Mission Status: critical failure
The Soldier had not reported to command since the malfunction.
No. Not malfunction. Wrong, wrong, wrong. He was…
Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.
James. Bucky. He… he should have known that. Why didn't he know that? But it felt right, what The Target had said to him.
You're my friend.
No. Command had said… They had told him… but they were lying. He was James Buchanan Barnes.
He was the Winter Soldier. He followed commands and he needed to—
He was James Barnes (Unconfirmed—cited from unreliable source: Captain America, possible enemy).
James Barnes had been friends with Steve Rogers (Confirmed—cited in multiple sources: museum, literature, etc.).
Steve Rogers was Captain America (Confirmed—cited in multiple sources).
Therefore, he was friends with Captain America (Unconfirmed).
But command had sent him to kill Captain America (command had sent him to kill a lot of people). They had said he was working for good, that he was doing the right thing. He was making the world a better place. But then why had they taken so many precautions with him? Why was he always shackled? Why was he always accompanied by armed guards? Why had they wiped his memories? What had been in there that they didn't want him to see?
His head pounded and he let go of the thread of thought, returning to the reality of the stinking alley where he huddled. It was cold. Objectively, he knew this. The temperature was too low for the comfort; comfort meant nothing to the Winter Soldier.
No. Not the Winter Soldier. James Barnes.
He wore a threadbare coat that didn’t keep out the chill. He wore gloves. Those were more important; they covered his hands, kept others from discovering his metal arm, his otherness.
He heard them approach. Four men. Young. Drunk. He sat further back into the shadows, uninterested in catching their attention. If they saw him, he would have to kill them. No one could see the Winter Soldier and survive.
No. Not the Winter Soldier, James Barnes.
Take the shot. What are you waiting for? Take the shot.
He jerked, unable to suppress the powerful memory that washed over him. The movement attracted their attention. They approached together, spreading out to flank him.
They were vulnerable, too slow, too drunk. They left themselves exposed. The Soldier would break the first's kneecap—a swift kick to the side and he would be out of commission until he could come back around—then snap the second one's neck.
James Barnes—Bucky—wouldn't kill them. He didn't do that anymore.
"Go straight home. Keep safe."
Your boss’ instructions as you left work were simple, good ones for anyone walking alone at four in morning. Perhaps New York was the city that never slept, but the hour after the bars closed was near enough for you—too late for night owls to still be out, too early for the paper trucks and garbage men to start their routes. The streets were deserted.
You felt the menace in the air like the charge before a storm broke. Your attention swiveled to the alley across the street. Four men—no, five. A pack of college students, looking for one last thrill to cap off their night, and a homeless man. A really, really unlucky homeless man. Their laughter was drunken, the calls and jeers slurred.
Your feet stopped, stuck to the concrete like quicksand.
Go straight home.
You weren't a hero, not even close.
You jogged across the street, clutching you coat tighter around your body. The dull thuds of fists and feet against flesh echoed off the surrounding buildings. The voices of the frat boys grew louder, as did the grunts of the man in their power. The impact of each kick hit like a ghost against your body.
“Hey!” Your voice was too loud, too laced with panic.
They turned, their attention drawn from the man on the ground in front of them.
Your heart pounded against your ribs as if it could escape. You were too outnumbered to pull off intimidation. Any threat from you would be met with swift and unforgiving violence. You needed a different tactic.
The corners of your mouth tugged upwards. Smile, stay calm, stay friendly. The smile made people like you. People who liked you did what you wanted.
“You guys having a good night?” Your voice was breathier than you wanted, but it came off as flirty, rather than frightened.
The men looked to each other and exchanged smiles. They approached as one, like a pack of hyenas.
Smile, just smile. Be friendly.
You focused on their faces, ignoring the lust that choked the atmosphere like the cheap cologne they wore. You locked eyes with each man in turn, clearing all other thoughts from your mind, focusing on one feeling.
“There’s an all-night Karaoke place a few blocks from here.” Push. “Sound like fun?” Push. There were murmurs of agreement, nods and looks between the men. “Why don’t you guys go on ahead and I’ll meet you there in a few minutes?” It was a lie, but a believable one, especially with the smile.
Most of the men drifted away. One stayed, confusion clouding his eyes. You smiled more broadly at him. Push. He blinked a few times, the expression clearing, and followed his friends.
You took a shuddering breath and hugged your arms around your middle as you listened to their footsteps fade around the corner. With a shake of your head to clear the static that had built there, you turned your attention to a more important matter.
“How bad is it?” You crouched in front of the man, afraid to see the damage caused by your hesitation. You reached toward him, your hand wavering in the air above his body, before you pulled back. “I’ll call 911.”
“No,” he croaked. “No doctors.” He shifted and you caught a glimpse of him in the light off the streetlamp above the alley. A thick beard over a fierce face. Christ, he couldn't be any older than you were. There was no fear or anger in his voice, none shimmering in the air between you. It was conspicuous in its absence.
“You might be really hurt," you said.
“Leave me alone.” He pushed away from the ground, spitting blood onto the pavement.
You worried your bottom lip with your teeth, your eyes wandering over the alley. You couldn't leave him here, not with icicles hanging from the fire escape and the smell of rotting garbage. Not with the frat pack still in the area.
“When was the last time you ate something?” Push.
“What’s your name?” you asked.
“Where are you from?”
You looked him over. He didn't show any sign of bruises or cuts from his encounter with the drunk men, but he must have had other injuries, no doubt covered by his clothes.
“I really think you should go to a hospital.”
He didn't respond and you picked at the chipped polish on your nails. “…Okay then. We’ll just go with awkward silence.” You chewed the inside of your cheek. “That will be fun.”
You tried to maintain the quiet, but it didn't last long. You were chatty when you were nervous and this guy made you Nervous. He was big, built like a truck and looked like he could lift one.
“I’m a club singer,” you said, the words bubbling out of you to fill the silence. “Not a stripper, but, you know, close enough that I can’t tell my grandmother what I do.”
The corner of his eyebrow lifted. It wasn't much, but more response than you'd received so far.
You kept talking, less out of friendliness and more to fill the vast empty silence that stretched over the two feet of unsteady particleboard table and mound of steaming Chinese food. The man ate, seemingly without stopping to breathe.
“The club is just a few blocks from here—Lavish. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Members only, retro, jazz club kind of thing.”
He looked up and your heart jolted as his eyes pierced through you, blue like cold steel. “What did you do to those men?” His voice was low and rough, too young for the years in his eyes.
Your heart skipped a beat. He had finally said something and it was to ask the question you least wanted to answer.
“Nothing," you said. "They were drunk.” You covered the panic on your face with a smile. He continued to watch you, his expression only growing more intent. You looked away.
“You forced them to leave," he said.
You cringed back, instinctively barricading yourself from the sweep of emotion that would roll off him. “I didn’t do anything to them."
You waited for the frustration to leak into the air, for anger to simmer under the surface, but nothing happened. The walls of your emotional fortress wavered a tiny bit. You reached out a tentative tendril, tasting the atmosphere between you and finding emptiness. His voice betrayed nothing, his face even less. But you should have been able to feel him. Feel something.
You shook yourself. It didn't matter. It didn't matter if he didn't project the way everyone else did. He was still dangerous. Everyone was dangerous if they got too close.
You pulled a roll of cash from your coat pocket, your share of tips from the night. “Here"—you placed it between you—"that should be enough to get you a hotel and some food for a few days.” You stood, the metal legs of your chair shrieking against the tile. “I hope things go better for you.”
Hydra always provided for The Soldier. Weapons, food, clothing—they appeared in his hands before he even registered that he needed them.
Bucky hadn't showered in weeks. He hadn't changed clothes or shaved or brushed his teeth. Food had been difficult to come by. This was nothing of concern. He understood survival.
Six hundred dollars. That was what you gave him. He hadn’t wanted it, hadn’t asked for any of your kindness. It had just appeared in front of him in the freezing, stinking alley.
Bucky sat on the edge of the hotel bed. The room was cheap, the cheapest he could find. He would need to stretch that six hundred dollars, now five-sixty, as far as he could.
Why had he gone with you in the first place? He knew better than that. You were a complication he couldn't afford. Hydra could track him through you. Hydra could track you.
What the hell was he doing in Brooklyn anyway? He could go anywhere in the world. He was a professional ghost. He knew how to hide. But here he was. Why?
Bucky had thought he'd find answers, but he hadn't done anything more than wait. He'd let one day slip into another for months until you had stepped out of the dark with a voice like honey.
A club singer. Too young to get involved with Bucky. Too kind to get tangled with The Soldier. What the hell was he doing dragging you into this?
He couldn't keep the money. That much was clear. He couldn't keep it. It would lead back to you. He couldn't… he couldn't.
Damn it all to hell.
“Good job tonight.” Your boss placed your share of the tips in your hand. Pretty good for a Sunday night. Not quite the haul that Saturday was… You squashed the thought before it fully formed. The homeless man had needed that money more than you did. You would be fine—maybe a little late on rent, but fine.
You counted the bills as you leaned against the bar. The bartenders had gone for the night, leaving just the manager and a few members of the band. You'd be the last one out again. Voices echoed near the employee exit—one of the dancers returning from outside.
“—just standing out there.”
“One of the regulars?”
“I didn’t recognize him.”
“Do you think he’s a wacko?”
You drifted closer to the conversation, drawn by the feeling of distress. “What’s going on?” you asked.
“Christina says there’s a creep waiting outside the club.” Christina’s chills settled over your shoulders and you shuddered.
“We should have Xavier walk us to the station,” you said. The bouncer might be gay as a glitter bomb, but he was tough as nails and looked it. The girls nodded. The last few stragglers gathered their possessions and left the club en masse. As you clomped down the stairs of the club, glad to be out of your heels and into comfortable sneakers again, you listened to the streets surrounding the club. You didn't feel a threat. But you did feel something familiar.
He was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, just as Christina said. You couldn't blame her for being spooked. He had the most intense eyes you'd ever seen. And the full weight of that gaze settled on you as you descended. Well… at least he was freshly showered this time.
You squeezed to the front of the group, flashing a reassuring smile to Xavier as you passed, and hopped the last few steps to land in front of your visitor.
“Nice to see you again,” you said. You shoved your gloved hands into your coat and shrugged your shoulders against the cold. He wore new clothes, or at least newer ones—a hoody and thicker jacket with jeans. The normalcy softened him a little.
He cast a wary glance over your entourage who hesitated near the end of the alley. You waved them on and turned your attention back to him.
“I’m James," he said.
“Pleasure to meet you, James.”
“Thank you"—he struggled with himself, fighting to get the words out—"for last night.”
He watched you, his body too still, like he waited for an attack. Which maybe he was. His emotions were on edge. His attention stretched across the entire alley and into the streets beyond. You resisted the urge to fill the empty space with small talk.
“Here.” He held out his hand, your roll of tips clutched in his glove.
Your eyebrows knit together. “That’s yours. I gave it to you.”
“I know. Thank you.”
“You need it.”
"I'll get by."
Your mouth shut with a snap. Menace encircled you, like ice creeping over your limbs. It bit worse than the cold New York air. It cut to the bone.
I'll be posting this fic on a weekly schedule (Tuesdays). Please feel free to leave a comment or tell me how you feel. I'm very friendly, I promise!
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
You flinched, as if Bucky had struck you. He hadn't, had he? No, he would have remembered that. He hadn't harmed you. He had come to return the money you gave him and cut off ties with you. He would be gone by sunrise.
Your gaze flicked over the alley, like a rabbit catching the scent of a fox. But you didn't look to him. You took a step toward Bucky, moving into his space. His body went on high alert. You were too close. Too… too…
A shiver of fear ran through him. Strange. The Winter Soldier didn't feel fear. Then he sensed it. Heard the breathing, smelled the cologne. There was someone else in the alley. You had noticed that before Bucky had. How was that possible?
"I'm sorry," you whispered.
"Who is he?" Bucky's voice lowered to a snarl.
"I don't know. He comes by the club sometimes."
"He follows you." It wasn't a question. You nodded. "What do you do?"
"Last time, I slept under the bar."
"I'll walk you home." Something new emerged, bubbling up under the Winter Soldier's resolve like a monster rising from the deep ocean. He would protect you. It was a reflex so ingrained in Bucky that he didn't doubt it. But the Winter Soldier made that conviction deadly.
Bucky walked to the side and a little behind you. The man followed. He kept his distance, no more than a shadow, a passing bystander if Bucky weren't paying attention. Your body was tense, coiled under your wool coat. You shivered and for the first time it occurred to Bucky that you were cold.
You hunched in on yourself, making a smaller target. It was a defensive move, restricting your movement. It defended your vital areas from a sudden attack, but left you trapped in your own body, unable to retaliate. You weren't a soldier. You weren't preparing for a fight the way Bucky was.
Mission Status: asset in danger.
Bucky shook his head. No. This was not a mission. You were not an asset assigned to him. Besides, the Winter Soldier's purpose was only to kill.
How had this happened? Bucky had intended to see you just long enough to leave the money with you and then be so far gone you would never remember even meeting him. He'd be just another ghost in another stranger's past. Yet here he was, following you through twenty city blocks and to the stairs of a red brick apartment building.
You paused at the entrance to look over your shoulder at Bucky when he didn't close the distance between you. Your eyes skimmed further down the street and you frowned. Bucky did the same. He couldn't sense the man anymore, but your posture told him that the danger hadn't passed.
You struggled to find your keys in your purse, one eye still on the street behind you. The fear was still there, simmering under the air between you and Bucky. It put Bucky's hair on end.
You found your keys, but then struggled to fit them into the lock, dropping them. You cursed and bent for them. Bucky reached them first. He put them in the lock, twisted and the door gave way with an extra push that was almost reflex. He stepped in first, eyes taking in the empty lobby in a quick sweep. It was another reflex, but from a completely different place. Secure the location, determine possible threats.
James was all business. You'd sensed it in him before, a lingering violence, but this… it was military precision—methodical, efficient, practiced. He didn't even realize that he was doing it.
You followed him into the building, watching him as you shut the door after you. He was a threat… but not to you. You sorted through it, straining to sense the conflicted feelings that he held behind some sort of barrier.
Reading someone's emotions was complicated, like listening to different songs playing over one another. It wasn't an exact science and more often than not it made your head pound. James was different. Most people broadcast their emotions in waves, but his presence… it wasn't as if you couldn't sense him, just that… he didn't have a flavor. His feelings didn't beat at you; his expression never betrayed anything.
James swept forward, checking up the stairwell, all meticulous efficiency. This was routine procedure. Military… he must have been military. Was that why he gave off the aura of barely leashed danger?
You shouldn't have let him in here. You shouldn't have involved him at all. Dangerous or not, there was a reason you didn't get involved with others. And you'd let him walk right into your life. Hell, you'd asked. But James didn't scare you.
The man from the alley scared you.
You'd never seen him, not clearly. You couldn't pick him from a police photo if asked, but you knew him. You knew the coil of emotions that lingered in the shadows around him. You could feel when he approached, the possessiveness, the power, the heady feeling he got when he looked at you. He'd never done anything. But he would.
You shivered at the memory of the way his attention had crawled over you. James's gaze snapped to you. Then his eyes flicked to the door past your shoulder.
"I should go," Bucky said.
"Don't," you said. The response was too quick, still laced with panic. "Please. You don't have anywhere to stay tonight, right?"
Bucky didn't, but there was no way for you to know that. Besides, to the Winter Soldier, makeshift shelter—or no shelter at all—wasn't a problem. You talked over his silence, keeping up a conversation all your own.
"It's not the best, but at least I have a couch." You tucked your hair behind your ear. "I can make coffee. I mean, I only have decaf, but—"
Come in for coffee?
Bucky's mind fogged over in a haze of perfume and cigarette smoke, taking him somewhere that was not this strange, alien Brooklyn, somewhere that didn't have the unfamiliar cars and technology, back when Bucky didn't have a metal arm.
How many times had Bucky heard that invitation, an invitation to more than just coffee? The enticing draw of whispered words and the soft touch of skin against skin. Sighs and gasps and sounds that made him ache in a way he couldn't describe.
Your voice drew him back to the present, the never-ending flow of words that seemed to come from you whenever you stopped paying attention. Whenever you were nervous.
Bucky made you nervous.
"I'll go," he said. He didn't wait for your response, sweeping past you and back out the door through which he had come. He'd done what he'd wanted to do. He'd returned the money and he'd seen you safely home. In the shelter of the locked lobby to your building, you'd be safe. There was only one more thing to do.
Bucky crept back the way he'd come, all senses on high alert, listening for the sounds of the man who had followed you. But there was nothing to indicate the person who had just been there. Bucky circled the area twice, then followed the trail back to the club where you worked. But there was no trace. Nothing. Though Bucky knew that someone had tracked you home, now, it was as if that had never happened.
That meant that you were still in danger.
You had ten minutes left for your break, little more than a quick respite between sets. You slunk out the back stairwell, amidst the smell of smoke and rotten garbage and stepped down the stairs.
You didn't smoke, never really had, but you still went to the alley for your break. It was a quick respite from the club, from the heat and the press of bodies and minds. The alley was clear and cold in a way that felt sharp. But all wasn't silent and still that night.
You wouldn't have seen him if you hadn't sensed him first—he was just another shadow in an alley filled with them—but this shadow, however menacing to anyone else, gave you a sense of safety.
The way he'd rushed off the night before… you hadn't expected to see him again.
You tromped down the last few steps and landed on concrete so cold you could feel it through the soles of your shoes. "What are you doing here?" you asked.
The shadow that was James didn't answer you, instead looking away. You felt a wisp of unease in the air. But not fear, not of you, or from you. This was something else. There was confusion, frustration.
You hunched your shoulders against the cold. It was freezing even through your coat.
"How about you come inside, huh?" Push.
James shifted, but still didn’t answer. Well, you hadn't expected it to be easy. He was more resilient than most people, more set in his resolve.
"You'd be doing me a favor," you said. "One of our stock guys didn't show up tonight." That was a lie, but the stock guys could always use an extra hand. "If you're gonna stand here all night, you might as well do it somewhere warm." Push. "Make a quick buck while you're at it." Push.
You felt his resolve waver, but not because of anything you'd said. He wasn't swayed by the promise of warmth or money. This was something else.
"I'd like for you to come in." Push.
James shifted again. His confusion intensified.
What was Bucky even doing in here?
There was something about you—something about being around you—that threw all his reason out the window. He'd had a plan that evening when he staked out the club. He wasn't going to see you. He was going to wait for the man that followed you to show up, take care of him (whatever that meant, Bucky didn't want to think too far into it), and get his ass out of Brooklyn.
But here he was, stocking liquor bottles in the back of a dark club, confused. Bucky didn't like being confused. He felt like he had been that way his entire life. He must have known what he was doing at some point, right? But trying to recall a single time only made his head pound. The blurry half-memories of what happened before the endless cycle of sleep and violence didn't provide any clarity. If he had been certain then, he didn't remember it now.
He carried a box of vodka out to the bar and caught a glimpse of the stage just as you stepped out onto it. You had told him what you did, but his logical knowledge of it and the reality of it before him stopped him in his tracks.
You glittered like starlight, like someone had woven diamonds right into the slinky dress you wore. The material was held to your frame with straps as delicate as the strands of a spider's web. They too sparkled in the club lights, throwing lights across your skin.
He hadn't noticed it when he saw you in the alley: movie star makeup and hair to match, wearing impractical, towering heels.
Bucky stared. You made yourself up to be looked at and for the first time in a very long time, Bucky enjoyed looking. Not assessing, not judging, not recon. He wasn't picking out weak points. He just… looked. He looked at your soft curves and the way your lips quirked into a sort of half smile when you saw the crowd. He looked at the way your eyelashes brushed against your cheek when you glanced down.
No one acknowledged your entrance. There were no cheers or fanfare. You didn't seemed bothered. You smiled at the crowd, lush lips forming a pretty pout. You laid your hand on top of the microphone stand and stepped a little closer, as if coming in for a kiss. Your fingers trailed down the length of the stand and Bucky's stomach clenched hard.
He turned away. He shouldn't be watching you. That wasn't why he was here. And why was he here anyway? He shouldn't have left the alley. He swore and looked back for the exit as the first notes of music started. Then you started to sing.
It wasn't the sound, necessarily, not… entirely. It was something else—something deeper—that stopped him in his tracks. Your voice was low and sultry, coaxing.
Bucky felt as if the world had suddenly turned to color where he'd only been seeing it grey before. He froze, heart thudding in his hears to the rhythm of the slow, sexy jazz song you sang.
The crowd through the bar quieted, conversations turning to whispers and trailing off as patrons fell into the trance you wove.
Bucky turned back, couldn’t take his eyes off you. Your hips swayed in time to the music, your eyes fluttered shut, like you had closed out everything around you, leaving just the sound.
Something inside Bucky loosened and came undone as he stood there, fixated on you. The cold steel trap so firmly latched around his soul shuddered and something else peeked out in its place.
"C'mon, Bucky, you know I can't dance."
"At least try it during one of the slow songs."
"I'll just step on her feet."
"That's why it's a slow song. All you gotta do is stand there and sway a little."
"Give it up, Buck. Quit wasting—"
"She's really something, huh?"
A presence at Bucky's side jerked him back into the moment. Only a thin thread of control kept him from snapping the neck of the man who had gotten too close. Bucky's hand clenched at his side, the machinery whirring in protest.
The bartender leaned forward against the bar, oblivious of how close he had come to death, and watched you with a look of awe. "This your first time seeing her sing?" he asked.
"Don't worry about falling in love with her," the bartender said, busying himself with emptying the box of vodka into the cabinets under the bar.
Bucky shot him a look.
The man shook his head. "Everyone does. Don't bother. She doesn't date."
Bucky turned away in disgust.
Doesn't date. Good. Bucky shouldn't be thinking about you like that anyway. Who did he think he was, looking at you, anyway? He stomped away to the back of the bar without answering.
Bucky didn't see you again until over an hour later. It didn't matter. Your voice permeated the club, reaching him even in the back where it was too muffled for him to make out the words.
He carried a case of empty bottles from the bar to the back, trying not to notice that you weren't on stage or that the hum of conversation had taken the place of your soothing voice. He shouldn't wonder where you were. You were inside, safe. He only needed to wait until you were going home… when you were vulnerable. Other than that, he had no business being in your life. He had no business being in your life no matter what, except that for some reason, he couldn't force himself to leave.
Bucky turned the corner and nearly walked into you.
You stopped short with a gasp, stumbling over your own feet in your haste. You overbalanced and Bucky reached out to steady you, but you recoiled from his hand.
Something deep in Bucky's gut twisted at the clear rejection. He dropped his hand to his side, quickly squashing the traitorous feeling of disappointment that sprouted. Of course. He was frightening. You were scared of him. He should have known you wouldn't… that you couldn't…
You laid your hand against the wall and took a deep breath. Bucky turned to go back the way he'd came.
"Don't," you said. "It's—it's fine. It's not…"
He looked back to you. Something about your expression pulled him in, a confusion, a pain that seemed familiar to him.
"It's nothing personal," you said. "It really isn't." You crossed your arms over your stomach protectively and looked away, like you were ashamed. "It isn't you. I"—you worried your bottom lip with your teeth—"I don't like being touched."
One sort of confusion gave way to another. In Bucky's experience, there was really only one reason that a person wouldn't want to be touched and the thought of it made the bones in his body burn. The fist of his metal hand curled.
Bucky shook himself. He couldn't ask that. He didn't have any right to know something as personal as that. He had no right to anything personal about you at all.
"It's okay," he said, feeling that the words were woefully inadequate. He wasn't good with words, he never had been. Bucky had always expressed himself through actions, through arms slung over shoulders, through holding, through kissing, through things that were a hell of a lot more intimate. He didn't know how to reassure someone without touching them, but who was he to reassure anyone now anyway? He couldn't trust his own strength anymore. The Winter Soldier had been made to destroy. How could he use that same deadly body for something so delicate?
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James walked you home at night. It became a strange sort of habit, to expect his hulking form to wait for you, to listen to the sound of his boots against the pavement as he walked not quite beside you, not quite behind you. He stepped lightly in your blind spot, a good protective position, but an invisible place that felt a little too much like he tread on your shadow, or perhaps that he had replaced it wholesale.
Your walk home had always been your respite, the first few minutes after the assault of feelings all night filling you with a heady elation. The absence of pain, the relief that flooded you, it was your favorite moment of the day.
Now you shared it with James.
Normally, that would bother you, but James' feelings never stepped on your own. He kept them carefully corralled within the confines of his own mind. You would consider it polite, but, of course, it wasn't intentional. How could he know how to do that when he couldn't even know that you could feel him? You were always eavesdropping on others, whether you meant to or not.
One night, just like every night, James stopped at the foot of the apartment stairs, reluctant to follow you into the building. Trepidation, unease… They were emotions that were out of place on someone who seemed so sure of himself.
"'Night," he said, shrugging his shoulders and turning away.
"Come inside," you said. He paused, but didn't turn back. "For a little while. Just for a cup of coffee. You can spare that long, right?"
It wasn't about the time, you could tell. It wasn't even about you. It was him. There was something inside him that he fought with, something keeping him from following you inside. It had been eating at you. No one else would have noticed, to them it would just be a quiver of unease as he passed, but to you, it was as if the darkness ate through his insides, gnawing away at his bones, hollowing him out. You couldn't stand it.
You could just let him go, unhook him and send him on his way. That would be the smart thing to do, but you couldn't bring yourself to do it. You had resolved to keep your powers to yourself, not to get involved in other people's problems no matter how much they might need it. It was selfish, but it was also how you survived. You couldn't go around immersing yourself in the trauma of everyone you passed. You'd drown.
But with James… It was as if he had a black hole growing inside him, something that would consume him in the end, but you couldn’t name what the outcome of that would be, whether it would kill him or merely leave an empty shell behind. He already had so many holes, his spirit worn thin like jeans that had been washed too many times.
James still hadn't moved. You took a tentative step down the stairs, as if you could pull him up. But… no. You had a far more effective method.
"Please," you said. You dropped your voice, pouring the emphasis of your emotion into it. You weren't sure how it worked, you knew you could control the amount of push if you tried, but it was never exact. You had to mean it. You didn't even think you really needed your voice to do anything. You'd never tried it before, but the push seemed to be more than just the way you said things.
But James liked your voice. You could tell. You could tell from the way his eyes lingered on you when you sang. How he somehow seemed to be able to see you from wherever he was. He loved when you sang, but then again, so did everyone else.
James watched you, no part of his body wavering but his eyes. He looked away, looked back at you, looked away again—as if he couldn't maintain the contact.
"Please," you said again.
His weight shifted forward, the first possibility of a step, before he paused again. It was a careful battle, the back and forth between his hesitancy and your conviction.
Damn it, James, just get in here.
The resolve in his eyes wavered, then disappeared. He closed the last few steps between the two of you and joined you at the landing for the apartment.
You had to crane your neck to look up; he was monstrous and you weren't nearly that tall. He towered over you, and stood far too close in the cramped space of the stoop. You cleared your throat and fumbled with your keys.
It was silly for this to feel so important. You'd had men in your apartment before—not for years, but it wasn’t as if the concept was completely alien. And you weren't even planning on doing anything. James wasn't either. You would feel that intention immediately; you were always on the lookout for it.
James found you attractive. He was curious, but not aggressive. It was almost as if he was scared of you. In a way, you were scared too, but you weren't sure what of. Maybe yourself. Maybe of what you wanted from James.
You led him up the three flights of stairs to the door of your apartment.
Somehow, Bucky found himself with you, once again, not sure how that happened. Your door. Your apartment. Not sure… except that he knew he wanted to be there.
Bucky wanted to follow you, like some lost puppy looking for a home. He wanted to be here. And how wrong was that? You didn't need something like him ruining your life.
You pushed open the door and Bucky wanted to run, but his feet didn't seem to be listening to him, carrying him instead into the apartment behind you.
"I guess you'll finally get to meet my roommate, huh?" you said, laughing to yourself.
Bucky tensed all over. Roommate? You didn’t have a roommate. He knew that. He knew because he’d watched you, night after night, from the building across the street. No other person had ever stepped into the apartment. The only person who had even seen the other side of the door was the elderly woman across the hall that brought a dog over on mornings where you—
Claws clicked against the worn wooden floors.
Around the corner of the couch came the form of a massive dog. It was all muscle and half your size, a pit bull, the color of copper with bright blue eyes. Its tail wagged so hard when it saw you that it could barely keep its hind legs on the ground. You knelt and embraced its massive head, burying your face in the scruff of its neck and muttering something that Bucky didn't hear and likely didn't make sense even if he had.
You looked back to Bucky, beaming, arms still around the dog. "This is Penny," you said, "my roommate."
Bucky swallowed. The remnants of his panic a few moments ago were still subsiding. Blood still coursed to his veins far too fast and a small part of him still shouted for him to break through the nearest window and make a run for it on the street.
He swallowed again, this time finding his voice. "Smart choice."
You turned your attention back to Penny, taking her slobbery, wrinkled face in your hands. "Who's the most ferocious dog in the whole wide world?" you asked in a singsong voice only appropriate for talking to infants and ducklings. Penny licked your face in response.
You stood and wiped the trail of drool from your cheek, then continued to the corner of the apartment that seemed to serve as the kitchen. "You can close the door," you said, "and take off your coat. I invited you in. You can get a little comfortable."
Comfortable. Right. Bucky hadn't been comfortable a day in his life. Not that he remembered anyway.
He was remembering more and more, but none of it made any sense. Memories of Bucky Barnes weren't the only ones that were coming back. Interspersed between them were others, cold memories. Ones of blood and guns. Ones of little girls in ballet shoes with a Beretta in each hand. It was like trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle, never sure if they were all for the same picture. More often than not, it seemed the pieces were made from broken glass.
So, he focused on you instead. He focused on how you swayed and danced around the cabinets, humming along to a song that wasn't playing.
Bucky shrugged off his coat and came further into the room. At his first steps inside, Penny backed away, her ears lowering. Bucky could understand. He crouched and held his hand out to her, palm down. She sniffed at him from where she was, came a few steps closer and sniffed again. Then she snorted and trotted away to follow you. Close enough.
"How do you like your coffee?" you asked from where you'd disappeared behind a cabinet door.
"Straight," Bucky answered. He wasn’t sure how he really liked his coffee anymore. He hadn’t actually had one in years. At the moment, though, he was too busy looking at the room around him.
It was small, but all Brooklyn apartments were small. This one, though, was painted bright yellow. Everything inside seemed soft: the couch, the cushions, even the wood floors. Plants crowded around the windows, stacked on the sills and hanging from the ceiling. The apartment, more than an hour before dawn, was the sunniest place Bucky had seen in his entire life.
"Sorry about the mess," you said, raising your voice over the clink of dishes. "I don't exactly have a lot of people over."
Bucky wouldn't have called it a mess. He'd seen the insides of hundreds of rooms, those used for safe houses and those of his targets. Your home didn't feel messy; it felt alive. It was filled to brimming with your presence, which was just as soothing as you were.
It was tight, uncomfortable for Bucky, not because of the size, but because of how out of place he felt there. He was a 9mm sitting in a bin full of stuffed animals.
You reemerged from the kitchen with two steaming mugs in your hands and Penny at your heels. You set the mugs on a small table, painted periwinkle blue.
You had said that you didn't like to be touched, and everything you did only reinforced that. You never handed something directly to him; you always set it on an intermediate surface instead. Not just with Bucky. You never touched anyone, never got too close. It wasn't something that most people would have noticed, but Bucky wasn't most people. It was a quirk and quirks were weaknesses. Bucky had been trained to ferret those out. He didn't want to know your weaknesses, but they stood out nonetheless, like glaring signs, written all over your body.
You also never pried. You didn't ask about Bucky's life, where he came from. You took the information that he provided and never looked for anything further. You never offered anything of yourself in exchange either. You existed from moment to moment, a club singer in an apartment. Whatever you had been before, your family, where you lived, anything telling about you, simply didn't exist. You were like him, someone without a past. At least, that's how Bucky thought of it.
Of course, you were nothing like him. You couldn’t be. There was no one like Bucky.
Except, perhaps, Steve Rogers.
You shoved a pile of magazines to the side as you sat down. You set his mug of coffee on another. The picture caught Bucky's attention as he joined you.
Captain America—no, Steve Rogers—walking hand in hand with a woman. "Clamor Glamour: Steve Rogers trades one suit for another as he steps out with new love Blair for date night at Hamilton" read the caption. Bucky picked it up, couldn't stop himself.
God, I hate suits, Buck.
He flipped through the magazine, through the inane celebrity gossip and pixelated photos, to find the article.
"Cap's got a girlfriend," you said as you raised your mug to your lips. "Lucky lady."
"Punk," Bucky said. The word blurted out of him before he consciously thought about it. Your silence returned his attention to you. You watched him over your coffee cup, one eyebrow raised, a spark in your eyes like Christmas lights.
"You don't like Captain America?" you asked. "Who doesn't like Captain America?"
Bucky set the magazine aside. He couldn't answer that question, mostly because he didn't know the answer himself. "Like" and "Not Like" were too simple of terms for how he felt toward Steve Rogers, his one-time friend and one-time target. They were tied by a long invisible string. The more they moved through the world, the more tangled it became, pulling them together.
Bucky still hadn't sorted through his memories of the man, or, what he thought were memories. They were all so confused, tangled together with propaganda and lies.
Lies. He knew now that his head was full of them, things placed there by those who wanted to control him. They'd manipulated him, forced him to serve their agenda with little more than the careful placement of the truth and fiction.
That thought was disturbing on its own. Maybe they hadn't scooped Bucky out and put something else inside. Maybe this was who he had been all along, a rabid dog, uncontrolled except by the will of others. Maybe the darkness he felt had been with him all his life. Maybe that was why he couldn’t remember a time when he ever felt settled.
Bucky didn't want to think about that. His head hurt when he did. He wanted to think about you, about the way you looked at him sitting on the other side of the table, the way your normal nervous chatter had faded away and you watched the first few flakes of snow fall outside your window. Penny settled at your feet, warily placing her body between you and Bucky.
Bucky sipped the coffee. Decaf. It was terrible, but it didn't really matter. From across the table, he could smell yours. Sweet and sugary, something Bucky had never had the luxury to afford in this life or the last.
"Why do you do this?" Bucky asked.
"Stay with me. I scare you."
"No, you don't."
You scrunched your nose and looked away. "I'm scared of a lot of things, James. I'm not sure you're one of them."
“You don’t know me.”
“Sure, I do.”
James heart beat a little faster in his chest. You couldn’t possibly know—not about—
“You don’t talk about your past, which is fine, because I don’t talk about mine.” You set your mug on the table and turned it clockwise, avoiding his gaze. “I know that you prefer functional clothes over fashionable ones. The cold doesn’t seem to bother you too much. I know you’re too proud to accept charity, but you like to dole it out on others. You don’t know how to use chopsticks. You’re not a big fan of people and you need lots of personal space. And you take your coffee black.” You picked your mug back up and took a sip. “Oh, and, apparently, you don’t like Captain America.” You fixed him with a probing look. "That enough?"
Bucky thought about it for a long moment, thought about what he knew of himself and how you seemed to know almost as much as he did.
"Yeah. I think that's enough."
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You weren't an isolated person by nature. Shy, maybe, a little withdrawn. But you once had family and friends that you loved.
It had been years since then.
Handshakes, hugs, brushing shoulders on the train, the mere act of exchanging cash for coffee: they were all a pitfall into the mind of another. You were constantly wiped clean and replaced with someone else's feelings.
Not touching had just been the start. You had never realized just how much physical contact existed in the world until you couldn't bear it anymore.
That led to the "no dating" rule, and then fewer friendships and then… and then… and then… Your life had snowballed into a tomb of isolation. You'd thought yourself a loner before. But now you were truly alone.
And you had made that work.
Penny helped. The dog's constant emission of joy pushed away the darkest parts of your powers, the parts that picked up hatred and resentment through the walls. Music helped too. There was something to be said for simply drowning your thoughts in something.
You managed to move forward and that was the only direction you could look if you wanted to stay sane. You could never get too deep. Never get too close. You felt like one of those lizards on the water, legs splayed wide, running as fast as you could to keep from sinking into the deep.
It wasn't that you didn't want to touch someone. You were desperate to touch someone. But you knew the pain that came with it. You knew that the second your skin brushed theirs, everything about you would be swept up in a torrent of their feelings. When those feelings were bad, it was agony.
Your powers were double edged, though. You could push yourself on someone else too, though that took more effort. People liked you. Actually, everyone liked you. They couldn’t help it.
That made things like friendships and dating hard. Really, really hard. How could you know anyone really liked you?
So… most of the time, you just… wanted.
What you wanted now, more than you'd wanted anything in a long time, was to touch James.
It was absurd, absolutely bonkers. James was… complicated. Something dark lurked inside him—not even that deeply. A shadow resided just under his skin, waiting to pull him under at any moment. You could feel it, feel him fight it off every time he was too still and quiet. That feeling would consume you.
But… God, you wanted him to touch you.
You couldn't. You couldn't. Not just for you. There were things you couldn't tell James. Sure, he had something scary in him, but he wasn't the only one. Christ, you could never tell him about you, about the real you. James's life was screwed up enough as it was; he didn't need to get all your complications involved. Not to mention that fact that, at any moment, you might have to upend your life, disappear somewhere else, leave without ever saying goodbye.
And yet, you invited him to your apartment time after time, soaking up his presence like a plant in the sunlight. James, the strange, silent man, who kept his emotions so under control that you barely noticed him. It was refreshing beyond belief, to be in the same room as someone and not suffocate. But you knew better than to think things would be different if you touched him. It was never different. You caught glimpses of it, moments of dark that scared everything in you. If you touched James, you would drown.
You hummed along to the Beatles album that played in the background. The apartment smelled like a thousand different spices, the evidence of your attempt at cooking. Your favorite Indian takeout restaurant had closed this week and you had a craving for curry and an adventurous spirit. James was helping.
Well, really, James was doing most of the work. Early on in the process, you had sliced into your finger while trying to cut peppers. James had relegated you to supervising from the kitchen counter.
"Where did you learn how to cook?" you asked.
"Just something I picked up along the way."
You scraped at your nail polish, a smile playing over your lips. It was the same answer James always gave, the same one you used whenever he asked anything. It was a game of sorts that the two of you played, somehow getting closer despite knowing near nothing about each other. You had the most superficial of friendships and the deepest, skipping everything in between.
"Do you have coriander?" James asked.
"The recipe says coriander."
"There's coriander in curry?"
"That's what it says."
"I figured I only needed curry for curry."
"Do you have spices at all?"
"I don't know. There was a bunch of stuff the last resident left here."
"Where is that?"
"This cabinet." You turned around, to reach behind you, but couldn't quite get the angle right. "I can—"
When you turned back, James was right there, a hairsbreadth from you, close enough that you could feel the heat from his body. He must have followed your lead, not realizing that you would turn around, trapping yourself between him and the cabinet. He stopped. You held your breath and he held his, both of you waiting, like you expected the other to move first. You could have retreated. You should have. It was what you would have normally done. But a larger part of you wanted to get closer.
Bucky's eyes flicked down to your lips, then back up again. "You"—he cleared his throat—"you don't like to be touched." He stepped back. Your heart wrenched.
Your hand shot out to stop him, an instinctual need driving you to keep him close. Your fingers closed around his wrist and you winced, anticipating the flood that would accompany the contact.
You held his arm securely in your hand, nothing but the cloth separating you. That should have been enough for you to see through his every emotion. But you felt nothing, just a cold rigidity.
James was the one to pull away this time. Before you knew it, he was on the other side of the room, eyes wide, staring at you like a spooked cat.
"I'm sorry," you said. "I—" You stopped, not knowing what came next. "Do you… Is that a prosthesis?"
James didn't answer.
You slid away from the counter, keeping your movements slow and fluid, like James might bolt if you startled him. "I never noticed." You took a step closer to him, then another. James watched your every movement. You held your hand out toward him. "Can I see?" James looked at your hand like it might bite him. "It's okay if you don’t want me to."
You tried desperately to hold back any push that might slip out from you. You didn't want that, didn't want James to do this for you with anything other than his whole entire heart. You wouldn't force that on him.
James took a step back, but offered his hand out to you all the same, palm up. Your hand shook as you reached for him.
"It's okay," you said, not sure if you were talking to James or yourself.
Even though you knew it wasn't a flesh and blood hand you reached for, you still steeled yourself reflexively from the onslaught of emotions that would have come with it. The emptiness that greeted you instead felt like balm over chapped lips.
You tugged at the fingers of his glove, carefully, like you were removing his skin. The material came away easily, revealing shiny metal plating.
"Oh wow," you breathed. The glove fell away and you smoothed your fingers over the revealed hand. The metal was cold, but flexible. The interlocking panels smoothed over each other without a chink or pinch. You turned his hand over and James accommodated you, the arm whirring.
"I didn't know they made anything like this. It's like Ironman or something." You ran your hand over his palm and the fingers of the prosthetic twitched in response. You glanced up at him. "Can you feel that?"
James nodded, a curt bob of his head. "It feels… pressure… temperature."
You raised his palm to your face and settled your cheek against the cool metal. It was lovely. The metal warmed against your skin, and you felt like it was the first touch, first normal touch, you'd experienced in years.
You opened your eyes, read the fear on his face, but not flowing from your contact to him. "What is it?"
He tensed more. The tiny mechanisms inside the prosthetic whirred. "I don't want to hurt you."
You released him and slowly his hand fell to his side. "Do you think you will?"
"I don't want to," he reiterated.
"Okay," you said. "It's okay." You pushed a feeling of reassurance and calm into the air, projecting something that you didn't quite feel yourself. James' eyes darted past you, not wild, not that far gone, but on edge. You smoothed the edges of his fear, smothering it in the calm you produced from nowhere. You reached toward him again, but stopped when he shied back.
"You don't like to be touched," he said again. The way he repeated it was almost a mantra, a single phrase he could hold onto like a prayer.
"I want to touch you," you said, feeling like a catholic at confessional, admitting to some abhorrent sin. "Can I touch you?"
You didn't get an answer.
The skillet holding the forgotten curry experiment bubbled over, the liquid hissing as it came in contact with the burner. You startled and jerked around, broken from the intensity that had formed between you and James.
Can I touch you?
Hell, no one had ever asked before. Bucky had been a heartbeat from telling you to—begging you to—touch him but, of course, nothing had happened. The moment passed, like millions before it, the opportunity slipping out of his fingers.
The Winter Soldier had never missed an opportunity, never failed to make a shot. Bucky's life now seemed all one big lost moment.
You'd touched his arm, held it like it was something precious instead of an abomination welded to his body, weighing down his corpse with the weight of all the deaths he'd inflicted with it.
You shouldn't have let him get so close. He could have snapped your neck. He could have strangled you, drowned you in the sink. He could have killed you a dozen different ways. And he should have vanished after that. Too close. You were too close. And the people chasing him weren't the only threat you faced.
I want to touch you.
Instead he found himself back in your apartment. He couldn't help himself. He loved your apartment.
He also absolutely hated it.
None of the knives were sharp. Only one flimsy deadbolt held your door closed against assault. The door itself was made of pressed wood that would fold like cardboard against the slightest attack. The latch on your window didn't lock. Your curtains were woefully thin, leaving a generous silhouette that would let any outsider pinpoint your location in the apartment. The layout of the kitchen and the living room left an obvious trap with no outlet. You listened to music nearly nonstop, blocking out any sound of approaching danger. Your apartment was one tiny, insecure cage and it drove him absolutely insane.
The only thing that kept you safe in your own home was Penny and—increasingly—Bucky himself. What drew you to him, Bucky couldn't guess, but he craved you like air after being underwater. You were something he needed and that terrified him. Your very vulnerability terrified him. The lingering thought that he was as much a danger to you as you were to him turned his insides to ice.
You weren't working today, so, of course, neither was Bucky. He'd joined you for a movie.
You fished the remote out from between the cushions before flopping onto the couch. You sat close—not touching, never touching—close enough that Bucky could smell your shampoo. You hadn't said anything about what had happened before and neither had he. But he was painfully aware of it. He put his arm over the back of the couch. A long time ago, in his last life, he would have wrapped it around your shoulder, pulled you onto his lap and crushed you to him, buried his face in your hair. He would have kissed every inch of your skin.
Heat raced through him at the thought, followed quickly by burning shame. Because that was not something that he should want. It was definitely not something that he deserved. Maybe, if he was someone else, you would have wanted him to do it.
Instead, you tucked your feet under your legs and scrolled through Netflix.
"What do you want to watch?" you asked. "Casablanca or Saving Private Ryan?"
"What's Saving Private Ryan?"
"You've never seen Saving Private Ryan? It won, like, all the Oscars."
"Lots of movies win Oscars."
"Whatever," you said, "we're watching Saving Private Ryan."
Bucky settled back. He liked this, liked how easy it was to be with you. He liked the sound of your laugh, the way your eyes crinkled closed when you smiled.
The movie started. Much like all the others he had watched before with you, Bucky didn't pay much attention to it, too focused on the way the lights reflected in your eyes. But then the gunfire started and his gaze turned to the screen.
Screams were punctuated with the firing of machine guns. Dirt exploded into the air. And very suddenly, Bucky wasn't in the room anymore.
He was twenty-two, too scared to move, but knowing he was in just as much danger if he stayed still. The gun in his hand weighed too heavy, heavier than he could lift. His whole body was cold. Screams followed him into his sleep, exhaustion taking him where serenity couldn't. Loneliness and longing for home, fear and despair mixed so potently that he didn't think he could feel anything ever again.
Then the suffocating isolation of a lab, the secure straps holding him down while unspeakable pain wracked his body and he would never see Steve again, never see his best friend, his only friend, his—
Bucky blinked. You were much closer, just in front of him, though he didn't remember you closing the distance. Your hand hovered over his shoulder, just ready to touch. When he startled, you pulled away.
"Are you okay?"
Cold sweat clung to Bucky's skin. His breathing was fast, though no air seemed to make its way into his lungs. He wasn't okay. He was very, very not okay, but he couldn't tell you that. The movie was paused in the background, no telling how long it had been since he first went blank.
"I should go," he said.
"I don’t think you should." You slid off the couch to kneel in front of him. Your face was a labyrinth of confusion. Your hands hovered over him, like there was a gushing wound you could hold closed, but you couldn't. "What happened?"
How could he explain that to you? That he'd left you entirely. That he wasn't himself. That he could have hurt you.
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Posting the chapter a little later in the day than I intended, but I had to have some unexpected dental stuff done. I'm glad I was able to still get this out to you guys though.
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It was like James had ceased to exist. Like his presence had vanished from the room completely and you were left with a human shaped shell that looked like James but didn't feel right. It was like someone had switched off a light switch.
James had been scared when he came out of whatever trance he'd fallen into. Actual, adrenaline pumping fear. That wasn't something you were used to feeling coming off the six-foot-plus rock of a man.
You should have left him alone. You knew that was probably the smartest, safest thing to do. It was what James had told you to do from the beginning. You should, you should, you should… but he was in so much pain. He radiated emotion—deep, dark, frightening emotions—thick enough to choke you. That wasn’t something you were used to from him either. He kept his feelings so close to himself, how powerful must they be to feel so strong to you?
You knelt in front of James, close, so close, but not touching—never touching. He hung his head, staring at his hands.
You took his left hand—the prosthetic hand in yours. You felt nothing but the cold metal, though his emotions swirled around you in the air like smoke.
"Don't," James said, but he made no motion away from you.
Still… a no was a no. You let go.
"Cold hands, warm heart," you said, letting the joke free into the air, hoping to lighten the mood.
James huffed a laugh, but it was pained. "Not exactly."
You chewed your lip as you looked at him. There was a line here, one you hadn’t crossed. You and James never talked about your pasts. It was safer that way. Safer for you. Safer for James if your demons ever caught up to you. But all the things you didn’t know were hurting him and that mattered to you.
“You were in the military, right?” you asked. “I guess I should have picked a different movie. All the guns and explosions, it must be—"
“It’s—” He tripped over the words, his gaze going all over the room as if looking for a way out. “I can’t—”
“It’s okay,” you said, pushing your calm over him. “Take however long you need.”
James took long, deep, desperate breaths. His hands clenched and unclenched, still resting over his knees.
“I could hurt you,” he said at last.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I trust you.”
“You shouldn’t. You”—he pushed his hair out of his face, but all it did was muss it more—“you don’t know what I can do. You don’t know what I’ve—” He broke off, looking away abruptly.
Cold raced down your spine. What I've done. True, you didn't know what James carried with him. And he didn’t know what skeletons rested in your closet either. Still, regret was something you understood.
You cleared your throat and took his hand again—still metal, still cold—and smoothed it out of the fist that he’d made. This time he didn’t pull away. "You aren't made up of a list of tallies of good and evil, James. There's more to a person than that."
"It's still a part." James hand squeezed yours back, though it didn’t seem like he knew he was doing it. "I can count on one hand the number of good things I've done in my life. There's a lot more bad in there.”
“Even if your past isn’t something you’re proud of,” you said, shaking off the dark clouds that came with that thought, “that doesn’t mean your future has to be more of the same.”
“A lifetime wouldn’t be enough to balance the scales."
Your heart hurt just looking at him. He wasn't lying, at least, he didn't think that he was.
You sighed and shoved your hair over your shoulder. It was complicated, knowing someone like you did. To know both that James was a good person deep down, but he wasn't lying about what he had done. You could only think that it was tearing him apart.
The pain oozed out of him. It choked the air around you like it filled the room with smoke. And yet… as unbearable as it was for you, it had to be so much worse for him.
You leaned up, hesitated, and brushed your hand along his cheek. An echo of pain and confusion raced up your arm. James startled and retreated, but you followed him to keep the distance. You'd decided on this, it was your choice. You rose on your knees, took his face in your hands, and kissed him. It was like plunging into a lake head first.
You couldn't breathe, the coil of emotion that was destroying him flowed into you, choking your lungs. But with each moment that passed, you could feel it release him. You felt him relax from his fear, his arms supporting you more and more.
You pulled away, swept the hair out of his face to search his eyes. They were clearer now than they had been. The pain faded.
"Are you okay?" you asked, mind barely able to form words.
"I—" James faltered and shook his head. He pulled you up, closer to him, until you crawled onto his lap. He wrapped one arm around your waist, pulling you tight against him, while the other laid alongside your leg. The prosthetic… he’d said he could feel some things with it. But he’d also seemed terrified to have you touch it.
I don’t want to hurt you.
Okay, okay. You could work with that. You were already pushing every line you had by being this close to him. No need to push him over the edge as well. One of you had to be in control. And even if neither of you was, at least you could each have a hand on the wheel. You could hold each other up.
You pressed your forehead against James’. This close, skin to skin, you could barely discern yourself from him. You were both a bundle of fear and want—so much want. You stroked your hands up his chest to his neck. When his anxiety spiked at that, you curled your fingers into his hair instead.
“It’s okay,” you said. His right hand pressed between your shoulder blades, pulling you closer, though you weren’t sure how that was possible. His other hand stayed immobile at your side, clenched into the couch cushion. “It’s okay,” you whispered again. “You won’t hurt me.” You continued the reassurances, mumbling them against his lips between kisses. James eased by inches, responding to you. You focused on the feelings of desire and elation, pushing back the dark fear that still clouded the edges of his mind.
You’d never tried so hard to eclipse someone. You had thought that when you touched James—finally, really, touched him—that the strength of whatever he felt would push you aside completely, but right now, what he needed you to pull him out of perdition. He needed a life line back to something that didn’t hurt. If you could give him a respite, even for a moment, you would do whatever it took.
You weren’t prepared for him to fall to the side, pull you down with him. You landed on top of him with a whumpf. You scrambled to regain your place—sure you’d hurt him, maybe pushed too far—but James gentled you down.
“It’s okay,” He said, like an echo of your words from before. He smoothed his hands down your sides and coaxed you into laying across him. His hands stroked through your hair.
It took a while, but you settled, listening to the steady beat of his heart through his shirt, your body rising and falling with each breath in his chest. It was… strange, like sinking into quicksand. You could feel James against you, but more than that, you felt him around you.
His thoughts and feelings wrapped around you like a blanket. Christ, it had been years since you touched someone, much less cuddled. Your brain had fuzzed over, an oddly pleasant sensation. James' affection for you seeped into your skin, bone deep. You were immersed in the feeling, smothered in it. It was… amazing. You had no idea it could feel that way. Fleeting touches with strangers only carried the weight of their hearts. James felt something for you. Something deep. Something that made you warm all over. You'd known—of course you'd known—that he liked you. You'd felt that. But this… this was… oh hell, it was love.
The dark was there. Whatever shadowy thing that dogged his step still lurked at the edges, bleeding from a wound deeper than his soul.
You toyed with the fingers of James' metal hand, wondering at the fine workmanship. It was an incredible prosthetic. Far more high-tech than you'd ever seen. Someone had looked after this man. Someone had spent a great deal of time and money giving him the capabilities he’s had before. But you'd found him on the street.
"How did this happen?" you asked. It had the potential to be an explosive question, but in the haze you were in, you didn't have the mind to stop it from bubbling up.
"It was during the war,” James said. “I… fell. I don't remember what happened.”
"What"—James ran his fingers over your arm—"What is this?"
It was a nebulous question, but you knew what he meant. There really wasn’t a better way to describe it. You didn’t even know how it felt to another person.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” you answered. “It’s like… I can feel what others feel. It works both ways.”
“You can read my mind?”
“Nothing that clear. Intentions, feelings, that sort of stuff.”
“Then how come I…” he trailed off.
“Feel me? I guess, because we’re touching.”
He nodded, not looking at you. His gaze was far away, thinking through something. Suddenly, he shifted under you, almost like he was trying to get away.
You set your hand over his chest, stilling him. “What’s wrong?”
“You don’t like to be touched,” James said, as this explained everything. In a way, it did. James was trying to spare you, trying once again to save you from him.
“Not really, no. Not by most people.” “I like when you touch me.” “You… you’re quiet. You don’t push things on me.”
“I’m not trying to do—”
“I know. Of course, you aren’t. You wouldn’t know how. You didn’t even know I could…” You waved your hand to the air around you, not sure how to finish the explanation. “It’s just something about you, about who you are,” you continued. “I can’t tell you how it is to be around you. You’re just… you’re wonderful.”
“That can’t be true.” His voice pitched faster, laced with uncertainty, the edge of panic. “That can’t. Not with what’s inside me, not with—”
You shushed him and laid down again, pressing your ear over his heart. It beat faster than it had before, betraying the fight or flight response every bit as much as the taint of adrenaline in the air. “Trust me. I’m not doing anything I don’t want to.” When he didn’t respond, you rose minutely to look at him. “Are you?”
He hesitated, his hands stroking through your hair, then said, “No, I’m not either.”
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Late Thursday update this week because IMPORTANT THINGS are happening. I have a few short stories coming out for publication this year that I needed to put edits into.
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Touch-starved didn’t even begin to cover how Bucky felt. It had been years—years—since he’d been intimate with someone. Not sex—though he wasn’t sure about that; there were too many holes in his memory to know for sure—just… closeness. How long had it been since he had been touched by someone who wasn’t trying to hurt him or control him?
Things with you were slow by anyone’s measure. That was good for Bucky. He had too many triggers, too many traps hidden in his mind, that might put you in danger. If you touched him in the wrong way… not wrong… no, you weren’t wrong. Nothing you could do would be wrong. It was him that was wrong. Hydra had scooped him out, replaced him with broken glass and grenades. And still you touched him like he was a person, not a weapon.
Everything about you was gentle: your smile, your laugh, the way you stroked your fingers through his hair. The long hair should have made him feel vulnerable. An enemy could easily grab it and turn him around with it. But you tangled your hands in it, used it to pull him closer, like he could be a part of you, and it made him feel secure. You wouldn’t let him go.
He’d tried to talk himself into leaving at least a dozen times. He should disappear, vanish like the smoke from his gun. It would be safer for you. He couldn’t tie you to him. It wasn’t fair to you. He’d only pull you back into the darkness with him when he drowned again.
Still, he found himself in front of your door night after night. Just like tonight.
It took you longer than usual to come to the door after he knocked. Penny snuffled at the door from the other side, but he didn’t hear you. Bucky waited, skin feeling too tight. Waited. Waited. Just a few more seconds… He was moments from knocking the door down when he heard the tell-tale clack of your heels against the hardwood.
You swung open the door, already talking, hardly paying attention. It didn’t really matter, because Bucky wasn’t hearing you. He was having a hard time keeping his brain in one place. He had been unprepared for what greeted him on the other side of the door.
The woman who greeted him at the door didn’t look like you—or rather… she looked like a silver screen movie star version of you. You’d curled your hair in a style that hadn’t been fashionable since 1942. Your makeup—always pristine—had been done in a softer style. Your dress hugged your figure from shoulder to knee, the neckline sweeping in a romantic sweetheart that made Bucky’s eyes linger over your chest. If it weren’t for the cellphone in your hand, Bucky would have been sure that he had stepped back into the time before he’d ever heard of the Winter Soldier.
You must have noticed his stare because you paused in the middle of whatever you were saying. “What is it?”
Bucky couldn’t find the words.
Your hands went to your hair. “Does it look okay? It took like two hours and six Pinterest videos to get it right.”
“No, it’s—” He shook himself. “Why…?”
“The fundraiser, remember?” You turned back into the room. “The people who rented out Lavish organized a theme. So here we are.” You twirled for his benefit. “Why did you think we’ve been listening to all that 40’s music?”
Bucky hadn’t really noticed. More often than not, he strained to hear for any sign of a threat over the music that you blared through the apartment. Perhaps the tunes had been familiar once upon a time, back in another life.
“You’re ready to go right?” You knelt to clip Penny’s leash to her collar. “I just need to drop her off with Mrs. Rodriguez and we’re good.”
Bucky nodded, listening more to your voice than the words you had said. His body felt wrong, too big for the memories that poured through his mind.
James was quiet as you walked with him to work. Of course, James was always quiet, but this was a different sort of silence. He shifted in and out of presence with you, like he was falling into himself the way he had while you two had watched Saving Private Ryan. Like he was disappearing. You couldn’t quite pin down what was wrong. He’d been this way ever since he’d shown up at your door.
Anything could have triggered it. Lord knows you didn’t know half of the things that set him off. Sometimes it was the way you moved, too fast, or too close. Sometimes it seemed as if it had nothing to do with you at all. You didn’t try to pull him out of it, just stayed at his side, monitored the whisper of feelings that came off him.
When you arrived, the atmosphere at Lavish was livelier than usual. Your coworkers would still be pouring drinks and taking orders all night, but any little change in routine was a cause for celebration. Dressing up made the night feel like a party, even if you were the ones working. Someone had plugged their Spotify playlist into the sound system and Big Band music blared through the speakers as the others whisked around, setting up cocktail tables and smoothing tablecloths. In the center, a few of the dancers twirled around with the bartenders, laughing as they stepped on each other’s toes and stumbled over the unfamiliar motions.
You watched them for a minute, a smile playing across your face.
“You should go dance,” James said.
You should and you hadn’t for a long time. There were too many people on dancefloors, too many opportunities for an accidental brush.
You offered your hand to James. He looked down at it, but didn’t take it. “What?” you asked. “You don’t dance?”
“Not for a long time.”
“It’s not like you forgot how.”
The look that passed over James’ face was unreadable. In the room stuffed with emotions from all the others, you couldn’t hope to ferret out what he was feeling. Your smile dropped and so did your hand. His reluctance spoke volumes. No point pressing the issue.
You cleared your throat, gave a small smile, then turned to retreat toward the bar to put your coat away. Before you’d gone a step and a half, James snagged your hand and jerked you back to him. He twirled you under his arm, grabbing your waist to pull you back to him.
The unexpected movement and contact put a thrill through you and you beamed up at him.
“You remember this,” he said, “because it’s not going to happen again.”
You grinned. “We’ll see about that.”
Bucky’s body remembered how to dance, even if his mind didn’t. He knew how to keep you in his arms even as he swept you off your feet. A spark, an electric thrill ran through his bones.
Bucky hadn’t danced in… in… well, since he had last really been Bucky. It wasn’t one single thing that had triggered it, but he felt like himself.
No… not himself. That wasn’t quite right either. He felt like who he used to be. Who he was now was hard to understand. He wasn’t Bucky Barnes, soldier and friend. There was too much of the Winter Solider—deadly and dangerous—mixed in there.
Softer things came to the surface, cushioning the barbs of death and pain that comprised most of his memories. Memories of warmth and lights and excitement bubbled up from the dark.
Bucky pulled you to the side when you took your first break for the night.
“Let’s go Christmas shopping tomorrow,” he said.
I used to like to do that. He never had money to buy anything, but he would go anyway. And he would drag Steve along with him even though his friend had never been enthusiastic.
You smiled, but it was a polite, puzzled sort of reaction. “What?”
“Go see the lights,” he continued, “look at the decorations.” There was a note of desperation in his voice that even he could hear. He wasn’t Bucky Barnes anymore, but he wanted that feeling, that surety.
The only thing he felt sure about anymore was you. It certainly wasn’t himself.
“Sure.” Your hand went to your hair, but you pulled it away at the last second, like you only then remembered the painstaking hairstyle. “I mean, I’m not really a Christmas person, but that could be fun.”
Steve stared at the massive display of scarves taking up an entire wall of the Macy’s department store. But no matter how much he stared, none of them seemed right.
“It’s just a Christmas present, Steve,” Nat said from behind his shoulder.
“It’s not a big deal.”
“She’s your girlfriend. She’ll like whatever you give her.”
“Just pick one.”
Steve scuffed one shoe against the other. “I don’t know about the scarf.”
Nat rubbed her hand over the back of her neck. “Then what do you want to get her?”
"I don't know."
“This is the third time we’ve gone Christmas shopping.”
Steve sighed and shoved his hands in his coat pockets. Natasha was right, of course. Steve was making too big a deal about this. Blair would like whatever he got. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a perfect present out there. He would know it when he saw it, but he had to see it first. He’d thought that maybe he’d find something for Blaire in the bigger store, but the amount of choice had been overwhelming. Nothing seemed right.
“I’ll just come back by myself some other time.”
Natasha made a frustrated sound but didn’t complain further. Steve followed her through the store to the exit back onto the streets of New York. Outside, the crowds pressed in on all sides. New York had always been crowded, but it had only gotten worse in the seventy years since Steve had last lived here. Or maybe he’d just become more conscious of it.
A jewelry display caught his eye, and he slowed to look. The necklace in the bottom right corner felt better than the scarf, but still not quite right. Everything in the display was too flashy. Steve would feel ridiculous buying something that ostentatious, much less giving it to Blaire. Had Christmas always been this much of a pain in the ass?
“Steve.” Natasha’s voice contained a note of warning. She hadn’t said what she’d noticed, but there was a touch of Black Widow in the way she’d said his name.
Steve froze, his combat training taking over all his senses. The crowd seemed to slow around him as he assessed each thing around him and dismissed it if it offered no danger. Finally, a figure in the glass caught his eye. Steve’s blood froze. Steve turned, inch by inch, to look from the corner of his eye. He watched the familiar shape, waiting for it to disappear just like it had all the times before. There was no way. No. Way.
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“How do you not like Christmas?” Bucky asked. “Who doesn’t like Christmas?”
You shrugged your coat more closely around you and grumbled, “Says the guy who doesn’t like Captain America.”
“Look at that”—you gestured to a storefront covered in lights and ribbons—“that is the biggest waste of electricity I have ever seen.”
“You’re a Scrooge.”
“I am not a Scrooge.”
“So, why don’t you like Christmas?”
You let out a frustrated sigh, the sound forming a frosty cloud in the air in front of you. “It’s a big sham,” you said. “People spend hundreds of dollars they don't have on gifts that they don't need. They travel across to country to see relatives they don't like. They stand out in Times Square pissing themselves all to see a mediocre popstar mangle their own song. Then they drive home black out drunk in a blizzard and maybe kill some poor bastard on the other side of the highway. But, sure, happy holidays."
"Like I said, a Scrooge."
"Fine.” You rolled your eyes. “Bah humbug.”
Bucky saw a garland of mistletoe strung over a storefront. He took your arm in his and dragged you toward it. You stumbled along behind him, not realizing his intention until you were standing directly under it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“We’re blocking the doorway.”
“Better make it fast, then.”
Your eyes narrowed, but you gripped the front of his shirt in your hands, tipped up on your toes and planted a long, luxurious kiss on his lips.
Bucky felt like his feet lifted off the ground. The feeling of touching you hadn’t changed, even if he’d had weeks to get used to it. Kissing you felt like Christmas lights.
You pulled away, but Bucky didn’t let you get far.
"Mmmm," he hummed against your lips, "I could kiss you forever."
"Bet you say that to all the girls."
You laughed, pressing your forehead against his chest. "Such a silver tongue."
"Give it a chance. There are lots of things about my tongue you'll like."
Your laugh was louder this time. "I swear, you could talk your way into a nun's bed." You stepped away from him, pulling him out of the doorway.
"Thinking of joining a convent?" Bucky followed, letting you lead him along with your fingers tangled through his. Back in the crush of the crowd, Bucky pulled you closer and tucked you under his arm. Sure, there wasn’t much space on the sidewalk, but, really, he just wanted you close. He wanted you all around him.
Bucky stopped to get you coffee from a street vendor. You huddled with him against a wall as you sipped at it. You smiled up at him, a little shy.
"So," you said, lips barely hovering over the paper cup, "about that thing we were talking about a few nights ago."
"What thing?" Bucky asked, not stopping the lopsided grin that spread over his face. Things had gotten a little hot and heavy at your apartment a few nights ago and Bucky had left with some very unanswered questions about where exactly things went from there.
"You know exactly what I'm talking about."
"You didn't forget."
Bucky smiled and stepped closer, leaning his forehead against yours. "Wanna hear you say it."
"Do you want to stay over tonight?"
"What will the neighbors think?"
"Play your cards right and they'll think I'm a very lucky woman."
“Sounds good to me.” He kissed you, long and deep, and savored the taste of coffee on your lips.
“Wait for me out here,” you said.
“Because I’m getting you a present.”
“And I don’t want you to see.”
Bucky grimaced. He scanned the street automatically. No, there weren’t likely to be any threats, but the idea of you going anywhere alone set his teeth on edge. Anything you did that wasn’t easily defensible did that.
“It’ll just be a few minutes. Will you be okay out here?”
But… he couldn’t keep you on a leash. You would never let him bind you that tightly. He nodded. You patted him on the arm as you went past him and into the store.
Bucky stood on the stoop outside, watching the crowd pass. Businessmen in stuffy suits, families with children, teenagers on dates stealing kisses like no one would notice. The normalcy of it softened his stance. This had been good, going out, pretending like he was normal, like he was Bucky again.
He should have been paying more attention. Maybe he would have had more warning. He wouldn't have noticed the man on the other side of the street if he hadn't wanted Bucky’s attention.
Bucky's heart dropped to his shoes like it was made of ice. Maybe Bucky didn't recognize him, so different from who he had been all those years ago (Bucky had never really adjusted to 'Big Steve'), but the Winter Soldier recognized the silhouette of his target. Even in the shadow, even in the bustle of the street, he saw the man outlined like freeze frame footage.
Steve Rogers wasn’t hiding and that meant he had a plan. In that moment, staring at an uncertain future fraught with everything that could happen, Bucky's first thought was that there was no time to warn you.
His brain slid into tactical mode, his mind clearing from the fog that being near you had produced. Bucky could take off down either side of the street. Only the store entrance led back to you, but the doorway formed a pinch point.
Did they know about you? They must. They must have seen you with him.
No doubt it was a 'they'. Steve Rogers would prefer to come after Bucky alone, but he wouldn't be that stupid. There would be others. Someone coming to flank him. He scanned the street, finding no second threat. There would be backup and if Bucky couldn’t see the backup…
He turned and dashed back into the store, shoving others out of the way. He pushed his way through the choking crowd, leaving a chorus of angry and surprised shouts behind him. Car horns blared in the street and Bucky knew that Steve had come in after him. How much time did he have to find you? Not enough, never enough.
Bucky couldn’t afford an all out fight here. He wouldn’t win. He couldn’t, not if he was going to protect you at the same time. He needed to get you out as fast as possible. But where the hell were you?
Panicked shouts and calls for security clued him in. Back corner, dressing room. Damn it.
Your scream broke through the dressing room door just before Bucky did.
Fear choked the room. Inside, stood a woman with familiar red hair. You were on the floor at her feet, bleeding, but still aware. You held one hand out in front of you. The woman—the Widow, the Soldier's mind told him—was unsteady on her feet. Cold sweat dripped across her forehead and she winced in pain. Bucky knew better than to think that made her weak.
Bucky rushed forward, slamming her backwards into the wall. She maneuvered so that the majority of the force went into the mirror and not her body. She brought her elbow down against his head, hitting hard enough to make him see stars. She stayed close, pursuing body blows and staying too near for him to use his full range of motion to hit harder. She was smart, but not as strong, and not nearly heavy enough. He lifted he straight up, and the overhead light shattered across her back before she fell back to the ground with a satisfying thump.
There was no time to see if she stayed down (she wouldn't, The Soldier said), and he didn’t have time to put her down more permanently, not with Steve Rogers on his trail. The dressing room blocked him in, he needed to get you out of there.
Bucky grabbed you by the arm and hoisted you to your feet, not bothering with explanations. Safety first. Explanations could wait. The cries of alarm had grown more urgent in the main store. Bucky rushed through a swinging door into a back room, dragging you along with him. He was doing most of the work, practically carrying your dazed form.
Bucky reached the fire exit at the same time Steve Rogers burst into the back room. There wasn’t time for this. The longer it dragged out, the more attention it drew and the Winter Soldier would draw the wrong kind of attention.
You were practically dead weight in Bucky’s arms already. He scooped you up and broke through the back door. The fire alarm sounded, shrieking into the night. Bucky forced the door closed and twisted a metal pipe over the hinges. It wouldn’t hold long against a super soldier, but hopefully long enough.
A car idled behind the store, stuck waiting for a light. It was a stroke of luck that Bucky hadn’t thought he would have. He punched through the window and pulled the driver out. He was more careful with you. He took a few precious seconds to fasten you into the passenger seat. The banging on the fire door pounded against his ears like a deadly countdown.
Bucky floored it, pushing two other cars out of the way with the crunch of metal on metal. Horns blared as he wove through traffic, heedless of the bumps and crashes of other collisions. He didn’t slow down until the sirens had faded, and, even then, he still flew by at twenty over the speed limit.
When Bucky made it to clearer road, he looked more closely at you. You sat rigidly in the passenger seat, twisted around to look out the back window, where the chaos of Bucky’s escape was still evident in the blue and red lights that reflected off the buildings. You were shaking all over.
“You okay?” he asked. Stupid question. There was no way that you were okay. Uninjured maybe, but okay?
“That was Captain America,” you said, the sound barely above a whisper.
"Yes," he said, trying for soothing.
“Like, really Captain America.”
You swiveled to him, eyes wide and panicked. “Why was Captain America chasing us?"
"I"—he swallowed—"I'll tell you. I promise. But I have to make sure we're safe first."
“Safe?” you said, your voice edging into hysterical. “You just carjacked someone!”
Panic coursed through Bucky’s veins. Odd. As the Winter Soldier, he’d never felt panic. Not like this. “It’s going to be alright,” he said.
Bucky veered off highway onto another, taking you further out of the city. He had set up a safe house weeks ago. Perhaps part of him had always known it would come to this. Fleeing would be easier if not for you. Everything would be easier if not for you. But you wouldn’t be in danger if not for him.
An unfamiliar bathroom in an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar town. How many times had you found yourself starting completely over?
Never like this, though.
You sat with your back against the bathroom door, the shower on for some sort of noise cover. You told yourself James wouldn’t invade your privacy like that. Not that anything could stop him. After all, he'd broken through the dressing room door like it was made of toothpicks. Though, in the moment, that had been welcome.
You were trembling from head to toe by the time James had finally stopped driving. Still, you’d made it out of the car on your own and into the house where he’d directed you. You hadn’t talked with him anymore yet, just locked yourself in the bathroom where you finally welcomed the collapse.
You didn't know why James had left you with your phone. An oversight, maybe? Or trust? Was that crazy? For him to trust you? You knew nothing about him. And you'd thought that was okay until the 'nothing' you knew busted into your life. It didn't take long to put the pieces together, once you bothered to look for them at all.
'Captain America + James' returned millions of hits.
After a few minutes of scrolling, you search again, this time for ‘Winter Soldier’.
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Bucky?” Your voice came from behind him, tentative in the dusty air of the safe house.
Bucky’s hand stilled over the coffee pot. Even though you shouldn’t have known his name, even though it meant you knew everything now, even though it probably portended the end of the longest happiness Bucky had known in the last seventy years, Bucky still felt warmth spread through his chest at the sound of his name on your lips.
“Bucky Barnes? That’s you, right?” You stepped closer. Your socks muffled the sound of your footstep against the tile. “The Winter Soldier?”
Bucky steeled himself against the fear that he knew he would find on your face and turned.
You stood just inside the door, one hand braced against the frame. It was a good position, smart if you decided to run. Bucky would still catch you, but at least he knew you were thinking about the safest options.
“Please say something,” you said.
You swallowed and looked away. “And… and all this?” You pulled your phone from your back pocket. “Is this all true? The bombings and assassinations? Belfast, Madrid”—your voice pitched higher as you spoke—"Rome, Oklahoma City, London—” The words slipped over each other—a grim summary of Bucky’s bloody past—until all the syllables formed into one long, incomprehensible stream of sound. Tears welled into your eyes and thickened your voice.
“Don’t—” Bucky surged forward, desperate to stop the pain the revelation clearly caused you. You cringed away from him, just out of his grasp. He stopped. “I won’t hurt you.”
You indicated the phone. “Is this you?”
“Yes.” The word hung in the air between you, weightier than any ‘I love you’.
You let out a slow breath, seeming to deflate as you did so. You finally looked back to him, big doe eyes brimming with betrayal. “Were you ever going to tell me?”
“No.” Bucky shook his head. “God, no.”
You’d placed yourself just out of arms reach, too far for Bucky to close the distance without spooking you. He could still grab you, but he couldn’t handle the rejection if you didn’t fold easily into his arms.
“So, you work for them,” you said. “The Nazis or Hydra or whatever.”
“But you did. You were one of them.”
“No.” Bucky shook his head. Every piece of his soul rejected the assertion.
“I… I couldn’t stop them. I wasn’t strong enough.”
Your eyes widened, something like horror appearing behind them. “They made you.”
“I still did it. It isn’t an excuse. But, the people I worked for—” Bucky shook his head. That wasn’t quite right. Not ‘worked for’, not like he had a choice. “They owned me. They put something inside me, inside my brain. I didn’t know who I was. I just… I went where they sent me, shot where they pointed me. They erased me so many times I couldn’t remember my own name.”
You stared at him with your mouth open. Your hand inched forward, then fell back to your side. “And now?”
“I have bits and pieces. Parts of who I was that don’t fit back together anymore.” And I have you. He couldn’t say that, not out loud, not while you looked at him as if he’d torn the earth right out from under your feet.
“Oh god…” You sank to the floor and put your head between your knees.
“I’ll leave. But I have to make sure that you’re safe first,” Bucky said. The words felt like sandpaper coming out of his throat. “If that’s what you want, I’ll go. You’ll never see me again.”
You raised your head to look at him. “I don’t want that.”
Bucky’s heart stopped. He hadn’t expected that. In all the ways, all the scenarios, he never thought you… you would want him to stay.
You pressed forward when he didn’t answer. “Please, James. Bucky… don’t.” You pushed yourself to your feet.
“You aren’t safe with me around. They aren’t going to stop coming after me.”
“Captain America… Steve Rogers… he was your friend. Can’t you just go to him?”
“I can’t guarantee that I won’t hurt him. Whatever they put inside me, it’s still there. He can’t trust me. Which means he won’t trust you. I can’t put you in danger like that.”
You took a step toward Bucky. “Then we’ll run together. You and me.”
This time Bucky retreated. “You don’t want that. You’ll never be safe as long as you’re with me.”
“You aren’t the only one with a past looking to catch up with them,” you said. “I’m already running. The people who are looking for me… well, they’re not super powered mega-Nazis… but maybe if we run together, we’ll both have a better shot.”
It was the ultimate temptation, everything Bucky had ever wanted. He wouldn’t be alone anymore. You knew the truth about him. He wasn’t fooling you and you still wanted to be with him. This wasn’t a lie. You knew that danger and you still wanted to be with him. You still wanted to be with him.
Bucky finally closed the distance between you and pulled you into a crushing kiss that lifted your feet off the floor. When he finally pulled away, you were breathless.
“We go together,” he said.
You needed supplies. At least, that's what Jame—Bucky had said. The safe house was only a temporary solution. Staying off the Avengers radar meant staying ahead. That meant you needed to move and you needed to have supplies for a few days at least.
It was obvious to you that Bucky was accommodating you. He was impatient to get going, constantly checking and rechecking a gun that you hadn’t known he'd had. The supplies, too, were for your benefit then. You suddenly had a better understanding of what Bucky had meant when he said he didn't really need any help living on the streets.
"I should go instead," you said, as Bucky shrugged his jacket over his shoulders.
"They're looking for you, not me."
"They will be looking for both of us."
"Still, I don't stand out. You look like you could go toe to toe with a tank." You paused. "You've done that haven't you?"
Bucky didn't acknowledge your attempt to lighten the mood. "I know what I'm doing."
"It's just a grocery store. I can do that too."
He hesitated and you pressed the advantage. "I'll be back before you know it."
A set of emotions warred over his face, his clear dislike of the idea warring against the logic you'd presented.
"You know I'm right," you said.
He scowled, then dug around in a black duffle bag, producing a ball cap and sunglasses.
You groaned. "You realize that the hat and sunglasses make me look even more conspicuous, right?"
"They'll keep your face off the cameras."
"I look like I'm going in to rob them."
"No, you don’t."
"Everyone is going to notice me like this."
"No, they won't."
"I'll wear the sunglasses, but not the hat."
"You'll wear both."
"It'll be fine."
"Do what I tell you." Bucky took your chin in his hand. The touch was grounded with the edge of fear. "Only one of us is an internationally notorious assassin and it isn't you."
You leaned up to kiss him. "As far as you know."
“You sure about this, Cap?” Sam asked, his voice crackling through the com in Steve’s ear. He had been the one to track you and Bucky to the safe house. Then it had been a waiting game. “If she was Hydra, we’d have found something on her by now.”
“Not necessarily.” Steve watched you enter the convenience store from his post across the street. Steve had hoped Bucky would be the one to come out of the safe house first, but this worked too. “Hydra may have never made a record on her. The Winter Soldier could have been programmed to hunker down with her as a last resort if everything went sideways.” You turned to look over your shoulder and Steve leaned back just enough to obscure himself with a pillar. “Nat, what did you find?” Steve asked.
“Nothing,” Natasha answered. She’d taken up a position on the roof of the store. “She isn't on the payroll of the bar where she works and the name she gave has fifty different results in New York alone; none of them match her description. She doesn't have an ID, not even a credit card. She's moved at least four times in the last three years. She pays her rent in cash. Her cell phone isn't under contract, just prepaid.”
“I don’t think so. If she is, she’s the world’s worst one. She’s running from something, but she’s no professional.”
“Then this should be a piece of cake,” Sam said.
“Don’t count on it,” Natasha responded. “She hit me with something when I touched her and it sure as hell wasn’t a love tap.”
“Not the first time we’ve faced someone with powers.”
“Whatever she did, it was like a grenade went off in my head,” Natasha warned. “Don’t let her touch you.”
“We don’t want to draw attention to this,” Steve said. “There are too many interested parties.” You disappeared into the sliding doors of the store and Steve stood. “We stick with the plan. Keep them separate. Take them by surprise.”
Sam sighed. “Assuming we can.”
Your phone rang. Again. Mrs. Rodriguez. Again. That was sixteen calls since last night. You hung up, throat thick. At least you knew that Penny was in good hands. God, leaving her behind was going to hurt. The call was another reminder that you didn’t have long to disappear. Mrs. Rodriguez would report you missing. Three days. That was all the head start that you’d get, at least from the police. Who knew how close behind your other problems would be?
You turned down another aisle, trying to keep your head down and walk quickly, and felt the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Someone was watching you. You could feel their eyes on your back. The menace was familiar, but this time there was something else.
A knot formed over your stomach. You hadn't counted on your stalker when you told Bucky that you would do this alone. What the hell was he doing here anyway? How did he find you this far from home?
You took a few deep breaths, but it didn't calm the panic in your mind. This time was not like the before. He was closer this time. He radiated intent.
Screw this. There had to be another way out of here, a back door, an emergency exit, something. You wove through the aisles, looking over your shoulder all the while. Your footsteps quickened, though you never saw anyone out of the ordinary. You pushed your way through a door marked 'Employees Only' and jogged through the hall behind, following the glowing read exit signs.
He pursued you, you could feel him behind you, getting closer with every step until you were running. Still, you didn't see anyone.
You turned a corner and stopped short. There was the exit alright… covered by a mountain of empty boxes. You were blocked in, trapped by the closed exit in front of you and the presence behind. You whirled around, searching. You could feel him close, so close, but where the hell was he?
"Miss me?" a voice whispered in your ear. You jerked backward, colliding with something and pitching forward again.
A force wrapped around your wrist, wrenching it behind you and forcing you up against the wall.
"Get off me," you snarled. His hand against you made your skin crawl. A tidal wave of emotion flooded over from him to you. Anger and possessiveness and want and a sort of drunken power.
You should have seen him. You should have seen his hand wrapped around your wrist, but though you could feel the pressure, there was nothing there.
"I've got to admit," he said, not changing his grip, "it's been a tough go for me, what with your new boyfriend around and everything." His hand squeezed tighter and you cringed against the drywall. "It took me a while to recognize him. The Winter Soldier. You’re kidding me, right?"
You pushed against the wall, trying to get far enough away to get leverage to shove him off, but having no success. "Who the hell are you?" you snarled.
"Did you think you were the only one who survived that little extracurricular adventure?"
Your breath froze in your lungs. Christ, it had never occurred to you that there were others. You’d barely made it out of Forson’s lab alive. You were sure that no one else had, not that you’d spent any time looking.
"I don't have to hurt you, I just have to bring you back alive. And if you cooperate, I won't tell Dr. Forson about your new friend."
You gritted your teeth. "Dr. Forson's a maniac."
"Maybe, but he says he can fix us. Not that being invisible is all bad, but it's getting a little old." He leaned closer and you felt the moisture of his breath against your cheek. "Just be a good girl and come with me."
You stomped on his foot, hard. He howled, but didn't let go, redoubling his grip. Still, he moved enough that you could turn around. You pressed your palm to his face (or, at least, it felt like his face) and pushed as hard as you mentally could, overloading him with an unorganized chaos of your worst emotions, lacing it with all the venom you could muster. This time, he let go with a howl.
"Bitch," he shouted.
But without his arms restraining you, you were already gone, sprinting back out the way you had come. People shouted as you rushed through the aisles, shoving some out of the way in your haste. You burst through the front doors, looking wildly for the best way to get as far from here as possible.
A shadow moved to your left. Before you could react, the ground rushed up to meet you and the whole world went black.
You hadn't returned yet. Twenty-five minutes, that was how long Bucky told himself he would wait before he went looking for you. No sign of you. No message from you. Bucky's palms itched. He stood from the chair where he had forced himself to sit and paced the room again. Another thirty seconds before he went after you.
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“So, about that chick you guys kidnapped—"
“Leave it alone, Tony,” Steve snapped. He sat at the conference table with Sam. Natasha stood near the door, as always, ready for a way out. Only Tony looked at ease, holding a steaming mug of coffee in his hand.
“I’m just saying,” Tony continued, “everyone got all bent out of shape when I brought someone here—when I had her permission and she was still conscious—but you knock a woman out on the street in broad daylight and we aren’t even going to discuss it?”
“She was with the Winter Soldier,” Sam said. “She either knows something or she’s dangerous. Probably both.”
Tony took a long sip of coffee, his eyes locked with Steve’s the entire time. “Sure looks dangerous in there, handcuffed to the chair and all. Really a menace.”
“We have to bring Bucky in,” Steve said. “You know we do.”
“See, that’s the thing. I don’t know if you noticed this, but she isn’t Barnes.” He gestured his mug to the large hologram they were using to monitor you. So far, there hadn’t been much change. You were still out cold. Natasha hadn’t taken any chances with you the second time around.
"She matters to him for some reason. Given the chance between running and going back for her, he went back."
"So, you decided to keep her here—where we live—and bring the world's deadliest assassin down right on our heads.” Tony gestured toward the ceiling as if it were about to cave in at any second. “I told you about the time I tried to lure a crazy terrorist to my front door, right? They blew up my house, Cap."
Steve opened his mouth, the words of retaliation on the tip of his tongue when a voice cut through the speakers.
<Hey, so about that girl you guys kidnapped,> Alice said. Steve rolled his eyes. Of course, Alice would side with Tony on this.
“What you got, Cheshire?” Tony asked.
<I ran facial recognition on the Forson files that I took from AIM headquarters. Our friend shows up as a participant for one of the earliest rounds of experiments.>
“So, she worked with him,” Sam said
<Not exactly.> Alice flashed the contents of a file across the monitor. <They recruited students from a couple different universities, but they didn’t disclose what they were actually doing. The study was never officially approved. There wasn’t any governing board.>
“She didn’t know what she was walking into,” Steve said. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. Seemed Forson’s M.O. hadn’t changed in the years since he started.
<The file indicates that her trial was successful, but doesn’t exactly say what that means. That’s where it ends.>
“What are her powers?”
<Dunno. That isn’t in here.> Static flickered across the screen like an electronic shrug. <Actually, it took a while to find her. She was listed as missing.>
“What about the other participants?” Natasha asked. “Maybe we can talk to them.”
<She’s the only recorded survivor.>
The room filled with silence as thick as smoke. They’d known that Forson was willing to leave a lot of bodies in the wake of his experiments, but the reality of it was always staggering.
Alice was the one to break the tension. <Look, these records are from, like, six years ago. I’ll dig deeper, find out where she’s been in the meantime.>
“We already checked,” Natasha said. “There’s nothing concrete. She’s a ghost.”
<Well, I haven’t looked yet. No one is that invisible.>
“Thanks, Chesh,” Tony said. “You in the lab?”
“See you there.” Tony looked to Steve as he turned to the door. “Don’t do anything…” he trailed off, like he wasn’t sure what to say. “Just, don’t do anything.”
Steve glowered at him, but nodded.
“So,” Sam said when Tony had left, “Forson’s the one she’s running from.”
Steve nodded, though more to himself than for anyone’s benefit. “Doesn’t explain how she wound up with Bucky.”
“No, it does not.”
“There’s always Plan A,” Natasha said. “Once she comes around, we ask.” At the sharp look from Steve, she smiled. “Nicely.”
“I’ll do it,” Steve said.
“Steve,” Natasha warned.
“I’ll do it.”
“You’re too close to this.”
“I’ve spent a long time looking for Bucky.”
“It isn’t just about Bucky.”
“I’ll do it.” “If she really isn’t involved in this, we don’t want to hurt her.”
“Fine,” Natasha conceded. “Just don’t—”
“Don’t touch her,” Steve finished. “Yeah. I know.”
Blank room, bare walls, but not the same blank room, not the same bare walls. This wasn’t like last time. It was so similar, but nothing was the same.
Forson’s lab had been darker the last time you were in it. It had definitely been some kind of scrubbed out, cleaned up warehouse. This place was shiny and bright. The hum of electricity hinted at the tech hiding behind the walls. A blue light in the corner betrayed a camera. There had been cameras in the last lab too, but light had been red.
Forson had upgraded.
That didn’t bode well for you. If Forson had upped his game you’d seen him, escape would be a lot harder. Especially, since he knew what you could do. You had left a mess in your wake last time. Forson didn’t strike you as the kind of man who made the same mistake twice.
Panic rose through your chest.
You hadn’t signed up for this. Not for the pain of the experiments, not for the powers that had isolated you from everyone around you, and not for the lifetime of running that stretched ahead.
Your fear seeped out of you to fill the room, invisible tendrils of pain stroking at the walls. Bands tightened around your chest, cutting off your breath, though you still gulped for air.
The knob turned and you steeled yourself.
Well, at least it had been you and not Bucky. He could still run for it. You hoped he did.
The door opened. Everything seemed to stop.
“You’re Captain America,” you blurted. Which, yeah, he was, but you felt stupid for saying it. It was just that… he wasn’t who you expected. And if you were honest with yourself, you were relieved. If this was Captain America, then Forson didn’t have you. If Forson didn’t have you, then… then… God, you had a chance.
Rogers closed the door behind him. He looked at you, serious and scrutinizing. If you were anyone else, that face would be a mask, perfectly hiding what went on behind. But you could see more than others could. Well… feel more.
You felt his hesitancy. He didn’t know what he had in this room. He knew you were something—there was a healthy amount of fear in the air—but he was too hopeful to think you were a threat.
You could work with that.
“Who are you?” Rogers asked.
You repeated the name, the same one that you’d used for the past year. The one you’d chosen when you’d run out of luck with that last one.
“Don’t lie to me.” That set you back a beat. He continued. “We know you’ve been lying to your employer and your land lord. You’ve been lying to everyone for years.”
The tough guy routine was interesting, especially because he wasn’t nearly as certain as he wanted you to believe. He kept his distance, which wasn’t how people usually acted when they were trying to intimidate. That meant he was deliberately staying away from you. He knew better than to get close.
“Who are you really?” Rogers asked again.
If he thought distance would protect him, he had no idea what he was up against. You’d just have to draw him in.
“No one. I’m nobody. I swear to God.” You flooded the air with fear and confusion and saw the answering echo on his face. Steve Rogers couldn’t walk past a woman in distress. You played into it.
“The man you were with—”
“Bucky.” You let the sentence end just a little higher, just short of a question. A tinge of worry filtered into the air with it.
“How do you know him?” Rogers asked.
“I didn’t. He was just some guy. He needed help and I helped. I didn’t know who he was until yesterday.” You laid on the sincerity a little thicker. Rogers was already a few steps closer to you. “He’s your friend, isn’t he?”
He hesitated. He looked back to the door, then to you. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I need you to help me.”
Trust. Rogers wanted to trust you. That was the key to it. You grabbed for that part of it and pulled. You played off of it.
“He didn’t think you would be safe around him,” you said. At least it was the truth. “He isn’t who he was anymore.”
“Tell me about Forson.”
Your heart stuttered. That wasn’t where you expected this conversation to go. “How do you know about Forson?”
“He’s been busy.”
Rogers leaned closer. You didn’t think that he realized he was doing it. Good. He was asking all the wrong questions and you needed this interview to be over before it went any further. If you could get him close enough, if you could touch him, then you could probably push hard enough to get out of this. What you were going to do after that, you didn’t know.
A crash like thunder rocked the room, jolting you and Rogers out of your concentration. The lights went down the moment after. A profound silence greeted the charged room. You felt Rogers go on alert. Your chance would slip out of your fingers if you didn’t act fast. You lurched forward and grabbed his hand. You squeezed as tightly as you could, afraid he might slip away if you relented for even a second.
“Let. Me. Go.” Push.
Steve’s mind blanked. He didn’t move his hands, but they undid the restraints on your arms nonetheless. The red emergency lights came on, casting the room in an eerie glow. In the distance, an alarm blared.
You brushed off the rest of the restraints and started past him. Steve grabbed your arm to stop you, but the movement felt like swimming through concrete. His mind was too muddled to give the direction properly.
You turned back to him.
“I’m sorry about this,” you said. “I really am.”
You placed your hand over his heart.
The ground opened up beneath Steve, darkness rushing in on all sides. His mind ripped into shreds, torn neuron by neuron into billions of pieces. His body felt as if you’d lit it on fire, agony shooting from one nerve ending to another. Steve had known pain like this in his life just once, when Erksine put him in that godforsaken machine and Stark had flipped the switch.
He was on a train in the snow, watching Bucky plummet into the darkness – He was staring at an endless field of ice, knowing there was no way out, telling Peggy something he knew could never come true – he was surrounded by a strange world, still fighting the same damn war, watching a new friend with an old face sacrifice everything when it should have been Steve instead – He was standing in a crowded street, staring into the face of his dead best friend, realizing that there was no recognition in his eyes – He was twenty thousand feet in the air and climbing, flying in a city that would destroy the whole planet, waiting to die – He was at another funeral for another friend for another mistake for another person that he could have saved that –
Steve pushed away the haze, struggling to breathe as if he was once again the skinny kid in Brooklyn trying to run through the asthma choking his lungs. The room was tinged with blood, no, not blood. Those were the lights, the red emergency lights. He was on the floor, retching and coughing though he didn’t remember how he’d gotten there.
Don’t let her touch you.
What was it Natasha had said?
Like a grenade went off in my head.
That was one way to describe it.
Steve pushed himself to his feet, using the empty chair for balance. His fingers gripped hard enough to dent the metal of the arm. He swayed as the room came in and out of focus. If he was right about what had triggered the alarm, he didn’t have time to recover from whatever you had done to him.
Steve staggered to the door.
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Hello, everyone! I'm sorry for the unannounced hiatus, but I'm BACK now. I hope you like this chapter. Things keep turning out longer than I expected.
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Mission Objective: asset recovery
Cut the power to the complex. Trigger three explosions simultaneously: one at the entrance, one at the hangar, one at a vulnerable wall. Enter through a fourth point of ingress, bypassing the security system through the vents. Darkness. Chaos. The Winter Soldier was designed for this.
Bucky tried to sink into the comfortable, deadly place where the only thing that mattered was the mission. The Soldier was single-minded efficiency. But, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find that place of cold, calculated violence. He couldn’t detach. This was you and you were more than a mission.
Damn it, why hadn’t you listened to him when he told you to stay at the safe house? Why had he let you go instead of him? It didn’t matter how recognizable he was; the Avengers would be looking for you anyway. And now you had been captured. Security footage from the store had shown the Widow drop you right outside the doors.
Ideally, he would blow in, grab you, and get out. That’s how he would have done it a million times before. But that was when he had access to all of Hydra’s equipment. That was when he had no scruples with killing anyone who got in his way. Nothing would be simple now. He was up against the Avengers after all. The fact remained that Steve Rogers was deadly. He always had been.
Bucky’s memories of fighting Steve as the Winter Soldier were fuzzy. No… not fuzzy. He remembered it in vivid, excruciating detail. He remembered each punch, each shot, each thrust of the knife. But the motivation that had driven him to such extremes, that was less clear. He remembered feeling the conviction, but it was like he was watching a movie.
Bucky stalked through the smoky hallways with his gun raised. Red emergency lights cast a dim glow, turning every shadow into an enemy. There were no footsteps, no shouts, nothing to indicate that the Avengers were regrouping. That meant they already had. Of course, they would be waiting for him. They must have known he would come. Why else would they take you?
Bucky placed one foot after the other. The barrel of his gun went first, his sight perfectly aligned. He made no sound. He didn’t know where they were keeping you, but he’d already ruled out three quarters of the building. Living areas wouldn’t be secure enough for a prisoner. Placing you adjacent to any tech or weapons would be too dangerous. They would want to keep you away from the exits. That left Bucky travelling into the heart of the facility, where he would be most vulnerable.
You couldn’t see damn near anything and even if you could, you wouldn’t know where you were. You groped along the walls, running as fast as you could while still staying upright.
You’d bought yourself some time by dragging all of Rogers’ darkest emotions to the surface, but you weren’t willing to bet on how long he would take to recover. You’d made that mistake with the woman in the dressing room. You just hoped you hadn’t done any irreparable harm. Rogers was only trying to find his friend, after all.
You turned down one hallway, then another, walking into a conference room, a lab, then some sort of living space.
You cast your mind out in every which way around you, sensing for the adrenaline that would give away anyone approaching. They were still a way off, but getting closer. They knew these halls better than you did.
You backtracked when you felt the presence of another, and rerouted to avoid anyone who might be looking for you. That became harder as you ran out of options. Where the hell was the way out of this maze? It was like a giant ant farm, each path leading to another and another and nothing looking out onto the sun.
You turned another blind corner and stopped short. Very short. Just shy of the tip of a gun barrel. Your heart leapt through your throat, your immediate flight response chasing out all other reasoning. Then, you saw the familiar glint of piercing eyes in the dark.
“James?” Relief settled over you like the calm of a lake. But only for a second.
He shifted the gun in his hands, reaching out to drag you closer to him. It wasn’t a hug, but a protective position.
“James,” you said again. Then you shook yourself. “Bucky. You shouldn’t be here.”
He put his hand over your mouth. Through his skin, you felt the chilling pulse of resolve. It wasn’t adrenaline like you would feel from anyone else who walked into the Avengers’ compound with an automatic rifle. There was something different in this man. Touching him was like touching marble: cold, unmoving, indifferent.
You took a deep breath, using his calm to smooth the edges of your own ruffled nerves. Bucky backed up, closer to the wall, gun still held protectively in front of you.
You felt his chest pressed all down your back, Kevlar and leather covering hard muscle. Straps crisscrossed over his torso and the buckles dug into your skin through your sweater.
Bucky took a few more calculated steps backward.
“You’re going to stay in front of me,” he said, his breath tickling against your ear. His voice was rough and low, deep enough that you thought you might drown in it. “You’re going to keep moving no matter what.”
You nodded. Bucky released you. He pushed you forward and you started running again, reassured by his presence at your back. Still, you ran into walls and tripped over corners and each time, Bucky had to pick you up by your elbow and set you straight, barely breaking his stride as he did so.
You tried to feel for others, but the buzz of emotion was all around now, mixing with yours. Enemies were closing in. You couldn’t tell where they were, where they would appear. Your powers had never been that accurate.
Your only warning was the whir of metal over your head. Bucky shoved you forward, sending you sprawling across the ground, but into better cover.
Captain America’s shield crashed into the wall in front of you, smashing a control panel. The massive metal doors that sectioned the hallway slammed with a thunderous crash. The shield rebounded, returning to the other end of the hall and into the hands of Captain America.
Bucky rolled into a crouch in front of you, bringing the gun back up as he did so.
“C’mon, Buck,” Rogers said. He seemed shaky, but resolved. You hadn’t bought yourself as much time as you’d thought you would. “Don’t make me do this.”
You recoiled from the explosion of sound, your hands going to your ears as if you could shield yourself from it. The bullets met the metal of the shield and bounced off elsewhere in the hallway. You shrank in on yourself, curling tightly as if you could create a barrier between you and the onslaught of emotions.
Adrenaline. Fear. Anger. Resolve. Worry. Regret. Pain.
They ricocheted around the room just like the bullets. They passed right through you—through to the bones—frying every nerve along the way.
A bullet grazed Rogers’ left leg. He hit back against Bucky’s right arm, hard enough to break bone and sending the gun clattering to the ground. They exchanged blows that you felt as if they were against your own body, like they would leave bruises in their wake. Bucky headbutted him and Steve saw stars. He hit Steve again, with his left arm this time, harder, cracking something deep inside.
Oh God, Bucky would kill him. He was losing himself in the fury and panic of protecting you. That’s what he always did, thought of you first, protecting you first. How useless was it that you couldn’t stop him from this? You couldn’t protect him, certainly not physically, but not even from the irreparable harm this would do. If he killed his only tie to the past… if he killed his best friend…
You rocked back and forth, buried under and avalanche of pain that reached too deep to ever root out.
Make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it—
The word escaped you as a cry, the plea bursting from you though you hadn’t meant to invoke it. The silence was sharp in the wake of the command. This was not peaceful, but the quiet of a glacier about the crack.
You looked up. The room was at a stand-still, Bucky and Rogers frozen mid-motion. Your heart pounded in your ears, taking the place of the violence moments before. Your vision turned red around the edges. A vice clamped over your temples, squeezing until you felt your skull would crack like an egg. Something wet dripped down your lips. You wiped it away and raised your shaking hand to see the blood that covered your fingertips.
The ice cracked, the silence broke, and you plunged into frozen, dark nothingness.
Bucky crouched in front of you, gun held steady, aimed at Steve Rogers’ heart. You lay on the floor, unmoving, blood dripping from your ears and nose. Bucky didn’t know if you were breathing. He didn’t know what he’d do if you weren’t.
You had stopped him. You’d said something and he’d stopped. He hadn’t… he couldn’t… what had you done? His whole body had refused to listen to him. It was like with Hydra, when all he could do was watch as his hands shot others, as his arms strangled them. And Steve had stopped too. You’d frozen time for those few moments before you’d collapsed. In the confusion, others had arrived.
Bucky was outnumbered now. There was no way out.
“Buck—” Steve started. Bucky adjusted his grip, aimed for the head instead, and Steve stopped short.
He’d be damned if he let them hurt you. They’d have to kill him first. He wondered when they would resort to that. How many would he be able to pick off first?
The tension in the room held everyone in place as firmly as your command had. Bucky was painfully conscious of every weapon levelled at him, every deadly end he could meet if he made the wrong move.
Something shifted, like a ripple across calm water. A woman wove through the crowd, as if they weren’t composed of the deadliest force on the planet. She laid her hand over Steve’s arm and peered around him. Long, soft hair framed a kind face with big, brown eyes.
Bucky didn’t know how he knew that the symbol the woman made with her hands referred to him. But it felt right, like the first time he’d heard Steve Rogers say it.
The woman tried again, when Bucky didn’t respond. [B-U-C-K-Y?] She stepped more fully out from behind Steve, leaving herself vulnerable. Steve tried to pull her back behind him, but she shook him off.
The gun eased down by inches.
[she’s hurt] the woman said.
Bucky lowered the gun more and she took a step toward him.
[I’m B-L-A-I-R-E I can help]
He knew what she was saying with her hands, just like he knew French or Russian or Italian. But he didn’t know how. More importantly, he didn’t know why he trusted her.
She was small and soft. And Steve was clearly uncomfortable having her anywhere near Bucky. Steve hovered between moving forward and back, like he was thinking of stepping between her and Bucky, but changing his mind at the last second.
She crept closer, then crouched near where you laid unconscious on the floor. She was so close, just in his grasp. He could grab her, press the gun against her temple, turn the tables. A hostage could tip the odds in his favor.
Blaire reached for you.
I don’t like to be touched. Bucky’s heart wrenched, his instincts recoiling from the thought.
Bucky’s hand shot out to stop Blaire. The others in the room surged forward, restrained violence boiling back to the surface. The sounds of weapons arming clicked through the air. Blaire held up her hand to stop them from coming any nearer. She tugged, not hard, not actually strong enough to break Bucky’s grip, but enough to show a retreat. He released her.
[I need to examine her]
Bucky swallowed. He couldn’t help you. Medical training hadn’t been part of his Hydra protocols. A weapon didn’t need to save lives. Even if he escaped here, where could he take you for help?
[I won’t hurt her] Blaire said.
“Cap…” someone warned.
“Give her a second,” Rogers responded.
Blaire kept her steady gaze on Bucky. Her big brown eyes were cautious, but not afraid. She was all professional concern.
You weren’t conscious. You weren’t okay. He couldn’t just let you lay there like that.
Bucky nodded. She went to work.
Happy Tuesday! I hope you enjoy today's update. Next week is going to be the LAST CHAPTER. I'm very excited. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me. Your support means everything.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Steve didn’t even know where to start.
Bucky was standing there—right there! After years of searching, with nothing but ghosts and trails gone cold, he was really there.
Bucky had refused to let you out of his sight, but you couldn’t be treated in the middle of a bullet-riddled hallway. After a very tense twelve minutes, most of the team split off to watch and wait in a secure part of the compound. Steve, Natasha, Sam, and Bucky crowded into an observation area in the medical ward. Blair and Bruce checked you over in the next room while Bucky watched through the massive pane window.
Every so often, Bucky turned his attention away from you to scan the room—like a cornered cat in a back alley, only a million times more dangerous and carrying an automatic rifle—sizing up each individual in turn.
Sam, flightless but with his hand resting on his gun, leaned against the far wall.
Natasha waited just inside the door frame, the Widow’s Bite glowing blue around her wrists.
Steve, stood in the middle of the room, with no shield, completely vulnerable.
They had let Bucky keep his weapons. There was no point in trying to take them away, even if they could have found them all. If Bucky wanted to, he could do just as much damage without them.
First things first, Steve needed to figure out who he was dealing with: Bucky or the Winter Soldier. The guy who’d left him with cracked ribs and a black eye had been the Soldier. But the man who had let Blair close enough to touch without harming her had been someone else entirely. He’d understood her. That must have meant he’d recovered at least some of his lost memories, but how much?
“Do you know who I am?” Steve asked.
Bucky took a moment too long to answer. His face rearranged into a few different expressions, like he was trying to decide which was best for this conversation. “You’re Steve Rogers.”
That was a good start, but didn’t exactly make anything clearer. “Do you remember anything?”
Steve’s heart stopped for just a moment. Everything. But the way Bucky said it made it sound like he wished he didn’t.
“Then you know you can trust me.”
“Can’t trust myself.”
“You trust her,” Natasha interrupted. She nodded toward the adjacent room where you laid unconscious. “Who is she?”
“Bullshit, Bucky,” Steve snapped, “You came in here with an arsenal. You can’t expect me to—”
“Steve,” Sam cut him off.
Steve took a step back. He’d gotten too heated. This was Bucky after all, but not his Bucky. If he pushed too hard, Bucky would just be less cooperative.
Instead, he took a breath to steady himself and asked, “What can she do?”
Bucky didn’t answer.
“We know she has powers, Buck. What are they?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does she always do this when she uses them?” Natasha asked.
“This has never happened before.”
“Her passing out?”
“None of it.”
“She controlled me,” Steve said. “She controlled us, Bucky. Has she done that before?”
“I don’t know.”
Steve ran a hand through his hair and turned around. He wanted movement, action, but in the confines of the Medical area, that wasn’t an option. How could Bucky not know? Steve certainly wasn’t going to forget the feeling of his muscles stopping on their own, of screaming in his own mind for his body to move.
He turned back to Bucky with his hands on his hips. "We're trying to help. She isn't the only person with powers.” They needed Bucky on their side. Steve needed Bucky on his side. He couldn’t stand to see his friend with one foot out the door already. “Forson's done this to others. He's going to keep doing it. And he’s leaving a whole lot of bodies in his wake.”
If Steve couldn’t convince Bucky to stay for him, maybe he could convince him to do it for you. You seemed to be the only person he was attached to right now. It made Steve’s heart ache. What he needed was more time. Your unconscious figure offered him that.
“If she could help us find him”—Steve took a step forward and Bucky went on edge. It wasn’t much a change, barely a flex of muscle, but the effect was immediate. Bucky was still a weapon.
Alice’s cheery chirp came through the intercom, cutting through the tension. <I don’t suppose any of you want to see some confidential medical records?>
Steve looked to Sam and Natasha.
“I’ll stay,” Sam said. His gaze never wavered from Bucky, who was back to looking at you.
Steve nodded and left with Natasha close on his heels. They made their way to the conference room where the other Avengers waited. The room where they’d just been, where Sam and Bucky still were, was displayed on a huge hologram in the center of the table.
"He tell you anything?" Tony asked before the door had even closed.
Steve took a chair at the table. "No."
"That's because he doesn't know anything,” Natasha said.
“I’d know.” She crossed her arms over her chest and gave Tony a look that only hinted at the years of interrogation training she had.
Steve turned to Alice. “You said you found her medical records.”
Alice waved a tablet in the air. “Guess who spent three years in a residential psychiatric facility for acute emotional distress?”
Steve took the tablet from her and scrolled through the information there. It was a more complete picture than what they’d had, but still didn’t tell him what he wanted to know.
“You wanted him here,” Tony said. “Now you’ve got him. What’s the plan, Cap?”
Steve didn’t look up from the scrolling list of medical stats. “So, it’s my plan now?” A familiar spike in radiation present in your body caught his eye.
Tony continued, “My plan was that they not be here in the first place, but that’s not helpful now.”
“We’ll keep them here and we’ll talk to her when she wakes up.” Steve set the tablet aside. “She knows more. She just isn’t saying.”
“Whoa, wait, stay here? Like… here here?” Alice asked.
“Are we seriously okay with that?”
“I just feel like, since we all live here, we should, like, get a say in it or something.”
“Because she kind of kicked Cap’s ass and Nat’s ass”—she turned with an apologetic look to Nat—“no offense. And this guy has killed more people than the US Army.”
“Are you sure? I’m not feeling fine about this. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to have my throat slit in my sleep. Personal opinion.
“It’s better if they’re here,” Steve said.
“Because even if she doesn’t tell us anything, she might tell Bucky.” He looked toward the security camera in the corner of the room, the same one that was in essentially in every room.
Waiting for you to wake up was excruciating. Even when the doctors assured him there was nothing to worry about—exhaustion, they said, she would sleep it off, they said—he still couldn’t silence the nagging voice in his mind that you were in danger. The Soldier wanted to do something about that. They took you and Bucky to a new room, one with a more comfortable bed. And a sturdier door. Bucky had no illusions about the point of the move. Security was their aim, not comfort.
Bucky paced the confines of the room, inspecting the corners, checking for exits he knew weren’t there. Steve Rogers wouldn’t hurt him. Or… at least… Bucky didn’t think he would. You were safe here, for now.
Eventually, tired of staring at the same blank walls and sturdy furniture, Bucky sat in the chair at your beside. He hesitated before he took your hand in his. After all, you still didn’t like being touched. But you’d wanted him to before and he needed this right now. Bucky pressed the back of your hand against his cheek and closed his eyes.
The first clue that you were stirring wasn’t the change in the beeps of the monitor still attached to you, or a hitch in the steady rise and fall of your chest. No, it was the surge of confusion that Bucky felt through your skin. That gave way to panic and, in a moment, the heart rate monitor registered the distress that you projected.
“It’s okay,” Bucky said. He pressed his left hand on your shoulder to keep you from shooting upright. “I’m here.”
You looked wildly around the room before your eyes finally landed on him. “What happened?”
You struggled to sit up and Bucky eventually relented. “Are you okay?” you asked.
Your hands went to his cheeks. “Did… did you hurt anyone?”
Your relief surged through the room. You let your forehead fall against Bucky’s shoulder. “I’m glad.”
Bucky held you for a minute, soaking up the relief that came from you being safe and near. But there were questions that clawed at him, things only you could answer. And he needed answers.
“You can do more than just feel things,” he said. It wasn’t really a question.
You went very still against him, your hands gripping his shoulders tighter than they had. Bucky waited for you to loosen your grip and sit back. You worried your bottom lip with your teeth.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“I—" Your hands fidgeted over each other. “That’s hard to explain.”
You looked at him, your wide eyes brimming. Then you looked down and spoke to your hands. “He was a doctor. He ran a medical study. I was in college; I needed the money. I figured, why not? There was a fifty-fifty shot that I ended up in the control group. And even if I didn’t, medical testing was safe or they wouldn’t try it on people. I guess. That’s what I was thinking, anyway.”
“I—I’m not really sure about that part. I remember being strapped down. There were bright lights and a lot of pain. Then everything got really… loud. Past that is kind of blurry.”
Your hands gripped together so hard that your fingers turned white. Bucky knew that pain and helplessness. He’d felt it when Zola had experimented on him, when the Russians had perfected his work. Bucky reached for you, untangled your hands and took one in his.
You squeezed his hand and continued. “I know I ended up at the hospital at one point. Everyone kept telling me that it was just in my head. That was the problem. There were things in my head that weren’t supposed to be. Then I was somewhere else. There weren’t as many people. It must have been upstate somewhere. That was kind of nice, actually. It was quieter.”
You smiled at him. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever been to a…” Your smile faded. "No, I guess you wouldn’t have.” You shook your head and looked down again. “They aren’t so bad. No straight-jackets or padded walls. Mostly, just, a lot of drugs. Can’t feel too much when you’re on those. And I was feeling way too much.”
“Why’d you leave?”
“Forson came. To the facility. He was going to transfer me back to his care. But he didn’t want to help me. I could feel it. So, I left.”
“How?” Bucky asked.
“I don’t know. I told them to let me go and they did.”
Cold settled into Bucky’s bones, like that chill that came just before Hydra put him in cryo. “You control people.”
“No,” your voice rose with your panic, “that’s not it. I suggest, I push. I can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. I’m not that powerful.”
“You made me stop.”
“I didn’t want you to hurt him.”
“Have you done that to me before?”
“I haven’t!” you cried. “I didn’t even know I could.”
“But you do… push.” This was important. It’s what everything hinged on.
You paused. Your eyes flicked to the side. “Yes.”
Bucky stood, afraid that he’d hurt you if he remained too close. God, of course, it was no different. It didn’t matter where he went. All anyone wanted was the control him. How could they not, with who he was?
You rushed to explain, crawling off the bed to pursue him. “I didn’t know about Hydra. I didn’t know what they did to you. If I had, I wouldn’t have—”
“It shouldn’t matter,” Bucky snapped. “You don’t get to control people. Not even a little bit. You don’t take that away from them.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. You were just… God, you were in so much pain.”
You laid your hand against his arm, but Bucky shoved you off. “I’m not your problem to fix.”
“I wasn’t going to watch you kill your friend for me.”
Cold silence settled in the air. “Would you do it again?” he asked.
You swallowed and wrapped your arms around your stomach. “If it would save you.”
Bucky growled and turned toward the wall.
“And you?” you asked, the question laced with anger. “Why did you come here? You shouldn’t have.”
“Of course, I was going to come get you.”
“And what if it hadn’t been the Avengers? What if it had been Hydra? What would have happened to you then?”
“That’s not your concern.”
“It is when I love you!”
Time stopped. I love you. Bucky had heard those words before. They were something whispered in moments of passion, by women he saw for a night and never again. No one had ever meant them before.
You meant it. It radiated out of you like the anger that still burned. You were angry at him. Because he had put himself in danger. Because you loved him.
Bucky held out his hand to you and you took a cautious step forward. You set your fingers over his and he pulled you into a crushing embrace.
“I love you too,” he said.
Bucky wouldn’t have fallen asleep if you hadn’t pushed him toward it. He needed to sleep. You needed him to sleep.
He had been pretending—laying with you on the bed, holding you against him—so it wasn’t too hard. All the skin to skin contact, the physical and emotional exhaustion that came off him in waves. All he’d needed was a little… push.
You still felt terrible about it. He’d been so hurt by the concept, more than you’d realized someone could be. He would have been furious to know that you’d done it to him again.
But that wasn’t going to matter in a few minutes.
The Avengers were looking for Forson. And now Bucky knew how you were connected to him. He’d go with them. Bucky would kill him. And it would be for you. Bucky would have more blood on his hands. And it would be for you. You couldn’t stomach that. Bucky had done enough killing. The weight of all that bloodshed had already torn a hole in his soul. You would not be responsible for more damage. You couldn’t bear to hurt him more.
You wriggled out from under the arm that pinned you to the bed and landed on the floor with a whumph.
It was time to end this, to be free. No more running. At least… no more running from Forson.
Bucky couldn’t know what you meant to do. If he did, he’d insist on coming with you. You couldn’t tell him. But if you told him nothing, he’d come after you anyway. You needed him to think this was permanent, that this was about you.
The irony of leaving him a ‘Dear John’ letter was not lost on you.
You scribbled your lies and apologies on a prescription pad you found in a drawer and left the note on the pillow next to where Bucky slept. You took one last moment to look at his face and brush the hair from his eyes (he always hated when it got in his eyes) before you turned for the door.
It was locked.
Of course it was locked.
You jiggled the handle. Once. Twice. Three times just to be really, really sure. You stepped back and put your hands on your hips, staring at the door like it would melt under your gaze.
You startled as the handle turned on its own and opened from the outside.
Steve Rogers stood in the frame, a scowl on his face. “Going somewhere?”
You swallowed. “Don’t try to stop me.”
“Would I be able to?” His gaze flickered past you to Bucky’s unmoving form on the bed. “What did you do to him?”
“He’s sleeping.” Even you heard the defensiveness in your voice.
“So, this is it? You’re just going to run?”
You glowered at him. “That’s what I do. Things get hard and I turn tail.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen that.”
“Why does it matter to you?”
“It’s going to matter to Bucky.”
Ouch. That stung. But it was exactly what you needed both Rogers and Bucky to believe. “I think I’m leaving him in pretty good hands.”
“Where are you going to go?”
“I’m not going to tell you that.”
Rogers’ face sobered. “He’s a good person, you know. The Soldier… that’s not who he is.”
“I know,” you said. You swallowed the pain that rose in your throat like daggers. He was right. The worst part was that you really did know that. You felt it every time you saw Bucky smile.
You looked to your shoes, then back up to stare defiantly in Rogers’ eyes. “That’s kind of the problem. I know that deep down, under everything they covered him with, he’s a good person. And,” you paused, “deep down, I’m not.”
You stepped forward and, to your surprise, Rogers stepped aside to let you through. The hallway outside was dark. You looked both directions, knowing you were just as lost as if it were brightly lit.
“You’ll want to go to the left,” Rogers’ said. “F.R.I.D.A.Y. will tell you were to go.” An inch-wide line of lights came to life on the left side of the wall, leading the way to a corner and disappearing. “How are you going to get wherever you’re going?”
“It won’t be the first time I’ve hitch hiked.”
“Do you know how to ride a motorcycle?” He dug in his front pocket.
He tossed you a set of keys. “I’ll find it when you’re done.”
You nodded. You wanted to ask why he was helping you, but you didn’t. There was no good answer to that question. And it didn’t really matter. You turned and followed the line of lights down the hallway and around the corner.
The words on the paper didn’t matter. They were lies. Bucky could feel that coursing through his skin. Hesitation, regret, sadness, they flowed out of the note as if you were still in the room yourself. He didn’t know if you’d meant to leave behind the imprint on the paper, but he suspected you hadn’t. There was something deeper in the meaning, something you may not have meant to leave behind, something that Bucky recognized.
You hadn’t left just to run. You’d left to find someone.
You’d left to kill them.
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