Through Cities And Churches
Thanks to lim for mucho cheerleading and handholding and nitpicking and brainstorming all the way through! I think I'm done fixing Civil War now - onward, upward, and beyond!
Also, if you liked, please consider reblogging on tumblr!
It seemed only right to be standing over the empty grave of an undead man. The file Natasha had given him was stained, well-thumbed, a bit ragged at the edges. Bucky's face was gaunt and frozen under glass; a death mask. Clipped to that ghastly photograph was the Bucky he recognized: warm smile, jaunty tilt to the hat. Steve snapped the pages shut, his fingers pressed white against the manila. Cyrillic writing. Case No. 17, Volume 2, March 23, 1945—Christ.
"You're going after him, aren't you?" Sam asked, and Steve gritted his teeth to stop the words from spilling out: yes, of course he was, and if he'd gone after Bucky all those years ago, after Bucky had fallen, he could maybe have saved Bucky all these years of fucking torment—
"You don't have to come with me," Steve said finally.
"I know," Sam said, and then he sighed and said, "When do we start?"
"Soon," Steve replied absently. He slid the folder into his jacket and zipped it, and later, he realized this was the moment he'd stopped telling polite untruths ("That's fine," "I don't mind," "I'd be happy to,") and started telling outright lies, because he'd already started searching for Bucky and he would never stop, no matter what.
It was hard to be in Brooklyn now, because so much of his Brooklyn was gone. The old streets had been overshadowed by the thundering BQE, which was new to him but had steel rusty and rotting underneath. The wood-framed tenement where he and his ma lived was gone, replaced by some dingy apartment buildings, and where his and Bucky's flat had been there was nothing but a brick wall rising up and up to the roaring traffic overhead.
The Barnes house was still there, though the block was full of rich people now. Five years ago, there would have been kids, playing stickball or jacks, and he could have asked them what was going on, because the kids on the block would have known everything. But there were no kids playing, and Steve felt self-conscious loitering, so he turned the corner and made his way back toward Atlantic. He wasn't going to find Bucky here: not anymore.
But he couldn't shake the feeling that Buck was nearby: he felt it in his bones that Bucky would come back to Brooklyn. Steve had wandered this same downtown loop over and over when he came out of the ice, trying to believe his eyes: that it had been seventy years, that everyone was dead. Oh, sure, some things were the same—Goldie's and Tom's, and the Cyclone was there—but they were ruined by the ugly white lights they used now, so hard on the eyes. High up on the brick sides of buildings he could sometimes see the remnants of painted signs: GOLD MEDAL FLOUR or CHESTERFIELD CIGARETTES or ROOMS $1.00 WITH BATH $1.50. He became an expert at spotting these signs, which were like meeting old friends: signs for the IRT, for Omega Oil and Singer Sewing Machines. He'd even found a sign he'd lettered himself, for the Chandler Piano Company, though only the "CH" was visible and the store was now something called Edible Arrangements, which sold bouquets made of fruit.
Steve wandered on, looking down at the sidewalk or up at the buildings' cornices, and he didn't realize where his feet had brought him until he found himself outside a café of white wood tables ringed with flowerboxes. It wasn't immediately familiar to him, and he had to look up at the cross street—Henry—before coming to himself with a jolt; now he knew where he was. But it all looked so different. Steve covered his shock by stepping forward and staring down at the menu, which was in a glass case on a pole. Nicoise Salad—$26.00, Steak Frites—$38.00—and he still couldn't get used to those numbers. A blonde in all black smiled and asked him if he wanted to sit outside, but no; no, he didn't: what he wanted was a seat inside at the bar, if that was all right. Yes, that was just fine.
The place was empty at this hour—just a few late lunchers sat outside in the sunshine—but in Steve's memories it was crammed: four deep at the bar, a live band squashed in the corner, couples with their arms and legs flying. People expected him to think things were more crowded now, but back where he was from the streets were teeming. There had been streetcars and pushcarts and horses and sometimes a chicken running loose. Now everyone did their living indoors, but back home with no TVs or computers, living five to a room, you had to find someplace else to be.
The bar was in the same place, but it wasn't the same bar: this one had a long slab of white marble on top. The walls had been painted white and there were enormous pots with flowering trees growing out of them. Steve nodded at the bartender and ordered an onion tart and a pint of whatever was good on tap before sliding his hands into his pockets and casually strolling around the empty tables. He pretended to look at the (terrible) fake impressionist paintings before turning to his actual area of interest: the two built-in bookcases along the back wall. They'd been painted white, too, and the shelves were covered with knick-knacks rather than books: little punched-tin candle-holders and an antique coffee grinder and a chalk board which read Bon Appetit! Steve pretended to look at the book titles; actually he was studying the joins where the bookshelf fitted into the wall. They were thick with layered paint.
"Onion tart?" the bartender called, and Steve said, "Yeah, that's me," and slid onto the stool. The guy was about his age but skinny, with shrunken-on jeans and a beard. He rolled some utensils in front of Steve with a vague smile.
Steve asked casually, "How long have you guys been here?"
The bartender considered. "About six months, I guess. Why, are you looking for a job?"
Steve grinned; if there was a job on offer, he just might take it. "You think I look like a waiter?"
The bartender lifted his eyebrows at him. "Like an actor," and Steve burst out laughing. The bartender put his elbows on the bar and said, friendly: "Hey, no judgments: just you're clearly working your look, man."
Steve reached for his pint. "I've done some time on the boards," he admitted.
"Oh, a stage actor—you guys are crazy. Dude, TV is so much easier. Let go of that theater shit. Not that I need the competition, but." He shook his head ruefully. "They're casting extras out of Astoria next week if you need something to tide you over. Pay's not bad if you've got your card."
Astoria? The old Army Studios, Steve realized. "I did a movie there, once. Three actually."
The bartender suddenly pointed at him. "Hey, wait, I know you," he said. "You did that toothpaste commercial a couple of years ago—Crest. Minty white freshness, right? With the dog?"
"Uh-huh," Steve replied earnestly. "Yeah. That was me."
The onion tart was good enough that he ordered a second one and another pint of beer before settling up his tab with the place: La Mirabelle, it said on the ticket. Well, that was a change; it had been Spodieodie's before, though no sign ever said so. Steve left the bartender a good tip and wandered back out onto the street. People were coming home from work, pushing out of glass office doors and streaming up from the subway. He walked around the block and down the street behind it, wondering if you could still get into the alley behind Spodie's by cutting in between the buildings on this side. Turned out you could, if you could get past the chain-linked gate that now blocked the alley. Steve took the old lock in his hand. It had already been broken and hung there, uselessly.
Steve stayed close to the wall as he moved toward the back of Spodie's on the off-chance that someone was watching. There were crates and boxes stacked behind the restaurant, and the door to the kitchen had been propped open to let out the heat; some things never changed. Steve looked up at the second floor, where there were one, two, three windows—but he knew for a fact that if you were to go up to the second-floor, there were only two windows on the back wall. That third window was a ghost window, and he could only hope that a ghost lived there now.
He hesitated for only a moment. It was still a straight shot: a quick hop to the top of the low wall, and then he could just ease open the window and slide over the sill. He and Bucky had done it millions of times, and they'd always left the window unlocked and opened a finger's width. He looked around quick, then hopped up and slid his fingers under the splintered wooden sash. It was open. His heart was pounding. He eased the window open and ducked under. And then he stopped, still clutching the window frame—because Bucky was there, hunched in a corner with his back to the wall and a gun in his lap. He was staring at Steve with a kind of blank incomprehension. He looked ready to spring, and Steve immediately raised his hands: empty, no weapons, no shield, no nothing, Buck; just me.
"I hoped you'd be here," Steve said finally. Bucky didn't reply or even move.
"I didn't know if you'd remember," Steve went on finally. "I barely remembered myself."
Bucky looked hard-faced and gaunt, but he was surprisingly clean, considering the flophouse conditions. The little room was just like Steve remembered it: the same dusty plaster walls and picture frame moldings, the same scarred wood counter and slop sink. Steve could only see the one gun, which was reassuring; there were no signs of the Winter Soldier's vast arsenal. Even more heartening were the signs of normal humanity around the place: a white paper carton with chopsticks sticking out; a backpack and denim jacket; a phone. Best of all was the thick notebook on the floor near the unlit lantern; Bucky'd always carried a notebook with him, even during the war.
Bucky's notebook...but this wasn't Bucky somehow; not exactly; not quite. The Winter Soldier's murderous intensity was gone, but the guy sitting there was still more Winter Soldier than Bucky Barnes, staring forcefully at him like he was trying to remember Steve, like he knew he should remember Steve, but somehow couldn't.
Steve screwed up his courage. "Do you know who I...?" Something pained crossed Bucky's face and he gave a little shake of his head, almost a twitch, like a dog; I don't.
"Okay," Steve said immediately. "That's okay." It didn't feel at all okay. "You knew to come here, though." Steve lowered his hands a little, and when Bucky didn't react, he lowered them all the way. "We used to come here all the time, you and me, before we got the place on Furman—" and Steve stopped because that had got a reaction: the first real one since he'd walked in.
Bucky's voice was a scrape, and so beautiful. "It's not there anymore."
Steve felt a strange relief. "No, that's right," he said, trying to keep his head: Bucky'd gone home, or he'd tried to. "It's not there anymore; it's gone. Your old house is still there, though—" and that got a reaction, too; a bad one: Bucky suddenly looked like a trapped animal, eyes panicked and dark. Steve fumbled to move the conversation away from the Barnes house, the Barnes family. "This building," Steve hurried on, "was a bar, remember?"
"I—yes." Bucky's eyes were black, darting, but he seemed to be bringing himself under control.
"It was Jimmy Mac's place, everyone called him Uncle Jimmy," Steve said.
Bucky licked his lips, looked up at him, nodded. "Spodieodie's."
"That's right." Steve drifted closer and went to his knees on the floor, ignoring the gun. "We worked here when we were kids—two years, hauling kegs and big jugs of red wine. All the bottles and mash for the fruit juices and mixers. Washing glasses—you remember how many glasses I washed?" Steve couldn't stop himself from smiling. "I must have washed thousands of glasses."
"Thousands," Bucky repeated vaguely, and then he was reaching for his notebook and writing something down, scribbling in what looked like a mix of English and other languages besides.
"And that's how we knew about the door, the secret door downstairs. Behind the bookcase." Bucky lifted his head from the notebook; his eyes were far away but he was nodding vaguely. "We loved the secret door," Steve added, his voice instinctively dropping, "because it was like something out of Dickie Malone and the Rats of Sunderville," and Bucky's whole face changed then, lit up like Times Square. He remembered! God bless Dickie Malone!
"For the...speakeasy," Bucky said, finding the word. "They kept the booze up here."
"Right," Steve said. "And then later they closed it again. When the booze became legal."
"In '33," Bucky said.
"Right." Steve's heart was banging painfully in his chest. "Jimmy sealed it up, but he said it was always good to have a place like this that nobody knew about, like something in your pocket."
"But we knew," Bucky said, and looked at him.
"Yeah." Steve could hardly breathe. "We knew."
"So we came in through the window." Bucky looked at the window, and Steve actually held his breath, wondering how far he would get. "Because we knew there was a room up here."
"Yeah," Steve managed.
"When it rained," Bucky said.
"Yeah." They'd been sixteen, seventeen; they'd smuggled up rotgut and dirty pictures, Tijuana bibles; they'd played cards, smoked; listened to games on the wireless. Steve had brought up his sketchpad. They'd hid from anyone looking for them, nursed their bruises after fights. They'd...
Bucky's brow furrowed. "We had a secret room," and then Bucky looked at him and Steve's heart leapt, because Bucky'd gotten there after all. "Because we had a secret."
Steve held the tears back. "We still have it, Buck," he said.
Bucky didn't do anything for an endless moment, and then he was reaching out to grip Steve's shoulder, the first non-violent touch between them since....no, wait. Steve had a sudden, sure memory of the Winter Soldier reaching for him underwater. Bucky had dived into the Potomac, had pulled him up and dragged him to shore. Now the metal hand was tight on his shoulder and Bucky was leaning across, between them—to kiss him, Steve realized. He felt surprised, happy, only a little shocked. The kiss was just a press of lips and gone, curious and exploratory: nothing like kissing Bucky had been. It was awkward in a way they'd never been with each other...or was that right?
The Winter Soldier stared out of Bucky's face. No, that wasn't right. They had been this awkward with each other once, or once upon a time, anyway. Steve thought back past his memories to older ones, to those first few nervous kisses—right here, back when they were kids, ages and ages ago. They'd been scared half to death, he remembered. Of themselves, of each other. Of their bodies: of what they could do, of what they wanted to do. Bucky was looking at him now with an intensity that Steve realized was at least partly fear: he still didn't remember most of everything. Bucky didn't remember him or this or any of it, or maybe he only half-remembered it, like yesterday's dream.
He realized that Bucky was looking to him for a reaction—and he was just sitting there like a dope. "We did this," Bucky said uncertainly, asking for confirmation. "You and me."
"Yeah, Bucky; yeah," Steve said with sudden fervor. "This and more," and then he was leaning to kiss Bucky back—gentler than he wanted to, because if Bucky didn't remember how it had been with them, it would maybe be too much, all at once. So he kissed Bucky more carefully then he would have, because Bucky had all the Winter Soldier's stillness and self-control and he was letting it happen but not participating—until suddenly he was.
It was subtle at first, so subtle that Steve barely noticed the movement of Bucky's lips against his, and then he felt Bucky's fingers tangling in the fabric of his shirt, and then everything shifted. The kiss became real, Bucky's mouth moving with greater certainty, like he was remembering how to do this—and he probably was remembering, because the Winter Soldier had been treated like a goddamned piece of machinery. They hadn't let him be a person. They hadn't let him have a body.
This time when they pulled back, Bucky was breathing a little fast—which was nothing like the Winter Soldier, who had seemed never to breathe at all. Steve grinned stupidly at him, then grabbed his face and kissed him once, twice: two real intense smackers—he couldn't help it. Bucky stared at him, but Steve thought he maybe detected the faintest hint of a smile, somewhere deep underneath.
"I read about you in a museum," Bucky said finally. "And me," he added offhandedly, and Christ, Steve thought that only thing worse than Bucky having to go to the Smithsonian to learn about one Steven Grant Rogers was the idea of Bucky Barnes having to go there to learn about himself. And then Bucky surprised him by saying, wryly, "They didn't say anything about this," and Steve burst out laughing at the idea.
"Well, they wouldn't, would they," he admitted.
"'Friends since childhood,' they said." Bucky looked at him, almost accusingly.
"Nothing about banging since the end of Prohibition?" Steve inquired earnestly.
"Not a thing. All heroism and patriotism."
"Did you look in the back?" Steve asked. "There was a picture of me in a dress with a little white card saying ..."
He stopped, because Bucky was wearing that look of anxious concentration again, like he was struggling to plug the holes in his memory. "Friends since childhood," Bucky repeated.
"Yes," Steve swore, and Bucky stared hard at him with eyes that were full of the Winter Soldier's suspicion. Steve's heart was hammering again: Bucky had to remember him: had to.
Then Bucky said, softly, "You were smaller," and Steve let out a painful breath and shot back, "Well, so were you," and Bucky considered this for a moment before conceding, quietly, "I guess."
Truthfully Bucky hadn't been much smaller before the serum; even before the war he'd been big enough that Steve had been able to straddle his legs and sit in his lap. He used to sit on Bucky's thighs with his pants unbuttoned and Bucky hard beneath him, kissing and teasing till he brought Bucky off. They'd done that in this very room before they'd had their own place and their own bed. It had felt so crazy, so dangerous. Steve wanted to do it again right now.
Bucky's pupils widened like he could feel Steve's desire pulling on him. "What do you think?" Steve murmured, and took off his jacket; he could go slow, he could be patient, because if Bucky didn't remember it, it was like it hadn't happened. He unbuttoned his shirt. "You want to try? Can you trust me this far?"
Bucky flicked his eyes down and up, down and up Steve's body, his expression torn between longing and suspicion, but he took the gun out of his lap and put it aside before sliding his arm around Steve's neck. Already it was easier to kiss; already it was more like before. Bucky cupped his head like he used to, and their mouths moved against each other intensely, like they were communicating again, and—Steve nearly broke it all to pieces but recovered fast, shaken—stupidly—by the scrape of metal plating against his hand, the edges of the thick scars.
He covered for his shock by sucking on Bucky's lower lip and pushing him down into the nest of blankets, rougher than he'd meant to. He dragged his hand down Bucky's chest. His shirt was hanging out of his pants at the front and Steve shimmied his hand past the waistband, slid his buzzing fingertips over the warm cotton. He gripped Bucky's cock—hard, full, hot—through the fabric. Bucky let out a wet sound of surprise, like he'd forgotten what this feeling even was—Christ, they'd probably never even let him masturbate; and hell, when would he have? Steve tightened his grip—cramped, fettered by Bucky's clothes. He couldn't stand it. He had to get closer. He yanked open the snaps and buttons and pushed it all aside. His mouth watered and he licked his palm and grasped Bucky's cock. Bucky went still, so silent and focused that Steve could hardly tell he was breathing. But Steve was breathing hard enough for both of them, loud in the quiet room. He lowered himself on top of Bucky's body, buried his face against Bucky's warm, stubbled cheek, and began to fondle and stroke him, gripping his cock, gently cupping his balls.
He went slow, sensing that Bucky needed him to go slow: that Bucky's body was only slowly remembering what pleasure was. Steve understood—his own body had been dead to him after the ice. With his memories of Peggy and Bucky tainted by loss and pain, even fantasy had been impossible—and real people, well: the less said about that, the better. You couldn't will attraction, and nothing in this modern world compared with Peggy's body hugged by a red knit dress, or the slow, sexy slide of Bucky's tongue over his lips, searching after a stray fleck of tobacco. Crude talk and cruder images were everywhere here in the future, but sex appeal was gone—well, for him, anyway.
Bucky was leaking into his hand, and suddenly, the breath bursting out of him, Bucky shuddered and said, "Oh. God. Oh—" and twisted his head so they could kiss, or at least pant into each other's mouths. Bucky clumsily grasped for Steve's shoulder, his back, like he was trying to remember what to do, how to move, hips jerking awkwardly—and all at once it was like they were sixteen again: sixteen and here in this room and they were going to figure it out, they were going to figure this whole sex thing out together. Steve hooked his leg over Bucky's so he could rub against Bucky's hip, get a little friction for himself. He felt sixteen, too—his body had come roaring back to life, cock and balls pounding, aching to be touched. Even his nipples were—and Bucky convulsed against him, his cock pulsing wetness across Steve's arm, between their bodies. Steve moaned softly and stroked him through it. He helplessly grabbed Bucky's hand and dragged it to his chest, speaking with his fingers: touch me, just touch me. He grasped himself just as Bucky cautiously stroked a thumb across his nipple—and then it was like Bucky remembered this, too, and began pinching and rolling his nipples, sucking hard kisses against Steve's jaw and neck.
A warm, pulsating pleasure washed over him. He'd forgotten these feelings. Bucky's tongue slid wetly into his ear and Steve jerked and came in a rush, his whole body surging, convulsing. Christ, that was good: he'd literally forgotten how good sex could be. The rush of fighting, his only real pleasure now, was nothing to it. Tears stung his eyes and he held them back. He was still shaking through it when Bucky surprised him with a kiss: intense and heartfelt, and totally different than that first mechanical press of lips. "Steve," and then stupidly, the tears came, because having Bucky say his name brought all the loneliness back full-force: nobody'd said his name for ages.
"Steve," Bucky said again, hesitantly reaching for him with his metal arm, and it wasn't like being sixteen anymore; it was like Azanno, and him and Bucky clinging in the dark.
He heard himself saying, "I'll take the watch. Let me take the watch," and when Bucky's face twisted with hunger, he knew he had been right. "How long since you slept?" but the look of half-desperate incomprehension on Bucky's face was all the answer he needed. "I'll take the watch," Steve repeated. "Trust me, I'll take care of you," and still Bucky's eyes stayed open but Steve could almost see him falling asleep somewhere beneath, and he had passed out long before his eyes finally closed.
Or had he? Bucky's eyes opened again, or maybe it was the Winter Soldier who couldn't let himself rest. "I can't come in," he said in a voice that was both frightened and strangely blank. "I can't come in yet."
"Okay," Steve said, responding to the distressed tone of Bucky's voice.
"I'm not ready to come in. I'm too—I can't. Not yet."
"Okay, Buck," Steve repeated. "If you're not ready to come in, then don't. You don't have to. I won't make you," and that seemed to relieve Bucky's mind, because his eyes finally drifted closed and stayed closed.
Bucky didn't wake up panicked, or pressing a knife to Steve's throat. Instead he opened one blue-gray eye and squinted up warily. "Do you know me?" Steve asked him, braced for disappointment.
"You're Steve. I read about you in a museum, but I never got to the part about us being queers."
Steve felt almost lightheaded. "Oh yeah? What about my long career in burlesque?"
"That neither," Bucky said.
"Well then, you missed out," Steve said. "That was the best part. There was a picture of me and Josephine Baker, doing the banana dance," and then, without missing a beat: "Look, if you don't want to come in, maybe I could—"
"No," Bucky said, shaking his head.
"—stay with you," Steve went on, like Bucky hadn't said anything. "Or go with you, if you don't want to stay here. I'll go anywhere you want."
"No," Bucky said again, and this time Steve had to reckon with his answer.
"I want to stay with you," Steve said. "Why not?"
"Because," Bucky said, in his talking-to-an-idiot-child voice, which at least was familiar, "I need to be a cockroach, a rat in a hole, and you're the bright and shining light of justice. That part was in the museum, real clear."
"That's him, not me," Steve protested, aggrieved. "That's Captain America. That's—"
Bucky was having none of it. "Steve, you don't know how to keep your head down and you never did." Steve exhaled irritably, but he couldn't really argue. "Besides—" Bucky's mouth tightened. "The only people looking for me are people who hate me and want me dead," and before Steve could protest, Bucky went on, unexpectedly, "It's a huge advantage. Because they don't want to find me; not really. They're just afraid of me, of what I'll do. They'd be happy if I just went away. But if you disappear, the people who'll come looking for you—they love you, and that's much worse. Because they'll find you. They're not going to stop until they find you."
"It's not only people who hate you who are looking for you," Steve managed.
"Yeah and you found me, didn't you," Bucky pointed out. "That's how I know that you—you know." He flushed.
"I do; I love you," Steve said, throat tight.
Bucky looked like he couldn't believe Steve really said it out loud. "I—believe it," he scraped out, and kissed Steve in the old way, ripe and urgent. Steve closed his eyes and let himself revel in it. Then Bucky moved his mouth to Steve's ear and whispered, "But if you do, you have to let me go. Draw them away from me, buy me some time," and Christ, he had to fight the urge to argue, to beg and plead: No, don't go—I haven't got anything else; nothing; not a single goddamned thing—but he couldn't put all that on Bucky, not when he had only just gotten free.
"If I do, are you going to be safe from Hydra?" Steve asked.
Bucky nodded, so Steve went on to the other question, the terrible question: "Buck, are people going to be safe from you?" and he regretted the grimace of pain that crossed Bucky's face, but he had to ask; he had to know.
"Yes," Bucky said vehemently. "Yes, Steve. I swear to God."
"Then, okay," Steve said. "Okay. I guess we'll do it your way for a while."
"Where the hell have you been?" Sam asked, turning up on his doorstep in Dupont Circle. "I figured I'd see you running on the Hill one of these mornings, but you never showed."
"Sorry," Steve said, idly scratching his neck. "I went to follow up a lead and—"
Sam shot a narrow look at him. "I thought we agreed you weren't going to do that. I know you think you can trust him, but it doesn't hurt to bring backup. That guy's been through a lot and—"
"It didn't pan out," Steve interrupted, then forced a smile. "So." He jammed his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "I got another lead, though, if you want to come with. In Chicago," he said. It was the first place he could think of.
"I'm in," Sam said, and then, warming: "Chicago's a great town," and Steve nodded, relieved. He'd pay for the trip and buy Sam a steak dinner, and maybe that wouldn't quite make up for lying and dragging him around on a wild goose chase, but it all he could think of to do.
The letter, when it came, was marked "RETURNED FOR POSTAGE," and it was addressed in his own handwriting, though he couldn't remember sending it and knew he hadn't. Still, those were his initials, and the return address the way he always wrote it—SGR 1614 Hillyer Pl., DC 20009—because he liked to write letters, though people rarely answered in kind. People replied to Steve's letters either with telephone calls or short texts or e-mails, and businesses replied to his queries with form letters that never directly addressed the questions he'd asked.
But this was an actual letter as well as a damn good forgery of his writing, which made Steve smile even before he saw that the letter was addressed to Dickie Malone of Sunderville, New York. Steve carefully opened the envelope and took out a piece of paper. It said—
—a string of carefully printed letters in his own handwriting. Steve looked down at it for a second and then he was laughing out loud and crossing to the desk, slapping the paper down and bending over it. He fumbled for a nub of pencil: he hadn't thought about this in years. When they were kids, he and Bucky had sent each other letters like this, without postage and with the delivery address and the return addressed switched. They'd thought they were so clever to think of it. And they'd both of them learned a bunch of ciphers and secret codes, taught to them by the heroes of their favorite wireless serials. Bucky'd always loved Lamont Cranston best, but he'd gone with Steve's suggestion: the tough-as-nails gang leader Dickie Malone.
He was surprised at how quick it came back—draw the boxes, fill in the letters. He and Bucky had invented a whole cipher table when they were kids. Then he started breaking the code, making substitutions, except it didn't seem to make sense, even broken. The letters went—
—and Steve stared down at them for a minute before grinning: Bucky'd given it to him backwards. He copied out the letters in reverse, then separated them with slashed lines:
181 / SOUTH / BETHEL / STREET / BALTIMORE / FRIDAY / THREE / OCLOCK
Right. Steve sat down slowly in his leather desk chair, his stomach churning with excitement. Baltimore. Baltimore was damn close. Steve committed the address to memory—181 South Bethel Street—and then pulled open the center desk drawer and took out a matchbook. Then he lit the letter and its envelope on fire and watched them burn.
Baltimore was close enough that he could drive there, but at the last minute paranoia hit him and he left his motorcycle and went to Union Station instead. He bought a ticket to New York but got off in Baltimore and took the bus. The neighborhood had few trees, and trash littered the bleached and cracked sidewalks. Steve got off the bus at a deserted intersection of brick row houses. A small and battered "FOOD MART" sat caddy-corner at the intersection: the whole place felt more like Brooklyn than the upscale steel and glass buildings of Atlantic Avenue.
He set off down the street then turned the corner at an abandoned lot so overgrown with weeds that it was almost a meadow; this was South Bethel Street. He'd imagined checking the street numbers except there was almost nothing here; an empty schoolyard, a single decrepit apartment building...and at the end of the street, a church. Steve walked toward it with inexplicable certainty; this was the place. The years were dropping away: something about the road, the pointed gothic windows of the church, made it feel like the past. The sidewalk had been swept; the small garden behind the wrought iron fence had been weeded and cared for. Letters in a glass case proclaimed: ST AUGUSTINE PARISH. Mass Schedule: Weekdays 9 AM, Saturday 5PM, Sundays 9 AM, 12 PM (English) 10:30 AM (Spanish) 5 PM (Polish). Confession and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament: Friday 3 PM, Saturday 4 PM. ALL ARE WELCOME. The huge wooden doors had been propped open. Steve stepped into the cool, empty vestibule. He dipped his fingers into holy water and crossed himself before opening the inside door and going into the church.
It was narrow and high-ceilinged, with a long aisle leading down to the altar: gothic revival. Steve's eyes went straight to the art. The statuary—two angels flanking the tabernacle, the Virgin Mary and the Infant Christ, St. Augustine holding his staff—had been painted in red and blue and pink; the Stations of the Cross had been sculpted in bas relief. Steve moved slowly down the far aisle and then slid into a pew and sat down: what activity there was seemed to be centered on the tiny side chapel where the monstrance had been set up for the adoration of the Eucharist. Steve stared down at his hands. He supposed he should go sit there with the few other people in the place, but it seemed wrong to pretend he was here for Christ when he was here for Bucky, so he stayed put.
The minutes slowed. He was more comfortable in church than in most places—less had changed here than in most places—and he supposed that Bucky must feel the same. Candles had been lit in front of the Virgin. There was the scent of incense in the air. It could be 1926 or 1936 or 2016—and Bucky slid into the pew and sat down beside him.
He looked worse; no, that wasn't quite true. He'd put on weight, and his skin had lost its sickly white cast, but misery had carved deep lines of unhappiness into his face. He seemed to have a faint tic; his right eye fluttered. "Hi," Bucky said, and then he must have read Steve's distress off his face, because he added: "I'm all right."
Steve wasn't sure what to say. "I've been worried," he said.
"I meant to be in touch sooner, but—" Bucky stopped. "I wasn't anywhere, so I had nowhere to ask you to. I've been living in shelters," and oh Christ, that saddened him, angered him—but Bucky raised a hand and said, talking over him, "which was good for me. Like the army: normal; lots of guys with B.O. and stinky feet. Plus I've been moving around a lot," and then he was hauling his backpack up onto the pew between them and rummaging inside it.
Bucky had more than one notebook now, and he frowned between them and then handed one to Steve and shoved the others back inside. Steve double-checked Bucky face for permission and then opened it and began to page through Bucky's scrawled jottings, diagrams, and maps, the occasional taped-in column of newsprint. This was Hydra, Steve realized: mostly people and places. Bucky'd drawn maps of bases, drawn squares around names in block caps: Santiago, Pyonyang, Kandalaksha. There were contacts, maybe handlers—Wm. Kruger. Hans Caldwell. S. Rowland. B. Hess—page after page; Steve recognized a few of them. Some of the names had checkmarks, or were slashed through or crossed out; others had cryptic notes written next to them in English or Russian ("The Hangman" or "Я не понимаю") or sometimes just frantic question marks or dashes (————?!!)
Bucky took the notebook back, turned to a particular page, then pushed it back into Steve's hands and tapped it with a finger. "Most of these guys got culled in Romanoff's info-dump," Bucky said quietly, "I cross-checked. But there are some who weren't. I—handled some of them." Bucky didn't seem to know where to look. The Virgin Mary? The Infant Jesus? "These others," Bucky stared at his knees. "I can't get to them. I mean, I could, but—"
"You'd get caught," Steve said, low and urgent. "Bucky, don't get caught."
Bucky looked at him with miserable eyes. "I don't want to get caught."
"Don't get caught," Steve said again, and then he was carefully ripping out the pages Bucky had indicated, folding them, tucking them into his jacket. "I'll take care of it; leave it to me," he said.
The words came out on a breath. "Thank you."
"Not necessary," Steve replied.
"There's more coming," Bucky said grimly. "I still don't remember most of it. I feel it like a sickness, like when you know you're going to throw up but you haven't. It comes back in pieces, big chunks all at once—sometimes in dreams. I wake up sick." He looked at Steve and his face changed. "Unless it's you," he said, mouth trembling. "Sometimes I wake up with a head full of you, and that's good. Those are the best days."
Steve's throat tightened and he looked away. "I wake up with you every morning," he said, and felt Bucky shift closer. They sat beside each other for a minute or two in companionable silence, listening to the faint echoes of other people's movements and watching dust motes spin in the air, and then Bucky said, softly, "Come on, let's go."
Outside, on the worn stone steps, Bucky turned up his collar and said, awkwardly, "So I work here now."
Steve couldn't help his start of surprise. "What, here? At the church?"
"Yeah," Bucky said. "They've got a shelter, and I was...I don't know, just doing odd jobs around the place, but then Father Leopold, he's the pastor, he sort of cornered me and insisted on paying me. And then he helped me find an apartment. It's not much, but—"
Bucky stopped and barked out a laugh, because Steve could hardly control himself: he was two steps from waving his hands around and doing a jig in the street. Bucky had an apartment! Bucky had an apartment in Baltimore! Baltimore was barely an hour away from DC! Maybe less if he—
Steve grabbed Bucky by the arms and grinned stupidly into his face. "That's great. That's just great, Buck."
Bucky looked cautiously happy. "I don't know how long it'll last," he warned Steve.
"Nothing lasts," Steve shot back, and Bucky couldn't argue with that.
Bucky's apartment was in the basement of a nearby row house, around the back through a weed-choked alley and down a couple of crumbling concrete steps. The paint on the white door was peeling, and both he and Bucky had to duck to pass through: inside, the low ceiling was only an inch or two above their heads. Cinderblock walls, a dingy black and white vinyl floor. There was a small bed covered with an army blanket in the corner, a battered table and two chairs. The kitchen was a metal sink and a hotplate, a small cube of a fridge—but there were two mugs on the counter. Bucky said, low and awkward, "You want coffee? I can make coffee," and Steve nodded wordlessly as Bucky turned on the hotplate and began to make coffee the way they used to, in a saucepan on the stove.
Steve took off his jacket and sat down in one of the chairs. There was a pile of old newspapers on the table, and Steve looked through them. The Baltimore Sun, but also papers in other languages. Russian. Polish. Ukrainian. Japanese—and it was weird to think of Bucky reading in Japanese, though of course Steve knew first hand that the serum made it easier to learn languages. He'd focused his attention on French and German back during the war, and he'd been working on Russian ever since discovering what happened to Bucky, though everyone said not to bother, considering all the translation tech they had now. But Bucky hadn't had translation technology, and this pile—Steve could feel the weight of decades in those papers; the long march of the Winter Soldier's years.
Bucky came to the table, a mug in each hand. He clunked Steve's coffee onto the front page of Czas Baltimorski before sliding into the opposite chair. Steve picked the mug up and sipped—and felt actually teary; it was overwhelming to be given coffee that tasted like coffee, doctored up just the way he liked it.
Bucky was staring at him. "I pictured this, you being here—" Steve nodded; there had been two mugs and two plates and two chairs. "—and now here you are."
Steve said, heartfelt, "Yeah. I pictured this, too," and then he laughed and set his mug down. "Well, no; I never pictured you making me coffee. I guess I must have a much—well, a much dirtier imagination than—" and before he could finish the thought, Bucky was up and dragging him out of his chair and kissing him, practically molesting him, clutching his head between his flesh and metal hands. Bucky shoved him backwards a little, and the back of Steve's legs hit the side of the bed and for a moment they clutched and danced awkwardly, still kissing, until suddenly their knees were bending and they were sort of folding together, going down, leaning back.
Bucky landed heavy on top of him. Steve smiled against his mouth and Bucky broke off the kiss and lifted his head. He said, panting, not so much looking at as looking through Steve, looking through Steve to the past, "Did you ever say—do I remember you saying—"
"What?" Steve asked; his cock was aching in his pants.
Bucky was lost, remembering. "You said..." He sat back on a bent leg and peered down at Steve, who was laid out beneath him, like he used to be: God, like he liked to be. "You said: 'I'm not fragile,'"—and oh, Christ, he had said that. He could remember saying that: could remember being small and horny and full of feelings and Bucky treating him with kid gloves all of a sudden, like fucking might break him where fighting hadn't, where his whole goddamned life hadn't. Steve remembered thinking that he had to set Bucky straight on this point and fast, and so he'd sucker punched him and knocked him back onto the bed at Furman Street and used his whole weight to keep him down, straddling him and pinning his arms with his knees and gripping his shoulders. And then he'd stared down into Bucky's crazy-handsome face, his forelock falling distractingly into his eyes, and said, low and forceful, "I'm not fragile, Buck." Bucky, flushed and warm and panting beneath him, had stared back up at him. Then he'd licked his lips and replied, roughly, "Prove it." So Steve had proved it. And then he had proved it again.
Now Bucky was on top of him, staring down, and so Steve scraped out, "Yeah, that was me," and he'd been hoping this would lead to some more rough and tumble fucking, but instead Bucky reached down to grab his backpack off the floor. The notebooks tumbled onto the bed, four of them: brown, blue, black, and hunter green. Steve recognized the brown one as the Hydra notebook, but Bucky tossed it and two of the others onto the milk crate nightstand. He clicked on a ballpoint with his thumb and opened the blue one on his thigh.
It opened to a picture of Steve—or no, to Captain America. It was the cover of the exhibition brochure, a cropped shot of him from the mural in the Smithsonian. Glossy brochures for the exhibit could be found in plastic cases all over Washington—his life was a major tourist attraction, a thing to do with the kids on a Sunday afternoon. I read about you in a museum, Bucky had said, but he hadn't been able to get the real story there. But he was maybe putting it together after all, because, as Bucky flipped to a clean page, Steve saw that the brochure and the pasted-in news clippings (research?) soon gave way to pages of Bucky's neat, tight writing: real memories, Steve hoped.
Bucky scribbled half a page of notes, then stared down what he'd written, gnawing at his lip, before looking up. "Sorry," he said. "Just I don't want to forget again," and Steve opened his mouth to say, you won't, but then didn't, because he couldn't. It felt like an empty promise; just words. What the hell did he know?
Bucky's gaze was moving up Steve's body, like he was trying to connect this memory—"I'm not fragile, Buck —to another one. "Did you," Bucky began, and there was a fleeting tension, a flicker in his cheek. "Did I? I mean, was it you who—" and Steve realized what Bucky was trying to ask him just as Bucky managed, "Did I used to like it?"
Steve's mouth went dry. "Yeah," he managed. "We both did. We both did it and we both liked it. I mean, we did a lot of things. We did—well, everything. Not all the time. We didn't—you know—not really at all in France. More in England." He stopped, swallowed, internally berating himself: Bucky was trying to build back his memories, Bucky didn't need him to be elliptical. "You found that cheap hotel near Euston and I would meet you there, do you remember? I forget what it's called." Bucky was looking at his body again, and so Steve went on, forcing himself to be explicit. "That was the only place we could actually—fuck. Other than that, it was catch as catch can."
"I don't remember," Bucky confessed. "But I want to do it," and Christ, two minutes ago Steve had been desperate for it, but—
Bucky's hands were on him, tugging his shirt out of his pants, reaching for the buttons. Steve shivered and tried to tamp his body down. "We should maybe go slower than this, though," he said.
"I don't want to go slower," Bucky said.
The words in his head twisted round and round, though he hadn't meant to say them. "But you don't remember."
Bucky frowned. "It was a long time ago," he said—but it wasn't, it was three years—No, it wasn't. Bucky had been awake and suffering while he'd been dead. "And it doesn't matter anyway," Bucky added, low and rough; he was opening Steve's jeans now, tugging at the fabric hard enough to lift Steve's hips off the bed. He dragged his underwear down, exposing him. "I want new memories," Bucky said, almost angrily. "I have memories but the ones I have—I want new ones. And the only good ones I have in my head are—" Bucky reached up, batted Steve's cheek, traced a fast orbit around his head. "—constellated around you, so." He took Steve's cock in his hand.
Everything stopped. They panted at each other. Steve was dizzy from trying not to thrust.
"I want to fuck you. Can I fuck you?" Bucky asked.
"Still not fragile," Steve said.
Sam pulled off his Falcon goggles, his face grimy from fighting. "Are you disappointed that he's not here?"
"No," Steve said, without thinking. In fact, he felt triumphant. The first Hydra nest on his list: routed, gutted. He and Sam had gone in like gangbusters, capturing not only Colonel Armand Yentz but a whole sleeper unit of commandos and an arsenal of guns, grenade launches, low level nukes and glowing blue Hydra weapons. The cops, army, and CIA were swarming all over the place now, putting the weapons into lead-lined armored cars and loading the men into supermax prison trucks. He couldn't wait to tell Bucky about—oh.
"I mean," Steve said slowly, noting Sam's sharp look, "I'm glad he's not here. You saw the vault. You saw the cryofreeze. He wouldn't go back to Hydra voluntarily, and if he hasn't been captured—then he's still in the wind."
"I guess, yeah," Sam said, and scratched at his neck. "I guess that's better."
"It is," Steve said, a little more sharply than he'd meant to. "Of course it is. He's not one of them, Sam."
"Okay," Sam said, but Steve knew when he was being placated.
"He remembered me, Sam. He knew me," Steve insisted, for what had to be the thousandth time.
Sam's expression was faintly amused but kind. "Hey, if he knew you and he pulled you out of the river anyway, I can only take that as a gesture of good faith." Steve made a face at him.
Steve drove up to Baltimore at odd times and parked his bike behind the crumbling shed in the unkempt back yard of Bucky's row house. Sometimes he met Bucky at St. Augustine's, slipping into their pew and waiting while Bucky finished mopping the vestibule, dunking his mop into the wheeled metal bucket, or cleaning trash out of the small church garden. Sometimes he went directly to Bucky's basement flat and knocked softly on the white door with its peeling paint. He tried not to draw attention to himself. Bucky wore jeans and old workshirts, a tattered jacket and a baseball cap, and so Steve tried to dress more or less the same, sometimes supplementing this getup with the clear-lensed glasses that Natasha had given him when they were on the run, because they made Bucky smile.
They fell back easily into habits from childhood, when they'd had no money—taking long walks and occasionally going to the pictures, playing cards and sitting around reading the papers, their heads in each other's laps. They had a lot of sex, because it was fun and it was free and it knitted them back together without talking. Bucky still didn't remember a lot of their old life together, and Steve wanted to fill in all the blank years they'd spent apart, to learn what had left Bucky so changed, but talking about it was hard. Their friendship had never been based on talking; they'd always seemed to know what the other was thinking. But that wasn't as true now, or maybe it was just that Bucky was thinking in languages that Steve didn't know. Some of them he couldn't even recognize.
In the end they came to terms over the notebooks. "The blue one's you," Bucky said without opening his eyes; he hadn't realized Bucky was awake. Steve had just been lying there in a post-coital stupor, savoring the moment, too happy to sleep, until his eyes found the notebooks. Then Bucky read his mind. "The brown one's them," Bucky murmured. "The green one's what happened to me. The black one's...what I did." Steve forced himself to relax, to settle back on the tiny bed, but Bucky went on, his eyes still closed: "You can look if you want. I've got no secrets from you. From myself, maybe," and Steve hadn't known which was the better part of valor, to look or not to look.
In the end, he sat up against the cinderblock wall and tugged the blue notebook out of the stack. Bucky rolled into his lap, taking advantage of the extra space, and went back to sleep, or seemed to, at least. Steve had been wrong: the picture of him from the Smithsonian wasn't pasted inside the cover, though it was very near the front. Instead, the notebook started with some random words scrawled in a shaky handwriting, Bucky's penmanship gone palsied.
"The BRIDGE," it said, and then: "was that the same man," and Bucky'd circled "the same man" so many times that the words were half blotted out. The word "WHEN?" was in a box, with an arrow drawn to "EARLIER" and then another pointed down to "ON ANOTHER ASSIGNMENT." On the next page was the first pasted newspaper clipping, Nick Fury's obituary. His own name appeared in the first paragraph, underlined—"...the D.C. apartment of STEVE ROGERS, otherwise known as ‘Captain America'..." It had been circled in red ink, and a line drawn to the opposite page, where Bucky'd written "Steve Rogers" and then "I
met knew him."
Then there was a bulleted list of places and times that he'd seen Steve: on April 1 on the roof near Steve's apartment, April 3 on the bridge, April 4 on the Potomac. These were firmly and clearly written but after that there were dots, angry zig-zagging squiggles and then what almost seemed like another voice entirely -
Wool pants with the holes darned
—and then Bucky'd circled the word darned and added a bunch of ????? and Steve smiled ruefully, because yeah, that was something that seemed to have dropped out of the world entirely. He'd could hardly even remember learning how to sew, it had happened so young, but his momma had worked for a living and he had only ever had two pairs of pants at one time, so if something happened you had to fix it: sew it, darn it, patch it carefully from the back. And something was always happening, particularly to his elbows or his knees, because when he was a kid he was falling and when he was older he was fighting, and Steve could remember it like it was yesterday, standing in the alley behind the drugstore and muttering "goddammit" under his breath because the bleeding cut above his eye would heal but the way his shirt was ripped, the way the guy'd grabbed it and pulled—well, that was going to take some serious sewing, and it was never going to look right even still. Momma was going to pitch a fit.
Bucky'd drawn a line up to the top of the page, back to that frantically circled phrase—"the same man?"— and the urgency in the question was such that even though this had been written months ago, Steve blindly palmed a pen off the nightstand and wrote, beneath: "Yes, that was me. I was small. I had holes in my clothes but I tried to mend them," and then Steve hesitated and added, "You always said it looked like tweed. You were nice to me," and then he made himself turn the page, and go on.
STEVE ROGERS, it said, and below that: CAPTAIN AMERICA, and the next bunch of pages were all scrawled notes about Captain America: the familiar boring rehash from the papers or the internet, Wikipedia, though Bucky'd circled words he'd been interested in: Brooklyn. 4F. Super serum. SSR. Howling Commandos. Valkyrie. Crash. Ice. Steve frowned and began to page forward through the notebook—it occurred to him that he hadn't yet seen Bucky's own name anywhere. It didn't appear until pretty far down in Bucky's Captain America summary, and even then there was no suggestive circling, underlining, or doodling. "Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes KIA 6 days before crash," Bucky had written, with no apparent recognition that he was writing his own name.
Steve clicked the ballpoint again. The writing was denser here, but there was space at the side. Steve circled Bucky's name and then drew a line out to the margin. "This was you," he wrote in small letters, and then: "I wanted to die," and then he was slamming the notebook shut and almost pushing it back onto the milk crate, because a guy could get lost in the endless white space between Bucky's fragmented memories—but Bucky was back, Bucky was right here.
"Hey, look," Sam said awkwardly, "I gotta ask you something." Sam was sitting, hunched over, on the edge of his bed, his fingers laced together—Sam always took the bed near the window when they shared a hotel room, which they sometimes did when they were looking for—well. When they were out pretending to look for Bucky.
Steve had just come out of the shower, and was dressed in loose sweats, his hair damp. They hadn't found Bucky—well, of course they hadn't—but he and Sam had taken down yet another Hydra stronghold. Bucky continued to supply them with good leads as he remembered them—and that intel was worth something, wasn't it? That was real work, important work, even if the chase for Bucky was... "Sure, Sam," Steve said casually. "Of course."
"This friend of yours," Sam said, looking up at him, meeting his eyes. "Barnes," and then he was shaking his head and smiling ruefully. "Man, this would be so much easier if we could just have a drink or something—"
"Hey, we can have a drink," Steve pointed out. "I won't get drunk, but—"
"Well, I won't get drunk either," Sam said, eyeing him, mock offended. "Not on one, anyway," and so they cracked open the minibar and popped the tops off two bottles of beer. "All right," Sam said, after they'd clinked and drank; the beer was surprisingly good, though not quite cold enough. "This friend of yours: Bucky. I know you were kids together. I read the books, I went to school—I know you saved him, I know you served with him. And I know what that means: what war does to you, how it bonds you together. Riley—it was like losing a part of me, an arm or a leg," and Steve held Sam's eyes and nodded, because he knew: he understood what Sam had been through.
Sam was turning his beer bottle around and around in his hands. "So I get that he'd mean a lot to you, even without the whole thing of him being, like—the only other native to have survived from your home planet," and when Steve laughed unexpectedly, Sam smiled and went on, glibly: "Like I get that you're Kal-El and he's Jor-El, or—"
"He's not Jor-El!" Steve spoke Superman.
"—whatever, Bucky-El," Sam said, rolling his eyes. "Or whoever else survived."
"Nobody else survived," Steve said.
"Yes, they did." Sam counted on his fingers. "The girl—Supergirl—and there was also a dog."
"What dog?" Steve asked, but Sam seemed to realize that he'd strayed from his point, and shook his head.
"What I'm saying," Sam said, trying to drag the conversation back on track, "is that I get it: there's a million reasons you've got to find this guy, but..." and suddenly Steve understood what Sam was asking, and then Sam saw him understand and flushed, and abruptly switched gears: "No, sorry, forget it."
"No, it's all right," Steve said distantly.
"Just it feels like there's more," Sam said.
Steve's throat was tight. "There is more."
"It's none of my damn—" Sam said. "But I just, I wondered. If you and him were—you know. If you were—"
His face got hot. "—sweethearts, yeah," Steve admitted, and he saw from Sam's expression that that wasn't the word he'd been thinking of, and then Sam pulled a rueful face at him and said, on a huffed-out laugh, "Sweethearts, sure. That's what my momma would have said, too. That's nice, I like that."
Steve's face felt even hotter. "What—I mean, what would you call it now?"
"I don't know: boyfriends, maybe?" Sam suggested. "Lovers? Partners?"
"That's nice," Steve sighed. "In my day, it was fruits, pansies, poofs. We just said friend." He asked Sam, curiously, "How did you guess?"
"I didn't guess," Sam admitted. "It was something Natasha—You know how she was always trying to set you up, pushing Sharon at you, and that other cutie, Janine." Steve blinked; he had no idea who Janine was. "Janine," Sam repeated. "She's always there when you turn in your mission reports. Black, pixie hair. Looks a little like Rihanna. Janine," and oh yeah, that pretty girl up at the Head Office; chic, with a nice smile. But Sam was rolling his eyes with obvious, theatrical frustration: "A-ny-way Natasha seems to have given up trying to introduce you to womankind, so I was trying to work out why. Natasha isn't a quitter, but she seems to think you're off the market," and Steve felt a sudden twinge. Did she know? What if she knew? Did she know he'd found Bucky already?
He realized that somewhere, deep down, he'd been debating taking Sam into his confidence—Sam don't be mad at me, but I found him already; he's in Baltimore and I'm kind of seeing him a couple of times a month–but suddenly knew that he wouldn't—couldn't—risk it. "Maybe Natasha can do something for you," Steve said, meaning that maybe Natasha would introduce Sam to Janine or Sharon or Lillian from Accounting, but when Sam blushed, Steve abruptly realized that Sam was—wow, sure, of course; obviously—pretty damn interested in Natasha.
Sam admitted it with an awkward smile. "She already does, man," he said, and that was a perfect change of subject.
He'd resented the Smithsonian retrospective, the way it had reduced his life to a couple of props and some red, white, and blue bunting. But now, working his way through Bucky's blue notebook, he was grateful for it—because it had put Bucky right at the heart of the exhibit, on a wall ten-foot high, etched in glass. And the Smithsonian had commissioned a twenty-foot mural, whose artist had painted Bucky like a romantic hero and put him at Steve's side. This was where Bucky had first seen himself; that was how Bucky had first seen himself. Steve wanted to hug whoever'd curated the damn thing: they had asked him to speak at the opening, and he'd turned them down, but if he survived this, if he and Bucky survived this, he'd go back and offer to do them a goddamned public Q&A.
The blue notebook was bookmarked to a picture of Steve, but later in the pages, Bucky had pasted in a small picture of his own face, cut from the mural; the size of a mug shot, like he was a suspect. Barnes, James Buchanan aka "Bucky." Born—1917? 1918? Historians apparently debated this—there was some irregularity with Bucky's birth certificate—but Steve knew it was 1917 and so added the note—March 10, 1917—just in case Bucky'd forgotten.
The past came back to Bucky in bits over the pages—lists, glimpses—and his handwriting grew stronger and more recognizable. Three sisters, green dresses, red hair ribbons; laughing. Amy, Grace, and Roberta—and Steve's pen hesitated over the last name, because Becca had been Bucky's favorite, the apple of his eye—and would it hurt him more to know that he'd forgotten her name or to let it stand uncorrected? Steve bit this lip and fixed it—Rebecca, you called her Becca—and turned the page, where it said: He is on the fire escape with a white cat.
Steve stared, transported—yes, that was right; that was true. Momma had forbidden him the kitten—she was convinced cats carried diphtheria and was unwilling to risk Steve's health to prove otherwise—but he had adored the kitten and so had sneakily built a bed for it on the fire escape under the overhang. The cat had come back to him more or less faithfully, and used to let him pick it up by the scruff of the neck and scratch under its chin while Bucky watched them both, smoking: Momma wouldn't let Bucky smoke inside the house either, because of his asthma.
Steve wrote in the margin, her name was Snowball, Momma wouldn't let me bring her inside so I kept her on the fire escape. That gave him an idea, and he turned to a clean page and began to write:
I don't remember when I met you. We have been friends for damn near forever. But I'm pretty sure I fell in love with you that time I got beat up behind Greenwald's in (?) 1932 I guess. You broke up the fight but then you told me I was a sorry excuse for a fighter and that I should have kept my hands up to protect my stupid face, and then you made me go with you to the Boys Club and punch the heavy bag over and over. This was ridiculous because my arms were like noodles, but you showed me how and you made me practice. You were the only one who ever said get up, keep going, be better—you and my ma. And later—I don't know if you remember –but the first time you kissed me, you told me my face was still stupid but you didn't want anybody punching me and making it worse than it—
Steve jerked the pen up, sick before he knew why—then remembered Bucky bent over him, holding him down and punching him in the face with his metal fist. Horror had dawned on Bucky's face. Maybe that was why—
Steve snapped the notebook shut and stared at the blue cover. It had a grainy pattern in the card he'd never noticed before. He flipped it open again and paged to where he'd been. He had to finish his thought, finish the story—
There was new writing at the front. Beneath where Steve had written, I had holes in my clothes but I tried to mend them, Bucky had scrawled. You'd be all the rage now. It's me who'd look corny in my plaid suits and hats.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" Sam demanded, when Steve opened his apartment door. "Don't you ever look at your damn phone?" though actually, Steve had gotten a lot better at remembering to check his phone, because Bucky had taken to texting him from inexplicable numbers, always different, soon disconnected. Coded requests to meet, or sometimes pictures: the Quaker Oats box, a packet of Lucky Strikes, Bugs Bunny. Once it was a grainy video file, 1 minute 39 seconds. Steve saved it to his phone and watched it over and over, knowing that Bucky was doing the same. A man awkwardly working his way down a ladder. Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
"Sorry Sam." Steve yanked the door open wide. "Come on in—"
"No, you grab your coat and come out," Sam said. "I'm illegally parked round the corner—but I've got a lead." He waggled his eyebrows, looking pleased. "On our missing person. An old friend of mine," Sam went on, "runs the VA in Baltimore. Says he might have seen your boy," and Steve said, "Oh," and "That's great," and went to get his coat like a zombie. On the way out he grabbed his phone, glanced at the screen. A bunch of texts and notifications, most of them from Sam. Missed Call. I'm outside now. Missed Call. I'm coming over. Missed Call. Missed Call. Come on pick up your damn phone. I've got a lead on your friend. Missed Call. Hey, call me.
And in between that, a nonsense string of text from an unfamiliar number: UMCUEEATRMEULEIUASEEATRL. Steve shoved the phone into his pocket, pulled the door closed and followed Sam down the stairs. Anagrams on Friday—he'd gotten good at all the codes and ciphers he and Bucky'd used to use when they were kids: codes and Russian had become his second languages. COME TO CHURCH USUAL TIME. It wasn't until they were in the car, Sam driving them north toward 95, that Steve was able to slip the phone of his pocket and text back, LIE LOW, as Sam said pleasantly, eyes on the road, "It's only about an hour away. Be great if we found him, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah," Steve said, his eyes on his phone. There was no answer, but neither was it Message Failed To Send.
"I sent his description out to some people I know. Veteran's Services," and then Sam cut his eyes at Steve and added, his voice going serious, "Not his name or who he is. Nothing about James Barnes or the Winter Soldier." Sam looked back to the road. "Just that they should keep their eyes open for a vet I was looking for. About thirty. Long dark hair, blue eyes. Russian as a first or second language, with a high-tech prosthetic arm." There was acid in Steve's throat, and he swallowed and pushed the button to lower the window for some air. "It ain't as unusual a description as you'd think," Sam said, sighing. "VA's full of people like that. Which is why," and here Sam glanced between Steve and the road, "I thought it was worth taking a shot. I figured: if you're right and I'm wrong, if he's still the man you say he was, then he's a guy who's just been cut loose from the army, a guy who just lost that structure, you know? That numbness, that certainty—one foot in front of the other, you know what I'm saying?" Steve nodded, "and he's maybe taking stock for the first time in a long time." Sam stared at the road. "A long damn time. And he's maybe feeling the same pain as the rest of us. He'll maybe do what we all do—get angry or drunk or high—and then maybe he'll look for help. Find the VA." Sam looked at Steve again. "If he's who you say he is."
"He is," Steve scraped out, because Bucky hadn't just gone to the VA; he'd gone back to church.
He was tense enough over the ride that Sam reached out to grip his arm once or twice, saying, with all kindness, "We're gonna find him; we will," even as that was exactly what he feared. He thought he might actually rip the armrest off the door handle. He could see his knuckles going white, his fingers pressing down, down into the leather—and then they were going past Bucky's exit and on into East Baltimore.
They pulled off the highway into a grim huddle of brownstones and vacant lots. Sam drove through the cracked, treeless streets, eventually pulling up in front of the Jefferson Community Center, a low brick building with painted metal doors. They got out, slammed the car doors, crossed the street. Inside there was a double-doored foyer, and beyond that was a dimly lit corridor with various doors leading off; it looked like what Steve remembered of school.
As Sam approached an office with a glass window, a man with tight gray curls and a wide smile came out to greet him, hands extended. They shook and then hugged, slapping each other on the back, and then Sam said, "Steve, I want you to meet Lamont Taylor. Lamont, this is Steve Rogers: Captain America. I pretend to be cool about that."
Lamont laughed and reached out to shake Steve's hand. "Pleased to meet you, Cap. It's a real honor."
Steve smiled helplessly as he shook it. "Same. And I'm sorry: you say Lamont, I think Cranston, I can't help it..."
Lamont looked surprised. "Yeah, that's what he said. The guy," he said, turning to Sam, "that you're asking about," and it was all Steve could do to keep the sudden sick feeling off his face, even as Sam shot him a triumphant grin.
"Is he here?" Sam asked.
Lamont shook his head. "No, but he was. He didn't stay long, he— Do you want to come in?" he said abruptly, gesturing back toward his office. "Sit down? I got a coffee machine," but Steve didn't think he could survive scrutiny right this second, so he interjected, "Can you give me a tour first? I'd love to see the place."
"Sure," Lamont said proudly, and most of the story came out as they walked. "This is the shelter," and the room reminded Steve of nothing so much as the triage centers he'd seen during the war: field hospitals set up in ballrooms, in barns, in churches. It was crammed with metal cots, all empty. "It's a requirement they get out during the day so we can clean the place," Lamont said. "We've got a job hall, a game room, a gym—or there's a church down the block, a library, a couple of places that'll let you do laundry for free if you show them your sleep ticket. He did that, the guy you're looking for," Lamont told them. "Came in, spent the night, washed himself and everything else, then took off. I wouldn't have remembered him if you hadn't asked; he was real low-key, that dude," and Steve just bet he was; Bucky was professionally invisible. "But he was white," Lamont said, "which made him unusual around here," and Steve understood then why Bucky'd set up camp on the outskirts of Central Baltimore, with its huge Polish and Russian populations, "and then there was that thing about The Shadow—who the hell knows about that?"
"I don't even know about that," Sam said, looking from Lamont to Steve.
"Lamont Cranston," Steve explained. "He was The Shadow's secret identity. It was on the radio when I was a kid."
"Yeah, but that was like a hundred years ago," Lamont said. "No offense, Cap."
"Not quite that long," Steve said.
"Long enough that there were still white people called Lamont," Lamont told Sam, who grinned. "Come on back to the office," Lamont said, and there he made copies of the paperwork Bucky'd filled in at check-in: Alexei Orlov, Specialist, 4th Infantry Division, and it didn't even look like Bucky's handwriting. But he'd seen documents and mail in Bucky's apartment, passports made out to Alexei, Mikhail, Dmitri. He didn't think that Bucky's Russian identity was entirely an act, either, because sometimes when Bucky woke up in the morning, he spoke Russian before he spoke English. Sometimes Steve tried to respond in kind, though Bucky smiled mockingly at his accent.
Steve looked up to see Lamont looking at him. "So," Steve said awkwardly, "you haven't seen him since?"
"I barely saw him then, to be honest," Lamont admitted, and then, giving into his curiosity: "Who is he, Cap?"
Steve saw Sam press his lips together; it was up to him to decide how to answer this. "He's—a soldier, a member of my team, gone AWOL," Steve said, and saw that Sam was nodding, slowly, at the truth of that. "I don't blame him for running," he added quickly. "He was—poorly treated. But I want to find him. I want to make it up to him."
"Well, he was here six months ago," Lamont said. "He's probably still in the system somewhere; they usually are."
"We can run his name, run everything on his paperwork," Sam suggested. "See if he's used this info any place else. It might triangulate into something interesting. It gives us a place to start, anyway," Sam finished optimistically.
"Yeah," Steve said. "That's great, thanks."
"You're disappointed," Sam said, on the way back.
"I'm not," Steve protested. "I mean, I am. But I'm—you know, okay. I'm fine."
"Uh-huh." Sam was focused on the road. "You're fine; you're always fine. But you know, I look at your face and I think that part of you doesn't want us to find him. Is maybe scared that we'll find him. And that's legit, you know?" Sam sent him a look of grim sympathy. "That is a legit way to feel under this particular set of circumstances."
Steve didn't reply.
Sam dropped him back at his apartment at half past eight in the evening. By twenty to nine, Steve was on his bike, roaring back up the highway toward Baltimore. The coded text on his phone said MESSAGE RECEIVED.
He parked his bike in a dark corner of the dilapidated back yard and went to knock on the door to Bucky's basement apartment. There was no answer, and there was no answer, and then nervously, Steve used the keys Bucky had given him, and went inside. It was empty, and worse yet, it had a kind of abandoned feeling, which he couldn't explain until he realized that the notebooks were missing. For a moment he just stood there, heart pounding, and then he went back out into the night and fast-walked the couple of blocks to St. Augustine's, hands jammed in his pockets.
The church was dark, but Steve stuck to his gut and ran up the steps and yanked at the heavy wood door. It was open. Steve stepped into the foyer, and then went into the church, which was lit only by the thick candles in the niches and a small lantern near the tabernacle. Bucky was sitting in their usual pew, his backpack beside him on the bench.
He looked up as Steve approached. "Are you alone?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah," Steve said, and then the implications settled on him; did he think Steve would turn him in?
"Tell me everything," Bucky said, and Steve answered immediately.
"Sam put out of a description of you to veterans' services. You rang the cherries in East Baltimore—the Jefferson Community Center," he said, and Bucky nodded. "Bucky," Steve added hesitantly. "Maybe it's time to come in."
"No," Bucky said.
Steve sat down beside him on the pew, the backpack between them; he'd had a worse thought. "Please don't go."
"I'm not going," Bucky said, which surprised him. "Not yet, anyway."
"But..." Steve sat there for a moment, breathing hard and staring down at his hands, torn between what he wanted for himself and what he wanted for Bucky. Finally he gritted his teeth and said, against interest, "Buck, they'll be looking for you. They've got you spotted two exits from here—just a couple of miles—"
"Yeah, and if I were a burglar I'd be really worried. Good thing I'm an international assassin," Bucky said, and then he went on, almost kindly, "They're going to be looking for me in concentric circles, radiating out of here and gradated over time. I know the search protocols—Hydra's, I mean. SHIELD's too but it's not SHIELD I'm worried about here. It's Hydra I don't want following me, but the last place anyone's gonna look for me now is here."
"You did it on purpose," Steve said slowly. "You went to a shelter two neighborhoods over before you came here."
"Within the search perimeter, yeah," Bucky said. "I'll be safe here for a while longer, I guess."
Steve's arms and legs felt like rubber. But. "Bucky, I'm worried. I don't know how this ends," he said.
"Me neither, pal," Bucky replied. "But I don't think it's going to end how we expect."
Bucky locked up the church, and they went back to Bucky's basement apartment, and they were in each other's arms the minute the battered door closed behind them, Steve pushing Bucky against the wall in the narrow corridor and kissing him, dragging his lips and tongue all over his face, his thumbs stroking the rough beard along Bucky's cheeks.
It took him a moment to realize that he was hearing more than the sound of his own blood in his ears. "S'alright," Bucky was whispering to him. "S'alright, it's all right," except it wasn't, and Steve pressed his face hard against Bucky's prickled cheeks and gritted out, "I'm afraid you're gonna disappear again. I'm so afraid."
"Well I might," Bucky said, which wasn't the answer he wanted, "but if I do, I'll find you, swear to God. Never had trouble finding you: you're wherever the trouble is. And so long as you're wearing the outfit, you're hard to mi—"
The word died as Steve slid down to his knees, dragging his hands down over Bucky's body, over his scarred chest, his flat stomach—to the waistband of his pants. Steve tugged his shirt out, then opened his button and unzipped his fly. Bucky was already hard, pushing up against the thin fabric of his underwear. Steve bent to nuzzle him with his lips and his nose before pushing his hands up underneath Bucky's shirt, wanting to touch warm skin. The scarring—Christ, it made him angry, would always make him angry; he didn't see how he was ever going to get over it. He rubbed his hands over Bucky's chest, nipples catching against his palms. His fingertips bumped the ridges of Bucky's ribs as he pulled his hands out—and then he was dragging Bucky's underwear down, gripping his cock and pulling it into his mouth. "Fuck," Bucky said, and then his hand was in Steve's hair. He was tugging and trying not to tug, rubbing his fingers around in crazy circles. It made Steve gulp, hold his breath, and then Bucky's hand tightened and they found the right rhythm. And then Steve closed his eyes and really went for it, greedy and unashamed—like he'd done when they were kids, and he'd had to convince Bucky that this was an okay thing, like he'd done during the most desperate hours of the war. Holding Buck's hips like this, worshipping him with his mouth, Steve was transported back to all the shower stalls and locked closets: little boxes of stolen privacy. Bucky's metal hand touched his face, warm and surprisingly gentle, though Bucky was usually self-conscious about it and kept it gloved or tucked in a pocket or pressed against Steve's back when they were making love. Unless he couldn't help himself, like now, and Bucky hips begin to jerk as his breaths went ragged. He was trying not to thrust but Steve blindly dug his fingers into Bucky's hips and tugged him forward and back, rocking him into his mouth and—
"Oh, fuck," Bucky said, making helpless fists in Steve's hair. "Motherfucker," and then he was groaning and trying to pull out even as he was coming, but Steve slammed him back against the wall and held on, sucking until his mouth was flooded and he choked and then turning, coughing and spitting, dragging his arm against his mouth.
He was still getting his breath when Bucky grabbed him by the arm and dragged him up and over to the bed. Bucky gave him a push and Steve sprawled backwards, flopping, and let Bucky open his pants: like the old days, just like the old days, when everything was terrible and still somehow so, so much better than now.
The next threat came from an unexpected quarter.
He thought he'd mainly gone unnoticed by the old ladies and homeless men who drifted in and around Saint Augustine's, but one day he was waiting for Bucky to finish work when someone sat down beside him in the pew.
He turned, expecting Bucky, and found himself looking into the friendly but intense eyes of a balding priest.
"You're Misha's friend, aren't you," the priest said, and Steve blinked and said, "Yes, Father," because he'd heard Bucky mumble Russian names when asked.
The priest's kind, firm voice sent Steve right back to the third grade. "How do you know each other?"
That was an easily-anticipatable question, but Steve felt like a deer in the headlights. "I—we grew up together," he replied. "In Brooklyn. Then we were in the army together," and that was safe to say as well as true.
But the priest was raising his eyebrows. "Brooklyn?" and thank God Brooklyn was the most diverse place in the world, because Steve just nodded and said, feeling his way, "Yeah. After his parents. You know. Emigrated." His mouth worked and he clamped his lips together, left the rest of it open-ended. God, he had to hope that Bucky hadn't told some differently-elaborated lie, though Bucky was too good a ghost to have committed to much.
In any case, the priest seemed to accept his story as reasonable. "What do you do now?" he asked.
Another easily anticipatable question, but— "I'm, uh, in law enforcement," Steve said. "Down in DC," and the priest's face cleared, then, and he sat back in the pew and said, "That's good," and then: "I'm Father Leopold."
"I'm Steve," Steve replied automatically.
"Steve, I hope I haven't offended you with my questions," Father Leopold said then. "But Misha's never been particularly social, and so for him to have so suddenly and obviously taken a friend..." He looked Steve in the eye. "He's clawing his way back from somewhere. You probably know that. To life—a job, a home; maybe to God, even. I don't know what happened to him. He doesn't talk about his life before he got here and I don't press." He frowned, and Steve could see the new thought cross his mind: the army; a soldier. Steve wondered what Father Leopold had guessed about Bucky before: Drugs? Crime? Russian mafia? "But I can see that he's clawing his way back from something terrible. And I don't want anyone dragging him down again, do you understand me?"
It took Steve a moment to realize that these remarks were directed at him; that Father Leopold had maybe been worried that someone from Bucky'd old life had come to claim him, maybe even to hurt him. "I—of course. Me too. B—" and he'd nearly said Bucky, but managed to redirect: "—but he told me how much you've already done for him, giving him a job here and finding him a place to live. I know he's grateful and—so am I. He—Misha," the name was strange on his lips, "he's my oldest friend. My dearest friend. I'd do anything for him, Father."
The old priest was studying Steve with a strange expression. "You know what, I believe you," he said.
And then just like that it was over. Steve was in a meeting when the message came through: sitting in a chrome and glass conference room at CIA headquarters with the Avengers, listening to Tony Stark arguing that Stark Tower should be their new base. Private floors for everybody! Full technological integration! Stark was saying, waving his hands and flinging screens hither and thither—but New York was three and a half hours from Baltimore without traffic, so Steve had already decided that he wasn't going. Still, that was nobody's business but his own, and he wasn't going to take the CIA's side against Tony. Tony'd kept them together after SHIELD went down.
His phone vibrated and he glanced down, saw the string of nonsense text, read the cipher on the fly:
I DON'T KNOW YOU. YOU DON'T KNOW ME. STAY AWAY.
Steve's first thought was a strangely melancholy one: he really must not remember me all that well, if he can send a thing like this and think it would work. "Excuse me," he said, and stood up. "I have to go."
He felt dread the minute he turned onto Bucky's street and saw the flashing lights of the ambulance—and the police car. He slowed his bike, rolled to a stop; a lot of people were out, standing in their yards or on the sidewalk, watching them load up the stretcher. Steve put the kickstand down near the cracked curb and then circled warily around to the back of the ambulance, slipping through the onlookers with their crossed arms and shaking heads. The man on the stretcher wasn't Bucky; he was balding and thick-necked, his face white with pain; his arm was hanging at an unusual angle, and had been immobilized.
A woman with a blonde ponytail and a tired face was saying to a policeman, "—fucking psychopath, I'm telling you. We never saw the guy, he never came up to say hi, hello, how are you, fucking nothing, the guy's a fucking ghost, and then out of nowhere he comes up to Pete and—" She stopped, stammered. "—and just—" and tough-looking as she was, Bucky'd clearly scared the shit out of her. She raised her hands, miming: clawing, snapping. "Fucking broke his arm," she said finally, gasping. "Nearly fucking ripped it off him."
The policeman, nodding, was taking notes. He said something Steve couldn't hear, but he heard the woman's screeching reply: "Why? Because he's a fucking psychopath, that's why!!" and then, breathing hard in her rage: "No, I don't know his name, I--," and then, "I don't know, it was fast. White, tall, he had—long, dark hair," and then another policeman was coming down the weed-thickened alley that led to Bucky's apartment, shaking his head.
"He's gone," the officer said. "Whole place cleared out," and maybe Steve should have expected it, but he was taken aback when the first officer suddenly turned to him, "What about you: you know the guy in the basement here?"
Steve was shaking his head before his mouth could form the lie. "No," he said, and if he was afraid that the policeman would press him, he needn't have been; instead, the officer went over to a woman and said, "What about you, ma'am? Have you ever met the guy who rented the basement apartment? No? Ever seen him?"
Steve's attention was caught by something, a movement, and he turned and looked up at the house. Bucky lived around the back, but in the front there was a stoop, and behind that a splintered screen door, and behind that— Steve saw the shield first, the red circles, the white star. It was on a t-shirt, and the t-shirt was on a boy—about seven years old—who was staring at Steve like seven-year-old boys so often did. Steve could usually pass unremarked among grownups, but maybe it was because kids were more familiar with pictures of the Avengers, or maybe it was because kids expected there to be magic in the universe, but kids were a hundred percent more likely to recognize him as Captain America because they didn't think it impossible for him to be there.
Steve was about to raise his finger to his lips—shh, kid, don't spill the beans—when he noticed that the boy was wearing a cast on his arm. Understanding flowed through him. The boy suddenly looked determined, and then a moment later the screen door opened - and Steve realized that the kid had read his expression and was coming out to do what he thought was the right thing: what he thought Captain America would want him to do.
"Mom!" the boy yelled, hopping down the steps, and Steve instinctively raised a hand to his face and turned, hiding himself, just in case the boy—in case he decided to—
"Jason! Get back in the house, Jason!" the blonde sing-songed; she'd obviously said that a thousand times before.
But Jason didn't go back in the house; instead he shot a quick, nervous look at the closed ambulance doors as the EMTs slammed them shut, and then said, in a loud voice that shook with nerves, "Mom, Petey broke my arm."
The blonde hardly spared him a glance. "Yeah, J," she said. "Petey broke his arm."
Jason swallowed hard. "That's not what I said," and maybe the boy's ma was confused, but he'd gotten the policeman's attention, no problem. "I said Petey broke my arm. I didn't fall down the stairs," and they were all looking at him now: the cops, the neighbors, the boy's mother, who was frowning down at him. "He was hitting me and I twisted and my arm broke. He made me swear not to tell you. But—I think that's why the guy did it."
The copy squatted down to the boy's level. "Did he see it happen?" he asked. "The guy downstairs?"
"No," Jason said faintly. "But I told him," and at the cop's questioning look, he went on: "I saw him sometimes." He turned to his mother and said, in a reassuring voice, "He wasn't really scary at all," and Steve bit his lip and looked away; you just couldn't fool kids. "But after it happened, he asked me how I broke my arm and--" His mother wheeled around and yelled "Pete, you motherfucking bastard!" and slammed her hand against the side of the ambulance as it pulled away; a good strong hit. "You're out of here, you bastard!" she called after him. "You feel me? You're out!" and Jason looked at Steve and smiled like he was fit to bust with joy.
It wasn't until after dark that Steve was able to slip back into Bucky's empty apartment. Entirely cleared out, the police officer had said, but Bucky'd never had much stuff, and what was important to him—his notebooks, his forged documents and passports—he'd kept in his knapsack, always within arm's reach. But the knapsack was gone, along with anything personal, any scrap of handwriting. Steve had hoped to find something left for him; a message. Some clue, some cipher. But there was nothing; just a bare, empty apartment with cinder block walls.
So long as you're wearing the outfit, you're hard to miss, Bucky had said. I'll find you, swear to God.
Not if I find you first. But he would put on the uniform and go up to New York with the others, just in case.
Sam whistled as he came into the living room with its fancy furniture and view of St. James Park. "You know, I figured Dupont Circle and Stark Tower were mostly accidents of lodging but now I'm starting to think you're a diva."
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose and groaned. "I once told Tony I was billeted near the War Rooms—"
"Yeah, you and the Queen, man," Sam said. "You and the Prime Minister." He sat, carefully, on the edge of a sculpted gray velvet sofa, and then slid back and repositioned himself; the sofa was more comfortable than it looked.
"Stay as long as you like," Steve said. "I've got—I don't know--four? five?--bedrooms. There's some bedrooms back there." He waved his hand toward the hall. "Mine's the one with the shield in it."
"Good to know," Sam said, "and I just might take you up on that, if you mean it. I'm in a hotel right now—it's a nice enough room, but there's no kitchen, and if I'm gonna be fighing Hydra, I need to have me a big breakfast."
"Right," Steve said smiling. "I'll trade you the room for a share of the pancakes."
"Dealio," Sam said, and they shook on it, and then Sam said, in a voice that was almost too casual, "You don't think it's odd that suddenly we're getting all these tips about Hydra in Europe, now?"
"Odd?" Steve repeated. "No—Hydra was in Europe to start. Schmitt, the scientific branch of the SS. I think it means we're finally closing in on them. America, Russia, Eastern Europe, then back into Central Europe, Austria, Germany—" and it was like going back in time, he thought; back, back to the start of things. Bucky was moving backward through his memories; rewinding. Natasha's info dump had exposed as many Russian Hydra bases as U.S. ones, but there were still a few that hadn't been invaded, closed, and exposed; there was still work here to do.
After two missions in Russia, he'd asked Tony to find him a place in London. Since then he'd been to Lithuania and Belarus, and so Sam had come over as reinforcement, and Steve was willing to bet that Natasha was floating around London somewhere, too. Their center of gravity was moving; he could feel it. Slowly tilting toward Europe.
Sam was watching him closely. "I get the play; I just don't get the player. It's your boy, isn't it, giving you this intel."
"It's good intel," Steve said defensively: not quite answering the question. His neck itched.
Sam seemed to take it as an answer anyway, or else, it hadn't really been a question at all. "Yeah, it has been—so far, anyway," Sam said, settling back. "You're something else, man: still waters. You're in touch with him?"
"I'm—no," Steve said, and that was true, technically: right now. "More like he's in touch with me. He--sends me things," but their communications since Baltimore had all been one-way. His replies to Bucky's texts, no matter how fast, went directly to Message Failed To Send; the letters had no return addresses and no hidden messages.
"Uh-huh," Sam said. "And you haven't told anybody about this, right?"
"No," Steve said faintly.
"Well," Sam said, sighing a little, "that makes me feel less like an asshole. Hey, I get it," he added quickly, raising a hand when Steve protested. "I do—I get it. You don't want anybody else to find him, and three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. And I'm not looking to be dead, okay? You and Bucky can sew that up amongst yourselves."
"He's trying to atone, I know it. He's—fighting the fights he can fight, and throwing the other ones to me." Steve tried to put the apology into his eyes. "Sam, you and me, we're a team," Steve said. "But Bucky's the other half of my brain. His secrets are my secrets because they are, because they have to be. That's just how it is with us."
"Okay," Sam said. "I'm not stupid enough to get between a man and his brain. Is he here, do you think?"
"In London?" Steve sighed; he'd been tracing their steps, walking the streets he and Bucky had walked seventy years ago. Everything was so different, now: worse than Brooklyn, but then again, Brooklyn hadn't been bombed. "If he is, I've seen no sign of him," and that was true. He'd had some hope of finding Bucky checked into the hotel near Euston where they used to meet for sex, but Bucky wasn't there, and no Dicky Malone or any name like that had checked in within the last six months. "But he's probably on this side of the pond now—here, or on the Continent."
"Well, that narrows it down," Sam said, rolling his eyes, and Steve got up and said, "Come on, I'll buy you a beer. There's a pub near here that—well. It's been rebuilt now, but it's—it's got a lot of important memories for me."
But when the message came, it was Euston after all. It was bad timing—or maybe it was Bucky's idea of good timing, because Steve was on the phone to Tony and offering to come back to the States ASAP, having just seen Tony's Malibu house blown up on television. "Still not dead: don't believe the hype," and Tony's voice had a weariness that was nothing like his familiar gravel after a night of carousing. Tony claimed to be "fine, fine; I just called Pepper and so I thought I'd call you next: my other work-wife," and insisted that Steve should "just keep doing your Hydra thing—this guy is just some asshole and I am going to get him." Steve, torn, was just saying, "Okay, but if you need—" when his phone vibrated. He yanked it down, glanced at it: a random string: a cipher.
"Tony, you're sure?" Steve said, dragging the phone back to to his ear, and Tony said, "Yeah, don't argue with me," and Steve heard himself saying, "All right," —and if Tony thought it was weird that he gave up so easy, he didn't say anything about it. Which probably meant he had a lot on his mind. Which probably meant things were bad.
"I'll call you if things go south; otherwise, avenge my death, all right?" Tony said, and hung up, and really, Steve thought, staring at the phone, he ought to grab Sam and get on the next plane back to the States, except—
--and nothing in the world could stop him from being there: Euston Station, three-o'clock.
He was early, and wandered through the station, past Boots, WH Smith, and the pasty shop and American franchises like Burger King and Whole Bean Coffee. Around him, people were rushing for trains, and there were tourists clustered around huge piles of suitcases, and students sitting against the walls with their knapsacks in their laps. Steve wandered around, hands in pockets, trying to look for Bucky while not looking like he was looking, and even so he didn't see Bucky until suddenly he was right there, having seemingly materialized out of thin air.
"Hey," Steve said, unexpectedly joyful, and then, less certainly, "Buck?" because Bucky's expression was so blank that for a moment he thought that he'd somehow got it wrong and it wasn't Bucky after all: just someone who looked like him. Except he would know Bucky anywhere, across miles and across years; decades. Bucky just stared at him.
"Buck?" Steve said again. "It's—me. Steve. You remember me?"
Bucky just stood there, somehow so nondescript that you felt like your eyes wanted to slide off him. Then his tongue came out and wetted his lower lip. "You once dated a girl named Caroline—"
"I never dated--" Steve began, sharper than he'd meant to.
"Well, you went on a date with her anyway," Bucky said.
Steve again interrupted, "Because you asked me to. You introduced us." He'd actually forgotten all about it, but the memory came roaring back freighted, weighted, with irritation. Bucky was watching him closely, studying his face.
"I guess I did at that," Bucky said finally; his fists were balled up in his pockets. "You went home with her, though."
Steve shook his head. "I just walked her home. She asked me to walk her home," and so he had, and once they were inside, she had stepped close and smoothed her palms over his chest and kissed him, and then stroked her hand over the fly of his pants. He'd jerked back so abruptly that he'd smashed into her hall table, nearly knocking over a vase of flowers. "Won't you stay?" she'd asked, soft and pleading, and he'd said, "No," before realizing how rude that sounded. "I mean—no, thank you," and then he'd grabbed his hat and bolted, practically running down the steps. He was transfixed by the memory; it was like he was there. Which begged the question: "How do you know I..."
Bucky's face clouded, and he ducked his head and stared down at the grimy station floor. "I paid her to make time with you," he confessed, and then glanced up to see how Steve was taking it. Steve stared at him: because honestly: if this had been Brooklyn, if things had been normal, he might have shoved Bucky or even taken a swing at him.
What the hell. What the fuck. Steve took a breath, stared up at the concrete beams of the ceiling. "Why?"
"Because..." Bucky began, "because I don't know. Because the war was coming. And because I didn't know if maybe it was just a phase with you, because you weren't, you know: confident. I thought maybe you were afraid of ladies and—um, lady parts," and then, raising his hands as Steve reacted to this: "Hey, come on: they scared the hell out of us—you remember how it was! The priests and—we were going to get 'em pregnant and then go to hell—"
"I wasn't," Steve said sharply. "You maybe."
"I'm just saying that it was an advantage of the situation," Bucky argued, almost pleading. "A consideration—"
"It wasn't for me," Steve shot back, and before Bucky could say anything more, "I need a cup of coffee," and then he was turning and walking toward Whole Bean, breathing in and shuddering and trying to bring himself under control.
He bought a cup of coffee, added cream and sugar. He felt rather than saw Bucky come up behind him. "I said it was a consideration," Bucky muttered. "It wasn't the only consideration."
Steve made himself take a gulp of the hot, sweet coffee before turning around. "Well, that's good. Because, I mean—if you wanted girls, you could have taken your pick. Lottie. Gloria—you took out lots of girls, Buck. Who was the one—pale, dark hair, always wore those fuzzy—you know, angora?" Bucky was staring at him with fascination, like he was describing life on another planet—and it was, he supposed. Bucky shook his head in slow incomprehension, so Steve frowned and tried to remember the girl's name himself. "It was...Helen? Helena? Something like that."
"I don't remember," Bucky said, "but if I did, it was just dancing. I remember dancing."
"You were good at it," Steve said. "You liked it and you were good at it."
"And I remember Caroline, because she—I was waiting and." Bucky's eyes drifted to the floor again. "She said she asked you but you wouldn't and then you left. And I remember feeling..." and to Steve's surprise, he laughed softly. "Sick, actually. Strange. Sad and happy at the same time. Sad for both of us. Happy for both of us," and then Steve was smiling sorrowfully into his coffee, because that was a feeling he'd had every single goddamned day of his life.
He slid the coffee onto the little marble ledge beside Whole Bean, took Bucky by the threadbare fabric of his jacket, and kissed him, which was a thing they'd never done before—kiss in front of people, in public; never ever. But Bucky didn't pull away, and so Steve made the kiss a little deeper, a little dirtier, gently sucking on Bucky's lower lip before pulling away. He was gratified to see that Bucky was flushed hot and breathing fast.
Around them, the train station went about its business. Steve said, with a little shrug, "It's the 21st century, pal."
Bucky's voice was a little hoarse. "Yeah, I guess it really is."
He'd thought that Bucky'd suggested Euston because it was near their hotel—"Our hotel," Steve pressed, when Bucky looked confused. "Where we used to—you know. During the war," but Bucky just said, "Oh. No," and pulled two tickets out of his pocket; it turned out they were actually there to take the train. "Can you give me a couple of days?"
"Buck," Steve said, and honestly, he felt like if he could have pulled his jacket open, his shirt, skin, rib cage open, he would have done it; honestly, he felt like it would have been a relief to do it: to show his heart. "You can have the whole goddamned rest of my life if you want it," he said and felt brutal in his sincerity.
They sat facing each other on the train to Manchester, eyes in both directions, so nobody could sneak up on them. Bucky took Steve's phone from him and began typing; when he handed it back, Steve saw that he'd texted Sam—I've gone vagabonding, though it's probably a wild good chase. See you in a few days. He was surprised at how like him it sounded, and Bucky, reading his mind, said, "I know how you lie. You stay as close to the truth as possible."
"I guess," Steve said, and Bucky quirked a smile.
"Or you agree with people who've got it wrong," Bucky went on. "Or you don't disagree with them. You let other people do your lying for you—that way you keep your hands clean, right?"
"Maybe," Steve acknowledged.
"Maybe," Bucky repeated, looking vastly amused. "I guess. Okay, sure. People who don't know you, pal, they don't realize that you'd argue over whether the sky's blue."
"Well, but it isn't though," Steve said, and when Bucky raised his eyebrows, Steve jerked a thumb out the window. The English sky was gray, almost white. "Physics aside, it's dark at least half the time. So mostly not blue—"
"You know, I'm remembering more and more. But I keep forgetting how much I miss you," Bucky said.
The Manchester train station had been rebuilt since the war: the old London Road Station was now a vaulting glass roof over two levels of upscale shops. But Steve had to drag his eyes away from his surroundings and focus on Bucky, who was threatening to melt back into the crowd. He really had an uncanny talent for disappearing.
Steve moved quick, grabbed his arm, and said, jerking him back by his filthy, tattered jacket, "Don't lose me."
Bucky blinked at him. "I won't," and then he was threading his way through the station, Steve following.
To his delight, Steve saw that Manchester, unlike Brooklyn, had kept their streetcars: futuristic and clean, they slid through the crowded streets on their tracks. But Bucky nodded in a different direction and so they boarded a battered old bus, Bucky paying the fare for both of them. They lurched off through the narrow streets toward what Steve strongly suspected was going to be the wrong side of town. Bucky confirmed this a moment later by muttering, "You're too clean and your clothes look too new. We gotta fix that," and when they got off the bus in what felt like a more familiar Manchester of red brick terraced houses, Steve ducked his head and tried to mimic the slouching walk and vacant expression that made Bucky all but invisible. "We'll stop at the Wesley," Bucky said, which turned out to be a dilapidated store full of used furniture. They got in just before it closed, and Bucky moved to a rack of old clothes and quickly picked out a thermal shirt, a faded pair of pants and a jacket for one pound sixty total.
It was dark by the time they got to where Bucky was staying, a pinched red brick house with a curtained window next to a black front door. Bucky looked up and down the street, his hand on the latch, and then he was pushing the door open. Steve stepped into the tiny front room: the house was an old two up and two down with a narrow central staircase. It looked normal enough at a glance—there was an old sofa in the front room, and a heavy wood table and chairs in the back—but Steve saw right away that these furnishings were more tactical than practical. An overturned table could serve as a blind, a sofa could give cover. Bucky also reinforced the door by barring it with a two by four. He'd prepared for a siege, the way they'd prepared every abandoned farmhouse they'd occupied in France.
"You're not staying," Steve said upon seeing the bare mattress on the floor upstairs; this place was more like Bucky's flophouse at Spodie's than like the tentative new life Bucky'd tried to build for himself in Baltimore.
"No," Bucky agreed, "I'm gonna have to get out of here fast once we're done."
"Done with what?" Steve asked, though he was already feeling hot under the collar, which was the inevitable side-effect of being in a small room with Bucky Barnes and a mattress. That said, he knew that Bucky hadn't brought him all the way up here for sex; they could have done that in a hotel near the train station.
"Hydra," Bucky said with a kind of dull inevitability; he looked tense. "I need your help," and Steve nodded and took a deep breath; he felt it like an assault, the idea that Hydra was in the north of England. That was nearly as bad as finding Hydra in Washington, DC. He wondered if Peggy knew. He was angry and sad on her behalf.
"Tell me," Steve said, but Bucky shook his head and said, "Later. Tomorrow. Do you..." He took his jacket off and dropped it on top of his backpack. "...want some tea or something?" and Steve couldn't help but be drawn to the exposed triangle of skin at Bucky's throat, the little stretch of tendon at his neck, way the muscles played across his back. Bucky'd been his first and greatest object of desire; the sun that had blotted out everything else. His pencil had traced the lines of Bucky's body so many times that his reaction to him had become Pavlovian.
"Or something," Steve scraped out, almost angry at himself for wanting Bucky so badly; feeling betrayed by himself. Bucky must have heard it in his voice, because he turned, curiously, toward Steve, and then began slowly to unbutton his shirt—and if Steve had some idea of trying to resist his own lusts, that idea fell away as Bucky's shirt came apart, revealing a narrow strip of skin from throat to waist. Bucky left the shirt open, swinging loosely and slid his thumb over his jeans button. It was unbearably tempting. Bucky thumbed open the button and readjusted himself so that just the rounded tip of his cock was just visible. Steve closed the distance without thinking, wanting and blind to anything else, hands grasping inside Bucky's clothes, searching his face with his mouth.
"I remember being a kid," Bucky said, gasping a little as Steve tugged him down to the mattress, "and you being small, and—Christ, such a tease," because Steve was bent over him now and pressing kisses to his chest, hand ghosting over and only sometimes gripping his cock. "I—my clearest memories are the early ones," Bucky was saying, a little dazedly, "of you and me on Flatbush Avenue or the beach, or up on the fire escape, smoking cigarettes and—f-fuck," because Steve had been licking and teasing, nosing Bucky's dark pubic hair and caressing his hipbones, but now he took Bucky in his mouth and began to suck him in earnest, building friction and pressure to get him off. Bucky's speech broke apart into choked noises and bitten-off moans, the muscles of his thighs clenching and twitching under Steve's hands, hips pushing up needily. He was trying, Christ, so hard not to come but Steve could feel the moment he gave into it and went, tremblingly and silently, to pieces. But then, instead of collapsing into an exhausted heap, Bucky toppled Steve over and rolled on top of him to kiss his sticky mouth.
"My clearest memories now," Bucky said again, like there'd been no interruption, "are from before—you and Brooklyn, my momma, Becca," and oh, thank God, he'd remembered Becca, "but the war—once I get a gun in my hand, it all—everything blurs," Bucky said, and then: "You said we did this during the war, you and me."
"Yes," Steve said; his cock was pressed up hard against Bucky's belly, and Bucky was absently rubbing against it, sending thrills in surges through him, tidal waves. "At the hotel near Euston. And wherever else we could do it."
"But you'd—gotten big, like this. Did I—did it make things strange between us? Did I say anything about—?"
"It was a little strange at first, yeah," Steve managed; he was very close to begging for it. "But in the end you didn't seem to mind," and Bucky looked down over Steve's body and said, a little distantly, "Yeah, I bet I didn't," and then he was working his way down Steve's shuddering body, sucking hard kisses onto his skin before tipping Steve's cock into his mouth--and oh, how he made it last. The sweet, wet warmth of his mouth, the soft drag of his lips. They pulled Steve into the slow, steady rhythm, almost like a dance, coaxing him up, up, up and almost to the edge before letting him slide back gently, moaning with pleasure and longing: wanting it to last, wanting it to end.
Finally it did end, Bucky's thumb pressing hard into his hipbone as a signal, and Steve gasped and flowed upward, overspilling, arching up and pouring out. He sank back against the mattress, every part of him abuzz and tingling, sweat prickling against his hairline, happy. He was relaxed enough that when Bucky slid up over him and pressed his leg back, gripping his knee, Steve just mmmed happily and shifted back to open up for him. They fucked lazily, without urgency, Bucky getting distracted every time Steve pulled him down to kiss him and needing Steve to coax him back into moving again. He felt it when Bucky came, unexpectedly, groaning and gasping and collapsing down onto Steve's chest, the metal at his shoulder scraping against Steve's skin. He slid his fingertips up Bucky's spine and along the rough scars which outlined his shoulder-blade, then rubbed his thumb across the metal plates.
They held each other and breathed. "Does that remind you of how it was?" Steve asked finally. "Jog your memory?"
"Mm, I dunno. Maybe. I might have to do it again to be sure."
Steve woke up alone and naked on the mattress with a blanket tucked carefully around him. There was just enough light peeking around the edges of the boarded up windows to know that it was morning, and so he wrapped the blanket around him like a toga and went downstairs to find Bucky sitting at the table with a teapot, a plate of bread and butter, and his notebooks: brown, blue, black, and hunter green. Bucky was frowning down at something in the brown notebook, and then he glanced up, smiled at what Steve wasn't wearing, and said, "Sit down and eat something. Tea's still hot," and so Steve pulled out a chair, swept his blanket around himself carefully, and sat.
He poured himself tea and buttered some bread and tried to live on two planes of existence at once, like he had during the war. He remembered moments like these—brief interludes of peace with Bucky, holed up somewhere warm where there was food and you were away from the shelling. There might sometimes be sex. But you were always aware that the next mission was coming, that peace was temporary. A knock on the door would bring Gabe and the next mission: a coded message off the radio, or a map wrapped in oilskin cloth. He was pretty sure their mission was in Bucky's brown notebook, but he didn't want to rush things; nicer to pretend that he and Bucky were on holiday, that this moment could last. He refilled Bucky's cup of tea, and thought in Peg's voice, I'll be mother.
The blue notebook—the one that was about him—was looking very thick now, the pages crinkled with writing and pasted-in clippings. He drew it over and it opened automatically to the face of Captain America, but now many more things had been added in Bucky's increasingly assertive handwriting: it was obviously true that his early memories had returned with a vengeance. This made sense, Steve supposed: he knew from hanging around the very elderly people who were his contemporaries that they often remembered things from the past very clearly—how much a pack of Lucky Strikes had cost, which songs by Lanny Ross had made the Hit Parade—but they couldn't remember that the nice lady in front of them was their granddaughter. Peggy was like that too, sometimes: she could talk to Steve for hours about her brother Michael and going to Bletchley and moving to Brooklyn, but her flow of talk would grind to a confused halt when her grandson came in: Steve could see that he was jealous of their easy rapport.
Unlike Peggy, though, Bucky's memories stopped when the war started. Steve leafed through vague notes about places the Howling Commandos had been stationed and the missions they'd accomplished, but it all had a kind of second-hand feel to it: their lives as processed through a tenth-grade history paper or an article for Wikipedia. Steve tried to think of what he could tell Bucky that would bring it to life for him, and realized he couldn't say anything; instead, he picked up his pencil and began to sketch in the margins, not the Howling Commandos as they looked in the murals but Dum Dum's comic, pop-eyed expressions of lust whenever he chanced to see a pretty girl, and the dour pull of Falsworthy's mouth at the state of what they called "tea" in the ration packets, and the barely-there lift of an eyebrow that signaled Morita's endless amusement. He drew them in their familiar places: on their bunks, in the bellies of planes, grouped round a flask in a bombed out town, crouched over a small fire in the forest.
Then he turned to a clean page and started to draw Bucky, almost without thinking: Bucky as he'd first seen him in uniform: pressed to a sharp crease and standing tall; Bucky in faded fatigues, with dark circles under his eyes and holes in his wool jumper; Bucky narrow-eyed and braced against the side of a dirt mound, aiming a rifle; Bucky stretched out on his back by the fire with his heavy boots crossed at the ankles and his hat over his face to block out the light; Bucky naked amidst a rumple of sheets in a London hotel; Bucky wearing the blank look he always got on his face when he was preparing for a mission: cleaning his rifle, quietly inciting himself to violence.
Steve frowned down at the sketch, then looked up and saw that Bucky was wearing exactly that same look now.
He pushed the blue book aside and extended his hand toward Bucky, wanting the brown one. The blue one's you. The brown one's them. The green one's what happened to me. The black one's...what I did, and the brown book was looking well-thumbed, too, its spine broken and its cover cracked and stained, with colored paper strips sticking out to mark the various sections. The green and black notebooks looked newer, neater; less used.
"Tell me about the mission," and Bucky sighed, pushed the notebook toward him, and rested his forehead on his palm. Steve looked down and saw page after page of intersecting lines, parts of a map, a sketch of—what? Corridors. Intersecting passageways. A maze—though the different pieces of the maze didn't seem to hook up.
"It took me ages to remember," Bucky was saying quietly. "I—there are layers of things, and I've been peeling them back, one by one. The first thing I remember, after you, is..." and Bucky was staring down at the table, glassy-eyed and seeing nothing: lost in the past. "The snow," Bucky scraped out finally. "The ice, and dark trees overhead. I don't remember the fall," he said, abruptly looking up at Steve. "Or the train. I only know what the books say, what you told them, I guess. But I remember seeing Cossacks, and thinking I was found—except I wasn't found," he said, his voice rough. "I was lost. And then Zola came—though I guess that was years later." Bucky reached for the green book. "Not in my head, mind you. In my head, Zola was there right away. But he couldn't have been –Zola was captured and in the U.S. after the war. And my file says I was functionally dead from 1945 to ‘51."
Steve's feelings about all of that must have been clear on his face, because Bucky waved his hand and said, sounding irritated, "That's not the—well, it is the point, but only slantwise. I don't want pity: I want to get these motherfuckers," and Steve nodded grimly and tried to project as much solidarity as he could while sitting naked in a blanket. Bucky was paging slowly through the green book and musing, "In '51, they put my first arm on and—" He stopped, squeezed his eyes shut. "--started working out how to control me. I don't remember most of this. There were...fights. I remember being beaten, and other...punishments. In the end," Bucky sighed, "I guess they worked it out, which I know on account of how everything goes blank after." He shoved the green book aside. "I don't remember hardly anything from that point...hardly anything. But some things break through."
He stopped and visibly got a hold of himself. "Most of the time I was in cryo on a submarine, so they could get me to where they wanted to use me as fast as possible. But there were also local bases: the vault in DC, catacombs in Peru and Turkey—and here," he said, reaching out to tap the maps he'd drawn in the brown book.
"In Manchester," Steve said.
"Yeah. There's tunnels beneath the city—so many and so extensive that nobody's mapped them all. Hydra's got an outpost and an armory down there, including a place for storing and conditioning me." He stopped, maybe hearing how that sounded. "They kept me there," he said, trying again. "Held me. It took me a while to remember where this place was, but I haven't seen any reference to it since the Triskelion, so it might still be there, in which case— "
"We have to destroy it," Steve said quietly.
"Yeah, but also to raid it for intel. I need to know what they did to me and how to stop them from ever fucking doing it again. I'm—Christ, I'm afraid to go in there," he choked out. "I can remember going back—armed with all the firepower in the world, Steve: guns, knives, grenades, you name it—determined to fucking kill them. I never got off a shot—next thing, I'm in the fog, blank, confused, with some grinning asshole telling me they need me for a mission and saying some nonsense—and it all starts again. And at the end of the mission..." Bucky swallowed. "At the end of the mission I'd come back to myself: exhausted and starving and determined to fucking kill them. Steve." Bucky's face was an agony. "I realize now I must have done that dozens of times—maybe even hundreds. You know what fucking insanity is?—cause I do. It's doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I must have walked right back into their hands every time." Bucky laughed humorlessly. "Fuck me. And the best part is: here I am planning to do it again. Except this time," Bucky said in a hard voice, "I'm not going alone."
Bucky's plan involved two identical armored jackets, two pairs of tac pants, two black helmets, two pairs of black goggles. "I want to come at them hard and fast and from all directions at once," Bucky said, tossing a helmet to Steve, who turned it over in his hands, then reached for the goggles. His vision sharpened; it was easier to track motion.
"Do we have weapons?" Steve asked.
"Yeah," Bucky replied heavily. "Guns, knives, grenades," but then he reached up and yanked the goggles from Steve's face. "We'll go later," he said, as Steve blinked to bring the world back into focus. "Tonight; once it's dark. Right now..." and something strange flickered across Bucky's face, wrinkling his mouth. "Would you...do you want to come to mass with me?"
Steve tried to keep his own expression blank. "Sure. Are we praying for luck?"
"No," Bucky said, after a moment. "I just like it."
Steve put on the clothes Bucky bought him and let Bucky grease his hair up before following him down the road to a pretty little brown stone church. A sign in a glass case said, in white lettering, POLISH RC. CHURCH OF DEVINE MERCY, misspelled, and beneath that, the times of Mszy Swiete w Naszym Kosciele, which had to be the mass times. Inside the vestibule, Steve dipped his fingers into the holy water and crossed himself by force of habit; beside him, Bucky shifted nervously, reaching out and then hesitating, stopping, jamming his hand in his pocket.
He jostled Steve with his shoulder, then jerked his head toward a staircase; Steve followed him a steep flight of steps to a dark little balcony filled with a few empty benches and the pipes from the church organ. They sat down together and looked over the railing: people were filtering into rows and sitting down. The console for the organ was on the ground floor and after a moment, a woman sat down to play and everyone stood and began to sing. To Steve's surprise and delight the singing was in Latin, with words he knew—the masses he'd attended back in the States had all had singing in English, and some didn't have singing at all, but just some guy with a guitar who seemed to have been transported from Washington Square Park. He turned to Bucky, happily singing Omnis terra adoret Te, Deus, and saw that Bucky had closed his eyes and was standing there, expressionless. Steve understood this: between the singing and the smell of candles it was as close to time travel as he'd experienced since he'd come out of the ice.
The mass itself was conducted in Polish, a language Steve didn't know well enough to follow, but that was fine: he'd liked mass better back when he hadn't grasped details and it was all more sound than sense. Still, the rhythms were familiar enough that he knew when to stand, sit, and kneel, and he could join in the singing when it came, though Bucky didn't sing. When it came time for communion, Steve sat back quietly besides Bucky and watched the line form and shuffle forward, knowing that neither he nor Bucky were currently in the right state of grace.
"Do you want to go to confession?" Steve murmured. Back in Baltimore, he and Bucky had often met at St. Augustine's at three-o'clock, which was the time set for confession; now it occurred to him to wonder if that had maybe been on purpose. "I'll wait for you if you want."
"I—yeah," Bucky grunted. "But not yet," and Steve supposed that was fair enough.
In their matching tac gear, helmets, and goggles, he and Bucky were damn-near identical; shadows of each other: the same height, the same build. Steve followed Bucky out the back door of the Kippax Street house after dark and through the narrow back alleys for two blocks, where Bucky twisted a heavy lock open with his metal hand and yanked open a gate. Behind that was a motorcycle, which they stole, Steve getting on the back behind Bucky.
Bucky drove them through the darkness to a looming stone building with boarded up windows. It was set back from the street a little in an overgrown park, and over the door, the worn carving read venite filii avdite me. "It was built as a school, I think," Bucky said, switching the motorcycle off. "They used it as a hospital during the war. It's empty now—or rather, it's an entrance now," and Steve nodded grimly; Bucky'd told him about the tunnels.
They forced the enormous door and walked through the dusty entrance hall. Bucky found a door that led to a staircase going down. They didn't need flashlights, even in the basement; the goggles were that good. At the far end, there seemed to be a sort of doorway on the floor with stone steps leading straight down; at the bottom, a heavy iron door was set into a crumbling brick wall.
Bucky raised his left arm meaningfully; Steve pulled his gun and jerked a nod.
Bucky punched the door so hard it nearly flew off its rusted hinges as it banged inward, and then he and Steve went down in formation, watching each other's backs, like they'd done dozens of times during the war. The first corridor was damp and full of rusted machinery but it was clear, and then they passed through a second metal door into a narrower archway of wet, dark bricks. They went through this too, and after another quarter of a mile the tunnel forked. They nodded at each other without speaking and set off in different directions. Steve put on a burst of speed; they'd decided that Bucky would face their adversaries head on while Steve circled around to their flank.
The tunnel twisted and branched, and Steve ran past doors of splintered wood and rusted iron, silently counting them; he needed to come out at the right place if he were to do Bucky any good. He passed some rotting stairs that led to God knew where, then took two more turns and came face to face with an isolated sentry. The guy never knew what hit him: he fell to the floor with the cigarette he'd sneaked away to smoke still burning between his lips.
The seventeenth and eighteenth doorways were bricked up arches, but the nineteenth was a wooden door that said, in faded paint, MACHINE ROOM FIVE, just as Bucky'd said it would. Steve went through and almost immediately heard the echoes of shouting and gunfire. He broke into a run and turned a corner into chaos, a corridor of smoke and screaming. In his tac gear and goggles, Bucky didn't look that different from the Hydra soldiers he was fighting, though was immediately differentiated by his air of almost supernatural calm. The Winter Soldier had a kind of stillness that Steve now saw as a long-term refinement of Bucky's basic temperament: he had always been able to keep his head in the heat of battle, to select his target and hit it. Now Bucky had launched grenades and smoke bombs at the Hydra unit, and was working his way through them, rifle in hand, calmly picking them off. Some of the agents fell back to regroup, and so Steve pulled out the same gun that Bucky was using and aimed it, knowing that their surprise and disbelief at Bucky's impossible re-appearance would do half the work. The gun did the rest.
"Come on," Bucky said roughly, and together they headed further into the tunnel. There were alarms going off and the sound of footsteps running toward them. Bucky pulled out another smoke grenade and said, "Go. I'll hold them here," and so Steve went to hunt down the chair room. There had been seven of them at the height of Hydra's powers, Bucky'd told him, all over the world: Siberia, Washington, California, Istanbul, Peru, Madripoor, Manchester. The one in Siberia still existed, though the facility had been abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union; it had been home to the Winter Soldier Project after the war. The other chairs had been destroyed in the wake of the Triskelion, either by their governments or by Bucky himself—all but this one. Steve, who had read Bucky's file and who knew both what the chair had done to him and what it had made him do, was if anything more eager than Bucky to see it destroyed, to make it so that it would never be able to hurt Bucky or anyone else again.
He kicked in four doors before he found it: a room like that goddamned bank vault, with a bank of computers surrounding a chair and the circlet of metal that had fried Bucky's brain. Steve shoved a flash drive into the computer and began copying files over: this time he was going to analyze the data directly, ask Tony and Natasha to help. The CIA had dismantled the vault in DC, but as far as he knew, everything had been put into a warehouse somewhere, and even his most stubborn questions hadn't been able to get him any answers that could help Bucky.
There were only a few papers in the room—almost everything was computerized—but Steve stuffed what he could find into the front of his tac vest before pulling the drive out and tucking that safely away, too. Then he felt a surge of something wild and put his shoulder against the terrible metal chair. It crashed onto its side, the metal twisting and bending under its own weight. He kicked the computer screens in. He tore the brackets off the walls and sent tools and cables clattering onto the rough concrete of the floor.
It was only then that, panting with effort, Steve noticed a curious little niche set into the wall. It was empty save for a little metal bracket; some kind of stand, Steve thought. It looked like a safe that had been cleared out in a hurry. He frowned into it, pushing against the solid sides and back, but there was nothing else; whatever had been there was gone. He had a last look around for anything useful, then affixed magnetic grenades to the broken chair; probably the whole place would go up when Bucky blew the armory, but he had to be sure. Then he ran, wanting to get some distance before detonating the charges. By now, Bucky would have reached the armory. They could—
He stopped. There was a man in the tunnel in front of him and for a moment he thought it was Bucky —not because he looked like Bucky, which he didn't, but because he was standing there with the same calm, unterrified authority. He was an older man, tall and slim in a grey uniform and a carefully trimmed beard. He was holding a book. He looked at Steve and began to speak with quiet confidence in Russian, though what he said didn't make any sense.
"Longing," the man said calmly, looking at him. "Rusted. Furnace," and Steve honestly had no idea of how he was supposed to respond to this: was it a code? If so, he didn't know the response words. He'd been in this situation occasionally during the war, asked to supply a German code that he didn't have, and generally he'd found that the best response was to shoot his way out, except this guy didn't seem to have a gun or any other weapons on him.
"Seventeen. Benign," the man said, looking at Steve expectantly and Steve was saved from thinking of how to reply to this by the sound of gunfire close by; the slow methodical sound of Bucky taking shots. "Sorry," Steve said, and moved off toward the fighting, catching only a glimpse of the man's baffled expression. There were bodies piling up in the corridor, and as Steve followed their trail he ran into yet another unit, though these guys seemed uncertain and demoralized: third stringers, hardly Hydra's best. Steve felt an almost savage satisfaction as he dispatched them with kicks and punches; they were going to finish this finally, him and Bucky, after all these years. He and Bucky were going to drive Hydra into the goddamned ground, and as the last soldier slammed into the tunnel wall and slid down it, bleeding and unconscious, it came to him that the sound of shooting had stopped.
Good. Good. He set off down the corridor. The facility had gone silent; Bucky'd taken them down, and now they'd blow up the--
He was smashed back hard against the wall and reacted without thinking—using the breath knocked out of him to his advantage: twisting down and getting under his assailant and shoving hard, flipping them over, coming down on him with all of his weight. He knew—he realized he knew—by the smell of him that it was Bucky even before he had the conscious realization that the man he was fighting hadn't gone down the way any normal man would've, and he had only a split second to react before Bucky rolled him over and punched his metal fist into the crumbling stone floor just inches from where his face had just been. Steve couldn't see Bucky's eyes behind the goggles, but there was something new in the way Bucky held his head: his cool had gone cold, his calm gone glacial. Steve used the micro-seconds it took Bucky to yank his hand back to grab him by the torso, flip him over, and pin him down.
"Bucky," Steve said as fast as he could, with as much force as he could muster, "it's me, it's Steve, you—"
That was all he got out, because Bucky was driving a knife towards him—the blade was turned off by Steve's armor but then blows were landing, hard, to his gut, throat, face, smashing the hard plastic goggles into his eyes. Steve managed to grab a hold of him, seizing him and twisting around, wrapping him in arms and legs both. Bucky struggled furiously, grunting, and they writhed together on the ground.
"Bucky," Steve tried again, gritting his teeth; what the hell had they done to him? "Come on, man. Snap out of--" but with an animalistic growl Bucky broke free, and then they were fighting. Steve wanted to pull his punches but had to fight for his life: worse than his fear of hurting Bucky was his fear of what would happen if Bucky broke his programming only to find Steve dead at his feet. So they traded furious blows and kicks, except that suddenly Bucky had a gun in his hand and was firing into Steve's chest point-blank—blam! blam!—sending Steve reeling backwards, over, down. His armor held—Steve had been shot in his life enough times to know the difference—but the pain was dizzying, and he crashed to the floor. He tried to push up and got to his hands and knees, because if Bucky came up behind him and shot him in the head, his helmet wasn't going to stop that bullet.
But the bullet didn't come, and by the time Steve managed to get on his feet again, to turn back into the hallway of smoke, Bucky was gone. Steve limped off, alarms ringing, and fumbled the detonator out of his pocket. There was a faraway boom and the dust trembled and crumbled off the stone walls around him. He at least had the satisfaction of destroying the chair. But there was the still the matter of the armory, which he found wired to blow but still intact, the detonator in the Winter Soldier's pocket. Steve blew out a long, exhausted breath, then yanked a machine gun out of a bracket in the wall and, glancing back to make sure his escape route was clear, lifted, aimed, and fired.
He came out coughing and blind with dust in a tunnel that had been used as an air raid shelter during the war. He was miles from where they had started, and he shucked his equipment and armor and tried to look casual as he made his way back to the motorcycle, trying to stay out out of the way of the emergency vehicles—police cars, fire engines—that were speeding around Manchester in the wake of the explosions, lights flashing, sirens blaring.
The motorcycle was where they had left it, and Steve winced, his bruised torso aching, as he slid his arms into the tattered jacket Bucky had bought him and straddled the bike. He rode the streets for a while, looking for Bucky even though he knew it was futile—neither Bucky nor the Winter Soldier would be found if he didn't want to be. He knew he was simply putting off the return to Moss Side, because once he got there he would have to face facts.
The tiny, battered house was empty. Bucky wasn't here—but what really hollowed him out was that Bucky's backpack was there. And the notebooks were there. Bucky would come back for the notebooks, which were so precious as to be a part of him--but he hadn't; not yet. Steve fought for control of his face, and then grabbed the backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He kept it on him when he washed his face in the basin of ice-cold water, when he ate an all-day breakfast straight from the tin, when he settled down on the bare mattress upstairs to sleep.
Bucky would come back for the notebooks. Bucky would come back, if he could, for the notebooks.
Bucky didn't come back.
Everything all right with you man? Sam's text read. You've gone radio silent, and on Day 5, still wearing the grime-stiff clothes Bucky'd bought for him and with a scruff of beard, Steve had to admit defeat; Bucky wasn't coming back to Moss Side. He had gone back to the scene ("HYDRA BASE EXPLODES BENEATH MANCHESTER") and checked all the jails and hospitals. He'd loitered around the Church of Divine Mercy and wandered the streets and canals. But now it was time to give up. Steve washed, shaved, and re-dressed in his own clothes, styling his hair to look more like himself, and then went back to London, taking the knapsack with him.
He debated the ethics of looking at the notebooks—Bucky had said he could but that was in very different circumstances. But if there was any clue as to where Bucky had gone or where the Winter Soldier might retreat to... Steve went into his room with the four books: locked the door, pulled down the shades, and sat down at the desk.
The blue notebook was by now an old friend, full of memories from before the ice—some that even Steve had forgotten, like that time he and Bucky had played hooky on Bucky's 13th birthday and spent the day hiding in the balcony of the Majestic watching movies. The brown notebook, the Hydra notebook, had been updated too, with drawings and maps of the Manchester base. And then there were some unsettling sketches of what looked like an impregnable fortress set into the side of a mountain, and cells with thick black bars. It was labeled only, "Research facility. Sokovia."
Frowning, Steve set that aside—he'd have to find that fortress, if it existed—and reached, after a moment's hesitation, for the other notebooks: the green and the black. He steeled himself before opening the green one, where Bucky wrote down what they did to him, because here was the metal arm and the mind-wipe machine and the cryo-freeze chamber. Bucky'd listed the drugs they had used on him, some named (heroin, scopolamine, atropine, Dexedrine) and some only described by the way they were given to him (hypodermic, intravenous, force-fed, oxygen tube up his nose.) Steve knew a lot of this: the CIA had figured it out from the computers, chemicals and equipment Hydra'd left behind in D.C. But Bucky'd also written about how they'd beaten him, fire-hosed him, tried to drown him, and chained him to the floor. Bucky had also documented his many attempts at escape, and Steve found himself completely lost in Bucky's recounting of a time when he'd escaped his handlers and made it all the way back to the Barnes house—which had been empty, abandoned; all boarded up—before being recaptured.
When that was done, Steve closed the green book and pressed his fingertips beneath his eyes. He had no tears left. He felt dry, drained of everything; lost in a horror of waste and dust.
The last notebook—the black notebook—sat there like a toxic thing; dead, squatting on the desk. There was no reason to read it, Steve told himself. No reason to take more of this poison into himself; he'd been poisoned enough. But he had to, not just because it might help him find Bucky. Because it was a part of Bucky, it was maybe the worst of Bucky: of what they'd done to him, what they'd made him do. The killing.
Steve took a deep breath, and then, without thinking, crossed himself. He pulled the book close and opened it.
He didn't know what he expected but—well, no, yes he did; he'd expected the black book to be the opposite of the green one, listing the missions Bucky had been sent on, the terrible things he'd done to other people. Memories and stories where Bucky was the villain not the victim; the monster, the agent of other people's murders and disasters.
What he hadn't expected was—this incoherent mess of scribbles, doodles, and scrawls. The writing looked like madness, like desperation: insanity rose like a stink off the page.
RED, it said. RED RED RED RED. RED DRESS WITH A WHITE COLLAR. RED DRESS. WHITE COLLAR. WHITE LACE COLLAR. RED DRESS. WHITE STOCKINGS. BLACK SHOES. RED RED RED RED DRESS.
THERE IS A HOLE IN THE BOTTOM OF HIS SHOE.
SQUARE GRAY SEDAN. THE SQUARE GRAY SEDAN HAS CRASHED. A MAN FALLS OUT OF THE CAR. NO FACE I CAN REMEMBER.
FLIGHT 961 LEAVES FROM CAPETOWN AT 18:40
FLIGHT 961 GETS INTO JOHANNESBURG AT 20:53.
FLIGHT 7 LEAVES FROM JOHANNESBURG AT
FLIGHT 7 GETS
THERE IS A JEEP
WHO ARE THEY? THERE ARE 6, 7. BONE SPLINTERS. WET THUD OF LIMBS. A BACK BREAKING, A HAMMER. A SUITCASE.
ABUS, SECURITAS, YALE, MEDECO, CHUBB, SCHLAGE, KABA, MASTERLOCK, CISA
OLD MAN, WHITE HAIR, HE HAS CRACKED HIS GLASSES. HE IS HIDING. THERE IS A MEDICAL TABLE AND AN OXYGEN TANK. NORWAY
THEY GO SOFT AGAIN
IF YOU STAY THERE LONG ENOUGH
THERE WAS A DOG BARKING. HE RAN THROUGH THE BLOOD. THERE WERE BLOODY PAW PRINTS RUNNING IN CIRCLES. THE DOG KEPT BARKING. I PICKED HIM UP AND TOOK HIM WITH ME. FLEISHER TOOK HIM FROM ME BEFORE HE PUT ME IN THE VAN
Page after page after—Steve pushed the book away, pushed up to his feet and began to pace, needing to move. He hadn't realized that the mind-wiping would result in this terrible, nightmarish fragmentation. Steve felt like he was really only understanding for the first time that Bucky had really done it all under duress: that he'd been brainwashed, that he'd been acting under the influence of some force that had then worn off and left him shivering and blank, uncomprehending. He had had to take other people's word for what had happened—for who he was.
There was a knock on the door, and Steve nearly jumped out of his skin. He realized he was sweating.
"Yo, Steve," Sam called, "are you up? Have you eaten?" and Steve had to force himself to breathe, to think, to clamp down on this echoing paranoia; his head was still watching a barking dog race through a bloody puddle.
"Yeah, I—yeah," Steve said. "Gimme a second. I just. Woke up," and that was true, in a way; he was still shaking off the nightmare of it. He went into the bathroom and washed his face with cold water, ran wet fingers through his hair. Then he gathered up the notebooks and packed them away in Bucky's knapsack without looking at them.
Sam was in the kitchen of the flat, unpacking groceries onto a granite counter. "Hey," Sam said, "I figured if you hadn't eaten, I'd cook us something," and then he gave Steve a second look and said, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I—yeah," Steve said, jamming his hands in his pockets. "You want help?"
"I got it," Sam reached for a cutting board, and then said, wryly, "You still exhausted from blowing up Manchester?" Steve felt his throat tighten. "Or was that him," Sam went on, unwrapping some meat in butcher's paper. Steve looked at the floor and tried to think: should he say it was him or Bucky? He couldn't decide. Sam sighed and said, "I get it. Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies. Is that how it is?"
"I guess," Steve scraped out. "Yeah."
Sam sighed and looked at him. "You get any more intel from our missing person?"
Steve heard himself saying, "Maybe. Could be there's a base in Sokovia," which wasn't a thing he'd meant to say but he felt so damned miserable about lying to Sam. But he was committed now, and if Bucky was right and there was a facility, best they get on with finding it. "He hasn't given me a location yet. But it's a fortress in the mountains."
Sam frowned at this. "Can't be too many of those."
"Let's hope not. It's got to be checked out anyway," Steve said.
"I'll put it on the wire to the Tower, see if Maria comes up with anything," Sam said. The griddle had gotten hot, and now Sam was carefully laying steaks out, salted and peppered and oiled. They hissed and spat and the room was filled with the smell of the searing meat. A muscle in Sam's jaw twitched before he asked Steve his next question, and Steve braced himself; that was about as close to a tell as Sam had. "Do you know where he is, Steve?" Sam asked, meeting his gaze squarely. "The truth, now: do you know where Bucky is?" and Steve felt his face twisting in strange and terrible ways, because goddamn it, if Sam had asked him a week ago he would have had to lie and say no, but now he didn't have to lie because he'd lost him somehow, and not just in the common way of things. Hydra had dragged Bucky back under; they had taken him, obliterated him. The Winter Soldier had fucking eaten him.
Sam's face was clouding with concern, so Steve got a grip. "I don't know where he is," Steve told him. "But I'm afraid they took him, that Hydra took him, after Manchester." Sam was nodding in slow sympathy. "He was free for a while, he's been free, but now I think maybe they have him again. So I really have to find him."
"We'll find him," Sam said, all quiet reassurance. "We will."
That night Steve couldn't fall asleep with the blood and horror floating in his mind, and then suddenly something clicked—red dress with a white collar—and he was switching on the bedside light and pushing the covers back.
He unzipped the rugged canvas of Bucky's backpack and pulled out the black notebook, then went to the safe where he kept the few things he really valued. His uniform and shield, his compass. Pictures of Peggy and his mother. The files Nick Fury had given him about the Howling Commandos. And—this was what he reached for—the battered and stained file Natasha had given him about the Winter Soldier.
White lace collar, he thought, bringing the file to the desk—and the thing was, almost all the pictures in the Winter Soldier file were black and white photographs, and yet he could see, right away, that the dress was red, really. A red dress with a white lace collar. The dress that was being worn by the nine-year-old daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus, shot by a sniper in 1974. Only one shot had been fired, but the 7.62x51mm bullet had gone slanting down through the ambassador's body and into his daughter's. She had been shyly standing behind him. The photo showed her on the ground. Red dress. White lace collar with eyelets. White stockings and black shoes. Staring eyes.
Steve felt the blood drain from his face as he uncapped a pen and then—changing his mind—put it down and reached for a pencil. Rosa Ferris, he wrote in the margins; daughter of the Ambassador to Cyprus, d. Aug 9 1974.
He found the old man in Norway, too: Dr. Erich Hagen, a research chemist working at a hospital in Oslo. According to the Winter Soldier file, Dr. Hagen was found dead on December 4, 1989. Whatever he was working on was missing, his laboratory ransacked, his notes gone. Steve wrote it all down in his notebook: Erich Hagen—
He jerked, startled, as his phone rang. Tony, and the phone was slippery in his hand; he had to swipe multiple times before it answered. "Tony, hi," Steve managed. He closed the battered folder and tried to focus his attention.
Tony said, inexplicably: "Hey, so in the Department of GMTA, we've been looking at Sokovia too," and Steve turned to look at the clock: it was five in the morning. Trust Tony to assume that if he was awake, everyone else in the world was, too. "We detected an energy signature—could be Loki's scepter, Banner took all sorts of readings on it when we had it—coming from the mountains in northwest of Sokovia about forty miles outside Novigrad."
Loki's scepter, like the Tesseract, could power those infernal Hydra weapons. "Are you sure?" he asked Tony.
"Well that's just what I was calling to ask you," Tony said. "Falcon says you have intel about a Hydra base?" and Steve pulled over Bucky's brown notebook and flipped to the last pages, to the fortress in the mountains, the terrible cells with their black iron doors. "Is it reliable?" Tony asked him, and for a moment Steve wasn't sure how to answer: he had only Bucky's word for it, Bucky's fragmented memories, but now that he'd seen all the notebooks Steve knew that everything Bucky'd written down had been clawed from his brain and written in blood.
"Yes," Steve said. "It's reliable," and then, because it was the natural next step: "I guess we ought to assemble."
"Yeah," Tony replied grimly. "I'll get a briefing together: you can decide on the strategy. London in two days?"
"All right." Steve put the phone down and rubbed his eyes. Christ, he was so tired of this. Someday they would win, or at least, he'd be let off the front lines. Red Skull whispered in his head: Cut one head off, two will grow in its—
The phone rang again, and he picked up the phone without looking at it, sure it was Tony calling back with some forgotten detail. Instead, a voice, fast and jittery, "My notebooks, do you have my notebooks?"
"I've got 'em," Steve said, suddenly jittery too; Bucky'd never phoned before. "Don't worry, I've got them."
"Please," and the voice was Bucky's, but he'd never heard Bucky sound all raw like that, "I need my notebooks, Steve, I—Steve," and a wave of relief crashed into him, washed over him, soaking him through: Bucky knew him again, Bucky knew who he was, "come get me, will you? Please come right now."
"I'm coming," Steve said. "Right now. Tell me where you are," though he thought he already knew.
Sokovia was two hours ahead of London, so no matter how fast Steve got there, it felt like Bucky was still ahead, just out of reach, living in the future. He rented a battered Dacia and drove through the narrow streets of Novigrad, which were full of trash and rubble from the fighting. When Communism fell in Sokovia, only chaos had replaced it: one dictator after another, supported by one foreign power after another. Steve honestly couldn't remember what the American position was on Sokovia—or what it was now, anyway. The whole situation had Hydra written all over it.
He pulled up and parked, half on the street in the local way, across the street from a graffitied wall around the corner from St. Michael the Archangel. But following Bucky's instructions, he didn't head back toward the church; instead he slung Bucky's backpack over his shoulder and followed the wall to a rusted iron gate and into a courtyard, where men were standing around, smoking and drinking coffee out of paper cups. They looked sullenly at him, and he noticed that they almost all had prosthetics of one kind or another: limbs made of metal, plastic, and rubber.
It took a moment to spot Bucky: he was standing against a back wall, still, waiting. He was filthy, his hair wild, but a menace rose off him like vapor from ice. Steve instinctively looked around and wondered how he could stop the others from being hurt if Bucky came at him. And then Bucky was coming at him, but not to fight him; he looked suddenly exhausted, and he stumbled a little as he drew near, and half-collapsed into Steve's arms. Steve clutched him tight, hugging him hard. He smelled awful, but he was warm, and he was there; they were together again
"Steve?" Bucky whispered, and there was something pleading and desperate in his voice—a question—and Steve realized that there was no point asking Bucky what had happened. Bucky didn't know what had happened to him—just that it had been the awful thing, again, seizing hold of him, taking and controlling his mind, smashing him down. Then Bucky let out a small, hurt sound that was half a-sob, and Steve squeezed him even more tightly and abruptly began to tug him away, guiding, half-carrying him out of the courtyard and down the street to the car.
"You need food, pal," Steve said numbly. "You need rest. You need a hot bath and—" but the dead-eyed look on Bucky's face stopped his mouth. Facile, fine—but it was all he had to offer. "C'mon, Buck," Steve said softly, and opened the car door, and Bucky nodded and got in without saying anything.
The best hotel in Novigrad wasn't much by Tony Stark's standards, but it was heads and shoulders above anything Steve had experienced before his defrosting. Moreover, the clerks at the desk were obviously used to accommodating the eccentricities of rich foreigners, taking his cash and fake name with a smile and carefully averting their eyes from Bucky, who was lurking in a corner like—well, like a drug-addicted killer he'd picked up for sex. The polite smile of the concierge suggested that this was more or less usual business around here.
Bucky paused before going into the room like it might be some kind of trap, then went in and tore through it with terrifying efficiency: turning over everything, inspecting the moldings and the window frames, opening drawers and closets, before pulling the blackout curtains and barricading the doors by shoving a sideboard in front. Steve put his hand out, covered Bucky's white, gripping knuckles with his palm, but Bucky just turned on his heel and smoothly pulled the mattress off the bed and set it it up on the other side of the room—because, Steve realized belatedly, a sniper would have no problem figuring out where the bed was: the floor plan of the rooms was on the website.
Even then Bucky didn't unwind: the Winter Solider had been activated and he couldn't come down. "It's all right," Steve said, and then, instinctively firming his voice to command, "Buck, it's all right. Stand down," and after a moment Bucky let out a breath, and then another one, and then he nodded and seemed to breathe normally again.
"My notebooks?" Bucky asked finally, and Steve gave him his backpack and watched as he opened it and fumbled through it, pulling the notebooks out and running his fingers over the covers. That relaxed him a little more.
"Why don't you wash up?" Steve suggested, a little warily. "I'll get food," and after a moment, Bucky put the notebooks down and disappeared into the bathroom. Meanwhile, Steve ordered room service: one of everything.
Bucky stayed in the bathroom for a long time and came out in a cloud of steam and a thick white bathrobe. He looked better—cleaner, certainly—but his face was still a stone mask; his eyes looked through it, anxious and wary. But he was drawn by the food, which had arrived while he was washing—huge platters of roast chicken and potatoes, pork with dumplings and cabbage—and immediately set to it, ripping the meat off the bone and eating it with his fingers, licking the grease off and then going for more. Steve sat down and helped himself to a plate, too; he knew what it was to be hungry like that, after a mission: Super Soldier metabolism kicked into overdrive.
When he'd eaten enough, Bucky pushed back from the table and fixed Steve with a look of intense misery. "All right," he said in a low voice, "so tell me. What did I do? Did I hurt anyone?"
"No," Steve said, and then more vehemently, "No. You didn't do anything."
"Are you sure?" Bucky gritted out. "No unexplained deaths? Nobody hurt or gone missing?"
"No. I would tell you. I would tell you," Steve repeated, holding his gaze, "and I would have tried to stop you."
Something uncertain flickered on Bucky's face, then it twisted into something ugly, the mask cracking.
"I wish you would stop me. I wish you'd stop me for good," and Steve gritted his teeth and shook his head, shook the idea off; no, he would never; never; never. But Bucky went on, hard and relentless and angry: "You don't understand. The only thing worse than being under, than being theirs, is this. Coming out of it and not knowing what you did. Or who you hurt." He was gripping and twisting one of his battered old books, the hard cover flexing under the torsion. "They make you do it—so you have to do it, you have to live through it, and then be hated for it and hate yourself for it. You get so tired, hating yourself. You just want to rip yourself in half and be done with it."
He could feel Bucky's suffering like a weight on his shoulders. "You could come in," he said. "I would protect you."
"I can't," Bucky said.
"Then let me stay with you," Steve said. "The Avengers are gonna take down a Hydra base about forty miles from here—based on your notes," he explained as Bucky frowned. "A research base," he prompted. "Novigrad."
"Right. Yeah," Bucky said suddenly. "Baron Strucker."
Steve made a note of the name. "Yeah. Look, it'll go down in a couple of days, and it could be an opportunity. For me. To disappear," he clarified, and saw the idea bloom inside Bucky's head. "There'll probably be a hundred ways to die there—I've just got to find one of them," he said. "Then we'll get out—go underground, somewhere it won't be easy to find us, somewhere you're comfortable. Like maybe—Kiev?" Steve suggested. "Or The Crimea?"
"Bucharest," Bucky said, and then they were both smiling a little tentatively and exhaling, and Bucky was slinging an arm around his neck and pulling their foreheads together. "Okay," Bucky muttered. "Okay, pal," and Steve wrapped his arms tight around Bucky and hugged him as hard as he could. He sometimes felt that everything would be all right if he could just take Bucky into himself altogether; if they could meld, they could be whole. He pressed his face to Bucky's and closed his eyes; they were chest to chest and shoulder to shoulder, and they stayed like that for a good long time, just holding on, Bucky's breath deep and even in his ear. He felt calm for the first time in ages.
"C'mere," Bucky said finally, and yanked him over to the mattress by the neck. The bathrobe slipped from Bucky's shoulders as he pushed Steve down and crawled over him, and Steve ran his hands over muscle and metal and scars. Bucky tried to undress him, popping one of the buttons of his shirt in his eagerness, metal wrist softly clinking against his belt buckle, Steve grasped his hair and distracted him with long, drugging kisses, which sent him right back to the days when sex had been one of their reliable and cheap pleasures: something to do when they couldn't even afford a nickel for the pictures. They'd learned to be good at it, to stretch it out and make it last the way they'd had to make all their other treats last: every lollypop licked slowly. Steve smiled as Bucky groaned in protest, soft and needy against his mouth; he was enjoying himself, knowing that Bucky was enjoying himself, too.
But eventually Bucky managed to shove his clothes out of the way and then, to Steve's surprise, to straddle him—pressing him down on the mattress and rocking back on him, slowly; Christ, so slow. "Bucky," Steve begged; he didn't think he'd be able to keep it together, but Bucky, breathing out, gripped Steve's jaw and slid his thumb across Steve's lips, holding his mouth closed. Bucky's thumb was rough and callused; Steve faintly tasted salt. He'd always loved it when Bucky got into this mood; he could almost hear the growl—shut up, Rogers, and just let me. Steve reached out to grip Bucky's smooth hip. He braced himself as Bucky began to move over him, greedy and lost, air hissing between his gritted teeth, chasing his pleasure. Steve tried to keep his eyes closed, because he didn't want to come—he wanted to last, he wanted this to last—but he couldn't stop himself from looking. The stone mask of the Winter Soldier was gone: Bucky was glowing with sweat, mouth soft and sensual, his tongue visible when he parted his lips to gasp for air—and then he rolled his head and grinned down at Steve wickedly, eyebrow arching as he bore down, rode him down and up, and Steve mouthed, "shit" and winced, straining to stop it, to stop himself from—
The rush of it brought him up off the bed, and Bucky was groaning now, too, his own cock curved red and shiny against his belly, and when Steve reached for it with clumsy and shaking hands, Bucky came, too. His arms buckled, the metal no less than the flesh one, and he slid off Steve's cock too fast. He moaned, and Steve stifled a whimper and groped at Bucky's rib cage. Bucky stretched out half on top of him and half on the mattress, gave his Steve's jaw an affectionate love bite, and then a gentler kiss. They lay there together, sweating and panting.
"Bucharest," Bucky said finally.
"Yeah. I'm ready," Steve told him, and Bucky lay back and stared at the ceiling for a while, apparently thinking it over. Finally, he sighed and muttered, apparently to himself, "All right, then. All right," before rolling toward Steve and saying, "I guess I'm ready, too. This might be the best it ever gets for me," and Steve didn't follow what he was saying exactly, except then Bucky added, voice cracking, "Come to Church with me? I want to be confessed."
"Sure, Bucky; yeah," Steve said softly. "Of course I will."
"I've been waiting. Trying to remember so I could make a good confession: a true one." Bucky was fighting for control of his face. "But how am I supposed to confess what I can't remember? I mean—Jesus." Bucky looked agonized. "How do you repent when you can't even...?" He pushed up to a sitting position and roughly rubbed his face. "You know how it goes. I firmly resolve to sin no more—but I can't resolve shit, Steve: I'm not even sure what I did. I've just got pieces," and Steve nodded in pained sympathy; he'd read the black notebook. "An old man with blood coming out of his left ear," Bucky murmured, looking away. "A girl in a red dress..."
"Rosa Ferris," Steve murmured without thinking.
"...but maybe it's enough to—What?" Bucky was staring at him. "What did you say?"
"Rosa Ferris," Steve repeated slowly; he felt uneasy suddenly, but the only way out was through. "That was her name: the girl in the red dress. She was the Ambassador's daughter. I read your notebook," Steve admitted, taken aback by the way Bucky was looking at him, and then he added, a bit defensively, "You said I could."
"Sure," Bucky replied slowly, like he wasn't paying attention to what he was saying. "I've got no secrets from...But how can you know that? There wasn't anything useful in the Hydra infodump. I went through it all; I checked."
Steve licked his lips, distinctly nervous now. "There's a file," he told Bucky, hoping this was good news. "It—"
"There is not a file," Bucky burst out, hard and rough, "there is no file. The file was destroyed, they said, they—" and suddenly he was red-faced and breathing hard enough that Steve thought he might be having some sort of attack, and then he was pushing up off the mattress and rolling up to his feet, naked, clawing at his hair and pacing, jittering and shaking. "Are you fucking kidding me?" he shouted, finally, whirling on Steve, who'd sat up warily. "Jesus! You've got my fucking immortal soul in your hands and you didn't think to mention it?"
"It's yours," Steve said quickly. "Bucky, it's yours, I didn't think—" and then he was throwing his arms up defensively as Bucky came at him. Steve had been on the other side of the Winter Soldier's hostility more than once, but this wasn't that: this was 100 percent pure pissed off Bucky Barnes. Bucky grabbed Steve by the shoulders and twisted, trying to headlock him like it was 1936, and Steve reacted in the old way, kicking and trying to scrabble out from under, before remembering that he was Captain America and breaking Bucky's hold by sheer force.
They struggled around the room, smashing the table to bits and cratering the wall, but it wasn't anything like a fair fight, because Bucky was trying to beat the shit out of him and Steve was trying to just grab him, hold him, calm him down. Eventually Steve decided that the best way to win was to lose, and just doubled over, raising his arms to protect his head and let Bucky get a good couple of thumps in. Which he did: two massive punches and a knee to the ribs, and Bucky veered off again, panting. Steve groaned and pressed a hand to his side; a little tape, he'd be fine.
"Fuck," Bucky gritted out, from somewhere. Steve heard the rustle of clothes, the clink of a belt buckle.
"Take it," Steve managed, half-falling into a chair. "I brought it, it's in my bag," and he looked up to see Bucky yanking the battered manila folder out and clutching it in his hands. The look on his face was indescribable, and Steve's stomach flipped as Bucky roughly yanked open the cover: he knew what was in that file. Inside the cover, a photograph of Bucky gaunt and frozen under glass—what they had made of him—and smaller, clipped to the corner, a photograph of who he had been. After that—Steve looked away as he heard the soft flip of a page turning—there were mission reports. Death tolls, ballistics. Eight by ten black and white pictures of the various crime scenes.
A girl in a red dress. An old man in cracked glasses.
"Oh my fucking God," Bucky breathed. Steve immediately levered himself up.
"Take it slow," Steve said, trying, and failing, to find his command voice—by what right had he ever been in charge of Bucky Barnes? "Buck. It's a lot to take in—"
Bucky looked at him with a mix of incredulity and rage. "You knew," he said, and the tears in his eyes were tears of anger, Steve realized. "So then you know: I'm not him. Bucky Barnes—your. I'm not your Bucky Barnes."
"But you are," Steve said.
"No, I'm not. I've been me so much longer. I've lived your life three times over," and then Bucky was stuffing the file and all the notebooks into his backpack. Steve grabbed his shoulder when he tried to put on his jacket.
"But you're still alive. There's still time. Bucky, I'm so glad you're alive," but then Bucky said, almost gently, "It's too late, Steve,"—and clocked him, knocking him out cold.
It turned out there were more than a hundred ways to die in Sokovia; there were thousands. Unexpectedly, it was Natasha who drew him down off the ledge by climbing onto it with him. She stood beside him on the edge of the world, the wind whipping her red hair as Ultron flung Novigrad into the sky.
"I'm not leaving," Steve told her. "Not while there's a single citizen alive on this rock."
She looked at him with her clear blue eyes. "Who said anything about leaving?" Then she smiled at him, a little sadly. "There are worse ways to go, Rogers," she said, and of course then he couldn't let it happen—not to her.
He always wondered whether she'd known all the while: that he'd found Bucky, that he'd lost Bucky, that he'd been lying to everyone the entire time. He didn't see how Natasha could know, but it was never safe to bet against her in this sort of thing: she had a kind of genius for knowing things. They never talked about it, though—not even afterward, when Tony left the Avengers and he and Natasha carried on, simpatico and silent, both widows of a kind.
But sometimes she muttered to him in Russian, and he spoke back in kind, and that was its own sort of admission; her way of telling him that she knew something; his way of acknowledging that he knew that she knew.
"You're Russian's gotten pretty good, you know," she said to him, once.
"Приятно это слышать," Steve replied wryly, and that's all they ever said about that.
"He didn't do this," Steve insisted. "He didn't," but in his mind, Bucky whispered, "I'm not Bucky Barnes."
"Maybe not. But everyone thinks he did." Sharon didn't look at him as she slid a manila file—another goddamned manila file—across the bar toward him. He hesitated for a moment and then took it. "The briefing just finished, so this is all the lead time you're going to get. You'd better hurry, Steve: we've got orders to shoot on sight."
The address was in Bucharest, Romania. Steve didn't know how he was supposed to feel about that.
Bucky'd picked an apartment on the top floor of a crumbling concrete tower block, and he knew the Winter Soldier's habits well enough to understand why: it was high up and tucked away in a corner, creating a bottleneck with limited access in case of attack. Steve went to the apartment door, paused, and then quickly forced it open: he didn't quite trust Bucky not to run away if he knocked. But everything was quiet inside; Bucky wasn't here.
It was Bucky's place, though: Steve knew this because it felt, weirdly, like home to him: like the apartment on Furman Street, to be exact. He and Bucky had dragged in furniture from the curb, had cobbled together shelves with foraged planks and made a table by laying a door over the bathtub. Here, Bucky had made furniture from cinder blocks and wood pallets: he'd covered the windows with newspaper and collected a mismatched set of chipped plates and glasses. Steve gritted his teeth: the bastard thing of it was that this felt more like home than anyplace he'd lived over the last few years: D.C., New York, London, the Avengers facility upstate. And he supposed that this could have been his home for real—at least it should have been. But Bucky'd gone to Bucharest without him.
He caught sight of the dark blue notebook on top of the fridge; it was still bookmarked so as to open to the pasted-in picture of him from the Smithsonian. Steve slid the elastic band off and flipped the pages, throat tightening, to the back. He knew, it said in Bucky's neat handwriting. Steve knew everything. He knew all the time.
He turned. Bucky had materialized behind him without a sound, and now stood there perfectly still, full of the Winter Soldier's watchfulness. Steve felt the chill of doubt. "Do you—Bucky, do you remember me?"
Bucky hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "You're Steve," he said. "I read about you in a museum."
"Yeah," Steve said, and then: "Bucky, it's time. You gotta come in now; they're coming for you."
"I didn't do it," Bucky said, and Steve felt his stomach turn to water: he'd known that, he'd believed, but it was still a wonderful thing to hear Bucky say it. "I wasn't in Vienna and I didn't do it."
"I know," Steve said, "but the guys who are coming—they think you did and they have orders to kill you."
They'd launched a city-wide manhunt this time, and they got him—or rather T'Challa did, the Black Panther. Steve stood there, every nerve on alert, one arm flung out to protect Bucky from heaven only knew what. He didn't know if the danger would come from the international SWAT team, the Romanian police, or T'Challa--or even from Bucky himself, because if Bucky rushed them, they would shoot him dead: did Bucky want them to shoot him dead?
"Don't," Steve said to Bucky, and then: "Don't," he said, to the SWAT team and the local police.
For a moment, nobody did anything—and then they were grabbing Bucky by the arms and shoving him down, face first, into the ground. They swarmed over him—and Bucky had been right, hadn't he: there was no coming in alive, not really. Steve stood there in dismay, and then they were surrounding him, too, and cuffing him, taking his shield.
They locked Bucky down like he was an atomic weapon. They put him in a box—arms restrained, legs restrained, an electronic collar around his neck—before loading him into an armored car headed for Berlin. When they got there, Steve tried to push close for a glimpse. Bucky just sat there, resigned, like he was used to being a thing in storage.
"What's going to happen?" Steve asked Everett Ross.
He didn't like the answer he got. "Same thing that ought to happen to you: psychological evaluation and extradition."
Steve frowned. "What about a lawyer?"
"That's funny," Ross said, and something inside Steve died right there.
They at least let him watch Bucky on the monitor while they tried to force him to sign all his rights away. "No," he said, to Tony, to Natasha, to everyone, to the whole goddamned world; to anyone who wanted to treat people like weapons, like things in storage. They let him watch as the psychiatrist came in to ask Bucky a few simple questions. About his past, about Siberia—Siberia?—and then the psychiatrist pulled a red notebook out of his bag.
"What the—" Steve said, standing, and he just heard the first few words—"Longing. Rusted. Furnace."—before there was a sudden, loud btzzzt and all the power went out. "It's Hydra," Steve burst out, "fuck, he's Hydra," but by time he got to the cellblock it was too late: the cage was a mess of twisted metal and shattered glass, and Bucky—
He turned, and a metal fist came at him, hard. Bucky was gone and only the Winter Soldier remained. But Steve was skilled at fighting the Winter Soldier now; his style was direct—he came straight at you, went through you—and so Steve dodged, weaved, ducked, tried to do the unexpected. But the Winter Soldier was strong enough that he could rip Steve's heart out with that metal fist, and so Steve had to grit his teeth and just try to stop him goddamned doing it.
"Wait," Steve told Sam, who was pacing back and forth in the warehouse. Sam was irrationally sure that Bucky was going to wake up, rip his arm out of the vise they'd put it in, and kill them both. "Just wait. It'll be all right."
He was trying to be reassuring, but Sam wheeled on him, visibly angry. "You can't know that," San gritted out.
Steve sighed; it was time to own up to it; all of it. "I can. I've—seen it before."
Sam stared at him dead on. "You said you'd been in touch," he accused.
"I—yeah." Steve rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. "It was maybe more of..." He couldn't seem to find the words. "We've seen each other. A few times. In various—" and Bucky saved him then by letting out a groggy moan and raising his head. "Buck?" Steve said, turning to him hopefully—though if the Winter Solder killed them both it would at least stop Sam from glaring at him with that look of betrayed disappointment.
"You know, I know people do stupid things for sex," Sam muttered at him. "But I thought you were—"
"I'm a person!" Steve protested. "Why shouldn't I be a person?" but they were stopped by the rasp of Bucky's voice.
"What did I do?" Bucky asked heavily, miserable; his face was begrimed with sweat. "Steve. Did I kill anyone?"
"No," Steve said. "But that guy—he turned you on like a light switch."
Bucky was shaking his head as if to clear it. "He said the words. He—Hydra messed with my head, they--"
Sam cut him off. "What did he want from you? Because he killed a hell of a lot people to get to you."
Bucky went faraway then, his eyes blank, and Steve and Sam exchanged wary looks. But then Bucky said, slowly, "He wanted to know about...Siberia. He wanted to know..." He jerked. "My notebooks, do you have my—?"
"No, they took them, the whole backpack—along with my shield and Sam's wings. But you said there was nothing there." Steve remembered reading that in the brown notebook. "You said the place had been shut down."
"It was." Bucky frowned in confusion. "After perestroika and glasnost. They shut down the whole Winter Soldier program," and when Steve looked the question at him, Bucky went on, groaning and shaking his head. "You were dead for all that: the arms race, Washington and the Kremlin, competing, the Cold War. I was the first goddamned shot fired," and Steve had never known Bucky to laugh so bitterly. "The U.S. had Captain America, so the Soviets had to have their Winter Soldier. You had nukes so we had to have nukes. You had bases in Asia so we did. We had cosmonauts, so you had to have—whatever the fuck they're called, NASA," he said, shaking his head.
"NASA," Sam confirmed, and then with a touch of defensive pride, "And we beat you guys to the moon."
"Me guys nothing," Bucky snorted, "I was born on DeKalb Avenue," and then he looked at Steve and said, "The whole world's been trying to recreate the Super Serum—have been since the war. But they've never...it's just you and me. You guys made the green monster. We made..." Bucky stared into nothingness. "Rabid dogs, all of them. So they closed it down finally, the whole super soldier program. Shut down the Siberia base. Put everything on ice."
"On ice?" Steve asked sharply; he was thinking of the cryofreeze machine where Hydra had stored Bucky. "Literally or—Bucky, are there Hydra super soldiers on ice in Siberia?"
"Winter Soldiers," Bucky corrected absently, and then his face clouded: "I don't know. They could still be there."
"Rabid dogs, you said," Sam repeated nervously. "How many rabid dogs we talking about?"
"Five or six, if he can control them. An elite death squad—they could take down a country overnight."
"We've got to stop them," Steve said grimly. "This is our mission—mine and Bucky's, Accords or no Accords. We've got to stop Hydra—I've dedicated my life to it. I'm willing to die for it, if I have to."
Bucky lifted his head; his dark hair fell into his face. "Hell, I'm willing to live for it, if I have to. Beat that," he said.
In the end, it was Natasha who got them to Siberia. They'd nearly escaped, had nearly made it to the plane, when she caught them—and Steve's felt his stomach flip. He was surprised and unsurprised at the same time, because he'd worked hand in glove with Natasha for years now, and he knew she was always the wildcard.
"Natasha," Steve pleaded, and then he was raising his hands and stepping in front of Bucky, because she was aiming her stingers and firing. Steve jerked, genuinely shocked, and saw T'Challa crash to the ground behind them.
Steve turned back to her, choked with gratitude, but Natasha just shook her head roughly and said, in a strained voice, "I would do this for you, Rogers, really I would—but as it happens, I'm doing it for him."
Steve looked at Bucky and found him staring at Natasha, mouth agape. "Do I...know you?"
"I don't know, do you?" Natasha shot back, and then her mouth twisted and she said, "Get out of here. Go."
The Winter Soldiers were all dead by the time they got to Siberia.
A lot of things died in Siberia.
"Bucky, please. Think it over," but he'd feared it was hopeless ever since he'd seen Bucky staring at the tubes in Siberia, at the bodies floating within. The emergency lights had been flashing, making Bucky's face strange, unfamiliar. But Steve was pretty sure that the emotion he'd seen there was envy.
Now Bucky was staring at an empty tube in a different country; had they come all this way only to end here?
Bucky turned, and Steve had to work to keep his face neutral; Bucky's face was still battered, his wounds blood-encrusted. Still, he kept his eyes fixed on Bucky's face rather than let them drift to the stump of Bucky's arm.
"I can't trust my mind, or my memories," Bucky said with a sad smile. "When you get back..." because Steve was determined to break his friends out of the RAFT right away; he owed that much to Sam and Clint and Scott and—Jesus, Wanda. Seventeen years old and restrained by the neck, if his intelligence was accurate. "We can reconsider when you get back. I trust you," Bucky said, after a moment, thinking about it.
So he left Bucky in a cryotube in a wing of the Royal Infirmary, which was on the 68th floor of the Royal Palace, a rounded, soaring skyscraper that had made Bucky laugh out loud when they'd arrived, in agony though he was.
"Geez, it's right out of Buck Rogers," Bucky'd said, clinging to him with his good arm. "Wakanda's the future, pal—look, we finally made it," and Bucky was right about that: Birnin Zana looked how he and Bucky had thought Mars was going to look when they were kids: shiny chrome towers, crisscrossing skyways; everything except flying cars.
Steve stood in front of an enormous window overlooking the dense Wakandan metropolis and saw the heat shimmering outside; even as he noticed it, the electrochromic glass darkened and shifted color to block out the sun.
He checked his gear one final time: he didn't have his shield anymore, and he thought he was maybe done with the star-spangled outfit for good, but he could still count on the protection of vibranium; the armor T'Challa had given him was threaded with it. The Wakandan armaments that T'Challa had provided him were good, too—T'Challa had considered him for a long moment, then kitted him out with weapons he'd never seen before. Ray guns, Bucky would have called them (he couldn't think about Bucky--not now) that were, in fact, powerful stunners, neural disruptors, and there were also sonic grenades to shake your bones and bombs that could blind you for 24 hours. Weapons that weren't meant to kill, but could, if necessary. Steve liked T'Challa more and more all the time.
He buckled these weapons on, checked them again, then gave a last glance around the apartment T'Challa had given him. Had he left anything undone? T'Challa would take care of Bucky, but—Steve frowned and went to the long, empty desk. A keyboard appeared beneath his hands as he stood over it, and a screen materialized in the air at precisely the right angle, but he swiped these away roughly and pulled the desk drawer open. He was going to do this his way, in a way that felt serious and sincere. He sat down with paper and pen and envelopes.
Dear Natasha, he wrote first, and when he'd finished, he started again: Dear Tony.
He left the envelopes addressed and sealed upon the desk.
When they got back, T'Challa's security chief, Ayo, was waiting for them with a group of Dora Milaje. "King T'Challa wishes me to convey his welcome to you," she said to Clint and Scott and Sam and Wanda, "and to show you to quarters within the Royal Palace; if you have desires, you have only to name them." Steve saw Clint and Sam exchange looks, raised eyebrows full of cautious optimism; Clint, in particular, had the look of a man who was craving a hot shower and a cold beer. "Captain Rogers," Ayo added, "his majesty asks that you attend him directly."
"Certainly," Steve said, but he didn't; or rather, he went by way of the Royal Infirmary, just wanting to lay eyes on Bucky who—wasn't there. The cryotube was empty, the straps hanging loose. "Where is he?" Steve asked, rounding on an orderly with enough intensity that the man stepped back, nearly knocking over a tray of instruments.
"He is in surgery," the orderly told him. "He has been for some hours."
T'Challa was already there when he arrived, peering through a window as a team of doctors—Steve stepped closer, craned his neck—finished attaching a new arm to Bucky's left shoulder. A doctor stepped aside and Steve saw that Bucky was awake and watching the process with some interest: nodding, answering questions, moving his metal fingers.
The operating table was surrounded by technical readouts; T'Challa's eyes moved from one screen to another. "I took the liberty," he said, without looking at Steve. "There have been developments—the arm is just one of them."
Steve breathed out a sad laugh. "Hey, anything that gets Bucky out of that tube is fine by me."
"My team had a brainstorm. We've mapped the neural interface of the missing limb onto the prosthetic, and now we have full integration with the CNS, all sensors responding. Proprioceptive mapping at optimum."
Steve wasn't sure what proprioceptive mapping was, but he was glad it was at optimum. "Well, that's good," he said.
T'Challa flashed him a wry, amused smile.
Bucky looked exhausted by the time all the tests were over, but he brightened when Steve walked in. "Steve, you're back—" and then T'Challa came in and Bucky immediately struggled to sit up. Bucky was in a kind of awe of T'Challa, which made sense: T'Challa had been kind to him when he had no reason to be and every reason not to be.
"Your highness," Bucky managed, "it's fantastic, thank you, the arm, it—" He raised the metal arm, turned it, flexed. The plates were smaller and seemed to move in more complex directions. Bucky rasped a thumb over his fingertips.
T'Challa watched this closely, then nodded his approval. "It's good," he said. "We will test it further, but you will find it a significant improvement, I think: it is light and strong and should give you a very fine level of control. And I can return something else to you," he added, raising a hand, and a Dora Milaje appeared at the door carrying—
"My backpack," Bucky said thickly, and then he was struggling up for it, reaching out in his scrubs and practically snatching it out of the Dora Milaje's hand. He clutched the black canvas bag tightly for a moment before unzipping it and rummaging through—and Steve could see from his expression that all the notebooks were there: Bucky's mind, his memories. "Thank God, " Bucky breathed and then: "Thank you, your majesty. How on earth did you...?"
"I requested it through diplomatic channels; it's evidence, part of the case against you," and when Bucky went pale, T'Challa went on in firm, reassuring voice: "It was by far the best course; it allows everyone to save face. I've told the U.S. that I have you and intend to keep you, and they were more than happy to turn the problem of you over to me. You're an embarrassment to them, Sergeant Barnes; now they will be spared the difficulties of confronting the complexities of history, a task for which—you will forgive me saying so—they are not suited. Meanwhile, we can quietly close your case since you did not plan the Vienna bombing nor did you kill my beloved father, our king."
"Embarrassing," Steve muttered, making a fist; the very idea enraged him.
But Bucky looked hopeless and lost. "I didn't kill your father," he said. "But I killed other people's fathers. I killed a little girl's father in Cyprus. I killed Tony Stark's father—Howard Stark. He was our friend."
T'Challa looked grim. "Then you must seek what justice you feel is right. It must be a terrible thing, to kill a friend."
"I don't know, I don't remember," Bucky said.
"I mean, look," Sam told Bucky, "I don't know what you think justice is, but I'm kind of skeptical of the whole concept. Mostly, when people kill people, they get locked up for some number of years, unless they live in a state where people somehow think that 'do unto others' is a threat. How many years have you been locked up already?"
Bucky didn't answer, so Steve answered for him: "Seventy-one."
Scott Lang whistled. "That's some serious time. That's like--I don't even know how many life sentences."
"Yeah, I mean—I would call that time served," Sam said. "What are you gonna accomplish by serving more?"
"Fuck, no," Clint told Bucky, "that's bullshit. That's only if you're convicted, and they'd never convict you--not legally, not properly. You're never going to get justice, buddy--and not just because of the dirty laundry they'd have to air to try you, but because most people sleep at night because they don't know—" A vein throbbed at Clint's temple, and he was sweating—"they don't know that you can be knocked out of your own head and have your body hijacked. They don't know what it is to be used like that. But it's not guilt if you can't form intent."
Sam looked at him skeptically. "Yeah, like legalities will stop them. Steve just broke us out of prison, man."
"Sure, but it ain't justice," Clint said bitterly. "It ain't justice," and none of them could disagree with him.
Then Natasha showed up. "Well, lookie here," she said, coming into their wing of the palace, "a nest of fugitives."
Steve's spirits lifted at the sight of her, but Clint got to her first, taking her in his arms and swinging her around, kissing her and grinning into her face, and then kissing her again. She beamed back at him, and then turned to squeeze Sam's arms and kiss his cheek, and then she greeted Wanda and Scott, before turning her attention, finally, to Bucky. He was standing there, still and silent at the far end of the room. He could do that still; disappear right in front of you.
She took a few steps toward him and stopped. Everyone kept silent, watching. Bucky stared at her. She stared back—and they were wearing the exact same look on their faces, a kind of learned wariness; blank; cautious; Russian. Steve looked between them: why hadn't he seen that before? His heart raced; suddenly he knew what was coming.
"Do you remember me?" Natasha asked softly, and Bucky stared at her for what seemed like a very long time before wordlessly shaking his head no—except then he was reaching for his backpack, never far out of reach, now, and fumbling inside it, pulling out the black book and flipping through the pages before handing it to her at arm's length.
Natasha took it from him. A little line appeared between her eyebrows as she read, then deepened. "No," she muttered, shaking her head. "This is wrong. That's not the way it..." She looked up at Bucky. "That wasn't your fault."
Now it was Bucky's turn to shake his head: he was disagreeing with her disagreement. But she stood her ground. "It wasn't your fault," she repeated. "It wasn't. You've got it wrong." Bucky's eyes were darting past her, sizing up the exits—Steve could tell and evidently so could Natasha because she said, "Wait," in a tone that stopped Bucky cold.
"I've got something for you," Natasha said, and then she was reaching into her own bag and pulling out— Bucky gasped and moved toward her, his hands stretching out for the red notebook. "This is yours, I think," she said.
Red notebook, black star; the notebook Zemo had brought to Berlin. Bucky's—and of course it was Bucky's: writing was Bucky's habit, had been since when they were kids. Steve felt sick. Trust Hydra to use that against him—to have used his own mind against him. Steve wondered if this was the whole set now: blue, black, green, brown, and red.
Wanda didn't say anything for a long time, which worried Steve a little, because the kid had taken one blow after another and he wasn't sure how much more she could take. She had lost her parents, her city, her brother--and then Nigeria had happened and she'd been betrayed once again, locked up by her own side. But she seemed to be working her way through, sticking close to the rest of them, lurking, silent and watchful. Until:
"I could get that stuff out of your head," Wanda said softly, to Bucky. "If you want me to."
Bucky had been sitting there silently, buried in his notebooks. Now his head jerked up. "What?"
"I could..." and Wanda made a graceful gesture: a nimble, flowing grasp, "pull all the bad memories out of you," and Steve shot an eager look at Sam, at Natasha, because this could be it; why hadn't he thought to ask Wanda--
But Bucky frowned down at his notebooks, and then he looked up at Wanda and asked, almost pleading, "Could you put them back into me? This—these—my mind, all my memories?" and it was like blacking out, because Steve wasn't conscious of moving, except suddenly he was up, out of his chair and saying, "No. No. Bucky—no."
"No," he said, to Bucky. "No," he said to Wanda, and Wanda shrank back, wide-eyed.
"He's right," Natasha interrupted, and Steve had never been so glad of backup. "What they did to you, what they made you do—you won't want to remember it all. Forgetting is necessary, it's good, it's what saves us; all of us." She shrugged minutely. "The human mind wasn't made to hold so many memories at once, and especially those memories."
Bucky's jaw tightened. "You don't know what you're--"
"I do know," Natasha shot back, but after a moment, she sighed and admitted, "All right, I don't know. Your case is—unique. You're the first of us, the oldest. But that only makes me more sure that you won't want to know everything. Not like this; not all at once. " She bit her lip and added, "You don't know who you'll be afterward."
"Maybe," Bucky replied. "But you don't know who I am now."
T'Challa had given him and Bucky their own quarters in the guest wing, but Bucky had slipped into his room and into his bed almost every night, falling into their old clandestine habits. They'd made love in the secret room at Spodieodie's, and at Furman Street they'd maintained the formality of separate beds even though they spent practically every night in each other's company, arms and legs entwined. The army, the same—everyone had separate bunks and a ready explanation as to why they weren't wherever the hell they were supposed to be in the middle of the night. Steve had once had to do some fast talking to a two-star general who'd sent for him at three in the morning. Steve had claimed to have had a burning need to talk strategy with Dum Dum, which was a lie that Dum Dum was happy to corroborate being as he'd been in a SoHo whorehouse for most of the night himself.
Now Steve lay in his dark quarters high up in T'Challa's towering palace and wondered if Bucky would come to him or if he even wanted Bucky to come to him—because they might start to argue again if he did come. Bucky had vanished after the confrontation with Natasha, and Steve had only calmed himself down by making Wanda promise—double, triple, quadruple, swear-on-your-heart promise—that she wouldn't do anything to Bucky's mind without telling him first, because she owed him that much, didn't she? and Wanda just stared back at him, wide-eyed and surprised, and said that yes, of course, Cap; of course she did, and then she'd put her arms around his neck.
Steve was just drifting off when he heard the whisper of a door opening, though there was no shift in the light. There was only the barest hint of a shadow before he felt the mattress dip slightly—and he was happy, after all, that Bucky was here; a kind of bone-deep happy; Pavlovian. He closed his eyes, too grateful to argue about anything. And maybe Bucky knew that he would be, because Bucky was sidling up behind him and putting his arms around him, warm lips pressed to the back of Steve's neck. Steve shuddered, and not entirely from lust.
Bucky's mouth moved against his skin, "You've got to let me do this."
Steve shook his head faintly and mouthed, "No." But no sound came out.
"I need to. I need to know what happened to me. I need to know what's true. I can't grapple with it if I can't remember," and Bucky's voice was relentless but also kind, and Steve knew that the argument was over; case closed.
But goddamn him if he didn't go down swinging. "But," Steve said, and his voice felt raw in this throat, "we're only what we remember; that's all we are. If you remember it, you'll have done it—"
"But I did do it," Bucky said, and then he was pushing Steve onto his back and half-rolling on top of him in the dark and peering down at him with surprise and concern and—was that pity? "Steve," Bucky said, oddly gentle, "you know I did it, right?" like that was news, like he was fucking breaking it to him, like he hadn't fought Bucky on the bridge and on the helicarrier and followed him through cities and churches halfway around the goddamned world—
Too close—Steve squeezed his eyes shut and twisted his face away. He couldn't look, he— "Oh, Steve," Bucky breathed. "Stevie. I'm sorry," which was stupid, why the hell was Bucky apologizing to him?—except suddenly he was sobbing tears and snot into the crook of Bucky's neck and he didn't know why and he couldn't stop.
When they told T'Challa the plan—"It's a terrible plan," Natasha muttered to him, and he tried to be stonefaced but finally gritted out, "I don't control the goddamned world,"—the king directed them back to the Royal Infirmary and into a glass room that he claimed was indestructible: laced with vibranium threads. That would protect the rest of them if Bucky went wild, but Bucky was afraid for Wanda, who'd be inside with him—until, that is, she smiled at him and then did something with her hands that conjured up fire, and then Bucky stepped back and said, "All right; okay."
Bucky stripped down to an undershirt and thin scrubs. There was a narrow examination table and Bucky sat down on it, visibly tense, chest heaving as he struggling to breathe. Wanda went in and T'Challa sealed the door shut after her. She smiled reassuringly at Bucky, then glanced over at the small table which held all the notebooks: blue, brown, green, black, red. Then she looked through the window at them and nodded. "I think we're ready," she said, and then she turned toward Bucky and raised both her hands.
Bucky paled, and gripped the edge of the bench, and stared into nothingness, braced; he had been here before.
Steve lurched up. "Wait," he said, and banged on the glass till Bucky and Wanda turned. "Stop," and then he looked at T'Challa and said, "I have to be in there," which was a thing he'd just realized, and T'Challa considered him for a long moment before nodding and gesturing for Ayo to unseal the door again and let him inside.
"Steve, what're you doing?" Bucky asked, low and suspicious, but Steve knocked that look off his face by kissing him, fast and sweet, in front of everyone. Bucky was shocked, flushed and open-mouthed, when he pulled away.
"I gotta be here," Steve said apologetically, and went to stand behind him and put his arms around him to brace him.
Wanda met his eyes. "Ready?" she asked, and Steve replied, doggedly, "I am if he is."
"Do it," Bucky said, and this time, when Wanda raised her hands, Steve could feel the pressure change inside the room even before her fingers began to trail fire and the notebooks began to glow. "Steve," Bucky said uncertainly; he'd seen a little of what Wanda could do, but her powers were still unnerving: more like magic than science.
"It's okay," Steve said, tightening his grip on Bucky. "It's—" except suddenly there was a roar and each of the notebooks burst into a streaming column of colored light with enough force to blow their hair back. Wanda twisted and bent the streams until they were white-hot in her hands, forking and spitting like lightning—and then she wove them around Bucky, a web, a cloth of energy that danced on his skin, kissed his eyes open with blue fire.
Then Bucky jerked forward and screamed in a voice shredded with terror, and Steve grabbed for him—felt him drop but wouldn't let him fall. Wanda shrank back, shocked, because Bucky was thrashing and screaming in Steve's arms. She turned and pounded on the glass, and when Steve looked back again she was gone, and T'Challa was standing there asking if they ought to give Bucky a sedative. "No," Bucky said, dragging his head up and--he looked old, now: ancient eyes in a dead face, and Steve felt the terror of being young: left alone, left behind, again.
"Turn out the light. Turn out the light, turn out the light," Bucky ground out, and he was reaching down for the floor, stretching out toward it, and so Steve gave in and let his knees soften, guiding him down, guiding them both down. Bucky scrabbled on hands and knees, and then let out a soft noise of despair and went face down on the ground, forehead first and then nose, cheek, pressing down, sprawled out on the cool stone; flattened.
Steve sat down hard beside him. "Turn out the light!" he shouted, and a moment later the lights finally went out. The only sound now was Bucky's soft screams, so Steve slid down and curled up behind him, holding on to him, and pressed his forehead to the center of Bucky's back just so Bucky would know he was there: right there, holding on.
It took forever for Bucky to finally quiet. He sobbed like a wounded animal for longer than Steve would have thought possible, and by the time his breathing finally evened out Steve himself was weak with exhaustion; dizzy and thirsty and lying on his back in the dark. He rolled, struggled up to his feet, desperate for water. He followed the reflections of the emergency lights to the glass door. Outside, the lights were off and everyone was gone—or almost.
It took him a moment to recognize the still, dark figure as Natasha, and another moment to realize why she looked so strange to him: her pale face was streaked with tears. He stared at her. He'd never imagined her crying.
Her voice was steady and sane, though; same as always. "You shouldn't have let him do it."
"It's what he wanted," Steve sank heavily down on the chair beside her.
"I only had a couple years of it, and it was too much." Her gaze was steady. "And I'm tough as fucking nails, Rogers."
"I know you are," Steve agreed. "As fucking nails," and his use of her profanity made her smile.
"Your face is too wholesome for that sort of talk," Natasha said.
"Hey, I was in the army," Steve told her, and then he leaned close and said, "And if the serum hadn't given me healing powers you'd see what I really look like. I've had my face bashed against the sidewalk more times than you've had hot dinners. I'm a monster," he said, and then sadness had him in its clutches again, squeezing him.
"Yeah, well," Natasha said softly. "Aren't we all."
Bucky spent the following days in bed on an IV, asleep for twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four. The doctors seemed to think this was normal enough, though, and Natasha agreed with them.
"He's got a lot to process," she told him. "Best he devotes his whole mind to it. You can't ask him to stay conscious or make small talk on top of it," though Bucky did talk to him, a little, during those brief moments when he came to the surface, though it was terrifyingly like talking to Peggy in the months and weeks before she died. Except Peggy'd been sick with forgetting, and Bucky was sick with remembering.
"Are you all right? Steve? Has the shelling stopped?" and Steve would say, soothingly, "Yeah, Buck; it's stopped now." Sometimes Bucky growled out elaborate commands in Russian, and then once he opened his eyes and told Steve earnestly, "We should tell Mr. Walker we'll have the rent for him Thursday."
"Sure, I'll do that," Steve agreed, but the good news was that Bucky was going in the opposite direction from Peggy; blooming, the lines on his face smoothing out as the churn of his memories began to settle.
"You don't think T'Challa could get me a couple of hot dogs, do you? I got a powerful hankering. You know, with mustard," and Steve would have flown a jet to Nathan's personally except for how it turned out there was an American-style diner around the block from the American embassy that sold hot dogs and hamburgers and fries.
"Natasha wants to visit when you feel well enough," Steve told Bucky when he was strong enough to move from the bed to a chair, and then he added, quietly, "I guess you knew her in Russia, huh?"
"Yeah," Bucky said, and rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. "She saved my life, and then she seduced me, and then they told me to kill her, so I did—or, whatever, I tried. She was hard to kill. She's a Black Widow," he added, as if that explained everything, which Steve supposed it did. "I still want to see her, though. To apologize."
But Natasha brushed his apology away. "I told you, it's not your fault," she said, and sat beside him, and Steve was surprised by the easy way she took his hand; their whole way of being with each other had changed. "They used us both," she told Bucky. "Me, from when I was a child. And you—they tried to remake you; unmake you. But they didn't, in the end; that's what's important," and then she smiled and said: "You know, I had no idea who you were."
"That makes two of us," Bucky said.
"Do not trouble yourself," T'Challa said, as Bucky got awkwardly to his feet. "But I'm glad to see you're feeling better."
"I am," Bucky said, though he was still pale and shaky, "and I want to trouble myself. You've been so kind to me."
"That compliment pleases me above all others," T'Challa replied, smiling. "Is there anything else I can do to speed your recovery?" and Steve couldn't imagine what else he could do: the king had already given them sanctuary, weapons, and advanced medical technology, and he'd told them where to get the best hot dogs in Burnin Zana; not Nathan's, but good.
But Bucky's mouth twisted unhappily. "I don't suppose they hear confession down in the Temple of the Panther?" he asked, and to Steve's surprise, T'Challa laughed out loud and said, "No; it is not the way of the Goddess. Though I shall ask her to protect you from contagious diseases and evil spirits."
"I'll take it," Bucky said.
"But why not just go over to Holy Cross?" T'Challa asked, and when Steve and Bucky both stared at him, he rolled his eyes and shook his head at them, then pulled out his phone. "The Church of the Holy Cross is just a few kilometers up the road, toward the mountains," he said, and a moment later, Steve's phone vibrated on the table. "I've texted you the coordinates," he said, and then added, a little smugly: "We have two cardinals in Rome."
"Of course you do," Bucky said, wincing. "Sorry."
"Also the pope has visited us." T'Challa raised his eyebrows. "Twice."
"Will you come with me?" Bucky asked finally. "I think I'm ready," and Steve said yes: of course he would; yes.
But they weren't prepared for the church. At the end of the road, The Church of the Holy Cross was medieval, eleventh century. It had been hewn out of the mountain, its elaborate designs carved out from the striated rock—and on the other side it was modern, all rolled steel joists and glass. T'Challa had maybe sent word ahead that they were coming, because they were greeted by an elderly priest in a black cassock who introduced himself to them as Father Ezana.
"Bucky Barnes," Bucky managed, and now he looked scared as well as sick. "I mean, James Barnes, they call me Bucky. I'm nearly a hundred years old," he choked out, "if you can believe it, and my last confession was in 1944."
Father Ezana said, kindly, "Come and tell me all about it," and put his purple stole around his neck.
It took a long time, but that was okay: Steve looked around the entire church, fascinated by the undulating striations of the rock and the patterns of crosses carved so deeply but still so straight and fierce though they must be a thousand years old or more. He put his hands on the wall and felt the age of the place. You could be young here; even Bucky was young here. Around the altar everything was familiar and yet different: the sanctuary, the tabernacle, the chalice, white linens spread out—but it was like no other church he'd been to.
A hundred years, a thousand years, Steve thought, was nothing.
After a while he went into a pew and knelt, letting his mind fill with the soft, repetitive words of prayer even as his eyes kept drifting over the patterns and carvings in the stone overhead. After a while, a question broke through his thoughts: why hadn't it occurred to him to go to confession? He wasn't sorry enough, he supposed; somehow he couldn't muster the necessary state of contrition. Mostly he felt angry, and sometimes he felt sad—but rarely sorry.
Was that arrogant? He supposed so—and suddenly he was laughing, hand over his mouth, trying to muffle it.
When Bucky finally came out, he seemed better, even though his face was ravaged and raw—eyes bloodshot, skin mottled. He'd evidently been crying but he seemed steadier on his feet as he slid into the pew beside Steve.
"How'd it go?" Steve asked, aware of the vast stupidity of the question.
"Well," Bucky began, and then he laughed, and his eyes were leaking, and he wiped them with his fingertips. "I think he's gonna take the rest of the day off," and Steve grinned down inanely at the ancient stone floor. Bucky's voice was thick with his shifting emotions. "I feel good," he said finally. "Human. Like a person," and Steve's head jerked up. "I mean, it's not over; it's far from over. But I think maybe it's going to be okay," and then he laughed again and said: "The padre told me to say ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers and to fight injustice on a global scale for the next hundred years or so."
Steve replied, "Well, shit, I just got out of that business," and then, more seriously: "Is that what you want?"
"Yeah, I think so," Bucky said. "I mean, not by faith alone, right? Gotta do the work. St. James says so."
"Well," Steve said finally, sighing, "I happen to know there's a whole bunch of unemployed Avengers a couple of miles away: cooling their heels and looking for some kind of direction."
"Yeah, I heard that, too. If only there was some skinny kid with a big mouth to tell 'em what to do." Bucky looked at him.
"All right, I'm in," Steve sighed, and sat back in the pew. "I've followed you to hell and back these last couple of years, I guess you can follow me around for a while. I'm done with the outfit, though," he told Bucky. "The whole thing with the shield, Captain America, the stars and stripes: all of that."
"It's a shame, you looked cute in it," Bucky told him.
"Oh shut up," Steve Rogers said.