By his biological clock, it’s only been five years since Steve saw Bucky fall from the train - nowhere near long enough for him to forget, like he ever could. Like it wasn’t burned into his brain. Having the serum… finally being able to fight, to protect, to stand up for the little guy and he still couldn’t manage to save his best friend when he needed him most. He had thought he had lost Bucky forever.
75 years later and Steve is staring at him through a one-way glass. This is the first time Steve’s seen him since Bucky pulled him from the river in DC. Bucky is sitting in a small room across from a therapist having another session, one of many since returning to New York. The therapist was found and vetted by Pepper; the best help Tony’s money could buy.
Steve doesn’t normally watch the sessions. He doesn’t want to invade Bucky’s privacy any more than it had been. He gets a debrief from Doctor Wilkes at the end of each session, progress or none. For the most part, it’s been progress. Everyone has off days and James Buchanan Barnes is no different. Well… not in that sense at least. From the reports Steve is given he knows Bucky has days where he’s willing to talk about his past with Steve and the Howling Commandos. Other days, Bucky is unmoving and silent, staring blankly out the window until the session is over.
Today seems like a good day though; he’s sitting in a chair and drinking a plain black coffee, a small smile on his face. Steve has been asked into this session, to sit down and talk. Exactly what for he’s not too sure - he’s never been invited to attend before.
“Steve?” Doctor Wilkes' gentle voice breaks him out of his thoughts. “We’re ready for you now,” she says, leaving the door open behind her.
Steve hesitates for a moment, nervous about seeing Bucky. Not behind glass but in front of him, properly, in person. What do you even do? What can you say to someone who was ripped from your past and thrown back in without warning? Steve takes a moment, steels himself taking the few short steps into the room.
Bucky looks up from his coffee. He stares, blinking rapidly. As it turns out, Steve isn’t the only one what has no idea what to say. Bucky is sitting there, staring, his mouth slightly agape. Bucky is looking at Steve, Steve is looking at Bucky.
This Bucky is completely different to the Bucky that put Steve in a hospital bed for a week. He can’t even think of the two as the same man. That was the Winter Soldier: a man, programmed by Hydra to eliminate anyone, trained relentlessly to kill. But now? There’s no rage coursing through him, his face soft and gentle, and the light coming through the window shining off his blue-grey eyes. Bucky’s hair is half pulled back off his face into a topknot and the loose strands frame his face, which is transformed by a small smile. He’s always been so beautiful - Steve has seen it their whole lives. Now, this - this man is Bucky.
“Steve,” Bucky murmurs. If Steve hadn’t been already looking at him so intently, he might’ve missed what he said completely.
“Hey Buck,” Steve responds, smiling brightly and walking towards him.
Bucky meets Steve in the middle of the room, enveloping him in a tight hug. Steve tucks his face into the space between Bucky’s shoulder and his neck; he’s still the same Bucky after all this time, same smell, same hug, same everything. Steve can feel Bucky dropping his head to rest on top of his like he always did, this simple gesture warming Steve to his core.
Steve pulls back and clasps a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, before saying, “I missed you, Buck.”
Bucky smiles brightly, eyes shining. “I missed you too, Steve,” he replies, refusing to look away from Steve. Steve feels his face heat, returning Bucky’s gentle grin.
“If you both want to take a seat, we’ll get this session started,” interjects Doctor Wilkes, jerking the men out of their bubble. Steve had forgotten she was even sitting there. He sort of wishes she wasn’t.
They talk, not about anything in particular. It doesn’t strike Steve as particularly ‘evaluate-y’ - they’re just… talking. They’re talking about the time Steve and Bucky went to the Stark Tech Expo.
Bucky, mid laugh manages to say, “And that car that blew up on stage was still the coolest thing I had seen in my life.”
Steve nods in agreement, laughing as well. “I think I missed the rest of the show after it blew up. I spotted the enlistment center and took that as my what, fifth, chance to enlist?”
Buck nods, “Yeah, you were a stubborn little punk back then.” He pauses, “Still stubborn, just, less… little.”
Steve looks at Bucky, smiling. It’s so good to see Bucky again, to be able to talk to him like this.
Doctor Wilkes is smiling at them both and takes advantage of the pause in conversation. “I think it’s time we talk about why you’re here, Steve.”
Both men meet her gaze. Wilkes adjusts in her seat to face towards Steve before starting. “Steve, I want to clear Bucky to be reintegrated back into society.”
Steve breathes in sharply, his heart skipping a beat. He wasn’t expecting her to say it so soon.
Before Steve can say anything or react, Bucky sits straight up in his chair, taken aback. “What?”
Wilkes puts a hand up. “Bucky, before you say anything, I’m not saying we let you walk around outside as you please. There are steps to take here, and we have to take them carefully. We’re going to start by letting you out of this furnished cell, get you to the Avengers Tower - getting you settled somewhere that doesn’t feel like a prison, and try and get you more comfortable being a part of a group of people. So at least for now, that means you will be restricted to the Tower. We can talk about clearing you for public spaces when you’re ready.”
Bucky forces himself relax a little, leaning back into the chair but he’s still tense, gripping the edge of the chair tightly.
Wilkes continues, “I want you to re-acclimatize yourself to social situations. Given your… unique circumstances, I think we both agree that the Tower would be the safest place to do this. I know you have certain misgivings about your abilities and being among the general population. Having people around who can, how did you put it?” she pauses, flipping through her notebook “‘Put you in the ground’, to use your words, may make you more comfortable.”
Steve has been stabbed multiple times in his previous career with SHEILD but none of them compare to the feeling he gets in his chest when the words fall from Doctor Wilkes lips. She says the words so matter of factly, just a passing bit of information, like she wasn’t just talking about his teammates murdering Bucky. Steve, immediately clenches his jaw, moving in his seat and hands tightening into fists either side of him. He looks over at Bucky who glances back before quickly dropping his eyes, refusing to meet his gaze.
Wilkes inspects Steve before going on. “Steve before we can do this, you have to listen to Bucky’s wishes about how he wants to do this. There will be conditions - some of ours and ones he sets himself.” She pauses, nodding her head at his hands. “Some of them you may not like.”
Feeling caught out, Steve takes a breath, makes an effort to open his hands and relax a little. Once he feels more in control of himself he nods, looking at Bucky to continue.
Bucky turns his body to face Steve, taking a deep breath in before starting. He pauses again, not sure where to start. “I’m a bit side-blinded by this, sorry,” he says, rubbing the back of his head he looks towards Wilkes. “I thought I wasn’t going to be allowed out for a while.” Looking back at Steve, he continues. “Last session, Wilkes and I talked about the idea of coming back. I told her that I would, but there’s gotta be a few conditions. The first is that I get to talk to you beforehand... which I guess we’ve just done. The second was that I wanted to start off on a sort of… probation. If I do anything, behavior wise, that you or Wilkes judge isn’t… healthy, I get sent back here.”
He pauses, taking another deep breath before continuing. “The third is the guarantee of a kill switch throughout my probation.”
Bucky’s eyes seem confident and certain as he says to Steve, “If at anytime I start…” he breaks off, correcting himself, “the Winter Soldier starts hurting people I want Natasha to put me down. I need her to know she has full authority to gauge the situation pull the trigger. That’s all I want, Steve.”
Steve stares intently at a coffee stain under the table, trying to process the information. Tension ripples through the silence. It drags on for what feels like hours before he speaks. “Why Nat?”
Bucky huffs out an awkward laugh. “Natasha is the only person in the tower I trust to make the calls that too hard, or too easy, for others,” he says, finally looking back to Steve.
He’s right, Steve thinks to himself. More than anyone, Steve trusts Natasha’s judgement - she can gauge a situation in an instant, and he’s never known her to make a bad call. More importantly, Steve knows she isn’t going to make the wrong choice because she can’t keep a lid on her emotions.
He doesn’t like it. It’s still the right choice.
The request rocks to Steve to his core, hitting him like a punch to the gut. If the Winter Soldier takes over Bucky wants to be killed. Steve knows with every fibre of his being that he doesn’t want that to happen - he won’t let it happen. Not without trying every possible way to save Buck.
“Can I make request?” Steve asks, pulling his eyes away from the coffee stain and back to Bucky.
“I’ll hear it first but I’m not making any promises.”
Steve straightens up. “Everything has to be done first, before we even think of pulling the trigger. I’ll fight you, subdue you, knock you unconscious - whatever it takes to get you back.”
Bucky’s mouth pulls to a crooked smile, but it never reaches his eyes, “This is why you’re not the one with the kill switch. I can’t trust you with this.”
Steve recoils, taken back a little by Bucky’s bluntness. “Buck,”
Bucky interrupts him. “Steve, I can’t trust my own mind. I need to have control over the few things that I can, but someone else has got to do this. The only thing I can do decide is who. If Natasha thinks you can subdue me, then she will make the call.” Steve wants to protest but Bucky places a hand on his shoulder, “Stubborn punk. Let me have this.”
Steve sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. When Bucky gets an idea into his head, he’s completely unwavering - has been for their entire lives and today isn’t going to be an exception. And he calls Steve stubborn... All Steve wants is to have Bucky back however he can. If this is the only way, he’ll do what he needs.
He leans back into the chair, resigned. “Fine, but I want to be there when you tell Nat, and this will always be a last resort.” Steve will do what he needs, but that doesn’t mean he won’t push where he can.
Bucky laughs, genuine this time. “Okay, Steve.” He rubs at the back of his neck, shaking his head. “You know, one day, you’re not going to have any control over a situation and I swear you’re going to malfunction.”
Laughing, Steve relaxes the tiniest bit; Bucky always knows how to calm him down.
Doctor Wilkes pipes in, “I have a condition as well.”
“Yes, I’m still here,” she says, adjusting herself in her chair. “My condition during this adjustment period is for you to live together again. I think it would be really good for you, Bucky, having Steve to help you adjust. Being around people is important, especially at the beginning, instead of being by yourself. The last thing we want is for you to be isolated. As much progress as you’ve made, I’m still not convinced you’ll ask for help if you need it.” The doctor silenced Bucky’s protest before he could make a sound with a cocked eyebrow. “This doesn’t have to be permanent - we will keep checking in every month and see how you’re going. If you’re doing well, and want to have your own space we’ll talk about getting you your own apartment.”
Steve immediately nods in agreement. “I have a spare bedroom and too much space anyway, I could use a roommate.”
“It’ll be just like Brooklyn,” he smiles over at Steve.
Steve lets out a soft laugh. “Except for the fact that we could probably fit the old apartment in about 5 times over. Honestly Buck, wait til you see the place. Tony hasn’t ever heard the word ‘restraint’”.
Bucky’s eyes widen, “You’re kidding, right? What do you do with all that space?”
Doctor Wilkes shakes her head as she closes her pad. “I’ll leave you boys to it” she says as she pushes herself out of the chair. It’s important, she thinks, to let them work some things out on their own.
It doesn’t take long for Bucky to get settled into Steve’s apartment. He only brought with him a single duffle bag worth of stuff (everything he owns), and it’s not like they had to argue about what to keep and throw due to the lack of space. Steve was right; this apartment was giant.
Steve walks in as Bucky tips the contents of his bag onto his bed: a single blanket, two outfits worth of clothes and a handgun. Noticing Steve standing in the doorway, Bucky pulls the packet of gum from his pocket and tosses it onto the pile with the rest of his stuff, a wry smile on his face.
Steve lets out a laugh and walks the rest of the way in, “I think it’s time we got you some,” he pauses and lifts a bullet-hole riddled jacket, “decent clothes for you to wear.”
Bucky grins, “But how else will I know exactly where I’ve been shot before?” He sticks a finger through the hole in the upper arm of the jacket. “You get ten points if you hit the exact same spot again.”
Steve throws the jacket at Bucky’s face. “We’re going shopping.”
Bucky catches it and as Steve leaves the room. “Wait, I’m not allowed to leave the tower.”
Steve laughs from the other room as he grabs his laptop opening the top with a flourish. “The future is a crazy place, Barnes.”
As it turns out, you can buy anything ‘online’ and get it delivered to your door in a matter of hours - if you’re willing to pay for it.
Online... Bucky isn’t sure he quite understands it just yet. Steve’s tried his hardest to explain it to him but eventually Bucky was just nodding along to make him feel better.
They first shopped for clothes; a few pairs of jeans, a couple of sweaters, some shirts and Steve also found a leather jacket that was definitely to Bucky’s taste.
They brought other bits and pieces. Although, when he says ‘they’, it was definitely more Steve pointing things out and Bucky agreeing to whatever Steve thought he needed. Half way through, he gets up to make a cup of coffee and when he comes back Steve has decided he needs 3 different towels.
“I only need one,” Bucky says, passing him the coffee, and sitting back on the bed with Steve.
“It’s in case one is wet.” Steve says it so matter of factly that Bucky can’t seem to argue but he also can’t help but tease.
“Then I’ll wait for it to dry.” Bucky jokes. Steve looks up from the computer and gives him a look, causing Bucky to raise both of his hands in a mock surrender. “Or, I’ll have three towels then.” He says with a gentle bump to Steve’s shoulder.
Bucky pushes off the bed, making his way to the giant window overlooking the city. Despite how much it’s changed, it’s still one of his favourite places - anywhere in the world. It may be busier, the buildings higher and it may look nothing like the home he remembers, but it’s still beautiful. After his probation he’s going to make sure that he forces Steve to show him around.
Steve comes up next to him, almost as if reading his thoughts. “Once you’re off probation I’ll take you to some of our old hang outs. They’re completely different now… almost nothing is the same, but it’s interesting to see how much it’s changed. Like going somewhere new, you know?” Bucky turns to Steve, who’s still staring out the window. Steve continues, “There are also some places I go now that I’d like to take you to; a couple coffee shops, a few quiet hiding spots… almost feels like home.”
Bucky takes in the sight of Steve. He has his hands in his pockets, a light grey t-shirt and some jeans, looking out towards the city.
“Inseparable on both schoolyard and the battlefield...” That’s what the audio had said at the Smithsonian. Bucky had visited, after pulling Steve from the river and the collapse of SHIELD, trying to put together fragments of memories. His hat pulled low, walking around looking at these remnants of Steve and his life. On display for the world to gawk at.
He stood in front of a screen. A video of the man with his face and the man called Steve played on a loop. They were laughing. He doesn’t know why - he doesn’t remember. Thinking about it now, this wouldn’t have been the first thing to come to his mind when he thinks of Steve. It’s not that it wasn’t a good memory. It was just another day for them. They were happy, completely oblivious to what was ahead of them. A twisted sort of innocence, considering it was war. It wouldn’t be what he chose, but here it was, immortalised in film, on repeat for the masses.
He was on the verge of leaving when a little girl walked past, gripping onto her mother’s hand, a thumb shoved in her mouth. Bucky pulled his hat lower. Kids see under the hats, look past the disguises and notice things adults didn’t.
The audio recording played again as the girl stared on, transfixed by the images on the screen.
The audio finished and the girl’s thumb popped out of her mouth. “They were pretty special best friends huh, Mommy? Like, the best of best friends.” Thumb shoved back into her mouth to punctuate her sentences.
Her mother laughed lightly, “Yes, honey. It’s a rare to find someone like that in life.”
The thumb pops back out, “Will I find a best friend like that?”
The woman had started to walk away still holding onto her daughter’s hand, “I hope you do, sweetie.” She looked down at her as she walked, “And when you do, hold on tight and never let them go.” Fondly smiling at the pigtailed girl, she squeezed her hand and walked off.
It’s strange, the Bucky that had been in the museum is an entirely different Bucky to the one that stands next to Steve now. The Bucky that the little girl saw is gone. He died the moment he gripped the air wildly, falling from the train.
It’s fitting, really, that the museum immortalised his younger, naive self because now he’s just the broken, damaged shell of a friend from Steve’s past.
He sees his mind like a mosaic. Except, when Hydra took him, they smashed a sledgehammer to it and all the pieces of his mind fell and shattered on the floor. Now, Bucky sits on the ground, trying to carefully put them all back where they belong. It frustrates him to no end because he knew what it looked like before, whole and wonderful, something worthy of love. Now it’s scattered, messy and incomplete. In the frame, some of the original pieces are still in their place. Now there are some new pieces, replacing the ones that got too broken, smashed beyond recognition or repair. Most of the pieces of glass remain mixed up on the ground waiting to be sorted and put back in place. Bucky can’t help but feel helpless and frustrated like it will never be complete, and even if he can put it back together, it will be nothing like it used to, like he will never the same again.
Broken and shattered, barely recognisable as Bucky Barnes. Certainly not the same man who Steve remembers. Bucky can’t quite figure out why, but Steve continues to stay by Bucky. He is always kind, loving and his stubborn ass constantly refuses to give up on him. Even when they were kids and Steve was a 100 pounds lighter, when a still breeze would knock him off his feet, he still wouldn’t back down. Bucky might be a shadow of who he used to be, but Steve hasn’t changed a bit.
The woman was right; hold on tight and never let go.
“Buck?” Steve’s voice breaks Bucky from his thoughts. Steve is waiting for a response, and he’d been silent too long.
“Yeah, that would be great, Steve,” he responds, giving Steve a small smile.
Steve pats Bucky on the shoulder and turns, acknowledging that Bucky needs some space, and leaves the room.
Bucky takes another look at the new New York view and flops down onto his bed, both hands behind his head. He closes his eyes and, before he knows it, falls asleep