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Hard to Say

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One foot in and one foot back
But it don't pay to live like that
So I cut the ties and I jumped the tracks
For never to return

Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in
Are you aware the shape I'm in?
My hands they shake, my head it spins
Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in

When at first I learned to speak
I used all my words to fight
With him and her and you and me
But it's just a waste of time

—The Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You”

Primary: Ensure completion of Operation Insight. [FAIL]
Secondary: Terminate Jasper Sitwell. [COMPLETE]
Tertiary: Terminate Natalia Romanova AKA Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow. [PENDING]

Following the failure of Operation Insight, you sought additional instruction. You traveled to the nearest base of operations to find the space abandoned. You traveled to the next nearest, and the next. You lacked the programming to conclude the possibility that all operations had been terminated, yet it remained, somehow, a possibility.

Given no opportunity for reevaluation, you pursued your remaining objective.

You were overdue for a reboot.

You performed reconnaissance at the Smithsonian Institution. The man from the helicarrier had been featured there. He was a Captain.

The exhibit included pictures of him standing beside a man who looked familiar to you. He was young and his eyes lit up when he smiled.

You could not place him.

He looked at the Captain the same way the Captain had looked at you.

The longer you went without a reboot, the more frequently thoughts began to occur, like tendrils of vines snaking through slowly-crumbling buildings. The thoughts struck you with the full force of your handler’s taser. Unlike the taser, the thoughts hurt.

Pain was a relative notion, a simple litmus test:

If all systems functional, proceed. 
If some systems functional, repair and proceed. 
If no systems functional

Walk it off, you thought, sitting on a bench under the shelter of a bus stop. The thought was not your own invention, though you did not know where it had originated.

The thought hurt, made your chest ache and a bubble rise in your throat. Your eyes watered with no discernible cause. The thoughts were a new mode of torture without an objective.

You suppressed them to the best of your ability until your handler could rid you of them.

Sleep: 90 min, 2x/day
Food: 800 cal
Water: 8 oz

All three minimums became an obstacle to maintain without a given check-in timeline. You could function on less if you had to, but the minimums had been thoroughly tested for optimal efficiency.

The ninety minutes of sleep twice per day proved most difficult. You reached REM within two minutes, but during REM, the thoughts flooded you, turned into dreams you could not control. You belonged to a world in which you had never lived, had never experienced, had never been programmed to know.

You dreamed of rickety fire escapes and blood-orange sunsets while boys on the street below played ball with a rusty pipe. You dreamed of bodies dancing to the rhythmic beat of loud music for no other reason than to move. You dreamed of winter in the mountains with the smell of gunpowder floating in the air and complete silence for miles and miles.

In every version of this world, the Captain was there. In every version, the world of your dreams paled in comparison to his smile.

You often woke with your face covered in saline, body wracking with sobs you could not control.

You began forgoing the sleep minimums to optimize mental acuity under the probability that your handler would soon contact you.

During many sleepless, foodless days, you remembered: the Captain had called you Bucky.

By the time you found the farm, your body had begun the slow decline to complete system failure.

Yet still, you stayed vigilant, watching through yellow-glowing windows in the twilight, hearing the high-pitched sound of a television under the current of cicadas and crickets, the echo of dishes clattering in the kitchen.

According to your research, the Black Widow frequented this farm. All you had to do was wait, and then you would be able to strike. You would find another base of operations and get a reboot.

Then the torturous thoughts, the dreams, would be gone.

At night, hundreds of fireflies dotted the darkness, like floating lights in the thick humidity of midsummer, and you held your hands out to them. One would land on your palm, and you would cup the insect, bring your hand up to your face and peer into your fist, like a cage. It would light up in a slow, pulsing rhythm, perhaps with each breath it took.

Dark, light, dark, light.

And you let the insect go, wondering when you, too, would get to breathe again.

You woke up and immediately switched to emergency mode because you had not fallen asleep. Your heart pounded in your throat, yet you assessed your situation with a clinical preciseness.

You were tied to a wooden chair sitting atop a floor covered in hay. The air smelled of livestock, and across from you sat a man you recognized as the owner of the farm, wearing a flannel shirt and denim pants and brown leather work boots. A large bow rested in his hands, relaxed, but you could tell by the position of his body that he would have killed you before you could snap the ropes from your wrists.

You did not know him, but from your research, you deduced that he was the hearing-impaired archer raised in a circus. You had been unable to confirm this until you had gotten close enough to see the hearing aids.

“Morning, sunshine,” the archer said.

You looked around. It was still nightfall, though panic began to creep into your chest when you realized that you did not know the time. The only occurrences where you had lost track of time before were those in which you were rebooted. You did not believe you had just been rebooted, because you remembered the fireflies, the sounds of children laughing, the man on the bridge.

You did not speak. Your priority was to escape immediate danger, which would mean incapacitating your captor.

“I know that look,” the archer—Hawkeye, you remembered—continued, “and I’m here to tell you, both of us are gonna be a lot happier if we manage to keep our cool through this.”

You struggled against your bindings to no avail. Your flesh arm was tied tight to the sturdy wood. You had not received neural input from your metal arm in days, had been unable to use it at all.

Given your state, you began to consider that perhaps there was a better way toward the completion of the mission that would not involve violence toward a non-target.

Perhaps you could cooperate.

You nodded.

“There’s a few people out there looking for you, you know,” Hawkeye said.

An odd feeling churned in your gut, something that echoed in your mind as a mix of hope and dread, mingling together inside of you like oil and water.

You wanted to go back to your handlers. You needed to go back to your handlers. Your body was failing. It required maintenance.

You were overdue for a reboot.

You tried to speak. Your voice sounded hoarse and thin. You had not fulfilled your hydration minimum in two days.

Hawkeye tilted his head in confusion. Perhaps his hearing aids were malfunctioning.

You tried again.

“I’m sorry, pal, I don’t know whatever language it is you’re speaking.”


You concentrated, but you could not manage to get the words out in the language you intended. You scrolled through eight of them, but none were the one that Hawkeye spoke.

Hawkeye laughed despite your panic. “You know, I have some experience with brainwashing. Good news for you, it looks like you’re on the downhill.” He stood up and slapped a palm on your shoulder. It was the first non-violent touch by another human in your entire memory. You did not count the way the Captain had touched you in your dreams.

You could remember the feeling of a frail body under your hands; the way he smelled, like a home neither of you would see again. You thought that you remembered the feel of his lips, too, but perhaps that was just a wish.

Hawkeye crouched down in front of you. It occurred to you that you could easily break the chair and take the resulting splintered wood to shove through his throat.

You decided not to do that, though.

That would have been unnecessary.

“What worked for me was a nice, solid punch in the face. I’m not sure that’ll do much for you, though. Looks like you’ve been through enough already,” Hawkeye said. He looked at you in contemplation, and added, “Look, I’m gonna go get you some food and water, and then we’re going to decide what to do with you.” He stood again, pointed at you, and said, “Stay.”

So you did.

Hawkeye returned with sustenance. He set the food down and said, “I’m going to let you go, because I like believing the best in people. But if you kill me, I’m gonna be very disappointed in you.”

You stared at him. You thought that might have been a joke. You did not laugh.

Still, you decided not to kill him.

You nodded.

“‘Atta boy,” Hawkeye said, and used a small knife to cut the ropes at your wrists and ankles.

Attempting to move your limbs proved ineffective. The metal one had finally ceased all connection to your brain, or perhaps your brain had bypassed too many minimums to maintain its connection to your arm. It lay heavy and useless at your side. Your other arm, too, was difficult to move. Your whole body felt heavy, your head light.

You fell off the chair.

Hawkeye caught you. “Hey now, you’re supposed to be some kind of world-class assassin, not Scarlett fucking O’Hara. C’mon.” He propped you up against the wall of the barn and retrieved the food he brought. “I hope you like mac ‘n cheese. I chopped up a hot dog in it for protein. Breakfast of champions.”

You ate it with a shaking hand that could not steady the fork, so Hawkeye helped you. He sat beside you and propped the bottle of water up so you could drink. He smiled at you when you were finished.

You did not deserve his kindness.

Hawkeye led you into his house. You felt a stab of pain, a distant echo of the feeling of guilt when you realized that he did not know you had been peering into his home for days. He asked you to be quiet because his children were sleeping. Then he handed you a change of clothes as well as a towel from a small hall closet that smelled like cedar and soap.

He led you to the bathroom and asked, “Think you can stand on your own long enough to get clean?”

You nodded, even though you were not sure. Bathing was a secondary maintenance requirement, though you had still gone past protocol without it.

“Good. I’ll be out here if you need me,” he said, and left, closing the door behind him.

Hawkeye’s bathroom was unlike the open, sterile shower stalls of base. No one watched with barely-concealed glee as your body was pelted with boiling or freezing water. No one scrubbed your skin raw. No one threw you, naked and dripping, into a cold, empty cell until they finished preparing the chamber for you.

There were little yellow ducks on the wallpaper of Hawkeye’s bathroom, peeling in a couple places. A small window was open to let in the cool night air. A stack of magazines sat in a basket by the toilet. The shower was lined with dozens of bottles.

Once the water was on—heated slightly, a luxury you had never experienced before—you chose the pink bottle. There was a smiling girl on it, and the label boasted, No tangles! No tears!

You chose it because you were not fond of either of those things.

You watched as filthy brown water drained down the tub, eventually running clear again but for the bright pinkness of soap bubbles. The soap smelled familiar, somehow, like summertime in a different land. You could feel the damp, heavy heat of your other world, and when you closed your eyes, you could see bright lights above a crowd, a dusty diamond as the stage, large men hitting a ball with a bat.

You had gone to baseball games and bought bubblegum with pennies you gathered one by one, collected the small cartoons that came on the wrappers so you could give them to the Captain, and he would practice drawing them.

You had always liked his versions better.

Your body was as clean as you could get it with only the use of one arm, so you shut off the water and dried yourself with the towel Hawkeye had given you.

As you dressed, you heard voices coming from the living area. A woman spoke in a harsh whisper, “You can’t just bring a heavily-armed, brainwashed assassin into our home! We have children!”

Hawkeye replied, “I was once a heavily-armed, brainwashed assassin too!”

“And you bet your ass I would have blasted you in the face with a shotgun before I let you set foot in this house.”

“Jesus, Laura!”

“Well it’s true!”

“Fine. I’ll keep watch overnight and make some phone calls.”

There was silence, and then the woman, Laura, asked, “Do you know how he takes his coffee?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s not gonna be picky about it.”

Again, you realized, you did not deserve their kindness.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Hawkeye said as he led you further into the house and stopped at a white door covered in sparkling sticker hearts, “but this room has the best vantage point in case I need to, you know…” He pointed two fingers at you and mimed a gunshot. “No offense or anything.”

You shrugged with your working shoulder. It was fair.

The room was mostly pink and filled with toys. When you entered, you immediately stepped on a small, sharp block that embedded itself into your foot. You acknowledged the pain, did not react to it but for lifting your foot and removing it.

“Sorry about that,” Hawkeye said. “She’s going through a Lego phase. Laura’s hoping it means she’ll grow up to be an architect. I’m hoping it means she’ll want to stand on rooftops and shoot at bad guys. But I guess either is okay.”

The bed was small, covered in stuffed animals of every color, shape, and size. The sheets were rumpled and unmade as if the child had been picked up and carried away to safety.

It occurred to you that you were the reason such a precaution was needed.

You were wearing a soft cotton t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms that barely reached your ankles. You had not felt such soft fabric before, had never even thought about clothes from the perspective of comfort. Clothing, like bathing, was a secondary maintenance requirement, necessary only if missions were set in public places.

Mostly, though, you had worn armor.

You thought about your lack of armor as you set the neatly-folded pile of it on a dresser whose drawers were half-open. The pile lay next to a glittering tutu made of bright pink tulle.

Unable to conceal your guns in a way that would remain conspicuous in public, you had discarded them. Your armor held only your knives, and as you stepped away from your only means of protection, you felt...lighter. In your current state, you could not win in combat against Hawkeye, but you were not afraid; you took an odd comfort in the knowledge that he could hurt you if he wanted to, needed to.

You knew he wouldn’t, though, in the same way you knew you would not hurt him or his family. They were not your targets.

As you lay on the bed among the hoards of stuffed animals, you realized that they were your armor now, your protection. You covered yourself in a soft, old quilt that reminded you of the home you may have once had with the Captain, and you fell asleep as Hawkeye turned off the little purple lamp by your bedside.

You awoke to screaming. It was shrill, angry, terrified. Your heart pounded against your chest and you did not know where you were in order to determine your next move.

Sunlight streamed through curtains covered in rainbows and clouds. Your feet hung over the end of the bed and you were clutching a large white bear to your chest.

“Mommy Mommy Mommy! He hit me!”

You could not hear the reply above the noise of a television, the thump of feet running across a hardwood floor.

And you heard a motor, off in the distance. Like a weapon. A very large weapon. Hawkeye, Laura, and the children were all in danger. That was why they were screaming.

You threw the blanket off of your body and ran out of the room, ignoring the sound of two chair legs clattering to the floor behind you.

You ran into the kitchen, eyes wide, and watched as three unfamiliar faces looked at you in confusion. A little girl with messy hair sat at the kitchen table with a spoon in hand. A toddler kicked his feet in a high chair, his face covered with Cheerios. A woman—Laura, you guessed—held a full coffee pot in hand as she stared at you in fear.

In your peripheral vision, you saw Hawkeye extend his bow, tucked behind a wall out of sight from his family. “I think you best step away, pal.”

You replied, or tried to. You may have spoken German. Or Mandarin. You couldn’t tell the difference.

You held up your hand instead and took a step back. The roaring of the engine grew louder. You pointed at the window as a man rode past, slowly, the engine deafening the volume of the television. You wondered if you were imagining it.

Hawkeye lowered his bow and huffed a relieved sound. “That’s our farm hand. He’s on a lawnmower. It does exactly what the name implies.”

You let out a deep breath. You made a mistake, and you wished you could find words to apologize.

Your remorse must have seemed apparent, because a small, warm hand touched your shoulder. “Would you like some breakfast?” Laura asked. She had soft brown eyes and a kind smile.

The last person to look at you like that was the Captain.

You nodded.

No one knew what to do. Hawkeye seemed happy letting you live with his family. You worked to the best of your ability with only one arm and no means of speech. He taught you how to drive the tractor, how to stack firewood, how to feed the cows and collect eggs from the hens. He called you a quick study, and patted you on the back frequently.

Laura taught you how to brew the coffee in the morning since you were always the first one awake. She taught you how to change the toddler’s diaper and wash off his pacifier when it fell to the ground. The daughter, too, taught you to comb your hair after your shower to appreciate the maximum effects of the bubblegum tangle-free shampoo. She tried to teach you how to smile by standing in front of you and pulling at your cheeks, facial hair bunched in her little hands. She laughed when you made silly faces at her, because you got it wrong each time.

You taught yourself to listen. Laura gave you a small electronic rectangle and earphones. You awoke before dawn most mornings, snuck outside and felt the dewy grass between your toes. You found the silence stifling, so you listened to your rectangle from your earphones as you walked, as you watched the sunrise and meandered slowly toward the hen house to let them out. Laura had made you a grouping of songs and titled the playlist For the New Guy. You listened to it as you walked, as you sat on a wooden porch swing overlooking a valley of forest, listened to not only the words, but the beat and the rhythm of each song too, how it changed the meaning. It taught you to listen to people in the same way. Sometimes, you would look at Laura with eyebrows raised in a gesture you hoped asked, How are you? And she would say, “Good,” but often there was sadness in her eyes, or frustration, or exhaustion, and you realized that, like the music, the meaning of good changed with the way the word was said.

Sometimes you would take Laura’s hand when Hawkeye was with the kids and you would lead her outside, walk around in the twilight until eventually she would explain to you what good really meant that day. She would talk to you for hours and you hung onto her every word, because you wanted to make good better for her, for her family. Since you had no words to speak, you would take her to the swing, hand her one of your earphones, put the other in your ear, and pick a song to share with her. She would lean her head on your shoulder as you watched the sunset over the horizon.

Sometimes you forgot what it was you were waiting for.

The next time you saw the Captain, you had not been expecting it. Weeks had passed since you first entered Hawkeye’s home.

It was noon and you had just finished helping Laura cook and serve lunch. You washed all the dishes, dried them, and put them away, and then you sat cross-legged in front of the television, propped up against the couch. Hawkeye’s son, Lewis, was sitting in your lap, facing you and rolling a toy car up your arm. His daughter, Nicole, was behind you on the couch, braiding your hair. You felt the pressure of several butterfly clips holding groups of strands in place.

You felt very pretty because of it.

Your arm still did not work, but you were okay with that: it had been a weapon. You were still, overall, a weapon, but a gun without bullets could only do so much harm. Hawkeye had given you a sling so that it would not put so much pressure on your shoulder, nor would it wobble around with the loud clacking noise of the plates when you moved.

Speaking proved an ineffective endeavor. You never knew what language you were speaking, but sometimes when you tried, you were successful. You told Laura gracias, and she knew what it meant. It was a start.

You were entranced in the television show. It was one of your favorites. Colorful cartoon ponies taught you about friendship. You wanted to be a good friend, so the show became gospel to you, in a way.

A familiar voice pulled your attention away. “Bucky?”

You knew that name, associated it with violence. On impulse, you clutched Lewis to your chest and moved to cover Nicole. Then you met a set of blue eyes that burned you to the core. It felt like all the air had been taken out of your lungs, like when you had been trapped underneath the beam of the helicarrier.

The Captain was with a friend—the Falcon, you guessed from your research. Neither of them were in uniform. Neither were armed. The Captain had a shadow in his eyes that hadn’t been there before, a kind of tiredness, like when Laura would come home from visiting her mother with whom she often fought.

You stayed still and silent, unsure how to answer the question, unsure who you even were anymore.

You were overdue for a reboot.

You remembered like a punch to the gut that your handlers had still not tried to contact you. You justified your stay by considering it laying in wait for the Black Widow to make an appearance.

You tried not to think about what would happen when she did.

Nicole broke the silence. “Who the hell is Bucky?”

“Nicole!” Laura said, coming in from the kitchen. “What have I told you about cursing—” She stopped when she saw the Captain and his friend standing in her living room. “You’re…”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Captain said. “My apologies for barging in. I thought your children were in…” He trailed off, the word danger left unspoken as his eyes lingered over your unfinished hairdo.

Laura began tidying up the living room, throwing toys into boxes and picking up juice pouches from the coffee table. “No, no, it’s fine. I’ll go...get Clint,” she said, and left the room.

“So,” the Falcon began, “is it weird she just left her kids in a room with an assassin and two dudes she’s never met before? Or is it just me?”

“No,” Nicole said, climbing over you to finish your hair. “Friend would protect us, wouldn’t you?”

That was what the children called you: friend. You did not have a name, so they identified you by your place in their life, not unlike your handlers. To them, you had been the asset. To these children, you were their friend.

You shook your head and pointed at Lewis, still in your lap and chewing on his brightly colored toy car. You lifted his chubby little arm and made a growling noise, guided his tiny fist to paw the air in a gesture of intimidation. He and Nicole both giggled.

The Captain and the Falcon looked at you in baffled horror.

You stared back at them as Nicole took a clip out and your hair fell onto your face. If you knew how to smile, you would have.

You overheard a conversation you were not meant to hear. Hawkeye, the Falcon, and the Captain sat huddled in the basement—a man cave, Hawkeye had called it. The space was wood-paneled and half-finished, with mismatched couches in front of a big, old television.

You stood at the top of the staircase, out of sight. You had been on your way to rinse out Lewis' sippy cup when you heard the name that the Captain insisted on using to refer to you. You did not feel it belonged to you.

"—we have to get him some help, man. Real help,” the Falcon said.

"We can handle this. We have it under control,” the Captain replied.

“Until when, though? You think he just up and forgot about whatever mission he was on? We don’t know why he’s here. We don’t know what he’s capable of. We can’t risk it.”

You heard the distinct sound of a taut wire being plucked. "Doesn't seem like much of a risk to me,” Hawkeye said. “I like having him around. The kids love him, Laura loves him. I don't see a need to rock the boat."

"We have to call in Stark and Banner," the Falcon said. "HYDRA’s gone. They're the only ones who can get this fixed. Get him fixed."

You froze, breathing shallow, the rest of the conversation drowned out in your newly spinning thoughts.

HYDRA’s gone. Your handlers no longer existed. You had no opportunity for reboot. You would be this way—mangled and mute, hanging on to flashes of painful thoughts—forever.

You needed to leave. You needed to complete your mission. If you completed your mission, you could go to base and someone, somewhere would have to reboot you. That was how this world worked. You had been living in your dream world for too long.

You dropped the sippy cup and made a run for it.

You forgot shoes. You never had to think about things like shoes before. The handlers had dressed you. You had been good about things like clothes and shoes during your time on the farm, but you forgot them in your effort to flee. Wet grass and soft soil dipped under your feet as you ran, the cool night air whipping at your face. You went toward the woods with all the fireflies, where you'd come from. No one would be able to find you there.

"Bucky, wait!" you heard behind you, followed by steps that moved faster than yours did.

It was a direct order. You did not obey it. It hurt you not to obey it. Your justification for disobedience was survival. You could not complete a mission if you were dead, if you let Iron Man and the Hulk "fix" you.

Your handlers, they could fix you. Anyone else would just break you. You were designed for a very specific set of hands.

You were tackled to the ground before you reached the woods. You twisted in the Captain's hold, reached out and choked him with your flesh hand. He grabbed your wrist and yanked it off of him. You had gotten weaker, despite the farm work, despite carrying a toddler or a small child on your hip and shoulders for hours on end.

As the Captain straddled you and pinned your hand above your head, you retracted that thought: perhaps you had not gotten weaker; perhaps you had lost the will to maim. Perhaps you let the Captain win, just to feel him touch you, just to give you a reason to stay, even if it meant your death.

"Listen to me," he said, after catching his breath. "Please, just..." He sighed. You disappointed him. You hated yourself for that, for putting that look on his face: pleading, saddened. "Please stay. I can't make you. But from what Barton has told me, you're...getting better."

Better, you thought. Not worse. Not deteriorating from a lack of reboot. Not hurtling toward full system failure.

You wondered, for the first time, what you used to be like, back in the world you dreamed about. You wondered what you ever did to make the Captain look at you like he used to, wondered what you could do to maybe make him look at you like that again.

I remember you, you tried to say. You thought it might have been Korean.

He did not understand you, but he smiled anyway. It made your heart thud dully in your chest.

Because your words would not work, you tried something else: you threaded your fingers between his, squeezed his hand, and begged him with your mind to understand.

If anyone were allowed to break you worse than you were already broken, it would be him. If there were another set of hands you had been designed for, they would be his.

He pulled you up from the grass and guided you back into the house. He did not let go of your hand.

You shared the guest bedroom with him—Steve, some people called him; Rogers, others. Steve, if you could have shaped the word with your broken voice, sounded right.

You had moved from Nicole’s room to the guest bedroom when Hawkeye—Clint, you corrected—agreed with the rest of his family that you were not a threat. You wished you could tell them that you were still a threat, would always be a threat. You just needed a reboot, and you would again be capable of killing them all. Tabula rasa, your handlers called it. A clean slate.

But the family was safe while you were broken.

The Falcon—Sam—slept on the roll-out in the basement. Steve could have slept on the other roll-out in the living room, but he was waiting for you on your bed when you came out of the shower. After your escape, you had needed to wash the mud off of your legs. No one else noticed you had been gone, or if they did, they didn’t mention it.

You had not been expecting Steve to be waiting for you. He had a small trinket in his hand, a little elephant statue that had been on the bedstand. You did not understand its purpose, but some nights, when you could not sleep, you would stare at it. It reminded you of your old home; shelves atop floral wallpaper and lined with dusty little knick-knacks, loud voices crowded around a large dining table, hands passing bowls upon bowls of food, cigarette smoke and laughter. You had a family once. You did not let yourself wonder what happened to them.

Steve glanced at you when you entered. You would have said something if you could. Instead, you stood in front of the vanity and put your sling back on your arm, then you picked up the pink plastic comb Nicole had given you, and you combed your hair as she had instructed. The wet strands dripped onto your bare chest.

You wore pajama pants that fit you. Laura had given them to you, along with jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, socks, shoes, explaining they used to be Clint’s but they were old, and you could have them. But they were not Clint’s size, and you had found several department store tags in the trash can when you were cleaning the kitchen.

Steve stood from the bed and walked up behind you. You looked at one another in the vanity mirror’s reflection. He was taller, bigger than your dreams of him. You wondered if your dreams were broken, too.

He put a tentative hand on your bare hip, and took a step closer, never breaking eye contact. You could feel his chest lightly graze your back, and it sent a shiver down your spine. It was another system failure: physical reactions to stimuli.

You were overdue for a reboot.

His hand felt warm on your skin, heavy and strong. You remembered the bridge, and how those hands were used to hurt you—no, you corrected, they were used to defend himself against you. You attacked him because he was in the way of your primary and tertiary missions. You won one, you lost one.

You were once a good weapon.

You could be a good weapon again.

Steve leaned down and wrapped his arms around your belly, pressed his face to your shoulder and closed his eyes.

“I missed you,” he said, muffled into the crook of your neck. You could feel his heart beat against your back. The room was silent but for the sounds of canned-laughter sitcoms emanating from the living room, and crickets chirping through the open window. The lace curtains shifted in the soft breeze, and the house always smelled of sweet dew and home-cooked meals.

You would tell him that you missed him too, but you did not know if it were the truth. You missed him now, though, somehow; not because he was gone, but because you were. You were not the person he missed. You were not the person he loved.

You were a weapon.

But you let him take you to bed anyway, let yourself fall asleep in his arms.

You awoke the next morning at dawn. Roosters crowed in the distance. You opened your eyes to the sight of a watery golden sunrise, a mist settled over the fields. You knew where you were. It was a feeling you were still getting used to.

You realized, though, that you were surrounded once more by stuffed animals, lined up in a row behind your back to mimic the feeling of being held.

You shifted in the bed, and caught sight of a note on your arm, held in place with a small magnet shaped like a cow.

If you knew how to feel irritation, you would have.

You pulled the note off your arm and read it—like your ability to listen, you could still apparently read.

Went for a run with Sam. Hope I didn’t wake you. Be back soon! -S

At the bottom of the note was a funny little sketch of a man covered in an absurd number of stars, presumably Steve, running ahead of another man with wings, presumably Sam. There were lines behind Steve to illustrate his speed, and he was flailing his arms comically, drawn with wiggly lines, perhaps an effort of self-deprecation in regards to the ridiculous way Steve often ran.

You remembered it from your reconnaissance. At the time, you did not know humor. Now, though…

Steve did look ridiculous when he ran. He bounced too much, exerted too much energy in his gait to maintain efficiency. He always ran like someone was chasing him. It was...silly, like something in a cartoon that would make Nicole and Lewis laugh raucously.

If you knew how to laugh, you would have.

Instead, you stuffed the note in the little purple backpack Nicole had given you—because, she said, she received a better one for her birthday. You had begun keeping your few meager possessions inside of it.

You were making breakfast—you started doing that, too, along with the coffee. You made pancake batter in a mixer because you could not hold the bowl and stir at the same time. Bacon sizzled on a griddle, and an entire loaf’s worth of bread was toasting in the oven.

The kitchen was your favorite place, you had decided. It was the most used of all the rooms. Even though there was a front door to the house, everyone came in the sliding glass doors of the porch. You could sit at the kitchen table and see everybody who came in and out in a day like it was just as much their home as it had been the Bartons’: farm hands looking for a glass of sweet tea, contractors taking measurements for whatever Clint most recently failed at renovating, neighbors who had too much of one kind of vegetable and needed it taken off their hands, family members stopping by to pick up or drop off kids or desserts or leftovers. You could do a lot of good people-watching from the kitchen. Everyone you met was kind to you, treated you exactly like the Bartons did, even though you couldn’t talk and had a broken metal arm.

The kitchen was the noisiest room. It was where the kids screamed and chased each other. It was where Clint and Laura and you settled down at the end of a long day with a cold beer and you listened while they talked about petty things: the plans for tomorrow, the plans for next week, what Nana said when she dropped by earlier. The kitchen had flies buzzing and the shrill whistling of tea kettles and the incessant rattling of a ceiling fan.

The kitchen was the brightest room, too. The window above the sink looked out onto the farm and you could see the knee-high cornstalks swaying in the wind while you washed dishes. The tile was white, the wooden cabinetry bright, and herbs dried hanging from the windowsill. Every item had its special place, and you enjoyed making a mess while you cooked only to clean it again. It was like tabula rasa. You and the kitchen had a lot in common.

You had half of the batter flipped into perfect round pancakes when Steve and Sam returned from their run.

You turned around when you heard them and suddenly had an armful of big, sweaty superhero, pushing you against the counter and squeezing you until you couldn’t breathe.

For a brief moment, you thought maybe you were being attacked. Thankfully, Nicole had taught you how to hug a few days ago. She had wanted to tell you goodnight, and wrapped her arms around your neck.

“Now you put your arm around me,” she had said, tugging your arm up behind her. “And you go nnngh and squeeze real tight.”

So you did, but not too tight, because Nicole was very small. You had hugged her tight enough that when she let go of you, she smiled at you. You wished, then, that you could smile back.

You did not understand such a gesture, hugging, but if it made Nicole smile, you went along with it.

Steve could stand to be hugged a bit tighter than Nicole, so you did. And you went nnngh like she had told you to, and then Steve let go to hold you at arm’s distance. He was grinning at you. You did it right.

“Sorry,” he said, after a pause, looking down. His cheeks flushed, and you did not know what that meant. “I’m just...I’m really glad you’re here.”

And then, without realizing it, your lips twitched a little and your face felt strange, and then you smiled for the first time in your memory.

Steve reacted to it like you had handed him a small puppy, eyes going wide and grinning open-mouthed, and then he hugged you again and you squeezed him again and went nnngh again, and then Sam said, “Can we save the love-in for after breakfast? I’m starving.”

You let go of Steve and smiled at Sam, too.

After breakfast, Steve helped you clean up. Laura insisted that if you cooked, someone else would clean, but you liked to cook and clean. It was a new feeling, liking things.

You liked that Steve’s arm brushed up against yours at the sink.

You liked the way he smelled, clean from his shower and an undercurrent of something you could not place, but was as familiar to you as breathing.

You liked the way he always smiled when he looked at you, and you liked even more that you could smile back now.

“So,” Steve began, rinsing a plate to put on the drying rack, “I can’t help but notice you have a beard.”

You supposed you did. You hadn’t really noticed. When you looked in the mirror, you did not often see a person; rather, an object to be maintained. Facial hair had not been something your handlers trained you in maintaining. It had been nowhere in your protocols.

“Do you want to... get rid of it?” Steve asked, pretending to be preoccupied with scraping off a piece of food from a plate.

You looked at him, puzzled.

“I mean, you can do whatever you want, I just thought...I mean, you never used to have a beard, is what I’m saying.” The flush crept back up Steve’s face, and you did not know why it filled you with such a sense of accomplishment.

You nodded your agreement, and Steve smiled at you again. Once the dishes were done, he took you into the bathroom, closed the door behind you, and pulled off your shirt.

He lathered your face with shaving cream and filled up the pink ceramic sink with water. He rifled around in an old leather Dopp kit he had brought with him, and you could not shake the feeling that it had once been yours.

When he had retrieved a razor, he slowly stroked down your cheek with it, and rinsed it off in the sink. Once he had demonstrated the process, he handed it to you for you to try, but you shook your head.

You liked Steve being this close to you, touching you. He smiled at you in that dopey way he had, just with one side of his lips, one dimple in his cheek. You noticed that he didn’t smile like that around anyone but you; never blushed around anyone, either. The thought made your stomach flip in a not-unpleasant way, and you reached out to touch him before you realized you were going to. That was how much you needed it, needed him. You rested your hand on his hip, thumbed up underneath his shirt, and he made a satisfied noise while he took a step closer to you.

You let him shave the rest of your face, and by the end you realized that you had been standing next to a known enemy with a razor by your throat without thinking.

You would have chided yourself on such stupidity were it not for the fact that Steve did not try to hurt you. You bore your throat to him. He had all the opportunity to slit it and walk away. And he did not take it.

It was the first time you realized that although you may have been broken, perhaps you did not need to be fixed.

Every time you looked at Steve, you wanted to kiss him, but no one had taught you how. You figured the few occasions where Lewis mashed his face against your cheek in a slobbery sign of affection did not count.

(Though you appreciated it anyway.)

You spent the day working on the farm with Steve, Sam, and Clint. Later, you overheard another conversation.

You stood by the door to the back porch, a six-pack to hand out after a rough day of work. Dinner was in the oven—a pot roast that you helped Laura prepare. The sun was beginning to set, and Clint perched on the railing of the porch. Sam rocked back and forth in a rocking chair, and Steve sat on the top step.

“So what’s the plan?” Sam asked.

“Well while I have the help, I figured I’d get that wall knocked—” Clint replied.

“No, I mean with the chef-slash-babysitter-slash-brainwashed-assassin-slash-sad-kitten.”

“His name is Bucky,” Steve said in that monotone way he sometimes spoke when giving direct orders.

“Yeah, well, tell him that.” Sam rocked forward on the chair and rested his arms on his knees, narrowing his focus on Steve. “Look, man, we gotta do something. He’s in pain. You can see it on his face. We need—”

“I already called Stark and Banner,” Steve said. “Stark is on a press junket and Banner is in New Guinea. They said they would be here as soon as they can. We just have to hold off for a bit.”

The three of them were silent for several seconds, until Clint said, “Good, that means you can help me knock out the wall in the basement tomorrow.”

You took a deep breath and stepped outside as though you had not heard their conversation.

That night, you borrowed Laura’s laptop and brought it into the bedroom where Steve was propped against the headboard with a sketchpad on his lap.

You opened up a text document and stared at the keys. You could not speak. You could not write. There were too many languages in your head. You thought maybe you could type, because there were fewer languages that used the English alphabet.

Steve watched as you concentrated on the keys, on your hands, on what you were trying to tell him. You managed to type:

o ver do 4 re-boot tabula rasa

Steve read the words, his brow furrowed.

You tried again.

stark et banner re store 2 factory setting

Steve looked at you. “Buck,” he said, comprehension dawning on him. The way he said that word—the one he thought was your name—was with such reverence that you did not believe it could have ever belonged to you. “All I want is for them to figure out what’s mixing things up for you, why your arm doesn’t work. We’re not going to hurt you.”

You typed your next message more fervently.


Steve took your chin in his hand and tilted your face toward him until your eyes met. “Listen to me. Some very bad people did some very bad things to you for a very long time. That doesn’t make you broken. I saw you on the roof, on the bridge, on the helicarrier. Each time, you could have killed me and you didn’t. I was never your target. I read your files—each and every mission, your casualties were zero. Zero, Buck. They brainwashed you to be a killing machine, but you didn’t kill anybody they didn’t program you to kill.” He cupped your face in his hands, ran a thumb over your cheekbone. “You defied them. They took everything from you, and you defied them. You are not broken.”

You wished you could believe him.

Steve was wrong.

You were definitely broken.

In the end, you were just grateful Laura and the kids had been away.

Phase One began when you were making sandwiches for lunch.  

You hadn’t heard anyone enter the house. You thought you were alone. Then a familiar voice spoke from behind you, “They told me you were in town, but I had to see it for myself to believe it.”

You froze. A small voice in your head told you: No, don’t, you don’t have to—but it did not stop you. Your body began moving beyond your control. You picked up the knife you were about to use to slice tomatoes and flipped it in your hand. As you turned, you threw it at her. She dodged it, barely. It landed in the doorframe.

All you could see was a blur of red hair as she lunged at you. The fight was quick and dirty; you cracked an elbow across her face. She used the momentum to round-house kick you in the head. Once you were dazed, she socked you in the gut. You doubled over, and she swiped your knee out from under you, grappled you to the ground. Then she wrapped a dish towel around your wrist and tied the other end to a swivel barstool that had been bolted to the ground to make the kitchen look more like a diner.

Fucking Clint and his fucking tacky-ass house renovations.

She straddled you at the waist and you tried to escape her hold, tried to will your metal arm to move again, to no avail.

“Good to see you too,” the Black Widow said.

Steve and Sam ran upstairs from the basement, covered in dirt and dry plaster with dust masks around their necks.

“What the hell?” Sam asked.

Without looking away from you, the Black Widow replied, “This is what happens when you let an assassin live with you for too long.” She stood and removed the knife from the doorframe. “You eventually figure out what their mission is.”

You tried to rip the towel, tried to break the barstool, tried to break your wrist. You kicked and growled, feral, like a caged animal let loose.

Inside, you felt nothing. You thought nothing. Your mind was filled with something akin to the blissful blankness of tabula rasa.

“Bucky,” Steve said, an exhale. You could not read his tone. You could not look at him. You could not see anything but your target.

Tertiary promoted to Primary: Black Widow found in near vicinity. Attempted to engage in combat. Captured. Escape necessary. Will proceed as directed.

You ended up back in the barn, tied to the chair again.

It was where you belonged. Bull in a china shop and all that.

Hours passed. Steve brought you water. His face had been trained to blankness, and made you feel more alone than you’d felt since coming to the farm. He didn’t say anything at all. It hurt; you hurt. You wanted to ask Steve if everyone enjoyed the roast chicken you started earlier that day, but you couldn’t talk, and even if you could, you didn’t really want to know the answer. You just wanted to be an ass.

You tried not to think about what Laura had to tell Nicole about your disappearance. Maybe Laura told her that you were running an errand and you would come back soon. Maybe there was a chance that Laura didn’t tell her that her friend was actually a bloodthirsty monster hellbent on killing innocent people because you were too weak to override your own programming.

Maybe, unlike you, this could be fixed.

“I always imagined he’d be...scarier.”

You woke up to an aching neck and a pain in the ass. And only one of them was caused by falling asleep tied to a chair.

“I mean, he really does look like a sad kitten, don’t you think? He’s got that whole...pouty thing going on. It’s adorable, really.”

You stared at Stark through thick strands of unkempt hair, and yanked at your bindings just to see him startle and step back.

He did. It was satisfying.

“Whoa there, Roy Batty. This isn’t the Tannhäuser Gate.”

“Leave him alone, Tony. He’s suffered some major neural trauma. We’re here to help him, not goad him into going—”

The other man, presumably Banner, interrupted himself with a sigh and circled around until you could see him in your peripheral vision.

“You were going to say ‘Hulk’ weren’t you?” Stark asked. He made a tsk noise, and added, “Too soon, Bruce. It’ll always be too soon.”

Banner gave him an exasperated look and then squatted down in front of you. “I’m going to shine this light in your eyes, okay? But I want you to keep looking at me.” He did, then made a confirming noise, and stood back up. “Can you speak?”

You replied in what might have been a Chilean dialect of Spanish.

“Do you know Spanish?” Stark asked Banner. “I don’t know Spanish. Do we know anyone who knows Spanish?”

“Natasha,” Banner replied.

You growled at the name, felt the rope shred the skin of your wrist as you fought against it.

“But it’s probably not a good idea to bring her around right now.”

“Alright, well, let’s get started, shall we?” Stark opened up a big, shiny steel case. A hologram spanned a large width around him like a curved television, and he picked up a small crescent-shaped disk. He stood in front of you and pointed it at your face. “Listen up, Dixie Flatline, I’m gonna need you to stay still while CENIA here does her thing.”

“CENIA?” Bruce asked.

“Cybernetic Enhancement Neural Input Analyzer. I invented it just for the occasion.” And even though nobody asked, Stark continued, “You can’t just give a super soldier a metal arm; you have to teach him how to smash stuff with it.” He narrowed his eyes. “That sounded more clever in my head. Point is: shiny stuff changes thinky stuff in a big, sometimes bad, way.” He put the disk across your forehead and pressed a button on it. Stark looked all around you instead of at you, like you were a machine. Then again, from your research, that was how he treated most people, too. Your gut instinct toward him was an ugly one, and you didn’t know why.

“Alright, T-800, time to see what they did to that pretty little head of yours.”

The contraption whirred to life. You were expecting it to hurt, because last time you had something strapped to your head, it hurt a lot. Instead, it just kind of buzzed, like when Steve’s cell phone alarm would go off underneath your pillow. You closed your eyes and thought about how Steve would turn it off just to shift closer to you, bury his face in your neck and sleep in for another half hour. He’d been skipping his morning runs a lot lately.

The hologram in front of you came to life, began flickering a blue image that slowly turned into the shape of a brain.

You heard footsteps near the entrance of the barn, and Steve entered. You were both happy to see him and ashamed. Regardless, his presence was a comfort. He wouldn’t let Stark hurt you.

Bruce watched the hologram as the scan completed, and took off his glasses as he stepped closer. “Fascinating.”

“What’s the verdict, doc?” Stark asked. “Make it sound impressive, we’ve got an audience now.”

Banner pointed to the brain. It spun with his movements, rotated around. He separated it at the center and looked at each half. There was a glowing orange spot amongst the blue, just on one side. It pulsed in its brightness, reminded you of fireflies.

Banner expanded it with his thumb and forefinger until the orange took up most of the screen. He explained while moving the brain around some more, “The expressive aphasia appears to be caused by neural damage in the left posterior inferior frontal gyrus, and the damage looks like it spread to the primary motor cortex, which is—wow—massively distorted in size.”

“I take it back. Make it sound simple,” Stark said.

Banner looked away from the screen and talked to Stark like your brain was a car engine and you were not right in front of them listening to them talk about your car engine. “The way his brain perceives and controls the arm took more, uhh, oomph than a normal arm. So it kind of...ate some of his ability to speak. The arm needed more space, so it took it.”

“I’ve had girlfriends like that. Now what about the whole,” Stark made a wavy gesture toward his temple, “memory thing?”

Banner spun the brain again and sighed. “Memory is a different beast. There are too many areas affected, too many complex systems, but it looks like…” He zoomed in on an area, “Oh, God.”

“What?” Steve and Stark asked simultaneously.

You risked a glance at Steve, who had been leaning against the wall of the barn, arms across his chest, wearing your favorite blue shirt of his. It was just a plain v-neck t-shirt, but whenever he wore it, you always had the strangest urge to rip it off of him with your teeth. He had his angry-worry-wrinkle between his eyes, lips set in a line that would be more intimidating if it didn’t look so much like a pout. He wouldn’t even look at you.

Near the front of the brain, there were darker blue spots, like shadows. Banner pointed to them and said, “What they did to him was hardly different than a series of lobotomies mixed with electroconvulsive therapy. It’s a wonder he can function at all. They just...blasted his prefrontal cortex with electricity. They burned him alive from the inside.”

A heavy silence fell between them. Finally, Stark asked, “So how do we fix it?”

Banner pinched the bridge of his nose, “Theoretically, if we fix the arm, we fix the brain. It’ll take time though.”

“And the memories?” Steve asked.

Banner glanced at you, then turned away from you to address them, but you could still hear him as he said in a hushed tone, “They might come back. They might not. It could be one by one or all at once. There’s nothing we can do.”

You swore you saw a flicker of remorse cross Stark’s face, and you noticed, then, that his chest glowed with a circular blue light. You realized that maybe you had something in common with him after all.

You watched, too, as Steve’s expression turned cold, distant. Without looking at you, Steve turned on his heel and left. You wanted to dislocate your thumb and get out of the rope’s hold on you, tackle him to the ground just as he’d done to you. If you could speak, you would have told him that you were not Bucky, that Bucky was dead, and you were sorry, so fucking sorry that you couldn’t be him, would never be him—

Stark clapped his hands together and said, “Thank you, Dr. Banner. Fix a cybernetic arm, you say? Let’s get to it.”

Stark gave you a sedative so you wouldn’t kill him. It was a good idea.

You didn’t know how much time had passed when Sam showed up to bring you water. He asked Stark, “What about Natasha?”

“What about Natasha?” Stark replied, your metal arm splayed over his lap, a welding torch in his hand.

“How’re we gonna make sure he doesn’t go after her again?”

“Well, I imagine that’s going to be Phase Two of Operation: Up All Night to Get Bucky.”

“That’s seriously what you named it?”

“What?” Stark asked, lifting his goggles to look up at Sam. “Not good? How about Operation: Bucky Barnes Is Not a Villain? Operation: Bucky in the Sky with Diamonds? Operation—”

“You know what? No. The first one was just fine.”

Stark gave you a smug smile as he lowered his goggles and continued working on your arm. You rolled your eyes.

Well into the night, you were able to move the pinky finger of your metal hand. Stark cheered and tried to give you a high five.

You glared at him.

“Too soon?” he asked.

Stark got the arm working by dawn the next morning. “Alright, Bishop. Let’s take her for a spin.”

You stared at Stark like he was crazy. You could kill him, could crush his throat before he had a chance to wipe the stupid grin off his face.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

Fucking superheroes and their blatant disregard for imminent destruction.

He untied you from the chair and you stood. You stretched and your other arm moved with you. You rolled your wrist and wiggled your fingers, and then you picked up a log from the pile of firewood and crushed it in your fist.

“Awesome,” Stark said, impressed. “I think we’re ready for Phase Two.”

Phase Two involved Clint in the rafters of the barn with a bow in hand, Steve holding his shield, Sam taking the safety off his handgun, and a fully-suited Tony Stark.

And you stood in the middle of them, in jeans and a t-shirt, frowning, because at this rate, the peaches you bought were probably going bad, and there was a pie recipe you had really wanted to try.

You were wondering if Laura would be willing to take you to the market at some point to replace them—maybe the guy who made balloon animals would be there again—when Natasha entered the barn. Her footsteps rustled the hay at her feet as she slowly circled toward you. She wasn’t wearing any kind of combat gear, wasn’t armed to the teeth like the rest of them were; she was in yoga pants and a pink tanktop, hair in a bun at the back of her head.

A dark purple bruise had blossomed where you’d hit her. The sight of it made your chest hurt.

“Hey, handsome,” she said with a wan smile.

You frowned. You didn’t feel good. You wanted to go lie down. Maybe Steve would snuggle you again if he wasn’t too mad at you for trying to kill his friend. You could use a good snuggle.

You squeezed your eyes shut and shook your head. It hurt. Your heart was pounding. You pressed a palm to your forehead to make the room stop spinning.

You were overdue for a reboot.

Everyone was treating you like you were a weapon again, all because of your stupid arm. You were a person to them and then you tried to kill somebody and you went back to being something feared.

Terminate Natalia Romanova AKA Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow.

They were all scared of you, but they couldn’t understand that you were scared of yourself, too; scared of what you’d do to Natasha, scared of what they’d do to you if you failed their little test. You didn’t want to hurt anybody. You never meant to hurt anybody.  

So, you decided—

Overdue for a reboot

—there was one way—

Terminate Natalia Romanova

—to fix this.

You took a step toward Natasha. Stark lifted his blaster. Sam raised his gun. Steve prepared to throw his shield. Clint pulled back his bow.

You opened your arms, both of them, and pouted. Lewis taught you that. It meant you wanted to be held.

And you really, really did.

Natasha, hesitant and confused, took a step closer and tentatively wrapped her arms around you. You hugged her. Her body tensed. You squeezed tighter.

And you went nnngh.

Phase Two was apparently complete.

Primary: Buy new peaches. If you want. It’s whatever.
Secondary: Oooh, or green beans. They’re probably ready to pick by now.
Tertiary: You could make an awesome casserole with green beans.

When you were allowed back in the house, you overheard Natasha talking to Banner as you took a load of laundry to the wash.

You couldn’t help it. You were an assassin. It came with the job description.

“So what exactly happened back there?” Natasha asked.

“Tony completely reprogrammed the arm,” Bruce replied. “Even though it was broken, it had still been sending signals to his brain. It’s not working against him anymore.” He paused, and added, quieter, “I’m amazed how hard he fought it. I’m amazed any of us are still alive.”

“The way Steve tells it, he’s an amazing man.”

After a short silence, Bruce asked, “Have you managed to talk to him?”

“I tried,” Natasha said. And she had. You attempted to speak to her at length, but you couldn’t control what you were saying. “He kept switching languages, in the middle of sentences, in the middle of words, even. None of it made sense.”

“It’ll get better. It might take a few years, but if there’s one thing we can deduce about Bucky Barnes, it’s that he’s resilient.”

That might have been true, but you were not Bucky Barnes. You were not strong or resilient or brave or any of the other things you overheard people say about Bucky. When you accidentally slammed your finger in a drawer, you had Nicole kiss it better for you. When you would change Lewis’ diaper, you always ended up spending an extra five minutes at the changing table blowing raspberries on his tummy. Your own tummy had gotten soft from all the cookies you baked and then promptly ate. You grumbled when Steve would come to bed with cold toes and use your calves to warm them.

Bucky Barnes had been a hero, and you were no hero.

Stark, Banner, and Natasha stayed an extra few days. Sam and Steve stayed too. No one knew what they were waiting for, but no one wanted to pull the plug, either. Everything was too peaceful, and you got the distinct impression that it had been a long time since any of your friends’ lives had been particularly peaceful.

You didn’t know what would happen once everyone left. You realized you could not stay on the farm forever. As much as you wanted it to be, it was not your home. As much as you cared for Nicole, Lewis, Laura, and Clint, they were not your family.

You had no family. You had no home.

Stark gave you one of his spare laptops and installed a beta version of an extreme autocorrect program. You took it to bed with you. Steve hadn’t held you, had barely spoken to you since the incident.

He was pretending to sleep by the time you went to bed. You opened your laptop in the dark and typed a message:

I’m sorry.

You wanted to say more, but there wasn’t much else to say.

You tapped Steve on the shoulder. He turned and you put the laptop on his stomach.

He tilted the screen down to read the message. “I’m not mad, Buck,” he replied, staring at the computer as if it were the thing talking to him.

You spun the laptop back toward you and used Steve’s abdomen like a desk.

Then why won’t you talk to me?

Steve read it and sighed. “Sometimes...I get these ideas in my head. That you’re gone, and someone else is using your body. And I just…” He trailed off, shaking his head.

You waited for him to think through it.

Steve stared at the monitor for several moments before saying, “I’ve lost you three times. Sometimes I think you can’t be real. And if you were…” He trailed off again, bit his lip in contemplation, and concluded, “I can’t lose you again.”

You thought for a moment, took the laptop back and set it on your crossed legs. You were not Bucky Barnes. If you ever had been, you weren’t anymore.

But, you thought, you were you. And even if you weren’t Bucky, even if you didn’t know who you were, you were somebody.

So you typed: I’m not gone.

You handed the computer back to Steve. He read the message and exhaled like you punched him in the gut. He sat up, stared at the screen, then stared at you with a look you couldn’t decipher.

And then he kissed you.

You didn’t even have time to react before he pulled away and a flush spread across his face. The room was dark but it was so bright that you could see it from the light of the screen. “I’m sorry, I should have asked first—”

And then you kissed him.

More accurately, you shoved the laptop to the floor and tackled him down on the mattress and climbed on top of him. You kissed him like you were making up for seventy years of not kissing him, because that was exactly what you might have been doing.

Steve made a surprised, happy noise and threaded his hands through your hair. He smiled against your lips, held you closer to him. He tasted like toothpaste and smelled like sunshine, and his body was big and strong underneath you.

That was when you knew that you had never really lost that place, the one from your dreams with the creaking hardwood floors and the couch cushions on the ground where you would sometimes sleep next to someone you loved with your whole heart. You knew, then, that it didn’t matter where you went after you left the farm. All that mattered was that you were with Steve, because that was where you belonged.

You had finally made it home.

You woke up extra early on the Fourth of July, snuck out of bed without Steve waking. Natasha had told you it was his birthday, so you spent about a week planning the whole day with Laura and Natasha because Steve refused to make a big deal about it.

You made Steve breakfast in bed: waffles with blueberries and strawberry syrup, bacon, eggs, hashbrowns, toast. You woke him up by whistling. He stirred and groaned, covered his head with a pillow to hide from the light of early morning cascading over his body.

So you started whistling “Happy Birthday” and Steve grumbled, “Bucky, no.”

When you made no noise in response, he removed the pillow from his face and glared at you. You set the tray of food in front of him and his expression softened. “You made this for me?”

You nodded, then leaned down and kissed his forehead.

He sat up and immediately started eating. “Aw, Buck, you didn’t have to,” he said around a bite of bacon.

One surprise down.

Laura and Clint managed to drag Steve out of the house. They took the kids to the zoo, and it gave Bucky and Natasha time to prepare for the party.

They made a good, efficient team. Tony and Sam were put in charge of fireworks. Bruce was put in charge of...preparing himself mentally for the onslaught of explosions. You baked a cake. Natasha spelled out, Happy 96th/26th Birthday! on it in icing. You plated up a huge spread, and by the time Steve got back, everyone had already started drinking beer on the back porch while you flipped burgers on the grill.

When Steve saw you, he grinned and kissed you hello. It was an automatic gesture, but it quickly dawned on both of you that it was the first time you kissed in front of your friends.

They all stared at you, and Steve paled. He opened his mouth to say something, but then Sam said, “Alright. Time to pay up.”

“I was one week off,” Tony grumbled, fishing out his wallet and handing some cash to Sam. Laura and Natasha, too, reluctantly handed money to him.

“Really?” Steve asked. You returned your focus to the grill, silently impressed.

Once you had all eaten, the sun was beginning to set, and you brought out Steve’s cake with sparkler candles. Steve grinned your favorite stupid, dopey grin while everyone sang to him and you hummed along. He blew out the candles and, later, while you ate cake and ice cream, Tony and Sam ran to the bottom of the hill to ready the show.

Once it began, Steve took your hand and pulled you off the porch. You went with him and shot a tentative look at Natasha and Laura, who both waved at you to go on. Steve dragged you down to the barn, where you climbed a rickety ladder up to a hayloft. Then Steve opened the small window and climbed out of it and onto the roof. It was precarious, dangerous, and a little insane, but you followed him, because you would follow Steve straight to hell if he asked you to.

Steve settled himself near the top of the roof, nearly two stories high. He tucked his knees to his chest and you sat down next to him to do the same. The spot overlooked the whole farm, from the woods to the cornfields. The fireworks continued screaming into the sky and exploding in a beautiful array of colors.

Steve put his arm around you, and you rested your head on his shoulder. You watched the display and grinned when Sam and Tony started flying around chucking explosives at each other.  

“You might not remember,” Steve began, “but you were always the one who did this for us. We could never afford gifts back in the day, so you’d find the most obscure, hardest-to-reach spot in Brooklyn, and we’d climb and climb and climb until we got there. You always stole some of your ma’s berry pie and we ate it while we watched the fireworks over the river.”

It sounded so real, it was almost as if you had remembered it yourself. It felt like you had been there once, on the top of tenement fire escapes, young and reckless and free; like you could see the rough red brick, feel the hot metal of the stairs and ladders under your fingers, taste the sugary-sweet pie, smell the thick smoke of firecrackers.

You couldn’t wish Steve a happy birthday, so instead you tilted his chin toward you and kissed him, deep and sweet in a way that made you feel like you could have once been that boy Steve talked so often about; the one who spent his whole life doing anything and everything just to make him smile.

After the fireworks, you listened as your friends talked late into the night. Lewis fell asleep on your chest, his thumb in his mouth and his other hand gripping your shirt. You rocked back and forth on a wooden rocking chair in a steady, slow rhythm as your friends reminisced about various times they had all saved the world.

You were happier than you had ever been.

When you began nodding off, Steve took notice and excused you both, then helped you put Lewis to bed.

You followed Steve into your bedroom and closed the door behind you. Steve crowded you against it, slotted his lips against yours and ran his hands under your shirt. Between kisses, he said, “Thank you.” Kiss. “So much.” Kiss. “This was the best…” Kiss. “...birthday I’ve ever had.”

You smiled at him and he looked at you with a darkness in his eyes you hadn’t seen before. He kissed you again, but this one was different than all the others, harder and hotter. He nipped at your lip, pressed his body closer to you. He licked into your mouth, ran his hands up your back and then down to your ass.

When he pulled away, you were breathless. “Is this alright?” he asked, lifting up the hem of your shirt.

You raised your arms, let him pull it off of you. He went for the button of your jeans next, hesitated while he met your eyes and waited for you to nod or shake your head.

“It’s fine if you don’t want to,” he said.

But God, you did. You wanted it more than you could remember ever wanting anything.

So you nodded.

Steve flicked open the button of your jeans and slid your pants off of you. He guided you to the bed and lay you down, then took off his own clothes before joining you under the covers. He lay between your legs and kissed down the length of your jaw to your neck, reached between your bodies and trailed a gentle touch over your hardness.

You gasped, arched off the bed. Steve let out a dirty little laugh that you could feel all the way down to your toes. “I hope you remember how to be quiet.” He kissed back up the length of your chest, up the other side of your neck, and whispered, “We’ve done this hundreds of times. Anywhere we could find.”

You didn’t remember, but you wanted to. You wanted to know Steve’s body the same way he so obviously knew every inch of yours.

He took you in his hand and stroked you. You gripped his hair with your flesh hand and twisted your metal fingers in the sheets. You could feel Steve, thick and hard, rutting against your hip. It drove you crazy.

“Alleyways, movie theaters, janitor’s closets,” Steve murmured onto your throat. “During the war, you’d take me into the woods, tell me what my uniform used to do to you.” He took both of you in hand, sliding against each other in his fist. You were wet and throbbing and biting your lip to keep from making obscene noises.

His voice came out strained and needy, panting for breath as he said, “God, Buck, I missed this.” He kissed you again, let his lips linger on yours as he sped his pace. “Missed you.”

You felt a flush of heat over your body like the recoil of a gun, began rocking your hips with abandon into Steve’s grasp. You’d never done this before, never even touched yourself, had no idea how it should feel. But it felt good, felt amazing, felt better than anything else you’d experienced.

A pressure built at the base of your spine and your breath came out in desperate, groaned exhales. You squeezed your eyes shut, but you could feel Steve watch you, feel his body tense above you as he moved against you in a filthy, rhythmic grind.

You came with a cry that Steve muted by kissing you, stroking you through wave after wave of your first orgasm. He followed right after, coating your stomach and chest, panting the word you wished was your name.

He cleaned you both up and pulled you close to him, tangling your limbs together like you did every night. He kissed you again and said, “I love you. I always have. I always will.”

You couldn’t say it back, but in that moment, you felt it: felt it in every atom that composed your existence. If you could speak, you would have screamed it from the rooftops.

But you couldn’t, so you brought Steve’s hand up to your chest and laid it over your heart, told him with your mind that it beat for him, would only ever beat for him.

You looked at him, and you knew he understood.

No one told you about Phase Three. Maybe no one knew about it. Maybe there was no preparing for it anyway.

Tony was reworking some electricity in the house. Sam, Clint, and Bruce were finishing the basement wall—you could hear them laughing about how much easier it would be if Bruce could turn green and get it done in one go. Natasha was on a walk with Laura and the kids.

You and Steve were making dinner. He’d memorized your ma’s lasagna recipe, wrote it out on a little note card for you with a crayon drawing of it next to the ingredient list. He made you a card for all the meals your families used to cook, along with some desserts, breads, side dishes. He put them in a little box with alphabetical dividers. You could fill more in as you learned to cook more things. You put it in your purple backpack as you swallowed back the lump in your throat.

Steve turned on the radio while you rolled out the dough.

The DJ announced, “—time for the gold standard of swing. Here’s ‘In the Mood’ by Glenn Miller.” The song felt like a shadow in your mind, like you knew it had existed but didn’t remember ever hearing it.

You barely noticed when you started moving your body to the beat.

“I have a feeling I’m gonna regret saying this,” Steve began, “but you used to like to dance.”

You smiled. You were good at that now. Your hands were covered in flour, and dough was caked into your fingernails, underneath the plates of your metal hand. You kept swaying with the music, bouncing on the balls of your feet.

“You’d find us a couple-a gals who liked each other more than they liked us and we’d all go dancing. These two girls in particular, Barbara and Dolores, they looked at each other like they hung the moon. We went out with them a lot. You and Barbara danced. Dolores and I sat on the sidelines and talked. We had fun.”

You turned around to look at Steve, who—lazy bastard—wasn’t doing a damn thing but leaning against the counter and watching you work.

You arched your eyebrow in a way that said, You don’t dance? It was a challenge, and Steve never backed down from a challenge.

He held up his hands. “This is exactly what I meant when I said I might regret this.”

You didn’t think about it, didn’t even bother wiping your hands off on a towel before reaching out and pulling Steve into the middle of the kitchen.

You spun him against you, threw him back out, lifted his arm above his head until he turned under it. You moved in a way you didn’t know you knew. Just like how you could disarm an opponent without having to think about it, your body knew how to swing. Steve laughed and moved with you. He wasn’t as bad as he thought he was; he knew all the moves too. You both fought for the lead, took turns instead.

The song ended and you pulled Steve close to you. You kissed him as the next song started up, and kept kissing him as you put one hand on his waist, threaded the fingers of your other hand with his.

Stars shining bright above you

You swayed to the music while you kissed and kissed and kissed.

Night breezes seem to whisper, “I love you.”

You were covered in flour, and now Steve was too. The kitchen was sweltering from the oven and the midafternoon heat.

Birds singing in the sycamore trees

You did not know, then, that Phase Three had begun.

Dream a little dream of me

It hit you worse than the reboots ever did. With tabula rasa, you forgot everything. This was the opposite.

This was when you remembered.

You pulled away from Steve, clutched your head in your hands, and screamed. You couldn’t even hear yourself. Everything was white-hot, blinding pain. You fell to the ground. Your head felt like it was slowly splitting into a million tiny pieces. Your reality fell away from you and was replaced by the agonizing rush of the past century, barreling into your consciousness until Steve’s panicked, Buck? Bucky! became a distant whisper in the clashing noise of your mind. You kept screaming.

You were five years old, skipping rocks at the harbor. Your ma had kicked you out because she was busy having a baby. You resented her for that. You resented everyone for that. You heard a scuffle in the alleyway behind you. It was a little blond boy, about your age, picking a fight with two much bigger boys who were messing with a dog that had been chained to somebody’s stoop. You didn’t want to intervene. But you did anyway. And you were glad you did, because that was how you met Steve.

You were eight the first time you ran away from home. It was because your pa was real mean to your ma and sister, and there was nothing you could do about it. You left because you thought it was your fault somehow. You thought he’d stop hurting them if you just disappeared. You packed a dinner roll and a handful of your ma’s pecan sandies into a handkerchief and climbed out your window and down the fire escape. Steve followed you even though you told him not to. You made it as far as the harbor and waited there until the drunks came out of the speakeasies, then you got scared and Steve convinced you to go home. It was dark and nobody was around, so he held your hand the whole way. It made you feel better.

You were eleven when you lost your littlest brother. It was a bad winter, and he caught a fever. He was just a baby. Your family couldn’t afford a funeral, and Steve held you when you cried.

You were still eleven when you found your pa dead in a bathtub three months later. Steve didn’t hold you that time, because you never cried about it.

You were twelve the first time you truly got the shit kicked out of you. It was all Steve’s fault. He picked a fight he couldn’t win, and you defended him. You should have gone to the hospital. Steve set your nose back wrong and it had been crooked ever since.

You were fourteen the first time you kissed Steve. Everyone was celebrating the end of prohibition, and you managed to snag a bottle of booze from a store and tuck it under your shirt. You got drunk on your fire escape and convinced Steve to drink a little too. You were happy and so was he, so it only made sense to kiss about it. It should have felt wrong. It didn’t. So you kept doing it.

You were seventeen the first time you realized you were in love. You and Steve had scraped together enough pennies to see a picture. It was Romeo and Juliet. You were mad because you couldn’t understand a word of it, even madder because what you did understand was just plain stupid. But by the end of it, you realized that there was someone in your life you’d die for, and he was sitting right next to you.

You were twenty-five when you died for Steve. If you had to do it all over again, you would.

You were thirty-nine when you assassinated Carlos Castillos Armas, President of Guatemala; forty-three when you assassinated Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the Congo; sixty-five when you assassinated Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union.

You were seventy-two when you first met a pretty teenaged ballerina named Natalia Romanova. You trained her. She may have looked delicate and frail and sweet, but you quickly learned that she was fast and smart and strong. She could kick your ass blindfolded. And she did. A lot. She was not the Black Widow at the time, though you were the one who eventually named her by providing her with what would become her weapons of choice.

You were ninety-six when you pushed Steve Rogers out of an exploding helicarrier, and then dragged his unconscious body out of the Potomac River.

You were still ninety-six when you remembered all of this, all at once, like the nuclear bomb that would have detonated during the Cold War had you not disarmed it when you were seventy-seven.

And you were still ninety-six, curled up in a fetal position on the ground of a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, USA, when you passed the fuck out because of it.

The first thing you saw when you came to was Steve Rogers’ face looming over you. It had that dumb wrinkle between his eyebrows like he got when he was mad at you, because he didn’t know how to look worried.

You lunged forward and kissed him, because why the hell not. He made a cross between a startled noise and a grumpy one before kissing you back. When you pulled away, he cleared his throat and gestured to the other people in the room with you. You were in your bed, surrounded by Clint, Sam, Natasha, Bruce, and Tony. They all looked incredibly worried about you even though you only had a twinge of a headache. Also, probably a lot of mental and emotional processing to do about the whole brainwashing thing, but you’d get to it later.

You scrambled for your laptop, opened it, and typed a message.

You tilted it toward Steve and he read it out loud to everyone. “‘It wasn’t a dream. It was a place. And you—and you—and you were there.’” When he understood, he gave you a seething look that would destroy a lesser man.

But you were not a lesser man. You were Bucky fuckin’ Barnes, and you thought Steve’s I-can’t-believe-you-right-now face was the most hysterical thing on the planet. You laughed. Hard. No one else did.

Well, you thought it was funny.

You glanced at the clock. Shit. You needed to get the lasagna in the oven.

You rolled off the bed and ran to the kitchen.

Behind you, you heard Tony say, “Well, I think it’s safe to say that went a lot better than we all expected.”

It was really good lasagna. Just like your ma used to make. It made you a little homesick, but you were so grateful to understand the feeling of homesickness that it just made you happy instead.

Steve couldn’t stop smiling at you from across the table, and you couldn’t stop smiling back. You were almost entirely oblivious to the way they all stared at you like they were waiting for you to revert back to assassin status.

You may have made things kind of awkward for everyone else.

When you tried to clean up after dinner, Sam took the plates out of your hand and said, “If I have to sit in the same room with you and Rogers giving each other heart eyes for one more minute, I’m going to lose my shit. Just...go do whatever it is you’re gonna go do.”

“Finally,” Tony said from the dining room.

“Thank you,” Natasha chimed in.

Steve buried his face in his hands to hide the fact that he was beet red.

Then, like when you were kids and ditched school early to sneak into the pictures, you took Steve’s hand and pulled him into the bedroom with you.

When the leaves started turning and the harvest was over, it came time to leave the farm. Pepper picked out a nice apartment in Brooklyn for you and Steve. Just like home, Steve had said, but with a flat screen TV and a refrigerator instead of an icebox. It even had a dishwasher, but you knew you’d never use it.

Packing took all of five minutes. You put your clothes in your purple backpack while Steve waited outside on his motorcycle.

Your heart sunk when you heard Nicole scream. Clint must have just now told her.

She ran into your room and threw herself into your arms. You immediately broke down in a way you hadn’t since you were her age, vision blurry with tears, chin trembling, biting back sobs because you needed to be strong, if not for yourself then for Nicole.

“I don’t want you to go!” she cried onto your shoulder.

Laura and Clint stood in the doorway. Laura’s eyes were red-rimmed and she wiped them with the back of her hand. Clint had one arm around her, the other holding Lewis on his hip.

Eventually, you pulled Nicole off of you and set her on the ground. You tilted her chin up so that she would look at you.

She did. Her face was contorted in her effort to stop crying. You had a silent conversation with her, because unlike adults, kids didn’t need words to understand. You told her with your eyes that it would be okay.

She nodded, and you hugged her again, kissed the top of her head. You stood and hugged Laura goodbye, kissed Lewis’ temple, and shook Clint’s hand. They had given you kindness when the world saw you as nothing more than a plain-dealing villain, and there was no language on earth that could give you the words to thank them properly.

So you left the house with tears streaming down your face, and climbed onto the back of Steve’s motorcycle. As you drove away down the long country road, you did not let yourself look back.

There was a Phase Four, of sorts. And it was entirely your fault.

It happened two years later.

You were more nervous than you’d ever been in your entire life. And you knew that, because you could remember your entire life.

You sat on Nicole’s bed. She stood behind you, comb in hand, working out your tangles and putting your hair into a French braid. She bought little ivory and gold flowers to adorn it, so that you would match the colors that Pepper picked.

You were fully dressed, at least. You’d made it that far. Tony dragged you to his tailor and you settled for a black suit with a black shirt and an ivory tie. You thought you looked ridiculous. Natasha said you looked hot. Nicole said you would look better with your hair braided. You were more inclined to believe Nicole than Natasha.

You made a grunting noise when she pulled too hard.

“Hold still,” she said, “I’m almost done.”

You still weren’t great at speaking. That was to be expected, Bruce said. It probably took years for the damage to occur, so it would take years for the damage to retract. But you were improving, so that was the important thing.

You liked your apartment in Brooklyn, but your kitchen was too damn small. You had bad days, you had good ones. Sometimes you had nightmares, sometimes you didn’t. Some days you saved the world with your superhero boyfriend. Some days you baked cookies and stayed up all night watching all the movies and TV shows you missed while you were busy being intermittently frozen.

You came back to the farm as often as Clint would let you. Lewis started calling you and Steve “Ucky” and “Steeb”, which...close enough. You went to Nicole’s kindergarten graduation. You almost ripped the throat out of a poor nurse who refused to allow Laura to eat ice cream during the twelve-hour delivery of Nathaniel. You were asked to stay in the waiting room after that.

You spent Christmas on the farm, too, and utilized your new superhero salary to spoil the shit out of the kids because Clint refused to. He drew the line when you were about to buy Nicole a pony. It was okay, you reasoned. In ten years, you’d buy her a really awesome car instead.

It was summer again now, and when Nicole was done with your hair, she climbed down from the bed, and made a wide circle around you, evaluating her work. She picked up a small, pink tube and climbed onto your lap, then spread a little bit of clear lipgloss on your lips. It tasted like bubblegum.

She nodded as she climbed back down. “Perfect. You’re very pretty.”

You beamed at her, then frowned, panicked. That meant it was time to go.

“C’mon,” she said, taking your hand and pulling so you would stand up. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

She wore a white dress and a golden flower crown on her head. Laura had curled her hair into ringlets. She was missing both front teeth, so she had a little lisp that made you bite the inside of your cheek so you wouldn’t laugh. You had no place making fun of speech impediments, even if they were adorable.

You glanced at yourself in the mirror. Your hair looked good French braided, and the little flowers sparkled. You still had trouble sometimes looking at your reflection and seeing a person instead of a thing, but every day was an improvement. Your lips were shiny and your eyes were bright. You probably looked better than you ever had in your entire life, so at least you had that going for you.

Nicole tugged you to the door. “I’m gonna hold your hand all the way up there, just like we practiced, okay?”

You nodded. Your heart was in your throat. You once fell out of a train and plummeted to your first death and it was less scary than this.

You made it to the sliding glass doors leading out to the porch. Pepper was waiting for you, smiling, clipboard in hand. She looked amazing, wore an ivory blouse and gold pencil skirt. Maybe she should be the one going up there instead of you. She wouldn’t screw it up. You were gonna screw it up.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

You took a deep breath. Nicole pulled at your hand and replied for you, “Yep!”

You glared at her.

Pepper pressed on the comm in her ear and said, “We’re a go.”

The music started. Goddammit.

There was no backing out now.

Nicole led you down a small path toward the gazebo where dozens of people and photographers were waiting on you.

You turned a corner. You didn’t know what you’d been expecting, really. Maybe for Steve to be wearing his Captain America uniform. You really liked the uniform, and he knew that, and he also liked doing ridiculous things to make you smile, especially if it involved fucking with the press.

That was how he had proposed to you about a year ago: publicly. It was at Pride and Steve was giving a speech on the importance of equality. There was a stage, a podium. Steve was so good at public speaking; you wished you’d been there those first months after he’d had the serum. He slid into his Captain America persona so easy, and after every event, you’d take him home and let him fuck you stupid.

He had ended his little Pride speech by bringing you on stage, which was to be expected because you were both openly bi and had kind of turned into queer icons. You were immediately terrified, but tried to smile and look as happy and complacent as you could.

But then Steve got on one knee, pulled a ring out of one of the dozens of pockets of his uniform.

And you proceeded to lose your emotional shit in front of thousands of people.

“James Buchanan Barnes,” Steve had asked, staring up at you with a devious grin, because even when he was supposed to be romantic, he was still a rebellious little shit who liked to annoy the hell out of you, and you fucking loved him for that. “Will you marry me?”

You could have punched him. You should have punched him. But in that moment, the audience melted away, and it was just you and him, and you nodded yes, and he kissed you.

After months of planning, you now walked down the aisle with Nicole guiding you forward. It was a night wedding, and fireflies lit up all around you as you walked. You could hear the cicadas and the crickets above the music, feel the soft grass under your feet. A canopy lined with white lights stood above you, and on either side of you were dozens of your friends.

Steve was waiting for you at the end of the aisle, and your eyes met. Time slowed down as he smiled at you, grinned his dumb, goofy, dimple-filled grin that was actually your favorite thing in the whole world. He wore a plain black suit with a white tie, and, like before, everything else melted away.

You made it to the altar, and Nicole whispered, “Okay, you can let go now.” She tugged her hand away and skipped off to her spot. The music stopped, and Steve took your hands in his. You were trembling a little, but Steve was steady, because Steve was always steady.

Tony turned out to be an ordained minister. It surprised no one. He stood beside you on the step of the gazebo and announced, “We are gathered here today to celebrate the unity of two men who have been through more together than any of us could possibly comprehend. They are veterans and heroes. It would be a disservice to them to attempt to narrow their relationship into words when the way they are looking at each other right now says everything you need to know about them.”

Steve looked down and his cheeks tinged pink and you would never, ever get tired of that.

“Rings, please,” Tony said, and Natasha smiled brightly as she handed them to you both. Steve took yours and slid it on the ring finger of your right hand instead of your left because you wanted to be able to feel it as more than just a blip on your pressure sensors. You slid his ring onto his finger and quickly took his hands again because they were the only thing keeping you together right now.

Tony continued, “Do you, Steven Grant Rogers, take James Buchanan Barnes to be your lawfully wedded husband?”

Steve’s eyes watered. It freaked you out a bit, because the last time Steve cried was when you died. He shouldn’t be crying when you were doing the literal opposite of that. It was the only thing that sucked about having your memories back: you remembered Steve’s face as you fell out of that train, felt his heart shatter in your own chest. As you fell, your only fear had been for Steve, leaving him alone in a war-torn world, just a boy from Brooklyn too dumb to back down from a fight. And God, now you were crying too. You were both pitiful saps who were stupid in love and after a goddamn century, you were finally doing something about it.

Steve didn’t take his beautiful, tear-filled eyes away from yours as he said, “I do.”

“And do you, James Buchanan Barnes, take Steven Grant Rogers to be your lawfully wedded husband?”

Oh God. This was it. This was the part you were going to fuck up by answering in some ancient dialect of a language nobody had ever heard of.

You took a deep breath. You concentrated on Steve, on the feeling of his hands in yours, on the memories of everything you had been through together, and the knowledge that you would go through the rest of your lives together, too.

And then you said, “I do.”