Bucky surveyed all the gear lumped in a saggy pile to his left. In the oppressive quiet of their apartment, the ticking kitchen wall clock sounded like an artillery bombardment, shell after shell puncturing the strained silence between him and Steve. The mechanical whir of the refrigerator kicked in just then, a sound he almost never noticed but that seemed painfully loud at that moment. Underneath it all, Bucky could hear Steve’s anxious pulse, the way his breath caught with a ragged edge, and it made him ache somewhere under his breastbone—the sound of Steve when he was small, dredging up that desire to take care of him.
Steve crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at the pile. “You sure that’s everything you need?”
“Steve…” Bucky said, and reached for his hand, pulling it to the spot on his chest where he ached, holding it there. Though he avoided Bucky’s eyes, Steve let go of his held breath and tightened the grip around Bucky’s fingers.
He’d been avoiding Bucky’s eyes since they woke up--or rather, since Bucky woke up, because Steve hadn’t slept all night, he could tell. A little petulant, a little anxious. “You’re sure you don’t need me to come with.” By this point Steve had given up even bothering to frame it as a question, apparently.
“I’ll be okay. Pick you up a souvenir?”
Steve glanced up at the ceiling. “How about a pair of lederhosen?”
“Hot.” With a wink, Bucky added, “I’ll have ’em lined with silk so they don’t chafe you.”
“Or one of those, you know, little hats with the feathers.”
“Pretty sure they don’t make any big enough for your fat head.”
His little laugh was so wounded. Steve couldn’t really make this simple for him, but shit, when had anything ever been simple with Steve?
In the months since he’d come back, some unrecognized preoccupation had kept Bucky restless and simmering, even as he was relieved, almost happy to be back with Steve, home at last. An epiphany waiting to happen, a word on the tip of his tongue. Then an offhand mention from Sam about Steve’s repeated visits to the Smithsonian after the Insight debacle—“As if that was the only way he could see you again because we had such lousy luck finding you”—and it lit up inside him. He'd needed closure, Sam had said. A word that had never really held any meaning for Bucky, but he’d been certain it was what he sought.
No surprise that Steve became unglued when Bucky’d told him he wanted to go back to Austria and the place where he’d fallen, but alone. Anger, fear, resentment…that familiar volatile mix of Steve emotions Bucky’d last seen when he’d enlisted, except instead of a tiny ball of storm-cloud fury and anxiety, Steve was a giant slab of disapproving granite, that stubborn chin jutting like the freaking white cliffs of Dover. “It’s not your call to make,” Bucky had said. “This is about what I need and want, not what you need and want,” and Steve had swallowed that down, because he knew Bucky was right and Sam and Natalia had told him already a hundred times that this was a long process and sometimes a person had to go it on their own.
It didn’t mean Steve had to like it, though, god forbid. How could it bring you peace? he’d asked more than a few times, and Bucky just shook his head and walked away, because it wasn’t peace he sought. Steve was legitimately concerned about his safety, they all knew Hydra was still out there trying to rebuild, but Bucky’d been in the wind for a damn long time on his own and survived and if Steve was angling for a way to go with him, that wasn’t the way to do it.
Bucky wasn’t strong enough to shoulder Steve’s anger as well as his own, not strong enough yet; Steve’s had always been so much heavier, at least where Bucky was concerned. A smoldering fire just waiting for the right wind to reignite it and turn the world to ash for everything they’d done to him. It smothered Bucky sometimes still, pulled all the air out of a room. He’d run away from Steve’s relentless chase all those months for precisely that reason, until he’d felt like he had his own head on his own shoulders again—maybe one full of holes and blurry pictures, but still his.
“And don’t mope around here the whole time waiting for me to check in. Go out with the gang to fancy restaurants or take some sick kids to Coney Island or something. See a show—Hamilton’s right up your alley.” Bucky smiled at him and pressed his forehead against Steve’s, and Steve kissed his knuckles.
“What’d they teach you in basic?”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Always listen to the sarge?”
Behind them in the foyer, the door clicked open and Bucky heard Sam come in, humming a Lou Rawls tune. He cleared his throat. “A’ight. Ready to go anytime you are. Barton says everything checks out and he’s filed the flight plan for you.” Sam picked up one of the duffels and Bucky picked up the other. “What the fuck do you have in here, a body?” Sam groused, leaning over dramatically as he carried the gear.
“Don’t look at me—it was his condition that I bring a fuckin’ armory along.”
Steve shrugged. “You know my motto—always be prepared.”
Sam stared at him, open-mouthed. “Okay, A, you are the king of not being prepared and not even bothering to make the most half-assed of plans, and B, that motto belongs to the frickin’ Boy Scouts.”
Before Steve could say anything, Bucky leaned in and kissed him, rubbing his thumb along Steve’s cheekbone. Sam rolled his eyes and made for the door.
“I could come up to the landing—”
“No need,” Bucky said softly, and kissed him again. “We got it.”
With a frustrated sigh, Steve tried a smile, failing miserably. “Call me when you get there.”
“Okay, Dad,” he replied and Steve huffed. As he tossed the duffel over his shoulder, Bucky added, “I didn’t do all this work to make it back to you only to disappear or die. You can’t get rid of me that easily.” Yet he couldn’t help imagining Steve, wandering woebegone around the apartment and wringing his hands, checking for texts or emails every five minutes, as if he might somehow have accidentally turned off the sound on his phone and missed a crucial communication. Talking himself out of his conviction that this was because Bucky had been unhappy here with him, or he hadn’t done right by Bucky, he hadn’t repaid his debt.
And like Bucky didn’t owe his very goddamn life, however fucked up it might be, to Steve in the first place.
At the door he gave Steve a half salute, and Steve responded with another wan smile. “You know I love you,” Steve said.
There were so many different things Bucky wanted to say, but all he could get out was, “Be back before you know it.”
It was weird watching Barnes fly the quinjet. Not that Sam didn’t know the guy had skills, he’d seen them in action, but he still had an almost visceral reaction to those Winter Soldier things. They’d had so many conversations since Bucky had come to live with Steve about this sort of shit—what it was like to be one guy in your mind but have this other guy shoved on top of you by force. Having the person you wanted to be ripped out of you over and over and over again, every time he tried to resurface, till you didn’t know you could be him. Barnes once said he wouldn’t mind if the Winter Soldier’s skills vanished with time, but instead they hung on like a bad flu and the old Bucky Barnes had to keep fighting to keep his head above the water.
As Bucky set an autopilot, Sam fiddled with the satellite phone, setting everything up. He’d promised to report in to Steve on a regular basis, like Sam didn’t know Steve would be having JARVIS monitor them by satellite or sneak around behind them with Nat once they got to Europe.
“You know, I’ve never been to the Alps, or hell, even eastern Europe.” He fucking hated the mountains, though he didn’t tell Bucky that before and he wasn’t going to now. The altitude headaches and thin air and cold and constant risk of rockfalls when there wasn’t snow and avalanches when there was...people weren’t meant to be up there and flat land suited him fine. He’d hoped he was done forever with mountains after PJ training.
“You should have stopped by on your way back to the States. Afghanistan, wasn’t it?” Bucky flipped a few mystery switches. He pointedly didn’t remark on the fact that Steve and Sam had been chasing him all over the place everywhere else.
“Yeah, and Iraq before that. Never really had the money or time, I guess, and let’s face it, I’m not the color of the average tourist in Austria.” Bucky grinned. “So where are we going, precisely? I mean, are we actually landing close by, or are we traveling into someplace remote?”
“We’re cleared to make landing outside a small town, the one we went through back in ’45 on our way to the intercept point.” Bucky stared out the left side of the cockpit, and Sam could see a gradual shift in his body language even as they talked, wariness, maybe, or dread.
“You really think you can pinpoint where it happened?”
“It was a lot of math, maps, and grilling Steve to remember the details. Fortunately his brain wasn’t turned into oatmeal over the last seventy years and a lot of that shit’s like yesterday to him. JARVIS helped a lot, too. The landscape’s changed—most of the train tracks are gone, there are some ski places in the area that weren’t there back then. He could see things in the grids a human wouldn’t.” He worried his lower lip between his teeth, and Sam wondered if he wasn’t having second thoughts now that they were finally on their way.
“I sense a but in here.”
There was an indent between his eyebrows, the one Barnes got when he scowled, identical to the one Steve got when he was worried. When Bucky was anxious, he looked so impossibly old and young at the same time it was mind-boggling. The shit these two had gone through...
“When I hit the bottom I went into a river, it was swollen with snow runoff. I don’t remember exactly, but I remember enough. It tossed me up and down, carried me a ways, sort of like—like being spun through a washer or something. Rocks and ice and other debris. My landing point and my resting point could be far apart.”
Sweet Jesus on a biscuit.
Sam sighed. Good thing they’d waited till late spring, then, so they’d be able to see what they were looking for. “Well, that’s what the wings are for—get a better look.” He put the phone down and dug around in the rations kit, pulling out some water and tossing one to Bucky. “Hey, that reminds me, I meant to ask you a while ago when you first told me this—if you fell in Austria, how’d you end up in the Soviet Union?”
The first time Sam had heard Bucky talk about his death—hell, the first time he’d heard Steve talk about his death—it had really fucked him up. They were both so casual about it, as if the horrific circumstances of their own demises were just the same old, same old. And he was surrounded by vets who’d often talk about the worst shit life had to throw at you pretty calmly, but Sam could hardly even think about watching Riley being blown out of the sky by an RPG without getting the shakes half the time. You could ask Steve and Bucky what seemed to Sam to be rather harrowing questions and they’d answer blandly, factually; if they went into a dark room later and crawled inside a closet to weep and rock themselves to sleep, no one had ever seen it. Maybe this was the greatest generation for you—“Hey, I ever tell you about that time I fell to my death from a speeding train, lost an arm, and ended up in the hands of evil mad scientists?” “No! I ever tell you about the time I crashed a plane loaded with alien-energy bombs into the Arctic Circle and drowned before I froze?” Aw, yeah, the good old days.
“I just assumed, once we found out who you were, that it had happened in Russia or something. Guess I wasn’t paying attention in history class that day. Surprised me when you said we were going to the Alps.”
“That was near the eastern front at the time. I was found by a platoon of Russian soldiers patrolling ahead of their units, they took me back to a field hospital. We may have been allies, but we weren’t pals.” A familiar remoteness was coming back to Bucky, like the fact that they were finally doing this was forcing him to resurrect the guy he’d tried to put to rest. “I was there for a while. So was the NKVD. Everyone knew the war wouldn’t last much longer, really, and the Soviet army, the NKVD were already rounding up all the Nazi and Hydra shit and personnel they could get their grimy mitts on. They swooped in and…ah, they knew there was something up with me. Probably some midlevel brown-noser knew about Zola’s and Schmidt’s work. Knew I was quite the prize.”
“Because he was Hydra.”
“Yeeaahh.” Bucky dragged it out as he rolled his head around on his neck. “The NKVD was lousy with ‘em.” He sipped his water, motioning toward the back of the plane. “You might as well relax for a while. I’ll let you know when we get close.” That was as far as the conversation was gonna go for him, which Sam respected. The only way through this for him would be alone, even if Sam was here with a hand on his back and Steve was waiting at home if he was needed. No one else could take this journey for him, much as Steve wanted to try—Bucky had broken, and broken again and again and again for seven decades, and still somehow put himself together. This wouldn’t mend him completely, but it was his own step forward.
Sam folded down one of the jumpseats and took the satphone out of his pocket.
Steve: Halfway there. We’re doing okay. Had a conversation about what happened after he fell.
Started out okay but I think he’s feeling down now, because it’s more real.
I’ll send email when we get settled with more detail. Please don’t sit around the house watching animal rescue videos and weeping. This is a good thing. Taking care of our boy, you know? It’ll be good for both of you.
He waited a few minutes before a reply showed up. Steve must have been fucking sitting on his damn hands, forcing himself not to reply instantly. These two had no idea how ridiculous they were.
And I’m watching food network, for your information.
Sam sent him the middle finger emoji and turned off the phone.
Nat poured the wine as Steve finished stuffing the pasta shells and throwing on the rest of the cheese—it was his considered opinion you could never have enough cheese—before shoving them in the oven. He had to admit, he’d only barely been paying attention to her story about what should have been a milk run gone wrong, training some of Fury’s new not-recruits to not-SHIELD while picking up an undercover agent from the remains of a South American AIM group. There was a huge gash on her left side forehead, her left wrist was baffled in a cast--which she had vociferously complained about since she’d walked in his door and Steve wondered idly if it would last the night.
Steve guessed Natasha was the first of the babysitters—they’d probably put together a schedule of Keep Steve Busy buddies, and he might have bridled at that in his previous life, but right now he was more than a little okay with it, because he was a big baby and a sap and he couldn’t stop fretting over Bucky. They had no idea how many active Hydra operatives were even out there at this point, regrouping and rebuilding, and what those operatives would do to get their hands on the Asset—whether to have him finish his mission or to execute him for failing to fulfill it, who knew. Not to mention the various governments that would go to great lengths to haul him in for war crimes or terrorism or whatever else they fancied.
And Austria was the fucking mothership that Bucky was returning to, the place he’d died, the place where Steve had begun his descent into the grave long before he got on the goddamn Valkyrie.
“Drink,” Natasha said and shoved a really large glass of the Spanish red she favored into his hand. “Drink drink drink.”
“It’s not going to make me any happier,” he griped, but did as she said.
“You’re just not trying hard enough.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Then you should have brought the vodka.”
“What have you even been doing with yourself all day since they left?” She gave him a narrow look. “You better not have been plotting with JARVIS to surveil them from the SI satellite.”
“No. I would never.”
Natasha shook her head a few times, giving him that appraising stare. “Oh my god. The worst.”
In one way or another, she was always telling him that. He remembered going to a hockey game back in DC, wearing his go-to low-key outfit so he wouldn’t be noticed and photographed and splashed all over the sports section with a “Cap at the Caps” photo—and instead wound up on the front page with a picture mockingly captioned “Cap in a cap at the Caps.” She’d sent him a text that day: Amateur. You’re the worst. :-D and when he’d come home there were new fake glasses, a fake mustache, and a box of hair dye in his mailbox.
“Anyway. They only just got there.” He leaned against the counter, downed the rest of his wine, and poured some more. Sam had been teaching him about wine; he thought he was starting to get the pleasure other people found in it and was able to detect the distinct flavors. He and Bucky got a lot of enjoyment out of exploring new foods, the wines and the beers, all the things they’d never had access to when they were young or had limited exposure to because of rationing in wartime Europe. It was a privilege to be alive together, to have this and to share it.
“Did you have to literally sit on your hands to stop yourself from texting frantically for updates?”
With a speaking look he turned and got out the stuff to set the table with.
“I’ll put that down as a yes.” She pursed her mouth at his best sour glare. “Okay, okay. I’m just…I know this isn’t easy for you.”
“I just got him back,” Steve said with a shuddery sigh. “I just got him back and we have no idea who’s out there and what could happen to him and—” He bit off the last part.
“Oh. I see.” With a little flip of her hair, she hopped off the bar stool and came over to him, rubbing the side of his arm. “Because he didn’t ask you to go with.”
A familiar sharp sting crept in behind his eyes; he shrugged, touched the tip of his tongue to the corner of his mouth. “He blames me. And how can I fault him for that?”
“You cannot be serious.”
He waited, she sighed. “Do you remember Tony’s birthday party?”
“Yes, of course,” Natasha answered, puzzled.
“Good, because I don’t!”
She leaned over the counter and laughed, sloshing wine everywhere in an uncharacteristically graceless motion. “It was pretty epic, I’ll give you that. I never thought that stuff they whipped up would really keep you guys drunk. But—”
“The point is, I remember next to nothing after Tony and Bruce gave us the stuff, except there was this fuzzy thing in the back of my mind that kept bothering me for days and days, like I’m pretty certain it happened but I can’t remember for absolute sure. We were leaning on the railing on the rooftop balcony, and Bucky made a crack about being careful not to push him over again.” He was positive he wasn’t making that up, that it had really happened. Mostly.
Leaning back against the counter, Nat held her hands out in front of her, palms facing him. “That—that is your anxiety talking. And whatever the hell they put in that science experiment they called booze.”
Maybe, maybe not. He regarded her for a while, thinking of how she’d opened herself up to him in Sam’s bedroom so long ago, allowing a glimpse of her own guilt that she carried like a scar. If anyone would understand the blame he felt for Bucky’s fall, it’d be her, he’d figured. The stinging, sharp ache that made his chest heave each time they talked about this plan of Bucky’s. “Why else would he be going back there alone?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Steve, because he’s weary and worn out and this has been hanging like a sword over his head since he broke their conditioning, and getting closure will help him move on?” Natasha chewed on her lip and the ding of the oven timer sounding made them both jump a little. She waited for him to set everything on the table, poured more wine, and sat down. They ate silently for a while—why the hell did people always call these kinds of silences companionable?—until she said, “I went back, to the place where they started my training. One of the first things I ever did once SHIELD let me off probation.”
“The building is rotten and falling apart, all the Soviet markings have been defaced or looted, but the foundation was still there. I told myself it was to see if there was any useful intel left, down in the basements and in the back rooms, stuff that only I might understand, even though I know the protocol was to burn everything. But it was really because I needed to say goodbye to a part of myself I’d chosen to leave behind the day Clint offered me a choice.” She fingered her arrow necklace, one of the only tells she had and one she showed only to a select few, because no one had a poker face like Natalia Romanova and he admired that about her, wished sometimes he could be like that too.
Never once had Steve been tempted to return to the spot where the Valkyrie was found, or Schmidt’s mountain fortress where he’d last seen everyone else alive.
As if she could read his mind—well, she could, he was pretty certain—she smiled tenderly. “We all process things differently. The history books say that when you went down on the plane, you told Peggy Carter it was your choice. You made that decision.”
“Oh.” Well, wasn’t he the jackass. They finished dinner and she got out the box of pear and blackberry tarts she’d picked up on her way over, made some tea, strong and pungent.
“There are so many people hungry to get a piece of him, waiting for him to be alone and without my support. All this work we did to bring him back won’t mean anything to them.”
“That’s why Sam’s there. Wasn’t he your compromise? So Barnes wouldn’t be alone? You keep forgetting Barnes did this on his own, came back here on his own power, that he’s a grown-ass man and we’ve removed all his trigger phrases and he’s strong, Steve, so much stronger than anyone has a right to be after what he endured. But you can’t wrap him in cotton wool or bubble wrap or encase him in amber or something.” The corner of her mouth turned up and she slid a third tart over to him. God, he loved her crooked smile, especially when he got so far inside his head he couldn’t see out.
“You underestimate my coddling skills.”
She snorted and they finished their dessert. “You wanna head downstairs and spar or something?”
“Aren’t we supposed to wait a half hour after eating?”
“Come on, it’ll be fun. You can pummel away your frustrations on me, I’ll let you.”
Steve wanted to tell her what a good friend she was, how she’d helped fill a void inside him, along with Sam, that at the time he’d thought went so far down there was no bottom to it. But he settled for a nod and grabbed his shield. “You always know what to say to me.”
“A shared love of beating people up might be different from most people’s ideas of what makes a solid foundation for a friendship, but it works for us. In the words of that great philosopher Homer Simpson, this allows me to combine my love of helping people with my love of hurting them.”
~ ~ ~
When Steve got back to his apartment, sweaty and bruised and rubbery, there was a new text from Sam on his phone, along with two pictures. The first was of Bucky in profile, staring straight ahead with a really weird look on his face.
You know how this motherfucker said there might be a LITTLE snow still in the mountains but that was good because it’d probably help him find the spot better and he made me get cold weather gear but it was late April so it was just a precaution?
He is a lying liar who lies. Look at this. LOOK.
The second picture was of the village the Commandos had started out from back in ’45, completely covered in snow.
They say this is the latest snowstorm in recent history. Now we have to go to some tyrolean disneyland store or other and he expects me to get crampons and shit. SNOWSHOES. He expects me to snowshoe or cross country ski or something.
My people do not do winter pastimes. I did not sign up for this shit.
FUCKing. goddamn autocorrect.
There was also a new voice message from the same number.
“Hey Steve, promised I’d call when we got here. I know Sam already sent you a text, but, yeah, they apparently got hit with a late snowstorm while we were on our way over here. We’ll have to take a short detour for a little more gear. We don’t really know how Sam’s wings will function in this kind of weather. Didn’t want you to worry. You haven’t exactly been a fan of this idea since I first told you, but I was sort of thinking about it on the plane and... The thing is, you’ve always been the angriest person I’ve ever met. That’s okay, I loved you that way, I loved that about you. But it’s not like I’m not already anxious about this myself and I can’t carry that and your anger and your guilt at the same time. This was the last place where I knew who Bucky Barnes was. No matter how many times they stuffed the Soldier inside me, or tried to rip the old Bucky out, a little bit of him still hung on inside, you know? I’m not good with the words anymore, so I can’t explain this feeling, but I just need to see that place where it all changed. Finish the job of integrating this new guy with the Bucky I lost back there.”
There was a long pause where Steve thought maybe the message was over, and then Bucky said, “I remember the night we came to this village, on our way up to the train. I remember the place we stayed that night, the stables with those huge draft horses, and how nervous they made Jim. How that farmer wanted to help us so he could stick it to the Nazis and Hydra because he hated them and how they took from the people around there. And the next morning the look on your face when they gave us blood sausage for breakfast. I remember holding your hand while we slept and that I didn’t care where we were, as long as I was with you. You couldn’t get rid of me back then, even when you tried to send me home, and you’re not gonna get rid of me now.” Bucky sighed. “So yeah, call me back when you get this if you feel like it, doesn’t matter what time it is here.”
You made that decision. He wouldn’t call Bucky back, not right now, not till Bucky’d had a chance to start searching in earnest, as a show of support. Steve smiled and put the phone down, and went off to his studio to paint.