Coulson calls Bucky on a Thursday and says, “You need to come in.”
Bucky’s in the middle of a mission, playing sniper while Nat lures in the bait, and it’ll put Nat in danger, disappearing like that. “When?” Bucky asks, because Coulson wouldn’t risk any of them if he could avoid it.
He doesn’t ask what’s happened. He doesn’t ask if Tony’s been hurt, or Jason, or Clint. It’ll only clutter his head.
“Immediately,” Coulson says. “I’m sending you the rendezvous point. A car will pick you up in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty--” Bucky cuts himself off. His pulse damn near doubles, and he takes a deep, centering breath. Twenty minutes. That kind of expedited timeline screams emergency. Phil Coulson is a measured, deliberate man; he doesn’t move fast unless he has to.
“No one’s been hurt,” Coulson says. There’s an odd note to his voice. He’s excited, Bucky realizes. “Agent Barnes, you’ll want to be here for this.”
They show him Steve, packed in ice. For a second, his heart stops in his chest.
“Stevie,” he says, soft, disbelieving. “Steve.”
“We think so,” Nick Fury says. His voice is edged with something like skepticism, and, under that, eagerness. “Either it’s him, or it’s a clone.”
“That’s him,” Bucky says, reflexively, and then he swallows, nods. He knows better. He’s learned better.
He takes several long, controlled steps forward and holds himself steady, just out of reaching distance. He wants to dig his fingers in the ice and rip it away from him. He wants to fight everyone in this room.
He studies Steve until he’s sure. “It’s him,” he says. He’d know him anywhere; he’d know him in a crowd of clones. “That’s Steve.”
He hadn’t thought about what it would mean, getting the body back. He didn’t know it would feel like this, some terrible combination of a weight lifted off his shoulders and a hand closing around his throat. It would be easier, probably, if he weren’t so perfectly preserved.
Bucky’s eyes trace down Steve’s face, to his hands, to the uniform they put him in when they made him Captain America, and he gets flashes of Brooklyn, and Germany, and childhood.
He’s not sure the world was worth this. He’s damn sure the world hadn’t earned Steve by the time it lost him.
“He’s not dead.” Coulson’s tone is careful, kept meticulously blank. Not an encouraging prognosis, then. But Bucky thinks, if death were certain, Coulson wouldn’t have brought him in until after it was over.
Coulson’s not weak; he never coddles them. But he’s merciful, when he can be.
Bucky takes a breath. He doesn’t think about Steve, frozen, underwater. He doesn’t think about himself, frozen, underground. He doesn’t think about anything.
He makes himself ask the question. “What are his odds of survival?”
“Unknown,” Coulson says. “We don’t know how he’s still alive. We can’t guarantee he’ll stay that way.”
Bucky nods. His right hand reaches out, and he lays his fingers against the ice, feels the bite of the cold set in almost immediately. Steve, he thinks. Steve, I left you down there.
He left him down there for years.
Fury clears his throat. “When he wakes up--”
“If he wakes up, Director,” Coulson says, calm and polite but just a little sharp. There’s that mercy. Coulson, hedging bets, controlling expectations. Trying to protect Bucky, and, through that, the rest of the team.
“Yeah, fine, if he wakes up,” Fury says. “If he wakes up, we want you with him. A familiar face should help ease him into things.”
There is a chance that Steve will wake up. There’s a chance that Bucky will get him back.
Bucky feels the ice beneath his fingers start to melt. He wishes Tony were here, or Jason. He’s glad they aren’t.
“Alright,” he says. “Yes.”
“We’ve been thinking,” Coulson says, “that we should introduce him to the things slowly. We’re converting one of the exam rooms so it’ll imitate what he’s expecting. We could use your help with some of the details. We have very limited staff who were even alive in the 1940s, much less--”
“No,” Bucky says, immediately. He laughs, staring down at Steve’s face, imagining the catastrophe that would manifest if Steve woke up and thought he was being lied to, thought Hydra was trying to gaslight him. “No,” he says, “he’d bring the whole building down. Don’t lie to Steve. He doesn’t like it.”
There’s some hesitation behind him. He clocks it, but doesn’t pay much attention. They’ll do what he says. He’s not the only expert on Captain America, but he’s sure as hell the reigning authority on Steve Rogers.
“Okay,” Coulson says. “If you think that’s best.”
Out of the ice, Steve looks younger than the last time Bucky saw him. Bucky remembers that last moment, when he was falling and Steve was reaching, hanging half out of a moving train and screaming. Steve had looked like a child, bawling like that. But war makes men out of every boy it touches, and that war is long over.
He’s beautiful. Every nurse who comes in double-takes at him, every time.
When Tony comes in, it’s like he doesn’t see Steve at all. He side-steps the nurse checking the readouts and settles into the chair beside Bucky with a troubled frown on his face and a focused look in his eyes, and he doesn’t even look at Steve. Not once.
“Hey,” he says. “Sorry. There was a civilian flight with engine trouble.” He leans forward, eyes narrowing on Bucky’s face. “How’re you doing with all this?”
“Do you have the clearance to be here?” Bucky asks. That’s a tactic he’s learned from Tony and Jason. Back in the 40’s, he didn’t have much use for deflection. As the Winter Soldier, it was a bad habit Hydra trained out of him early.
“I found him,” Tony says. “Or my bots did. SHIELD authorized the mission, but it was my tech that made it happen. So, as usual, I have exactly as much clearance as I want.”
Bucky feels his mouth hook up into a smile. “Fury loves it when you say that.”
“Hey,” Tony says, and his hand curls around Bucky’s, fingers tight around the metal. “Look at me, Barnes.”
Bucky’s eyes slide sluggishly away from Steve and settle on Tony’s worried face. “It’s alright,” he says. “This is good news. Even if he doesn’t make it, at least now we can bury him right.”
Tony studies him for a long moment. “Shit,” he says, finally, like it’s some kind of conclusion. “We’ve gotta get Jason here.”
Bucky looks back toward Steve. “Jason doesn’t have clearance,” he says, after a moment.
Tony huffs. “I know you don’t exactly appreciate that his clearance level is higher than yours, Buck, but---”
“I don’t have clearance for this,” Bucky says. “Coulson barely has clearance for this. And, anyway, he’s busy. They put Jason on the mission with Natasha.”
“They took Jason off that security job?” Tony makes a soft, disapproving hum in the back of his throat. He never likes it when SHIELD splits the team, but he gets particularly anxious whenever anyone’s working alone.
“Barton’s fine,” Bucky says. “It’s a research facility. There haven’t been any problems.”
Jason’s been complaining about it, actually. He gets bored easily, especially when SHIELD has him babysitting some bizarre alien tech. Apparently, a childhood in Gotham left him fundamentally incapable of being impressed by alien anything. He used to keep a chunk of kryptonite in his locker until someone – probably whoever lost a bet down in R&D – stole it.
Jason also has a categorical dislike of anything he can’t tell Tony about, and the work at the Joint Dark Energy Mission Facility is locked-down so tight that even Bucky doesn’t know what, exactly, they’re researching over there.
“Yeah,” Tony says, “you don’t bring in someone like Eric Selvig because you’re building a better toaster oven.”
Tony isn’t supposed to know about personnel changes at JDEM. But Tony’s probably not supposed to know about Steve, either.
“Sorry,” Bucky says. He’s not sorry. He’s not anything. Steve keeps stealing his focus, and he can’t track of the conversation. “Can go check on Barton, if you’re worried.”
“No,” Tony says, after a short pause. His hand tightens around Bucky’s, and Bucky’s concentration is broken, finally, because he’d completely forgotten Tony was touching him at all. “I think I’m needed here.”
There’s a jarring, unexpected development, where Coulson shows up in the med room, and says he has to leave. “There’s been an incident,” Coulson says. “At JDEM. I have to go.”
“What is it?” Tony asks, already on his feet. “Is Barton--?”
“Not an accident,” Coulson says, hands up, pacifying. “Just a bit of an unexpected occurrence. No one’s been hurt.”
Beside him, Bucky can feel Tony tensing up. He wonders how much Tony knows about that facility. He wonders if he should be worried about Clint.
“Yeah,” Tony says, “there’s no way in hell you’d leave now if there weren’t some serious shit happening. I’ve seen your Captain America trading cards, Coulson.”
Coulson smiles, and Bucky can read his body language. He knows there’s something wrong. He should leave. He should go check on things, make sure Barton’s safe. It’s what Jason would do, if he were here.
“I have to go,” Coulson says. “And Bucky needs to stay here.”
“You want an escort?” Tony asks. “I can---”
“No, thanks,” Coulson says. “I should be back by morning. Do me a favor?” It’s wrong, that Coulson’s asking Tony. Tony isn’t even SHIELD. Bucky’s the reliable soldier. It should be him. But it isn’t. “Keep an eye on things, Stark,” Coulson says, as he moves toward the door. “I can’t put out two fires at once.”
“Bullshit,” Tony says, as he watches Coulson walk to the door. “You love the excitement. It makes you feel needed.”
It’s the middle of the night, and Steve’s temperature keeps climbing toward normal. Tony’s been asleep for an hour, head tipped against Bucky’s shoulder.
Bucky’s tracking the slow return of color to Steve’s face. He keeps telling himself not to hope, but he can’t contain it. There’s a whole universe cracking open in his chest, something so hungry and expansive that it might devour everything in its way.
There’s a thought that hits, unexpected, unwelcome. If he wakes up, he thinks, he’s going to ask how long he was asleep. He’s going to ask where I was. He’s going to ask what I’ve done.
He never made his peace with the Winter Soldier. He caged him and contained him, carved him up and harvested what was useful.
Steve Rogers, he thinks, would have died a dozen times before he let anyone make him into a monster.
“I gotta,” Bucky says, standing up, dislodging Tony. “I gotta—Tony, I can’t.”
He leaves, but there’s some kind of leash holding him to Steve. He makes it exactly as far as the hallway, and then he gets his back to a wall and slides to the floor, wraps his arms around his head like someone’s going to cut their way inside.
“Buck,” Tony says. Bucky can feel his hands on him. It’s disorienting, feeling the warmth of Tony after spending hours thinking about all that ice around Steve. “Shit,” Tony says, “Buck, c’mon.”
Bucky takes a deep breath. His brain gives him the sensation of drowning, salt water and pressure, panic.
He thinks about how long it would have taken. He knows exactly how long he can go without air. Hydra ran extensive tests. Steve, though. Steve got Erskine’s formula, the real thing. God only knew how much time the serum gave him, how long he had to fail to save himself, how long it took him to fade out.
“Buck,” Tony says, tugging Bucky forward until they’re pressed together, curled up in a SHIELD hallway, no doubt being monitored by half a dozen cameras as some senior agents debate whether or not to intervene.
“Steve saved me,” Bucky says, soft so maybe the mics won’t pick it up. It’s not that he cares, really, if Coulson hears it, eventually. But Fury uses weaknesses like contingency plans, and Bucky doesn’t want this one coming back.
“The first time Hydra took me,” Bucky says, “Steve saved me. He defied orders, damn near got himself killed coming after me. So the second time they took me, I told myself—it didn’t make any sense, but I believed in him so much. I knew he’d come get me. I kept thinking, ‘Just hold on a little longer. He’s gonna be here soon.’”
Bucky can taste the memories: copper and iron, bile and ice, the blinding shock of electricity, the lightning bite of frigid water. His hands are shaking with a cold he hasn’t felt in years. He curls them around Tony’s ribs, lets the heat settle into him.
“It didn’t work,” he says. “All the things they did to me, it didn’t take. Because I knew Steve was coming, and I didn’t want him to be ashamed of me, when he got there.”
Tony doesn’t say anything, just pulls him in until the arc reactor catches against Bucky’s chest. Bucky presses his face into the crook of his neck, breathes in the machine and coffee smell of him, doesn’t let himself slip any further into a past that needs to be released, not relived.
“They told me he was dead, showed me newspapers. I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a cover-up. I thought-- if you’d seen him then, you wouldn’t believe it either. But then, I started to think, if he’s not dead, where is he? He should’ve been here by now, and, one day, I knew. I knew he was dead. And neither of us was supposed to outlive the other, so I just…gave up.”
Tony makes a hurt noise and curls his hands tighter around Bucky’s arms. “Buck,” he says, “you were tortured. It’s not-- you can’t--”
“No,” Bucky says, because Tony’s caught up on the wrong part of this. “I gave up on him,” he says, “and this whole damn time, he needed me. He was under the ice, alive, and I let them turn me into the kinda man we would’ve killed together, and he needed me.”
“Bucky,” Tony says, hooking his fingers under Bucky’s chin, forcing his head up, “you didn’t let them do a Goddamn thing. And if he’s not a complete fucking idiot, he’s not gonna think that you did.”
“He won’t,” Bucky says. He knows he won’t. He lets his head fall back against the wall. “Christ, Tony, he never would.”
That, he thinks, is the worst part of all of this. Bucky knows the second Steve hears the litany of Bucky’s sins, he’s going to forgive him for all of them.
And, meanwhile, there’s some hurt, hateful, cowardly part of Bucky that wishes he’d never, ever known Steve Rogers was still alive under all that ice.
Tony sighs and settles back. There’s a miserable look on his face, focused and anxious, assessing. “Bucky,” he says, and then his phone goes off. “Shit,” he says, grimacing, “it’s Coulson.”
Tony hesitates with the phone in his hands, looking to Bucky.
Bucky closes his eyes for a second and then nods. Tony takes the call and climbs to his feet, hand curling briefly around Bucky’s shoulder on his way up.
“Sleeping Beauty’s still asleep, Agent, so if you’re calling--- oh.” Tony breaks off, which is how Bucky knows it’s bad. There’s not a lot in this world that can keep Tony from making a joke. “What,” Tony says, flat, and then again, “What.”
And that’s how Bucky knows it’s very bad. He gets a slideshow of faces – Clint, then Nat, then Jason – and he thinks it’s bullshit, it’s shit-poor luck, it is callous and unfair. It’s unforgivable, if the universe hands him Steve and takes one of the others as its due.
But there’s nothing to do. He’s learned that, over time. You take the hit when it lands.
He gets his feet under him and stands, gets braced for it.
Tony slides the phone into his pocket and looks slowly over to Bucky. He’s pale, face twisted in a way that leans harder toward confusion than pain. “It’s Barton,” he says. “He’s been compromised.”
Barton is faithful as a pound-rescued puppy. If Bucky made a list of people most likely to turn against SHIELD, he’d put Coulson higher than Clint, and he’d put the entire rest of the team above the pair of them.
But Bucky knows, better than most, that loyalty is a luxury afforded to people who can make their own decisions.
“I’m going,” Tony says. “Are you coming with me?”
Bucky pauses. His eyes dart toward the door that leads to Steve’s room, and he’s not a traitor, not yet, but he already feels like one.
Tony smiles, and it’s sad, but there’s not a single scrap of anger in it. “Buck,” he says, “there’s no wrong choice.”
It feels, instead, like there’s no right one.
“Barton’s got you,” he says, “and Coulson.” And all Steve has in this century is Bucky.
“Okay,” Tony says. He moves forward and kisses him, brief and sweet, familiar. Grounding. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ll bring the kid home.”
Iron Man’s always been better at rescue missions anyway.
Still, when Tony leaves, Bucky can’t shake the feeling that he made the wrong choice, that he belongs with him, that he owes Barton more than this. But he thinks, if he’d gone, he would’ve felt the same damn way about Steve.
Tony’s been gone for an hour when Steve starts waking up. Bucky remembers the signs, from a lifetime of sleepovers and shared rooms and half-burned barns in Europe. Steve’s face tightens up, and his fingers twitch toward his palms, and then, suddenly, without enough warning, his eyes blink open, and he’s staring right at Bucky.
“Bucky?” he says, in his voice, the one Bucky had started to forget, one of the few he’d know anywhere, could identify in one syllable or less.
“Hey, Stevie,” Bucky says, staring, re-familiarizing himself with the precise shade of Steve’s blue eyes.
The machines are reporting this; the cameras in the room are probably livestreaming the whole thing to any interested agent with the clearance to watch. But right now it feels like it used to, like it’s just him and Steve, alone, a unit standing together against the rest of the world.
Without giving himself any damn time to settle into his skin, Steve starts moving. He sits up, swings his legs over the side of the bed, and then he hesitates. Bucky watches it happen. The realization, the confusion, and then the doubt, the suspicion. Steve’s eyes dart around the room and then back to Bucky, track down his body, snag on the arm.
Steve swallows. He hesitates. When he looks at Bucky’s face again, there’s a kind of horror that could kick into grief or fury at any moment.
“It’s okay,” Bucky says. He stands up, and Steve doesn’t flinch, but he tenses, a little.
That’s fair. Steve went into the ice decades ago and woke up in the wrong century, with someone wearing his best friend’s face but missing an arm, dressed wrong, hollowed out in new ways.
“Your mom’s name was Sarah,” he says, pulling at the threads that have always stitched them together. “You used to wear newspaper in your shoes, and you couldn’t go five damn minutes without starting a fight.”
Steve goes still. His eyes narrow on Bucky’s face, and his hands tighten around the rail on his bed so hard that the thing warps in his hands. “Buck,” he says, like it hurts, “you were dead. I watched you fall.”
Bucky smiles. He can’t help it. He’s been fixing Steve Roger’s problems his whole life, and here’s Steve, carrying all that grief and guilt, and he doesn’t deserve an ounce of it.
“Pal,” he says, stepping closer, gambling on Steve believing that he is who he looks like, “you’ve been asleep for a long damn time.”
“Buck,” Steve says. He lurches to his feet, capsizes thousands of dollars of medical equipment, and he wraps his arms around him, tight and almost desperate, like he needs an anchor.
Bucky holds on just as tight. His metal arm feels wrong, in a way it hasn’t for years now, but he holds on anyway. Steve doesn’t shake, never falters, but there’s a catch in his breath as he runs a hand slowly down the metal of Bucky’s arm.
“Buck,” he says, “what the hell happened?”
Bucky laughs, and he hates the sound of it. It gives too Goddamn much away. Steve pulls back immediately, jaw setting, shoulders tensing. Show Steve Rogers any kind of weakness, and he’ll make himself into a shield to protect you from it.
Bucky doesn’t want to talk about his arm, or Hydra, or what the hell happened or where the hell he’s been. Tony and Jason and Clint and Natasha and Coulson, they all took him with the understanding of who he was. They saw the ugliest parts of him, and they accepted them, as a reasonable price to pay for all the other things he could offer.
But Steve, he grew up with the very best of Bucky Barnes, bright and shining, young and unhurt and brave. Uncorrupted, naïve. Whole.
Bucky wants to protect him – just a little, for just a little while – from all of the things he’s become.
Or maybe he just wants to protect himself.
Either way, there’s only one way to distract Steve from any kind of fight. Bucky has to hand him another one.
“Hey,” he says, thinking about Clint, about Tony, about how Steve deserves five centuries of rest, and Bucky can’t even give him five seconds. “You want to help me with something?”