“I thought you were dead,” says the man who claims to be Steve, and Bucky blinks, blinks again. He sounds like Steve, so sincere you could chip a tooth on it, but Bucky’s learned better than to trust the voices filtering in and out—he looks like Steve too, face familiar in Bucky’s clearing vision, except…
“I thought you were smaller,” Bucky says, and it comes out sounding horrified, because, well. Because it’s horrifying, a little, riding the edge of death only to be pulled from its maw by a bulked-up version of your best friend, whose memory you’ve been holding onto as something solid, something real. Maybe this is some kind of new torture method, hiring a ringer—no, not logical. Could be in his head; they’ve certainly gone down that road once or twice.
Steve—if he’s Steve—looks hurt and sorry and scared and fierce, which Bucky figures is about right. That’s how he’d expect Steve to look when confronted with the harsh reality of war; hell, he’d been glad, selfishly, when Steve was turned away back in Brooklyn. Concerns for his life aside, Bucky couldn’t help but wonder if the whole business would break the guy, all those big ideals packed away into that little body. He had to’ve been riding the edge of that anyway, the life he’d lived, the one he’d have to get on with living—but then again, there’s this guy now, so maybe not.
“What happened to you,” Bucky chokes out, ragged, as he’s dragged down the hall.
“I joined the Army,” Steve says, bright with false innocence, and oh, yeah, that’s him alright.
When they were kids—well, no, that’s a hard path to walk. They were kids twice, Bucky and Steve, same way they weren’t kids at all; there was an orphanage the first time and a crash the second, and either way, they were always too young. First time ‘round, Bucky rescued Steve like it was a job description, pulling him out of back alleys and front halls, patching him up with small hands and even smaller comfort to offer. Second time through, it was Steve saving Bucky, playing the sympathy card and ingratiating himself in the right places, making damn sure they didn’t go hungry. He still got himself roughed up in alleys, of course—some days, Bucky’s still sure Steve’s got a death wish—but the between-time he spent sweeping storefronts and swaddling babies, smiling and smiling, never asking for anything and getting it anyway, eventually. Bucky never did get good at playing people, not the way Steve does, but that’s the thing: Steve’s never been playing.
Twelve years the whole damn country starved, and Steve didn’t steal so much as a loaf of bread. There’s a lot of things you can say about a guy like that; it’s not like he needed the muscle to back ‘em up.
Bucky thinks that’s the worst part, actually. He knows Steve thinks he’s jealous, and maybe he is, a little—stacking yourself up against a man like Steve Rogers is always a losing battle, but at least back in Brooklyn, Bucky’d had a little bit of an edge. Steve was the better person, but Bucky was the stronger punch, and so it evened out more than it didn’t. It’s not that Bucky liked to see Steve bleeding, of course—it’s not like it didn’t kill him every time, not like he didn’t worry himself sick about it. It’s not like he didn’t lay awake every night on that steamer that ferried him across the Atlantic, praying to gods he’d never believed in that Steve wouldn’t get himself killed.
But people look at Steve now and see him, and that’s…Bucky knows it shouldn’t make him angry, knows that it’s not anybody’s fault. Howard Stark, with his clipped accent and his sharply rationed attention, isn’t to blame for all the people who passed Steve by before; Peggy Carter, with her kind eyes and killer right hook, isn’t every dame Bucky ever watched push Steve aside. It’s not their fault that Bucky looks at them and thinks Pal, you’ve got no idea; it’s not their fault that Bucky looks at them and thinks, Fuck you, I got here first.
He does think it, though. He thinks it every time. Maybe it’s better, letting Steve stare him down and see jealously in his eyes—it’s not the truth, but it’s close enough, and hey, they’ve always rescued each other.
Here’s something they never tell you about pitching to your death: the windspeed is a real killer. Bucky windmills his arms against empty air and feels the skin pull back from his face, rippling with free-fall. It’s not fair, because if he could catch his breath, there’s things he’d like to say: Don’t blame yourself and Don’t forget about me, I’ll miss you and Don’t you dare miss me, Keep an eye on yourself and Fuck, Steve, I’m so sorry.
(And there’s the other thing, too, that he’d choke out if the fall wasn’t silencing him. It needs saying, and it’s not like it would matter now—be pretty damn hard, wouldn’t it, to throw a dead man in jail.)
Bucky wakes up. There’s metal where his left arm used to be, and not a damn thing anyone tells him comes as a surprise. Oh, it should, there’s no question of that: “Johann Schmidt left you post-human, just so you know,” should definitely be a shock, same way “Oh, by the by, it’s 2012,” should leave him gutted. America’s lived on, seventy years hence and fighting the same fucking wars. There are telephones that’ll fit in your pocket, and televisions you can hold in your hand. Everything’s changed, and nothing’s surprising—everything he’s told feels like a reminder, not a lesson, and Bucky’ll be damned if he’s spent a near-century asleep only to forget what deception looks like it Steve Rogers’ eyes.
“You wanna tell me the rest?” he says.
“What rest?” Steve says, bright with false innocence, and oh, yeah, that’s him alright.
“You thought I was dead,” Bucky says, “and I thought you were smaller, and yet here we are again, isn’t that right? How long have we known each other, Steve?”
“You don’t want me to answer that,” Steve says, and Bucky barks out a laugh before he can help himself.
“Which question? Because I know full well one of the answers is ‘An entire goddamn century, minus most of that goddamn century,’ so you might as well skip to the other one.”
“You were,” Steve says, and waves a hand. “Controlled. Brainwashed, we think. Whoever it was killed a lot of people.”
“You mean I killed a lot of people.”
“Wasn’t you,” Steve says firmly, “doesn’t count,” and isn’t that Steve in a nutshell—the bastard really believes it. For all it shouldn’t be, that bit is a surprise.
Steve’s got an apartment in Brooklyn, and Bucky’s got a lot of catching up to do. They mostly avoid one another, for all they’d both claim to be doing otherwise. Bucky wanders when he isn’t sleeping, and sleeps when he’s too jumped up to wander; Steve’s still fighting other people’s battles, which is sad more often than it’s not. He looks tired when Bucky dares to be in the same room with him—he looks like he’s seen more of life than life was really angling for. Bucky thinks it figures, that he cheated death and still couldn’t rescue Steve from this. He wandered into the war because he though he could do with a bit of nasty fate, and Steve charged past his barriers chasing heroism: bitter, isn’t it, the way they always have tended to get what they want.
“Enough,” Steve says, a bitterly cold Tuesday in November, sneaking up behind Bucky on the pier. Bucky snorts, a cloud of breath punctuating the noise, and doesn’t look away from the Hudson; Steve Rogers, rock-stubborn. Some things never change. “I get it, Bucky, I really do, but we can’t fix this if you refuse to talk about it.”
“What’s there to talk about?” Bucky snorts again, knows without look that Steve’s raising an eyebrow; a second later, there’s an easy arm slung over his shoulder, and, well. Never let it be said that Bucky Barnes can’t pick his battles. “You can’t fix this, Rogers. For all you know, I’m still the Winter Soldier—and even if I’m not, I do a damned good impression of him.”
He flexes his metal arm, using the motion to distract from the way he’s leaning back against Steve’s chest, and he can almost hear Steve’s frown. “That’s what this is about? Bucky, for god’s sake, no one thinks—”
“You mean you don’t think it,” Bucky corrects, and should pull away, can’t quite manage it. “You don’t think it, because you’re Steve Rogers, and they genetically enhanced your bleeding heart—the rest of the world? Your SHIELD pals? Yeah, you better believe they’re still waiting for my switch to flip the other way, and you know what, they’re not wrong.”
“Tell you what, Bucky,” Steve says, and there’s that warmth at his back gone—picking battles is harder in the future. Who’d’ve thunk. “They wake me up tomorrow morning and tell me you’re a super assassin, I’m still listing you as my best friend. Call it my genetically enhanced bleeding heart if you want, what do I care? You should know better, but I guess I’m not surprised that you don’t.”
“The hell is that supposed to mean, Rogers?” Bucky snaps, and turns around. Steve’s eyes are hard and blue and guileless, that sincerity you could chip a tooth on shining through, and fuck if it isn’t the scariest thing he’s ever seen. “You trying to tell me something here?”
“You’re the one who isn’t talking,” Steve says quietly. “One way or another, you always were, and god knows you’re the better liar. You and me? We’re not the war. So maybe…maybe you try thinking about that. I’m going home.”
He turns away, makes it three steps before Bucky’s heart catches in his throat, before the words slip out unbidden: “Hey, Rogers. Who the hell got around to teaching you how to back down from a fight?”
Steve turns, and that grin’s as blinding as its ever been, white teeth and full lips and only the faintest hint of cynicism. “This isn’t a fight, soldier,” he says, and for a second, Bucky can see sadness in his eyes—maybe it’s a trick of the light. “Way I remember it, it never was.”
In the future, you can type words into machines and get results in the blink of an eye. Bucky looks up the word coward and leaves the apartment, comes back with a full-length mirror he found in a novelty shop. He props it up against the wall, cheap cardboard flexing worryingly under his hands; then he strips down to his boxers, takes a deep breath, and looks.
It’s funny, really, fingering the knots of scar tissue where metal meets flesh—it’s an ugly thing, the history he’s shackled with, dull grey with its faded red star. Bucky doesn’t remember being fitted with it, doesn’t remember what he’s used it for; last he’s got, really got, is windmilling through the air with dangerous declarations being shoved back down his throat. But his body remembers, ancient aches springing to life under his probing fingertips. It’s probably, he figures, a pretty hard thing to forget.
Like this, stripped down and exposed, there are clues to a mystery he’d rather not solve. A long scar running from his hip to his ribcage, another snaking a path just beneath his heart—there are hints of shrapnel here and there, a patch on his thigh where his skin’s not quite the right color. He looks like a wind-up toy, a clockwork man, the flex of his home-brewed musculature driving it all home. Maybe it’s an apt metaphor. Death is clearly behind him, after all, and he’s sure as hell seen tomorrow, for all it isn’t brighter. Perhaps he’s metal all over, and the flesh he thinks he knows is the veneer. And there’s always the chance none of this is real—it’s not like it would be the first time.
“You know,” Steve says, just behind him (and Bucky misses him with an ache he can’t fathom, the skinny, scrawny kid who made enough noise for twelve people, who never once managed to sneak into a room without Bucky making him immediately), “this is why I don’t have one of those.”
“What, a metal arm?” Bucky turns his gaze back to the mirror, catches Steve’s frown in the reflection and returns it in kind. “Yeah, I don’t recommend it.”
“I meant the full-length mirror,” Steve snaps, still frowning. The expression turns contemplative after a second, nothing betraying his mood save the slightly bitter twist to his mouth. “I’m pretty sure you couldn’t give me one of those in any case—I’d probably just grow another arm, like a starfish or something.”
“Rub it in, why don’t you,” Bucky says. He means it to come out sharp, angry, an opening salvo or a parting shot—he sounds old instead, old and sad and so tired he winces into the mirror. “Or, just, Steve, Jesus. This isn’t—we’re not kids anymore. You don’t have to keep me from mirrors, I can take care of myself.”
“You really did take all the stupid with you, didn’t you,” Steve mutters, and then, before Bucky can work out what the hell that was supposed to mean, he’s stripped out of his shirt and stepping forward. His reflection towers over Bucky’s—surprise, surprise—and he pounds at his own chest, face screwed up in a scowl. “World doesn’t revolve around you, Sergeant. Maybe you’re not the only one who doesn’t love that reflection.”
“Really?” Bucky snaps. “Really, this is your play? You’re right, Steve, that’s a really tragic picture you paint in there, the peak of human perfection—”
“When have you ever known me to play anybody?” Steve snaps, and then, when Bucky raises his eyebrows, “Oh, shut up. You know what I mean. And, look, it’s—I didn’t want to be bigger, okay? That wasn’t the point. I wanted to do big things, yeah, but that doesn’t mean I signed up for…for this. And it’s nice, I guess, sometimes, it’s certainly got its advantages, but if you think I don’t look in the mirror every morning and wonder who the hell is looking back…”
“Rogers, for god’s sake, didn’t I just tell you not to baby me,” Bucky snarls, and turns away from the reflection to glare at Steve. Steve just smiles sheepishly back at him, an expression that used to ride the heels of shit like Well, I did mean to tell you about the scarlet fever, or, It just didn’t go well, Bucky, she was a nice dame and all, she just wasn’t for me, and Bucky’s mouth drops open before he can help himself. “Sweet Jesus, you mean it. You actually—Steve, what the hell is wrong with you, you’re—I—that doesn’t even make sense—“
“Well, yeah,” Steve says carefully, “of course it doesn’t make sense to you. Because you look at me and see everything, right? The whole thing, the whole time, the war and…and before the war. So of course it wouldn’t bother you.”
“And how do you know that?”
Steve’s mouth quirks up on one side, and Bucky remembers, for the thousandth time since he found out, that in the future there are things you can want without being thrown in prison. It’s a distracting enough thought that he almost doesn’t catch it when Steve says, “Because I’m living the other side of it, Buck. It’s not really that complicated.”
“This,” Bucky says, lifting the metal arm and waving it around, “is not exactly the physical manifestation of the American dream, Steve.”
“Right,” Steve says, and he’s grinning now, “but since when have you fit that description, anyway? Since when have you even wanted to?”
Bucky stares at him, and the thing is…well. The thing is it’s the future, and neither one of them could answer if the call went out for human beings, and Steve’s still the same guy he always was, standing bare-chested in his apartment to prove a point. Bucky knows he’d stay this way, too, would wander around with his arms crossed and his chest exposed for the rest of the night, and that’s tempting and heartwarming at once, a dumb kid from Brooklyn to follow through the war. He’d forgotten—he’d tried to forget—how Steve Steve can be, how he’s all these things to all these people but he’s never given up being himself. Bucky’d been afraid to want it. Bucky’d been afraid that if he looked too hard, it’d turn up gone.
“Point,” he allows, eventually, and when Steve’s smile lights him up outside in, Bucky doesn’t fight it.
“Hey,” Bucky says, and it’s raining and it’s March and Steve’s uniform is torn, dried blood marking the spot where the gash must have been, before. “You look just like a guy who almost died.”
“So I’m doing a good imitation of myself, then,” Steve says, dry and wrecked, and crashes down onto the couch. It creaks beneath him, and Bucky frowns and chases him, comes around the other side to fold his arms and glare. “Oh, god, Buck, don’t bother. I’m fine. Alive and kicking.”
“Well,” Bucky says, because it’s about time, because there’s rain in Steve’s hair and rubble on his shoulders and he keeps remembering, too late, that there aren’t always second chances, “speaking of being alive and kicking…you know there were some things, before, that I wanted to tell you before I died.”
“Like what?” Steve says, a comfortable, tired rasp, and Bucky almost stops himself. He remembers, again, the way coward looks when you pull it up these days, and swallows in the face of Steve’s smile. “If you buried treasure somewhere—”
“There were things,” Bucky forces out, “that I wanted—that I wasn’t sure if you would—but people do, now. And maybe you do, and maybe you don’t, but I can’t just…I don’t figure most people get as many seconds runs at it as we did, and so I thought…um.”
“Bucky,” Steve says, and his eyes are wide, wide now, his lower lip caught between his teeth, “what are you—” and Bucky leans down and kisses him, because caution is for other people, and it’s not like he’s out of practice with throwing things to the winds. Bucky leans down and kisses him and then Steve’s kissing back like he’s been waiting the better part of a century, like it’s the first and last thing he ever meant to do, and both of Bucky’s arms go around him, the one he was born with and the one he’s been borrowing all this time.
“So that answers that question,” Bucky says, breathless, when he pulls back, “you want to move on to why you never mentioned it before,” and Steve grins that old grin around an incredulous breath, pushes him down, down, down.