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A sky full of ghosts

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They meet in Venice.

 

The Soldier’s running from the Captain, the WSC, and HYDRA, while at the same time running towards HYDRA. Hunting them like a dog, adamant on removing each and every cell from the face of the earth.

Word was - there’s supposed to be a meeting between two former higher-ups during the ball, and he knows which ones. He has their faces embedded in pain and blood into his memory. The only problem? - He can’t see their faces. In a whirlwind of color and music the party sucks him in, makes him lose himself and his targets in an endless sea of masks and costumes.

The carnival rages around him and the Soldier moves with it, blending in amongst the joyous bodies, switching from one faceless partner to the next one, waiting for the moment he’s gonna just know , when the flash of a gaze behind the eye slits or the sardonic hilt of a snark will make his skin crawl.

“Hey sweetheart, care for a dance?” A sulky male voice says in italian as he is pulled from his current dance partner into the arms of another. The man is slightly shorter than him but holds himself like he is higher than the skies. He is a lean collage or reds and blacks and smooth movements, the lower half of his face blown into a wide smile framed by a carefully trimmed beard. The upper half is hidden behind a classy crimson and gold mask, similar in shape to the Soldier’s black one, and topped with a red feather on the side.

Then the Soldier looks into his eyes, gleaming behind the almond-shaped eye slits, and everything stops.

He barely has the time to take notice of their vivid brown before it fades away and he is sucked into a another dance, that of stars and galaxies and nebulas. Billions of dots of light and glowing dust, explosions of energy, the birth of the infinite and the death of billions of years.


The universe inside another person’s eyes.


The reunion of one soul split between two bodies.


The sign of the soulbound.

 

He jerks away, heart hammering in his chest, and the man lets him for one eternal moment, frozen in place, infinite eyes open wide and his lips parted in shock.

Everything falls away, the music, the people, and then it’s only the two of them left, standing three feet away from each other. The Soldier is torn between closing the distance or running away when the man takes that decision for him, stepping into his space and sliding his hand behind the Soldier’s neck, pulling him down and bringing their lips together. They are soft but demanding and it’s been a long couple of days, months, decades… The Soldier keeps running from everyone, hiding, masking his tracks, and his mind is such a mess… the more he remembers and the more human he becomes — the more wrung out he feels. So he allows himself this. A couple of seconds of pure bliss, of intimate human contact, and leans into his dimidium animae , whom he’s never going to see again, opens his mouth and loses himself in the warmth and the feeling of rightness, of destiny come true.

He’s careless in those few seconds, far too human and needy, so when he realizes something’s not right it’s already late. He notices it in the kiss first. The man isn’t kissing him like he should, thrilled to have found his soulmate, ecstatic, giddy, nervous, desperate to keep him near. That kiss is tender, yes, but it also has a purpose to it.

The touch at the back of his neck is too confident, not a sliver of trembling, and when the Soldier tries to pull back there’s one horrible, sickening moment, one fraction of a second, when he can’t move, when the grip is too strong for a normal human.

He yanks his whole body back and stares at the other man. And there’s something familiar in his whole form, something that hovers at the edges of the Soldier’s awareness.

The man touches his lips, then his mask, over his eyes, gaze locked into his, and speaks, in English, of all things.

“Okay, wow, that was unexpected. Er... Listen, Barnes-”

And the Soldier flees.


He knows that he’s making a mistake, he should either kill that man or follow him and figure out who he is and what does he want from him. Anything but running away.

But he can’t! He can’t even bring himself to think about hurting his soulmate, but he can’t remain another second in his presence either.

It hurts like his heart is being ripped out of his chest and as soon as he is in a secured location he collapses on the floor and folds onto himself. And weeps.

The betrayal aches like a spear through the guts, and he knows it’s stupid to feel that way about a stranger, but it’s like the old tales say; for one long second he felt whole for the first time in his life, like he belonged, like he was truly safe. And now that he rejected it the feel of loneliness and  longing is so overwhelming he can barely breathe.

He’s never felt more human as he does now. This, this pain is what deconstructs the Soldier, what rebuilds him as James Barnes again.

He spends the rest of the night curled on the ground, fighting the impulse to run after his other half and grieving.

Come morning, he leaves Venice.

 

 

***

 

 

 

A lot changes for James after that night. Both on the personal and interpersonal levels. He feels more like himself every day, more like the man he once was and something new too, something that came out of the mess of his past and it trying to find its way inside him. The most prominent change probably being that he no longer only knows that he isn’t just a machine, but now he also knows it, in a different way, like he finally realizes what those words mean.

On the outside he doesn’t act any different. James keeps running after HYDRA, researching himself, and avoiding everyone.

Except that now, just from time to time, he likes to sit under the night sky on some quiet countryside and salute with his beer at the myriad of stars, like toasting to a silent partner a whole world away.

He also remembers more things. The memories come in more steady and clear, from his childhood, the army and the war. Most of them feature Steve.

Steve. And here’s another change. Steve’s still after him, but it’s different now. It takes James a good while to realize that Steve’s not after him anymore. Or better said, he’s but in a different way. He no longer comes barging in as soon as James stops moving for more than a few hours. He actually went as far as to stay for two months in one place and Steve didn’t show up on his doorstep not even once.

However, as soon as he gets into trouble or engages in a battle with HYDRA that’s probably more than he could swallow - there Steve is. In all his Captain America glory. It sorta feels like he’s done trying to corner James and now just has his back. It’s nice but there are two issues that bother James.

The first one is - how the hell does Steve always know when and where to find him when he needs backup?

It keeps worrying him, irking under his skin, the suspicion that the reason why Steve’s not constantly looking for him anymore is because he somehow knows where James is all the time.

The second issue is that no matter how much faith he tries to have in his old friend, how much he misses him, he is not ready to go back and somehow Steve understands that now. Which isn’t at all like the guy he remembers. The damn punk holds the title for the most stubborn being in the galaxy. He’s like a dog with a bone, and when his personal feelings are involved he rushes heads in in a true Howling Commandos fashion, crashing through walls instead of knocking on the door. But this, this “giving some space” thing, is not how he operates, specially considering the issue is his missing best friend.

His questions get answered one day as Steve and his friend with wings burst him out of a HYDRA trap. (And how didn’t he even realize that it was a trap? It seems the more of the programming gets washed away, the sloppier he gets). Steve looks two seconds away from wrapping him in a bear hug and never letting go again, so James is on the edge of knocking him out and running away. He’s not ready, he’s just not ready. Almost, but not yet...

And Steve must see it because he breathes in deeply and says “I know, don’t worry I can do it, I know.” and wraps his own arms around himself, looking away.

James is lost for a second when he remembers the expression on Steve’s face, a look of concentration that he gets when he is listening intently and tries to absorb the information. He must be wearing an earpiece.

And suddenly it clicks into place.

Why the sudden change in approach, why all the hovering but no touching, why Steve is holding back even though he has Bucky right there, close enough to knock him out, bring him back and lock him in a dollhouse with mandatory rehab and lots of crying and hugging.

Steve’s not calling the shots anymore. Someone else must be in charge of the “Bring Bucky back” operation.

And that, that makes even less sense than before. As stupid and pretentious as it sounds James knows Steve feels sort of entitled to him. So there’s only one reason why he would be suddenly stepping down and entrusting James’ safety and possible return to another person. Because there’s only one kind of relationship that since the beginning of time automatically outweighs any other on the face of the planet, including a lifelong friendship.
It’s so simple it’s almost funny. And a hell lot of hurtful.

“Give him my regards” He spits out and flees before Steve can say anything in return.

 

Oh god he’s been such a damn fool! The man from Venice called him by his last name! He’s been so adamant on not reviving that encounter that he blocked it out completely but he should have taken into account that little detail. His soulmate knew him, recognized him even behind a carnival mask.
Moreover, when James tried to get a hold of the two Hydra higher-ups that he’d been after that day he found out that they’d been taken into Avenger’s custody.

It had all been a trap all along. Given, for once it hadn’t been a trap for him , but he walked into it anyway.

He acquires a tablet and looks up pictures of Steve’s friends and team. And there he is. James only saw those brown eyes for a fraction of a second before they changed to a window into the infinite but he’d recognize them anywhere. As well as that smile.

Tony fucking Stark, of all people.


Apparently lady Fortune had the good graces of compensate for his hunger filled childhood by making his soulmate one of the richest people in the world. It’s just a pity that no amount of gold would be able to make James bolt from his seat and jump into the jerk’s open arms. Besides, if the Internet is to be believed, Tony’s quite the playboy, maybe he’s less than thrilled to have found his supposed one and only. The fact that said one and only is a former brainwashed HYDRA plaything and a murderer must have been the icing of the cake.

Still, he spends hours hunched in front of the screen, flicking through hundreds of pictures through the years and reading on Tony Stark’s life. It’s not a boring read. He knew the basic stuff about him, since Iron Man had been considered an A level threat by HYDRA, which is code for “ unless ordered to do so do not fucking engage without a war tank and heavy backup, you incompetent moron! ” While Tony, the squishy human filling, had been marked as inoffensive but a valuable resource once, required to be brought in if ever caught without the armor. That rating inexplicably changed to a C level threat ( mildly dangerous, do not engage if not properly armed ) half a year before James had been “liberated”.

The internet through, provides all the juicy details, as well as some terrifying reports. Afghanistan, New York, the Mandarin... What does it say about James’ sanity if he aches over the possibility of having lost Tony so many times when he doesn’t even have him to begin with.  

He soothes the feeling with a glass of scotch and indulges himself for hours, flicking through photos and youtube videos. Some of them make his blood boil with misplaced jealousy, those where he’s making out or holding some supermodel, and every single cell in James’ body screams mine! until he has to tap on another link. Some other make him slightly melancholic. Specially the lot where he’s surrounded by the Avengers.

There’s even a cellphone shot from a couple days ago, of Tony and Steve at some bar. They’re laughing and Steve is in the process of elbowing Tony, who’s gesturing animatedly with his beer. Some part of James wishes he could have been there, with them.

But mostly he just flicks through the photos, studying each and every one for minutes, admiring the expressiveness of Tony’s body, his lithe grace and the confidence of his walk. He brushes his fingers over the screen, tracing the contours of Tony’s beard, nose and jaw.

James falls asleep like that, curled up on the old motel bed, clutching at his screen, and dreams of his soulmate. It’s a rollercoaster of a dream and when he wakes up at the break of dawn he’s  cold, hard and feels so devastatingly, utterly alone...

But that’s it — his one and only night of weakness. He soldiers through it and ditches the tablet as he ditches every sliver of doubt, every bad idea that crept on him for the duration of it. He has bigger fish to fry right now.

Like figuring out how the hell do Tony and Steve keep finding him instantaneously and exclusively when he’s in trouble.

Not that he doesn’t appreciate it when it happens, but it’s like being sixteen and running away from home, using your last savings to cross the ocean, changing your name and prostituting yourself on the streets, all in the name of personal discovery and independence… just to have your mom periodically leave cookies on your doorstep when you haven’t eaten for a couple of days.

Okay, maybe that was a very poor analogy, his situation is more like a PSTD-driven need to purify his life of HYDRA than a snippy tantrum, but the point remains.

He has to get rid of whatever they use to track him.

Now, since he checks himself for trackers everyday before bed he knows it’s not stuck on him. So he takes a more drastic action and kidnaps a couple of bioengineering scientists, barricading them in their lab.
After at least three different scans they confirm what he already suspected.

“There’s a swarm of nanites in your body. It’s… it’s like a virus, they are nestled in your cells. Except that they are not harmful, in fact they’re not meant to do anything besides collecting and transmitting data. Whoever owns them knows all the time where you’re and whether you’re hurt or where, how badly… It’s amazing! It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before!”

“Yeah, well.” James grits his teeth. “I think I did.”

 

Finding Tony and figuring out his schedule is so alarmingly easy he almost worries. Almost. The creeping feeling that he’s being watched every second of the day is like a shot to the gut and he’s left with the sickening feeling of deja vu. Under surveillance. His handlers making sure he’s being a good, well behaved attack dog.

But biology doesn’t give a damn about his hangups. When he prepares his equipment he has to do it with shaking hands, mounting the sniper rifle behind the window of a vacated apartment that overlooks the hotel where the Stark annual management gala’s taking place. His head is a swarm of thoughts and feelings swirling around like angry wasps, the paranoia intertwining with dread and fear.

He takes his position and awaits, praying for the crescent nausea to go away. He doesn’t have anything left in his stomach to hurl out anyway.

He watches through the scope as a slick limo arrives and Tony gets out. Even from such a distance James can’t help but drink in his grace and beauty, and some tiny, needy part of him revels in the fact that he’s alone, no young man or woman walking down the carpet holding onto his elbow. He works the crowds and the reporters with the charisma of a showman, never stopping moving, until James realizes that in his fascination he’s lost his opportunity for a perfect shot.

Probably for the best. The entrance is packed with security personnel and Tony dropping dead halfway through the red carpet would give James no time window for escape. But the ballroom windows are huge, and so are the balconies.

He sits tight and awaits, feeling sicker by the minute, sweating and shaking and the previously so obvious plan losing all resemblance of logic. He doesn’t want to do it. That primal, well trained part of him that’s still crawling through his insides, freezing his heart and lungs, that other presence that’s not completely gone yet, that never will, is trying to convince him that there’s no other way. That anybody who’s got that much intel on him and holds so much power must be dealt with. But his most human part, the one that grew up with fairy tales about the one true love and the blessing that only two people in every three hundred will ever know, the part that just wants peace at last and doesn’t think murder is a solution to anything, doesn’t understand it. That part just wants to surrender and accept this opportunity.

And that’s what scares James the most.

He’s not surprised tho, when thirty minutes later Tony walks into one of the balconies. He sets his glass of champagne on the railing and looks right up at James.

Even though the scope that paints a red cross above Tony’s heart he can still distinguish a tiny supernova go off in his right eye. Amazing.

Tony though, Tony smiles and waves at him. Like he doesn’t know why James’ there. Like he’s so sure he’s gonna walk out alive that he doesn’t even need to worry. And James can’t move. He just can’t bring his body to react, to pull the trigger. And then Tony brings his hands up in front of him and starts signing.

“Hi darling”

 

And James jumps away from the rifle and from the window. Horrified to the bones. He flees as fast as he can, running aimlessly through the city, from shadow to shadow as fast as he can.

He doesn’t make it back to his ratty motel for hours, but when he does there’s a new phone lying in the middle of his bed.

It rings even before James can close the door and the caller ID says “dear future husband” which is just the icing of the cake.

“Is everything a fucking joke to you?” He snaps into the phone as soon as he hits ‘accept’

“You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me that.”

“You’ve been tracking me!”

“Oh, so you found out about extremis? In my defense I didn’t plan on passing it onto you. It was sort of a last moment desición. You weren’t even supposed to be there that night.”

“Stark!” James snaps “Whatever you put into me - take it out!”

“What? No! It’s for your own good, that way we know if you’re alright or need help without stepping on your toes all the time.”

“Either take it out of me or I’ll make you!”

“Looking forward to that.” the bastard says and James can almost hear the leer in this voice. It’s been a long, emotionally and physically challenging day and he can’t deal with this anymore. He breaks down.

“No don’t you fucking dare! Don’t you dare to assume that I belong to you now because of fucking fortune or whatever crap it is now that thinks it can control my life. You’re nobody! You hear me? You have no right over me, you have no right to control me, to monitor me. I’ve had enough of people in the past century thinking they're entitled to me, like I’m their damn pet, their instrument, set loose and tagged to be kept in ckeck. You’re not my keeper, and I wish… I wish I could kill you like I do with everyone who ever did with me the same that you’re doing!! Don’t you dare to tell me it’s for my own good! I’ve earned it! I earned the right to decide for myself what’s good for me and what’s not!! I fought for it and killed for it! And I’m trying! I’m trying to get myself, get me back and all you and fucking Rogers do is act like I’m your stray cat and you have the right to put me in a cage and track me and do anything you want with me. You’re not different from HYDRA!!”

He chokes on his own words and hears a sharp intake of breath on the other line, pained almost, and it fuels in him a combination of deep satisfaction and regret.

When Tony speaks again it’s after a while and his voice is broken and fragile.

“I didn’t… couldn't lose you. But Steve’s method wasn’t working and I thought if we gave you a little space… Fuck, I’m sorry, I… I didn’t think, it’s just-”

“Of course you didn’t” He spats out “You did not think that maybe I had the fucking right to some privacy. That I have to do what I have to do for myself! Just because some old fairytales say we are supposed to be one soul or whatever fuckery doesn’t give you any right over me! I’m not a dog you can put on a leash!”

“I never thought you were, but you can’t just-”

“Yes, I can! And I need to- I need to do this! And you gotta leave me to-”

“Leave you to what ?!” Tony interrupts him “Let you kill yourself?!” And there’s so much desperation in his voice, so much emotion that James can’t breathe for a moment. It hurts like hell, to hear all that despair in his soulmate’s voice and to know he put it there. But he just can’t back down now.

“Stark…”

“Do you have any idea? Any at all ?!! Of how it feels for Steve and me to know you’re out there, alone, taking on entire fucking terrorist bases all by yourself?!! You’re reckless and careless and completely flippant about your own life-”

“I’m trying to finish them off!”

“-So do we!! But we have a team, and strategy, and backup, and all the protection and tech I can come up with. You are good Barnes, but you are not immortal. And have you ever thought what would happen if they caught you and found a way to brainwash you again? To turn you against us? What then? I’m not even able to think about hurting you, Steve already proven he would rather fall himself then drop you. And neither of us would let any of our teammates lay a finger on you. What then? Who’s gonna stop you then? Because if you are anything like I think you are, you would rather be stopped than be their mindless killing machine again!”

It’s almost like his strings were cut off. James collapses against the wall and clutches the phone for dear life as Tony sobs on the other side of the line. He hates to admit it, but Tony’s right.  “I’m sorry.” He whispers. And strangely, he actually means it. At least half of it. Okay, maybe 40%.

“Yeah well, how would you feel if you knew Steve was gonna go running head first onto the bowels of a terrorist organization. that holds an immense psychological power over him, any second, without any help, waving the equivalent of a glorified stick as a weapon? And you couldn’t do anything but sit with your thumbs up your ass and wonder if he’s gonna be able to make it out alive?”

Ouch! Straight for the jugular. “I notice you didn’t mention yourself.”

“Yeah, well. You were gonna shoot me.”

“I wouldn’t-!! ” James cries out almost before Tony’s finished speaking. And it’s raw, and almost blinding in it’s certainty. He knows, fuck, he knows he wouldn’t been able to pull the trigger. And if he’s truthful with himself, he never had any intention to. But Tony doesn’t and the way he said that, like he wasn’t even surprised, like in some part of himself he never expected anything different, not from James specifically, but from whoever had the “disgrace” of being stuck with him. “Fuck, Tony, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I wanted to, dunno, prove to myself that I was first and foremost, well, myself now. I always knew this was a faux, I knew which is the only reason I was able to go this far. It’s just that… fuck, help me out here, babe please.”

He hears Tony sigh but nothing else comes through the line, and James is about to bolt up and run through the city, the urge to be near, to comfort and hold in his arms so strong he’s almost ready to take back everything he said, to give up. Instead he thinks about what Tony said, brings up one of his memories from before the war. Remembers being a teenager in the Brooklyn of the great depression, desperate and sick with worry because his idiot best friend, who shouldn’t even get out of the house with his list of ailments, disappeared on him again and is probably getting himself roughed up in some back alley by a bunch of guys three times his size.

He rests his temple against the wall and stays silent for a long time, the whirlwind of emotions inside of him slowing down. He still feels it, that desperate fury intertwined with guilt and need to protect, but he’s finally able to see through it, to form rational thoughts based on logic rather than instincts.  

“I think you might be onto something” he admits.

Tony makes an ugly noise, something between a sob and a snort. “You think?”

“I might have been a bit of a reckless, selfish idiot here. I surely do feel like one.”

“Yeah, well. I know quite a lot about how you’re feeling right now. I should have told you about extremis, though.”

“Yeah. And given me a choice.”

“You wouldn’t have said yes.”

“Exactly. Look-” He interrupts Tony as he is about to go off again. “I do realize that there’s more than just my perspective on the table now. I know the smart thing for me to do would be to take you up on that team offer and join forces against HYDRA, maybe even get to know each other, you and me. But I can’t. I can’t accept other people into my life just yet. I have to take it back first.”

“Yeah, well. Why do I feel like you’re one dumb decision away from losing it completely?”

James snorts. “Hey, make you a deal?”

“Hm?”

“Stop keeping tabs on my location.”

“Sweetie, where have you been for the past twenty minutes?”

He smiles at the endearment and Tony’s exasperated voice “I know, let me finish. I know you don’t have many reasons to trust me, and truth be told, I may have overreacted a bit, but it’s been decades of others taking my life decisions away from me and for even fate to do so, and with the worst possible timing, it feels… look, I don’t know you but I already like you and I know we’re gonna be amazing together one day. But I can’t handle you right now. I’m sure there had been a moment in your past where this would have felt like anything but a blessing to you too. Well, this is now for me. And I sure as hell can’t handle Steve’s expectations or society in general. Just… leave me alone for a while, please.”

“I can’t. I can’t just go around my day blind, wondering whether or not you are gonna be killed at any moment… I…”

“I’m not! Look, you’re right in one thing — I’ve been running around assaulting HYDRA bases like a rabid dog and it’s like they keep popping up out of nowhere. All I get after each one of those rides are stitches and Steve’s puppy eyes. I’m gonna change tactics, I’m gonna be more careful and you’re gonna take me on my word. Let me take some decisions for myself. In return I promise I’m gonna stop assaulting full-stocked bases full of goons. Most of them are foot soldiers that don’t even know who I am. I’m gonna be targeting concrete personnel from now on. Specially former directives and anyone who was part of the Winter Soldier project. I’m trusting you with HYDRA in general for now, but I need to make sure that anyone who could take me and turn me into the asset again is gone.”

“So you’re gonna be going after highly protected higher-ups, is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“Yes”

“Why exactly?”

“Because despite all the evidence to the contrary, I’m smart. And I’m trained in espionage and stealth. I’m not even gonna get a scratch, I promise.”

There’s silence on the other end and James thinks they are going to start fighting again but then Tony speaks in a tired, exasperated voice, and James knows he’s won.

“You do realize my extremis is the only reason I managed to convince Capsicle to stop running like a headless chicken after you, right?”

“I’m sure you can come up with something else. You’re supposed to be a genius, right?”

“This line of manipulation stopped working long, long ago.”

“I’m serious Tony. I need time.”

“I know I know. And I agree, but with one condition.”

“Do tell.”

“Stay in your motel till tomorrow. I’ll have a packet delivered with a vial of a formula that’ll deactivate the extremis in your body and wash it out in 72 hours. I’ll also leave you a pin. It’s not tracked when inactive, but break it and it’ll send me a distress signal. Use it. Please. If something happens, if you are in serious danger use it and I’ll be there in record time. Promise me.” He’s pleading now and James does feel a little bit guilty. But he knows he has to do this, so he agrees to Tony’s terms and says goodbye.

Except that cutting the line feels like cutting the connection between them and he throws the phone across the room, afraid he’ll give in and call back.

He looks out the window and sees the snow start falling in thick, fat flakes. It looks like it’s gonna be a long december and an even longer winter.

Well then. Time to get to work.

 

 

***

 

 

 

James’ finger glides over the smooth curve of the trigger and he holds his breath.

There, there, another millimeter to the left and… bullseye!

The guy he’s been targeting, a technician that used to work on his arm (or torture, depends of who do you ask), falls dead amongst the cacophony of screams downstairs. Bucky collects quickly his equipment and slips out.

He relaxes once he’s outside of the heavily populated area, wandering around the small Ukrainian city, avoiding the military training base but otherwise feeling safe under the drakness of the unlit streets. He finally finds a motel and pays for the night with stolen cash.

It’s really not a big city, rural almost, and if he looks hard enough he can make out some stars in the cold winter sky. Not for the first time since the beginning of winter he aches to see more of them, closer and framed by dark eyelashes.

He sits on the bed, rests his back on the headboard and pulls out a small box of chocolates and a four stolen phones.

He tries out two of them before a number he’s committed to memory months ago can be patched through. It rings twice before Tony’s voice washes over him in a warm wave that soothes him to the bones.

“A call on Valentine’s day? I must say I was not expecting that.”

“You were clinging to the phone all day, weren’t you?”

“Like a baby koala to it’s mother!”

James laughs. Loud and sincere and he can almost hear Tony pouting on the other end.

“What? I’m not old enough to lose faith in romance yet. So here here, romance me Barnes!”

“You are adorable.” James tells him, still grinning.

“Damn right I am! Now, I’m serious, are you alright?”

“I’m fine. I’m doing great progress now. Like the slowest clean-up day on earth, but getting there.”

“Not too slow, I hope. Pepper’s gonna kill me if she’s too old to be my best woman.”

“Wedding traditions sure as hell changed since my day.” He pops a chocolate into his mouth and listens to Tony rant about his crazy-ass family. Somehow they end up talking about James’ memories, how many of them he managed to recover and comparing some in particular to what Steve's told Tony.

“I wish you were here.” He confesses after yet another reminder of his battery that it’s almost out. “I know it’s crazy to miss something I’ve never even had but…”

“You know where to find me. You know what to do when you’re ready to see me.”

“Yeah” he sighs, and they stay like that, listening to each other’s breathing until Bucky’s phone dies and the feeling of emptiness and loneliness slowly creeps on him again. But it’s okay. This, talking to his soulmate for the first time in ages, was so good. As was sharing with him memories so intimate, those that feel more alive than ever now, part of him in a way they never were before today. He remembers his life, who he used to be and his family, his best friend, his dreams… He remembers being Bucky Barnes.

And suddenly that name doesn’t sound so foreign anymore. He’s not the same person he used to be, and he never will, but at least he isn’t a stranger to himself anymore.

Bucky curls under the covers and runs his pad over the little pin in the shape of the Iron Man helmet that he wears around his neck. He should probably tell his dimidium animae to stop calling him “Barnes” the next time he calls.

Yeah, that’s a good plan.


 

***

 

 

 

His hands are slick with blood, his hair is sticking to his face and the metallic smell lingering in his nostrils is reminiscent of times he would rather leave buried deep inside his memories.

“Where’s Rostopov?” He repeats, and the old pig coughs and gasps at the handle of the knife buried in his back. Bucky holds it firmly. Eight millimeters to the left and the guy is dead. And oh how good it’ll feel to finally finish him off, how freeing.

“I don’t know!” The man insists, and Bucky drives the blade deeper, ignoring the scream.

He needs fifteen more minutes but he finally gets the answers he was looking for. Eight millimeters to the left and one of his former handlers is gone forever. So Bucky steals a van and gets on the road.

It’s a ridiculously short drive from Montpellier to Barcelona but he has to drive by night. The highway is quiet and dark, only his own road lights and the milky way to keep him company. He has his metal hand firmly clasped on the steering wheel the whole time but the flesh one deviates from time to time to run his thumb over the distress pin. Lately, the starry nights cause that feeling of longing in his chest to grow tighter, more difficult to ignore.

Bucky ditches the van in Gerona and takes the first train to another middle-sized city, from where he changes stations and takes the railway to Barcelona. He knows Rostopov has been hiding in a small rented apartment in the gothic quarter, where there’s more tourists than natives even in the beginnings of april. The narrow streets are swarming with people all day and well into the night, so he gets a couple of hours of rest and spends the rest of the time checking his intel and weapons.

Rostopov was the head of the Winter Soldier project from 1987 to 1996. Almost ten years under the thumb of that man, and it’s the period of his life as HYDRA’s goon that Bucky remembers the most in his nightmares.  But that’s not why he’s the one Bucky’s been chasing after relentlessly for the past two months.

He waits till three in the morning and then slips onto the portal of the neighboring building and gets to the roof, hopping down from balcony to balcony. Silent as a whisper. There’s barely three meters from one building the other and he jumps it with ease. He can’t see anything inside the right apartment, so his target must be sleeping. He slips inside through the french doors and, watching out for traps, silently moves towards the bedroom.

The sound of the security lock engaging is deafening in the silence of the room. A second later the lights go on and there’s the bastard. Dressed not for bed but for a business, and a woman by his side, a bodyguard with her gun firmly pointed at Bucky’s forehead.

Bucky calculates the trajectory and curses mentally. He can still dodge but from that distance she has all the cards to hit bullseye.

And Rostopov is grinning like a cat that’s got the canary.

“Well, if that isn’t my good friend the Soldier. So completely and obviously expected. You are getting sloppy, dear. Leaving a trail a mile wide after you, is that how I taught you?”

“You taught me nothing.” He grumbles, mostly to gain time and think of the least destructive and noisy way to turn this in his favour.

“Of course I didn’t, you are right. You came in already well trained, I just had to fine tune your instruments. It’s such a shame it’s gone to waste. Unless you tore Europe apart to be my puppy again, did you?”

“You sick…” Buck sneers, his stomach turning from memories he’d rather have carved out of his brain with an ice pick. The bodyguard tenses, a millisecond away from pulling the trigger and Bucky decides to hell with it. He’s got plans, and he’s getting impatient. He throws his bionic hand forwards and the bullet bounces off it with a deafening,screeching noise. Bucky feels it grace his thigh but is too occupied trying to throw the bodyguard off himself. They wrestle and there’s one moment when she’s got her knee bent over his neck and he can’t breathe, but he throws her off and bangs her head against the corner of a coffee table.

She’s out and Bucky takes off and runs out of the apartment and down the stairs, after Rostopov.

The problem with that city area? It’s full of little streets and hideaways but you can’t drive through them, so it becomes a cat’n mouse chase soon enough. By the time Rostopov is almost at the main street Bucky, younger, faster and physically enhanced, is on him.

But then his target turns around and fires.

Bucky dodges and curses inwardly. That was fucking loud. He can already see from the corner of his eye the lights in the buildings turning on. He throws himself at Rostopov and drags him back into the labyrinth of alleys, pinning him to a wall, metal hand on his neck and the other one poking a knife between his ribs.

But Rostopov doesn’t look scared, there’s something almost like relief in his eyes and he starts laughing, almost giddy. “C’mon, what’re you waiting for? Do it.”

“What’re you playing at?” Bucky asks, already suspecting the answer. “You waited for me, and only had one bodyguard with you.”

“Nah, she wasn’t by bodyguard, she just found me hours before you did and was guarding me for him.”

Bucky’s about to ask what him, when it hits him. “So you’re on Ward’s personal hit list. Maybe I should just hand you over to him.”

“Oh, but you won’t. You won’t let anyone else kill me, you’ve been waiting at your chance for revenge far too long, looking for me like I’m your treasure chest,”

“What difference does it make which one of us gets to gut you?”

Rostopov smiles, one foot on the other side and the bastard is smiling.

“There’s no escaping Ward, but if he kills me - he wins. On the other hand, if you kill me - I win.”

“Stop” Bucky grunts, but can’t bring himself to finish it yet. Like a horrible show that you think is stressing and dumb but can’t stop watching.

“I win! I win because you are not gonna be done with me. You are gonna kill me and realize you aren’t satisfied, that you’ll have to seek out and kill the next one, and you’re never be done. My death will be a convenience to Ward, after he tortures me to get to my knowledge. But you… you’re going to  feel maybe a second of satisfaction but no more than that. I’m going to be forever buried in your brain. I’m never going to be gone. You are going to do what’s expected from you and use the skills I trained you in to feed your never-ending vengeance marathon. So go on, kill me now. Get your two seconds of glory, your precious reven-”

Bucky slices his throat.

He stands there, with a dead body at his feet, and stares at the wall. He can hear sirens in the distance, the sounds of the night city, and breathes in deeply. Rostopov has featured in a good number of his nightmares since his liberation, he was cruel and as old and smart as the devil. But he died delusional, because luckily he was wrong in this one thing - Bucky didn’t kill him for revenge.

He did it for love.

He has one more thing to do with the body and then he slips away, a minute before the police finds the dead man, and runs through the streets until he’s out of the area. He looks up the sky. It’s too polluted with light and looks a sickening brown colour, but it’s alright. For the first time in forever it truly is. Bucky breathes in deeply and smiles on the exhale.

The next day he buys a bus ticket to Italy. Time to revisit good, old Venice.

 

 

***

 

 

 

The ballroom’s empty and silent, the polished floors gently reflecting the moon filtering through the skylight. And Bucky’s sitting cross-legged in the middle of the giant compass rose, in the dead center, playing with the two halves of the broken distress pin as Iron Man carefully lands in front of him, somehow managing to avoid damaging the marble.

“Your definition of an express rescue is a little loose.” Bucky grins up at him, hopping on his feet.

“I realized where you were, saw that nothing was on fire and figured you weren’t actually calling in for help.” Tony shrugs, the movement graceful even through layers of metal and circuitry, and pops up the faceplate. “Hi”

“Hi” Bucky says back. He can feel the dopey grin spreading all over his face but can’t bring himself to care, too entranced with Tony’s eyes. They are just as beautiful as he remembers, portals to a much wider universe, opening the gates of Bucky’s soul and taking him away while at the same time anchoring him in place. He is mildly aware of the armor peeling itself off and steps forward, gently positioning his hands on Tony’s hips, never breaking eye contact, even as he leans down and tilts his head just barely, brushing their noses before their lips touch.

Tony is the first one to close his eyes, as he makes a tiny, sweet noise and leans into the kiss. His fingers twitch where they are curled over Bucky’s biceps and he runs his thumbs over Tony’s hip bones just as he traces his lower lip with his tongue. Tony melts into him and opens up, hand coming up to cup the back of Bucky’s neck.

It’s the same place where they first met, in the same city, the same time of the night, and they are standing the same way they were back then. But that kiss couldn’t be more different. It’s not spontaneous, surprised, demanding or hiding an ulterior motive. It’s sweet and had been delayed for far too long, dreamed of, wanted by them both. It feels like coming home. And that’s partly because they are different too. God knows what must have happened to Tony in over more than a year, but Bucky is another person altogether. Back then he still thought of himself as the Soldier, had only one thing in mind - his revenge.

Now though…

He breaks the kiss and presses a tiny, gentle peck to the corner of Tony’s mouth, then another over his beard, his smile line, his cheek, leaving a trail all the way to his ear, and then buries his face in the crook of his neck and inhales deeply, drunk on the scent of his soulmate. Tony wounds his arms around his shoulders and kisses his temple, rocking them gently.

It just feels so… right. Like everything in his life’s finally falling into place. There’s only one thing left to make it perfect.

 

Bucky reluctantly steps away and soothes the minuscule signs of reluctance on Tony’s face with a kiss on the cheek.

“I brought you something.” He reaches for the black bag that he left lying on the floor and hands it over.

Tony untangles the knot and makes a face as the smell hits him. Reaching inside, he takes the severed hand out with a look of absolute and utter disgust.

“Talk about a mood killer… What the hell is this?”

“A present.” Bucky answers, unable to stop grinning. Tony’s face is hilarious.

“Ever heard of diamonds?”

“This is way more personal than a shiny rock.”

“Okay, first of all, diamonds don't shine - they reflect. And second - this is a piece of human meat! You killed someone and brought me a chunk of them as a treat? Oh my god what are you, a cat?”

Bucky laughs but sobers up pretty quickly. He steps away and crosses his arms over his chest.

“That someone was Jason Rostopov. He dictated and authorised my assignments in 1991. This hand signed the order for your parent’s murder.”

 

Tony drops the hand, eyes going wide as saucers.

 

“What the… Why would you-? Jesus Fucking Christ! Why would you bring it to me?”

“Closure. You never said anything. I know that you know it was me who caused the accident, but you never even hinted at it.”

“Because I don’t care! It wasn’t you, it was HYDRA.”

Bucky shrugs, hands in his pockets. “I know. But knowing doesn’t change the way I feel about it. And while I try to come to terms with my past I can live with the hundreds of crimes that were committed with my own hands. Part of the secret is knowing that I either won’t have to face the people whose lives were ruined as a consequence of my intervention. Or at the least I don’t really give a damn about them. You, however...”

“Buck, it was over twenty years ago.”

“Not for me.”

He leans in as Tony steps into his space and brings up his hands, cupping his soulmate’s face in them. “Look at you, you are precious. I want to touch you.”

“Whatever you want.”

“I didn’t kill him for you, I would never do that to you.”

“Then why?”

“I didn’t do it in your name, but before coming to you, before stepping into your life, I needed for someone to be punished for your parent’s death. And if it wasn’t gonna be me, it was gonna be the man who gave the order and left me no other choice.”

Tony nods. “Did it work? Can you forgive yourself now?”

Bucky smiles and brushes his thumbs over Tony’s cheekbones, lost in his eyes, in the feeling of being finally whole again.

“I’m getting there.”

“Good. How about we get the hell outta here and go grab a piece of pizza?”

“It’s five in the morning, babe.”

“I bet your sweet ass I can find us some authentic, Italian pizza right now.”

“Okay, okay. If that’s your idea of a first date.”

“Totally! And then?”

“And then” Bucky smiles and kisses him, reaching out to take his soulmate’s hand.  “take me home?”

Tony’s eyes shine like the birth of the universe.