The pain was so complete that Steve Rogers’ brain took endless seconds to process each and every part of his now burning body. One last effort by the monster with too much power in a single and, if he was being honest, incredibly ugly glove. But the fire would only last a moment and then it would be over. This was only his nerve endings, as if every one of them was screaming. He couldn’t breathe. The pain was so intense, so endless, that he seemed frozen and stretched out at the same time. There was nothing else, nothing beyond the pain. Just when it felt he would snap into pieces, broken like a rubber band stretched too far, his consciousness snuffed out into merciful oblivion.
A strip of light, thin like a line, was the next piece of non-nothingness that he managed to focus on. Something that he thought he could identify as outside of himself. There was no pain, only the line of light. And he felt like he was drifting. Somehow. Enough of his consciousness remained to know that was strange, but not enough to speculate why or how.
Then, a voice. Garbled and unfamiliar.
“Captain Rogers? If you can hear me, you’re safe. You’re safe and you’re recovering.”
He drifted again, until an itching sensation in he thought were his feet tugged him back into the place with the thin, bright line and the voice that talked to him. The voice seemed to wander around, leaving words like a tree dropping leaves. He recognized strings of them sometimes and sometimes they were just leaves.
“Evening, Captain Rogers. If you can hear me, you’re safe. You’re safe and you’re recovering.” There was a long pause. “It’s raining like hell out here so you’re missing that, at least. If it was snow, maybe I’d feel bad you’re missing it. Big, fat flakes that make you want to curl up with a fireplace and hot cocoa, you know? But this is just godawful rain.”
He puzzled over the words for awhile. It took effort to connect a word with an image or a memory; a piece of a world that seemed utterly alien to him in this strange place of nothingness.
“...had to build a custom harness and cradle for you. It’s holding you in place while you heal…”
There were memories of pain and blood and wrenching the world that was supposed to be back into place through sheer force of his own stubbornness. He remembered refusing to back down. He remembered T’Challa, gone. He remembered Sam, gone. So many had simply vanished into nothingness. Not the same nothingness, he thought, because they were back now. Tony had found a way, or Stephen Strange had; he was still very fuzzy on the details of the how and the whole space time continuum.
“Evening, Captain Rogers. The largest of the pins are going in today. The bones in your legs were pretty much powder but they’ve pieced back together cell by cell. Pins are just gonna help stabilize you until your joints catch up.”
He wondered where the pins were and if he’d feel them. There didn’t seem to be any sensations other then the thin white line and the voice. He liked the voice. He began to surface more often and for longer, drifting through the void toward the sound of the voice.
He listened to the voice talk about football, wins and losses and quarterbacks who weren’t worth their paychecks. The voice told him about the weather. When the rain ended and the snow began and it wished him Merry Christmas, then Happy New Year. Sometimes there were other voices but they were distant. They didn’t draw him out of the darkness with jokes and stories about people on the subway.
“Evening, Cap. Night nurse Bucky Barnes at your service.”
There was a strange, tugging sensation around what he thought had been his mouth. Was his mouth. A smile, he thought.
“Guess we’ve been together long enough that you can call me Bucky. Should probably call you Steve. I guess. If that’s alright with you?”
Yes, Steve thought fervently. And maybe the voice knew he’d agreed because he heard the voice say his name after that, each time like a spark in the darkness. He stayed closer to the surface, waiting for the voice - Bucky - to say his name and tell him stories.
“Good news, Steve. The pins are coming out tomorrow. Bones are mostly rebuilt. Still have a ways to go for muscle and tendons and that stuff, but you’re doing really well.” There was a long pause and Steve thought he heard other noises than the voice. A clink; a shuffle of paper. “They’re taking a lot of data on, you know, you. Not doing anything with it because Stark’s keeping a lid on it. It’s kinda shitty though. Acting like you’re a Petrie dish instead of a person. I mean, I don’t think they can help it. You’re unique and all and they’re a bunch of medical science nerds. But still...I’m sorry.”
It took awhile to remember what a Petrie dish was. Steve thought he could feel tiny bridges building up from nothing inside what might have been his brain. If he still had a brain. He wondered if it had been left in as many pieces as his bones. All of him was in pieces now. He remembered parts as Bucky mentioned them. His shoulders, more pins there; his fingers, completely shattered.
There were blank spots of what he didn’t know and didn’t remember, whole words that Bucky said and he didn’t understand at all. But the stories still helped. The voice still kept him anchored against the ebb and flow of the nothingness tide, always trying to pull him out into darkness that lasted forever.
“Hey, Steve. Nothing exciting today. Your stats all look good and brain activity is continuing to ramp up. They tell me that’s a good thing, that maybe you can hear me. But not to get my hopes up. Mostly they think I should just watch you and record your stats and not waste my time talking but...if you’re in there. If you can hear me. I bet it’s pretty damn boring in there.” There was a long pause in Bucky’s chatter. “I’ll bring you some audiobooks or something, that sound good? So you’ve got something to listen to other than my dumb stories.”
He liked Bucky’s dumb stories.
Bucky brought him books. Books on history and space and magic that captivated him, holding him fast to the thin line of light. When he felt himself drifting, he tried to pull himself back to the words Bucky had left for him. When Bucky returned, he quizzed Steve about what he’d heard, graciously pretending that Steve was answering correctly.
Around the time Bucky started complaining about the winter lasting forever, Steve began to get feeling back. Bucky told him his nerves were regenerating.
He could feel his edges now, feel that he had an ending and whatever was around him had a beginning. There was a difference between him and everything else. Bucky informed him that his damaged skin was beginning to regrow and he thought that must be it. The final barrier between him and the rest of the world, stitching itself back together in patches. Bucky wouldn’t say it, but he could hear it in the silences; no one expected a full recovery. It would be a miracle if he ended up a living, breathing vegetable, since the living and breathing parts had been up in the air for so long.
“So, you’re being transferred. Out of the bath anyway. They think you’re solid enough to get you out of the matrix and see how you do in the air. Might be a rough transition, I won’t lie to you. You’ve been breathing liquid like you’re back in the womb for a few months now. Air is probably gonna be a bitch. But I’ll be here, okay? Soon as I can, soon as they let me back in.”
There was so much light. The thin line split open, cracking the universe apart into light that burned everything it touched. There was pain in his center; aching, tearing pain like claws digging in and carving out what his new skin was trying to contain. He waited for Bucky to return.
“How’re you holding up, pal? Everything looks good from my end, but they say you’ll feel pretty rough for a few days. If you can feel anything. We’re not so sure about that part. You don’t really respond so they’re figuring there’s not much left in there. Could just be that nerves are slowest to repair, even for you. Faster than normal schmucks like me, but it takes a while. You ready to start the next book? I’ve already read this one and, trust me, it’s pivotal.”
While Bucky talked, the sandpaper inside him seemed to wear down to a finer grit. Enough that every breath didn’t feel like gravel down his throat. He could feel his chest moving now, feel air moving in and out of his lungs. Only now, he realized how much harder it had been to breathe in the nothingness. His new skin felt raw against the air. Gradually he became aware of textures that differed from the air.
He felt a blanket against his skin first, mostly pressure. Then he could feel the ridges of the blanket; the pressure of a pillow against the back of his head. There was a pinch in his skin on his elbow, and other places, where he thought something alien must be attached to him.
The first time he felt different skin against his, all his focus narrowed in on the spots of heat and pressure. Bucky’s hands; Bucky’s fingers. He heard Bucky telling him what he was doing, what he was checking. What he’d checked a hundred times before. But now he could feel the touch of it and that blurred the line his skin had created between him and the rest of the world. Now Bucky was both the rest of the world and part of his skin. An impossible paradox. When it was over and Bucky’s hands were gone, he wanted the sensations to come back.
As his skin started registering details of his environment, memories started to return. Bits and pieces mostly, but sometimes whole reels like a film unrolling inside his head. He remembered his parents. What little he remembered of his father; his mother before she died. He remembered exquisite details like the smell of his mother’s cooking and the delicate stitch of her embroidery. He remembered the sulfur and stench of the War. The bite of the Atlantic Ocean closing around him.
He remembered tastes and smells and colors in the sky at sunset. It took time to dredge up the right words from where they slept in the back of his mind. Chocolate; clam chowder; coffee. The color blue.
He seemed to drift forever in the sea of memories, hearing snatches of Bucky’s voice as he brought more books, more lectures on history and art, more stories he thought Steve might enjoy. Time was a concept he could only grasp in passing. A moment here or there where he recognized that Bucky had been gone and returned, so time must have passed by.
“Getting a haircut and a shave tonight. Have you looking like your old self in no time,” Bucky told him.
There were light touches on his scalp, the snip of scissors, and the slide of a razor through shaving cream. In the background, Bucky rambled about the weather and the Red Sox, his voice carrying Steve along like a lazy river. Something about the way Bucky was working stuck in his mind; it seemed wrong. As if Bucky was working around patches of skin. He puzzled about that for awhile, but it was an absent curiosity. Maybe he should be trying harder to figure it out but it seemed like such a distant concern. Everything seemed like a distant concern beyond the sound of Bucky’s voice and the warmth of his hands on Steve’s skin.
“They want us to start some physical therapy. Real basic stuff. Bending your fingers, that kind of thing. Work some of the stiffness out of your joints and see how they’re doing.”
He liked it best when Bucky was there. Bucky talked to him; Bucky told him what was going on - I’m going to work on your right hand for a bit - both inside and outside the space where Steve was kept. It must be a hospital, he thought. Bucky was a nurse after all, so a hospital made sense. There were other nurses and probably doctors too. They came and went, but didn’t talk to him while they manipulated his joints like a marionette. He tried to drift away while they were there, letting himself sink into quiet oblivion. Nothing in the world outside his skin seemed all that important.
While Bucky worked on his left arm one day, he told Steve about breaking up with his boyfriend of two years. On his birthday no less. Steve felt a muted desire to reach out, although he couldn’t understand why. Comfort, perhaps. Bucky was the only voice, the only contact, he had while he was trapped inside his own mind. For the most part, he was fine with being adrift, but for a moment he wished he could surface for real. Just for a moment.
“Wait, was that…” Bucky stopped bending the elbow joint of Steve’s arm. “Thought I saw something on the monitors. Must’ve been wishful thinking. Sorry about that.” He resumed his work on Steve’s arm and his story about getting dumped in the middle of a restaurant.
“Tells me it’s him or work, you know. Like that’s a choice that’s gonna go his way. And I can’t actually tell him what I’m...who I’m…” Bucky sighed heavily. “It shouldn’t matter though. It should be enough to tell him that it’s what I want to do and it’s important to me. Shouldn’t matter that you’re Captain America. Probably would though, if I could tell him the truth, and I think that pisses me off even more. And I shouldn’t have to choose between my job and having a partner, you know. At least, I don’t think I should have to. Feels like it sometimes though.”
There was nothing Steve could say to that, even if he had been able to get his mouth to work. The Avengers were all he had. He was intimately familiar with having to choose between having the job he had and having a personal life, and he knew which one he’d chosen. Sometimes - often - he’d wondered if he should’ve tried harder to have just a tiny piece of a normal life. He had no solution to offer.
But he could listen. He could give Bucky that much.
He listened when Bucky complained about the tree pollen making him sneeze and when he described the belated birthday and break-up consolation party his friends and family had thrown for him. Bucky told him which trees were flowering and when they’d started to leaf, which meant less sneezing for Bucky. He talked about adopting a pet and how he was thinking about going back to school or even branching out to something completely different once Steve was back on his feet. That always seemed to be a given for Bucky, that Steve would walk out of the room someday and leave Bucky behind.
It didn’t sound like much to look forward to. Here in the dark, it was peaceful and quiet and he could sleep as much as he liked. He felt like a large cat curled up in a permanent sunbeam. Here, he had Bucky.
“Your hair’s coming back in really well,” Bucky told him while he was trimming Steve’s hair. “Even where they had to patch in the sections of artificial tissue until your skin grew back. No more bald patches. Another month and the scars on your face will be gone. I’ll bet you five bucks and a cup of coffee.”
He wondered how much skin he’d lost. There had been fire. Impossible, all-consuming fire. He remembered that. It must have been why Bucky’s hands seemed to skip patches each time he gave Steve a shave; where his skin was too damaged for hair to regrow. His thoughts tangled up in imagining what he must’ve looked like when they brought him in. It was a miracle they’d even realized he was still alive instead of a burnt husk. It must’ve been an impossibly close call. Then again, maybe the serum really wasn’t going to let him die.
It was so much easier to let those unpleasant thoughts fade away and drift again, anchored only to Bucky’s voice and presence. If he recovered like Bucky kept telling him, all that waited for him was pain and loneliness. Here, he was warm and comfortable and he had Bucky with him almost every night.
“You’re being transferred again,” Bucky told him. “In a few days.”
There was a note in Bucky’s voice, as if he disagreed with the choice to move Steve to another location. He couldn’t ask, only wait patiently to see if Bucky would explain.
“I don’t know,” Bucky began slowly, his voice almost too soft for Steve to hear. “It’s been eighteen months. The physical damage is mostly gone. Scars, really, are all that’s left. But you’re not responding. To anything. And a lot of people are wondering if you’re not really in there anymore, you know. If it would be better to tell everyone that...that you didn’t make it after all. That the injuries were too severe, even for you. And then...I don’t know after that.” There was a heavy sigh and Bucky’s hand was warm on Steve’s arm. “Stark wants to move you to a private facility. Round the clock care until...until something changes. However long that is. Either you come back or you just slip away.”
Steve tried to feel something about that, tried to dredge up the response he thought he should have at the idea of being declared brain dead. Or completely dead. They’d give the shield to someone else. Sam, maybe. Or put it in a museum. He wouldn’t be sorry to let Captain America go. He could stay here in the quiet and the world would move on without him.
“I’ve put in to go with you, wherever they take you. I’ve been with you the longest and I haven’t given up on you like some of the others. No point sending someone who doesn’t believe they’re helping. But it won’t be up to me. Whoever you get will be the best though, don’t worry about that. And you’re a great patient.” It sounded like Bucky was smiling. “Except for the fact that you weigh a ton, you’re the perfect patient.”
He’d go wherever they took him so it didn’t bother him one way or another as long as Bucky came with him. Once, he would’ve cared. He remembered enough of who he’d been before to know that, but that Steve had burned up in the final battle against Thanos. He was only drifting thought and Bucky’s voice now. Everything that had seemed so important to him before was a jumble of abstract ideas without meaning. What did it matter if he stayed here for another month or another year, listening to Bucky tell him about the trees outside and the latest baseball game.
“Alright, this one should be familiar to you. A classic,” Bucky announced.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
While Steve dreamed of elves and ancient forests, he had fleeting impressions of movement and motion. Changing light and temperature fluctuations in the ambient air. Once, he thought he felt the sunlight on his face, or at least what he remembered the sunlight felt like. Maybe Bucky would take him outside where the trees were after they’d moved him. He might have to sit up for that and he didn’t know if that was possible. Nothing in his body seemed to respond to his thoughts. His heart beat and his lungs drew breath, but all of that was automatic and out of his control. He was aware enough that he could tell when they were replacing the needles in his skin, enough to register muted pinpricks of pain.
“Hey Steve. Good to see you again,” Bucky told him. “You’re settled into your new digs. Less hospital, more retirement home vibe. Except for Stark’s AI, which isn’t a standard feature in your usual retirement home. Fewer staff now that you’re fully stable so I’ll be your primary. Good thing I like you, right? You’re probably stiff since you’ve been in transport for awhile. Let’s see if we can get you loosened up again, starting with your right hand.”
Bucky’s hands were warm as he bent each of Steve’s fingers, working the joints and rubbing small circles against his skin. He talked about boxing up his apartment in the city and moving across the country to follow Steve, almost whispering as he confessed to being scared half to death to uproot his whole life. He had living quarters there, so he could be at Steve’s side in minutes, and he’d visited the local animal shelter. He’d gone home with an older black and white cat who had a few stiff joints of its own.
He thought it was probably Bucky’s nature to want to fix all the broken things he found, even if they were broken beyond repair. Maybe the others had been right to doubt that Steve would ever come back to the world. He felt as though he’d sunk deep into the earth, roots tangling around him, until he was part of it. He’d sleep a thousand years beneath his imaginary tree and he was content; no war to fight; no aliens from outer space trying to exterminate half of the universe.
There were windows in his room. Bucky always told him when he was opening the blinds or closing them again, letting him know what was outside. There was a view of the ocean that Bucky wished he could see at least once a day. He told Steve about the times he ventured out to explore the area, describing redwoods and black sand beaches and quaint Bed and Breakfasts in the nearby towns. It was always in terms of places Steve needed to see once he was awake again, bits of the world that Bucky thought Steve would enjoy. Someday.
A soft weight on his chest and a tickle against his cheek was how he met Tux, Bucky’s cat. It shifted around, paws moving lightly over Steve’s chest, and meowed before settling down to purr.
“He likes you,” Bucky said fondly. “It’s probably because you’re warm. Can’t really compete with that, can I? Thought you might like him though. He’s a snuggle monster. Sit down for five seconds and he’s on my lap like I had no other plans. Seems happy though so I’ll leave him there while I work on your ankles for a bit.”
He liked Tux’s low rumble and the warm weight of him, like an unusually heavy sunbeam. Tux got bored and wandered away by the time Bucky finished flexing all his toes and rotating his ankles through a series of exercises.
“Stark’s got an idea about a hot tub. Sort of a hot tub. It’ll be easier than the sponge baths, for sure. You are pretty heavy, my friend. Should feel good too and help with blood flow, all that jazz. We’ll try it out tomorrow and see how it goes.” Bucky began a slow progression of movements, shifting Steve’s leg to bend at the knee and working it through the range of motion. “This place is amazing. Stark built a bunch of helper robots for me, and the crazy bed you’re in too. They do about half my job already. One of the reasons there’s not a big staff here. JARVIS coordinates all the dosages, tracks your vitals.”
There was something in Bucky’s tone of voice that niggled at Steve, in the depths of his memories of a life where he’d had to watch his back all the time.
“I don’t know if Stark’s just paranoid or if he’s got good reason,” Bucky said softly, lowering Steve’s leg down to the bed to start on the other. “There’s a lot more security than I expected. Especially since the official word is that you’re in a coma with no expectation of regaining consciousness. The Pentagon even held a ceremony, kinda like a funeral. Like you’re already dead or something. Retired your name or whatever. There was a lot of drama over selecting the next Captain America and whether or not there should even be another one if it can’t be you. Just seems like a lot of precautions for someone they’ve basically written off.”
The choice of being Captain America had been taken care of without him, which meant there was nothing keeping him from staying here in the drifting space beneath his imaginary tree. The world had moved on. He had Bucky and maybe Tux would come back again to curl up and purr.
“Whatever Stark’s worried about, I’m sure you’re safe. And once you’re awake, there’s a burger place about twenty minutes away that’s to die for. Burgers, milkshakes, spicy fries. My mouth’s watering just thinking about it. You’ll love it, I promise.”
There was motion again, beneath him. Bucky explained how the bed itself navigated with JARVIS’ commands, trundling down the hallway to what Bucky continued to call the hot tub. Content to be carried wherever Bucky took him, Steve paid little attention to anything beyond Bucky’s voice until he felt heat lap against his skin. He was suspended in a type of cradle that could lower him into the water so Bucky could work on his flexibility and scrub him completely clean without the effort of wiping him down. He had a vague thought to be embarrassed that Bucky regularly bathed him, like an infant, but even that didn’t seem to matter. The warmth of the water felt good. A current tugged at his hair and Bucky’s hands were massaging his muscles. He felt pleasure, he decided, after spending some time digging around his murky brain for the right word.
“Oh, um, well. That’s working again. That’s great, actually. Progress. I’ll, um, I’ll make a note or something.” Bucky cleared his throat.
Another voice, familiar, spoke somewhere beyond Bucky. “I’ve added a notation about Captain Rogers’ erection to his file.”
“Thanks, JARVIS.” Embarrassment colored Bucky’s voice, his hands moving a little faster than before. “His circulation must be improving. And nerve response. I wonder if it’s the water. The heat, maybe. Or maybe I just...touched something. Still, it’s a good response to see come back. One more step toward normal.”
Steve didn’t work to figure out what they were talking about and why it mattered, too occupied with the new, pleasurable sensations he was feeling. He was disappointed when Bucky walked him through the process of being lifted from the bath and returned to his mobile recovery bed, but cheered up with Bucky’s promise that they would be returning to the bath often. Bucky mumbled something about nerve responses but Steve was half dozing, boneless with relaxation.
Back in his room, there was another audiobook to listen to and he heard Tux meow. The sound came from somewhere to his left, he thought. It was the first time he’d been able to fix an approximate location to a sound other than outside his own head. He wished he could tell Bucky, certain that would also be progress Bucky would want JARVIS to record in his file.
His sense of time passing began to sharpen, until he could anticipate when Bucky would arrive for his morning check up and physical therapy. The spaces where Bucky was gone began to feel measurable, with a daily rhythm Steve could identify and assign concepts to: breakfast, lunch, dinner, night. Bucky was with him more often than not and JARVIS remained ever watchful when Bucky couldn’t be there. It was a clock of sorts; the first time he was conscious of the passage of time and whole days ticking by as he laid in the bed, listening to Bucky describe the world around him.
Once Steve could feel the flow of days, the days when someone else took care of him seemed interminably long. Even Bucky needed days off, for his sanity or because he'd picked up a flu bug from another staff member. JARVIS kept the audiobooks going without Bucky but no one told him stories or explained what they were doing and no one brought Tux in to sleep in the crook of his arm or sprawled over his legs. It wasn’t the same.
One night after Bucky had been away to visit family, Steve found himself awake and strangely restless. A nagging dissatisfaction with his aimless, drifting existence began to fester under the heaviness of his inert body. He missed Bucky’s voice; he missed Bucky.
That was a strange, new feeling as well. Rather than let it fade back into the emptiness, he latched onto it and began to puzzle around the edges of the feeling. How long had he been drifting with Bucky as his only tether to a world he vaguely remembered? His memories seemed muted or faded here and, when he looked harder at them, he knew he preferred it that way. There was too much he didn’t want to remember. If he left the calm, comforting darkness, he’d have to live with all of his ghosts again.
Thinking wore him down into a shallow sleep, part of him still alert for any sound of Bucky’s return. He wasn’t ready for more than this one, Bucky-shaped piece of the world.
“Miss me?” Four soft paws thumped down on the bed and whiskers tickled Steve’s cheek. “I do not miss being crammed into an airplane seat on a flight from LAX to JFK, I can tell you that. Family. Love ‘em, but that flight is still painful.” There were other sounds as Bucky moved around the bed, checking all the data JARVIS had collected while he was gone. “Doing really well, pal. You’ll look like your old self again come spring. Even the burn scars will be gone at this rate.”
A low, rumbling purr started up, along with the weight of Tux curled on his chest. He thought about reaching up, letting his fingers sink into soft black fur, but however much he wanted to, it wasn’t enough to get his sluggish limbs to respond. Nothing seemed to be enough.
He wondered, with a detached sort of panic, if he was irreversibly paralyzed and locked inside his body. Aware, listening, but unable to interact in any way. He’d always thought of it as a choice. As if he wanted the peace and quiet, had wanted the peace and quiet for so long, that it overrode any desire to move or reach or climb out of the bed. That could be a comforting lie. If his spinal cord had burned as badly as his skin, there might be precious little left of him that worked properly.
Bucky would have told him, he thought. If there had been that kind of damage, they would’ve found it and Bucky would’ve told him, like he told Steve everything else. His body was taking its sweet time coming back from Death’s door, that was all. He’d have to be content with listening to Bucky’s voice and feeling Tux on his chest, warm and rumbling.
“How about some PT? See if we can encourage nerve growth a bit. Maybe, uh, try the bath again after.” Bucky’s voice went squeaky at the end and he cleared his throat.
The bath had been nice. He thought about nodding, trying to picture each muscle that had to work in order to lift and lower his head just an inch. It seemed much more complicated than lying still and relaxed. Bucky started with his right hand and Steve tried to pay attention to each motion. He tried to pinpoint the flex of muscle and how his joints twisted or gave as Bucky pressed and pulled them through the range of motion. Maybe if he could remember how to move, he could make it happen.
Eventually the physical therapy dislodged Tux, who gave a protesting meow before relocating to a sunbeam on the floor. He could watch the birds from there, Bucky assured Steve. By the time Bucky finished, parts of Steve that he’d forgotten he had were twinging; old, forgotten aches coming back as cantankerous ghosts. He felt relief when the bed began to move, knowing where it was going and that he’d soon be floating, weightless, in the warm water of the bath. This is what he’d been looking forward to.
“Huh,” Bucky mused as Steve was lowered into the water. “Must be the water. Or you just really, really enjoy PT. I’m gonna take it as a compliment. JARVIS, could you make a note?” His fingers combed through Steve’s hair and this time, Steve could feel what must be bald patches, the skin still too damaged for hair to regrow.
Idly, he wondered how bad he must look if it would be until spring before the scarring was gone. He must’ve looked like a corpse for most of the time Bucky had been caring for him, all bare flesh and raw, burned skin. There must’ve been places were he’d burned away down to the bone. It seemed like a curse that the fire hadn’t devoured enough of him to make it permanent. No more effective than a sheet of ice bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean. If the world ended in fire or in ice, either way he’d be left behind in the nothingness. But he couldn’t hold on to those unhappy thoughts with the heat from the water soaking into his body and easing away the aches, and Bucky telling him stories from his trip.
This could be enough. Would be enough. Bucky and Tux and hot baths where Bucky soaped his hair and washed his skin clean. He’d taken shower after futile shower trying to wash off the European mud, the Atlantic salt, the grit of grief and loss, and the invisible, putrid oil of HYDRA curling up within SHIELD, but here, Bucky swept it all away and he was left clean. He barely noticed leaving the bath. Back in his room, Tux rumbled a purr against his ear.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re smiling,” Bucky told him with a hint of amused pride. “Almost. Just a little.”
He felt like he was smiling, even if it was only on the inside.
Day after day, Bucky reiterated that he was getting better. More hair was growing back; he could feel fewer spots where Bucky glided over bald skin. His scars were retreating. He learned to feel where the pockets of scar tissue deep under his skin resisted the gentle motions of Bucky’s therapy. All the while, Bucky talked him through the healing, explaining results of the regular tests and revising estimates of when he’d be back to his old self. If he ever worried that Steve would be unresponsive forever, he never said it aloud. It was always when and what next and Steve was both baffled and deeply in awe of Bucky’s steadfast optimism. As long as the serum kept rebuilding him from scratch, Bucky refused to give up and he wasn’t going to let Steve give up either.
He’d try to open his eyes in the spring, he kept telling himself as Bucky worked. Once he didn’t look like a walking corpse with burns and scars, he would try. It might not work, but even deciding to try felt like an effort in itself. It felt like a leap of faith over a gaping chasm between his dark, peaceful world of Bucky’s voice and Tux’s soft paws, and whatever would be waiting for him.
Bucky kept telling him that the only thing waiting for him was whatever he wanted it to be. Steve had given enough, Bucky informed him, and no one would hold it against him if he wanted to move to Montana and raise bees or pigs or just watch moss grow on rocks. Steve had wanted to laugh.
When Bucky said it, he could almost believe it was that simple.
Until then, he let his days unfold as Bucky determined. He relaxed into the stretches and exercises, floated free in the bath with Bucky’s fingers in his hair, and smiled to himself when Bucky moved his bed closer to the windows so a beam of sunshine settled over his legs and tempted Tux into settling there. If there was a heaven, he didn’t think it could be better than this.
He waited for Bucky to tell him that all the scars were gone. Then he’d have to make the decision for real. He wondered if it would even work or if he’d been lost so long inside himself that he wouldn’t be able to find his way out again. What if he tried to open his eyes and nothing happened? What would Bucky look like? He knew Bucky’s voice better than his own at this point, but couldn’t conjure up an image of a face that seemed to match the voice. It wouldn’t matter what Bucky looked like, really, Steve didn’t care if he was purple and had a third eye in the middle of his forehead. As long as Bucky still wanted to talk to him and Tux would sit on his lap, the outside world didn’t seem as horrible. Maybe he could be happy.
The possibility of happy caught him up like a raging river, bobbing and tossing him around while Bucky’s voice faded in and out. He tried harder to spread himself out into the tips of his fingers and toes, reaching for even the smallest bit of control he could regain. He set his will against the motions of physical therapy exercises, trying to resist them. After Bucky left at the end of each day, he kept trying and felt exhausted come morning. The baths became his sole refuge where he stopped struggling against the prison of his unresponsive body and simply let Bucky take care of him.
“Your body temperature has been fluctuating more than usual,” Bucky told him as he worked shampoo through his hair. “Heart rate too. Even at night. No idea what it means, if it means anything. Infection, maybe. We’re not sure. JARVIS is running some data reduction. We’ll see. Probably nothing to worry about though. We really don’t know as much about the human body, even unaltered by science, as we think we do, so wait and see is about the only option.”
Steve felt encouraged, despite the hint of puzzled worry in Bucky’s voice. He hadn’t so much as moved a finger but what Bucky was saying could mean his body was starting to respond in smaller ways. It was a sliver of hope he could grab hold of to keep him motivated through the hours of having only JARVIS for company. His first question to Bucky might be to ask if Tux could stay overnight sprawled over his legs. Or he could ask to adopt his own cat. He could do that now; Bucky had told him they’d passed on the Captain America mantle to someone else. He added that to his new list; the list of things to look forward to once he was back in the world.
His first success was unexpected and almost unnoticed; he managed to hold his breath for a few seconds. He hadn’t even been trying, really, only weary from attempting to curl his fingers. Breathing in deeply, holding it, letting it go. Just once, but it startled him to have even that little bit of control. JARVIS had noticed, he was sure of it, and would alert Bucky of the change. He waited and his breathing settled back into the steady in and out of his unresponsive state, while his insides buzzed with excitement.
The nurse who came to check on him wasn’t Bucky.
Steve tried not to be disappointed. Maybe Bucky was sick or needed a day away from the permanent care facility. He was good at patiently waiting so he settled in to do more of it, if grudgingly. The rest of the day passed slowly with no Bucky and no Tux.
Another strange nurse came earlier than usual for the evening rounds. Steve could hear him, every motion unfamiliar compared to how Bucky moved and worked. This nurse made no attempt to talk to Steve or JARVIS, his cold hands brisk as they check the IV lines and the ports embedded in Steve’s skin. Metal clanked against metal and the bed shifted slightly beneath Steve. His awareness focused to a sharp point as he recognized the irregularity of what the man was doing. Bucky never disconnected or modified any of the lines at night, he only made changes in the morning when he could be assured that someone would be there to watch for anything going wrong.
The door whispered open again and a familiar voice was accompanied by the low whine of an arc reactor weapon powering up. “Step away from bed. Now.” There was a shuffling sound. One of the IV lines tugged at Steve’s skin. “Who are you? Where’s Barnes? Start talking, buddy, or there’ll be vaporized bits of you all over that wall.”
Tony, Steve thought, desperately scrambling to convince his eyes to open. Someone Tony thought was an enemy was inches away and he was powerless. Helpless.
“I’m just the hired help,” said an unfamiliar voice to Steve’s left side. “I was checking the IV lines. Just doing my job, man.” There was another tug at Steve’s skin and his feeling of helplessness increased. Was the man there to get Steve’s blood? Or to put something into him that would finally kill him?
“I said, step away from the bed. If you make me repeat myself one more time you will be DOA when the cops get here.”
“Fine,” the stranger snapped. “Doesn’t matter to me if you screw up his IV lines.”
“Where’s Barnes? He didn’t show up for work today. Not answering his phone. Not home. Car’s nowhere to be found.” Tony’s voice was colder now. “You see, I like Barnes. He’s good at his job and he’s never given up. And I’m kinda thinking that since you used his access badge to get into the building, like the dumbass you are, that you might’ve done something to one of my very favorite people. So drop the act and tell me where he is.”
A cold wash of terror spread through Steve. Bucky was missing and Tony was worried. He remembered Bucky talking about Tony’s concerns about security. The awful possibility that Bucky was taken, could be lying dead and cold somewhere, was so terrifying that Steve felt like he was caught up in a blizzard that whited out the whole world. A machine was beeping loudly, frantically, somewhere in the room, but he ignored it. All that mattered in that moment was that he needed to move.
Metal groaned under the fingers of his left hand. It felt like he was dragging himself up out of a bed of quicksand and the blaze of blue light from Tony’s glove was blinding. His right arm might have been made of lead but he reached out, straining and feeling sweat bead up on his skin, to grab the back of the imposter’s neck and lift him up. It was enough that his feet left the ground and he flailed, reaching for Steve’s hand and trying to pry him away.
“Where is Bucky?” Steve whispered harshly, the breath hot and stinging in his throat.
“Highway one,” the man squeaked, terrified. “Forced his car off the road. At the bridge.” He tugged ineffectively at Steve’s hand, wheezing.
JARVIS spoke up. “I’ve alerted the authorities of a vehicle off the road at that location.”
“Thanks, J.” Tony lowered his hand and the reactor weapon whined down to standby. He pulled a handful of cable ties out of his pocket and waved them as he crossed to the bed and started securing the imposter to the bars of Steve’s bed. “These were all I had on hand when JARVIS told me someone else had used Barnes’ badge.”
As soon as Steve could let go, he slumped back down onto the bed, breathing hard from exertion. “Tony,” was all he could manage.
“Impeccable timing, by the way.” Tony dropped a hand to Steve’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “If you’re still awake when I get back, we’ll catch up. First, I’m going to go find your nurse so he can tell everyone from the staff to the President - I Told You So.” His mouth slid into a familiar smirk.
Steve nodded and licked his lips. “Go.”
He’d barely gotten his breath back when his room was swarmed with strange people. Nurses and security guards bustled in, peppering him with questions. The imposter was handcuffed and removed, the beginning of bruises already showing on his neck. Steve barely got a last look before the nurses began a thorough check of his responses, shining light into his eyes and checking him over like a fragile piece of art that might’ve gotten scratched. One of them was explaining the process to remove all of the various tubes and ports that were attached to him, but he barely listened. He nodded to all of their questions, holding out an arm whenever they needed him to.
It was midnight when he was finally detached from all of the tubes and needles. Fresh bandages were laid over where they’d embedded the ports and the wounds would be gone by morning. Apparently the ports had given the staff no end of trouble since his skin kept trying to expel them and they’d had to regularly cut into him just to keep them functional. They replaced his medical bed with a normal, Queen sized mattress on a bare frame and a nutritionist came in to explain in great detail how he would be transitioned back to a solid food diet.
They’d planned for this, the doctor kept repeating, still sounding as though she couldn’t quite believe it had happened.
If his throat and mouth had been up for more talking, he would’ve asked everyone, over and over, if they’d found Bucky. But he still felt as though he was moving through heavy sand and every breath was effort.
At dawn, one of the nurses brought a pet carrier into the room and released Tux, who was making frantic mews. He ran to Steve immediately, jumping onto his lap and purring loudly. Steve let his fingers sink into Tux’s soft fur and part of him relaxed despite the worry. He’d wanted to do this for so long and now he could. Stiffly, he smiled as he stroked over Tux’s head and shoulders.
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS’ voice came from the speaker on the wall. “Nurse Barnes was located and airlifted to the nearest medical facility. He will be transferred here once his condition is stable.”
Steve swallowed and nodded. “Thank you. JARVIS.” His voice sounded and felt like gravel.
He found himself reluctant to close his eyes, half expecting to sink back into nothingness if he laid down and closed his eyes again. Instead, he held Tux or tried to do some of the physical therapy exercises Bucky had been doing for him. He thought once or twice about trying to leave the room but the door might as well have been a mountain to scale. His world had been this room, had been Bucky and Tux, for so long that he couldn’t wrap his mind around there being anything beyond this. He sat by the windows with Tux and watched the ocean to pass the hours, feeling lost and drifting along in a world that was strange to him now.
The sun and Tux must’ve lulled him to sleep because he jolted awake when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Blinking brought Tony’s face into focus and he realized that Tony looked older than he remembered.
“Hey there, Sleeping Beauty.” Tony took the second armchair, letting out a long breath as he sat down. “We’ve got Barnes here now. He’ll be alright. He, um, he’s going to lose his left arm. It was pinned and half the car was crushed. He got lucky. And he’s tough.” He blew out another breath, watching Steve with a sort of incredulous wonder. “It’s good to have you back, Steve.”
“Yeah. I, uh...” He trailed off, clearing his throat. “How. How long.”
“It’s been about two years.”
He looked at the room around him, wondering at how much it had taken in time and resources to keep him all that time. He knew Tony would wave it off as nothing, but it meant something that he’d never given up either. “Thank you, Tony.”
Tony shrugged. “It’s what we do, right? This is probably pretty familiar territory for you though. Catching up on what you’ve missed. I can get J to filter the important news, though that’s mostly been garbage anyway. The Earth is still spinning and all, so that’s probably all you really need to know. We’re still here.”
He nodded again, feeling like he’d done a lot of that and would be doing a lot more. “Can I see him?”
“Barnes? Oh yeah, sure. He’s just down the hall. Fair warning, he’s probably pretty sedated but they should’ve finished amputating a few hours ago. He might not be awake yet.”
Sluggish from sitting for so long, it took Steve a few minutes to get to his feet and get all of his limbs coordinated again. He was acutely aware of Tony’s scrutiny, probably looking for anything that might be indication that something was wrong, but he figured he’d been poked and prodded and scanned to the point that everyone in the facility knew his body as well as he did. Maybe better.
Bucky’s room was similar to Steve’s, with two armchairs against the windows and a utilitarian medical bed against the wall. A stand holding IV bags sat off to the side. Bucky’s skin was pale except for the dark bruises on the left side of his face; his eyes were closed and bandages bulged over his left shoulder. As Steve got closer, he could see abrasions under the edges of the hospital gown and on Bucky’s right arm. But he was here and the heart monitor beat out a steady rhythm. He had dark hair, long enough to reach his shoulders, and suddenly Steve had a face to go with the voice he’d heard for two years. Strong cheekbones and jawline, with the beginnings of stubble shadowed over his chin. On impulse, he reached out to curl his fingers over Bucky’s.
“Hey, Bucky,” he said softly. The least he could do was return the care Bucky had shown him. “It’s Steve. If you can hear me, you’re safe. You’re safe and you’re recovering.” He heard Tony dragging one of the armchairs closer and nodded his thanks as he sat down, still holding onto Bucky’s hand.
He felt Bucky’s fingers jerk under his and saw his eyelids flutter, opening halfway as he squinted at Steve. For several minutes, he just watched Steve, but finally he smiled. “You could hear me.”
“Every word.” He gave Bucky’s hand a tentative squeeze. “Guess it’s my turn now.”
Bucky’s smile widened as he closed his eyes again, the drugs in his system not letting him stay awake. “Welcome home, Steve.”
Home was a tugging sensation in his chest. It was Bucky’s voice and Tux’s purr. He glanced over his shoulder and Tony gave him a quick nod before he started for the door.
“Give me a couple days. I’ve got a few ideas for that arm. Need to make a call. What time is it in Wakanda, J?”
Steve smiled and let himself be home.