Actions

Work Header

Myths Wrongly Interpreted

Work Text:

James Buchanan is the first male born to the Barnes line in over two hundred years.

Of course, by that point the Barnes’ women are more or less all nee Barnes, having married Smith’s, and Richardson’s – even a Martinez once. But the Barnes blood always runs true. Some never even bothered taking their husbands name. Others never marry at all. But most return to their maiden name after a time; it’s what widows do, after all.

Grief runs in the Barnes blood just as strongly as the blood itself. Grief, and other peculiarities.

When Bucky’s born an otherwise unremarkable five pounds four ounces, straight on the heels of his sister, with ten little fingers and ten little toes – to say the family is shocked at the extra little bits between his legs is to put it bluntly.

The rumors spread like weeds through a garden. Every cousin and aunt finds an excuse to drop by with a casserole or congratulations. Eager cynicism hangs over the crib like a mobile.

“Strange,” they all say after getting in their tickles and goochie goochie goos. “He seems just like a normal baby.”

“Nothing wrong with normal,” his mother agrees, and ushers the women as quickly out of her home as politeness will allow. She doesn’t care whether the birth of her son is the end of a curse or the beginning of one – she’ll have no busybodies around spoiling her children’s nap. And Rebecca was already a fussy baby, James’ senior by two minutes or not.

The oldest aunts, having no need or desire to play at house calls, stride through the parlor unannounced or invited. They stare into the bassinet without blinking. Winnifred’s heart stutters.

“This boy will lead an interesting life,” they finally say, voices certain under the weight of experience. They tighten their shawls before patting Winnie consolingly on the shoulder. “Good or bad is open to interpretation. But normal certainly isn’t how he’s going to go about it.”

His mother keeps a close eye on him, just in case. Yet he never charms any cats into the cradle, or makes the windows rattle with the ache of his teething. It’s only Becca’s cries that sour the milk in their father’s coffee before it can even reach his lips.

Poor Bucky, it seems, was destined to be dull as a doornail. Another first in their family.

+++

Winnie had stayed a Barnes in name if in little else; she didn’t want to believe in curses, or lend one power over her life, but she’d be damned if she was taking chances. She loved her fiancé too much for that. George merely smiled at the altar and took her name instead. Any other family would have been scandalized at the time. To the Barnes’, it just made sense.

It’s not to last. Winnie’s tolerance of her kin’s nature grows thinner as her children grow taller. The twins barely know the edge of it: strange noises in the garden at night, flocks of silent birds covering every branch of the single towering oak in the backyard, strange spider webs drifting through the rafters, their mother’s own twin sister appearing and vanishing like a shadow.

Until one balmy night in June when every cicada gives one final buzz and falls dead from the eaves. The silence finally let Bucky and Becca fall gratefully into sleep, only to be shaken awake by their mother not ten minutes later. They’re wrestled outside into the truck where George is already waiting with the engine running and told not to say a word, not one. The windows fog with the damp heat as they groggily speed away into the still night.

It’s the last time either of them will set foot in Indiana again. Or see any of their great cousins or aunts again, either. The loss of their home doesn’t hit them until well after the sun rises and Winnie’s shoulders finally relax.

Becca dares to whisper that it might be the beetle’s presence that spurs their mother to leave. She always thinks there’s omens in everything – even dozens of dead bugs – and isn’t shy about saying so. Bucky shushes her before their mother hears. Even as a child he knows there’s no point in running from that. In the end, no one escapes the ticking of the deathwatch beetle. Especially not a Barnes.

They drive and drive and drive some more. Winnie only lets them stop when every tree is replaced with a building and the only open field is surrounded by a baseball stadium.

They aren’t the first family to arrive in New York with nothing but what they can carry. The city is accommodating. They make do.

+++

There’s not much room for a garden in the apartment they eventually settle into, which is one of the reasons Winnie seems to like it so much. She sets up window planters instead; what little air circulates through the alley is soon heavy with the smell of growing things that sets George’s sinuses running. They cage the fire escape in trellises and before long there’s ivy and creepers spreading all over the building. The florists a block over seem to alternate between seething jealousy and envious rapture.

Her first caller arrives when the clematis bloom: a woman from one of the Old Countries scratching at the window at sunset and startling George so badly he drops his pipe. She’d climbed up the three flights of stairs, worried sick about her daughter and desperate for something to settle the babe in her belly. She knew by the flowers, she says, that there would be someone there who could help. Winnie can’t very well turn her away. So she accepts the payment offered and drags out the family Book.

The women come in waves after that, sometimes two or three a day, all wanting so badly what they don’t have. Health or luck or love – especially love. Winnie always just sighs and puts the kettle on. Any witch worth her salt can mettle out a problem in the time it takes for a proper cup of tea. The children often fell asleep to the rattle of saucers and low voices crying in the kitchen.

Winnie always sends them to their room when there are strangers in the house, no matter the time of day. It doesn’t keep them from spying, though, and well she knows it. She’s actually relieved when it’s time to start their actual education, no matter how different it’s going to be than hers was.

+++

The twins are used to lessons at their mother’s elbow; Winnie’s instructed them since the time they were old enough to see over the edge of the conservatory table. They’d even learned to read using the Book as their primer.

Bucky’s the more enthusiastic learner of the two despite his lack of natural aptitude for the craft. He often failed at even the simplest spells, ones Becca picks up easy as breathing. His mother always ruffles his hair and tells him not to be discouraged. “Your gifts will come in time, my sweet,” she says, over and over. “Knowledge is important, regardless of whether or not you’ll use it. You never know when something might come in handy.”

Becca teases him that it doesn’t matter whether or not he knows a toadstool from a mushroom. It’s not like people were likely to come to him for potions or spells. What woman would trust a man to help her? Bucky puts glue in her socks and definitely doesn’t help her out of them.

Lessons outside of their home are a whole other matter. They’d never gone to school before; there hadn’t even been a school to go to. New York was so very different than anything they’d known before. The Barnes’ were the only children for miles around back home but here they were practically crawling out of the woodwork, two or three to an apartment, stacked on top of each other like blocks in a honeycomb.

So of course they stand out like sore thumbs. Something about their clothes or manner classifies them as other, as different, as something to be mocked and ostracized. Becca won’t stand for it, throwing tantrums and stomping her foot until Winnie cuts her hair and George spends some of his precious wages on new dresses. She smiles and preens and within a fortnight is one of the most popular girls in school.

Bucky doesn’t have it so easy. While the girls aren’t likely to forget their initial oddness, the boys never even give him a chance to prove himself. It doesn’t help that the other kids’ parents talk about that family in whispers over their children’s ears. Bucky doesn’t bother putting in as much effort into making friends as his sister. He’s worked too hard to like himself as he is to change now.

Becca is too preoccupied with her own new friends to notice Bucky’s troubles, no matter how he whines or acts up to get her attention. It’s the first time he’s been truly alone his whole life. So he hopes, and wishes, and begs with all his might for someone who understands.

And then he meets Steve.

Like Winnie always says: be careful what you wish for.

+++

Bucky’s sitting at the foot of the alley by his apartment, watching the boys play stickball and feeling so lonesome it wells up inside him like a wave on a beach, crashing to the sand and dragging anything not nailed down back into the depths with it. He misses his old house, and his sister, and the sound of birds in the trees, and even the group of stray cats that used to follow them around the yard and steal their lunch. The strays here are more likely to scratch than purr. It’s not fair.

The only other kid not picked for the game – a bone-thin collection of sharp angles shoved into the vague shape of a boy – is kicking around bits of trash and flicking glances Bucky’s way.

Bucky glares at him, wiping his runny nose on his wrist. He’s not crying. He’s not a baby anymore. He just – ugh. Bucky hates this city.

The skinny boy doesn’t seem to translate Bucky’s frown in the manner it was intended. Instead he nods to himself, as if making a decision, and plops down in the dirt next to Bucky, knees sticking out all akimbo and poking Bucky in the shin. “My name’s Steve,” he says.

Bucky glares harder at the offered hand and the even bonier wrist attached to it. But his mother always told him there was power in a name and to never shun a greeting. He shakes it, pumping twice half-heartedly. “You can call me Bucky, I guess.”

“Those guys are idiots for not letting you play. I saw you running to catch the bell once. You’re really fast.”

Bucky rubs his nose again, a memory slowly tingling in the back of his head. He thinks maybe he’s seen Steve around, too. “Ain’t you the kid who threw a brick at Billy Bradshaw?”

“Billy’s a bully and a jerk. He was teasing that poor Mexican girl down the block.” Bucky didn’t think it’d be possible but somehow Steve’s jaw sticks out even further. “I only threw the rock ‘cause he was too far away to punch.”

A snort startles its way out of Bucky, despite his sour mood. He can’t help it; the thought of little Stevie squaring up to Billy Bradshaw – two years their senior and at least twenty pounds heavier – is just too ridiculous.

Steve frowns, like maybe he thinks Bucky’s making fun of him. “There’s plenty of loose bricks laying around here, you know. I’d hate to have a repeat incident.”

Bucky starts laughing so hard he almost falls over. Steve’s whole face joins in the frown. Bucky likes his gumption. He bumps their shoulders together so Steve knows there’s no hurt feelings and tries to catch his breath. Steve bumps back, and next thing Bucky knows they’re rolling around poking each other and giggling like girls.

The crack of a ball hitting the ground next to them jolts them apart. Quick as a blink Steve fishes it out from behind a trash can and hurls it down the street to where traffic’s streaming past. He sticks out his tongue at the other boys and takes off before they can even start to chase him.

Bucky catches up to Steve easily – he actually is pretty fast – and soon Steve’s wheezing drowns out the shouts behind them. “You’re right,” Bucky pants, trading grins with Steve. “Those guys are idiots. You’re a better pitcher than the Yankees whole lineup!”

+++

In the way of children Steve and Bucky become fast friends after that. By the time winter rolls around it’s hard for either of them to fathom a future where they wouldn’t be side by side.

The world has other plans.

+++

Steve gets sick a lot. Bucky doesn’t realize there’s anything special about him, at first – a lot of kids get sick that year. But Steve gets sick and stays sick, the flu turning into a fever turning into something worse. Bucky’s mom makes up little packages for him to drop off at the Rogers’ apartment though he’s strictly forbidden from going inside. It feels like the longest spring of Bucky’s life.

Steve’s missed two whole months of school before Bucky gets to see him again. Steve’s ma sighs a little and opens the door, warning him not to make Steve too excited. Bucky shoots her a grin and bounces right past into Steve’s bedroom without even bothering to knock.

It’s a little musty inside even though the window’s open. Steve’s looking out at the darkening sky, somehow even smaller and pointier that he remembers. He glances over his shoulder at Bucky’s grand entrance before turning away again.

The happiness bubbling away inside Bucky turns sour. It’s not like Steve to ignore him. Maybe it’s been too long and he doesn’t want Bucky hanging around anymore? Bucky gathers up all the little bits of courage inside him and wiggles his way between Steve and the window, as obnoxious as possible. He crosses his eyes and sticks out his tongue. I missed you, pal, he thinks, desperately. Please say you missed me, too.

Steve huffs and pushes Bucky’s face away. But he’s grinning while he does it, so Bucky counts it as a win.

“What’s wrong, Steve? You’re all better now! I thought you’d be happy.”

“I ain’t better, Buck. I mean, I am, it’s just.” Bucky’s terrified to see tears filling his eyes. “We went to the doctor again today. He said my body’s a real mess. I’m not gonna live to see twenty. That’s what he said. It’s a miracle I lived this long.” Steve looks back out the window, rubbing at his nose. The pain in Bucky’s chest is an almost physical thing. “I understand if you don’t wanna be my friend anymore, Buck. Nobody wants to be wasting their time on a dud like me.”

Bucky just shakes his head. Steve can’t die. He just… can’t. Bucky refuses to believe it.

He settles in next to Steve at the window, watching the stars twinkle into existence as the sun fades behind the buildings. There’s only a few visible this time of year, so different than in Indiana. It might as well be a whole other world. The sky back home stretched on for miles, with too many stars to count. New York’s stars have to fight for every bit of light they shine.

To hell with it, Bucky thinks. He’s not going to lose Steve just because a few doctors said so. A different sky means different rules, right? “You say it’s a miracle you lived this long? Then I say we make another miracle. I know all about ‘em, they’re not hard. My mom makes twelve miracles before breakfast every day.”

Steve hunches his shoulders and shushes Bucky like someone will hear them through the door. “That’s blasphemous.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “It’s the truth, Stevie.” Fact of the matter was, the Barnes’ household isn’t that stranger than some of the others around the neighborhood. Aron Geller’s family only eats meat if it comes from a certain deli. The Murphy boys speak Gaelic. Even Steve and his ma go to church every other day if he isn’t too sick to make the train. What the Barnes’ get up to in the privacy of their own home is tame by comparison. “Besides, what do doctors know, anyway? There’s always folk knocking on our door wantin’ spells and stuff. If doctors knew everything then wouldn’t people just go to them instead? Huh?”

“I guess.”

“You’re damn right.” Steve snorts a little at his cursing; Bucky pokes him in the side until it blossoms into an actual chuckle. “I’ve got an idea. Remember my ma’s Book?”

“That creepy thing she keeps in the cabinet over the sink? Yeah Buck, it’s hard to forget something like that.”

“It’s not creepy.” Although Bucky supposed it was, a little. He always flips past a few pages toward the back so he won’t be kept up at night thinking about the pictures. There’s even a whole section Winnie won’t let them touch, let alone read from. Bucky shakes his head; that part wasn’t important now. “There’s a spell in it.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “There’s tons of spells in it.”

“Will you shut up and listen! This spell’s for the future. We can send a message through time and space, like something out of Weird World.” Bucky’s already read him all the pulps and stories he can get his hands on, so he’s sure Steve will be impressed by how neat time travel like this could be.

Steve is not impressed. “Why don’t you just go to the post office and send a letter?”

“Ugh! You’re the worst.” For a guy who likes to draw so much Steve has zero imagination. “Think about it. If we send a letter to you in the future then you’ve gotta be there to get it, don’t cha?”

“I dunno, Bucky. It seems like a silly thing to make a spell for.”

Bucky thinks this might be the least silly idea he’s ever had. “Naw, this is gonna work, Steve, I can feel it. We’ll send a letter a hundred years in the future. What could go wrong?”

“A hundred years? Isn’t that asking for a bit much?”

Bucky puts his hands on his hips, like he’s seen Steve’s ma do countless times. “Steven Grant Rogers! I am tired of all this negativity!” He sticks out his chin and frowns to make the point further. Steve rolls his eyes so hard he loses his balance and almost falls over. Bucky laughs and catches him, taking advantage of his grip on his ribs to do a little tickling.

Steve snorts and swats him over the head. “All right, all right. Uncle! Uncle!”

A swell of triumph rises with the color in Bucky’s cheeks. Steve’s laughing through his gasps for breath. Whatever else happens the day is worth it just for that.

+++

The trek back to Bucky’s place is a little harrowing for Steve’s fragile lungs, but they take it slow and make it just as his parents are settling down for some tea. Winnie gives Steve a shrewd look – no doubt cataloging the new curve of his spine and the slight whistling at the back of his throat – but pulls him into a hug all the same. George sends them into the kitchen for a snack, hinting that there might be a bit of sweet cream pie in the cabinet over the sink if they go searching for it. He winks as he says it and Bucky’s heart flops a little in his chest.

Winnie might have all the magic in the world at her fingertips but Bucky’s never been able to pull one over on his father. Fortunately, George is of the ‘let them learn from their mistakes’ school of parenting.

They squirrel the Book (and several pieces of pie) away with them to Bucky’s room, flipping through it quickly to the page Bucky came across a few lessons ago. They’ve snuck peeks at it together before though this is the first time Bucky’s tried anything so complicated unsupervised. He sends Steve out to forage ingredients and takes a minute to breathe carefully. Nothing’s going to go wrong. He can do this.

The Book is a solid weight in front of him, a Frankenstein creation of ancient paper worn silky to the touch. There’s bits of herbs and feathers sticking out here and there, the occasional moth wing or tooth carefully glued to the pages. Sometime over the last few decades whole extra leaves were sown into the binding, unfolding into secret chapters about properly drying sage or breeding pigs with two tails. The Book had been passed down from generation of Barnes women to Bucky’s mother to him and Becca. It’s never been anything but capitalized in their minds.

The first time Bucky’d dragged him back to the apartment Steve had taken one look at the Book, sneezed, and said it looked like a Bible had cannibalized a bunch of nature guides. He hadn’t been entirely wrong.

The spell is actually designed for scrying – an act their mother always warned them against – but it should be simple enough to adapt it for Bucky’s plan. They even have most of the ingredients in their pantry. It’s funny how “eye of newt” is really just mustard seeds; the old stories blow a lot of this stuff out of proportion. The trick of it’s all in the intention.

The boys get to work chopping and grinding and mixing. Steve doesn’t hesitate to help out now that he’s gotten used to the idea of spellcraft. He’d been nervous as all heck the first time. His ma’s family had come over from Ireland as superstitious as they were Catholic and Bucky’s pretty sure both of those are habits that are hard to break. But Bucky knows once Steve’s set his mind on doing something it’s going to get done whether he likes it or not.

The ink comes out so purple it’s almost black, with a rainbow sheen that catches the light. They use a piece of butcher’s paper since it’s sturdy and the only one they can find that’s big enough.

It’s all great fun until the time comes to actually write the letter and Bucky realizes he has no idea what to say. According to the Book it should reference a specific time without actually calling out a certain date, just to avoid trouble. There needs to be something that’s just for them, a hidden meaning so Steve-in-the-Future will know to trust it.

Bucky sucks on the tip of his dad’s fountain pen and thinks. Maybe if he said something about robots? They’d read that issue together just before Steve got sick the last time and it was one of Bucky’s favorites. Then there’d been the one about multiple universe theory – had he ever shared that one with Steve?

“A star!”

“Huh?”

“Put a star on it, so I’ll know it’s you.” Steve’s pointing out the window to where a single star is still visible, slowly struggling through the smog. Bucky blinks at him for a long moment, watching Steve grin and thinking about all the possible worlds revolving around this one. He’d choose a world where Steve smiles like that every time, no matter how many stars were in the sky.

He pokes Steve with the wet end of the pen just to see him squirm. “That’s perfect, actually. Stars are symbols that carry power really well.” He carefully adds a lopsided but well-intentioned five point star just under his signature.

They fold the letter into shape before Bucky climbs out onto the fire escape, Steve watching from the relative warmth inside. It’s just chilly enough that Bucky almost regrets wearing his short pants. The last of the ink goes on the outside of the paper. To: the future.

Bucky holds it in his hands a moment, wishing, hoping, knowing this will work. He hurls it as hard in the air as he can, the little wings catching the breeze and sailing out of sight beyond the next apartment.

It’s done.

Bucky sinks down onto the fire escape, oddly tired. If this doesn’t work… He knows it’s going to, but if it doesn’t work he doesn’t know what he’ll do. He can’t lose Steve.

Steve clambers out next to him, his little body already shivering in the cool spring air. Bucky shifts to throw an arm over Steve’s shoulder. They sit close for awhile, watching the spot in the sky where the airplane disappeared.

Bucky lets his head rest against Steve’s. He’s just the perfect size. “You’ll see,” Bucky says. “One hundred years from today. You’re going to be the angriest old guy in the world.”

“You’ll be there with me, won’t you? I don’t think I’d want to see the future without you.” Steve’s voice is almost lost under the sound of the train going by half a block over. Bucky doubts he would have heard it at all if they hadn’t been sitting so close.

He’s never actually thought about it. The spell had been for Steve, after all. Somehow it’s harder to visualize: himself in the future, sitting next to Steve on some park bench somewhere, playing chess and yelling at the kids running by. He likes the idea of it, though. “’Course I will, Stevie. But by then I’ll probably look two hundred.”

“How come?”

“I’ll be worn out from chasing your skinny ass all the time.”

Steve snorts and elbows him in the ribs. Bucky hisses, clutches his poor injured side. “Geeze! Those things are deadly weapons.”

“Jerk. I’m tryna be serious here.”

“Yeah, I know. I wouldn’t want to see the future without you, either. Hey! I’ve got an idea.” Bucky leans back through the window and feels around through the mess on the floor until he finds his pocket knife, last used to give the ink a final stir. He wipes it on his pants – his mom won’t be happy about the stain but this is more important – and cuts a shallow line across his palm. He hisses between his teeth as the blood starts to swell.

Steve already has his own hand stretched out, the left a mirror to Bucky’s right. He doesn’t make a sound when Bucky cuts him. Bucky slaps their palms together, holding so tight his knuckles turn white.

“There. It doesn’t get any more serious than that, Rogers. You’re stuck with me forever.”

Steve looks up at Bucky through his bangs. “Well, for a hundred years anyway.”

“A hundred years is a long time.” He holds up their joined hands. “Besides, we share the same blood now. That means you’re family. And family's forever.” It’s something Bucky knows deep in his gut, a truth in his marrow.

The train rattles past again, this time going the other way. A draft of cool air ruffles their hair. Bucky smirks. “You’re riding this train to the end of the line, pal.”

Above them the last star twinkles and goes out. Inside, Bucky can hear Winnie yelling about the stains all over the carpet, and the mess of dishes strewn all over the place, and her decimated herb garden. And whatever fool thing Bucky just roped Steve into doing. He just knows Becca’s sneering at them from the safety of the hallway.

But Bucky doesn’t care about any of that. Steve’s smiling again, tilting their hands back and forth. “Till the end of the line,” he says. “I like that.”

+++

Till the end of the line.

They’re just children when they make the oath, with nothing more solid to stand on than the hope of a future before them.

They’re just children. But as many different times as they say it – in diners and fox holes and bleeding over flaming rivers – it feels like something more.

All those times and every time.

+++

The deathwatch beetle clicks for George Barns when Bucky is twelve years old. Winnie’s woken from a deep sleep by it, an eerily soft sound just on the edge of her hearing, like someone tapping on the window in the next room. She uproots every planter and pot looking for it. The apartment is torn apart from top to bottom but the ticking just grows louder and louder. Until it stops.

Winnie drops her favorite teacup. The shards cut the twins’ feet when they break her fall.

There’s an accident at the dock that very afternoon. And a funeral not long after.

+++

It starts simply enough – putting on a happy face for his fading mother in the morning, lying about his grades at school so she doesn’t worry. It’s surprisingly easy to hide what he’s feeling. He finally understands why Becca is the way she is: no one looks too closely at what’s inside when you show them what they want to see on the outside. People can’t hurt you if they can’t see your weak spots.

Steve’s already learned the same lesson. He keeps his anger simmering on the surface like armor over the soft ache inside. Sometimes he thinks the anger’s the only thing keeping him alive. (That, and maybe something else. Maybe.)

Bucky’s not sure when he learns to hide from Steve, too. He only knows he has to.

There are some secrets too dangerous to share.

+++

He should have known it was inevitable, but somehow the fight with Becca still takes Bucky by surprise.

It’s the end of a long week – Steve had come down with something horrible and refused to see him, which meant he’d been sleeping like shit and tanked both the last test at school and the track meet before that – and Bucky really just wants to say to hell with it and go to bed. But Becca and all her girly friends are having some kind of party, giggling like morons and tromping up and down the fire escape right next to Bucky’s bedroom.

It’s a game that was old when Winnie was young, something Becca dredged out of the back of the Book for her friends to blush over and pretend to be rebellious young witches. He’s sure if their mother were home she wouldn’t have dared. Instead half the damn pep squad was walking backwards up thirteen stairs and chanting about seeing their future husband in a mirror. One at a time. Loudly. Bucky’s pretty sure they’ve been sneaking the sherry, too.

He puts up with it far longer than any reasonable human should have to. But after the fifth iteration of “Oh Nancy, you’re horrible!” something inside him snaps.

He flings open the curtain and sticks his head out the window. “Will you shut the hell up already!

The girls all giggle and shush each other, the ones closest to him sitting down on the steps. One of them – her hair starting to fall out of its curls – looks at him slyly. “Ooh, look! It’s Becca’s baby brother.”

Becca’s glare could freeze ice. Bucky can’t help but think she should point it away from him. “We’re twins.”

“Sorry. I meant baby faced brother. Think he wants to play?” The blonde girl clutching at her hisses and starts slapping at her knee. And now Bucky knows which one is Nancy.

“What I want is for you to stop acting like idiots and go home.”

Becca tromps down the stairs to loom over where Bucky’s half sprawled on the landing. The whole thing shakes so much a couple of the tipsier girls grab for the railings. “Bucky!” she hisses. “You are embarrassing me!”

“I’ve been embarrassing you for years, what makes now so special?”

Nancy’s slumped down so far she’s laying across three different steps. Her skirt’s showing a lot of leg. Her eyes are showing something even more treacherous. “It’s okay, Becca. He probably doesn’t want to play because he knows the mirror will just show him Little Stevie.”

You shut up!

The girls all cover their mouths and look scandalized. Also like they’re having the time of their lives. A chorus of “SteeeeeEEeeeeeve” rises into the night. Mr. Gordon from the top floor yells something incomprehensible out his window.

Panic rises in Bucky’s chest. He grabs the mirror from Nancy and flings it as hard as he can down into the alley. He doesn’t get to see where it lands before Becca pushes him hard back into the apartment, mashing his face with her hand and stumbling in after him. She slams the window shut on her protesting friends.

“What the hell is your problem, Bucky?”

My problem? Your friend’s a bitch and it’s my problem?”

Becca gasps and points her finger in his face. Bucky kinda wants to bite it off. “You’re just jealous.”

“Jealous? Of what, you?”

“Yes! Jealous that I have friends and all you have is Steve. Nancy’s right. Everybody’s knows you two are deviant for each other.”

“Sh – shut up!”

“Aw, wh-wh-whaat? Did that get too personal? Admit it! You’re a defective Barnes and a defective man.”

“I said shut up!”

“He’s going to die, Bucky. He’s going to get sick and die and leave you alone forever. And you won’t even hear the beetle coming because it’s not real love!”

Bucky doesn’t know what happens. One minute Becca’s backing him up against the wall and the next his palm is stinging and there’s a red mark on her face. He thinks – he thinks he must have slapped her. But the anger and fear is so powerful inside him he can’t think past it.

They stare at each other for a long silent minute, mouths gaping open. Bucky’s breath is loud in his ears; asthma’s not contagious, is it?

Becca’s hand rises slowly to her cheek. Bucky steels his shoulders before she has a chance to gather her wits about her.

“Don’t you talk about Steve like that. Don’t you ever talk about him again.” He’s surprised at how hard his voice sounds, heavy and old and determined. He sounds like an adult.

The fire is growing in Becca’s eyes. Bucky turns tail and runs before her lips can curl all the way into a snarl.

“I’ll do more than talk, you ever come back here!” He can hear her yelling after him, her voice echoing through the whole building. “I hope that hand falls off, Bucky Barnes! I hope it rots and falls off, you raise it to me!”

It feels like a curse as she says it.

+++

He gets a job taking tickets down at the pier and stays at the Rogers’ tiny shoebox of an apartment until he’s saved enough to get one of his own. He visits Winnie as often as he can but tries to arrange it so Becca’s out of the house. He can’t say he misses her all that much.

Bucky’s not alone in the apartment for long. There’s no warning beetle click for Sarah Rogers – the man she loves already gone before her – but her death comes just the same. It takes far longer than it should to convince Steve to move in with him after the funeral. Winter’s got a stranglehold on the city and Steve’s already battled his first flu of the season before he finally listens to reason.

Living with Steve is a whole other level of frustrating Bucky never anticipated. It’s fun at first, despite the circumstances; kind of like the sleepovers they had as kids, except with more worrying about paying for groceries and less couch forts. It’s nice having Steve so close all the time, to laugh with or swing down to the automat for a meal. It’s nice just having him close.

Which is part of the problem, really. There’s this thing growing between them Bucky doesn’t have the guts to talk about – this swelling nameless feeling that lights a fire inside his chest whenever he’s around Steve for too long. It’s the sweep of his lashes against his skin, the breadth of his voice when he knows he’s right. The fragile curve of the bones in his wrists. The way Bucky sometimes catches him looking back.

Bucky’s got a handle on all that, though. He’s developed a firm grip on those feelings and tucked them away where no one can find them. What really makes Steve a terrible roommate is all the petty little shit that drives Bucky absolutely insane. Like, he never does the dishes, ever. He just finishes eating, sets the plates to the side, and forgets they exist somehow. Bucky’s spilled enough glasses of water to fill the East River. He’s always attending this meeting or that rally, ranting about the injustice of it all. And intellectually Bucky knows he can’t help the snoring but it’s really hard not to hate him for it when their apartment sounds like two bears strangling a tugboat at three in the fucking morning.

And the fighting. Bucky thought it was bad when they were kids but the reality of it is so much worse. It’s like Steve’s substituting his health and his mother and all the respect he deserves with sarcasm and punches. Not a day goes by he doesn’t get smacked around by some bigot or bouncer or asshole unlucky enough to be in his path. Most of the time Steve gives as good as he gets. Other times…

Well. Bucky’s taken to keeping a stocked medicine cabinet over the sink. It comes in handy the night before Steve’s twentieth birthday.

Bucky knows he shouldn’t let him out of his sight when he leaves for work that morning. But everyone’s hustling to get as much done before the holiday as they can and the offer of overtime is just too good to pass up. It’s a bad day anyway. He gets called out twice by the manager for being distracted. Every unexpected noise makes him jump out of his skin.

It feels almost inevitable when he finds Steve slumped against a trashcan not a block away from home. There’s blood all down the front of his shirt. Bucky’s heart trips up to his throat and down again before he sees that skinny chest rise and fall. Still alive.

“Jesus Christ, pal,” he breathes. “There’s such a thing as self-fulfilling prophecies, you know.”

Steve spits out a gob of something disgusting – hopefully not a tooth – and garbles what might be something like “had ‘em on the ropes”.

Bucky snorts. “Sure. You always do.” Steve’s face is a mess of blood and purple bruises, the left eye so swollen he surely can’t see out of it. Bucky just hopes the skull underneath it all isn’t broken too. He runs careful fingers over Steve’s ribs, listening for stranger than usual wheezing or wetness in his lungs.

Steve loosens his death grip on the can long enough to shove Bucky off. “Leave off, Buck. I got all the way here ‘n needed a breather. That’s all.”

“Uh huh. Say goodbye to your new friend.” Bucky tugs an arm over his shoulder and starts walking. He’d just pick him up and be done with it but he knows from experience Steve would raise holy hell and probably hurt himself worse than he already was. Between the two of them they manage to limp up the three flights to their apartment.

Steve’s breathing like a bellows by the time Bucky dumps him on the couch, but it actually doesn’t look too bad once all the mess is wiped away. Steve bears the prodding with badly hidden hostility. “I don’t think your nose is broken this time, which, thank god right? Don’t know how many more lumps this thing can take. Not sure if we can save your shirt, though. I ain’t even gonna ask what you were getting up to.”

Bucky leaves him there to start putting together a poultice for his face. He hears him shuffling around, presumably taking off the ruined shirt. There’s no hissing or suppressed sounds of pain so Bucky’s still pretty confident his ribs are okay.

He takes a moment to slump against the sink where Steve can’t see him. Today of all days. He’s under no illusions Steve didn’t go out looking for a fist to slam himself against.

“They deserved it, Bucky.”

“I said I don’t wanna know, didn’t I? Seriously, Steve. You can’t right every wrong just by throwing your face at it and hoping someone learns a lesson.”

“That’s not what happened. Someone’s gotta stand up and say something ain’t right.”

“And that someone has to always be you, huh?” Bucky pulls over one of the kitchen chairs so he can get to work on Steve’s busted knuckles. He slaps the dripping poultice a little harder against his face than he should. “Hold this on your eye. Don’t squirm. You hurt anywhere else I need to know about?”

“No.” Steve winces but does as he’s told. He’s quiet while Bucky cleans the little wounds and dabs on the mix of honey and chamomile his mother swears by. Then he sighs. “It’s gotta be me because no one else is doing it. Besides, what have I got to lose anyway?”

“You got a lot, Stevie.”

“So do you, Bucky. It really cheeses me you don’t get this. I know you’ve gotta feel the same way.”

Bucky huffs and measures out a bandage. “Yes, Steve. People are horrible. The world’s a shitty place. There, I said it. But has it ever occurred to you that I like my life? That I’m happy with my shitty job and my shitty place and –“

“Your shitty friend?”

“Yeah. Even that. I can’t say I enjoy scraping you out of alleys as often as I do, but yeah.” Steve’s hand is soft under Bucky’s grip, his poor circulation keeping them cool even in July. His only calluses are from the cheap pencils he buys.

Steve twists his wrist so their palms rub together. There’s an old scar there, still raised and pink even after all these years. “Yeah, our life’s good, Bucky. But it could be so much better if we just have the balls to fight for it.”

He can feel how close they’ve leaned in to each other. Steve’s bangs have fallen over his forehead again, just barely brushing against Bucky’s cheek with every fluttery exhale. The smell of the poultice mixture is suddenly dizzying.

Bucky jerks away, coughing a little, clumsily gathering up the bits and bobs of healing Steve strewn about his knees before taking them back to the kitchen. He can’t look at Steve right now. “I thought I told you to keep that on your face. You wanna lose your sight as well as your hearing?”

“Low blow, jerk. I said it ain’t that bad, geeze.” But he holds the compress back to his eye anyway, Bucky knows he has to, because the swelling’s gone down enough for him to be frowning when Bucky finally feels brave enough to face him again.

+++

It’s not the first time the deathwatch beetle haunts him and it won’t be the last. He strains his ears with every fever, every crack and groan of Steve’s angry joints. Every time Steve’s breathing gets thick and labored in the night across the infinite darkness of their bedroom Bucky’s catches in his throat. Still, somehow, the only ticking comes from his father’s old watch hidden away at the foot of his bed.

Bucky knows Steve is strong. Stronger than he looks, without a doubt. He wants to believe the doctors were wrong, that Steve will live a long and happy life.

If he’s not in love with Steve, if he never says it out loud or feels it anywhere but the cold aching part of his heart, then the beetle won’t be able to find him.

He wants to believe it. So he does.

The clock ticks over to midnight and the fireworks fade from the sky. Bucky breathes out a sigh and lets sleep take him.

+++

 

Time changes everything. But not as quickly as war.

 

+++

“Where are we going?” Steve’s ears are ringing so loud it knocks him a little off balance. He almost misses the flier Bucky hands him.

“The future.”

+++

Marching boot to boot with death on the daily tends to make people superstitious. It makes them religious, too, or sometimes the opposite. When faced with horrors beyond comprehension it’s human nature to cling to anything that offers a little bit of hope.

The war finds Bucky there, in the trenches and the killing fields. And the men find him, too, somehow –
asking with their eyes for things they don’t have the language to express. All of them wanting so badly what they don’t have.

Bucky’s not fool enough to believe he has any hope at real magic, not proper magic anyway, like his sister or his mother or aunts. He can’t save himself, let alone the dozen or so men unfortunate enough to be under his command.

But somehow they know all the same. Bucky doesn’t dare ask how, hasn’t since that first day off the boat and every private turned to stare at him at once, waiting. Every night one or two of them have come to him, silently offering tokens or precious remembrances from home; payment for a spell Bucky’s unable to really give them.

He can’t very well turn them away, can he?

So he braids careful wisteria around the pictures of their wives and children and hands them back in the morning. He lets the cigarettes and comics and warm socks pile up in the bottom of his pack and keeps his eyes open for things he can use, lingering on the edge of their endless marches until his pockets are bulging with clover and oak bark and other bits and bobs he remembers seeing in the pages of his mother’s Book. He’s ready with a small wreath or boutonniere the next time someone comes calling.

The other squads make fun of them for having sprigs of thyme in their helmets or heather in their buttonholes. The lieutenant just straightens the bit of greenery in his bootlaces and says he’s proud to have the best-smelling soldiers in all of Europe. No one looks Bucky’s way during any of this, of course.

But their greenhorns live long enough to lose some of their shine and a few of their wounded live long enough to make it home. So Bucky’s willing to believe it works, for a little, for a while.

For a while.

There’s only so much hope can do to pull a man through a war, though. In the end, it’s just not enough.

+++

“I know he’s alive. If he was dead I’d know; I’d feel it, Peggy. With every drop of blood that’s in me I’d feel it. If the army’s not going to save him then I have to. I have to save all of them.”

+++

Bucky’s mother warned them. Be careful what you wish for.

+++

Bucky has a lot more to hide from Steve these days. Fortunately there are a lot of other things fighting for his attention. It’s a harder trick to pull but not impossible: he just has to wait until Steve’s not looking to actually let himself feel anything.

+++

Steve stretches in front of the three-way mirror, testing the give of the new suit. Howard hovers around him like the world’s most intense tailor, plucking at seams and tugging to make it lay just so. Steve’s not sure when Howard had time to learn this sort of thing in the middle of a warfront but he’s somehow managed to get a prototype together practically overnight.

“It’s all just fabrication. I’ve got hidden depths, my friend,” he smirks, yanking on one of the sleeves. Howard takes a few steps back to stare at the overall look. “All right. Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

“Well, it’s certainly better than the last one. Then again, my pajamas make better tactical sense than the last one, so there’s that.” Steve can hear Bucky snorting, even if he can’t quite see him reflected in the mirror. The uniform’s tight through the chest but not uncomfortably so. All the buckles and belts squeak when he moves. He taps at his chest. “I like that you kept the star, though.”

“That star makes you a target to every Kraut in Europe.” Bucky’s fiddling with something on the table now, though the only thing on it is the shield. It’s propped up next to him, waiting for its coat of eye-searing stars and stripes. The process is a lot more complicated than Steve initially thought – apparently Howard had to develop a special alloy that wouldn’t throw off the aerodynamics of the vibranium and add the color to that.

It’s taking forever. Steve’s dying to try the shield out on the training course.

He throws a smirk Bucky’s way, swinging his left arm as far behind his shoulder as it’ll go. “I thought you said stars were lucky?”

Bucky sighs just like his mother when Steve gets him going like this. “It’s a symbol Steve. It’s just a shape some publicist thought would sell more bonds. You said so yourself, don’t pretend that you didn’t.”

“Maybe. But symbols are strength. You said so yourself.” It’s not that Steve’s memorized everything Bucky’s ever told him about this stuff, it’s just certain things tend to stick around in his head. He’s not sure when he started thinking about shit like this, thinking like a Barnes, but he catches himself looking for little signs wherever he goes now. It’s interesting, the sort of things people don’t notice when they’re too busy looking at the ground.

“Symbols only have power when people believe in them. You make enough people believe and they’ll follow you anywhere.”

Howard pats Steve on the back, shaking him a little by one of the straps. “That’s our boy. A regular pied piper.”

“Yeah. Or a martyr.” Steve’s only heard Bucky this serious a few times before. Mostly while standing over a grave. “The enemy ranks are full of believers, Steve. Every one of ‘em waiting to be the guy who takes down Captain America.”

“They don’t even know who I am, Bucky.”

Howard’s grinning now, making notes in one of his ever present ledgers. “Not yet. Give it two months in this outfit, with my gear, and you’ll be topping Hydra’s most wanted list.”

Bucky looks at Howard like he’s lost his mind. “And that’s a good thing?”

Howard ignores him. Or maybe just doesn’t hear him – Steve’s not sure how much Howard actually pays attention to the world around him when an idea grabs hold of him. He spins his hand around in a little pirouette. “How’s the give in the pants? Do a couple squats so we can see.”

Steve obliges, dropping down and popping back up again. The material bunches around the stretch of his thighs and tightens just this side of comfortable around his ass. Shouldn’t be a problem once it stretches out a little. He dips low again, slowly, catching Bucky’s eye in the mirror on the upswing.

Bucky winces like it actually hurts him. “Jesus Christ. All right! All right, I give! You can keep your damn star. But you’re going to learn how to use it properly. Stark, you got any guns that actually work in this place?”

“Do I have any guns? Do I have any guns?”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Come on, Stevie, grab your plate. We got dinner reservations.”

“Hey – I’m not done with that yet!”

Steve’s already got the shield in hand and is halfway out the door. “We’re just testing the movement of the suit, right? Best to see the whole thing in action.”

Howard flings his hands in the air and waves them out of his lab. Steve spends a remarkably pleasant afternoon getting shot at by Bucky from increasingly ridiculous angles.

+++

No one catches Bucky mixing his own ingredients into the shield’s paint mixture – he makes sure of that. But Steve looks at him the first time he holds it afterward, smirking the way he only seems to after Bucky’s done something particularly stupid that Steve’s going to enjoy the hell out of later.

It sings through the air, a metallic hum so familiar it’s like Bucky’s heard it in his dreams. Then comes the meaty thwack as it returns safely to Steve’s hand. Something relaxes in Bucky’s shoulders as he watches it fly.

+++

Bucky is different after Steve joins him in the field. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, not when he’s changed so much himself. But it’s something more than the physical, than the spread of Bucky’s shoulders under his rifle or the loping strides of his gait. His smile has changed. And his eyes.
There’s a kind of knowing, aching flatness now, a sort of ‘this is shit, ain’t it’ look that makes the other soldiers love him, make them nod and sit next to him at the fire. It’s different than how they look at Steve. They look at him like he’s the answer to their prayers, like he’s home and fresh sheets and liberation all rolled into one. Like all their hope rests on him.

The men who’ve seen hard action look at Steve like they’d follow him back into hell. They look at Bucky like they’re on the journey together and Buck’s got a cigarette to share while their toes burn.

+++

Bucky makes his own Books while on the front. They’re more of notebooks than anything worth capitalizing, with plenty of blank space for calculating angles and trajectories. The first gets lost with most of his unit at Azzano. The second he starts the first mission the Commandos are left on their own in the field.

He makes it out of necessity, because doing shit like this from memory’s all well and good but when you’ve been walking for days and awake for longer the mind’s the first thing to go and Bucky’s been burned by that before. So he takes notes. Mostly it’s just copying things he remembers learning at his mother’s table, hauled up from the depths of his childhood like nets of squirming fish. He sketches out a few rough ideas for new spells, more offensive than what he’s tried so far. Not all of it is helpful. He writes it down, anyway.

Mostly, he writes the magic down to keep it close. To have a piece of home he can tuck safe away in his coat and feel press against his chest with every step. The act of organizing his thoughts is soothing – and necessary, most nights. His book, ragged and water stained it may be, is a reminder that not everything is made up of blood and mud and ash.

Though that mud is helpful, too. Steve catches him scooping up a bit in a tin as they skirt the French coastline, the sky as red as the water lapping at their boots. He doesn’t ask why Bucky would want to keep something like that.

Blood of earth, blood of man. Bucky seals the tin tightly before shoving it to the bottom of his pack.

They move on. There are some things Steve doesn’t need to know.

+++

At the beginning of their last mission together a dog follows them from one end of town to the other.

Though calling it a town might be generous. The burned husks of buildings rise out of the foothills like the mountain’s teeth, silent as the grave, without even the relief of birdsong in the trees. No one knows the name of it. There’s no sign of the people who’d once called the place home.

There’s no people left at all. Only the dog.

It appears out of nowhere, fur the same ashy brown as the road, eyes black and soulful. It doesn’t bark or beg, doesn’t flinch when Bucky tries to shoo it away. It just trails quietly beside him, watching.

It disappears between one curve in the path and the next.

The Howlies keep their guns close and set up camp as far away as their feet will take them.

+++

Bucky lays awake that night, listening. For a sound that’s like the tapping of a window in the next room. For a sound that’s like death.

He just hears Steve’s breathing, metronome steady. The unnatural evenness of it is somehow just as disturbing.

+++

Steve doesn’t hear the deathwatch beetle, either. He isn’t kept awake in the long cold night before they land on the train.

There’s no beetle or broken glass. There’s no warning at all. Just a feeling, ignored. And a hand, reaching.

But then, maybe it was all a lie. Maybe running water didn't ward off evil and lavender was just a pleasant smelling plant. They'd only been children, after all, and what did children understand of the world?

Children know a lot more than adults want to believe they do. And Steve had wanted to believe. He'd wanted to believe so badly.

+++

Time, unlike luck, cannot be courted with a gardenia in your hair. Time is frozen hard and uncaring. Immovable.

Time is like death. It’s moving toward you whether you want it to or not.

+++

 

Be careful what you wish for.

 

+++

Omens follow the Soldier wherever he goes. The handlers usually don’t notice. He’d write the signs down for further study but they do not let him have paper. The Soldier has no need for calculations or spells or memory.

There is a star on the Soldier’s arm. This feels correct. It is a good feeling.

The star is the wrong color. Dangerous. Bloody. This is a bad feeling.

The Soldier is not allowed to have feelings. This doesn’t stop him from having them anyway.

+++

After actual aliens fall out of the fucking sky Steve’s mandated SHIELD therapists “suggest” that it would be helpful for him to reconnect to his past – as if seeing this new New York in pieces wasn’t traumatizing enough. He doesn’t bother protesting that he doesn’t have any family left on this side of the century since “orphaned at eighteen” is apparently in all of his biographies.

He’s not sure what bothers him more: the word “orphaned” or that he has biographies. More than one. He can’t bring himself to read any to verify how accurate they could possibly be.

He declines the offer of a personal assistant and tries his chances at the google thing on his own. It’s surprisingly easy to navigate, though it doesn’t lessen the pain of knowing he missed Jim’s death not two months before he came out of the ice. His funeral is there in its entirety for all the world to see in sharp definition and buffering video. Peggy (oh, lovely Peggy with fire in her eyes and perfectly coiffed armor) is still alive, miracle of miracles, but it breaks what’s left of his heart to see the wrinkles on her face. He doesn’t have it in him to see her. Not yet.

On a whim he searches a name and gets several million results, the top of which makes him cringe away from the screen. Eventually he figures out how to limit his search parameters and comes across an address on the east side, a work email, and the most awkward tea invitation he’s received since that time with the Russians and the shortbread.

Becca’s children have done well for themselves if the townhouse he parks in front of is anything to go by. Twin girls, following the old Barnes tradition. One that disappeared off the map sometime in the nineties and the other a retired gender studies professor married to a former Wall Street whiz kid. She welcomes him with a hug he’s almost too startled to return and ushers him past the sitting room into the kitchen. The tea’s already steeping on the counter.

The inside of her home is just as tastefully decorated as the outside. There’s bright and happy sunshine pouring through the windows. Steve can see an attached conservatory at the back of the kitchen. Behind her on a shelf is a book, perhaps old enough to be deserving of a capital B. The brown leather of its spine is frayed and cracked. It sends a shiver down his back to look at it.

Barbara Barnes-Proctor pours him a cup. They sit in silence long enough for it to cool.

“Mom always talked about you, you know,” she says, finally. “You and Bucky, of course. How you two were inseparable from the beginning.” Steve must make a face because she’s quick to reach out. “Only good things! Honest. She had a lot of regrets, I think. Mom wanted to keep his memory alive somehow. It was all she had left of him, in the end.”

He takes a gulp of his tea as an excuse to slide his hand out from hers. It tastes like chamomile and guilt.

+++

Bucky’s journal winds up going on display at the Smithsonian along with the contents of his pack, left behind on the mountainside and moldering in a trunk for eighty years. Historians ponder the strange dichotomy of it, a hardened sniper chronicling the circling patterns of starlings in the sky over London. The sketches of wildflowers carefully detailed down to their tiniest thorn. The pressed feathers and rainbow hue of a moth’s wing nestled between the pages of calculations on wind and distance and the curve of the earth.

Steve’s surprised to learn Bucky’s gone down in history as a romantic, and something of a bad boy. People so often overlook the practical for the poetry.

+++

At first Steve’s too busy knocking himself through walls to notice anything about Fury’s assailant except the metal arm and how stupidly fast the man is. Then he catches the goddamned shield and the metal vibrates at a frequency Steve feels all the way across the roof, a metallic familiarity that shivers right through his blood.

It isn’t until they reach the relative safety of Sam’s house that he realizes the vibranium couldn’t have reacted that way. That it must’ve been the alloy coating humming instead.

He meets the shooter a second time in the street. The shield protects him, solid against every punch, until it slides out of Steve’s hands and into the other’s. Then Steve barely dodges a swift decapitation. He’s just gotten it back when the man’s mask comes off.

There’s no doubt in Steve’s heart. He knows it’s him right away. It has to be him.

Steve should have always known he’d find Bucky again. One way or the other.

He’s still so shocked he lets the strike team cuff him without protest.

+++

Later, the wind stealing his breath and stars blossoming on the edge of his vision, he tugs his glove off with his teeth.

“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. You know me. We share the same blood you and I. And I’m not gonna fight you.”

The Winter Soldier knocks aside his offered palm and screams in his face.

+++

Steve doesn’t blame Bucky for running, just as he hopes Bucky doesn’t hate Steve for following right after. There’s only so far he can go before the Avengers pull him back and the world needs rescuing. It takes an explosion and innocent people dying for Bucky to become a priority again. With Sharon’s help they track him to a bolthole in Bucharest.

He’s not surprised to find a journal in Bucky’s hideaway, quite the opposite in fact. His heart starts beating double time when he sees the colored tags sticking out from the pages. It’s the kind of anonymous book available in any shop; sturdy and plane, nothing remarkable about it at all save for the man who owned it.

It’s one of the most Barnes things he’s ever seen Bucky do. He has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from crying when he finally gets his hands on it.

But instead of spells or ingredients or the names of people who’ve wronged him written backward, Steve opens the book to find his own face, the creases worn soft and pushed flat. The pages are a little warped around the cardstock. Bucky had gone to the museum, had been right under Steve’s nose while it was too busted for him to do anything about it.

There’s a subtle tang rising from the pages as he flips through them, Bucky’s familiar cursive blurring into heavy print and back again. Thin green leaves fall to the ground at his feet. Steve finds the stem itself shoved into the back of the book and forgotten about. Rosemary, for remembrance.

This is another kind of magic, he thinks, and knows Bucky’s there before he makes a sound.

+++

Things get a little complicated after that.

+++

It seems they can never get the timing right, can never be in the same place at the same time speaking the same words. Even in the same room, wanting the same things, they might as well be miles and miles apart with no idea how to jump the gap.

+++

Shuri doesn’t put any symbols or marks on the arm they give him. It’s beautifully designed, all charcoal dark and fluid gold lines. He loves it, aesthetically, despite what it means about his immediate future. Still. Bucky can’t help but feel there’s something... missing.

He takes a moment before the others arrive to hide himself away in Shuri’s lab. She’s not there at the time but the Dora Milaje left to guard the door lets him in anyway. He finds a tiny laser just powerful enough for what the needs.

Carefully, so carefully, he carves the shape into his arm. He makes it small as he can, hidden on the inside of his tricep where it rests against his ribs. No one needs to know it’s there but him.

A single wing, lifting up in flight.

He’s worn a star for far too long. Stars aren’t for this. The right kind of star, a special star, that’s for someone else.

But Bucky remembers the warmth of a blue coat hugging around his chest, the feel of safety that came with the weight. The impish delight on Steve’s face when he convinced Howard to give the Howlies a symbol of their own.

Bucky’s fallen so many times. If he’s a fool for wanting a little protection against that, then so be it. And knowing it’s something Steve himself picked makes it worth it.

He and Steve match again, however faintly. The relief means he can smile a real smile at Steve when the quinjet lands and hold his arms wide for a hug.

+++

Steve had liked Dr. Erskine from the beginning but it was the sight of him writing in his own Book that made Steve actually trust him.

It was smaller than the Barnes’ Book by necessity, though not as thin as the one Bucky would later carry in his pack. He only saw it once, and Erskine quickly hid it away when he noticed Steve’s attention, but Steve knew the look of something held close and precious. He was willing to be the secrets held inside were just as incomprehensible to outsiders, too; magic and science were surely two sides of the same coin.

After the train –

It’s funny, he often thinks, how one single moment can change a person’s entire perspective. He used to measure things as before the serum or after the serum. Then before the train or after the ice.

Before he tried to drown his sorrows – ineffectually, it turns out – Steve went tearing through Howard’s lab looking for Erskine’s notes. He was sure if there were answers anywhere they’d be there. He remembers thinking we’ll need the body over and over, and they didn’t even have his body oh god.

The drastic, needy terror that wells up inside him when Thanos raises the gauntlet is the same as in that lab all those years ago, hands full of useless paper. The same as on the side of the train, the strength leeching out of his arms and his heart.

It doesn’t seem possible. Even while it’s happening his mind stutters to put a name to what he’s feeling.

He watches Bucky fall, again. And the world changes to before the snap and after.

+++

Time marches on. Unavoidable. Unending.

Steve grows to hate it even more. If the Time Stone were on earth, he thinks, he would happily crush it between his bare hands.

Time is the only enemy he can never seem to defeat.

+++

Steve’s birthday comes and goes. He doesn’t do anything special, though Nat shows up at his place with tubs of fancy ice cream they gorge themselves sick with.

There’s a big firework show – not surprising; there’s always fireworks on the Fourth. If the Depression and the War couldn’t stop them then nothing could. They seem different this year, though. Subdued. They don’t last as long, maybe, or aren’t as coordinated as they usually are. Like someone had to put them together in a hurry.

His eyes turn more and more often to the sky. Waiting for a sign. Waiting for… something. Just waiting.

+++

And then. Oh, and then.

+++

prompt image

+++

The scar on Steve’s palm lasts through the serum. He doesn’t think anything of it, at first, since the cartilage in his nose wasn’t miraculously straightened when he stepped out of the vita ray machine, either, and in all fairness he had other things on his mind right after.

But the scar is a strange thing. Age never softens it. It doesn’t get covered with calluses from the shield either, though the rest of his palm does. It just sits there, nestled between ridges of hardened skin.

And Steve thinks: Surely. Surely this means something.

He’s sure Bucky didn’t mean to do it but the scar cuts right through all the major lines. Steve looked it up once. Life, fate, heart, wisdom – this connection to Bucky’s touching all of them.

Maybe if they’d been more careful as kids they wouldn’t have suffered so much for so long. Maybe shit like this is what happens when you dabble in magic you barely understand. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

Or maybe, maybe this is the thread that keeps them going. It’s lasted over a hundred years. What’s one more miracle?

The glove of the quantum suit itches against his palm every time he makes a fist. Eventually he just stops uncurling his hand.

+++

 

The thing about wishes is that sometimes you have to work to make them come true.

 

+++

Steve has a plan. He hasn’t told anyone yet; between triaging the wounded, digging through the rubble of the compound, transporting everyone back to where they belong, making absolutely certain none of Thanos’ troupes are still around, and all the tearful reunions it’s hard to find time to just talk. But he’s pretty sure Bucky knows something’s up.

Everyone agrees it’s best to separate the Stones as quickly as possible so Steve finds himself facing the time platform again right after the funeral. It’s hard to shake of the sadness of saying goodbye to Tony, or Natasha’s horrible absence next to him at the lakeside, but he clenches his jaw and gears up in the ugly quantum suit anyway.

If everything goes according to plan, he might be able to do something about all that.

Bucky’s there to wish him luck. Sam had wanted to come but Steve convinced him this was something he had to do on his own. He’d been too distracted to really argue, given the circumstances.

Steve had made sure to pull Sam aside after the dust settled. (Which was a phrase that always feels wrong nowadays.) He’s going to miss him.

But there’s Bucky, standing in the sun, looking healthy and glowing and ancient around the eyes. Given what’s hiding in his pack it hits Steve right in the funny bone.

“What?” Bucky’s smiling because Steve’s smiling, even if he doesn’t know why. It’s practically Pavlovian.

Steve just shakes his head and gestures for Bucky to follow him down to the water’s edge where Bruce can’t see them. “Remember when we were kids? You said when we were in the future that you’d be exhausted from chasing me around all the time. Turns out it was kind of the other way around.”

Bucky snorts and covers his eyes with the soft arm. “Oh my god! You’re right. You’re absolutely right.”

“Good thing, too.” Steve lets the side of his mouth tilt up, squinting a little. Sam and Natasha always told him he was a horrible at flirting, could never quite get the point across. But he’s willing to bet even Bucky would get this. It’s all about intention. “I’d hate to see an actual two hundred year old in those jeans. Lucky for me it’s you instead.”

Bucky stops in his tracks, hand still covering his face. “Don’t make fun of me, Steve.”

“I’m not. I’m being completely serious. I’ve always liked your ass in a good pair of pants.” And damned if he doesn’t feel his cheeks start to heat up. With all that he’s seen – all that he’s done you think he’d be over this by now. But no, Captain America’s a blusher.

Steve. Don’t do this to me. Not now.”

“Why not? It only took us a hundred years to get here. Speaking of.” He rummages through the little pack at his side and then drops it into the grass when he finds what he’s looking for. The paper airplane’s gone a little dog-eared and yellowed with age, the creases not so sharp anymore, but the ink still shimmers with the promise of potential. Kind of like them, Steve thinks.

“Holy shit!” Bucky makes grabby hands until Steve hands it over. “Where did you get this?”

“Blew in on the wind one day.”

Bucky unfolds it carefully, his metal hand shaking just enough for Steve to notice. His eyes are a little bloodshot from how hard he must have been pressing against them.

“Dear Steve,
Hoping this letter finds you happy and healthy 100 years in the future. Are the robots neat?
Told you doctors don't know everything.
Sincerely yours, Bucky”

There’s a star under his signature, clear as the day he wrote it.

“Jesus,” Bucky says, scrunching up his face. “Guess there was something to that spell after all. Who’d have thought a dud like me could pull it off.”

“Not just the spell, Buck.” Steve tugs off his glove, grateful for the chance to stretch out his palm a little. “There’s all kinds of magic in the world, right?”

Bucky blinks down at Steve’s hand, his own curling a little unconsciously against his leg. When he laughs this time it’s a lot more forced. Steve hates it. “Got the math wrong though, huh? Guess time travel’s a lot more complicated than we thought. Even guys with giant green brains have a problem with it.” He gestures up the hill to where Bruce is presumably settling up the platform for Steve’s Reverse Time Heist.

“It came to me when I needed it. We did all right in my book.” He touches the little wobbly star on the paper, using the excuse to step closer to Bucky. “I knew as long as I had these I’d find a way to get you back. We’d get you all back. I’d make sure of it, one way or another. There’s no future I want to see that doesn’t have you in it. Remember?”

“To the end of the line. I guess that’d be now, huh?”

“It doesn’t have to be. A hundred years, Bucky, and it’s never been the right time for us has it? We’ve waited long enough, don’t you think?”

“I think…” Bucky shakes his head, voice breaking, grip tightening on the paper. The soft crinkling noise if almost lost over the lapping water. “I don’t know what I think.”

Steve smiles again, aiming for confident but certain he misses it by a mile. “Well, I just so happen to have a Mind Stone here with me, so we figure that out if you want. I’ve got a Time Stone, too. And an extra suit.” Bucky jerks back to look at him with round eyes. Steve leans in. “Come with me, Buck. What do you say you and me take a spin through space and see what spins back?”

“Are you serious? What about –“

“I left the shield with Sam this morning. I had to have T’Challa make him a new one since yours got broken in the fight.” Bucky’s mouth hangs open, moving without any sounds actually coming out. “I’m sorry. I know you worked hard to make sure it would protect me, and it did for a long time, but –“

“I don’t care about the shield! You’re giving up? I thought you wanted to help people?”

“I am not giving up. Of course I still want to help people. Starting with my people. We’ve earned a little break in the war, haven’t we Buck?”

“Jesus. Only your dramatic ass would consider something like this retirement.” He shakes his head, the corner of his mouth turning up ruefully. “You just want to stop bullies on a cosmic scale, don’t you?”

“I do have one hell of a brick to throw. And my best guy running beside me.” He lets their foreheads bump together so they’re breathing the same air. He closes his eyes when he feels Bucky start to tremble.

“Steve. I… You know I want to. But it’s not safe –“

“I ain’t scared of some little bug, Bucky.”

“It’s more than that, punk, and you know it.”

“Then I ain’t scared of fate, either. Between the two of us we’ve proven fate can kiss our ass. We’re strong enough to fight anything, so long as it’s together.” Steve lines up their hands, palm to palm, scars brushing roughly together. It makes him gasp a little. “I want this, too. It feels like I’ve wanted this longer than I’ve been alive. What do you say, Bucky?”

Bucky shifts his grip so their fingers tangle. He squeezes, almost as hard as Steve wants him to, so Steve squeezes right back. “I say it’s a good thing I didn’t cut my left hand, otherwise this would be pretty awkward.”

Steve snorts a laugh despite himself, his nose bumping into Bucky’s. What a pair they make.

The laugh stutters in his throat when Bucky reaches his other hand out to touch Steve’s cheek. It feels light as air. The brush of his lips steals what’s left of his heart.

“Together is good, Steve. Together.”