Bucky's life flashes before his eyes when he falls from the train. Bucky sees his parents. The gray apartment building he grew up in. His bare knees dripping red in paved alleys. Funny girls he's danced with. Mostly it's just Steve in various sizes and locations and lighting. Steve in the kitchen. Steve in the war.
"Extra long arms," is what Steve had replied at age nineteen, after Bucky asked him his biggest wish. It was as good an answer as any, considering Bucky already knew the real answer, and Steve knew he knew. "The better to sock you with."
"Aw, come on."
Steve turned up his long nose, managed to look holy and righteous, laid out there in his bed like Jesus Christ under a fig tree. "And I'd be able to reach the top shelf where you hoard the extra coffee."
"That's quite a flight of fancy you got. I'm tellin' you, there's no more coffee."
"What's up there, then? Pin ups?" Steve started to smile and looked away out the window with it, teeth peeking between his lips. "Boy, are you gonna regret fibbing when I get my new arms."
Bucky grinned at him and asked, "Why wouldn't you just wish to be taller?"
Steve waved his hand dismissively. "If I had long arms, that would've been a smack to the face. I'm gonna use them to catch you by the ear when you're hiding cash in the top shelf."
"Steve, why don't you just step on a chair and check?"
Steve faltered, looked at him incredulously. "I can't catch you with a chair."
They laughed until the laughter gave way to a coughing fit. Bucky instructed Steve to drink the whole glass of water, slowly, slowly, there ya go, before being allowed to start talking bullshit again.
Steve did, but instead of talking bullshit he rolled over toward the window and snapped, "I know how to drink a glass of water."
"Steve, I wasn't--"
"Thanks, but give it a rest," Steve said, sullen.
This image sticks with him, the gold back of Steve's hair outlined by the afternoon sun. The incline of his skinny shoulder. The silhouette of his arm, below average length, as he tugged down his t-shirt in irritation.
When Bucky wakes up again, sunken with Steve in the blue-white water of the Potomac, that last death flashes before his eyes and in the death flashing, the life also flashes, biased and worn. Steve on the Cyclone with an asthma attack. Steve on the shore with a bullet wound.
In Bucky's experience, getting your sorry self pulled out of a river is the worst thing that can happen to a guy, and in that sense, it's as petty as revenge.
"You're Steve Roger's pal, right?"
"Sure am. Why do you ask, doll?"
The girl scowled at him and scratched at her hair, causing the orange curls to fall even more. There was a short streak of oil across her skirt, presumably from fixing some bit of her junky old motor scooter which she now held between herself and Bucky like a castle moat.
"I wanted to thank him for chasing off some punk last night," she snapped, bug eyed and puffing out her chest. "That a crime? He lives around here, doesn't he?"
Bucky laughed. "Well, geez, I can see why you two like each other." Plowing on even as she spluttered and turned red in the face, he said, "Matter of fact, I was just on my way to see him, so I tell you what. I'll go get him if you pay the toll."
Her scowl deepened. "What toll."
Bucky paused. Alarms had been going off in his head, and as such, he didn't really know what he was saying. Grinning, he managed, "Uh...aw, just be gentle with the guy. That's all."
Turned out he should have been telling Steve to be gentle with her.
Bucky spied the exchange from the fire escape.
One of these days, he was going to get around to telling Steve that he'd never get a girl if he kept assuming everyone interested was only giving him the time of day to be nice.
The red-headed girl asked a lot of loud questions, including, "SORRY FOR YOU?" and "ARE YOU DRUNK?"
Eventually, after literally shaking Steve by the shoulders, she shook her head, fired up her motor scooter and rode off into the Brooklyn twilight.
Steve stood there for a long time, watching until she turned a corner and went out of sight. His tan jacket sagged with his shoulders. After a long pause, he kicked the silver trash can in the alley with all the ferocity he usually saved for assholes in bars.
Bucky stepped back from the railing and called, "Who's that vandal beating the snot out of my best bud's trash?" only poking his head out over the edge of the fire escape at the end of his question, as if he hadn't been out there watching the whole time.
Steve jerked around sheepishly.
"Well, I'll be, Steve. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you finally won a fight," Bucky said, leaning his elbow on the railing and his chin on his hand, "but what'd the garbage can ever do to you?"
Steve laughed in a breathless, wheezy way and said, "Oh, it said something rude about a friend of mine. Had to teach it a lesson."
"Yeah, that thing had the nerve to tell me he's the ugliest guy in the state."
"What a piece of junk!"
"It's true of course, but you can't let folks say that kind of thing about your very best pal," Steve said, grin turning mischievous.
Bucky could have been offended if Steve hadn't said it with such fondness in his voice he might as well have been reciting Shakespeare sonnets, looking up at Bucky on the balcony looking down.
First place he goes, he'll later find out, was the last place Steve managed.
Peggy wakes up when he taps the bedroom drywall like a door knocker.
"Would that you were the first young man to climb in my window," she croaks.
Bucky frowns. The pane splinters under his fingers.
Peggy settles back, looking up at the ceiling in the dark. "Are you here to kill me, Sergeant Barnes?"
When he doesn't answer, she elaborates. "We caught a photograph of you in Czechoslovakia in the sixties. No one believed me." Her voice sounds coarse with age and sleep, but her eyes are still as sharp as they ever were, hospital gown or GI military uniform. "But I knew."
"I'm not here to kill you," Bucky says. His gut bubbles up wanting to reassure this old woman in her hospice bed that he doesn't do that anymore, but he knows better.
"What on Earth did they do to you?"
Bucky stares. He shakes his head, rubbing his ear roughly. "I wanted to ask you about Steve."
"Steve?" The tails of her eyes turn down. "Oh, Sergeant, I'm afraid Captain Rogers died," she says, shrinking inward. "He...sacrificed himself."
"Typical," whispers Bucky, after a moment.
A ghost of a smile twitches on Peggy's thinned lips.
"But he's--" He stops, shakes his head, considering the whole thing was a hallucination, something they wanted him to believe for a purpose rather than something that destroyed that purpose. "He's not dead anymore."
Peggy looks at him, eyes widening, going wild. "Did you hear something? Do the Russians have him? Tell me!" She tries to sit up in bed and then sinks down again with a groan. "Blast this bloody...where's my gun, John...John?!"
Bucky presses the orange Call Nurse button beside her bed and leaves the way he came.
Next, he leaves a trail up to some nowhere place in northern Saskatchewan and watches carefully the men who follow it.
Steve and Sam joke a lot about how they are stalking him.
"It's creepy what we're doing," says Sam. "I love working with you, Steve, but I keep putting it in a non-superhuman perspective in my head. I don't know whether to laugh or let my spirit collapse like a dying star."
Sam asks if it would be a bad idea, when they finally find Bucky, to breathe on Bucky's neck and tell him he's got a pretty mouth.
Steve laughs and puts his big hand out on the motel lobby counter to steady himself.
Bucky knows this, because he is stalking them.
That night, Sam Wilson wakes to warm breath on his neck. "Do I need to say the part about the mouth for you to understand this reference?" Bucky asks.
"Jesus! Shit!" shouts Sam, springing out of his bed and onto the floor.
Bucky straightens. His face doesn't make proper smiles, really, since then, but he manages to raise his eyebrows sarcastically.
"What the hell!" Sam yells. "STEVE, GET YOUR ASS IN HERE."
"Are you going to bring me in to SHIELD?" asks Bucky. "CIA? FBI?"
Sam points at him.
"You--Guy," he stutters. He makes a sturgeon face. "Man, don't you ever talk about my mouth again!"
Behind him, the door crashes in. Behind it, a familiar shield. Behind that--
Things come back to him at the oddest times, when he sees a couple kiss on the bus, when he bites into a granola bar.
Steve's life had flashed before Bucky's eyes countless times throughout the war. He saw Steve's mother in her nurse's uniform, halfway out the door in the dark hours of the morning. Peggy Carter aiming a pistol, done up in pin curls and lipstick. The inside of the blanket fort under the Barnes's kitchen table. The inside of the Vitaray sarcophagus. Of course, none of this was perhaps accurate, but Bucky thought on it all the same, wondering if any of them would get home, if this future could possibly be any better than the one waiting in Brooklyn for a smaller Steve Rogers, peaceful and prosperous.
In Poland, there was a particularly close call.
Afterward, after Morita had dragged Steve's unconscious body from out in front of the enormous Hydra tank, after they'd put him on the back of a medic truck, after the green and red blast wound covering most of Steve's chest had already begun to heal, Bucky sat by his cot in the med tent.
"All's well that end's well," Steve had told him on the end of a labored breath, before passing out, mouth open, up to his eyebrows in trouble as usual.
He pet his hand across Steve's hair, because he wouldn't be allowed once Steve woke up.
Eventually Steve did wake up, though, saying, "Bucky? Buck?" and to cover the sob of relief Bucky felt rising in his gut, he wretchedly said, "So help me, Steve, if you tell me you had him on the ropes, I will knock you right back out."
Steve, who apparently felt so woozy he couldn't even open his eyes, just fluttering his lashes uselessly, said to him, in a croaky whispery death voice, "Go get some rest, Bucky. It's funny, but I still don't need you to nurse me like a dying baby bird."
Even after everything, there was something missing inside his chest, whichever heart string was supposed to differentiate between pity and love.
"Could've fooled me, pal."
Steve laughed weakly and then stopped with a wince, finally peering at Bucky out of tired eyes. "Well, you're pretty easy to fool."
"Yeah, it's almost like I imagined you being shot in the torso by a tank gun and going unconscious for six hours." Bucky paused and then asked, "Do you need anything? Water?"
"I'm serious," Steve said. "Go get some sleep. You look like you need it."
Bucky held out a tin cup of water.
Steve took the cup and irritably elbowed Bucky out of his space. The whole situation played out achingly familiar, except as Bucky pulled back his hand, it brushed the white cotton of Steve's bandaged body, above his hipbone. Just briefly, and on accident, but nevertheless, Steve hissed and jerked himself away.
"Sorry," Bucky muttered, pulse slamming in his head.
Steve cleared his throat and turned to stare in the direction of the IV plasma bag. "Don't worry about it."
Steve clears his throat emotionally about thirty times every ten minutes. He's got a lot of questions that Bucky's too tired to answer. Bucky's going to need a hundred years of R and R to even figure out where to begin.
"How much do you remember?" Steve's eyes go strange, sad. He leans his huge body forward in the space of Sam's motel room.
"You were stalking me," Bucky says in lieu of an answer, with the hazy image of a severed tongue on the backs of his retinas superimposed across Steve's face. A little tea set with blood in the saucer. A nose crushed back into gray matter. Eyes rolled up white and red and open.
"Well, you stalked me back," Steve forces with a smile. It fades after a moment. He clears his throat. "Fair's fair," he says, pulling Bucky into a hug.
Bucky's muscles go stiff to the point of cramping.
"Please don't try to kill us," Sam adds, waving a belated hello over Steve's gigantic shoulder. "It'd throw off our whole vibe."
And Steve goes, "I'm glad you're here, pal," right into his fucking ear.
The night Bucky made up his mind to come clean, Steve was stumbling his way through a dance with an Austrian girl outdoors on the cobblestones. The town was rubble, but the townspeople had taken a break from sorting through the carnage for a party with Captain America.
Bucky'd been thinking about it for days, belly on the dirt, watching the back of Steve's head through a gun scope. Not only was the feeling huge, growing twisted roots through everything, it was pulling on him toward something wrong, diagonal gravity. Always slightly off.
Watching Steve twirling tragically with sweaty hair, still in his dirty blue uniform, blurting, "Sorry!" every other step, Bucky came to a decision ten years in the making.
He sauntered up clumsy drunk and tapped the girl on the shoulder. "I've gotta borrow this jerk for a few minutes, okay?"
She probably didn't understand any of it, but she said, "Okay?" back, and Bucky took that as permission, whisking Steve away back to the house they’d quartered for the night.
The confession felt so big, even set up against everything else, but it wasn't about passion or reciprocation. Steve deserved to know because Bucky wasn't allowed to keep secrets from him. Bucky was going to confess the way a sinner does to a priest.
"Do you think she noticed how bad I was?" Steve asked as they passed into the Commandos temporary barracks.
"You're lucky dames in Siberia didn't notice," Bucky replies, maybe too harshly.
"Sheesh. Don't go easy on me."
"Any time you need to hear reason."
Steve laughed and sat down heavily on his cot. It creaked under his weight, which was still so strange.
Bucky stood in the doorway, suddenly frightened out of his mind, wiping his palms on his dungarees.
"Hey, what is it?" Steve asked. His mouth pursed unfairly as he looked up at Bucky, just like he used to do, except now with glowingly healthy skin and European dirt on his face instead of the good old American brand.
"I, uh..." Bucky rubbed his neck. His whole body crackled hot on the edge of spontaneous combustion. "I think there's something wrong with--"
"Cap! Captain!" Dum Dum burst into the room with all the subtlety of a live grenade. His ridiculous facial hair made his grin look ten times wider. "We got news!"
"What?" Bucky snapped, nerves jangling.
But then Dum Dum relayed the message. Zola's train would come through at 0730, which gave the Commandos just over five hours to pack and hoof it up the mountain. Dum Dum then made his exit by hitting walls and yelling bloody murder in celebration of the new mission like an absolute psycho.
"Well, that's that," said Steve, grinning at Dum Dum's antics. "What was it you were going to tell me?"
Bucky choked on a laugh. "Don't think there's time. Ask me again after we get Zola."
"Whoa, tender," Sam comments, for the sixth time.
"That's the sixth time," Steve says, face flat, deadened in disbelief.
"Sixth time's the charm," chimes Sam.
Sam and Steve play a game where one has to tell a story that relates to the last one the other told.
Steve's story about wild turkeys in France relates to Sam's story about a family turkey dinner relates to Steve's story about Thanksgiving in Brooklyn with the Barneses, in reaction to which Sam says whoa tender.
It's been Bucky's turn for a week, but he refuses to play, just like he refuses to leave the town limits.
And instead of trying to convince him to go with them, back to DC or fuck knows where, Sam and Steve have taken him to all three of the town's major destinations--a Canadian Tire, a grocery store, and this diner, which only serves soup and tea and summer sausage.
"You keep calling all my stories tender, I'm gonna stop telling them," says Steve, pointing his soup spoon aggressively.
"Oh, you go ahead and try," Sam says with a grin. "I know about war stories, and those things've gotta come out. Tender or made up or otherwise."
Steve laughs with clear lungs. "You want to hear tender, we should tell you how Dum Dum had his steak."
Bucky's fingers flutter on the diner's tabletop. "That's a short story. Absolutely cold red raw."
"Wore the blood in his mustache on purpose to scare Hydra," Steve says between laughs.
Bucky frowns, feels grimy all of a sudden, like he needs a chemical shower for his internal organs.
Sam looks at Bucky's troubled face and says, "Blood, huh?" and tells a story about how he wore the same flight suit for three more missions before he realized there were specks of Riley's blood splattered across the left shoulder, congealed and brown and clear as day.
Things come back to him at the oddest times, when Sam claps him on the shoulder or when Steve offers to go out and pick up some aspirin. It's like a blizzard. He can barely see the end of his nose without getting cold and lost. There's no forest, just a list of people he cut down like trees.
There's an image in his head of a man lying on a pier with a bullet in his heart. He gurgled for one second, two, and then died.
There's one with ten bodies on the ground in the desert, sand scabbing into the blood as it dried.
There's one where Bucky stood, stretching out his hand across hell, arms too short to reach. He'd screamed one thing and thought another, thought about sleep, about lying down on the coals.
There's an image in his head of a target sitting in the front row of a baseball game with her daughter. Bucky waited up on the ring of the sun roof around the stadium with a rifle.
He pulled the trigger and watched the ruby red sparkle and spray and prayed very clearly for escape before God flickered out of mind like an ignition spark.
There's Steve, Steve in the kitchen, Steve in the war. Steve scowling in Brooklyn while Bucky made fun of the old, somber, manly voice coming out of his scrawny little frame.
And there's faces, everywhere, who process his touch with terror, realizing these are their last moments, wishing desperately for more time, choking on spittle, twitching between his hands, clawing where his skin should be. There's picking bloody fingernails out of his steel wrist joints. There's a strange intimacy. There's no time for anyone, he wants to tell them. A hundred years wouldn't be enough.
It takes Bucky as much as a month to say something. He's not sure. He's lost track.
He picks the lock on Steve's motel room in that same chilly town in Saskatchewan, because it's safer than knocking and listening to the sounds of someone not answering.
Steve lies on top of the blue duvet cover, barefoot, typing something on his laptop. He laughs faintly at Bucky when he enters.
"No, no, come on in," he says, putting the laptop aside. "I insist."
But Bucky's mouth twists, painful, and he doesn't laugh, so Steve scoots up into a sitting position at the end of his bed. His eyebrows go inward and up in the middle.
"Something wrong? Can I help?" he asks, like Bucky didn't burgle his way onto the premises ten seconds ago.
Steve can get pretty Stevey sometimes.
"I have to tell you something," Bucky manages.
Steve probably expects a list of casualties, but he still says, "Go ahead."
This could be good enough. This life, together but not together, could be better than good enough. As good as it ever was in the good old days, World War II and Rheumatic Fever and homosexuals going to asylums and Steve with his gold hair on the pillow, eyes in the other direction, and girls at dance halls and watered down whiskey and sleeping on rocks and boiled fucking potatoes.
Things are different now. Bucky is different and Steve is different.
Bucky could break off part of Steve's bed and beat him to death with it. He could wrap Steve's sheets around his throat and pull, easy, for 4 minutes. He could crush Steve's skull straight into his brain. No props required.
Instead Bucky sits down next to him on the blue blankets of the motel bed, bouncing a little as he settles.
"Half my memories are of the back of your head, you know," he says with a voice rubbed raw by bone dust and freezer burn, "if you ever bothered to look back and see me looking."
He can feel Steve looking at him now.
"And you could get shot," he elaborates further. "Today. Tomorrow."
"You might recall me being shot before," Steve says pointedly.
"You could get shot by someone who actually wants to kill you," Bucky clarifies.
When he grabs Steve's arm, Steve's whole body jerks in surprise.
Bucky only presses closer, smoothing his metal hand back over Steve's ear into his hair, whirring softly with the movement though it does. He feels without feeling, pressure without texture.
Steve closes his eyes long before Bucky gets close enough to warrant it. "What's this about?" he asks quietly.
It's like an amputee who swears he can feel himself make a fist.
Give Steve everything he ever thought he needed to be worth something, super strength, an extra two feet of height, his own superhuman strike squad, all the glory and honor the United States of America is qualified to bestow, and he still can't fathom why anyone would take a shine to him. The guy just gets Stevier and Stevier.
So rather than bother with an answer, Bucky does what he's thought about doing a hundred times over the course of the past century.
He finally manages it, after an unorthodox obstacle or two. He kisses Steve Rogers right on his fool mouth.
Steve sits back and lets out a long, slow breath.
On instinct, Bucky listens for any sign of wheezing or rattling, but the only thing that rattles is the heater by the window.
"This isn't a joke, right?" Steve says, voice so low, his hands firm over Bucky's ribs. His big eyes search for a tell. A bluff. "You're not just...This isn't a favor."
"Explain how necking with an estranged assassin is a favor," Bucky replies, miffed.
"You'd, uh, be surprised."
"There's something backwards about you," Bucky mutters, going in for another kiss, harder this time, pushing until Steve lies down on the bed and then leaning over him.
Steve makes a low noise, a rumble Bucky can feel everywhere, and tugs his sweatshirt in two different directions at the same time.
After a few moments Bucky lets up, pulls back far enough to kiss Steve's temple instead of his mouth, and Steve proves to be the same little shit as always.
He says, "That was probably the least romantic thing anyone has ever said to me, by the way."
Startled, Bucky chokes out, "Like you have a lot of comparisons--"
"'You could be shot.'"
"I wanted to tell you during the war."
"Thanks for the thought, but I was pretty well aware of the possibility of being shot during the World War."
"Steve, don't be a punk--"
"It's motel rooms in the Canadian countryside I need to be reminded about."
Bucky sighs and sits up. "Good thing you've got me here, then."
Steve smiles up at him, lying there with his hair all jacked up, looks away and then back again. "Good thing."
During the next round of the game, in a gas station in Regina, after Steve tells them a story about the neighbor boys who used to give him nickels for pencil portraits of their sweethearts, Bucky says, "I've got one."
Steve and Sam stop and stare, which Bucky blocks out, thoroughly examining the beef jerky display.
"Back in Brooklyn--" he says to a pack of Slim Jims, "I used to keep sketches Steve threw out in the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard where he wouldn't see them. I was going to sell them when he got famous to buy myself a car."
Steve laughs loud, but it soon tapers into a fond smile. "You can say it, Sam," he says, grinning at Bucky.
Bucky turns toward the window and the gas pumps outside, shows Steve the back of his head in defiance.
"You know what, Cap? I think I will say it," Sam replies.
"Don't," says Bucky.
"Tender," says Sam. "Lucky number seven!"
"I'm glad you’re here," Steve says again in the car, for about the thousandth time. "I’m glad you decided to come with us."
Sam's dozing in the back seat. He has just as many nightmares as Steve and Bucky do, which shouldn't be comforting, but just is all the same.
Bucky puts his metal hand over Steve's on the gearshift, like they're a pair of old Brooklynites that got married ages ago, like Bucky's going to meet up with his pals after work and sigh, "You know I love the guy, love him to death, but I could also kill 'im sometimes. You fellas know what I mean." He's got this irrational desire to skip ahead to the end, in case they've missed their moment again, just to make sure.
Steve smiles at the road in front of him and clears his throat predictably. “We have time to figure it out,” he says.
Supposedly there's time enough for everything.