Steve and Bucky make their way downstairs, Steve’s flesh & bone fingers laced with Bucky’s metal ones, a message in his grip: I love every part of you. Before they round the corner, Bucky slips his hand from Steve’s and gives him a regretful smile.
It’s all right, Steve thinks, they have time. They have time now. Everyone stops talking when they enter the kitchen, where Sam is cleaning up after making breakfast. His eyes sparkle when he sees Steve and Bucky. “We saved you some,” and his words mask the barest hint of a smirk.
“You guys look like you got in a really good workout,” Scott says, admiring, around a mouthful of eggs, and Sam goes rigid, his eyes round. There’s that sly shadow of a smile on Bucky’s mouth, the one he’d offered Steve when he’d said “your mom’s name was Sarah.”
“You might say that,” Bucky says and nods, taking the plate Sam slides over.
“Must be a pretty intense one for supersoldiers. Got a set routine you do?”
Sam closes his eyes, his whole body tense with the effort to hold back the laugh. A flame of embarrassment heats Steve’s skin, yet somehow Bucky is unflappable, and Steve thinks, not for the first time since finding him, how much of the old Bucky is still there, digging his way out. “Oh, you know, we do whatever comes up,” Bucky says, brows pushing up his forehead as he smirks at Steve.
“Jesus Herbert Christ on roller-skates, Buck,” Steve mutters under his breath and unwraps the plastic utensils next to his plate.
Wanda’s eyes are round as Bucky adds, “Been a long time since we had the chance to do it together.” Is she reading them, or is she just as amused as Sam is by the whole exchange? She is still mysterious to him in so many ways.
“That’s awesome, can’t beat having a workout buddy, especially at your level.” Scott is so cheerful that Steve hates to spoil his theory.
Sam loses his battle to keep a lid on it and he clutches his sides, actually falling to the floor laughing. Wanda and Scott glance back and forth, pennies dropping, and Steve knows his entire body is crimson. He allows Sam to laugh for a while before leaning over to take his hand, hauling him up, while Bucky takes his plate out to the broke-down old sofa in the sitting room as if nothing happened. Sam lowers his head and says, sotto voce, “It’s not his fault, man, the two of you have the most intense reunion-sex afterglow in history.”
“Oh god,” Steve moans, but his glance at Bucky shows he’s entirely focused on his food.
In those months of searching, Steve had worried that once he finally found Bucky he would still be a hunted animal, cornered and deadly, his memories as fragile as crystal. Steve will never forget the look in Bucky’s wild eyes—anguished, remorseful—when the conditioning snapped in two; he will never stop trying.
And yet his faith in Bucky is constantly rewarded, the faith everyone told him was misplaced: the vulnerability he showed this morning in their bed, the amiable smile he offers to Steve’s friends now. He’s stronger than those trigger phrases, the torture, the mind control. Strong enough to keep trying no matter what they do.
Sam gives Steve a happy grin. “It’s okay, man, geez, you go. You two’ve earned it.” All these events with Bucky have left Sam shaken, and yet somehow he still has the capacity to want that for them. Steve shakes his head and breathes in, out.
Scott’s hiding his head in his hands while Wanda’s watching Steve with curiosity. They are so new to each other, she and Steve: he’s seen what she’s capable of, as both an enemy and an ally, and he knows they’re lucky to have her on their side.
To avoid looking at them and getting more embarrassed, Steve shovels eggs and potatoes into his mouth and gulps the watery stuff that passes for orange juice here. “Where’s Clint?” He’s not sure who’s more humiliated—himself or Scott.
Sam butters the toast—Steve watches his hands as he spreads the butter, recalling when he’d done the same thing for him and Natasha, before Steve had learned Bucky was alive, before he’d known that he was going to war yet again and would once more want to burn the world down over Bucky. “He said he had something he was going to get. A surprise for you. Maybe a couple of surprises.” They share a look: the shield. Maybe he’ll bring back the contents of Bucky’s pack: the records of his fragile memories and the photos and mementos he’s accumulated, trying to piece together the life that was stolen from him.
“It’s risky for him to head back there.” They don’t know what side Natasha has taken here, and she knows Clint too well, will anticipate his moves if she’s chosen against Steve.
“All of this is a risk,” Sam says and moves into the sitting room, joining Bucky on the couch, Scott flops down into the lone chair.
It’s astonishing, the way Sam and Bucky are around each other now, the threads of his friendship with both of them winding tight, knitting them together. Wanda stands apart from everyone in the doorway, watching quietly, probably trying not to read anyone against their wishes.
“If we’re discussing risks, you gotta deal with the elephant in the room.” Bucky glances at Sam, over to Steve. His brows inch up his forehead, he tilts his head.
“Could they shut you down or make you switch on again like that?” Scott asks. It’s a reasonable question yet it rankles Steve and he makes a small noise of frustration. Bucky throws Steve a speaking look: it’s on everyone’s mind.
“Yes. And worse.” That bluntness is such classic Bucky—the one who’d never sugarcoated bad news when Steve was little and sick and all the adults were hiding things from him; the one who’d never treated him as breakable and useless; the sergeant who’d called him on his shit when he went too far over the line. “Next time maybe you won’t be able to stop me and I kill all of you. Next time you might not even see it happen and you think I’m fine until you get a knife across your throat.” He looks pointedly at Steve and holds up his left hand. “There’s a combination of numbers, too, for disabling the weapon arm or triggering poisons,” he says as he flexes his fingers.
Sam is so calm when he asks, “Could it also operate independently of what you want it to do?” but all Steve feels is a rising sense of panic—this is exactly what might drive all of them away and he and Bucky will be alone.
“Yes. I don’t know if anyone is still out there who even remembers the combinations, who knows the words. But it’s a huge risk. I’m a risk.” There’s the raised eyebrow and slight twist at the corner of the mouth again.
Something flashes in Wanda’s eyes, an anxiety he hasn’t seen since their first training exercises, so he quickly finishes his plate and takes it to the kitchen, jerking his head; she follows.
Pouring them both coffee, he touches her shoulder. “Tell me what’s worrying you.”
“I am not reading you,” she says with a degree of vehemence he hasn’t seen from her since Sokovia. “Not on purpose. It’s simply...”
He asks the question with his eyes.
“I could help him. I could take away those things that have power over him. He is hurt, suffering. He is afraid for you.” Her hands tremble, she’s almost vibrating with the need to help. And she aches, too; Steve thinks she sees Pietro in Bucky, a little. Sees the gaping hole, the unending grief of losing a twin in Bucky’s loss of himself. His loss of Steve.
“I don’t know how he’d react to that.”
Swallowing, she nods. “I know it is hard to trust me. But I want to help.”
Buck’s so calm about the possibility of that happening again, so resigned to the killing machine they created rampaging and no one able to stop him.
“I’ll ask.” Her face smoothes out, her shoulders drop.
Steve knows what it means to be broken, to be afraid of yourself and what you can do. Not in the same way that Bucky and Wanda have known it, of course. “Buck.” He gulps in air. “Do you still have faith in me? Can you trust me—trust us?” Steve knows instantly he’s ruined it all; the very fact of his asking makes Bucky go stiff with suspicion and wariness. “There may be a way for Wanda to remove those triggers from your mind.”
Bucky’s face drains of color, his mouth opens in shock, eyes wide and round and Steve’s head swims, he’s legless over Bucky’s stricken face. Bucky bolts from the couch, his fists clenching, and Steve motions at everyone to drop back, to leave. “I can’t have anyone inside my head again,” he pleads, “I can’t.”
From far away Sam is saying, “Steve...let him go,” as Bucky crashes toward the door.
Bucky slips his hand from Steve’s on the stairs before his friends will see. He knows the message Steve is sending by holding tight to him—Steve told him already this morning through his hands and his lips, reminded Bucky what it felt like to be loved and that love meant all of him: his scars, his deformities. He’d forgotten the simple pleasure of touch without fear—or rather, no, he’d had the knowledge ripped out of him.
And Steve’s pals are funny, kind in a way they shouldn’t be around a creature like him—but they have faith, he thinks: in Captain America, in Steve Rogers, in their friend. Faith is a strength more powerful than any serum could produce. Yet they need to know what Bucky’s capable of ; the controls they put inside Bucky might be inexhaustible and they go so deep he isn’t sure any one person knows where they all are.
But he’s unprepared for Steve’s suggestion that the girl—the witch—shove her hands inside his head and pull it out. The blood drains from his limbs, he’s numb, can’t breathe. Steve stares at him, knowing what a terrible mistake he’s made. The motors in Bucky’s arm whir, he hears a dry click in his throat as he tries to find his voice and pushes up from the couch. Steve’s told him about what happened in Africa. The way she got inside their skulls. How could he think—
“I can’t have anyone inside my head again,” Bucky half-whispers. “I can’t.” A storm has settled inside his guts. “How can you think—” he starts to say and bolts for the door.
“Bucky, wait!” Steve shouts behind him, but he’s careening forward, momentum sends him crashing through the door. Bucky rushes out to the street, running as fast as he’s ever run—faster than when they’d chased him, the breath tearing at his lungs, fueling the storm in his belly. Behind him Steve sprints to catch up; Steve wants to control the animal inside Bucky but he can’t do it that way, he can’t. No matter how far ahead Bucky gets, Steve still chases; no matter how well he dodges and eludes, Steve catches up. Hasn’t Steve had enough of this? It’s been going on for months. His lungs are on fire, he’s at his limit, so he turns back toward the house because he doesn’t know what else to do.
Everyone is gone when he gets there, the front door is propped against the jamb. Bucky stands in the middle of the sitting room, breathing heavily, the undertow of panic clawing with dark, cold hands.
Steve is behind him, panting and whispering his name. When Bucky looks at him he recognizes fear, a trickle of sweat making its way along his throat and Bucky wants to put his tongue to it, kiss the steady throb of his pulse there. But no, he can’t let Steve have this, not now.
“For fuck’s sake! Stop chasing me!” Bucky shouts, stepping back.
“If you stop running away, I will!” Steve hollers, and Bucky stares at him, open-mouthed. A moment hangs between them like a bruise, Steve realizes what he said, and they both dissolve in laughter. They can’t stop laughing—each time they look at each other, they laugh harder, as soon as one of them stops, he hears the other and starts all over again.
“You’re out of your cotton-pickin’ mind, you know that?” Bucky says, wiping his eyes. The storm inside him has passed; his sides ache, warm and pleasant.
“Yeah.” Steve shrugs. “What else is new. I’m hopeless.” Steve holds out his arm and Bucky takes his hand.
“I’m so sorry. I told her I would ask you, she just wanted—I wanted to pretend it was all right, what that would sound like to you. She feels desperate to help sometimes, to atone for what happened, like me, I guess, but we didn’t mean to make it sound like you’re her—her subject.” Bucky sees the spark along the halo, hears the crackle of electricity, feels the burn of the wipe, and his fingers grab Steve’s arm to fight against that stormy sea beneath him. “She wasn’t trying to read you, but she says you’re filled with pain, and I—I don’t see very clearly when it comes to you being in pain. It was my mistake.”
They’re all confused, afraid, Bucky knows. “I can’t have anyone inside my head again. I’m sorry. I know how dangerous I am, the risk you’re taking. But I can’t do it, I can’t.”
Steve’s color is high, the muscles of his throat work with the effort to swallow. With a sob, Steve buries his face in his hands. “I’m lost, Buck. I’m just...I’m so lost. I don’t know what to do here.”
Bucky yanks Steve to him, cradles his head against his chest. Soothes him with gentle strokes along his back, tender kisses along the blade of his jaw. “First time for everything, I guess.” He pulls his head away, runs a thumb along the crest of Steve’s cheekbone. “Is this the part where you say you’ll never let ’em take us alive? If so, I wanna register an objection up front.”
Steve huffs out a weak laugh. “If they can’t use the accords to make you a scapegoat, then they’ll try to make you a weapon again and I won’t let that happen. I won’t let what happened before—”
He wants to tell Steve that it will be all right, but they both know it won’t. Whatever this struggle is, they’re in the middle of it, and Steve cannot stop fighting for him: he will tear apart his friendships, burn the world down, throw everything he loves away. “We’ll figure it out. I don’t know how, but we’ll figure it out. Look. I know it’d be the right thing to do, let her pull anything out of my head that they can use against us, but...I can’t do that yet. Not yet.”
Steve wipes his eyes and stands straight, touches Bucky’s lips. He will never forget the way Steve’s words cut through him on the helicarrier, never forget the brutal shock of confirmation that he was something other than the soldier.
Steve’s shoulders are bowed with the weight of the world, the weight of Bucky’s future. This is the only gift he can give to Steve in exchange for his freedom. “I meant what I said the first time. Hasn’t changed in seventy-five years. To the end of the line. No matter where it ends.”
“We could run. Go off the grid, disappear. That’s what Wanda could do for us—erase every trace of us and we—the end of the line.” The desperation and sorrow in Steve’s voice is like having his skin flayed off.
It’s a hopeful thought, but—“Start running, they never let you stop.” This is who Steve is, even if he tries to deny it: fighting all his life, in one way or another, and the rest of Bucky’s life will be a fight, too. God, but he wants to spirit Steve away, find some warm place to retreat where Steve can paint to his heart’s content and sit in the sun and gripe about the state of the world without ever giving in to the need to fix it. But they will never stop coming for either of them—Bucky has lived the fugitive’s life for so long and knows all too well what it will do to Steve.
“Jerk. Of course you’d throw that back in my face.” He drops tender kisses along the curve of Bucky’s shoulder, his neck, clutches at his hips. His brows knit together and Bucky caresses his sweet, broken face. The sea inside him swells and heaves, he holds on tight to Steve so he won’t fall overboard.
This is what he’s learned, almost from the moment he first recognized Steve: that love holds on, even through the slow grinding down of time and loss and fear. “You want a happy ending, I know. Everyone does. I don’t think that’s in the cards for us, though.”
“Then what do we do?” Had he ever seen Steve so uncertain and so hopeless, the old Bucky Barnes? None of the memories he’s pulled up through his fractured brain tell him that, none of the photos and films have shown it.
“What we have to. But—together.” Bucky sighs, feels a soft tremble flood through him like a river rising over its banks. Steve might be the end of him, finally, after all the times he should have died, but he’s not afraid, not now: he has faith.