It's the first thing he asks when they sit him down in a clean blue room, after they woke him up in a fake hospital bed with a fake skyline and a fake radio and the sounds of an airplane crashing into ice still ringing in his ears.
"What about Steve Rogers?"
Director Fury is gruff and severe and no bullshit but his one eye cuts to the side like he doesn't know what to say and the dread sinks like a rock in Bucky's stomach.
It's been 68 years they told him, when he pulled free of the handlers and darted through glossy hallways and out a glass door and into a world that was too loud and too fast and too bright. Sixty eight years since he had sat in a plane filled with a payload that would wipe New York City off the map. It had been cold and lonely and he had pictured Steve in Brooklyn, hunched over his art book with his pencils and his struggling lungs and imagined him gone in a puff of smoke, ashes and blood where there once had been blonde hair and blue eyes. Peggy's voice on the radio asking him for coordinates and that awful knowledge that there was only one option and he wouldn't be returning to Steve in that little apartment.
"I gotta force her down.” I gotta save Steve. Steve, please forgive me.
Sixty eight years.
His ma once said Steve wouldn't make it to 25. She hadn't been trying to be mean, just realistic and trying to prepare her son for the cold reality she saw rolling toward them. But Bucky had cried and cried until she had apologized, holding him tight. "Sometimes the good Lord takes the best ones young," she whispered into his hair. "They burn so bright that their flame can't go on as long."
Steve had been the brightest flame that Bucky knew. And Bucky had promised him that he would come home after the war. Then he had gone and died in fire and ice and left Steve alone. He did the math, hours ago, when they first told him the year. Steve would be 94. Almost 70 years older than his ma had predicted.
The woman next to Fury slides a stack of folders across the table. "Captain Barnes. Information," she says, straight to the point. "Your parents. Three younger sisters. And Steve Rogers." She hesitates. "Rogers is still alive."
His parents died in 1982, three months apart and peacefully. Becca died of a heart attack in 2002. Josie died of cancer just last year. And Ella died in a car crash in 1972.
And Steve Rogers.
Steve Rogers is alive. By some other miracle or blessing or luck or hand of fate, he is alive. Steve Rogers is alive and living in the West Lawn Nursing Home, just outside New York City.
Later that night, after they've convinced him he can't go see Steve right that moment (they use words like delicate and fragile and frail and shock and all of those sound just like Steve and also nothing like him), he sits in the small apartment they've given to him and reads through the files. He doesn't sleep. He hasn't needed much sleep since the Zola had strapped him to a table and pushed fire into his veins.
His sisters got married. Had children. Worked as a nurse (Army, two tours in Veitnam and Korea) and a teacher (a high school in Brooklyn that Bucky recognizes) and a reporter. They smile up at him from family photos and newspaper clippings and passports. And obituaries.
In between two pages, an article is pressed neatly like a dried flower: "Ten Years Out: the Winter Soldier's Family Reflects on his Sacrifice and how the World has Changed since the War." Near the back, another clipping: "Josie and Rebecca Barnes attend the ceremony memorializing the fiftieth anniversary of the Winter Soldier's sacrifice."
An essay Josie wrote in college: “The Winter Soldier's Lasting Impact on the American Military."
And then he can't avoid it anymore.
Steve's file is thick, pages neatly stapled and organized. It starts like the others, current address and status: Steven Grant Rogers. Ninety-four years old. West Lawn Nursing Home, Assisted Living. Unmarried. No children. There's a picture dated Christmas 2011: A small old man cocooned in a large sweater on a thick couch, Christmas tree in the background, a goateed man on one side, a redhead on the other, four more men standing behind. They're all smiling.
Bucky looks for Steve in the small wrinkled face, shock of white hair flopping over a narrow forehead. There's the strong nose and the blue eyes and the delicate jawline. He presses his finger to the tiny face and feels his insides shake.
He can't read anymore.
When Bucky opens the door to his suite the next morning, he expects an agent, respectful but distant, maybe with breakfast or at least coffee. Maybe orders - they say they’re not at war, but Bucky knows better than anyone that there’s always a war.
Instead, the goateed man from the Christmas picture is eating granola out of a black bag, looking him up and down. "Did anyone ever tell you they thought you'd be taller?"
He pushes right into the small living room and does a slow spin. "Wow. Are you a defrosted war hero or a political prisoner because this place could use a serious decorator."
Bucky closes the door and walks to the table, to the folder still open to the Christmas picture. "You know Steve."
"Not one for small talk? Okay, gramps." The man sets a metal briefcase on the table. "They tell me you want to see Steve. And while I think it's fantastic you want to look up old war buddies and reconnect - high school reunions are an American tradition after all, there's some things we have to discuss." He draws himself, looks taller even though he’s a couple inches shorter than Bucky. "Look. Steve's been telling me about you my whole life. If you're half the man he says, you're better than Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Neil Armstrong combined. But I have to be sure." He sits down at the single wooden table and gestures for Bucky to do the same. "I'm Tony. My father was Howard Stark. You met him after... Well, after."
It had been a cold day in early November and Bucky had ripped himself free of Zola's table only five days before. He'd marched himself and 300 men over 45 miles to the nearest Allied base. He’d barely had a moment to rest when they'd realized what the experiments had done to him. Within hours, he’d been on an airfield waiting for a plane. The pilot had been Stark. He had flown him to London for more tests, talking to Bucky in this half absent way. Bucky remembers appreciating the normalcy of it.
Stark steeples his fingers. "My dad was brilliant but he wasn't the greatest father. Steve... Steve was a good father. Even if he wasn't actually mine. So I'm pretty protective of him." His mouth purses. "Steve never stopped mourning you. Understand? He never stopped. No kids. No wife. No husband. Just me. And his work. And your ghost.
"But he also lived. He shaped the century. He changed the world. And now he's been talking about going to sleep and waking up on the other side and seeing you again soon and now you're sitting here looking like that photo he keeps at his bedside and I'm afraid he's gonna take one look at you and his heart is gonna break all over again because now he's gonna die and leave you." Stark stops and takes a breath. "I can't keep you from him but you need to understand that he's not the kid you remember. He's 94. His memory is shaky sometimes and he can barely get out of a bed on a good day and he sleeps like 18 hours a day and he doesn't have much time left. If you can't handle that, if you can't support him, it would be better for him not to know. Okay?"
Bucky swallows. The day the guards had dragged him to Zola's table, he'd had a cold pit in his stomach - just like this one. "I would never hurt him," he says roughly. "He's my. He's. Steve. I love him," he finally finishes, helpless with every last vulnerability ripped open and exposed, weeping and oozing. "I never wanted to leave him. That was the last thing I wanted. I just want to see him. Please."
Stark softens a little, mouth losing the pinched look. "You know," he says, "the whole world knows you were gay for each other."
Bucky tenses, hand going into a fist. "What."
"I mean, I think Dad always knew and Steve came out to me when I was 12. And then when they passed Don't Ask Don't Tell in the nineties, oh boy Steve was mad. Even when everyone was calling it a victory for gay rights. He said hiding never went well. Called up the New York Times and gave an interview to the first reporter who could grab a pencil. Told the world that you two had done the dirty in Brooklyn. Winter Soldier being gay was a real shocker. Changed a lot of minds."
Bucky knows he's gaping. Most of the words flew over his head like Stark was speaking another language. But the important parts came through. "And it's okay?" he asks.
Tony smiles. "It's okay. Two men could even get married now."
The night before he had shipped out, they had lain on the narrow bed and Steve had pressed his bony fingers to Bucky's.
"Come home to me," he had whispered. "Please. Just come home."
Bucky passes a hand over his face. He's twenty seven and he's ninety three. The entire world is unrecognizable and turned on its side. But Steve is alive. And there is no hiding.
SHIELD isn't happy with him leaving.
"Captain Barnes, we'd really like to do some more tests. No one's been able to successfully replicate the serum and we're hoping that with having living samples..."
Bucky remembers bleeding into tubes and sharp needles and electricity arcing across his bare chest, how he had tugged against cuffs and straps until his blood had made his wrists slick. "No."
Tony has his hand on his back, nudging him forward. "You heard the man. None of this. Or you'll be hearing from Captain Barnes's lawyer. Well my lawyer. But I assure you he is the best money can buy and he will tear you to pieces and let Barnes snack on the rest."
They're in the car (it's flashy and bright but it doesn't fly so Bucky isn't impressed though he doesn't tell Tony so) when Tony speaks again. "A lot of people are gonna be after your blood. Bunch of vampires. Dad tried for years to figure out what they had done. The closest they got was Steve actually. Got a modified version that managed to get him up to at least normal health. Only reason he's lived so long."
"Howard experimented on Steve?" The table had been freezing and the straps had made his wrists bleed. He had cried for Steve near the end.
Tony's hands drum on the wheel. "Steve was dying of some super flu in the eighties. It was a last ditch thing." There's a long pause and Tony says, almost below the car's air conditioning. "I don't think Steve ever quite forgave my dad for saving him. He thought he was so close to seeing you again." He glances at Bucky, just the corner of his eye.
Bucky clears his throat. "A week ago, I was on a plane and I imagined Steve dying from whatever weapon Zola and Schmidt had cooked up. If not from the blast, from whatever poison came from the fall out. I couldn't let that happen. So I stopped it. I died hoping he would live, long and happy."
The care home is nicer than anything Bucky had ever seen.
He'd been imagining some mix between the TB ward and the county hospital. Cold hallways and overworked nurses and cold beds: Steve lying against thin pillows, then Steve's ma and then Steve again. But this place is more like a resort, something Bucky's only seen in pictures. Lush landscapes extending back, wide walkways with bright flowers and low benches and running water falls that merge with deep ponds where bright fish pass lazily to and fro.
"Best money can buy," Tony says after they leave the car with a man in a sharp suit. "I paid for some of the upgrades myself when Steve." He stops. Turns. "Was he always such an independent dickhead? I wanted him to stay at the Tower with me after the docs said he shouldn't live alone anymore. But he insisted that he didn't want to be a burden." He snorts. "Meanwhile, I poured more money into this place than it would've been to hire a full hospital to have moved into the Tower for 10 years. Don't tell him that though."
"Mr. Stark," a sharply dressed woman comes around the lobby, hand extended like this is a formal meeting. "A pleasure as always. We weren't expecting you today. Miss Romanov actually arrived about an hour ago."
"Unexpected visit. Keep you on your toes." Tony takes off his sunglasses, shakes her hand, and doesn't introduce Barnes. "How is he today? Up to more visitors?"
"He slept well last night and the nurse said he ate all his breakfast. I imagine he'll be tiring soon - but he's always glad to see you."
She walks with them, down a bright, wide hallway, windows showing bright green and trailing flowers. There are low, soft benches and several are occupied with older men and women, hunched and wrinkled. Bucky realizes that some are younger than he is. Up a large elevator that is so smooth and silent Bucky isn't even sure they've moved until the doors open on a new floor.
They come to a wide, closed door, a welcome mat and a potted plant. Stark rubs his hands on his pants and instructs Bucky to wait when he slips inside. The woman vanishes, back down the way they came.
He sits in the hallway, stares at the door and tries to think of what he'll say. It's been a year since he saw Steve, the morning before he shipped off to war. It's been 69 years since Steve saw him. What words fill those gaps? I'm sorry. I love you. I love you. I love you. I'm so sorry. I'm here. I'll never leave again.
The door opens and he looks up to a slim red head that he recognizes from the photograph.
"Captain Barnes," she says and slides down to sit next to him. She sits cross legged, nimble and still in a familiar way. "Tony brought you here so I assume he told you what would happen if you hurt him." Her gaze is sharp like a knife. Dividing spirit from flesh.
"I'd never hurt him."
She leans forward. "I owe Steve my life. He saved me. Cared for me when everyone else was ready to lock me up and throw away the key. I don't care if you're the Winter Soldier. I will end you."
He meets her gaze, steady and grateful that she cares for Steve. "All I want is to be with him.” All I’ve ever wanted, really. From childhood to grave to this cold, new world. I was buried in the ocean for 68 years and I woke up asking for him. This is my loyalty. I can do nothing less.
“I’m Natasha,” she says and is silent after that.
Stark comes out long minutes later, quiet and eyes rimmed with red. “Take it slow, okay?”
An oxygen tank hisses and the room is dim and warm, smelling of vanilla and cinnamon and old age. Curtains are drawn over a window and a yellow lamp lights the room in a glow. There’s a kitchen and a low couch and down a hallway, a bedroom. This room is brighter, curtains pulled back halfway to show trees, a forest so dense he can’t see the ground, and blue sky extending as far as the eye can see.
Steve is in the bed and Bucky wonders at how he had to look for him in the photograph by the Christmas tree. Because this is Steve. Almost seventy years older - blond hair turned to white and pale skin turned to wrinkles. But that nose, that mouth, those eyes - those fingers lifting, trembling, from the blanket to reach out and beckon…
Bucky stumbles forward, goes to his knees, hands grasping (but, careful, so careful, because Steve was frail when they were children and now his bones feel like they could shatter in a strong breeze). He brushes a kiss to thin fingers, feels the curve of delicate wrists. He’s crying, tears clouding his vision and making him gasp harshly.
“I love you,” he says. “I’m so sorry. All I wanted was to come home. I just wanted to come home. I wanted for you to be safe. That’s all I wanted. I love you.” The words are only a half coherent jumble and his throat closes over them.
One hand is between his and Steve’s other hand settles on his head, stroking over his head. “Bucky?” Steve murmurs, voice wondering. “Tony said but I didn’t… Bucky?”
Bucky raises his head, meets the familiar blue. When he had driven the plane into the ocean, he hadn’t seen Steve for almost a year. Steve has not seen him for 69 years.
“You look exactly the same,” Steve’s hand presses against Bucky’s cheek, the skin is dry and soft like an old loved book. “You look…” Tears drip down the paper thin cheeks and the hand shakes harder. “I missed you so much,” Steve murmurs, just louder than the hiss of the oxygen tank. “I waited to come home to you. But then you came home to me.”
Bucky slides closer, catches the tears with his thumb, presses a dry close mouth kiss to a wrinkled forehead. “I came home."