Steve had an asthma attack on the very day you met him.
He’d been seven, and you’d been eight, and you hadn’t known what asthma was. All you knew was that this tiny kid was pale and sweating and having a hard time breathing, and you hadn’t been able to understand why. What was so hard about breathing?
But now, hanging off the side of a wrecked train speeding through frozen mountains with the wind tearing at your clothes, you find yourself unable to draw a single breath. An invisible, heavy hand is pressing down against your rib cage and pinching your windpipe.
You’ve seen war, and you’ve been in the enemy’s hands, and you’ve attacked enemy bases, but you don’t think that, as a soldier, you’ve never been more frightened than you are at this moment.
You think you’d be laughing hysterically if you could only breathe.
Above, you see Steve cling to the torn metal. He meets your eyes.
A memory flashes in your mind. You’re that little eight year old kid again, and you’re scared shitless, holding this gasping stranger against your chest and saying as calmly as you can, Hey, c’mon kid, breathe with me, just breathe, that’s it, breathe with me, c’mon--
You draw a single, painful breath, and hold it.
When Steve reaches for you, you reach back, but his hand seems so far away. You know, even as you stretch your arm out as much as possible--you know.
You won’t make it.
He’s too far away. He’s there, right there, but he’s also a mile away. You think he knows this, too. The look in his eyes, the despair and the desperation on his face. It’s going to be the last image of him that you will ever have.
You reach anyway. Chest burning, you reach, because you want there to be a chance, you want to be pulled to safety. You want to land by his side and cling to his arm, laughing breathlessly as he holds you up, and wheeze Okay, let’s not do that again. Dammit, I never made you go through that at Coney Island, you ass--
The railing snaps.
You're falling away from Steve and his terrified eyes, falling away from safety.
A yell bursts from your lungs and tears your throat with its force.
The air rushes past your face and clogs your ears and you’re still reaching, still hoping, because he had been right there, right there, and God fuck, why hadn’t you reached further, stretched a little bit more, he’d been right there for fuck’s sake--
You can’t yell forever.
The yell dies in your throat, swept away by the wind.
You tumble downwards. Below you see snow and ice and a rushing river, and you know, there’s your end. You’ve fallen, and the angry waters below will stop your heart and your breath and you will never see your family again. You will never again see the skies over Brooklyn. You will never see Steve and his smile.
Steve’s gone, somewhere up there above the cliff that’s rushing up as you rush down, but you know what? At least he’s safe. He’s not falling after you. There might be some time in the future where he’ll be in danger, and he’ll be hurt, maybe killed, because you’re not there to keep him safe, but for right now, right at this moment, he’s safe. He’s alive.
With your torn throat and your burning lungs you take one last breath.
And in that last breath, in those precious few seconds you have before you collide with the frozen hell beneath you, you realize that you’re still reaching. Your arm is still outstretched, firm against the gusts of air that rush past you. You’re falling, and you’ve left your best friend clinging to the wreckage above you, and you know there’s nothing that can save you because all you can do is fall, but you’re still reaching for him.
You wish you had grabbed his hand.
But even though you will not survive this, he, at least, is going to be alright. You know this. Because he’s Steve.
And you’re Bucky, and you’re falling, and you’re glad that right now it’s just Bucky falling, and not Steve and Bucky or Bucky and Steve, because when was the last time either of you voluntarily did anything alone? Before they took you and sent you into war? You’d been connected at the hips as kids and even as adults, but now you’re glad he’s far from your reach. You’re glad that for once, he won’t follow you. Can’t follow you. Because he’s not stupid. Your other half is alive, and safe, and he might not be whole ever again because you already feel as if something has gouged a pit in your soul, but he’ll heal, alright? He’ll heal.
And you? You won’t have to heal.
Pain explodes over every inch of your body.
There’s blue and white and black everywhere. You see flashes of red. A fat, burning, freezing arm surges down your throat and fills your lungs and you can’t breathe. It hurts, it hurts--
Frozen, spindly fingers dig into your brain and splinter like icicles--
You’re spinning and spinning and you can’t control your limbs and somewhere in your oxygen starved brain, beyond the white hot unbearable god please stop this pain, you realize that the river has swallowed you, and it’s taking you down where you can’t see.
You’re able to thank God that this is going to kill you, because you don’t think you’d be able to handle any sort of recovery--you thank Him just before a blinding star bursts in your mind and there is darkness. And thankfully, blissfully, regretfully--
They pull you from the water and you barely remember who you are.
You moan and struggle feebly, because you’ve never been so weak in your life. But their hands move you like that small wooden mannequin Steve used to have. They pull you up and push you down and stretch your limbs and hold your head. You are nothing against them.
You’re back in their hands. Steve had pulled you from their dark rooms and their burning syringes and their probing questions, but you’re back. You fell through the air and into a river from hell and instead of dying, instead of falling into the afterlife, you’re in the grasp of these burning red tentacles.
It still hurts to breathe.
Death. You wish for death.
They take you somewhere bright and sterile, and between painful breaths you force yourself to remember falling, and to remember reaching, and to remember Steve and war and leaving and home and James Buchanan Barnes. My name’s James Buchanan Barnes. People call me Bucky, ‘cause I can’t stand James. I’ve got my mom and my pops and three kid sisters. And Steve, Steve’s my best pal. He’s--
He’s sweaty nights and slow kisses, lazy Sundays and hot summer evenings, friendly laughter and warm hugs, light punches and playful shoves, all knobby knees and elbows and breathy moans and then too fucking tall and built and solid and still yielding in quiet bedrooms--
--terrified blue eyes and fallen faces and reaching hands--
--we’ve been together through everything, and he’s safe, he’s alive--
You can’t take that from me.
My name is James Buchanan Barnes.
You can’t take that from me.
In the end, they take everything.
You are the Winter Soldier.
Winter lives in your soul, or whatever is left of it. You carry it with you everywhere.
Every breath you take burns, as if you are breathing in the unforgiving season itself. You are certain that if anyone were to ever cut you open, they would see frosted icicles lining your lungs.
You don't know if you've ever been different, or if breathing has ever been easier. But you try not to think about it. You are not allowed to wonder about such things anyway.
The hellicarrier is falling apart. Beneath you, the Captain speaks words that confuse and terrify you, his blue eyes unfocused and swollen.
The glass cracks. Supports fail. Everything under your feet falls away, taking Rogers from your grasp.
You let him fall.
Clinging to the wreckage, you watch.
He doesn’t even reach for you.
You don’t know why that bothers you, but it does. It bothers you a great deal. It also bothers you that he doesn’t seem to be breathing. He hasn’t even hit the water and he’s already stopped breathing. He’s falling, and not breathing, and he’s left you far above clinging to wreckage just to watch him fall.
This is all wrong.
In the few moments that you’ve known Captain America--but you’ve known him longer, haven’t you, James Buchanan Barnes--you’ve gathered that he is a stubborn fool, who takes bullets and knives to the chest and still fights on.
And there he is, lifeless and falling and not breathing. He’s already accepted death, and that should be the end of your mission, but it bothers you because Captain Rogers is a stubborn ass and dammit.
This man, your mission, who says he knows you, who won’t fight you, who seems familiar in a way that no one outside of Hydra should, is going to die. Because of you.
And you realize, sometime between growling and jumping after him, that you can’t let that happen.
Your orders buzz in your head--complete the mission finish the mission kill Captain Rogers confirm death you have your orders Winter Soldier--and, for the first time, you ignore them.
You will be punished for this. You can’t bring yourself to care.
Captain Rogers hits the water and that takes your breath away, watching him disappear beneath murky water and fiery debris. All you can do is fall while he sinks further away, out of your reach, dying and not safe at all, and why does this bother you--
You take one last breath before you follow him underneath.
You pull him from the water and drag him to the shore. You dump him there, and stare, as he barely draws breath and doesn’t meet your eyes because he’s half dead already, but he’ll be alright. You know he’ll heal. Because--
You turn away and leave him, knowing that he’s safe, for now. He’s safe and alive enough and you can’t handle him and his memories right now. You can’t handle him and his James Buchanan Barnes.
You turn your back on him before he can pull you in and keep you there, even though he’s not even awake, and you leave, hoping and knowing that he will heal.
As you stumble away in a daze, you tremble and gasp for breath that won’t come. Your chest burns. No other mission has ever affected you this way. When has it ever been difficult to breathe?
Captain Rogers breathes a name behind you. You don’t turn back.
You’ve got some healing of your own to do.
You thought you might not be able to handle seeing him again.
And now, standing in the shade of an old maple tree, close to hyperventilating, you know.
He’s sitting on a park bench, one leg crossed over the other, with a sketchpad balanced on his knee. There’s this crease in his brow and a little frown to his lips and his gaze is intent on whatever he’s drawing. Every once in a while his eyes flick up and you catch a glimpse of cornflower blue, the same shade of the summer sky overhead, before his gaze is back on his drawing and you feel a loss that confuses and frightens you.
There’s this memory you have, one of the first memories you had ever salvaged from your wreck of a mind--there’s this memory of watching him in the apartment you both had shared in Brooklyn. He was sitting on the window sill with a torn sheet of paper in front of him and a stub of charcoal pinched between two fragile fingers. Lounging on a lumpy couch, you had watched him sketch you, his blue eyes flicking up and away and catching every detail of your lazy sprawl. Afterwards, after chasing him into the kitchen and plucking the paper from his hands as he continued to protest half-heartedly, you’d huffed a laugh and ruffled his hair, because the drawing had been amazing, and not just because you had been one handsome bastard.
You’d been so proud of him in that moment. But then, you’d always been proud of him, even when he was being an idiot.
Watching him again, in the present, in the future, with his blue, blue eyes and his familiar frown and his gentle hands that could sketch the most elegant lines and then shatter a man’s skull--you decide that you can’t do this. No, no, not this, not today. Even with all those memories you’ve found and all the thoughts you’ve gathered, you just can’t. Not today. Even after all the months of running and hiding, of healing and trying to piece together as many shards of James Buchanan Barnes as you can.
You’re not ready.
You take a breath and move to turn away, but it’s in that one breath that Steve raises his head with a tired sigh and meets your eyes.
Even from this distance, you see the name form on his lips, a surprised whisper that somehow carries all the way to where you’re standing.
Or maybe it’s just in your head.
He stands, eyes wide, mouth just slightly agape. The sketchbook has fallen to his feet.
He looks so hopeful. An image of despairing eyes flashes like a waking dream, but you blink it away. You don’t want to see him like that. You’re content with this.
You stay where you are. He stays where he is. All you can do is watch him standing in the sunlight while you cower in the shadows, and you think, he’s safe, healthy, doesn’t even need me right now, why did I come here--
Before you can leave, Steve takes a hesitant step forward, carefully, as if he’s the frightened one.
And you, James Buchanan Barnes, take another breath of warm air before stepping forward to meet him in the middle of a quiet park, where there’s no ice or rushing rivers or fiery debris.
There’s only you, and your Steve Rogers, and the future ahead.
You think now, finally, breathing will be just a little bit easier.