The edge of the shield is sharp and cool against Steve’s hand; he traces his fingertips over the ridges of its surface, like touching a beloved face.
“The thing is, you can’t trust her right now. You have to leave that thinking behind.” Clint looks at Steve with something resembling pity—Steve is intimately familiar with the way it shapes a person’s face, mutes the color of their eyes.
He glances at Bucky—for support, maybe, or simply confirmation of either point of view here, but he only raises his brows, lifts his shoulders, so Steve sighs. “I can’t believe you of all people are saying that. She’s not just your partner, she’s family.”
“Yeah, and I love her like I’ve loved very few people in my life. But she’s not on your side now, Cap. She’s on her own. I have to respect that, but I know that right now, we can’t trust her not to be playing all this against the middle. Not to be giving what she knows to Tony.”
What was Steve expecting from Clint? It’s not like he hasn’t given Steve excellent backup here—he’s brought the shield back, brought allies, and that should be enough. But somehow the sliver of hope he’s nursed that this can all end peacefully and Steve’s makeshift family can be salvaged is ground into dust under Clint’s practical acceptance. Clint is, to Steve’s eyes, the hidden heart of the Avengers: he brought Nat in, Wanda, too, in his way, and he already seems to have accepted Bucky with little more to go on than Steve’s word. If he’s given up on Nat, that means Steve must, as well, and god but that hurts.
Bucky’s mouth is drawn in a tight line. “You’ve been known to have a tough time giving up on people.” His face says but this is one time your belief in people won’t hold. Steve gets the message he’s trying to send but he’s not accepting it.
“I’m not saying give up on her, that isn’t what I mean,” Clint says. “It’s not how she operates—her choices are flexible. What’s right one day may not be what’s right in a week. There’s a possibility she’s got a completely different agenda from what Stark wants and what you want. Won’t know till we see her.” But when Steve’s come to trust her like almost no one else, refusing to do that seems very much like giving up on her.
How many loved ones do you lose before you lose yourself? Steve wonders. The losses hammer him repeatedly, blow after blow upon a bruise, and while he has Bucky here with him, everyone else, he’s crumpling under the assault. He’s built a house inside himself filled with empty rooms and hallways that lead nowhere, dark corners where shadows hide; he has no idea where to go.
“Doesn’t hurt to plan.” Clint looks Bucky over with that assessing gaze—there is little Clint misses when he studies someone. Few steps ahead he doesn’t mentally calculate. “And it looks like you need some shit if you’re going to fight.”
“Some tac gear with armor would be good, at least one decent rifle.” There’s a desolate tone in Bucky’s voice, he’s resigned to this thing he so desperately wanted to avoid. Guilt scores Steve, raw and bloody: all Bucky’d wanted was a small life, a chance to live without fighting—for anyone, Steve included.
“Might have already picked up a little of that,” Clint says with a cheeky grin.
What will this do to Bucky’s fragile sense of self? For so long he’s worked to put this behind him, scumbled the edges of his identity and made himself smaller—and within the space of days he’s lost everything he’d gained. Stirred the bones that had been laid inside their grave, and it’s a sin. Steve hates that he hates them all for this, these people he had begun to think of as family, these intruders.
Bucky nods and rises, efficient and alert, and Clint arches an eyebrow at Steve, a question—“Can he handle this?” Clint didn’t see the rampage, the crash afterward as everything inside Bucky collapsed at what he’d done. It’s all coiled inside him, that sleeping snake, and Steve is pretty convinced that maybe Bucky’s already asked one of them to put him down should it be necessary again when Steve was out of the room. The need to survive is built into him, but Steve’s not certain, even now, if survival is what Bucky would truly choose if he were given the choice.
After Clint leaves Steve touches the side of Bucky’s face; he leans into his hand. Before he can open his mouth, Bucky shakes his head and says, “You didn’t cause this. It didn’t happen because you were chasing me.”
“Hey, if I wanna wallow in guilt, it’s my prerogative.”
The tilt of his head, the lips drawn tight—he’s weighing something. He takes Steve’s hand and they head into the house to find Sam; now that he has his wings back, they’ll need to plan just how they’ll make use of them. The slide of Bucky’s metal thumb along Steve’s skin is cool and hard, like the shield. Bucky doesn’t look at him when he says, “I would have made sure it was a kill instead of capture.”
Steve swallows back the wounded noise his throat wants to make, and yet he knows it in his gut, it’s as familiar to him as breath: the times when Bucky or his mother were the only things standing between him and death. The choice of letting go.
Steve won’t apologize for doing everything he can to keep Bucky in this world. There’s a smile on Bucky’s lips, the barest lift of the corner of his mouth. His whole life Steve was obsessed by the almond edge of his beautiful blue eyes, the plump curve of that gorgeous mouth and now he wishes he could pack it all in and become a writer so he can craft odes to Bucky’s mouth, become a musician so he can write ballads about it. Join the clergy so he can pen hymns to it. Somehow drawing that mouth isn’t enough, has never been enough, but in the entryway there’s a table with scraps of paper so Steve picks up the one with the most blank space and a pencil, asks him with his eyes—can I sketch you? Just a moment is all Steve wants: a normal moment, the way they once were. He kisses Bucky, clutching the back of his neck where the hair curls soft under his fingers.
Sam’s smirking at him from the sitting room when he pulls away. “I’d say get a room, but...” He points up, shakes his head, and turns around.
“There’s so little left of us,” Steve says to Bucky when Sam’s gone. “I don’t know what’ll happen, but I know it’ll never be the same. Just give me something to remember in case...”
Bucky twines his metal fingers through Steve’s and nods, a wry smile and the sweep of his lashes as he shakes his head and blinks. Just in case this is all they get: a pause, a moment, the pieces of who they once were.
“I can’t believe we’re on the run for our lives and you want to draw something. Be a lot faster if you take a picture with your phone.”
Steve favors him with a look of pure disdain, and god how Bucky’s missed that. The modern world, the job of soldiering, has somehow not diminished the artist within who always saw the world in a way a camera couldn’t capture, that vision in his eyes as if he was in touch with something far away. Something that could be translated only through his fingers and a pencil: he had a way of making the ordinary so very un-ordinary.
“Not drawing something, I’m drawing you.” Steve runs a finger along his collarbone and Bucky feels a lazy shiver percolate through him. “Sit over there,” and he points at the window opposite the door to the dining room.
Bucky’d been prepared to lose this—all these ancient memories of his connection to Steve, moments where he’d felt so profoundly linked to him that if he’d been separated by so much as an inch he thought he might die. He would have willingly sacrificed it because of what he was, what he’d done; made a penance for all of them flattened in the blast radius of his explosion.
But as Steve settles him within the lambent light and sits opposite him, smoothing the paper out atop his shield, Bucky can’t regret the decision to live any longer, the gravity of the choice that’s pulled them all into this path.
“I’m sorry that you’ve lost your friends,” Bucky says as he watches Steve’s hand moving deftly across the paper. “Over this. Over me.”
He scowls at the paper as if it too might betray him and he’s warning it to watch itself. “Everyone has their own choice to make. And anyway, you’re the fall guy, not the cause of this. Thought we settled that. Anyone who matters is here.”
“You’re salty all of a sudden.”
Steve waves a hand around dismissively. “I’m just...”
“I know.” It’s so hard for him to not be in control; it was always impossible for Steve to let go, as if he was showing himself as the weak or fragile creature he truly was. Bucky’d had control taken from him decades ago, he’s learned to live within these boundaries, but Steve can’t see that this is not his to control. “You love her—Romanov. Not like you love Peggy, but you love her. And now you’re losing her, too.” Steve’s free hand clenches at Peggy’s name.
“I—she kept me alive. I was so far out of my depth when everything started with Project Insight and she knew who the—who you were, what we were up against, helped me discover who was pulling the strings.” Bucky flinches, and though he hopes Steve can’t tell, his face creases with unease; Bucky motions weakly at him to go on. “That way of thinking was always so foreign to me, and even though I worked with her, I had never really thought of her as someone to rely on like that. But I came to.” He puts the pencil down and nods, as if convincing himself of a truth. “I can’t put what others want from me first right now, though. Not if it means losing you and the chance to—”
Bucky wants to imagine a different outcome here, to play let’s pretend, just the way they used to when they were young. “Let’s say we make it out of this in one piece. I’m not the sort of fella who’s capable of making anyone happy anymore.”
Steve merely snorts at him and holds up his finished sketch. “Who said you made me happy before?”
Bucky gets up to look at it. “You should lower your expectations, is all I’m saying.” They smile at each other like nitwits and Bucky appraises the drawing. “I’m no critic, but one gets the feeling you’ve been practicing this mug of mine a lot.”
“Once or twice” —and Steve pulls him down by the front of his shirt for a sweet, languorous kiss.
“Daylight’s burning,” Barton says, sauntering into the room, pointedly ignoring the kiss and the drawing; Bucky can’t help but like the guy’s breezy practicality. He tosses a gym bag of clothing at Bucky. “We should suit up if we wanna get where we’re going.”
“This is good,” Bucky says of the tactical gear, examining everything as he pulls it out.
“Where’d you find all of this stuff? Snipers r Us?” Steve smirks like he’s just made some really great joke; Bucky rolls his eyes.
Clint laughs dutifully. “My line of work, you know people. Because everywhere you go, there you are.” Bucky frowns, but Steve’s chuckling; must be some modern reference he hasn’t had time to discover yet. “Preparers and survivalists usually have the best stuff, as long as you pretend you’re in the same game they’ll look the other way.”
“What are they preparing to survive?” Bucky asks, skeptical. He takes a combat knife out of his back pocket and hacks off the left sleeve as they both gawp at him, and Bucky gestures—what?
“Oh, you know, natural disasters, giant EMP, Hydra taking over the world with suborbital helicarriers linked to targeting satellites...”
“I’m gonna go get everything ready while you two gear up.” Barton side-eyes them, only the barest hint of a knowing smile on his lips.
Steve cants his head, shrugs. “Guess I have a rendezvous with Death, at some disputed barricade. Wanna come along?”
And Bucky scoffs, holds his hands out. “God, we snickered like the little assholes we were when we had to read that, didn’t we? ‘Where love throbs out in blissful sleep / Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath.’”
“Where hushed awakenings are dear,” Steve adds with a waggle of his brows.
“Christ—all those years of them taking a blowtorch to my brain and I can still remember the poems we had to memorize in high school. Where’s the justice in that, when I can’t even remember the first time we kissed?” But the fact of his remembering at all resounds inside him.
With a gentle tug, Bucky pulls Steve to him, tucks the drawing into the pocket of Steve’s t-shirt. So this is what they have left: a picture drawn in haste of what Steve’s chosen to fight for, a shield and some tactical gear and weapons, their wary allies, and a love that’s somehow survived the transilience of their bodies, their hearts.
It’s not what they wanted, either of them, but right now, it will do.