So I watched the movie for the fourth time this past weekend (I may have a problem...) and this idea sort of sprung from that. Follows along pretty closely behind Disappear but it's not necessary to read that to understand this story. Also, I was really trying not to write Bucky like a stray cat but that's more or less how it turned out O.o Anyway, hope you guys enjoy it!
Fun Fact: Stan Lee's middle name is Martin; that comes into play a bit later ^_-
Disclaimer: I own nothing =/
Less than a week after the fight on the helicarrier and Bucky's disappearance, Steve finds his shield placed carefully on his dining room table. The apartment is locked from the inside, the interior just as clean and immaculate as it had been when he left that morning. Nothing has been moved or taken, no obvious signs that anyone was in the house while he was gone save for the presence of the shield on the table. It's dented and scratched, burned in some areas and rough in others. He hasn't seen it since he dropped it out of the helicarrier when he refused to fight the Winter Soldier. He wasn't sure where it had fallen after that, what had happened to it, but it's here now and there's only one person who could have brought it to him.
It should feel strange to know someone was in the house while he was away, an eerie knowledge that his locks and safety measures mean nothing to someone who knows how to slip past them without so much as a pause. He figures, in retrospect, that he should probably look into a more advanced security system. First Fury, now this; apparently a deadbolt doesn't mean anything anymore. It should feel strange but it doesn't. The lingering presence in the room doesn't feel threatening or even dangerous, it simply feels...lost.
He looks around the apartment carefully, checking every closet and corner, but he knows no one is there. Whoever was here left hours ago and won't be coming back. There's a very faint scuff mark on the window sill in the living room and he finds the window is unlocked. He knows he locked it this morning but he doesn't really question it now. Locks seem absurdly useless to someone who's had years of experience moving unseen.
He stands in front of the window for close to an hour, staring out at a city that's still busy and awake in the middle of the night. He's out there somewhere, he knows it with an absolute certainty that settles into his bones. He's out there and he's going to get him back, no matter what.
He finds the shield half buried in the soft mud of the riverbank two days after it fell. It's dirty and slippery with oil, the gleaming star hidden behind a thick layer of grime. There's a discarded fast food wrapper curled around one side of it, an empty soda can clinking against it softly with each ripple of water lapping onto the bank. It stands there in the mud like a gravestone, dull yet reflective and mourning a life lost long ago.
He doesn't know why but he pries it out of the mud and dips it into the river, rinsing away some of the mud and oil that has settled on the metallic surface. It feels wrong to leave it here, alone and discarded like another piece of trash washed up along the river bank. It's important but he can't say he understands why.
He pulls it from the river and catches his reflection in the back of it briefly. He immediately wishes he hadn't. His reflection is confusing now, distorted and foreign, an alien with his face. He'd never bothered to look at himself before, back when he was tucked away in cryostasis every time he completed a mission. He sees himself now though, confused and angry and uncertain. He sees a man he should recognize at least on the most basic level but he doesn't. He feels no familiarity or recognition when he sees his reflection because he doesn't know who he is anymore. Before he had no name, no identity, no autonomy; before he simply had a code name and a mission. Who he was never mattered until now. And now...he doesn't know.
He tucks the shield under one arm and walks away from the river, ducking his head low and keeping his face toward the ground. If anyone seems confused by the shield, they don't say so and he walks on in peace. He blends into the crowd and allows himself to be pushed along until he reaches his destination.
The building has been abandoned for months and there are For Sale signs in every window. Judging from the markings on the walls and the heaps of discarded trash and clothing piled in the corners, he knows he's not the first one to camp out here but that hardly seems to matter. The metal arm would be reason enough for even the stupidest vagabonds to stay away but even without it they all seem to know he's dangerous. No one bothers him and he prefers it that way.
He presses his back against the wall and stares at the shield for a long time. He'd been going back to river every day since his final fight with the Captain. He still doesn't understand why he saved him, why he dragged him unconscious and water logged from that river and left him on the banks to be found. He still doesn't understand why he crept past the security guards lining the hallways of the hospital and slipped into the hero's room while he slept. He still doesn't understand why he keeps seeing the other man's face, his eyes, his desperation every time he falls asleep. He doesn't understand any of it and he's not sure he wants to.
He stares at the shield until his vision blurs around the edges and his head begins to tip from exhaustion. Even in his sleep he can see that star gleaming back at him. The sooner he gets rid of it, the better. Two days later, he breaks into the Captain's apartment and leaves it on his dining room table.
"I know it was him, Sam," Steve insists the next morning, leaning back against a tree and staring out across the lawn. "There's no one else it could have been."
Sam doesn't answer at first, his expression somber and contemplative. "You're sure it wasn't Fury or Hill? Maybe someone else found it and they returned it to you instead."
Steve shakes his head slowly. "No, it was him. I'm sure of it." They'd met up for their morning run just before 5:30 am, the pre-dawn gloom creating just enough light to cause the streetlights to shut off automatically. Steve's wounds were still healing which caused his typical fifteen mile run to taper down into something closer to ten. Sam still wasn't fast enough to keep up but he managed to stay within a quarter mile of Steve at all times so it was something of an improvement. It wasn't until they stopped to take a break that Steve told him about the shield.
"So have you told anyone else about it?" Sam asks finally, his tone light and conversational but with an underlying wariness. Steve may be ready and willing to place his faith in the former assassin but Sam's not. Not yet, anyway.
Steve shakes his head again. "Fury's not exactly taking my calls right now and Hill is still trying to do damage control for what's left of S.H.I.E.L.D so no, I haven't told anyone else yet."
"And what about your other assassin friend?"
Steve smiles faintly at the question. He wouldn't dare call him on it but he thinks Sam may have developed a bit of crush on Natasha while they were working together. Beautiful, smart, and a bad ass? It's the ultimate trifecta. "Nah, Natasha's gone off the grid for a while. She won't be found unless she wants to be."
"Maybe your pal Bucky is the same way, Cap," Sam suggests gently, catching the other man's eyes briefly. "Maybe he doesn't want to be found either."
Steve is silent for a moment, staring out across the lawn quietly. It's not something he hasn't thought of before, a question he hasn't asked himself a million times since Bucky slipped out of the hospital that night. He'd told him not to look for him, to let him go like a long forgotten memory. Steve couldn't do that, not now that he knew the other man was still alive. If it took the rest of his life, he would get him back. When they were younger, Steve would have followed him to the ends of the earth and back. That hasn't changed now.
"I know he's still in there, Sam," Steve tells him quietly after a minute. "Some part of him is still there, he just doesn't remember it. That's why he didn't kill me on the helicarrier, it's why he pulled me out of the river. He's in there and I'm going to get him back."
Sam nods like he had been expecting as much and sighs softly. "Alright, man. You know I'm with you all the way. All I'm saying is that you might want to be careful around him; he did shoot you a couple times a few days ago. He might have been your friend back during the war but he doesn't remember that yet and that makes him dangerous. I mean, the dude punched a hole through my roof and ripped the steering wheel out of my car. If that's not enough to make you think twice, I don't know what is."
Steve shakes his head slightly. "He won't hurt me," he says, his voice full of conviction. "If he still wanted to kill me, he would have done it already." The fight on the helicarrier, the fall into the river, the appearance in the hospital; there were so many times the Winter Soldier could have completed his mission but he never did. He let Steve live even if he didn't know the reason. Steve knows though and because of that, he can't give up, not as long as there's a breath left in his body.
Sam still isn't convinced but he accepts Steve's answer all the same. "If you're sure about this," he says slowly, mapping out the suggestion carefully before he says it. "I think you should stop looking for him." He sees Steve begin to protest and continues on before he can. "Don't go out there hunting him down and tracking every move he makes. The closer you get, the farther he'll run. Let him come to you, on his own terms, and let him feel like he has control."
Steve sits in quiet understanding while Sam continues. "If what those files Natasha gave us are true, then he's spent a good majority of his life being under the microscope for someone else. Not the healthiest way to live, if you ask me. So instead of seeking him out, let him come to you first. It's the best you can do without scaring him off."
Steve is silent for a moment, shuffling the suggestions through his mind like a rolodex. The plan made a lot of sense, really; even when they were kids, Bucky was stubborn as hell and couldn't be forced to do anything that wasn't on his terms. It only seems fitting that the same should follow him now. Still, Steve isn't sure it will work. What if returning the shield was the last thing he did? What if he simply faded away into the city and eventually into the world and he never saw him again. He'd lost him once already, twice after he left the hospital; he wasn't sure he could do it again.
"You really think that will work?" he asks hesitantly, his voice sounding unsure and doubtful as he speaks.
Sam nods slowly. "I think if you have faith in him, if you really believe your friend is still in there, you owe it to him to do this on his own. If he wants to be found, Steve, he'll come to you first."
Steve nods in acceptance and leans back against the tree. He's always had unwavering faith in Bucky, ever since they were children. He's always believed in him no matter what and he believes in him now.
He wakes up to the sound of screaming, loud and piercing and raw. It takes him a few moments to realize the screams are coming from him. He sits up slowly, taking in the dark, blank walls of the empty building around him. He doesn't know what time it is but that doesn't matter; it's still dark outside and the streets are empty so he doesn't have to worry about some concerned citizen making a call to the local police station. Even if they did and the police came by for an investigation, he would be long gone by then. He's never stayed in one place for too long and it's nearly time for him to be moving on from this one as well.
He stayed in the city after the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D but he doesn't latch onto a reason for his lingering. Part of it stems from the fact that he has no money, is essentially a fugitive since he tried (but failed) to kill Captain America, and he's not too sure what's left of his former handlers won't swoop in and snatch him back up the second he steps foot outside. He can blend in with the best of them but the metal arm is a dead giveaway. The other part of why he stayed...well, he's not too sure about that.
Suddenly he can't stand this place anymore, can't stand the open, empty space that looms all around him like a cavern, and he's up on his feet and moving before his brain has a chance to catch up to what's happening. He leaves the building, carrying with him what few possessions he still has, and starts walking. He doesn't focus on a direction or a destination, he just walks.
The city sprawls out all around him, buildings and streets and offices taking up every available inch of extra space. He knows he's been here before, years ago and long before this mission took place. He doesn't remember why he was here but he recognizes the city on a basic, foundational level. It's changed though, it's grown and expanded and developed like a cancer. It's changed but then so has he.
He walks for hours, up sidewalks and down back alley ways. He passes buildings and bars, people who are just getting off of work and people who are just going in. Funny thing about cities is that they never really sleep, they just go through cycles of wakefulness with an endless supply of drones to fill the spaces in between. It's exhausting to think about but necessary in order to keep the infrastructure from collapsing in on itself. He digs his hands deeper into his pockets and keeps walking.
He's not sure how or why but he ends up in front of the Captain's apartment. The building is tall and looming, a giant towering over him in the darkness of the night. He's unperturbed. He stares at the outside of the building for a long time, trying to figure out why he came here in the first place. No answer immediately springs to mind but he can't force himself to leave either.
It becomes worrisome that he's apparently no longer in control of his own actions because the next thing he knows, he's perched on the fire escape outside of the Captain's window. The lights are out in the apartment but the other man doesn't appear to be home. He frowns, vaguely wondering what could be keeping the hero out at such a late hour. He pushes the thought away quickly; it's curiosity and nothing more.
He studies the darkened windows for several minutes before he makes the decision to move. He tests the window, the same one he slipped through the night he returned the shield, and finds it unlocked. He frowns again and slides it open, irrationally irritated that Rogers seems to have so little regard for his own safety that he leaves the windows unlocked. He's not sure why the thought bothers him but it does. The idea that someone could sneak into the apartment while he was away and Rogers would be none the wiser make shim edgy for some reason. He shakes his head and steps into the apartment, closing the window behind him.
The apartment is quiet and dark, the air still with the absence of movement. He walks through the living room quietly, glancing down the hall to the empty bedroom and the darkened bathroom. Wherever Rogers is, it doesn't appear he'll be back anytime soon and he feels something uncoil a bit inside.
He doesn't know why he's here, standing in the middle of the apartment of the man he had been assigned to kill. Rogers had said he knew him, that they were friends, but that couldn't be true. He's never had friends, only assignments and handlers and the cold, bone-deep freeze of the cryochamber. And even if he did have friends, he knows on some detached, fundamental level that you're not supposed to try to kill your friends with your bare hands. Rogers thought he knew him but he was wrong. That still doesn't explain why he ended up in his apartment in the middle of the night.
He's turning to leave when he notices the file spread out across the living room table. It's thick and filled to capacity with documents in English, Russian, and German. He recognizes the name on the front, the code name he's known for years. It doesn't feel like a name anymore though, it's just a combination of words and sounds that have been put together to describe him. He's never had a name before, not one he remembers at least, but the Captain had given him one. Bucky. He doesn't know how he feels about the name; it doesn't resonate into some deep part of his soul and cause a spark of recognition. It doesn't penetrate and it doesn't sink it, it just sits on top of him like oil on water.
There's a photograph paper clipped to the bottom of the file, a young man with his face and kinder eyes than his own. The man in the picture is handsome and hopeful, not scarred and twisted by years of death and misery. He stares at the photo for a long time, trying to remember if he was ever this man. It seems unlikely but he can't deny the resemblance.
He's not sure why but he pockets the picture and closes the file, tucking everything back into place so it looks like it hasn't been touched. He steals an orange from the bowl of fruit on the kitchen table (it suddenly occurs to him that he hasn't eaten in two days) and slips back out onto the fire escape, sliding the window closed quietly behind him. He's already turning the corner to another block when the sounds of an approaching motorcycle rumbles down the street.
He'd come back again, Steve is sure of it. The apartment is dark and empty when he steps inside but, just as it was the night he found his shield, there's a distinct presence of someone that lingers in the air. The apartment is spotless and untouched but he knows he was here.
He checks the window sill for any signs of disturbance but finds nothing. Ever since the night his shield had been returned, he'd started leaving that window open and unlocked in case Bucky ever came by again. He's never seen him but he's not really surprised by that. He's come to the conclusion that Sam is right: if Bucky wants to be found, he'll let himself be.
His suspicions are confirmed though when he notices the photograph missing from the file. It's such a small thing to go missing and Steve probably never would have noticed it had he not been pouring over the file earlier that morning. It's gone now though, the paperclip still in place and everything else held together the way it was before he left.
It's not great, it's not actual contact, but it's some progress and he'll take what he can get. Bucky was here, he was trying to remember, and the missing photograph is proof. The idea makes Steve happy for some reason.
Over the next few days, he begins leaving out other things that might be of interest to the wayward assassin. He leaves out photographs and files, trading cards with Bucky's face on them and old newspaper clippings from the war. He also begins cooking for two people and leaving food out every night. He noticed the missing fruit the night the photograph was taken and can't stand the idea of the other man going hungry so he cooks twice as much and leaves the other half out in plain sight in the apartment.
99.9% of the time, everything goes completely untouched. The photographs stay where they are, the food goes stale every night, but Steve keeps trying. Occasionally he'll come home at night to see a file moved an eighth of an inch from where it had been before or a very slight smudge in the faded ink of the newspaper clippings. Nothing is ever taken or obviously disturbed; he never sees Bucky and the window is always closed when he walks in. The food goes untouched and completely dismissed but sometimes an apple will be missing from the bowl. Steve makes it a point to keep fresh fruit in the bowl at all times after that.
Sometimes Steve is convinced that he'll see Bucky standing in the middle of a crowd, a fleeting shadow disappearing around the side of a building, or a glint of sunlight off metal as he's walking down the street. The glimpses are always so quick and fleeting that he's never certain but somewhere inside he just knows.
It's close to two weeks after the photograph goes missing that he finds himself sitting on the fire escape in the middle of the night, talking to someone he's sure isn't there. His tone is light and conversational, one friend talking to another, so close and yet a thousand miles away at the same time.
"You don't have to do this alone, you know?" he says, his voice echoing slightly in the silence of the alley below. "I meant what I said on the helicarrier that day. I'm with you till the end of the line, Buck. No matter what."
He leans back against the side of the building and lets his head tip back against the bricks. "It was always the two of us when we were kids; that hasn't changed now. I know you don't remember me and I know it's hard for you to trust me but just know that I'll do whatever it takes to get you back. You're my best friend, the closest thing to a brother I've ever had, and I'm not giving up on you. No matter how long it takes, no matter what happens, I'm not giving up on you."
He stops speaking and simply lets the words hang in the air around him. In the silence, he can swear he hears breathing but he doesn't have anything to confirm that. He stays outside for a while after that, saying nothing and simply staring out at the darkened city like a sentinel. Eventually he pulls himself up and steps back inside, sliding the window closed behind him as he does. He leaves the food out, turns out the light and goes to bed.
The next morning, the food is still untouched but the window is open just a crack and an apple is missing from the fruit bowl. Steve smiles.
He finds the museum by accident. A sudden downpour had forced several people into the building to seek shelter from the rain and he happened to find himself mixed in with them. He doesn't have any money but the exhibit is free and he wanders into it with a group of middle school children. He doesn't worry about being seen; the museum is crowded even in the middle of the afternoon and dressed down as he was with the metal arm hidden in the sleeves of a zipped up jacket, he looks just like everyone else who was caught in the unexpected storm.
His shoes squeak slightly as he wanders through the halls, the walls lined with black and white photographs and framed newspapers. TVs are tucked into the walls in some places of the exhibit, speakers mounted along the ceiling, and both are telling the visitors about the courage and bravery of Captain America.
He passes a photograph near the entrance and stops, staring at it for several minutes. The photograph shows a small, skinny man with blond hair swimming in a military uniform that looks like it's at least two sizes too big. The tiny soldier looks nothing like the broad-shouldered, muscle bound Captain in the other photos but he recognizes something about him. There's fight in the eyes that stare back at him, determination and persistence and a challenge issued to anyone who thought he couldn't hold his own. He recognizes that look because he'd seen it at least a thousand times before.
He frowns as he continues to stare at the photograph, taking in the details of the bony figure in the uniform. The memories that greet him are brief and fleeting, lightning flashes in the darkness of his mind. Black eyes and broken noses and busted lips. Filthy alleys and empty parking lots. One strong arm snaking around a skinny waist and hauling the smaller man away over one shoulder while he continued to kick and squirm. Sometimes I think you like getting punched…
He staggers back away from the photograph, the room spinning in a hazy dance all around him. The voice in his head is his own, the words spoken lifetimes ago and yet it feels like he's never said them at all. The skinny man from the photos is in his head too, alive and animated away from the stillness of photography. His brain almost latches onto a name, a face, a scrappy kid in an alley with dusty hair and a bloody nose. He stumbles a bit, dizzy and uncoordinated from everything in his head.
"You alright, son?" a voice asks from the side and he opens his eyes to see an elderly security guard watching him carefully. The man is easily in his eighties, possibly nineties, and it would be easy to ignore the question and shove past him. He doesn't though, not now. He doesn't feel like hurting people anymore.
"Fine," he croaks back, his voice broken and rough when he speaks. The fingers of his flesh and bone hand are tangled in his hair, gripping tight. He keeps the metal hand jammed in his pocket.
The guard watches him for a few more seconds, frowning slightly behind his white mustache. "Bathroom's around the corner if you're going to the be sick."
He shakes his head slowly, the dizziness fading a bit after a few seconds. "No, I'm...I'm fine."
The guard still doesn't look convinced but he doesn't wait around for another comment. He turns and walks deeper into the exhibit, passing newsreels and photos and reports. He weaves around a corner and freezes in place.
His face is staring back at him, large and in color. There's an assembly of mannequins behind a wall of glass, uniforms proudly displayed on each one. Red, white, and blue marks the center, a bold American flag in a sea of camouflage brown and olive green. There are faces printed on the wall behind the uniforms, faces he's drawn to for inexplicable reasons. He feels like he knows them but he doesn't remember why and his heart is thumping painfully against his ribs.
He looks at his face, his face, and struggles to breathe. Just like the photograph he'd taken from the apartment, the face that stares back at him is young and handsome, a war hero in his time. His eyes don't hold the same dead flatness, his body marred by ropey scars and metal limbs. His hair is short and he's well-groomed, nothing like the counterpart that stands before him with his dark, dirty hair and stubbled jaw. The man on the wall is a hero, a good man, and the one who stands in the museum is a killer. The man on the wall looks nothing like him, is nothing like him, and yet they're identical in every way.
He steps back, desperate to get away from the soldier with his face, but it's right in front of him again. The wall display shows his face and a name written out in bold, white letters. A smaller display case on a shelf below the white letter paragraphs contains a set of dog tags with the same name imprinted into the metal. His hand brushes over the top of the case, hesitant and careful like the glass is somehow electrified. They're not the originals, exact replicas but not the originals. No, the original tags were lost in the war. Lost in the war…
He looks away from the case, breathing hard and swallowing thickly. The soldier with his face stares back at him, his whole life story written out in black and white. He doesn't want to read it, he wants to turn and walk out of the room immediately, but he doesn't. He's rooted to the spot and his eyes begin tracking the words dedicated to the man he might have been. It shows the date of birth and date of death. It tells him where he lived, what unit he was in, his rank. It tells him he was best friends with Steve Rogers. It tells him he died in combat during a mission with Captain America. It tells him about a train, about snow, about a mountain track running along a deep canyon hiding a river…
Suddenly he can't think, he can't speak, he can't breathe. The air is rushing out of his lungs, sucked out as he falls into open space. He sees white then brown, white the brown, tumbling through snow and rocks and frozen dirt. There's the sound of water running, a soft trickle along frozen banks, and splash of bright, crimson blood in the snow. He can't move, he can't breathe...he's dying…
There's a distant crack somewhere around him, glass shattering beneath metal and circuitry. He's gripping the display case so tightly it's shattered, shards of glass falling the floor like broken crystals. He feels like he's shaking but he can't be sure...he's not sure that anything is real anymore.
The sound that strangles its way out of his throat is somewhere between a groan and a sob and the little girl to his left backs behind her mother with wide eyes. He pushes past them, stumbling through crowded hallways and passing visitors. He feels a cold sensation he has no word for, penetrating deeper than his bones and into his very core. He's cold, cold, cold...icy water and snow-capped mountains and icicles that are shaped like daggers.
He pushes his way out into the pouring rain and he runs.
It's a little past 9:30 when Steve nudges his apartment door open with his elbow. He has a paper bag filled with groceries tucked under one arm and a thick folder full of files tucked under the other. The apartment is dark and quiet when he steps inside, just the way it's always been. He freezes instantly.
A dark figure stands by the window, motionless and silent and almost completely hidden by the shadows. The figure doesn't appear surprised by Steve's appearance and he doesn't move to attack him, he stays where he is like he's been waiting for him.
"Bucky?" Steve asks cautiously, carefully lowering the bag and the file to the nearest flat surface. The figure doesn't confirm or deny the name but it doesn't matter; Steve knows it's him without another word.
He starts to walk forward but the other man visibly tenses in the darkness. "Don't." The word comes out sharp and desperate, a plea but also a command.
Steve complies and holds both hands up to show he's not advancing with any kind of weapon. "I'm going to turn the light on, okay?" he tells the other man carefully, reaching for the light switch and flipping on the lamp.
The room is cast in a soft yellow glow and Bucky doesn't move. He stands there, statue-still and silent, his eyes haunted and dark. There's a small puddle of water on the floor beneath him, accumulating beneath his shoes and dripping from the ends of his hair. His fists are balled tightly at his sides and his jaws are clenched so hard it's amazing he hasn't cracked a tooth.
Steve stays where he is but does a quick once over of the other man. Other than being wet and excelling in statue impersonations, he doesn't look injured. He's lost some weight since Steve last saw him and he looks like he hasn't had a decent night's sleep in about two weeks but Steve's not all that surprised by that. He's surprised he's here though, standing in the room with him and not disappearing out the window the second Steve stepped into the room. Something is wrong, he's not sure what, but he just knows.
"You okay?" he asks and the question feels stupid coming out. Of course he's not okay; he hasn't been okay for a long time. Still, it's the simplest way he can think of to start a conversation without being too intrusive.
The other man doesn't answer, doesn't move in response to the question asked, he just remains motionless. He's staring at a point on the floor, something Steve isn't seeing, and he's highly invested in it. He doesn't blink very often and his focus on whatever he's staring at is a bit unnerving.
It takes every ounce of self-control Steve possesses not to close the distance between them and reach out for his friend. Ever since he discovered the other man was alive, he's wanted nothing more than to see him again, to get through to him. He's read the files and the reports, the confirmed kills and the suspected ones. He knows about the Soviets and the Red Room and Operation: Winter Soldier. He's seen the words 'assassin' and 'murder' and 'death' so many times he's lost count. He doesn't care. This is Bucky, his best friend, his brother, his everything. He'll get him back even if it kills him in the process.
The other man shivers where he's standing, water droplets sliding off his skin and falling to the puddle on the floor. He doesn't even seem to be aware of it. Steve frowns and takes a small step forward. Dark, broken eyes shoot up instantly, pinning him in place as he moves. Steve holds his hands up again.
"I'm going to get you a towel," he tells him evenly, taking another step toward the hallway. Bucky is far enough across the room that he won't feel crowded by the movement but Steve gives him extra room just in case. He slips into the hallway bathroom and retrieves a towel from the rack, stepping back into the living room slowly to avoid startling the former assassin. Part of him expects him to be gone, the short disappearance from the living room into the hall giving him enough time to make his escape. He's still there when Steve returns though, still motionless and dripping.
He takes measured, careful steps across the carpet, moving slowly and deliberately so the other man doesn't panic. He places the towel on the coffee table and slides it to the end so it's closer to Bucky without him being closer in the process. He copies the other man's posture then, standing completely still across from him and barely daring to breathe.
Several minutes of silence pass between them, the soft patter of rain on the window panes filling the room. When Bucky does finally speak, his voice is quiet and rough, broken around the edges. "There was a train…" he says quietly but he doesn't seem sure. He says it as a fact but one he doesn't believe.
Steve feels something twist in his gut but he nods slowly. "Yeah, Buck, there was a train. We were a mission and you fell."
If it's possible, the other man stiffens even more. His breathing becomes rigid and tight, his eyes slightly wild in the shadows.
Steve takes a very small step forward, his hands still up and open as he moves. "I went back and looked for you," he tells him carefully and the words burn in his throat as he says them. I looked for you, I looked for you, I looked for you...but you were gone… "I searched that canyon from top to bottom for you." He takes another small step, slowly, carefully. "I thought you were dead."
The other man looks back down to the floor, his face going pale in the dim light. "I fell…" he mutters but once again it comes out with a questioning tone.
Steve feels like a knife has been slipped between his ribs. "You fell," he affirms and his own voice cracks with the weight of the words. You fell because I was too late...I didn't get to you in time...it's my fault...you fell because of me…
For the first time, he notices something clenched tightly between the metal fingers. It's small and metallic and for a brief moment Steve wonders if it's the tip of a hidden blade. He quickly realizes that it's a chain, small links and light weight. He knows because he has one just like it. The tags are hidden in the other man's hand but he knows what they say down to the last letter.
"Bucky," he says, taking another step forward. He knows he shouldn't but he reaches out toward the metal hand, the hand holding the tags like they're the key to everything. In a way, maybe they are.
Several things happen at once then, a blur of movement too quick to be followed. Steve's hand is still hovering a few inches away from the metal fingers when the assassin's other hand shoots up and catches his wrist, effortlessly snapping the bones. Steve staggers with a surprised gasp and then the Winter Soldier is out the window, pausing on the fire escape. For a brief moment, a heartbeat in time, his eyes meet Steve's and he looks vaguely horrified by what he's just done. He shakes his head once, an apology riddled with disbelief, and then he's gone, disappearing into the night and the rain.
Steve can do nothing more than cradle his broken wrist to his chest and watch him go.
He doesn't know where he is. By the time he comes back to his senses, he's sitting against a brick wall beneath a red and white striped overhang. It's still raining but it's lessened considerably and is now down to little more than a drizzle. He's still wet and the night air has a cold bite to it but he doesn't feel it. He sits there with his back pressed against the wall for several minutes until he's sure he can stand up again.
The dog tags are still clenched in his hand, the chain tangled around his fingers in metallic knots. He doesn't remember taking them from the museum, he didn't even know he had them in his hand until the Captain reached for them. He doesn't know why he reacted the way he did, wasn't even cognizantly aware he'd done anything until he was standing on the fire escape and staring back at the other man with his broken wrist. The pain in his eyes, the shock...he couldn't take it and he ran.
Now he's here and he doesn't even know where here is. He hasn't been to this part of the city before, at least not that he remembers, and he vaguely wonders if he's still in the same city at all. Nothing looks familiar but then in the drizzly dark of the night he doesn't expect it to.
He stands slowly, his body stiff and sore from sitting for so long. The streets are empty, a few streetlights lining the sidewalks in either direction, but he doesn't know where to go. Left or right, north or south, he just doesn't know.
He glances down at the dog tags in his hand, eyes skimming over imprinted metal. It has a name, a religion, a blood type; it has everything he can't remember about himself. It's frustrating knowing that the thin metal tags know more about him than he does. He wants to get rid of them but he can't; his fingers refuse to uncurl and drop the tags into the nearest ditch the way his brain is demanding he do. Instead, he does the complete opposite and untangles the chain from his fingers and slips it over his head. The tags fall to about mid-chest, resting lightly against his sternum and warming against his skin. He stares at them for several minutes.
He's not sure why he's so fascinated by them, why the simple metal disks hold his attention for so long. Maybe it's because they're tangible, physical and corporeal proof of a life he doesn't remember. He can touch them, wrap his fingers around them, cling to them in ways that he can't with the picture in his pocket. They're solid and real, the metal on the chain so much different from the metal in his body. The tags were his; if he knew nothing else about his life, he knew that.
He thinks back to his reaction when Ste-...Rogers tried to touch them. He'd been trying to help, he was just trying to help, and he'd reacted violently. He remembers bones snapping beneath his fingers, a painful gasp, and he feels ashamed. He doesn't know why he feels that way but some deep, fundamental part of him tells him that hurting the Captain is wrong and unforgivable. He knows that more than his own name, his own history, his own face. He had hurt him and he couldn't go back.
The decision weighs heavily in his heart, a ball of lead settling in the center of his chest. He can't go back because he's afraid of what he might do, both intentionally and unintentionally. He doesn't want to hurt him, doesn't want to put him in danger even though his death had been one of the last things he'd been assigned to do. He was unstable at best, still somewhat homicidal at worst, and being around Rogers was like adding fuel to a wildfire. So he can't go back, not now, not yet.
He turns in a random direction and begins walking.
"So you haven't seen him since?" Sam asks quietly, looking across the table at the slumped super soldier.
Steve shakes his head and absently swirls the coffee in his cup. His wrist had healed, the bones reset and good and new within a few days. The pain of losing Bucky yet again had not. He can still see the tortured look in his eyes, hear the broken sound of his voice, and it's shredding him to pieces inside. "I keep hoping he'll come back but…" He lets the sentence fade off there because he doesn't have the heart to finish it.
"Natasha thinks he's still in the city," he continues, staring at the coffee mug in his hand. "She's called in a couple favors and a few people claim to have seen him around town but nothing has been confirmed. She told me to leave it alone, to let him figure it out on his own but I just can't do that, Sam." He looks across the table, meeting the other man's eyes. "If our positions were switched, if I were the one in his place, I know Bucky wouldn't give up. He wouldn't stop until he found me and I owe him the same thing."
He shakes his head, suddenly exhausted and weary beyond his years. "I was so close, Sam…"
The other man is silent for a few minutes, regarding his friend carefully. He can see the fatigue, the pain and desperation in the Captain's eyes, and it strikes a chord deep inside. He's seen that look before, hundreds of times since he got back, and he's seen it in his own eyes as well.
"It's not your fault, you know," he begins quietly, keeping his voice level and calm the way he does during the VA meetings. "What happened to him. It's not your fault."
Steve laughs bitterly and shakes his head. "It is my fault. I wasn't fast enough, I couldn't reach him. If I had gotten there sooner-"
"If I had jumped first," Sam interjects, catching Steve's eye again. "If I hadn't driven down that road, if I had been just five minutes sooner, if I had had one more bullet." He shakes his head and leans forward toward Steve. "I've heard these statements a hundred times, man; playing the 'what if' game is dangerous territory. You blame yourself, it's hard not to, I know, but I'm here to tell you that it won't help anything."
He leans back a little a drums his fingers on the table. "After Riley died, I did the same thing. He jumped out of the plane first which meant he was seen first. I kept wondering if things would have been different if I had jumped first instead, if I had been a little bit closer to him when he got shot out of the sky. I watched my best friend fall just like you did and for a long time I wondered what I could have done to change that."
"Yeah, I was sad at first," Sam tells him, sliding the coffee mug back and forth between his hands. "Then I got angry. I started blaming myself and the military and even Riley. I started wondering why it hadn't been me, why he was the one who went down in flames and why I was left to watch and think about what would happen to his wife and two kids back at home. I was angry at myself because I couldn't do anything and I was angry at him for dying. I was angry for a long time Steve, longer than I can remember."
He shakes his head and leans back a bit, crossing his arms over his chest. "It wasn't until I came back, started going to the meetings at the VA, that I realized I wasn't the only one who felt that way. We've all lost someone, Cap; friends, partners, that one person we would give anything to save and we just couldn't. The difference between us though, between you and me and Riley and your boy Bucky, is that you still have a chance to change that."
"He may not remember everything right now but eventually he will and when that happens, he's going to come to you." He looks at Steve levelly across the table. "He knows you, whether he remembers it or not, and apparently he trusts you enough to come back time and time again. The best thing you can do for him now is to stop blaming yourself for what happened in the past and figure out how you can help him now."
Steve smiles humorlessly and catches Sam's eye. "How do I do that, Sam? How do I help him when the people who controlled him nearly destroyed him in the process? How can I get him to trust me again when he's not even sure who I am?"
Sam shrugs one shoulder in response. "You're his best friend, Steve. Just keep doing that; be his friend, offer answers for the things he doesn't know, just be there for him." He smirks a little before continuing. "Come on, man, you're supposed to be Captain America. Helping the weary and downtrodden is kind of in your job description."
Steve chuckles softly, the barest hint of a smile tugging at his mouth. It's the first one he's felt in weeks and somehow it doesn't feel forced.
He goes back to the museum every day for a week and a half. No matter how far he gets from it, no matter how hard he tries to fight the urge, he always ends up back in the Smithsonian exhibit. Security has increased substantially since his outburst and there's at least one armed guard wandering through each hall of the exhibit at all times. They see him, they watch him carefully, hands resting on their weapon or their walkie-talkies. He knows it's only a matter of time before they force him to leave. He expects it, he anticipates it every second he's there. The shoe that drops, the straw that breaks the camel's back...he's waiting for the moment they all recognize him from security footage and make their move to subdue him. He expects it but he always prays it doesn't happen; he's not sure how he'll react if they try to apprehend him and he doesn't want hurt anyone.
No one ever approaches him. The guards watch him suspiciously, their eyes trailing him every single day, but none of them ever approach him. He knows better than to test their carefully controlled patience though and keeps his distance from the heart of the exhibit. Just as well, really; there are too many photographs of him, too many plaques and newspapers and dedications with his face on them. He doesn't want to be in there, it makes him feel claustrophobic and bad things tend to happen when he feels like he's cornered and can't get away.
There's a hallway leading along the outside of the exhibit and it takes him to a small theater room with a film projected on the wall. It's not a long film, 20 maybe 30 minutes at most, but he spends the entire day sitting in a dark corner of the theater. Occasionally, a couple with their children will join him in the room or a few elderly visitors who just need a break from walking. They all see him but they never bother him, everyone sits quietly and watches the film, a collection of newsreels and interviews that describe the life of Captain America from childhood to hero.
By the end of the first day, he knows Steve Rogers life story better than he knows his own name. By the end of the second, he's committed every single word to memory. By the end of the third, it all becomes white noise. The words and images wash over him while he sits quietly in the corner and lets his mind wander. His thoughts drift to dirty alleys and cramped apartments, military barracks and the World's Fair. He thinks about bloody knuckles and bruised ribs and a fierce protectiveness he'd never felt for anyone else. He thinks about cold tables and German words he could barely understand and red, white, and blue.
And there in his fractured memory, standing out like a pillar of light, is Steve Rogers. Steve is in every memory, every thought, every action. He's always there, right beside him, shoulder to shoulder and ready to take on the world. Steve had been everything good in his world, everything that made sense, everything he fought for. Steve had been everything. I'm with you, pal, till the end of the line…
Some days the memories are worse, more painful and altogether more terrifying. Some days he thinks of bullets and bombs and blood. Some days he thinks of falling, down, down, down forever. Some days he can't think of anything, every thought in his head a jumbled, uncoordinated mess, and it leaves him feeling dizzy and gripping the edges of the chair for support. Who is that? The man on the screen...he's a Captain. That man on the bridge...I knew him...who is that? Steve. Steve. Steve. Who is Steve? He's Steve. Then who am I?
He's having a bad day today. He's been staring blankly at the screen for what feels like hours, his eyes darting back and forth over the image of a woman with dark hair. He feels like he knows her, should know her, but he can't be sure. Black coffee hair, red dress to match red lips, going dancing, waiting for the right partner…
"You know, I think you've seen this film more times than the people who made it," a voice quietly chides from behind him.
He turns just in time to see the elderly security guard shuffle into the theater and take a seat in the chair beside him. He's small and frail and looks like the slightest breeze could knock him over. But he also has a taser in a holster at his hip and night stick secured to his belt and the authority to use them if necessary.
"Sorry," he hears himself mumble, his voice garbled and strange in his own ears. He doesn't remember the last time he said anything out loud...probably the night in Rogers' apartment. "I was just leaving-"
The guard shakes his head and waves him off. "I'm not here to kick you out, son." He drops his hand and shrugs his bony shoulders. "In fact, you look more comfortable here than anywhere else. Figured this is something of a safe place for you."
A few moments of silence passes, the film shifting to an interview with a man with a bushy mustache and a cigar clamped between his teeth. Dugan, his brain supplies belatedly but the name doesn't ring a bell right away. He doesn't really know where the name came from…
"I've worked in this museum for a long time, son," the guard tells him, his voice just barely carrying over the words on the screen. "I've seen a lot of people pass through these halls, look at the exhibits, take pictures, the usual. But I've never seen anyone quite as invested in an exhibit as you, not even the high school kids who come in here to write their history reports." He doesn't look at him, not really, but he can tell the old man is watching him from the corner of his eye. "See, when they come in here, they just look for facts and dates, little pieces of data they can put together to write a paper. But not you. You go through this exhibit and you look at these photos like you're searching for something you've lost."
He feels himself stiffen just a bit, his muscles going rigid and spine ramrod straight. Something he lost...lost long ago...he was lost in the war...he fell…
He shakes his head sharply, forcing the jumble of thoughts out of his mind, and his shoulders slump. Suddenly he feels about a thousand years old, brittle and paper thin. His head drops and the fingers of his flesh hand cover his eyes. "I don't know why I keep coming back here…" he admits after a minute, although he's not sure if he's speaking to the guard or himself. "I don't know why I'm here or what I'm going to do when I leave...I don't even know my own name..."
"Pretty sure those tags around your neck might provide a clue," the guard offers, nodding toward the chain that's just barely showing beneath the collar of his shirt.
He stiffens again, expecting the handcuffs to come out with the next word. "Listen, about the tags-"
"I was a military man myself," the old man continues, gently but effectively cutting off whatever he was about to say. "Got my feet wet on the beaches of Normandy and kept fighting till I got a leg full of shrapnel in Hurtgen Forest. Made me realize a few things about the war and the people who were fighting in it."
He says nothing but glances to the side briefly, his eyes catching the old man's. He hasn't tried to arrest him yet, hell, he hasn't even tried to make him leave. He's just talking, filling the space of the empty theater with words that haven't been pre-recorded. He was a veteran, a war hero, combat tried and sharing war stories with a fellow vet. He thinks that technically, they are probably the same age in spite of the fact that he still looks like he's in his mid-twenties. Life is funny like that.
"You see, son," the old man continues, sticking to the endearment while completely glossing over the fact that they were both in their nineties. "I learned two important things while I was over there fighting and they've stuck with me ever since. The first is that war changes you, for better or for worse, and it's a change that can never really be undone."
He feels the metal fingers of his left hand clench slightly in his pocket and says nothing.
"The second is that a lot of good men find themselves in situations beyond their control. They're forced to do things they would normally never do, say things they would never say. You see things in war, experience things that other people just can't understand and it's hard to explain those things to someone who wasn't there. I've known a lot of good men who were made to do terrible things in the name of a country."
His breath hitches just a bit and his shoulders stiffen again. The room is starting to feel small and cramped but he can't bring himself to move.
The old man glances at him but says nothing. A quiet kind of understanding passes through his eyes though.
"And what if some of the things you've done are unforgivable?" he hears himself ask, voice quiet and full of shame. "What if you hurt someone you swore you'd always protect? What if you don't even know all of the things you've done? What do you do then?"
The guard is silent for a few seconds, weighing his words carefully. "I'm afraid you're the only one who can answer that, my boy. In spite of the things you may have done in your past, you're the only one who can decide your future. It's up to you whether you want to be the villain or the hero. And trust me, son, I've seen a lot of heroes rise from ugly backgrounds."
The old man checks his watch and lets out a long sigh. "Back to work, I suppose," he mumbles, heaving himself up from the chair and straightening the pants of his uniform. He tips his hat to the other man and starts to walk away but stops, looking back over his shoulder. "He comes in here sometimes."
That catches his attention and he looks up, meeting the guard's eyes.
"Every few weeks or so," the guard continues nonchalantly. "He'll come in and wander around the exhibit for a little while and then leave. He always stands by your display the longest, though. I think he might be looking for you, too."
And with that he turns and walks out of the theater, leaving the other man sitting alone in the dark with Captain America saluting him onscreen.
The museum is surprisingly empty this early in the day. It's just before noon and there are only a handful of people wandering through the exhibit. Even in spite of the emptiness, Steve keeps his hat pulled low and his head angled downward to keep any sharp-eyed tourists from recognizing him.
This wasn't the first time he'd gone to the museum in search of Bucky. The night he'd shown up in Steve's apartment, dog tags tangled around his fingers, Steve had gone to the museum first thing the next morning in search of him. He recognized those tags, he'd seen them hundreds of times before, and sure enough, the display case that had held them originally was broken and empty when he arrived the next day. It was a promising lead but it had been fruitless; the only thing Steve saw of the other man were his pictures on the wall. That had been weeks ago and he hadn't had much to go on since.
He'd gotten a new tip the day before though, a supposed sighting of someone bearing a remarkable resemblance to Bucky leaving the museum. It's a long shot, he knows; hundreds, possibly thousands, of people wander in and out of the museum every day. How on earth could he sure the person from the tip was indeed his wayward friend? He couldn't be sure but he also couldn't stop himself from going to the museum to see for himself.
He walks through the exhibit slowly, looking at each visitor carefully as he passes. He goes through every hall and room, looks around every display, and comes up empty. He doesn't find him, any trace of him; the museum has its share of visitors today but Bucky is not one of them. It's frustrating and more than a little discouraging but he's not all that surprised. Bucky had proven to be remarkably good at remaining hidden these past few weeks.
Sighing heavily in disappointment, Steve finds himself standing in front of the display dedicated to his best friend. His eyes travel over the familiar face staring back at him, dark hair, mischievous smile, nothing at all like the cold, murderous expression he'd seen during their fight on the bridge or the haunted look in the eyes that had stared back at him in the darkness of his apartment. What had happened to him after the fall, what those people had turned him into...Steve would spend the rest of his life trying to make it right if only he could find him…
"Looking for someone, Cap?" a voice asks from behind him and he looks over his shoulder to see the small, elderly security guard walking up to him. He's friendly and helpful and he never shies away from extending a warm greeting to Steve every time he sees him.
Steve gives him a small but genuine smile and shrugs slightly. "Just looking for someone who doesn't want to be found yet," he answers honestly, reaching out to shake the old man's hand as he approaches. "How's it going today, Martin?"
The guard copies his gesture and shrugs one shoulder. "Not too bad. Had to run a couple of kids out of the T-Rex room this morning but otherwise it's been pretty quiet." He crosses his arms over his chest and joins Steve in staring at the dedication display. "Still searching for your friend, huh?"
Steve wasn't surprised that Martin knew about his search or that Bucky was still alive. After S.H.I.E.L.D's files had been dumped on the internet, it wasn't hard to put two and two together. Not only that, Martin had been the one to tell him about the afternoon the tags had been taken from the display case and mentioned that the man who took them could have easily passed for the long lost twin of a certain James Buchanan Barnes. And he should know better than anyone considering he sees the pictures on the walls nearly everyday.
Steve sighs again and looks away from the display. "Searching but not finding. I always think I'm right on the verge of finding him and then he disappears again…"
Martin nods knowingly. "I think you may be closer than you think."
Steve smiles but tries not to get his hopes up; all of his leads have led nowhere and with each dead end, the disappointment grew. He was almost certain he would find him today but now…
"I keep trying to think of all the things I want to say to him the next time I find him," he says, the words tumbling out before he can stop them. It makes him feel raw and vulnerable but he knows Martin doesn't care. Besides, Bucky has always been his weakness. "But it all sounds so boring and plain in my head. I want to make up for seventy years of lost time but none of it feels right." He smiles humorless and shakes his head slightly. "I've known him all my life and suddenly it's like I don't know what to say to him."
Martin nods again and pats him on the shoulder. "Sometimes the ones who are closest to us are the hardest to talk to in the end. I wouldn't give up on him, though; seems like he's trying pretty hard to get back to you as well."
Upon Steve's questioning look, he continues. "He was in here a few days ago, kept wandering into the theater room and just watching the same film over and over again. He watched it like he was looking for a way back and just couldn't find it. He's lost right now, Cap, that's all. But most of the time, the things we lose tend to find their way back to us in the end. It just takes time."
Steve smiles at the old man appreciatively. "Never knew you could be so silver-tongued, Martin."
Martin waves him off casually. "I dabbled in writing for a few years when I was younger. Nothing really ever came of it." He sobers a bit before continuing. "The point is, son, you'll never regret waiting for him but you will always regret giving up. Second chances like this don't happen very often and you'll never forgive yourself if you let it slip through your fingers." A small, sad smile tugs at the corner of Martin's mouth as he continues. "I've lost a lot of friends as the years have gone by, son, and believe me when I say that if I had to opportunity to save any of them, I would take it."
Steve is silent for a few moments, letting the guard's words sink in. Martin was right, he would never forgive himself if he gave up on Bucky now and he has no intention of doing so. Bucky had saved him from the Potomac all those weeks ago and now it was his turn to return the favor.
He smiles softly and reaches over, patting the old man on the shoulder. "You ever think about taking up a side job writing for one of those advice columns in the newspapers, Martin?" Steve asks him teasingly, getting a soft chuckle from the guard.
"Nah, I'm just an old man with a little too much time on his hands," Martin tells him with a smile. "Although if you really want my advice, I'd say to stick with your old uniform. Looks much better than that newer one they made you wear in New York."
The comment earns a small laugh out of Steve and Martin counts that as a success. He tips his hat to the soldier and steps away from the display. "Let me know when you find your friend," he says over his shoulder, walking away slowly and disappearing into the halls of the exhibit.
Steve watches him go and turns his attention back to the dedication display briefly. He takes one last look at the young, familiar face looking back at him in the display panel and takes a deep breath. "I'm here for you, Buck...whenever you're ready to come back," he says quietly, stepping away from the display and walking toward the door.
It's about a week later when the man in the dark sunglasses slides into the bench he's sitting on outside of a park.
"You're a tough man to find, Mr. Barnes," the man says by way of greeting, tipping his glasses down just a bit to get a better look. He's dressed down in a pair of jeans and a dark jacket but he recognizes him almost instantly.
"I killed you," he says simply and there's really no way to hide the bluntness of the statement. The man across from him had been his first mission in DC, Rogers had been the second. Apparently he'd failed both times.
"You tried," the man allows, leaning back in the bench. "Got real close, too. But not close enough."
He feels his shoulders stiffen a little and his fingers tighten against his leg. He could run, take off in a dead sprint and not stop until the man was miles behind him. But he doesn't. He stays there on the bench, eyes locked forward and back rigid. He's tired of running. "Are you here to arrest me?"
The man shakes his head and looks back out across the park. "Nah, I'm not here to arrest you. In fact, I'm here to offer you my help."
That gets his attention and he turns to look at the man beside him. "Why?" he asks suspiciously because nothing good has ever come for free in his life. "Why would you help me? I shot you."
The man shrugs one shoulder like bullet wounds were commonplace in his line of work. "Yeah, and it hurt like hell, but trust me, kid, you weren't the first and you certainly won't be the last to take a shot at me. Besides, I knew there had been a hit placed on me by the time you loaded your gun and it gave me some time for preparation. That assault in the middle of the street was a pretty good indicator of things to come."
He sighs and leans forward a bit, resting his elbows on his knees. "I'm helping you because this is mutually beneficial to both of us. You have a score to settle with your former handlers and I need someone who has experience in dealing with this kind of assignment. The agency I used to work for basically crumbled right beneath my feet, tainted and corrupted by the same organization you fought against in the 40s. Hydra infected the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D and now it's my job to make sure it doesn't spread."
His breath hitches in his throat a little at the mention of Hydra, the great, shadowy entity that had spread across most of eastern Europe during the war. He knows that name for more than one reason, though; he's pretty sure he was working for them toward the end.
"Most of the spies and agents who were affiliated with Hydra were captured after S.H.I.E.L.D's files were leaked online," the man continues, leaning back and pulling a large file from inside his jacket. "But not all of them. Several managed to escape and went into hiding, splinter cells that will eventually rejoin and create an entire body. I'm asking you to help me find them."
He frowns darkly, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Why? Why would you trust me with something like this?"
The man in sunglasses shrugs again and levels his gaze at him. "Truthfully, I don't. You could stab me in the back the second I turn around and I would have no way to stop you. But I do know that you've fought against them before and know what they're capable of. And I know you want to stop them just as much as I do."
He stares at the folder for several long seconds, muscles tense and rigid. Another assignment, another mission, another kill order. The metal arms feels heavy at his side, weighed down from years of destruction and violence. This is nothing new, nothing he hasn't done a thousand times before; a list of names, a time frame, a clean shot. Done. But for some reason he just feels tired and drained. He looks at the folder and his shoulders slump. "I don't want to hurt people anymore…" he says quietly, the words coming out like a plea.
The man beside him nods in understanding and looks back out at the park. "I know you don't, and you probably never did. And 90% of the time, I won't ask you to. For now, I just want you to help me find them. What comes after that...well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there."
He adjusts the sunglasses on his nose and crosses his arms over his chest. "I know it's not much of an offer but it's the best I can do for now. I won't force you to take the job and I'm not going to have you arrested if you refuse. All I can do is offer you amnesty and a chance to prove that you're more than just a hired gun. You want redemption and I think I can help you with that. Sometimes it's just a matter of figuring out what, and who, you're willing to fight for."
There's something about the way the other man says who that makes his stomach clench slightly. He can only think of one person he's willing to fight for and it's the same one he's been running from for weeks.
The man in sunglasses stands slowly, tucking the folder back into his jacket carefully. "Like I said, I won't force you to work for me. You're a free man now, Mr. Barnes, the decision is yours."
"You should really learn to lock your windows," a voice mutters as Steve pushes open his door that night. He freezes momentarily, all instincts on high alert, but he recognizes that voice and it causes him to falter a bit.
"Bucky?" he asks hesitantly because there have been so many nights when he's come home expecting to find the other man standing there that's he's not quite sure this is real. It is real though, as real as he can make it, and Bucky is standing in the middle of his living room.
The other man doesn't move or acknowledge the name at all, he stands perfectly still in the silence of the room, his eyes locked on the Captain. He's thinner than when Steve last saw him, his hair a bit longer and stubble on his face forming into something almost like a beard. His eyes are the same though, dark and confused and dangerous. For a brief moment, Steve wonders if this is Bucky standing in the middle of his apartment or if it's the Winter Soldier. In the end he decides it doesn't matter; it's never mattered so long as he's alive.
When the other man finally does move, his steps are slow and calculated, boots creaking over hardwood floors, and he walks deliberately toward Steve. He only stops when he's about two feet away, looming in front of the other man and cornering him against the wall. Steve doesn't move to stop him, he stays where he is and lets himself be trapped.
"Are you afraid of me?" the assassin asks quietly, his voice challenging but unsure like he wants Steve to say yes but also hopes for another answer. Steve gives it to him.
"No," he tells him firmly, putting every ounce of conviction he has into his voice. He's never been afraid of Bucky, even when the world was crashing down around them in the helicarrier. He doesn't care what the files say, what everyone else thought. Killer, assassin, murderer; to him Bucky would never be any of those things. To him Bucky was friendship and warmth, a hearty laugh and a side-armed hug. He was security and loyalty and protection. He was and always had been Steve's whole world. Bucky was home.
"Why not?" the assassin asks, his voice faltering a bit when he speaks. "After everything I've done, what I almost did to you…" He shakes his head, hair obscuring his eyes.
"Because I trust you," Steve tells him gently. "You're my best friend-"
"I'm not!" the other man growls brokenly, slamming his hands into the wall on either side of Steve's head and bracketing him in. Steve doesn't even flinch. "I'm not your friend, Steve," he tells him shakily, voice wavering as he speaks. "No matter how much you want me to be. The friend you lost, the one you keep hoping I'll be? He's not here anymore and I'm what's left. I don't know who I am but I'm not your friend."
"Then why are you here?" Steve asks lightly, catching the other man's eyes. "Why do you keep coming back here if you're so convinced you're not him?"
He shakes his head slightly, fingers digging into the wall beneath his hands. "I don't know…"
"You do know," Steve counters easily, his eyes locked on the other man's face. "You know or else you wouldn't be here."
The assassin growls in frustration and clenches his teeth. "What are you trying to prove, huh?" he snarls, the space between them growing smaller. "That you can redeem me? That I'm not so bad after all? I'm a murderer, Steve. An assassin. I kill people for a living. Is that what you want to admit? That your best friend is a hired gun with a kill list that reads like a dictionary?"
Some of the fight leaves him then and he sags slightly. "I read about myself at the Smithsonian, I tried to remember who I was…" His voice is bitter and tinged with self-loathing when he speaks again. "Everything about me is different now. The Bucky Barnes you remember was a good man...I'm not. You keep trying to see the goodness in me, Steve, but it's just not there. There is nothing good about me." His eyes are shadowed with guilt when he looks up. "Why are you trying so hard to save me?"
"Because you keep coming back," Steve tells him simply, reaching out and very carefully pulling the chain of dogtags out from beneath the other man's shirt. They fall against his chest with a soft clink of metal and reflect softly in the dim light. "Because whether you remember it or not, you are Bucky Barnes, for better or for worse, and because of that, I will never stop trying to get you back. If it takes the rest of my life, even if I have to die trying, I will get you back."
The assassin shakes his head wearily. "And what will you do if there's nothing left to save?" He looks away, his eyes landing on Steve's wrist, the same one he had broken only a few weeks ago. He stares at it for several minutes, his eyes dark and conflicted. "I hurt you."
"I don't care," Steve tells him gently, ducking back into his line of sight. "You didn't mean to."
"You don't know that..." the other man mutters, shame and guilt creeping into his voice.
"I do," Steve opposes, forcing the other man to look at him. "Because I know you. The real you. Not the codename those bastards gave you or the monster you think you are. I know you because you're my friend."
The laugh that escapes the other man is choked and broken. "You're so Goddamn stubborn…" he mutters, eyes hidden behind his hair.
"One of my better qualities," Steve quips back, moving his hands up and cupping them against the other man's face. He closes his eyes and leans forward, touching his forehead against Bucky's. It's an affectionate gesture, one they'd used probably a hundred times before. It causes the other man to swallow a sob. "I'm not afraid of you, Buck. And I don't care what you've done. It's time for you to come home."
The walls break down completely then and the anger and confusion drains away from the assassin. His metal hand remains planted against the wall but the other, his flesh and blood hand, slides down to tangle itself in the hem of Steve's shirt. Fingers grip tightly, tangling in soft cotton against warm skin. He holds on and doesn't let go.
The breath he lets out is shaky and uneven and he drops his head down until his forehead is resting against Steve's chest. "I don't know who I am anymore…" he mutters into the fabric of Steve's shirt. "I don't know what to do…"
He trembles slightly and feels Steve's arms wrap around him, one hand curling around the side of his neck and cradling his head gently. The other rests between his shoulder blades, solid and grounding and warm. It's a warmth that chases away the memories of ice and snow and falling. A warmth that feels like coming home. "What happened to me, Steve…?" he asks, his voice small and thin when he speaks.
Steve just tightens his arms around and him in response. "Nothing, Buck," he replies, fingers carding gently through dark hair. He remembers what Martin had said in the museum just a few days before. "You just got lost for a while. That's all." He wraps his arms tightly around his friend and doesn't let go for a long time.
The whole last scene was inspired by this artist's artwork: bluandorange. tumblr. post/82371628029/here-to-the-end-of-the-line (remove spaces to visit link!)
Thanks for reading guys! :D