James stands by his front door, looking at his watch. He can’t leave to go eat breakfast at the diner because it’s only 6:58 and he doesn’t leave until 7. The eight turns into a nine right before his eyes and he laughs but keeps waiting. One minute is only sixty seconds and then he’ll walk two blocks to the diner and his friend Steve will eat breakfast with him.
Finally the numbers change and he hurries out the door. He can’t waste the next sixty seconds; he has to lock the door behind him before 7:01 because he leaves at 7:00. His friend Steve is already waiting for him, sitting at their table. This is how it happens every day: James wakes up at 6:00 and does some yoga with Steve’s friend Bruce. He gets back to his apartment at 6:40 and takes a seven-minute shower. It only takes him three minutes to get dressed and comb his hair and brush his teeth and eight minutes to shave. Then he waits for two minutes before he can leave. When he gets to the diner at 7:07, Steve is sitting at their table.
Steve looks up when the bell over the door chimes, right on time, and smiles at James, and James smiles right back. Sometimes, even when he doesn’t mean to, he smiles when he sees Steve. Steve told him that’s alright. Steve smiles when he sees James, too, and sometimes Steve’s cheeks and neck turn red and that makes James smile more.
Steve’s smile is real today, and James is happy. That means it’s going to be a good day. Sometimes Steve’s smile is fake and that means he’s sad, and James never has a good day when Steve is sad at breakfast.
“Good morning,” Steve says, giving James a thumbs-up, and for some reason it makes James laugh. He doesn’t know why some things Steve does make him laugh. “Why are you laughing at me?” Steve asks, but he’s laughing, too.
“I don’t know,” James replies. “Sometimes you just make me laugh.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes your face just makes me laugh,” Steve says. James touches his face lightly with the tips of his fingers, four little dots of pressure against each cheekbone, his thumbs not touching anything.
“Why?” He asks, concerned. “Is something wrong with it?”
Steve blinks a few times. “No, I was just kidding. I like your face.” Steve’s cheeks turn red and James ducks his head a little, smiling again. Steve never keeps it a secret that he likes James’s face and his smile and his hair and his laugh.
James thinks he and Steve might be dating, kind of. They eat breakfast together every day and talk on the phone before bed every night. Every Friday Steve comes over to James’s apartment and they eat dinner and watch a movie on the couch together and Steve puts his arm around James and sometimes, when James feels bold, he holds Steve’s hand. Steve’s eyes crinkle up in the best way when he does, so he tries to be brave every Friday. On Saturdays they go to museums and on warm Sundays they go to the park and Steve draws pictures. If James is brave on Friday and holds Steve’s hand, then they hold hands when they walk around the museums and the park on Saturday and Sunday. James likes holding Steve’s hand, especially around big crowds.
But not at breakfast. At breakfast they sit across the table from each other and Steve needs his hands to eat, so James doesn’t hold one. Steve sometimes puts one of his feet in between James’s, and James isn’t quite sure why but he likes that.
“I like your face, too,” James tells Steve, even though after he says it he thinks maybe he waited too long to say it after Steve did. James watches TV and movies and he knows you’re not supposed to leave a long break between responding to something someone says.
Steve doesn’t mind, though. His smile gets bigger and his eyes crinkle up and the redness in his cheeks goes down to his neck and James is very, very happy right then, so happy that he leans forward and uses one finger to trace across the red on Steve’s cheeks.
“What is it called?” He asks.
“A blush,” Steve tells him. He isn’t smiling anymore. His eyes are a little bit wider than they normally are and he sounds a little out of breath. James knows that’s a good thing. He asked his friend Natasha why Steve sounds out of breath sometimes when James touches him and she laughed and said it means Steve likes him very much and likes when James touches him.
James pulls his hand back and Steve clears his throat. Usually, when James forgets what something’s called and asks someone, he writes it down in his notebook and then he doesn’t forget anymore. But he asks Steve what the redness is—blush—almost once a week. He knows he would remember if he wrote it down in his book. But he doesn’t write it down on purpose because he likes touching Steve’s face and the way Steve’s eyes look when he does it.
James thinks Steve likes it, too.
Steve eats waffles and James eats pancakes and at 7:53 James stands up. He has to leave the diner at 7:55 every day but he’s learned that he should stand up two minutes early because then he gets two minutes to say goodbye to Steve. Saying goodbye to Steve takes some time. Steve gives James a hug every day and sometimes James wants the hug to be longer than one minute and thirty seconds.
Actually, sometimes isn’t quite right. Almost always.
“Have a good day at work,” Steve says quietly right in James’s ear. His arms are tight around James and he is resting his head against James’s head and James thinks maybe he should have stood up at 7:50 so he could five minutes of this. Maybe he should have skipped his pancakes altogether and had fifty-five minutes of Steve hugging him.
But then he has to leave, and Steve gives him a last squeeze before letting him go. Steve’s smile isn’t completely real anymore. James uses his pointer finger to lift up the side of Steve’s mouth that is starting to fall down, and making Steve laugh is worth the extra ten seconds James spent inside the diner after he was supposed to leave.
James walks five blocks to work. When he gets inside, he uses the time inside the elevator to write down his notes from breakfast in his notebook.
Steve has to go to a meeting at his job and he’s worried his boss will give him an assignment he doesn’t want. He was only sad when I was leaving.
James flatters himself for a second that maybe Steve was only sad then because James was leaving. Maybe he wished James could stay longer. James can sympathize. He writes down notes every day after breakfast so he doesn’t forget what they talked about. He needs to remember so he can ask Steve how the meeting went on the phone before bed. He also uses his notebook to write down words he’s learned and things he finds interesting. Steve gave him the notebook the first Friday night he came over for a movie.
The elevator stops and says, “We are at the workshop floors, Sergeant Barnes,” the same way it says every day. James isn’t sure why the elevator talks. He knows that not all elevators do. But the elevator at work talks and calls him Sergeant because he was in the Army before his accident.
James works as a mechanic for Tony Stark. Tony Stark is an inventor and James knows he is rich and an important person because he has a lot of cars for James to work on. James is the best mechanic in the world. He doesn’t know if that’s actually true, but that’s what Steve told him. Steve’s never even seen James work on a car, so James thinks maybe Steve was exaggerating. James knows he’s a good mechanic, and his arm that’s made of metal is really useful because he can lift the car higher if the jack isn’t high enough.
Sometimes, when Tony Stark has a robot that needs help more than his cars, he asks James to come into his workshop and James screws parts together. Tony Stark talks a lot, and normally people talking a lot and very quickly makes James feel uncomfortable, but Tony Stark doesn’t mind if James doesn’t say anything back, so it’s alright.
James doesn’t know how he knows how to be a mechanic. He just does it. His doctor said he was a mechanic before his accident, before he went to war. James doesn’t remember being a mechanic. James doesn’t remember anything until four months ago when he woke up in a hospital. They told him his name is James Barnes and he’s a mechanic and one of his arms is made of metal and he has an apartment and a job working for Tony Stark. They said he doesn’t remember because he had an accident and has brain damage.
James doesn’t like to think about brain damage very much. Brain damage is why he can’t remember things unless he writes them down and brain damage is why sometimes words slip away from him even while he’s in the middle of a sentence and brain damage is why he doesn’t remember anything before he woke up. James doesn’t like brain damage. He talks about his feelings with Steve’s friend Sam, who is a special kind of feelings doctor called a therapist, and every month Steve’s friend Bruce, who James calls Dr. Banner unless they’re doing yoga together in the morning, takes pictures of James’s brain and makes notes about James’s brain damage. James never asks if his brain is more or less damaged. He doesn’t want to know.
James gets frustrated with his brain a lot. He knows he had a life before his accident that gave him brain damage, but he can’t remember it. He thinks he must have had parents, because everyone has parents, but since they’re not around they must be dead. Or maybe they don’t want him around anymore now that he has a metal arm and brain damage. Did he like the Army? Was he a good soldier? He doesn’t know.
When he tries to remember things, his head starts to hurt. It makes him mad. Sometimes when he looks at Steve he knows he’s forgetting something, like there are words just on the tip of his tongue but out of reach, but that doesn’t make sense, either. He only met Steve four months ago after he woke up. Brain damage is James’s worst enemy.
“Hello, James,” Pepper says when he gets into the garage. Pepper doesn’t like to be called Ms. Potts even though James’s mouth always wants to call her that. Pepper is very nice and she smiles at him a lot and sometimes when Tony Stark is giving him a headache Pepper makes Tony Stark leave. Pepper is dating Tony Stark and Tony Stark says she has all the power over him. He rolls his eyes when he says it, but his voice is happy.
“Hello, Pepper,” James says carefully, making sure not to call her Ms. Potts.
“How’s Steve doing?”
“I think Steve likes me,” he confides. Pepper smiles at him.
“Yes, he does,” she agrees. “Do you like him?”
James blows out a breath. “I like Steve,” he confirms. His face feels warm. He knows he is turning red the same way Steve does. A blush, he reminds himself. It doesn’t matter. He’ll forget. Maybe his brain forgets on purpose so he can keep asking Steve, the way he forgets on purpose to write it down. Pepper keeps smiling at him.
“That’s good,” she says softly. “I’m sure it makes him happy to think you like him.”
“Really?” James asks. “Do you think it’ll make him happy if I tell him?”
Pepper pats his arm. “I think that would make him the happiest man on earth.”
James laughs. “You think he likes me that much?”
Pepper is still smiling but it’s a fake smile, like Steve gets sometimes. Her eyes look sad. “Yeah, I do think he likes you that much.”
James isn’t sure why that makes her sad, and he thinks he shouldn’t ask. James watches TV and movies, so he knows there are some questions people aren’t supposed to ask other people. Steve tells James he doesn’t have to worry about that with him. He can ask Steve any question.
James met Steve the day after he woke up from his accident. Steve was in the diner when James went in and for some reason James wanted to sit next to Steve as soon as he saw him. It was one of those things his body did without his brain knowing why, like when he picks a seat with his back in a corner or covers Steve’s mouth when there’s smoke in the air. James had seen Steve sitting there and said, “Hi, I’m James; is it alright if I sit next to you?” He didn’t even know where the words came from, because he hadn’t spoken to anyone except doctors and even then he’d only responded to their questions. He hadn’t initiated a conversation with anyone, but he did with Steve.
Steve had smiled one of his fake smiles, where he’s actually sad, and James had known the smile was fake even though he didn’t even know Steve yet. “I would love that,” Steve had said, and then they’d starting eating together every day. After two days, Steve gave James his phone number, and after two weeks they started their Friday night movies and Saturday and Sunday roaming around the city. James hasn’t been brave enough to ask Steve if their meetings are dates yet.
Steve says James can ask him anything, but James watches TV and movies and knows that sometimes when people ask about dates and kissing, the other person leaves and they don’t see each other again. James doesn’t want Steve to leave even more than he wants to kiss Steve, so he doesn’t ask.
“Hey there, Robo Cop,” Tony Stark greets James as he comes into the garage. Tony Stark uses a lot of nicknames for James. James usually doesn’t know what they mean, but he doesn’t feel too badly because when he asks Steve about them, he usually doesn’t get them either. Steve knows Tony Stark and Pepper. Steve works for the government and sometimes Tony Stark helps. Pepper is in charge of Tony Stark’s company, so she’s met Steve. James likes the feeling that everyone in his life is connected. It makes him feel safe.
James works from eight until noon, like he does on all weekdays. He has no idea what Tony Stark does to some of these cars to put them in the shape they’re in. Sometimes whole pieces of the car are smashed and James has to use his metal arm to push them back out. He thinks Tony Stark should be more careful when he drives.
After he eats a sandwich for lunch, James rides the talking elevator up a few floors to the gym. Being Tony Stark’s mechanic means he gets to use Tony Stark’s gym. Natasha is always there when he is. Sometimes her friend Clint is there, too, and sometimes when he’s there he and James go to the shooting range. He’s not always there, though, so James can’t plan for it, and he can only do things he didn’t plan for sometimes.
The shooting range makes James’s stomach feel funny. He doesn’t feel nervous around the guns, and even though he can’t remember ever learning about or using a gun, he hits the bull’s-eye every time he shoots and can break down every weapon he tries. Clint brings him every gun they can find and James knows it cold.
It frustrates him. He knows he was in the Army, but this seems different, and for some reason some of the guns make him hold his breath and close his eyes tight.
“James!” Natasha says brightly when he comes in. “Here to show off?”
James smiles. He likes Natasha. After Steve and Sam, she makes him the most comfortable. Sometimes on Sundays after Steve goes home she and James go to the animal shelter and hold puppies and kittens and help feed the animals and she never laughs at him when he squeals at the way the puppies lick his face. She asks if he’s showing off every day. He knows she doesn’t actually think he’s showing off when he works out. At first, he was worried she did, but she promised it’s a joke—it’s teasing—and says it every day so he can get used to it.
“I’m really strong,” he says, flexing his metal bicep. She laughs. Making Natasha laugh isn’t as good as making Steve laugh—nothing’s as good as making Steve laugh—but it’s still nice. She runs on the treadmill next to him, not as fast as him but still faster than the joggers he sees outside at the park, and when he starts lifting weights she goes to one of the punching bags.
James doesn’t like to watch her when she hits the punching bags. He knows she does it for practice, and he knows it keeps her in shape and she needs to practice in case someone tries to hurt her, but he doesn’t like the sound her fists make on the punching bag. For some reason, he knows what the sound of a fist on a person is and he compares the two in his head.
Steve says James should ask people to stop doing something if it makes him uncomfortable, and he knows Natasha would stop if he asked. But Natasha needs to practice in case someone tries to hurt her. Natasha works for the government, too, just like Steve and Dr. Banner and Tony Stark and Clint and Steve’s friend Thor and sometimes Sam and Tony Stark’s friend Rhodey. Their work means sometimes they have to fight. He doesn’t want Natasha to get hurt if she has to fight because she didn’t practice just for him.
James doesn’t like violence. He has to change the TV channel or turn off a movie if things get violent. He apologized to Steve the first time it happened at one of their Friday night movies, but Steve had touched James’s arm and said it was okay. Now they only watch comedies and James gets to listen to Steve laugh.
James is switching weights when the door opens. That isn’t normal. If Clint comes, he’s there with Natasha when James gets there. Otherwise, it’s only James and Natasha in the gym. But today the door opens, and it’s Steve.
“Steve?” James asks. He’s never seen Steve at work.
“Hi, James.” Steve smiles at him, a real smile, and James relaxes a little even though he’s at the gym and Steve is there when Steve is never there at the gym.
“You don’t come here,” James points out. “Not while I’m here.”
“No, I don’t,” Steve agrees. “But I needed to come in so I could tell you something.”
James feels nervous. He doesn’t like when things don’t happen the way he planned. He sees Steve at breakfast and they talk on the phone before bed. Sometimes they text, but texting is hard because James can’t use nonverbal cues to figure out how someone is feeling when the words don’t make sense in his head. He doesn’t see Steve at the gym in the middle of the day.
“It’s alright, James,” Natasha murmurs as he passes her to put the weights away. Natasha is very good at nonverbal cues, too, and she understands them a lot better than James. If she says it’s alright, it probably is.
“I know this is different from your usual day,” Steve says, and he sounds sorry. James understands Steve’s nonverbal cues and tone of voice better than anyone else’s. “But I have to go away for a few days and I have to leave today. In a few minutes, actually. I wanted to say goodbye in person.”
“You’re leaving?” James asks. He didn’t ask if Friday night movies were dates. He didn’t try to kiss Steve. Why is Steve leaving?
“For work,” Steve says quickly, moving closer to James. “I have to go for work. And I’ll be back on Saturday in time for the museum.”
“But what about breakfast tomorrow and Friday? What about our Friday night movie?” James asks. Part of him feels a little embarrassed. James knows regular people don’t usually get stomachaches when something outside of their plan happens, and regular people probably don’t get upset when their friend has to work and can’t watch a movie and eat pizza and candy on a Friday night. But he can’t help it. He feels like he can’t breathe. Steve hugs James.
“I’m going to have to miss breakfast and our Friday night movie,” Steve tells him. His face is sad. He really is sorry about it. It should make James feel better, and it does, a little. But mostly he feels scared. The rest of his week is going to change. Usually if something is going to change, people tell him a long time before so he can get ready for it. Sam comes to breakfast sometimes, but Steve always asks James if that’s okay a week ahead of time.
“Where are you going?” James asks.
“I have to go to Brazil,” Steve sighs. James knows where Brazil is and thinks maybe he’s been there before, but he doesn’t know for sure. “I’m sorry. I’d rather stay here and eat breakfast with you and watch a movie on Friday night. I promise I would.”
James nods. They’re still hugging and he knows it’s been longer than a regular hug, but he can’t get his arms to let go of Steve. It seems to be okay, because Steve isn’t letting go, either. He doesn’t even seem to mind that James is a little bit sweaty from running.
“Everything else will be the same,” Steve says. “Bruce will still do yoga in the morning and you can come to work and Natasha will be here in the gym in the afternoon.” James lifts his head from Steve’s shoulder to look at Natasha. She nods at him. “And I’ll still call you before bed,” Steve continues. “The only difference will be breakfast and no movie.”
“Am I still going to go to the diner and eat pancakes?” James asks, voice muffled against Steve’s shoulder.
“Yeah, you can go. I won’t be there, but Lindsey will be there and she knows how you like your pancakes and coffee in case you can't order.” Lindsey is the waitress who brings his breakfast every day.
“Can Sam come?”
“Sam’s coming with me,” Steve says, and James knows without looking at his face that he’s wincing. “Maybe Bruce could go with you, since you already see him in the morning.”
James shakes his head. Bruce has never been there at breakfast. That would be too different. “I can go by myself.” His voice is small and quiet.
Steve’s arms get tighter around James and he makes his arms tighter around Steve, too. He doesn’t want Steve to go. He’s never been to the diner without Steve. Even the first day, when he didn’t know Steve and didn’t know Steve would be there, Steve was there. Plus, he won’t see Steve for two whole days. It’s been almost four months since James went even one day without seeing Steve, let alone two.
The door opens again and James feels his muscles go tight. Steve doesn’t let go of him, not even when the person at the door says, “Captain Rogers.”
“Are you a captain?” James whispers, not wanting a stranger to know he doesn’t know that for sure.
“Yeah,” Steve whispers back. “Well, sort of. Not really anymore, but people still call me that.”
“Why don’t they call you Steve?” For some reason, the thought of people calling Steve Captain instead of his name makes James annoyed. His name is Steve and that’s what people should call him.
“Some people only see me as a captain,” Steve says, and James feels his lip curl. He doesn’t like that one bit.
“Captain?” The man repeats, but before either Steve or James can do anything, Natasha says something quietly to the man. James looks up in time to see Natasha ushering the man out. Steve is still hugging him.
“I have to go,” Steve whispers again even though the man is gone. He says it but then he doesn’t move away from James.
“Where are you going?” James asks.
“Brazil,” Steve says, and James knows he already said it but Steve doesn’t sound annoyed at repeating himself. He never gets annoyed when James doesn’t remember something.
“But why?” James hadn’t meant where—he could remember Brazil for five minutes without writing it down.
Steve makes a little noise. “I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Oh,” James says. He doesn’t say anything else, and Steve makes that little noise again. It’s sort of a huff of a breath, a little grumble.
“I have to fight some bad people,” Steve gives in and tells him. James frowns.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like fighting. But they’re hurting people and I have to stop them.” Steve starts to pull away from James and James holds on tighter for a minute. Steve lets him.
“But will you be safe?” James asks. His stomach is a nervous twist of anxiety now. He doesn’t want Steve to fight. Sometimes he doesn’t totally understand what exactly his feelings mean, and sometimes he feels more than one thing. But this is very clear, almost like a math problem: Steve + fighting = bad. Steve + fighting = Steve gets hurt.
“I’ll be as safe as possible,” Steve promises. It’s not that comforting, and James doesn’t know why but it makes him want to snort. Someone knocks on the door and Steve makes a face. “I have to go,” he repeats regretfully. “I’ll call you tonight right on time and I’ll be back on Saturday to meet you at the museum.”
“Okay,” James agrees reluctantly. Steve looks at him for another minute and then reaches out to brush a piece of James’s hair behind his ear. Steve’s hand in his hair makes James shiver a little, but he’s not cold. He wants to kiss Steve so badly.
“Bye,” Steve whispers, pulling away slowly. James watches him walk away without saying anything. Steve turns around one last time at the door and waves at James, and James watches as he disappears.
James makes it through pancakes all alone, mournfully, and his whole day is different and ruined. He wakes up already anxious, because he knows Steve is gone, and yoga with Bruce doesn’t go well because he can’t clear his mind. He asks for the wrong kind of pancakes in his haze, but luckily Lindsey the waitress is a very good waitress and asks if he’s sure so he can fix his mistake. He leaves the diner early because there’s no reason to linger without Steve, but his routine is completely off and he hits every red traffic light on the way to work and that seems like bad luck. Steve’s friend Thor promised bad luck isn’t real, and Thor is really wise because he’s been to a different world, but James can’t help but still think about bad luck. The rest of his day only confirms the idea in his mind.
He drops a wrench on his toe and hits his head on the undercarriage of a car, and then he gets worried about his brain damage and what the picture of his brain will say in two weeks when he goes to see Dr. Banner. He can’t lift weights because he can’t stop focusing on the sound of Natasha’s fists against the punching bag.
James leaves Tony Stark’s tower and goes to the library, his usual spot after his after-work workout. He likes the library because it’s quiet. He doesn’t read much, because he has trouble keeping the words straight in his head, but it’s easier when everything is quiet. James lives alone, but for some reason the quiet in the library is better than the quiet in his apartment.
But today James can’t focus on reading, because he doesn’t have anything written in his notebook about breakfast with Steve. Because he didn’t have breakfast with Steve. He knows Steve will call him before bed. He did the night before, although James doesn’t understand how when he was on a plane to Brazil.
But even knowing Steve will call him before bed doesn’t help his mind settle. The problem isn’t really that he’s missing Steve so much as that his routine is completely thrown off, and he feels a little guilty about it. He shouldn’t see Steve as just a box on his checklist, and he doesn’t, he likes Steve, but things have to go according to schedule for James to feel comfortable. Dr. Banner says it’s normal after the trauma he went through. James doesn’t know exactly what he means by that but assumes he means it’s a brain damage thing.
“James?” One of the women who works at the library whispers after James sighs for the third time in ten minutes. “Are you alright?”
Her name is Evelyn and she’s always very kind to him. She doesn’t ever ask questions when he sits in the same chair for three hours and barely makes it through half of an abridged, simplified novel for young adults. She showed him how to lay a pen lengthwise under the line he’s reading to keep the words from bending and to keep track of what he’s already read.
“Steve wasn’t at breakfast,” he tells her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, even though James realizes too late she must have no idea who Steve is. He forgets that everyone in the world doesn’t know Steve. He’s sure they’d all be happier if they did.
“He told me he wouldn’t be there,” James admits. “But I’m—I’m flustered.” It was a word she’d explained to him once. She smiles at him and pats his arm.
“I’m sure Steve will be back.”
James nods. “On Saturday for the museum. He promised. He always keeps his promises, and he promised to be back, so he’ll be back. On Saturday.”
A man sitting a few chairs away gets up and moves further down the line, throwing a look at James as he goes. James looks down at his book, his face getting red like Steve’s does when James holds his hand. He can’t remember the word for it, even though Steve tells him all the time. He never writes it down in his book.
James knows people are afraid of him sometimes, because of his metal arm and his long hair. And he knows that sometimes people think he’s mentally ill. That’s what Sam told him the term was called, the term for people who sometimes talk to themselves or drool too much or soil themselves on the train. James knows he talks like a child sometimes, because sometimes words get stuck or he forgets what they mean or what words he should use. He wants to tell the man he has brain damage but he still understands things, even if he can’t talk or read very well.
But instead he just looks at the words swimming on the page, his face red, and his head starts to pound. Evelyn clucks her tongue and James’s head hurts so badly he has to close his eyes for a moment to stop the room from spinning around him.
“I’m going to go home,” he tells Evelyn.
“You’re an hour early, James,” Evelyn reminds him. She taps the watch on her wrist. It’s only three and he stays at the library until four, but his face is red and the man moved away from him and his head hurts.
“Well, I want to go home,” James says sharply, his voice getting too loud for the library. “Steve wasn’t at breakfast so everything is different and I don’t want to be here anymore.” His head throbs. “Sorry,” he whispers. “Sorry for being too loud.”
Evelyn puts her hand on his back and smiles at him. It’s a fake one, a sad one. “Don’t worry, James,” she says. “It’s okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Steve won’t be back tomorrow,” James tells her dispassionately. “Steve won’t come back until Saturday. We’re going to the museum. He promised.”
Someone is punching Steve in the face. Someone is punching Steve in the face and James can’t get to him to help him. If Steve gets bruises on his face, James won’t be able to see it turn red and he won’t see the little dots on Steve’s face called freckles. The freckles on Steve’s face get darker in the summer. James doesn’t know how he knows that because he hasn’t known Steve in the summer yet.
But someone is punching Steve in the face, and Steve is coughing, and James is yelling because he doesn’t like violence and he certainly doesn’t like violence that’s hurting Steve. But then he looks closer at the hand that’s punching Steve in the face and it’s metal and shiny and James screams because that’s his hand.
“Bucky,” Steve chokes, blood on his teeth, and James screams again. “I’m with you to the end of the line.”
James wakes up. His blankets are wet because he’s sweating more than when he runs and lifts weights. His heart is beating very fast and he’s breathing hard. He’s crying. It’s still dark outside. The clock on the table by his bed says 2:48. James shouldn’t be awake yet. But he was punching Steve in the face.
James throws the blankets off and scrambles out of bed. He has to go find Steve to stop himself from punching Steve in the face. It doesn’t make sense, but James knows he’ll figure it out once he sees Steve. He has to hurry. The knowledge that he needs to stop himself from hurting Steve is slipping out of his head.
He puts on pants because people can’t go around outside without pants. He also puts on shoes because Steve says walking outside without shoes can hurt your feet. Steve didn’t like when James said hurting doesn’t stop him from doing things. James has to stop himself from punching Steve in the face but he has to wear shoes because he doesn’t want Steve to be sad. And if he doesn’t want Steve to be sad he’d better wear a coat, too, even though being cold doesn’t stop him from doing things, either.
As James is opening his front door, the elevator voice says, “Sergeant Barnes, it is not morning.” Tony Stark’s elevator is talking to him but he’s not in Tony Stark’s elevator.
“I need to find Steve,” he tells the elevator, because it’s rude not to answer people when they talk to you, even elevators.
“Steve is in Brazil until tomorrow,” the elevator reminds him.
“No, I think he came back,” James argues. “And I need to find him. Sorry for being rude but I need to go.” He shuts the door on the elevator/apartment voice and hurries down the stairs.
He goes first to the diner, because if Steve wanted to find him he’d go there, probably. But the diner is dark and the door is locked and James doesn’t want to break the lock but he somehow knows he can. James presses his face to the window and sees that Steve isn’t at their table, anyway, so he decides to go to the museum to see if Steve went early.
But while he’s walking to the museum, he sees two big men punching a smaller man, and his shoulders hunch up like they do when he sees violence on TV. James doesn’t like violence. But this isn’t TV. This is real, and the man is bleeding the same way Steve’s face was earlier when James was punching him. One of the big men is reaching into the small man’s pocket and taking his wallet. Wallets are where people keep their money in case they want to buy hot cocoa and their ID cards that say who they are and where their home is in case they get lost and can’t remember how to get home. Wallets are important and those men are taking a wallet that isn’t theirs. This is called a mugging. James read it in one of his books at the library.
“Don’t do that,” James orders. The men look up at him quickly.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“My name is James and I’m a mechanic,” he recites.
“Well fuck off, James the mechanic.”
“You’re hurting him,” James points out, feeling shivery. This isn’t the same kind of shiver as being cold and it’s not the same kind of shiver as Steve touching his hair. He doesn’t like this kind of shiver. The small man is holding his stomach and groaning.
“Fuck. Off.” One of the big men starts walking toward James and James finds himself standing up straighter. For some reason, he knows this will scare the man. The guy does a little double take but doesn’t stop walking closer to James.
“Mind your own damn business,” the man hisses. The other man punches the smaller man again and James starts to sweat.
“Just let him go,” he says, his throat hurting. He can hear the thud of the man’s fist against the smaller man’s face and he keeps seeing Steve’s face covered in blood. For some reason when he thinks of Steve’s bloody face he pictures Steve’s body much smaller, even smaller than the smaller man being punched.
“You gonna make us?” The man standing too close to him taunts. James’s head starts to hurt again. He wants to go back to bed. But he needs to find Steve. But he can’t leave this small man to get punched and mugged. He wants the man to stop coming closer to him.
The man takes another step and is officially too close to James. James’s palms start to sweat. He doesn’t like when people get too close to him, except Steve and his friends. This man is definitely not Steve and he’s obviously not a friend, either.
And then the man punches James in the side of the head.
James doesn’t even realize what he’s doing, but suddenly he’s grabbed the man’s outstretched arm with his metal hand and twisted, forcing the man down onto the ground. He drops a knee into the center of the man’s chest, forcing him to gasp out all his breath, and then James uses his metal fist to smash into the man’s face the way he did to Steve.
“Jesus!” The other big man yelps. He runs toward James and James feels scared and trapped. He knocks the man’s legs out from under him before he can touch James. James punches him, too.
But then James looks down and sees the two men’s faces, cut open and bleeding, and he has blood on his hands, and he starts to scream. He did this. He did this to these men and he did this to Steve and now Steve is probably not in Brazil but Steve’s probably dead and James killed him, just like he's killed so many other people. He doesn’t know how long he sits over the men’s bodies, screaming, but then someone is pulling him up off the ground.
“Barnes!” It’s Tony Stark’s friend Rhodey. He and James talk about airplane engines. Rhodey is a very important person in the Air Force and he knows how to fly a plane. He promised to teach James how.
“I did that!” James screams. “I killed Steve!”
“You didn’t kill anyone,” Rhodey promises, but Rhodey doesn’t know because he wasn’t there. No one was there when James punched Steve in the face. He also knows without knowing how that he shot Steve, too.
“James, Steve is alive.” Natasha is suddenly beside him, wiping the blood off his hands onto her jacket. “Steve is in Brazil.”
“I hurt Steve,” James whimpers. “I hurt him and his face was bleeding.”
“Come with me, James,” Natasha tells him, taking his hand. “Come with me to the Tower and we can see Dr. Banner.”
“Steve is in Brazil but we’ll call him. Okay? We’ll call Steve and he’ll come home right away.”
James doesn’t remember much else. He knows he got in a car with Natasha and Rhodey and he remembers laying his head in Natasha’s lap. She stroked his hair and sang to him about making friends with an elephant and catching the feather of a firebird. He doesn’t remember if they called Steve, but they must have, because when James wakes up, Steve is sitting beside him, slumped over in a chair and holding his hand. James can tell from the fuzzy feeling in his head he was sedated.
James sees the clock. It’s four o’clock pm. James missed yoga and breakfast and work and lunch and working out and the library. He feels embarrassed. He had a nightmare and scared everyone. He watches Steve sleep for a minute. Steve’s eyebrows are scrunched together in his sleep, and James reaches over with the hand not holding Steve’s and tries to smooth out the wrinkle there.
Steve’s eyelashes flutter and he smiles sleepily. “Hey, Buck, how you feeling?”
James just looks at Steve. He knows somehow that Buck means Bucky, the name Steve called him in his dream. He knows somehow that he is Bucky. But he doesn’t know what it means. Steve blinks.
“Sorry,” he apologizes quickly, sitting up straight but still leaning close to James. “James. Are you feeling better?”
James shrugs. He wants to tell Steve he’s sorry for making him come home from Brazil early. He wants to tell Steve he’s sorry for punching him and shooting him. He wants to cry. All his words get stuck in his throat and he looks down at the blanket covering him.
Steve puts a finger under James’s chin and tilts his head back up. “Don’t be ashamed,” he says softly. “Do you want to talk about it?”
James shrugs again. Whether he wants to talk about it isn’t the question. He doesn’t think he can. His words are stuck. “Sorry,” he whispers, the only word that gets through the block in his throat. He touches Steve’s cheekbone where he’d split it open and slides a hand down to tap against Steve’s belly, where he thinks he shot him.
Steve’s face crumples. “No, Bu—James. No, no. It’s alright. Did you remember?”
James can only shrug and repeat, “Sorry.” He’s still touching Steve’s face. Steve turns his head and presses his lips to James’s palm. James feels his eyes go wide. He’s wanted to kiss Steve for a long time but he didn’t think Steve kissing his hand would be the way it happened. It’s not really as satisfying as he imagines—hopes—a kiss on the lips would be.
But really, just because his words are stuck doesn’t mean everything else has to be. James knows Steve likes him the way people on TV and movies like each other. Steve eats breakfast with him every morning and draws pictures of him in the park on Sundays. Steve flew home from Brazil right away because James needed him. Steve slept slumped over in a chair because James was sleeping in the bed. Steve kissed his palm.
James watches TV and movies, so he thinks he knows how to do this. He pulls Steve’s chin toward him and leans forward. Steve’s eyes go wide the way they do whenever James traces his red cheeks, and then they close just before James presses his lips to Steve’s. Right, people close their eyes while they kiss. James thinks that seems silly. He wants to see Steve’s face while he’s kissing him.
Somehow, James knows that Steve likes to start with soft, slow kisses first. Steve makes a sighing sound against James’s lips. Somehow, James knows to bite down gently on Steve’s lower lip and slide the hand that’s on Steve’s cheek up to hold onto his hair, and the whimper Steve makes tells him he was right.
It’s so confusing. How does James know this? He’s never kissed Steve before. Except it feels like he has. He keeps remembering the same lips but Steve’s body small and skinny. That doesn’t make sense. Steve is big and strong. James stops thinking about it because it’s making his head hurt. He closes his eyes and focuses on the feeling of Steve opening his mouth against James’s.
But then Steve is pulling away, whispering, “James, wait, wait.” His lips are red and he hasn’t even opened his eyes, but he’s pulling away. James is confused. He knows—he just knows—he wasn’t wrong; he knows Steve wanted him to kiss him, too. But Steve is pulling back. Before either of them can say anything, the door opens.
“Oh, are we interrupting?” Tony Stark asks. James pulls his hands away from Steve’s hair like it burned him. Steve blows out a breath. “We need to talk to you, Cap.”
“Can it wait?” Steve is talking to Tony Stark but he’s still looking at James.
“Not really,” Tony Stark says. Steve sighs and licks his lips. James can’t help but watch his tongue. Steve’s whole face is red. He stands up but hesitates and makes a little hand motion at Tony Stark. Tony Stark leaves the room. Steve puts his hand on James’s cheek.
“I’ll be right back, okay? And then we can talk.”
James doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t know if he can. He doesn’t want Steve to say they’re not going to kiss anymore and now they’re not going to have breakfast or watch movies on Friday nights or go to the museum on Saturdays or the park on Sundays.
Steve doesn’t close the door all the way behind him, and James can hear everyone talking.
“How’s he doing?” Rhodey asks. “The agent at the diner said he was confused but not too bad, but the one at the library said he had a rough time. I should’ve left the agents at his door all night.”
“I shouldn’t have left,” Steve berates himself. James doesn’t feel surprised that he’s blaming himself. “I should have just told Coulson no.”
“You can’t put your life on hold, man,” Sam reminds him.
“Why not?” Steve asks, a little petulantly. “He would for me.”
“Look, talk about that with your therapist later; I’m sure she’ll be very interested in that little train of thought,” Tony Stark breaks in. “But we’ve got Xavier ready to come down and take a peek inside his brain—”
“Don’t you dare.” Natasha interrupts harshly. “Stay out of his head.”
“James’s brain hasn’t shown any sign of damage since two weeks after he woke up,” Bruce says. “The serum healed that the same way I think Steve’s would. The language problems I can understand, but there’s no reason for him to not remember who he is. He’s exhibiting symptoms similar to an Alzheimer’s patient, but he doesn’t have the neurological characteristics. I have to think at this point it’s psychological, really. His brain’s attempt at self-preservation.”
“So what?” Natasha asks. “You think that means you can just invade his mind?”
James relaxes a little, knowing Natasha is standing up for him. Natasha isn’t going to let someone crawl into his brain. The thought makes his head hurt.
“It’s more an opportunity for Charles to see what we can’t with just scans. He can see if we’re missing something,” Bruce tells her. “We’re not saying we want to take away the barriers he’s set up.”
“But why not?” Tony Stark asks. “Wouldn’t Barnes rather we do that? Would he want to live like this?”
“Not everyone’s you, Tony,” Rhodey points out, not unkindly. “You would want to do it, but that doesn’t mean he would.”
“I’m just saying, if he were firing on all cylinders, would he be upset to find out we had a chance to give him back his whole mind and didn’t take it?”
“I’ve got to agree with Natasha here,” Sam says. “His mind’s protecting him for a reason. We don’t know what it’ll do to him to bring down those walls.”
“Stay out of his head,” Clint adds quietly. “Enough people have played around in there.”
“I agree,” Thor says. “Magic cannot fix everything, and there are some things that are better off without the meddling of men.”
“It’s up to you, Cap,” Tony Stark says. “You’re the only one who knows what Barnes would really want.”
Steve doesn’t say anything for a long time. With every tick, tick, tick of the clock, James’s heart starts to pound faster. Steve thinks James needs to be fixed. Steve thinks of James like one of Tony Stark’s crumpled cars, needing a metal arm to come punch it back into place. Steve didn’t want to kiss him because James isn’t right. James has brain damage. His hands clench into fists. The whir of his metal arm makes him feel sick when he remembers what that fist can do.
“It’s not up to me,” Steve finally says quietly. “It’s not up to any of us. I’m not the only one who knows what he wants. James is. This is up to him. He can decide for himself. Just because all those things happened to him—” Steve’s voice gets shaky and he stops for a minute. “He’s still himself. He’s funny and charming and he cares about people. He can’t always get the words right, but he’s still sharp. He understands what’s going on. We’re not going to sit here and make a decision about him without him. He’s not broken.”
No one speaks after Steve’s done. James feels relief in every part of him. Steve gets it. Steve doesn’t wish James was different. Steve loves him. He didn’t say that, but James knows. James feels like he’s always known that. Steve is with him until the end of the line.
James takes a deep breath and pushes back the blankets. He straightens out his clothes and smoothes down his hair. He doesn’t want to look like a wild man when he goes in to give his decision. He knows exactly what he’s going to do. James pulls the door open all the way and steps into the hallway. Everyone looks at him. James doesn’t know if they look guilty for talking about him or angry that he was listening.
Of all the faces that look up at him, the only one he looks at is Steve’s.