Waking up is like falling and sinking into still, icy waters. The airs weighs on him, pressing against his skin. Every cubic inch of him aches, from the dull surface pain on his skin to the soreness inhabiting his muscles from the inside-out, and when he opens his eyes it takes him a moment to recognize the sensation caused by the light as burning.
There are flashes and noises, somewhere separate from him, but he can't turn his head. It's not just the air; there's something holding down the sides of his face, pressure on his wrists and ankles and across his torso in bands.
Then there's one less band of pressure, and another and another, and then a hand moves across his vision to lift the weight from his face, too.
The same hand slips behind his shoulders, pulling him forward and upright, and he pitches forward against the chest of whoever it is in front of him. There's hair in his face, dark and clinging to the sweat on his skin, and then an arm levers him up by the armpit. The hair pulls away, and the face it's attached to briefly peers into his.
"Come on," says the man. "We're getting out of here."
There's something that he can't articulate, something he can't quite reach, flitting around the periphery of his thoughts. He's stumbled forward like this before, his body unfamiliar and changed and aching; he's held this arm across his shoulders, supporting where he's now supported; he's seen this face -
"Come on," the man repeats, and he makes his feet move because the only thought that resolves itself in his mind is follow.
The man deposits him in the passenger's seat of a car, and takes the driver's side. It's night, and dark, and the bright spots of the streetlights still leave green-purple marks in his vision, so he closes his eyes, his head lolling against the headrest.
"Don't sleep yet," says the man, so he opens his eyes again. "The longer you keep your eyes closed, the more it'll hurt later."
The man turns on the car, the noise of the engine turning over ragged and jarring against his growing but still distant headache. The car begins to move. It doesn't occur to him to track the surroundings as they pass. He keeps his eyes open: he was told to.
"Status?" the man says eventually.
"I - " he says, and his voice fails almost immediately, like a foot going through a broken floorboard. The raw surface of his throat had been indistinguishable from the rest of his minor pains until now, and irrelevant to - to what? He feels narrowed and aimless, like a view through a rifle sight pointed at nothing in particular. There is no purpose where there should be one. "I don't - "
"Where does it hurt?" the man says.
After a moment, he says, "Everywhere." Because it's true: there's not enough pain to impede him, but as minor as the pain is, it's everywhere.
"Tell me if you need to puke and I'll pull over," the man says. "If anything gets worse or better, tell me. Did they give you - are you thirsty?"
He shifts his tongue in his mouth, and it sticks. "Yes," he says.
The man leans over and his right hand pinches the back of his hand where it sits on his thigh. The man watches the skin resettle.
"You'll last until we get to the safehouse," the man says. "Dizzy? Lightheaded?"
The man glances over again. "Tired?"
"Well, tough, pal," the man says, with a touch of something that might be irony. "Stay awake anyway, at least for now. Once we're somewhere safe, you can sleep."
So he stays awake until the man stops the car and opens his door.
"Come on," the man says, and once again supports him as they stumble together into the building. The man's arm is hard and cold against his back. The building is crumbling and emptied of people, a single-story house with furniture with fading patterns and a thick layer of dust. The man deposits him on a couch and turns on a light. He narrows his eyes against the light, but doesn't close them. He was told not to.
"Sorry," the man mutters, kneeling in front of him. "Look at me." He does, and the man stares at the surface of his eyeballs, at one point waving his right hand between them. Then the man stands and walks out of the room.
The man comes back a moment later with a bottle of water, which he hands over. "Drink it, but slowly. Tell me if it's about to come back up."
He sips it, slow and even, the plastic surface of the bottle blurring in front of his eyes when he draws it back.
"Do you remember anything?" the man says. "Do you know who you are?"
He stares, trying to connect himself as he is now to something that existed before. There is nothing, and the concept fits strangely in his head, unsettled and instinctive and repulsive at the same time.
"No," he says finally.
The man doesn't nod and his expression doesn't change. He just waits for the length of a breath, not particularly deep, and then says, "Your name is Steve. Drink the water."
Steve drinks the water reflexively, without thought, and some part of him parses out the expression behind the man's flat gaze: concern.
"I know you," Steve says.
The man looks at him for a long, long time. "No, you don't. No food yet. You won't keep it down. You're gonna be real sick tonight. Try to sleep when you can, drink water when you're awake, and once everything's out of your system, you'll feel better."
Steve stares at him, until he sits down on the couch and puts a hand on Steve's shoulder, tipping him over until Steve's lying on the couch.
"Try to sleep," he repeats.
So he does.
Steve wakes up some time later and almost falls off the couch, retching. The man is there already, one hand on the inside of Steve's shoulder to keep him up, the other reaching for a bucket. He pulls it beneath Steve's head just in time, and then his hand goes to Steve's spine, the hard surface of his fingers running up and down in what might be a soothing motion of Steve weren't gasping for breath between convulsions.
"Just let it out," says the man, resigned. "Tonight's gonna be rough, pal, but just tough it out. I know you can."
He keeps talking, the words less meaningful than the sound of them, strung together smooth and gentle until Steve's finally done. Then he passes Steve a washcloth and helps Steve wipe his face, his hands steadying Steve's.
"What," Steve says, his voice barely a croak. The words burn coming out. "What's - "
"You were," says the man, and then stops. His left hand is still tracing circles in the small of Steve's back, leaving cool trails of sensation. "You were captured by some people who wanted you to be something you're not. They tried to make you be that something, but to do that, they had to drug you, and drug you a lot, until they could get the - until they were ready. The procedure was interrupted. This, right now, is you reacting to what they gave you, and until it's all out of your system, you're going to have a really bad night. They were trying to take away your memories and put something else in your head, which is why you can't remember anything. It'll come back. You're stronger than they knew."
"You," Steve says. "You got me out."
After a long moment, the man says, "Yeah."
Steve would ask why, but he can read it suddenly in every line of the man's body, in the efficiency of his movements and the set of his face. "They did it to you, too," Steve says.
The man just keeps looking at him. Eventually he says, "Yes."
"This happened to you, too."
"If it did," the man says, "I don't remember."
Steve realizes that the man's hand has gone still on his back, although it still rests there. Between the hand on his back and the arm laying against the front of his shoulder, he feels bracketed, contained, protected. He feels safe.
"You're stronger," the man says, hollowly. "You'll recover."
Steve closes his eyes and lets himself lean into the man, who leans right back against him.
"You're gonna be okay, Steve," the man says quietly.
Steve is so very, very tired. He can feel his head lolling on his neck until it rests against the man's face, so that his breath rustles Steve's hair in breaking waves.
"Sure thing, Buck," he mumbles, without knowing why, and falls asleep like that.
He feels only slightly better the next time he wakes up. He's back on the couch, laid out on his side with a pillow askew under his head. Gray predawn light rolls through the window like a fog.
Bucky sits on the floor next to the couch, his head tipped back against the armrest by Steve's feet. His eyes are closed, but from here Steve can see the reflection off the shoulder closest to him, a neat, albeit skewed, image of the window. The arm is metal. Bucky is asleep.
Somehow Steve knows Bucky's name.
Steve considers going back to sleep, since the tiredness tugs at his bones and makes each part of his body feel disconnected from the rest, like an artist's figure. But even past the lingering acid-rawness in his throat and the memory of his whole stomach clamping like someone was squeezing it, he can feel other needs, too - he's thirsty and hungry, a hollow twisting in his stomach. Something has to be done about that. It takes a long time for an idea to permeate through to clarity: he has to do something about that.
He sits himself up, achingly slow, and braces his hands against the couch cushions against the dizziness. The sound of shifting clothing must have woken Bucky, because Bucky's sitting next to him in a flash, his metal hand between Steve's shoulder blades. The combination of light pressure and the chill of the metal helps ground Steve, at least.
"Water," Bucky says. "You need water. Think you can keep down something to eat?"
Steve takes a long, slow breath, and tries to gauge the nausea despite having nothing to compare it to. "Maybe," he says, because it's an answer.
"Good enough for now," Bucky says, and places his right hand against Steve's shoulder, applying only the barest of pressure to direct Steve to lean back against the couch. Then he gets up and walks out of the room.
Steve looks around at his surroundings while Bucky's gone, because there is some small part of him that knows he should be curious. It's a living room, with a loveseat and an armchair in addition to the couch, surrounding a coffee table. The carpet is so faded that only the faint discolorations of stains remain, and there is no other furniture aside from a lamp. The kitchen connects to the living room, and there's another door that Steve almost remembers coming in through last night, although the memory is off-kilter and hazy.
Bucky comes back with a bottle of water and a bowl of broth.
"Water first," he instructs, and passes it to Steve. "Small sips, or it won't stay down."
Steve hesitates, fingers around the bottle. There is something he should say here, and he can feel its absence like a presence. He takes his ordered small sips to fill the space where it should be.
"Bucky," he says afterward. "You're Bucky."
Bucky watches the bowl of broth on the coffee table as though it might move at any moment.
"Yeah," he says eventually. "The same way you're Steve right now."
Steve can understand that, to a certain extent. The name feels like a label, easily taken off and reapplied and not touching what it applies to, not really. He has a vague sense that there's not enough of him right now to really have a name, to have a descriptor instead of an applied label.
Bucky looks over at him. "But you're gonna get better."
"Won't you?" Steve says.
Half of Bucky's mouth tightens, pulling upward in what could equally be a wince or a smile. "Think this might be as good as it gets," he says.
"You don't seem that bad to me," Steve says.
"Does the you from twelve hours ago seem bad to you now?" Bucky says. "Because it will, and it's gonna follow you. The you now is going to make the you twelve hours from now's skin crawl, and you're gonna look back and want to forget it ever happened because if you think about it too much you start feeling it again, like it's just waiting for you to trip up for it to bust loose again. But you - one day you're gonna wake up and you're gonna be you again. You're gonna remember everything and you're gonna be able to leave the past in the past and you're gonna move on, and you're gonna be okay." The look on Bucky's face isn't a smile, but there's something accepting about its resignation as he says, "You will. You're gonna be okay, Steve."
There's something about the way Bucky's talking that makes Steve feel more and more like he's not going to be okay, but it's obvious how much Bucky needs that not to be true, so Steve says, "Okay."
"Good," says Bucky, and sits on the couch next to Steve. He reaches over to pick up the bowl of broth. "Figured a spoon wouldn't work anyway. You okay to hold it?"
Steve nods and takes the bowl - slow sips, like Bucky said. Even that much makes the hunger start to recede, and for the first time he can remember, he feels something approaching steadiness.
He looks back at Bucky. "Have you eaten?" he says.
Bucky looks at him, surprised, and then frowns. "I - I will. Next."
Steve puts the bowl back on the coffee table. "Or you can eat now," he says.
Bucky gives him a flat glare. "Stubborn son of a bitch," he mutters, but gets up and comes back from the kitchen with another bowl - this one with rice mixed in with the broth.
Steve picks up his own bowl again, content.
The day is not a pleasant one. Steve spends most of it trembling, and vomits twice more. Bucky directs him with gentle motions - a hand on his shoulder, beneath his ankle to bend his legs - to curl up on the couch, and he stays like that, exhausted by illness and the effort of the earlier conversation. Instead, he allows himself comforting emptiness, allowing the world to happen around him, paying attention mostly when Bucky presents him with a concrete task - more water, some broth, stumbling to the bathroom and then back to the couch.
Bucky stays with him, though, sitting on the floor by the couch with a deck of cards. He plays solitaire on the coffee table, flipping and moving cards. Sometimes Steve focuses on it, and it's soothing - strategic but flexible. Tracking the game is exhausting, but in a strangely good way, like the exhaustion after exertion.
He has a burgeoning sense that he is wrong, that he isn't what he's supposed to be, and as the light in the window dims from harsh sunlight to soft sunset rays, it occurs to him that there must be a Steve that he once was. That there is something from which he was reduced. There are memories that he lacks, reactions that he isn't having, thoughts and opinions and an entire life that are simply - gone.
"Who was Steve?" he asks, and Bucky looks up from his card game.
"You're Steve," Bucky says.
"No," Steve says. "Who was Steve before?"
Bucky looks at him for a long moment, and then says, "You're gonna remember what you're gonna remember, and it's not gonna matter how much I tell you about Steve Rogers. If you try to make yourself into what you were before, it's not gonna work. You're going to be what you're going to be."
"It would be easier to be nothing," Steve says, and he can feel it - the part of him that wants to wait, quiet, for orders and direction; to be nothing except what others tell him to be. He can also feel, more and more strongly, the part of him that wants to plant itself like a tree and say no.
Bucky sighs. "Sure as hell feels that way," he says.
"Who were you, before?" Steve asks.
Bucky turns back to his game of cards. "Not who I am now."
After the trembling comes sleeping, deep stretches of dreamless lost time that leave him muzzy-minded and cotton-mouthed when Bucky wakes him up to get him to eat something.
Eventually, he wakes up by himself to a rich, savory scent filling the apartment, warm and meaty. He lifts his torso off the couch to sit up and looks through to the kitchen. Bucky is there, setting a cutting board out on the counter, and as Steve watches he selects a knife from the block and begins to sharpen it, the harsh, high metal-on-metal sound filling the apartment. There is a deep casserole dish on the stove, and Bucky transfers an entire roast chicken from the dish to the cutting board and begins carving.
Steve can't quite see the specifics of what Bucky is doing, but he finds that he knows when Bucky will flip the bird over, where Bucky will place the heavy knife blade to cut through tendon, the order in which Bucky will remove the drumsticks and wings and breast meat. It was always less expensive to get the whole bird than to get the parts, at least when they could afford it, and Bucky would never let Steve carve because Steve had to put all his weight on the knife to get the wings and drumsticks off, which had on more than one occasion sent the limb in question flying. So Steve would set the table and do the dishes instead, and he made the coffee for them because Bucky's coffee was always horrible and neither of them could figure out why when they were making it exactly the same way. Bucky said, with a shit-eating grin, that it was because Steve was just so sweet he made the coffee less bitter, but Steve always told him right back to his face that Bucky messed it up deliberately so he could sleep in and wake up to coffee already made.
"You're awake," Bucky says, and Steve realizes that Bucky is standing in front of him with a bowl.
"You ruined the coffee," Steve says. "So that I'd make it for you."
Bucky's expression stays as inscrutable as ever. "You remembered that?"
"I just - I know it," Steve says. "Is that remembering?"
"I can't remember," Bucky says with one corner of his mouth curled up in an expression that's not really a smile, and pushes the bowl into Steve's hands. There's a fork this time, and no broth - plain white rice and pieces of roasted chicken pulled from the bird in the kitchen. "I think you're ready for solid foods. Eat it slow, just in case."
Steve eats it slow, and then goes back to sleep.
He dreams, though.
There's a peculiar sensation in growing muscles when they're stretching the skin above them, like something inside trying to claw its way out. His bones splinter and reseal and splinter again as they lengthen in a hundred small steps, and the burning, from the inside out, until the red from the fire spills out and washes over to stain his skin, tightening around his new muscles and his new body until it meets bone and there's a man who has a name, Steve knows he has a name but the name is gone, presses two fingers to Steve's sternum and the red spills over to his skin too until the surface of him is blood stretched taut over bone.
Bucky is there when he shakes himself awake, the dream fading into the rough upholstery of the couch against the side of his face and Bucky watching him with one hand hovering above Steve's shoulder blade without touching it.
"Dream?" Bucky says.
Steve pushes himself upright, and Bucky backs away, letting him. "I don't know," Steve says. "I don't think so."
Bucky nods once, decisively. "Are you hungry?"
Steve considers his roiling stomach, and says, "I'm not sure I could keep anything down right now."
"Okay." Bucky turns back to the deck of cards on the coffee table, and starts shuffling.
Steve lays most of the way back down, but puts his head on one of the throw pillows so he can see Bucky's card game. Bucky places the cards carefully, and Steve watches as he leaves some cards and moves others, building down alternate colors on the bottom and building up based on suits at the top of the coffee table.
As Steve watches, Bucky swaps a five of hearts for a five of diamonds in one of the built-down piles, and places the five of diamonds in the built-up pile at the top of the coffee table.
"You just cheated," Steve says suddenly. "That's cheating."
Bucky glances back at him. "It's not cheating, it's - it's just helping the game along."
"It's cheating," Steve says, "and you always cheat at cards. Always. That's why none of us would play with you." Then he frowns, because he has no idea who the 'us' he mentioned could be.
"Falsworth cheated worse," Bucky says immediately, and Steve blinks because the name is familiar but he can't quite -
Bucky looks down at the game of solitaire and hesitates.
"You don't want to tell me," Steve says, and frowns. "Why - ?"
"I don't know if it's better for you to remember on your own," Bucky says. "I don't - I went looking for the stuff I forgot and sometimes I wonder if I would've actually remembered it if I'd just waited, instead of replacing it with what other people were saying."
Steve watches Bucky's fingers tap against the surface of one of the cards on the table, a three of hearts. "How much do you remember?" Steve asks.
"Not enough," Bucky says. "And sometimes too much." Then he cranes his neck, turning his head back towards Steve. "But you weren't in the chair that long, and you're stronger. You'll remember just fine."
"Why do you keep saying that?" Steve says. 'That I'm stronger than you?"
"Because you are," Bucky says, looking back to his card game.
Steve remembers his dream, the sensation of growing out of his own skin. "Was I - smaller, once?"
"Yeah, but you were still strong," Bucky says. "Not, like, punching people, though God knows you tried. But you always stood up to fight the good fight. Even when it was hard. Even when you just got yourself whipped."
"You were there," Steve says. "Watching out for me."
From this angle, Steve can only see part of Bucky's mouth turn up in a bitter grin. "The more things change, huh?"
"Falsworth hid aces up his sleeve," Steve says the next day, when his stomach has kept down his breakfast entirely and the thought occurs to him like a bolt out of the blue. "He kept extra aces with him, one of each suit, and kept them in his sleeve or in that stupid hat and put them in his hand when he thought nobody was looking."
"Yep," Bucky says, after a long minute, flipping over another card. "That was Falsworth. Remember anything else about him?"
"He had an accent," Steve says, frowning as he tries to follow the thread of the memory, but it leads him to - "Peggy."
"She had an accent, too," Bucky agrees. "I liked hearing Falsworth talk more, though. He knew all the dirty songs the Brits were singing."
Steve can feel it in his mind, the gap between those memories and now, like an empty crevasse. "How long ago was that?"
"You'll remember that eventually, too."
"What then?" Steve says. "What happens when I remember everything?"
Bucky hesitates again. "You have friends that are looking for you," he says. "But they - they don't know how to help you like this. Sam and Natasha. You like them. When you remember them, I'll tell them where you are, and they can come get you."
Steve raises his eyebrows - he may not be entirely himself at the moment, stuck in the liminal phase where he knows where he should be and knows where he is now and has no idea how to bridge that gap, but even he can tell that something's off. "They don't know where I am now?" he says.
"They don't like me much," Bucky says heavily, and Steve frowns.
"I can't imagine being friends with anyone who 'doesn't like you much,'" Steve says, putting heavy emphasis on Bucky's words because even he can hear the understatement in them.
"Maybe they're better judges of character than you are," Bucky says.
There's something in his voice, but Steve can't tell if Bucky's being genuine or self-deprecating. Either way, Steve says slowly, "Maybe they just haven't seen past that big lug of a show you put on to the softie you are underneath. I may not remember much, but I remember when you decided that you were gonna take in that cat that lived behind your building."
Bucky shakes his head, smiling a little. "Yeah, my mama was so thrilled about that."
"That thing hated me. But you still talked me into taking it with us when we got that apartment," Steve says, frowning into the memory. It's unravelling before him as he says it, and he's not even fully aware of what he's going to say until he says it. "Kept the window open so it could climb out the fire escape, and when we were both shipped out, it happened so fast I forgot to warn our landlord about it for the next tenant. And then when you…" He stops, stumbling over his own breathing for a moment, and looks at Bucky. Bucky keeps his eyes on the game of solitaire in front of him, but there's something about his expression that's gone empty and far-away. Steve starts talking again, keeping his voice as matter-of-fact as he can. "When you died," he continues, "all I could think was that nobody was going to look after it. Which I knew was dumb, seeing as we'd both already been gone for a year."
Bucky's still looking at his game, or rather, looking right through it - his eyes aren't tracking and his hands haven't moved, with a heavy, deliberate stillness as opposed to his concentration being elsewhere. Then, finally, he moves a red two onto a black three, and says, "I'm sure Winnie was just fine on the streets. She was always a survivor."
Steve doesn't say anything. He doesn't just remember clinging to the bare outside of a train car and staring at the space where Bucky used to be; he also remembers the dizzy determination of taking Schmidt's plane down, the searing lights and steel of Times Square, sitting in an apartment with a stack of files in front of him and thinking, with helpless attention to detail, I wonder what happened to that damn cat.
But he knows better to think that any cat, even a survivor, could make it to seventy, so he lets Bucky finish up his game of solitaire while he stays on the couch and tries to sleep instead of remember.
There's only so much that denial can do, and stories occur to him relentlessly now, one after the other whether he wants them to or not. The room is just too familiar at this point, and it's too easy for his thoughts to wander, and then suddenly he's being treated to yet another memory playing in front of his eyes like Technicolor: getting shot in the stomach by an alien weapon and wondering is this it, did I save New York just to lose it again? Peggy rendered fragile and absentminded by the years he lost, and the texture of the loose skin on her fingers against his as he held her hand. He remembers Natasha and Sam, and then, finally, standing on a bridge and a catwalk, concrete and grating, and looking his dead best friend in the eye.
He comes into the kitchen where Bucky's watching a pot of rice and sits himself at the table, watching Bucky frown at the pot. Bucky excelled at making two kinds of rice: hard and sticking to your teeth or burnt and sticking to the pot. The rest of the memory unravels like a rolling ball of string, leaving a trail in its wake: Bucky standing in front of the stove, saying "Well why don't you make it then" and Steve saying "Oh I will, just hand over the spoon and I'll make the best rice you've ever - "; Bucky in front of a campfire and Gabe saying "Jesus, Bucky, you're not gonna try to - " and Morita telling Dum Dum "Fresno, how many times do I have to say Fresno" and Dum Dum saying "It's got nothing to do with that, you're just the only one of us who can cook anything worth a damn."
It's just - impressions, fragments, unanchored in time or place. Steve wonders if he remembered better than this, before, or if this is how he always remembered and it only seems strange now that he's comparing it to not remembering at all. He wonders if he'll ever figure that out.
He stays sitting there, watching, until Bucky turns around and catches a glimpse of his face - then Bucky's whole demeanor shuts down, his shoulders tightening to attention and his expression blanking.
"You remember," he says.
"I - " says Steve. "How - "
"You look sad," says Bucky. "What do you remember?"
"D.C.," says Steve, because he remembers enough to know that he remembers the arc of it, from the bridge to the Helicarrier to dead end after dead end.
"Do you remember HYDRA getting you?" Bucky asks, turning back to the rice.
"No," Steve says, because he doesn't. "I guess they got the drop on me."
"No," Bucky says, shaking his head. "No, they didn't even have to. You just walked in there looking for me, right into an ambush, and the hell of it is they didn't even have me. You dumbass."
Steve says, "You came after me."
"Wasn't gonna let them win," Bucky says, and sets the spoon down next to the stove. "Wasn't gonna let you lose, either."
"Don't do it," Steve says.
Bucky still doesn't turn around. "Do what?"
"Call Sam and Natasha, tell them where I am, and run," Steve says. "Or whichever order you were planning on doing it in. I still know you too well, Buck."
"You don't know a damn thing."
Steve can't really argue with that, but he does say, "I think I know a little more now than I did."
Bucky finally turns, but keeps his hands behind him, gripping the oven's handle as if he's holding himself back. "I'm never gonna remember," he says. "I'm never gonna be the old him again, you get that? Part of me wants to kill you right now, because you're still my mission." He spits the last word, and his left hand presses neat finger-marks into the oven handle.
Steve shrugs. "But here I am, alive and myself, and all thanks to you."
"Did you not hear what I said? I want to kill you!"
"I don't care," Steve says honestly. "Hell, I've wanted to kill you before, and, okay, it might be a little different, but when you kept leaving your socks in the doorway after getting back from the docks it didn't feel that - "
"How can you be making jokes about this?" Bucky demands.
"Because you can say all you want that the Bucky Barnes I knew isn't in there, but I just spent the better part of a week seeing over and over again that that isn't true, and whatever else you're bringing, I'm not - " Steve's voice fails, briefly, as he thinks of his own unthinking compliance right after Bucky rescued him, to say nothing of the illness and the strange unreality of the whole world, as if suddenly the rest of the world was behind a layer of glass that he'd just never noticed before. The thought of Bucky having gone through that, and gone through it alone, and having come out on the other side as enough of himself to rescue and watch after Steve -
"I'm not losing you again," Steve says, "and I'm not letting you lose me, either."
Bucky looks away, and Steve knows that he's hit the nail on the head.
"How'd you know that I walked into an ambush, huh?" Steve presses. "This whole time I was looking for you, were you following me?"
"You were the first thing I remembered," Bucky says quietly, and his mouth tugs to one side in a wince, or maybe a grimace. "I couldn't...not."
"You were the first thing I remembered, too," Steve says, and has to put his hands on the table, one fist curled into the other, to keep himself from getting up. That was the trick with Winifred, Bucky's damn alley cat, too - move too fast and she'd spook. "I can't not."
Bucky shakes his head, a sudden and savage movement. "You're different. You're stronger. They didn't have you as long - "
"I'm not," says Steve. "I'm not, how can you not - you're all that…" The words 'all that I have left' strike him as wholly inadequate halfway through saying them, and also fairly selfish. Instead, he licks his lips and says, "I can help you, if you'd just let me."
"Jesus, would you stop - stop worrying about me so much! You've got a chance, Steve, you can just walk away from all this and go be Captain America and save the world - "
"No," Steve says, and the heart of it all finally becomes clear. "Not without you."
Bucky ignores him. "You're strong enough to - "
"I'm not," Steve says. "I'm not stronger. If you leave me, I'm just going to keep following you. Walk right into ambushes, even. I can't do this alone. I won't."
Bucky's gaze is determinedly stuck to his own feet. "You have Wilson and Romanova."
"Yeah," Steve says. "Who do you have?"
He watches as Bucky's throat rises in a swallow.
"I'm not strong enough for this," Steve continues, softer. "Not to let you go. So if you won't do it for yourself, then - do it for me."
Bucky licks his lips, in a gesture Steve recognizes as just buying time. "You haven't changed at all, have you," he says. "So friggin' determined to shove your face in other people's fists."
Steve's mouth quirks almost involuntarily at some of the memories it brings up - mostly a mixed-up haze of fat lips and split eyebrows and Bucky always saying the same thing. "Only when it's called for," he says.
"You got off easy, you know," Bucky says, still not meeting Steve's eyes. "The procedure wasn't finished, and it was only - you only got a taste of it. You still don't get it. I'm not him. I'm not safe."
Steve can't help but raise his eyebrows. "Oh, is that why you rescued me?"
"I rescued your dumb ass because maybe I'd break and kill you, but at least I wouldn't do any of the useless trying-to-be-helpful shit that you're trying to pull on me now," Bucky says, fast and vicious.
"I know," says Steve, and he does, and he feels bad about it. But more than that - "You were right to. I couldn't have come through this without you. I can't imagine what that must've been like for you. And - and I just can't stand the thought of it, or of making it worse by letting you think you still have to go it alone."
Bucky finally looks up, his tense shoulders beginning to slump. "I'm - " he says, and licks his lips and starts over. "I'm not okay, Steve. I think I'm actually pretty fucked up."
Steve takes a deep breath, and says, "Will you at least be messed up with me instead of messed up somewhere else?"
Bucky watches Steve for a long moment, and then, in a tiny, jerky motion, nods.
Steve gets up and walks over to him, managing a small smile. "Thank you," he says, and plants a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "God, Bucky, thank you - "
Bucky turns into the touch, his metal arm suddenly hooking under Steve's shoulder like he can hold Steve up, and maybe he can because Steve is suddenly aware of how close he is to falling, but Bucky's leaning against him like maybe he can't stay up alone either. It doesn't feel like opposing forces, because it doesn't feel like opposition; it feels solid, rooted, like the arch of an aqueduct, and Steve ignores the resurfacing memories and the uncertain future and lets himself believe, just for a minute, that they could stay like this forever.