It's not the first time he's found himself in Steve's bed in the middle of the night, hands clutching at Steve's arms and every fiber of his being willing him to live, and it certainly won't be the last. Steve is gasping when he's not coughing and his chest is heaving and his abdomen is spasming, and Bucky's right behind him, leaning into him and breathing slow and steady against Steve's back in hopes that Steve's body will get the message and follow suit.
Because he can't lose Steve.
Not that Bucky is a stranger to loss. Not that any of them in the orphanage are, since, well, they're in an orphanage. But he's putting his foot down here. Death has come too many times to take what Bucky loves, and now that he's twelve, he's had five years to learn how to be stubborn and selfish and keep what he has to himself, and at twelve he knows that Steve is his to have and not for death to take.
It's working now. Steve is gasping more and coughing less and the gasps are turning into even breaths. When it seems like Steve has a handle on his lungs, Bucky grabs the glass of water from the bedside table and holds it to Steve's mouth. Steve takes a few gulps, then leans his head back onto Bucky's shoulder and says, "Thanks."
"Always," Bucky answers.
Steve just nods. He's still taking deep breaths, but Bucky can feel his body relaxing.
"Go back to sleep," Bucky says, "and try not to wake me up again, okay?"
Steve smiles at that, and Bucky smiles at Steve. He wraps his arms around him and they lay down, and no, Bucky isn't moving back to his bed tonight. They'll be found like this in the morning, but he can't bring himself to care. He's going to hold onto Steve and never let go, because nothing is going to sneak in and take him away without facing Bucky first.
He's not sure, will never be sure, if it's the jolt or the cold that rips the air from his lungs, leaving him lightheaded and disoriented as his hangs from the side of a train.
The wind is howling in his ears, howling through his head, and isn't that just perfect, James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos dying with a scream in his brain that he didn't create, didn't cause.
Steve's there, because of course Steve is there, because if Bucky is anywhere, Steve finds a way to be right beside him. Steve's hand is reaching down to grab him and Bucky knows it's too late, it was always too late, but he reaches anyway, more to give Steve a last sense of hope than anything else.
Steve has always had hope, always wide smiles and eager eyes and second third fourth fifth tries, and Bucky wouldn't be able to bear knowing he was the one who took that from him.
There's a sickening rip of metal and another jolt and that's all.
The screaming still sounds, though whether it's the wind at his ears or his own breath being ripped from his body, he never knows.
The target has red hair and blue eyes and a vicious smile. The mission is simple: make her better than you.
The first time he fights her he thinks she might already be. He's strong, his metal arm stronger, but she's lithe and knows her body well, understands its capabilities and limitations and knows how to work both to her advantage. She's a challenge, and he doesn't remember the last time he faced a real challenge (not that that means anything since he doesn't remember anything other than what he's told to remember, but it still feels good.) He bests her, though, in the end and lands a blow that puts her on her hands and knees and has her gasping to catch her breath.
"Don't let that happen again," he says, Russian thick on his tongue, and leaves the room without looking back at her.
The next fight ends with him on his back. She's standing over him with a hand pointed at his forehead as if she was holding a gun. Her face is hard and her eyes cold and she raises an eyebrow, daring him to move, says, "I didn't," and all he can do is laugh.
She's good. Brilliant, really.
They're brought in to spar every day, and he knows they're being watched, nameless pawns being evaluated by nameless players, playing a game that neither of them know the rules to. He doesn't know what they're hoping to find in her or him that they haven't seen yet.
He doesn't see her outside the room, doesn't know her name. The few words they speak to each other are taunts and declarations of victory, nothing that gives them any idea of who the other is. Instead they learn each others bodies, movements, and thought patterns. He knows that when she bites her lip it means he's caught her off-guard, that she yells when a punch doesn't hurt too bad and just closes her eyes when one does, that she bounces on her toes ever-so-slightly when she realizes she's going to win.
They've learned each other to the point that the sparring is often broken up when they've gone for hours and no one can guess who the winner might be. This can't be about the two of them getting better. If they were supposed to be improving, they'd be going up against other people, given new challenges.
He's going to beat her today, already has. He has her pinned down and is holding her arms over her head with his metal arm and bracing himself over her with his right. She moves to break his nose with her forehead, but he knows this move, she knows he knows, and he wonders briefly if she's bored, if she's letting him win to get it over with sooner.
But her forehead doesn't make contact with his nose, no, that's her mouth pressed against his, warm and opening expectantly. His breath catches in the back of his throat, and maybe it's a trap, maybe she's tricking him, but she licks against his bottom lip and it sends a thrill through his body different from any he remembers feeling and he loosens his grip on her wrists anyway, brings his right hand up to the side of her face, and kisses her back.
He wonders if this is the first contact he's made with another human that hasn't been violent and he doesn't let go and neither does she and then the doors are opening and men with guns are running in and pulling them apart.
"She was supposed to be your partner," his handler shouts. "You were supposed to work well together, but not that well."
The man spits in his face and then everything is black.
There's a door they sometimes walk by that always sets his handler on edge, as if he's expecting him to lash out, but he never figures out why.
"Natasha. Her name is Natasha and she's still alive and still beautiful and she's friends with Steve and has managed to put together a life far more functional than anything you can ever hope to have," Bucky (because that's who he
was is whothefuckknows, Bucky Barnes of the 107th and the Howling Commandos) says out loud before taking a drink of the top shelf tequila Stark gave him.
("It's a gift," he'd said. "Congratulations on not being brainwashed anymore. Come over next time you get bored and let me play with that fancy arm of yours."
As Stark had turned on his heel and walked away, Steve had winced and said, "Subtlety isn't his strong suit."
"Yeah," Bucky'd replied, "I noticed.")
He brings the shot glass up to eye-level and stares at it as he lets out a long breath and says, "I spent sixty years as a Soviet assassin, killing god knows how many and not giving a fuck."
The tequila is warm in his mouth and he swallows and almost chokes because, "Bucky," a voice says behind him.
He presses a hand to his mouth and gets it down though. "Jesus, Steve," he says, turning in his chair to face him. "When did you get in?"
"Just in time to hear you start tearing yourself up for something that wasn't your fault."
Bucky turns back away and Steve takes the seat at the table next to him, turning his chair towards Bucky and propping his head on his hand.
"It wasn't your fault," he says again.
"Say that all you want, Rogers. Doesn't mean it didn't happen."
"I never said it didn't happen."
"But you want me to pretend like it didn't."
Steve doesn't answer, just looks at Bucky with that dreadfully earnest face of his, one of the few things Bucky thinks will ever break him.
"It's all there," Bucky says, pouring himself another shot. "I can see their faces and hear their screams, and do you know what I feel? Nothing. There's nothing there. I felt absolutely nothing as I killed them."
Steve's brow furrows and he reaches to put a hand over Bucky's right hand and says, "I'm sorry."
"It might not be as bad if there was something there, hell, even if I'd enjoyed it maybe, but..."
"But it wasn't you."
Bucky laughs darkly, throws back the shot, and says, "Well I'm stuck with the memories, aren't I?"
"That's my fault," Steve says and looks down, "that was my call when they were working on your mind, and, god, I should have asked if we could wait for you to decide, but I had no idea, Bucky, you have to understand..."
"I would have made the same call, Steve."
And Steve looks back up at him and Bucky gives him a small smile when their eyes meet.
Steve leans forward, places his hands on either side of Bucky's face and kisses him on the forehead.
"I'm glad to have you back, Buck. It's only been a week. Give it time, okay?"
"For you, yeah."
Bucky almost never wakes up before Steve, and so when he does, he allows himself to just soak in the feeling of Steve's body next to his, his breathing steady like it never was the nights they shared a bed when they were younger.
It's everything he always thought he'd never have, and they've both gone through hell to get here, but they made it and they have each other now, and that's what really matters at the end of the day.
He reaches out to push back the hair that's fallen over Steve's eyes and brings his hand down to rest on his cheek.
"God, I don't deserve you," he whispers, and, of course, that's when Steve's eyes begin to open, and a slow smile spreads across his face.
He opens his mouth to respond, probably to tell Bucky how wrong he is, but Bucky places a finger over his mouth and then leans in to kiss him.
It's slow and easy and perfect for awhile. Steve's body wakes up, though, and he brings his hand to the back of Bucky's neck, throws a leg over his hip, and pulls him closer, kissing him deeper, and Bucky holds on to Steve's side with his left hand, the extra strength anchoring him in this place at this time with this man and everything else falls away.