For Bucky, it all happens in flashes.
Steve’s voice over the high-pitched whistle in his ears, his vision tunneling down to a sharp jaw he doesn’t recognize but a pair of blue eyes he’d never forget. Those gentle eyes, the ones he saw when he closed his own. (I’m here.) That deep, clear voice, piercing like a knife through his dreams. (Don’t be. Don’t be here. Be anywhere but here.)
(“Not to worry, Sergeant Barnes,” Zola said, patting his hand as fire lit up his nerves. “The Captain may be his priority, but you are mine.”)
Steve’s voice is calm, reassuring, and under his watch Bucky is so comforted that he starts to drift. He doesn’t believe this is real, but his body latches on to what relief it can. He’s gone so long without.
Then Steve’s hauling him to his feet, pawing at his face and gripping his neck, and Bucky gets a good look. He doesn’t understand what he sees, but he hasn’t understood much since the first needle slid home, so he follows anyway. It's better than the alternative. He staggers along, tries to ground himself in the comforting patter of a half-formed conversation, a familiar back-and-forth. Everything else melts away.
Everything is melting.
Then things get even hazier.
The devil, who peels off his face and smiles like the end of all things.
The doctor, whose gaze twists Bucky into a tight knot of terror.
Safety. Safety. Get Steve to safety.
One foot in front of the other. Inch by inch by—
A chasm, and Steve on the wrong side.
That’s the tipping point. His brain just sort of…checks out.
(His story ends without Steve.)
Steve makes it over. He grabs Bucky’s hand and Bucky stumbles deliriously after him, closes his eyes and lets Steve pull him along and through and out. There’s a burst of chilled air on his face and he peels his eyes open, squints at the treeline and trips over his own feet because he dreamt this, too, dreamt of running until his legs burned and his lungs ached and he fell face-first into the grass and stayed there the rest of his life.
(It wasn’t long, the rest of his life. Not in those dreams.)
“Easy, Buck,” Steve says, squeezing his hand. “A little farther.”
Bucky nods, closes his eyes again, keeps following. Eventually, he hears the buzz of other voices, formless and building until someone yells “Sarge!” and he blinks, blinks, tries to focus.
“What,” he says, his tongue thick. He’s manhandled and propped up against something solid, and when he finally gets his eyesight to clear, it’s Dum Dum Dugan grinning at him like mad.
“Boy, is it good to see you,” Dugan says, ruffling Bucky’s hair.
“Hmm,” Bucky says, because he can’t put into words the acrobatics his heart is doing. “Y’get those bastards?”
Dugan laughs. “Take a look at what you’re leaning on, kid,” he says. “Should be answer enough.”
“Told’ya. Stop calling me kid,” Bucky says, tilts his head back and gapes up at the gun of a massive tank. There are clusters of other men all around, clapping each other on the back, inspecting injuries, checking weaponry. “How many’d get out?”
“Couple hundred, by my count,” Dugan says. “And at the hands of Captain America, himself. Not sure I’ve seen anything crazier in my life.”
“Crazy punk,” Bucky slurs, then goes serious. “Steve.”
“Talking strategy with Falsworth. Getting ‘em out was the easy part. Now we gotta get ‘em home.”
“N’problem,” Bucky says, and slumps over.
Next he remembers, he’s walking, shuffling along with someone’s hand at his back. It’s not Steve’s. He can hear Steve a few paces ahead, arguing with Falsworth.
“We stop for an hour or two, it’s not gonna kill us.”
“And you’re positive of that, Captain?”
“You saw the base. It’s annihilated, and Schmidt took off like a bat out of hell. There's no one left to follow us.”
“That may be. But even at the end of the world, a few roaches undoubtedly scuttle free. And Schmidt's army is not the only one fighting this war. Wouldn't you feel a great deal safer if we were closer to the Allied line? I know the men would.”
Steve gives a deep huff, a well-worn sound of begrudging assent that makes Bucky hum with contentment to hear it.
“They’re your orders to give, Captain. Though I think Sergeant Barnes has a bit more fight in him, if that’s what’s holding you back.”
"'mfine,” Bucky says. The hand on his back pats him roughly.
“That’s the spirit, Sarge,” Gabe Jones says, and Bucky smiles, fever-bright, because both Dugan and Jones—his men—are alive. “One foot in front of the other.”
Inch by inch by inch.
He tunes in and out like a radio. Sometimes it’s Dugan beside him, sometimes Jones. Dernier is there, chattering in French at the edges of Bucky’s consciousness, as is Jim Morita, who introduces himself as your neighbor from the next cage over and bickers with Dugan like they’ve known each other their whole lives.
And sometimes it’s Steve beside him, whose smile is so desperate it makes Bucky feel shaky, overwhelmed.
They stop only once before sunrise. Steve hunches over a map and someone tries to lower Bucky to the ground, but Bucky shoves them off. If he sits, he won’t get back up. He leans against a tree and guzzles water, and someone pushes the hair off his forehead over and over until they start moving again.
The next time they stop, Bucky’s sweating and trembling and has lost all sense of time. Steve gives the orders for everyone to rest, tend to the wounded, take stock of provisions. He turns to Bucky and cuffs the back of his head, urges him to get a few hours of sleep, and then he’s beckoned elsewhere, and Bucky watches him go, watches until his stomach drops out.
His eyes flutter shut and he sways, throws an arm out on reflex. Someone catches it. “Hey, easy, easy,” Jones says, gripping his right elbow. “Alright?”
“Uh,” Bucky says. His knees give, and his left arm gets tossed over broad shoulders as he sinks towards the ground.
“Time to get you off your feet,” Dugan says, wrapping one arm around Bucky’s back and another under his knees. Jones does the same. “In the shade, he’s burning up. On three?”
Bucky gives them to one-and-a-half before he tries to push out of their arms. He doesn’t want to be carried. He wants to help Steve. Or maybe, he wants to plant himself face down in the cold dirt and stay there a few days. Maybe he wants to dig himself a hole, fill it with darkness and silence, and sleep there. Maybe he wants to climb into Steve Rogers’ still-beating heart, and live there.
Dugan and Jones wrestle him back, and Morita kneels in front of him, puts a steady hand on the side of his head. “Help us out here, ace. Gotta get somewhere you can lie down. You’ll feel better then, huh?”
Bucky nods, because that’s what he’s supposed to do. He feels sick. He’s not sure he’ll ever feel better. He doesn’t remember how.
(“It will improve,” Zola said, but never to Bucky.)
Bucky’s stomach roils when they lift him, and his head nods as the world spins. “I don’t…feel so great,” he manages. He grabs the collar of Dugan’s shirt.
“That’s putting it mildly, I think. We got’cha, Bucky. Calm down.”
Bucky tries. Except then he hears Steve’s voice again, like a pin-prick to the bubble he’s been floating in, and he remembers he’s supposed to follow. He’s always supposed to follow, let that voice carry him in like a lighthouse summoning a boat to shore. “Buck?” it calls, and Bucky tips forward and straight down to the ground. He lands head first, and everything goes dark.
When he opens his eyes, it’s all a blur of shapes and colors swaying and pitching, and he still feels sick. He’s going to be sick. Everyone’s talking at once.
“Jesus christ, what the hell, I thought he was—”
“Barnes, you son of a bitch, what were you—”
(“We must get his heart rate down! We cannot lose another—”)
“C’mon, Buck, eyes open, keep ‘em open, look at me, c’mon—”
Someone’s patting his cheek, and Bucky opens his mouth, and all that comes out is one long groan that swells and swells until Steve says, “Shh, shh, Bucky, okay, shh,” and he obeys, swallows the lump of hurt and tries to focus. It’s getting harder. He rolls his eyes around, squeezes them shut against the searing pain making a lightning track from the back of his teeth to the base of his neck.
Steve’s saying something to someone Bucky can’t see, someone hundreds of miles away, somewhere that echoes. He doesn’t want Steve to go there. Doesn’t think he can follow that far. “Steve,” he grits out, lifts his hand, his thousand-pound hand, and drags it across the ground until it finds one to curl up next to.
“Okay. Okay, Buck.” Steve cradles Bucky’s head in his palm, tucks his arm under Bucky’s knees and lifts him like he’s nothing. “You gonna stay with me?”
Bucky nods, and passes out.
When he wakes up, he’s puking.
He’s on his knees, bent over with someone’s arm wrapped around his chest. He heaves and falls back on his heels, starts to topple over before there’s something solid under his shoulder. There are people everywhere. He can’t hear them for the ringing in his ears, can’t see them through the blurry shroud over his eyes, but he can feel them hovering.
(They like to hover, to poke and prod.)
Their fingers brush over his back, his arms, his forehead. He shivers. He doesn’t know who they are, what they want.
(They never want anything good.)
He doesn’t want them here. It’ll hurt, whatever they want.
(It always hurts.)
He pukes again.
Someone tries to steady him, and he growls. Maybe. He doesn’t know exactly what sound he makes, but the hand goes away, and he’s puking even harder, his stomach cramping, his throat burning with bile. He jerks free from the arm holding him and crashes sideways, drags himself a few feet away and starts a new pile of vomit. He falls onto his elbows, feet digging for purchase, and retches until there’s only a thin string of saliva dribbling from his mouth.
“Just you and me now, Buck, okay? It’s okay. You just gotta get it all up, huh? Get all the bad stuff out.”
Bucky takes a few shuddering breaths. It’s quieter, now. Just Steve in his head, the only one who belongs there.
“That’s it. You doing okay? Feel better?”
“No,” Bucky croaks. Steve puts a cool hand on his forehead, and Bucky leans into it, arms going weak. He lowers himself slowly, shivering, to the ground.
“You want some water? Wanna sleep?”
Bucky shakes his head. When he sleeps, they strap him down. (When he wakes, Steve is gone.) “No,” he sobs, “no, no, no.”
Hands are on him again, and he lets Steve prop his limp body up, back to Steve’s chest, the side of his face hot against Steve’s chin. One of Steve’s hands rests on his belly. “Whatever you say, Buck, whatever you want. Probably not supposed to be sleeping, either, with that header you took. Take my eyes off you for two seconds, I swear. You never do anything by halves.”
“Says you,” Bucky rasps, bunches the fabric at Steve’s knees into his fists and lets his head fall back, clenching his teeth against each wave of nausea.
“You wanna throw up again? Get it all up, you’ll feel better. That's what you used to tell me.”
Bucky buries his face in Steve’s neck. He can’t imagine there’s anything left in him. He’s gutted. He pants for breath, tries to calm his body down. There’s nothing left for him to give.
Steve starts to hum something Bucky thinks he should recognize, and he tries his hardest to unwind, like he knows Steve wants him to. But his insides seize, and he whines. He knows it’s coming and he doesn’t want it to, god, he doesn’t want it to.
“Hey,” Steve says, and Bucky retches again. Steve rubs slow circles on his back, and Bucky pukes until his mind goes blank, a static fuzz, a wash of white, the only reprieve he ever gets.
When Bucky wakes up, he’s not puking. It’s a start.
He’s wrapped snug in worn leather and his nose is buried in someone’s shoulder. The ground beneath him is rumbling, and he opens his eyes to hundreds of soldiers marching towards him.
“Welcome back to the land of the living.”
He lifts his head and Dugan squeezes the back of his neck. Bucky squints down at the ground, trying to make sense of the distance, the giant tread marks being left in their wake. “We riding a tank?” he rasps.
“We sure as hell are. Had to get moving, and you weren’t up to walking, so we hitched a ride.”
Bucky rubs at his eyes. They’re gritty and sore, but on the whole he feels sharper than the last time he was conscious. He can smell himself—dirt and sweat, blood and puke—and he clears his throat to keep himself from gagging, takes a breath through his mouth and groans on the exhale. His legs throb and his arms sting, but he’s thankful for the aches, the pain keeping him present.
“How long’ve I been out?”
“About a day,” Dugan says. “In and out, though. You’d wake up just to talk nonsense and drop off again. Didn’t seem like you were seeing much.”
“Don’t remember much.” Bucky winces, his mouth cotton coated. “Remember puking. Ribs hurt.”
“I don’t doubt it. You probably pulled something. Buck, I ain’t never seen anyone puke like that in my life. There’s a medic around who took a look at you, could tell you were drugged to the gills, but wasn’t for sure with what. You wouldn’t let him too near.”
Bucky nods. Doesn’t know what else to say. He thinks he remembers being given a sedative (to stop the screaming), but he doesn’t want to go digging too far into his head. Not yet. He needs to get his feet back under him before he jostles anything that’ll cause lasting damage. There’s only one question, now, that seems safe, seems necessary. “Where’s Steve?”
“Leading this band of misfits,” Dugan says. “Want me to get him? It’ll do him good to see you making some kind of sense.”
Bucky shakes his head. “Wanna walk.”
“You steady enough for that?”
“We’ll see,” Bucky says, and pushes himself off the side of the tank. The drop is steeper than he anticipated, though, and his knees buckle when he hits the ground, landing him on his ass in the wet dirt.
"Shit." Dugan jumps after him, gets one look at Bucky’s bewildered expression and starts cackling. “You know you deserved that, right?”
“Shut up,” Bucky growls, wobbling to his feet.
“Gonna let me help you?”
“Nope.” Bucky closes his eyes for a moment, staving off vertigo, and Dugan nudges him in Steve’s direction.
“Then go get your boy off our case, if you’re good enough to be walking and talking.”
Bucky tugs the coat tighter and heads towards the front of the pack. He just wants to get a hand on Steve, to prove to his traitorous brain that Steve is solid and there.
(“No one is here, Sergeant Barnes,” Zola said. “No one is coming. How does that make you feel?")
“Think I’m going blind,” Bucky says when he’s in earshot, and the way Steve whips around, taut with worry, makes Bucky flinch. “Think that getup you’re wearing is burning my eyes outta their sockets,” he clarifies, guilty as he watches the tension bleed from Steve’s shoulders.
“Tried getting them to add a few more stars, but they thought that’d look ridiculous,” Steve deadpans, and the laugh that bubbles out of Bucky surprises them both, Steve lighting up like a firework and rattling Bucky to the core.
“Got something of yours,” Bucky says, shrugging out of Steve’s jacket and handing it over.
“You sure you don’t want it?” Steve asks, though he's already slipping it back on.
“Trust me, you need it more than I do.”
“Jerk. How’re you feeling?”
“Better. Maybe still hallucinating, looking at you.”
Steve’s smile falters. “Were you—?”
Bucky groans. “Sorry, sorry. I'll shut up now. Just trying to lighten the mood." (Just trying to make you smile.) "You, being here, all…” He waves his hand around. “Muscley. Whatever. It's throwing me off. Captain America, huh?”
Steve flushes, glances down at his feet and rubs the back of his neck. “I guess so."
“Is Captain America gonna let me have a weapon?”
“You can have whatever you want. We haven’t seen much resistance, though, and most of the men are armed. You don’t need one, if you don’t—”
“I want one,” Bucky says, setting his jaw. He’s let someone else watch Steve’s back long enough.
“Been keeping one warm for you, Sarge,” Jones says, coming up on his left with a sleek, unfamiliar machine gun. “Swiped these off some HYDRA goons on our way out. It packs a punch, so don’t go waving it around.”
Bucky loops the strap around his arm and adjusts to the foreign feel of the gun under his hands. He’s been told, again and again since he got out of basic, that he’s a natural shot, a born sniper. Put a gun in that kid’s hands, his CO said, it’s like it’s wired straight to his brain. Bucky wants to feel like that again—dependable, and in control.
“You sure you’re alright?” Steve asks again, quietly. He reaches out and touches Bucky’s elbow, his eyes bright. Bucky wants to sling an arm around his shoulders, tug Steve to his side and shake him a little, but he’s not sure Steve would even budge.
“Don’t embarrass yourself, Rogers,” he says, smirking, but he bumps up against Steve until the creases around both their eyes smooth. “How far out are we?”
Steve takes a breath and looks into the distance. “Less than a day, if we keep moving?”
Bucky nods. “Then let’s keep moving.”
They don’t talk much, from there on out. Bucky keeps a wary eye on their surroundings, stops Steve with a silent hand when he finds anything suspicious. He takes out a German soldier no one else sees, levels his gun and fires into the trees before anyone can blink. A blast of blue light lands square between the man’s eyes, and Bucky grins over his shoulder at Steve, his blood singing with adrenaline. Steve smiles back, but there’s a flicker of concern that Bucky takes like a stone to the gut.
Hours later, when they catch sight of camp on the horizon, Bucky staggers, realizing how certain he was that he'd never make it back here. How certain hundreds of others must've been, too. Steve pats him on the back as they march through the throng of greeters. He holds his head high. They don’t get to see him undone.
His voice barely shakes when he yells Let’s hear it for Captain America! because he hasn’t said all that much since Steve pulled him from the fire, and he needs Steve to know that…well, he just needs Steve to know. The men whoop and holler, and Bucky purses his lips and bites his tongue, because finally, these idiots get it, that Steve Rogers is a goddamn revelation. He’s the best thing in Bucky's life, the best thing on this earth, and he had to gain another person’s worth of muscle, jump out of a plane, break into a Nazi fortress, and single-handedly rescue an entire squadron for them to see it. Bucky tries not to hate them for that.
(“Do not be afraid to hate me, Sergeant Barnes,” Zola said. “It is a valuable reaction to observe, and we must account for all variables.”)
The crowd starts to disperse, and Steve leans over, says, gently, “Go take care of yourself, alright?” before he’s whisked away on the heels of Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter. Bucky wanders off in the direction of the med tent, but balks at the commotion, the spill of new patients sprawled out around the perimeter, waiting their turn, the clatter of surgical tools sending sharp pangs of anxiety up his spine. He nicks a bottle of iodine and a handful of cotton balls from a cart no one’s watching and hunkers down a comfortable distance away, rolls up his sleeves and dabs at his arms, clenches his teeth against the sting and doesn’t think about the catalogue of scars marring his skin, who they’re from, what they mean.
All in all, he's in better shape than he thought he'd be. It's not particularly a comfort.
He heads to the mess tent next, suddenly starving. He can’t remember the last time he ate. They’d been fed some sort of slop once a day on the HYDRA assembly line, and Bucky’s certain they must’ve given him something while he was with Zola. They must’ve. He wouldn’t be alive, if they didn’t. He just…doesn’t remember.
He piles as much liver and mashed potatoes as will fit on a plate and wolfs it down, goes up for seconds, thirds, doesn’t even taste it, can’t seem to get enough in his stomach to quell the ache. Jones joins him after a while, inhales his food at an equal pace but sits back when his plate’s empty and watches Bucky continue to shovel it in. “Don’t make yourself sick, Sarge,” Jones says. “They’re not gonna take it from you.”
Bucky finishes and forces himself to leave, ignoring his stomach’s protests for more. It starts to rain, and he tips his head back into the drizzle, lets it drip down his neck and into his ears as everyone around him heads for cover.
“You know it’s raining?”
Bucky's lips quirk. “Didn’t notice.”
“You wanna go inside, or keep trying to catch pneumonia?” Steve asks.
“Feels good,” Bucky says. “Already had pneumonia.”
“Hate to break it to you, Buck, but you can get it more than once.”
“I know that. You have it all the time.”
“Not anymore. C’mon,” Steve says, leads them to a tent on the far side of camp, empty except for a cot and a few medical supplies. Bucky ducks inside, turns to make a crack about how he thought being Captain America would come with a few more perks, but when Steve closes the flap behind them, his face is already crumpling. “Bucky,” he chokes.
“Hey,” Bucky says. He reaches out, because Steve in pain is muscle memory. His hands know how to soothe sorrow, the aches of a back alley, a pair of gravestones, a 4F. This, he understands. But Steve hauls him in and wraps his arms around Bucky’s back, pulls him into his chest, instead. “Hey, Steve, it’s alright. I’m alright.”
“You were dead. They told me you were dead.”
“Well, they’re idiots.” Bucky squeezes Steve around the middle, marveling at the new feel of it. He used to be able to hug Steve and count his ribs, each stutter of his lungs, each frantic beat of his heart. He likes the solidity of this, though, won’t complain about a little extra cushioning keeping Steve intact. “I told you not to do anything stupid. Didn’t stop you for one second, did it? You never were one for hearing things you didn’t wanna."
Steve buries his face in Bucky’s shoulder, takes a wet, gulping breath. “I couldn’t just let you…”
“I know,” Bucky says into Steve’s ear, gets an arm up around his neck. “I won’t waste my breath telling you what a stubborn, self-sacrificing punk you are, because you won’t hear a damn word of it.” He pulls Steve down (and that'll take some getting used to) and presses their foreheads together. “Guess I’m glad you never listen. Needed your stupid, stubborn ass to come haul me outta trouble. Where would I be without you?” His voice breaks on the last word. He doesn’t care.
Steve doesn’t say anything, but he closes his eyes and grips the back of Bucky’s shirt, and they breathe together, finding an equilibrium they’d been missing since Bucky shipped out.
“Don’t think you’re getting off easy, though,” Bucky says, pulling back. “You’re supposed to be so far away from this shit. And clearly,” he raises an eyebrow, “you’re wading in just as deep as the rest of us.”
“You know that’s never what I wanted,” Steve says, wiping his eyes. “You knew I wasn’t gonna sit back and watch you go off without me. You knew that.”
“Yeah, I know. Just didn’t think you’d steal somebody else’s body to do it.”
“It’s still me, Buck,” Steve says, quietly, eyes flickering to the ground. “I’m still…me.”
“You think I don’t know that? You just got the chops to match that big mouth now.” (To match that big heart.) “Doesn’t mean I don’t owe you an ass-chewin’.”
Steve smiles, a little sheepish, a little smug. “Think you’re gonna have to get in line.”
“Oh, I think I’ve earned the right to jump to the front of that line,” Bucky says. He drops down hard onto the cot, pats the space next to him. “So how ‘bout you tell me a bedtime story first, of how little Stevie from Brooklyn got big and strong and joined the Army?”
Steve frowns. “Phillips wants me back…there’s a few more things I gotta take care of, and—”
“Hey, I get it,” Bucky says. “Duty calls.”
“I’ll make good on that bedtime story on the way back to London, alright? They’re planning to ship us out of here in a few hours.”
“What, you wanna take in more of the sights?”
“Is there a plane leaving right now? Far as I’m concerned, a few hours is a few hours too long,” Bucky says, suddenly jittery, bouncing his leg. Now that there’s a time of departure on the horizon, he doesn’t want to sit around waiting.
“You should clean up,” Steve says. “Eat something. Rest. We’ll get you outta here.”
Bucky heads to the showers, and the cold water’s like heaven on his overheated skin. He barely puts any effort into washing, just stands under the dribble and lets the grime run off him in rivulets. He thinks if he could cry a little, he’d like to do it now, where the tears can mix with the filth and disappear just as quickly as they’d come. His throat tightens, but there’s nothing else to bring up, no release, no purge. He sobs, once, as he shuts off the water, and he’s left naked, dripping, the hurt sticky in his chest, clinging to his insides, making a home.
On the plane, Bucky stays awake just long enough for Steve to tell him about Project Rebirth and what came after. He doesn’t like it, any of it, hums vague noises of disapproval. He has a lot more to say about the Army turning his best friend into a lab rat and a dancing monkey, but the exhaustion crashes into him until he can’t keep his eyes open. "Sorry," he mumbles.
“S'okay, Buck. C’mere,” Steve says, and Bucky lets his head fall on Steve’s shoulder and passes out.
As soon as they land, they’re hurried into a car and sped off to the Allied forces’ base of operations. They're given uniforms to change into, then marched directly into Colonel Phillips’ office for debriefing.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Phillips says, shuffling through a few files on his desk and motioning to a chair without looking up.
“Sir,” Bucky says. He thought he’d have more time to prepare for this, and he shakes his head, tries to clear the fog of sleep from his mind and get his thoughts in order. He’s resolved to give them this, this one last thing, and maybe that’ll be enough. Maybe they won’t ask him to give any more.
(“We are only just beginning,” Zola said. “I need your full attention.”)
Steve hovers behind Bucky’s chair, and Phillips rolls his eyes. “Captain Rogers has volunteered to sit in on your debriefing, continuing a long track record of sticking his nose in places it doesn’t belong. It is, however, up to you whether or not he stays.”
“I’m only gonna say all this once,” Bucky says, more to Steve than Phillips. “So he might as well be here.”
Phillips nods, and Steve takes the chair beside Bucky, pressing his fingers briefly, privately, to Bucky’s wrist, his hammering pulse.
“First off,” Phillips says, folding his hands over Bucky’s open file, “I want to commend you for your bravery. Not many men would’ve made it out of there alive, Sergeant, much less on their feet. We’ll make sure you’re recognized accordingly.”
“Thank you, sir, but I got lucky,” Bucky says. “Steve…Captain Rogers should be getting—”
“Bucky,” Steve interrupts.
“I believe,” Phillips says, “I told you your invitation to this meeting was based entirely on your ability to keep quiet, Rogers. We’re not off to a good start.”
“Sir, I was just making sure Sergeant Barnes knows that—”
“Butt out, Captain, I won’t ask you again.”
Bucky snorts. “Shut your trap, Steve, you’re gonna get kicked outta here.”
Steve glares at him, but doesn’t say another word.
Phillips looks as close as he can to impressed. “If I knew you had that kind of effect on Rogers, I would've walked to Austria and rescued you myself.”
“Trust me, sir, it only works about half the time.”
Steve looks caught somewhere between furious and flustered, the tips of his ears bright red, and Bucky’s never felt more grateful for anything in his entire life. With Steve here, dressed to the nines in the Army's finest and running his mouth without a second thought to the company, like he hasn't missed a beat, Bucky thinks he might just be able to get through this.
“To business, then,” Phillips says. “Sergeant Barnes, due to your capture and imprisonment at the hands of Dr. Arnim Zola, we believe you might have significant information regarding his partnership with Johann Schmidt and his responsibilities in the Nazi science division known as HYDRA.”
“I can tell you what I remember,” Bucky says, “but it’s not much. They had me drugged for most of it, and I never saw Schmidt. Not until the bridge.”
“Any information you have is useful. We need to figure out their endgame, what they’re planning next.”
“I don’t know about an endgame. Don’t even know if I was part of it. I was just an experiment.”
Steve makes a soft, angry noise in the back of his throat, and sits up straighter.
“You think your involvement was a play to get at Captain Rogers?”
“No,” Bucky says, glancing at Steve out of the corner of his eye, trying to shut him up before he can speak. “I wasn’t the only one. They’d take someone new every few days. Two guys in my pen before me.”
“Schmidt didn’t have much interest in sticking around, even after I got there,” Steve says anyway. “If Sergeant Barnes was being used as bait, I think there would’ve been more of an effort to take me in. Not blow up the base and run.”
Phillips scowls at Steve, but doesn’t comment. “Describe these experiments Zola ran on you.”
Bucky presses his feet more firmly to the floor, just to confirm the ground hasn’t dropped out from under him. His stomach feels like it’s somewhere around his shoes. “Mostly monitoring reactions, collecting data. He’d shoot me up full of something, take my vitals, ask me questions, note different variables.”
Bucky laces his fingers together, shifts his legs so Steve doesn’t see his hands shaking, though he’s sure Steve’s already noticed. “Sometimes whatever he gave me made me drowsy, other times hyper-alert. Some of ‘em took my senses away, couldn’t see or hear anything. Some were just…pain.”
Steve’s grip is white-knuckled on the armrests, his jaw clenched so tight Bucky’s worried he’ll crack a tooth.
“What sort of information did they want from you?”
“You mean what did I give away?” Bucky snaps, then clamps his mouth shut. He hadn’t meant to say that aloud. He swears he hears the armrest splinter under Steve’s hand.
“It’s nothing personal, Barnes, it’s just the way these things go,” Phillips says. “Better men than you have given up more for less. We just need to know what we’re working with.”
Bucky shakes his head. “He didn’t want information, sir.”
Phillips frowns. “Nothing?”
“He’d ask me questions, but mostly about how the drugs were reacting. He’d talk at me once in a while, but it wasn’t much to go off.”
(“It is best if you remain quiet,” Zola said, putting a hand over Bucky’s mouth. “It is hard for me to concentrate when you scream.”)
“You expect me to believe that Johann Schmidt's right-hand man held you in isolation for weeks and didn’t ask for a single piece of intel?”
“Believe what you want, sir. But mostly the only one who talked to me was me."
“And what exactly did you tell yourself, Sergeant Barnes?”
“Name, rank, and serial number.”
“To remind them who you were?”
The mantra’s already starting up again in his head, insistent. Barnes, Sergeant 32557028. “To remind myself who I was, sir.”
“Is that all, Colonel?” Steve’s already on his feet, his eyes flashing with barely contained rage. His hand’s like a vice on Bucky’s shoulder, almost painful in its intensity. “Sergeant Barnes has more than earned a little peace and quiet.”
“In a minute, Rogers,” Phillips says. “If they didn’t want information, then what did they want? Just to pump you full of drugs and watch you squirm?”
And Bucky hopes he’s still as good of a liar as he’s always been, because this is the line he’s drawing. He won't tell them about the wild speculations he concocted on that table, the way he tried to puzzle out snippets of German and inscrutable data, more desperate for distraction than answers. And he won't tell them the truth—that he doesn't know—because that scares him more than anything. The only way he'll get the Army off his back is if he tells them something productive; they've never been interested in what they can't fix. “HYDRA’s a science division, right? Torture, interrogation, it's just another science to them. My guess is they’re getting creative. Trying out old questions in new ways. Ways we’ve never seen, and can’t prepare for. We were the means to an end. Perfect the science on us, use it to get information from the next wave. We weren’t supposed to survive, but whoever comes next…they’re the ones in trouble.”
Phillips watches Bucky for a long moment, like he’s trying to see through his skin, before he nods and closes the file on his desk. “Well then, we’ll just have to make sure there’s no next wave, won’t we?”
“Still, we’ll want to get you checked out, get a blood sample, make sure none of that HYDRA shit’s still screwing around with your insides. Swing by medical and get yourself cleared, Sergeant. You’re dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.”
As soon as they step out of the office, the color drains from Bucky's face. He lets Steve pull him down the hall, off to the side, and lean him back against a wall. He just needs to stop thinking for a moment, so he can pull himself back together. But the flood gates are open, now, and everything Bucky’s been trying not to remember is fighting back to the surface. The way his mind turned heavy as sludge, and he couldn’t remember how to want to stay alive. The flames licking at his muscles as he groped, blindly, for something to hold onto through the spasms. The electricity in his brain.
“Bucky,” Steve says, holding onto the side of his neck. “Buck, c’mon back.”
“Goddamn it,” Bucky spits, leaning forward and bracing his hands on his knees, sucking in as much air as he can manage.
“You're hiding something,” Steve says, his voice low as he glances around them.
“Don’t miss a thing, do you?”
“Bucky…what didn’t you tell him?”
“Nothing that would send to Alamogordo.”
Steve’s whole body winds tense as a spring. “What are you talking about?”
He gives Steve a half-truth rather than an all-out lie; he owes him that much. “I just got done being an experiment, Steve. You might've been fine with it, but I won’t do it again. I told Phillips what he needed to know. He doesn’t need the nitty-gritty. I’m fine, I’m fine, and if I told him anything more, he’d think I wasn’t. He doesn’t need to know anything else. I’m fine.”
(Steve doesn’t need to know how they shot fire into his bones and shoved him in a concrete cell with a man who was sweating and seething, just like he was, a man who tried to kill him.
They’d given Bucky a knife, and he hadn’t needed it.
He knows the feeling of a life leaving a body under his hands.
“We are getting very close,” Zola said.)
“Bucky,” Steve pleads.
“I’m fine. I don’t need to talk about it, okay?”
“Then what do you need?” Steve asks, and Bucky understands, suddenly, that Steve is as lost as he is. For all Steve’s bravado, his disregard and his blind determination, Bucky knows that neither of them thought they’d end up here—Bucky, with a body full of poison and secrets, a head full of landmines; Steve, with the weight of a nation on his newly-formed shoulders; both of them, with eyes for each other first.
At least that part isn’t new.
“Could use a nap,” Bucky says, deflating, and Steve nods solemnly, like it's the most important order he’s been given.
He takes Bucky to the quarters they’ll be sharing—a sterile room in a stark hotel taken over by the Allied forces—before he’s called away again. Too many people need the attention of Captain America. Bucky ribs him for it, assures Steve he’ll last five minutes without the Star Spangled Man with a Plan.
He takes two more showers, and still doesn’t feel clean.
He eats, and still doesn’t feel full.
He tries to sleep, and can’t, feels like he’s trapped under a layer of someone else’s skin, slowly suffocating.
He doesn’t go to medical.
Dugan and Jones find him after he's stared at the ceiling for a few hours, pound on his door and come barreling in, sweeping him into celebratory, bone-crushing hugs. Falsworth and Morita greet him with earnest, steady handshakes. Dernier laughs and kisses him on both cheeks.
“I’m shocked as hell you’re still upright, kid,” Dugan says, stretching out on Steve’s bed. “If I was you, I’d be dead to the world.”
“Good to see you up and about, though,” Jones says. “Wasn’t looking too hot for you, for a while.”
“Hey, what can I say?” Bucky tosses them a smile he hopes seems casual. “I always got a few tricks up my sleeve.”
“Yeah, well, next time your trick’s Captain America, you think you could play that card a little sooner?” Dugan asks.
“Like to keep you on your toes,” Bucky says. They all laugh, and Bucky rolls his neck, feels his muscles loosen a little. His men are here. They have his back.
“We’re getting a drink later, to celebrate,” Morita says. “You in?”
“And when Jim says ‘getting a drink’,” Dugan says, “he means ‘getting rip-roaring blitzed until we all pass out’.”
“Dunno, fellas,” Bucky says. “Not sure a drink’s gonna fix what ails me.”
“C’mon, Sarge,” Jones says. “You walked away from all this. You, of all people, deserve to let loose a little.”
“Plus, if your best buddy wasn’t Captain America, we’d still be rotting in those cages,” Morita says.
“For that, at the very least,” Falsworth says, “let us buy you a round.”
Dernier says something that Jones roughly translates to mean, “You will dishonor the nation of France if you do not let us feed you wine until you throw up,” and Bucky laughs, blinks down at the bed and scratches the back of his head. He’s thankful for their company, but there’s something weighing him down, pressing heavy into his soul, and he doesn’t want to bring these men, these fierce, sparkling beacons, down with him.
“I’m tired, boys,” he says, and means it to his bones. “I’m just really tired.”
“Then sleep now,” Dugan says, chucking a pillow at him, “and drink later. We’ll have you home by curfew.”
The rest of the guys take that as their cue to settle in around Bucky—Jones climbs up onto the bed beside him and tucks his hands behind his head; Morita tries to shove Dugan off Steve’s bed and ends up on the floor between them with the comforter; Falsworth hunches down in the armchair in the corner and folds his hands over his stomach; Dernier just drops down in the middle of the floor, on his back, and falls asleep instantly.
Bucky knows he should feel safe, here, surrounded by men who’ve risked their lives for him, who’d do so again in a heartbeat, but he can’t relax. It seems like every room he enters is too small, without enough air to go around, and he’s the only one sputtering, floundering. He doesn’t think he’ll feel truly safe until he’s back in Brooklyn, in the tiny apartment he shared with Steve. He wants to hang out the window and chain smoke a pack of cigarettes. He wants blaring car horns, the roll of city-humid sweat down his neck. He wants a Jimmy Dorsey record and a rock-hard mattress with a busted spring. He wants Steve humming in the kitchen as he boils potatoes. He wants the busted step three from the top, the one Steve always trips on. He wants the flickering light bulb above the table, and Steve sketching underneath. He wants to sprawl out on the couch cushions and toss nickels at Steve’s knees from the floor. He wants Steve’s easy smile, Steve’s scowl, Steve’s laugh. He wants Steve, home.
Bucky jumps, not realizing he’d fallen asleep, and nearly rolls off the bed. Steve catches his arm and hauls him up. The room is empty save for the two of them.
“Hey,” he says, groggy and gravel-voiced.
“Y’alright?” Steve asks, sounding sleepy, his thumb rubbing Bucky’s shoulder.
“You gonna stop asking me that anytime soon?”
“Well, I’d appreciate it if you did.”
Steve drops his hand, hangs it between his legs, and they sit side-by-side, arms brushing with each inhale and exhale.
“Dugan asked us to meet 'em at a pub down the road when you woke up. You up for it?”
“Not really.” Bucky’s laugh sounds like it’s tearing his throat apart. Steve tries, and fails, to hide his wince. “But what the hell else are we gonna do? Whaddaya say? Wanna drink ‘til we see Brooklyn?”
Steve sighs, his eyes flickering back and forth like he’s waging some internal battle. Bucky leans forward, tries to get Steve to look at him. “What?” he asks, because Steve might hide things, but he’s a terrible liar, and he won’t turn Bucky down, not when he asks. (Not like Bucky will.) “Steve, what’s the matter?”
Steve chews at his bottom lip. “They’re not sending me home, Buck, you know that, right?” He doesn’t wait for Bucky to answer. “I’m being reassigned. I know the locations of HYDRA’s remaining bases, and I’m gonna go after them. Put a team together, take 'em down.”
And Bucky’s whole body turns to lead, because he should’ve known (he knew, deep down in the places he refused to look, he knew). They wouldn’t be sending anyone home, least of all Captain America, not now that he’d proven himself useful. For one devastating moment, Bucky had forgotten that once war had you in its clutches, it refused to let you go, not until it scooped you hollow, picked you apart and found the bits that made you a fighter—the bits both Bucky and Steve had in spades, that Steve gave willingly, Bucky reluctantly. He knows what Steve’s going to ask, and he knows his answer, because it’s the only answer he’s ever had for Steve. There’s no Brooklyn in his future (there never was), and grief coils around Bucky’s heart. He wonders if he’ll ever stop finding new ways to hurt.
“You’ve done your duty,” Steve says, before Bucky can speak. “More than enough.”
“And you haven’t?” Bucky pinches the bridge of his nose. “What, Captain goddamn America hasn’t done enough for his country? You mean you didn’t enlist five times when you might as well’ve had a target painted on your back? They didn't turn you into a human science project and then toss you aside? Rescuing an entire unit wasn’t enough? Destroying an enemy base with your bare hands wasn’t enough?”
“Those were my choices,” Steve says, firm. “And there’s more that I can do. A lot more. How could I sleep at night knowing I didn’t do all I could?”
“Oh, and what about me?” Bucky snarls. “You wanna send me home with my tail between my legs while you throw yourself at anything with a weapon? Think I’ll sleep pretty well?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“It better not’ve been. They might've fucked me up, Rogers, but you better believe if you put a gun in my hands I’ll have your back. I’m the best shot in the 107th, you know that? You don’t ask me to be on your team, you’re the biggest idiot in the United States Army.”
“I know,” Steve says, a little desperately.
“Biggest idiot in the European Theatre, more like.”
“Bucky, I know. I was gonna ask. I was always gonna ask. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
“It’s a little late for that, pal,” Bucky says, and Steve drops his head, his eyes narrowing.
“It’s just…you’ve earned a break, Buck. The world owes you a break.”
“The world owed you a break twenty-five years ago, Steve. I’ll see that debt paid before I start clamoring for my own.”
Steve shakes his head, looks back up at Bucky, his eyes shining with grateful wonder like they were, once, in an alley in Brooklyn, where Bucky first stood between Steve and the world, and Bucky has to turn away, can’t take it that Steve still looks at him like he’s the center of everything, when Bucky can’t be invisible fast enough.
“It’s not complicated,” Bucky says, shrugging, his head bowed. “You want me by your side, you ask. I’m there.”
Steve exhales, loudly, and pats Bucky’s knee. “Let’s go get you that drink, then.”
“Now I like the way you’re thinking.”
Steve heads to the bathroom to wash up, and Bucky stands in front of the mirror, runs his fingers through his limp hair and tries to make himself presentable. He’s lost enough weight that his jacket doesn’t fit quite right, his belt a notch tighter than he's used to. He remembers, distantly, the first time he ever wore his dress uniform, how he stood before a mirror just like this, tugged and straightened and shined until everything was perfect. How he cocked his hat, walked with a swagger he couldn’t deny, proud of his appearance, of what the uniform meant, of what he was when he wore it.
It’s just another part of him he’s not sure he recognizes.
“You ready?” Steve asks, peeking his head around the door.
“As I’ll ever be.” Bucky smoothes over the uniform one last time. It doesn’t help.
Hours later, Bucky’s not drunk.
He’s not exactly sober, either, but he’s upright, and that’s a problem, since he’s been downing the hard stuff—not the beers Dugan and Jones and the rest have been swigging—all night in an attempt to remedy that. There’s a fine tremor in his hands he’d like to attribute to the whiskey, but can’t. Dugan noticed it, long after Steve had gone, came up behind Bucky and nudged his glass aside, placed a gentle hand between his shoulders and murmured, “Time to sleep it off, okay?” And how could Bucky tell him that he wasn’t shaking because he was drunk, but because he’d been trying so desperately to be and wasn’t? Bucky ordered a double and threw it back in one gulp, staring silently at Dugan until he shook his head and left.
It was easier to be angry than terrified.
The bar kicked him out eventually, afraid Bucky would turn violent, or sloppy, or catatonic, with as much alcohol as he’d consumed. He roamed the streets for a while, his limbs heavy with drink but his head painfully clear. No one seemed to notice him, and that suited Bucky just fine. Back in Brooklyn, he’d strut around in his uniform and people would stop him just to shake his hand, thank him for his service, ask him to kill a Kraut or two in their name. Now, with his shoulders slumped, his hands shoved in his pockets, his boots untied and his collar crooked, he doesn’t look like the kind of soldier people want to approach, the bright-eyed, straight-backed vision of glory from the propaganda posters. He doesn’t look like someone anyone should be thanking, for anything.
Back at the hotel, he slinks into the room as quiet as he can, drops gingerly to his bed, but when he glances up, Steve’s lying on his side on top of the blankets, blinking at Bucky in the dark.
“Hope you weren’t waiting up for me,” Bucky says, leaning down to take off his boots.
“Woke up a little while ago. Was worried when you weren’t back yet,” Steve says, soft and low, and tears prick at Bucky’s eyes. He rubs at them with the heel of his hand, moves so he’s sitting on the side of Steve’s bed, one leg tucked up close to Steve’s body. Steve drops an arm over his knee. “Alright?”
“You gotta stop asking me that,” Bucky whispers, ghosting his fingers over Steve’s forehead. “Please, Steve, you can’t ask me that anymore.”
“You’re drunk,” Steve says, without judgment or disappointment, just stating a fact that lodges itself in Bucky’s throat anyway.
“I’m not,” he says. “I’m not drunk.”
“You smell like a distillery, Buck.”
“I’m not drunk, Steve, I’m not. I tried. I should be but I’m not.”
Steve’s brow furrows. “Bucky?”
“Something’s wrong.” Bucky’s babbling and he knows it, can’t stop, can’t make himself make sense. “Something feels wrong. I should be drunk, and I’m not, and something’s wrong.”
“Hey, let’s get you to bed, okay?” Steve says, lifting himself up on his elbows. “You’re just tired, you’ll be alright in the morning.”
“Steve, listen,” Bucky says, shoving Steve back down. “Listen to me.”
Steve blinks. “Okay,” he says, suddenly serious, at attention.
“I don’t feel right.”
“Okay. You feel sick?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Steve sits up, turns to Bucky, rakes his eyes over him like he’s looking for some sort of external injury, some obvious source of Bucky’s pain. “What’d the doc say, when he looked you over?”
Bucky shakes his head. “I didn’t go.”
“They’re not gonna let me go with you if I do.”
“They’re not gonna let you go with me if you don’t.”
“Sure they will. It’s war. They’ll do what they have to.” He smiles bitterly at Steve. “They’ll do what you ask.”
“Bucky, what…” Steve presses his palm to Bucky’s back, splays his fingers. “What do you think they’re gonna find?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky says, the words heavy and worthless in his mouth. “They shot me all full of stuff, Steve. Who’s to say one of those things won’t get me sent off to another set of docs with clipboards? Or worse? There’s hospitals they send you where you don’t get to leave.”
“Hey.” Steve wraps an arm around Bucky’s waist, scratches at his side. “That’s not gonna happen, okay? I won’t let that happen.”
“You wanna know the best I’ve felt since Zola strapped me to that table?” Bucky asks. “When I shot that guy in the woods, on the march back. One click, and half his head blew off. He was smoking, Steve. And all I could think was how I finally felt like me."
Bucky expects Steve to pull away, but Steve only pulls him closer, presses his lips to Bucky’s temple and buries his nose in his hair. Bucky can’t help but lean into it. “You were protecting us,” Steve says after a few nervous, silent seconds. “Seems like the Bucky I know.”
"It's different," Bucky says feebly, useless in the face of Steve's affection.
"That's okay. You've been through a lot, Buck. If you're not the same, that's...okay."
“Gotta be someone I can recognize, though."
“I see you in there,” Steve says. “But I don’t want you following me into something you aren’t ready for.”
“You send me back home now, and I’m sunk, pal, you gotta believe me,” Bucky says. “I need you in my sights.”
“I’m here.” Steve tugs Bucky until they’re both lying down, pulls the blankets up to their waists and nudges at Bucky until he’s stretched out on his stomach. He digs his thumbs into the small of Bucky’s back, runs his hands up his spine like he used to back at home when Bucky would get restless and couldn’t sleep. My brain’s always going a mile a minute, Bucky would complain, and Steve would smirk and say, Just trying to catch up with your mouth is all. Bucky smiles now, to think that maybe, maybe, not as much has changed as he’d feared.
They talk about nothing as Steve eases him towards sleep, mutter about Brooklyn, whether or not the Dodgers’ll make the playoffs next year, who they think Connie Dougherty is seeing these days, how much they’ll jack up the hot dog prices at Coney Island before they get back. Bucky’s just starting to drift off when Steve’s hand halts its steady journey up and down his back.
“I missed you,” he says, like a confession.
Bucky buries his head in the pillow. “You, too.”
“It’s better for me too, you know? When you’re here.”
And Bucky feels a new resolve begin to form within him, here, surrounded by tenderness and warmth and Steve’s unyielding conviction, things he’s been living without for what seems like an eternity. Because even if Bucky is lost, Steve will find him. They are compasses, each other’s true north, and with Steve’s arrow pointing towards him, Bucky thinks maybe he can keep pushing himself in the right direction.
Even if the world pulls him apart, he trusts that the pieces of him that remain will find their way back to Steve.
“We’ll be fine, now,” Steve says, and Bucky almost believes it.
It’s a nice thought to fall asleep to, either way.
They give Bucky a new, blue coat. It’s thick and warm, and there’s a pair of wings embroidered on his left arm, to match the ones on Steve’s helmet. He stares at himself in the mirror for a long time.
“Don’t be vain, Buck,” Steve says, fastening the strap beneath his chin. For all they’ve been ragging on him about plastering the stars and stripes across his chest, Bucky thinks he looks good in the new uniform, untouchable, invincible. It does a lot to ease his mind.
“Tell me again why I can’t just wear my own clothes?” Bucky asks, mostly for show, to get the others talking, laughing. He doesn't want to take the coat off. He likes it.
“Because you had one shirt left, and we burned it,” Jones says, slinging an ammunition belt over his shoulder.
“We did you a favor,” Morita says. “It smelled like death.”
“And it was ugly,” Dugan says, plucking a shotgun from a line of weaponry that Stark’s set out for them to try. Dernier grins at the vast array of explosives. "No helping your fashion sense. Figured we'd just start from scratch."
“What do you know about it? I’ve got a suit at home that would make you weep,” Bucky says, fastening up the buttons. “Makes me look like a goddamn movie star.”
“You’re so full of shit, Barnes.”
“Yeah, but I’m a damn sight prettier than any of you.”
“What’d I tell you? Vain,” Steve says.
“As long as it keeps him from freezing to death while he’s taking the shot that will save my life,” Falsworth chimes in, “I don’t much care what it looks like.”
“More of a chance of getting bored to death waiting for your sorry asses to get in position,” Bucky says. The teasing doesn’t feel as natural as it used to, but Bucky thinks maybe soon. Maybe he’s close. He can fake it well enough until then.
Bucky picks up the rifle Stark gave him, mounted with a customized sniper scope, and pulls the bolt, inspects the chamber, cradles it in his hands. He takes a good look at himself, head to toe. He still doesn’t quite recognize the man staring back at him, the creases around his mouth, the dark smudges under his eyes, the tense way he holds himself. But there’s a familiar thrum of anticipation under his skin, the kind that used to make him want to dance in the streets, the slow climb up the first hill on the Cyclone, before the drop. Steve’s glancing over at him with a little smile on his face, and Bucky winks at him, because they look good, and they feel good, and if he can’t be the person he was back in Brooklyn, then he can be this. Part of a team. Protection. A man with a piece of Captain America sewn into his left arm.
A man with a piece of Steve Rogers sewn into his soul. This is what Bucky knows, above all else, to be true: they cannot take that away from him.
“You ready to make ‘em howl?” Steve asks.
They all look to Bucky.
(“He is ready,” Zola said.)
“I’m ready,” Bucky says, and smiles. It’s not his own smile, but he means it all the same.