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sell your soul (not your whole self)

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Steve was bad again. Bad in the way that he closed his eyes and felt ice rushing around him. Bad in the way that his heart clenched with too-much and not-enough every damn minute. Bad in the fucking way that he refused to acknowledge that anything was less than dandy, because things were fine.

Bucky was back, which should be some kind of relief, a light in the dim depression he had started to escape.

Except he had severe PTSD, recovering from brainwashing and battling with his old and new self, and he needed Steve to be there for him, not drag him down with his minor-in-comparison problems. So Steve ignored everything, put all his stupid recovery on hold for his best friend, the person he risked his life for time and time again.

Mental illness, on the other hand, doesnt care if someone is trying to help someone else, if someone has to put a break on their life. Much like a virus, it spreads to all the cracks if they don't battle with it constantly, if they don't keep on top of it, and it turns the whole system off.

And here Steve was, with Bucky getting better, already cleared by SHIELD officials as free from mind control and other personalities that were installed in him, Now free to recarve his own life as the new Bucky, his own identity, someone who had been pulled back from the dead. And it was going well, as well as possible for a once manipulated mass-murderer slash assasin.

And it was going well without him. Steve had chosen to distance himself from Bucky, let him recover without being dragged down by unrequited love and a hurricane in his head, without someone who was a mess in every sense of the word. Steve made this choice consciously, but distancing himself meant that now, Bucky didnt need him, and Steve didnt know what that meant, because he still needed Bucky like the arctic needs ice, always had. But he had lost his winter soldier. So now Bucky spent weekends with Wanda and Natasha, coming back from hikes and coffee and everything good with tentative smiles, gifted from heaven. Bucky idly chatted with Tony over his arm, and nodded at Sam over the breakfast table, and went to Bruce when things weren't okay. Slightly wary of Pepper and her temper, but still shared lifts with her. Didn't know Clint well enough, but still watched dog cops with him.

All Steve got were glances, an emotion unreadable behind deep blue eyes, a mouth open to say something before abruptly stopping, going to nudge before catching himself pre-touching his old best friend.

And it is hell for him. Seeing someone he loves awkwardly avoid him because he, Steve, chose to give him space. Having to watch a relationship that was once as strong as time itself crumble because of Steve's fucking mind. Because Steve cant control intrusive thoughts and detachment to real life and not attending therapy sessions despite being sent 4 emails from SHIELD's agent department that He Needed To Attend to Continue Active Service.

So he took every mission that he could, barely stopping for breaks inbetween, in case he had to look into Bucky's eyes and not see the warmth once reserved only for him.

He distanced himself from Sam and Clint and Natasha, who were once his support system, but were now just worried glances and questions of "Steve, you haven't talked to Bucky?" except they wouldnt understand, because he can't talk to someone who doesnt need his toxicity.

Using Clint's airvent trick to hide during movie nights and takeaway lunches and sparring matches, taking to sleeping in the cool air system now and then, if only to remind him.

But he still had to go to his floor, devoid of anything meaningful. Still had to sleep in his too-soft too-surreal bed, with his head struggling to make sense of the images infront of him, everything fuzzing and turning unreal before his eyes at 5am.

And here he was once again, laid in his bed, with towering views over a less foreign city now, light only just peeking over the tops of skyscrapers to shine onto his stark white room. Old books surrounded him, all half read after loss of concentration. Half-empty coffee mugs and bowls on various surfaces, long forgotten in a mind fog. Even the bed was bereft of much needed love, without so much as a blanket, only a single sheet that brought him back memories of battlefield tents and huddling for warmth. Of Bucky.

Sensing the oncoming barrage of noise from his alarm, he slowly stood, weariness from needing to but not sleeping deep-set in his bones alongside the well known frost.

Now he was no longer plagued by memories of frost and ice and all things nice, but instead of loss and lack of comfort and the horrendously human emotions the serum never managed to rid him of.

Bones creaking, he stumbled down to the kitchen once again, if only to make a cup of coffee and sit, stony and closed off before anyone else could make it down to the kitchen to try to engage him in conversation he could be without.

He entered the communal kitchen, setting the fancy coffee maker he had still not figured out on the only setting he knew: americano, and set to finding some milk, still wary of coffee as a whole. It didn't leave the lingering unfamiliarity in his mouth anymore, as he wasn't trying to link it to the past. When he had seen his therapist, when he was attempting to recover from everything terrible, he was told that he should stop linking things to his past, and instead see everything as new and different. It only really stuck with his coffee; but now he actually liked smooth expensive Stark coffee beans and milk, everything used old coffee grind wasn't.

Grabbing the mug, and the milk bottle, he sat at the lonely stone table illuminated by the soft glow only just discovering the communal floor; only just battling cement roofs and steel beams to cast light on a weary man in a meaningless life.

His hands shook as he poured milk in, deep black turning to dull brown within seconds - the transformation changed everything about the coffee apart from the soul. Or was that just him projecting?

Either way, the previous feeling of derealisation left him, instead flooding him with confusion and surrealism in the worst way, weak bones alight with a buzzing confusion raring to escape. The mug fell from his hands as he lifted it up, the stony grip lost to an early morning and no sleep and time wearing small wounds big under lack of treatment. However, even the scalding, ruined, probably $6-worth cup of coffee running through his hands, down lean thighs and blue tinged feet did little to jerk him out of the mental hysteria rattling around his eyes, in and out but always back in, nothing dampening the feeling, only appearing to extend it further.

It felt like a prison inside his mind, mind-forged shackled locking him in a stupor unbreakable, only dimmed by exhaustion and constant working.

His hands itched with the knotting of flesh over scalded skin, fingers red raw instead of cold blue. The urge to hit something was back; normally it occurred during a mission (he was always on those, ever since) when he could cover his irrevocable anger at himself with harsh hits to Hydra, to terrorist cells, to whoever he was fighting against. At this point, the ramrod Catholic morality had left him in favour of unrequited pining and mental hell.

Clenching fists tightly, releasing and reclenching, he released the trapped breath inside carefully, measurably, keeping a strict fist on his own body.

It was alright. He was alright. He had to be alright. 

 

Chapter Text

He was off of the mission, out of the tedious debriefing, and he felt like utter shit.

 

Not that he didn't already feel like shit, like the whole world was dragging him on the floor for the hell of it, with the only relief being the one he cared about the most actually managing to live his life in a recovered state.

 

But the debriefing, the mission, the fucking mess of his life dredged up old feelings he hadn't expected, absolute rage at the world and his enemy who might not even be his enemy.

 

According to Sam, who told him in a low murmur and worried glances, they hadn't managed to salvage anything from the Hydra base he was ordered to storm, apart from the Intel he was required to get.

 

They'd only managed to recover what appeared to be charred remains, but they were still unsure as to remains of what.

 

Steve, of course, knew. He estimated there were maybe 13 Hydra agents, maybe more. He wasn't quite sure, the minute the first made a cocksure comment about Bucky his body had done the strange thing where his hands didn't feel like his own, and nothing felt real. The feeling still hadn't really stopped, everything buzzing and surreal in front of his eyes.

 

Now he swayed, feet heavy and lagging as he shuffled into the Avengers tower, barely acknowledging the burly security guard or the receptionist with trailing braids on the lower floor, only nodding and punching in his pin to the lift, more eager to go to sleep than to continue the never-ending suffering he seemed to be trapped into the devil's circle of. There was a chance that he could either wake up in a better mood or a shittier mood, but at least whilst he was unconscious he wouldn't have to have a mood, a feeling.

 

Fingers hovering over the button to Bucky's floor, gentle and fleeting, mind changing before it could make a mistake, leading to pressing the plain 19 to return to his plain apartment, bereft of the one he truly wanted. But he had ruined that for himself.

 

His back thudded into the metal wall, eyes closed as all weight focused in on the back of heavy heels and shoulder blades pressing against the seemingly steel strong solidness behind him. A sigh was exuded, but Steve didn’t really care at that point. He couldn’t quite connect the cold dullness of the metal to a feeling in his body, and he struggled to feel the breath leaving his body. The sooner the lift made it to his floor the better, with hopefully no interruptions forcing him to make everything seem like he wasn’t falling apart whilst imploding in a fluorescently lit and cramped lift. Everything seemed to go quiet for a second as the lift came to life under his feet and flew up.

 

Except it wasn’t quite. It halted almost immediately after the second of movement that felt like fourteen years for him, and the doors slid open, almost undetectable if not for his enhanced hearing. He opened his eyes, hoping it would be Bruce or Clint or someone who he could pass off as simply being tired after another tedious mission with almost no true recovery time given.

 

Only a man with a sharp gaze and long brunette locks walked in. The one person Steve had hoped would never walk in to see him this state. It’s Bucky.

 

Immediately, he feels the urge to panic, as though he should be fixing his posture, his appearance to hide exactly how he was feeling. The urge was blocked by his exhaustion and the buzzing feeling, faint behind his practically lidded eyes. Instead he just wearily glances at the wary and cautious man stood opposite and closes his eyes, sick of the man who appears to be looking at him like he’s some kind of science experiment in a lab as opposed to the man he once shared a bed and a future with.

 

Time seems to be frozen as the lift starts again, feeling as though it was taking 20 minutes on what would be a 15 second journey normally. Steve still felt slightly out of it, but this time he was hyperaware of every movement of the ex-assassin next to him. He felt like he should reach out, smile, acknowledge him in some way other than just a glance, but was unable to. The love he still felt for a man he wasn’t supposed to love was so immense that Steve couldn’t handle the rejection he may see in Bucky’s eyes if he even tried to express it.  

 

Tension was thickened in the lift, he could practically feel the weight of the steel walls bend under the pure awkwardness between the two super-soldiers and the strength of the gaze he knew Bucky was directing at him.

 

But his eyes were closed and he had no clue if the gaze was loving, curious or hateful. It seemed more than probable that it would be hateful, loathing and completely repulsed at the man that had abandoned Bucky in his recovery, even if Steve had thought it would be the best decision at the time. Too busy thinking about whether or not his ex- best friend, his ex- soulmate hated him and the still ever-present disconnection from reality, Steve nearly missed the heavily exhaled sigh coming from less than a meter away. But the harsh sound against the utter silence broke his depressing reverie and his eyes snapped open, almost immediately making eye contact with the steely, familiar blues in front of him, which, strangely enough, appeared to be full of a nonplussed concern.

 

As they took part in a strange kind of staring competition, with both holding an unbreakable stare longer than any kind of interaction he’d had in the past 3 months with Bucky, the lift stopped, doors sliding open as smoothly as every other time they had opened. A few seconds passed when Steve suddenly crashed back to earth, aware of his surroundings and himself again, and the situation he found himself in. The jolt back to full consciousness rattled him, and he shot out of the lift, the dull and meaningless doors closing abruptly on his best friend.

The last thing he saw was the shock on the brunette’s face as he appeared to open his mouth to say something, the words silenced by the closed doors.

 

Stumbling to the sofa, he sat, sinking in to too-soft cushions which did little to console the feelings coursing through his brain after everything that just occurred. To some, it might appear in significant, but to Steve it was monumental.

 

The man he had been in love with since the 30s, a man who he had only just recently accepted that he did indeed love, who he had isolated himself from to ensure that he lived a healthy recovery, despite being the only major reason Steve stayed in this godawful world, who Steve had believed hated the very sight of, who Steve had resigned himself to seeing grow from the outside, had looked at Steve with actual concern, had wanted to actually talk to him, converse with him.

 

All it had seemed to do is confuse him.

 

Bucky had seemed to not like him, all fairly at the fault of Steve himself, and yet he displayed concern, feeling towards him.

 

As Steve sat there, on the too plush settee, staring glassily at the glass coffee table in front of him as he failed to process the events that had just occurred, the sun set and rose through the glass windows that surrounded the living room.

 

He hoped he would be okay. He hoped for forgiveness. He just wasn’t sure how to ask for it.

Chapter Text

The lift doors slid shut in Bucky's face before he had chance to call Steve's name.

Faced with the cool metal doors of the fancy Stark lift, Bucky was left feeling utterly confused. As the lift rose, he pondered over Steve's current state.

Everyone knew Steve wasn't doing stellar, he barely talked to anyone anymore, despite being told by Natasha that he used to be a firm, solid part of the team and of the Avengers as more than just a superhero team, but as a group of friends. After Bucky's return from Wakanda everything seemed to be so different. Before, during the whole "Civil War" as it was dubbed by the press, he had seemed more welcoming and open to Bucky and everyone else. But he went under, his programming removed by T'Challa's scientists, and came out to someone who completely isolated himself from Bucky.

Every time Bucky had tried to talk to him, reach out to him, let Steve know how he was doing, he was iced out. And Bucky still had no clue as to why.

Did he no longer like him? Did he think Bucky would be better off without him?

Either way, it was obvious Steve was not in a good way right now but exactly what just happened proved to him that Steve was in a worse state then any of them had predicted.

When Bucky got into the lift, he didn't expect to see Steve. But when he did, he wasn't glad to see him. The guy had seemed so out of it, slumped against the lift walls in a way that pure exhaustion renders. When he did open his eyes he seemed distant, like he could see Bucky but he wasn't aware who it was, to such an extent that he didn't even pretend to be in a better condition than he was. And that stare. He had never looked into someone's eyes before and seen their soul, but the moment he looked into Steve's he fell into the river of feelings just pooling in both irises.

He looked hurt. And unbelievably tired. It was so pure and raw that it must've been the first time Steve had allowed his feelings to be visible on his face, instead of hidden as a clandestine soul.

And it shocked Bucky so deeply, so far into his soul it touched his core. Because he had promised this man, this boy, that he would always be there for him.

‘Til the end of the line.

He failed. He had failed to be there for his best fuckin’ friend, someone he previously gave his life for. Just because he was too scared to talk to him after being ignored.

Bucky can claim that the reason the silence between himself and Steve was so broad and wide was because Steve had ignored him, but in turn Bucky hadn’t tried to get his attention, not any more than was obligatory in those kind of situations. But he didn’t try hard enough, and now the most important person in his life since he was 8 and learnt what the term ‘Soulmate’ meant was going through hell.

Looking into Steve’s eyes, that’s exactly what he saw. He saw someone on the edge of exactly how he had been before Wakanda and therapy and being saved by Steve. Saw lost hope; saw what constant war and fighting and no affection does to someone who is just a man with a righteous soul. He saw every regret he had ever owned swimming in the man’s eyes, saw his own guilt owned by someone who blamed himself for every downfall in the world, for the fractured relationship between himself and Tony, for everything that he, Bucky, went through, when Bucky’s own constant therapy told him that the only person to blame for everything that happened were the perpetrators, not the victims.

And he he looked into his best fuckin’ friend’s eyes and saw so much guilt consuming the soul within.

The lift doors opened in a kind of strange déjà vu and he was met with the sight of Natasha cleaning some kind of contraption left over from Sokovia, an event Bucky had tried his hardest to avoid in his fragmented-mind-unable-to-reprogram state post The Event.

“Barnes, you seem more riled that usual.” Natasha commented without even looking up from the deadly looking silver knife-gun hybrid. “Did you finally break the silence between yourself and Rogers?”

Most would presume she was being serious, but Bucky could hear the faint sarcasm buried under pseudo-stoicism. Which was ironic, considering for once it basically did happen. In a fucking Stark elevator no less.

“Funny you should say that,” Bucky started, looking at the genuine surprise on Natalia’s face, something that was rarely ever actually visible, normally just internalised to maintain the image of an omniscient ex-assassin. ”Admittedly, no actual words were actually spoken between us, but… I looked into his eyes, Nat, and he practically bared his soul to me. He looked so tired, the kind of tired felt after 4 missions in a row. He looked completely and utterly alone.”

Feeling like he had failed the best man in the world, having confessed nearly everything to Natasha, Bucky collapsed into the sofa in front of the glass counter with the still unidentifiable weapon.

“I mean, we all knew he was getting worse.” She frowned, looking into his weary eyes as if she felt the shame he felt at ignoring the vastly growing problem.

“That’s the thing. We all knew something was up, so why didn’t someone try to intervene. I am so much better, so why didn’t I intervene to help someone who is doing worse than a previously brainwashed fucking asset. And he’s farther gone than just ‘worse’. He looks like the whole fucking world, all of its blame and problems, are weighing on his shoulder, as though the serum gave him God-like benevolent powers.” His voice cracked on the last part, as though it hurt him to admit that Steve wasn’t invincible, because it did.

Natasha sighed and sat next to, nudging his metal arm with her shoulder.

“The thing is Bucky, you can look all you want, but if someone wants a secret kept enough, they will keep it to the grave. I could blame myself for not freeing you in the Red Room, for not looking hard enough into all the frankly quite shady things I did see going on at SHIELD before the Potomac Incident, for doing everything I did before I was taken in. But you live like that, always counting every wrong decision made, every life on your conscious, and nothing ever gets solved. People continue to die, people continue to be used as soldiers and nothing gets done about it,” She looked straight at him, as if she was considering every second of their lives, intertwined.
“In the end, it comes down to this: Can you still make a difference? I know Steve, I’ve seen him before he had you, when the only person he thought he had was an Old Love stuck in a hospital, who lived a life that she barely remembered, and the knowledge that in every situation he fought, there was always the chance for casualties. When he flew that plane, he may never admit it, but he wanted to die. Instead he woke up worse than before, and whilst it may have been 70 years to everyone else, it was really weeks since he had lost the closest thing to a soulmate in his life: You.”

Bucky looked at her, as if willing for some kind of answer to the questionable parable she was preaching. However, in his mind he just came up with a blank.

“I don’t… I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey; all I’m seeming to take from this is that that man went through hell and I have done nothing to help that.” He sighed heavily, trying to understand everything that went on inside a man that he had loved, did still love, in a way that 70 years apart couldn’t change.

“The point is, he has you now, Barnes. He has you now, and you have him, if only one of you would bother to say a word to each other; actually get the confidence that one would believe two highly-trained super soldiers at least 100 year olds possess. If I were to make an educated guess, because everyone with a pair of eyes can see how much that man loves you, then I would presume that the reason he has avoided you is because he believes he’s undeserving of your help. So yes, you can mope on my godawful sofa for the rest of your life, digging this man until he works himself to death and you pass away from sheer loneliness, OR you can fucking be there for him how he deserves and needs, and help him get himself into a position of recovery.”

And with that, Natasha shoved him off of her regrettably comfortable sofa with a well-timed kick, instead choosing to observe him in a place of slightly haughty but nonetheless aware knowing, as she watched him sputter on the floor,

In that second, Bucky knew that she was right. She normally was, but this was so alarmingly true that he stumbled to the lift he had left not even 5 minutes ago and pressed the button to Steve’s floor whilst mustering up his courage with the knowledge that this time, there was enough time, but only just.