Actions

Work Header

Like Running Water Slipping Through My Fingers

Chapter Text

Stream gncurrier's podfic, chapter one

OR click here for mobile streaming

 

Stream reena_jenkins' podfic, chapter one

OR click here for mobile streaming

*****

The search for Bucky is a long, and mostly fruitless one. It’s been nearly a year and a half of cold trails and barely there traces. Once, in Italy, Steve catches the brief flash of metal and unruly dark hair on a street corner, but by the time he and Sam push through the crowd to reach the corner he can’t be certain he’d actually seen what he’d thought he’d seen at all. The town is only a few miles from the burnt out ruins of what had once been HYDRA’s first base back during the war though, and Steve thinks maybe that’s a good sign.

But the months pass and it’s exhausting. It only takes four months for Steve to give in and tell Tony everything. Of course, Tony had already put together a lot of it based on shaky cell phone footage from D.C. and a thorough mining of the HYDRA and SHIELD files Natasha had released onto the internet. Natasha comes back from wherever she’d gone with a truck full of dusty files pulled from some hellhole in Siberia and Clint in tow. Bruce, comfortably ensconced in his lab in Stark Tower, listens to Steve’s account of the fight on the helicarrier, digs through the pieces of files that they’ve pulled together, and starts coming up with theories about electroconvulsive therapy, benzodiazepine, brainwashing and mental conditioning that are horrifying, and yet, not as horrifying as some of the notes actually listed in the files on the ‘maintenance’ of the Winter Soldier.

Tony watches the video of the Winter Soldier killing his parents in stony silence. They’d been going through several old video reels from the boxes Natasha had brought back, and all of them had been horrifying. Bruce tries to shut the video off as soon as he realizes what it is, but Tony smacks his hand away so hard that Bruce nearly goes green. No one says anything until it’s over. Then Tony stands sharply and heads for the door. He shrugs off Sam’s hand, ignores Steve’s efforts to talk to him, and locks himself in his workshop for three days.

When he finally comes out he stands in front of Steve, arms crossed so tight over his chest that it almost looks like his shirt is going to rip over the bulge of the arc reactor. “If it’s your friend we find, then I’ll let it go,” Tony says, though the anger in his voice matches the tension coiled in his arms and his jaw is clenched tight around the words. “But if I see even a hint of that-” He doesn’t elaborate on what ‘that’ means, and he doesn’t finish the threat either; he doesn’t need to.

Steve stares back at him levelly, and the sustained ache of rage and grief over what was done to Bucky is joined by a throb of sorrow for Tony. Steve knows what it means to be orphaned young, to be left alone in the world with nothing but pain and questions that will never be answered. He hurts for Tony, and he understands on some level, which is why he suppresses the surge of instinctive protectiveness at the implied threat and he keeps his voice low and calm when he answers. “Bucky was just the weapon, it was HYDRA that pulled the trigger.”

Tony glares at him, muscles in his forearms twitching as his hands clench and unclench. Then he nods decisively and his expression splits into a grin edged with steel. “Time to hunt some nazis then.”

They don’t talk about it again after that. Tony takes a step back from the hunt for Bucky and focuses more of his energy on rooting out and demolishing every HYDRA cell he can. Steve hates the thought of Bucky out there somewhere, alone and in god only knows what state of mind or body, but he does take a vicious pleasure in fighting side by side with his team to smash every HYDRA agent they can find in the face.

And a year passes. The search for Bucky becomes colder, more of a dream than an activity as the files are picked clean and the media alerts stay silent. The battle against HYDRA keeps them busy, and keeps them together. With Thor’s return from Asgard the whole team is reassembled and within months they work surprisingly smoothly together, both on and off the battlefield. Stark Tower becomes Avengers Tower and team dinners happen at least once a week. It’s a strange life that Steve finds himself falling into, and although it’s nice to have friends again, to not be alone and lost in a strange world, there’s a constant negative space next to him where Bucky should be.

*****

The first time he kisses Tony it’s after a particularly exhilarating bust of a HYDRA base just in time to prevent them from setting off some kind of bomb that would disperse neurotoxin over most of the state of New York. Steve is high on adrenalin and Tony’s mouth tastes like blood from when he’d bitten through his lip some time during the fight. The kiss is rough, bordering on furious, and there’s no room for air, let alone words, between them until they’ve reached Tony’s bedroom and Tony’s pushing Steve down on the bed. There’s a pause, just a moment, when Tony has climbed onto the bed over Steve, his hand on Steve’s chest as though holding him down, and Steve can feel the words he should say like a physical thing in his throat. But then something flickers in Tony’s eyes too fast for Steve to interpret and Tony surges forward, kissing him again until Steve loses track of everything but the slide of skin on skin and the metallic taste of Tony.

When it’s over and they’re both sticky but sated, Tony falls asleep with a half mumbled sigh about “doing that again.” Steve, however, lies awake for a long time. He watches the glow of Tony’s arc reactor on the ceiling and thinks about nothing in particular while he waits for his brain to come back online. It had been messy and almost frantic, but it had been so good just to be touched again. To Steve’s mind it’s going on three years since someone has touched him like that, but to his body it has technically been well over seventy, and either way he hadn’t realized the desperation with which he’d been craving that kind of connection until he’d wrapped his body around Tony’s and held on a little too tightly for as long as he could.

But the room is dark and the quiet is broken only by the soft sound of Tony breathing into Steve’s ribs, and as the thrum of satisfaction fades from Steve’s bones the hollow ache that is all too familiar is still there, only now it’s tinged with guilt. Is he being unfaithful to Bucky by sleeping with Tony, he wonders, or is he being unfair to Tony by still longing for Bucky the way he does? It isn’t like he and Bucky had ever been exclusive. Bucky had gone out with lots of girls back in the day, and Steve, well, he’d tried. They’d done it because it was expected, because they both liked girls, and because there was never any doubt that they’d both wind up back in their shared apartment eventually. Even though Steve’s never actually said anything, there’s no way Tony doesn’t understand what Bucky really means to him. And it isn’t like Steve doesn’t know Tony’s reputation. Tony probably isn’t expecting anything, he reasons. Nevertheless, he stays awake for hours worrying himself into knots over it.

When he wakes in the morning, Tony has already gone and started his day and Steve finds himself unsurprised.

******
There’s something intoxicating about being near Tony, about the frenetic energy that constantly drives him, about the way he speaks with his whole body even when he’s not using words.

After the first time, it happens again, and then it starts happening regularly. Steve and Tony never really talk about it. Steve had planned to, at first, after that first night. He’d gone looking for Tony later the next day with a speech in his head, carefully planned out and rehearsed throughout the day. It’s a confession about Bucky, concerns about disrupting team dynamics, a gentle reminder that neither of them are really in a good headspace to commit to anything. He’d gotten as far as, “last night was fun,” before Tony started kissing him and everything else he had planned to say flew out of his head.

It isn’t easy; most things with Tony aren’t. They fight more than they don’t - about strategy when planning missions, about Tony’s drinking and poor sleeping habits, about whether Star Trek or Star Wars is better. It isn’t easy, but it’s right, it’s good, and it’s better than anything Steve had ever dared hope for.

Steve still aches for Bucky like a missing limb, all the more so because he knows Bucky is out there, somewhere, and probably in need of help. Steve isn’t grieving, and he isn’t moving on. He is never going to give up on Bucky. Being with Tony doesn’t change any of that, and it doesn’t ease the pain, but he’s so unbearably grateful to not be alone.

One morning Steve wakes up and realizes that it’s been months since he slept in his own bed. Nearly all of his clothes have migrated into Tony’s penthouse bedroom. There’s a neat stack of biographies and sketchbooks sitting on the nightstand on Steve’s side of the bed. Steve has a ‘his side of the bed.’ He doesn’t mention his revelation to Tony, partially because he doesn’t want to scare Tony off, but partially because he figures Tony’s noticed too, and surely the fact that Tony hasn’t mentioned it is a tacit approval.

So Steve just kisses Tony good morning and promises to make waffles after his run and mentally counts his blessings.

 

*****
In the end, it’s JARVIS who finds Bucky for them. Steve and Tony are in the workshop while Tony dissects some weird pieces of tech they’d dug out of the basement of their latest HYDRA base, which Tony thinks are gun prototypes meant to run off of some kind of arc reactor like energy. Steve doesn’t really need to be there, but it’s late and he fully intends to bribe Tony into heading to bed soon. Besides, Steve likes watching Tony work. He likes the way Tony’s muscles flex under the old t-shirt he’s wearing and the way Tony mutters to himself as he takes the tech apart.

“Pardon my interruption, Sir, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS says, voice calm and polite as ever, “but there is an incident occurring in Brooklyn that I believe requires your attention.”

“It’d better not be aliens,” Tony grumbles, barely lifting his head from the twisted pieces of metal he’s bent over. “Or more murderbots. I have had enough of that this week.”

“I have an 89% positive facial identification on Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS replies and the bottom drops out of Steve’s stomach.

“He’s in Brooklyn?” Steve says, the words automatic and unconscious with shock. They’ve been searching the entire globe for him for a year, and of course he’d turn up practically in their backyard.

Tony’s head jerks up, the troublesome tech forgotten and he starts flipping through the interface JARVIS lights up for him. “How bad?” he asks, his voice immediately dropping to the level focused tone he usually reserves for things about to explode without his permission. “How many casualties? Are the police on scene yet? Assemble the team-”

Distantly, Steve thinks that he’s supposed to be saying those things. He’s usually the one to demand details, to assemble the team, but his eyes are caught on the holographic display in front of Tony. The display that shows a grainy video of a figure in a ratty hoodie banging on the front door of a tenement building. After a few seconds the figure looks up, the soundless video showing lips moving, and a face that is undeniably Bucky Barnes.

“No casualties,” JARVIS reports. “The police were called in on a domestic disturbance complaint. It would not have come to my attention had I not been able to pull a positive face identification from the security camera on the building. The police have arrived and radio chatter indicates that the suspect appears disoriented and agitated, but thus far is compliant and nonaggressive.”

“That could change real fast.” Tony is already up and off the stool. He grabs Steve’s shield - freshly buffed and repainted - from the next work bench over and tosses it to Steve even as he heads for his armor. “Alert the rest of the team, JARVIS, tell them to get there as fast as they can. Cap and I will go ahead and hopefully not escalate things.”

Steve catches the shield automatically, but he’s still staring dumbly at the video until Tony, encased in the armor, grabs his shoulder and shakes it. “Cap,” Tony says roughly, warning in his voice, “you with me?”

Steve takes a deep breath, meeting Tony’s eyes under the lifted faceplate. “If we can keep him calm, bring him in peacefully-”

“Let’s go then.” Tony doesn’t wait for a response, just grabs Steve around the waist and they’re zooming out through the access door and into the crisp night air.

The flight lasts seconds, and Steve is not at all prepared to deal with what they’ll find when they land. He’s aware, vaguely, of Tony speaking rapidly inside the helmet, but Tony isn’t talking to him so he doesn’t register what he’s saying. He’d spent so much time bracing himself for when they found Bucky. Every scenario he’d envisioned had involved a fight; a desperate, probably bloody struggle that at best would end with Bucky injured, sedated, and restrained as they dragged him back kicking and screaming in the hopes of being able to deprogram him. Knocking on a door in Brooklyn is so far removed from what Steve had been building himself up to handle that he can’t get around it.

When they touch down it’s a quiet street - older tenement buildings and a few small businesses. This late there isn’t much in the way of traffic, which is just as well since three police cars have blocked off part of the street in a loose circle, lights flashing but sirens silenced. A handful of cops are milling around the cars and given that they don’t look at all surprised when Iron Man touches down in their midst they’re probably the ones Tony has been talking to. One of them greets them, and his face is familiar, Steve remembers dealing with him a few times before but he’s too distracted to remember the man’s name at the moment.

He steps away from Tony as soon as their feet are on the ground and he knows he should be polite, he should talk to the policemen, he should- but none of that matters. Because there is a hunched figure sitting on the curb in the center of the knot of cars and police officers and Steve can’t take his eyes off of him. It’s as though the entire rest of the world has gone out of focus, the sound of Tony and the policemen’s voices distant and faint under the rush of his own blood in his ears. He walks forward automatically and nobody stops him. Tony is still talking to the cop apparently in charge, and the others subtly move back as Steve approaches the figure, giving them space.

Steve crouches down when he reaches the curb. His heart is pounding like it might break his ribs and his throat feels tight in a way that if he didn’t know better he might think signaled an oncoming asthma attack. Bucky’s hands are handcuffed behind his back - normal handcuffs that won’t hold him for a second if he wants out of them - and he’s wearing dirty jeans and a dirtier hoodie, effectively hiding his metal arm. His knees are drawn up to his chest and his whole body is curled forward towards them, like he’s trying to be small. His hair is loose and hanging in front of his face, but once Steve gets down level enough to see past the dark curtain his legs go out from under him and he ends up on his ass on the pavement.

Bucky looks lost. There’s no other word for it. His entire face in screwed up into a frown and his eyes are darting rapidly back and forth though they don’t seem to actually be seeing anything. He’s chewing at his lower lip, worrying at it in a way that he hasn’t since he was a teenager.

“Bucky,” Steve says, and the word is little more than an exhalation to match the thump of his ass against the concrete. Eighteen months ago he’d stood on the burning, crashing helicarrier and faced an assassin wearing his best friends face. But this is not the Winter Soldier, this is Bucky, as lost and afraid as Steve has ever seen him.

Bucky’s head jerks up, his eyes focus on Steve, and there’s a moment of absolute stillness where Steve simultaneously sees his best friend and the assassin who’d tried to kill him in the same face. But the moment breaks, Bucky blinks, and then his entire face splits into a grin. Just like that the tension goes out of his body and the look of relief on his face is so pure that it steals what little was left of Steve’s breath. “Hey Stevie,” he says, and it’s still got that rough, disused quality to it that it had on the helicarrier, a brittle sort of undertone that rings in Steve’s ears as horribly wrong. “Guess it’s only fair you get a turn to bail me out.” He’s still smiling, a crooked tilt of his lips that goes hand in hand with the soft burr of Brooklyn in his voice. Despite the too long hair and the rough edge of Bucky’s voice, it’s as though Steve’s entire world has tilted on it’s axis - again - and he’s back in 1940, as though the war and everything else had never happened.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, which is stupid, but his brain is still short circuiting from the sight of Bucky’s smile, and honestly it’s the only question that’s ever really been important when it came to Bucky.

Bucky’s smile fades a little, the crease of confusion back between his eyebrows. He twists around, glancing up at the building behind them before turning back to Steve. “I lost my key,” he confesses, the edge of confusion making it plaintive. “Ma won’t let me in. Did I do something to make her mad?” There’s something off in his voice, and although his eyes had focused on Steve at first, they’re starting to go distant and hazy again.

Steve stops, forcing his wildly tilting brain to focus on the situation at hand. He remembers on the bridge in D.C. the baffled ”Who the hell is Bucky?”, and the enraged denials on the helicarrier. He remembers files and Bruce’s messy notes on brainwashing and the application of electricity to retard the formation of memories. He takes a slow, steadying breath and he studies the building over Bucky’s shoulder, then twists around to look up and down the street. The street feels simultaneously familiar and foreign to him, like pretty much all of Brooklyn does now, but most of the buildings are updated pre-war tenements and it does look sort of like the street he and Bucky had grown up on. It isn’t; that street had been completely rebuilt sometime in the sixties, and then again in the nineties when most of the apartment buildings were replaced by a strip mall. But it’s close.

He swallows, focusing back on Bucky who is looking at him beseechingly; looking for answers. “No, Buck,” he says, because he can’t stand the vulnerability he sees in Bucky’s face. He reaches out instinctively, resting a hand on Bucky’s bent knee, aching to pull Bucky all the way into his arms though he resists that urge. “She isn’t mad. She, uh, she isn’t here.”

Bucky purses his lips, looking around again. Something’s shifting in his expression, mercurial and too fast for Steve to even hope to interpret as his eyes flick over the buildings, the cars, the policemen milling around. His shoulders flex and Steve can see his hands twisting in the cuffs, though he doesn’t break out of them. “I think I’m lost,” Bucky says finally, his lips turning down in an unhappy frown.

Before Steve can answer he hears the telltale clomp of the armor approaching behind him and he twists to look over his shoulder. Tony has the helmet retracted but the rest of the suit still on and he’s approaching warily. Tony’s wearing the politely bland expression that Steve is used to seeing a press events, complete with the barely concealed sharp edge that says he’s just waiting for someone to give him an opening for a fight.

Bucky tenses instinctively, drawing back in on himself as his arms flex restlessly again. His eyes lock on Tony, following his movements from behind his curtain of hair, the mercurial flow of his face solidifying into something hard and blank.

Steve squeezes Bucky’s knee, hoping it will calm him while subtly gesturing for Tony to stay back. Tony’s eyes are dark and guarded in the light of the streetlamps, but he stops several feet away, close enough to talk but not to loom. “Our pal Officer Alvez has agreed not to file any charges,” Tony says, his tone casual in a way that is entirely fake, “but we need to clear the street.”

Steve nods, reading what he already knows between Tony’s words; they need to get Bucky out of here without any incidents, and they need to do it quick. Bucky’s still more or less calm, and now that Steve is moving beyond shock and relief his tactical brain has reengaged enough to know not to trust it. Bucky’s calm for now, but he’s scared and confused and clearly doesn’t know where he is; the second Bucky stops being calm things are going to go south very fast.

“Nat’s around the corner with a car,” Tony adds, gesturing with his head to where Steve can see a dark van idling at the end of the street. “We should probably head that way.”

Steve turns back to Bucky, whose eyes are flicking rapidly from Steve to Tony and back again. “Come on, Bucky,” Steve says, voice as calm and gentle as he can make it under the strain of hope and terror that’s warring inside of him. “It’s cold out here. Let’s go.”

Bucky glances back and forth once more before nodding slowly. “I want to go home,” he says, that rough catch in his voice thickening as his gaze settles back onto Steve.

Steve’s stomach twists. He doesn’t want to lie to Bucky, but he doesn’t think this is the time or place for full honesty either. He settles on, “me too,” and a forced smile. He pretends his own voice didn’t crack over the words.

****
It’s so simple, so easy, that it feels like a dream. A police officer sidles up cautiously and hands the handcuff key over to Steve. Steve gently but quickly hustles Bucky to the waiting van where Natasha is in the driver’s seat, Clint next to her in the passenger seat, and Thor is waiting for them in the back. Tony elects to fly over the van with Sam, and Bucky sits silent and withdrawn for the entire ride to the Tower, pressed up against Steve’s side with his hands in his lap.

It’s among the most tense car rides that Steve has ever experienced. Thor’s posture is relaxed, but he sits with Mjolnir resting on the floor of the van between his knees and his hand never leaves the handle. Clint, sitting at an angle in the front seat so that he can keep them all in his sights at once, makes no attempt to be subtle about the gun in his hand, and Natasha pointedly only has one hand on the wheel.

Bucky keeps his eyes lowered, not looking at any of them, and Steve can’t tell if he’s noticed the weapons in the van or not. His hand are hanging in loose curls between his knees, the dim interior lighting of the van glinting dully off of the metal one. He’s sitting between Steve and the divider between the front and back, and despite the fact that there’s room on the bench seat for at least two more people, he’s pressed close enough that his body is a line of warmth against Steve from knee to shoulder. By the time they pulled into the private subterranean Avenger’s garage, Bucky has slumped over sidewise, his head all but resting against Steve’s shoulder.

Steve is keenly aware of every stutter in Bucky’s breath, of the minute tremble in Bucky’s flesh hand. He can just see part of Bucky’s face between his shoulder and the messy curtain of Bucky’s hair, and it hits him that Bucky looks exhausted. His face is an ashen gray color, cheeks sunken and deep bruises under his eyes. Steve wishes he could say something that would break the tension. The others are clearly waiting for the Winter Soldier to emerge, but Steve can’t look at Bucky and see anything but his best friend beaten, and exhausted, and worn down to the very bone. But before he can think of anything that might help they pull to a stop and Tony yanks open the rear doors.

In moments the team is assembled in a loose circle around the outside of the van. They aren’t crowding, and there are no weapons in sight except for Mjolnir, but there is a definite air of wary readiness in the room. Bruce edges carefully between Sam and Clint, his battered medical bag in one hand and Steve has a suspicion that he’s brought it mostly for the special formula sedative that Bruce had developed in hopes of controlling the big guy.

Steve takes a careful breath before moving. He gently dislodges Bucky from his shoulder and climbing out of the van backwards while keeping his eyes and a - hopefully - reassuring smile locked on Bucky. Bucky blinks dazedly, his eyes flicking around the loose circle of the team around the van, then back to Steve. Slowly, stiffly, he shuffles to the back of the van, but as he steps down he stumbles and it’s only Steve’s quick reflexes that prevent him from ending up face down on the cement. Bucky’s legs don’t seem to want to hold him and he slumps down heavily on the tail of the van with Steve’s supportive hand still on his elbow. He grunts softly as he lands hard enough to make the whole van rock, blinking in vague surprise at Steve’s hand.

“Bucky?” Steve asks. Bucky’s listing sidewise again and Steve can’t help himself; he crouches in front of Bucky, craning his neck to see Bucky’s face clearly though his hair. He grips Bucky’s biceps, squeezing gently to both physically and mentally ground him.

Bucky doesn’t respond for a long time. His eyes flick repeatedly around the room, taking in the large, bare cement garage, half filled with a mix of Tony’s sports cars and nondescript former SHIELD transport vehicles, as well as the varied group assembled around him. Finally his gaze settles back on Steve and his expression is heavy with exhaustion and sorrow. “My Ma’s dead, isn’t she?” he asks, his shoulder slumped despondently.

The words hit Steve like a punch and he swallows against the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry,” he says, because what else can he say? He has to blink as tears prickle in his eyes, his mouth twisting into an apologetic grimace.

Bucky just nods, looking lost and resigned.

When Bruce quietly steps up behind Steve, Bucky twitches slightly but otherwise doesn’t move. “I have a room ready up in the medbay,” Bruce says, his voice cautious but also gentle.

Steve doesn’t dare look away from Bucky, but Bucky barely reacts. His eyes flicker from Steve, to Bruce, and back again, and he blinks, slow and heavy like he’s having trouble keeping his eyes open. It hits Steve all at once and he has a moment of horrified shame as he finally remembers to ask, “are you hurt, Bucky?” Bucky hasn’t shown any obvious signs of pain, but all of his movements are stiff and the dark fabric of his dingy hoodie could easily hide blood.

Bucky glances down at himself, as though he has to check, as though he isn’t sure, but then he shakes his head. He’s listing sideways more heavily, his metal shoulder resting against the interior wall of the van as he sits on the edge. “I’d like to sleep now,” Bucky says, and his voice reflects the exhaustion on his face. There’s a vague look of expectation in Bucky’s eyes, a sort of understanding, as he looks to Bruce.

Steve can’t decide if he’s horrified or relieved by Bucky’s quiet compliance. Something has settled in Bucky’s face, some of the anxious confusion smoothing out. Without another word, Bucky quietly pulls up the right sleeve of his hoodie, his flesh arm looking shockingly pale against the dark material. He holds it out, wrist balanced on his knee and his palm up, exposing the soft, vulnerable underside of his arm.

It feels as though a colony of snakes has taken up residence in Steve’s gut, twisting him in knots of worry, anxiety, and fear, but he accept the syringe that Bruce hands him without breaking eye contact with Bucky. He hesitates, the syringe feeling much heavier in his hand than it should. It feels wrong, drugging Bucky, and even though Bucky has technically asked for it, Steve can’t be sure that he’s in any state of mind to actually consent to anything. But Bucky looks so bone weary that Steve’s not entirely certain the sedative is even necessary, and he can’t stand the sad, worn out look in Bucky’s eyes. So he reaches out, grasping Bucky’s wrist delicated with the hand that isn’t holding the syringe, to reassure himself as much as to keep Bucky’s arm steady for the injection.

“You’re safe here,” Steve says, because even if Bucky’s state of mind can’t be trusted right now, even if Bucky doesn’t really believe it, Steve needs him to know that. “We want to help you, and we’re going to take care of you.”

Bucky nods slightly, just a sharp little dip of his chin. His wrist flexes in Steve’s grasp, not trying to pull away, just shifting as though to confirm the sensation is actually there. “You’ll be here when I wake up?” he asks, and the vulnerability in his voice breaks Steve’s heart all over again.

“Yeah,” Steve promises, immediately and with every ounce of breath in him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Bucky nods again, the faintest shadow of a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. His eyes flicker down to his own exposed arm and then back to meet Steve’s eyes in a silent go ahead. Steve shifts a little closer as he carefully inserts the needle into the exposed vein of Bucky’s forearm and pushes the plunger.

It takes a second, long enough for Steve to withdraw the needle and hand it back to Bruce, and then Bucky gives a slight shudder, his eyes rolling back and his entire body going limp. Steve catches him as he starts to fall forward, his arms automatically going tight and secure around Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky’s entire body is limp as a ragdoll, and his breathing is slow and hot against Steve’s neck, his face resting in the crook of Steve’s shoulder. For a long time Steve can’t do anything but sit there and hold Bucky to him. He buries his face in Bucky’s hair, not caring how dirty it is or how it smells of grease and smoke and possibly sewage. The reality that Bucky is alive - not whole, but safe and there in Steve’s arms is finally, truly hitting him and it threatens to bowl him over backwards.

Eventually, Steve forces himself to pull back, rising from his cramped crouch before gently picking Bucky up in a bridal carry. Bucky is heavy, especially on the left side, but Steve doesn’t care, cradling him close like the precious thing he is. He glances at the others, relieved and defiant and unashamed of the tear tracks that are probably visible on his face; none of them make a sound as he calmly heads for the elevator that will take them up to the medical floor.