The words caught Steve's eye as he was walking through the cemetery. On his way out.
they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one
He stopped, and said a prayer for the man. Then went home and wondered.
Was that what would have happened? If Bucky had come out and said or done anything those looks had meant - if he'd called him on them. Would his best friend had ended like this, remembered for only one thing he had been and bitterness from being disallowed to be more?
Best friend. Was that all that Bucky had been?
Bucky, let go!
I can't! It's gonna blow!
As if what Zemo'd been doing before that hadn't been bad enough. As if watching him in pain, pain inflicted to get to him, to Steve, hadn't shredded him inside, he got to watch as the explosion outlined the all-too-familiar body before the icy waters cut thought out.
And not for good.
Bucky. Who had never given up and never abused a single shred of trust given to him. Who had fought alongside people he shouldn't have been able to keep up with and been shot down for that by friends and enemies alike, and for his age, and for a million other things, and had just kept on going. Because he could where others couldn't. Because he wanted to, and some of it was fun. Because it mattered to him, that he be there and get it done. Because he was... Bucky. He'd made Steve's heart hurt just by how hard he was trying, always, relentless and that bright grin that made even the most impossible tasks acceptable. His own kind of momentum, driven a bit by anger and a bit by enthusiasm...
Waking up to a world without him hadn't been easy, even if there had been others by his side and things to do and it had taken Steve a while to realize just what kind of a gap that had been. Sure, there had been other Buckies. But that was different. There had been something about James Buchanan Barnes that made him special, and Steve appreciated that people tried, that they kept him alive, in a way, but it wasn't the same.
Not to him.
Well, probably not to Bucky either.
It was so easy. All he had to do is close his eyes and there he was. A sixteen year old barging into his tent as though it was normal (tonight, Steve wondered if Bucky hadn't been trying to catch him changing, at least a little) and, awe-struck, deciding to join in the good fight, instead of all the other things he might have done. A youth almost merging with the shadows when he was on a mission and dragging the rest of them into the light, into the joy, when not on one. A boy who got wide-eyed and surprised when his teammate had compromised the team's security to make sure he had a birthday cake. A young man old enough to call the hard shots when Steve hadn't been able to, and call them right in a moment's notice.
And those eyes, always catching everything but oh so often with that feeling of 'look but don't touch' to them. On Toro. On himself.
Why haven't he brought that up? He had thought about it.
Though again, he'd had no idea just how complicated it would have made things.
It seemed sort of simple, in retrospect. He'd watched Bucky grow up by his side. He'd known Bucky, and, Heaven knows, he didn't think he had known anyone that well, before or since. And, yes, he'd loved Bucky.
Romantically? He wasn't sure. Maybe. Steve had been a little too stupid and a little too preoccupied at the time to really consider romance very much.
But he had loved Bucky.
And, yes, in retrospect, he knew that he wanted to know what those looks would have translated into.
Maybe it was this day and age and things being slightly more in the open than back in the day, with people like, oh, even Freddie Mercury bringing forth issues and awareness that just hadn't been so... loved. Maybe the fact that he wasn't going to face the consequences of that self-admission made it possible - because there certainly hadn't been another man that'd made him feel quite as wanted, or curious, or both - and that thought made him feel guilty and cowardly.
Bucky had deserved to be known as he had been. Completely, without having to hide. He had deserved to be loved, too. He'd deserved to hear that all. And that he'd been proud of him. And that he'd been honored to serve by the side of somebody who far surpassed him in inner strength and resilience. He had deserved to. And to live.
And now he was gone, and all Steve had were memories and regrets, and tonight was heavy with both.
So Steve Rogers did what he did these days to not let the past bog him down. Worked out until even his body demanded rest, and then showered and flopped on the couch and found himself the least realistic science fiction flick he could catch on TV.
That's how Fury found him.
"Brooding tonight, Captain."
His eyes must have flicked towards the poster on the wall, because a moment later, the familiar voice added just a little softer. "We all miss the kid."
The softness, from Fury, cut through Steve with ice. "Guess we do," he managed.
"Think you can put that aside and work on something for me?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"When don't you?"
Steve didn't look up.
"I see." The folder slipped on the coffee table, and the worked hand withdrew from his field of vision quickly. "When you stop moping, have a look at this. People still need you, Cap."
"Yeah, I know that part."
"You also know what he would have said if he was here."
Steve's head snapped up as the sting worked. "That wasn't necessary."
"No. But you won't bring him back with regrets."
Fury retreated soon after that.
But he was smirking.
And the worst part was that it had helped.
He couldn't say any of it all to Bucky. He should have. But Bucky had still lived - and died - as the man he had chosen to be. The man Steve had helped him to be, and the man they were all proud to remember.
That didn't make up for what might have been. But it was real. And that's what Bucky would have chosen any day.