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Not In That Way

Chapter Text

 

 

 

No Happy Ending

 

‘This is the way you left me

I’m not pretending

No hope, no love, no glory

No happy ending…’

 

 

 

“I think— I want to stay. After the jump. I want to stay.”

Bucky closes his eyes against the words, the impact of them like a physical blow; deeply painful, creating a resonant ache.

His back is to Steve, his face free to express his anguish, and so — for just a moment — he allows his expression to crumple with grief; lets it wash through him, all-encompassing. 

Then Steve is stepping forward, bringing himself to stand at Bucky’s side, and Bucky blanks his face of everything save quiet attentiveness. 

Silence descends. Together, they stare out over the lake near Virginia Stark’s home, its scenery punctuated by the sounds of gentle waves lapping softly at the shoreline. A cool breeze rustles through the trees.


In truth, Steve’s words are not unexpected.


Bucky recognizes the exceptional opportunity that has been laid before his best friend. Really, he‘d be shocked if Steve wasn’t considering taking advantage of it.

Bucky’s always known, since Steve had rescued him from his first taste of torture back in Azzano, about the invisible pull that drew Steve to Margaret “Peggy” Carter.

He’d seen clear evidence of that connection on the day they’d marched into camp over seventy years ago, Steve heading the return of hundreds of POWs — men who’d already been written off; as good as dead to anyone asking. Steve’d had eyes for only one person that day, and Bucky realizes with more clarity now than ever before, that that devotion has never wavered.

Bucky remembers watching Steve and Carter that day — staring into each other’s eyes, heedless of the commotion around them. Remembers recognizing the beginning of the end. His end. 

Any connection Bucky might once have had with Steve was fading away, and he was helpless to do anything about it.

“I’m invisible,” Bucky had murmured later, words slipping out with too much candor as he’d watched Steve watch Agent Carter, her red dress and high heels turning heads all throughout the bar. “It’s like some terrible dream.”  

He’d forced out a strained chuckle, lips twisting into a parody of a smile in an attempt to cover the bitterness of his words.

But he’d known then. It was obvious: He’d been replaced.  

Quickly, effortlessly — as he’d always known he would be — by a woman who’d finally recognized in Steve what Bucky had seen all along: honor; integrity; a pure, unmatched goodness, uniquely Steve’s. 

Carter had seen that goodness, the brightness of Steve’s spirit. She’d seen Steve, and Steve couldn’t help but love her for it. 

Standing there, staring at his girl, Steve hadn’t seemed to notice Bucky’s internal struggle. 

“Don’t take it so hard, ” he’d quipped, clapping a friendly hand to Bucky’s shoulder. “Maybe she’s got a friend.”

Now, against all odds, Steve’s gotten another opportunity to be with Carter, and Bucky cannot be surprised at his decision to take it. 

Because he’s always known. 

Relegated to the sidelines all those years ago, watching Steve with Carter, there was no way Bucky could have missed it. The truth had been just as plain to see then, as it is now: When called upon to choose, at the end of the line, Steve’s choice would always be Carter. 

Now, in the face of what he’s always know would happen, Bucky knows there is only one right response. Only one thing he can offer to Steve who wants, so very badly, to go after the woman he loves: 

Absolution. 

Bucky’s got no right to ask any more of Steve than he’s already been given. So he’ll let Steve go; release him from any sense of obligation he might be feeling toward Bucky. 

Because he loves Steve. 

And at his end of the line, Bucky wants Steve to be happy. 

Even if that means Bucky won’t be — can’t be.

 “This kind of opportunity… it will never come again,” Bucky says into the quiet peace of early evening. “You should take advantage of it.”

Steve turns to look at him, but Bucky doesn’t — can’t — return the searching gaze. He’s holding onto the shreds of his composure by the skin of his teeth. 

Seventy years of mastering his emotions, pushing them deep down where his tormentors couldn’t reach them, and still, in these moments, he isn’t confident Steve won’t be able to detect what he’s fighting so hard to conceal. 

Not if he looks into Bucky’s face. Sees into his eyes.

“If I stay,” Steve begins slowly, “we might never see each other again. Are you— What will you do?

A lifetime spent existing without Steve has given Bucky enough experience to know the answer to that question. Without Steve, Bucky will survive

His life will stretch out before him. 

Days, weeks, and years will pass; he will go on. 

Along with that, he will work everyday to atone. However he can. For all the horrors wrought by his actions as the Winter Soldier. As long as it takes.

Perhaps, at the conclusion of his life… perhaps he will have done enough, been good enough, to be allowed to find Steve again, beyond the finality of death. 

It’s a grim future. And while Bucky has every intention of accepting it, he has no intention of supplying Steve with the details. 

Instead, he summons the shadow of a smile, allows it to lift one corner of his mouth. Whatever it takes to be convincing.

 “You deserve to be happy, Steve,” he responds, neatly sidestepping Steve’s query. “You’ve given more than enough to this world. No one can blame you for wanting something for yourself.” 

 Bucky doesn’t. How could he? 

 Steve doesn’t respond right away, letting the words sink in. After a long moment he sighs, voice soft, wistful, “I wish…” he says, quiet. “I wish you could come with me.”

 And Bucky finds the smallest bit of comfort, a selfish kind of solace, in the fact that going with Steve isn’t an option for him. 

For one thing, there are not enough Pym particles to send both of them back.

And even if there were, there is the matter of the metal arm. 

Something as conspicuous as Bucky’s prosthetic — the weapon grafted to his body — is too high-tech, too conspicuous for the time period he’d originated from. It would be impossible to explain away.  

For this, Bucky feels a wash of pathetic gratitude, followed by a quick surge of self-hatred. After all he’s done — the countless lives he’s destroyed — the agony of watching Steve and Carter spend their lives together is well deserved. It would be a unique brand of torture, stretching out for a lifetime. 

Turns out though, that in the end, this is a thing Bucky doesn’t think he could withstand.

“There is no place for me there,” Bucky says, in response to Steve’s wistful words.

This, at least, is entirely the truth. 

 

 

Don’t do anything stupid until I get back, Steve tells him, and Bucky dredges up a brittle little smile, completing the familiar exchange by rote, saying the lines expected of him. 

He follows the lines with words that express his feelings so superficially they broach on absurdity: I’m gonna miss you

The statement is paltry, weak. Barely managing to skim the surface of the sea of emotion he’s fighting to keep locked down deep.

It’s gonna be okay Buck, Steve tells him, and Bucky swallows against the words lodged in his throat — staystayIneedyoudon’tleavemeplease. His best friend pulls him into a hug, and Bucky presses down the strangled sound that builds and builds, stoked by the waves of grief that clench tight in his chest. 

It’s not going to be okay. It won’t ever be okay. 

Bucky, can’t seem to force his expression into anything remotely resembling happiness after that, can scarcely even maintain eye-contact, and Steve — caught up in the joy of returning to the love of his life — doesn’t notice.

Then Steve is stepping onto the time-travel platform and, moments later, Bucky’s best friend, his only connection to the most important pieces of himself, his memories, his past… is gone.

 

 

“Did he know?” Sam asks, searching Bucky’s face with far too-perceptive eyes.

Bucky averts his gaze, wiping his combat blade — wet with the blood of the enemy operatives who had foolishly attempted to attack the newly-minted Captain America — on a less-bloody segment of his tac gear.  He glances around at all the dead bodies and feels a flash of muted horror — everything is muted for him these days.

Bucky hadn’t thought, hadn’t processed past the fact that Captain America was being targeted. In those bare moments, he’d completely forgotten that the figure in red, white, and blue was no longer Steve. Was, in fact, his hand-picked replacement.

Instead, he’d seen the enemy closing in and had reacted instinctively, unthinkingly. The operatives hadn’t stood a chance against the full brunt of the Winter Soldier’s lethal rage. They’d gone down swiftly, and they wouldn’t be getting back up.

He thinks about Sam’s question, sliding the blade back into its sheath. 

It’s entirely possible that Steve had been aware of Bucky’s feelings, despite how Bucky had worked to keep the sentiment, so obviously unrequited, to himself. 

From time to time, even Bucky has found himself wondering whether Steve knew. In the end though, Sam is asking the wrong question. It isn’t about whether Steve knew. 

The real question, the one Bucky chokes on, words coming out broken and bitter, is “Does it matter?”

 

 

One 

year 

later…

 

 

Bucky stares sightlessly at the ceiling in the guest bedroom of Steve’s former living quarters — one of the few portions of the Avengers’ compound to have miraculously survived Thanos’ attempt to obliterate it a year ago. 

He’d woken hours ago — jerked from the throws of a nightmare — and has been lying here ever since, waiting in motionless silence for the sun to rise, for the hour allocated by his self-determined schedule as the appropriate time to begin his daily routine. 

When it’s light enough, he will go for a run around the restored compound.

He will shower. 

He will eat breakfast.

He will go to the office where he does Avengers-related work.

Later he will eat dinner, will go to bed. 

Tomorrow he will begin again.

 

 

These days Bucky spends a great majority of his time alone. He lives within the compound, but it stays mostly empty as the majority of remaining superheroes are busy with other obligations. 

Barton and Lang have families to attend to. Thor spends his time in space, partnering with the team who call themselves the Guardians. 

And while Maximoff is one of the few to spend some time at the compound, Bucky doesn’t really know how much — he doesn’t run into her often.

She is there when missions require her assistance. Occasionally, he’ll come across her in the kitchen; the training room; on the sofa in front of the TV in the communal living room. 

They don’t talk much, both preferring silence, both absorbed in enduring their own personal kinds of grief. Though, admittedly, Maximoff seems to have a better handle on hers. 

Because while Bucky’s grief touches everything he does, Maximoff’s seems to have settled to some extent. Still deep, and achingly painful, but not like Bucky’s, which feels as raw and bloody as a new wound no matter how the time passes. 

(He wonders if it helps that Vision didn’t choose to leave her. Would never have left her behind of his own volition. 

Does it give her more closure, knowing he’s dead? Truly gone, and not simply living in another place, another time, alive but inaccessible?

Is there comfort to be found in the knowledge that the reason he’s not with her is because he didn’t get a say in the matter? That if it were up to him, if there were any possibility, he’d go through hell or high water to get back to her? 

It’s not something he’ll ever ask.)

Technically, Doctor Banner lives at the compound. Though the scientist tends to keep himself tucked away within labs that Bucky has never seen. Has no intention of ever seeing. 

Since Steve left, Banner has been keeping a watchful eye on the machine that sent him away. He keeps it active, monitors it regularly, still seeming to have some belief that Steve might return. Steve, who told only Bucky about where he was going; his actual plans. 

Bucky can’t find it in him to tell anyone else. 

(He thinks Wilson has figured it out by now. The part-time counselor seems to be one of the few people to have truly known Steve at a level deeper than most of the people who had called themselves his friends. And it was Wilson to whom Steve had bestowed the Captain America mantle before he left. Along with the shield — repaired by Shuri and as good as new. That, at least, is a major indicator of what Steve had been planning.

By now, the others must at the very least suspect what Steve had done. Still, no one says anything. The words remain unspoken, as if keeping it silent might change the truth.)

Apart from Banner, and Bucky himself, Wilson spends the most time at the compound, utilizing the place as a base of operations. 

While Bucky’s taken over monitoring the worldwide media — both public and intergovernmental — and sifting through stacks of intel gathered by the agents Fury’s got scattered throughout the globe, Wilson routinely checks in, going over whatever bits of data Bucky flags and handling the brunt of communication with Fury and agent Hill. 

Bucky avoids dealing with both of these agents as much as he can. 

Something about the act of reporting to them, of deferring to them as commanding officers, makes his stomach turn; his brain fill with static; the core of him shudder with disquiet. Wilson thinks that Bucky’s aversion stems from the fact that Fury and Hill were once SHIELD:  the other side of the Hydra coin. 

Bucky doesn’t care to know why, only avoids the two agents whenever possible. 

When he isn’t on a mission — where he is focused, sharp, present — Bucky floats through his days in a kind of half-existence. He eats when he remembers eating is something necessary for survival. Sleeps, between nightmares, enough to keep himself functional. 

He withstands the slow passage of time .

He endures

 

 

Two 

years

later…

 

 

You have one unheard message. First unheard message: 

 

“Sam. It’s Bruce. I’m gonna need you to come in. Something’s up with the readings on the time-machine. It’s been fluctuating up and down for the last few hours. I think… I think something is trying to come through. Call me when you get this message. Or better yet, just get down here as soon as you can.”

 

-click.

 

End new messages. 

 

 

“It’s been doing this for hours,” Bruce says when Sam, caught somewhere between cautious hope and deep dread at what could be causing the portal to act the way it is, makes it down to the lab. 

“Could it be,” Sam says, barely daring to put his hope into words, “Do you think it could be…?”

“There’s no way to be sure,” Bruce replies, carefully objective. “But there’s only one person I know of who had a suit and the particles to activate it.”

Steve , neither of them say. 

It could be him. It has to be. Sam hopes, perhaps more than he’s ever hoped for anything, that it is.

But… if it is

As great as that would be, it also opens up a whole barrel of complications. 

Because while Steve’s disappearance had raised a number of unanswered questions, his return could make things even more complicated.

At first, when Steve had failed to return as everyone expected, the fear that he’d gotten stuck, or worse, lost, had been exceedingly difficult to bear. Bruce had been distraught; worried that something had gone wrong with the machine. Frustrated by the fact that not knowing what was wrong made it impossible to fix.

It was Barnes’ reaction that made Sam start to wonder, though. 

Because Barnes wasn’t acting like someone who was afraid something terrible had happened to a loved one. Barnes seemed like he knew exactly what had happened. 

And Sam thought about the undeniably odd fact that Steve had passed on the mantle of Captain America before he left. That he’d insisted on doing it before he made the jump, even though Sam had said that he could easily do so when he came back, assuming he still wanted to. 

Because — while Sam had been more than honored — he couldn’t help the need to caution Steve against making what appeared to be a hasty decision. Steve had assured him that he’d put a lot of thought into it, though. That he’d held the mantle long enough, that it was time to pass it along. And so, satisfied with Steve’s reasons, Sam had accepted — with exuberance. 

Thinking back though, all evidence points to the fact that Steve never planned to return. That he’d gone back in time with every intent to stay there, permanently.

But, if he had decided to stay in his own time-period, as Sam now suspects, that raises other questions. 

Why, after so much time, would he come back? 

Also, had he honestly thought his leaving wouldn’t affect Barnes?  After everything Barnes has been through. Without anyone around to ease the burden of being stuck in an unfamiliar world, and few, if any, friends to lean on. Did Steve honestly believe that Barnes would be just fine left so alone?

Sam doesn’t know if he can wrap his head around that sort of miscalculation on Steve’s part. Because surely it was a miscalculation. He wouldn’t have left Barnes behind, he wouldn’t have,  if he’d known what it would do to his best friend. Right?

Because despite the front he puts up — and he puts up one hell of a front — Barnes is not doing well. Hasn’t been since Steve left. He’s withdrawn into himself, more closed-off than Sam’s ever seen him. More so even, than when he’d first been recovering from Hydra, when Sam had assumed he was as closed-off as a man could get. 

In Wakanda, for example, Barnes had been quiet. Reserved. Visibly cautious around anyone who wasn’t Steve.

But he hadn’t been soulless

These days, he walks around like he’s only half-present, as phantasmal as the ghost he’d been rumored to be when he’d still been Hydra’s weapon. Apart from when he’s on a mission — where he’s competent, and deadly, and most assuredly present — he moves like he’s been hollowed-out, like he could shatter at any moment. 

(It would be better for Barnes if he did shatter. If he could somehow release some of the unbearable pressure of the grief and pain that’s fused around him like a hardened shell. A fortress that keeps him locked inside. Keeps everyone else shut out.)

Except Sam doesn’t think he’ll shatter — doesn’t think he can, at this point, as tightly closed off as he is. 

More likely Barnes will end up disappearing into himself. 

From what Sam has seen, he’s already on his way down that path. And no matter what Sam has tried, Barnes shows no signs of reversing course.

It’s painful to watch, but not particularly surprising. Barnes has had about the worst luck of anyone Sam’s ever seen, ever heard of, even in all his years spent counseling damaged war veterans. None of those people had ever been through anything remotely close to what Barnes has. His is a category of suffering all its own.

At this point, if it turns out that Steve really is returning... Sam’s not so sure how Barnes will take it. 

It could be the balm needed to soothe his fragmented spirit. 

It could also be the trigger that sends him over the edge. 

These thoughts circle through his brain as the machine begins to surge with suddenly more power. 

“This is it,” Bruce says. “Whatever’s coming, is coming now.”

Sam braces himself for the worst. Hopes for the best. 

 

 

“Sam!” Steve bursts out, overjoyed. The last shimmers of quantum light fade, leaving him standing on the time-machine platform, staring into the incredulous face of one of his closest friends. 

“Steve?” Sam’s expression of shock turns to delight, and he meets Steve as he steps off the machine, pulling him into an embrace with a wide grin, slapping him on the back good-naturedly. 

Steve feels his own answering smile, just as wide. “It’s so good to see you,” he says, with a laugh. “God, Sam, I’ve missed you. You wouldn’t believe how much.”

Sam pulls back, searching Steve’s face with inquisitive eyes. “I think I’ve got some idea, Steve,” he says, smile going dim. 

Steve feels his own smile falter, a shiver of apprehension trickling down his spine.  “What do you mean?”

Sam presses his lips together, a frown of uncertainty slowly eclipsing the joy in his expression. “It’s been… quite some time,” he says. 

“But—” Steve begins. He glances around, finally taking note of the nagging detail he’d brushed aside while reuniting with Sam: Where he expected to be in a clearing on the outskirts of the forest on Tony’s property, he is, instead, in what looks like Bruce’s lab within the Avengers’ compound.

He turns to Bruce, still standing behind the controls of the machine, feeling his own face crease with concern. “I don’t understand,” he flounders.  “Bruce said— You said it would only be five seconds...”

“We can’t answer that for you, man,” Sam replies, reclaiming Steve’s attention. “Time works differently when the quantum realm is involved. Scott’s five hours was five years for us, remember?”

He’s right, Steve realizes, taking an unsteady breath, dread settling heavy in his stomach. “How long has it been?” he asks quietly, the gravity of Sam’s words starting to sink in. 

Sam hesitates. In the face of Steve’s growing desperation though, he finally admits, voice soft with empathy, “It’s been three years.” 

Steve takes a sharp breath, turning abruptly away. He raises a hand to run through his hair, taking several quick steps forward before he pauses and does a one-eighty, stalking back to Sam. 

“How’s— I need— Where’s Bucky?”

Sam’s expression becomes, if possible, even more solemn. And something else, something Steve has never seen Sam direct at him. His friend’s expression is suddenly guarded, protective, as if Steve is a threat. “He’s...here,” Sam admits finally.  “But I don’t think… Things are different now, than they were. He’s different.” 

Steve frowns. “What does that mean?” he says, frustration seeping into his tone. “Sam. What aren’t you telling me?”

Sam grimaces. “I just think you should be careful,” he says. “Barnes isn’t... He’s in a dark place. He’s going through some things. I’m not sure seeing you would… help.” 

“He’s my best friend,” Steve counters, incredulous. “He’s— Sam. Whatever he’s going through, I can— I want to be there for him.”

Sam’s face does something complicated before he states, neutrally, “Be that as it may, I still don’t think it’s a good idea to rush things. Maybe let me give him a bit of warning first.”

The very implication that Bucky needs protecting, from Steve of all people, jars disconcertingly.  Why the hell would Bucky need to be warned? 

“Where is he,” Steve demands flatly. 

“Steve—” Sam begins, but Steve has heard enough, has seen enough of the wary, guarded looks Sam and even Bruce, have been shooting him. He’s going to find Bucky, right now.

 

 

Steve finds Bucky in the common room, just stepping out of the elevator. He’s outfitted in sleek, dark combat gear, eerily reminiscent of his Winter Soldier getup, and looks to be just returning from an op. 

“Bucky?” Steve calls softly, and Bucky halts, going preternaturally still.

Steve finds himself thrown back to that day on the bridge, staring at the assailant who’d worn his best friend’s face, a flame of hope fluttering in his chest. 

It’s with similar feeling that he watches Bucky slowly raise his eyes to meet Steve’s, and a similar agony pierces through him as Bucky stares at Steve with the same blank eyes of the Soldier. 

“Steve,” Bucky says, after a too-long pause, brow ever-so-slightly furrowed. His gaze goes to Sam — standing just behind Steve — as if he’s seeking reassurance, as if he needs confirmation that what he’s seeing is real. He looks back to Steve only after Sam has offered a subtle nod, face pale as milk, and very empty. “How— Why are you… here?” he finally says, tone flat, distant.

Looking at Bucky now — obviously shaken, confused, and more lost than Steve’s seen him since that day on the Helicarrier — Steve begins to understand what Sam had been trying to tell him.  

 

 

He’s spent so long not thinking about him. 

For years, Bucky’s made it through by shutting down all thoughts related to Steve; locking them into a dark corner of his mind where they can’t touch him anymore. 

Now, seeing him here, truly here — not a figment of his imagination, or a memory just a bit too tangible — is too much, too raw. Bucky feels himself reeling. 

“Why are you here?” he hears himself ask from a distance. He— Steve — answers him, sounds coming out of his mouth, but Bucky can’t comprehend the words past the rushing in his ears. 

He jerks his head to the side — eyes darting about, fighting to orient himself — and the words abruptly cut off. 

“I—” he says into the silence; swallows roughly as his voice rasps from his too-dry throat, “I need t-to— I can’t—” 

His chest aches, a dull pulsing pain as he turns, stumbles blindly away. His limbs shake unsteadily, heart beating overtime, lungs suddenly unable to draw sufficient breath, and he just— can’t. 

He can’t do this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Six Feet under

 

‘Our love is six feet under

I can’t help but wonder

If our grave was watered by the rain

Would roses bloom?

Could roses bloom again?’

 

 

 

Steve sits hunched on the edge of the bed, staring sightlessly down at his clasped hands. Bucky’s expression — lost, broken, pained — plays through his mind over and over; a loop on endless repeat. 

Since that disastrous encounter in the common room hours ago, Bucky’s more or less disappeared.

Sam had given Steve a look of pure empathy after Bucky had stumbled off; eyes wide open but moving like a blind man. He’d advised Steve to ‘just give Barnes some time’. 

Steve, for lack of anywhere else to go, had ended up on his floor; his old floor, (and how crazy is it that this small part of his past survived the destruction Thanos had wrought upon the facility years ago?) with his old bedroom. 

When he first enters the apartment, it isn’t immediately apparent that Bucky’s been living here. 

Even though, as Sam had explained, Bucky’d taken up residence here — had in fact claimed the guest bedroom down the hall from Steve’s former room — the apartment appears completely the same; all of the furnishings unchanged as if it’s been only days, not years, since Steve had been here last. 

When Steve approaches his old room, the door is shut. He opens it cautiously, unsure of what he might find. Three years is a long time, and it’s very possible that all of his things have been packed away, even thrown out. Steve expects at least one of those scenarios to be the case. What he isn’t expecting, and what he actually finds, is all of his things right where he’d left them, completely untouched.

Though there is no dust on anything, a sort of staleness to the air speaks to the fact that the room has been shut up for quite a while. It’s as if the place Steve had claimed as his own had simply been cut off from the rest of the apartment — a mausoleum of Steve’s former life. 

Steve’s not sure what to think of that, but whatever his feelings are on the matter get shoved aside as he moves farther down the hall and meets with the unhappy discovery that Bucky’s room is even more disquieting. 

It’s bare . Apart from the clothing and weapons stored in the closet, there’s nothing personal in the room, no little signs that anyone even lives here. 

The bathroom down the hall shows more signs of Bucky’s presence than the bedroom he’s claimed as his.

If Steve’s room is a mausoleum, Bucky’s is a safehouse — a place devoid of all personality, meant only for temporary refuge, somewhere to go to be hidden from the world. 

 

 

He sees them in his dreams. 

All of them; the Avengers, the people he’d become close to outside of that small group. Even the neighbors he’d had while living in the city. They pass through his dreams as spectres, filling in the background, present even in his random imaginings. 

Awake, he wonders if little Makayla ever learned to ride her bike without training wheels. If widowed Mrs. Harrison found someone else to help her carry her groceries up to the third floor Steve had shared with her, once upon a time.   

Often he will see Sam, or Natasha, both of whom had always been so steady. Ready to provide a listening ear, and generous about offering advice. Tony will show up, talking a mile-a-minute about some new idea of his. Bruce will engage him in a quiet session of meditation. Clint will show off some new trick arrows, or ask him to baby-sit. 

These dreams leave him feeling caught somewhere between fond exasperation and nostalgia. He will wake with a chuckle in his throat; or with something he wants to tell a friend, before he realizes, with a bittersweet ache, that there’s no one to say it to. He left those people behind. 

Then there are the nights where he’ll see Bucky. 

At first, he’s overjoyed to see his best friend. He longs to go to him, to talk to him, to see how he’s doing. But Bucky remains always out of his reach. Steve can be in the middle of a dream, something completely random, and he’ll look up to see Bucky: gazing at him from across the room; standing in the middle of a crowd; somewhere outside, just visible through the window. Inevitably, Steve will drop whatever he’s doing, try to reach his best friend. But Bucky slips away from him every time. He’s gone by the time Steve gets outside; become lost in the crowd; faded from view just as Steve says his name. 

Always Bucky stares at him, blank-faced and expressionless. Like he doesn’t know who Steve is, like he doesn’t recognize his best friend. It tears at something deep within. Leaves Steve with a melancholy feeling that he has difficulty dispelling even after he wakes. And that isn’t the worst part. 

The worst part, the part that leaves Steve troubled and uneasy, is the way Bucky looks at him, every time, in every dream. 

Because while his face may be expressionless, Bucky’s eyes speak a message loud and clear. They speak of anguish. Of loss. Of being wounded too deeply to heal. 

These dreams leave Steve feeling raw, fighting back tears.  

 

 

When Steve woke from the ice, so many years ago, he’d known right away that something was missing. Some piece of himself was lost, and — with every connection he’d ever made, every person he’d ever loved, gone — he’d known he’d never be able to fill that empty space again. 

He lived in the quiet misery of that knowledge, caught up in an anguish that lingered even after he found Peggy again, aged but alive, near seventy years later. 

She spoke to him of her life, her husband, her children. How she’d lived to the full, and how she was thankful for all of it. Hearing her story, a tiny corner of himself had been filled with a bitter sort of jealousy. The larger part of himself, though, ached with longing

He’d thought, truly believed, that the longing he was feeling was because he’d missed her

Because she was describing the life that he’d always wanted. Because the life they could have shared, the happinesses she was describing, had been shared with someone else.

He’d been convinced that Peggy was the piece he was missing. That she’d always been meant to fill that space, and would have, had time and events not prevented it. 

So when he’d gotten the chance to do it over, to live in a world where he could have that dance, where the happiness she was describing involved him, he’d gone after it without a second thought. 

He proposed almost as soon as he found her again. Bought her a ring. Spent his days with her at the little house she’d purchased for herself after the war. They finally got their dance. And he’d thought… that would be enough. 

That she was what he’d wanted. What he’d been striving after, for so long. 

 

 

It isn't until later, after, that he begins to understand the difference between the ache he’d always felt when missing Peggy, and the all-encompassing misery he’s left with even after that piece has been slotted into place.

It takes him time — too long, too much time — to realize the truth behind what he is feeling. 

  

 

Eventually, understanding dawned, and the irony was cruel. 

Suddenly,Peggy’s presence in his life had become the thing to highlight the stark difference between what Steve had thought he was missing and what was actually gone. It was a terrible realization to come to, and he hated himself for missing it when it had been right in front of him; for noticing it now — too late — when doing anything about it would be nothing short of heartless.

Because he couldn’t leave Peggy. Not now. Not when he’d barged so presumptuously back into her life shoved aspects of her reality out of the way to make a place for himself where there hadn’t been before.  

He’d decided his fate the moment he’d left his old life behind, the moment he’d returned to her, made promises to her. 

He wouldn’t leave her.

He forced the anguish of his ill-timed revelation down deep. Refused to dwell on it. Reminded himself that sharing his life with Peggy had been his greatest dream. 

He’d find happiness, surely. He did love her, after all. 

(Even if that love paled in comparison to what could have been. What he could have had, if only he’d been able to see what had been right in front of him. If only he’d realized, before it was too late.)

 

 

They plan a wedding. 

Steve smiles in all the right places. 

During the day, he gazes into warm, honey-brown eyes. Makes plans for a future in the past. 

But at night. 

At night he’s haunted by shattered blue eyes. He sees in them, things he’d overlooked — before. A plea for him to stay. The pain of rejection, cloaked by resignation.

At night, he aches for forgiveness; wakes to the knowledge that forgiveness is forever outside his reach.

 

 

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?”

Steve jerks his head up, pasting his gaze on his fiancé , a frisson of guilt swirling in his gut. 

“Sorry, Peg,” he says, forcing a smile onto his face. “What were you saying?”

Peggy pulls out a chair, sits opposite of Steve at the small wooden table. Her expression is soft, empathetic. 

“Let me see it,” she says, nodding at the sketchbook Steve’s been staring into, lost to his own musings. 

He’s caught on a picture of Bucky — a black and white rendering of one of the last times Steve had seen his best friend before his disastrous decision to stay in the past. 

On the page, Bucky’s outfitted in the combat gear he’d received in Wakanda — a remarkable combination of his Winter Soldier apparel and the uniform he’d worn as a Howling Commando. His expression is warm, akin to the one he’d turned on Steve that day before the snap, before everything had gone to hell. 

‘How you doing, Buck?’

‘Not bad. For the end of the world.’ 

The curve of his cheek is smudged, and Steve realizes with another surge of guilt, that he’s been unconsciously stroking that spot with the edge of his thumb. He curls his fingers into a fist, as if he can hide anything from Peggy’s shrewd gaze, and slides the sketchbook across the table praying that for once, she’ll miss what is so obvious he’s nearly choking on it. 

Peggy gazes at the picture for a long time. After, she flips to the front of the book and begins slowly paging through the rest of Steve’s sketches. All of the Avengers are in there, along with a number of city skylines, images of a couple of his neighbors. Mrs. Harrison. Little Makayla. 

Even with those pictures scattered throughout, though, it is overwhelmingly obvious that Bucky is the focal point of Steve’s attention. Steve’s drawn Bucky dozens of times. His hands, flesh and metal; his eyes; lips; the curve of his jaw. 

Looking at it now, with Peggy’s perspective in mind, Steve can practically see his feelings  spilling off the pages.  

That there are no sketches of Peggy anywhere in the book is, in itself, unmistakably telling. 

Steve used to draw Peggy. After he came out of the ice, she’d featured regularly in his sketchbooks. 

Now he doesn’t draw her at all. 

He’s never stopped drawing Bucky. 

Bucky from before the draft, bright-eyed and innocent. Bucky during the war; harder, less naive. Bucky as the Soldier. Bucky in Wakanda. Bucky with his new arm. Bucky half-disappeared after  Thanos’ snap. All of these, and more. 

When she’s reached the end of it, Peggy closes the sketchbook softly, pushes it aside, fixes Steve with a steady gaze. 

“Steve,” she says, firm but gentle, more gracious than Steve could ever deserve, “we need to talk.”

 

 

In the end, Peggy was the one to convince him to go back. Steve wouldn’t have listened to anyone else, not even himself — especially not himself — if they’d told him to go. But Peggy’d seen much more clearly than Steve could. 

‘You’re grieving your other life’, she’d told him. 

We had potential, Steve. I’m not discounting that. Maybe, we could have had something real, something good. But even before this, during the war, there was always... a barrier between us, something holding you back. Someone.’

She’d leveled Steve with a direct, straightforward gaze. 

‘He’s still here, Steve,’ she’d said, not pulling any punches. ‘He’s standing right here, between us.’

The truth, made plain by her words, sliced through him — tore him open as soon as he stopped fighting to bury it. Was forced to actually acknowledge it.

I made a mistake, ’ he’d finally admitted, guilt-ridden and choking on the words, but helpless not to tell the truth in the face of her strength, her candor. ‘God, Peggy. I’m so sorry. I’m so how can I even ask you to forgive me for this?’

Peggy, ever graceful, and far more benevolent than Steve could ever deserve for what he’d done, took his tear-stained face between gentle palms. 

‘Steve,’ she’d said, staring into his wet eyes. ‘I forgive you. I forgive you, Steve.’  

 

 

Steve lies awake, well past midnight, unable to sleep.

He’d returned to reclaim his half of the apartment hours ago. Had fixed himself a paltry dinner, showered, and finally slid between freshly changed sheets on his former — current — mattress. 

Still, Bucky hasn’t returned. 

Steve’s mind spins in exhausted circles. He wonders when, if, the weight he’s carrying will ever begin to lift. It’s a heavy burden, this guilt for what he’s done to Bucky.

Peggy, at least, had forgiven him and the deep shame for what he’d put her through has started to ease, if only a little.

But there’s nothing to ease the fact that a few hours ago, Bucky couldn’t even bear to be in the same room as him. 

When Steve had finally agreed to end his relationship with Peggy, to accept the fact that he’d fallen for someone else over ninety years ago, and to return to his own timeline to do something about it, he’d never imagined that he’d be returning to a future any further along than the five seconds Bruce had calculated.

But: three years, Sam had said. It’s been three years since Steve left. And Bucky’s been alone all that time; little better than abandoned by someone who claimed to be his best friend, ‘till the end of the line. 

He thinks back on the day he left, sees the events from this new perspective. His eidetic memory can be both a blessing and a curse. In this case, it lets him replay the events of that day in excruciating detail. He sees, now, what he hadn’t before: Bucky fighting to maintain a brave front, the paper-thin veneer of his smile, the heartbreak in his blue, blue eyes, and he thinks, how could I have missed it? How could I not have seen something so obvious?

It’s little wonder Bucky’s memory had haunted his dreams. 

Steve’s eyes had seen what his brain had refused to acknowledge: Bucky’d been miserable. 

And Steve had been too caught up in himself to see it.

Would he have stayed, he wonders, if he had seen it?  If he had realized just how much his leaving would affect Bucky, would hurt him… Would Steve have stayed for him? 

He’d like to think he would have. That he would never be so heartless in his treatment of his friend. 

Another question rises, then, on the heels of the last: Does Bucky think Steve would have stayed? Or could it be— Does he think that Steve had seen, that he’d seen and just decided that Bucky wasn’t important enough, wasn’t worth staying for? 

Steve hopes with every part of him that this isn’t the case. 

But it would make sense, wouldn’t it? It would explain the shock on his best friend’s face at seeing Steve again. It would explain the hurt, and the dejection in his eyes. How utterly lost he’d looked, just before he’d fled from the common room.

Steve swallows thickly. 

He’s been a fool. More than that, he’s been cruel — even if accidentally.

But he can see it, now. 

And it’s time to make things right.

 

 

Steve stands on the viewing side of a mirrored window, staring down into the training room where Bucky’s working his way through a simulated combat exercise. 

Though the program Bucky has running is more advanced than the one Steve is technically familiar with, he does understand the mechanics. 

(It was something Tony had been working on before the Accords, before Thanos and the snap; an idea he had pitched to the rest of the team during one of their regularly scheduled Avengers meetings. He’d wanted to “up the game", to make the combat more realistic — though still safe and ideal for training purposes. Steve guesses he must have gotten it up and running after all.)

As Steve understands it, specialized gear worn during the program’s simulations allows the virtual enemy to “make contact” with a training combatant. Upon an instance of enemy contact, the gear is designed to light-up, vibrate, or both, at the contact point, making the wearer aware of each strike. 

The AI running the program keeps track of all “damage” sustained by the training combatants, announcing a combatants’ status as necessary. 

Currently, Bucky’s engaged in close-range combat, and Steve watches as a number of enemies attempt to converge on him all at once. ‘Attempt’, because Bucky cuts through the simulated forms like he’s exorcising his demons, ducking and whirling, eliminating his adversaries with lethal strokes from his blades, one clutched in each fist. 

The tally of neutralized opponents is projected on a screen high above the training room, the number rising steadily as Steve continues to watch, slack-jawed with something very close to awe.

It’s the first time he’s seen Bucky fight like this — unhindered by the distraction of fighting for his own life — and the visual is… stunning. Bucky moves with liquid grace, all deadly accuracy. He’s fast, and innovative, moving in ways Steve’s nowhere near flexible enough to try, and the simulated enemies never touch him. The screen displaying the number of times they’ve made contact never changes, never shows anything other than ‘zero’. 

Something hot curls in the pit of his stomach as he watches Bucky take down opponent after opponent, seemingly tireless, and Steve — so used to burying that sensation, forcing himself to ignore it — pushes it away. Now is not the time. Not when he has obstacles to overcome, wrongs to right.

He focuses, instead, on how Bucky looks physically; emotionally. Steve’s barely spent three minutes in his best friend’s presence since he came back days ago. He needs to make up for lost time. He needs to see Bucky. To catalogue everything about him that’s changed over the last three years.  

He’s thinner, Steve notes. Not thin, precisely. But lean. Leaner than he was when Steve’d found him in Bucharest. He looks, now, even leaner than he’d looked as the Winter Soldier — just enough weight on him to sustain his enhancements, to keep him lethal. 

There are dark circles beneath his eyes, and his skin is pale, as if he hasn’t seen the sun since Steve left. His blue gaze retains the blank, thousand-yard stare of the Winter Soldier, face expressionless even as he cuts down enemy after enemy with vicious precision. 

Eventually Bucky finishes, breathing only slightly elevated, a thin sheen of sweat gleaming faintly across his brow, in the hollow of his throat.

The AI — not Friday, and certainly not JARVIS — informs him of his score; the time it took him to complete the simulation; and that he has surpassed all previous records by a sizable margin. Bucky’s expression doesn’t change. There is no joy, no satisfaction at hearing his stats. He simply waits for the computer to finish, then directs it to shut down the program. 

The computer goes quiet, the lights dimming in the room below, and Bucky turns, replacing the combat knives he’d used during the simulation and then heading for the door that leads to the shower room, already beginning to strip off his gear.

Steve stays where he is, watching Bucky go. He’ll wait, he decides, for Bucky to finish cleaning up. Then he’ll talk to him.

 

 

Bucky stalks into the shower room, tossing his sweaty gear into the basket designated for dirty laundry. His breathing is elevated, muscles shivering beneath his skin, pulse fluttering in agitated thuds beneath his sternum. This feeling, while relatively new, is becoming uncomfortably familiar. It makes him restless. Unable to settle. 

He thinks about the reason behind the agitation, recalls the awareness that had settled on his shoulders about halfway through his final combat drill.

He’s too well trained to have missed the sensation of eyes upon him, and there’s only one person he can think of who would attempt to watch him unannounced. The others — anyone who comes and goes from the compound, who knows even the remotest fact about him — wouldn’t dare attempt anything that could even remotely be construed as spying on him. They all believe him to be too unhinged, too unbalanced. No one would want to risk the possibility of disturbing him. 

They’re too afraid, his mind whispers. Too afraid of him. Of what he might do, if provoked.

He wouldn’t hurt anyone. He would never. But no one seems to know that, to believe it. 

Steve had. He’d never given up hope that Bucky was more than what Hydra had made him. 

When Steve was around, Bucky had thrived off of that confidence, that unerring faith. 

Steve’s faith had been an ember of light amid the suffocating darkness Bucky’d fought through every single day. Steve had believed in him, believed that Bucky was good, and Bucky had worked to make it true. (Even though it wasn’t. Couldn’t ever be.)

Then Steve… left. And that belief, any trust people might have once had in Bucky, had vanished with him.

These days, everyone gives Bucky a wide berth — even the remaining Avengers, even Fury, and Hill. They send him on missions, sometimes alone, sometimes with a team, and his brutal efficiency, tempered by decades of Hydra conditioning, by the Winter Soldier that still lurks inside him, makes them uneasy. Nervous

Like he’s a feral animal. An attack dog that’s useful when it’s been pointed at a target, but still too volatile to be trusted when it could turn on its handlers at any moment. So they keep their distance, hold their weapons close. Ready to put the animal down as soon as it gives them cause. 

It’s not unlike being the Winter Soldier, and his situation isn’t helped any by the fact that he cannot seem to force himself to connect with anyone. He’d need emotions for that, and these days he’s all but emotionally drained. Except in rare moments, like now, when emotion suddenly surges over him in a turbulent, overwhelming swell.

Frustration washes through him, right on the heels of the restless agitation evoking a full-body crawling sensation; an almost-itch, like his skin is too tight. 

It happens like this sometimes. Something will push its way through the muted haze that dulls Bucky’s waking hours, and suddenly he’s forced to feel — emotions bright, and sharp, and often overwhelming. 

He prefers the numbness. 

When he gets like this, regaining equilibrium becomes especially difficult. Falling back on the Soldier’s conditioning has become one of the few things he can rely on to get him through. The Soldier wasn’t allowed to express what he was feeling, leaving Bucky with decades of practice forcing himself to feel nothing at all. 

It’s not as easy, these days, to trigger that aspect of his conditioning — he’d been away from it for a while, and his years of autonomy had curtailed the easy proficiency with which he could cut himself off from the world. Over the last few years, though, he’s revitalized a good portion of that cool detachment. And when his emotions go haywire at the most random of times, he’s usually able to shove them down, keep them contained until he’s alone; somewhere he can allow them to tear through him in deep shudders and a too-quick heart rate, trembling muscles and shaky breaths.   

Cold showers help too, sometimes. More often than not.

The cold engenders a different kind of numbness. A physical insensitivity. But that sensation — so much like cryofreeze, like the frigid temperature of pressurized water — nearly always succeeds in pushing him outside himself. Letting him float in a fuzzy, indistinct sort of haze. 

When he’s cold enough, his mind can be peaceful for a time. Quiet, and empty. 

Until his temperature eventually rises high enough to force his muscles to start trembling, breath shuddering in and out as he shivers his way back to his baseline. Even that, though, is familiar — a cold comfort. 

 

 

When Bucky exits the showers, dark hair dripping steadily onto the shoulders of his short-sleeved t-shirt, Steve is there to meet him. 

Bucky pauses, regarding him with a calm sort of expression; almost distant, in a way. But his eyes manage to find Steve’s this time, and he waits silently, looking resolved to listen to what Steve has to say.

“I’m so sorry, Buck.” Steve begins. “God I’m—  I never imagined my leaving would have taken so much time here. I thought— Bruce said five seconds, and I never considered it would be anything more than that, I swear I didn’t, Bucky. Please believe me.”

Bucky’s eyes trail away from his, slowly moving about the room. “I believe you,” he says, voice subdued. 

There’s something… off about the way he’s acting, something Steve can’t quite put his finger on. But Bucky is here, he’s not running away, so Steve will make the best of the situation.

“If I had known,” Steve says, “I think… I don’t think I would have gone. I would have... chosen differently.”

These words cause a more visible reaction, sparking some life into Bucky’s too-calm demeanor. His eyes cut sharply back to Steve’s, smoldering with blue fire. His jaw clenches and unclenches, as if he’s biting back the first words that come to mind before finally, he says, words like broken glass, “Don’t lie to me.” 

“I’m not—”

Bucky jerks his head to the side, physically rejecting the words coming out of Steve’s mouth. “Bullshit.”

“Bucky,” Steve says, low, aching. 

Why,” Bucky says, forehead crumpled, folding his arms across his chest. “Why would you say something like that? You think you would have ‘chosen differently’?  Why would you…?”

Steve feels a rush of something like sorrow, steeped in self-hatred. If he was unsure before, it’s now more plain than ever the effect his leaving had had on Bucky. 

There had been trust between them, before he left. Confidence in the strength of their friendship. Confidence that they would always be there for each other. 

But the Bucky looking at Steve now has lost that trust. That confidence has been shattered, and Steve can see it in the way Bucky avoids his eyes, in how his voice wavers when he asks Steve why he would have chosen to stay, as if the very notion is inconceivable.  

Steve had done that. 

Made Bucky feel insignificant; unimportant. 

Looking back on his rationale for leaving only serves to add to the fury Steve feels toward himself. Hindsight makes it perfectly clear how horrible of a friend he’s been. 

He’d abandoned Bucky. Run away. Treated Bucky exactly the opposite of how Bucky’d always treated Steve. 

Bucky’d always refused to walk away when it came to Steve. 

Even when Steve was scrawny — more of a burden than Bucky should have ever had to deal with — even when he’d so stubbornly claimed that he could get by on his own. ‘You don’t have to,’ Bucky had told him. ‘I’m with you ‘till the end of the line, pal.’

And later, when Bucky’d had every right, every reason , to retire from a war that had already taken so much from him, he’d stayed. For Steve. Not for Captain America. Bucky had made that clear. ‘That little guy from Brooklyn,’ he’d said. 'I’m following him.’

Seventy years’ worth of brainwashing and torture later, Bucky had rescued Steve from the Potomac — when he’d barely known who Steve was, who he himself was. He’d dragged Steve out of what had promised to be a watery grave; brought him safely to shore. 

So many times Bucky has rescued Steve, refused to leave him. 

Even when it was dangerous, even when Steve all but ordered him to go, Bucky’s loyalty stood firm, everything in his nature screaming no. ‘Not without you.’

Even when Steve’d had nothing, he’d had Bucky.

For this, and so many other reasons, Bucky had deserved more. And Steve had failed, miserably, when he’d had an opportunity to do something about it. How could he have been so selfish?

The only thing he can comfort himself with — and really, it’s the smallest of comforts — is that he hadn’t deliberately set out to hurt Bucky. He’d been stupid, and selfish, and lying to himself, but he hadn’t set out to hurt his best friend. Hadn’t understood the magnitude of the negative impact leaving would have.

In fact, a big part of why he’d wanted to go back to Peggy had been because Steve had, in a way, been trying to move on. He and Bucky had always been close. Closer than the average friendship entailed, even considering that they were best friends. But they’d never defined their relationship as anything more. 

That didn’t change the fact that Steve’s life revolved around Bucky —  and Steve knew it. Always had. 

Never had it been more obvious, though, than in the years before the snap, when he’d discovered Bucky still alive after having thought him lost forever. 

In the wake of that discovery, Steve had gone on to destroy SHIELD. To stare into the face of his own death. Defy governments. Fight against the closest friends he’d had since the ice. All for the sake of Bucky. 

He’d given up the shield for Bucky. 

And then risked his life again, against Thanos, for the chance to bring Bucky back from obliteration.

Steve’s not so oblivious about his feelings that he doesn’t understand why he’d done all those things. To help a friend, definitely. But there’d been so much more behind Steve’s actions than mere feelings of friendship. He’d been willing to go ‘till the end of the line for Bucky. To do ‘whatever it takes’. And in the end, he’d succeeded. He’d gotten Bucky back safe, and alive.

Still, he’d never managed to find the courage to ascertain if the closeness between them actually meant anything more. If, maybe, the feelings Steve had for Bucky could be returned. 

There were times, when he looked into his best friend’s eyes, where he thought there might be hope. That maybe he was seeing something deeper than friendship staring back at him.

But then he’d traveled into the past, and Peggy had been right there, a shadow on the other side of shaded glass, and he’d thought...he’d thought, maybe it was a sign. Maybe he shouldn’t ruin what he already had with Bucky by trying to force their relationship into something more. Maybe he was supposed to be with Peggy; should have been, all along.

When it came to Peggy, his feelings had never been convoluted. And he’d never been uncertain about whether those feelings were mutual. Returning to Peggy had been the safe choice. The easy choice. And he’d reached for it with both hands.

He had deliberately chosen to not look too closely at what he and Bucky were to each other. How they were with each other. 

He’d known a piece of himself was missing, but he’d believed — truly — that Peggy could fill it.

So he’d taken the opportunity presented to him. 

And in doing so, he’d unwittingly resigned his friend to somehow find his way through the same sort of chaotic loneliness Steve had been defrosted into all those years ago.  He’d left without even considering what it might do to Bucky — to be dropped into an unfamiliar world, surrounded by people he barely knew. 

It’d been such an incredible oversight that it bordered on cruelty

But now Steve’s back. And there’s a reason for that. An explanation that Bucky deserves to hear. One Steve won’t keep from him any longer.

(It’s a risk, it’s such a huge risk, because he has no idea if Bucky feels the same. If Bucky could ever love Steve as more than a friend, the way that Steve loves Bucky. But Steve’s already hurt Bucky too much by trying to deny the truth.) 

“If I had known that so much time would pass,” Steve stresses, “I would have made a different choice. I’d thought that my being gone would only take seconds. That even if I were gone for a lifetime in the past, it wouldn’t really affect you here, because I would be back right away. I… care about you, Buck. I wouldn’t have abandoned you. I never meant to.”

He pauses, takes in Bucky’s expression — careful and guarded but attentive — and asks, “Can— Do you believe me?”

“I believe you,” Bucky says. “But—” He stops, lips pressed tight together, expression pained. “I don’t...understand. You were finally back with her. You’d finally gotten the life you always wanted.” He gazes at Steve, blue eyes lost. “Why would you… Why...come back?”

“I went back,” Steve explains, “because I felt like I was… missing something. A part of myself. A piece that I needed to get back. For so long, I’d assumed that Peggy was that missing piece. I never considered that I might be wrong.” He hadn’t wanted to. “So, when I realized I had a second chance, a chance to be with her, I— I didn’t think; I jumped at the opportunity.” 

Bucky nods. “You’ve always loved Carter,” he says, with quiet certainty.

“I love you too, Buck.” Steve says, solemnly. 

Bucky makes a grating sound that can’t be even remotely mistaken for laughter. He releases his folded arms, bringing a hand up to rub at his face. “Sure, pal,” he says. “But you and I both know it’s not the same thing.” 

Bucky’s right, Steve thinks, and so completely wrong at the same time. 

And is that so surprising? Steve’s never given him reason to believe otherwise. And leaving him here alone certainly hadn’t done their relationship any favors.

But Steve refuses to deny any longer that the way he feels about Peggy doesn’t even come close to the way his feelings are — have always been — tangled up in Bucky. 

Being with Peggy had given him the push he’d needed to recognize it — to finally acknowledge it — and seeing Bucky again after having been away for so long, seeing him now, looking fragile and wary and wounded, brings Steve’s feelings into even sharper clarity. 

“I was with Peggy for almost half a year,” Steve says, side-stepping, for now, the truth about how he feels about Bucky. There’s more he needs to say, more he needs to explain, first. “I kept waiting for that empty feeling to go away. I didn’t know, couldn’t figure out why it didn’t. Why it got worse. It was… so much worse.

“Peggy and I… we got along. I could have made a life with her — I tried to, even. But I still kept… looking back. I didn’t realize that I had moved on — really moved on from my life before the ice — until I was back there and wishing I wasn’t.”

That had been a startling realization. Something that had filled Steve with regret. 

But it didn’t cause nearly the amount of grief as coming to the conclusion that leaving Bucky behind, had been a colossal mistake.

“Peggy finally talked some sense into me,” Steve confesses. “She helped me to realize that the piece of myself I’ve been missing all this time didn’t belong to her — it never had. That’s what made me decide, in the end, that I needed to come back.” 

Bucky frowns, not yet grasping what Steve is trying to tell him. “I don’t understand,” he says, finally. His voice is tired, frustrated, and Steve dips his head, catches that silvery-blue gaze. 

“Bucky,” he says, seriously, “There’s— I need to tell you. What I realized while I was away. It’s— You deserve to know. It’s something I should have told you a long time ago.”

Bucky looks away. He curls his hands into fists, tightening his jaw and pressing his lips into a thin line. 

He doesn’t want to know, Steve realizes, watching the play of emotions over his best friend’s face. 

Bucky clearly expects what Steve has to tell him to add yet another wound to his battered soul. Still, he stays. Waits for whatever Steve has to say, and Steve’s heart aches for him.

What Steve says is this: “I love you, Bucky. I’m — in love, with you.”

Bucky jerks his gaze back to Steve’s face, and Steve keeps talking. Lets it pour out of him, tells Bucky everything.

“That emptiness that I was looking to fill, that I thought Peggy was the missing piece to?” he says, laying himself bare; pulling out his heart and placing it at Bucky’s feet. “It was never her I was missing. It was you, Buck. It’s always been you.”

Bucky’s eyes grow wide, and Steve barrels on, needing to say it, hoping with everything in his soul that he’s not making another huge mistake.

“I’m sorry that I left you here. I was...stupid, and selfish. And I know, now, that there’s no one on this Earth who can take your place, Bucky. No one I want like I want you. No one I love, like I love you.”

Bucky’s shakes his head, dazed, as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You—” he rasps, haltingly. “W-What?”

And Steve repeats himself, not allowing any room for doubt, not ever again. “I love you,” he says, “ I love you, Bucky. I never should have left. And I can’t begin to explain how much I regret that I did.” 

Bucky blinks rapidly, breathing gone sharp and unsteady. A shaky hand lifts to cover his eyes. 

He doesn’t speak, doesn’t make a sound, and Steve feels a spike of concern. 

“Buck?” he asks, worriedly. 

“Sorry,” Bucky says, still hiding his eyes. “I’m— fine. I’m okay.” 

Steve doesn’t — won’t — ask if Bucky loves him back, if Bucky could ever feel for Steve what Steve feels about him. There’s only so much of his own selfishness he can stomach.

But,“Could you ever forgive me?” he can’t help but ask, voice soft, imploring.

Bucky drags in an unsteady breath. “I—” he begins, voice rough, before he cuts himself off. Steve feels his heart sink. If Bucky can’t forgive him, Steve doesn’t know what he’ll do. 

But Bucky continues, “I—  Yes, I forgive you.” He lowers his hand, eyes tracing over Steve’s expression. 

Steve lets out a shaky breath. “Thank you,” he exhales, closing his eyes, legs feeling weak with relief.“Thank you, Buck.” 

There is a silence before Bucky says, uncertainly, “Steve...”  and Steve’s eyes snap back open, finding Bucky’s blue gaze still fixed unerringly upon him.

Then Bucky swallows, dropping his eyes. Draws his lower lip between his teeth to gnaw at it. He’s clearly struggling, and Steve waits, nerves rising as Bucky opens his mouth, closes it again.  

Finally Bucky says, voice quiet, “I love you... too, Steve.” 

Steve sucks in a quick breath, and Bucky shifts — almost flinches — at the sharp sound. He watches Steve closely, body tense, adding, “I have. For a long time.” 

For all that he’d wanted to explain himself to Bucky, throughout all the scenarios he’d run through in his head for how it might turn out, Steve’d never expected, never even hoped for, something like this; Bucky stating that he loved Steve back

Oddly, though, for someone who’s confessed his feelings, who’s just learned that those feelings are returned, Bucky doesn’t seem particularly… happy. Anxiety seems to pour off of him in waves, and Steve takes a step toward him — to touch, to hug him, maybe; to offer comfort in the face of his obvious agitation.

“Bucky,” he says, softly, “What’s wrong?”

He goes to take another step, but Bucky throws up a hand, a sharp gesture, and Steve stills where he is. 

“S-stop.” Bucky says, overwhelmed, wary, and Steve feels a pang of sorrow twist through him. This is his fault. He’d put that expression on Bucky’s face. Requited feelings aside, if Bucky never trusts him again, Steve has no one to blame but himself. “I’m— sorry,” Bucky says. “I forgive you, I do. But I need— time. Please. Just. Some time.”

“Of course, Buck,” Steve says, softly. “Whatever you need.”  How could he deny Bucky anything, after what he’s been through? After what Steve had done to him? “You don’t have to— Don’t be sorry.”

Bucky glances away, eyes resting everywhere but on Steve. “Okay,” he says, and Steve doesn’t think he’s agreeing so much as trying to end the conversation. He motions toward the exit. “I’m gonna—” He ducks his head, hunches his shoulders.

Then he’s edging around Steve, and slipping out the door.

 

 

Later, when Steve goes to retire for the night, Bucky’s bedroom door is closed. The room is completely silent on the other side, but Steve allows the smallest sense of relief to wash through him. 

At least Bucky’s not avoiding the apartment anymore. 

At least Steve knows where he is, won’t spend another sleepless night wondering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nothing Left For You

 

‘I gave my heart to a goddamn fool.

I gave him everything,

Now there’s nothing left for you.’

 

 

Bucky rolls out of bed to the scent of coffee wafting through the air. He’s barely slept, nightmares choking him awake so consistently that he’d finally given up to lay in motionless silence until sunrise. 

At least he hasn’t been screaming; something that occurs more than he cares to think about these days.

Maybe his brain has realized that Steve sleeps just down the hall now, has instinctively fallen back into old conditioning, silencing him the same way it had during his time as the Soldier who, unless ordered to report, was to be seen and not heard. 

Whatever the reason, Bucky is grateful for it. Steve would certainly come running if he started screaming his throat raw, and Bucky can’t imagine that predicament ending in anything other than disaster.

For some reason, ever since Steve had returned to Bucky’s timeline, his mere presence has been triggering in Bucky something akin to a flight-or-fight response. When it hits, the response is persistent, powerful. Almost as strong as the drive he’d felt to run, to disappear, after his defection from Hydra. Which is, from a logical standpoint, rather ridiculous. Steve couldn’t be further from Hydra if he tried. 

It’s... frustrating

Bucky’s not used to feeling so much. Not anymore. Not like he had, before. 

For the past three years, just about everything in Bucky’s life outside of missions has been dulled by a kind of impassive detachment. It’s not healthy, and Bucky’s well aware that it speaks volumes about the considerable amount of trauma he’s carrying around. But it’s been working. It’s kept him going, at least. Kept him from choosing one day, to lie down and never get back up.

Now though — for some reason he doesn’t want to examine too closely — being around Steve causes all of that emotional detachment to disappear. Steve makes him feel, and not particularly good. 

Whenever Steve shows up, Bucky becomes edgy; hypervigilant. His heart-rate and breathing begin to race, and it’s all he can do to keep from running away like a coward. 

Since Steve came back, Bucky’s avoided dealing with this reaction mainly by avoiding Steve — though if he thinks about him long enough, Bucky still gets the same response. 

But he can’t avoid Steve entirely, not with them sharing Steve’s old apartment. And if he could — choosing to move into another space within the compound — the thought of permanently separating himself from Steve causes the same sort of anxious distress as being near him. 

So, he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, really, and hell if that doesn’t that say something about the current level of screwed-up Bucky’s head is at right now.

 

 

When Bucky skulks into the kitchen, Steve is standing with his back to the room, filling two mugs with freshly brewed coffee. 

Bucky heads for the island countertop, waiting for the inevitable anxiety attack, determined to fight through it. He’s a world-renowned assassin, he can handle a little nerves.  

Turns out, though, that he’s completely unprepared for the mental litany that slams into him instead. He sinks down onto one of the bar-stools, legs gone shaky and unsteady as his brain resonates with one circular, unrelenting thought: Loves me, he loves me, hefuckinglovesme.

Steve turns, a mug in each hand, and freezes at whatever he sees on Bucky’s face. The mugs meet the countertop with a firm clunk.

“Buck,” Steve says, with some alarm. “Are you— okay?”

Bucky swipes a hand over his face, half-hiding, trying to force his breathing back under control. “I’m fine,” he says, cursing the faint waver in his voice.

Steve looks unconvinced. 

“Bucky, you don’t look anywhere near fine.” 

His voice goes hesitant, then, and he asks haltingly,  “Is it because— I mean. Is this okay? My being here? Sam said— But I can find another place to stay if…” he trails off as Bucky shakes his head firmly.

Distantly, Bucky wonders if ‘another place’ refers to somewhere else within the compound. Or is Steve speaking about moving to another place in the city? In the world? Bucky thinks, wryly, that Steve would probably go as far as Bucky asked. His tone is certainly earnest enough.  

“It’s fine,” Bucky repeats, too worn out, too preoccupied with trying to fucking breathe, to come up with anything more eloquent. 

“Are you...sure?” Steve can’t seem to help asking, and Bucky feels a zing of frustrated panic. “It’s no trouble if you’d rather have your own space, Buck. I’ll —I mean I’d understand if—”

No.” Bucky’s tone brooks no room for further argument and Steve stops talking. “Stay. I. I w-want you to— ”

He doesn’t finish that sentence. 

The words, so simple, encompass all of what he couldn’t ask of Steve three years ago, and the realization that he’s saying them now feels like a sharp kick in the gut. A sort of stunned grief wells up in the wake of this revelation, choking off the rest of his words, and all of a sudden Bucky’s done, having barely even started his day.

He pushes away from the counter, stool scraping across the floor with a piercing screech. 

His hand is still raised, still hiding his face, and he keeps it there with something like desperation as he feels a hot rush of tears dampen his fingers. 

“Buck?” Steve says, definitely alarmed now, and Bucky turns quickly away; heads for the front door; fights to shut down emotions he doesn’t want to face. 

 

 

What did you expect?  

Steve stares blindly at the rapidly-cooling mugs of coffee on the countertop before him. 

Bucky’s shell-shocked expression. The rasp of his strained breathing. The flash of his stormy blue eyes as he’d fled the apartment — these things flicker through Steve’s mind on repeat, vivid with perfect recall. 

What did you expect? he thinks again, viciously angry. That everything would go back to normal? That Bucky would be suddenly okay? You know better than that, Rogers.

Ever since their reunion, since Steve had stepped off that time-machine platform and gone to find Bucky, he’s known — it’s obvious — that Bucky is suffering. That he’s...damaged. 

Emotionally. 

In ways he hadn’t been before Steve had left. 

And it’s because of Steve. Because of what he did.  

Three more years of pain and loss Steve had given Bucky, stacked neatly on top of everything else the world had thrown at him for close to a century. And that pain, that loss, had left wounds; deep and unhealed.

He’d been elated to hear Bucky confess that he loved Steve. That he’s loved him for a while. But Steve is not naive enough to think that love, in itself, will miraculously heal the emotional wounds wrought by Steve’s negligence. That it will magically fix what’s broken between them. 

It won’t.

It won’t and in fact, the more Steve thinks about it — that Bucky loved him, had been in love with him when Steve left him — the more Steve realizes just how badly he fucked things up. 

Because Bucky being in love with Steve means…  it means that Steve’s leaving would have been exponentially more painful than he’d ever considered. For Bucky, it would have been about more than just losing his best friend; his only connection to his past and to his memories. 

Losing the person he was in love with would have felt like losing part of himself. An integral piece, impossible to replace.

Thinking about that, knowing what it had cost Bucky to watch Steve go, makes Steve’s guilt, his shame, all the more biting. 

Because while it had hurt — coming to the realization that he was in love with Bucky, recognizing where his heart wanted to be, and knowing that he couldn’t be there, that he’d never even get the chance... 

While that pain had been deep, and aching, it’d still been tempered by the fact that the realization of those feelings had come later. After the separation. 

Steve can’t imagine what it would feel like to know exactly what he wanted, who he wanted… only to have it made perfectly clear that that person didn’t care to have anything more to do with him. 

What kind of strength had it taken to accept that indifference? To encourage Steve to seek his own happiness; to smile as that advice was followed so glibly ? Steve can’t imagine that kind of painful sacrifice. 

Bucky had felt that. 

And still, he’d let Steve go. 

He’d kept all that anguish locked inside, and had bid Steve goodbye with only ‘I’m gonna miss you,’ because he’d loved Steve. 

Because Steve had wanted to go. And because Bucky believed himself unworthy of asking Steve to stay. 

Looking back, Steve can see the fragility of Bucky’s smile, the way he’d barely made eye-contact. The hollow grief in his eyes. 

How had he missed it then?

There’s nothing, nothing, Steve can say to make up for that. 

There’s no quick fix. No easy remedy.

If there’s even a chance that they can come back from this, only time can mend what’s broken. 

And while Steve’s never been very good at waiting, Bucky’s certainly earned as much time as it takes to heal. 

 

 

“I thought I might find you here.”

Steve places the file he’s been scanning on top of the stack of mission reports he’s already read through and glances up to see Sam leaning against the doorframe. 

He’s reminded suddenly, painfully, of that night when he’d come upon Natasha in a similar way. She’d been sitting in this same seat, just finished conferencing in some of the few remaining heroes who’d still been fighting to keep the world running in the wake of the devastation wrought by Thanos. 

She’d looked haunted; exhausted; tear tracks shimmering faintly on her cheeks — a magnitude of emotion he was certain he’d never seen her express before.

Steve had offered what he could in the way of comfort — which is to say, not nearly enough — but Natasha had managed to dredge up a smile for him anyway. 

He misses her. 

The loss of her friendship — something that had become all the more precious in the absence of Bucky, and Sam, and so many of the other Avengers — is just another thing that weighs upon him when he allows himself to think about it. 

She’d meant so much to him. Always there to build him up when he’d needed it, never afraid to call him on his bullshit either. She’d been his confident, his ally, his friend. And he never even had the chance to say goodbye.

He sighs heavily, shoving down his own urge to cry as he meets Sam’s too-knowing eyes. 

The files he’s been going through don’t help his current emotional instability in the least. 

Each one includes a mission report written by Bucky, while some include additional reports from other agents who may have been assigned to the same mission. Bucky’s reports are detached, impassive. He relates successes and casualties, captures, and injuries sustained — all with the same cool, efficient wording.

The reports included alongside his — from team members and handlers alike — are also professional, but they tend to contain an undertone of wary unease wherever ‘Barnes’ is mentioned. They note his brutal efficiency, his ability to work effectively with a team. But they also hint, non-explicitly, at how that same level of single-minded focus makes them uncomfortable. 

Barnes sustained an abdominal laceration while coming to the defence of Agent Diaz, states one report, but refrained from performing medical care upon himself. When asked, Barnes reported that the injury was not ‘mission critical’; that he was still ‘functional’. 

While the mission was accomplished successfully, this agent feels that there was more than enough time for the administration of first aid. Accordingly, this agent would like it on record that: as protocol advocates for all moderate to severe injuries to receive medical attention, no team member should abstain from taking advantage of such provisions when the mission allows, especially as such behavior can be detrimental to team morale. 

Later in the same file, a note from Agent Hill had been appended: Barnes has been notified about the effect his decision to forgo medical care had upon his team’s morale. He has agreed to attend to any future medical needs he or his team deem ‘necessary’, provided that doing so will not needlessly hinder mission success.

There are other recorded incidents like this one scattered throughout the files, often peppered with addendums from Hill, and the more Steve reads, the closer he gets to cementing the unappealing suspicion he’s been nursing since he read the very first mission report:

Even though, more and more, handlers and teammates have begun to regard Bucky as unstable, he’s still considered too valuable, too useful, to sideline. 

While it is not explicitly required for him to do so in these circumstances, another of Hill’s notations reads, following a particularly brutal — though coolly reported upon — mission with a high number of enemy casualties, Barnes has been encouraged to discuss aspects of this mission with the [agency’s] recommended psychologist. 

But they never make it mandatory for Bucky to talk, never pull him from missions when he displays classic signs of battle fatigue. It’s much the way they treated Steve when he came out of the ice — a cursory attempt at providing psychological care before throwing him headlong into battle. (Or really, allowing Steve to throw himself into battle; they prefer the high ground of plausible deniability, after all.) 

Except Bucky’s far more damaged than Steve ever was, and letting him do this to himself seems much more cruel. 

It’s disturbing and heartbreaking and Steve finds himself stuck between wanting to drag Bucky out of the field — to tear into Hill and Fury, demand to know just what the hell they think they’re doing sending Bucky out again and again, letting him do this to himself, (can’t they see how much he’s hurting, how psychologically unfit he is for all of this?) — and wanting to allow him the dignity of his choice to fight.

The only thing that keeps him pinned to his seat, reading through file after file, is that Steve isn’t sure that Bucky wouldn’t resent Steve’s involvement. 

In all the time Steve’s known him, Bucky’s never enjoyed fighting; never wanted to hurt or kill anyone. It had always been Steve who was driven toward the fight, who jumped into conflicts with both fists raised, ready to give everything for what he believed was right. And Bucky… Bucky would fight for Steve, would give his all in defense of a friend who was so fragile before the serum, and so impetuous after. Countless times Bucky had fought for Steve, and too many times he’d died for him. 

Now Steve doesn’t know why Bucky fights. He’d been so reluctant to do so in Bucharest; in Wakanda. But these past three years it seems to be all Bucky does. Mission after mission. One enemy after another. Going wherever it is they tell him to go.

Maybe he feels obligated. After the loss of so many Avengers, maybe Bucky feels a duty to lend his particular skillset toward helping save and protect lives. Or. Maybe — like Steve so many years ago, fresh out of the ice and numb with the loss of everyone he’d loved, everyone he’d ever known — Bucky fights because he believes he’s got nothing else.

“You thinking of getting back into the game?” Sam asks, drawing Steve from his grim thoughts.

“Don’t know,” Steve replies. “I hadn’t really...considered it.” Mostly he’s been thinking about how not to rush impulsively into a situation he doesn’t know enough about. How it might not be the best idea to murder either Fury or Hill, and then steal Bucky away to someplace safe and quiet, where Steve can wrap him in a hundred soft blankets and never let him feel sad or lonely again. 

“We could use your expertise,” Sam says. “If you’re interested. Greatest tactical mind and all that. And it might be a good thing to have another set of eyes on Barnes, too. One that puts his best interests above the mission.”

Steve pins Sam with a carefully focused gaze. “What do you mean by that,” he says, more  demand than question.

“Well, I mean,” Sam says, looking uncomfortable. “Barnes is amazing. Best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen you. I’ve seen Natasha . But he’s also…” Sam falters. “He’s just. Very mission oriented. And sometimes his handlers don’t... discourage that way of thinking. I do what I can, but he only trusts me so far, and really, that’s not saying much.”

Steve grimaces. “If it’s trust you think he’s lacking, I’m probably not the best person to watch his six, either,” he admits bitterly. “I’m pretty sure I’ve destroyed whatever trust he once had in me.”

Sam’s gaze softens. “You guys had a chance to talk yet?” he asks.

Steve nods mutely, glancing down at his hands clasped in his lap. 

“You finally tell him you’re in love with him?” 

And that brings his gaze right back up, eyes locking with Sam’s shrewd scrutiny. “How—” but Sam cuts him off.

“Man, if you’re about to ask me how I know about that I’m gonna have to smack you upside your stupid-ass head.”

Steve drops his gaze again, feeling sheepish, but also still curious. 

Sam doesn’t leave him to wonder.

“Anyone with eyes can see you’re in love with Barnes,” he says, incredulously. “You took down SHIELD for him, chased him for over two years while dragging my sorry butt along with you, and then showed your star-spangled-ass to more than a hundred governments across the world when they wanted you to let them bring him in. What I want to know is how in the hell you missed that enough to leave him.”

Steve swallows thickly. “I thought— I wanted to… move on. I thought I could fit Peggy into those places that were his to fill. I didn’t know he— that he was—”

“You didn’t know he loved you back,” Sam says, grimly. “Well, that at least makes you seem somewhat less of an asshole.”

Steve sucks in a sharp breath and Sam’s gaze softens again. “Sorry, Steve. If it makes you feel any better, I always put faith in the fact that you didn’t know. No way could I believe that you could be that selfish.”

“I didn’t know,” Steve asserts, hoarsely. “I never would’ve — I’d never have left him, if I’d known. Never.” 

“I believe you,” Sam says; a benediction, small as it is. “And I stand by my conviction that you’re what Barnes needs right now.  Even if he’s having trouble trusting you. Show him that he still can. Give him the evidence he needs to rebuild that faith.”

Steve takes an unsteady breath. “You think I can… you think I can fix this?” he asks, needing to hear it, needing Sam’s steady conviction to lean on.

“I think you can fix it,” Sam says, “together. You love each other. Give it time, be patient. You’ll work it out.” 

 

 

Steve takes time to mull over his conversation with Sam, to contemplate what Sam had said about Bucky. 

(About how, during the past three years, he hasn’t had much of anyone to help look out for him. About how Steve would be well suited to fill that role. About how Sam thinks things will work out between them, given time.) 

He puts a lot of weight in Sam’s conviction that he and Bucky will work things out. 

He also recognizes that, as Sam had said, he’s going to need to be patient. 

Bucky, himself, had asked for time. And while he seems to have managed to return to some semblance of equilibrium where Steve is concerned (at least, he’s no longer working to actively avoid Steve) there are still times, more often than Steve would like to admit, where something will trigger him, and Bucky will go suddenly anxious, shaky and agitated.  

They seem to come out of nowhere — the attacks. 

Steve and Bucky can be working in the kitchen to prepare a meal; discussing something as mundane as picking an item up from the store; even sitting quietly on opposite ends of the couch, each of them absorbed in their own activities when suddenly, Bucky’s clutching at his chest, breaths rasping harshly from his throat, his whole body shaking as his eyes search desperately for an escape route. 

He won’t let Steve anywhere near him when he gets like that — moving himself even further away than the solid arm's-length he always keeps between the two of them — retreating altogether if he can manage it. 

Steve asks Sam about it, one day, still wracked with the lingering helplessness that had arisen while watching Bucky gasp and shake, clutching tightly at his chest for the most excruciating thirty seconds Steve’s experienced in recent memory. Ultimately, Bucky had ended up stumbling into the nearby bathroom, slamming the door and spending another ten minutes fighting through the emotional onslaught. 

“Sounds like he’s having anxiety attacks,” Sam tells him. “Or something close enough, anyway. Those are some pretty classic symptoms.”

“I think…” Steve says, slowly, reluctant to admit to it, “I’m pretty sure it’s me triggering them.”

Sam raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything, waiting for Steve to elaborate.

“It’s just,” Steve explains, “I’m sure you’ve noticed how withdrawn he’s gotten. Even with me — maybe especially with me, now — he doesn’t really...emote. He’s so. Quiet. Polite. He’ll answer questions if I ask him, doesn’t really avoid conversation, exactly—”

Sam snorts. “Hate to break it to you, Steve, but that’s still a hell of a lot more than the rest of us get.”

Steve grimaces, and Sam sobers. “Sorry man. I wish things were different. But these last three years, you know, they’ve been tough. Really tough on Barnes.”

“I know,” Steve says, quietly. “That’s why I— I mean. Have you ever seen him, when it happens?”

“No,” Sam says, frowning thoughtfully. “It’s possible, probable even, that you really are the stressor. Barnes keeps himself pretty closed off from the rest of us. But maybe he can’t do that with you. It makes sense that you provoke some pretty strong emotions. It kinda makes me think… ever heard of something called Broken Heart Syndrome?”

“No,” Steve says, feeling his own heart clench. “But I can imagine that it’s nothing good.”

“It’s not fatal,” Sam says, “Nothing like that. But it’s pretty messy, emotionally speaking. There’s not much information about what causes it, though it is believed that, like with anxiety attacks, it’s provoked by a surge of stress hormones. It’s also usually preceded by an intense physical or emotional event.”

“My leaving,” Steve guesses, but Sam shakes his head. 

“No. I think it was you coming back.” 

Steve furrows his brow. “Sam how— Why would my coming back be the problem?”

“Not a problem, per se,” says Sam. “A stressor.”

Steve shakes his head this time, and Sam raises a hand, makes a ‘wait a second and hear me out’ gesture.  

“Listen,” he says. “Barnes basically made himself an emotionless void while you were away. Nothing really touched him, emotionally speaking, because he more-or-less locked all his feelings away as tightly as he could. But you coming back? He can’t lock that away, or ignore it into non-existence. He’s forced to deal with you, everyday. With what you make him feel. And, those feelings can get overwhelming, hence the anxiety attacks.”

Steve drags a hand across his face, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “So you’re saying,” he says, unhappily, “you agree that I’m doing this to him. And I should...what? Stay away from him?”

“Has he asked you to stay away from him?” Sam asks, incredulously.

“No,” Steve answers. “He said— He asked me to stay.”

“Well there you go,” Sam replies. “I was going to tell you the same thing. Anxiety attacks aren’t the end of the world, even if they do temporarily make you feel like you’re dying.”

Steve feels his mouth pull downward, but Sam keeps taking, leaning slightly forward to pin Steve with a serious expression. “Listen, Steve. The best thing you can do for Barnes is to respect his wishes and to be there for him. The only way he’ll get past this is to learn to control it, and he can’t do that if you avoid each other. So give him the chance to learn to manage the attacks.”

He leans back, shrugs. “Anyway, it seems like he’s already refusing to allow them to dictate his life, just by virtue of the fact that he’s choosing to stay around you. ”  

Steve knows Sam is right. 

So he grits his teeth, and bears through it when Bucky goes shaky around him. Doesn’t decide to move out, to give Bucky a break by putting more space between the two of them the way he’s tempted to do whenever Bucky is forced to withdraw mid-episode.

 

 

It might be a good thing to have another set of eyes on Barnes,” Sam had said. “One that puts his best interests above the mission.”

Steve thinks about that a lot as he watches Bucky come home exhausted after each and every mission; blank-faced and silent. The longer he watches, the more he considers taking Sam’s advice. 

He doesn’t want to take up the shield again, though — that’s Sam’s place now, and Steve really only wants to get involved inasmuch as he can help Bucky.

Bucky, who everyone calls Barnes

Sometimes, occasionally, Steve will hear him called the Soldier, or Sergeant .

But no one, apart from Steve, calls him Bucky; the name he’d reclaimed for himself. Had fought through years of programming, and torture, and brainwashing to remember. 

It’s enough to make Steve’s blood boil. To make his heart ache with indignation. 

‘My name is Bucky’ Steve remembers Bucky asserting — back when the whole world was against him, when all they saw was the Winter Soldier, the weapon, too dangerous for any future that didn’t involve being locked away for the rest of his life. Even then, Bucky had fought to cling to whatever shreds of himself he could grasp. 

Now he seems to have given up. 

It’s one more thing Steve finds himself determined to give back to him.

 

 

Steve steps into the gym to find eight of Hill’s agents huddled near the sparring mats in a small cluster. 

He’d made up his mind, a few days earlier, and finally decided to approach Hill, offering up his skills as a tactical advisor — someone to help with planning and supervising any missions where his former teammates ended up under Hill’s oversight. 

She’d listened to him, gazing at him with shrewd eyes and then, at the end of his proposal, remarked plainly, “This is about Barnes.”

Steve made no effort to disguise his motivation. “I’ve read the reports,” he’d said, “I know you worry about his stability. Though you haven’t kept him out of the field,” he added, unwilling to conceal, entirely, his disapproval of that decision.

Hill had the decency to look mildly chagrined. “You’re right,” she’d admitted, and Steve had felt marginally less agitated. Less like he wanted to take her head off, at any rate, though the potential was still there if she decided she wanted to fight him on this. 

“Barnes is the best we have,” Hill stated. “And he has expressed a… pointed desire to not be removed from the field. That fits our purposes, so we haven’t dismissed him.”

Steve ground his teeth, but said nothing.

“To be fair,” Hill said, still watching Steve carefully, obviously aware of his ire, “He’s been very good about avoiding doing anything that would give us a reason to bench him. His behavior is completely professional within the field.”      

Steve crossed his arms. Waited. 

Eventually, Hill had sighed. “I’ll discuss your proposal with Fury,” she’d said. “It would be good to have your input, especially where Barnes is concerned. Believe it or not, we do know that he’s not in a good place right now. We just didn’t really know how to go about dealing with that. Now that you’re here, maybe we can sort him out.”

“Let me know when you’re ready for me,” Steve said, making it apparent that he wasn’t even entertaining the possibility that his offer wouldn’t be accepted.

Hill had quirked her lips in a half smile. “Before you go,” she’d said, pausing Steve’s exit, “how about a proposal of my own?”

Turned out, Hill had wanted him to refine her agents’ hand-to-hand combat training. 

“You’re arguably the best hand-to-hand combatant out there,” she’d said. “And while we’ve had access to the Soldier—”

“His name is Bucky, ” Steve had snarled, then, drawing his hands into fists, leaning threateningly over Hill’s desk.

“...Right,” Hill said slowly, drawing herself straighter in her seat. “Well, he isn’t exactly keen on having people in his personal space. Just about every person I’ve seen get within two feet of him these last few years has ended up dead or bleeding.”

Steve had agreed, irritated as he was, to help out. He really doesn’t mind training others in hand-to-hand, and it will give him something to focus on while he waits for Hill to get back to him. 

Because he knows they’ll give him the assignment. They’d be stupid not to. 

Now, he watches as Hills agents shuffle nervously on their feet, darting not-so-subtle glances over at Bucky — running a steady pace on one of the treadmills in the corner and completely ignoring all of them.

Steve doesn’t know why he’s surprised to see him here. Bucky runs every morning like clock-work, and it’s been raining hard outside since last night. 

It makes sense that he’d be here.

What doesn’t make sense, and really gets on Steve’s nerves besides, is the agents’ reactions to Bucky’s presence. 

This is their third session in as many weeks, so Steve knows the group relatively well. Enough, at least, to know that they should all be professional enough not to be standing around gawking at Bucky like he’s the boogie man, seconds away from attempting to slaughter them all. 

He claps his hands loudly, startling them out of their gazel-like staring. Tells them, sternly, to start warming up — something they should have already been doing when he showed up, instead of standing around in a cluster, bunched together like a flock of terrified sheep in the presence of a wolf. 

A few of the agents cast him guilty looks, and Steve takes a steadying breath, pushing down the irritation caused by their unprofessional behavior. A perfect opportunity has been dropped into his lap, and he wants to be clear-headed enough to take advantage of it. 

He’s noticed, and Hill had alluded to it as well, that Bucky’s touch aversion had worsened substantially during the course of Steve’s absence. 

Growing up, Bucky had always been extremely tactile; quick to throw an arm over Steve’s shoulder, to tug him in the direction he wanted them to go, to provide a hug when Steve needed the reassurance (or when they’d been apart for anything longer than a minute). Whatever the situation, Bucky had always found a reason to touch Steve. He was the same way with his sisters, his mother. 

A lot of that had tapered off during the war, after Zola. 

After his escape from Hydra, though, it became very obvious that Bucky’d lost all affinity for touch.

In Wakanda, during the long phase of his recovery, it was easy to see that one one of the many things Bucky suffered from was touch starvation. But he’d also been incredibly wary; always cautious, careful to keep his distance from everyone even while he hid that sharp vigilance behind a pleasant smile. Some days, days when he was more the Soldier than he was Bucky, Bucky would even become violently reactive to touch; striking out at anyone who caught him off guard, becoming horribly guilty about it afterward. Still — eventually — that too had tapered off. 

Ultimately, he’d managed to reach a place where his comfort with touch had leveled out. Never to where it had been before the war, but enough that he was able to accept a hug, a clasp around his arm, a gentle brush of Steve’s shoulder against his, or a playful nudge from Shuri. 

Now, all of that hard-won progress seems to have vanished. At the very least, it’s been severely stunted. These days, Bucky twitches away whenever Steve gets close , and he keeps a solid five feet between him and everyone else at all times.

Not even Sam touches Bucky, and he seems to be the closest thing to a friend Bucky has in the compound, apart from, theoretically, Steve himself. 

So. Steve’s noticed. And he’s been trying to come up with a way to ease Bucky back into casual contact.

Before, in Wakanda, when Bucky had trusted Steve, he’d put a concentrated effort into slowly allowing Steve into his space. They’d share a couch, gravitating closer together as time went by. Steve worked to telegraph his movements, letting Bucky prepare to accept a hug or a tap on the shoulder. 

Now, with Bucky’s trust so damaged, and no evidence that Bucky wants to be anywhere even near Steve’s space, Steve’s desire to reconcile Bucky with touch is going to be challenging at best.

By some miracle, though, a chance for Steve to try to bridge that gap has been laid at his feet this morning. A sparring match would put him and Bucky into each other’s space. And it offers the added benefit of keeping the physical contact limited, without pressure of expectation. 

Steve wants, very much, to take advantage of this opportunity. So he heads over to catch Bucky — who’s just shut down his treadmill and is taking long pulls from his water bottle — before he leaves.

Bucky tenses almost imperceptibly as Steve gets closer, eyes rapidly clocking the exits before he returns his cautious gaze to Steve.  

“Hey, Buck,” Steve says, voice low so as to keep the conversation between the two of them. He doesn’t want to pressure Bucky, wants him to agree on his own terms to what Steve plans to ask. “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind helping me with a demonstration.”

Bucky slowly caps his water bottle, fingers tightening around the thin plastic until it creeks. 

“What kind of a demonstration.” 

There’s not enough lilt at the end of that sentence to make it a question, but Steve explains anyway.

Since Steve began working with Hill’s agents, the goal has been to improve upon the combat skills they already possess. Though none of the agents are untrained, they’ve yet to pit themselves against someone like Steve.

As non-enhanced persons in a world where more and more enhanced individuals are being discovered, the odds of these agents ending up in a situation where they will be forced to go up against such an individual are getting higher all the time. 

Which is why training with Steve will be so valuable.

Because while these agents will never be able to overpower Steve individually, Steve can teach them ways to outmaneuver an opponent, no matter how strong he may be. 

Steve’s job, as their instructor, is to give Hill’s agents the opportunity to learn how tactical competence, in place of force, can be the difference between victory and defeat. 

Natasha had perfectly exemplified this concept. She’d always been capable of holding her own on the training mats, even against Steve. 

Bucky, too, uses the technique to his advantage. He may not be as strong as Steve, but what he lacks in strength, he more than makes up for in flexibility, speed, and cunning. He far surpasses mere capability, and Steve wants to demonstrate it. 

He tells Bucky this, after outlining his plan for Hill’s agents, and Bucky listens, glancing over Steve’s shoulder to the agents in question, expression apprehensive. Steve wonders if it’s because he doesn’t want Steve in his space, or if it’s something else that bothers him.

“I don’t know,” Bucky hedges, when Steve’s done explaining. “I’m not very…  good with Hill’s agents.” 

Steve supposes that’s one way to put it, even if it hardly accounts for the degree of wary cynicism the agents clearly harbor toward Bucky.

It’s another reason Steve wants Bucky to spar with him: to humanize Bucky in the eyes of Hill’s agents. He wants them to see Bucky, to watch him put all that skill and strength against Steve, but never, for a moment, lose control of it. 

Because Steve knows that Bucky won’t lose control, that he’d never hurt Steve, that he’s not a threat. And he wants these agents to see that. To know it, with the same clarity of certainty that Steve knows it. 

What Steve says is “You don’t gotta be, Buck,” placing a clearly-telegraphed hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “You’ll only be working with me.”

Bucky twitches sharply at the touch, shoulder like granite beneath Steve’s fingers, but he doesn’t pull away and Steve’s heart leaps, hope kindling beneath his breastbone. 

“Okay,” Bucky finally says, blue eyes finding Steve’s. “I’ll— Tell me what you want me to do.”

 

 

Steve leads Bucky over to the mats, calls the agents’ to order. They fall-in obediently, trading glances with one another, surreptitiously watching Bucky standing at Steve’s side on the mats. Steve reiterates the focus of the training he’s providing, and tells them that Bucky has agreed to assist Steve in demonstrating the kinds of skills Steve is working to impart.   

Then they’re squaring up, he and Bucky, and the room goes deadly silent. 

 

 

When Sam finally makes it down to the gym — late, and feeling guilty because of it — he finds that he needn’t have worried. Steve’s apparently found a substitute assistant, squaring up against none other than Barnes himself, evidently having somehow convinced the taciturn operative to engage in a sparring demonstration. 

Some days before his first training session with Hill’s agents, Steve had approached Sam to ask if he’d be willing to work with Steve; to provide some assistance as a demonstrator, and also a fellow teacher. Sam had been happy to help out, but he’s even happier, now, to see Barnes working with Steve in his place. 

Things have been... complicated between Steve and Barnes since Steve’s return weeks ago.  They’ve talked, Sam knows, are at least on the same page as far as how they feel about each other. But Steve’s decision to stay in the past had left Barnes definitively damaged, and there’s no easy fix for that. No way to get around the fact that it’s going to take time for that damage to heal. 

Still, it’s good to see them working together. 

Barnes has, ostensibly, reached a point in his recovery where he is at least willing to allow Steve within close proximity to himself — a key difference in his behavior up to this point. Barnes’ trust extends to almost no one these days, and he’s certainly not keen on people being in his space, not for any reason. 

He’s as skittish as a stray cat and just about as social, and Sam has no doubt that those trust issues stem from having the person closest to him abandon him with so little evidence of care. 

Even the medics responsible for attending to the injuries procured by the Avengers, along with Hill’s agents, tend to give Barnes a wide berth — not least of all because Barnes has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with them — such that even on the rare instance that he’s forced to report to medical, it’s not out of the norm to see Barnes tending to his own injuries. 

It’s hard not to be angry at Steve for what he’d done. Especially when Sam sees the devastating impact it’d had on someone who’d been so supremely fragile, so openly vulnerable to the effects of Steve’s choices. 

Before Steve had made that disastrous decision, before Barnes had been so emotionally crippled by it, Sam had always seen Barnes as indomitable. He was, after all, the infamous Winter Soldier: stolid, formidable — physically and emotionally untouchable. And he is that, all of it. 

But with Steve he never had been. 

Steve is the one person who’d had unrestricted access to Barnes’ heart, the innermost core of him, and, along with that access, the ability to hurt him like no one else could. And hurt him Steve had. 

Because Barnes had been open to it, had left himself completely defenseless against Steve’s thoughtlessness. He’d caught the full brunt of Steve’s rash disregard and been left reeling in the wake of it. 

Something like that isn’t easy to come back from. 

Sam is heartened, though, to see that the two of them are working to get past it. That, in spite of everything, there is still love there, smoldering in the wake of disaster. 

It’s that love that’s holding them together. Making recovery attainable, keeping it from falling wholly outside of their reach.

And it’s evident in the way they watch each other, in how their eyes traverse the spaces between them. 

Steve watches Barnes with a quiet, steady reverence, everything in him seeming to lean toward the Soldier, as if he’s being pulled into Barnes’ orbit. And Barnes — no matter how he keeps his distance — gazes back with similar appetence. When Steve’s attention is turned elsewhere, when Barnes can do so subtlety, he looks at Steve like he’s the only source of warmth in a frozen wasteland, and Barnes is desperately cold. 

Sam knows Steve is determined to eliminate the distance Barnes has been keeping between them and today — master tactician that he is — it appears he’s found a way around it, even if only temporarily. Watching the two size each other up, Sam has to hand it to Steve: sparring is a great way to coax down some of Barnes’ barriers.

The two supersoldiers circle each other.

Hill’s agents shift nervously, eyes darting between Steve and Barnes, tension ratcheting even higher as Barnes’ passive demeanor suddenly melts away, all of the predator-like grace of the Winter Soldier rising to the surface and slipping seamlessly into place. 

There’s a subtle shift in intent, something lightning-quick and invisible that passes between both contenders. Then, all at once, they’re trading blows; movements sharp, and agile, and just this side of too quick to follow. 

It is immediately apparent that the supersoldiers are utilizing contrary styles — two completely different techniques.  

Steve’s elected approach, Sam notes, relies predominantly upon his superior strength. His blows are direct, powerful; brutal force obviously meant to be his primary advantage in this demonstration. 

In complete contrast, Barnes’ approach is subtle, evasive. 

He makes no attempt to confront Steve’s strength with his own; doesn’t try to meet it head-on, or trade strike for strike. 

Instead, the former assassin makes agility his advantage. 

He flows around Steve’s forceful blows; modifies his technique so as to bypass all that strength and momentum, making it into a hindrance rather than an advantage. Watching the way Barnes moves makes it quite apparent that all that force, all that power, is useless if Steve never manages to hit anything.

Useless to Steve, that is, but advantageous for Barnes who slips between Steve’s blows, gets past his guard to deliver his own attacks: quick, sharp jabs, and calculated strikes meant to break Steve’s balance, to bring him down.

His body bends sinuously, twisting one way and then the other, each movement gracefully executed as if part of a well-known — if complicated — piece of choreography, wherein Barnes reads and responds to Steve’s movements as if they’ve been telegraphed in advance. 

It’s amazing to watch, and very apparent that Steve has chosen, in Barnes, the perfect candidate to demonstrate this unique skill set. Because while Barnes is more than capable of overpowering any non-enhanced opponent by way of his strength alone, when pitted against someone like Steve — who’s even stronger than Barnes, and just as fast — the former assassin is forced to alter his strategy.

He does this in a masterful way, countering brute force with shrewd cunning.

The lethal grace with which Barnes moves reminds Sam strongly of Natasha — mirrors, in fact, almost exactly her technique. Natasha, Sam remembers, had been exceedingly talented at bringing down opponents both larger and stronger than herself. Watching Barnes now, knowing he’d been a proficient operative long before Natasha ever had, has Sam suddenly speculating about just where she’d learned those skills.  

He wonders that he’d never put it together before as he watches Barnes bring Steve down with a series of complicated but familiar movements that end with Steve flat on his back, Barnes’ metal arm locked securely around his neck. 

The two supersoldiers hold that position for a moment, breathing slightly elevated, as Steve grins brightly — clearly exhilarated despite having just had his ass handed to him. Then Steve taps out, and Barnes immediately releases him.  

As Steve rises to his feet unharmed, a sudden release of tension sweeps through Hill’s agents, evidenced by a collective loosening of taut muscles and a number of quiet but not particularly subtle, sighs of relief.  Barnes’ expression doesn’t change, but he does move that much farther from Steve’s side, and Sam knows there’s no way the former assassin — once most feared operative in the world — is unaware of the cool feelings Hill’s agents have toward him.

Sam tries not to frown in displeasure. 

He knows that many people tend to be wary of Barnes these days. Especially those agents who get called to work alongside him during missions, who get an unimpeded look at the Soldier’s brutal efficiency when he’s in the field.  That, coupled with Barnes’ history, and the fact that he’s kept himself emotionally — if not physically — isolated these past three years, means it’s not too surprising that Hill’s agents would keep a healthy amount of caution around the former Winter Soldier. 

But healthy caution is one thing.  What these agents appear to be displaying is something different. Something much more...hostile.  

Sam hadn’t realized that their opinion of Barnes had shifted so decisively from ‘stolid ally’ to ‘potential threat’. 

How long have Hill’s agents been treating Barnes like he’s one wrong step from being the enemy? As if he’s so unstable that something as benign as a sparring match might trigger him into uncontrolled violence? 

Long enough, apparently, that Barnes’ has noticed; has started modifying his behavior in response.

It needles at Sam’s conscience. Rankles at his inner desire that everyone be treated fairly, be treated right.  

Because it isn’t right, Barnes feeling like he needs to protect himself from the irrational fears of others. It isn’t right that on top of every other horrible thing life has heaped on him, Barnes has to deal with the mistrust of his own teammates when he’s more than proven himself — again and again, unquestionably — to be the most proficient operative out of all of them. If anything, these agents should be looking at him with gratitude; for all of the times he’s saved their lives, for being there whenever called upon to help pull them out of dire situations. 

Instead they look at him with uncertainty; with barely-concealed suspicion.

It isn’t right. It certainly isn’t fair.

And Sam isn’t the only one who feels this way. He glances over to see his own disquiet mirrored in Steve’s tight expression. 

Then Steve meets Sam’s eyes, and Sam sees determination settle across his features. Sees clearly, that Steve is not going to accept the way things are between Barnes and Hill’s agents. That he’s going to do something about it.

Sam quirks a small smile, gives Steve a subtle nod. 

Whatever his plan is, and there’s no doubt Steve has a plan, he’s got Sam’s full support. 

Steve returns Sam’s nod with a subtle one of his own before he straightens his shoulders, turning his attention back to Hill’s agents. 

Unexpectedly, Steve doesn’t choose to address the tension — hanging thick and prodigious in the air — directly. Instead, he jumps into explaining key aspects of the sparring demonstration, elements that the agents can learn from, and the skills he wants them to practice; today against one another and, perhaps eventually, on Steve himself. 

As the agents pair up to do just that, Sam steps in to help, slipping into the role of assistant instructor Steve had assigned him weeks ago. 

He works to provide support; guiding the agents through different aspects of today’s training, helping to correct their technique. And all the while he has to force himself not to constantly glance in Barnes’ direction. 

Because, surprising as it is, though Barnes has backed away from the group, he hasn’t actually left.

Sam buries the urge to reach out, not wanting to do anything that could cause Barnes to retreat and, in a rare display of interest, Barnes stays. Remains on the sidelines, keeping out of the way of the practicing agents. 

Steve’s not so cautious. Apparently Barnes’ proximity is all the permission Steve needs to seek his assistance throughout the lesson, and he does so, repeatedly; shamelessly taking advantage of Barnes’ uncharacteristically sociable mood.

They end up re-demonstrating several of the maneuvers Barnes had used during their sparring match, Steve keeping Barnes as involved as possible. 

He asks Barnes questions, has him explain his thought-processes, the best ways to implement them. He skillfully draws Barnes out of his shell and, in a remarkable way, cleverly reveals aspects of Barnes’ personality that have been hidden away for so long. 

(Like how he’s unselfishly generous with his time, staying to assist long after he could choose to make his excuses and go. Like his willingness to help with whatever Steve asks of him, and the gentle manner with which he demonstrates certain techniques, with Steve, and even with Sam who is a great deal more breakable.)

As the lesson progresses, the room gradually begins to lose its tension.

Maybe it’s the fact that Steve keeps putting his hands all over Barnes without losing any vital organs. Maybe it helps that Barnes stops looking so guarded, finally managing to relax enough that he isn’t constantly closing himself off, pulling away, keeping his distance. 

Whatever the case, Hill’s agents settle, no longer shooting suspicious looks Barnes’ way. 

Barnes, in turn, slowly unwinds, becoming less restrained, more open. 

Watching the way Barnes calms, Sam would bet money on the fact that Steve’s constant touching is benefiting the Soldier physically as well. 

Barnes has been cutting himself off from physical contact for years , and Sam knows the resulting skin hunger must be a hell of a thing to live with. So it’s a relief to see some of that hunger sated, even if Barnes likely doesn’t realize that’s what’s going on.  

In fact, this entire sparring session as a whole has been a relief, successful in more ways in one. 

Between Barnes and Hill’s agents, for example, Steve’s made more progress in the last two hours than anyone, including Sam, has been able to manage in years. The wariness between both parties has been a real concern as of late, something Sam’s lost sleep over. Something he’s been discussing with Fury and Hill, too. 

Because before Steve’s return, Barnes had been so closed off that Sam had worried he’d never break free of his self-imposed reclusion. 

It wasn’t healthy, keeping oneself so shut off and even Barnes, strong as he was, wouldn’t be able to keep it up indefinitely. Without something to live for, something to drag him out of the dark place Steve had inadvertently pushed him into, eventually he’d shut down. Eventually he’d concede to never opening back up, and that led to a dark place much more permanent. 

Now, though, Barnes appears to have found a patch of stable ground. 

Sam’s grateful for it. Hopes it leads to a brighter future.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 



Remind Me

 

'Even though it hurts in this moment

I have always known it:

You're the other half of my broken heart.'

 

 

 

Bucky stands beneath the warm fall of a post-workout shower. 

Despite his initial reticence to be involved, the training session with Hill’s agents — with Steve — had turned out surprisingly well. By the end of the session, the agents were no longer regarding Bucky with their usual degree of suspicious borderline-animosity, and Steve seemed to be happy with their progress. Even Sam — who’d assumed the thankless task of playing mediator between Hill’s agents and Bucky in Steve’s absence — had managed to lose the worried frown, easily assuming his role as Steve’s assistant.

Now, standing beneath the warm flow of water, Bucky can’t help but notice that the overabundance of restless energy that’s plagued him ever since Steve came back, is conspicuously absent, his muscles feeling only the pleasant weariness of a good workout. 

The reprieve, while more than welcome, is… unexpected. These days, spending time around Steve typically serves to exacerbate Bucky’s constant low-level agitation, leaving him often frustratingly on edge, high-strung and irritated. And while Bucky’s made a habit of trying to tire himself out — running, mile after countless mile; fighting through as many combat simulations as it takes to get him physically exhausted — such methods have only ever met with limited success.   

Except today. 

For some reason, he hasn’t dissolved into an anxiety-riddled panic attack, not during all the time he’d spent working with Steve, nor afterward, when he’d slipped away at the end of the training session, just as Steve started wrapping it up. Even now, the restless tension remains absent. Dormant, instead of rising up to choke him.

He considers this as he scrubs down. Wonders if the attack might have been derailed due to the presence of so many onlookers. But...no. That’s not it. He steps back under the flow of water.

It must, he thinks instead, have to do with the fact that his energy had been so singularly focused on something else; channeled into sparring rather than panicking. 

He wonders if that’s what it takes, and if it can be done again. If he can replicate this sense of quiet calm.

There’s one way to find out, Bucky thinks.

 

 

The next time Steve leads a training session for Hill’s agents, Bucky finds himself hovering nearby. 

Predictably, Steve invites him over, and again, at the end of the session Bucky discovers a mind gone quiet, body purged of all its restless energy, more settled than it’s been since the last time he’d sparred with Steve.  

The physical and mental stillness Bucky experiences post-sparring make him want to keep being involved. The fact that each session brings him that much closer to expunging the distrust between himself and Hill’s agents turns want to determination. 

It helps that Wilson, as well, continues to assist with the sessions. His steady presence and soothing energy go a long way in making everyone more comfortable. Bucky hadn’t expected that, but he finds himself benefiting from it all the same.

Slowly, working with the agents becomes something Bucky does more easily. Slowly, he grows more comfortable, even if never quite completely comfortable.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about his relationship with Steve. 

Apart from the time they spend sparring, and the few hours of peace following, Bucky still finds himself shrinking away from Steve. His heart still thuds with anxiety when Steve gets too close, body going shaky, every thought suffused with the urge to go, hide, get away.  

He fights it — stomps down on that feeling that presents like an instinct but is really just fear — and, gradually, he’s able to force himself to stay. To push through the trembling and the short, shallow breaths. Slowly, he’s able to chip away at the invisible barrier keeping a solid five feet between them. To make himself share the couch with Steve at a distance that steadily disappears by the smallest of increments.

But his progress is nonlinear. Jagged. Full of relapses and nonstarters. 

He still has bad days, sometimes more often than not, and the setbacks that arise from those bad days are aggravating. His own finicky emotions prove to be a source of unending irritation as he finds himself vacillating between ease and apprehension. He’s a swinging pendulum — drawing close to Steve and then shying away, indecisive as hell. 

And fuck if it isn’t one of the most frustrating things he’s had to deal with to date.

 

 

When Steve enters the apartment after a lengthy meeting with Hill, it’s to the sound of silence. He places his keys into the bowl beside the door and heads further inside, wondering where Bucky might be, assuming by the quality of the silence that he’s out. 

It’s a safe assumption considering the fact that the last few days have been rough — “bad days” as Steve’s taken to thinking of them — and Bucky tends to keep his distance when that happens. 

While, on good days, Bucky is typically less reserved — easier to talk to, more comfortable with Steve’s proximity, and generally more relaxed overall — bad days are a staggering contrast.

On bad days Bucky goes quiet. He’s edgy; easily spooked. Shies away from Steve, keeping himself far out of reach. Oftentimes, he’ll disappear altogether, not returning until Steve is already in his room, lights out, waiting for sleep he knows won’t come until he hears Bucky creep back into the apartment.

Since Steve had come back, Bucky’s been fluctuating pretty regularly between good and bad days.  

Fortunately, as time passes, Bucky seems to be slowly outpacing bad days with good. 

Unfortunately, the bad days still crop up. 

These past few days have been bad ones. 

As if everything else the bad days stir up isn’t bad enough, Steve suspects Bucky’s been having nightmares — the dark shadows smudged beneath Bucky’s eyes betraying his broken sleeping patterns. 

Perhaps, then, it shouldn't come as such a surprise to find Bucky sprawled out on the living room couch, dead to the world. Except Steve knows Bucky always makes himself scarce on bad days. Which means he probably hadn’t intended to fall asleep here, and being completely exhausted had done him in. 

Steve’s eyes trace over Bucky’s face, taking in the faint frown, the bruised-looking skin beneath the thick fall of his lashes. He looks...not peaceful, but like he might be able to stay asleep for a little while and Steve doesn’t want to disturb him. 

So he pads around quietly. Sits in one of the living room chairs and pulls out his sketchbook. Doodles nothing in particular. His eyes are drawn again and again to Bucky’s face, and each time he fights to drag them away, to keep from staring. It’s just... this might be the longest Bucky’s been in his presence — unmoving — since Steve had come back, and Steve can’t help but want to greedily drink in the sight of him. 

He wishes he could slide onto the couch behind Bucky. Wrap his arms around that leanly muscled form, and bury his face into the warm place between neck and shoulder such that each breath would be filled with the fresh scent of Bucky’s shampoo; the soap he uses on his skin.

As the minutes pass, though, and Bucky begins to frown more deeply, Steve is drawn from his daydream.

He watches as Bucky shifts in his sleep, slowly becoming more and more restless. Eventually, Steve realizes Bucky’s not going to settle, that he shouldn’t wait for his distress to abate on its own. 

He gets to his feet, dropping the sketchbook onto his abandoned chair and carefully approaching Bucky, certain, now, that he’s in the throes of a nightmare. 

Strands of dark hair stick to Bucky’s dampened forehead, creased with distress. His breathing hitches, a tiny sound of anguish spilling from his parted lips, as he twitches sharply, metal hand curling into the fabric of the cushion beneath him. 

“Bucky, hey Buck,” Steve murmurs gently, “Wake up, pal.”

Bucky shifts, face angling toward Steve, drawn to the sound of his voice even as he’s clearly still asleep. 

“C’mon, Buck,” Steve coaxes, reaching out helplessly. “S’ just a nightmare, love.” His hand wavers as it draws closer to Bucky, hovering just over his forehead, stalled by Steve’s loath to touch. It’s impossible to forget, and Bucky’s made it quite clear, that he hates it — being touched. That outside of sparring, he doesn’t want Steve ever touching him. 

But then Bucky lets out another broken sound and Steve’s moving on autopilot, brushing a tender hand feather-light across Bucky’s brow, pushing the damp strands out of his face.  

Bucky’s eyes fly open. 

In an instant he’s on his feet. 

A deadly-looking blade — and where had it even come from? — is clutched it tight in his flesh hand. His sleek, metal arm, angled forward so as to be between him and the perceived threat, recalibrates with a high-tech sibilation. 

Steve opens his mouth, shuts it. 

Sometime between Bucky’s waking and jumping to defend himself, Steve had raised his palms. He holds them there, open and empty, keeping himself as unthreatening as he can.

 

 

Bucky blinks rapidly, gaze darting about his surroundings, brain working furiously to orient itself.  

He’s on his feet beside the living-room couch, blade out and body poised for combat, but he can’t recall anything past when he’d sat down earlier. Can’t even recall why he’d sat down in the first place. 

His gaze catches on Steve; hands out and placating, expression a mixture of guilt and concern. 

“Sorry,” Steve says before Bucky can unclench his jaw enough to get any words out. “I shouldn’t have— You looked like you were having a nightmare and... I just wanted to…” he trails off. Swallows. Then continues in a low voice, “I’m sorry I touched you. I know how you don’t like it.”

Bucky eases out of the combative stance. Slides his blade back into the hidden sheath at the small of his back. 

He’d fallen asleep. He hadn’t meant to, but the reason why he had isn’t difficult to decipher.

Simply put: he’s exhausted. 

Over the past week, nightmares have been choking him awake so often he’s basically given up trying to sleep on any sort of consistent schedule. Sometimes, during the day, he might manage to slip into a doze, but he won’t get more than an hour of rest before the nightmares have him jerking back awake. Lately he’s been so tired that his body has started shutting down whenever he sits still long enough, with him being too exhausted to fight it. 

The days crawl by, fatigue dragging him down, making everything seem more difficult than it needs to be. 

And, to top it all off, the stress of the nightmares combined with this recent exhaustion has built to a point where he’s started getting tension headaches. 

Even now he can feel one forming — a tight pressure behind his eyes and down his neck, sitting heavy between his shoulders.

“Buck?” Steve’s voice is soft, and Bucky blinks his eyes back open, not quite sure when he’d closed them.

“S’okay,” he rasps in belated response to Steve’s apology. Scrubs a hand over eyes that burn and water simultaneously. He’s so fucking tired. “Didn’t mean to…” he waves a hand, instead of finishing. Didn’t mean to pull a knife on you. 

Steve slowly lowers his hands, concern clear on his face. 

“You look exhausted Buck,” he says, still in that careful, quiet voice. “Do you— I mean. Is there anything I can do?”

Bucky doesn’t want anything from Steve. Doesn’t think he could bring himself to ask even if he could think of something. 

Three years ago, there was a part of him that had… needed Steve, and never had he hated that part of himself so much as after Steve went away. He’s worked ruthlessly to weed it out ever since, and he’s managed — to an extent. Enough that, if the past three years prove nothing else, they prove that he knows how to survive without Steve.

Bucky can’t — refuses to — need anyone. Not anymore. Not ever again.

Self-reliance is what will sustain him, he reminds himself. It’s what’s been sustaining him.

Even though there are times when he’ll wake up knowing that he’s alone, that he’s existing in a world where he’s barely tolerated by those around him, only useful for his skills as a weapon, a soldier. That Steve — the only person who’d known him, the only one who’d, maybe, cared about him as something more than an asset, a mission assist — is gone, gone, gone. 

Eventually he remembers that Steve isn’t gone. That he came back. 

But the residual feelings of misery still linger, and it’s hard to pull free of them.

He forces his mind back into the room. Sees Steve waiting for an answer. He shakes his head in response to the offer. Motions toward his bedroom. “I’m gonna…”

He starts to turn, but Steve takes a short step forward. Says imploringly, “Don’t—”

On reflex, Bucky stops. 

“Buck,” Steve entreats. “Talk to me, please? I want to… What’s going on with you?”  

Let me help’, Steve doesn't say, but Bucky hears it all the same. Sees it in the earnest expression on his face, in the way his hands twitch at his sides. 

Bucky drops his gaze.  

A quiet thought whispers through his mind, small and hurt. ‘You left...You left me.’ 

Bucky hates that voice. Hates how weak and pitiful it sounds even within the confines of his own mind. 

That voice — those words — underscore all of his insecurities, everything he’s been fighting to push down, to ignore, ever since Steve came back. 

It’s the weight of those insecurities that keeps him off-balance. Leaves something in him feeling hollow and broken. Something he can’t— doesn’t know how to fix. 

It shouldn’t be this difficult, Bucky thinks, just to move on. To pull himself from the emotional pit he’s somehow found himself stuck in. 

So Steve had left. ‘So what?’ he asks himself viciously. Things hadn’t gone the way Bucky’d wanted them to. But when have they ever, really? Since when has anything in his life gone the way he’s wanted? 

Steve was— is — the best thing to ever happen to him. And Bucky should be grateful for whatever amount of time he’d had — has — with him. 

Because deep down, he’d always known that eventually Steve would leave him behind. It was only a matter of time, and Bucky’s been preparing himself for it for as long as he can remember. 

Long before Peggy had come along. Long before the war. 

Ever since that day. A day that had been just like any other, nothing special about it, except he’d suddenly looked at Steve and the realization had slammed into him: Steve was special. One of a kind. Remarkable. A powerful soul in a tiny body, full of inner strength, integrity, and a righteous fury that couldn’t be ignored. And suddenly, Bucky was noticing it, seeing it clear as day.  

Steve’s mother had seen it too. And, Bucky’d realized with a rising sense of gloom, eventually, someone else would see it as well. Someone who Steve would see right back. Someone who Steve would love ...

When Bucky discovered, not much later, that his feelings for Steve — the deep, all-encompassing devotion; the knowledge that he’d follow him anywhere; the way he wanted to keep him close, always — meant he’d gone and fallen in love with Steve, he’d also come to accept that the only thing changed was the fact that their eventual separation would hurt more

He’d worked so long to prepare for it. As much as one could prepare for that kind of thing. Still, it had broken him. 

Bucky knows it’s because he’d gotten careless. 

Times have changed. Relationships have changed. There is more room in the world these days for the way he feels about Steve, and somehow, he’d allowed himself to forget that there is a reason he’s always had to prepare to lose Steve, why Steve can never be his.

There is a reason things don’t go his way. Have never gone his way. 

Call it god, or karma, or something else, the truth behind it is this: He doesn’t deserve Steve. 

Because while at the heart of him, at his core, Steve is good, through and through, Bucky isn’t — has never been — good

It’s something Bucky’d come to accept about himself a long time ago. He’d look at Steve — the best guy Bucky knew, who fought so hard, who always wanted to look out for the little guy, even at the expense of himself — and he knew that he’d never been so selfless. 

Bucky fought, and protected, and cared... But it was for Steve . Because he loved Steve. His love was, in the end, a selfish thing. He made Steve smile because Steve’s smile made Bucky smile. Made him warm inside, made him happy. 

In the Army, in basic, he’d gained a new awareness of just how deep his deficiencies ran. 

He’d been horrified to learn just how quickly he became proficient with weapons; almost as soon as they were put into his hands. Turned out he was a natural-born killer, and he’d risen through the ranks with an ease that, at the time, had made him sick to his stomach. He couldn’t tell anyone that, couldn’t tell Steve, who had been so proud of him, Sergeant Barnes, that he didn’t want to be so good at war. That he’d never even wanted to be there

So, he was a coward on top of everything else. A coward with blood-stained hands. 

It didn’t take very long for him to learn how to compartmentalize. To shove all of his fear, and his horror down deep where it didn’t get in his way, didn’t distract him from making the kills that they wanted him to make. Because that was how you survived in a kill-or-be-killed world; by being the better killer. So that’s what he became. And that, he knew, made him into a whole new kind of monster — the kind that stopped feeling the pang of remorse every time he put a bullet into someone. Made a body out of what had once been a living, breathing person. 

Those are the facts. The truth about himself. There’s something inherently wrong with him. Always has been.

Hydra hadn’t turned him into a monster. He’d been one long before they’d gotten their hands on him.

After his defection, he’d told himself this was something he’d never forget. That he’d had that monster inside him all along. That Hydra had simply put him to better use than the U.S. military ever managed to. 

He wouldn’t forget. He didn’t deserve to forget.

The people he’d killed, the lives he’d destroyed, these are things he can never atone for. And if being selfish — or a natural-born killer, or a Hydra-controlled murderer — aren’t enough to prove his unworthiness, the sheer magnitude of the horrors wrought by his hands is, by far. 

And yet, somehow — between the time he’d spent in Wakanda, dying in Thanos’ war, and coming back to life, again — he’d lost sight of this. He’d become complacent

So when the time had come to gracefully accept Steve’s choice to be with Carter, he’d gotten caught up in his own feelings. 

Steve’s departure had been a crushing blow, a sharp reminder of the things Bucky had allowed to slip out of focus. And his absence gave Bucky the time and space to remind himself. Who he was, what he deserved. And what he didn’t

He doesn’t know how he lost sight of it. Time and again, life has seared it into his brain. Experience has taught him well: someone like him doesn’t get happy endings. 

He isn’t worthy

Except. 

Now, Steve is back. Has said that he is in love with Bucky. 

The thought of that, the possibility of it is...nothing short of miraculous. 

It’s too much. 

More than Bucky deserves. Could ever hope to deserve, after everything he’s done. All the suffering wrought by his hands. 

Which makes it difficult to believe that Steve could really feel the same way. 

It’s not that Bucky thinks Steve is lying. Steve wouldn’t. 

It’s more the fact that Bucky thinks Steve is... confused. Because things didn’t work out with Peggy. And Steve had ended up missing the new life he’d left behind. 

So maybe Steve’s mixed up. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he just needs something to fill that empty space he’d reserved for Peggy. 

Whatever the case, Bucky doesn’t think— he can’t believe that he is what Steve really wants. 

And  — deserving aside — maybe that’s the other part of why he has such a difficult time letting Steve get close to him. 

He knows he’d allowed Steve’s absence to damage him. And because he’s weak, (had somehow allowed himself, in Hydra’s absence, to become weak) the hurt that lingers from that damage has been affecting him physically. Causing anxiety to skitter through his limbs. Making him feel like there’s never enough air in the room whenever Steve is around.

It’s difficult to be around Steve when Bucky literally aches for him. It’s not that he doesn’t want Steve touching him. He wants it too much. Steve’s hands on him, they feel…god, they feel indescribably good. When Steve touches him, Bucky never wants him to stop. It’s another reason he needs to keep his distance. 

He’s working on it. Working to keep those feelings locked down and under control. Because despite what Steve has said, despite Steve claiming to love him, Bucky can’t imagine that he’ll ever truly be able to keep Steve. 

Someone like Bucky — monstrous, blood-stained, broken —  will never be able to hold onto someone as bright and goodhearted as Steve. 

This is something he knows. Something he won’t — can’t — allow himself to ever forget. 

He can’t. Because this is the end of his line. He’s standing on the precipice, so close to tumbling over the edge. And he knows he won’t survive the shattering impact that surely awaits when Steve realizes he’s not really in love with Bucky. 

It’s not something he’ll come back from. There won’t be enough of him left. Better to keep himself from believing Steve could love him. 

Better to smother that hope. To never let it ignite. Because the flames of that fire will burn him alive. 

 

 

Steve watches Bucky struggle. Working through some internal conflict that Steve isn’t privy to. 

It’s clear from the turmoil shadowing his features that there’s a war going on in his head, and Steve wants desperately to reach out, to soothe that turmoil. 

The effort it takes to restrain himself creates a painful tugging sensation beneath his sternum. 

He shuffles another small step forward, not quite breaching the invisible barrier Bucky uses to keep everyone at arm's length, and Bucky’s gaze snaps up, focus instantly drawn from the inner battle he’d been lost in.

His blue eyes are wary, and Steve feels the weight of that uncertainty cut through him sharp as glass. 

“God I fucked us up,” he whispers, raising a hand toward Bucky, helpless to keep from reaching for him, even when he’s not close enough to touch. Bucky twitches away; a tiny, instinctive movement that digs the metaphorical knife deeper into Steve’s chest. “I hate that I made you... afraid of me,” he continues, dropping his hand. “That I made you scared — of me being too close, of me, anyone, putting their hands on you. I hate that I dragged you back into something you fought so hard to get past the first time.”

Steve draws an unsteady breath, anguish making each word scrape rough in his throat. “That’s on me,“ he says, forcing himself to keep going, to say what needs saying no matter how pinned he feels under that piercing silvery-blue gaze. “And I’m so sorry, Buck. For three years ago, for every day since. For every single hurt I caused, and for every setback you’ve had to struggle through because of me.

“And,” Steve continues, voice low, “I’m sorry that I can’t...walk away. I’m sorry that I can’t— that I’m going to ask more of you.”

Bucky’s brow furrows, gaze flickering across Steve’s features in confusion. 

“I hurt you,” Steve says, “and I’ll never forget that. I’ll pay for it for the rest of my life. But I also… I can’t forget that you said you love me.”

Bucky flinches, another tiny movement that Steve might have missed had he not been paying attention to Bucky’s every movement, his every breath. 

“You do... You love me, Buck?” Steve needs to ask. Needs to hear it again. 

Bucky swallows, looks as if the word is cutting him from the inside as he drags it out, releases it into the air between them. “Yes.”

Steve nods. Doesn’t let the elation caused by that simple word distract him. “I love you too, Bucky. I love you—”

Bucky looks away. His mouth twists, hands adopting a fine tremor. And Steve feels the air release from his lungs, a sharp burst, as if it’s been punched out of him. “You don’t believe me.”

“I—” Bucky begins, gaze still averted. “I don’t— I can’t—” He expels a sharp breath of his own, clearly frustrated. The tremor becomes more pronounced. 

“It’s okay,” Steve soothes, ignoring the sting Bucky’s mistrust evokes. “I understand, Bucky. I get it. I broke your trust. And it’s something I have to work to earn back. And I will. For as long as it takes. Whatever it takes. But I also...I need to ask. I can’t keep going without asking. I need to know—”

He breaks off, searching that cerulean gaze, looking for anything that can give him even a shred of hope. 

“What is it you want from me, Steve,” Bucky rasps. Uncertain. Edgy.

“I want—” Steve breaks off. Recovers. “I’m asking,” he says, “for you to give me a chance.”

Bucky’s gaze drops, dark lashes sweeping down to cover his eyes. “A chance,” he echoes. 

“I can’t let you go, Buck,” Steve says. “I won’t. Not unless there’s no other choice. Unless you give me no other choice. I want to fix this. Fix us. Because I can’t stop thinking about you. I walk around missing you, even though we share an apartment. Even though I see you everyday. I think of you first thing when I wake up, and last thing before I fall asleep. Everything I want and hope and wish for, revolves around you, and I can’t, I won’t pretend that those feelings aren’t there.”

Bucky bites his lower lip, dragging it between his teeth. He doesn’t speak. Doesn’t raise his gaze from where it’s glued to the floor. 

“Please Buck,” Steve whispers. “Please can you... Give me another chance.”

Finally, Bucky looks up. 

He meets Steve’s eyes with something shattered in his expression. Something dark and resigned. 

“Okay.” 

And even though he’s agreeing, there’s nothing happy about his demeanor. No joy, or excitement. Only the tired compliance of someone giving in. Giving up.

Like Bucky can’t — or won’t — deny Steve, but he still believes saying yes is going to hurt. If not now, then eventually, somewhere down the line.

It’s not how Steve wanted this to go. Not anything like he’d hoped. 

But it is a start. A single step onto a shaky, precarious bridge. 

Steve silently swears to himself, to Bucky, to fortify that bridge. With all he has, with everything he can give. He’ll make the ground solid beneath Bucky’s feet. Make it so that Bucky won’t ever doubt Steve’s love for him, not ever again. 

“Can I—” he asks, aching to draw Bucky into his arms. 

A long moment of tense silence passes and then Bucky nods, a diminutive little bob of his head, and Steve shifts carefully closer. 

When Steve finally puts his hands on him, Bucky shakes, a full-bodied shiver. After a few rigid moments, though, he sinks into the touch, muscles loosening in quiet surrender.

“Steve, please...”

The plea is soft, almost lost in the space between them, and Steve has to strain to hear it. 

And while Steve can’t know specifically what Bucky is pleading for, he can guess part of it easily enough. 

He sees, every day — in the way Bucky closes himself off, tucks himself away so that the shattered pieces left of his heart can’t be ground further to dust — that Bucky is shying away, as much as he can, from being hurt. Bucky’s faith, his trust, is fragile. The last burning ember of a smoldering candle, fighting to keep from being snuffed out. 

Steve refuses to let that ember die. 

“I love you, Bucky,” Steve promises lowly, fanning that tiny spark. “I swear it. And I’m not going anywhere. I won’t ever leave you again.” 

Bucky shudders. Dips his forehead to rest in the curve between Steve’s neck and shoulder. His hands reach up to clench tightly at the back of Steve’s shirt.

(He’s not crying. He’s too emotionally drained for that, Steve thinks, even if he always had cried easy. Not in public. And never around anyone else. But around Steve, when he got worked up enough, the tears would well up, spilling over sometimes before Bucky could raise a hand fast enough to swipe them angrily away.) 

Steve sinks his fingers into the dark tangle of Bucky’s hair, gently cupping the base of his skull. 

He drinks in the moment of quiet, Bucky warm and yielding in his arms.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Never Enough 

 

‘Take my hand

Will you share this with me?

‘Cause darling without you

These hands could hold the world

But it’ll never be enough’

 

 

“Good news,” Hill says. 

It’s been five excruciatingly long weeks since Steve had gone into her office and offered up his skills as a tactician. Five weeks he’s been waiting on an answer, watching Bucky go out into the field, knowing that whoever had been assigned to planning his missions wasn’t, would never be, as good as Steve himself. 

Because Steve is invested. And while he may care about the mission, that care is secondary to how he cares about Bucky. 

That’s something none of Hill’s agents can claim. And it’s something Steve knows that Bucky could stand to benefit from, even without taking into account the fact that both Sam and Hill have basically said the same thing.  

“I’ve spoken with Fury,” Hill continues, and we both agree that having you as part of Barnes’ support team when he’s out in the field is a good idea.”

“We definitely want to include you in the tactical side of planning his missions. To be honest, we’d like you to be included in the planning of as many of our missions as you’d like to be. Especially the more critical ones.” She shrugs delicately. “Mostly, the critical missions involve your friends anyway: Wilson, Maximoff. Occasionally Banner. And Barnes, of course.”

“I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming,” Steve says, watching Hill closely.

“Not a ‘but’,” Hill says. “More like, ‘Would you consider another form of involvement?’”

“That depends on the kind of involvement.”

Hill appears to be choosing her words carefully. “All of the handlers we’ve assigned to Barnes have ended up… unsuited to the task. They never last long, and they seem to have a hard time… connecting with him. It makes for a dysfunctional handler-agent relationship when the handler can’t form any sort of bond with the operative, even if it’s only on an emotional level. A handler has to trust his operative — which isn’t actually the problem. Barnes is proficient enough that none of his handlers have lacked confidence in mission success — but an operative has to trust his handler as well. Trust allows them to follow orders, to believe that their handler knows what’s best for the mission and for the well-being of the operative. It means when the mission looks to be going sideways, the operative will confide in his handler. He’ll avail himself to his handler’s resources, instead of taking everything upon himself, relying only on himself.”

“Bucky doesn’t trust his handlers.”

Hill shakes her head. “He doesn’t.”

Steve leans back in his chair, studies Hill seated on the other side of her desk. 

“To be fair,” Hill says, “We know Barnes has a traumatic history with handlers. And some of the handlers we’ve assigned him have their issues as well. We’re still building up our ranks, and a lot of our agents haven’t been trained to work with someone like Barnes. That was our mistake. But it’s not only handlers Barnes doesn’t trust. He doesn’t trust the agents, our field medics. The doctors on site. He doesn’t really even trust the other Avengers. He tolerates them. But he either can’t or won’t connect with them, and it makes everyone just a little bit skittish, and that much less cohesive.”

“This is where I come in.”

Hill nods. “This is where you come in. We’ve seen the, frankly, miraculous rapport you’ve managed to build between Barnes and the agents you’ve been working with these past weeks. Already tension levels have dropped, and they’re working better together in the field. Fury and I both think that your involvement with mission strategy in conjunction with you handling Barnes in the field can only improve matters further.”

Steve considers Hill’s words. Remembers the disturbing experience of reading through Bucky’s case files, and Sam telling him that Bucky could benefit from having someone around with his best interests in mind.

Hill’s not wrong about the lessening of tensions between Bucky and her agents, and Steve has no doubt about the fact that he’d rather be Bucky’s handler than leave that job to anyone else. 

So he agrees to take on the role, provided that Bucky doesn’t object. 

Hill kicks him out of her office with a pleased little smile tucked into the corner of her mouth. 

 

 

“On your left.”

Bucky swivels, goes down into a crouch to shoot out the knees of the Hydra agent attempting to sneak up on him. He takes down two more, clearing the room, and then turns to give the tiny camera in the corner a faint nod. 

A quiet breath in his ear is the only response as Bucky continues deeper into the Hydra base, but it’s enough to let Bucky know Steve picked up on the subtle movement, that he’s hacking into each camera along the way, following Bucky closely as he progresses through the building. 

Three of Hill’s agents, finished with clearing the room across the hall, fall in behind him — the other half of his assigned unit.

Not too far behind them, more of Hill’s agents bring up the rear. A small subsection collects intel from the areas Bucky’s team has already cleared, while the another stations themselves as sentinels, making sure he and his team don’t get their exit blocked by any surprise Hydra ambushes. 

It’s happened before, once or twice, where Bucky’d had to fight his way back out of a base he’d previously cleared because the enemy had circled around behind him. Now they account for those sorts of contingencies, and Bucky’s got the bonus of a better set of eyes watching his six — a better handler

It’s not as if—.  He doesn’t actually need one.  

Hill would cite regulation at him and Sam would probably burst a blood vessel if Bucky ever said as much. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. He doesn’t need a handler. 

He’s enhanced, highly trained. Has been dominating the battlefield for far longer than Fury, or Hill, or any of their people have been alive.

And, he’s had handlers before. 

Horribly abusive handlers — those assigned to him by Hydra. Indifferent, or incompetent, or sometimes both — the ones assigned to him by Hill.

All of those “handlers” hardly deserved the title. Even so, even in spite of them, Bucky’s always been exceedingly proficient. He always accomplishes the mission. 

So. He doesn’t need a handler. 

Still, he hadn’t objected when Hill had told him he was getting a new one — again. Turns out she’d recruited Steve for the job and Steve had said yes... provided Bucky had no objections. 

Bucky hadn’t. Strange as their relationship is right now, Bucky doesn’t think Steve could possibly be worse than any of the other handlers he’s suffered through. He doesn’t really have any of the biases that others seem to have toward Bucky, and he’s well-versed in the way Bucky works in the field. This has been tried and tested on more than one occasion, and they’ve never failed to work seamlessly together. 

Steve’s also been Bucky’s commanding officer before. He’s got experience with that where no one else has. Which makes it a hell of a lot easier to follow his direction, to trust in his judgement. In this, at least, there is no uncertainty, and Bucky doesn’t hesitate to rely on Steve’s guidance.

And.

It’s also… nice. To have Steve in his ear. To know he’s watching Bucky’s six. 

It’s nice in a way that has nothing to do with competence, or the fact that Steve has one of the best tactical minds in history. 

It’s nice because, for once, it feels like someone is on his side. Someone who, apparently, cares about Bucky more than the mission objective. 

It’s novel, and unfamiliar, and... comforting, to know that. To believe it.

It causes something warm to settle in Bucky’s chest. Something that fissures the walls around his heart and wriggles between the cracks, small but resilient. 

 

 

Steve jogs quickly down the halls of the compound’s medical ward. 

Near the end of Bucky’s latest assignment, amid the chaotic sounds of bullets flying and angry shouting, Steve had caught the slightest hiss of pain over the comms. It’s nothing, Bucky had said when Steve immediately called for a status report. Just a graze.  

But Steve knows Bucky has a high tolerance for pain. And from what he’s heard — from Sam, from Hill — he knows Bucky will do just about anything to avoid medical. He wasn’t taking any chances.  

He’d made Bucky promise to get himself checked out as soon as he’d wrapped up the mission, and Bucky, with obvious reluctance, had consented. 

Once his own handler-related obligations had been fulfilled, Steve headed over as well, quick as he could, as close behind Bucky as he could manage. Any good handler would do the same, Steve knows, but he doesn’t kid himself that the overarching urgency he feels to be there has anything to do with proving himself a responsible handler. 

As he rounds the corner toward the nurse’s station, Steve forces himself to assume a slower pace. 

There’s no reason to rush, he tells himself. Bucky will definitely be there. It’s why he’d made Bucky promise; because he knew Bucky would keep his word. And, while Steve may have tried it once or twice in his lifetime, Bucky’s not really the type to sneak out the back. 

“Barnes, James B.,” Steve says to the first nurse at the station who makes eye-contact. 

Apparently Bucky’s made enough of an impression here that the nurse knows exactly who Steve’s asking about. “He’s just gone in, Captain,” she tells him. “Room 3A, down that hall and to the left.”

“Thank you,” Steve says, as cordial as he can manage as he immediately heads off in that direction, wondering, distantly, what kind of impression he’s making; the nurse hadn’t even tried for any of the usual small-talk. She’d offered no greeting, hadn’t asked how he was doing; got straight to the point. 

When Steve reaches 3A, his eyes immediately latch onto Bucky sitting perched on the edge of the cushioned exam table, shirt already removed to reveal several bloody grazes scattered across his torso. 

There’s a young woman in the room with him. She’s slender, pretty, blonde — outfitted in the tactical gear favored by Hill’s agents and gazing up at Bucky with something like reverential admiration. She’s smiling widely, caught up in whatever they’ve been talking about, one hand placed on the exam table near Bucky’s hip as if she’s not quite brave enough to touch him directly. 

And Bucky. 

Bucky’s looking down at her with that intense focus of his, the tiniest of smiles curving his mouth. He’s tense, and not quite comfortable, but smiling… and Steve feels something dark and bitter cut through him at the sight. At where that focus, that smile, is being directed. 

Steve clears his throat softly, needing to break up the moment, unwilling to watch the exchange go on any longer than the few seconds he’s already witnessed, and the agent jumps at the sound, widened eyes darting to where Steve stands just inside the doorway. 

“Captain Rogers!” she acknowledges, bright-eyed and somewhat flustered. “I’m sorry I—  didn’t see you there.”

Bucky looks up himself, catching Steve’s gaze with those silvery blues, his expression of mild amusement flickering away. For the barest of moments, Steve feels pinned beneath the intensity of Bucky’s stare. Can’t help but wonder what his own expression is revealing. 

Not everything, he hopes. Not the uncomfortable sensation of jealousy cutting through him, or how sorely tempted he is to haul the agent far away from Bucky. To toss her right out of the building and, ideally, into the stratosphere. 

“You looked like you were in the middle of something,” Steve replies, working to keep the words even.

The agent flushes, but quickly scrapes together her composure. She straightens into something close to parade rest and speaks in a tone of voice one might use to deliver a field report. “Agent Hill requested I accompany Sergeant Barnes to medical, Captain. She thought that he might benefit from a familiar face.”  

“That right?” Steve’s voice is low, but he manages to keep it from dropping into a growl, grasping at some veneer of civility. 

The agent hesitates, a small frown appearing at the not-quite friendly tone. “Yes, sir.”

“In that case, agent,” Steve says, “I can handle it from here. Consider yourself dismissed.”

The agent stiffens, lips tightening in displeasure, but she nods, executes a sharp salute, and heads for the door. 

Watching her go, Steve feels a wave of satisfaction combined with irritation at his own behavior. Bucky surely doesn’t need Steve acting so crudely possessive, and as Steve glances over to meet that shrewd assessing gaze, he wonders if he should apologize. Even if, despite his chagrin, he doesn’t actually feel sorry.

He’s saved from further debate about whether to apologize by a firm knock on the door followed by a white-coated doctor sweeping into the room. 

“Sergeant Barnes,” the woman says, “I’m Doctor Clarke. I understand you sustained some injuries during a mission earlier today.”

It’s not a question, but Bucky nods, blank-faced and silent. It’s subtle, but Steve can see where Bucky’s become more tense, fingers of his right hand tight around the edge of the exam table.

The doctor flips through the chart in her hands and looks up, perceptive gaze flickering over Bucky’s rigid form — his expressionless face, his clenched fingers — in one comprehensive glance. 

“That’s probably going to need stitches,” Doctor Clarke says, indicating the deepest graze along Bucky’s flank with a pointed look. “Though I’ve been informed that you’re not overly fond of medical personnel and prefer to take care of your injuries yourself.

“I’d say I’ve got more than enough experience to be able to handle it,” Bucky says blandly, expression giving nothing away. 

The doctor tsks, shaking her head. “And I don’t suppose there’s anything I can say to get you to change your mind.” 

Bucky shrugs, unrelenting, and Steve finds himself not particularly surprised. Bucky is all smiles and charming words when he wants to be, but that amiability covers a layer of uncompromising steel. 

“Well then,” Clarke says briskly. “As I’m not inclined to force you to do anything you’re not comfortable with. I realize you’ve had enough of that to last you through multiple lifetimes; I’ll let you handle this one yourself. You’re right about your capability, and since thus far you’ve managed well enough on your own, I trust I can leave you to it.”

She has a nurse bring in the supplies Bucky will need and tells him that she’ll be back to check his work, to call if he needs any assistance. Then she’s leaving, shutting the door firmly behind her. 

The room goes much quieter with only the two of them in it, and Steve drags his eyes from the closed door to find Bucky again watching him with that inscrutable expression.

After an uncomfortable length of silence, Steve motions toward Bucky’s injured torso. “Can I help?” 

Bucky drops the stare, glancing down his body.

“Suppose it would be easier,” he admits with a small shrug, all traces of the easy affability he’d exhibited with the agent earlier vanished. 

Steve, trying not to let Bucky’s neutrality bother him, figures that’s as much permission as he’s likely to get, and turns to the sink across from the exam table, washing and drying his hands thoroughly, then applying some latex gloves. While enhanced bodies typically aren’t prone to infection, the precaution can’t hurt, and he’d hate to be responsible for making things worse.

Once he’s finished, Steve approaches Bucky, eyes glancing over his torso, carefully noting each injury. There aren't many, only three minor grazes, but there’s the other wound on Bucky’s left flank, deep, and oozing slowly. If he were to guess, Steve would say the wound was probably caused by a bullet ricocheting the wrong way off Bucky’s metal arm. 

That one will have to be seen to first.

Steve grabs a bottle of saline solution, tears open a small handful of gauze pads, and wets them thoroughly. He feels Bucky’s gaze on him — weighty, intent — and flicks his eyes up for just a moment to meet that cerulean stare. Then he turns to the task, cleaning out the deep wound as thoroughly and as gently as he can. 

Bucky’s fingers tighten further around the edge of the table, but he doesn’t move apart from that and his breathing stays slow and even. 

Steve wonders, absently, if it’s harder to have someone else treating the injuries. Thinking back, he remembers that it was always more difficult for him to treat himself. Something about seeing the injuries on his own body made everything seem closer to the surface — more painful. As much as he’d complained about and avoided it, it’d always been easier when Bucky stepped in to help fix him up after a fight. A relief. Because, somehow, when he wasn’t looking right at them, the pain of the cuts and bruises seemed more distant. 

Still, Steve knows there are those for whom having another treat their wounds seems more painful. Clint, for instance, had told Steve once that he didn’t like others touching him when he was hurt. That he preferred to treat as many of his own injuries as he could. Because, he’d said, then I always know exactly when the pain is coming, and where it’s coming from. 

Bucky doesn’t like being touched— or he doesn’t anymore. And he won’t let the medics treat him if he can avoid it. (Which, if the doctor is to be believed, he has been, successfully, for quite a while.)

But, as he considers it, Steve thinks Bucky’s reluctance has more to do with not trusting anyone than it does with avoiding pain. For one thing, medical personnel come equipped with painkillers, making pain more-or-less a non-issue. For another, if — like with Clint — it was simply about someone else’s hands on him being less physically comfortable than his own, Bucky could always do it himself. 

Except he’s not doing it himself.

He’s allowing Steve to do it. 

The thought brings with it a tiny flicker of pride. Because that means — it must mean — that they’re making progress, gradual though it may be. Slowly, carefully, Bucky is opening up, allowing himself to trust Steve again. 

On the heels of that pride, comes a healthy dose of awareness. 

Because, certainly, this is a test. Bucky is testing him. Perhaps not consciously, but he’s very still beneath Steve’s hands. Still, and watchful, and Steve knows if he isn’t careful, he could easily spook Bucky back into pulling away from him again. 

Not this time, he swears silently. This time, he’s going to be careful. He’s going to pay attention. He won’t be so careless with Bucky again.

When he’s finished cleaning the deepest wound, Steve glances back up. “Gonna have to stitch it up now,” he says, though he’s sure Bucky already knows. “You want an anesthetic? I’ll have to call the doctor back…” 

Surprisingly — or maybe not — Bucky shakes his head. “Just do it now.”

Personal feelings aside, Steve spends a moment debating whether or not to argue. In the end though, it’s Bucky’s choice, and he cedes to Bucky’s decision. Steve’s gotten stitches without anesthetic before, it sucks, but it’s not the worst thing to go through. 

Still, he can’t help feeling a pang of sympathy when, at the first bite of the needle, Bucky’s grip tightens further around the edge of the table. 

Steve moves as quickly and carefully as he can after that, keeping an ear attuned to Bucky’s breathing as he works. Bucky may as well be made of stone, though, for all the reaction he displays throughout the rest of the stitching. 

When he’s done, Steve spreads a thin layer of antiseptic cream over the wound before gently covering it with an adhesive gauze bandage. Bucky will have to remove the stitches relatively soon, Steve knows from experience, but the covering will keep the threads from catching on anything in the meantime.

Treating the rest of Bucky’s injuries goes quickly after that, Steve sinking into the rhythm of cleaning, medicating, dressing. He covers each wound mostly out of reflex, they’ll be healed up enough that bandages won’t be necessary within a matter of hours, but at least the dressings will keep the antiseptic from getting rubbed off when Bucky puts his shirt back on.

He’s just finished smoothing the last bandage over the graze beneath Bucky’s collarbone when he looks up and realizes, suddenly, just how close they are. At some point Bucky'd apparently shifted his knees farther apart, because now Steve’s standing between them, close enough to feel the heat coming from Bucky’s bare torso. 

Bucky’s face is right there, blue eyes staring straight into Steve’s own, and Steve realizes that even as he hadn’t noticed how far into Bucky’s personal space he’d been getting, Bucky had been completely aware of it. He’d let Steve get into his space.  

Steve’s eyes flicker slightly lower, taking in the tiny cut across Bucky’s left cheekbone just beneath his eye, rust-colored with dried blood. 

Slowly, carefully, Steve dabs at it with a damp square of gauze, smooths antiseptic over it with the pad of his thumb, leaves his hand there, fingers gently cupping the side of Bucky’s face. 

For a split second, Bucky drops his gaze, long lashes sweeping low to rest against his cheeks like dark shadows. Then his gaze lifts, eyes flickering back up to catch Steve’s, intent and unwavering. 

Steve feels his breath catch. He raises his other hand, places his fingers ever-so-carefully against the smooth skin just above Bucky’s hip, and thinks if he tilted his head just so, leaned forward ever so slightly, they’d be kissing. 

Bucky draws a quiet breath, and Steve knows Bucky’s read the thought right from his mind. He waits, watches different emotions flicker rapidly through Bucky’s eyes, wonders what he’ll choose to do and barely dares to hope—

The shrill ringing of Steve’s cell phone shatters the charged silence, and both he and Bucky jump, startled. 

Steve considers ignoring it, wants more than anything to know what would have happened if they hadn’t been interrupted. But then there’s a knock on the door, and the doctor is coming back in to check Bucky over before she releases him, and Steve is forced to retreat; to remove his hands from smooth, warm skin, to drag himself to a respectable distance so that the doctor can do her job. 

He pulls off his gloves and checks his phone; sees a missed call from Hill, and stifles a frustrated sigh at her horrible timing.

Steve doesn’t have to see Bucky’s face to know that the moment, and whatever it was that had been passing between them, is lost. 

Sure enough, as soon as the doctor’s declared Bucky fit to leave, Bucky is standing, pulling his black t-shirt back over his head, expression closed and unreadable once more. 

 

 

Bucky checks on the chicken roasting in the oven, before shooting off a quick text to Steve.

Dinner ready in 30. ETA?

For all that he never had much time for it once he and Steve started living together before the war, Bucky always was the better cook. Which is not to say that Steve can’t cook. He gets by well enough and can put together a meal when necessary — though, admittedly, he sticks to simple fare. 

But Steve doesn’t enjoy cooking, while Bucky has recently rediscovered that he does. It’s been nice to work at resurrecting these skills over the past few weeks. To use his hands for something that has nothing to do with fighting, killing.  

He hadn’t seen much point in it, when it had only been him, by himself. If he’s honest, that may have something to do with the fact that often, eating had been forgotten, or — when he remembered it — a means to an end.

Now though, with Steve returned, cooking has become something Bucky covets. It gives him something to do with his hands when it’s just Steve and him in the apartment together, and provides a good distraction when needed. It also creates opportunities for Steve and him to interact without any weight of expectation. 

There’s also something about the way that Steve responds to Bucky cooking. 

He looks forward to it. Asks, often, if Bucky’s got plans to cook, what he’s going to make, how long it will take. And he eats whatever Bucky prepares with such obvious enjoyment, eyes crinkled up at the corners as he inhales whatever’s placed before him, that Bucky can’t help but want to keep feeding him — though he keeps the sentiment to himself.

His phone flashes and dings with a new message: Wrapping up with Hill now. Be home soon. Love you. 

Bucky feels a flare of adrenaline jolt through his stomach. It’s not the first time Steve’s said the words. Lately, he’s taken to doing it quite often — though he always manages to say it at times when they are not face to face, relieving Bucky of any pressure of saying it back. 

At the beginning of missions, for example. Before Bucky’s gone active, Steve will switch over to their private line, checking the connection, as is routine, and always ending the check-in with Be safe. And, I love you

He doesn’t give Bucky the opportunity to respond, always switching over as soon as he’s said the words, and Bucky, never sure quite how to respond, finds himself grateful for the reprieve.

Because each time Steve says the words feels like a minor miracle. 

And, each time,  Bucky feels himself drawn that much closer to believing it. 

 

 

Steve forces himself not to give in to the temptation to reach up and rub tiredly at his eyes. It’s almost over, this meeting of Hill’s, the latest in what is routine between Hill and her team of designated handlers, Steve included. 

But soon they’ll be finished. Soon he’ll be able to go home. 

In his pocket, his phone buzzes with a silenced message. Slowly, he pulls the device from his jeans and, keeping it below the table, peaks at the screen. It’s from Bucky.

Dinner ready in 30. ETA?  

Steve doesn’t smile, but he wants to as a glow of warmth sweeps through him. 

Bucky’s recently picked up cooking again, something that had been a rare treat before the war, and the idea of heading back to another home-cooked meal is more than appealing. It’s just as well that Hill is wrapping things up, her eyes pausing shrewdly on Steve as her gaze moves to encompass everyone seated around the long conference table, as if she knows he’s distracted. As if she can tell he’s got his phone out beneath the table.

Steve types rapidly with his thumbs. Wrapping up with Hill now. Be home soon. Love you. 

He writes the last words without hesitation, telling Bucky, as he has been regularly throughout the past few weeks, exactly how he feels, leaving no shred of doubt.

Finally, Hill dismisses the room and Steve barely holds back a sigh of relief. Finally he can go home to dinner, to Bucky.

Things have been… interesting since that day in the med ward a few weeks ago. 

Bucky’s just as quiet and reserved as he’s been since Steve’s return via time-machine. But, ever since that day, since that moment that might have almost become a kiss, Bucky’s taken up this way of looking at Steve whenever he thinks he’s not paying attention.

It’s intense, focused, the way he looks at Steve. Like he’s searching for... something. Like Steve’s a particularly complicated puzzle that Bucky just can’t seem to figure out. 

Except Steve doesn’t think he’s all that complicated. He’s made it quite clear what he wants. After that exchange in the hospital, Bucky can’t possibly be in the dark.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate where he stands. As he’s taken up doing, repeatedly, since that day. (He refuses to let anyone, be it a pretty agent or someone else, slip between him and Bucky because of Bucky being uncertain about just where Steve’s feelings lie.) 

And, ever since that day, things have...changed. Shifted between them. Now, stronger than in a long time, there’s an energy between them. An intensity that seems to thicken the air. Like electricity. Like the heavy weight of expectation that comes just before the onset of a thunderstorm.

Steve feels it. He knows Bucky feels it too. 

He has to. 

The question is, what’s Bucky going to do about it? And when?

Steve doesn’t want to push. Won’t, no matter how much he’d like to speed things up. He wants it to be Bucky’s decision, the direction their relationship takes next, and the speed at which it takes it. 

Still, Steve can’t deny, the waiting is excruciating. 

 

 

Bucky wakes on a choked-off gasp. 

He rolls to sit on the edge of his mattress, forcing his breath to steady, his heartbeat to slow. 

Minutes pass, and the uncontrolled tremors that always follow these kinds of nightmares begin to taper off. He draws a marginally steadier breath, runs a hand through sweat-damp hair, and glances at his closed door. 

As usual, the persistent need to get his eyes on the man down the hall, to see for himself  Steve’s form, asleep and unaware, but there , manifests unremitting. Tonight, Bucky knows he will give in. Tonight the need is too strong to push away. 

He stands. Opens his door, Steps into the hall.  

Steve’s bedroom door is ajar, something, Bucky’s noticed, Steve seems to do on purpose. He never closes it, as if he wants Bucky to feel always welcome. 

Steve’s lying on his side, Bucky sees as he stops just over the threshold, back toward the doorway, breathing slow and even with sleep. Bucky bites his lip, holding there as the incessant clamor to see Steve — to soak in his presence, to confirm that Bucky isn’t alone — slowly begins to ebb into something manageable. The last of the tremors subside, and he draws a shaky breath, letting it go in a gradual release.  

He’s about to go, to turn away and head back down the hall — because as much as he’d like to stay, to draw this out longer, it feels too intrusive to do so. Except Steve suddenly shifts, rolls over and captures Bucky with a penetrating gaze that makes Bucky’s breath catch in his throat, his feet freezing in place. 

“Bucky.”

Bucky takes a short step back. “S-sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you—” but Steve raises a hand.

“I wasn’t sleeping.” 

He sits up slowly, as though wary of spooking Bucky, but his gaze stays steady, unapologetic, still pinning Bucky where he stands. “What’s wrong?”

 

 

Bucky hesitates, chewing on his lower lip, eyes luminous in the dark, and Steve waits patiently, drawing out the words with his silence. Finally Bucky says, voice a low rasp,

“Tell me again. Please.”

Steve doesn’t need an explanation for the request.

“I’m here,” he says firmly, holding Bucky’s gaze. “I’m not leaving. I’ll never leave you again.”

Bucky lets out a tiny sound; a small, pained noise as his eyes fall away. A full-body shudder rattles through him and he wraps an arm around his middle. 

Steve, longing to wrap his own arms around that shaking form, stays where he is.

“I thought—” Bucky cuts himself off. “You were going to stay,” he states. “I was... never going to see you again. I knew that. I accepted it.” He swallows, “Now you’re…” Shakes his head. “It’s too good to be true. It’s too— You’re. I don’t deserve this. You.”

“You deserve everything,” Steve says, fiercely. “Bucky. I didn’t leave because I thought you weren’t worth staying for. I know it’s hard, after everything that’s happened. After what I did. But please. Trust me when I say I love you. I love you, and if I had known, I would have stayed.”

Bucky stares at Steve, lips parted around startled silence. 

“I didn’t know that you had feelings for me,” Steve says, quietly. “I didn’t know. But I should have taken a chance. I should have had the guts to just tell you myself, how I felt, instead of hiding behind the fact that you hadn’t said. I should have at least asked you. Because— God, Buck, if I’d had any idea, if I had believed for even a second that you loved me the way I kept telling myself was impossible, the way I love you, I never would have gone back. I would have stayed.”

Steve holds out a hand. Leaves it raised in the space between them.

“It was stupid. I was stupid, for leaving you. But I’m here now, Buck. I’m right here. And I’m not going anywhere. As long as you’ll have me, I’m with you.”

Bucky looks at Steve for a long moment, eventually drops his gaze to the hand Steve keeps steadily raised.

Then he steps forward once, again, until his fingers brush against Steve’s, his hand sliding into Steve’s grasp.  

Steve tugs, a gentle request, and Bucky moves closer, eyes darting to Steve’s searchingly.

They end up lying face to face, hands entangled between them as Bucky studies Steve’s face and Steve lets himself be seen. 

After a moment, Steve moves his free hand, running his fingers through Bucky’s hair, and Bucky melts into the touch, eyes falling to half-mast, breathing deep and even.

They lie like that, in the quiet dark of Steve’s room, Bucky accepting Steve touch, peaceful and calm.

This is trust, Steve thinks, reverently. This is what trust feels like.  

 

 

The sky glows, dawn highlighting the horizon with streaks of rosy pink and gold.

Bucky leans back into the warmth of Steve’s body, folded into the circle of his arms as they share one of the lounge chairs scattered across the compound’s rooftop. 

A gentle breeze gusts by, and Steve adjusts the soft blanket draped across their shoulders, tucking Bucky tighter within the folds.

For the first time in a long time, Bucky finds himself completely relaxed, the proximity bringing comfort rather than apprehension. For the first time, his body isn’t fighting against the surge of emotions that swell over him when he’s in Steve’s presence. 

Come with me, Steve had said long minutes after Bucky’d blinked out of a light doze, dawn just beginning to brighten the night sky. 

Neither of them had been prepared to part, and neither wanted to go back to sleep, and so Steve had grabbed the soft throw from the foot of his bed, and led Bucky to the rooftop where the barest hint of dawn had just started to show on the horizon. 

Settling onto a lounge chair, Steve had draped the blanket across his shoulders and then spread his arms, silently beckoning Bucky to fill the empty space between them. “Sit with me?”

Bucky’d stepped forward immediately, sliding into the warm space Steve had created, and after he was settled, Steve shifted, drawing out a green apple and a small folding knife from the depths of his pockets. Bucky watched as Steve began to neatly slice it, wondering when exactly Steve had managed to squirrel the things away, and how he’d managed it without Bucky noticing. 

The fruit was tart and delicious on his tongue, and Steve had alternated between passing pieces to Bucky and eating them himself, until the apple was gone and he’d tucked the knife away again.

Now they watch the sun rise together, the silence between them peaceful, though still, to Bucky’s ears, filled with unspoken words. 

He steels his resolve. 

That silence between them has lingered long enough, he decides. Bucky’s silence has lingered long enough. 

Steve’s been patient with him. Hasn’t pressured him, even as he’s made his own feelings plain. 

He deserves— Bucky wants Steve to be happy. Isn’t that the reason Bucky had told him to go after Carter? Even though watching Steve leave had been like having a piece of his soul torn out.

Since he’d come back, Steve’s been waiting. He’s been waiting for Bucky. 

He deserves to hear the truth. And finally, Bucky feels ready to tell him. 

“Steve,” he says, shifting in his arms, turning so that they’re face to face. “I’m sorry.”

Steve’s expression goes from calmly relaxed to troubled, a small furrow appearing between his brows. “Bucky what…?”

“I’m sorry that I’ve made you wait so long,” Bucky clarifies. “I’m sorry that it took me this long to move forward.”

“Bucky.” Steve’s expression is fierce. “You have nothing to be sorry for. It’s my fault. What happened between us.”

Bucky huffs out a wry laugh. Has Steve forgotten that Bucky had encouraged him to go after Peggy? That Bucky’d made the choice, himself, to never reveal to Steve the depth of his feelings? 

But, Bucky doesn’t want to argue who’s more at fault.

“I know you want more, from me. More for us,” Bucky says. “This isn’t—  What we have now, I know it isn’t enough.”

“It can be,” Steve says. “Bucky, it can be enough. You don’t have to...”  He shakes his head once, tightens his jaw. “It’s enough. Whatever you want to give, is enough.”

Bucky feels his lips curve, affection sweeping through him along with faint exasperation: Steve Rogers, ever the martyr.

“Steve,” he says. “It isn’t enough for me. I want more, too.” He reaches for Steve’s hand, tangles their fingers together in a tight grip. “I’m ready, now. I love you, and. I’m ready.”

Steve draws a shaky breath, something like hope beginning to cross his features.

He starts to lean forward, and when Bucky doesn’t move away, breathes, eyes covetous, “Can I kiss you?” 

In answer, Bucky leans the rest of the way toward him, pressing their mouths together. 

Steve lets out a quiet noise, before tilting his head, deepening the kiss into something warmer, slicker. He slides their mouths together and apart —  sucking Bucky’s lower lip between his teeth to bite gently, drawing out a shiver, a tiny moan — but doesn’t take it further. Doesn’t press fully into the silky heat of Bucky’s mouth, keeps the kiss just this side of chaste.

Still, Bucky finds himself nearly overwhelmed. He can’t remember the last time he kissed someone like this, and the fact that the person kissing him now is Steve, makes things that much more intoxicating. 

When they break apart, Bucky’s whole mouth is tingling, his heart beating a tattoo against his sternum, his breath stuttering between his lips. Steve, eyes closed, rests his forehead against Bucky’s, his own breathing labored, and Bucky feels a zing of satisfied pleasure because of it. 

“I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” Steve says, voice low, almost rough.

“Since you were a skinny kid in Brooklyn,” Bucky says, “I wanted you.”

Steve’s eyes snap open, and he pulls away just far enough to meet Bucky’s gaze.

“That’s— That’s a long time, Buck.” 

Bucky huffs out a small breath, one side of his mouth tugging up in a half-smile. “Yes.”

Steve lays a careful hand against the side of Bucky’s neck, tucks too-long hair behind his ear with the other. “God, we’ve wasted so much time,” he whispers.

Bucky nods slightly, holding Steve’s gaze.

“Well then,” and he tilts his chin, leans forward just a fraction. “Let’s not waste any more.”


 

END