Ghost Story
Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at

Archive Warning:
Choose Not To Use Archive Warnings
F/M, M/M, Multi
Captain America (Movies), Marvel Cinematic Universe
James "Bucky" Barnes/Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter/Steve Rogers, James "Bucky" Barnes/Peggy Carter/Steve Rogers, Steve Rogers/Natasha Romanov, James "Bucky" Barnes/Natasha Romanov, James "Bucky" Barnes/Steve Rogers/Natasha Romanov
Additional Tags:
part one of two, did you hear me? don't yell at me!, also it's called Ghost Story so, you know, it's not called "Birthday Party!" if you see what I mean, ingredients include war death longing and people who are shades of their former selves, also snark, and judginess, so much judginess, prepare to have your bathroom insulted, happy 100th birthday Steve Rogers, you are so brave and quiet I forget you are suffering, Intermezzo posted, so many ghosts, so much Winterwidow you guys, also much Romanogers, I'll see you right tho, four of four posted, all complete
Published: 2018-07-04 Completed: 2022-06-18 Chapters: 4/4 Words: 53683

Ghost Story


The realization dawned on him, irritating as fuck. “You’re not here,” Bucky said, stabbing a finger at Steve. “Fuck you, you’re not real.”

Steve tilted his head and gave him a truculent one-eyed stare. “Well, maybe not. So what?”


Thanks endlessly to Lim who is more or less my second brain where writing is concerned; thanks also to Monicawoe for encouraging my tendency to supernatural craziness and to Alby for her perfect balance of squeeful voice and critical eye: also for showing me new angles of my story through her exquisite art.

Edited to add: This is a three part story: Part I is up, the Intermezzo just went up, and Part II is finally on its way for them's who cares. Otherwise, you know, there's always the next thing. :D

Edited again to add: Story finally complete! :D Check additional tags and more comments at the end of story.

Chapter 1


The shelling didn’t stop for three days.  Bucky clawed out some dirt from the bottom of the foxhole with his fingers and curled up tight in the dugout he’d made, clutching his rifle to his chest with his filthy hands. His mouth was flooded with the taste of metal and bile, and his tingling face felt blurry, like his bones were dissolving, softening beneath his skin. His empty stomach churned acid—he’d thrown up all the pink mush that passed for rations—but he still managed a cigarette every now and then, when his hands felt steady enough to light the match.

The blasts were shaking his head apart from the inside—little chips of bone flying around his skull and cutting into his brain—when Steve said, "Buck, come on: we’re not going to win the war from down here."  Bucky opened his eyes and yeah, that was Steve, all right: all ninety-eight pounds of him, crouched down in the foxhole wearing green fatigues and a helmet that was three sizes too big. He was carrying an M-1 carbine and—Jesus Christ, had they actually sent the little punk over here to fight?  Bucky stared up at him, equal parts horrified and dismayed and—

There was a shrieking whistle among the explosions and—fuck, this was gonna be close! He shoved Steve down into the dirt as the shell exploded, rattling his teeth in their sockets and sending a cascade of white-hot shrapnel and rocks and mud and blood and worse raining down over them. Steve ducked below him into the muck, covering his head with his skinny arms, but when he lifted up again, he was….  Something was…. Bucky frowned.

Steve’s fatigues were wrinkled but they were clean. Impossibly clean.

The realization dawned on him, irritating as fuck. "You’re not here," Bucky said, stabbing a finger at Steve. "Fuck you, you’re not real."

Steve tilted his head and gave him a truculent one-eyed stare. "Well, maybe not. So what?"

"So what?" Bucky repeated, incredulously. "So everything. Fuck me, I've fallen out of my fucking tree—" and there was a shout, a hubbub, and Dum Dum came scrambling low over the ripped-up ground and fell into the foxhole beside them, panting and clutching his hat to his head, binoculars swinging from his neck. "Barnes!" Dum Dum shouted, and then he went on, incoherently: "Jesus fuck, you’ve got a shot!  A clear—I’ve been watching those motherfuckers and—you— I can’t but you—hurry!" and Dum Dum grabbed his arm, tugging him up—Christ—toward the top of the foxhole. The world swam in Bucky’s vision and his stomach clenched with terror. He wanted to lash out, break Dum Dum’s fucking neck: because that sonovabitch bastard was trying to get him killed.

And then Steve said, all calm, like they were taking a nice stroll together up Second Avenue and not sitting in a fucking frozen shithole, "You can do it, Buck. He can’t make that shot but you can,"—which was bullshit, because his heart had constricted to a pinprick, he was a dead man, no blood pumping: choking, and he couldn’t stop his hands shaking, and he couldn’t see, and he’d fucking pissed his pants—and so whatever talent he might have shown as a marksman back in the nice safe training camp in Wisconsin was completely irrelevant to this situation in his fucking opinion.

But Steve was looking at him with the stubborn confidence of a guy who’d tried to enlist in the goddamned army no fewer than five times, convinced that if they only took a really good look at him, they’d see how valuable he could be to their fucking operation. The balls.  And now here he was—if he was here at all, which he wasn’t.

"Barnes!" Dum Dum was shouting, field glasses raised to his eyes. "Gunner! 11 o’clock!"

Steve’s blue eyes burned into him.  "You can do it," Steve repeated, sincere and quiet, and suddenly it was like all the tremoring went out of him. His hands stilled.  He lifted the gun.

"Attaboy," Steve said softly, as Bucky laid the long rifle over the dirt lip of the foxhole. He stared through the scope, and it was as if someone turned down the sound of the shelling as easy as you’d turn down the radio. He could see now what Dum Dum was so worked up about. The Krauts were shifting positions, moving their artillery forward—but that meant having to disassemble and reassemble the barrels, baseplates, and bi-pods, and the Kraut mortar squads were struggling—those Nebelwerfers were heavy motherfuckers—bent over and grunting, heaving.

Their backs made perfect targets. Bucky breathed in and out, watching them. He felt very calm.

"Barnes," Dum Dum gritted out, agitated, pressing him to fire—but Bucky ignored him and just breathed in and out, waiting for the wind—and when he fired, he fired not once, but five times, hitting not just the gunner but the whole unit: squad leader, ammo bearer, everyone. Blam blam blam blam blam—and then he felt Steve’s hand on his shoulder, the murmur of the little punk’s voice in his ear, "There’s gotta be at least three more units, to support fire and movement" and of course Steve knew about all about tactical combat formations. Bucky himself had lugged back all those heavy goddamned books like a swain making up to a girl:  An Introduction to Military History, The Machinery of War, Heroes of the Western Front, On War, War and Your Fucking Mother—Steve was a nut on the subject. Bucky nodded wordlessly at Steve and, tracking left, spotted a movement so faint that…

"Right. That’s right," Steve whispered, and Bucky squinted and pulled the trigger.


His eyes burned with noise.  Everything was wrong, and he had a constant, queer, listing feeling, like the first time he’d been on a boat: the floor wasn't supposed to move like that.  Everything since he'd opened his eyes was a lie, and they’d tried to fool him by putting an old ball game on the radio, without understanding that—he hardly had words for it.  That the entire proportion of the room was wrong, for one thing: too big for one person, and the ceiling too low, pushing down on him. That the very color of the light was off, making the world feel like an alien planet.  The first time someone showed him to the toilet he burst out laughing: helplessly, choking it back so they wouldn’t hear him. He could never explain it anyway.

"Hey, come on," Bucky said, perched on the long bathroom counter, legs dangling, "a guy might need two basins. One for each hand. One for a friend. You could wash your underwear!"

Steve leaned back against the bathroom door and closed his eyes as Bucky went on, consideringly: "Maybe one’s for washing up and the other’s for something else: do they both got water coming out of them? Maybe it dispenses soda pop or—ha! Champagne."  Bucky’s voice was strong in his ears, but in his mind, the picture of Bucky was vacillating between Bucky-at-home and Bucky-in-uniform—and then, unbidden, Bucky bloodied and crumpled like a rag doll, his head staved in like those of the Kraut mountaineers they’d found collapsed at the base of the Stelvio pass. Steve pressed his fingers to his eyelids until that image went away.

"Don't you do that, all right?" Steve muttered. "I can’t stand you doing that."

"Okay, sorry, pal," Bucky said, and Steve opened his eyes. Bucky was looking curiously at the row of flat white switches on the wall beside him: there were seven of them in all. He began flicking them, and lights flashed across the room, and some kind of engine started up in the ceiling and then stopped, and then a row of spotlights blared into being above the mirrored vanity: round bulbs, very Hollywood,

"You’re a star, baby!" Bucky grinned, waving his hands theatrically. "Back in vaudeville!"

Steve bit his lip hard to stop himself laughing—or crying.  "You’re such a jerk," he muttered.

"Captain America and his amazing troupe of all-female showgirls! Verified disease-free by the U.S. Army Department of the Interior! Meanwhile that girl they've got shadowing you," Bucky said, suddenly, pointedly, tapping his nose. "The Black Widow, they call her. With a call sign like that, what do you think her training’s in?"

Steve was trying not to think too much about Natasha. "She's all right."

The backs of Bucky's battered leather shoes thump-thumped against the cabinet. "She’s here to eat you alive, pal. Says so right on the tin. So you just watch yourself: you’re in over your head with her. You're over your head here, period. The dames here, they make Madame Brigitte from French Street look like Jane fresh off the farm."

Steve's stomach lurched.  Nerves, he supposed.  He'd never been great with dames to begin with, and here—well, Buck was right, the ladies of the 21st century were… Well, they were rather…

"Nobody's got any goddamned clothes on!" Bucky said.

"Shh!" Steve hissed, glaring.  "Goddammit, Buck—you can’t say that."

"Sure I can. Besides, you know you agree with me," and that was hard to argue with, since he was pretty sure that Bucky was entirely in his mind. Pretty sure, anyway, because just this week there’d been time travel and an alien invasion of New York and a giant green creature called The Hulk. Thor the God of Thunder and his brother Loki.

Ghosts would at least be a compensation. Everyone he loved was a ghost of some kind.

"I do not," Steve protested, but his heart wasn’t in it.  "Besides. I gotta live here now."

"Right," Bucky chided.  "That’s why you’ve locked yourself in the toilet, hiding."

"I’m not hiding. I’m—" and then a voice from outside, one of his many handlers: Captain Rogers? Is everything all right?  "—washing," Steve said, a little defensively, and went to the basin beside Bucky. He turned on the tap and then said, more loudly, calling through the door: "Just washing up, be right there!" Then he frowned, cupped his hands, and took a sip.

"Water," he confirmed, for Bucky’s benefit.

Bucky pulled a face.  "Ehh. Well, that’s too fucking bad," he muttered. "I could use a whiskey and soda right about now," and boy howdy, Steve knew just what he meant.


It was a normal enough thing to take a buddy, nearly everyone did, but Bucky kept to himself so as to spend more time with Steve; he knew he'd never have a better buddy than Steve. "You’re gonna survive this, you know," Steve told him, a little breathlessly; he was jogging to keep up with Bucky during the everfuckinglasting scramble to push forward, take a little more territory, and dig in before you got your ass blown off.  Steve seemed dwarfed under his pack, though, his too-large helmet sliding sideways. Still, he radiated confidence—Christ, where did the little punk get it from?  "I’m serious, Buck; you’re gonna survive this," Steve said, panting; he was clambering after Bucky, who had veered uphill, alone, through the scrub, ducking and trying to find some high ground where he could set up his rifle and pick some of these bastards off.

He slid up through the rocks and grass, found a vantage point, and swung his rifle around.  "And even if you don’t," Steve said, crawling up beside him in the dirt—and Bucky wheeled on him, glaring, because there was such a thing as too much fucking honesty, pal. "Look, even if you don’t, your life’s not wasted," Steve said with that goddamned awful sincerity of his. "You’ll have been part of something bigger. Your death won’t be pointless. My father’s death wasn’t pointless," and there it was: the hidden engine that drove everything Steve did. Bucky’d known it practically from the first, when Steve had pulled a cracked photo of his soldier-father out of his pocket: Steve was a great one for carrying mementos around. "They wouldn’t let Pa in at first, you know," (Bucky knew; he’d heard this story a million times), "not until the third wave of recruitment." Steve trailed off thoughtfully. "Maybe they’ll let me in next time," and that was Bucky’s greatest nightmare: he could stand for Steve to be here just so long as he wasn’t.

He didn't think he could bear to see Steve learn what he’d learned during his first three days of real war: that all deaths were pointless, and all lives too. You came over here thinking that you were going to be some kind of hero, only to learn the hard lesson that every soldier before you had learned: that you were worthless, your life was worthless. You were there to be killed, until they killed enough people that someone, somewhere said it was enough.

"Don’t think like that," Steve said sharply. "You can’t think like that," and Bucky muttered, "…yeah, okay," and turned back to his gun sights.  He sensed more than felt Steve climb up beside him, and then the little punk was whispering, "There. Yes. A little to the left. That’s it: you’ve got him on the ropes, pal. Now finish him off."


"It’s a scam, right? I mean, you know that, right?" and Steve closed his eyes and let himself float in the cool, clear lake water. He had to be careful about answering; he’d been caught talking to himself once already, and isolated though this place seemed, there were cameras everywhere. Hidden in the cabin was a bank of monitors that showed you everything going on outside; he had to assume there was a second set of monitors somewhere focused entirely on him. This rustic cabin by a lake was a lie like everything else — a scam, just like Bucky said.

"Egg-zactly," Bucky said with satisfaction, "not to mention that they’re talking outta both sides of their mouth on whether they want you to feel at home here or not. Because the fact is, pal—" Bucky poked his chest in the old familiar way, and Steve opened his eyes. Bucky was looming over him, beautiful, hair haloed against the sun, "—that they ought to have de-mobbed you by now. War’s over, buddy. They should give you your goddamned discharge, a couple of medals, and seventy years of back pay—however many millions of credit cards or whatever it is they use for currency around here. Five bucks for a lousy cup of coffee! But they haven’t, have they?"

Steve’s throat tightened.  "They said…  They offered…"

"They said, they offered you—nothing.  Bupkis. They offered you a goddamned parade and a lifetime of indentured servitude. What a man wants is his own bankbook and a lease to a decent apartment near the train. Instead they’ve got you on a leash with these credit cards where you don’t even know where the bill goes. Put up on Stark’s dime or—in this place. What even is this place?" Bucky fumed. "It’s like Fort Hood—they sent me to Fort Hood, you know." (Steve knew; Bucky’d told him the story more than once.)  "Situational training, they called it—fake Gestapo villages, nothing like the real thing but who knew that then? We didn't know anything then. That's where I learned to shoot, though—you’re not the only one who fought Hitler. I shot him in the head. It exploded. Straw," he added meditatively, as if Steve could have doubted it. "Anyway it just goes to show how well they know you, sending you here. Before the army you'd seen three trees in your whole goddamned life. Relax, they say. Go fishing. Fish is a thing you get in Bushwick."

Steve gave in and muttered, "I'm not here to fish, I'm here to study their briefing books—"

"You've studied the briefing books, horror show that they are. Now they’re just keeping you isolated. You oughta—" and Steve tensed, then began to teeter in the water, because he knew what Bucky was gonna say: knew it. He splashed upright and found his feet in the weedy, slippy lakebottom, "—go find Peg," Bucky finished, and there it was: said out loud, or almost. "You know where she is: now pack your bags and get yourself to the airport. They'll sell you a ticket for England.  Besides," Bucky added, with some bitterness, "at least then we'll know if you're a free man or not," which was ridiculous: he wasn't free and they both knew it. "Let's see how far you get."

But getting away was just one problem: by far the easier problem. The other was—  "Look," and Steve was braced by the hard sympathy in Bucky's voice, "there's only a couple people alive who could even pick you out of a lineup when you're not wearing the outfit, and Pegs happens to be one of them. Lots of us were destroyed by bullets or bombs. The shell she got hit with was time, but she's still our Peg. You've got to go see her, at least," and Bucky was right; of course he was right.  He had to man up.  Lots of couples had been destroyed by the war.

Steve pushed his wet hands over his face, his hair, sluicing water through them, and muttered, "You'll come with me, right? I need you to come with me."

"Sure.  Hold your hand or any other part of you that needs holding, like always," and Steve laughed and let the lake water drip down his face.


Bucky'd been holding the line for days and nights and days, sunrise sometimes twice in a row, or maybe that was an explosion somewhere, when Dum Dum came up behind him and all but yanked the rifle out of his hands, knocking his elbows out from under him. Bucky fell back on the ground; he was sweating, heart pounding. His vision telescoped: he felt like he was looking down a long, dark tunnel, and batted a hand before his eyes. "Christ, Barnes, get the hell outta here," Dum Dum said, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "You're no use to anyone like this. Fall back and get some shuteye before you start seeing things," and Bucky blinked at him a few times and then glanced over at Steve, who looked up from the book he was reading and shrugged.

So Bucky lurched up, stumbling, and fell back, moving through a field of stars that could be bullets or fairy-dust or just pinpricks in his vision. He went to his knees at the base of a tree growing beside the ruined walls of a stone cottage—protected on two sides, he hoped—and curled up tight in the dirt, knees up, helmet jammed down. Beneath him, the ground shook from shellfire—and then Steve pressed up against the back of him: warm, boney, the familiar poke of knees and nose. Bucky tried to pretend that he was home: that they were safe. It was December and freezing cold in their apartment. That was the radiator banging. That was a car backfiring. That was…

Steve's hand slid onto his hip. Bucky breathed steadily as Steve shifted and leaned in to whisper against the back of his neck, "Ssh, it's okay, nobody's watching,"— reading his mind again. Goddamned unnerving was what it was, but Steve had always been able to do it. Steve always knew what he needed: knew before he knew, most times.

Steve’s hand slid over the buttons of his wool trousers, and Bucky’s mind drifted to the first time, years ago. After a fight—there was always a fight—and Steve was standing barefoot in the kitchen in his trousers and suspenders, his blood-stained shirt soaking in a sink full of water and washing powder. Steve had been pressing a cold cloth to his eye—and he was so goddamned pretty, even with that nose and the split lip and the shiner. So pretty—and then Steve looked at him and must have seen the thought dancing inside his skull. He himself wouldn’t have had the guts, but Steve was never lacking for the kind of crazy-ass courage that got you beaten up, or jailed, or killed—and so Steve came to the edge of the bed.  He pulled the macramé tassel on the lamp chain. The bulb clicked off.

A moment later Steve was shoving himself awkwardly onto Bucky's lap in the darkness—not like a girl would, flirty and ass first, but with his knees apart, straddling Bucky in his worn brown pants. Steve was short, but he was strong and hard-muscled, and he shucked his suspenders off with a little shimmy, then gripped Bucky's arms like they were going to wrestle.

They didn't wrestle. Steve reached down between them and unbuckled Bucky's belt, then unzipped his own fly—and Bucky was breathing so hard and so fast that he was dizzy with it, white spots prickling in front of his eyes. Steve pushed at his shoulders and he flopped backwards, onto the bed, and then Steve had Bucky’s cock in his hand and was doing things that were—Christ, Steve was—working his cock with such expertise, better than that lady on West 27th Street.

Now Steve was doing it again—here, in the dirt in the middle of the war—his hand pushing aside the flaps of fabric at his fly. Bucky sighed, drifting a little, as Steve’s calloused hand gripped him, squeezing him from base to tip in the familiar way, fond and affectionate.  "You’ve got a gift, buddy, you know that," Bucky muttered a little breathlessly, and he could feel Steve’s lips brushing the back of his neck, curving into a smile. "Sure I know," Steve murmured gamely.  "I also juggle and play the kazoo," and Bucky half-laughed, half-sobbed and imagined himself pressing back into Steve’s arms—even as his own hand moved, subtly jerking, in the dark.


The taxi service said they wouldn’t come out so far as the lake, so Steve said, "Fine," and hoisted his pack onto his back. He walked the long dirt road from the cabin to Route 6 and turned north, and ten minutes later the sleek black car roared up from behind and jerked to a stop in a cloud of dust.  Steve saw a flash of red hair at the wheel and knew who it was: Natasha Romanoff, The Black Widow.

"Well, well, well," Bucky drawled, "now isn’t that a coincidence. Maybe she likes fishing, too."

Steve snorted. "Fishing for something," he muttered, and walked down the gravel shoulder to meet her. The heavy black door swung open and Natasha’s high-heeled boot stepped onto the blacktop, followed by the rest of her. She was wearing what appeared to be black leather longjohns.  "Not a word," Steve cautioned, and Bucky shrugged, pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, and lit one. "I ain't saying nothing," Bucky said.

"Well, hello," Steve said to Natasha. "What brings you to this neck of the woods?"

Natasha smiled, unfazed; he didn't want to think about what it would take to faze her. "Coming to see you, actually," she replied, and shoved the car door shut with a heavy clunk.  "Fury thought you might be wanting some company about now: a friendly face."

Steve glanced over at Bucky, who wasn’t looking particularly friendly at the moment. He was wreathed in a cloud of smoke and general hostility, and Steve knew why: he was wondering if Natasha had been personally watching the security monitors or if she’d just been dispatched by the person who had. "Oh. Well, you should have written first. Or—telephoned," he amended, and from the way Natasha smiled, he knew that wasn’t quite right either. Internet, maybe: oh, the hell with it. "I’m just on my way out," Steve said, and let that sit there, waiting to see what she’d do.

"You should call SHIELD," Natasha suggested.  "They’ll get you to wherever you need to go."

"I think I can manage," Steve said, forcing himself to smile back pleasantly.  "I mean, my Nana got all the way from Ireland to New York by herself, and she was only fifteen and spoke Gaelic."

Natasha’s smile didn’t falter, but she was obviously considering how to reply.  "Wherever you’re going, it’ll be a long walk and hitchhiking isn’t so much a thing anymore," she said carefully. "And in case it wasn't in the briefing book: the U.S. hasn’t been great about maintaining its public transportation network." She tilted her head to one side. "Can I give you a lift somewhere?"

Now it was Steve's turn to think about what to say. If he accepted, they’d know where he was going, but then again—Bucky interrupted, "Don’t be a dope: they're gonna know anyway. You've been caught, so save your shoe leather and get in the car," and so Steve sighed and let his pack slide off his shoulder. "Okay, sure," he said. "Can you take me to the airport?"

Natasha barely blinked, but Steve thought he could see both relief and concern on her face. "Well, you really are going to have to call SHIELD if you want to get on a plane," she said, though Steve still didn’t understand what the hell he needed SHIELD for.  "A credit card won't cut it," Natasha explained, "you'll need more ID than that. Security’ll be tight—they’ll want to see a driver’s license or a passport," and beside him, Bucky muttered, "Ihre Papiere bitte." Natasha went on smoothly, "But I can get you anywhere you want to go—SHIELD has its own planes, its own runways even. You can skip the metal detectors and the strip search," and her lips twisted wryly, as if that were a joke– and then she saw his face and grew serious again. A rare miscalculation; one that she wouldn’t make twice.

Bucky ground his cigarette under his heel.  "Well, I’m glad I gave my life for something."

Natasha was already recovering. "Where—is there somewhere particular you're trying to go?"

"England." Steve nearly choked on the word. "I’ve got a friend there I want to see."

"Oh," Natasha said, a little blankly. "All right; I'll call it in—they'll have a jet waiting for you."

"That's great," Bucky drawled. "Ride first class with the sicherheitspolizei," but Steve just said, "Thank you," and folded himself into the front seat of her car.


That day, Private 2nd Class Patrick Kelly—called Mickey for unknown reasons—had half his skull shot off, and Bucky screamed and scrambled, crab-like, away from him, not wanting to watch him die in a rapidly spreading puddle of his own blood. And that, right there, was the end of his squad, and there were only a few, exhausted guys left in the whole platoon. In any sane world they'd've been pulled back to regroup, but no new orders had come through and nobody knew what the fuck was going on. Tuesday at the front.

Steve pushed his helmet back and said, pragmatically, "Look, average life expectancy out here is about seventeen days, so you're beating the odds in a big way, Buck," but it was hard not to feel like his luck was running out.  Those of them who were still alive were superstitious to the point of blasphemy. They all had talismans—Dum Dum had his hat, and Gabe had an old wooden crucifix that his Nana had given him. And Bucky had Steve: he was sure that, if death were coming for him, Steve would push him out of the way or something. Steve would save him somehow.

It was some kind of second sight, anyway, even if "Steve" was maybe the name he was giving to his own unconscious intuitions. Steve would grab his arm, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and shout, "Incoming!" and Bucky would throw himself into the dirt before the shells fell.  Once Steve knocked into his shoulder, pushing him out of the way of a whizzing bullet, and once, he'd come back to himself—half-asleep, standing up—with Steve's hands gripping his face, Steve's eyes inches from his. "I love you," Steve said, shaking him desperately. "Do you hear me? I love you. Now hurry. Run. Run and don't stop," and so Bucky took off blindly, clutching his rifle and always on the verge of falling forward, and he ran until the force of the explosion picked him up and hurled him up and onward, smashing him down onto the ground.

When he came to, Steve was stroking his face—Gabe was shaking his shoulders—something was trailing down his face in a thick, wet line—Gabe's mouth was moving, but he couldn't tune into the station of Gabe's voice. A shape on Gabe's lips could have been Bucky or lucky or—

"Steve," Bucky tried, but the word vanished as it left his mouth: a ghost. He passed out.


Natasha said that she'd be happy to accompany him, which of course meant that she was there to handle him, but Steve Rogers wasn't a guy easily handled, as Bucky'd learned long ago, trailing him up streets and down alleys, groaning and rolling his eyes. No, he didn't want to go straight to SHIELD's special runway: if they were waiting for him, they could goddamned wait, because he wanted to see the airport.  It was a marvel, really, something out of one of Bucky's magazines: white lights and shiny floors. Plastic curves and terrible-smelling food in enormous portions, with people lined up and zig zagging every which way, dragging their belongings in tiny, wheeled suitcases. Natasha followed him, groaning and rolling her eyes, as he walked through a store that stank of perfume and which had floor to ceiling shelves of whiskey and display cases of little glass animals, all lit up. So much of everything—here were enormous pretzels spinning in a case, there were trays of individually-wrapped slices of cake. A shop sold nothing but brightly colored handbags. The people, though—everyone looked miserable and exhausted, standing on lines or crammed into seats or sitting on floors. Perhaps they were anticipating the strip search. Steve stopped to look at a shirt that was on sale: it was four hundred and fifty-seven dollars. He laughed out loud.

"This way?" Natasha pleaded for the eighth time, and so Steve relented and followed her through a doorway and then through a maze of empty corridors, Bucky trailing behind them.

"So I think we can establish some basic principles, yeah?" Bucky mused. "If it's advertised as luxury, gourmet, designer, or deluxe, it's guaranteed to be garbage. And I don't know who the hell this Hugo Boss thinks he is, but you've got to be out of your fucking mind to pay that kind of dough for a shirt."

Steve stifled a bitter smile. "He made Nazi uniforms, you know."

"Oh, well, that's just perfect," Bucky said, jerking his arms up into the air like he wanted to punch someone. "Of course he did—Nazi bastard. Enjoy your time in the 21st century, pal: you can get some patent-leather shoes and—"

"—Steve?"  Natasha was staring at him. "Did you say something?"

"No, I—no," Steve replied. And then, unable to help it: "That store back there.  Hugo Boss…"

Natasha seemed taken aback. "You want to go back?"

"No." Something was clawing at the inside of his chest; he had to stop it from bursting out. Bucky'd turned away and was staring out the window at the airstrip. "Let's—just get to the plane, all right?" he said and set off.

The plane was a jet halfway to a spaceship. There were four big leather seats around a polished wood table, two on each side. Natasha took a seat across from him, and Bucky fell into the chair next to her, crossed his legs, and put his head on his hand. Steve looked at him—Christ, he missed Bucky so much his teeth ached. He wished they could just be alone for a little while—talk everything through.

A stewardess appeared. "Would you like a drink before takeoff?"

"Yes. Yes, I would," Steve said, and the taste of whiskey in his mouth was almost a kiss.


They pulled back the remains of his unit and sent him into the platoon commander, a tall guy named Blythe who'd never seen any actual combat, it was said: just sat here in a tent behind a desk with a telephone.  Blythe wanted him and Dum Dum and Gabe to creep behind enemy lines and grab a German—kidnap him, take him prisoner.  "We need intel, gentlemen," Blythe said, like he was saying, "We need a quart of milk and a half a dozen eggs."

"Sure, sir, no problem. I’ll just sneak up and tap some Kraut on the shoulder and say, 'Pardon me, Heinrich.' Ask him if he'd like a change of shithole and a friendly chat," Bucky didn’t say. What he said was, "Yes, sir; I’ll try my best."

"Good man, Barnes," Blythe said. "Take your team out at sundown; maybe catch some rest first," and then a host of shimmering angels appeared and directed him to a tent with a roof and a cot. Steve was there, too, grinning like a maniac. "Goodnight, sweet prince…" Steve said with a wave of his arm, and Bucky sat, fell, kept falling. He was asleep before his head hit the cot.

A moment later, something shook him and kept shaking him; Dum Dum, looking down at him like the ugliest mother in the history of the world. "Time to wake up, princess."

"Oh, please go fuck yourself," Bucky groaned, and after Dum Dum took off his hat and whacked him in the face with it a couple of times, Bucky protested, "C’mon, I said please."

He and Dum Dum and Gabe got double rations, and some of the hot brown liquid that passed for coffee, and god, this crap was so much better hot than cold. Then they were cast out of paradise: rotated back to the front with the rest of their unit, and then, once it was dark enough, past it: out into the dark past the haphazard row of foxholes where everyone else was sheltered. They stayed low, moving from rock to tree to rock, listening more than looking; trying to find some isolated bastard taking a piss, someone who’d strayed and could be picked off. And they got someone—it was Steve who found him, actually: who stood up suddenly in the scrub and pointed, then put a finger to his lips. Bucky stopped the others with a hand and set off toward where Steve was standing.

A Kraut was hunkered in the grass, and Bucky went at him, full blast—dragging him up, smashing his head against a nearby tree, pressing the barrel of his handgun to his head and dragging him back fifty yards, hand clasped over his mouth, smothering him—only belatedly realizing, once Dum Dum and Gabe were there and wrestling the guy to the ground—that what they had in their possession was a 16 year old German kid who’d been taking a shit.

"Who'd you expect to find? Hitler?" Steve rolled his eyes, and he maybe had a point. Anyway the kid was a Nazi—a runner, they found out, once he’d stopped blubbering and pulled his pants up and Bucky’d given him a cigarette. And he didn’t know a lot about the German front lines, he insisted in wide-eyed terror, hyperventilating, just where they were and what their routines were, and so on. This was quite enough for Bucky and, he imagined, it was going to be plenty enough for Colonel Blythe—except there was more that the kid wanted to tell him. The thing that the kid really wanted to tell him—to tell Bucky in particular, because Bucky had nearly killed him and then hadn’t, which made him some kind of god—was that the entire German high command (his hands were grabbing fervently at the lapels of Bucky’s jacket) was shitting themselves because there were these tanks with blue weapons that—

"What?" Bucky frowned, shook his head; his German wasn’t that great.

—blue weapons that were blowing German soldiers into nothingness. Oblivion. Das Nichts.

Well bully for the blue weapons, then. "Blue?" Bucky repeated dubiously; who the hell would paint their weapons blue?  "Are they partisans? Or Russians?—Sind sie Russkies?"

"Nein!" the Nazi kid insisted. "Nicht Partisan, nicht Sowjeten—Hydra, der wissenschaftliche Teil dem Führers Schutzstaffel. Sie kämpfen ihren eigenen Krieg, und die Waffen die sie haben—die werden nicht nur uns töten, sondern euch auch—sie werden uns alle töten!"

Bucky frowned, trying to put this together—but Steve was tugging at his arm, muttering, "We’ve got to move—hurry—now, Buck—" and a second later, Bucky felt the ground rumble under his feet and the hair on the back of his neck stood up the way it did when the shelling was about to start—and them this far out of cover.  Bucky yelled, "Incoming!" and took off at a run toward the line of Allied foxholes, dragging the shocked Nazi kid with him. Dum Dum and Gabe were right behind them—and the first shell exploded with a boom not 20 feet ahead of them, sending the ground flying up in sprays of dirt and rocks and knocking them all sideways.

"Up!" Bucky screamed, lurching up and grabbing the German kid by the collar. "Get up! Move, move!" and then they were all running, ducking, dodging and weaving toward the Allied line.  When they got close, Bucky shouted for all he was worth, nearly shredding his voice, "Barnes approaching! Hold your fire! Hold your God damned—" because passwords were for suckers: nobody ever remember the password, and even if you did, the other guy would have forgotten it, or the password would have been changed, and you’d end up yelling, "Jesus Christ, don’t shoot me—I’m from Brooklyn!" which was as good as a password anyway.

They flung themselves into the nearest foxhole to the vast surprise of the guys who were already in it: two other members of the 107th whose real names Bucky couldn’t remember, but who everybody called Mutt and Jeff.  "Barnes!" Bucky gasped, identifying himself. "I’m with Dugan and Jones—and this kid’s a Nazi, he’s—"  our prisoner, he was going to say, except for the deafening shriek of an incoming shell. They all fell down and took cover before the blast hit.

It was close, and Bucky’s ears were still ringing when he lifted his head, stuffed with cotton, face tingling—but Steve was in front of him and talking, audible where nothing else was.  "They’re making a push," Steve informed him.  "If we're quick, we can stop them," and then he was turning and hefting his rifle, which looked like it weighed a hundred pounds in his skinny arms.

Bucky followed suit, bracing his gun on the edge of the foxhole. A unit of German soldiers was racing over the hill, coming toward them, and Bucky began firing—and then Dum Dum was beside him, firing too—everyone was firing, the night suddenly white-bright with the blinding flash of rifles and shredded by machine gun fire, and the whole world was gripped by madness as it always was when battle erupted. Bucky’s world exploded in a frenzy of bullets and smoke.

He fell back to reload, only to find Dum Dum mopping his brow and reloading his own gun with shaky hands; blood was running down his cheek. "God, I hate these guys," Dum Dum muttered.

They flung themselves back into the fray, and then suddenly—  "Buck," his intuition said; the intuition he’d named Steve, "over there, three o’clock," and without hesitating, Bucky swung his gun in a wide arc to the right.  There were Germans coming from that direction, too, guns aimed and firing.  Bucky shot three of them and had just fixed his eyes on a fourth, when—

He thought, first, he was maybe having a fit, a seizure—that strange bolt of blue lightning was—

It happened again, another blue flash from out of nowhere, and three Kraut soldiers vaporized before his eyes—flesh first, then skeleton, then nothing.  Bucky gaped and let his gun drop, turning to see where the flashes were coming from. The biggest tank he’d ever seen crested the hill, its enormous treads shaking the earth all around, dirt crumbling from the sides of his foxhole. Was it too much to hope it was one of theirs?  Bucky stared as its enormous guns swiveled, then fired more blue electricity at the oncoming Krauts, blasts like a ray gun straight out of Flash Gordon. The Nazis fried, writhing in the air, screaming.  No bodies fell.

The shooting stopped. The battlefield went quiet; there was no one left to shoot at.

Bucky stared at the giant tank; all that was left.  "What the hell is it?" he asked Steve, who was crouched beside him and gaping, too, one hand holding his huge helmet in place.

"I don’t know," Gabe replied from his other side; he sounded shocked. "I’ve never seen…"

Dum Dum asked warily, "You think it's one of ours? Something new?"

But Bucky could tell from the horror on Steve’s face this wasn’t anything their side had cooked up. Panic rose, choking him, even before the tank’s enormous gun began to swivel in their direction—sie werden uns alle töten, Bucky thought wildly—they’ll kill us all—and then he was screaming, "Run! Get down! Jesus Fucking Chr—!"


The SHIELD jet landed on an isolated airstrip, and an empty car was waiting for them on the tarmac.  Natasha immediately went to the driver's seat but Steve hesitated before getting in—something about the huge English sky and the neat fields of bright yellow and green and purple had stirred up powerful memories for him, even though his first visit had been nothing like this. He’d arrived by ship with his team of forty showgirls, the star of something that was two steps above a Coney Island animal act: Captain America, see him lift a motorcycle and punch Hitler!

He didn’t ask where they were going: he and Natasha had come to a curious sort of impasse where he didn’t ask any questions because he didn’t want to answer any. He wanted to go to England. He wanted to see a friend.

Natasha drove them onto the motorway toward London, and Steve tried hard to control his feelings once things started to look familiar—Christ, this was nearly as bad as New York, the familiar sights and sounds buried under blaring electronic adverts and glass skyscrapers, big strange ugly buildings, and—what was that, a ferris wheel?

"Wow, it's ugly now," Bucky said, hunching forward from the back seat. "What the hell did they do to Leicester Square? It’s more awful than New York and that’s saying something. Jesus, remember the fun we had that night, though, you and me and Pegs—oh, isn’t that—? Look, there. Around the corner— Wasn’t that where the Stork Club was?" and that hit Steve so hard that he had to look away, cover his eyes with his hand—and so he missed whatever turn it was that Natasha took, steering them down a narrow alley and then further down into an underground garage.

Then out of the car, into a fancy elevator—and Natasha's idea of accommodations seemed to be an apartment they were expected to share, together, just the two of them, with no chaperone. "You've got your own room at least," Bucky said, "though there's no lock on the door. You're a gentleman, of course," he added wryly, "but it ain't you I'm worried about. So maybe put a chair under the knob."

"I'm not staying," Steve told him.

"What?" Natasha asked.

"Nothing," Steve said.

A little reconnaissance revealed that the train he needed left from Waterloo, which was near enough. It also revealed the ongoing terms of engagement with Natasha, which was that she was going to follow him wherever he went, stealthily, while pretending she wasn't.  So he was going to have to lose her.  He knew it and she knew it.

"I'm going out for a walk," Steve said, pulling on his jacket. 

Natasha didn't even look up from her phone.  "Have fun," she said, distractedly, waving.

"Right," Steve muttered, yanking the door shut—and then he bypassed the lift for the stairs and burst out the back door. He figured she wouldn't expect him to make a break for it his first time out—so he did, heading up the road toward the Tube, which was disgorging a crowd. He squirmed his way past muttering, "Excuse me, excuse me," glad for the cover of them. There were cameras everywhere in this world, and Natasha probably had access to all of them—but he was willing to bet that she didn't know the in and outs of the Underground like he did. He'd spent a lot of time in its bomb shelters and bunkers and tunnels, which had been sealed-up or locked down: no cameras there.

In the end, the hardest part of his escape turned out to be buying an Oyster Card, he reflected, watching the English countryside fly past on the 13:05 to Winchester. Though it was quite a miraculous little card really. The lady on the platform had been quite happy to have it.


They were stripped of their weapons; some of the men were stripped of their boots. Bucky kept his, thank God—the march was bad enough. They stumbled one after the other, single file, moving deeper behind enemy lines. Mostly they kept their heads down, though Bucky glanced around when he could, trying to stay alert, catching the occasional glance from Dum Dum and Gabe, further back in the line. A light seen through the trees was hanging from a gate in the high wall of a Nazi compound, and as they approached, a couple of guys decided to run for it.

They were shot. They lay where they fell, ignored.

Inside the gates, they were marched across an empty courtyard and then through an iron door into a windowless brick building. The inside was like a kennel, a chicken coop: full of cages, three stories of them, linked together by metal catwalks.  Each cage already housed several men—and Bucky felt his senses sharpening and knew that Steve was behind him, ready to direct him, because he only had one shot at this –and then the guard looked away for a moment and at Steve's signaling tap he slid quickly and silently through the line till he reached Dum Dum and Gabe. If he was gonna be caged, better to be locked up with guys he trusted.

But the Kraut guard counted them off without reason, shoving two guys into one cell, three guys into another.  He and Dum Dum were waved into a cell with a wary-looking Brit and someone else: a mess of rumpled clothing with a mustache, sitting on the ground, asleep, knees pulled up.

"Barnes," Bucky said, without extending his hand. "This here is Dugan. 107th Infantry."

"Falsworth," the Brit replied. "3rd Independent Parachute Brigade."  He turned to the bundle of clothes in the corner, the mustachioed face resting on the drawn-up knees. The guy reminded Bucky of the drunks sprawled on the streets of Red Hook, pickled and dreamy on red wine after shift. "This is Dernier. He's from Marseille," Falsworth said, before adding, almost offhandedly, "They arrested him after he blew up the railway line to the internment camps."

Bucky and Dum Dum exchanged impressed glances. Dernier let out a small snore.

Bucky'd been brought up to think that the English were standoffish and the French were rude—and they were—but it didn't take long before he and Dum Dum and Monty were crouched down together around the sleepy Dernier and exchanging, in whispers, first bone fides, and then boasts, and then real information. Bucky'd noticed that their guards were all young, healthy, and well fed—why would you waste men like that? Anyone who could hold a gun was on a front line somewhere, so there had to be something big going on here. Monty agreed, but he didn’t know what; all he’d seen was his cell and the factory, where they’d been set to making shell casings—

"Wait, this is a fucking arms factory?" Dum Dum interrupted.

"Anything explosive?" Bucky asked.

"Not that I’ve seen," Monty said regretfully—and then the sleepy bundle of clothes lifted its head.

"C'est tout explosif," Dernier mused, in a rough voice, "si vous savez comment l'utiliser."

They looked at him, and then at each other.  "I like this guy," Bucky told Falsworth. "I like you, pal," Bucky told Dernier. "Let’s blow it up.  Let’s blow it the fuck up—la faire foutreexplodez! Tell us what to do," and Dernier idly rubbed at his chin and told them what they should look out for.


Working together, they located drums of acetone peroxide, white buckets of potassium persulfate, glass jars of nitric acid and ethanol…but in the end they didn’t get to do anything with them, because after Bucky’s tenth day of hauling crates and pushing carts, he was sitting on the metal floor of his cell trying to bring his cup of thin soup to his lips when his vision blurred.

A taste like metal, bitter and vinegary, spread through his mouth, and he didn't even realize that he’d spilled his cup and was keeling over sideways until Steve caught him. He stared up into Steve's worried face, which was wavering and twisting against the harsh light of the bare bulbs.

"Steve," Bucky scraped out, his throat closing up. This was it; this was the end of him.

Things went fuzzy and strange; there were words somewhere, an argument, but he couldn’t understand what was being said or who was talking.  Steve was glowing, a little; he was the only real thing now. "What’s happening?" he asked Steve—and then he had the sensation of being jerked into a sitting position. An arm came around his back, holding him up. The strange sounds resolved into words, and he suddenly understood what the argument was.

Dum Dum was afraid Bucky was gonna die.  Falsworth was afraid they were going to kill him.

"Don't let them see," Falsworth was gritting out. "If they see he’s not well—if they take him—he's done for," and that was a nice thought, except…There was that strange metal taste in his mouth.

"Right, they know already," Steve told him sadly. "They know because they did this to you; they poisoned you," and so Bucky wasn’t surprised when the rusty hinges screeched and two guards came in and hauled him up. He tried, incoherently, to stop Dum Dum from fighting with them, watching with horror as he took a blow to the head with a truncheon and then a couple more kicks once he was down.

"It’s all right," Bucky croaked as they dragged him out. "I’ve got Steve. Steve's with me," but they didn’t seem reassured by this.


He’d made it to Winchester in a fugue of instinct and suppressed anger, but now that he was here—having walked out from the station and through town and down an English country road for several miles before finding the brick gate post marking the house—he felt lost and afraid.

Meadow House, it said in raised iron letters.  And if Peggy was here, he had no plan for it: what to do, what to say to her. She was in her nineties. He might not even recognize her. She might not remember him. He wasn’t sure he was ready to have the image of Peggy Carter in his mind supplanted by the reality. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his compass.

"Jesus Christ!" Bucky said, fully exasperated with him, and so Steve sighed and turned into the lane leading up the house.

Meadow House was beautiful. It had obviously been a private house once, though now there was an ambulance on the curved drive, like a wartime hospital. Nurses in crisp white dresses were pushing patients in their wheelchairs through the elaborately landscaped gardens on both sides. Husks of old men and palsied old women stared at him with vacant eyes. My peers, Steve thought bleakly, feeling the urge to run, but Bucky grabbed his arm and said, "Pal, that’s Elsie, she was the singer at that pub you liked, used to sing 'Taking A Chance On Love' while wiggling her hips. And that’s Dougie with the strange limp. Ran the motorpool, kept asking if you’d really met Ava Gardner. And that old man there was the kid who ran our telegrams around the London base. Always got tongue-tied around you: hero worship. He was fifteen then, so he’s eighty now—got the Parkinson’s. But he’d still fuckin' jitterbug if he could," and Steve didn’t know if Bucky really knew all these things or if he was making them up, but it made him feel better, anyway—and that woman did look quite a bit like Elsie, the girl singer at the White Stag.

He just had to go through the arched doorway. Tell them at the desk that he was here to see Margaret—

"No, you don't even gotta," Bucky interrupted, "because she's right there," and even though Bucky was pointing, Steve refused to turn, was afraid to turn. Because it wasn't true, it couldn't be true –and then he let his eyes dart, for just a second, to the gardens stretching back away from the house. There were pink blossoms among a million shades of green; a figure in white. Her back was to him. She was sitting in a chair under a tree. It wasn't her, it couldn't be her. There was no way to know from a glance anyway. Except he did know: he was as sure as Bucky was.  Something about the way she held her shoulders, the way the white hair cascaded down.

He moved toward her almost unwillingly, drawn to her across the lawn. The woman in the chair had her elbow braced on the chair arm, and her chin tilted down—she was reading, because that's how Peggy sat when she was reading. And then suddenly Bucky tugged at his elbow and his feet went left, and he was going around, circling her, giving her a wide berth while trying to get a look at her. He stopped behind a thick-trunked tree, touched the ridged bark with his fingers, then pressed his forehead against it. He felt like his heart was gonna thump out of his chest.

It was her. Christ, it was her, it was Peggy, and she was old, but she was beautiful, sitting there with a pair of half-moon glasses on the tip of her nose, the silver chain hanging down.  She was beautiful but she was so old now—if he touched her, he'd break her. If he hugged her the way he wanted, if he touched her—he couldn’t touch her—he—

"Pal, you have got to get a hold of yourself," Bucky admonished him. "You come out from behind this tree looking like you do now, like a goddamned mess, you're gonna give the woman a heart attack. Just pull yourself together and go over there, say, ‘Hello darling, it’s me, it’s—"

"Steve?" and Steve gasped and jerked, startled, at the sound of his name in Peggy’s voice. His feet tangled in the bluebells growing at the base of the tree, and he stumbled and had to grab at the trunk to steady himself. Holding on, he craned his neck around the tree to look at her. The reading glasses hung from her neck, and she stood there in her skirt and white blouse looking at him with a combination of bewilderment and longing that he found utterly familiar.

"Peg?" and what had Bucky told him to say—Hello darling, here I am? Something like that, but mostly Steve was focused on not tripping as he stepped out from behind the tree. And then Peggy was saying, in a voice choked with tears, "You’re alive. You came back," and then he went to her and held her as she wept.  And he could have stood there forever, holding her. He could have stood there until he became a tree himself.


They lifted him onto an operating table like a sack of potatoes and secured him with thick leather straps.  "Steve," Bucky gasped and squeezed his eyes shut to stop the tears from coming, because Jesus, what kind of end was this, he didn't want to end like this. A bright light crashed on overhead, turning the insides of his eyelids orange. Steve's warm hand gripped his and Bucky clutched at it hard, needing to feel it: like they'd done when Steve had been convulsed with the asthma, like they'd done when Bucky'd gotten his leg caught in a winch at the factory; Christ, he'd been so shit scared. He'd been sweating, sure in his heart that he was gonna lose the leg, that it was gonna be crushed or they were gonna have to cut it off or something, but when he'd finally gotten free he was just bruised. And Steve had been with him the whole time, hand tight in his, giving him somewhere to focus as the other guys swarmed over the goddamned machine.

Steve was gripping his hand that way now, except instead of whispering, "It's okay, Buck; it's gonna be okay; hang on, you're almost out," he was whispering, "This ain't medicine, Buck—whatever the hell they're doin', it ain't—" and Christ, he'd had needles before but these were goddamned excruciating, and so many of them. They scraped the bone. He felt it in his teeth. It was torture, and he was supposed to—there was a thing he was supposed to—

"Barnes," Steve whispered. "James Buchanan. Sergeant. Three two five—"

"—five seven zero three eight," Bucky finished, and then he started again, voice quavering as more pain hit and rolled over him. "Barnes. James Bucha…"  and then the world exploded, light as hot as the sun, blasting him backwards and frying him up like an egg in a pan—and then Steve grabbed him, pulling him up by the hand, hauling him straight up and out of his body. For a moment he had the dizzying feeling of seeing himself down below—a beat-up soldier in a puddle of yellow light, rows of needles hanging out of both arms—but then Steve pulled him through a door into what turned out to be McAllister's Pub on Fourth Avenue.

There weren't too many guys drinking at this hour, just the regulars, but Steve made a beeline for the beat-up bar and said, loosening his tie and half-collapsing onto the stool, "I need a beer," and then, glancing over at Bucky, "you need a beer, pal?  No: something stronger," and like he knew they were coming, the barman turned to them carrying Steve's pint in one hand and a whisky and soda in the other—a double. The thick glass was cold in his hand.

Steve picked up his glass, clinked it against Bucky's.  The whiskey burned his throat. He drank it faster than he ought’ve, considering how little he'd had to eat, but he liked how it went to his head.  He'd barely set the glass down when the bartender brought him another. The world blurred a little, and then Steve slid off the stool, the pint of golden beer in his hand, and waved him toward the back of the bar, where there was a bare mattress and—it was that flophouse a block from the Navy Yard, except Steve had never been there; he had never been there with Steve.

Which was a shame—it should always have been Steve, he knew that now. So much time wasted chasing women, paying women, trying to fuck himself into the right shape. She had been the first: Mrs. Stephens, a widow who specialized in giving young boys their first tumble over the mattress. He’d thought she was so old though she was maybe only a year or two older than he was now, and fifty years younger than he felt. He’d asked Steve if he wanted to come with him, thinking he was doing the kid a favor—Steve had no father, no brothers, nobody to guide him into manhood—but Steve just had looked at him strangely and said, "No,"—which had really riled him, because Jesus, Steve could be a sanctimonious prick sometimes. It was only later that he’d understood that in this, as in so many things, Steve was way ahead of him and stubbornly waiting for him to catch the hell up. Every time he thought that he’d left Steve somewhere behind him, Steve turned out to have been out in front the whole time—that impatient, fuzzy figure out on the horizon. It was a goddamned magic trick. It made Steve feel inevitable.

Now Steve was slugging back his beer and wrestling his crumpled canvas jacket off, flicking his suspenders off his shoulders. He turned to Bucky with a look that was part disdain, part dare—so whatcha gonna do now?—so perfectly Steve in that moment that Bucky could only stare at him. And of course there was a right and wrong answer to the question. Bucky began to unbutton his uniform and Steve’s lip curled into a grin; right answer, pal.

Steve had a way of pushing him around, even—or maybe especially—in bed. He pushed all Bucky’s buttons, especially the ones that stopped him thinking, so that everything became sensation: rolling around on the mattress half-dressed, roughly kissing and groping, Steve’s big hands in his hair, kissing him with a wet sloppiness that drove him crazy.  And then Steve was biting his earlobe and whispering, low and ragged, "Do it. Go on and do it," and the thinking part of his brain didn’t know what the hell Steve was talking about, but his body knew, his hands and his hips. He turned Steve over and dragged his pants down his slim hips—and Steve was already pushing back at him, grappling for control of the moment even with his ass in the air, and—oh. Christ. He finally got Steve shoved down underneath him, arms braced and sobbing, "oh. yes. Buck. please," as Bucky fucked him with short sharp thrusts.  And when it was over, when he’d convulsed and collapsed, sweating, on top of Steve’s narrow, smooth back, it was Steve who somehow turned so that their bodies fitted together perfectly, cradled in each other’s arms.

He drifted sleepily, arms occasionally flexing to pull Steve closer—and when he woke Steve was bent over him, shaking him, saying, "Bucky? Bucky? Oh, my God…" Bucky thought that he was probably late for work, but then he opened his eyes and saw the dank brick ceiling and the grimy windows of the interrogation room, the burned-out radiation machine overhead, and understood that he’d been left for dead.  But somehow Steve had—

Was this Steve? The soldier who turned toward him was tall and had enormous shoulders—but he was wearing Steve’s face, his crooked nose, and Steve’s big hands were sliding over his body in a familiar way—and snapping the heavy leather straps like they were made of paper. That was… That.

"It’s me. It’s Steve," the soldier insisted, hauling Bucky up.  "Come on," but that was easier said than done, because Bucky’s legs wouldn’t support him. And Steve was looking at him with a peculiar, anxious expression, nothing like how Steve had been looking at him these past few months; this Steve looked like he’d seen a ghost.

"I thought you were dead," Steve said, dragging his arm around his neck. His voice had thickened a little.

"I thought you were smaller," Bucky muttered—but it wasn’t until they'd marched halfway back to Italy that he realized that this wasn't a ghost or a hallucination: this was Steve, this was the real Steve, and it wasn’t just that he was six feet tall now, he was also called Captain America and he’d made movies and was now a personal enemy of Johann Schmitt and Hydra and half the S.S.—Hitler too, probably—and what the hell, he’d left Steve behind at the Army Recruitment Center in Queens just a couple of months ago, and wasn’t that just so goddamned typical?


"You’ll say it's queer," Peggy said, once they’d gotten settled back in her room, which was lovely and spacious, with a large bay window overlooking the gardens, "but I wasn’t as surprised to see you as you might think. The truth is, darling," she said, reaching out for Steve’s hand—Steve had pulled a chair up to hers, and now took her dry, papery hand in his—"that I always see you out of the corner of my eye. The back of your head, a face in the crowd. I'd be walking along and see you queuing up for a newspaper or hailing a cab…" Peggy was looking at him, except it wasn't him at all: she was staring wondrously at some other Steve she'd glimpsed in the street, years ago. "And I'd get so excited," Peggy said softly; she was talking to herself now, too. "My heart would…I ran into the road once! Practically got hit by a bus," and Steve saw that some part of her was still there, dodging traffic in a hat and black pumps. He could almost see her: all glossy dark hair and red lips, one hand pressing her hat to her head as she ran.

"I caught you, actually, that time," she said, as if he doubted it. "But of course it wasn't you at all," and Steve blinked and Peggy in her chic red suit and hat was gone: her curls were white now, though still pinned in ringlets. "It was never you. But it didn't seem crazy to think that it could be." She laughed, which creased her face in delightful, familiar ways. "It was mad, wasn't it."

"No, it wasn't—it wasn't at all," Steve said, and then confessed: "I see Bucky all the time."

Peggy squeezed his hand. "Well, of course you do," she replied, and Steve turned to look and yes, there he was: leaning back against the chest of drawers, arms and legs crossed and wearing a light linen suit, like he’d dressed for England. Bucky uncrossed himself and went to her chair, then bent to kiss her cheek. Peggy didn’t notice. Bucky's mouth moved to her lips: God. Steve remembered how they used to kiss, Peggy cupping Bucky’s head in her hands and drawing his mouth to hers...and desire came like a punch, hard and fast, leaving him breathless; the first lust he'd felt since the ice, like his blood had only just melted enough to get him hard. He wanted…nothing he could have, nothing that was even possible. In his mind, Peggy and Buck kissed deeply and then smiled into each other's mouths, Peggy stroking his cheeks with her—

"He’ll never get old," Peggy said, "which is something. I can’t recommend old age: it’s all aches and pains," and Steve felt tears threatening, so he turned in his chair and swiped his thumb under his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose hard enough to hurt.

"Did they ever find..." Steve managed, and his voice sounded unnatural—and hell, it was unnatural, he was: still alive and only twenty-seven years old. "…him, him, his body, his... "

Peggy frowned, then seemed to understand. "Bucky, you mean? No, I—no," she said slowly, "I don't think so. Not that I ever heard. I mean, nobody ever reported that they’d found him—"

Steve was suddenly, irrationally angry. "Did anyone even look?"

Her eyebrows flew up, and Steve braced himself for the answer—"Where, in the Alps?" or "In the middle of a war?"—but then her face softened, and she said, only, "No."

"Well, I'm going to look," Steve said—and Bucky snorted and gave him a look that Steve had seen a thousand times, maybe more: Steve, you goddamned crackpot. But Peggy just made a thoughtful sound and said, "Well, you could fly into Innsbruck—Kranebitten—and hire a car. There are resorts in that part of the Alps now; they'll have the right sort of equipment," and Steve's heart swelled and hurt, because this was the Peggy that he knewand she knew him.


"I’m a great fan of your films," Bucky repeated, quoting Schmitt, though it didn’t come out as mockingly as he wanted, because his teeth were chattering even though he was sweating, like he maybe had the flu or something. Still he kept walking; they had at least another ten miles to go.  "What films? The Little Rascals? Stag films?"

"Look, it all just happened, all right?" and it was weird to hear Steve’s aggrieved voice coming out of that big body. "I know you think that it’s me, somehow, that I’m looking for trouble—"

"Now why would I think that?" Bucky drawled.

"—but I swear to God, it just happened.  These things just happen to me."

"Sure, like the time your face just happened to get in the middle of a ruckus between the White Hand and the Italians which was none of your fucking business and you know better!"

"That wasn’t my—I told you, there was this—Jesus Christ, that was years ago," Steve moaned.

"Yeah, but it’s fucking indicative," Bucky said, and Steve really didn’t have an answer to that.

There was a moment when he thought he was done for, where he thought he would drop dead between one step and the next—and then, surprisingly, it passed. And after that, although he was still mechanically putting one foot in front of the other and sweating like a motherfucker, he felt like he maybe on the upswing. "I'm okay," he told Steve, who was shooting him worried looks in between commanding the makeshift army he'd raised out of fucking nothing; "I’m better," and by time they marched into camp, it was like nothing’d happened at all. He was dirty—they were all dirty—but he only had a bruise here, a scratch there; nothing important.  There was nothing noticeably wrong about him; nothing anyone could see, anyway.

And nobody did see: everyone was crowding around Steve, staring at him like he was a god made flesh or a movie star or something. The colonel pushed through the crowd, positively radiating affection for Steve while pretending to be annoyed with him; in truth, the colonel looked like he wanted to adopt him. And then the most beautiful woman Bucky’d ever seen walked past, with eyes only for Steve. Steve stared back at her—and Bucky'd never seen such longing on his face before, but then again, no dame had ever given Steve the time of day before. This dame looked ready to give him the whole goddamned calendar: New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve.

Bucky cleared his throat. "Let’s hear it for Captain America!" he shouted, and the men cheered and hollered and pounded Steve on the back and threw their hats into the air as Steve blushed. No one looked Bucky’s way at all; in fact, no one said a word about him until after the colonel'd bundled them onto a plane for London: Steve and Dum Dum and Morita and Gabe and Falsworth and Dernier and the beautiful dame, who was called Agent Carter. And him—him, of course.

"So you found your Sergeant Barnes," Colonel Phillips drawled to Steve, startling Bucky by using his name, though Phillips wasn't looking at him. "I suppose the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated," he added, which made Steve smile, but Bucky felt like he’d died on that operating table. He felt like a ghost.


He was careful about hugging Peggy—let her hug him, instead; let her squeeze his arms and stroke his face—but he did kiss her, gently but rather a lot; Bucky'd shown him that it was all right to kiss her. Kissing her was sad but sweet, because there was still so much there—enough to make him angry for all they'd lost. "You'll come back again, won't you," Peggy said, when he was gathering himself to leave, "and tell me what you've found?" and Steve immediately sat down again, fighting for control of his face, and said, "Of course I will; I'll come as often as I can, and I'll write, too—promise you'll write?" and he felt a small thaw of happiness at her smile.

They offered to call him a cab to take him back the train station, but he smiled and said no and instead walked back down the long drive in the dark. Natasha's car was parked by the brick post.

He sighed, went to the passenger side, and got in. Her face was glowing in the reflected red and green lights of the car's dashboard, which was more elaborate than the controls of any of the planes he'd flown. He didn't know the next move in their chess game, though at the moment he didn't give a good goddamn, because the only woman he'd ever loved was being helped into bed in the big house behind him, and the only man he'd ever loved was a pile of bones somewhere across the channel.

"Will you drive me to Dover?" Steve said.

"Sure," Natasha said, and then, surprising him—he'd thought they weren't going to talk about it: "You did well, you know. I tracked your Oyster Card to Hammersmith before I realized." Steve tipped his head, accepting the compliment and hearing the warning: now she knew that he knew that there were tracking devices in everything.

"So how'd you find me?" Steve asked, as she put the car into drive.  He wasn't expecting an answer, but Natasha did answer, her eyes fixed on the road: "You don't have that many friends."

He recoiled, stung. "That bitch," Bucky muttered from the back seat, though Steve wasn't sure how she'd meant it: was she trying to say that they should be friends? "How the hell are you gonna be friends with her when she's tracking you across Europe?" Bucky objected angrily.  "I'll lay even money they clap you in irons by the end of the week: this is a long rope they're giving you, pal, but you're gonna hang at the end of it, wait and see."

"I don't care," Steve choked out. "If I can find you again, I don't care," and now Natasha glanced over at him, frowning. "I'm sorry, what?" she said, and so Steve said, for her benefit. "There's something I need to do," he told her, "in Austria, and if I do it, I don't care what happens afterwards. I'll do anything you goddamn want," or he'd sit in his cell and write letters to Peggy, if they'd let him, or read the Bible if they wouldn't.

Natasha rarely gave anything away, but right now she seemed to be having trouble keeping up.  "Austria? If you want to go to Austria—it's an hour to Vienna by—"

"I don't want to go to Vienna," Steve said, aware he was being a pain in the ass, but not caring.  "I want to go to Innsbruck."

"To Innsbruck," Natasha repeated.  "All right. I can have SHIELD helicopter us to Innsbrook—"

"I want to take the train to Innsbruck," Steve interrupted. "From Zurich, through the Alps.  I want to ride the train that goes through the Arlberg Pass. I want to see the goddamned view."

Natasha opened her mouth and then shut it again and bit her lip, considering.  "I can ask for someone else.  Do you want me to ask SHIELD to assign someone else to you?"  and there was something in Natasha's voice that hadn't been there before; some act that had been dropped.  "You might get on better with someone else. A man, maybe. A soldier—a veteran," and behind him, Bucky barked out a laugh and said, "My God, she thinks you're a chauvinist.  Listen, lady," Bucky said, leaning forward, "this is Steve: he's just a garden variety pain in the ass."  But Natasha wasn't listening; she was going on, thoughtfully, "SHIELD has agents who are ex-army."

"How about no one?" Steve asked quietly. "I suppose there's no chance of being left alone?"

Natasha shot another look at him, and her mouth was amused but her eyes were sad. "No chance at all," she said. "But I think they assigned me to you because of the Avengers Initiative. So we could get to know each other."

"Well, you're really not seeing me at my best," Steve said.

"I've seen you at your best," Natasha replied seriously. "During the battle of New York."

Steve shook his head. "That wasn't..." but Bucky hunched forward between the car's enormous curved seats to say, "It was, though; you've always been at your best when you’re fighting—or fucking, though most people don't know about that. I think I've figured out why, too; have you?" and Steve stared out the window as he realized the answer to a question that he'd never even thought to ask.  "Adrenaline," Steve said, and then, realizing he'd said it aloud, he looked at Natasha and said: "That was just adrenaline," just as Bucky said, "Right-o, pal: adrenaline opens those shit-knotted lungs of yours right up. Must've felt great: well worth a punch to the face," and Christ, was it only that simple? Had he been fighting all his life just to breathe?

"I'll take you to Zurich however you want," Natasha said quietly. "We can fly or drive: go by ferry or train—"

"Can we just go, you and me?" Steve asked finally.  "Or do you have to report our movements every step of the way," because he wanted to keep SHIELD out of this, but if they were in it, they might as well be of some use.

Natasha didn’t answer right away; she seemed to be considering the question carefully.  "I need to send an all-clear each day," she said finally, "so they know we’re alive and that I’ve got eyes on you.  Beyond that…" She gave a casual shrug in her black leather jacket. "Beyond that, I think we could be invisible, if we’re careful."

Steve’s heart gave a little leap at this hint of freedom. "Okay. Okay. Now you’re talking…" but then Bucky muttered, "If you can believe her. If you can believe one goddamned word of her," and he would have popped Bucky one, except for how that was maybe even true.


Somehow he’d crossed into another world, Steve’s world: an underground bunker full of maps and laboratories and scientists running around everywhere; the world of the SSR. They had him and the other POWs from the camp looked over by fancy doctors, who pronounced them fit—though for what, Bucky didn’t know. He felt dazed, spun around: he’d somehow gone from a shithole to a prison to hell—and now suddenly he was here, sitting down to a real meal of hot food while a pimply kid in a British uniform came around with a bottle of wine, for fuck’s sake.

Afterwards, they took him from the underground dining room to a semi-private bedroom with two beds with real sheets and a nightstand and lamp in between, like in a hotel. Steve was sitting on the edge of the bed, spit-shining his too-large helmet with his skinny, angular arms. He squinted up at Bucky and said, "You don’t need me. He’s here. He’s actually here," and Bucky turned and saw—Steve. It was Steve. Larger, bigger than he was now, and standing in the doorway in his dress uniform. Steve—except he wasn’t wearing any of the faces Bucky usually pictured on him: he wasn’t being pissy or wry or sanctimonious.  This Steve looked like he had the day his mother died, his tight expression straining to hold back the floodwaters. Steve turned, shut the bedroom door and locked it, then reached for a chair and silently wedged it under the knob. Bucky stood there, vibrating a little in the silence and afraid a little, too, of this man he knew and didn’t know. Steve came over soundlessly and reached for him, arms opening—and it was the smell of him that did it, knocked him sideways; not the nearness, not the shocking, alien strength of the hug as they fell into each other’s arms, but the familiar smells of soap and sweat and the shaving cream Steve liked, and that weird little jar of pomade that—and Bucky’d never thought to imagine these smells, or maybe the smells of the ghost had never been able to overpower the smoke and shit and rotting flesh of war, and so helplessly he pressed his face to it, dragging his nose, his mouth, over Steve’s collar, the spicy skin of his neck, his cheek.

Steve grasped at him—clutching him, squeezing him, like he was trying to relearn the shape of him, hands drifting over his back, arms, shoulders, over his head, fingers trailing through his hair like he was maybe searching for bullet holes.  "I’m all right," Bucky whispered. "I’m all right, I swear to God I am," and Steve made a choked-off sound and dragged him in again and held him tight. Bucky made fists in the back of Steve’s jacket and breathed deep.

And like always, it wasn’t about sex with them until it was, until things caught fire between them.  Steve turned his head and kissed him, as casually as lighting a cigarette. And then it blazed up in both of them: they kissed and reeled across the room toward the bed on the far wall.  Steve was pushing and pushy like always, but now he was overwhelming, almost thoughtlessly strong in his affections, like an enormous dog leaping up to paw and lick without knowing its strength. Bucky stumbled backwards, holding on, all worked up just by the force of him. He clutched Steve’s head and kissed him, hard, deep, working his mouth open. They tumbled over together.

Steve came down heavily on top of him; the bed swayed and hit the wall and they just went faster, Steve’s hands scrabbling up Bucky’s side, tugging his shirt out of his pants. They undressed each other, roughly, by touch, not wanting their kiss to break, mouthing kisses across each other’s faces—Christ, the shocking tease of Steve’s tongue. Bucky grinned and nosed himself right up to Steve’s ear, whispered "Christ"—and Steve jerked above him, shot his hand out and yanked on the iron rail of the bedstead: crunch. And that just made Bucky shove his cock against Steve’s warm skin, sensation racing up and through him like an electric shock. He moaned—and Steve’s hand came down huge and heavy, covering his mouth even as the whisper came, hot breath in his ear, "shhh."

Bucky twisted his head. "You're the one," he muttered, "ripping the bed all to—" but Steve was moving over him awkwardly on knees and elbows. He slipped, knee swinging out on the twisting sheet, but when Steve settled down they were skin to skin, pressed together. Bucky could feel the heat of Steve's dick against his belly, his against Steve's, the symmetry of them. And then Steve was sliding a hand under him, tugging his thigh up even as he ground down and... ffffuck, yes. Bucky bit his lip and rocked up blindly into heat and friction, trembling as Steve’s cock dragged against his: the soft skin, the scratch of pubes, shocking, personal, this thing they weren’t supposed to do with each other. He curved his arm around Steve’s neck and kissed him, and they lurched into a stuttering grind: Bucky's arm coaxing Steve down, Steve’s fingers digging into his thigh and tugging up —until they hit it, the rhythm. Moving together, breathing in sync, their eyes blind and friction building fast between them; perfect. Steve was breathing little soundless exhalations into his mouth, oh. oh. oh., and with his blood rising, Bucky jerked away and said, feverishly, "I wish you would fuck me. You’re big enough. You should fuck me." Steve’s eyes went wide.

"I want to," Steve breathed. "I really—God, Buck, I—" and Bucky arched back and shuddered, his body surging with feeling—with good feelings, with good feelings finally. His heart thumped wildly and his cock jerked, his come splattering and cooling between them, against their flushed, sweaty skin. Steve hitched a breath and said, "oh," and squeezed his eyes shut. Bucky awkwardly clasped him while he trembled, wanting to hold him through it.

They held each other tight for a minute or two, panting and absently brushing their faces together, caressing—and then Steve found Bucky's ear and whispered, "I’m still hard. I still wanna," which was nuts, except for how he was still throbbing, too. He turned to stare, a little wonderingly, into Steve's face: was this the war, working on them?  Carpe the diem and all that?  He remembered what a goddamned aphrodisiac a draft notice could be: guys rushing to get laid because it might be their last chance, and all the dames taking pity on 'em. He and Steve had gone at it like like rabbits before he'd shipped out—but not like this, not all at once. Except his blood was hot, desire licking up his spine before the sweat had even cooled. It was like their bodies knew something they didn't.

"Trunk," Bucky managed to grit out.  "I've got—"   and he lurched up and shoved Steve over on the tiny bed to get past him to their footlockers, stenciled BARNES, ROGERS.  He felt ridiculous—half-dressed, shirt hanging from one shoulder, pants bunched and dragging down his left ankle, dick bobbing up and down—but he could picture exactly where to find the tiny metal tube in his footlocker. He flicked the latches with a practiced hand, flung the lid up, and dragged out his kit; a moment later, he was turning back to Steve with the tube in his—

Steve was sprawled across the rumpled sheets, acres of him, hard and unnaturally smooth and somehow desperate-looking at the same time. "Buck," he said, in a low, cracking voice—and that was Steve, his Steve: the Steve he'd dragged across the ocean with him and halfway across Europe, "I was so scared—and angry and crazy—when they told me you were—" but Bucky scrambled over him, shushing him, desperate and a little furious himself.  Dead. When they told me you were dead—except he wasn't fucking dead. Or at least he hadn't fallen down—or not yet.

"Shh," Bucky said and straddled him, pinning him down. "It didn't happen. I'm right here." He rubbed his cock against Steve's belly for a few jittering, electrical strokes, shuddering as Steve's cock teased his ass, under his balls.

Steve groaned and his eyelashes fluttered. "Right," he said, but he looked a little frightened, too; somehow unconvinced. "Just. It's all almost too good to be true, like a dream—because you've been with me this whole time, Buck, ever since you left," and Bucky clutched hard at Steve's shoulders and stared down at him.

Steve flushed pink but held his gaze, almost defiant; he was maybe embarrassed, a little, but he wasn't ashamed.

"I know how that sounds, but it's true," Steve said. "Everywhere I went, everything I did; you won't believe me, but—"

"I believe you," Bucky managed. "I do, I swear to—Jesus, c'mere. Kiss me," and Steve surged against him, cupped his head, took his mouth, rolled them over—and this wasn't a dream, Bucky thought, as Steve sucked hard on his throat and pushed slick fingers into him; wasn't a dream; it wasn't. Because in his wildest dreams he'd never imagined that Steve could somehow pick the lock on his own body and escape, had never imagined Steve all glowing and healthy like this. But here he was—a miracle, an angel, strong and perfect and broad-shouldered and Christ, pushing into him, stroking Bucky's hips with his thumbs and filling him, sending pleasure surging through him—blood, nerves, making his fingers twitch—and looking at him like he was the only real thing in the world.


They crossed by ferry in the end, because he'd already kept Bucky waiting sixty-six years and a few more hours weren't going to matter. And because Steve had once gone to France via Dover during the war, albeit very differently: now, standing out on the ferry deck with the evening wind in his hair, he could almost see their tiny boat on the horizon: Bucky looking sleek and dangerous in dark combat gear, Peggy with her hair pulled back and no makeup, but still radiant in the moonlight. At the time he'd cursed that goddamned moonlight: their promised cloud cover had blown away, and now there was the danger that, tiny as they were, they'd be spotted. Him, Bucky, and Peggy, on a stealth mission—crazy—to occupied Dunkirk, where intercepted intelligence had told them that—

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Natasha said, materializing. Her face was turned toward the cliffs behind them.

"Uh-huh," Steve said, only half-hearing her; he was still staring at the ghost of their little boat. That mission: that was where Peggy and Bucky had really come to terms, because by God, Peggy could sail—she was glorious—and Bucky's instincts were such that he could follow directions before you'd even said them aloud. They'd been like a house on fire, that mission: the two of them yanking ropes and wrestling the boom and the tiller this way and that. Steve had mostly ducked and gotten the hell out of the way. His job was to sit where Peggy pointed, wherever she wanted his weight. So he sat, holding on and marveling at the fact that he wasn't seasick: a side effect of the serum.

"Peggy sailed at school—she went to some fancy school," Steve heard himself saying. "Bucky and his family went to Lake George in the summer; they had a car." Natasha was nodding politely, but Steve suddenly felt the enormous futility of it. Everything he had to say sounded crazy; everything was impossible to explain.

"You didn't give her the big picture," Bucky said, irritated, from his other side. "You gotta talk about the big picture: the mission and the boat—oh, and also, not to break it to you, but I'd been on like three boats before we sailed to fuckin' occupied France in the dark. I didn't know a damn thing about boats—I was just doing what Peggy said."

"Three boats is more than no boats," Steve objected, and then he coughed and said, turning awkwardly back to Natasha: "I'd never been on a little boat; just the ferry—in Brooklyn. But we sailed to Dunkirk in 1944, Peggy and Bucky and me. We were trying to intercept a Hydra scientist who was coming from Norway and headed to Paris."

"To the Institute," Bucky said, biting his lip and nodding.  "What was his name, Franz something?"

"Zurbruck," Steve said; he remembered it like it was yesterday. "Franz Zurbruck. The Nazis had found some artifact in Norway that they didn't understand and—" Steve frowned; Norway. That made more sense, now that he'd met Thor and his homicidal brother: made some kind of sense, anyway. "The expert they wanted to consult was in Paris—occupied Paris. Hydra'd set up their flagship research facility there, right on the Rue Lauriston."

"Just down the street from the Gestapo," Bucky growled. "They were living high on the hog, those assholes."

"Torture by day, Beaujolais at night," Steve gritted out.  "Enjoying all that Paris had to offer."

"Fuck Paris," Bucky said savagely.

"Fuck Paris," Steve echoed; Paris had seemed to them like a city without a soul. "But we didn't go to Paris—not that time. We had to intercept Zurbruck in Dunkirk—or that was Peggy's job, really. We were just there to protect her: get her there, get her back. She was the primary on that mission: she was a codebreaker, she spoke French…"

Steve drifted off in the memory: once they'd wrestled the boat onto the French shoreline, Peggy had shucked her tactical gear and slipped into a floral print dress. A coat of bright red lipstick later and she was indistinguishable from any of the pretty French girls in town. It was always easier to have Peggy with them—

"—when we were in France, yeah," Bucky agreed, nodding, "not just because she was the best fucking operative we had, but because with her around, nobody took a second look at us." Bucky hooted a laugh: "Hell, you could've been wearing the outfit and juggling balls through the town square and nobody'd look twice at you, pal."

Steve grinned helplessly; that was only the truth.  Not to mention that if Peggy was there, you could always pretend to be—The memory nearly bowled him over. Bucky and Peggy pressed together in an arched doorway, her pale arms twined around his neck, his hands pushed up under her silk floral skirt. They kissed—just as the gendarme, a member of the Carlingue, the Gestapo Francaise, passed within a couple of feet. Across the road, Steve pulled his gun and thumbed off the safety: if the guy made a move, touched one hair on either of their heads, Steve was going to…. But the gendarme barely spared them a glance, just rolled his eyes and laughed, hardly breaking stride.

"You can always count on the fucking French," Bucky said.  "Distract ‘em with sex or cigarettes or both."

"I miss cigarettes," Steve sighed, and then he turned, because Natasha had laughed out loud.  "What?"

The wind off the water was whipping through her red hair. "You used to smoke?"  She looked delighted.

"Everybody smoked," Steve replied.  "Not like now.  It was cheap and it was something to do."

"I know. All Russians smoke. And I was a dancer, once," Natasha told him.  "All dancers smoke, too."  She was staring at him intently now, with her clear, intelligent eyes; she was giving away more than she usually did. 

"I understand more than you think I do," Natasha said finally. "I left a world behind, too. So I know what it is to look at a place…" She turned toward the gray waters of the channel.  "…and see it with more than one set of eyes. My first trip to England was with the Bolshoi. I performed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I had my first glass of champagne. My second trip, I seduced and blackmailed the Minister of Finance for Japan.  My third trip…"  She trailed off, hands clutching the railing.  "Well. Let’s just say I played a small but crucial role in the assassination of a Ukrainian politician." She looked at Steve and said, with a quick, hard smile, "Sometimes I still look around and think—God, the decadence. The West is swollen with capitalist greed and spiritual degradation—"

"It is, though!" Steve interrupted, shocked into honesty.  "I mean: it really is."

"I know. But I won't tell if you won't," and when Natasha laughed, Steve found himself laughing with her; really laughing, for the first time since he'd come out of the ice.


So it was a team the SSR was recruiting him for: a team of elite commandos, whatever the fuck that was when it was at home. He was pretty sure it was going to be exhaustion and shit and mud and pain, like the rest—but the team was going to be Steve's team and so that was the beginning and the end of it. And maybe, just maybe, elite would mean that they'd get a hot meal and a semi-private room between missions, and he'd get to make love to Steve a couple more times before he died again. That thought made him smile into his glass of whiskey; his third. Cheap bastards had watered this stuff down so much that you could hardly feel a thing. He downed it and waved for another.

When Steve finally rejoined him at the bar, he was smiling.  "See, I told you," Bucky said. "They're all idiots."

Steve sat on the stool beside his and gestured for the barman to pull him a pint.  "What about you?" Steve said, deliberately casual. "You ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?" and Bucky flicked his eyes up from his whiskey: because it had been the other way around, hadn't it?  Steve had followed him into the jaws of death—and plucked him back out again. If it weren't for Steve, he wouldn't be here at all—hell, if it wasn't for Steve, Bucky wouldn't be sure he was here now. The pub blurred a little around the edges; the whiskey kicking in, finally.

When he looked up, Agent Carter was standing there in a red dress, as beautiful a dame as he'd ever seen outside the pictures. She was staring at Steve like something out of a cartoon: with a knife and fork, practically. Bucky cleared his throat and made a play, but no dice: she didn't so much as spare him a glance before slinking off, taking Steve's eyes with her. Bucky opened another button on his shirt; he was sweating, it was hot in here, or maybe that was the whiskey, too. They said you should never drink alone—but he wasn't alone, was he?

"What's the story with you two?" Bucky waved at the barman; thank God for the barman. "She's clearly taken a shine to you: is it against orders or bad for morale or something? Because otherwise it's time to make your move—"

Bucky stopped; he knew Steve well enough to note that little twitch of—Shame? Pride? The penny dropped and Bucky laughed and straightened and clapped Steve hard on the back. Steve's deep flush was only confirmation. "Holy shit!" Bucky said, and Steve waved for Bucky to lower his voice: as if anyone was listening to him. "You already made your move—"

"She made it," Steve said, low and embarrassed. "Back in Brooklyn. Before…you know," and he shrugged awkwardly and gestured vaguely at himself: at his new, healthy body. "She…it came out, you know... that I'd never…" and Bucky turned his face away: he felt suddenly teary and so, so glad that that glorious battleship of a woman had had the good taste to take his scrawny pal for a tumble.  The evening abruptly fell into a new light: Peggy Carter had come down here, in a red dress, for what?  Christ, he'd been an obstacle, invisible though he was.

"Hey," Bucky said to Steve, low and sorry, "I didn't mean to… Just say the word and I'll disappear."

Now it was Steve who looked teary. "Don't you dare, pal. Don't you goddamned dare."


They drove Natasha's car off the ferry and powered down the A26 toward Switzerland. Steve was intentionally abrupt in his suggestion that they take a hotel; they couldn't all be bugged, could they?  "How about that one?" Steve said, pointing, and Natasha shot him a sharp look but immediately steered the car into the tiny curved drive and pulled up…before the valet, Steve realized with a pang of guilt.  Natasha slid out, and Steve quickly hauled himself out of the low car, after her.  "Bags in the trunk," Natasha told the valet, smoothly handing over the key, and then she was striding toward the revolving door and into the fancy, gleaming lobby, Steve trailing behind her.

"Screw them," Bucky said, revolving in after them. "They're so flush with cash, let 'em pay for a decent room," but the room they gave him was more than decent: it was sublime, with a glass wall on one side and a balcony overlooking the lake. He drifted toward it, staring at the lights. Behind him, Natasha coughed politely.

"I'm next door," Natasha said, when he turned, "if you want me." Steve absently thanked her. She smiled and went.

His rucksack had been put on a chair, so he went and showered and changed into pajamas, then pulled out his laptop computer and went to sit at the desk.  The internet had the most wonderful maps, and he was surprised at how well they correlated to the rough drawings he'd made from memory. The mission had been burned into his brain: the route of the train through the Alps, the wire they'd run across the track. They'd set up their ambush at an abandoned signal station, just after the Arlberg Viaduct. That was easy enough to map out. The hard—the difficult—the thing his brain didn't want to do was to track the route afterward, after he and Gabe and Bucky had landed atop the train.  How long had it been? Two minutes? Three?  The train had been going like the devil—far too fast for the snowy conditions. Steve looked away from his laptop screen and stared down at his sketchbook, seeing the narrow gorge between the mountains, the enormous, snow-covered trees. Two and a half, maybe three minutes… He moved his pencil along the route he'd drawn.  "Stop," Bucky murmured. "That's it," and Steve sketched, lightly, a cross: a grave marker. The middle of nowhere, miles even from the tiny villages with their cuckoo clocks and their TB sanatoriums: all ski resorts now. He could still be there. Christ, please, let me find him; let him still be there

There was a knock at the door, and Steve's head jerked up.  "Yes?" he called, a little uncertainly.

"It's me," Natasha said, and Steve frowned, closed the laptop, and hurried into the bathroom. They'd left a robe for him behind the door. He slipped it on and tied the belt quickly.

"Coming!" Steve said, and went to the door.  He hesitated, then opened it just a few inches; it still didn't feel quite decent. Natasha peeked in through the gap, looking freshly scrubbed, damp-haired and smiling—then pushed her bare arm through the gap. Steve frowned and jerked back, surprised, as she waggled it—and then he laughed.

She was holding a pack of cigarettes: Lucky Strikes.

"Where'd you get that?" Steve asked, and opened the door wider.  Natasha was standing in the hall, holding a bottle in her other hand—clear glass, with a silver screw top: vodka, he surmised. 

"Shop in the lobby," Natasha replied, shrugging. "I had an impulse—thought maybe you'd want one, too."

"Danger, danger, boyo," Bucky said in a low whisper from behind the door, and Steve could see what he meant. Natasha was wearing a sleeveless undershirt and some close-fitting pants in a soft fabric, like a light jersey. They weren't quite pajamas—people wore similar clothes on the street—but they clung to her, well, everywhere, and she wasn't…that is, she didn't seem to be wearing— "You can see her nipples," Bucky said. "Or I can anyway."

Natasha looked at him expectantly, made a face.  "Can I come in?" and Steve, helpless, stepped away from the door.

"She's doing it on purpose," Bucky told him, "you know that, right?  If she'd made herself up, you'd've gotten suspicious—so she's dressing down, letting her natural beauty shine through. Which: fair enough, she's got a lot of it," and that was true: Natasha was even lovelier without makeup than she was all dolled up. "Just don't be fooled," Bucky cautioned, drifting after Steve as he followed Natasha across the room. She took two glasses from the sideboard and headed out onto the balcony, to the little table and chairs. "She's seducing you. That's what she does."

Natasha sat down, tucking her legs under her, and poured vodka into their glasses. Steve picked up the pack of Lucky Strikes, packed the tobacco, and unwrapped the cellophane.  He lit one without thinking and handed it over to her; it was muscle memory, this kind of courtesy, and he missed it. Natasha smiled and took the cigarette from him, and he lit another for himself; inhaled and breathed deep. They picked up their glasses, clinked them, drank.

"That said, you 100% ought to fuck her," and Steve choked; Natasha looked over at him in alarm. "Two women in your life, it ain't excessive," Bucky argued. "Besides, it's what she's come for.  She'll teach you things you never even dreamed of, I bet. Then she'll eat your head," Bucky said cheerfully, as Steve put his glass down and took a deep drag of his cigarette, grateful to have something to do with his mouth. "Which is okay, too; it's not like you're using it."

Steve smoked meditatively, looking out over the water, using his hand to cover his grin.  I'm using it, he thought. For another five minutes I'm using it.

"What's so funny?" Natasha asked, smiling—and truth be told, he could imagine going to bed with her. It spooled out in front of him, a clear road to follow: he'd go to her and kiss her, let his hands gently smooth along the warm, soft jersey that covered her curves. She would follow his lead, pretend to be a little shy because she thought he was. But she would let him take her into the bedroom and undress her and kiss her all over. He would lick the undersides of her high, firm breasts, take her pointed, perky nipples between his lips, kiss her thighs. He'd gently lay her on her back and do her in the missionary position, and she'd think him sweet and a little sentimental, maybe: foolish, gentle, a relic of another age. And when he was deep inside her, and they were shaking and rocking together, he'd drop a sucking kiss on her neck or bite her lightly on the ear and say, "Okay, so what else have you got?" because he'd maybe been shy, once, with women; but that was before Peggy. Before Peggy and Bucky and…well.

Natasha raised her eyebrows inquisitively.  Steve laughed and let smoke blow out through his nose.

"Nothing," he said.  "Everything.  I miss smoking," he said.


The SSR gave them new uniforms and their own custom gear and parachuted them straight back into the war—everything the same, but different, because now everything worked. Before, Bucky'd been running from muddy hole to muddy hole while Steve, invisible to everyone but him, tried to stop him from getting his ass shot off.  But now, Steve was where he was meant to to be—up front, visible, and in charge—and it was Bucky who'd learned how to disappear, to melt away into nothingness, to be the shadow thrown, black and long, from Steve's back.

They never saw it coming, any of them. Bucky'd climb up high, find a vantage point, or slip into a crack between trees, between worlds.  He'd take aim and—blam —clear the space around Steve, let him walk around in his brightly-colored get-up with his head held high. Bucky liked that—it made Steve seem invincible, casting dead men at his feet. Even the others—Gabe, Dum Dum, Dernier—began to look at Steve with awe and unease, as if they'd forgotten that Bucky was there with his rifle, eye fixed on Steve and ready to kill anyone who looked at him wrong.

"I've got your back," Bucky whispered into Steve's mouth, first thing in the morning, last thing at night; another privilege granted the shadow. "Stay where I can see you," and Steve would nod, his face hot, and say, "I will, Buck; I will."  He did, too—but then again, Steve had always stood tall, even when he was short; wherever there was trouble you could find Steve, standing there at the center of things and refusing to take anyone's shit.

Steve also had a goddamned knack for knowing where Bucky'd concealed himself, no matter how clever or obscure the nest. It was like a sixth sense; even on the battlefield, bullets flying every which way, it was like Steve could sort his bullets from the rest and track 'em back to his location. "I can, actually," Steve told him, one freezing night, when Bucky'd thought to mention it to him; they were huddled up together under a blanket in an abandoned watch station, waiting for extraction: they were to be smuggled out on a freighter and then rendezvous with a motor gun boat in the North Sea.  "I know that you're there: I can feel your eyes on me, watching me," Steve murmured, his breath warm against Bucky's chilled skin. "It's like living in the sight of God," and Bucky's mouth pulled helplessly into a grin and he turned to berate Steve—what blasphemy, you know better—except there was nothing mocking in Steve's expression. Nothing at all; rather, there was something fond and warm, a softness around the mouth, and if Bucky turned his head, a little—He brushed their mouths together and snugged in closer: stole breath and heat.

It was easy to be with Steve like this in the war—everyone was strange in the war. London was harder: there were obligations in London, demands on Steve’s time, and there was Peggy, too, to be accounted for. But London had its compensations: food and drink and crowds and music—everything they were supposedly fighting for—and one night after he and Steve had come back from a mission, singed and dirty but alive, Peggy turned to Steve and said, decisively, "Let’s go dancing. Yes, now," and when Bucky tried to melt away, to leave them lovebirds to it, Peggy had surprised him by grabbing hold of his arm and saying, "Sergeant Barnes, wait; you, too," and when Bucky stared at her, in open-mouthed shock, Peggy had simply added, coolly, "I’m told Steve can’t dance for beans."

It had been a long time since anyone had addressed him directly; Bucky felt exposed and a little frightened, if he was honest.  He looked at Steve, who nodded, wide-eyed—he’d never have contradicted Peggy in anything; Do What Peggy Says was his motto. "Well all right," Bucky’d said slowly, "sure, I’ll go; so long as we dress for it," and so they had all dressed for an evening out, him and Steve in their best uniforms and Peggy in a red dress, and then she’d surprised them by flashing the keys to what turned out to be an open-topped roadster. It was a long-nosed Austin one-seater, which they all crammed into with Steve in the middle and which Peggy drove being as she was the only one of them accustomed to driving on the wrong side of the road and which Peggy drove—as it turned out—like a maniac.  It was exhilarating, terrifying, the way Peggy drove, pedal to the floor, weaving in and out of traffic and taking roundabouts at full tilt with her hair flying, and Bucky began to suspect for the first time in a long time that maybe he wasn’t actually dead after all, because Peggy’s driving put him in fear for his goddamned life and gave him a hard-on, to boot.

They went first to the Paramount which was packed and hot and where they danced and drank till they were flushed and sweating—Peggy was a good dancer, and she took him for the fast numbers and Steve for the slow ones. Then they stumbled out, piled back into the car, and drove (too fast) along the Thames to the Stork Club. The band there was Latin and Steve, flushed, was reluctant to rumba, but he and Peggy dragged Steve out to the floor and gave him cover to move his hips without dying of embarrassment by sandwiching him between them and dancing together, all three. The dance floor was crowded and nobody cared: people were dancing every which way and in every permutation, some of them this close to actually copulating, hands in pants and up skirts. Others, breathless and panting, left the club hurriedly.

After a while Peggy drained the last bit of her drink and nudged them toward the exit. It had started to rain, and the dark, wet street outside the club was deserted. Peggy covered her head and took off, running, in the rain, and they followed her down the street and around the corner and under a little red crop of awning in front of a doorway. There they huddled close, trying to stay out of the rain, and it was only then that Bucky noticed that Peggy was gripping his arm with her red lacquered nails and that the door behind them was stenciled, in gold, HOTEL.  Bucky looked, shocked, at Steve—but Steve was staring at Peg, and Peg had a defiant look on her face and—come to think, Peggy had clearly been working her way up to something. He tried to step back, to slide away—this had already been one of the best nights of his life, the kind of night he’d always imagined for him and Steve in New York: out together, dancing—but Peggy held on tight enough that he’d really have to fight to get away and otherwise ignored him. She was focused entirely on Steve, who said, thickly, "Peg, are you sure?"

She bit her full lower lip and nodded. "Yes," she said. "He’s always been the ghost in the room," and so Steve turned to him and asked, in a low, desperate voice, "Will you, Buck?" and what, what kind of a question was that?


The next morning, they went to Zurich Main Station and boarded a gleaming new train bound for Innsbruck. The train had enormous windows and bright blue leather seats, and the laminated brochure in the seat back had a map of the route and promised Spectacular Views of The Alps—a promise that drove Steve out of his seat and on to his feet, sweat beading on his forehead. Natasha looked up, frowning, and Steve said, "Sorry, I need to—sit by myself." Then he went and found the conductor and bought another seat and the empty seat next to it, though Bucky never showed up.

It was as bad as he’d feared; worse, somehow, because it was so cheerful. The train was packed with happy families going on a ski holiday in bright winterwear, and the sky was bright blue and the sun was gleaming off the snow-topped mountains. Steve refused to look at the map but knew, still, in his body when they got close—and then realized he wouldn’t be able to just sit there and ride past it, like a tourist, and so got up and walked down to the end of the car and through the door to stand on the little enclosed platform between the trains. Above him was a hatch, and Steve glanced quickly in each direction to make sure that nobody was coming before yanking it open and lifting himself gracefully onto the roof. The blast of cold air was familiar, the wind and the speed, and Steve hunkered down and hung on.  They were past the Swiss ski chalets with their brightly colored bunting, past the rebuilt Austrian towns. This stretch of track was desolate, apparently unchanged by time, and it was easy to imagine himself back in the past among the primordial mountains, glacial snow and enormous trees.  How long had it been?  Sixty-six years?  His body felt it as a month, maybe a month and half.  He was afraid to blink. His eyes watered.

Was it there?  No. There? No, not there, either.  Though that turn—and what he didn’t expect when the train curved and the landscape, the proportions, slotted eerily into place, was the voice in his head that whispered, Jump! Jump now!  And he nearly did. Nearly: Steve had to suck in an icy breath of air and tighten his hands on the cold metal handles. The train rattled past the site of Bucky’s death and curved around the mountainside, past the signal station where they’d waited, past the zipline, and went deeper into Austria, leaving the Howling Commandos behind.


That night passed in a haze of sensuality, almost a dream: all of them in one bed, kissing and touching each other. Peggy was as bold here as she was everywhere else, flinging her bra away and climbing into his lap, slim arms twining around his neck. He kissed her breathless, those lips of hers that had said his name, and pushed up into her, grinding their bodies together with Steve right there, chest pressed to Peggy’s back and fervently kissing her shoulders, stroking her heavy breasts with his hands. Steve was crazy for her, that much was evident—and fair enough, because she was a knockout, and brave and stubborn, too: just his type. Bucky came with a hitch of breath, gasping, nearly choking—as sweet a first lovemaking as he’d ever had—and Steve, wild-eyed, practically shoved him out of the way to get to her, tumbling her laughingly over onto the bed.  He slid his long hands into her dark curls as he dropped down on her, and kissed her, and pushed into her, and then he let out a groan that—Bucky sank back, arm draped over his eyes, and trembled. Steve was pushing through his come, and Peggy was making little guttural noises, and they were speeding up, moving together. This clearly wasn’t their first time at the rodeo: Steve and Peggy fucked like lovers who knew what they liked. The bed lurched as Steve reared up, hand dragging down Peggy’s hip and then tugging at her knee, pushing her thigh higher—and then Peggy let out a moan of explosive relief and began to laugh. Steve laughed, too, hips still jerking, and then he was groaning and collapsing, listing sideways so as not to crush her underneath his weight.  He landed hard against Bucky, and for a moment, they all just lay there, panting at the ceiling. And then Steve surprised him by rolling toward him and muttering, "Come here, you," and then Steve was kissing him right in front of Peggy. Bucky stiffened helplessly, the muscles in his shoulders bunching—it was a stupid time to get shy about things—but Steve’s mouth against his was insistent, familiar and real, pushing, coaxing, stubbornly drawing him into the kiss, into the fuck of their bodies against each other, and after a while he forgot to think of Peggy. It was only later, after he’d come again, that he heard the soft sizzle of a match and looked over to see her sitting against the headboard and lighting a cigarette; she was wearing his uniform hat and red lipstick and nothing else, so that was all right. Peggy took a drag and then offered it to him—he reached out and took it gratefully, inhaling deeply. After a moment, Steve elbowed him and he handed it on.

"Round two?" Peggy asked brightly, and—ha!—oh, my God.


From Innsbruck they backtracked to an old hotel nestled high in the mountains near where Bucky had fallen. Steve continued to be unnerved by how goddamned pleasant everything was: the hotel had a steeply arched roof and every window had a window box of bright red flowers. In his mind this whole area was a barren mission-site, but it was obviously a lot more now: full of rich, healthy people in expensive ski clothes. Natasha fit right in.

Natasha, Jesus. He’d hoped to offload her in Innsbruck, but she hadn’t taken him up on his suggestion of a hotel. Now, though, she had to stay behind; he couldn’t bear to have her follow him any further. He rehearsed the speech he needed to make to her; he would beg her, if need be. Please. Don’t ask any questions. I need to go into these mountains. And I need to go there alone. He would get up at first light and search all the impossible places, the cravasses and the ravines, the snowy crags. Looking for a bit of blue fabric. A glint of metal. Anything at all.

Today, however, was dedicated to reconnaissance.  He and Natasha walked around the bright, cold village with its cheery landscaping and quaint, Swiss-style architecture, and eventually found themselves outside the town hall—the Gemeindeamt, or maybe they called it the Stadtamt or Magistrat around here: he wasn’t sure which word the Austrians used.  He went in, figuring they might be able to provide him with the most up-to-date maps of the area.

His German hadn’t had time to get rusty, and the words came easily enough when he needed them—"Entschuldigen Sie bitte, gibt es in der Nähe Bergpfade?"

The man at the information desk frowned at him.  "Für Wandern? Die beste Aussicht ist..."

"Nein ich suche etwas. Jemand. Jemand den ich verloren habe," and he maybe shouldn’t have said that, because the man suddenly lit up and said, "Ah dann sollten Sie mit den Archäologen sprechen.  Kommen Sie mit," and gestured for Steve to come with him. So Steve went, shooting a confused, apologetic look at Natasha, who just shook her head and followed.

They went through a door and down a flight of concrete steps; the air got noticeably colder, and Steve realized that the official, the Beamte, was leading them to a part of the building that had been carved out of the mountain itself. That should have been his first clue, but he wasn’t thinking; the second clue should have been the shiny, insulated double doors, but he was distracted by the rest of the room, which was lined with tables and—that was a German helmet, wasn’t it? On a green metal tray. A pair of driving goggles with the lenses missing. A rusted fork and spoon from a mess kit. A scabbard for a K98 bayonet. A razor. A disintegrating ammo pouch. A harmonica. Part of a field kitchen. There were people coming toward them, two men and a woman, and the Beamte was explaining that they were part of a joint expedition, Austrian and Italian, who specialized in the Archäologie der extremen Umgebungen, the archeology of extreme environments. They had excavations going in a number of places in the Alps, and while they were primarily occupied with documenting the White War, the trench war that Italians and Austrians fought between 1915-1918, they’d found a number of Artifakten that clearly dated from the Second World—and that was his writing, wasn’t it? The chatter around him receded, though for the love of God he ought to have been paying attention ("Many have come to us in search of lost relatives,") but that tattered hunk of paper was surely part of his field notebook, pages he’d normally have burnt, but there, at the frozen camp they’d made at the signal station, he’d been jealous of the match and who the hell was ever going to find a bit of paper buried at the top of a mountain?

"Ja, ja," one of the archeologists said, seemingly delighted by his interest, "that, there, we found at an old signal station near the Arlberg Viaduct that we think was occupied by British commandos—notice that the writing is in English," and he was pointing carefully with a wooden stylus at words which, indeed, were written in English, because he had written them: "not completed before the middle or end of March." What had that been about? He couldn’t remember. The archeologist went on, "Most interesting, since most relics found in this area are Austro-Hungarian.  We also found the remains of a pulley and cable system. And then, here, just to the south…" and Steve was so lost in trying to remember what wouldn’t be completed before the middle or end of March that he missed his last and final clue; or rather he saw it, vaguely, the porcelain sign besides the double doors as they invited him in (Leichenschauhaus), though the translation, in oh-so-literal-German, only slowly seeped through his distracted brain (corpse show house?) before he was inside the cold room and staring at the five metal tables.

Morgue. The word snapped into place. Though it was more than a morgue, it was a literal freezer, because the tables still had chunks of glacier on them, blocks cut out of the ice and removed, entirely, with their contents.  Men.  These were men…or they had been, once. Now they were husks, abstract sculptures of leather and bone, flesh and clothes fused together. A few details jumped to make you realize that they had once been men. The perfectly preserved heel of a military boot. A seamed sleeve over a bare arm bone: no hand at the end.  And there—a mummified skull, twisted, a single tendon still visible, and besides him the muzzle of a rifle rising out of the ice.  One of the archeologists was telling him that a love letter had been found in this man’s pocket, signed Maria—and time was telescoping, he couldn’t breathe, he was having an asthma attack. Bucky was 26 and strong and healthy, over six feet tall and standing just there in his memories. Flushed, blood pumping, and Steve could get him hard just by trailing a hand over his side, or down gently from the small of his back to the slope of his buttocks.  "Goddammit, Steve,"  Bucky would growl, "you just wait," and he wasn’t one of these desiccated exhibits, he couldn’t be, Bucky wasn’t that old—it was still summer, goddammit, and Bucky’d only died in March—

The hand that closed around his arm was surprisingly strong.  "Walk," Natasha said, in the voice of every C.O. he’d ever had, and it was only then that Steve realized he was half-bent over, sucking violently for air through his teeth, and everyone was staring at him.  "Walk and keep walking," she commanded, and Steve straightened immediately and walked, Natasha half-shoving him, half-marching him through the doors of the morgue and up the concrete steps and out into the Alpine sunlight. But the mountain air was cold, like the morgue—and of course it was a morgue, the whole place was; the whole Earth.  A giant, slow-turning morgue that contained everyone he’d ever loved—and the hand on his arm tightened almost painfully, keeping him moving, and what a sight they must have made, striding across the village together without ever looking at each other.


He would remember, forever, having sex with Steve and Peggy by candlelight in the abandoned carriage house they’d stopped to sleep in just outside Paris. In London, they’d turned up their collars and skulked to hotels under cover of darkness, but here in the upside-down world of the war, being discovered having sex with your best friend and his best girl made you seem rather less suspicious—or at least, it provided a credible reason for your acting suspicious other than, say, being a spy or a saboteur in occupied France. If they were caught, all Steve had to do was jerk his blond head up and shout angrily, in German, for whoever it was to fuck off; Steve’s serum had given him not only strength and health but an eerie facility with languages, so much so that Bucky felt that he was almost catching on second-hand, somehow; so many foreign words now seemed transparent and obvious to him.

Steve seemed to like watching him fuck Peggy, and Peggy seemed to like watching him and Steve hug and kiss like they used to in Brooklyn: long and deep and sloppy. It seemed to rev them up, so that when Steve and Peggy finally came together, they fell onto each other like beautiful hungry animals while Bucky himself lay in the shadows and smoked.  When they finally fell back, satiated and drowsy, he would sometimes creep forward and kiss their faces as they slept; other times he slipped out to stand guard over them, or to do surveillance, feeling invisible and right.

That night outside Paris, Bucky got up and dressed silently before the guttering candles, which cast orange light on Steve’s pale hip, the curve of Peggy’s breast, and loaded up with knives. At the door, he turned back to look at them, and saw that Peggy was awake, her dark curls tousled, her eyes fixed on him. She nodded and he nodded back.

They’d discussed this; Steve didn’t like it, but that was his whole job, really: to do the things Steve didn’t like.

So he slipped out, silently pulling the rough-hewn door behind him, and went like a ghost down the dark, cobblestoned street: come morning, some Hydra personnel wouldn’t be reporting for work at the Rue Lauriston.  Not for the usual reasons—that they’d eaten too richly, drunk too many looted bottles of Burgundy or fucked too many whores—but because their throats had been slit in their beds.


When they finally reached the hotel, Natasha dragged him past the concierge and up the steps and down the hall and, without a moment’s hesitation, pushed him into his room after producing his key from her pocket and unlocking the door. Steve stumbled in and looked around, but Bucky wasn’t here—Bucky wasn’t here—and Natasha was locking the door behind them and pulling down shades and drawing the curtains with quick, efficient movements like she knew what was going to happen.  He himself didn’t know—had no idea what was happening until it was happening, until he was falling down onto the bed on all fours and screaming soundlessly, tears dripping down onto the fancy fucking bedspread, which was coming apart under his clutching hands.  He was bucking like a horse, trying to get it off him, throw it off him, the horror of all those bodies, the senseless waste of his entire generation, and it took him a while to recognize that he was actually screaming out loud, and so he dragged over a pillow and buried his face in it.

And in the end he couldn’t throw it off.  It saddled him, hard, and after a while he collapsed, face-first, down onto the bed, gasping, trying to get used to this new pain.  And there was Natasha, kneeling on the bed beside him, her arms loose and at her sides, ready to slap him or taser him or fuck him as necessary. She was staring down at him with those huge, gray-blue eyes, and Steve rolled onto his side and said, tearfully, savagely, "Archeologists."

"Yes," Natasha said simply, and then she made the decision for them by peeling her shirt off, over her head. Her body was nothing like Peggy’s, she had nothing of Peggy’s voluptuousness.  Instead, she was slim and muscular, with small, high breasts that fit into his hands, and he reached up for her and toppled her over and rolled on top of her in one smooth motion. Her hands slid into his hair and dragged his mouth down to hers, and he pushed deep into the sweet warmth of her—and he knew that she expected him to be a bad lover, but he wasn’t, because Peggy wasn’t, and Bucky wasn’t, and he himself had always been an imaginative and determined sort of person. Still, Natasha clearly wasn’t expecting it, and he recognized her surprised laugh as he gripped her hips and lifted her up and ground against her until she gasped and fluttered around him; it was the laugh of surpassed expectations. He could almost see her adjusting her assumptions, and for their second go-around she pushed him harder, demanding, her fingers digging into his shoulders and pulling him in for brutal, impassioned kisses and pulling on his hair, a little, which hurt, but was good, good; distracting. He didn’t realize that she was trying to exhaust him until their third go-around, when she did something he really liked: managed to squeeze his cock between her smooth thighs while pushing her fingers into him, and he nearly whited out from the pleasure of it, Bucky’s face swimming behind his eyelids, and he could feel her triumph at his ecstatic, gape-mouthed reaction: she’d picked him like a lock, cracked him like a safe.

He collapsed back onto the ruined bed, and then turned, dragging his crooked arm over his face, but she slid her arms around him and held him and after a while he let himself fall into her and wept bitter tears into her hair.


And he’s happy as he strides in the dark toward Paris. No one sees him, and it’s better that no one can see him: Steve sees him—and Peggy, too, even if she mainly sees him as an extension of Steve: his dark shadow.

Years later, when he stands in a museum and sees that they’ve mistaken his death date, he isn’t surprised. It’s an easy mistake to make. He was dead for almost a year and a half by his reckoning—but that was all right. There were compensations. He got to sleep in Steve’s arms practically any time he wanted, which was all he wanted.


When he was finally empty and exhausted, the Black Widow propped herself up and looked down at him, and he saw a mirroring emptiness on her face. There was sympathy there, too.

He stared into her gray-blue eyes—ageless—and said, "How old are you anyway?"

The corner of her mouth curled up.  "Depends how you’re counting. How old do you think I am?"

"About my age?" Steve replied immediately, and then, because that needed clarification, "Mid-twenties?" and her smile—genuine, wide and gorgeous—told him how wrong he was. But, of course, he wasn’t twenty-seven either; not anymore.  "When—what year were you born?"

For a moment he thought she wasn’t going to answer; then she did. "Fifty-six," she said.

He blinked at her a couple of times. "You’re fifty-five years old?"

"I do Pilates," she said. "Maybe it’s Maybelline."

It’s not possible, Steve wanted to say, but of course it was; he was ninety-three.  If they gave her the serum—

She anticipated the question. "I didn’t get what you got," she said. "It was something else. But it’s kept me alive—for better or for worse. This is why you have to stay with SHIELD," she said.  "I didn’t know how to explain before. But you have to stay with your people; us, your kind.  There’s no point loving anyone; they’ll just die," and the terrible vision swam up before his eyes: corpses so decayed they were just bits of leather and bone.  Was Bucky like that? He couldn’t bear to think of Bucky like that. "Steve," Natasha said softly, "do you understand?"

"Yes," Steve said, meaning he understood what she was saying—and if she took that as agreement, so be it.


He doesn’t see it coming. He doesn’t know that this is the mission: there are so many missions, all terrible, hilariously impossible. He doesn’t know that this kiss is their last, though thank God it’s a good one: a kiss to remember for years, decades, the whole hellish eternity. They are hurriedly dressing in a tiny lean-to built on the side of a mountain, their breath clouding around them. Gabe will already have been on the horn with HQ confirming their orders, and Bucky’s about to duck out of the tent when Steve grabs him and drags him in and kisses him—

—their cold lips and cheeks warming to blazes and Bucky feels the embrace of Steve’s warmth and strength even through their cold weather gear and two sets of armor. He smiles against Steve’s mouth; this is their secret and their strength; the invisible force that no one else can see or understand. Some people have religion. They have this.

Zola’s train at T- 2 minutes. They’re opening up the throttle; wherever he’s going, they must need him bad. Mind the gap. Maintenant!  I had him on the ropes.  I know you did.

Bucky, hang on!  Hang on! Grab my—!

And he falls

And he falls

And he






Steve says, “It’s going to be all right. You’re alive and it’s going to be all right. They’re Russians, they’ll rendezvous with us at the Elbe. You’ll see, it’s all going to be—"


Steve hisses, “Get up, you have to fight the bastards, keep fighting, get up get up get up—"


Steve whispers, "Just hold on. You've got to buy time. There'll be a way out, but you've got to survive long enough to spot your chance and—"


"It's all right," Steve murmurs, stroking his forehead. "It's okay to let go. Te absolvo, pal; I'm stubborn but I'm not crazy," and then Steve is grabbing him, pulling him up by the hand and hauling him out of his body. Now he can see himself down below, strapped into the chair with the bit between his teeth, jittering and shaking as they turn the machine on him. Blood leaks out of his mouth, and there's a piercing whine as the monitor flatlines again; Christ, he's so sick of that sound. "I mean, death's not so bad," Steve says thoughtfully. "Considering the alternatives."

"You're dead, aren't you?" he asks.

"Yeah," Steve says; and of course he is.

"I—I need a drink," he stammers, and Steve shrugs and says, "There's always McAllister's." The place is empty, cool and dim, but there's a long wooden bar and a row of stools—

—and he jerks up when they stab the needle into his heart and push the plunger and—


Steve says, "Никому про меня не говори. Я буду твоим тузом в рукаве. Блин, да просто вообще никому и ничего не говори," which is good advice; maintaining your silence gets you more independence: leeway on both sides of the mission. Two nights in a shit hotel before the intercept and three days off the grid before extraction is 120 hours in the land of the living if you don't sleep, and why would you sleep? You can sleep when you're dead. (Steve thinks that’s funny.) You can push it for almost two weeks without raising alarms; after that, a tremor goes through the system. You have to go to them before they come to recover you: their lost property.

You feel like you should be able to make something of this time, but you don't know what. You don't know where to go or what to do; you don't know anybody and nobody knows you.

You're a dead man; a ghost. The only one you've got is Steve.

But a hundred hours is enough to read a book; you find a beat-up paperback on a sad little shelf in a cupboard at the Lincoln Hotel called 1984, which you pick up thinking it’s maybe an almanac or something, but it isn’t; it’s the kind of book you—that you—

(“Used to like,” Steve whispers.)

—with a great opening sentence about a clock that is striking thirteen. It’s the story of your fucking life, and you hole up with it in your shitty room at the Lincoln and read it fast, and then slow, savoring it, and then again.


A hundred hours is also enough time to scratch an itch, to take a trip, to go and see if you can jog what’s left of your swiss-cheese memory. There are places that provoke a nervous trembling: certain streets in Paris, for instance. You spend hours at the cliffs of Dover, unnerved and unable to leave without quite knowing why. Once, after an assassination in Houston, you feel suddenly compelled to board a bus for Chicago and then a train to New York, moving like in a dream.

But when you get to Brooklyn, everything’s wrong: off in a million small ways and ten big ones, and when you get to— ("Your house,” Steve says. “This is where your family—”) —there’s nothing there, just a chain link fence and a vacant lot. You grasp the links with your metal fingers and double over, because the world is spinning, and Steve is here except he isn't, because it's been years, hasn't it, since the war, since Steve died in the war, except the war never ended; you know that now. There is always a fight. Oceania has always been at war with—


When you open your eyes, you find yourself sprawled on a cot in a flophouse. The sheet you're lying on has been washed so many times it's paper thin, nearly see-through. You can't remember how you got here. Around you, there are other men, muttering and twitching: soldiers, though not from your war. Some of them have lost arms, like you have, or legs, or their minds: chemicals or drugs, voluntarily or involuntarily supplied. You know all about that.

The shelter has a communal shower and a breadline. Everyone's lining up to get food and so you do, too; you don't want to draw attention to yourself. An old woman ladles out a bowl of stew and gives you a piece of bread, though you're not sure your system can handle this kind of rich fare anymore: they feed you by tube when you're asleep, and when you're awake, food isn't a priority. But you eat to show gratitude, and to fit in with the other men sitting at the long tables. They all eat like they're starving, hunched over their plates and mopping up gravy with crusts of bread.

You're the last one at table—or almost; Steve is down-a-ways on the other side, and he still seems to have an appetite, though his clothes are full of bloody lacerations and his eyes are purple hollows. Even dead, Steve's got to fuel that enormous body of his, so you push your half-eaten bowl of stew down the table toward—

"Young man, are you all right?" You contain your first impulse—to lurch up and break the wrist of the hand that dares touch your shoulder. But the hand is gentle, the eyes in the bald, freckled face are watery but warm. A moment later, you notice the clerical collar.

For a moment, you're lost; for a moment, you don't know whether you should reply in Russian or English; is this a mission? Why is he here? What is—? and you look desperately over at Steve, who puts down his fork and stares at you, then begins to shake his head slowly; no; no.

"No," you repeat, and that's the answer to the old priest's question: no, you are not all right; you are not right at all. Across the table, Steve's hand moves from forehead to chest, shoulder to shoulder—and so you cross yourself and then grasp at the old priest's sleeves, trying to explain who you are and what you've done. It all comes out in a jumble, of course: Steve, the war, how they won't ever set you free, now; not after all the death you're responsible for. How the war won't end.

It doesn't come out like you want. It's been so long since you talked to anybody.

But the old priest is listening like it makes sense, listening with total concentration and nodding along. Finally, he says, "Your country's done you wrong, son. You and all these other boys. But the blood of this war's not on your hands; no, no. You are partaking of the suffering of Christ, soldier. And that suffering is not meaningless," and something hurts, something dies inside you, but you can't bring yourself to tell this old man how very wrong he is. So you just turn away.

Still, it feels like a blessing to be able to lay your head down in a room with other men, like you're still one of them; still human. When you close your eyes, you dream that Steve is on the cot behind you, battered and wrapped in bandages, but alive and reading one of his books: War and Your Mother, maybe.

It's two days before your handlers arrive, dressed like police officers, to claim you. You'd expected them before now—it must be more than two weeks, now, that you've been gone—and so you put up a struggle while pretending not to have any idea who they are; amnesia is your best defense. You can't let them know you remember anything, which is something else that Mr. Orwell understands better than most. "If you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself," Mr. Orwell wrote. "You must know all the while that it is there, but until it is needed you must never let it emerge into your consciousness in any shape that can be given a name."

The name of your secret is Steve.


Everything you want to remember, you attach to Steve, so that Steve is the only thing you have to remember. It's a kind of self-hypnosis, though you leave yourself other clues, too. Steve is the scar you cut into your right arm. Steve is the itch that prickles the back of your neck.

Steve says strange things, sometimes; things you don't quite understand.

"This was never the mission," Steve tells you.

"This isn't the war we signed on for," Steve tells you.

"Your name is James Buchanan Barnes—Bucky. You come from Brooklyn—" and that, that's just ridiculous, because whatever your name is, it isn't Bucky, and how can you come from Brooklyn when you remember…you're nearly sure you remember…. You are in any case sure that you are the New Man, novy sovetsky chelovek, because how else can you be doing the things you do? You are a vessel of hope: a new biological type. The Soviet Union depends on you, and the century depends on the Soviets; collectively, you will liberate everyone who has been ground down. You are working against poverty; against war, against fascism; for order and peace—

That face in the mirror—blond, with a slightly crooked nose—isn't yours. You stare down into the basin for a moment, hands braced on each side, then look up and meet Steve's reproving eyes.

"Is my name really Bucky?" you ask, feeling sick; some terrible fear is creeping up your spine.

"Yeah," Steve replies sorrowfully. "Yeah, it is, pal," and Bucky nods and presses his fists against his eyes until Steve disappears again. This is going to mean extra time in the chair, because they'll know: they'll smell it on him, and burn his name out of him again. But it's worth it for these few minutes of clarity. This isn't the mission; this isn't the war he signed on for.

His name is James Bucky Barnes.


His name is



You have always been at war with Oceana.

Chapter 3


"Get in the car," she said, leaning across the seat to call to him through the passenger-side window—but Steve didn't even slow down; in fact, he didn't so much as look at her: just kept walking down the shoulder of the road, army bag slung across his shoulders.

She was speechless, she was so pissed off, and for a moment she debated just flooring it and leaving him on this stretch of nowhere road with a cloud of dust in his face...except she couldn't do that. Because Steve was her people, and you had to stay with your kind.

So she kept the Corvette rolling slowly, pacing him: "C'mon, Rogers—don't be like this." Steve's face, in profile, was implacable. "Just get in the car. Look, there's nothing for miles. Don't give me such a hard—" But he kept walking, so she put her foot on the gas and shot forward, jerking the car to the side of the road up ahead of him and then slamming on the brakes, cutting him off. She threw the car into park and got out, glaring, her hands on her hips.

Steve came toward her, jaw set, and then stopped.

"Steve, you are a goddamned international fugitive," she declared. "Clint and Scott have cut deals, and Sam's working on one, and Wanda—well, she's playing her own game. Which leaves you and me and—" She hesitated; she wasn't sure what to call him. "—Barnes, out there in the cold. And if I can find you, they can find you, okay? You think you're just going to disappear into the proletariat?" and clearly Steve did think that: he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and an old windbreaker, like any ex-soldier hitching a ride, maybe looking for work. "Well you're not. They're gonna find you, and him too, if you don't have a better plan than—"

She stopped talking, because Steve was letting the duffle bag slide off his shoulder. She lifted her chin and braced herself, because she knew what Steve Rogers was really like in a way that most people (except Barnes) did not. They thought Steve Rogers was polite, gentlemanly, and hopelessly old-fashioned.

In fact he was mostly just taciturn. But not with her.

"You know, I didn't just fall off the turnip truck," Steve shot back. "I can live on nothing. I've done it before. Meanwhile, you come driving up here in your fancy car—"

"I know how to steal money," she said.

"The key is to make money last."

She crossed her arms. “I have friends in low places."

"—who will all betray you in the end, and you know it, which is why you've come to—" and Steve stopped then, but it was too late: they were staring at each other in blank horror, because damn it, the flip side of knowing Steve so well was that Steve knew her too, really knew her, in a way that most people (except…) did not. For a moment she stood there, quivering, fighting down the urge to give him a knee to the balls. Except Steve was staring at the ground, red-faced. He was sorry for his insight, and hating himself for his tactlessness; she could see it.

Finally he scratched the back of his neck, an awkward gesture. "I…uh," he began. "Well," but that seemed to be the end of it; he popped the trunk of the Corvette and put his army bag in next to the sleek black case that contained all of her worldly belongings.

And got into the goddamned car.


"Сесть в машину," she hissed out the passenger-side window, because he had to be nearby. She leaned to peer out—and jumped as he suddenly darkened the side mirror. But he didn't get into the car; instead he slid back and banged his fist on the trunk, which she quickly bent to unlatch. She watched through the rear-view mirror as the trunk rose and then came down again with the Winter Soldier inside. She took a breath and then slowly pulled away from the curb, driving at a relaxed pace and letting her face go blank. She was just a girl driving around San Salvador, hardly noticing the thickening of traffic behind her, barely aware of the sound of sirens growing closer: completely oblivious to the shouts and sudden, piercing screams.

Inevitable, really, that their paths should cross: she'd expected it before now, to be honest. Somehow he'd gotten to Hernadez Marti before her, but she couldn't be angry: he'd saved her an unpleasant job. Her sources said that Marti was too well guarded for a straightforward kill, so she'd been prepared to cozy up to him at Ciela Vista, and had brought a tiny blue silk dress with her for the purpose. But the Winter Soldier had succeeded with the direct approach—right between the eyes—so she figured she owed him at least an assist on his escape.

But where to? When she'd decided on this course of action—offering him this quick, unplanned ride, knowing that if she'd seen him, he'd certainly have seen her—she'd assumed that he'd tell her where to take him. She was prepared to take his orders, and she figured he'd direct her to a safehouse, or an airlift: a rendezvous with his team of handlers. She hadn't imagined him locked in the trunk of her car, and her having to decide what to—where to—

Okay. First thing she had to do was find a place where they could talk without anyone seeing, and she thought she knew where that might be. There was a hotel up in the hills; it had been lovely, once, but the owners had abandoned it and fled to Guatemala when the war started, which was just as well; there were no tourists in El Salvador now. She worried, as she drove along the old road, that the place might have been commandeered by militias, guerillas, or gangs, but when she came up the drive she saw no one: there was just the shuttered hotel framed by two dusty fountains and a courtyard overgrown with weeds.

Still, to be safe, she pulled around to the back, taking the car out of view. She kept her eyes open for a security guard, a caretaker, or a gardener, but there was no one. She pulled up into the back courtyard where the dryers vented and the food was delivered, and parked beside a door marked Employees Only. Then she went around to the trunk and popped it open.

The Winter Soldier stared up at her, steely eyed, and—fuck, how was he even conscious? The blood oozing between his fingers was bright red, and the black leather of his jacket was iridescent, shiny and thick with it. A million things flashed through her mind in a fraction of a second—bandages, tape—they would kill her—was there a KGB safehouse or—why hadn't she minded her own goddamned business?—(you know why!)—but then she took command of herself because the Winter Soldier wasn't going to die, he was a super soldier, damn near invincible. So she should stick with the plan: ask him where he wants to go and take him there; take his orders.

"Soldat," she began, "I await your—" but he was rolling, gracefully, out of the trunk, one hand still pressed to his side where he'd taken fire, though he didn't seem to notice. He turned around quickly, warily, all animal instinct—dryers, dumpsters, weeds breaking through the concrete, the screen door leading to the back of house, hospitality and housekeeping—and then went still and listened intently. She listened too, though she didn't hear anything except the faint pinging of the car's engine as it cooled. He, though, seemed to be attending to a voice only he could hear.

"Yes, it's good," he said brusquely, abruptly, and she wondered if he was maybe wearing an earpiece or had a commlink that she couldn't see. He went to the door labeled "Employees Only" and forced it with one kick, wincing after like it had cost him. Then he went inside.

She stood there a moment, blinking at the empty concrete flower pots, and then followed. He'd disappeared somewhere down the twisty hallway which led through the hotel's back of house, but there were drops of blood on the dirty tile floor. She went past a laundry room, a large industrial kitchen, and a business office, where the wall calendar still read 1979. Further down, the door to a storage closet was ajar, but she didn't know what had been taken until she came to the general manager's apartment, where she found the Winter Soldier bent over a linoleum-topped table where he'd dumped out the contents of a first aid kit. "Let me," she said, and if she expected an argument, she didn't get one; the Winter Soldier immediately lifted his hands and let her take charge. In a moment she saw why: his body armor was constructed in such a way that he couldn't take it off on his own—he'd been armed for battle by others, and now needed to be un-armed, disarmed. She studied his jacket for a moment, then deftly undid its buckles and straps, sending a reservoir of puddled blood splashing onto the table. The thin white sheath he wore was bloodsoaked, and she took the knife that materialized in his hand and sliced it from his body. The flesh beneath was raw, shredded—and he roughly squeezed nearly an entire tube of antibiotic ointment into the wound and covered it with a thick pad of bandage, which he strapped down with long strips of tape that he tore with his teeth. "That won't—" she began, but who was she to say that it wouldn't work? He knew his body; no doubt he'd been here before. She watched as he roughly taped down the whole mess, then moved to the steel sink to wash away what blood he could. When he finally turned back to her he was pale, nearly white, though there were deep purple hollows around his eyes.

She stared at him, still anticipating orders, but none came. "Is there someone I should call?" she asked finally.

The Winter Soldier looked at her, and then said, strangely, "No."


In the end, she had to apologize, because—okay, Steve really did know how to disappear into the proletariat. She gave him the keys to her Corvette, and he went away with it and came back with a nondescript blue Toyota and a duffle bag full of money in small bills. Then they drove to Chicago, where she learned that Steve spoke Polish and that his superpower was shamelessly appealing to the neighborhood babcias, who plied him with cakes and fruit and sent him to talk to their brothers and nephews and cousins. It took Steve two days to secure a basement apartment with its own kitchenette and garden access and a job setting up scaffolding that paid cash. Her own Polish was flawless, but flawless wasn't the game here. Once she figured out Steve's play she went to a thrift store and bought herself some clothes more appropriate to the part he'd cast her in. Then she plucked her eyebrows, cut her hair and dyed it blonde.

They'd already fallen, without conversation, into being a couple, both because it made them unremarkable and because it was easier to live it than to fear being caught out. Still, she wondered how far the charade would extend behind closed doors. Steve was, as always, respectful of her space, though he never pretended to prefer to sleep on the couch or the floor due to propriety or whatever; if there was only one bed, he took half of it and passed out. But it felt different to be living together in a place that wasn't a barrack or a motel; they were setting up a base of operations where they could live quietly while they gathered intel and made plans. Which meant it would be home for the foreseeable future. Their home, their table, their bed—and when she finally gave in to curiosity and reached out for him across the darkness, he didn't pull away. He stilled, but only for a moment, like he was talking it over with himself. Then he groaned and rolled toward her, heavy and warm and shockingly full of tenderness, and they made love like it was actually love and held each other close for a long time afterwards. She hadn't expected Steve to be good in bed, but he was, and not in the modern way of showing-off for some unseen porn camera. No, Steve made love like every time was the last time, like there was a war on. Steve used his body like the warranty on it was about to expire.

He surprised her in other ways, too. She hadn't anticipated that he would be the one to engage the world outside their door, but that's how it worked: Steve left the house before dawn and came back sweaty and tired but with a wad of rumpled bills in his pocket and a bag full of groceries, mostly vegetables. Sometimes a chicken. She didn't know what the fuck to do with the chicken. She, meanwhile, would have spent all day on her computer with the shades drawn, hacking the intelligence agencies and trawling the undernet. When she left the house, which was rare, it was to buy burner phones, and she took care to powder her face so as to look pale and tired, then put on cheerful lipstick in a shade that didn't suit her. He has a sick wife, the babcias whispered; poor thing, they said, and gave Steve an eggplant, or some sausages.

She didn't know what the fuck to do with the eggplant either, but Steve did. Steve was a magician when it came to food—he came back with near-rotten vegetables and day-old bread and somehow turned them into meals they could eat. If it were up to her, they'd be living on take-out sushi and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but Steve could feed them both for a week on a single chicken, making separate meals of the breasts and the thighs and the drumsticks and the wings, sauteing the liver and the giblets and mashing them on toast, boiling the carcass for soup. Each night over dinner she thanked him with genuine gratitude for his Depression-era know-how, then launched into that day's intelligence briefing, which was her contribution to this arrangement. She was trying to map all the power-players in the new, post-Accords world—and to chart all likely threats now that Earth's mightiest defense system was full of holes. Thor was offworld, and Bruce continued to evade her, somehow managing to avoid vibrating any thread of her web. But she had a bead on all the other Avengers, and now she was carefully putting out feelers to detect threats, galactic or domestic.

Steve listened intently to her reports, but showed no inclination to leap back into Avenging; he was licking his wounds, she thought. And as their breadwinner, his concerns were more local.

"Look, uh," Steve said, after her second outing for phones. "I, just. Um," and she knew to stop whatever she was doing and pay attention when Steve turned that particular shade of red. He wormed something out of his jeans pocket and thrust it at her. It was small enough that she could barely see it glinting between his thumb and forefinger. She took it and for a moment didn't know what it was, couldn't imagine what kind of tech the ring was part of.

She'd been hanging out with engineers too long. The plain gold band was a wedding ring.

She raised her eyebrows. "Are you worried about my reputation?" she asked.

He laughed, surprised. "Actually, no—to be honest, I was worried about mine. Mrs. Kuharksi won't like me so much if she thinks that I haven't made an honest woman of you, and she's been giving us three loaves of bread every week!"


She watched as he began a rapid, methodical search of the one-room apartment. Unlike the hotel suites, which she remembered as having been charmingly, if eccentrically, furnished with mismatched antique beds, desks, and chairs, the manager's apartment was full of cheap modern stuff made of formica, vinyl, teak veneer. But there were left-over nonperishables in the kitchen cabinets—bags of rice and beans, oats and tins of fruit cocktail—and there was probably more food somewhere. There was no power, but there were plenty of candles in the cupboard, and the stove was powered by a quarter-full propane tank. The Soldier moved into the small sitting area to search the desk and inspect the bookshelves. Then he yanked open the drawer of the tiny bedside table—and slammed it shut again in obvious irritation.

She thought he might lie down finally, but instead he strode out of the apartment. She debated following him—what if he left the hotel? But if he left...well, she might be off the hook. So instead she went and boiled water for tea. There was no milk but there was honey, and —

He returned carrying a stack of battered paperbacks in English and Spanish—Cien años de soledad, A Theology of Liberation, El Jeton, Slaughterhouse-Five—and seemed vaguely surprised to see she was still there. "Do you want tea?" she asked helplessly, and again he tilted his head to the side, like he was listening to some inner voice only he could hear. Then he nodded slowly, as if wary of some trick, and flicked his eyes between the couch and the bed. Finally he limped toward the couch and settled down on it with a soft grunt, maybe because it gave him a better vantage point on the room or maybe out of some gentlemanly instinct.

"I don't need the bed," she said, on the off-chance that it was the latter. "And you're injured," she added, setting the tea down carefully on the coffee table before him. "You should sleep."

The Winter Soldier's pale eyes bored into hers. When he spoke, his voice was scratchy from disuse. "I can sleep when I'm dead," he told her, and then he bent his head and began to read Slaughterhouse-Five—and did he mean that to be funny? Was he—was that a joke?


She liked watching Steve eat. He sat at their small table wearing work shirts that strained to bursting over his broad shoulders and biceps, carefully removing the tops of soft boiled eggs or salting bread that he'd dipped in beef tea. Steve appeared to be brimming with youth and health, but his true age was evident the way he held his napkin, how he buttered his rolls. He drank black coffee that he boiled up in a saucepan. She hid her smile behind her hand, or behind her expertly crafted blankness. She wondered if this was how women felt about men 100 years ago, when everyone did backbreaking work and came home with dirt etched into their faces. That made her smile more, because she could almost hear Steve's tart reply: that they'd been doing that the whole time: as soldiers, as Avengers. At least now they were doing honest work.

"Stark's had a quiet week," she reported; she'd finished her own dinner but Steve was still earnestly chasing calories around his plate. "Just a Stark Foundation gala, a film premiere, and—oh, yeah, he came in second in a stock car race somewhere out on Long Island."

"He must have been furious," Steve said wryly, still chewing.

"Livid," she confirmed. "Now he's back at the compound and rebuilding his car from scratch—which sounds like a distraction, if you ask me," she added, tapping her nose. "Work that doesn't need doing, a thing to think about that's not what he can't stop thinking about. Meanwhile, I got an update on Rhodey, too: He's doing gait work, according to medical records which I shouldn't have. So he's back on his feet again, anyway."

Steve looked grave. "That's good about Rhodey."

She flipped the page on her memo pad. "Parker kid's mostly keeping out of trouble—"

Steve looked up sharply. "But?"

"But it looks like he's doing a bit of community policing," and at Steve's raised eyebrows she elaborated, "Mostly intervening in street crime—you know: thieves, muggings, fights. Standing up for the little guy. I guess he doesn't like bullies," she concluded, and crossed her eyes.

"Sounds like a real pain in the ass," Steve concluded. "What about Vision?"

She sat back in her chair. "Well, now, that's interesting. Everyone says Vision lives at the compound—except, according to AMELIA," AMELIA was the AI who presided over the new Avengers compound, Artificial Magneto-Electrical Live-Intelligence Assistant, or something like that, "—whenever Tony leaves the compound for any significant amount of time, Vision goes too." Steve's eyebrows flew up and she nodded. "Just disappears.Takes off—but wherever he's going, he's always sure to get back before Tony does. So Tony has no way of knowing that V's not where he's supposed to be unless he thinks to check AMELIA's logs, which—why would he? And nobody else at the compound has noticed Vision's strange comings and goings either."

"That is interesting," Steve said, frowning. "Do you think—?"

"—that he's going to see Wanda? You bet," she said.

Steve's frown deepened. "Is that why she won't come to us?" and she shrugged: sure, why else? "We could tell her that we know about Vision," Steve said. "And that we don't mind."

"Yeah, but she'll mind; I think she's trying to protect us. She's prepared to expose her own position to Ross and those guys, but not ours. Which is fair enough, Steve."

Steve sighed and rubbed his eyebrow. "Sure. But someone keeps going on about staying with your people," and then he surprised her by reaching for her hand and squeezing her fingers. She grinned and squeezed back. "So what about the rest of them? Anything from Sam?"

She made a face. "No. He's still negotiating," because unlike Clint and Scott, Sam was refusing to plead guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence. Clint would have signed anything, and "house arrest" with Laura and the kids was his idea of a perfect life. And Scott was an ex-con, happy to plead to another felony if it got him back to his daughter quick. But for Sam it was different. Sam was a decorated member of an elite Air Force unit, and he'd been honorably discharged. He felt strongly, as a veteran and as a black man, that he was not going to sign a confession or carry a criminal record just because it made things less embarrassing for people in high places. And as far as Sam was concerned, he hadn't done anything wrong: siding with Captain America had been an act of conscience. And then Steve had broken him out of the Raft, and Sam wasn't going to trade that freedom for nothing. He was willing to negotiate, but he wasn't going to lie.

Steve gave her a hard look. "You think they'll give him a fair shake?" and she wanted so much to say yes, of course because she wanted Captain America to be able to believe in the system they'd both given their lives to. But the truth was—no; no, she didn't. Because the powers that be had never properly appreciated the Sam Wilsons of the world, and she didn't think they were about to start now. She thought that Sam would be coming to join them sometime soon.

In lieu of a reply, she reached into the pocket of her loose-fitting skirt and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and a lighter. She lit two and passed one over to Steve, then tore that day's briefing notes off the pad and set them on fire in the painted ceramic bowl they used as an ashtray. "I think it'll be great to have Sam with us," she said, and Steve nodded grimly, understanding that for her answer. They smoked meditatively and watched the pages burn.

"What about your boy?" she murmured after a while, when it seemed like the right time to ask. "Any news?" A muscle in Steve's face twitched and she knew the answer even before he took the small, vibranium sphere from his pocket. It was dim and dull, and Steve stared down at it like an exhausted god contemplating a dead world. "Nothing," he said flatly. "No word," and she nodded and dragged on the cigarette hard enough that she felt the burn of it deep in her lungs.


In the end, he did sleep; she went to soak the beans and found that the Winter Soldier had drifted into a fever sleep, book dangling from his metal hand. Sweat beaded on his face, and she wiped it away with a cool damp cloth, which seemed to calm his restlessness and ease him into deeper sleep. She debated coaxing him to move from the couch to the bed but decided it was better to just let him rest. It grew dark and she lit candles. She curled up in the room's single armchair and watched him as she ate rice and beans, trying to game out her next move.

Every so often, he came suddenly, terrifyingly, awake: opening his eyes to stare at her through the darkness. The first time it happened, she had to remind herself that he was wounded; he wasn't going to leap at her, slit her throat or rip her to pieces. She was unnerved by the metal of his gaze but lifted her chin, refusing to show it—and then he closed his eyes and was gone again, just like flicking a switch. After that, though, she was less afraid, and she tried to take advantage of these brief, intense moments of consciousness to move close to him, to connect with him: wiping his brow, making him sip water, checking and changings his bandages.

But he said nothing, gave nothing; just let her tend him. He never even asked who she was.

In the end she couldn't bear it. "My name is Natasha Romanoff. I grew up in the Red Room. They call me the Black Widow," and then she told him the thing that needed saying, the thing that had swollen up inside her, and was near to bursting. "I have your blood," she said.

His eyes stayed fixed, riveted on her; they looked almost gray in this light, like they were made of vibranium, too. She stared back. He wasn't going to say anything to her, she realized. He wasn't going to acknowledge her at all; after all, he hadn't said anything yet.

And then the Winter Soldier said, "I'm sorry," and his voice was as rough as a scrape.


Since the very beginning of the Cold War, Soviet scientists had been trying to engineer a version of the serum using the Winter Soldier's blood. This turned out not to be a simple matter, as their counterparts in the Strategic Scientific Reserve could have told them. They guessed at the compounds, the proportions, the activating wavelengths of light. For over a decade they killed mice. Finally, they came up with a variant that produced results, improving muscle mass, stamina, healing, and strength. They moved on to testing on dogs: all the dogs died. They went back to killing mice.

She was twelve when she became part of the first group of human test subjects. Normally they would have run trials on a drug so dangerous and unproven using political prisoners or other defectives, but that wasn't an option here: the last thing the Kremlin wanted was a superpowered cadre of dissidents. Instead they decided to inject half of the twenty-eight students of the Red Room, and so took her and the other girls in two straight lines from Moscow to the Vector Institute of Biotechnology in Koltsovo, which was housed in an old mansion from the before times, all crumbling plaster and high ceilings. The commandant treated them well, like princesses, serving them a fancy dinner on china and crystal the night before the procedure. The commandant raised a glass to their beauty, their patience, and their courage

She considered making a run for it, but she wasn't sure where she was, and the moment was lost.

They were woken up early and taken to the lab before breakfast. She guessed it had perhaps once been a ballroom, but now it contained fourteen gurneys with lights above and trays of needles by their side. They strapped her down and told her to be calm, to be proud. We are making you strong, they said. We are treating you with the Winter Soldier's blood.

She knew who he was, of course. He appeared in the Red Room like a comet. He was unmistakable in his presence, in his silence. His arrival signaled that there would be fighting: once he fought each of them individually; once he fought them all at the same time. In neither case was it a fair fight. He moved through them relentlessly; they could barely touch him. Her own memory of the collective fight was him reaching out to grab her face and slamming her head down to the mat and—boom, she was out like a light, and concussed for two weeks after. When she fought him one-on-one, she crouched low, heart slamming in her chest, then tried to fake him out by leaping up—she had a good jeté even then—and pinning him with her legs. It took him aback, and he reeled and whirled to shake her off before simply dropping to the mat, with her riding him down. She got in a couple of good kicks—would have broken his ribs if he'd been a normal man, and she got points in her final grade—before he grabbed her by the throat.

That's all she remembered. He'd been instructed not to hurt them.

God only knows if he'd wanted to hurt them.

But it meant that she already knew of his strength and his speed and his skill. Some said he was 50 years old; others said 70, or 100. They said he was a prince, a Romanov, Alexei Nikolaevich, and that the serum had been developed to cure his hemophilia. He did resemble the old photographs, which she'd studied at length because of the name they'd given her.

She was looking for traces of herself. She found him instead.

It was something to hold on when the agony started. They are giving me the Winter Soldier's blood—and what was it that Madame B. always said? There's no triumph without suffering. She didn't remember much about getting the needles, other than it was awful and it took forever: long enough that she wanted to die and then moved past wanting to die, went to a pale-yellow no-space that she stared at with a kind of numb interest. Eventually she opened her eyes. The draft played with the long, sheer curtains covering the ballroom's impossibly tall windows. It hadn't gone as they'd hoped. They gave her clear broth to sip. There were many empty beds: six girls had died during the procedure, and two more were dying now. None of the survivors showed evidence of superpowers: no strength, healing, stamina, or increased mental acuity.

So nobody was more surprised than she when she picked up two hundred pounds without blinking. They'd asked her to try lifting one of the barbells, and so she had, picking it up and holding it in one hand like an empty suitcase. Around her, everything went still—and then there was a jolt of electricity, shouts and people running in from other rooms. Someone took away the weight (comically, nearly dropping it on his own foot) and asked her to pick up another one, a larger one. So she lifted four hundred pounds. Five with effort. Six-fifty—and there were cries of joy and back slaps and a bottle of something being passed around. She was hustled into more tests: bloodwork, bone marrow, DNA. They discovered that she could jump ten vertical feet and had three and a half times her previous lung capacity. Her metabolism was hopping. She felt fantastic. She liked the way they looked at her—respectfully, stepping out of her way.

She thought she could take all of them, if she had to. Even better: they thought so, too.

They studied her from every angle and then tried to replicate the results. They took half of the remaining cohort from the Red Room—and this time, four died and three survived, pained but unchanged. They tried again, and lost six out of seven—and then there was hell to pay, because they'd killed eighteen of their twenty-eight ballerinas, girls who would have fought for them, girls they'd selected and trained. An argument broke out, to which she had a ringside seat. What the hell are they going to do with one super soldier? They need more of her, more like her. They need to try again—and so the decision was made to recruit fifty more girls.

They killed nearly three hundred before the program was shut down. All the scientists involved were sent to Siberia. The commandant was brought to Moscow and shot.


She'd secretly hoped that having the Winter Soldier's blood would exempt her from the trials of the Red Room, but that turned out not to be true. She was given a mission: Boris Lenkov, the head of Moscow's largest crime family. He was protected by his own private army, but he had a weakness: a taste for young girls. And so each year, the KGB sent him a girl from the Red Room. It had to happen anyway—they were all being trained to be whores, as well as assassins—and so it became a political tool like everything else: for access, kompromat.

So she was next on the menu. But that wasn't all. Lenkov had been a little too greedy, a little too careless. Now the Kremlin wanted him dead. So she'd be smuggled in and out with the utmost discretion, as all the other girls had been. She’d let him do what he wanted. But she’d also poison the champagne he liked to drink afterwards. The poison would be slow-acting. His bodyguards wouldn't know until after she was gone.

It was a good plan.

She was swathed in a hooded cape and put into a car with tinted windows. They drove her to a luxury building in Pluschika, where Lenkov occupied the top five floors. An armored garage door opened and she was put into a private elevator. When the doors opened, he was there. Lenkov was tall and hard-bodied, wide as a wall, blonde like a Viking. All smiles—huge hands. He murmured something complimentary, then put a meaty hand on her back and pushed her through rooms of art and antique furniture. His bed was canopied and covered in furs, but he steered her toward a velvet couch instead. Beside it stood a bucket of iced champagne.

It was all very civilized until it wasn't. But she'd been told what to expect. Lenkov would whisper a stream of assurances—it's all right, don't worry, I won't hurt you—because he was turned on by the fear they provoked. So she gave him a double helping: widening her eyes, shrinking back against the cushions. He liked that. She focused her mind on the mantra they'd taught her, willfully disassociating: it would all be over soon, and then he would drink his champagne and be dead. Except... She peered curiously up at his flushed face, his dilated pupils. He was looking at her, devouring her, but not really seeing her, because he was already turned inward, entirely focused on himself and his own pleasure.

She reached up with both hands and broke his neck with a swift, hard crack.

He fell, heavily, onto her, and she shoved at him till he fell onto the floor with a soft thud. She exhaled in relief and stared up at the painted ornamental plaster of the ceiling: it was very pretty. Her left earring was suddenly crackling with profanity and panicked shouts; her handlers, worried she'd gone off script. She got up in her torn clothes, searching for something to drink besides poisoned champagne. Water would have been fine, but she found a little service area with a mini-fridge full of glass bottles of Coca-Cola. She considered, then took one and drank it.

Decadence from the West. It tickled her nose. Too sweet.

The hubbub in her ear continued, but she took her time, wandering barefoot over the thick carpets in Lenkov's bedroom, drinking her Coke. She figured that killing him ahead of schedule had bought her enough time for a thorough search. She went through the nightstand, the desk, the coffee table, the bookshelves, taking care to look for hidden compartments—of which she found three. She found cash, jewelry, guns, and a stack of brown file folders held together with a thick rubber band. She took it all, as well as a pair of good pistols, and walked back through the empty apartment to the elevator. She got in and pressed the button for the ground floor. Above her, the cable unspooled in its screeching descent.

By the time she touched the ground, she was the Black Widow. It was her name from then on.


She'd killed a lot of men since—she'd killed all the men, really. That said, she didn't expect the Winter Soldier to be afraid of her: sure, the Black Widow was a force to be reckoned with, but the Winter Soldier was a legend, the ghost who haunted them all. Still, she couldn't help but be disappointed that his reaction to discovering that she was the Black Widow was to roll over and go back to sleep; she wasn't used to having men knowingly turn their backs on her. She could slit his throat while he slept: didn't he know that?

Or did he know something else, something she didn't?

Disgruntled, she paced the small apartment. She'd been the only one to survive their experiments, their only success story: the only one who could tolerate the Winter Soldier's blood. In her heart of hearts she wanted to believe it was because she was a Romanoff, though rationally she knew that she wasn't, and that he probably wasn't either. But they were undeniably linked somehow, by something, weren't they? Finally she blew out the candles and threw herself down on the bed, still out of temper; if he could sleep, then by God, so could she. She tucked a pillow under her head and turned her back to him for good measure.

When she next opened her eyes, light was streaming around the edges of the curtains. She rolled over and saw that the sofa was abandoned, and her eyes instantly went to the door—he's left, he's gone—before she registered that he was standing, still as a statue, near the other window. Beside him was a table, and on it was a radio, playing softly. She tuned in to the mellow sound of woodwinds—a clarinet, maybe: some old jazz song she didn't recognize.

The man at the window wasn't the same man who'd gone to sleep on the sofa. His face was softer, blurrier somehow, like smudged lines of charcoal. He was listening intently to the music, and she didn't think he'd noticed she was awake until he said, unexpectedly, "It's the Dreamer in Me," and then, "Jimmy Dorsey, I'm not sure when exactly," and she sat up slowly, shocked to her core, because the Winter Soldier had an American accent straight out of the goddamned movies.


Steve came home looking tired, as always, and she'd planned to give him the day's intel after he'd washed his face and tucked into his dinner, but he knew her at least as well as she knew him and he read it off her face even before he'd hung up his jacket. "What is it?"

"Nothing," she replied. "Wash up and come eat, " but he was having none of it and came straight at her: 220 pounds of concerned Captain America.

"Tell me," he said, and so she let him have it: "There's chatter on the darkweb about a weapons sale—Steve, it sounds like they're talking about Chitauri tech from the Battle of New York."

"Where?" Steve asked, jaw clenched.

"San Salvador," she replied. "Half an hour inland from La Libertad—they're using a ship," and Steve sighed and sat down on one of their ripped vinyl dining chairs. She sat down at the table next to him and waited to hear what he'd say.

Steve put his elbow on the table and rubbed his forehead. "And it's up to us?"

She sighed and showed him empty hands—wasn't it always? "We could try calling it in," she said dubiously. "I could try to get Ross on the line, see if I can get him to turn his attention to this rather than us. But even if I did, he's gonna go tromping down there like a herd of elephants," and Steve nodded, waved a hand; he knew all about Thaddeus Ross's lack of subtlety. Ross would come with an entourage, troops and missiles, and then the sale wouldn't happen; they'd all just go underground and pop up somewhere else. "A small operation is better. Tony might do it, if he's in the mood; arms dealing is kind of his area—"

"Tony's Accords-compliant," Steve said bitterly.

"Is he?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

But Steve was in no mood. "Isn't he? Or what the hell are we doin' here?" and she could always hear a trace of Brooklyn creep into Steve's accent when he got irritated. They'd given him elocution lessons before sending him out to the music halls, but it was still there for her to catch, a ghost of who he'd been. Steve shook himself out of his belligerence and said, "When's it scheduled to happen?"

"Tomorrow night."

"Tomorrow night? You think we're going to drive to South America by tomorrow night?"

"No," she said, and made a face at him, "but it's a five hour drive to Iowa, and Clint's got a quinjet cloaked in a cornfield."

"Of course he does," Steve sighed.


She was sitting up ramrod straight now. "You're an American?"

His face clouded, turned inward. "Maybe?" he said finally, and holy shit, the Winter Soldier was an American who'd been—what? Kidnapped? Brainwashed? Christ. She felt an icy hand on her spine: he didn't know who he was, did she know who she was? Did she know anything, really?

To her surprise, the Winter Soldier sensed her panic; he came to her bed and sat down. "S'all right," he said. "Don't bother your pretty head about anything. They'll come for me in a couple of days—or I don't know, maybe it's been a couple of days already. I blew it this time, getting wounded," he muttered, roughly picking at the bandage he'd taped to his side. "Slept my whole time away, what a waste," and when the stained bandage came off she was shocked to see that the skin underneath was completely healed—pale, but completely smooth and solid. The crumpled dark thing in the fluid and drainage was the bullet. "I didn't even get forty pages in," he said, almost despondently, reaching for the battered paperback of Slaughterhouse Five. He began flipping through the pages, frowning, searching for his place. "Once they wipe me I'm never going to remember how this fucking book started. Pardon my French," he added absently.

She'd always thought that she was aberrant—an unbeliever, secretly someone else underneath—but now here he was, The Winter Soldier, and he was someone else underneath, too. Was everyone like this? Were they all just...puppets, fakes...liars?

"So they're...going to erase your memories? " she asked, chilled by it.

"Sure," he said, not even looking up from his book. "That's what I'm saying, so don't worry about my end of the story: you can tell any story you want about this. Say whatever you need to say to get wherever you need to be. You know," he said, with an offhand wave of his hand, and she blinked because yes, she understood exactly: he was telling her to frame her encounter with him to her best advantage. Scenarios immediately ran through her mind: the Black Widow had saved the Winter Soldier; no, she'd captured him, defeated him! The Black Widow had—

"Oh, hey," the American said, his face alight with the faded echo of some long-ago happiness, "I love this number," and he was putting down the book and going back to the radio. He turned the volume up, and while she didn't know the tune, she knew immediately from the tempo and the blare of the horns that it was a song to dance to. He bent toward the radio like a flower, hands twitching and body quivering, like he'd been straightjacketed. He wasn't a member of the Bolshoi any more than she was, but he was some kind of dancer, anyway: she could see it in his body. She'd been taught all the social dances as part of her training—dancing was a good way to get in close—including Jack and Jill: swing-dancing with a randomly-assigned partner.

So she stood up and lifted her arms to create her half of the frame. "Come on," she said, smiling—and, huh, now he looked terrified. He hadn't when she'd said she was Black Widow.

"I can't," he said, sounding strangled.

"Sure you can," she said, because she'd've bet her life that he knew how to swing dance—but that wasn't the issue, was it? "Yes you can," she said, softly, giving permission. "Yes you can," and after a long moment of hesitation, he slid slowly across the room and into her arms.


"This car's a piece of shit." She wanted to drive 90 mph but the Toyota felt too quiet, it was all wrong, she couldn't feel the road. Damn thing took all the fun out of driving.

"It's a great car," Steve said absently, staring out at the cornfields. "Reliable. Nondescript." Steve always looked a little lost once he was outside of the city, and he always seemed particularly flummoxed by the Midwest. Still, it felt good to be driving around with Steve by her side; normal, familiar. She'd driven him everywhere, back when she'd been his handler: up and down the East Coast and halfway across Europe. She'd been responsible for collecting him and getting him to the rendezvous point on their first missions. She'd driven him to Washington for meetings that the brass was afraid he wouldn't attend. But she'd made it up to him by taking him on unscheduled detours to visit Peggy Carter anytime there was a gap in his itinerary, and she'd waited patiently for him outside of hospital doors and hospice rooms. And she and Steve had become friends—or whatever it was they were to each other—on another of Steve's unscheduled personal missions. She had driven him to what he'd thought was Bucky Barnes's grave.

"Just like old times, isn't it," she said, and glanced over at him.

He rolled his head toward her across the headrest. "I don't know. Am I being handled?" and nobody who didn't know him would believe that Captain America had that kind of snark in him.

She fought down a smile. "You were always too hot to handle, Rogers," she said. "But we've come a long way, you and me, haven't we?"

"Sure," he said. "It used to be just me making a run for it; now we're both on the lam."

She smiled ruefully but didn't protest, because he was right, and worse yet, he'd been right all along. She'd thought that she was the tough one, the sly one, the one who knew what was up, but Steve had smelled a rat from the get-go. She'd been so damn proud of herself for switching sides from the greater of two evils to the lesser of two evils, but Steve had taken one look and called bullshit on the whole thing, and lo, indeed, bullshit was what it all turned out to be.

"Well, at least Barnes is alive," she said, and then: "You've got to be happy that Barnes is alive."

If she'd expected a rousing affirmation, she didn't get one; in fact, Steve was so silent that she had to tear her eyes from the road to check in on him. He was looking away again, staring out at the endless, rippling fields. "I am happy, yes," he said finally, and then: "Or no, maybe I'm not, because I never—not in a million years could I have imagined... " He looked back at her with such pain on his face that she had to turn away, grip the wheel hard and focus on the ribbon of blacktop out in front of them. "If it were you," he said, voice raw, "or someone you loved, would you have wanted them to die on that mountain or live through what he had to live through?"

She had to collect herself. She swallowed. She gritted her teeth. "But he survived. That's something."

"Did he?" Steve shot back. "Then where the fuck is he?" and of course that was a rhetorical question. Steve had told her exactly where Barnes was: in Wakanda, in a coma, in the ice.


He danced with her silently, his face blank, like he could only let his body go by burying his mind somewhere deep inside. But he could dance, all right: after a few moments of awkwardness, he began to lead, steering her into the choreography of swing, first with simple steps, then more complicated ones. The oldies station obliged them by pumping out three up-tempo songs, one after another, and then a slow one. She slid in close and closed her eyes, trying to ignore the thumping of her heart and chiding herself for having a stupid child's crush. He smelled of gunpowder and sweat and the antiseptic ointment he'd packed into his wound, and she couldn't help but be aware of his body, all hard muscle and metal and heat. They swayed slowly and turned, and for a moment there was nothing but tenderness—and then he made a choked sound and jerked away, like she'd stung him. His face was blank but his eyes were shining, wet.

"I can't," he said. "I—" and she wasn't proud of herself but all her instincts told her that this was the moment to push for answers: when he was vulnerable.

"Who are you? Who are you really?" and he stared at her and said, "I don't—I'm not—"

"Are you an American?"


"Where do you come from?"

"Joralemon Street," he said, and seemed surprised by his own reply.

"How old are you?"

He stared at her helplessly.

"When's your birthday?" and that got her an answer. "March 10th," he said, and in the next breath: "I'm twenty-six," he said, and then, his face rippling: "No, I'm not."

She pressed onward, not giving him time to think. "How long have you been active?"

"Decades," he said raggedly. "Forever," and that undid her, somehow. She reached out for him, all twisted up in sympathy—but to her surprise, he took her by the shoulders and stared down into her face. "Don't stop," he said. "Keep going. Please." So she did.


Red barn with two silos. Rusted old tractor missing a wheel. She slowed. If you hit Tricia's Grill you've gone too far—and there it was: not a road so much as two ruts for wheels to go down, an indentation in the cornfield just wide enough to let them through. They went through what was practically a corn tunnel: it towered over them and parted in front of them, scraping alongside the car on both sides, the corn shushing against the metal in long threshing fingers.

Steve frowned as the Toyota bumped over the uneven ground. "Are you sure we're in the right place?" She ignored him and barrelled on, hoping that they wouldn't suddenly hit a tree or something. It was like driving through a snowstorm—and then suddenly the car lurched over a ditch and they were in a clearing, which was apparently empty save for a looming scarecrow.

The car stopped and she and Steve leaned forward to peer up at the scarecrow through the windshield. It had a quiver of arrows strapped to its back, and was carrying a bow.

"I think we're here," Steve said.

They got out of the car and moved, warily, deeper into the clearing, where the corn stubble seemed to have been flattened in an unusual way. She aimed the de-cloaking device—she and Clint had agreed on the frequency—and the air rippled as the forcefield dropped. And there it was. It was an older model, battered and a lot smaller than the one that had been kitted out for the Avengers, but that was just as well. They'd be responsible for parking this one themselves, and this jet was small enough to land in a parking lot, on a rooftop, in a playground or backyard.

"All right," Steve said under his breath; he was staring up at it, hands clenching into fists. "Let's see what supplies are on board, maybe take her up for a test flight—" and she was about to agree when she heard the low hum of a motor and turned just in time to see the corn rippling.

She drew her gun, and beside her, Steve was also tensing for a fight, but she recognized Barton's old Jeep the moment it burst out of the corn. Barton was half-standing and waving at them through the open top. She grinned and ran to him, and he jerked the Jeep to a stop and swung out of its open side to hug her. She hugged back: he had been her first friend in the West. It had always felt wrong, siding against Steve over the Accords, but seeing Barton on the other side had tipped her into full-blown moral panic, and she'd switched sides at the first opportunity. Now she pulled back and looked down at the ankle monitor glowing green on his left ankle. Those bastards.

"We could cut it off," she said, despairingly, already knowing all the reasons why he wouldn't walk away from home arrest, even if he could: Laura, the farm, the kids…

Barton gripped her shoulders and said, earnestly, "I hope to God you're talking about my ankle monitor," and as she burst out laughing, Clint stretched his hand out to Steve, who shook it. "I can't stay," Clint said, pulling a face. "I'm within my bounds, but I don't want to draw any attention to this part of the farm, so I'll keep moving," and she felt the fury rising up, that they could do this to Clint. "But I wanted to see you," he said, and then again, softer, to her, "I wanted to see you. And also to tell you that I stocked the jet as best I could, and that Laura's going to be wanting her Tupperwares back. Do the work, you guys," Clint added, gone suddenly serious. "Because somebody's got to be doing the work, or rot will set in and bring everything down," and she and Steve nodded in grim assent: the work was there, and it was up to them, now.


He remembered things only in fragments. He remembered falling. He remembered snow. He remembered Siberia—did he fall in Siberia? He’d run away to Brooklyn once, but he didn't know why. He’d killed a man in Madripoor. She pulled the memories out like bits of broken glass. He was in a forest, moving with a rifle in his hands. He went to Paris with a man and a woman in a boat, and they slept in a barn and went dancing, all three of them. He was sleeping on a fire-escape because it was hot. He pressed his hands to his skull like he was afraid it would split apart, then he closed his eyes and breathed through it. He became a different man entirely; sadder, sweeter. His eyes were a window to a troubled tumult of thoughts. He—

—straightened, sharpened, and was the Winter Soldier again. "They're coming," he said.

"Who?" she asked.

"My support unit." He moved swiftly to collect his gear, his guns. "They'll extract me, run my post-mission protocols, and put me back into cryo until my next deployment." He looked at her with what seemed like genuine regret and murmured, "I won't remember any of this."

She frowned; he made it sound like an inevitability. "Is that what you want?" she asked.

She was startled at how badly the question wrecked him. "Want?" he repeated, raw and strained—and that was enough of an answer for her, because if they were going to try anything, they had to move fast. Now she could hear them: the crunch of footsteps on the gravel, the low whistles as they got into position. They were running out of time. Plans whipped through her mind. The Winter Soldier's handlers likely weren't expecting there to be two of them, which would give them the edge in a fight—but there were better strategies than fighting.

"Will you trust me?" she asked, mostly for form's sake, but the Winter Soldier tilted his head to one side and got a faraway look in his eye. He seemed genuinely to be thinking it over.

"...I don't know," he said finally. "Steve says you look like Barbara Stanwyck, and I'm not sure he means it as a compliment."

She didn't have time to figure out what the hell that meant; instead, she tugged her dress over her head and dropped it onto the floor. His eyes widened as she unhooked her bra and flung it away. "Get onto the bed," she said. "Hurry," and he didn't so much comply as stumble back and fall onto the unmade bed. Good enough. She shimmied quickly out of her panties and crawled on top of him, roughly unzipping him and tugging a sheet over them. He stared up at her as she sat up, straddling him. "Put your hands on me," she said, and he raised his hands to comply—and then hesitated, hands in the air. She grabbed them and pulled them to her body, pressed them to her breasts. He looked more surprised than aroused, but that didn't matter: she was the one they’d be looking at. She just had to get her head in the game. She took a breath, then ground down on him, his narrow hips and the soft drag of his pubic hair, teasing herself. Her nipples hardened under his hands, one warm flesh, one metal. He was ridiculously handsome, the hard angles of his cheekbones contrasting with a softness around the mouth. She shivered and surged up over his scarred body to kiss him.

She hadn’t expected him to kiss back, but he did, opening his mouth. He cupped her head and stroked his pulsing fingertips over her hair while he pulled her close, so firmly, in a warm, metal embrace. It was breathtakingly solid, a lock around them both. He kissed the way he danced, muscle memory layered over desire; whoever he'd been before, the American had been no virgin. She gave herself over to it—lost herself in the lush sweetness of his mouth, and so was half-taken-by surprise when they burst in, guns drawn.

She'd had a plan; she thought she’d show her breasts and be defiant: "Get out!" But she hadn't considered what he might do, and when she reared up to confront them, he lurched up and pulled her hard against him, twisting so as to shield her with his body. It was gentlemanly and kind and she hadn't seen it coming. Swallowing, she glared at them over his metal shoulder and shouted, "Go away," which came out raw and teary and was maybe all the more effective for that. They stared at her in gape-mouthed surprise, then looked at each other uneasily until someone muttered, "Black Widow," and then they all hastily backed out. The door swung shut.

She pulled back to look at the American's face; she was now more or less sitting in his lap. His eyes roved over her face like he was trying to memorize her. "I don't want to forget," he said, and kissed her, and she'd intended to go over the plan with him, but he seemed to have grasped the general idea, and besides, it would be good for the plan for them to come out of the room smelling of sex. She slid her arms around his neck and let him lift her up, his hands curling under her thighs, moving over him as he pushed up into her. They groaned into each other's mouths as their bodies locked together, and then he was fucking up into her and she was sucking his tongue and trailing long, wet kisses along his jaw to his ear, gasping as he tilted her hips just the right way to push up into her, against her—Christ, she'd never been so wet—and by the time he came inside her, she was tingling and wrung-out, her hair damp at the roots.

She pressed her sweaty forehead into the crease of his neck, and he tightened his arms around her. I am in so much fucking trouble, she thought, and was the happiest she'd ever been.


They set a stealth course for Central America, threading the quinjet between mainstream commercial traffic and the near-invisible traffic of SHIELD and the other high-level intelligence agencies. Once they were on autopilot, Steve unpacked his tactical gear—to check it, she assumed, but in fact, he was angrily ripping off all its badges and insignias, going so far as to remove the American flag and gouge out the star. She watched silently, sick with sympathy—for all he'd had to lose, losing more. He was part of her tribe: near-immortal and without a country; a wanderer. "I like it," she said, once the Captain America suit had been downgraded to a tattered shell of itself. "Dark colors go with everything," she added with a thin, consoling smile.

She suggested they land at a place she knew, an old hotel up in the hills that dated from the glory days before the war. Time had not been kind to it: she saw from the cockpit that part of the roof had caved in, and the old road was so overgrown as to have become invisible from the air. "It's perfect," Steve said, coming into the cockpit; in his new suit he looked dangerous in a way he hadn't before. His rough edges were showing: the man from the war. "I don't know how you find these places, but you sure know how to pick a hideout," he said, and she understood his appreciation for what it was; he was telling her that she was part of his tribe, too.

They landed on what had once been the hotel's scenic front drive just next to some rubble that had once been a fountain. They cloaked the jet, and after a moment, opted to take a pair of motorcycles rather than the quinjet's ATV. "Seventeen minutes to San Salvador," she said. "Straight down the mountain," and Steve nodded, got onto his bike, and pulled on a helmet.

Their destination was a warehouse on Avenida north, a squat, oddly cheerful building that had been painted a pale pink. She'd put in a bid for the weapons, offering an amount that was competitive, but not so large as to draw suspicion, but the vehicles parked outside indicated that there were other interested parties. She and Steve parked their bikes close to the warehouse door, and Steve zipped his leather jacket over the star on his chest before following her inside. A guard asked for their password ("The stars have fallen out of the sky," she said) and waved them over to where some men were standing around a crate. Nestled in the packing material were six Chitauri guns. She made a face at their alien shape: they filled her with revulsion.

"A hundred and ten." The guy was wearing aviator sunglasses, and had a machine gun strapped threateningly across his chest. He looked her way and leered.

The man standing beside him was wearing a pale linen suit. "I am authorized to pay up to one hundred and forty thousand dollars," he said. The bulge of a holster was visible under his jacket.

They were addressing these bids to two older men, who exchanged worried glances. They looked like off-duty construction workers: thick-necked and strong across the shoulders. She looked first at their shoes and then at their hands and wristwatches: police officers, probably NYPD, who'd had the best shot at recovering alien tech and selling it on the black market.

"I have the prior claim," Sunglasses insisted.

"I have a hundred and forty thousand fucking dollars," Suit said, and lifted a briefcase.

One of the two beefy guys looked over at Steve. "And you, what've you got?"

"Nothing," Steve replied, honest and apologetic. "But we're taking them anyway," and it wasn't even a fight, because Sunglasses was wearing his gun backwards and Suit was unconscious before he'd even gotten his gun out of his holster. Steve pulled his punch but still knocked one of the beefy guys into next week, and the other, panicked, yelled, "Freeze!" into her face without having a weapon drawn. Cops. She rolled her eyes and kicked him in the balls. He went down.

"Amateurs," she said, but Steve was already rummaging in the crate. He lifted out one of the Chitari guns, which glowed in his hands with a pale light. Steve turned it over a couple of times, then began to field strip it until he'd extracted the tiny, glowing canister that powered it. Eventually Steve had all six of them twinkling in his hand; below, the guns lay inert, useless.

"The stars have fallen out of the sky," Steve said softly, and Jesus, it really did feel like that sometimes.


The whispers had reached Moscow before they'd even gotten out of bed. The Black Widow's fucking the Winter Soldier! and no one knew if either or both of them were going to survive their encounter, being that he was the deadliest assassin in the world and she'd never before left a lover alive. The special ops team was ordered to fall back and wait for further orders. There were no protocols for this situation, and both the Winter Soldier and the Black Widow were such valuable assets that nobody wanted to risk getting it wrong. So the handlers waited, muttering among themselves. How could they have anticipated this? The Winter Soldier had routinely been offered women, sex being an excellent means of control, and he had always refused them.

Can't fault his taste, someone muttered, but that provoked disagreement. She was beautiful, sure, but fucking the Black Widow was a death wish. They glanced uneasily at the closed door—and then the betting started. The Widow was a narrow favorite, the consensus being that she had more experience with this sort of situation than the Soldier did. But the Winter Soldier was no one to fuck with. They waited impatiently for new orders, braced for violence.

Thankfully, their orders came down before the door opened and the Black Widow stepped out, clad all in black and armed to the teeth. "I'm not sure I accept your apology," she growled, a crackling baton appearing in each hand. "Especially since it's so late in coming. In fact, I don't have it yet." The shadow behind her was revealed to be the Winter Soldier; he was also fully dressed and armed, and while his lanky hair obscured much of his face, he didn't look happy.

Lieutenant Karpov coughed and stepped forward; as team leader, this negotiation fell to him. “I apologize to you most sincerely,” he said, to her, “and I have been charged with inviting you to accompany us back to the Kremlin, where I believe you will be offered additional apologies and an opportunity that perhaps you will find to your advantage.” The Widow stared flatly at him for a moment—the bitch had a way of looking at a man that made your balls want to shrivel up and climb back into your body—and then turned to look at the Winter Soldier, who jerked a nod, sending prickles of fear up his spine, because shit.

“Yes, very well,” the Widow said in her commanding Russian drawl. “We accept,” and fuck, mother of God, we, who the hell was this we?


Steve went to secure the power canisters in the quinjet’s armory, but she was drawn to inspect the grounds of the old hotel. She wandered up the crumbling steps of the main entrance, and found the ornate wooden door hanging on its hinges. The foyer was pretty well ruined, the carpets soaked by tropical storms, the lobby chairs leaking their stuffing. She peeked into what had once been a ballroom, and saw daylight above: this was one of the places where the roof had caved in. She slipped behind the cracked concierge desk and into the employee-only back of house, where the cinder-block walls and industrial flooring had held up better than the fancy carpets, wood, and wallpaper of the public rooms. She followed the hallway around past staging areas, serving hatches, and storage closets, and stumbled upon the manager's apartment earlier than she expected. The door was closed: had she closed that door?

She hesitated for a moment before turning the knob, fixing the memory in her mind—she didn't want her memories overwritten by whatever she would see inside—but as it turned out she needn't have worried. The place was exactly the same, as if she'd just walked out moments ago. There were first-aid supplies scattered across the linoleum-topped table. A stack of books on the coffee table; beyond that, the bed with its rumpled sheets. The radio was on the table near the window, and she drifted toward it and tried to turn it on, already hearing music in her head. But the power was out. She caught sight of something on the floor between the couch and the coffee table: it was a battered paperback edition of Slaughterhouse Five.

"Hey," Steve said, a little breathlessly, and she turned, startled, to look at him. He'd changed out of his battered Captain America uniform, but he was still more Cap than Steve—flushed and alive in a way that he hadn't been before, some incomprehensible electricity clinging to him. "I've got those damn things locked away, and I just—I wanted to say—" She saw him take in the manager's apartment with an appreciative glance ( "I don't know how you find these places"). "—that I'm sorry, and that you were right." He turned back to her, intensely earnest. "If we hadn't gotten those weapons, God knows where they'd've ended up. And since when—" His jaw twitched. "Since when am I the guy who waits for permission to do the right thing?" Steve gritted his teeth. "I don't recognize myself anymore. I've lost—" He bit the words off and said, instead: "I don't know what the hell happened to me," but she thought that Steve knew exactly what had happened to him, and they both knew exactly what—who—-he had lost.

"Steve," she said with soft sympathy, putting a hand on his arm—and to her surprise, he leaned in and kissed her, cupping her head and practically inhaling her. So odd—because every time they'd done it, the few times they'd done it, she'd instigated, pushing them to a sexual place while he tumbled along. But now he was kissing her and driving forward, moving her backward toward the unmade, long-abandoned bed. His hands slid down her body and fumbled, more or less effectively, with the zippers and straps of her Widow's weeds—because Steve more than most people knew how to take apart superhero gear. He curved his arm around her, cupped her breasts, pushed her a little as she pulled him and they toppled onto the mattress. Then his mouth was on her face, her ear, her neck as his hand stroked greedily down over her body without stopping—with none of the oldey-timey prudishness she'd anticipated, that Steve had seen and judged her for anticipating. She knew him better now, and understood the meaning of his tight little smiles. Turned out that sex had been invented before the '40s. His hand slid down over her abdomen and grasped between her legs, making her heart race and leaving her breathless. His mouth crushed hers. He made her come with his fingers, a cunning circling of his thumb that left her laughing and gasping against his mouth. He was smiling, too. And then he dropped heavily onto her, spreading her thighs and pushing into her, wet and wanting. She yanked him down and into her, one leg hooked over his heavy thighs, the other curved round his back. He groaned and she tilted her hips, determined to fuck his brains out. Sex was a way of reaching him—which she wouldn't have guessed. But someone, Peggy or maybe Barnes, had taught him that it was okay to be human: a guy with a heart and a dick and pumping blood.

Finally Steve collapsed heavily onto her with a soft groan, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. "It ain't excessive," he muttered inexplicably, and then he lifted his head to look at her, all sweat-damp hair and bright earnestness. "You're a good woman," he said, and that shocked her, upset her. She shoved at him; it was like shoving a mountain. "No, I mean it," he said, infuriatingly implacable in his goodness. "I've lost the thread somehow," and he suddenly sat up, naked and glorious in the threadbare sheets. "You're the one with the vision; you're the one we should be following," he said. "We can't hide away; we've got to get back in the game."

She took a deep breath: she was still thrumming pleasurably with the aftershocks of sex. The room around them was full of ghosts: the Winter Soldier bleeding over the table; lying on the battered sofa, standing motionless at the window. She blinked him out of her vision.

"Well, okay," she told Steve. "If you really feel that way: word is that Hydra is kidnapping and experimenting on human subjects on the Korean border. The police are finding the bodies afterwards. Some of them...aren't quite dead in horrible, interesting ways."

He took a moment to process that, and she felt a stab of love for him—because he could still be shocked by the terrible things people did to each other: even now, after everything.

"All right," Steve said. "Let's go."


The offer they made was better than her wildest imaginings. They would be allowed to work together, live together, as the KGB's ultimate stealth unit. She would be the Winter Soldier's handler, offering him tactical and logistical support (and luring him to return after every mission). He, in turn, would be her protector, the Beast to her Beauty (being particularly incentivized as her lover to make sure she came through all encounters unscathed.)

They were given an apartment on Petrovka Street, a convenient two blocks from the Bolshoi. It was in a historical building completely unlike the identical steel and concrete boxes most people lived in. The building was crumbling, but the rooms were enormous, with high ceilings and moldings that had been painted over so many times that the details had been lost. It was furnished, and not with the cheap modular furniture that everyone had. The pieces were old but good: furniture of carved wood and velvet, colorful Turkish carpets and, even more surprisingly, a full bookcase and a grand piano. She couldn't help but wonder whose things these had been: some dead KGB agent's, perhaps, or a dissident's; some intellectual.

The whole set-up was clearly a honeypot for the Winter Soldier, with her as queen bee. She told him as much, sitting astride his legs and whispering into his mouth, their foreheads pressed together as the phonograph played or Radio Moscow blared. This is how they talked about anything important as a matter of practice, to deal with the inevitable listening devices.

"I don't care," he murmured against her lips, "I don't care, I don't care," he said, and kissed her. "If this is a trap, it's a helluva lot better than the one I've been caught in," and there was no arguing with that. Out there, he was still the Winter Soldier—easily the best operative she'd ever worked with, and underrated, if anything, in his skill and his capacity for swift and efficient action. But here, in the relative privacy of Petrovka Street, he had to grapple with the effects of being out of cryofreeze for the first time since the forties. His whole life for the last 40 years had been murderous bursts literally book-ended by a few, stolen days of quiet like those they'd shared in San Salvador. Now, suddenly, he was being allowed to live like a human being again, albeit one considered the most valuable weapon of the Soviet Union.

Predictably, the KGB set up their situation with cool, swift decisiveness and barefaced audacity, simply rewriting the Winter Soldier's history and daring them to dispute it. They handed him a set of identity papers made out to Alexei Nikolaevich (b. 1953) and brought over a military foot locker full of personal effects circumscribing a past that wasn't his. They moved her meager possessions to Petrovka Street, too, though she'd never been fool enough to keep anything valuable to her out in the open. But there was an unexpectedly large amount of cash in her suitcase, and more still in her bank account. It was clear that they were being permitted to buy things, even luxuries and black market goods, that would normally be forbidden, partly to sweeten the honeypot and partly to enhance their status within the KGB.

So there was fresh fruit at breakfast, and sugar for the tea, and sausages—none of which the Winter Soldier could eat at first, his system having become accustomed to nourishment via tube or glucose tablets. He struggled, taking small bites and sometimes retching, his body unable at first to handle such rich fare. He struggled with his memories too, which broke through inconveniently and randomly with no apparent regard for their usefulness. He still didn't know his own name, but he would suddenly remember the combination for a lock to a weapons cache he'd had in 1962. His Aunt Josie had married a machinist and moved to Indiana. The house he'd grown up in Brooklyn was on Hicks Street, but it had been torn down.

One night, he woke up suddenly and scared her half to death because he was panicked and shouting—convinced that he was back in the war and they were being shelled or something. The Soldier flung her down hard, wrenching her shoulder, and covered her with his body—which, okay, was better taking her for an enemy, because she didn't much like her chances there. "Get down," the Soldier ground out, "Steve! Get down!" and so she got down, wrapping her arms around her head and curling into a ball, heart pounding like a mad thing, wondering if this was the same Steve who thought she looked like Barbara Stanwyck.

Later, when he calmed, she asked him. He'd staggered out of bed and washed his pale, handsome face with icy water from the tap before coming back to bed, and the chill was still on him. She snugged up close and pulled the covers up around their ears, trying to share her warmth with him. Then she murmured against his mouth, "Who's Steve?"

He jerked like he'd been shot, and she reached out to hold him, to soothe him. To her surprise, he pressed his cold, flesh fingers to her mouth and whispered, "Shh, shh, shh," and then, low and serious: "We shouldn't talk about—that, him. He's a secret."

Shouldn't talk, not can't. So...that was an opening, maybe. Like maybe he wanted to talk.

So she pressed on. "But you're not…you're sure you're not Steve," and to her surprise, he let out an honest-to-goodness laugh, which changed his face entirely. She hadn't realized his face could take a different shape, that there were other lines in it: ghosts of previous expressions.

"No!" Apparently the idea was amusing to the point of ridiculous. "I'm not—Me? No, I'm—" and it hit him, too, the jolt, the same moment it hit her. His eyes widened in the dim light, he was on the verge, and she tightened her hands on him, trying to figure out how to phrase the question.

"What did—" and that was it, that was it, and he was already exhaling in relief even as she finished saying it: "What did Steve call you?" His ragged exhale was suddenly a sob, and his mouth was quivering, and he was fighting back tears at the force of it, suddenly; unlocked.

"He—" His eyes closed as he gathered himself, seeming to listen to some internal voice. "He called—he calls me—" He smiled with his eyes still closed. "He has his own name for me, another secret, but he says that you should call me James." He opened his eyes then; a blue so pale it was almost gray. "My name is James."

Tears pricked at her eyes, now, too. "James," she repeated softly. "James," and then the name was smothered against her lips, and James was rolling over her like a wave, kissing her and kissing her.


The studio in east Omaha was up on the second floor, on a corner so only one shared wall and a solid metal door. She unlocked it and took in the room with a glance of distaste. Worse than she remembered: queen bed, scratched up leather sofa, mismatched table and chairs, television hanging off the wall. The polyester floral bedspread had been replaced, and the TV was a flat screen, but a dingy smell of leftover cigarette smoke was baked into the carpet, which was pocked with flat black discs where people had ground cigarettes into the plastic fibers. She'd maybe even made one of those marks herself, once upon a time.

She closed the door and did a thorough security check, more out of habit than anything: both the windows and doors locked securely, and she saw no bugs, mechanical or otherwise. There were rust stains in the tub, and the towels were ragged, but the bathroom was clean.

She was contemplating a shower when she heard Steve’s knock and went to let him in. He was carrying a couple of grease-stained paper bags, and he also gave the place a sharp-eyed once-over, though he came to a different conclusion. “It’s great,” he said, unpacking burgers and fries and cans of Coke onto the scarred tabletop. “So tell me: do you have a safehouse in every single part of the world, or what?” and she decided to treat that as a rhetorical question, because otherwise it opened up a conversational area she wasn’t prepared to get into. She let out a playful growl of hunger and grabbed greedily for a paper carton of fries.

They were both starving, not to mention exhausted—they hadn't had anything like a real meal or night of sleep for a week, heading straight from averting a chemical leak in Sengal to foiling a group of white supremacists massing on the other side of Omaha. Steve had already made one burger disappear in a few, enormous bites, and was eagerly unwrapping a second. "So what’s next on our agenda?” he asked, quickly adding: “Honestly, please say nothing.”

She took a moment to chew and swallow before replying, “Nothing. Nothing urgent anyway,” because there were a couple of things she was keeping an eye on: odd situations that might turn out to be above the paygrade of the local authorities. “But Clint’s been in touch,” she said, and took another bite of her burger. “He’s got supplies for us, and he says we can swing by to get ‘em whenever," and Steve nodded, relieved. They needed MREs, ammunition, fuel for the Quinjet, and they were a hell of a lot closer to Iowa than they'd been anytime recently.

She had a brief, vivid fantasy about them checking into the farmhouse for a couple of days, maybe even a week. She pictured her room with its iron bedstead and cozy quilt, Laura's cheerful red calico chicken staring at her from the dresser. She would stare out the window at the sweep of golden fields: endless blue sky, far as the eye could see. The kids would wake her up in the morning by piling onto her bed. It would be wonderful...except it was impossible. Even if she and Steve were willing to risk prison, they couldn't do that to Clint.

She crumpled the wrapper of her burger and pushed the rest of her fries toward Steve. "We should hole up here for a couple of days," she said, "and rest up,” and Steve nodded and reached for her leftovers. She went to take a shower and when she came out, hair damp and in PJs, she found Steve sprawled on the bed in a puddle of lamplight. He was lying back against the old, quilted headboard, smoking and watching television; she’d learned from living with him that Steve didn’t have any modern day compunctions about smoking in bed. She glanced at the screen but didn’t recognize what he was watching: a movie, black and white.

She debated curling up on the sofa to watch the picture, but he waved her over and—oh, he'd bought them a bottle of Smirnoff. That was sweet. She grinned and scrambled onto the bed beside him as he poured out two generous glasses. "Cheers," he said, and they clinked. He settled back again to watch the movie, and this time she leaned back against him, steadying her vodka against her chest. He put his arm around her. It was like resting against a warm mountain. On the screen was—was that Bette Davis? A man held her close and muttered, "I wish I'd never seen you, never kissed you, never held you in my arms. 'Cause every time I do, I hate myself." Beside her, Steve sighed and said, "Why are the movies I like only on at three in the morning? It used to wreak hell with my sleep schedule when I first came out of the—"

He jerked up and pulled away from her, and she was instantly alert, coiled and ready to spring at the threat. Except there wasn't a threat. Just Steve, fumbling in the pocket of his shirt and pulling out the small vibranium sphere he always carried with him. It was now glowing blue.

It hit her, an instant later, what this meant, what this likely meant, and her vision swam. Dark shadows, and glinting bits of metal, and shiny red stars. “We’ll go,” she said, and her heart was pounding. “We’ll go right now,” and she thought she was doing a pretty good job of keeping her feelings locked down, but Steve’s face was a-jumble with emotions, all of them volatile.

But then Steve had never had any game face to speak of; no game face at all.


She got used to having James's voice in her ear, the caress of a ghost. "I swear, if he so much as puts a finger on you, I'll kill him," and she smiled and shimmied her bare shoulders a bit, knowing she was centered in the telescopic sights of his gun. The dress she was wearing was barely-there: backless, hardly more than a shimmering gold handkerchief tied at neck and waist. It gaped in places meant to draw the eyes to curves and pale skin. She'd seen James's face when she'd put it on. She looked forward to letting him take it off her, later.

"Not before I get what I want," she murmured, catching sight of Luca on the other side of the ornate bar of Casa Zugravescu, a private club in central Bucharest; she didn't much fancy the idea of searching Adrian Luca's bloodsoaked corpse in the middle of Bar Safir. "And I think you're misunderstanding a crucial part of my job," she added, because of course she'd put on the dress to catch Luca's attention. He was known to troll Casa Zugravescu looking for girls to take to the rooms he kept upstairs: one of the few places in town where his bodyguards—there, there, and also there, guns visibly bulging under their jackets—wouldn't follow him. Right now, she was the most beautiful woman in the room, and Luca would no doubt know it on sight.

He was currently chatting with a slim, pretty girl whose dark hair was carefully piled on top of her head. Not an agent, but she thought she could manage the girl well enough if Luca decided to take both of them upstairs. Luca would of course have to die after touching her, but she'd let the girl live—after all, it wasn't her fault, and men were often completely and usefully incapacitated at the sight of women making love. She wondered how James would react, seeing her strip and kiss and writhe in the arms of another girl. It was a show she performed expertly, and she sometimes even enjoyed it. She wondered if it would turn him on to watch her—and felt a rush of heat in her cheeks, a tingle between her legs. She let the impulse motivate her; the glow would be visible. She crossed the room in her stilettos and knowingly slid her arm through the arm of the dark-haired girl. The girl looked at her in surprise, but Luca was immediately dumbstruck with lust. Five minutes later she and the girl were pressed up against the wall inside Luca's apartment, kissing, their skirts hiked up around their waists and their fingers slid into each other's panties. Her dress had slipped off her shoulders.

Ten minutes later, Luca was dead. The Winter Soldier's shot rang out, smashing the window and giving her whatever plausible deniability she needed with his bodyguards. The other girl, who'd expected none of this, fell back against the door and started shrieking, helpfully covering her eyes in horror at the sight of the dead man. She quickly bent over him: she'd been told what to look for, and swiftly transferred the microchip from its compartment in Luca's gold ring to one that hung as a charm from her ankle bracelet. A quick search of Luca's pockets turned up one or two other interesting artifacts which she quickly slipped into her underwear, half-tugging the skirt down. The fool hadn't yet touched her, but he'd gotten his cock out, so the story more or less told itself as the guards burst through the door and found her bent over him, half naked and screaming amidst the broken glass and blood.

Two of them turned and immediately made to give chase—as if there was any chance in the world of them catching the Winter Soldier; it had now been more than a minute and a half. The third guard dragged her up and away from the body, looking at her with a mix of desire and revulsion before flinging her toward the door. She fell onto the floor, then quick-crawled toward the door, stopping to take the other girl's hand and pull her along: the dark-haired girl was still on the floor, sobbing. They ran together out the door and through the hall to the servant's stairscare. At the bottom, she paused to straighten first the other girl's clothes, and then her own; the dark-haired girl was tear-stained and seemed to be suffering badly from shock.

"Get yourself a drink," she advised, not unkindly. "You'll be all right," and then she pushed out through the fire door and into the night.


Wakanda was that rare thing—a genuinely new experience for her, a place she'd never been to. She'd suspected—there had been rumors—that the country was not what it seemed, but it had never seemed important to find out; there'd always been so many other international situations pressing. Now, flying over Wakanda's extraordinary landscape with its perfect balance of natural geography, traditional architecture, and futuristic technology, she was struck by the genius of their defense—not to mention the stupidity of her own assumptions. They'd played into the worlds' racism brilliantly. Why bother with one tiny little country on the edge of the sea?

A royal convoy came out to greet them—or really, to greet Steve Rogers, adopted son of the nation. Their affection for him seemed genuine, but it was also smart, she thought, stepping back into Steve’s shadow. The U.S. might have been fool enough to alienate its most loyal champion, its ideal citizen-soldier, but Wakanda knew better than to look the gift of Steve Rogers in the mouth. It looked like they had offered him the only thing he needed: sanctuary for the man he loved best in the world. Canny.

"—present Natasha Romanoff, your highness," and Steve gently ushered her forward to meet Princess Shuri, a lovely, high-necked girl surrounded by an armed complement of Dora Milaje. And then Steve added, in that wry, offhanded way that she never saw coming, "Natasha's my partner—in crime, I suppose," and she had to consciously keep the shock off her face. Though of course they were partners, weren't they? Of a sort. She and Steve were partners of a sort.

"You are welcome in Wakanda," the princess said, and then, turning to Steve, she said impatiently: "I am pleased to see you, but there is no cause for alarm. The risks are negligible. I did tell him. You could have waited until the conclusion of the procedure…"

"If he's out of cryofreeze," Steve said, "then I'd like to see him."

"Yes, yes, of course," Shuri said, and strode off. The Dora Milaje turned on a dime and everyone followed. "He is already in my lab, everything is in readiness, but he insisted on speaking with you first." She tsked and added: "I can't help feeling that his confidence in me is imperfect."

"I'm sure that's not true," Steve said. "It's only that we—we have the habit of each other, you see?" His face turned grave."Can you tell me what you're planning to do to him?"

"Certainly. I'm going to burn the trigger words out of his brain," and at Steve's reaction, Shuri grasped his arms and said, "Captain, I promise you—upon all the gods of Mount Bashenga—there will be no damage. I created a digital scan of his mind and ran an adaptive algorithm on it until I was sure that all his memories would be intact—yes, even the terrible ones," she added, suddenly becoming serious, "because that's how we know who we are. I'm not looking to change him or improve him or even to make him happy," Shuri said. "I'm simply going to stop anyone from abrading his will or controlling his actions."

"Right," Steve said faintly.

They went inside the lab, moving through corridors past technology unlike anything she'd ever seen or even imagined. And then they passed through a secure door and another secure door and then James Buchanan Barnes was there, standing by the window, wearing white scrubs. He had only one arm. He was unshaven, but the beard only made him seem more fragile. His face was like a cubist painting: unexpected emotions, parts that didn't go together; incoherent.

"Steve," he said, voice breaking—but Steve was already there.


The Soldier was waiting on a motorbike in the shadow of the train station. He had a dark cloak and a helmet for her, and she slipped into both before climbing onto the bike behind him and putting her arms around him. He drove the bike away from the city center, towards the warren of brutalist towers in the south. There they could disappear for a few days, post-mission. This time was their time: a hundred hours in the land of the living if you didn't sleep, and why would you sleep when you could be making love? James had taught her that. A hundred hours was enough time to scratch an itch, to take a trip, to jog an old memory…or make a new one.

She'd been in the game since she was a kid, and she'd learned that there were thousands of empty flats in the world: apartments in foreign cities owned by English lords or drug lords or warlords, warehoused for investment; safe houses, summer houses, flop houses, James had been going to ground for even longer. He knew of places from the before-time: before the war, before the wall, the curtain, the invasion, the fall.

James took them to one of his places: they drove down into a parking garage and then went up an elevator to the top floor, the 20th. Here, doors were ringed around a central atrium, with a staircase winding round and a skylight overhead. James unlocked a door at the corner which opened onto a small but airy studio. It had a kitchen cheerfully wallpapered with yellow flowers and two balconies, one on each side. There was a small table and an enormous bed. From the balcony, you could see across Bucharest, and she wanted to stand there and look—but she could feel the thrum of his need for her like it was an actual vibration in the room. She pulled the cloak from her shoulders and turned to him, wanting him—shocked and even a little embarrassed by how much she wanted him: in a stubborn, demanding way that was almost childish. He stared at her and her nipples tightened under the thin layer of silk, and then he was coming to her and putting his hands on her, drawing her to him and kissing her with a sincerity that was almost unbearable to her: how dare the Winter Soldier be this man, underneath?

He slid his fingers beneath the thin gold straps of her dress, and pulled it down. Her breasts were cold, goosepimpled; his breath hitched and she liked that. She surged deeper into the kiss, flinching when her nipples scraped the ridges of his jacket. He pulled away to unbuckle and unzip.

She kicked her shoes off and sat back on the bed, chin-up, daring: come and get me. He came to her, all devotion, kneeling on the floor between her legs. She shivered, knowing he'd feast on her whole body and seeing it in her mind, half memory and half new desire, vivid and lustful. She whispered something—she didn’t really know what—and he kissed her throat urgently, then kissed down her inner thighs, her wrist, the bony part of her ankle. He stroked his hands up the outsides of her legs and then tumbled them both back onto the bed. He grazed his beard on her skin, sucked her breasts, first one and then the other, the way he knew she liked. She was already panting, hips jittering upwards against the heavy weight of his body, wanting to rub her clit against him—but he was already sliding down her body, his lush mouth tracing the muscles of her abdomen, playfully teasing her belly button with the tip of her tongue. She laughed, but she was wet before he pressed his face against her silk panties, right where she needed—she pushed against him, and he nosed up, over her pubic bone, and—

Oh. He jerked back, surprised, and she laughed—Christ, she'd forgotten. She sprawled back on the coverlet and let him tug back the elastic of her silk panties and pull out the objects she'd cached there, nestled against her pubes: the strangely-embossed coin, the matchbox. He held them in his metal palm and frowned down at them, stirred them with a finger. "From Luca's pocket," she explained. "Code-breaker coin. Mini-camera. Worth checking out, no?"

"Worth checking out, yes," he said, and carefully spilled them out from his palm out onto the nightstand. Then he turned back to her with his eyebrows raised and fire flashing in his beautiful gray-blue eyes. "Anything else in there I should know about?" he asked, crooking his fingers inside the elastic, and she just draped an arm over her eyes and laughed, because she was pretty sure that, whatever she said, he was going to have to check things out for himself.


"I'm sorry," James Barnes muttered; he'd crooked his arm around Steve's neck and tugged him in, close. "When they told me—They said—" He let go and tried to pull away, but Steve held on to him. "When they explained the risks—"

"Neg-li-gi-ble," Shuri said, each syllable distinct, and then, "I will be in my lab. You are welcome anywhere in the city, Agent Romanoff," the princess added, suddenly addressing her, and she glanced warily between Shuri and the embracing soldiers, unsure whether to stay or to go. In the end she stayed, though Rogers and Barnes didn't seem particularly to know that she was there. They were standing forehead to forehead, talking in low, rushed voices.

"—going to try to flush the trigger words out of my mind," Barnes was telling Steve, "but they're tied to—she said they were tied to—they call them core memories. My most important memories," he went on, "my most—intense—emotional—" The metal hand curved around Steve Rogers's head. "Which. They'd be memories of you, pal," he said, voice cracking, and she turned away to give them some privacy, staring out the enormous picture window at the curved stone and silver buildings set so perfectly into the jagged landscape. "And Steve, I've already got so many holes—I swear to God I'm all holes, made up of holes, like swiss cheese. The holes are all the me that's left. And Shuri says that whatever program she's gonna run won't take away anything more, that it won't make me forget you, but what she doesn't understand—and why should she understand, it's fuckin' crazy, because I'm fucking crazy—but the thing that I can't make her understand is that you're in my mind all the time, Steve, even where you don't belong. I have memories of you being where you aren't, isn't that nuts?"

"It's not nuts," Steve breathed. "Or—okay, yeah, sure, it's nuts, but—"

"She doesn't get it, but nobody in their right mind would—"

"—I do it too," Steve's voice was soft and urgent. "Bucky, you're in my mind, too—"

"Naw, pal—I'm not talking about sentimentality; I'm talking about crazy fucking hallucinations, like you were there with me, talking to me. Haunting me like a goddamned ghost—"

A multicolored bird with an enormous wingspan swooped past the window; feathers. The name of his secret is Steve.

"Shut up and listen to me, will you? I do it too. Just like you said. I always have—since the war."

"Well, if that's true," Barnes said, slow and dubious, “then you can understand how you’re in all sorts of places where you’re not supposed to be. Impossible places. Which is why I had to see you before this thing happens—because don’t get me wrong, I’m going through with it,” Barnes said with sudden force. “I’m going to do it even if it leaves me a goddamned husk, because I’m done letting people use me to commit atrocities. I won't do it," and she had to put her hand out then, press her fingers to the window glass. “So whatever her plan is, I’m in. Just—I've been here before, Steve. Every time someone washes my brain, they end up flushing you out if it.”

“But it doesn’t stick, does it,” Steve demanded.

“No,” Barnes said softly.

“They’ve tried to burn me out of you, but you remembered. You always remember. And this time I’ll be here to help. If you forget, I’ll goddam introduce myself—Hi, I’m Steve. I live on—“

“——Emmett Street, sure," and she could hear the grin in Barnes's voice. "But it's gone now, Emmett Street," he added, grin fading, "The whole road. They knocked it down for the highway. My house, too. I went to look. It's an empty lot; more holes, Steve. I don't want to forget—"

Steve interrupted him forcefully: "You won't forget," and then Barnes made a noise that cored her. She turned and—Steve was gripping Barnes' face and not so much kissing him as devouring him, going at him so intently that Barnes had to shift and shove back so as not to be knocked off his feet. She hadn't seen Steve like this since—Innsbruck. Of course.

They were moving, tilting sideways, and the thought struck her, suddenly clear—they're going to fuck right here. She moved swiftly, then, and without further thought: out the door and up the corridor, into and out of a lab until she was intercepted by a Dora Milaje and then hurriedly greeted by a beaming man in an electric green suit, who offered her a tour of the city.


They called her into a meeting at the very highest levels of the KGB. She was pretty certain her life wasn't in danger—if the Chairman wanted her dead, he'd have her killed swiftly and without an appointment—but she was less certain when it came to James. They might be getting her out of the way in order to make a move against him. He smiled, all teeth: "Let them try it."

Her suspicions were unfounded; in fact, they were pleased with her, though their praise was sickening. She had domesticated the monster, they said. She had the whip hand; she would reap the rewards, they said. She was an exemplary Soviet woman, an asset to the nation

She kept cool, kept her face on; waited.

At the end of this disgusting encomium, they gave her two tickets to the ballet. She thanked them and left. They thought she had a dangerous dog on a leash—well, fine: that was a good thing for them to think. They wanted her to parade him in front of the highest echelons of Soviet society—a group which, not uncoincidentally, included those most likely to defect. Fine, again: they would go together to the ballet; they'd slip into and out of a private booth, watch the dance from the dark, two shadows. She'd smile and speak so that he could remain silent; threatening, menacing. She'd wear the Winter Soldier like a weapon, sleek and unsheathed, Russian steel—

"Yer lovely," he drawled sleepily, and his American accent had never been thicker. He wasn't Russian at all, but only she knew it. She leaned over the bed and kissed him; he was snuggled deep in their pile of blankets and furs. His name was James, and he remembered songs from the 1930s, both the sentimental ones and the fast-moving ones that the kids used to dance to back then (he'd been a kid, then, in the 1930s.) He'd come back to himself, mostly: to the man he'd once been. An American, from Brooklyn. A soldier, last name unknown (he'd served with a man named Steve, though; the name of his secret is Steve.) A prisoner of war, but a man of principle, who'd heeded his country's call but who had—

("No." The voice was a crackle in her earpiece. "Tasha, no. I won't do it.")

—limits. Things he wouldn't do; lines he wouldn't cross; orders he wouldn't take. And that, it turned out, was the end of him: the end of them: the end of everything.

("But—you've got to," she replied, shocked despite herself. "It's the mission. She's the mission.")

("I won't," he said, almost mulishly, and he switched into English, then, his American accent thick in her ear. "It's bullshit," he said, "she's a child, she's no sort of threat to anybody."

"Sure, but—" Her mind swam at his words. The mission was the mission: you didn't choose it. If you were lucky, you survived it. If they wanted someone dead, there'd be a reason, and eliminating a threat was only one of them: there was intimidation, coercion, and revenge, just for starters. If they were marked, it was already over; the only question was, would you take them or join them. "They aren't going to let you not do it," she said, hearing the strain in her voice.

He was quiet for so long she wondered if the radio had gone dead. "Maybe not," he said finally. "But I'm not gonna.") —

and that was when she realized that by bringing him back to himself, she'd destroyed him, and maybe herself, too.


She only saw Steve once in the next three days, and then only because she was sent for. They brought her back to the laboratory, where Steve was staring through a one way window at James Buchanan Barnes, who was sleeping before an elaborate bank of monitors broadcasting values she didn’t understand. Steve was leaning in, forehead pressed to the glass.

“He’s all right,” Steve said quietly. “He remembers," and she nodded and didn’t say anything. “But—Shuri wants him to go down to one of the villages and spend some time there, healing. I want to stay with him—“ and she was already nodding, because of course he did, "—but I can't," he finished unexpectedly, and looked up. "T'Challa has a mission for us: he's asked us to recover a piece of Wakandan technology that recently surfaced in Bucharest."

She frowned. "Wouldn't SHIELD be better placed to—"

"T'Challa doesn't want SHIELD to have it," Steve said, straightening, and he was—unbuttoned, somehow. Less put together than usual. Like he'd combed his hair with his fingers rather than using a brush. He had a couple of little red marks on his neck, like a rash. "He's not sure they'll give it back, and he doesn't want to have to force the issue, or even discuss it. Relations between SHIELD and Wakanda have been—strained. Because of us. Me. And Bucky—they know he's here, they know Wakanda's giving us aid and sanctuary, though no one's officially admitted to anything. Nobody wants to make anything worse than it is. Anyway," Steve said, and roughly carded his hands through his hair. "T'Challa's asked us to do it and I said yes," and then his face changed. "I'll do it alone if you'd rather stay here. It's safe here."

"No, I—no, I'll come with you. We have to stick together, I think," and Steve smiled at her, and—weirdly, it was easy to forget how good-looking Steve was. He had a way of becoming just part of the furniture, until all of a sudden you looked at him and practically went blind with how beautiful he was. Maybe it was because he didn't smile that much. Probably for the best.

"I thought I'd wait till he wakes," Steve said, turning back to the glass, drawn back to the sleeping man in the bed, "and maybe take him down to his new house, see that he gets settled in. I wondered if I could ask you to get the jet ready and supplied. What do we need? Food? Ammo?" He trailed off, and she could see that he wasn't really interested.

"Sure," she said gamely. "I'll take care of everything," and later, she was just coming back from making sure the Quinjet was stocked with everything they needed and a few things they didn't, courtesy of Princess Shuri's amazing imagination, when she ran into Steve again—and Barnes.

He was wearing native Wakandan clothing, his body wrapped in red plaid with an orange shawl draped over his left shoulder, where an arm should have been and wasn't. Steve was fighting sadness, already grappling with their imminent separation, and he looked away to conceal it.

But James Barnes looked at her anxiously, then tried a smile.

"Agent Romanov," he said, and then coughed; his voice sounded rusty, disused. "I just wanted to say, uh." He stared, swallowed. "That I'm sorry. Um. Obviously," and she jerked a quick, dismissive nod: sorry, sure; they were all sorry. But it seemed Barnes wasn't finished. "And, uh," He licked his lips, swallowed again. "I wanted to thank you. You know. For everything you've done to, um. Keep this idiot alive," and she laughed then, surprised.

Steve blinked at Barnes in mock outrage. "She didn't—I—I'm perfectly capable of—"

"Yeah, sure," James Barnes said.

"I'm Captain America!" Steve protested.

"Believe me, I know." Barnes looked at her and said: "You know, anything you can…"

"I'll do what I can," she said gravely.

Barnes nodded. "Just do what you can," and then, with one more awkward, flashing smile, he and Steve were moving off—away, out. Well. She swallowed it back. So that was that.


It turned out the first time you reported missing a target, your handlers took it in stride and sent on intel for the second attempt; presumably anyone, even the Winter Soldier, could have an off-day. But, the second time, there were questions. Questions for her, mostly.

"The child is well guarded," she said.

“It will be done with all speed,” she said.

“I know my job,” she said.

The Winter Soldier glowered and said nothing.

They gave them new intel, a new position (the corner apartment opposite the girl’s school), and a new rifle (the VSS Vintorez, chambered with subsonic 9x39 mm rounds.) James went with her to the apartment, even went so far as to look out the window, before quietly reiterating that he wouldn’t do it; he just—wouldn’t.

“Tasha, I can’t. You of all people know why I can't.”

It enraged her. “No, I don't!” she shouted, and went for him, because—men! stupid men! stubborn! pigheaded! making decisions for everyone with no goddamned respect for the consequences! He wasn’t expecting it, so her first blow landed hard and sent him reeling. They’d sparred before, often—sparred like they danced, enjoying the movement and the grace of each other’s bodies—but she didn’t have the luxury of grace now: not if she wanted to win. He was bigger than she was, and stronger. But he was unprepared and she had fury driving her—and so she landed two more kicks and then leapt at him like a wildcat, wrapping her thighs around him and twisting, spinning him off his feet and tackling him down to the ground.

But that backfired, because he rolled twice with her and came up on top, strong thighs pinning her down and his arm—well nothing could break the grip of that metal arm; nothing. The Winter Soldier stared her down for a few seconds, then winced—she’d gotten him somewhere, she realized; maybe broken one of his ribs or something—and then James softened and released his grip of his own accord, letting go and sinking back and letting her roll over on him, get on top of him. He’d decided, she saw, to let her beat the shit out of him if she wanted to. She panted, considering, looking down at him through the curtain of her red hair—and her passion shifted. She kissed him, smothering his mouth with hers. She fumbled to unzip his pants and stroke him to hardness so she could ride him. The next time they rolled over each other, it was so he could mumble sweet nothings into her neck and thrust wildly into her.

In the end they lay there breathless and sweaty and half-clothed. But still the girl lived.

She tried, herself, hauling the rifle up onto the ledge and peering through its scope, but she knew her limitations. She might have been able to kill every girl in that schoolyard, but not just that one girl—not in a crowd, not at this distance, not with this wind. James stared at her and said nothing as she tossed the gun aside and lit a cigarette. She kept her face carefully blank. He didn’t see the panic writhing within her, and she didn’t want him to see it. They’d argued, and he knew what she thought: that the girl was already dead, and all he was doing was ending their happiness. But the man she’d unearthed beneath the Winter Soldier had planted himself like a tree: maybe the girl was dead, but it wasn’t going to be him that killed her.

So in the end, she did it her own way. She put on a nondescript skirt and blouse and went down to the playground. It was over in a matter of seconds: the intercept and the stumble, awkward giggles turning into feigned horror as the girl collapsed in her arms. Feigned distress as she knelt on the sidewalk beside the girl, who was already dead, who’d been dead before she hit the ground. But she was a Good Samaritan, waiting with the others for the ambulance, telling her bit of story alongside the other witnesses. She fainted. She fell! It would be days, probably, before they knew what killed her, or maybe they’d never know.

But her father—he’d know.

And James knew, too—she could see it on his face when she returned, though she couldn't tell what he felt about it. He wasn't naive. And he knew that she’d done it for him, for the love of him. Still, she couldn’t help wondering if she’d killed his love for her when she killed that girl.

But she never found out.

A hundred hours was enough to scratch an itch, to take a trip or make a discovery—but they didn't get a hundred hours. Four hours after the death of Katerína Trusova, the door to their apartment was smashed open and five tactical units burst in, which was flattering. Even then, it was close. They had to hit her repeatedly with tasers and tranquilizers before she went down, and the Winter Soldier was still fighting. She descended slowly into unconsciousness with nonsense words spinning through her head: furnace, daybreak, homecoming, freight car….

She woke to a blast of cold water, a firehose in her face; her clothes drenched.

She woke, dragged up by a fist in her hair. What does he remember? What did he tell you?

They woke her so that she could see the cryo chamber before they dragged her to it and put her into it; this is the price of failure, the cost of failure, is it a cost you can pay? They didn't wait for an answer, and there was no real reason to subject her to the cryofreeze other than to subject her to it: to force her to experience the agony of dying as her cells froze and broke, and to know that this was what had happened to James—that this was what was happening to James.

When they finally brought her back from the dead, they flung her down, gasping for air, in front of the cryo-tube where James was visible, corpse-like, behind the ice-streaked glass. They let her lie there for just long enough to get a grasp on the situation—that this was how it ended; that this era of her life was over—before picking her up and taking her to the hospital, where she was patched up and given new orders: to seduce and murder a rebel leader in Peru.


Steve was distracted on the flight from Wakanda to Romania, turned inward and mumbling to his ghosts the way he had when he’d first come out of the ice. That left planning the mission to her, so she flew them to an abandoned Soviet airstrip west of the city, cloaked the Quinjet, and broke into the locked garage, where she found a beat-up Skoda station wagon. They changed into civilian gear, stashed their bags and weapons in the trunk, and drove off toward the city.

Steve sat in the passenger seat, wearily rubbing his eyes. "This thing we're looking for," he explained, "apparently looks like a medallion—gold, circular, about four inches wide, with an etched panther and an emerald set in for the panther's eye. But it's like one of Tony's devices: it produces some kind of force field that protects the wearer." She knew that, but said nothing; she was just happy that Steve was talking again. "They think," Steve went on, voice hardening a little, "that it surfaced in Bucharest because someone—Zemo or someone—planted it to incriminate Bucky in King T'Chaka's murder, and then of course things didn't go to plan." She knew that, too: Barnes'd been cleared so fast that nobody had looked for evidence against him. "But now the question is: what's our plan for getting it back from the guy who has it?"

Now she spoke. "We're going to buy it."

Steve jerked to stare at her. "What?"

"We're going to buy it," she repeated. "T'Challa gave us the funds—cash, unmarked bills—and we're just going to buy it." Steve was gaping at her in a fit of outraged morality, so she went on: "Steve, they don't know what they've got, and we don't want them to know. They think it's jewelry, and they're pricing it as such—gold, a rare artifact of Wakanda. But if the Dora Milaje turn up, they'll know it's something more—and if the Avengers turn up, they'll know it, too. So I'm just going to stroll in and buy the damn thing with cash, and then we'll go and lay low for a few days in a place I know."

"One of your hideouts?" Steve crossed his arms and stared out the window, but apparently he could find no real fault with her plan other than not wanting to reward crooks. "All right," he said finally, sounding only moderately annoyed. "If you think that's the best way to avoid trouble."

She did, and it was; in fact, it went off without a hitch. She was ready for trouble but didn't get any; just turned up with a bored expression and an envelope full of cash—a fraction of what T'Challa had given them. She decided that undercutting the price would add an air of authenticity to her persona, and so it did. The guy shouted at her, showed her the gun holstered over his oversized gut, then made a quick call when she stared back at him, unimpressed.

He took the money. She took the medallion, smiled thinly, and went back to the Skoda.

"Everything okay?" Steve asked as she got into the car.

"Piece of cake," she said, and drove south.

The private clubs of the Soviet era were long gone, but the warren of brutalist towers was still there. She had no idea whether the safehouse on the 20th floor still existed, but she was gripped by the urge to find out. The best thing about this life on the run was getting to tour her own past and revisit her own ghosts. Steve wasn't the only one who talked to phantoms.

The building had seen better days, though. The underground parking lot was crumbling, and the elevator was covered in graffiti, though it was still working. They came out onto the 20th floor balcony with its winding staircase and central atrium, and Steve stopped short and looked around sharply, which—fair enough. The whole place should have been condemned: the concrete walls were pitted with holes, and the railing had been replaced and sloppily painted.

The door to the corner apartment had recently been replaced: it was metal and painted a cheerful raspberry. She no longer had the key, but she'd never needed a key to get into a place like this. She slipped a pick from her sleeve and, five seconds later, opened the door. Her heart sank: the place was a mess, unlivable. They'd have to find somewhere else. There was glass everywhere: the windows and balcony doors had been broken and clumsily boarded over. The cheerful wallpaper she remembered was stained and peeling off in long, ugly strips. The furniture had all been smashed to pieces. An old mattress lay in a corner.

It was awful. Well, it had been years and years. Things fell apart—and there'd been a revolution here, too; riots in the streets. She turned to apologize to Steve, and to suggest that they find a cheap motel nearby, somewhere they could make their money last—

—but Steve was turning slowly and staring at the apartment: the smashed-up cinder blocks, the broken fridge, the hole in the floorboards. Then he shot a bewildered, wary look at her and there was a sudden, hard knot in her gut: she'd given something away. What had she given away? She lifted her chin—he didn't know anything, she could bareface it out. "What?"

“Bucky,” he said, and as he said it, some part of her brain finished cataloging the amount of damage, the impact marks, the deflected bullets, and she knew what he was going to say before the rest of the words came out. “Bucky was here. I found him—here,” and she couldn't help but feel a little stab of joy that James had remembered something, anything, of their life together, even if it were only…this hole in the wall where they'd once been happy. But then Steve was dragging his knapsack off his shoulder and unzipping it and pulling out the battered file-folder she had given him: the dossier on The Winter Soldier. Steve carried it everywhere.

He held it up between them. “You didn’t steal this,” he said. “This is yours.” She wanted to answer him; she wanted to shrug, to tell him it had been an assignment, a project, a hobby in her spare time—but she couldn’t. “You were looking for him, too. What—for them? The KGB—?” and he saw in her face just how far off-base he was, and stopped. "You knew him," he said.

Somewhere along the way she'd lost the ability to lie to him, and she hadn't even noticed. “It doesn’t matter,” she said flatly. “I didn’t find him. Forget it, Steve.”

But of course he wasn’t going to forget it. He was looking around the room again, bewildered but starting to notice the faded floral wallpaper and the battered mattress in the corner. And it was just her luck that he was maybe the only person in the world who could have guessed.

"You were here with him. You were here together," and then Steve looked at her and his face crumpled a bit and he said, "Nat, you should have told me. How could—why didn't you tell me?"

“What's the point?” she asked. “He doesn't know me—didn't. Still doesn't. You’re the one he remembered." She looked around; no ghosts here, only an empty room. "He never remembered me, no matter what I did,” and then the pain had her and she was bent over, crying, hurt and savage and humiliated. But then Steve was there, massive arms around her, holding up her dead weight and crying with her, his face pressed down against the top of her head.


Looking for him was a mission that had to be done stealthily, subtly, in her free time. She had a name, and a timeframe, and a series of technologies: superserum, metal arm, cryotubes. She collected intel, trying to make a picture emerge from the pieces: Johann Fennhoff’s techniques of mind control, Arnim Zola's Winter Soldier project, Lilah Kuleshova's work on Vitrification.


She hunted through the rolls of Americans who'd gone missing in the last world war: James Aaron, James Abberton, James Acorn…. Still she looked, hoping for—what? An inkling, or an intimation. His death must have been wrongfully reported: surely he couldn’t have disappeared without a trace and nobody caring—though of course he could have been. She had been.


She chased rumors of the Winter Soldier's previous missions, cutting out clippings where she sensed his influence: Kapyong, Dallas, Beirut. But there’d been nothing lately, so she suspected they had him warehoused, frozen somewhere. Then the world erupted, the tectonic plates of the Cold War suddenly shifting, and she searched for him again: in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Berlin. But she couldn’t find him—Where was he? And was it possible (it was barely conceivable, a mere ghost of a thought) that in this new era of glasnost, things had changed?




It had taken guts to even risk making inquiries, and the answers she’d gotten from the new apparatchiks with their smiling faces were worse, in some ways, than before: they claimed to have no idea what she was talking about. They had never heard of an operative code name Winter Soldier. There were no records of a citizen named Alexei Nikolaevich. The USSR never had a superserum program.

We have never been at war with Oceania.


But then, a stroke of luck. On a visit to Kiev, she'd flirted with the records officer, who'd been all of 19, and sent him to fetch a report of a 1951 killing that she suspected had been done by the Winter Soldier. The records officer had dutifully come back with the requested file—Oleksander Melnyk, shot by a sniper outside the university—but there had been a second, older, file bundled in with it. She pulled away the rotting string and looked at it. Her body—her erratically pounding heart—seemed to recognize what she was holding before her sluggish mind did.

KGB of the Dnepropetrovsk Region

Case File # 17

James Barnes - Military record of maintenance, deployment and experimentation

James Barnes. She opened the file and her heart stopped. Photos—two of them. The Winter Soldier, corpselike in an iron-riveted tank a lot more primitive than the one they’d used in 1981. And then, smaller, clipped to one corner, a sunny-looking American GI, hat jauntily tipped for the camera.

His name was James Buchanan Barnes, and he was born in Brooklyn in 1917. He was drafted into the 107th Infantry in 1943. Captured at the Battle of Azzano. Experimented on by Arnim Zola when he was still working for the Nazis. He was the only survivor of that particular super serum—an outcome they didn’t understand and kept trying to replicate. He'd been liberated from the camps by—Captain America, holy crap. Her eyes flew furiously across the pages. Friends from childhood. Howling Commandos. Killed on a mission in '45–except he hadn’t been: he’d been recovered by a Red Army unit stationed in the Alps. And apparently there’d been plans to return him to the Americans, except someone, somewhere, had recognized who he was, what he was: a real, live super soldier. And so the KGB hadn’t given him back, after all.


Once she knew what she was looking for, she could fill in the background. She went to Brooklyn and stared at the empty lot that had been the Barnes’ house. She read biographies of Steven Grant Rogers, the art student who had inexplicably been chosen as Captain America. He had been James’s friend (the name of his secret is Steve) and he had been with James when he died—except James hadn't died. She couldn’t believe that she was the only one who knew that the Winter Soldier had once been one of the famous Howling Commandos, heroes of WWII.

Still, she was always one step behind: the Winter Soldier had been busy that year (she thought), deployed (she thought) in the Congo, England, Italy, Brazil, and Afghanistan. She nearly crossed paths with him in Kabul, when she’d been dressed in a full burka and armed with her Glocks and Widow’s batons, but he vanished before she arrived; he had a kind of genius for going up in smoke. She got leads, sometimes, on the cryotank—reports of a suspiciously large and heavy object being moved, stored, with unusual care—but it was always gone by time she got there.

Sometimes she saw a trace of him: an indentation in the ground where the tank had been.


She didn’t understand what was happening until it was too late, and she was in a standoff with Clint Barton, who'd been sent to Bucharest to find and eliminate her: the last of the Cold War dinosaurs.

He was surprised, she saw, by how young she seemed—his intel probably said that the Black Widow had been active for decades. She tried to sow doubt in his mind, but Barton was no fool. So she found her options radically narrowed—she could let him kill her, or she could kill herself and take him with her. And then Barton's voice came to her on the wind.

"Hey, listen," he said, in a flat Midwestern accent, "can we talk?" and just like that, her life changed.


She fit into SHIELD more easily than she thought she would, and liked it more, as well. She had a status as a defector that was well above the diminished status she'd had in the KGB as the agent who'd nearly lost them the Winter Soldier, not to mention that, in the West, they somehow thought that "Black Widow" meant that she was some kind of spider or an aerialist or something. In any case, they appreciated her, and gave her the resources to make war upon her enemies: Dreykov, the Red Room, even Agent Golubev, who'd once turned a firehose on her.

He’d lived to regret that—but not longer.


And, of course, she only found the Winter Soldier once she was opposing him, though most people who went up against him never lived to tell about it. There was a reason the Winter Soldier was a ghost story: he wasn't an operative who left witnesses behind.

But she was no ordinary adversary; she'd worked with him for a year and a half and knew his moves better than anyone alive. Still, expert knowledge only got you so far; studying the habits of sharks or the life cycles of tornados didn’t stop you being savaged by them.

The first time they came face to face, it was by sheer accident. She'd been assigned to cover a very secret, extremely unofficial meeting between Japan and North Korea, and so she'd packed her gear and used a grappling hook to ascend to the roof of a neighboring building (she was, of course, an aerialist). And the Winter Soldier was there, in a sniper's nest.

He must have been as surprised as she was, but if he was, he didn't show it; just looked at her with assessing, dead eyes. Her heart leapt into her throat.

"James," she said—and dove away, the rain of bullets splintering the brick and pitting the concrete behind her. She flung herself off the roof, not knowing whether the grappling hook was still connected and not caring either; right then, the fall was all there was.

The Winter Soldier killed Yoshi Ichiuji on March 2, 2009.


"James," she said, "please,"—and he swung his metal arm and sent her reeling, unconscious before she landed. She'd expected him to pull a gun, and then as he strode forward, focused, relentless, a knife. But he didn't bother with a knife. She was in his way, and he knocked her out of his way, because she wasn't the target. Maya O'Connor was the target.

The Winter Soldier killed Maya O'Connor on May 17, 2009.


"James!" she cried, covering a shaken Dr. Ahmadi even as their wrecked car went up in flames. "James, fucking listen to me you sonovabitch bastard! You know me! I'm—" and he lifted his gun, shot Dr. Ahmadi straight through her, and left them both for dead.

The Winter Soldier killed Dr. Kamran Ahmadi on December 3, 2009.


"Darlin', listen to me; will you just listen?" and she was well enough by then to roll away from him in her hospital bed; she was in no mood for Clint Barton’s goddamned Midwestern kindness. "I know you’re trying to change your life, and that meant you had to walk away from some things. But now you have to walk away from something you care about. I don’t know what ghost's haunting you, but let it go because it’s killing you.” Her eyes pricked with tears, and she squeezed them shut. “Natasha, do you hear me? It’s going to kill you,” and she took a breath and turned to Barton’s kind, Midwestern face, and nodded. Because he was right, of course.


And so she’d gone on—working for SHIELD and doing fine; doing good. Nick Fury’s right hand, some people said. She was happier and more satisfied with her life than she’d been in a long time…

…and then Steven Grant Rogers, the art student who had inexplicably been chosen as Captain America, had been discovered, miraculously alive, in the ice east of Greenland.


He hauled her up and held her tight, practically folding himself around her. It made her feel calm and safe—and she felt she suddenly understood why Steven Grant Rogers had been chosen as Captain America: he must have been this sort of rock-solid person all along. Certainly James had thought so—that must have been why James had anchored himself to Steve and not to her. She was no kind of anchor; she was a shapeshifter, mercurial, with a name writ in water.

"Christ, you should have told me. You should have fucking told me," Steve muttered, and then he was launching into action, grabbing her and the bags and hustling her back into the elevator.

They didn't go back to the car, though; instead, Steve curved an arm around her and steered her out to the street. He hailed a taxi and gave the driver directions in Romanian, directing them to a hotel she'd never heard of on the far west side of the city. She blinked as they turned into an ornate circular drive; the hotel was palatial, a far cry from dives they'd been living in. Exactly the sort of place that might put them back on SHIELD's radar, or on Tony's.

She looked up at Steve as he paid the driver. "Esti sigur?" she asked.

"Da. Absolut," and then Steve was waving off the uniformed doorman and ushering her into the lobby, still holding her close. He kept his arm around her as he negotiated with the concierge for a room, switching into fluent German and tossing cash onto the counter in a way that perfectly expressed a kind of privileged insouciance. As the concierge hurried to book them in and produce a key card, Steve turned to her, cupped her face, and kissed her—deeply, skillfully, with tongue and enthusiasm, leaving her a little breathless and with a tingling between her legs.

"Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable," she said, and then he was palming the keycard off the desk and guiding her toward a bank of golden elevators.

Their room wasn't a room; it was a whole suite of rooms on the top floor, with French doors and a balcony overlooking the skyline. She looked at him, and he replied, almost absently, "T'challa stayed here, so I knew it would be good. And I think—I think right now we need this," and she'd always thought sex was her language, but Steve spoke a lot of languages, and this one, too.

He gave her no time to think, which was a relief—just pulled their mouths together and started undressing her, unbuttoning and unhooking her, moving her back towards the bed. He tipped her back onto the mattress and half-fell on top of her, dropping his head to kiss and caress her breasts. She breathed deep and let him, her hands drifting over the warm, freckled skin of his shoulders. His blond hair was getting long, and she carded her fingers through it. But then he slipped lower, unzipping her jeans and tugging them down her legs, and she pushed her hips up needily. He took the hint, grasping her thighs with his fingers splayed and sliding his thumbs through her the red curls of her pubes, over her and against her. She groaned and pushed herself against his hands: gasped and fluttered and got wet. His breathing went ragged, and he bent to push his face between her parted thighs. She lost control then, rubbing up needily against his nose, his mouth, feeling his rough, sucking kisses on her clit, her cunt.

Her whole body flexed, pleasantly, arms and legs and the tight, scarred muscles of her stomach, as she came, her whole body tingling. He lifted his head and stretched up to kiss her. She tasted herself on his swollen lips. She was wet and open and wanting him, and he slid, hard, into her. She bore down on him and came, came again. After a few desperate breaths, they began to fuck in earnest, sweetly to start but with growing intensity. She liked his body—what was there not to like about his body? It was a playground. And she liked his honest athleticism; he knew he wouldn't break her, and so he met her on her own terms, fucking and kissing her intensely, stroking her hair with both hands and biting her lips—till he gasped suddenly and came, throbbing, inside her.

He collapsed heavily on her, then lifted off and rolled, pulling her with him into his arms. He was naked and glowing with sweat, and she snuggled against what felt like acres of warm, creamy skin. He bent his head to hers; his beard was soft. She closed her eyes.

"You should have told me," he said again.

"I couldn't."

"Tell me now," he said. "Tell me everything," but…everything was a lot. Everything was…

"I thought he was dead," she said finally. "He was dead to me, anyway. I looked for him and when I found him, he tried to kill me. But…he still had James's face," and she felt Steve react to her saying his name. She hadn't said it in a long time. "I thought I was sparing you that."

Steve's voice sounded thick. "When did you know him?"

Her throat clogged too. "Just two years," she said, trying to dispel the air of pathos. "1980, 1982. We worked together,” she said, but that was too partial a truth. “We were together. We had an apartment, a life. Then they took him and they did something to him and he never knew me again," and she felt tears pricking and so said, fast and hard: “He had James’s face but nothing else. I would have killed him if I could."

"OK," he said, staring up at the ceiling. His chest was rising and falling and rising and falling. "OK," he repeated. "What do we do now?"

"Nothing." She sat up abruptly. She'd recovered herself. She was recovering herself. "It's been decades, Steve. Whatever we had, it’s long over."

She tried to look steely. Steve stared back at her, his eyes searching her face.

"What about us, what we have?" he asked finally.

She had no answer to that (in truth she was shocked by that), but was saved by a phone ringing and buzzing on the floor. Steve jolted up and scrambled to the foot of the bed, and that was a sight, too: arms corded with muscle, heavy thighs—He leaned off the bed to fumble through their pile of discarded clothes, and came up with an ancient flip phone.

“Only three people have this number,” Steve said grimly, and then he opened it. “Hello?” His face became masklike, and he said, "When?" and then, "Did he say—" and then, "Yes, read it to me," and his mask gradually cracked a little as he listened. "No, I don't know," he said finally, "but if I learn anything, I'll—Yes. Yes, please," he said and snapped the phone shut.

"What is it?" she asked, guiltily grateful for the change of subject.

But it wasn't a change of subject at all. "He's gone," Steve said, tossing the phone down into the pile of clothes. He looked somehow more naked now; naked more than physically. "He left Wakanda—willingly, on his own. He wasn't supposed to be able to; they still don't know how—"

She couldn't help herself. "He wouldn't find it difficult to—"

"Oh, I know; believe me, I know," Steve said, and sat down on the bed. "I worked with him for a couple of years myself, back in the day. 1944, 1945," and put his tongue in his cheek. "Anyway, he left a message for me in his hut," and then he was smiling, exhausted, bewildered. "He's fine," he said, with a flick of his hand, "there's just something he needs to do. And he's not going to start killing people again." He looked at her. "So that's all good, right?" and she breathed out a throaty laugh just as he cracked up and went sprawling back against the fancy coverlet. She sank back against the snow mountain of pillows and together they grinned up at nothing.

"I need a fucking cigarette," she said. "And a drink. You think the concierge'll send that up?"

"I think the concierge here will send you the head of John the Baptist, if you want it," Steve said.

"Nah, just some vodka and a pack of Lucky Strikes," She picked up the bedside phone and pressed zero.

"I could have been a happy vicar, but I was born in an evil time," Steve mused to the ceiling.

She glanced over at him, phone still pressed to her ear. "T.S. Eliot?" she guessed.

"George Orwell," he replied.



Wakanda is a paradise, a place of no-time, which is why you have to go. You have to find, you're missing— Something. (Someone.) (Yourself, maybe.)

You've fallen out of the world, and you need to find your way back in.


A hundred hours is enough time to scratch an itch, to take a trip, to go and see if you can jog what’s left of your swiss-cheese memory. You leave a note for Steve and steal away at dusk, when the light plays tricks on the eyes and strange shadows and crepuscular animals slink through the underbrush: prey avoiding predators. You disguise yourself as a merchant and slip across the border into Niganda, where you catch a plane to Cairo, and from there—


Nothing’s as you remember it in Moscow. Oh, the buildings are still there, but they're just facades, shells of themselves, their interiors gutted and empty (like you). You break into the complex at Lubyanka, but it's just offices, now: no cryo-tube, no memory wipe machine, no fire-hose or syringes or gurneys with leather straps. It makes you feel crazy, like you’d imagined it all—though in one red room, there are gym mats on the floor, and you have a flash of (punching) (kicking) (breaking ribs) training an army of (girls, they were just—) new Soviet agents at the request of your handlers. But then you blink and they're just gym mats on a floor.

Still, there's something easy and right about being here. The people are warm, and the language comes easily, natively. You can imagine stopping for a drink and then going to the Bolshoi, but you’re suddenly afraid of losing yourself again, getting sucked into—

Your name is Alexai Nikolaevich, you remember in a rush of relief. Except it isn’t—and Christ, you have to get out of here because this isn't what you want back; this place is all lies.


There's a train from Zurich that runs straight through the Arlberg Pass, so you buy a ticket and get on with a bunch of athletic-looking types carrying skis. The look on your face, no one's going to sit near you, let alone next to you, so you have the enormous window all to yourself, and you can't help but stare out at the snowy mountain peaks and sudden gorges the whole way, fascinated, like a child taking his first trip on an airplane. You wonder if you'll feel it in your gut and know it—the place where you fell (you died)—and it turns out you do. Some deja vu, some familiar alignment of the horizon, makes your heart beat irregularly, and you have to squeeze your eyes shut and press your forehead against the cold pane of glass. This was it. This is it.

Bucky, hang on! Hang on! Grab my—!

And you fall

And you fall


You open your eyes. You’re alive, but you shouldn't be, and you wouldn't be without the serum. Steve shouldn't be alive either, but his serum saved him, too: making him healthy, preserving his life and keeping him young all these years, just like—

(He blinks; reaches for it; nearly has it. Then—)

—just like you. You should be grateful, really, that Steve's still out there: in the world, with you.


You go from where things ended to where they began: Joralemon Street, in front of (your parents' house) (a vacant lot) a red brick building dotted with Fedders air conditioners. There's a Rite-Aid on the corner: open 24 hours. That's new, but the rest of the block is more or less the same. Some of the houses have been made over with real money, and others have been split into tiny apartments, a row of metal buzzers outside the front door. But your house is gone, and the new building is totally unfamiliar—except for Steve, that is. Steve Rogers would've been sitting on your stoop if there was a stoop, so instead Steve is leaning on the edge of a large concrete planter outside of the building's door. He's more or less the same, too: the same punk as always, but a lot more of him, wearing that tall, muscled body he brought home from the war.

"I don't know what the hell you think you're looking for," Steve says. "Everyone's gone. You knew that back in 1973," and yeah, sure, you did know that. But there's something

"Whatever it is, it's not here," Steve says. "Nothing of yours is here, I'm not even here. Brooklyn's too expensive now—our part of it, anyway. There's an IKEA in Red Hook, did you know that?" and no, you didn't know that…except yeah, of course you did. Steve tilts his head to one side and studies you, not without sympathy. "Pal, what the hell are you looking for?"

"I don't know," you say aloud, a little despairingly, and then, making a face at him: "Why don't you know? You're supposed to know everything, pal. That's your job, and you're falling down on it—" but then you stop and frown, taking the question seriously. Why doesn't Steve know?

Because Steve…wasn't there. Whatever it is, it's something Steve wasn't around for—and that narrows things down, a bit. It's something to be going on with, anyway.

"Come on," Steve says, nudging you. "The subway's still up the block. The IRT or whatever they call it now, the 2. Let's go into the city and make a plan: you can't just wander around hoping that something'll strike you! Meanwhile, you know what's still there? Keens Chop House—come on, I'll buy you a steak," and that makes your stomach rumble happily, so you jam your hands into your pockets and walk to the train with Steve at your side. It feels like 1936.


But it's not. Two minutes inside the cramped, urine-stained nightmare they dare to call Penn Station (Christ, what an insult) and you know that this is the year two thousand and something: it's a bright cold day in April and the train clock is striking thirteen. You come out to 34th street and just stand there with Steve, blinking at all the ugliness. But the Hotel Pennsylvania is still across the way, and down the street, Macy's. That floods your brain with unexpected memories—of your mother, in her good coat, the one with the brown fur collar, and her best hat with the little veil, enjoying the thrill of being served at all the fancy counters. And you, trailing after, dutifully carrying her packages and parcels. You, not knowing how good you had it.

Is that what you've been looking for? But Steve starts walking north, so you follow. Keens English Chop House is still on 36th street. It's like a museum of itself now, but you're a museum of yourself, too, so that's all right. The underlying architecture is original, though, and the warren of small, dark, low-ceilinged rooms reminds you of being a kid, before this fad for bright, pseudo-industrial spaces. The waiter leads you through a narrow, twisting corridor hung with playbills and newspapers from before you were born, and into one of the tiny, oak-paneled dining rooms where Steve is waiting for you at a table for two next to a massive unlit fireplace.

You order a steak sandwich and a glass of beer, and when it comes, you stare down at it, because…this reminds you of something; there's something here to remember.

But this, Steve knows about. "It's Peggy," he murmurs somberly. "You're thinking about Peggy, that time we went for steak and kidney pie at that place in the country—"

Yes. You close your eyes. Your brain floods with memories of Peg—fighter, lover, Howling Commando. Her bright eyes and wide smile, the way she used to grab you by the tie and tug you onto the dance floor. Peggy the crack shot, Peggy with her hair pulled back and in muddy combat boots, Peggy pushing Steve up against a wall and kissing him. Peggy in her dress uniform reporting to HQ, Peggy wearing his uniform hat and red lipstick and nothing else, pouring whiskey over ice in the Lancaster hotel, Peggy Carter—gone.

"—back when beef was on ration, and it tasted like heaven, remember? She knew all those great little pubs. We drove out in the roadster—"

"But she's dead, isn't she." You venture a look up, and Steve, looking surprised, says, "Yeah. Just—recently. Right before we— I told you that."

"But you're not wearing black," and that's true: Steve is wearing a tan sweater and blue pants; not even an armband.

Steve sits back with a huff. "Yeah, well," he says, with an old, familiar edge in his voice, "I would have gone into black for Peggy, but people don't seem to do that any more, mourning. All those rules are gone along with all the other manners and courtesies that used to make people bearable. Which I guess is just as well since otherwise I'd be wearing black forever since I'm the only fucking person I know who is still alive—or at least I was until you turned up!"

"Well, you're welcome," you say, and bleakly laugh into your beer.

After a moment, Steve laughs, too, reaches for his pint, and lifts it. "To Peggy," he says—

—but when you lift your own glass, your tongue catches between Russian and English. What's in your mouth is vechnaya pamyat, and for the life of you, you can't think of what the English saying would be. "To—" you stammer, "—to absent—to Peggy," you say finally. "Our—darling."

"Right," Steve says sorrowfully, and his face is doing complicated things; gymnastics. "Yeah. To our girl." Steve toasts and drinks and—something walks up your spine. This is the thing—this is it; this is nearly— You grit your teeth, make a fist, and pound it softly on the tablecloth. Fuck. It's intolerable, an itch you can't scratch, but you're close, now; you are so close.

Steve looks worriedly at you over the rim of his glass. "Buck?"—and that takes you aback, but yeah, that's right. You're Bucky Barnes. James Buchanan Barnes. Your name is James.

"We should get you off the street," Steve says, and raises his arm to flag down the waiter, who can't, of course, see him because he's a fucking hallucination: Steve Rogers, ghost of beers past. "We need to find somewhere safe," Steve concludes thoughtfully, and drains the last of his pint. "You know, like a safehouse," and you stare at him, the back of your neck prickling.


But you already know of a safehouse: right here, in the Hotel Pennsylvania. You walk back to 34th Street, past the billboards blaring on the Garden, which show a ticker of 21st century news: all disasters. 70 Killed In Suspected Chemical Attack, 4 Dead In Helicopter Crash, Fire Leaves Man Dead and Firefighters Injured. Is it strange that reading those headlines makes you feel—relieved, even grateful? You're not responsible for any of that. None of that is your fault.

The hotel has fallen on hard times, its beautiful fluted columns encased in cheap lacquer and glass. You try not to look as you stride through to the elevators, but Steve trails behind you, aghast in horror. "God, how could they do that? They painted over the—" and without looking, you know what Steve's talking about: they've ruined the Cafe Rouge, where all the great bands once played, painting over its elaborate fountain and sculpted walls with layers of cheap white paint, blurring and rounding all the details. Pennsylvania 6-5000 is just a wrong number now.

You ride together to the fourth floor, though Steve isn't reflected in the elevator's dirty mirrors.

The hotel is huge, a maze of hallways, but you keep going until you find an alcove with a Coca-Cola machine, an ice machine, and a locked door marked BROOM CLOSET. You pull out a long, slim knife and jimmy it open. Behind you, Steve glances from side to side, keeping a lookout. "Is that a room?" he whispers, as you open the door.

It's pitch dark in there, but you go in quick and Steve's right behind you. "More than that," you say, shutting the door and flipping the lights on—because it's not just a room, it's a suite of rooms, one of which is kitted out as an operating theater. It looks like nobody else remembers this place even exists, because there's a rotary phone and a marble ashtray and a heavy wood console TV. And a thick layer of dust over everything. Nothing's been touched here for decades.

Steve lets out a low whistle. "Wow," he says. "What is this place?" —and right, Steve doesn't know, because Steve was on ice—so you're getting closer; you're getting close.

"It was built for film stars," you explain, "who wanted to come east to get cosmetic surgery without anybody knowing: hair transplants and boob jobs and all that. But then…" and Christ, your head hurts, because the whole Cold War seems like a dream now, a nightmare from which you're trying to awake, "the Russians found out about it and used it for—well, basically the same thing," because high ranking party members—apparatchiks, mobsters, and spies—came to the West not just to sightsee and shop but for medical care: surgeries both necessary and cosmetic.

Steve looked at you steadily. "And why were you here?" and your breath hitches and then starts to come faster, because this is the question: this here is the fucking question.

"I was here because…" this was their time: a hundred hours in the land of the living—

"Because…" the world is full of places to hide: safe houses, summer houses, flop houses—

"I used to—try to—get off the grid," you manage finally. "Between missions. Lie low and—"

You turn and see Steve and Peggy fucking against the headboard, Steve's uniform hat tossed on the nightstand, her hands with their red-laquered nails making fists in his hair. You stand there, watching them, drinking scotch and marveling at how goddamned beautiful they—

—but no, that's wrong: Steve was never here, or Peggy, and you blink them away. That was Sergeant Barnes's life—in England, decades ago, during the war. This place belongs to the time of the Winter Soldier: it's a place to lie low, to try to figure out who the fuck you are.

So you look around carefully. Nothing in here was made after 1985. The bedspread, curtains, and upholstery are heavy green velvet, faded now, worn thin in places. The medical equipment in the O.R. has analog readouts and is yellowing with age. The clock-radio isn't digital, either: it has hinged numbers that flip. You sit on the side of the bed and open the drawer of the nightstand: pad of paper, ballpoint pen. Bible. Crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes.

You pull out the pack, and find two cigarettes and a book of matches tucked inside. You light one, drop the match into the marble ashtray, then breathe out smoke. You close your eyes—

—and there are flashes. A bit of blue silk, and a smile, a motorcycle. A summer dress flutters in the breeze. Two guns, a gracefully arched spine on the dance floor, a perfect rappel down a wire. Small, high breasts and a backless dress, a tumble of red hair. She sleeps in a chair, beside you, her knees pulled up. She—

—you open your eyes, seeing nothing. New York, Bucharest, Istanbul, Manchester, Omaha, and then you're fumbling the matchbook off the nightstand and looking at it: Hotel Miraflores, San Salvador.


You fly into San Salvador and take a motorcycle up into the mountains. The Hotel Miraflores—the ruin of what had once been the Hotel Miraflores—is in the shadow of a volcano, which seems apt. This wasn't one of your hideouts. It was one of hers. She brought you here.

Your memory sharpens as you get closer: this is what's been missing, this is where it starts. Here, in a room with a threadbare carpet, dust motes floating in the sunshine. A radio plays—It's the Dreamer in Me—and a girl slides into your arms—one of the ballerinas? Yes. No. She's not here to fight you. She slides into your arms, and smiles up at you. You turn, together. Dancing.

It's dawn as you ride up to the shuttered hotel with its broken, empty fountains. Flowers have pushed up through the cracks in the concrete, and the roof seems to have fallen in on one side. You park your bike and climb the crumbling steps. The lobby's open to the sky, and birds fly through. You drift behind the counter and through a door into the back of house, moving through the industrial corridor that leads to the kitchens and the laundry and the manager's apartment.

You take a left and and there it is and there she is—in the doorway with a gun pulled and aimed right at you. Of course. You're not going to sneak up on Black Widow, ghost or no ghost.

“Natasha,” you say, and she doesn't move but you see her feelings churn like looking at water through ice. She looks just like she always used to look in the mornings—well, of course she does. A little rumpled and soft on the outside, and steel underneath.

She doesn't say anything for a long time, just stares at you. Finally she lowers the gun. "Come in," she says, backing up—and you follow her in and find that the place is exactly the way you remember it, almost eerily so. There are medical supplies on the table where you dumped them forty years ago. Sheer curtains float around the open windows. It's like time here has stopped. You have a certain, clear memory and go to the living area next to the unmade bed where you've put a naked and bemused Steve—hi, Steve—to search the area around the coffee table.

A battered paperback is there on the floor, and you bend to pick it up: Slaughterhouse Five. The page is folded down just where you stopped.

You read: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time."

You're glad you're finally going to get the chance to finish it. Or maybe you don't need to finish it, because you've been living it—for years, decades, fucking centuries.

You look up. Natasha's still there, watching you. "Where did we go after this? Tell me."

She frowns and glances at Steve before answering—which is dumb because how the hell would Steve know? Steve wasn't there. "We didn't go, we were taken," she says slowly. "They came for us—well, for you, actually."

"My handlers," you say, remembering.

She nods. "Your handlers, the Winter Soldier's handlers: they weren't expecting me at all. And we used that, to throw them off balance." She looks over again, almost pleadingly, at Steve, but Steve's distractedly hunting around in the bedclothes for his shorts, which is just like him.

"Right. They didn't put me back into cryo." You can nearly see it behind your eyes; she's the key to all this missing time. "They—that time, it was different, they took us back to Moscow and…"

You've lost the thread. But that's all right: she's got it. "I convinced them that they should let me be your handler. And they agreed. They didn't know that we were—conspiring. Or shit, maybe they did know," she says, suddenly despondent. "Whether we were playing them or they were playing us— You said it didn't matter anyway. You said that, either way, it was worth it."

"I said that?" You marvel at your own wisdom. Of course it would have been worth it—he would have given anything to be with her: to hear his real name whispered on her lips in the dark. "We had a place…" you prompt, because you need her to restore your memories, make you whole.

She notes, "On Petrovka Street, yeah," and behind her, Steve has found his boxers. He sits on the bed and keeps still, listening. Steve's already given up most of his secrets; now Natasha just needs to fill in the rest. "It was nice," Natasha sighs, and rubs between her eyes. "Big windows, high ceilings. They'd taken it from someone and given it to us. We even had a piano"—and that's what unlocks it for you: the piano in the corner, velvet furniture and colorful carpets. Beautiful dresses and black market food, making love in the mornings in the cold light…

"It was a means of control," she says, and you’re nodding; of course it was, and it was a miracle, too. She was a miracle.

“It was worth it,” you say, but she flinches and turns away from you.

“You don’t believe that,” she says. “You just don’t remember how it ended.”

And she’s right, you don’t remember, but you can feel the memory there, taking shape in her voice. “James," and you're worried about what she's going to say, because you know it’s going to be terrible, but hearing your name in her voice still fills you with an almost pathetic joy. "You don't know why you erased me from your mind, but I do.”

You’re listening, tense and waiting for the memory to drop into place, but it already sounds wrong to you. You've never willingly erased anything. You held on to everything you could, and what you couldn't hold on to, you gave to Steve, carving your memories into him like scars.

And then she says, "There was a girl. Katerína Trusova—" and your stomach turns over at the name. Girl in a school uniform, blue wool beret. You're watching her through the scope, tracking her, but you don't fire—can't, won't— "And you wouldn't kill her so I did. I killed her," Natasha says, lifting her chin. "And I destroyed our fucking lives."

You're dumbstruck, your mouth falling open, and behind her Steve's face twists into a mixture of horror and sympathy. Natasha rounds on him and says, savagely, "You'd never do that, that's why he remembers you," and you jerk into motion, moving toward her and shaking your head.

"No," you say, finding your voice, and once you say it, you're sure. Your ghosts can usually be depended upon to tell you the truth, but this—this is all wrong. "You didn't."

Natasha's hurt, defiant face tips up to yours. “I did, I killed her. You must remember—"

But you do remember. Now you remember it all. "I'm the one who destroyed our lives," you say slowly, "because I refused an order and I had to be punished," and you close your eyes against the nightmare but see it anyway. They rip her from you, smashing down the door and racing in with tasers and tranquilizers. You fight but there's so many of them. And she fights but they've got her and you fight harder but they've got her and they're dragging her down and piling onto her like she'll kill them if they give her an inch— You open your eyes and look at her, pleadingly.

"Natasha, if it was anybody's fault, it was mine—but it wasn't my fault either, really. They were using us and they were always going to destroy us sooner or later, you know that's the truth. That doesn't mean it wasn't worth it," and when you see her lip trembling, you realize, suddenly, that, wherever she is, Natasha needs to have her memory fixed as much as you. “Lyubimaya, darling," you say, moving toward her and clutching her arms, "it wasn't your fault. None of this was our fault," and you're clutching her arms, you're touching her.

You've never touched one of your ghosts before, but somehow you're doing it. The pale, freckled skin of her upper arms is soft, yielding beneath the press of your fingers. The memories are so clear, now, you can almost taste— You take her face in your hands and kiss her, inhaling her, her mouth opening under yours. She fits against you like she used to, as she's always done, falling into place, missing pieces tumbling into your hands.

You turn and reach for Steve, sitting there watching you in his boxer shorts with his bed-head. He stares at you a moment and then looks at Natasha, whose eyes are wet and somehow disbelieving; she reaches up and her hands are on your face, you can feel their warmth on your skin like the sun, thawing out all the rest of your frozen cold-storage life, and then she reaches out a hand to Steve, too. Slowly he gets up and comes to you, and then they're both in your arms, and you're in theirs, drawing in the smell of them, the solid power of their bodies, the strength and grip of their hands on you dragging you back out of the grave.

Except then suddenly you're off balance, and lurching—Steve's dragging you because Natasha's hooked her ankle around the back of his knee and sent him staggering. But you're all hooked up together—Steve's arm over you, Natasha's leg around Steve—and so you all falter a couple of steps and topple onto the bed in a heap. Natasha's elbow is in your eye, and Steve's kneeing you in the balls and—this is real, this is actually happening. You can feel Natasha's breast rising and falling as she struggles to breathe and you slide off to one side so as not to crush her—but Natasha turns with you and rolls onto you to straddle you, eyes gleaming. Her knees are tight against your hips and they're real knees. Her hair falls into your face, tickling it, and you look at Steve—and god, that's really Steve, in the flesh.

You have the dizzying sense of things coming together—old loves, new life, new loves. You grasp for lost pieces and pull them together, put them together in a different way.

"You're really here," you say. Bucky says. James says. "You're really real."

"Yes," Natasha says.

"Yeah. And you, too, pal," Steve says, sounding choked up. "We're all still here, all of us. Somehow we made it through," and James Buchanan Barnes pulls them close again and closes his eyes, and somewhere in the back of his mind the war ends, and the sound of shelling finally stops.


End Notes

Feedback and encouragement very appreciated; also, if you liked, please consider reblogging on Tumblr:

Part I on Tumblr.

Intermezzo on Tumblr

Whole story post on Tumblr.

Finally complete after fucking too too too fucking long, but a lot of capital-L Life happened to me between starting and finishing this. But it’s now formally ended for them who don’t read WIPs. So so so many thanks to lim and monicawoe and especially to astolat, who basically carried me to the finish line on her back, lol. ( “I can’t carry that ring Mr. Frodo but I can carry you!”)

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