In another life, when Bucky falls from the train, Steve is strong enough to go on living without him.
In this one, Steve hurls himself after him without a second thought, not sure if this is some misguided instinct to help or just a complete inability to conceive of continuing to live without Bucky by his side. It doesn’t really matter.
The crunching sound he makes on impact tells him that something is broken. Probably many somethings. But there’s a dark shape on the ground ahead of him, so he hauls his misbehaving body slowly through the snow. It should be cold but he feels warm, like a cat napping in a patch of sunshine, and that is really not good but all he cares about is reaching the dark, limp body ahead of him.
His vision swims and darkness creeps in as he sinks into the snow. The last thing he remembers is wrapping his numb fingers around a gloved hand.
At first everything is cold and pain and an overwhelming sense of wrong, of missing, of grief. He struggles against the hands that try to pin him down, swinging and clawing and biting, reduced to nothing but animal instincts to escape until he feels a pinch in his neck and blackness overtakes him. When he wakes up, he does it again. And again.
One time, in the midst of his struggle, he happens to glance through the open doorway and see a familiar face, framed by dark hair. A wave of relief sweeps through him, so intense that he goes slack and lets them manhandle him onto a table, strap him down.
The next time he wakes up, the other man is there with him, sitting across from him, watching. He doesn’t struggle this time.
Zola calls him “Captain,” always with a smirk. He doesn’t get the joke. He doesn’t know who else he’s supposed to be. The others call him “Asset One,” when they talk about him. They rarely address him directly.
The other man is “Asset Two,” sometimes called the Soldier. The Captain is sure he knows the Soldier from somewhere. He can feel it deep in his bones, that they’re connected. As long as they’re in the same room, he doesn’t have that feeling of wrongmissinggrief.
His legs are too damaged to save, replaced with metal prosthetics. He can run for hours, days, without tiring, can jump three stories with ease, although the point where they connect to his spine never stops aching. The Soldier has an arm that can crush metal. Their bodies are not their own anymore, adapted without their consent to suit other purposes.
There are missions. Either the Solider or the Captain will be sent out with a task to complete. Often, it’s someone to kill. Rarely will they be sent out together. He knows it makes the others nervous, the way he and the Soldier look at each other. The way they seem to speak without words. They’re not allowed to touch each other, although their handlers have learned that keeping them in the same room keeps them calm. When the Soldier is away, he paces restlessly, punches walls, until they send him back to the cold black. When it’s his turn for a mission, he tries to finish as quickly as possible, to return home. He’s afraid of what they might do to the Soldier while he’s gone.
They’re never allowed to be alone together. Even on missions, they’re always watched. But sometimes, he dares to brush his fingers over the back of the Soldier’s glove when he thinks no one is looking. The Solider gives him a quirk of his lips that could almost be a smile. This is the only time the Captain feels warm.
When they strap him into the chair, he closes his eyes and pretends the hands on him belong to the Soldier.
Something is different this time when he wakes up.
He doesn’t know what they’ve done to him, but something inside him feels strange. There’s a line of stitches under his navel that will be healed in a few days, but for now they twinge whenever he moves the wrong way. But he’s used to his body not being his own.
They don’t send him out on missions any more, but they don’t put him back to sleep, either. He’s not sure why, except that sometimes the smell of food makes him so sick that he can’t keep water down. Maybe he’s damaged. Maybe whatever they’ve done to him this time went wrong, and he’s broken now. He thinks they would dispose of him, if that were the case, but he suspects the Soldier wouldn’t like that. Maybe that’s why they keep him, even if he’s useless now.
The Soldier looks at him differently, like he can tell something has changed. There’s a new tension to the set of his shoulders, and he seems more reluctant to leave for missions. He’s punished for it. The Captain tries to tell him without words to do what he’s told, not to risk what they have. He’s not sure it works.
The first time he feels it move, everything makes sense.
He can see the moment the Soldier realizes, too. Maybe it’s his hand lingering on the gentle curve of a barely swollen belly that gives him away. He doesn’t like the look in the Soldier’s eye, like he’s planning something dangerous, and he doesn’t know how no one else can see it.
He doesn’t sleep much at night, but he does sleep, and one night he wakes to screams and alarms and the Soldier standing over him. “Come on,” the Soldier says, and the Captain doesn’t think twice about following him. He never has. They run, and they punch anything that gets in their way, and eventually things stop trying to. The Soldier has the keys to an SUV and the Captain doesn’t ask where he got them.
“I’m driving,” the Soldier says.
They sit in silence, a cloud of things unsaid hanging over them, so dense that he isn’t sure where to start.
“I couldn’t let them take it,” the Soldier says, with a brief glance sideways. “It’s yours.”
He says “thank you,” and lets those words carry so much more weight.
They drive for days, switching when they get tired, although the Soldier still insists on doing most of it. They stop only for gas and food, and to switch vehicles if they spot one they can take. The Soldier leaves for half an hour and returns with some cash, and the Captain doesn’t ask where he got it. It’s enough to keep them moving.
The Soldier eventually decides, through some logic the Captain doesn’t understand, that it’s safe enough to stop. He picks a seedy motel with at least three exits within easy reach and parks their latest vehicle, a silver sedan, in the back.
The Captain wants nothing so much as a hot shower. He can still feel the chill in his bones; it never entirely goes away. But when he washes the grime of the road off his skin, he thinks about freedom and he thinks about the Soldier and he thinks about the little life growing inside him, and a little cold doesn’t seem like the worst thing.
When he steps out of the bathroom, towel tied around his waist, the Soldier is waiting, standing beside one of the beds, looking lost, as if he hadn’t planned anything beyond this. He’s stripped down to an undershirt and boxers, and he seems smaller without all of his gear.
It occurs to the Captain that there are no rules anymore.
He crosses the tiny room slowly, approaching the Soldier like he would an angry dog, although he doesn’t really think of him as such. The opposite; he’s never felt more safe with anyone. The Soldier watches him approach. They both hold their breath. The Captain’s hand trembles as he reaches out to cup the underside of the Soldier’s jaw.
Something breaks inside him, like a reservoir of frigid water bursting and crashing over him, and he can’t seem to make his stupid metal legs hold him up, but that’s okay, because the Soldier wraps strong arms around him, one flesh and one metal, and holds him. He buries his face in the side of the Soldier’s neck and the smell of skin and sweat is so achingly familiar that it’s like he’s being ripped open, a missing piece of himself being shoved back where it maybe no longer quite fits.
“Bucky,” he says, and it’s a sob, a prayer, a plea. There’s a growing wet patch on the Soldier’s—Bucky’s— shoulder that he thinks is from his shower-damp hair until he realizes that hot tears are streaming from his eyes.
“Steve,” Bucky says in a wrecked voice.
Bucky pulls them both down onto the bed in a tangle of limbs, and Steve tries to press himself so close to Bucky that they could become one person, never to be separated again. He shakes with sobs and he thinks Bucky might be crying too.
When they’ve both cried all the tears they have, they lie there in silence. Bucky lays his metal hand on Steve’s round stomach.
“What are we going to do now?” Steve asks.
“Live,” Bucky says, and it’s as simple as that.