Considerable credit for this story goes to my beta reader, Rekishi, without whom this story was a nonsensical mess. She is a wonderful and strict editor, who forces me to write better and clearer work.
Steve knew he was dreaming.
In the waking world, Wanda would never wrap her hands around his throat. When Steve was awake, Wanda was quickly becoming a friend, one of the few people Steve felt he could actually relate to. When Steve was awake, Wanda wouldn’t need to use her hands to kill him and they both knew it.
Steve’s amygdala wasn’t quite so evolved. Tonight, Wanda was the main attraction in Steve’s nightmares, tossing him around like a toy until, finally, he was on his knees before her. Wanda smiled down at him, and very kindly said, “You want to die anyway. I’m just doing you a favor.”
Just as her hand tightened, something cold startled Steve awake. His heart was racing and he was sweating and something cold was touching his hip. From the darkness next to him, Bucky asked, “Bad dream?” and a part of Steve instinctively relaxed.
“Just being almost murdered by a teammate.” The solid presence of Bucky tucked in bed beside him had always been the best thing to chase nightmares away.
“You do have pretty lousy taste in friends.” The cool metal of Bucky’s cybernetic arm slipped away, replaced by the warmth of his body. “I’m including myself there. Who was trying to kill you this time?”
“I was…” Reality came crashing back in. It had been seventy years since he’d slept in Bucky’s arms, and two years since Bucky had vanished after DC. There was no way this was real. “I was sparring with Wanda.” Steve was probably lying on the floor of the gym in a heap, while Wanda and Vision and Sam flew in circles shooting at each other.
Steve had been pressing her to be more creative with the visions she trapped people in. He was convinced that if she just worked at it a little bit, she could make her constructs stronger, more real. She’d put him naked in bed with Bucky - talk about wish fulfillment.
Bucky mumbled something about witches into the back of Steve’s neck, already falling back to sleep. He’d been like that, before the war. Steve doubted Bucky slept so easily now, but it was a nice thing for Wanda to imagine.
“Alright, enough.” Steve whispered into the darkness of the room, expecting the beautiful tin paneled ceiling to dissolve into the rigging above the practice gym. Nothing happened. Wanda didn’t like to be told she wasn’t working hard enough, she wasn’t going to make this easy.
Steve wasn’t going hunting for her naked. He rolled out of bed and went to find clothes.
There were two closets. The first one was actually an arsenal with biometric locks. The only thing in there Steve recognized was the shield and the compartment opened easily. When he found the actual closet, he couldn’t tell what was actually his versus Dream-Bucky’s. “Screw it.” He pulled on the first pair of pants and t-shirt he could find.
The apartment was definitely his floor in Stark Tower but it was different from the last time Steve had seen it. The place had been massive, and decorated in a tasteful but soulless style. This place was smaller, maybe half the size but still bigger than any place Steve had ever imagined living.
The living room was full of big, comfortable furniture and a painting hung above a wooden mantle. Steve didn’t recognize the place, but he knew it was his work before he spotted his signature in the corner. The giant statue in the middle of a greenscape was gorgeous, he hoped Dream-Steve had done it justice.
There was a little table by the door with a basket of keys on it. It was such a small thing to know that Steve had always been losing things before the serum gave him an eidetic memory, but the basket made him trip over, from grudging admiration that Wanda had done this, to anger. She’d probably dissected his whole life’s memories to set up all this and he felt terribly exposed.
The Bucky he’d woken up beside was a perfect mimic of everything Steve wanted. He had to wonder how deep she’d dived into his memories to get the smell of Bucky’s sweat right.
“FRIDAY, where is Wanda?” Steve wanted to get this over with.
“Mrs. Maximoff is five floors down in her apartment, Captain.” FRIDAY’s voice responded in a whisper, like she didn’t want to wake up Bucky.
Steve took the keys with his ID tag attached to them and found himself standing in an elevator lobby. Steve eyed the call buttons, a bit dubious. He was a bit distrustful of elevators since DC and he bet Wanda knew it. He took the stairs instead.
About three floors down, he ran into a woman and a shaggy brown dog walking up. “You know, I’m sure I could get a robot to walk you. Why don’t I ever think of that in the daytime? Hey, Cap.” She gave him a friendly smile, like they ran into each other in the stairway at four am all the time.
“Hi,” It took Steve a minute to place her face. He’d seen the woman’s picture in the paper, under a headline like “Heiress Shoots for the Gold.” That and the arrow earring she was wearing made it pretty clear who she was supposed to be, “Hawkeye.” The heiress’ name had been Kate. Wanda was pretty fond of Clint and Steve wondered why she had cooked up a new Hawkeye.
“Right, sorry. You are not the costume.” Kate tightened her grip on the dog’s leash as he tried to leap at Steve’s chest. “Hey, Steve. Don’t mind us. Just taking my dog to the roof in the middle of the night.”
“Have fun.” Steve waiting until they’d rounded the turn to the next stairwell, then started down again. There were two apartments on Wanda’s floor as well. It was an interesting design choice. Maybe she’d found the huge apartments as lonely and depressing as Steve had and imagined something they would all like better. He knocked on the door with a red stylized ‘M’ on it.
Wanda came to the door quicker than Steve expected at four am. “No.”
“No?” Steve hadn’t thought it was going to be easy but he’d figured he and Wanda could at least talk about her letting him out.
“Whatever it is you want, no. No, I will not fly to California to meet with Carol. No, I will not suit up and go to a charity auction. No, I will not take your duty shift.” Wanda looked a little older. There were a few lines around her eyes and something about her body shape was different.
Maybe Wanda had done a little too well creating this fantasy for him. Maybe she’d trapped herself too. “Wanda, I just want-”
Wanda yanked him into the apartment and walked over to a playpen. It was just as shocking as seeing Clint’s children for the first time. She picked up one of the two little boys in the playpen and brandished him at Steve. “Steve. I am six weeks away from my defense, my husband is on a diplomatic mission to Latveria and my sons are teething.” The little boy made a pathetic whine and Wanda shifted him onto her hip and shoved a finger into his mouth. “Unless the world is about to end, I’m busy.”
He must have stared at the baby too long because Wanda smacked his shoulder. “Steve. Is the world about to end?”
“No.” The boys weren’t identical, the one in her arms was was dark haired like Wanda and the one one was so blond his hair was almost white. Steve could imagine why Wanda had done that, to honor her brother. “Everything’s fine. I did want to talk to you, but it can wait.”
“Good.” Wanda set the boy down beside his brother. “Maybe after sunup?”
Steve decided not to comment on the coffee and the stack of papers she’d evidently been editing when he knocked. It wasn’t like he’d woken her up. “Wanda, is this the future you imagine for yourself?”
Wanda pressed a kiss to the blond boy’s head. “I am a powerful witch, married to a robot, I live at the top of the tallest tower, and I tricked my childhood nemesis into paying for a PhD in political science. So yes, this is exactly the life thirteen year old me imagined for myself.”
“Thirteen year old you was pretty creative.” Steve hadn’t known she was interested in anything but friendship with Vision. “I’ll come find you later. Have a good morning with your boys.”
Wanda practically shoved him back out the door. Whoever lived across the hall was leaning against the door, making pitiful noises as he tried to key in his access code. The sleeves of his hoodie were stained with vomit and as the panel flashed red the man made a gagging noise. Wanda seemed to think it was funny. “Doesn’t it make you wish your powers worked like the Flash’s? Then you could just vibrate right through the door and regret your bad decisions from the couch.”
“Shh. Too loud.” It was Pietro who turned away from the door and gave his sister a pleading look. “Just come do it for me.”
“I never thought you would find a woman who lived too fast for you.” Wanda punched it a few numbers and the panel turned green. “I told you ambassadors have liquor in their veins instead of blood.”
Some of Steve’s anger ebbed away. This place was obviously something Wanda had created for herself. She had probably thought he would enjoy a brief trip to a place where everyone was happy, alive, and where they belonged. “I’ll see you later, Wanda.”
Steve managed to get back up to his own floor without running into any more dead people or gender-bent replacement super heroes and slipped back into the apartment he and Bucky apparently shared. He could just go back to bed, enjoy the illusion for a few hours, but Steve wasn’t sure he’d ever want to leave if he did that. The Wanda of his dreams hadn’t exactly been wrong.
Instead, Steve went outside to the balcony that was outside their living room. They were pretty far up but there was some kind of shielding against the wind and overstuffed chairs that would let two enhanced people sit comfortably. It was almost like the screened porch off the back of the Barnes house.
This had to all be coming from some hidden well of optimism in Wanda. Steve never could have imagined anything this happy for himself. He sat down in one of the chairs and stared out at New York as the sun rose.
After a while, the door behind Steve slid open and the smell of coffee drifted out. “Not worth it going back to sleep?”
“Sorry.” Steve turned so he could get a good look at the Bucky Wanda had dreamed up for him. He was shirtless, and the scarring where his shoulder met the cybernetics was so ugly Wanda must have seen it in person. All of Bucky’s chest hair seemed to be missing, although the serum had left Steve equally bare chested. Bucky’s hair was a mess, but the way it had used to look in the mornings instead of dirty and uncombed like Steve occasionally saw in surveillance footage. Steve made himself reach for one of the coffee mugs Bucky was holding.
Bucky pulled it back. “Coffee’s not free, buddy. Pay up.”
Steve had paid for his morning coffee in kisses, before the war, but it was possible the price had gone up with inflation. It couldn’t hurt to find out.
Bucky’s mouth tasted of toothpaste, a disappointment to Steve who had almost been looking forward to his morning breath. The kiss was maybe a little bit more heated than Steve had intended. Wanda did good work, but Steve decided there and then that he was never going to let her use this as an interrogation technique. It was just too cruel.
When Bucky pulled back for a breath, he had a filthy smile on his face. “Sure, I’m game. Let’s give the paparazzi a show. No one’s called me a socialist whore in weeks.”
“You were never a socialist.” Steve couldn’t help but stare at Bucky as he settled into the chair beside Steve.
“It just makes such a good sound bite.” Bucky held out one of the mugs and Steve took it. It wasn't ceramic, but heavy and solid feeling. “You want to talk about it or are we repressing our painful memories this week?”
“I’m fine.” Steve took a sip of the coffee and made a face. “This one is yours. You put half the sugar jar in it.”
“Just checking.” Bucky held out the other mug. “Did you go running without me?”
“No.” Steve wondered what this imaginary Bucky would do if Steve reached for him, if he would react like Bucky used to in bed. Instead of taking the mug without five sugars in it, Steve set the mug he’d been given down on the little side table, walked over to Bucky’s chair, and straddled him. “I just don’t want to wake up.”
“It’s not like I threw you out of bed.” Bucky threaded his fingers through Steve’s hair and pulled him close. “You can always wake me up.”
Steve swallowed a punny remark about waking up parts of Bucky and kissed him. It probably edged into desperate, but he couldn’t help it. The kiss left them both panting and Steve pressed their foreheads together. “Take me back to bed.”
“You have to get out of my lap first.” Bucky kissed his way down Steve’s neck and scraped his teeth against the sensitive place in the crook of Steve’s neck. “We could just stay here.” Bucky pushed a hand up Steve’s shirt and ran a cool metal thumb across Steve’s nipple. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Pardon the interruption.” FRIDAY’s voice woke Steve the second time. He expected to be in his quarters but it was still the imaginary pressed tin ceiling above him and Bucky laying beside him. “Sergeant Barnes, a SHIELD chopper has just landed. Agent Johnson is onboard and requests you join her in the briefing room.”
Bucky raised his head, blinking at the ceiling. It was a habit Steve couldn’t break either. “Do I bring guns or coffee?”
“I have already arranged for coffee.” There was a brief pause, then FRIDAY’s voice said, “I also have a weapons platform adjacent to the briefing room, so I can also provide cover fire if necessary.”
“You’re the best, sweetheart.” Bucky rolled out of bed and walked naked to the closet. Steve couldn’t help but stare. “Do I need a shower or are you just staring at whatever mark you put on me?”
“You need a shower.” Steve didn’t know if the shower here was as awe inspiring as the one in the real apartment he had in the Tower but it was worth checking. “Mind if I join you?”
They did eventually get dressed, armed. When Bucky tucked the fourth knife into his belt sheath, Steve decided he should bring the shield.
When they made it to the briefing room, Agent Johnson was sitting alone at the table. She was in her thirties, and dressed in black combat gear. Steve had never seen her before. Then again, SHIELD was supposed to be gone. Johnson seemed happy to see them, like they were old friends. “Would you be interested in taking a trip with us?”
“What kind of trip?” Bucky sat across from her while Steve lingered in the doorway. “The kind where we go to a miserable place and you put me in a sniper’s blind for days or the kind where we go to an alien planet and you put me in a sniper’s blind for days?”
A smile spread across Agent Johnson’s face. “Not even close.”
“Excuse me, Steve.” Agent Coulson brushed past Steve into the room. He sat down next to Agent Johnson, like he hadn’t died four years ago. Wanda had never met Coulson. There was no reason for him to be in this ideal future she’d cooked up. “Our friends in the Nova Corps are having a bit of a housekeeping problem.”
Steve watched Coulson reach for the thermos of coffee in the middle of the table. Steve could hear the gears working as Coulson moved his hand. Flesh and blood appearance or not, that was a cybernetic replacement limb. Even if Wanda had dug up Coulson out of Steve’s memories of the Battle for New York, he’d had both hands before being stabbed through the heart.
“Something in their archives is messing with their computer systems and no one has any idea what could be doing it. Captain Marvel has called for backup and the Nova are putting heavy restrictions about who we can disclose this to.” Agent Johnson waved her fingers at the holo emitter and a short video of klaxons going off, lights blinking randomly and secure doors opening and slamming shut played. “Do you two want to come play Indiana Jones and help me find out what’s cursed their basement?”
Cold dread settled over Steve. They wanted Steve to do a mission. He’d read Bucky’s files, about how at first HYDRA had controlled him through a kind of hypnotic mind control. Steve wasn’t going to play along, no matter how nice whoever cooked this up made the fantasy.
“I don’t get it. Bucky, I understand. She wants to give me hope. The woman who I ran into in the stairwell? We’ve been talking about recruiting more female members. You, though? She never met you.” All conversation at the table stopped and all three of them turned to stare at Steve. “What are you doing here, Agent Coulson?”
“I want to go into space?” Coulson shrugged, but Steve saw him shift. He had unstrapped his gun. “I never get to go into space.”
“Steve.” Agent Johnson pressed her palms flat against the table. Steve wondered if she was going to vault over it at him. “Do you know who I am? Do you know where you are?”
This wasn’t Wanda’s fantasy and Steve wasn’t going to be waking up soon. He reached a hand back for his shield. “I’m your prisoner.”
“I’ve never seen you dissociate before.” Bucky pressed a cold pack against the bruise under his left eye. “No one was going to hurt you. I just didn’t want Daisy turning you into scrambled eggs.”
“Coulson pointed a gun at me and then you grabbed me.” Steve gave a subtle tug at the restraints strapping him to the bed.
“It was an icer. You’re lucky all they did was ice you. Do you know how many Skrulls they’ve discovered this past year?” Bucky lifted the ice pack off his eye. The bruise was already healing and Bucky wasn’t real so Steve wasn’t going to feel bad about it.
Okay, maybe he felt a little bad about it. “I wasn’t aiming for you. I didn’t account for the ricochet off the forcefield he had in his arm.
“You recognized me. You recognized Coulson. You knew where we kept the extra shampoo. Are you going to tell me what the hell set you off?”
“None of this is real.” The restraints didn’t budge. They’d obviously been built for someone with superhuman strength in mind. Steve wondered if he was strapped down in the real world too. “Whoever put this scenario together is either sloppy or careless.”
“I know it feels like that. It’s not true.” Bucky threw the cold pack onto the side table and rested his hand over Steve’s. “We survived all the bullshit and the wars and the alien invasions and we’re here. 2025, just like in the scifi pulps.”
“Sure, Buck.” Steve didn’t think he was capable of believing in an ending that happy, not after more than a year of fruitless searching for Bucky.
“Do you remember the year we spent in Wakanda?” Bucky stroked his thumb across the top of Steve’s hand.
“Never been.” No one had ever been to Wakanda, not even Howard. The vibranium had been delivered to the Allies through proxies.
“You’ve never been to Wakanda?” There was something almost sad in Bucky’s question, and for a minute Steve thought about lying. Maybe they would let him out if he played possum. “No, of course you haven’t. Whoever’s doing this to you wouldn’t want you to be able to trust me.”
Trust. Steve wanted to laugh. These days, the only people he could trust were Natasha and Sam. He certainly couldn’t trust an illusion of Bucky Barnes trying to reassure him everything was alright. “Hard to trust you when I’m tied down.”
“Gotta say, as far as these kinds of plots go, this one is pretty good quality. It puts Captain America out of commission, I won’t go help the Nova after all they’ve done for us and you won’t know or trust some of our strongest allies.” Steve didn’t expect Bucky to actually reach down and open the restraint on the hand he was holding. “I’m not your jailer, Steve, and I can take anything you dish out. I just can’t you let hurt anyone else.”
Steve undid the other buckle and sat up. “You’re not going to try and convince me this is all real, that you’re Bucky Barnes?”
“You don’t tell someone experiencing mind control their experiences aren’t real.” Bucky settled back in his chair and crossed his arms. “You said they were sloppy. What seems off to you?” Steve didn’t answer. “It was Coulson. The hand, right? He was like that when I met him, I never asked how it happened. Seemed rude, considering.” Bucky made a shrugging gesture with his metal arm.
“Agent Coulson died in the Battle for New York.” Steve would keep the other holes to himself, but he’d tipped his hand for this one. The scenario would certainly explain it away and adjust.
“He did die. It didn’t stick.” Steve braced himself for a long winded story about how Fury had lied to motivate them, something like what Clint had been ranting all the way to the morgue after they’d eaten. Clint had gone completely silent when they’d slid open the drawer and Agent Coulson’s body was inside. “It was awful, I’ve seen the files. Don’t ask him about it. Daisy was there, she can tell you about it if you want to know, just don’t ask him. Promise me.”
“Was it HYDRA?” That, at least, was plausible. The Avengers had received an alert that someone had dug up Agent Coulson’s grave just before everything went to hell in DC.
“No.” Bucky didn’t elaborate. Apparently, whatever the scenario had cooked up was just too awful to think about. “I put in a call to Jean Grey. She’ll be able to help you.”
“Jean Grey.” Another familiar name. “Bruce’s friend Jean?”
“Sure. I guess they knew each other back when he was a normal scientist.”
Another familiar face. Jean was a doctor at some school north of the city. Her chat icon was always flashing on Bruce’s phone. “We don’t have any doctors here?”
“Steve, you don’t need a doctor, you need a psychic. Plus, Jean could wipe the floor with you if she had to.” There was no such thing as psychics, but Steve wasn’t going to argue. “You went to bed with me this morning. We going to talk about that?”
“There’s two possibilities here. One, I’m right and none of this is real, which makes this morning some pretty elaborate masturbation.” Steve swung his feet over the edge of the bed, surprised to find his sneakers and belt on a table. “Or two, you’re right, all of this is real and you and your Steve Rogers share a life in that apartment. In that case, I’m sure I’m generous enough to share with myself.”
Jean looked exactly like her user picture, plus a few years. “Bucky tells me you’ve lost ten years. Have we met?”
“Not in person.” Steve shook her hand, but there was no preternatural strength in her grip.
She touched her fingers to her temple. “There’s a… void. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Bullshit.” Bucky hadn’t let Steve out of his sight all morning, and he’d been determined to camp out in a corner chair during Steve’s examination. “You could do this to someone, scoop out their memories. Xavier too.”
“I could keep someone for accessing a memory. I couldn’t cut them out like this. I don’t know any mutant who could.” A frown crossed Jean’s face, then she dropped her hand and sucked on a finger. She seemed surprised that it wasn’t actually bleeding when she checked. “The edges are sharp. Has Wanda taken a look?”
“While he was out.” Bucky hadn’t mentioned that during their little talk. “She agrees with you, says the wound feels different. I called in a few favors from Daisy, asked some questions. Psychic powers are rare in Inhumans. Couple of pre-cogs, no one with your power level. No one who could rip out part of Steve’s brain.”
Mutants and Inhumans. Steve deducted points for plausibility but played along. “So what does that leave? Magic?”
To his surprise, Jean and Bucky both nodded, although Bucky’s nod was accompanied by a grimace. “Magic or something else just as ridiculous. Jean, I will pay you double your fee if you make the call to Strange.”
Strange, whoever he was, didn’t seem to be answering. “Typical.” Bucky tossed his phone onto the coffee table, a disgusted look on his face. His calm exterior was eroding with each call that went straight to voicemail. “That guy’s everywhere, until you need him, then he’s impossible to find.”
“Nice to know this does bother you, at least a little.” Steve had taken the most comfortable looking chair in the living room. There was a pane of glass sitting on top of it. “Is that a tablet?”
“OLED screen embedded in smart glass.” Bucky handed it over and when it touched the skin of Steve’s hands it flared to life. “It doesn’t like me.”
It was probably useless to try and research the holes in this little scenario, but it would give Steve something to do. He certainly wasn’t going to break into a vault on the sayso of a dead man. “Are you going to sit there and guard me all day?”
“I have to. You do stupid shit when I’m not watching.” Bucky glanced at his watch. “We were supposed to do a charity thing today. I can’t bring Conspiracy Theory Captain America to a veteran’s lunch.”
“You should go.” Steve wanted a chance to put the pieces together. He was sure he was under surveillance but it would be nice to not have Bucky literally reading over his shoulder. He googled ‘Captain America’ and clicked into his own wikipedia page. “FRIDAY can watch me.”
“You just want to be alone so you can search the apartment for bugs and poke holes in reality.” Bucky pushed off the couch and knelt in front of Steve’s chair. “Sam told me something once, about how smart people get sucked into conspiracy theories. It’s the inconsistencies that get them. Early reports that are wrong, uncorroborated accounts. You’ve got an eidetic memory, it’s easy for you to spot things that are off. They want you to feel isolated, to not trust anyone.”
“Who are ‘they’?” It would be so easy to believe him. Steve wanted to. He wanted a future like this so badly.
“Aliens? Genoshan separatists? An evil sorcerer?” Bucky shrugged. “Our lives are pretty crazy, Steve. We’ve made a lot of-” Alarm klaxons started to sound and Bucky put his hand on Steve’s knee, trying to hold back a laugh. “Enemies.”
The volume quickly ratcheted down and FRIDAY said, “Captain Rogers is lead on today’s rotation. Should I-”
“We can’t let this get out. Have a suit prepped for me.” Bucky pushed off the floor and went to the arms locker. The compartment holding the shield jerked open at the touch of his mechanical hand. “There’s no one else who can fight like you. I have to go. It should only be a couple hours. Please be here when I get back.”
“Sure.” A few hours wasn’t much time to figure out what was really going on, but it was a start.
“Liar.” Bucky pressed a kiss to Steve’s cheek and he tried to suppress a shiver at the touch. “I’m going to have Wanda check on you later. We’ll figure this out, okay?”
As interesting as it was to watch Bucky suit up in the Captain America uniform, Steve was glad to be left alone with an internet connection.
The history in this little fantasy was a mess. Wikipedia was Steve’s first stop and his article had a few new section headers. He clicked on the one marked ‘Sokovia Accords’.
‘Captain Rogers’ refusal to sign the Accords lead to tension within the team. With Tony Stark firmly on the side of bringing the Avengers under oversight, their teammates formed rank behind them.’
Plausible enough but the rest of the stub seemed like a crazed fantasy. Steve found it hard to believe he and Tony had squared off at an airport with help from a spider and an ant.
He googled Jean Grey and went down a rabbithole of links until he found himself reading a list of the “Most Powerful Superhero Telepaths.” Doctor Grey topped the list but there was a lot of bickering about who else should qualify. The discussion seemed pretty evenly split between Emma Frost, a mutant called the Black Queen and another woman who was some kind of warrior monk that called herself Moondragon.
This was ridiculous. Steve closed the browser. “FRIDAY, let’s talk about who lives here. How long has Pietro lived downstairs with Wanda?”
“Mr. Maximoff does not continuously live at the Tower but he has been a regular occupant since his resurrection in 2018.”
“Resurrection.” That was blunt. Bucky had at least given Coulson the cover of some horrible science experiment. “And Bucky? How did Bucky get here?”
“You and Sergeant Barnes were living in Wakanda after the Accords were signed. When Thanos began to threaten Earth, you and Sir put your grievances aside to re-unite the Avengers.”
“And Tony just… let Bucky move in?” The Wikipedia page glossed over “a significant incident in Siberia” but Steve had clicked a few links. They’d almost killed each other.
“Sir regretted what happened in Siberia very deeply. No matter what he personally felt about Sergeant Barnes, Thanos was known for his destruction of whole worlds, whole star systems.”
Thanos again. “Is there anyone currently in the building I don’t know?” Steve had spent a lot of months on the road, watching cable tv in hotel rooms with Sam. He’d caught a few Farscape episode that seemed applicable to the situation.
“Aside from Agent Johnson and Kate Bishop, all current residents of the Tower are people that would be familiar to you in 2015.”
“Sure they are.” Actually, speaking of Farscape, that gave Steve an idea. “I don’t suppose there’s an unoccupied women’s bathroom I could take a look at?”
“Avengers Tower does not have gender-designated public restrooms.” The TV turned on and showed an unoccupied single stall restroom, with a toilet, urinal and sink. It was very clean, at least, but not very helpful.
Steve tossed the tablet aside. It was all useless anyway. “Do they still have classic sports channels?”
Steve half-watched an old baseball game while he thought over the situation. Someone would notice he was missing. Sam was probably already looking for him. His team would come for him. In the meantime, Steve had to keep trying to find holes, inconsistencies. “Doctor Grey called herself a mutant. That sounds like a slur.”
“Most people with the X-Gene choose to call themselves mutants. The legal term is ‘meta-human’, encompassing many groups of powered people.”
“Is Agent Johnson a mutant?” She held herself like she was a fighter, but Steve had no idea why she’d thought she could go toe to toe with him unless she had powers of her own.
“No. Agent Johnson is an Inhuman.”
That word again. If mutant sounded like a slur, inhuman sounded like the kind of thing a hate group would think up. “What’s the difference?”
“Mutant very specifically refers to someone containing a mutated gene, referred to as the X-gene. Inhumans are the result of long ago experimentation on the human race by the Kree.”
More aliens. Steve wasn’t surprised, that seemed to be the scenario’s default explanation for everything. “How did Agent Johnson meet Bucky?”
“The Secret Warriors were deployed on a mission to the Kree homeworld. Sergeant Barnes was chosen to accompany them. The Kree found his tale of survival and victory over his tormentors to be quite appealing.”
The intercom chimed. Tony’s voice cut in. “FRIDAY, I’ve got infiltrator alarms flashing all over the place down here but none of the sirens are going off. Why do my screens say Captain America might be a Skrull?”
“Not a Skrull.” Steve had been wondering when Tony was going to show up. “I don’t think. FRIDAY, am I a Skrull?”
“No, Captain. You have been confirmed to be Captain Steve Rogers with 100% certainty. Your questions have triggered the Tower’s self-defense protocols. I am unable to disable the alarms for security reasons, so I have silenced them.”
“What is-” There was a loud clatter on the other end. “FRIDAY, what the hell is going on?”
Tony made them smoothies once he got the alarms turned off.
“I think I pushed neuroscience ahead ten years getting Rhodey walking again.” Tony had aged pretty well, considering the stress in his life and his tendency to not sleep or eat on a regular basis. “Some of the stuff we tried, not totally legal. When I found myself meeting Victor Von Doom in the back booth of a diner to talk robotics, the stuff you did for Barnes started to make a whole lot more sense.”
“You know I don’t believe any of this, right?” Steve took the bright pink drink, a little dubious.
Tony hand waved away Steve concerns. “This kind of thing, it happens all the time. You’ll be fine.”
“This happens all the time?” That was the craziest thing the scenario had tried to make Steve believe.
“Not this, exactly, but lost memories? That’s pretty normal.” Tony slurped at his glass of green goo. “Of course, no one’s ever done it to you before, because hurting you like this is just going to get Barnes on a rampage. I give it two days before his murder buddies show up to help.”
“Barnes doesn’t exactly know a lot of normal people. But he does have a pretty impressive collection of fellow science experiments that he hangs out with.” Tony waved his hand at an interface. “FRIDAY, let’s see Barnes’ last birthday.”
A man wearing a mask eating a taco flared to life. “I’m just saying, if I had Captain America’s ass on offer, I wouldn’t be at a bar. I would be home defiling-”
“Shut up, Wade.” The camera swung to Bucky, as he took a long drink straight from a bottle of vodka. He swiped at the camera. “Rocket, get that thing out of my face.”
“No way, buddy. The hero of Oconomowoc, drinking in a dive bar with his comrades? The Kree holonet will eat it up. Think of the ad revenue.” Whoever Rocket was, he could move fast enough to dodge Bucky’s enhanced speed.
A woman slid into the seat next to Bucky. It took Steve a minute to place her face. Jessica Jones, she’d been in the papers for killing her mind-controlling rapist. She was also drinking straight from a bottle, although hers was whisky. “We need to keep him here another hour so Rogers can finish waxing or whatever Captain America does to impress Barnes.”
Bucky laughed, a real laugh like Steve hadn’t heard since before the war. “Those costumes are skin tight, Jess. Not all of us can fight crime in our jeans.”
Steve wasn’t sure what Tony was trying to get at here. If anything, they reminded him of the Commandos.
Offscreen, someone muttered, “Fucking traitor.”
Bucky froze, but the guy in the mask dropped his taco onto the table and unsheathed a pair of swords from his back. “What did you say?”
The camera spun around so Steve could see the man, swaying drunk and belligerent, fumble for a gun in his waistband. “He worked for them, all those years and now we’re supposed to pretend he’s some big hero? That he didn’t kill-”
The big guy behind the bar was coming around, holding a baseball bat but everyone else in the room was faster. Wade’s swords flashed and the barrel of the man’s gun fell to the floor. In another breath, he had his sword to the drunk’s throat. “What do you think was going to happen here? You’re a bit part, in a bar full of protagonists. You don’t even have a name. You’re just part of the rampage montage.”
To make his words even clearer, Wade grabbed the man’s hand - the one holding the gun - and squeezed until there was a sickening crunch.
Jessica’s chair screeched back, and she was suddenly across the room, dragging Wade off the guy. “Wade-”
“FRIDAY, halt playback.” Tony made another slurping noise with his straw. “Like I said. Murder buddies.”
When he finally got rid of Tony, Steve sprawled out in the chair again. He put the game back on but he wasn’t really interested. His eyes kept drifting shut. He’d been burning the candle at both ends, training the Avengers and trying to keep searching for Bucky.
Somewhere in the fourth inning, he nodded off.
In his dreams, the world was bright white and Sam was yelling. “Steve, Steve can you hear me? Come on, buddy. Let us know you’re in there.”
Steve blinked against the bright light.
“His eyes moved.” Wanda was close but Steve couldn’t see her. The light was too bright.
“FRIDAY, confirm.” Steve could hear the thread of panic in Tony’s voice. He hadn’t been on base, as far as Steve could remember, and Steve hadn’t heard any final plans about FRIDAY being installed. How long had he been out? “Get Doctor Cho on a plane. Give her whatever she wants.”
“Eye movement confirmed.” FRIDAY sounded far away. “I have contacted Doctor Cho. Deploying limousine to her apartment.”
Steve tried to sit up but he couldn’t move. Not like restraints. It was like the ice. Was he back in ice? He struggled, trying to break free, but nothing happened. He opened his mouth to scream and no sound came out.
“His heart rate is spiking.” Sam loomed over him. “Steve, Steve listen to me. If you can hear me, we’re going to get you out of this. You’re encased in some kind of crystal but we’re going to get you out. Blink if you can hear me.”
Steve blinked, half in answer and half against the light. He couldn’t talk, couldn’t open his mouth, couldn’t move his hands.
“It’s okay.” The light started to fade a bit. Sam’s hand was blocking it. It was resting over Steve’s face, and the world took on an amber color. “Stark, if you’re not going to do something right now, get me a chisel.”
Steve startled awake to Bucky shaking him by the shoulder. “You alright? You were screaming.” His suit was filthy and parts of it were smoldering. Steve almost asked what had happened before he realized none of it mattered.
Steve took a deep breath, then another. Bucky’s hand was still on his shoulder and he pushed it away. Somewhere out in the real world, Steve was trapped. He was trapped in here too, with something that looked and acted like Bucky. “I’m fine.”
“Fine is relative.” Bucky took off his helmet, let it drop to the floor. “Still missing ten years?”
“What’s another ten?” Steve held himself very still, worried he might start shaking. He needed to get out of this comfortable illusion, no matter what it took.
“You didn’t sleep through this. We had a life. A real life.” For the first time, Bucky sounded a little angry. “It must be unbelievable to you but sometimes things work out, Steve.”
Steve just stared at him, blankly. He wondered if he made Bucky angry enough the illusion would break. “None of it makes any sense, Bucky. You really want me to believe everyone lived happily ever after? That you *married* me?”
Bucky stiffened up and Steve knew he’d hit a sore spot. Good. “Someone’s been on Wikipedia.” Bucky fumbled the buckles on his jacket open. “There was a war and I was deployed into outer fucking space, Steve. So yes, we got married and it was a huge thing. When I got back six months later, they were still saying I’d brainwashed you.”
Bucky had always wanted to be a space explorer, like something out of pulps. “It’s a nice story, Buck.”
“You used to like it when I told you stories.” Bucky let his body armor drop to the floor. “Do you want to hear the rest? The parts that aren’t in the article.”
“No.” Steve didn’t want to hear the private details of a future he’d never get to have. It frightened him, what he’d be willing to do to keep it. It made him want to leave the real world behind.
Bucky made a face like Steve had stuck him with a knife but it slid away into bland acceptance so fast Steve could almost believe he’d imagined it. Steve hated to hurt Bucky, it made him think of their brutal fight on the carrier and being literally gut-shot, but he couldn’t play along, not about this. “Alright, no stories. What about a sandwich?”
“I could sleep in the guest room.” Bucky stood, uneasy, in the door to their supposed bedroom.
“Why?” Steve stripped down to his shorts and flopped on the bed.
“You think you’re trapped in a hallucination and I’m not real?” Bucky hesitated one more long moment, before he came into the room and started stripping down. “You were barely alive when I came back. I had almost forgotten that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve was fine. He had Sam and Wanda, who seemed to really understand him. He had Natasha, to drag him out of his shell. He had the job, another war to fight. That was enough to keep him going, most days. Finding Bucky was something he could dream about on good days. He’d never managed to imagine getting back this happy, casual intimacy between them.
“You were living in the compound, still at war. You’d been awake for five years but you still weren’t living.” Bucky slipped under the sheets beside him. “Then you turned traitor to save me. You left the shield behind, everything. You were so happy Natasha thought the Wakandan doctors were drugging you.”
Bucky was an arm's length away, practically clinging to the edge of the bed, and Steve tugged him closer. If Steve was going to be trapped with a facsimile of Bucky, he wasn’t going to sleep alone. He could do that in the real world, when Sam was done chiseling him out or when Tony worked some feat of amazing science.
“At least you still want me.” Bucky let Steve spoon him without any complaints, which was another glitch. Bucky hated being the little spoon. He relaxed against Steve and let out a happy sigh, then reached back and put Steve’s hand on his hip. “You told me once you never stopped wanting me. Nice to know for sure it wasn’t a line to get back in my pants.”
“It’s not a line.” Steve rubbed a few circles into Bucky’s skin, then slid his hand over, stopping at the band of Bucky’s briefs. “It’s not like I don’t lie in my bed and fantasize about you being back in it. I want to jerk you off. Do you want to?”
“When in my entire life have I ever turned you down?”
Steve was frozen again. There were bright lights and he couldn’t still couldn’t move. Someone said, “He’s back with us!” and the lights went out and Tony was looming over him.
“Steve, can you hear us?” Steve tried to move, but all he could manage was a blink. “What did we do to wake him up?”
“Nothing.” The other voice was Bruce, Steve was sure of it. He’d suspected Tony was keeping in touch somehow. “I don’t even have the equipment set up yet.”
“His brain activity has been wildly fluctuating. I don’t think he’s been asleep.” Doctor Cho was somewhere out of sight but Steve was glad to hear her voice. She was very good at saving their lives.
“Show us.” Tony stepped away and Natasha took his place at Steve’s side.
She pressed a hand flat against whatever was encasing him. “Hey, Steve. Let me catch you up. You’ve been under for three days.” Three days? No, it had only been one, hadn’t it? “Cho and Banner are setting up a sonic oscillator to see if we can crack this thing open.” Her voice dropped. “I won’t let them leave you like this, I promise.”
The sound of sirens going off startled Steve awake. There was a strange distortion in the noise and Steve had rolled off the edge of the bed into a defensive crouch before he realized Bucky was having a video call with someone.
“Someone shut that fucking thing off!” The woman on the screen pushed back her cowl and surprise, surprise, Steve recognized her. Rhodey had brought Carol to the last Christmas party. “SHIELD said it was sending me backup. Why are you still on Earth in your boxer shorts?”
“We’ve kind of got a situation here.” Bucky looked sleep tousled and the boxers he was wearing were Steve’s. “Ask SHIELD to send someone else.”
“Someone else the Nova are going to trust to go into their archive of dangerous technology?” In the background behind Carol, one of the doorways started to fill with smoke. “Barnes, this is really not my area. I was expecting to find someone locked in there I could hit. Instead it’s all traps and strange alien puzzles.”
“Can’t the Nova solve their own alien puzzles?” Bucky scratched at the back of his neck.
“They asked for help for a reason. Some telepath had a whole planet under thrall, then took off. The whole population needs psychiatric treatment.” The smoke in the doorway turned purple and another alarm began sounding, this one with monotone instructions in an alien language and Carol hung her head, frustration and defeat warring across her face. “Damn it. I must have set off another trap. I need you and Rogers out here before I accidently blow up the whole base.”
“I can’t.” Bucky made a gesture at the screen and the picture quality dropped noticeably and a SECURE CONNECTION banner appeared above Carol’s head. “Steve’s out of commission. I can’t leave him like this.”
Carol’s head snapped up, suddenly more pissed off than anything else. “He’s in bed, sprawled out like he’s in a women’s magazine, right behind you.” Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to Steve that Carol could see him and he rearranged the blanket a little.
“That doesn’t mean he’s alright!” Bucky turned. “Steve, do you have any idea who this is?”
“Colonel Carol Danvers. She’s a fighter pilot. I met her last Christmas.” Steve had liked her. She had a wicked sense of humor and kept making Area 51 jokes whenever anyone asked her what she did for the Air Force. “No idea what she’s doing wearing that getup on an alien planet.”
“That’s….” Carol’s expression softened a little. “Go back to bed, Barnes. I’ll call around and see who else is available.”
“Good luck with the,” Bucky gestured at the smoke, now turning a vibrant shade of orange. “Whatever that is.”
The connection cut out and Bucky slunk back into bed. Steve knew he hated letting people down. “She hits really, really hard. I just think you should know what kind of mess you’ve dragged me into this time, Steve.” Bucky slipped right back into Steve’s arms and apparently, this was something Steve was supposed to believe was a regular occurrence now. It was nice, and Steve drifted back off to sleep still holding him.
The next afternoon, FRIDAY was happy to help Steve spy on everyone in the building. “Doctor Grey believes the serum may be able to overcome the damage to your brain given enough time. I’m happy to help you feel comfortable here.”
“I doubt that.” Steve had the video feed showing Bucky laying into the heavy bag. It must have been something Tony cooked up, because it had withstood twenty minutes of superhuman hits so far. “Is he normally like this?
“No. I have already activated standard protocols.”
‘Freebird’ started playing from Bucky’s phone and he caught the bag and went over to duffle bag to answer it. “Who called you?”
FRIDAY layered in the audio from the other side of the call. “Your sentient house?” It was Sam, a little icon even popped up with some biographical information. “So, I’m coming up for the weekend. FRIDAY is going to send a car, then we’re getting Thai food.”
“You’re not coming. You have group on Friday nights.” Bucky sat on the floor, then seemed to give up on being vertical and sprawled out.
“One of the other councilors is covering. I told the guys it was for you and they practically packed my luggage for me.”
“You know they all love you, Bucky.” Sam sounded like he was trying not to laugh, but then his tone turned serious. “You’re proof that no matter what they did, what they saw, it’s possible to come home. That’s all that gets some of them out of bed in the morning. So FRIDAY is going to air out my apartment, and you’re going to buy me dinner.”
“And then what? We try and convince Steve that this is his life? He’s not going to go for that.” Bucky sat up, his back to the camera. His shoulders were hunched. “I can’t let whoever it is that did this get away with it. I can’t let them take him from me.”
“Bucky,” Sam’s voice was gentle. “We’ll find whoever did this. Steve will be fine.”
Bucky’s back shuddered on camera and suddenly Steve felt like a voyeur. “FRIDAY, kill the feed.”
Sam and Bucky getting dinner turned into the whole team getting dinner. Team dinners these days seemed to involve the delivery of a restaurant’s entire menu, in this case a Thai one, and then the residents of the Tower descended on the food like a hungry pack of wolves.
Steve hung back, sitting at the far end of the table. The Avengers could never replace the Howling Commandos, and sometimes it felt like a miracle when they managed to spend a few hours together without a fist fight breaking out. The friendly dinner was so out of character for them all that Steve wondered if the scenario was glitching or if Steve wanted to believe his team would someday be his family.
Natasha showed up, a Hell’s Kitchen lawyer on her arm. Steve wondered what the hallucination thought Natasha would see in a blind crusading lawyer. Pietro was playing some kind of quick catch game with Wanda’s boys. Kate kept sneaking her dog pieces of chicken from her curry. Tony was sprawled out on a couch, talking to someone on the phone. Rhodey, probably, unless it was Pepper. It sounded the same to Steve.
Sam hugged him on sight. “Are you doing alright?”
Someone had encased Steve in some kind of crystal and trapped him in a wish fulfillment scenario. He was definitely not alright. “Sure. I did some reading on Wikipedia.”
“Bullshit.” Sam whispered, then let Steve go. “Do you want to talk about any of this or are you planning on driving yourself crazy first?”
“I’m fine.” The whole team was working on getting him out. Steve had faith in them pulling together in a crisis, even if they couldn’t manage a get together like the one he was currently dreaming about.
“You keep saying that. No one is buying it.” Sam took a step back and looked him over, like he thought he could see the hole in Steve’s memory if he looked closely enough. “We’re your family, Steve. You could try talking to a few people, see if anything jogs loose.”
There was nothing to jog. He knew everyone in the room, except Agent Johnson, waiting in line for noodles. She was out of combat gear but still wearing the bracers.
When Bucky brought him a beer, Steve told him, “It’s just like Thanksgiving at your grandmother’s apartment.”
“You always say that.” Bucky shoved a plate of rice at Steve. “Have you met Kate Bishop? She’s Hawkeye.”
“I met her in the stairwell.” Steve didn’t mention the newspaper article.
“That’s Matt.” Bucky pointed his fork at the man who had followed Natasha in. “He’s-”
“I know who Matt Murdock is.” Steve wasn’t good at subtle, so he was trying not to stare while still keeping an eye on Johnson. She’d gotten her food and was totally absorbed in texting someone. “Your friend Johnson, what’s her story?”
“Coulson found her living in a van and adopted her.”
“Recruited.” Johnson corrected Bucky without looking up from her phone. “He found me living in a van and recruited me.”
Bucky flicked a bit of napkin at Johnson, who dodged much better than Becca had ever managed. “The Inhumans are part alien. She leads the ones that work for SHIELD.”
Steve wondered what ‘part-alien’ meant. It seemed rude to ask, the future version of asking someone what country they were from. “Fury told me SHIELD was gone.”
Johnson just shrugged. “Fury lies. SHIELD was never gone.”
The ride back up to their apartment was quiet. It turned out the other apartment on their floor was Sam’s. “We decided after you got yourself shot in the head that being your Sergeant was a two-man job.”
“Don’t joke about that.” Bucky took a half step closer to Steve, who wondered what they were talking about. He’d given up on the Wikipedia article about halfway through the massive alien invasion by some alien ‘In love with Death.’ There had even been a picture of ‘Death’.
Steve had missed Bucky for a long time. Losing him had left an empty space at Steve’s right elbow in a fight, an empty space in his bed and a hollowness in the rest of his life. Steve had forgotten how it felt to be close to Bucky, the casual intimacy they had shared for years.
Even just quietly lying in bed beside him, Steve drawing and Bucky reading, occasionally elbowing each other on accident, felt like home.
No one really touched Steve anymore, except for Sam, who claimed it was a basic human need and that Steve would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get a hug every once in awhile. “I can’t be that much work.”
“You are absolutely that much work. I spent a month in a floating supermax prison because of you.” Sam smiled when he said it, which made Steve pretty sure Sam had been milking that story for most of the past decade.
“Please don’t get him started on the prison thing.” Bucky was first out the door when it slid open. “We don’t have time-” Bucky stopped dead in front right outside. A pair of muddy boots was beside the door. He turned back to Sam and said, accusingly, “You called Wade.”
“I did not.” Sam punched in a code on his door. “The guy has erratic tattooed on his ass.”
Bucky’s hand hesitated on the door. “Steve, I need to warn you about Wade.”
Steve didn’t know anyone named Wade and the Wade from the video Tony showed him had been wearing a mask. Steve was sure he’d know the man on sight, if not by name, just like everyone else. Except, of course, for Agent Johnson. “What, that he’s violent and unpredictable?”
“That, plus he’s aggressively bisexual.” Bucky pushed the door open.
Wade was sitting on their couch, watching Food Network and eating cereal straight from the box. His mask was thrown over an empty beer bottle and Steve had been absolutely wrong. He didn’t recognize Wade, because Wade didn’t really have any recognizable features. Something was constantly shifting under his skin. Then he raised his beer bottle at them. “Steve! I brought you a card!”
“Thanks?” Steve took the crumpled envelope from Wade’s scarred hands. If his appearance was a glitch, and Bucky certainly didn’t seem to notice, it was a disturbing one. The card had puppies on the front, and ‘Get Well Soon” printed inside. It was signed by a bunch of people Steve didn’t know, except for a familiar ‘Logan’ scrawled in one corner. “Who are these people?”
“Other superheroes who’ve experienced traumatic amnesia.” Wade grabbed a pen and waved it at Bucky. “You too, Barnes.”
Bucky took the card from Steve, signed his name, then passed it back. He gave Wade an expectant look.
“What?” Wade looked between them. “Is the threesome on the table? You could have-”
“Wade.” Bucky grabbed him by the front of his red spandex and pulled him up till they were eye to eye. Wade’s feet were just dangling. “We are never having sex with you, but I am very glad to see you. Now do the thing and tell me who did this to Steve.”
“The thing?” Wade squirmed a little and mouthed ‘Help me!’ at Steve, who had no idea what was going on.
“Bucky!” Steve grabbed for Bucky’s arm but he just waved Steve off.
“The thing. The thing where you know stuff no one could possibly know.” Bucky gave Wade a pretty violent looking little shake. “Just tell me who did this, and I will take you with me when I go kill them.”
“I’m not psychic, I just hear voices.” Wade gave a kick at Bucky’s knee and then they were rolling around on the ground, Wade groping for his swords. This was getting out of hand. Steve tried to think of what he could do. “I’m here to help, stop trying to choke me!”
Bucky did stop and looked down at his own hands, confused, like he hadn’t noticed them around Wade’s neck. “Help with what?”
“This is the part of the story where your friends rally around you as Captain America spirals down into madness.” Wade shoved Bucky off him and sat up, apparently not minding that Bucky had almost strangled him. “We’ll make her pay for this.”
“See, that thing! Now we’re getting somewhere.” Bucky clapped Wade on the shoulder and gave Steve a grin. He’d used to get that that exact look on his face when he conned his little brothers into doing his bidding. “Now, who is ‘her’?”
Sam hadn’t let Steve out of his sight since he’d heard what Wade said, so they’d gone jogging. Steve, feeling not so generous at the scenario, hadn’t made it easy on him. “I told you, I’m fine.”
“You think you’re trapped in an illusion.” Sam drank his whole water bottle in one go. “You attacked two high level SHIELD agents. All that aside, Wade says you’re cracking up.”
“Wade dresses up like a ninja and kills people for money.” Steve hadn’t asked how Wade and Bucky met. He was sure he didn’t want to know the answer. “Bucky told me he has a brain tumor and he hears voices. I don’t think his predictions are very reliable.”
“Except it’s like life has a script, and sometimes he gets to read ahead. He’s never been wrong about this stuff.” Sam threw his bottle in the recycling and wiped at his face. “Do you want to tell me what makes you so certain that none of this is real?”
Natasha was leaning over him. “They broke their fancy vibrator trying to get you out. There wasn’t even a crack. We’ve tried diamond tipped drills, acid, Bruce transformed and whaled on it for a while. We even broke out the big guns, the Phase II guns and gear SHIELD salvaged from New York.” He didn’t want that. She must have known he would rather die than be saved using that gear. Were they really that desperate? “You know what I think? I’ve seen your brain waves, and you’re not in pain. I think you don’t want to wake up.”
If the scenario didn’t know about Steve’s glimpses of the real world, he wasn’t going to tell it. “I just know.”
After Wade’s pronouncement, Bucky was desperate for contact, just like he’d been after Steve pulled him out of the HYDRA base. He’d goaded Steve into fucking him, not that it was a hard sell. His breath hitched when Steve touched him the right way, his skin flushed, the edges of hairline got sweaty. Even though Steve knew it none of this was real, Bucky felt present beneath him in a way Steve could never manage in his fantasies.
The sex wasn’t exactly like Steve remembered. Bucky was louder in bed than he’d ever dared to be in Brooklyn, which was a nice touch from whoever had designed this. This Bucky Barnes wasn’t afraid of drawing the neighbor’s attention.
The other weird thing was how Bucky let Steve stay close, once the sex was over. In the real world, he’d always wriggled away. In Brooklyn, it was supposedly because Steve was so bony. In Europe, he’d complained that Steve was too heavy. Maybe that had been fear too, since it didn’t seem to bother him now.
“Love you.” It was muffled from the pillows Bucky had his face buried in, and Steve didn’t know what to say. The moment hung there, until Bucky said, a little louder, “You’re smothering me. Get offa me.”
Steve rolled off to the side and stared at the ceiling. “I looked for him for a year. Sam took a leave of absence and we took down a half-dozen hidden bases but we never got any closer than a rumor. So I went back to New York and took Tony up on his offer to help. I don’t think I’ll ever find him. I don’t think he wants to be found.”
Cool metals fingers wrapped around Steve’s wrist. “You found me in Bucharest. We did end up fugitives, which is exactly what my mother always said would happen hanging around with you. Other than that, it turned out okay.”
“What were you doing in Bucharest?” There was no information available online about what Bucky had been up to between the destruction of the Triskelion and his eventual arrest.
“Working construction. I was strong and I spoke Romanian.” Bucky seemed encouraged by Steve asking questions. “They shot the hell out of my apartment when they found me. I used you as a battering ram. When the body cam video leaked, it got something like six million hits. I’m pretty sure it was Natasha.”
It sounded like something she’d do. Natasha was always trying to get him to let loose a little. Steve slipped his hand from Bucky’s. “Do you want coffee?”
Bucky let out a long, slow breath. He was discouraged, but Steve had to be careful not to get dragged too far into the fantasy. The real Natasha, sitting at his bedside, had a point about Steve not wanting to wake up. He watched Bucky push the disappointment away and paste on a smile before he said, “Sure. Try not to set the kitchen on fire.”
Steve snagged a pair of shorts and went to sweet talk the coffee maker. He took two steps into the room before he realized he wasn’t alone. There was a racoon at the kitchen table, eating leftover pizza. Steve stared at the racoon and the racoon stared back. It was wearing some kind of combat gear and there was an oversized rifle sitting next to the pizza box.
This was the last straw. Steve had gone along with two separate, secret groups of super powered people. He’d just nodded along when Kate talked about Clint mentoring her and eventually becoming Hawkeye. Even Wade’s strange super cancer seemed reasonable compared to a combat racoon. Steve grabbed a broom from the pantry and made shooing motions at it. “No animals at the table!”
“Screw you, Rogers. You don’t even like cold pizza.” The racoon, who could apparently speak, made a gesture that Steve was pretty sure was the racoon equivalent of the middle finger. “I had to sit here listening to you and Barnes mate for the past hour, you can spot me a couple slices of pizza.”
Steve was going to ignore the mating thing. He had to keep at least a tenuous grip on sanity. “I don't think I owe racoon burglars breakfast.”
The racoon growled. “What did you call me?” He jumped onto the table, not quite evening out their height.
“I-” Bucky was suddenly behind him and clamped his hand over Steve’s mouth.
“He doesn’t know what the hell he’s saying. Someone scooped out part of his brain.” Bucky sounded embarrassed, like he was making excuses for Steve. “It’s good to see you, Rocket. Just give us a minute.”
“Yeah, sure.” This was apparently Rocket, the man behind the camera, and he took another bite of pizza, eating it at Steve in a kind of aggressive way. “Wade told me you needed help busting some heads. I’m at your service.”
“Great. FRIDAY, can you start the coffee?” Bucky’s metal hand was like a vice on Steve’s shoulder and he dragged him out of the kitchen. When they were alone he said, “You can’t call him a racoon.”
“Why not?” If this was another glitch, Steve wasn’t interested in hearing any explanation from the scenario.
“He doesn’t like it and you’re not usually an asshole?” Bucky lowered his voice. “He’s like me. Someone did that to him, took him apart and made him different. He’s not an animal, don’t treat him like one.”
“None of this seems a little nuts to you?” Steve wondered if he’d hit the edges of what the scenario was capable of.
“Well, Steve, you and I are both super soldiers living in ‘the future’ so no, it doesn’t.” Bucky took a step closer, pressing Steve against the wall, foreheads almost touching. “I’m going to figure this out. Just hold it together for a few more days, everything will make sense then, okay? Just… go back to bed.”
“I’m not buying it anymore. You can stop.” Steve gave a shove at Bucky’s shoulders and he stepped back. “You do whatever you want, I’m done.” Going back to bed sounded like a fantastic idea.
Steve heard Bucky say, “Fuck this,” under his breath and footsteps going back to the kitchen. Just before Steve closed the sound-proof door, he heard Bucky say, “I laid awake last night trying to think of who’s even capable of something like this and I came up with a name. You want to go bust some heads? I can’t sit around waiting anymore.”
Steve crawled between the sheets and determinedly closed his eyes. It took him a long time to fall asleep, surrounded by the comforter that smelled of Bucky.
“Jesus, Natasha.” Sam’s voice cut in as Steve came awake in the real world. “Is that… Where was he?”
“Living on the streets in Bensonhust. The neighborhood is Russian and Chinese now, but it looks the same and he’d be used to the people.” Natasha was suddenly looming over Steve. “Can you hear me, Steve? I need you to wake up.”
Natasha dragged someone else into view. He was filthy, with long unkempt hair, but it was undeniably Bucky. There had been no apartment in Romania for this Bucky, the real Bucky, and Steve struggled to move. He wanted out, he needed to get out, right now. “We just need to give him the right incentive. James, put your hand on the crystal, by his face.”
Robotically, Bucky raised his hand and placed it near Steve’s face.
“Now ask him to wake up.”
“Sir, wake up.” Bucky’s voice was raspy, and respectful. He’d never called Steve sir unless the brass was watching or as a joke. “You are required-”
Natasha cut him off. “Not like that. Call him Stevie. Tell him you *need* him to wake up. Say please.”
“Stevie, please. I need you to wake up.” It was still flat and mechanical, but to Steve it felt like a knife, slipping in between his ribs. Bucky looked away from Steve and focused back on Natasha. “Ma’am, I-”
“This is your mission.” Natasha turned his head back to Steve. “Make this man believe that you’re Bucky Barnes. You were seen at the museum exhibit, you saw the videos, read the letters they wrote. Make him believe that you love him and want him to wake up.”
“Acknowledged.” Bucky’s gaze focused on Steve’s face, and he tried again. This time, he sounded much more like himself. “Steve, come on buddy, time to wake up. You were frozen for seventy years, that’s gotta be enough sleep even for a bum like you.” He waited, until Natasha nodded her head. “Wake up, Stevie. Please. I love you, come back.”
“Very good, very convincing.” Natasha clapped him on the shoulder, giving Bucky her best fake smile. “Sam, can you get him a shower and a hair cut? We’ll try every time the scanner shows Steve might be conscious.”
“This is pretty cruel, Natasha.” Sam came into view on the edge of Steve’s vision. “James, do you want to get cleaned up? I’m sure Stark can spot you a hot shower and a razor.”
“It is cruel, but we need to give Steve something to live for, besides whatever he’s seeing in there.” Natasha rapped her knuckles against the top of the crystal. “Asset, you require personal maintenance. Go with Sam so he can assist you.”
Sam still hesitated. “Do I want to know why he’ll obey your orders?”
“No, you don’t.”
"At least you’re honest.” Sam made an ‘after you’ gesture at Bucky. “Come on. At least I’ll feel better if you get cleaned up and eat something.”
After they walked away, Natasha spoke again. "There must be something you can do, Steve, some crack you can exploit. Come on. I dare you.”
Steve sat up, gasping. A quick glance at the clock showed he’d only been dozed off for twenty minutes or so, it was still early.
He opened the door a crack and immediately heard Bucky’s voice. “Where is Groot? You never said.”
“He’s in the Bronx, ogling the Botanical Gardens.” Steve wondered for a second who Groot was, then shoved the thought aside. He needed to get out of here.
“Is that like going to a strip club or a museum?” There was barely contained laughter in Bucky’s voice and it made Steve’s chest ache. Based on what he’d seen in that flash of reality, he probably wasn’t going to get to hear a lot of Bucky’s laughter in the real world. He had to get back, even if he and Bucky were probably never going to have a life anything like this little fantasy he was in. It was enough just to know Bucky was safe, that Sam was watching over him until Steve could get back.
He went to the closet and gave the arsenal a good once over. He took his shield, and a few other things small enough to fit in his pocket. The only way out was through, at this point and Steve wanted to be prepared. He slipped past the kitchen and out the front door, leaving it slightly open to spare the noise of shutting it, then went into the stairwell. “FRIDAY, is Agent Johnson around?”
“Agent Johnson is in the enhanced gym, twenty floors down.”
“Great.” Steve started walking down, trying not to look suspicious. “How did Agent Johnson become a member of SHIELD?”
“Agent Johnson was recruited away from the Rising Tide network to join Agent Coulson’s team as their computer expert. At that time, she was attempting to infiltrate SHIELD to discover her origins, which proved to be alien. Born of an Inhuman mother and meta-human father, Agent Johnson is considered an Omega-Level metahuman, meaning her abilities have the potential to end the world. Agent Johnson’s powers were activated when Coulson’s team discovered a hidden alien city.”
“All that and she’s Coulson’s adopted daughter.” That was crazy. Why would anyone come up with a background that crazy? Simple was better with espionage, Peggy and Natasha were both sticklers about that. “Do you know what I think, FRIDAY? I don’t think Agent Johnson has any powers at all. I think it’s all part of this stupid scenario I’ve been stuck in for days.”
“Captain-” Steve flung open the door the gym level. “Captain, I do not recommend a physical altercation with Agent Johnson. Please allow me to contact Sergeant Barnes.”
“Not a chance.” Steve went into the weight room, where Johnson was using one of the weight machines. “I think we need to talk.”
She didn’t seem to have super strength, at least, and she wasn’t wearing her bracers. Johnson let the stack of weights settle and gave him a professional, ‘I’m the Agent in charge’ smile. “What did you need?”
“I need to wake up.” The gym door had a manual bolt on it, for tower-wide security breaches. Steve slid it into place. “I want to know why you’re keeping me locked in here. It must be obvious by now that I’m not going to work for you. Are you just studying me?"
“Studying you? No! I mean, anyone who spends time with Coulson ends up knowing a little too much about you but I wouldn’t say…” Johnson trailed off. “That’s not what you mean. You still think this isn’t real. You’re not asleep, Captain, and no one is keeping you locked up.”
“You want to know your big mistake? I’m not counting stuff like the dead people walking around.” Steve slid to the ground in front of the door and settled his shield in his lap. “I seem to know everyone in this Tower. The new Hawkeye, I read about her in a newspaper article. I saw Matt Murdock during coverage of the Kingpin scandal.”
“We’ve been trying to keep this quiet, need to know.” Johnson toweled off her face, in what was probably supposed to be a disarming gesture. Steve wasn’t fooled. Her whole body was tense.
“Carol Danver, who apparently is in outer space? She was Rhodey’s date to the Christmas party.” Steve reached into his pocket and slipped out one of the little orbs he’d liberated from Bucky’s weapons cache. “The ones I don’t know, like Wade and Rocket? They don’t exactly have human faces. In fact, the only person I’ve seen since I woke up that I don’t recognize is you. Agent Daisy Johnson, the powerful and beloved half-alien SHIELD agent who goes on deep space missions with Bucky Barnes.”
“Well, when you put it like that…” Johnson took a careful step towards him, then dropped down onto a knee so she could look him in the eye. “Except you’re you, and you’ve seen crazier shit. You lived it. You were frozen for seventy years, then were magically returned in humanity's darkest hour to fight our worst enemies. It’s super Arthurian, when you think about it.”
“Just *STOP*.” Steve raised his hand, so she could see the tiny explosive he was holding. “I think you’re in here with me. I’m not staying. Let me out, or I’ll make my own way and take you with me.”
“So, that time you were trying to make me feel better and told me how sad and crazy you used to feel? I am really sorry I didn’t take that more seriously.” Johnson’s breathing was slow and measured, like he’d seen Bruce do before missions, trying to stay in control. “Please don’t make me have to hurt you, Steve.”
“I’m not making you do anything.” Steve rolled the orb between his fingers and thought about pressing the button. “Last chance.”
“At least this proves once and for all that you’re not a Skrull. A Skrull would never let me get this close.” Johnson reached out her hand and the device between Steve’s fingers cracked into pieces. Well shit.
Onto Plan B. Steve let the pieces fall to the ground and rolled to his feet, shield at the ready.
“A Skrull would know what I’m capable of, would have done their research.” The ground started rumbling. “Someone pretending to be Steve Rogers would have thought to ask, how dangerous is the chick with the weird back story?”
Steve took a step forward, intending to charge her, but the ground crumbled beneath his feet and kept going. Within seconds, he was knee deep in high quality subflooring. Steve tried to pull himself out of the hole, but the floor was still shaking and coming apart.
“They would have asked, what do they call her?” Johnson lifted her hand until it was level with his forehead. “Coulson’s going to have me taken out and shot. Just so you know.”
She waved her hand and everything went black.
Steve woke up strapped to a gurney, still inside the scenario. “So much for not being a prisoner here.”
“That was before you tried to blow up the gym.” A black man Steve had never seen before was standing standing at the end of the bed. “Tony thought a few more precautions were in order. Just until Barnes got back to rein you in.”
“Did you draw the short straw?” Steve tested his bonds. They weren’t quite as solid as they’d been the first time he’d woken up here.
“Jess was out wreaking havoc with your boy, so I volunteered. I’m also someone you don’t know. Thought that might help.” The guy pointed a thumb at his chest. “Luke Cage.”
“Are you one of them? The Inhumans?” Steve needed to know what he was up against. He’d badly misjudged Johnson.
“Nope. I’m a science experiment, like you.” Luke pulled a chair over to the foot of the bed. “I’m hoping we’re going to sit here quietly, until Barnes finishes his rampage. Is that on the table?”
“Not really.” Steve yanked again and the left cuff gave a bit. “Does that sound like something I would do?”
Luke shrugged. “Not really, but I thought I’d try.”
“An experiment.” That sounded true. “Why’d you let them do it?”
“They said they’d let me out of prison.”
“Strucker told Wanda she was joining SHIELD. Didn’t turn out to be true.” There was a straining noise and the cuff tore free. Steve rolled off the edge of the bed, taking the side rail with him.
“Wow.” Luke didn’t get out of his chair. “You are really determined.”
“I was always stubborn. You know what they say about the serum, how it makes bad worse.” Steve gave a hard tug at the chain on his right wrist and it pulled free. He yanked a bar out of the bed rail. Cheap aluminum, but better than nothing.
“You’re not going to have a lot of luck with that, Steve.” Luke folded his arms and tipped back in his chair. “I know you think you’re in some kind of crazy Matrix-”
Steve lunged, doing a leg sweep of Luke’s chair. He went toppling back and Steve rolled with it, swinging the bar at the man’s face. It wasn’t full power but it felt like hitting a steel beam with a bat, before the serum. Not that Steve had ever done anything that stupid.
It was disorienting, but Luke didn’t fight back. “Is this helping?”
“Not really.” Steve was pretty sure he’d break his hand if he kept going. “So you’re… indestructible, I’m guessing?”
“Something like that.”
Steve threw the useless bar across the room and slumped on the floor. So much for taking Natasha’s advice. “Please, I just want to wake up.”
“I wish I could help,” Luke got to his feet and extended a hand to Steve, “Except you’re not asleep.”
Keeping him locked up was pointless, so now he was just constantly watched, ‘kept company’ by a rotating string of Avengers.
“I know it’s a little… science fiction.” Wanda turned the page in her photo album, showing him a picture of her wedding to Vision. “I used to worry I had done something, to make him perfect for me.”
“And now you don’t?”
“It doesn’t seem to matter as much, anymore.” Wanda ran a finger over the lines of the huppa they were standing under, in the picture. “I know false realities, Steve. This isn’t one.”
Steve was standing next to Bucky in the background of the picture, arm looped around his waist. “Sure. Whatever you say.”
“It just sounds elaborate, for a con.” Natasha stirred the ice in the bottom of her coffee and stared out at New York. “An internally consistent dream scenario, where the rest of us are… Computer generated? Wished out of thin air?”
“It’s not perfect.” Steve set his cup down on the edge of the roof and looked down. He wondered what would happen if he jumped.
“Still. That’s a lot of variables. I wouldn’t have done it like that.” She tilted her head and thought about it for a minute. “I’d have pulled James in with you, at least, given you another real person to rely on. Tony too, to distract you. The memory gap thing is another bad choice. Why not send you somewhere you’d never been instead? Why recreate all of this, all of us?”
“I wish I knew.” Everything was harder now that he wasn’t pretending anymore. There was no real reason to do anything, but he’d been hauled out of bed using physical force twice in the past week, so he was trying to play along.
“So, elaborate scheme to make you lose your grip on sanity,” Natasha raised one hand, “Or this is your reasonably happy life.” She raised the other, balancing out what she thought was most likely. “As mind fucks go, this is pretty useless, Steve.”
That didn’t mean it wasn’t real.
“Captain, Sergeant Barnes’ team is returning.”
Steve opened his eyes and gave the pressed tin ceiling a dirty look. “You know what, FRIDAY? I really don’t care.” He’d been sleeping as much as the scenario would let him but he hadn’t had any luck getting back to the real world since his confrontation with Agent Johnson. What ever backdoor Steve had been exploiting was closed now.
“They have a prisoner with them. Sergeant Barnes claims she is responsible for your memory loss.”
Well, that was interesting. Looked like the scenario was trying to shake things up. Steve got out of bed, grabbed the shield and his shoes. Maybe there was one last chance to get out.
A helicopter was just touching down on the pad, and the wind from the blades made Bucky look very dramatic, framed in the open side door. He was staring at something Steve couldn’t see, his face narrowed in intense concentration. He stepped out and hauled something out of the cabin and threw it out onto the roof.
It was a woman, dressed in some kind of combat suit, with the kind of high heeled boots Natasha would have laughed at and what appeared to be randomly placed bits of armor. Shackled, hands and feet, she hit the roof full force with a thud and curled into herself. There were scrape marks on her shaved head, like she’d been dragged and an electronic collar around her neck. “Please, help me!”
Steve stepped towards her but Bucky was faster. “Don’t talk to him! You talk to me. I’m the one you should be afraid of.” Bucky dragged her upright and Steve's fingers clenched on the handle of the shield. “Steve, this is Heather. She’s the one who took your memories.”
“She’s a psychic. Also, a krutaking good fighter.” Rocket limped from the other side of the helicopter, which he’d apparently been flying. He was in rough shape; one of his knees was braced and wrapped up.
“You said a mutant couldn’t have done this.” Heather didn’t look too badly injured, but she was shaking in Bucky’s grasp. A big part of Steve wanted to trust Bucky, wanted to believe everything he’d seen in the past week was real. Steve wanted a future like this one so badly, he couldn’t bear to let this farce go on much longer.
“She’s not a mutant, not an Inhuman. She used meditation to awaken her powers.” Wade clambered out of the cabin and immediately took position beside Bucky and pressed a gun to Heather’s head. “That basically makes her a Sith. Can we just kill her now? She hurt Captain America, I’m pretty sure that means we can kill her.”
Jessica was last out. She had a handful of photos in one hand and was the only one who wasn’t visibly armed. Maybe she didn’t need weapons, he still wasn’t sure what she was capable of. “Did they tell you I’m a PI, Steve? This is Heather Douglas, aka Moondragon. She and her parents were the unfortunate witness to Thanos’ vanguard coming to Earth.” Jessica threw a photo to the ground in front of Heather. It was a teenage girl, smiling at the camera. “They killed her parents and took her, trained her. Except she slipped her leash.” Another photo, this time of Heather in a green spandex costume, neck to boots. “She fought with the good guys, against Thanos. He doesn’t exactly have a great record with his wards.”
Steve wondered if he was supposed to be impressed, or if he was supposed to try and save her. “And she just decided to scoop my brains out one day?”
“That was the confusing part.” Jessica dug into her her stack of photos and pulled out another picture. “She met a boy. Well, sort of.”
The person in the picture was mostly machine and when she saw it, Heather started struggling in Bucky’s grip. “He wanted to help you and you killed him!”
“He tried to conquer the galaxy.” Rocket hobbled closer. “To save it! That’s not even very original.”
“Bucky, stop this.” Steve wasn’t sure he could fight Bucky again, even if he knew none of this was real.
“No.” Bucky slipped the fingers of his cybernetic hand under Heather’s collar. “Was that when you got the idea? When you watched Steve and his team put down Korvac?”
“I didn’t do anything.” Heather shrieked when Wade grabbed her shoulder. “I’m not a bad guy! I’m part of the Infinity Watch, you can-”
“One more lie and I'll blow your brains out.” Wade pressed the gun harder against the side of her head. “Speaking from personal experience, even if you don’t die, it hurts a lot.”
She stilled and her pleading look sharpened into a cruel smile. “You’re the worst of them, Rogers. You’re still a puppet, you can’t make the hard choices. You want to believe that people are good, deep inside, even when they keep proving over and over that given the chance they will embrace their selfish nature. Your devotion to “freedom,” your moral absolutism--they’re just strings to bind you. How can I save the world if there are still men like you in it?”
Steve wasn’t impressed with her speech. The scenario was getting so derivative, it was plagiarizing Ultron.
“Undo it.” The order was flat, but Steve knew Bucky - or at least, he knew the real Bucky: He was afraid.
Steve expected Wade to shoot her, the scenario had already established him as dangerously erratic, to extinguish Steve’s last hope of escape. It didn’t happen.
Instead Heather tilted her head up at Bucky, still smiling. “You’ll have to take off the collar, and I won’t do it with a gun to my head.”
Bucky let go of her neck. “Wade, back off. Jess, get her out of this thing.”
Wade looked scandalized. “What? No, you said-”
“Put the guns away.” Bucky’s tone didn’t leave any room for negotiation and Wade, with a dramatic sigh, holstered his pistols.
“Rocket, give me some cover?” Jessica came closer and pressed a thumb to the scanner on the collar. “Just remember, you’re on a roof, with some of the toughest people on earth. And some of the most mind-control resistant.”
“I still say leaving you a stain in the pavement would probably fix this whole thing.” Rocket prodded Heather in the ribs with the butt of his rifle. “Get up.”
Heather stood up, a smooth motion like being held at gunpoint on the ground had been her idea. “I really did expect more of you, Captain. You didn’t even manage to kill Quake during your little outburst.”
Steve refused to let himself believe. None of this was real, he wasn’t going to get any memories back.
Heather’s hand was ice cold when she touched his face, and he flinched. She smiled again. “I knew I couldn’t kill you, not directly. That would have just made you a martyr. I had to discredit you, take a little shine off Captain America’s image. Killing Quake would have been perfect, but you’re too wholesome to even manage that.”
Steve could have, had even wanted to yesterday.
“Well, you can’t say I didn’t push you to your limits.” Heather closed her eyes and then it felt like she set the inside of Steve’s skull on fire. He could hear shouting, could make out Bucky’s voice, but there didn’t seem to be any words.
Steve’s knees gave out and the he and Heather sank together to the roof. Heather pressed her other hand to the other side of his face. “Almost done.”
The fire burned hotter. Steve thought he screamed but he couldn’t hear himself, could hear nothing. It was worth it though, if he could wake up. It was worth it if he could get back-
The piece Heather had carved away slid neatly, if not painlessly, back into place. The last ten years came crashing back in waves.
Bucky, in his arms, dozing on the deck of a plane to Siberia.
T’Challa, introducing Steve to his fiance, Ororo. “She has a friend that can help.”
The photographs of Thanos’ fleet, on a direct course for Earth.
Tony, hugging him, shaking Bucky’s hand. “We need all the help we can get.”
Phil Coulson, trying to win Clint and Natasha’s trust and friendship back with scones.
Slipping a ring onto Bucky’s finger and watching the world dissolve into camera flashes.
A call from Westchester and an old man telling him they were ready, they would help.
Steve would never forget what it felt like to drown, to breathe out his last gasp of air and suck in icy water, to sink and freeze in the dark.
Odin’s face, dissolving into Loki’s as he pledged them Asgard’s men.
Carol Danvers, suiting up, saying she outranked him.
Walking up to a podium and a blinding pain. Bucky’s scream.
This was just like that. He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe.
Sam wearing the costume, with wings. Bucky wearing the costume, with guns.
Natasha, stitching closed Matt’s back, complaining about Foggy’s old needlework.
Dancing at Wanda’s wedding.
Peter’s college graduation.
A secret war with the Skrull.
Tommy and Billy, and the look on Vision’s face as the whole team stood outside the nursery.
Heather’s hands went away. Steve could hear Bucky yelling, far away and suddenly the words came into focus. “What did you do to him?”
The ocean receded.
It was 2025 and Steve was on a roof in New York City, while Bucky and his ‘Involuntary Science Experiment’ social club tried to get a powerful psychic back in chains.
Rocket had launched himself at Heather’s face and Steve was never going to live down calling him a raccoon, not if they both lived another hundred years. Jessica had Heather by the wrist chains, and her feet were digging divots into the tar of the roof.
“Your shoes are really impractical for field work.” Wade swept her legs out and stomped on a knee. “You want a boot with a good sole, so you can stay on your feet and your armor doesn’t even protect your knees. Barnes-”
“Got it.” Bucky clamped the collar back around her neck. “This was a bad idea. Why did I think this would work?”
“Bucky.” Steve’s voice came out a croak. He tried to stand and didn’t quite make it.
Bucky was by his side in an instant. “Hey. I’m sorry. This was stupid. I’m just getting desperate trying to help you-”
Steve pulled him in, crushed their mouths together. It was better than breathing, and he didn’t even mind Wade’s wolf whistle. When they finally pulled apart, the first thing that popped into his mind was, “I tried to kill Daisy.”
“I know.” Bucky buried his fingers in Steve’s hair and Steve could hear the familiar whirring gears of his arm. “She’ll get over it. Let’s get you-”
Bucky’s arms went around Steve’s neck and the words, “Christ. I thought I really lost you this time,” were breathed hot and desperate into Steve’s ear.
Steve rubbed Bucky’s back, pretending they were alone. If Bucky needed to fall apart, Steve could be here for him, after all the trouble he’d gone to getting Steve’s memories back. “Give me a minute.”
Heather was still sprawled on the roof, cradling her knee, when Steve went to stand over her.
Jessica had been right, she had fought with them against Thanos. Steve remembered her face, her costume. “None of that ever happened. You did all this just to make me go crazy?”
“You’re such a curse on this planet, Captain. So righteous, so certain in the good of man.” Heather sounded disgusted. “There will never be peace on a planet with freedom. I wish you could understand that.”
Bucky got unsteadily to his feet. “Jess, can you put her in lock up?”
“Or maybe...” Heather’s cruel smile was back. “Maybe I didn’t take anything from you at all. Maybe you’re still lying on a table in Tony Stark’s lab, encased in crystal.”
Doubt curled around Steve, suffocating him. Memories or not, his life was a little too good to be true. He shot a look at Bucky, who was glaring at Heather, eyes full of hate and anger.
“Maybe I just fed you a decade’s worth of false memories and you took them, willingly. Maybe I just killed Captain Ameri-”
In one smooth motion, Bucky drew the pistol from his thigh holster and shot Heather between the eyes. Steve was expecting the sound of a bullet, to be covered in brains and blood, but instead a pulse of light hit Heather and she fell backwards onto the roof. Her chest was still rising and falling. The gun was an icer, like Coulson had used on Steve that first day.
“No. No lies, no monologuing. This is done.” Bucky looked at Steve, at Steve’s shield, and Steve realized he was afraid. He also looked exhausted, in the harsh lighting of the roof, dark circles under his eyes like he hadn’t slept since he’d left. “I won’t fight you. If you still can’t believe this is real, I won’t stop you leaving but I won’t fight you.”
All Steve wanted was for this to be real, but how could he ever know for sure?
Rocket limped closer to Bucky, gave him an awkward pat on the back. His voice was pitched low but Steve could still hear him. “After we dump her in lockup, I’m meeting up with Groot. We’re going to go do that Nova archives thing. Come with us, if you can’t be here anymore. He’ll get over it.”
Bucky shook his head. “I can’t leave him.” The misery rolled off him in waves.
Steve picked through his memories, trying to find holes, some way he could be sure. He could remember Wakanda, living in the palace while Jean burned out Bucky’s command codes, and Wanda, so desperate and lonely, wishing her brother back into existence. He remembered slipping a ring onto Bucky’s finger and the both of them shipping out the next morning, like something from when they were young. He remembered the war, their alien allies, and his own government trying to put him down afterwards. Heather may have been right, about him being too powerful a symbol.
There were the little things too. Tony putting strawberries in everything the year Pepper married Happy. Comforting Peter, who had shown up at the tower so drunk he could barely stick to the walls, the night Gwen left for England. He could remember Logan, who’d made it to the future the long way. Steve could remember Doreen, and her army of squirrels, taking care of Luke and Jessica’s little girl.
It all lined up perfectly, no continuity errors or glitches. He still wasn’t ever going to be sure.
If this was real, and he wanted it to be real, Steve wasn’t going to let Heather win. He could be like Wanda, with her photo album. “We could go together.”
“Yeah?” There was some hope creeping back into Bucky’s voice.
“Carol did seem pretty desperate for help.” It had to be real. Natasha was right, this was so much effort for so little gain. “It’s okay, Buck. I’m here, you got me back.”
Bucky pulled him into another kiss, and Steve let himself really feel it, the way Bucky loved him, wanted him. He heard Wade’s camera go off, but Steve was really beyond caring. You could never be sure, but you could get to a place where it didn’t matter.