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Dust to Dust

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Prologue

            Showing up at Tony's door wasn't exactly planned. It just happened to be the most convenient location after he found Bucky. It had taken months of searching, carefully coordinating with Sam, before he even got a trace of his old sergeant. It had taken even longer to find footage of Pierce entering and exiting the bank vault that led to Bucky. So many things had happened. So many battles with Hydra. Quite frankly it was exhausting.

            But none of it mattered, he had Bucky back.

            It took Steve a while to get Bucky to trust him, or even stand within striking distance of him. It was painful to see the man he trusted above all others look back at him without a shred of human feeling in his eyes. He'd followed any orders Steve gave to the letter, unless they required contact. He'd point blank refused to allow Steve to touch him, flinching or twitching any time he approached. Raising his arms up in a defensive motion, settling into a fighter's crouch, he'd even pulled a knife a few times. Until Steve had ended up finding them all and taking them all. One by one. 'You're my mission.' They're at the bottom of a river somewhere, now. Much to the Winter Soldier's anger and disgust. Steve doesn't speak much Russian, so whatever insults had been hurled had just gone over his head.

            The hardest part for Steve had been dealing with the screaming. Any time the other man fell asleep, he would start screaming. Pulling at his hair, hands pressed flat against the sides of his head, and he'd wake up and stop. Just go dead silent and stare at Steve, daring him to say a word. When he'd looked away, Steve had quietly thrown up. This night is no different. He settles himself in a tree, keeping watch. Bucky sleeps under him, or keeps his own vigil, Steve isn't sure. Not until he hears the screaming. Bucky just sounds so angry to him, so full of hate. He can barely hear in those sounds the voice of the man who once said 'not without you.' Dropping out of the tree, he waits, their position is compromised and it's time to move on. Hydra's been tracking them for weeks now.

            "Let's go," he says softly, chivvying the other man up onto his feet. Tries not to reach out to steady him. Super soldiers or no, they're both exhausted, both swaying on their feet. Heavy bags under their eyes. They can't continue on like this for much longer. But he can't bring Bucky to anyone like this, the risk to their lives is too great. Not to mention they haven't killed everyone on their tail yet. Soon. Steve's pretty sure this is the last few. The first time they fought Hydra, Bucky froze. He got shot. A flesh wound, and one he dug out of his own skin without the bat of an eye. That made Steve throw up, too. Not that he's eaten much. Not that either of them have eaten much. There's been some grass, some other edible flora, but not food the way most modern people would think of it. It's enough to keep them alive. Iodine in water. Steve hasn't felt warm in weeks.

            Setting off into the undergrowth they keep a forced march forward, back to civilization. He watches the way the man next to him moves, at once so like Bucky and so terrifyingly different. Steve finds himself wanting to reach out and pull Bucky out of this shell, bring him to the forefront.  Nothing works.

             Until finally they're ambushed, more men than Steve expected. And that's the first time he feels Bucky at his back in over seventy years. They fight them off. It's brutal, it's short, and Steve feels sick again. It's not that he's balked against taking lives, especially not the lives of Hydra operatives. It's how swiftly Bucky does it. A punch to the throat, jabs to the eyes, he has no compulsion against ripping a man's ear off while snapping the neck of another simply by striking hard enough with that metal arm. The kills aren't necessarily slow, but they're not clean, either. His companion is splattered with blood and gore by the time they finish, and Steve wonders if he looks that bad, too.

            They hike up through the river for a ways, and Steve hopes that if they have any cuts, nothing gets infected. He's too tired to check himself over, and Bucky won't let him near enough to be looked over in turn. They do run across a great many creatures and things that forcibly remind Steve of leeches. He sincerely hopes they don't run into leeches. They'd probably somehow enhance the stupid things and create a new race of serum-enhanced blood sucking fiends. Not to mention he just hates leeches. They abandon the water once they're both sure no one's following anymore.

            When Steve had wanted to burn the bodies, or bury them, Bucky had just said "Leave them as a reminder of what they're dealing with," in a heavy Russian accent that didn't belong to him. It wasn't the soft Brooklyn accent Steve had grown up hearing, the accent he still heard in his dreams. 'Let's hear it for Captain America.'

            When they got back to the outskirts of the city, it was like Bucky was starting to come back to him. Some outbursts in Russian, still some nighttime attacks, but nothing like when they first started. The final attack finds them fighting back to back, and the bodies they leave in their wake is disturbing to Steve. But he can't find it in himself to care. These people hurt millions. These people wanted to kill anyone who might stand against them. These people hurt Bucky. There is no regret when he snaps a neck, no regret when he puts a bullet between goggled eyes. The only regret he has is that he can't kill them all.

            Stumbling, exhausted, half crazed with hunger and thirst, they find their way to Tony Stark's mansion. Or one of them. No idea if they can even get inside without getting vaporized, Steve knocks on the door first. It's almost a joke to him. Knocking. Especially when he has every single intention of just breaking the doorknob off and breaking inside. He can explain later. They need shelter, they need to be cleaned up, patched up, and they need to eat. He has no idea if Tony would leave food in mansions he's not living in, or which ones he does frequent, or anything else. Just that he has a few addresses from the Avengers Initiative and this one was closest.

            When someone opens the door, Steve pulls a knife in shock, Bucky raises his arms wearily to fight yet again. And then his befuddled brain realizes it's Tony. It's Tony Stark. Of all the chances he had to wind up at one of Tony's houses, he found the one with Tony in it.

            "Oh good, you're home," Steve mumbles wearily, rubbing at his hair, wincing when dirt and blood flake off and float in the wind.

            "What happened to you? Get hit by a mack truck? And whose your dance partner there?" Tony asks, ushering them inside before the neighbors notice. Bunch of rich assholes, if you ask him. Nosey rich assholes. When he sees the arm his eyes widen. "You brought the Winter Soldier here, with you? What did he just agree to come quietly? How the hell did you bring that about?"

            "It's Bucky. Tony, he's Bucky. He's not... he's not the Winter Soldier. I mean he is, but..." he's just so tired. "Can I explain later? Please? We just...we just need a bath, something to eat, and a few hours sleep and we'll be gone."

            "You'll do no such thing. Well, you'll do all those things except the gone part. You can stay for a while. You both look like shit. And I've got plenty of food and a couple of bathrooms, so you can have your pick. And a lot of spare rooms, so again. No reason you can't stay until you're not half dead on your feet."

            When Steve motions Bucky inside with him, he ignores the angry words in Russian that he can't understand, and tries not to cry in relief. "Thanks," he says softly. "I have no idea when the last time we ate was, you got water?"

            "What kind of water?"

            "Oh my god Tony, the kind you can put in a glass and drink."

            Thankfully Pepper was on the couch working from home, and she saves the situation. Getting up she just turns the tap on, filling two glasses and handing them over to Steve. She stares at the man with the metal arm, looking over how much blood and dirt cover him. The hollowness to his cheeks, the deadness of his eyes. She has a feeling that if he shaves the beard away, he'll look even thinner. More emaciated and hollow. Watching Steve try to hand him the glass, he shakes his head and mutters something about poison. She sees the blonde sag, taking a sip of the water and passing it over.

            "No poison Buck, no one here's gonna hurt you." He drains his own glass and goes to the sink to refill it, leaving little dust motes of filth behind with every step.

            "Dear god Steve, the hell did you two do? Have mud wrestling contests before swinging by?"

            "Something like that," he mutters. Bucky is just holding his glass, looking at it like he wants it but is waiting for something. "For that to do you some good you actually have to ingest it," Steve says, his voice is just a hair away from being annoyed. He's clearly at the end of his rope. The other man drains the glass the moment 'permission' is given, and then goes back into a holding pattern. Waiting. "You want more?" there's no response. "Bring me the glass, I'll refill it," Steve says helplessly. He's so sick of giving orders. Especially to the one man who usually ignored them.  He does this about four times before wondering if he's going to make the other man vomit. Although he's managed to drain about five glasses, so hopefully Bucky will be fine.

            Setting his glass on the countertop, he realizes his hands are shaking. Probably a combination of blood loss, exhaustion, stress, and now relief. It's okay to be shaky and tired now. They're safe. The man he's brought with him is so still, so empty it's painful. His eyes look bruised he's so tired, but he hasn't voiced a single complaint. Outside of Steve removing his arsenal, of course.

            "If you want," Pepper says quietly, just to break the silence, "I can trim up your hair," she tells Bucky. "After a nice shower and some food. Or whatever you want." She hasn't seen him touch it, but she has seen him do this minute headshake whenever it lands across his field of vision. And the ends are badly tattered as if he's ripped at it. Sees him look at her and really notice her for the first time. She feels naked as he looks her up and down, even though there's nothing sexual in the glance. He's just cataloguing her. As if she's not even human. He glances at Steve, unsure of how to respond.

            "I'm sure he'd appreciate it," Steve tells her quietly with a helpless shrug. "So, Tony, how about that shower?" he asks.

 

Chapter Text

Chap 1

            "Down the hall, to the right, the bedroom is right across from it. In fact there are two, so if you don't want to share, you don't have to," Tony says, voice heavily implying that there's no way the two bedraggled men won't be sharing the room. Mostly because he doesn't want the Winter Soldier going off and killing people before Steve can do anything about it. "I'll get some clothes for you guys, I know you're taller, but you'll just have to make do."

            "Thanks Tony, thanks Pepper," Steve says gratefully.

            "Did you want something to eat?" Pepper asks, not too sure if they'd rather eat and then shower, or shower and then eat.

            "Honestly, I don't think I have the energy to chew," Steve admits, glancing at Bucky. It's like looking at a wall. There's no sign he's heard Pepper's offer, no sign he's interested in eating. Did Hydra even feed him or did they just inject him with things? Shuddering at the thought of feeding tubes and needles, "We're too filthy to stand around on your clean floor like this anyway."

            "Tony go get them something to change into," Pepper reminds him, shooing him off. Glancing up from Bucky's left arm, Tony blinks a few times before nodding and hurrying down the hallway. "You can use whatever you want, there's towels in there already, clean. We don't use that bathroom," she tells Steve, trying to include Bucky with her body language, but he's ignoring her completely. Seems more interested in making sure there's no one else in the room. Feeling anxious, she hopes that a shower will settle them both down. And maybe some sleep. "There's sheets on the bed, already, too, so if you're tired you can sleep right after," she adds. She's never seen Steve up close before, but he looks terrible. His hair isn't really blonde anymore, and his eyes seem almost sunken they're so dark. Sleep deprivation is taking its toll. He looks like he's lost weight, too. They both do. He still seems so determined.

            "C'mon Bucky," he says softly, making a careful gesture with this hand. Barnes tenses, expecting an attack, arms raising up slightly. "No, I'm not...I'm not going to hurt you, I just want you to walk with me."

            It takes Steve the better part of half an hour to convince Bucky to even come into the bathroom, forget the removal of any of his clothes for washing. He’s promised a thousand times they’re only going to wash them, and that in the meantime Tony is pulling out some sweatpants for them, and a few sweatshirts and t-shirts. They’ll have something warm and soft after. Why is it so horrible to take a shower? And then he realizes he really doesn’t want to know why Bucky is afraid of showers and bathtubs, and what sort of horrible things have happened to him involving water. If it’s even about the water, and not the whiteness of the room.

            "C'mon Bucky," Steve coaxes. He can see the metal hand isn't working too well, he's struggling with removing his clothing. Unsure if he should help or not, or if Bucky's going to refuse contact still, he moves forward to work some of the zippers and buckles open. It pains him how tense the other man gets, how warily those blue eyes watch him. He has no idea who this man is, or what he's been through, or even how to help him. What good is being Captain America if he fails to save his best friend? Twice. If he fails twice.

            Getting Bucky out of all of his clothes wasn't easy. The ratty hoodie he'd been wearing over his armor, the boots, all of it had to go. It smells terrible, not that Steve's a spring daisy, himself. Either way he didn't notice how bad they both smelled until they were suddenly somewhere where it smelled clean. The clothes land in a puff of dust and dirt making Steve wince. They both smell like swamp. Stripping out of most of his own clothes he tries to pile them as neatly as possible. There's no point in wearing them again. Even if he did tell Bucky they'd get their clothes back, he plans to tell Tony to burn them.

            "Can you step into the tub, I'll be right behind you," Steve promises, watching as Bucky glances at it dispassionately before glaring at Steve and taking a step in, and then another. "You can sit, if you want," he can see how badly the other man is trembling. The way the muscles delineate and soften. "Oh Bucky," he whispers. Sighs in relief when Bucky huddles down in the tub, looking like an animal at bay. He fidgets with the faucet, causing the other man to flinch and almost exit the tub when the water starts to come out. It is loud, Steve figures. He can see the water starting to reach Bucky's huddled body and sincerely hopes it warms up soon. He probably should have waited to get the other man into the tub. Stepping in so that if the water is cold, Bucky won't be suffering it alone, he watches dirty water swirl around his toes. Wrinkling his nose in disgust, he wonders how they could stand being so filthy for so long.     

            Things seem even worse by the time Steve has figured out how to get the water to a pleasant temperature when he realizes the damn shower head is more complicated than any shower head has a right to be. And then, there’s all the shampoos and conditioners that Tony has stocked. Not only is there enough shampoo for a small army, but none of it is marked in ways that make any sort of sense to Steve, who buys the cheapest stuff he can find at the grocery store (probably Suave for men). And to be honest, half the reason there’re so many shampoos is every time Pepper finds a new brand she likes, Tony has to buy a duplicate for each house so that if any hell breaks loose, she won’t have to go without her “prissy hair products” as he calls them.

            And Steve starts to feel like he’s going to have a panic attack, because he’s not sure how much longer he can keep Bucky in the tub with him, much less how the other man is going to feel about the shampoo.

            Pulling down the showerhead attachment and handing it to Bucky so he can keep himself warm and hopefully start soaking some of the dirt off, Steve starts frantically opening bottles and thrusting them at Bucky “does this one smell okay?” only to get the same empty blue stare for each one. After the initial flinch, of course. Which leads to an apology over each bottle, and Steve thinking he’s going to die of embarrassment. He wasn’t lying about showering being nice and easy. He'd told him it would be pleasant, that he'd feel better after.

            Just.

            With Tony nothing is nice and easy.

            And so Steve just picks one, one that smells nice, but not too flowery, because he doesn’t want to make Bucky embarrassed if anyone notices later. Although if anyone is sniffing his hair, they’re too close. "Here," he says gently, taking the showerhead and soaking Bucky's hair, working his fingers through the dense clumps trying to loosen them up. The water runs brown. When he thinks it'll be possible to actually wash Bucky's hair, he hands the showerhead back.

            He lathers up his hands and squats down in the shower, trying not to feel too self conscious that he left his boxers on for both their sakes. Even though before, it never would have occurred to him. They've seen each other naked so many times. But now with Bucky so strange, it seems almost invasive. And when he holds his soapy hands out for Bucky to inspect first, he mumbles ‘it’s just soap, Buck’ wishing he could tease him. ‘I know you’ve spent most of your natural life avoiding it and all, but…’ The words don’t come. And he’s not sure they ever will again.

            And then he sets his hands on Bucky’s head, and he can FEEL the tension vibrating through the other man. The distrust. Yes, he is capable of squashing Bucky’s head like a melon.

            Physically.

            But. He never could. Any more than Nat could kill Clint.

            Working his fingertips into Bucky’s hair, he watches the lather go from white to brown with streaks of pink. And it just breaks his heart. He’d thought with just plain water he’d gotten most of the blood out. And so he tries to be more careful, and feels around for cuts or abrasions, but he’s not finding any. Just how old is the blood, he wonders. How old is the dirt? When was the last time Bucky Barnes was given the courtesy of a warm bath? And Steve just isn’t sure how many more horrible discoveries he can make in a day.

            He's just trying to stay thankful that Bucky is allowing him to make contact. Touch him, help him. While he's still flinching a lot and incredibly tense, he's not pulling away or striking at Steve's hands anymore. He's probably too tired. They're both too exhausted to keep playing games.

            He re-soaps his hands and starts again, watching as white turns to grey with red streaks. "Man you're covered in blood," he mumbles. From the brutality of their encounters with Hydra, Steve's not convinced that very much of the blood is Bucky's. "Let me know if I pull your hair," he adds. Bucky's eyelids are drooping, and Steve's not sure if he's enjoying the process or just that exhausted. At least he's no longer glaring. Rinsing out Bucky's hair again, he takes a breath. And starts again.

            But eventually, he gets all the muck out, and the lather foams white and the water rinses clear. If only it were that easy.

            Rinse lather, repeat.

            "Hey, Buck, do you want some conditioner?" Steve asks, steadying himself on Bucky's arm. He looks down as he settles himself on the lip of the tub, and sees what appears to be a dirt outline of Bucky's body on the bottom of the tub. "You're filthy," he mutters quietly to himself. "We're filthy," he corrects, noting the footprints he's leaving on the bottom of the tub.

            Lathering Bucky's hair up with some conditioner so it'd be easier to brush out and cut, and figures it can sit while he cleans him the rest of the way up. Stepping out of the tub, he winces when his feet leave a dirt imprint on Tony's pristine bathmat. Searching cabinets and drawers, he finally finds a washcloth, and turns to find Bucky shaking in the tub, looking like he's ready to use the shower head as a weapon.

            "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he says hastily. "I just I just needed a washcloth." He holds out the little square of terry cloth beseechingly. "Didn't ...didn't you get baths or showers or anything?"

            Bucky shakes his head in a quick jerking 'no' that makes Steve all but gag. Stepping back into the tub with the other man, he sighs and hunkers down, looking through the mess of body washes and selecting the first one that says anything approaching 'gentle' on the label. Squirting some out, he sees Bucky flinch again, teeth bared against invisible pain.

            "Here, let me see that," he mumbles, taking the shower head and soaking his arm and torso before rubbing a little of the soap on himself, first. "Just soap Buck, just soap. Shouldn't hurt. Not even with all the scratches you have," he says, forcing a smile. It hurts his face.

            Handing the shower head back he takes Bucky's calloused hand in his own and starts to gently work the washcloth over and between his fingers and up to his palm, the back of his hand, his wrist, watching the pristine foam darken with filth. He finds himself looking for the bullet wounds, trying to assess the damage. Regretting not asking for a first aid kit when some of the wounds start to bleed again now that they're no longer packed closed with dirt, he sighs.

            "Y'know, we haven't been in a tub together, in what? almost a hundred years?" he jokes pitifully, working his way up to Bucky's wrist, the muscles of his forearm, his elbow, "So, do I need like some WD40 and a buffing cloth for the other one?" he asks. No response. Of course not. Not a single intelligible word since he caught up with him, months after they fought. Just, ran into each other, fighting. Came straight to Tony. Who set them up here. The washcloth is up to his shoulder now, and Steve's fingertips are slick and black with muddied water. "Hey, rinse your arm off for me, okay?" he asks, wringing out the washcloth as best he can without tearing it.        Rinsing out the washcloth proves frustrating. He can't seem to get all the dirt out. Steve gives up, just adding more soap and continuing his way to Bucky's neck, "Close your eyes."

            Those blue eyes just stare.

            "Please."

            And shut.

            "Thank you," he says, hand hovering over that so-familiar forehead. Taking a deep breath, he gently begins to dab at Bucky's face, "I don't want to get soap in your eyes," he explains, using his fingertips to wipe away a small trail of soap headed too close to those oh-so fragile eyelids. Bruised and blackened. Not anymore. Not after this. Never again, not if he had any say in the matter. Watching the crow's feet lighten around his friend's eyes, watching the frown lines that seemed etched so deep and grim fade. Not completely away, no amount of soap could ever do that. A tracery of scars that appear in their place makes Steve sick to his very soul.

            Gently, gently wiping away the dirt, the blood, he wishes he could wipe away the pain. "I'm going to rinse your face, okay?" he says, wrapping his fingers around Bucky's, and gently directing the spray from his hairline down to his neck, he can't stop from swallowing convulsively. "Y'know, our moms would just toss us in the tub together, it was just easier. And then... then my mom got sick. But I spent so many nights on your floor it didn't matter anyway, I still had somewhere to go, even though I had nothing left. I still had someone. I know, I know you don't remember, and I know you can't just make it happen, I promise. But I want you to know I've got your back." No answer.

            He finds the washcloth moving over Bucky's throat, and bites his lip, because Bucky has gone rigid, he's not holding the showerhead loosely anymore, he's holding it like a club and he's shaking. Those eyes are staring at him, narrowed in hatred and confusion, and Steve moves the cloth to the back of Bucky's neck. "You're filthy. I just want you to know that," he says, ignoring the tremor in his own voice. Goes to Bucky's back, awkwardly stepping around him in the tub, and starts with the tops of his shoulders, and lets the tears roll over his cheeks at every new scar he finds. No one's there who can see them anyway.

            "What did they do to you?" he whispers, before realizing he's said it out loud, and bites his lip hard enough to draw blood. There are so many scars. Some from battle, he's sure, but not all of them can be.

            "What did they do to you?" Bucky asks, barely breathing it. "I thought you were shorter."

            Biting down a sob, Steve's face contorts into a pained grimace, "I thought you were dead," he rejoins. "I was shorter," he adds, not sure if it's a complete memory, or something from the dossier from when he was The Winter Soldier's mission. "I wanted to join the army, my father had, and my mother was a nurse, and your father was in, and so, when you joined up, I had to follow. You didn't want me to, you were always pulling me out of scrapes, fights I got into because I couldn't back down from bullies. I don't like bullies," he adds quietly. "Never did."

            The washcloth continues to move downwards towards the dimples framing the end of Bucky's spine. In all their time together, this is uncharted territory, and Steve stops to rinse out the washcloth and move back in front of Bucky. "And, so, I kept trying to enlist," he resumes the story, "gimme a foot," he mumbles, while adding fresh soap to the battered little cloth. "You told me to stop, told me there were ways to help at home, without being on the frontlines. But I couldn't just give up. I was never much for quitting. And so, a doctor overheard us talking, overheard me telling you I needed to be out there, and I'd meet you for dancing later."

            "You're bleeding," Bucky says quietly, arm reaching out to touch Steve's chin, and then lip.

            "Oh, I am?" he asks, profoundly startled. Words. Voluntary words. Smudging his chin with his hand, he looks at the result across the back of his hand, "I guess I am. It'll stop. Always does." Another weak smile that stretches the split in his lip. He's stopped washing somewhere in the vicinity of Bucky's knee. His hands don't belong any higher. "Other leg." The thread of the story is gone.

            Bucky leans forward to touch his lip, one cold metal fingertip resting against the split, and, it's almost soothing. Resisting the urge to flinch, Steve just waits, hoping against hope that Bucky will say something, or explain himself. Or make an effort to clean himself up. Before all this, he wouldn't have felt any hesitation of places it was alright to touch James Bucky Barnes, but. But now part of him is the Winter Soldier, and now he's not sure what will trigger him.

            "Does it hurt?" he asks quietly, and Steve glances down at his finger, unsure if he should speak. Bucky pulls it back as though burned.

"Not anymore," he says softly. "Here," he says, holding out the washcloth in trade for the shower head, "Finish up."

            Awkwardly scrubbing at his chest, and then stomach, Bucky asks "What happens next?"

            "To me?" Steve asks hesitantly, blinking water out of his eyes. A question. An actual question. One not accompanied by swearwords, not accompanied by looks of hate. He freezes, halfway done with rinsing himself off. Boxers and all. "I was chosen. The doc, he uh, he saw something good in me even though I was small. And so I started training with the Army. And I passed some tests, not physical ones, mind, just. Tests." Rubbing at his face with his hand, the bleeding has stopped, "And so they said I qualified for a procedure, I was supposed to be the first of many, I think. But it didn't work out like that. We lost how to do it when the doc was murdered, and I caught...I caught his killer," unwilling to use any words like HYDRA or Hitler, or Nazi... or anything that might make him lose Bucky again, "And then they made me part of a propaganda circus. I felt like a monkey riding a bicycle," he admits. Peggy had understood. "And then..." And then you were captured the first time. And I almost lost you. I thought you were dead. I didn't know. I didn't know I would be wrong twice. Lost in thought, he startles badly when Tony knocks on the door with clean clothes, tripping on Bucky who simultaneously tries to rise at the noise.

            "Hey you guys almost done in there?" he asks, muttering something that almost sounds obscene through the door, but Steve isn't sure he heard it all. "I've got clean clothes right here, ready to go," he adds.

            Steve teeters a few more seconds before regaining his balance only to lose it when Bucky slips and loses his, sending them both crashing into the lip of the tub with a bang. It couldn't have happened better if planned, Steve figures, as Tony bursts in the door eyes wide, looking for attackers. 

            Rolling his eyes once he understands the situation, he decides to ignore how red Steve turns, and his muted "it's not what it looks like" as he sets the clothes down on the toilet seat lid, and exits, the door shutting with a sharp click. "There was a lot of soap in the tub, anyone would have tripped!" he calls, shutting his eyes in humiliation. "Great, this is great," he mutters, standing up and going over to the clothes. "You can turn the water off, if you're done, Buck, promise." He's pretty sure he's managed to get himself cleaned up, as well. He hadn't realized his own hair was just as bad as Bucky's. Just thinking about it makes him feel nauseous.

            "I'm still dirty," he says quietly, and Steve turns back to look. Notices how badly the other man's hands shake, the silent tears, and steps back over, turning the water off.

            "I don't know about that," he says gently, trying to keep his eyes on the other man's face. Not on all the scars, not on the place where his body turned into metal. Not on the ragged hair they'd need to cut off, not on the starkness of his eyes, or the gauntness of his cheekbones. "You look clean to me." Gently taking the showerhead from unresisting fingers, he fits it back up where it belongs, surveying the tub. "Looks like we did leave a big mess though," he admits, running a hand through damp hair. "Let's just get you dried off and dressed, okay?" he asks, grabbing the smaller towel first and using it to get the worst of the water out of Bucky's hair before leaving it around his shoulders, and taking up the larger one to dry his friend's back before handing it to him. Bucky drops the towel twice before he's able to hold onto it, and dry off while Steve does the same and changes into clean clothes. It feels so much better.

             Seeing that Bucky's still struggling, Steve picks up his towel and wraps it around Bucky's middle, using the motion to bring them in close. Feeling Bucky tense, he almost regrets his decision, and then decides to go for it, hugging the other man for the first time since the first rescue. "It's gonna be okay, Buck, I promise. It gets easier. Less confusing. Change into some clean clothes, okay?" he whispers in his ear, "It feels good, honest." He tries to ignore how tense Bucky gets, tries to pretend it doesn't hurt that this man doesn't know him. Doesn't trust him to hug him. It was never a problem before. It was part of a ritual. Bucky's arm over his shoulders after another run in with bullies. Bucky's arms around him right before he did something stupid, telling him to be careful. It shouldn't be like this.

            Why would anyone strip away the human comfort of touch? Why make it so uncomfortable for him? Who did it help to make sure Bucky resisted being comforted? Whoever they are, Steve promises himself he will dismember them. They will never do something like this again to another human being.

            Passing the clothes over, he looks away while he hears the sounds of cloth whispering over skin and then metal, and turns back at the first hesitant step forward.

            "Steve?"

            "Yeah?"

            "I'm tired," he whispers.

            "Well, we'll get you into bed, then," he smiles, or tries to. It feels more like a facial tic than an expression.  He changes as quickly as he can, trying to ignore the way Bucky doesn't look away. While there's no expression on the other man's face, no interest, no revulsion, it's so odd being watched.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

            As they both leave, Steve reaches back to hold Bucky's hand and bring him forward, glances around before realizing he doesn't know where to go. Frustrated with himself, he glances around, knowing that his hesitation is going to cost him. Bucky starts to tense back up, and there's nothing Steve can do to stop him. "I just don't remember where the bedroom was, I'm sorry," he says. "After you sleep, if you still want, Pepper said she'd cut your hair," he offers. It's not strictly true, Pepper said after a bath, she would cut his hair. But he highly doubts that she'll really mind letting Bucky sleep first.

            "No, cut it...cut it first," he says, face tight. "I...I want to look like Bucky."

            And that's what does it. Steve can't stop the tears, so he turns his head away. But you are Bucky, he wants to tell him. He's not trying to refit the Winter Soldier into Bucky's image, he's trying to pull Bucky out of the soldier. And he's not sure how. It'll involve therapy, he knows that. But who could he possibly trust with a psyche this fragile, this volatile? No one. Certainly not S.H.I.E.L.D. or what's left of it, anyway.

             Taking a deep breath and wiping his eyes as best he can, he smells coffee. And where there is coffee, there is a kitchen with people in it. His stomach rumbles, and he sighs. Food would be good for both of them. He feels a little better now that he's clean and dressed in something that isn't stiff with filth. Leading Bucky towards the welcoming scent, he finds Tony and Pepper talking quietly in the kitchen, both holding steaming mugs.

            "Oh thank God," Steve mumbles, "Coffee."

            "You're welcome," Tony says with an easy grin.

            "You're not God," Bucky scoffs, and Steve finds himself holding his breath. Even the posture is Bucky, one shoulder raised a little, chin tipped down. It's perfect. Except for the hair, and the bruising, and scarring... and the fact that it all just vanishes a half a second later. He looks vaguely lost again, looking around the room as he assesses it for threats.

            "No, but 'm about as good as it gets around here," Stark replies before Pepper slaps his arm. "Okay, well, I guess Thor is, but. He's not here right now. So the point still stands."

             Reaching out for some coffee, Steve drops Bucky's hand. Picking up two spare mugs, he turns around to hand his friend one before quickly setting them back down. Bucky is staring at a small little black case sitting innocuously on the countertop like it's a bomb about to go off. "Buck, hey, hey Bucky," he says, reaching out again. "It's, there's nothing in there. Look, hey, look at me, two seconds, okay?"

            Ice meets ocean.

            "I'm going to open the case, okay? I won't put my hands in, I'm just gonna unzip it, and dump it out, okay? It's fine. You wanna stand behind the couch for cover, that's up to you, but I promise. Nothing in there is going to hurt you. I won't pick anything up out of it, I won't pick anything up once it falls out, okay?"

            A single tense nod.

            Steve walks over slowly, hands in the air, and glances at Tony, who sighs and raises his hands as well. Pepper's have been up from the moment she realized something was wrong. But then, she's been around Tony for a good chunk of time, and is probably used to things going wrong. Still showing Bucky his empty hands, he reaches slowly forward, and unzips the case, "I'm going to pick it up now, okay?" he says, lifting it from the bottom so there's no way his hands could be inside, and tips it completely upside down. The clatter of hair cutting implements makes Bucky flinch and raise his arm, ready to defend himself, but nothing happens. There is no attack.  "Remember, Pepper said she'd cut your hair?" he prompts.

            "I remember." The tilt of his head is unsure, and his body wavers away from the counter. It's clear he wants to leave, doesn't want the implements anywhere near him. Steve is fairly sure he's had enough things done to him to last a lifetime. But he said he wanted his hair cut.

            "So, Pepper, how do we do this?" Steve asks, holding his hands up again and walking towards Bucky before taking both of his hands, one warm, one cold. It seems to settle the other man down, some of the tenseness fades. Glancing at Bucky's face, he can see how tired he is, how his eyelids keep drooping, and then snapping wide open as he glances fearfully around the room. Leaning in just a bit he can hear the other man's heart hammering. Locked in a constant state of panic and exhaustion.

            "I was thinking we'd just settle him," she glances at Bucky, "Settle you," she corrects, "onto a stool, and I'd trim up the worst of it, and then there's an electric razor in there I could use to get the rest of the sides and back. I've got pictures of how it was before, if that's what you want, or we could search through some styles and see what we can come up with," she finishes succinctly with a shrug.

            "Like it was before. I want to look like Bucky," he tells her.

             Even Tony looks away at that.  "You do look like Bucky," he points out. "I mean, not the hair or anything, but. You look an awful lot like him."

            Steve isn't sure that's actually helpful, but he'll go with what he can get. "Okay, let's get you on that stool."

            Settling the Winter Soldier on a stool with a towel over his shoulders is harder than anyone imagined. He can't seem to get comfortable, or see enough exits at once to stop shifting, and his reaction to Steve's attempt to put a towel near his neck sends him ricocheting away from all of them at inhuman speeds. Steve just starts again from square one, explaining everything each time it all falls apart until finally the man is settled quietly on the stool, watching the glittering metal tools with a look of deep mistrust. Steve squats down in front of him on the stool, holding both his hands. Half to protect Pepper and half to comfort Bucky.

            "You know, you were born a year before I was?" he asks quietly. "A nice mom and dad, not that they managed to make you anything approaching civil. You always were a smartass," he says. Watching Bucky's face as Pepper carefully starts to trim away the hair, watches Bucky swallow hard. "She won't hurt you, she's a civilian. And even if she wasn't, while I'm around, no one's ever going to lay a hand on you if you don't want."

            The hair just floats away, soft and downy onto the floor. Tony's sitting on the couch with his coffee, seemingly entranced. Or completely zoned out, Steve is never quite sure with him. "And so, when I was born, I guess the world just knew I was gonna need looking after, and so we met at school. And of course, I was runty, small, helpless, and you were ... you were normal. No asthma, no chronic illnesses. Nothin'. So, some kid kept messing up my drawing, and I got mad and took a swing. He hit me, one punch, and I was on the ground, no idea how I'd gotten there, and you. You just came over and whaled on him, something about how 'nice boys do not fight' or something, and then the teacher was splitting us up. I said it was all my fault, and so you didn't get into trouble, and we were friends. We even stole your dad's penknife once, and used it to poke a hole in our thumbs, only I was too scared and you had to do it for me, but you were so scared you almost didn't. And we gripped hands and sealed the bond for forever. We vowed to always be friends. Always. 'Til the end of the line." The snipping of the scissors provides a pleasant backdrop to the story.

            While Bucky never manages to entirely stop watching Pepper from the corners of his eyes, never seems to fully relax, he does manage to glance at Steve when he's talking. Keep some of his focus away from the sharp metal near his face and head. He swallows hard when Pepper is trimming away his bangs, and glances back down at Steve's earnest face.

            "After that, I always had a friend. We played ball in the streets, and even when no one wanted to choose me, you always did. You always made sure I was on your team. I wasn't much good for anything, but when I wasn't having an asthma attack I was pretty fast. And I wasn't too dumb, either, so it worked out okay. I ate at your parents' a lot because the food was better, and my mom was busy, so it was just easier. I slept on the floor by the couch, cushions on the floor to stay comfortable. It was just how it was."

            The hands he's holding are shaking, metal and flesh alike.

            "Buck?"

            "Yeah?" he whispers back.

            "Do you remember anything?" Steve can't stop his voice from breaking on 'anything' and he wishes he could have kept the question to himself. And then forces himself deeper, "Anything at all?"

            "Pain. I remember pain. My arm. My chest. Needles. Confusion. You. I knew you." He's holding so still the tear trapped in his eyelashes doesn't so much as wobble as Pepper moves around him, carefully setting the scissors on the table.

            "James," she starts, and frowns, "Bucky? I'm going to use the razor now to finish up the sides, it makes noise, but it's harmless, okay? It might tickle a little, but really. You don't have to be afraid," she tells him gently. She switches it on one, to show him, and switches it off. Sees his eyes, sees the apprehension, and switches it on and moves it over her palm, over the back of her arm, shaving off near-invisible hairs across her forearm. "Just like that." She waits for him to nod, just a little, looks down to see the grip he has on Steve's hands, and smiles encouragingly. "It won't take long, I promise." She gently runs her fingers through his hair, smoothing and straightening out the little flyaways in preparation. He seems soothed by the touch, so she keeps it up for a little while longer, styling his hair with her fingertips before switching the razor back on and carefully trimming up the rest at the back of his neck, and near his ears.

            She's always mindful to touch with her fingers anywhere she plans to let the razor move, so he'll know, stroking the hairline around his ears, she gently folds one slightly away as she trims, before doing the other. "All done," she tells him quietly, dusting loose hair off him with the towel he'd been so afraid of having around his neck. Blowing gently to get the last few hairs off his neck, she catches Steve's face as he stands and takes it all in. The change. And she smiles. It was well worth any threat to her personal being just to see that expression on Steve's careworn face.

            And to think Natasha was always complaining about how he turned down her dating suggestions. She'd been playing matchmaker with the wrong team for a while now. How that woman, with all her training, missed this, blows Pepper's mind. She carefully cleans and puts the implements away, thankful they no longer concern the man in front of her.

            Steve reaches out a hand to gently smooth Bucky's hair back, feeling almost possessive. "Heya Buck," he says so softly he knows no one else can hear him. Hell, he's not even sure Bucky can. He twists to look over Barnes' shoulder, "Pepper. Thank you."

            "Do I look like him now? Do I look how you want?" the Winter Soldier asks anxiously, "Is it right now?"

            In answer, Pepper hands Steve a mirror who holds it out to Bucky, letting him see his own face for the first time in a while. Clean. Still too much beard to look quite normal, but that's enough sharp implements around his head for one day. Tomorrow will be soon enough. Assuming Bucky even wants to shave. "What do you think?" Steve asks him gently, handing the mirror back to Pepper. Sees Bucky scrape a hand across his beard. "Is this right? Did Bucky have this?" he asks.

            "You are... you are Bucky," Steve mumbles. "I mean, you can look however you want. It's fine, if you want to keep the beard, you can. If you don't like it, we'll get rid of it, okay?"

            Nodding in confusion, he looks to Pepper, hand going through his hair. There are no more snags, it's clean and dry. He glances at the coffee mugs Steve had lifted earlier, and cautiously lifts one up and hands it to Steve, not sure if he really wanted the coffee or not. But he is more than capable of knowing his discomfort with the tool case had stopped Steve from drinking the contents of the mug. Or even holding it for very long. It's still warm, it stills smells good, but he doesn't want any. Steve's face when he takes the mug makes Bucky squirm uncomfortably on the stool. He doesn't understand the expression, but he does know whatever it is, he can't live up to it.

            Tony is watching, staring, even, and Steve frowns, fidgeting with the mug, looking between Stark and his friend. It's the arm, he realizes suddenly. It's the arm. He wants to play with it, tinker with it like Bucky is some kind of toy, and he experiences a moment of pure unadulterated rage before reminding himself to be thankful Tony's put them up in a safe house. Trusted Pepper's life, and his own, with a violent, unpredictable, erratic ex-soldier who suffered countless untold years of torment in the Red Room. And then at the hands of HYRDA. The least they could do before leaving is allow Tony a good look at the arm. But not now. No more poking, no more prodding. Not now.

Chapter Text

            Chap 3

            It takes a lot of coaxing before Bucky agrees to sleep on the couch. Steve quickly gives up on the bedroom, seeing as how he's entirely unable to even coax the other man inside of it, much less into the bed.

            "See, it's harmless, you can come in here," Steve begs, watching Bucky stare at him impassively from the doorway. "It's safe in here, honest. No window, no other entrance. And I can make another exit if I need to, you can come in here. It's got pillows, and blankets. A comfortable mattress..." he entreats, pulling a few of the covers back. No answer, no response. Bucky just walks away. Steve bolts from the room, catching up with Bucky back in the living room.

            "How about the couch?" Pepper asks. "I can get some blankets and a pillow." She knows Steve is trying to get Bucky to rest. She knows he needs it. The circles under his eyes speak volumes. Not to mention the tremors in his hand, how with each step she's afraid he's going to collapse. Then something makes him tense and he's alert again, the perfect killing machine. It doesn't take too much more work on her part before Bucky's ensconced on the sofa.

             Steve settles on the armrest, having forced his friend to lie down on the couch with a blanket despite his protests against it, and idly smoothes down his hair. Just touching, trying to be comforting. It takes several promises that he will stay awake and watch all the exits before Bucky lies down.  Eventually his body goes lax and he falls asleep. Breathing a sigh of relief, he continues to smooth Bucky's hair, afraid if he stops, his friend will wake up.

            Tony and Pepper's quiet background conversation from the kitchen makes it easier for Steve to relax. At least until Pepper decides to go to bed, and Tony saunters over to talk.

            "The arm looks damaged," he tells Rogers.

            "Look, Stark, I know we invaded your house, and your privacy, and all that, but he's had enough of people treating him like a lab rat or a toy, and if you think--"

            "I didn't say I wanted to play with it, I told you it looks damaged. And if there's any nerve hook-up it might be causing him discomfort. That's all. Calm down there, soldier."

            Steve tries to remember that he could kill Tony with a backwards flip of his wrist, and finds that oddly enough, it calms him down. "If he wants, and only after he wakes up."

            "Look, Rogers, I might not get a chance to assess it while he's awake. And if something's wrong with it, or it malfunctions, who does that help?"

            "You just think he's a toy," Steve hisses, stopping to look down at Bucky, who doesn't look so peaceful anymore. "He's not a plaything, he's a person. Just because HYDRA forgot that doesn't mean I will, or that I'll let anyone turn him into some kind of experiment ever again, do you understand me?"

            "I don't want to tinker around, I just want to make sure his arm is going to keep working. That's it. I can tell it's damaged from here, I can tell he's favoring it, and I'm not sure what'll happen if the damn thing stops up on him. What if you two need to run, and he's down the only weapon he has?"

            "He'll have me."

            Their heads both snap around as Natasha opens the front door, lock picks in hand, and waltzes into the room. "Hear you got your friend back," she announces, before picking up the tension in the room. "Why aren't you breaking out the champagne?" she asks, even though it's obviously a filler question. She walks into the room, startled when Steve suddenly lands on the floor, eyes round in surprise as the Winter Soldier hurtles towards her full throttle.

            "Bucky, no!" Steve leaps for him, catching him around the ankles and they both go crashing to the ground. Natasha is already behind the kitchen counter, searching drawers for knives by the time she hears the all clear. Heart racing she emerges to see Steve holding Bucky in a bear hug, whispering frantically into his ear.

            "Aw, look, matching pjs," she coos, trying to recover some of her aplomb. "You guys look like you're gonna start a boy band or something," she adds. Grey sweatpants, white t-shirts, and near identical expressions of struggle and confusion. She watches carefully as Steve releases Bucky, who lunges for her again, and she finds herself regretting coming out from behind the counter again.

            "<I'm not going back! I'm not going back with them!>" he shouts at her, hands balled into fists, one arm cocked back to strike her as she finds herself hoping she's just fast enough to get out of the way. Rolling between his legs and coming up behind Steve, she breathes a sigh of relief as one super soldier corrals another.

            "<We're not in Russia anymore. I work with Captain America, with Steve. I'm not taking you anywhere,>" she responds. Switching into English, she smiles as winningly as she can, "I've been helping Steve look for you. To help you. Not to take you anywhere."

            "Buck, stop, please."

            "But I knew her," he insists. "I know her." He looks so sick, so haunted. "<I trained you, didn't I?>"

            "Yes, you trained me." She watches his eyes dart to Steve and back to her. "You can trust him, y'know. With your life. I'm not going to keep secrets from him." Not anymore, is heavily implied. "But that's over now. No more KGB, no more HYDRA. We're out. We made it out alive. And mostly in one piece," she shrugs. "And it's getting easier every day." The smile is genuine.

            "I tried to kill you."

            "No, you wanted to kill my engineer and you did," she tells him. No regret or anger. Just fact. "But that wasn't you. Not really. It was your body, but. Trust me, I have some experience with brainwashing, and people who were brainwashed, and Barnes, I promise you, it wasn't you."

            He nods weakly, and shakily makes his way back to the couch, looking beseechingly at Steve. Who of course obliges him by returning to the arm rest and resuming the gentle hair stroking from before. He seems so lost as he looks around the room again before curling into a ball. He doesn't even allow himself the space to stretch out. It's as if he's afraid to take up space, afraid to exist. Half wishing Bucky was comfortable enough to just stretch out, Steve breathes in a deep sigh.

            "Looks like that wore him out," Tony comments drily. "On that note, I'm going to bed. You ever decide you'd like to spare him some pain, I'll be happy to take a look at the arm." Glancing at Natasha, he wiggles his eyebrows, "A place you are always welcome, my dear."

            She wrinkles her nose in response, and comes over to sit on the loveseat adjacent to the couch. "So how are you holding up?"

            "He's doing better, it was touch and go there, and I wasn't expecting him to attack you-"

            "Steve, I asked how you're doing. I can see how he's doing."

            "I'm..." he sighs, running his free hand through his hair, leaving it sticking up in tufts. "I'm better, now." Which is true, he's surprised to find. He has Bucky back, and while he's come to a very startling poorly timed revelation, things can only go up from here. "He got his hair cut and didn't try to stab anyone, not even once."

            "So when do you sleep?" she asks quietly.

            "I don't need a lot of sleep, Nat, you know that. I'll be fine."

            "You don't look fine, Rogers. You look like you need sleep."

            "I told him I'd keep watch."

            "You can't stay up forever. Who's gonna watch him when you finally have to sleep?"

            "I'm hoping no one will have to. Why is everyone determined to act like he's a bomb about to go off?"

            "Because he is, and you're too blinded by affection to see it. I get it. I get that you knew this guy, that you knew a Sergeant James Barnes, but the sooner you accept that what you've got on that couch right there isn't the same man, and never will be, the sooner the rest of us can relax."

            "I'm not going to hurt him Nat. And I'm not going to let anyone else, either."

            "I'm not telling you to hurt him, don't put words in my mouth. I'm just saying that you should consider the sum of the parts. Don't miss the forest and all that. And don't waste your time trying to push him back into a mold he grew out of. It's not fair to either one of you. No one expects you to be pre-serum Steve Rogers, don't expect him to be pre-Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes."

            "I'm not, and I won't. I just...I need him to remember. He doesn't have to be the same, or think the same, I just need him to remember. The rest will follow. But we're both too different to ever go back to our Howling Commando days, forget before that."  He shakes his head. "After Bucky was captured, and tortured...things weren't the same. I mean, he was still Bucky, but. Things changed, and we were still friends. Together to the end of the line. Only, I thought that day came. And then it didn't. It just came for him. Only, I guess, it didn't, and we're both here," and he licks his lips to continue, but then the screaming starts. And Steve is doing everything his power to wake the other man up without hurting either one of them. Crying out his name, trying to ignore when the screaming actually forms coherent sentences.

            "I won't do it! <Stop, please stop!> I'll do what you want, just <stop!> My name is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes! <I have no name, I am no one!> Please, please don't, I don't want -"

            "Sergeant Barnes wake up!" Tony roars, running into the room, "On your feet soldier!" He glances at Steve and in a much quieter voice "Don't let him wreck my couch, that's my second favorite couch!"

            While Bucky does wake up to Tony's shouts, and he does rise to his feet, it doesn't stop the panicked heaving of his chest, or the weird whining sound that accompanies his breathing. His pupils are blown, and there's spittle leaking down his chin mixing with the tears that have rolled over his cheeks. Shaking violently, when Steve steps towards him, he holds up both arms in a warding motion. He can barely stand the way everyone in the room is looking at him with a mixture of apprehension and what he misreads as pity.

            He wishes everyone would stop looking at him. Especially if they aren't going to tell him what to do.

            Unable to stand back, Steve steps forward, "It's me, it's me and I'm here. It's over. It's over, and one day, you'll even be able to believe that." Holding his arms out, he shuts his eyes against Bucky's involuntary flinch. Did no one touch him with kindness? What happened that every motion results in fear? Wrapping his arms around Bucky's shoulders gently, so he won't feel trapped, Steve breathes in slowly, evenly, and deeply. "Just breathe with me, okay? Like we used to after I had an asthma attack. Just slow and easy."

            Once Bucky's breathing is starting to match his, and the trembling lessens, he starts to talk, slow, quiet, steady. "I used to have asthma, before. And there wasn't really medicine for it like there is now. And after, after an attack, you'd keep me upright, so I didn't look so helpless. If we were inside, you'd have your arms around me, your chest to my back, and you'd just keep telling me to breathe. 'Breathe Steve, in and out, you can do this, it's over.' And you'd just keep saying that until I believed you." I hope one day you'll believe me.

             He can all but hear Bucky's pulse slow, see his pupils return to normal, and he gently steps back, going into the kitchen for a towel. He rinses it slowly in cool water and returns, showing his hands the whole time. "Let me see your face," he says gently, having to hold his breath while he gently cups one cheek and softly daubes away sweat and tears and spit. He carefully works the towel around to the back of Bucky's neck, cool and soft against his skin. "That's better, right? That's better." He smooths Bucky's hair off his forehead, gently keeping the cloth pressed against the back of his neck. Bucky's so pale, and while he's calmer, he's shaking like a leaf.

            "I remember."

Chapter Text

Chap 4

            The room seems to freeze, everyone holding their breath. "Remember what, Buck?" Steve prods gently.

            "You had trouble breathing," he says absently, looking around the room. His stomach makes an odd sound, and he hunches forward, arms around it.

            "Did you poison me?" he asks, eyes wide in confusion.

            "Poison you?" Steve cocks his head, so confused it's almost comical. "When?"

            Natasha grimaces. "You're hungry," she informs him. "None of those pills they fed us to act like food, no IV drips between mind wipes. You just need food." Glancing around, her eyes settle on Tony, "You got any soup? You'll have to water it down, believe me." Then she turns back, "Do... do you know if they had you on anything else, do you remember? Because... withdrawal is a bitch." She ignores Tony calling for Pepper's help with soup, because how the hell does he know where the soup would be? he only makes coffee, and tells them "We need Banner."

            "See if maybe Clint or Sam can bring him in," Steve tells her, dismissing it. Bucky doesn't need more doctors. He needs to be left alone to heal. A few square meals, some actual sleep, and some security.

            "Steve, we need Banner," she says slowly. "He needs Banner. We need blood work done, tests," she tries to ignore the battered soldier slowly sinking into himself behind Captain America. "We need someone gentle, and quiet who genuinely cares about people who has the ability to treat people, not machines."

            Pepper is busy putting her hair up into a messy bun gesticulating irritably as Tony walks behind her like an angry hen. Pulling out a can that she shoves into his chest, startling Bucky slightly.  He hadn't expected her to be capable of violence. "Microwave your own damn soup! I cannot believe you woke me up for this!" She adds much quieter and Steve barely hears it "Especially after the screaming, I just got back to sleep. Unlike you I have a company to run and you have to stop being so selfish--"

            "It's for him."

            "What?"

            "It's for Barnes, not me," he interrupts quietly. Pepper deflates, rolls her eyes, and pops the top off the can. She expertly pours it into a bowl without spilling a drop, slides it into the microwave, complete with wax paper on top, sets the time, and pulls out a spoon.         

            "You could have done this without me," she accuses.

            Natasha joins them quietly, "Get out a mug, too, forget the spoon," she says softly. "We'll water it down, and it'll be easier for him to hold in a mug," she looks at Tony meaningfully, "I think he damaged his arm, it's probably not fair to ask him to hold a bowl of soup and eat it, too."

            "I have been telling Captain Tightpants over there that he should pull the stick out of his ass and let me look at the arm, I have been telling him since he got here," he hisses back at her. "You think I'm not going to notice broken tech in my house? JARVIS would I ever ignore broken tech in my house?"

            "Except for Dummy, sir?"

            "Except for Dummy."

            "No sir."

            "Thank you JARVIS." The microwave beeps, and Bucky takes another step back from the kitchen, into the darkest part of the living room. Each sound, each thing pulled out of the cupboards startles him. Steve glances over and wonders what he'll do when he backs himself into the corner and sighs. It's unsettling how easily he seeks out dark spaces to hide in. How uncomfortable he is being seen.

            "It's just a microwave," Tony tells him, trying not to sound irritable. While he understands PTSD, and while he understands that the poor man is a few fries short of a happy meal, it's wearing thin to walk on eggshells all the time like this. A few sedatives might go a long way.  He ignores the women moving around him in tandem, Pepper checking the temperature of the soup as Natasha adds water to a mug, and they drain out a half a mug full of soup to go with the water, carefully straining out the chunks, or as Tony calls them 'the good bits.' "Why are we making his food inedible?"

            "We are making his food stomachable," Natasha says, while Pepper repeats 'stomachable' in the background like it's a word she can physically chew. "We're not even sure he'll keep this down," she points out, before picking up the mug and transferring it to Steve's slack fingers. "Go'n," she tells him, flapping her hand in a shooing motion.

            "Hey Buck, you wanna sit?" Steve asks companionably, plunking himself down on the edge of the foot rest. "You don't have to stay sitting, or sleep or anything, but, if you drink this," he takes a sip first to show it's not poisoned, "The stomach pain should stop. Okay?"

            "Unless it's something else," Tony adds helpfully, earning him a glare from every person in the room.

            "I swear to god, Tony, one of these days you are just going to have to learn some tact," Pepper hisses. There's an edge of affection to her voice, but she's still obviously annoyed.

            Holding perfectly still as Bucky moves towards him, Tony will never be able to get the image out of his head that Bucky is a deer that Steve is coaxing to eat from his hand like in some stupid disney movie. To be honest, Steve looks like a Disney prince. As the ex-assassin, well hopefully ex, moves towards him, Rogers is barely breathing, he's not even looking at Bucky really. Just glancing sidelong at him like a dog facing down a wolf. Snatching the mug away, Bucky steps quickly back, putting a chair between them. Sniffing it, his nose wrinkles slightly.

            "What is this?"

            "Chicken noodle soup Buck, I know it's not homemade, but people don't really cook anymore. But it's Campbell's, you know Campbell's soup." It'd been around since the late 1800's. Showed up in the Paris Exhibition in 1900, and was apparently still quite successful. "The can hasn't even changed much," he adds. "I don't know if we ever ate any, but we sure saw it around." There'd been tureens and things with children painted on them all for Campbell's. Now the children looked vaguely creepy, but back then, they'd just seemed like normal artwork. Steve had recently seen some of said tureens in a museum. He felt old.

            Taking a sip does nothing to make Bucky's disposition any more pleasant. "This is piss-water," he tells Steve. "Even barracks food wasn't this bad."

            Eyes lighting up, Steve stands up too quickly, and abruptly sits back down. "It wasn't much better in the field," he smiles. "We had to boil everything, remember?"

            "Assuming we had something other than Dum Dum's old boot leather to chew," he mutters darkly.

            "Who else was there?" Steve prompts gently.

            "Morita... Jacques... I don't, I don't know." His face darkens in frustration. "What does it even matter?" he snaps.

            "Gabe and Montgomery," Steve fills in, ignoring his tone. "They were in a cage with you, behind enemy lines." Well, some of them had been. Morita from Fresno. Rolling his eyes, he remembers how quickly Dum Dum and Jim became friends. "We worked together for a bit," he adds. "You were our sniper."

            "I don't... I don't care," he just curls his fingers around the mug tighter and takes another sip, lips pinching slightly at the taste. "You're telling me since the 1940's this shit never got to tasting any better?"

            Tony snorts, and the room flinches when Steve barks out a too-near-hysteria laugh. "No, I guess not. I'm sorry, we can always visit the factory later, try to give 'em a good ole homemade recipe or something, if you want."

            "This is beyond saving," Bucky says in disgust. Then he seems to freeze. Like me seems to hover on the air, unvoiced, but too loud all the same.

            "Just drink it," Natasha interrupts, "If you keep it down, you can have some we didn't water down, okay?"

            "Tastes like piss," he repeats. But drains the mug. As he'd finished, he'd been able to straighten up more, his stomach cramping less. He's fairly certain he doesn't want to eat any more of it. But he remembers full well to eat what he's told. How much he's told. When he's told. Or to spit it back out. Eat it again. Whatever they wanted. Clenching his fists in frustration, he settles the mug on his knee. Suddenly wondering if he should stop complaining about the soup in case it results in them forcing him to eat it until he vomits, he glances down at the mug, keeping his face blank.

            "When was the last time you ate?"

            "I don't know," he frowns, almost offended they would expect him to know something like that. "How often do people eat?"

            "As much as they want, we're in America," Tony says, side-eying Steve to see what kind of reaction he gets. "Land of McDonald's and morbid obesity."

            "No, Tony," Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. "Most people eat two to three meals a day, just like before. Some people skip breakfast, and some people skip other things," he sighs. "We usually skipped lunch, remember?" Not because Bucky's parents were too poor to feed it to him so much as they'd been too busy taking advantage of the lunch break at school to remember to do something as unimportant as eating. "But considering how long you've been on the run, it's not surprising you didn't eat much. I know once I caught up with you we didn't eat much of anything." Glancing up at Natasha, he shrugs. "We ate what we found, grass, leaves, um...some berries I knew weren't poisonous. I don't think he's really eaten in a few months. No idea about before." 

            Suddenly quite a bit of the shaking suddenly makes a lot more sense to the other people in the room. Even Captain America is capable of getting the shakes if he doesn't eat for too prolonged a period of time.

            "Good thing Thor isn't around or he'd break my mug," Tony mutters.

            "No, he only does that when something tastes good and he actually wants more," Nat points out, settling herself onto one of the bar stools. "Although I wouldn't blame him for smashing the mug and then attacking you with some of the shards....or maybe the handle," she says, smiling sweetly at her one time faux-employer.

            "Do I have to have more?" Bucky asks apprehensively. His face blanks again right after, as if he's afraid to show anything. How quickly he can make Bucky go away, subverted by the Soldier chills Steve's heart. 

            "No, but this time it will taste better," Pepper promises, going over to take the mug from him without thinking. They'd all been subconsciously making sure Steve was the only one within striking range. She took the mug without incident and returned to the kitchen to refill it with some regular soup. "Let me reheat this for you, okay?" waiting for another one of those jerky nods that looked more like a spasm than anything else.

             She also feels that waiting a few more minutes will prove whether or not he's going to keep the food down in the first place. So far so good. The microwave beeps again, and this time Bucky doesn't flinch. Checking the warmth of the mug with her hands, she stirs it with a spoon to make sure it's heated evenly.

            "How come I don't get this kind of special treatment?" Tony complains.

            "Because you don't need it. Or deserve it."

            "You know we can make popcorn in these now?" Steve asks, gesturing to the microwave. Sometimes he feels it's just easier to ignore Tony. "Not on the stove anymore, and you don't have to add your own butter or salt or anything."

            "So, it's plain? I hate plain popcorn."

            "No, it comes pre-mixed," he clarifies. The little things just slipping out all over the place excite and terrify him. What if Bucky never gets any more back than these little glimpses into what their lives used to be, what if he never really remembers? What if he's never able to remember the friendship they had, how they fought together, the trust they had...what if that part never comes back? He glances at the body of his friend, his best friend, and wishes that when those eyes met his, Bucky was looking back through them.

            Pepper hands him the mug again, and he takes it suspiciously, holding it out to Steve first, who takes it with a sigh, takes a sip, and passes it back. "No one in this room is going to poison you. And if they do, I will kill them." Something about the certainty in the blue gaze makes the room grow both colder, and warmer at the same time. Bucky nods, furtive and quick before taking a sip of the soup.

            "I think it's worse like this," he says, swearing softly in Russian before taking another sip. And then another, and he seems to roll something over on his tongue before spitting it out into his palm. "What is this?" he asks, and Nat comes closer to investigate.

            "Chicken."

            "This is chicken?"

            "Well, once, maybe," she says with a shrug. She holds out her hand to take it from him, face betraying no signs of revulsion as he tips the little chewy wad of 'meat' into her palm and shakes his head in disgust. Throwing it into the trash doesn't take her much time, and she idly checks her phone. Seeming a little frustrated, she stuffs it back into her pocket.

            It doesn't take long for him to finish, and when he returns the mug, four small white pieces of 'chicken' rest along the bottom. Some part of him experiences a moment of sheer panic when Natasha sees the bits of chicken in the mug. He waits for the punishment, or just to be told to eat them. Nothing. She ignores it.

            The soft wet plunks in the sink of imitation chicken meat make Tony cringe. "Maybe next time we can get a chicken and some bullion or something. It's bullion right Pepper?"

 

            "Yes, Tony, it is bullion. However, unless you're going to cook it, I can't imagine who would. And it wouldn't be edible anyway."

           

            "What makes you assume I can't cook?"

 

            "The time you brought me strawberries."

 

            "That has nothing to do with cooking."

 

            "But it does have everything to do with an attention to detail, which you need if you want to make edible food, Tony."

 

            "You cannot still be mad at me for that. Pepper, c'mon."

 

            She just raises her eyebrows. "If there isn't any more emergency cooking, I'm going back to bed." She glances imperiously around the room, almost daring them to ask for something else. "There's plenty of coffee in the pot, and Tony, I trust you can operate the refrigerator doors if anyone wants creamer."

 

            "I can even operate the cabinets," Tony sasses back before giving her a kiss and allowing her to hopefully get some sleep. He puts some a small container of sugar on the counter along with a few spoons in case anyone wants anything later, and glances around the room. While incredibly uncomfortable leaving Steve alone with a mass-murdering psychopath, if anyone's qualified to deal with said psychopath...it's Captain Steve Rogers. "I'm heading to bed," he says, much to everyone's surprise. While he's got enough trouble sleeping, he's fairly sure that Barnes will wake them up again soon enough, and he'll be grateful for whatever rest he can get.

             Tony glances at the Winter Soldier who is staring at him like there's something about Tony he just can't put his finger on. It makes him uncomfortable. Wondering if somehow the other man knows how much they have in common, he shakes his head and walks way. How could  he possibly know that Tony Stark is an insomniac with PTSD from being a POW and from dying during an alien invasion? And why would he care? In light of his own pain, Tony's just doesn't seem as significant.

 

            Steve finds himself drifting off and gets himself a cup of coffee, watching Nat watch Bucky. It's not sinister, but it certainly makes him uncomfortable. The gaze is too intimate, too comfortable. Too familiar. "I thought you didn't know him."

           

            "I didn't, not really."

           

            Steve barely catches Bucky as he nods off before he hits the floor, setting off a chain reaction neither he nor Nat is expecting. Steve manages to catch himself before he lands flat on his back inches from the glass coffee table by somehow twisting just right to land in a crouch. He wasn't expecting to get thrown like that by a single punch. Nat narrowly escapes another strike before rolling down across the ground and towards Steve.

            And then Bucky freezes, wheezing, and sinks to his knees. Blood trickles down Steve's jaw and he lifts a hand up to touch his newly split lip. Nat looks pretty shaky, eyes wide, and she's breathing a little hard.

 

            "Well that was bracing," she manages before sitting down on the floor hard. "Y'know Barnes, I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop trying to kill me. Especially since I'm not the one who woke you up." She looks at Steve again, "We really should call Banner in."

 

            "I don't have his number," Steve rubs his hand over his chin, "But I suppose you do?" waiting for her nod, "go ahead and get him here." It takes him a few minutes to find paper towels and to mop his face up, glancing at Bucky off and on.

            "You didn't get it all," Nat informs him. "Here, my god you men are useless," she tells him with a roll of her eyes. Taking the paper towels and cleaning up his face.

            "I don't know about that," Steve says unhappily. But at the moment, he sure feels useless. So far all he's managed to do is watch helplessly the few times Bucky's been lost in the throes of a violent flashback. He's just so tired, and this constant wariness is starting to grate on his nerves.

            "I can watch him while you sleep. Set an alarm, twenty minutes, take a nap. Barnes and I will watch some TV or something." She glances up at the Winter Soldier, "Right? You and I can just watch some television quietly for twenty minutes." She ignores the hesitation in the nod she gets, and the way Bucky's mouth opens as if to protest. "Unless you want to sleep, too. Both of you can go ahead. The door's locked, and no one's coming until tomorrow at the earliest."

             She can't believe it, but they both seem to doze in that way only soldiers on the move can. Barnes rests on the couch, eventually hunching into a ball so small she can barely believe it's possible. Watching him shrink and fold in on himself like that makes her feel uncomfortable. Steve settles into the other side of the couch, upright and weary before his head tips forward, chin to his chest, and he sleeps. 

            True to her word, she keeps watch, shutting the blinds over the windows, padding silently around the room and checking the door. When Steve's alarm goes off softly, she smiles "Go back to sleep Captain, you've done enough for today." It doesn't surprise her when Steve shakes his head, and makes a circuit of the room. "Afraid if you sleep too long you'll have nightmares, too?" she asks softly, and the look in his eyes is answer enough.

            When Bucky starts to whimper in his sleep, Steve is there, "Bucky, hey, hey, I know, I know bud, but it's over, okay? Maybe this time you can wake up without hitting me in the face," he says as he resigns himself to another blow. Reaching out, he smooths the soft brown hair down, gently moving his hand to the other man's shoulder, and squeezing softly. "It's okay Buck, I'm here. I've got your back." Shockingly enough, Bucky quiets, eyes opening slowly. He sits up, hunching his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. Letting his head drop down to his knees he falls back asleep.

            Cautiously putting his arm around Bucky's shoulders, Steve settles as much of his body against Bucky's as he can. The shared heat is companionable and has an almost soporific effect on him. 

             Natasha watches them fall asleep, Steve's head drooping down onto Bucky's shoulder, the cold metal seems not to bother him at all.

 

Chapter Text

Chap 5

 

            When Natasha lets Bruce into the house, Bucky gets up off the couch and leaves the room. He sees the little black bag and knows it's full of things that will be used to poke at him, and he's not having it. Ignoring Steve calling his name, he shuts himself into the bathroom, dropping to the floor with his back against the door. He can feel the knocks run through his body and Steve's anxious voice, but he can't understand a word the other man is saying. Breathing hard, he doesn't even realize he's pulling his own hair.

            "What just happened?" Bruce asks, confused.

            "You just met Bucky," Natasha tells him, glancing up at Steve. "Don't...." she sighs. Getting up she looks at the doctor, "just make yourself comfortable for now. I'll send Steve out. He knows more than I do." Heading into the hallway, she palms her lockpicks and glances at Steve. "I will get him out of there if you promise to go talk to Doctor Banner about what needs to be done."

            "I...I can't just leave him..."

            She puts a hand against the door, looking down at the crack between door and carpet. "Lights out, he's breathing hard, and he's fine. Go. I'll bring him out and he'll be fine. Okay?"

            Waiting until Steve has well and truly left, she picks the lock and pushes against the door. She knows Bucky's blocking it with his body on purpose. "Milenki let me in," she tells him gently. Feels him shift, the door swing open. The moment she's inside he's pushed it shut again. "Can I turn the light on?" she asks, waiting for some kind of response. Flipping the switch, she watches his pupils shrink, sees he's sweating and shaking. "I didn't think you could get any paler," she informs him.

            "Vipye iadu."

            "Now that's not very nice." Getting a washcloth from the drawer, she soaks it in ice water and approaches him from a crouch, other hand open to show she's unarmed. When she gets close enough, she holds it to his face, and he flinches. "Feels good, doesn't it?" moving the washcloth across his forehead and to the back of his neck. "Sit down," she tells him gently, watching him settle a little more comfortably on the floor. His entire body is still rigid. "There's nothing in that bag that can hurt you. And if there was, I don't know how you can think Steve wouldn't destroy it before they even had a chance to use it."

            "How can you possibly expect me to believe that?"

            "Uspokoisya."

            "Don't tell me to calm down!" he hisses at her, wrenching the washcloth free of her hand and throwing it against the wall of the tub. It hits like a noise with a gunshot. She can hear something break in the living room.

            "We're fine!" she calls before Steve can come running. "Aren't we?" she asks, raising her eyebrows. "You're not going to do something like that again, are you?"

            "No," he tells her sullenly, suddenly cowed.

            "Your little displays don't frighten me. I was in the Red Room, too." She gets into his face, voice low "I have seen my best friend brainwashed and turned into a monster. I have faced a Hulk, I have fought alongside a god, dealt with the ego of a billionaire playboy, and fought alongside a man who by all rights should be a popsicle. And with those people, I have faced down another god and a race of aliens hellbent on destroying the entire world. Nothing you do is going to scare me."

            Seeing him back down, she relaxes, sitting next to him with her back to the wall.

            "So this is how this is going to play out. You're going to act like you're not falling apart and breaking at the seams, you're going to go out there like the man you were. The man you still are under all those years of blood and pain. You're going to stand up straight instead of hunching around like some kind of vulture, and you're going to talk to him about your arm. He's going to fix it with Tony's help, and you're going to be grateful. Got it?"

            "Yob tebja."

            "I'm sorry, that didn't sound like 'yes ma'am.' You wanna try again?"

            "Yes, ma'am."

            Ignoring the sarcasm, she stands up smoothly, waiting for him to join her. She knows how terrified he is, and also knows that coddling him isn't going to fix anything. Bringing him out into the living room, she makes a motion that keeps Steve from approaching and looking Bucky over. He needs to back off. Seeing Banner sitting quietly, the bag nowhere to be seen, she smiles. Smart move.

            "We're good to go now," she tells the two men, looking at Bucky who nods tightly.   

            "Is it going to hurt?" Bucky asks, looking at Steve helplessly. For Natasha it's like some switch has gone off and he's back to being himself. Relaxing, she gives them a little more space.

            "We don't know," Banner answers honestly.

            Their introduction had been haltingly painful. No amount of coaxing from Steve had made it any easier. The other man had refused to shake hands, and had slowly and continually retreated until he was by the window, and Bruce wasn't so sure he wasn't going to go through it. "I can do my best to make sure it doesn't, but you'll actually have to talk to us while we work, or we won't know." The poor man seems so scared. But Bruce can't say as he's surprised. Years of being treated like a tool, a glorified weapon, it's no wonder he's afraid of being field stripped yet again. Only that's not what's going to happen. Not this time.

             "Look, if anyone's going to be tinkering with your arm, anyone in the whole world, I promise you that Tony Stark is the man to trust."

            "That doesn't reassure me," Bucky says quietly, watching Stark from across the room.

            "Well I'm offended, " Tony mutters.   He hasn't brought a single implement into the room, because Banner told him getting the patient 'comfortable' was more important that starting to work. It's obnoxious, but since Banner's the humanitarian, Tony lets him take the lead. Steve hasn't been able to move more than two paces from Barnes' side, making him seem like an oversized blonde hen with a death wish. Any time Barnes has a flashback, Steve's the first one to get hurt. Nat left earlier to go find her two relics some clothes. Steve said very specifically he wanted levis. She has almost no intention of getting him any, just because of that.

            "Tony, go," Banner says quietly. "No buts, just go." He ignores the stink-eye he gets in return. "Look, Sergeant Barnes," he glances at Steve who is still hovering, one hand on Bucky's shoulder. "I think it'd be better if we talked alone first."

            Bucky glances at Steve, face closed. "I'm not so sure that's a good idea, doc," Steve starts, but raises his hands in defeat at the look on Bruce's face. "If you're sure, then I guess I have to trust you," he says to Banner, but he's looking at Bucky. "If there's a problem, I will just be down the hallway, okay? You say my name, and I will be here, in this room, at your side." He glances at Banner as if to say 'don't touch him' and stalks angrily from the room.

            "I didn't know he could have little tantrums like that," Banner says offhandedly. Bucky shrugs his shoulder. The metal one isn't moving around so well anymore. "Looks like a hell of a souvenir." Still no response. "Look, Barnes, can I call you Barnes? Bucky seems too familiar, anyway, you've got to give me something to go on here, so I can help you."

            "It's not working," Barnes says succinctly. "They always fixed it." He tenses up, because all he can hear is report. report mission status. "I fought with the target," he says, voice empty, eyes staring vacantly at some point on the wall only he can see. "The arm was wrenched in action, dislocated and partially crushed. The target was stronger than anticipated." He goes silent and still, staring at the floor just past Banner's shoes. His lips pull back in a silent snarl.

            "Hey, breathe. Sergeant Barnes? Breathe." Evening out his own breathing, he inhales, holds, exhales, until the man across from him is subconsciously mirroring the pace. This isn't going to be remotely easy.

            "How did you fix the arm if it was dislocated?"

            "I performed first aid in the field, as instructed, I used the fork of a tree to brace it and pulled it into joint."

            "Ah." Bruce heaves a deep breath. That must have hurt. It's also a fairly imprecise art, and he's not entirely sure the man didn't do more damage 'setting' his own arm than if he'd left it alone. "I need you to tell me what it's supposed to be doing that it isn't, or to show me," he adds, keeping his voice as even as possible. "I'm also going to need you to walk around, and to get used to my hands on your arm, okay? So, we'll go slow. Tony's prepping his work space and trying to turn it into a ... more hospitable environment for people who aren't Tony."

            Bucky holds out both arms, palm up, only the fingers of the metal arm don't automatically curl, but hang down limp instead of creating an almost bowl-like effect in the palm.

            "It's not going into a resting state? Can you make a fist?" he asks, watching carefully. The fingers spasm, and he sees movement along the arm, all the way to the bicep, but nothing in the way of an actual fist being made. "Let the arm drop, what's it do then?" he asks, hearing the click of metal fingers against each other. Fingers still completely straightened and limp, following gravity's natural pull. "So, rotate at the elbow, if you can," he says, doing his best not to stand up and circle the other man while he watches.

            The elbow seems off, somehow, he can hear something inside the machinery that doesn't sound quite right. "So, if you wouldn't mind standing up somewhere I can walk in a circle around you, I'm going to set a hand on each shoulder and I'm going to ask you do move your arms around so I can feel if there's any unevenness or damage or scar tissue that might be also affecting how the arm's working."

            Bucky nods, "You gonna make it hurt?" he asks as he stands, foot flicking out to kick the band of his sweatpants clear of his toes. Obviously standing with the elastic under his arch isn't comfortable for him. Bruce notes that while the man seems used to discomfort, he's not actively seeking to stay uncomfortable. That's a good sign. His phrasing, however, isn't. 'Make it hurt' as if he knows it shouldn't, but that it's possible it will. All on the whim of the man in front of him.

            "It shouldn't, not at all. Unless moving your arms hurts, in which case this is even more important." He stands up slowly, hands up palms out and walks slowly behind the taller man. "Okay, when you feel my palms on your shoulders, let me know," just in case there's something more going on with the left side than he's anticipating.

            "Your hands are cold," Barnes tells him. No complaint, no discomfort in his tone, just a statement.

            "That happens sometimes," he says quietly. "Lift your arms up perpendicular to your sides, then straight up." Nothing. No muscle catch, no muscle cracks, sure the man is tense, but that's to be expected. He's probably tense quite a lot, and that wouldn't affect the arm. Or shouldn't or he wouldn't be much of an assassin. "Back down....slower....out in front of you, down....can you squeeze your shoulder blades?" there's a series of tiny pops in answer, and Bruce shrugs a little. He doesn't fail to notice that the longer this goes on, the more Barnes is sweating.

            The hair at the back of his neck looks almost black and while it's almost too short to curl, it's trying its best. The collar of his shirt sticks to him as does the underarms. It doesn't seem like Barnes is going to be ready for Tony any time in the near future. Not if he reacts like this to just moving his arms around. "I'm going to move my hands to the tops of your shoulders, and I want you to shrug them forwards....go ahead and fight me a little, not too much....any discomfort? ... okay push them back. So I'm pretty sure it's in the machinery not something else. Which is good news."

            Figuring it's about time to take a break, seeing as how Barnes has now started trembling, he takes a step back. No point in pushing him too fast and losing him. What he's not expecting is that when Barnes turns to face him his pupils are blown and he's starting to pant.

            "Good? Metal doesn't heal. Who knows how long it will take this 'Tony' to fix it? If he even can!" Barnes starts to pace, seething. When Banner reaches out to stop him, he slaps his hand away.  "I should go back to Hydra, they can fix my arm. I'm supposed to return if something goes wrong on the mission. I don't know what I'm doing here. I don't know why I'm letting you keep me captive, <I should go. I should kill you, and go. Your friends would never find me. Then once my handler repairs the arm, I will complete the mission.> I'm supposed to go back to the rendezvous point."

            "Maybe we should get Steve back in here," Bruce says slowly, trying to back away.

            Thankfully, the exact same moment the Winter Soldier shoves Bruce Banner down, and makes a break for the door, it bursts open, Natasha and Sam blocking the way chatting companionably, carrying clothes and groceries respectively. Both drop their bags and go on the offensive, which does absolutely nothing to stop Bucky from barreling past them into the street.

            "Steve! Steve!" Sam shouts getting up off the ground, Natasha's already on the move, "Hey, dude you okay?" Sam asks Bruce, who nods, but looks a little green around the edges. As soon as Sam sees Steve's white face, he's out the door, heading after Natasha, knowing Steve will follow. He can hear the other man's footsteps pounding against the pavement, "She's up ahead, she might have gotten a tracker off, not sure," Sam admits, already knowing he's not going to catch up to Steve any time soon. But he's in great enough shape he'll find them once they've stopped. Not like Nat can go forever, either. He sees a quick nod and Steve speeds up, he'll catch up to the Black Widow, and hopefully the Winter Soldier soon enough.

            When he finally does find them, Bucky has Natasha cornered in an alley, good arm around her neck, she's obviously landed some punches, and Steve's not entirely sure he doesn't see at least three tranq darts sticking out of his friend's t-shirt, "Put her down Bucky."

            As soon as the Winter Soldier looks away, Natasha sets off one of her controlled EMP's that Tony worked up, and for all the metal arm isn't even touching her, the little bugger still lets off a hell of a shock, and the moment she feels her shoes hit the ground she's circling around to flank Steve. He has a moment where he wonders how she's been hiding all that weaponry under her normal clothes, and gives it up to focus on the man in front of him.

            "What happened?" he asks Nat at the same time she asks him. No clue then. Steve can hear Sam's breathing and knows he's getting close, not surprised to see the man appear in his peripheral vision.

            "<You couldn't stop me last time, what makes this time any different?>" the Soldier asks.

            "Last time we didn't have elephant tranqs," Nat points out helpfully, and Steve realizes that Bucky is faltering. "You think I wasn't prepared for this?" she asks, watching as he goes down to his knees. Sam winces, super strength and healing or no, it never feels good to hit your knees. And then Steve's there, catching him before his face hits concrete. Then and only then, he sees Natasha reach up and massage her throat. "He wanted to know why I was working with you, and why I wasn't taking him back to the KGB or their HYDRA division for repairs. He said he needed to complete his mission," she spits out. "Why was he alone with Banner?"

            "It's what he wanted Nat. It was going fine. They were alone for almost half an hour without incident. I was sitting in the hallway listening in, and I guess I dozed off." The guilt in his voice is evident. He slings Bucky over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "How long before he wakes up?"

            "I've got more, so, indefinitely. If he starts to move, let me know. But, long enough to get back to Stark's."

             They have to tranq him two more times before they reach their safe house, which Sam attributes to the adrenaline that must have been coursing through Barnes' body. The fight starts before they even make it halfway back to the safe house.

            "This is exactly why I told you he needed to have a permanent tracker! So the next time he went off his fucking rocker we didn't have to worry about losing him!"

            "I told you you could trust me not to lose him, and I didn't!"

            "You mean I didn't! I was the one blocking the door while you were NAPPING because you refuse to actually get any sleep when he's actually calm! You're so busy thinking about your own goddamn selfish preferences for a man who doesn't even exist anymore that you won't let us do what's practical to help him! And to keep everyone involved safe!"

            "You think I don't care about all the possible casualties? You think I didn't factor in the risk to myself, to you, to everyone? He doesn't need more pain and distrust, Natasha, he needs time to heal and recover! Not more people treating him like a lab rat and sticking him with needles!"

            "Well it's too late Steve! While he was busy trying to crush my throat with his bare hands I put a tracker in his arm, so there's nothing you can do about it except pull your head out of your ass and accept it!"

            "Well f-"

            "ENOUGH!" Sam roars suddenly. "You two are friends, act like it! You've got a man who has been tortured and used for over fifty years over your shoulder, and you're busy fighting over whether or not keeping an eye on him is a good idea or not. You know it's a good idea, and you know you should have done it earlier, but Natasha," he says turning on her abruptly, "Being an asshole about it doesn't change a damn thing. SO when we get back you two will pull your goddamn shit together and act like adults. Alright?" when they refuse to answer he raises his eyebrows, "Alright?!"

            "Alright," they mutter sullenly.

            Once they reach the door it's not too hard for Sam to gather up the groceries and deposit them on the counter, before gathering up Natasha's shopping bags and dumping them on the couch. Tony is sitting with Bruce at the counter, two steaming mugs of coffee and tea respectively in front of them. "So, I hear that went well," Tony says, as he watches Steve carefully arrange Bucky on the couch after shifting the bags.

            "We're just lucky that Terminator arm of his is outta commission," Sam says, not all that amused. "I got food that's supposed to be easy to keep down," he tells Steve, flicking his eyes to Natasha to explain how he got the intel. "There's some chicken, bullion, a can of chicken stock, well a box, actually, but anyway, some French bread, and then saltines. Anything else I shoulda picked up?"

            "That should be good," Natasha answers. "He isn't eating much, or wasn't last night. Not that I blame him," she shrugs. She's thankful that Sam can cook. She's not interested in making chicken soup for someone who has officially tried to kill her more than four times. "I got you guys some clothes," she tells Steve. "No Levis, I tried. I did find Lucky Brand, which looks kinda like Levis," she says, holding up a pair of jeans. "I know you wanted something familiar, but, I didn't have a lot of time." She glances up at him through her hair, "Also, I don't really know why you'd want old people jeans in the first place."

            "Nat, these say 'lucky you' on the inside of the fly."

            "Not my problem. They were on sale, they had your sizes, and I got a good deal. They'll also flatter your ass, so you can thank me later." She's also selected a few t-shirts, a package of boxer briefs per man, ribbed tank undershirts, and Henley's in assorted colors. "Figured he'd do better in tank tops so they could see the arm," she admits. The t-shirts aren't too impressive, there's a grey, blue, and red, she figures the two of them can fight over who gets what, and the Henley's are blue, military green (mostly as a joke), and maroon. There's two pairs of jeans each, one light one dark, and a pair of sweats, grey, and a pair of sweatshirts, dark blue and dark red. She couldn't resist picking red and blue whenever possible. There's even dark blue baseball hats for hiding their faces. Not to mention a pack of tube socks because Steve cannot get it together and wear no-shows like the rest of the world, and some shoes. The most comfortable trainers she could find without having them there for fit.      

            By the time she's done showing Steve the clothes and finishes with cutting all the tags off, Bucky's started to come 'round. "Watch it," she says, not surprised when Tony joins her on the opposite side of the counter from the so-called 'homicidal maniac'. Sam has had plenty of time to boil the chicken, start the broth, and start shredding the chicken into it. It feels comfortably domestic except for the sudden severely uncomfortable tension in the room.

            Steve moves over to crouch down in front of him, "Do you remember what happened?"

            "No...where am I?"

            Steve takes a breath. At least he's speaking English. And at least he isn't attacking anyone. "You kinda freaked out on the nice doctor over there, and um, in case you remember, we had to catch you before you hurt someone, yourself included. We're at Tony Stark's ...well, one of Tony Stark's houses, and you've been here since the day before. That nice lady over there is Natasha, she's been helping me take care of you along with Tony, with the beard, the doctor, Bruce Banner, and Sam, who's cooking right now." Each person nods or waves in turn, and Bucky looks around, so lost and pale.

            "I don't understand, take care of me? What's wrong with me?"

            "Bucky, listen-"

            "Who the hell is Bucky?"

            The sound of Tony's forehead hitting the countertop startles the entire room.

            "Who do you think you are?" Steve asks quietly, unsure of how to proceed from here. It's been obvious from the start that they needed professional psychiatric help, but there's no one to trust.

            "I... I'm...I don't know," he says, blue eyes suddenly filling with tears that stop just short of spilling over his cheeks. "I don't know who I am," he whispers, voice quavering.

            "It's okay, I do," Steve tells him, wrapping his arms around Bucky without hesitation for the first time.... for the first time since he got him out of that camp and away from Zola. They hadn't hugged since. Not because of any reason not to, there'd just never been a reason for it either. Bucky stiffens and Steve starts to pull away, before he feels something cold against his back, and something warm. Tears roll over his cheeks, as he rocks Bucky back and forth on the couch. "I've known you since I could walk, and I promise you I will do whatever it takes to help you remember that."         

            Tony clears his throat uncomfortably, and looks around the room, "Anyone else who would like to not be a part of this, say 'aye' and follow me," he says and exits the room for the safety of his lab. Touching reunions are not things he's comfortable with. Much less two grown men crying on his couch. Banner follows without comment, he'll return when things are calmer. Nat stays where she is, on the opposite side of the counter with Sam. Far enough to give some privacy to the two men, but close enough that she can help if Barnes loses it again.

            The first sob that ripples through Bucky makes him gasp in pain. He didn't remember how much it hurt to cry, to have your chest heave in and out, struggling for air while your stomach tied itself into knots. Sniffling, he tries to stop the tears. He's not even sure why he's crying. No name, no story, no memories...nothing to cry about. Only he can't stop. Maybe it's because the hulking blond in front of him is crying, too, or maybe it's because it hurts so bad to cry it's making him cry... none of it makes any sense. And he knows his nose is running all over this guy's shirt, and every time he tries to inhale through his mouth, he chokes on his own spit. It's humiliating, and he has a feeling that he's soaking the neck of the poor guy, not to mention ruining his shirt.

            Steve hasn't been able to force himself to untangle his hands from Bucky's shirt. He can feel a fist in his shirt, too, and feels almost comforted knowing he's not alone. Sniffing hard, it takes everything in him to start gasping in air, and pull his face away from Bucky's shoulder. Managing to force one hand to obey him, he starts to stroke Bucky's hair, but just ends up cupping the back of his head while they both cry. When he finally stops, he's still on his knees between Bucky's legs, holding him tightly and gently rocking him back and forth until he starts to calm down. Having reached that annoying hiccupping part of the crying process, it seems like he's about to stop, and then he starts again. "It's okay, just cry it out," he says quietly, panting slightly. His chest is still heaving against Bucky's, and he's not sure if either of them are ever truly going to stop any time in the near future.

            When Bucky starts to pull away, Steve lets him, "I don't even know who you are, and I got snot all over you," he sobs, almost laughing, but then it turns into  a sob. "I'm so sorry!" he hiccups, unsure if he should use his hand, or if he should take his shirt off to offer as a rag when he reaches his arm up and sees for the first time that it's not flesh. "The hell is this?" He raises his eyebrows in an expression so classically Bucky, Steve doesn't even see the warning signs before those blue eyes roll up into his head and he faints in shock. Steve scrapes a hand across his face, rubbing tears violently away after settling Bucky flat on the couch. Rubbing snot and spit off his face and then his neck takes a little less time because he just uses the hem of his shirt.

            "Maybe you shoulda mentioned the arm before he saw it," Nat says helpfully.

            "Thanks," he responds drily. "For your oh-so helpful advice."

            "Anytime."

 

            He swallows hard. The arm. Maybe she's right and he should have mentioned the arm. Getting up to get some paper towels to wipe Bucky's face down with proves to be a mistake, because he comes to before Steve can even finish standing up.

            "Hey," he says, not sure which Bucky he's getting this time. But it seems like there's three of them. The one who wants to kill them all, the one who knows him, and then the man who's lost everything.

Chapter Text

 

            Chap 6                                    

           

            "Hey yourself," he croaks, not sure why his body hurts so bad, or why his face is wet.

            "What's the last thing you remember?" Steve asks, and it sounds like they've been through this before. He walks into the kitchen and grabs a handful of paper towels and coming back to the couch.

            "That... that guy ... uh, looking at my arm. I ...I didn't like it. I guess. I don't know. I just...I don't know."

            "It's okay. Really," Steve tells him, squatting down, "Just... hold still, your face is a mess." Bucky freezes in that complete stillness that makes him simultaneously a good sniper and makes Steve wonder how many times he's been told to hold still. Carefully, the same way he washed his face, he wipes away the remnants of tears and a runny nose. "So. I think we'll try again, okay, but this time I'm staying. Okay?" Bucky's eyes are so red from weeping, Steve wishes he could take the pain away. He never wants to see his friend looking like this again. Carefully going around his nose, he smiles weakly. Trying to be reassuring. "Maybe it'll be easier if I'm in the room."

            "Sure. What do I have to do?"

            "Just wait for Nat to go get Doc Banner again, that's it, and then we do whatever he tells us to."

            When the curly haired man reappears, Bucky stiffens. "I...I think I pushed you," he tells him by way of apology. "I think I wanted to kill you," he says, licking his lips uncomfortably. He takes a breath, "I'm...I'm sorry," he says swallowing hard.

            "No big deal, you're not the first," Banner shrugs it off. "So, I have some tea, it's something I made, and it helps keep you calm." Seeing the expression on the other man's face, "It's homeopathic, I have a bit of a rage problem," he ignores Steve's snort. "It helps a little. It might help you, if nothing else it might take the edge off."

            "If ...if it'll help fix my arm," he says, lifting his chin, "I'll do it."

            It doesn't take long for Bruce to pour out a fresh cup, handing it to Steve first. "You should drink some, too," he says, "It shouldn't make you drowsy. Just help keep your heart rate level." He watches as Steve takes a sip. He's heard from Tony that Barnes won't ingest anything that Rogers doesn't try first. Rather than make a faux pas this is just easier. When Rogers passes Barnes the cup, he glances around the room before taking a breath and downing the contents of the cup in one go. The resulting face he makes is more than enough payback for the earlier shove.

            "That's worse than the soup," he whispers, running the back of his hand against his mouth. He feels a spike of panic and then it fades. It takes him a few seconds before he stops staring at the mug as though it's to blame. "Okay, now what?" he's visibly shaking, and Steve goes over to put a hand on his shoulder.

            "Well now we go downstairs. Tony and I will stand at the far corner away from the door, and you're going to move around and get comfortable down there. See the equipment, the space. The door will stay open. It'll help if you take your shirt off, that way Tony and I can also observe how you move and walk. It'll help me as well if you pick some things up with your right arm, doesn't have to be heavy, and you can set them back down. I don't need you to strain or anything. When you feel comfortable, you'll tell us, we'll approach. You'll sit in a chair, and we'll see what we can do to repair the arm without hurting you. We might have to remove it, in fact we'll probably have to remove it.  Once it's off we'll let you go, relax, nap, shower up, and we'll mess with the arm, repair it, and see what we can do to improve how it works with your body. Some of the tech is old, and we can update it. From there, we reattach it, and test it. Nothing should hurt, nothing should damage it, and we make minor adjustments to the fit, and calibration, and then you're done."

            Steve glances around the room before taking Bucky's hand in his own. "I'm with you, Buck," he says softly.

            Banner nods, "Just follow me, Tony'll be waiting way on the other side of the room. So, if you see him in the corner, don't be startled."

            Bucky grips Steve's hand tighter in response. It never once occurs to him to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by the contact, which is a small blessing in and of itself. As they descend, Steve goes down first, more or less showing Bucky there's no danger, and if there is, he'll be the first target.

            "JARVIS, start recording," Tony says quietly as soon as Bucky enters the room. "We're going to take some footage of you moving around, make it easier to analyze and look for any patterns or discrepancies we might miss otherwise. Also we'll then be able to show you what it is we're looking at if you have any questions or concerns." His voice is oddly business-like and calm, and Steve all but does a double take at the change. He adds quietly, "The door will stay open, but if you want to put something in the way of the door other than the door stop, you're welcome to."   

            As Bruce quietly joins Tony in the corner, he glances at Steve, "You'll have to let go of his hand, we need to see him walk unobstructed, and you'll throw off the gait. You can stay close, that's fine, but, you'll have to separate."

            Steve shrugs and waits until Bucky's hand relaxes before letting go. There was no way he was going to be the first to pull away.  It takes a second as Bucky hesitates before using his good arm to pull up the hem of his shirt, working it off without comment and dropping it to the floor, forgotten.

            Rogers lets Bucky get about a pace ahead of him and flanks him as the shorter man moves around the room. Bucky takes care to pick up several items, some he reaches for, some he approaches closely and lifts, examines, and puts back down. He does a complete circuit of the perimeter before working his way inwards, in an ever closer spiral towards a chair accompanied by a rolling table on either side. It looks somewhat like Tony has stolen a dentist's chair...or purchased one, and modified it for comfort. The padding looks less sparse and flat, more like an easy chair, and Bucky trails his fingertips over the headrest. There's even a throw blanket on the seat -courtesy of Pepper. "I'll have to sit in this?" he asks, the question almost seems rhetorical, but Bruce answers anyway with a nod. The tray on the left of the chair is filled with implements that make Steve's skin crawl, and apparently Bucky's too. His skin is glistening with sweat. It's running down his temples, soaking his hair, and his breathing is ragged.

             Steve reaches out and gently touches his shoulder, "It'll be okay Buck, they don't want to hurt you." The dark head bobs once, in silent agreement, and he continues to examine the tray. There's a few hypodermics probably containing painkillers or sedatives, there's no label on them that he understands, and he's too afraid to ask. All of this is for him, and it's slightly overwhelming. The entire operation seems more comfortable. Homey, almost. And while it doesn't make it less frightening, it does make it seem like the men around him truly aren't interested in augmenting his pain.

            A few things that look more like they belong in a mechanic's shop than a doctor's office, but it's not as if Bucky has any idea who Tony Stark is, much less Iron Man. And then, the things he's expecting to see. Letting his fingertips caress a scalpel, he can feel more than see Steve's muscles tense behind him. There's what looks like an ultrasound machine, some fabric tape measures, a soldering iron and something neither one of them has a name for that turns out to be a cutting torch. Letting his hand drop away, he glances at Banner and Stark.

            "Did I forget to do anything?" he asks, eyes empty. Do as you're told.

            "No, that's everything. Can we approach now?" Tony asks, glancing at Banner. Is this new facet of Barnes just the calm before the storm, or some deeper HYDRA programming making it easier to work on the arm? When Barnes nods, Tony lets Banner approach first, and then waits for him to help settle the taller man into the chair. As an added flourish he drapes the throw over Bucky's lap. If nothing else, it'll stop blood or metal shavings from ending up on his sweatpants. It also has the added bonus of making Steve smile and relax a little. The two scientists move to Bucky's left, while Steve kneels down by his right, slipping his hand under Barnes' on the armrest and lacing their fingers together.

            "You need to, you can squeeze as hard as you want," he tells his friend. It's odd, feeling Bucky's elbow pressing against the inside of his, forearms meeting. Steve's surprised at how dark Bucky's skin is, all things considered. Neither one of them can really qualify as tan, though. There are more scars than he remembers ever being there. Not that they scar easily anymore. But the Bucky Barnes he remembers would roll his sleeves up at the end of a mission, push his helmet back and take a breath, maybe take a drag or two off one of Dum Dum's cigars, and ask Steve if he wants a puff. The answer was always no. But he remembers those arms, filthy, a lot of the time, bloodied, but never scarred. Pressing his legs as close to the chair as he can, he wants to make sure that he won't be in the way. The arm rest is unfortunately too narrow for him to rest his elbow next to Bucky's, and he just hopes the other man doesn't press down too hard.   

            Tony glances up, "So, as mood music, I had JARVIS find as much high quality 1940's music as possible, just to y'know keep y'both comfortable while you wait."

            "If this is elevator music-"

            "It's been elevator music for longer than it wasn't," Tony mutters before Steve can even finish the sentence. "Barnes, if it hurts, you have to tell us. We either need to stop, or numb the area, okay?" After no response whatsoever, he snaps his finger's in Bucky's face and is rewarded with a slow blink. "Are you listening to me?" he asks, and quickly whisks his fingers away when the other man bares his teeth. "What's he doing? If he bites me this is over, I didn't agree to being bitten."

            "He's not going to bite you," Bruce says quietly, "No mouth guard," he tells Barnes quietly. "Sergeant, we're not going to need a mouth guard, you won't either. You can relax."

            Once the patient closes his mouth, Banner goes back into shifting the arm, touching it, feeling where flesh joins metal, "I think we can take it apart in sections," he tells Tony.

            The other man is already doing his best to produce scans of what's underneath the metal, "Looks like there's something under it, so we're not just removing everything he's got from the shoulder down," he says tersely, back to business. Steve bites his lip when Bucky squeezes his hand hard enough to pop the knuckles.

            "Bucky, Buck, relax. Relax, okay?" he says quietly.

            "<vipye iadu,>" Bucky hisses back.

            "Uh, okay," Steve says, nonplussed. "Maybe we should get Nat down here to translate in case things go south," he tells them. "You okay with that? Natasha...I, uh, Natalia? You remember her?"

            "She is Russian?" Bucky asks, voice heavily accented. It's the first time he's heard the other man sound Russian in a while, and it throws him off.

            "Yeah, yeah, she's Russian. You've worked with her in the past," he adds.

            "Mr. Stark, shall I request Ms. Romanov's presence in your lab?"

            "Yes JARVIS, and then make sure we don't have any other interruptions."

            "Very good, sir."

            There's a faint patter of feet as Natasha comes down the stairs, and they all know she's making noise on purpose so as not to startle Bucky. "<Priviet, dorogoi moya,>" hello my dear, she smiles. She sees almost no recognition on his face, but he settles down at the familiar sounds of Russian being spoken. "Well, let's get this show on the road," she says, going to stand as close as she can while still making sure she's out of the way. Every time Tony's prying fingers cause Barnes to flinch, Natasha is there, quietly repeating "<uspokoisya>" calm down. And he does. Each and every time.

            Suddenly a piece falls free, almost the entire shoulder plate. "<Pizdyetz!> " he snarls, face contorting in pain. Steve's head snaps up at the clatter, he doesn't remember when Bruce and Tony's constant commentary to each other turned from slow to excited, but now he knows why. The skin is scarred, badly so, bruised especially around where Steve remembers wrenching it in the carrier, and he wonders if the bruising continues down. He knew he'd damaged the arm and crushed part of it near the elbow, and sincerely hopes he didn't crush part of his friend's arm.

            "<uspokoisya, uspokoisya,>" Nat tells him, "It's okay," she adds. "Numb his arm," she says, going over to him. "Do it now," she adds, she knows that look. He's staring at her, breathing through his teeth, lips pulled back in a rictus. Steve hasn't moved, and she can see the blood draining from his face, and realizes that Bucky's going to break his fingers soon if the pain doesn't get better. As Tony fumbles with the needle, she's leaning over Steve to kiss Bucky's cheek, "easy, easy milenki, easy," she smoothes his hair, "It's gonna be okay, they're trying, it's okay, shhh."

            "Jesus Nat, when did you get so motherly?" Tony asks, hands shaking slightly as he sets the hypodermic down. They're all panting a little from stress, but as Steve frees his hand to shake it out, color returns to his face. The expression on Bucky's face is so pitifully thankful it's heartbreaking.

            "<blyad,>" damn, he tells Nat, eyebrows raised chin tucked just the slightest bit. He's still breathing hard, but it's more stress than pain now.

            "I know," she tells him. "What the hell did you two do?"

            "The point of fusion...it was ... it's infected," Bruce tells her, running a hand through his hair. "I wasn't expecting it to be anything other than extremely uncomfortable, but I'm not sure if we'll have to remove tissue or not, but it'll be easier to let it drain and then see what we're dealing with once the prosthesis is completely off. When we took the metal off...it was embedded into the infected skin, it was probably pretty painful when it came loose."

            "It smells wrong," Bucky says unhelpfully, grimacing.      

            "Don't look at it," Steve tells him quietly. "Look at me or Natasha." It's not that it's really that bad, it's just that they aren't sure he's going to be able to handle losing the arm, and they'd rather get it all off before he snaps. If he snaps. Maybe removing it will help jar his old memories loose, they don't know. "You should keep working while his arm's numb," Steve says. He would trade spots with Nat, but then someone really would end up with broken fingers.

             The sounds of Tony pulling and manipulating the metal with JARVIS's scan results blend with Banner's commentary about the skin and the way he thinks the prosthesis fits until Steve isn't listening to them anymore. He can hear the strains of the 40's playing over the intercom, and he finds himself humming quietly along. Bucky's not the only one in need of a distraction.

            Natasha keeps him busy with rapid-fire Russian, sometimes making him almost smile, and other times making him scowl a little. No one has any idea what they're talking about, but since JARVIS is recording everything, Tony will be able to translate it later. For his own personal interest. Occasionally Barnes responds to her, and sometimes it seems more like he's just tossing epithets at her instead of having a conversation. But that could just be how Russian sounds to the uninitiated.

            "Numb the arm again," Nat orders, ignoring Tony's 'yes my queen' as she waits for the tension to fade from Bucky's face. Her eyes flick to the top of his shoulder. The skin below the line is pale, so pale it looks like it's made of marble. Right above it, however, the flesh is red and angry, and seeping fluids that Banner keeps distractedly mopping away.

            "We can't keep it numb forever," Tony says, "We'll need feedback soon, I think I'm finding...a-ha," he says softly. "I think I've found some of how...barbarians, I mean can you believe the technology these people were- sorry. I'll need to know if I'm hurting him if I do something, so tell me when the numbing agent starts to wear off." The whole time, he's still working at loosening plates here, shifting a damaged layer into place so that it slides easier again.

            "It's wearing off," Barnes hisses. The entire procedure is extremely uncomfortable. Not to mention the air across skin that hasn't been bare in living memory feels wrong. There's no metal on top to protect it and he feels raw, like they're ripping him apart. And while in a way, they are, it feels no less invasive than what Zola or Pierce did to him. Only this time, he grits his teeth, he's going to remember it. Whether he wants to or not.

            "Can you move your fingers?" Banner asks, trying to figure out where the impulse control is coming from inside of the arm. Not that it'll matter much, he's seen some of the schematics Tony has worked up to improve the arm. The hand barely twitches. "Tony, I think there was more in the shoulder, the sensors? than there are down....oh my god," he says softly as another piece of the arm falls away, revealing wires and what looks like some sort of metal post just coming out of the tortured and battered flesh. Steve swallows hard and looks away. Even Natasha looks a little pale, and she's seen things like this most of her life. Well, things worse than this.

            "Barbarians...cavemen," Tony mutters, he gently prods the metal rod, Barnes flinches.

            "<yob tebya.>"

            "What did he say to me?"

            "He likes your glasses."

            "Somehow I doubt that."

            "Well that's got to come out," Tony says, looking at it. He lifts up the second chunk of arm and compares the inside to some of the wires he's seeing dancing over Barnes' skin. He's had to cut most of them, rather than just rip them free. They ran from the inside of the metal down under his skin. "Are these what cavemen used as electrodes?" he mutters, "Because only cavemen could make something this crude..." he has no idea what any of the rest of it might be for, just because the sinking part of him thinks they might be anchoring points or just done to torture the man in front of him. The arm is a map of scarring. So many suture scars, so many cuts. And then as he's working his way down, he finally gets the rest of it off, "Three pieces," he mumbles. "I think I could do one or two," probably just one. If it would work like his own sleeve on the suit. Come up, slide it up to the shoulder, have it clamp down and tighten in place and then sync with the electrodes, and he's off again, lifting the arm away to let Banner deal with the blood and guts part of things. 

            "Can you move your arm?" Banner asks, holding gauze up to Bucky's shoulder, watching as the other man flexes the muscles, what's left of his forearm, and curls the arm back up to his chest. "How bad does it hurt?"

            "Not so bad," he tells them. Glancing at what's left of his arm dispassionately, at least he knows where it ends now. Right below the elbow. The stump is ugly, thin, the skin pulled thick and messily over the bone. They weren't going for looks. Inspecting it, he thinks he can remember them burning it shut. He's not sure. Clenching his jaw, he looks away. His grip on Steve's hand is tight, but not bone-crushing.

            "You want me to numb it up again, I'm going to get these wires and things out," he explains. Waiting for the nod, Bucky bites down on his lip, fighting old habit. He carefully injects some more localized anesthesia and starts cleaning the surrounding area with iodine and gauze. "Good thing Tony has rubber gloves around," Banner says with a weak smile. He's not overly interested in talking, just in getting this nightmare over with. While he's seen a lot of ugly things, this is probably currently the worst. How still Barnes is while he works, how he never complains about the pain, never asks a single question, he's too used to this. It'll be good to wash his hands of it as soon as possible.

            He glances at his arm on occasion, seeing the scalpel cutting wires free of the skin, pliers breaking pieces of metal into smaller more removable chunks. Bucky knows how tense Banner is, how angry he is at what he's seeing.

            "Did they use a staple gun in place of sutures?" he asks angrily at some point, twisting Bucky's arm a little to get a better looking at some of the scarring.

            "I don't know." He doesn't want to know.

            Removing more pieces of hardware, more things that make Bruce sick to his stomach, each piece clinks quietly in the bowl as it drops from the forceps. He is disgusted with how much infection he sees, but isn't surprised. No maintenance for months on end, fighting with a damaged arm. Being on the run with a damaged arm. Super soldier healing abilities or no, he's lucky they don't have to amputate even more.

            Natasha smiles encouragingly at him when he looks up to meet her eyes. "Almost done, eh?" she asks him. "Just think, there's homemade soup up there waiting for you, warm French bread with some butter, some saltines if you need a snack later...." There's a quick flash of something that runs across his face that she thinks is an attempt at a smile, but she's not sure. "And clean clothes, Sam helped me figure out Tony's insanely overcomplicated washing machine so we could rinse off everything before you or Steve wore any of it. You'll feel better out of sweatpants, believe me." Especially considering what he'd been wearing before. Well, before as the Winter Soldier, not before as in what Steve had reportedly found him wearing. "Get you shaved up, too, you're looking pretty ratty," she tells him.

            She glances at Banner, who is trying to hold gauze to the infected wound at the top of the shoulder, and also trying to clean around the wires and metal posts. Going around the back of the chair, she kisses Bucky on the top of the head, and gently takes the gauze from Banner. "Hands are clean," she says, before he can protest. Looking at Steve, she knows he's barely holding on by a thread, the exhaustion, the uncomfortable position, and then the stress of the entire situation. One breakdown and less than a half hour of sleep isn't helping the situation. She monitors Bucky's hand in Steve's, waiting to see enough tension to know he needs more of the anesthesia. It doesn't take her long before she's actively assisting Banner, wearing gloves of her own as she dabs away blood, helps pass over sutures, and takes away yet more metal implements and wires and the like that Banner excavates from Barnes' arm.

            It's funny, she'd always taken Steve's joke about his barber shop quartet to be just that, a joke, but from what little humming she can hear over Bruce's requests and Bucky's breathing, it seems like he has a nice tenor voice. It could be a little lower, but she's not able to hear well enough to judge.

            The tiny little table is full of hardware and tools by the time they finish. Barnes is covered in sweat, his hair plastered to his skull in a distinctly unflattering sort of way, and she's pretty sure he's going to sound like a sticker being pulled off plastic when he stands up out of the chair. Just a few more stitches later, and it's finally over.     

            "Done. Go upstairs, clean yourself up, shave whatever that is off your face, and come back so Banner can bandage you up," Tony tells him, flapping a hand at them to go away. "Then you can stay away for at least a few hours. Maybe a few days. The real work starts," he mutters, already forgetting about them as he starts to work the problem.

Chapter Text

            Chap 7

           

            There's a light bandage wrapping Bucky's stump, one that he can get wet and they can change once he's done cleaning up, but that will catch any blood or pus that leaks out. Steve helps him up the stairs, he's really off balance, almost comically so. Once he's up to the top of the stairs, Sam looks at him from the counter where he was sitting with Pepper. "Soups up," he says with a smile.

            Nat is next to Bucky's stump, guarding it. There had been some fairly intense bruising and scraping at the end of it where Steve had crushed part of the arm. The guilt was extreme enough without anyone else seeing it or mentioning it.

            Pepper watches him limp towards them, wondering what they did to his legs before realizing it's not a true limp. He's just holding one shoulder much higher than the other and it's throwing off his gait entirely. With his hair matted down with sweat and dark circles under his eyes, he looks truly awful. Hiding her face so he won't see her concern, "You want anything to drink?" she asks.

            "Vodka."

            "How about some nice water," Nat suggests, as Sam sniggers uncontrollably. She's pretty sure Bucky wasn't trying to be funny. Ignoring his huff of disgust, she watches Steve hide a smile.

            "I always thought you were a whiskey man," Steve tells him. "Or when that was in short supply, a beer'd do for ya," he grins. Never heard of All-American-Soldier Bucky Barnes drinking vodka.

            "I will drink whiskey," he says earnestly, "I really could use a drink."

            "No, you need some food," Sam tells him, taking in the deathly pallor and shambling walk. While he's sure some it is stress, there's a lot that some good food will fix. Not to mention they'd been down there long enough the sun had changed position in the sky. He sees Steve looking out the window in confusion. "It's about three in the afternoon," he tells him, glancing at the clock on the stove. Ladling up a bowl of soup for their 'in-patient' he adds two thick slices of warm bread with just enough butter to cover the top. While he knows some men like to have enough butter to leave teeth marks in it, he highly doubts that Bucky is one of them. And if he is, he's not so sure that much butter wouldn't make him vomit.

             He looks thinner than before. Not to mention he looks smaller and somehow helpless without the arm. And while logically Sam knows the man is probably just as dangerous, or will be once he regains his equilibrium he just doesn't look it.

            "If this tastes like the other stuff, I'm not eating it," he informs them. He feels the familiar flash of guilt and fear, and then it passes. None of them react with shouts, no one strikes him. It's okay to say no. Breathing in deeply, he glances at the door and window, checking. Perpetually on guard.

            Steve cracks his first real smile in days. "If it does, you won't have to." Glancing at Sam, he's surprised when his friend settles a plate in front of him, as well. It's a sandwich. Nothing too fancy, it just looks like a turkey sandwich. "I'm...." he glances up at his friend's face and sees the stubborn set of his jaw. "I'm starving," he finishes, before sitting on a stool next to Bucky and eating as quickly as he can.

            "Don't forget to chew!" Sam teases. Rolling his eyes a little.

            Slowly lifting the first spoonful to his mouth, Bucky stares at it for a while, inhaling deeply. It doesn't smell as bad. In fact the entire upper floor smells like it. It's a good smell. "Just like your mom's," Bucky says quietly, downing a mouthful.

            It takes Nat pounding on Steve's back for all she's worth to stop the resultant choking. The entire thing startles Bucky badly enough that when he tries to catch his balance he forgets the arm isn't there anymore, banging the bruised and sore end of it on the countertop with a yelp and sliding off the stool. His good arm catches the countertop and his feet keep him up as he cradles the arm to his chest. "<ya nye znayu chto so mnoi,>" he moans to Natasha.

            "There's nothing wrong with you, dorogoi moya," she smiles, "You're just off balance and exhausted. That's all. A bath, a clean bandage, and some sleep and you'll feel better. Now eat your soup." Watching him, she stands close so she can help him if he overcompensates and falls off the stool again. It doesn't take long for him to finish what he has and bite into the bread, eyes closing.            

            "I forgot things could taste good," he tells Sam, as if Sam's the one who made the bread from scratch. Well, he did make the soup. The soup that apparently reminds Bucky of Steve's mother. Shutting his eyes in pleasure, he finishes the second slice and licks his fingertips. It's so normal and homey Steve lightly bumps their shoulders together just like he used to do at the mess hall. The few times he and the other commandos made it into the mess hall, anyway. He freezes right after, hoping he doesn't tip Bucky off the stool. Breathes a silent sigh of relief when nothing happens, and pushes his plate closer to the sink.

            Feeling full, Bucky carefully moves away from the counter, left arm held to his chest protectively. About to allow Nat to shepherd him away he freezes when Steve doesn't get up, as well. He hesitates, glancing around at all of them and feeling incredibly anxious.

            "<uspokoisya,>" Natasha reminds him softly. "Just breathe."

            Pepper glances at him and how exhausted he looks. She's not sure he can stay standing long enough to take a shower, and it doesn't seem like he'd derive any enjoyment from it. "Why don't you just take a bath?" she asks. "There's Epsom salts in the cabinet under the sink, and if you're feeling adventurous there's about half a million different kinds of bubble bath in there, too." Rolling her eyes at Tony's bizarre need to make sure she has the same things at each house, she figures someone else could help her use it. "There's even a few bath bombs, I think."

            "Bombs?"

            "Not, not really," Steve clarifies before realizing he has no idea what they are either.

            "They look kind of like chalk but they smell good and release oils or whatever into the water so that your skin feels good. Some of them are supposed to release oils that smell good and help you relax, that kind of thing. Nothing to be afraid of."

            "Tell that to most men," Nat rejoins and shares an eye roll with Pepper. "I don't see what they have against baths," she mutters. "Oh, where does Tony keep his razors?"

            "Middle drawer," Pepper says. "You thinking about tackling what was probably five o'clock shadow about two weeks ago?" she smiles. "There's a cordless in there, so you don't have to worry about getting tangled up."

            "Thanks Pepper," Steve says, and then "Thanks Sam."

            Sam just nods back, politely ignoring the slight quiver in the other man's lips as he speaks, the way his eyes seem just a little glassier than before. "Hey man, I love cooking. I made you and Natasha breakfast once, it's only fair Barnes and Pepper get a turn. Besides, it was just a sandwich," he says. It isn't that hard to make soup. And he's there to help Steve. They completed the whole 'find Bucky' thing, so now it's full steam ahead on plan 'help Bucky.' As if anyone could do anything less for Captain America.

            After pulling out some Epsom salts to help with some of the muscle soreness, they let Bucky go through everything Pepper has stored under the sink, before realizing he isn't sure how to make decisions for himself anymore. There's just too many choices and he has no idea what to do. Feeling his body start to shake, he clenches his hand tightly around the bottle trying to stop the tremors. What's he supposed to do with all of this?

             Steve takes a bottle out of his hand and sets it on the floor, crouching down next to him, concerned about the way Bucky's hand is shaking. He never used to shake like that. Steadiest hands on the planet. When Bucky's better, Steve plans to personally find and kill any remaining HYRDRA operatives that he can until they're all gone. Every last one. It's not like anyone's going to stop him.

            "Do you like the way any of them smell?" Steve asks, glancing at what appear to be 'lavender crystals' in a small tube with a black lid. "Why don't you just pick another kind of bath salt? " he suggests, considering there's only about five choices from there. "This one's supposed to be soothing, this one's to help make you alert, so not that one," he mumbles, "Uh, this one is good for stress," he has no idea how to do this either. Maybe it's not just Bucky.

            "Do the blue ones," Nat suggests. "It says there's tea tree oil, it'll be good for any scrapes or anything you have," she tells him. The Epsom salts with help draw infection out of his arm and help the muscle soreness she knows he's going to have. If he'd been any more clenched up in that chair he would have vibrated out of it. "You deserve to relax a little."

            He pulls the tie on the drawstring with one hand, loosening the sweatpants before looking uncomfortably at the two other people in the room.

            "Right, well, we need a measuring cup for the Epsom salts, so I'll be right back," she tells him, "Steve, get the water running. It should be hot before you add this stuff anyway." Setting the salts on the countertop within easy reach she exits, shutting the door softly behind her.

            It feels odd to Steve, as he turns on the faucet, that Bucky would suddenly get self-conscious about the Black Widow seeing him naked. It didn't seem to bother him when they were in the shower together, although Steve had kept his boxers on. Either way he has the tub half filled when Natasha knocks on the door with the measuring cup in hand. "I'll stay outside the door, you need me, and this flimsy little barrier is gone," she tells him. "Tell Barnes it's awfully cute he wants to protect my 'delicate sensibilities'" she grins, taking full advantage of air quotes.

            Rolling his eyes at Natasha's theatrics, he shuts the door quietly and goes over to the tub. "Water too hot?" he asks Bucky, who is standing next to it, swaying on his feet. He bends over to check, and almost falls face first into the water, but Steve catches him with an arm under his chest. Helping his friend lean over to test the water, he waits.

            "Not too hot," he says. Wincing as Steve puts a hand under his bandaged arm, and another on the right side of chest to help him balance as he steps into the water and sinks down into it. The tub isn't quite full yet, and Steve carefully measures out the salts before dumping them in. When the water level is up to the overflow point, Steve shuts the water off. Hearing Bucky settle back against the wall of the tub with a blissful sigh is all he needs to hear to relax. Hunkering down on the bathmat, he leans against the wall next to the towel rack. "Is this the kind of thing we don't tell Tony about?" he asks.

            "Probably. But it's his house and he'll probably know anyway." Wondering where that question came from, Steve just shrugs it off. It's not as if Bucky's never been full of surprises before. It's just that now the surprises don't stop. When Bucky puts his arm up on the lip of the tub, Steve smiles and slips his underneath so that they can intertwine their fingers again. Tipping his head back against the wall, he finds himself dozing off for the first time in ages.

Chapter Text

Chap 8

 

            When he hears a soft knocking he comes to, hand slipping out of Bucky's as he startles awake. Although what cements full wakefulness is Bucky's arm splashing into the water and spraying him with cold water. "Just a minute!" he calls, seeing the other man start to slip under the surface as his heels seek traction they're never going to find. Catching Bucky under the arm before the water even raises over his collarbone he helps steady him while he stands up. It's almost impossible to get traction in a bathtub that has Epsom salts in it. 

            "Here," he says, wrapping a towel around his friend. "When did the water get cold?" he mutters, glad that Bucky isn't shivering. Or maybe he's too cold to shiver. Feeling supremely anxious he goes to the door and cracks it to see Natasha holding some clothing. He glances back at his partner who is standing up in the tub, shoulders at an angle to his hips. He seems so defeated. Looking back to Natasha he raises his eyebrows.

            "Fresh out of the dryer. You guys alright in there? It's been over an hour," she tells him. As he takes the clothing the fresh smell of clean laundry rises up and the warmth feels invigorating.

            "We fell asleep," he mutters. "Is Banner ready? I'll have Bucky ready to go in a few minutes," he tells her.

            "That's fine, take your time. He'n Tony are in the middle of what they'd like to call a 'scientific discussion,'" which everyone knows means they're arguing with each other. "You can interrupt them whenever you're ready."

            Turning back and shutting the door, he finds that Bucky hasn't moved, he's just clutching the towel with one hand looking lost. Shaking his head a little, he goes over and carefully unwinds the wet and now useless bandaging from his arm and tosses it into the trash. He gently dries off Bucky's arms, chest, and back before wrapping it around his waist. His lips have a slight bluish tinge that concerns Steve, but he's not shivering and his skin isn't cold to the touch. Looking at Bucky's arms he can see goosebumps raised up on the skin. Figuring that clothing will help, he sighs.

            "Nat brought you clean clothes," he says, "Still warm, see?" not sure if the brunette can dress himself with one arm, he sort of glances at him. "While you dry off the rest of the way, I'll see if I can find that razor Pepper talked about, alright?" and he promptly turns his back. Able to hear the sounds of a towel across skin, he feels relieved as he digs around in the mess that is Tony's drawer. Why Tony even has enough stuff to fill two bathrooms is beyond Steve. He's fairly certain that Tony and Pepper's bedroom has a master bath. And then on top of how much junk Tony has accumulated, none if it is remotely organized. How he can find anything under the combs, cologne and aftershave is a mystery.

            Trying to ignore the swearing he hears, he turns around apprehensively only to breathe a sigh of relief. Bucky is half dressed, jeans up around his hips, fly shut, button open. He's fumbling with it one handed and cursing. "Trouble with the button?" he asks. "That's easy, c'mere," quickly doing it up, he slides his fingertips around the waistband to make sure none of it's folded in or under, because that always gets uncomfortable. When he looks up Bucky is staring at him. "Uh, sorry, force of habit."

            "With who?"

            "Jeans," Steve mumbles. "I just always do that when...." he trails off in embarrassment. "I'm really sorry," he adds.

            "It's fine," he mutters, his own face a little pink as well. "I just thought I'd be dressing myself from here on out, y'know?" he asks, but then glances at the stump of his arm and grimaces. The jeans do look good, Natasha has picked the faded wash along with a tank top and the military green, or olive, as she'd insist, for Bucky. "I can get the shirt on," he says. And Steve lets him while checking that the razor is fully charged and ready to go.  

            It's hard for him to not help Bucky pull on the tank, but once he's got it rolled up to the armholes, he's got the stump through, then his head and the other arm and he's pulling it down smoothly. "So, you remember how to shave, or did they take that, too?" Pausing a moment, "Did they do it for you?" he asks.

            "They did it," he mutters, voice haunted. "Only, I think it was with a straight razor. I had to be very still." The 'or else' stays silent. He's draped the Henley over his shoulder, knowing he'd just have to take it off for his arm to be re-bandaged anyway. After, he can be fully dressed.

            "Well this is a lot easier, less fuss," Steve adds. "There's still aftershave, if you want any."

            "No thanks, I hate that stuff," he says, remembering the days of Aqua Velva. Just because he has no plans to run from pain doesn't mean he plans to deliberately inflict it upon himself.

            "This stuff shouldn't sting, there's no alcohol in it."

            "Oh." He takes the little handset from Steve and flicks it on without any difficulty. "This is a lot harder with you staring at me," he mumbles.

            "Sorry, I'm gonna take a quick shower and change," Steve tells him, pulling the shower curtain out and stepping carefully into the tub. He discards the sweats and t-shirt and folds them while the water warms up, and then takes just enough time to wash his hair and scrub the sweat from his body. By the time he's drying himself off and tugging on underwear, "damnit Natasha," he mumbles. Boxer briefs? He hadn't noticed earlier. Of course she would. And then jeans he tugs on the undershirt and blue Henley and he's ready to go.

            "How did I do?" Bucky asks when Steve finishes tugging his shirt down.

            "Uh. Wow," Steve mumbles staring at Bucky, not sure how to answer that. "It looks a lot better."

            "It?"

            "Your, uh, your face."

            "Dug your way out of that one, huh?"

            "Guess so, punk." He pauses a beat, waiting for Bucky's response, and when it doesn't come, just rolls his eyes. "You don't look homeless anymore, if that's what you're asking, now let's go get your arm wrapped up so you can put a shirt on."

            "I'm wearing a shirt," Bucky retorts.

            "You hoping to get Natasha's eye by going around half naked?"

            "She's not interested."

            As Steve tries to figure out how to respond to that, he opens the door letting Bucky exit first, keeping an arm out in case the other man overbalances again. It's strange, he looks more like Bucky, even acts like him sometimes, now that the metal arm is off, but he's so obviously not. As if Natasha's lack of interest would have stopped him from flirting with her. Or trying to, at least. Not that he was the type to force himself on the ladies. Bucky had never been that kind of guy. But Steve can't help but notice how Bucky's been plenty affectionate with Natasha. If nothing else he seems more comfortable with her than the rest of them sometimes.

            The Widow is waiting on the couch with Sam, her head on the armrest as he flips through the channels in the seat next to her.

            "Hundreds of channels and nothing to watch, whatta waste," Sam says, grinning back at Steve and Bucky. "Y'know, if I'd gone back in time and told you two that one day you'd have mini movie theatres in your homes, but you'd never want to watch anything that was actually on, you'd think I was nuts."

            "If you'd told us you were a time traveling man from the future, we'd have thought you were nuts," Steve points out.

            "Fair enough." He doesn't avert his eyes from Bucky's arm, what's left of it, anyway, but then he's made a career out of helping people with so much less. He's used to seeing the ugly side of war and what it creates when it chews up a person and spits them back out. Natasha isn't really looking away, either. Although she knows what the KGB can do to a person.

            Heading towards the stairs, he lets Bucky go ahead of him, watching his back. Looking back over his shoulder at the top of the stairwell, he's not shocked to see Sam watching them. A raised eyebrow and a subtle lifting on the chin is all that passes between them. But it's enough. Feeling slightly more confident he takes a breath and lets it out. Hand on the railing, he follows Bucky down.

            Descending the stairs and opening the door turns out to be a mistake.

            The racket going on inside the impromptu surgery has Bucky on the ground with his arms over his head two seconds after Steve gets the door open. Tony has just flung a tray of tools across the room, leaving them to land on the ground with a clatter. Steve finds himself crouching down, too, out of longstanding habit. If Bucky dropped, he dropped. Only he doesn't quite hit the ground.

            While it does sort of put him back to all those times they invaded various HYDRA strongholds with screaming, the bullets he barely heard because his heart was pounding so hard... Banner isn't exactly shouting at Tony, but he's not being quiet. It only takes a moment for him to realize they're safe, but old habits die hard.

            Bucky's flat on the ground protecting his head, and Steve finds himself protecting his friend, just like old times. He's crouching over his comrade, sheltering him with his own body. But this time there's no shield, and he's looking around for something just in case Tony decides to throw things around again. Then there's a sharp whistle and the world come back into focus.

            Pepper is making her way down the stairs, and carefully steps over Bucky's legs, squeezing Steve's shoulder as she makes her way towards the two men in the centre of the room. "What the hell is wrong with you two?" she asks, eyebrows raised. "Once the door was open, we could hear you all the way upstairs, and I'm sure so could anyone else in a hundred mile radius."

            "Look, Pepper-"

            "No, no, I don't care what you two were fighting about, I don't care how important it is that Bruce agrees with you, or that he sees what you're saying. You do not get to behave like that when you have four people in your home who have served. Much less when two of them are super-powered. You're lucky they didn't go on the offensive and kill you both instead of going for cover." She points one porcelain arm at Steve, who is helping Bucky off the floor. They're both red. "You will both never do that again, do you understand me? Go clean up whatever mess you just made while Bruce fixes Sergeant Barnes' arm up so he can rest. You should both be ashamed of yourselves." She turns back to Steve and Bucky and waves them forward.  Looking back at the two scientists, "Honestly, you're both grown men," she mutters under her breath.

            "Pepper-"

            "No, I have to go into work, I was going to come down and tell you when I heard all the racket, and I am far too disgusted to talk to you right now. When I get back, this place will be organized, you will have made some progress on fixing that arm, and hopefully these two men will be asleep." She glances at Steve as if to say it's alright if he isn't actually asleep, but she's trying to make a point.

             Steve finds himself staring open mouthed at her as she marches smartly away, the sound of her heels clicking on the floor fading as she moves up the stairs.

            "She's just as scary as Natalia," Bucky says, voice full of admiration.

            "She is one hell of a woman," Steve affirms before raising both eyebrows to stare at Tony. He takes a breath and lets it out slow, feeling his cheeks puff out. Pinching his lips together tightly, he glances at the tools, and back to Tony, standing as tall as he can.

            "She's like Peggy," Bucky smiles, "full of moxie."

            "Yeah, she is like Peggy." Unwilling to do anything to break the spell, Steve just waits for the smile to drop off Bucky's face and confusion to re-settle itself on his face. Then he steps forward, "Doctor Banner's gonna clean your arm up again, and bandage it properly so the stitches can heal without interference."

            "Sounds fine," he mumbles, glancing at the chair with an expression of longing and disgust. Settling down into it, he waits patiently while Banner cleans each wound, dabs some kind of antibiotic cream on, and then finishes by wrapping the entire arm.

            "Next time I see this, if the skin is still this inflamed and swollen, we might have to excise some of it," Banner cautions him. "It looks better thanks to the bath, or your healing abilities, or both. But I just want you prepared. It doesn't seem to be necrotized but it's currently not healthy, either."            

             The very end of it is scraped and bruised still, and Steve knows with heart wrenching clarity what caused those wounds. Months of bending a broken metal arm. An arm that was broken by the one person who wasn't supposed to hurt him. Who was supposed to watch his back, and who should have gone back for him and found him before anyone ever thought about putting a metal arm on him.

            The wrapping is more for Bucky's mental state than any real medical necessity. Most of the holes, scrapes, and other injuries are small enough for band-aids, or a bit of gauze and tape, but he's not used to having a bare arm, and psychologically speaking the fewer changes the better. There's been enough already. Even the worst of the wounds could have easily been covered with a gauze pad and some tape.

            Banner helps him settle the shirt over the stump, and carefully pins up the lower portion out of the way before pronouncing Bucky done for the day.

            Absolutely exhausted, Bucky grips the railing tightly with his remaining hand as he climbs the stairs, thankful Steve is right behind him if he falls. Bee-lining for the couch, he glances at Sam and Natasha who are still quietly watching TV. Feeling uncomfortable, he stops in his tracks, glancing around for a comfortable place to sit and rest.

            "Buck, the bedroom's down here," Steve tells him. "It's safe, no windows, I know the bed is that weird memory foam stuff, but, if you're tired enough you can sleep on anything." Including rocks. "Natasha and Sam'll watch the door out here, and I can take first watch."

            "You're too tired to keep watch," he says, raising his eyebrows.

            "Well then I'll just sleep next to the door so anyone who comes in has to go through me." He makes an impatient 'c'mon' gesture with his hand waiting for Bucky to move towards him before he sets off. A pillow, a blanket, and no one staring at him while he sleeps seems like the order of the day. Once Bucky's closer, he sighs, "Would you rather stay out here with Sam and Natasha?" he asks, and feels like he can visibly see Bucky weighing the options in his head. Shaking it 'no' he trails Steve into the bedroom.

            Steve waits while he makes a thorough sweep of the room, pulling back blankets and shaking out the pillow cases before he settles on the bed, eyes turning into near perfect circles as he sinks into the mattress. "I'm not sleeping on that," he says. "I'll wake up and it will have eaten me."

            "It's not that bad, look, no stay sitting," Steve says, sitting down on the other edge. "No bounce, so if you move around it doesn't jostle whoever's in bed with you."

            "Well seeing as how there's no one to be in bed with," Bucky says, face turning red, "I don't see how that's a bonus for one person. I'd rather sleep by the door."

            "Just ... here," Steve says, tossing a pillow and a blanket down on the floor on the other side of the bed, so that there's some protection between Bucky and the door. Anyone entering the room will just see Steve asleep on the floor, seemingly alone. And if anyone decides to enter the room through the wall, then they'll deal with that when they come to it.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chap 9

 

            Taking the other pillow and another blanket for himself, he settles down in front of the door. It doesn't take long before he sinks into sleep. But when he comes to he's no longer accustomed to the darkness in the room and it takes his eyes a second to adjust. Looking around trying to figure out why he's awake all of a sudden, he hears it again. This whimpering noise. It doesn't sound entirely human, more like some animal caught in a trap. Standing up as quietly as he can so he won't lose the sound, he finds himself crossing the room to Bucky, whose entire being is clenched into the smallest ball possible. Sweat beads his brow and upper lip, and Steve can see blood on his lips where he's either bitten through them or bitten his tongue, he's not sure.             "Buck, wake up," he says. Sick of getting hit in the face, he's going for some distance first. If it's remotely possible, he'd like to wake Bucky up without being in striking distance. "C'mon," he sighs, getting down on his knees. "It's okay, I promise," he reaches out hesitantly before smoothing Bucky's hair. Sweat soaked again, and he's all twisted up in the blankets, too. Carefully shaking his shoulder, the other man comes awake with a cry, arms going up in a classic defensive pose, terror highlighting every feature of his face.

            "Steve is that really you?"

            "Yeah...it's me Buck."

            "I thought I'd never see you again!"

            "Me too," Steve says before he can stop himself, and he feels something break loose inside him. There's safety and honesty lying in wait in the darkness. "I never thought...I thought you were dead, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry I didn't save you. I couldn't....if I'd thought for even a minute you survived...I'm so sorry," he sobs. "I never, I never, you have to believe me. Nothing could have stopped me from finding you...." He feels his body shuddering as he tries to pull himself together. It's highly unlikely Bucky remembers any of it. He shouldn't be doing this. And then he feels the other man pulling him into a hug, tucking his head under his chin, and he inhales deeply. It's just how Bucky smelled, the soap is different, but. Underlying it all; it's him.

            "I thought I was dead, too, it's okay. It's okay Steve, I forgive you. There's nothing to forgive. It's okay."

            When he's feeling calmer, quieter, he pulls away out of Bucky's arms, for all he could stay there all night, and runs his face against his sleeve. "You pulled me out of the water, I know it was you. You pulled me out and you didn't even know who I was. I knew you, I loved you, you were my best friend, and I left you for dead." His throat hurts, his face hurts, his head hurts. Crying is singularly one of the most unpleasant sensations on the planet.

            "I remember that, I don't remember why I did it. I didn't know you. I don't know you. I was supposed to kill you. I was going to. I wanted to. It would have been easier. I still...I still feel like I'm looking at a faded out photograph and I'm not sure what I'm seeing when I look at you, but. I knew I had to pull you out of the water. I saw you fall. I knew where you were, I...I think I remember the fall...I know I remember Zola, I remember the sound of...the saw when... they removed...I remember that. But I think I remember a lot of snow, too, and being cold. And falling for forever. I have dreams about falling, and of thinking that it was the end. I don't know what really happened, and I don't think I want to remember, but I also don't think you could have ever found me. Especially not before they did." He tongues the blood off his lip as though just noticing it.

            Steve nods, rubbing at his face; nothing Bucky says is truly comforting. Which is perhaps why it helps. It's the most they've talked since Steve caught up with him again in that bank vault.

            To be honest, the time it took him to completely destroy that room was time well spent. Finding Bucky sitting in that chair waiting, the words I don't want to remember anymore on his lips. Waiting for someone to use him again, for someone to hurt him again. It put Steve into a rage like he'd never felt before. Or had, once. It had involved bringing down the Red Skull and destroying a plane while he was still inside of it.

            He'd obliterated the chair and most of the equipment in a matter of seconds. Bucky had watched impassively from the vault doorway, and for a second Steve had wondered if the man was giving him a benediction. He hadn't broken down then, just ripped the door out of the wall and thrown it in a shower of sparks against what remained of the equipment used to wipe Bucky's mind. Then, he'd dusted his hands off, and led Bucky from the room. They hadn't been back since. It took them months to lose the HYDRA tail they acquired by going back there. But it had been worth it. Not to mention it had meant checking several HYDRA agents off the list of people Steve plans to kill once Bucky is fully operational again.

            When he makes a move to go back to the door, Bucky reaches out, and so he stays. They just sit in the darkness, watching the glowing numbers on the clock change. At some point, Steve realizes Bucky is asleep, and carefully shifts so he's next to him instead of across, and settles an arm gingerly around his shoulders so he won't fall over in his sleep. The other man huffs in his sleep, head flopping down onto his shoulder, and Steve smiles. He remembers sleeping standing, sleeping sitting, sleeping back to back with other men in his unit. Sleeping in the mud, the grass, in a tree, against a tree.  This isn't so different, in the darkness. He can almost forget the clock is digital, almost forget they're in a windowless room in one of the spare homes of a billionaire with a 'magic' suit. Instead, as he inhales deeply, he can almost smell the sweat and dried blood of his Howling Commando days, and he falls asleep.

            When he comes to, Bucky is awake. "Did I wake you?" he asks softly.

            "No, I just don't sleep much, usually," Steve admits. Glancing at the clock, they've gotten at least five or so hours of sleep. "I think I'm hungry," he adds.

            "Me too."

            "You admitting to needing something? Must be starving, c'mon, let's go see what's there." It's never too late for a fridge raid. Or too early. Standing up first, he holds out an arm to Bucky who reaches up with the hand that isn't there. He turns red before holding out the other arm, and allowing Steve to pull him to his feet.

            "I can get up without help," he says stiffly, once he's standing.

            "I know," Steve says quietly. "I know." He heads for the kitchen, surprised when he hears Bucky padding towards the bathroom. About to say something, he suddenly realizes, "I'll meet you out there," he says. Of course. People go to the bathroom. Rolling his eyes at how paranoid he's gotten, he microwaves some soup for Bucky, finding some of the bread and butter, and finds himself begging JARVIS to help him work what he thinks is a toaster oven. It's not, apparently it's a bread box, and he ends up using the normal oven. Glad Bucky wasn't there to see it, he tries to find himself something to eat, as well.

            The living room is completely empty. Nat and Sam must have had rooms of their own to retreat to. The front door is locked, window shutters down. Place seems almost abandoned, and yet here he is inside. He thinks he might still hear the sounds of Tony and Bruce working down in the basement, but serum-enhanced hearing or no, it could just be something else. Either way it's consistent enough that he's not worried about it being an attack.

            He doesn't know Bucky's been watching him for at least the past several minutes, and glances up and startles.

            "Were you ever any good at cooking?" he asks.

            "Never had much chance to learn," Steve admits. "I mean, I could boil rations with the best of them, but that was about it."          
            "Could I cook?"

            "I...I don't know. Your mom might have shown you some stuff, we used to hang out in the kitchen when she was making cookies, pester her for bits of dough or the chips or walnuts. Things like that. But you ate at the mess hall once you enlisted, worked your way up from specialist to PFC...not that it's a huge rank difference, but then you made corporal and then sergeant. You were doing well for a NCO." Doing well for anyone, frankly. "So you didn't need to cook for yourself."

            He settles a bowl in front of the man at the counter, and digs around for some sandwich fixings for himself.

            "When do I get to eat normal food?" Bucky asks, eyeing Steve's sandwich with perhaps a little too much interest.

            "Whenever Natasha says," Steve shrugs. "Is the soup that bad? I thought it smelled really good."

            "No, it's good, it's just not filling."

            "That might be the point. You remember when we were on the run, we barely ate. I don't think you ate before I found you, the way you looked. Maybe she's just trying to ease you onto normal food. I promise you, rushing it is no good. Not too long after they unfroze me, I ate some pizza and spent two days throwing up."

            "Pizza?"

            "After the war, we had a lot of people coming home, and they brought the idea back with them from Italy. And that's the story," he smiles. "You'll get to taste it, I promise. It's really good."

            "Not if it made you puke."

            "My stomach wasn't ready. It's bread with cheese, tomato sauce and then just about anything you want on it."

            "Like grilled cheese and tomato soup?"

            "Sort of. But better." Realizing he's terrible at describing things, "If we watched TV, you'd see about a thousand ads for it."

            "Maybe we could watch some ...tee-vee," Bucky tells him, nose wrinkling as he sounds out the words.

            "You'll get used to it."

            "Do they still have those radio shows, y'know, The Spirit?"

            "No, but they have something even better. You won't believe how much Disney's changed," Steve adds. "They make movies with computers now, call it CGI....which I hope means computer-generated-imaging," he grins. "I've never thought about it until now." While Bucky spoons up the soup, and then demolishes the toast, Steve hunts around the living room for the remote, and turns the television on. Sort of confused by the sheer amount of buttons on the damn thing, he utters a quiet oath before finding first the mute button, and then the channel up/down button. There's no reason to wake anyone up, and Tony's TV automatically seems to have closed captioning up all the time anyway. Probably so he can do half a million things at once, somehow. Read the TV while working on some arcane project of his. Who knows.

            "So, what's on?" Bucky asks. And in the question Steve can hear him asking what reel is being shown.

            "Um, well, do you want to watch sports, or do you want to watch news... or talk shows... uh, you wanna laugh, or just kind of ...stare...I guess?"

            "Uh. Are sports the same?"

            "Sort of. The Dodgers don't play for Brooklyn anymore, they play for L.A."

            "Those bastards," Bucky exclaims. "Since when?"

            "Um.." Steve scrunches up his face to think, "1958, I think."

            "Well shit."

            "I know. I can't believe you remember the Dodgers."

            "How could I not remember the Dodgers?"

            Shrugging, Steve flips through the sports channels until he happens on a ballgame and they sit in companionable silence. There's something familiar about baseball. Homey. Every fiber of his being wants to reach out to Bucky, make sure he's still there. But there's no reason to hold hands. It's not like Bucky's reaching out to him, he's calm. He's secure. It's unreasonable to think he would need that kind of comfort for forever. Although it had been nice. Biting his lip, he shifts around on the cushion until he's comfortable.

            "So, there's no sound on these things? Just words along the bottom? They're not talkies?"

            "Oh, there can be. I just turned it off so we didn't disturb anyone."

            "Oh."

            "Yeah. I'm pretty sure Tony has 'surround sound' which means it's got speakers around the room that make you feel like you're surrounded. So you feel like you're part of the show. I guess for us, we'd feel like we were at the game."

            "Not quite," Sam says, startling them both. Bucky's on his feet instantly, remote in his right hand ready to throw. "Easy there, I just heard the microwave and wanted to make sure no one burned the house down." He sees Bucky cock his arm just in time and steps to the side, turning to see Natasha appearing out of the darkness.

             She catches the remote and looks from it to Barnes without comment. "Sloppy," she yawns. "You telegraphed that."

            "I feel off balance, milenkaya."

            "You are. You're also still better than this. You did that on purpose." She's rewarded by a slow flush. "You wanted to see if I could catch it," she accuses. "Koroshii drug there's a lot you don't know about me," her smile is almost feral.

            "I could still take you," he tells her. "You're too slow."

            "Thems fightin' words," she jokes.

            "Nat, I'm not sure this is a good idea..." Steve mumbles glancing at the two of them, but he knows there's not a lot he can do to stop it. Half wishing Natasha didn't seem so eager to try herself against the Winter Soldier, his shoulders slump. Sam glances at him and shrugs. Might be good conditioning. Not like Bucky's been doing anything but sit around for the past few days. It can't hurt to let him work some of the stress off. He's down an arm, it should give Nat a slight advantage against his super-strength.

            "Don't break anything," he orders, rolling his eyes at Bucky's sarcastic salute. Moving the furniture with Sam's help, he takes a breath. Pepper will kill them if she sees this. Or finds out about it. While Steve's entirely sure this is a horrible idea, he's also not sure how to stop it. Or how the hell it got started so quickly. Natasha removes her watch and a few things from her pockets, Bucky carefully tucks the safety pin under the fabric of his sleeve so no one will accidentally pop it open.

            Steve is terrified that Bucky will revert once they start. It seems like his main target when he does is always Natasha, he goes for her first. Sees her as the most dangerous, and then Steve. This seems like a terrible idea, but this is the longest Bucky's been himself. The longest he's stayed calm. He looks like he knows what he's getting into and there's a light in his eyes Steve hasn't seen since....since before they ever landed on that damn train. Hoping he's fast enough to stop Bucky from killing Natasha if he does flip, Steve tenses.

            "Just light sparring, full control, first touch ends it," she says. Meaning to her, and to him, that if one of them accidentally lands a blow, they stop. It's just about trading blocks and blows and footwork. Nothing more. He nods, rolling out his shoulders and neck, rolling up on the balls of his feet and doing a few more limbering exercises. He knows Natasha is watching and waiting. His body feels unfamiliar to him without the weight of the arm. And without the full complement of the Winter Soldier's training memories. When he's ready, he steps up to her, they touch fists and step back, circling. She's light on her feet, gait smooth. He finds himself smiling, sees her toss her hair, and lunges.

            They trade blows back and forth so quickly Sam can barely follow. "They're good, but he's off. Even I can see that."

            "He's leading funny to protect his arm," Steve mutters. Not to mention he's not keeping his weight centered. It's no surprise when Natasha eventually trips him up. He doesn't stay down, but rolls smoothly to his feet, shaking his head in self deprecation. It doesn't take too long before his style changes, his balance is better, and soon he's got her on the ground.

            It's some kind of beautiful dance between the two. She's fast and light, but so is he, despite how much bulkier he is. They're both laughing and panting, trading punches and kicks too fast to see, disregarding certain tactics based on minute weight shifts. Anyone can see that mentally they're evenly matched. The ability to anticipate each others' motions, how quick they both are. In a real fight, with Bucky's full strength to bear and a metal arm, well. He almost killed her before. Almost killed Sam, and damn near killed Steve. But like this, as Bucky? it's a joy to watch him spar. Steve feels almost jealous.        

            Finally, he holds up his hands in surrender, wheezing for breath. "You win," he tells her. Conditioning aside, this wasn't his thing. Hand to hand, up close and personal. It was guns. It was far away, it was missions spent holding still hiding, not twitching a single muscle. And then when things went south, it was fighting. But not like this. Not where he has to hold back, not where he has to avoid actually landing a single blow. It is so much more difficult.  She lightly tags his stomach, accepting victory.

            "Not too bad for a fossil."

            "Not too bad for a normal person," he says. "Did they enhance you or is this all just natural talent?"

            Steve finds himself feeling jealous again. He squashes it down as far as he can. There's nothing to be jealous of. Natasha's not interested.

            "No enhancements," she tells him. "Just years of training." And that's the end of it. It's obvious she doesn't want to talk about her time with the KGB any more than he wants to talk about his time with the KGB's Hydra division. "So what's on TV?"

            "Uh, baseball."

            "At three in the morning?" she asks, grinning.

            "Lady, I don't know what to tell you, but baseball is always on TV," Sam says, helping Steve move the furniture back, fitting each piece with the dents in the carpet. It's not as if they really expect Bucky to help, seeing as how he only has one hand. They watch the ex-assassin curl up on the couch, bare feet facing out. It's either a conscious position designed to allow him to lash out, or he knows Steve will sit next to him and keep his feet warm.

            "Cold?" Steve asks, predictably settling in next to Barnes, grinning when the other man presses icy feet against his thigh. "Shouldn't you be warm after that?" he asks, grin fading to concern. "Did you overdo it?"

            "Overdo it?" Bucky starts to chuckle, but the rising edge of hysteria puts everyone on edge. "I don't know what that even means." He jerks a leg away when Steve reaches out to warm up one of his feet. Focusing his gaze on the screen, he seems absorbed, but continually and silently rebuffs any of Steve's attempts to make contact with him.

             Finally when some of the tautness starts to fade from his muscles, Steve makes a last ditch attempt to touch him, resting a hand on his ankle. Barnes tolerates the contact, but tenses up again for a while. How he can go from the man who slept in Steve's arms to this is unthinkable. Even if it takes Steve the rest of his life, he will kill every last remaining Hydra operative he can find. Slowly, so as to telegraph his intentions, he moves his hand down to Bucky's foot.

            Natasha and Sam have found it safer to stay on the chairs opposite the couch. Letting the two serum-enhanced men play their own private games of catch and release without interference. They watch as Steve's face changes from contentment to concern.

            "Buck, what're these.... pits," he says, looking confused, pulling one of his legs out more so he can see the bottom of Bucky's feet. "Oh my god," he says quietly, hands numb as the other man jerks his leg away and stands up. Impossible to look now, if he's standing on them. How he didn't see this before in the bath stuns him. He cleaned these feet. But with the soap and dirt, he hadn't even noticed.  A pang of guilt shoots through him. "What...what did they do to you?" but the question is rhetorical. A better question might be 'what haven't they done to you?'

            Glancing up, Natasha beckons Bucky over. He doesn't move, not even when she softly asks him in Russian to come over to her.

            "I tried to escape," he says quietly. It's there now, the memory. The fear, the pain. "I was lucky. The man before me lost his feet. Then they sent him out into the cold. You can escape now, they told him. Go as far as you like." His face hardens. "It was so cold it took him longer to bleed out. Or maybe he never did, I don't know. I just know I didn't want that to be me. They already took my arm," he says, compulsively gripping the end of it, right where the meat of his forearm should have been. "They told me, this time, you walk over broken glass, and you beg the whole while," his accent changes, deepens, the English fades in and out.

            "You will crawl next time, and then your last chance, you will drag yourself all without the help of your metal arm. After that, you will die." Shuddering, "So, I did. God help me, I did. I walked, I told them how sorry I was. How lucky I was. How thankful I was for this chance to prove myself. I was a coward," he mumbles, the soft strains of a Brooklyn accent returning to his voice. "I was too scared to die. I should have. I should have refused, should have tried to run and forced them to shoot me right then and there. But I didn't. I knew no one was coming. I understood that. It was the first thing they explained to me.

            "The great Captain America was dead, and no one would come for me." His voice cracks, hardens, and continues. "I was told if I showed any signs of weakness, they would leave the glass in, I'd have to try and pull it out with my fingers. The floor was cold," he whispers. "It hurt just to stand up, I could see... I could see the bloody trail I left. Zola told me not to cry out when he removed the glass. He couldn't abide the noise. If I bothered him, he'd stop. Leave me like that. Or maybe make me walk the path again until it didn't hurt me anymore." He shifts away from Natasha when she stands. "What was the point of fighting it? They had me. I hadn't gotten that far. And when they caught up with me they beat me. I didn't know I could hurt like that. I'd thought I was too cold to feel anything. I guess they broke some ribs, and a few fingers. Shattered part of my cheek, I don't know. I just know Zola was angry. He said something about superficial damage and things like this.

            "They just said it would be good to see how quickly I healed. Said maybe they hadn't beaten me enough. Besides, it would be good to make sure I didn't try escaping again. Perhaps they were being too lenient. And so they beat me again. I bit through my tongue trying not to scream."

            Seeing Natasha open her mouth, he holds his arm up, heat rushing through his face when he remembers there's no hand there. Either way she understands the gesture.

            Steve is completely silent, and Bucky can practically feel the anger radiating off the man. He didn't share this to make Captain America more self righteous. He shared it because he couldn't shut himself up. Once things get started it's hard to stop them. So instead he looks at Sam. Sam who watches him with quiet acceptance and understanding. Sam who knows what it's like to hear people tell their horror stories and to know that comfort brings tears they aren't ready to shed. And so he just watches Sam's face until he feels calm again. Borrowing some of that tranquility and strength for himself, if only for a little while.

             Unable to look at Steve, but needing to send him away, he says softly, "I'm hungry." The words are a lie, but he knows the other man will get up. Will make him soup, and the time it takes will give him the distance he needs to settle back on the couch. To tuck his feet back up under his body, and to make sure that Steve never sees those scars again.

            When Steve returns to the couch, Sam is at Bucky's side, and Natasha is on the arm rest, perched delicately like some bird of prey. He's not sure if they've meant to close him out, or if they just didn't want Bucky alone. Sam's arms span the back of the couch, and all Bucky has to do is tip his head back to feel Sam's forearm there behind him. Handing over the soup quietly, he watches as Bucky settles it into his lap before lifting the spoon. "Can I have toast, too?" Bucky asks so softly Steve isn't sure he didn't imagine it.

            "Sure, but if you want something different there's saltines," Steve says quietly.

            "Whatever's best," Bucky tells him. Just needing to be alone with two people who don't look at him with eyes full of pain. People who don't except him to be this James Barnes character he doesn't remember ever being. Not in the strictest sense. There are flashes. Sometimes feelings. He watches as Steve comes back with a packet of saltines. 'for variety', he says. He carefully opens the package before passing it over, and Bucky eases one of the crisp white crackers free of the plastic. They taste fine. Not interesting enough to note, but it's something to chew. Something to use to fill part of the hole inside of him.

             Not that it works.

            Not even a little bit.

            When Steve settles on the chair across from him and watches him eat, Bucky flushes and looks down. "Could you stop staring at me all the time?" he asks, voice rising in frustration. "It makes me uncomfortable!" he snaps. Why he's doing this, he doesn't know. When he feels Sam's hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly he almost snaps. Why is everyone being so nice to him? He's not Bucky, whoever that is. He's not anyone. Whatever it is they see when they look at him is wrong, and they need to stop. Finishing his food as quickly as possible, he stands, shrugging free of Sam's grip, and bares his teeth at Natasha when she follows him into the kitchen.

            They're only being nice to him because they think he's someone else. If only they would stop and let him figure things out. Stop pushing this James person on him. He's not Bucky, he's not James Barnes.

            He's no one.

            No one at all.

Chapter Text

Chap 10

 

            When Tony and Bruce emerge from the basement looking haggard, they immediately notice the tension in the room. Tony had been about to mention the impromptu sparring match that he and Bruce saw thanks to JARVIS. He had a few questions in regards to calibrating the arm, but the words die in his mouth unspoken. "Jesus, who died?" he asks, glancing around.

            "Go fuck yourself," Bucky mutters savagely, but the distraction is enough Natasha has plenty of time to grab him by the ear and twist savagely, forcing him into a crouch. As he lifts his hand to pull her free she grabs him by the wrist, sinking her nails into the tendons, forcing his hand to remain open. While he could probably bludgeon her with his stump if he wanted to, she's banking on the fact he doesn't truly want to hurt her.

            "We'll be right back," she smiles, inclining her head to Tony and Bruce before dragging Bucky from the room. When Steve starts to rise, Sam puts a hand on his shoulder, pinning him down.

            "Let them go, she knows what she's doing. You forget, she's been in the Red Room, too."

            "I don't want her to hurt him," Steve mumbles unhappily.

            "She won't."

            "And I don't want him to hurt her."

            "He won't. Steve, at some point you're going to have to trust him. He hasn't tried to run away after that first time, he's let them poke at his arm, he's let other people control his feeding, bathing, and sleeping. And he even sparred with her and let her take the win. If he wanted to hurt us, we'd all probably be dead. Except maybe you. You he has a real soft spot for."

            Steve just rolls his eyes.

            Natasha kicks open the bedroom door and then shoves Bucky inside. Releasing his ear but taking the time to literally kick him in the ass to force him the rest of the way into the room before shutting the door sharply behind them. "What the hell is a matter with you?" she demands.

            "I...what's wrong with you?" he snaps back.

            "Are you that desperate to be punished? Do you hate yourself that much that you just want to make everyone around you as angry as you are? It's not going to work, Bucky-"
            "<Don't call me that! I'm not him! I'll never be him again, you know that!">

            "<What should I call you? James? Sergeant Barnes? Dumbass? No, you stop and listen to me, right now. Not a word from you,>" she threatens, holding up a hand when he opens his mouth. Watching him seethe, she points at the bed, waiting until he sits. His posture is hostile, and she is suddenly thankful he doesn't have a weapon.

            "<You think if you act like a big enough ass they'll turn on you? The man who let you beat him almost to death, shoot him full of holes, and then almost drown, that man is going to turn on you because you're having a hissy fit? Are you stupid, or just insane?! He's your friend, whether you know it or not, feel it or not, or remember it or not, he is. He is your friend regardless of how you are. If you never remember another god damn thing about Bucky Barnes, he will still be your friend. He's invested in who you are now, not who you were. You think he gives a shit about how much you remember or don't remember? So what, you punish him because you want to punish yourself?">

            <"He should have killed me. He should have killed me when he had the chance. I was trapped under a girder, I couldn't get out, and he could have shot me between the eyes. He should have.>"

             The almighty slap Natasha deals him snaps his head to the side and leaves his ears ringing. He can taste blood. Tonguing the inside of his cheek he just stares at her.

            <"I never thought you were a coward,"> she tells him disgustedly. "<You saved his life, you saved his life without even knowing who he was. You think that wasn't a good thing? You think that doesn't help balance some of the red in your ledger? Because it does. Each life you save, it matters. Especially since he's going to save so many more because he'll be alive to do it. Don't be stupid. You being dead almost destroyed him once.>"

            "Bucky Barnes is dead," he tells her quietly, tonguing at the inside of his cheek. "He's been dead since 1944, when he was killed in action. The thing that continued after that is not the same. And it won't ever be."

            Changing languages with him, " You are not a thing!" she hisses. "Besides what does it matter if you're not the same? Because what, Steve Rogers is the same man he was before he was frozen? Or better yet before he was given the serum? You don't think that changed him? You're an idiot James Barnes, you know that? If you think that your memories matter to him, you're so stupid it's unfathomable.

            "I know you're scared. It's okay to be scared. But you need to know one thing about Steve Rogers, okay? He never gives up. Never. Not for anything. So, if there's no way to get your memories back, or you decide you don't want them, he's going to make sure you make new ones. Good ones, safe ones. Ones that bring you comfort when the nightmares come calling. And he will be by your side through all of it if you let him.

            "No matter how much hate and vitriol you spew at him, he's just going to take it. He'll take it and let you, because he knows as well as I do it's an act. You're too much of a fucking coward to tell him you're thankful he cares because you feel guilty. You think you feel like you owe him. And you do, but do you really think he's keeping track of what you owe him? He doesn't think you owe him a damn thing!

            "I know men are stupid, and love makes you blind, deaf and dumb, but you two take the cake. He would have let you kill him if it meant not hurting you, I came out of hiding because he said he found you, and you're going to act like an ungrateful child? No. I won't let you. If I have to slap you up and down the street, so help me god, I will." 

            "What if I never remember what he meant to me?"

            "Oh milenki," she says quietly, sitting down next to him on the bed. "You will. Because he's not going to stop meaning something to you. So even if you don't remember anything more than a feeling, you'll make new memories. It'll be okay."

            "He says we were best friends, but I can't even remember his face."

            She gently wipes a tear off his cheek. "Then you start over, if you want. You start as just acquaintances, and you become friends, and then good friends, and then best friends." She grins evilly, "Maybe even more than that," she waggles her eyebrows slightly just to make sure he catches her drift.

            "You're a vulgar horrible woman, you know that?"

            "Not all the time," she says, reaching out to stroke his hair. "How much does your face hurt, scale of one to ten? Now be honest."

            She can feel the exact moment when his chuckles turn to sobs, and wraps her arms around him. "I know, I know." Because while she hasn't had her memories removed, she has worked for the Red Room. "You should meet Clint," she tells him quietly. "He was hijacked a lot like you were, almost helped end the world," she says softly, carding her fingertips through his hair.

             She knows the only reason he's crying on her is because he can't cry on Steve. If he did, if he showed a single instance of true vulnerability, the other man would start to watch for it. Start to expect it, and try to protect him from everything. The watching would get worse, the concern would get worse, and it would make life unbearable. Because Bucky wouldn't be able to give Steve that. That kind of vulnerability isn't something you just summon up.

             To Bucky, it takes hours before he can stop crying, to Natasha it's a matter of minutes. She starts making slow circles on his back with her palm, just letting him ride it out. "Y'know, if you keep trying to force yourself to stop crying, one of two things will happen, one: you're going to end up crying even more, or two: you're going to choke on your own spit. You do know you're allowed to cry right? You're not in the Red Room, you're not with Hydra. You're with us. And with the exception of Tony who has no feelings, the rest of us get it."

            The half-hearted chuckle is enough, and she feels him start to relax a little.      The tears are still falling, but the sobs have stopped.

             There's no hurry.

 

****

 

            "Sam, they've been alone a long time," Steve mumbles. "I don't hear anything."

            "You won't, the rooms are soundproofed," Tony has the decency to look slightly embarrassed. "I didn't used to use this place as a hideout. Well, I did, but not the same kind of hideout we're using it for...anyway."

            "Steve, I swear to god," Sam tells him softly, "If you don't relax, I will make you relax." He glances around the room, Banner is asleep at the countertop, fingers curled loosely around a plain mug. Tony is on his third cup of coffee, and Sam wonders how many more he can down before he'll vibrate through the nearest wall. "There is no reason for you to be worried. Or jealous."

            "I am not jealous, Sam," Steve snarls. "There's nothing to be jealous of in the first place!"

            "Can you two keep your lovers' quarrel down? I'm trying to think."

            "Shut up, Tony," Sam and Steve snap in unison. 

            "As I was saying, no noise is a good thing, because if they were fighting we'd hear it out here. So unless you're jealous, there's no reason for you to be acting like this," Sam points out. Ignoring Steve's glare and huff of disgust, he shrugs. "You've been sitting on that couch with a face like a sparrow trying to pass an eagle egg."

            "Anyone ever tell you that you come up with the weirdest metaphors?"

            "Shut up Tony."

            "I'm going to go drink my coffee somewhere else."

            "Oh thank god."

            "Rude. Just rude."

            Waiting until Tony disappears around the corner, Sam rolls his eyes. "What a drama queen."

            "I heard that!"

            "Seriously," he mutters. "Seriously Steve, what crawled up your ass and died? Huh? We've been looking for this guy for months. Months after you got out of the hospital, you finally catch up with him and tell me not to follow, you'll bring him in. And then some months later, with a trail of dead bodies in your wake, you show up here and I get a text message. What exactly were you hiding from me? And why the hell don't you seem even the slightest bit happy to have him around?"

            "I wasn't hiding anything. We had a tail, and Bucky wasn't ready-"

            "Bucky wasn't ready, or you weren't ready? And you better think carefully before you answer that question, because you're a fucking terrible liar."

            "I wasn't ready," Steve admits cautiously. "He never had an opinion one way or the other."

            "So what happened, how'd you even find him?"

            "I found some footage of Pierce going into a bank. A closed bank. So, I went there. Found him waiting in the vault. In this...this chair," his face contorts with rage. "He was just sitting there. No food, no water, nothing. A ratty sweatshirt on the ground and a baseball hat," those blue eyes are gazing somewhere else. "There was...there was a cryo tank in the corner, all smashed up. The equipment in the room was fried. I guess the Hydra techs burned it or whatever it's called so if anyone found it, it'd be useless. There were straps on that chair. A mouth guard on the ground. I lost it. I absolutely lost it.

            "I pulled him out of the chair and shook him, and he went limp. I thought he'd hit me. I thought he'd show some sign of life. Something left. Anything. I was so angry he survived and came back to that pit. Where they... where they took him away from me," blinking away tears he continues, "He told me he didn't want to remember anymore. He was a failure. I dropped him. I've never been so angry with myself. Shaking him like that. He didn't move, Sam. He just stayed there on the ground like a doll.

            "I lost my temper. Smashed the chair. Put it through what was left of the cryo-tank, actually. And then...I kind of um..."

            "Kind of what?"

            "Kind of ripped the vault door off its hinges....and put it through the remaining equipment."

            "Just kind of?"

            "Yeah. I guess. The worst part was he never moved. Not once. I don't even know if he blinked. We, I tripped some alarms, I guess, doing that. Figures. Once I heard it, I told him to get up and come with me. He did. No words, he didn't even look at me. I couldn't...I couldn't bring him to you guys. Not like that. I had to wait. I had to make sure that he could handle it. I didn't want...I didn't want anyone to see him like that. You and Nat.. you told me I might have to stop him, not save him. And god, in that moment, I thought maybe you'd been right after all."

            "Well, I wasn't. I guess you had to be right about something at least one of these times."

            "So, we got rid of our tail."

            "We?"

            "We. I didn't have to arm him. He's deadly enough without the extra help. I wouldn't let him keep any weapons, anyway. He woke up screaming and trying to kill me often enough....if he'd had a gun he would have just put a bullet in my head. Half the time I had no idea what he was saying, what language he was even speaking anymore. And then...he got something back. He told me he'd gone to the Smithsonian and seen his exhibit. Only he called it that exhibit for 'That Barnes man you keep talking about.'

            "That's when I knew it was safe, so I contacted Tony. Got a list of places I could go. Ended up at the one place he was actually staying. I didn't expect him to do anything other than give us a roof over our heads. And certainly not for this long." 

 

*****

            Natasha waits until Bucky is truly finished. Wiping the tears off his cheeks gently with her thumbs, she smiles. "Somehow, you're almost prettier when you cry," she teases. Ignoring his look of deep disgust, she kisses his forehead. Straightening his shirt so the seams lie properly over his shoulders, and then absently fixing the hem, she smoothes the fabric over his chest. "There you go, all back to normal," she tells him softly.

            "I don't think I can hide this," he tells her quietly, he's fairly sure it's obvious he's been crying.

            "Oh, babydoll, you sure can," she laughs. "You stand up straight, you look people in the face, and if they ask, you look surprised. It's that simple. People will believe anything as long as they think you believe it." She draws back to examine his face. "Well, I guess you are a little blotchy," she shrugs. "And it's pretty obvious someone slapped you. Sorry about that, by the way."

            "I needed it. I deserved it."

            "No, you didn't, but that's okay. You thought you did. And then I lost my temper. Don't make me do that again with this self-pitying routine about needing to be punished. It doesn't help anyone, least of all you."

            "So what do I do, oh queen who knows all?"

            "Do you want me to hit you again?" she asks, shaking her head. "Because I will. And no one will blame me. Except Steve. He sure does love you."

            "I think when we fought, I damaged his brain."

            "No, sweetie, his brain was damaged long before you came back around."

            Bucky tosses back his head and laughs the ephemeral laugh of a man in pain. "I'm sure. I guess I left some of the stupid behind with him."

            "That's a hell of an odd phrase," Natasha comments dryly. "What stupid?"

            "I...I don't know, just something he said. Something about how I was taking all the ...I took...I don't remember."

            "He will, c'mon. It's time you made a peace offering anyway."

            "It'll just get his hopes up."

            "His hopes are always up."

            Taking a deep breath, he lets it out slowly before offering her his arm. "Shall we?"

            "We shall. And you'd better not make me drag you back in here," she warns him.

            "I'll do my best."

            She opens the door and lets him lead her out of the room and back to where Steve and Sam are sitting talking quietly on the couch. Bucky glances at Banner's sleeping form at the counter and feels a moment of guilt. This man has been working himself to exhaustion to fix an arm for a man who doesn't deserve it.

            "Enough of that," Nat reminds him, she knows that expression of guilt anywhere. Going up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "Now go ask him what the hell that meant, about the stupid."

            It takes several glances over his shoulder at Natasha before he can force his feet to move forward. He knows full well Steve and Sam are aware of him and just letting him approach on his own time. "I...I remembered part of something," he admits cautiously, hating that light of hope that swims up in Steve's eyes. It's so bright it hurts him. "I...you told me I was stupid...or taking the stupid...Nat says I should ask you about it."

            Sam looks back at Natasha who mimes a quick facepalm. Although if it makes him comfortable to act like the idea is entirely hers, and he has no connection to it at all, fine. Sam rolls his eyes in response. They deserve each other.

            "You got your orders, your marching orders, and I wanted to try enlisting again. You were telling me not to do something stupid, and I told you -"

            "How can I, you're taking all the stupid with you," Bucky whispers.

            "Yeah..." Steve breathes. And just like that the tension dissipates. Sam makes room for Bucky between him and Steve on the couch, raising an eyebrow. It's almost a silent challenge, one that causes Bucky to quirk one brow in return and then squeeze in between them. A dare to the Soldier to tolerate being in close quarters. Sam stares directly at Steve when Barnes curls into the blond's side and falls asleep.

            "Told you there was nothing to be jealous about."

 

            When Pepper lets herself back in she finds Bruce still asleep on the countertop, and the three soldiers asleep together on the couch. Rolling her eyes, she puts her keys in the little bowl by the door and sets her purse quietly on the floor. It startles her when she realizes that Barnes is staring at her, eyes narrowed. Holding up her hands until he resettles himself against Steve, she turns the lights off and heads towards the bedroom she's sharing with Tony. Not remotely surprised to find him jittery as hell and typing madly away at a computer, she sighs. "You wanna talk about it?"

            "Not yet. If I do, I won't be able to focus. And I have to focus until we're done."

            "And after?"

            "And after I help Steve find the people who did this to his friend, and we kill them. One by one."

 

Chapter Text

Chap 11

 

            "Did you hit him?" Steve asks Natasha the next morning.

            "Why?" she asks.

            "Because he has a bruise, or had... had a bruise," Steve says, glancing back down at Bucky's sleeping face. He looks so soft when he's asleep, like the hand of god has gone over all the lines and pain and smoothed them away with the first rays of sunlight. "Might still have a bruise."

            "And it would matter because?"

            "Don't you think he's had enough violence for the past, what seventy years?"

            "Probably." She doesn't look remotely apologetic.

            "So what makes you think that it was okay to heap more on him?!" he demands. Glancing down when Bucky shifts, he knows it's too late. The other man is awake, as is Sam, who is staring at him blearily.

            "The sun's barely up, and you're already picking a fight? My god, if you do this every time someone mars your boyfriend's face, you're going to have to fight a lot of battles."

            Steve and Bucky's angry words of "I'm not his boyfriend" and "He's not my boyfriend" merge into one sound that causes both Natasha and Sam to break out in laughter.

            "Oh sure. Sure you're not," Sam teases, eyeing Bucky warily as he pulls away from them. Just because he's unarmed doesn't mean he's not dangerous. Or that he's ever woken up especially docile that Sam's aware of.

            Watching Natasha drink her coffee, Bucky gets up to join her, pulling away from Steve. He wants nothing to do with anyone in the room if they're going to fight about something that happened yesterday. Glancing at her mug, his nostrils flare as he inhales the scent. When she offers him the mug, he takes a taste, face crinkling in disappointment.

            "That tastes nothing like how it smells," he tells her unhappily.

            "I never said it would."

            "You could have warned me."

            "It also leaves you with horrible after-coffee breath," Tony adds in, scaring Bucky off his stool. While it's not exactly easy to sneak up on him, it is easy to startle him. The end results are not exactly ideal. "You going to let go of my neck, or do I need to get your scary blond boy-toy to make you?"

            Chest heaving, Bucky lets go of Tony, pushing his palm against his forehead and grimacing. "Sorry," he mutters. "Sort of." Forcing himself to drop his hands away from his head, his nostrils flare slightly as he breathes out hard through his nose. Feeling ill, he ends up raising both hands back to his head, breathing in and out as slowly as he can.

            "Why are you guys all on this 'dating' bandwagon all of a sudden?" Steve asks irritably. It's too early for this kind of crap. Glancing over at Bucky who seems to be in some kind of distress he isn't sure how to help. Then the other man abruptly goes still and Steve knows there's nothing he can do now.

            "Because we've all seen you two together now," Sam tells him cheerfully. Far too awake for the rest of the people in the room.

            Bucky glances at Banner. "Is he dead?" he asks quietly, lifting a hand to jostle the other man. Just to check. He's never seen someone sleep so still before. And he's seen plenty of people sleeping. And then he's made sure they never woke up.

            "Don't," Tony says, "He wakes up about as nicely as you do. He'll wake up soon enough, he just took some stuff last night. It was...good news is another day or two tops and I think we'll be able to fit the arm," he informs Bucky. "So, y'know, two more days until you're Satan's favorite transformer again."

            "Transformer?"

            "I got that reference."

            "Oh my god, Steve."

            Watching Bucky move around the room, picking things up and setting them down, Tony sighs. "If you want something to do, I hear from Pepper we have cleaning supplies. I mean, since you're not paying room and board or anything...."

            "Oh my god Tony," Sam says. "You're not paying for his food, and he's not drinking your coffee, and this place is already paid for. Don't you dare try and guilt trip him into cleaning for you. Especially not when we all know full well you have robots for that kind of thing."

            "Robots?" Bucky asks, feeling so lost.

            "Like your arm?" Tony says. "Like that obsolete piece of chicanery they were calling technology attached to your shoulder?"

            "My arm..." it was robotic. He remembers. Parts, pumps, that kind of thing. Probably. Made noises, had little motors in it, he thinks. It was connected somehow, he didn't remember. Robots. It was so hard to believe. It's easier to remember other things. Like the sound a gun makes when the bullet discharges. Or the way the body armor felt against his skin. How empty he was when he tried to kill them all. He'd rather be empty. It's easier. Rather not try to understand the things they're saying. Rather not do anything but follow orders.

            "You'll like it better now, or if you didn't like it, you might like it now," Tony offers, trying to mend the bridge between them. "It'll be a lot more comfortable, I've got synthetics planned out to reduce any kind of rubbing or chafing, that kind of thing."

            "Synthetics?" Bucky asks faintly, feeling unwell. He glances at Natasha who is staring moodily into her cup. This is something he understands better. This feeling of being lost without someone. And while he doesn't know much, he knows this. "Go to him," he tells her. Then, "Or her, I guess."

            "Could take weeks, or months...maybe longer," she tells him. "Don't know if you're ready for me to leave you alone with all these idiots."

            "Not about me. This isn't about me. Don't let..." his tone is pleading. I'm not so broken you have to stay with me. "I don't need a babysitter," he tells her more sharply. "And yet I have five of them."

            "Don't you start this again," she warns him. "Don't make me pierce your ear so that you never forget our little talk."

            "No," he says, putting his hand flat down on the countertop to stop it from shaking. Glancing around the room, he meets Sam's eyes. "I need....I need to get out of here." He knows Steve won't take him outside, won't permit him out. Doesn't trust him, and the need to be outside becomes all-important. The more he feels he can't have this one simple freedom, the more trapped he feels. His heart starts to race and he's not sure if he's panting or not, but he knows there isn't enough air in the room. Not anymore. "I have to get out." He slips off the stool again, surreptitiously shifting his weight from foot to foot. Out. Out. Out. 
            "Okay," Sam says, holding up a hand to forestall Steve's protests. He stares down Natasha. This is his thing, the thing he's good at. Helping people. And he knows Bucky is done running. Not to mention there's no point in rescuing him just to keep him cooped up. Make him just as trapped as he was before. Standing up from the couch he nods to Bucky. Holding up his hand, one finger raised, "A few conditions first, one, it's you and me, two, you have to answer any question that I repeat, three, you will stay within my line of sight at all times or I will call Steve, and if he chains you up in the basement I won't stop him." Having ticked off the entire list on his fingers, he continues to hold them up until Bucky replies.

            "Anything," Bucky tells him. "Anything."

            "Put your shoes and socks on," Sam tells him, stepping into his sneakers and checking that the laces are tight. When Steve opens his mouth he just shakes his head. He mouths 'you have to decide to trust him at some point,' and glances back around for Bucky. Sighing as the man struggles to tie his shoelaces one handed, "C'mere, this is just too painful." Watching Bucky step cautiously towards him, he kneels down comfortably and ties both shoes in a matter of seconds. Ignoring Bucky's initial flinch, and then how painfully still he gets, "Bet you never wished you had Velcro shoes before," Sam grins.

            "No, I don't think, so," he says feeling even more lost. Velcro wasn't invented until well after Bucky had fallen into the KGB's clutches. Either way the shoes are tied. They feel strange, not coming up halfway to his knees, less straps and much less in the way of lacing. "They're squishy," he tells Sam, not sure if he likes it or not. They're certainly nothing like the boots the Winter Soldier wore.

            "You'll get used to it. I have a feeling those old combat boots of yours weren't built for comfort, huh?"

            "I ...I don't think so," he says, staring longingly at the door. It reminds Sam forcibly of a dog about to go on a walk after a long day of being cooped up. At least it's sunny out. While he's never hated rain, it's just less pleasant to walk around in it. Especially seeing as he has no idea how much time Bucky will need before he feels comfortable coming back to the house.

            "C'mon, let's go. Remember, within eyesight. You leave my field of vision and you will be lucky if we get home without me putting you on a leash first, you understand?"

            "Da, I understand."

            Opening the door, Sam lets Bucky exit first, and then follows, shutting the door in Steve's worried face.

 

            "Maybe I should go after-"

            "No." Natasha says. "No. You let them go, you let them talk, you let Barnes be a person for a while. You let him make a friend of his own, someone he can go to when he doesn't know how to approach you, and you leave them be. Besides if Barnes bolts, the tracker's still in his arm. We'll be able to find him and bring him back."

            "I just-"
            "No, this is the perfect time for you to sit down and do some soul searching," she informs him. "You should figure out what you plan to do once the arm is back on, and if you're ever going to tell him how you feel about him."

            "I have told him," Steve protests hotly.

            "Don't pretend to misunderstand me," she glares. "You can't even admit to yourself that you two could have easily been more than friends. And he feels bad enough thinking that you want something from him he can't give you: Your old friendship back. It would save you both hours of heartache if you'd just explain to him there's something new you're both seeking. Something you could start completely over with. If either one of you could pull your head out of your ass long enough to admit it."

            "I don't understand what you mean," he responds stiffly.

            "Sure you don't," Tony interjects helpfully from the kitchen. Glancing at Steve's face, "I'm going back down to the basement to work on the arm. When Bruce wakes up just send him back down to me."

***

           

 

            "So, you wanna talk about it, or do you just wanna walk first and get the jitters out of your system?"

            "Run, I want to run."

            "In shoes you aren't even sure you feel comfortable wearing? The hell did Hydra do to you?" Sam is a strong advocate for good footwear when it comes to running. He carefully selects each pair of shoes, and is careful not to wear anything too worn out. The idea that Bucky would willingly pound his joints against pavement in shoes that make him uncomfortable is mindboggling. And to him is just another sign of how miserably used to being uncomfortable the Winter Soldier really is.

            "I don't know," he whispers.

            "Okay, let's run," Sam tells him. "Remember, in my line of sight. I know you can lap me, and unless you feel like running around me in little circles.....just stay close enough I can see you." While he's sure Nat and Steve are watching the tracker data, and if Bucky seems like he's moving too quickly they'll move out, hopefully they'll call first. Watching Barnes break into a light jog, he shakes his head. The movement is graceful enough, but the arm is missing. The weight is wrong, somehow. He just doesn't look whole without it. It'll be good to see it back on.       See the same arm that ripped the steering while out of his hands while he was driving on a man who is even less stable than he was when he was doing the whole ripping-steering-wheels-out-of-cars-thing...right.

            Surprisingly enough, Barnes doesn't ditch him, he just jogs a few steps ahead, leaving Sam to flank him on the left. Shaking his head at the irony of it, Sam just does his best to give the other man his space. Not surprised when the other man breaks into a sprint, Sam speeds up a little so as to allow Bucky to run a  little farther before getting out of sight. At the end of the block he slows into a jog again, allowing Sam to catch up to him some.

            As Sam catches up, he notices when Bucky slows enough to keep them running abreast of each other, and knows he's ready to talk. Only Barnes has no idea how to start. Leaving it up to him to make the first move. Waiting a few extra seconds to see if he's wrong, he watches the other man struggle to form words. Pursing his lips, Bucky gives up. He's not supposed to talk or ask questions anyway. Just follow orders.

            "So what kind of food do you like?" Sam asks. It's an easy question, hopefully. When he suddenly realizes he's the only one still moving forwards, he stops. Apparently the question isn't an easy one for the man at his side. "Okay, easier question, how're the shoes working out?"

            "Different."

            "How so?"

            "They don't get so hot, for one."

            "Sounds like a bonus."

            "I have a feeling if I kicked someone it would hurt more. For me, I mean. Do they make shoes with steel toes still?"

            "Yes, yes they do. Just less colorful and mesh-y. Why, should we be looking for some for you?"

            "Not right now."

            "You want something to drink?" Sam asks, nodding his head towards a small coffee stand.

            "Does it have to be coffee?" While he knows there's no right answer to the question, it doesn't stop his mouth from spewing out words.

            "No, it can be whatever you want. We just won't tell Natasha," Sam smiles conspiratorially. 

            "Okay," he replies hesitantly, hoping it's the correct response. While he could go longer without liquids, he assumes Sam is asking because he wants something for himself. Hanging back as they approach the little stand, he suddenly realizes he has no idea what 'whatever he wants' really means.

            Sam orders a frappuccino, waiting for Bucky to make a decision. When Sam informs the barista that Bucky would prefer something without coffee, the young man suggests several things before lapsing into an uncomfortable silence. Chewing his lip, Bucky is absolutely still as he goes over the options in his head, over and over, trying to assess and pick one. There has to be a right answer, the right move to make. And he isn't sure which one that is. Which beverage he is supposed to choose.

             To Sam, this silence just means the man in front of him was stripped of the ability to choose, to think, and to make decisions for himself. It's painful to watch, but he has to start somewhere. To make it easier Sam tells him he should probably skip anything with dairy in it. Another few uncomfortably quiet minutes pass before he selects a lemonade. Sam pays without comment. It's a small victory, and one that can be celebrated by sitting on a park bench and enjoying the taste of cool drinks on a warm day.

 

Chapter Text

            "Do you like it?"

            "I...I think so," Barnes mumbles. "It's just... everyone's asking me these questions I don't know how to answer," he fumbles around with the straw, stirring the drink and making the ice rattle around the cup. "I can't remember a time when liking something was important. Or the last time someone wanted me to pick something....Steve kept asking me what I wanted. I don't...I don't even remember how to want something. It's like he's speaking a foreign language."

            "Tell me about the taste of the lemonade."

            "What?" He can't even begin to understand how that's relevant to their conversation. What does the taste have to do with the fact he can't understand this new world? This world without needles, and pain, and bullets? Where people ask him questions about what he wants, what he likes, not whether or not he's operational. Where he's eating food, and drinking things instead of just watching needles and tubes. None of it makes sense, and it's so terrifying he can barely breathe.

            "Just do it."

            Orders are something he can understand. Something he automatically follows. Clearing his throat, he thinks about it before answering. "Um, it's sweet, I guess. Kinda sour at the same time, but it doesn't...it's not the sour that hurts your teeth or makes your tongue curl up in your mouth. I don't... I can't remember what a lemon should taste like, so, I guess..." his voice just trails off.

            "Lemons...look, if you ever want to know what one tastes like, really tastes like, I will buy you one and peel it for you and everything, but you have to promise I can film you eating it and post it on the internet."

            "Internet?"

            "Um, think futuristic communication system where you can share news, information, important things, but people mostly post pictures of cats looking stupid."

            "Cats?"

            "Cats."

            "I ...I don't think I want to understand that one."

            "I'm not sure anyone does."  Sam leans back comfortably on the bench, legs sprawled loose in front of him and arms up over the back.

            "So, I guess I like this," he says softly.

            "The sweet or the sour part?"

            "Both."

            Squeezing Bucky's shoulder gently, he smiles. "It's good to be outside on a day like today."

            "Good weather for snipers, breeze isn't too strong," he agrees before freezing up.

            "Also true. Clear, easy to see, from a high vantage point the sun wouldn't be in your eyes right now, just your target's. I could see it."

            "Why aren't you afraid of me?"

            "You planning on killing me?"

            "You weren't my mission."

            "I was almost collateral damage, though."

            "Yes."

            "That's why. Right there."

            "I don't understand."

            "If you decided to go ape and go after Steve again, as long as I let you, you'd leave me alone. Not that I'd let you. I'd do my damndest to put you down first, but. You've got no reason to come after me."

            "Why does everyone else walk around on eggshells when I'm in the room? Or whisper when they think I can't hear them?"

            "Because they're stupid," Sam tells him, not expecting the man at his side to suddenly choke on his lemonade. Pounding his back, he finds himself laughing. "If you were half this spastic, I cannot believe you survived as many missions as you did." When Barnes is no longer choking, or complaining about the fact he's fairly sure he somehow got lemonade up his nose, Sam smiles a little. "Tony has been through some shit, and I know you don't know that, but I'm telling you. He has no idea how to act around people, and from what I hear, never did. But he spent some months locked in a cave with insurgents and didn't come out of it the same. I think he sees what could have happened to him in you, and so he's afraid of you. Well, not you you, but you get my meaning.

            "You've officially tried killing Natasha almost every time you've lost your place in time, so you can't blame her for keeping you at a distance. But I don't think she's walking on eggshells around you." And judging from the expression on the other man's face, he doesn't either. "Banner doesn't seem concerned either, so what you really mean is 'why is Steve walking around on eggshells?'"

            When Barnes realizes Sam is going to actually make him ask the question himself if he wants an answer he sighs. "Why is he acting like I'm a ticking time bomb?"

            "Because you're acting like he is."

            "What?"

            "You won't talk to him, you won't meet his eyes, you act like you're a horse about to spook, and then you wonder why he's so cautious around you."

            "I just...he wants me to be someone I'm not."

            "No, he doesn't."

            "See, Natasha said that, too. But she doesn't see the way he looks at me."

            "I'm pretty sure she does."

            "He looks at me like he's waiting for something. I don't know what he wants, I just know that it makes my insides knot up." It's hard to admit any of it, but he needs to. And Sam seems to used to hearing people's secrets. And keeping them. If Bucky thought for an instant he would relay any of this to Steve, he'd never be able to open his mouth.

            "He wants to get to know you, as you are. And yeah, I'm sure he wishes you could remember more than just the occasional flash or two, but. You two have lived a hell of a long time, and you are one of the few people who could remember those things he went through. You are the only other person on the planet who doesn't have a disease or something that is going to struggle adjusting to how things are now. You have a lot in common. And instead of moving forward with that, it's like you want to hold back from him. And what kills me, is I don't get why. He looks at you like you put the damn sun in the sky."

            Fidgeting with the straw and the ice again, he's finished the lemonade. He wets his lips before speaking, "He's such a good man, I don't deserve any of it."

            "Well that's what's great about friendship. And love. It's not about deserving. I certainly have not always deserved the faith people put in me. But they do it anyway, and it usually turns out alright. But, I mean that's the whole point is that you don't deserve it."

            "But how does that even make sense? Not deserving... I ...I remember some of the things I did. I remember how quickly I gave up, I remember how quickly I let them....I let them...I can never live up to his expectations of me. I can't even live up to what I saw at the museum."

            "You already have. And once you get that, life's gonna be a lot easier."

            "I already have? I almost killed the one person in the entire world who wanted to save me, but not use me."

            "But you didn't. They what, wiped your brain and gave you orders to follow, right? Specific things?" he waits for Barnes to nod. "But you broke the programming. You broke it, and you came through for him. You're at his side, you didn't turn him over to Hydra when he found you. You didn't get him killed when you were being tailed, in fact he says you fought at his side. All in spite of this programming. Which for whatever reason, you've started to break. And you think you're unworthy?"

            "I did whatever they asked before they ever wiped my memory," he shudders. "I ate when they said, how much they said, what they said to eat. Whether I wanted to or not. I dressed myself when I was told, not before, and I didn't dare so much as put a single button wrong, or to forget to fold my collar down...I tried running once, I complained about the food once..." he looks so sick Sam finds himself putting an arm around his shoulders.

            "You tell me what choice you had? Hmm?"

            "I could have died, and they could never have used me against the man who says we were best friends. If I had died an honorable man, refusing to do what...I killed for them. I killed for them for sport. Because I knew they would beat me if I didn't. I knew they would do worse. They told me they could, and I believed it. I never questioned it. He never....in that same situation, he never..."

            "You mean Steve Rogers, disoriented, alone, missing an arm, starving and half frozen, and you think he wouldn't just survive? You told me that they made you walk over broken glass after you saw them remove a man's feet for trying to escape, and you think Steve Rogers would have a done a damn thing different?"

            "He's...he's better than I am, he would have found a way to escape."

            "No, he wouldn't have. If they told him...look, he thought he saw you die, and a few weeks later at best he crashed a plane into the arctic, a plane that according to you, and how great you think he is, he could have probably easily escaped from and maybe survived the crash. But  since his best friend was dead, he didn't bother. He had a girl waiting for him, but he didn't have you. And so he chose to die. They told you that Captain America was dead.

             "They told you the one person who might have been able to save you died. They took away any chance of hope you had. I have lost my best friend, I have lost my partner, the person who watches my six, I have lost that person. The grief is incredible, and it's unending. The guilt you feel, the idea that you could have done something differently haunts you. And living without them is like living without a limb," he glances at Barnes' left arm and huffs out an embarrassed puff of air. "Why the hell would you think they were lying? It's a basic torture technique, isolation. They made you alone, they broke you down into pieces, and then they built you up in their image. Not to mention all that wacky mind-wiping technology they used. What chance do you think anyone in your situation had?"

            "That doesn't mean...I wasn't...I remember being so jealous of him. Not...not of him, I guess, I mean. Of Peggy, or of him with ...I don't know. I can't remember, and all I know is that he would never have felt that way. He was a good man."

            "Felt what way?"

            Holding up his arms helplessly, he just shakes his head. "I can't remember, I wish I could. I just remember knowing that I was losing him. But...that could...it could be from anything, and I don't know what to do. Or what to think. I just know that I don't deserve the way he looks at me, like I'm some kind of paragon...I'm a monster. I don't... he could never love me once he learns what I am."

            Sam has to look away. Mostly so Barnes doesn't see the hint of a smile on his face. 'Love.' That's what all this is about. "You're not a monster. I hate to sound like the NRA but people kill people, not guns. They made you a tool, and they used you. That shouldn't be on your conscience, that blood is not on your hands."

            "I was a killer before they ever found me."

            "And who did you kill for?" Sam asks, trying to keep the intensity from his voice. He doesn't want to spook the man at his side. "Who did you kill for?"

            "My country. And...and to protect Steve. And the other men...I did it to keep people safe."

            "So do you regret all those Nazis you killed?"

            "No. I saw what they did to people, I saw those camps..." his eyes fill with tears. "They weren't people anymore half the time..." he whispers. "My only regret is I didn't kill more of them," his face darkening, and Sam can see the man he was before this whole mess. The sharpness of his gaze, the firmness of his chin, he can feel the stubbornness radiating from the man at his side. The strength of character.

            "So what you did was your own choice? When you were fighting against Hydra, fighting the Nazis?"

            "Yes, it was my choice. I remember that much. I watched their backs, I was their sniper. I was the one they trusted to keep them alive from what they couldn't see. Not that Steve needed me, he was a one man army." He licks his lips to moisten them before chewing on his lower lip.

            "When it wasn't your choice, when they took that away from you, how can you say that was your fault? Did you consciously decide as Sergeant James Barnes to change sides?" he waits to see a shake of the head. It breaks his heart to see the other man looking so lost. "You didn't do that, did you even know you had ever been Barnes when you killed for Hydra and the KGB?"

            "No. I had no idea. I barely knew who I was any of the time. I was...I was nothing. I remember that. Nothing." Licking his lips again, he glances away. "They made sure I always remembered that. As if I could ever forget how worthless I was. I took orders, I took them, and I didn't hesitate, not even when there was a good chance of personal injury. It didn't matter. Whatever they wanted."

            "So how is that your fault?"

            "I..."

            "Exactly, not your fault. You ready to go back? We can walk real slow. It'll drive Steve nuts." Grinning broadly Sam jerks his head back towards the safe house. Bucky smiles awkwardly back as though he's not quite sure how to arrange the expression properly on his face.

            When they return and Sam lets them both in, the living room is quiet. "Huh, I half expected him to be waiting at the door like a little lost puppy dog," Sam tells him. He can see Natasha typing industriously away on her phone.

            "Where's loverboy?"

            "Drugged out on the couch."

            "What?"

            "Bruce slipped something in his coffee. We decided he needed some sleep."

            "He's going to kill you when he wakes up."

            "He can try." She glances up, "Feeling better?"

            Shrugging his good shoulder, he tips his chin up a bit and tries to smile. It's slightly more successful the second time around. He bends down to untie the shoelaces, carefully removing the sneakers.

            "Jeans really aren't running clothes," she tells him. "Next time you could try sweats."

            "I've run in worse. Through worse," he mumbles. The cold metal of his arm in winter climes...the burn of metal against flesh. Running in jeans doesn't even make the top 50 on the list of things that cause him discomfort. Or had. There was also the time he was forced to hide out in the latrines on the whim of a KGB higher up. The man had been killed, slowly, for wasting time with the asset, but it didn't mean Bucky didn't remember the smell. The discomfort.

            "You hungry?"

            "No," he says a little too quickly.

            "Sick of the food already?" she asks playfully.

            "No...I just...I don't feel hungry," he tells her, sounding almost confused. Turning away he walks hesitantly to the couch where Steve had fallen asleep earlier, coffee half finished on the table in front of him. "What'd you give him?"

            "No idea. Banner says it'll only last a few hours, so if there's something you need to do, or if you want to be alone for a while, you still have a little time guaranteed."

            She glances up when he moves into the living room and sits on the loveseat across from the couch, watching Steve sleep.

            Sam tells Natasha quietly he's going to shower and then probably do some grocery shopping, and pads quietly away. No point in being around when Steve wakes up.

            Never moving a muscle, he just sits, face blank, keeping watch. It reminds Natasha of a vigil or a wake, and she looks away. When Steve comes to, Bucky doesn't avert his eyes.

             It's slightly disconcerting for Steve to wake up and have anyone staring at him like that. Ignoring it as best he can, he sits up and stretches out on the couch before glancing at his mug.

            "Natasha, did you drug me?"

            "No."

            "Who did?"

            "That's telling, isn't it? Torture me all you like Rogers, but I'll go to the grave with this secret," she tells him flatly.

            "Why don't you want to sleep?" Bucky asks quietly, breaking the tension. The question is so innocent it gives Steve pause.

            Carefully considering, "I would have preferred to have been given the option. Wouldn't you?"  

            Looking away, "I wouldn't know," Bucky tells him quietly.

            "I'm sorry."

            "Why?" Bucky demands hotly, suddenly angry. "It's not your fault, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop acting like it was. I made decisions, and I lost the chance to make a great many more, but you taking all of that onto yourself doesn't help me," he spits.

            "I..."

            "Don't you dare say it," he warns.

            "What do you want me to say?" Steve asks, starting to feel exasperated. "Because so far everything I do is wrong."

            They both turn to stare when Natasha slams her mug down, slides off her stool and heads down into the basement. She has absolutely no intention of being around while they're fighting.

            "Well that was dramatic," Steve comments.

            "You seem to bring that out in people."

            "Me? I bring that out in people? What exactly have you been doing for the past couple of days then?"

            "Trying to figure out what your problem is!"

            "What my problem is?! My problem? You think I'm the one with the problem?"

            "I know you're the one with the problem!" Bucky snaps. "You look at me like I'm someone else, like you wish I was someone else, all the time. Like you're just waiting for me to suddenly remember who I was so you can pick up where you left off! Bucky Barnes is dead, Steve, he died a long time ago, and I don't know why you can't see that!"

            "Because he's standing right in front of me!" Steve explodes.

            "No, he's not! His corpse is!"

            Before he can stop himself he has Bucky by the shoulders and is shaking him, and for a horrible wonderful moment he thinks the other man is about to fight back. He can taste the blood, hear the splintering of bone in his face as Bucky head butts him...only it never happens. He just goes limp after a few seconds, absolutely refusing to fight back.

            "Oh my god, Bucky, I'm sorry, I don't even..." he just stands there in horror. He's not even remotely surprised when the other man breaks his hold effortlessly, slapping his hands away with vitriolic force.

            "See? You want me to be someone else. Let me tell you something, what little I remember, you were....are a good man. The kind of man who never could have...." swallowing hard, he licks his lips in indecision. "You would never be like he was, the way...you're not like that. So, don't ask me to try and bring him back just to be alone. I'd rather be like this and not have to look at you wondering what I'm giving up."

            "What you're... that doesn't even make sense," Steve mumbles. "You were a great man, Bucky Barnes was a hero. He looked out for some stupid scrawny kid from Brooklyn and finished his battles, stood by him, tried to get him dates..." Steve chuckles weakly.

            "You tried so hard to make sure I had everything I needed... you were so disgusted with me for continually trying to enlist. When I had nothing, I had you. People respected you, looked up to you, trusted you. You.... he....he was a hero. Still is. Not many people can come through what you did, and that's....that's something Bucky would do. Take those hits and keep coming. You were like a force of nature. I never had to watch my back when you were around."

            "That wasn't me...I don't know how to make you see that," he chokes. "I just wish I could be what you want, and I don't know how. It's killing me, do you understand that? I feel bad enough, and then you look at me and I can't give you what you want. And I don't know how live with myself."

            "No, it was, it was you," Steve says softly. "Your memories don't make you Bucky, or not Bucky. It's how you respond to things, it's how you look at things. It's how irrevocably good you are at your core that makes you Bucky. It's how it's killing you that you don't remember all these things that happened when that doesn't matter to me. It's how you are trying to be something...someone you think I want, when you already are. It's how you feel guilty for actions taken when you weren't yourself, and how despite all of it you're still standing. That's what makes you Bucky. Not any of the rest of it."

            He cups Bucky's cheek and uses his thumb to gently brush tears away. "There is nothing Hydra, or anyone else, could ever do to you to take that away."

Chapter Text

Staring at Bucky's face, Steve forces himself to look away before he does something they'll both regret. Feeling his face heat up, he's never wanted to kiss Bucky before. Guilt twisting inside of him, he drops his hand from the brunet's cheek. Burned into his brain is the need to find out if those lips are as soft as they look. But Bucky is a good man, an honorable man. And honorable men do not kiss other men. What the hell is wrong with him, anyway? One moment of vulnerability and he starts seeing things...feeling things that aren't there. All thanks to everyone's inappropriate jokes.

            Glancing up at Bucky, he smiles weakly. "So, you don't have to try and be someone you're not. We'll figure out who you are together, if you'll... if you want. I just, the only thing I want is to be there for you. That's all."

            "We could do that," he says, moistening his lips quickly again. It takes every ounce of self control Steve has to look away.

            "Okay, good, " Steve says briskly, rubbing his hands together. "Any interest in seeing what they've managed to come up with so far?" he asks, jerking a head towards the basement. Every so often he thinks he can hear swearing, and maybe some things banging around, but that could just be Dummy.

            "I can do that," Bucky nods. Squaring his shoulders and rubbing his face against his shoulder, he bites his lip.

            Heading down into the basement is less stressful the third time around. Bucky looks around with more curiosity than discomfort. Tony is working away with some kind of welding tool and swearing under his breath at the arm while Banner is watching a video of Bucky and Natasha sparring, walking around it in circles before making notes on a little pad of paper. He glances up first.

            "Perfect, do you mind coming over here for a second?" he asks, picking up a measuring tape. For a second, all Bucky sees is a garrote, then the moment passes. Walking over to the doctor, he stands uncomfortably, all his weight balanced on the right side of his body.

            "I just need some measurements, we're almost ready for a few preliminary fittings." He quickly and efficiently measures around the arm, just double checking from before. Glancing at the pinned up sleeve, he sighs. "If I thought it would have some sort of medical benefit, I would want to fix how they....that scar is awful and unnecessary," he mutters. "It could have been done so much smoother and less obvious. I'm sorry. It must have been quite painful."

            "I don't remember," Bucky lies. The sound of a staple gun echoes around him. Screaming. Blood. Sweat. A needle slid under skin. Nothing. Glancing up with his eyebrows raised, he meets Banner's stare. "It's fine how it is."

            "I know. The scar tissue isn't ridged or hard, it's not obstructing movement. There's no reason to do anything to it." 

            "It's just ugly," like me Barnes finishes quietly. "No one will see it anyway," he says, using the mangled limb to gesture towards the metal one. He carefully pads over to where Tony is working, squinting his eyes against the brightness of the sparks and cocking his head against the noise. Steve and Banner share a glance, his hearing is better in one ear than the other. Unwilling to risk getting close enough to get charred, Bucky stands back. When Stark throws him a pair of goggles he reaches out with the wrong arm, but still manages to catch the strap around his stump. Looking at it, half stupefied that it even worked, he pulls them on over his face with his right hand and moves behind Tony to watch more closely.

            Unable to breathe, Steve bites down on his tongue hard enough to draw blood. This is the first time he's seen Bucky show an interest in something for himself. Unsure of how to handle it, or what to think, he hopes it's a good sign.

            Watching Tony pause to interact with Bucky is painful. The way he shutters his feelings behind his eyes as Tony talks, glancing down at the arm and not the man. But he knows from Bucky's posture that he's listening, evaluating before answering. Whatever they're talking about is obviously important to Tony, but less so to Bucky.

            "I don't see why you don't have an opinion about this," Tony presses.

            "I just don't see why it matters so much to you."

            "Because it's..." Tony huffs, "It's about how you want to present yourself. It's about you, and the future, and the fact you have one," he insists.

            "So just do what you want, that seems fine," he says tersely, fingers splayed over the plans.

            "This isn't about me," Tony protests, but relents. Because it's really not about him. And if Bucky doesn't know what he wants, then there's no point in pushing the issue. As the metal cools, Tony tests it a few times to see how hot it still is, resting his palm against it once it's just pleasantly warm. Glancing at Barnes, he sees the other man hesitate, and reach out, running calloused fingertips across the top.

            "Is the metal thinner?" he asks softly, tilting the arm and watching the fingers curl flawlessly. It seems so natural.

            "No, I didn't damage the metal or thin it or anything like that. Hell, I didn't even buff it. I figured the shinier it was, the easier it'd be to spot you," he glances at Barnes' approving nod. "The only changes are internal. We have much more advanced prosthetics now, and there's no reason it has to be anchored in the way it was. My design is better. Unfortunately Bruce says the electrodes will still have to be subdural, but there won't be wires. So you won't have to worry about that, either. Good news is the arm will come off with less fuss, too, so if you bang it up again, it won't take so long to fix it."

            "How's it going to stay on..." he asks hesitantly.

            "Same way my suit does," Tony says, looking at him like he's caught a case of the stupids.

            "What suit? You're not wearing a suit."

            "I'm Iron Man," Tony says, the same way another man might say 'I'm God's gift to women.' Which for Tony is essentially the same thing.

            "Who?"

            "Oh my god. You really were under a rock for the past seventy years. Are you playing me? Is this for real, you have no idea who I am?"

            "You're Howard Stark's son."

            "You did not just, you did not just say that to me. I am more... I am the goddamned Iron Man. I...Steve, what the hell is wrong with you, how did you not educate him properly before bringing him here? He's under my roof and he has no clue who I am?"

            "I didn't think it was that important," Steve says hesitantly, reaching up to grab the back of his neck.

            "Well, this is ridiculous. JARVIS, show Barnes here some footage of Iron Man."

            Bucky steps back quickly when a holographic display appears between him and Stark. Arms going up in a defensive position, his body seems loose and limber, comfortable. Ready to fight back. Then abruptly he glances at Steve and relaxes. It's such a conscious effort, the loosening of his limbs and casual straightening of his pose. It makes Tony's heart hurt to see it. He walks around the simulacrum with a disturbing sense of familiarity. As if he's seen this kind of tech before. Head cocked to the side, he watches Tony fight. Watches the missiles launch from the suit, and glances down dispassionately at the metal arm lying on the table.

            "Sloppy," he remarks, glancing back up at the projection, and abruptly leaves the room. 

            "What the hell just happened?" Tony demands and Steve shrugs, heading towards the stairwell. "Well I guess at least he didn't hit anyone," Tony mutters before going back to work. Some things just aren't that important. Finishing the arm so he can sleep; that's important.

            "You okay?" Steve asks once he catches up to Bucky.

            "Would you stop asking me questions I can't answer?" he rejoins irritably.

            "I'm-"

            "No, not this again."

            "I'm not going to say sorry," Steve interrupts. "I was going to say 'I'm going to take a shower.' And then I was going to ask if you could keep yourself occupied while I did that."

            Bucky glances up. "I..." his mouth opens and shuts but he doesn't manage to form any words. Glancing over at Natasha, who is busy with her phone again, foot tapping irritably against her stool, he wonders how she left the basement without them ever seeing her.

             To the Winter Soldier this implies a secondary exit he wasn't aware of, and that concerns him. To Steve, this just adds to his general awe and respect for Natasha. Shaking his head, he leaves the two assassins alone.

            "Natalia," he mumbles, going to sit on the stool next to her. "<When do you leave?>"

            "<Soon, as soon as I find something. A direction to go.>"

            "<Will you bring him to us? Or will you stay with him?>"

            "<I'm going to retrieve him. And if it takes a while, so be it.>"

            "<Do you love him?>" Bucky asks her softly, hesitantly.

            "Da," she says quietly back.

            "<How do you know?>"

            Natasha smiles at him, turning her body to face him. "Why?" she asks. "You think you're in love with someone?"

            "No. No, of course not," he tells her. "How could I be? I don't remember anyone."

            "Well," Natasha says slowly. "It's something that you feel. It's not something that just happens, at least not for me. Not the kind that lasts. It's something that starts smaller," she glances at her coffee cup. "Certain smells, certain sights, words, they make you think of that person. And you start to wonder why you're thinking about them all the time. And you trust them, or at least you think you do," she admits carefully. Trust is a hard thing to earn. "You hope you always will. And sometimes, there's a point where you feel your heart beat faster, or your stomach clenches up whenever they're around. But not always. Sometimes it's more than that, or less, or both at the same time." Putting a hand over his on the counter, she shakes her head. "You can't have someone just tell you, it's not like that. It's not the same for each person, and it's not the same each time," she smiles. "And it changes. You can start out on opposite sides of something and end up together, and it's wonderful, and terrifying. And sometimes you fall out of love, or fall into it again."

            Thankful she doesn't ask why he was asking, he slips off the stool and hugs her tightly, shocking both of them. She waits for him to pull away, holding her breath. When he doesn't, she tightens the hug and kisses his cheek. "I'm going to miss you," he tells her quietly.

            "You'd better."

            "If you need help, there's.... there's ways to get in touch with us right? Ways to tell Steve, so we could join you?" he asks hesitantly, then adds, "I could go with you."

            "It's better if I go alone. Also you're not exactly easy to sneak past airport security," she teases. "Considering you're at the top of the terrorist watch list. Not to mention having a metal arm. C'mon," she teases. "But if I need help, yes, I can get in touch with someone."

            "When do you go?"

            "Now. Or as soon as Steve is out of the shower. I have what I need, I think," she says, glancing at her phone when it beeps on the countertop. It's odd to think that the Winter Soldier is hugging her, forget that his forehead rests on her shoulder. It's even weirder to think that this ghost, this murderer, is Steve Roger's best friend from his Howling Commando days. She never imagined that the man who shot her through the middle just to make a kill would ever be someone she'd trust to watch her back, forget someone she'd allow to touch her. "You'll like Clint," she tells him. "If nothing else the two of you can bond over being expert marksmen. His codename is Hawkeye," she tells Bucky. Feels him tense. "What?"

            "I think....I feel like I should know that name," he says with a sigh. "But it's gone now. Maybe if I see him, I'll remember."

            "Maybe."

            "Natalia?"

            "Yes?"

            "Do you think... do you think if I never remember... do you think that Steve...?"

            "Yes," she almost laughs. "Always. Always and forever." She knows what that question cost him, and feels how tense he is in the circle of her arms. How much he needs the physical contact with another person. How much he needs to know that being touched doesn't need to equate to being in pain. And that the time for fear is over. Not that there won't be hardships, not that there won't be more monsters to face. Inside and out. But he's got a chance to start over, just like she did. And she's almost jealous he has someone like Steve at his side to guide him. But she had Clint and Fury. And people like Maria Hill. She wasn't alone, either.

            When Steve walks back into the room, still toweling his hair dry, his stomach clenches in jealousy. He wasn't expecting to find Bucky and Natasha so close when he got back. And while he'd been thankful that there hadn't been any explosions or fighting, he wasn't as pleased to see Natasha kiss Bucky on both cheeks. And was even less pleased to see Bucky respond by kissing her back. Stepping out of her embrace, Bucky resettles himself on the stool, carefully watching Steve with his head cocked to the side.

            To Nat, it's just a European goodbye, a quick kiss on each cheek, and nothing more. To Steve, it's the beginning of a relationship he doesn't want to see unfold. Not that he even has a reason to feel that way. It's not as if he wants a relationship with Bucky. They have one, they're best friends. Or will be again once Bucky remembers. Or even if he doesn't.

            "How's Clint gonna feel when he meets Bucky?" Steve asks her quietly, unable to keep the irritation from his voice.

            "Honestly? He'll probably be surprised that Bucky's real. The Winter Soldier was a ghost, Steve. He'll probably feel the same way I did when I saw Barnes walk out." She grins quickly at Bucky, "Intimidated, and sort of like we were all screwed." 

            "That's not what I mean," he tells her.

            "Then what the hell do you mean?" she asks.

            "She loves Clint," Bucky says, maybe a little too loudly, but it stops the fight before it starts. "She was just telling me about him," his voice sounds apologetic. Not stupid, he could read Steve's body language, but can't find a reason for it, none of it makes any sense. Why is Steve angry with him, angry with Natasha?  Feeling uncomfortable, he slides off the stool and puts some distance between them. Head cocking to the side, he swings to face the door.

            It's just Sam coming in with some groceries. "Got some stuff for you," he smiles at Bucky, "Some stuff you might like to try, assuming you have the go ahead."

            Realizing that they're waiting on her Natasha looks up from her phone. "Just go slow, if it makes you feel sick, don't eat it," she tells Barnes with a shrug. "You should be good now. Anyways, I've gotta talk to Tony and then I'm out of here."

            Sam quietly begins unpacking the groceries, glancing up at Steve every so often. "You wanna lend me a hand in here?" he asks, breaking the tension. When Steve joins him, he glances sidelong at Bucky, who is glancing over his shoulder at them. Surprised the other man seems to know how to work the remote, the TV is back on in a matter of seconds, this time with sound.

            "You doing okay?"

            "Of course. Of course I'm doing okay."

            "Well, that's funny, see, because in your place I'd be a mess."

            "What? I'm fine, Sam. There's nothing wrong with me. I've got nothing to complain about."

            "Yeah. Because having the person you're in love with afraid of you half the time and confused by you the other half isn't a huge deal."

            "I am not in love with him."

            "Okay, fine, you're not. So why are you so jealous when anyone's touching him, looking at him, or talking to him?"

            "I am not, Sam, that's horseshit and you know it. Besides, who the hell does that to someone with... Sam, anyone falling in love with him right now, when he's like this, is a monster. Do you understand me? He's impressionable, he's lost, and he'd probably do what anyone asked him to if he thought it would help keep them at his side. I am not in love with him. First and foremost because it's sick, and second of all because it's wrong."

            "Or anyone who's falling in love with him sees how good he is. How nervous and anxious to please, and it's endearing," Sam offers. "And maybe that person knows who he used to be, and all those good things about him from before are still peeking out from under all the grime that being the Winter Soldier heaped on. Maybe that person can see past and present together as one cohesive unit, and loves it."

            "Sam, he's ill. Half the time he's not sure who I am, half the time I'm not sure he's going to ever trust me. And then you're implying I have feelings for him?" Steve asks hotly, dropping his voice when he sees Bucky look back over at them in concern. He focuses for a minute on the television, watching Elmer Fudd chase Bugs Bunny around. He had no idea that Looney Tunes were still around. Those things had been on since the 30's. What Bucky's thinking as he watches is a mystery to Steve, but he leaves it alone.

             "We were friends. We grew up together. Of course I have feelings for him. Just not those kinds of feelings. I don't know why you're pushing so hard."

            "Because maybe he loves you back, and it would really help him if you'd get over yourself and your own fear and make a move. So then he doesn't have to wonder or feel guilty about the fact he's conflicted about his feelings. He told me you were a good man, and that was why he didn't think you could love him back."

            "What? He never once said that he was in love with me," Steve counters irritably.

            "No, not straight out. But he did say that you couldn't love him as he was. You might be right, he might have meant as a friend. But either way you acting like he's broken is making him wonder how damaged he really is. And how is that helpful to either one of you?"

            "He's... he's not in his right mind, Sam. He's not capable of making decisions about things like that. Or even remembering. You're asking him, hinting at him all the time that we have some relationship beyond what we did, and you think it's a shock he's confused by it? Thinking that maybe there is something more? Maybe if you and everyone else weren't so busy implying we should be sleeping together, he wouldn't be thinking it."

            "What color are his eyes Steve?"

            "What?"

            "What color are his eyes?"

            "Blue, why?"

            "Just normal blue. Blue like yours?"

            "No, more grey, like a storm."

            "And you think you're not in love with him?"

            Bucky's laughter startles them both. It's the first time in over seventy years that Steve has heard it outside of an old reel at the Smithsonian. Glancing up at the television and away from Sam's face, he sees Bugs singing to the tune of Wagner, and grins a little.

            "Do you remember these?" Bucky asks, almost sounding animated as he twists back to look at Steve. "I didn't at first, they look so different, but that's Bugs Bunny! We'd see him before the movies started, you remember that?"

            "Yeah Buck, of course I remember."

            "I think I do, too," he says, sounding almost happy. Settling himself back down on the couch to watch, he doesn't laugh again, but he seems more content.

 

Chapter Text

"You are not getting out of this conversation that easily," Sam says.

            "There is no conversation," Steve snaps, stopping himself seconds before slamming a carton of eggs down on the countertop.

            "Yes, there is. For one, you're treating him like a child. Nothing he's done suggests he has the mentality of a little boy, Steve. He acts like someone's who's seen some shit and doesn't know what to do with it. There's a difference. You're just making the assumption because that you remember and he doesn't, he's incapable of deciding things or wanting them."

            "Something like this is different. Bucky dated women, Sam. Lots of them. He slept with them, he enjoyed it. And you think that a few trips in cryo-freeze and some memory removal is going to suddenly make him want me? Have you seen him and Natasha together?"

            "Yes, I have. They're like siblings. I don't know what you're seeing, but you have nothing to worry about with them. Any more than you have to worry about him'n me. Not gonna happen. No matter how lost he looks."

            "This...Sam. Sam would you actually listen to what I'm saying? It would never happen. It will never happen. I, and Bucky, prefer female company." Raising his eyebrows he stares Sam down.

            "Sure you do," Sam says looking away to put some milk into the fridge. "But you really do need to stop treating him like he's a child. And you could try treating him like a person. Ask him what he wants. Even better you could be fucking honest with yourself and then with him."

            "There...I am honest. I have answered every question he's asked me. He doesn't ask many," Steve says, forcing his voice into a calmer cadence. No reason to alert Bucky to there being a problem. "And no matter how many times you say he's not a child, which he isn't, and I don't see him like that, it doesn't change the fact... it doesn't change the fact he's not himself. It would be taking advantage. If anything you had to say was true, it would be taking advantage, and it would be wrong. And he would figure it out. He would know and he would be angry and upset and betrayed. And our friendship would never be the same." He glances down at his hands. "You're still wrong, and you will never be right about this, but I will never put him through that. It would be a lie. A cheap trick. Don't you go filling his head with this stuff Sam. Don't twist his memories like that."

            "And you're a self righteous prick," Sam points out, finally getting fed up. "You assume just because he's lost and hurting he can't figure out his own feelings? Have you even asked him? No. Have you talked to him about anything? No. Have you asked him a single damn thing he actually can answer, or do you enjoy tormenting him?"

            "What? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

            "There is a huge difference between 'how're you feeling?' and 'are you okay?' and you've gotta be doing it on purpose at this point!"

            "Stop it!" Bucky shouts, slamming the flat of his hand on the countertop. How he got there that quickly without either one of them noticing is a testament to how frustrated they were getting. "I don't care what questions he's supposed to be asking or not asking, enough!" Breathing hard, he glares at both of them.

            Steve isn't sure what he's heard, and turns white as a sheet, "Look, Buck, a lot of that stuff Sam was saying just wasn't true, okay?" he asks, hands up in a gesture of surrender.

            "I wasn't listening to you until you both started shouting," Bucky says irritably. Glancing back towards the stairwell, he bites his lip and waits, head tilted. When Natasha appears he moves towards her. "You ready?" he asks her, sounding both hesitant and thankful for the escape.

            "Yeah, just need a few more things and I'm out of here," she tells him, squeezing his shoulder. "You'll have to let me know how it goes with the arm," she says, gesturing to what he has left. "Tony's been working hard, and the man is a genius. Don't tell him this, but he's probably even smarter than his father."

            "I wouldn't, his ego is bigger than his father's, too." He grins awkwardly when Natasha barks a laugh. It's good to make people smile. Breathing easier, he half wishes he could remember enough that he wouldn't be a liability going along with her. She's less volatile than Steve. Less concerned about him, too. It's easier to relax around her. "Take this," he mumbles, passing her a flat dagger, watching her eyes widen and then narrow, he almost smiles again. "<You think I would go weaponless?>" he asks her softly.

            "<How did you hide these from Rogers?>"

            "<And you, you mean?>" a genuine grin lights his face when her eyes narrow again. "<Easy.>"

            "Spaciba," she smiles. Thanks.

            "," you're welcome. "Watch your back," he reminds her. As if she needs it. Watching her head down the hallway, he feels tempted to follow her, but instead just stays where he is. She comes back out without a single bag, the only difference is she's got on a hoodie.

            "You be good," she tells him, winking. Going over to Steve and Sam she hugs them each, briefly. "Things go well you'll see me in a few weeks. Things don't go well, you'll see me in a few weeks because I expect your asses to be backing me up."

            "Anytime," Steve says. He feels her departure is abrupt, but he's not going to stop her. If she needs to go bail Clint out, he only wishes that he could go with her. But Bucky is more important right now. Glancing at his friend, he feels the now-familiar tug in his gut. The automatic glance to his lips, to see if Bucky's biting at them again. How red they look right after. Shaking his head as if to clear the image out, he looks up just in time to see Bucky wetting his lips. Turning his back, "You let us know if there's anything we can do to help," he tells Natasha, and walks her to the door.

            When she leaves it's like the world is suddenly smaller. Sam glances at Bucky who still hasn't moved. "You gonna be alright without her?" he asks, no mockery in his voice.

            "It'll be less fun with no one to talk about you guys behind your backs' with, but I'll live," he says, tipping his chin up and forcing a quick twitch of his lips that almost passes for a smile. Glancing at Steve guiltily, he looks at the door and looks away. He wants to ask Why is it when I look at you I feel like my heart's being ripped out of my chest? but he can't. It wasn't as if he'd missed the entire conversation in the kitchen. Broken. He knew that. "Hey Sam?"

            "Yeah?"

            "You think anyone's watching the house?"

            "Not so far, I haven't seen any tails or signs of anything. But Tony's got a bunch of security, too, so I think we'd be warned if there was someone."

            "Good," Bucky says abruptly, and spins on his heel, disappearing out the back door. Steve starts out after him, but Sam stops him.

            "If you go out there, you had better be going out there to talk to him. Honestly. Otherwise you should leave him alone. There's only so much leading on a person can take."

            "I am not leading him on," Steve snaps, wrenching his arm free of Sam's grasp. By the time he gets out the door there's no sign of Bucky, and Steve finds himself looking around frantically. Could have jumped the fence, but he's only got one arm, he's defenseless. Not like with the arm, the balance...in a fight against street thugs, Bucky'd be fine, but. Hydra? Hydra with just one arm, and then he hears a deliberate cough. Looking up, Bucky's on the roof. Grabbing the front of his shirt over his heart, Steve does his best to remember how to breathe. Taking a few steps back so he can get up enough momentum, he vaults up onto the roof next to Bucky.

            "I'm not broken."

            "So you heard that....I didn't..."

            "You meant it."

            "I'm sorry."

            "You agreed to stop telling me that," Bucky says, looking away.

            "No, really, I mean it. I am-"

            Bucky lashes out faster than thought, and Steve finds himself sliding towards the gutter, watching Bucky work his way closer to the apex of the roof. Twisting around Steve manages to stop his descent and decides it's probably for the best if he gives the other man his distance. This game of cat and mouse is getting old. And it seems unfair. Is he somehow leading Bucky on? Or himself? Shaking his head in frustration, he squeezes his eyes shut.

            "Y'know what Sam and I were talking about?"

            "Some of it," Bucky says. "Me. For one. Like I wasn't even there."

            "It wasn't...it wasn't really that much about you, so much as me."

            "I heard you, talking about how I wasn't in my right mind, or whatever it was you said." As if Bucky couldn't recite the parts he heard word for word. "About how I couldn't know what I was feeling for myself. I heard that Steve. I didn't know that was how you saw me. Lost. Confused. Broken. I don't think those are words you use to talk about your friends. But I can't remember ever having had any, so I'm no expert. I guess that means I can't know what friendship is, either, since I don't remember it. Right?"

            "Look, Buck, I-"

            "I'm not finished Rogers." When Steve stays silent, Bucky glances down at him. "I've been listening to you, listening to Sam, listening to Natalia, Tony, Banner. You're the only one who talks to me like I'm younger than you. Stupider." When he sees Steve open his mouth to protest, he raises his eyebrows. "I saw the footage at the Smithsonian. We were equals, once. I saw that. I wondered what it was like to be equal to another person. To not have someone giving you orders, telling you to do something and just doing it. Being allowed to think about things. I wondered what that was like. Having an opinion.

            "You know what I found out? It's hard. And it sucks. It's been too long since anyone let me think for myself. It doesn't mean I can't. Just because I don't say every damn thing that comes into my head like Stark does it doesn't mean I don't have thoughts. It doesn't mean I can't feel things. I mean, okay, it takes a while sometimes to figure out what they are, but I'm not stupid Steve, and I'm not broken. I'm just someone new with the face and a few memories of someone you used to know."

            "Bucky, I..."

            "No. You don't see me. You see him. No matter what you say about my goodness, or my integrity, you're hoping I'll remember and be him, and we can go back to the way we were in the forties. We can't. Nothing is the same. I know that much. I can still watch your back, Steve. I can still fight at your side. I have. I've proven myself to you. Bad reactions mixed in with all of it. But I do know that Sam's wrong about one thing. You're not in love with me, you're in love with the idea of who I used to be. And...I'd really rather not have that hanging over my head. So, if you can't..." he takes a breath, tongue flicking over his lips, and tilts his chin up, forcing a weak smile, "If you can't accept that, as soon as Stark refits the arm maybe I should go my own way. Find Natalia and help her get Clint back."

            "I..." Steve feels his throat start to close. He's never had a panic attack before, but he thinks he might be having one now. There's no air. They're outside and he can see the stars, but he can't find any air to breathe. He knows Bucky is waiting for a response, but he can barely move. Leave? Leave without him? The idea is unbearable.

            He watches Bucky bite down on his lip, watches blood well up and forces his body to move forwards. There's no reason for the man in front of him to know more pain. When he finally makes it up to him, he's still trying to remember how to make air go into his lungs. Reaching out helplessly he cups Bucky's cheek, the other hand reaches out to gently thumb away the blood. "You should really stop doing this," he mumbles, and without thinking about it leans in to kiss those tortured lips. He feels Bucky freeze, feels himself freeze and almost tumbles down the roof. But Bucky's hand is in his shirt, holding them both steady.

            "What the hell was that?" Bucky asks breathlessly. "Who the hell were you kissing?" he demands suddenly, angry, shaking his hand free of Steve's shirt. And Steve just knows if he answers wrong, or takes too long, Bucky's going to shove him off the roof.

            "I...I had to," he admits. "I've wanted to... I didn't know. I didn't...I was kissing you!" he explodes, embarrassed. "Not... not who you were, Bucky, we weren't like that back then. There was Peggy, and there were all these girls for you...It never...we would never..."

            "But now since I'm all you've got...? You know what I remember most about you Rogers? The way you smelled. The way you carried yourself. The way you looked at Peggy. Not me, not anything to do with me. I wish I could remember how we were. I just remember how I was. How you didn't see how badly I wanted you. And I was so thankful because then I could ignore it, too. And now that I'm back and the only person who could understand you, the only person you could share a past with, suddenly now you want to kiss me?!" he demands.

            "No! It's not like that! Don't say that, this is hard enough!"

            "Kissing me is hard for you!?" Bucky demands, backing further away until he's up against the chimney. Nowhere to run.

            "NO!" Steve explodes. "No!" he says more softly, grabbing the front of Bucky's shirt and pulling him forward.

            "Don't you dare kiss me again if you don't mean it."

            "I'm with you Bucky, to the end of the line," Steve tells him, pulling Bucky closer, close enough to kiss. He can still taste the blood on the other man's lips, he can feel the frustration in his body, and knows he hasn't won the other man over. Not yet. Pulling back, he glances at Bucky's face. "No, I... not kissing you is hard for me. This isn't a joke, or a game...I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I just. I thought it was wrong, I thought that doing this...I thought it would hurt you. Confuse you. I didn't know...I didn't know how you felt. I should have, I'm sorry."

            "Are you ever going to stop apologizing?" Bucky murmurs, one hand going to Steve's cheek, "Or am I going to have to shut you up?" he asks, leaning back in and pressing his lips against Steve's. This time, he's warm and pliant, and Steve can almost feel the other man smiling against his lips.

            Pulling back to stare at Bucky's face, Steve can't stop the smile from spreading across his own, or the blush. "You're blushing," Steve mumbles.

            "So're you," Bucky says, looking away. The eye contract is too much, too intimate, now. He lets his hand drop away from Steve's cheek, and takes a breath. Steve tastes a little like coffee. A little like blood, and Bucky knows it's his own, and a little like something else he can't place. But his lips were warm. Soft. Gentle. Hesitant. Forceful. Everything Steve's been holding inside is in his mouth, on his lips. Just for him. Looking up bashfully to stare at Steve, he can see so many changes. More lines at the corners of his eyes, a hint of lines to come at his forehead....the corners of his mouth, from grimacing, no doubt. Or just thinking too hard. Steve is so different than the man in the reels, than the man in those fleeting glimpses of the past. And he feels lost, staring.

            "Hey!" Tony's shout startles them both. Bucky tips one way while Steve tips the other, hair-trigger reflexes stop them both from pitching off the roof, but not from losing their dignity. "Hey, we finished that damn arm of yours, so get your ass off the roof and back inside so we can put it back on already!" Tony glances up at them, both disconcerted and awkward. "What the hell were you two doing up there anyway, making out? Jesus let's get a move on."

           

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

 

 

            Bucky slides to the edge of the roof first, and allows Steve to help him down. Not that he really needs it, but if letting Steve feel needed makes him feel better, then so be it. He drops silently to the grass, coming smoothly to his feet and glancing up at Steve. Rolling his eyes when Steve does a forward flip off the roof, he knows when his friend is showing off.

            "Was that necessary?" Bucky asks trying to hide the amusement in his voice.

            "No, but I'm sick of being cooped up, too, y'know." He feels a moment of regret, wondering if that comment would somehow hurt Bucky's feelings. It doesn't appear to, and they re-enter the house in comfortable silence. Ignoring Tony's chiding to hurry up already, they make their way to the stairwell, and Bucky feels his body tense up.

            "What if putting the arm back on makes me forget what little of Bucky I remember?" he asks quietly, glancing at Steve.

            "I won't let you."

            And then Bucky is heading down the stairs, shoulders squared. He stands quietly at the bottom for a few seconds before taking a deep breath and forcing himself further inside the room. Every time he glances back at Steve his cheeks pink just the slightest bit, and Steve knows his own face is getting progressively darker each time.

            "So the unpleasant part is the first part," Banner says, looking haggard. Stubble lines his cheeks, and the circles under his eyes are a testament to how hard he and Tony have been working on the project. "We figure there's no way to avoid implanting the electrodes, not the way you fight, or the way the arm would need to come on and off," he says, showing Bucky a small tray of implements. Sees the other man tense, and then force himself to relax, muscle by reluctant muscle.
            "You want me in the chair?" he says, more than asks. He knows full well they'll want him sitting down. And probably strapped down. They always strapped him down before. Forcing himself to sit down is one of the hardest things he can remember doing. Worse is leaning back and trying to keep his muscles loose. If you tense up, it'll hurt worse. Hold still damnit, what did I just tell you? His head snaps against a remembered blow. Realizing he's shaking, he takes a breath. This is doable. This will hurt less. These people don't want to hurt him. Their faces are familiar, now. He's been allowed to remember them. There is no ritualized vocal pattern to bring him back, just their faces. Concerned, haggard, intense. But somehow easier to trust than those other ones, calm. Cold. Cruel. Curious.

            Shuddering involuntarily, he leans forward to pull off his shirt, not even noticing when the safety pin pops open and leaves a long scratch across his bicep.

            Feeling the other man flinch against his touch, Banner examines the scratch before deeming it won't cause any problems with the prosthesis. It's already healing. "They did something right, at least," he mumbles more to himself than Barnes. The arm is ready and waiting, Tony hovering nearby as if to protect it.

            Watching Banner, and then Barnes, the most frightening part of the entire procedure is the fact that not once does a single expression cross the soldier's face. No sign of pain, no sign of his discomfort. Steve is standing in his line of vision, but out of the way of the two scientists, face white. He knows Bucky well enough to see the fear in the set of his jaw. What he doesn't know is how to react to the emptiness in those blue eyes.

            Each electrode goes in without a single wince, not even so much as a blink. But Steve feels each one personally, flinches each time since Bucky can't. Or won't. Refusing to look away, he instead raises his gaze to his partner's face. Meeting his eyes. Hoping that some part of Bucky will shine through. Steve hates that chair. Hates the fact it brings out the Winter Soldier. He half wonders if Tony could be convinced to burn the damn thing when this is all over. No more chairs.

            Tony lifts the arm up as Banner wipes the blood away, watching the skin start to close as the bleeding slows and then stops. The wounds were small, negligible. Easy to heal. Carefully guiding what's left of Bucky's natural arm, not much past his elbow, into the metal, he sees Tony evaluating the process. Carefully both men are adjusting the arm, shifting it up higher, rotating it the slightest bit, all the while giving Bucky quiet instructions like 'bend your elbow a little' or 'hold your arm straight, no not so tense.' And then it's on. And Bucky looks whole again. Watching him glance down, and then up at Tony's face. Waiting for that single nod, he looks down at the metal hand and closes it. Jumping at Tony's sudden whoop of success, the arm flinches with him. Naturally. Steve can see the muscles flexing, or the metal flexing like muscles, he's not sure.

            "How's it feel?" Tony asks, excited.

            "Fully operational," Bucky says, face pale. Some warmth comes back into his eyes, "It feels better," he says softly. Bringing the hand up, he traces flesh-and-blood fingers across the metal palm and his eyes widen into near perfect circles as the hand twitches. "I can....I can feel it," he says, shocked. "I...I can feel?" he asks brokenly, holding the hand out to Steve, who walks over and takes it gently in both of his. "I can feel," he mumbles. Glancing at Tony, he blinks rapidly, "Thank you."

            "I told you I could do better. I will tell you if the arm sends pain signals that the whole sensory perception thing will shut down. So for instance someone shoots the hand, you won't feel the pain. In fact it won't turn back on until your heart rate is down and you're out of danger. So, once there's no chance of it hurting or causing you more problems, you'll be able to feel again."

            He sees Bucky shiver as Steve runs his fingertips lightly up the arm.

            "It'll be easier to remove, too. I mean we still have some calibrating and fitting to do, but it won't come off in a fight," he adds smugly. "Just when you want it to. It'll respond quicker than you're used to, less effort. You'll notice it's not as heavy, either, less motors and extra shit in there. It might have been advanced for the KGB, but it's got nothing on Stark Industries tech."

            "How will it hold up in a fight?" he asks, thinking of the time he used it to stop his momentum as he slid down a road. Fighting Steve. Thinking of thrusting the metal fingertips through the hood of car. While he has no intention of trying to kill Steve or any of his friends again, he would like to be able to protect them. The same way he could have before. Back when he was this much-vaunted James Barnes person everyone keeps going on about.

            "How well... better. It'll be better, stronger, faster, c'mon. We rebuilt it!"

            "Tony, neither one of them will get that reference, and you said it all wrong," Banner points out quietly.

            "So how do we test it?" Barnes asks softly, glancing around the room. He hasn't seen a single gun in the house. Yet. And he honestly hasn't looked too closely. Sometimes it's better not to know, just in case the Winter Soldier resurfaced. Shooting Steve in his sleep was a fairly irrevocable thing to do.

            "Well, you need to get out of the chair for one," Tony says, energy thrumming through his entire body. "Move the arm around, tell us how it feels. Pick stuff up with it," he suggests. Barnes moves the arm around, straight out, rotating it and his shoulder in a circle, moving his fingers, making a fist, and then lifting small objects first. Delicate things like a pair of Tony's glasses first, a glass, and then he looks around for something larger. He needs to know. Has to know if the arm's still as strong as it was, or if Stark is sabotaging him. When Steve walks over and leans over a table, elbow resting on it with his hand up and palm open, Bucky raises his eyebrows.

            "You know you want to," Steve challenges, ignoring Bucky rolling his eyes. Moving towards the table, he hunches over it, body posture mirroring Steve's perfectly. They clasp hands shifting their grip a few times to make sure it's comfortable.

            "I could crush your hand on accident," Bucky cautions him.

            "You won't."

            "Not on purpose," Barnes responds grimly, but there's a challenging light in his eyes. Tony Stark's arm against Howard Stark's. Glancing at Tony, he shrugs his right shoulder, "Guess we'll find out who's better, huh?" he asks, "You with your robotics, or your father with his super soldier."          

            Before Tony can come up with a suitably sarcastic response, he can see the muscles under Steve's shirt flex, and knows they're already struggling against each other. Can see Barnes grinning, and knows the metal arm is just as strong as it used to be. Maybe stronger, as he sees Steve's eyes narrow and his jaw firm in concentration. He's not playing anymore.

            "Should I end this before you strain something, old man?" Bucky asks, taunting. And then his eyes widen as Steve forces his arm back slightly. Tony watches the muscles ripple under Barnes' skin, sees the metal tense and flex, and then Steve's arm is flat on the table. Barnes' hand has gone flat, clearly afraid of crushing Steve's. Pulling back, he watches the blond flex his fingers and shake out his arm a little.

            "So I think the arm is fine," Steve laughs.

            "I need more," Bucky says, "Throw something at me," he tells Tony. "Something sharp, or...or fast, just throw it as hard as you can," he says.

            Shrugging, Tony lifts a screwdriver and slings it with all the force he can muster at Barnes, sincerely hoping the other man deflects or catches it. Opening his eyes when he doesn't hear any screaming or swearing, he can see Barnes holding the screwdriver by the handle. He's just looking at it in his hand, and  a slow grin spreads across his face. "It's faster than it was, the reaction time is better, this is going to change everything," he tells Steve animatedly.

            "Yes, I'm sure having you be a more effective killing machine is wonderful, but we have a few more adjustments to make," Tony says. Beckoning Barnes back over to where he and Banner are waiting, it takes them a little over an hour before they pronounce themselves satisfied with their work.

            Tony jokingly suggests Bucky do a few cartwheels or handstands and the flat look he gets from Steve is the only thing that makes him stop. Unable to resist trying the arm out, Bucky encourages Steve to join him in the yard for a sparring match. It doesn't take him long to wheedle an agreement out of Steve, especially when Sam offers to referee them if Steve's that worried about losing.

            Watching the two of them spar isn't like watching the Winter Soldier and Black Widow. Where both are lithe, fast, full of throws, locks, joint breaks...but Steve, and how Bucky fights him, it's like watching a battering ram throw itself against a wall, or waves breaking across the rocks. Bucky throws himself at Captain America who refuses to give ground, and while he's not gaining, either, his feet are planted and he's not moving. There's nothing personal on either man's face, there's no intent to cause harm. Just the casual trade of blows that would shatter another man's bones. When Barnes starts to sweat, Sam can tell they're almost done. He can hear them, now, the soft grunts when the other lands a blow, the labored breathing. The arm is holding up well.

            Even when Steve manages to grab the arm and swing Bucky in a circle, it stays attached, stays firm, undamaged. However, Bucky lands in the grass, panting and laughing. As Steve goes over to offer him a hand up, Bucky plants his feet in Steve's middle, grabbing his wrist and tosses him up and over. Rolling up to his feet in the same movement, he goes to stand over his fallen friend and holds out a hand to help him up. When Steve kicks out, knocking Bucky down next to him, Sam goes back inside. He knows what they're doing, or will be doing, and he doesn't want to be a witness.

            Unwilling to be taken down so easily, Bucky rolls on top of him, pinning his arms with his legs before he finds himself back on his back. It takes them a while to finally sort out who's going to stay on top, and therefore claim the title of 'winner.' Both grass-stained, muddy and bruised, Bucky laughs. Shaking dirt out of his hair onto Steve's face, he enjoys the way the man under him scrunches his face up tight to keep the dirt out of his eyes. Steve makes a few token attempts at freeing himself, panting, and grins up at Bucky.

            "Satisfied the arm is okay?" Steve asks him.

            "Not quite," Bucky says, running cool fingertips across Steve's face, into his hairline, down the side of his face, down his neck to the collar of his shirt, over his shoulder to the end of his t-shirt and to the smooth skin of his bicep. "I can feel,"  he tells Steve softly, bringing his fingertips back up to touch the other man's lips lightly. He flushes when Steve lightly kisses them, and it gives the blond the ability to flip him over onto his back again. Knocking the air out of him.

            Not bothering to pin Bucky down, Steve sits up, waiting for Bucky to join him. When he does, he glances at Steve. "When you look at me, you see him....don't you?"

            "No...well, yes, I see you. I see who you were. But at the same time," Steve smiles gently. "It's like your arm, it's new, to me. But it's part of you. I see it, it's there. But I can see your skin, too, y'know? It's all there at the same time. It's not...Bucky, I don't just see one part of you at a time, not like how you think." Smoothing the sweat-soaked strands of hair back from Bucky's forehead, he leans forward and kisses his lips softly. "I was never much good at explaining things," he admits softly. "But you'll just have to believe that the man I'm getting to know, and the man I knew...I see them both and I love them both. But you're not, you're not two people. You're just one, so I don't have...." he turns red. "I see you as one person, not as two. So don't... don't think that I'm looking for something else in you, or seeing something that is or isn't there..." he stumbles over his tongue, not sure what to say. Or how to explain it.

            "It's okay, you can stop now. Before you confuse me worse," Bucky says, flopping back down onto the grass. "This seems corny, somehow," he admits. "Looking up at the stars with you. I don't even remember what they're called. I know I could use them to navigate, to not stay lost. To return to base. But I don't know what they were called. Or what their stories are. But I feel like I did."

            "Here," Steve says, lying down next to him, bumping shoulders. "That one, that's the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major, which is uh, Big Bear or something, I think, and then if you follow the tail or handle or whatever it is, you'll find Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper."

            "You're just as bad explaining this as you are your feelings," Bucky points out.

            "No, right there, look," Steve says, holding his arm up to point, "It's shaped kind of like a scoop, I never really saw the bear. But I guess the end of the square part would be the bear tail? But the bears are always together, like a mama bear and her baby."

            Shocked into stillness when Bucky shifts closer, resting his head on Steve's chest, he can't stop a smile and wraps his arm around Bucky's shoulders, holding him close.

            "There're some stars you only see certain times of year. Like Orion, the hunter. He has a belt, that's how you find him. Three stars in a row, two on top, two on bottom. Then there's some others I don't think we can see with all these city lights," Steve admits.

            "You know what I don't get?" Bucky asks quietly, sounding bitter.

            "What?"

            "I can't remember what constellations are, but I can remember how to kill a man with my bare hands in about a thousand different ways. Just using a finger or two, and so many others. How much blood it takes before someone dies based off their height and weight and my best guess...I was always right...how much pressure it takes before a bone snaps, or doesn't. How to stop someone from screaming. But I can't even tell you what a star is."

            "Uh. It's gas, or something. It's burning, but it's already gone before...I guess they're dying, or blowing up or something, but it takes so long for the light to get to us that by the time we see it, it's already gone."

            "That's depressing."   

            "Kind of beautiful, too. We're watching an ending and a beginning," he replies, gently stroking Bucky's hair.  He can feel the tension in the other man start to fade away, and smiles a little. He feels a pang of guilt, thinking about the fact he could have given this to Bucky sooner. Given this to himself. If he'd just allowed himself to see Bucky as a person...and not as a shell. Only he does now, and he won't make that mistake again.

            "We should go back inside, we're too exposed out here."

            "You just want to crawl into that bed and see if the mattress isn't so bad."

            "I am not sleeping on that bed."

            "Not even if I'm on it?"

            "Maybe, but probably not. It's too weird. Too soft. The ground is better." Curling closer to Steve, "The carpet's soft. It's hard enough sleeping on a surface that soft, forget something that's actually supposed to be soft..." as if that somehow makes sense.

             "It's fine, we can sleep on the floor again."

            "You going to try staying as far away from me as the room allows?"

            "Is that how you saw that?" Steve asks, catching Bucky's chin and forcing the other man to meet his eyes. "I was trying not to bother you," he says sincerely. "I figured you would prefer to sleep alone, and maybe, hopefully, feel safer that I was guarding the door."

            Raising his eyebrows Steve just waits until Bucky rolls his eyes and pulls his face away. Letting Bucky rise first, he waits for the other man to hold out a hand to help him up before moving, too. Carefully brushing grass and dirt off his pants he glances at Bucky, wondering when the other man lost the habit. "You have grass all over you," Steve mumbles, motioning Bucky to turn around. He does, but tilts his head to look over his shoulder as Steve carefully knocks grass from the back of his shirt, before hesitating. Suddenly understanding what the problem is, Bucky brushes the dirt and grass off the backs of his own legs. He's used to people touching him, dressing him, poking at him. It doesn't occur to him that he could have boundaries. Or that anyone would respect them.

 

            He follows Steve back to the bedroom, watching unabashedly as Steve changes from jeans to pajamas. He doesn't want to forget. His brain feels like a gaping hole and anything new, anything at all that he can use to fill it is worth treasuring. Pain. Joy. All of it.

            He changes in a perfunctory way, no embarrassment. What little he remembers of his time with Hydra didn't allow for things like false modesty. They settle on the floor between the bed and the wall. Steve strokes his hair for a while until he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Chap 16

           

            "What is your name?"

            "Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes." He can hear a voice screaming. He's not sure where, or how to help them. But if he can just find a way to escape, he'll save them. He has no idea the voice is his own.

            "What is your name?" the voice is cold, impersonal.

            "Sergeant Ja-aa-ames Bucha-aaaahhhh-nan Barnes." Remember if they catch you, you tell them your name, that's all you have to say, and we'll do what we can to come for you. Just keep telling them your name. His throat hurts, he knows that much. Face down, and he's not even sure where he is anymore.

            "You are nothing. You have no name. You are nothing. What is your name?"

            "Sergea-aaaaaahhhh ....James Buch-aaaaaaaaaaauugh ...Barnes," he gasps.

            "Incorrect. Let's try again shall we? What is your name?"

            "My name is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes!" he spits, he can feel the darkness hovering at the edge of his vision and smiles. Soon enough he won't feel or hear a thing. He screams, noting that his throat feels raw and even though he can taste blood his mouth feels so dry. When shiny shoes step towards him, he summons up the last of his energy, lifts his head free of the table and spits a glob of blood, spittle, and snot onto the toe of those shoes, and the world goes black.

            When he comes to, if you can call it that, he can't see anything. Just hear.

            "What did you do to him?"

            "Dr. Zola, we are simply reprogramming him."

            "I told you to break him, not kill him."

            "He heals quickly, he's healthy. Or was." The voices are so cold, so empty. He tries to hold still but the pain is immense. Any movement on his part will alert them and they will begin again. He's not ready.

            "Hydra owns him, owns this entire facility. If your KGB tactics kill him before I've even finished perfecting the serum, I will have you killed."

            "Yes, Dr. Zola. But I still feel you are coddling him."

            "I am not coddling him. I will see him crawl at my feet and kiss my shoes and beg to serve the Soviets and Hydra. I will hear him say 'Hail Hydra' and mean it with every fiber of his being. And I will see him serve the KGB to Hydra's ends."

            "And I am the one making that happen," the voice finally sounds irritated.

            "Not if you kill him first!" Zola hisses.

            "He will wake soon, and I will begin again. You may go perfect your serum as you wish. The insolent bastard spat on my shoe. I would say he is in adequate health to proceed." 

            He tries not to tense at those words. Tries to leave his body lax and helpless. Tries not to scream when the footsteps approach him again.

            "You should clean the wounds before you begin anew. While he might heal, if poison leeches into the blood, not even I can save him." Cold impartial hands touch his back, prodding ragged flesh and gaping wounds, trace over burns, and he can't stop his flesh from twitching at the contact. "These will become infected without care," Zola adds irritably. "If nothing else, send a nurse to see him when you're done."

            "Yes, Dr. Zola."

            He hears the smaller man leave, and hears the other precise footsteps move away from him. Hears the clank of metal and does everything he can not to tense, the slosh of water, and then a cold deluge sluices over his back making him scream. Some of it is rage. He needs that water, he's so thirsty. Most of it is pain. He didn't know something as simple as water could cause pain. Awake now, unable to hide behind oblivion, he pulls his face up from the table he's strapped face down upon and does his best to lap up whatever water he can before it's gone. Or before they stop him.

            Steve wakes up to Bucky's insistent mumbling, and listens, waiting. He can hear the other man repeating his name, brow furrowed. He doesn't seem overly distressed, his body isn't clenched up, and Steve smoothes his hair once before falling back asleep.

            "No one is coming for you. No one will save you."

            "Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes," he mumbles in response. It's all he can say. It's all that's left.

            "Your precious Captain America is dead, defeated by Hydra. He failed. No one will come for you. You are nothing. You are no one. What is your name?"

            "Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes," he whispers, throat raw from screaming. He has no energy left for defiance. No energy to even twitch when they cut into his flesh, or press heat incarnate under his skin. He can't see what they're doing, which is almost worse. If he could see, could understand what was happening, maybe he could resist easier. He knows the other man wants him to scream, wants to make him scream. But he has no breath left to explain he can't scream anymore.

            "You are nothing, what is your name?"

            When Steve comes to with a start, Bucky is screaming, his entire body rigid and thrashing, but his arms and legs are still. Almost as if physically tied down by his memories. It takes a second before Steve can even understand what he's saying.

            "I am no one, I'm no one!" he's screaming, and Steve reacts quicker than thought, pulling the other man into his arms.

            "NO!" he shouts, startling Bucky into a semblance of wakefulness and all but scaring himself. "Your name is James Buchanan Barnes, you are not 'no one' you will never be 'no one,'" he says vehemently, "Your name is James Buchanan Barnes, I've called you Bucky my entire life, anyone who got to know you called you Bucky. You're not no one," Steve says, holding the other man against his chest.

            "Steve?" he asks, tears rolling down his cheek. "They told me you were dead, they said no one was coming..." he sobs brokenly. "Leave me here, it hurts too much to even think. Please just kill me," he mumbles helplessly, and Steve can see blood running down the corners of his mouth. "I can't help you, I can't even stand up," he whispers. "Please kill me."

            "Bucky wake up!" Steve says, anxiety uncurling in his chest and taking up residence in his heart. "Wake up, c'mon, I'm here, you're okay, you're okay, look, you're not hurt. We're not... we're not where you were, it's okay, c'mon let's stand up, up, c'mon up you go," he says, pushing the blankets off them and pulling Bucky to his feet. "No pain, see, it doesn't hurt, it's okay, I'm here, I won't leave you behind. I would never leave you behind."  Only he did. Guilt chokes him. He thought Bucky was dead and he left him. Tried to find where exactly he dropped, but couldn't. The train...he hadn't known. If he'd known...It takes a second for Bucky's muscles to stop spasming long enough for him to stand.

            "Where am I?" he asks, looking around in confusion, muscles trembling. Reaching one shaking hand up to Steve's cheek, he looks at him in concern, "Why're you crying? Did you have a nightmare?" he asks. Wrapping his arms around his middle, he hunches over miserably.

            "You are at Tony Stark's house, you're in a bedroom with me, and your name is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, and I am in love with you," Steve says, walking over to him and pulling him into a hug. "And I will never let anyone hurt you like that again. C'mon, Sam got some hot chocolate, and it'll make us both feel better," Steve says quietly, kissing his forehead and cheeks. "Did you bite your tongue?" he asks softly, using his sleeve to wipe blood away from the corners of Bucky's mouth before gently kissing his lips.

            Nodding a little bit, he's not sure what he bit, because his cheeks feel wrong, too. Maybe he bit the inside of them, too. Tonguing around the inside of his mouth, he can feel several lacerations. He lets Steve herd him into the kitchen, blinking against the brightness of the lights when the blonde hits the light switch. "Were...did you remember something?" he asks hesitantly. Not wanting to dredge up painful memories, but unwilling to leave it alone.

            "I let you down," Bucky says brokenly, tears starting runneling down his cheeks again. "I let them break me."

            "No, no, Bucky," Steve says quietly, wrapping his arms around the other man's shoulders. "I let you down, I didn't come for you. I was buried under the ice for seventy years...I never came for you." Stroking the soft brown hair, he holds Bucky in his arms and tries to stop himself from crying. "I'm sorry I let you down," he says quietly. "I'm sorry I didn't come for you," he kisses Bucky again and again, wishing with all his heart he could change the past. Had found Bucky, or given Peggy the coordinates so he would have been there to fight the Winter Soldier and bring him back sooner. So much time lost. So much pain he could have prevented. 

            He pulls away the slightest bit to try and move them towards the couch, but Bucky starts to sob harder in protest and twists his hands into Steve's shirt, refusing to allow any distance between them. "It's okay," Steve tells him softly. "It'll be okay, I'm not going anywhere." Carefully herding him towards the couch, Steve finds it hard not to trip over his own feet they're so close together.

             Pulling a blanket off the back of the couch, Steve wraps it around Bucky's shoulders as best he can, surprised at how cold the other man's hand is, wondering if his feet are frozen, too. "Bucky, you can let go, I'm not leaving, I'm not leaving, it's alright."

            "I -I can't," he sobs miserably. "I can't even s-stop crying," he chokes out.

            "You don't have to stop," Steve mumbles, freeing Bucky's hand from his shirt and gently rubbing warmth back into it. Feeling Bucky curl up against him, pressing into him, he smooths his hands down his legs, feeling how cold his body is. "Oh Bucky," he says softly, when the other man flinches away from his touch.

            "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he gasps. "I can't help it," he says, shaking violently.

            "I know, it's okay, it's okay," Steve says, feeling like a broken record. They'd been so warm when they'd gone to sleep. How Bucky's gotten this cold this quickly is terrifying. Trying to warm him up by chafing his limbs isn't working. Steve knows how warm he runs, and tugs Bucky into his lap, wrapping his arms over the other man's shoulders, trying to settle the blanket around him to trap the most heat.

            The noise brings Sam out of his room, and wincing against the lights, he sees Steve desperately trying to warm Bucky up. Not sure how to approach or how to help, he just goes into the kitchen. Pulling down two mugs, a block of chocolate, and some marshmallows, he gets milk from the fridge with a sigh. The sound of Bucky's anguished sobs are like nails on a chalkboard. No one should be able to make sounds like that. No one should ever hurt so badly they can make sounds like that. Melting the chocolate in the pot, adding the milk, pouring it into mugs and adding marshmallows is a soothing ritual that steadies his nerves. The familiarity of it makes him feel like he can approach without losing his cool. 

            Bringing the mugs over to the coffee table, he settles down at Bucky's back. "You're freezing," he comments. "Here, hold the mug, trust me," he says, settling the cup against Bucky's shaking hands, he waits to make sure he won't drop it. "Drink some it'll help. Take a deep breath, and take a sip. A little one," he coaxes, hands out to catch the mug if Bucky drops it. "Steve isn't going anywhere," he reminds Bucky when he glances at Steve, who stopped holding him quite so tightly when Sam came over. Relaxing again when Steve starts rubbing warmth into his feet, he takes a sip of the hot chocolate.

            "Thanks," he chokes out to Sam, taking another sip of the warm liquid. He can feel it trailing down inside him and curling comfortably in his stomach. While his hand is still shaking, the metal arm is still and steadies the cup so he can drink without slopping it down his front. The amount of self control it takes for him to not just gulp it down, burning his mouth and throat is incredible. Leaning his back against Sam's side, he takes comfort in the warmth. Blinking tears out of his eyes, another sip later and a few more shudders and he's starting to feel calm. Snuffling a bit, he rubs his face across his shoulder, and glances at Steve. When Steve leans over to pick up the second mug after a shared glance with Sam, Bucky tenses, thinking he's leaving. Although how he could just hop up without dumping Bucky off his lap is a mystery. 

            Steve touches his cheek gently, thumbing away a stray tear. "I'm not leaving you," he says softly. "Promise." Taking a sip of the hot chocolate, he glances at Sam. "Marshmallows?"

            "Man, you do not make real hot chocolate and not put in marshmallows. Don't you test me."

            Smiling a little, Steve shakes his head. "I guess you're right, it wouldn't be the same."

            "What are they?" Bucky asks, sounding better.

            "Honestly? I have no idea."

            "Sugar and stuff, probably," Sam tells him. While he's heard something about horse hooves that he hopes isn't true, he is sure as hell not telling Bucky anything about that. "Why, you don't like them?"

            "I haven't had one yet," he admits cautiously.

            "You've got... Buck, y'got some on your..." Steve smiles and leans forward and kisses away the slight smudge of coco on his partner's mouth. "There," he says quietly.

            "Finally figured your shit out, huh Rogers?" Sam asks, making Steve blush a near-true crimson. 

            "It's not... it's not.."
            "If you say 'it's not what it looks like' I will help Barnes bury your ass in the back yard."

            Seeing Bucky watching him with narrowed eyes, Steve sighs. "It is what it looks like, that wasn't what I was going to say, and why do you always assume the worst of me?"

            "I don't assume the worst. I watched your back for months helping you track down Bucky," Sam reminds him gently. "I'm just sayin' when a dude kisses another dude, and the first dude starts to say 'it's not-' it sounds a lot like some asshole saying 'no homo'. And I'm here to tell you, it's too late for that shit."

            "I wasn't going to say that," Steve protests.

            "Then what were you going to say?" Bucky asks.

            "It's not funny." Steve tells him. "I didn't...I don't want anyone teasing....it's not a joke."

            "No one said it was a joke," Sam says, realizing that Bucky's not the only one on edge. All three of them tense as they hear a key in the lock, Bucky's still trembling on occasion, and Steve isn't willing to stand up and leave him. Sam prepares himself for a fight, and then they see Pepper's harried face in the doorway. Breathing a sigh of relief, Sam squeezes Barnes' shoulder and stands up, taking two empty mugs with him. Figuring he could use a cup himself, and from the looks of it, Pepper, too, he starts heating more milk and chocolate while he pulls down two more mugs.

            "You alright?" Pepper asks Steve, knowing Bucky won't answer or appreciate the question.

            "Just a little chilly," Steve shrugs.

            She does a double take and smiles, realizing Barnes is in his lap. "Finally figured things out, huh?" she asks.

            "How...." Steve just gives up, letting Bucky curl up against him, tucking his head under his chin with a sigh. He can feel some of the tension slipping out of those tortured limbs, and knows Bucky's finally starting to warm back up. He makes a mental note to ask Tony or Bruce if there's any reason that nightmares could make him cold like that. Or if there's something else wrong that they need to fix or at least control better. He also makes a mental note to pick up some of those little heat packs you crack to activate.

            When Sam passes Pepper a mug of coco, she smiles gratefully. "Have you seen Tony?" she asks softly.

            "Last I saw he was in the basement. I sincerely hope he's sleeping," Sam admits.

            "Like as not, he isn't" she comments with a sigh, and heads down the stairs with her coco.

            Sam brings Steve and Bucky another round of drinks, and brings them another blanket from the loveseat. Watching Bucky take the mug, he can tell from the way the other man is blinking he won't be awake much longer. Glancing up when Pepper leads Tony up the stairs, he winces at how bad Tony looks.

            "Wanna join the slumber party?" Sam asks jokingly, eyes rounding in shock when Stark staggers over to the loveseat and collapses down.

            "I'll get more blankets," Pepper murmurs, setting her mug down on the counter before coming back and returning with a pile of blankets from the hall closet. Passing Tony a few, she tosses Sam some, and hands the rest to Steve. Watching Rogers drape the blankets around Barnes' shoulders, bundling him up, she smiles. Deciding just this once she can sit in Tony's lap while people are around, so long as he keeps his mouth shut, she settles down in his arms. "Not a word, Tony," she says, laying fingers across his lips. Waiting until he shrugs in capitulation she settles against his chest.

            Steve stretches his legs out on the couch, shrugging his body down despite Bucky's sleepy protests until he can rest his head on the armrest. Curling to the side slightly so that Bucky is between the back of the couch and his body, he allows his eyes to close. They're safe, surrounded by friends. When Bucky starts to make soft little whimpering noises in his sleep again, Steve wakes up and strokes his hair and back, waking him up as gently as he knows how.

            "You're safe, it's over. I promise," Steve tells him gently, kissing the side of his head. Thankfully, Bucky slips back into sleep and Steve relaxes, forcing himself to rest while he can. 

            This time, Tony wakes them, or more precisely, Pepper does. She's trying to gently wake him out of a nightmare. Bucky comes awake with a start, fighting free of Steve's arms to defend himself, Sam is halfway to his feet, and Steve is sitting up before any of them realize Tony's just having nightmares of his own. When he wakes up to the room watching him, he chooses to ignore them and lifts Pepper up into the air as he stands and carries her off to their bed. 

            It takes a while, but eventually Steve is able to resettle Bucky enough they can both sleep.

            "I will give you a choice."

            He hates that voice. He tugs uselessly at the shackles on his wrists, they're bolted into the ground. Even with all his strength, he can't seem to break them. So instead he's forced into a hunched posture on the cold cement floor. He can settle his backside on the ground if he maneuvers carefully around the bolts, but then he has less chance of rising up or hunching around his stomach. Why he can't just die is a mystery. Although the even greater one is why he keeps even trying to live. He's nothing. No one.

            "You can tell me your name, or I can hurt you," the voice sounds so reasonable. What's in a name? He's not sure he knows anymore.

            All the same, he feels his mouth open, lips forming syllables, "James Buchanan Barnes," it's all he's said for days. It's all he remembers how to say. The words have no meaning anymore, and he thinks he's forgotten some. But it doesn't matter, he can't speak loudly enough for it to matter. Besides, the man doesn't want the correct answer, the man wants him to hurt.

            There's no point in trying not to scream when he feels liquid fire across his back, blood dripping down his body. He's lost his voice days ago, the best he can do is whisper.

            "We can try again, Nothing. What is your name?"

            "James...Barnes..." he whispers in return. No, there was more. He'd been more, once. More than a naked thing crouched on a cold floor. He hasn't stopped shaking since he got here. Wherever here is. Too cold. Too tired. They don't let him sleep much. He can feel oblivion coming, and when lightning stripes across his back again, he gives into the darkness. He doesn't feel his head crack against the cement when he falls to his side.

            "Bucky, Buck wake up," Steve says frantically, shaking his shoulder. "C'mon, Bucky, James, goddamnit wake up."

            "No, please, I don't... please stop," he begs, hand going up to protect his face. His breathing is ragged and it takes a few more seconds to force his eyes open, to force himself to stand another round of abuse.

             Only he's warm, comfortable, even, dressed in soft clothes, and certainly not in a cement room with only a drain in the floor and some shackles. It takes a second before he realizes he's on top of another person, and he starts to blush before coming fully awake. Dropping his body back down onto Steve's, he heaves a sigh of relief. The sun is up, last time he was awake it had been dark. So it means he's slept some. More than usual, more than he needs to. But he still feels so tired.

            "Better?" Steve asks softly, running his fingertips up and down Bucky's back. Unable to form words, he just nods. When he hears footsteps in the hallway, his body goes on the alert, tensing over Steve. It's just Tony who glances over at them and Sam, who is slowly waking up in the chair across from them. It seems like he's resisting the call to wake, but failing in steps.

            "A buncha grown ass men having a slumber party. Pathetic," Tony mutters, pouring himself a cup of coffee, and getting a second one down for Banner, who slept in the lab.

            "We all have nightmares, Tony," Barnes says quietly, shocking the other men in the room. He gets up carefully, trying to make sure he doesn't hurt the man underneath him and slides gracefully free of the couch. He glances at Sam who is fully awake now, and with a slightly distressed look on his face asks "Can you cook?"

            "Yeah, I can cook," Sam smiles, relaxing. Offering Barnes a question of his own in return it's not an impossible question, an easy one. "You feeling hungry?"

            "I think so," he mumbles, glancing away. Figuring out this eating and sleeping thing isn't easy. He can't remember a time he'd been allowed to control his own food intake. He can remember choking down something he didn't want named and hoping he could keep it down, or they'd just make him eat it again until he did. He goes over to perch himself on a stool so he can watch Sam in the kitchen, maybe jog some memories loose.

            The other man's hands seem so sure, so competent as he digs through drawers and cabinets looking for utensils. Bucky glances down at his own palms, one metal, one battered flesh. He lightly traces the lines in his palms, lost in thought until he hears the fridge open and shut. Glancing up he sees two pans on the stove, a tea kettle warming, and eggs mixed in a small glass bowl. Watching Sam lay bacon down in the pan, he remembers something similar.

            "Cast iron?" he asks softly, not sure if he remembers correctly. "We... my...we had one, I think?" he asks Steve, unsure. The question causes Steve to leave the couch and join him on the stools, glancing at the pan in question.

            "I think so. I'm sure they were pretty common. I think it woulda been Griswold or Wagner Ware? Maybe?" he asks, unsure. To be honest pots and pans weren't things he'd taken much notice of.

            "Sounds.... it sounds familiar," Bucky sighs, clearly frustrated. Running a hand through his hair, he rolls his shoulders and stretches his neck out. The smell of bacon cooking seems like a good one, familiar. Safe. Inhaling deeply, he wishes he could remember if he'd smelled it before. He knows the names of so many things, but they're all just meaningless. Nothing. Shuddering he slides off his stool and presses into Steve.

            Opening his legs so Bucky can stand between them, he wraps his arms around the other man's middle and settles his chin on the part of his shoulder that's still flesh. Bucky seems interested in watching Sam cook, and Steve doesn't feel the need to stop him or obstruct his view.

            Tony glances at them a couple of times with an odd expression on his face. "When did this happen?" he asks, gesturing with his half empty mug.

            "What?" Steve asks lazily. He's warm, the food smells good, and Bucky seems calm. All is well in the world.

            "You two, when did that happen?"

            "Um. Last night," Steve answers absently.

            "Hmph."

            "You gonna eat, too, Tony?" Sam asks.

            "I might. Gonna go see if Bruce wants anything first. Figure if I bring him coffee I might survive the encounter," he says.

            "And Pepper?"

            "Is asleep but when she wakes up will think it's just lovely that you can cook. And will ask me why I don't cook for her. So maybe it's better if you guys eat it all before she wakes up."