Summer in Brooklyn is sweltering like a pot of hot water, but it also means that Steve's health probably isn't gonna turn for worse for now, so Bucky takes it and soaks it up, glad and momentarily relieved. It's Steve's birthday, and Bucky's been saving up for weeks so that they can take the train to Coney Island and get lost in the crowd of happy people, just the two of them. It’s muggy, even with the faint breeze from the sea, and in his second best clean shirt Bucky feels like he’s simmering in sweat, soon cooked tender. But Steve looks pleased and has a healthier glow on his skin, and Bucky is suddenly, almost violently happy; so happy that his heart stutters in his chest, before he reaches over to throw his arm around Steve’s shoulders, steers him towards the games.
“You know, Buck,” Steve says later, when they're sitting on a bench near the waterfront, waiting for the sunset and the fireworks, “today it almost feels like I’m gonna live past thirty.”
His tone is mock-serious and his eyes are laughing when Bucky turns to glance at him, but still the words sink down like Bucky's swallowed something sharp; glass shards or shrapnel or just fear. Something cold falls into his stomach and he shivers, minutely, like somebody just walked over his grave, and in that instant he’s angry, he’s so angry he feels like he’s choking on it.
“Shut up,” he quips through the barbed wire in his throat. “If I know anythin’ about you, you’re gonna live forever by your pig-headedness only.”
Steve laughs, and it’s just enough to crack the block of ice, anger and fear inside Bucky, because he is lovely and alive; Bucky is pretty sure that the world changes orbit and starts revolving around them, around Steve, just then.
The summer of 1939 is something Bucky will remember, years later in Italy, when he thinks he's drowning in the cold mud and grasps for the axis of his world to tilt himself up. By then, he will have realized that Steve might live past thirty but he won’t, yet it won’t stop him from clinging onto the memory of the planet shuddering under his feet.
But he doesn’t know that yet, and he’s staring, he has to, because his life has suddenly fallen off its hinges and is nesting in his lap, close and solid, and he’s in so, so fucking much of trouble.
Here are two things that Bucky Barnes knows about Steven Rogers:
1. The shape of his mouth around his wheezing laughter; the Coney Island sun on the straw of his hair, ready to catch fire with the sunset.
2. Bucky loves him, loves him the way his finger will love a trigger, later.
For someone who talks as much as Bucky does, he's damn good at keeping his mouth shut. If I survive this, he thinks when they prod and poke him, I-- Barnes, James Buchanan, Sergeant, 32557038, I am going home.
Steve will be home, and Bucky can almost picture it: dragging himself up the rickety stairs, weary and bone-deep exhausted, knocking on their door, the surprised laughter in Steve’s throat. It’s almost comforting, the thought of Brooklyn, but then he blinks, and in the dark Steve’s bright eyes disappear and something way more sinister shifts and settles in to stay.
Who am I kidding, he thinks, feels his mouth open in a scream, looks at the ceiling like through a rifle scope. The hell I am going to -- Barnes, James Buchanan -- get there. He has a gun on his head and in his head, and Steve -- Steve will have only a telegram and a ghost to follow him through the Brooklyn winters.
He doesn’t go home.
He doesn’t go home, because somehow, like a goddamn miracle, Steve's in Europe, no more with rattling breath in his chest, but as an all-American poster boy of prime physical condition. Steve's in Europe, and even though they give Bucky a chance to get shipped back Stateside, there’s no way in living hell he'll leave Steve alone on the front. It’s hard, looking at him now, because never again will Steve need Bucky the way he used to, but it’s still Steve, whom Bucky loves more than the air in his own fucking lungs, and he still is the best sniper in this war, so it’s really not even a question. He stays; he won't go home if it means he’ll someday get a telegram and Steve’s ghost to curl around his shoulders on the docks.
After Steve's dropped out of fucking nowhere and dragged Bucky back from the three two five five seven filled nightmare, he's always there, hovering around and worrying, an unhappy frown on his forehead.
"I’m fine, ain't old yet, don't coddle me," Bucky huffs at Steve, forces his voice to stay light, shoos the darkness beneath his eyelids away, swats off Steve's fussing hands. "You got enough time for that when I'm the limpin’ grandpa and you'll still be steamrolling on with that super serum shit you got runnin' through you. Let me be and go flirt with Agent Carter, she’s a real swell dame."
Bucky likes Agent Carter, even though seeing the way Steve lights up in her presence makes something cold and ugly and barbed wrap around his heart. She'll be good for Steve, he thinks; she has steel in her spine and a lot of sense in her head, and God knows Steve deserves something good when the war is over. Steve deserves a woman who loves him but doesn’t take his shit, and sees him the way Bucky's seen him for years; he deserves to have a lot of kids and a good life, and to age gracefully; he deserves to keep on living.
“If-- if she agrees to marry me,” Steve stammers sometime later, when they're sitting on the steps leading up to the pub, watching the hushed blackout night, “I want you to be my best man. And live close to us, so I can look after you.”
“Your ugly mug'll be the only thing in need of lookin’ after,” Bucky shoots back, faux-relaxed and a false smirk in the corner of his mouth. “But sure, pal, yeah. We’ll do that.”
He knows not all of that is true: Steve won't have to worry about Bucky's trembling, bird-boned knees or frail hands in his old age, and Steve won't need Bucky to look after him, not anymore. Sometimes lying is so much easier; it's so much easier to let Steve believe that he can have a family with Agent Carter and still keep Bucky close, when the truth is that Bucky ain’t living to see thirty.
He will die, and there's goddamn nothing Steve can do about it; men like Bucky aren't meant to go back and have a future. Nobody wants to give guys like him wives and kids and picket fences. They are destruction, steady hands on sniper rifles, a river of anger inside them that doesn't run dry, perfected and turned into weapons; they won't get a chance to have a shot at normal life. When someone is born as angry as Bucky was, they don't even get to choose. All they get is to hold their fragile futures, after their lives have been cracked open like eggs and the world has tipped over, and hope that the spun sugar in their hands will stick to their fingers and stay.
Steve doesn't need to know. Steve only needs to worry about his own stupid face, and how the hell is he going to find the courage to ask Peggy to marry him, and in that post-war world there's no use for him to know how there's always a loaded rifle inside Bucky's head; how whenever Bucky closes his eyes, he sees the crosshairs.
Here are two things that the Winter Soldier knows about Steven Rogers:
1. The shape of his mouth around his broken vowels, dirt on his cheekbone, unfamiliar name on his tongue (Bucky-- who), his blond hair catching the sun in the crosshairs of the asset’s closed eyes.
2. He has to die.
The exhibition tells him that Bucky Barnes died at twenty-seven, and it makes something odd stir inside him; an old thought about not living past thirty, something the asset would've never wasted time with. He touches his cheekbone with a gloved hand and haphazardly recalls the way his face had looked in the reflection of the museum door, and wonders if the curve of bone really is as familiar as Steven Rogers told him it would be, if only he remembered. The face on the wall looks so young, and it seems absurd to even think that the asset would’ve ever been anything else but ageless; bogeymen have waited under beds ever since people learnt to be afraid of the dark.
Yet his eyes, when he looks at his reflection that night in the dingy bathroom of the abandoned base, carry something similar to the young man in the exhibition, and the bow of his mouth is almost familiar, the way recurring nightmares are. The asset doesn’t have nightmares, doesn’t know how to fear the darkness, but somehow he knows this. When he tries on the American, twists the corners of his mouth up into a smile, he sees the resemblance, and he's suddenly afraid.
He hides in safehouses around Midwest states, until his wounds have healed and he remembers enough and not yet too much to plaster the facade of the American on; until he feels comfortable to blend into crowds again without vomiting ice and blood. The memories trickle back slowly, like somebody shot him in the gut, and a lifetime would bleed out of him, sluggish and thick and dark. He remembers being midair and being cold and being afraid, and he names himself again, to overcome the nightmares. He knows nightmares, now.
He hides and waits, until his hands find the rhythm of routine that is considered normal nowadays; until he knows again that normal people shower with warm water and wash their hair to look clean; until he can tell which clothes are the east coast norm in the 21st century. Then he follows the tug in his gut and boards the train to New York City.
Nobody looks at him twice: with his carefully trimmed beard, clean, pulled-back hair, and black jeans and windbreaker, he looks like any other guy on his way to the city. But there is a high-end sniper rifle and a collection of knives in his mundane duffel, and under the jacket are two pistols and his metal arm. He's cut off the foot from a skin-coloured nylon stocking and pulled it on his arm to dull the accidental glint of metal between the cuff and the glove; at some point he'll have to try if the arm can be taken off, to play the veteran of modern wars more convincingly, but it can wait.
Somebody has left a book on his seat when he boards, and he takes it with him when he leaves, not really knowing why. (He understands it later, when the spine cracks a little more as he’s opening the book to read - it’s the freedom of choice, knowing that he could've left it there as easily as he took it.)
There're safehouses in the city, too, and he sneaks into a couple of them to find them well-stocked and empty of agents, takes the money, some weapons and food, and leaves as quickly as he can. He's kept up with the news and the grapevine, so he knows HYDRA is scrambling, but there are no chances he wants to take. If he stays, someone will come for him, sooner or later; they will realize that there isn’t a body in Potomac, there isn’t a self-destructed body turning up with a gun in its mouth, there isn’t a HYDRA base securing him in secret; they will realize that their asset is not dead but in the wind, and then they will hunt him. He intends to give them only air and a trail to Novosibirsk to follow.
Brooklyn is not the same, but it’s all right, because he isn’t the same, either, even though he silently calls himself with the name that was in his drafting papers. The name on his forged driver’s license isn’t his, but then again, does it really matter at this point - at least he has an inkling, now. Dogs have names and so do many ghosts, too, unless they are poltergeists like he was. But now he's not faceless anymore, he's not a ghost, and after decades of being a will-o'-the-wisp, he can have as many names as he pleases.
He gets a flat; gets nightmares and cold sweat; gets courage to sit silently in the local V.A. meetings; gets better.
He knows there was a slot in history for an angry boy from Brooklyn, who got drafted and shipped away from the only goddamn thing he loved; and he knows there was another slot in history for Captain America's right-hand man, and yet another for the Russian war machine who shaped the century towards his handlers' utopia.
A lot of assholes have places in history. So maybe, just maybe, there's still a thin slice of space left for the fuck-up all of the others left behind, and that's the thought that makes him get up in the mornings.
Somewhere in the future, when he has become dust after being a dock worker, a comic book character and a ghost story, they might find him in the footnotes of the history of human suffering and realize that after the boogeyman came yet another, and then -- then, nobody can say that James Barnes occupying the final slot wasn’t a goddamn survivor.
He remembers a lot of things, one by one. He remembers being so in love that his fingertips hurt, on a July Wednesday. He doesn't know how it feels like, only the fact. It's clinical, the way he thinks about it; here is the feeling and there is the person, and in between is him and confusion and a fucking ton of trouble to keep it secret. It's something he once was ready to die for, he understands, after regarding the memory for a while. It's foolish and irrational, he decides; love is a feeling that doesn't belong to the winter, and somewhere in his head a scrawny blond boy whispers, It's stupid and irrational and it makes us human, Buck.
Two days later, he's pulling the sheet tight over the mattress in his rented apartment, folding the corners, tucking them under the mattress, throwing the blankets over the bed. It's mechanical work, stripped down to bare essentials: strip, throw, tighten, fold, tuck, smooth, throw, smooth, remember to pick the pillows up from the floor. It's easier for him to grasp that way: muscle memory comes back with the routine, even when he's forgotten everything else about beds and sheets and comfort.
When he's done he smooths the covers with both hands. The cotton is soft, well-worn under his right hand, and he follows it, the loose thread leading back to the other side of Brooklyn and the sweat-stained bed under Steve's fever; and the way he had pressed his lips against Steve's temple in silent prayer, silent vigil, silent death wish, because if Steve wasn't going to survive this, then he sure as hell would go down, too. He thinks his steady machine heart maybe stutters in his chest, clenches painfully under the weight of the memory.
He leans on his hands, bent from waist, shoulders hunched and head hanging down; his rough printless fingertips bleeding ice and cool water out of him on the bed. Stupid and irrational, he thinks, but it's not the winter anymore.
When he inhales, the sound is shaky and wet, and he's almost surprised.
Here are two things that James Barnes knows about Steven Rogers:
1. James loved him.
2. He forgot the rest.
Steve eventually comes to him, six months after the Project Insight, rings the doorbell like a goddamn civilized fella after shadowing him for a week, as if James wouldn’t notice him pretending to read a newspaper in the park or buying gum from the bodega. He wonders if Sam has finally cracked and nudged Steve into the right direction - Sam found him first, in the beginning of September, on a coincidental visit to the same V.A. James goes to, and he isn’t proud of the way he almost pleaded him not to tell Steve. Sam had a good, long look at James - at his job at the local florist’s, the name he introduced himself with, the small, clean flat he rented - and nodded, shook his hand and went his way, and that was it.
There's a crazy, desperate look in Steve’s eyes for a second, when James opens the door in a sweater and an actual haircut, but it disappears as soon as Steve sees him. “Hey, Buck,” he greets, visible relief oozing out of him.
“I’m not him. Call me James,” James says, and leaves the door open when he goes back to the kitchen, not willing to see the hurt in Steve’s eyes.
Bucky Barnes died somewhere in Europe in the forties, on an operating table, when they sawed off half of his arm and told him Steve was dead and rotting in the bottom of the Arctic, and he gave in to the rifle in his head. Now there’s only him, the final James Barnes; a weapon made man with a ghost living inside his brain, and a ninety-year-old secret hidden in his heart.
"You know," Steve ventures, leaning against the doorframe of the kitchen while James measures coffee grounds, "I got old, too, in the end."
James knows what he means. Boys went back from the war with ancient eyes and brittle bones and a shaky grasp of a life outside of the trenches; aged before their time. Steve was never supposed to be like them; even James grew ancient only after he remembered all the horrifying things he'd done in the past seventy years. He keeps quiet, adds one more spoonful.
"I think I got old the night after you fell from that train," Steve says, and James puts the spoon down and turns.
He looks at Steve and thinks of the Fourth of July in 1939, when he saved up for weeks and they went down to Coney Island; the fireworks on Steve's face, illuminated and beautiful. Before the army shaped a real soldier out of him and put a loaded gun inside his head, it was something he used to see, when he closed his eyes and pressed against his eyelids with both hands long enough: bursts of red and yellow and green and blue against the darkness. He always thought about Steve, back then. He thinks about Steve most days now, too. It’s real fucking sad, in the end.
That's where it all comes down to, he thinks, isn’t it: it’s just real fucking sad. James Buchanan Barnes was never supposed to survive the war and Steven Rogers was supposed to live on and flourish, and yet everything Steve's done since has had the unmistakable echo of sadness, and the newly born world tastes like ashes in James's undead mouth. They are a goddamn tragedy, Steve and he, two peas in a long-forgotten pod, rotten and empty; echoes from the old world.
Steve steps closer, reaches out, and closes his fingers around James’s metal wrist. He thinks they might be warm, but his hand feels only the pressure, the gentleness of Steve’s grip. The shape of Steve’s mouth around his soft, shaky smile is familiar and completely strange at the same time.
“James,” he says, like he’s tasting the way the name sits in his mouth; like it always has lived somewhere behind his teeth, curled up like a nesting animal, and now he has found it for the first time. “James.”
There's warmth in his voice that feels better than anything has since James escaped the long winter and fell headfirst into the deep end of the future, because this warmth is for him, not the angry boy who drowned under the mud and snow seventy years ago.
Steve touches James’s clean-shaven jaw with careful, tender fingertips bleeding summer and Coney Island sunshine; and the world tips slowly, slowly to the side, changing orbit. James closes his eyes and waits for the fireworks, for the crosshairs.
They do not come, and the world swings on its hinges, ready to fall off.