There are many ways their story could have played out.
The Soldier chokes, squeezes as hard as he can, anything to drown out that voice, saying things he didn’t understand, voice filled with emotion so intense that it made the Soldier’s legs tremble from more than pain and exhaustion.
He can see the blue eyes widen in panic, the blood vessels pop beneath the man’s skin, feels the weak hands pulling at his, but he is stronger still. The man is trying to talk, so the Soldier squeezes harder. The man starts spasming underneath him, the final death throes and the Soldier isn’t used to this, is used to quick death from a distance, not this close —
Tears slip out of the corner of the man’s eyes as they start to close, not too long now; the Helicarrier is falling apart around them and there is something clawing in his mind, screaming and thrashing against the walls.
The Soldier squeezes. The man goes slack and breathless underneath him. His hands fall limply. His head lolls back. It is done.
The Soldier can’t stop looking, stares at the lifeless body beneath him, blood blooming from his gut and lips parted in a dying word.
Something inside the Soldier howls in pain, some hidden part buried between his bones, deep inside his flesh; something he hasn’t felt in… he can’t remember.
Suddenly, images and smells and noises flood his head, a skinny young kid with a split lip pulled into a grin, he remembers the taste of the blood he licked out of his mouth, tangling the golden hair in his flesh hand. He remembers a deep laugh, gentle hands on his back, the scraping of charcoal on paper. He can see that kid transform in his mind into someone bigger, someone like —
"No,“ the Soldier murmurs in denial. He looks down at the body lying under his, the still chest, eyes closed like in sleep.
The Soldier starts clutching at Steve, a name that’s been on the tip of his tongue for decades, shakes him despite all logic in his brain telling him that Steve is dead, that he murdered him as efficiently as he murders anyone else. The Soldier starts crying, sobbing in a way he can’t remember ever doing, pleads, "Steve, please, wake up, I’m so sorry, please, I’m sorry, come back,“ and he buries his head in the other man’s chest, hoping for a miracle, to no avail.
The screech of metal around him shakes him out of his grief and he looks around; this thing will go down and bury them both.
Steve reaches as far as he can, his fingertips barely touching Bucky’s, so he leans out further, as far as he can, desperate in his determination. He can feel the railing give slowly, so he reaches even further, it’s all or nothing, and manages to grab ahold of Bucky’s hand.
Steve quickly pulls them both back while the wind whips around them. They tumble onto the cold, hard floor, Bucky on top of Steve and knocking the air out of his lungs. They look at each other and start laughing in hysterical relief, laughing madly until Bucky smashes his mouth on Steve’s, kissing hungrily and needy.
Steve still nosedives the plane into the arctic three days later, despite Bucky’s protests over the radio.
"You were always it, Buck,“ says Steve through a tear-choked smile. "Always.“
"Please, Steve,“ all Bucky can do is plead because this isn’t how it’s supposed to go, this isn’t supposed to be the end of their story. They were gonna win and go home, finally live their lives.
"I will always —“
That’s when static takes over and Bucky just sits there in the control room, numb and shocked. He listens to the static for what feels like hours.
A week later, he is sent back to Brooklyn because he doesn’t talk anymore, just stares into space and he isn’t of any use to the army like that. He walks into their apartment, sees the couch and the bed and some pencils and a shirt Steve must have left behind before he left. He sits down and clutches that shirt in his hands, pulls it up to his nose to smell the familiar scent of Steve. He cries. He drinks until he passes out. He screams and curses at a God he doesn't believe in, at Steve. He cries.
Then, one day, he stops. He gets up and walks to his drawer where he put some of the things he had taken with him from the base.
He doesn’t see the end of the war before he puts a gun in his mouth.
"Come on, Steve, let’s just go out and have some fun, huh? I’m sure the Expo thing could be something. We could ask Bonnie and her friend to come along.“
Steve keeps walking ahead while Bucky trails after him.
"Go without me, then. I’m not really in the mood for some crackpot date with someone who doesn’t want me.“
Bucky jogs ahead and stops right in front of Steve, making him stop in his tracks. Bucky grins.
"That can’t be true because I’ll be there.“
A slow, reluctant smile spreads on Steve’s face, but he soon turns solemn again.
"Why can’t we just go home? I mean, what’s the point?“
"It’s our last night together for a long while. Why waste it on pretending?“
Bucky stares at Steve for a while, at his earnest, open, stupid face, those lashes he counted one lazy afternoon years ago. Bucky wants to hug him and never let go.
"You’re right, Stevie. Let’s go home.“
They don’t go out. They spend the night together, desperately trying to shut out the day for as long as they can, pretending that the world will stop spinning on its axis just for them.
In the morning, Bucky leaves for Europe. Steve goes to work. Steve tries to enlist. He fails. Life goes on.
Until it doesn’t.
The telegram isn’t long, but the only words he can filter out are JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES and KILLED IN ACTION. They are the only words that matter, the words that are breaking his world apart, because as hopeless as the situation was, there was always that flicker of hope that maybe, just maybe, Bucky would come back home.
Life stops. Steve gets Bucky’s dog tags as his next of kin and that’s it. Steve goes to work, goes home, stops drawing, barely eats or sleeps, too busy imagining all the gruesome ways Bucky could have died. Steve should have been there. At least they could have died together.
It isn’t long before Steve goes out picking a fight he knows he won’t win.
The war is over.
The world celebrates and so do Bucky and Steve. Bucky can only look around himself in disbelief, just wondering how the hell he ever made it out alive.
He looks at Steve, who turns to him as if he felt it and gets a blinding smile in return.
They are sent home; after all, there is no use for them in peace time. They go back to their old apartment which seems so tiny now, after all they have done and seen. But it’s their bed and their floors and they can lie together without a care in the world.
"How the hell did we make it out of there?“ Bucky asks once after coming down from a particularly good round of sex.
Steve smiles. "The end of the line is still far away for us, Buck.“
Steve is knocked out of the train. He holds on, he reaches and tries to grab Bucky’s stretched hand, Bucky who is yelling at him: "Come on, Steve, take my hand, please!“
Steve tries to shout something, gets as far as "Bucky, I —“ before the railing rips from the train and Steve is falling, whipping through the air and Bucky can only scream and cry while watching the only person that ever mattered to him disappear into the snowy nothingness.
Bucky jumps after him. The Russians find them both.
Bucky brings hell down on HYDRA. He directs the plane into the ice of the Arctic, silently grateful for the chance to be reunited with Steve.
He wakes up 70 years later in a new world, noisy and blindingly bright and he hates every second of it. He hides away in the apartment S.H.I.E.L.D. gave him, ignores them when they try to tell him that the country could use Captain America.
"Well, Captain America fell off a train over 70 years ago. Guess you’re shit out of luck.“
He still fights when the aliens come to New York because it’s what Steve would have done. They ask him to take up the shield again and he still refuses. He does start working with S.H.I.E.L.D. on covert missions, though, because being a soldier is all he knows now, it’s all he’s ever been good at. He doesn't wear red, white and blue, doesn't throw a shield because he knows that it was never meant for him; he’s always been better at lurking in the shadows, anyways.
Two years after New York, Nick Fury appears in his apartment and is shot through the wall by someone with a metal arm. Bucky follows but can’t catch him. Suddenly, the world is upside down, S.H.I.E.L.D. is HYDRA and Bucky is fighting on the street with the madman they call the Winter Soldier.
When the Winter Soldier’s mask falls off and he sees Steve’s face staring back at him, empty and expressionless, Bucky wishes for the thousandth time he had been the one to fall off the train.
There are many ways their story could have played out.
But this is all it is:
Steve finds Bucky. Bucky finds Steve. In the end, both are true in their way.
It’s a long and tough road, it’s frustrating and unbearable sometimes, to the point where Bucky just wants to leave and never come back, save them both the misery. He packs his bags, writes a note, prepares himself mentally for being alone again.
But then Steve looks at him with that delicate warmth in his eyes and it makes heat pool warm in Bucky’s belly, makes his legs tremble and he knows he won’t ever be able to leave, not really. His entire being is tethered to Steve and the invisible string between them will always bounce them back together.
Bucky can feel the overwhelming want for Steve in his bones, deep like an ache, can feel the longing coursing through his veins. Sometimes he thinks Steve feels the same, his eyes tracking Bucky and lingering too long to be normal. Bucky doesn’t act on it. There is too much at stake, after all.
One night, though, they fight, screaming and punching and breaking things until they’re kissing harshly as if it were a war. They tug at each other, fall into each other and everything slots in place, this is where we belong.
It’s still tough. It’s still frustrating. Sometimes Bucky looks at Steve and thinks of all they have lost and whether it was really worth it.
Sometimes Bucky looks at Steve and doesn’t understand how he was lucky enough to be granted a second chance at this.