He hesitates in front of the glass case. He’s not accustomed to having a choice, and choosing no longer comes easily to him. He’s also not accustomed to eating for pleasure. If he’s on a mission, he eats only when it serves the purpose of the mission. If he’s not on a mission, all the instances of eating that he can remember involve a kind of beige protein slurry with very little flavor. It is a food for survival, and it bears no resemblance to the array of cakes and tarts in the display case in front of him. He has no memory of ever having eaten anything like them, confections made of flour and butter and eggs, sprinkled with sugar or frosted with something even more decadent.
His memory is a long dark corridor. He walks by room after room after room, but all of the doors are locked. But there are flashes. Faces, voices, and places that he thinks maybe he once knew. Sometimes light slips through the slits under the doors.
The woman behind the counter is not impatient, but she is waiting. He shrugs. It is not as if he knows nothing of the world: he can hack computers and pilot jets and cross borders undetected. He no longer retains the names of his targets, but when necessary he can memorize huge quantities of information. But dessert has no strategic importance. He points at one of the items in the case. It’s a tart of some kind. There’s a crisp lattice of crust overlaying something golden. Baked fruit, probably. He can’t say why he picks it. It doesn’t have colorful frosting or elaborate chocolate decoration. It’s not the biggest or the most expensive, which seem like the most obviously rebellious choices. And he is rebelling; there is no doubt about that. He didn’t kill his target. He didn’t return to his handlers. Instead he pulled his target out of the water and ran.
It’s been two days now. He knows it would be logical to get out of the city, but he’s waiting for something. Against everything he knows about hiding, he went to the exhibit on Captain America at the Smithsonian and looked at a photo of a stranger who might have been his twin from seventy years ago. He’s not sure what he wanted. An epiphany of some kind, a feeling of doors opening and light flooding in; whatever it was, it never came.
He stole a new set of clothes and some cash. He broke into a pharmacy and someone else’s motel room and treated his wounds. The hoodie he stole will have to be good enough to cover up the rest. It’s sweltering in the city, far too hot to be wearing long sleeves and his hood up, but no one will say anything. He has his metal hand shoved into the front pocket of the hoodie. He pushes a crumpled bill across the counter with his free hand.
He needs a moment to plan his next move. This diner is as good as place as any: there’s only one security camera, and he’s facing away from it. There’s the front entrance, and if necessary, he can jump the counter and push his way out through the kitchen, where there’s an exit into an alley. There’s a waitress out there taking a smoke break. She won’t be any trouble. Neither will the girl at the cash register.
The cashier is tiny and blonde. She’s counting his change in her delicate hands. He has a strange urge to smile at her, or maybe wink. He can’t really remember how or why he might do that. It’s more light shining from beneath a door he can’t unlock. Smiling at her won’t help him escape SHIELD or HYDRA or anyone else who might be hunting him. He’s drawing enough attention as it is, bruised and peering out from under his hood.
Besides, he’s already giving in to one frivolous desire. The cashier hands him his change and then slides a paper plate with a slice of tart on it across the counter. “Enjoy your pie,” she says, and he nods and picks up a plastic fork.
Pie. Of course that’s what it’s called. He knows that word. He feels like he’s always known that word. How could I forget? he thinks, but then grimaces. How he forgets isn’t the question. What he needs to know now is how to remember.
Even if he does remember, it’s hard to tell what’s real. His memory’s all disconnected, and he can’t know anything for sure. The diner seems real.
He sits at a tiny corner table with his back to the wall. He surveys the diner, which is populated only by the cashier and an old man drinking coffee at the counter, and then spears a bite of pie on his fork. He makes sure to get both crust and filling, because he wants to do this right.
The crust flakes apart as he bites into it. He tastes sugar and butter and the apple filling slides against his tongue. It’s sweet and warm and crisp like sunshine on the bluest of October days, as satisfying as crunching a dry red leaf against the sidewalk under his shoe. He never told Steve that he sometimes deliberately stepped out of his way if he saw a likely leaf, but once he caught Steve watching him and smiling. Steve was like that. Observant. Everyone else was shuffling through the streets of Brooklyn, just trying to make sure they didn’t run anybody down, but Steve was really looking. Bucky wasn’t as good at observing the world as Steve was, at seeing the right and wrong of things, but he could see Steve, and that was enough.
He drops his fork.
He examines the diner, but neither the cashier nor the old man seems to have picked up on his revelation. He blinks at his pie.
That name again. Bucky. That’s what Steve Rogers called him. Is that his name? But he doesn’t have a name. They call him “the asset” or sometimes “soldier.”
The man named Steve in his memory had been small and frail, but he had the same face as the man he dragged out of the river. The man he couldn’t kill. The memory was so clear, but so short, like he’d pushed open a door only to have it slam shut.
Cautiously, he eats another bite. No new memories surface, but the pie is good. Maybe even worth the risk he’s taking by stopping in this diner in the first place. Then again, he doesn’t expect himself to be here, so how could anyone else?
The diner door opens and all he sees is red hair. He jumps up so fast it knocks his table, pie and all, to the floor. He swallows the bite he’s chewing while in mid-air, leaping over the counter and pushing past the cashier into the kitchen and out through the back entrance.
Even as he’s running, he’s not sure he made the right choice. At first he tells himself it’s because a fight with the red-headed agent will attract attention, and if he kills her, her fellow agents will hunt him down. But as he dashes out of the alley and then slows down enough to fit into pedestrian traffic, he realizes that he ran because he doesn’t want to kill her.
Has he ever wanted to kill anyone?
He hunches his shoulders and weaves through the people in front of him. He walks fast, but never breaks into a run. He takes the first set of stairs down that he comes across, and once he’s in the subway station, he goes to the trouble of buying a ticket. Scrupulous rule-following is a useful tactic. Criminals run. Criminals jump over turnstiles. He needs to appear as ordinary and harmless as possible.
He boards the first train. It doesn’t matter where it’s going. He will ride as far as he can, and then he’ll get out and keep running. It would be good to get out of D.C. He could survive in the wilderness. It would be good to get away from all this surveillance equipment, and it might be safer for everyone if he were away from people for awhile.
He keeps his head down and his left hand in his pocket, but he wraps his right hand around a pole as the train departs. It’s the middle of the day and the car is largely empty, which is good. There are two teenagers entangled with each other at the far end of the car, a half-asleep elderly woman with a rolling cart full of groceries, and a man staring intently at his phone. No one is looking at him.
The train screeches and groans into the next station. Four more people board the car, and he assesses their potential danger accordingly. A mother pushing an empty stroller and holding her toddler’s hand: harmless. A tattooed twentysomething with headphones blasting tinny music: harmless.
A red-headed woman.
She wraps her hand around the same pole he’s holding. The movement appears casual, but she positions herself so that she knows he can see her smile. It’s not a happy smile. It’s satisfied, but grim.
“You really want to do this here,” she says, pitching her voice so that only he can hear. “A subway car full of innocents.”
It takes him a moment to think of a response, and it’s one moment too long. She attacks, driving her fist into his stomach and up toward his ribcage. He fights back automatically, shoving her back into the center of the car. The moving train shifts beneath them as he advances on her. He stops. Something about that movement, about a train—but whatever memory it was, it’s gone now. She drives a roundhouse kick toward his side and he dodges. Everyone in the car is watching them now. They’re all clustered at one end with their eyes wide. He thinks one of them—the twentysomething—has a phone out. He can’t pay attention to that now. The redhead has jumped onto him and wrapped her legs around his torso and her hands around his neck. She leans into him with all of her weight just as the train goes around a curve. He loses his balance. Either he can hurl her off and let her slam into the wall of the train car, potentially killing her, or he can go down. He chooses to fall.
She doesn’t remove her hands from his neck. She stares down into his eyes. She knows, he thinks, she knows I could have killed her and I didn’t.
“I don’t,” he says, and his voice is scratchy from disuse, “want any of this.”
It’s only an instant, but he can tell there’s a surprised pause. “Is that you surrendering?”
“You know him,” he says. “The blond man.” He’s afraid to say Steve. What if he’s wrong about everything? He’s a man with no memory. It’s hard to know anything for sure.
She narrows her eyes and says nothing. She is protecting the blond man. Perhaps they are romantically involved. He has no notion of how to determine that, but it’s irrelevant. She will say nothing until he does.
“I want,” he says, and it’s a new feeling, to want something and to say it out loud, “I want to talk to him.”
She takes him to a safe house out in the country. She cuffs him, blindfolds him, and drives in circles before they arrive, but he estimates that it takes two hours of driving to get there. The safe house might once have been a hunting cabin, judging from the musty remnants of its decor, but the room that Agent Romanoff locks him in has been stripped bare of anything as useful as a weapon and fitted with a reinforced door and a barred window. There’s a full-size mattress shoved into a corner, but there’s no bed frame or sheets in sight.
She took all his weapons and left his wrists bound, but the cuffs are nothing special. He presses an ear to the wall and hears fragments of her phone call as she stands outside the room. None of it means anything to him, but he’s sure she says “Steve.”
Wherever Steve is when he receives the call, it takes him hours to arrive at the safe house. From the sound of boots on the wood floor, he comes with someone else. There’s a muffled conversation in the other room, one that sounds more like male voices than female voices, and then the bedroom door opens.
Steve lets the door close, but leaves it unlatched. Reading his facial expression is difficult, but based on the tightness of his mouth, he seems to feel a sequence of emotions: relief, happiness, worry, sadness, and then he plasters on a deliberately neutral and stoic expression. “Bucky,” he says, and his tone of voice conveys an even more complex mixture of emotions.
“I don’t know that name.” The room seems too small for both of them to be standing like this, halfway prepared to fight, but he’s too restless and agitated to sit. Steve looks like he might take a step forward, but something sad crosses his face, and he hangs back.
“But you wanted to talk to me.”
He thinks about telling the truth: I stopped for pie while I was on the run for my life and it made me remember you, so I let your friend capture me because for some reason I need to see you. No. It’s absurd. It makes him feel vulnerable. It’s better not to reveal anything. He came here to gather information. “Tell me who ‘Bucky’ is.”
Steve doesn’t quite smile. “That’ll take awhile. You want to sit down?”
He narrows his eyes. Steve is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, unarmed except for his strength. His feet are bare. It’s funny to see him like this, since there was a time when Steve ran cold and would have been bundled up no matter the season or—he blinks. More light through the cracks, and Steve has barely said anything.
Cautiously, he lowers himself until he’s sitting on the edge of the mattress. He stiffens when Steve sits down next to him, far too close for comfort.
“I don’t know how much you know about me,” Steve says. He’s careful about where he looks. They face forward into the bedroom, as if the empty wall really bears examining. “You do any background research on your targets, or—?”
He shakes his head. Not this time. They never told him more than they had to, and they didn’t have to tell him much.
“I grew up in Brooklyn in the ‘30s,” Steve says. “James Buchanan Barnes—Bucky—was a dumb jerk who was always sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, joining in fights that I already had under control.”
“Sure,” he says, and it comes out sarcastically, so naturally that he startles himself. He resists the urge to touch his mouth in wonder. Where had that come from?
He startles Steve, too, but Steve looks away quickly and keeps talking. “He was also my best friend.”
The story continues, and none of it is familiar. Steve talks about his mother’s death and his own health problems, all the times he nearly died of pneumonia or his own stupid sense of right and wrong, and how Bucky was always there. Then there’s the war, and the Howling Commandos, and a fall from a train. And a long silence.
The words themselves don’t bring back anything. But there’s something—something about the way Steve talks, his voice, maybe, or maybe just the way he sits there and patiently explains his whole life story to a stranger who recently tried to murder him.
Or maybe not a stranger. Because what else explains this? He has to be Bucky. But he can’t remember enough to be sure. It’s hard to tell what’s real on the best of days. His memory isn’t a reliable source.
But Steve… Steve seems like the definition of reliable.
Steve is looking at him, and it’s hard to be looked at like that, with so much concern. He doesn’t know what to say. In a way, everything is worse if he is Bucky. He’s killed… he doesn’t know how many people. Too many. He tried to kill Steve. He swallows. Is there any worse betrayal than that?
“I don’t,” he starts.
“Remember,” Steve finishes. “Yeah, I got that. From the beating.”
It’s a joke, he thinks, but he cringes. “I’m sorry,” he says. It’s inadequate, but he does mean it.
“Well,” Steve says, full of mock surprise. “A sincere apology. You must not be Bucky after all.”
He shakes his head. It’s too delicate, his sense of self. He doesn’t want to joke. He looks at Steve, and Steve’s expression crumbles. “Hey,” Steve says, and reaches out to put a hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t mean—,”
Grabbing Steve’s wrist in his right hand and wrenching it away is an automatic reaction. Before he knows it, he’s standing, and then they’re both standing, because he’s still got Steve’s wrist in a death grip. Steve makes eye contact as if he’s looking a wild animal in the eyes. “Buck,” he says. He sounds so steady. “Let go.” Steve says it again, and somehow the words filter through the sound of his heart pounding. “It’s me. It’s Steve. Let go.”
Shit, what is he doing? He takes a shaky breath and releases his grip. “Sorry, I—,”
“No touching,” Steve says. “Got it.”
Steve hadn’t intended to hurt him. But no one has touched him in tenderness since he can remember. He wonders what it would feel like and bitterly wishes he could take back the last two minutes. Let’s try again, he wants to say. I won’t try to kill you this time. But he doesn’t. He’s a long way from that and they both know it.
“I don’t know what to do,” he admits.
“Me either, Buck,” Steve says, and he sounds sad. “Don’t look so surprised. There’s no manual for your dead best friend suddenly re-entering your life as the world’s deadliest assassin who has no memory of your shared past.”
“Long title,” he observes, and Steve smiles.
“You want some coffee?”
He doesn’t remember coffee, but he nods. Steve moves toward the door and he hesitates. There are other people in the cabin. People he recently tried to kill. People who might want to kill him. His chest tightens with anxiety. When Steve glances back, he shakes his head minutely.
“I’ll bring it in here.”
Steve is so good, and so quick to understand. It makes his chest tighten in a different way. He wants to be Bucky, just to be Steve’s friend. He doesn’t remember much about friendship, but it seems… good. Warm. Comforting.
All things he doesn’t deserve. He can’t even be sure that he won’t snap and murder Steve five minutes from now.
Steve left the door to the room unlatched as a gesture of trust. It’s easy to slip out into the hallway and out the back door before anyone notices.
It doesn’t say “James Buchanan Barnes” on his forged ID, but he starts to think of himself that way. He’s still not sure it’s true, but he’s tired of being a thing without a name. No other name feels right. So six months later, when he’s standing in front of a brick building in Brooklyn, and someone says “Next block over, Bucky,” he looks up.
Steve is wearing glasses with thick black plastic frames and a cap. It’s a terrible disguise.
Bucky is wearing the same hoodie and jeans he stole six months ago, along with an accumulation of dirt. His hair is hanging down around his face like a filthy curtain. His beard is matted with who knows what. It would be an excellent disguise if it were a disguise, but instead it’s just the only pair of clothes he owns. He hasn’t showered since the last time he crashed at a shelter, which was at least a week ago.
“I can see why you thought it was this one, though,” Steve continues. “They tore the original down and replaced it with some fancy high-rise place.”
“I was guessing from old photos,” he says. He doesn’t even mean to say it. It just comes out of him. You ran, he reminds himself. It was the right choice. But it doesn’t feel that way. “And Google Maps,” he adds. In the six months since he ran from Steve, he’s had half a dozen tiny fragments of memory come back to him. It’s not enough.
“Google Maps,” Steve says. “You caught up quick.”
It wasn’t so much catching up as using knowledge he’d learned in his former career, but he’s not eager to bring that up. Bucky wonders if Steve is one of those people who gets in earnest, well-meaning arguments on the internet in a misguided attempt to enlighten asshole strangers, and then has to repress a smile. Of course he is.
“You’re smiling,” Steve says. “Does that mean you’ll come home with me?”
“Awfully forward, Rogers,” Bucky says, and marvels at the way these things come easy sometimes. When he’s with Steve.
“You stood me up last time,” Steve says. “I think you owe me another chance.”
Steve is the first person who has willingly spoken to him in days. People clear the sidewalk and refuse to make eye contact with him, even in this city. It’s not the arm, which he always covers. It might be the filth. It might be his expression. Whatever it is that makes people hate or fear him, being spoken to like a human being makes something inside him ache. He wants to stop moving from place to place and living like a hunted animal. He wants to go with Steve.
Steve’s one to talk about fancy high-rises, since he lives in the fanciest of high-rises right in Manhattan. His apartment is spacious, its emptiness accentuated by the strict neatness of all Steve’s possessions. Only one thing is out of place: there’s a sketchbook lying open on the kitchen table. Steve flips it shut a little too quickly to be casual. “Coffee?”
Bucky feels ill at ease, standing in the entryway of Steve’s apartment with his left hand shoved into his pocket. He doesn’t belong here, in Steve’s nice apartment and nice new life. He belongs where he was, staying in the woods or on the street, away from anyone he might hurt. But where he should be and where he wants to be don’t quite match up, so he says “Yeah,” and keeps standing there.
Steve pushes out one of the kitchen chairs with his foot. “Sit,” he says. Bucky does. “But don’t get used to it. I’m not going to wait on you hand and foot. You get this one cup of coffee, and then you’re doing your own damn dishes.”
Bucky blinks. Steve said come home. This isn’t an invitation for coffee. Steve intends for him to stay. He pushes his chair back from the table and stands up. “Steve, I can’t—,”
“You can,” Steve says.
“I can’t be trusted,” Bucky says. “You can’t just let me live here.”
Steve furrows his brow in mock confusion. “I can’t? Last I checked, my name was on the lease.”
“I’m not staying.”
“I can’t make you,” Steve allows. “But I wish you would.”
Bucky regards him with a mixture of desperation and skepticism. God only knows what secret protocols decades of conditioning have carved into his psyche. He could sleepwalk into Steve’s room and murder him. Not to mention that Bucky is a wanted fugitive. Steve isn’t safe if he’s here, and neither is anyone else in the building. Bucky can’t be trusted, and he wishes Steve wouldn’t look at him like he could.
“Where will you go, if not here?” Steve says. “Under a bridge somewhere? Somebody’s barn? Whoever or whatever it is that you’re running from, I can handle it. We can handle it. And I think you know that.”
Steve is staring him down, not fiercely, but resolutely, with the confidence of someone who knows he’s right. And something about this is so familiar—not these exact circumstances, but the feeling of arguing with Steve—that Bucky almost agrees. But one little wisp of memory’s not enough. He’s got a point to make. He has to put up more of a fight.
“It’s a bad idea,” he says. He opens his mouth to say all his reasons, because it is a bad idea, in fact it’s a goddamn terrible idea, and they’re both going to regret it, but nothing comes out.
“Please,” Steve says.
Bucky closes his eyes and caves with a sigh. “Fine.” When he opens his eyes again, Steve is clearly trying not to smile. Yeah, that feels familiar. Not so much the feeling of having an argument with Steve, but the feeling of losing an argument with Steve. “Did I ever win an argument with you?”
“Now that you mention it,” Steve says, “I can’t recall that ever happening, no.”
Steve offers him a towel and a set of clothes. It’s a very gentle way of being told that he reeks and needs to wash. Going into the bathroom sets his heart racing. He’d showered a few times at shelters over the last few months, but the showers were always communal and while nothing happened to him in one, he never felt safe. He’s spent so much of his life—the parts of it he can remember, anyway—wearing armor and multiple weapons strapped to his body. The rest of his memories are of being manhandled into a chair and brainwashed into submission. Stripping down doesn’t come easily.
But he locks the door and the window and takes a deep breath. It takes him an age to get his clothes off because he has to keep forcing himself to breathe. No one is here, he reminds himself. He can do this. It’s just a shower.
He never truly feels calm, but he manages to soap up and rinse off regardless. His hair is a nightmare of dirty tangles and shaving off his beard dulls the disposable razor Steve gave him. He almost recognizes the person in the mirror when he finishes.
The clothes Steve gave him smell like laundry detergent. Bucky wonders how long he can borrow them. He’ll be glad to get rid of the dirty, ill-fitting ones he stole six months ago. These new clothes might be too big for him but at least they’ll be clean.
He pulls the t-shirt over his head and is surprised to discover that it fits.
He wakes up with his left hand wrapped around someone’s throat. Someone is rasping, “Bucky. Bucky, it’s me.”
Steve. He lets go so fast that anyone else would have stumbled or fallen to the floor. Steve just stands there, looking concerned. Bucky doesn’t know where they are until a few careful glances reveal that they’re in the bedroom Steve had shown him only a few hours ago. The neatly made bed is in total disarray, blankets on the floor and sheets twisted around his ankles. Steve is standing at the edge of his bed.
“My fault,” Steve says sheepishly. “You were screaming, so I—,” he gestures vaguely at the door and at his current position, “and then you,” another gesture, one that Bucky assumes means tried to sleep-murder me.
“Sorry,” he mutters. It’s difficult to breathe. His t-shirt sticks to him with cold sweat, but he feels a hot flush of shame creeping under his skin. The whole effect is dizzying. How are you supposed to feel, exactly, after you accidentally try to strangle the only person in the world that you even halfway remember, let alone like?
“Do you, um, need—anything—uh, I could…”
“Coffee,” Bucky says, because it will make Steve go away for a few minutes, and Steve seems to need a task to complete. “M’gonna shower.”
He takes a short, hot shower and tries not to think about anything. Not the muzzle they made him wear, or the chair they strapped him into, and definitely not how close he came to killing Steve. Steve doesn’t even seem angry. Of course he doesn’t.
While he towels off his hair, there’s a quiet knock on the bathroom door. He freezes. In a single, rushed breath, Steve says, “I thought you might want another set of clothes. I’ll leave them outside.” Then it’s quiet for a moment. Bucky opens the door an inch, sees a new t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants neatly folded and stacked on the ground, and grabs them. In contrast to the other set of clothes, these are slightly too big, but he’s so relieved that he doesn’t have to put his damp t-shirt back on that he hardly notices.
He walks into the warm glow of the kitchen. Steve is sitting at the table with two mugs of coffee. Bucky wonders if he turned on all the lights on purpose, the way you might if your four-year-old was afraid of a monster in their closet. He sits down as lightly as possible and hunches over the table, like reducing the amount of space he takes up will help somehow. He wraps his hands around the mug. The problem is that the monster’s not in his closet. The monster’s in him.
The mug radiates heat against his hands. He can even feel it in the left one. He doesn’t feel much with that one, nothing beyond what might be useful to a killing machine: hot, cold, and the weight of heavy things. Sometimes he wishes that’s all he could feel with the rest of his body.
“You gonna drink that coffee or just stare at it?”
It’s the feeling of having his hands wrapped around the mug, the heat of it, that calls something to the surface. “We used to drink this a lot,” Bucky says, as slowly as it comes to him. “In the winter.”
Steve nods, too cautious to interrupt with words.
“You were sick all the time,” Bucky says. They could never afford good enough coats or enough heat for their apartment. Steve used to shiver so much when they were walking around the city that Bucky would drag him into diners and buy them both black coffee, because it was hot and it was the only thing he could afford. He always claimed it was on account of his coffee addiction. It started out as a line he’d use to make sure Steve couldn’t say no, because Steve always refused if he thought you were taking pity on him. Then it turned into a real caffeine dependence, which was a headache when money got tight or when coffee got rationed.
“Not all the time,” Steve protests.
Bucky shoots Steve a look for that. It’s funny that even with the health and the proportions of a Greek god, Steve still feels the same way. Everybody else was always making a big fuss over him for no reason, because he’d been just fine the whole time. In a way, Steve eventually won that argument, too.
“I was addicted to this stuff,” Bucky says.
“I know,” Steve says. “I had to listen to you whine about it all the time.”
“Not all the time.”
Steve smiles over the lip of his mug before he takes a sip. It feels like light spilling in, like an old memory and maybe a new one too.
“I remembered pie,” he offers, which sounds utterly stupid once it’s out of his mouth, but Steve has the grace not to say so.
“Apple,” he says. “I don’t even know why I bought it, but—why are you looking at me like that?”
“Nothing.” Steve is smiling. “You stole a slice of pie from our neighborhood diner when we were kids. Would’ve gotten away with it, too, but you shared it with me.”
“Was it apple?”
“No, I think it was some kind of custard. I remember because it splattered all over the ground when I stood up after you told me you stole it.”
“And you reported my crime to someone?” It’s strange to be told a story about his past and have no memory of it, but he supposes it’s about to become a commonplace occurrence.
“I dragged you back to the diner and made you apologize. Then we pooled our change together until we had enough to pay for the piece you stole.”
“Oh.” This is what other people’s lives consist of, he thinks. Funny anecdotes and moments they shared with someone else, stories about childhood misdemeanors that make them laugh or sigh with nostalgia. It makes him ache with emptiness, like somebody scooped out his whole self and scraped his insides clean.
“Miss Roberta gave us a free slice for being so honest,” Steve says, clearly relishing the end of the story. “As I recall, that one was apple.”
“Oh,” he says, in a different tone. Maybe he’s not so hollow after all. “I don’t remember that,” he says. “But the taste of the pie brought back—something. You and me, walking around Brooklyn.”
“Like Proust and the madeleine, but an American version,” Steve says, and Bucky blinks. “You know, Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, he eats a madeleine and remembers his childhood for three thousand pages?”
“It wasn’t that dramatic,” Bucky says, although it would nice if it were that easy. Or maybe it’s better that he can’t remember everything. “I don’t even know that a description of my entire life would last three thousand pages, and I’m technically in my nineties.”
“You should see your file—,” Steve says, and then he snaps his mouth shut. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have.”
“Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away,” Bucky says. But it is about the closest he can get to making it go away, so he’s just fine not talking about it, thanks very much.
“Do you want to—,” Steve starts, and the rest of the sentence is so obviously talk about it that Bucky just glares at him, eyes half-lidded like he can’t even be bothered to be fully awake for this bullshit. “I’ll take that as a no,” Steve says, so unnecessarily that it surprises a smile out of him.
In a way, it would be easier if Steve were mad at him. If he could hate himself all the time, enough to go numb, life would be simpler. “It’s three in the morning,” he tells Steve. “You should go to bed.”
“You too,” Steve says.
Bucky’s gaze slides toward the coffee pot on the counter. “Yeah,” he says.
Steve stands up, puts his mug in the sink, and walks over to where Bucky is still seated. Steve hesitates, then lays a hand on his shoulder. Bucky flinches, but forces himself not to move any more than that. They stay still like that for a moment. No one has touched him like this in years. Bucky lets himself relax into for a moment. Steve’s hand is warm. “You have to sleep sometime,” Steve says, with such gentleness that it’s almost painful.
Bucky shakes his head. He’d been getting by on three or four hours a night on his own.
Steve nods in resignation and then leaves him alone in the kitchen. The air is cool where Steve’s hand used to be.
Three or four hours worth of nightmares is all the nightmares Bucky cares to have, not that he could sleep more if he wanted to. Whatever they did to him, or maybe he’d done it to himself somehow, there was a part of him that was always awake. Not awake as in alert, but awake as in afraid. Hunted and ready to attack. Rest—real, deep sleep—was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Peace was a distant memory, a land from which he’d been exiled long ago. You can’t go home again.
For the next few days, Bucky pretends to go to sleep so that Steve won’t nag him about it, and once he’s sure that Steve’s in bed in the other room, he gets up and stays awake all night. He starts working his way through all the books in Steve’s apartment, but then switches to surreptitiously borrowing Steve’s laptop because the glow helps him stay awake.
When Steve gets up at 6AM, Bucky exits his bedroom with a show of stretching and rubbing his eyes. Any books that he touched and the laptop have all been replaced exactly where they were the previous night. They go jogging together, initially because Steve had already bought running shoes and exercise clothes in Bucky’s size and it felt ungrateful to refuse, and after awhile, because jogging with Steve makes the inside of his head a little calmer.
They do other things that normal people do, too. They go to the grocery and cook and clean. Both of them are mediocre cooks at best, and the taste of oversalted soup and burned potatoes brings back as many memories as coffee or pie. After a couple of days, Steve introduces him to Chinese and Indian takeout, and then talks excitedly about how the the abolition of immigration quotas is one of the best things ever to happen to America in general and American food in particular. Bucky is inclined to agree.
Steve also introduces him to Sam Wilson, and Sam is alarmingly nice, given that all their previous encounters involved potentially fatal violence. It’s easy to see how Sam and Steve became friends. Sam also turns out to be a good cook, which is definitely a point in his favor.
Steve does not introduce him to any of the other residents of the tower, but Agent Romanoff comes by one afternoon when Steve is out at some kind of meeting. She doesn’t knock.
“Did Steve give you a key?” He stands in the entryway, blocking her from moving further into the apartment. Rationally, he knows that she is Steve’s friend and she probably didn’t come here to fight, but that doesn’t slow down the rapid beat of his heart. He’s not good with surprises. Or any kind of human interaction, really.
“Define ‘give’,” she says, and maybe he’s imagining it, but she looks pleased with herself. She leans back against the door, looking relaxed. She’s wearing a striped blue hoodie and jeans. She looks different out of her uniform, but he knows better than to underestimate her. “Tell me what’s going on with you two. Is Steve okay? Are you okay?”
“Define ‘okay’,” he says, and she rolls her eyes.
“Fine,” she says. “I don’t need you to tell me, anyway.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be attending whatever meeting Steve is attending? With Stark and the others?”
“Don’t think you can get something for nothing, Barnes,” she says. A moment later, she relents: “The truth is I hate meetings.”
“I don’t like groups of people much myself,” he offers, and she nods.
“I think we have a few things in common,” she says, and the sentence passes between them like the tip of an iceberg. He’s afraid to know how deep it goes. Then in a different tone, she says, “Hey, if we’re not going to talk about anything important, can I give you a haircut? Don’t get me wrong, the regular washing is a huge improvement, but still. It seems like you might prefer it shorter.”
He touches his hair self-consciously where it hangs down in front of his face. He does want it shorter. But he thinks about sitting down in front of Agent Romanoff and letting her stand behind him with a pair of scissors, and letting her touch him, and shakes his head mutely. He can’t do that yet. He can barely even control his breathing when Steve touches his shoulder or brushes past him to get to a cabinet in the kitchen.
He expects her to make a joke or roll her eyes again, but she doesn’t. “Alright,” she says, softly. She pulls a stretchy green band off her wrist and offers it to him, and he stares at it. “Men,” she sighs, and then demonstrates gathering her hair behind her head and pulling it through the loop into a ponytail.
Next time she offers him the band, he takes it and follows her example. It’s a relief to have his hair out of his face, especially without anyone else touching him.
“Aren’t you bored here alone all day?”
He shrugs. In response, she slips by him and goes into the kitchen, where she sits down at the table and pulls out a pack of cards. They play poker for the next hour, using a stack of silverware as chips.
It’s a nice distraction. “Agent Romanoff, are you… babysitting me?”
“My name is Natasha,” she says.
“That’s not an answer, Natasha.”
“I don’t babysit.”
He looks at her, unconvinced.
“It’s a reconnaissance mission,” she says. “Find out more about the strange man in Steve’s apartment.”
“Well, you’re a terrible poker player, for one,” she says, and lays down her hand, then sweeps a pile of silverware closer to her side of the table. “It’s probably the lack of sleep affecting your cognitive abilities.”
He goes still. “Don’t tell Steve.”
“He’ll figure it out soon enough.” She stands up from the table. “Anyway, I should be going. You ever want to go out in the world with someone who’s not a ninety-five-year-old goody-two-shoes, you come upstairs and find me.” She pauses. “And if you hurt Steve,” she says, and finishes her sentence with a look.
Bucky wishes he could say I won’t and mean it. Instead, he nods.
“Keep the hair tie,” she says, and leaves.
“I like the ponytail,” Steve says as they’re about to go out for their morning jog.
Bucky stops. Something happens inside him that isn’t the adrenaline spike of a fight or the painful airless tightening of an anxiety attack. It’s something new and therefore alarming, and if he’s ever felt this way before, he can’t remember, so he just stares and says nothing.
Steve blushes and looks away. “Let’s go running,” he says, and Bucky remembers how to breathe.
It’s 4AM and Bucky can’t stare at the internet any more, and the words are blurring together in every book he picks up. But he needs to do something to stay awake. He wanders out of his room, padding as silently as he can, thinking maybe he can watch some television with the volume off.
Steve’s sketchbook is lying on the kitchen table.
It’s closed, like it always is ever since the first day when Steve snapped it shut as Bucky walked into the apartment. He shouldn’t open it. Steve has been nothing but good to him. Steve deserves a little privacy. It’s his own damn apartment, after all.
But he can’t stop thinking about it. What could possibly be in there? As far as he can tell, with the exception of the sketchbook, Steve never hides anything. Well, one night when they were watching something that Steve’s friend Tony recommended that had a lot of sex scenes in it, he said “Oh God,” picked up a throw pillow, hid his face in it, and muttered “not funny, Tony,” but that’s different.
One page, he tells himself. He’ll look at one page and then tomorrow morning he’ll apologize to Steve and Steve will probably tell him it’s no big deal and offer to show him the rest and everything will be fine. Right? Steve didn’t get mad at Bucky for trying to choke him to death, so it’s hard to imagine him getting angry about this.
Bucky knows Steve wanted to be an artist, but he can’t really remember anything about the drawings. He’s not sure what he expects—a landscape or a portrait of a pretty girl. Maybe Natasha, if she would ever agree to that kind of thing.
The first page is a collection of charcoal sketches of male nudes in different poses. It takes a second to register what he’s looking at, since it’s dark in the kitchen and he hasn’t slept in nine days. When the images come together in his mind, his first thought is wow. Steve is really good. His second thought is about all those thick thighs and muscular backs on the page in front of him, and he flips the book shut immediately.
Steve drew him once. Or maybe more than once. Not naked—no, they never—he wasn’t naked. It was a portrait. He remembers complaining that Steve was taking too long, and he had to get up a take a leak, and Jesus, could Steve draw any slower? And Steve telling him to quit whining.
It had been a good likeness, a three-quarter view of his face. He had thought he looked handsome, and he’d said so, and Steve had ribbed him about being vain. And then he’d thought more about the way Steve had drawn him gazing off into space with his eyes dreamy, like he was longing for something. And the way Steve had drawn his lips slightly parted—there was something almost indecent about it, even though it was only a picture of his face. Is that really how Steve sees me? he’d thought, and then he’d shut down that line of thinking and forced himself to think about girls for awhile.
Those pictures of naked men in the sketchbook make him wonder about Steve. But Steve loved Peggy. And Bucky has loved all kinds of women, or so he’s been told. And this is a useless thing to think about at 4AM. Bucky slips back into his bedroom and lies down in his untouched bed.
The sound of his own heartbeat keeps him awake.
“You know you don’t have to pretend,” Steve says the next morning. Bucky freezes. “I know you’re not sleeping.”
“Oh,” he says. He pours himself a mug of coffee and sits down at the table. It’s easier to hide the fact that the whole world feels a little unsteady if he’s sitting down. “That.”
“Yeah, that,” Steve says. He’s leaning back against the kitchen counter, both hands resting on the edge. “Some covert operative you are. You ran my laptop battery down every night this week. And for future reference, all that fake stretching and yawning stuff did not fool anyone. You are a terrible actor.”
“I’ve seen those old propaganda reels,” Bucky says, smirking, because he’s spent a lot of time on the internet lately and apparently playing takes-one-to-know-one with Steve is as deep-seated a memory as they come.
Steve blushes. He looks away for a moment, and Bucky studies his profile. Unlike the rest of him, his face didn’t change much after the serum. Steve had always been beautiful.
“Look, we can make it a long time on no sleep, but we can’t make it forever. You need sleep, Buck.”
Bucky drinks his coffee without saying anything. What’s there to say, really? “I can’t fall asleep because I’ll have nightmares”? “I can’t fall asleep because I might hurt someone”? “I can’t fall asleep because I might kill you”? Steve knows all that already.
“Please,” Steve says. And that trick might have worked before, because he always wants to make Steve happy, but it won’t work this time. He can only be the person that he needs to be around Steve if he’s awake. Steve hasn’t got that through his thick skull yet, but he will.
“That an order, Captain?”
“You know it isn’t,” Steve says, unwilling to be baited into a fight. “I just want you to try. I hate standing around and watching you suffer.”
Always so goddamn earnest. “So sedate me.”
Steve’s eyes widen with genuine hurt. Bucky shrugs. It’s not like he hasn’t been forcefully sedated before. Spent most of his life that way, if you think about it.
Bucky expects some kind of you know I would never do that to you and you’re my friend not my prisoner and whatever other painfully noble bullshit Steve can come up with, which he deserves absolutely none of.
Instead, Steve says quietly, “Is it me?”
Bucky’s not sure what to make of that.
“Am I the reason you can’t sleep? Do you feel unsafe around me? I can get you another apartment, I’m sure there’s a vacant space in the tower somewhere, or somewhere farther away if you want, just say the word and I’ll call Tony and—,”
Bucky closes his eyes. No matter how irritable he is, no matter how much he wants to reject all of Steve’s sympathy and concern by being a cranky ungrateful piece of shit, he can’t let Steve think that. Being with Steve is the only time he ever feels halfway human.
But he can’t say that. So he says “It’s not you.”
“Okay,” Steve says, with the air of someone who just relearned how to breathe. “Okay.”
“I don’t want to talk about this any more,” he says. The whole thing feels awful. He can’t stand Steve being nice to him and he can’t stand hurting Steve’s feelings. He wants Steve to leave him alone and he wants Steve to stay with him forever. It makes no sense.
“Let’s talk about something else then,” Steve says, and just like that, they start over. The sun is out, so they leave the apartment and go for a walk in the park. They talk about going to the beach as kids, how the water was always so damn cold and how they always swam anyway. Bucky pretends not to be tired and Steve pretends not to notice. They both pretend that they’re not about to have the same fight again as soon as the sun goes down.
They eat dinner on the couch in front of the TV. Steve wants to watch some long documentary series on public television about jazz. Steve watches a lot of documentaries. He’s always trying to catch up on things he missed and inform himself about current events and various injustices. How he has the energy for all that caring is a mystery that Bucky long ago gave up trying to solve. “We were around for jazz,” Bucky reminds him. “I don’t really remember it, but we were.”
“Not all of it,” Steve says. “Be quiet and watch.”
Some of the music is vaguely familiar. He remembers his feet aching after dancing all night and stale cigarette smoke in all his clothes. There’s some kind of story to the documentary, a narrative about the rise and fall of certain genres and musicians, but it’s hard to pay attention. He sits on the couch next to Steve, not touching but certainly close enough to touch. He wouldn’t let anyone else get so close, but with Steve it’s alright. He’s not even breathing fast. This must be what it feels like to be a person, he thinks, and the sad absurdity of it makes him huff out a laugh.
Steve looks over at him but doesn’t ask what he’s thinking about. He just smiles and then looks back at the screen. Bucky relaxes, laying his head on the back of the couch. He glances at the TV from time to time, but mostly he just looks at Steve. Steve is the best thing ever to happen to him, twice now or maybe three times. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but he’s sleepy.