James is taken to the guest room, and Helena is given the couch. Kira curls up on her neck, and the as-yet-unnamed tabby stretches out on the sofa’s arm. Sarah nibbles on her toes and stalks into the shadows of the apartment. It’s pleasing to know that Sarah will be Sarah, no matter where they are.
She lays in the dark, watching the clock tick-tock by, counting the hours until sunrise. Long before it comes, however, she hears a scream.
It is a scream she knows very well.
She’s off the couch in a flash, bolting down the hallway towards the guest room. The Captain is already there, holding his shield and standing in the doorway. She neatly checks him into the doorframe and scrambles onto the bed, cradling James’s head in her lap.
“Hush, dushka,” she says, stroking his hair like she’s done a million times before. “Sestra is here, sestra will keep the monsters away.”
He just looks at her, wide-eyed, and wraps his fingers around her wrist.
“I will stay,” she says, leaning back against the headboard. “I will stand guard. Dream of beautiful things, dushka, dream of sunny days and golden light through the trees.” His breathing starts to even out, and his eyes start to droop. The nameless tabby cat jumps up and makes himself comfortable on James’s chest, purring softly.
“Sleep well,” she whispers. Movement in the doorway catches her eye and she looks up, gratified to see that the Captain is still standing there, looking almost helpless.
“Thank you, Captain,” she says sweetly. “I can take it from here.”
* * * * *
She takes a shower in the morning, spends more time than is necessary combing all the tangles out of her hair. Maggie had made it blonde, once upon a time, to show how special she was, to set her apart from the copies.
But, standing there in the shower, water dripping off her nose, she eyes the blonde strands and thinks maybe she is not so special.
When she emerges, the Captain is sitting on the sofa with a handsome, dark-skinned man, and James is sitting opposite them, staring blankly ahead. Helena settles down next to James, tracing the grooves in his arm with her finger, trying to be a reassuring presence.
“So,” the Captain says. “We have some decisions to make.”
Words seem to fail him after that, and he looks helplessly at his friend, who leans forward.
“I’m Sam,” he says with a gentle smile. “Steve’s right, there are a few things we have to settle now. First, do you want to stay here, or wherever you were staying before?”
James looks to Helena automatically, and the Captain’s mouth purses slightly. “We will stay here,” Helena says, answering for both of them.
“Okay,” Sam says. “Do you just want a place to stay, or do you want to work on recovering Bucky’s memories?”
Helena opens her mouth to answer, but the Captain cuts her off before she can start. “I don’t want to know what you think,” he says firmly. “This is about Bucky. I want to know what he wants.”
Helena narrows her eyes, and James tightens his grip on her hand. He opens his mouth and closes it again, looking down at Helena for help.
“I know what James wants,” Helena says, voice low. “He wants to remember.”
And he does, wants to remember so badly, wants to have a connection to his past, no matter how nervous that makes Helena.
“We can help with that,” Sam says, distracting her attention from the Captain. “We have an appointment for someone to take a look at Bucky’s arm in a few days, just to make sure it’s going to work all right. But after that, we can get to work.”
James nods, relaxing slightly. “Helena will come, right?” he asks, voice slightly hoarse.
“Of course she can,” Sam says.
“Good,” James says, and Helena smiles, putting her head on his shoulder.
It’s nice to be wanted.
* * * * *
She dreams of the water.
Thomas and Maggie have taken her to the shore, something they often did as a reward. They’re on a boat, pulling away from the land, and Maggie is petting her hair and praising her. She’s killed another copy, she knows, and therefore has done well.
This is her family.
She wants to go swimming, and Thomas allows it. She jumps off the edge of the boat, and Maggie follows, carefully climbing down the ladder. She clings onto the last rung, the water steady at her waist.
“Are you coming in?” Helena says, paddling over to her.
“No,” Maggie says. “I can do what I need from here.”
And before Helena can ask what that means, Maggie grabs her head and plunges it underwater.
She fights, kicks back and struggles, but Maggie’s grip is strong, and water is filling up her lungs. Just when she can’t breathe anymore, Maggie is yanked away and someone’s helping her up.
“Helena,” her rescuer says. “Are you all right?”
Helena blinks, looking around. The large boat is gone, the sun has set, and James is holding her close.
“Let’s go home,” he says, and she couldn’t agree more.
The rest of the dream is pleasant, with cakes and small kittens and sunny days, but there’s a shadow lurking on the edges. Sometimes it looks like the Captain.
Sometimes it looks like Sarah.
But this is her dream, her place to be happy, so she shines light on the corners of her brain and dispels the intruders. She will not have to think of them until she wakes.
* * * * *
Helena does not like Mister Stark.
When James is seated in the chair, his arm held out, the first thing he says is, “Nice paint job. I’m sure we can fix it right up.”
Helena growls at him. “Leave it alone,” she snarls. “Don’t touch it.”
Mister Stark stares at her, and James’s breath gets shallower. She is angry, and he is upset.
So she stops being angry.
“James,” she says, fighting to relax herself. “Hold my hand.”
He obeys, nearly crushing her bones in the process, but he does seem to calm down after that.
“I’m sorry,” Mister Stark says, starting work on James’s arm. “Who are you, exactly?”
“Helena,” she says.
“That tells me nothing,” he says. “Who are you?”
“Helena,” she says, confused.
“That’s your name, not who you are.”
She takes a step back, still holding on to James. “I am the original,” she says, falling back onto Tomas and Maggie’s teachings. “I am the light.”
Mister Stark huffs, rolling his eyes. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Rogers.”
The machines hovering around James make little whirring noises, and James starts to breathe heavily again. Helena holds his hand tightly, trying to murmur assurances, but he does not relax. Instead, he starts to breathe even faster, making small noises of distress.
“You’re hurting him,” Helena says, tensing up.
“He’s fine,” Mister Stark says. “It’s just a routine maintenance check—“
“Let him out,” she snarls, and lunges towards the equipment.
“Hey, no, don’t touch that!” Mister Stark says, reaching out.
He grabs her arm, and everything goes black around the edges.
This is what she knows how to do. This is what she’s trained for.
She grabs the arm and uses its own momentum to flip its owner over and throw him into a wall. Someone comes from the left, but a kick solves that problem easily. She crouches and looks for a wall to put her back to, but before she can, a third assailant comes from behind, a strong arm pinning her arms to her side. She twists and squirms, finally getting enough room to bite.
But when her teeth close, it’s not on flesh, but metal.
She doesn’t understand until the attacker flips her around and holds her close, a hand on the back of her head.
She slides her hands up, wraps them around his neck, listens to him repeat a never-ending list of reassurances: it’s all right, sestrenka, nobody is going to hurt you, you’re safe, I’m here.
“I think,” she tells James, voice shaky, “I think I want to go home.”
“Da,” he says. “We can leave.”
He stoops slightly and picks her up, and she keeps her head buried in his shoulder until they are out of the building.
* * * * *
They visit the Smithsonian. Helena doesn’t quite see the point, as James has been there millions of times, and from the look of it, the Captain has too. The exhibit will not have changed since the last time either of them was there.
But the Captain seems to think it’s a good idea, so off to the museum they go.
The Captain sticks to James’s side like glue, pointing out pictures of them through the years, relating amusing anecdotes that James no longer remembers. Helena gets bored quickly, and wanders off to look at the rest of the exhibition on her own. While the Captain and James are looking at a costume display, she finds the board James had visited endlessly.
James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes, it says.
The Captain calls him Bucky.
She calls him James.
He answers to both.
Someday, she thinks, he will pick one over the other, and then where will she be?
The James in the pictures looks at the Captain like he’s the sunrise, bright golden beauty covering the world. The James she knows looks at the Captain like he’s a mountain, like he’s solid and steady and grounded and wonderful.
She doesn’t know how he looks at her. She’s never thought to look and find out.
* * * * *
They share the bedroom now. When they sleep, they curl up as tightly in on themselves as they can, so space isn’t an issue. The cats take up more room than they do, anyway.
One night, after an evening of the Captain and Mister Wilson and James watching old history documentaries and bonding while she watched from the kitchen, Helena rolls over and whispers, “Are you awake?”
“Da,” comes the answer almost immediately.
“Tell me about the Captain,” she says, staring into the blackness. “Are you doing all right here?”
“I can remember some things,” he says, hesitant. “Not…not a lot. But some.”
Helena takes his hand, waits for him to continue.
“I remember light,” James says. “He was smaller. We were friends.”
“He calls you Bucky,” Helena says. “Are you okay with being Bucky?”
He is silent for a long time. “I don’t know,” he says, and he sounds so painfully unsure that Helena can hardly bear it. “Am I?”
It breaks her heart to answer. “I think you are, ptashenya,” she says. “I think you’re more than okay with being Bucky, even if you don’t know it yet.”
He tilts his head to look at her, smiling gently, and she sees the sun rise. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”
She kisses his metal hand, curls up by his side as he slips off into unconsciousness, and tries not to think about the future.
She is only partially successful.
* * * * *
“There’s someone I want to visit today,” the Captain says. “Peggy Carter.”
“She worked with us in the war,” James says slowly. “Right?”
“Right,” the Captain says, smiling.
“He doesn’t really remember, you know,” Helena says, pouring more frosted flakes. “He’s just been to the museum a lot.”
The Captain’s face falls slightly, and James shrinks back. Helena feels bad, a little bit, but not enough to do anything about it.
“Anyway,” the Captain says, clearing his throat, “she lives in a retirement home now. I thought visiting might be a good thing.”
“Okay,” Helena says. “We will go.”
“Um,” the Captain says, avoiding eye contact. “Just me and Bucky are going.”
“What?” Helena says blankly.
“You’re going to stay here,” he says. “You can be a bit overwhelming, and I don’t want to overstress Peggy.”
“I’m not going to do anything,” Helena says. “I promise.” She looks to James for backup, but he’s staring intensely at his cereal, and she can see there will be no help from him. She glares at the Captain instead, pushing her chair back from the table and abandoning her frosted flakes.
She curls up on the couch and waits. James and the Captain finish their breakfast in silence, and then stand to leave.
“If you need anything, go next door,” the Captain says. “My neighbor Sharon should be home, she can help if you need.”
Helena grunts, but doesn’t otherwise acknowledge him.
The Captain goes to the door, but James hovers near the couch, hands fluttering at chest level. He floats a hand over her shoulder, but withdraws it.
“I’ll be back,” he says quietly.
She manages a smile, staring up at him. “I know, brata. It’s okay.” She wants to mean it, but she doesn’t.
James shuts the door behind him with a soft click, and that is the end of that.
* * * * *
She has no destination in mind—she doesn’t know the streets of DC well, or at all. She has never known streets, never had a city that was hers, that felt like home under her feet. The closest she’s ever come is the convent, which was familiar and recognizable, but not home. Never home.
She walks for a very long time, passing well-lit coffee shops and diners where people are laughing and talking and enjoying each other’s company. She passes them all by, with not even a glance inside. She’s cold and tired, and just when she feels like she can’t take another step, an old stone church materializes in front of her.
It’s large and foreboding, with no warm light spilling from the front, but Helena has never seen anything more welcoming.
She takes a pew up near the front and kneels, forgoing the cushions, and crosses herself, mumbling the Latin under her breath. She clasps her hands together and stares up at the stained glass window, watches specks of dust swirl in the colored light.
“Bat’ko,” she murmurs. “You are fearful and wonderful, and I praise you.”
She has started out every prayer since she was seven this way, but she stumbles, her voice faltering.
“I praise you,” she says. “But I doubt.”
She swallows hard, stares at the crucifix over the altar.
“All my life, I’ve believed I was your light, I was the original,” she whispers. “That I was special, best beloved. But I was made by scientists.” She pauses, ducking her head. “You made the scientists. Was that your plan for me?”
There is no answer.
“I was to be your angel,” she says. “But they lied. They lied.” Her voice wavers and breaks off.
“Sestra has her little girl,” she says after a moment. “James has his Captain. Who do I have?”
The church is empty and cold, and the stone face of the Virgin gives her no comfort. She used to have God, used to have the blessed Mother, but they seem so distant now, so unforgiving.
“I don’t want to be alone, Bat’ko,” she says finally. “Please. Don’t make me be alone.”
She is reluctant to leave the church, to leave the beauty and the stillness, but she can sense that the conversation is over, and it isn’t polite to linger.
It’s cold outside, but she still takes her time walking back to the Captain’s apartment. He and James will be bonding, she thinks with disgust. She is not wanted there.
When she finally gets back, the apartment is a flurry of activity. The Captain is standing with a blonde woman, heads together as they bend over a map of the city, various locations circled in red. Sam is over by the window, talking rapidly on the phone, and James is pacing back and forth in the middle of the room, muttering to himself in Russian.
“What did you do?” Helena growls, drawing the attention of the room. She crosses to James, who just stares at her, shocked. “You visited an old woman,” she spits over her shoulder. “I did not think that would have been very distressing.”
Before she can get an answer, James is lifting her off the ground, burying his face in her hair. “I thought you left,” he says, voice muffled.
She wraps her arms around him as best she can, stroking his hair. “I just went to church, ptashenya,” she says. “I am fine. Are you all right? What’s happened?”
He puts her down, looks her straight in the eye. “I thought you left,” he says, voice wavering, and it suddenly clicks into place.
“I will not leave again,” she says, standing on her tiptoes to put her arms around him once more. “I will always stay with you, dushka."
“Good,” he says, and in that moment it is just the two of them—him and her, no Captain and no Mister Stark, no lost memories or copies that should not be.
It is, Helena thinks, the first time she’s had a prayer answered so completely.