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Wrestle Me Free, Clean From The War

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Falling isn't as scary as it looks. It almost feels like floating in water would, that same sensation of being suspended, but everything around you is moving too. It's stagnant, like time has slowed to a crawl. It's quiet, too. Surreal. It's not scary . Not even the promise of death waiting below, snapping its jaws at you.

Steve remembers the wind rushing around him as he fell. Remembers the distant screech of metal bending and breaking in ways that metal should never bend and break. He remembers the fiery heat exploding around him, sending debris hurtling in every direction. Most importantly, though, he remembers the wild look on the face of a man he never thought he'd see again. Remembers the way it grew smaller and smaller the further he fell.

The last thing he remembers before he hits the water is wondering if this was how Bucky felt when he fell.

And then he lets the water consume him.

 

Steve doesn't expect to wake up. He doesn't expect to get to cheat death twice. But here he is.

He comes to with a gargling choke, warm water gushing from his lips as it leaves his lungs and makes room for the air being gasped in. He sits up with a startled jerk, only to have a searing, ripping pain tear through him. His abdomen, his thigh, his shoulder. It's so strong it blurs his vision, leaves his head swimming, and twists his stomach, making him squeeze his eyes shut. The skin around his right one throbs, and the cut near the left corner of his mouth reopens as he grimaces, sending fresh waves of pain crashing over him. He's helpless to do much else than let them pull him back under, just like the Potomac.

 

The next time Steve’s consciousness returns to him, he’s awake long enough to get a glimpse of his surroundings and start to question things. Like where the hell is he? How the hell did he get here? Who the hell brought him here? He’s almost certain it wasn’t Fury or Hill or Natasha or Sam. They wouldn’t leave him alone in a place like this. Not if he was in dire need of medical attention, ike he still is. Not unless they had no other choice.

The room he’s in is small and sparsely furnished. In fact, the only piece of “furniture” there is is the bare mattress he’s lying on. It sits against the ground, hard and yellowed and torn in a few places with springs and the stuffing leaking out. The walls are cement; colorless and windowless. A single doorway stands at the opposite end of the room, but the door itself is missing, the hinges bent at odd angles, suggesting it was torn off. All Steve can see beyond the frame is darkness. It’s cold, too, which makes Steve think that perhaps he’s someplace underground.

From the looks of it, there’s no way this place is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s— or what was once S.H.I.E.L.D. anyway. It’s too old and too dilapidated, for starters. Steve knows a S.H.I.E.L.D. safehouse when he sees one. He’s been in enough of them in his time. Not to mention, this room reminds him too much of a prison cell. A cage to keep their pets.

Steve strains his ears, trying to pick up any sign of company, but all he’s met with is an eerie, static silence. He wonders if he’s all alone. If whoever decided his ass was worth saving changed their mind. Or meant to leave him like this.

Figuring his best bet at finding out where he is lies beyond the door frame, Steve tries to stand. He only manages to lift himself up a few inches before a sharp throbbing slices through his midsection, pulling a wounded noise from him. He staggers back on shaky legs, an arm coming up to clutch at his abdomen, and his back slams into the wall before his legs buckle and he sinks down to the mattress again.

One glance down at the front of his uniform has him noticing things he hadn’t been aware of when he first came to. The front is torn almost completely in half. A neat, straight line, as though it were cut rather than ripped, stretching from his sternum all the way to just below his navel. The fabric is stained a deep red from his blood, marring the once bright, patriotic colors. But the most jarring part is the little corner of white that catches Steve’s eyes, hidden just behind the flaps of fabric. It’s bright, too stark against the mess of the rest of his uniform.

Curiosity and confusion alike furrow Steve’s brow, and he reaches for the patch of white, pushing the fabric out of the way. His breathing is labored from the pain, and when he runs his fingers across it, across the bandage he realizes, all the air is knocked from his lungs. He hisses, gritting his teeth at the spike of pain his barely-there touch sets off, and that familiar coppery taste of blood hits his lips as the wound in his cheek reopens yet again.

“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” a deep, stony voice calls out.

Steve’s head jerks up, a twinge going through his shoulder, and his eyes dart straight for the doorway. There’s nothing around him he can use as a weapon if it comes to that, save for his own two fists, and he raises them slightly, guard up.

Bucky steps out from the shadows, his footsteps noiseless despite the heavy boots on his feet. Aside from that moment on the bridge, it’s the first time Steve is able to really get a good look at him.

He looks worse for wear. His hair is stringy and matted to his forehead and cheeks, sections of it are dried while other parts are still dripping. Blood streaks down his face from a cut on his right temple, the skin angry and raised around it, and there’s another cut near his jaw and one high on his cheekbone. His eyes are cold as he stares at Steve, but they lack that dangerous glint they had that day on the bridge.

Bucky looks utterly tired too. Like he would give nothing more to lie down and rest for just a little bit. Steve can’t say he blames him. It’s been a rough couple of days— rough couple of decades for him.

There’s something clutched in the palm of Bucky’s metal hand, but the way he’s holding it partially obstructs it from view. Steve can’t make out what it is, and he feels what little comfortability he’d allowed himself to slip into snap away, setting him on edge even more. His muscles are tense, coiled tightly like a spring, ready to jump into action if need be. It hurts, straining himself like that. He can feel his blood pulsing in every cut, every bruise, every bullet hole in his body, but he pushes the pain to the back of his mind and grits his teeth. He needs to be ready.

Bucky takes a small step forward and holds his left hand out, revealing what’s in his grip. A first aid kit. A professional looking one, too. Which means that it probably contains everything Bucky needs to clean and dress and stitch Steve’s wounds.

“You’re injured,” Bucky says simply, jerking his chin towards Steve’s bruised and battered body.

Steve narrows his eyes at Bucky, surveying his posture and his words and just what he seems to be offering here. It’s giving Steve whiplash to think that just a few hours ago this man was actively trying to kill him, yet now he wants to tend to the very wounds he inflicted. Steve’s not stupid, though. He knows he needs the medical attention, and if a hospital isn’t anywhere in his near future then this will have to do.

He lowers his hands, unclenching his fists. It must be invitation enough, because Bucky closes the distance between them and lowers himself to the floor in front of Steve, cracking open the first aid kit before setting it down on his left.

Bucky fishes around in the kit before producing two rolls— one of gauze, the other of medical tape. He sets them down and turns to Steve. “You need to take your shirt off,” he instructs.

Steve blinks at the request, and he thinks that if it hadn’t been delivered in such a clinical tone he’d probably be blushing. It’s a struggle, between the complexity that is his suit and the fragile state he’s in, but he does as he’s told. It doesn’t help at all that the fabric is still heavy with water, sticking to his skin uncomfortably. Eventually, he gets the top half of his uniform off and lets it hang around his waist.

Once it’s out of the way, Bucky gets to work addressing Steve’s bullet wounds, starting with the one in his shoulder. He peels back the bandages covering it with careful fingers and starts to clean it, gently dabbing at it with a cotton pad of antiseptic. It stings, and Steve has to grit his teeth to keep himself quiet.

Bucky’s only using his left hand, the metal one, Steve notes. He drags his eyes over to the right arm to see it hanging limply at Bucky’s side, slightly lower than it should be and barely moving. When it is jostled, Bucky’s jaw tightens, and the faintest hint of something flickers across his face. It’s so small, so subtle that if Steve hadn’t been actively looking for it, he never would have seen it.

“Your arm,” he says, the first words he’s said this whole time, he realizes.

Bucky grunts, but doesn’t stop working. “What about it?” He asks.

“I… It’s hurt. I hurt it,” Steve replies, dumbly. “I dislocated it, didn’t I? I remember the… sound.” He winces as the sound of Bucky’s shoulder leaving it’s socket echoes through his mind, followed by Bucky’s agonizing scream.

Bucky’s fingers falter against Steve’s skin, and he stares at Steve, forehead crinkling in confusion. It smooths back out, though, almost as quickly as it wrinkled. “Oh,” is all he says, and it dawns on Steve that Bucky must have thought he was referring to the metal arm at first.

“Let me help you,” Steve requests. “I can set it back into place for you. It might hurt a little, but it’ll feel much better than it does now. And you’d be able to use it again after a while.”

A contemplative look settles over Bucky’s features as he presumably weighs his options.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Buck,” Steve adds. “I meant it when I said I won’t fight you.”

Bucky’s nostrils flare out, and that wild look he got when Steve recited their childhood promise back on the helicarrier returns for one fleeting second. It’s obvious Bucky’s not used to these sudden intruding emotions he must be feeling, based on the conflict that erupts across his face everytime Steve says something. He’s very clearly trying to push those feelings back, to shove them away in the deep depths of his mind where they can’t touch him anymore, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

Steve supposes that must be a good sign, that Bucky’s having trouble hiding his emotions. Whatever HYDRA did to him that got him to do so in the first place must be wearing off. His humanity must be slowly but surely leaking back into him. It’s got to be frightening for Bucky, he imagines. After seventy years of feeling nothing, the flood of it all would overwhelm even the best. Bucky seems to be doing an alright job at handling it, though. He’s not acting out against it, he almost seems to be embracing it, albeit hesitantly and fearfully.

“Okay,” Bucky finally says, snapping Steve out of his thoughts. He gives Steve a stiff nod and sets the gauze down. Then he rises to his feet and holds his left hand out to help Steve up as well.

Steve places his palm into Bucky’s, the metal cool against his already cold skin. It’s a struggle to stand, even with Bucky’s help. The wound in his shoulder aches painfully, and the one in his abdomen sends waves of nausea through him with how bad it hurts. Steve’s had his fair share of injuries before. He’s been through the wringer thanks to his opponents plenty of times, but it’s never been this bad before. He’s never been in this much pain.

Once he’s finally on his feet, he carefully tests adding weight to his left leg. He nearly topples over as he does so, but Bucky’s arm slides around his waist, catching him before he does and holds him up. Steve feels a bit like a damsel in distress, or at the very least one of the dames on the front cover of those cheesy romance novels Thor loves to read, what with the way he’s pressed up against Bucky’s front, holding onto his shoulders. He shouldn’t feel as awkward about it as he does, considering their long history together, but there’s something about Bucky’s current mental state that makes it feel like Steve’s crossing a boundary.

So he lets go of Bucky and shuffles back, favoring his right side. He shakes his head to straighten out his thoughts and clears his throat, turning his this means business expression on Bucky. “If you want me to set your shoulder you’re going to have to lay down,” he tells Bucky, glancing between him and the mattress.

Bucky’s brows furrow and he, too, spares a glance towards the mattress. There’s uncertainty written across his face. Uncertainty that he’s openly, willingly allowing Steve to see.

Steve sighs softly. “Look, I know you don’t trust me,” he starts. “But I told you, I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trying to help you. You’re—” Steve casts his eyes down and sucks in a breath before looking to Bucky again. “—You’re my best friend, whether you remember that or not. I’m with you til the end of the line.” He says it again with the hopes that it will trigger something in Bucky again like it did on the helicarrier. That it will press on that remaining smidgen of trust he knows has to still be there.

Bucky’s jaw clenches and the plates of his metal arm whir as they recalibrate. That pained expression makes yet another appearance, and this time Bucky lets it stay there, lets Steve see how hard this is for him. Because by lying on the mattress for Steve, he’s opening himself up to being vulnerable. He’s letting the guard he wears so highly lower, and he’s putting what little trust he has left in another person— the very person he was ordered to kill. It’s a tough decision to make, Steve knows. He’s had to make the very same decision himself.

Bucky doesn’t say anything, but lowers himself onto the mattress. His back is rigid, shoulders tense as he sits and waits for Steve’s next orders. He stares ahead, eyes blank in a way Steve has never seen before. It frightens him, to see someone once so jovial and bright now so lifeless.

“I need you to lie back and hold your right arm away from your body at a forty-five-degree angle,” Steve tells him, trying to remember all the proper steps for this.

Bucky does as he’s told. His movements are stilted, mechanical, and Steve quickly realizes that Bucky is falling back on the behavior expected of him under HYDRA’s control. Follow all orders. No questions. No complaints.

The pang that goes through Steve’s body rivals every single spike of pain his injuries have brought him. It cuts deep, deep enough to make his heart ache.

Steve tries to keep his voice soft from then on, not wanting to slip into his Captain's Orders tone. He doesn’t want to be direct with Bucky, doesn’t want to be likened to a replacement for his handlers. He needs Bucky to trust him, and that’s a sure way for that not to happen.

Steve sinks to his knees at Bucky’s side, pointedly ignoring the pain that shoots through his thigh as his muscles strain to stay in position. He reaches out, slowly, so as to not startle Bucky, and he curls his fingers loosely around Bucky’s wrist.

“This might hurt, but I’m going to pull on your arm a little so your shoulder can pop back into place,” Steve explains. “Just relax and keep breathing.” He tightens his grip on Bucky’s wrist and uses his free hand to massage the area around Bucky’s shoulder, trying to help guide his shoulder back into its socket.

Steve’s thankful for his super strength because it means he doesn’t have to pull very hard or very long before the clunking sound of ball sliding back into socket sounds out. He lets go of Bucky’s wrist and gives his shoulder and bicep a few more prods before removing his hands from him completely.

Bucky doesn’t thank Steve, not that he expects him to. He just stands and winds his arm up a few times, testing his range of motion again.

Steve rises to his feet as well, and grimaces at Bucky’s actions. He’s sure it must be painful, and he knows a freshly repaired shoulder should be immobilized in a sling for maximum recuperation. But it doesn’t seem to bother Bucky. It must be the serum he was injected with, taking away all the pain. At least it’s good for something, Steve thinks.

Once Bucky’s satisfied with the feel of his shoulder, he turns his attention back to Steve. “You’re bleeding again,” he points out.

Steve’s brows furrow and his hand immediately goes to the bandage on his abdomen, eyes dropping as well. The bandage is still white, though, not a drop of blood seeping through it.

When he looks up, Bucky’s much closer. He’s not quite in Steve’s space, but he’s not exactly far away either. He reaches for the first aid kit and pours some of the antiseptic onto a cotton ball before bringing it up to the cut near Steve’s mouth.

Bucky tends to the wound carefully, keeping his touch light so as to not further hurt Steve. He’s quiet as he works, taking his time to properly stitch it shut so it won’t reopen again. When he finishes with Steve’s lip, he moves on to patching up the cut below Steve’s right eye with a butterfly strip, then the one above his left eyebrow, and all the other tiny cuts littering his face.

The silence gives Steve time to think, and it isn’t until Bucky reaches the last cut that he finally breaks it and speaks.

“Why did you do it?” Steve asks, eyes flickering up to meet Bucky’s.

Bucky’s fingers don’t stop, nimbly weaving the needle and thread in and out of the cut near Steve’s hairline. His jaw twitches, the only sign that he even heard what Steve said.

“You pulled me out of the river,” Steve says. “Why’d you do it?”

Bucky’s breathing picks up, quicker inhales and harsher exhales through his nose. He grinds his teeth, jaw clenching and unclenching as if he wants to give Steve an answer, but won’t let himself. “I don’t know,” he finally says, voice gruff.

“Bullshit,” Steve snaps. “Why’d you do it?” He repeats for the third time. This time, however, his tone is sharper, much more direct. He doesn’t mean to lose his patience, but he needs Bucky to know he means business now.

Bucky’s eyes flick to the ground, and a small crease appears between his brows as they draw together. His lips twitch, like he’s going to say something, but swallows his words before they can leave his mouth. “I…” he starts, narrowing his eyes at his boots. “You said I know you,” he finally says, fixing his eyes on Steve. They’re still swimming with uncertainty like he can’t quite figure out why this is so important to him. “That I’ve known you my whole life.”

Steve waits until Bucky ties off the suture before he nods. “You do. You have.”

A helpless noise falls from Bucky’s lips. It’s the first time Steve’s seen him show any sign of weakness. “Who are you?” He asks, shaking his head helplessly. “I don’t… I can’t… Why do I know you?”

Steve bites his lip as he studies Bucky. He looks lost. Completely, utterly lost. And it pains Steve to see him like this, to not remember anything about who he was— who he is . “I’m Steve,” he tells him. “Rogers. The little punk from Brooklyn that was too dumb not to run away from a fight,” he says, remembering the way Bucky once used those very words to describe him. The memory stirs something in his chest but he pushes it down and continues. “Your best friend. Your—” Steve cuts himself off, pressing his lips together tightly. As much as he wants to tell Bucky, to remind him of the true nature of their relationship, he knows he can't. He knows that everything he's said already is an overload of information. He doesn't need to overwhelm Bucky with that fact quite yet.

Steve closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “I'm not your enemy, Bucky. You… you mean more to me than anything I know.”

The sound of Bucky's metal arm whirring draws Steve’s eyes, and he watches as Bucky clenches his fist at his side. His flesh hand stills against Steve’s forehead, and he makes quick work of tying the stitch off before stepping back, out of Steve’s space.

He doesn’t look uncomfortable, per se, but Steve can tell he’s overstepped some sort of line here.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says, but Bucky ignores him, turns towards the doorway, and leaves.



It isn’t brought up again until a few nights later.

Bucky’s thankfully allowed Steve to roam past the door frame and into the connecting room, which he finds is only slightly larger and slightly more furnished than the one he woke up in. There’re a few metal tables pushed up against one wall that have an almost medical feel to them. A handful of fold-out chairs litter the space as well, and there’s some odd, complicated looking machine sitting in one corner of the room, but it’s full of dust and cobwebs, so Steve’s not too concerned about it.

Steve and Bucky are sitting in the middle of the room on the fold-out chairs, eating the tasteless MRE’s Bucky found stowed away in some corner of this place— an old HYDRA safehouse, Steve learns. It’s one of the only pieces of information Bucky gives him, one of the only things he really says at all in the time between him patching Steve up and now.

It’s quiet between them, the only sounds echoing through the room are the occasional crinkle of packaging and their chewing. It’s not comfortable, not like it once used to be between them. But it’s not tense either, nothing charged in the air or weighing down on them. It just is.

Until it’s not.

“Tell me about it,” Bucky says, tone clipped and uneasy.

Steve has his next bite halfway up to his mouth, but his hand freezes, lips still parted as his eyes lift up to land on Bucky.

Bucky’s not looking back. His eyes are cast down at his lap, eyelashes leaving tiny shadows against his cheeks. He’s hunched in on himself, shoulders and head bent. It’s a stark contrast to the usual broad, rigid set of his shoulders and the straightness of his spine. It makes him look smaller. It makes him look more vulnerable. More like himself.

Steve’s about to ask what Bucky’s referring to, even though he has an idea, but Bucky beats him to it.

“Brooklyn,” Bucky continues, finally looking up at Steve. His eyes aren’t blank anymore, not like they’ve been the last few days. Now there’s a storm in them. Confusion raging with desperation. “You,” Bucky adds. “Me. Us.” He pauses for a moment, taking in a silent, deep breath. “I… I want to know. I need to know. Nothing is… it’s not there.” He waves his flesh hand up near his head. “There’s no… there’s no memories. I can’t—” he cuts himself off with a frustrated huff and drops his hand back into his lap. “I don’t remember anything.” The words come out quiet, barely there, and broken. So, so, broken.

It makes something pang deep in Steve’s chest, twists at his heart and pierces it. It fills him with an overpowering urge to tear down everyone and everything that led to this. That made Bucky feel like this. He clenches his jaw tightly to keep himself from yelling out.

Instead, he peels his fingers from where they’re digging into his palms, flattening his hands against his thighs to help calm himself down. He swallows and nods. “I can do that,” he replies. “I can tell you.” He sends Bucky a small smile, hoping it comes across as sincere and comforting.

“Start from the beginning,” Bucky requests.

“I… okay. Yeah The beginning,” Steve repeats, giving another nod. “Your name is James Buchanan Barnes, but you never really liked being called James. The only people that ever did call you that were your Ma and Miss Turner from school.” He lets the corner of his lips pull up a little as he remembers the way Bucky’s face twisted up every time Miss Turner would call his name. It usually meant trouble. “You always insisted on everyone calling you Bucky.”

“You were born on March tenth in 1917. One year, three months, and twenty-four days before me. You always used to hold that over my head, that you were older. We didn’t meet until we were seven though— well you were seven. I was still six. We met at school when I was getting beat up by Tommy Jones for whatever reason. I can’t remember why we were fighting, but what I do remember is you. I remember, clear as day, even all these years later, that you came running up with a ball in your hand— one of those little rubber ones, the kind you use to play stickball— and you threw it right at Tommy Jones.” Steve drops his head and shakes it in amusement at the memory.

Bucky’s face twitches at that, almost as if he were about to laugh or crack a smile, but caught himself before he could.

“We got in so much trouble,” Steve says, chuckling softly. “But it was worth it because I remember sitting outside the principal’s office with you, and you turned to me and you introduced yourself, and then,” Steve turns his gaze back to Bucky again, unable to hold back the smile that finds its way to his face at the memory— one of his favorite memories. “You asked if I wanted to be best friends.”

That day meant the world to Steve— still means the world to him. Without Bucky in his life, he honestly doesn’t know how far he would’ve made it. God knows Bucky saved his ass more times than he can count, in more ways than he can count. And he was always there when Steve was sick, too. Always by his bedside, bringing him homework or soup or telling him jokes to try and brighten his day. Bucky has always been his rock. The one sure thing in his life that he can always count on to keep him going.

He tells Bucky so, though he tones it down a little so as to not scare him off again. As he shares his memories with Bucky, he watches Bucky’s face for any signs of recognition. He takes in the pained twist of Bucky’s mouth, the deep furrow of his eyebrows, the concentrated focus in his eyes as he listens. He’s very clearly holding himself back from physically reacting. Probably doesn’t understand why he even wants to react. After all, he was trained to be a heartless, cold-blooded killing machine. Machines don’t have emotions. Machines don’t feel things. It’s obvious there’s some sort of war raging on in Bucky’s head. HYDRA’s influences versus his own natural instincts. He’s confused. He doesn’t know which side should come out on top here.

It hurts Steve to see that Bucky won’t let himself feel, but it also gives him the motivation to keep going, to keep sharing his happiest memories with Bucky. He finds himself smiling genuinely for the first time in a long while as he relives each one. He tells Bucky about the time the kitchen almost caught fire because Bucky thought it would be a brilliant idea to sneak into the apartment and scare Steve, causing him to drop a dish towel right onto the open flame.

He tells him about the time they went to Coney Island and spent all their money on ride tickets and the giant ice cream sundae they split that ended up all over their hands and down the fronts of their shirts more than in their mouth thanks to the incredible heat. He mentions the shipyard Bucky used to work at, the advertising company he would do drawings for, and the dance hall they spent so many of their weekends at. Steve gets a little lost in his stories as he recites them, so lost that when he mentions their first kiss it doesn’t register until after the words are already out of his mouth.

Steve blanches and cuts himself off right away, but he knows Bucky’s already heard him from the way his head tilts the slightest bit, brows pulling together. It’s the first real reaction he’s given Steve, and Steve almost wants to laugh at it. Of course this one would catch Bucky’s attention.

“Sorry,” Steve apologizes. “Just… just forget I said anything about it. I’ll—”

“No,” Bucky interrupts, shaking his head.  “Finish that one. I want to hear it.”

And there’s something in Bucky’s tone, something Steve can’t quite place, that has him nodding and starting that story back up. “We were at the dance hall that night, on a double date, but my date had disappeared like usual. Probably went to find someone that could actually dance with her. You saw me sitting alone at the bar drinking, and left your girl to make sure I was okay. I think you were concerned about the alcohol,” Steve laughs. “Sixteen year old me wasn’t the best at holding his liquor, and you didn’t want us to get caught.”

The corner of Bucky’s lips twitch, and Steve likes to think that somewhere deep, deep down, the remaining shreds of his old self remember screaming at Steve for being an idiot.

“We ended up going home after that, and I kept apologizing for ruining your night. You didn’t end up getting a kiss from her because of me,” Steve tells Bucky. “I remember thinking you should’ve. The way you were dancing that night,” Steve sighs almost dreamily, “it sure was something. You deserved a kiss for it.”

Bucky deserved a kiss for a lot of things, a lot of times, but that night was the first night Steve had ever been brave enough to actually follow through on that particular thought. He honestly can’t pinpoint what it was that gave him that courage, but he’ll always be grateful for it.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about that the entire walk home, and well, I’d been drinking, and I wasn’t drunk, but I was that kind of tipsy where when you get to thinking of something it won’t leave your mind until you do something about it. So I remember we got back to my apartment, you walked me up to the front door like a perfect gentleman would walk his date, and I just. I grabbed the front of your shirt and I… kissed you.”

Steve doesn’t have to look at Bucky to know he’s at least somewhat affected by this memory. He can hear the way his breathing quickens, the uneven way it's coming out. At first just a little gasp of air but then it picks up, mirroring the exact way Steve remembers his heart hammering in his chest that night. He would like to think Bucky’s picturing the scene, seeing it played out like a film in his mind. His metal fist clenches and unclenches subconsciously by his side, almost as if he’s trying to stop himself from reaching out perhaps.

“It honestly wasn’t anything all that special, I was half out of my mind with fear that you’d punch me or something, so it didn’t last very long before I let you go and went inside. Slammed the door right in your face.” Steve laughs at the memory, eyes dropping down to his lap as he shakes his head fondly. “I remember thinking if it upset you— if you really didn’t like it— I could just blame it on the alcohol. Pretend that I was drunker than I actually was.”

When he looks back up at Bucky, Bucky’s not looking at Steve. His eyes are unfocused and cast to the side, like he’s somewhere far away, lost in Steve’s words and his own thoughts. What really gets Steve, though, is the way Bucky’s reaching up to touch his lips, as if in disbelief that they could ever do something as soft as kiss another. It makes Steve’s heart flop in his chest, and he has to suppress the urge to mirror the action.

“Did I punch you?” Bucky asks suddenly, eyes refocusing back on Steve.

Steve laughs and shakes his head. “No, you didn’t punch me. It, uh, it took a few days before we saw each other again. I was kind of avoiding you for that very reason. Worked myself up into such a panic I was starting to get sick. But you finally managed to corner me, and instead of punching me you kissed me again.”

The faintest ghost of a smile flickers at Bucky’s lips, toying with the corners, but it’s gone in an instant.

But Steve notices. He always notices with Bucky.

“We did more than just kiss,” Steve continues, a blush spreading across his cheeks at his poor phrasing. “I mean not like that— not that we didn’t do that too, because we did. I just. I meant it wasn’t just a physical thing between us. It was… it was more. So much more. It was putting the radio on low and swinging each other around the living room in the middle of the night. It was being there for each other, supporting each other and loving each other no matter what. It was sharing that bed every night, falling asleep in each other’s arms, waking up tangled together.”

Steve pauses and presses his lips together for a moment as he collects himself. He’s sure there’s a sappy smile on his face, but he can’t help it. Even as he looks at Bucky, who’s barely hanging onto the threads he has left of himself, he knows he still loves him. Knows he’d still go to the ends of the earth to protect this man. “Y’know, there was never a place I felt safer than in your arms. It was nice. Warm, comforting. I don’t know, just… safe.” Steve gets a little lost in the memory, unable to help the wistful note his voice takes on as he reminisces. It’s been over seventy years since he’s been in Bucky’s arms. Over seventy years since he’s well and truly felt safe. Felt like he was home. To say he misses it is an understatement.

Steve shakes himself out of his thoughts and lets his gaze fall to Bucky again. His heart sinks a little as he realizes that he’s overwhelmed him again, and he knows he needs to stop this before he takes it too far, before he pushes Bucky too much. He knows he won’t be able to stop himself from letting his feelings flood out and color his stories. Steve’s a romantic, a rather hopeless one it seems, and he just can’t help that. He knows he can be a bit… intense, when it comes to his feelings for Bucky, and the last thing he wants to do right now is drive him away because of that. Not when he’s just gotten him back. Not when there’s still a chance to fix everything.

So he makes the executive decision to call it a night.

“I can tell you more tomorrow if you’d like,” Steve says, sitting up in his seat. “It’s getting pretty late though, and I should probably get some rest. These wounds won’t heal on their own.”  He rises to his feet, crumpling the trash from his meal as he does. He drops it onto the chair and turns to face Bucky again. “You should get some sleep, too,” he adds.

Bucky doesn’t stand, but he gives Steve a curt nod. Steve doesn’t know if it’s meant to be directed towards Steve’s departure or his advice.

Steve presses his lips together and nods back, standing there awkwardly for a moment before finally making his exit.

 

Despite using sleep as an excuse to part ways, Steve isn’t actually able to get any. Hours pass, but no matter how long he tries to keep his eyes shut, sleep just doesn’t find him. Not when he has the memories he shared playing on a loop in his brain. Not when he can’t stop wondering if they’ll ever be able to go back to that. Or at least come close to it.

“Steve?” Bucky’s voice says from the shadows of the doorway, pulling him out of his thoughts. His voice is small; soft in a way it hasn’t been. Nervous, too. It’s also the first time he’s used Steve’s first name, used any name to refer to him at all.

That’s how Steve knows that whatever this is, whatever is happening, is big, that it’s important for Bucky.

Steve sits up as best he can on the mattress and squints towards the shadows, trying to make out Bucky’s face. “Buck? Is everything alright?” He asks, unable to hide the concern in his tone.

Bucky doesn’t answer right away, but he does shuffle forward a little, enough that Steve’s finally able to see him. He’s hunched in on himself again, and his hands are crossed in front of him. It reminds Steve of the pose Bucky would assume whenever he was getting scolded.

“Bucky?” Steve repeats.

“I…” Bucky starts, pausing momentarily. “Will you…” Another long pause. A few quiet, frustrated sounds fall from Bucky’s lips before he finally manages to finish his thought. “Can you hold me?”

The request is so surprising, is so unexpected that Steve finds himself at a loss for words. He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out and he just flounders. Because Bucky asking to be held by Steve? Any other time it would’ve been a completely normal proposition. During the war, they’d taken turns spooning each other, instead of just Bucky spooning Steve. But now? Now, Bucky is different. He isn’t entirely himself. He’s more HYDRA than human, as Steve has so clearly seen over the past few days.

“I want to feel safe.”

The words feel like a punch to the gut, and Steve finds himself having a hard time pulling in a proper breath. His eyes prickle around the edges as the weight of the statement hits him, slams into him like a truck.

And, god, it hurts. It hurts so bad to hear the desperation in Bucky’s voice, to hear him practically begging for such a basic human need. Steve doesn’t even want to think about how long it’s been since Bucky’s felt safe. He doesn’t because he knows it will ignite the fierce urge to destroy anyone that made Bucky feel anything but. He can already feel that anger simmering beneath his skin, feel the flames licking at his insides.

The instinct to pull Bucky into his chest and wrap him up and never let him go has never been stronger than it is now. Part of Steve wonders if this was what Bucky felt like all those years ago when Steve was skinny and sick and too dumb not to get himself into trouble.

Steve knows they have a lot ahead of them. There are going to be fights, so many fights with so many people. But for now, it’s just them. Just Steve and Bucky and this safehouse and this mattress. Steve doesn’t have much to offer right now, given the circumstances, but making sure Bucky feels safe? That he can do. That he absolutely can do.

“Of course,” he breathes, nodding even though he knows Bucky probably can’t see it. “Of course I can do that.”

Steve throws back the blanket and scoots closer to the wall, freeing up some space on the mattress for Bucky.

Bucky hesitates where he stands by the door frame, as if rethinking his request, but eventually he shakes himself out of it and closes the distance between them. Carefully, he clambers onto the mattress next to Steve. There’s not much space between them, considering that mattress isn’t all that big to begin with.

Steve keeps his hands to himself at first, giving Bucky time to get used to the new arrangement, to being so close to someone he isn’t trying to kill. He waits until Bucky relaxes, tension seeping out of his muscles until he’s at ease and comfortable, before he tucks the blanket around him. Then he slowly presses his fingers against Bucky’s side and drapes his arm over Bucky’s waist, palm settling against the center of Bucky’s abdomen.

Bucky briefly tenses back up at the touch, but he takes in a deep, calming breath and finally lets himself melt into the touch, pressing back against Steve’s front.

Steve fits himself against Bucky’s back, wanting to both act as a comforting blanket while not coming across as suffocating. The last thing he wants is for Bucky to feel like he’s trapped, like he can’t escape.

He feels Bucky’s flesh hand slowly come up and rest itself just below Steve’s. It waits there for a few seconds, and Steve can practically hear the gears turning in Bucky’s head as he debates his next move. Eventually, he gives in and shifts his arm up just enough that his hand brushes against Steve’s.

Steve takes it as a sign and carefully twists his hand so that his palm slides against Bucky’s. His movements are slow, giving Bucky the space to pull away if he wants to, but he doesn’t, so Steve continues on. He gently threads their fingers together and closes his hand around Bucky’s.

“I’ve got you,” Steve murmurs softly into Bucky’s ear, rubbing his thumb in soothing circles against the back of Bucky’s hand. “I’ve got you. You’re safe now.”

And for the first time in over seventy years, Steve feels safe too.