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the thing that i am

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Here I am the creature you made through your loving; by your passion you created the thing that I am.

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

--

Steve is familiar with Greek mythology.  He knows the story of Icarus and Daedalus, Phaeton and Zeus, Persephone and Demeter.  He knew the trials of Heracles.  He knew what a hydra was, and he knew it wasn't over, wouldn't be over for a long time.  But then, if there was one thing Steve was good at, it was persevering against a stronger enemy.  He's been doing it his whole life.

-- 

Peggy's funeral is a somber affair.  Steve wishes he was surprised to see Sharon there, but he can't be.  He put it together more quickly than he would have liked, because he did like Sharon.  In the end, he couldn't reconcile it with the guilt he still feels over Peggy.  Felt.  It's hard to remember that she's gone when he just got her back.

Sometimes it feels like the only thing Steve is good for is losing.

Sam's shoulder presses warm and solid against Steve's, like he knows somehow that Steve needs grounding right now.  Steve presses back, gently, and he does not cry.

--

Later, in the cemetery, long after everyone else has dispersed, Steve finally lets his stoic mask slip.  He’s crouched down, hand flat on the newly turned earth, and Sam’s got a hand pressed to Steve’s shoulder.  He isn’t saying anything, and Steve is grateful for it.  He doesn’t know what he would say.  He knows Sam has lost people, important people, but he can’t manage to get the words out now.

He only knew Peggy for a few years, but he loved her then and for the years he got her back he loved her too.  He feels impossibly old, looking back.  Everyone he knew has died, except for Bucky, and Bucky is still gone.  It hurts in a different way, less of a blatant ache and more of a hollow feeling in his chest in the shape of Bucky.

Steve glances up at the sound of footsteps in the grass and pushes up to his feet at the sight of Sharon.  Sam’s hand falls away and he nods at her.  Steve swipes the tears from his face, not bothering to feel self-conscious about it.

“Do you need a minute?” Sam asks, voice soft and sure.

“S’okay,” Steve says.  Sharon smiles, her eyes sad.

“I’m glad you both came,” Sharon says.  “She would have liked it.”

“Of course,” Steve replies.  “Couldn’t leave my best girl short a pall bearer.”

He’s trying for light, but he’s pretty sure he doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Sharon huffs something like a laugh.  It’s so like Peggy that Steve’s heart clenches and he has to school his expression away from doing something too revealing.

“This is for you,” Sharon says, pulling the folder from under her arm and handing it over.  There’s a small package lain on top of it that Steve didn’t see when she first came over.  It’s wrapped in brown paper and there’s an envelope taped on top with Steve’s name written on it in Peggy’s steady script.  Steve takes it, glancing quickly between it and her.

“What is this?” he asks.

“The folder is all the information I have on Barnes, I thought you could figure out what to do with it,” Sharon says, voice low.  She goes on, probably reading the confused tilt to Steve’s brows.  “If my team finds him first, they’re going to shoot first and ask questions never.  I don’t want that.”

“Thank you,” Steve says.  Sam reaches for the folder and Steve hands it over, but he keeps a tight hold on the package.  “And this?”

“That’s yours, I think.  Peggy never told me what was in it, but she’s had it as long as I can remember.  It used to sit on a shelf in her sitting room, wrapped up like that.  She said something, once, about wishing she could give it back.  I think she would have wanted me to give it to you.”

Steve’s heart is racing a little bit.  He knows what he’s holding, but he wants so desperately to be wrong that it almost scares him.  He can’t look away from the brown paper, can’t meet Sharon’s eye.  He knows the weight of this, the solidity, the way it gives just a little bit.  He doesn’t want to know why Peggy had it, who else knew.  He looks back up at Sharon, and she looks nothing like Peggy, not really.

“You didn’t open it?” he asks.

“No,” she says, simply.  Like it’s the easiest thing in the world.  Like she really doesn’t know the Pandora’s box she had in her possession, right under her nose.

“Right,” Steve says.  “Thank you.”

“I grew up hearing so many stories about you, Steve.  Aunt Peggy had a picture of you on her mantle.  She was so proud of everything you did.  She missed you for her whole life.  Whatever has you looking so spooked right now, she didn’t let it affect how she thought of you.  Whatever you think she had, she didn’t, or she didn’t think of it the way you clearly do.”

Steve shrugs.  “People can compartmentalize,” he says.  Sharon smiles.

“Of course.  Well.  I should go, the work of the grieving is never done.”

“Yeah,” Steve says.  Sharon lays a hand on his arm and leans in to kiss his cheek.

“See you soon, Steve.  Keep in touch,” she says.  “Keep an eye on him, Wilson.”

“Good to see you, Sharon.  Wish it was under better circumstances,” Sam replies, finally looking up from the folder.  Sharon nods and smiles one last sad smile and then she’s off to do something important elsewhere.

Steve sighs, unable to keep it in anymore.

“So, you know what that is?” Sam asks, raising his brows and tipping his head towards the package.

“I think so,” Steve says.  He feels so tired, both physically and metaphorically.  He doesn’t want to have to watch things slip away from him over and over again.  He’s tired of losing and he’s tired of guilt.  “I’d rather not talk about it, if it’s all the same to you.”

Sam shrugs, non-committal.  “Let me know when you’re ready.”

“’Course.  Anything interesting in that file?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Sam admits.  “I was just flipping through it to look busy while you two talked.”

Steve rolls his eyes, laughter bubbling up in his throat.  “Of course you were.  Why?”

“In case you wanted some privacy!  I don’t know what you two are doing these days.”

“Nothing, Sam, really.  It’s…” Steve trails off, glancing off into the distance to try and think of how best to explain this.  He thinks he catches someone moving quickly a ways away from them, disappearing behind a large memorial stone.  Steve furrows his brows, briefly losing his train of thought, but, he reasons, mourning brews strangeness in us all.  He hopes, absently, that it isn’t a reporter trying to catch a shot of him grieving, but he’s been doing this long enough not to get his hopes up.  He looks back to Sam.

“Things change too quickly.  We’re not the same people we were when we met, even without the fact that she was contractually obligated to monitor my every move.  I think, if things were different, it could have worked, but,” Steve trails off a little again, shaking his head.  “Not now.”

“Right.  Well, she’s a lovely lady, and at a more appropriate time I may ask you to have her call me,” Sam says.  Steve shoots him an unimpressed look and Sam smiles brightly.

It’s almost enough to push away the grief clawing at his heart, or the crawling sensation of someone watching him that creeps up his neck.

--

Steve has become a collector over the last few years, taking things from each storehouse they find.  He doesn’t know what it will be when he walks in, because how could he?

They’re always just a little late to every place – they’re always busted up and abandoned, sometimes still smoking and bodies still cooling when they get there.  They’re trailing Bucky across the world and somehow, they haven’t beaten him anywhere yet.  They don’t always hit places in the same order, but Bucky’s moving faster.  Lack of bureaucracy trailing him and nowhere else to be, Steve supposes.  No other jobs to attend to.  Enough time to shop, though, or shoplift maybe.

Steve has enough time in hotel rooms around the world to wonder how Bucky never gets spotted, but the Winter Solder was trained to blend in, and Bucky could charm his way out of a paper bag, back when Steve knew him.  Maybe it’s a combination of skill and luck, which neither of them ever had in spades.  The universe owes them a little luck, even if Bucky’s ability to avoid detection is keeping Steve away just as much as it’s keeping the government away.

He keeps his knick-knacks in the false bottom of his duffel, a collection of items that he just knew were meant for him.  Some more obvious than others, but none, apparently, obvious enough to be detected by anyone but him.

There was a freshly sharpened shading pencil in a cup of pens on a desk in Virginia, a dog-eared copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray on a bookshelf otherwise full of medical books in Scotland.  A Claddagh ring just like the one his Ma wore right up until she died, sitting innocently in the middle of an otherwise empty surgical table in Italy.

Bucky’s trying to tell Steve something, Steve just can’t figure out what it is.

--

“These guys really are everywhere, huh?” Sam says, flipping through the folder in a Canadian motel room.  Steve shrugs, but doesn’t stop his pacing.  They’ve had the folder for weeks and they’re not any closer to an answer than they were before.  There are too many warehouses, too many possibilities.  No matter how detailed Hydra’s notes were, they bounced Bucky around so many times over the years, it’s impossible to know where he’ll go next.

Steve sits down heavily on the edge of his bed and Sam looks over, quirking a brow.

“I have to tell you something,” Steve says.

“Okay,” Sam replies, shutting the folder and sitting up straight.

“He’s been leaving things behind.  For me.  I think it’s so we know he knows we’re following him.  Or maybe just to show that he’s remembering.”

“What kinds of things?”

“He left this key chain on a desk at the place in Oregon, it had my mother’s name on it.  The place in Ontario there was a Coney Island postcard pinned to a corkboard.  Stuff like that, little things that people might not notice as being out of place.  You didn’t.”

“So what does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” Steve admits.  “I’ve been holding onto all of them, but there’s not a pattern to it as far as I can tell.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me?”

“I wasn’t sure at first, I thought maybe I was just reading into it too much, and then I thought you’d be upset that I waited so long.  But I thought that there might be something else here, maybe you could help me figure it out.”

Sam nods, shifts around until he’s sitting on the edge of his bed as well, looking head on at Steve.

“Steve, we have to be honest with each other, okay?  This thing we’re doing… it’s dangerous.  And I’m happy to help you, of course I am, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be here.  But is there anything else I should know?”

Steve purses his lips.

“Probably,” he says, dropping his gaze to the carpet.  “I don’t… when we find him, I don’t know what it will be like.  What I’ll be like.  It’s different with him, it always has been.  I just…”

Sam waits a moment, let’s Steve think, but when Steve shakes his head with a frustrated huff, Sam speaks again.

“It’s like you told me, right?  Even when you had nothing, you had him.  It was more than all the history books say, right?”

Steve inhales sharply, but he nods.

“And that’s what Peggy had, I think.  What she knew.  The package Sharon gave me, if it is what I think it is… I don’t want to know what Peggy thought.  I’m scared to know, I guess.”

“What’s in the package, Steve?” Sam asks, voice steady but low.  Steve shakes his head again.

“Secrets,” he says.  “My secrets, and no one else’s.  It’s not easy, it never was.  I didn’t think she’d ever find out, or anyone else.  I guess… I guess it’s better that she had it then if anyone else did.  God, if the Smithsonian had it?”

Steve cringes just at the thought, presses his lips together and shuts his eyes.  He doesn’t want to think about waking up in a world that knew.  They probably would have burned it, back then.  He’s not sure if it’s worse to lose it or have it sitting in the bottom of his bag, haunting him still.

His past only haunts him.  He didn’t get to keep any of it.  He’s a man surrounded by ghosts, intangible and cold.

“It’s okay,” Sam says.  Steve glances up at him, an eyebrow raised.  “We all have secrets.  Ones we don’t want anyone to know, ones we only want certain people to know.  You don’t have to hold all that guilt inside of you, Steve.  Sometimes it helps to talk it out.”

Sam would know, Steve supposes.  About grief.  About responsibility.  About watching things fall and being helpless to stop them.  About having to pick up the pieces and form them into a life.

“Right,” Steve says.  “Some things have to be carried, though.  For now, at least.”

“Okay,” Sam says, like it’s easy.  “Well, I think I know who we can call for help.”

“Who’s that?”

“Nat’s pretty good at finding lost things.”

--

They do end up calling Nat.  She sighs down the line, so loud Steve can practically hear her eyes rolling.

“Finally, you call,” she says, and she tells them to give her four days before she hangs up.

She calls back in two.

“Where would you be without me?” she says when they answer.

“Dead, probably,” Sam says.  Natasha laughs brightly.

“I found your boy,” she says, cutting right to the chase.  “I’m sending you an address.  Meet me there as soon as you can.”

“You found him?” Steve asks, incredulous.  They’ve been trying to find him for two years and Nat found him in two days?  It feels too good to be true.

“Of course I found him, Rogers.  I’m a professional.  And I called Sharon who, by the way, says you should call more.”

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb.

“Right,” he says.  “Well.  Where are we going?”

“How’s your Romanian?”

--

They find Nat lounging at an outdoor café table; she would look relaxed to the untrained eye, but to those who know her, it is clear she’s scanning the street constantly behind her oversized sunglasses.  Sam and Steve settle into the empty seats at her table and she immediately kicks her legs up into Sam’s lap.  He raises his eyebrows at Steve but doesn’t say anything.  Not directly at least.

“No Clint?” Sam asks.  He’s got a hand wrapped loosely around one of Nat’s ankles, and Steve almost wishes he had time to marvel at the ease with which Sam took to work like this – he’s got a loose grip around the knife strapped there, concealed but easy to grab in a pinch.  Natasha smiles at him like this was exactly what she wanted.

“He’s retired,” she says.  “Says he’s getting too old for this.”

“Someone tell that to grandpa over here,” Sam says, tipping his head at Steve.

“Hey!” Steve objects, but he’s laughing.

“Settle down, children.  Don’t you want to know what I have?”

“Sorry, Nat,” Steve says, leaning forward across the table.  She nudges her coffee cup across the table to him and he takes it.

“I’ve got an address for you.  I’ve been scoping it out for a few days, and he hasn’t changed his behaviors at all.  He knows I’m here, which means he knows you are here.”  She glances away, towards the bustling street market.

“Sharon’s team didn’t know what they had,” she says, shaking her head in distaste.  “They probably thought it was a store house or something.  Like Barnes would have one.  He’s more resourceful than that.”

She sits up straight, suddenly, her feet hitting the sidewalk.  She leans toward Steve, face stony and serious.

“I know I can’t do anything to change your mind, Steve.  I know the stakes are high for you, that you have a personal connection to this.  I’m not going to try to stop you, but I want you to know that I’m not leaving until this is done.  I’m staying here for you.”

“Not like you to care about personal matters,” Steve says.  Nat smirks.

“We’re all looking for people, Steve.  Maybe I’m just hoping you’ll return the favor someday.”

“Of course,” Steve says.  “Any leads?”

“He’s in the wind,” Nat says, shrugging, falling back in her seat again.  “Doesn’t want to be found.”

“And Barnes does?” Sam asks.  He’s got Nat’s knife in the palm of his hand, and Nat looks from it, down to her ankle, and back again, like she didn’t realize he had it.  She smiles, proud in some twisted way, and Sam smiles back.  Everything is a test, and Sam almost always passes.

“Yes,” she says.  “Like I said, he knows we’re here.  He’s waiting for you.  Are you ready to find out what he wants?”

“Yes,” Steve says, no hesitation.  Bucky had a chance to let him die once before and he didn’t.  Nobody else could have pulled him out.  Besides, he wouldn’t leave things behind if he didn’t want to see Steve, right?  Steve doesn’t himself linger too long on the possibility that they are just coincidences.  He can’t.

“Alright, then.  Let’s get to work.”

--

In the end, Sam takes the roof of an adjacent building, Natasha takes the ground, and Steve enters the apartment.  He takes it in, the messiness of it, the mattress in the corner, and his chest feels tight.

“I think we miscalculated,” he says softly into the comm.

“Man, you’ve gotta be more specific than that,” Sam replies.

“I think,” Steve pauses, grabbing a notebook off the counter.  “I think he’s been living here for a while.”

“How long is a while?” Natasha asks, her voice a barely-there murmur.  Steve can practically see her melting through the crowd on the street, alert but inconspicuous.

“Months,” Steve says, turning to the door and meeting Bucky’s eyes.  “At least.”

“Why are you here?” Bucky asks.

“Why do you think?  You left me bread crumbs.”

“Steve?  Who are you- Is he there?  How did we miss him?” Sam asks.

“He’s a spy, Wilson, of course we missed him.  He knew we were here,” Natasha snaps, tension clear in her voice.  Steve ignores them both and the line falls silent.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Bucky tells him, jaw clenching.

“Never stopped me before.”

“You never knew how to pick your battles.”

“You remember that one yourself, or did you read it somewhere?”

“I learned all about you,” Bucky says.  “In a museum.”

Steve’s own jaw clenches, now.  The museum isn’t real, it isn’t all of him, and he has a burning reminder of that in the bottom of his duffel with all the other pieces of their life that Bucky has left behind.

“Yeah?  You find my drawing pencils in a museum too?”

Bucky inhales slowly, nostrils flaring.

“What?” Natasha asks.  “What the fuck is going on up there?”

“Buck, we want to help.  There are people looking for you that aren’t going to take you alive.”

“Smart.”

“Bucky,” Steve says.

“You should give this up,” Bucky advises.  “Whatever you think you’re going to get out of this, you won’t.”

He’s been sliding along the wall, slowly but surely, for this whole conversation.  Steve watches him warily, takes note of the way he looks like a caged animal, ready to strike but scared underneath it all.

“You look tired.  Don’t you want to stop running?”

“You never did.”

“And I still won’t.”

A lot happens all at once after that.  Natasha and Sam both curse over the comms, but Steve doesn’t have enough time to ask them what’s wrong.  Bucky jumps forward, yanking Steve to the ground and twisting his body over him at the same time as the window that was just behind Steve shatters.

Bucky looks resigned and a little angry and he slams his hand down close enough to Steve’s head that Steve can’t help but flinch slightly.

“Keep the book,” Bucky says, rolling off Steve and swinging something out from within the floorboards and then throwing himself out one of the windows of his apartment.  Steve doesn’t let his head spin, doesn’t let himself question anything.  He slides the notebook into one of the stealth suits many pockets and scrambles over to the window Bucky threw himself out of.

“What’s going on?” he asks.  He can hear feet pounding up the apartment stairs and allows himself a moment of disbelief at how stupid whoever attacked them was before he throws himself out the window, too, landing on the neighboring rooftop and taking off after Bucky, who has nearly disappeared over the side of the building.  Steve spares the briefest thought for how this must be practiced, Bucky must have picked this place specifically and planned this escape route.

“Rumlow.  Must have followed you,” Nat says, voice clipped.  Ah, Steve thinks.  So, this plan was thought up by an idiot, then.

Steve chances a glance upwards and spots Sam, which makes him feel better about the lack of response at least.

Steve throws himself down the fire escape ladder that Bucky had gone down moments before and sees him disappearing down one side of the alley it leads to.  Steve attempts to follow him, but something slams into his back, knocking him to the ground.

Steve gasps for breath, throwing his elbow back in an attempt to dislodge whoever is on top of him, using the momentum to turn over.

“Of course,” he mutters as he watches Rumlow reel back to attack again.  Steve kicks at his knees and allows himself to take satisfaction in the way he crumples.  But he doesn’t go down for long.

“The helmet still looks awful,” Steve says, getting to his feet and stepping out of swiping range.

“Yeah, well you dropped a building on my face,” Rumlow bites back, lunging for Steve and knocking him back into the wall.

“I was a little busy being thrown out of a helicarrier at the time, actually,” Steve replies, ducking out of the way of Rumlow’s fist.  His blade gets stuck in the wall from the force of the blow, and Steve grabs tight hold of his gauntlet before shoving roughly at Rumlow’s chest, yanking it from his hand.  He leaves it imbedded in the wall.

“You trying to get back in Hydra’s good books, Brock?  Think being some half rate super villain will get you somewhere?”

“You talk too much,” Rumlow says, throwing himself at Steve again, second blade extended.

“Maybe you’re just boring,” Steve replies, ducking away again.  Rumlow snarls and steps forward like he’s going to lunge again before collapsing heavily to the ground.  Steve glances to the mouth of the alley and smirks.   “Thanks, Redwing.”

Natasha scoffs over the comms.  “I can’t believe you both talk to that thing like it can understand you.”

“Nat, stop, he’ll hear you,” Sam teases.  Steve cuffs Rumlow’s hands behind his back before he speaks again.

“Sam, you got eyes on Bucky?  Rumlow’s still holding that grudge, he distracted me enough that I lost sight of him.”

“I lost him too, Cap, I’m sorry,” Sam says, and he really does sound it.

“He didn’t come by me either, Steve,” Natasha says.  Steve curses under his breath, silently fuming at Rumlow for his consistently shit timing.

“This guy’s really starting to get on my nerves,” Steve says.

“You can say that again,” Sam replies, landing on the rooftop directly above Steve.  “Who do we even call right now?  The UN?”

“I know someone in the CIA,” Steve says, sighing.  “I’ve been meaning to give her a call.”

“Steve, I already told you, I’m more than happy to –“

“Sam, if you want your robot to survive the night, don’t finish that sentence in my presence,” Natasha advises.  Sam laughs gleefully.  “I’ve got a couple of handcuffed goons over here, either of you big strong men want to give me a hand?”

“On my way, Nat,” Sam says, taking flight again.  Steve pulls out his phone, steeling himself.  Sharon’s not going to be happy to deal with this.

--

Steve is absolutely right.  Sharon sighs heavily into the line several times, but since Rumlow is classed as a terrorist these days, it’s exactly her jurisdiction.  She tells him that for a group of people trained for stealth operations, they do tend to make waves.

“We pursue popular targets,” Steve replies, smiling at the ground.

“I’ll send a team out.  Where are you?”

“I’ll send you the coordinates.  What do we tell the locals?”

“Natasha will figure it out,” Sharon says.  “You and Sam just stand there and look pretty and try not to butcher anymore languages.”

“I speak more than one language,” Steve defends.  And it’s true, but Sharon clearly doesn’t believe him.  He’s surprised that didn’t make into his file, but he guesses they didn’t care what his first language was back in the 40’s, and he hasn’t applied many of them since the war.

“Sure,” she says.  “Get me those coordinates, Rogers.  I’ll talk to you soon.”

And then the line cuts out.  He huffs a laugh, sends their coordinates to her, and shoves his phone in his pocket.

“What languages do you speak?” Sam asks.  Steve definitely doesn’t jump.

“Jesus,” he mutters.  “Did you hear that whole conversation?”

“Learn to turn your comm off.  Name ‘em, Captain, I’m waiting,” Sam says, and by then, he and Nat are coming around the corner of the alley, carrying three guys from Rumlow’s team between the two of them and Redwing.

“He really is an idiot, isn’t he?” Steve says.  “A four-man team?”

Nat shrugs.  “Maybe he brought more people that we missed?” she suggests.

“Probably not,” Sam says, and they line the four of them up against the wall.

“What languages do you have?” Nat asks.

“Shouldn’t we be dealing with the police right now?”

“Already handled.  Come on, Rogers, flex your skills.”

“I don’t know as many as you,” Steve says.

“Nobody does.  Except probably your boy Barnes.  Don’t be shy now, Steve, what do you have up your sleeve?  Besides French.”

“Picked most of them up during the war.  A little Japanese, mostly battle related stuff.  Italian from some locals, German from Jones and observation, Russian from all over, really. I’ve been learning ASL from Clint.  Would have been helpful back when I was mostly deaf, but what can you do.  Hm.  Been picking up Spanish and Tagalog from my neighbors.  And Irish, of course.”

“Of course,” Sam says.  “Where’d you get that one from?  I don’t know anyone who speaks it.”

“My mother?” Steve says, because he thought that of all of them, that would be the most obvious.  “She didn’t like English unless she was talking to God.  She came from a very small town.”

“I don’t know enough about Ireland to read all the layers of subtext there, but good to know you got all this from somewhere,” Sam says, gesturing vaguely.  Natasha’s watching him curiously, head tipped to the side.  Steve waits for her to speak, but doesn’t say anything, so Steve just settles against the wall to wait, and tries not to shift under her gaze.

--

Back at the hotel, Steve settles down at the desk and pulls out Bucky’s notebook.  Nat is using his shower, claiming that wherever she was staying before today has been compromised.  Steve brushes his thumb across the cover a few times before opening it, starting at the beginning instead of going straight for the bookmarked page.

The first page has a line drawn down the middle, one side labeled Museum and the other labeled Memories.  The museum side has all kinds of factual dates.  His and Bucky’s birthdays, their hometowns, their heights, the names of all of their immediate family members.  The memories side is more fragmented, random.  There are Bucky’s siblings’ nicknames, some poets’ names, a shaky sketch of the claddagh symbol, the brand of pencil Steve always wished he could afford.  Steve flips the page and the back of it is labeled Unknown.  It looks like things Bucky wasn’t sure about the importance of, a lot of things followed with question marks.  He has the word oranges written and underlined twice.  Steve is trying not to let his own memories fill any gaps, but he does remember eating an orange for the first time at the Barnes place, and he wonders if it’s connected.  He moves on before he can project too much.

A lot of the other pages have snippets of poems written on them, titles of books that sound familiar, like things Bucky might have had on the shelves at their place.  He wonders, absently, what happened to all their books.  A few of the titles are tabbed, and Steve makes a mental note to look them up later.

The bookmarked page has a picture of Captain America printed out and tucked inside.  Steve furrows his brows looking at it.  It’s a picture from the war, he thinks, but he doesn’t remember this one.  Not that he particularly relishes looking at pictures of himself.  On the opposing page in Bucky’s tightly controlled print it says, “Steve and the Captain are not the same,” which makes Steve’s stomach twist.  It’s something that not many people have ever understood, and it sends him barreling right back to a bar in London, to Bucky telling him he wouldn’t follow Captain America.

Sam and Nat get it, he thinks.  What it’s like to be more than one person.  The truth is a matter of circumstance.  It isn’t all things to all people all the time.  Steve had pretended not to get it at the time, but he’s great at pretending even if he isn’t great at lying.

The next few pages are blank, but written on the next tabbed page is, “I remember all of them.  All the time.”  It hits Steve, then, at the same time as the water shuts off in the bathroom.  It’s like when Steve was back in that same bar, failing to get drunk and swearing he wouldn’t stop until he finished off what he started.  Until he put an end to the people that took Bucky from him, over and over.  He was taken from him every single day when he woke up and remembered.  He was taken from him every single night that he dreamed of him screaming, falling.  Nothing would bring him back, but Steve knew he could stop it happening to anyone else.

He thinks, maybe, that Bucky realizes nothing will undo what the years have done to him, but he wants to stop it from happening to anyone else.  He’ll keep going after Hydra until the heads stop growing back.  He’ll die doing it, just like –

The bathroom door opens, steam falling out of the door as Nat dries her hair.  Steve flips the book closed and stands up.

“You okay?” Nat asks.

“Bucky left that for me,” Steve says, gesturing.  He grabs his duffel from the floor and digs through to the false bottom, pulls it back and starts emptying out all of the other things he has left behind onto the desk.  “All of these, too.  I don’t know what to do.”

“Steve,” Nat says, wide eyes glued to the desk full of miscellaneous items.  She’s frozen with the towel held halfway to her hair, the ends still dripping a little.  Steve swallows hard.

“I’m going to take a shower.  Look at whatever you want.  Call Sam over.  I need… I need help,” he says, and then he slides by her and shuts the bathroom door with a very final feeling click.

--

With the water running, he couldn’t hear whatever was going on in the main room, if anything was going on.  Getting out of the shower and getting dressed, he can hear the murmurs of Nat and Sam in the other room, but he can’t quite make out what they’re saying.

He takes as much time as he can drying off and getting dressed, stretching out the time before he has to go out there, because he knows the conversation he has to have.

He takes a deep breath to steel himself before he steps out of the bathroom.  Natasha is perched on top of the desk and Sam is in the rolling chair, both of them looking over the things he left behind.

Sam looks over, spinning the chair to face him.

“What are we looking at here, Steve?” Sam asks, raising his brows.

“My past, and Bucky’s.”

“So he is remembering, then,” Nat says.  Steve sits down on the edge of his bed.

“Yeah, guess so.  But, I don’t think that’s what this is about.”

“So, what?”

Steve hesitates, rolling over how to say this in his head.  He picks a spot on the carpet and doesn’t look away from it.

“People ask me all the time why I didn’t just jump out of the plane.  Jumping out of planes is kind of my specialty at this point, I probably would have been fine.  I’ve given a lot of different answers over the years, and they were all true to some degree at some point.  But truth is subjective, right?  And there are truths you just don’t tell people because they don’t want to hear them.

“Everything had been taken from me.  I was hardly even a person anymore, just a plaything for the government to use to sell bonds.  They didn’t want to use me for anything real and risk losing their greatest investment, so they’d rather keep me stateside.  I was a showgirl, and that’s not what I signed up for.  When I got to Italy, I was willing to do anything to get off the entertainment circuit.  They hated me over there, and I hated me too.  I felt like a patriotic dancing monkey.  And then I did something that mattered, and I got Bucky back, and it was like getting a piece of myself back, too.  He didn’t see me as Captain America, he saw me as Steve.  He had seen me at my worst, had pulled extra shifts to help me buy my medicines.  We had done everything for each other our whole lives.

“Afterwards, Peggy tried to make me feel less guilty by saying that he knew what he was getting into.  That he knew the risks and he took them anyway.  But he was following me, just like he always did, and it killed us both, just like he knew it would.  He used to get so mad at me for picking fights with people I had no hope of beating, but he was always right behind me anyway.

“The government took a lot of things from me, but Hydra took the rest, and I was willing to do anything to make sure they didn’t take everything from anyone else.  So that’s the truth of it, I guess.  I had to put the plane down, but I didn’t jump out of it because I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want to wake up again, I didn’t want to figure out how to live in the future, in a world where he wasn’t at my back.  I thought everything was gone back in ’45, and then I woke up and I was more alone then I ever could have imagined I would be.  He’s not telling me he remembers; he’s saying goodbye.  He’s trying to destroy the thing that destroyed him, and he is trying to take himself down with it.”

Sam and Nat are silent for several beats, and Steve doesn’t look at either of them.  Can’t look at either of them.

“We’ve all been there, Steve,” Nat says, voice soft.  “In Russia I was like a doll in a music box.  I was a ballerina and a killer, and I did things that give me nightmares.  And then I got recruited by SHIELD and I thought I was doing something right, and then that was taken from me too.  I had been handed off like some kind of murderous plaything.  And I was angry, and I still am.  And there are days where I wish… Well, some days it feels like the only thing I’m good for is losing.”

Steve thinks, sharply, of Bruce.  Of how hard Natasha tried to hold onto him; of how scared she was, at first of him and later of losing him.  They don’t talk about him because they don’t know if he’ll ever come back.  It stands in starker relief against all the unsaid things they’re letting out now, and Steve wonders if she has anyone else.  Anyone in the world she’s kept secret, or if all they have really is each other.

Sam stands up, walks a few paces, walks back.  “After Riley, I had to find a place to put all that anger, all that sadness.  It didn’t feel right that I got to go on living when he was, was dead,” Sam says, faltering at the end.  “But then I found the VA, and they helped me, and I realized that I could help people, too.  I think about Riley every single day, I dream about him falling and I know I won’t ever be fast enough to catch him.  But the past is the past, Steve, and we can’t change it.  We can only change now.”

Steve glances up at them both.

“Circumstance makes monsters of us all, Steve.  Look at all of the people you know.  Not one of them doesn’t carry the weight of their guilt around with them.  We are more than the monsters they made of us,” Natasha says, gaze steady.

Steve wishes Bucky were here, wishes he could hear this too.

“It doesn’t matter if I know it,” he says.  “Bucky will let his guilt drag him down as far as it can.  Did you read the notebook?”

“He remembers every single one,” Sam says.

“But he also remembers the Whitman poem you liked the best.  He remembers that you are more man than symbol, that you are more than the sanitized version of you in all the history books.  He remembers, Steve, which means he knows he had a life before this.  So, you just have to show him he can have a life after,” Nat says.

“But how?” Steve asks, not bothering to be embarrassed that he sounds kind of desperate.  He is desperate, and they’ve seen every part of him laid bare and they didn’t run for the hills.  They know every truth of him except for the secret wrapped in brown paper at the bottom of his bag.  The one that is hardly a secret at all, anymore.

“We find him again,” Sam says, like it’s easy.  “And again and again and again.  Until he knows you won’t stop looking, ever, and you won’t give up on him.”

“Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?”

“Sure, but now he knows you’ve seen this,” Sam says, tapping the notebook cover.  “And so, when you keep looking, he knows you’re not following the Winter Soldier.  You’re following Bucky Barnes.  Just like he knows that you are not just Captain America, the man that was made, he knows that you know he is not just the Winter Soldier, the asset.”

Steve spares a fleeting thought for Frankenstein’s monster, a product of creation, who did not ask to be made but was punished for it anyway.  He thinks that, perhaps, Sam has a point.

So they make a plan, their words washing over Steve like a balm, until they leave him alone in his room, Natasha politely informing Sam that he can sleep on the floor if he’d like, but she’d be commandeering his bed for the night.

And suddenly, he is alone, Peggy’s final gift burning a hole in his mind and his bag, every other piece of his past laid out before him, and he makes a choice.

--

In 1936, when Sarah Rogers was laid up and dying but before Steve had accepted she would, she pressed a bible bound in soft, worn leather into his hands and told him to think with his head just as often as his heart.  She always saw him as more than the frailty everyone else couldn’t see past.

You have no quit in you, she said, and he guesses she was right.  He never gave up, no matter what anyone else said.

There was a worn picture of his father inside the front cover, and Sarah’s name in neat script on the title page, a mirror.  Steve’s family shrunk down to fit in his hands.

He carried it around with him in the pocket of his jacket for years, stuffed full of secrets and prayers and hopes.  The same face, the same arms, the same shoulders and hands and legs, over and over, torn out of his sketch book and transplanted between verses.  The only thing he owned that nobody else would take; his heart laid bare, beating outside of his body.  It was a specific kind of reverence, keeping the things he ought not to.  The sentimentality of it reflected something within him he wasn’t ready for anyone else to know.  He knew people lived like this and it didn’t kill them, he saw it happen, but still the secret felt like a dangerous and weighty thing.

In 1943, Steve took his mother’s bible and all the torn-out sketchbook pages stored inside and placed it between the cushions of his and Bucky’s couch, another layer of concealment, and then he went off to Basic and never saw the bible again.

He tried not to let himself think about it, after.  Not during the war, not in all the moments he thought he might die, not when he did, or when he woke up again.  It wasn’t worth the headache, trying to imagine where it ended up.  With luck, it was in a storage unit somewhere, still tucked between those couch cushions.  Or, perhaps, they threw away all the furniture, as worn down as it was.  Thinking of that was worse, imagining the last piece of his parents he had, lost forever in some dump.  But the idea of asking after it scared him, the idea of acknowledging it and facing the truth of him.  He could hope that nobody had found it, but he knew it wasn’t realistic.

--

In 2016, Steve’s hands shake as he gently unwraps the brown paper.  His throat tightens up when he touches worn leather, the feeling ancient and foreign at the same time, a sensation 80 years out of sync, a half-forgotten memory of his mother’s cold hands, her hushed voice telling him his heart was ten times the size of his body.

He can’t deal with the overwhelming reality of it, so he focuses first on the envelope with his name on it.  He sets the bible down gently beside him on the bed and pulls a letter out of the envelope.

Peggy’s flowing script washes over him, calms the racing of his heart.  She wouldn’t have kept it if it horrified her, would she?  He couldn’t let himself believe it.

The letter starts out slow, telling him that her friend Angie thought writing the letter could be healing.  Steve’s heart clenches at the mention of Howard, of his son.  The letter is dated for June of 1991.  Steve swipes a shaking hand over his mouth.

You’d like Tony.  He’s the same kind of asshole as you, she writes, and Steve laughs, mostly air.  Smart as a whip and knows it.  Some days I think he is exhausted by how much more he is.  Were we like this in our twenties?  You were.

She goes on like that for a while, anecdotal, before she mentions the bible, how she got it.

She says she and Howard had to search his apartment for anything that shouldn’t be turned over to SSR for cataloguing.  They were expecting, perhaps, some political pamphlets or an embarrassing amount of alcohol.  Peggy was looking for a diary, maybe his sketchbooks.  Steve supposes she wasn’t so far off the mark.

I didn’t know what it was, at first.  Howard had pulled it out, said it was a funny place to store a bible.  Not very respectful, I suppose.  He flipped through it and said, “oh,” and shut it up again.  He handed it to me and told me not to let it out of my sight.

“Why?” I asked, after I had flipped through it myself.  “It’s just pictures.”

Howard hadn’t said anything else, he wouldn’t.  We made quick work of the rest of the apartment; Howard took some of the books, which I didn’t understand until later either.  I took your sketchbooks because I knew how you were self-conscious about your drawings.  We couldn’t keep you out of history museums, but we could hold onto the parts of you that you wanted kept secret.

She talks about secrets for a while, and her friend, and Steve thinks that maybe he knows what she is really saying, and then she comes back around.

Howard finally talked to me about them much later, when we were drinking to celebrate his latest engagement, one that would hopefully last (and it did); he said, “don’t you recognize the face?”  But I did not.  He shook his head like I was disappointing him, like I was refusing to see.  And maybe I was.

Then he pulled out a photo album, and he handed it to me.  It was pictures of you and the other Commandos, back when you were preforming and in Europe too.  He must have been taking pictures of you all whenever he saw you.  He used to say you were the only good thing he ever made, and then he had his son.  I don’t know that he ever figured out how to show either of you, but I saw it.  And I saw you, in your drawings, and I understood.  Barnes has a very distinct set to his brow; you captured him perfectly.

They were hidden on purpose.  It betrayed something more than just finding an easy subject in your friend, in someone you lived with.  I got it, then, and I cannot say I was unsurprised.  But then, I knew your neighborhood.  They lied about your address, you know, when they wrote about you for the public.  Couldn’t risk anyone making assumptions about your proclivities based on your neighbors.  Not that I think you got out much anyway.

Then, Howard told me about the books he took.  Whitman, Wilde, Hall, Forster, Fuller.  Some of them, I don’t know where you would have gotten them.  But then, maybe it was the neighborhood.  Howard said they weren’t yours, and I remember Barnes could charm the pants off a horse, so I’m sure he could charm his way to a few books.  In any case, it made sense, once explained, why he took them, and why he insisted we take the bible, it made sense in the same way that they changed your address when they had no reason to believe it meant anything.

Howard kept the books on a bookshelf in his study, otherwise filled with tools and knick-knacks.  As far as I know, he never even opened them.

It’s a wonder, the things you can go your whole life not knowing, not noticing.  But Howard knew.  Enough time spent in the public eye; you know what you need to avoid being caught with.

You and James were not born in the public eye, it was thrust upon you.  Perhaps that was unfair, but life is like that sometimes.

I wish you were still here, before me, so I could tell you this in person, but: it does not change how I feel about you.  I understand, Steve, I do.  Like I said, Angie and I, we know a lot about secrets.  Used to fight over them constantly.  It’s a damn hard way to live.

Steve, I never regretted my feelings for you, not even when they ached so much I could hardly breathe after you were gone.  My only regret is I got to live my life and you never got to live yours.  Not as a soldier or as a symbol, but as a man.

I don’t know that writing it all down has made this hurt any less, but perhaps unsent letters are their own form of diary.  I still hold out hope that we will find you again, somehow, some day.  If there was anyone who could look Death in the eye and say, “try again later,” it would be you, Steve.  Never knew when to back down.

You still owe me that dance.

Love,

Peggy

--

Steve is unsurprised to realize he is crying, but he swipes quickly at his face so that he doesn’t drip any tears onto the letter.  He wasn’t expecting it to hurt so much, to be seen and accepted anyway.  He doesn’t know, and never will, if she intentionally repeated the line about regrets to him, if she remembered all along and chose not to say anything.  He supposes it doesn’t matter.

He misses her, and he puts the letter aside and covers his face, trying to hide from the pain of it.  His shoulders shake with it, his breath coming short.

He doesn’t know if he has the strength to keep doing this, but then he thinks of his mother saying, there’s no quit in you, and he wants to be close to her again, in a way he hasn’t been in 70 years.

He takes a few fortifying breaths, squares his shoulders, and picks up the bible.  The picture of his father is still tucked inside the front cover, his mother’s name printed neatly on the yellowing page opposite the picture.  The sketchbook pages are still painstakingly pressed into the binding, so they won’t shake loose.  His family, his life, boiled down to the only things he was certain of back then.

The drawings, simple as they are, seem impossibly revealing in the bright hotel light.  He remembers vividly what it was like to draw each one, what it was like to realize he had done it again, and that he would keep doing it as long as he lived.  If love was a choice you made every day, then Steve would never stop choosing it, this, him.  He couldn’t.

And that’s what Bucky needs to know; what Steve needs to show him.  He won’t stop choosing him, won’t stop trying to be there, no matter what happens.

--

Steve wakes up the next morning to Natasha entering his room with a tray full of coffee, Sam trailing in after her.

“Wh- How did you get in here?” he asks, groggy.  “What time is it?”

“I took your spare key.  Obviously,” Nat says.  “And it’s seven already, so get up, lazy bones.”

Steve groans and pushes himself to sit.  Sam throws himself down in the armchair, accepting a coffee cup from Nat.  Nat passes Steve one as well and then settles at the desk chair.  She tips her head at the letter sitting neatly on top of the bible on the desk.

“This what was in the package you’ve been carrying around for weeks?” she asks.  Steve nods.

“A book?” Sam asks, craning his head to try and get a peek at the binding.

“My Ma’s King James.”

“So, not what you thought it would be?”

“Exactly what I thought it would be, actually.”

“Interesting place for secrets,” San says, eyebrow quirked.  Steve shrugs.

“Didn’t own much else.  Nowhere else to put them.”

“Where’d she get it?” Natasha asks.

“She and Stark searched my place after the war.  Wanted to see if there was anything worth keeping away from the cataloguers.  Controlling the historical narrative and all that.  She says they thought I deserved some privacy.  Bucky too.  Stark took… Stark took his books.”

“Why?” Sam asks.

Steve furrows his brow.  “They were… well, I didn’t know what they were at the time.  He just liked to read, he liked poetry.  Now, though.  Those books could have gotten us in some hot water back then, and we already lived in an… undesirable area.”

“What kind of undesirable?” Sam asks.  “Weren’t you in Williamsburg?  They’ve got, like, a whole memorial for you out by the water.”

Steve huffs a laugh.  “No, I did not live in Williamsburg.  Bucky’s parents lived up there, right near Greenpoint, but we lived in Brooklyn Heights.”

“Oh, Steve, your recruitment is a miracle every step of the way, isn’t it?”  Nat says.  Steve smirks.

“The military didn’t want me, they were just desperate.  And the doctor liked me.”

“What am I missing here?” Sam asks.

“Stevie lived in the gaybourhood, and the government didn’t want anyone to know,” Nat says.

“Gaybourhood?  This century is like a whole new world.  Anyway, they had this image of me they wanted everyone to believe in, of course they didn’t want anyone to know where I lived.  God forbid anyone start spreading rumors.  If anyone started running around saying Captain America was a gay socialist or something, the whole American Dream package I was selling would be screwed.  Not like it was hard to sell me as a straight, hot-blooded American, though.  My relationship with Peggy was pretty well documented.

“But the books, and that,” Steve says, gesturing at the desk.  “Would have been… a PR nightmare, as if my personality wasn’t enough of one already.  So, Peggy and Howard took them.  Peggy says that Howard kept them on a bookshelf in his office, probably until he died.  Letter’s dated June of ’91.”

“Jesus,” Nat breathes.

“Right?  Anyway, I have it back, now.  Not sure where the books ended up, but maybe Tony still has them somewhere.  I don’t know where to go from here, I just know that I don’t want to lose him again.”

“Well, I might have a lead on that.  I’m waiting to hear back from a contact about where he might go next,” Nat says.

“I love being friends with spies,” Sam says.  Steve downs the rest of his coffee.

“I’m going to get ready.  Please leave my room.”

“You mean we can’t watch you get dressed?” Nat asks, an overly innocent look on her face.  “Spoil sport.”

Steve rolls his eyes.  “It’s too early for you to objectify me, Natasha.  Come back if you have news.”

Nat pitches her voice low in a clear imitation of him and says, “You got it, Captain,” while saluting him.  Steve sighs.

--

The thing they don’t tell you about work like this is how boring it can be.  There’s so much waiting, for information and for planning.  Steve’s always been impulsive to a fault, and he had to unlearn all of that to be successful in this line of work.

It’s hard, following orders, so this is easier.  He likes it better, collaborating.  But still, it’s boring as hell.

Nat doesn’t hear back for hours, and by then Steve is practically vibrating out of his skin with the need to just do something.

They end up at a warehouse somewhere deep in the countryside, built into the hillside and surrounded on all sides by trees.  Not as conspicuous as some of the other places they’ve found.

Unfortunately, there is already smoke rising from part of the building when they get there.  Over the comm, Sam curses.

“Could still be something worth finding in there, Wilson, stay sharp,” Nat says.  They close in on the building carefully, splitting up once they’re inside and clearing each section slowly.

The warehouse looks like they usually do after Bucky’s finished with them; like controlled chaos has rolled through each room.

But then, Steve enters a lab and finds Bucky sitting in a rolling chair, feet kicked up on an examination table, back to the door.

“Hey, Steve,” he says, voice low.

Steve cuts his comm before he says, “hey.”

Bucky doesn’t look up, just drums his fingers against his thigh.

“You’re not going to stop following me, are you?”

“You know I won’t.”

“I remember you being… stubborn.”

“My Ma said I was spirited.”

“Your Ma,” Bucky says, and he tips his head up to the ceiling.  Steve can see the hint of a smile on his face.  “She was a nice lady.  What happened to you?”

Steve shifts his weight.  “Being an asshole is my specialty.”

Nat and Sam are talking softly over the comm in his ear, clearing each room and sharing any notable findings.  It won’t be long before they notice he isn’t contributing.

Bucky drops his head again, looking down at his lap.  Steve wishes he would just turn around.

“I’m real tired, Stevie,” he admits, softly.

“Let me help you.”

Bucky shakes his head.  “I’m not him.  The guy you remember.”

“I don’t care.  I’m not the same either.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Terrible things happen to us all.”

“I was the terrible thing that happened to people.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Not you.”

“I’ve made mistakes, done terrible things.  Hydra used me.”

“Not your fault.”

“Not yours, either.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything.

“Let me help you,” Steve says again.

“I’m dangerous.”

“I don’t know anyone who isn’t.”

“I’ve been trying to figure it out, how to get control back.  I’ve been looking for answers, would settle for hints, how to deactivate the landmines they planted inside my head.  I don’t know.  They could turn me.  They could make me do things and I wouldn’t be able to stop it.”

“We can figure it out, Buck.  Together.  Just like always.”

“Till the end of the line, right?” Bucky asks, and Steve thinks he might be smiling.

“Till the end of the line,” Steve says.  “I’ve got your back.  Always.”

“How you think we’re getting out of this one, huh?”

“I’ve got a lot of smart friends these days.”

“That enough to balance out your stupid?”

“Probably not, no.  They can try, though.”

“What’s the plan?  Gonna put me in your carry on?  Sneak me around your clubhouse?”

“I’m an important guy, I don’t fly commercial,” Steve jokes.  He feels gratified when Bucky laughs, brief as it is.  “I can get us a place, away from the team.  I know a guy with a farm.  We could figure it out.”

“You want to make me a farmer?  We gonna get some goats?”

“We can get goats if you want,” Steve says, a small smile on his face.  His chest fills with something warm and familiar hearing Bucky say we.  Like maybe he’ll want Steve there, eventually if not now.

Bucky kicks off from the exam table, spinning the chair around.

“Your friends are looking for you,” he says, and he looks… not happy, but almost.

“Looking for you, too.”

“Tell ‘em about the goats, then,” Bucky says, and Steve can’t help the smile that breaks out across his face.

--

The quinjet is… interesting.  Sam and Bucky get on like a house on fire with just as much chaos.  Nat seems determined to sit back and just watch the drama unfold.  Steve spends the bulk of the flight texting with Tony, who gets him set up with a cabin on a large plot of land.  Steve doesn’t ask too many questions about how he does what he does, especially when he’s doling out favors.

Steve looks up when Bucky comes over and sits down across from Steve.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey.”

Steve watches him, waiting to see if he’ll say anything.

“I’m trying to remember something,” Bucky says.

“What are you trying to remember?”

“I’m not sure.  You?”

“Me?”

“Something about you.  You used to draw.  Do you still?”

“Sometimes.  It was hard, after the serum.  I had to learn how to again.  After waking up, it was hard to feel like it was worth it.”

Bucky nods, brows furrowed like he’s thinking hard.

“I remember you drawing, I think.  Coming home and finding you asleep with your sketchbook on your chest.  I remember…”

“What?” Steve asks after a moment.

“I don’t know.  Your… your journal?  Or a bible, maybe?  It’s fuzzy.”

“My bible.  It was my mother’s.  You remember that?”

“Yeah, did you bring it around with you?”

“Yeah, I kept it in my pocket.”

“Why?”

“It was my mother’s,” Steve says.  It’s an easy answer, the truth but not all of it.  Truth is a matter of circumstance.

Bucky hums, but he doesn’t press.

“Hey, Barnes.  Can I braid your hair?” Nat calls over.  “You shot me, once, so I’m pretty sure you owe me.”

Bucky looks at Steve, alarmed.

“Don’t worry about her, she’s just like that,” Steve says.  “Play nice, Romanoff.”

“I’m always nice,” Nat says, a sharp smile on her face.

“I would rather you not braid my hair, thank you,” Bucky says, pulling out a level of politeness Steve hasn’t seen from him since Steve’s mother died.  It almost makes him laugh.  Natasha shrugs.

“Your loss.  Maybe next time.”

Nat kicks her feet up into Sam’s lap and he grumbles but doesn’t push her away.  Nat smirks and tips her head back like she’s going to fall asleep, but Steve doubts it.

“I have it,” Steve says.  “If you’d like to see it.  Maybe it could help?”

“Help what?”

“Your memories.”

“Oh.  Maybe.  It couldn’t hurt to see something familiar, right?”

“Right.  I’ll show you when we get to the cabin.  Tony found us a place.”

“Tony,” Bucky says, and then immediately looks panicked.

“It’s gonna be okay, Buck.  Tony knows a few things about being used against your will.  We’ll figure it out,” Steve says, reaching forward and laying a soft hand on Bucky’s arm.  Bucky still looks a little wild around the eyes, but a minute amount of tension drops out of his shoulders.

--

Watching Bucky unfold in a space that is all his own is incredible.  His shoulder settle as he looks around, tension visibly bleeding out of him.

Steve smiles as Bucky approaches the bookshelf, head tilted as he examines the titles.

“Steve,” he says softly, hand halfway to the shelf.

“They’re yours,” Steve says.  “Howard had them.  Tony pulled them out of storage for me.  I wanted you to have something you remembered.”

Tony had sent a picture of them, just to be sure they were the right books.  Steve is pretty sure the titles are mostly the same as the tabbed ones in Bucky’s journal.

“Howard...” Bucky says.  His hand drops and he turns around fast.  “Howard had them?  How?  Why?”

“He and Peggy went through our apartment after we… You know.  They took some things that we wouldn’t want to end up in a museum.”

Bucky looks back at the shelf.  “Did they take anything of yours?”

“Peggy took my bible, my sketchbooks.  I think Sharon still has the sketchbooks, or maybe they got tossed.  I’m not sure.”

“I’m sorry about Peggy,” Bucky says.  “The funeral was beautiful.”

“What?”

“I liked Peggy, so I went.  Watched from afar.”  He pulls one of the books off the shelf.  “Did they read them?”

“Peggy didn’t, and she didn’t think Howard did either.  Just kept them on a shelf.”

Bucky hums and flips the book open.  Steve can see hints of notes written in the margins.

“So why did they take your bible?  Catholicism didn’t fit with the government’s picture of you?”

“You want to see it?” Steve asks, instead of answering.

Bucky looks up, brows furrowed.  “Tryin’ to convert me?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Steve says.  He sits down on the couch and unzips his bag, digging through to the bottom.  His hands shake a little as he pulls the bible out, but he needs Bucky to know.  They’re both too old for secrets, and the world just keeps on moving anyway.  No point being stuck in the same mistakes forever.

Bucky sits down in the armchair, less than a foot away from Steve and he feels every inch of it.  He hands him the bible and Bucky lays the book he was holding face up on the table.  Whitman.

He flips the front cover of the bible open, traces the edge of the photograph with his index finger.

“Your dad?” he asks.  Steve hums, not trusting his voice not to betray the anxiety humming in his veins.  “You look like him, now.”

“Thanks,” Steve says.  He drums his fingers on his knee as Bucky turns the pages, his fingers curling into a loose fist when he comes across the first sketch.  Bucky’s brows tip inward but they smooth out again as he keeps flipping.

“Are these…” he starts, but he cuts himself off.  The most damning piece sits on display before them and Steve feels cracked open.  Bucky’s fingers ghost over his own sleeping face, committed in painstaking detail.  Steve remembers drawing this one, remembers the sweat at his temple every time Bucky had stirred in his sleep.  The way his shame burned but being unable to stop himself anyway.  It was mere weeks before Bucky left for basic, the last he drew from live reference.

“You, yeah.  All of them.”

“Why?”

“I think you know why, pal,” Steve says, chest tight.  Bucky nods, slow and even.

“Yeah,” he murmurs.  He closes the bible and reaches for the book again, flipping through until he seems to find what he’s looking for.  He holds the book out silently to Steve and he takes it.

“What?” Steve asks, skimming the short poem in front of him, called “Sometimes with One I Love.”  In the margins, In Bucky’s sure handwriting, it reads, there must be something more, some reason or beauty, to loving without resolution.

Steve glances up at Bucky and finds him looking at the bible on the table, watching it steadily like it has answers to some cosmic question.  Steve goes back to the book.

Just below the poem he has written, to follow you forever, to be allowed, that would be reason and beauty enough.

Steve notices a line, underlined with a light hand; I loved a certain person ardently, and my love was not return’d.

He looks back at Bucky again and he says, “Oh.”

Bucky snorts, and smiles, and looks at Steve and he is all at once the man Steve knew and someone entirely different, and he wonders what Bucky sees when he looks at him.  If they see the same thing.

“Oh,” Bucky says, voice soft.

Steve leaves the book open on the table, and decides to redefine beauty and reason, to love with resolution.

He basks in the sunlight-warmth of the answer to some cosmic question.