The fall is the first thing Bucky loses, lying in the snow. It won’t be the last.
He is hanging from the train, Steve shouting for him, and he is in the cold, staring up at the sky. It isn’t the blink of an eye and it isn’t a split second. It’s instantaneous, one reel of film spliced to another. His mind might make that comparison if it remembered the word film, if it were capable of doing anything but drifting in and out and hurting.
The pain ebbs and flows: sharp and cold and stabbing, tears in his eyes that soon freeze on his face, then a dull ache down to the bones—not all the bones ache, some are gone, and if he could focus he’d panic—before the cycle starts again and the snow doesn’t numb a thing.
Other memories begin to leak like the blood welling out of everywhere, bubbling up around his nose and in his throat with each shuddering, shallow breath, collecting at the back of his head and making the pounding, scrambling headache all the worse. He’s losing the train now, the name of the first girl he dated and the dress she wore when they went out, the World’s Fair, the time strapped to Zola’s table, the taste of his mother’s meatloaf, the faces of half of the Howling Commandos. The name of the boy who got stage fright and puked on Bucky’s shoes in the third grade Christmas pageant. The toppings on a Coney dog.
They drift away like snowflakes, but the snow here isn’t soft, it’s hard, digging into his torn up flesh like tiny knives, shards of ice and shrieking winds shredding battered skin. The cold slows the blood, but there’s no other reprieve. It feels as if his skin is shrinking, crystallizing, like his body is too broken and jumbled to be contained now, about to tear through and go to pieces on the ground. He can’t remember why he’s on the ground. All he can remember is the gun Steve threw to him, Steve saving him.
Things go dark, numb, and he can’t be sure if he’s sleeping or if a part of his brain is shutting down, frost-bitten, dead. But his eyes do open, maybe hours later, maybe weeks, and when they do, Steve is there.
“Bucky,” he says, and his voice sounds like things Bucky can remember, drinking together or walking around at a dance hall or not making bloody icicles in the snow. “When I said I’d look after you from now on, I didn’t mean you should test that.”
Bucky smiles, a mouthful of teeth stained red, and it hurts. He tries to reach out to Steve, but he can’t feel his arm. It’s too cold. Everything is cold save for his blood and Steve’s smile. “Took you…long enough…to deliver…ya punk,” he manages, feeling his ribs clink around inside with each word. “I’d…say I’m…too proud…to…ask for…a piggy back…ride, but…” He tries to shrug and holds in a scream. Maybe he doesn’t hold it. His body feels full of holes and maybe it just found an out that didn’t travel through his throat.
“Can’t help you there, Buck,” Steve says, and of course he can’t, Bucky’s almost twice Steve’s size, why had he thought otherwise? It feels like something ought to have changed, but everything feels wrong now, and Steve’s always been the scrawny one; the cold must be getting to him even more than he thought to believe that status quo’s shifted. “You’re gonna have to move yourself. You’ve got to, okay? You need to get outta the elements.”
Steve is smiling, but it’s the smile he wears when he tries to shrug off an asthma attack or act like having his face pounded into the dirt isn’t a big deal.
Tries harder than anything in his life—more than he tried to make Steve smile after the first army rejection, more than he tried to win at that rigged ring toss from the fair when they were kids, more than he tried to avoid whatever did this to him, probably—and he lasts half a second before he’s sobbing and collapsed. One arm is so broken it feels like a sock full of marbles. The other arm he can’t feel. And that’s without getting into everything else. “I can’t,” he gasps, and he can’t look at Steve, can’t bear to let him down when he’s already made such a mess. “I’m sorry, Steve, I can’t—”
“It’s okay.” Bucky can see Steve’s hand on his face but he can’t feel it, and he can’t decide if that’s a blessing that spares him more pain or the worst part of everything happening. “It’s okay. The guys are gonna find us. We’ll be laughing this off over a round before you know it.”
The dark slips in before Bucky can protest, then slips out, and there and back again and again. He can’t tell if the spells of darkness last seconds or hours. Steve is there whenever he wakes, sometimes as Bucky has always known him and sometimes taller and broader, but always holding vigil over Bucky’s broken body.
“You…sure this isn’t payback…for Coney Island?” he asks, voice hoarse from disuse, and Steve smiles again. He’s always smiling, but each smile says a different thing.
“Maybe a little.”
“Steve,” he says, maybe minutes later. Maybe days. “I can’t...feel my arm.”
“I know.” There’s no smile in his voice at the words. Bucky’s eyes are on his own body, the numb arm blocked from his view. He can’t turn his head to see, not without screaming again.
“Steve. Don’t…sugarcoat it, okay? Tell me…straight. Is it gone?”
Steve says yes without saying anything, and the last thing Bucky wants is to make Steve feel guilty about telling him, but there are tears on his face again and he can’t wipe them away, let alone stop them.
“Not all of it,” Steve offers. “Hey, listen, Howard can make flying cars. He’ll think of something. He’ll—I’m sorry, Bucky. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be stupid. You…saved me.” He can’t remember the fall or what caused it. But he remembers Steve’s rescue, remembers it wasn’t the first time. Nothing that happened after could make this Steve’s fault. Here he is, dying in the snow, and all Bucky’s concerned about is how much the sight will traumatize his friend.
And maybe if it’ll hurt the whole time, but that one just a little.
There are sounds in the distance and his mind goes to wolves, because it would be just their luck. But Steve is looking into the distance, smiling, practically glowing. “Hear that, Buck? You see? They’re coming for us. They’ll find us. Trust me, you’re gonna be fine.”