"It's been seventy years, Captain Rogers."
"And five days."
"I beg your pardon?"
"It's been seventy years and five days."
"I'm sorry, I don't quite understand."
"It's been seventy years and five days since…since…"
"Since I lost Bucky."
Steve goes to Pepper for help because even though he's only just met her and he still doesn't know her very well, he can tell that she's a good person with a kind heart and that she won't say no to any reasonable request. He also knows that she is the sort of person who can get things done and that she will do the things that need to be done with a minimum of fuss and bother.
They meet for coffee in Bryant Park on a sunny day in March and Pepper listens quietly as Steve outlines what he wants and why. He immediately vetoes her suggestion of a memorial stone in Arlington because he just cannot bear the thought of a tomb of any type. It's not right and he will not have it. Pepper doesn't blink an eye, just whips her StarkPad out of her purse and starts tapping away as they brainstorm ideas.
When they hit upon the commemorative tree program in Prospect Park they both know that they've found the answer. Bucky is the most alive person Steve has ever known and the idea of putting his name on a grave is unimaginably wrong. But a tree – a living thing that could grow and flourish for more than a life time - a tree is just perfect.
"There's been a sighting."
"Chicago. Ten days ago."
"And why are we just hearing about this now, Hill?"
"I really can't say, Director Fury. It's not our intel. Local law enforcement probably didn't pick up on the significance until now."
"Damn yokels. I want a BOLO out on him, now, Hill. We're not going to let him slip through he net again, you understand me?"
In the end Steve decides that he doesn't want to plant a sapling and chooses one of the heritage trees; a big white oak that curves majestically toward the sun and that has a canopy as big as a small swimming pool.
The oak, he has learns, stands for bravery and courage. It is strong and independent and robust; all qualities he likes to think it shares with Bucky. The park authorities aren't entirely sure how old it is because the records are inconclusive and unclear. But after he presses them for more information they estimate that it might have been planted sometime in the early twentieth century and that settles it in Steve's mind. He likes that this tree might be old enough that it had been around back in the days when he and Bucky were a pair of raggedy kids roaming the streets of Brooklyn, that they might have chased each other around it or picked up its acorns to use in their slingshots. Its fitting, he thinks. It's right.
"We lost him somewhere near Morris Park, but he can't be too far away. Everyone in the city is on the lookout for him. It won't be too long before we bring him in."
"You think we should tell Rogers?"
"Yes, sir, I do. It's time and he needs to know."
"You're right, he does."
"Do you want me to talk to him?"
"No, I'll do this myself. He shouldn't hear this from anyone else, Romanov. Say nothing until I've spoken to him."
"Excuse me, Sir, and I mean this in the most sincere way, but…"
"Romanov, you have your orders. That is enough."
In late October they hold a simple ceremony to unveil the plaque, just Steve, Pepper and Tony in attendance. James Buchanan Barnes, it reads, You Are Not Forgotten.
Afterwards they go to a local steak house for prime rib and beer and somewhere around 3pm the other Avengers start to trickle in. Natasha first, closely followed by Bruce, and then Thor and Jane walk in hand-in-hand soon after. Finally Clint arrives, accompanied by a still slightly lopsided, but very determined Phil Coulson.
Steve isn't sure who told them or if they'd just worked out for themselves. It doesn't really matter. Despite his not wanting to make a fuss and his desire to keep things as simple as possible, he's actually insanely pleased to see them troop through the door and settle at the table.
They end up taking over a whole corner of the restaurant, ordering more food and more beer and being generally themselves, which is actually kind of scary when Steve thinks about it closely enough. But the owners can't really complain once Tony has slapped his credit card on the bar, ordering them to charge everything to him, and they stand back and let them carry on regardless. They eat and drink way too much and at some point Steve proposes a toast to loved ones gone but not forgotten and his heart is fit to burst when everyone raises their glass and says in unison, "To Bucky."
"It's not Bucky."
"It's not Bucky. He would never do those things, never. It's not him. It can't be."
"Our intel would beg to differ, Captain. And Agent Romanov…"
"Those people, they did things to people. Steve, you have no idea…"
"I don't believe you, I can't."
Autumn turns into winter, and then to spring and summer.
Steve does not deliberately seek out the tree, but he does sometimes glimpse it out of the corner of his eye if his daily run takes him that way. It always makes him smile to see children playing tag around its trunk, to see couples entwined on the grass under the leafy canopy; to see families enjoying a picnic in its shade on a bright summers' day.
One day he spies two young men wrapped up in each other, one dark and one fair, both of them oblivious to everything around them. Suddenly his stride is broken and he stumbles, and even though he has all but forgotten what the familiar grip of an asthma attack feels like, all of a sudden his lungs refuse to function and it takes him a good twenty minutes to get his breathing under control and regain his equilibrium.
"You know me."
"I know I was sent to kill you."
"Bucky, you know me. Please tell me you know me - that you remember. Please."
Summer fades into autumn and then into winter and it is, indeed, a winter of discontent.
Bucky is found. Bucky is alive. Bucky is not really Bucky any more.
SHIELD has him locked down so tight not even Tony can break through its barriers, and for the first week Fury refuses to let Steve anywhere near him, reminding him at every opportunity that the Winter Soldier's primary reason for being in New York was to kill Captain America and, broken programming or not, there is no compelling reason to think that he might have changed his mind.
Steve remains stoic, he remains calm under pressue, but even he has his limits and when he finally cracks it is in such a spectacular fashion that even Natasha looks at him with a hint of fear in her eyes.
"What do you remember?"
"Everything. I remember everything."
"You know it wasn't you."
"I don't know that, because it was me. I'm not a good guy, Steve, and you cannot trust me. Do not trust me, Steve, do not."
"I can't do that, Bucky, you know I can't."
"Why not? It's the truth."
There are more bad days than good - tears intermingled with stony silence or fits of rage so vast they make a tsunami look tame.
When he's not out in the field Steve spends every minute that he can with Bucky, trying to coax him back into the real world, reminding him of who he is and not what he has become. It's not easy for either of them and there are days when Steve finds it nigh-on impossible to face him, to try and reconcile the battle scarred Winter Solder with the boy he remembers.
On days like that it takes all his strength to work through the extra layers of security leading into Bucky's holding cell, to walk through the door and try and pretend to Bucky that everything is okay and that he can't wait for him to come home. Steve stands by his friend and he does not back down, not even when it's Bucky himself who is pushing Steve away. But some days it's hard, so very, very hard.
"It's been three months, sir."
"I'm aware of that, Agent Coulson."
"I think we need to start thinking about the next step."
"The next step?"
"We need to consider what happens once we cut him lose."
"And why would that be?"
"Because if my hunch is correct and we don't release the Winter Soldier soon, Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk will make our lives very uncomfortable."
"You think so?
"Yes, Sir, I do."
"It has always been my experience that your hunches are usually fairly accurate, Agent."
"Yes, they usually are."
They fight a lot and get on each other's nerves. Bucky is silent and uncommunicative, while Steve is irritable and grumpy. And because they're both as stubborn as mules, neither of them will willingly give any ground to the other.
One night, after a particularly venomous argument, sex is also added into the mix and while it does help to relieve some of the tension, it's joyous for neither one of them. Bucky never lets Steve kiss him and they never spend the night together, with Bucky moving to the couch almost as soon as they've finished cleaning off. The one time they do pass out in the same bed, Steve ends up with a black eye after Bucky punches him when Steve unconsciously rolls on him in his sleep.
Steve thinks about taking Bucky to see the tree, but he's not entirely sure how he could even begin to explain the meaning behind it, so he pushes it out of his mind and says nothing. And every day he wakes up and hopes that this one will be better than the last, that he'll open his eyes to find that everything has shifted for the better. Because he's tired of feeling on edge all the time - of walking around in a haze of anger and loss and resentment. He loves Bucky more than anything - he really does - but sometimes he just doesn't like him very much.
"I don't know what to do any more, Pepper."
"You got to give it time, Steve. You knew going in that is wasn't going to be easy and it's only been a few weeks."
"I have been giving it time, Pepper, but he's driving me insane and I don't know how much more I can take."
"Where is he now?"
"I don't know. Out somewhere. Who knows when he'll be back."
"You look tired, Steve."
"I am tired. I feel like I haven't slept for a year."
"It will get better. I've seen the way he looks at you and it will get better."
"Yeah, I hope so. Because sometimes I wonder."
Things shift and things change and somewhere along the line they start to get better.
Steve and the Avengers are called to Europe for three weeks and the hug that Bucky gives him before he flies out is fierce. The one he has for him when Steve finally returns home is even fiercer and it makes his heart thump erratically when it's accompanied by a hesitantly whispered 'I missed you'.
The arguing dies down, the tension eases and SHIELD finally decides that Bucky isn't a threat to national security anymore and the process of getting him certified for field duty begins. He starts working out in the gym at SHIELD HQ and slowly he gets to know the rest of the team. Natasha keeps her distance - and Steve does not even want to begin to speculate about their shared history – however Clint makes an immediate impression and before long they are spending time together both inside and outside of SHIELD.
Steve knows a corner has been turned the day he comes home to find Bucky and Clint laughing and drinking beer in the kitchen while a pot of chili simmers on the stove. And all he can do is stop and stare because, despite the metal arm and the high-tech bow propped up in the corner of the living room, the sight of two friends sharing a beer while they wait for their dinner to finish cooking is almost too much like normal to comprehend.
That night, for the first time since Steve brought him home to his little apartment in Brooklyn, Bucky does not slip out to the couch after Steve falls asleep. And the wonder he feels when he wakes up in the morning to find Bucky snugged up beside him, his left hand resting lightly on Steve's biceps and the most peaceful expression he has seen on Bucky's face since before the war, is almost indescribable.
"Bucky? It's just a dream, okay? I'm here – it's just a dream."
"Yeah, I'm here. I got you, buddy. It's just a dream."
"I…yeah, okay, I…"
"Come on, lay down. You're okay. It's just me and I've got you, Bucky. I've got you."
On the third day in May, Steve wakes early, drinks a cup of coffee and takes a shower. By the time he dries off and wanders back into the kitchen for another cup of coffee and some breakfast, Bucky is up and about, looking bleary-eyed and only half awake as he leans against the counter while he downs his own very strong and very back coffee.
Steve feeds Bucky waffles and bacon and more coffee before he nudges him toward the shower and some clothes and then they head out of the apartment, walking down Garfield Place toward the park. Bucky nags at him to tell him where they're going, but Steve doesn't really have an answer for him. At least not one he can articulate. He just knows that when he woke up that morning he knew he had to take Bucky to the park, to show him the tree and to try and explain the meaning of all the feelings behind it. He's not at all sure how it's going to go down - if Bucky will appreciate the gesture for what it is or if it will simply earn him a punch in the nose. But it's a risk he has to take. It's now or never, he realizes. He just hopes that Bucky is willing to follow along.
"So, what do you think?"
"Steve, I don't…you did this for me?"
"Yeah. I thought…it's a gesture. You know."
"I dunno. It seemed appropriate."
"Not a grave?"
"God, no. You know I couldn't do that, Bucky, jeez."
"Yeah. Yeah, I get that."
"Yes, Steve, I do."
"It's been one hundred and sixty-five days, you know."
"Since you came back to me."
"Oh god, you are such a sap. Seriously, how are you even real?"
"You know you love me."
"God help me, but I do."