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by the world forgot

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This is your fault.

You know it, like you’ve read the ending of this book already, like the back of your hand or the menu of this shitty diner; you know it in your bones, in the space between your ribs, thudding between the chambers of your heart like so much trapped blood, blue inside that machine that keeps your body moving on the three-beat pulse of a sad, slow waltz.

You never stood a chance, the two of you. You’ve always thought you were forgettable, living in three damn lifetimes, out of time and outside of it, too; she’s just proved it.

+

The sun’s warm, floating down and filtering though clouds and the striped awning of the café, glinting off your full glass of water and warming your hands where they’re knotted on top of the table. It’s littered with everything you’ve tried to distract yourself with – all the debris of a first trip to Paris, a guidebook, a newspaper, an abandoned cup of coffee.

For all that you’ve tried, now that you’re here, nothing feels like it’s worth the trip.

Until she takes a seat a few tables away.

+

The last days, hours, minutes, you know she’s slipping away from you.

You watch Leo’s laugh, the mad glint in his eye that says I got you. The cuffs pull at the skin of his wrists and it’s not enough blood, it won’t ever be enough as long as it’s still leaking from his veins, still turning crimson in the air he’s still breathing and you’re never sure just how you don’t wrap a hand around his throat.

They buzz you out of solitary, and Steve’s waiting. He doesn’t say anything, and you know he sees your hands shake, but there’s relief in his eyes that’s reflected in yours when he maintains his silence.

+

The business card says Lacuna Industries, and the woman on the phone schedules your appointment for two days later, gives you a list of instructions and reminds you that the procedure’s permanent.

Like you didn’t know just how fragile memories are to begin with.

+

No one says anything, not until…

No one says anything.

You find out, a week… two weeks later, maybe, it’s been too long and it’s still too soon, your hair’s longer, but the whiskey still burns like cold ethyl on open wounds and you haven’t managed to find your way in front of a bullet yet.

Just quite a few fists.

It’s Hill, finally, who breaks the news, in the way only she really could: all business, no eye contact, using her safe bureaucratic terms like agent and restoration and I’m sorry.

You always wanted her to have the choice. You took yourself out of the equation so she could do the math without the variables – you gave her your word that you’d always protect her.

It’s her choice, you think.

Choice.

She doesn’t remember, anyway.

+

The machine’s smaller than you’d imagined, screaming through two days of nightmares of glass-walled tubes and stainless chairs, metal cuffs and electrodes and sensory deprivation rooms.

The boy who’s there to watch you, he’s too young, he looks like…

He looks like you did, bright-eyed, no idea what kind of destruction he’s participating in.

He smiles at you, but it’s already tarnished around the edges and you wonder just how long before the guilt kicks in for him.

You let them hook you up and knock you out and you count backwards from a thousand, a million, sucking in a deep, deep breath like water and smoke and

She was always the flame.

+

You can’t take your eyes off of her, the woman seated a few tables away, crimson hair glimmering in the sunlight, copper forged in a flame, the dark beret on her head shading her face.

It’s funny; you don’t think you’ve ever had a thing for redheads.

+

Hill says:

She knew, and she didn’t want to. She’d rather… they erased everything.

Hill says:

It’s better this way, there’s no shadows, no empty spaces, just a clean break.

Hill says:

She’s… happy. She’s working.

Hill doesn’t say:

You were the monster. You were the shadow. You were the empty space.

Hill doesn’t say:

She’s better off.

She doesn’t have to.

You don't take the business card off the table until she leaves.

+

Of course, you’ll fall through the most recent war first:

Backwards and too-fast, you’re not even surprised your own memories run like film reels, because you’ve lived so much of your life on someone else’s screen.

It’s black and white (of course it is) and you’re watching the curves of her body when she looks at you, the bow of her lips arching like she’s going to reach up and

Who the hell is Bucky?

+

The woman on the phone, she tells you that you’ll need to remove anything that could possibly trigger a memory.

So you spend an afternoon, digging through boxes of newspaper clippings and water-stained photographs, boxing up frames and folding sweaters and when you go to take her things from the bathroom the bottle of perfume shatters in a too-tight metal grip and the scent of her is so strong you can’t tell if the tears that spark in your eyes are

Nausea.

She was always there, clinging to the air, long after she’d gone.

+

Falling backwards is a sensation you know: planes, trains, and automobiles.

You swing your arms, because maybe this time you can fly, except Sam’s not there to catch you, no one is, and you look up and you see her above you, teleportation pack strapped around her graceful waist and her face upturned to the glittering night sky.

She lets out a whoop, like there’s no place in the world she’d rather be than free-falling, swimming through the open evening air, plummeting toward the ground and watching that brilliant smile cross her face, you figure maybe she’s right.

+

You and Steve saw Casablanca in London for a quarter, just the cherry on top of your newest newsreel, and you don’t remember much.

Bogart drawls, “We’ll always have Paris” and you’re not sure why Ingrid buys it, she’s a beautiful dame and Bogart’s got a face like a bloodhound.

He tips his hat.

Steve smiles.

You fidget.

+

Silver fingers close on porcelain flesh and the sheets that surround you roil like the sea.

She’s there, hovered above you, and in the second it takes for your heartbeat to stall she slips through your fingers, less solid by the moment until she’s gone.

Your hands reach out again, closing on air and stupidly, you lift the sheet, looking for her and finding nothing.

You can still smell her perfume.

+

You put all of her things in storage.

You give Steve the key.

You don’t tell him what it’s for, just that you’re never to know where it is, again.

You try not to let your tells give you away.

You know he knows, anyway.

+

She had so many names, and you had even more for her – precious words in languages that fit like old gloves, lyrics and poems and little hitches of breath that belonged only to her.

You’re in Berlin, and you fit your hands around your mouth, and you call out to her.

Natalia.

Dubai.

Tasha.

Philadelphia.

Milii moi.

Moscow.

Comrade Romanova.

She doesn’t answer.

You weren’t expecting her to.

You're talking to yourself.

+

You’re on the helicarrier, running the halls and your chest feels like it’ll burst, each breath burning but you can’t stop, won’t stop, she’s here you know it she’s here and it’ll just take one more

The doors to the med bay slide closed, locked from the inside and there’s a flip of scarlet hair before she’s out of sight again.

There's so much blood.

+

The day’s newspaper is worthless, your French was never that good, and the coffee’s cold by the time you get around to it.

You signal the waiter, order another one and you know you sound like an ugly American (there’s a joke here, your subconscious says) half-gesturing and rolling your consonants over in your mouth but it’s enough, and when he brings yours, he raises an eyebrow when you point.

Maybe it’s rude here, too.

He leaves the other one on the edge of the woman’s table, the steaming cup balanced near her elbow and she folds her paper, looking up at him.

The waiter shrugs in your direction, a bored look on his face, but none of that matters when her sea-green eyes are fixed on you and you’re drowning.

+

It’s Steve’s apartment, or it was, his gym and his shield.

Natasha cooks, and she sings, and her hair flows down her back in waves and when she looks at you over her shoulder her smile’s all yours.

It’s late, and it’s Steve’s couch, or it was, but Casablanca’s playing on the television in that old familiar black-and-white and this time when Bogart tips his hat, you get it.

We’ll always have Paris.

She’s already asleep, heavy against your side, and when you press your lips to her hair it’s almost like a redemption.

+

Fury doesn’t return your calls, until he does.

And by then, you’ve made up your mind.

And she’s made up what’s left of hers.

He calls you kid and says something about second chances but you’re not listening.

She was the only second chance you ever needed.

+

You’re frantic, maybe. It’s almost the end, you can tell by the dark edges each memory holds now, the eerie burnt celluloid that rings every recollection.

It’s what it was like, for a long time. When you weren’t… you, when you were only what they wanted.

And even then she was too bright, all color and heat and flushed cheeks and softsharp curves and she looks at you like you’re more than a weapon, like you don’t sleep inside the barrel of a gun.

Silver fingers wrap around her wrist and in the wet heat of a shower her hair sticks to her forehead and she looks younger and older at once.

“Speak English, I need the practice.”

You open your mouth but no sound comes out, and when you blink she’s gone, shimmering in the steam.

+

Paris was her idea.

The two of you haven’t had a trip in nearly a year that hasn’t required a projectile weapon as a carry-on, and you could never quite convince her that your ideas were better, so Paris it was.

When you opened your suitcase to find fewer clothes then were needed for the days of your leave, you started to think that maybe her ideas were better than yours.

But what no one says about Paris is that it’s rainy in the springtime.

So you threw the windows wide open and made love with the whole of the city spread beneath you, quiet and darkening in the slickness of the rain and when she pulls you down, fingers pressing dents into your shoulders, lightening flashes and you see her even behind your closed eyes.

A day later, when you finally have to leave to eat, you loosen your grip on the umbrella for the split second it takes to watch the rain drip along her face, tracing paths along her cheekbones that you follow with your lips, blinking back the water gathering in your eyelashes and smiling against her mouth, fingers tangled in damp hair.

She was always the storm.

+

You don’t remember how you met.

You never did. They can’t take it away if you don’t remember, right?

+

You open your eyes and it’s still raining, but she’s not smiling anymore.

She grips your shoulders, shakes them, and her voice is loud and faraway, like she’s trying to get to you over the years you threw away, all of that time you were asleep, all of that time you weren’t yourself, all of that time you wasted, all of that time you weren’t there to protect her and she’s screaming and her face is pained.

“We’ll always have Paris.”

The last word stretches out on an exhale, and you’re not even sure it’s yours but you’re falling again.

You open your eyes and it’s still raining.

+

Hill signs your request for a leave of absence, and she’s smart enough not to ask why.

The way she looks at you when she thinks you’re not paying attention says she’s still dumb enough to care, anyway.

+

Waking up is like coming up for air, like being dragged out of those old chemical sleeps.

You had a dream, you think.

There’s a cathedral, in St. Petersburg. Somebody told you about it, once, but you’ll be damned, maybe you’ve been there, maybe…

Trinity Cathedral, famous in its resilience. It stood standing through every quake of Russia’s foundations, every change in its regimes; its walls even withstood Stalin himself, surviving as a Soviet warehouse in a time where all holy places were destroyed.

It burned, you remember. Sometime after you returned, you read about in the paper, how it caught fire and no one thought it’d survive.

But they rebuilt it. They’ll always rebuild it.

In your dream you were standing inside, and you were looking up, and you saw the stained glass and the flames and the sky and it felt like saying goodbye to something you never met.

You wake up in the center of a bed that’s twice as big as you remember and your head hurts.

The rain taps out its solitary rhythm and you gulp the room’s stale air, waiting for your heartbeat to meet it.

+

You figure guys like you, you’re not a redemption story.

You’re a cautionary tale. A slow-motion car crash.

Do as I say, never as I do.

Hell, you were Captain America, once.

But they already forgot you, didn't they?

Aren't you supposed to be dead?

You’re forgettable.

Forgettable.

A broken toy soldier with a memory to match.

+

You don’t know what you’re missing.

Work, missions, paperwork, eat, sleep.

Steve’s eyes are sad when he looks at you for too long, and Logan’s not answering your calls, but you’re not unhappy.

You’re not anything.

The ticket to Paris in your bedside drawer feels like a treasure map and a death sentence.

+

Before they put you under, the boy, he asks you if you’re sure.

It’s startling, no one’s ever asked you that before, and you don’t know what to do with the choice now that you have it.

You look over your shoulder, the bed already feels too big and you’d swear there are lighter spots on the walls where the photographs used to be.

“She doesn’t remember me.”

That’s the only answer you’ve got.

+

Her sea-green eyes are like the first color you’ve ever really seen, blurring your vision and thrumming through your veins on the current of your pulse and she’s a perfect, perfect stranger and she picks up her coffee and takes the steps over to you and she smiles.

She smiles around the lip of her mug and watches you with those eyes and the bottom of your stomach drops out again and you’re sure this is wrong, you’re falling again and you don’t know why the sensation makes you feel queasy but

She’s still smiling at you.

And she asks for your name.

We'll always have Paris.

And you blink, but she’s real, she’s there and she’s solid and she doesn’t look like she’d give underneath your hands (although she always did, just enough, satin over steel and never unyielding but always a challenge) and so you smile back.

“James.”

+