It is not the soldiers who have shot me full of holes.
It is not light that pours out.
Love did this.
After You Have Vanished, Kevin Prufer
ABANDONED HYDRA BASE, EASTERN EUROPE
They’ve been moving for days and stubborn determination is the only thing keeping him on his feet. His broken ribs have healed, but they ache still, and he knows that his face is a mess of fading bruises. Bucky is worse—healing factor not as strong as Steve’s, still off-balance from the loss of his arm, leaning heavily into Steve’s side as they cross the threshold.
The base is similar to the one in Siberia—dark, dank, and long-abandoned. A chill runs down Steve’s spine as the doors rumble shut behind them, sealing them in, and he thinks, absurdly, that he can feel the evil in this place—echoes of agony hanging thick in the air.
“Are you sure about this?” He murmurs, unconsciously digging his fingers into Bucky’s side.
Bucky nods and his voice is heavy with exhaustion when he replies, “There’ll be a spare here. Base is still mostly intact.”
Steve tightens his grip and together they stumble down the steps into what Steve is fairly sure is the pit of hell. He tries not to look at the various pieces of equipment still scattered around—scalpels, saws, needles, like he saw in some of the Nazi death camps during the war, God, God—or the chair with restraints and some kind of electric nodes designed to attached to a person's head. He can imagine Bucky here too easily and his chest aches with helpless fury.
He’s fucking decades too late.
Bucky’s eyes dart over the instruments of torture with what would be unnatural calm if Steve couldn’t feel him trembling.
“Cabinets,” he says at last. “Far wall.”
Steve reluctantly leaves Bucky perched on the metal surgery table and goes to inspect the cabinets. They’re old and the metal has rusted enough for him to pry the doors open. It still leaves his fingers scraped and bloody and he wishes suddenly for his shield, then tells himself just as quickly not to think about that. Not yet.
The third drawer down produces what they’re looking for—a spare metal arm. It’s not as sophisticated as the one Bucky lost, but it’s in good condition and well, beggars can’t be choosers. Especially not international fugitives.
“Got it,” he calls and when he turns he sees that Bucky has curled into himself—forehead pressed to drawn-up knees. It hurts, seeing him so lost and small—drowning now that they don’t have a mission to focus on, a world to save—but everything does, right now.
It started after Bucky fell from that goddamn train and it’s never stopped. Steve’s used to it.
“Buck?” He asks, approaching carefully.
Bucky lifts his head and his eyes are dry and empty. “Sorry,” he mumbles, rubbing his hand over his face. His fingers twitch subtly, but his gaze focuses on the arm in Steve’s hands and Steve watches him rapidly stitch himself back together. “Good, you found it.”
“How do we do this?” Steve asks.
Bucky shrugs and a wry, humourless smile twists the corner of his mouth. “No idea.”
Steve blows out a frustrated breath, but he isn’t surprised—nothing about this has been easy, why start now?
“Okay. Think there’s instructions somewhere?”
Bucky’s eyes dart around the cavernous room, assessing. “Maybe,” he ventures hesitantly and rubs his forehead again. “I can’t remember. Everything’s a mess…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Steve says quickly, squeezing Bucky’s good shoulder. “I’ll look.”
Bucky’s shoulders slump in defeat but he nods—pale and almost fragile in the dim florescent lights. Steve loves and grieves in equal measure, but that’s another thing he’s used to.
He digs through the various cabinets and drawers on the edges of the room. He finds files in Russian that he can’t understand, pictures that he can—God, God, Bucky; he would burn them all if he could, but he’s too fucking late—and finally what looks like some kind of diagram for the metal arm. He shoves the pictures and files back in the drawer, knowing he’ll being seeing them in his dreams for years, and brings the diagram over to the table.
Bucky’s gaze is too damn knowing, but Steve supposes he’s not hiding the pallor of his face or the clench of his jaw very well. Mercifully Bucky doesn’t say anything, just reaches over to pluck the diagram from Steve’s too-tight grip.
“There’s a port,” he says after a moment of skimming and then mutters a defeated, “shit.”
Steve instinctively leans in to check the diagram, even though he has no idea what it says. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s connected to a bunch of nerves,” Bucky replies, grim. “’S gonna hurt.”
Of course it will.
Bucky exhales, sharp, and curls the fingers of his flesh hand around the edge of the table. “Do it,” he instructs, cutting off the pointless reassurances Steve had been building in his head. “Rotate it back and pull. Hard.”
You’re the bravest person I’ve ever known, Steve thinks and vows to tell him later. When they can breathe again.
“Okay.” A deep, shaking breath. “Okay.”
He can do this. He has to.
He reaches for the arm before he can second guess himself any further. Rotates it back and pulls. Hard.
Steve grits his teeth against the sound, pinning Bucky to the table and wrenching on the arm. Bucky fights him, thrashing and still screaming like Steve is killing him.
The arm finally, finally comes free and Bucky collapses onto the table, panting. His face is streaked with tears and Steve can feel wetness coating his own cheeks. He wipes it away and leans down to curl his fingers in Bucky’s sweat-soaked hair.
“You with me?” He rasps, bringing Bucky’s head up to press their foreheads together.
Bucky’s eyes are squeezed shut against the pain but he nods. They linger there for a long moment, holding each other up, and it’s Bucky that forces out, “better put the new arm in.”
Love and grief, Steve thinks hysterically and barely keeps himself from kissing Bucky because that’s another thing they haven’t talked about yet and he has no idea if Bucky will kiss him back or throttle him. The comfort of it would be nice, but Steve’s gotten good at burying all these impulses and he does it again now, settling for pressing his lips lightly to Bucky’s temple before he pulls back.
The new arm goes in smoother, but Bucky still sobs in agony and Steve isn’t at all surprised when he vomits over the side of the table after it’s done. He rubs between Bucky’s heaving shoulders as Bucky retches again and prays this is the worst of it, even as he knows it isn’t.
“Sorry,” Bucky pants as he wipes his mouth, sagging back against the table.
Steve hates seeing him laid out on it, especially with the goddamn tools so close by, but he holds his tongue and shakes his head, taking Bucky’s flesh hand. “Not your fault.”
Bucky squeezes his hand briefly, giving him a sad smile. His eyes drift closed again and Steve gives him a moment, lacing their fingers together as he watches the rise and fall of Bucky’s chest and reminds himself that they’re alive and, for the first time in years, they have a future ahead of them.
“What now?” Bucky asks without opening his eyes.
Steve smiles, hopelessly affectionate and heartbroken. “What do you want to do?”
Because if there is one thing he can do for Bucky Barnes it’s give him a goddamn choice.
“I need to cut my hair,” Bucky decides after a pregnant pause and he tilts his head to blink red-rimmed eyes at Steve. “You should probably dye yours. And I hear Paris is nice this time of year.”
Steve laughs, wet, and nods. “Yeah, me too. Haven’t been since the liberation.”
Bucky smiles and it’s lighter, closer to what it used to be. “What are we waiting for then?”
He staggers slightly when he gets to his feet, but doesn’t fall, and Steve watches him push away the pain with something close to awe.
I love you, he thinks helplessly. So much.
“We should blow the base,” is what he says instead and Bucky’s expression hardens into grim satisfaction at the suggestion.
They plant what is probably an overabundance of explosives, but the blazing inferno setting them off produces is darkly satisfying. At least he can give Bucky this, too—this small, pathetic thing.
The people I’m looking for—I don’t know where they are.
Spring has arrived.
Let me not despair.
Song for the Festival, Gretchen Marquette
He cuts Bucky’s hair in the tiny bathroom of their tiny apartment. When he’s finished, they both stare at their reflections in the mirror and see ghosts instead. Or at least Steve does. Bucky looks exactly like he did when he fell from the train, four and seventy-one years ago.
Not exactly, Steve tells himself to keep from panicking. He’s thinner, sharper, and there are new shadows in eyes and scars on his skin. Still, Bucky turns away from the mirror quickly and gives Steve a bright, fake grin as though Steve can’t see right through him. “Your turn.”
They dye his hair hunched over the rickety bath/shower combo and still manage to make a mess. Bucky swears up a storm, Brooklyn accent coming through thick, and Steve laughs for what feels like the first time in years. In those moments, it feels like this is possible, and he clings to that when Bucky turns off the tap and towel dries his hair.
“I think it suits you,” Bucky announces after a moment of assessment and Steve blinks at his reflection in the mirror.
He looks different with dark hair—older, maybe, paler, definitely; less like Captain America—and it invokes a tangle of feelings in his chest. He burned his uniform with the Hydra base and his shield belongs to Tony Stark now and he’s still not sure if he’s relieved or devastated by it.
He runs his fingers through his dark hair and tells himself this is a new beginning.
Bucky is quiet behind him—always so damn knowing—but when Steve turns around he doesn’t ask if Steve’s sure, if Bucky is still worth all this. They both know what Steve’s answer will be.
What it always will be.
“I think I might grow a beard,” Steve declares, rubbing his chin, and is pleasantly surprised when Bucky laughs.
Steve shoves him lightly and Bucky’s grin is fucking sunlight.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Steve buys a sketchbook from a street vendor and draws everything but Bucky. They wander Paris with baseball caps pulled low over their eyes and drink coffee from quaint cafes. He remembers it during the liberation—the bombed out buildings and rubble strewn streets, the weariness and joy on people’s faces as they greeted the arriving soldiers—and he marvels at how well the city has recovered in the decades since.
If not for the numerous memorials, the war would feel like a dream.
Bucky looks around with the same awe, almost child-like, and mentions, in starts and stops and pained pauses, coming here as the Winter Soldier. He can remember the assassination, the blood on his hands, but not the city and Steve aches aches aches.
They go to the Louvre and wander along the Seine and travel slow and reverent through Notre Dame. And through it all Steve has to resist the urge to take Bucky’s hand and lace their fingers together like lovers.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bucky screams every night, wakes up sobbing and babbling words in a dozen languages Steve doesn’t understand. (He doesn’t need to, though, to hear the desperation in them—to guess that they’re variations of no and please and stop and to feel the cracks in his ribcage each one makes.)
Some nights Bucky wakes up and doesn’t remember where he is. Steve talks him away from the edge with his back against a wall and Bucky’s metal hand wrapped around his throat and pretends not to see the devastation in Bucky’s eyes when he comes back to himself.
“It’s not your fault,” he says like a mantra, ignoring the fading bruises ringing his neck. “I’d rather you fight it,” he adds sometimes because he hates the nights Bucky goes blank and complacent—empty of everything that makes him human.
Bucky always shakes his head, ashamed and angry, and some nights he retreats to the opposite side of their cramped apartment and others he seeks refuge on the roof. Steve always lets him but only starts breathing again when Bucky comes back to him in the morning.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“You shouldn’t have done it,” Bucky says in the aftermath of a horrible night. Steve has a cracked eye socket and a split lip this time and Bucky hasn’t looked at him in nearly half an hour.
They’re on the roof, watching Paris by night and Steve is attempting to draw the Eiffel Tower even though he can’t see the pad and his stupid hands won’t stop trembling. They broke the table—one of the only pieces of furniture in that dump—and adrenaline is pumping through his veins like a drug.
He wants to run until his head empties, but he won’t leave Bucky.
“You’re my friend,” he argues back, though that’s too simple a statement for Bucky. Bucky is everything. Steve just hasn’t quite figured out how to remind him of that. “I’m not going to abandon you.”
“You’re also Captain fucking America,” Bucky points out without any real malice.
“I was Steve Rogers first.”
Bucky finally looks at him and Steve hates the sadness there. “I know. But I’m not—”
“This is not your fault,” Steve cuts him off. He’s getting fucking sick of this argument, especially since it’s started coming up every other night.
“I punched you in the face,” Bucky snaps back. “Repeatedly.”
Bucky’s jaw clenches and Steve takes a gamble and scoots closer, pressing in along Bucky’s side. “You think I’m gonna blame you for nightmares, Buck? Jesus, they’re normal. I still get them. I’d be shocked if you didn’t. I can take it and I’m not leaving you. Not again.”
Bucky’s gaze snaps to him. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“I should’ve looked—”
“No,” Bucky cuts him off, fierce. “Fuck that. That isn’t on you, Steve.”
Steve pauses, takes him in, and thinks, stunned, you didn’t break. He should have—after so many decades of torture, of having his brain scrambled over and over and over until he didn’t even remember his own name, of the rivers of blood running from his hands—he should be in pieces, but. He’s here, eyes blazing bright and alive, and for all his nightmares and his flashbacks and his triggers, he’s still fucking James Buchanan Barnes and somehow, impossibly, wonderfully, Steve still knows him.
There are a thousand words tangled up in his throat: you’re amazing and fuck, I love you so much and I’ve missed you and I’m sorry and don’t ever leave me again. He can’t get a single one of them out. They’re too much and not enough and without giving himself time to think, he fists a hand in Bucky’s shirt and kisses him.
It’s messy, too rough, and probably too soon but Bucky only stiffens for a moment before leaning into it and just like that they’re making out on a fucking rooftop like a pair of teenagers.
It feels much better than it probably should.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They have sex for the first time in years like this: on the mattress shoved into the corner of their apartment—frantic, desperate. It’s chaos - pain and pleasure and sorrow and love all mixed up into a hurricane - and Steve sobs his orgasm into the hot skin of Bucky’s neck, holding on hard enough to bruise.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The morning after, Steve wakes to an empty apartment and immediately forgets how to breathe. He puts his head between his bent legs and tells himself that Bucky wouldn’t just up and run. Not now, after everything they’ve both sacrificed—his battered shield cast at Tony Stark’s feet and his uniform burnt with the last remnants of Hydra.
The front door clicks, loud in the stillness, and Bucky enters. His ragged black baseball cap is pulled over his hair and he’s clutching what looks like coffee and pastries in his gloved hands. Steve laughs, relieved, and then can’t stop.
Bucky hovers, confused, at the edge of the mattress. Steve finally controls himself enough to say, “You bought me breakfast.” Though he doubts that’s very explanatory. It just feels so normal. A ridiculous, normal morning after with coffee and pastries and hopefully none of the shame and terror Steve was expecting.
Please, let them have a break—at least about this. If it’s the only thing that’s easy, that’s more than enough for Steve.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, finally sinking back onto the mattress, though he stays seated a good foot away from Steve.
Please, Steve half prays. Please.
“I didn’t think you’d want this anymore,” Bucky blurts before Steve can figure out how to safely navigate the impending conversation.
He was expecting that from Bucky but it still hurts. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Bucky shoots him an incredulous look.
“We can now,” Steve continues, taking the coffee from Bucky’s slack hand and setting it aside. “We don’t have to hide.” He pauses, rewinds that, and smiles, wry. “Well, this, anyway.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then what is? That we’ve changed? I’ve noticed.”
“I’m a fucking mess,” Bucky argues. “Fuck. More than that—a time bomb. One bad dream that I can’t snap out of, a few words, and I could kill you.”
Steve shrugs and takes a sip of his coffee. “I’ve survived so far.”
“Again, not the fucking point, Steve. You deserve—”
“A second chance with the love of my life who I thought was dead? Yeah, I think I probably do.”
Bucky looks seconds away from throwing his hands up in frustration. “Stop being such a stubborn idiot about this!”
“And you stop being a martyr. I love you, Buck. I’ve loved you my whole life and I have you back. I know the risks. I know we’re not the same—nothing is. But we could have a future, a real future together, and if I’m an idiot for wanting that, then fine, because I do. More than anything.”
“A future?” Bucky asks dubiously. “As internationally wanted criminals? Really?”
Steve shrugs again. “I can kiss you in public without getting arrested.”
Bucky laughs, clearly off-balance, and scrubs a hand over his face. “I forgot how fucking stubborn you are.”
Steve sets down the coffee and takes his hand, because Bucky is terrified and deep down Steve is, too, but. “I have you. That’s more than I ever thought I’d get to have again, Buck. The rest we can figure out.”
Bucky shakes his head, but he doesn’t pull away.
They eat the pastries on the mattress, watching the spring sunlight stream in through the dirty window.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The nightmares get worse. Bucky puts two holes in the wall, breaks three of Steve’s ribs, and doesn’t talk for a full day after. He starts to space out during the day, too—forgetting the year and the city and that he doesn’t have a mission anymore.
They can’t keep on like this, Steve realizes after it takes him nearly an entire afternoon to snap Bucky out of his fugue state. This is going to kill them both.
“This is ridiculous,” Bucky mutters into his neck that evening. “I’ve had two fucking years out of the ice—I shouldn’t—”
“Stop it,” Steve says, carding his fingers through Bucky’s hair. “You were with Hydra for decades, Buck. Think it’s gonna take longer than two years.”
Bucky makes a low, miserable sound in the back of his throat and pushes himself up. “I need some air. Come on.”
They walk though nearly empty streets—breath heavy in the still-cold spring air. The lights are too bright. They weren’t, during the war. Back then there was almost no light at all.
Bucky stops at a park bench and sits down, hands stuffed in his pockets and head tilted up to a starless sky. “I’m not getting better,” he says, flat, and Steve flinches.
“You will. You just need—”
“Time?” Bucky sighs. “I don’t know if time can fix this. There’s … there’s a minefield in my head. Time won’t change that.”
Steve sits next to him and wishes he knew what to say. But this—all these decades, all these ghosts, all this fucking tragedy—is too big for words. So he leans into Bucky, takes his hand, and watches the sun rise over the Paris rooftops.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He’s shopping in a market when a stranger approaches him and presses a package into his arms. The man is gone before Steve can question him. He tears a corner off the brown paper wrapping and feels all the air punch out of his lungs.
A red notebook with a star on the front and worn, battered pages.
There’s a coded message stuck to the cover that takes him a moment to decipher. Natasha. He doesn’t bother wondering how she found him or why she’s decided to give him this. It feels like poison in his hands—all of Hydra’s notes on how to break someone down until they forget how to be human.
He stuffs it in his jacket and spends the walk home trying to figure out what to do.
In the end, he just holds the book out to Bucky—unable to offer any explanation. Bucky flinches like Steve’s punched him, but takes the book with trembling, calloused fingers. He flips it open and laughs—twisted and bitter and terrible.
“Hydra’s how-to book,” he mutters.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says pointlessly, helplessly.
Bucky closes the book. “Romanoff, right?”
Steve nods and waits to see what Bucky’s choice will be, even if he can already guess.
“We need to get rid of these triggers,” Bucky says. “I’m not … I can’t…”
“Okay.” It’s an easy agreement, made without hesitation. Where Bucky leads, he’ll follow.
“Not here,” Bucky continues, glancing around their apartment. “If Romanoff found us…”
“Okay.” Steve reaches for Bucky, kisses him—long and deep and as reassuring as he can make it. “Okay. I’ll find us a place.”
Buck smiles at him. His eyes are empty.
“A single thought can make loneliness seem frighteningly new.
We destroy the paths of rivers to make room for the sea.”
Meditation for Silence of the Morning, Adam Clay
Bucky whistles when they step off the boat, eyes wide as he stares up at the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the tiny town nestled on the banks of the fjord.
“You really know how to pick ‘em, Stevie.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Steve shoulders his backpack and waves at the boat captain, joining Bucky on the shore. “I’ve got us a cabin up in the hills. Should be already stocked. And I doubt anyone will look for us here.”
“No shit,” Bucky agrees.
Steve squeezes his shoulder. “Told you not to doubt me.”
“You literally google searched ‘remote places to visit.’”
“And it worked.”
Bucky rolls his eyes, but there’s a smile in the corner of his mouth and he looks better than he has in days. Steve can’t resist the urge to cup his cheek briefly, rubbing along the bone with his thumb—utterly, pathetically sappy, but Bucky doesn’t pull away and his smile settles into something warm and familiar, edged with affection that curls heavy in Steve’s chest.
Steve drops his hand too soon and Bucky straightens his shoulders. “Right. Lead the way, captain.”
Steve shakes his head and tucks the moment away for safekeeping.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It’s supposedly a two-hour hike to the cabin but they make it in one. Bucky whistles again. It’s small and weather-worn, surrounded by rocky hills and perched on the edge of a mountain.
No one for miles and miles.
Here, Steve thinks, they can break.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He locks away everything sharp in the cabin while Bucky sits outside. Bucky can hurt him without a weapon, but he hopes that this will help, at least.
The sun is setting when he crouches next to Bucky, catching the mountains and the lake on fire. Bucky adjusts his cap and murmurs, “I have no idea how to do this.”
“Neither do I,” Steve admits, even though he’s been reading books on hypnotism, therapy, and brainwashing since they decided to leave Paris. His backpack is full of them and he’s typed every search into Google he can think of.
They need professional help, probably, but being wanted in over a hundred and seventeen countries means nowhere to go.
“It’s ten words, Buck,” he continues with a strength he doesn’t feel. “We can handle that.”
“That’s the sad part,” Bucky mutters. “They broke my brain with ten fucking words.”
“You’re not broken,” Steve fires back, fierce. “A little fucked up, maybe.” Bucky laughs, incredulous and jagged-edged. “But not broken.”
“You have too much faith in me.”
Steve nudges him. “I’m just returning the favour.”
Bucky shoves him back and climbs to his feet. “C’mon, I don’t want to think about this right now.”
Steve smirks. “I can help with that.”
“Jesus, you are so fucking corny it’s unbe—”
Steve cuts him off with a kiss, grins when Bucky moans into his mouth in frustration. From there, they stumble into the cabin and this time Steve slides into Bucky gentle and slow—draws it out as long as he can, touches Bucky with reverent hands and wishes he could sink all the love filling his chest into Bucky’s bones—deep enough that he’ll never doubt it again. Deep enough that he’ll always be able to feel it.
Buck rattles apart with a loud groan that Steve savours, thrilled they don’t have to hide— hands clapped over their mouths so the neighbours won’t hear.
It’s a victory, in a sad way, but at least they have one good thing.
After, Bucky curls into him—face pressed to his neck—and whispers like a confession, “I keep waiting to wake up in the chair.”
He shifts to brush his lips along Bucky’s temple. “You won’t. You’re safe and this is real.”
“Yeah, and hard to believe.”
“Well we’ve fucking earned it.”
Bucky rolls on top of him, hands planted on either side of his head. His eyes are bright in the darkness. “Thirty-four confirmed high-profile assassinations, most of them innocents. Dozens of other lives lost on those missions as collateral damage. There’s enough blood on my hands to fill a fucking ocean, Steve.”
“That wasn’t you,” Steve replies. “You didn’t have a choice.”
“I still did it,” Bucky says. “And I can still feel the blood. It’s never gonna wash off.”
Steve sits up, takes Bucky’s hand. “I know. I know, but that isn’t yours to bear. Blame Hydra. Zola. That stupid train. Me, for not looking for you. The war and all the ones after it. But not yourself.”
“I gave up!” Bucky snaps, wrenching his hand free. “I let them win!”
“Like hell you did. You’re here, aren’t you? You’re here and you’re James Barnes, in spite of everything. You won, Buck.”
“It sure as fuck doesn’t feel like it,” Bucky chokes out, bitter. “And my mind … anyone with those stupid goddamned words can…”
He trails off with a hiccupping, frustrated breath.
“We’re gonna fix that,” Steve promises, because it’s all he can give.
“And if we can’t?”
“I’m so tired,” Bucky whispers. “I’m so fucking tired, Steve.”
So is Steve.
He pushes that away—one of them has to be strong and it’s about damn time Bucky had someone to lean on—and wraps his arms around Bucky.
They don’t sleep.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ten words. Innocent. Seemingly random.
Just ten fucking words.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Okay,” Steve announces from his perch on a rock. Bucky paces an agitated circle in the field in front of him. “They trained your brain to associate those words with absolute obedience. It’s essentially really advanced hypnosis. What we need to do is plant suggestions to negate the original ones. So instead of meaning obedience they mean something else.”
“You make it sound so simple,” Bucky gripes.
“It took me five books and thirteen google searches just to get that,” Steve admits and Bucky stops to stare at him.
“We’re fucked, aren’t we?”
He flips open the red notebook and takes a deep, fortifying breath. “Let’s start with ‘longing’.”
Bucky flinches, shudders, but sets his jaw, ready for a fight.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This is hell, Steve has decided. Not the ice, not those first moments waking up in a strange ghost world, not seeing the Winter Soldier looking out of Bucky’s eyes, but this: watching Bucky sob and shake in the grass, fighting a battle that Steve can’t help him win.
“C’mon, Buck,” he says, voice cracking. “Stay with me. Seventeen. Remember when we were seventeen? That God-awful winter?”
“I worked extra shifts,” Bucky rasps, digging metal fingers into the dirt like an anchor. “At the docks so I could buy medicine for you. You got so sick.”
“Yeah. But something else happened, remember?” Steve coaxes, hand on Bucky’s shoulder.
“Thought you were gonna die, but—fuck, Steve.” He’s crying from the pain and there’s nothing Steve can do.
“What else? C’mon, Buck, you can do this. What else?”
“You kissed me,” Bucky manages. “Fuck—in an alley after art class like a reckless idiot.”
“Yes, hold onto that. Just think about that.”
Bucky sobs, trembles, and Steve holds him close. “It was the scariest moment of my life,” he murmurs into Bucky’s hair. “Until you kissed me back. Then I was over the fucking moon. I didn’t care that it was freezing or that we could have been arrested—you wanted me back. That was … that was everything.”
“Everything,” Bucky echoes and clutches Steve’s hand so hard the bones grind together.
Steve hardly feels it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bucky sleeps and fights and breaks and Steve tries desperately to hold them both together. He stays awake to soothe Bucky’s nightmares and strokes his back as he lies on the bed with empty, unfocused eyes, talking about nothing and everything until Bucky comes back to him. He doesn’t stare too long at his reflection in the bathroom mirror because he doesn’t recognize the exhausted, dark-haired man looking back. He’s grown a beard for the first time in his life and his face is gaunt, lined with a weariness that’s bone-deep. His eyes are too blue and grief-stricken.
He’s not Captain America, but he no longer feels like Steve Rogers, either, and he has no idea where that leaves him.
Maybe he’s turning into a ghost. Maybe they both are.
He thinks this might be what dying looks like.
Or maybe this is living.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They go over the words again and again and again until they’re burned onto Steve’s heart and mind like a brand: longing, rusted, seventeen, daybreak, furnace, nine, benign, homecoming, one, freight car. He hears them in his dreams, echoing in his own voice while Bucky screams bloody and broken at his feet.
So far, no matter how hard Bucky fights, those goddamn words win. As soon as the last one leaves Steve’s lips, Bucky goes still and blank—the Winter Solider, not the man he loves, and the only way to bring him back is hard reset. So Bucky bleeds and Steve can feel his ribs cracking from the weight of his broken heart whenever he has to knock him unconscious.
“I’m sorry,” he says every time. “I’m sorry.”
And Bucky smiles at him, tragic and understanding, as blood drips down the side of his face.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Not today,” Steve announces one morning when Bucky picks up the book (even though they don’t need it anymore. They both know the words.) “Let’s go for a hike.”
Bucky has dark circles under his eyes and Steve has a sprained wrist from last night’s round of terrors, but they each pack a bag and set out. The countryside unfolds before them in a riot of green and Steve loses himself in the sunlight on the mountains and the water, and the way the wind makes the grass dance.
They stop to eat on a cliff overlooking a sprawling lake. In the distance, the fjords join the sea.
“It’s beautiful,” Bucky murmurs.
Steve hums in agreement.
“Do you miss the shield?” Bucky asks suddenly. “The uniform?”
“Sometimes.” He didn’t doubt himself as much when he was Captain America. There was no room for it—he was a leader, a symbol, and that was both a burden and a gift. Some nights, when Bucky’s fighting unseen demons, he misses the shield like a limb, but never the weight of it against his back.
“Still can’t believe you gave it up.” Bucky shakes his head. “Captain America—a wanted criminal. The brass would’ve had a conniption. Hell, they’re probably turning in their graves right now.”
Steve lets out a jagged bark of laughter. “It was what I knew how to be. They said I could still do good—that the world needed me.”
“You don’t believe that anymore?” Bucky prods and Steve sighs.
Does he? After Hydra, SHIELD, Ultron, Sokovia, the Accords, and Tony Stark looking up at him, bloody and furious and betrayed — “I don’t know. I think … maybe Captain America belongs in a museum now.”
“Well, we are a hundred years old.”
Steve kicks him idly, grinning. Bucky grins back and God, he looks close to healthy for the first time in days. “Besides that. It … the war was more black and white. Heroes and villains. It isn’t that simple anymore. The world doesn’t need Captain America the way it did back then. I represent an age that’s over and … I can’t be what they want me to be in this new one.” He sighs. “I just … I’ve been Captain America for so long, Buck. I’m not sure who I am without him.”
Bucky frowns at him. “Captain America is a fucking uniform. You’re Steve. You’ve always been Steve. That’s who I followed back then. So they dressed you up in a stupid costume and called you a symbol—beneath it you were still Steve Rogers and you’re him now. I didn’t come here for Captain America. I came here for the idiot kid from Brooklyn who didn’t know how to quit in a fight and for some unfathomable reason was in love with his equally stupid best friend, even when the whole fucking world was telling him he wasn’t allowed to be. That’s who you are.”
Steve blinks back the sudden onslaught of tears at the absolute certainty in Bucky’s voice. “Fuck, I’ve missed you,” he hiccups, wiping frantically at his eyes.
Bucky reaches for him, laces their fingers together like stitches over wounds. “I’ve missed you, too,” he murmurs back.
“Then why did you run for two years?”
Bucky sighs. “Because I didn’t think I was someone you could love anymore. And I didn’t want you to get hurt.” His lips twitch in a self-deprecating smile. “Should’ve remembered how impossible that is. Over seventy years and you still haven’t learned not to throw yourself into pointless fights.”
“You’re not a pointless fight,” Steve insists.
“So you keep telling me.”
“And I’m not about to stop, either.”
“I know.” Bucky kisses the back of his hand and stands. “Come on. Bet we can find a way down to that lake.”
Steve pushes himself to his feet. “Lead the way.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It rains one afternoon. Pours.
Bucky stands out in it, eyes closed, until he’s soaked to the bone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Longing, rusted, seventeen, daybreak, furnace, nine, benign, homecoming, one, freight car—the hardest battle they’ve ever fought.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Steve rubs Bucky’s back as he vomits, hunched over the sink in the kitchen. They’ve made it to homecoming, but Steve isn’t sure that’s a victory. There’s blood mixed in with the bile and more of it dripping down Bucky’s nose. That’s becoming more frequent and Steve is worried. Bucky always reminds him they’re trying to undo seventy years of brainwashing and did he really think it wasn’t going to hurt?
And the truth is that no, Steve didn’t—at least not this much.
“It’s what I wanted more than anything,” Bucky says abruptly, head down. He wipes at the blood, but it only smears across his face. “For the war to be over so that we could go back to Brooklyn and … and be together. Figure out a future.”
Steve hums in quiet agreement, because God he’d wanted that, too. Imagined it a hundred times back then and a thousand since he woke up. In the early days, that was his only comfort: dreaming about an impossible future with someone six decades gone.
“We made it,” he replies as he hands Bucky a towel to clean his face with. Bucky arches a disbelieving eyebrow at him and he shrugs, feeling heat flood his cheeks. “You’re my home. And I have you back, so…”
“You’re my home,” Bucky repeats softly and takes a deep breath. “Say them again.”
“Buck—” He starts to protest, but Bucky glares at him with iron-clad determination.
“Say them again.”
Aching, Steve does—the harsh Russian syllables now falling easily off his tongue. This time, Bucky makes it through homecoming and Steve stops there, watching Bucky collapse into a chair at the kitchen table like a puppet with its strings cut.
“I’m still here,” Bucky pants into the rough-cut wood. His nose is bleeding again but his grin is fierce with triumph. “I’m still here.”
Steve takes the other chair and leans over to press a kiss to Bucky’s temple, rubbing soothing circles on his back.
He takes it back. This is definitely a victory.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Summer gives way to Fall gives way to Winter.
Snow covers the green hills. The fjords carry ice to the ocean.
They finally start to mend.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Freight car,” Steve says and Bucky fights, fights, fights.
“I’m with you,” Steve adds. “I’m here, Buck. 'Til the end of the line.”
Bucky fists his metal hand in Steve’s jacket. “Steve,” he rasps like a prayer as he starts to shatter. “Steve.” And then he’s gone.
Steve stares into the Soldier’s empty, cold eyes and wishes suddenly that he could just reach into Bucky’s head and rip all of this away—this terrible part of him that Hyrda made.
“Soldat,” he says and winces when Bucky answers back “ready to comply” in perfect Russian.
He wonders, often, how long it took before they got Bucky to say that. How many times they had to repeat these goddamned words and scramble his mind until Bucky knelt before them. He wishes, equally often, that they weren’t all dead because he wants to hear them scream and break like Bucky did—over and over and over until there’s nothing left.
He wants to paint the walls with their blood. But he’s too late and the Winter Solider is blinking at him expectantly so he locks his helpless rage back into its battered box and lifts the shovel. A punch won’t work on Bucky and fuck he hates this.
The Soldier stands there, docile, as Steve swings the shovel at his head. It takes three blows to knock him out. When he wakes up two hours later, it’s Bucky blinking sluggishly back at him.
“Stop blaming yourself,” are the first words out of his mouth and fuck, Steve can’t be strong anymore.
He grips Bucky’s hand in his own and cries—loud and messy with months and years of pent up fury and pain and guilt and grief.
“Steve,” Bucky murmurs sadly and pulls Steve onto the bed with him, wrapping him up in his arms like he used to when they were decades younger and Steve was a foot shorter. It still makes him feel safe like nothing else ever has.
“Stop it,” Steve hiccups pathetically, sobs making the words catch. “Shouldn’t … hafta be ... comforting me.”
“Shut up.” Bucky’s voice is affectionate and his fingers are gentle in Steve’s hair. “You’re allowed to be sad, idiot. It’s been fucking hard. For both of us.”
Steve can only muster another sob in response.
He wonders what people would think, if they could see the infallible Captain America now. Decides just as quickly that he doesn’t give a damn.
He isn’t Captain America anymore and Steve Rogers is long overdue a breakdown. So he lets himself cry it all out into Bucky’s chest until he feels drained, relieved.
“Better?” Bucky asks softly and Steve lifts his head to seal their mouths together, pouring all of his unspoken gratitude into the kiss.
Bucky smiles at him when they part—the same protective, affectionate one he gave Steve after his mother’s funeral. “I’m with you, too, remember? I said it first.”
Steve half laughs half sobs and leans in for another kiss.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They finally start to mend.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bucky gasps, on his hands and knees in the snow, and Steve crouches next to him, willing this time to be different.
This time, let this time be different.
They deserve another fucking victory.
Bucky coughs and red drips from his mouth to stain the snow.
“Soldat?” Steve asks hesitantly as Bucky stills. He can’t breathe.
Please please please…
A beat, another, and he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe...
“Steve,” Bucky chokes out. “Steve…”
He’s still here. Fuck, fuck, he’s—
Steve shouts—an excited, uninebriated whoop that echoes off the rocky hills around them—and throws his arms around Bucky’s shoulders, hauling him to his feet. Bucky clutches his waist, pants into his neck. He’s unsteady, timorous, but fuck he’s still here and Steve is crying and laughing and crying as he spins them around in a jubilant circle. He doesn’t think he’s felt sheer joy like this since before the war, maybe ever.
“You did it!” He stops and cups Bucky’s face. “You did it, you did it!” A bruising kiss. “Fuck, you did it!”
Bucky’s eyes are misty, but he’s grinning and he lets Steve haul him into a hug and then another kiss. Steve wants to run, scream—adrenaline coursing so fast through his veins he feels ready to rattle apart.
“I love you,” he says, gripping Bucky’s arms. “I love you so much.”
“I love you, too,” Bucky finally manages, looking overwhelmed and trapped between a dozen different emotions. Shock, wonder, joy, exhaustion, awe, triumph—Steve watches them flick across his face one after the other and strokes his cheek.
“You’re incredible. You know that, right, Buck? You’re fucking incredible. And you’ve won.”
Buck absorbs this, eyes widening, and then he laughs—from his belly, shaking his whole body as he hunches over with his arms wrapped around his middle like a brace. “I won,” he gets out, tears starting to fall. “I won. I won…”
He jerks upright suddenly. “Say them again.”
Steve does and he can see that it hurts—pain in the clench of Bucky’s fists and jaw, the quake of his shoulders—but when he finishes Bucky’s eyes are clear. Bucky lets out a stunned sob and collapses to his knees in the snow. Steve follows without thought, uncaring of the fact that they’re both practically soaked through, and pulls Bucky close.
“I did it,” Bucky whispers to him. “I did it…”
“You did. I’m so fucking proud of you, Buck.”
Bucky smiles, wide and full and brilliant, and Steve is so, so in love.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They burn the red notebook. As it turns to ash in the fireplace, Steve turns to Bucky and asks, “So, what do you want to do now?”
Bucky’s answer is immediate. “I want to live.”
“The world owes us nothing. It promises less.
Call it: freedom. Free will. Or Wednesday.”
The Heart is a Foreign Country, Rangi McNeil
They globetrot for several months, checking places off their bucket lists: India, China, Italy, New Zealand, Thailand, Bhutan.
Steve buys a cheap digital camera early on and fills folders on his battered laptop with thousands of pictures. It’s still strange, seeing Bucky looking back at him in vibrant colour from his computer screen—the Taj Majhal majestic behind him and his face free of shadows. It feels a little like a dream, all of this. They’re together in two thousand fucking seventeen, traveling the world. They can hold hands in public, they can get married—it’s incredible and maybe as close to heaven as they’ll ever get with all the blood on their hands.
Still, there is an itch under his skin that grows and grows. He wakes up at night reaching for a shield that’s no longer there and as much as he would like to ride off into the metaphorical sunset with the love of his life, he’s always known that won’t be his destiny. He can’t ignore the hurting, broken places in the world, even though he’s managed to find so much happiness of his own.
Steve Rogers was always the one who couldn’t walk away from a fight, not Captain America.
He sits on the balcony of their hotel in Madagascar, watching the sun come up, and tries to figure out what to do. As usual, Bucky’s way ahead of him.
“Okay,” he says, leaning against the doorframe. His gaze is knowing and tender. “Let’s go save the world.”
He frowns. Bucky’s managed to find a measure of peace for the first time in decades. The nightmares are lessening, the words barely hurt anymore—Steve doesn’t want to drag him back into the fray. Bucky sighs and rolls his eyes.
“Stop with the guilty look, Rogers. My choice.” He smiles, a little sad. “And I figure I have some debts to society I should try to repay.”
“Not your fault,” Steve says automatically and Bucky’s smile lightens at his predictability.
“Still want to. Lead the way, Steve.”
Steve gets up to kiss him for that and they end up fucking quick and hot and a little rough against the wall—balcony doors still open to let in the tropical breeze.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It’s a quiet affair, now. No flashy uniforms, no alien invasions or killer robots or international acclaim. Steve dresses in plain clothes and carries weapons he rarely fires. Bucky hides the metal arm beneath gloves and jackets and they both learn how to make themselves smaller, quieter, more gentle.
They build houses in the Philippines—sweating alongside dozens of other volunteers in the hot tropical sun. They work in refugee camps in Turkey, delivering supplies and medicine. Steve spends two weeks helping an overtaxed medical team administer treatment to the sick and the wounded and Bucky, charming as ever, collects a small gaggle of children that follow him around like ducklings as he helps pitch tents and haul cargo.
One little girl rides on his shoulders for three days straight and Steve snaps a dozen surreptitious pictures.
They fight where they have to: an escort mission in Nigeria, defending a village in the DRC, breaking up a terrorist cell in Malaysia. But Steve learns to slow down, to build as well as battle. He hears thousands of stories, picks up words and phrases in a dozen languages, learns about cultures vastly different than his own.
And he watches Bucky live—discover how to be comfortable in his skin again, realize that he can be seen as something other than a weapon or a monster. People everywhere are fascinated by the metal arm and the first time someone calls it beautiful, Bucky looks ready to break down in tears. His easy charm makes them friends wherever they go and the haunted lines on his face he’ll never completely be rid of mean that mothers constantly fuss over them, piling Bucky’s arms with food and insisting he take care of himself.
Bucky seems constantly overwhelmed by it all and Steve aches, because, God, he wants Bucky to realize how incredible and strong and wonderful he is. Steve is in awe of him every single fucking day and he’s not surprised that anyone who gets to know Bucky shares that opinion.
“This feels good,” Bucky tells him as they bump along in the back of a truck full of supplies for another refugee camp in Kenya. “Helping. Instead of killing.”
Steve hums in agreement. He’ll take this over fighting aliens any day.
He was so fucking tired of killing.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“You guys look good,” Clint announces when they see him in South Sudan. They’re supposed to be helping train a local militia to help defend the surrounding villages, but the enemy decided to rudely attack in the middle of drills and now they’re fighting for their goddamn lives. “I’m loving the rugged look, Cap.”
Steve ducks behind cover as a grenade goes off a few feet away and misses his shield. “Thanks, Barton. You look good, too.”
Clint grins down at him from his perch on a nearby rooftop and Steve has missed him, too. All of them, sometimes, even Tony for all his broken stubbornness.
“Can you two stop flirting and help?” Bucky asks from a few feet away, crouched behind an overturned truck.
Clint gives him a truly tragic salute and the next few hours are chaos. Steve revels in it, in Bucky’s presence at his side and Clint’s protective eye above them.
This, this is living and he’s starting to feel whole again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In Kosovo, Bucky shoots a woman in the head.
She was carrying a bomb—ready to set it off in a public square—but Bucky still wakes up screaming that night. Steve finds him in the bathroom, scrubbing his hands as hard as he can, and pulls him away from the sink.
Bucky, thankfully, doesn’t fight him. Steve presses gentle kisses to the back of his neck and whispers “not your fault” until Bucky stops shaking.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“How long do you think we’ll live?” Bucky asks him as they help typhoon victims in an Indonesian hospital. “I mean, discounting unnatural causes.”
“Like drowning?” Steve grumbles—still angry about Bucky nearly getting himself killed trying to save a family in a flooded house that morning.
“Not apologising for that,” Bucky says flatly, and Steve, for all his frustration (worry, terror), would never ask him to. He got the family out safe.
“I don’t know,” he says in response to Bucky’s first question. “I’m not sure we can age. Or if we do, it’s really slowly.”
Bucky flexes his metal hand. “Well, I don’t think we were ever meant to get old and grey.”
Steve glances around at the chaos of the hospital and Bucky’s face, still full of cuts from debris. “No, we aren’t.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They have dinner with Sam in Cairo. The rest of the team’s doing well—scattered to the four corners of the globe, but they stay in touch when they can. Wanda’s helping with rebuilding projects in Nepal, Clint and Natasha are working on preventing a civil war somewhere on Africa’s gulf coast, and Lang is gathering intelligence on a brewing coup in Argentina, where Sam is supposed to join him tomorrow.
Sam looks healthy, bright, and it settles something in Steve’s heart, knowing everyone is okay. He fears often that he failed them, dragged them into this shadowed life with him. So far, no one has looked too hard for them, but he isn’t sure if that’s Tony’s influence or the fact that they’re all getting good at staying off the radar.
No big heroics is a good working policy. Oh, the irony.
Sam makes them promise to keep in touch, asks them way too much about their relationship, insists Steve make him best man at their inevitable wedding, and slips away into the evening crowd with a jaunty wave.
“He’s annoying,” Bucky announces into the silence Sam left behind. “I’m glad you had him.”
Steve laughs, squeezes Bucky’s hand under the table. “Me too.”
They don’t talk about the (multiple) marriage hints Sam dropped, but Steve lies awake that night, wondering where and when he can buy a ring.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They break up a massive human trafficking ring in Albania, chase down gun runners in Liberia, and aide in peacekeeping efforts in Burundi. Steve drafts and rejects a dozen romantic proposals in his head while Bucky …
… Bucky settles. The nightmares are weekly, sometimes even monthly occurrences now instead of nightly ones. His smile comes easy and unhindered. He no longer flinches from his reflection in the mirror and those ten words are powerless.
He burns so bright and Steve’s chest is full to the brim with everything he feels for him. The rest of their lives together is a given, but God, Steve wants to do this right.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Will you marry me?” He blurts out while lying underneath a truck on a highway in Yemen. They’re surrounded and Steve’s fairly sure he’s got a bullet lodged somewhere in his leg. “At some point?”
The left side of Bucky’s face is streaked with blood from a cut on his forehead and he got shot in the side at the start of this mess. “Of course I will,” he says without hesitation, in the middle of reloading his rifle. “Don’t be an idiot.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Captain America is gone. Steve Rogers is an international criminal wanted in over a hundred and seventeen countries. He lives on the road, on the run—moving constantly from conflict to crisis to disaster. He builds where he can and kills where he has to.
He isn’t out to save the world, not really. That was Captain America’s job. Steve Rogers just wants to help soothe its broken, battered places. He doesn’t care about symbolism, or patriotism, only the people that he meets—damaged, sometimes desperate, but always brave, always strong. He collects their stories of heartbreak and hope and tragedy and healing and keeps them close to his heart.
He and Bucky wade into battle side by side, like always. They make love in careworn hotel rooms and kiss in the back of moving trucks, stealing moments with each other in the same way they’ve done their whole lives. Steve manages to find a ring in a market in South Africa and Bucky wears it around his neck on a chain.
They pick a date to call their official anniversary and celebrate it huddled in a tent, listening to the steady drum of jungle rain and kissing by lantern light. Steve finds an old radio in Serbia and they dance to 1940s swing music in their room, laughing as they trip over each other’s feet.
It isn’t an easy life. There’s still blood and wars to fight. Neither of them are innocent men and Steve doubts either of them will ever cleanse the red in their ledgers, but.
“I’m happy,” Bucky announces, warm and still a little sleepy in Budapest’s morning light. “Didn’t think I’d ever be. After.”
Steve curls a hand against his bare side and smiles into his skin. “Me too.”
Captain America is gone, but Steve Rogers is content.
“Let it be said while in the midst of horror we fed on beauty—and that, my love, is what sustained us.”
Transit, Rita Dove