In the margins of his notebook, Steve scribbles a word over and over again. Bucky sees it once, written in faded graphite and slanted letters. It's the very same word that's steeped in the wide blue of Steve's eyes, the cherry red downturn of his lips:
Remember. Remember. Remember.
Bucky says, "I'm trying."
He doesn't ask, "Why would I want to?"
Here is the root of the truth, the crawling dark thing that lives under the earth, hidden from eye:
Bucky does remember.
He just wishes he didn't.
"They say there are five stages of grief."
Sam is a quiet source of warmth. He is spaghetti with marinara and meatballs, hearty and welcoming, the oven turned up high and music filtering through the halls. He is the type of person who makes a home wherever he goes, and Bucky finds himself drawn to the promise of comfort. The promise of rest.
He twines noodles around his fork, and waits for Sam to elaborate.
“I know you’ve been…workin’ through things. And you gotta do it on your own time, let your mind heal without someone picking at the scab. But I just thought I’d tell you—they say there’re five stages of grief, and I think you’re going through them.”
Bucky doesn’t look at Sam, chooses instead to let his gaze focus and unfocus on his spaghetti. The marinara splatters like blood. He feels two memories merge—
—a concave chest and delicate bones, gauze stuffed inelegantly up a broken nose, the careful cradle of a friend’s chin as it tilts in the glow of an overhead light—
—a wall smeared with body matter, a messy but total annihilation, the heft of a knife and a mission complete—
—and he asks, “What stage am I in right now?” He breathes, and tries not to sink into the red, red, red of his plate.
Sam looks frank, but not unsympathetic. “Man,” he says, spooning some more meatballs onto Bucky’s food, “At least four of ‘em at once.”
The slow cry of a saxophone drifts through the kitchen. Bucky thinks of jazz clubs and dancing and the bitter pill of envy on another late shift doing another odd job so he could put another couple cents into food for his family.
“And…what do you think I’m grieving for?” Bucky asks. Because he’s not even sure anymore. Seems there’s been more than enough losses to go around, without any clue as to which one is the most prevalent. The most pervasive.
Sam slants a knowing look at Bucky, and he's reminded that this man, too, was a boy who was made a soldier; the same old story retold, just in another century.
“The thing we all grieve for, when we come back,” Sam says. "If we come back.” He gives a lopsided, distant smile, nudges Bucky’s foot with his own. “Ourselves.”
Bucky inhales. His fingers clench.
“We mourn for the ones we lose, too, y’know?” Sam’s voice is soft, so soft. “But what you find so hard to accept—what you never quite get over—is that you lose who you were. Who you could’ve been.” His eyes are sharp for a moment. “War takes everything, eventually. All you can do is pick up the pieces. Carry on.”
“Salvage,” Bucky says, drumming his fingers against the table, a restless tat-tat-tat that sounds like rain on a Brooklyn street, machine gun fire on a crowded highway.
Sam’s hand falls firmly over Bucky’s, stilling the rhythm.
“Salvage,” he agrees.
He lies in bed and he wonders, what if there’s nothing left to rescue?
It’s just that—
Steve has always thought Bucky was more than he really is. Has always looked at Bucky with searching eyes and a small smile, like he knew secrets that he wasn’t telling. Steve’s always—
When Steve looks at Bucky, he doesn’t see the wreckage.
But that’s what Bucky is. What he has been since he was a kid, aimless and angry, mercurial as a New York summer. He’s not the Winter Soldier, the clean, clinical, contained force of a bomb. He’s James Buchanan Barnes, the burnt-out husk of the building it hits.
Everyone assumes that the memories of his old life will somehow make him a whole person again. Bucky’s starting to wonder if he was a whole person to begin with.
It's a goddamn tragedy to think of Steve wading through the broken pieces now, trying to rebuild someone who might’ve never existed in the first place.
“You’re Bucky,” Steve tells him, like he’s reciting facts, a math problem or a statistic, something undeniable. “You’re an average cook and a swell mechanic.”
This is true.
“You’re the best man I’ve ever known. A good soldier but a better friend."
The truth is a complex thing.
“We were…headed somewhere, I think. Before you fell.”
The truth is shame. Desire. Cowardice.
“We could’ve had more time, we should’ve had more time. But we’ve got time now, and we’re still—it’s the same, Buck. In all the important ways. You and me.”
The truth is a dream. A wish the heart makes.
“You’re Bucky,” Steve says, and Bucky mirrors the subtle desperation in Steve’s voice, thinks miserably, I know.
“When I was fifteen, Steve got beat up behind a diner.”
Natasha doesn’t ask a lot of questions. She’s the kind of person to sit and listen, taking more from the speaker than they’d ever guess revealing.
“I patched him up. I always patched him up. How could I not? Little guy with this big heart—he was gonna get himself killed, and... look, I wasn’t good at much. But I was good at protecting people I loved. Steve, he'd pick a fight because he cared. Me, I never picked fights. But I finished 'em. And if he got knocked out—I patched him up.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow, the D.C. sunlight mellowing the red of her hair. She waits.
“Steve and me, against the world. Made me feel like I was worth something, you know? Bigger. More." He gives a grim smile. "Then I got sent to war, and the joke was on me. Turns out I wasn't worth a damn thing at all. If the mortar fire didn’t tell me that, a HYDRA table and all those tiny scalpels sure did.”
A slim hand, cool skin against the back of Bucky’s neck. One gentle stroke, a comfort.
“I don't know if I was good, Natasha. When Steve came for me, a part of me kept fighting because I had to. Because it was him, and I always would...always will, if it's him. But there's another part of me that just wanted to—take back what was taken from me, those weeks strapped onto that table. I killed men during the war and didn’t care. A bullet to the brain, and it was over. Didn’t think about it once, after.”
Sometimes it’s all he thinks about, now. The men who fell at his gun, and the lives they lived outside of the war.
“That’s who I was,” Bucky says. “That’s what I remember. That’s who—that’s what Steve misses. What he wants.”
Natasha smells like gardenias and rust. Springtime and blood. Sweet and deadly, all at once. She brushes fingers through the curls at Bucky’s nape.
"It’s bad enough, the memories in my head from the past seventy years," he says, voice low. "That I was that thing once upon a time. But at least what I did as an asset wasn’t me. It was my body, but it wasn’t my choice.”
He drops his head into his hands. “That man I remember. That man Steve’s been hoping for. I don't know if I want to be that man. I don't know if anyone needs that man." His eyes are bleak when he looks at her.
"Natasha," he says. "What if—what if there’s no version of me that’s worth saving?”
At this, Natasha leans in, a sleek line of warmth, applying steady pressure on the tense muscles at the base of Bucky’s skull.
“James,” she says, and it’s enough to let him take a breath again. “You’re human. That is very worth saving.” Her voice is without inflection, even and calm.
“You weren't even thirty when you fell from that train,” she says. “In the midst of battle, after weeks of torture, after a childhood characterized by remarkable tenacity. I’ve read the files. The courage you displayed even in the face of understandable fear…is not insignificant.”
She grips at Bucky’s neck, forces him to look up into her eyes, green as grass.
“Steve missed you because you are worth missing, James. Not just the good things—the pieces of you that loved him enough to follow him across Europe at great risk to yourself. To leap after him into the Potomac, or to take him in when his parents died. To protect him without reserve. But the other pieces, too. The ones that aren’t so gilded. The ones you hide from everyone else but the people who really know you.”
There is an arrow on the end of her necklace, and it glints in the sun.
“You are remembering a man who was a summation of a great many parts. Don’t make the mistake of running from the only person on Earth left who knows them all and loves them anyway.”
Bucky stays on the park bench long after Natasha leaves, staring at the blossoms as they fall from the trees.
In his dreams, Bucky finally dances. He works and works all day, and it’s miserable, he’s dirty and hot and he’s not making nearly enough money, but he comes home and there’s Steve bent over his sketchbook, tongue poking out from the side of his mouth in concentration.
So Bucky turns on the radio, and he grabs Steve by the waist, and he dances.
Steve looks at him with unrestrained affection in his eyes. “You’re terrible at this, you know that?” he teases, letting himself be dragged along.
“I’m terrible in general, more like,” Bucky responds, and sings Glenn Miller at the top of his lungs. He gives Steve a dip, tugging him up in concern when he starts coughing.
Steve shakes his head, shoulders wracked with little tremors. Bucky’s already grabbing a cup of water, a frantic kind of urgency in his face, a lock of hair falling over his eyes.
“Nah,” Steve says, and his voice is serious. “You’re better than you know, Bucky Barnes.”
He drinks the water, and then he does the funniest thing: he leans in and fits his mouth over Bucky’s, sweet and wet and just the littlest bit graceless. His eyes never leave Bucky’s once.
In his dreams, Bucky kisses back, and it tastes like the answer to a question he never even realized he was asking.
When Bucky wakes up, he can still feel the shape of Steve’s words on his lips.
They sit on the roof of Sam’s building, sharing a six pack of beer. Neither of them can really get drunk, but there’s something nostalgic about the taste. The moon hangs full and fat in the sky, and their legs swing over the edge of the building. Bucky feels, for the first time in so long, like he fits into his skin.
From beside him, Steve reaches over for a beer. He cracks it open, lets the sound hiss into the night. He always knew how to wait Bucky out.
“I remember,” Bucky says, and Steve startles so bad that his beer falls out of his hand, tumbles over the edge of the building.
“You—you do?” There is a wild happiness in Steve’s eyes, almost painful to see. “Everything?” he asks cautiously.
Bucky shrugs. “Enough,” he allows. His hand is close to Steve’s, pinkie against pinkie. He can feel the heat radiate.
“Oh.” The happiness dims a bit from Steve’s eyes. “That’s—that’s good. That’s. Great.”
Bucky looks away. “I…we didn’t kiss just that one time, did we?” he asks. “In our bedroom. Before the war.”
The light comes back, slightly. “No,” Steve says. “No, we. There were a few more times after. During the war. Just..once or twice. Not—“ he cuts off, rubs the bridge of his nose.
“Not enough,” Bucky supplies, quietly.
Steve laughs a little. “Yeah,” he agrees. “To be honest though, I don’t think I could’ve ever had enough. I was like a teenager with you, Buck. Even when we weren’t teenagers any longer.”
Bucky shakes his head. “But why,” he bursts out. “I keep turning it over in my head. And maybe I’m missing some grand moment, but I can’t figure it out. Why did you want me? Why do you still want me? I’m—” The helicarrier flashes in his mind again, debris and explosions and Steve, falling. Forever falling.
“I’m rubble,” he finishes. “All the bad stuff that’s left after the worse stuff happens. Rotten, just like Mrs. DiMaio said in the first grade.”
“Says you.” Steve sounds amused, and Bucky turns to face him. How can he look—
“You’re an idiot is what you are,” he says. “And so was Mrs. DiMaio.” He reaches out, laces his fingers through Bucky’s. “Ever since we were kids, you sold yourself short. So damn cocky but if they looked a little deeper, a person saw how uncertain you really were. Of yourself more than anything.” Steve’s eyes soften. “Natasha told me what you told her.”
Bucky feels something careen inside him, slightly out of control.
“And you’re a dummy. Honestly. Why do you think we were friends, Buck? You made me brave. You think I didn’t know you always had my back? You think there was any chance I’d be half as fast to mouth off if you weren’t there to take the next wave? That's who you are to me, pal. No matter what came after, or what'll come next. Bucky. Bucky. You’re not rubble. You’re what’s left standing when all the rubble is cleared away.”
Steve is close now, on his knees, tugging Bucky around to look at him.
“I know you,” Steve says, and his face is screwed up in an expression so intense it makes Bucky want to smile. “I know every bitter thought and mean word that’s crossed your mind. I know how you fight, and how you covet, and how you burn. I know what it is to be hungry and angry and frustrated. I know because we did all that—felt all that—together. Bucky, you’re the only reason I know what it’s like to be—something other than a paragon.”
His mouth is so close.
“The man that HYDRA tried to kill was an honorable one who loved deeper and fought harder than anyone. But if you're gonna believe anything,” Steve says, voice low and fierce, “Believe this.”
He kisses Bucky then, and it’s just like the dream, just like Glenn Miller on the radio and dancing after a long day of work. Sweet, and wet, and a little graceless.
“You're better than you know, Bucky Barnes," Steve says, an echo of years past. "How’re you ever gonna have a life if you can’t forgive yourself for living?” And there it is, that old indignant tone, the exasperation, the naked affection.
Bucky leans in for another kiss, chooses not to answer.
But he thinks that Steve might maybe have a point.
“Better than you know," he repeats to himself later, staring at the sky, tracing constellation to constellation, thinking of age and time and growth, and all the things he was, and all the things he could’ve been. All the things he will be.
The fifth stage of grief is acceptance.
Bucky thinks perhaps he will call it forgiveness, instead.