my selves go without you,only i remain;
a shadow phantom effigy or seeming
(an almost someone always who’s noone)
a noone who,till their and your returning,
spends the forever of his loneliness
dreaming their eyes have opened to your morning
Bucky is the only one in the apartment when Steve slips in through the back window, rainwater clinging to his hair and eyelashes, and lands boots-first on the hardwood flooring. The set of his mouth is grim, and his eyes are dark. Outside, rain streaks the windowpanes and washes the city clean.
Bucky brings Steve a towel. Steve takes it without looking at him, tousles his hair and then drops the towel around his shoulders. A small puddle grows around his feet.
“Where is everyone,” he asks, flat.
Steve looks out towards the dark kitchen where Bucky has been sitting up, waiting. None of the lights in the apartment are on; Bucky is too used to sitting in the dark to bother with them when the others aren’t around. “I’m going to bed,” Steve says, still without looking at Bucky, and he turns to walk down the hallway, leaving wet footprints behind him when he goes.
“Did something happen?” Bucky asks, because of course something happened.
Steve closes the bedroom door without saying anything. Bucky gets another towel and wipes up the puddles on the floor. Sam and Natasha should be back to check in soon. He’ll wait up for them. He’s not tired. He returns to the kitchen and picks up his knife, presses the pad of his thumb against the sharp edge before setting it back down on the counter.
The apartment is—a base of sorts, Bucky supposes. An informal one. There are few safe places to lie low now that the scraps of what’s left of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra are fighting each other to the death. “There’s no difference between them anymore,” Steve had said, low, when Bucky asked what he was going to do now. Natasha agreed, and Sam knew how to answer the call when he got it. They’re working on their own—formally for Fury, but in reality they answer to themselves first—to make sure nothing of either organization survives. They use the apartment to reconvene, check in during missions, update each other. Bucky, who doesn’t have a place to stay, has mostly moved in, and the others spend more time here than at their own places, so it’s—it’s hard to quantify, in that way, Bucky thinks. Most things are now, for him. There are definitions he knows that he once knew and no longer can recall from the depths of memory. Vagaries of meaning that make no sense. He opens and closes the fingers of his left hand, empty, and listens to the shower running in the other room, Steve cold and tired and angry and farther away than the spacial limitations of the apartment would seem to allow.
Bucky runs his fingertip over the hilt of his knife. One two three four. Flips it over and counts again. He’s not sure what he’s counting. Sometimes he does this—loses the thread and doesn’t know how to find it again. One two three four. He likes the weight of the knife in his hand. It makes the others uncomfortable to know that. He sees the way they watch his hands. They’re happier when they’re empty, but that just makes him feel hollow. He needs something to hold onto. Smooth the pads of his fingertips against. The flat side of a blade. Steve doesn’t use any weapons but his shield. When he watches Bucky get ready for a mission, strapping knives to his legs and belt and guns into his holsters, he looks grim, unhappy, as if he never saluted Bucky in the middle of the trenches after Bucky shot someone’s brains out with a sniper rifle. Then again, maybe he never did do that. Bucky’s a little fuzzy on all the details. That’s not really something you can ask someone, either: the rifle I used to kill people with before I had any excuses—do you remember what it looked like, did I ever hold you in my sights and watch the muscles slide underneath your skin? It’s not good conversation. Bucky’s not really good at conversation these days.
Sam and Natasha come in through the roof access, Natasha silent; the only noise to be heard is the rush of Sam’s breathing, labored and restrained but still, to Bucky’s trained ear, audible. No one ever uses the front fucking door. They tramp water all over the floor too, and Bucky, glorified janitor, still not quite sure what to do with his hands, never sure, throws the towel at their feet and wipes the floor with it under his socked foot.
“Got some more of those for us?” Sam asks. He’s not shivering but he could be, Bucky thinks; he can almost hear the sound of his teeth chattering, like bullet shells hitting the floor over and over again.
Natasha’s hair sticks to her skin, her neck. She looks annoyed. “Steve back?”
“Yeah.” The shower isn’t running anymore. Bucky hadn’t heard it turn off. Steve’s bedroom is dark and quiet and far away.
He gets two more towels and hands them to Sam and Natasha. Sam shakes himself like a dog and gets water everywhere. “Sorry.”
“Yeah.” Bucky doesn’t bother wiping it up.
“You want to turn on a light in here?” Sam asks.
Bucky flips on a lamp and feels exposed, a bug cut open on the operating table, guts and discrete moving parts all laid bare for the others to see. His head is starting to hurt in that way that it does—slowly, crushingly, like someone is smothering him, a hand over his mouth and he can’t move as the oxygen seeps out of his lungs and he has to be revived by defibrillator, direct electric shock to the heart.
He goes into the kitchen and fills two glasses of water and sets them out on the counter, just to have something to do with his hands. Natasha stares at them.
“You realize we just got caught in a downpour, right?” There’s a warmth to her voice that Bucky doesn’t understand. Sam takes one of the glasses and downs the whole thing at once, the long slow slide of his Adam’s apple in his throat, and Natasha, not smiling but almost, picks up the other glass and takes a sip.
“Steve knows this place only has two bedrooms, right?” Sam asks. “I mean, we’ve been using this base for months. He can’t keep monopolizing one of the rooms.”
Bucky takes his empty glass and Natasha’s half-full one and places them into the sink.
“Let’s go to bed,” Natasha says. “Debrief in the morning. I’m exhausted.”
Sam reaches out and runs his hand through her damp hair. “Okay.”
They have an arrangement for nights when all four of them are here and Steve takes one of the rooms. The bed is big enough for two and there is another mattress on the floor that Sam dragged over from his own apartment. That’s where Bucky sleeps. Sam and Natasha take the bed even though they always offer to rotate who sleeps on the mattress on the floor. Bucky likes the mattress on the floor. It’s thin and old and he can feel the uneven floorboards and listen to Sam and Natasha breathing without being near enough to touch them, or hurt them, or wake them when he shudders awake in the middle of the night and sucks in a breath through slitted teeth and feels his heart pounding blood uselessly against the metal in his arm.
“Steve’s an asshole,” Sam says sleepily when it’s dark and they’re all trying to sleep and Bucky lies on his back staring at the ceiling and Nat has curled on her side, red hair haloed around her on the pillow.
“Fucking go to sleep,” Natasha mumbles, and Sam must, because he doesn’t say anything else.
Bucky doesn’t actually sleep much. Maybe two or three hours for every six the others get. His heart is too loud in his chest. His ears, ringing; the doctors told him that would go away soon enough, but it’s been a few months and Bucky is pretty sure the doctors have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to him. Doesn’t blame them. Lies on top of the blankets with his eyes closed until he slips into sleep and slips right back out of it a few hours later, his eyes slamming open, boom, he thinks, and hears the ricochet of the cannon blast echo off the neighboring building.
Thud click heartbeat boom, three two five—no, not that—thud-click-boom, he opens his eyes, the sunlight climbing up the walls so fast it takes his breath away, and he rolls out of bed onto the floor, half-crouched, and looks over at Sam and Natasha, still asleep, their backs to each other, Natasha’s legs pulled up, Sam on his stomach, sprawled out, the light making shadows of his eyes.
Bucky slips out of the room, silently. In the hallway, it’s dark, the damp towels from last night still lying on the floor where they left them. Bucky picks them up, brings them into the kitchen, and hangs them on the back of the chairs by the counter.
Natasha comes into the kitchen wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, her hair up in a ponytail, and Sam follows her, pajama pants slung low on his hips, barefoot, and then Steve, jeans and a jacket, the same hard edge to his mouth that Bucky recognizes too well, recognizes not at all.
“Right,” Steve says. “Let’s debrief.”
Bucky, who is the only one who didn’t have an assignment last night—he gets fewer assignments than the others, but he doesn’t care because he doesn’t like any of the assignments he gets anyway (go here, kill them, don’t let the see you, don’t get caught, just be sure they’re dead)—opens the fridge and pulls out the carton of orange juice, which is almost empty. He splits what’s left of it with Sam, who is eyeing him closely, and who smiles when Bucky pushes him a small glass.
“Put it on the list,” Bucky says.
Sam salutes lazily, his mouth twisting. “Yes sir.”
“Can we focus,” Steve says.
Bucky sips his orange juice. When Sam finishes scribbling on the grocery list, Bucky pulls it towards him and adds, in cramped, uneven letters, ‘no pulp’ next to the orange juice Sam has listed there.
“You are so picky,” Sam whispers, because Steve is listening to Natasha detail what happened last night. Bucky isn’t paying attention. He’s watching the way Sam’s fingers wrap around his glass, the way Natasha’s mouth moves. He likes these small details. They are grounding; they keep him here, in this moment, and he doesn’t think about numbers, or bullet wounds, or the forest fires he has walked away from.
“Don’t like pulp,” Bucky says stubbornly.
“Yeah, well, I do.” Still in an undertone. Nat and Steve still going at it. Steve is dark like a thundercloud. Bucky can feel his head starting to pound again. Sam’s hand is close to his on the counter.
“Then buy your own damn juice,” Bucky says, because it’s something to say, and the line of Sam’s mouth changes, gentle. He brushes his thumb down the line of Bucky’s knuckles and brings his glass to his mouth again to hide his smile. The place where he touched Bucky’s fingers burns, like ice. Sam’s the only one who ever touches him. Natasha is too careful, and Steve is too—Steve is—
—is looking at the two of them, and Bucky can’t read the angles of his face. He knows he used to be able to. Steve never used to be able to keep anything from him. But maybe he’s wrong about that too. Maybe he was wrong about that then.
This is what frustrates him, about it all. Can’t even trust his own damn brain to fill in the gaps properly, because what has Bucky ever really known? What truths does he have, can he use to keep himself grounded in what is real and absolute? He has no fucking idea. Steve’s shoulders are broader than Bucky thinks they should be and isn’t that the kicker, right? Even the pieces of him that predate Hydra’s manipulations don’t recognize Steve anymore.
“What about you?” Natasha asks. She tucks a few loose strands of hair behind her ear, her feet tucked up under her where she sits perched on the stool. She’s flicking through a few screens of information on her phone, updates from one of her contacts maybe. “Did you get the intel?”
She looks up at Steve, startled. “No?”
“No,” Steve says, and leaves it at that.
Sam glances at Natasha, then Steve. “You’re the one who wanted to debrief, man.”
Steve shrugs. Bucky notices, for the first time, that his knuckles are bloodied, split.
“Where are your gloves?” he asks, because of course he does; because he hasn’t remembered how to speak with this voice but he also can’t ever keep his mouth shut, and then this happens: the hard edge of Steve’s mouth, crack at the jaw, his gaze sliding away when Bucky finds it, wrong angles, wrong angles.
“Forgot them,” Steve says, and he gets up from the counter and goes down the hallway towards the bedrooms. Sam and Natasha stare at each other. Bucky stares at the place where Steve’s hands were and thinks, how strange, that the color of Steve’s blood hasn’t changed.
“He didn’t even go,” Natasha says. She sounds angry. “He didn’t even go on his assignment.”
Sam looks startled. “Are you sure?”
“No.” She presses the pads of her fingers into her temple, pressure. “I don’t know. Do we have any food here or did you two eat the last of the cereal?”
Bucky gets up and pulls a box of Cheerios out of the cabinet and hands it to her. The smile Natasha spares him is brittle, broken-edged.
“Thank you, James.” She accepts the bowl that Bucky retrieves for her as well.
Steve reappears with his shield over his shoulder. “I’ll be back later,” he says. They let him go. The apartment feels small and strange without him once he’s gone; cramped and stifling when he’s there.
Sam puts his hand on Bucky’s shoulder as Bucky watches Natasha pour herself a bowl of Cheerios. “Want to go grocery shopping with me? You’ve been alone here for a while.”
“Only a few days,” Bucky says, automatically. Opens and closes the fingers of his left hand. Thud click boom. Empty bullet shells hitting the linoleum floor. His knife is strapped to the outside of his thigh and he knows that Sam and Natasha know it.
“Come on,” Sam says, and Bucky agrees, because Sam’s touch is warm and Bucky leans into it, and he doesn’t think about angels, or wings, or sunlight reflecting off steel. Doesn’t think about casting a wire around Sam’s wings and grounding him, the way it felt good to catch him fast and bear him down.
This is what Bucky thinks he remembers: Steve, his eyes wide. They’re alone in the dark, because in the dark they’re all alone, and Bucky has blood that isn’t his scraped beneath his fingernails and smoke in the back of his throat, and Steve is looking at him like he’s seen an avalanche, or an earthquake, the land coming up to swallow the both of them whole.
“I thought I was too late,” Steve says. He doesn’t look at all like Bucky remembers him, and that grates, but his voice is the same, his eyes are the same, the weight of his hands is the same. His teeth on his lower lip, digging, digging. “I thought—I thought you were—oh, God—say something.” He puts his hands on either side of Bucky’s face. Bucky closes his eyes.
“I dreamed about you,” he says. “I think. I think that’s what it was. When they did their tests. You came for me, you got me out.”
“Tell me I wasn’t too late,” Steve says. “Bucky. Oh, God.” His thumb hovers over Bucky’s bottom lip, pulls away, the cool spot left where his warm hand once was. Bucky wants Steve to touch him everywhere and can’t put that into words. How do you put that into words? Here, and here, and here, pulling away the neck of his shirt and touching the place directly below his dog tags, metal on skin, skin on skin.
This is what Bucky thinks he remembers: crossing national lines and military lines with the Commandos, the long night’s moon, their shadows making ghosts behind them on the ground. Steve’s eyes in the dark. Hushed, harsh laughter, stifled. Dead leaves beneath the snow. Breathing out and seeing his breath in the air, the color in Steve’s cheeks from the cold. The quiet of the moon. The stock of his rifle, put to his shoulder, reload, the movements of his hands, catching bullet shells before they can hit the ground. Kicking snow over the ashes of a dying fire. Hiss-spit of the flames. Birds in the underbrush even in the dead of winter. Holding his breath. The weight in his chest, the weight of his flesh. Steve drawing tactics in the dirt with gloved hands, his artist’s hands turned weapons. The way hot blood makes steam of the snow. Mud in his boots, mud under his nails, mud in his mouth when a Hydra soldier holds his face to the ground and presses the barrel of a gun to the back of his head. Counting bullets in the trenches and Steve with blood on his teeth, on his lips, all along the line of his mouth.
This is what Bucky thinks he remembers. This is what comes to mind when he thinks: Steve. When he thinks: before. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, Steve with blood in his mouth and blood on his gloves and blood, gunmetal, exhaust smoke. Three two five five seven eight nine one. Tell me your name and rank, soldier. Tell me your name and rank. Tell me your name and rank and where you grew up and the color of the sun over the building your mother died in and the way the tenor of your heart changes when you stand with your back against the wall—
tell me your name and rank, soldier—
The supermarket is loud, crowded, and Sam apologizes almost as soon as they get there because he knows Bucky can’t stand it, centipedes crawling down the length of his spine, each foot touching a nerve, down down down just thinking about all the people here, who might see him, who do see him. It’s absurd. It’s unfair, really—Bucky who was, Bucky who moved through Brooklyn streets with ease seventy years ago, and Hydra’s soldier, their winter—both were fluid in a crowd. Touch and go, they knew where to stand, to walk, to look, casual ease, grace. Bucky who is now doesn’t have any of that, his hackles raised, the hair on the back of his neck standing straight up and he smoothes his hand over it, frustrated, angry; it’s just a supermarket. It’s a fucking supermarket, and they’re standing in the produce aisle as Sam examines the bananas and Bucky can’t breathe.
“Hey.” Sam is looking at him. “How you feeling?”
Bucky shrugs. “It is fine.” He struggles to use contractions a lot of the time. Which is—he doesn’t know how to explain it. Language doesn’t come easily to his mouth like it once did. Russian is simpler, some days. More familiar. Hungarian too. Some Mandarin. Everything comes easier than the language he was born into. He fell to his almost-death not knowing anything else but a few ways to say fuck you in French.
Sam’s face softens, but he doesn’t say anything, just turns to place the bananas he’s selected into the basket tucked into the crook of Bucky’s arm. He reaches out and puts his hand on Bucky’s forearm as he does so, warm solid touch, point of impact.
“What kind of apples do you want?” Sam asks, going over to where a bunch of different types are displayed.
Bucky blinks, caught off guard. “Dunno. The red ones.”
The look Sam gives him is leveling, fond. “'The red ones,' he says.” His voice is half-teasing, but he gets a few different types of red apples anyway, puts them in a bag and twirls the top closed and places it in Bucky’s basket. “There you go, Sarge,” he says, lightly, easily, and Bucky’s entire spine stiffens from the small of his back to the base of neck, one vertebrae at a time.
“Hell,” Sam says when he notices, “I’m sorry, man, look, I didn’t—”
“No,” Bucky says, forcefully. Sam shuts up. “It is okay.” He’s going to make it okay. He can’t breathe and he feels like someone’s slammed a fist into his sternum, cracked it down the middle, but that doesn’t have to mean anything. Look, it’s already fading, the electric bolt at the base of his spine, like plugging a human being into a lightning storm, static electricity all down the length of his left arm. 32-557-891. Tell me your name and rank, soldier.
James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant, the 107th—
Sam isn’t saying anything, just watching Bucky, one hand held out as if prepared to steady him should he fall. Bucky lowers his chin, realizes he’s shaking, forces himself, all at once, to stop.
“That was embarrassing,” he says, wry low twist of his mouth, and Sam smiles back, unnerved.
“It’s my fault,” he says. “Wasn’t thinking. I won’t do it again.”
“No,” Bucky says, quick. “It’s okay. Sam.” His name tastes strange in his mouth, the soft one syllable, no hard edges to the word or to the man himself. “I—like it. It is—”
Not familiar. Not as such. But he remembers remembering others calling him Sarge, a long time ago, a different war, and it feels—not right, perhaps. Not then, at least. But now, in Sam’s mouth, with the familiar slant of Sam’s shoulders and the affection in the palm of his hand, it’s—well, it’s better. Better than it was. It feels new.
“Well, okay then,” Sam says. He smiles. “Ready to conquer the juice aisle?”
He doesn’t ask, are you sure? Bucky doesn’t know how to quantify how meaningful that is—how much it matters that Sam believes him the first time around, no further questions asked.
They get two cartons of orange juice: one with pulp, and one without.
Dirt. Muddy footprints, impressions of army boots on the ground. So cold his fingers ache. He’s writing a letter, doesn’t know the date but thinks he has the month right, at least—November, 1943—who the fuck knows when Steve will even get this, anyway. Could be weeks. Could be next year. Could be longer still.
The scratching of the pencil tip against the page, dog-eared corners, wrinkled edges. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand, red-rimmed. Doesn’t know where he put his gloves. Gotta find them before someone nicks them. But he’s still writing and he’s not saying anything at all.
This is only my second letter. So you don’t have to worry about missing any. I don’t really have much to say but all of it seems really important, like if I don’t tell you now I won’t ever get the chance. Maybe you won’t ever even read this. Did you ever think there’d be a time when I didn’t tell you everything? I can see you nodding yes. I can see you saying that I never tell you everything.
Old habits, I guess.
If you were here, I’d lose my mind. That’s the truth. They’d never have made a soldier of me then. We gotta be a unit, a team. I gotta watch everyone’s back and they gotta watch mine. If you were here I’d only ever jump in front of a gun for you. I’m a piss-poor soldier and they know it. That’s why I’m here and you’re not. They gotta know somehow. Kept you home and they got the soldier they wanted out of me. Too bad for them that they don’t know that you could lead a hundred men into war and they’d spit bullets for you. A hundred thousand. And I’m not telling them either.
I can see you shaking your head. Bucky, what the fuck are you talking about. I don’t know, kid. I can see you sliding away from me. I can see you when I close my eyes. I’ve got a rifle in my hands, you know; behind my eyelids.
Sorry. Look—when I get home, I’ll tell you the truth of it. It’ll make sense when I come home.
Only he doesn’t go home. Five weeks later he wakes up in a Hydra base (thud click boom) with hard syllables in his mouth (32-557-891) and blue eyes, Steve’s eyes, looking down at him, cold irises, warm hands. Steve never got his letter because Steve was already overseas, and none of it makes sense yet, and neither of them is going home.
A few weeks after that and Bucky clings to life on the side of a train. He feels like a bullet, released from its shell and speeding towards its target. Just left of the heart, cutting through ventricles and arteries, collateral damage, the tracks of the train like a funeral knell, thud-a-thud-a-thud. No one gets any second chances here. Steve is holding out his hand and looking as if his heart is caught in an avalanche, swept up in it. Bucky’s thinking, shit, it still doesn’t make sense.
When he falls and watches Steve curl in on himself, his face shuttered, shut down, closed for repairs, he thinks: oh, before his heart seizes in his chest and he goes into cardiac arrest. He’ll probably be dead before he even hits the ground.
The train speeds away. The mountains’ chill. He doesn’t remember making impact. Maybe that means he never did.
He remembers waking up with Steve’s back pressed against his stomach, their skin sticky from sweat in the July heat, Steve’s tiny apartment too small to ever ventilate properly. Above them, the ceiling fan sounds like the wings of birds, moving the hot air around.
Steve shifts. His lips part. Bucky leans in and—
No. That never happened. He dreamed that, maybe.
That didn’t happen.
“Why do you like me?”
They’re sitting in the car on the way back to the apartment. Sam is driving. Bucky is holding the bag of bread and eggs on his lap so they don’t break. For his part, Sam doesn’t look surprised by the question.
“I don’t know,” he says, turning on his left turn signal. “You’re easy to like.”
Bucky laughs; he can’t help it: discordant, broken sounds, like the wrong chords of a piano. This, at least, he knows is not true. Even the Bucky who was had been a hard person to like. Too quick to cut with a sideways smile, a smirk, an insult. Too good in a bar fight to be any good at shaking hands. The only person who’d stuck around had been Steve, and that’s because Bucky held on to him so tight that even thousands of miles away in the middle of a war he hadn’t been able to let go. Girls were drawn to him until he stopped saying all the right things and went home to Steve’s apartment, leaned against the windowpanes and chain-smoked cigarettes while outside it started to rain. Boys just wanted his mouth on their dicks in dark alleyways behind bars and the next day Bucky would break the skin on their cheekbones with the rings on his right hand when he found them kicking the shit out of Steve in those same alleys. Actually, he can’t remember whether that last bit is true. But it feels true enough.
There’s nothing about Bucky who is that’s any easier to get along with than Bucky who was. Sam must know that. Sam does know that.
“I—” Bucky makes a twisting motion with his arm. Metal refracting light. “Hurt you. Pulled you out of your sky.”
“Yeah, well.” They’re nearing the apartment. Sam’s looking in the rearview mirror to make sure they haven’t been followed. He’s been doing that the whole time. “I did try to shoot you a few times.”
“You never hit me.”
Sam nearly laughs. “Cute.” He pulls into the parking spot and puts the car in park, sighs. Sincerity comes easily to Sam’s features, the timbre of his voice. Bucky doesn’t expect him to lie, but he also doesn’t know what the hell he expects him to say. He’s killed more people than Sam has probably ever met.
“I know you pulled Steve out of the river,” Sam says.
Bucky swallows, the slide of his throat, dry, aching. “No you don’t.”
Even Bucky doesn’t know that for sure. Click thud. Boom. He remembers watching Steve fall and he remembers falling. The air tasting like gunmetal, like exhaust smoke; like ice and snow and the bone-numbing chill of a sleep he didn’t deserve to wake up from. He remembers the shock of the water, the shock of the ice. It hurts like hellfire. It hurts like waking up and reaching out and feeling the empty space next to you, the empty hallways, the windows dark and outside people are blowing each other up and you get up and put on your uniform, sniper rifle over your shoulder. He doesn’t remember pulling Steve out of the water. He remembers his programming.
Knife on his palm, slicing open nerve endings. Blood, drip, bullet points on the ground. Stick this in his eye, someone said to him, and didn’t tell him why, and he did it: optical nerves unspooling like cooked spaghetti, twist of his wrist that doesn’t belong to him. Blood from the eye socket, blood in his mouth, split lip, good work. Broken toy. Marionette with his hands tied above his head, supplication, shoulders bent; put a bullet in his mouth and put a bullet in her stomach and when he wakes up, he wakes up, and wakes up, electric shock, the rubber between his teeth clamped so tight that he can feel his jaw shifting.
“The current was too weak to carry him to shore,” Sam says. “Who else was there? Who else would have done it?”
Bucky presses the palm of his hands against his eyes, presses, hard, harder until he sees bright lights, thinks, they’re going to take it all away now, wipe him, wake up and the slate is wiped clean for you to smear with blood once more. Presses and keeps pressing until he feels Sam’s fingertips on his wrist, gentle, pulling his hand away.
“It’s okay,” Sam says. “It’s okay.” He splays the fingertips of Bucky’s right hand, palm open, upwards. He lies them flat and presses his hand against them, carefully, and Bucky doesn’t resist, just watches, an ache in the back of his throat, pounding, thud thud thud thud THUD and his head feels like a battlefield, soaked in blood, footprints pounded into the dirt.
“I followed Steve halfway around the world looking for you,” Sam says. He’s quiet for a moment, and then: “And I didn’t just do it for him, either.”
Bucky doesn’t know what to say. His tongue is heavy in his mouth, and he’s grinding his teeth without thinking about it, expecting the resistance of rubber between them and finding only bone.
“Let’s go inside,” Sam says. He squeezes Bucky’s fingers, lets go. “C’mon, man. Shouldn’t sit out here all exposed like this. Nat will freak if she sees us.”
Bucky nods. Gathers up the groceries, follows Sam into the apartment building and up the stairs to their floor. Sam says Bucky pulled Steve to shore when he would have drowned, choked on brine water and sunk to the riverbed as the current flowed past him. Bucky doesn’t remember pulling Steve out but he remembers the sunlight, filtering through the green-gray water, as he looked up towards the surface and sank.
Sam is fumbling with the keys outside the apartment door. Bucky’s watching the way the light looks on his face, the line of his neck.
“Sam,” he says, helplessly, and then he leans in and puts his arms around him.
The shadows under his eyes that don’t ever go away. The roughness to his voice, the pads of his fingers rubbed so raw that he doesn’t even know if he still has fingerprints or if Hydra took those too. He’s seen the files. An incomplete list of names: assassinated, executed, butchered if the situation called for it. Men, women. Kids, a few times. The youngest one had been five years old. Who the fuck knows what she’d done to get on Hydra’s radar. Been born into the wrong world, a world where people like Bucky exist, there to press the knife to your throat, the gun to your temple. If killing changes the color of your blood, then Bucky’s blood is darker than most. If killing changes the temperature of your blood, then Bucky doesn’t bleed.
Sam reaches up and puts his hand to the back of Bucky’s head, pulls him in closer when Bucky almost thinks to pull away. Warm fingertips. He smells like soap and laundry detergent, Nat’s lilac shampoo. His thumb moves across the nape of Bucky’s neck, and then Bucky leans away. Sam’s warm brown eyes, searching.
“What was that for?” he asks.
Bucky fumbles for words that try to escape his pull. His voice rough, he struggles to speak. “You’re easy to like.”
Sam and Natasha leave again that afternoon—reluctantly, which Bucky knows because he eavesdrops on the quiet argument they have before departing.
“We shouldn’t just leave him here all the time,” Nat says. Bucky can just picture her, spine straight and rigid as she plucks at the sleeves of her sweatshirt, unconsciously.
“He’s okay,” Sam says. “He’s doing better.”
“That’s not the point,” Natasha says.
“I know,” Sam says. A quiet pause. Bucky takes the chance to look at the two of them, framed in the fluorescence of the kitchen lights, Natasha leaning into Sam as he puts his arm around her shoulders, sighs. “I know, Nat.”
They leave a little while later. Natasha looks serious, sad, the set to her mouth downturned, and her gaze lingers on Bucky before she turns away. He wonders what she’s thinking, what could make her mouth twist like that, why she doesn’t reach out and take Sam’s hand when it’s clear she wants to, even to Bucky.
Steve hasn’t come back, and when it gets to be past midnight, Bucky stops expecting him to. He’s tired, and there’s a ringing in his ears—I know you pulled Steve out of the river—and he wants, for once, just to sleep: uninterrupted, without conscious thought. He strips off his t-shirt, unsheathes the knife from the holster on his thigh. Doesn’t know why he carries it around. He’s not going to be putting that in anyone’s neck anytime soon, if the way his hands shake when he thinks about doing so is any indication.
(You’re easy to like)
(—No, you don’t—)
He stands in the doorway of Steve’s bedroom. His heart feels heavy in his chest, a stone fist. He’s so tired of feeling tired. He shuts the door behind him, doesn’t bother turning on the lights, and crawls into the bed. The sheets and pillow smell like Steve—bar soap, sweat, the scent of his skin. Bucky breathes in and this, he remembers: waking up with his arm thrown carelessly across Steve’s chest, his fingertips clinging to Steve’s sides, slotted in the spaces between his ribs. The summer heat, the winter’s chill, never enough blankets when they needed them. Steve’s toes always as cold as ice cubes. Bucky blinks, breathes in, wonders if sense-memory is stronger than time, stronger than coercion: stronger than loss.
(Tell me your name and rank, soldier—)
He turns his face to Steve’s pillow, lies still and motionless, barely breathing. I’m with you until the end of the line, Steve had said, as if he’d meant it, as if it meant anything, as if the two of them haven’t already gone past the end, left everything behind them. There’s nothing here. There’s nothing left.
He falls asleep, quickly, all at once. He falls asleep, and he doesn’t dream.
He wakes, slowly, to the dipping of the mattress next to him as someone sits down. He almost bolts upright, reaches for the knife just within his reach, but something tells him, stay, and he does, letting his eyes slide open (bang) and decipher the figure sitting beside him in the dim very early morning light, his head bent, his bare hands gripping the edge of the mattress, his knuckles scabbed over but still bruised and split.
“You’re in my bed,” Steve says, quietly.
“It’s not yours.”
“No,” Steve says; “no, I guess isn’t.”
He doesn’t move. He’s looking down at the floor, his feet. He’s wearing a sweatshirt and the hood is down and his hair, golden, ragged strands, as if he’s just run his fingers through it. His shoulders bend inwards, the curve of his spine exhausted. Bucky thinks about reaching out and touching him and doesn’t. Thinks about running the palm of his hand down the smooth cotton of Steve’s sweatshirt and doesn’t. Thinks about closing his eyes and going back to sleep, and doesn’t.
“Where did you go?” he asks instead, because it’s something to say.
“Natasha and Sam aren’t here,” Bucky says, because maybe Steve is looking for them and doesn’t know why he can’t find them, or why Bucky is sleeping in his bed.
“I know,” says Steve. He doesn’t stand, or move, or say anything else, just sits there staring at the floor, and Bucky doesn’t know what to do. He does the only thing that makes sense. He closes his eyes and somewhere along the way, falls asleep.
He can feel Steve’s mouth on his temple, the place between his shoulder blades, the hollow of his throat. The hot press of his tongue, the cold sensation that follows. He arches his spine, closes his hand on empty space, opens his eyes and no one is there, but Steve’s boots are on the floor by the nightstand, and the door to the hallway is open and Bucky can hear water running in the kitchen sink. The clock on the nightstand says 7:21 a.m.
He slides out of bed, puts his bare feet flat on the floor. Lets his chest expand, then gets up and goes into the kitchen, not bothering to put on a shirt, not bothering to mask the sound of his feet on the linoleum, but Steve doesn’t turn. He’s bent over some files, his brow furrowed. He didn’t sleep; Bucky can tell. There’s the same hunched exhaustion to his shoulders, the line of his spine.
It still doesn’t make sense. Not to him. Bucky can’t remember if it ever did.
“Are you staying?” Bucky asks, because of the four of them, Steve spends the least time here. Bucky doesn’t know where he goes. He’s considered following him before. Thought better of it.
Steve closes the files. “I might,” he says. “For a little while.” He looks up at Bucky for the first time. His hair gets into his eyes, longer than Bucky is used to seeing on him. “How’d you sleep?”
Bucky wonders what Steve wants him to say. “Good,” he says, truthfully, and watches the way it impacts on Steve’s face, the small muscles between his eyebrows, at the corners of his mouth. He puts his hand on the counter. He wants to reach out, to touch Steve. Steve used to touch him all the time. The physicality of a friendship: arms around each other’s shoulders, hands in each other’s back pockets, sidestepping all the way home.
Steve tried to touch Bucky that first night, when he and Sam had found him. He’d reached out and tried to put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky had broken his wrist. Hadn’t even thought about it. Just seen Steve’s hand, thought, too close, and snapped bone. Steve had hardly reacted; pulled his hand close to his chest, his eyes still the same light blue, and Sam’s hand had gone to the pistol at his hip.
Sorry, Bucky almost says, but what would be the point? Some things happen, and take root in your soul, and they don’t ever let go.
“When’s the last time you went outside?” Steve asks.
“Yesterday,” Bucky says. “Sam and I went to the grocery store.”
“Oh.” Quietly. Steve has always been an awful liar, but somewhere along the way he’s learned to hide what he’s thinking. Or maybe Bucky has just forgotten how to see it.
“Why?” Bucky asks. Sometimes you need to ask, with Steve.
Steve shakes his head, runs one hand through the short ends of his hair at the nape of his neck. “Was gonna go for a ride,” he says, and stops. Lingers. “Thought maybe you’d—want to come with me. If you were sick of being cooped up in here. You don’t have to say yes. I just thought maybe you’d want to.”
It’s the most he’s said to Bucky in the past three weeks.
“Okay,” Bucky says, and Steve blinks, his mouth parting; he hadn’t been expecting that. “Let’s go.”
Bucky gets dressed and comes back into the kitchen before Steve can change his mind—before he can remember the whiplash pain of a broken wrist, of the bullets Bucky put into his abdomen, of the briny water he almost died choking on after Bucky let him fall. Steve is hovering by the counter, his back to Bucky. He looks both too big and too small for the space he inhabits: an inconsistency that he’s always had. They don’t say anything, just leave the apartment, lock the door behind them, and take the elevator down to the ground floor. Bucky’s breathing is preternaturally loud in the enclosed space; he can hear each exhale, each inhale, and wonders if Steve can, too: this echoing pandemonium behind his ribs.
Steve’s penchant for his motorbike surprises other people. Not Bucky. Steve’s always loved the thrill of adrenaline, of speed, of twisting your hand and feeling an engine rev beneath you. This is something that Bucky knows about Steve that other people don’t. And that makes it important, somehow; proves, in some small way, that the person Bucky can almost remember—James Barnes, born and raised in Brooklyn—was real, a long time ago. James Barnes knew the quick cut of Steve’s grin when he got what he’d call a great idea and what Bucky’d call a good way to get himself killed—as if he wouldn’t be right there beside him when the time came to put Steve’s ideas to the test.
“No helmets,” Bucky notes when Steve unlocks the chain around his motorcycle.
Steve shrugs. “Drives Sam up the wall. Nat just says I’m a bad role model for young and impressionable children.”
“You,” Bucky says. “A role model.”
Steve’s smile cuts, self-deprecatory. “Yeah, I know.”
“That’s not—” Bucky stops. He can’t find the words again. He was a young and impressionable child once. He never quite let go of the person he looked up to.
“Anyway, if you want one, you’re gonna have to dig one up somewhere,” Steve says. “Sorry.”
Bucky shrugs with his good shoulder. “I do not care.” He doesn’t. If he dies in a motorcycle accident, well—good riddance, right? How’s that one for the history books. World-feared assassin, taken out by a bad spill on Captain America’s bike.
Steve swings one leg over the seat of the bike and turns the key. The morning light is still thin from the sunrise, but it turns Steve’s hair gold, reflects off the handlebars. The low hum of the engine makes Bucky’s teeth buzz together; he can feel the vibration from here, beneath his skin.
“Behind you?” Bucky asks, because—Steve hasn’t so much as brushed his arm in passing the whole time they’ve been in this apartment. Months. He wants so badly to reach out, to press his hands on warm skin, but if Steve doesn’t want that then Bucky won’t ever force him. He’s not the same person Steve grieved for. He’s not the same person who watched Steve sleep when they were kids and maybe was scared Steve might not wake up, because he had the whooping cough again and it was bad this year, real bad. He’s not the same person Steve watched fall.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Unless you’ve changed your mind. That’s okay. Bucky—”
Bucky gets on the bike before Steve can say anything else, before the sound of his name in Steve’s mouth—before the sound of Steve’s name for him in Steve’s mouth—can fully register, thud click, the low roaring of the engine, the swelling in his chest.
He puts his arms around Steve’s waist: flesh and steel. He can smell the sweat at the base of Steve’s neck, the low steady thrum of adrenaline under his skin. Steve is warm and solid and real in front of Bucky, held against him, and Bucky digs his fingers into Steve’s stomach, reflexively, before making himself let go.
Steve is strangely still, unmoving except for the blood under his skin, the pulse in his neck, faster than Bucky would have expected. Steve clears his throat. “You good?”
Bucky nods, realizes that Steve can’t see him, and says, in a low voice, “Yeah, kid.”
“Hold on, then,” Steve says, and peels away from the curb.
The streets are quiet but not empty. Their little apartment at the edge of the city has the benefit of a calmer neighborhood than anything in NYC, but there are still people, and there’s still movement. Steve winds through the light traffic, the axis of the bike shifting in his turns, the inertia of the three of them: Steve, Bucky, the bike. Bucky doesn’t ask where they’re going—doesn’t bother, not with the wind in their ears and the firm muscles of Steve’s stomach beneath his fingertips. He tries not to focus on that—not to think of nights lying awake with his hand pressed to Steve’s stomach, his forehead, his shoulders.
They ride for a long time. Steve takes them farther and farther from the city. Houses and buildings fall away, the roads getting longer, lonelier, the woods coming in on all sides until the only things Bucky can see are the road, the yellow lines of paint, the trees around them. It’s a cold, brisk morning, and Bucky hadn’t dressed for it, but it doesn’t matter; nothing really chills him anymore, and Steve is warm and alive in front of him, and when Bucky bends his head his forehead goes to Steve’s shoulder, just once, just briefly, and the metal machine beneath them purrs.
He doesn’t think of his thighs on either side of Steve’s hips; doesn’t think about the familiar numbing blur of adrenaline as it spikes, suddenly, behind his ribs. Even after decades as a weapon, nothing but a gun for Hydra to point and shoot, he would still feel that adrenaline spike in his heart when he pulled the trigger, or cut someone’s throat, or lined them up perfectly in his sights. He doesn’t want to think about that: all the ways that Hydra tried to make him into something that wasn’t a person, and all the twisted, tortured ways that he tried to hang on. After a certain point, it would have been better, he thinks, just to have let go.
But he never could. And he never did. And now, he thinks, tightening his grip around Steve’s waist and leaning into him—he never will.
The bike stutters, slowly, to a stop. They’re alone in the middle of the trees before a single lonely streetlight, and Bucky can hear the movements of birds, of small animals in the underbrush, of the very distant sounds of the city, and he can feel, between his hands, the pulsing of Steve’s blood, the rhythm of his heart. This is the only remainder of the person Bucky was, the life he had, the memories he can’t decide are truth or falsehoods: Steve Rogers, that scrawny, angry kid from Brooklyn, who once punched Bucky so hard he split his lip and Bucky heard water rushing in his ears, who once bandaged Bucky’s split knuckles with the gentle hands of a soldier trying to be a medic, who once looked at Bucky as if everything he ever believed in were beneath Bucky’s skin, and who now doesn’t look at Bucky at all.
Steve isn’t moving. The light remains, stubbornly, red, and Bucky can feel the tenseness of Steve’s spine, his preoccupation with how close they are to each other, and how long it’s been since they were last. The back of Steve’s neck is flushed even though the morning is still early and cool.
The light changes. Steve doesn’t notice, keeps leaning the weight of the bike onto his left foot, Bucky still holding him around the middle.
“Green,” Bucky says, because he doesn’t know what else to say.
“Shit,” Steve says, his voice a jagged glass edge. He pushes the bike into gear and the still moment is broken. They ride until they slowly reenter the outskirts of the city, and then Steve brings them home.
Outside the apartment, Steve parks, and Bucky loosens his grip on him, slides off the bike. Steve kills the engine and then does the same, reaching up with one hand, self-conscious, to run his fingers through his windswept hair.
“Thought you might like to get out,” is all he says. Broad shoulders, the sunlight sweeping down the bridge of his nose. Bucky wants to reach out and touch him, but without the pretense of the bike, there’s nothing between them anymore.
“Yeah,” he says, fumbling for words, always fumbling, always losing his grip on the things he wants to hold closest. Steve looks at him, a little helplessly, and then turns to enter the apartment building. The only thing Bucky can do is follow. Just like he’s always done.
Steve is in the kitchen trying to figure out what to order for take-out that night and Bucky is sitting with his feet beneath him in the other room, carefully examining the leaves of the jade plant he’s been trying to keep alive when Natasha bursts in through the front door—which is unusual, for her—her arms laden with shopping bags, the color high in her cheeks.
“Hey Steve,” she says, and closes the door with her foot, “what’s up.”
“You want Thai for dinner?”
“Sure. Sam’s gonna be here soon too. Where’s Bucky?”
Steve must gesture, because Natasha comes into the room where Bucky’s sits, still holding all her bags. Her hair is shorter than it was yesterday, still bright red and wavy at the ends.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hello.” Bucky doesn’t look up from the jade plant. He spritzes it with water. When he does look over to Natasha, she’s smiling, just slightly.
“What are the bags for?” Bucky asks.
“You,” Natasha says. “I got you some clothes. Thought you might be tired of the same few t-shirts and that one pair of jeans you live in.”
Bucky looks down. He does only have one pair of jeans. He doesn’t like to go clothes shopping.
“Come on,” Nat says. “Try some stuff on.”
He can’t think of a good reason not to. He follows Natasha into their bedroom, where she sets down the bags and starts spreading new clothes on the top of the bed.
“This first,” Natasha says, and holds a plain white button-down up to Bucky’s chest. He takes it from her, hesitatingly, and she gives him a small, genuine smile.
“Want me to close my eyes?” she asks, and covers her eyes with her hands. She peeks out at him between her fingers, her smile going dry and teasing. “I won’t look, I swear.”
He can’t help the smile that tugs at the edge of his mouth. “Thought you were a better liar than that.” He pulls off his t-shirt over his head and drops it onto the floor and tries to figure out how to unbutton the shirt Nat gave him.
“Oh, I just can’t help myself,” Natasha says as Bucky struggles. “You’re just so devilishly handsome.”
But there’s a different note to her voice this time. Bucky looks up, sees where she’s looking, and feels his mouth go dry. He looks down at himself, the line of scarring where his metal arm is fused to his skin, the other marks that cover his torso, decades of fieldwork written onto his skin. There’s the spot where someone got the drop on him and knifed him. There’s the spot where one of his earliest handlers had him whipped.
“Try the shirt on, dork,” Natasha says, her voice gentle, when she sees Bucky’s fingers still, and he does, grateful for her warmth and presence, for the ways she cares even while she would swear up and down that she doesn’t.
The shirt fits perfectly, which shouldn’t surprise Bucky and does; it always surprises him when people notice anything about him other than the obvious: metal arm, battle scars, the way his face goes flat and dead sometimes against his will. He does up the buttons on the front, his fingers fumbling a little, and Natasha reaches up and helps him.
“There you go,” she says. “Look at that. Wardrobe basic number one covered. Soon enough you might even own three whole outfits.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, “because I just have so many places to wear new clothes to.”
“We do get invited to all of the season’s most vital social functions,” Natasha says, mildly, and Bucky can’t help but smile. Natasha doesn’t spend a lot of time socializing either.
“Roll up the sleeves,” Natasha says. She reaches, without warning, for his left wrist, and he recoils, instinctually, without realizing what he’s done. Her hand closes on empty air and she seems to understand what’s happened, because she looks, for just a brief moment, scared.
“Why,” Bucky asks. His right hand covering his left wrist, warm fingers on cold steel.
“It would look good,” Natasha says. “You would. You would look good.”
The silence streches. Neither of them moves. Bucky—miserable, hating himself for it—says only, “Let’s try another shirt.” Natasha nods, picks out another, and this time she turns around when he starts to change.
He’s crushed windpipes with that hand, that arm; snapped collarbones, removed teeth, split breastbones. It’s hard to reconcile that with Natasha’s touch, her earnestness, her desire to help. It can’t be done, he thinks; it just can’t be done.
“You didn’t have to do this for me,” he says.
She turns. He’s wearing one of the dress shirts she chose for him. She holds up her hands, as if asking for permission, and when he nods, she reaches out and smoothes down the front of the shirt.
“I don’t have to do a lot of things,” she says. “That’s the best part about choices. The choosing.”
He doesn’t know what to say. With one gentle hand, Natasha reaches out and touches the end of Bucky’s hair where he’s thrown it into a short, scraggly braid, just long enough to barely reach his shoulder.
“Sam teach you this?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “He has a niece.”
“I know.” She lets her hand fall, and she steps away. “Well, that fits, too. I should be your personal shopper.”
“No doubt an excellent application of your many skills,” Bucky says, and is shocked when Natasha actually laughs.
She starts folding the clothes on the bed, arranging them into neat piles to put into the dresser. “How’s Steve?” she asks. “When did he get back?”
“Late last night.”
Bucky is baffled. He starts taking off the dress shirt so he can put on the t-shirt he was originally wearing. “And?”
Natasha sighs. Her hands linger for a moment over the pile of clothes, then go to her sides. “Never mind.”
“I slept in his bed,” Bucky says, and he doesn’t fully know why. “I think it upset him.”
Natasha pauses. “That’s one word for it, maybe,” she says, and then she doesn’t say anything else.
Bucky watches her. It can be hard to get Natasha to talk sometimes. Hard to get any of them to, really; this is what Bucky has learned. But Natasha’s particularly good at diverting conversation the way she wants to. The fact that she hasn’t done so yet means she’s still lingering on this topic: still lingering on Steve.
“How is he?” Bucky asks, because he doesn’t know, can’t tell anymore, and maybe Natasha can.
Her hands, empty, close on themselves. “I don’t know,” she says, quietly. “He’s been—frustrating.” A quick wry smile. “An asshole. I think he’s lonely.”
“Lonely?” Bucky can’t think. “He has you and Sam.”
“But not you?” Natasha meets his gaze.
“I don’t know,” Bucky says, uncomfortable. “I don’t think he wants me anymore.”
Natasha face softens. “Now that,” she says, “is the most incorrect thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
But it’s not. Not the way Natasha thinks. Bucky is not the person Steve went to war with a lifetime ago. He’s not the person who stayed up with him all night, whispering secrets in the dark. He can’t ever be that person again. And that’s what Steve wants—who he’s looking for. And Bucky can’t give it to him.
Natasha sighs. “James,” she says, quietly, and then stands on tiptoe and kisses him on the cheek, quick, brief. He lifts his hand to his face and presses his fingertips against the place where her lips were, after she pulls away.
This is what he thinks he remembers: waking up one night in their shitty little apartment to the sound of Steve shivering in the other bed, his entire body wracked with it, his teeth chattering so hard that Bucky wonders if he’ll rattle them right out of his skull.
Slipping out from under the blankets, bare toes on the cold floor. Crossing the space between them. “Steve?”
Sweat stands out on his forehead, full drops of it, sliding down his temples into his hair. His eyes screwed shut, his mouth a white line, pain in the tense set of his jaw, the way his fingers grip at the blankets around his neck.
And something in Bucky’s chest, tightening. Steve gets sick a lot, but sometimes he gets sick. Sometimes he goes to the hospital for weeks and Bucky doesn’t get to see him, can’t get anywhere near him, because he’s contagious and weak and delirious and needs to sleep and Bucky wants to punch out the teeth of the orderly telling him to go home but it’s not his fault, isn’t anyone’s fault; Steve’s just sick and Bucky just has to go home.
(He wonders, would they tell him? Would they tell him, if Steve died. He doesn’t think they would. Steve’s got no next of kin, no family but Bucky, but it’s not the type of family that hospitals understand; not blood, not birthright. Loyalty. Devotion. You can’t put that down on paperwork. You can’t say, I need him, let me see him, I love him more than anything else in this world because that’s how you end up with your face smashed over the edge of a dumpster; that’s how you end up dead.)
“Steve, can you hear me?” Take his hand, feel for his pulse: erratic, too light and fast and unfamiliar beneath the touch of Bucky’s thumb. Bucky’s mouth is dry, and he can feel everything narrowing to this one point of contact: Steve’s skin, the flutter of his pulse.
Steve doesn’t say anything. He’s still shivering, his entire body consumed by it. Bucky presses the back of his hand to Steve’s forehead: definitely fever. Probably real high, too, a dangerous one, the sort of fever Steve’s mother always told Bucky to watch out for when she thought Steve wasn’t listening but of course he was. Steve made fun of Bucky for it later, but Bucky would lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and remembering everything Mrs. Rogers told him, cataloguing it, committing it to memory.
“Steve,” Bucky says, scared now. He’s nineteen years old and Mrs. Rogers is gone—it’s just the two of them now in this world that closes in around them until all the air is pressed from between their ribs, their lungs; this world that will break Steve if it can, if it can just figure out how. Bucky is nineteen years old and his best friend is sick and Bucky is too small for the life he wants to lead, his fingers pressed to the pulse of Steve’s heart.
“I gotta take you to the hospital,” he says, standing. “You gotta get up, Steve, come on, we’ll go together.”
Steve reaches up and grabs Bucky by the wrist, holds him close. His palm is sweaty, hot, and Bucky can’t breathe. “No.”
“You’re sick, Steve, you’re real sick, I’m—” scared, I don’t know what to do, this isn’t something I can fix, all I’ve ever been good at is taking things apart, I don’t know how to put you together—
“No hospitals,” Steve says, his voice weak. “I’m not going.” He’s still shuddering. “Give me your blankets.”
Bucky does, mechanically. “What if you need a doctor? What if you....”
“I’m not gonna.”
Bucky tucks the blankets around Steve’s neck, so that Steve is burrowed beneath three thick quilts, just his face poking out from beneath them. He’s flushed, his eyes bright but lucid for the moment.
“Steve....” Bucky reaches out and smoothes Steve’s damp hair from his forehead. Steve closes his eyes.
“Don’t want a doctor,” Steve mumbles. He’s still shaking, but it’s lessened, somewhat. His forehead is as hot as before. “Just want you.”
“I can’t fix what’s wrong with you, kid,” Bucky says, slowly, helplessly. “I can’t make you feel better.”
“Neither can they,” Steve murmurs. He reaches out and grabs for Bucky’s hand again. “They’ll just make you go away and I won’t see you and I’ll still be sick but I’ll be alone, and I’m—I....”
He trails off. Slips back into his feverish haze. Bucky grips his hand, tightly, feels the brittle bones of Steve’s fingers between his own, the flushed, clammy skin. His eyes sting, and he blinks rapidly, watching the quick rise and fall of Steve’s chest beneath the blankets.
“Okay,” he says, barely a whisper. He tucks Steve’s hand beneath the blankets and presses his palm to the side of Steve’s face, just for a moment. “Okay.” And he stays up with him all night.
He’s scared the whole time, but manages to mute it, numb it. Gets a glass of water and tries to get Steve to drink some. Dabs Steve’s forehead with a cool washcloth. Changes his sheets when Steve sweats through them. Lies next to him on the thin mattress, on top of the blankets, and watches the movements of his face. He’s scared, but not terrified, not until the real early morning, maybe four a.m., when Steve wakes up screaming and Bucky can’t hold him down.
“It’s me!” He struggles with Steve’s thrashing limbs, tries to pin him to the bed. “Oh God, Steve, it’s me, God, it’s me, I’m here, Steve, I’m here, please don’t do this, please wake up, I’m here, Steve, I’m here.” He’s babbling and he knows it, his heart pounding so fast he thinks it will rupture, spew poison blood into his veins. Steve struggles, but he’s weak from the fever and the illness and eventually his struggling stops, and then he starts to cry.
“Momma,” he says, blearily, only half-awake, and all the air goes out of Bucky’s lungs like someone’s punctured them with a needle.
“I’ll get her,” he says, his voice thick with tears, and he can’t do this, he’s so exhausted, he doesn’t know what to do. “I’ll get her for you, Steve, okay?”
Steve’s still crying, the fever blinding him, burning him up from the inside out. Bucky gets the washcloth and places it over Steve’s eyes, hoping to calm him, but Steve just shakes his head, vigorously, and cries for his mother.
Bucky presses the palms of his hands against his eyes, as hard as he can. He’s trembling all over and can’t stop. Oh, God. He should have taken Steve to the hospital. What if he’s too late?
“Steve,” he says, his voice breaking, but Steve can’t hear him, just keeps struggling until he exhausts himself and slips, once more, back into a feverish, restless sleep.
Bucky keeps his vigil. Wipes the sweat from Steve’s forehead, does his best to keep him warm even though he’s burning up. Scrubs at his own eyes with the back of his hands, roughly, and prays for morning; prays for the fever to break; prays for the sunrise to come and for the two of them to still be there.
Somehow, just for a little while, Bucky drifts off, half-asleep, in the gray morning light. He wakes to the sound of Steve saying his name, over and over, a lament for which no other words exist.
Bucky blinks awake all at once. He catches Steve’s hand, which moves, listlessly, above the blankets. “Hey,” he says, his voice scratchy, rough. “Hey, kid.”
Steve looks exhausted, and smaller than Bucky’s ever seen him, but his eyes are once again clear, the feverish haze gone. “Hey,” he says back, just loud enough for Bucky to hear him.
He clasps Steve’s hand, not realizing what he’s doing. “How you feelin?”
Steve considers for a moment. “Like shit,” he says, and looks bemused when Bucky lets out a choked laugh and buries his face in his hands.
“What are you doing in my bed?” Steve asks when Bucky finally stops laughing, hiccupping.
“Looking after your skinny ass,” Bucky says, and puts one of his hands against Steve’s face again. He can’t help himself. He knows he’s crying and he can’t fucking stop, wishes Steve wouldn’t look at him like that, wishes Steve wouldn’t look at him at all.
“Well, be useful and get me some water, then,” Steve says. “And take a nap. You look like you got hit by a truck.”
“Feels like it,” Bucky says, and watches the way that affection looks on Steve’s face, the soft lines of his mouth and the corners of his eyes.
Bucky wears one of the new shirts that Natasha chose for him that night, and she beams at him from across the counter where she sits and eats her pad thai. Sam had showed up five minutes after the food did and collapsed on a stool and started eating anything within reach, which had included a few spoonfuls of curry from Bucky’s plate.
“Hey,” Bucky says, not very vigorously. “Get your own.”
“But it’s so much better when I have to work for it,” Sam says, and flashes Bucky a grin before stealing another bite.
For all of Sam’s brightness, there’s still an awkwardness to the scene: Steve hunched over his plate, Natasha sneaking glances at him from the corner of her eye, Bucky closing and opening the fingers of his left hand underneath the counter, over and over; Sam trying to lighten the mood and knowing he really can’t.
Bucky’s chest aches, suddenly and without warning. He pushes his plate away, gets to his feet.
“Sorry,” he says when the others look at him. Natasha and Sam just seem confused, but Bucky looks over at Steve, just once, and knows; Steve is fucking miserable.
“Tired,” Bucky says, because it’s something to say, and turns to leave.
Sam jumps to his feet. “Hey! You can’t go anywhere. I was just gonna ask what you thought about nicknames for the rest of the crew. This is a vital mission. Critical even.”
“Sam,” Steve says, and nothing else.
Natasha leans against the counter. “You try and give me a nickname, Sam, and you’re gonna wish you hadn’t.”
Bucky is still hovering, awkwardly, in the doorway. Sam’s effectively stopped his exit, but he doesn’t know how to rejoin the group at the counter. He looks at Steve, who is staring down at his plate, mixing his food around with his fork, and doesn’t move.
Sam pushes the empty stool towards Bucky with his foot. “C’mon, Sarge.”
Steve goes unnaturally still. Bucky, torn, slowly sits down. Steve doesn’t look at him.
Natasha makes a face. “I’m going to stick with James. If that’s okay with you.”
“’S fine,” Bucky says, looking down at the marble countertop.
“I’m still working on yours.” Sam is looking at Natasha intently. She looks right back, one eyebrow raised. “How ‘bout ‘gorgeous’?”
Natasha considers for a moment. “Unimaginative,” she decides, “if technically accurate.”
Sam grins at her, whiplash bright. “Okay, I’ll give you that one.” He frowns, still considering, and then his face lights up when he glances to Steve. “Captain Gorgeous!”
Bucky smothers a laugh with the back of his hand. When he looks up, Steve is watching him.
Natasha is smirking. Steve looks away from Bucky, as if he doesn’t want to. “What?” he demands of her. He’s trying not to blush, Bucky can tell, but there’s already a faint tinge of pink to his cheeks.
“’Specimen,’” Natasha says, wicked, her eyes bright.
Sam starts to laugh so hard that he nearly falls off his stool. Everyone stares at him. When he can manage to speak, he says, between choked laughs: “Gorgeous Specimen.”
Steve blushes bright red.
“Thanks,” he says, the color high in his cheeks, the tips of his ears; “thanks for having my back, Nat, real glad I can count on you.”
She smiles. Reaches out and pushes his hair back with the tips of her fingers. Looks at him, with deliberate tenderness, and says: “Take off your shirt, Rogers. I wanna see how far down that blush goes.”
Steve turns, if possible, even redder. Sam has to put his head on the counter, he’s shaking so hard with silent, uncontrollable laughter. Bucky, the back of his hand pressed to his mouth, his eyes wide, can only watch as Natasha’s smile turns wicked, as Sam’s shoulders shake, as Steve’s eyelashes feather the hollows of his eyes, his gaze downcast, the corners of his mouth pulling in opposite directions. He thinks: home, and hears old police sirens from seventy years ago, smells exhaust and smoke. The scent of Steve’s sheets, the lavender shampoo Natasha buys, lathered in Sam’s hair.
“Trust me,” Bucky says, before he even knows what he’s saying; “it goes all the way down.”
Natasha’s mouth drop opens. Sam makes a pained, choked noise and doesn’t resurface from where he has his face on the counter. Steve looks like he’s fallen from twenty stories, all the breath knocked from his lungs by force. Bucky flashes hot, then cold, and then he doesn’t feel anything at all.
His fingertips at the hem of Steve’s pants, slipping underneath, warm skin, hipbones. The slow slide of the small bones beneath the skin of Steve’s wrist, the side of his neck as he turns his face away. Cigarette smoke and clean bar soap. Dying sunlight at the edges of the world. Steve, small, his hips bracketed by Bucky’s hands; Steve, the same but not the person Bucky knows at all, the smell of gunpowder in his hair, blood streaked across his cheekbone, big enough to carry Bucky out of hell and pin him down against the ground when they’ve escaped it. Steve, those same bright blue eyes, finding Bucky’s, in this life and the next; Steve, Bucky’s name in his throat, in his mouth—
Tell me your—
three two five five seven eight nine one only that’s never what they wanted to hear; backhanded across the mouth; he spits blood on the floor, sees Steve’s face flash before his eyes, his mother’s, her disappointment: you’ll get yourself killed, is that what you want, James? Is that what you want?
—NAME AND RANK, SOLDIER, TELL ME YOUR NAME AND—
Only that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it? Death closes all: promises, storytelling, lies. Death is the angel who finds you in the darkness and leads you out of the labyrinth, red thread spooling between her fingers. Death is recompense for the sacrifices you’ve made for a cause you don’t believe in, because you’re only here for one person, one person alone, and when he shudders your name into the emptiness in your mouth you think: I will kill you with my hands and you’ll still say with your last breath that it’s not my fault.
He didn’t volunteer. He and Steve never talked about it but it was there between them in all the ways they didn’t ever say it by name. Steve went to recruitment center after recruitment center and got turned away each and every time, crumpled paperwork in the tight spiral of his fists, his eyes dark, and Bucky would take him home and get him drunk and wake up in the morning staring up at the ceiling as the sun climbed the walls and he still wouldn’t volunteer. They would take him right away; they would recognize the brutality hidden behind his charming smiles, this senseless veneer of civility that doesn’t mean anything; they’d take him right away and strip him down and all that’s left would be the animal, the hunger, all of them starving and none of them able to look it in the eyes. He didn’t volunteer and they got him in the end anyway, more eager to draft a man who didn’t want to fight for his country than give Steve Rogers a chance, because Steve Rogers believes in the things other people only pretend to care about, that high-minded nobility, this we’ll defend.
“I don’t care what they do to me,” Steve had said, half-whispers in the dark, and Bucky hasn’t ever felt this much fear before, hadn’t know this much fear was possible; “they can do whatever they want to me, and I’ll bear it.” Because it never mattered what was done to him. The injustices to others, the terrible insidious unfairness of life, and Steve Rogers with his feet planted in front of it and glaring it down like a mouse staring into the mouth of a tiger.
Bucky didn’t volunteer but you don’t have to volunteer to be good at picking up a gun, finger against the trigger, the cause-and-effect reaction of gun-bullet-trigger-recoil-impact-death, three two five five eight nine one, that other soldier bleeding out in the dirt with his service number on his lips, staring up at the gray-ash sky. The only thing James Barnes ever volunteered to do was die for Steve Rogers, and even that he wasn’t allowed to keep. The one good thing he ever did and then they pumped adrenaline into his veins, jump-started his heart, click thud BANG, the electric pulse of the synapses in his brain coming back to life, pain pain pain pain PAIN where’s Steve oh God where’s Steve this wasn’t supposed to happen he lives he always lives he has to live I’ll die before I watch him die and they put a hand over his mouth, shut him up, drug him, Jesus Christ I can’t listen to this shit right now; the saw through the ragged ends of bone in his arm, making them smooth, metal, ink, blood—where’s Steve you motherfuckers you tell me where he is before I tear this whole place apart—
(This is my choice)
—I WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE—
Is that what you want, James?—Is that what you want, James?—Is that what you want, James?—
You don’t have to do this, Bucky—
The plunge of a syringe. Silence. Darkness closing in and the movement of the walls, expanding, the swell of his ribs. He reaches out for Steve’s hand and Steve can’t grab hold. He’s falling. He’s thinking, finally, and everything is gone.
He wakes up. There it is, the one constant in his life, which is that it will never stop, not even when he wants it to. He wakes up. And wakes up. And wakes up. And—
“—James. James, get up.”
Natasha’s hand on his shoulder. He starts awake and then his back is pressed against the wall, his flesh hand outspread, his other hand reaching for a knife.
“What is wrong,” he says, because he can hear it in her voice; she’s good at hiding but not from him, not so much, not anymore.
“Steve just called in,” she says. Behind her, Sam is dressing, silent, grim. He just got his new wings, the first ones since Bucky tore through the others like tissue paper and pulled him to the ground. He has his pistol on his hip, the steel in his spine, his wings strapped around his shoulders. “He needs backup. Sam and I are—”
“I’m going,” Bucky says. Movements in the dark. He closes his hand around the hilt of the knife and thinks, yes, he is good at it. He never wanted to be, knew he would be, but now he is and he might as well use it for something that doesn’t fill his lungs with poison.
“Where did he go by himself?” Sam asks. He sounds angry, bitter. “He fucking knows—I fucking told him not to do this—”
“He’s close,” Natasha says.
Sam snorts. “He’s gonna get himself killed.”
(Is that what you want, James—)
Nat shrugs, stands. “Let’s just go get him,” she says, and they go.
Natasha explains the details while she drives. It’s dark, deep early morning, and the headlights slice the road into pieces in front of them. Sam is curled towards the window, silent, angry, and Bucky is in the back, leaning forward, trying to hear Natasha’s voice over the rushing noise in his ears.
“He found a splinter group,” she says, low voice, the quiet noise of the engine and the road underneath them. “A Hydra cell inside S.H.I.E.L.D. that went rogue before we exposed S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets. They’re still fully operational.”
“Where?” Bucky’s voice is rough.
“Not far. Tiny little deadbeat town. Cold River.”
Bucky knows the place. Cold white light, lightning behind his eyes. Loud. Stop don’t please pain—
“That is—” He clears his throat. “Not just a splinter group.”
Natasha’s hands tighten around the steering wheel. The speedometer pushes past ninety. “That is becoming very clear.”
“He always does this,” Sam says, suddenly. “Just—jumps, and doesn’t tell anyone first—”
“He trusts you,” Natasha says, gently.
Sam turns his face to the window. “Yeah,” he says, sad, bitter; “but I don’t trust me.”
Natasha chances a look at him, once, then looks back to the road. “We’re almost there,” she says, quietly, and then she rounds a turn, and slams on the brakes so hard that Bucky almost goes flying into the front of the car, through the windshield.
“Nat!” Sam is shouting, reaching out for her, but she’s spinning the wheel and the car skids on the road, the tires screaming, the assaulting smell of burning rubber. Bucky can’t breathe, can hardly see, the car’s momentum too strong and the brakes squealing as the car runs off the road and into the trees, the dark of the woods, and shudders to a terrible stop, smoke still rising from the wheels, the engine.
Blood trickles down Natasha’s nose, onto her mouth. Her eyes are fluttering, and Sam reaches for her, makes contact, turns her to face him. “Nat, talk to me—”
“Steve,” she says, weakly, but gaining strength. Bucky’s ears are ringing, and he can taste blood in his throat from where he bit his tongue in the crash. He reaches down to unlock his seatbelt, trembling fingers, the cold touch of metal on metal. Sam glances back at him, sees he’s all right, and something changes in his face, a subtle shift, not quite relief; Bucky can’t imagine why anyone would see him and think, thank God.
“I know, I know about Steve,” Sam says to Natasha, “but first I’m gonna make sure you’re okay, Nat, come on—”
She swats at Sam’s hands, suddenly, angry. “I’m fine, you asshole, you think I can’t survive a car crash, I’m fine, the road, did you see in the road, did you see—”
Sam is unbuckling his seat belt and reaching for Natasha’s. “Can you walk, Sarge?”
Bucky nods, but Sam isn’t looking.
“The road!” Natasha says, shouting now. “Fuck you guys, fuck, James, please, the road, go, just go—”
Bucky does, as if by instinct, too used to taking orders, or maybe it’s the panic in Natasha’s voice, that wild edge he’s never heard there before. He tries to open the door but it’s jammed against a tree trunk, immovable, so he goes to the other one, pushes it open through the thick underbrush. The woods are silent: no sounds of movement, no wildlife, no wind in the trees. There are only the cold stars and the dark green leaves of trees blotting out their light, motionless. The faint, reedy ding...ding...ding of the open door alarm as Sam tries to get out on the other side.
The road is farther away than Bucky expected. He stumbles towards it, his ears still ringing, one hand on the hilt of his knife. He reaches cold pavement, struggles up the embankment to it. The whispering of the crescent moon. Without the headlights of the car, it’s hard to see—just shadows and a shape Bucky doesn’t recognize in the middle of the road: what Natasha swerved to avoid.
Bucky approaches the shape, cautiously. In the darkness, he can hear something breathing: shuddering, pained breaths, inhaled through gritted teeth.
He steps in something wet. Falls to his knees. Is this what you wanted, Steve, he thinks, and turns the body over.
There’s blood on Steve’s mouth, staining his teeth black-red; that much Bucky can make out through the darkness. He sees, out of the corner of his eyes, the headlights of the car, flickering and dying, the flashlights that Sam and Natasha turn on as they pick their way through the underbrush towards the two of them, the two beams of white light sliding through the dark, catching on the trees.
“No,” Bucky says, without realizing he’s saying it, “no, no, no no no—”
Steve catches him by the wrist, his grip strong, surprisingly so. Leaves bloody smears across the metal. “Stupid,” he says, just loud enough to be heard. “Sorry.”
“What happened,” Bucky asks, “what happened, God, Steve, where are you hurt, where do I—?” Where do I put pressure on the wound, where do I reach in and squeeze your heart back to life, where do I stop the bleeding?
“Fine.” Gritted teeth. “Just. Weak. You guys can finish them—what’s left of them—some tried to follow me out but I took care of them—if you go now when they’re still scrambling—”
“Shut up,” Bucky says; “shut up, Steve, shut the fuck up.” He’s dizzy. The wet-metal smell of blood, like rain on steel. He’s falling again. He’s thinking, please, not like this. He’s touching Steve’s face with ungentle fingertips, feeling bone.
Natasha staggers over to them. The bright sweep of the flashlight. Bucky sees a flash of Steve’s face, pale, the red line of his mouth, the blood on the ground, then darkness. Then the flashlight steadies.
“Jesus, Steve,” Natasha says. She drops to her knees beside the two of them. Sam doesn’t say anything, just looks down at Steve, the beam of his flashlight unsteady.
Natasha examines Steve quickly, efficiently, her hands moving with practiced, memorized motions. Bucky watches her hands and is glad that she’s here. Bucky watches her hands and tries not to think.
“Lost a good amount of blood,” Natasha says, grimly. “But it looks like the bleeding’s slowed. Bullet wound to the torso, didn’t hit anything vital. You’re a lucky bastard, Rogers.”
“That’s what they tell me,” Steve says. Blood in his mouth.
“We’re gonna get you out of here,” Natasha says. She gestures to Sam, who crouches as if to lift Steve, but Steve holds up his hand.
“No. Finish the mission.”
“What fucking mission, Steve,” Sam says, red-hot angry, but Steve doesn’t listen.
“We can root them out. You can. They’re scattered—blew my cover but I managed to get a few of them, I think—we can finish it—”
“No,” Natasha says. “No way, Steve.”
“Go,” Steve says. “These guys, they—I saw what they did—the things they were doing—” He shudders under Bucky’s hands, a long slow slide. “Just fucking finish it. I’ll be fine.” Self-deprecating smile. “That super-serum healing, you know.”
Sam looks like he wants to throw up. But Natasha, looking down at her hands, covered in Steve’s blood, is getting slowly to her feet.
“Nat,” Sam says, weakly, and she shakes her head.
“He’s stable,” she says. “Stable enough. He’s right.”
“What the fuck,” Sam says, but Natasha isn’t looking at him.
“I need you,” she says. “You’re gonna be my air support. Okay? Can you do this, Sam?”
He looks back at her, steadily. He doesn’t say anything.
“I trust you,” she says, quietly, almost a whisper, and Sam closes his eyes.
“God help me,” he says. “God fucking help me,” and he looks down at Bucky.
“Stay here with him,” he says. “Nat and I will—we’ll take care of it.”
Natasha nods, sharply. Bucky, who wouldn’t leave Steve even if they asked him to, couldn’t, just nods back.
Sam holds out his arms to Natasha, and she steps in close. The Falcon unfurls its wings, and then the two of them are gone, a flutter of wings beating against the air, blotting out the stars.
In the silence that follows, Bucky sits by Steve’s side. Steve’s head in his lap. Steve’s blood cooling on the ground around him. Steve doesn’t say anything, his eyes closed. Bucky holds his fingers against the pulse in Steve’s neck, doesn’t pull away. Counts heartbeats in the silence. 32-557-891. In Zola’s laboratory, he dreamed about Steve. When he opened his eyes and saw Steve standing over him, he’d thought he was still asleep, and that it was a good dream, and that maybe this time he wouldn’t wake up.
“They kept me here,” he says, softly, into the quiet. Steve doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. The warm beating of his pulse beneath Bucky’s fingers. The blood at the corners of his mouth, the slow movement of his chest. “Cold River. Not all the time, not for very long. Before they last woke me up. Before they sent me to kill you.”
And Steve breathes out: long slow breath, the clear light of the stars, Bucky bent over him like the broken walls of a cathedral. “I know.”
He has a sister: someone Steve has never met. His parents sent her away, packed her up and off to boarding school where she’d be safer, where Bucky never got to see her. He remembers her as she last was: nine years old to his eleven, round brown eyes, the serious set to her mouth. He used to come up with all these ways to make her laugh, and he was the only one who could ever do it. Waving as the train took her away. Then his parents die, and he is lost in the shuffle, and there is nothing left to connect him to Rebecca Barnes in anything but memory, even as he lies awake wondering where she lives.
He keeps a fund—keeps a bunch of funds, actually, a few coins in jars on the sill of his window, money he scrapes together and clasps his hands over, thinking, someday. A fund for a proper apartment; one for Steve’s medications, always running dangerously low even though he keeps tossing coins in; one for emergencies, that he never manages to scrape much together for; one for Rebecca, and finding her again.
“What’s that one?” Steve asks, pointing at the last jar on the sill, a few dollars of wealth in nickels inside it.
Bucky flips a dime and Steve catches it; places it in the jar. “Family,” he says, and leaves it at that.
He wakes up decades later and wakes up again. Looks through old files, searching for a name: just one name. He finds her, after a long time searching. Rebecca Jones, née Barnes. Orphan. Brother James Buchanan, missing in action overseas. They found her somehow, gave her a letter about his probable but unconfirmed death. She died in 1971. Brain cancer.
In 1971 Bucky woke up and assassinated four people, one after the other, bullet between the eyes for all of them, and then they put him back to sleep for another three years. He didn’t even know. Shouldn’t he have felt it, then? Shouldn’t he have felt her die?
He doesn’t feel it. He lets them put the rubber between his teeth, lets the ice freeze him over, lets the world keep on moving past him as he stands still in the center of it, deals death with his outstretched left hand but never lets it touch him.
Howling. Agony. Someone won’t stop screaming. He’s sure it isn’t him; his voice never sounded like that, brittle, like the screeching wrong notes of a violin scratched with a broken bow. Shut them up, he thinks, shut them the fuck up, what are they doing, shut up, god, shut up—
Someone stuffs a rag in his open, yawing mouth. He shuts up.
Writhing. His left arm hurts, throbs all down the whole length of it, each of his fingers a spiral of agony. His arm aches all the way down to the bone. He doesn’t look at it because he knows it’s not there anymore. His head rolls back, exposing the delicate places of his throat; even now he knows the best ways to kill a person there, how to make the knife feel good. They don’t have to program that into him.
They can’t break him. He holds onto this, spitefully, smiling with blood on his teeth; they can’t break him, but they try. He holds on too tight: has a vice grip around the person he is, James Barnes, Bucky, just a little kid from Brooklyn who got drafted into a war that was too big for him. 32-557-891. He hears Steve saying his name. He hears Steve saying his name, and he holds on.
They can’t break him because he’s still a kid with blood on his knees, broken knuckles, holding the door open for Steve before running through behind him, laughing wildly as they sprint away from the kids who tried to shove Steve face first into a dumpster and doubled over when Bucky snuck up behind them and kicked them between the legs. They can’t break him because he’s still sitting hunched over Steve’s bed while he shivers with fever, holding his vigil all through the night-tide. They can’t break him because he’s still holding a rifle on anyone who gets to close to the red-white-blue of Steve’s shield. They can’t break him because he’s still following that dumbass kid from Brooklyn, big heart, blue eyes, the gentlest mouth you ever seen, who laughs at all Bucky’s shitty jokes and puts his cold feet on the back of Bucky’s ankles at night when they’re huddled for sleep and merely smiles, slow, when Bucky steals a pack of cigarettes and hunches against the wall, sucking in a smoky breath, hiding affection behind his teeth. They can’t break him because they don’t have Steve; he’s out there, still fighting, and whether he comes for Bucky or not—(the thought short-circuits something in his head, draws him up short; Steve always comes for him but this is farther lost than he’s ever gone before; he doesn’t want Steve here, doesn’t want Steve to have to see this, God please no, please, just be safe, Steve, live)—Steve’s alive and that’s enough; that’s all that Bucky has ever needed.
He’s left in solitude for God knows how long. Days, maybe. He can’t tell. Shadows climb the wall. And then someone opens the door. Yanks the gag out of his mouth. Slams a newspaper onto the floor in front of him.
“Read,” the person spits out, and waits.
CAPTAIN AMERICA, the headline reads, tall black letters, shouting its sincerity and its truth at him; LOST IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC. THOUSANDS SAVED.
And, in smaller letters, below: THE LOSS OF A BELOVED NATIONAL ICON, A NATION’S GRIEF.
“No,” Bucky says, his voice hoarse, his throat parched, burning with thirst. He’s dehydrated, exhausted; his entire body hurts and he can barely breathe and yet tears come to his eyes, all at once, hot, terrible. “No, no, you motherfucker, this isn’t real, you fucking—you made this up, it’s not real, it’s not fucking real—”
He’s shaking all over. They don’t have to bind his hands because he only has the one, curled up to his chest, useless, but he’s chained to the wall at his ankles; surges to his feet and nearly falls when the chains pull him back, yank him down.
“YOU MOTHERFUCKERS,” he screams, his voice awash with it, the agony of his failure, no, please, not Steve, I would do anything I’d do fucking anything I’d die for him I’d die rather than this please I would die—
(Is that what you want, James?)
“You did this to him,” he shouts, struggling against his captor, who holds him down now, pins him to the floor while booted feet tramp into the room. Someone’s holding a syringe, flash of metal in the shitty lighting. “He never fucking would have done this if you didn’t make him, if you just let him live in peace.”
He can’t breathe, he’s choking on it. A NATION’S GRIEF, no mention of the ones who really loved him, of Peggy, of the Commandos. Of anyone who ever looked at Steve Rogers and saw the person he really was, the shining light. Bucky claws at his face with his one hand, tears at his hair. He was better than any of them, than all of them, than Bucky, here, who tried to die for him and got snatched out of the jaws of death, brought back for what, for nothing, not even to watch as Steve ploughed into the Atlantic ice and stopped breathing, the last thud of his heart, thud click bang bang BANG—he’s here and Steve’s not here and there’s nothing left to hold onto because all he’s ever held onto is dead under a hundred pounds of ice water in the sea—
“He’s not dead, he’s not dead, he’s not fucking dead you lying son of a bitch—”
“Who the fuck took his gag out,” someone’s saying. “It was there for a pretty fucking obvious reason.”
Steve Rogers is dead but he can’t be dead; he can’t be dead because Bucky would have felt it, knows with his whole heart that he would have, would have felt the loss like a bullet wound to the stomach, life-destroying, would have watched as his blood spilled out between his fingers in this life or the next—would have known, beyond a doubt, that Steve was gone and that there was nothing else left. Steve can’t be dead, because Bucky would have felt him die.
“I’d have felt it,” he says, his voice completely ragged, destroyed by his solitude and his struggling. Someone steps on his right arm, holds him down. He lets them, the fight going out of him all at once. He lies motionless beneath the army boot, beneath the hands touching his neck, the crook of his elbow, scarred and marked by needle injections now; they haven’t been gentle. “I’d have felt it,” he says, tears sliding down past his temples, into his hair, but he can, in this moment, feel it: Steve is gone, and there’s nothing left to hold.
Natasha and Sam return at dawn, walking down the long stretch of road in the wilderness, alone, still silent. Bucky is bent over Steve, his hands on either side of his face, his eyes closed. The bleeding has stopped, and Steve’s breathing is even, steady: he’s not asleep but drifting through unconsciousness. He’s going to be all right—Bucky knows this, but even knowing that can’t make the fear fade from his chest, where it’s lodged between his ribs like the blade of a knife.
Footsteps. Steve opens his eyes, blearily.
“Did you get them?” he asks.
Sam looks grim, tired. Natasha is streaked with dirt and ash.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “We got ‘em.”
Natasha says, “Let’s go home.”
Bucky? the man on the bridge says, staring at the Winter Soldier, wide eyes, pink mouth.
The flash of a headline: CAPTAIN AMERICA, LOST IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC.
Reboot. Click whirr thud. That is not the mission.
The fight has gone out of the man’s eyes, his spine. His hands at his side, hollow, empty motionless. He keeps staring, blue-eyed, like—
(a hundred pounds of ice water in the sea crushing the air out of his lungs)
—You’re my friend—
But (Steve Rogers?) is dead, dead and gone and all that’s left is the winter’s chill, in his bones, in the metal of his arm, in the dark under his eyes, dead and that is not the mission, the mission above all else, the mission is ONLY. He is the mission. He is nothing else.
The man on the bridge falls like any other person. The tug of gravity, the inevitability of time. It slows and starts but it always marches forward, forward, on. He’s falling and the fire on the water doesn’t go out, burns on, indomitable. He’s falling, and the Winter Soldier watches him fall and thinks, suddenly, white-hot, like a brand on the forefront of his thoughts: I didn’t feel him die.
Steve spends the next few days sleeping, bedridden. Nat, Sam, and Bucky take quiet, unspoken shifts watching over him. Steve always tries to chase them out of the room when he’s awake, and sometimes they go; mostly they don’t. Natasha holds his hand, hums a song that Bucky doesn’t recognize—not that that means much—under her breath, sweet music. Sam reads, the quiet undertone of his voice. Bucky sits in the chair by Steve’s bed as if chained to it, his feet drawn up beneath him, unable to reach out, make contact, touch skin. He remembers sleeping dreamlessly in Steve’s bed while the others were gone. He remembers waking up in their tiny Brooklyn apartment, the sound of Steve, the consummate early riser, moving about in the cramped kitchen. He remembers lightning shoved into his mouth, behind his teeth, numbing him down, ice on an exposed nerve until he closes his eyes and doesn’t remember anything.
When everything’s been stripped from you, how do you know what’s real? How can you decipher which memories happened, which didn’t, which you dreamed about but never touched in reality?
It’s not fair, he thinks, petulant, like a child. But the world doesn’t care about fair. The world doesn’t care about justice, or making things right, or love, friendship. The line of the world, its arc of history, is long, and all it cares about is the forward motion: one step, keep crawling, mind the dirt on your hands and knees.
Steve’s chest is bare, bandages over the bullet wound on his lower torso. His skin is smooth and mostly unscarred, save for the old bullet holes in his stomach, one two three four. Scarred over, white, soft edges and hard centers. Bucky remembers holding the gun that put those wounds there. He remembers firing, once, twice, again, again. Steve struggling to stand, blood dripping between his hands, still fighting because Steve is always fighting; a scrappy, wild-eyed kid from Brooklyn to his core, doesn’t give up even when there’s a bullet between his teeth. Bucky remembers thinking, this bastard is hard to kill even as his brain questioned but I knew him? over and over, but I knew him, but I knew him, but I knew—
Bucky is scarred all over, torn up, sewn back together, bruised and stitched and broken skin. Steve has his marks, his impact craters, but nothing like the ones Bucky put there. It doesn’t help to think that he could have aimed at Steve’s head and didn’t. It doesn’t help to think that he was almost in control but still pulled the trigger that tore bullet holes through Steve’s stomach. That doesn’t help at all.
Bucky bends his head, presses his forehead against the mattress. He can feel his heart, pounding, pounding, his head aching. He reaches, with unsteady fingertips, and clings to the edge of the sheets. Just holds on, for a quiet, trembling moment.
Sorry, he wants to say, filled up with it, consumed. Sorry for still being alive and not being the person you wanted to come back. I’m sorry. I couldn’t get them to kill me, but I tried for the longest time.
Natasha is in the kitchen when Bucky brings himself to leave Steve’s side. She’s sipping from a mug of tea, the steam rising in tendrils around her face, her nose and cheeks flushed from the heat. She sees Bucky enter and reaches out to pour him a cup, pushes it towards him across the counter. Bucky takes it, wraps his hands around the warm porcelain, takes a seat at the counter and tries not to think too much, too hard.
Natasha doesn’t say anything for a long time. She looks tired, her short hair sideswept, messy. She closes and opens her eyes, slowly, and then sighs.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Me?” Bucky blinks at her, raises the mug to his lips. Chamomile. No sugar, cream. The way he and Nat like it best.
“Yes, you,” Natasha says, gently. “Dumbass.”
Bucky considers. Looks down at his tea, the warm gold brown color of it, a heat that seeps through the bones of his hand and warms him through. “I’m,” he says, slowly, considering; why would she ask him, why him, with Steve lying with bullet holes in his stomach a room away; “holding on.”
The look on her face turns tender. “Aren’t we all.”
“It would be better,” Bucky says, suddenly, because he’s been thinking it, and he can’t keep it within any more, “if I weren’t here. For all of you. Safer.”
Natasha sips her tea. “I’ll grant you safer. But better? Not likely.”
He looks down at the countertop, bearing the weight of her gaze but unable to return it. “I don’t belong here.”
She slams her mug down on the counter, hard enough to shatter if she cared to. “Don’t say that,” she says, fiercely. “If you don’t belong here, then I don’t belong here. If we don’t belong here, then neither do Sam and Steve. We belong here, James. We all belong here.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Bucky says, “and you know it.”
“Isn’t it?” Her eyes are bright, her mouth a serious line. “We love you. Don’t you dare try and tell us how to feel about you. Our affections are our own, and I give mine to who I choose.” She smiles, a little grimly. “Whether he wants me to or not.”
“I don’t deserve you,” Bucky says, quietly.
“Who the fuck cares?” Natasha asks. “Who deserves anyone? The universe doesn’t care about deserving, and I don’t care about the universe.”
She reaches out one hand, empty, palm up, fingers spread. “Stay,” she says, her voice softer now. “We need you. And so does Steve, whether you believe me or not.”
Bucky stares at her hand: slender fingers, the lines on her palm. Outstretched, weaponless, a gesture overwhelming in its simplicity, unassuming. He swallows. Sets down his mug of tea. Reaches out, slowly, across the space between them, and laces his fingers with hers, watches her smile widen and her thumb trace the line of his palm.
Sam comes home some time later, his arms laden with groceries and medical kits, to find Bucky still sitting at the kitchen counter, looking down at his empty mug of tea.
“Hey,” Sam says. “How is he?”
“Good,” Bucky says. He looks at the bags in Sam’s hands. “You went to the store without me.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Sam nudges a cabinet open with his foot and starts putting groceries inside, haphazardly. Steve usually rearranges them later. Bucky feels a pain in his chest. “You were sleeping. Head by Steve’s hand and everything. I didn’t want to wake you up.”
Bucky doesn’t remember falling asleep at Steve’s side, but supposes it must have happened, somehow. He’s not used to this: the casual affection in Sam’s voice, and the care apparent in what he says: you were sleeping. I didn’t want to wake you. Like it matters to him that Bucky sleeps. That Bucky doesn’t dream.
Bucky watches as Sam puts away the groceries, lays the bandages and other medical supplies he’s bought out on the counter and starts to inventory them, carefully, arranging a stockpile. It’s a dangerous life, this life they lead; but it’s less dangerous when they’re together.
“Thank you,” Bucky says, finally, after a long moment’s silence.
Sam looks up, startled. Warm brown eyes, the tug of his mouth. “For what?”
Bucky wets his lips. It’s hard to think. “Caring,” he says, quietly.
Sam, bemused, but gentle. “Sure thing, Sarge,” he says. “Anything for you.”
Steve heals quickly, out of bed in a handful of days, returned to near-full mobility within the week. He falls back into his usual pattern: a few days spent at the apartment, more spent away. Natasha and Sam stay close, and Bucky can tell: they want him to talk to Steve. He still doesn’t know what to say. It’s been a long time—since before Hydra, before the draft, before the war. He has bits and pieces of his life, snippets of memory stitched together, and he can see the secrets he was keeping even then, the lies he told, the truths he held in the spaces between his ribs. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s starting to; like broken collarbones, noses, everything sets given enough time.
He is alone in the apartment, and it’s raining; a warm, mid-spring rain that washes through the night, making everything green and new. The thunder in the distance a faint rumble, like the shifting movement of the earth given voice. Bucky waits for Steve to come home and listens to the rain against the glass, patter-pat.
The front door unlocks, opens, swings shut, locks again. Footsteps in the kitchen. Stray raindrops splattering on the floor. Steve takes off his jacket, slings it over the back of a chair, moves quietly into the next room where Bucky is sitting, looking at his hands.
“Bucky.” Steve is startled, his motions shifting. “I didn’t know you were here.”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
Steve swallows. His tongue darts out to wet the corner of his mouth. “Okay,” he says, and sits down, because of course he does. Of course.
“I’ve been—” Bucky hesitates. “Remembering. Pieces. Not everything. It’s confused. Still doesn’t make sense.”
Steve nods. “Well, you need to give it time—”
Bucky cuts him short with a quick motion of his hand. “No,” he says. “That’s not what I wanted to—listen,” he says, desperately now, not sure how to make himself heard. “You wouldn’t lie to me, right? About—us? You’d tell me the truth?”
“Of course I would, Bucky,” Steve says. He looks uncomfortable, a cornered animal with his back to the wall. Bucky has never felt so far away from him—not even when they stood on opposite ends of a bridge, staring at each other’s eyes, and neither of them recognized the person they saw standing before them.
Bucky’s heart feels like a staccato war drum in his chest, thudding so loud the neighbors must hear it through the walls. “You avoid me,” he says, his voice unsteady. “You don’t—Sam and Natasha, they stay. You always leave.”
Steve swallows. The slide of his throat, the hollow between his collarbones. “I didn’t want to—pressure you,” he says, not meeting Bucky’s gaze. “If you wanted to be around me, I—I wanted that to be your choice. I wanted you to know me again on your terms.”
Bucky almost laughs, half-panicking, unsteady. “You fucking asshole,” he says, and relishes the way Steve’s eyes widen, shocked. “You—I can’t believe you—after everything—” He trails off. Thinks about Steve, thinks about loss, thinks about war, thinks about how things change and how they don’t; constants and the variables in between. He’s always holding out his hands towards Steve and never reaching him. He’s always falling, and Steve is always forced to watch.
“You tell me,” he says, in earnest now. “You tell me if this is real, if any of it was real, if you and I—” But he can’t speak. Words fail him. He leans towards Steve, leaning in, trying to get close and never quite reaching him, the vast expanse of eternity between them like stars.
“You tell me the truth, Steve,” he says. Steve’s name a prayer in his throat, between his lips. And then he puts his hands on either side of Steve’s face, looks in his eyes, leans in, and kisses him, right on his open mouth.
This is what Bucky remembers.
Steve, wrapped up in Bucky’s too-big jacket, the sleeves going past his elbows and the cold making his face ruddy as they walk through the snow, side-by-side, Steve’s shoulder bumping against Bucky’s side. Bucky’s hands shoved deep in his pockets, his breath coming in short, white bursts. You’ll freeze, Steve says. Hey, Bucky says back. I’m good. The cold doesn’t hurt me. Just don’t sniffle all over my jacket.
Steve, a light in the darkness, the only thing Bucky can see, his true north. They’re in hell and hell is cold, snow past the edges of their army boots, Steve no longer in Bucky’s jacket, no longer a victim to the chill. Bucky feels slowed, coagulated, like syrup in the winter. One foot after the other, following Steve across battlefields, across enemy lines, across decades.
Steve, while Bucky falls, and Steve’s hand closes on empty air, on nothing, and the unwritten sounds in his open mouth, the wind taking away the noise before Bucky can hear it. He grows smaller, turns towards the train, hides his face, then smaller still, until Bucky can’t see him at all.
Steve, the curve of his spine, arching up to meet Bucky’s touch; his fingertips framing Bucky’s face, the line of his jaw, where his neck meets his ears, pressure points.
Steve, curled up against him like a closed parenthesis, his eyes shut, shifting beneath his eyelids, the curve of his mouth in sleep. Bucky reaches out and slips his arm over Steve’s waist, pulls him close, buries his face against the softness of Steve’s hair, breathing him in.
This is what he remembers. This is, he thinks, what is.
Steve brings his hands up, all at once, surging, and puts them on Bucky’s shoulders, whether to push him away or draw him close Bucky doesn’t know, because then Steve stills, and he kisses Bucky back. Slow, sweetly, then desperately, and his fingers dig into Bucky’s shoulders, meet skin and bone and steel, and Bucky pulls him close, feels the warmth of his hands, his skin, holds on as tightly as he can, because he can’t let go.
Steve pulls away after a moment. Bucky still framing his face with his hands, looking at him, looking down at him, taking him in, all the small details, the things he’s forgotten in his decades in the ice, that long dark night with no moon. Steve isn’t shaking, but he’s not steady, either, a waver to his movements, his eyes.
“I didn’t think,” Steve says, and stops. Sweeps his thumb across the line of Bucky’s jaw, presses the pad of his thumb to Bucky’s lower lip and pulls away. “I didn’t think you remembered.”
“I didn’t think it was real,” Bucky says, but now he does; now he knows. He’d die for Steve a hundred times, and come back from the dead for him a hundred more.
“I missed you.” Steve touches the ends of Bucky’s hair, smoothes it back from his eyes. “Just kept missing you, like—like nothing would ever be the same. Like I went to war and never got to come back. Like I never came back home.”
“Come home, then,” Bucky says, and Steve’s mouth opens; he breathes in—“come home, Steve,” take me home.