S.H.I.E.L.D. falls ungracefully, collapsing with uneven equivocation as its former members either end up dead or fall off the grid. Steve can only manage to avoid the former; there’s something about running that leaves a bad taste in his mouth thse days. He wants to be found, but not by everyone. One person in particular. He remembers choking for breath on the water of the Potomac with dirt under his hands and knees. The strength of that river alone could not have carried him to shore. And in the smoke and sky-scraper chaos of the disintegrating helicarriers, no one else had seen him fall.
Natasha disappears for a while, which isn’t exactly unusual. Still, Steve can’t figure out why. She’s said her piece, thrown open the doors on her own past and pointed the flashlight into the darkest corners for everyone to see. She’s not hiding from the repercussions of that new transparency; Steve suspects she’s not even hiding at all.
Sam doesn’t go anywhere. He still runs in the National Mall every morning, and when Steve shows up and runs beside him, Sam doesn’t say anything, just keeps pace.
“Went a little light on the cardio today, didn’t you,” Sam says when they’re done. He’s out of breath, drenched in sweat, swigging from a bottle of Gatorade. Steve feels pleasantly exercised.
“I’ve been thinking,” Steve says, because he has; because the whole of D.C. is spread out behind them, the sun turning the sky blue-white-gold; because it’s been long enough, he thinks, to do nothing.
“Hit me,” Sam says.
Steve does. “I’m going to find Bucky.”
Sam looks at him for a long moment. There’s something in his eyes that Steve doesn’t like—not a distrustfulness, not nearly. But a wariness. Steve hates that it’s not undeserved. “You mean the Winter Soldier. That’s who he is now, Steve.”
“He’s not gone,” Steve says. “I know he isn’t.” He doesn’t know how to explain the fall in the water. He doesn’t know how to explain the color of Bucky’s eyes in the twilight, the wild edge to Bucky’s spine, how he can’t remember Bucky’s hands dragging him out of the Potomac but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter.
He can still taste the murky, almost-salt water in his throat. He is rough-edged, sandpaper waiting for the match to strike. “I’m not telling you this to ask you to come with me,” Steve says, because he isn’t. He’s going to do this alone. “I’m telling you so that when I disappear, you know what I’m doing.”
“And because you know that I won’t stop you,” Sam says, finally.
“Yes,” says Steve; “that too.”
He returns his apartment—the same one where Fury got shot, a little worse for wear now but still as good a place as any to hole up for the time being—and finds Natasha in his kitchen eating the last of his Fruit Loops.
“Are you kidding me,” are the first words out of Natasha’s mouth. “You eat this crap?”
“Apparently so do you,” Steve says, and Natasha crooks a smile.
Steve doesn’t bother to ask where she’s been—Natasha never says. He goes to the fridge instead and pours a glass of orange juice from the pitcher and sits down across the counter from Natasha. It’s strange to sit in this kitchen with her like this, quietly, like they aren’t the people they actually are. The last people he’s kissed have been Natasha and Peggy, in that order, with the time between them varying depending upon your interpretation.
“I was in Bucharest,” Natasha says after she dumps her bowl in the sink. Steve hadn’t been expecting this at all, and goes—blatantly, against his will—strikingly still. Natasha tilts her head. “Picking up old contact threads. A lot of them are dead ends now, of course. Some weren’t.”
Sam curls his fingers around his glass. The condensation drips onto the counter, making a wet circle, and his hand is numb and cold. He remembers falling; he remembers watching Bucky fall.
“You’re going after him,” Natasha says, because of course that’s what she says.
There’s no use hiding it. “Yes.”
Natasha studies him for a long moment, her expression inscrutable. “Well, the good news is that no one else has picked him up yet,” she says. “No Hydra remnants, no governments, no underground or black-op groups. For the moment, he’s running solo.”
Natasha shrugs. “Barnes is still a ghost; that much hasn’t changed.”
At least she didn’t call him the Winter Soldier. At least she didn’t call him James.
“I have rough coordinates,” Natasha says. “Not for where he might be now. An old Hydra base. It’s one of the places where they used to keep him.”
And, well—at least it’s a start.
“They’re already on your laptop,” Natasha says, and smiles when Steve grimaces. “Let me know how it goes, won’t you?”
“If I’m not dead by this time next week,” Steve says, trying for humorous and landing somewhere dead center on painfully honest, “you’ll be the first to know.”
“I always am.”
She leaves. Steve goes to his laptop and looks at the coordinates Nat has left him; just south of the Mason-Dixon line in West Virginia. Practically in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s backyard.
Steve isn’t the one who pulled Bucky out of the snow and ice on that mountain. Of the two of them, only Bucky had gone after the other when he’d fallen. That’s something that Steve can’t undo. He doesn’t even know where to start.
The abandoned Hydra base is an old warehouse, all the windows on the first floor broken like missing teeth, the sheer slick walls jutting from the surrounding wilderness into the gray gunmetal sky. It’s remote, probably doesn’t exist on any map, scrubbed off from the face of the earth in every record system there is. Nearly every one.
Rain sheets against the ground, slides like a slice of glass over the pavement as Steve walks through the weather towards the building, the damp seeping into his shoes. He’s wearing sneakers and a hoodie; it hadn’t felt right to don the uniform this time. He’s not here as Captain America—he’s here as Steve Rogers, the skinny, beat-up kid from Brooklyn, who only ever had one person he could count on.
The building itself is silent except for the sound of the rain outside, and Steve clicks on his flashlight. He doesn’t bother going upstairs—the building is too decrepit to have supported anything on the upper levels for long. No doubt there’s another underground bunker hidden in plain sight; all he has to do is find it.
A rat skitters across the floor at his feet, and he turns, moving deeper into the warehouse. Discarded automobile parts, a stray tire. Chains as thick around as his wrists, shards of broken glass glinting in the wandering beam of the flashlight. Another rat runs out of a literal hole in the wall; when Steve pushes on the wall, nothing happens, but he can feel a draft around his feet. He crouches down, reaches into the hole, and presses upwards. The floor falls out from under him. He lands, hard, on a flight of stone stairs.
“Well,” he says through gritted teeth into the silence; “that was easy.”
The stairs lead to a stark corridor, lined on either side with empty rooms. The doorway at the end of the corridor is closed, and Steve, after ensuring that all the other rooms are vacant of anything that might help him, tries the handle. The door swings open at his touch—as if the latch had not been fully clasped. As if someone else, maybe, has been here before him, retracing old footsteps.
The room inside is stripped clean. Even the walls have been whitewashed, scrubbed down. There’s a chair in the back corner with manacles at the end of the armrests, and it is bolted to the floor. Aside from that, the room is empty.
Steve approaches the chair slowly. Hard metal, rough angles and edges. He runs a hand over one of the manacles and resists the unforgiving urge to sit down. He notices that the walls aren’t as clean as he thought; there are old, faded stains the faint color of rust where the wall meets the floor and in a wide expanse beneath the chair itself.
Steve smells, suddenly, wet metal and rain, copper, and there’s an itch between his shoulder blades like someone is watching him. But when he turns, no one is there; there’s just the long gray hallway, half-lit by his flashlight.
There’s nothing here now. But Steve knows, without knowing how that he knows, that Bucky was here once. Strapped in that chair probably. When Steve leaves, the door swings shuts behind him, and the latch doesn’t catch.
He is just about to the staircase at the end of the corridor when he hears voices above. Low voices; an argument, maybe. Someone knocks into something and a clatter of chains fall to the floor. Seamlessly, he switches off the flashlight and presses against the wall, straining to hear and failing. But he knows that he doesn’t want whoever is here to find this underground bunker or the room with the chair with the manacles at the wrists. He climbs the stairs.
If anyone is here, it’s because they’re looking for Bucky. Because they want to be the ones with the finger on his trigger, who tell Bucky about his next mission and then wipe his mind clean afterwards so that all that’s left is the muscle memory.
Maybe running into the other room looking for a fight is a stupid idea. Maybe. But Steve thinks, under the circumstances, that it’s justifiable.
Someone swears when he runs in, barks an order at the others rallied behind her, and throws a flash grenade. Steve, blinded, ducks, rolls, and takes out one of them with a swift strike at the ankles. They fall hard, hit their head on the jagged bumper of an old car, and sink to the ground, bleeding from the scalp.
“It’s not him,” the woman says, and Steve, his vision clearing, lunges in her direction.
“Then who?” someone else shouts back. “What the fuck is he doing here?” This time, Steve’s fist connects with someone else’s temple, and they fall, too, in a heap.
The others—there are three of them, the dark-skinned woman who’d spoken before, a man, and another woman, smaller than the others, but her eyes like steel—are not so easily taken down.
“Are you fucking kidding me,” the man says when he sees Steve’s face.
“Expecting someone else?” Steve asks. The man open fires on him. Steve pulls his shield from his back in one fluid motion, deflects, and then sends the man flying backwards with one blow.
The first woman is running away, but Steve doesn’t count her out of this yet—she has a plan, no doubt, and the smaller woman seems to be in on it. There’s a flash of silver, a long thread of it, and the sound of metal uncoiling. The man is getting to his feet. Steve knocks him down again, turns, and the small woman has the garrote around his neck before he knows what’s happening, but not before he manages to slide the fingers of one hand beneath the razor-edged wire. Blood pools in the palm of his hand.
He bites the bullet and drops to one knee, shifting his weight so that the woman tumbles over his shoulders, but this causes the wire to dig so deeply into his fingers that he think it touches bone, and he can feel the metal in his throat. Gasping, taken by surprise, he rolls to the side while the woman and man get to their feet, and that’s when the first woman comes back, holding a gun big enough to take down a helicopter.
“Don’t move,” she says.
Steve, whose shield is at his side with no way of getting it up in time to block any attack the woman might make, doesn’t.
“Where is he?” she asks when the silence stretches on and no one moves.
“I don’t know.” Steve is glad for the first time that he truly doesn’t. Not that he would ever breathe a word of Bucky’s location to anyone with the intentions that this woman has—but at least now there is absolutely no chance of her finding out. Not from him. There’s a cold comfort in that.
“Hm.” The woman glances at the others. Steve’s right hand drips blood onto the floor, throbbing with pain. Finally she sighs, theatrically. “Didn’t expect to have to kill Captain America today,” she says, and cocks the gun—and that’s when someone crashes in through the open window behind her with a loud yell and knocks her to the floor.
“What the fuck,” the man behind Steve says again, apparently not having the greatest day ever.
Steve launches backwards before the woman behind him can get the garrote around his neck again and sends them both crashing through the wall. Before the woman can react, he strikes her with the shield, and she stays on the floor where she falls.
Shaken, not sure what has just happened, Steve returns to the other room through the hole in the wall and sees Sam standing with his foot on the back of the first woman’s shoulders, a gun to her head, and Nat standing over the crumpled body of the man. Falcon’s wings are still outspread, dripping rainwater onto the floor.
“Hey, man,” Sam says. “Lovely day for a rescue mission, don’t you think?”
“What are you doing here?” Steve asks blankly.
“Give him time,” Sam says patiently to Natasha. “I’m sure he’ll figure it out if we give him a minute.”
Natasha’s mouth quirks upward. “Give me your hand,” she says. Steve he holds it out to her, still stunned, and she examines his injury.
“Ouch,” she says mildly, and only then does Steve feel how badly it hurts.
“I’ll clean you up when we get out of here,” Natasha says. “But first we have to get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Sam says.
“I didn’t find anything though,” Steve says. “There’s nothing here, I haven’t, I don’t—”
“That’s why we’re here,” Sam says with confidence. “Just in time to save the day when Captain America fucks it up.”
“I didn’t fuck it up.”
“And who says you didn’t find anything?” Natasha asks, one brow raised, and she looks over at the woman Sam is standing over. The woman looks back at them coolly, blood on her split lip.
Natasha hauls the woman to her feet and pushes onto a pile of old rubble. “Let’s make this quick,” she says; “we’re sort of in a hurry. Why are you looking for James Barnes?”
“Is that its name?” the woman says, her smile tautening when Steve grimaces. Nat glares at Steve and gestures to Sam: get him out of here.
“Come on,” Sam says. “Let the Widow do her work.”
The namedrop is enough to put a spark of recognition and worry in the woman’s eyes. She looks at Natasha warily.
“She doesn’t know anything,” Steve says when Sam leads him away. “She asked me where Bucky was.”
“Maybe,” Sam says, and then he doesn’t say anything.
Natasha reappears fifteen minutes later, looking satisfied. “Let’s go,” she says, “I’ve got a name.”
“Are we leaving her here?” Sam asks.
Nat shrugs. “One of her friends can untie her when they wake up. If they wake up.”
Steve almost objects. He almost says, are you sure we should do that? But then he thinks about the frenzied, erratic look in Bucky’s eyes when he stood above Steve, one fist raised, and teetered on the edge of a precipice, and thinks, yeah, he can live with this.
They get to the SUV parked outside that Nat and Bucky must have driven in, because inside are all sorts of weapons, medical supplies, and computer tech. Nat opens one of the medical kits and starts pulling out bandages for Steve’s hand.
“You might need stitches.”
Steve ignores her. “What’s the name?”
She examines his hand more closely as Sam puts the car into drive and peels away from the warehouse. “Akua Nagi.”
“And whose name is that?”
Natasha smiles and tilts her head back towards the warehouse, now out of sight in the trees and the falling rain. “Hers.”
They track Nagi’s employers working from the bottom up and from there corroborate their data with that of the other groups looking for Bucky. The manhunt is discreet and quiet, but Steve can see from the data that the circle is tightening. If they don’t find Bucky soon, someone else will.
They break into the databases of these groups and use their data to triangulate a possible location. Bucky, it seems, hasn’t gone far.
“Isn’t that the neighborhood where you grew up?” Sam asks after an uncomfortable silence.
Steve doesn’t answer. “Let’s go,” he says, “before Bucky goes somewhere else.”
They decide, in the interest of time, to split up. Natasha hands out tiny wireless earpieces so they can hear each other in case anything happens, and then they divide Brooklyn into thirds and each take one.
It’s not, as plans go, particularly well crafted. But at this point it’s all that they can do. If Bucky doesn’t want to be found, then Steve has no doubt that he won’t be. What he hopes—what he worries—is that Bucky, or some part of Bucky, does want to be found; and that someone else might get to him first.
That’s not going to happen.
“All right, team,” Sam says in Steve’s ear. “Let’s get in, get out, and do it fast, okay?”
“Don’t call us ‘team,’” Natasha says. “You sound like a third grader.”
There are three hotspots where the intel triangulates more precisely; one of them is the neighborhood where Steve grew up. He doesn’t know what Bucky wants to find there, but he isn’t surprised either. This is where Steve had first gone, too, after he’d woken up seventy years too late with nowhere to call home and nothing to anchor him. The building where he’d lived with his mother until she died had been torn down in the fifties and rebuilt; there’s nothing left there that’s familiar but the foundations. Looking at the new building that stood in the place where his mother died had been the moment when Steve had forced himself to accept what had happened to him—to accept that he couldn’t go back even if he tried.
They spend most of the night looking. Every once in a while Sam makes a frustrated noise, or Natasha sighs. Steve remains quiet. He doesn’t know how they’re going to find Bucky. He can feel the weight of the others’ questions for him, the heaviness in their silence, and he wonders why they’re even here; why they came after him in the warehouse at all.
“I thought you were supposed to be some sort of master spy, Tasha,” Sam says. “When are you gonna find this guy?”
Natasha’s reply is clipped, but borne, Steve thinks, not out of the familiarity of Sam’s tone but her frustration. “We’re going to find him,” she says, firm, and Steve lets himself believe for one brief moment that they actually will.
It’s nearly dawn when Steve thinks about giving up. He sits down on the bench across from his old apartment building that’s no longer there, feeling naked without his shield and without anyone else to sit there beside him. The sun turns the horizon, though Steve can’t see it, into a white line, and the sky above swells with faint morning light. It’s been a long time, he thinks; it’s been a long long time.
He thought about kissing Bucky once—here, a long time ago. Before the serum, before the war, when the two of them were just kids and Steve didn’t yet know what it meant, not fully, to want to kiss someone else; to want to reach up and smooth the front of their jacket and put your fingertips to their hairline and watch the way the light changes in their eyes.
They were coming home late; from what, Steve doesn’t remember. Stumbling against each other. They hadn’t been drinking. Too young yet to even really care about that sort of thing. Bucky’s voice still cracked sometimes. He was already Steve’s favorite sketching subject, even though Steve never told him and Bucky never asked, content to sit in silence and read or lie back on the bed with the radio on, his eyes closed, as Steve bent over his sketchbook and outlined the bedroom in charcoal and ink.
It was an impulse, brief, intense, short-lived. Steve had stood, his hands curled in the front of Bucky’s jacket, looking up at him in the glare of the streetlamp—he’d had to look up at him then—and the feeling had overwhelmed him. Just as quick and it was gone, and they went inside, upstairs to Steve’s room, and fallen asleep on the mattress on the floor.
He hasn’t thought about that impulse in a long time. Sometimes he has flashes of it; flickers of reminiscence. Finding Bucky in Zola’s laboratory and wanting to hold him so close that no one else would ever touch him again. Waking up from nightmares where Bucky falls a thousand thousand times and Steve is too afraid of himself to save him.
He just wants Bucky to be safe. That’s all he’s asking for; that’s all he’s ever asked for. Somehow it’s the one thing that he has never been able to get.
After a while he realizes that he is sitting with his forehead propped in his hands as the sun slides up in the sky, and that the neighborhood is unusually still, and that in the distance there are sirens, quiet and faraway.
Someone sits down beside him; heavily, as if pained. Steve, his reflexes slowed by the coagulating effect of memory, looks up a moment too late, and a knife slides, all at once, between his ribs.
It takes him a full second to realize that the knife isn’t real; that he can breathe, it just hurts like fire, his lungs filling with water all over again, and he says before he can help himself, Bucky, because all that’s left in his mouth is his name.
Bucky doesn’t say anything. The bruises under his eyes, his unwashed hair, the glint of the fingers of his left hand, his arm covered by the beat-up hoodie he wears, the pained tilt to the corners of his mouth, the uneven axis of his breath.
“Steve,” Bucky says, as if he’s never said it before in his life. He’s said it a thousand times. “Rogers.”
Bucky forces his metal arm against Steve’s throat. To stop him from running, perhaps, or signaling for help; neither of which Steve had been about to do.
“You’re bleeding,” Steve says, because Bucky is; his right hand is clutched over his lower abdomen, and blood seeps out between his fingers.
“What is this place,” Bucky says. His arm is shaking but firm against Steve’s neck. “Why are you here. What is this place.”
“I lived here,” Steve says. “A long time ago. They tore the building down. That’s why you don’t recognize it.”
And Bucky rasps a hoarse, shallow laugh. “That’s not why.”
“But you came here,” Steve says. “You keep coming back here.”
His arm presses hard against Steve’s throat. “I don’t know why,” Bucky says, his voice a low hiss, fervent, anguished, unlike anything Steve has ever known in its terror. “I came here looking for something, and I don’t know what it was.”
You came after me, Sam thinks, but he doesn’t say it.
“I want to help you,” he says instead.
“That’s what they used to say,” Bucky says. “They said—” He stops. His eyes go distant. The pressure on Steve’s neck loosens, falls away, and Bucky collapses in on himself, still bleeding, covered in his own blood. Steve, his hands shaking, lifts his hand to his earpiece to call Sam and Nat in for help.
“He’s lost a lot of blood,” Steve says, “we need to get help.”
“No shit,” Sam says, but his voice is unsteady, and he keeps looking around to make sure they haven’t been spotted. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I have a place,” Natasha says. “A safe house not far from here. We could lie low there. But first we need to get him patched up. Fury could—”
“No,” Steve says. “We’re not bringing him anywhere near S.H.I.E.L.D. or—or anyone. No one can know that we have him.”
Natasha looks Steve right in the eye. “He’s going to die if we don’t get him medical attention. I can make sure that no one finds us, but first we have to make sure he survives.”
Steve hesitates. They haven’t tried to move Bucky from the bench, worried that he might lash out, but he is bleeding, and the sun is rising, and someone will find them soon, and Bucky might die before that happens anyway.
“Trust me, Steve,” Natasha says, more quietly this time.
Steve meets her gaze. She is earnest, sincere, and Steve realizes how much she must have risked to make sure this happened, reestablishing old contacts that she presumably dropped for good reason, offering up one of her safe houses for them even though, as far as Steve knows, no one else has ever set foot in one of Natasha’s hiding places.
“All right,” Steve says. Nat nods at him, once, and gets Maria Hill on the phone.
They don’t actually see Hill or Fury, who are both still lying low, but Hill gets them a safe place with a surgeon who doesn’t asks questions and a nurse with a thin-lipped grimace.
It’s hours before the surgeon tells them that Bucky will live. Twenty minutes after that, they’re back on the road.
“Let’s disappear,” Steve says, and they do.
Natasha’s safe house is in upstate New York, hidden in the Appalachians and far removed from any nearby towns or villages. There’s the woods, the small, remote house—and it is a house, Steve is surprised to see—a riverbank but no river, and the four of them.
“We’ll have to stay for at least a few weeks to really fall off the grid,” Natasha says as Steve and Sam help Bucky, still unresponsive on pain medication, inside. “I’ve made sure this place is impossible to find, but we won’t be if we leave here.”
“It’s all right,” Sam says. “We’ll stay.”
They lay Bucky on a bed upstairs, and Sam goes downstairs to check the food Natasha has and prep something for them. Nat lingers in the doorway, watching Steve and Bucky, and Steve isn’t sure whether or not he wants her to leave.
“This isn’t going to be easy, Steve,” she says. Steve doesn’t turn to look at her, but he nods, towards Bucky, who is dirty and blood-stained and lying unconscious on the bed and safe, safe for the moment.
“When I—” She hesitates. “It wasn’t easy for me. I don’t know how our experiences compare. I didn’t have anyone I could trust then.”
“And now?” Steve asks.
Natasha just smiles. She looks at Bucky for a moment, and then turns to leave. “He has you, and you have us,” she says. “That isn’t nothing.” She leaves the door open behind her when she heads downstairs, and Steve can hear the sounds of Sam moving about in the kitchen below.
It’s one of the stranger feeling he’s had in his life—miles from anyone else, just the four of them, an unlikely group.
He pulls a chair beside Bucky’s bed and waits for him to wake, exhausted but too anxious to sleep, watching the way Bucky’s chest rises and falls and the stitches poking out from underneath his bloodstained shirt.
Sam and Natasha bring him some food; a plate of eggs and bacon. “It’s one in the morning,” Steve says.
Sam shrugs. “Tastes good though, right?”
“You two should sleep,” Steve says. “You must be exhausted.”
“We’ll be here when he wakes up,” Natasha says. “Or rather, we’ll be right out in the hall. I don’t know whether we’re the people Barnes wants to see when he wakes after being in a drug-induced haze and operated on without his knowledge.”
Her tone is somewhat light, but pointed. Be careful with him, it says. We’re not out of the woods yet.
Bucky doesn’t stir until some time after three in the morning. He shifts, mumbles something, and then wakes up all at once, as if doused in ice water. He’s on his feet with his back to the wall within seconds, and Steve stands up, holds out his hands, shows Bucky his empty palms.
“It’s me,” he says, then adds: “Steve. Don’t run—we’re safe here. No one’s going to find you.”
Bucky’s fingertips clutch at his side. “Where are we?”
“A safe house.”
“Doesn’t look like a safe house. Looks like a bedroom.”
“It’s Natasha’s safe house,” Steve says, and Bucky stiffens. “You know who Natasha Romanoff is?”
“The spider.” Bucky looks at Steve for a moment. “You know her?”
“She helped me get you here. So did Sam.”
“The man with the wings.” Bucky frowns. “They were with you in D.C.”
Bucky looks over towards the window, which in the day would look out into the woods outside but for now shows only the night. He is still tense, wary, but Steve thinks there’s less of it now; as if it’s leeching away, reluctantly, because Bucky simply can’t bear to hang onto it any longer. “Why are they here?”
“They helped me find you,” Steve says. “They want to help you.”
Bucky laughs again, that same hoarse, painful sound, rough as sandpaper on the back of your neck. “If you knew what I’ve—” He stops.
“You don’t know anything about it,” Bucky says.
Steve remembers the chair at the end of the corridor and the old bloodstains on the floor, so deeply embedded in the concrete that they didn’t come out even after someone scrubbed the concrete with bleach. He doesn’t know.
“What happened to you? Not all of it,” he clarifies when Bucky’s hackles go up. “Just before you sat down next to me on the bench. You were bleeding. We had to get you medical attention.”
Bucky touches the stitches on the right side of his abdomen. “Got knifed.”
He shrugs. “Dunno. They were looking for me. Everyone is always looking for me now. I get rid of them quick enough. This time I am not so quick.”
He speaks with the slightest hint of a Russian accent. The hair on the back of Steve’s neck stand up.
“You didn’t get rid of me,” Steve says. “I was looking for you.”
Bucky meets Steve’s eyes for the first time. His gaze is heavy with deep-set, old exhaustion, the weariness of years spent in pieces, a few months here, a week there, as life and the world left him behind, frozen on ice. Steve wonders what’s worse—missing everything all at once, or seeing enough of it to know, every time that you go back under, what it is that you’ll never get back.
“No,” Bucky says, as if he himself isn’t sure why; “I didn’t.”
He looks down at the rumpled sheets and the bloodstains on his clothes. His face is the color of clouds when it rains.
“You should wash up,” Steve says. “If you want.”
Slowly, Bucky nods.
“I’ll show you where the bathroom is. Sam and Natasha are in the hallway. They’re not going to hurt you.”
Bucky’s mouth twists, sharply.
“Come on,” Steve says, and opens the doorway for Bucky to step through.
Bucky walks like someone unused to his own feet, or perhaps someone unused to walking quietly through domestic spaces. Even before the war Bucky had always had a presence, a slant to his hips and a tilt to his chin that made him seem out of place anywhere but the most dangerous. Natasha and Sam are leaning against the walls at the end of the hallway, talking in low voices. Natasha points to one of the doorways.
“Bathroom,” she says; “enough shampoo to last a hundred years, probably.”
“You expecting to lie low for that long?” Steve says before he can help himself. The new familiarity between them fills up the empty spaces in the hallway, and Steve knows that Bucky can sense it, that he’s taking in everything that he sees.
Bucky moves through the hallway, not meeting Natasha or Sam’s gazes, but he hesitates in the bathroom doorway before turning to Steve, somewhat helplessly, a panicked look on his face before he clears it away.
“Could you—” He breaks off.
“Maybe I’ll keep an eye on you,” Steve says. “Make sure nothing happens,” and Bucky nods, once. Steve follows him into the bathroom. It’s a flimsy excuse, but Steve is glad enough to take it, heartened to know that Bucky wants him here, that Bucky wants him in his sight, for whatever reason.
Bucky stands in the bathroom, motionless, when Steve nudges the door mostly shut. He gives no sign of moving, and so Steve reaches over and turns on the water of the tub. Bucky just watches him, silently, still clutching his side, his eyes dark-rimmed and far away.
“Why do you call me Bucky?” he finally asks over the sound of running water and the hiss of rising steam.
Steve shrugs. “I’ve always called you Bucky.”
“You’re the only one,” Bucky says. “You’re the only one who has since—” He stops again, frustrated. “James Barnes,” he says. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, a dull ache behind his ribs that worsens with every beat of his heart.
Bucky presses his lips together. “I don’t know what to do now,” he says in a low voice. “I didn’t know where to go. I kept retracing old footsteps, paths I don’t remember leaving behind. And then you were there. You were there, and you were alone, and I thought—I know him. So I sat down.”
“You pulled me out of the water,” Steve says, because it’s the first thing that comes to his lips, unbidden; he hadn’t wanted to breach this topic yet but here it is, cut open and exposed like a patient on the operating table. “I was going to drown.”
Bucky watches the water from the faucet, the rising steam. The condensation clings to his left arm. He nods, slowly. Steve notices for the first time the claw marks over the star on Bucky’s shoulder; deep gouges, obliterating the star’s shape, making it nothing but a mess of scratches and jagged edges.
“Why?” Steve asks, because he has to know—if there’s any part of Bucky that still remembers, that might come back—that might come back to him.
Bucky looks up from the water. “I know you,” he says, and there’s a note of frustration, of desperation in his voice. “I wish—I know if I just tried hard enough, maybe I would—” He stops, his voice shaking, and looks as if he’s just run a marathon, aching, exhausted, world-weary.
“Come on,” Steve says, finally. “The tub is full.”
He sits on the lid of the toilet while Bucky undresses and gets into the tub. He’s covered in old bruises, new cuts and marks, older scars that shine white or pink or purple depending on their age. He doesn’t take care to keep his arm out of the water, which means it must be waterproof, and for a long while he just sits motionless while the steam rises up around him and takes long breaths that Steve can hear over the tiny rippling of the water and the sounds of Natasha and Sam moving around downstairs.
“Bucky?” Steve asks after what must be nearly a quarter of an hour.
He sees the muscles in Bucky’s back tense up. “Can you help me,” Bucky says, and he sounds devastated by his own helplessness, his own inability to translate what he knows now to this situation, to the simple process of washing himself off and emerging from the water clean.
“Yeah,” Steve says, his voice hoarse; “yeah, I can,” and he gets on his knees beside the tub. Bucky is sitting with his head on his knees, motionless, his skin turning pink from the heat.
“I’m going to wash your hair,” Steve says, because he doesn’t want anything he does to take Bucky by surprise, and Bucky nods.
He carefully wets Bucky’s hair, which is tangled, uneven, ragged at the edges as if he cut it with a knife. The shampoo smells like lilacs, which makes Steve smile, just a little, because this scent is Natasha’s alone.
“Ready?” he asks.
Bucky nods again, and Steve starts to lather his hair. When his hands touch either side of Bucky’s head, a shudder goes down Bucky’s spine.
Steve pulls his hands away. “Okay?”
“Keep your eyes closed, then.” Steve gently puts his hands back to Bucky’s hair. “Don’t want to get soap in them.”
Bucky laughs, low and disbelieving in the back of his throat, and Steve can’t help but smile. He shampoos Bucky’s hair, taking fastidious care, gently rubbing Bucky’s scalp, trying to communicate without words as best as he can that he is safe now, that he will never go back to being someone else’s weapon, without any control over himself or his life or the basic skills to take care of himself.
Steve cups his hands to pour water over Bucky’s scalp to rinse the lather away, and Bucky keeps his eyes closed the whole while. Steve knows enough to appreciate the immensity of that.
“Here’s some soap,” he says, pointing it out to Bucky, awkwardly. “Might want to scrub the dirt off.” And the blood, he doesn’t say.
Bucky nods, jerkily. “Okay,” he says, and he takes the washcloth that Steve hands him and starts to do just that. He is apparently unconcerned with his nudity in Steve’s presence. Steve doesn’t know if this is a new thing or if it’s a Bucky thing, or both, maybe. It’s innocent, though. Steve just wants to look out for Bucky, to make sure he’s all right as Bucky takes the first step towards cleaning years of dirt and blood off the place between his shoulder blades and the back of his knees and the soles of his feet.
The water in the tub slowly cools, and Bucky, somewhat clean now, starts to shiver. Steve gets up and holds out a towel. “Pull the plug beneath the faucet,” he says when Bucky starts to stand without doing so, and, fumblingly, Bucky does. The dirty water swirls away, leaving behind nothing but a wet line around the top of the tub where the water level used to be.
Bucky takes the towel, wraps himself in it, and steps on the mat, dripping wet. Steve gets another towel and holds it out. “I’m going to dry your hair. Okay?”
Bucky nods. Steve does so, and Bucky, his hair damp but no longer dripping, emerges from under the towel, pink-faced, smelling of lilacs. He looks younger; much younger. But he doesn’t look young.
Someone knocks lightly on the door. Bucky jumps.
“I have clean clothes,” Natasha says. “If you’re ready for them.”
Steve looks at Bucky, who nods, and Steve opens the door just enough to take the clothes from Natasha. “You have clothes that will fit him?”
She shrugs. “I keep a lot of stuff here.”
Steve puts the pile of clothes—a black t-shirt, some jeans and sweatpants for him to choose from, socks and boxer shorts—on the counter by the sink.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he says, and Bucky swallows again and doesn’t say anything when Steve leaves and closes the door behind him almost all the way shut.
Sam is waiting in the hallway, his arms crossed, one of his legs hooked over the other at the ankle.
“Weird, huh,” he says.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “It is.”
They go to sleep after that—Bucky in the bedroom with clean sheets on the bed; Natasha and Steve in two smaller rooms down the hall, Sam on the couch downstairs in the living room, which he takes good-naturedly.
“Bet the beds are too soft here anyway,” he says to Steve before he goes downstairs, his smile cutting a bright slice into the dimness, and Steve can’t help but smile back, reassured by Sam’s steadfast presence and the knowledge that if he turns around, Sam will be there at his back.
The bed isn’t too soft—it’s of Natasha’s choosing, and she doesn’t sleep well on soft beds either. For a safe house that Natasha has insisted she keeps only for herself, there still are a lot of strange accommodations that wouldn’t make sense for a solo hiding place. Three bedrooms, spare clothes of multiples sizes. Steve wonders when she set up this place, and who she had in mind when she did.
“There are alarms rigged on every inch of the house and along the perimeter,” Nat tells Steve in a low voice before turning in. “If he tries to leave, we’ll know before he gets anywhere. Okay?”
“Okay,” Steve says, a terrible taste in his mouth. He doesn’t want this place to be a prison. He doesn’t want to lock Bucky up here, not even for his own good. What does Steve know about Bucky’s own good?
Steve wakes a few hours later to the sound of something in the next room crashing onto the floor. Bucky’s room. He bolts upright and into the hallway to find Sam already there, looking at Bucky’s door.
“Nightmare,” Sam says, grimly, and Steve moves to push past him, to go into the room to Bucky’s side.
But Sam, to Steve’s surprise, pushes Steve aside, roughly. “He needs space. We’ve been crowding him all night.”
“He’s been alone for most of the night,” Steve says, frustrated.
Sam shakes his head. “Won’t feel that way to him.” There’s silence in Bucky’s room. “You need to give him space to get his head on straight, Cap. You’re not going to be the one who does that for him. He’s going to do it himself.”
“So I should just leave him on his own while he has nightmares?” Steve demands.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Yeah, you should. Do you want people crowding around you after you’ve had a bad dream?”
No, not particularly; all Steve has ever wanted after a bad dream is room to breathe and the light of the moon coming in through his window. He hates that Sam is right; hates that he can’t do anything for Bucky, can only clean his hair and give him fresh clothes but not undo what has been done to him. He hates that gulf between them now can’t be crossed by will alone; it needs patience, a steady hand.
“Let him sleep,” Sam says. “You think Hydra ever let him have a night’s sleep to himself?”
Steve runs a trembling hand through his hair, hating that he is so transparent, so obvious, so foolishly desperate. “All right,” he says, and Sam puts his hands on his shoulders, steadying him.
“He’s made a lot of progress already without us. I was surprised that he came to you. He’s not—there’s more of who he was in him than who they made him to be.”
“It doesn’t feel that way,” Steve says. “Not at all.”
“You’re too close,” Sam says. “But trust me. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
He slides his hands down the sides of Steve’s arms, holds him in place. Steve lets him, leans into the touch, the anchor that is Sam’s warm physical presence, his sincerity.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Steve says, and didn’t even know that’s what he was going to say.
“Glad to be here.” Sam squeezes Steve’s arms, lets him go. “You know that you have me. Now go get some sleep.”
Steve is sitting alone in the small kitchen the next morning, just before the sunrise, and looking down at his hands on the table, the shadows they make on its surface, the way the light is changing, when he realizes Bucky is standing in the doorway to the hall, watching him.
He tries not to show his distress, wraps his hands around his coffee mug instead and tilts his head towards the coffeemaker behind him. “Coffee?”
Bucky doesn’t answer. His clothes aren’t rumpled, as if he hasn’t slept. He opens and closes his left hand, absently.
Steve gets up and pours another cup of coffee, sets it down on the table across from him, and wonders why he even expects Bucky to sit down next to him here. He doesn’t know what he expects, what even to expect.
His hands tighten around his mug when, across from him, Bucky does sink slowly into his chair and contemplate his coffee. He lifts the mug to his mouth, uncertainly, and takes a sip without blowing on it to cool it, despite the thick coils of steam.
“There’s sugar and milk if you want them.” Steve doesn’t add that Bucky always used to take his coffee with cream and sugar—would complain about the lack of it during the war.
Bucky opens one of the sugar packets and dumps half of it, clumsily, into his cup and takes another sip without stirring it. His face remains the same. It isn’t until Steve has finished his coffee, sipping it slowly as the sun climbs towards the horizon outside, that Bucky speaks.
“The others,” he says. “Who are they?”
“Natasha,” says Steve, “and Sam.” He isn’t sure what else to say, how to explain how he met them, why they’re here. He doesn’t even know why they’re here.
“What are they to you?” Bucky asks.
Steve curls his hands around the empty coffee mug. “My friends. I think.”
Something in Bucky’s gaze changes—a brief flicker, gone in an instant. Frustration, maybe. An inability to understand.
“Who are you?” Bucky asks.
Something painful gathers in Steve’s throat, like a tumor.
“I am whatever you need me to be,” Steve says.
“You said—” Bucky trails off, his eyes going distant and faraway. His left hand opens and closes again, empty. “You said I was your friend.” The words sound strange in his mouth; his tone unnervingly young, childlike.
“I was. Before—well, before,” Steve says. “Do you understand what’s happened to you?”
I don’t either. “Do you want me to tell you?”
“No,” Bucky says quickly, and then recovers. “No.”
“Okay.” That’s fine, Steve almost says, and finds that he can’t. “I’m not going to push you to do anything. Or—I’m not. And if anything I do or say makes you uncomfortable, I’ll stop doing it.”
“It makes me uncomfortable to remember what you said,” Bucky says. “I was going to kill you.”
“But you didn’t.” Steve can’t help but cling, tightly, to a hope—the hope that—
“The helicarriers were already destroyed.” Bucky’s voice is mechanical in its keel. “I failed to stop you. It didn’t matter if I killed you then.”
You still pulled me out of the river, Steve thinks. He doesn’t say that either.
Bucky finishes the last of his coffee and leaves the room.
Steve goes for a run to clear his head, careful not to stray from Natasha’s delineated safe perimeter. He runs until he can’t think, until his lungs ache, the sound of the birds the only thing he can hear over his own breathing. He has the urge to strike something, to lash out, to pull his hands away with split knuckles and see the blood he leaves behind on someone else’s skin. He runs until he doesn’t feel this way anymore, and then he runs a little farther.
It’s late morning when he gets back to the house, and he goes inside to shower, covered in sweat and still breathing hard. He kicks the door shut behind him and reaches up to pull his shirt off one-handed when he walks into the next room and sees Natasha and Sam curled up together on the couch, Sam with his head on Natasha’s shoulders and Natasha with her legs pulled up on the cushions.
Steve just stares at them for a moment, not sure what to make of this. One of Natasha’s eyes opens.
“I thought you were asleep,” Steve says, as if that explains why he’s standing there watching the two of them.
“Perv,” Natasha says, fondly.
“Yeah, Rogers,” Sam says sleepily, without opening his eyes. “You dirty old man.”
“Don’t think you’re getting in on this action smelling the way you do,” Sam says. “Get your ass out of here and take a shower.”
Nat wrinkles her nose. “He is sweaty.”
“I’m still right here,” Steve says, “I can hear you, thanks,” but there’s a small smile that he can’t keep from showing on the corner of his mouth, and he knows Natasha sees it. She winks at him.
In the hallway to the shower, Bucky stands waiting.
“What are they doing?” he asks—annoyed, angry, as if not being able to figure it out is a personal affront.
“I have no idea,” Steve says, and goes into the bathroom to take a shower. Bucky follows him.
“Uh,” Steve says when he realizes this. “Hello.”
Bucky tilts his head. The line of his jaw, so familiar and so unchanged, a sharp angle in the profile of his face, strikes Steve all at once and he has to look away.
“You were smaller,” Bucky says, apropos of nothing; “I don’t remember, but it feels, it feels like—you were smaller.”
“I was,” Steve says.
Bucky is staring at the unscarred skin on Steve’s arms. Steve imagines, for the first time, losing his arm, having it replaced with something unfamiliar, foreign, something provided by the people controlling you, what the skin around it looks like, scarred and brutal and hard to the touch, turning white when you press out the blood.
“I can’t remember,” Bucky says. “I can’t—” The frustration flashes again, the anger, the petulance. He slams the door behind him on his way out.
Steve stands motionless for a long time, then turns on the shower and steps under the hot water, amid the smell of lilacs and old blood.
He thought it would be easier. He really did—and it’s embarrassing now to think about that, painful in a way that’s difficult to quantify. The resistance from Bucky and from himself still surprises Steve at every turn, and he wonders whether that’s naiveté or willful ignorance, whether he really ever believed that getting Bucky to safety would be the hardest part or just wished that he did. He keeps getting flashes, only fragments but sometimes more of old memories, that painful soul-imbuing nostalgia. Pieces of their old life—their life before the war, before Erskine’s serum, before Hydra, before the ice for both of them. Bucky’s hair in the sun, the shape of his mouth when he smiled—and that has to be a memory, because Bucky doesn’t smile anymore. The sounds of Brooklyn before the war changed it, the sounds of Brooklyn during the war. He has too many memories to count, to hold in his mind, whereas Bucky has none at all; Steve is inundated with them, and Bucky starved. Steve wants to open his head and pull them out and hand them over, here, you take them, please tell me these things were real, that they happened—because if Steve’s the only one who remembers them, then maybe these things never happened at all. Maybe he’s the one grasping foolishly for something that he has never been able to hold in his hands: stability.
There’s no way to know. The history books don’t tell the real story of Bucky and Steve. The history books know only their names and all the lies they told to other people.
Bucky didn’t let him drown. Steve let Bucky fall and left his body to be uncovered by the people who would unwrite Bucky’s existence and reconfigure it so that Bucky wouldn’t even remember Steve’s betrayal, his disloyalty. Wouldn’t know what’s happened to him. Wouldn’t know where to place the blame.
But Steve knows. The history books can tell the story of Bucky’s heroic sacrifice all they like, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bucky reached out for Steve’s hand and closed his fingers on empty air.
“You know,” Sam says from the doorway, “wallowing in self-pity is a very unbecoming look for the symbol of our nation.”
“I’m not the symbol of our nation,” Steve says automatically, and then he adds, as an afterthought, “and I’m not wallowing.”
“Hm.” Sam straddles the chair across from Steve and puts his arms on the back of it. “You know that you’re lucky, right?”
Steve laughs, jagged like broken glass. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Sam goes quiet. He is unusually somber, and looks, without his wings, somehow smaller than Steve expects, in a way that doesn’t make sense. “You got him out.”
“Maybe,” Sam says. “But that’s not your fault. You weren’t exactly in a position to do anything after you, y’know, sacrificed your life for all mankind. No big deal, or anything.”
“What are you getting at?” Steve doesn’t want Sam here to try and make him feel better; that isn’t what this is about, this isn’t why they’re here; this isn’t about him.
“What I’m saying,” Sam says, “is that—you have a chance. A second chance. And you don’t need me to say some trite shit like ‘don’t waste it,’ because I know there’s no way in hell that you’re going to. You have a chance, Bucky has a chance, and that’s because of you. Because you found him.”
“He found me,” Steve says, he found me, he pulled me out of the water, he let me live when there was nothing that he knew that should have made him do that, nothing at all, and I let him die when everything I knew told me not to.
“He found you,” Sam repeats, and he almost smiles. “Don’t you see how that matters?”
“It’s hard to see anything,” Steve says. “I haven’t seen clearly in a long time.”
“Well,” Sam says. “Now’s your chance.”
And what is that supposed to mean? Steve runs his uninjured hand through his hair, grips it for a moment, tightly, and—
“Riley, you know, I would—if I could go back, there was nothing I could do, and I knew it then and I still know it, but I would if I could,” Sam says. “But I can’t, and that’s the point. We can’t go back, Steve. We can only go forward. You’re a goddamn superhero, you might be dead tomorrow for all we know. And you go forward anyway. That means something.”
He exhales, embarrassed, a half-smile on his face with no trace of real amusement. “And if it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done, well—then you take someone with you when you go.”
Something aches in Steve’s chest again, that deep old wound, a scar that still hurts years after it closes. “And what if they don’t want to go with you?”
Sam smiles now, in full. “I don’t think you have that problem.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “I’m sorry about Riley. I’m sorry for dragging you into this. I’m sorry for getting you locked up in here until God knows when—”
“Steve,” Sam says; “I think you’re missing what I’m trying to say.”
He isn’t missing it. “Why did you and Natasha come after me? You didn’t have to—I never would have asked you to—you didn’t—”
“Why do you think, Rogers?” someone interrupts. It’s Natasha, leaning against the doorframe, her hair loose and wavy around her shoulders and her eyes bright. “We wanted to. We wanted to help you.”
“And we wanted to help him,” Sam says.
“Why?” Steve looks at the both of them. “You said—Sam, you said that you didn’t think it was a good idea; that there was nothing left in him.”
“I’ve been known to make mistakes,” Sam says. “Every once in a while.”
“You want to know why we came after you?” Natasha walks up to Steve’s side, looks down at him where he’s sitting. There’s a gentle expression on her face, one that Steve has hardly any barometer to measure by; rarely anyone ever looks at him with that sort of delicate compassion. She touches the side of his face with the tips of her fingers. “Because we care about you. You idiot.”
“And what happened to Barnes—that’s nightmare stuff,” Sam says. “No one deserves that. Least of all anyone good enough to be your best friend.”
Steve reaches up and touches Natasha’s hand with his own, and she adjusts so that their fingers are linked, just barely. “Thank you,” he says—it’s all he can say, overwhelmed as he is by their sincerity, the loyalty in Sam’s eyes and the rare understanding in Natasha’s, their quiet but outspoken support when he hadn’t even dared to look for it.
“There are things we can do for him,” Natasha says. “And things we can’t do. It’s intensely personal and isolating for him to be like this—the fact that we aren’t running away from him is a lot. And we’re not trying to control him. He might not trust that it’s true for a long time, but he will.”
“What did you do?” Sam asks her. “Sorry, I know it’s—you don’t have to tell me about it, but—”
Natasha’s smile is bitter. “It wasn’t the same for me. It wasn’t—” She hesitates, then laughs, wryly. “I still can’t fucking talk about it. Unbelievable.” Her mouth twists. “I ran around the globe until I couldn’t run from myself anymore, and then I tore myself apart. There wasn’t anyone there who wanted to watch me go through it, and so I did it on my own.”
Steve turns his face towards their joined hands, brushes her knuckles over his mouth. She smiles down at him.
“But that’s an old story. We shouldn’t—”
Abruptly, she lifts her hand to her ear. She frowns, and the quiet moment breaks.
“Perimeter alarm,” she says, grim.
Sam is on his feet. “Coming in or going out?”
She looks over at Steve again. “Out.”
Steve swears. “Where?”
“Southwest, not far, we can still catch him—”
“We’re not catching him,” Steve says, “we’re not—we’re not forcing him to do anything, okay, we’re not going to—”
“Okay,” Sam says, gently, “okay,” and then the three of them are out the door.
They find Bucky in the woods half a mile from the safe house, standing motionless, staring out between the trees and the sunlight filtering through them. A statue of marble in the wilderness, cold and faraway and separate from everything surrounding him, the soul inside the statue pressing its hands against the stone and pushing, pushing outwards.
“I set off an alarm,” Bucky says. He hadn’t reacted to the sound of his name. “You hid it well. The spider’s work. I’m trained to recognize this and didn’t notice until after it went off.”
He turns around. The circles under his eyes seem to deepen in the light of the darkening woods, or maybe that’s just him, the weight of his marble heart. “You’re monitoring me.”
He isn’t accusatory. He’s not betrayed, he’s resigned, used to this—as if he’s been expecting it all along.
“The alarms monitor all of us,” Natasha says. “They’re a warning, not a control measure. They were intended to let me know if someone was approaching.”
Bucky isn’t looking at her. He watches Steve instead. The woods are silent in the growing dusk, a strange dreamworld, the four of them caught in it alone, a reality apart. Steve thinks, if he could reach out just right, he could pull the sky apart with his fingertips.
“You can leave if you want to,” Steve says. “I’m not going to force you to stay here.”
Bucky turns and looks back out through the treeks. The woods have turned gray and faded with the setting sun when he finally speaks again, his long hair disturbed by the breeze.
“Natasha.” He looks at her.
He looks to Sam. “Sam.”
He meets Steve’s eyes. “Steve.”
Steve swallows past the painful hard spot in the back of his throat. Yes. “What do you want us to call you?”
Bucky tilts his head, considering. “Whatever you like,” he says, at last; “it doesn’t matter to me.”
Bucky corners Steve later, hard-edged physicality, a desolate chaos in his eyes.
“If you have to tranquilize me,” he says, “if I start—if I try to hurt one of you, then do it. Don’t let me hurt you. Don’t let me hurt—them.”
“What?” Steve stares at him. “I’m not going to do that. That’s not going to happen.”
“It might,” Bucky says, “you don’t know, you don’t—sometimes I think my head is starting to clear, that I know what to expect when something is familiar, but other times there’s a—” He makes a crushing motion with his left hand, presses the back of his knuckles to his forehead so hard that they leave marks. “There’s something in the way,” he says, quietly. “There’s always something in my way.”
“It won’t happen,” Steve says. “Don’t think about it. It won’t happen. Bucky.”
Bucky just looks at him, his hand still clenched. He lets it drop to his side, slowly, and then he turns and walks away.
That night, Steve is the one who dreams.
It starts with the sound of a train, as it always starts; distant and faraway. He is standing on the tracks, looking down, and in the water Bucky is drowning.
He is almost impossible to see through the thrashing of the waves as he struggles, the water turning foamy and white, the sound of the train steadily growing louder and louder so that it muffles the splashing below. Around them is darkness; there’s just the train, the water, the small disturbance that is Bucky, fighting for his life and choking on the salt water in his lungs.
In the dream, Steve can always move. He bends down, peers into the black water. He doesn’t jump in. The train is so loud that he can feel it in his chest like the kick of a bass drum, over and over again, echoing in the cage of his ribs. The water below starts to foam pink with blood.
He wakes up before he knows what happens first: if the train hits him, or if he jumps into the water below and pulls Bucky’s corpse out of the river.
He wakes to the sort of silence that prevails after an abrupt and jarring noise has just ended, but he can’t remember yelling, hopes that he didn’t. He has never been this cold in his life, not even when the plane first crashed into the ice and the Arctic water started to seep up around him and numb him from the inside out, so cold his eyes felt like marbles, his lungs like daggers in his ribs. He’s not trembling, caught in the rictus of the dream, and for the first time since he started waking up like this, cold and alone and staring up at the dark ceiling, he wishes there were someone there next to him, who would roll over and put warm hands on his stomach, the side of his face, show him that the blood he can taste in his mouth is nothing but the shadowy remnant of the quick-fading dream.
He turns over and watches the light blossom outside until it’s late enough to get out of bed and pretend it was by choice.
Natasha is sitting on the front porch in yoga pants, her legs drawn up beneath her where she sits perched on the steps. She cups her elbows with her hands, shivering slightly.
Steve sits down beside her. “Hey.”
She glances at him. “Hey.”
She shakes her head. “No.” She hunches in further on herself, and stray strands of her red hair frame her face when she leans forward.
“Is something wrong?” Something clearly is; Steve knows Natasha well enough to sometimes know when she’s unsettled even when she conceals it, and she’s not even trying to conceal it now.
“No.” She doesn’t react when Steve nudges her shoulder with his. “He talks in his sleep. In Russian.”
“Did it wake you?”
“The things he said—I recognized some of them. Some of them are things that I—” She trails off.
“What did he say, Nat?” Steve asks, quietly, and doesn’t know why he wants to know, or why he wants to hear her say it.
“’Please,’” she says, her voice low and flat, toneless; “’don’t make me do this, please don’t make me.’ Over and over again. And….”
Natasha looks down at her socked feet. “’Begging for your life isn’t going to save you,’” she says, quietly, and meets Steve’s eyes. He can see that isn’t all. He doesn’t ask her to tell him anymore, just sits there next to her so that they can share warmth, and slowly Natasha’s trembling subsides.
“Everyone knows about me now.” She turns to meet Steve’s gaze. Her eyes are like the windows of a lighthouse. “My past is out there for everyone to dissect and pull apart.”
“I’m proud of you,” Steve says. “If that matters.”
She smiles a crooked slide of a smile at him. “Never thought someone like you would ever be proud of someone like me.”
She puts her head on his shoulder, and he puts his arm around her. “What you’ve done is harder than anything I’ve had to do,” Steve says, and means it; “you don’t need someone like me to tell that you what you’ve done matters.”
“Maybe,” Nat says. “There will be enough hard choices in our future to go around, I think. Let’s not get started with the back patting too early.”
He pats her on the shoulder, trying not to smile, and she laughs and turns her face towards him.
“Would you two get a room,” Sam says from behind them, surprising Steve, who hadn’t heard the front door open; but Nat, without breaking stride, reaches up and gives him the finger.
“I’m going for a run,” Sam says. “Either of you in?”
“Sure,” Steve says, but Natasha shakes her head and gestures back to the house.
“Oh, good,” Sam says as Natasha gets up and helps Steve to his feet, “I was hoping to get my ass handed to me before breakfast.”
They run the perimeter of Natasha’s safe zone, setting a strong pace—a little faster than usual for Sam and a little slower for Steve, but they manage to maintain it together, neither of them really willing to run separate. Sam slows down a few times to catch his breath and Steve speeds up to lose his, but eventually they meet back in the middle again, out of breath, Steve’s bangs clinging to the sweat on his forehead. The air in the woods is clean and the ground is soft from the morning dew, and running here is an altogether different experience from running as Steve knows it, in between the buildings and streets of a city, round and round the same monuments and through the gazes of passersby.
Eventually they slow to a walk, the two of them through the trees, and make their way back to the safe house. The sweat cools on their skin and the sun turns slowly hotter as it rises in the sky behind them.
The house is strangely silent when they return to it, and it puts both of them on edge instantly. Sam glances at Steve, who nods and pushes the door open. It creaks on rusty hinges—yet another one of Natasha’s security measures, disguised as simple negligence.
The shades are still down on most of the windows, turning the interior hazy and gray. What the hell is going on, Steve thinks, and then he hears Natasha speaking from the kitchen in words he doesn’t understand.
There’s a long silence. And then—Steve watches as Sam’s eyes widen as Bucky responds to Natasha, shortly, in perfect, clipped Russian.
“The others are back,” Natasha says in English—less to Bucky, who must already know, than to Steve and Sam, to indicate that she knows they are there. She says something else to Bucky, and there’s the sound of a chair scraping backwards against the floor and heavy footsteps.
Steve catches a glimpse of Bucky before he disappears—he looks frayed at the edges, wild, like you could grab him by a thread and unravel everything that he is until there’s nothing left, and then he’s gone.
Natasha is sitting alone in the kitchen when Sam and Steve enter, looking down at her cold cup of tea. She nearly smiles, but can’t quite manage it.
“Been a long time,” she says, finally, “since I spoke Russian with someone who has the same accent.”
“What did he say to you?” Steve asks, but Natasha doesn’t tell him.
There’s a change in the house after that—from the uncertain, uneasy calm of before to a more charged tenseness, like the roof has been struck by lightning and electricity is still climbing up and down the walls. It breaks that night, like a storm going to ground, when Natasha loses at poker to Sam for the third time in a row and swears, loudly, in Russian.
Bucky, who hasn’t been playing but is watching the other three, the movement of the cards and the exchange of the valueless chips, cringes like he’s been slapped, surges to his feet, and Natasha drops what she’s holding to do the same. She looks, for one of the only times that Steve has known her, scared, and Steve is not entirely sure of what.
“Bucky?” Steve asks, and Bucky tilts his head. There’s an edge to the line of his jaw, and sheen to the silver of his arm.
“Yes,” he says, but he does not sound like himself; he sounds like a program, written in code and executed by a machine. Natasha puts one hand to her mouth, just for a second, and Sam looks grim.
They don’t get it, they don’t, Steve thinks, harshly, angrily, but he doesn’t get it either, can’t understand it, doesn’t even know where to begin. “Bucky,” he says again, and Bucky winces, the fingers of his left hand opening and closing like they’re looking for something to hold, the handle of a gun.
“That’s not my name,” he says, and when Steve takes a step towards him, he reels backwards into the wall, disoriented, in pain. The wild look in his eyes strengthens and turns to Sam and Natasha, who he sees as if for the first time, without recognition, but knowing that he must recognize them.
“You’re safe,” Sam tries, getting to his feet too; the playing cards lie in a discarded mess on the table and floor. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
A smile, brief and bitter; that’s not what Bucky’s worried about, it’s never been what Bucky’s worried about, not in the whole entire time that Steve has known them, their whole lives, spanning decades they never even got to touch or leave fingerprints on in the cosmic dust.
“I have a knife,” he says, his mouth working against himself, straining at the edges, like he might smile, like he might break down and howl. And he does, he pulls it out with his right hand, lets it glint in the light; “I took it, I’ve been hiding it, it made me feel safer, just to have it there, to touch the edge of it—” He stops, raises his shaking hands to his face.
“What’s happening to me?” A whisper, a invocation, he holds out his hands, one scarred across the line of his palms, the other gunmetal smooth, then closes his grip on the knife.
“You can keep the knife, Bucky,” Steve says; he can taste bile in the back of his throat, sour. He wants to reach out to Bucky and doesn’t know how. “It’s all right, you can keep it.”
“I’ll hurt you with it,” Bucky says. “Just give it time. I won’t even need a knife, but it will help.”
Sam and Natasha are looking at each other, but Steve doesn’t see it. Bucky’s eyes are darkening in a way that Steve is horrified to realize he recognizes; the change in the storm clouds before a fight, the way Bucky used to look even a long long time ago, in Brooklyn, when some kid would break Steve’s wrist and laugh when he did it.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Bucky says, and his voice breaks on the edges of the words; his hair in his eyes, the hunch to his shoulders, and he flips the knife around so it doesn’t point at the three of them anymore; points at himself.
“Jesus,” Sam says, and Steve moves forward, reaching out his hand to Bucky, and that’s when Bucky reacts, caught up in the whiplash cause-effect of threat and response. He pulls Steve in with the hand holding the knife and strikes him so hard on the chest with his left arm that he sends him flying backwards and Steve cannot breathe, pain in his lungs, like if he takes a breath he’ll crack open the split that Bucky has left in his breastbone.
He crashes backwards into the table, collapses it. Sam and Natasha move around either side of him, one coordinated movement, and there’s something in Sam’s right hand, something that glints in the light.
Bucky sees it too. Steve watches the expression on his face change—terror, resentment, rage, submission, relief, one after the other, and Sam jabs the needle into the side of Bucky’s neck and presses down on the syringe. Natasha holds Bucky’s hand that holds the knife, and Bucky’s entire body goes limp. The knife falls to the floor, and Natasha kicks it away under the refrigerator, but it doesn’t matter, because Bucky isn’t conscious.
Steve, one-handedly gripping across his chest, gets to his feet. “What the hell,” he says, staring at Natasha and Sam—he never told them what Bucky said about tranquilizing him and he never would have, he was never going to tell them—
“He told us to,” Natasha says; “he came to us, Steve, he told us that you wouldn’t do it if you had to, and we knew he was right; he asked us to do this if anything happened.”
“We didn’t have to,” Steve says; and he is so angry and so consumed by it that he knows nothing else, except the guilt. “You didn’t have to—”
“It’s okay,” Natasha says, holding out Bucky’s hand to him. “He’s not hurt, Steve, you see? He isn’t hurt.” She’s crying.
Sam slowly sinks to the floor, supporting Bucky so that he doesn’t fall. He cradles the back of Bucky’s head with one hand, his touch unbearably gentle, and brushes the hair out of Bucky’s eyes with the other.
Bucky wakes a few hours later in his bed, and Steve is there waiting for him. He’d needed something to with his hands while he waited, and the available supplies in the safe house aren’t ideal, but he’d managed to come up with a paper and pen for sketching. He let’s himself be pulled into the motion of it, the focus and the concentration it requires. He recognizes the line of Bucky’s jaw, the shape of his mouth, the smudge of his eyelashes on the paper, but he doesn’t let himself think about it; there’s the wry twist of Natasha’s smile, too, and the outline of Sam’s hands.
Bucky’s breath changes, becomes less even, and that’s how Steve knows he’s awake. Bucky doesn’t move, looking up at the ceiling in silence, and Steve lets him, content to sit with the sound of his pen moving on the paper and the light from the lamp at the bedside table illuminating the both of them.
“They would have made me start over again by now,” Bucky says finally. “Every time I—if I tried to remember, or asked questions, or if I even realized something was wrong, they’d make me forget it. I don’t know how to do anything but forget everything.”
“You will,” Steve says. The scraping sound of the pen.
“I hurt you,” Bucky says, after a moment, quietly.
Steve touches the bruise on his chest. “I’ve had worse.”
“Not from me.”
“Yes, I have,” Steve says. When he was drowning on river water, Bucky saved his life, and Steve doesn’t know if he’s too late to do the same.
“Sometimes,” Bucky says, and it’s not so much a whisper as an exhalation, like he can barely find the voice to speak; “I wonder. I think—how much of what I am is what they did to me. Or if it was inside me all along, and they just brought it out.”
“They tortured you,” Steve says. He’s looking down at his paper, holding the pen tightly. “I found an old Hydra base in Virginia, Bucky; I saw the room where they kept you. The chair where they strapped you down. There were bloodstains on the walls that they couldn’t bleach out.”
Bucky sucks in a shaking breath. He presses his lips together, blinks a few times, closes his eyes. “That wasn’t where they kept me,” he says. His voice is like gravel. “I went back there too. I remembered pieces of it. That room—” He shakes his head and smiles, and the bitterness in it sends a chill down Steve’s spine. “That’s where I did my work,” he says; “not where they did theirs.”
His hand lies empty on the blankets, palm upward. Steve—out of words, out of anything else he can think of to do—reaches out, slowly, and presses his fingers against Bucky’s.
After a long, long moment, Bucky presses back.
Natasha gets to her feet when Steve comes back downstairs. She and Sam have cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, but she still looks pale, Sam uncertain.
“Is he all right?” Sam asks when it becomes clear neither of the others is going to speak first.
“Yes,” Steve says, and thinks, I don’t know.
“We’re sorry,” Natasha says. “We should have talked to you, but—Bucky said he didn’t think you would listen.”
“And neither did we,” Sam says, “and we were right, by the way.”
Bucky. It’s the first time anyone else has said Bucky’s name in what must be going on seventy years. Steve is overwhelmed by how painful this realization is—how hard it is for him to accept that he’s not the only one who wants Bucky to be all right, and that he might not have all the answers that he thought he did.
“Don’t be sorry,” Steve says, finally. “If Bucky didn’t feel safe knowing I wouldn’t—I’m glad you two were there. To make him feel safer.”
“He doesn’t want to hurt any of us,” Nat says in a small voice.
“He’s not going to,” Sam says, firmly; “and we’re not going to let him hurt himself, either.”
Steve lies awake for hours that night. It’s easier to watch the shadows on the wall than to think, and so he does, and he doesn’t even realize that he’s slipped into sleep until he wakes, suddenly, to dead silence, and the dark.
He knows why he’s awaken—he can feel it in the expansive silence: someone’s presence. Someone is standing in his bedroom, watching him, and Steve sits up.
“Hello?” he says, and feels like an idiot as soon as he does; but the darkness shifts, and then Bucky closes his hand around Steve’s throat.
Steve doesn’t move. Bucky’s metal thumb presses against Steve’s jugular, so hard that that Steve can feel his own pulse in his neck; he wonders if Bucky can feel it too, if his arm is sensate. Bucky’s grip is tight but not bruising, and he doesn’t say anything, just holds Steve there, looking down at him, barely visible in the dark.
Steve thinks, you know who you are.
He thinks, but it’s been a long, long time.
He reaches up with one hand, slowly. Bucky does not react, keeps his grip. Steve presses his hand against the side of Bucky’s face, touches him for what feels like the first time in millennia. He presses the palm of his hand against the line of stubble on Bucky’s jaw, leeches warmth from his skin, constellates his fingertips over Bucky’s cheekbone, the delicate soft skin beneath his eyes.
Bucky’s eyes move; Steve sees his eyelashes shift, feels them against his fingertips. He loosens his hold on Steve, slowly, like ice melting, and then slides his hand down past Steve’s collarbone and presses it, gently, against the skin above Steve’s heart.
“I can’t sleep,” he says.
And Steve says, “Neither can I.”
Steve wakes again, some time later. Bucky is asleep next to him, curled around himself, facing Steve but not touching him at all, so far away that it feels like lightyears, his hair in his eyes and his lashes feathered against his face, his rhythmic slow even breaths, his hand, splayed on the sheets between them, and Steve doesn’t reach out this time, just watches Bucky, thinks about running his thumb over his lips as beneath his touch, Bucky might smile.
Bucky is there the next night, and the night after that. Sam and Natasha notice and don’t say anything about it. On the third night, Steve opens his eyes and sees Bucky looking back at him, watching him in turn.
“Steve,” he says; “Steve, Steve, Steve,” and when Steve holds out his arm for Bucky to slip under, Bucky does so, and curls into the warmth of Steve’s hands. He smells like lilacs, like home.
Steve turns his face to Bucky’s forehead, so that his mouth just brushes against his skin. “Bucky,” he says, and Bucky sighs, a long slow exhalation.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, his voice quiet.
Bucky presses his hand against Steve’s ribs. In the silence that follows, the both of them fall asleep.
When Steve wakes, Bucky is gone, the space between Steve’s hands cold. He gets dressed in the dark and goes downstairs where Natasha and Sam are sitting on the couch, half asleep, Sam with his head on Natasha’s lap and one of his hands reaching up to idly play with the ends of her hair.
When Natasha sees Steve, she pats the space on the couch next to her. Steve goes to her.
“You know,” Sam says, letting his hand fall; “for superheroes, we really are a bunch of lazy assholes.”
Natasha smacks him on the shoulder. “Quiet, you.”
His mouth makes a jagged smile, whiplash bright, which Steve traces with his eyes, then his fingertip.
Natasha leans in against Steve when he sits down, braced against him with her hands still on Sam’s shoulders. “Peace is good,” she says. “Restfulness. It is healing for the soul.” There’s the slightest trace of an accent to her voice that Steve has never heard there before. He wonders if this is what it takes to get Natasha to let her guard down: good company, and warm shoulders. If this is what it takes to get Sam to hold his breath: Nat and Steve’s fingertips on his mouth.
Sam dozes off, and eventually Nat does as well, slowly relaxing all the way against Steve. He thinks he hears her snoring, lightly, and tucks a smile between his teeth.
When he looks up, Bucky is there, watching them from the doorway. He looks smaller, somehow, illuminated from behind; like if Steve does the wrong thing now, the delicate balance they’ve achieved will fall apart.
Steve holds out his hand. Bucky, in slow steps, crosses the room towards him; and instead of taking Steve’s hand, he slides onto the couch next to Steve and lets himself be drawn in when Steve curls his arm around him and brings him close.