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The Snap

The shock wave passed through the trees, through his body, dissipating into the wind. Bucky felt it sink through his clothing and tingle his skin, then slip away. He picked himself up off the ground, looking at his hand. His real hand. The energy, whatever it was, took something of him with it. It left him changed, but he didn’t know how yet.

He found Steve a few feet away, looking stunned. Steve’s hair was too long. It kept falling over his eyes.

Bucky carried his weapon, held angled away from his body. It helped weigh him down. The arm T’Challa had given him was lighter than his old one – more efficient, smoother, but lighter so he felt like he might float away.

It started around the edges. Trees blurred. The ground gave way. The world was made of sand, dissolving in water. The trees, the sky, the ground. Steve.

“Steve?” he called. He had to tell him, before it was too late.

Steve turned when he heard Bucky, and started walking toward him. Bucky had a moment as their eyes locked. He wanted to say so many things, but couldn’t form the words. This isn’t real.

The world dissolved around him, crumbling to dust.

 

The Hydra Years

The soldier struggled with what was real and what wasn’t. Each time they removed him from cryo, the world was too bright, full of vibrant color that hurt his eyes: the shock of white, the punch of red, the sting of green and blue and yellow. Black swallowed him up. Then, they put him in the chair, and the pain increased until that was the only color. Until they said the words, one after another, in a slow, easy monotone. The words stripped the world bare, and left him in shades of gray.

It was always easier in grayscale. Everything hurt less.

But which was real? The colors that pained him, or the ease and coolness that followed?

 

Brooklyn, 1929

By the time Bucky leaves Miss Kennedy’s office, being lectured at for punching Robert Sullivan’s face in when he tripped Steve earlier, classes are over and the stickball game is at the top of the sixth. Bucky makes his way across the crowded schoolyard to sit with Steve on one of the benches lined up against the wall.

“You playin’, Bucky?” asks Frankie from the middle of the yard. Frankie is a tall, easy-going kid who likes to rule and organize the playground. He also likes to play peacemaker and put Steve and Sullivan on the same team while Bucky and Steve are on opposite teams.

Bucky waves back, saying neither yes nor no, and plops down beside Steve. His team doesn’t need him in the outfield. “What’s the score?”

“We’re up by one. Don’t you want to play?” asks Steve, looking at him. He opens his lunch pail and takes out the half sandwich he’d been saving, offering it to Bucky.

Bucky shrugs but takes the sandwich. He eats it in two big bites. “Maybe, when it’s my turn to bat,” he says with a full mouth.

It’s too hot to play, and the game is almost over anyway. The sky is a relentless blue, no clouds at all, and the air is still and muggy. The world feels dome-like, curved and hollow, like he lives inside a bell jar. He thinks the asphalt might melt.

“’Fraid I’ll beat you this time?” asks Steve with a cheeky grin. His dark golden hair curls around his ears.

“I’m shaking in my boots,” answers Bucky, snagging Steve’s apple because he knows Steve will only eat half of it anyway. He takes a bite and then hands it back to Steve. “Sullivan do anything?”

The light in Steve’s eyes dim. He shakes his head. “He’s staying away.”

When they played after school like this, they only have time for a six-inning game and Steve’s team is at bat. Bucky and Steve pass the apple back and forth, watching the bases load one by one. Bucky’s heart sinks, knowing what will happen next. Sometimes, he thinks Frankie’s more troublemaker than peacemaker, purposely setting Steve up to fail. But immediately after thinking that, Bucky feels the sick tumble of shame and betrayal. Steve always tries his best. Beside him, Steve has a slight crease between his eyebrows as he studies the players and their positions. He’s all scraped knees and elbows, skinny arms wrapped around his legs.

With the bases loaded, Frankie turns to call Steve. “Rogers. You’re up to bat.”

Steve doesn’t move at first, and there are immediate protests from Sullivan and the others on Steve’s team. “You can’t have him bat now,” yells Sullivan at Frankie, right in his face. “You’re gonna make us lose the game.”

Bucky glances at Steve whose shoulders sink, realizing the game is riding on him. The score is close now. If he strikes out, his team goes into the bottom of the sixth only one up, leaving it wide open for the other team to easily beat them. Sullivan is the most vocal about it, but he isn’t alone. No one on Steve’s team wants him to bat when the bases are loaded.

“He’s next in the line up,” said Frankie, flatly. “Rogers, get over here.”

Steve takes in a breath, then gets up from the bench. Bucky’s instinct is to stop him, take his place, save him from the embarrassment and the eventual ridicule. But he doesn’t. Steve wouldn’t let him anyway.

The sun glares, and Bucky has to shade his eyes to watch Steve take the stick from Frankie before hunching over home base. Bucky sometimes forgets how small Steve is, but up there, with burly Frankie as umpire behind him, Steve looks a quarter of his size.

The pitcher pitched. Steve swings and misses. Strike one. He strikes the next pitch then fouls the third. “Come on, come on,” mutters Bucky under his breath.

Steve swings and hits the ball, but it pops up. The pitcher runs forward and catches it easily. Steve is out, and the game heads into the bottom of the sixth. Dejected, Steve’s team starts filtering to their field positions, switching places. Sullivan goes up to Steve, and Bucky tenses ready to jump in, but Sullivan must be aware that everyone is watching. Steve holds his ground and Sullivan merely pushes past him hard enough to send Steve off balance.

“Sullivan,” calls Frankie, tossing him the ball. “You’re pitching.”

Everyone takes their places, and the game continues. Tension rises as the next two batters strike out. Bucky begins to think the heat is affecting everyone’s game. The other team, Steve’s team, just needs one more out, and they win.

“You’re up,” says Frankie to Bucky, handing him the stick.

Everyone waits for him but Bucky doesn’t take the stick right away. He wants to refuse. If he were a better friend, he’d refuse, but Steve wouldn’t see it that way. The sensation from earlier comes back, like he can see the curve of the sky, like it’s made of glass and presses down far too close. It makes him feel like he can’t breathe, like he has the same kind of asthma that Steve has. He catches Steve watching from his spot by the back wall of the schoolyard. Bucky takes the stick, and heads for the sewer drain that marks home base.

He tightens his grip on the stick, then steps back and taps the ground once. He adjusts his feet, kicking at the dirt and gravel. The too bright sun makes him squint. Everything stinks of the docks and hot pavement.

He eyes Sullivan winding up for the pitch. The vibrant blue sky stings his eyes. “What’er you waiting for?” he yells.

Sullivan throws. Bucky swings, hard. The CRACK of the stick against the ball echoes across the buildings. Like a gunshot. Everyone stands to watch the ball sail in a smooth arc against the backdrop of blue sky. Bucky’s teammates yell at him to run the bases, but he sees the ball come down and Steve skipping backward to catch it.

Bucky starts loping slowly around the bases.

Steve holds out his hand ready to catch, but the force of the ball sends him to the ground in a messy somersault. He doesn’t move. His teammates walk over to him, and Bucky slows down as he comes around second base. Oh jeez, did he clobber the kid?

The next moment Steve raises his fist, clutching the ball tightly in his hand. His teammates erupt in cheers. Bucky is out, and the game is over. Steve’s team wins. He watches them pick Steve up and parade him around. He looks even more banged up than before but happy, like he can’t believe his luck. Bucky feels a warm glow, despite the fact that he lost the game and his team probably hates him. He goes to gather his books. It’s time he got home anyway.

A moment later Steve runs over to him, spraying gravel as he skids to a halt. “I guess I beat you this time,” he says, beaming and out of breath.

“I guess you did. You don’t have to rub it in,” says Bucky, but Steve flashes him a blinding smile and skips back to his teammates for more accolades.

Bucky watches Steve for another moment, then shrugs it off, whistling as he leaves the schoolyard, walking down the street and taking all the shortcuts he knows to get home. The sun is shining. He just played a good game of baseball. It’s Friday and he has two days off before school again, then one more week before summer break.

Pain explodes on the left side of his face. Someone’s punched him. They grab him by his shirt and drag him down a dead-end alley, strewn with garbage. He shakes his head, and recognizes Sullivan and three of his friends.

“Hey fellas,” he manages, but then Sullivan punches him in the stomach, and the others kick him a couple of times before they stepped back. Bucky coughs, seeing stars.

“You let that little punk win on purpose,” says Sullivan.

“Don’t be an idiot. Don’t know what you’re talking about,” gasps Bucky, spitting blood and wiping at his mouth.

“How’d you do it?” asks Sullivan. “I know you did, admit it.”

Bucky wipes at his mouth again, raising his eyes to Sullivan’s ugly mug. “Not that it matters. But I didn’t. I don’t have magic powers. But I’m glad you think I do.”

Sullivan makes a face, and Bucky braces for more fists to pummel his face when something small and scrawny comes flying around the corner and attacks Sullivan from behind. “Get off him,” cries Steve, clinging to Sullivan.

Sullivan manages to yank Steve off, but Steve continues to kick him, until Sullivan punches him hard enough that Steve goes down, dazed.

There’s a mound of trash near Bucky and he picks up an old Coca Cola bottle. He takes hold of the neck, breaking the bottle against the brick wall. Before Sullivan can punch Steve again, Bucky slices across Sullivan’s arm. He cries out, screaming in pain. The blood is vibrant, electric, dripping.

“Touch him again and I’ll cut your throat,” says Bucky, slurring around his busted mouth.

Sullivan’s eyes are wide and terrified as he holds his bleeding arm. He and his friends back up, and then together they turn and run like hell. Bucky sighs. He looks down at the broken bottle in his hand, dripping with blood, and tosses it away. He goes to Steve. “Hey bright eyes,” he says, kneeling. “You conscious?”

Steve groans and sits up, squinting at Bucky. He’s going to have one hell of a shiner. “Where’d they go?”

“Oh, you scared ‘em off.”

Steve winces at him, tentatively touching Bucky’s cut lip. “Should have gotten here sooner.”

Bucky shrugs, helping Steve up to standing. “You got here in time to save me. Thanks.”

“Sure,” said Steve, trying to smile, but he starts to have difficulty breathing.

Oh no. Not again. “Hey hey, slow down. Come on,” says Bucky. But it’s no use. Steve’s eyes begin to bug out as he tries to take in air and fails. It’s painful to hear, like broken glass. Like sand paper. He supposes, between the ball game and running after Sullivan, it was too much for Steve’s lungs. The heat doesn’t help.

“I’m okay,” wheezes Steve. He’s pale. It’s so hot, his hair is plastered damp around his face. The alley stinks of garbage, the bright tang of blood hanging in the air.

“No you’re not,” says Bucky, half fascinated, half terrified, watching the labored rise and fall of Steve’s chest. He wonders if Steve’s going to croak right in front of him. He’s never seen anyone croak before. “Medicine?” he asks, patting at Steve’s pockets.

Steve shakes his head, labored. “At home,” he answers.

“Well what good is it doing there? All right,” says Bucky, taking hold of Steve to keep him upright, but turning around to get Steve onto his back. “Hop on. I’ll take you home.”

Steve’s arms come around his neck, and he hoists Steve up, taking hold under his legs. Steve doesn’t weight much but he’s not nothing either, and Bucky has to get a good grip or he’ll end up losing Steve half way down Hicks Street. It’s awkward and clumsy, with Steve holding on to both their sets of schoolbooks as he also clings to Bucky. Bucky goes as fast as he can, with Steve’s warm wet panting in his ear. He feels every one of Steve’s hard earned breaths, his chest pressing into Bucky’s back. They finally make it to the steps of Steve’s building. Bucky is drenched with sweat, laboring one step at a time up the stairs. By now, he is having just as difficult a time breathing as Steve is.

“I can walk,” says Steve, sliding from Bucky’s back. “It’s better. I’m better. I can get up the stairs.”

Bucky just nods, unable to speak, completely out of breath and almost falling down he’s so tired. They help each other up the stairs until they tumble in through Steve’s door.

He looks blearily around Steve’s apartment. The Rogers’ home is always neat and clean and orderly, unlike the Barnes’s constant circus of chaos. Mrs. Rogers must be working, he thinks. “Where is it?”

Steve, still struggling with each breath, points to one of the kitchen cabinets. “Green jar,” he says.

Bucky goes to the cabinet and finds the small green jar, pealing the wax paper off. He takes a whiff and immediately wrinkles his nose and shakes his head to clear it. The smell of the ointment is strong and makes his nose sting, but he guesses that’s the point. Steve stumbles to the couch, struggling to take his shirt off, sitting in just his undershirt. Bucky brings the green jar over to him.

“Do you eat this?” he asks. Steve shakes his head, scooping up a dollop of the ointment from the jar with one finger. He rubs the oily stuff onto his chest, and the whole room begins to smell like medicine. “Is that all? Don’t you need something more?”

“It’s what we have,” said Steve, trying to measure his breathing.

“What else can I do?” asks Bucky, setting the jar down. Steve shakes his head again. His breathing is harsh and loud, but it had gotten better during the piggyback ride. “Come on. You said it got better.”

“You…” struggled Steve, patting Bucky’s chest. He looks pink and sweaty, that shiner beginning to color. “You breathing. Helped.”

It’s like a furnace inside Steve’s apartment, with all the windows closed. It’s difficult to think. Bucky doesn’t understand at first what Steve is trying to say, but then he gets it.

He opens the windows, trying to get some cooler air in. Then, he whips off his shirt until he’s matching Steve and they’re both in their undershirts, and he sits with him on the couch. Steve is limp and easy to move. Bucky puts him on his lap, so they’re sitting chest to back. The smell of that medicine stuff is so strong, sharp and stinging, it makes Bucky’s eyes water.

The furnace-like heat in the apartment doesn’t get better, and Steve is like a hot sweaty water bottle lying on his chest, but a small breeze finds its way in, pushing the hot air around. Bucky breathes steadily, in and out, and in and out, until Steve’s breathing begins to match his, easing up as the attack passes.

Neither speaks while Steve is still trying to get his breath back. His busted lip stings a little. The sweat begins to dry on his skin, leaving a salty film behind. Bucky stretches out his arms on either side, like he’s pretending to be an airplane. Steve lines his arms with Bucky’s and relaxes even more, laying his head back against Bucky.

They pretend they’re sailing through the air. “We’re flying, Steve,” says Bucky.

“Yeah,” says Steve. Then, “I tried to save you.”

Bucky lowers his arms, then brings them around Steve. “You did.”

Tell him, he thinks. Tell him now.

Then, the entire apartment shakes and Bucky hears booming. Boom boom. “Jesus, what’s that?” asks Bucky, holding Steve in place.

“What’s what?” asks Steve, who hadn’t flinched at all, still lying back against Bucky’s chest.

The building shakes again. BOOM BOOM BOOM. Bucky hears a disembodied voice speaking: “Glass integrity is at 50%.”

Bucky’s heart booms just as loud. He looks wildly around but the apartment is the same. Unchanged. He doesn’t hear screaming. The breeze flaps the curtains.

Steve turns to look at him, slightly dislodged from his place on Bucky’s lap, head tilted to one side. All the colors in the room begin to drain away. Everything turns into shades of gray. Except for Steve’s eyes. Those remain a seafoam blue, watching him closely. “You okay, Bucky?”

“You didn’t hear that? You didn’t feel it?” asks Bucky. It’s so hot. Even the breeze from the window is only hot air. Like a furnace. Furnace. Furnace. Furnace. The word repeats over and over again.

Steve doesn’t shake his head yes or no. The booming continues, but now it seems to come from outside. Not outside the building, but outside the world. Outside the dome. Outside the dream. Bucky turns to look to his right. A man is standing there. Older, long dark hair, he’s wearing a mask that covers the lower half of his face, and he has a bright, shining, metal arm.

Bucky screams in horror.

“Bucky,” says Steve, pulling Bucky’s attention back to him. Bucky’s no longer twelve years old. He’s a man, and he’s scared. He holds a gun in his metal hand. Without realizing it, he’s pointing it at Steve. “Bucky,” says Steve again, so calmly, not afraid at all. Trusting. And so young. He has freckles across his nose. His blue eyes.

Something snaps inside Bucky’s brain, like a small explosion, a burst blood vessel, and he cries out, dropping the gun. He feels two hands touch either side of his face, and he opens his eyes again to see Steve -- the eleven-year-old Steve, with the smear of eucalyptus ointment on his chest, in his undershirt and school pants. Color bleeds back into the world, spreading from Steve’s blue eyes to his pink, slightly too-feverish skin, his golden blond hair, to the yellow curtains, and the salmon colored rug, the peach tablecloth in the kitchen.

Steve lets go a breath, and Bucky does the same. He’s twelve years old again.

“This isn’t real,” Bucky says. The booming continues, outside. He’s speaking to Steve, to himself, to the soldier who hovers in his periphery, as slowly the edges of the world begin to dissolve and crumble and disappear. He’s looking at Steve when he turns to ash in his hands.

*

Deep in the Wakandan lab, the stasis chamber shook as the jet outside continued its attack. One floor up, Ross shot down the last escaping cargo ship.

“Glass integrity is at 15%.”

Ross fled from the lab as the glass exploded and the firing continued.

 

One Year After the Accords

Steve picked up speed, turning the corner around a tall building, ducking from the bullets spraying cement chips as the hostiles fired. He raised his wrist to his mouth. “On my position. I count four of them.”

“On my way,” answered Natasha.

Natasha surprised the hostiles from behind. Sam swooped in from above, joining the fight. They hardly needed Wanda, but one of the men escaped and she captured him mid-flight in a swirl of red energy, tossing him back to the others. The man screamed.

Before Steve could register the change, four more men came out of the darkness. Full tactical gear, faces covered. Well armed, they immediately targeted Wanda with specialized weapons. She threw up a shield of energy, but Steve heard her cry out with pain, falling to her knees. With her powers temporarily halted, the four men advanced quickly on her, attempting to get some kind of contraption over her head before she could recover.

“Guys, we got four more. They’re going after Wanda,” said Steve.

He didn’t wait to see what Sam or Natasha would do but ran toward Wanda, engaging two of the hostiles just as Sam dove in to take care of the rest. Steve turned his attention to her, getting rid of the alien tech. It looked similar to the device they had used on her in the Raft. He tossed it aside. “Are you okay?” he asked her, helping her sit up

She looked dazed. “I think so,” she said, wiping her hands from the gravel on the ground, examining a scrape on her arm. She turned to look at the weapon they used to subdue her.

“I’ve got the first four secure,” said Natasha over comms.

“And these guys are done,” said Sam, punching the last of the men unconscious. A couple of minutes later and all the men were bound and gagged, huddled in an ungainly heap on the ground.

“Anybody else worried how they went after Wanda specifically?” asked Sam.

Wanda looked unnerved, holding the device they were going to use on her. Steve felt a tightening in his chest, shaking his head – not in disagreement with Sam, but in frustration. It had been a hard year, on their own. He worried about his team. Natasha could take care of herself, but Wanda was vulnerable, and he couldn’t help but think he’d dragged Sam into this mess.

“Let’s gather what intel we can. See if we can’t get some leads. Figure out what they want with Wanda. Natasha?”

“On it,” she said, already confiscating all communication devices and phones from the hostiles. She double-checked the restraints, making sure they wouldn’t be getting away.

“What are we going to do with them?” asked Sam.

Steve crouched to their level. He removed the gag off the leader. Or whom he assumed was the leader, anyway. “Are you going to tell us what this is about?”

The hostile tried to spit on Steve’ face, but Wanda flicked her fingers and the spit evaporated in smear of red magic.

“Thought so,” said Steve, returning the gag. He began removing their gear and armor and what weapons Natasha hadn’t already confiscated. Sam helped, until they had a pile to take back to the quinjet.

Steve nodded at Wanda. She waved her hands over the pile of weapons and armor, lifting it into the air. She flew back with it to the hidden quinjet, Sam following. “Natasha, tag them. We’ll leave them for the local authorities to deal with.”

Natasha placed an electronic tag on the bound men. The tag had enough information on their activities with evidence for the local authorities to charge and convict. Then, she and Steve walked side-by-side back to the quinjet.

“You seem quiet,” she said, with a glance. “You’re brooding again.”

He shook his head. “I know, I’m sorry. Sometimes… Can’t an old man brood?” he asked.

It felt like something big was coming around the corner. He could sense it. There was a certain tang in the air. Like how he’d used to know where the goons were hiding in the forest during the war. Or like, how back in Brooklyn, he always knew which alley he’d get beat up in.

She snorted, but then they paused just before entering the quinjet, and she made Steve look at her. “You ever hear of ‘wait a minute’ weather?” she asked.

“Yeah. It’s taken from a Mark Twain quote, I think.”

“We’re in the waiting part now. Give it another minute and it’s all going to change again.”

“You know, that’s not actually comforting,” said Sam, popping in from the quinjet hatch. “I’d say that’s the opposite of comforting.”

She smiled at both of them, before sliding past. “It’s not meant to be,” she said, patting Sam on the cheek.

Sam rolled his eyes, and it made Steve laugh. Even though they were fugitives, he was grateful. Unbidden, he thought of Bucky, lying in his solitary stasis chamber. The memory started a familiar cycle: Bucky beside a rusted gate a few days before their mission to capture Zola, his expression as he clung to the side of the freight car when Steve couldn’t reach him, Bucky closing his eyes as the stasis chamber closed.

Steve shook it off. Bucky was safe now, and Steve had to keep his head in the game.

He entered the quinjet, closing the hatch. Sam had already started preflight checks to get them on their way, so he went to help Wanda finish securing the confiscated weapons in the hold. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, whatever it is,” he said, trying to be reassuring.

She gave him a smile. It was painful, to see her trust in him.

The engines whirred into life, but then Natasha held up a hand. “Wait,” she said. “Sam, cut the engines. What is that?” she asked, looking around. “Does anybody hear that?”

Sam cut the engines. They looked at each and then at the rest of the jet. It was a soft chirping sound, coming from Steve’s gear. He recognized it, his heart pounding in his chest. From a side pocket, he retrieved the band of Wakandan kimoyo beads T’Challa had given him when he left Bucky in their care.

The others joined him as he pressed the communication bead and Shuri’s hologram appeared. She smiled, and a little of his fear lessoned. He didn’t think she’d be smiling if it were an emergency.

“Princess,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”

“Captain. It’s good to see you, as well. I have an update for you on Sergeant Barnes, and a request.”

He took a breath, feeling a little lightheaded. “Of course.”

“Sergeant Barnes is safe. We have been treating him while he is in stasis. However, we have done as much as we can with him asleep. It is time we wake him. Will you come?”

“I….” He was too surprised for anything else. This was the last thing he expected. When Bucky went under, Steve had no idea what was in store for him, for either of them. Neither T’Challa nor Shuri could tell him what the treatment would entail, or how long it would take. He thought it might be years before he saw Bucky again.

But he couldn’t leave the others. And what about Wanda? He didn’t feel right leaving them.

“Steve,” said Natasha, pulling him toward her. “We’ll be okay. You should go.”

He shook his head. “What about…”

“Go,” said Wanda, with a gentle smile. “Come back soon.”

With a grimace, he ducked his head, then turned back to Shuri’s hologram. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

When Shuri’s image disappeared, Steve remained where he stood, pensive, while Sam returned to the pilot seat and got them in the air. Natasha turned to him with a lopsided smile. “What I tell you? Just wait a minute.”

He tried to smile back, but just shook his head. “I don’t know about us separating.”

She wrinkled her nose. “We’ll be okay. Clint’s been asking us to go to the farm anyway. We can work up the next few leads while we wait for you.”

Steve thought it way too risky for them to have any interaction with Clint at all while he was under house arrest, but Clint and Natasha seemed to view it like a game. Who could outsmart the government agents the best? It was usually Natasha (bringing Steve or Sam or Wanda, or all four of them) sneaking onto the farm with no one being the wiser.

“Please be careful,” he said.

She gave him an insulted look. “Consider who you’re talking to right now, please.”

He huffed a laugh, but he felt queasy with apprehension and uncertainty.

“Hey,” said Natasha, getting his attention. She hadn’t stopped watching him while they spoke. She looked like she was going to say, “It’ll be okay,” or, “Don’t worry,” but she didn’t say those things. Instead, she gave him a hug.

Since London, after Peggy’s funeral, Natasha had become a lot freer with her hugs. She was without a doubt the glue that kept their band of secret Avengers together. He didn’t question her about it. After so much happening, they all lived with a sense of limited time. He didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, none of them did.

He brought his arm around her, both of them keeping their balance in the shifting flight of the quinjet.

 

Brooklyn, 1938

Bucky folds that week’s pay into his pocket. It’s only noon, but they don’t have any work for him, and Corrigan told him to come back on Monday. The chill in the air digs its fingers under his coat, and he pushes his collar up to block the wind, blowing into his cupped hands for a little warmth. It’s a cold day, but the sky is a perfect unceasing blue, stretching across the East River.

When he gets to the street, he sees Frankie loitering on the other side. Bucky almost turns to go the other way, but a voice inside him that sounds way too much like Steve tells him to quit being chicken-livered, so he crosses the street. Frankie nods at him, offering him a cigarette from a pack he takes from his pocket.

Bucky shakes his head. He doesn’t want a smoke. “You seen Steve?” he asks.

A certain look enters Frankie’s eyes, but he nods, indicating the bar at the other end of the block. “McFeeley’s,” he says, his dark eyes following Bucky as he turns to leave. “Am I going to see you later?” he asks as Bucky walks away.

This thing with Frankie is a mistake, but it’s too late to take it back now. Bucky glances over his shoulder at him, but doesn’t answer.

He enters McFeeley’s bar, and looks around for a familiar blond head. McFeeley’s usual patrons are scattered throughout the murky interior, mostly Irish dockworkers, but also a few of the new Hungarian and Polish stock grouped together in twos and threes.

Steve sits at the bar with a beer in front of him, talking to an older man Bucky doesn’t recognize. Without drawing any attention, Bucky takes a seat close enough to hear their conversation.

“It doesn’t have to be anything serious,” says the man. His tone – cajoling yet insistent – sends sparks of apprehension shooting up Bucky’s back. “I’ve got a set of rooms nearby. We could have a few drinks.”

“Thank you, but I’m not interested,” says Steve, his voice its usual calm, no sign of tension or annoyance. But that wouldn’t be Steve’s style, anyway.

“Come on. Noticed you when you first came in. The way you look? There’d be plenty in it for you.”

The man makes like he’s going to touch Steve. Bucky can’t allow that. “Hey pal,” he says, moving to stand behind Steve. Startled, the stranger goes pale. He hadn’t noticed Bucky watching. Steve, however, doesn’t turn around at all, and it makes Bucky realize Steve had probably known he was there all along. “He said he isn’t interested.”

The man eyes Bucky up and down, studying the both of them before rising off his stool. “I see how it is.”

“You don’t see nothing,” says Bucky. “Go on, get out of here.”

“Wait,” says Steve with a glance at Bucky before he turns back to the stranger. “No hard feelings. Best of luck,” he says.

The man settles his pale colorless eyes on Steve. He’s middle-aged, more gray than brown, with that florid expression that speaks of a bad diet and too much gin. But he softens when he looked at Steve. “Sure. See you around,” he says, then he leaves.

“Did you have to go and do that?” asks Steve, turning to Bucky. He pushes his half finished beer at him, offering him the rest. “He’s lonely. He just wanted some company.”

“You’re actually defending him?” asks Bucky, taking a hasty swallow, wiping his mouth. “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“What?” asks Steve, turning face Bucky. “Doesn’t what bother me?”

Bucky’s heart clangs in his chest, like church bells going off, but something reckless takes over him. “That some stranger looks at you and assumes… That you’re like that.”

Truth is, that man isn’t the only one. Since he was a kid, Steve had been called sissy or pansy or worse, because he’s small and skinny. But those sorts of insults roll right off Steve. Unless they also came with fisticuffs, he never lets ‘em rile him up.

Steve huffs a laugh. “If I got upset every time someone who didn’t know me got the wrong idea, I’d be curled up in a corner crying my eyes out. I don’t let it get to me. Besides, who cares?”

“I don’t know, I just thought it would bother you,” says Bucky, shrugging.

Steve stares at him in that way of his where suddenly Bucky can’t tell what he’s thinking – his face like a mask. Bucky hates it when Steve does that.

“Aw, come on. Don’t look at me like that.”

“I guess you care,” says Steve. “It bothers you, what that guy was after? What he thought I was? You think he’s right?”

“Don’t be dumb,” says Bucky, backing out of the conversation as fast as he can. He takes the folded bills out of his pocket, hiding it so no one can see, and palms it over to Steve. He gets up off his stool. “Here, take this. Enough for the rest of the month. Corrigan said check on Monday.”

“Where’re you going?” asks Steve, slipping the cash into an inside pocket.

“Got something to do,” says Bucky, vaguely. “I’ll see you later.”

“No you won’t,” says Steve.

Bucky pauses, then suddenly remembers. “Oh man, that’s right. I forgot, I’m taking Dot out dancing tonight.”

“How do you forget that?” asks Steve, honestly bewildered.

“I don’t know, I just did. You wanna come?”

Steve shrugs, which is Steve’s way of saying he does kind of want to go but he doesn’t want to be a third wheel.

“Come,” says Bucky, squeezing Steve’s shoulder just so he can touch him. “Dot loves you. Maybe she can teach you how to dance and you won’t be so hopeless.”

“Thanks,” says Steve, but his smile fades when Bucky downs the rest of the beer in just a few gulps. Bucky flips a couple of coins on the bar to pay for it. “Where’d you say you’re going again?”

“Nowhere,” says Bucky. “Just got something to do. I’ll be home before seven. Make something good for dinner.”

“Hm,” says Steve, musing. “Maybe I’ll find a corner, do some sketch work.”

“That’s the spirit,” says Bucky, patting Steve on the shoulder again but not letting his hand linger. A thought intrudes – tell him. Tell him now. But Bucky panics, dread like an ice pick spiking his chest. He’s not ready. “See you later,” he says, desperate to leave the dark murky bar and see sunlight.

But once he’s outside, the sky hits him in the face. It’s too bright, too blue. The ridiculous blue seems to drip from the sky, pour down on him, suffocate him more. It’s like a dome over the sky, pressing down.

He braces for the cold, pushing his collar back up around his ears. Outside, he spots the stranger who’d been hassling Steve standing near the bar entrance, smoking a cigarette. They look at each other, the moment dragging like the lingering smoke that smudges the air. There lay an unspoken tug-of-war between them. The stranger blinks and turns to stare blankly at the buildings across the street.

Bucky lets his feet carry him and tries not too think too much, headed north until he gets down to the abandoned end of Pier 6. Dilapidated and barely held together with string, the old warehouse has seen better days, but he’s heard a new operation is coming in, and will probably tear down the old building. That’s good. Means more work, maybe.

A pair of shoes and a puff of smoke mark the spot, Frankie’s nose sticking out from the hidden doorway. He’s leaning against the side, working on the last bit of a cigarette. When he sees Bucky he straightens, a smirk passing quickly over his face.

“Nice to see you,” he says. “What changed your mind?”

Bucky grimaces. “Do you mind if we don’t talk? This isn’t social hour for me.” He has to hop over some of the debris left scattered around the edge of the pier, tucking into the doorway so he faces Frankie.

Frankie takes a moment to study him, flicking the end of his cigarette to the ground, adding to the garbage. He’s changed a lot since their schoolyard days. His family got hit hard by the depression, harder than most, and Bucky can still see signs of it in Frankie’s sallow skin and his boney fingers searching for another cigarette in his near empty pack, sees it in the way his eyes devour everything, even when it isn’t food.

“Fine by me,” says Frankie. “We don’t have to talk.”

They stare at each other until Frankie makes the first move. He steps closer, taking hold of Bucky’s coat, pulling him in like he intends to kiss him, but instead he starts undoing Bucky’s belt. Adrenalin and shame flood Bucky’s veins, his heart pounding but he does nothing to stop Frankie.

In the distance, he catches movement near the top of the pier, close to the street. “Oh shit,” he says when he recognizes Steve carrying his sketchbook and searching for a good spot to sit with a view of the ships in the harbor. Of all the goddamn places Steve can pick, it has to be this one. Bucky feels a stab of fear, wondering if it means Steve knows. He grabs Frankie and pushes him further into the hidden doorway, out of Steve’s line of sight.

Frankie turns to see what spooked him, and laughs when he recognizes Steve. “If it’ll make this easier, you can call me Steve,” he says.

Bucky slams Frankie against the wall, his hand covering Frankie’s mouth. “Don’t say that,” he says. The church bells start clanging again inside his chest, ringing and ringing, as color drains away. “Don’t ever say that.”

Frankie’s still laughing. But his hair and skin and eyes turn gray like the wall and gray like the sky. Gray like the garbage and gray like Bucky’s metal arm, his metal hand and metal fingers that encircle around Frankie’s neck, squeezing hard.

The soldier feels calm settle over him inside the chilled gray landscape, watching the man squirm. He could squeeze a fraction harder, snap the man’s neck like a twig. But the clanging bells grow louder, becoming like a scream. LONG-ING, LONG-ING, LONG-ING. In the distance, he sees the tiny figure of Steve, staring out to the horizon, the only speck of color for miles and miles and years and years.

LONG-ING. LONG-ING. LONG-ING. That word bounces around the soldier’s skull.

“This isn’t real,” he says, and lets Frankie go. Bucky gulps in air like he’s the one being choked, eyes wide as he stares at his hand. His normal hand. The sky is blue again, rounded and dome-like. He blinks and searches for Steve, finds him exactly where he should be. He doesn’t – can’t – look away.

“All right,” says Frankie, a return of his easy-going nature. But he’s already started to disintegrate. The sea turns to smoke. The pier washes away. “I won’t mention his name, if it’ll make you feel better.”

Frankie resumes unbuckling Bucky’s pants, taking his half hard dick out. The air is cold but Frankie’s hands are warm. Bucky can hear his raspy breath. He keeps his eyes locked on Steve in the distance when Frankie’s mouth engulfs his dick. The world fades to ash.

*

Steve caught Bucky before he could tumble from the stasis unit, grasping him around the torso. “Easy, easy,” said Steve, as calmly as he could.

Bucky blinked at the lights, trying to move his legs. He looked down at his left side to the empty space where his metal arm would have been, making a noise of panic, unable to form words.

“You’re okay. You’re in Wakanda, Bucky,” said Steve, forcing Bucky to look at him. “Do you remember? Do you know who I am?” He tried to keep the worry from his voice. What if Bucky didn’t remember him? What if they had to start from the beginning all over again?

“Steve,” said Bucky, his voice little more than a croak. “What’s that moss growing on your face?”

Steve laughed softly, relief making him lightheaded. He rubbed at his beard. “It’s good to have you back.”

“How long was I under?” asked Bucky, glancing from Steve to T’Challa and Shuri, before trying to get more of his weight under him.

“About a year,” answered T’Challa.

Bucky turned to Shuri. Steve forced his hands to drop away. She stood on the other side, reading a diagnostic panel above his head, scanning him from top to bottom.

“A year? Did you fix me?” asked Bucky, and Steve tried not to wince at the hope he heard there.

Shuri smiled. “Almost. We have some work left to do, Sergeant Barnes. But never fear. We will fix you. Or, you will fix yourself.”

 

The Hydra Years

The soldier had a defect.

They said the words, and made his world a sliding scale between the pain of the chair and the cold of cryo. They put a gun in his hand and said he needed testing.

“Eliminate her,” said the man with the small round spectacles. His target: a girl of no more than sixteen years old. A failed recruit. She had tried to escape. He wished he knew the color of her hair, wished he knew how she looked when she smiled. She wasn’t smiling now, but instead cried for mercy, begged for freedom. He shot her between the eyes, the only mercy he could give her.

“Eliminate him,” said the man in uniform, his brimmed hat placed firmly on his head, military medals gleaming on his chest. His target: a traitor to the mother country. Older, balding, a belly that drooped over his belt. He’d lived a rich life, full of excess. The man went down on his knees, shaking as he folded his hands in front, praying in whispered words. He did not beg. Bucky stood behind him, and waited for the last word in his prayer before he shot the man through the top of his head.

“Eliminate him,” said the woman in the white lab coat, scribbling on her clipboard, her eyes hidden behind the glare of a pair of large glasses. His target: a young man with delicate features and pale hair, a too big Adams apple. An activist, he asked too many questions, caused too much noise. The young man stood absolutely still in the center of the room, terrified. He pissed his pants, but he didn’t move. The soldier raised his gun, staring at the young man’s eyes, the knobby joints at his wrists, the way his hair fell across his forehead. He tried to squeeze the trigger but he couldn’t do it.

“Eliminate him,” she repeated, annoyed she had to ask again. “Kill him now. That is an order.”

He tried again, his arm shaking. He tried again, and again, breathing hard. He raised the gun one last time and squeezed. The young man dropped dead, shot through one blue eye. The Soldier’s world exploded with color so bright it was like he’d turned the gun on himself. He cried out in pain, clutching his head. Blood dripped from his nose. The colors intensified until he tried to beat it out of his mind, clawing at his face, ripping at his hair. A team of men came into the room, and white-hot bolts of electricity coursed through his body until they could drag him away, placed him back in the chair, then back into the blissful release of the tank.

They were careful what his targets looked like after that. It was something Pierce chose to overlook.

 

Wakanda, In the Heart of a Mountain

Bucky showered and slept and ate and felt almost human again. Steve was there, trying not to hover. Bucky didn’t mind him hovering, but he didn’t say so. He was reasonably sure this was real, but he thought he saw the edges of the world begin to disintegrate, and it made him feel better to know Steve was nearby.

The next day they were brought to the heart of the mountain. All four of them – Shuri, T’Challa, Steve and Bucky – stood in the center of Shuri’s lab while music played in the background. Bucky could see the activity of the mines while guards stood discreetly in the corners. He was living in the future, he thought.

Shuri explained the science behind his treatment.

“Our stasis chambers are not like what was used on you previously. Before, you were kept cryogenically frozen. Essentially two steps removed from death, all bodily functions slowed to the barest minimum. But here, with our technology, although brain functions are slowed, there is activity, and we could monitor that activity. Map your synaptic responses.”

She pulled up ten different holograms and placed them in order. At first, to Bucky the holograms were just blobs of unformed light, but then, with a sick sort of fascination, he realized what they were.

“Always knew you had a special brain,” said Steve, patting him on the shoulder.

“Funny. You’re funny,” said Bucky. He turned to Shuri. “Are these each…” he didn’t finish the sentence. That sick feeling continued. It felt like fingers combed through his mind.

She tilted her head to look at him. “Yes. These are each a scan of your brain activity before, during, and after each trigger.” She went to the first hologram and it played forward like a video. He could see the neurons and synapses firing one after the other. Shuri pointed out what each light meant. “This is your reaction to the first word. This is its effect. The next word builds on the first, and so on. Once we had a map of how it hijacked your consciousness, we could target it, and reprogram the synapses.”

“Just like that? And you did this while I was sleeping?”

“Well,” she smiled. “It took time. And it had to be repeated for each word, and each word had many pathways that connected to the previous word. Think of it like a virus. In a human body, viruses inject their own genetic material into a human cell in order to replicate. These trigger words do the same thing. Viruses are hard to kill, but it can be done with help and the body’s own defenses. First we locate each virus, see its path, then help reprogram your synaptic response to deactivate it. Repeat that times ten.”

It was a lot of information, but he thought he understood. The enormity of what Shuri and T’Challa had done for him threatened to overwhelm. He struggled to find the words needed to express what he felt, what he owed them.

“Don’t thank me yet,” said Shuri with a kind smile. “Our work is not done. Now, we must test you outside of stasis.”

Dread flooded his system, and the vague sick feeling he had been trying to repress reared up again, rising into his throat. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

“I’ll be right here,” said Steve. “And T’Challa, too. You won’t be alone. We won’t let anything happen to you.”

Bucky shook his head. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“We will trigger you under controlled circumstances,” said Shuri, picking up a separate device from her worktable. “Not only will my brother and Captain Rogers be there, but this device will emit a targeted sonic disrupter. It won’t physically harm you, but it will knock you out.”

Bucky took in several breaths while the others waited for him to speak. He shook his head. “I guess I don’t have much choice, if I want to get this out of my head.” Steve took a step closer to him, took hold of Bucky’s shoulder. “If I hurt you,” said Bucky, his voice tight. “Hurt anyone…”

“You won’t. And I’ve survived worse.”

It was small comfort, but Bucky couldn’t help but match Steve’s smile. “All right. When do we start?”

Day One

Bucky insisted they try out the sonic disrupter on him first, to make sure it could knock him out. In a large open gym-like room near Shuri’s lab, equipped with a padded arena, he stood in the center with Shuri and T’Challa and Steve on the either side. In addition, guards stood at attendance, as well as Okoye and several of the Dora Milaje, ready to step in if needed.

He’d stayed away from Okoye so far. She didn’t seem to approve of him at all. He wanted to say he didn’t blame her.

Shuri aimed and fired. Bucky felt the blast hit him, painfully, and he went flying backward. When he came to about five minutes later, Steve helped him back up to standing. “Okay,” he said. “I guess that works.”

Next, T’Challa called over an older man who had hung back behind the others, introducing him as Obasi. “Obasi was a war dog assigned to the Soviet Union. He speaks fluent Russian. He will act as handler and say the words, as well as give the order for you to attack.”

Bucky met Obasi’s dark eyes that studied him without emotion, judging him. Well, he’s got the handler attitude right, thought Bucky. “Thanks, I guess,” said Bucky, more nervous than he could possibly admit. Obasi merely tilted his head, then moved into position beside the chair they brought for Bucky to sit in. Just looking at the chair made Bucky want to throw up.

“You can do this,” said Steve.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” said Bucky, to Steve and to Shuri as he took his seat, every inch of his body tense. They stuck sensors on him around his head, with more floating independently around the arena. Drones flitted in and around, filming and recording everything. “It’s now or never. Wake me when it’s over.” Then he nodded, to indicate he was ready.

Obasi spoke the first word. “Longing.”

Bucky met Steve’s eyes as the colors in the room faded away. He shook his head. Oh God, no. No. He couldn’t do this. The next word came, and then the next, and each sliced a part of Bucky off and threw it aside, until nothing remained but cold, gray, silence.

When he came to, the room lay in chaos. Both T’Challa and Steve had him pinned to the ground. The few pieces of furniture in the room were overturned or broken, shattered across the back wall. Several of the glass vibranium panels had gashes, like someone had taken one of the Dora’s spears and dragged it across. Another wall was dented, and a broken drone lay smashed to pieces on the ground. Okoye and two other Dora Milaje pointed their spears at him. Somewhere nearby a light was sparking. An alarm blared.

Without warning, Obasi started laughing like he’d just heard the funniest joke in the world, gesturing at the tumbled guards and general mayhem of the place. “He got you good,” he said in Russian to the Dora and the King’s Guard.

“My goodness,” said Shuri, running up to them. She beamed at Bucky, and seemed delighted despite the destruction. “It took three hits from the sonic disrupter before you went down. And that was without your arm. How do you feel?”

Shaking, not certain which way was up or down, Bucky let Steve hoist him up to standing, leaning all his weight onto him. “Lousy. I guess that failed? Is my head supposed to hurt?”

“There is no failure,” said Shuri, smartly. She scanned him with a kimoyo bead, already distracted as she examined the readings. “Only another chance to try again.”

He groaned. “Oh God.”

Day Three

To Steve, Bucky looked a mess after the first attempt – blood shot eyes, and green around the gills. “What does the headache mean?” Steve asked Shuri, trying not to mother hen Bucky too much, but at least Bucky was letting him.

“Micro aneurisms,” she said, expanding an image of Bucky’s brain, pointing out the small bleed that was already healing.

“Micro what?” asked Steve. “That sounds serious.”

Bucky frowned but didn’t seem surprised, rubbing at his head like he wanted to scratch the gray matter directly.

“It is. But do not worry.”

Bucky barked a laugh. “My brain’s bleeding and she says ‘do not worry.’ “You know, I kind of like you.”

“I kind of like you, too,” said Shuri, with an eyebrow rising. “They happened while you were in stasis as well. It’s actually a good thing, although I know it doesn’t feel very pleasant. But it means you’re fighting the old conditioning. Lie down. And close your eyes.”

She gently pushed Bucky onto his back, down onto the diagnostic table. Then, she made shooing gestures at Steve, and he was forced to stand outside the alcove. But he could still see how she aimed two laser-like things at Bucky’s head. Lines of light zigzagged over his face.

Shuri wanted twenty-four hours between attempts. Two days later, they tried again. This time, while triggered, Bucky used one of the Dora’s spears to gouge a hole in the arena floor, catapulting himself across the room. The window cracked. All of the Dora Milaje were out of breath and Steve was nursing a black eye. T’Challa was the one that stopped him, managing to get Bucky in a chokehold before Shuri used the disrupter, knocking both of them out.

“Sorry, brother,” said Shuri, way too sing-song when T’Challa came to and glared at her.

Later, when it was just the two of them in their rooms, Bucky lay on the couch and groaned, curled into a ball. “That damn disrupter feels like a horse kicked me in my kidneys. It’s hopeless, Steve. I don’t know how long I can do this.”

They were surrounded by holographic read outs and displays, frozen images from the video taken during each attempt.

Bucky pushed one of the floating holographs away from him. “If I have to see one more picture of the inside of my dumb brain, the next aneurism is gonna wipe me out.”

“Come on,” said Steve, trying to inject some optimism into his voice. “We’ve barely started. Shuri says there’s been progress. And she would know.”

“Maybe she’s just saying that to be kind.”

Steve pushed a different hologram over to him. It was paused on a still of Bucky’s face, just before he punched Steve. “Look at this moment,” said Steve.

Bucky closed his eyes. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. Look. You’re fighting it, Buck. I can see it. I can feel it.”

Their eyes met, and Steve knew Bucky was focusing on his black eye. It was almost healed, but the last time he checked there was still a faint greenish tinge to his skin. Steve suddenly felt every second of their one hundred years on this earth. How many times had Bucky seen Steve with a black eye?

“You think I’m making this up,” asked Steve. “Seeing something that’s not there. But you didn’t try to kill me. You decked me good,” he said, rueful. “But you didn’t try and kill me.”

“I punched you before,” said Bucky, looking like he forced the words out. “On the helicarrier.

“Yeah,” said Steve. “And you didn’t kill me then, either.”

Day Nine

Everything flooded into gray. Like he was lost in a thick fog and could only see the impression of things. The soldier was ready to comply.

Was this real?

“Eliminate him,” said his handler, in a cool easy tone, the words punching his ear. His target: tall, well muscled, strong. A familiar target. He knew this man. How did he know him?

He noted the obstacles to completing his mission. They had removed his left arm. They gave him no other weapon than his bare right hand. He counted six other high combat individuals, cataloguing their weapons and threat level.

The soldier charged, tossing aside any who stepped in his path until he wrapped his hand around his target’s neck.

He expected a fight. He expected begging and prayers and death. But he got none of those things. It was confusing, but his target didn’t fight back. Instead, he waved frantically at the others to back down, gasping, “Don’t, not yet. Wait….” His target’s eyes shifted to his. “Bucky. Look at me.”

The soldier looked. He saw the strain in his target’s face, felt the strength of his hands when he grasped the soldier’s arm. Then, his target touched his cheek, a thumb across bone.

His orders were to kill. But he did not want to do it. Why? And then, with a burst of color and pain, a memory came back to him, of Steve standing by a rusted gate. He looked different, but those eyes were the same. Blue eyes. Storm tossed skies after a spring storm, a splash of green. Bucky needed to tell him something.

The soldier inhaled, like he’d been holding his breath for a hundred years. “Steve?”

“Yeah,” gasped his target. Bucky immediately loosened his grip, and Steve sucked in air. “Yeah, Bucky. It’s me.”

“Steve,” said Bucky, staring with wonder at Steve’s too long hair that looked dumb and fell across his forehead. He stared at that scruffy beard. His hand still encircled Steve’s neck, but his fingers were lax, there to hold Steve up more than anything else. They stood close, practically leaning against each other. “It’s you.”

“Yeah, Bucky,” said Steve, struggling to speak.

“You’re crying,” said Bucky, frowning. “Why are you crying? Did I hurt you?”

Steve shook his head. “No. No, no reason. I’m just glad to see you.”

Bucky continued to frown. His surroundings began to filter in, become solid again, and he remembered where he was, why he and Steve were in this room in the heart of a mountain. Little things came into focus: the ever present noise from the mines, voices speaking nearby, in both English and the Wakandan dialect, his throbbing, aching head. But how much of it was real? Was any of it real?

“Steve,” he said, urgently, and Steve wiped at his eyes to meet his. “I have to tell you something.”

“Okay,” said Steve, a slight crease between his eyebrows. They hadn’t moved from each other. Nearby, Shuri excitedly scanned Bucky’s head. The Dora began returning the room to normal. T’Challa stood with Obasi, speaking quietly to each other. “Tell me what? What is it?”

“I have to tell you,” said Bucky, struggling to find the words. He didn’t know how to say it. Any moment now, this world of color and vibrancy and hope, this world of Steve and tomorrows – it might begin to fade. It might crumble around the edges. Turn to ash.

A guard ran in, heading straight for T’Challa and Steve. “An urgent message for Captain Rogers, your highness. Rerouted from his kimoyo bead when he failed to answer. It is Natasha Romanoff.”

The energy in the room took a hard left.

Bucky watched Steve absorb the news, the change that came over him was swift. Steve nodded. He gripped Bucky’s shoulder but stepped away from him, turning to T’Challa, and a moment later Romanoff’s face appeared as they combined their kimoyo beads for the feed.

“Steve,” said Natasha, visibly taking a breath when she saw him.

“Nat. What’s wrong?”

“Sam and I are okay. But there was a hit on the safe house.” She paused. “It’s Wanda. They’ve taken her.”

 

Italy, 1945

The Howling Commandos joined with the 107th in the north of Italy for resupply before their next mission. Agent Carter and Colonel Phillips were arriving in two days time. Till then, all they had to do is kick up their heels. Steve uses the time to go over intel, coming up with a plan. He has his eye on capturing Zola, and nothing else much matters.

Most days, Bucky doesn’t notice the constant itch that lies below his skin. He just tries to stay alive from one day to the next like everybody else, trying to make sure Steve doesn’t get his fool head shot off.

Restlessness drives him from their tent. He doesn’t want to sit and watch Steve work, going over maps and timetables and reports again and again, and he’s already cleaned and reassembled each of his guns. “I’m gonna get some air,” he says.

Steve mumbles something in answer but barely looks up from his maps. Outside, the January chill bites into his skin. The mottled clouds, gray over gray, makes Bucky shiver. He wanders over to the mess and finds Morita and Gabe playing a raucousy game of backgammon. How they make backgammon raucousy, Bucky has no idea. And where’d they find a backgammon board anyway? Dum Dum hollers at Morita, like an umpire. He wonders where Falsworth is hiding. Somewhere more sane, he assumes. The players draw a crowd, everyone yelling and talking over each other. Bucky hangs back and watches. Why did the world feel so hollow? Why did the sky curve like he’s in a glass bowl?

He doesn’t know how they find him. It’s not like he hangs a sign around his neck or anything, but give it ten, fifteen minutes tops, before a private or a corporal or some other rank came out of the woodwork to stand close to him. Often it’s someone Bucky has never seen before and will never see again. Usually, he shakes his head no, and they’re on their way.

The private – near Bucky’s height, with light brown hair and a smattering of freckles along his pale skin, his neat, too clean uniform indicating he’s a recent replacement – meets his eyes. The crowd bursts out in applause after Morita rolls the dice.

Bucky sighs. He knows it won’t help. “Not here,” he says, so no one else hears. Before he leaves, he tells Dum Dum he’s going for a walk. Dum Dum barely looks at him. He picks a direction. The private follows. There’s an abandoned cottage in the back woods, less than two klicks from camp.

Bucky enters the forest with a glance behind him to see if the private is still there. When he gets to the gate, he walks along it until arriving at the attached shed and barn. The sky threatens snow, but none falls. Instead, the trees are spindly and dead, rickety in the light breeze. Dried leaves, rotting with moisture, blanket and cushion the ground, muffling their steps. Everything is rusted: rusted gate near a rusted shed, holding what remains of rusted farm equipment.

At first, all they do is stare at each other. Bucky won’t make the first move. Jeez, he realizes the private is little more than a child – twenty, maybe even as young as eighteen. “My name is--”

Bucky shakes his head. “Don’t tell me your name.” The last time he got someone’s name, they ended up dead the next day. He’d rather not know.

The kid swallows, Adams apple sliding up and down, light brown eyes studying Bucky. He takes two shaking fingers and hooks them into Bucky’s belt. Bucky stops him, clamping a hand over the kid’s. He’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of. He suddenly doesn’t want to add to the pile. Instead, he cups the kid’s soft cheek, a thumb caressing one plump lip. “We’re not gonna do this,” he says.

“Wh-why not?” he asks, growing paler by the minute, shivering in the cold. His breath puffs in front of him. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” says Bucky. “Go on, get out of here. Get back before you’re missed.”

The kid hesitates. Behind them comes the sound of branches snapping from the forest path. Bucky turns to see Steve approaching. “Damn,” he says. The kid blanches to the color of the low hanging clouds.

“Oh my God, is that…?”

“Try not to wet your pants, okay?” says Bucky, taking a deep breath to face Steve.

“Buck. There you are.” Steve waves at him. He notices the kid and looks between them, back and forth. Realization changes Steve’s expression. His jaw muscles tighten, but he hides it well. “Private,” he says, with a nod.

The kid salutes and says, “Captain.” Bucky winces.

Steve shakes his head, raising a hand. “At ease. Am I interrupting something?” he asks, as polite as ever.

The kid turns a startling shade of scarlet. He could give Steve a run for his money in the blushing department.

“No,” says Bucky, and avoids looking at Steve as they all stand awkwardly in a circle. “Just getting some fresh air.” He catches the private’s attention and nods toward the path that leads back to camp.

The kid practically makes skid marks he’s out of there so fast, a blur among the trees. Bucky takes bets with himself on whether Steve is going to give him a lecture or pretend like nothing happened.

Once the kid is out of sight, Steve turns to him. “Want to tell me what that was about?”

Bucky sighs. “Not really. Not sure you want to hear it anyway. Besides I think you know, although nothing happened so you can untwist your knickers.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know, Steve. Do you really want to talk about this? Do you want me to say it? Now? After all these years? Here? You tell me what I’m thinking. What I’m feeling, ‘cause I sure as hell don’t know. I—”

He stopped speaking. Over Steve’s shoulder he sees a ghost of himself with long hair, wearing a mask over his lower face. He has a metal arm. It’s him, but Bucky doesn’t recognize those eyes. Those are soulless eyes. He feels his blood drain, and he can’t breath or speak.

“Whoa,” says Steve, that crease appearing between his eyebrows. He looks behind him but there’s nothing there. “Okay, buddy. Breathe. Come on, breathe for me.”

He takes Bucky by the shoulders, by the neck, and shakes him. His grip is so strong, and Bucky’s neck is so tight. Bucky audibly takes in air, raspy and harsh. Slowly, he looks away from the man with the metal arm and focuses on Steve. But is this the real Steve? He’s changed so much. Bucky searches for signs of that skinny kid who tried taking on four bullies in an alley once just to protect him, back when they were twelve. He’d loved that kid so much. Is this new Steve real? Is any of this real? The dome of the sky presses down. It starts snowing, white fluffy flakes that melt as soon as they land. The colors of Steve’s uniform, of the forest, of the snow falling and the rusted gate behind them, they all begin to vibrate.

Tell him, he thinks. Steve keeps looking at him full of concern, rubbing at Bucky’s shoulders and his neck. He’s speaking to him, but Bucky can’t hear what he’s saying. Tell him. This is his chance. His one chance. Tell him before it’s too late. Before everything begins to fall apart.

“Steve?” he says, and waits for Steve to meet his eyes.

“Yeah?” asks Steve. It strikes him then, more than at any other time, how goddamn handsome Steve is. Snow dusts his hair. Flakes of it land on his eyelashes. Soon, everything is covered in the stuff. The cold has made the tips of Steve’s ears red. Has brought a flush to his cheeks. Bucky tells himself he will never forget that color, knowing it’s a lie. He cries for that silent man standing just outside his field of vision who doesn’t get to remember this. Steve wipes at Bucky’s tears. “Aw, Come on, Buck. What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I…”

There’s a rustle of leaves, and someone calls for Steve. They turn to see Agent Carter a short distance away, heading for them through the trees. Good grief, thinks Bucky. He’s never allowed to pick a secluded hideaway ever again. He’s clearly the worst at it.

She’s early. They weren’t expecting her for two more days.

“Steve,” he says again, but as always happens when Peggy Carter arrives, Steve gives her all of his attention. He has only moments. Tell him.

But he knows it’s too late. Bucky should be jealous of Peggy. Maybe he is a little, but he cares for Steve too much, and he likes Peggy. She’s great for him. Mostly he wants to yell at Steve to get on with it already, for everyone’s sake. If he has only moments, then they have only moments, too.

Steve moves to greet Peggy but Bucky stops him, taking hold of his arm. The snow thickens and Bucky can’t hold onto him any longer. The entire world dissolves into ash.

 

The Rescue of Wanda Maximoff

Natasha brought him up to speed quickly. A team of six invaded their safe house four hours ago, managing to subdue both Sam and Nat while using some kind of device on Wanda that limited her powers.

“Where are they taking her?” asked Steve, sensing Bucky right beside him.

“We were able to track them as far as the border between Texas and Mexico. We lost the signal after that, however our drones picked up the trail again at a compound about fifty miles south of the border. We believe that’s where they’re holding her.” She paused, then added, “And there’s something else.”

Natasha sent aerial images taken by drones of a large sprawling compound. There was an explosion in one of the larger buildings. The images from different angles showed half the ceiling caved in, while a red mist formed a bubble over the building. In the first picture, the bubble of energy was maybe eight feet in diameter. But in the next few pictures, Steve could see its progression. Twelve feet. Twenty. It seemed to be getting bigger, taking over the building, and the compound.

“What have they done?” asked Steve, frowning as he studied the images.

“I don’t know,” said Nat. “She’s either fighting it, or…”

“Or whatever they’ve done has turned her powers outward. That whole area is in trouble. Are there civilians?”

“There’s a town, a few miles south of the location. Maybe ten, fifteen thousand people. Steve,” she said. “Right now, no one else has wind of this. But it’s not going to remain that way for long. If Ross is tipped off, or Rhodey – they’ll know it’s her. They’ll come after her.”

Steve closed his eyes briefly, his shoulders slumping. “Understood. How much time do you think we have?”

“Between whatever’s happening to her and Ross? Hours. Six at the most.”

“We’ll have to get to her before then. I’ll take the jet. Get there as soon—”

T’Challa cleared his throat. He’d been standing on Bucky’s other side. “If you will allow me, Captain, my Royal Talon Flyer can get us there faster.”

Steve was momentarily lost for words. “Thank you, your highness. But I can’t ask you to do that. You’ve done so much already.”

“Okoye as already notified the other Dora, and the Flyer is ready to leave now. Please allow me to help,” said T’Challa, insistent but with a glint of amusement, knowing Steve really couldn’t refuse.

“I…” Part of him wanted to be stubborn about it, but who was he kidding. He could definitely use the help. “Of course,” he said. “Thank you.”

T’Challa began shouting orders, and suddenly there was non-stop activity as everyone prepared for the mission.

He turned to Bucky. “I’m sorry,” he said. Bucky had wanted to say something to him, before they were interrupted, but now the moment passed and there wasn’t any time.

“Don’t be dumb. Of course you have to help your friend,” said Bucky.

Steve took hold of Bucky’s head, combing his fingers though Bucky’s hair, pushing it out of his face. “Does it hurt?”

Bucky nodded. “It’ll go away. Steve,” he said. “How serious is it?”

He sighed, and kept gently massaging Bucky’s temples. “Serious enough. Her powers are… they can cause a lot of damage. We have to get to her first, try to contain this.”

“I should go with you,” said Bucky.

“Absolutely not. Bucky, you can’t go. You should rest. Let Shuri treat you.”

“You said this is serious, and you’ve only got six hours, Steve. You don’t know what you’re going to find once you get there, what state she’s going to be in. How many can safely go up against her? You. Me. T’Challa, maybe. You’ll need all of us. If Shuri can get rid of the headache fast, I’m going.” He paused, sliding his eyes away. “I know I can’t be much help in a fight, like this.”

Steve shook his head. He wanted to point out the gouge in the arena floor and the crack in the window, to remind Bucky of just what he was capable of with only one arm. He did those things while triggered, and it hadn’t been the real Bucky. The real Bucky looked conflicted at the mere suggestion of fighting again. “Are you kidding? I let you loose, and the fight’ll be over in five minutes.”

But these attempts to break the conditioning weren’t a walk in the park. Bucky should be resting as much as he could. Not to mention what might happen if Rhodes showed up.

Reading his hesitation, Bucky squeezed his blood shot eyes. “Sorry, it was a bad idea. Forget—”

“Yeah, it is a bad idea,” interrupted Steve, but how could he say no to Bucky, when he wanted to help? Tears stung his eyes. He was turning into a sap, crying every five minutes. “If Shuri says it’s okay. Then—I could sure use you by my side.”

Bucky let go a breath, and Steve took his head in his hands again, massaging because he knew it sometimes helped.

Twenty minutes later they were in the air, and four hours after that, they coordinated with Natasha and Sam on the ground, landing the entirely cloaked Flyer outside the compound. An explosion rocked the earth, and they all turned to see the red bubble of energy expand. There was yelling and screaming as several people ran for cover, running away.

They met up with Natasha and Sam and quickly figured out a game plan. “Nat and Sam, you get as close as you can, and provide cover. T’Challa and I will get to her.”

“I’m going with you,” said Bucky, struggling to buckle his tactical gear one handed, keeping a Wakandan cloth draped over his empty left side.

Steve shook his head. “You should stay near Okoye, provide back-up.”

“Nope,” said Bucky, defiant and stubborn. “I’m going with you. That’s the deal.”

Steve opened his mouth to argue more, but another explosion made everyone flinch and duck for cover. There wasn’t any time. All four of them – Steve, Bucky, T’Challa, and Okoye (who similarly to Bucky refused to leave T’Challa’s side) – ran toward the burning building. The smell of ozone, dust, and burning ash filled the air. Ten feet from the edge of the energy bubble, several men attacked, cutting T’Challa and Okoye off from the others, and preventing them from going further. They engaged the men, T’Challa taking two at a time. He shouted, “Go. We’ll handle this.”

Steve and Bucky ran on, stopping at the edge of the bubble. It seemed like a physical thing.

“Is it going to hurt?” asked Bucky, making a face as he raised his eyes over the zapping, chaotic energy.

“Probably,” said Steve. He suddenly knew this was a very bad idea. “And probably a lot more. Listen, I don’t think you should go in there. Wanda has… well. She can make you see things.”

Bucky shrugged, wary but undeterred. “Half the time, I don’t know what’s real anyway. It won’t be any different.”

Another explosion rocked the ground, and the choice was taken away from them as the bubble expanded and swallowed them up.

Steve

The silence surprised him, after the noise of the compound – the shouting and random gunfire, explosions going off. But it was dead silent inside the bubble. Bucky vanished from his side, there one second and gone the next. He called to him, but heard nothing back, his voice echoing. At first Steve thought he was in that old abandoned church in the center of the Sokovian town. Then, he thought he was in Strücker’s fortress, wandering empty halls. He heard the high-pitched laughter of children playing somewhere he couldn’t see.

This was where Wanda and her brother grew up. Inside these walls. This had been their entire world. He tried calling for her, and for Bucky, his voice echoing. He figured the only way to find either of them was to keep moving.

He kept turning corners.

With one step he was in Sokovia, and with the next he was in New Jersey. He recognized the walls of the wooden barracks at Camp Lehigh. There were shadows moving around him of the soldiers who’d lived and breathed and moved through these rooms. Steve sat down on one narrow bed and faced his smaller, skinnier alter ego. He sat exactly where Erskine once had, before the procedure that changed him forever. The younger Steve was too busy unpacking his books to look at him.

Steve mirrored his younger self. “Do you know what will happen?” he asked.

“And if I did? Would I choose differently?” asked the other Steve.

Their eyes met, and they studied each other. He felt judged and found lacking, even though arguably he was the better Steve – enhanced, stronger, healthier. All that strength, and on the day it mattered most, he couldn’t save Bucky. Maybe this younger, more gentle Steve, maybe he could have succeeded where he failed. Maybe it hadn’t been about physical strength at all.

He understood what he owed the younger Steve. He couldn’t be the man he was now without the little guy, without the gift he gave.

His younger self continued to watch him, but with a slow smile pulling at his lips. He stood, all five feet four inches of him, and he took Steve by the shoulders. “Go save them. All of them.”

“All of them?” he asked. “What do you mean?”

But the younger Steve dissolved into smoke and the barracks were empty again.

Bucky

At first, Bucky kept one eye on Steve’s back as the haze of red energy enveloped them, while he searched through the mist with the other. He hadn’t anticipated how upside down and topsy turvy it would be. He panicked when he lost Steve, cursing under his breath.

All right, he thought, let’s do this systematically. Check around each corner, check every room. The building was partially destroyed, falling down around his ears. He’d brought a sidearm but no rifle, and had only brought the sidearm because Steve insisted. He was nervous about being armed when he wasn’t sure the triggers were out of his head yet.

He moved as quickly as he could. The ground moved as well, swaying back and forth, and Bucky realized he was on a train. He was on the train, speeding through the Austrian Alps: a blast of ice-cold wind, the flashing light of snow and mountains, the clickity-clack, clickity-clack. The scream of the train going around a bend at speed.

Before he could do anything about it, the Hydra goon was there, firing his weapon, and Bucky was blasted out of the freight car, hang on to the twisted metal. He screamed, searching for Steve. Where was Steve?

This isn’t real.

A cold metal hand grabbed him and he looked into the face of the masked Winter Soldier, hanging over the edge of the train with his long hair whipping in every direction. The metal arm hauled Bucky back into the safety of the freight car. He gasped for breath, his heart beating practically in his ears.

He stared at the soldier, and the soldier stared back. The train continued at high speed, rocking and swaying back and forth.

The soldier took Bucky’s sidearm, and flicked off the safety. “Longing,” he said, in clear, easy Russian, speaking through his mask.

A shudder rippled through Bucky’s body. He winced. “No.”

“Rusted. Seventeen. Daybreak,” said the soldier. He paused, blinking once, then added, “Furnace.”

Maybe it wouldn’t happen this time. Maybe he could stop it. The world stripped of color, but everything was gray on the train already: gray snow, gray mountains. He couldn’t tell the difference between real and imaginary. “Please don’t.”

The soldier grabbed Bucky’s right hand – the metal stung Bucky’s bare skin, and placed the gun into his palm, wrapped his fingers around the hilt. “Nine. Benign. Homecoming. One.”

He struggled to free himself, but the soldier’s metal hand was unforgiving, and he forced Bucky to raise the gun, pointing it at the soldier’s temple. They were locked together. “Don’t do this,” he begged. “Please, don’t say it.”

Blue eyes locked on blue. Relentless. That was the soldier’s one true talent. He was relentless. “Freight car.”

Bucky felt the cold drip down his back, freezing his heart, slicing through his body. Debilitating, all encompassing, each one of the trigger words was like a finger digging into his brain. Everything went gray. “Ready to comply.”

“Eliminate your target.”

Pressure to pull the trigger. Those cold gray eyes wouldn’t let him go. The weight of the gun, pushing into the soldier’s temple hard enough to dent his skin. The screaming inside his head matched the screaming of the train’s wheels over the track, matched the echo and memory of Bucky’s screams as he fell, reverberating across the mountains.

If he had another hand, Bucky would have taken the mask off the soldier’s face to let him breathe freely. His head throbbed. Bleeding. “I won’t do it,” he said, with a burst of bright fresh pain blinding in intensity.

The soldier’s eyes didn’t leave his as he slowly dissolved into the red mist, taking the train with him. Bucky took in a jagged breath, wiping blood from his nose. His head ached, but he thought the pain kept the illusions at bay, let him see what was real and what wasn’t.

He was still in the half demolished building. Things shifted in the shadows: memories and might-have-beens and twisted versions of reality, but through the red haze he saw a path. He gritted his teeth and continued.

Steve

Steve followed the sound of children’s laughter. Sometimes it was the twins, Wanda and Pietro, playing in the abandoned halls of the fortress. Other times, it was two boys, one blond and one brunet.

A twelve-year-old Bucky stopped in front of him, head tilted to one side. “Did ya lose something?”

“Yeah,” said Steve, drinking in the sight of him. “Pretty dumb of me.”

“I’ll say. Come on.” Bucky waved for him to follow, and then took off. Steve ran after him. Bucky led him through the red maze, always just out of reach. Another explosion rocked the ground, the red energy whipping around him. He was getting close, he could tell. He called for Wanda and for Bucky, and heard an answering, “Steve!”

Bucky, the real Bucky, appeared through the mist. Steve sighed with relief. “Where’d you go?”

“Austria, I think. Took a train trip,” said Bucky.

“What?” said Steve, staring at him. It was hard to tell with the red haze veiling everything, but Steve saw signs of one of Bucky’s headaches.

“I don’t know, I’ll tell you later. I think she’s this way.”

Steve followed Bucky, and they found Wanda bound and gagged in the center of a room with no ceiling and only half a wall remaining. Some kind of alien tech was attached around her neck, digging into the base of her skull. But she wasn’t alone. A tall, blond-haired man was with her, kneeling by her side, holding her face between his hands. The man turned, and Steve took a sharp breath in. It was Pietro.

“Hurry,” said Pietro. “She can’t hold on much longer.”

It took a split second for Steve to realize Pietro wasn’t real. Just a memory. He and Bucky rushed forward. The image of Pietro turned back to his sister, speaking to her. Her eyes were fire red, tears streaming down her face, energy shooting out of her uncontrollably. Whatever Pietro said to her calmed her down enough for Steve and Bucky to get close.

The alien tech appeared buried in her spine, and Steve feared removing it would hurt or kill her, but Bucky didn’t hesitate and snapped the band around her neck with one hand. The clamps released from the base of her skull. She gasped, her eyes glowing, and Steve had only a moment to grab Bucky and duck. One last explosion of red energy threw both of them back as Wanda cried in relief.

 

The White Wolf

Obasi took his time, showing Bucky around the different huts, introducing him to the locals. The adults seemed as if they could take or leave him, although they were each very gracious, but the children followed Obasi and Bucky as he continued his tour, laughing and whispering to each other. There was the lake and the animal paddocks, the grazing land and the hay fields. Obasi seemed to enjoy the large vegetable garden the most.

The one-room huts looked rustic and poor, but they had most modern conveniences, if not in the traditional western way, and cleverly disguised. “You can control most things with your kimoyo beads,” said Obasi, speaking in Russian, demonstrating how to raise and lower a privacy force field around his hut, if he didn’t want to be disturbed. There were many strange discoveries for Bucky to make in his new temporary home.

The locals prepared a meal for them, even though it was already mid-morning and they had all eaten with the sunrise. It would be impolite to turn it down, even though Bucky wasn’t hungry. Obasi and Bucky sat on the ground on cushioned straw mats, sheltered from the sun by a makeshift looking awning made from a length of fabric stretched over a few poles. It looked flimsy, but the fabric was vibranium, and there were a set of controls on one pole that could dial how opaque or see-through they wanted the fabric. A subtle force field kept the bugs at bay.

Obasi went on to tell him stories of his time as a war dog in the Soviet Union. It had been a difficult assignment, there being only a few black Russians. He had been a professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, which gave him ties to the government. “You know, I heard stories of you among those I met who worked for the KGB.”

Bucky gave him a tight smile. “The world’s best kept secret.”

Obasi’s eyes crinkled, but then his expression turned serious as he studied Bucky. “The stories always gave me chills. If I had known they were true…”

“You couldn’t have done anything. For your sake, it’s better you never knew. Believe me,” said Bucky, shaking his head.

Obasi frowned, but didn’t argue. The village children had gathered around them, not daring to get too close, but whispering and laughing to each other.

“What are they saying?” asked Bucky, curious, and wanting to change the subject.

Flashing a lot of white teeth, Obasi laughed, then turned and hollered at the children in swift Xhosa, shooing them away. They yelled back, but then scattered like a flock of birds, running every which way. “They were describing what you looked like, what you were. They said you looked like a white wolf.”

“Huh,” said Bucky. He’d been called far worse things.

“Well, my friend,” said Obasi, taking Bucky’s hand in his large grasp, clapping him hard on his shoulder, then he pointed at the path that led to the road. Steve strode across the green field, wearing his worn out and frayed uniform. “You’re about to have your first visitor, and it is time I leave you. If you need me, just use your communication bead.”

“Thank you, for everything,” said Bucky.

Obasi shook his head. “Thank you for allowing me to speak Russian again. It’s been decades since I’ve had a chance, and I find that I miss it.”

They parted, and Obasi and Steve paused briefly to greet each other before Obasi continued on, and Steve made his way over to Bucky, sitting down in the spot Obasi vacated.

“Is this home now?” asked Steve, looking around. “It’s nice.”

Bucky smiled. “You like? My hut is your hut. I’d show you around, but you’re pretty much looking at all of it.”

Steve was doing that thing he did, when he kind of wanted to say something, but didn’t know how to go about it. He took a breath, opened his mouth, then nothing came out, and he smiled instead. Bucky considered going easy on him. And he was one to talk. How many years had he failed to tell Steve the truth? This was a perfect opportunity. Right now, before Steve stood up again and walked down that road, and flew away in the quinjet.

Tell him.

One of the village children, a girl with large doe-like eyes, walked over to Steve carrying a cup, one foot placed carefully after the other to make sure she didn’t spill. She solemnly held out the cup for Steve to take. “For you. Captain America.”

Bucky saw a flash of pain and amusement cross Steve’s face as he took the cup from the young girl’s hands. “Thank you,” he said, smiling. He gently touched her cheek.

Her eyes widened and she burst out in a high pitch squeal, running back to her friends who were all just as loud as she was, chattering quickly with each other, mimicking swooning with crazy gestures.

Bucky laughed. “I guess you can charm the ladies sometimes.”

Steve gave him a look, then took a sip of his drink. “Thanks.” He downed the rest of it, then played with the empty cup. “I have to go, Buck.”

“I know,” said Bucky. “How’s Wanda?”

“They made it back to the Barton farm. She’s resting. They say she’ll be okay.”

“Isn’t Barton under surveillance?” asked Bucky.

“Yeah. Don’t ask. It’s some kind of spy thing between Natasha and Clint. They swear it’s safe. But that’s why I wasn’t here this morning. Natasha called with intel on the men who took Wanda. I’ve got to get back.”

“I know, Steve. I get it.” There was a long beat of silence between them. The children were no longer squealing, settling down in their usual tight knot, whispering to each other. “Thank you,” he said.

Steve closed his eyes, and shook his head, but at least he didn’t argue he didn’t deserve thanks. “Shuri say what’s next for you?” asked Steve.

Bucky took in a deep breath, then let it go as he gazed out to the lake. The day was sliding into high noon. Everyone headed indoors or took cover under a tree, or went into the woods to avoid the brunt of the sun’s power. “Rest, she said. At least a week of sleep. We don’t have to use the trigger words anymore, thank God. But she said there’s still work to be done.”

“I’m proud of you,” said Steve.

Bucky opened his mouth, but then he closed it again. It was his turn to accept praise he didn’t think he deserved.

Steve took his hand in his, then gripped his shoulder. “Bye, Buck. I’ll see you soon.”

He stood up to leave, getting a few feet away before Bucky called to him. “Wait.”

Steve returned so they stood face-to-face. Tell him.

But if he did, how could he watch him leave? They stood awkwardly, then Steve smiled, and they stepped into a hug. Bucky brought his arm around Steve and held tight, taking long deep breaths. He waited for the moment when the world would start to turn to ash, but it didn’t happen. Instead, they parted, and he had to watch Steve walk away instead.

 

The Battle of Wakanda

With a horde of weird dog-like aliens bearing down on him, Bucky thought this would be a good time for everything not to be real. No such luck. He mowed as many of the aliens down as he could, but they still managed to get past his gunfire. His metal arm shielded his face, but he was overrun, flat on his back and desperately avoiding the dog-alien’s claws.

Someone flung the alien aside, tossing it into the fray where it got squashed by Banner in the Hulk Buster suit. Bucky looked up and saw Steve standing over him, offering him a hand.

Steve patted Bucky all over, checking for injuries. Bucky caught his breath. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” he said. In the midst of the battle, Steve gave him a smile, and Bucky almost told him then. They didn’t have much time, with another murderous dog-alien bearing down on them. Steve began punching his way through.

“Hey Steve,” he called, taking his rifle and shooting the alien’s head off. “Remember that time, when we were twelve, and you took on Sullivan and friends in an alley.”

“How could I forget,” said Steve. “I had that black eye for three weeks.”

They paused, the battle raging on around them. I loved you then.

He thought it. He wanted to say it. Steve’s eyes rested on him as they stood there, until they couldn’t ignore the clamoring beasts anymore.

Later, when the edges of the world began to dissolve, he tried to get to Steve, to look at him one last time.

 

Rusted Gate, Redux

There’s a golden amber light that paints the air, suffusing the very molecules that dance around. It’s beautiful, he thinks. That hadn’t been there before. The forest trees, the rusted gate, even the old shed, are outlined in the orangey-golden light. Snow falls, flakey golden snow, dusting Steve’s hair and his eyelashes.

It’s like sunset. No – he corrects himself – no, it’s more like daybreak.

This isn’t real, he thinks. It’s the impression of a memory, the dust that’s left over. The outline of the rusted gate.

“Steve?” he says, and waits for Steve to meet his eyes.

“Yeah?” asks Steve, with that worried crease. He’s holding Bucky by the shoulders.

How many times has he replayed this scene? The young private, the forest path, the rusted gate. Steve and him. This last chance to tell him. He knows what’s about to happen. Why can’t he tell him? How many times has he tried to change how it ends? Maybe this time, he can get it right.

The amber light grows stronger. It begins to eat everything. “I have to tell you something,” he says, but he can barely see Steve through the burning brightness.

“All right,” says Steve. “I’m here.”

Bucky opens his mouth, but all that comes out is more light. “I can’t.”

“Sure you can,” says Steve. “See that?” He points, but the light is all around them. “When you get to the end, then you can tell me.”

The light begins to crack through Steve’s skin, breaking out of him. It swallows him whole. It blinds Bucky entirely. It consumes everything until nothing’s left, and Bucky is left lying flat on the ground, staring up at the trees and the sky and the sun.

*

He felt wind on his face, and grass underneath him. Breathe in, breathe out. He took in a big shuddering breath and his heart beat in his chest. Both hands, one metal, one flesh.

“Bucky,” cried Steve, kneeling beside him, touching him all over with disbelief. This was the real Steve, battered and shining and crying with relief. He was suddenly beardless again, and wearing different clothes. Steve picked him up from the ground. They were in Wakanda, on the field of battle. But the battle was over. Or was it?

“What just happened?” asked Bucky. Not far, he saw Sam being helped by Rhodes, and Okoye helping T’Challa. Romanoff helped Wanda. There were blinking bewildered people everywhere. Bucky got the sense he’d missed a great deal. It was not unlike waking up from cryo. “Did we win or lose?”

Steve had to take a moment to answer. “Both,” he said, with effort. “But we got you back. We got everybody back.”

 

Daybreak

It took days for everything to settle. Steve wouldn’t talk about the previous year. Or maybe he couldn’t. Bucky got bits and pieces of the story from others, until he could patchwork most of it together: what happened after the snap, the entire universe crippled. The six Avengers had triumphed in the end, and recovered all those lost souls, but Bucky could see the toll it had taken on Steve.

Bucky had an easier time of it than Sam or T’Challa, or any of the others. He was used to waking up from cryo after months or years, or sometimes even decades, having passed. He was used to the accompanying disorientation, the sense of displacement, wondering what was real and what wasn’t.

Those that came back exchanged stories of the soul plane, the dream-world they could sometimes remember. He kept his stories to himself.

With Steve preoccupied with Avengers business, shepherding the return of half of humanity back into the hole it had left behind – like it could fit the same – and figuring out the role of enhanced individuals going forward after the Sokovia Accords, Bucky decided he should return to his hut in the village and wait it out. Steve seemed to both need and want him nearby, but he also couldn’t stand to look at Bucky for any length of time. Bucky could give him space, if that’s what Steve needed.

When he arrived in the village, he saw how much it had changed. Signs of neglect, the fields and gardens gone unattended, repairs needed for many of the huts and animal paddocks damaged by the aliens. He was sad to hear Obasi had been killed in the battle. But, with the return of their people, the village buzzed with activity again. There was a lot of work to be done.

The young girl Amahle came running up to him, afraid to get too close and pausing a couple of feet away. He knelt down to her level, taking in her large doe-like eyes that shimmered. She’d grown taller in the intervening year. A beat passed as they stared at each other, then she started talking in a mixture of Xhosa and broken English. He learned that she alone of the village children had survived the snap. She’d lost all her friends, for that entire year.

“When you did not return with the others, I feared you would not come back at all,” she said, her voice light and musical as she held back tears.

“I’m here,” he said, and then he held her close. For the next few days, he carried her around on his hip, or on his back with her arms around his neck, while he did his chores and helped with repairs.

That was how Steve found him three days later, with Amahle clinging to his back as he fed and watered the goats for the evening. The other children were all perched or hanging onto the paddock fence, the sun beginning to set behind them. He heard Steve before he saw him, walking across the field, tall and golden. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, dressed instead in civilian clothing.

Bucky met him by the paddock gate. He didn’t know what he had been expecting. That they’d run into each other’s arms across the field?

He let Amahle slide down and spoke to her and the other kids in Xhosa. “I’ve got to talk to Steve. It’s almost meal time for you anyway.”

She and the others nodded solemnly, smiling shyly at Steve before scampering off in a cloud of chattering laughter.

He turned to Steve. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

Steve had a soft expression, watching him with the kids. He smiled. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Like most of the village, Bucky cooked and ate outside, and he crouched down by his stove to prepare a light meal for both of them, pouring each a cup of chilled mango juice to go with it. They sat on cushioned mats, and he felt Steve watching, catching the question in his eyes.

Bucky glanced down at his empty left side. The metal arm was in his hut, but he’d gotten used to working without it during his recovery. He shrugged, grimacing a little. “If I need it, I can put it back on,” he said, handing Steve’s bowl to him. “The new arm is better than the old one. It’s nicer. Cleaner. It has less history. But the arm was always… it’s more of a weapon than anything else. It somehow doesn’t seem right to bring it into this space. Not if I have a choice, anyway.”

Steve shook his head. “You don’t have to explain.” It looked like he wanted to say something else, but then he fell silent again. It was unnerving how Steve kept watching him, his eyes following Bucky’s every movement.

Realizing what he was doing, Steve shook himself out of it and glanced down at his barely touched food before gazing out in the direction of the lake. The sunset painted swathes of pink and orange across the surface of the water. “It’s beautiful here.”

“It is. I wake up every morning just… in awe.” They fell into another strained silence. Bucky tried to guess what the problem might be. “What’s happening out there, in the real world? Is everything settled?”

Steve shrugged, and shook his head. “Oh. More or less. Sam and Natasha and Wanda have been invited back. And just to warn you, they’re going to ask you to go to the compound, too.”

“What? Me? I’m a fugitive.”

Steve shook his head. “Not any more, pal.” Then he laughed at Bucky’s expression. “They’ve asked me back, too, to take up the shield again.” He took a hasty sip of his juice, swallowed. “I told them no.”

“Really?” asked Bucky, although he wasn’t surprised at all. “How’d they take that?”

“Uh, as well as you’d expect. After everything that’s happened, they want as much stability as possible. I told them I was sorry, but I just couldn’t do it.”

Bucky poked at his food, but it seemed neither of them was very hungry. “What about your girl?” Steve gave him a quizzical look. “The one that helped us in Germany.”

“Sharon,” said Steve, with realization. “She’s great. She’s in Europe, I think.” He paused and shook his head. “We’re not together.”

Oh. At least the memory didn’t seem painful. That was something, considering Steve’s history. “So, what’s in store for you next?”

Steve did that funny Steve thing where he took in a breath, shook his head, but then smiled. “Sam asked me once what I wanted to do if I got out. I didn’t have an answer then. I still don’t. Guess I should start figuring it out.”

“You’re welcome to stay here as long as you like,” said Bucky, magnanimously. “Herd goats with me.”

He laughed, since it was meant as a joke. Maybe Steve blushed, but it could have also been the sunset casting a glow of pink over him. “Thanks… I…” Steve fell silent again, his gaze unfocused as his eyes dropped to the ground.

And here they were, finally. Bucky remembered the other Steve, the one from the soul plane, who said, “When you get to the end, then you can tell me.”

“Steve? Can I tell you something?” Bucky’s stomach twisted up into knots, and he tried to make sure his hand wasn’t shaking without being obvious about it. He set his cup down, afraid he was going to spill.

Steve pulled himself out of his reverie once again, and gave him his full attention. “Of course. You can tell me anything.”

“I’ve wanted to say this since…” he paused, thinking. “Well, since we were kids. Maybe it’s dumb. Maybe it doesn’t need to be said. But I wanted to tell you how much you mean to me, and how much I love you.”

Steve went completely still, like he’d just been pulled out of cryo and couldn’t remember how to breathe, except that his eyes were alive.

“And, you know, I mean,” and Bucky felt his cheeks burn with heat. “I love you in all the kinds of ways. What Dum Dum used to call gushy love… but it doesn’t mean…I’m not saying that it has to be like that. It’s how everyone says it should be, um… what’s the word? Unconditional. I love you in all kinds of ways, whatever and however, unconditionally.”

He was rambling now, and couldn’t stop. Steve hadn’t moved a muscle, but was consuming each of Bucky’s words silently.

“Whether you love me back or not. Whether you want to be with me or not, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying this to you to make you do anything. We’ve just… since we were kids, Steve. So many times I wanted to tell you what you mean to me. So many times we could have lost each other – and you know, that’s life, especially our lives, but to lose you, when I didn’t get a chance to tell you? That hurt. That—”

Steve’s face crumbled then. He shut his eyes and lowered his head.

“You’re crying? Why are you crying?” Bucky asked, trying to get Steve to look at him. He laughed a little, but gently, and cupped Steve’s face with his hand to wipe at the tears. Steve couldn’t answer, those eyes of his wet and shiny. “I wanted to tell you in Italy. That day. The day before we went after Zola. Remember? But I wasn’t in a good place, and there was Peggy. I didn’t want to mess that up, or make it difficult. Just life and things got so complicated—”

“God, Bucky,” said Steve, finally interrupting him, his eyes and his nose red, those long ridiculous eye-lashes clumped together. “Stop talking.”

Then, he took Bucky’s face between his hands and kissed him, wet and slobbery and tasting of tears. So, it’s the gushy kind of love, thought Bucky, his insides zinging. A first kiss, almost one hundred years in the making.

Bucky made a noise, and they broke apart to look at each other. Steve wiped at his runny nose and leaking eyes, gorgeous even when snotty. He laughed, and Bucky laughed.

“Do that again,” said Bucky.

Steve kissed him again, delving deeper. Bucky rose off his mat, moving with Steve, opening up more so Steve could taste all of him. Steve held him steady, a little off balance without his arm. They broke apart.

Catching his breath, Bucky stared at Steve’s mouth, pink and glistening. Steve licked his lips. “Again,” he said.

They crashed together, hungry and stumbling, all skill and finesse gone with the sunset. Bucky grunted, unwilling to break the kiss as they fumbled their way into his hut, almost knocking the whole thing over. Luckily it was made with vibranium, and could handle a couple of supersoldiers slamming sideways into its walls before they fell onto the bed.

“Wait, wait,” said Bucky, pushing Steve off to find the kimoyo beads he kept near his pillows, pressing the bead that sent the privacy shield up around the hut. He didn’t want Amahle or any of the other kids accidentally getting an eyeful. They tended to wander into his hut without warning. “Do not disturb,” he said to Steve, by way of an explanation. Then, because it was almost entirely dark now, he pressed another bead so a few low lights came on and he could see Steve again.

“Right,” said Steve. “Good idea.”

The pause slowed them down, and Steve took his time unwrapping Bucky out of his clothing, removing the sash he wore to cover his left side. Bucky was a little shy about it, but he didn’t mind Steve seeing. The Wakandans had cleaned up the scar tissue when they removed what was left of the old arm. Steve reverently kissed along his collarbone, taking his time to learn Bucky’s changed body.

Bucky tugged on Steve’s shirt, and they struggled out of their pants until they were both entirely naked, skin on skin.

This was when he wished he had two hands, so he could wrap both arms around Steve and hold him close. But it was a fleeting thought, erased from his mind by Steve pushing his legs apart to make room. They stared at each other.

Bucky sensed his hesitation, and he realized he had no idea if Steve had ever done this with a man before. He rose up to kiss Steve again, to distract him. As far as he was concerned, he’d be happy simply kissing all night long until their lips were raw.

Steve shuddered, rolling his hips, sliding against Bucky. It was more erotic than anything Bucky could remember experiencing before, with Steve exploring his mouth as they thrust gently against each other. The slide of his body, the sounds he made. Steve pressed his forehead against his, panting.

With an expression that made Bucky’s insides flip flop, Steve didn’t take his eyes off him as Bucky came, helplessly thrusting.

He caught his breath, and felt the tension roll of Steve’s body. Bucky took his one hand, and slide it between their bodies. Fingers wrapped around Steve’s hard cock, watching as his eyes clouded over. Steve thrust into his hand, pressing his nose into the crook of Bucky’s neck, panting as he came.

They lay facing each other. It was quiet all around. Outside, he heard birds squawking in the night, and the goats bleating.

He felt a hitch in Steve’s breath and pulled away to see Steve trying to press his fingers into his eyes. Bucky could only imagine what Steve had gone through in the past year. He guessed it was going to take time. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

Steve shook his head, wiping his eyes, taking a shuddering breath.

“All right.” Bucky thought it through, then rolled onto his back, gently guiding Steve to lie down mostly on top of him so his head rested right over Bucky’s chest. “Just listen then.”

They fell asleep like that, with Steve listening to Bucky’s heart, and Bucky’s good arm holding him there.

He woke again to find Steve nuzzling his neck. The night noises filtered in -- fluttering bird wings, the rustle of the goats, the cricketing bugs and other creatures creeping in the shadows. Somewhere in the distance, he heard a wolf howl. Steve breathed softly in Bucky's ear, his nose buried in Bucky's hair. “I stopped hoping this would happen,” said Steve.

Bucky wanted to say a lot of dumb soppy things in return. “How long?” he asked.

Steve scrunched his face, eyebrows furrowed together. “I’m not sure. I’m guessing always. Definitely before the war.”

His fingers were occupied, threading through Steve’s hair, so Bucky had to lift his head to kiss between Steve’s eyebrows, smoothing away the crease. “God, we were idiots,” he said.

“We were young,” said Steve.

“Like I said, we were idiots.”

Steve huffed a laugh, nuzzling again, sucking on Bucky’s neck. It made him hard, pushing against Steve’s hip. He realized, he couldn't have gotten to this moment any sooner. All those years, wanting to tell Steve how he felt, how much he loved him, but he needed to go through it first -- even the hydra years -- to get here. He let go a breath, and licked up Steve's neck, tasting him.

The gleam that entered Steve’s eyes literally made Bucky’s skin tingle, and he grunted when Steve caught him in a lazy, hungry kiss, mumbling about lube. He told Steve were he could find some.

“Tell me how you like it,” said Steve, once he’d slicked up his fingers.

Bucky widened his legs, whispering to Steve. If Steve had never done this before, he was a quick learner now, hooking one arm under Bucky’s leg, sinking deep so Bucky felt him in his throat. Their breath mingled.

“I missed you,” he said, searching.

“I know,” answered Steve, buried deep in his body.

They locked eyes, and Bucky was helpless as he came. It was only then that Steve started moving. Bucky brought his arm around Steve, kissing him, swallowing his groans, already so in love with the sounds Steve made he almost came again.

They caught their breath. Bucky thought of cleaning up, but Steve pulled him into his arms, spooned together. “Just so you know,” said Steve, damp breath against his ear, and Bucky clung to consciousness for one more second. “I’m crazy in love with you, too.”

The next time Bucky woke, the sky was the rich deep blue of early morning, but it was still dark out. He heard a plaintive bleat, and then felt something rough lick his face and try to nibble at his hair. He opened his eyes and then yelped. It woke Steve, who made a very undignified noise when he sat up and found three goats trying to get into bed with them.

“Ugh, sorry,” said Bucky, stumbling around, searching for a pair of pants. They were modified, so he could put them on, one-handed. “The privacy shield doesn’t stop animals, just humans. I guess I’m late with breakfast. Come on you cheeky bastards, get out of here.”

He had to lower the shield, and then shooed the goats out of the hut. Outside, there were goats everywhere. He had a time of it, running around chasing, herding them back into the paddock. No matter how many times he fixed the gate, if he was one minute late with food, they always managed to get free.

“Little monsters,” he said as one ruddy goat head-butted his leg until he gave him an extra handful of food.

Steve laughed at him, leaning against the doorframe of the hut, bare-chested, with one of Bucky’s wraps around his waist. It was a welcome sound.

“Yeah, just keep laughing,” he said, securing the gate again. He felt sticky and needed to take a shower.

“I wish I had video,” said Steve. He looked indecently attractive, arms folded across his chest.

Bucky squinted at him. “Don’t even think it. Shower first. Then coffee?”

Still laughing, Steve nodded.

They cleaned up fast in the outhouse, enjoying a good make out under the shower. Then, they dressed, Steve borrowing clothing as Bucky busied himself making coffee on the stove. He’d made a couch-like seat by the hut entrance, so he could lean back and watch the sunrise over the lake, but it only really fit one person. Bucky fixed the problem by having Steve take the seat, then he sat between Steve’s legs, leaning against his chest.

Steve chuckled again, warm against Bucky’s back. They sipped their coffee, and the sun spread an orangey yellow light over the village.

“I guess I will stay here with you,” said Steve, quietly.

Bucky turned to look at him. “Okay,” he said, smiling. He knew Steve would find some way of getting into trouble. He needed the rest, but he wouldn’t be content doing nothing for long. When someone came calling, and they always did, he’d take up the fight again. But they could worry about that later.

Steve wove their right hand fingers together, then stretched out their arms to the side. He did the same with his left arm and they breathed together, in and out, in and out, looking toward the sparkling lake. Like when they were kids, sitting in Steve’s too hot apartment, pretending they could fly. He felt the world wobble, like it might crumble around the edges, turn to dust, but then he matched his breath to Steve’s, and the moment passed. This was real.