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i'd tell you how it haunts me

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I find the map and draw a straight line,

Over rivers, farms, and state lines,

The distance from A to where you’d be,

It’s only finger-lengths that I see.

 

When he finds him, they nearly kill each other.  It’s a violent dance, every shift of their bodies pushed angrily against each other until they are left panting, trembling, and, when it ends, only one of them is standing.

 

And when Steve finally staggers back a step, looks down at the fallen body at his feet, he can’t breathe.

 

He picks him up, heaves his heavy body into his arms, and carries him.  He keeps hearing it over and over in his head, you’re my mission, you’re my mission, you’re my mission, and then, recognition, in the last second, and he can feel his cold arm wrapping around him, hauling him out of the water, bringing him back, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t bring him back in return.

 

Eventually, Steve makes it to the rendezvous spot, and Sam jumps to his feet when he comes stumbling into the clearing.  “Dude,” Sam says, jogging over, “What the hell happened?”

 

“Found him,” Steve grunts, and that’s all he says.  Sam helps him get Bucky back through the woods to their car, dumps him in the back, and Sam starts to take the passenger side, but Steve sits in the back with Bucky, his head in his lap, and he goes around to the driver’s side.

 

Steve strokes Bucky’s hair back, letting the dirty strands shift around his fingers.

 

Sam speeds, just trying to get back to the motel they’ve been staying at as fast as possible.  He makes it there in good time, and, after he’s parked, he starts to ask Steve what he wants to do, but, when he looks back, Steve is asleep, slumped back against the seat, his head turned to the side.  Bucky is not.  He stares up at Sam, confusion clear on his face.

 

“Hey there,” Sam says, and Bucky starts to move at the sound of his voice, but Steve’s hand has slid down to his jaw, just resting there, and he stops, closing his eyes.  He lifts his right hand, his fingers trembling, and Sam looks away when the pads of his fingers skim across Steve’s hand.

 

He knows him.  He just can’t remember how to know him, and he has to fight every urge to flight or fight and instead just be.

 

The car door closes loudly, and Steve jerks out of his slumber, hand slipping out from under Bucky’s.  Bucky sits up and away, not looking at Steve, but not moving any further either.  “Hey,” Steve says, turning toward him, “Are you—”

 

“No,” Bucky says, “Do you have tranquilizers?”  Steve nods, and Bucky catches the movement in his peripheral.  “Knock me out, then,” Bucky says, and when Steve starts to argue, he shakes his head, once.  “Just do it.  I don’t—” he almost breaks, his voice sliding higher, and he closes his eyes against every instinct singing in his body and just breathes, holds it in and lets it settle.  “I don’t want to hurt you,” he says finally, and so Steve nods again.

 

Two minutes later, Bucky is just a heavy body again.

 

I touch the place where I’d find your face.

My fingers in creases of distant, dark places.

 

It takes some convincing, as Steve won’t give any revealing details, but Tony eventually sends a jet to get them.  Sam drives them to the meeting point, gets rid of the agents coming out to help them, and then comes back to help Steve get Bucky to the jet.  They lock him up in the specialized cuffs Tony made, positioning him so he won’t be able to easily get out without breaking something, and then they put him in a cell that’s become standard issue in all Stark and SHIELD aircrafts.

 

It’s a long flight, almost eleven hours, from somewhere deep in Russia back to New York, and though he knows that Bucky is starting to remember, Steve wonders if it had ever occurred to him that his home is in Brooklyn, if he knows that’s where he and Steve grew up, if he even associates anything with New York anymore.

 

He spends the first six hours sleeping.  They ask not to be bothered, and when Steve wakes, Sam is still asleep, curled up and snoring softly.  Steve moves quietly, shucking off his blanket and padding out of their darkened section of the plane.  He goes first to the kitchen area, rummaging around until he can find enough ingredients to make something decent, and he makes a mental note to thank Tony for thinking to stock the fridge with things he likes.

 

An hour later, Steve finds himself standing outside of Bucky’s cell, just staring at the cold, hard door.  He’s not sure what to expect, and he’s afraid of what he’ll find.

 

On the other side, Bucky looks up when he hears Steve stop.  He hadn’t expected to see him again until they got back to New York—he assumes that’s their destination—and now something like fear is slowly seeping through his veins, making a shiver run its course down his spine.  He can’t understand this fear, and so he frowns, staring at the door.

 

He doesn’t know how to piece all these things together, these images floating through his head, can’t make sense of them, can’t comprehend why this soldier stirs something ancient inside of him.

 

The lock clicks, and the door slides open, admitting Steve.  He comes in slowly, looking anywhere but at Bucky.  He feels like there’s not enough oxygen when the door closes, when he looks over and finds Bucky staring back at him.

 

Steve starts to say hello, starts to ask him how he is, starts to tell him that he’s going to be okay, starts to say anything that isn’t how much this is destroying him, but Bucky beats him to the punch, “Where are we going?”

 

“Home,” Steve says.

 

Bucky’s expression shifts minutely, just a slight decline in his eyebrows.  “Home?” he repeats.  He mulls over the word, lets it sit heavy on his tongue, tastes the way it feels until Steve starts to respond, and he continues, “Brooklyn?”

 

Steve just stares at him.

 

It’s just sitting there, this word, Brooklyn, and he doesn’t know how to place it, but there’s this blurry image of a scrawny imitation of Steve, leaning into him, whooping as someone sprints around the bases, and Bucky is yelling with him, leaning forward, his hand cupped tightly around Steve’s knee as the players rush to get the ball.

 

“Is that right?” Bucky asks, his eyebrows furrowing further, “Is that home?”

 

Steve tries to nod, tries to offer him a small smile, tries to do anything that will give Bucky hope, but he just sags with defeat, and Bucky misreads it, looking away.  “Is it just a place we went sometime?” he asks quietly.

 

“No, it’s—it’s home,” Steve says, “But we’re, uh—we’re going to Manhattan first.  There are some people there I need to speak with.”

 

“Scientists?” Bucky says, meeting Steve’s gaze again, “Are you going to put me under again?”

 

“What?”

 

“Did you find me so you could hide me?” Bucky says, his voice rising a little with anger, “Or are you going to try to kill me?  Are you going to freeze me again, take me away from—from whatever the fuck is going on in my head, snatch away anything that reminds me of who I am, who I—who I was?”

 

“Never,” Steve says, stepping forward, “I will never let anyone hurt you again.”

 

You certainly can’t,” Bucky seethes.

 

Steve sighs before he comes over to release the bindings on Bucky’s right arm.  “Eat something,” Steve says, setting the plate down, “When we’re a half hour out, I’m going to tranquilize you again, but I’m not going to freeze you.”

 

“We’ll see,” Bucky says, and they say no more to each other.

 

——

 

There’s a car waiting for them when they get to Manhattan, though thankfully it’s an SUV and not a town car.  Steve disguises Bucky as best as he can, dressing him in a dark, baggy sweatshirt, pulling the hood over his head.  He keeps him cuffed, though his hands are linked in front so Steve can carry him easier.  Sam walks ahead of them, though close to Steve, trying to block Bucky from sight.  No one seems to notice them when they get into the SUV, and then, they’re on their way to the Tower.

 

Steve calls Tony on the way over.  “Hey,” Tony answers, “Where the hell are you, Cap?  Everyone’s been trying to reach you, and—”

 

“Heading for the Tower now,” Steve interrupts, “Is Bruce with you?”

 

“Yeah, why?”

 

“I’d like to speak with him, as well.”

 

“Okay, hold on,” Tony says before he’s calling for Bruce.  “Alright, what’s up?” he asks a few moments later.

 

“I found him,” Steve says.

 

“Shit,” Tony says as Bruce sighs.

 

“Where?” Bruce asks.

 

“Deep in Russia.  I’m bringing him back to the Tower.  I need to ask a favor.”

 

“Of course, Steve,” Bruce says, “Anything.”

 

“I need you to take the arm off.”

 

“What?”

 

“He can’t have it,” Steve says, glancing back at Bucky, who is still unconscious, “He can have it back when he’s proven he can be trusted.”

 

“Okay,” Tony says, “That’s, uh—that’s gonna take some work.  I can do some research, see if I can find someone who specializes in—”

 

“No,” Steve cuts him off, “I want you and Bruce to do it.  We’re working on a need-to-know basis right now.”

 

“Steve, if—”

 

“I trust you, Tony.  I know you can do this.  We’re five minutes out,” and then he hangs up.

 

It takes twelve hours to get the arm off.  When they get to the Tower, Tony and Bruce are in the midst of preparing, clearing out a space to work and getting all of their tools ready.  After they’ve strapped Bucky down, they put him under and then get to work.  Tony goes in purely as an engineer, doing his best to figure out the inner workings of the arm while Bruce monitors Bucky’s health.  In the end, it’s a successful operation, but then, it’s over, and Steve is left with the pieces.

 

I hang my coat up in the first bar.

There is no peace that I’ve found so far.

The laughter penetrates my silence,

As drunken men find flaws in science.

 

When Bucky wakes, he feels heavy and warm.  He doesn’t recognize where he is, though he can’t remember the last time he felt familiarity.  The bed beneath him is soft, the sheets a rich, dark blue.  The blankets are drawn up to his chest, and he starts to push them away when his left arm just drags against the bed.  Bucky yanks the blankets off, staring down at his arm in horror because it’s not there.

 

Something moves, and Bucky looks sharply over at the bedroom door, but it remains closed.  He waits, poised, until the silence feels thick again, and then he carefully gets out of the bed.  He looks down at himself—he’s clean and dressed in a pair of low-hanging sweats and a loose shirt, his feet bare.

 

He glances around the room, taking it in quickly.  It looks comfortable, with a large desk opposite the bed, myriad art supplies spread out and organized; there’s a tall bookshelf, stuffed full with books and trinkets, little things that Bucky pays no attention to; the dresser has pictures scattered across it, the closet door is open, revealing neatly hung clothes, and another door leads off to a bathroom.

 

Bucky starts for the bedroom door, but he doesn’t make it past the desk.  He can’t understand why, but he’s drawn to the sketchpad, and so he goes over, looking down.  It’s not finished, but it’s him, asleep on the bed.  Bucky frowns, reaching down to brush his fingers over the drawing.  He knows those strokes, remembers smiling whenever he saw them.

 

Bucky shakes himself, making for the door again.  He opens it slowly, checking the hallway before he steps out.  There’s another door to his left, but he goes to the right, into an open room that overlooks the first floor.  Various fitness equipment is spread out, and Bucky glances at it before continuing to the stairs.  The first floor is wide open, huge windows that stretch floor to ceiling, leading out to a balcony.  The living room is average, but lived in, and it branches off into a kitchen that opens up as Bucky reaches the bottom of the stairs and comes around near the windows.

 

“Are you hungry?” a voice floats out to him.

 

He doesn’t respond, instead slowly makes his way over until he can see all of the kitchen.  There’s a man inside, his broad back turned to him.  He has wide, strong shoulders, and his shirt is tight, revealing the many lines of muscles.  He’s wearing tight shorts, as well, and Bucky looks down, expecting running sneakers, but he’s barefoot.  He has blonde hair, damp with sweat, and Bucky starts to step into the kitchen, ready to defend himself when a low growl rumbles.  Bucky stops at the same time the man says, “He’s a friend, Thomas.”

 

Bucky can’t see the dog, but he registers the smell now, and so he crosses around to the other side of the island, where a German shepherd sits.  “Are you hungry?” the question comes again.  He stares at his back, memorizing the shift of his muscles so he knows where to strike, and then the man turns.

 

He has a hard, defined jaw and warm, blue eyes, and Bucky recognizes him immediately.

 

He shoves down the urge to attack, digging through the flood of crimson until he can hear his voice, you’re my friend, you’re my friend, you’re my friend.

 

“I won’t ask again,” Steve says.  Bucky just continues to stare at him until Steve sighs and turns away.  “It isn’t poisoned,” Steve says, “Though I’m sure you won’t believe me, so I made soup.  Sit down.”  Bucky obeys, taking a seat at the island.  Steve ladles soup into a bowl and then places it in front of him, and Bucky just blinks at it.

 

Steve sits opposite him with his own bowl of tomato soup and a plate of grilled cheeses between them.  “Coupon food,” Bucky says abruptly, looking up to find Steve smiling.

 

“Yeah,” he says softly, “Whenever the nightmares start again, I make this.”

 

“Your mom’s was always better than mine,” he says, and then frowns, “I think.”

 

“You’re right,” Steve says, nodding.  There’s silence for a bit until Bucky finally picks up his spoon, and then Steve says, “I won’t lie to you.  Your arm is at the Avengers Tower, though it’s in Tony Stark’s possession, and it would be almost impossible to retrieve it.  A tracking chip has been implanted in your right shoulder.  You’ve been unconscious for two days.  You can try to escape, but this apartment is designed to keep threats inside.”

 

“That seems counterproductive.”

 

“Sometimes,” Steve admits.

 

“Do you consider me a threat?” Bucky asks.

 

Steve shrugs.  “I haven’t decided yet.  Thomas does.”

 

Bucky glances at the dog, who won’t look away from him.  “You’re allergic to dogs,” Bucky says quietly.

 

“I was,” Steve says, “Thomas is a rescue.  I adopted him three years ago as a puppy.”

 

Bucky holds Thomas’ gaze for a few more moments, and then returns his attention to Steve.  “So, what now?” he asks.

 

“That’s up to you,” Steve says, reaching for a grilled cheese.

 

Bucky quietly eats his soup, staring down at the bowl, until Steve starts to rise, and then he says, “I didn’t recognize you that time because you were so tall.”  Steve stops, just staring at him.  Bucky shrugs one shoulder and glances at him.  “I always had to look down at you, and suddenly, I had to learn how to look up to you.”

 

And that’s how they get to talking about the Howling Commandos, the war and what it was like fighting together, and the train.

 

——

 

The days pass like this.  Bucky moves into the guest room—when he asks Steve why he’d woken up in Steve’s room, Steve just shrugs and says he thought it might be easier, waking somewhere that might trigger things from their past—and they start to fall into a routine.  Steve goes out for a run every morning at six, but Bucky isn’t allowed outside yet, and though it bothers him that he’s under house arrest, he understands.  Instead, he takes to Steve’s treadmill while he’s out, and then, after they’ve eaten breakfast when Steve gets back around seven thirty, they spend some time lifting, doing yoga, and working on other routines they’ve each built over the years.

 

It starts to feel familiar in a way Bucky isn’t ready for—three days after he wakes, Steve is spotting him, and, when he sits, he lifts a fist without realizing what he’s doing, Steve knocks his knuckles against Bucky’s, and then they switch.  Bucky realizes after what’s transpired, and he wonders if that’s something they used to do.

 

Their day usually starts around ten, after they’ve each showered, and though Bucky thinks Steve usually goes out to wander New York, he stays in now.  They start off just talking, at first, mostly Bucky asking questions, but then, as the days wear on, Steve starts letting other things filter in.  He tries to get Bucky and Thomas acquainted, both of whom are still wary of each other.  They start watching movies that Steve claims are from their childhood, and Bucky starts recognizing them.

 

It starts to happen quicker than either of them are prepared for.  Once Bucky starts letting down his guard, just a little, it all starts flooding back, and it makes sleeping harder.  He’s already well on his way to insomnia when he first moves into the guest room, but it gets worse each day until he’s spending most of the night pouring through different news articles from over the years, learning about this new world he’s been dropped into.  Though he’s been awake much longer than Steve, he remembers almost none of it, remembers only red dripping across his vision and then darkness.  They put him under and pulled him back so many times, he’s still waiting for it to happen again.

 

Two weeks since he got there, Bucky’s in his bathroom, standing before the mirror, a towel wrapped around his waist, when there’s a knock on his door.  Steve comes in because he knows Bucky won’t answer the door, nor will he let him know he’s welcome, which is actually fairly similar toward how he was before, though when he finds him in the bathroom, he starts to leave, apologizing.

 

Bucky makes a soft noise, and Steve pauses.  “What’s up?” he says.

 

Bucky sighs.  He doesn’t want to ask for help, but he hates looking in the mirror and not recognizing who’s looking back.  “I can’t shave,” he says finally.

 

It takes a moment, but then Steve nods.  “Go put some pants on,” he says before he leaves.

 

Bucky dresses while he’s gone, tugging on a pair of jeans and tying his hair back with some difficulty—he’s gotten better at only having one arm, but he loathes that he’s had to learn how.  When Steve returns, he directs him back to the bathroom, closing the toilet lid and motioning for Bucky to sit.  As he does, Steve unveils a shaving kit that almost makes Bucky smile—this will be a testament of their trust.

 

“After I woke up, Nick filled my new apartment with every modern necessity, but disposable razors were never something I really grew fond of,” he says as he tilts Bucky’s head up into the light before he lathers on cream, “Most things, I’m grateful for—microwaves, air conditioning, DVDs—but there are other things, like CDs and online news, that I could do without.  It’s so loud now.  The city that never sleeps,” he muses quietly.

 

“Baseball?” Bucky asks.

 

“Yeah, of course,” Steve says, and then he flips open his straight razor, and Bucky doesn’t speak again.  “It’s different now, but it’s still around,” Steve continues, “We’ll have to go to a game sometime.  Did I tell you about when I woke?”

 

Bucky waits until Steve pulls the razor away to rinse before he says, “No.”

 

“They built a room,” Steve says, coming back, dragging the blade carefully over his neck, “It looked like a recovery room.  I was wearing a USSR shirt, the bed was rickety and small, there was a window where I could hear a recording of cars going by, and there was a radio playing a game.  It was from May, 1941.  Pete Reiser hit a grand slam.”

 

“I remember that,” Bucky says, looking over at Steve when he rinses again.

 

“We were there,” Steve says, smiling sadly.

 

He lingers at the sink, and Bucky frowns, head tilting down a little he watches him.  When he finally turns back, there’s something distant and aching to Steve’s expression, and Bucky leans away when he reaches for him.  “What is it?” he asks.

 

Steve shakes his head, reaching again, but Bucky lifts a hand, and, for the first time since he stopped trying to kill Steve, he holds onto him, fingers curling around his wrist and stopping him.  “Tell me,” he says.

 

“It’s nothing,” Steve says, and he can’t look away.

 

He looks so much like his Bucky like this, with his hair pulled away from his face and some of his jaw clean again, his brown eyes so soft and careful, and it makes it hurt so much more that he doesn’t remember.  Steve tries to clear his throat and twist out of Bucky’s grip, but Bucky holds fast, shaking his head once.  “Please,” he says quietly, and Steve finally looks away, dropping his gaze down as he closes his eyes.

 

Bucky releases him, then, and Steve’s arm sags down by his side as he tries to control the storm raging deep inside of him, tries to quell the oncoming wave, but all he can see is the way Bucky had leaned into him, his smile so wide and bright.  He’d been in full charm mode that day, in his handsome blue t-shirt and his faded jeans, with his Converse and his drumming fingers, his hair mussed from the wind and his eyes crinkling at the corners as he laughed.  Everyone’s attention had been on Pete, running the bases, when his lips had brushed the shell of Steve’s ear, his warm breath ghosting out to fill him until Steve forgot how to breathe, “Happy anniversary.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve says now, stepping away.

 

“Wait,” Bucky says, reaching for him again.  His fingers circle Steve’s wrist again, but it’s loose this time, just resting there, and there’s something in the way his thumb comes around, sliding over the inside of his wrist, that triggers something, and Bucky inhales softly, eyes slipping shut.

 

He can smell grass, freshly cut and dirty, the wind warm against his bare arms, the scratch of denim over his knee as it lifts with his laugh, the soft touch of Steve’s ear against his mouth, the slide of his fingers over his wrist, curling gently, thumb rubbing over his delicate skin, and there’s the faraway whisper of something said, something he needs to remember and can’t.

 

They’re caught like this, Steve swallowing down everything he wants to say, fingers lingering over his wrist, Bucky reaching desperately as he tries to will whatever it is back, and then Steve decides for them.

 

He comes back, slipping easily out of Bucky’s hold, and he brings his head back, tilting it up into the light again.  “We’re the Yankees now.  Dodgers moved out to Los Angeles,” Steve says, and then he falls quiet, and Bucky doesn’t push it anymore, just sits there mulling over what could possibly be missing.

 

Their words mostly noises,

Ghost with just voices.

Your words in my memory,

Are like music to me.

 

It starts to push them apart.  Steve is careful with his words after that, and Bucky can see how he calculates his every move, lets only the bare minimum of emotions show in his expressions, and while he’s impressed, he’s also frustrated.  He bides his time until Steve has to go out to run errands, and he promises to watch after Thomas while he’s gone.  “I won’t be long,” Steve says before he leaves, and Bucky waits a half hour to be sure he won’t return randomly to check up on him before he stands from the sofa and heads for the stairs.

 

“Come on,” he says when Thomas just looks at him, and Thomas makes a noise like a sigh and follows him.

 

When he reaches Steve’s door, Thomas growls, but Bucky ignores him, going in.  “Hey,” he says sharply when Thomas gets louder.  He lets out a short, quick bark, and Bucky swears, turning and kneeling.  “Thomas, please,” he says.  If he gets too loud, it will trigger a warning that will alert Steve, and he’ll come back.  “I need to do this,” he says softly, “I need to remember.  Please.”

 

Thomas holds his glare for a few more moments before he backs down, and he remains in the doorway, sitting on his haunches, waiting.  Bucky sighs and straightens again before continuing into Steve’s room.  He pokes around his desk first, looking through the drawers and then lifting his sketchpad.  He starts to flip absentmindedly through it, but a drawing catches his eye, and he opens it fully, looking down at it.

 

It’s of him and Steve, but it’s not something he’s ever seen before.  Steve is little, and he’s hunched up under Bucky’s draping arm, sloped around his shoulders.  He can only see them from the back, but he recognizes the old war uniform.

 

He hears a grunt, a hard voice, I can do this all day, feels himself sigh, and he grabs the desk chair as he drops down into it, gasping.  His eyes roll into the back of his head as he holds onto the sketchpad tighter, and it floods through him, brief moments of pulling some guy off Steve and shoving him back, of hauling Steve to his feet, of I had him on the ropes, of looping his arm around Steve and holding him close, of the fond brush of his hand around his shoulder, and, when Bucky opens his eyes again, he tastes salt.  He lifts a hand to his face, frowning when his fingers come away wet.

 

Sometimes, he feels like he’s watching someone else’s life unfold, someone he feels like he knows but can’t quite place how.

 

Bucky puts away the sketchpad, drags the backs of his hands over his eyes, and then continues his search.  He explores the pictures—many of them are from before, and they make him smile.  There’s one of him, Steve, and Howard, grinning from ear to ear, and, when Bucky touches the corner of it, he can hear Howard’s rumbling laugh right before, Steve’s quiet shake of his head as he’d looked over at Bucky, who had immediately turned to him, and he’d smiled, something soft and reserved for Steve, something fond.

 

There’s another of the Howling Commandos, but Bucky’s read enough on them that he thinks he knows them now, can place their names with their faces, can remember little details about them that not many know.

 

There’s one of Steve and Peggy that he remembers taking, and then there’s the ones from their youth, and though Bucky lingers on each of them, recalling small moments here and there, it’s the last one he finds, hidden amidst the others, that catches his attention.  He lifts it up, revealing it, and he just blinks at it, this simple, beautiful photograph.  It’s of both their profiles, noses brushed together, lashes fanned over their cheeks, the corner of Bucky’s mouth turned up in a quiet smile, Steve’s blonde hair falling over his forehead, and Bucky can’t breathe when he looks at it because it’s not some recalled memory, it’s not some vague, unclear thing that he thinks is right, he knows this moment like he was just chided for taking it, just mumbled sleepily at for waking Steve early on their day off, just tugged closer until their limbs were tangled together, mouths pressed warmly in a way that breathed years of time learning the shape of each other.

 

He understands now.

 

Bucky puts the picture away hastily, and he turns toward the door when Thomas lies down, giving him such an imploring look that Bucky forces himself to take a steadying breath and continue his search.  There’s nothing of import on the bookshelf, and the only thing beneath Steve’s bed is the shield, so he goes to the closet, rummaging around until he finds a small box hidden in the back.

 

He takes it out, folding his legs underneath him on Steve’s bed as he pulls the lid off.  It’s like a small memorial inside.  There are ticket stubs from various movies and baseball games, photo booth strips, little things from dozens of different places, most of them Bucky doesn’t recognize, and then a stack of polaroids.  They’re of each other equally, and some of them together, but all of them carry the heavy weight of fond familiarity, and Bucky thumbs through them, smiling.  Some of them, he can identify, but many, he can’t, and though it makes him ache, knowing that he can get these memories back, that it will just take time, gives him hope.

 

When he’s finished, he puts them back and then lifts out a small box.  Inside are multiple things that leave him breathless.  His dog tags are there, and he frowns as he lifts them out.  He knows that they didn’t find his body until after Steve was already in the ice, and so he can’t place how he would have these, but he remembers waking up without them.  And then, just when he thinks he’s done, he sees the ring, and he knows.

 

“This is not goodbye, okay?  Hey, look at me, Steve.  I’m coming home to you, I promise.  It’s just a couple months of basic training, and then I’ll have my first break, and I’ll be back, and we’ll celebrate our three years then, okay?”

 

He remembers holding out the little silver bands, remembers asking Steve to wait for him, remembers swearing he’d come back no matter what, remembers breaking that promise.

 

——

 

Though he worries about leaving Bucky for so long, Steve takes his time doing his errands until he finally gives up and admits that he needs to let this out, needs to talk to someone who was there the first time he lost Bucky.  And so, he makes his way to Peggy.

 

Once there, he signs her out, and she smiles brightly when he comes to retrieve her, saying she’d been dreaming about going on an adventure.  When they arrive at the cemetery, Peggy tries to sweet talk the attendant who won’t let them in, but Steve digs out his SHIELD issued ID, and they’re allowed inside.

 

“I always forget you’re famous now,” she says, and Steve laughs.

 

“Not really.  I just have famous friends.”

 

“Are you ever going to convince that damned boy to visit with you?  To think I knew Howard for so long, and I never met his son.  Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” she breaks off as Steve parks.  The cemetery stretches out before them, but the thing that captures their attention is a massive monument.

 

“Really?” Steve says, surprised.

 

“No,” Peggy says sharply, “It’s the most ostentatious waste of time I’ve ever seen.  Howard always thought he was too great for the rest of us, the pompous—” but Steve closes the door, coming around to get Peggy’s wheelchair and help her out.  She’s still going when he opens her door, and he laughs.  “I can’t imagine what Maria ever saw in him, always busy working, never home.  I wouldn’t have stood for it.  Thank you, dear,” she adds when Steve gets her settled.  They head out, making for the monument.  Peggy reaches up to pat his hand before she says, “I saw you on the news.  Is SHIELD really gone?”

 

“Hydra was still at work within.  I don’t know what’s next now.”

 

“That’s not what’s troubling you, though.  What happened, Steve?”

 

Steve remains quiet until they reach the monument, and then they pay their respects.  “He was never the same after we lost you,” Peggy says softly, “He spent so long looking.”

 

Steve comes around so he can see her, though he looks away.  “Bucky isn’t dead,” he says, “And I don’t know what to do.”

 

“Is he not dead like you or like me?” Peggy asks.

 

Steve smiles, looking to her.  “Like me,” he says, “They wiped his memory, but it’s starting to come back.  He knows who I am now, but not who I was.”

 

“Men always dance around their real problems,” Peggy sighs, “He doesn’t remember loving you?”

 

“You knew?” Steve says, eyes going wide.

 

Of course I knew.  Oh Steve, the way you used to look at each other was beautiful.  I only wished I would find something like that someday.  Howard figured it out after Bucky fell, said he’d walked in on you crying one night, and he came running to me.  Poor boy, he was so frantic, started demanding we begin a search for Bucky’s body as soon as possible.  You were one of the only friends he ever truly had, and he hated seeing you so distraught over Bucky.  We did look, too.  He sent teams out while he was looking for you, but it appears Hydra found him first.  How long was it?”

 

“What?”

 

“You and him.”


Steve sighs.  It’s been 76 years, and Steve still remembers their first kiss like he’s just pulled away with a gasp.  “Five years,” he says finally.

 

“Then I think it’s worth discussing with him.”

 

“How?”

 

“Don’t think about it,” Peggy says, “That’s how.  Now, come on, I’m tired.  Stop fretting.  I’ve seen how he used to look at you.  No amount of forced hatred can ever wipe out something as pure as that, just smother it for a time.  Be patient with him, Steve.  He still loves you.”

 

Steve sighs and nods before they head back.

 

——

 

Bucky doesn’t bring it up right away, unsure of what to say, how to say it, and then, three weeks since he got there, they’re eating lunch when there’s a knock on the door.  “I’ll be right back,” Steve says, offering him a small smile before he stands.  He casts a glance over at Thomas, who stays behind, and Bucky waits for him to leave before he pulls of a small sliver of turkey from his sandwich and hands it down.  Thomas takes it immediately, licking one of his fingers, and Bucky just presses a finger to his lips in response.

 

When he pulls open the door, it’s to reveal Tony and Bruce.  “Hey, thanks for coming,” Steve says, opening the door wider.

 

He leads them down the short hall and around to the kitchen, and it feels like a physical blow when Bucky looks over and immediately stands, taking a step back.  Thomas growls low in his throat, starting to rise, but Steve shakes his head once, and he settles again, though he watches them carefully.

 

“Bucky,” Steve starts to say, and Bucky takes another step back.  They’re calculated steps, silent and defensive, and Steve can see him assessing Tony and Bruce, looking for weaknesses.  “Bucky,” he says again, stepping in front of them.

 

“Don’t,” Bucky says, his gaze snapping back to Steve, “Please.”

 

Steve frowns, confused.  Bruce seems to understand, though, because he comes around Steve, holding up his hands.  “We’re not here to put you under again,” he says softly, “My name is Doctor Bruce Banner, and my colleague is Tony Stark.  Think of this as a physical.”

 

Steve sees it happen, and he sighs.  Bucky wholes up, his shoulders going rigid, his stance widening so he can attack easier, and he knows they’re not going to get anything out of him like this.  He turns to Tony, lowering his voice even though he knows Bucky will still be able to hear him, “Did you bring the prosthetic?”

 

Tony nods, not looking away from Bucky.  “Is he going to give us trouble?”

 

“No,” Steve says before reaching forward to curl a hand around Bruce’s shoulder.  “I got this.”

 

Bruce nods after a moment, turning away, and Bucky’s brow furrows minutely when Bruce puts his back to him.  He takes Tony by the elbow, forcing him to do the same, and they walk calmly away, going into the living room.

 

“Hey,” Steve says, stepping into Bucky’s line of sight, “I promise that this is exactly what they say it is.  Bruce wants to check up on your physical health, maybe your mental health, as well, and Tony made a prosthetic arm for you.”

 

Bucky frowns, and the offensive stance starts to slip away.  “Why?” he asks.

 

“Because I asked them to,” Steve says simply, shrugging, “After I met Bruce initially, I asked him to do a physical assessment of myself.  Most of his research is on the serum that made us—super soldiers, I guess, and so I thought he would be the best to make sure everything was intact.  I trust them.  I’ve fought with them, and they’ve become friends over the past few years, and they won’t hurt you.  I won’t let them.”

 

Bucky just stares at him, and Steve bites his lip, trying to determine how far he can push this space between them.  After a moment, he takes a deep breath and reaches out, and Bucky’s whole body goes tight, though he doesn’t look over as Steve’s hand rests lightly against his arm.  “Please.”

 

It takes a long, heavy minute before Bucky nods, and then Steve takes his hand back, turning away and clicking his tongue.  Thomas follows him out of the kitchen, and he goes into the living room, taking a seat in one of the armchairs.  Bucky remains a few moments longer before he follows, his steps short and clipped as he crosses over to one of the sofas and carefully sits.

 

The moment he sits, he disconnects, and Steve hums softly, reaching over to thread a hand through Thomas’ fur, who sits at his side.  Bucky looks over at him, and that’s how they spend the next two hours.  He doesn’t speak, doesn’t move unless asked to, doesn’t express anything but cool indifference as Bruce carries on, applying many of the typical physical assessments, as well as drawing blood.  He talks quietly the whole time, letting Bucky know what he’s about to do, why he’s doing it, and Steve can’t express how grateful he is to him for doing so.

 

When Bruce is finally done, he helps Tony with the prosthetic, and then Tony takes over talking, and Bucky actually looks at him while he speaks, listening as Tony explains the varying abilities of the arm.  Though it’s been mechanically engineered, the strength of it will only equal that of his right arm.  He starts to bypass the electronic mechanisms built in, but Steve cuts in, “He knows about the chip.”

 

“Okay,” Tony says, nodding, “If you try to take the chip out with this arm, you’ll be electrocuted with enough voltage that even the Hulk wouldn’t be able to get back up for a few hours, so I suggest not trying to.  I’m not saying you can’t scratch your damn shoulder, but try to dig in there, and you’ll regret it.”  Bucky just blinks to show his understanding.

 

When they’re done, Tony works him through a few different arm exercises to see how it works, and then he straightens, satisfied.  “Good to go,” Tony says, looking over at Bruce, who sighs.

 

“We are under strict orders to keep this information classified, but seeing as we all regularly disagree with Fury’s decisions, we’re inclined to let you know that he’s scheduled random visits from Natasha to assess Bucky’s status,” Bruce says.

 

“Status?” Steve repeats, frowning, “How do you mean?”

 

“From our understanding, multiple things,” Bruce says, turning his attention to Bucky, “I believe she’ll be assessing your adaption to this time period, your potential as a threat, your mental status, any inclinations you may have toward any establishments, any possibility of contact with Hydra members in hiding, and several other things.  What I’ve derived from this is she’s going to make a decision that she’ll bring back to Fury, and then one of a few things will happen.  They will either determine you unfit and put you into a cyro-freeze again, they will release your current living status to the public, which will ensue a political war to end in either your imprisonment or your death, or they will determine you fit and leave you alone.  This is not personal.  It is—” Bruce pauses, looking to Tony and shaking his head.

 

“They did the same thing to Steve,” Tony says for him, shrugging one shoulder.

 

“What?” Steve says, looking over at Tony.

 

“Yeah,” Tony says, “They tried to bring me in as a consult, and I told them to fuck off, so they tried being sneaky.  Didn’t notice, did you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Well, you’ll notice this one.”

 

“They’re terrified, Steve,” Bruce says, “They don’t know what to do, and so they’re pulling out all the stops.”

 

“Great,” Steve says, turning his gaze to Bucky, who is no longer on the sofa.  He jerks to his feet, looking around, and then he hears the door to the guest room close.  He can’t help the grin that lifts the corners of his mouth, and then Tony and Bruce notice he’s gone.

 

“What the hell?” Tony says, looking around as Bruce’s eyebrows go up.

 

“He’s good,” Bruce says quietly, and then, sighing, “C’mon, Tony.”  They start packing up, and Steve chats with them before walking them to door.  “We’ll let you know if we hear anything,” Bruce says before they go, and then Steve is left staring around his empty loft.

 

After I have travelled so far,

We’d set fire to the third bar.

 

Bucky’s been playing the insomniac for almost a month when it starts to get bad.  He’s been managing it so far.  Every time the threat of a nightmare approaches, he shakes himself awake, prowls around the loft until he doesn’t feel as tight, as strung out, and then he reads whatever articles Steve’s sent him this time to help catch up on the world before, eventually, he falls asleep again.  It’s a pattern, over and over.  He can tell Steve notices, but thankfully, he doesn’t mention it, and they keep playing this game where Steve pretends Bucky is getting better and Bucky pretends right along with him.

 

It’s a strange day when it falls apart.

 

He doesn’t always avoid all of the nightmares.  Sometimes, he can’t quite catch them, and he wakes up in a cold sweat, shaking as he rolls out of bed and stumbles for the bathroom, vomiting.  He’s always quiet, though, because the second he lets it out, this façade they’ve put up will crumble.  He’s starting to remember more and more of what he did as the Winter Soldier, the people he’s killed, tortured, abused, and it eats away at him until he stops sleeping.  It’s exhausting, though, to look at Steve every day and stamp out the unbridled fury that rises up in him, and then to be caged inside this loft where he’s being babysat, and not sleeping only works for a few days at a time before he’s crashing.

 

It’s one of those days.  He’s already worn out from four days of unrest, and, when Steve gets back from his run, he feels like he’s going through withdrawal, so he’s sluggish during their morning workout.  Steve frowns while he spots him, and then, like a light flickering out, Bucky’s arms just give out beneath the bar, and it drops to his chest.  Steve jumps forward, quickly pulling it up before he starts to reach for Bucky, but Bucky flinches away, rolling over onto his side and then pushing upright.

 

There’s this no touching unless necessary thing between them that makes him ache, but he’s not sure how to let Steve in without hurting him.

 

“When was the last time you slept?” Steve asks, lingering behind him, and though it makes his skin crawl, not being able to see him, just in case, Bucky doesn’t turn around.  He shrugs the shoulder with the prosthetic arm, and then sneers at it.  He hates how Tony designed it to be warm, to feel like flesh, to be human, something he doesn’t think he is anymore.  “Is it bothering you?” Steve asks.

 

“Yes,” Bucky says quietly, looking down the arm to the hand, turning so that the palm faces up.  He clenches the fingers, frowning.

 

“It’ll take some getting used to, but it’s better than—”

 

“No,” Bucky cuts him off, closing his eyes.  He doesn’t know how to explain it to him, why he prefers the metal arm.

 

He hears Steve move, and he opens his eyes again, watching his feet come into his peripheral until Steve is sitting next to him.  He’s so close, Bucky can smell him.

 

“Talk to me,” Steve says before he reaches over, fingers looping around Bucky’s prosthetic wrist.  His jaw tightens, but he doesn’t flinch away.  Steve carefully lifts his arm, other hand coming up to press lightly against the back of his shoulder before he starts to rotate it up, shoulder moving as the arm does.  He works him through a few stretches, some focused on his shoulder, some on his elbow, some on his bicep and forearm, and then he starts to work on his wrist and fingers.  It feels good, Bucky realizes, not because he can feel it—because he can’t; with the metal arm, there was always this little burst of electricity that ran through him whenever someone touched it, but with the prosthetic, he feels nothing, and he wonders if that’s just because of him, because of how he’s burned his humanity, or because of something Tony did to it—but because Steve touches him in a way that doesn’t leave a lingering scorch of terror or uncertainty.  He’s familiar with Bucky, knows where to touch to make him relax, and his mouth starts to turn up as he watches Steve move his fingers.

 

“Good?” Steve asks, and Bucky nods, watching the pads of Steve’s fingers smooth out over the sides of his, softly massaging them.  He wonders what it would be like on his other arm, if he could actually feel Steve’s touch.

 

He retreats suddenly, and Bucky looks up, meeting his gaze.  “Can I try the other one?” Steve asks, and Bucky just stares at him.  He knows Steve won’t do it, knows he’ll stay where he is until Bucky gives his permission, but he doesn’t know how to give anymore, doesn’t know how to do anything but take until he’s sucked the marrow out.

 

He swallows, his throat clicking, and then he looks away, his chest tightening as he closes his eyes again.  “Okay,” he says through gritted teeth.  He forces himself to keep his eyes closed as Steve stands, though his hands roll into fists, and his shoulders go rigid as he walks around to Bucky’s other side and then carefully sits.

 

“Talk to me,” Steve says again, “Why don’t you like the prosthetic?”

 

The air shifts when Steve lifts his hand, and, without warning, Bucky deflates again, something heavy sinking through him.  Steve’s knuckles brush over the inside of his elbow, and then his fingers circle his wrist, and Bucky can’t breathe.

 

“It’s too warm,” he says, his voice a little hoarse, “It’s—it feels real.”

 

“The metal reminded you of what you were?” Steve asks, hands moving slowly over Bucky’s arm, slowly lifting as he starts to rotate his shoulder.

 

“Of what I had become,” Bucky corrects, and then his shoulder rolls, and all he can feel is Steve’s leg wrapped around his metal arm, his hands yanking his good arm farther back until it snaps, and he lets out a low growl.

 

He doesn’t remember standing, but the next time he blinks, Steve is on the ground, and he’s backing toward his only exit, the railing overlooking the first floor.

 

“Bucky,” Steve says, starting to push off the ground and then gasping, pulling his hand in against him.

 

It happens so fast, he almost doesn’t catch it, a brief image of schoolyard bullies towering over this tiny, broken boy, jeering and laughing as they kicked and pushed and punched, of his own hands tearing through them, sending them crashing back against the fence, a yell tripping out of his throat that sent them scattering before he was turning.  The broken boy had bitten through his lip and was crying, cradling his hand against his chest as he stared up at him, and he’d helped him to his feet and looped his good arm around his shoulders, walked him to the nurse and refused to leave until he was sure he’d be okay.

 

The first time Bucky met Steve, they’d been six, and now, he’s turned into the bully he was always trying to stop.

 

He doesn’t mean to, but Bucky jerks forward a step, his mouth open as his bottom lip trembles, something welling up inside of him, and he wants to go to him, wants to lets his words tumble out in some semblance of an apology until Steve will fold him away and make it stop, the voices thundering in his head, the ones screaming at his surging relief of finally being where he belongs again with a kill or be killed mission.

 

Steve sighs when Bucky runs, the motions uncertain and slow, but fast enough that Steve can’t stop him before his door is slamming shut.  He picks himself up off the floor, mindful of his broken wrist, and slowly makes his way downstairs to the kitchen, where his phone is sitting on the island.

 

Bruce answers on the third ring, “Hey Steve.”

 

“Hey,” Steve says softly, “Are you busy?”

 

——

 

“You should be healed in about a week,” Bruce says as he finishes wrapping Steve’s hand, “But stay away from the weights for at least a week and a half, okay?  It’ll just make it worse if you put more strain on it.”

 

“Okay,” Steve says, nodding, “Thank you.”

 

Bruce shrugs, leaning away.  They’re in the living room, and Steve keeps glancing up at Bucky’s door, willing it to open.  “Was it him?” Bruce asks, and Steve looks away.  “Okay,” Bruce says, sighing, “Was it provoked?”

“Yes,” Steve says, meeting his gaze again, “I was testing the waters.  With permission,” he adds at Bruce’s frown, “He doesn’t like the prosthetic.”

 

“Why?  Is it not functioning correctly?”

 

“No, it’s fine,” Steve says, shaking his head, “It’s too human, I think.”

 

Bruce lets out a short, hollow laugh that’s more like a forced exhale.  “That’s an interesting theory.”

 

“It’s not a theory,” Steve says, “He said it was too warm, that it felt real, and that the metal arm reminded him of who he had become.”

 

“All that?” Bruce says, surprised.

 

“Well,” Steve says, shrugging one shoulder, “With some persuasion.  He used to never shut up, and now I can barely get more than four words out of him at a time, never mind a full conversation.  Still, there’s obvious progress.”

 

“That’s good.  Do you have any next steps in mind?”

 

“I’m thinking about letting him out of the house.  He—”

 

“Steve,” Bruce cuts him off, shaking his head, “I don’t know.”

 

“I know, Bruce, but can you imagine what it must be like, cooped up in a two-floor apartment, with no escape?  I’d go out of my mind.”

 

“I can imagine,” Bruce says quietly, “I’ve been where he is, Steve.  I’ve been in a cage, forced to let others poke and prod, never allowed to go anywhere without supervision.  And I get it, I do, but I’m worried about what might happen.  He’s genetically engineered, just like you, and while, yes, he’ll be electrocuted if he takes the chip out with the prosthetic, I don’t see that stopping him if he escapes, if you lose him.  You might never get him back again.”

 

“I trust him, Bruce,” Steve says at the same time the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.  He frowns, looking over, but there’s no one on the stairs, and Bucky’s door is still closed.  Thomas makes a quiet noise at his feet, and Steve looks over at the kitchen, blinking when he sees the fridge door is open.  “How did you do that?” he blurts out, staring as Bucky steps back, closing the fridge.

 

Bucky shrugs his good shoulder, one eyebrow quirking up, and Steve sees him as he remembers him, with that shit-eating, smug look on his face, and the corner of his mouth even goes up a little.  “Better trained than you, apparently,” Bucky says.

 

Steve rolls his eyes.  “Yeah, okay.  Your lazy ass couldn’t even get up off the sofa to change the channel back in the day.”

 

“Lazy?” Bucky repeats, and something familiar flickers across his face, something warm and easy, before his gaze drifts away to the water he’s holding.  He stares at it for a moment before unscrewing the top and taking a long sip.

 

Steve turns back to Bruce, but Bruce is still staring at Bucky, his brow furrowed.  “Bruce?”

 

“Why do you trust me?” Bruce asks, ignoring Steve.

 

Bucky caps the water again before he makes his way over, his footsteps silent.  He carefully sits in the armchair, perched on the edge, and he holds Bruce’s gaze for a long moment before he says, “Is it subconscious?”

 

Bruce blinks, relaxing a little.  He hadn’t expected that.  “No,” he says, shaking his head, “Simultaneous.”

 

“I don’t trust you,” Bucky says.

 

“But you don’t distrust me, either,” Bruce says.

 

“Can you help me?”

 

The question comes so abruptly, silence settles around them, but Bruce is quick to break it, “I can try.  What do you need?”

 

Bucky finally drops his gaze, staring down at his hands curled around the bottle.  They’re clenched tightly, squeezing too hard, and the cap is sliding angrily.  He feels Steve before he sees his hand, and he lets him take the bottle from him.  He starts to speak, and then turns his head away, teeth digging into his bottom lip.

 

“Is it a simultaneous consciousness for you?” Bruce asks, and Bucky nods.  He remains, poised, the fingers of his good hand trembling.  “It’s exhausting,” Bruce sighs, “To be constantly fighting a crimson urge.”

 

Bucky inhales slowly, trying to keep his breathing steady, but it comes out with a quiet, wounded noise.  He forces the words out like he’s being dragged across a bed of nails, “I don’t want to hurt him.”

 

“Steve,” Bruce says, laying a hand on his arm, “Why don’t you take Thomas out for a walk?”

 

Steve stares at Bucky for a few moments before nodding, getting to his feet.  “Thomas,” he murmurs, and he walks away, going around Bucky, and he’s almost passed the chair when Bucky twists, good hand darting out, fingers curling around Steve’s wrist.  His thumb flickers over the inside, and it feels like an apology.  Steve pauses, head tilting down toward him, and he starts to tell him it’s okay, that he’ll be okay, that they’ll be okay, when he feels the cool touch of metal, and he turns his arm until he can see Bucky’s fingers.

 

Bucky lifts his gaze, and his eyes are heavy and exhausted looking.  “Don’t leave me,” he whispers as Steve stares at the silver band on his third finger, the same one he wears, has always worn.

 

Steve reaches his own fingers around until he can carefully circle Bucky’s forearm, and then he meets his gaze.  “Never again,” he says, and Bucky nods once before releasing him, and he sinks back into the armchair.

 

Steve lingers a moment longer before he leaves, Thomas at his side, and then Bucky draws his knees up, pulling them in against his chest.  When Steve is gone, Bruce stands.  “I’m going to make tea,” he says, and Bucky just continues to stare at the spot where Steve had been.

 

When Bruce has left his line of sight, he tucks his nose between his knees and squeezes his eyes shut, trying to drown his echoing mind in silence.

 

Bruce finds him like this, his shoulders shaking, and though he must know Bruce has returned, he doesn’t unfold from his vulnerable, terrified position, curled in on himself, and so Bruce tugs the coffee table closer so he can sit in front of Bucky, setting the mugs down behind him.  “Bucky,” he says softly, lifting his hands to his knees, cupping around the sides of them gently.  His whole body goes still, and Bruce wonders if, maybe, he didn’t know Bruce had returned.  “Sometimes, I find the best way to find peace is not to forget the terrible moments, but to remember the beautiful ones.  Here, this will help.”

 

He takes one of his hands back, reaching for the mug, and when he turns to Bucky again, he’s lifted his head, chin resting on his knees.  He takes the offered mug with his good hand, and Bruce sighs, gaze flicking to the prosthetic arm.  “If you want, I can talk to Tony about removing it,” Bruce says, “But I won’t speak to him about returning the metal one.”

 

“I understand,” Bucky says before he takes a small sip of his tea.  His hand trembles lightly, and Bruce lifts his own to curl around it, holding him steady.  “I’m so tired,” Bucky admits, and Bruce nods.

 

“Finish that, and then you can go to bed.  I don’t care what you see when you close your eyes,” he continues when Bucky starts to object, “We all have to face our demons, no matter how dark.  Be patient with them.  I have found that demons are too erratic to linger for long.”

 

After a moment, Bucky nods and leans away, curling both hands around his tea mug.  Bruce straightens, reaching for his own.  They drink in silence, and when they’ve finished, Bruce sets them down again and says, “If ever you need someone to talk to, Steve has my direct number, so you don’t have to deal with Tony.  I know he’s a lot to handle.  Sometimes, even I want to strangle him.  There you go,” he adds when Bucky lets out a soft breath that sounds close to a laugh, “Like I said, I’ll talk to Tony about removing the prosthetic, but, in the interim before you’re given the metal one back, I’d like you to come visit the Tower at least once a week so we can talk, professionally.  While I don’t have a degree that would allow me to actually prescribe patients mentally, I’ve been acting as Tony’s live-in psychiatrist for a few years now, and I’d like to think he’s helped me finish my practical experience.  Let me know when you start leaving the loft, and we’ll set up a day and time, okay?”

 

Bucky nods, and so Bruce smiles lightly and stands.  “Doctor Banner,” Bucky says when he collects their mugs and starts to walk away, “Thank you.”

 

“Tell Steve about the dog tags you’re hiding under your shirt, and we’ll call it even.”


Bucky looks up at him, but Bruce is already halfway to the kitchen.  When he turns away from cleaning out the mugs, Bucky is gone.

 

We’d share each other like an island,

Until exhausted, close our eyelids,

And dreaming, pick up from the last place we left off.

 

It’s the noise.

 

Steve knows that Bucky has been having nightmares, has them himself more often than not, though his have faded over the years, are just a dull ache whenever he wakes from one, not really sure what it had been about, but he remembers how it felt in the beginning, how raw they left him, and he knows that noise.  It’s terrified and furious, a blind eruption of horrific chaos, like a knife twisting through muscle.  It’s quick, too, a sharp retort in the dark echo of his room, but Steve has made it enough times himself to recognize it, and he jerks out of his desk chair, sending it sprawling across the room as he sprints for his door, yanking it open and tearing down the hall.

 

He throws Bucky’s door open, and he ducks a knife as it sails through the air, whistling over his head and careening into open space before it drops, clattering below.  Steve steps in, gaze darting around until he sees him, slumped beneath the window, clawing at his prosthetic arm.  “Bucky,” he says softly, raising his hands as he comes in further.

 

Bucky’s head snaps around as he glares at him, teeth sharp in the moonlight as he growls, low in his throat.  “It’s too warm,” he spits, his voice hoarse and awful sounding, enough that Steve flinches.  His gaze comes back around, right hand tearing at his shoulder, and Steve keeps walking until the moon’s rays fall over him, and Steve swears.  His fingers are a bloody mess, red staining his chest and shoulder.

 

“Bucky,” he says again, coming around the bed, and then Bucky attacks.

 

He springs forward, catching Steve around the middle, throwing his bad shoulder into him and roaring as he charges them across the room until Steve hits the wall, head thudding back.  Steve throws a well-aimed punch, fist smacking against Bucky’s bad shoulder, and Bucky goes down immediately, yanking at the prosthetic again.

 

“Bucky,” Steve whispers, dropping down to his knees.  He reaches out, taking Bucky’s hand away and catching the other one as it comes up, ready to strike.  “Look at me.”  Bucky obeys, his glare cold.

 

“Who the hell is Bucky?” he sneers, and Steve almost breaks.

 

“Please,” he whispers, leaning forward.  Bucky goes rigid as Steve invades his space, but he doesn’t move away when Steve’s forehead rests against his.  “Please don’t leave me.”

 

He knows his name, he knows his name, he knows his name, why can’t he remember his name, and he closes his eyes, pressing back against Steve.  “Help me,” he gasps out, and Steve doesn’t give him time to take it back before he pulls them together, winding his arms around Bucky, nails digging into his back, breath fanning out over his neck.  He refuses to let him go.

 

“It’s me,” he says, “It’s Steve.”

 

“Steve?” Bucky says, and then his body goes limp, “Steve.”

 

Steve hauls him closer, shifting until he can unfold his legs as he pulls Bucky into his lap, cradling his body against him.  “Too warm,” Bucky mumbles, trying to push away, but Steve just holds him tighter.

 

“Too bad,” Steve says, and Bucky breaks.

 

——

 

In the morning, when Bucky wakes up, he’s warm.  He can’t remember the last time he wasn’t shaking with the cold whenever he floated back up out of the dark, the last time he didn’t roll over to heave into a bucket they changed every night, the last time he didn’t keep his eyes closed so maybe they would just leave him alone.  When he opens his eyes now, he’s warm and loose, and he doesn’t immediately look for an exit when he realizes he’s not in his room.  He’s in Steve’s—the light is different in here, the sun coming in through the window in big bursts.

 

Steve is still asleep next to him when Bucky looks over, and there’s this space between them, this yawning distance that’s bridged only by Steve’s extended arm, his fingers curled around Bucky’s prosthetic arm.

 

He remembers trying to rip it off, and he has to fight down the urge to do so now.  This arm feels like a trap, and the longer he has it, the harder it is to push away the red voice reminding him why he’s here.  He can’t understand why, but he feels like he might be in more control if he had the metal one back.

 

Steve stirs, and that’s when Bucky notices Thomas at the edge of the bed, licking Steve’s elbow.  “What,” Steve mumbles, lifting his head to look at Thomas, who sits back on his haunches and looks at Bucky.  Steve’s head snaps around, and he smiles softly.  “Good morning,” he murmurs.

 

Bucky blinks.

 

Steve hums, dropping his head back down as his eyes close.  “You need a haircut,” he says before he yawns, turning into his pillow as he does.  When he’s finished, he opens his eyes again, tongue sliding out to wet his lips before he says, “You look like a 70s hair band thing whatever the hell it’s called.  Wanna go to the barber’s today?”

 

Bucky blinks again, his brow furrowing.

 

“It’s starting to get nice out, might as well enjoy the warm weather instead of staying cooped up in here.  I know, my fault,” Steve says, and then, before Bucky can react, he pushes up and leans over, and it’s like coming home when Steve’s mouth presses softly against Bucky’s.

 

He doesn’t move at first, too afraid to scare Steve away, to ruin this moment, to admit to himself that he’s never felt safer than when Steve is this close to him, and then, he’s moving without meaning to, leaning into it as he carefully returns the kiss, just a gentle shift of his mouth, but it makes Steve smile when he pulls away, and that’s all that matters these days, so Bucky thinks maybe, just this once, he did the right thing.

 

“I’m gonna shower,” Steve says as he rolls away from him, and though his hands are shaking, and his knees actually ache, he manages to make it around the bed and into his bathroom before he lets out a terrified breath, leaning against the wall.  He doesn’t know what the hell he thought he was doing, but, for a moment, he’d forgotten where they were, who they were, everything but that they were, just them, waking to each other as though nothing had ever come between them, and he hadn’t been able to stop himself.

 

Steve stays there for a few moments before he pushes away from the wall and goes to shower.  It’s quick, though when he’s done and he returns to his room, Bucky is out cold on his bed, and he smiles, leaning down to press a kiss to his temple before he dresses in something comfortable and goes over to his desk to settle in for a lazy day.

 

Bucky sleeps most of the day, and so Steve spends most of the day in his room, gravitating between the bed and his desk.  He sketches for a while, mapping out the lines of Bucky’s slumped form, though it doesn’t feel quite right, and so he leaves it unfinished.  He catches up on some of his reading, really only breaking to take Thomas for walks.

 

Around six, he makes his way downstairs to make something for dinner, and he’s halfway through spaghetti and meatballs—it used to be a favorite of theirs when they were younger—when he hears the scream.

 

It’s not the quiet desperation of earlier, a short, sharp burst—this is open terror, unbridled fear that makes Steve run.

 

He hurtles through the living room toward the stairs as there’s a loud thud from upstairs, and then Bucky’s voice is dropping in pitch, a low, pained wail.  Steve hits the stairs as he tries to round them, knee slamming into the second stair.  There’s a crash like something shattering apart, and Steve heaves himself up, taking the stairs two at a time.

 

Inside his room, Bucky throws himself, back slamming angrily against the wall as he yanks at the prosthetic arm, roaring as he tries to pull it apart.  He can’t do it, he can’t have this thing attached to him, can’t let it fool him into thinking he’s okay, that he could ever possibly be forgiven for what he’s done.

 

His fingers dig in, nails scraping over the false skin, and he screams, leg kicking out, foot smacking against the bookshelf so hard that it rattles.  He kicks again, and again, until things start toppling off, breaking apart as they smash onto the floor, shattering around him as he presses harder.

 

He can hear Steve thundering up the stairs, and panic starts to flood through him until the material gives, and his bloody fingers finally sink in, and then he stops breathing, a manic rage swelling through him like a wave pulling him under as he claws at the prosthetic arm, shredding it apart.

 

The door bangs open as he stops kicking, instead digs his heels into the ground and pushes back, giving himself leverage as he destroys.

 

“Bucky!” Steve shouts, running across the room at him.

 

“No!” Bucky roars, throwing up a foot that Steve easily knocks away before he crashes to his knees and yanks Bucky’s right arm away.  Bucky lets the other one fly through the air, and it tears in the air, hung by a thread as it snags against Steve, the jagged edges inside scraping over his arm and ripping skin.  Blood wells in its wake, and Steve jerks back, gasping.  The second he reacts, Bucky throws his attention back at the arm, making for the shoulder, clawing at it like a wild animal.

 

“Bucky!” Steve yells again, lunging at him, and Bucky tries to scramble away a second before Steve tackles him, pinning him to the ground.  He bucks up, unbalancing Steve.  He throws a knee into his ribs, and Steve goes over, Bucky following as his right arm comes rocketing up, body twisting around, and he starts to drop back down when he feels Steve’s hand on his thigh, fingers curling tightly and holding onto him, and he heaves out a hard, broken breath that pulls him apart at the seams.

 

“Bucky,” Steve says softly, blue gaze fixed on his brown one instead of on the bloody fist still hanging in the air, “Come back to me.”

 

“They told me to kill you,” he says, his words like knives, sharp, edged things that leave raw, open wounds, blistering as he shakes apart.  He’s got one knee pinned in against Steve’s ribs, the other pressing down against his sternum, and his fist is still there, trembling above them, dripping red down onto Steve’s navy blue shirt.

 

“Bucky—”

 

“They told me to kill you, and I wanted to,” he hisses.

 

Steve stares up at him, his breaths coming hard—he’s never felt like he might actually be in fatal danger in Bucky’s presence, despite everything, but this is a man he doesn’t know, a man who has lost all sense of who he was in favor of something feral and inhumane.

 

Bucky leans in close suddenly, fingers uncurling so that they can come down to dance over Steve’s chest, leaving little trails of pinprick blood as they go.

 

“They told me to lay waste to you, to destroy you, to rip you apart and sink my teeth in, let you burn my throat until the world was screaming for your death, and I—”

 

Something shifts.

 

Bucky whimpers, his bloody hand coming up toward his shoulder again.  “I can’t get it off,” he says, his terrifying expression morphing into something awful, something agonizing.  “I can’t get it off, I can’t—I can’t,” he gasps, and then he’s pulling again, and Steve throws him off.

 

Bucky hits the wall, and then he’s roaring again, coming at Steve with wild abandon.  “Bucky,” Steve whispers before he deflects his first blow, grabs Bucky by the hair, and smashes his head off the wall.

 

——

 

To say Tony is livid when they arrive at the Tower is an understatement.  Bruce shows up barely five minutes after they’ve entered the lab, worried, but then he sees the state of Bucky’s arm, and he quickly ushers Steve over to the med section.

 

“What happened?” he asks, but Steve just shakes his head.

 

He can’t get Bucky’s words out of his head, keeps hearing them echo around until it’s drowning out everything else.

 

“Take it off,” he says hoarsely.

 

“Steve—” Bruce tries.

 

“Take it off,” he says again, not looking away from Bucky, “Take it off, take the chip out, and put the metal arm back on.”

 

“Steve—” Tony says this time, but Steve snaps his gaze over to him, and Tony swallows down whatever he was going to say.  “Okay,” he says instead, and then Steve leaves.

 

——

 

Steve is asleep when Bucky wakes up.  He’s lying in an unfamiliar bed, an IV drip in his right hand, and Steve is sleeping in a chair, but Bucky can’t look at him because every time he does, he sees that look on his face, how terrified he was, and he doesn’t know how to fix this, how to prove to him that he’s still in here somewhere, that he just needs help.

 

He starts to move, to lean over to Steve, and the soft hum of metal vibrates through him.  Bucky looks over sharply, jaw dropping open as he sees the metal arm, intact and attached, and, all at once, he understands.  He’s being given an option, a chance to prove himself.

 

Bucky throws the blankets back, rips out the IV, and leaves.

 

——

 

After Steve wakes up and finds Bucky gone, after he avoids Tony and Bruce but to say thank you to them, after he trudges home and curls up in bed, after he forces down the tears until it’s too much, too much like a natural disaster trying to swallow him whole, after he buries his sobs in his pillows and cries himself to sleep, after trying to claw his way back up out of Bucky’s words and the shattering sound of gunfire and slowly freezing to death and not being able to wake up, after he feels like he would just rather waste away until maybe someone thought to remember Steve Rogers instead of Captain America, after it all, Steve wakes up, and the first thing he smells is steamed green beans.

 

Steve blinks.  He remembers that smell from his childhood, remembers asking Bucky for a snack and groaning when he came back with steamed green beans, remembers him hating every other vegetable in the world, but it doesn’t fit here.

 

He pushes out of bed, and he almost doesn’t notice that Thomas isn’t here, but he doesn’t have trouble getting out of the room without tripping over him, and he frowns, looking around.  When he comes out into the hall, his turntable is on, a record of soft jazz filling the loft in slow, loose movements.

 

Steve feels like he’s losing his mind, like he’s walking in a dream.

 

He walks down the hall slowly, coming around to the stairs and looking over the railing.  He can’t see all of the kitchen from here, but he can see Thomas lying lazily on the threshold, and so he takes the stairs quickly, hurrying through the living room until the kitchen unfolds, and then he slows, just staring.

 

Bucky is at the counter, his back to Steve while he makes a salad.  The sauce is simmering on one of the burners, a pot of water boiling the pasta, and there are places set out at the island for two.  There’s a bowl of steamed green beans near his elbow, and he reaches over for one occasionally, the snap of it crunching between his teeth echoing around the kitchen.  It’s all of this, and then it’s him that makes Steve stop just inside the kitchen, his heart hammering against his ribs.  He looks like Bucky, finally, with his hair cut short, his jaw a little rough with a few days hair, and his voice lilting out in a soft hum as he cooks.  He’s wearing a pair of Steve’s sweats, so they’re hanging loose on his hips, but they look good on him in a way that makes Steve smile softly, lean against the island and just stare at him.  He’s wearing one of his own shirts, one of the very few he owns, but it’s a dark, rich green, one of Steve’s favorite colors, and he remembers buying it for that very reason.

 

“Hungry?” he asks, glancing over his shoulder.

 

“Uh,” Steve says, blinking, “Yeah, actually.  Starving.  How long was I asleep?”

 

“Long enough.”

 

Steve nods, taking a seat at the island.  Bucky finishes up the salad and brings it over, placing it between the two sets before he goes to stir the sauce.  He brings his green beans back over, and Steve smiles when he sits.  “I didn’t know you liked vegetables,” he lies.

 

Bucky lifts one eyebrow at him and says, “Uh huh.”

 

Steve laughs without meaning to, and Bucky ducks his eyes, but Steve still sees it, this barely there smile that explodes warmth in his chest.  “Hey,” he says, waiting for Bucky to look back up at him before he continues, “What happened?  I thought you left.”

 

Bucky holds his gaze for a long, quiet moment before he carefully reaches out, metal hand flipped up.  Steve hesitates, and then lays his hand in Bucky’s, holding his breath until he lifts the other one over, right hand resting on top of Steve’s, thumb rubbing out over his wrist.  “I promised I’d come home to celebrate,” he says.

 

“Bucky—”

 

“I’m sorry if it’s not the right day,” he mumbles, looking down, “All I could remember was March.”

 

“March seventeenth,” Steve says, “I don’t even know how many years it is anymore.”

 

“Seventy-four.”

 

“Really?”

 

“If you’ll still have me.”

 

“Bucky,” Steve sighs.

 

Bucky takes his hands back, shrugging as they drop into his lap.  “I need help,” he whispers, looking down at his hands, “I’m not okay, and I need your help.  Nothing I can say will take back what I did, but I’m not leaving, as long as I’m allowed to stay.”

 

“You’re not allowed to leave,” Steve says, and Bucky looks up, eyes wide and so hopeful, Steve has to swallow past a lump in his throat, “I’m not losing you again.”

 

“Steve,” Bucky says, his mouth trembling as his eyes fill, and Steve sighs, pushing off his seat and coming around the island.  Bucky turns as he walks, and a few tears slide out as Steve reaches him, hands coming up to curl around his jaw.

 

“Never again,” he murmurs, and Bucky nods.

 

“Okay,” he says, and then Steve’s kissing him, this careful press of mouths that leaves Bucky clinging to him.  There’s still a crimson urge, but for this second, there’s nothing but Steve’s breath filling his lungs, and he finds peace.

 

Your soft skin is weeping,

A joy you can’t keep in.

 

The first time they go outside, Steve sees Bucky smile, truly and honestly, for the first time since he got him back.  His lips curl up in a wide, open grin, teeth scraping over his lip before he’s laughing.  He leans into Steve, pressing his face against his shoulder, who drops a kiss on his hair and then reaches for his left hand, the metal cool against his skin.  Bucky hums when he tangles their fingers together, and then they make their way down the street, Steve giving him a tour of the new Brooklyn.

 

It happens slowly after that.  There are still nights when Bucky wakes screaming, sometimes shaking so hard that Steve has to wrap his limbs around him and hold him tight, soothe him in whatever manner he can think of until Bucky comes back to him.  Most nights are like this, spent trembling and terrified, but then there are the silent nights, when Bucky jerks out of sleep, and he moves so quickly, so efficiently that Steve almost never feels him leave.  Sometimes, though, when he wakes and the left side of the bed is empty, he knows he can’t do anything.  Bucky either prowls the apartment, if he feels in control enough, or he leaves, putting as much distance between he and Steve as he can because he feels caged in, walls pulling him too close to the thing he longs to destroy, crimson drowning him in a shadow so dark, he’s left gasping, the same thing that heals him every time he steps back into his arms, asks for forgiveness and shelter.

 

He still loses himself sometimes.  The first time, they’re sparring when Bucky slips away, when his fists get tighter, his strikes harder, and then Steve is left with a choice he despises.  He either defends himself until Bucky’s red vision clears, or he attacks in return, throwing himself at him until they’re both left panting.

 

It happens, though.

 

New York is quiet for a year, and then it’s not.  When the day arrives, an abrupt call to defend their city, their world, once more, when Bruce calls Steve and lets him know they’re meeting at the Tower, Steve sighs and turns to find Bucky missing from the kitchen, where he’d just been reading the paper, a mug of tea in hand.

 

“Bucky?” he calls.

 

“Steve,” Bruce says on the other line, “Are you coming?”

 

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Steve says before he hangs up, and then he leaves the kitchen, as well, taking the stairs.  When he gets to their shared room, Bucky is in the closet, though he pokes his head out at the sound of Steve’s footsteps.

 

“The Tower?” he asks.  Steve starts to respond, and then stops, just looking at him.  Bucky comes out of the closet, frowning.  “What?”

 

“You don’t have to come,” Steve says, “If you’re not ready—”

 

“I’ll be okay,” Bucky says, stepping toward him, hands coming up to rest against Steve’s chest, “I can do this.  I want to do this.”

 

“You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, Bucky, it’s—”

 

“I’m not doing this for the city, for the Avengers, even for you.  I’m doing this for me,” he says, nodding, “I need to prove to myself that I’m still in here.”

 

“You are,” Steve says, hands rubbing over his shoulders before they slide down to circle his wrists, and he lifts one of his hands to kiss his knuckles.  “I know you are.”

 

“I know,” Bucky says, smiling softly, “I know it with every fiber of my being, and I’m going to prove it.”

 

“Okay,” Steve says, and he starts to turn away when Bucky’s metal fingers curl in his shirt and tug him back, pulling Steve against him.  He presses them together, mouth lifting to meet his, a quiet, lingering thing.

 

When they arrive at the Tower, Steve in his new Captain America uniform and Bucky in his old Winter Soldier one, Natasha reaches for her gun immediately, but Bucky shrugs one shoulder and says, “Natalia.”

 

Natasha grins crookedly, relaxing.  “You remember that?”

 

“You were one of my finest,” he says, “I remember a lot now.”

 

“Oh yeah?” she says, gaze shifting to Steve, who nods once.

 

Fury shows up, then, and they don’t have time to do introductions as he lays out the enemy for them, but, in the end, Bucky’s on his left, and he stays close until it all settles, and he’s still Bucky when the dust clears.

 

——

 

A few weeks after the fight, Steve wakes late to the smell of eggs.  He smiles, turning over onto his front, hand reaching out to feel how cold Bucky’s side is, wondering how long he’s been up, though he opens his eyes when his hand comes in contact with warmth.  “Good morning,” Bucky says softly.  He’s turned onto his side, his brown gaze heavy with exhaustion.

 

“Didn’t sleep again?” Steve asks, and Bucky shrugs his good shoulder.

 

“A little,” he says, “Breakfast is ready.  Happy anniversary.”  He leans forward, kissing Steve, who hums and tugs him close.  He wants to feel Bucky in every press of his skin, wants to hold him until he can’t remember where he ends and Bucky begins, wants to memorize the curve of his mouth and the roll of his shoulders and the way his breaths fill Steve’s lungs on every quiet, burning exhale.

 

“How many is that now?” Steve murmurs, nosing at Bucky’s jaw until he tips his head back.

 

“Seventy-seven, I think,” Bucky says, and Steve starts laughing without meaning to, pressing closer as it bursts out of him.  Bucky smiles, but Steve won’t stop laughing, and he hides his grin in his neck.

 

“We’re so old,” Steve manages to gasp out, and then Bucky can’t stop laughing, either, shoulders shaking as it fills him up and spills out, and it’s like coming home.

 

I’m miles from where you are.

I lay down on the cold ground.

I pray that something picks me up,

And sets me down in your warm arms.