?”

“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “It could be programming, it could be implanted, it could be built-up poison or something. I don’t know. They all seemed really sure they could wait me out. That was why I had to make sure to piss ‘em off.”

“You needed them mad enough to come after you even though they didn’t have to,” she concluded. He nodded.

“I gotta go,” he said. He wasn’t sure if he was going to throw up or pass out but either way, his hand was cold and his head was hot and he didn’t feel well at all. 

“Should I leave first?” she asked, sliding the bag off her shoulder. 

He shook his head, not looking at her, but it was an I-don’t-know, not a no. She stepped forward and he flinched away, but she was just sliding the bag from her shoulder. “Here,” she said. “We’ll talk later.” 

He nodded, and looked up, and she was gone. 

 

* * * 

 

Steve was in the Avengers Floor kitchen area, sitting at the table with his empty sandwich plate, and paging slowly through stills from one of Bucky’s video reports, when Pepper came in with a girl he didn’t know, a short curvy— woman, he supposed, would be polite, but she looked about twenty— who looked nervous and was clutching a tablet to her ample bosom. “Steve,” Pepper said, “I’m so glad to see you!” He stood to greet her, as was his wont, and she held her arms wide, so he hugged her. 

She often managed to give very sincere hugs, which was a talent for someone who usually had so much going on— she was incredibly sincere for someone so multi-level, and Steve admired her enormously. She was a large part of the reason he generally found Tony an acceptable person— because she did. 

She squeezed him, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. “I’m sorry to have missed Sam,” she said. He’d left for DC again that morning, and Steve wasn’t letting himself be pathetic about it yet. “I heard your trip was awful.”

Steve laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “pretty much, who said that?”

“JARVIS, actually,” Pepper said. “And Monica, the receptionist the night you got home?” She stepped back, hands still on Steve’s shoulders. “She took pictures of the blood spots you were leaving as you walked, because she just couldn’t believe you were so unconcerned by it.”

“Ah,” Steve said. “Well, yeah. I was fine, I wasn’t just putting up a front. Sorry if I left a mess.”

Pepper shook her head fondly, dipped her eyes down him in a way that managed not to be lascivious but rather sort of fond, then lifted her head and met his eyes in a way that gracefully suggested a conversation change. “Well,” she said. “Now that you’re back. One of our young interns— you know how Tony loves to wholesale abduct scientists and engineers he meets anywhere he goes that he thinks are underappreciated?” Steve nodded. “We’ve started doing that, a bit, in the non-science side of the industry— picking up intelligent and promising people we think are underused in their current positions. So a lot of our junior employees are people who are also furthering their studies. This young lady,” and she gestured to the nervous-looking young woman, “works in our public relations department but she is studying sociology and history, and is working on a master’s thesis.”

“Hi,” Steve said, interestedly extending his hand. The girl visibly mustered her courage, let go of the tablet with one hand, and shook his hand. “I’m Steve Rogers.”

“I’m Lakeisha Adams,” the woman said, her voice soft and sweet below the roughness caused by being nervous. People were often intimidated by Steve, and that was the part that was hardest to get used to. 

Pepper looked at her pleasantly but assessingly, and smiled at Steve. “She’s been doing a ton of research into mid-century social movements,” Pepper said, “and the whole time she’s been working here, we’ve kept saying you know, she should really interview Steve, she should really talk to Steve, instead of having to rely on written primary source materials, he knows a lot of this stuff first-hand, and so on. And you know, Steve, seventy years is a long time; most living people who remember that era have forgotten a lot.”

Steve laughed a little sadly. “For me it was only a couple of years ago,” he said. He nodded. “Understand, though— people ask me about this stuff, and then act like I know everything. I don’t. I’m not really that educated, I’d never really left New York City before I joined the Army. I barely have a high school degree, and I didn’t even get good grades.”

Pepper smiled, looking over at Lakeisha, ascertaining that the girl was still too shy to talk, so she went on gracefully, “She’s an experienced researcher, Steve, don’t worry. She’ll be a lot less stupid than most of the people who interview you, I promise. Or I wouldn’t have introduced you two, I would have told her to get in line with everybody else that wants to ask you silly questions all the time.”

“Oh,” Steve said, “of course, Pepper, of course, I didn’t mean—“ He turned to the gi— woman— and said, concerned, “I didn’t mean to imply you wouldn’t know that! Of course you would. Of course. I just— it happens so much, you know?”

The g— woman— God, she just looked so young— laughed. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, “I’m used to not being taken all that seriously.”

“Now that,” Steve said, “I’m definitely an expert on.” 

Pepper gave him a rueful smile. “I could probably write a dissertation,” she said. She nodded to Lakeisha. “There’s a topic for your doctoral dissertation.”

“I got a lot of topics,” Lakeisha said, finally sounding comfortable. “What I don’t got is the time to write ‘em all.”

“I know how that goes,” Pepper said, and there was the slightly flippant note that implied she was finished with a conversation and only lingering to give you a chance to ask any more questions you really needed answered. She patted Steve’s arm. “Well, I just thought I’d introduce you two, and you can work out times you’re both free between the two of you. Let me know if you need anything else, either of you, I have to get back down to the conference area.” She made slightly-wide eyes. “Shareholders.”

“Ah,” Steve said, though he really didn’t know anything about that stuff. “Good to see you too, Pepper.”

“I’m glad you’re back, I like the Tower better with you in it,” she said, walking away, and the door shut behind her before he could react to that. 

He shook his head a little, smiling, then turned to Lakeisha. “Well,” he said. “You want to talk now?”

“Oh,” Lakeisha said, “you were busy, though!”

Steve gave her a look, mouth pulled sideways. “Mostly just torturing myself going over stuff I screwed up.” He glanced at his watch. “I have, uh—“ he did the math— “jeez, like an hour until I gotta do anything, and even then it’s just a phone conference.”

“Then I will definitely jump on that, if you don’t mind,” Lakeisha said. 

Steve laughed at the turn of phrase. “You want a cup of coffee or tea or something? We might even have cookies. The Black Widow baked them, and she ate some herself so I guess they’re probably not poisonous.” He picked up his empty coffee mug from the table and went over to the counter, checking the jar. “Yeah. Chocolate chip. You want one?”

“I would love one,” Lakeisha said. 

“We also have milk, though we only have whole, I know a lot of people drink skim nowadays but we have a lot of people with crazy metabolisms runnin’ around in here,” Steve said, checking the fridge. 

“Coffee would be fine,” she said.

He set them both up with coffees and cookies, and took Lakeisha into the common area, where Clint was the only occupant, lying facedown on one of the couches with his arm trailing off and— ah, a tablet on the floor, he was doing paperwork. “Hey,” Steve said to him.

“Muhhh,” Clint said. “You guys and your paperwork.”

Steve noted with some worry that Clint’s non-paperwork-hand shoulder was heavily bandaged. He was perpetually worried about the guy, who was kind of a fuck-up but had such a heart of gold you couldn’t really hold it against him. Anyway Natasha loved him fiercely, and that was the kind of endorsement few people got. Er… maybe no other people, come to think of it. So it was highly significant. “You get hurt again?”

“I’m always hurt,” Clint said. “In those injury forms I just circle the parts that aren’t hurt. It’s faster.”

Steve remembered who he’d come with. “Hey, Lakeisha, this is Clint, who’s one of the team sharpshooters under the alias Hawkeye. Clint, this is Lakeisha, who works for Stark Industries and is doing a master’s thesis. She’s just gonna interview me over there.”

“Hey,” Clint said, and deigned to shove himself up from the couch, wincing a little. 

Lakeisha shook his hand. “Is there,” she said, a little hesitantly, “uh, is there another Hawkeye? Because I swear I met a Hawkeye before who, uh—“

Clint laughed. “Doesn’t look like me? That’s Kate, she’s the other Hawkeye. I figured the name was big enough for both of us. She’s the one who’s not a fuck-up. She’s better than me but I can take more damage. So like, I’m the everyday Hawkeye and she’s the one you save for special occasions.”

Steve idly wondered how many times Clint’s nose had been broken. “That’s not true,” he said softly. 

“Totally is,” Clint said. “Pardon me, I gotta lie back down.”

“Don’t let me keep you,” Lakeisha said politely. 

“You saw a doctor, right?” Steve asked, watching worriedly as Clint carefully rearranged his battered body on the couch.

“Oh yeah,” Clint said. “S’why I’m doin’ my paperwork from here instead of my place. She wanted me to stick around for a follow-up in a couple hours.”

Steve shook his head. “We gotta stop lettin’ you get the crap beat outta yourself,” he said. He was kind of pissed, actually, because half the point of having mixed teams was that the ones with super healing factors could kinda absorb damage for the ones without. “I’m gonna look at those team assignments and try and get you some teammates who won’t just let you get beat to hell.”

“Wasn’t their fault,” Clint said. “Don’t worry about it, Steve.”

“It’s my job,” Steve said. “And I don’t actually have any spare Hawkeyes, so I gotta keep both the ones I got in working order.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clint said. Mentally bookmarking the conversation, Steve led Lakeisha over to the conversation nook by the window. 

“We got a nice place here, don’t we,” he said, setting down his laptop, which he’d been absently using as an improvised tray for the coffee and cookies. 

“It sure is,” she said. 

“So I figure, you probably have your list of questions, and we can go through those, and then we can meet up again a couple times to go over follow-ups if you find you need more in-depth stuff?” Steve passed her a cup of coffee, and she settled into the chair across from him, looking a little less nervous. 

“Ideally, yes,” she said, “that would be great.”

Steve pulled out his cellphone. “What’s your number? I’ll text you.”

“Yeah,” she said, and pulled her phone out as she recited her number. He sent her a “Hi, it’s Steve!” text, and she replied with “Hi, it’s Lakeisha, the girl writing the paper.”

“I don’t always pick up calls,” Steve said, “I still feel like it’s rude to talk on the phone when you were in the middle of a conversation with somebody else, but I have become real fond of texting. So the easiest way to get me is text me to call you. I got a weird schedule, though, so you might want to specify a time you want a call, or I tend to forget and call in the middle of the night.” He bit his lips a moment. “Also I’m pretty addicted to speakerphone, and while the Stark tech phones do that better than most, I’m told it’s still kind of obnoxious, but I really really like using it. Sorry.”

She laughed. “Man,” she said, shaking her head, “they said you were nice but I didn’t believe them that you were this nice.”

Steve made a face. “Nice ain’t it, though,” he said. “You want nice, you hit up Clint, there. He’s nice.”

“I’m a human disaster,” Clint groaned from the couch. “Get off me with this nice shit, Rogers.”

Steve shook his head at Clint, and rolled his eyes for Lakeisha’s benefit. “But you’ve got questions, and I’m wasting your time. I assume you don’t need the biography, since everyone’s all too happy to quote it at me and I’ve had plenty of time to beat the inaccuracies out.”

“I have done my reading,” Lakeisha said. “I had a couple details I wanted to fill in or confirm, though. There’s not a lot of info about your father.”

Steve grimaced. “That’s because I don’t know much, and there weren’t a lot of records. He died before I was born, and everyone else who ever met him died long ago. There’s no way to fill in a lot of that information, it’s just… gone.”

“He was married to your mother, though,” Lakeisha said, and Steve looked away, breathing in slowly, it doesn’t mean now what it did then, and managed to find a neutral expression to look back. But she’d picked up on it. “Oh my gosh! I didn’t mean that to sound offensive. I didn’t!”

“I know you didn’t,” Steve said. “They were married, they’d been married a year or two when he went over, but she had to sell the wedding ring when I was about five, I remember that.” 

“I really,” Lakeisha said, “I didn’t even, that just came outta my mouth.”

“I’m not offended,” Steve said, “really. I know it’s not the same now. Back then, though, I kinda, I got in a lot of fights over that exact thing. Bucky lost a lot of blood rescuing me from fights like that, and when he yelled at me all I had to do was say it was about my mom and he’d let it go like that. You know?”

“Oh,” Lakeisha said, “I been in a lot of fights about my mom, I know.” She raised her chin. “My dad never did marry my mom, and I know it doesn’t carry the kind of stigma it did a century ago, but there’s still plenty of crap floating around about it, believe you me.”

Steve smiled at her. “You any good in a fight?”

“I hold my own,” she said, a gleam in her eye. 

“Attagirl,” he said. “You don’t ever let anybody walk on you.”

She sighed. “Sometimes, though,” she said, “you gotta.”

“You have my number,” he said. “You don’t gotta.”

She stared at him. “That’s the sweetest thing anybody’s ever said to me. Next time someone talks shit about my mom, I will most def call you up.”

“Good,” Steve said. “People talking crap about moms is my number one— well, okay, Nazis is number one, but people talking crap about moms is my number two on the list of things I cannot abide.”

“Actually,” Lakeisha said, “I’m a mom too, and my thesis is largely about single parenthood in America.”

“You have a kid?” Steve grinned at her. “Really! How old? You got a picture?”

Lakeisha pulled out her phone. “Jimmy,” she said. “He’s four. And his dad’s not in the picture either. So I kinda, I got a lot invested in this topic, y’know?”

Steve nodded, taking the phone. A little boy with a wide grin was brandishing— a Captain America shield. “Awww,” he said, any last shred of pretense to machismo abandoning him, “jeez. You know how Superman has kryptonite?”

Lakeisha laughed, and swiped through to show a few more pictures of the little boy, who was a wide-eyed bright-faced little pile of trouble. He had the shield in another picture, and in several he was wearing a Captain America shirt. 

“Little kids with Captain America shields are my kryptonite,” Steve concluded, shaking his head. “I get all mushy. Oh man. He’s adorable.”

“I’m lucky,” she said, “I’m real lucky to have him, even if I wasn’t all that excited when he first showed up.”

“Jeez,” Steve said, as she swiped to a picture of the little boy, shirtless and covered in ice cream. 

“Is she torturing you?” Clint asked, a little muffled. 

“Kind of,” Steve said. “Oh my God.” The little boy was wearing a cowboy hat, boots far too large for him, and a Falcon t-shirt. “Oh God, send me that one, I have to send it to Sam.”

“Sam Wilson?” she asked, obediently taking the phone back and tapping at the screen. “I must admit I have a special place in my heart for the Falcon.”

“Yes,” Steve said. “He loves it, loves it, just unashamedly loves it when kids wear his merch. He is so into it. And don’t feel bad, I have a really special place in my heart for him too, he’s like that.”

“I just wear my own merch,” Clint said, a little mournful.

“You have fans,” Steve said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I promise,” Lakeisha said over the back of the couch, “I will buy Jimmy a Hawkeye t-shirt and send a picture.”

“Aw,” Clint said, “I’d even stand up to see that.”

“Don’t move,” Steve said sternly. “If the doctor says to stay there you stay there.”

“Yessir,” Clint answered. 

“So your thesis,” Steve said with an effort, now that the pictures weren’t right in front of him anymore. “You’re writing about being a single mother in American history. Have I got information for you.”

“Mostly,” she said, “that’s what I’m gonna wanna know about. I sort of have some side interests in what it has meant to be an immigrant, and I couldn’t find out if your father was native-born in the US or not.”

“Oh,” Steve said. “He—“ He paused, thinking about it. “Hm. I don’t remember.” He shook his head. “I mean, it was a pretty mixed neighborhood. My mom’s parents came from Ireland, I think she was born here. She didn’t have an accent, anyway. Bucky’s mom did, a little, she came over as a kid. I mean, talk about immigrants wanting to assimilate, naming your only son after a long-dead president? Buck’s dad was born here, though. But my dad. Gosh. I gotta think about that one.”

“I also have a lot of questions about the kind of stuff that, well, people don’t like to write down and it’s kind of hard to talk about,” Lakeisha said. “And I gotta admit, I’m sort of intimidated to ask about.”

Steve gave her a look, still lost in thought about his dad. “Like what?”

“Well,” she said. “Sexual mores, and that kind of thing. Birth control. Anything that’s in history is written down because it was exceptional in some way, so we sort of… don’t really know what the average woman actually did.”

Steve could feel himself turning red. “Ah,” he said, and looked away. “Well. Yeah. I, um. Yeah.”

“There’s reasons people don’t talk about it,” she said, “and I know that, and I get that, but it’s really important information. People talk like right up until the Pill was invented women just had a baby every single time they spent half an hour alone with a guy, and I know that’s just not true, it’s just damn hard to get anyone to talk about it.”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “I,” he said, “am kinda, not your expert on that one,” he said. “I, ah, that’s not, uh. I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“We got bets,” Clint said, “on whether you’re still a virgin, and I’m only just now high enough on pain meds to tell you that.”

Lakeisha let out a bark of laughter, then clapped her hands over her mouth. “Oh my god your friends are awful,” she said. 

Steve shook his head. “I’m kind of used to it,” he said, “and I know about the bet, thanks Clint, Wolverine let it slip last time I saw him.”

“Goddamn Wolverine,” Clint said. It was kind of a catchphrase whenever the guy was in town. Goddamn Wolverine. Tony had changed his name in the computer to that, and everyone had given up on calling him his real name. Poor JARVIS had been programmed to refer to him that way.

“I’m 95, not dead,” Steve said. “But you can see, Lakeisha, how whatever you have to ask me is probably nowhere near as embarrassing as what my highly-professional colleagues put me through daily.”

“I can see that,” she said. 

“The only upside is that Hawkeye’s too injured to climb around in the ventilation ducts,” Steve said. “Though it’s never safe to assume Natasha’s not up there.” He looked up. “You’re not, are you?”

There was no answer, but that didn’t mean anything. He couldn’t fit in there at all, couldn’t even get into one of the vents. Hawkeye wasn’t that small but somehow he just… compressed at will. Natasha, now, it was easy to forget this, but she was approximately pocket-sized and could go anywhere she damn well pleased. Lakeisha looked up at the unobtrusive ceiling vent with trepidation. “Sometimes Spiderman’s up in there too,” Steve said. “Our consolation is that there are sensors up there now so if you’re real nice sometimes JARVIS will warn you.”

“That’s what you get for having spiders on staff,” Clint said. 

Steve sighed. “Your thesis. God. We’re never gonna get anything done. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Lakeisha said, “I haven’t started your chapter yet.”

Steve pulled his computer out from the couch cushions. “If he weren’t an insane amnesiac, I have a guy who would definitely know all about birth control in the 1930s.”

“Who?” Lakeisha asked. 

Steve opened the computer, and when the screen came up, there was the video still, Bucky crouched in the train bathroom, looking away, hair falling in his face. The metal hand was visible in the shot, if a little blurred. “Bucky,” he said. 

“He got around, did he,” Clint said. 

“He was a good Catholic boy,” Steve said, “by which I mean, he went to Confession sometimes, and had very creative excuses the rest of the times.”

“Bucky… Barnes?” Lakeisha said. “Like, Sergeant James Barnes?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. 

Lakeisha looked around the room as if there were some answer for her as-yet-unasked question somewhere in their surroundings. “Didn’t he kind of, uh… When you see dates behind his name there are usually two,” she said delicately. “Like, the second one being a kind of, you know, punctuation.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Well, as it happens, that second date was actually when he went MIA, and we never recovered a body, and since this is my crazy life, there’s an incredibly long backstory with HYDRA mad scientists and the Soviets and cryostasis and…”

“He’s a brainwashed ex-Soviet HYDRA cyborg assassin,” Clint said. “Isn’t that a great job title? I envy his resume.”

“Brainwashed,” Lakeisha said, “ex-Soviet, HYDRA, cyborg—“ 

“He just has a prosthetic arm,” Steve said.

“Yeah,” Clint said, “a prosthetic arm that Iron Man is jealous of.”

“It’s just a prosthetic arm,” Steve said. 

“It’s like, a turbo-injected liquid-cooled artificial intelligence-enabled wifi-capable prosthetic,” Clint said. “Pretty sure it flies.”

“Sounds like a real hit with the ladies,” Lakeisha said. “I mean, I know I need a minute to calm down. Cyborgs are my jam.” She was pretty transparently kidding, and Steve was amused, but also knew he had a trump card. 

He paged through to a better shot of Bucky’s face and arm; a moment of stillness, when he’d looked into the camera and paused to draw breath. He had his head ducked slightly, looking up under his eyebrows, mouth curved, resolute and tired and a little threatening, but only about two days’ beard growth, and recognizably the same pretty boy who’d taken girls dancing in Harlem on a Saturday night.

“Oh,” Lakeisha said.

“Yeah, oh,” Steve said. “There’s a reason he had a girl a week most of the years I knew him, and it’s not the prosthetic arm he didn’t have yet.” He sighed, and paged through to the stills from the coffee table video. “Only thing is, they worked him over pretty good. I don’t know that he remembers anything about Brooklyn. And the last time I saw him he shot me three times and broke my face with his—“

“Cyborg robot arm,” Clint interrupted.

“— Metal hand,” Steve finished. “So he’s probably not gonna be a real good interview subject. But if we ever get him to come in, get him stabilized, he’s totally the one you gotta talk to.”

 

* * *

 

He had known, from the earlier experience with the little disk player in Hungary (he’d lugged that thing halfway around the world before he’d had to ditch it), that listening to music was enormously helpful in keeping him from sliding sideways back into Winter Soldier reality. 

He hadn’t really considered that it would make finding power sources to recharge the phone an even bigger problem. He had a couple decent hiding spots that had access to power outlets, but neither was a good spot to spend a lot of time in. 

But he had money, and clean clothes, and he felt almost like a person. It was enough to drive him out into the world, onto the street, where there were people. He knew how normal interactions worked, at least in theory. He’d successfully, over the last months, interacted with other humans in a whole range of ways. And today was a good day.

So he took his courage into his hands, and went into a coffee shop. He was already prepared for the exorbitant sum they charged for coffee, and today was a good enough day that he absorbed the enormous menu with equanimity. The barista laughed and… maybe that was flirting, what she did in response to his eyebrow raise at the names of some of the things they served. (He ordered “just… a coffee? Do you have that?”) He remembered to tip. And he knew, now that he had his drink and a, a thing, something, from the pastry shelf thing, he’d sort of pointed and grunted at it and the barista had thought it funny, that they’d leave him alone for like an hour, and he could go sit by a power outlet. So he did that. 

The power outlet was near the TV, so people kept wandering by to look at it, and it was hardly the quietest corner of the shop, but it was a power outlet and a place he could sit and practice being a real person. So he plugged in the phone, and sat with his legs folded under him and both hands wrapped around the coffee cup, enjoying the warmth from the cup. 

The TV was showing a… talk show, or something. He’d watched a fair bit of TV, whenever he’d been somewhere that had one— once he’d figured out what they were and how they worked. He could remember, now, that he’d seen them before, that he’d been taught about them and given context on them for a mission that had been wiped. A lot of the wipes were only as good as the most recent one— once he’d begun to reconstruct that one, old stuff had come pouring back in fragments. And he remembered a lot of things, remembered various years. He remembered about computers and televisions and automatic transmissions, radios and telephones, commonplace technologies now for a long time, for at least one other of his awakenings (he had a suspicion that he’d been left on ice for a very long stretch rather recently). When he’d first awakened, he hadn’t remembered much about any of it, and he’d rediscovered television rather dramatically in the midst of a breakdown in a motel room. 

Having mistaken Cookie Monster for the voice of God was the sort of thing he knew was going to be absolutely hilarious in the retelling, but he was still a little too sensitive to joke about it yet. He’d been so profoundly terrified by the enormous screen in the wall that had turned itself on as he’d been panicked, thrashing, covered in his own blood and that of at least three other people, unable to shut out the noise in his head, and this giant blue thing had started to sing him a song and scared the shit out of him. 

If Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood hadn’t come on immediately after and told him he was special, he really wasn’t sure what he’d have done. 

Movement caught his eye and he looked away from the television; there was a girl sitting in the chair across from him, a thing on her lap that he had begun to recognize as a common model of computer even though it was no bigger than a composition notebook. She was looking at him, and looked down shyly as he looked up, but shot him a glance. Was she— he flicked his eyes right, then left. There was nobody sitting next to him, he’d already have noticed if they were, and nobody behind him because the wall was there. She was— was she flirting with him? She looked away and bit her lip with a deliberately coy expression. 

He should smile at her. He remembered how this worked. Maybe. He quirked his eyebrows at her and looked back down at his phone where it lay in his lap, then studied her in his peripheral vision. She’d plugged her — computer thing— in to the other socket of the outlet. She was white, with straight loose brown hair and tight jeans and a t-shirt with something printed on it. He blinked a couple times without looking directly at her and realized with a weird twist of his gut that it was a nearly-monochrome version of the Captain America logo. 

She was watching him, not subtly. She didn’t look like she had any kind of training in subterfuge or anything, didn’t ping any of his radar or instincts. Maybe she really was what she looked like. 

He glanced up and this time she met his eyes and smiled at him. “Hey,” she said. 

“Hey,” he answered. Fuck. Fuck. Shit. He didn’t remember exactly how this worked, the bit between smiling at someone and fucking them. Shit, he wasn’t even sure if he remembered how the fucking part worked. 

“Are you from around here?” she asked. He tried to estimate her age. That wasn’t a thing he remembered much about. He took a wild guess at twenty-three. He had no clue what his chronological age was at this point, couldn’t tell from the mirror. He could look 25, could look 50. He didn’t know what other people saw, couldn’t begin to guess. He certainly had no idea why this girl would flirt with him, he almost certainly looked like a hobo.

He shook his head. “Brooklyn,” he said, “but I been away a long time.”

“I just moved here,” she said, as if confiding a great secret.

He kept having to remind himself to have facial expressions. “That so,” he said. 

“My mother is convinced I’m going to get murdered walking down the street,” she said. 

“Huh,” he said, which probably wasn’t a reasonable answer. “Uh, probably not,” he tried. 

She laughed as if this were very witty, which was disconcerting. “I said that to her and she wasn’t very reassured,” she said. 

“Yeah,” he said, “well, moms.” And it struck him, suddenly and with great force, that he had no idea what had happened to his own mother. He remembered that she had existed, but had no clear picture of her face. And he did not know when she had died. She surely had, he’d been born what, 93, 94 years ago now, but he didn’t know if it had happened before or after he’d been killed. 

“Did you lose your mom?” the girl asked, face going sad and serious. 

He couldn’t answer I don’t know, but it welled up inside him, black and thick and overwhelming. “Yeah,” he said. 

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do.”

“I lost a lot of stuff,” he said. His sisters— their kids— he didn’t know. He just didn’t know. His oldest sister would be over a hundred years old now. Her children would be grandparents now. They certainly wouldn’t remember him. Particularly not as he was now. 

“Were you away long?” she asked, and it was so patently ridiculous he’d have laughed if he remembered how. His face did something, he wasn’t sure what. 

“You could say that,” he said. 

She looked… disconcerted, which suggested that he hadn’t managed a reasonable facial expression. “How long?” she asked. 

He shook his head. “I,” he said, and don’t know welled up in his throat again, and he shivered. “Long time,” he said. 

She made a sympathetic noise, but he noticed her eyes had drifted back over to the TV. Strangers’ trauma was offputting, he knew that, and was kind of glad for it at the moment. He composed himself, and rummaged through his bag, pulling out the sheaf of papers the woman Natasha had given him. He’d looked them over before, but he set himself to reading them now. 

They were all about the apparently common phenomenon of attempting to put back together a mind that had been ripped apart, and it was sort of nice to see it laid out like it was something that happened all the time. He remembered enough to know he’d been pretty fucked-up even before he fell off the train, so he supposed it made sense that it was sort of common. 

“Are you a student?” the girl asked, and he blinked at her. 

“Uh,” he said. “N— no, I’m just,” he waved the sheaf of papers. “Doin’ some reading.” Apparently his weirdness hadn’t put her off enough.

“I’m a writer,” she said. “I’m working on a column for a lifestyle website.”

None of those words meant much to him, so he stared at her blankly a moment before remembering he should make some sort of facial expression. “Oh,” he said intelligently. “Uh, that’s, uh…” Honesty was the best policy. “I don’t know if I know what that means.”

The girl laughed like he’d told a joke, and again, it was disconcerting. “You probably haven’t heard of it,” she said. “It’s one of those sites where they have articles about fashion and politics and stuff, but it’s from individual women’s perspectives? There’s a whole section on personal experiences and I’m trying to pitch one about the people you meet in coffee shops.”

He considered that. “Ohh,” he said. “So you’re tryin’ to figure out if I’m interesting or not.” That was probably a problem. On the other hand, though, the likelihood that she was a HYDRA agent in disguise, with a disorganized backstory like that, was really low. 

“Yeah,” she said, smiling brightly. 

“Man I am the wrong person to ask about that,” he muttered, shaking his head and looking down at the papers in his hand. 

“But you look like you’re really interesting,” she said. “I mean, your style is really unique. Why one glove? And your whole demeanor. You look like you’ve seen things. You were away a long time, but where were you?” She tilted her head, leaning forward, hair sliding all shiny and loose down one shoulder, eyes keen. Flirting? Yes, flirting.

He stared at her. “I don’t think you wanna be askin’ me that,” he said. “You gotta be careful about that kinda thing. Your mom’s not wrong, there’s a lot of crazies out there.”

“Are you saying you’re one of them?” she asked, friendly but skeptical, sitting back a little, smile crooked and eyebrows quirking, head tilted— coy, that was the word. That was how girls used to flirt, yes, he thought slowly, but he was dimly aware that his own expression was a lot more akin to the way predators hunted, wide-eyed and still, breath nearly suspended. 

He turned the papers around, held them up, so the title was clearly visible. “Coping Strategies For Extreme Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: How Not To Kill Everybody.” Obviously whoever the Black Widow’s expert was, he thought himself a great wit. “Kind of, yes,” he said. “Actually.” 

“Wow,” she said, with a laugh, then sobered a little, looking at his face. He hadn’t laughed. “Really?”

“Yes,” he said. “Really.” 

“Oh,” she said, eyebrows going up. “So… you have seen things.”

“To put it mildly,” he said, “yes, and for future reference, asking strangers who are probably crazy about their prosthetic limbs is maybe not the best idea.” He peeled down the wrist of the glove to show a gleam of metal. 

“Oh,” she said, finally unsettled enough to stop fucking flirting. “Oh, I— oh.”

“I’m not a cute story,” he said. “There isn’t a punchline. Just a lot of human wreckage and a guy who doesn’t know how to flirt in coffeeshops anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I sort of, I wasn’t expecting…”

“Nobody expects that kind of thing,” he said. “That’s kinda what makes it so dangerous.”

She nodded, a little wide-eyed. “Yeah,” she said. “Uh… were you in the Army?”

He stared at her. Well, technically it was true. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t— it’s not, there’s no story here. I’m not telling you the story. I’m barely holding it together enough to be out in public, we’re not going into my service record in the middle of this coffee shop.”

“Of course,” she said, conciliatory, “of course, I didn’t— I’m not trying to hassle you. I just—“ 

He stared at her, and she stopped talking, waving her hands nervously. He tracked the motion absently, snapping his eyes back to her face when her hands stilled. “The world is full of monsters,” he said. “Most of them have human faces. If you’re lucky, you’ll never find out the difference between them and the normal humans.” He managed a smile then, a weird bitter little one that curled unevenly. 

She nodded very slightly, wide-eyed, mouth closed. He held her gaze a moment, then looked back down at the papers, took a drink of his coffee, tracked her in his peripheral vision. She tore her eyes away from him and began typing rapidly, probably writing her story. Great, about the crazy guy she met in the coffee shop. With the metal arm. 

Could that go wrong? Was that going to be a problem? Surely HYDRA already knew where he was. And if they didn’t, would they figure it out from some girl’s article about a weirdo in a coffee shop? 

Could he use something like this to his advantage? He mulled that over. Next to him the TV had switched to a new program. The girl was still typing. He watched the screen absently, thinking. He had to get his ducks in a row, first, had to get Steve lined up, had to make sure the other enemies of HYDRA were prepared, but then— yeah, he could make a public spectacle of himself, in such a way that it looked unintentional. Get on the news somehow? Or, use the Internet— people said things on the Internet all the time. Even if they didn’t— he’d looked at Steve’s Twitter handle and the guy had never really posted but had ten thousand followers, just because of who he was verified to be.

A familiar voice made him blink and refocus on the television. “Oh,” the girl said, “Captain America! He’s my favorite.”

He stared. Sure enough, there was Steve, sitting politely in a chair, looking fucking enormous, smiling politely but a little tensely. “Jesus,” he said absently, “he’s a lot bigger than I remember.”

“I’ve never seen him in person,” the girl said. “Have you seen him in person?” Fortunately she didn’t wait for an answer, didn’t catch on that the bottom had just dropped out of his stomach and he’d nearly pitched into freefall. “He saved my roommate’s life! During the Battle of New York, when the aliens were attacking! He personally saved her life. She’s such a huge fan. We have all this Captain America stuff in our apartment.”

“You’re wearing the t-shirt,” he commented dryly, recovering himself. “Shh.” Steve was talking now, and he wanted to listen. 

“— a lot of that kind of thing, yeah,” Steve said. “It was a long, brutal slog and I can’t really discuss all that we discovered, but the fact remains, we have a hard road ahead of us. The situation we’re in, with the Avengers under more or less private management, is far from ideal, but given the shocking depth of the corruption we uncovered last year, it’s the only way to be certain. We have to rebuild from the ground up. It’s really far from ideal, yes, but it’s the only way to go forward, for now.”

“He’s so hot, though,” the girl said, a little dreamily. 

He was beautiful— he was earnest, and a little annoyed, and definitely wearing his Leader of Men face, and that shirt was certainly custom-tailored. “He looks tired.” 

She blinked at him, and he realized belatedly that it was a weird thing to say. He shook his head, frowning at the television. “—so much that should be under government control is more or less directly under the influence of large corporations anyway,” Steve was saying, a little heatedly. “We’re just cutting out the middle-man of having to buy politicians, and going directly. It’s astonishing how little control the American people actually have over our own government. Cutting out the pretense is the only way we can actually assure that we’ve cut out the corruption as well. There’s nothing underhanded about this; we’re completely transparent about it.”

“No wonder he’s tired,” the girl said. She wasn’t an idiot, he’d suspected, and confirmed it internally now; she was pretending to be dumber than she was to get him talking. Cynical, but hardly something new to him. He mentally revised her age upward; women dressed younger now, but she was probably in her late twenties.

Steve smiled tautly, onscreen, very clearly his taking-no-shit face. “Not until I’ve rooted out every last agent of HYDRA,” he said calmly, implacably. “Not until I am completely satisfied that there is no trace of that filth left. Those tentacles wind through everything, and I will not ignore that. If we have to tear down to the ground before we rebuild, that’s a process I’m willing to face. I’ve come too far, lost too much, seen too much evil to compromise on that.”

He picked up his phone— oh good, 74% charge— and composed a text to the woman. “Steve on TV about HYDRA,” he wrote, “I have info to help that, we need to meet.”

“He’s so important,” the woman said. “The way he’s so clearly in service of America as a nation, not America as a government— it’s such an important distinction to make, in a time like this.”

He didn’t answer, instead watching Steve on the screen, no longer smiling even a tight smile. He had his jaw set, he looked resolute. God he was gorgeous, he was everything, he was the center of the universe. He missed him, missed Steve so badly it hurt, like a physical pain. 

“He’s a big hero if you’re in the Army, I’m told,” the girl said, and he managed to tear his eyes away from the screen to give her a sidelong look. She was still trying to pull his story out of him, even now. 

“He’s a big hero no matter who you are,” he said. 

“Well,” she said. “True.” She bit her lip. “I’m Audrey, by the way. What’s your name?”

Shit. Name. Right. His perusal of the Internet had given him a pretty good idea that his real name wasn’t going to go unremarked. He looked at her for a long moment. “Jimmy,” he said. People he didn’t like had always called him that, people who didn’t know him, people who thought they knew him but really didn’t. 

“Jimmy,” she said, beaming. “Nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure’s mine,” he said. The TV show had gone to commercial without Steve saying anything else. Jimmy— it pinched, at his back teeth, and he remembered that, he remembered aunts calling him that, remembered hating it. Yeah, perfect. 

He composed another text to the woman, the Black Widow, Natasha. “I made up my mind, by the way,” he said. “Call me Bucky.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The earbuds were the best thing ever. Because he could have one in, giving him the audio stimulus that continually reminded him this was real, this wasn’t a false memory being made, but he could have the other out and that ear free to listen for ambient sounds, to monitor his environment. He was working his way through Jay-Z’s discography today, and it was a good soundtrack to wander around New York to, even if many of the references in the lyrics were alien to him and he had to keep looking things up.

Can I get a hit in the mornin
Without givin you half of my dough
And even worse if I was broke would you want me
If I couldn’t get you finer things
Like all of them diamond rings bitches kill for
Would you still roll?

It took him a while to find a neighborhood he could deal with. Too rich, too white, and people watched him everywhere he went. Too black, too Hispanic, too Asian, and he stood out. He finally wound up in one that kind of reminded him of home, of the way that bit of Brooklyn used to be; working class, people with jobs, lots of languages, kids on their way to school. That was the kind of neighborhood where a guy like him could do his laundry.

He’d been sitting outside the laundromat, watching intently from his peripheral vision, for long enough that he knew he had to make his move. So he made a show of checking his phone as if to explain his long wait outside, then went in with his carefully hoarded change and backpack stuffed with all the clothing he owned except what was on his body and the new, clean things the woman Natasha had given him, which were carefully stowed away with the rest of his belongings in the cache near the school. 

His tac gear, most of his knives, his spare ammo, and the two bigger guns he still owned were stashed in a boarded-up window frame in an abandoned warehouse way up in the Bronx, along with all his spare ammunition. He had one pistol with him, a completely anonymous and generic .9mm hi-cap that he kept in the bottom of the backpack, with 14 rounds and no spare clip. He wasn’t here for a shootout. 

He was down to carrying only two knives, and by habit he mentally tallied them as he stepped into the unfamiliar space. One was strapped to his calf, the other in the small of his back. It wasn’t too warm a day, so he had his metal arm hidden well, under the new sweatshirt the woman had given him, and one of the many gloves he’d collected. Part of its ever-increasing glitchiness now was that the unpleasant stimulus overload sort of came and went in waves. It probably wasn’t a good sign that it was more often muted than not, but there wasn’t really anything to be done about it. He really needed to force that confrontation somehow. 

Bigging up my borough— I’m big enough to do it 
I’m that thorough, plus I know my own flow is foolish
So them rings and things you sing about, bring em out
It’s hard to yell when the barrel’s in your mouth

The laundromat wasn’t busy. There was an old Asian man there, carefully folding his clothes, a young whiteish woman reading a book, a young man of indeterminate race sprawled across a chair and a half playing with his smartphone, and an older black woman just loading her clothes into two machines. 

No way to know, of course, if any of them were HYDRA, or spies, or plants. But none of them were too nonchalant. All of them looked up as he came in, and the older black woman gave him an assessing, concerned look, up and down, that made him feel about twelve. An agent would never do that, would never call attention to the interaction like that. 

He made his way to the machine two over from hers, knowing it was foolish to think of her as ‘safe’ but unable not to do so, and busied himself fiddling with his backpack to cover his observation of how the damn thing worked. The woman put quarters into a drawer and loaded soap into it. Of course, soap. He had noticed the soap vending machine. It would need yet more quarters, but it looked like there was a machine that would make dollars into quarters for you. 

There were bits of his mind that kept reacting with surprise to the prices of things, and he could quite clearly remember a dollar being a lot of money, but it was a distant kind of knowledge. He got the soap out of the machine, came back to the washing machine, contemplated the control panel, steeled himself, and gave it a shot. 

Soap in that dispenser thing, clothes in the machine there, sure, quarters in the drawer, and he counted them in carefully, but it needed two hands to hold them in and his gloved metal hand wasn’t quite dextrous enough. His hand slipped and he dropped a couple of the quarters. What the metal hand lacked in dexterity it made up in reflexes, though, and he snagged them from midair, and tried again, grimacing in concentration. 

The machine took the quarters, but then sat there and did nothing. He bit his lip; he hadn’t seen the woman do anything else, and hers had already started up. She was still standing there, fastening up her coin purse. He could ask, but that would require remembering what language to speak in and how to have facial expressions, and that was a lot of concentration. 

Okay. It probably needed to know what setting to use. There was more than one setting. He read the controls carefully. Nothing sounded particularly informative (what the fuck did super wash mean), so he picked the middle setting for everything, pressing the buttons carefully with his right hand so he didn’t break them. 

Still nothing. He pushed the last button again, a little more firmly, but nothing happened. 

“You just gotta make sure the door’s closed,” a soft voice said next to him. He didn’t startle, because he’d been absently monitoring her with his peripheral vision, but he fought down a little stab of panic at not knowing what face to make, and gave her a blank look instead. It was the older woman, who had finished with her change purse. “Oh, I know,” she said, “these machines are so much more complicated than the old ones. I think the door didn’t latch, it won’t start until the door latches.”

He stepped back a little, frowning, but saw that indeed the door catch hadn’t snapped shut. He remembered just in time to use his right hand; the left would probably snap the catch off. He fumbled at it anyway, and the machine obligingly whirred to a start. 

He remembered then about smiling, and bestowed one upon the woman. “Thanks,” he said. “I haven’t— used one of these before.”

“I figured,” she said, and smiled kindly at him. 

Oh no. Now she was going to have a conversation with him. He steeled himself, and after making sure the machine really was working, he went and sat down in the bank of chairs. Sure enough, she settled next to him and pulled out a bundle of yarn and a hooked needle from her purse. “So what’s your name, young man?” she asked. 

“Jimmy,” he said. It had worked before. 

She smiled at him, very warmly, almost delighted. “My grandson’s name is Jimmy,” she said, as if it were a really uncommon name. Well… maybe it was, nowadays. Maybe it was old-fashioned. He really wouldn’t know. “I’m Brenda. Are you new in town?”

He adjusted his position a little so he could see the windows out onto the street better. “Uh,” he said, “well, no, I’m from Brooklyn, but— I been away a long time, I just got back.” There was an outlet in the wall, and he dug out his charger and plugged his phone into it. Power outlets were going to become an obsession, with this stupid addictive phone; it made it so easy to keep tabs on absolutely everything. He had become immediately reliant on taking photographs of things to help himself remember them, and on looking back through the photos to ground himself when he started to forget what was real and what wasn’t. And looking up absolutely everything on the Internet. Maybe he should look up what names were common nowadays, or if nobody abbreviated James to Jimmy anymore.

Brenda was looking knowingly at him. “You been in the service?” she asked. 

He froze for an instant before it penetrated that uh, yeah, given current events, there were probably a lot of young men— probably women now too— stumbling through America’s cities trying with difficulty to remember how to operate innocuous technology and have facial expressions. He was an exceptional case, but not completely out of the range of normal. 

He let his breath out in a rueful half-laugh. “Obvious, huh?” he said. 

“A bit,” she said. “Army? Navy?”

“Army,” he said, then added truthfully, “Special Forces.” He looked away. “I kinda, not all of me came back.”

“Not all of my son came back either,” she said. “I know, dearie, I know.”

“Sorry to hear that,” he said. He realized he was absently sizing up the passers-by, keeping tabs on the ebb and flow of traffic. He blinked and made himself look away from the window. 

“Oh,” she said, “he’s doin’ all right. Got a new leg, mostly sleeps through the nights now. It takes a long time but with patience and a good family and some quality time with God, y’know, you can get by.”

Family. He swallowed hard, looked at his feet. “Yeah,” he said, instead of thinking about that too much.

“You stayin’ with family?” Brenda asked shrewdly. He shook his head. “Why not?”

“Dead,” he said. It had to be true by now, at any rate. “Dad died before I joined. Mom died while I was gone.” Probably true. He’d remember if she’d died while he was home. Wouldn’t he? He swallowed hard. He remembered Steve’s mom dying. Oh. Sisters. He’d had four. He had no idea where they’d gone, except for Kitty, who’d died in that awful winter. 

“Oh sweetheart,” she said, soft and sad. “How long you been back?”

He shook his head. “Better part of a year,” he said, which was plausibly true. He shook his head again. “How many kids you got?”

“Two,” she said. “And one grandkid.”

He knew grandmothers, he knew how this worked; surely this had not changed in the years he’d missed. “You got pictures?” he asked. 

Her face melted into a sweet smile. “Of course I do,” she said, and pulled out one of the ubiquitous smartphones. He was treated to a tour of her family, her daughter and son, and the daughter with her son, the aforementioned Jimmy, bright-eyed and wild-haired and four and adorable. In two of the pictures, the boy had a Captain America shirt on, and it stabbed Bucky right under the heart. 

“What a good-lookin’ kid,” he said, handing the phone back. “You know he’s destined for greatness with a name like that.” 

“His mother is very, very bright,” Brenda said. “She’s going to get her Master’s degree.”

“Oh wow,” he said. He’d barely finished high school. Everybody went to college nowadays. He had gone from slightly better-educated than average to much dumber. Though he supposed seventy years of brainwashing had surely taught him something. Mostly destroying things, though, and that was an overrated skillset. He did seem to know a whole pile of languages, though, which came in handy as a fugitive, so that was one bright spot. Knowing where to plant charges to bring down any given structure, less useful in daily life.

Nowadays, Steve would have gone to art school, and the heart defect that had almost killed him and had certainly stunted his growth would’ve been corrected before he was two, and he never would have needed to volunteer for any crazy medical experiments, but those things didn’t bear thinking about. He surely would’ve reached six feet, if not for that heart murmur sapping any strength he had. Would’ve been taller than Bucky.

As for Bucky? He probably still would’ve wound up a thug, so whatever, that was probably a wash. Steve just wouldn’t have needed him. Who knew what he’d’ve done then?

From what contemporary TV he’d managed to watch, he likely would have turned to drugs. It was what happened to everybody on TV, anyway. 

“Watch my machines for me,” Brenda said, gathering up her purse and putting her crochet back into it, “and I’ll get you a coffee. You take cream and sugar in it?”

“Aw,” he said, “you don’t have to—“ but he saw the look on her face, and said meekly, “just sugar is fine, thanks.” Actually a coffee would be heaven, he was freezing, but then, he always was, so it was hardly worth mentioning. 

Brenda smiled, and eyed him calculatingly. “Then I’ll be right back.”

She came back with two coffees and a small paper bag, from which she produced a wax-paper-wrapped packet that she handed to him. “I got bagels too,” she said, “you looked like you could use one.”

“You don’t gotta do that,” he said, for form’s sake, but he had completely forgotten the existence of bagels, and rediscovering them was a treat. It was toasted, and generously smeared with cream cheese, and he remembered that, remembered how they were just a little crispy in the skin and chewy and dense in the insides. He took a picture of it with his phone, only realizing belatedly that it might be weird to do that. He looked over at Brenda. “I have memory loss,” he said. “I take pictures of things so I can remember them.” He waved his hand next to his ear. “I told you, not everything came back.”

She was watching his hand. “Is there somethin’ goin’ on with that hand?” she asked. 

He let his breath out. “It’s made of metal, that’s what’s goin’ on with it,” he said. He peeled up the cuff of his sleeve and tapped a fingernail on the plating at his wrist, letting just a hint of metal glint there. “There’s really kind of a lot of me that didn’t come back.”

“Jimmy,” she said sadly, and it only took him a fraction of a second to remember that was the name he’d given her. It only felt a little weirder to be called that than Bucky. 

He still wasn’t totally used to thinking of himself as Bucky. 

He wasn’t used to thinking of himself. 

Practice, though. 

“I’ll be all right, Miz Brenda,” he said. “Like you said, patience.” The bagel was just as he remembered them being, and eating it brought back an entire constellation of memories. 

Steve was in a lot of them. 

His phone buzzed, and he looked at it. Natasha. So pretty, in her photograph, and he was so in the mode of having facial expressions that he smiled at the picture of her before he read the message. 

“I’m working on the failsafe info,” she wrote, “I’m going to bring Steve in on the plan but you don’t have to meet with him if you’re not ready.”

He bit his lip. Almost all the memories he’d gotten back involved some degree of Steve. Seeing him again would probably be overwhelming. He’d have to get himself together and handle it, though, or there was no reason for him to have crawled out of that river mud in the first place. 

“Okay,” he wrote back. 

“Do you get treated through the VA hospital?” Brenda asked. 

Bucky looked over at her, blinking as he mentally paged back through the conversation. “Hm? Oh, no, I don’t— I’m all healed up, it’s not like that,” he said. 

“Where are you staying?” Brenda was frowning now. 

“Uh,” he said, and looked down at his phone, covering for his lack of an answer. “With friends,” he said, remembering about lying, remembering how easy it used to be. You just picked something plausible, simple, and went with it, and looked blank if it didn’t hold up, and changed the subject, and he remembered how this worked. “I kinda, I don’t want to lean on ‘em too hard, is the thing, it’s always tricky.” 

Someone was lingering too long at the laundromat window; his attention snapped from absent to focused, and he stared at the chair nearest the door so his peripheral vision could pick the person up more clearly. Male, white, middling tall, black jacket, staring in the window, not looking at anything in particular, not looking at Bucky, just looking, but— not quite right, something not quite right. Bucky set his phone down and pulled his backpack closer with his foot, feeling the weight of the .9mm. 

“Jimmy?” Brenda asked. 

Bucky looked away from the window. “The man standing by the door,” he said, “he’s— don’t look now!” But it was too late, Brenda had turned her head. 

She saw someone she recognized, though, the girl sitting there, and smiled and waved at her. “How are you today, Inez?” she asked. To Bucky, she said, “The man was looking at us but he looked away when I turned my head.”

“Actually,” the girl said, putting her book down and coming over, “that guy’s creeping me out, I think he was trying to look down my shirt.” 

“The guy outside?” Brenda asked. 

“Don’t look at him,” Bucky breathed. He’d seen the man’s reaction, in his peripheral vision, when Brenda had turned; he’d twitched and turned slightly. 

“Ugh,” Inez said, “I was trying to ignore him, but he was like, looming.” 

“He’s gone now,” Brenda said. She looked back at Bucky. “Jimmy, did you know him?” 

Bucky shook his head slowly. “No,” he murmured, “but he was standing wrong. Shit like that makes me nervous.” 

“I hope he wasn’t creeping on me,” Inez said. “Ugh, Brenda, I had the worst subway experience today, just the worst, one of the guys who gets right up next to you when it’s crowded and nobody else can see his hand. Ugh!”

“I taught my sister how to step on their feet so it hurts most,” Bucky muttered. 

“Oh, you have a sister?” Brenda asked. 

“Not anymore,” Bucky said. He gave her a grim smile. “Not from steppin’ on people’s feet, though.”

“Sometimes if you fight back it only makes it worse,” Inez said. 

Bucky made a pained noise. “Don’t I know,” he said. He still hadn’t managed to make eye contact with her; the man at the window had rattled him badly.

“Are you all right, Jimmy?” Brenda asked. 

“I ain’t been all right in years,” he said. If that guy wasn’t HYDRA, Bucky thought, he’d eat a packet of laundry soap. That had been a message, standing there like that. They were here and they knew he was too, and that meant he needed to man up, get over himself, and get Steve the information he needed. “Hey, how do we tell when the machine is done?” He popped one of his earbuds back in, he was sliding into mission headspace and he really needed not to, not yet.

“Oh,” Brenda said, “you’re right, they probably are.” He went over with her, and Inez let him use the dryer she was taking her clothes out of, which still had a little time on it. In return, he helped her fold her sheets. 

You gotta get, that, dirt off your shoulder
You gotta get, that, dirt off your shoulder

As he put the sheets into her wheeled cart, back by her chair, he looked at the window. Sure enough, there was a little symbol there, scratched into the sill— a stylized curlicue, similar enough to the HYDRA logo to be unmistakable. 

“Jimmy?” Inez asked. He must be having a facial expression.

He let a breath out slowly. “Don’t worry,” he said quietly, “that guy wasn’t creepin’ on you.” He pulled out his phone and took a photo of the mark on the windowsill. 

He looked down at his phone, and texted Natasha, “Yeah, give him this number.” He was going to need Captain America sooner rather than later. 

 

He made it out of there with his clothes clean but his skin crawling. Apparently he was good enough at pretending to be a person that Brenda had begun to take a motherly interest in him, which was the first time anybody had felt like that in a long time, that he remembered anyway. He’d refused to exchange phone numbers with her; if they got him, anyone whose contact information he possessed would become a likely target. But she had a social media account on the site he’d started using to post the pictures he took to remember things, and the snippets of song lyrics that seemed to spark things in his brain (so he’d be able to get them back if he lost the phone), so he exchanged handles with her and promised to stay in touch that way. He couldn’t see the harm in that, he already had random people “following” him, some of whom had attempted to interact for whatever reason.

Better following him online than in real life. He spent the next six hours alternately on the move and hiding before he finally had a chance to cache some of the clothing and catch a couple of hours of fitful sleep.

 

* * * 

 

Natasha ended the call, very carefully put her phone down, and went into the kitchenette of her apartment. She rooted around in the fridge until she found the bag of apples she’d bought that week, took a small stack of cheap dessert plates out of her cabinet, and took both with her to the firing range in the basement. 

There she spent about an hour putting the items one by one onto a post and shooting them. For the apples, she used hollow-point hunting bullets, so that they exploded. The plates shattered satisfyingly, and in general made a huge mess. 

She missed the last one of the plates, and stood for a long moment staring at it, then walked over and picked it carefully out of the clip holding it, then raised it over her head and smashed it down onto the floor as hard as she could. 

“Ah, hm,” Tony said from behind her. “Hard day?”

She turned slowly and looked at him, too upset to bother showing him an expression. “Yes,” she said. 

“What’s got you so rattled?” he asked, visibly unnerved. 

She stared at him for a long moment. “They found Tatiana in seventeen pieces,” she said, “and there are parts of her still missing.”

Tony’s eyes darted to one side, as if he were looking for meaning. “Do I know her?”

“No,” she said, “but I did. And they shot out both of Maxim’s kneecaps and cut off seven of his fingers before they killed him. And I don’t know what he told them. I don’t know who else he compromised, if anyone, before he died.”

“Uh,” Tony said. “Huh.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Weren’t you taking some time off?”

“If HYDRA is not taking time off,” she said, “then I cannot take time off.” She holstered her gun and rubbed her forehead. “I have a technical question for you,” she said. “I need you to help me. HYDRA will have built a killswitch into the Winter Soldier, and it seems natural to me that they would have included it in his arm. If I get you the blueprints, and perhaps if I can get scans from him in person, can you help me look for the killswitch? Because if it is software, that I can do, but he has little to no software, that I can tell— it is all hardware, and I am not a hardware engineer.”

Tony bored her less than many people because he caught up quickly. “Yeah,” he said, “I can do that. How are you gonna get scans from him in person?”

“He’s in Brooklyn,” she said. “I saw him earlier today.”

“Holy shit,” Tony said. “Nobody told me this.”

“Steve doesn’t know yet,” Natasha said. “Nobody told anybody this. Keep your damn mouth shut, Tony.”

“Okay, okay,” Tony said, “fine. Wait, why do you know where he is and Steve doesn’t?”

“Because he abducted me last week,” Natasha said. She rubbed both hands across her face, then walked back to the gear closet and looked for the broom. Fuck, she’d need a mop too. She stared blankly into the closet, completely at a loss. 

“Hey,” Tony said, “hey, it’s okay. I’ll get somebody to clean up in here, don’t even worry about it. Send me the specs you have and anything else you can get, and I’ll work on it.”

“Thank you,” Natasha said, meaning it. 

“Hey,” Tony said again, “don’t even worry about it. Just don’t kill anybody… else.”

“I don’t shit where I eat,” Natasha said over her shoulder as she walked out of the room. 

It wasn’t enough, by the time she got back upstairs she was still vibrating internally with a painful, twisting mixture of helpless fury and thwarted rage and sick grief. These were agents she’d known for years, people with whom she’d worked hard to re-establish a relationship, and HYDRA was burning through them like they were unwanted kittens. 

She looked at her phone, and thought suddenly, angrily, of Sam. He’d gone home the day before, without any particularly deep conversations with Steve beforehand, and it had left her feeling bizarrely betrayed. She pulled him up (he was Hot Ass in her phone, she never used real names) and stabbed the “call” button with far more force than a touchscreen required. 

“So,” she said without preamble, stuffed into the crawl space between the Avengers living quarters and the penthouse. 

“Hey, hello, what’s up, how are you?” Sam said, a little sarcastic; she rarely bothered with polite greetings, and he always did. 

“Have you held up your end?” she asked. 

“Yo,” Sam said. “What?”

“I need you,” she said, “to give Steve a fucking hand here, something to keep him from freaking the fuck out.”

“You cannot hold me emotionally hostage to this,” Sam said. “It’s unhealthy.”

“He punches people for a living,” she spat, “I am a professional spy and I lie to stay alive, I don’t fucking know what planet healthy fucking lives on, Sam, I will kill you with my thighs right through the fucking phone.”

“Yo,” Sam said. “Holy shit, Natasha.”

“I am not fucking around,” she said, and it was possibly the most agitated she had ever let herself sound.

“Why do you have so much invested in this?” Sam asked, frustrated and, yes, genuinely rattled, which was sort of hard to accomplish shy of shooting at him, so score one for emotional honesty, Natasha supposed with the distant corner of her mind that wasn’t preoccupied with flipping the fuck out. 

“Because,” she said, “because, because Sam, because I don’t fucking know what to do, Sam, because Steve has a temper, he has impulse issues, because if I tell him I know where Bucky is and he doesn’t have anything to rein himself in with he will fucking go right fucking through me out the door and he will fuck everything up, Sam.”

“So? Let him do it! Let him go find Bucky,” Sam said, angry. “Stop fucking controlling him. He’s a grown-ass man, this is the most important thing to him in the world.”

“Sam,” she said. 

“I’m gonna fucking call him and I’m going to fucking tell him you’re holding out on him,” Sam said, raging now. “You’re being a deceitful, lying sack of shit because you want to manage this and you don’t fucking care what that’s doing to him.”

“Sam,” she said again, shocked anew by how much it hurt. 

“You just want to be in control,” Sam said, “it’s the only thing you understand and it’s more important to you than being a decent fucking human being.”

“Bucky will die for nothing,” she shouted, and repeated it in Russian, and then again in English, “Sam, Bucky will die for nothing because you are stupid and you do not understand what is happening.” She wasn’t crying. She hadn’t cried accidentally in years. She wasn’t. This entire floor was double-soundproofed, this was the most private spot in the entire city, but it didn’t matter, she wasn’t going to cry.

“Fuck you, Bucky ain’t gonna die just from seeing his best fuckin’ friend again,” Sam said, but she’d cowed him, she had. 

“I have lost four colleagues this week,” she hissed, “dead, Sam, this isn’t a fucking game to me, this isn’t a fucking game,” she let her voice rise to a shriek as Sam tried to cut in, “this isn’t about whose dick is bigger this is about what Bucky has spent the last seventy years enduring and the last seven months setting up with his blood and his sweat and his torment, Sam, don’t you dare fucking tell me to fucking let Steve fucking go find Bucky.”

Her lungs gave out and she dragged in a ragged breath, choked down the need for a sob, and Sam waited in stunned silence for a moment before he said, in a calculatedly bored tone, “Are you done?”

Natasha let her breath out silently. “No, Sam,” she said calmly, “I am not done. I still have to finish all the cleanup work you and Steve did not do while you were chasing Bucky around like crazy shitheads. I still have to send more people to die in the Ukraine, and possibly go there myself, perhaps to die, Sam, because this is not a game to me.”

“Oh my God,” Sam began, exasperated, and she was sick to fucking death of American soldiers and the way they didn’t understand anything.

“Shut. Up,” she said. “You do not know what I know. James Buchanan Barnes let himself get shot in Dzhankoy, Sam, because he was setting a trap. He has purposely spat in the eye of every HYDRA branch, Sam, and left them a trail of his own bloody footprints to follow, to come back to New York City, Sam, to use himself as bait, Sam.” Her voice was gradually rising, and she stopped, breathed, reined it in. “Were you there or not, Sam, did you watch the video or not, Sam, where he talked about being the mama bird faking a broken wing? Were you there or not when we were discussing that? He is luring the serpents here, Sam.”

“I got that,” Sam said, angry, but he was listening. 

“Yes okay fine,” she said, “and now think, for a fucking second, Sam, and just think about how Steve is going to react when I tell him that Bucky has to be the bait and we cannot spare him that, Sam!” She was punctuating the downbeats of her sentences by slamming her open palm against the soundproof paneling, and it stung.

“Dude you’ve said my name like twenty times in the last fifteen seconds,” Sam said. 

“That is because I am right and you are exceedingly slow,” Natasha spat. 

Sam was actually a very, very good person, because instead of blustering, he said, “Okay, I see where you’re going with this.”

“Thank you,” she said, coldly but very calmly. 

“But Steve isn’t stupid,” Sam said. “Why not just fucking tell him what you just told me only with fewer repetitions of my name?”

Natasha let her breath out. “I will,” she said, sadly. “I was just hoping to have help.”

“Oh for— don’t,” Sam said. 

“I’m not any happier about this than he’s going to be,” she said. “It’s going to hurt him. I feel like I’m taking away the only thing he’s still actually hoping for. And I have nothing to give him in return. So I wanted help. But you are so sure that you are right, and I have no right to demand anything of you.”

“You don’t,” Sam said, defensive. “This is a terrible idea.”

“I apologize,” she said quietly. “I am— I am not in the habit of, this sort of thing. Friend things.”

“Don’t even,” Sam said.

“God,” she said, suddenly furious, “I’m not.”

“I know a guilt trip when there’s one being laid on me,” Sam said. 

“If I were attempting to manipulate you,” Natasha said icily, “I would already have succeeded. That was my attempt at emotional honesty. I am sorry it doesn’t pass muster with you. I told you the truth, I am not in the habit of trying to have friends.”

“Don’t you think Steve is your friend?” Sam asked. “Don’t you think you telling him you’re in this together with him would be enough?”

“Why on earth would that be enough?” she asked, genuinely baffled. “It’s just words, Sam, it’s nothing!”

“You’re telling me you’re nothing,” Sam said. 

“Well?” She almost threw the phone, but she couldn’t afford to lose it. “What am I? I can’t be anything to him, Sam, and you can, and you are, and he can’t do this without you and I can’t do this without hi—“ Her voice broke and she made herself stop. 

Silence stretched and she managed a ragged breath. “This isn’t a game to me,” she whispered tightly when her voice did not come to heel obediently. 

“Natasha,” Sam said, quieter and gentle. “I get it. All right. It’s not a game. It’s never been a game to me either.”

“I don’t know how to do this,” she said. “I have lost almost everything that I have ever had, all my secrets, my old comrades are dying in double handfuls, and I have never had friends, it isn’t something I know how to do. If you think that me offering a feeble fucking half-assed smile to Steve is going to make him okay with this, you have a much higher opinion of my dubious charms than anyone else on this fucking planet.” 

She breathed raggedly again for a moment, then made herself go on. “And given the way you were shouting at me earlier, if you say you think that, I’ll know you’re a fucking liar. You don’t trust me any farther than you can throw me and for good goddamn reason, Sam. I know what I am, I’ve stopped lying about it and now everybody else knows what I am too.”

“Jesus, Natasha,” Sam said, “I fucking trust you—“

“You cannot trust a lying, deceitful sack of shit, Sam,” Natasha said woodenly. “I have perfect recall, Sam, it’s what I do. I want to manage this and I don’t fucking care what that’s doing to him. Control is the only thing I understand and it’s more important to me than being a decent fucking human being.” Her breath hitched on the inhale and she held it ruthlessly until it stopped. 

“Okay,” Sam said, “okay, Jesus, Natasha.”

“I know what I am,” she said. “And I know what made me this way. And the fuckers who made me this way are the same fuckers who made Bucky that way and you’re right, Sam, I don’t care what it takes, I will make them eat it. Not only for my own revenge, but because they have hurt my friends. I know precisely what Bucky has given to be here and I will not let anything fuck that up. I don’t know how to be a friend but I know what needs to be done right now, and if that means I have to lie to one of the only people in the entire world who has any idea who I am and likes me anyway, then so be it.”

“I don’t know what you think I can do,” Sam said helplessly. 

“I can take care of a lot of things,” Natasha said, “I can coordinate agents in three countries, I can tame a feral fugitive, I can set up the most massive and stealthy counter-trap you have never seen coming in your life, but Sam, I cannot give Steve the emotional support he needs in this. I am a good enough analyst to know he will not be able to take the strain unassisted. I know this, I can predict it. It is math. His impulsiveness and temper times the depth of his emotional connection to this situation divided by how little else he has to live for in this world equals a massive, explosive failure that I cannot contain.”

Sam breathed out slowly. “Oooookayyyyy,” he said. 

“I don’t think it really matters what you promise Steve,” Natasha said, “or what you even really say to him, it just has to be something, anything, he can really weigh against what I’m about to drop on him. But it has to be something, Sam, there has to be some kind of honesty or something— I need something, Sam, I can’t do this. I need you to be there for him because I have nothing to offer him.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “Okay, Natasha. Stop. It’s okay. Yes. I will help you. But I need one more condition from you.”

“What,” she said wearily. 

“When all this is done,” Sam said, “you are getting some fucking therapy.”

She laughed bitterly. “I am touched by your faith that I will survive this,” she said. “And simultaneously insulted, that you think so little of my dedication.”

“Oh,” Sam said, “my God, Natasha. You can’t think I’ll let you die.”

“It is not up to you,” she said. “Please. Just help me, Sam. Help me.”

“I will help you,” he said. “I will help you, Natasha. Just, just promise me—“

“I will do my part,” she said. 

 

 

If Natasha cried after she hung up the phone, it was a secret, and in that soundproof crawlspace, there was no one to see or hear it. Maybe she didn’t, maybe she just checked out of reality and lay there in silence for a little bit. But either way, whatever she did, it was not for long. From the crawlspace it was easy to get into the ventilation, and she had been using it to get around for so long that it took her no effort to reach the ceiling vent in Steve’s bedroom. 

He was listening to Amy Winehouse. 

There’ll be none of him no more
I cried for you on the kitchen floor

I cheated myself
Like I knew I would
I told you I was trouble
You know I’m no good.

The song reached the end and started again, and she realized he had it on repeat, and let her forehead rest against the side of the duct, closing her eyes. God fucking damn it, why hadn’t he just found himself a nice goddamn girl and settled down and made babies. 

Well. She knew the treatments they’d done on her had left her incapable of bearing children. His may well have done the same thing to him. That didn’t bear thinking about. She wasn’t going to be the one to tell him.  

Upstairs in bed with my ex-boy
He’s in a place but I can’t get joy
Thinking of you in the final throes— 

Steve paused the music, mercifully. “Yeah?” he said. 

“Steve,” Sam said. Speakerphone. Sweet merciful Christ, Steve would last thirty seconds as a spy. Less, nowadays. Except no self-respecting enemy would think he was for real with this.

“Hey,” Steve said. “You jerk, you didn’t warn me about Johnny Cash.”

“I so did,” Sam said. 

“They’re all songs about prison and murder and dying,” Steve said. 

“Well,” Sam said. “He is a brainwashed ex-Soviet assassin and mass murderer, this is probably subject matter he could identify with.”

“I know,” Steve said, pained, “I know, just— I know.”

“Hey,” Sam said, “take it easy man. You’re not listenin’ to Folsom Prison Blues on repeat, or nothin’, are you?”

“N-no,” Steve said, a little too slowly. 

“You are,” Sam said. “Aw! Steve. Don’t.”

“No, I really wasn’t,” Steve said. 

“You’re a terrible liar,” Sam said. 

“I was listening to Amy Winehouse,” Steve admitted. 

“Jesus,” Sam said. “Couldn’t you at least listen to Marvin Gaye on repeat, if you were gonna?”

“Don’t want to wreck that album by doing that,” Steve said. “This one, I’ll never be able to listen to it without thinking about the video where Bucky’s draggin’ himself out of that Ukrainian warehouse, so I might as well wallow in it until that’s done with.”

“Steve,” Sam said, “Steve, Steve. Oh man.”

“Hey,” Steve said. “Lay off me, it’s not like I got anything better goin’ on.”

Sam made a pained little noise. Seriously, Steve had him on speakerphone directly under the vent, it was like he wanted Natasha to hear the entire conversation. Maybe he did— he had to know she hung out up here sometimes. She never used this vent to drop in, though, always the living room one. She had just figured she’d stick around up here until the muffled noises of conversation stopped, then go to the door, but if he was going to just give it to her, she was damn well going to listen. 

“Listen, man, I just had a kind of intense heart-to-heart with Natasha,” Sam said. Great. Drag her into this. “Which, I should mention, you should probably find her when we’re done here.”

“Why, what has she found out?” Steve asked.  

“No,” Sam said, “no, Steve, not that— you know, she’s a person, Steve, not just an operative. I mean she’s having a tough time personally. Has she talked to you at all about what she’s overseeing in Russia right now? They’re killing her people left and right, she’s lost all kinds of old comrades.”

“Oh,” Steve said, sounding lost. “No, I — she hasn’t mentioned it.”

“Yeah,” Sam said, “well, I dragged it out of her by being an asshole, and there might have been some yelling. I don’t know how okay she is, man, and I’m such a jerk I went and looked it up because I was pretty sure she was just layin’ it on real thick, but no, it’s true, it’s a bloodbath over there.”

“Shit,” Steve muttered. “Should I go do that now?”

“In a minute,” Sam said. “I got somethin’ to talk to you about first.”

Steve paused. “Well,” he said, “shoot, then.”

Sam sighed audibly. “She pointed out to me that there’s a lot more at stake in this current stuff than just, you know, lives and freedom and the American Way and all. And she’s right, sometimes you don’t get a chance to tell people what they mean to you.” 

“Sam,” Steve said softly. 

“No, I mean it, man. Shit has been so crazy that all we’ve had a chance to do is pretty basic survival stuff. And there’s nothin’ wrong with that, it’s just that’s not any way to be alive, long-term. I thought sayin’ shit like this would just make everything more complicated, but she basically hit me over the head until I admitted maybe it would be nice to be upfront about it.” 

“What, physically?” Steve asked. 

“What? No, she— okay, she metaphorically hit me over the head,” Sam said. “I didn’t actually get my physical ass literally kicked via cellphone connection.”

“With Natasha, you never know,” Steve said, laughing.

“She did actually threaten me to kill me with her thighs right through the phone,” Sam said. “I kind of, that was a hell of an image, you know?”

Steve laughed. “That is a hell of an image,” he said, and sighed fondly. “Those thighs, though.”

“I know, right?” Sam said, sounding almost reverent. It was ridiculous to feel flattered, but if there was anyone who had shapely thighs it was Steve, kind of legendarily, so—  

“Yeah, almost wouldn’t be a bad way to have the privilege of goin’ out,” Steve said. “Oh Natasha. What was she bullying you about?”

“Oh man. So the thing is, this Bucky thing, it’s crazy complicated for you, right?”

“I don’t know that it’s complicated, per se,” Steve said, “it’s just sort of got me obsessed to the point that I don’t know what else to do with myself.”

“You and him,” Sam said. “There was more than, you know, it wasn’t just that you were close.”

“He was my whole world for a solid while,” Steve said. 

“I mean you had a relationship,” Sam said. “I mean, like, you know.”

There was a moment’s blank silence. “No,” Steve said. “No, Sam. We never did.”

“Huh,” Sam said. “Wait, really?”

“No,” Steve said. “Why, what are you getting at? No, we never were— it wasn’t like that.”

“Oh,” Sam said. “Oh, well, uh— huh.”

“I,” Steve said, “I mean, uh— we uh— it wasn’t that there was no aspect of that kind of thing at all, I mean— we were—you know— red-blooded American boys and all— but that wasn’t what it was about, and that’s not— I don’t—“

“It’s okay,” Sam said. “Steve, that’s okay, it doesn’t really matter, I just—“

“No,” Steve said, “no, you’re right to— you should have all the details, you’ve only given up months of your life for this insanity, you should know—“

“Well,” Sam said, “I guess it’s good to clear that up.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I, the thing was— Bucky and I, we were—“

“You don’t gotta go into detail,” Sam said. “It’s okay. I get the gist. There were occasional sexual elements to your relationship but that wasn’t the primary focus.”

There was a pause. “Yeah,” Steve said finally. “Yeah, that… about covers it.”

“So I kinda figured it was complicated, between you two,” Sam said. “And I figure you got a lot of complicated stuff goin’ on in your life.”

“Well,” Steve said. “I guess so.” He paused. “Uh. I mean. You knew I was, you know, before?”

“What, bi?” Sam laughed. “Yeah, Steve, I got that.”

“Really,” Steve said. “Because I, uh, it took me a really long time to, uh, to understand that was, um, a thing.”

“Oh baby,” Sam said, and his voice went sweet and aching in sympathy. “Oh. I know how that is. Baby, I know.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, “you see it all in your line of work, I know.”

“No,” Sam said, “I mean, this particular thing, I know.”

There was a pause. “Oh.”

“I mean, like, I know personally, Steve. This ain’t a professional thing.”

Steve exhaled sharply. “Oh.” 

“So yeah,” Sam said. “Look, I’m a perceptive guy, I been around this block a lil bit. And I’m sayin’, Steve, now’s not a good time, what with the possible end of the world and the whole insanity. But if you got time to pencil it in sometime, we could try takin’ this to another level, one of these days. That’s what I’m sayin’, Steve.”

“You mean like,” Steve said, and trailed off. 

“I mean like maybe we could make a date to go on a date,” Sam said, “if the stars align and whatnot. That’s where I’m goin’ with this. I got the idea maybe that was something you’d wanna do.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “It, yeah, that is.”

“Good,” Sam said, and his voice curled warm up through the vent, and Natasha remembered that she hadn’t meant to stay here. She pushed herself soundlessly up and made her way over two vents, to Steve’s kitchenette, where she popped the grate out and let herself soundlessly down into the dark main living space of his apartment. Hers had almost the same layout, and she liked the open plan because it was defensible. She didn’t like the fact that it was all wired up to JARVIS, which was why she had many of her personal phone conversations elsewhere. At least her ventilation ducts were rigged to her liking, which meant she always knew if Clint— or anybody else— had been in there. 

Actually, everyone’s ventilation ducts were rigged to her liking. She knew if anybody had been in Steve’s, either. And the answer, now that she lived here, was no.

She fixed herself a sandwich, completely shamelessly, and sat at his kitchenette table in the dark, picking slowly through the sandwich. She could still hear his voice in the bedroom, and what was best was that she often heard his voice rise in a laugh. 

She pulled out her phone and poked at it. Bucky had texted her, “thanks,” once that evening, and she’d written back “I’m working on the failsafe info; I’m going to bring Steve in on the plan but you don’t have to meet with him if you’re not ready.”

Since she’d last looked, he’d written, “okay,” and then a few minutes after that he’d written, “yeah give him this number, I need to give him that HYDRA intel”. 

She set the phone down and picked up the sandwich, and Steve opened his bedroom door, turned off the light in there, and strode down the hall. He didn’t just walk anywhere, he strode, there was no other word for it, all Greek god-like, leggy and majestic even in his low-riding cutoff sweatpants and no shirt. He had a shirt with him, slung over his shoulder. He wandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge, the refrigerator light sliding beautifully over his gorgeously-defined iliac crest, glinting in the dark gold fuzz under his navel. 

“I’m going on Good Morning America,” she said, timing it perfectly as he tipped his head back to drink, “and telling the world Captain America drinks milk straight from the carton.”

He sputtered, coughed, got milk everywhere, and collapsed against the kitchen counter, coughing and laughing. “Jesus Christ, Natasha,” he said, “I’m 96 years old, you tryin’ to give me a heart attack?”

“You gotta stay on your toes, soldier,” she said. 

“Why the hell are you in my kitchen in the dark like a complete creep?” he asked, retrieving a kitchen towel and wiping himself down. Nngh. God damn it she really needed him to get into a committed relationship already and out of her head. “I was just gonna put some clothes on and come find you.”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” she said. “Sam said he was going to call you so I got in line, I needed to talk to you when he was done. I hope you had a pleasant conversation?” She tilted her head a little, smiling.

“Did you really threaten to kill him with your thighs over the phone?” Steve asked, using the towel to wipe down the counter. He got down a cup (perfect slide of back muscles stop it) and poured himself a glass like a civilized human. 

“I might have,” she said, finishing the sandwich. “If anyone could find a way, it would be me. Oh, you’re low on strawberry jelly.”

“Thanks,” he said. “You want a drink?”

“Not after your filthy mouth has been on that carton,” she said. 

“I licked the spoon and put it back in the jelly too,” he said, mouth curling in an uneven half-smile. “And I eat peanut butter straight out of that jar all the time.”

“You’re an animal,” she said unconcernedly. “Gimme your phone a sec.”

He retrieved it from the pocket of his shorts and tossed it over to her, and made himself a sandwich with the last of the strawberry jelly. “You really did a number on this,” he said mournfully. 

“I hardly took any,” she said. “You can make up the difference with your ridiculous organic peanut butter.” He liked the kind you had to stir the oil back into, which was kind of gross but she admitted tasted pretty good, and did provide superior energy. Her metabolism wasn’t anywhere near as revved as his, but it mattered— low-fat, low-calorie anything was a terrible mistake, and the fewer nutrients in things, the worse she felt. It was probably like that times a thousand for him, given how hot he seemed to run.

 She set her phone next to his, to copy over Bucky’s contact info. He looked over her shoulder. 

“Comrade Popsicle,” he said. “Who’s that?” She never used people’s real names in her phone. 

“You’re in my phone as FREEDOM in all caps with four exclamation points,” she said. “Your avatar is a picture of a bald eagle.”

He laughed. “I bet that alphabetizes weird,” he said, and went back to his sandwich. He paused to pull the t-shirt over his head, and she regretfully watched his aesthetically perfect back disappear under the thin fabric. 

“I never use the alphabetical display anyway,” she said. She composed a text message on his phone, making it a group message to herself as well. “Hey, Bucky, this is Natasha writing from Steve’s phone. I’m debriefing him now on the situation, and we’ll probably talk to you tomorrow one way or another.”

She hesitated with her finger next to the send button. Steve came over with his sandwich and glass of milk, and thoughtfully hooked the chair she didn’t have her feet on out from under the table with his bare foot. “So, should I ask what you’re doing with my phone?”

“Did Sam tell you what he and I talked about?” she asked, knowing fine well he hadn’t.

“Not really,” Steve said, cagey. But then concern flitted across his face. “Oh, he said you’ve had a lot of friends killed in the Ukraine lately. I’m sorry, Natasha, I didn’t realize. Is there anything we can do?” 

He was so goddamn nice. It was disgusting. 

“Well,” she said, still holding Steve’s phone in her hands. “So here’s the situation. As Bucky told us, he was deliberately provoking members of the various cells of HYDRA to come after him, and leading them back to New York. It was a long game, and I imagine even harder to do with as fragmented a memory as he must have, but he seems to have done it pretty skillfully.”

“So you think the HYDRA buzz we’re getting is from that,” Steve said. 

“I know the HYDRA buzz we’re getting is from that,” she answered. “And I have successfully confirmed that indeed, Bucky is in New York City. He’s got himself set up as the bait in this trap.”

“You know for sure,” Steve said, leaning in, intense. Looming a little. Unlike most big men, Steve was still only learning that his body language sometimes said a lot of things he didn’t mean it to. Most men only pretended not to know it; part of his charm was that he really didn’t. He was a full seven or eight inches taller than she was, even when she had shoes on, and often forgot it. Not always— sometimes he went into a confrontation with his body language as a careful and deliberate weapon— but in un-pre-meditated situations like this he often forgot he wasn’t five feet four anymore.

No wonder Bucky had had to bail him out so much— Little Steve had had very aggressive body language and no restraint to speak of about using it, she surmised.

“You need to trust me,” she said to him. “You need to do as I say, Steve.” She fixed him with her most intense stare. 

He stared back at her, and then visibly noticed that he was looming across the table threateningly. He let his shoulders slump a little, and backed off. “Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”

She hit send on the message, and pushed his phone across to him. “I rendezvoused with him,” she said. “He has a Stark cellphone now, and has been texting back and forth with me.”

“What,” Steve said, and looked down at his phone. “Wait, he’s in your phone as Comrade Popsicle?”

“I never use real names,” she said. She’d put him in Steve’s as Bucky Bear. 

As she spoke, Steve’s phone made a little chiming noise. He never put it on vibrate, always let it make obnoxious noises. Her phone, on the table, vibrated. “Hey Steve,” Bucky wrote, to both of them. 

“Oh, oh my God,” Steve said. 

“Yeah,” Natasha said. “So sit tight, Steve. Sit right here. Don’t go anywhere. Don’t freak out. Eat your sandwich. We’re going to go over this like calm and rational people.”

His phone chimed again, and hers vibrated. “Wish I’d had this number before,” Bucky wrote. “The Stark tower secretaries weren’t real helpful.”

Steve picked up his phone in both hands and stared at it. “So, uh,” he said, and his face was drawn in a way she’d never seen it look before. “He’s, he’s right here, somewhere.”

“I don’t know where exactly,” Natasha said. “But I saw him in person today, yes.”

Steve pressed one hand against the middle of his chest, closing his eyes for a moment. “And you’re saying we gotta leave him out there,” he said. 

“Yes,” she said. 

“As bait. For HYDRA. Who might kill him before we can get to him.”

She steeled herself. “Yes,” she said. 

He didn’t say anything for a long moment, didn’t open his eyes, didn’t move. Finally he let his breath out. “I had a heart defect,” he said quietly. “Before the serum. And sometimes it’d go into these fits, palpitations I guess they’re called. And it hurt, it really hurt. But it never hurt like it hurts right now.”

She put her hand on his arm. “Steve,” she breathed. 

“Between that and the asthma and sometimes I got what I know now were bronchial infections, and once whooping cough,” Steve said quietly, “some nights I had to sleep sitting up, and sometimes I was too weak to do it. And Bucky would stay up all goddamn night, with me asleep leaning against his chest, holding me up so I wouldn’t suffocate in my sleep. He told me he could sleep just fine like that but he was lying, I know he was.”

Natasha had never had a friend like that, couldn’t imagine— but no, Clint would do that for her. Steve would do that for her, now, maybe. If she let either of them, that is. And she would do that for either of them, had done similar for Clint. There were people she felt like that about, now. And it meant they could hurt her, like this was hurting Steve. 

“All that he has done,” she said quietly, “for the better part of the last year, has been for this. All of the blood he has shed, the torment he has endured, the hard work he has done, has all been leading to setting this trap, here and now. If we scoop him up and bring him to safety, it will all have been meaningless.”

“I know that,” Steve said, “or I wouldn’t still be sitting here.” But there was no violence, no anger in his voice. He just sounded pinched and tired. 

She texted back, “Steve wants very badly to come get you, but he’s been briefed on the situation and we’re sitting tight.”

Steve laughed bitterly when his phone chimed with her message’s arrival. “Wants very badly,” he said. “To put it mildly.” He texted, “Call me?”

“I haven’t talked to him on the phone,” Natasha said, “but maybe he’ll do it.”

“I’m not in safe plc 2 make call from rn,” Bucky wrote back. “I cld meet u somewhere if u have someplc unobtrusive.”

Steve looked at Natasha, and his face was a panorama of emotion; in that moment, she could see every loss he’d ever faced, from the teenager who’d watched his mother’s lungs rot until she died on up through the young man whose fingers had fallen short of his best friend’s hand over a thousand-foot ravine. He was afraid

“If I get the Hawkeyes to set up a perimeter,” Natasha said, “we could meet him down at the Lady Liberty diner near the tunnel entrance. They’re 24 hours and far enough off the beaten path that there’d be no reason for HYDRA to look for him there.”

“In public?” Steve said hesitantly. 

“We can’t be sure we wouldn’t be observed if we met somewhere outdoors,” Natasha said. “Unless you think we should, I dunno, get a motel room or something, but I really think a diner’s the best bet. You’re kind of hard to take undercover, Steve.”

“True,” he admitted. 

She texted, “Have you eaten?”

“Today?” Bucky wrote back. 

Natasha looked over at Steve, who raised his eyes from his phone’s screen, the lines between his eyebrows deepening. She looked back down and texted Bucky the address of the diner in question, and rudimentary directions. 

“See you in an hour,” she wrote. 

“Acknowledged,” he wrote back. 

“That what you’re wearing?” she asked Steve, who looked down at his cutoff sweatpants. 

“Uh,” he said, “I’ll be right back.”

 

Chapter Text

 

His phone woke him, and it was a message that looked different from the others. He peered at it, foggy from sleep, until he figured it out: it was from an unfamiliar number, but to both him and Natasha. 

“Hey, Bucky, this is Natasha writing from Steve’s phone. I’m debriefing him now on the situation, and we’ll probably talk to you tomorrow one way or another.”

He read it twice. Natasha was with Steve now, then, and had his phone in her hand. Probably putting his info in it. He rubbed sleepy eyes, and wrote back, “Hey Steve,” sending it to both numbers. He could do that just by replying— ok, that was sort of neat. This was way better than all that time he’d spent fruitlessly trying to contact Steve while he’d set this whole trainwreck up.

“Wish I’d had this number before,” he wrote. “The Stark Tower secretaries weren’t real helpful.”

He poked around the rest of the phone after he sent the message. Yeah, Brenda had posted a couple of things, and had tagged him in one, and another name he realized had to be Inez, who had followed him. He followed her back, and posted “yeah I made it home ok, been asleep.” Impulsively he followed up, “just got contact info for my best friend from childhood, might see him for the first time in many yrs, kinda freaking out.”

A text arrived from Natasha, in the three-way conversation. “Steve wants very badly to come get you, but he’s been briefed on the situation and we’re sitting tight.”

Of course Steve wanted to come get him. Steve couldn’t stop following him. Steve couldn’t stay away if his life depended on it. Which it probably did. 

To be fair, Bucky couldn’t either. He could have staged this confrontation just about anywhere. He hadn’t really been thinking straight when he’d chosen New York, but he’d reaffirmed the choice in many more collected moments, and yeah, he’d come here because Steve was here. He remembered he’d had vague plans to go back to DC before he’d found out Steve was in New York again. This was better. He didn’t know DC at all, but New York’s bones were the same.

That had been fun, trying to track Steve down— he’d started off with all sorts of spy-like pretensions until he realized he could just call Captain America’s fan club to get contact info. It had been insultingly easy. And correspondingly fruitless.

It wasn’t just because Steve was Steve, it was because Steve was Captain America, the person who had pretty much single-handedly taken HYDRA down, out from under Bucky. But part of it was, yeah, that Steve was Steve. The Winter Soldier needed Captain America to complete his atonement, but Bucky needed Steve to remind him why he’d bother.

“Call me?” his phone buzzed. It was to the group message, from the unnamed number. Steve. 

Bucky stared at the phone, then looked around. He was in the crawlspace between a bodega and the upstairs apartment. It was a great, cozy, snug hiding place, but he could hear every conversation both above and below him. (He was fluent in Spanish, which he didn’t remember learning, so he understood all of the conversations.) Which meant any noise he made would be similarly audible.

“I’m not in safe plc 2 make call from,” he wrote. “I cld meet u somewhere if u have someplc unobtrusive.” He wasn’t always composed enough to use the whole keyboard. He was getting a lot better at the touch screen. 

“That’s so exciting for you!” Brenda wrote back, in the meantime. 

“Last time I saw him I shot him 3x & broke his face,” Bucky posted back to her, “kind of by accident.” No point in lying; if Brenda was going to mother him, she should probably have some inkling of what kind of demon changeling she was misguidedly pouring her concern onto.

Was he insane, suggesting a meeting? He’d intended to sleep another couple of hours, then relocate to one of his outdoor safe spaces and sleep for another few hours. His metabolism was such that he needed to either eat a whole lot or sleep a whole lot, and he hadn’t had enough of either food or sleep in a long time. He was starting to get weak, and his left arm was definitely starting to fritz out. HYDRA closing in was good, because he was going to run out of time, but if he didn’t up his caloric intake he wasn’t going to have a whole lot of fight to put up against them. Brenda’s bagel today had doubled his intake, but the unplanned half-day on the run had drained him. 

“Have you eaten?” Natasha texted. What was she, reading his mind? 

“What, today?” he wrote back. 

“Oh dear,” Brenda wrote, “I hope another meeting goes better.”

Natasha wrote back with an address, which he plugged into his mapping program. She followed it up with, “See you in an hour,” and he looked at the route the maps thing had given him and grimly thought, better get going. Going anywhere indirectly to avoid being followed always took forever.

“Acknowledged,” he wrote back, and to Brenda, “2 be fair he punched me a bunch of times & dislocated my shoulder & threw me off a bridge-thing.”

He scraped out of the crawl space and made his escape from the building, unseen. His arm was too warm but he couldn’t uncover it in public to let it vent; he must have been lying on it while he was asleep, and it was on the verge of overheating. God damn it. 

The phone kept asking him to enable location services, but he knew better than that. He’d figured out right away how to use the Stark satellites instead of the normal cell network— it wasn’t any great hacking feat, it was a feature of the phone— and that meant it wasn’t nearly so easily traceable as phones usually were, but it also meant that it had no idea where he was. He didn’t need it to tell him, though, as he could remember how to read street signs. 

All of this was a good distraction from getting nervous about seeing Steve. He wasn’t thinking about that at all.

He made it to the diner in 45 minutes, and spent 15 minutes exploring the neighborhood, figuring out whether he’d been followed. Well, not obviously, so that was something. He noticed someone on a rooftop, and after a little watching, contented himself that it was Hawkeye. 

“Tell Hawkeye he really needs to work on hiding better,” he wrote, “I could’ve shot him again.” 

Natasha wrote back, “it’s cool, we have 2 Hawkeyes, they’re watching the perimeter. U there yet?”

“Almost,” he answered. Two Hawkeyes. Yeah, he’d picked up on that in his Internet research. Seemed weird to him, but then, he got the idea of having a team, and part of having a good team was that they felt free to express themselves somewhat. And if Hawkeye wanted to share the post with a teenage (?) girl, he could do that. 

Weirdo.

Brenda had written back nothing but a string of exclamation points and question marks, so to her he wrote, “u only hurt the 1s u love. Meeting him 4 dinner now, wish me luck & hopefully no violence.” 

It was indeed, as the map had suggested, an all-night diner, a little place on the corner, sort of vaguely familiar. He suspected, and confirmed as he came in, that there were a couple of booths you couldn’t see from the street, and the waitress let him sit at one of them. The only other customers were a couple of stragglers at the counter and one couple in the table by the window having a quiet argument over milkshakes and fries. It was a pretty good spot for a non-obviously-clandestine meeting, actually, and he knew that wasn’t an accident. 

He settled with his back to the wall and tried to compose himself— inside, he felt like he was shaking apart, and it had sent part of him into mission headspace, analyzing threats and strategizing exits. It wasn’t a good way to see Steve again non-confrontationally, but there was no good way to see Steve. He had one of the earbuds in, and was listening to music to keep focused.

He’d made it through Jay-Z’s works and had discovered the guy had a super-hot wife who he was definitely going to watch more music videos of next time he was in a place with a power outlet he could abuse. In the meantime, her music was a little less aggressive, and was probably a better idea to use as a calming influence.  

Hit me like a ray of sun
Burning through my darkest night
You're the only one that I want
Think I'm addicted to your light

In the privacy of the booth, he shed the hoodie, letting his stupid arm vent; in these shadows, it wasn’t obvious what it was, so he held it out away from his side and let the heat tick out of it.

The rest of him was as cold as he almost always was; he kept his human hand wrapped around the metal forearm to take some of the chill out of his fingers.

Brenda wrote back, “Post a pic!” 

That struck Bucky as a terrible idea, but he’d see what Natasha said. Part of the reason he’d wanted to talk to her from the beginning was that this was more her kind of operation than his. He’d never been the strategist; he was okay at it, but not trained in it particularly. It had never really been his job. 

Steve and Natasha arrived together. Steve was wearing too-loose jeans, a big sweatshirt, and a baseball cap, and Natasha had a hood pulled up over her bright hair, but they were both pretty physically distinctive anyway. Bucky had forgotten the sheer size of Steve now: he had shoulders like an ox-plow and his legs looked like they’d been stretched out of a normal person’s. He had at least three inches too much thigh.

Natasha saw him first, and took Steve by the elbow, steering him— it caught at something in Bucky’s chest: she was taking care of Steve. Not just watching his back tactically, but supporting him, solicitous, like a friend, and Bucky had forgotten what that looked like. And it wasn’t the body language of a lover; there was physical familiarity, the way Steve easily accommodated her, instinctively knew how much space she took up. 

Steve, preoccupied, didn’t look up and see Bucky until he’d crossed most of the diner. Bucky slid out of the semicircular booth bench, standing next to the table, and Steve paused, staring at him, just out of reach. 

“Bucky,” he breathed, face lit from within with an achingly familiar bright intensity. 

Bucky had forgotten just how very beautiful Steve was, how he could light up like that. “Steve,” he said thickly, feeling little and graceless and ugly. He must have moved; Steve took some cue from it, and wrapped his arms around him, hugging him as tightly as anyone had ever hugged him. 

“Oh my God, Bucky,” Steve murmured in his ear. Bucky wrapped his real hand around the back of Steve’s enormous shoulder and held on. He wanted to cry, wanted to punch him, wanted to throw himself off a bridge, didn’t really know what he wanted. 

They stood like that for a long time, Steve pressing his face down into the crook between Bucky’s neck and his shoulder. It was an old posture, from when Steve had been small, only then it had been Bucky’s arms around him, not vice-versa, Bucky twice his width, not vice-versa. 

“I had things I was gonna say,” Steve said finally, into his neck, and he was crying, the goofball. “I don’t remember any of ‘em.”

“Let’s not get into a contest of not rememberin’ stuff,” Bucky mumbled thickly. He was crying too, like an idiot. 

That was enough to get Steve to pull back. “Aw Buck,” he said, “I didn’t mean—“ 

Bucky laughed, wiping his face self-consciously. “I’m fuckin’ with ya,” he said.

“You’re such a jerk,” Steve said, on either a laugh or a sob. “Oh my God, Buck, you’re such a jerk.”

They sat down, Steve leaning in almost too close. It was kind of too much, and kind of, well, Bucky didn’t care if it burned him, he wanted to be near the bright shining light of Steve, and remember what that was like. 

Natasha slid in on the other side of Bucky, and he thought he should maybe feel trapped, but it was Steve, he couldn’t put him in the category he’d ever put anyone else in even though he’d come closer to killing him than anybody else had in years. 

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said, putting his real fingers against Steve’s— Steve!— face, where he remembered snapping the cheekbone. “I’m, I hurt you, and I’m sorry.” 

Steve put his hand to Bucky’s shoulder, looking troubled. He was blindingly beautiful. “I hurt you too,” he said. “You got nothin’ to apologize for.”

“Yeah, I shot you three times, though,” Bucky said. “That must’ve been a bitch to heal up.”

“You know I forgave you before you even did it,” Steve said. 

“I know you did,” Bucky said, “you’re a little shit, that’s why. Man makes a heartfelt apology and you tell him it doesn’t matter.” But he was laughing, and Steve’s hand was really warm, and he couldn’t remember if the memories he had of taking Steve’s face between his hands and kissing him were real or not and it was confusing as fuck. 

“Aw Buck,” Steve said, painfully sincere, but caught on, and said, “Will you ease up on fuckin’ with me, I’m tryin’a have a moment here.”

“Fuck your moments,” Bucky said, knowing he was grinning like an idiot, “you always gotta be so theatrical. All those years you spent on stage.”

“Punchin’ Hitler in the face,” Steve said. He looked a little wistful. “I miss the chorus girls sometimes.”

“Aw you filthy dog,” Bucky said. “You tellin’ me you don’t got groupies anymore?”

“It’s just not the same,” Steve said. “Everybody’s so cynical now.” He moved his hand up to Bucky’s shoulder, like he was afraid to let go of him. Bucky couldn’t strictly blame him. He wished for his part that he could be sure this wasn’t a hallucination or a false memory. He had a few ways he’d developed over the years of checking for that but none of them were foolproof. 

“You can’t tell me people have changed any,” Bucky said. “I know I don’t remember a whole lot but I’ve picked up on that.”

“No,” Steve said, “no, you’re right.”

“Make out already,” Natasha said, “oh my God.” She leaned in a little, laughing, and brushed her arm against Bucky’s, then recoiled at the heat. “Holy shit that thing is cooking.”

“It overheats,” Bucky said, pulling away from her contritely. “If I keep the vents covered too much, it overheats, I had to have it wrapped up all day and I was runnin’ around.” 

She put her hand against it carefully. It wasn’t hot enough to burn— it could get that hot, and it was bad when it did because Bucky still had part of an arm in there and it hurt real bad at times like that. “Is the whole thing a heat sink?” she asked. 

Bucky shrugged. “I dunno how it works,” he said. 

The waitress leaned against the corner of the wall outcrop, pencil and pad in hand. “Evening, folks. Well, that’s an interesting, uh, thingy. You make that yourself?”

“Trial run for that steampunk convention,” Natasha said, absolutely unhesitating. “He has a prosthetic arm anyway, we might as well jazz it up a little, right?”

“Oh, neat idea,” the waitress said. “You mean that big convention over in Jersey, they do every year?”

“Yeah,” Natasha said. “I know, it’s a whole bunch of freaks, but it’s so much fun.” She grinned conspiratorially. “I’m makin’ the guys go with me to keep the creeps off, so I can wear a really interesting costume and not get hassled.”

The waitress grinned right back. “Coupla stacked fellas like this? You’re in the clear. Do us all a favor though and make their costumes hot too. We gotta get some joy.”

Bucky and Steve exchanged glances; it was pretty clear Steve had no fucking clue what she was talking about either. “Oh yeah,” Natasha said, “no worries. They don’t really know what they’ve signed up for, though.”

“There’s enough chicks in corsets at those things to make it worth anybody’s while,” the waitress said dismissively. She pointed her pen at Bucky’s arm. “That’s some great work, though, I see a lotta chintzy costumes come through here but that’s, like, Hollywood prop department level right there.”

“It’s on top of a pretty sophisticated prosthetic,” Natasha said, “so we had a real good starting point plus we could do attachments like you can’t with a real arm. Show her the hand, Buck.”

Bucky gave Steve another look, then raised his arm carefully and wiggled the fingers a bit gingerly, haltingly. They were glitchy, still too hot. The waitress looked impressed anyway. “That’s not just a glove? Really?”

Bucky shook his head. “Amputated above the elbow,” he said, “years ago.” He rotated the shoulder, unbent the elbow, put the arm down. “Kinda needs some bugs worked out yet.”

“Motorcycle accident or military service?” the waitress asked.

“The second one,” he said, hunching in and pulling his arm back under the table. 

“Aw, sugar,” the waitress said, “well, thanks for your service. Can I start you guys off with somethin’ to drink?”

“They’ve got good milkshakes here,” Natasha said. 

Bucky stared at her for a moment. He remembered milkshakes, as a concept. He remembered that he had liked them, but he didn’t remember a thing about the taste. He looked at Steve, whose expression shifted as he instantly parsed Bucky’s hesitation. “You like those,” Steve said. “You always got vanilla, and I always got chocolate.”

“I know I liked ‘em,” Bucky said slowly, “I just don’t remember what they taste like.”

He caught the waitress looking at Natasha, and Natasha giving her some kind of look back. He felt his face get hot, and looked down. Steve bumped against him, shoulder to shoulder. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just get a vanilla one, you’ll remember it. They’re made outta ice cream.”

“Okay,” Bucky said. He didn’t remember ice cream either. “Yeah.” He made himself look back up at the waitress, who was looking at him with a soft expression. 

“You got it, kid,” she said, writing it down.

“I want a vanilla one too,” Natasha said, “but put a shot of chocolate syrup in mine, I like that.” 

“And a chocolate one for you, honey?” the waitress asked Steve. He nodded, and she scribbled on her pad and walked away. Natasha slid a menu across the table; Bucky had forgotten completely about how that worked. He’d remembered the part where you sat at the table, but— he’d been to coffee shops and things— it was all fragments, and fell apart in his hands. He looked at the menu and the words swam around as though they were in a foreign language. Which was bullshit, he’d read English directions to get here. 

“Why don’t I remember?” he whispered, half to himself, staring at the menu in utter confusion.

“What?” Steve looked blank and confused. 

“It’s all right,” Natasha said, and for a moment he wondered why she was speaking Russian, until he realized that he had been too. “Hey. Look at me, James. It’s all right. You’re all right.”

“I was okay,” he said, and it came out in Russian too. 

“Sometimes when you feel something too strong things go away a little bit afterward,” Natasha said. She had her hand on his metal shoulder, he could feel the vibrations where she was more or less petting him. “Take your time.”

Bucky breathed in slowly, held it, breathed out. “Speak English to me,” he said, starting to get frightened when it came out in Russian too. “I’m stuck.”

“It’ll come back,” Natasha said, obediently in English. “It’s okay if you get a little stuck. Want me to go over the menu with you?”

Bucky made himself look over at Steve, who looked blank. Still didn’t speak Russian. Well, understandable. “I don’t remember what Americans eat,” he said, but to his relief it came out in English. “I don’t, I don’t remember.”

“That’s because we didn’t eat any of this stuff,” Steve said, gesturing at the menu. “You remember how your mom used to boil salt beef and cabbage. Remember kidney and mushroom pie? We ate some crazy stuff.”

“I don’t remember,” Bucky said, blank. 

“I’m getting a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup,” Natasha said. “Steve usually gets a hamburger. You could just get the same thing he’s getting, I bet you’d like it.”

“Yes,” Bucky said, completely lost, face burning with embarrassment and gut tight. “I’ll just, get me whatever you get, Steve.” 

Steve bumped his shoulder again. “Am I gonna have to learn Russian?”

“I don’t know what languages I know,” Bucky said quietly, miserably. 

“I never learned many,” Steve said. “English, French, that’s all I got.”

“You were always better at languages than me,” Bucky said sadly. 

“Not any more,” Steve said. “Hey, a lot of things have changed.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. Steve didn’t need his protection anymore, among other things. 

Natasha leaned in a little, close enough that he could smell her perfume or shampoo. She was real pretty, probably out of his league now, maybe just in the same game as he was when he’d been at his peak— but never for keeps, just for an evening, because he’d be able to keep up with her at dancing. He remembered that; no woman had ever figured on him for a long-term investment, just the good times. 

“It’s all right,” she said. “I know all the languages Steve doesn’t. You call me if you get stuck in one of them.”

Bucky managed to find a smile for her, for that. 

 Steve was close enough on the other side that he could feel warmth from him. Steve had always run hot, though; when he was tiny it had made it hard for his overburdened little body to keep up, always on the verge of burning out. Bucky had a lot of memories of wrapping around that skinny little furnace and trying to keep him warm enough on the cold nights when he couldn’t breathe. He had memories of finding him cold, as well, that momentary panic of not knowing if he were ill or dead. Steve cold was always a bad sign, always meant long nights of worry, meant scrounging money for a doctor, and Bucky had done some unspeakable things to get money for a doctor in those later days, after his father’s death, when things had gotten tight, but he’d never had the horror of finding Steve dead, at least. 

He felt weird, and maybe it was that he was overstimulated, or maybe it was that he was happy. Maybe he was too broken to ever be happy again, and this was the closest he could get, this weird too-hot too-cold confusion. 

He moved his left arm incautiously and it caught sharply somewhere internal, which pulled him back into his own body pretty well. Natasha felt him flinch, and looked at him with concern. Just then, the waitress came back, though, and he managed to ask for the same thing as Steve only without the pickle, his voice pretty steady and his accent consistently Brooklyn, no lapses into Russian. 

“The fuck you do to your hair?” Bucky asked Steve, reaching out and holding his hand so that the tips where it seemed to be sticking straight up just brushed his palm. It was, like, seriously sticking straight up in front. 

“Like you can talk,” Steve said, mouth twisting in sarcastic amusement. 

“Fair,” Bucky said, laughing, “fair point.”

“I just can’t believe you’re here,” Steve said. “I, y’know?”

Bucky half-smiled. “Y’know, if I hadn’t been captured and tortured for decades, I’d’ve died of old age and never seen you again. So I guess I can’t be totally sad.” Steve blinked at him, and he laughed. “Was that sappy enough for you, ya big lunk?”

Steve pulled him into a hug, surprisingly tender. “Yeah,” he said. “Aw Buck. If I’d’ve known.”

“You still woulda spent seventy years in the ice, so it wouldn’t’a mattered,” Bucky said into Steve’s enormous shoulder. “Get off me, ya nut.”

“I don’t mean to keep grabbin’ ya,” Steve said, and his breath was hot on Bucky’s neck. “Just tell me to quit it.”

“You don’t have to quit it,” Bucky said quietly. “I’ll tell you if I can’t take it though.”

“If I thought Fury had known about you,” Steve said, “there wouldn’t have been anything that could have saved him. And he knows that.”

Right. Business. Giving himself a mental pinch (focus), Bucky fished out his phone. “I don’t have Fury on my list,” he said. “Would I know him?”

“No,” Natasha said, “you wouldn’t. He was a target of yours. You went to Steve’s apartment and shot him three times through the window. Tall black man with an eyepatch.”

Bucky looked blankly at her, then at Steve. “I went to your apartment?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “In DC. My old one.”

“After having chased Fury through the streets, and blown up the SUV he was driving,” Natasha concluded. “They wiped you after, I know they did. You didn’t kill him, it’s okay.”

Bucky considered that, unsettled again. “I shot someone in your apartment,” he said. 

“This was in DC,” Steve said. “It was the next day that we fought on the bridge and I figured out who you were.”

Bucky thought about it some more. Yeah, there had been… “I shot him at night,” he said. “I don’t remember what he looked like. He was a primary target. I got in trouble for missing him during the day.” He remembered something else, and looked over at Natasha. “I shot you, though. That next day. I shot you. Somewhere in the upper torso. I know it was a hit, you made a noise and fell.”

“Shoulder,” she said, “left shoulder. It healed without complications.”

He looked down at his right hand, sitting on the table. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. She squeezed his leg. 

“Vengeance is a great comfort,” she said. “You have destroyed those who made you, for the most part, and I am mopping up the rest.”

“Ah,” he said, “ah, did you see the reports I sent Steve— did those arrive?”

“Yes,” Steve said, looking pained, “I got all of them. The postcards, and the memory cards with the videos, and the— the CDs and the t-shirt and the assorted artifacts.”

Bucky’s face got warm again. “Well,” he said. “I was sort of, remembering how it worked to write to people. I’m sorry if it got a little, uh, disjointed. I wasn’t real,” he waved a hand by his ear. “Uh. You know.”

“Steve listens to Amy Winehouse on repeat,” Natasha said. 

“I could probably do I Told You I Was Trouble really well at a karaoke bar,” Steve offered. 

“Amy Winehouse,” Bucky said blankly. He didn’t know what karaoke was and he didn’t remember that album. He remembered Marvin Gaye. 

“You know,” Steve said. He hummed a few bars; Bucky remembered singing with him, remembered Steve’s surprisingly deep voice from his skinny throat, remembered that he himself had been a tenor. Didn’t remember the song, though. Didn’t remember the CD.

He shook his head. “I don’t remember that one,” he said. “It must have been pretty early on, I crashed somewhere that had one of those little portable disk players and a bunch of CDs, and I just listened to what was there.” He was remembering old things, though. “I used to be really into music, wasn’t I?” he said. 

“Yeah,” Steve said, sort of eagerly. “Oh, yeah, you were always draggin’ me to clubs and stuff. It was probably the only thing you were more into than girls.”

“I was only ever into girls for somethin’ to do,” Bucky said, and he hadn’t expected to say it, and now he didn’t really know what to do with having said it. He blinked. 

“What do you mean?” Steve said. “You were always on about May this and Norma that and Jean and Joan and Dolores, Irene and Gloria and Ruth—“

“Slow down,” Bucky said, grabbing his arm; the cascade of names had opened a door or something and he was suddenly awash in things he just knew, as if they’d always been there. “May was a brunette. Norma, chestnut hair, blue eyes. Jean was blonde, bad teeth. I don’t remember Joan. I think you made Dolores up, I never hung out with a Dolores.”

“Irene was the one from Chicago though,” Steve said. 

“You drew her,” Bucky said. 

“She had great legs,” Steve said. 

“She put out,” Bucky mused. “I remember that. And I mean, all the way and then some.”

“She was kind of easy,” Steve agreed. 

“Yeah, and you was watching, you little pervert,” Bucky said, shoving him lightly. He remembered that, he remembered that— 

“Well,” Steve said, rolling his eyes, “where the hell was I supposed to sleep? The fire escape?”

Yeah, that was a real memory, an extra edge to it, and it wasn’t fair to Steve the way he’d said it— Steve watching had been Bucky’s idea. He remembered that, but he was sure that had been fake; he remembered persuading Steve with his teeth in that spot on his neck. 

He’d been so sure that was fake. “Was Gloria the one with the donkey laugh?” Bucky asked, moving on, not letting himself get mired in that kind of confusion. Because he was pretty sure he remembered Steve too polite and mortified to let on that he was home, but he also remembered kissing Steve, remembered putting his hand down Steve’s pants, but he— some of that wasn’t real. He didn’t know how much.

“Yeah,” Steve said, looking pleased. 

“I liked her,” Bucky said. “She had a great sense of humor.” Wasn’t real. But the watching had been real, and he couldn’t find the edges between them. He remembered— it was so frustrating.

“Fantastic tits, too,” Steve said. “I definitely drew those.”

“Yeah, they were all right,” Bucky said, remembering. Full, heavy against his hand, he remembered that. “But I really— she was really funny.”

“She didn’t come around a lot, though,” Steve said. 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, following the vein of memory as far down as it would go, “yeah, that’s because she had a steady boyfriend she never told me about until he came after me with a baseball bat and three friends.” 

Steve’s eyes went wide, then his jaw set. “You never told me that,” he said. 

“Didn’t figure you needed the trouble,” Bucky said. “And I knew she was, well— I knew I shoulda known better, I just.” He sighed.  Glanced over at Natasha. “You are storing every scrap of this away.”

“I have been friends with Steve for years,” she said, utterly serious, “I have been setting up dates with girls for him for years, and I have never one time heard him utter the phrase ‘fantastic tits’, so yes, yes I am storing this away.”

“Well,” Steve said, reddening, “they were, and she was very not-shy about them.”

Bucky bit his lip and looked at Steve, amused. And every one of those memories had been real, he knew it, at least up to the parts where he’d transferred his affections to Steve. He was one thousand percent certain he’d wanted to then just as much as he wanted to now, but he really, really couldn’t be sure he ever really truly had. Sitting this close to Steve made it crystal fucking clear he still wanted the guy, and that raised the stakes to the point where no way was he going to ask out loud. What a way to be irredeemably creepy. 

 “Why I remember all that shit,” he asked, “but I can’t remember if I like, fuckin’, hamburgers?”

“The everyday stuff gets worn down,” Natasha said, “and the stuff like that, especially with someone else to pull it back for you, that stuff gets put away somewhere and not touched.”

“You know a lot about this,” Steve commented.

“Yes,” Natasha said, “I do.” 

The food and milkshakes arrived at the same time, the waitress apologizing about the drinks taking so long— and Bucky hesitantly watched Steve, remembered vaguely about putting ketchup on fries, shyly refused to try malt vinegar on his (“you used to like ‘em that way, Buck”). 

The milkshake was delicious, sweet and thick, but he couldn’t remember ever tasting anything like it before. The burger seemed more familiar. He took a picture of both with his phone. 

“You a food blogger now?” Steve asked. Bucky looked at him blankly; he had no idea what that word meant. 

“I take pictures of things I want to remember,” he said. 

“Let me take your picture,” Natasha said, and he gave her his phone and she took his picture with the food in front of him. He was probably giving the camera a funny look, but that was fine. She gave it back and he looked at it and deemed it acceptable. You could see the metal arm, but, well… that might be a good thing.

He opened the social media app and put the picture up there, and wrote “dinner with friends why don’t I remember milkshakes”. He glanced over at Steve as it uploaded. “Like half the posts on those social media sites are people’s pictures of their food. I figured there must be a lot of amnesiacs wandering around.”

They both thought that was funny, though he wasn’t quite sure why, but he went with it. He was eating slower than either Steve or Natasha, but he knew from recent experience that he had to eat slowly, he couldn’t stomach a lot at once, and his teeth weren’t great so he couldn’t chew fast. At some point the Soviet dentists had worked him over good while he was still half-frozen, and what they hadn’t pulled they’d put awful metal fillings into. He’d never had great teeth— some got cracked in fights, some were just crooked. As long as the ones in front looked all right he’d never worried much.

“So you been settin’ Steve up on dates,” Bucky said, remembering that was a thing people talked about and encouraged by his earlier successes. 

“I’ve been trying,” Natasha said, a little darkly. 

Realization punched Bucky in the gut, and he turned to Steve, mouth slightly open. “Peggy,” he said. “You never—“

“Yeah,” Steve said. 

It had said that, in that exhibit, had talked about it, but Bucky hadn’t really been together enough for it to mean much to him. Bucky looked at Steve’s face, taking in the soft regret there. He breathed out slowly. “I’m sorry,” he said. A memory was trying to come back, Peggy in a garden, red lipstick he shouldn’t have been able to see in the dark, a cigarette— it faded to white, a real memory, and was gone. 

 “I’m okay,” Steve said. “You know? Yeah, it’s sad, but I mean, everyone I ever knew is dead or a hundred now, except you, so I’ve been sort of learning to deal with it.” He leaned against Bucky again, so dazzling at close range. “I can’t believe you’re here,” he said. 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “it’s, it’s weird.” He— it wasn’t really sexual desire, per se, he just wanted Steve, he wanted him, he wanted to touch him and be close to him and never stop touching him. He shook his head, and finished his milkshake, which was kind of more food unto itself than he was accustomed to digesting. He looked over at Natasha. “You get him a new girlfriend yet?”

She made a face at Steve. “He’s not very cooperative,” she said. 

“I’m plenty cooperative,” Steve said, giving Natasha a highly significant look. Bucky wasn’t used to being on the outside of those highly significant looks; he was usually the one they were intended for. 

He remembered that. 

He wanted that.

He smacked Steve’s arm with the back of his hand. “You better be gettin’ it,” he said, “you’re Captain fuckin’ America.” He punctuated this by picking up the burger and making another attempt at it.

Natasha dissolved into giggles, which was unexpectedly adorable. 

“I do just fine, I’ll have you know,” Steve said. 

Bucky gave him a sideways up-and-down look, still chewing that ill-advised bite of food. Finally he managed to swallow it, and said, “I bet you do,” and sat back. That was all he could manage; the other two were done eating and he knew he just couldn’t get any more down. He licked his fingers. Enough fun, enough wanting, enough being pathetic. “So I left a mess in Crimea,” he said to Natasha. 

Natasha very precisely enunciated an eloquent stream of extremely filthy Russian. 

“I did what I could,” he answered a little plaintively. 

She touched his metal shoulder. “I know,” she said. “It’s all right.”

“Is it going poorly?”

She looked at him for a long moment, mouth flat. “It is going as well as can be expected,” she said, “so, basically?” She shrugged, and enunciated another flawless little composition of obscene Russian poetry.

Bucky let his breath out in a long sigh, collapsing against the back of the booth. “Fuck,” he said.

“It is all right,” she said, switching to English, “I think the attention will soon shift here. We are getting rumors.”

He fumbled his phone off the table. “Went to a laundromat today,” he said, and now he was aware that he was speaking English, and he realized he’d just excluded Steve from the conversation a moment ago— it was like he couldn’t answer in English if spoken to in Russian, it was no good, he had to find the part of his mind that chose what language to use and obtain conscious control over it. He found the picture he’d taken of the windowsill. “Noticed a guy standing outside the window for way too long. Went over, he’d left me a little symbol.”

Natasha peered at it, then Steve took his turn. “Yup,” Natasha said. 

“Yeah,” Steve said grimly. 

“So,” Bucky said, finding the folder on his phone where he’d been collecting pictures of people he knew were HYDRA agents. “Is there a way I can just send you a whole folder?”

“Yeah,” Natasha said, “here,” and held out her hand for his phone. He froze for a moment, something deep down in his belly not wanting to hand it over— he had always handed everything over, they had never left him anything. The hesitation was barely a second but she had already pulled her hand away and taken her own phone out instead. “Okay,” she said, and showed him what he was doing, “find this button, that will take you to the application you need.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, still reacting to his moment of panic. He’d handed it to her no problem just minutes before. 

She glanced up at him, full lips curved and eyes greenish under the quirk of a well-manicured eyebrow. “Don’t be,” she said, “it’s a good reflex when you don’t give things up automatically anymore. I’m not your handler, soldat.”

He chewed on the inside of his lip, looking at her. He was to the point with her that he no longer assessed her for threats, and now all he could pay attention to was how interesting she was, how pretty, and he knew he still only saw of her what she wanted him to, and the tantalizing glimpses of more were the shreds of her authentic self she gave Steve, because she knew him and she trusted him and that by itself was the single greatest endorsement of her character he could think of. 

“Okay,” he said, and found the file-sharing application, and she set herself up to receive files and he sent her the folder of images. 

“What’s this?” Steve asked, and he’d been close against Bucky’s side this whole time, but now he was leaning in real close and warm, and it should have felt stifling and threatening but it just felt really good. God damn it, Steve even smelled familiar.  

“HYDRA agents,” Bucky said. He opened the folder. “A lot of these people I tracked down, I found on the Internet by going through personnel databases of, well.” He made a face. “Government organizations, political parties, law enforcement agencies. I assembled the list of agents kinda, in my head— I got a few looks at HYDRA databases as I was on my little world tour there, but I didn’t have any computer know-how at all really, so I figured out how to read ‘em but never how to copy them onto anything. So I just went through and got the identities of as many agents as I could, their aliases and all, before I blew the facilities. These are the ones I could find— I figured the faces were the surest bet. I know faces, y’know?”

“You always were pretty good with faces,” Steve agreed. 

“I only got so much of a memory,” Bucky said. “I could only remember so many of ‘em. It wasn’t my primary mission. Most of the people I’ve met, I know, I encountered— most of those, I’ve already hunted down and taken out. These are mostly people I don’t know, with a few notable exceptions. Some of them, I have details. I’ll go through later and send details on the ones I have, I just wanted to make sure to hand over the images. I don’t got much in writing. I wrote a lot of stuff down, at first?” He glanced over at Steve to see if he knew what he meant. He knew Natasha did, she’d nodded in his peripheral vision. “But I— I didn’t keep a lot of stuff, at that point. Anything written I either ate or burned, I couldn’t risk them knowing whether I remembered things or not.”

“Ate,” Steve said. 

“Eating papers is a more foolproof method of destroying them so they cannot be reconstructed than burning them,” Natasha commented almost absently. 

“And you don’t always have fire,” Bucky said. “You’d be amazed how much paper you can eat.”

“Doesn’t that, I dunno, screw with your digestion?” Steve asked. 

Bucky looked at him for a long moment. “Because cryostasis wouldn’t have already made that a complete disaster,” he said. “Honestly the paper probably helped, at least it’s basically chemically inert.” 

Steve stared at him. “I had not considered that in the slightest,” he said. 

“Well,” Bucky said. “Now you have.” He narrowed his eyes at Steve. “You were frozen for like seventy years and this wasn’t a problem?”

“Yeah well,” Steve said uncomfortably. “It was only one freeze-thaw cycle.”

“The more you know,” Natasha said. She had been swiping through the photos, frowning deeper and deeper. “I think this man is on the mayor’s staff, Steve,” she said. 

Bucky glanced at the picture and jerked his head away. “I don’t remember anything about him,” he said, staring fixedly at the wall, “but he gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. I can’t, I can’t look at him. I don’t know what he did.”

Natasha put her hand on his back. “It’s okay,” she said, concerned.

Bucky shuddered, setting his jaw. “He’s a blank,” he said. “A big screaming blank. Whatever he did, it had nothing to do with a mission, and they ripped it out afterward.”

Natasha sucked in a breath, understanding, but Steve looked confused, and concerned. “Why,” he said finally, to Natasha, “why would they—“

“Programs like these,” Natasha said gently, “do not attract the most healthy and balanced individuals to run them. When you have a creature so powerless as we were, there is a great temptation for those highly placed to inflict torment for its own sake, because there would be no consequences. Whatever this man did, Bucky did not leave the facility. The longer it was between the incident and the wipe, the more remains. If there’s nothing left, the wipe was immediate, meaning the equipment was right there.”

“And there’d be no need to leave any trace of it,” Bucky said, nearly voiceless, “because it wasn’t anything that was going to teach me any skills or give me any relevant mission experience.”

“So whatever it was, it would have simply been for his own amusement,” Natasha concluded, her voice soft but relentless. 

“Oh my God,” Steve said, sounding sick. 

“It’s okay, Steve,” Bucky said. “Don’t look like that. It wasn’t— I didn’t know any better so it didn’t bother me, for a lot of the time. I figured I was a robot, figured that was just how things were.” 

“Sometimes it’s better that way,” Natasha said. “It makes it easier to endure, than to be always burning with anger because you realize what is going on but cannot escape it.”

Bucky looked over at her. “Like you,” he said, understanding where her meaning came from. 

She looked down. “I always knew I was human,” she said. 

Bucky tilted his head, acknowledging that. “So listen,” he said. “The killswitch— you make any progress on that?”

“Tony’s on it,” Natasha said. 

“Tony Stark,” Bucky filled in. 

“Yes,” she said. “He’s my hardware guy.”

“Killswitch,” Steve said, frowning. 

“Fill him in later,” Bucky said. “We don’t have time now. Right now I gotta tell you, the time’s gotta be runnin’ out. We gotta force a confrontation. I got ‘em all to follow me here, and I know they know I’m here. Now we gotta force ‘em to act instead of keepin’ tabs on me and waitin’.”

“Yes,” Natasha said. “I will find out where these operatives are, that should work to give us some idea what their plan is.”

“And I’ve got an idea to make them act sooner,” Bucky said, “but it’s kind of outside my area of expertise.”

“What’s that?” Natasha asked. 

Bucky laid his phone on the table and brought up Twitter. “Steve has like fifty thousand followers,” he said. 

“Oh,” Steve said, looking over his shoulder, “I never got Twitter at all. Like, what’s the point?”

“Fifty thousand people want to know what you think the point is,” Bucky said. 

Steve looked, blinked, looked closer. “Oh,” he said. 

“I’m not totally up on it but I know there’s a lot you can do with the Internet,” Bucky said. 

“That’s a fantastic idea,” Natasha said. “It’s not my expertise either, particularly, but—“ She snapped her fingers, and looked at Steve. “That girl. La-something.”

“Oh,” Steve said, “the PR girl— with the cute kid— wait, how did you know about her?”

Natasha grinned. Bucky looked between the two of them, lost. 

“You were in the air vent, weren’t you,” Steve said, looking resigned. 

“Only passing by,” Natasha said. “I heard you slandering me about poisoned cookies.”

“I said they weren’t poisoned,” Steve said. “Well. Probably weren’t poisoned,” he amended.

“Slander,” Natasha said. “So, we call her. She’ll know what to do. Meanwhile I’m going to find out where those agents have ended up, and we’re going to come up with a plan from there. You just lay low.”

Bucky nodded. Someone was approaching their booth, and it wasn’t the waitress, so Bucky casually picked his phone up and was fiddling with the blank home screen just in time to look nonchalantly up. 

“Clint,” Steve said, and Bucky relaxed fractionally; this was the guy who’d been on the roof. 

Clint laughed. Hawkeye. He was Hawkeye. He was dressed normally, with no sign of his weaponry. “You guys look like you’re about to sneak off for a threesome,” he said, amused. 

Steve gave him an unamused narrow-eyed look, but Natasha just quirked her eyebrows. “Maybe we are,” she said, and Bucky let his face go perfectly blank.

“Huh,” Hawkeye said, perking up momentarily. “Well, anyway, I just stopped by to let you know that I got your chickadees but there’s kind of a crow thing coming up.”

“Have I forgotten English again?” Bucky murmured to Natasha in Russian. He spoke the language from deliberate choice, and it worked; he felt the words coming out Russian. Now if he could switch back…

“No,” she said, “it is pretty blatant code, he likes that kind of thing.”

“Was he serious about the threesome,” he asked, still in Russian, “or was that also code?”

“He was joking about the threesome,” Natasha said, “but I absolutely would.” She switched back to English. “I got it,” she said to Clint.

“What’s with the Russian?” Hawkeye asked. 

“We were speculating on whether you wanted to be the warm cozy center of the gangbang, Clint,” Natasha said sweetly. 

Hawkeye laughed, and put on an eager expression. “Aww I love the cream filling.”

“I know you do,” Natasha said. 

“I can’t take you guys anywhere,” Steve said, scandalized. It was definitely his pretending-to-be-shocked act, with which Bucky was intimately familiar down in the well of memory.

Bucky snorted. “Pretty sure you’ve heard worse,” he said, in English, and he was pretty proud of himself for the switch, even if Natasha had switched languages before he had so really he’d just followed. Still, he’d been able to decide which language it would come out in before it did. “Said worse, even.” He held off before adding done worse, because he was almost certain those were false memories.

Almost.

Both Hawkeye and Natasha looked at him, then slowly turned to stare at Steve, who turned bright red. “We been in some rough places,” Steve said defensively. “But I maintain these assholes are still the filthiest people I’ve ever been around.”

“You and I remember Europe kinda differently,” Bucky said, “if something like that scandalizes you.”

Hawkeye looked starry-eyed. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. “Natasha, he’s coming back with us, right?”

“No,” Bucky said, “I can’t, not right now.”

“But soon,” Hawkeye said. “You are an unprecedented source of dirt on Steve Rogers, you realize that.”

“I don’t know if he’s thought that through,” Bucky said. “Do keep in mind, though, I’ve been brainwashed, I may not know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

“I,” Steve said, visibly conflicted. He was messing around, though; Bucky could see Hawkeye didn’t know that, but he knew Steve well enough to read that.

“We gotta go,” Natasha said regretfully. 

“Hinky dinky parley-voo,” Bucky sang cheerfully, sliding out of the booth after Natasha. He wriggled back into the sweatshirt, caught up his backpack and slid it onto his shoulder. Steve shot him a crazy-eyed look before going up to the counter to pay the tab, and Bucky conspicuously bit his tongue. 

“I came in because I’m gonna leave as you,” Hawkeye said. He was, indeed, wearing the same black hoodie as Bucky. “Pull the hood up, I’ll pull this one up. Try to keep the murder swagger to a minimum, I don’t walk like that.”

“Murder swagger,” Bucky said, eyebrows going up. He was plausibly of a size with Hawkeye, though, it was true. Inch or two taller, a bit broader, but the hoodie bulked Hawkeye out enough for it not to matter.

“I’m gonna go with Steve,” Hawkeye said. “Try and make ‘em think I’m you.”

“Favor your left leg,” Bucky said, “I was limping on the way here. And don’t swing the left arm, it’s been glitching. Hold it pretty solid, maybe favor it like it hurts you.”

“Yeah?” Hawkeye eyed his arm, then gave him a look that was nothing so much as concerned. “You know we have a robotics expert on the team, he could probably—“ 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “maybe.” Like Tony Stark owed him any fuckin’ favors. 

There was no time for gushy farewells. He slunk into the shadows, and watched Hawkeye pretending to be him, walking a little stiffly (he didn’t walk like that, come on) between Steve and Natasha. 

 

* * * 

 

Clint was passed out on Natasha’s couch by the time she and Steve took a break from going through Bucky’s HYDRA headshots. Steve stood looking down for him a moment, absently stretching his shoulders. “He shouldn’t have been so surprised we didn’t let him get hurt,” Steve said, turning to Natasha with a suddenly cross expression. 

Someone had come after them, had fallen for it, had thought Hawkeye was Bucky. Natasha was absolutely sure it was an overzealous couple of agents trying to snatch the glory of a confirmed kill on the Winter Soldier before the others got into position. But they had obviously not realized that Steve was Steve, without his shield, and the half-assed effort they’d made had been frankly insulting.

Two things about it were disturbing, though. One, Natasha was pretty sure that there were two factions of HYDRA at work here, one that wanted Bucky dead and one that was hell-bent on a recapture instead. But two, far worse: that assault hadn’t been half-assed solely out of incompetence. HYDRA really expected Bucky to be weak by now. And while it seemed to be true that he was having trouble keeping himself healthy, that he definitely had specialized nutritional needs he couldn’t meet for himself in the wild, it was far more likely that the killswitch he had theorized was a real thing, something more substantial and final than that, and was something that was designed to act cumulatively rather than all at once. 

They were trying to wait Bucky out, to let him become incapacitated without their intervention, and then they could scoop him up and reprogram him or destroy him at their leisure. 

Steve was looking at her, and Natasha blinked. “Hm?” She had caught what he’d said, but it hadn’t sunk in. 

“Clint,” Steve said, gesturing back over his shoulder at the sleeping Hawkeye. “He was so surprised we didn’t let him get the shit knocked out of him just now. I don’t like the team he’s with, I’m gonna reshuffle his assignments.”

“He’s kind of a walking disaster,” Natasha said. “I mean, yeah, they could do a better job at protecting him, but he’s kind of bad at taking care of himself.”

“I looked through his medical file and he’s got too many concussions,” Steve said, “too many major injuries. He doesn’t have any advanced healing abilities. You can’t let your sharpshooter get knocked around like that, it’s not his job. That’s why we have the mixed teams, that’s why we have guys who can shrug off bullets— so that they can protect the guys who can’t, so they can do their jobs. I don’t like it, Natasha.”

“Don’t patronize him,” Natasha said. “That’s the thing, Steve, the regular dudes aren’t here for the superheroes to tell them they’re fragile.”

“I’m not saying he’s fragile,” Steve said, “I’m saying he’s human. I’m saying he’s indispensable and if we keep on as we are he’s going to get killed and then we won’t have him and we’ll be screwed. That’s what I’m saying.”

“Fair,” Natasha said, “just be careful how you say it.”

Steve had his arms crossed over his chest and was scowling, and she gave him a pointed look. He realized he was looming, and uncrossed his arms and stepped back, hands on hips instead, shoulders angled out so she wasn’t cornered in her own kitchen.

“I will be,” Steve said, conceding the point. 

“You think we can make Bucky go back to being a sniper?” Natasha asked, pouring tea concentrate into each of the cups and adding hot water. They’d gone through nearly the whole pot of concentrate by now. Steve took his tea as strong as she did, probably mostly out of pride but partly, she suspected, out of having his tastebuds seared off by whatever awful coffee they drank during the war. (Clint liked it when Steve made the coffee, which spoke eloquent volumes as to just how bad it really was. She wouldn’t touch the stuff, she had a stomach lining to consider.) She slid the cup over to him, and the milk and sugar when she was finished with hers. 

“Hadn’t really thought that far,” Steve said. “I don’t know. He was good, though, he was really really good, that’s not all just glorification of the presumed-dead.” He stirred his tea contemplatively, then put the spoon down and leaned against the counter. “He’s not dead, Natasha,” he said, almost a whisper. “He’s okay.” His shoulders shook. 

“Come here,” she said, and pulled him down to her, curling her hand around the back of his neck. “I know.”

“And he, and he remembers,” Steve said, wrapping his arms around her and squeezing a little too hard. From him, it was okay— if he did it a little harder, actually, he could probably crack her back, which would feel pretty good. She’d maybe ask him to, later. 

“He does,” she said, pressing her cheek to Steve’s. He was crying and trying not to, and she kept one hand on his neck and smoothed his hair with the other. 

“I was so afraid he was going to be too broken to fix,” Steve said. “God, I was so afraid.”

If the killswitch was designed to take him down brain-first, he might yet be, but Natasha decided Steve didn’t need to be in on that conversation. He had no expertise in this sort of thing and would only get more agitated. Today’s project was going to be getting that killswitch figured out and taken care of. She could do a knowledge transfer of all she had on the HYDRA agents, and Steve could take that over. That would work. 

“We just have to spring the trap and yank him out,” Natasha said. “Then we’re free and clear.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, trying to compose himself.

She pushed him down into the kitchen chair and sat on his lap to pull his head against her shoulder. “It’s okay,” she murmured, and he wrapped his arms back around her. “It’s gonna be okay.” This was kind of what she’d been wanting Sam to do for him, not so much sex as physical reassurance. She wasn’t sure she was any good at it for Steve now that he could see through all of her facades, but she was all he had right now so she’d do her best.

She kind of needed the comfort, too, so she let herself take it, and laid her cheek down against his forehead. His cheek against her neck was uncharacteristically bristly with stubble after the long day and night without rest, and it made him seem paradoxically more vulnerable— ungroomed, not-put-together. He was so fastidious normally, so particular, so in-control of how he presented this acquired self. 

“Sorry,” Steve said tightly, trying to pull away, and she pulled his face back against her shoulder and kissed the top of his head. 

“Don’t be,” she said, “you’re fine.” 

He threaded his arms back around her waist and held on. 

 

* * *

 

 

“You need me to come up there,” Sam said, “I’m there in about six hours.”

“No,” Steve said, “not— we’re gonna need you later, I think.” 

“It’s not like you only get a certain allotment of me,” Sam said. “You don’t have to wait until you really need me.”

“I’ve kept you from living your life for a solid six months,” Steve said, “and I’m terrible company at the moment, and I’m also incredibly distracted trying to coordinate a massive covert op without tipping anybody off, so it’s not so much that I want to save up my allotted time with you as it is that I’d rather be able to enjoy it when I do see you.”

“If I felt like you were keeping me from my life, I probably wouldn’t have volunteered for most of that trip,” Sam said.

“I do know that,” Steve said. 

“So I’ll keep a bag packed and stay on standby,” Sam said. “I’m just catching up with family at the moment anyway, I can kind of drop that and resume it later if I have to.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, hesitating, and then finally, “I’ll, uh, I’ll keep you posted.” He sounded… wistful. 

“Please do,” Sam said, rolling his eyes a little and going into the bathroom to pack his shaving kit. He’d be on the next flight and that was that.

 

Chapter Text

“Jesus,” Tony said, startling violently. “How long have you been standing there?”

Natasha just shrugged. “Did you get my email?”

“Yeah,” he said. “With the schematics? Some of that— Natasha, whoever designed that thing was definitely on some sort of drugs. There’s no way that’s really what’s on him. I mean, most of it is totally off-the-wall. And the attachment point being just human bone like that, even reinforced, is a terrible idea. You’re looking at all kinds of problems over the long-term. There’s no possible way those schematics are really what’s on him.”

“I don’t know what’s on him,” she said. “Shit, those schematics are all I have. They’re pretty up-to-date, they’ve got to be pretty close to what he’s got.”

Tony shook his head. “It can’t be exactly as the schematic has it laid out,” he said. “It just, it’s not actually feasible, there are several points where it would have broken down before they ever got it working. I mean massive design flaws, complete project-killing contradictions.”

“Like what?” she asked. 

“Well,” Tony said. He gestured up a screen, called up the schematics she recognized. “Number one, power source. What they’ve got would need frequent maintenance and be prone to breakdowns, and if it went totally dead, you’d have just a cascade of complications.” 

“I think we’re starting to run into that,” she said. 

He pulled a face. “Number two, though, even before that, just the whole basic premise of having something like this be air-cooled is ridiculous. There’s no possible way it could perform reliably like that. Even with the coatings they’ve called for. You’d get all kinds of ridiculous malfunctions. It’s liquid-cooled or nothing.”

“That’s been an issue,” she said. 

He stared at her. “You’ve seen this thing,” he said. “Like, in detail.”

“Oh,” she said, “yes.” 

He shook his head. “The shock-absorbing measures are totally inadequate, the weird bit where it uses magnets to rearrange the articulating scales is a terrible and fragile idea— it would need constant maintenance, and the way it attaches— what, directly bolted into bone? Like, just jammed on there? It would be incredibly painful to use, and just, a terrible idea. You’re looking at major structural failure of both mechanical and biological components within a relatively short period of actual operating time.” 

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what we’re facing. He thinks there’s a killswitch in it, but I suspect there isn’t actually anything specific built in, it’s just so badly built that without proper maintenance, it’s designed to kill him.”

“Well,” Tony said, “if nothing else, that power source running out will do it. It doesn’t have that many actual hours of operating time, if these specifications are correct.”

“He has probably already exceeded that,” Natasha said. “It appears to be glitchy, it doesn’t run smoothly, and it seems to be hurting him.”

“When did you get this good a look at the guy?” Tony asked. 

“We had dinner with him last night,” Natasha said. 

“What, just like, straight-up sat down at the table like nothing?” Tony asked, lower eyelids pinching up as his eyes kind of bugged out. 

Natasha nodded. “Went to a diner,” she said. “He and Steve hugged and cried. It was like being normal people for a minute.” She shrugged. “Then HYDRA came after us and we nearly got Hawkeye killed and Kate Bishop had to save his ass like usual.”

“She seems rad,” Tony said absently, and the laser focus of his attention came back onto Natasha. “So he’s normal human enough that you can just, what, hang out?”

“Yes,” Natasha said. 

He gestured expansively. “So bring him in,” he said. “Why am I squinting at schematics if I could just look at the fucking thing?”

“I can’t bring him in,” Natasha said. “He’s the bait in an enormous HYDRA trap.”

Tony cast his eyes briefly heavenward. “You can’t bring him in,” he said. “What the hell do you want from me, then?”

“Is there anything I can use to collect information on his arm as it actually is?” she asked. “If we could get you more info, could you tell us how to stop the damage, or reprogram it or whatever?” 

Tony made a face at her. “There’s no reprogramming a goddamn train wreck,” he said. 

She stared at him. “You know the extent of Steve’s emotional involvement in this,” she said. 

He sighed. “Yeah,” he said. He rummaged on his workbench, turned, opened a drawer, rummaged in the drawer, muttering to himself. 

Natasha leaned against another worktable, rubbing her eyes. She was tired, she was so tired. And Bucky wasn’t responding to texts. He’d responded when she’d told him about the failed ambush, and said he was lying low and safe for the night, but he hadn’t answered since, not even when she’d sent him the picture she’d taken of him and Steve embracing at the diner. 

She’d paired her phone with his at the diner and had collected as much data as she pleased, discovering the hours he’d logged on it, finding his social media accounts, downloading all the pictures he’d taken. So she was following his feed now, and he’d posted a couple of things, pictures of food, the picture she’d taken of him at the diner, a series of direct replies to a follower who’d asked him friendly questions, that sort of thing. His most recent update had been just a post that said “bad day today”, and then six hours of silence. 

One of his folders of pictures was just all shots of various body parts. She realized they were parts of himself he couldn’t easily see, mostly scars on his back. He had been shot at some point, and from the look of it had just healed up on his own with no stitches. Fairly recently, too. He had to have had some kind of Super Soldier serum, if his reflexes and longevity hadn’t already suggested it. Not the same variant Natasha herself had— hers was a lot more subtle, and hadn’t made any obvious differences, but meant she resisted infection, could take more damage, seemed to slow aging. She wouldn’t bet on surviving a cryo chamber, but she might. 

“There,” Tony said, slapping something onto the table. “Take this. It’ll take readings like, like a scanner. Hold it about six inches away, activate it, it’ll give me data I can line up with these specifications. Your phone should interface with it, and send me what you get, and I’ll tell you how fucked he is.”

“Fair,” she said, and took the scanner. “Thanks.”

“Bucky,” she wrote, “whether you’re okay or not, I need to see you today. It’s about the killswitch. I think I know where to look.”

She made her way back up to her apartment, and collected the things she’d planned to give Bucky next time she saw him. She also made a few phone calls, made some tentative arrangements. 

Finally her phone buzzed. “Not so ok,” Bucky wrote, “public place not so good, no crowd, quiet?”

The little series of messages came one line at a time, a couple of words, typed painstakingly. She bit her lip, and wondered if it was that he didn’t feel well because the dying battery in his arm was poisoning him, or if it was that he had fallen apart psychologically today. Or if his digestion had gone haywire after last night’s rich food. Much of the haul she was planning to give him today consisted of nutrient supplements and the like. She reminded herself she was going to take some scans of his face, try and get some data on his teeth, because he’d definitely been having trouble chewing last night. She knew firsthand what Soviet dentistry was like, and given that he’d gotten his adult teeth during the Great Depression he wasn’t likely to have had a great starting point either. 

“Hotel room,” she wrote back. “Indoors, private. I’ll need to take some scans of your arm, can’t do that in public anyway. Sound ok?”

It took him a while, but he texted back “Ok,” so she finalized her earlier tentative plans. A reasonable hotel, not too fancy but not too dirty either, convenient to reach but not too close to the Tower, easy to get in and out of but not totally unsecurable. She made a reservation, checked in remotely, and left a spare room keycard at the desk. 

She texted Bucky the address. “Go to the front desk and ask for the keycard for room 34, I’ve left it there for you. I won’t come until you text me that you’re there.”

He didn’t respond. She waited, then texted, “I’ll bring lunch.”

“OK,” he finally wrote back. Then, “just you?”

“I can bring Steve,” she wrote, “or not, it’s up to you.”

“Just you,” he wrote back. “If that wouldn’t upset him.”

“I will make sure he understands,” she answered.

 

* * * 

 

Steve nodded tightly, and handed over a small pile of things. “So I’m gonna take a decoy pack, and sneak around New York City all day trying to look inconspicuous,” he said. 

“If I thought you had a better chance of being genuinely inconspicuous than I do,” Natasha said, but didn’t finish the sentence. She was looking through the little pile: a packet of gum, a chocolate candy bar, a t-shirt that said Brooklyn on it, a slightly battered paperback copy of Catch-22 with a postcard of Coney Island tucked inside the front cover, and a postcard-sized drawing of a middle-aged woman in Steve’s distinctive style. 

“It’s his mom,” Steve said. “I have a photo, well— a copy of a copy of a photo, pretty faded and beat-up, so I just figured a drawing would work better. I remember what she looked like better than the photo anyway.”

“That might be a little intense,” Natasha said, considering it. 

“Yeah,” Steve said. “If you think— we can take it out.”

On impulse Natasha wrapped her arms around him and laid her head against his chest. “You’re trying so hard,” she said. “You are such a good friend.”

“He was the best friend anyone could ever have,” Steve said fiercely, returning the hug so hard her back did crack this time. 

“Oh wow,” she said, “that felt really good.” She arched against him, and her vertebrae cracked like a zipper. “Wow.” 

“Uh,” Steve said. “I uh. Um.” He was blushing.

She laughed, and extricated herself delicately from his frozen grip. “I guess that was inappropriate,” she said. She’d basically rubbed herself all along his front. She knew she had an effect on him, and usually was careful not to overuse it. Now wasn’t a good time to slip up like that.

“I, uh,” Steve said. “No, that’s fine. At least you didn’t kiss me this time.”

“Now I will,” she said, and leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” he said seriously. 

 

 

Hawkeye even had a metal glove this time, and was going to lurk around Brooklyn looking as Buckyish as he could while Steve skulked around with him. They were going to make it as confusing as possible as to whether Steve and fake-Bucky were friends or antagonists. Natasha dressed as uncharacteristically as she could manage, hair rinsed chestnut-brunette with temporary dye (the same dye she’d forced onto poor Hawkeye, which didn’t really make him look any more like Bucky but at least made him not look like himself), designer jeans and low-cut emerald-green shirt, enormous sunglasses, bright red lipstick, ivory cardigan, kitten heels, giant fashionable ivory leather purse loaded with nutritional supplements and Stark equipment. She looked like a socialite wife. She most definitely did not look like either Natasha Romanoff or like the petite redhead in hoodies and jeans who went around with Steve sometimes. 

“I’m in,” he texted, and Natasha left the bodega down the street and made her way to the hotel. 

“I’ll be at the door in about three minutes,” she wrote back. She paused for a moment in the lobby, killing about thirty seconds while looking at her phone so that her time estimate would be correct.

She knocked, and there was a very brief pause before he opened the door and stepped back to let her in. He looked wary, but otherwise normal. She could tell he had a weapon behind his back, though. He wasn’t as good at subterfuge as she was. He wasn’t trained to be that subtle; he was a battle axe and she was a stiletto. But, identifiably products of the same forge. 

“You’re good at this,” he said, standing back. He looked like he was just fidgeting with the hem of his sweatshirt, but she knew he’d just holstered the gun or knife he was carrying at the small of his back. 

“I have some experience,” she said, and gave him a smile, sliding her sunglasses off and hooking them over the purse strap. 

He didn’t smile back, but he looked neutral, at least, and not feral. “I don’t have to ask if you were followed,” he said. 

“No,” she answered, setting her purse down on the bed, “you don’t. But I’ll tell you anyway, since the question doesn’t offend me: I wasn’t.” 

He nodded, serious, and sat in the desk chair, his posture almost normal. But compared to last night he looked stone-faced, haunted, not anywhere near as good as he had. He was twitchy and pale, and his hair had gone stringy, his eyes shadowed. “Hey,” he said, “did you find my Twitter account?”

“I did,” she said. She looked apologetic. “I saw a notification with the handle on your phone when we were looking at it, so I looked you up. I followed you, it’s the handle that says Black Widow in it. It’s not meant to be subtle.” 

“I got that,”  he said, flashing a smile that looked genuine, if self-deprecating. “I wasn’t sure if it was real though. There are a bunch of fake accounts pretending to be me, did you know that?”

“I did,” she said. The popular culture depictions of the Captain and Bucky and the other Howling Commandos had been both a blessing and a curse when it came to finding information. But the color Steve had turned when Tony had showed him a carefully-selected representative excerpt from the 1980s-era gay porno version of Captain America— a bleach-blond, beefcake Cap banging a very, very young-looking Bucky very, very thoroughly— had made it all worthwhile. She wondered if Bucky had found that one yet. 

“Some of them are funny,” he said, the smile fading out to an absent smirk. 

“I’m on there,” she said, “under a bunch of handles, but I use the mostly-official one pretty often. Steve is too, I’ll send you his.”

“I don’t post much,” he said. “I’m still figuring out how it works. People really just say whatever, huh?”

“They do,” she said, “but sometimes it can be powerful.”

“Yeah,” he said. 

“I thought maybe,” she said, “if you haven’t been staying indoors much, you might want to use the shower in here. There’s unlimited hot water, y’know?”

He regarded her, mouth twisting thoughtfully. “I don’t wanna get spoiled,” he said. 

“I’ll watch your things,” she said. “Two locked doors, and me, between you and the rest of the world.”

“How’d you know that’s even more tempting than the hot water?” he asked. 

She smiled. “You knew when you first sought me out,” she said, “that I’ve been where you are.”

“Yeah,” he said seriously. He looked at the bathroom, and instead of looking blank and inscrutable she could see him weighing his options. “Yeah, okay, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind at all,” she said, smiling. 

He took his backpack into the bathroom with him, fully dressed, but left his phone out, plugged in to charge. She pulled out all the food she’d brought, and the nutritional supplements, and arranged them on the desk. Steve had helpfully pointed out some of Bucky’s former preferences, though many of them didn’t translate. Food had changed a lot in 70 years. 

He took his time, and she passed the time by perusing his phone in more depth— remotely, of course, she wasn’t stupid enough to touch it— but eventually the bathroom door opened with a billow of soap-scented steam, and he came out, barefoot and in jeans and holding a t-shirt in one hand as he toweled his hair with the other. She didn’t bother being coy, but just let herself look at his torso, which was beautifully well-developed. She’d made herself a rule about not ogling Steve, but the rule didn’t apply to the Winter Soldier, surely. 

The metal arm was brutally functional in appearance, but someone had designed it with at least some sense of aesthetics in mind; it was almost perfectly symmetrical with his other arm, even though the curves of muscle on it must have been purely decorative and had little to do with any function. It attached to his body in a thick seam of scar tissue so ragged it made her wonder if it still hurt him. 

He didn’t look like he was starving, but he wasn’t living the high life either. He wasn’t malnourished enough to lose much muscle but his ribs showed more than they ought to, she thought, given his body type. He was lean and rangy, but looked like he ought to be more the solidly fleshed-out type, given adequate rations. And he had some really brutal scars, some of them obviously quite recent.

“I didn’t want to get out of there,” he said. “That was a really great idea.”

She smiled. “I’ve lived rough,” she said. “I know where priorities lie. Nobody sent ninjas after us while you were in there, so all is well.” He’d shaved, too, showing off the clean thick line of his square jaw, the sharp contours of his cheekbones. He looked really, really, really good. Settle down, Natalia. 

He actually huffed out a half-laugh at that. “You really did bring lunch,” he said, making an adorable scrunched-up face as he dried his ears. 

“Of course I did,” she said.

He gave his hair one more rough scruff with the towel, then hung it over the door with an impressive display of the lean muscle in his back. “You’re too good to me,” he said. 

“I’d do it anyway,” she said, “because of our history and because I’m tight with Steve, but the thing is, Bucky, it turns out I kinda like you.”

He didn’t look quite so rattled at being addressed by name as he had the last time, though it still made him pause. But he gave her a narrow look. “What’s to like?” he asked. “I can barely have a conversation. I don’t even have a personality anymore.”

“Yes you do,” she said. “You’re recovering faster than I did last time this sort of thing happened to me, and it’s pissing me off because your starting point was so much worse.”

He looked very serious for a moment, and sat down in the chair. “I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I had almost 25 years before all this shit happened, but you— you musta been a little kid.”

“I was,” she said. 

“So you didn’t have much of a baseline to work with,” he said. “I know most of it got wiped out, but there’s a lot of stuff too ingrained to erase by the time you’re in your twenties. I don’t have a lot of that but there’s some, at least. And that’s something.”

She smiled, a little surprised. “From the sound of it, you’re getting a lot back.”

“Random stuff,” he said. “Bits and, sometimes big pieces. I have to kind of, process a lot. Putting pieces together. And sometimes I sit there for a really long time trying to get a piece to fit only to realize that it’s definitely fake. That pisses me off.”

She looked warily over at him, hearing his voice thicken. He looked angry, closer to the edge of control. He noticed her regard, though, and visibly collected himself. 

“It’s just,” he said, a little apologetically, “like, I understand them, you know, making me something else, kinda. But the— when they just broke stuff like that— why bother taking extra effort to put garbage back in there?” He gestured at his head. “If they didn’t ever figure on me having a chance to try to put myself back together, why bother putting fake shit in there so that if I did it would be harder?”

She nodded, sympathetic. “I know,” she said, and looked away. “Some of them… they were pretty sick. They did that sort of thing for fun.”

“It’s mean,” he said, and the diminishing anger slid sideways into a plaintive sadness. He shook himself, sucked in a breath, and rubbed his face. “Last night was hard. I feel better now. But I feel like it’s all two steps forward, one step back, and I don’t want to have to work that hard just to be a, a person.”

“It gets easier, I think,” Natasha said. “I mean, there are always bad days, it just gets to the point where nobody knows you’re having a bad day unless you tell them. But I think that’s normal. Everybody’s like that.”

“Yeah,” he said. He settled lightly on the edge of the bed, in a position he could spring up easily from. He still had the t-shirt in one hand, and the way he put it down on the bed she could tell it was unobtrusively wrapped around a small weapon, undoubtedly a knife.

“So,” she said. “I’ve brought you all this stuff— a bunch of it is nutritional supplements. From what you said, you have trouble digesting stuff, and not that there’s anything wrong with how you look but I think you’ve probably dropped some weight and condition from your peak?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I get weak sometimes. I can’t,” he waved his hand. 

“So especially between meals or if you don’t think you can keep full meals down, a lot of this stuff is designed to just get your body the nutrients it needs,” she said. “Steve needs supplements like this sometimes, his body has enormous caloric requirements that he can neglect to an extent but it starts to really take a toll after a while. And I have the same issue, to a lesser extent. Some of the others do too, some of the various mutant-types we get coming through, and so on— a lot of this stuff was developed by scientists either on SHIELD or Stark’s payroll, for the nutritional requirements of enhanced humans.”

“I don’t know what they did to me,” Bucky said.

“There was some information in your file,” she said. “Along with the specs on your arm. It seems like you’ve got similar enhancements to Steve, just done differently. So you’ll need some of the weird specialized nutrients he tends to run short on. The serum changed his biology, and yours; you probably have some lingering organ damage from all the freeze-thaw cycles and the poor maintenance they probably did on you, even with the healing abilities you must have also gotten.” He also should have massive brain damage, given what they’d come to understand that the machine they’d found did to the human brain, but he seemed to be compensating for that astonishingly well. Most of his issues that remained seemed to be psychological, as opposed to physical.

“I didn’t really… eat, very often,” Bucky said. “They fed me… stuff. It wasn’t really food.” 

Natasha nodded. “I couldn’t fit a ton in an unobtrusive bag, but this should get you through a couple of days, especially if you can supplement it with real food. The jars, there, you can combine with water or milk, it should taste okay. I brought a mixing bottle, it has a thing in there so when you shake it it’ll make sure there’s no clumps in the powder. The taste isn’t great but it’s acceptable.”

“As long as it doesn’t taste like fish,” Bucky said. “The shit they always force-fed me tasted like fish oil.”

“No,” Natasha said, “it’s just kind of chalky. The bars you can just eat dry, though it’s best if you drink a lot of water, especially if your digestion is… touchy?”

“Gotcha,” he said. He jerked his head at his metal shoulder; the arm was folded stiffly across his midsection. “You got any insight into this thing?”

“Yes,” she said. “I have the schematics that were in your file, and I have a device with me to take scans of what’s really there so my expert can collate it against those schematics. He already has some theories about what could be going wrong with it, where they’re expecting it to fail on you.”

Bucky regarded her blankly. He really was a lot harder to read today than he had been yesterday; he wasn’t at all as in control of himself, she thought. He looked both younger and more robotic, and it was unsettling. “Who’s your expert,” he asked flatly. 

“Tony Stark,” she said. 

“Tony Stark,” Bucky said, looking down at his hands. He glanced up. “Howard Stark’s kid.”

“Yeah,” she said. “He’s in his forties now. A great inventor in his own right. Kind of a pain in the ass.”

“Howard and Maria died in a car crash,” Bucky said. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Natasha said. 

“I,” Bucky said, and rubbed his face. “I’m not real thrilled that I know that,” he said. He glanced up at her. “I don’t know a whole lot about the last, like, most of a century, so why do I know anything about that?”

“Hmm,” Natasha said. She knew what he was getting at. He’d been the driving force behind a lot of ‘accidents’, and that was a likely one. “Well, regardless, Tony said he’d help.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, expressionless. She took out the scanning device. 

“Lie down,” she said, “then I’ll be able to reach better. I want to try to get as straight-on an image as I can.”

Bucky lay down obediently on the hotel bed, and she positioned his arm with her hands, out from his side and mostly flat, then held the scanner carefully at a consistent distance, and worked her way from his fingers up to his shoulder. She went back and captured different angles of the wrist and elbow, and closer in to focus on where he was pretty sure the flesh and blood part of his arm ended, just a little above the elbow. 

Bucky indicated that he thought the power source was located in the forearm, but Natasha remembered the schematics had located it farther up, a little above the elbow. She rescanned both areas. Then she went over the attachment point where the metal gave way to skin, following the ridge of scar tissue. 

“So your skin continues under the metal,” she said. 

“I don’t know about the skin,” Bucky said. “But the muscles keep going.”

“Tony was very skeptical of the schematics,” Natasha said. “He thought the power source impractical, air cooling unlikely to work well, and there were a couple other things he thought were awful. He seemed to think it would be incredibly painful to handle a hybrid biological/mechanical system that way.”

Bucky laughed hollowly. “Well,” he said. “The cooling is for shit, the power source is dying, and yeah, it’s really painful, so he’s probably not wrong. If he’s half as smart as his old man he could probably build a better one than this in his sleep.”

“Are you in pain right now?” Natasha asked, surprised. 

Bucky shrugged, unconcerned. “I’m never not,” he said. He glanced over at her, unsettlingly blank. “Don’t look like that. What?”

“How bad is it?” she asked, letting her dismay show. 

He shrugged the human arm, and bent his elbow to put his hand behind his head. He was beautifully well-muscled, even as beat-up and skinny as he looked now. Settle down, Natalia. “It is what it is,” he said. “You know how bad Steve hurt every day of his life up until they turned him into a lab-rat? He still got out of bed if he was physically capable. He still did what he had to do. He didn’t lie around and cry. Why should I? It is what it is.”

“Well,” she said. She understood working through pain, she did it all the time, but then she would go and heal up, if she could, before she did anything else. Pain with an end point was reasonable. This was not. “You don’t have to, is what I mean. There’s no reason for you to be in constant pain when you could just… not be.” 

“I don’t need the whole thing replaced,” Bucky said, his disconcerting blankness giving away to a mulish cast to his features. “I just need the thing stabilized so it won’t kill me.”

“Tony doesn’t think it’s repairable,” she said. 

“Tony Stark doesn’t owe me shit,” Bucky said. “I’m not gonna pry myself out of HYDRA’s clutches to owe myself to Stark instead.”

Okay, fair. “It wouldn’t work like that,” Natasha said.

“As it is,” Bucky said grimly, “I already owe enough people more than I can ever hope to pay back. I don’t need to add to the tab.”

She nodded slowly, and connected the scanner to her phone to download the information. She decided now wasn’t the time to call attention to his dental issues, so she sat on the edge of the bed, casually testing out his reaction to physical contact by setting her hip against his thigh as she settled herself. He didn’t pull away, but watched her warily, metal arm folded across his flat stomach. 

“Well,” she said. “Tony did admit that some of the tech in your arm was actually more advanced than anything he’d figured out, so the repair work will definitely be worth his while just to get his hands on that information. We’ll see about any more than that once we’ve, you know, taken care of the HYDRA operatives who are as we speak chasing Steve and Clint all over Brooklyn.”

“They’re what?” Bucky asked, eyebrows drawing together. His eyes were wide-set in his square face, and they were a pale, pale blue, almost turquoise in this light, clear and without even a hint of hazel like hers had. She remembered being struck by their paleness, so long ago, in the Red Room; they had been her first inkling that he was human, and not a robot after all, the clarity of them and the tiny lines at the corners where his eyelids folded up— even though he didn’t really smile through the entire conversation, she could tell those lines had been etched by smiling.

“I sent Steve out to pretend to be meeting up with or possibly pursuing you,” Natasha said, “and Hawkeye went out with this great fake metal sleeve Tony hacked together, to pretend to be the you Steve’s meeting up with or perhaps fighting with, and since Hawkeye knows Brooklyn really well and Steve probably remembers a thing or two, they promised a really exciting and complicated chase.”

“They better not get hurt,” Bucky said, and she couldn’t resist but had to put her thumb out and smooth at the crease between his eyebrows just the way she did with Steve sometimes. 

“It’s okay,” she said. “They’re trained professionals. And I’m in touch. It’s going fine just now, and I’ve got observers there and here to keep tabs on situations as they develop. So far, they’re totally buying it, and you and I are in the clear to stay where we are.”

Bucky looked at her, not objecting to her touching him, so she smoothed her fingers across his forehead. She wanted to touch his mouth: he had a beautiful bow mouth, generous and wide. He was watching her face, and his wary look had faded to blankness, and from there was starting to shade toward speculative. 

“Really,” he said, “what’s in this for you?”

She had pretty much never tried an honest approach to this sort of thing, so in a fit of recklessness she gave it a whirl. “You were my first crush,” she said. “When I was a teenager and you came in and you tore through everybody else? I was pretty young, I wasn’t really sure what was up, but I knew I either wanted you or wanted to be you, and I wasn’t sure which.”

He gave her an incredulous look. “I was a robot,” he said. “I was a monster.”

“You treated me like a person,” she said. “You were incredibly good at what you did. And you were— are— beautiful.”

“You’re outta your mind,” he said, but he was looking at her mouth now. She smiled. 

“Probably not,” she said, giving him a slow smile. 

 

It was all he could think about now, how pretty she was and how good she smelled and how she would be warm to touch. He remembered that, about women’s bodies, remembered the heat of bodies touching, remembered the heat inside their bodies. He was always so cold, all the time now, and she was warm.

“I, uh,” he said, wrenching himself back to the present, “um,” and he should pull away, should sit up, but God he wanted, and it was such an odd feeling, both to want and to understand that’s what the feeling was. 

And she glanced at his mouth for a long moment before looking back up to his eyes, and he remembered that, he knew what that had meant, once upon a time when he’d been a bonny Brooklyn boy with an easy smile. “It’s okay, Bucky,” she said softly. “Are you okay?”

“I’m kinda fucked-up,” he said, “and I’m only just now to the part where I remember that I used to really, really like dames, and you’re kind of, uh—“

Her mouth was curving into a smile that could either be pleased or smug, he was still remembering how that worked. “I said it’s okay,” she said, a little coy. “Do you want to remember how all of that works?”

He blinked, really unsettled and on-edge, and he realized a big part of that was that he was really turned-on now. “Uh,” he said. Well. It was a nice change from wanting to crawl out of his skin because he couldn’t process being alive. He shoved himself up on his elbow, then up to a half-sitting position, not sure whether he was trying to get away from her or get closer.

“Because I know what it’s like, when you’re trying to get yourself back, and you remember that sex is a thing, and you remember how to want it, but you’re not totally sure how to do it.” She looked down at his mouth again, and up to his eyes, and there was the faintest tinge of a blush coming up in her pale skin. 

“Uh,” he said again, intelligently. “I don’t know ho— if, if my control is good enough.”

She nodded seriously. “Well,” she said, “I’m probably the only person in the world you’re not likely to hurt if you freak out,” she said. “Sam would probably yell at me and say you’re not ready for this kind of thing. I needed it, in your place, to remind me of what was mine. You might feel differently. And that’s okay.”

“I know I used to be good at it,” he said. His skin was trying to crawl off, and he wanted, in all kinds of incoherent ways, to press his body against hers. “I got a lot of, they put all kinds of fake memories about sex in, I think the memory-writing guy was a pervert or something because I remember all this stuff I know there’s no way I woulda done.”

“Any idea what’s real and what’s not?” she asked. 

“I remember what I like, that’s for damn sure.” She raised an eyebrow. “Yeah,” he said, catching on that it was a question, “you’re what I like.”

“Redheads?” she asked, with a funny half-smile. Oh yeah, her hair had been brighter before— she’d dyed it, really recently, and it still gleamed reddish in the light but it was darker now. There were traces of dye just above one of her ears, just a tiny smudge he’d never have seen if he weren’t that close— today, then. Oh, as a disguise. That also explained why she was dressed— well, he didn’t know modern fashion, but she definitely wasn’t dressed in the sensible fashion he was sort of used to from her. She was being the spy he knew she was.

“Smart girls,” he said, before he was even sure what would come out of his mouth. “Smart girls who feed me. That’s the one-two punch.”

Her smile went a lot wider. “Oh my God, you’re good, Bucky.”

He blinked, realizing he’d swayed in closer to her a little bit, and she wasn’t objecting. “Was that a line?” he asked. “I didn’t mean for that to be a line.”

“Jeez, Buck, my underpants just about melted off,” she said with a laugh, and moved her hand from his cheekbone to slide it around the back of his neck, leaning in and oh man, oh wow, she kissed with her eyes open and he let his slide shut and remembered just in time to lock his metal hand closed in the bedsheet before it latched on to some soft part of her and caused damage. It was glitching worse and worse, unresponsive sometimes, uncontrollable below the elbow at others.

Her mouth was hot, whatever lipstick-like thing she was wearing tasted like candy and wax, and her tongue was slick, her teeth perfect. She kissed him like she wanted to make something of it, not shy or polite or flirty at all but shockingly sincere, and he remembered how this worked. 

“I, yeah,” he panted as she pulled back a little to look up at him. Her eyelids were heavy, which had always been a good sign in his past experience.

“You can touch me,” she murmured. “It’s okay.” She pushed his hair back from his face. “Can I— Is it all right if I sit on your hips? I don’t weigh much, if you need me off you can just throw me. I’m a trained gymnast, I’ll land just fine.” 

“I don’t think I’m gonna do that,” he said, reassured, “but I’m glad you’re thinking of these things.”

She smiled as she pushed him flat on his back and settled herself astride his hips, leaning forward to run her hand up his chest. “That’s why I’m here,” she said. “I think of these things.” She settled down against him, and ducked her head to take his mouth again, her hair sliding down around their faces in a radiant fall of floral perfume. Her body was so warm against his. She was so beautiful. 

“Smart girls,” he said. “I told you. God.” She grinned down at him.

He could feel her heart beating and the blood moving under her skin and he wanted her. He was hard, he was really hard, and his body had done this before but not with the real cooperation of his brain, not lately. This was something different. She smiled at him and licked his lower lip and pulled his right hand up and put it on her breast. “I,” he said, “Natasha,” and it was only the pain of his metal arm seizing up that kept him from just shoving up against her and coming in his pants. 

“It won’t be awkward if you need to stop, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need to,” she murmured. “Do you want me to take my shirt off?”

“Yeah,” he said. She sat back, and in the process very delicately ground her ass down against his erection, gyrating her hips a little bit as she pulled her shirt up and over her head. Her brassiere was a dark blue, all satin and lace, decorative, and her breasts were fuller than they’d seemed, soft curves luminously pale against the dark lace. 

She leaned down again, watching his face from behind lowered lashes. Her arms were slender, no apparent muscle, and her body was lean and lithe, her jeans low on her hips as seemed to be the fashion now. She looked like a movie star, not like an assassin at all, except that here and there she had scars, some white and faded with age and some still pink, recently-healed. He’d probably given her that one, up on her shoulder, and he tried not to think about it.

“You like that,” she said. 

“I like that,” he agreed. If he had both hands available, they’d almost wrap all the way around her waist. She was much smaller than he’d assumed; she looked bigger when she was up and moving. But she was no less self-possessed like this. He could certainly throw her across a room, but there was no doubt she’d land just fine and come back for him.

Hell, she had.

He did have a pretty clear sliver of memory of her thighs wrapping around his neck on that street. She’d been trying to garotte him. You didn’t need a whole lot of upper body strength to garotte someone, especially not if you knew how to use your entire body weight as leverage. She was powerful, she was so powerful. She wasn’t afraid of him, because she didn’t have to be.

She reached behind herself and unfastened the bra, and he watched in rapt attention as she slid it down her arms, exposing her breasts— perfect breasts, pale and round and heavy. His hand moved without his conscious input to cup one of them, feeling the soft-firm warm weight of it. 

“Natasha,” he whispered. 

She grinned a little playfully at him. “I grew them myself,” she said, and lightly pinched the nipple of the one he wasn’t holding, discarding the bra onto the foot of the bed. “They don’t get out much, lately.”

“That’s a shame,” he said. 

She bit her lip— which was what it took for him to finally be able to tear his eyes away from her breasts for just a moment— and moved her hands down to unfasten the fly buttons of his jeans. “How far you want to go with this is up to you,” she murmured. “If it’s your first time back on the horse you might want to take it pretty easy. We can make out a little, roll around, I put my hand down your pants and we call it a night.” She was looking at his dick, at the bulge it made in the underpants she’d bought him, and when he didn’t say anything, she moved her hand to caress it, rubbing the heel of her hand knowingly across the firm ridge of it. 

He sucked in his breath at the intense flare of sensation. “What do you get out of that?” he asked. 

She grinned, running her tongue over her teeth. “Don’t worry about me,” she said, “I can take care of myself. I just want to touch you.” She gave him a firm squeeze and his hips hitched. 

“I ain’t gonna last real long,” he admitted. “That’s, uh, I’m—“ 

“You want to get off, though, right?” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, twitching as she squeezed him again and the metal arm clenched down, probably wrecking the sheets. It hurt, again enough to take a little of the edge off, but not enough to deter him at all. 

“I have an idea,” she said, and sat back, kneeling over his legs, pulling his jeans down over his hips. He was breathing hard like he’d just run a race, and the heat of her blood had raised his temperature. It was the first time he hadn’t been cold in as long as he could remember. Even when the metal arm overheated— especially when the metal arm overheated— it made the rest of him feel cold by comparison. This was new, he was warm from the inside out, and it felt like being alive again. 

She hooked her fingers in the waistband of his underwear, grinned at him, and pulled that down too, pulling out his erection and wrapping her fingers around it. He sucked in a breath and tipped his head back; it was like his whole body was floating now, and she was pulling him toward an edge. 

He looked down at her, at the way her breasts hung as she bent over him on her knees and elbows, at the way she had her legs spread and her ass in the air. She smiled at him, sucking on her lower lip, and watched him watch her as she pushed herself farther down the bed and— oh God— put her mouth on his cock. 

“Oh my God,” he said, good hand fisting in the sheets too, and she wrapped her lips around the head, teased him with her tongue, and closed her mouth down on him, sucking him slowly in. 

He remembered blowjobs, remembered giving and getting, remembered— no— wrenched himself out of remembering and paid attention to now. “Natasha,” he said, and his whole body had gone electric, “Natasha—“ 

She looked up at him, lips stretched around him, and still managed to smile, pulling back a little. “Grab my hair,” she suggested, pulling off at the top of an upstroke, then sucked him back in. She didn’t have him all the way in, but her hand slid expertly along his shaft where her mouth couldn’t reach. 

He put his hand down and tangled it in her hair like she’d asked. Her hair was soft, slippery, beautiful. She hummed appreciatively, and rocked her hips; she had her other hand down her pants. I can take care of myself. 

Oh. That suddenly made this unbearably hot, and he was so close. 

“Oh God,” he said raggedly, hips hitching up out of his control, “oh, Natasha— I— oh my God—“

“Yeah,” she said, and both of her hands were moving furiously, all her weight balanced on her knees, “c’mon,” and she took him as far as he’d go into her mouth, surrounded on all sides by soft slick wet heat.

“I’m gonna,” he said raggedly, “I can’t— I—“ 

She looked up at him, smiling wickedly, hand moving with unabated intensity. That was as clear an invitation as any, and he thrust his hips up and let go, shuddering and shuddering into the warm wet suction of her mouth, the bright zinging pleasure of release unlocking every muscle, unlocking the metal arm, leaving him limp and gasping. His whole body let go and he was floating, bright and empty and blissed-out. 

She sighed, and smiled at him, shivering a little— her hand down the front of her pants was moving, still, and he remembered her saying she could take care of herself. But he didn’t want that, he wanted a chance to reciprocate. He wanted to touch her.

“Come here,” he said, breathless, uncoordinated, “let me—“

She wriggled out of her jeans. Her underpants were lacy, skimpy, matching the bra. She lay down on his left side so he could reach across with his right to touch her. The metal arm, limp now, lay around her back, and Bucky made sure it was turned so that if it seized up again at least the fingers wouldn’t wrap around her. The segments would pinch her, but that was a lot less serious than the damage the fingers could do. And he wasn’t gonna ask her to move. 

He kissed her, tasting himself, tasting her eagerness, and slid his hand down the front of her underpants, finding that she was slick and hot and very, very aroused. She’d liked doing that to him, liked taking him apart. 

Orgasm had done an amazing job of blasting the bad broken fake memories out of his way. He felt a lot more present in his own skin than he had, a lot more grounded, a lot more in control. He felt like himself, like Bucky, not like a soldier or a weapon. Just a man. A real person.

She shivered as he slid his fingers into her, finding his way around— some things came back to him, the topography of a woman’s intimate area, the places where most of them liked being touched— there, definitely, like that, she, yeah, liked a firm touch, and she made a muffled noise into his mouth and writhed excitingly. 

His arm, his goddamned fucking broken-ass cyborg arm, made an ominous little whirr, and he thought resignedly that he’d better get her off of it. But there was one really great way to do that. The elbow joint still mostly worked reasonably well, so he pushed himself up on it, still kissing her mouth, and then mouthed his way down her jaw, her neck, to her breasts. 

“Mm,” she said, arching her back into his touch, “oh, yes.” He kissed his way down her body, tasting her smooth soft skin, making her giggle a little ticklishly as he slid his tongue into her belly button. He remembered this, he remembered good sex, real sex, with someone you liked and could laugh with, even if they never dated him long. He was the good-time guy, the one to fool around with. And maybe that had broken his heart a time or two but he’d been pretty good at rolling with it. 

He remembered that. He’d remembered it a couple times, and he had managed to fit it into the steadily-growing mosaic of things that were consistent, that were true, that were him. That was the truth of Bucky Barnes: he was the good-time guy, he did what he had to do, and he rolled with it. 

I’ll live, he remembered telling someone, that’s what I do. Red lipstick. His heart had been broken. 

No context for that one.

She pushed herself up on an elbow and looked down at him, breathing hard and flushed. “You okay?” she asked. He’d stopped moving. 

“Yeah,” he said, and grinned at her. “I remember stuff.”

“Do you,” she said, her serious demeanor somewhat belied by the way she shivered as he pressed down with his thumb. 

“I remember having two hands to do this with,” he said. 

“The other one’s no good, huh?” she asked. 

He shook his head. “Not for this,” he said. It would probably electrocute her, and what a dumb way to go that would be. “But you’re in luck, I think I have another trick to try.” 

“Have you,” she said. 

He pulled the underpants down off of her— he remembered how underpants used to be, and these were different, insubstantial and stretchy and synthetic— and he’d gathered that women almost universally shaved their legs and armpits now but there wasn’t a whole lot of hair under those underpants either, that was definitely pretty… groomed, and that was weird, and also she was for sure a natural redhead — and settled himself between her thighs, biting his lip mock-thoughtfully. “Yeah,” he said, and leaned forward to use his mouth. Weird grooming aside, he knew exactly how this worked, and that was something that wasn’t going to be any different a measly two generations later.

“Oh,” she said breathlessly as he slid his fingers back in, and with his mouth to handle the external stimulation and his fingers inside, she made a couple more hot little noises and shook, and shook, tightening down around his fingers, and finally he felt the unmistakable throb as a convulsion went through all of her muscles, tightening her thighs around him, forcing her breath out, and making her flutter rhythmically around his fingers inside her.

He pressed his mouth onto her in a gentle kiss, stilling his hand, waiting until she stopped moving to slowly, slowly slide his fingers out of her. She tasted amazing, the sweet salt tang he’d completely forgotten about— and the people who’d shoved false memories in his head had definitely never thought about it, probably didn’t know, probably were sick old dirty fucks that no woman would willingly look at twice let alone wrap her thighs around their head and ride their face. 

“James,” she murmured, pushing his hair back from his face. He laughed, astonishingly happy, and sat up, licking his fingers. She lay sprawled, panting, looking distant and sated. He couldn’t clearly remember ever feeling like this.

“That’s a good look on you,” he said, fixing his underwear so his business wasn’t all hanging out. 

She laughed weakly. “It’s been a really long time since anybody did that for me,” she said. 

“That’s a shame,” he said, frowning, then shook his head and let his mouth curl up. “I don’t remember when the last time I did that was. Probably the 1940s. So, I think I win.”

“I wasn’t born yet,” she laughed. 

“I guess that’s creepy,” he said, squinting. “I guess I’m a creepy old man.” His arm wasn’t coming back online. The elbow joint, he could usually get to work, and when it went dead like this he could sometimes manually position the fingers, lock it in a grip, if they weren’t frozen up. It hurt, though, it really hurt; he didn’t know exactly how the whole thing worked but there were phantom pains in fingers he knew were nerveless, there were things glitching and tearing and catching on the remains of his real human arm, there was blood sometimes and pain all the time, worse than he was used to. He let it lie cradled in his lap, and wiped his face on his good arm. 

“You don’t look like a creepy old man,” Natasha said, and she collected herself enough to sit up. She took his face between hers and kissed him. “Though I don’t know about the haircut.”

He put his hand in his hair. “I should get it cut,” he said. “It gets in the way.”

“You could just pull it back,” she said. “It’s long enough that it would stay.”

He made a face. “They did that kind of thing while I was coming out of cryo,” he said. “I remember that, while I was waking up they’d be cutting my hair and my nails and stuff, before I could move.”

“They didn’t cut your hair this last time,” she observed. 

He shook his head. “Didn’t do any of it,” he said. “They were gonna put me down when it was done, why bother with nonessential maintenance?” 

She looked at him and nodded in sad understanding. “The database implied as much,” she said. “You had no further upgrades or scheduled maintenance.” She sat back against the headboard, easing the underpants back up, but stayed otherwise naked, her hair a glorious mess and her cheeks and the tops of her breasts still beautifully flushed. 

He shrugged, uncomfortable. “Yeah,” he said, and slid reluctantly out of the bed, hitching his jeans back up to fasten them. Back to the messy business of vengeance and survival, and time to analyze what just happened. He walked around the other side of the bed to retrieve his shirt and knife. He put the knife down behind his backpack, near the bathroom door, and pulled the shirt over his head. It was easier to think dressed. 

“So,” he said, “um.” She was way out of his league. She was definitely smarter than he was. She was definitely playing a deeper game than pretty much anyone else. She was the legendary Black Widow, and he had heard of her, especially when she had turned on them; no one had seen it coming. “We’re mostly on the same side, right?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, tilting her head. 

“I mean,” he said, and didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “That was for fun,” he concluded. “Right?” 

“As opposed to?” she asked, eyebrows drawing together. She sat up straighter. “What, you think I seduced you to ensure your cooperation? We’re already working together.”

“I don’t mean it to sound like that,” he said, chagrined. “I know if you really had, like, a mission or something, you’d already have drugged me or somethin’. I’m not foolin’ myself that I could do much of anything you didn’t want me to, or you wouldn’t be naked in this room with me.”

“I did that because I wanted to,” she said. “Bucky! I’m not— That’s not how I operate. If I wanted to trick you, I wouldn’t use my body for it.”

“I’m not tryin’ to insult you,” he said, folding both arms tighter across his midsection. “I don’t mean it like that.”

“It is pretty insulting,” she said tightly. 

“Aw, hell, Natasha,” he said miserably. “That’s not what I meant at all. I just meant, you wouldn’t’a put yourself in this vulnerable a position if you didn’t know you could take me if you had to. I know enough about you to know that.”

She sighed, and retrieved her bra from the foot of the bed, putting it back on. She pulled on her shirt, but left her jeans on the floor and went over to her bag.

“Listen,” she said with a sigh, “Bucky, it’s fine. No, I did that with you because I wanted to. And I thought it might help your recovery. I don’t have to bribe you or seduce you to get your cooperation. I don’t even have to lie to you. But you should know, I don’t know if you do, that when we took HYDRA down we took out SHIELD as well, so I’m a free agent at the moment. I’m largely on Stark’s payroll, running missions for him. You’ve been Steve’s main focus, but he’s also doing that pretty much freelance. And I owe him enough favors, and care about him enough as a person, that I would be on board just to help him out. But I’m really in this because I want HYDRA gone, and you’re the best way to get them.”

He nodded. “It’s gonna be soon,” he said. “I gotta do it soon. They know I’m weakening. I had been planning on playing the fake-broken-wing card soon but,” he jerked his chin downward, “it might not be fake, soon.”

“I put a call in to our PR girl,” Natasha said. “She texted me back, just to sort of touch base. She’s working on it but she doesn’t really understand what-all is going on, so that’s going to take a little time to sort out. Still, though.”

“You tell her,” Bucky said, “I was figuring, I mean— my face has been on the news, people probably know who I am, so… I mean, that’s what I got.”

“If Steve follows you, people will notice,” Natasha said, “because he has so little activity on his account but so many followers. And if he posts a picture of the two of you, like the one I took last night, it will definitely blow up. So we need to start this a little slower than that. Pictures of yourself would work, people will recognize you but probably not all at once.”

Bucky let his breath out, nearly a laugh but not quite. “It’s the opposite of anything I’ve ever tried to do before,” he said. 

“Steve is so not a fan of using you as bait,” Natasha said. 

“He don’t have to be a fan of it,” he said, and turned his back, wandering into the bathroom to pack his things up by way of ending the conversation. 

When he came back out, she’d pulled out a variety of objects from inside her bag. “Steve sent you these things,” she said, and laid out a folded t-shirt that said BROOKLYN across the chest, a Mars Bar, a pack of gum, and a book. She held out the book. “There’s a picture in the book, too,” she said. 

He came over and took the book in his working hand, and braced it on the metal forearm to open it. There was a postcard of Coney Island, which made him laugh— the Cyclone. It was still there, he’d gone and looked. Snugged right up behind it was a piece of paper the same size, with a drawing on it of a woman. He frowned at it. She was familiar. 

“He said he drew that picture partly from a photo and partly from memory,” Natasha said quietly.  

He knew this woman. She was someone he’d known. He set the book down and held just the picture, concentrating. The round face, the wide-set eyes, he remembered that mouth talking— 

Mama.

It was his mother. 

He caught his breath, set the picture down carefully, and turned away, staring blindly at the wall. He didn’t know when the last time was he’d seen her. He didn’t know whether she’d been dead when he fell off that train. He didn’t remember. He remembered her singing songs, remembered her combing his hair, shit like that. She had to be dead by now, of old age if nothing else, but he had no idea.

He’d searched on his own name, searched on his family’s names, but there had been so much information, and most of it fictional, that he’d given up. And he’d forgotten that he still didn’t know.

He remembered his father’s death, he’d watched that— his father was a whole mess of tangled memories he had been skirting around but knew, somewhat resignedly, that he remembered in their entirety and had lost none of. Damn it.

“The last drawing he gave me,” he said after a moment, realizing that he’d been silent for kind of a while, “I bawled my fuckin’ eyes out, Natasha. What’s he tryin’ to do to me, huh?”

“I didn’t think the last drawing would be too sad,” she said, sounding apologetic.

He turned around, composing himself. “Steve still draws himself the same way he did when he was a little guy,” he said. 

She stared at him. “Really,” she said. 

He nodded, looked away. “Yeah,” he said finally. 

“He forgets he’s big a lot,” she said. 

The pain of missing Steve twisted all up through Bucky’s midsection, and the arm made a half-hearted attempt to lock up again. “He woulda let me kill him,” Bucky said, remembering that last time he’d seen him, in the crash, the way he’d just thrown away his shield. “And I almost fuckin’ did. What a palooka.”

Natasha burst out with a laugh unexpectedly. She was still not wearing any pants, just the lacy underwear, and her legs were long and slender and white, and she looked like a regular girl, not an assassin. “I’ll tell him you said that,” she said, and she looked so genuinely amused, so pretty, he had to look away. 

“He wrenched my good arm outta the socket,” Bucky said. “That was a bitch and a half.” He found socks, put them on awkwardly. He was going to need to come up with a sling for the metal arm. The weight of it was painful and nearly-dead.

Natasha slid off the bed and pulled on her jeans, and he spared a moment to regretfully watch the delicious curve of her ass disappear under the denim. Man, she was so far out of his league. She looked down at the picture of his mother. 

“Do you want the drawing?” she asked. “I told Steve it might be kind of too much for you to handle yet.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I want it,” and his voice had gone a little funny. He swallowed hard, tried to add more— tried to ask if Steve had said what had happened to his mother in the end— but his voice wasn’t trustworthy, so he cleared his throat instead and said, gruffly, “Tell him thanks.”

“I got you some long-sleeved shirts,” she said, pulling a little stack of folded garments from her giant handbag. “Figured they’d help keep the arm inconspicuous.”

He nodded. “That’s good,” he said. The shirts he had, the segments had caught the fabric and it was frayed in places. “Thanks.”

She held one out, a dark Army green, and he took it, stripping off the shirt he’d put on. She stepped closer, and put her fingers gently against his back, touching the skin next to the ridge of scar tissue where the metal met his body. She looked about to say something, then didn’t, and shook her head slightly.

“You’re getting a lot of use out of that phone?” It wasn’t really a question, she knew he was. 

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s been a lifesaver.”

“I have an auxiliary power pack for it,” she said. “You can plug this in, and then when it’s charged, if you can’t get to an outlet you can plug the phone in to it. So if you find an outlet, then you can charge both up at once.”

“Perfect,” he said sincerely. Finding unguarded power outlets was such a pain in the ass. It was leading him to overuse one of his hideouts, that had one, and that would probably get him in trouble. He pulled the shirt from Steve on over his head, and settled it over the other one. “How’s it look?” he asked. He’d been vain, once. That had been a long time ago.

“You look good,” she said. She wasn’t talking about the shirt, he didn’t think. He really shouldn’t be flattered. “I should take a picture. Let me get a good one, you can send it to Steve and post it.”

“I got the one from the diner last night too,” he said. 

She nodded. “I’ll confirm with Lakeisha. I’m gonna give her your number, so if you get a text from a number you don’t know, it’s our PR girl.”

“Okay,” he said. 

She picked up his phone and unplugged it. He fidgeted self-consciously. “It’s okay,” she said. “You look— here, let me fix your hair.” She set the phone back down, waving him over to sit in the chair. He obeyed, and she ran her fingers through his hair to work out the tangles where it had dried funny. 

It was weird, it was weird to let someone touch him. His skin was all tingles; she’d touched him more than he’d been aware of being touched in years, decades. It sort of hurt, the awareness of being touched. But before he had time to get worked-up over it, she’d pulled his hair efficiently back and secured it at the nape of his neck with an elastic hair band. 

“There,” she said, pushing a few loose strands away from his forehead and tucking them behind his ear. It was an intimate gesture, like a mother or a lover. Or a good friend. He and Steve had cut one another’s hair sometimes. He remembered looking up like this at Steve. God, Steve had even been about this woman’s height, standing over him like that and looking down, frowning in concentration as he tidied the front few strands of Bucky’s hair. 

He didn’t know. He still didn’t know. That one had to be a real memory, why would someone put a false one in of something like that? But there were so many false memories of Steve, so many of— of fighting, of kissing him, of sex with him, and he didn’t know if any of them were real. He genuinely didn’t know if he and Steve had ever been lovers.

Natasha picked up his phone again and stepped back, activating the camera and looking at the screen. “You look fine,” she said. “Sit up straight so I can see the shirt.”

He steeled himself and sat back a little, putting the metal arm mostly out of view behind himself and smoothing the front of the shirt with his real hand. She grinned at him, a flirty one, and he returned the look as she pushed the button. He had all the camera’s noises switched off, so there was no sound, but her expression made it clear that she’d taken a picture. “There,” she said. “Looks fine.” She handed him the phone, and he looked at it.

He looked like some kid. It was kind of disconcerting; he didn’t really recognize himself. But he looked… sort of smug. Normal. Just like some kid. 

Just some kid. 

 

Chapter Text

Steve staggered in a couple hours after she did, and he was filthy and sweaty and looked exhausted. Natasha had showered the brown dye out of her hair and was sitting in the common area in her pyjamas and robe, painstakingly collating a list of known operative aliases with the headshots Bucky had given them with the current situation of those individuals. 

She was starting to notice a distressing correlation, and had already put a call in to a former SHIELD coworker about it. If HYDRA had infiltrated the NYPD, which was what she was starting to suspect, then they were liable to run into a big problem sooner rather than later. SHIELD had long had good liasons with the police forces of most of the US’s major cities, but it was becoming clear to Natasha that a lot of those liasons had been among the numbers of double agents.

It would have been awesome if Bucky had been able to get them the digital files, instead of just having read through them himself before destroying them, but she could kind of understand how he hadn’t been able to do that.

“Hi,” Steve said, sitting down across the table from her. He slumped over, crossing his forearms on the table and resting his forehead on them, shielding his face in his big arms. “Tell me your meeting went well.”

“Where’s Clint?” Natasha asked worriedly. 

“Oh,” Steve said, “he’s fine, I wound up in a running kind-of skirmish that was mostly me obsessively chasing someone down and not getting them. I was just angry enough to bother with it when you said you were clear and didn’t need any more distraction.”

“Are you hurt?” she asked. 

“I’m never hurt,” Steve said, but he didn’t raise his head. “I figured it would look good, make HYDRA think we had no idea how serious they were about this, and also would let me work off some steam. So we did a whole scenario where we ran around like idiots chasing each other, let them separate us, made it look like Hawkeye-Bucky was hurt, I covered his escape, and then I just went berserker on a couple of guys and ran all over the place like a maniac.” His clothes were trashed. She was going to have to buy him more. He always said she didn’t need to shop for clothes for him but he looked a lot better once he let her do it. 

She’d pick him up some more outfits next time she bought Bucky clothes. She had been pleased to note she’d gotten his size right. Bucky had a gorgeous body, really gorgeous, and she wondered how much of that was innate and how much was whatever Super Soldier modifications they’d done to him. 

Either way. She was already plotting excuses to meet him in another hotel room, and that was probably a little out of hand. Down, girl.

She sighed, pushed to her feet. “You want a beer?” she asked. There was actually a keg with a tap in the kitchen ever since Howlett had started coming around more. He drank so heavily (and to zero effect) that having individual-serving cans and bottles was just a ridiculous waste of time. 

“Yeah,” Steve said, finally raising his head, and he had a bloody gash across one cheekbone. “Yeah, a beer would taste pretty good.”

She poured him a pint, and gave herself a small juice glass of the stuff. She liked a little bit of beer, it just made her burp if she had too much. And it didn’t have anything like an effective concentration of alcohol, so it wasn’t worth the effort.

He drank down half of the pint at one go, and she took the glass back and refilled it before she sat down. “Thank you,” he said, deeply sincere. “So you gotta tell me you had a better day than I did.”

“I did,” she said. “I got the scans Tony wanted, and Tony kinda locked himself in his lab with them so I’m just not gonna poke in there yet.”

“How was Bucky?” Steve asked. “I know he’d said today was a bad day.”

“He was a little flat,” Natasha said. “Like, it was hard for him to convey emotion normally. But he, um, he… got over that.” She was not blushing. She wasn’t. “I, ah, we had a really good conversation. And he said thanks for the stuff. He was really— the picture of his mom really moved him, I think, but he said it was the other picture I gave him before that made him cry because you still draw yourself the same way you did when you were little.”

Steve blinked at her, and she could see that he had noticed her moment of hesitation and was wondering about it. “You know,” he said, quietly, “it never really occurred to me to draw myself any differently.”

“Is it weird?” she asked. “Just to be so— so suddenly different?”

“It’s chronologically been like five or six years,” Steve said. “I’m used to it.”

“Bucky said something about how you were in chronic pain your whole life up until the serum,” Natasha said. “Is that true?”

Steve looked at the beer glass, turned it in his hands contemplatively. “Yeah,” he said, “what with one thing or another, I used to pretty much hurt all the time. Some days were real bad, some days were okay. I was pretty… people just think I was little, but I was little because I had some pretty bad things wrong with me.” He made a wry face and looked at her. “Why’d he tell you that?” 

“His prosthetic arm hurts him constantly,” Natasha said. “He seemed utterly unconcerned by that.”

Air whooshed out of Steve slowly, deflating him, though he really didn’t get any smaller, just more slumped. “Is it going to kill him?” he asked, very quietly, and not for the first time Natasha thought how much easier it would be if Steve were just a little stupider. 

“Might,” she said. “Tony’s working on it.”

“How was he apart from that?” Steve asked. 

“I took a picture of him in the shirt you gave him,” she said. “He Tweeted it at you. Ask Lakeisha if you should, before you follow him back.”

“I didn’t understand Twitter,” Steve said. His account was, boringly, just his name, no mention of Captain America. His user icon was a drawing of himself, cartoony, and the one-line About Me said I’m just a kid from Brooklyn. The background, at least, was a white star on a blue stripe with red edges. He had four Tweets, two of which seemed to be accidental, and had followed three accounts, but he was verified, and had about fifty thousand followers. 

The reason for that was that Tony was really active on Twitter and had mentioned him directly not long before, and Steve had replied. It was Steve’s sole interaction.

(Tony had said, “Captain America didn’t lay down his life in World War Two so that you ungrateful whippersnappers could post selfies” and Steve had written back “Yes I most certainly did” and appended a selfie, and Tony had answered “oh my God the apocalypse is at hand”, and the entire thing had been screenshotted and reposted several hundred thousand times. Natasha knew all of this because she’d made Steve do it, by whipping him up into a froth over self-expression and what a toolbox Tony was. Steve and Tony got along okay, for sufficiently volatile values of “okay”; Natasha liked that it was never boring.)

“You gotta use it to get it,” she assured him, but called up the picture on her own phone, and showed it to him. 

He took the phone, looking at it. Stark phone cameras were really good, and it was a good photo, a lot of detail in it, and Bucky was expressively sprawled, relaxed but a little self-conscious, an eyebrow quirked and his mouth curved in a flirty smirk.

“He looks good,” Steve said. “He looks so normal. He looks…” He trailed off, and looked up at Natasha with an oddly calculating look.

Clint picked that moment to wander in. “Aw,” he said, “yeah, beer, good idea.” He was tousled, freshly showered, blond again, and limping. He grabbed a glass down, filled it, and only then looked at Steve and said, “What, did you just get in?”

“I was chasin’ squirrels,” Steve said, but turned back to the picture of Bucky, chewing on his lip. 

“Nice jammies,” Clint said to Natasha. He took a swig from the beer glass, looked her over again, and said, “Wait, wait wait wait.” 

“What?” she asked, alarmed. 

He stood, hand on hip, looking her up and down. “You look awfully pleased with the world given the situation we’re in with this op,” he said. “What am I missing?”

“I can guess why,” Steve said, giving her a raised eyebrow. He set the phone on the table. “I would recognize that look anywhere.” Natasha blinked at him. 

Clint leaned over, frowning at the picture. “What? Oh, that’s our guy. Nice shirt.”

“That’s Bucky’s just-got-laid smirk,” Steve said, pulling with his fingers to zoom in on Bucky’s expression. 

“Ah,” Clint said. He reached over and punched Natasha’s shoulder. “That explains your aura of wellbeing. Well, damn, our popsicle is gettin’ over his brain damage at quite a clip.” 

One of the major attractions of Clint was that he wasn’t the jealous type, and he really wasn’t. He actually looked sort of proud of her. 

“He used a line on me,” Natasha admitted, feeling a sudden weird sense of inside-out empathy with the girls in TV shows that she’d often imitated to play a role but had never really understood. She’d never felt both proud and embarrassed about something like this. “And it was a good one. I had to reward that kind of progress.”

Steve shook his head slowly, incredulous. “It figures that would come back to him first,” he said. His expression clouded a little. “Are you sure that was a good idea?”

Natasha toyed with her glass. “I’ve found, in my personal experience,” she said, “that something so intensely physical can be really helpful at grounding you in your own body again.”

“Yeah,” Clint said, “I remember.” 

“Well,” Steve said, “did it help?”

“I think so,” Natasha said. “When I got there, he didn’t really have the capacity to have facial expressions, and this is what he looked like when I left, so I’d say it’s an improvement.” 

“How do you not have facial expressions?” Steve asked, puzzled. 

“Thousand-yard stare is an example,” she said. “You get those sometimes. It’s a sign that you’ve checked out, you’re not engaging with yourself or your surroundings.” 

“You forget to have facial expressions all the time,” Clint pointed out, to Natasha. “It’s sort of creepy.”

“Yes, thank you,” she said, giving him a dirty look. 

“This seems like a really rapid relationship development, for you,” Steve said. “I mean… you don’t sleep with a lot of people.”

“I don’t,” she said. She sighed. “Fine,” she said, “time for the long story.” She got up and refilled her beer glass, and refilled Steve’s for him one more time. Clint held his out and she laughed and refilled his too. 

Steve looked over at Clint, then back at her, obviously grasping either on his own or from some signal from Clint that this was important. He nodded slowly at her. 

 “Think back to when you were fifteen,” she said. “Think of…” She did the math in her head; she knew Clint’s birth year. “Think of Madonna.”

“Madonna,” Clint said flatly. 

“Like a Virgin,” she said. “True Blue. C’mon. She was everything you wanted in a woman and you didn’t know why, yet.”

“Well,” Clint said, “yeah. I might have given myself blisters jerkin’ it to pictures of her, yeah. But so what? So did everybody.”

“Madonna was the one with… the cone bra?” Steve said, frowning in concentration.

“She was a sex symbol,” Natasha said. She pondered. “I don’t know what the analogue would’ve been for you. Marilyn Monroe is too late.”

“Jean Harlow,” Steve said, without a second’s hesitation. She and Clint looked at him, and he blinked. “What? I’m just saying, I know what you mean.”

“I gotta look that one up,” Clint muttered. 

“Well,” Natasha said. She had no idea who Jean Harlow was either but given Steve’s expression, he was on board with the story. “I come from Soviet Russia.” She put on her TV-Russian accent, extra-thick. “I come from secret training facility. I have no radio. I have no television. I have no Madonna.”

“In Soviet Russia, Madonna beats it to you,” Clint said, cracking himself up. 

“No,” she said. “In secret Soviet training facility, baby Natasha is taught many things. And she is taught not shallow teenage idols, not pop stars, not anything so silly as that. No, she is taught to respect ruthlessness, to admire efficiency, to become completely enthralled by competence.”

“I have no idea where you’re going with this,” Clint confessed. Steve had his chin on his hand and was studying her intently.

“My idols were different,” she said. “And one day I got to meet one of them. I had studied, had been taught, everything there was to know, but it was still, it was like Elvis appearing, if you cared about Elvis which I know you don’t but I don’t even think Madonna cuts it as a comparison here.” 

“Wait a minute,” Clint said, getting it. Steve’s mouth curved a little; he was already there, had already been there.

“All my life as I learned to fight, as I learned to overcome human weakness and strive for perfection, I was told stories, I was shown footage, I was given mission reports of the legend, the ghost, the Winter Soldier. And when I was fifteen, he came to our facility for a training exercise. And he was amazing. He was incredible. He was a machine. He made no errors. He felt no pain. He was relentless, implacable, unstoppable.” She shook her head. 

“And you found that hot?” Clint was staring at her. Steve was grinning, shaking his head a little.

“No,” she said, “I found that terrifying and thrilling and the fact that I did the best out of all the trainees also made me very happy. But then, when the exercise was over, they didn’t put him away right away. They let him stay and give his report. And then they went over it. And for an hour or so, they left him sitting in the training room, with me, while they berated the losers. And sitting there, he took his mask off, and he wasn’t a robot. He was a man.” She pulled her knees up, setting the beer glass down and rubbing her eyes. “And he seemed tired and a little distant, but he talked to me, and told me I’d done well, and asked me things about my life. And he was kind, and a little bit funny. It was like if you met Madonna and it turned out she actually was smart and cool.”

“I don’t know that any of her appeal was cerebral,” Clint mused. 

“But if it were,” Natasha said, gesturing with the hand she’d been using to rub her eyes. 

“I thought he shot you,” Clint said.

“That was years later,” Natasha said. “And I thought he was long-gone. I knew they’d discontinued that whole program, I’d seen the remains of the other experiments like him that they’d put down like sick animals. I assumed he was one of them. But he wasn’t. He was a ghost.”

“He shot you twice,” Clint said. 

“And he did it flawlessly,” Natasha said. “Don’t you understand? Even now! Decades after they threw the rest of them out like trash, he is still relentless. Implacable. Unstoppable.” She gestured vaguely, helplessly. “And he is broken, and he knows now what he is, and when I met him again he could barely speak, he had almost no control, he could barely function. But he is still going, Clint. He is still relentless. Even in that state, he got the jump on me. Even in that state, he burns with the will to continue. Even though the machine part is dead. He is still unstoppable, Clint.”

“Huh,” Clint said warily.

“Don’t you see,” she said, exasperated. “They didn’t make him like that! They didn’t do that to him! He was already like that. It gives me a sense of— of myself, that I also am as I am not because I was made, but because I was me. I am not only the Black Widow, but also Natalia Romanova.” She gestured expansively, riding the momentum— it was more than she’d ever really revealed, even to herself.That isn’t the Winter Soldier, that is James Buchanan Barnes, and you cannot stop him, you cannot break him, you think you can control him but you can’t, Clint, you can’t. He will always rise again. He will come back from the dead, and he will do it again, and again, and again.” 

Clint didn’t have a cute answer for that, so they sat in silence for a moment. Steve was nodding. Finally, Clint said, “Even in bed?”

“Oh,” Natasha said, “especially.”

“That’s my boy,” Steve said, fond despite himself. 

 

* * * 

 

“Yeah,” Tony said from the door, startling Steve but not Natasha, “you kinda got a tall order for me with all this stuff.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” Natasha said. She and Steve had been up all night coordinating teams to go out and counteract HYDRA, had started getting their own people working to determine how far the infiltration extended. It was going as well as it could, but both of them were getting ragged and worried. Nobody had the first clue where Bucky actually was. He’d texted and Tweeted a little bit, so she knew he wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t being very responsive.

Natasha had sent his folder of images directly to Fury, and apparently there had been some not-insignificant fallout. It also had finally gotten her reports about Bucky taken seriously in the manner she wanted; Fury and Coulson had been sort of writing Bucky off as dangerous and unstable and something that would need to be neutralized when it was done being usefully destructive. She’d been telling them all along how coherent Bucky really was, how directed— they’d dismissed his worldwide rampage as revenge, even in the face of considerable (to Natasha) evidence that Bucky was aiming more for atonement, as if by destroying the instruments of his oppression he could make up for the evil he’d done at their command.

They hadn’t totally been writing her off, they knew her better than that, but now they were taking this just as seriously as she was, and that was kind of vindicating. She was taking that as something to set against her tiredness and worry, at least. 

“What stuff?” Steve asked, that line appearing between his eyebrows. He was so pretty, he couldn’t just look worried, he had to look nobly wounded. Natasha’s escapade into sexual tension relief had kind of backfired when it came to getting her to obey her own rule about not ogling Steve. 

That and the fact that it didn’t matter what she bought him, there wasn’t a t-shirt in existence that couldn’t flatter his improbable shoulders. And she couldn’t stop thinking about the part where he’d awkwardly admitted to Sam that, she’d extrapolated, probably 90% of his youthful sexual experimentation had been with Bucky, and now Natasha knew exactly how hot that was. (Steve was peaches and cream, Bucky was honey and tobacco, both had the kind of full lower lip that was perfect for biting, but she’d bet anything that Bucky did more biting than Steve. She had no data on the ways in which Steve fucked— was he earnest? playful? rough?— and that lack was really crucial to maintaining her sanity, but her imagination had been getting better lately and that was a problem.)

“Comrade Freezerburn,” Tony said, coming in and gesturing a holographic screen out of nowhere. That never worked for anyone else, but he could do it at will, by mysterious means that probably involved extensive programming. Natasha was occasionally tempted to try hacking JARVIS but had concluded that the AI was probably more amenable to bribery and appealing to his astonishingly developed sense of humor than he was to security exploits. 

The scans Natasha had taken had been massaged expertly into place atop the schematics, and she tore the last of her attention away from the divot between Steve’s collarbones and really looked. 

“Is that—“ Steve cut himself off. “That’s bone, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” Tony said, “the whole fuckin’ thing is riveted straight through the humerus, which as you can see, is just rotten with microfractures. He must have a pretty hefty accelerated-healing factor thing, like yours, maybe even more revved, or the thing would have goddamned fallen off by now, but as it is—“ he pointed to a few places. “He’s got extensive bone damage to all the bones of the shoulder girdle, and they’ve ripped him open and grafted metal on in a few places for reinforcement, probably to repair fractures, certainly to give augmented strength, but it’s just the shittiest hack job I’ve ever seen. There are reinforcing structures just going straight through muscle tissue, it’s got to be incredibly painful. The human body wasn’t designed to work like that and there’s no reason at all he hasn’t died of a blood infection or worse, at this point.”

“That has to be so painful,” Natasha said quietly, thinking of the brutal scars crisscrossing his torso, thinking of the way he’d held the arm unmoving against his ribs most of the time she’d been around him. 

“I can’t even begin to tell you how painful this has gotta be. All those hotspots are inflammation, from recent injuries or aggravations. Right here, he cracked his collarbone probably less than two months ago, right next to the last reinforcement; he’s on the verge of a major structural failure right there.” Tony pointed. Natasha grimaced. Steve’s face might have been carved from stone. 

“And I’m not talking about the metal reinforcements,” Tony clarified, “I mean the human bone they’re mounted on is going to have massive structural failure. He’s had some upgrades relatively recently, but from the look of it, this project was slated for termination pretty soon. A lot of these repairs have a distinctly… temporary look to them. Sure, he was built to last in the beginning, but they’d figured he was at end-of-life pretty soon. Most of those reinforcements were just to buy another couple missions, I’m guessing.”

“Yeah,” Natasha said. “He said he figured as much.”

“But it’s worse than that,” Tony said. He pointed at a white area, so dense the scan had entirely reflected back with no penetration. It was a two-by-four-inch rectangle or so, located just above the crook of the elbow, near where the biceps muscle attached on a normal arm. “This is the power source. It’s not a good power source. Near as I figure, your guy’s walking around with a time bomb. I’m guessing he’s got less than 12 hours before it kills him, maybe a little more, maybe a lot less. It depends on how modified he is, like, Super Soldier-wise.”

Natasha breathed out slowly. “That’s the killswitch?” she asked. 

“It’s not that sophisticated,” Tony said. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s some beautiful work in this thing, but it’s got some major flaws, and this is one. The power source is largely unshielded, and is a very unstable type. It might even have been deliberately designed this way. It’s not a killswitch explicitly, it’s just that after it depletes entirely, the chemicals in it will corrode what little shielding there is. And here? This is where his flesh and blood arm starts. And that’s a porous barrier, there. Once the shielding’s gone, this stuff is going to get into his bloodstream, and I figure it’ll take between eight and twenty hours for it to build up to lethal concentrations, at which point there’s nothing anybody’s going to be able to do for him, no matter how super a soldier he is.”

“And you estimate the process has begun,” Natasha said. 

“I can see that the process has begun,” Tony said, and he pointed a little higher up. “These scans aren’t designed to really catalogue, ah, soft organic structures. You shouldn’t be able to see those blood vessels, not clearly like that. The reason you can see those blood vessels is that they’re full of the shit from that dead battery, basically. They’re carrying that into the rest of his body, and it’s going to kill him sooner rather than later. Since you took these scans close to eight hours ago, he’s got between zero and 12 hours for me to find that thing and yank it out.”

“We gotta find him,” Steve said, anguished. 

“Yes,” Tony said grimly. “We do. But I’d just like to state for the record, I ran the numbers and the odds that this guy was behind the quote-unquote accident that killed my folks is up in the 90th percentile.”

“Tony,” Natasha said, putting her hand on Steve’s chest before he could do any more than silently increase in mass— at times like this, oh, he remembered just how big he was, all right— and moving in between them. “Tony, he knows that. He said as much to me. He doesn’t remember doing it but he knows he was out of cryo during that year.” 

“But it wasn’t— he had no free will!” Steve said, and Natasha paused a moment to wish he weren’t here for this conversation. This room needed less testosterone in it for this conversation. 

“And I have no parents,” Tony said, mouth twisting, “so let’s all cry.” It was like Steve had done it on purpose, had calculated this to inflame Tony as much as possible. 

“You have to help,” Steve said, and she understood that he was desperate but he was coming across far too intense, over-the-top righteous, and it was like Kryptonite to Tony’s already shaky grasp on being a reasonable human. 

“I don’t have to do anything,” Tony said, bristling. 

“Steve,” Natasha said sharply, pushing him squarely in the chest, “sit down.”

“I can’t,” Steve said, and she could see how broken-up he was, could see it was desperate pain that was setting that granite jaw, not righteous anger, but Tony wasn’t as sensitive to the nuance, was a lot more absorbed in the facade of Captain America-ness Steve unconsciously projected. “Natasha, Tony, I can’t—“ 

“You’ve got some serious issues about this, huh,” Tony said. Maybe he did have some insight. 

“Isn’t there anyone you care about?” Steve asked, too angry and not sad enough to tip Tony into sympathy. “Isn’t there anyone you’d— don’t you care about anything?”

“Steve,” Natasha said, “that’s enough of that.”

“I thought we were past this,” Tony said. “I thought we’d already done the ideology-conflict bullshit clash thing. Didn’t we do that? Didn’t I fly into another, like, universe or something, carrying a nuclear bomb, and actually fucking die to save Manhattan? Like, I swear to God we’ve been over this, and I thought we were cool.”

Steve was shaking, actually trembling, on the verge of explosion, and Natasha said, sharply, “Steve! He never said he wouldn’t. You are not helping. Sit down or Bucky will die and it really will be your fault this time.” She shoved him in the chest and he sat down hard on the couch, blinking in shock. 

She turned to Tony. “I had this whole approach planned, where I was going to appeal to you with humanism and then go for scientific interest and then finally get you with self-interest when I pointed out that Bucky knows every filthy nasty embarrassing thing Steve did before he was a Capsicle, but I don’t really have time for that, I have a Steve Rogers bomb that’s going to go off because this is really more important to him than truth, justice, and the American Way all wrapped up into one. Can we do this, Tony?”

Tony stared at her. “You’re dangerous,” he said. 

“No shit,” she said. “Come on, Tony, he’s a really good kid, and he alluded fascinatingly to a French whorehouse and Steve turned bright red. Can you really let that slip through your fingers? That and a whole pile of really keen retro Soviet tech, plus a hot cyborg assassin who’ll owe you a life-debt. I mean, this is material for, like, ten years’ worth of good times, Tony.”

“That’s disgusting,” Steve said faintly, but his rage was fizzling out. Natasha sat on his lap, which effectively short-circuited him into silence. She was playing dirty enough that she didn’t go for his thighs, either; she planted her ass right against his crotch, which shut him right the hell up.

Tony looked intrigued, then resigned, then hesitant. “Well, I can get the power source out and keep him alive in the short-term, if we can find him in time. But I can’t really fix him, I need doctors, specialists. I don’t really know anything about, you know, internal medicine. I don’t really do… wetware.”

Natasha pointedly looked from his face down to his chest, where the arc reactor embedded in his breastbone glowed, then back up. “No, huh?”

“That’s different,” he said. “Look, I’m just saying, I’ll keep him alive, I just don’t know that I can do anything beyond the short-term keeping him alive.”

“You maybe could, though,” Natasha said, pushing because she wanted it all out of the way. But it was low-stakes now, she had what she really needed, which was Bucky’s death sentence commuted. She’d worry about the rebuilding work later. Didn’t hurt to lay groundwork while she had momentum, though.

“I’m not promising that,” Tony said. “The man did murder my family.”

“Final offer: I’m banging him and if you fix him up, I bet he’ll let you watch. I sure will.” 

“Jesus,” Steve said, but he didn’t try to get Natasha off his lap. He actually put his arms around her and settled her against his chest with a resigned sigh, a pretty clear message that he wasn’t about to stand in judgement of her methods. 

“Deal,” Tony said, both eyebrows going up. 

 

* * * 

 

Adequate nutrition was going to make a huge difference, Bucky realized pretty much immediately. The shot of endorphins or whatever you got from orgasms had given him a big boost psychologically, but just having decent nutrients to work with improved his outlook on life enormously. 

Time to focus and prepare for the imminent HYDRA explosion. They would most likely try to run him to ground somewhere, surround him. He was figuring they probably wanted to recapture him. If they were really hell-bent on termination he’d already have caught a bullet center mass from a thousand-plus yards by now— he was absolutely not the only sniper in their arsenal. 

Just the best one. (He’d looked it up. His record was incomplete but what there was of it was pretty damn impressive. He wasn’t just accurate, he was well-rounded; more than one kill over 2200 yards, countless targets in complicated closer-in urban environments. He was good, he was really good. At a truly horrible thing.)

 

It’s okay, it’s okay

Long as you know

Long as you know

Long as you motherfuckers know

I’m the best, best, best, best

 

He had a couple of messages from Brenda, and one from Inez, asking if he was okay, replying to his post about yesterday being a bad day. He went and found the photo Natasha had texted him, which she must have taken when he and Steve first embraced in the diner. It was an all right photo; his face was recognizable, and while there was a little glimmer of his arm visible, it wasn’t obvious that it was metal; it might have just been a mismatched shirt sleeve. You could kind of recognize Steve, if you knew him, but Bucky had caught on that most people didn’t really know what Steve looked like out of context. He wasn’t exactly incognito in civvies, but he didn’t stand out as much as Natasha thought he did. 

So he posted the picture and tagged Brenda and said “we didn’t punch each other even once”, and on impulse tagged Steve and Natasha in it. That would do as a check-in, with all three of them. It was like he’d acquired an honorary auntie. 

All his aunties were certainly dead too, and up to this moment it hadn’t even occurred to him to think about what his funeral had been like. No, his mom had definitely still been alive when he’d died.  He would have remembered her funeral. He remembered his father’s, and his little sister’s. He’d remember his mother’s.

He rolled out of the nest of cardboard where he’d slept behind a big garbage bin and pulled his hair out of the ponytail Natasha had put it in, shaking loose the random bits of filth clinging to him— mostly, dead leaves and scraps of paper. He’d caught a couple of hours just before dawn, and combined with the tasteless but really immediately satisfying stuff Natasha had given him to eat, he was feeling pretty on top of things. 

Except for his arm. His left arm was pretty much dead except for the fading waves of sensory static; the fingers didn’t move at all, and about half the time when he moved the elbow there was an incredibly painful snagging sensation that felt like he was tearing something internal. So he improvised a surreptitious sling out of one of his beat-up old shirts, and kinda hid it under the body of the hoodie so it didn’t show, but he could tuck his arm into it whenever he didn’t need to move it, so the weight didn’t pull so badly. 

Despite that he was feeling really human today. Today’s project, fueled by his exceptionally human state, was going to be consolidating his weapons cache. He made his way up to his warehouse in the Bronx on the subway, attracting almost no weird looks once he put his hair back into the ponytail. (Damned difficult with one hand; he managed to use the dead metal hand to brace against, at least, and eventually got it after a lot of trying.) Probably helped that he’d showered and shaved recently. And he’d been pretty consistently having facial expressions without undue conscious input since the moment Natasha had climbed into his lap, so there was that. Who knew, the secret to unlocking all Bucky Barnes’ superpowers was a good-lookin’ dame. 

He had to be prepared to roll with that, he really did; she was a spy and an assassin and whatever she said, that wasn’t going to change. He hadn’t been dumb enough to hang his heart on a girl in a long time now, but mostly that was because he hadn’t been in a position to do so. 

Sappiness won out enough that he sent her a text. “I think I gotta work on some more lines,” he wrote. 

A message popped up, but it was from Brenda, and it was a response to his picture post. It said, “… is that who I think it is?” 

Shit. Here we go, he thought. He tagged Steve in his reply and wrote back, “Maybe?”

“I will be glad to help you work on your pickup lines,” Natasha wrote back. “How’s your arm today?”

“Dead,” he wrote back, “can’t move it.” No sense hiding that. “Your guy say anything?”

“He hasn’t gotten back to me,” she wrote. “My PR girl is on her way in, we’re going to collaborate on this once I have her up to speed. Data analysis on your info dump, btw, suggests that NYPD might be under heavy HYDRA influence so exercise caution.”

“Shit,” Bucky wrote back. That was a problem— he couldn’t exactly get into an armed standoff with the police. If nothing else, most of them would be innocent. 

He got off the subway and went purposefully in the wrong direction for a little while, staying under cover without obviously doing so, then doubled back, and hid out in the back of a hardware store for a few minutes, looking as un-suspicious as he could by checking his phone as if trying to consult a shopping list. 

A notification popped up from Twitter, from a handle he didn’t know. It said “Hey follow me back so we can DM, I gotta talk to you about this engineering project.” 

He’d gotten spam follow requests before but this one looked weird. He checked out the handle and it had one of those little green checkmarks that meant it was a verified account. (He’d looked that up when he’d found Steve.) It was… Oh, man. 

It was Tony Stark. Engineering?— oh. Oh, the arm. 

He replied, “How screwed am I?” and followed Tony back. Meanwhile he’d gotten another notification. Tony had replied to his post with the picture of Steve, and had said “Aw heartwarming, so much freezerburn in one room.” 

A clerk approached and tried to help Bucky, which led to him having to concoct a story about needing wall anchors to hang a shelf, and then not being sure which kind of surface he had, and generally making himself sound like a stupid idiot, but it let him kill time and escape the store without buying anything, in time to catch Stark’s direct message: “You are being poisoned as we speak and we have to get that power source out as soon as possible, I mean within hours.”

Bucky wrote back, “Well, fuck,” for want of anything better to say. His time was running out sooner rather than later, it seemed. That explained some things, he supposed. No time to dawdle, then. He had to put his phone away, and focus. He was here to retrieve his cached weapons and tac gear. He scrambled with difficulty up the broken cinder block wall to get to the wing where he’d left his stuff. It had been easy to get to before, but with one arm a painful dead weight it was much more difficult. He slipped, at one point, and tore his jeans and skinned his knee, but managed not to plummet to his death. That would have been… pretty ignominious, he reflected, sitting shakily on a ledge and looking down about a hundred feet. He’d probably have survived the initial impact, but wouldn’t really last long incapacitated and helpless out here. 

As he rested he pulled his phone out again. It really was addicting. He had a shitload of retweet notices for the picture of him and Steve, which was weird. Brenda hadn’t written anything but Inez had written, “Wait, is that Captain America?????” and had retweeted the picture with an exclamation to that effect.

Tony had direct-messaged “Where are you? I know you’re supposed to be bait in this trap but you can’t be bait if you’re dead.” And followed it up with “I mean multiple organ failure dead, I know of what I speak and am not kidding about this.”

Natasha had texted him “Tony says you’re in trouble. We need to meet somewhere. Where are you now?” and had followed it up with “Tony says it’s really bad, I need you to respond.” 

As he was reading all these things, a text arrived from a number he didn’t know. He opened it, and it said, “Hi, Mr. Barnes, this is Lakeisha Adams, and I really need you to call me at this number, I do PR for Stark/Avengers and this situation is about to get out of hand.”

He didn’t know if he could handle making a phone call. He really shouldn’t do it from here, he was kind of precariously perched. He wrote back, “acknowledged— 5 minutes”, and to Natasha wrote, “I’m okay, I know, give me a minute”. 

He put the phone away and clambered the last little way to the cache. It was all in a duffel bag wrapped in a scrap of tarp, and he unrolled it on the floor. He pulled out his favorite M1911 .45 pistol, which he’d kept out of basest sentiment— the ammo wasn’t compatible with the 9mm he also had, and it was stupid to carry both, but he really liked the balance on this one. He knew now he preferred it so much because that was the model they’d issued officers when he was in the Army and he’d come by one and hung onto it a while, gotten pretty good with it as far as handguns went for target shooting; as the Winter Soldier, he hadn’t remembered that, he’d just known he liked it better than the slick modern 9mms.

There was a shotgun too, which he balanced experimentally. If he could brace it on his left arm, he could use it just fine— he could work the action one-handed as long as his elbow remained functional enough to support it. And then there was his sniper rifle. He only had about ten rounds for that one anymore, but it was a really good one, with a nice solid action and a beautiful telescopic sight he had calibrated just the way he liked. You didn’t need a ton of rounds for a sniper rifle. (They’d tried to switch him to Dragunovs but they were flimsy, he felt, less substantial. He hadn’t been allowed to have a lot of opinions but they’d tended to let him pick his weapons.) He put it back in the duffel; he’d only be able to fire it prone, not kneeling or standing, but that was the best use for a sniper rifle anyway. 

In jeans and a hoodie, instead of tac gear, there were notably fewer places to strap knives, especially if one wanted to remain unobtrusive. He found a couple places— ankle, calf, wrist, and put the switchblade he’d bought at a souvenir place into the hoodie pocket. That one was more amusing than dangerous, but one never knew. The other knives stayed in the duffel. He zipped it up, secured it carefully around his body, and pulled out his madly vibrating phone before he began his descent. 

There were more notifications than he could even process, and he made a face at all of them. The headphones had a microphone, they were designed to double as a headset. He was going to have to make his first attempt at a phone call that way, this couldn’t wait any longer. 

He found the PR girl and dialed. 

“Hey,” he said, “it’s Barnes.”

“Brenda Adams is my mother,” the woman said. She had a soft, young woman’s voice, but she sounded a little keyed up. 

“Brenda,” he said. “Oh! Brenda from the laundromat. What, really?”

“Yes,” she said, “oh my God. She was all on about this nice boy she’d met, this Jimmy, and you sent her that picture and oh my God. I work with Captain Rogers, I know him, I know who you are. I wasn’t quick enough— I got Mom to keep her mouth shut but her neighbor Inez figured out you were Jimmy Barnes and it is blowing up. We have a situation, Barnes.” 

He sighed, and dug his fingers into the rough brick. “Well,” he said. “Thing is. I’m on a tight schedule here, is the thing.”

“Did you realize what you were unleashing?” she asked. 

“Not really,” he said, “but I need chaos, ma’am. I got a matter of hours left alive and if I can’t get HYDRA to make a move on me, I’m not gonna be able to do this at all.”

“What?” She sounded hesitant. He almost missed his handhold and scrabbled frantically, scraping his fingers pretty bad and biting off a curse. “Are you all right?”

“Nope,” he said. “I got a time bomb embedded in me, and I just almost fell off a fuckin’ building. Today is not goin’ my way and honestly, you know what, if you can find some gasoline to throw on that situation that is blowing up, I’d be much obliged.”

“It was Tony’s involvement that blew it up,” the woman said with a sigh. “If he hadn’t commented on that picture I don’t think anybody would’ve noticed. He was smart getting you to direct message but it was too little too late after that comment.”

“Yeah, well,” Bucky said, and bit his lip, digging bloody fingers into a brick ledge and scrabbling madly with his feet. “Fuck! Okay.”

“What are you doing?” the woman asked. 

He didn’t answer, needing all of his attention to make a short jump which he landed only by slamming sideways into it. “Uh,” he said, rolling over. “Ow. Parkour.”

“What?” The woman’s voice went a little sharp. “Did you say parkour?” 

“That’s what the kids call it now, right?” He stuck his bloody fingers in his mouth to suck the little chips of rock out of the scrapes. “Ow. I’m climbing down the side of a building.”

“Why?” She sounded really alarmed. 

“Weapons cache,” he said. “Please, I know I’m a PR disaster but at least I haven’t been carrying sniper equipment around New York this entire time.”

His legs were shaking, his right arm was numb, but his left was burning ominously, and he knew Tony Stark hadn’t been being overdramatic. He still had a couple of storeys to go. “You’re— weapons?” The woman’s voice had gone a little faint. 

“I can’t exactly get into an armed standoff with the NYPD, which is what Nat’s telling me I’m up against, but I’m not just going to lie down and take it either,” Bucky said. He sighed heavily. “If I jump from here I’ll definitely break an ankle, that’d be a bad plan.” 

“Don’t hurt yourself,” the woman said. “Oh my God I am in so far over my head.”

“Get Natasha,” Bucky said. “She’s never been out of her depth in her life.” He wiped stinging sweat out of his eyes, and said, “Listen, ma’am, I need as much public fuss as possible, I can’t afford to have them wait any longer to come after me. Stark says I have literally hours left before this fuckin’ thing poisons me and I know they’re just waiting for me to keel over so they can come and salvage spare parts off me.”

“I am right about to meet with her,” the woman said. 

“Tell her I’m in contact with Stark,” Bucky said, gathering what strength he could, “and tell her one nine with two hi-cap clips, one forty-five with one clip, one twelve-guage with four or five slugs, and an M82 with about ten shots.”

“Are those guns?” she asked, but she sounded resigned. 

“Romanov will know what they are,” he said. His legs weren’t going to stop shaking, he realized with some resignation. “Tell her I got the M82 sighted in, I got an effective range well over two thousand meters with this one. She knows my record.”

“Oh… kay,” the woman said. 

“Hey,” he said. “What I need from Romanov is how I’m going to tell HYDRA from NYPD. I know I’m just the bait but if I don’t fight back they’re not going to buy it, they’re not gonna commit full-out. I’m just here to set ‘em up so all of them Avengers types can actually move in and sort the wheat from the chaff. But I need targets, and I’m not about to shoot real New York City cops. If I’m killing someone I want it to be a real enemy, you know?”

“I follow that part,” the woman said. 

“You get that from Romanov,” he said, “and you text me what you need me to do, like if I gotta post anything or whatever, and I’m gonna focus on not falling off this fuckin’ building because I still got two storeys to get down and I can’t feel my fuckin’ feet.”

 “Okay,” the woman said, “before you go, you know what, I just want you to take a picture of yourself, real clear and recognizable, and put it up on Twitter. People need to be absolutely sure who you are. You got me?”

“I got you,” Bucky said. “I’ll do that before I fall off the building.”

“No visible guns!” she said. “That’s my only request. Bear in mind I figure on making you out to be some kind of folk hero here, and you being young and white and good-looking is kind of key to that, so if you can manage a flattering picture, that’d help the cause.”

Bucky laughed at that. “I’m dying,” he said, “so I don’t know about the good-looking thing, and I’m literally a hundred years old, but I’ll do what I can. And no guns.”

“Right,” she said. “I know I probably haven’t made that great an impression on you but I promise you I’m gonna catch up and hit the ground running here. I got you, Barnes, I do, and it’s gonna be okay.”

“I just want to drag as many sleeper agents out as I can,” Bucky said. “That’s the point of this whole thing.”

“I got higher aspirations than that,” the woman said. 

“I gotta go,” Bucky said. He was only getting weaker sitting here. “But hey. You tell your mom thanks for the bagel, it was actually the nicest thing anybody had done for me in like seventy-five years.”

“She really thought you were a nice kid,” the woman said. 

“She was sweet,” Bucky said. “I really gotta go or I’m not gonna get down from this building.”

“I’ll get the Black Widow on this immediately,” the woman said, and ended the call. 

He took a breath, held it, let it out. “Okay,” he said to himself, and his goddamn phone went crazy again. 

He didn’t know this number either. That was either good or bad. He picked up the call. “Who is this,” he said. 

“This is Tony Stark,” a voice said, and yeah, it probably was. Fair enough.

“Make it quick,” Bucky said, “I’m hangin’ off a goddamn ledge.” He edged out, caught it, and swung down to the next one.

“You need to do everything you can to avoid getting your heart rate up,” Tony said. “The faster your blood circulates, the faster that stuff gets sucked into your bloodstream and spread around. It’s going to concentrate in your kidneys, your liver, it’s going to send you into organ failure and shock.”

“Great,” Bucky muttered. He scrabbled with his toes until he found the handhold. “Well, when I’m— nngh— done climbing down this fucking building, I’ll be sure to keep— fuck!” That last came out a little shrill as a foothold he was sort of relying on crumbled. He caught himself, losing the rest of the skin on his fingers in the process, and gritted his teeth, hanging on grimly until he managed to get a foot onto the crumbling edge of the floor. 

“Holy shit, Barnes, what the fuck,” Tony was saying. 

“I’m good,” Bucky panted, slinging himself onto the semi-sturdy floor and lying flat on his front for a moment. Could he use the other functions of the phone while he was talking on it? He shoved himself up to a sitting position, fumbled the phone out of the pocket he’d shoved it in, and yes, he could open the camera app. Okay. 

“What are you doing?” Tony asked. 

“I had to climb a warehouse to retrieve a weapons cache,” Bucky said. “Jesus, everybody’s acting like that’s a weird thing to do when you’re about to provoke a massive armed standoff.” He got the camera app loaded up and grimaced at the preview. He looked like goddamn shit. At least the light was okay. He scrubbed dirt off his face, got his hair sort of… there wasn’t anything you could do with hair that fucking ratty, regardless of what Natasha seemed to think.

“No no,” Tony said. “No armed standoff. We really need to get the melting power source out of your arm, and then we can go back to playing terrorist. Okay?”

“No dice,” Bucky said. He tried a smile. That looked stupid. He tried a neutral face. Terrorist was right. He tried another one, eyes open a little wider, and it looked a little less deranged, maybe a little more defiant. 

“I’m not fucking around,” Tony said, “the power source was designed to corrode once it was exhausted, and it has broken through the ridiculously inadequate liquid shielding and is just pouring literal poison into your bloodstream. You have, like, an hour, man.”

Bucky sighed, uploaded the photo, and chewed on his lip, considering. “An hour’s probably generous,” he conceded. “I can’t feel my feet.” 

He uploaded the photo with the caption “A hundred motherfuckers can’t tell me nothin’,” because of course he’d discovered Nicki Minaj. He tagged Steve, Tony, and Natasha in it. 

“Jesus,” Tony said. “Where are you? If it’s within the five boroughs I can be there in less than 45 minutes, I’m packing up now.”

“Bronx,” Bucky said. “Wayyyy up. Took me like an hour on the B train to get all the way up here.” He shoved to his feet, readjusted the duffel bag, staggered a little, and caught himself against the wall. The last storey down was a stairwell with one missing step. 

“Address,” Tony said. 

Bucky considered it, edging down the stairs. “You can just pull this thing out and I can keep going?”

“Well,” Tony said, “yes, if you’re going to keep going straight into a hospital to get your blood filtered.”

“No fuckin’ dice, man,” Bucky said, and got a staggering/running start and just made it over the missing step. He missed his footing, skidded and fell down a few steps, slamming his right shoulder into the metal grating kind of hard. He’d hurt his shoulders earlier in his world tour of shocking violence, thought maybe he’d cracked a couple bones, and this impact sent pain zinging through all of the bones of his shoulders and upper chest, his ribcage and spine, and he curled up and breathed through it for a moment before he could move enough to do a damage assessment.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Tony demanded. 

Bucky rolled himself up. Nothing was broken, but he was gonna be real goddamn sore for a while. Like, more than usual, but it was all kind of a drop in the bucket at this point. “Nngh, that’s gonna leave a mark,” he said, and stumbled the rest of the way down the stairs. “I fell down the fuckin’ stairs because I can’t feel my feet. But I made it down the side of the five-storey building first so I figure that’s a win.” He caught himself against the wall, breathing. “I compliment you, by the way; I noticed this is a Stark phone and I gotta say it’s pretty ace, it just took a hell of an impact and didn’t even drop the call.” Screen wasn’t cracked either. Not bad.

“I do make a good smartphone,” Tony said, tone lighter for a moment, but then he went back to being annoyed. “Jesus, Barnes. If you don’t give me an address to work with I’m just going to remotely hack your phone and find you that way.”

“I don’t know the address,” Bucky said. “I’m not holdin’ out on you, get offa my dick.” He shoved off the wall and stumbled to the door. He was definitely going to puke. 

Tony unexpectedly cracked up into apparently sincere laughter. Bucky yanked one earbud out and got the microphone away from his face so he could throw up. “Jesus, you’re hilarious,” Tony said. “I had no idea Steve had it in him to have a friend like that.”

Bucky put the other earbud back in and collected himself enough to say, “Steve’s not what most people think he is.” He dry-heaved, but it was quiet. He hadn’t eaten today, so there wasn’t much to come up. “Okay. No address. Hang on. I am going to re-enable the location thingy on this phone for precisely twenty seconds. I hope that’s long enough for you.”

“Oh,” Tony said, “I’m almost in, don’t trouble yourself.” 

“What’s your method of transport?” Bucky asked. “Because if you’re obvious about it, HYDRA is going to totally ruin your day.”

“What?” 

Bucky’s knees had given out, but he dragged himself back up. “They don’t have me surrounded but they’re definitely trackin’ me,” he said. “And they’ve gotta know as well as you do that I don’t have real long before I’m reduced to spare parts. If they see you comin’ for me they’re probably going to try to get there first.” He pushed himself off the wall, and got his balance enough to walk out of the building and down to the sidewalk. He had to place his feet carefully like a drunk, but he could do it. 

“Shit,” Tony said, “hey, you’re actually— I own a building on that block.”

“Tha’ss nice,” Bucky said, and propped himself against the wall as a tremor shook his whole body. He had to throw up again, which was ludicrous because there was nothing to throw up. 

“Head south, it’s gonna be on your left,” Tony said. “Don’t sweat this, Bucksicle, I’ll be inconspicuous.”

Bucky didn’t answer, too busy dry-heaving. Tony was describing a building, maybe, red brick or some shit, but Bucky was really not listening. After a moment Tony said, “Um, are you still there?”

“Yeah,” Bucky gasped, wiping his mouth; his knees had given out and he was on the ground. “Sort of.”

“Are you throwing up?” Tony asked. 

“Yup,” Bucky said, breathing hard. He was shaking and everything hurt like he had a real high fever. Kind of like the pneumonia that one time. 

“That’s bad,” Tony said. “Aha. Yes. All right. Sit tight.”

“Ain’t a good place for that,” Bucky said, climbing shakily to his feet. 

“No no,” Tony said, “I mean it, you’ve really got to keep still if you can. Moving is only going to make this worse.”

“You do remember the part about HYDRA, right?” Bucky said, gritting his teeth. He probably looked like a drunk. South. It was morning, that meant the sun was in the east, that meant this was south. One foot in front of the other. 

“I do,” Tony said, “which is why I’m on my way.”

“Bring Natasha?” Bucky said forlornly. 

“Yeah,” Tony said, “she’s informed me I can’t leave without her, I’m waiting for her now.”

“Okay,” Bucky said. “I’m gonna try to make it to that building you mentioned.”

 

* * * 

 

“Bucky Barnes is a goddamn gift straight from heaven to me personally,” a young black woman said as she came in the door, and Natasha recognized the girl she’d watched through the air vent. She had a Stark tablet in one hand and looked really young. 

“Get in line,” Natasha said, deciding informal was the way to go here. This girl didn’t look exactly corporate, but if she was from Stark and had been personally recommended by Pepper, she was probably tack-sharp. 

“Did you see what he posted?” the girl asked, gesturing with the tablet. She came closer and held her hand out. “I’m Lakeisha, by the way, from the PR department. You must be Ms., er, Agent Romanoff?”

“Natasha,” Natasha said, and shook her hand. She had a warm, firm handshake. “No, I didn’t see.”

“I spoke to him briefly on the phone, and he informed me he was doing parkour, and when I asked him if he could post a clear photograph of himself, he posts this.” Lakeisha hit a button and the tablet projected the typical Stark holographic interface. It was a photo of Bucky’s face, and his eyes were very large and blue in the indirect daylight, his skin pale and somehow managing to be attractively grime-streaked. 

“It’s a good photo,” Natasha said, not following. 

“I asked if he could try to make it a flattering one,” Lakeisha said, “and I can’t complain, but look at the caption.”

Natasha read it aloud. “A hundred… motherfuckers… can’t tell me nothin’.”

“It’s a Nicki Minaj quote,” Lakeisha said. “Like, I thought he was from the 40s, why does he know Nicki Minaj?” Effortlessly, she opened another window and called up the YouTube video of the song in question. 

 

Bitches ain’t shit and they ain’t sayin’ nothin’

A hundred motherfuckers can’t tell me nothin’

I beez in the trap, be beez in the trap

I beez in the trap, be beez in the trap

 

“I don’t get it,” Natasha said blankly, watching a woman in a sea-green wig and a bikini gesture with several thousand dollars in American $100 bills and gyrate in a strobe light as confetti rained down.

“It’s complicated,” Lakeisha said sympathetically. “But the main thrust is that she’s so good, you know, all these ain’t-shit bitches, you know, these untalented nobodies, can’t say anything to her, not even a hundred of them, because she’s in the trap, she’s in the, uh, where you get, where everything comes to you.”

“I assume this is a recent release,” Natasha said dryly.

“Last year, year before,” Lakeisha said. She tapped the interface. “Ah. 2012.”

Natasha nodded slowly, then laughed. “He’s obsessed with popular music,” she said. “He’s also a lot better at fitting in than Steve. I guarantee you, you could put Bucky on Mars and he’d figure out the Martian accent by noon and have his impression perfect by three, you’d think he was a native.”

“Is that why,” Lakeisha said, and gestured, understandably at a loss to describe the whole situation that was Bucky. “You know. They. Him.”

Natasha shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think so, from what I can tell they never really understood what they had in him. They wanted him to be an empty shell for them, they never used his smarts or his personality. Just his reflexes.” She shrugged. “Might also have partly been who he was, that he was so important in American history, but I don’t know about that either, since they never bragged about him or rubbed it in at all. I really think he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and survived.”

Lakeisha nodded. “He seems, well, not at all what I had expected,” she said. “I know Captain Rogers had said all kinds of things about him but I sort of hadn’t figured he’d… well, still be that guy.”

Natasha smiled, considering the photo of Bucky that was still displayed on the first holographic screen. “He is,” she said. She considered the dirt on his face, the weariness in his eyes and the pain settled at the corners of his mouth. “HYDRA very much wants to recapture him, to empty him out again and reclaim him as their weapon. To this end they’ve infiltrated the NYPD, particularly the SWAT teams, and there’s a killswitch in his arm that’s going to poison him very soon.”

“He mentioned a time bomb,” Lakeisha said. “I wasn’t sure if he was being literal.”

“It probably won’t explode,” Natasha said, “but it has already started to poison him. Stark estimates irreversible organ damage within the day if we can’t stop it.”

“Shitty,” Lakeisha said, frowning. “Well. His history is what’ll save him. I'm gonna have Steve give me everything he has on Bucky— pictures, photos, sketches, stories, whatever— and I’m putting together all those resources to release in a coordinated fashion. The more sympathy we can get on his side, the more difficult it will be for his enemies to just disappear him the way they seem to want to.”

“True,” Natasha said. 

“I figured you know,” Lakeisha said, “that shining the bright light of public awareness onto something makes it very difficult to get away with anything further concerning it.”

“At least until attention dies down,” Natasha sighed, pulling her phone out and poking disconsolately at it. “A lot of the stuff I worked so hard to bring to light is already forgotten.”

“We don’t have to worry about long-term,” Lakeisha said. 

“Fair,” Natasha said. She had a message from Tony, which said, “Your boy’s fucked.” She frowned, and wrote back “How bad?”

“I need Captain America to make a statement, though,” Lakeisha said. “I’m going to have to have him comment publicly on all this.”

“He’s probably taking a nap,” Natasha said absently, as Tony texted back.

“I’m on the phone with him now and he’s collapsing as we speak,” Tony wrote. “We have to go get him like, now.”

“I’ll get in line to meet with him, then,” Lakeisha said, and she was texting him. 

“I have to go,” Natasha said, and texted Tony, “Five minutes.”

“Okay,” Lakeisha said, giving her a quizzical look. “Is it that bad?”

“I think the time bomb went off,” Natasha said. 

 

Chapter Text

“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS said, with no inflection, but something suggested he’d said it several times now. 

“Hmnn?” Steve peeled his eyelids up. He was passed out on the couch in his living room, which he hadn’t really meant to do, he’d meant to keep going on all the logistical back-and-forth, but he hadn’t really been sleeping and last night’s all-nighter had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Shit. How long had he been out? Shit. He’d left Natasha working and had gone to take a shower and had just meant to close his eyes for a second until they stopped burning.

“Captain Rogers, you have a visitor on his way up,” JARVIS said, sounding apologetic. “I thought you might like a chance to compose yourself before he arrives.” 

“Mmng,” Steve said, sitting up. Oh right. He was only wearing a towel, he hadn’t dressed out of the shower. “Yeah. Thanks. Okay. How long do I have?”

“He is on this floor, so moments only,” JARVIS said. “I have been trying to rouse you for some time.”

“Nnnng,” Steve said, and rolled to his feet. “Thanks.”

The doorbell sounded before he even made it to his room. He shed the towel, grabbed his bathrobe, and reflected that he’d spent more time mostly-naked and in mixed company in the last week than in the entire time he’d toured with showgirls as Captain America, and had had to share dressing rooms with the girls. 

It was only as he opened the door that it struck him that he hadn’t asked JARVIS who it was. Too late now. 

Sam looked him up and down. “Mmm-hm, I thought so,” he said. “I knew it.” 

“Sam,” Steve said, and grabbed him. 

“I knew it,” Sam said, as the door shut behind him, as Steve pulled him in to a probably-too-tight embrace, he’d been doing that a lot lately, he’d actually popped something in Natasha’s back, though she’d sort of disconcertingly liked that. “I knew you hadn’t slept since I left.”

“I slept,” Steve said. “Just now.” He glanced over Sam’s shoulder at the clock. “For like, an hour!” Shit. 

Sam laughed and patted him soundly on the back. “I’ve been texting with Natasha. I know exactly what you’ve been up to.”

Steve reluctantly let go and pulled back. “Did Natasha tell you what happened when she met up with Bucky to take scans of his arm for Stark?”

“Uh,” Sam said, moving to drop his duffel bag on the armchair, “she told me that she had done that and that the scans look bad, but nothing beyond that.”

“Did she mention she slept with Bucky?” Steve asked. 

Sam turned around slowly. “She what now?” he asked. 

“Okay,” Steve said, “there wasn’t any sleeping, exactly.” He retrieved his phone from the coffee table, and called up the photo Bucky had sent of himself. “Look at the smirk on that mug.”

Sam took the phone and zoomed in a bit to look at Bucky’s face. “Okay,” Sam said, laughing, “he looks pretty pleased with himself but to be honest, I’d probably look a whole lot more smug than that if I’d just managed to get in the Black Widow’s pants. For really real?” He looked up, eyes a little wide, over the edge of the phone, and he was so goddamn adorable it almost took Steve’s breath.

“Yeah,” Steve said, laughing for no reason other than delight at Sam’s Sam-ness. “For what it’s worth, Natasha looked about equally pleased. I know it can be hard to tell with her but she hasn’t been as reserved lately.”

Sam was still looking at the picture. He shook his head a little bit, zoomed back out. “Okay,” he said, “and this is gonna sound really terrible of me, but I honestly had not realized this?”

“What,” Steve said, worried. 

“Bucky is seriously hot,” Sam said. 

“You knew what he looked like,” Steve said, mildly affronted. 

“Look,” Sam said, and it was his joking-dead-serious tone, which was probably Steve’s very favorite of the very many shades of tones employed by Sam (whose modes of communication made everyone else seem like sedated mental patients). “I know what his service headshot looked like in like 1943, I knew what he looked like with crazy hair while trying to kill me, and I saw like point three seconds of footage of him laughing with you from, frankly, a kind of unflattering angle, in black and white, seventy years ago. I just figured he was another white dude and to be honest most of you just look the same to me.”

Steve started laughing then, and couldn’t stop long enough for a rebuttal, so Sam kept going. “But this? Okay, this is a reasonable picture of the guy in decent light from a way better angle, and it has the added bonus of being recent, and he’s dressed like a normal person, and yeah okay, right?”

“I told you,” Steve wheezed. 

“Oh my God,” Sam said, “the number of things you have told me, the sheer staggering volume of what you have told me about Bucky, I could write more than a biography, I could write an encyclopedia, but you know that thing they tell you in like, freshman English class, about writing? You gotta show, not tell. So like, you told me Bucky was all right, yeah, but you also told me he was pretty much Jesus, so I had no frame of reference, and nothing to show me, you know?”

Steve was laughing so hard he had to sit down. Sam sat down next to him. “Don’t hurt yourself,” he said, and Steve actually whimpered, he was laughing so hard, tears streaming. 

It took him a few moments to be able to control his breathing, and Sam was sitting next to him, watching him compose himself, mouth curled faintly and eyebrows eloquent. “Are you gonna be all right?” Sam asked, which set Steve off again. “Oh my God,” Sam said. “Don’t die. Steve! Stay with me, Steve! Hang on! Don’t go towards the light!” He got up onto his knees on the couch and put his hands either side of Steve’s face, pleading earnestly. “You can do this!” he said. “Don’t you leave me here alone! I can’t go on without you, Steve!”

By this point Steve couldn’t even sit up, he was laughing so hard, and Sam grabbed him by both shoulders, moving to sit astride his lap, and shook him in large, slow, exaggerated movements. “It’s gonna be okay,” Sam said. 

Steve had his arms wrapped around his ribs, but the sudden pressure of Sam’s thighs against his hips made him take in a shuddering breath and let go. He looked up, face cradled between Sam’s hands, and the light from the window was behind Sam’s head and he was grinning wide and goofy and transcendently beautiful, and Steve thought, in that moment, not for the first time, that Sam looked like an angel. 

Of course, one couldn’t just stop laughing cold like that, so instead of the awed expression and possibly smooth clever line that probably would have been better, Steve just snorted and giggled up at him, but he managed to get his hands off his own ribs and onto Sam’s, and Sam was warm and sturdy and possibly the only thing right with the world. 

“Are we doin’ this now?” Sam asked softly, moving one hand up to push Steve’s hair back from his forehead, and the other down to cradle his jaw. 

“Can we?” Steve asked, for once making absolutely no attempt to hide the wistful yearning on his face. 

Sam looked down at him for a long moment, expression soft. “Yeah,” he said. 

He leaned down and fitted his mouth just so against Steve’s, hot slide of lip on lip, gentle teasing pressure of tongue, and Steve opened up for him, let him in, slid his hands down Sam’s ribs to his hips. His mouth was slick, his teeth late-twentieth-century perfect, and as Steve had expected it might, it did make him think of another mouth, long ago, with much less-perfect teeth, with teeth that had occasionally gotten knocked out finishing Steve’s fights. 

But it wasn’t an overwhelming nostalgia, and it only made him kiss Sam harder, and after a moment, he moved his hands down Sam’s hips to his ass and pulled him in tighter against his body. 

“Oh,” Sam said, pulling back just far enough to speak and to quirk an eyebrow, “it’s like that, is it?”

“It’s like that,” Steve answered breathlessly, and hitched his hips up a little, the most gentlemanly grind up against Sam’s ass that he could manage under the circumstances. 

“Hnng,” Sam said, and wriggled against him invitingly. “You know, in the 21st century it’s still considered kinda vulgar to put out on the first date.”

“Then it’s a good thing we’re not on a date,” Steve said, and latched his mouth on Sam’s neck right under his ear. “I’ll take you on a date later if you want, but this isn’t one.”

Sam made a strangled noise and writhed against him. “Oh, oh,” he said, “oh man, this ain’t your first rodeo.”

“Everybody who put money on me being a virgin has lost horribly,” Steve said. 

“There was a bet?” Sam laughed. 

“Oh yeah,” Steve said. “This is why I never talk about my personal life with any of these assholes.”

“You got an extensive dating resume?” Sam asked. 

“Well,” Steve said. He moved down a little, sucking on Sam’s neck just so, and was rewarded with a squirm and a stifled low moan. “Not extensive, I wouldn’t say. I’m pretty choosy.”

“You’ve been with both dudes and chicks though, right?” Sam grinned, wriggling just so, and Steve made a little noise as the shift of weight put some very nice pressure on some highly specific areas. 

“For definitions of with,” Steve managed to say. 

“Oho,” Sam said, and kissed him again. Steve let himself get a little lost in the hot slide of mouth on mouth, which, yeah, it had been a while— Natasha was the last person he’d kissed, and it had been really uncalled-for for her to take the realism quite that far. A simple press of lips would have been fine, she really hadn’t needed to lick his teeth quite so much.

Because yeah, there pretty much wasn’t a guy alive who that wouldn’t give an inappropriate physical response. Surely she knew that, too. She’d been trying to set him up with other people since basically the first time they’d hung out, in the clearest and kindest message of don’t-hit-on-me Steve had ever received. Which didn’t mean he hadn’t had impure thoughts about her, plenty. He figured she was aware; not much got by her.

Not as many impure thoughts as he’d had about Sam. (Close. He wasn’t keeping score, no; bad idea.) But he didn’t have to feel guilty about those anymore. “I didn’t think you wanted this,” Steve said. 

Sam pulled back to give him an incredulous look. “Uh,” he said, “I don’t feel like I was being particularly subtle.”

“Well,” Steve conceded. “I understood you had a certain aesthetic attraction. I just mean, it seemed to me like you figured I was fine to look at but a terrible idea to get involved with.”

“You’re probably simultaneously my best and worst idea,” Sam said, and kissed him before he could start to feel bad about that. Sam worked his hands down inside the sides of Steve’s bathrobe, and worked at the sash until it came unfastened. 

“Hey now,” Steve said, as Sam shoved the bathrobe open. “We should, oh wow—“ He’d meant to suavely invite Sam back to his bedroom, but Sam snaked his hand down between their bodies, rocking his hips back a little, and closed his fingers around Steve’s cock. 

“You’re not tellin’ me you want to slow down, are you?” Sam murmured sweetly, licking the side of Steve’s neck and working his hand cleverly along Steve’s shaft, rubbing his palm across the head. “After all your talk about putting out on not-dates?”

“Oh,” Steve said, head tipping back without his conscious volition, “no, that’s pretty much the opposite of— oh— I was gonna suggest bed and— hahh!— no pants for you.” 

“I could take my pants off,” Sam said, voice sinking into a purr. “This is some really well-constructed ordnance you’re packing, here. You got any particular preferences for how you handle it?”

“Uh,” Steve said. He had no idea what that meant, beyond the basic innuendo. “Uh, bed. Bed, Sam.”

Sam threw his head back and laughed, and Steve had to reach up and put his hand against the side of Sam’s face and pull him back and kiss him. He was just so beautiful. 

“All right, all right,” Sam said, “you bein’ all old-fashioned, wanna do this in a bed.”

“I just figure Natasha’s in the vents out here,” Steve said. “Bedroom’s safer.” Just for being a smartass, he picked Sam up and slung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. 

“Hey, hey, whoa,” Sam said, but didn’t really struggle, so Steve carried him like that into his bedroom and plunked him down on the bed, shed his bathrobe, and crawled onto the bed with him, attacking his belt and shoving his shirt up. He’d seen Sam naked before, but not naked with intent. That was different. And so while the smooth expanse of well-muscled abdomen wasn’t in any way unfamiliar, he’d never let himself look at it like this. 

Sam had shoved himself up on his elbows, yanking the shirt off over his head cooperatively. He was beautifully-built, well-muscled and just nicely put-together, and Steve stared at him with his lips parted, trying to figure out what to do next. 

Because he’d never actually been with with a guy, was the thing. He and Bucky had messed around but it had never been sex, per se, and he really wasn’t sure what people generally… did. He’d researched a bit, yeah, now that these things were so easy to learn about, and he knew what kinds of things people got up to in pornography, but it didn’t take a great deal of cultural context to understand that pornography had little to do with real life. 

And he’d never worked up the courage to do any… solo experimentation, so that-all was kind of a closed book to him. 

“You look like you never saw a guy with his shirt off before,” Sam said. “I know for a fact you seen this view before, man.”

“Not like this I haven’t,” Steve said, and went back to work peeling Sam out of his pants. And then he stopped. “Are you serious.”

Sam laughed, rolling a little to one side in his mirth, and clapped his hands. “I knew you’d appreciate them.” He was wearing blue underwear studded with little white stars and accented with red and white stripes. 

Steve looked from them up to his face. “You came here intending for this to happen,” he said, and grinned. 

“I did,” Sam said, and his expression went sweet. 

Steve crawled up and let himself down onto Sam’s body to kiss him. Of course he had; one didn’t climb into another man’s lap intending not to make out with him. But this made it a great deal more premeditated. 

“Fuck,” Steve said, and it was the first time he’d lost his breath to the point of light-headedness since the serum. Used to be a pretty familiar feeling. 

“Nobody ever believes me when I tell ‘em Captain America has a potty mouth,” Sam said. 

“It’s none of their damn business,” Steve said, recovering himself enough to sit up and yank Sam’s pants off and palm the very visible bulge in the ridiculous patriotic underpants. Sam was thick and hard and groaned gratifyingly, rolling his hips up into the contact. “Oh,” Steve said, “oh wow, that’s a nice cock.”

“So I been told,” Sam said. “Now, you just wanna gaze admiringly at one another’s splendid nude forms for a while, or you wanna fuck, or what?”

“Is there a menu?” Steve asked. “Or, like, a list?”

Sam looked up at him speculatively— his eyelashes, God; there was nothing effeminate about him but he was just so fucking pretty— and said, “I can make you a list. I get a feelin’, here, this ain’t your first rodeo but there haven’t been a whole lot of rodeos.”

“Told you,” Steve said, “I’m picky.” 

Sam gave him a slightly twisted smile. “I have been guilty, in the past, of perhaps being less choosy than I ought to have been,” he said. 

“I’m not judging,” Steve said. “I’m wired this way, other people aren’t. That’s their business.”

Sam’s expression softened again, and he rolled Steve down to lie next to him, hips snugged up against his. “God,” he said, “Steve, you—“ He kissed him for a while, and Steve managed to peel him out of the ridiculous underpants. 

Sam’s cock fit nicely in Steve’s hand, and he gave it an appreciative stroke. “Oh that’s nice,” he said. “Oh, that’s,” and Sam had him in hand and was matching him stroke for stroke. “Shit,” Steve said, abruptly really really turned-on. “Hold up, hold up.”

Sam laughed, not letting up at all. “Big dick like that, how long’s it take you to get it up again?”

“Nnn, ahh, not long,” Steve confessed. 

“Then we’re gonna take the edge off a lil bit,” Sam said, and rolled into him, mouthing at his neck just under the ear and working his dick expertly. 

“Oh God,” Steve said helplessly, but he gave himself over to it and let Sam bring him off, shuddering, a little embarrassed at the shameless, desperate noises he couldn’t help but make. 

Sam kissed him through it, humming appreciatively. “Oh man,” he said, “oh man, you are just beautiful when you come, you know that?”

Steve laughed breathlessly. “Wouldn’t know,” he said, “little distracted,” and he had really forgotten what it was like to get off that hard. “Oh God. Wow. Land speed record.” 

Sam laughed, and Steve rolled him over and pinned him down, shoulder to shoulder, leg over a hip, but bodies far enough apart that he could swipe his hand through the mess he’d made on himself and slide his slick palm down Sam’s shaft. 

Sam’s body was glorious, straining up against his grip. “Oh,” Sam said, “oh, we keepin’ it simple, are we?”

“I just want you,” Steve said, “just— you,” and he was definitely drunk on endorphins, which was about the only substance that could affect him at this point.

“Ohh,” Sam groaned, “wow, that did the opposite of takin’ the edge off ya, didn’t it.”

Right, right, Sam probably wanted to take this slower, and Steve made himself slow down a little, vary the pace a bit, back off slightly. “I’m all edge,” Steve said reasonably. “You can’t take it off. There’d be nothing left.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Sam said, kissing him with a perfect combination of sweetness and hunger. “I think I can get the edge off you. In fact that is my entire goal in this exercise. I am going to fuck the edge off Steve Rogers. You wanna lay odds?”

“No,” Steve said, “I just want the fucking part, I don’t need to take wagers.”

“Mmmm,” Sam said, thrusting into Steve’s hand a little, “oh, I accept the challenge anyway.”

“I should warn you,” Steve said, “I’m really hyper after I get laid.”

“Mm,” Sam said, “‘at’s ‘cuz nobody’s been thorough enough.” He kissed him lazily, pressed in close against him and slowly pushed Steve over onto his back. Steve let him, and lay back with one hand behind his head. “So I’m horny as fuck right now, I could drive nails with this thing,” and he slid his indeed very firm erection along Steve’s thigh. “And you’re… ahh, signs of life, you weren’t playin’.” 

“I do recover fast,” Steve said. His dick had already come back about halfway— or maybe it was still at that point.

“You always like that?” Sam asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Hell no,” Steve said, “I was so goddamn anemic I routinely passed out just from standing up too fast, my blood pressure was ridiculous. I was lucky if I could get it up twice a week, let alone twice in a day.”

“Huh,” Sam said. 

“That’s probably the least sexy thing I could’ve said,” Steve observed. “Wasn’t it?”

“Not quite,” Sam said, “but let’s not pursue that line of thinking. So, uh.” He sat back a little, running a hand down the middle of Steve’s chest. “Bet that was kind of something to get used to, then?”

“Christ,” Steve said, “almost the first thing they did was put me in tights and throw me into a crowd of chorus girls, it was a goddamn nightmare.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam grinned at him. “You got any good chorus girl stories?”

“Not really,” Steve said. Yes, but after his proclamations of being picky he wasn’t going to lay them all out right now. He was an honest guy but he didn’t need all his cards out all the time. “You, ah, you like girls too?”

“You know,” Sam said, “I thought I did for a while, but they haven’t done much for me lately. Though I had also sworn off white boys, so, everything’s subject to change I guess.”

“I don’t think they get whiter than me,” Steve said wryly. 

“Not much,” Sam said, tracing his fingers down the middle of Steve’s stomach, into the crease above his belly button. “So about that menu. You done enough to know if you have any particular preferences?” He looked up at Steve, mouth curving dangerously. 

“I,” Steve said, “no. Not really.” He bit his lip nervously. “I, um, I actually, um, I don’t—“ 

“Calm down,” Sam said, “I’m not gonna make you do anything you’re not ready for. I was inexperienced myself once, I remember how that goes.”

Steve unwrapped his fingers from the blanket, which he hadn’t noticed grabbing. “Right,” he said. “Okay.”

“So chill,” Sam said, and moved up to kiss him, gentle and sweet. “There’s a lot more to gay sex than scary butt stuff.”

“I didn’t say that was, um—” Steve fumbled. 

“It’s okay,” Sam said, “everybody thinks that, and I mean everybody, until they try it and realize it’s kind of awesome. But it is not something you just do. Not even if you’ve done it a hundred times. I tend not to do it with somebody unless I’ve slept with them a couple times already. And I generally like giving more than I like getting, but I tell you what, when I’m in the mood to get it I am really in the mood to get it.”

“Oh,” Steve said, digesting that.

“But there are some guys who are gay their whole lives and just never do it,” Sam said. “And that’s okay. So if you’ll excuse me, I notice that you’ve got the flag all the way up the mast again.”

He did indeed, Steve was a little surprised to notice. Sam kissed his way down Steve’s chest, slow and sure. “You got a hell of a body, Rogers,” Sam said.

“All thanks to a discredited branch of science,” Steve said a little sadly, rubbing his hand across Sam’s close-cropped hair. “Not a bit of it natural.”

“Okay,” Sam said, “that’s not going anywhere sexy.”

“I told you,” Steve said, “there’s no edge to take off, it’s all me.”

“Ohhh, we gon’ find out,” Sam said, and gave Steve that sweet gap-toothed grin before ducking his head down and biting Steve’s ribs. 

“Aah,” Steve said, not exactly ticklish but definitely sensitive. Sam was alternately kissing and biting him all over, and it was driving him crazy. When it got to be too much he grabbed Sam and rolled him over, pinning him down and kissing him hard. 

It had evidently been driving Sam just as crazy as him, because Sam shuddered against him and bit his lip. “That backfired,” Sam said breathlessly. 

“What did?” Steve asked innocently, grinding down against him. This, he knew, the slide of naked bodies together, the slick heat of mouth on mouth, and he grinned at the way Sam’s cool collectedness was fraying apart. 

“Takin’ the edge off you really just put an edge on me,” Sam said. 

“Guess you rub things to put an edge on ‘em?” Steve said, and put his hand around both his and Sam’s cocks.

“Oh my God,” Sam said, shoving up with a clearly not-entirely-voluntary motion. 

“I did find a way to stop you being so damn clever all the time,” Steve said, putting his mouth against Sam’s and working them both intently. Sam made a gorgeous choked-off noise and shuddered, gasping and shaking apart as he came, and it pulled Steve delightedly right back over with him. 

Steve hadn’t done a ton of experimentation in this body, not recently anyway, so it was more or less a surprise that coming a second time was both mellower and more intense. It sent some truly glorious aftershocks zinging up and down his spine, and he rolled over to lie next to Sam, blissed out and keyed-up. 

Sam shook his fist weakly. “I’ll get you next time, Rogers,” he said. Steve remembered that, remembered the way that orgasm had used to pretty much zonk him out. He gathered Sam up against his chest and kissed him. 

“You’re just gonna have to practice,” Steve said. 

Sam laughed. “I look forward to that,” he said. 

 

 

* * *

 

 

Natasha made Tony give her his phone while he drove, she wasn’t going to trust his driving to that extent. He had effortlessly hacked together a program to track Bucky, which gave her a moment’s panic while he’d assured her nobody but him had that level of access to the satellite that was the only thing that knew the location of that phone. 

Bucky’s dot had been moving, as they traveled— slowly, and jerkily, with a lot of pauses, but moving— but for the last fifteen minutes he had been utterly static. Tony was on-edge about it and kept grousing that she’d taken so long to get ready. Which wasn’t fair; she’d thrown all her things into a duffel as fast as he’d gotten his toolbox together, and she’d done the hair and makeup in the car. 

(Nobody ever understood that the hair and makeup were part of the armor. Nobody gave Tony shit for needing time to get his armor just right. But if she had a dime for every snippy comment from someone who should have known better, well, she could buy a lot of the expensive kind of eyeliner with it. It wasn’t a self-esteem thing either, it was actually tactical. She didn’t care what she looked like aesthetically, she cared what her looks made people do. But explaining this was the kind of lost cause that deterred even starting in on it, so she never had.)

It was ridiculous optimism that she was going to be able to get him out of there in any condition, let alone well enough to go back undercover to give HYDRA one last merry chase. But their operatives were not integrated enough, they hadn’t uncovered all the double agents yet. If the NYPD sent SWAT teams out (which they were definitely going to one way or another) she wouldn’t be able to give Bucky any targets, she wouldn’t be able yet to find all the double agents. They needed more time. 

“Has he moved?” Tony asked. 

“No,” Natasha said. His phone was a lot more aggressively connected to the Internet than hers, so she was abusing it to look up what the poison would do. “I think we’ve got time, though. There’s going to be a while after it incapacitates him but before it causes total organ failure, which is probably why they went with this method; it gives them time to collect him while they can still restore him.”

“Great,” Tony said. “You know that means there’s probably a mechanism that’ll detect when he’s at that point and notify them.”

“Did you find anything like that in the scan?” Natasha asked, startled. 

“No,” Tony said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It would be stupid if it weren’t.”

“Great,” she said. She pulled out her own phone and sent former-Agent 13, now Agent Sharon Carter of the CIA, a message warning her to monitor for sudden activity and let Natasha know instantly about it. Carter had liased with the NYPD before and had managed to worm her way back in for plausible job-related reasons on Natasha’s request, though it had cost favors. Natasha had called in a lot of favors for Bucky and was going to be really pissed if this all failed.

That’s all she was admitting, but of course, there was more. There was always more.

“Are we walking into an ambush?” Tony asked resignedly. “Because you know I don’t do the suit thing anymore.”

“You got nothing?” Natasha asked. 

“Not really,” Tony hedged, negotiating a turn. He was sort of oddly good at dealing with traffic, reading patterns and avoiding snarls; some of it, she knew, was that he had an insane amount of data in that dashboard, but some of it was just him. “I meant to ask, though, why are you wearing a blonde wig?”

“They’ll know who you are, I can’t help that,” Natasha said, “but I’ve been trying to keep from letting them realize that the woman helping him is always the same person.” She shrugged. “Might be moot, we might be in trouble either way.”

Carter had written back “on it” and had followed up “any reason in particular?”

Natasha explained that there was probably a tracker or beacon in him that would get triggered by something soon, most likely, and tucked the phone into her bra where she would for sure feel it vibrate. She was wearing a dress, which was ludicrous but was the most disarming way she could think of hiding all her tac gear. But there were no goddamn pockets in it, and she couldn’t exactly put the phone into the pocket of the shorts she was wearing; there was no genteel way to retrieve that in public, and in a purse the vibrations weren’t palpable. 

At least Bucky’s motionless dot was in Stark’s building. He wasn’t answering texts, calls, or Tweets. Meanwhile the Twitter flurry had gotten posted on other social networks and was taking off in other media. Great. 

“Use my phone to take his over,” Tony said, “and you can at least get a peek out of the camera, see where he is.” He glanced over, pointed to an icon on the phone screen, and Natasha swatted his hand. 

“I know the program,” she said, “I have it on my phone.”

“You do?” He still wasn’t looking at the road, and she smacked his hand again. “That one’s not public.”

“Please,” she said, “I have physical access to your mainframe, there is nothing you can hide from me.”

“You can’t possibly,” Tony said, but he was looking at the road.

“You literally asked for this,” she pointed out, making the connection to Bucky’s phone and sending him a buzz. “You literally asked the Black Widow to move into your house. You knew what you were getting into.”

To his credit, Tony said, “Yeah, point,” and kept driving. 

“Oh!” Natasha said. She had the screen-facing camera active and sure enough, Bucky had pulled the phone out and unlocked the screen, and she was staring up into his face. “He’s conscious.” 

He was sheet-white, face sheened with sweat and hair stuck to his face, but he frowned at the camera pretty coherently. “What the fuck was that,” he muttered, and his eyes moved as he read the screen, hand moving as he swiped through what must be a million notifications. He grimaced, hit the lock button, and the camera went black as he shoved it back into a pocket. 

“He’s in rough shape but he’s still conscious,” Natasha said. She disconnected.

“Hm. Well,” Tony said, “we’re here,” and it went dark; she glanced up to see that they’d gone down a ramp into an underground parking ramp. Increased chance of ambush, decreased chance of sniper. She got one of her guns out from under her skirt and checked the clip, chambered a round, yanked the strap of her duffel bag over her head. Kind of ruined the line of the dress, which was of the somewhat-floofy variety (easiest way to change one’s lines was to use floof), but the gun also ruined the impression, so. 

“It’s astonishing how hot that wasn’t,” Tony said, but parked, and grabbed his phone from her and looked at it before moving out. “I might be losing my edge. He’s on the top floor.”

“I’m not surprised,” Natasha said. 

“No?” Tony asked. 

“Sniper,” she answered. 

“Oh right,” Tony said. He got out of the car and grabbed his toolbox. “He doesn’t have a sniper rifle, though, does he?”

“He does,” Natasha said, “Lakeisha told me. Barrett M82. He’s actually pretty well-armed for a hobo.”

“Jesus,” Tony muttered. 

She scanned the building for electrical signatures, which could give kind of a rudimentary idea of whether humans were present though the interference of, well, electrical wiring made that dicey. But the building seemed to be uninhabited. She kept monitoring it as they took the elevator, and the only signature it picked up was Bucky. She wasn’t surprised he was against a wall facing the elevator and stairwell; it was a defensive position. 

No electrical signatures like a booby trap might leave, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a mechanical one, so she set her back against Tony and crowded him into the corner of the elevator, digging out her compact mirror in one hand, gun in the other. But the doors opened on the top floor and nothing happened. 

She stayed motionless a moment, then angled the compact. Over there, in the middle of the facing wall— Bucky, sitting, shotgun up, waiting. 

“Bucky,” she said, “it’s me.”

There was silence for a moment, and then he said, “Come out slow, I won’t shoot you.”

She nodded at Tony, and ducked her head carefully out to peer at him. He had his back braced against the wall and the shotgun pulled up, pistol laid out next to him. The .45, she noted with interest, even though he’d told the confused Lakeisha that he had more ammo for the 9mm. (She’d rattled off the numbers bewilderedly but gamely. Natasha liked her.)

“I brought Tony,” she said. “We’re gonna get the poison thing out and disable the tracker that’s probably in there.” She eased herself out, and pulled her skirt up to shove the pistol back in the thigh holster. He watched, which pleased her; it defused some of the tension. 

Tony peered out of the elevator. “Hey, Popsicle Pal,” he said. 

Bucky blinked at him. “Jesus,” he said, sounding resigned, “could you try to look more like him?”

It didn’t take a lot of deductive reasoning to work that one out, and Natasha didn’t comment. She walked over to him and crouched next to him. His eyes were a little glazed and he’d stripped down to one of the sleeveless undershirts she’d bought him. He was bruised across the right shoulder, and his face was scraped, hair plastered down with sweat. He was beautiful. 

Tony hadn’t reacted to the resemblance comment, and came over and opened his toolbox. “Natasha, start that IV. The more we can get in him, the better. I don’t know how long we have.”

She nodded and hauled the medical kit out of her duffel, taking his right arm and swabbing the inside of his elbow with alcohol. He was burning hot and listless, and let his head fall back against the wall as he watched her. “I’m going to put a needle in you, is that okay?” she asked. “This stuff is meant to bind to the poison and pull it out of you.”

He nodded mutely, and she looked over and realized his eyes were rolling back as he passed out. “Tony,” she said, urgent.

“I see,” he said. He knelt on Bucky’s left side and opened his toolbox, spreading out upper shelves to access more tools at once. “Hey,” he said, touching Bucky’s metal arm gently. There was no response. “I don’t want him to startle and fucking murder me,” Tony grumbled. 

“Let me go first then,” Natasha said, and carefully slid the needle into the prominent vein of his right arm, ready to fend off a violent reaction. He twitched, blinked at her, and slid off again as Tony picked up his left hand. 

But as Tony bent the elbow, Bucky flailed into semiconsciousness again and made an awful little noise of pain. He did not, however, attempt to murder Tony; he merely gave Natasha a frightened, plaintive look before passing out again. 

“Oh Christ,” Tony said, and Natasha put her hand against Bucky’s chest and looked. There was blood dripping from around the metal scales of the elbow, and dried blood crusted in the crevices of the forearm. “Oh, that’s— oh. Not— oh.”

“Yeah,” she said. She pulled a metal desk chair over and clipped the IV bag to it so her hands were free, taped the needle carefully into position, and went to establish the perimeter. Tony was running his scanner thing over Bucky’s motionless arm. He pulled another metal desk chair over and carefully pulled Bucky’s arm up to lie straight on it. 

Bucky cried out at that, and came conscious enough to press himself back against the wall, turning his face away from Tony and hissing through his teeth. “Hurts just to move?” Tony asked. 

Bucky nodded tightly. 

“That makes this tricky,” Tony said. “Natasha, maybe morphine?”

She came back, and Bucky peeled glazed eyes open to look at her. “Morphine doesn’t work on Steve,” she said. “Does it work on you?”

He blinked at her, and his eyebrows drew together. “No idea,” he said. 

“What painkillers do work?” she asked. “I have kind of a whole pharmacy here.”

“Wouldn’t know,” he said. 

She stared at him, then looked over at Tony, who made the kind of face that suggested he wished he could not be listening to this. “You mean,” she said, “you don’t know what they used, or…” but since he’d been on his own he’d definitely been shot at least twice. 

“They didn’t,” Bucky said. “Use anything.” He pushed his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “Restraints and a bite guard work just as well. The bite guard so I don’t bite my tongue and swallow so much blood I puke. They got tired of cleaning it up I think.”

“I might puke,” Tony said lightly. “Actually. Now that you mention it.” She knew he was thinking about the surgery scars, thinking about the metal they knew had been grafted into Bucky’s skeleton, thinking about what it meant that they’d done that with Bucky awake.

Natasha looked down into her medical kit. “Hm,” she said. “I can try the one that works on Steve.”

“No,” Bucky said, “just—“ He was breathing hard. “I got enough chemicals in me.”

“Found it,” Tony said, and put the scanner down, calling up a holographic screen projection from his phone. “Right there. There’s your alert device. Not active yet, the stuff must not be concentrated enough yet.”

“The leaking battery is meant to incapacitate you,” Natasha said, “and activate this device so they know to come get you.”

“I pulled three trackers out,” Bucky said hoarsely. “When I first— got out.”

“From in the arm?” Tony asked. 

“One in the arm,” Bucky said. “The— the damaged panel, inside of the upper arm. I pried it open. The other two were in— me.”

“In— how did you find them?” Tony asked, looking reluctant. 

“Heat signatures,” Bucky said uninformatively. “Dug ‘em out with a knife.”

“That sounds delightful,” Tony said, frowning at the schematic and darting one look at Bucky’s face. Bucky shrugged his right shoulder gingerly; Natasha could see he had a bad bruise across the front of the shoulder. 

“The one in my leg wasn’t so bad,” Bucky said. “The one in my back was real annoying.”

Tony gave Natasha a look. She kept her expression noncommittal, and Tony looked away and started to rummage through his toolbox. “Well,” he said. “Charming.” He tapped one of the tools absently against the red star on Bucky’s shoulder. “The star’s cute. I take it that wasn’t your design decision.”

“I was fully convinced,” Bucky said tightly, “that I was entirely a robot, and having one arm visibly metal was just part of it. No, I didn’t make any decisions.”

“Didn’t you notice you weren’t a robot when, y’know, bodily functions?” Tony asked. 

“Lots of times I wasn’t even out of cryo long enough for that to happen,” Bucky said. “Other times I don’t know, maybe I did, but I spent a lot of time having things put into and taken out of my head, so I really don’t know what I knew or didn’t know.”

“I am curious as hell about how they made cryostasis work,” Tony said. “I know Steve just straight-up getting frozen only worked because he’s biologically impossible, but I don’t know— can a regular person go in and out of stasis?” As he spoke he was testing each segment along the side of Bucky’s forearm, seeing the pattern of which were magnetic. 

“I am the last person who’s gonna be able to give you any kind of scientific answer to that,” Bucky said dryly, managing to get his eyes focusing long enough to look sidelong at Tony. He had perked up; the stuff in the slowly-draining IV seemed to be doing some good. 

“What kind of science education do you have?” Tony asked, but he was absorbed enough not to sound mocking. 

“I graduated high school,” Bucky said. “New York City public school.” He made a noise that might have been a laugh. “Class of ’34.”

“Good student?” Tony asked. 

“I loved school,” Bucky said, “loved reading, loved science, but I worked in a machine shop.” He shrugged the good shoulder. “I mean, there’s been so many advances anyway that it’s not like anything I woulda studied would even mean anything anymore.”

“You’d be amazed,” Tony said absently, “how far we haven’t come. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I created a new element from notes my father left me because he wasn’t able to do it with the technology of the time— and I must admit, that was really cool— but really, the fundamentals? I feel like kids were taught them better in your era.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Bucky said. 

“Aha,” Tony said, and clamped something down, “gotcha,” and pried at an access panel. Bucky made a sharp little noise, muffled behind his gritted teeth. “Oh for— ugh.” 

“Too low,” Natasha said, puzzled. 

“I know that,” Tony said, annoyed, “I’m trying to assess the extent of the chemical damage.”

Natasha was moving slowly, giving Bucky a chance to stop her, as she wiped the sweat and grime off his face with a hunk of gauze. She cleaned the bloody scrape on his face with some alcohol. “And?” she asked Tony as she worked. Bucky didn’t react to the alcohol on his abraded skin.

“Well,” Tony said, “bad.” He moved up higher, seeming to know exactly what he was looking for. “Here’s the maintenance panel,” he said. “Aaaaand… it’s rusted shut. That’s what happens when you bleed on steel. That’s what happens when someone is too much of a fucking moron to put decent liquid-shielding into a robotic system with biological components. Biological mechanisms are wet, it’s kind of a basic prerequisite, how did you not think you needed good seals?”

“Think they replaced ‘em periodically,” Bucky said, tilting his head to look with apparent interest as Tony pried at the access door in the crook of his elbow. “Hey, that’s where— I didn’t know where the opening was.”

“You really know nothing about the maintenance on this thing?” Tony asked, curious. He readjusted the tool and pried, and suddenly Bucky screamed in pain. 

Bucky looked as surprised at the sound as anyone else, and Natasha surmised the pain must have been awfully sudden and intense to catch him like that. She put her hand against his face and he closed his eyes, trying to compose himself. 

“Answers the question of whether there’s neural feedback,” Tony said, hesitating with the tool in position. 

“Yeah,” Bucky panted. “Coulda just asked.” Natasha moved her hand to his chest, holding him gently, more a reassurance than a restraint.

“So that’s fucked-up,” Tony said. “You’re like, a walking, self-contained lesson in how not to make a cyborg.”

“That so,” Bucky said. She could feel how hard his heart was beating through the ribbed cotton undershirt, damp with sweat. “I think I’m a lot of things I’m not supposed to be.” 

“Fair,” Tony said. He pried experimentally, more gently, and Bucky’s whole body went tight, his face screwing up. Tony sighed. “Surely they had a way to disable that,” he said. 

“Yes,” Bucky said, “sometimes— no—“ 

“Was it always like this?” Tony asked. 

“No,” Bucky said, “usually not so bad.” 

Tony’s mouth was set in a grim line. “Well,” he said. “I don’t know where the shutoff is, it’s not obvious on the schematics or in the scans. I kind of have to get in here, and I’m guessing it’s not going to be easy or pretty.”

“Do what you gotta,” Bucky said tightly, breathing picking up in pace and getting shallower. Tony made a wry face and plunked several smaller tools down in a pattern on certain of the scales. 

“This is aesthetically cute,” Tony said, “with the magnetic stuff and all, and probably short-term effective, but man it is probably a maintenance nightmare. I’m curious as hell about the sensory feedback stuff though. Do you have good positional awareness?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. Tony connected a handle to all of the little clamps he’d magneted on, and Bucky went tense again. 

“I gotta do this,” Tony said. 

“Yeah,” Bucky grated. “Do it.”

Tony pulled, and Bucky screamed, shoving himself back against the wall in an effort not to move. 

“Well, that’s horrible,” Tony said conversationally. 

“Nata— sha— “ Bucky panted, “— hold— hold me down— I can’t—“

Natasha put one palm flat against his breastbone and the other against his good shoulder. “That’s not gonna cut it,” he said. She had a vivid memory of the way he’d thrown her off his back at their first meeting, when she’d tried to garrotte him. Yeah, the strength of her arm wasn’t going to hold him anywhere, she needed more leverage than that.

She nodded, and climbed into his lap. “Let me know if I freak you out,” she said. “If you have to throw me off it’s okay, you know I’ll be okay.” She planted a knee either side of his hips, pressing her forearm against his chest, planting her other palm against his right shoulder, and leaning against him with all her weight. If he wanted to go anywhere, she wasn’t stopping him, but to keep him from moving too much involuntarily, this might suffice.

“Better,” he said. 

“Jesus,” Tony muttered, and hooked the magnetic clamp on again. He pulled hard, and Bucky screamed, right hand clutching in the back of Natasha’s jacket. “Almost,” Tony said, and pulled again, just as hard, and Bucky made a horrible sobbing noise. 

“It’s okay,” Natasha said, putting her mouth very close to his ear. “It’s okay.”

“Yeah,” he said, panting. “Yeah. I know. It’s okay.”

“Okay,” Tony said, “oh my dear sweet Jesus, this is the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.”

“It’s okay,” Bucky panted. “It’s okay.” 

“Oh,” Tony said, “it most definitely isn’t okay. No, no no, no, don’t turn your head.”

“Look at me,” Natasha murmured. “Bucky. Look at me.” 

“Ugh,” Tony said. “Yeah. Okay. If the people who did this to you weren’t dead— are they dead?”

“Yes,” Bucky managed, through his teeth. 

“If they weren’t, I’d have to kill them. This is just, it’s obscene. You can’t do this to a living person. You just can’t.” Tony was grimly prying at something with pliers and Bucky’s fingers were twisting hard into the fabric of Natasha’s jacket. He wasn’t just in pain, he was terrified, and she knew he was certainly flashing back to having this sort of thing done to him in even worse circumstances. 

“Bucky,” she murmured, “James, stay with me here. We’re friends, we’ll help you.”

“I know,” he panted. “I know. Natasha. I know.”

“Just hang on,” she said, noting that he hadn’t pulled the IV out. Good. 

“Bite guard,” he said. She yanked her jacket up, making a fold near her shoulder, and offered it to him. He put his head against her shoulder and bit down, and she let herself lean her cheek against the side of his head. 

“It’s okay,” she murmured. 

“This is awful,” Tony said, “this is really fuckin’ awful, I can’t believe I haven’t thrown up yet.”

“Says the man who implanted a power plant into his own breastbone,” Natasha said. 

“Yeah,” Tony said, “I didn’t do the preliminary work on that one, some guy did, in a cave, with a car battery, I know right? It was wild. I can’t believe I didn’t die. It’s pure stubbornness, I think, that I’m still alive. So like, oh oh Jesus fuck that’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen, shit, I was trying to stop saying things like that, sorry man.”

“It’s okay,” Bucky said weakly, muffled, kind of on a whimper. “It’s— oh— motherfuck!”

“That was not,” Tony said, wrenching at something— Bucky screamed— “okay, that wasn’t okay, but it’s fine, it’s fine now. I’m going to have nightmares about this for the rest of my life, isn’t that great? That’s great. I’m great. I’m, holy shit, I’m so great right now.”

He threw something into a metal tray with a resounding clang. “Is that it?” Natasha asked. 

“That’s the remains of the power source,” Tony said. “That’s the rest of the thing that was going to fill him up with poison. However. An awful lot of it is already in there, so I’m going to try to flush some out. And, I’m sorry kid, but when that thing went, it corroded everything to shit. There’s no way to fix this back the way it was. It’s start over from scratch, or nothing.”

“‘Sokay,” Bucky said, letting his head loll against Natasha’s neck. “Iss— issokay. I— I owe you anyway.”

“You,” Tony said, and it managed to get through that he was incredulous. “What, you think you owe me a favor for butchering you?”

“’S gotta come out,” Bucky managed.

Tony had an access panel open but there was blood all over the table and the panel was bent and twisted, rusty around the edges, the scales and vents of the armor plates all locked down. He was grimacing intently, working inside the prosthetic with a pair of pliers, and looked unhappy. “Even without the power source in it,” Tony said, “this is going to cause you more and more damage. What’s happening is that the mechanical part is locked up, but a lot of it interfaces to biological parts that are, of course, still mobile, so when they move, the mechanical parts don’t respond, and instead of there being some sort of failsafe that just lets them flex when powered down, they stay rigid and the biological connections tear out. That’s causing a lot of this bleeding. It’s a terrible way to do it and I hope the inventor died horribly.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Bucky hissed, teeth still locked in Natasha’s jacket.

“I’m going to try to open up a little more of this panel,” Tony said, “and uncouple some of the biological connections. It means zero functionality at all, but as it is, that’s what you’ve got without a power source, so your net loss is nothing.”

“Do what you have to,” Bucky said, and palpably braced himself. 

“It’s gonna hurt,” Tony said. 

“I assure you,” Bucky said, “I am aware of that.”

Tony pried, more deftly this time, and Bucky seemed to be trying to muffle the screaming. “This is so gross,” Tony said, sounding genuinely distressed. “This is so not my specialty.”

“I’ve had worse,” Bucky said into Natasha’s neck. 

“Nearly done,” she murmured. 

“Got the alert device,” Tony said. It made a clinking sound as he dropped it, then held the scanner over it, and attacked it with a pair of forceps. “Damn it, damn it, damn it— ahh.” He sounded satisfied. “I have convinced it that Comrade Popsicle’s blood toxicity is holding steady at a level that will not trigger an alarm. That was… surprisingly easy.”

“Are you sure it worked, then?” Natasha asked. In her experience, surprisingly easy meant trap

“That’s what I’m checking now,” Tony said. “Hmm.”

Bucky spit out the fold of Natasha’s jacket, and laid his forehead against her shoulder. “Natasha,” he said quietly, shivering. 

“I’ve got you,” she said. 

“Don’t let them take me alive,” he said. 

“Of course not,” she said.

He twitched, and she realized it was a laugh. “I like you because I know you mean it,” he said. 

“I know what is important,” she said.

“I know you do,” he said, and pried his fingers out of the back of her jacket, smoothing them down her back. 

“That’s adorable,” Tony said, finally looking up from his contemplation of the readouts. “It’s like Little Moscow over here.” 

Natasha hadn’t really noticed switching to Russian, but it was just as well or Tony would be making fun of her for being a sap. Bucky was still trembling with pain, and she looked grimly at the bloody twisted mess of his arm’s plating. “Can we close this back up?” she asked. 

“Shortly,” Tony said. “I just want— double-checking…” He trailed off thoughtfully, intent. 

Bucky’s breaths were deeper, more deliberate, as he collected and composed himself, though he was still trembling. “You smell really good,” he said in Russian, with a slightly-embarrassed laugh.

“I try,” she said, and since Tony was so distracted, she let herself kiss Bucky’s forehead. “They will not have you,” she said. 

“We can set a trap with this,” Tony concluded. “These two components. You don’t even have to be the bait in the trap, Bucksicle.” He pushed the metal tray that had the power source and the alert device in it, rattling it a little. “We got ourselves a one hundred percent convicing Bucky decoy here.” 

“No,” Bucky said, “they’ll send someone to check first, and call off the big turnout.” His voice shook. “Why you think I bothered getting the guns out? Pick off the advance scouts and get ‘em riled up so they all come out.”

Tony grimaced as he sluiced out the vacant space inside the arm, then shoved wadding into it. “Well,” he said. “That’ll be nice.” He wrenched at the corroded hatch, trying to get it closed. Bucky tensed with pain, shoving his face in the crook of Natasha’s neck and grabbing a handful of her jacket again. 

“Steve laid a bunch of false trails already,” Natasha said. “From his detailed report it looks like he sort of made it confusing whether he was helping or fighting with the decoy Bucky. We’re just trying to make it confusing in general. We can use that,” and she nodded at the tray, “to confuse things further, but Bucky’s right, he’s got to be somewhere in all this, if they don’t lay actual eyes on him they won’t commit fully to recapturing him.”

“They expect I’m pretty deranged,” Bucky said, forehead resting against Natasha’s collarbone. He laughed. “I am, though.”

“All the best people are,” Tony said comfortingly, and did something that made Bucky flinch all over. “So should I take this stuff back to Steve, or let you do it?”

“I’m going to stay with Bucky,” Natasha said. “What’s in that IV bag isn’t going to miracle-cure him forever.”

“No,” Tony said, “true. You’ve probably got like 24 hours, if you drink a lot of water, before the poison already in you gives you kidney failure or worse. You really need to get to a medical facility and get your blood filtered.”

“That’s 24 more hours than I had before,” Bucky said. 

“I can get a dialysis machine in Stark Tower by tonight,” Tony said. “I might even have one already, I don’t know. But I’m just saying, you don’t have to go to a hospital, probably get arrested. We can take care of this in private.”

“Maybe,” Bucky said. “If we can resolve this, I’ll come back with you. Not going back now though.”

“Your funeral,” Tony said. 

“I’m aware,” Bucky said. 

“I’ve got the spot where the power source was packed with absorbent material,” Tony said. “You’re going to want to pull that out in about six hours and replace it with more.” He handed Natasha a plastic-wrapped package. “The hatch isn’t going to really stay closed, so I’m just going to bandage it shut. That means, at least, when you have to wrench it back open it won’t hurt so much.”

Natasha nodded, sitting back from Bucky’s lap and letting go of him to stow the package in her bag. Bucky looked exhausted, drained, but a lot more alert than he had; the IV bag was nearly empty. “I have a couple smaller injections of the stuff that was in that IV too,” she said. “I can administer those in six and twelve hours to try to absorb more of the stuff back out.”

“You still need that shit filtered out,” Tony said. “It’s not all going to work its way out on its own and even if you do have a healing factor, this isn’t the kind of thing you’re going to be able to process on your own. At least, not given what we know of your biology.”

“We’re kind of going off Steve’s,” Natasha said, “and what records there are of what was done to you.”

Bucky nodded. “Whatever,” he said, visibly collecting himself. “I mean, thank you, both of you, I mean that. I just— seeing this through is taking up one hundred percent of my attention, and worrying about what’ll happen to me afterward is just, it’s just more than I’ve got.”

“Fair enough,” Tony said.

 

* * * 

 

It Happened To Me: I Met A Mass Murderer In A Coffee Shop

By Amanda Fox

 

So I have this thing I love to do, where I go to coffee shops with my laptop and strike up conversations with strangers. I had been thinking that some of the great stories I got that way would make for a good article, so I set myself up in one of my favorite shops, one a little less student-heavy than some. 

It was a quiet midmorning, and as I scanned the room, I saw a particularly likely prospect. He was a young man, with long hair hanging around his face, wearing jeans and a hoodie and one single solitary glove, on his left hand. It was that little detail that struck me, and that he was dressed slightly too-warmly for the weather, and something in his posture; he looked haunted. I thought, this guy’s got a story, and went and sat down next to him. Also, he was next to the power outlet and I needed to plug in my computer. 

I struck up a conversation with him and my impression only got stronger: this dude was definitely some kind of tragic figure, definitely had some kind of backstory. And I should mention: there are crazies all over New York. I didn’t get that vibe at all. This guy, I was banking, would be coherent, would be reasonable, and would definitely not follow me home and murder me. These were all things I was sure of. 

So I tried to draw him out, but it was difficult to figure out what I could talk to him about. I tried complimenting his style but that got a blank look. I mentioned my mom being worried about some crazy murdering me, and he went distant and sad— but not about the crazies, about the mom. He was sad about his mom. He said he’d lost her a long time ago. My Tragic Story radar pinged like crazy, but I’m not a savage, I wasn’t going to dive in. So I gave him a moment, then tried to draw him out about what he was reading. 

And that was when I started to realize what I had on my hands, here. Because he kind of stared at me, and then showed me that he was reading a pamphlet entitled, I shit you not, “Coping Strategies For Extreme PTSD: How Not To Kill Everybody.” I swear to God I’m not making that up, I wrote it down almost immediately. I assumed it was a joke, but he just sort of stared at me with dead eyes until I caught on that, holy shit, it wasn’t

(I have Googled extensively for this pamphlet, and the closest I can come is an essay written by a VA counselor out of DC, posted pretty recently to a veterans’ community blog, with a similar title. <Link> It’s pretty good reading, actually.)

Then he showed me that the reason he was wearing one glove was because the hand was made out of metal. Shiny silver metal. Again, I shit you not. This is how I eventually confirmed who he was— a shiny segmented metal left hand is not actually something you frequently encounter.

 He advised me not to hassle crazy strangers about their prosthetics, and then he told me this: 

“The world is full of monsters. Most of them have human faces. If you’re lucky, you’ll never find out the difference between them and the normal humans.”

I wrote that shit down post-haste, because it was creepy as fuck. And here I’m going to let you in on a little secret: 

Dude was hot. He was really, really, really attractive. I mean, goddamn. That was probably the creepiest part. He looked all sad and brooding, he had this curvy bow mouth, pale clear blue eyes, ridiculously hot square jaw, looked like he was maybe twenty-eight— he was a sexy, sexy ghost, and the hotness was probably why I totally forgot to run screaming when he busted out that dead-eyed stare and his line about monsters. 

Instead I sat next to him for another like twenty minutes and watched TV. We watched Captain America talking about government corruption. And here’s where in realtime I caught my first clue: as soon as he saw Captain America, my hot tragic metal-hand model-hobo said “Jesus he’s bigger than I remember.”

And that made me think how cra-a-azy it would be if this guy had known Captain America before he became a super soldier, and I was just sort of sitting there admiring the man candy and it sort of crept across my brain that there was actually one person in the world who would still remember tiny Steve Rogers from way back. So I asked him his name, and he stared at me like he’d never thought about that before, and finally, he told me, “Jimmy.”

He was texting someone on his phone, and didn’t say anything else to me. I Googled him real quick. And yes.

Bucky Barnes.

James fucking Buchanan fucking Barnes.

The Winter Soldier.

Cyborg Soviet assassin and mass murderer. Agent of HYDRA, terrorist chaos-monger, breath of fear ghosting through the last seventy years. The Winter fucking Soldier.

Seriously. He knew Steve Rogers when he was five feet four inches and 90 pounds, and he now has a shiny, segmented, silver metal left hand. And his mom has been dead since 1950.

And he’s incredibly attractive. I mean, goddamn, Bucky Barnes can get it. I give you, for your consideration, the headshot from Barnes’ Wikipedia page, which was taken in 1943. And then I give you this terrible blurry cellphone picture, which I took from behind my laptop screen while he was getting ready to leave. 

I report, you decide. But I firmly believe that I just tried to chat up a mass murderer. A super-hot, adorable, haunted, sad, tragic, polite mass-murderer. And there you have it: be careful who you hit on in coffee shops. You never know which human face conceals a monster. 

 

Update: About twelve hours after this article went live I got a Tweet from an account that is one of the five accounts Captain America’s verified account follows. And that Tweet said, “I’m flattered, but you coulda asked for a better picture.” And this picture was attached. <link>

Holy shitballs.

Holy shitballs, my friends: Bucky Barnes follows me on Twitter. 

… 

Dude. Call me?

 

Chapter Text

 

Steve expected Natasha to be sitting creepily in his living room, so he bothered to pull on shorts and a shirt before slipping out of his bedroom quietly so as not to disturb its sleeping occupant. He was so deeply smug and cheerful he resolved to be as nice to Natasha as superhumanly possible. 

But she wasn’t there. His phone was on the kitchen counter, plugged in to charge, and he went to it and grimaced at the hundreds of notifications. Some were from Natasha, and he started there. There were several about Lakeisha the PR lady, and a meeting with her, then one that said, “Going w/Tony to fix Bucky’s arm,” and Steve shoved down a stab of annoyance that she hadn’t taken him along. Of course not; he would only piss Tony off. It was enough that Natasha was there, he told himself firmly.

“Keep me posted,” Steve wrote back. Next he opened the text from Lakeisha, which was from about 30 minutes ago and said “Please call me as soon as you get this.”

He sighed. It was probably important. “Are u in tower?” he wrote. “Come 2 my apt, 48th floor, J will let u up & direct u.”

 

Steve opened the door for Lakeisha less than ten minutes later. She had a small child on her hip, who stared at Steve with wide, wide eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t usually work this late so I didn’t have anybody lined up to watch Jimmy.”

“You’re Jimmy?” Steve said to the little boy. “I’ve heard a lot about you, you know.”

The little boy stared back, shy, but entranced, and Steve gestured Lakeisha in. “I told you who that is,” Lakeisha said to Jimmy. 

He buried his face in her shoulder and audibly murmured, “Is that really Captain America?”

“Yes it is,” she said. 

“Yes,” Steve said, “I am.” He’d had to kiss a lot of babies back in the show-biz days but he actually liked them one on one and not assembly-line style. Especially when they were old enough to actually be fans, not just cry. He tilted his head to look at Jimmy, who peeked one eye out from his mother’s shoulder to look at Steve with interest. 

“He’ll warm up,” Lakeisha said, “which actually might be a problem, but I’ll do my best to keep him occupied.”

“Hey,” Steve said, “you know I understand the trouble.”

Lakeisha smiled, and eased Jimmy down to the ground. He clung to her leg for a moment, as she pulled a tablet out of her shoulder bag, but then he mustered his courage and stepped toward Steve. He was wearing a Falcon t-shirt, and Steve’s face hurt suddenly, he was grinning so hard. It couldn’t have been premeditated, on no notice like this.

Steve crouched down to his level. “Hey, kid,” he said. 

“Hi!” Jimmy said forcefully. Then he squinted at him. “Can you fly?”

Steve laughed. “No,” he said. “I’m really good at falling, though.”

“We have a lot of work to do, Jimmy,” Lakeisha said, “so we’re gonna have to stay pretty calm here, okay?”

“Okay,” Jimmy said, sort of absently, not taking his eyes off Steve. “Are you really strong?”

“Yes,” Steve said. 

“Can you pick me up with one hand?”

“Yes,” Steve said. “But we don’t have time to play, okay? I’ll pick you up one time, but then we have to sit down.”

“Okay,” Jimmy said, and he was paying attention a little bit more, now. Most of Steve’s experience with kids was with Bucky’s literal dozens of nieces and nephews and cousins and second cousins and first cousins once-removed back in Brooklyn when he himself had been too small for much roughhousing, but he’d spent four days at Sam’s mom’s house with the extended family around the holidays, and the accumulated nieces and nephews and cousins had beaten the crap out of him. He’d gotten pretty good at Human Jungle Gym, though. 

Steve held out his arm, and Jimmy wrapped his hands around Steve’s wrist. Holding his arm out straight, Steve stood up, and Jimmy shrieked with laughter, dangling. “Wow-wow-wow-wow!” he said, and Steve laughed and carried him over to the couch like that, lowering him down. 

“We can do more of that later,” Steve said.

Jimmy was still giggling, but buried his face in the throw pillow, and Lakeisha sat down next to him. “My mom can pick him up a little later,” she said. “But I know we don’t have a lot of time right now, we have to get started on this.” It was fascinating, Steve thought, to watch her; behind that young face, she was analyzing, forming and discarding plans. He saw the moment when her slow deliberation clicked and her expression set. She set her tablet down on the cushion next to herself and pulled Jimmy into her lap without even looking, gentling him absently. “Jimmy, you gotta be good. You want a coloring book?”

“Yeah!” Lakeisha put a coloring book on the coffee table, deftly spilled out a pile of crayons, and set him up with expert efficiency, then picked the tablet back up and looked expectantly at Steve. 

Steve sat down in the armchair on the far side of the coffee table, right across from Lakeisha. “What can I do?” he asked. 

“I think we can attack them straight on from the front,” she said. “Just straight-up, honest truth on social media, here’s the truth about Bucky, he’s not crazy, he’s trying to escape his past, what a great guy he is, all that stuff. They want to use panic and chaos to do whatever they want to him, and we can fight back by shining a light right on that. You’re famous, Captain, and well-beloved, and people will listen to you.”

She had already pulled out her phone and was typing something into it. “We need you to make a statement,” she said, “on camera, so if you want to fix your hair or anything go do that, but you should look real casual. I’m going to try to get you a phone interview with one of the major networks, but the video first. Do you have any other photos, or video, or anything from Bucky where he doesn’t look totally crazy? Any more nice pictures from dinner or whatever? Pictures from when you were kids? That kinda stuff.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I’ll be right back.” He stood up and went into his bedroom. 

Sam was still in the bed. He’d sort of forgotten. A little jolt of pleasure went through him as Sam sighed and turned over and said, “Oh my god don’t tell me you’re ready to go again.”

Steve laughed, and sat on the bed, taking Sam’s face between his hands and kissing him slow and deep. It felt so good, it felt so right, and yeah okay, he was ready to go again but now wasn’t the time. He pulled away regretfully. “No,” he said, “shit’s going down, I have to get back out there.”

Sam sat up. “Shit,” he said. “What?”

“The NYPD is putting out SWAT teams to go after Bucky,” Steve said. 

“How did they find out he’s here?” Sam asked, disentangling himself from the blankets— God, his glorious body, he was beautiful— Focus.

“He tagged me in something on Twitter,” Steve said, “and the entire world noticed because apparently the whole world follows me on Twitter even though I don’t post, and they’ve whipped up a panic because he’s pretty obviously in the City.”

“Well,” Sam said. “Shit.”

Steve dug through the sketchbooks under his nightstand, and found some of the older ones. He’d gotten some from Peggy; she’d donated most of them to the Smithsonian, but not all. He knew he had a couple of great old sketches of Bucky in here, pre-Army. And a precious few photographs, including the one he’d copied of Bucky’s mother. “So we’re going to hit them back on social media,” he said, “because we can’t exactly go out and shoot up the NYPD, even if they are apparently under HYDRA’s influence.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “Uh. I don’t, um. I don’t do a lot of PR?”

“We need to convince public opinion that Bucky’s not crazy,” Steve said.

“I do have some stuff to say about that,” Sam conceded. He dug through his suitcase, found clean underwear, found a shirt, found some jeans. 

“We have a PR person from Stark out in the living room,” Steve said. “You should come meet her. And her kid. You’re gonna be psyched about the kid, you’ll see why.”

“I love kids,” Sam said mildly. 

Steve grinned. “Come on.”

He took his armload of albums and books back out, and Sam followed him. Steve was watching, and saw the moment his gaze lit on Jimmy, who was standing at the coffee table, his shirt clearly visible. Sam’s mouth opened slightly, and he turned to Steve and grinned, so bright the room lit up. 

“Jimmy,” Steve said, “I’d like you to meet somebody really special. Can you guess who this is? I’ll give you a hint: he can fly.”

Jimmy looked up at Sam, and stood for a long moment.

“Oh my God,” Lakeisha said, looking up from her tablet. Steve supposed he couldn’t be jealous that she looked overawed as she recognized Sam; Sam was kind of his own special category of awe-inducing. 

“I don’t know,” Jimmy said, looking at his mother in concern. 

“I don’t look the same without the wings on,” Sam said kindly. 

“That’s the Falcon, Jimmy,” Lakeisha said, her voice a little thick, rising slowly to her feet, “oh my God, that is Sam Wilson and he is the Falcon.”

Jimmy turned back, frowning in concentration. “Are you really?” he asked. 

Sam came closer and bent down to regard him solemnly. “I am really,” he said, and held his hand out. Jimmy shook it, very seriously, staring at him. 

“I,” Lakeisha said, “it’s an honor to meet you.”

“You’d think working for Stark you’d be used to meeting people like me,” Sam said, but he said it gently. “You’re Lakeisha the PR girl, right?”

“It’s different,” she said, “you’re different, you know—“

Sam gave her a funny little half-smile. “I do,” he said. 

Steve’s thought was that Sam was different because he was a regular human guy, but then Sam sat down on the floor next to Jimmy and it hit Steve with sudden blinding force that it was that Sam was black, and he felt like an idiot for not thinking of that, for not ever thinking of that. Of course it was important.

He sat down next to Lakeisha. “Tell me about these pictures,” Sam said, and Jimmy climbed into his lap, apparently contented that he was safe, and began to do so. 

“They called my mom for an interview,” Lakeisha said. “They’re stopping by her place and she’s going to do it, I just sent her a message with the points we’d like her to make. She said she has no problem defending him, she really thought he was a nice young man and he reminded her of, of my brother, who came home kinda messed-up— I hope they don’t try to trick her to say anything bad, she’s not trained in this like I am.”

“What happened?” Sam asked. 

“Bucky met Lakeisha’s mom in a laundromat and she helped him figure out the machines and bought him a coffee and a bagel,” Steve said. “Just, totally random coincidence. But I think the reason he posted the picture of himself with me was that she had asked him if he was doing okay, so she’s involved in all this via her Twitter handle.”

“That’s a hell of a coincidence,” Sam said. 

“I know,” Steve said, “right?”

“I have a camera and my colleague Dorothea is getting all the stuff together, she’s going to help us bang out a quick statement video from Captain Rogers,” Lakeisha said.

“Steve,” Steve said. 

Lakeisha smiled at him. “Steve,” she said. 

 

Steve was perched on a stool in the common room of the Avengers floor in the tower, with the windows behind him looking out over the city. He was wearing a plain white t-shirt and khakis, and had bare feet, his hair sticking up but perhaps intentionally. 

“Hi,” Steve said, looking uncomfortable, one hand in his lap holding some cards. “I’m, um. I’m not good at,” and he waved his free hand. “Cameras. Stuff. I can do off-the-cuff stuff if, you know, my life is on the line, but I’m not so good at, you know.”

“Remember why you’re here,” a woman’s off-camera voice said. 

“Yeah,” he said. He looked right at the camera. “So, um. Hi. I’m Steve Rogers. You probably know me as Captain America. And I’m, uh. Listen. There’s been a lot going around, after the events of a couple of months ago— the, all that stuff, in D.C. Among many, many things that happened, it came to light that one of my original Howling Commandos had been captured and brainwashed by… well, by HYDRA, as it turned out. He was codenamed The Winter Soldier, by them, but I knew him as James Buchanan Barnes, or Bucky. He was my best friend since we were kids. There’s footage going around on the Internet and on TV and stuff, of him attacking me, of him generally wreaking havoc. He’s a dark-haired fella with a,” he gestured, “a metal arm, with, uh, with a red star on it?” 

There was a jerky edit, showing a still of the video in question, Bucky on the bridge with his mask on, hair flying, arm gleaming, star distinct, grenade launcher in his hand.

“So here’s the thing,” Steve said. “I’ve been looking for him ever since. I don’t think that surprises anybody. He was so important to me, he was like my brother, he was— he was really important. And I know that’s common knowledge.” He shrugged, gestured with one hand.

“So I know a lot of people are going to say this is all just me, you know, wishful thinking, that I’m blinded by sentiment, that I’m not taking the threat this guy presents seriously enough because I’m so hung up on the idea of getting my friend back.” Steve ran his hand through his hair. “But the thing here is— he was a prisoner of war. He was tortured and brainwashed. And as soon as I said his name, reminded him he’d been a person once, he started to overcome his programming. Yes, he has killed dozens of people since then, but he mailed me a list. He mailed me lists of all their names. He had verified that every one of them was an agent of the organization that had enslaved him, had held him prisoner and used him for decades. And his info checks out.” 

Steve held up a stack of postcards that he’d had in his lap. “Every mission he ran,” he said, “every agent he killed or wounded, he sent to me in a mission report. That I didn’t get, until well after the fact, because I wasn’t home because I was looking for him.” Steve shook his head resignedly.

“He sent me videos, documenting every kill, every facility destroyed. This wasn’t a revenge spree. He was trying to dismantle them, using information only he possessed because they thought they’d removed it from his mind.”

There was a cut, and the recording resumed, closer in on Steve’s face. “Bucky’s not crazy,” he said, looking down at his hands, then up into the lens again. “Yes, I saw him the other day. Yes, I spoke with him, I hugged him, I bought him dinner. I did not try to take him into custody. I believed I could get him to come peacefully if I didn’t force the issue. He has been in New York for weeks, I found out then, and has not caused anyone any harm. I truly believe he has no intention of causing any harm to anyone, not least because he told me as much.”

He looked down, taking in a deep breath. He looked very young, and the lighting slid across the planes of his cheekbones, caught in the dip of his collarbone; the shot was well set up, despite the crudeness of the editing, and it displayed just how beautiful and earnest he was. It also showed that he had a small bruise on the side of his neck just under his jaw. 

His eyes slid back up to the lens. “So I’m asking,” he said, “for everyone to calm down. I’m asking you to give me a chance to save Bucky. Let me bring him in peacefully. I’ve worked hard in the past to keep this city, this country, this world safe, to make sure as few people as possible are hurt or killed. This man has suffered enormously and has managed to overcome most of it. I truly believe he is lucid and in control of himself, and he won’t hurt anyone if he isn’t threatened. Help me. Let me save Bucky. Please.” 

The video faded out on Steve’s earnest, solemn face, faded to black, and a word appeared in white: #savebucky. 

 

* * *

 

Natasha had some safehouse in mind, and she was going to take him there and stay with him while he got himself together as much as possible. Bucky was hesitant, but let her shepherd him into Tony’s car. He was still pretty out of it, but by the time they got where they were going (and he’d puked into a plastic bag, to Tony’s great disgust) he was considerably perked up, and could process what was going on. 

And what was going on was that Natasha— she was blonde now, he hadn’t imagined that. What?— was in the backseat next to him, using a compact mirror to see herself as she smudged her eye makeup and fluffed her hair. The effect was to make her look frowsy and cheap; she completed it by putting too much lipstick on slightly crookedly. 

“You’re sure,” Stark said. 

She looked up over the edge of the mirror. “Yes,” she said. 

“Don’t you dare bring bedbugs back to my tower,” Stark said. 

“Don’t worry,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes for Bucky’s benefit. 

“Bad enough Barnes puked in my car,” Stark huffed, with little real sentiment behind it.

“Sorry,” Bucky said, shoving himself up. “Poison, y’know?”

“Oh,” Tony said, eyeing him in the rearview mirror, “I know.” He navigated the entrance to a small parking lot and stopped the car. “Well, here goes nothing.”

“I have faith in you,” Natasha said, and gathered her things up. Bucky got to his feet with difficulty, knees still rubbery and head a little spinny. He managed to get his duffel bag over his shoulder, and she helped him walk into the building. He knew he must look like a drunk; hopefully that’s all they thought it was. Wherever they were. 

He’d sort of gone on autopilot, trusting Natasha like she was his handler, without even a moment of doubt about her motivations. That was a bad habit. But at this point, if she wanted to betray him, she would. Somehow, his entire self, down to his bones, was convinced that she was good and trustworthy and wouldn’t hurt him. He wasn’t going to examine it now. 

“Where are we going?” he asked, sparing a glance back as Tony reversed expertly out of the lot. 

“We’re going to lie low,” Natasha said, “at least for a few hours. I’ll tell you more once we’re inside.”

It was a hotel, a shabby and slightly sleazy one, and the clerk gave them knowing glances and Natasha somehow managed to come across as a cheap whore without having changed much of her appearance— but the smudged makeup made more sense now. Mostly she did it with body language and presentation, and Bucky watched in admiration as she navigated paying in cash and presenting no identification. 

She led him down the hall, twining her fingers in his and sashaying as though she were inexpertly wearing much higher heels than she was. He managed not to stagger too drunkenly.

“How do you do that,” he said, standing and staring as she locked the door behind them. The room smelled faintly of stale cigarette smoke and bleach, the furniture was all cheap peeling laminate, and the enormous bed was spread with the ugliest floral bedspread Bucky had ever seen. Though, to be fair, from what little he’d grasped, he’d slept through most of the worst decades for home decor.

Natasha laughed, and pulled the wig off, but she mussed her real hair in its place and it didn’t much change the overall impression. “It’s easier as a woman,” she said, “since you have makeup available to you as a commonplace thing. The way a woman lines her eyes gives casual observers a lot of information that they don’t notice themselves taking in.”

“It’s hot,” Bucky blurted, realizing it was possibly the most inarticulate thing he’d said in a while, including during the time he’d spent actually semiconscious.

She grinned up at him as she set her bag down and pulled one of the guns out of the thigh holster under her dress, bringing it over to the nightstand. She also had a little zippered purse that she set down next to the gun. “What,” she said, “the cheap hooker act?”

“No,” he said. “I mean yes, but. No. The, that you can— that you’re that good.” He knew he must look dumbfounded, and he really should get a move on helping secure the room, but he just watched her as she checked the window, drew the curtains, and went in to check the bathroom. 

She came back out. “I don’t usually get to let people see me work,” she said, a little wistful, and stepped into his personal space. “Usually the point is that they don’t notice. I admit it’s kind of nice to be appreciated.”

“I want to kiss you,” he said, because he wasn’t sure whether she was still acting or not, with her body language, the way she was kind of leaning in. 

“Good,” she said, amused, but it wasn’t the kind where she was laughing at him. “That’s a good idea.”

She stepped in the last bit and he lowered his head and took her mouth. This lipstick tasted waxy and less sweet than the other kind she’d been wearing. She pressed her body up against his unhesitatingly, biting at his lip and sucking at his tongue, sliding her hands up under his shirt. She found the knife holster and hummed in quiet amusement, then continued past it, pushing his shirt up.

He figured he might as well be all in, so he went straight for her ass, kneading and groping and getting his thigh between hers, pulling her tight against him so she could grind herself against his leg. He kissed her as dirty as he could manage without letting go of her ass to hold her jaw, and she gave back as good as she got. 

“Bucky,” she gasped after a while, pulling back. “Wow. I, wow. I didn’t think you’d be that with-it yet.”

“Sometimes almost dying makes you want to prove you’re still alive,” he said, and he had forgotten about that but surely it was true. Not all of those memories could be false. Not all of those memories were Steve, either. 

She put her hand around the back of his neck and kissed him softly, then pulled away. “Tony’s using the things he took out of your arm to make a decoy of you, and we’re going to try to coordinate with Steve and with our double agents in the NYPD to lay a trap. There’s a chance you won’t have to be in it at all, if our agents are canny enough.”

“I think I have to be there,” Bucky said carefully. 

“That’s why I made sure we brought your guns,” she said, smiling, and he stopped to stare at her, struck by a powerful feeling of deja-vu. She’d smiled at him like that before, she’d looked like that— he groped for the memory, disconcerted, and came up with her with a sniper rifle, dressed in white, hair in a ponytail, smiling at him like that— 

“What?” she asked, stepping forward, face creasing in concern. She put her hand to his cheek. “Bucky?”

“You used to call me James,” he said, but he didn’t know where that had come from, and blinked. “Sorry, I just had that, that thing where it feels like you remember something you’re in the middle of doing.” Her hair had been longer. He blinked, and shook his head. When had her hair been longer?

“I can call you James,” she said, mouth twisting in a half-smile. “You told me to use Bucky though.”

“I… did,” he said, remembering. He’d texted it to her. He remembered that he had to check his phone for— something, and groped for it, but it wasn’t in the pocket he usually used. 

“Oh,” she said, and pulled his phone out of her cleavage. “I took the liberty, while you were out of it, of keeping up on things.”

He blinked, distracted by her breasts, as she’d probably intended, by the way she was smiling at him. “The Internet,” he said, a little confusedly. He wasn’t tracking all that well, he just knew he was supposed to be worrying about something.

“Some girl talked to you in a coffee shop and wrote an essay about it,” Natasha said, “so I hit on her from your Twitter account.”

Bucky tried without success to bring the phone screen into focus, then shrugged. “Sounds like a good time,” he said. “She wasn’t all that hot but she was hilariously persistent.” He remembered that. “Smarter than she let on.”

“Writes okay,” Natasha said. “Oh Bucky. You’re in rough shape.” She rummaged, produced a bottle of water, and said, “Drink that whole thing.”

He put the phone onto the nightstand and sat down on the bed, a little heavily. She came and stood between his knees as he lowered the half-emptied bottle; it had made an immediate difference, and he was a lot less dizzy and confused. He raised an eyebrow at her, now that he could bring her into focus without trouble. “How long we got to regroup?” he asked. 

She smiled at him, and reached around behind herself to unzip her dress. “Long enough,” she said. He bit his lip, watching the dress slide down to puddle on the floor. She was wearing a green lace chemise thing, stretch lace and hip length and sort of bra-like in that it interacted fascinatingly and somewhat supportively with the softness of her breasts. They didn’t need a whole lot of support, he knew that. And, unsurprisingly, she was wearing shorts and a pair of thigh holsters. She unbuckled the tac belt and let the holsters drop off, stepped out of the shorts, and was wearing emerald green lace underpants to match the chemise thing.

“Wow,” he said. “You always wear stuff like this, or just when you think you might get stranded someplace shabby with some bum?” He was sort of painfully aware that he was scruffy as hell and beat-up besides. 

She unzipped his hoodie and climbed into his lap. “No,” she said, “just when I think I can get away with it.” She put her hands into his hair and pulled his face into her chest. “I’ve got something for that mouth to do.”

He grinned at her and teased at her nipples through the lace, scraping gently with his teeth and laving with his tongue. She liked that, wriggled and made good little noises and put her hands in his hair and pulled kind of hard, and he got the picture and bit her harder and dug his fingers in enough to almost leave bruises, and her noises got better and less little. 

“You like it rough,” he said eventually like it was a revelation, flat on his back in the middle of the bed with her grinding down on him, face pink and eyes sparkling. She had red marks from her collarbones on down, and one on her neck up by her jaw, and he had fingernail marks on his chest that kind of stung.

“I like a lot of things,” she said breathlessly, shuddering a little bit as she worked herself just right up against the hard bulge of his erection. She was utterly, endlessly self-possessed, even now.

He wanted that, and didn’t just want her, he wanted to be like that, and it was a weird feeling, but he was getting used to wanting things. 

“I like things too,” he said. “We’re a match made in heaven. What a coincidence.”

She laughed. “You’re such a goofball,” she said. 

“Naw,” he said, “really, I never met anybody else who liked things before. I can’t believe how lucky I am.” He remembered this. He’d always tried to be suave and collected, but it had usually failed at some point, and if he was gonna save it, it’d be with humor. 

He remembered this.

“Lucky you,” she breathed, easing up a little to work his jeans unfastened. She slipped off the edge of the bed, taking his jeans down with her, and wrestled him out of his boots. He was glad he’d changed his socks that morning; he probably still smelled terrible, but perhaps less so than he might have. She climbed back up onto the bed and peeled him out of his shirt, helping him work it off over his bandaged, immobilized arm, then stood back again, looking at him like there was something to see. She licked her lips like she liked it, too. 

Her next approach took his underwear off, and she grinned at him, taking him in hand. Apparently the poison wasn’t having a detrimental effect on the function of that particular, uh, area; he wasn’t going to complain.

“What do you want?” he asked, trying to make it suggestive instead of nervous. 

“I want everything,” she said, unfastening her shoes. “What will you give me?”

“Everything,” he said, watching in rapt attention as she took the shoes off, skimmed out of the lacy things, and came back naked to the bed. She reached over to the nightstand and his attention snapped to her hand, wary, but she wasn’t reaching for the gun some part of him had been continually aware of this whole time. She was reaching for the little purse, and that was a lot less terrifying and also made more sense. 

She had condoms in it. Of course. She pulled one out and dropped it on his chest, then leaned over to put the purse back on the nightstand. “What do you think of that?” she asked. 

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said.

She grinned at him, and crawled back over to him, retrieving the little square packet from his chest and bending down to kiss him, and bite his lip hard. “Good,” she said, and moved down his body, opening the packet with her teeth and taking him in hand. 

“I feel like,” she said, breathing hard, “maybe this is the best idea I’ve ever had.” She rolled the condom onto him and gave him a wicked grin, her hair a wild mess around her face and her breasts hanging soft and heavy close to his face. 

“You’re a smart lady,” he agreed fervently. And he remembered, again, as she straddled his hips, as she looked down intently at his body, biting her lip in concentration, he remembered her, red hair and serious face and young, he remembered paying her a sincere compliment, he remembered how she had looked at him like he knew everything. He remembered how he’d kept that moment, how they hadn’t wiped him, how he’d had that image for years before it had gotten lost somewhere. Someone had looked at him like he was a mind, not a machine. 

She sank down onto him and he made a helpless little noise as she engulfed him, took him in, surrounded him in slick tight heat. “Yes,” she moaned, quiet but intense, and rocked against him, opening herself up, taking him all the way in. 

“Natasha,” he said, needing her to look at him, and she did, turning her face up to his, lowering herself down a little, putting a hand against his face as she braced herself with the other. 

“James,” she murmured, smiling, radiant, he was a person, he was a person to her, he was hopelessly in love with her, this was not going to end well but he had never been that good at planning ahead. 

He gave himself over to the sensation, fervent prayers spilling from his mouth unchecked, and she tangled her fingers in his hair and rode him hard and long, barely even pausing with a gasp and shudder as climax swept through her. 

“James,” she said raggedly, but she was still in control even as her body shook and wrung at him, “oh, oh— yeah,” and she bore down on him and fucked him harder. 

He cried out at her teeth on his neck, her nails in his good shoulder, her thighs clamped around his waist— sweat slicking their bodies’ slide together, breath and blood and heartbeats, the smell of bodies, of sex, of rubber and sweat and her beautiful, wet cunt, and none of his fake memories had any of this in them, and they crumbled and fell away and there was nothing but her, nothing but Natasha, nothing else, rising up above him in a strong slender column of living, thinking, human, woman. And she was looking at him like he was a person, she was watching him lose himself and she was smiling at his pleasure even as her own composure melted away. 

He brought his hand down between them and put his thumb against her the way he’d discovered with his tongue the other day, just how she liked it, firm and slippery and sure, and she writhed, then cried out as loudly as he’d ever heard her (not at all like when he’d shot her and she’d only gasped) (louder than last time she’d come) and bucked and shuddered and dug her nails into his shoulder, and clamped down on his cock, crying out hoarsely in the same rhythm as she clenched around him. 

“Natasha,” he said helplessly, his breath not his own, “Natasha,” and his body was moving without his input, his control shredded, he couldn’t stop, he couldn’t control himself, and it shot up his spine in a little chain of explosions, removing his mind’s connection from his body, blasting him out of himself. 

He came back to a body in progress, shuddering and jerking without his input, and her arms were around his head and her mouth was in his ear. “Bucky,” she murmured, “James, it’s okay, I’ve got you, it’s okay.”

He couldn’t remember how to talk, couldn’t remember how to move, and thrashed in blind panic. He was damaged, he was damaged, his left arm offline, and it hurt.

She held him, keeping him from moving, and he went still, shuddering. He had no script, no routine, no information, he didn’t know what to do, and so he stayed still, panicking silently. 

“James,” she said, and she took his chin in her hand. “Bucky, look at me. Bucky.”

He couldn’t, couldn’t raise his eyes to hers, couldn’t look at her, couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe— 

— breathe— 

He sucked in a breath as she closed her hand around the back of his neck, tipping his head back, staring into his face, and there were tears in her eyes. “Bucky,” she said, “James, look at me.”

He blinked, and breathed, and something in his arm caught agonizingly and released, and it was enough to put him back into his body. “Natasha,” he said, and it rushed back like feeling into a trapped limb, awkward and clunky and painful but rapidly fading, “Natasha, I—“

“Bucky,” she said, and pulled his head to her chest again. “Oh Bucky. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean—“

He pulled away, angry, gutted— “It was okay before,” he said, and frustration choked him, it was like he’d just woken up from stasis and he couldn’t really control himself at all, “it was okay, why am I not okay?”

“James,” she said, and pulled him down, lay down with his head against her chest, and he was too broken to be ashamed that he was crying. He sobbed shamelessly in her arms, curled into a broken little heap with her body to protect him, and checked out completely. 

 

 

Bucky woke up screaming while she was sitting on the foot of the bed, working on her tablet. It wasn’t panic screaming, it was pain, the distinctive sound of a man past what he could bear. He’d been out for more than an hour, and she’d spent that time working. Steve’s video had gone viral, and #savebucky was trending. She had the TV on, volume very low; they were alternating between whipping up panic and talking about the SWAT teams and possibly National Guard (she hadn’t put any agents into the National Guard, but neither had HYDRA as far as she could tell, so that was a wash), and covering the increasingly-popular #savebucky campaign.

Natasha had added some fuel to the fire with a few strategic updates from Bucky’s phone, including one closeup of the bloody bandage on the metal arm with the caption “if I was gonna go on a killing spree I’d need an equipment upgrade first”. It was shamelessly putting words in his mouth but he was pretty clearly not in a state to have his own. 

From her own phone she’d posted a creepy photo of passed-out Bucky, carefully cropped so the background location wasn’t identifiable. He looked young and pale and very sick, and she’d written, “He’s hurt pretty bad.” Steve had retweeted it and she’d seen the photo on the TV probably four or five times now. 

“Bucky,” she said, putting the tablet down and sliding up the bed to grab his shoulder. He had curled around the injured arm and was shaking in as tiny a ball as he could manage in the middle of the bed. “Bucky.”

“Fuck,” he said tightly, “fuck— ahh!”

She curled around him from behind, holding him as he shook. “It’s okay,” she said, “it’s okay, let me change the dressing.”

“Burns,” he said shakily, “it burns,” and tried to uncurl, glassy-eyed and shaking with pain. 

“It’s okay,” she said, and kissed his flesh-and-blood shoulder. 

“Yeah,” he panted, and shoved himself unsteadily up, tangled in the sheets. He rubbed his face, bad arm clutched across his midsection. He’d bled on the sheets— the blood was distinctively in the scale pattern of the arm’s segments. “I— yeah—“ He seemed dazed. 

She got him settled back against the headboard and made him drink another whole bottle of water, then steeled herself, unwinding the bandage, and ripped the maintenance hatch open. He didn’t scream, but he made an awful noise and turned his head away. The material Tony had used to pack the power source’s vacant compartment was soaked through with mostly blood; she was wearing gloves, and noted that the material smoked faintly as she dropped it into the wastebasket. She held his arm over the wastebasket and flushed the space out with more water— his other hand left bruises on her back as he tried not to grab her shoulder too hard— before shoving new wadding in and cramming the hatch shut again, winding new bandages around it to hold it in place. 

She followed it up with giving him one of the injections in his other arm, and he set his jaw and stared fixedly at the TV as she did so. “Hey,” he said in a moment. “Is that— hey, where is that picture from?”

She glanced up. “I took that,” she said. “You were passed-out, I figured it would kind of take the wind out of HYDRA’s panic-inducing sails to point out that you’re pretty fucked-up at the moment.”

“I guess,” he said, but gave her a look. 

“I know it’s creepy,” she said, “that’s what this is all about.”

He shook his head. She used the remote to turn the volume up. “— have made it clear that Barnes is in the New York metro area,” the commentator was saying, and there were pictures from Bucky’s Twitter timeline, the George Washington Bridge and a diner milkshake and a Brooklyn streetscape, “and apparently has been for some time. He is considered armed and dangerous and the NYPD are mobilizing SWAT teams, but the other posts, including the one we just showed by a woman we have verified to be a former SHIELD agent, suggest that he has been injured and is in no condition to resist being apprehended.”

“That’s just the recap,” the other commentator said, appropriately solemn. “We take you now to an eyewitness report from a woman who claims to have spent time with him a couple of days ago.”

A middle-aged black woman, impeccably dressed, silver-haired, stood on the stoop of a building, next to a sharp-dressed white woman holding a microphone. “Hey,” Bucky said. “I know her.”

“I know you do,” Natasha said. 

 “Yes,” the black woman on screen said, “that’s my Twitter handle. He sent that picture to me because I’d sent him a message asking if he was all right.” A caption appeared across the bottom of the screen. Brenda Adams: Met Bucky Barnes In A Laundromat. “He’d said he was going to meet up with a friend, it sounded like it was going to be pretty emotionally charged, and I was worried for him.”

“How did you know him?” the newswoman asked. 

“I was doing my laundry,” Brenda said, “in the laundromat near my house. And at the machine next to me, there was this young white man, and he was having trouble getting the machine to start. He hadn’t latched it properly, so I showed him how to do it, and he thanked me politely. Something struck me about him, and I asked him if he was a veteran. I have a son, you see, who was badly injured in Afghanistan, in the Army, and he came home to me and I am so grateful for that, but he came home different, you know? And he’s getting better, but—“ She smiled sadly. “This young man reminded me of him, that way— just something desperately sad about him.”

“Did he behave strangely?” the newswoman asked. 

“Oh,” Brenda said, “no more so than many. He was a little edgy, a little sad. I noticed his left hand wasn’t quite normal, so I asked him, and he showed me that it was a prosthetic, made of metal. He said he’d been in the Army, and that not all of him had come home. So I went and bought him a coffee and a bagel in return for him watching my machine for me, and he was so sweet and so grateful. He took a picture of the bagel, and told me he had memory loss and took a lot of pictures of things to help him remember.”

“Did he seem unstable at all, or confused?” the newswoman asked.

“No,” Brenda said, “not really. He was very sweet, and as I said, very sad; he laughed and joked and talked with me, but he was always checking the exits of the building, and just looked so tired, you know?”

“Did he say or do anything to lead you to believe he wasn’t quite what he seemed?” the newswoman asked. 

“No,” Brenda said. “No, he acted so much like my son when he first came home from the war. It just twisted me up inside, to see that. One of my neighbors was there too, and he helped her fold her laundry in return for her letting him use the last of the time on her dryer.” Brenda smiled for a moment, lost in thought. “Well, he did seem to get agitated at one point,” she conceded. “A man was standing right outside the window and was staring at him while his back was turned, and he knew the man was there and was afraid to look at him. I thought maybe he was paranoid, but the thing is, the man at the window really was creepy— he scared my neighbor, she came and sat with us because she thought the man was being a creep.”

“Did Barnes say anything in particular about who he thought the man might be?” the newswoman asked. 

“No,” Brenda said, “and he told us not to ask. I wanted him to give me his phone number, I had a suspicion he was lying when he said he was staying with friends. I had the distinct impression that he was sleeping on the streets, and when I asked him if the VA was helping him he didn’t seem to know what I meant by it. I thought he didn’t know he could get help. I wanted to help him. He seemed like a good boy, a sweet boy who had been hurt, and I wanted to help him. But he seemed to think that if my number was in his phone, someone would want to hurt me. Instead he gave me his Twitter handle and we followed one another.” She shrugged. “So that’s why I was messaging him, and that’s why he messaged me back with the picture. I was worried about him and wanted to make sure he wasn’t homeless.”

“So,” the newswoman said, “you met Bucky Barnes, who is one of the most legendary assassins of all time, and thought he was a nice kid.”

“I looked him up,” Brenda said, “when I found out who I’d bought coffee for, I looked up that Winter Soldier, and I don’t understand how people can say he’s a bad guy. He was tortured and forced to do all that stuff. And I can believe it, having spoken to him. He just looked so sad, and so tired, so beat-down. But he wasn’t crazy, and I don’t believe he’d be violent. He was a nice boy.” 

“Aww,” Bucky said. “She was real sweet.”

“Her daughter works for Stark,” Natasha said. 

“So she said,” Bucky said. “I talked on the phone to her, almost fell off a building.”

“Right, right,” Natasha said. “I remember now.” She grabbed his phone off the nightstand, where she’d had it plugged in— it was beat to hell, he’d used the hell out of it. She was glad she’d put it in one of those extra-tough cases. “I kind of, updated Twitter as you. Just once.”

He blinked sleepily at her, and she realized he still wasn’t totally with-it. “Okay,” he said. 

“In current etiquette, it’s rude to do that,” she said, “but I figured it had to be done. And then I posted a creepy photo of you passed-out to mine.”

“Oh,” he said, “I know it’s rude, but I also know it sort of doesn’t apply.” 

“So we have #savebucky trending on Twitter— that means a lot of people are talking about it, which means a lot of people know what’s going on, and transparency is the enemy of HYDRA, so that’s going well.” Natasha picked up the tablet again. “Tony’s got the indicator thing all rigged up to give them a positive location on a decoy of you. I have my agents in position with the HYDRA-infiltrated SWAT teams— there is at least one team that is entirely HYDRA, with no actual NYPD on it. We are going to have a field day with them.”

“Can I shoot them?” Bucky asked, perking up a little. 

“If we get a chance,” Natasha said. “Tony’s going to set off the decoy to get them to move, and you and I are going to follow up if they don’t go for the decoy. Not sure how yet.”

“Hm,” Bucky said. He rubbed his face. “I’m outta my depth,” he said. “But you know— you know my absolute number one priority is avoiding recapture.”

“I do,” she said. 

“I mean I’ll cheerfully blow my own face off,” Bucky said.

“I do,” she said, “I do understand that.”

“Of course you do,” he said, and he was staring at her intently. She paused, trying to parse his regard, but she couldn’t read him. He smiled unsteadily and looked back over at the TV. 

It was showing footage of Steve, wearing a white t-shirt, looking really attractive and earnest and young. He was so beautiful. The video was simple but well-shot, well-lit, and Natasha admired the line of his jaw for a moment, his lovely neck— 

Wait a minute.

She leaned forward, looked closer at the television as Steve’s head turned slightly. Was that— 

It was. He had a bite-mark on his neck. How the— but Sam had texted her, he had to have gotten in an hour or two before, at least. That meant— 

She yanked her phone out and texted Steve immediately. “YOU DID IT!,” she wrote. Not like she could talk. Her bite-marks, if any left marks, would most likely be hidden by her clothes. 

Right?

She rubbed below her ear, pressing at, yeah, a bruise. Er, maybe not. Makeup, then. 

“We gotta go to ground somewhere,” Bucky said. “If— I mean, if you wanna set up a trap or something— that was my plan, anyway. But somewhere— not around people. Just in case they— If they think they can’t get me they’ll, you know. Lots of shooting. Probably grenades. We can’t be,” he waved his hand, “here. People. Collateral.” He shuddered at the word; she supposed it was a conditioned response. Certain words seemed to do that to him. Certain words did it to her, too, but not in English. The fact that he had that response to English words said some very, very incriminating things about his handlers in the last few decades. Probably longer. 

“That’s what I’ve been coordinating,” Natasha said. “Among other things.”

“I don’t suppose,” Bucky said quietly, looking at the other corner of the room, “I could convince you to perhaps not, you know, be in range of the grenades.”

“I’m not leaving you,” she said wryly. “You can’t have thought I would.”

“No,” he said. He fidgeted with the blanket. “It’s just. I don’t want that on my head too.”

“I know what you mean,” she said, “but no, it’s not going down like that, James.” She corrected herself. “Bucky.”

“I like it when you call me James,” he said, eyebrows drawing together as if in puzzlement. He flicked her a glance. “Nobody ever has, I don’t know why, but it sounds right when you say it.”

She leaned across the bed and kissed him, and he returned the kiss sweetly. “Put some clothes on,” she said, “we’re going to move out soon.”

“Can I shower?” he asked. 

She consulted her phone. “Sure,” she said.

 

While he was in the shower Clint tapped at the window and she let him in. “How we gonna play this?” he asked. He had a gun case over his shoulder, no bow or quiver— his shoulder was still fucked-up, he couldn’t shoot. It was just as well; nobody would buy him as a Bucky decoy if he had a bow. They had kind of distinctive silhouettes. 

“You got any good toys?” she asked. 

“I didn’t bring an M82, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. “I’ve never used one, I figured it’s bad enough I’m out my primary weapon of choice. I’m not going to leave behind my secondary too.”

“Thought your secondary was knives,” she said, turning back to the mirror to finish up her makeup. She’d put the blonde wig back on, too. 

“Distance weapon,” he said, rolling his eyes at her in the mirror. Then, “Is that a hickey?”

“Definitely not,” she said. It was a bite bruise, there was an important difference. Biting was all right. Hickeys weren’t. 

“You fucked him again,” Clint said, and punched her in the shoulder lightly. “Guess he’s not as bad as Tony said?”

“He has a healing factor, for sure,” she said. “It’s taxed to the limit, I’d bet, but what we did was restorative. I should hope.”

“Room’s not wrecked,” Clint said. “You went easy on him.”

She threw him a disgusted look, though he wasn’t wrong, and he laughed, then patted his pockets. “Almost forgot,” he said, and tossed her one of the tiny in-ear headsets. He had his affixed already, she knew where to look. “I got a spare, think Barnes’ll want it?”

“Barnes’ll want what?” Bucky asked, coming out of the bathroom in a billow of steam. He was wearing a towel, and had his good arm cradling his bad arm against his chest. Natasha could tell that he was trying to look nonchalant but was decidedly uneasy at finding another person in the room; he must have heard them talking and expected it, or he wouldn’t have had his reaction this controlled. “Hey, Hawkeye. You me again?”

“Maybe,” Clint said. He held out his hand. “You want a headset?”

“Headset,” Bucky said blankly, looking at the tiny device in Clint’s hand. He didn’t take it, because his one good hand was busy holding the bad arm in place. 

“Ear piece,” Clint hedged. “Thing.”

“For…?” Bucky turned away, not putting his back to Clint, and sat on the edge of the bed to haul up his duffel bag and paw through it. The bad arm lay in his lap and Natasha could see it was leaking blood. 

“We coordinate through them,” Clint said. He demonstrated the basic functions, and Bucky stared dubiously at it. 

“Let me put it in for you,” Natasha said. He let her, bending his neck with only a little hesitation. There was tension in his jaw, but it could have been pain as much as nervousness. She helped bandage his arm while she was at it. He tested out the headset, familiarizing himself with the functions competently, though it was clear it unnerved him somewhat.

“So here’s the plan,” Clint said. “Tony’s got that tracker device thing, he’s gonna rig it to go off. Figure we set it up someplace so it looks like you’ve holed up in a little sniper’s nest to die. We set it up someplace that I can set up another sniper’s nest overlooking it, so I can pick off motherfuckers who show up to collect you. They’ll figure that’s you doing it, so they’ll regroup and come after me. Meanwhile, since you insist on being there, you’re set up in yet another sniper’s nest overlooking mine, so you can pick off the motherfuckers who show up to collect me. Hopefully that pisses them off enough that they’ve all showed up to get you, and we can then pretty much collect them at our leisure.”

“Nice idea,” Bucky said. “What about heat signatures? They’re gonna check, you know.”

“We’re pretty good at defeating that kind of scan,” Clint said. “We have some pretty good tech.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Bucky said. “Don’t really have much choice, do I?”

 

 

Chapter Text

* * * 

 

“Echo is embedded with their Fourth Team,” Steve said resignedly, “Foxtrot with their Sixth Team, we have no one with Third Team which mysteriously has had a one hundred percent staffing switch-over and leadership change, so you can figure out what that means, and Baker is—”

“I got it,” Hill said. “Cap. I got it. I’ve been briefed. It’s fine. Go.”

“The last thing in the goddamn world I want to do right now,” Steve said, “is go do a fucking press conference.”

“I know,” she said, “but you can’t just Tweet your way out of it and go fight.”

“Can’t Tweet while I fight anyway,” Steve said. He picked up the shield, stuck it to its harness, and steeled himself for a moment before going to the door. Sam was by the exit, geared-up, and he clapped him on the shoulder. They’d already discussed it; the moment Sam judged it necessary, he was going to run in and just grab Steve, wherever he was, and fly him to wherever Bucky was. 

“Good luck,” Sam said. 

“Same to you,” Steve answered, and stepped out into the conference room full of people, remembering by dint of long practice not to blink or squint at the lights or flashes. 

He had his earpiece in and could listen to the chatter of the teams as they got into position. Natasha’s voice came in just as he reached the microphone, and he paused a moment, listening, hand over the microphone to make it clear he wasn’t ready yet. 

“We’re in position,” she said. 

He tapped his earpiece and said, “Status, Tasha?”

“He’s holding steady,” she said. “Steve, go do your thing, I’ll tell you if anything changes.”

“Acknowledged,” he said, and stepped up to the microphone, tapping his earpiece to stop transmission. He adjusted the microphone, surveyed the crowd, and said, “Shall we begin?”

 

 

* * * 

 

HYDRA’s video editing department wasn’t as good as Stark’s, but they did have one. About two hours after Steve’s video appeal aired, the news picked up on another video, uploaded from a newly-created YouTube account. It was called The Winter Soldier, and featured a series of disturbing clips. It should have been removed for explicit content, but it was posted in half a dozen places almost immediately, and every time it got taken down it was up in two more places.

It began with a still photo of Barnes, glowering blankly (not a recent photo, but not from when he was Bucky— his hair was short but he was definitely the Winter Soldier), and the superimposed title in blood red, CODENAME: WINTER SOLDIER. A rapid-fire series of clips followed, some of it apparently training footage— Barnes on a firing range, blank-faced and resolute, Barnes on security camera footage looking up at the camera and shooting it out, then a rapid-fire series of photos of Barnes, more or less mugshots, in varying states of blood-spatteredness, griminess, and resentfulness. 

A black screen said, in red, SUPER SOLDIER SERUM, and flickered out, interspersed with more of the mugshots. Another stretch of security camera footage showed Barnes advancing at a deliberate pace across a room, body jerking twice as bullets hit him in the chest but pace not varying, before he finally raised his arm and dragged the shooter out from cover. He efficiently snapped the man’s neck and threw the limp body aside, face horrifyingly blank.

Another black screen said, in the same red text, 102 CONFIRMED KILLS, and flickered over a number of images— several grainy blown-up images of a figure crouched behind a sniper rifle, then a series of clips of him surrounded by bodies that had to have come from security cameras at the HYDRA facilities he’d destroyed on his world tour. One showed him stalking across the floor and kicking over dead bodies; the third body he reached twitched, and he shot it unhurriedly in the face, and turned away with disturbing nonchalance. A couple more gory photos of crime scenes, mostly victims of gunshot wounds.

Black screen, red text, SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH, flickering out over several more resentful-looking mugshots, lingering for a fraction of a second longer on one where his face was covered in blood. A clip followed, grainy security-camera footage, of him staggering across a room, visibly badly injured. He caught himself against a wall, slid sideways, dragged himself back up, and kept going. 

Another screen: EXTREMELY UNSTABLE. The screen cut away to footage of Barnes strapped to a chair by both arms, shirtless, bloody, and screaming, thrashing and trying to get loose. There was no sound but it was perfectly plain that he was making  a lot of noise. The video froze when his face turned full-on toward the camera, eyes and mouth wide open. 

The video ended on that freeze-frame, with the text superimposed again, CODENAME: WINTER SOLDIER.

 

Lakeisha retaliated quickly with clips from the video reports Bucky had sent Steve. Another Stark employee, an enthusiastic junior employee of the marketing department named Dorothea Nguyen, had already been editing them together; they just switched up the order and the focus, and had it compiled, exported, and uploaded within thirty minutes. It was titled “I Die Knowing My Name”.

Whatever happens, it said in blue text over a screen of giraffes walking past in a sunset, and Barnes’s voice saying, low, “Ain’t that pretty,” I die knowing my name. 

The screen went to a drawing, a cartoonish sketch of a dark-haired young man with a jauntily-cocked cap, hands flung out in a gesture, hopping on one foot like he was dancing, his face split with a broad grin. There was a quiet chime, and an electronic voice said, “Leave a message for Captain America.” 

The image changed; it was an even looser drawing, freely gestural; a dark-haired young man with his jaw set angrily, blood dripping from his nose, shoulders high and tight, hands fisted by his sides, standing with his feet apart and his shirt torn. There was a handwritten caption in the lower corner, scribbled, that said “BUCKY” 1938, and under that, SR.

“Steve,” Bucky was saying, in voiceover. “I hope you get this. Look, you’re the closest thing I got left to a commanding officer. So I’m gonna send you reports. If I can get in touch with you I can at least coordinate, if not collaborate. I’m not going on a crazy revenge spree, I’m trying to take HYDRA down with information only I have. Please, if you get this, drop me a line—“

A new image cut in, a video: Barnes leaned back in the toilet compartment of a train car, saying, “It’s a carefully-sculpted pile of tinder that they’ve soaked in gasoline, and I think I was the match.” He shook his head. He was tired-looking, haggard, hair unwashed and ragged-looking, and he looked haunted and grim. “It’s more than I can put out on my own. I’m gonna go try and kick some of the fuel out of the fire. Check me out and my metaphors, right?”

He managed a tired, flippant half-grin. “Anyway,” he went on. “I’ll probably get killed.” 

I thought I was a robot, blue text said, across the screen, which was filled with a drawing of a dark-haired young man, leaning over a sink, very carefully drawing a razor along the fine line of his square jaw. It was a charcoal sketch on gray paper, and there were highlights in white chalk along the man’s cheekbone, lip, knuckles, and a sparkle in his eye. 

A voiceover: Barnes’s voice. “You know for years I thought I was actually a robot. No idea I’d ever been anything but what I was.” The screen changed to another drawing, the same young man, in a sleeveless white undershirt, suspenders hooked down off his shoulders, sitting on a fire escape, in profile, smoking a cigarette; the smoke spiraled moodily across the sketchy hint of a city skyline. “Figured I’d been put together from scrap parts.” Barnes’s voice sounded hoarse, out of practice. 

The view changed to video of a seascape, the sky and water both iron-gray; across the center white text said UKRAINE, 2014. Barnes swung into view, the camera’s autofocus hunting wildly for a moment before resolving him clearly. He was gaunt and ragged-looking, sharp-faced and exhausted, metal arm crossed over the flesh and blood one, short-sleeved formerly-white t-shirt dingy and speckled with dirt. “I’m doin’ the thing they always do in movies. I’m totally monologuing and tellin’ the hero the plan.” He shook ragged hair out of his face, expression taut and humorless. “I never really figured on being the villain in the movie. But I had no idea how fucked-up the world could be. Did you ever realize how fucked-up the world could be, Steve?” He leaned in a little, intense and blank-faced but visibly frightened, jaw tight.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I done a lot of harm in this world, caused a lot of trouble. I don’t have any backup to call in for this. I was kinda hopin’ I could get ahold of you but I don’t think you’re anywhere to get any of my messages. So I’m goin’ in alone and I’m gonna wreck what I can, and if I can drag myself out again after, I will.”

The screen cut to another picture, this one a figure study, fading out to sketchy lines at the edges— mostly it was a study of the musculature of the back of a man’s shoulders, his head turned to one side, but the profile was distinctive, identifiable, the mouth curved slightly into a mysterious smile under lowered eyelids. “Listen, Steve,” Barnes said in voiceover, “The inside of my head is like a piece of fuckin’ crockery after Mom got done pitchin’ it at Dad, but I remember more about you, I remember how important you were to me.” Another drawing, a water-stained, meditative pencil scribble of a tired-faced man with short dark hair, shoulders slumped wearily, pinky finger hooked over the end of a cleaning rod to push it through the barrel of a rifle in a graceful, practiced gesture, expression distant and hollow, cheeks shaded with stubble and hands blackened with dirt. This one visibly had the initials SR in the corner.

“I must’ve been important right back or you wouldn’t’a come after me that time. So I guess if I get a chance to send this I just wanna say that I’m sorry for shootin’ you.”

The camera cut in, a close-up on half of Barnes’s face, chin resting on a coffee table with the camera at the other end of it not quite far enough away, lit from the side. His one visible eye was piercingly blue. “I got this comfort, now, whatever happens, I die knowin’ my name. I don’t think you can get how important that is. But, like, second place in the comforting thing is that I die knowin’ your name. Because I remember enough to know that whoever I was, I was because you were you, and that didn’t change when you went from bein’ some little punk to bein’ this big hero.” He sat up, head moving out of the frame, and everything was dark and blurry; a metal arm bisected the frame, Barnes pushing to his feet. “Goodbye, Steve.”

The frame froze on the dark blurry screen, and in blue text it said #savebucky

 

 

* * * 

 

 

“I don’t think that coulda gone much worse,” Clint said breathlessly into his earpiece. 

“Shush,” Natasha said, “you’ll give them ideas.”

“It can always be worse,” Bucky added darkly.

 HYDRA had taken the bait, sure— the alert device embedded in a set of clothing stuffed with approximately the right bulk to approximate an unconscious Bucky, with judicious chemical heatpacks to give it a humanish heat signature, set up in a little sniper’s nest in the corner of an abandoned building’s roof.

They’d taken the bait, and Clint had waited until they got close enough to just about uncover the deception, and then he’d started taking them out from his other sniper’s nest on another rooftop, and that had gone almost according to plan except that when they responded, massively, to the trap, they somehow, apparently coincidentally, damn near overran the third emplacement where Natasha and Bucky were hiding. They’d had to defend themselves, unexpectedly surrounded, and pretty much none of them had fallen for Clint being the real Bucky at all. 

Bucky had a sneaking suspicion that their sensors were good enough to make out that Clint had two working flesh-and-blood arms. His own heat signature had been purportedly scrambled by some sort of high-tech thing he was beyond trying to figure out, so they hadn’t sussed him out that way, but one doesn’t exactly need a heat signature to find someone who’s shooting at you from close range. He hadn’t used the sniper rifle one time; Natasha had been using the shotgun and he’d already run out of ammunition for the .45 and had switched to the 9mm. 

“We’re barricaded in,” Natasha said, “just about, and if they wanted to capture him dead they’d’ve already used a grenade. Successfully.”

“Yeah,” Clint said. They were so sure he wasn’t the real Bucky that they’d made no effort to bring him in alive. “Well, if they had grenades I’d already be dead for sure.”

“Wonder why they don’t,” Bucky said almost contemplatively. They were getting a little warier, not just rushing the position. They had NYPD flak jackets on but Hill had assured them that not a single one of them was an actual cop. He set up his shot carefully and waited, and in a moment a furtive figure darted across his zone and he took it out neatly with the already-set-up shot. “Can I get a woop woop!” he crowed with some satisfaction, moving so that the return fire thudded harmlessly into the wall where he’d been. 

“Nice,” Natasha said, back against the barricade they’d made. She was reloading clips for all three of them— her guns took the same ammunition as his 9mm, though not the rounds he preferred. Didn’t much matter, this wasn’t finesse work. 

“Did you just… quote Jay-Z?” Clint asked hesitantly. 

“Maybe,” Bucky said. “Naw, it was the chick. His line was can I get a fuck you. I’m saving that for later.”

“Why do you know that?” Clint asked. 

“Dude I’m old but I got ears,” Bucky answered.

“Get off the comm if you’re not going to say anything useful, you two,” Natasha snapped, without any real heat. 

She was still managing to look remarkably pristine, her dress a little dirt-spattered but her hair artfully tousled. She’d left the blonde wig off and was wearing strappy sandals that had proven themselves to be remarkably sturdy. 

“We’re nearly in position,” said the woman over the comms who had identified herself as Hill. “We’re closer to you, Hawkeye.”

“Don’t even worry about me,” Clint said, “they know I’m not him, they’re not really trying for me at all. Once you make a move toward him they’ll leave me alone.”

“Don’t know that I’d bet on that,” Hill said. “I’d rather try to retrieve you for our assault.”

“They don’t have that kind of time,” Clint said. “Start yours, I’ll play dead or disappear and come around to support.”

“Roger that,” Hill said. “If you’re sure.” She didn’t sound like she was. 

Natasha slid over and handed him a clip. “Low on ammo,” she said. “Two more clips for your gun, four for mine, and we’re out.”

“Shotgun?” Bucky asked. Her shoulder was pressed against his, he could feel how hard she was breathing. 

“Out,” she said. He couldn’t complain, she’d made every round count. She was good. But he’d known that.

He shook his head, and got up to cross their little area to the direction they’d been hoping they could retreat, risking a quick look out of one of the haphazard firing slits they’d left when they’d set up the barricade. A shot nearly took off his head; if he hadn’t had augmented reflexes, it would have. “Shit!” he said, startled, and a piece of his hair, shot off, drifted to the floor. “Okay, we’re outta time, gonna have to retreat to the roof.” He shoved the pistol in the slot and fired blind, but he knew where he was aiming, and was rewarded with a yell of pain. 

He’d only winged the guy, though, so there was some more yelling and thrashing and moaning. Then they opened up with something largeish-caliber on the barricade, and Bucky had precisely enough time to judge where it was going to break through, calculate trajectory, and jump.

Natasha had seen the same thing he had, but her reflexes were slower, and she’d ducked but nowhere near far enough. He slammed into her just as the bullet hit, and deflected it with his armored shoulder, as he’d planned. But he hadn’t taken a couple of things into account in this plan— firstly, the caliber of the weapon, which was pretty large, and secondly, the fragility of his battered collarbone. 

He shattered, there was just no other word for it, he was separated into component parts. He hit the ground, tasting blood, and rolled onto his back and stopped there, blasted out of motion. 

“James,” Natasha said, her voice raw over the ringing of his ears, “James, fuck!”

Bucky stared up through a dark tunnel, trying and failing to breathe. Damage— he was damaged— he was damaged severely, structurally, he knew it in all his nerves and programming, and he saw it reflected in Natasha’s face. It wasn’t the gunshot, the bullet hadn’t penetrated, but the angle it had hit had violently shattered some of the bones in his shoulder, and he could feel the sting of a displaced fracture that had forced bone out through the skin. 

“Da— mm— mage sus— sus— sus—“ he stuttered, but he couldn’t move to hit his headset, to report in— the pain had shorted out all his motor neurons, but it had also pretty effectively blasted him into Winter Soldier mission headspace, all joking gone and no room for fear or doubt. He dragged in a breath— stabbing, sharp— he couldn’t see the damage, it was too close to his head and he couldn’t turn, couldn’t move. But he could feel. He closed his eyes for a second, assessing. Collarbone— the collarbone was broken so badly it was protruding through the skin. He’d had this sort of thing happen before. Displaced fractures required maintenance before they could heal. Continuing the mission risked more severe damage, risked the bone damaging a blood vessel and escalating the damage to fatal. 

Time gapped, briefly; he was aware Natasha was on her headset, and then she grabbed his other arm and he blacked out. He came to almost immediately; she’d abandoned his arm and was dragging him by his feet to a more sheltered location. The barricade had mostly splintered and she was trying to retrench behind a concrete barrier they hadn’t been able to move. (He could have, with the metal arm functional; on his own, there was no way.) 

“Repeat, Barnes is down,” Natasha was saying, “severe injury, they’ve got us cornered, we’re out of ammunition and he’s incapacitated.”

He took a deeper breath and said, “Na— ta— a— sha,” and realized he still had his pistol in his hand. He couldn’t sit up, couldn’t move, couldn’t bring it up.

She leaned over him and shot at an angle, and he knew she was using the ricochet off a steel girder to her advantage. She was smart, that one, probably smarter than he was. Way out of his league. Her face was above his, and she glanced down at him, and he said, “Na— ta—“

“I know,” she said, and put her free hand on his face. “James.”

“Don’t let— take me— alive,” he managed stubbornly. 

“I won’t,” she said fiercely. “I won’t. They won’t take you alive. I won’t hesitate.”

“Do it now,” he said, and her expression went uncertain. “Now.”

“Not yet,” she said. “Not—“ 

There was the unmistakable sound of a grenade going off on the lower level of the building. “We’re going to pull them off,” Hill said in the headpiece, “try to get them away from you— if you can retreat, we’re going to gas them.”

“No retreat,” Natasha said, “we’re immobile, Barnes—“

“I can move,” Bucky said. “Get me up. I can move. Get me out to the roof.” 

“They’ve drawn off,” Natasha said. “If you’re serious, James—“

“Get me up,” he said, and she obeyed, ruthlessly. He blacked out again for a second, but when he came to she had him most of the way upright. His knees were rubber but could hold his weight if he leaned on her. 

“You sure you can move?” she asked. 

“Need a few seconds to steady out,” he said, breath whistling through his tight throat, “but this isn’t the first time this has happened to me.”

“No?” She seemed surprised. 

“Why you think they got a metal rod in there in the first place?” He blinked his eyes until they stopped trying to roll back. Her hip was solid under his, she was actually a pretty good height to support him like this, taking most of the weight on her arm around his ribs, leaving not as much strain for his arm. Even using his good arm strained both collarbones and was not only agonizing but also risked moving the bone’s jagged ends into something vital. 

“We’re on the move,” Natasha said, “does anyone have sensor data on a clear path out?”

“Hug the west wall,” Hill said, “infrared sensors indicate they’ve retreated to the north to block our entrance.”

“Roger that,” Natasha said. 

“Well,” Bucky said, and he caught sight of the movement before Natasha did and got his pistol up as far as his hip to put a bullet between the eyes of the guy aiming at them from the stairwell. 

“Good eye,” she said, almost absently. Bucky’s vision was kind of grainy and fading in and out at random— well, not random, actually. It was in pretty good counterpoint to the waves of pain that were grinding through his shoulders, down his ribcage, across his spine, red-hot up to flares of white-hot before they spiked back down to red-hot grinding again. But he still could read Natasha’s body language, could follow which way she leaned to steer them, and he could still make out, at the edges of his vision, the furtive movements in vulnerable places that signaled the presence of their attackers. 

He propped his good arm on his hip and alternated which eye he let roll closed, and got off four or five more shots, at least three of which found targets that made noise as they died. “How are you aiming?” Natasha asked at one point, sounding incredulous. 

“Dunno,” he said, and squeezed off another shot. His hand shook, his eyes crossed, and he only winged the guy, who thrashed and screamed and attracted backup, which Natasha shot, then ducked around a pillar and let him rest his back against it. A strangled noise of pain escaped him as the change in position jolted the broken bones, and she pressed her gun hand against his chest, fingers outside the trigger guard, holding him up. 

“We’re out,” Natasha said, “gas ‘em.” It took him a moment to realize she was talking into her headset.

“I got eyes on that roof,” Clint said, “you’re clear at the west end where you are, I’ve shot enough of them that they’re hesitating to use that exit. But I can’t cover the north end, they’re coming up that way and they’ll have you cornered.”

“Where is Steve?” Natasha asked, finally; Bucky had been wondering but was absolutely not going to be the one to ask.

“Held up,” Hill said grimly. “They tried to arrest him for abetting a fugitive.”

“What,” Bucky said. 

Natasha sighed. “We gotta move,” she said to Bucky. “We need better position.”

Bucky blacked out three or four times, for microseconds at a time, enough to blink out but not enough to lose momentum, and she hauled him around the corner and into the lee of a big ventilation exhaust.

“We’re firing gas grenades in,” Hill said, “and we’ve got the real NYPD behind us, they’re releasing Steve.”

“We just gotta hold on a couple more—“

“On your two, on your two,” Clint interrupted urgently, “I can’t— aungh!” 

“Clint,” Natasha said, spinning, moving a little away from Bucky to give herself room to shoot back. “Clint, report!” She fired, and then suddenly fell with a strangled gasp, blood bursting from her chest. 

“Fuck,” Bucky said, and grabbed her, agony, Jesus fuck he was going to split in fucking half, “auagh, ff-fuck,” and he dragged her back, hauled her upright, shoved her against the ventilation shaft, and turned, pressing his back into her chest to hold her up, to shield her with his body. He hit his headset. “Romanova’s down.” Shit, he’d said it in Russian.

“Clint, report,” Hill was saying. “Report— Barnes? What did you say?”

“Natasha’s shot,” he said, yeah English this time, “I’m cornered, fuck.”

Natasha’s fingers curled into his belt; her cheek was against the back of his flesh-and-blood shoulder and he could hear her breath whistling faintly as she struggled to breathe. “James,” she whispered. 

About fifteen guys in SWAT gear poured around the corner, and he raised his pistol. “Outta time,” he said, “I’m outta time.”

“Drop the weapon,” the lead SWAT guy yelled. 

“Fuck you,” Bucky yelled back, and shoved his pistol muzzle into the hollow of his own jaw, gritting his teeth. 

“Bucky,” Steve said, ragged and breathless into the headset, “Bucky, report.”

“I said drop the weapon,” the SWAT guy repeated. “Hands up!”

“James,” Natasha whispered, “James, just— stall—“ 

“I’m not pulling this trigger until I have no choice,” Bucky said, staring down the leadmost SWAT guy as he thumbed back the hammer and corrected the angle of the pistol so that it would definitely destroy his brainstem when he pulled the trigger. “But they’re not taking me alive.”

“Bucky,” Steve said, “Bucky hang on, I’m almost—“ 

“They have gas masks,” Hill said, flat with despair. “We’re bottled up on the second floor.”

“Just put the gun down,” the SWAT guy said reasonably. 

Natasha’s fingers loosened in his belt, then tightened again; she was fading out. Bucky’s vision was going intermittent and grainy, white at the edges; he couldn’t hold his arm in this position much longer. 

“They won’t kill Natasha while I’m alive,” Bucky said, intending it for the headset and not the audience, “they won’t shoot her through me, it’s too much damage to risk, but I got no choice, Steve, I’ll blow my head off before I let ‘em take me.”

“You have to give up,” the SWAT leader said, and Bucky knew him, he’d worked with him as backup before. He’d done at least two missions with the guy. Had never known his name. 

“I know who you are,” Bucky said, “and I don’t gotta do nothin’.”

The man smiled nastily, then said three forceful words in Russian. Bucky’s vision grayed out— a conditioned response, those words were an override command, a shutdown switch— but his head lolling forward ground the broken ends of bone together and snapped him back and he jammed the barrel of the gun back into the hollow of his own jaw. 

“Nice try,” Bucky said. “If I had two hands you’d be dead right now.” He’d practiced overcoming those, in his months on the run, tried his hardest to de-condition himself, and it had definitely paid off. Six months ago, that phrase would’ve incapacitated him with pain triggers, would’ve seized up his muscles and dropped him like a shot.

Natasha’s fingers loosened again. She would die soon; that lung was collapsed and the other would compress if the blood began to build up. The SWAT guy repeated the override command, annoyed, but Bucky was braced this time and it had no effect. 

He was going to pass out anyway, was the problem. 

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said brokenly. “I’m s— sorry, Steve. It’s— it’s the end— end of the line. I’m sorry.” Natasha’s hand dropped away from his belt and she slumped down; if she wasn’t dead she was as near to it as didn’t matter. Which meant he wouldn’t doom her by killing his hostage— himself.

“Hold on,” Steve pleaded, “Bucky hold on, I’m almost there.”

“Eight seconds,” Bucky said. 

“I didn’t want to have to damage you further,” the SWAT guy said, annoyed, and leveled the gun, aiming for Bucky’s midsection. Bucky didn’t flinch; he’d carried out more than one mission with a bullet in his gut, he could certainly carry this one out regardless. Wasn’t like he needed a plan for extraction.

“Four seconds,” Bucky said, and settled the pistol muzzle properly. There had to be nothing left of the brain, and he wouldn’t get a second shot. “Two.” He closed his eyes, to concentrate better through the pain, and started to squeeze the trigger. Wouldn’t be a real long pull— it was a double-action gun but he’d already cocked it. “Sorry, Steve.”

There was a gunshot, but it wasn’t anything pointed at him, and the deafening wash of helicopter blades came overhead at great speed. “Stand down,” a megaphone blared, “you are unauthorized!”

Bucky opened his eyes but didn’t move the pistol. The SWAT guy was on the ground, the others drawing back in surprise and fear. From— 

The man with the wings, the Falcon, roared into view and landed, somewhat explosively, letting go of the person he was carrying. 

Steve. 

Bucky stared at him, still gripping the pistol; Steve was righteously furious, glowing with it, godlike— no helmet, just the outfit and the shield and a really big gun, and he strode between Bucky and the SWAT team, and said, “Surrender your weapons, we have you surrounded and your leaders in custody.”

The Falcon folded his wings in and pulled out two guns, coming to stand next to Steve. “You got this?” he asked. The SWAT team, pinned down by the helicopter and by Steve’s divine fury, were laying down weapons.

“I got this,” Steve said. 

Falcon holstered one of the guns and came over to Bucky, slowly. “Hey,” he said. “You can put the gun down too.”

Bucky swayed away from the wall, and Natasha started to slide down. “Natasha,” he said. He’d studied the Falcon’s record: he was a paramedic, among other things. “Lung injury. Help her.”

“Put the gun down first?” the Falcon suggested. 

Bucky shook his head slowly, trying in vain to focus his eyes properly. “I won’t g— go back,” he said. “I won’t go b— back to them.”

“You won’t,” the Falcon said, “I know, we won’t let it happen. You’re safe, Barnes. Let me come help.”

Natasha stirred, making a little noise. “Sam,” she whispered, or something like it. She was bleeding from the mouth. Not too late, though. 

“She needs an immediate evac,” Bucky said. “She’s not g— gonna last.”

Steve glanced over, away from the surrender, and looked at Bucky, still standing. “Go, Sam,” Steve said. “I got it here.”

Bucky lowered the gun slowly, and the Falcon stepped in and caught Natasha as she slid down the wall. Natasha moved feebly— not too late— blood shocking red on her white face, blue eyes glassy, if he’d been able to move his arms he’d’ve touched her face one last time, but he couldn’t. He leaned against the wall as Falcon looked her over, face serene with concern. 

“He’s right, Steve,” the Falcon said, “she’s in bad shape.” He glanced between Natasha and Bucky. “I can’t carry you both.”

“Take her,” Bucky said, “I’ll keep.”

“Go, Sam,” Steve said, glancing back. His gaze lit on Bucky and he said, “Jesus, Buck— is that—“

“It can wait,” Bucky hissed, watching Natasha’s eyes roll back. Falcon gathered her up in his arms, deployed his wings again, and Bucky watched him go. Once the Falcon had dived out of sight behind buildings, Bucky let himself stagger sideways and fall over. He hit numb knees but managed to stay upright on them, holding the gun in his lap. 

“Bucky,” Steve said, backing toward him. “Bucky!” 

“Stay focused,” Bucky said, blinking out at the enemies surrou— where were the enemies? Oh. They were all disarmed. Hill’s squad had arrived. 

Steve’s arms came around him. “Bucky,” Steve said, “I’ve got you, it’s okay.”

Bucky had to drop the pistol to raise his hand and touch Steve’s face. Steve’s hand was supporting his head, taking some of the agonizing strain off his collarbone; Steve’s face was warm under his fingertips, and wet— tears— why was Steve crying? “I won’t go back,” he said. “I won’t— I won’t go back to— they can’t t— take it all out of my head again.”

“They won’t,” Steve said fiercely. “They won’t. I’ve got you. You’re safe now.”

Bucky considered that a moment. “Okay,” he said, and let go. 

 

 

* * * 

 

 

“That’s him, huh?” Lakeisha paused the TV as the shot came around so you could see both men’s faces again. Steve had the other man laid out more or less across his lap, almost Pieta-like, and the analytical part of her brain that never shut up couldn’t help but think what a great image it would make, how it would probably make the Top 10 list of iconic news images for years to come— Steve’s golden hair and blue uniform, the other man’s pale face tilted back, dark hair streaming, dressed in black, blood all across his neck and chest, long legs splayed out beside Steve— and especially the way they looked at each other. 

Steve had visible tears on his face. Score. So did Lakeisha— it was a beautiful moment— but she didn’t really have time to watch, she had to repackage it and present it. And Steve was doing his job of being noble and beautiful so well she could have kissed him. She didn’t know enough to evaluate them as superheroes but these guys were a PR dream team, that was for sure— she’d gotten an incredible amount of mileage out of Bucky’s “hundred motherfuckers” caption and the cocky smirk that went along with it, coupled with his “die knowin’ your name” line.

“That’s him,” Tony said, hands on hips, glowering. Pepper hadn’t let him crash the press conference in the Iron Man suit and physically bust Steve out of the custody police were trying to take him into. She’d handled it with lawyers instead, faster than anyone could blink, and Tony had gotten shoved into a mission control role he was perfectly competent to do but much preferred to be doing from inside the suit. He was pretty disgruntled and also still managing about fifty news feeds and radios. He’d jammed the HYDRA team’s comms three or four different ways in the last half-hour, and was making noises about taking credit for the whole thing because he was the only one besides Barnes who’d fucking done anything.

Technically, she supposed, he was her boss, and so technically, she should probably not think he was hilarious, and she definitely should not be trying to come up with ways to capture surreptitious video of him at work to show the world how goddamn hilarious he was. But she wanted to. If she could think of a way to adapt Tony Stark’s color commentary into her account of this event, she so would. He just had this way of inventing swear words.

“I guess I gotta keep this website updating,” Lakeisha mused. “I mean, just because it’s over doesn’t mean it’s over.” She had already snagged the video off the news agency website’s live feed and was embedding it into the site, but she stopped to take as high-res and clear a still as she could get. One that showed both faces, if possible— yeah, back when the helicopter with the camera in it had been swooping up. Bucky had been pretty clearly conscious then, face scrunched a little, saying something earnest to Steve while Steve looked sweetly concerned. Perfect. Super-White-Jesusy. She popped it into an image editor and boosted the contrast and color a little bit, popped up the saturation (make Steve’s uniform really pop, pull up both the red accents and the blood, nice and dramatic), dialed down the graininess by softening it up a bit, which gave it a little bit of a radiant glow. Beautiful. She put that in as the header image and wrote up a quick summary as she understood it. 

“Oh,” Tony said. “Yeah, you’d better. I just pushed the paperwork through just now, by the way, we’re transferring you and Dorothea from Stark PR to the Avengers PR, is that okay?” 

“Oh,” Lakeisha said. “Yeah, I’d like that.” She previewed the post quickly, checking for typos manually— spellcheck never caught the mistakes she made, like improper word usage, so she always had to mentally pull back to look it over. She found no errors, and posted the update, then gave Tony more of her attention. “I like working with these guys. It’s just the hours.” She laughed. “I guess I can put up with that in return for never ever ever being bored again.”

Tony made a face. “I wouldn’t say never ever bored,” he said. “You’d be amazed how boring superheroing can be.” He scowled at the impressive acreage of holographic displays around him. “Especially when you’re stuck back in HQ.”

“I don’t have any superpowers,” Lakeisha said, “just a brain that won’t shut up, so that suits me okay. I’m actually fine never getting shot at.”

“Fair,” Tony said. “I’m actually not a huge fan of getting shot at, myself. I don’t know that anyone is though. Except maybe Steve, he just seems not to worry much about it.”

“That seems… ill-advised,” Lakeisha mused. She’d studied up on everyone’s capabilities a bit for this, wanting to be able to refer easily to members of the Avengers. A job change would be pretty welcome— she’d been dreading the return to crafting press releases and trying to inspire social media engagement about clean energy products and so on. The only issue she could see was that they were likely to require her to be more on-call, which was going to be a real hassle what with finding reputable babysitters.

“Yeah,” Tony said, “and people say I got no common sense. That guy’s a walking deathwish.” He frowned at his holograms, and Lakeisha was pretty fluent at keeping up with those interfaces but he moved so damn fast she was completely out of her depth. She supposed as he’d designed the interfaces, that was probably understandable. “Oh, you get a raise with the new position— the Avengers have a separate operating budget from Stark, they can afford to pay you closer to what you’re worth, because their PR department is pretty underdeveloped at this point. We’ve got some leftovers from SHIELD but they’re still incredibly disorganized and I have no idea who has what kind of government clearance or what, but we’ll have to get that sorted out once this is fixed.”

“Oh,” Lakeisha said blankly, staring at him. A raise. She wasn’t going to ask how much, but she could really use the money— it seemed ungrateful, she was already making four times what she’d ever made before, but her brother’s disability didn’t cover much and her mom didn’t earn enough to make up the difference and there was no way, no way Shawn was ever going to know about any of that, not after what he’d been through.

“Later. Once we’re done with the urgent stuff.” Tony paged through half a dozen things, exploding and shrinking different areas of the screen faster than Lakeisha, a very fast reader, could comprehend them. “Probably keep updating that little website you’ve got going on at least until people’s medical outcomes are known. Natasha’s already in surgery— that’s icky but going well I think— and Clint’s expected to recover, man is he gonna be cranky— but Bucky’s gonna need some pretty significant work done I think, that arm is a disaster. And there’s gonna be a lot of fallout from all the people whose affiliation to HYDRA we’ve just uncovered, but that’s gotta get run through clearance before anything’s updated. I don’t even know who’s in charge of that with SHIELD officially dissolved.”

Lakeisha thought that over, absently monitoring the influx of Twitter pings, comments on the new post, reblogs, pingbacks, and watching CNN’s ticker scroll a quote she’d just posted. CAPTAIN AMERICA RESCUES FORMER HOWLING COMMANDO FROM TERRORISTS. 

Yup, they were taking her spin on this and running with it. Inwardly, she patted herself on the back. 

“Well,” she said, watching the TV cut to her high-res still, so carefully frozen on Steve’s face. “I guess I’ve got a lot of work to do yet.”