Lo I confess, I am thy captive I,
And hold my conquered hands for thee to tie.
Elegia II, Ovid (tr. Marlowe)
Bucky can’t stop running his hand over the place where his arm broke off. It’s like... worrying a loose tooth. It’s sharp. He cuts himself, and then sucks at his fingers absent-mindedly. It drives Steve insane.
“You’re driving me insane,” Steve says. Bucky thinks about saying, no, that’s probably me! But then then he thinks better of it. After the fight, stumbling back to a shitty safehouse full of magazines from 1994 and dusty tins of food from a decade before that, Steve had asked Bucky what kind of arm he wanted to replace it with. “We could probably find someone to make you another metal one...” he’d said. He left the fact that Tony was really the person to go to for that unspoken. “Or I bet we could get a really good, uh, more regular kind of prosthetic.”
Bucky doesn’t doubt that he could probably find someone who would do it for him. “Nah,” he said. “Imagine if I lost that... twice is coincidence, that’d be careless.” Steve had eyed him with his best that’s not funny face.
Bucky had opened a tin of some kind of fish and offered a spoon to Steve. “No,” Steve said. Bucky ate it straight. It tasted fine. It made him think of bad things. Well -- flashes of bad things. Tiny memories. But that’s okay. He’s used to it. He’s used to suppressing the things he doesn’t want to think about... it’s natural that sometimes parts of them come bursting through. It’s best to treat them like an annoying acquaintance who’s trying to get your attention at a party. Don’t make eye contact. Act like you’re really fascinated by your drink. Swirl it slowly. Stare at the bubbles that rise to the top. Don’t look up even if they say your name.
He slept for fourteen straight hours after that. He doesn’t know when he last slept that long naturally. He’s felt tired for a long time. He can’t remember not feeling tired. When he wakes up he feels like he’s been punched all over again. Steve’s doing what looks like fucking yoga on the floor. In the dirt, because of course he hasn’t bothered to clear up.
Bucky knows about yoga. He knows about all kinds of shit now.
He watches Steve for a while from where he’s still lying down, through half-open eyes. He only creaks himself up and says, “Hey,” when Steve stops moving his body and rubs a hand over his face like he’s thinking about having a cry.
“Can’t go running,” Steve says, as if that’s explanation for something.
“Yep,” Bucky says, as if that’s an answer, and he finally gets up to search for more food. He finally finds some spinach and a can of peaches, and he eats that for breakfast, at basically the same time. It’s awkward eating with one hand. He drops food on himself sometimes. But it doesn’t matter. It’s only Steve.
They’re too tired to work out where to go next, so they stay there for another night. Or... Bucky’s honestly not so hot on days. Telling them apart. Not right now. But he sleeps again. Not for so long, this time. He finds himself eating tinned chicken when he wakes up. Steve says, “Shouldn’t you have cooked that?” and hovers nervously with his fork. “I forget what you’re supposed to do with it.” Of course, he can’t read the Russian on the side of the can. And he was never exactly renowned in the kitchen.
“Nah,” Bucky says, and shovels more into his mouth. “They kind of cook it when it gets sealed in...” He pushes another can towards Steve. “Protein, come on.”
Steve eats the chicken and some more spinach. He screws up his face. “It tastes like...” he says, but he apparently can’t think of a good way to finish that sentence, and he trails off.
It tastes like basically every meal that Bucky can remember. There’s something comforting about it, he thinks. He’s not looking for comfort. But it’s familiar. It doesn’t make his stomach churn. That’s fine, that’s more than enough.
“You don’t have to do this,” Steve says. It’s a hot day in Wakanda, even by Warrior Falls, which T’Challa insisted they should visit before coming to the industrial lab he’s getting ready on the outskirts of the capital. He’s rolled up the sleeves of his t-shirt, but they keep flopping back down because they’re too small for him as it is and he’s sweaty as fuck. Bucky smiles with one corner of his mouth as he glances at Steve and takes this in, but he doesn’t say anything.
He’s been having horrible dreams. It’s nothing new. But recently he’s felt more detached from them. Sometimes he wakes up and he thinks, was I even in that one? But the images still last. He’ll be drinking coffee and suddenly it’s there, sliding a knife between his ribs.
The past few nights, Steve’s seemed... not even angry. Or not just angry. Bucky finds it hard to explain. The nightmares he’s been having... he can’t ever unsee the others. The other winter soldiers. Bullets through their heads. In their glass chambers. Like long-dead insects in a forgotten museum. Pinned down. A tiny streak of blood on each forehead. What’s he doing? He’s not sure. Sometimes he’s not doing anything, he’s sure of it.
There are some words where if he hears them -- he wants to throw up. It took a while for this to click. It took a while for him to understand why. They’re mostly Russian. But -- not all of them. “Remember, Steve,” he says, on either a cold night in Siberia or a hot one in Wakanda. “I wasn’t just--” he swallows. “I wasn’t a relic. They were using me actively -- what, two years ago? How many of those men are still out there?”
It’s not fair. They took perfectly good words and ruined them forever.
Longing. Home. Nothing but sickness for him there.
Steve presses a hand fiercely to his thigh. “We’ll keep fighting them, Buck.” Bucky thinks about the Accords. A heavy book. Too long for him to read. No pictures, he said, when Steve showed them to him at last. Nobody’s got time for that. I’m not a fucking lawyer.
Bucky turns his head to the side. He doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say without insulting him. “If I keep fighting...” he says. He shakes his head. “It’s too much, Steve. They can turn me too easily. I keep hurting people.”
Incredibly, Bucky finds himself using his last days to write letters. He was never very good at writing to people, and he scribbles out as much as he leaves in. He writes the most to Wanda, who he barely knew, and he supposes he’ll now never get much of a chance to know.
Well. Maybe one day.
It feels like an unburdening, which is maybe why he scribbles so much out. She’s not his priest. But he thinks that maybe it’ll help to hear some of it from someone else.
What else does he do? He runs his hand over his broken arm, and Steve curses him out for it.
“Steve,” Bucky says, that last night. He clenches his jaw. He has to keep saying it until Steve will listen. “You remember that terrible night in ‘43?”
There were a lot of terrible nights, but Steve knows the one he means. The worst night of their unit. They’ve never spoken about it. The mission had gone wrong and people had died for it... civilians who hadn’t even had time to say a final prayer. There’d been torture involved, and neither of them had stopped it fast enough. The north of France... there was a lot of rain...
“You know I do,” Steve says.
“In the de-briefing,” Bucky says. “When they said what good work we’d done...” he waves his hand. “The look on your face. I trust that face. I trust you.”
It’s already become an old argument in a few short weeks, but Bucky is patient. It’ll sink it. It has to.
“It’s not your fault,” Steve insists. “This was all done to you. You didn’t choose any of it.”
Bucky spreads his hand. He’s not wrong. But he can’t deny the world that exists, even if he wants to. “Bad things happen every day,” he says. “They’ll keep coming. The past is very seductive,” he says. He knows that he’s not of this time. He’s just a few moments on old tape; moments when history changed. The actor didn’t even have to get their hands dirty.
“You can’t let them win,” Steve says.
He still doesn’t get it. “So explain it again,” Steve says.
“There’s a list of words they can say to control me,” Bucky says. “You know this. You believe that I’m not responsible for -- the things -- they made me do. But I did them. I don’t want to do them anymore.”
“This is my choice,” Bucky says. “This is what I choose.”
It smells cold. It always did. He tenses up at first, but then he tries to relax. I don’t want to wake up with cramp, he thinks. He didn’t sleep the night before -- every time he closed his eyes he saw the others, bulletholes in their foreheads, neat and small -- and he’s tired, but soon that won’t be a problem anymore.
He thinks about the terrible choices that were made for them. And he thinks about how they never -- how if they were anything like him, they had never said yes once. He can’t help feeling glad that they were never woken again; harshly, like he was. But then he feels selfish. People are always convinced that their plight is the worst. What would they have thought? Nobody asked them. They’re dead now. There is no consolation there.
“You know you don’t have to do this,” Steve says. Bucky smiles, because he does. He does know. And he’s very grateful.
It doesn’t matter if Steve doesn’t totally get it. “You have made a noble choice,” T’Challa said, when he first explained it to him, but there was a slight furrow in his brow. It doesn’t matter, because Steve loves him. He knows that Steve loves him. That’s the most important thing. If Steve -- if Steve hadn’t bared himself and dared Bucky to kill him if he didn’t know him... that’s not a nightmare that Bucky ever has. It’s something else. A terrible, precious thing that he can’t ever talk about.
Bucky kisses Steve on his temple. He can’t start anything now. He’s being so good. He’s denying himself so many stupid little things that he wants. Some bigger things, too. He thinks about the waterfall they visited only two days ago, and the cool spray that hit him if he stood close enough. He thinks about coffee with absolutely no sugar or syrup but lots of foam. He thinks about the notebooks he’d been writing in, haphazardly, and how the writing was hard but he loved reading back through them when he’d worked something out and could see it there on the page. Steve kisses him on the cheek and Bucky wants to cry, and he wants to touch him again, but he doesn’t.
“I love you,” Steve says, and Bucky knows that.
“That’s,” he says, but then he stops, because he can’t answer a confession of love -- any kind of love -- with an I told you so. “I love you,” he says. “And I trust you.”
It’s just as constrictive when it’s his own choice. But his heart leaps. There’s a dull thud in his head. It’s okay, he thinks to himself. You can sleep for a long time. He tries to relax his joints. I don’t want to wake up with cramp, he thinks. It might not even matter. He’s forced himself to consider this. He thinks: that would be fine.
The problem with having had choice taken away from him for so long -- and being under constant threat of having it happen again, at a whim, at a list of words in Russian in somebody’s pocket -- means that he’s always aware of them. Do I really want foam in my coffee? Do I want to run, or could I just walk? What kind of eggs should I ask for? The whole world is an unbroken wishbone. “I don’t know what I want,” he said to Sam, in a strange, furious heart-to-heart they had in Steve’s horrible little car that gave them both cramp all over while Steve was kissing some girl. Sam had asked, Bucky hadn’t just volunteered the information.
“I see how you look at him,” Sam had said, wistful. Yeah. Bucky had seen how Sam looked at him, too, and recognised the look. It made him happy rather than anxious.
“But,” Bucky had said. “I don’t know what I want.” And it both was and wasn’t the same as when Sam had asked Steve what made him happy -- what he liked to do -- and Steve had said I don’t know. Sam said as much. I can’t figure either of you out. I hate that.
It’s very tiring to feel like everything in life holds enormous weight. And there’s something -- liberating, Bucky thinks -- in making one good, moral, loving choice. In making one choice for now and allowing the rest to follow. He rolls his neck back while he still can. Baring his throat. If I can’t trust you, I can’t trust anyone, he’d said to Steve, back during the war, when Steve was coming up with some half-cocked plan to steal some ammunition and wanted Bucky to back him up. “But I don’t have to like everything you do.”
Bucky probably wouldn’t make all the same decisions as Steve. But that’s the point. They don’t have to find out. Not now... maybe not for a long time, or ever. He closes his eyes and he sees the dark. He closes his eyes and he says, thank you. He closes his eyes and he says I’m sorry. He closes his eyes and he says, “It’s cold, but I won’t feel it.” He closes his eyes and he thinks of Steve kissing his cheek, softly. He feels unburdened. He feels light.
“Hereafter, in a better world than this...” T’Challa says, lightening the mood with some Shakespeare before he thinks better of it and stops speaking. Bucky opens his eyes once more, looks at Steve, and smiles.
“Do what you think is best,” he says. “I have.”