The German half-track ahead of Bucky spun sideways in the blast, nearly knocking him off the armored truck he was clinging to with all his might, white-knuckled at the window’s edge and sprawled atop the roof. The truck driver regained control as they sped past the damaged half-track, Dugan and Gabe throwing Bucky a jaunty salute from atop it: they were okay, they would be okay, that was all Bucky needed to know.
He maneuvered sideways so he could kick in the window and jump feet-first into the cab, but a gunshot burst through the roof, right between his legs. That set his heart racing. Better hurry up. When he checked over his shoulder for Steve, all he could see was a dark locust swarm of Hydra motorbikes hot on his trail. Swinging down, Bucky kicked through the passenger side window, landing with a spray of glass inside the cab as it sped past another truck already in flames. He’d shoved the driver to the side on entry so he scrabbled quickly for his rifle and swung out, whacking the Nazi bastard with the stock and then tossing him out the window: he screamed as he was pulverized beneath the rear wheels, and Bucky grinned—that never really got old. He’d never admit that to Steve, though.
Another explosion as Bucky attempted to steer around the flaming truck—it must have been carrying munitions, because the entire back of his own truck went boom, flipping up and pitching it forward, completely out of control as it skimmed across the dirt road, juddering and screeching. His truck slammed into a stand of trees, crumpling around Bucky as if it were tinfoil, the cargo impelled forward into the cab from the momentum.
The world around him went black, only a dim ringing in his ears, till he blinked into gray light. Uncertain how long he’d been out, Bucky moaned as he came fully around: he was pinned inside the cab, the truck’s bed and cargo crushing his lower half—he couldn’t feel his legs or even his gut, although he should surely be feeling a lot of pain. It all swam in his vision, unfocused, as shimmering ghosts moved slowly toward him, heartbeat slowing, the sound of his breath the only thing he could hear, letting his eyes droop closed again. The stench of gasoline finally woke him up completely, acrid and oily in his mouth. Shit—he was soaked in it. This truck had been full of weapons: Hydra’s disintegrating-beam things, the fuses and detonators and... Bombs. They’d been making bombs out of them, right, he remembered now: that’s what the Howling Commandos were trying to do, stop the delivery of the disintegrating bombs to Schmidt’s primary fortress. Could the gasoline and flame set them off? He had no idea how flammable the particles were.
Jesus, almost everything was on fire around him, and Bucky was covered in gasoline.
Bucky lay parallel to the ground; he tried to flatten and maybe drag himself out. No luck. He wriggled to get leverage and lift the metal pressing down on him; he was stronger now, so much stronger since Zola had pumped him full of those chemicals, but not strong enough and nothing budged. For a moment he just lay back to rest his head, just needed to rest a little. The shimmery ghosts were heading straight for him.
But the ghosts wore colors—the olive drab of Dum Dum’s trousers, Gabe’s dark hands on the blue-black of that Browning machine gun, the steely blue and blood red of Steve’s uniform. Shit. No. If this thing ignited they would be blown sky-high. Bucky screamed at them to stay away, but his voice was drowned out by the roar of motorcycles as more Hydra goons swept up the roadway. Where were Monty and Frenchie and Jim? God, what if they were dead?
“Stay away!” Bucky yelled again and tried to wave Steve away but couldn’t lift his arm high enough for Steve to see. Like an idiot Steve kept running forward, Dum Dum and Gabe wheeling around to give him covering fire.
With a shout of “Bucky!” Steve leapt forward in one of those high arcing jumps, landing on top of the cab, or at least the part of the cab that was now facing up.
“Steve, get away! Get the fuck away!” He wasn’t gonna be responsible for Steve dying here as well—Steve was too valuable, too important. Too good.
“Like hell,” Steve snapped, yanking fruitlessly at the cage of collapsed metal and cargo, pulling pieces off of Bucky. There was no time for this: behind Steve, Hydra was pouring it on, firing from every direction, some on vehicles, some on foot. Gabe and Dugan were trying to hold them off but Bucky could see the Hydra weapons—the flamethrowers and the racing blue lights of the energy weapons firing up. His blood shifted to ice in his veins: Steve would die here if he stayed.
“Just go!” Bucky hollered at him with every decibel of the voice he had left. Even Steve was having trouble budging the large machinery crumpled atop him; the heaviest pieces were wedged snugly against each other, and there was simply no time. “You can’t save me, and this thing is gonna blow!”
“This ain’t open for discussion. I ain’t fucking leaving you.” Steve flung one of the crates away, but it wasn’t enough.
“Christ, Steve, this is no time for your goddamn heroics. Get the fuck out of here! I’m soaked in gasoline and there are explosives in here.” Tears threatened at his eyes: God, not Steve too. Not Steve. Why couldn’t he just stop with the heroics, just let Bucky go for once?
Steve strained at a huge container—Bucky could see only one half of the stamp but he knew it well enough: ZÜNDSTOFF. The container wobbled, but time was running out. The Hydra troops were circling their flanks, he could see their boots. Time slowed, the world around him fell silent, like watching a movie when the sound cut out on the projector, and then it stuttered and jerked to a halt. After all this fighting they were finally going to lose and he’d be taking Steve and Dugan and Gabe along with him.
At least he’d be taking a few of the Hydra goons out with him, too. “Steve,” Bucky rasped, “please, go. Please. I can’t bear it.” After that fucking table, he hadn’t believed in an afterlife, in heaven or hell or the other bullshit he’d learned in Sunday school about what awaited you once you’d shuffled off this mortal fucking coil. But if he was wrong and there was an afterlife, he didn’t want Steve’s death on his hands, haunting him for all eternity. “Get out of here.”
With a whopping grunt, Steve lifted another container and heaved it away. Not enough, Bucky was still crushed under the chassis and the pileup of ammo crates. Steve’s hand wrapped around his upper arm and squeezed, the smallest of small comforts, and he was able to poke his head down into the space. “Not without you, jackass,” Steve said and grinned. Christ on a crutch. What the hell were you supposed to do with such an idiot? He had no sense of self-preservation, no sense at all.
It brought a calm that washed over Bucky; he was suffused with a warmth and acceptance he hadn’t known since he’d signed up the day after Pearl Harbor, radiant, glowing. He stared up at Steve’s blue eyes as they flashed in the diffuse light of the forest and the flames; the noise of the fighting was so far away now. Everything grew slow and quiet and peaceful; Bucky’s heart beat softly in his chest, slowing down to keep pace with his shallow breathing as he watched Steve’s handsome face.
It was all right. They would go together this time—Bucky wouldn’t die alone in a mountain fortress, experimented on by a sadistic, doughy, bespectacled little prick who pumped his veins full of acid and put machines to his head that pan-fried his brains. He and Steve would go out the way they should: together, as it had been since they met on a playground when they were kids. This was what they were meant to do, this was why Steve had taken the serum and Bucky had survived the experiments—they were meant to be together at the end.
Serenity and love filled his heart, tightened his stinging throat. “Steve,” he whispered. “Steve.” They would die alongside each other, just like they should. They would go together, go together...
...come together, this time they would come together. Bucky could feel it build, the way the muscles in Steve’s thighs and belly tightened, the way his fingers clenched at Bucky’s ribs, digging into his flesh with a sweet, acute twinge. His breath gusted warm along Bucky’s back, hair tickling his neck as Steve thrust hard into him, over and over, their skins plastered together with sweat.
Steve was so big now, all of him so big and Bucky loved it all, taking every inch of him inside and feeling Steve lose control above him. It was glorious, primal and raw and wild, and the force of Steve’s thrusts propelled his breath out each time, pushed him in increments across the bed. Bucky wanted to throw his head back and laugh, and the tension coiled up through his balls, into his lower belly and he was going to come so exquisitely, Steve’s hand gripping his cock, moving fast, slick and wet and strong.
God, Steve’s new body: so heavy with muscle, so thick and sturdy, he was practically lifting Bucky up off the sheets in his passion. Something bright and hot flashed inside him every time Steve pulled out and shoved back in, it made Bucky delirious with pleasure. He stared down at the dingy, gray sheets, watched his fingers crumple them in his fist, then relax, as if he were out of his body, out of his mind—that’s what Steve reduced him to. Sweat dampened the spots beneath his hands and knees and where his face had been pressed into the bed as he tried to muffle his pleas for more, more, more. Sometimes he thought he could never fill this hunger, he wanted as much of Steve as he could get and then more than that, never satisfied, not since he’d been given a new life when Steve had pulled him off that table.
Almost there; they were almost there and Steve kissed the back of his neck, curved those artist’s fingers over Bucky’s throat, hooked his thumb on Bucky’s lower lip, when the rhythm of Steve’s hips stuttered. Bucky’s belly tightened, they were there, right at the edge, together, Steve’s cock inside him, it was so tight, so tight...
...so tight, too tight, he couldn’t move or breathe for the restraints digging into him, something heavy pressed down on him so he couldn’t gulp in any air. Beneath his face concrete, blood caked around his nose and mouth, itching. Copper and ash on his tongue.
His head felt as though it had been cracked wide open and his brains were spilling out: sharp, driving pain, left eye bleary and dim. Worse, his left arm wouldn’t move at all; they must have disabled it with some sort of override switch, whoever they were. (Name rank serial number: Barnes, Sergeant, 32557...) And they knew enough to tell that the metal arm was the most dangerous part of him.
It was pitch dark in here. Eerily silent, too, so it must be underground—no windows, cold damp concrete, no air movement that he could discern. He moved and found he was naked, that was why he was so cold. His fingers tested a burn on his lower right abdomen, another one on his hip, most likely from the stun baton: meant he’d put up a fight at least.
Barnes (your name is James Buchanan Barnes) rolled over onto his side and sat up, the pain rocketing up through his clavicle and into his skull, bringing on panting, panicked breaths. Whatever was broken hadn’t healed yet. All at once bright lights flooded the room and he shrank away, squeezing his eyelids shut against the whiteness. (Pop of white light. “Sergeant Barnes, what do you see?” they ask in heavy German accents, pop, someone’s coming at you with a saw, pop, a man with a clipboard looms over you.) He tried to scrabble backwards but he couldn’t get the leverage necessary.
“It’s awake.” A woman’s voice. Shadows stepped into the whiteness and he tried to look up but the light was a supernova.
He waited; there was nothing to do but wait. He tried to lick some of the blood off his lips, but his mouth was too dry: the drugs. The drugs always gave him dry-mouth when he first came out of cryo, for hours his lips and throat would stick together, tongue always cakey and swollen and too heavy for his mouth.
The woman kicked his shoulder and crouched down in front of him; the pain left him gasping and she laughed. “You sure led us a merry chase,” she said, leaning close. She had medium-length auburn hair, brown eyes, and sallow skin, a pinched face that reminded him of one of the first scientists who made him, back when he woke up with the new arm. (Pop, you are to be the new fist of Hydra.) English accent.
Steve. He had been coming out of the exhibit about Steve at the Smithsonian. Barnes was going to find Steve, heading toward the Metro line that would take him to Dupont Circle, and then the sharp pinprick on the inside of his wrist as someone took hold of it, said in a low voice, “Sumerki.” It was like a light had been turned off, he’d been frozen to the spot before it had all gone blank.
Protocols—the protocol for their situation was to go dark for six weeks minimum, burn everything behind you, before making contact with the network. By his calculations he should have had three more weeks at least to find him. To find Steve.
“What did you think, that we would all follow protocols and let the Asset get away, like we’re idiots? Complete fucking mission failure. Stupid fucking piece of shit.” She laughed again, rough and raw. “You were programmed better than that.”
Another voice, this one male, came in behind her. “He’s not a thing,” the guy said. “Not a fucking computer.” (You shaped the century, pop, your work has been a gift to mankind.) Barnes couldn’t see him, but he had a deep voice, southwestern U.S. accent. They weren’t from a regular Hydra unit, that was obvious; this might have been the first time they’d even worked together. It made them frighteningly unpredictable.
She rounded on the guy and Barnes watched them, silhouettes in a shadow play. “If I wanted your opinion, I’d have bloody asked for it.”
“I’m just saying. Might be easier to get what we want if we don’t abuse the prisoner.”
“He’s not a prisoner,” she said slowly, mockingly, like she was talking to a child. “It is Hydra property, and it did not fulfill the mission it was programmed for. Because it fucked up, most of our people are dead. The sooner you disabuse yourself of the notion that the Asset is a person, the easier this will be.”
A third voice, also male, said with disgust, “Whatever. Gonna be a lot harder to kill Captain America now. And if he’s figured out who he is—” (I’m not gonna fight you. You’re my friend.)
“That’s what we have that for,” she answered, and Barnes tried to crane his neck to see what they were turned in the direction of, but he couldn’t twist far enough for all the pain. “Get it ready.”
Barnes pushed back with his heels, trying to scoot away in the opposite direction. (Prep him. Wipe him and start over.) The floor scraped his ass and legs, the metal of his arm ground against the sharp edges of the restraints. He remembered these shackles: they used Barnes to test them until they were unbreakable. Every time Barnes succeeded in destroying them, they subdued him with the stun baton. (Just in case you got ideas.)
“No,” he choked out. “No.” Steve. (I’m with you to the end of the line.)
“Oh, look, it thinks it has choices.” She laughed once more, low and mean, enjoying this. “A tool doesn’t choose who pulls it out of the box. You left a lot of loose ends. Now it’s time to tie them up again.”
The tall man on the right moved away from the lights and Barnes could see his face then, his blond hair. He shook his head as she spoke, rolling his eyes. The other guy just went over to the chair, like a good soldier. (Well, here it is, the end of that line, pal. Where are you now when I need you?)
They hauled Barnes up and dragged him to the chair, though he thrashed violently, adrenaline not quite capable of overcoming the drugs they’d pumped into him. She reached over and picked up a stun baton, held it in front of his eyes. “Move again and this is for your testicles.” The blond guy shook his head again and made a noise in his throat, but waited for her to loop the straps through the shackles. He squirted something out of a needle before jabbing it in Barnes’s vein. It swirled through blood and muscle, into his head, relaxing him to the point he couldn’t move. His mouth went slack and they shoved a bite guard in. (Taking all the stupid with you.)
There wasn’t enough air for him to scream; his heart rate skyrocketed. Scorching heat spread through his veins, lightning shot into his brain. Every muscle in his body seized up. They don’t know how to operate the machine. His brain would burst like a squeezed grape if the machine wasn’t calibrated correctly. They didn’t know what they were doing. Steve. It was so hot, so hot, he just needed to breathe, he couldn’t breathe...
...breathe, he couldn’t breathe; the air was rank and stale and oppressive with humidity. Sweat rolled down his back and chest, trickled along his eyelashes, the sour smell of his own body odor filled the air. His hair was matted to his skull and neck and he shifted to see what he could pick out in the darkness that surrounded him. Ah. The base in Virginia. At least he knew where he was. A loud clattering noise began to fill his ears, slowly gaining in intensity, his heart keeping time with the clacking sound.
He struggled uselessly against the shackles as a nameless dread overtook him, but they simply tightened, harder and harder with each movement, each painful, panted breath. He wanted to scream and the veins in his temples pulsed painfully as the lightning spread through his skull; he thrashed and fought against the fear clawing at his mind, burning the air in his lungs. The din increased, steadily, rhythmically, louder and louder till it filled his ears, his throat, choking him with terror, and he shook violently. Then it receded, growing fainter and fainter until it eventually died out, leaving him alone with just his ragged breath and the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears as he woke completely.
He lay naked, wrapped inside clammy bedclothes, in a cramped, filthy room in the city right next to elevated train tracks. New York—shit, not the Hydra base in Virginia, this was New York. Bucky checked his pulse, surprisingly steady and calm, the beat beat beat like the train wheels that had passed by his room. Used the breathing exercises he’d learned from the veterans’ counselor for when he had those nightmares of Hydra and SHIELD. The agent who’d put him in the chair. Out of all of them, that was the worst one. He could still feel the cold, damp concrete scraping his skin, the drugs etching his veins. The biting restraints on his useless metal arm.
There was a quarter-full bottle of water on the rickety nightstand, which he gulped down despite its warmth and plasticky taste, ran his fingers through his filthy hair. He fumbled around in the bedspread for his cigs and the lighter. It had been...almost a year, maybe, since he’d had that nightmare. Heard her voice in his ear, laughing like they shared some private joke over drinks in a bar, just her and him. Flicking the lighter on, he took in the orange shadow the flame cast across this small corner of the room. The shadows made the stain pattern on the peeling wallpaper look like a tall, thin rabbit, holding something out to him in a sinister offering, so he flicked the lighter off and let his eyes adjust back to the darkness, stared at the stain pattern until it morphed into something less creepy.
Outside Bucky could hear the din of the city and it made his jaw twitch. He hated being outside, navigating the flocks of shepherdless sheep, their cellphones pressed to their ears, having faceless conversations where he always thought they were talking to him at first and he ran, spooked, an animal just like them: prey, not the predator. Once Bucky let his eyes adjust, darkness was relative to him with the enhancements. With the cigarette’s cherry he drew letters in the air, blew smoke rings inside their cursive loops. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. Captain Steven Grant Rogers.
He wondered why he’d dreamt of the agent when he hadn’t in such a long time. What had triggered that? They’d spent so damn many years cutting out parts of his brain, torturing him until it became easier for him to forget everything than to remember it and endure the punishment. Then later they could just wipe it away with the machine and the chair. Now when he was desperate to forget it wouldn’t fucking go away.
Why couldn’t he forget that last day? When for a few seconds, he’d been himself again, almost whole, hearing Steve’s voice and knowing his name. They should have gone out together. Why else would they have dangled in that icy half-life for seventy years until they both woke up just in time to find one another? Bucky should have died that day in the way he was meant to: with Steve.
He was stuck here, trying to keep going, and for what? All Bucky had was this disgusting, tiny room with its filthy carpet and windows so grimy they were almost opaque, and a broken body and mind. A few scattered memories mired beneath the knowledge that he’d killed his best friend. If he could just remember more of their earlier lives, more of the times they were together: he knew they were important to one another—he’d seen the books and films—but he couldn’t remember enough to tell fiction from reality.
His mind retraced the familiar patterns: his mission, the fight on the helicarriers, trying to protect the Insight project. Steve succeeding in its destruction, knowing Hydra was falling at the same time and he was left there, desperate, afraid; he’d had no extraction plan for such a disastrous failure. Shooting Steve and then knowing, finally knowing, who Steve was. Knowing his own name. Too late: Bucky had shot Steve four times that day, the first ones not fatal, but the last one, oh, that last one... And then beating him and beating him until Steve had nothing left in him but to drown when he fell into the cauldron below. Mission accomplished.
Funny, now: Bucky had been free, finally, had been in the wind until that one small cell came for him. He’d been happy to disabuse them of the notion they could control him again. He’d wanted to free himself for...mostly for Steve, he usually told himself when he went down this familiar path, but also because he hated them. So much of his life before Hydra was still so foggy, but bits of it poked through from time to time, glittering, golden shards. Tantalizing and beautiful, but when he tried to pick them up they ran through his fingers like water. A mirage.
He lost focus, trying to pull memories out of the fog, and it made him choke and cough; he rolled over to grab another bottle of water from beneath the nightstand. In the darkness he knocked something off the table: a heavy glass ashtray landed on the remote—Christ what a mess, ashes and butts everywhere—turning the TV on. He groped on the floor till he found it. Sometimes he would watch the foreign-language channels for two or three days at a stretch before he could relax. Maybe it’d help him get back to sleep. The TV was, like everything in this room, an ancient piece of shit and took forever to cycle on, so he got up to piss and pour himself some bourbon before the picture started to form, casting its blue-green light dimly through the room.
He flipped channels and heard a voice before he saw the picture. Sounded like the end of a speech: “And if I’m the only one, so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.” Steve’s voice, so warm and earnest and golden. Fuck.
There was a caption running along the bottom that was a bit too fuzzy to read, but a couple words looked like “captured by Hydra.” This was a twenty-four-hour news channel, but if they were playing his speech and talking about being captured, it had to be one of those celebrating Captain America shows he avoided ever looking at. He gulped the bourbon, letting it burn a path down his raw throat, needing something to hurt more than the aching in his chest and clamping in his guts. Often, he wished the American government had captured him that day, or that he had the strength of character to turn himself in, so that they would execute him at last and he could just be done with it.
Abruptly the scene changed onscreen and they were at a conference, the girl with the red hair standing at a podium, flashbulbs popping off all around her. But her face remained perfectly perfect, she was masterfully composed. Behind her stood two more people he knew had been members of Steve’s team before Insight, the one with the wings and the rich one in the flying salmon tin. Another woman, too, who he felt like he should recognize: dark hair and pale eyes, a severe look about her that said she took no shit from anyone, only dished it out.
“—I can only confirm that Captain America was captured by Hydra forces during an Avengers operation thirty-six hours ago. Beyond that, everything else is pure speculation, and if you buy into this ridiculous and obviously doctored photo, you’re buying into exactly what Hydra wants you to and furthering their cause.” A grainy black and white photo came up in the corner of the screen: Hydra’s symbol, and a face.
Steve’s face. Steve’s face when he was little, he’d seen it in the books, the exhibit, his dreams. Chin narrow, neck thin, the slim glimpse of shoulder and arm appeared to be bony. His head lolled sideways, blood at the corner of his mouth and trickling from his beak of a nose. It looked as if his arms were pulled above his head. Steve when he was mine.
Numbness crept through Bucky’s entire body. The photo was obviously fake. They’d found themselves someone who looked well enough like Steve, and then digitally enhanced the picture. Nothing special about that. The audience continued to pepper Romanov and—Hill, her name was Hill—with questions, but she kept saying the same words in the same patterns, and he knew the codes within that repetition, within the distinct pauses: she was sending a message, but to whom? She had no tells. But behind her, oh, they had tells—the one with the wings especially, his nostrils flared just a bit every time someone mentioned that Hydra had found a way to reverse the serum.
They were worried someone might figure out that it wasn’t really Captain America who had been captured. That it didn’t matter what Hydra did or didn’t do: they’d been fielding an impostor for Steve Rogers since Bucky killed him over a year ago.
Why they would do that was beyond him, but he was still numb, paralyzed by the wave of intense emotion burning through him. He hadn’t felt like this in...had he ever felt like this? He should have remembered. Steve would have known. Steve would have been able to tell him.
Well, maybe you shouldn’t have fucking killed him, then.
They intercut footage of Captain America fighting, Captain America speaking. The voices sounded similar, but they were all dated after Bucky had killed him. It was fascinating, in a perverse way: that Cap had become so important as an icon they couldn’t allow the character to die, had to stick in a double so people would think their hero was still fighting for them. He remembered...someone talking about that in the war once: asking him if he would step in for Steve if the enemy took him out. Laughing at them for the very idea he’d stick around once Steve was gone.
He hurled himself onto the bed. Who would they have put in Steve’s place, and why had he sounded so much like Steve? What purpose would it serve, instead of just letting him be martyred in the Insight disaster? Bucky wanted to know—what? Who this man was, beyond the doctored photograph and what Hydra was doing with him. What they’d done with the impostor. Yes. He wanted to know who he was. Who they both were.
He had forgotten what curiosity could feel like. Whoever the impostor was, he’d need help, and this team might not be equipped to find him. Bucky had been a soldier, once. Competent and skilled. The best, they’d said. Something inside him rose up from dormancy, came alive at the thought. He was a soldier once and he knew how to do this: where to go, how to get in. Skills that were his unique gift. It was mine. Mine...
“...mine! It’s mine, give it back, you fucking jerk!” Steve grabbed at his sketchbook where Bucky held it in the air above his head, dancing backwards to keep away from Steve’s flailing arms and little half jumps. Steve was red-faced, pumped up with rage and laughter, and Bucky couldn’t stop himself from laughing, either.
“No, no, I wanna see what’s so fuckin’ important in here. Bet you were drawing dirty pictures of Mary Ellen Whittaker, I just know it. It’s so unfair that you can draw your filthy-minded little fantasies and keep them for handy-dandy reference when you wanna beat off. The rest of us just got our sad fleeting thoughts.”
Steve made another grab for the book. “Give me the goddamn thing back. It’s mine and you got no right!” The flush had spread down his neck into his little bony bird-chest. Whatever it was, he was so embarrassed, enough that he thought Bucky’d actually look inside the book and violate his trust. It was just so fun to wind Steve up like this, but then he saw how Steve’s lungs were hitching up and he stopped, watching him. Aw, fuck.
Dropping his arms, Bucky held the book out to Steve, who snatched it from his hand with more force than necessary. Then he burst into maniacal laughter, pointing at Bucky. “I can’t believe you fell for that, you pinhead.” Little shit.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Bucky taunted, clutching him around the waist, lifting him off the ground. Maybe not the brightest move, since they were both in their undershorts and the sensation of Steve’s skin against his was—he’d tried to avoid thinking about that for months, and here he was now, his arms wrapped around him and Steve’s rump grinding into his dick through the thin cloth. Bucky dropped Steve like a hot potato; he fell awkwardly, barking his shin on the table, one leg sprawled underneath him. For a second Bucky thought maybe it was broken, so he dived down to the floor. “Steve! Did I hurt you?” Steve moved and Bucky’s hand connected with his dick for a dreadful second.
“Geez, Buck, if you’re gonna cop a feel, at least buy me dinner,” Steve said, grinning. Bucky could only fall back on his ass and stare at Steve, who pushed his hair out of his eyes and then stared back, defiant. His eyes traveled over to the sketchpad lying on the floor that had started this whole thing, and then he licked his lips. Steve reached to pick it up, opening it to the page he’d been so intently sketching when Bucky had come home from his date, sitting on his bed in his shorts and the sad little thing they called a fan turned toward him, uselessly stirring the hot air around. Bucky didn’t even know why he’d snatched it out of Steve’s hands, maybe because he hadn’t been actually listening to Bucky recount his date, or he was still kind of drunk. None of the needling had worked on Steve, so he’d finally started tickling him in order to get hold of the book.
Steve dropped the pad on the floor between them; Bucky rubbed his palms on his sweaty thighs. The page was a drawing of himself, like he was now: in his shorts, standing in front of a window, arm up and hand pressed to the glass, the light glowing gold and pink under his skin. In his other hand was a cigarette, tendrils of smoke curling up toward the glass, his fingers gently curved, elegant-looking. It was...stunning, something you’d see in a museum or a gallery where they showed the works of real artists. Steve had been working with his oil pastels and the page seemed to shimmer with color and life under his hands. The thing Bucky couldn’t stop staring at was the way Steve had drawn his body: the curve of his back and his ass, the sinew of his arms—it looked like him, but somehow more refined, a carved marble statue. This wasn’t just another one of Steve’s figure studies, Bucky thought with alarm. This was his—his fantasy.
Steve scooted forward till his knees touched Bucky’s. “What do you got to say for yourself now, jackass? I notice your fat mouth is staying shut.”
Bucky pushed Steve away, hard, and Steve tumbled ass over teakettle into the sofa. “You think that’s funny?” He was breathing too heavy, his lungs didn’t seem to want to take anything in and he thought for a wild moment that maybe he’d developed asthma, too, like you could catch it. He crab-walked backwards to get up and stalk into the bedroom, but Steve launched himself forward and grabbed Bucky around the waist, and they both ended up on the floor, tangled.
“I’m sorry, Bucky, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
Bucky grabbed his wrists in a tight grip. “Didn’t mean what?” Steve’s skin was so hot against him it scorched.
“Nothin’,” Steve grumbled and lurched backward, but Bucky wasn’t gonna let him get away so easy, nosireebob. As he made a grab for Steve he swatted him away, and this time they really were going at it, no joking around anymore. Steve was wiry and deceptively strong, Bucky was the only one who really knew that; he tried to use his weight for leverage over him, to pin his arms back, but Steve wrapped his legs around Bucky’s hips to flip him. Bucky braced himself against the wall and twisted, flipping Steve instead, and next thing he knew they were face to face, groin to groin. Not what he’d intended at all. Steve was hard—Jesus!—but so was Bucky and his face caught fire with embarrassment. Breathlessly, Steve leaned up toward him and planted his mouth against Bucky’s, before he recoiled.
“Steve! Steve, god, what—” and Steve kissed him again and this time Bucky kissed him back, as hard as he could, his tongue slipping inside past teeth and Steve was groaning into his mouth. They kissed for—he didn’t even know how long, a long time because Steve had crawled into his lap and was straddling him, until he finally pulled away and stared at Steve. “What the fuck?”
“You wanted to know what I was drawing. You wanted to know what I was thinking. Well, now you know.” It almost made him laugh, how sweetly smug Steve was, crossing his little bird arms over his hollow chest.
“Yeah, I guess I got what I asked for.” He shook his head. “What are we doin’ here?”
“Hardy har har.” Bucky swallowed. “You—you wanted this?”
“That ain’t the first picture I ever drew of you.”
“Oh.” His own voice sounded small and far away. He didn’t know what to make of this. Everything was different now. There was no going backward, they could never be the friends they had always been. “I just thought.” He ran his hand through his hair, smoothing it down. All these months Bucky’d been trying to figure out what it meant: that he saw Steve’s face when he beat off, that when girls kissed him or touched him, he often pretended it was Steve even though he knew it was wrong, he knew he was terrible. “I don’t know what I thought.”
“I wouldn’t ever have bothered you with it,” Steve said, almost sad now. “Would have kept it to myself. I know what everyone thinks of me, that I’m queer or something because I can’t seem to keep a girl around. And so many girls want to go out with you. So I guess maybe—”
“I kinda forced your hand.” Bucky wasn’t going to let him talk like that.
“Maybe I was hoping you would.” Rocking his hips against Bucky’s, Steve thrust his tongue in his mouth again, his fingers scraping through Bucky’s chest hair before moving across his nipples. Jesus fuck. He pulled Steve’s undershorts off, then wriggled out of his own. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Steve naked, they went to the pool together and they’d lived together now for two years, but this was...he was hard, pearly drops on his cock, and Bucky’s throat caught, he almost choked with desire. When he raised his eyes, he found Steve was staring at Bucky’s cock, too.
“All those girls who modeled in your life-drawing classes. Didn’t you think about them? You liked some of them, I know.”
“Thought about you more.”
He pulled Steve atop him again, gripping the back of his head and pulling his mouth to his. They slid down, Steve’s legs on the outside of Bucky’s, their pricks pressing together. It wasn’t like anything else: not his own hand, not a girl’s hand on him, either, more intense and he couldn’t even out his breathing, couldn’t form coherent thoughts, everything went in a zigzag as Steve slipped up and down so they rubbed against one another. His hands went to Steve’s bottom, fingers caressing the cheeks, touching the humid, forbidden flesh in between, making Steve move faster, and the curling, slithering climax spread up into Bucky, spread and built and consumed him, and then he came all over Steve’s belly before he could get hold of himself. It was glorious, fantastic, new.
Steve’s eyes were bright and unfocused as he chased his own pleasure, he kept humping against Bucky, breath that blew across Bucky’s neck like that weak fan in the background. He stuck his tongue in Steve’s ear, traced along the edge of it, and bit lightly at the soft hollow where Steve’s neck met his shoulder. The tension was building in Steve’s thighs right under Bucky’s arms, the muscles in his rear clenching harder and harder, until he burst, too, gritting his teeth and groaning “nnnggghhh” while he laughed at the same time, sweet and bashful.
Bucky wanted to squeeze Steve so tight it would crush him to jelly. He wanted to fuse their bodies together, as if even skin couldn’t separate them ever, he wanted this forever...
...forever, he’d been on this table forever, even if Bucky knew logically it could only have been days, and he knew now this was hell. His head was a balloon, blown up at least ten times its normal size and he’d had a pretty big noggin to begin with. It nearly set him laughing: he must have been smiling, at least, because one of the scientists leaned over him and said, “Perhaps you enjoy yourself too much? Should we correct that?” He wondered what his big balloon head looked like on his tiny neck from the Nazi’s point of view.
A balloon stuffed with cotton, that’s what his head was. Cold, frozen cotton and that made him think of the shaved ices at Coney Island and Steve; the smile slid from his face. The scientist clucked at him and turned back to the machine he’d been positioning over Bucky’s head. The little doughy one with the glasses was the big chief here, and he seemed to think Bucky was just the most precious thing, fussing over him like a mam with her baby.
They had him strapped down—entirely unnecessary—he wouldn’t have been able to move after whatever this was they’d injected him with; he was paralyzed, limbs heavy yet hollow, body numb and muscles painfully contracted. His skin was too small.
Sometimes it was fire, sometimes ice. Sometimes it was tiny slivers of glass pulsing through him, cut cut cut, till he vomited blood. His tongue was too big for his mouth and he couldn’t swallow, or his eyes bulged out of their sockets like some cartoon character and he couldn’t see, or his ears bled and he went deaf for a time. They’d let him up to piss or shit, watching how he walked or stood or squatted and jotting it down on their fucking asinine clipboards, then they’d strap him right back down. And always with the questions.
Each time, they asked the same questions they always asked, over and over. Bucky wasn’t always sure what was worse—the acid they shot into his veins or the fucking redundant questions all the goddamn time. Repetition was something he hated, always had: the ticking of a clock, Hail Marys on the Rosary, a dripping tap, a song’s lyrics that repeated over and over. It drove him mad. Tell us what this feels like, Sergeant Barnes. Tell us what you see. Tell us tell us tell us.
Every new injection, cut of the knife, sound, light—the same fucking questions. So he just gave them the same fucking answers: Barnes, James, Sergeant, 32557038. Then: Fuck you. That little smirk and laugh before they stuffed his head under the machine or the tube down his throat or up his dick—as if to say, “Oh, you Americans.”
Sometimes when he looked out the little window up and off to the left, it was day. Sometimes it was night. He’d been here forever. Hadn’t his pop always said that he was gonna go to hell, for pretty much Bucky’s whole life? He’d always hoped he’d make it up to God somehow, all those sins of his youth, because he knew Steve was gonna get to heaven and Bucky just wanted to be with Steve, whatever it took. For forever and ever. Steve would see the telegram the War Department sent to his folks and be... Christ, Bucky didn’t know what he would do. Something foolish.
And then he’d be expecting Bucky to be up there in heaven when he finally did kick it, waiting for him. But Bucky’d never show up. Steve was stubborn enough to sit there for eternity on his little fluffy cloud, convinced Bucky could turn it around somehow. So funny. All this time Steve had thought he wouldn’t live to see thirty but it was gonna be Bucky who didn’t. Silly punk. He chuckled again.
The machine made a noise—it reminded him of the television they’d seen at the World’s Fair in ’39, and then it hummed to life, blue light arcing around it. Like those blue energy weapons his unit saw the night they were captured. The bastard on the left turned the hand crank and the table tilted him up so he was facing the machine as it snapped at him with cold, metallic threat. Shit. This was gonna hurt if it didn’t outright obliterate him. They tried to slip a rubber stick between his teeth but he thrashed his head back and forth. Like a balloon, though, it just bounced around, his stupid balloon head, and one of them grabbed his jaw to force his mouth open before jamming the stick in.
Steve. Steve was waiting at home for him, waiting for Sergeant James Barnes of the 107th to come home. When Bucky was gone, who would Steve have to tell his stories to? Who would make Steve take his medicine? Who would see Steve for what he really was?
A bullet of fire and ice tore through his skull, and he tried to suck in a hard breath but the stick in his mouth made him gag. Watery light trickled in from the window on his left. Bucky focused on the dust motes swirling through the air while the searing pain raced down his neck, into his torso and limbs. They danced and scattered in the gust of his scream. He’d been here forever, and so had they. He should give them names, he thought, as the machine bored a hole in his brain, names like you might for a pet, his pets...
“...your pet’s awake,” someone said off to his left. Another person snorted.
He counted the holes in the ceiling panels above him, dark stars on a white sky. The halo was removed and a man he didn’t recognize undid the shackles on his arms, around his waist, his feet, watching him the whole time. He could hear the man’s heartbeat, the pulse rate was too high. He was afraid of the Soldier. (Sergeant Barnes 32557)
It was wrong. Everything. All wrong. A woman’s face loomed in front of him. “Sit up,” she said, harsh and demanding, obviously a superior from her tone and expectations. Something was wrong with the machine. Flashbulbs were popping in front of his eyes, the room tilted. His head felt like (like a balloon).
They didn’t know how to operate the machine. He sat up, blinking.
“Do you know your location?” she asked. “Do you know what you are?”
The flashes: pop, you were on a table; pop, you were walking across a burning gangway; pop, you were on a floating ship. He shook his head. It would come to him in time, but he was always groggy after maintenance, needed nutrition and rest.
“Fucking—Project Insight, moron. You failed your mission.” Said it like she was providing helpful information, and he cast his eyes to the side and down.
“Project Insight. Yes.”
“You let Captain America destroy the project.”
He was on a floating ship. Insight satellites. Killing Captain America.
“Tell us what you remember,” another voice asked. He couldn’t see who it belonged to. (Tell us tell us tell us.)
Steve was Captain America. He killed Steve? Wasn’t Steve his friend?
“I tried...” He held his hand out like it was a gun, pointed his finger toward the wall. Bang bang.
“Jesus,” the guy who’d taken his shackles off said, and put a hand behind his back to help him up. “He’s no good to us if his brain’s pudding,” he snapped. “He needs hydration and food. The documentation sounded like he also needed rest after the process.”
“Fucking crap asset,” the woman said. “All these years led to believe it was the most powerful weapon we’d ever made and instead it’s just this. Fine. Take it to the other room, give it what food we’ve got.” There were protocols, he thought. They weren’t following any of the protocols.
They shoved him into a room and turned on a light. He recoiled, his pupils too dilated and every muscle too slow to react. It was freezing (fire and ice) and he realized he was naked, his left arm disabled. A room in a factory in Austria—no, Washington, D.C.—no, Russia. No, Brooklyn. There was a train. No, a flying ship. (No no no. When we get out of this I want to see the Grand Canyon. See the Pacific Ocean in California.) A river. A museum exhibit.
The guy threw some clothes at him: a flannel shirt, black t-shirt, denim jacket, jeans. Underwear, socks, boots, a hat. A glove, just one. He left, then came back with some protein bars, a sandwich made of egg and bacon and cheese. It all tasted like sawdust.
The light went out and he waited. He stared at his wrists and ankles in the darkness, watching the scrapes heal. The burns on his abdomen would take longer. There was another burn on his neck. They didn’t know how to work the machine.
He wanted to fight this. Fight them, but where did that come from? That was the incorrect response to such a situation. They were not controllers he was familiar with, there were no scientists among them. Right—Hydra protocols, they weren’t following them, something made them desperate to— What? What was the mission? But he wanted to fight them.
He finished the food, drank bottle after bottle of water. Dehydration would reduce blood volume would reduce strength and endurance. He had to endure. (I’m not gonna fight you.)
But he’d killed Steve. That was part of the mission, wasn’t it? Hadn’t he failed the most important part of it...so they had to reprogram him? For another mission. That couldn’t be right. His right hand clenched and unclenched. He’d killed Steve. His friend. Why couldn’t he remember anything more than that? Only Steve saying, “You’re my friend,” and knowing it was true. That his name was James Buchanan (Bucky) Barnes. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.
When he opened his eyes it was still dark, a sliver of light piercing the shadows above his head. There was a hole in the corner for him to piss and shit in. They couldn’t leave him anything he could use as a weapon. He might have been here for (forever) days, or just hours, he had no idea. He got up and paced off the room. Though his left arm didn’t function, the rest of him did just fine. The door had a plain lock, no bolts. The plastic in the bottles was too soft to be of any use, though he might be able to use the slight stiffness of the neck to his advantage if pressed. He went to the opposite corner and pissed, then waited, squatting down, holding his metal arm across his body.
The door opened after what might have been a few hours and she came in. Good, she was carrying the stun baton. His weapon arm was useless, so he needed an alternate tool. She couldn’t see him at first, and the man who followed her blocked the light for a moment. Shielding her eyes, she stepped forward.
“What’s my mission?” he asked.
They didn’t know how to work the machine. They didn’t know all the commands. He smiled.
The guy went down fast and easy when Barnes charged him, head straight into his chest. He grabbed him by the back of his neck and bounced his head against the concrete wall with a soft wet thwack and smashed his throat for good measure. As he slid down onto the floor, the woman wheeled to him, the high scree of the baton like a violin being tuned, music to his ears. He caught her under the shoulder and flipped her upside down. The baton zapped her thigh and she wailed. Barnes grabbed it and threw it to the far corner; he found it unnecessary after all.
With his fingers curled into the spot where she’d been burned, he put his right knee on her shoulder. She thrashed and howled Сумерки over and over. They didn’t know anything at all, what he was capable of. How the commands worked, that they were useless if he wasn’t programmed correctly. (“What do you recall of your absence?” they asked. “What was going through your mind when you left without permission?” Tell us tell us tell us.) The other cell member would be outside the room, wondering where they were, so he had to hurry this up.
“What do you want with me?” Barnes asked, curious.
An angry sob escaped her mouth. He dug his fingers into the wound. “My—everyone’s dead because you didn’t do your fucking job. Pierce, a great man, he’s dead because of you. My—my hu— It was your mission to protect the project. All of them on the carriers.”
Ships in the sky. Where he killed Steve. “What did you want me to do, then? Kill the ones I didn’t already kill?”
Her smile was—relieved, he thought. “Yes, it’s no less than they deserve.” If only she hadn’t said that. Now he wouldn’t make it quick or painless for her; he didn’t have that in him, not after what they’d cost him, cost Steve.
He pinned her to the ground with his full strength, the dead weight of the metal arm heavy on her throat. Her eyes went round with fear and she whimpered, unable to get much sound at all out of her lungs. His right hand cupped her chin and he ran his thumb along her skin. “It’ll be over soon. Maybe you’ll see the ones you lost wherever you’re going.” He put his hand over her mouth and nose and pressed as she whined and thrashed. “Hush, now. Hush...”
“...Hush. Hush, now. It’s all right.”
The sheets were stuck to Steve’s clammy skin as he thrashed and moaned. Bucky pressed a cool cloth to his forehead, but Steve swatted his hand away and moaned again, loudly.
“Just stoooop,” he griped, seizing up in a coughing spell, tiny droplets of blood spattering the hand Bucky held the handkerchief in. When he was quiet again, he said, so breathless and scoured raw Bucky could hardly hear him, “I just want it to stop.”
The words fell on him like hot coals, searing his heart. Steve had been talking like that for hours, delirious; he was drowning in the vomit brought up in the wake of all the coughing, and the blood terrified them both: this was no longer about the whooping cough but the life without mercy, the slow grinding assault on his body, and who was Bucky to tell him he should want to live through that.
“You’ll be all right. Just gotta make it past this part and then it’ll be smooth sailing. You’re the strongest fella I know.” His words were empty as vacant lots, and Steve would have seen right through them if he weren’t so out of his head. More than ever Bucky longed for Steve’s ma: for her soothing, cool hand on his friend’s forehead, for her kind experience when he wanted to give Steve more medicine but was afraid to make it worse, holding Steve’s life in his hand as he did.
“Not worth it. Not anymore.” An arm flailed out, hitting Bucky across the bridge of his nose with his knuckles. The sharp, vicious sting made Bucky’s eyes tear up, camouflage, he supposed, for the other tears that weren’t from pain. He pushed Steve’s arm beneath the damp sheets and pulled the quilt up under his chin; as soon as he did, Steve hurled it off and flailed all his limbs, softly mumbling that he couldn’t take it anymore.
How long had it been since Steve had been this severely ill? Years, in fact, and Bucky scarcely remembered the last time he’d been like this—they’d been so young, every day after school Bucky had raced home to see if Steve was any better. He would be held back at the door by Mrs. Rogers or one of the neighbor ladies who came by to stay with Steve when she had to work; once in a while, they’d allowed him to stand just outside the bedroom, “just for a moment, say a few nice things to him and then you must leave.” It was catching, they’d said, usually only to kids younger than he was at the time, although it was so much more dangerous for Steve on account of his asthma. Deadly, even, he knew that from the way the adults stood huddled together, voices low, casting shadowy glances toward Steve’s room. Once, when he’d had scarlet fever, Steve had stuck his tongue out at Bucky to show him the strawberry tongue, and Bucky had squealed with laughter and thought that was the swellest thing he’d ever seen; the grownups had been livid at his reaction. “He could die,” Bucky’s ma had hissed, fiercely disappointed in him. “How will you feel then for having laughed?” You had only to listen to the hideous red sound scraping its way out of Steve’s mouth to know: this was ten times worse.
Cold panic returned to Bucky as he mopped at Steve’s skin. How will you feel for having taken it all for granted, for assuming the future? Steve had been fine for so long, an occasional asthma attack—not that those didn’t put the fear of God into Bucky when they happened, but they were at least familiar—and colds that lingered, knocked him under more than the average Joe. They’d both left unspoken their thankfulness that Steve had been spared the tuberculosis his mother had died from; he’d never said it to Steve, anyway, but he sure had to Father Clark. Though Bucky hated church, he was leaving absolutely nothing to chance when it came to keeping Steve around for as long as he could.
Prayers were worthless tokens, right now. Steve’s chest rose and fell slowly, a sound like wet wood being burned squeezing its way out of Steve’s mouth, the hiss and whistle that made the hair on his neck stand up and a shiver run down his spine. He watched as Steve slowly inhaled and exhaled again—Bucky realized he’d been holding his own breath for a long time.
It was his fault: he’d brought this here from his littlest sister and passed it on to Steve, probably when they’d fooled around last Friday night after returning from the bar. Lucy’d been sick for a few days by the time he’d popped by his folks’ place; all the kids had made it through whooping cough, though, and he thought...he was stupid, he hadn’t thought at all. Maybe it was punishment for fornication—with a fella. Steve hated it when he talked like that, but that was the path his mind always followed.
“You wouldn’t check out on me, would you?” Bucky asked as Steve strained to sit up and sighed with resignation, wet and ragged, before sagging back into the pillows.
It was there on Steve’s face, a message in his eyes he no longer bothered to disguise: You should stop trying to save me.
No, if one of them was going to go, they would go together. There was no point in sticking around without Steve. Bucky lowered his face toward Steve’s neck and pressed his face to his hot shoulder. “Like hell.” Jesus, Steve was burning up, way too hot, so hot...
...so cold, he was freezing. Christ, he couldn’t even shiver, he was so cold. Snow fell softly across his face, down inside his collar. Above him a steely sky, ringed by the sentinels of dark green trees, their shoulders robed in white. Where was he? Austria, maybe. Where was Steve? He couldn’t lift his head to search for him.
Barnes came fully awake with a shout, panting and looking wildly around him. Shit. New York again. He shivered, clammy skin exposed to the chill air. He got up, used the toilet, splashed warm water on his skin, and rubbed his arms. Dropped and did some pushups, a few sit-ups, got his blood going. He wanted a cigarette, but he wasn’t going to do that now that he had a mission. Habits were giveaways.
The same assholes on the TV had been droning for hours now about Captain America being deserumed and the Avengers’ stonewalling tactics, but Barnes couldn’t turn it off. Just in case news broke while he was working and readying the weapons—he couldn’t afford to miss anything about Steve, and it kept him company while he tried to shift his mind into action from months and months of rot.
None of these weapons had been used in...probably before he was even brought to the States for the Project Insight operation. Some of the handguns suffered from barrels so corroded he couldn’t see the rifling; none of the rifles had been cleaned or oiled in ages. It was one of the last safehouses in the tri-state area he knew of that hadn’t been compromised in the Insight aftermath—and he didn’t know how he knew about it, but there it was, an image imprinted on his mind, complete with a street number and sign. He’d always had these maps and pictures of AOs in his head: the images reminded him of a GPS that seemed to pulse and glow, though it was never clear to him where they came from or why.
He cleaned and prepped each gun, loaded up ammo and grenades so he could access them with speed; he’d be taking it from all sides once he breached security. While he worked, he loaded up on nutrients, too—ate the first decent food he’d eaten in ages, rehydrated himself after too much booze and coffee as his constant companions. His physiology allowed him to slack in taking care of himself; it had been built into him, nothing he worked on himself, but he was grateful for it now, because he could still fit into his armored vest, his combat pants and under layers. Why he’d saved them, he hadn’t known at the time, but it was like a gift from his past self to the future he couldn’t yet remember.
This would be the last time he’d see this voluntary prison, the last time he’d see this part of Brooklyn. It wasn’t his Brooklyn, even if he couldn’t remember with any kind of precision what that had looked like, but he knew it had been terribly altered. If he couldn’t find Steve’s impostor, then he didn’t much care if they killed him for good this time. He’d tried, so many times, to end it all, but could never overcome that imperative. This could be his last mission, and that thought filled Bucky with a warm glimmer of relief. Almost the way he wanted it: to go out as he should have gone back then, taking care of Steve, protecting him. Or at least, a facsimile of Steve, and that was good enough right now.
Once he finished with the weapons, Bucky watched the television for a few more minutes, the endless bleating of the sheep onscreen, before he lay down to sleep for a few hours till nightfall cloaked the city and he left for Virginia.
He lay back on the sagging mattress and stared at the rabbit-shaped stain on the wall. Funny what you recall, when the adrenaline kicks in: the angle of the warp in the door frame behind Steve’s double’s head, just that little fragment, and the sliver of light that pierced the right-hand corner of the photo. Did they know that the Asset was still alive, and they were trying to send a message to him that way? Or was it purely an accident that they’d taken the impostor to the same location he’d been held in? Of course it was a trap, either way, and it didn’t matter who the trap was set for—him or the Avengers—but he was...content. Whatever the outcome, this would finally be over.
The idea of having a friend was so tantalizing, it made it hard to sleep. Endless fascination and wonder about all those things he’d read: that Barnes had been a sort of bodyguard for the little Steve, that he’d followed him into battle unquestioningly when Steve had become Captain America. The lancing horror of knowing what Steve’s words meant on the helicarrier while watching him fall into the river, helpless. The despair of finding him in the water, too late, hearing his last breaths, because the Asset was very good at his job and his work was a gift to mankind.
Bucky must have fallen asleep at some point because he woke, foggy and unrested, in the early twilight. He put his tac gear on, gathered up the duffels and a few sacks with food. The SUV he’d taken from them back in Virginia was in a storage facility quite a few blocks away; he stuck to the shadows along the walls, slinking down the misty streets. The license tabs on it were out of date, so he used his knife to shave off someone else’s nearby and tape them over. When he drove out, he kept his face hidden from the facility cameras along the roadways, and all along his route down to Virginia. Nothing left to chance—the last thing he needed was for Stark or the rest of them to catch up with him and interfere.
For the past year, he’d barely kept track of Hydra. There weren’t quite as many heads to grow back in place, not anymore, but they would no doubt have survived, just like cockroaches and all parasites seem to. It wasn’t like they’d ever been that hard for Bucky to find; they gave off a signature odor.
When he reached the facility, he parked a couple blocks away, walked to a building with a good vantage he could surveil from.
This was what he knew: wait patiently and take note. Traffic patterns, energy use patterns. Who goes in and who goes out, when they do it. Which doors they use, where they park their cars. Who’s armed and who’s not. How they communicate with each other. He didn’t have the time he would have liked, but there was no telling how long they’d keep the impostor once they twigged to his lack of value when no tigers showed up for the goat. The Avengers wouldn’t come for a Captain America stand-in, guns blazing, straight into Hydra’s nest, and it would take them longer to find him, anyway. The double wouldn’t have been capable of breaking out on his own, either—his only value was as bait. So there was a little time still to assess.
On the night of the first day, he had accumulated enough data. The layout to this building was still stored in his memory in one of those little glowing maps. He went back to the SUV and gathered up the weapons, strapped as much to his body as he could carry and still move quickly, slung the rest over his left shoulder. The neighborhood was an odd mix of residential and big empty warehouse buildings, but there was no one around at this time of night, he didn’t have to worry about staying hidden.
The two outside guards were easy: throats cut behind the cameras. His voiceprint and access codes still worked, so fortunately he didn’t have to cut into the security. Their sloppy methods were detestable—the two agents on the inside door were so surprised and slow to take action it almost made him laugh. They clearly recognized the Asset; that was good, fear made people stupid, made them rush to the offensive when they should have taken a defensive position, made them hesitate and question themselves.
He made his way along the ground-floor corridor to the stairwell. The rest of the personnel would be down in the sub-basement, the place where Barnes had been kept; there should be three more of them down here and inside the lab rooms, at least two techs, with two guards for each tech, judging by what he’d seen on surveillance and the standard protocols.
One guard caught him inside the door that opened to the first basement level, almost got his jaw with the butt of his rifle. Bucky wheeled and shot him under the chin, caught the other two racing down the corridor toward him, firing on automatic. A bullet tore into Bucky just under the bottom edge of his armor on the right abdomen, knocking him back a step. Too late now for quiet—the guards would be hiding the techs, maybe even killing Steve’s impostor. Shit, Bucky was out of shape: only a useless, washed-up piece of shit would have allowed anyone to get off a shot.
Now there was a kind of incandescent rage powering up inside him and he stalked down halls, clearing each room, firing and reloading, firing and reloading. Something had changed since he was here last: most of the equipment they’d used on him was gone. Scorching heat from the gunshot spread its tendrils through his gut and he pressed his hand to it; blood pulsed out rapidly between his fingers, worse than he’d expected. Bucky felt...impelled, somehow, to find the impostor before he lost too much blood, to at least see him before he died; he reached into one of his cargo pockets and pulled out a sterile pad, tore the paper off with his teeth, and wadded it up to stuff it inside the wound. Its sting and throb made him sweat, his hands were slippery with the blood, too much blood...
...so much blood, he was growing light-headed from the loss and having trouble staying upright as he staggered down the alley. He was in...Queens, yes, Queens, and he tried to focus on the street name, orient himself. He’d rather have died in Brooklyn, he thought with a laugh.
Fuck the imperative, fuck it, why couldn’t he just top himself and get this over with? Why did he have to bleed to death like a goddamn animal? It would take him days, he knew that: they’d tested his thresholds of exsanguination, every fucking time they stanched the flow at last, he’d come right back to consciousness. Even now, clear as day, he could remember one of the scientists facing off against Zola when he’d found out what they’d done. “He is too important! He is our greatest achievement, you cretins. You would treat him like livestock, like a piece of meat!” The scientist had argued with Zola, and then had disappeared shortly afterward. Zola had had power then, the Americans had let him go. Captain America was dead, he’d confided in the Soldier, there was no reason to hold out hope, and the Soldier had wondered why that was significant, what purpose telling him such a secret had.
Everything became a test, after that, and he’d just wanted...dreamed...longed for them to end. Each time he tried to kill himself, passively or actively, they made it harder, they created failsafes and programmed directives in his mind. Now he couldn’t—couldn’t just finish this fucking thing once and for all. Programmed like a damn computer.
It would be fitting punishment since he’d been sloppy, so sloppy. Overconfident, allowing anger to sap his focus. He shouldn’t have tried so hard to punish Hydra for making him kill Steve. Good operatives weren’t blinded by emotion.
At the end of the alley he spotted a dumpster and he stumbled over to it, clutching his stomach against the blaze of pain, blood squelching in his boot with each step. That would work: a passive way to take himself out, no more trying to stuff the gun in his mouth and his mind fighting back against every attempt, wrestling for control over the life he wanted to be rid of.
Barnes pushed at the dumpster’s lid, but it was latched. He could barely raise his metal arm, something had knocked it out in the grenade blast: it whirred futilely, the hot metal smell of gears overheating as he tried repeatedly to lift it, then pushed it up with his right hand, hoping to crush the latch and pull it open. He didn’t have the strength; his hand grasped the latch, unable to do any more, a sparkling white veil descending over his eyes. Over and over he pushed ineffectually at the lid as his vision dimmed, trying to hoist himself up for leverage and tip himself inside the dumpster.
Behind him came the sound of a door opening and someone called out, “Whoa! Woah, dude, stop. Are you all right?” A tall man grabbed him under his arms and Barnes flailed out with his real arm, trying to shove him away.
“Get—” Barnes began, but he’d lost too much blood—he tottered backward against the dumpster and slid down to the cold, slimy, stinking pavement.
“Mister, you need help,” the guy said, spying Barnes’s wound. “Holy shit.” He leaned down to once more slide his arms underneath Barnes’s and hauled him up. “I don’t give a shit whether you want my help or not, you’re coming with me. We need to get you to a hospital.”
“No!” Barnes gasped, causing the guy to step back, fear in his large brown eyes. Barnes stumbled and threw his arm out to steady himself. “No hospital. Just help—help me get in there—” he pointed at the dumpster.
The guy froze, letting out a kind of stunned, stuttering laugh. “What do—wait. You hoping to climb on in there and die?”
He shoved ineffectually at him, careened away from him in the direction he’d come from, but fell face first on the filthy wet ground. Shit fuck goddamn. “Listen, mister,” the guy said. Why wouldn’t he just fucking leave Barnes alone? “If you’re afraid of the cops, I can—I don’t know, at least let me help you get inside and then we can argue about hospitals in there. Please.”
The guy levered him up again, Barnes tried to stand on his own power as much as he could. “You’re fucking heavy for someone who looks like he’s lost about five gallons of blood.” They went through what looked like storage space to a back room lined with more shelves full of boxes and a utility sink, a counter; the man unwrapped plastic from around a bundle of laundered towels and threw them onto the floor, then let Barnes sink down on them. Everything Barnes looked at was red around the edges, objects dancing and fluttering; the guy seemed to be moving in slow motion.
“Where...” Barnes said, the stamina to say any more dissipating into a wan, dreamy sort of haze. Maybe he was really going to die this time; as places to kick off went, this was okay.
“You’re lucky.” Barnes would debate him if he had the strength. “You managed to find the one place on this block with any kind of decent, real first aid kit. We do outpatient and counseling work with substance abusers.”
He had no idea what that meant, but he was contentedly on the slow slide into oblivion that meant he’d crossed the blood-loss threshold. It was immensely satisfying that there’d be no one standing above him with clipboards, their pinched, ashy faces, peering at their specimen with fishy eyes. Only darkness and quiet.
When he opened his eyes again Gabe Jones was kneeling beside him. “Well, that was fast,” Gabe said; Barnes blinked a few times and Gabe was gone. Oh. The man from the alley. He did look like Gabe, it was somehow comforting, even though he barely remembered Gabe at all. Not-Gabe tilted Barnes’s head up, slowly trickled water into his mouth, lay his head down on the pillow. “You lost a lot of blood. A lot. Technically you shouldn’t even still be alive. I’m thinking there’s a story there.”
He stared at his hands; the guy had cleaned a lot of the blood off of them. It was tacky between the plates of the metal one, but the surface was clean. “And I’m pretty sure there’s a story about that arm, too. My name’s Titus, by the way.” He pressed the water bottle into Barnes’s real hand and said, “Slow. Don’t gulp.” Barnes did as he was told, watching Titus. “You really do need a hospital. This is basic first aid, but you need a hell of a lot more than that. Now’s usually the time when you tell me your name.”
“I’ll heal.” God, but he wished he wouldn’t. He’d thought maybe this time...
With an eyeroll, Titus said, “You seem pretty confident about that.” He sighed. “Listen, I counsel people. Mostly vets, I’m one myself. And I know a vet when I see one. You can tell me what’s going on.”
Barnes tried to sit up but he was still too wobbly, the room still framed in red and white. “Kind of a stubborn shit, too, aren’t you?” Titus said. No, that's Steve. Steve was a stubborn shit and Barnes had killed him for it.
“My programming imperative won’t allow me to do it myself.”
A small noise of disbelief came from his throat. “Programming,” Titus said, his voice unemotional but his eyes betraying his uncertainty. “Why do you want to? You get yourself shot deliberately?”
“No. I was sloppy. Just hoped to take advantage of their work and my bad job.” He’d just wanted to get into the dumpster. The garbagemen would come eventually to take him away, and if he wasn’t dead by then, crush him in the machine. It was what he deserved.
Something in the flash of his eyes told Barnes he knew more than he was saying; he studied Titus for a while. “Hydra.”
“Well, it’s nice that you can be honest with me.” He pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket and waved it back and forth. “Wasn’t sure why you had a Russian star on a metal arm, seemed more than a little weird, but then I remembered something. You were the guy who killed all those people in D.C.”
Barnes turned away, the air shivering in his lungs.
“The Avengers said you were a prisoner of war and had been tortured and brainwashed. For decades.”
Though he tried not to give himself away, Barnes whipped his head around and stared hotly at him.
“You disappeared after the Potomac disaster, or so the conspiracy story goes, and started hunting Hydra. Some of them say Captain America’s hiding you because you’re Bucky Barnes. Others say you just look like him, that they did that deliberately to fuck with Cap.”
I’m not him, Barnes wanted to say, but he didn’t really have the luxury of denial anymore. What was the point? Keep your mouth closed.
“I’m not much given to tall tales, but like I said, I know a vet when I see one. And so if you let me, I’m going to help you.”
There’d been ample opportunity and yet he hadn’t turned Barnes in—he would be on his way right now to a bulletproof Plexiglas cage in a sub-sub-sub-basement at a DoD black site facility otherwise, bleeding out and being injected with drugs to get him to talk. Some old, gnarled vine of memory branched out, wrapped itself around his mind: what it meant to trust someone. To let them help.
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Whyn’t you let me be the judge of that?” He rummaged in a box. “We don’t keep heavy-duty painkillers around here, for obvious reasons, but I got some stuff from a friend. I think we need to get that bullet out of you.”
Barnes shook his head, a dull, sick slosh of vertigo and he swallowed back the urge to vomit. “Won’t do much for me. Where’s my gun?”
Titus visibly flinched.
“If you won’t bring me the gun, at least give me the magazine. I need the bullets. And a lighter, if you got one.” The distressed twist of Titus’s face would have been comical in another situation. Bandages and rest weren’t going to stanch this flow, the wound was much too significant.
Bucky snatched the first aid kid and cocked his head, staring silently. “All right, all right!” Titus said with exasperation. “Just a minute.” He disappeared for a while, returned with two bullets and a long stick-thing that was...apparently a lighter. Huh. The future never failed to confound him.
“Prop me up.” His head might as well be stuffed with soggy cotton wool for all the speed and dexterity he had. In the kit were small sterile forceps that Titus removed the cover from while Barnes mopped some of the blood off. Barnes sucked in air, clenched his teeth, and opened the wound so he could find the slug. It was in deep. As he dug around, out of the corner of his eye he caught Titus flinching again, but this time Titus took the forceps out of his hand and pushed them in. Pain rocketed down his groin and leg, into his guts, he was nearly blind from it and he gasped, steeling himself against his need to shudder.
“There it is,” Titus said quietly, “I can feel it.” He looked up; Barnes nodded. “All right. Maybe you should bite on one of those metal fingers or something.” That was...actually not a bad idea, and he wrapped the sleeve and with his right hand slipped the side of the left into his mouth. “Here we go.” Titus dug deeply, the cold bite of metal searing through tissues and veins as Barnes clamped down hard on his hand, but he held perfectly still until he heard Titus sigh with relief. “Fuck, man, Jesus fuck.”
The blood still pulsed rhythmically, sluggishly out of the wound. Silver linings. With a shaking hand, Barnes stuck one cartridge between his teeth and worried the bullet away from the casing just enough, then inched it the rest of the way off until he could dump the gunpowder on the wound—a bad job because he was such a mess, but it’d work. It took him a second to figure out the lighter stick; he flicked it on and set the flame to the powder. It ignited and sizzled, and this time he lost his battle with the pain—his eyes rolled up in his head and the room went black.
When he woke up he was alone, propped up on what looked like sofa cushions, a clean bandage around his abdomen, and a soft, silky, plush blanket covering him that he must have partially kicked off him in his unconsciousness. A bottle of water sat near his head, along with some protein bars. He felt a quiver of fear that Titus might be reporting him to the Avengers, Steve's team, but then, why would he leave Barnes food if that was the case?
Slowly he drank the water, ate one bar. His makeshift cauterization was holding and he peeked under the bandage to see if it might be infected, but beneath the angry red skin it looked fine, better than a hell of a lot of wounds he’d taken had looked in their early stages. His watch had been smashed in the Hydra raid, so he had no idea of the time, or even the day.
But he also had to piss something fierce, so he crawled his way along the shelves and poked his head out the door—dark and empty, silent. As he searched for a toilet he saw a clock, it was well past midnight. Afterwards he made his careful way through the place. What should he do—stay until Titus came back? Leave, in case his presence would get Titus in trouble? Barnes hadn’t wanted to be saved, but he was saved nonetheless and there was a voice in the back of his head that sounded an awful lot like Steven’s saying he’d be an ungrateful sonofabitch if he didn't stay long enough to at least say thank you.
He lay back down to rest some more and finish healing, and when he next woke, Titus was there, a bag of something that smelled amazing in his hand and a couple of huge drinks. “Man, I thought I’d seen some badasses in Iraq, but you, my friend, are a freaking professional, master-class badass. We could have just stitched that thing, you know.”
With a shake of his head, Barnes eyed the food; he was fucking famished. Pulling the blanket tighter around him—what was this thing made out of? it was amazing, he wanted to keep stroking it and squish it up under his chin forever—he reached out a hand and gave Titus a questioning look. “I got egg McMuffins and sausage McMuffins and some hash browns. You got a preference?” Barnes shook his head.
It was all wonderful, and he inhaled it like that first shot of air when he was let out of cryo. When they were finished eating, Barnes said, “I can’t pay you back for this. Unless you want someone assassinated. That I can do.”
Titus stared at him for the longest time before mustering a grin. “You’re a comedian.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Like I said: I can’t help you with everything, but I can help you out some. If you’ll let me. That’d be good payment. You deserve a shot at a life.”
“I’m trying to tie up loose ends,” Barnes said. I killed my best friend. “With the people who—they cost me everything.”
“But in the meantime, you gotta live in this world. I know some people can help with that.”
They’d want to piece him back together; they’d think there was something in here to save. They would want to believe that all these splinters and shards could cohere once more into a solid, functioning human being even when there was no trace of humanity to simulate. But maybe once he’d finished this mission he’d taken on as his penance for killing Steve, he could find that way to overcome the imperative and truly end it. He’d be free, once and for all, finally free...
...caught, Bucky was caught between the door and the guards like a goddamn amateur, rapidly losing blood. He hated to set off an explosion this close to his target, but there was no choice; he pulled a flash-bang from his belt and sent it sailing. Shook his head against the disorientation, then crushed the entry pad, shorting out the door and sliding inside. Two techs inside just like he’d thought, their mounting fear from the gunfire and explosions leaving them cowered in the corner. On one of the tables in the center was Steve’s impostor—out of his head, from the looks of things, but...Jesus, he really was small, and Barnes’s heart thundered in his chest. There was only a short time now before he lost consciousness. He shot one tech in the head and ordered the other to get up and get something to fix the wound.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” the tech said, stunned, as if that had anything to do with the situation.
“What were you doing to him?” he asked, jerking his chin toward the double. “Is he capable of moving?”
“Yes, yes!” Obsequious and pleading as he was, it’d be hard to trust anything he said; still, Bucky lifted the vest and motioned for the tech to bind it, watching Steve’s double for signs of lucidity. God, the guy looked just like—my Steve, a wild thought fired in his head and he quickly stamped it out.
When the tech finished he looked up at him, desperate, cowed. He should shoot this one too, just on principle, but there was something about Steve lying there—no, not Steve, he reminded himself, Steve was dead—so he threw zip ties at him and said, “Face down on the floor, hands behind you, do your feet first.”
As he moved toward the table, the impostor turned his head and opened his eyes, it took a moment for him to focus, then a soft, blue smile played across his lips. “Buck.” Such pure joy, such relief in his voice; tears filled the edges of his eyes.
What an amazing job they’d done with this guy: he was perfect, down to the bend of the broken nose and the concave chest, the mole on the cheek, that plump lower lip. They’d dressed him only in thin hospital scrubs so he was shivering in the air conditioned room, two IV bags dripped through separate lines into his right arm; Barnes gently removed the tape and carefully, slowly slipped the needles out, put gauze over it and taped him up.
Bright orange spots that looked like asterisks bordered in flashing white filled Bucky’s vision, piling up on top of each other into a collage till he couldn’t see for all the color and flash; they were kind of pretty, but he was dizzy and unanchored in space, swaying as he tried to get the double to sit up and the pretty was just botching up his eyesight.
“You came for me.” Even his voice sounded like Steve’s, it was incredible. It might have been a photostatic veil—SHIELD had had that tech, but there weren’t any lines along his scalp or back of his neck and the rest of his body mapped to Bucky’s muddled memories. “Oh god! You’re wounded.” Not-Steve reached forward as he sat up and they fell against each other, Bucky’s arm going around his back to catch him. Instinct screamed keep him from harm. “Buck, give me the gun,” Not-Steve said, wrapped his fingers around his right hand. “You’re gonna fall over, give me the gun and—” shit, he was losing control, knees crumbling underneath him, the orange and white asterisks glaring and flashing behind his eyes. His hand shot out and he braced himself on the table, chin over Steve’s head (it’s not Steve). “Jesus, you’re bleeding out, you stupid fuckin’ mook.”
“We gotta get out of here.” This guy was impeccable—he even had that proclivity for heroics down pat. None of it made sense. He thought for sure the impostor he found here would be the one they’d fielded all this time for the supersoldier, that the photos had been doctored just as the Black Widow claimed—they’d skinnied him down with a computer program. It didn’t seem possible there would be a second double, a dead ringer for Steve when he was tiny. What the fuck was Hydra—the Avengers—whoever playing at here?
“Oh god, I’m—” and Not-Steve glanced down at his body, as if he didn’t know he was small before Bucky’d stared at him.
The impostor’s eyes darted back and forth and he bit his lip, just the way Steve would when he was stuck between a rock and a hard place and frantically assessing the options of which would kick his ass the least. “Now,” Bucky growled, and Not-Steve threw Bucky’s arm over his shoulders and tucked into his side, though neither of them could walk fully upright, the lame leading the lame. The asterisks were now dancing in his vision like a conga line at the Copa, and an icy numbness crept into his upper torso.
“Tell me where to go,” Not-Steve said. It wouldn’t do either of them any good if he carried that gun by his side, so Bucky tapped his arm to indicate he should pull it up. Shaking his head, he brought his own rifle forward, making them both stumble. “Buck, you’re bleeding to death,” the double moaned, voice tremulous and his eyes looking confused, or maybe wounded. “We should stop and let me do something about that. What good are you if you pass out?”
That brought him up short—it wasn’t an order, he knew that, but it felt like one, it felt like Captain Steve Rogers at the helm of his squad. Yet he balked at it, a familiar protest of “don’t tell me what to do” rising in his throat, the determination that they had to get out of here before reinforcements arrived—Hydra was never that isolated.
Neither of them was in any condition for the stairs, so they’d have to chance the elevator. Aside from the insolent glares the double shot him from time to time, he acquiesced to every instruction till they were at the back of the building, on what looked like a loading dock. A small office and locker room was attached to it, probably for the disused time clocks and employee lockers; Bucky smashed the glass to open the door, trashed the room till he found what he was looking for—a med kit, not particularly well stocked but enough. He tore it off the wall and handed it to Not-Steve, though he looked almost too shocky and weak to handle it and the gun. Weren’t they a pair. Bucky slid his arm from around his shoulders and tucked the kit under it, but holding the rifle and the gear and the kit—he’d be lucky if he could make it ten yards, let alone to the car. There wasn’t a choice; he set his jaw with grim determination and hauled on Not-Steve’s arm.
The movie he’d been in unspooled inside his head once more, stuttering, sound vanishing, the celluloid melting in the heat. Jesus, he’d fucked up bad. There was only this objective: get himself and Steve (it’s not Steve) to the car, get them out of here. It wasn’t his time to go, not yet, not till he could find out what this was. He counted the yards to the car—told himself just make it ten more, eight more, three more, and they were there. He threw his gear in the back seat and took the gun from Steve’s hand, shoving him into the passenger seat and dropping it back. Glassy eyes, shallow breath, nearly white lips, and Christ but this felt so familiar. If he didn’t work on himself first, though, he couldn’t help Steve.
Once he got the wound closed Bucky put a pressure bandage on, dug through the kit for anything that might help Steve’s double, but what could he do when he had no idea what was wrong with the guy. When he felt the double’s hand on his wrist he looked up into his glazed eyes. He smiled sweetly and said with a firmness that contradicted his outward condition, “Don’t you go and die on me now. Not when I just got you back.” Fuck, fuck. Not-Steve seemed to find what he’d said unbearably funny, a puff of silky breath sliding over Bucky’s palm as he pressed it to his mouth and chuckled.
“You’re not real,” Bucky said, tearing himself away from the whirl of memory and faith and the desperate desire for comfort, and put the key in the ignition. “You’re not, you don’t know me, you’re dead.”
“Nope, still alive.” Bucky put the car in gear and drove north. “I’d know you anywhere, you fucking loser.” His eyelids fluttered and Bucky could feel the frenzy crescendo inside him, though he had no idea why, and he glanced wildly back and forth from the road to the impostor, accelerating dangerously until once more the double’s hand settled on his arm and he said, “Slow down. Don’t let yourself get caught. I’ll be all right. Not gonna go when I just got you back.”
As he drove, Bucky allowed him to hold on to his hand, their pulses pounding in time. He drove and drove, Steve’s arm outstretched, never letting go...
...holding on, he was holding on as tightly as he could in the jerking of the train, but he could feel the uncertainty of the handrail before it gave way, Steve’s arm outstretched, shouting into the void, “Grab my hand!” The words plunged into the blistering cold air as Bucky plunged with them, Steve’s frantic, shocked face receding in the misty distance until Bucky hit an outcropping of rock. Piercing pain tore through his left side and arm and ripped his breath out of his lungs; he tumbled from jagged rock to jagged rock before hitting a tree and its breaking limbs ripped his arm away. There was no scream left in his empty mouth as he bounced down the rocky walls to an inky, frozen river, and then everything went dark.
For how long? Hours, days, weeks, months? No, he’d be dead if that was true, he must be...faces, pops of light, an assault of flashbulbs and voices. Snow and ice in his veins. He struggled to swim out of the freezing water but he could never break the surface. Time disappeared with him into a cocoon of gray cotton-wool. They’d dragged him in from the cold but he couldn’t remember who “they” were.
Occasionally the cocoon was broken open, pale faces peering inside to ask their useless questions: What is your name? Where do you come from? What do you feel? Tell us tell us tell us. What is my name, he wondered in the precious rare moment when lucidity came to him. It could be Steve, that maybe sounded right; it could be a lot of things.
They cut his arm off. Or rather, they took care of what remained. He only noticed the bone saw as it cut into the flesh, the spatter of blood painting avant-garde pictures upon the wall. Steve would appreciate that. So that must mean he was not Steve, but he knew someone—the pain eventually crept up behind and knocked the thought away, knocked him, out before he could remember.
Pops of color, faces, places. How long had he been there? Forever, a voice told him. When he opened his eyes once more the scientist was there, an indulgent smile on his thin, fishy lips.
He raised a silver arm, gleaming cold in the antiseptic light, mirrored on the right by his own hand.
“Kill me. Finish it,” he said. Was it a plea or a demand? Made no nevermind to him, he’d get the same result.
“My darling boy,” the scientist said, “why should I wish to kill you? You are magnificent. My ultimate creation. Everything I have dreamt of and more.” His vulpine smile, his piggy eyes. Someone was supposed to kill—no, capture him. Kill him. Either would be good right about now but failure was the reason he was here. The scientist petted his hair. “You survived when I thought no one could—to see you standing across from me with your captain, so unexpected, so wonderful. The other subjects could not even survive the trials, let alone a fall such as yours!” He willed the scientist to take his hand away, to stop gazing at him with that glow of pride, but he wasn’t budging. “Do you not understand how superior I have made you, in every way? Even to the captain you are superior.”
The word captain caused something to spark and surge up inside him, a current that buzzed and snapped; he tried to sit up and climb off the table, but the scientist pushed him down with the help of the others in their gray lab coats. “Shh, shh.” He put his hand to his face, cold and slimy. “This is what you were made for, the pride of Mother Russia.” He sniggered, like that was some kind of private joke they shared. “There has never been another such as you.” He smiled again. “You are to be the new fist of Hydra.”
But he wasn’t. He knew that, somehow, an echoing certainty. I’m not. I’m not...
...“but I am. I am!” The impostor was glaring and struggling pointlessly against the zip ties securing him to the bedstead. “What the hell makes you think I’m not Steve Rogers?” he shouted, kicking up and down on the mattress, and the tie around his ankles just made him look absurd. For a fella at the brink of death not that many hours ago, he had a lot of spunk.
They’d been forced to stop three times on the way up to this cabin, each one a cold, panicky, frantic battle to keep the impostor’s breath coming, figure out what was wrong despite having no medical knowledge and only crappy motel Internet service to help him identify the symptoms and a potential treatment.
But this guy had rallied on his own, and then some. It really did remind Bucky of Steve: how every time someone decided he was down for the count, Steve would stubbornly bounce back up, confounding the priests, the doctors, his own mother. Maybe sometimes Bucky most of all.
“Because I killed you.”
The double blinked at him. “Well, clearly you’re wrong about that, because here I fucking well am.” A tender look softened his face. “Buck, why would you think you killed me? Is that why you kept saying I was dead back in Virginia? You’re the one who rescued me, pulled me from the river. I might not have been conscious when you did, but I know that. In my bones, I know that, just like I knew I could reach you that day despite...what they did to you.”
How easily could he have found that out—the Avengers would know that, Bucky thought, or at least Wilson, or Romanov. They’d have briefed the double fully before they put him into play, just in case there was contact, just in case there was a test.
“I have to go out and get supplies,” Bucky told him, to an annoyed huff and still more flailing.
“I’m not gonna leave, for fuck’s sake. Why would I leave when I finally have you back? You can untie me. I have to piss, anyway.” Bucky’d been putting so many electrolyte and protein drinks into him, he supposed it would be a good idea, so he stuffed the gun into the side of the double’s neck and undid the ties. “Thank you. Jesus. My hands are numb.”
“Wouldn’t be numb if you didn’t fight against the ties.” He pushed Not-Steve toward the toilet. The bathroom had an ancient tub and a small sink; it wasn’t precisely plush in here, but what could you expect from a place that had been abandoned in the waning years of the Cold War. It had functioned as something like a numbers station: a remote location where an operative could be hidden away from civilization, broadcasting coordinates and codes as needed when Hydra agents were in the dark in the eastern corridor, functioning as a conduit, sometimes even a refuge before extraction. He’d been taken here once, maybe as long ago as the early ’60s, when a mission had gone wrong in...New York, possibly, or Philadelphia. For some reason the memory of it had been soft, peaceful, all alone here with his handler, the looming threat of cryo and the chair still days away.
As the impostor undid his fly, Bucky turned away but kept the gun firmly planted against his neck. When he was finished, Not-Steve turned on the tap to wash his hands, saying, “Any soap or something? I’d like to wash my face too, at least. I was in that place for—a while, I guess.” The water gushed out, streaky brown, and the pipes screamed in protest. “Christ, how long has it been since anyone’s used this?”
“That’s why I need to get supplies.” Bucky felt an odd, unexpected interest thaw the edges of his remove. He might even start to like this guy.
“Let me come with you,” the impostor offered as he ran his hands under the water, then dried them on his pants. “There are some things I need, I’m still a little shaky and if I have another asthma attack, there’s no telling what’ll happen.”
The idea of that made his brain short out and his stomach clench up, he stared at Not-Steve for a frantic moment, searching for an excuse. “It’s dark.”
“Yeah, so?” Asthma—it was to be avoided most of all. They’d even briefed the double that he should fake the need for an asthma device. Or maybe they’d found someone who actually had it.
“Get back on the bed.” Not-Steve sighed heavily and put the ties around his ankles and wrists without Bucky ordering him to and waited for Bucky to run the rope through the headboard slats, as though his job was to appease Bucky, or maybe just that this was an old familiar pattern. But no, he couldn’t think like that. Steve—his Steve—was dead.
For some reason, a peculiar itch to explain himself came over Bucky as he gathered up some tools and weapons and folded the incredibly musty blankets over Not-Steve’s legs and lap. If the guy really did have lung problems, that might not be safe, but he didn’t want the double to get cold, either. When they’d first arrived he’d shaken and aired things out as well as he could, but it’d be hours yet before the place warmed sufficiently and dried out. “I may have to break in somewhere.” The wound in Bucky’s abdomen had healed, but he still bent stiffly to cover the guy up—and when he caught his eyes, they were wistful, the long fringe of lashes that framed them provoking a double-time skip in Bucky’s heart. He was almost out the door before he stopped and turned. “If there’s an—an inhaler, what do I get?” They used inhalers now, he was reasonably sure that was the terminology—not nebulizers or shots; that was...some kind of faded and creased black and white memory that belonged to a long-gone person.
The double smiled at him, sweet and fond and it made Bucky’s head swim. “Write this down.”
He drove for hours and stopped almost a hundred miles away—if they were here for a while, no one in the nearby town would have anything on security cameras; the Avengers were fronted by someone with unlimited capability and knowledge to sift through endless piles of data for their images. Word would reach them about what happened in Virginia, if it hadn’t already, and they would look, they would find. There were only so many variables he’d been able to plan for, so many contingencies he could accommodate with limited resources and rusty skills.
A pharmacy that was open late had most of what he wanted; druggists’ were different these days, full of stuff like food and housewares just like the five and dimes, even a small selection of clothing, which the impostor needed. No inhaler without a prescription, they said, but he waited until closing and slipped back inside—he felt as though he were participating in a farce, but it was amusing to play the part and go along with Not-Steve’s charade, see just how far he’d carry it. Not to mention that waiting had given him time to search for updates on Captain America’s continued disappearance, and dig for coded phrases buried on the dark net about the Winter Soldier breaching Hydra. It might have been Romanov’s doing, or Stark, but nothing was moving yet that would make him look over his shoulder or give him that prickly tingle on the back of his neck. There was enough time to find out what the impostor knew and what his—and the Avengers’—objective was.
At the cabin he set up the perimeter before he went in; the tech was mostly pretty ancient—the computers in the cabin were still running old Hydra software that wasn’t compatible with the modern stuff he’d brought—but it would suffice until he could upgrade. The cabin’s power source, buried in the underground storm shelter, still glowed blue in the dark even after all these years; he checked all the conduits leading inside the cabin, everything still held, nothing chewed away by animals or broken down by weather. They’d need to cook, heat water so the impostor could bathe; Bucky must be pretty ripe himself about now.
Not-Steve was still on the bed, asleep under the covers. Bucky put everything away, hooked the laptop and tablet up to power, started a fire, made something to eat. He was sitting near the foot of the bed when the double woke, blinking at him. “Buck,” he whispered, the same way he’d said it on the table, as if the sun had risen after years of darkness.
“Can I...can I have something to eat?” he asked and sat up, scrubbing at his face with his bound hands.
Bucky handed him a plate—he still had a ways to go recovering after his ordeal, so Bucky’d given him only toast and egg whites and a few small slices of bacon. Not-Steve fumbled with the fork in his awkward, zip-tied hands, glaring at Bucky with an icy challenge to take them off. At Bucky’s head shake, he rolled his eyes. When he stuffed the last forkful into his mouth, he leaned back and said, “I’m me, Bucky. I’m Steve, I really am.”
“Why are they fielding an impostor? The Avengers. What was it about Project Insight they didn’t want the public to know?”
“Jesus, give it a rest. I’m not an impostor! If I was, how could they have sm-small—smallified me this way? Shrunk, that’s the word. Shrunk me this way. Man, my head is still so fuzzy.” His cool blue stare searched Bucky’s face for some way he could reach him, some way get him to relinquish control. “If they’d put a look-alike out on the street for morale or something, some big guy who looked like me, how could he have been deserumed? Think about it. Nothing you’re saying makes any sense.”
“Has anyone else seen Captain America without the mask since the carriers? It’d be nothing for them to find two doubles. Or. We—they—SHIELD had the technology. The veil.” Why did it feel so flimsy, the words so hollow in his mouth? Sowing doubt was exactly what they’d want...
Not-Steve banged his head against the bedstead. “You didn’t kill me, you jackass. I’m too stubborn to die, you know that.” He smiled tenderly. “And I told you. I’m with you to the end of the line.”
Bucky sucked in a breath. That didn’t mean anything. It didn’t.
“Then, how about this—you ask me something that only we’d know. Something only Bucky would remember about Steve.”
His fingers clutched at his legs, he swallowed, throat dry and tight; he didn’t want the guy to see how rattled he was getting, but he was losing ground fast, sinking into some quicksand of memory. The double had been briefed well enough to know—know he couldn’t find those answers.
“Oh, cat got your tongue?” His head cocked sideways, and infuriating smirk on his lips.
Lurching up, Bucky yelled, “Shut the fuck up!” and the double quailed, huddling down into the covers. The dismay that twisted his features (pop, you’re pummeling his face over and over, pop, you’re watching him fall down into a seething river) left him queasy and he fell back, hard, into the chair, his hand on his mouth.
Breathe, breathe: in one-two-three, hold. “I don’t remember what’s real and what’s not.” Not-Steve could say anything was true, simply to deceive him into untying him; Bucky could believe anything, too, with this hopeless craving to know what he really was, what he really remembered.
A strangled little noise like a half sob escaped Not-Steve’s mouth. “I’m so sorry. God, I’m sorry, of course. Of course you aren’t certain... I can help you sort things out, I can. You just have to believe that I’m me and we can talk about this. You know what a lousy liar I am, you remember that, don’t you?”
Bucky rapped the barrel of the SIG against his head a few times as he said, “I just—I just want to know why you’re doing this. I want to know what the play is here, what the end game should be.” If they were trying to flush out the Soldier after all this time, dump him in a prison or even send him back to Hydra.
“There’s no end game,” Not-Steve said, pity in his voice. Well, fuck that. He pointed the gun at him, but he stayed resolute, chin jutting out, eyes flashing. “There is no play here, no end game, and threatening me isn’t going to change that, you oaf.”
God, he was always such a contrary little sonofabitch. No, it’s not Steve. Not his Steve. He thumbed the safety off.
“I’m not gonna lie just to get you to release me.” Words like a weapon, stabbing him in the gut. How many times had Steve said he wouldn’t lie, even when lying would save his sorry, troublemaking ass? “Whatever it is you think you remember, you can ask me, I can tell you if it’s true or not. Maybe that’ll help. I wouldn’t lie to you about any of it, you know that—I can see it in your eyes, you know I’m telling the truth.”
The double would have been briefed on everything. That’s how he knew about “to the end of the line”—they’d been recording their fight on the helicarrier, of course they had. Surgeries, voice remapping, all so they could...what? You are magnificent. My greatest creation.
“You knew me, at the end. You remembered. All the things we were to one another, I saw it, even though you might not have known what it meant. But I’ll tell you right now what it meant: I loved you and you loved me and you were the dearest friend anyone could wish for. You used to know everything about me, every thought and hope and wish, all the things you made me feel—”
The thin, frayed thread of sanity he’d held onto snapped apart, and he threw himself forward onto the bed, grabbed the double and flipped him over. Bucky yanked his scrubs down to expose the smooth white flesh of his upper right hip and ass. What was he looking for? He ran his fingers over the impostor’s skin to—there: a delicate constellation of freckles clustered low at the small of his back. No bigger than the nail on his little finger.
Bucky scrambled backwards off the bed, dropping the gun. This is mine—I claim it as my discovery: the star cluster of Barnes. The sweet laugh pealing from Steve when Bucky leaned over to kiss his freckles, ran his wet lips over his newly declared territory.
Steve simply lay there immobile, head turned to the side, thin ribs rising and falling with frightened, scraping breaths, eyes squeezed shut. Like he thought Bucky would—would— Jesus, no. He would never do such a thing to him.
Minutes ticked by as he knelt there, staring, stomach roiling with disgrace. Steve slowly opened his eyes and said with more kindness than Bucky deserved, “Do you believe me now?”
“I wouldn’t hurt you like that,” Bucky said, because he didn’t know what else to say, and he yanked his pants back up. His head hurt like he’d taken a knife to the temple, his chest and ribs ached with some strange kind of...longing, he thought.
“I—I know that,” Steve said, always benevolent, even to an animal like him. “It’s me, Buck. It’s really me. I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time, but I was also working with a team called the Avengers. We’ve been dealing with some things that are...mystical, I guess, the way the Tesseract was. Came from the same places. We were after something and there was a group affiliated with Hydra, I was alone at one point and next thing I knew, I woke up in that building you rescued me from. I was in and out of consciousness for those couple of days, so I wasn’t sure it wasn’t some fever dream that I’d changed, till you showed up. They’ve never really stopped trying to make more of us. You and me. I honestly wasn’t surprised.” Closing his eyes, he pressed his face into the bed.
This was inexcusable, looming over Steve trussed on the bed like a piece of game awaiting dressing. Held at his mercy, weakened and terrified of what Bucky was capable of doing to him. Jesus, he’d really balled this up.
“We can talk about it. Just untie me and let me up. Then let’s talk about it.” Bucky leaned forward and cut the zip ties. Rocking back and forth, he knocked the gun against his skull and clenched his metal fist to corral his breathing and the panic careening through him.
“I’ll run you a bath,” he said and bolted for the washroom. Behind him Steve made a small grunt of annoyance in the back of his throat: that at least was familiar.
He bled the rust out of the pipes and cleaned out the old heavy tub, studiously not looking behind him in case Steve was standing there. There’d been a tub in the middle of their kitchen, a big board over it to serve as a table the rest of the time. Was that real?
When it was full he thumbed the safety on and stowed the gun in his jacket pocket, stood sentry by the door: the double—Steve—wouldn’t try to hurt him, he knew that now. To keep his hands busy, Bucky took the tags off the clothes he’d bought—there hadn’t been much choice so he’d grabbed a couple sweatshirts and sweatpants that Steve wouldn’t end up swimming in, some underwear and socks and cheap sneakers. He set them down next to the tub and turned away, but Steve’s hand caught him around the wrist. “You can stay,” he said softly, but Bucky shook his hand off and hurriedly left.
“The water’s not that dirty and it’s still warm,” Steve said when he came out, pushing the sleeves up on his bony arms. “You used to always take the bath after me.”
He needed one. He’d changed at their first stop on the drive up, but he’d gotten pretty gamy by now. “There’s more food in the icebox,” Bucky said. Not a lot of it, of course, it wasn’t big enough. “And you can—listen to the radio, too, if you flip it from Operator.”
“You thought of almost everything for our little sleepover,” Steve said, illuminated by his cheeky little smile, “too bad we don’t have Netflix.” Bucky swallowed and closed the door. Maybe Steve would notice the laptop in the corner and try to contact his friends; maybe they’d be here by the time he was done, waiting to stick him in a black-site prison or toss him back over the fence to Hydra or simply execute him for expediency’s sake.
It’s really Steve. Unless this was all a figment of his imagination—and the jury was still out on that—Bucky really hadn’t killed him. He washed himself in the slowly cooling water, the soap forming patterns on the surface, like the stains on the wallpaper from his room back in New York. He pushed them around to make other shapes: a crude dog, a coffee cup, a heart.
All this wasted time in his self-made prison, mourning. He thought of the agent’s strange smile when he’d said, “What did you want me to do, kill the ones I didn’t already kill?” How surprised she’d seemed—it had never been their intention to make him believe that. They’d only wanted Bucky to be Hydra’s weapon again, to reinstate the mission that had switched to Abort. And then—maybe lure Steve in for the kill by using Bucky Barnes. But they hadn’t known how to work the machine and their failure had produced the wrong results. What a fool he’d been. The grief that had sat coiled inside him was slithering its way up to choke him. Maybe none of this was even happening. Maybe he’d died somewhere back in the field. Just because Steve’s impostor had that cluster of freckles didn’t mean...but it did. Who would implant such a memory?
When he got out of the tub, Steve was standing at the window, the ratty, flimsy curtains pulled back. Bucky yanked them shut and Steve blinked owlishly at him. “Where are we, anyway?” Canned stew was bubbling away on the ancient stove—it smelled amazing.
“Vermont,” Bucky said, plopping into the chair opposite the bed, pulling the gun from his discarded clothes and slipping it in the waist of his new jeans. Everything in this place was too bright.
“Oh. I always wanted to come up here when the leaves were changing, you know? It seemed kind of...romantic.” The flash of a soft, sweet smile that spoke of secrets long ago shared. “So what’s powering this place? I was looking for a generator but it’s too quiet, but it seems too remote for electric lines.”
“You remember the particles that powered the Hydra weapons, the ones Stark—our Stark, I suppose—was studying? Just one of those lasts for...who even knows. As long as me, I guess.”
“Could Hydra find us, then?” How calmly he asked that question, but Bucky could read his tells—the way he swallowed, the tightness in his voice, the slightly more rapid blinking.
“No. Places like this were abandoned years ago when Pierce took over. I swept it for signatures, but even if I missed one, there’s no tech out there capable of reading it anymore. They stopped...” He forgot what he’d meant to say.
“They brought you here before. But not after he took control of you.” To put it bluntly. Well, more proof he really was Steve—that was exactly his style, hilariously ineffectively corking the rage inside of him.
“There were plenty of little holes for us to hide in. Most of them are gone.” What had made him remember this one, though? There were locations they’d programmed into his brain, homing like a trained pigeon, for when things went wrong, but not these. He’d only been here the once, it wasn’t for him—where he belonged it was dark and cold, walls of concrete, plenty of steel and the crisp ozone smell of electric current.
“Are you hungry?” Steve went to dish up the stew, opened a few bottles of water. The battle for Bucky’s stomach was evenly matched between starvation and nausea, but Steve placed a steaming bowl in his palms, wrapped his hands over Bucky’s for a brief time, before sitting down opposite him to eat. Later, Steve climbed onto the bed and settled himself against the headboard. “If it makes you feel better to sit over there and have me stay here...” He jerked his chin at Bucky’s shoulder. “You can keep the gun, too, if it helps.”
The metal hand reflexively curled into a fist, uncurled. He wasn’t threatened, despite his body’s desire to respond that way; he must learn to control that if he was gonna stay here.
“Why did you think I wasn’t me? That you’d killed me?” Steve asked. “What were you doing all this time? I’ve searched for you, you know. For a while, we could track you by the damage you did to Hydra, but then you disappeared, left only a cold trail. I never gave up, though. Never stopped hoping,” he added so quietly it was like an apology, like it was shame.
Bucky shook his head. I think I’m actually dead would alarm him.
“But surely you saw me in the news, on TV? How else would you have found me this time?”
The tightness in his chest made it hard to talk. “I— They captured me.” Or I imagined they’d captured me. “Coming out of the exhibit at the Smithsonian. They put me in a chair—”
“I know about the chair. I’ve seen it.” The storm that passed across Steve’s face made Bucky physically hurt.
“They didn’t know how to use it. Hydra was in shreds, they weren’t even really a cell, just random agents who’d stumbled on one another because they were ignoring protocol. One of them wanted me to finish my mission. I think the others might have wanted to use me to lure you in.”
“It would have worked.”
Anger flashed through him, bright and sharp. “What? You think I expected you to come rescue me way back then or something? Even if you had some reason to believe I was alive, you went and died.” This wasn’t how he wanted any of this to go; Bucky put his head in his hands and tore at his hair. “I want to know—I need to know what’s in my head. What I am.”
“What you are?” Steve repeated, as if he didn’t know where this was going.
He put his hands over his eyes. “I’m dead. Or—or this isn’t real and I don’t know where I am anymore or what I am.”
“Buck, Buck, it’s okay. It’s okay, you’re not dead. I’m real—I’m real and I know this. You can trust me and let me help you.” He scooted a little closer to the end of the bed, tentative, how you’d approach a potentially hostile dog. “Ask me whatever you want to know. Why don’t you open those sodas I saw in the refrigerator and I’ll tell you whatever you need to know. I’m not tired.”
But Bucky was: suddenly aware of the sand scratching his eyes, the weary weight of his left shoulder and how harshly the metal abraded the collarbone, the fog that blurred his mind. Yet he mindlessly got the cans, tossed one to Steve, and sat back down, willing himself to wake up.
There were too many choices of where to start. “I can’t... I saw you in my dreams. Or maybe it was a story—of someone else’s life.”
“It was the story of yours.” How nice to be able to have such certainty. “How about we just talk, instead. You answer some of my questions, and if that brings up any of your own, just ask.” Bucky nodded.
“So you were okay after Insight—I worried about that. I broke your arm and I know you were in emotional shock, too. You said before that Hydra took you again. How did they do that, were they tracking you? Were you that badly injured after I—after the Potomac?”
It was easy enough to explain about the code words, how they didn’t work without the conditioning to reinforce them. That some were designed to make him suggestible, some to put him in killing mode. Still others were for the arm, in case he was injured but the weapon arm was still useful. The knuckles on Steve’s fingers blanched as he twisted the sheets up in his fist, that muscle at the hinge of his jaw jumped. Sad and angry, Bucky remembered that about him. Sad and angry at the same time.
“If you thought I was an impostor, why would you rescue me?”
“I guess...curiosity. It’s been a long time since I felt that. And I wanted to know—a little bit about Steve before he died. I mean—”
“I know what you mean.” There was an infinite gentleness to his voice, his eyes. “You were hoping to find out something about yourself, as well?”
“You’re the only one who remembers me,” Bucky said, hoarse and low.
“I’m not the only one,” Steve soothed. “Peggy is still alive, though her memory’s kinda dodgy, and Jim is still going strong. Says it’s all that fish that Japanese people eat.”
“What does he know about fish? He’s from Fresno, ace.”
They both stared at each other in wide-eyed surprise. “That’s what he said to you, right?”
“Not to me. To Dum Dum, when I was getting the prisoners out and hoping to find you. Dum Dum was being kind of a bigot. He told me about it later, and then I told you, and you laughed your ass off.” There was a wistful cast to his face; he probably hadn’t thought of this in years, himself. “You know they became the best of friends after the war? Jim moved to San Francisco proper and he started a produce company, at first with stuff from his family’s farm but then it got really big. Gabe came out eventually to Oakland and went to work for Jim. Dugan stayed in Europe after the war, leading a whole new group of Howlers, but he came back home all the time to see Jim and Gabe, and eventually ended up staying, working with Howard and Peggy to get SHIELD going. Then he said he was too old for that shit and went to work for Jim. Gabe’s eldest daughter married Jim’s eldest son!”
Bucky laughed and Steve gazed at him in such pleased astonishment.
“Every year, they met up on the anniversary of my death, all of them and Howard and Peggy. Till one by one they couldn’t anymore. They’d fly all the way to London, meet at the Whip and Fiddle—it’s still there, you know, they rebuilt it after it was partly destroyed in an air raid” —and something caused Steve’s eyes to shimmer with unspilled tears— “and toast us both, tell stories. Monty became a bit of a superhero in his own right. Whenever they were on the East Coast, they always made a point to stop in at our memorials in Arlington. Some of them are buried there, too.”
“We have a memorial?”
“Yeah, I’d have thought you’d have found that out early on. Didn’t you see the pictures at the Smithsonian?”
“Didn’t notice them, no.” Bucky licked his dry lips, stared at the floor. Only a hero deserved an honor like that.
“I guess Peggy and Howard raised quite a stink when they were planning to put only a plaque for you and a big bronze statue for me. Said you were the one who helped make me who I was and it was just not on. Howard made who knows what kind of threat. So there we are, together, big as life, in bronze. Don’t know what they’re going to do about it now.”
“It wasn’t me made you what you are. You did fine on your own and... She helped.”
Steve sighed. “Don’t even try to pull that on me. If I was bigger I’d beat you to a pulp.” He smiled. “Jim stayed in touch with your family his whole life, and when I was found, he stayed in touch with me. It helped a lot, especially when I was afraid to contact Peggy. She’d seen me come out of the ice, been there in the first few days when they tried to figure out how to bring me out of it. I imagine it was as hard for her then to see me as it was for me when I finally did get in touch.”
“I’m sorry. You must have felt so alone.”
With a little twitch of his head, Steve tsked. Stubborn little fucker, he still wouldn’t let anyone show him sympathy.
Steve drained the last of his soda and then pulled the covers back on the left side of the bed. “Buck. You can barely keep your eyes open. You should rest now. We’re safe here, you said.”
Exhaustion has settled on him like a heavy robe. He put the gun on the table—he had no need of it, truly, it was only a crutch to make himself feel in control—and crawled up the bed, lying stiff as a board next to Steve. “I’ll be right here,” Steve whispered as he carded fingers through Bucky’s damp hair. “I’m here, I’m not going anywhere...”
...“Not going anywhere, you suicidal maniac,” Bucky snarled, and Steve glared at him, cold fire in his eyes and his fist balling up. “I won’t let you.”
“You don’t got a say in what I do or do not do,” Steve challenged. “And shut your yap, I’m trying to listen to this.” He turned the volume on the radio up even higher, Churchill’s round, plummy voice drowning out the noise from the street below. The neighbors would be bitching about that pretty soon.
Therefore, we must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilization than these brave old days of the past.
Bucky sat back in the broken old wingback, arms crossed over his chest, steam rising from his ears. Stubborn little fucker, Steve was just such a mule, and this unreasonable, absurd idea he had that he could run off to war—someone else’s war, at that—and become a soldier was driving Bucky bug-fucking nuts. How could he be expected to save Steve from himself? Steve would find a way up to Canada, try to get his scrawny ass over to England, and what? Maybe if he was lucky, he’d get a job as a file clerk handing out boots to men who were physically qualified to be soldiers. Or he’d have an asthma attack and die gasping for breath, alone, without Bucky, or get fatally seasick on a ship packed to the gills with stinking soldiers.
All the world that is still free marvels at the composure and fortitude with which the citizens of London are facing and surmounting the great ordeal to which they are subjected, the end of which or the severity of which cannot yet be foreseen. It is a message of good cheer to our fighting Forces on the seas, in the air, and in our waiting Armies in all their posts and stations, that we sent them from this capital city. They know that they have behind them a people who will not flinch or weary of the struggle—hard and protracted though it will be; but that we shall rather draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival, and of a victory won not only for ourselves but for all; a victory won not only for our own time, but for the long and better days that are to come.
When Churchill had finished and the announcer began speaking, Steve turned the radio off and stared glumly at Bucky. Why was he always trying to carry the goddamn weight of the world on his skinny shoulders? Why did he feel the need to fix the world? “They’re gonna need all the help they can get.”
Bucky didn’t say anything, just clenched his teeth and rolled his head around on his neck. This wasn’t about patriotism or supporting the guy next to you: Steve had wanted to martyr himself his whole life. Follow in his father’s footsteps and get himself killed in the line of duty to, what, prove something to himself?
And Steve could do it: he was so fucking clever with that sort of thing, he’d find a way, and then Bucky would be left standing in the doorway, watching him disappear like a ghost, dissolving into the dust and smoke of the city and he’d never see him again. There was simply no way Steve could make it past basic training.
The U.S. is drafting men already. When they get through the fellas younger than twenty-four, they’ll be coming for the rest of us. He’d known it was simply a matter of time when he’d said that, just a matter of time before this would be Bucky’s future, too. Steve would work himself up into a lather if he couldn’t go with Bucky; Steve had never made it a secret that he didn’t understand why Bucky hadn’t joined up with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to get himself killed in Spain for someone else’s politics.
Bucky closed his eyes. “Steve. We won’t stay outta this for long, I already talked about this with you. We’ll get dragged into it sooner or later, no matter how many people want us to stay out of it. Wait, please. Just wait and see, and then I will follow you anywhere you want to go, I swear.”
When he opened his eyes, Steve was staring at his hands, the sadness settled upon him thick and dull, dimming his luster. Bucky swept him into his arms, buried his face in his skinny neck. “I don’t wanna lose you to a war that’s not even ours yet.”
“Everybody loses someone in a war, though, don’t they?” The hoarse quiet of his voice reminded Bucky of when he’d nearly died from the cough. It was a harbinger, an omen. He couldn’t say to Steve that he should go first. Steve would carry on without him just fine, but he could see it in Steve’s eyes, the seeds of obsession: he would lose him forever, lose him...
...save him, Steve could still save him. There was that little glimmer of hope burning inside his chest. The high whine of the Hydra weapon powering up, the heavy stomp of boots coming through the train car, muffled underneath the cannon-fire of his heart. Or maybe Steve was—
Dark motion caught his eye and he saw Steve nod briskly in the window; the door swooshed open and Steve tossed his pistol to Bucky. He could cry with relief but they had a goon to take out and Steve set him up for a perfect shot. “I had ’im on the ropes,” Bucky said when the guy went down and Steve countered with an easy, “I know you did.”
He hadn’t been the same since the factory, something he’d never told Steve; he could hear the other goon at the same time Steve could, he could hear and see just as well, and it all happened so dreadfully fast: first the blast, Steve went down, the shield torn from his hands, Bucky picked it up and fired, another blast. It ripped the shield violently from his hands and he flew backward, just like that time he’d been kicked by the iceman’s horse. The slate-colored wide-open sky filled his vision but at his side he could feel the torn, icy skin of the train and he blindly grabbed hold of a bar, tore his gaze from the sky to the hole in the side of the train. The bar juddered in his hand, threatening to break loose. Steve could still save him, he thought, over and over again, a needle stuck in a record.
The howl of the air and the heavy clack of the train wheels filled his ears, the groan of the metal threatening to tear away beneath his hands made his heart race with fear. Then dimly he was aware of Steve creeping out along the train’s jagged wall, reaching out to Bucky. “Grab my hand!” Steve shouted, his eyes brilliant with terror. Steve had found him and rescued him and they’d only had a year and change, this couldn’t be the end of it all, this couldn’t be what Steve had saved him for. Bucky stretched his arm out to him.
But the speed of the train was too much, it swayed and the shell buckled, the railing pulled loose and then Bucky was dropping backward. He heard Steve scream, “Bucky, no!” as he stuttered forward, losing his own grip on the train. Oh Christ, he’s gonna jump after me. No. Don’t, please. How could he stop Steve from following him down? One of them was shouting “no” but he wasn’t certain if it was Steve or him. Maybe both.
Steve receded from view, a ghost dissolving into the white and blue landscape, speeding away. If he could arrest his fall, find something to grab on to, maybe Steve could find him again and...it was so cold out here, the air fanning up and curling over him the way ink did in water. His hands were numb with cold as he reached out, that little ember of hope still smouldering inside his chest but the fire was going out now, oh, it was dying. If he could only find something to hold on to, hold on...
... let go, let go, please, someone was shouting; maybe it was on the television? But no, he wasn’t in his room, he had—oh god—his metal hand wrapped around Steve’s shoulder near the base of his throat. Crushing it.
Wresting his arm away, Bucky crab-walked backwards on the bed, strangled apologies escaping his mouth; he didn't even know what he said, it was nonsense. Steve gasped for breath like a landed fish, fingers of one hand clutching at his neck and the other reaching out toward Bucky. “It’s all right,” Steve wheezed, “it’s all right, you didn’t break anything, I swear. I swear, Buck.” Bruises like spring violets were blossoming on his red skin.
“Steve,” he whispered. “I didn’t—”
“No, it’s all right. You were thrashing in your sleep, talking about something and then you screamed and I—I shouldn’t have tried to wake you like that.” You don’t sneak up behind a vicious dog on the end of a chain. “It’s all right, see?” He moved his arm around in a windmill, rolled his neck around. “Come back to bed.”
They were both panting, neither moving—him from guilt, Steve probably from fear, if he had any sense at all. “I shouldn’t be here. I should take you back. Now that I know...”
“I’m not dead? Like hell. Not going anywhere, Barnes.” His grin flashed, was just as quickly replaced by a frown. “Is that why you thought you were dead? Whatever you were dreaming?”
“It wasn’t—I’m not sure—I don’t know if I’m dreaming or not. Was dreaming.” Was he awake, alive? Steve patted the bed again and Bucky slowly slid beneath the covers, as tentative as a spooked animal and his body thrumming with nerves, both of them lying on their sides. Steve tucked his arm up under his cheek, touched Bucky’s cheek. He could have snapped the arm in two with barely a twitch of his fingers, or squeezed it into pulp.
“Tell me about it. What you see.”
“Do you think your life flashes before your eyes before you die? Did it when you—”
“A little. I thought about the people I loved. Saw their faces when the plane filled with water. But not my whole life, no, not like a story unfolding. It was more like a feeling, I guess, than identifiable events.”
“It—I’ve remembered pieces since I saw the news, they come to me in flashes. I thought maybe it was one of their experiments, like I was seeing the future, the past, all rolled into one.”
There was a hard shine of rage in his blue eyes and he shook his head bitterly. “They call them flashbacks. You remember they used to talk about soldier’s heart, combat fatigue? Nowadays it’s called post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re sort of like the definition of it, you even worse than me.”
Maybe later he’d tell Steve he knew about PTSD, tell him about Titus and that he’d had, perhaps not a friend, but someone who’d once taken pity on him the way Steve had. Steve took Bucky’s hand: the place was so quiet the only thing audible was the beating of their hearts, the soft whisper of their breath. They lay there for a long time, just staring at each other, and for the first time in the life that he could remember, he felt safe. He could believe he really was alive.
“If I—could I ask you more about me? There’s so much I don’t remember, or know if I’m remembering it right.”
“Of course you could. You don’t even have to pull a gun on me.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Punk,” Bucky said with an overpowering fondness. You’d have thought Bucky was whispering sweet nothings to him, calling him romantic pet names, the way Steve practically purred and curled his small body against Bucky’s.
“What would you think about stretching our legs and getting out of this place for a bit? Take a walk in the woods. It’s pretty here.”
Bucky swallowed; he didn’t know why that bumped up his anxiety. “I can’t—”
“You said no one left knows about this place. You’re being overcautious, don’t you think?”
Kneeling on the bed, Steve considered him for a beat. “I didn’t contact them, if that’s what you think. Why would I? I’m perfectly happy here with you.”
“They’ll see the footage of the building in Springfield, eventually.”
“Cross that bridge when we come to it. Come on.” Steve tugged his hand and Bucky pulled on his boots and jacket, bundled Steve up as best he could against the cool spring air, but he didn’t have a lot of extra clothing yet for Steve. They crunched through the undergrowth for about a klick and then Bucky felt the slide of Steve’s cold, dry skin around his hand, looking down in startled confusion to see his hand clasping Bucky’s reddened knuckles. Keeping his eyes trained forward, Steve smiled and they continued to walk, hand in hand, through the silent woods, as Steve began to paint the picture of Bucky’s old life.
There were some packets of hot cocoa mix Steve beelined for as soon as they returned to the cabin. This felt so normal, so...domestic and cozy, maybe, and he was bewildered at finding himself in this place at all: he’d feared he might have to hurt the impostor, back at the beginning, but instead here he was with the actual Steve Rogers, the little Steve he’d fallen in love with in another life. And he had been in love with Steve, he knew that now with a bone-deep certainty; more than a few nights when he’d been frozen and wet in a foxhole in northern Italy a fantasy of a life just like this one had kept him going.
Bucky sat at the foot of the bed, watching as Steve stirred the two mugs of cocoa; his hands, despite the hot water, were chilled and red as he handed Bucky his cup. He set his aside after a few seconds and wrapped his hands over Steve’s. “Oh!” Steve blurted. “I thought the metal would be cold still.”
“It transfers heat fast.” An awkwardness filled the space between them all of a sudden, this was new in a distinctly discomfiting way. He wanted to kiss Steve with a ferocity that made his insides liquid and wibbly, but if he were to start down that path he would be lost: how could Steve want this thing he’d become?
“It’s nice.” Sipping at his drink, Steve stared at Bucky over the rim of the cup and if he had any idea how incredibly arousing that was Bucky couldn’t tell, but it was definitely working if he did. “You’re nice. You think you aren’t anymore, but you are.”
“I didn’t come get you for altruistic reasons. I was even prepared to take you out.”
All he got was a shrug and an eyeroll in response; the skeptical look on his face meant he assumed Bucky was trying to push him away. No matter what size he was, Steve had always been a little bit smug about how well he could read his Bucky—but this was a version of himself Steve no longer knew, hiding in shadows Steve would never be able to see past.
“You’ve been alone all this time.”
“More or less.”
“In New York, and you never thought to contact the Avengers, to find out about me, even if you thought I’d died.”
“Somehow I didn’t expect them to welcome with open arms the guy who’d murdered their team leader. There was always the imperative, too—couldn’t put myself at risk with the enemy, couldn’t top myself.”
“Well, thank goodness for small favors then, I guess. Jesus, if you’d topped yourself for doing something you didn’t even—” and he looked like he would throw up.
“Tell me about all of it. Tell me your story after the helicarrier.” Steve put his mug down, settled himself into the pillows, and tugged Bucky down so his head was in his lap. Involuntary shudders quaked through him, his body letting go of the anxiety that had been knotted up inside him all this time, and he could feel it streaming through and out of him as Steve grazed fingers along his scalp and stroked his hair.
So he told Steve, about all of it. When Bucky was done Steve was silent for maybe the longest time Bucky could remember; he’d never been good at waiting anyone else out when there was an opinion to be shared, whether you wanted it or not. Bracing for the worst, all Bucky heard him say was, “Do you still want me to finish what I was telling you before?”
“Please,” Bucky breathed, a hunger to know—about himself, about Steve, about everything that had led to Steve standing on a street in D.C. and speaking his name for the first time in seventy years—burning in his chest.
So much of himself—no, the soldier—was merely typewritten pages in a report, but Steve’s voice was soothing for words that had no right to be. Bucky pressed his forehead to Steve’s when he finished, squeezing his hands in gratitude.
“Buck. You can tell me to go to hell if you want, but I don’t know why we’re waiting anymore.” He cupped Bucky’s cheek and lightly touched his lips to Bucky’s. In his astonishment Bucky held back, so Steve pulled away and gave him a look of exasperated fondness before Bucky broke and grabbed him by his bony little shoulders, pulling him so tight he might crush him, kissing him like his life depended on it.
In one swift move he sat up, pulling Steve with him into his lap. Steve locked his arms around Bucky’s neck, grinding down hard on his groin—god, Steve was hard already, he looked and felt like that little terror of a fella he’d fallen head over heels for: as wild for Bucky as he’d ever been, frenetic and greedy and Bucky could scarcely believe this wasn’t another dream of memory that would burst when he opened his eyes.
Sex between guys was...well, it was different these days and Bucky wasn’t entirely certain what to do here, but he looked the question at Steve, who responded with a licentious grin. “Everything’s fine.” It needn’t be complicated, he supposed, they had hands and mouths after all. And Steve wriggled his hips against him, his dick firm against Bucky’s own—lightning sparked along his spine, electrifying him in jagged, sharp shocks, his limbs stupid and slow, brain foggy. Steve kissed as though he owned him, and Bucky supposed he did: he was rough, confident, looming over Bucky as he bit his lower lip, or his chin, or the soft skin of his neck.
Though he’d loved Steve in any form, he’d never thought to touch Steve again when he was small and Bucky gazed up at Steve, tugging his lip as he dragged his thumb across it. “I’m different now from when you were small. I’m bigger, stronger. I don’t want to hurt you.” Steve’s little laugh made him frown, but Steve kissed scorch marks on his skin and he forgot about being cross.
“Let me show you how much you don’t have to worry.” He spit on his hand a few times and teased Bucky’s cock, spreading the come already trickling out, Bucky embarrassedly rutting against his perfect little asscheeks. He’d done that so many times when they were young: fucking Steve’s behind without penetrating him, Bucky whipping him into a frenzy with the friction and his hand expertly jerking Steve’s cock.
Steve’s head was thrown back, his fingernails scratching delectably down Bucky’s chest over and over, fingers pausing occasionally to tweak his nipples until he couldn’t take it anymore: the hyper-raw sensation of his dick slipping in and out of the sweaty line of Steve’s ass and the nails on his chest, his heels digging into Bucky’s thighs as he rode him like a piston, and Bucky didn’t even have the chance to warn him before the sweet tension coiled up through him and Steve laughed joyously as he came.
When the tingling dissipated, he opened his eyes to Steve’s smug face. “I love seeing you like this,” Steve said, mouth hot against Bucky’s ear. The memories rushed at him thick and fast: all the times Steve had looked at him like this, from that tiny shoebox apartment in Brooklyn to a hotel near Euston Station to a tent in Macedonia.
“Let me take care of you.” He lay him carefully across the bed, hands exploring Steve’s soft skin, dipped his tongue to the lovely hollow at his throat and his elbows and his hips, sucked his hard, slick cock inside his mouth.
“Jesus, Buck,” Steve breathed, eyes closed and lashes fanned upon his flushed cheeks, as Bucky worked his cock, remembering all the ways he liked it. “I never thought this would happen again. I never thought...”
“Come down my throat,” Bucky said, letting up just a little before plunging down on Steve’s length again and the gasp and string of filthy words Steve spat above him as he lost it made Bucky laugh even as Steve flooded his mouth. It was exquisite, the salty pink taste of him and the trembling that wracked his body. When Bucky’d finally wrung him dry he pushed Steve on his side and pressed his lips to the cluster of freckles on his hip and said, “This is still my constellation, you know.”
“Not only that. All of me. Every fuckin’ inch of me,” and Steve reached blindly behind him to pet his hair.
They lay like that for a while till Steve turned and shimmied down so they were face to face. “Think that’ll help you sleep?” he asked and snugged his little hips against Bucky’s, tucked his stubbly chin to his neck. “It’s nice to be the little spoon again. Never thought I’d see the day.” He paused. “Wait—do you remember? It seemed like you remembered exactly what I like...uh...a minute ago.” The rosy flush on his face and neck, the scarlet on the tips of his ears, swelled his heart.
“I—yeah, things keep coming back to me. Sometimes it’s like waves, just memory after memory crashing into my mind, sometimes it’s like a burst of light, harsh and awful. Sometimes it’s just a trickle.”
“But you didn’t always know whether they’re real memories or not?”
“Now. I do now.” He wasn’t entirely certain what Steve was casting around for here, but it was something.
“I’m so glad,” Steve said around a yawn, and Bucky laughed—he laughed— and tightened his grip on Steve’s waist until he wiggled himself into place.
It was to his surprise that Bucky awakened to light streaming in the small east-facing window; Steve wasn’t there and he shot up in bed, throwing the covers off, only to see Steve sitting at the radio, an amused “what the hell is with you?” look on his face.
“You were sleeping so peacefully, I didn’t want to wake you.” The radio and laptop were on: Steve had called his friends. It was over. “And before you decide that this is something it’s not, yes, I called in. I wanted them to know I’m all right, that you’re with me and everything’s okay. You called it right—they saw the footage in Virginia and tracked us via CCTV as far as Wilmington. They’ve been doing search grids and sifting through data. If what Tony says is right, they’d have found us within the week, maybe.”
“When will they be here for you?” Well. He’d known there was a date stamp on this thing; it just hadn’t mattered that much when he’d thought this was an impostor.
“Oh, Christ, you nimrod, what the hell? Why would you think—I told them to leave us alone. That I’d update them but that I wanted to stay here with you a while longer.”
Speechless, Bucky stared at Steve for a while, not fully comprehending what he was saying. “But you—you need medicine...you might need a doctor, there’s no telling what that transformation took outta you and.” He swallowed. “You can’t stay this way forever.”
“Says who?” Steve challenged. “Anyway, they got their hands full with all the Hydra shit they’re mopping up.” He flipped the radio off. “They have the coordinates in case of an emergency, but Sam promised that they would keep their distance.”
Steve shook his head—pity at what a dim bulb Bucky was, apparently—came over to him and straddled his lap. So peculiar and comfortable, holding him like this: the familiar way his chest curved inward, the scapula that jutted into the cup of Bucky’s palm, his biteable, skinny neck. How perfectly the globes of his ass filled Bucky’s hands. Steve pressed his mouth to Bucky’s forehead and said, “We’re going to have to go out and get supplies after breakfast, we’ll use up the last of the eggs today. That cast iron pan’s seen better days, but I could probably make pancakes.”
“Sounds great.” Bucky mouthed at his earlobe to distract himself from the thoughts roiling around in his head, all jumbled and black and blue. Why was Steve—why did he want to stay here and tell his friends to keep away?
“Things are so different these days.” A gray, faraway tone in Steve’s voice hit him with blunt memory right in the middle of his ribcage. “There are good treatments for asthma, and vaccines for so much else. It’s not perfect, but...nothing like it was for me back then. And anyway, I feel fine now.”
Stubborn little fuck—he wanted to hide here in this shithole and pretend they could somehow repair the jagged shards of a relationship that had died at the bottom of an Alpine canyon, just because they’d fucked one time? They were not the fresh, inexperienced boys they’d been then. Hell, they weren’t even the lost, lonely men they’d been on that fiery helicarrier nearly two years ago. “What are you saying.”
“I’m saying I want to stay with you. Like this. Even if we knew how to get me back to what I was, I don’t know that I’d want it.”
“Why? War’s over. Haven’t I earned the right to stand down? Didn’t I do my part? I think this happened for a reason, same way I met Dr. Erskine that night at the Expo. This is my shot. Our shot.”
“And hide out in this place, on the run, cut off from everything you care for? If they find out where I am, they’ll kill me. And then they’ll kill you because you’ve got no defense, and they’ll kill all your friends.”
Steve rolled his eyes and glanced around the room. “So it’s not a palace, big deal, we’ve been in worse. Don’t you see? We have the chance to get to know each other again. To just...be us. I would love to help you get more of your memories back. And then we’ll figure out where to go after that.”
Though he opened his mouth, the words refused to come out, and Bucky shook his head and blinked. “What does your team do without you? You’re their leader. You’re Captain America.” And yet...somehow it was like being lifted up by warm hands into the light, and he could almost fly—the sun was right there, so close he could touch it.
“There are others capable of picking up the shield. Sam. You, if it comes to that.” Bucky scoffed. “I mean it. We could live at the tower, you could wear the uniform, I don’t know—there are possibilities, that’s what I’m saying. Just because I don’t have the serum doesn’t mean I can’t be the TOC. Imagine what a team we could be.”
“Yeah, you’d love to order me around again.” Rash decisions were Steve’s MO, and maybe he didn’t remember everything, but Bucky was pretty sure his own history was marked by some equally questionable decision-making. “Let’s think about it, okay? Right now we should eat. You’re still not up to speed.”
It wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a false memory: this was absolutely, unequivocally Steve inside the safety of his arms, the planes and angles and sharp edges of him, the intricate equation Bucky had spent his lifetime trying to solve.
They were used to making things work with spit and baling wire or sheer force of will, whether in their little apartment in Vinegar Hill or out in the mud of the Po River or— “Hey, remember when we were trying to cook that stringy old chicken on a hot plate in Holland?” Watching him move around the kitchen was a treat Bucky’d never thought to taste again, he seemed surprisingly comfortable in this body, as if he hadn’t spent all those years in a sturdier one.
Bucky didn’t recall Holland; he searched his memory. “Was that the minister’s house, we were quartered up in the top-floor rooms? You couldn’t even stand up all the way because the ceiling was too low.”
“Yeah,” Steve said with that gilded smile that made Bucky’s stomach flutter. “And you were drunk as a lord and Gabe kept trying to shout instructions up at us from downstairs, but then they passed out waiting for us to actually finish it. They didn’t know we’d stopped because we were...” He trailed off, his cheeks pinking up.
“Fucking.” Steve switched the burner off and turned to him, pushing his sweatshirt up his chest, leaning forward to kiss the spot above his heart. “The food’ll get cold,” Bucky said with absolutely no conviction, the stutter and slip of his heartbeat shutting off his breath.
With a flourish, Steve yanked his sweatpants down, grinning and waggling his brows, tugged his shirt off as Bucky did the same. Bucky grabbed Steve’s ass and pulled him up, light as air, getting his back up against the wall and pushing his hips out so Steve could wrap his legs around his waist. Jesus, his cock was already filling, bumping against Bucky’s stomach as he teased his tongue into Bucky’s mouth, soft wet noises from their joined mouths and beneath that, Steve’s jittering, thrilled pulse.
He weighed nothing at all but Bucky’s legs trembled all the same; he gasped as Steve pushed down his sweats, freeing his cock, and at the delicious scrape of Steve’s fingernails over his nipples. Holding him like this—he was drowning in Steve, the excitement of their cocks together, the moist heat of his breath and the way he rode with Bucky, pulling him up and down, up and down. They came almost together, Steve’s mouth open against his jaw and teeth pressing into Bucky’s skin, the hot, musky taste of his shoulder under Bucky’s tongue.
When they were done Bucky lowered him to the bed, massaging his legs, and Steve murmured, “Come on, Buck, say yes. I want to stay like this always, just us. Alone together...alone...”
“...we’re not alone,” one of the Strike team was saying; their names were meaningless but he thought it was the leader. The Soldier hadn’t worked with them before; he’d had few missions since his acquisition by Alexander Pierce. “Not anymore, anyway.” He flicked his eyes up to the television screen showing the chaotic scene in New York, the camera jerked and bobbled trying to get a shot of the aliens and the squad attempting to fight them off.
After a few minutes of watching the shaking, jerking scene, the Soldier turned his attention back to his weapons. Maybe mission prep was unnecessary; his quarry was in Manhattan and it would probably be a long time before anyone was allowed back in the city, assuming there was a way to push back the aliens.
Aliens. Something glimmered briefly in the back of his mind, a book or a magazine cover with strange-looking creatures on it—maybe it was a film. The technicians and the Strike crew watched films all the time, he thought. But had he ever done that? It brought with it a familiar, piquant taste in the back of his mouth, a jab of conviction that this must mean something. None of this alarmed him when everyone else was tense with anxiety. Shouldn’t he feel...fear? One of the team startled him when he barked out a laugh and turned to him, asking, “Didja ever think you’d see the like? How old are you now?”
The Soldier gave him his full attention, glancing up into pale brown eyes the color of dried desert mud, and blinked. Old—he knew he was old, knew he’d been in and out of the world for years, a tool pulled out of box when he was needed, tucked carefully away in between, sometimes for years. Before he could consider what to say—he couldn’t remember the last time someone spoke to him so casually—Pierce entered the room and the air changed.
They all turned their attention back to the screen—they weren’t supposed to talk to the Soldier off-mission—and he returned to his weapons, running his knife over the whetstone in a calming rhythm. This was anomalous, and he didn’t like it: he’d never been activated and given his mission and then simply sat there while a catastrophe interrupted his work, events Hydra wasn’t in control of.
“...not the only aliens, apparently,” Pierce was saying to...Rumlow. That was his name, he thought, and he tried to shut their discussion out but the words kept filtering through, burrowing inside his brain through his ears, bringing with them a clanging noise and echoing as though down a long dark hall. “The big one...an alien too...his brother...the Tesseract...what Schmidt was using for...” When the Soldier looked down at his hands they trembled a little; nothing he couldn’t hide from them but it disturbed him.
“Are you kidding? Freaking Captain America! He’s alive?” one of them shouted and the Soldier jumped, eyes scanning the room they were set up in. For a tense moment Pierce cast his eyes over to the Soldier; he stared back, waiting for some sign of what Pierce wanted him to do, and then Pierce went back to watching the television.
Found in the ice near Greenland. Frozen seventy years. Johann Schmidt, Hydra’s creator. It all sounded so—he knew this. A briefing? A mission he’d had once? “Captain Steve Rogers,” Pierce said, and the rest of his words were drowned out by the clanging and the blood pounding in his ears. He stood to watch the television: a man in a blue uniform with red stripes—an American flag—was using a round red, white, and blue shield with a star in the center to fight off at least five alien creatures.
Something sharp and serrated cut underneath his breastbone; the room tilted. Swallowing hard, the Soldier gathered his gear and headed to the anteroom where his cot was and he sat at the edge of it, staring down at his hands, flexed the metal weapon arm back and forth. It wasn’t the alien invasion causing the thunder in his chest, it was that shield; even without sound he could hear the metallic clang reverberating, knew its cool, smooth surface.
After a time he heard Pierce, on his way out. He was standing there, squinting at the Soldier with—contempt, he thought. Yes, contempt; he was different from Karpov, his version of Hydra was a world apart. “The briefing’s changed. We won’t have access to the target for some time now, there are new pieces on the board.” He nodded his understanding. There was a memory—he shouldn’t have it, he shouldn’t, but that twinge of regret and confusion was familiar. The recognition of a voice and a name, his target, looking up at him just before he delivered the coup de grace. Calling him Sergeant Barnes. But it couldn’t be true, he’d always been the Soldier, the Asset; why would he have known the face of a target? As Pierce left he heard him say to Rumlow, “Put him back in cryo, but keep him in storage here. I don’t want him more than an hour’s drive away.”
Yes, good. The darkness of cryo was preferable to this ache inside, the flashing, too-bright pictures puncturing his brain. That shield, that uniform, that name: like the chair, like body blows, like losing an arm. Cryo would ease him into the black of sleep, stop this sour litany of what he had forgotten, forgotten...
...remembered—he remembered more and more each day now, Steve didn’t even have to prompt him, it was wonderful, and terrible. Gauzy pictures with a sweet ache of fondness: playing ball with Steve or brushing his little sister’s hair would transpose with brutal red flashes of his hand wrapped around a dying woman’s neck, squeezing the last strands of life from her.
Steve, because he’d never met a plight he couldn’t try to fix, encouraged Bucky to talk about it all, as if he could absolve him of his sins; his own little father confessor. They walked for hours in the woods, gave the little bed a workout, made trips into different towns for what they needed to live on; it brought back the leanest years of the Depression, when they’d had to make do with so little but it had been more than enough because he had Steve. When Bucky showed him the cash he’d take from Hydra in the early days of his escape, Steve had whistled and said, “I was planning to have them wire me something, but I think we’re set for a very long time.” He’d never wanted to spend much of it, even if it would have given him a better standard of living—it was blood money, he thought.
“We should revisit that,” Bucky had said that day. “How long we’re going to be able to pretend that this is our life.”
“Right now, this is all we need.” Steve had sighed, wistful and affectionate, and rubbed his fingers across Bucky’s knuckles. “You told me once you loved me, that I was your life and you’d be happy to follow me wherever I went. If you meant that then, why not now?”
“It ain’t got nothing to do with that. It’s just... You could get sick, you could die. The serum, it gave you everything you wanted. Don’t throw that away.”
With an adamant shake of his head, Steve had insisted, “It didn’t give me everything. It couldn’t. I was lost without you, Buck. I woke up and I wished every day that I hadn’t. The only thing I really want is right here,” and that had been the end of it because getting Steve to change his mind was like trying to stuff a bullet back up the barrel of a gun once it’d been fired.
Bucky began to think about enlisting Steve’s friends—Steve continued to check in with them from time to time, and Bucky theorized they might have more sway with him since he wasn’t quite as emotionally invested; he seemed particularly close to Romanov and Wilson and they were both pragmatic people, from everything Steve had said.
This modern-day Stark was as gifted as his father; he’d sent them a program that masked their communication, but Steve used it less and less frequently because each time he called in, one of them would ask when he was coming home.
They were curled in front of the small fireplace one night, watching a late snow half-heartedly flurry outside the lone window, when Steve said against his shoulder, “You really don’t want me to do this, do you? Stay like this.”
“Just worry, is all.” His fingers drew lazy pictures on Bucky’s belly, up across his chest. “I mean, if you’ve thought about it all this time—giving it up... If you could do it all over again, would you? Do you regret it—meeting Erskine, and Rebirth?” Before Bucky had plummeted to his death, before Steve had followed suit, the answer would have been obvious.
“There were times when I woke up that I did, yeah. But it was a gift, I know that. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able find you and you might have died, and I’d have had to try to live out my short life alone. To never know what it was like to make a difference in the world.” He cast his eyes over to the shield resting in the corner, the firelight glinting off its surface. “But it’s so different now. In the war, we knew it would end, we’d get to go home, and maybe that was naive but we thought once we finished Hydra, it’d be over. This is...this is a fight that will never end. There’s always gonna be some disaster, someone trying to take over the world. I can still serve in some way even in this shape—but I think I’m ready to stop fighting. I’m ready to take the world off my shoulders.”
Bucky remained silent—what was there to say? It might end up being moot anyway, if his Avengers geniuses weren’t able to figure out how Hydra’d reversed the serum. They’d spent all these decades trying to make more supersoldiers like Steve and all they’d been able to come up with was this terrible mock version of himself, the nightmare variations they’d concocted in Project X; figuring out how to get Steve back to what he was before could very well be impossible.
Steve surged up and straddled Bucky’s hips, put his hands on his shoulders and leaned down to kiss him, asking the same question with his eyes that Bucky had just asked. The one thing constant in his memories was Steve: the parts before Steve and after him were still blurry, water-stained images. “I don’t know,” Bucky whispered, because he couldn’t bear to tell Steve that he wouldn’t. Steve bent to him with rich, sweet kisses that played silvery notes up Bucky’s spine, a blessing he didn’t think he’d earned.
For a while they avoided the topic; they were—happy might be the wrong word for someone like him, but it was as close as he could come. Bucky was cooking breakfast as Steve made one of his check-ins with the team—there was no response from Sam, so he tried Natasha. When she didn’t respond, the hair began to rise on the back of his neck and he glanced over to find Steve’s face creased with worry. He sighed and opened up the window for the subchannel with Stark—Steve usually had to mentally gear up for that because Stark drove him mad sometimes—but when that line stayed silent, the sharp rise and fall of Steve’s chest meant the panic was rising. “Let me,” Bucky said and took the computer from Steve, began running through all the routines Steve didn’t know about. Banner was still in California, but he checked with Barton and there was no response, no Hill, either—none of Steve’s team in New York.
“Even if they were on an op, they’d answer their comms,” Steve said softly. Something pinged on a channel he didn’t even know about and Steve asked, “What is it?” when Bucky’s head shot up.
“The AI that controls the tower, lemme see.” The message was encoded but Steve seemed to know how to read it, he grabbed the small sketchbook he’d bought the other day and a pencil, ran the letters. “Manhattan was attacked, midtown, it sounds like. Some creature—I’d bet this is AIM—no, creatures, a bunch of them in the train tunnels, maybe the sewers. Tony was separated from his armor and he’s injured, they’ve been cut off, all of midtown is shut down. Message ends there. If JARVIS had been rendered inoperative, I don’t know how—find a news feed.”
Bucky brought up video and they found grainy, jittery footage of Thor trying to hold off a number of what reminded him of the World War II Hydra shock troops. At least three of the large creatures were coming after him, great rampaging things like out of a Flash Gordon movie. The lower third crawl claimed Thor’s lightning and Iron Man’s repulsor blasts had only enhanced their power; the god was taking quite a licking. That was interrupted by a message from Hydra/AIM: a shot of the unenhanced humans on Steve’s team, trapped behind some kind of shimmering, undulating wall, in various states of injury.
“Fuck,” Steve whispered. “They must have been waiting, known the Hulk was gone. They certainly knew I was gone. They let those creatures loose, and led the Hydra troops in after they lured the Avengers into the sublevels. If Tony’s without his armor, it’s just...four humans, unable to do anything to save themselves.” His face was dull, guilty, and Bucky reached out to him, squeezing his arm. “Do you remember when Strucker’s scientists came up with those horrible zombie vampire whatever-the-hell-they-were things? We were so badly overrun, trying to save half of Romania, and they swept in and...”
His mind was an unraveling tapestry of memories, he tried to find the picture...and then he remembered: they’d been lured to and trapped in an ancient Carpathian castle, the keep full of snarling, slavering undead creatures. Eventually the Howlies had been saved by partisans who led them through dark, dripping, moss-covered tunnels out to safety—happy to save Captain America so he could save them in turn.
“Where will they be? Can you communicate with them if we get in there?”
“I can think of two places, but one’s a lot more likely. I don’t know, but there should be ways to get JARVIS back online.”
So it was down to him. “Ingress? Anywhere near their twenty.”
“Two access points that no one else knows about. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think I do know where the Avengers are. How much good that’ll do...if we can get to Thor, though.”
Bucky considered for a moment, and got up to start pulling things together. “Give me a map with everything on it. Everything you can tell me about your friends.”
“We’re going together. I’ll show you on the way.” Steve’s chin jutted out and his nostrils flared. Oh, they did not have time for this fuckery.
“Not a chance.”
“Daylight’s fucking burning, we gotta go now.” Steve was already stuffing his shield and tablet into the duffel and powering down the laptop.
“Stop. This is exactly what they want: for you to rush in all heroic to save your team and then you’re their lab rat once more—and that’s best case scenario, because you don’t know what kind of shit they could have cooked up after I found you. You’re no good—”
“Don’t you fucking dare.”
Squeezing his eyes shut, Bucky drew a heavy breath. This was exactly like eighty years ago—Steve defiantly escalating a situation by refusing to acknowledge his limitations, and Bucky always the schmuck who ran after him, ready to bleed at his side. Wasn’t this just fucking grand. But he knew when he was beat. “Fine. Get in the goddamn car.” They silently loaded up and Bucky headed for main highway south.
After driving for a while, Steve muttered darkly, “Jesus, it’ll take hours to get there. I don’t know if Thor can hold them off for that long. All those people will be trying to evacuate...”
“It won’t take hours. Not in the helo we’re gonna steal.” He skimmed his eyes over toward Steve, who had a sheepheaded grin on his face, the kind that made Bucky believe maybe there was good in the world after all.
“Gosh, my boyfriend is swell.” Eyes back on the road ahead, Bucky smiled. In the weeks they’d been together, he’d seen that gentle, soft part of Steve come alive again, a part he hadn’t witnessed since Pearl Harbor. But now Bucky was watching that darker part of Steve he’d hoped to put away—the knight crusader, the fighter—rise up, and it terrified Bucky and made him love Steve all the more, the unsolvable bind he’d been in since they were kids.
Tourist helicopters were a different animal than he was used to flying, but Bucky figured it out quickly enough and once they were airborne, he could relax a little, enough to focus on plans to rescue Thor and the rest of the Avengers. Bucky figured the city would be busy enough they could risk landing at one of the heliports, use one of Steve’s hidden ingress points to get them where they could access comms and then communicate with the building, and from there, Thor. Though the city was in chaos, his plan worked fine.
In action, Steve was just as amazing as he’d been when he was a hundred pounds heavier and half a foot taller and leading the Howling Commandos: he was completely confident he knew exactly what he was doing, every step of the way, never faltering, never showing fear, never hesitating in his decisions as he led Bucky down into the sub-sub-levels beneath Stark’s ridiculous building.
“What the hell is this place?” Bucky asked, scanning the bunkerlike concrete walls; it reminded him eerily of the Siberia location they’d kept him in for a couple decades.
“It’s...a Hulk- and Thor-proof training area, basically. We run simulations, train, work out, that sort of thing.” His mouth twisted in a smirk. “You’d like it—one floor’s got an amazing gun range.”
Following the snaking tunnels led them toward the linked access to the subway lines; as they headed into one of the old spurs that had been abandoned there was a sudden swirling of air crackling with electricity: Thor appeared in front of them, frowning at Steve but acting as if he wasn’t the least bit surprised they’d shown up. “I don’t like leaving citizens unprotected on the surface, Captain—they are overrun, but you’re right, we must free our teammates.” Bucky blinked. Having seen Thor on the television and in the papers was one thing, seeing him in person was quite another and he had no idea what to say. Thor peered at Steve, eyes wide, and grinned. “They did not exaggerate: you are quite tiny!”
The concrete dust must have been stirred up by his arrival; Steve was trying to flip Thor off when he began sucking in air with that terrible, wet sound Bucky remembered all too well, crouched over, clutching at his chest with his free hand. Bucky shouted “oh shit!” and ran to his side. “Slow breaths, in through your nose and out your mouth,” he said, rubbing Steve’s back. “Tell me you brought that fucking inhaler.” Waving a hand at his jacket pocket, Steve tried to stand up but he was skewed sideways, off kilter, green around the gills. “That’s it, slow, slow,” Bucky soothed as he dug out the inhaler and uncapped it, shoving it into Steve’s hand. It took him a few minutes to control the spasms, and by then Thor was a ways ahead, motioning for them to hurry up.
They found Iron Man’s armor not fifty meters from where Thor had joined them—at least some of it. “Shit,” Steve moaned, casting a glance at Thor, who toed at what looked like the torso portion. A spatter of blood decorated one of the walls, but before Steve could react, Bucky clasped his arm and said, “It’s not enough to worry about. I don’t think they took him out of his armor, I think it was stopped before it got to him,” and he jerked his head toward the pockmarks on the pieces of the suit.
They were coming into one of the actual subway lines now, dank and smelly; there had clearly been some fighting down here. “How would they—” Steve began and then startled. Bucky followed his line of sight, as did Thor: far down the tunnel shone an ethereal, glowing red light; Bucky motioned for Steve to get behind him, Thor to his left.
The light was something like a force field: a wall of energy that hummed and throbbed. Steve’s team were splayed out like rag dolls inside it, dragging in desperate, shallow breaths as they slowly suffocated. Stark was the most obviously wounded; he appeared to be unconscious, and seeing him for the first time in real life gave Bucky a jolt: he looked like his father in a surprising way, unmistakable even in his unconscious state. Bucky swallowed, staring bleakly at him.
“How do we break this, JARVIS?” Steve asked, pressing his fingers to his ear, as Thor hit it with lightning. All that did was make it hum even louder, though it got Wilson’s attention and he lifted his head just as Thor unsuccessfully tried to whack it down with the hammer. Using hand signals, Wilson was trying to tell Steve something when Thor must have spotted one of the big creatures out of the corner of his eye because he wheeled around to fight it.
Something about all of this felt weirdly familiar, but Bucky’d been swimming in half-formed, mysterious memories for weeks now and he couldn’t put his finger on what it meant. He reached out to touch the shimmering wall; it was spongy but solid, humming louder when he put metal fingers to it. It came to Bucky as the AI and Steve were consulting: he’d seen something like this in those early days when they were still keeping him around, unfrozen, running all sorts of experiments in the labs, still assessing how he was supposed to work. This was a containment field they’d tried out on him once, back when there were still enough scraps of the old Bucky that he had to be contained.
“It’s a sound—a—a frequency,” Bucky said, and behind Steve he saw Thor bring the creature down with his hammer, grin, and flip the hammer up in the air. That was...wild. This really was about getting the Winter Soldier back, and Captain America, the Avengers truly were just bait. As Bucky explained, Steve rapidly relayed it to JARVIS, then he pulled his earpiece out and held it toward the wall of light. The curtain vibrated, expanded and contracted, and abruptly blew outward with ground-shaking force. Bucky threw his arm up in front of Steve at the same time Steve pulled his shield up, but it wasn’t enough; he simply didn’t have the strength to hold that shield against the shockwave. He sailed backward into Thor who, thankfully, caught him, and the shield flew off to the side, rolling on its edge till it was stopped by the creature’s body.
Maybe it was callous not to help the others, but he rushed to Steve’s side; he was wide-eyed and panting, shaking his head to clear it. Marks were already sprouting up where the edge of the shield had bitten into the side of his neck. Thor held him up so Bucky could check him out, and he tried not to betray his fear with his trembling hands. “Got my bell rung,” Steve said, followed by an attempt at laughter that didn’t quite squeak its way out.
The Avengers were gasping and clawing for air, but they were alive. As they struggled to their feet, Barton and Wilson carefully raised Stark up. Romanov slapped Stark’s face lightly; you could see where the blood had come from—he had quite the gash on his head, but he came around, blinking as Thor and Steve rushed to them.
“Holy shit! Look at how tiny you are!” Stark said, eyes wide, and as terrible as Steve obviously felt, he glared hotly at him.
“We must return to the surface,” Thor said. “This may have been a ruse, but our foes are still out there. Those of you who can fight should come with me.”
“Your armor...” Bucky said, and they all looked at him. This was not how he’d wanted to meet them. “There were pieces of it back there.”
“Please, like I don’t have backups.” Stark scanned Bucky, up and down. “So this is the hotass Russian assassin boyfriend you threw us all over for. In the flesh.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Romanov groaned, eyes up toward the ceiling. “Steve, what can you do in that form?”
Steve, praise the lord, didn’t bristle at her question. “Get me somewhere I can see the action. I can call the plays from there—you guys get out there and fight.” He threw the last part in Bucky’s direction.
If they wanted to balk, they didn’t show it, and next thing he knew Stark’s back-up armor was flying toward him and the Avengers were mostly assembling. They led him up top; on comms Steve asked him what his best position would be, sniper or ground fighting, and he looked at the team. They had two flyers, another marksman, an expert assassin, and a one-man wrecking crew with Thor. “Put me on the ground first, once we start getting things cleared I’ll get up high.” He was pretty sure he could hear Steve grinning. It was not an easy fight, not by a long shot, but it felt good, too: Steve was still brilliant as a tactical commander, even off the field, and they were working together again with a team. They kept Bucky well guarded—Hydra was not getting its hands on him again, not this time. Within a few hours, they’d contained the human combatants and eliminated the creatures.
As Romanov and Barton passed by him with a group of Hydra prisoners, he recognized a face: one of the last techs who’d worked on him, who’d worked for Pierce. Bucky stalked toward him and hauled him back, shoved him down on his knees in the rubble of the street. The guy stared insolently at him for a moment before turning his attention away, like Bucky wasn’t even worth it. His heart rate shot up, he couldn’t breathe for the rage pounding in his chest, and he shoved the gun to the tech’s temple and demanded, “Look at me, you fucker.” All of their faces flickered in and out as he stared down: the woman who’d put him in the chair, Pierce, Zola, all the techs, Karpov, the Strike team. Everyone who’d had a hand in his unmaking. His hand shook as he slid his finger over the trigger, and then he heard Steve’s voice.
“Buck. Don’t do it, not like this.” How had he gotten down here so fast? It didn’t matter—this was what Bucky was made for, after all. “Don’t just flat out execute him. Please, Bucky, just give me the gun.”
He scraped his eyes up to Steve, who stood there helplessly, his hands out. “They’re just gonna keep coming for us. I have to stop it. It’s what they deserve.”
“I know, but this isn’t the way to do it. Come on, just give me the gun.” Bucky pressed it harder to the guy’s head and he listed sideways, still not looking at Bucky. “This isn’t who you are.”
“This is exactly who I am.” He squeezed his aching head with his metal hand, his eyes stung and his throat was on fire. “I used to be a person, I had a future. I had a family, I was a son and a brother and a friend. And now I’m just—I’m just this!”
“You’re still all of those things, and more. You’re the guy who rescued me when you didn’t even believe it was me. You still have a life, with me, with us.” Behind Steve, Wilson was watching with concern. Steve stepped forward and put his hands over the gun, gently tugging it out of Bucky’s hand. Then he reached up and wiped the wetness from Bucky’s eyes, smiling his sweet sad smile. “You’re the most amazing man I’ve ever known. To come through what you’ve come through and still be here—god, Buck, you’re a good person. Believe that—you have to believe that.”
He let Steve wrap his arms around him and press his cheek to Bucky's chest, holding him as Wilson waited quietly for them to have their moment.
Tugging on Bucky’s hand, Steve said, “Now come on. They’re waiting for us.” The three of them walked slowly back to the building, where everyone regrouped in the lobby; Steve was smiling stupidly, beaming at Bucky. No one said a word about his outburst, a kindness he didn’t deserve.
“They got a real hard-on for you two,” Barton commented when they were all together, “don’t they. I do not like playing the tethered goat.”
Steve’s apology was as phony as a three-dollar bill.
“Guess now we have to figure out if they know how to make you a real boy again,” Stark said, smirking at Steve. “I mean, maybe Bruce and I can figure it out once he gets his useless green ass back here, but if they could deserum you, I figure someone has an idea of how to reserum you. Let’s stick ’em in a room alone with Natasha for a few hours.”
The smile she flashed Stark was positively cat that got the cream.
“I don’t know. They’ve been trying for decades and all they got was the Hulk,” Steve offered, completely ignoring the fact that they also got the Winter Soldier. “I’m...I’ve come to terms with this.” He cast a glance at Bucky. “I would actually prefer to stay this way. I know that’s probably shocking to you, but it’s what I want. Someone else can carry the shield—you saw what happened to me down there, I don’t have the physical strength anymore. But I can still play a part, I can and I want to. Just...I want to play a part like this.”
Bucky waited for them to attempt to talk him out of it; he thought they must want to, judging by their skeptically raised brows. No one did.
“There’s a lot to do right now, Rogers. We can talk about it later,” Romanov said; Bucky caught the pointed way they looked at each other, an unspoken understanding that made Bucky’s heart ease. Even without him, Steve had found friendship again in this century and he was so glad of it.
“So you two...” Stark arched an eyebrow, struggling to contain the corner of his mouth as it threatened to tug up in another smirk. He glanced from Steve to Bucky and back again. “Huh.” He clomped to the doors and then soared off.
“What was that all about?” Bucky asked, cupping the side of Steve’s face.
“He’s been referring to you as my boyfriend for a while now as a joke. I think he just figured out the story he’d written in his head was true.”
“Hmm.” Rubbing his thumb along Steve’s lower lip, Bucky said, “Before, when we were talking about you staying small...” He sighed, digging around to find the words he needed to say. “You wouldn’t ask me the same question I asked you, about whether you’d do it all again. I think you assumed I would say no—I wouldn’t make the same decisions again, knowing what happened.”
His eyes were tender, glittering with the fragments of hope and grief, as he looked up at Bucky. Standing there before, struggling not to execute the tech had made it all clear for him, now.
“But this—I would, Steve. I would make all those decisions again. If I’d said no when you asked if I would follow you, sure, I wouldn’t have fallen. But they wouldn’t have given me more of that serum, I wouldn’t have survived long enough to find you again. You would have woken up—but no me. You said you were miserable without me, and I was miserable this past year when I thought you were dead—we don’t seem to do very well without each other.”
Steve smiled so brilliantly he could put the sun to shame. “No, I guess we don’t.”
“And yeah, there was seventy years of torture and death, and I don’t know how I’m gonna live with all the things I’ve done. I’m a mess and I’m dangerous, but as terrible as it was, even in the war, there was joy, wasn’t there, and moments of grace? There still can be, can’t there?”
The press of Steve’s lips to the back of Bucky’s real hand, the glimmer in his eyes undid Bucky. “Yeah, Buck. Thousands of them, we’ll have thousands of them before we’re done.” That was it, wasn’t it—before they were done? When he’d begun remembering, his life had unfolded like a partially written book, each chapter unfinished, beckoning in its mystery.
“Listen to me. I’ll back your play if you wanna stay this way and stop fighting, you know that. All I want is for you to be happy. But the things that were done to us—we’re both probably going to live a lot longer than the average person, and without the serum, you won’t...be there at the end with me.” He pressed his fingers to his eyes.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Steve said, so quietly Bucky almost couldn’t hear him. “I hadn’t thought of that at all.” The shift and slide of his face, the doubt in his eyes—this changed everything for him; he was searching back through the years together, forward to the future they hadn’t lived yet. “It’s not even a life, without you.”
“We’re better together. Those long and better days ahead, right?” They could tell a new story, write it together, not a fiction but a plan.
His face softened at Bucky remembering that, and he said, “Yeah, long and better days. God, I’m such an idiot sometimes. I just wanted to stop for a while, but...I hadn’t thought. ” What wouldn’t Steve do for him, or he for Steve?
“I know. We’ll figure it out, it’ll work out. Got a lot of time ahead of us, a lot of chances to make new choices.”
There was a set to Steve’s jaw, an arc of his brows—Steve wasn’t going to wait for anything to work out, he was going to make it happen, but in the meantime, they could enjoy this for what it was. Bucky put his hand to the side of Steve’s face, rubbed his thumb along that ruby lip.
All these lives he’d lived, connected like the individual strands of a spider’s web: Son. Brother. Soldier. Lover. Friend. Killer. Victim. Now maybe a redeemer, an avenger. And Steve a constant, the thread woven through all of them. Those lives I lived for someone else, Bucky thought as he searched Steve’s gleaming eyes. This one’s mine.