One sees clearly only with the heart.
---Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony.
---Lou Reed, What's Good
In the beginning, James Barnes is six years old, sitting on the front steps of his apartment building after fleeing his daddy's fists. When he thinks about it years from now, he won't remember why his father was angry, or why he was crying, or why no one came to look for him. Brooklyn—the world, really—was a more innocent place back then. Parents didn't worry so much about their children going outside to play and never coming back. But he'll remember crying on the steps and he'll wonder anyway, because he was just six, but mostly because he was sad and afraid and alone.
But he will always, always remember the moment when he lifts his little head because he has a feeling someone's watching him, and is suddenly looking into the apple-green eyes of a horse.
A small horse—astonishingly small, even when he's six James will realize that. He doesn't think she'd even be as tall as he is, standing—with orangey fur and a yellow mane and tail, each tied with a pretty red ribbon, (like a ponytail; it'll be years before he gets how funny that is). She, because she is very clearly a female horse, has white spots across her nose like freckles, and a bright, sweet smile under her big, round eyes.
"Hi!" she says, in a voice that will forever after remind James of the summer heat rising from the sidewalk, the smell of hot cement and the way water hisses on the pavement when Mr. Ciccone opens the fire hydrant so the kids can play. She lifts her front hoof. "My name is Applejack Apple. What's y'all's name?"
James sniffs. He wipes his eyes with his fingers and then his nose with the side of his hand. His mommy taught him to always shake hands with someone when he meets them, so he holds Applejack's ankle because horses don't have hands and he doesn't know what else to do. "James Buchanan Barnes."
"Howdy, James! A pleasure making your acquaintance!" Applejack sounds really, really pleased, and moves her hoof up and down so fast that James feels like his whole body will start bouncing up and down on the stoop. Applejack is very strong. "I sure do like making new friends!"
"Hi," James says, sniffing. He's more confused than sad or frightened now, but Applejack is so happy it's hard for him to not be happy too. And he thinks it might be kind of swell, having a little horse for a friend. "I didn't know horses talked." He didn't know they grinned or shook hands (hooves?) either, but talking is the strangest.
Applejack blinks her huge eyes at him, then laughs. "Well," she drawls, "that's 'cause I'm not a horse. I'm a pony!" She sits right down on her bottom like a dog, cocking her head at him. "Why were you crying?"
James shrugs, wiping his eyes again. It barely matters anymore, next to the marvelous talking pony in front of him. "Can all ponies talk?"
"Sure can!" Applejack nods as enthusiastically as she shook his hand. She cocks her head again. "So, wanna play?"
James nods eagerly, thrilled. "Do you want to play kickball? Or…" His eyes go wide, thinking about it. "Or, could I ride you?"
Applejack scrunches up her eyes as she considers. "Ummmmm…naw. Sorry. It's just, you're kinda big. Let's play soccer!"
Well, that's more than good enough, so James nods again and bounds off the stoop, then stops when he realizes he doesn't have a ball, and he doesn't want to go back to his apartment to get one. "Oh. I don't have a ball," he explains, sagging.
"That's okay," Applejacks says, like not being able to play soccer isn't actually the earth-shattering tragedy James knows it is. "Let's play tag instead." And with that she bops him gently on the shoulder with her jaw, then whirls and gallops off down the alley. "Tag! You're it!" she calls over her shoulder.
"Hey, no fair!" James yells, but he's laughing as he pelts after her.
"I wanna be called Applejames," James says at dinner. He came home sweaty and dusty and 'smelling like a barn', his mommy said, which made James grin until she made him take a bath. But now he's at the dinner table in fresh button-down jammies, and his daddy even tousled his hair and smiled at him, so everything's okay again and James is happy.
"Apple-what?" daddy asks, frowning a little as he cuts a piece of liver (ugh).
"Applejames," James says, not eating the liver. "Like, Applejack. But different."
"Why?" mommy says, then eyes James' plate. "Eat your liver, dear. It's got iron."
James sighs and pokes at the smallest piece possible of all the ones his mommy cut for him. He tries to slide it off the plate to Applejack when mommy's not looking, but Applejack won't eat it either. "'Cause it's like Applejack, and she's my friend."
Daddy frowns a lot. "Who on Earth is Applejack?"
"She's my friend," James repeats. "I met her today. We played tag."
Daddy looks at mommy. "Did Ms. Pogue say anyone moved in?"
"No," mommy says, shaking her head. "We spoke yesterday, and she said the apartment was still vacant."
"Hmm," daddy says. "So, this Applejack, what's her real name?"
"Applejack," James says. He eats two peas when mommy looks at him, then feeds five more to Applejack, who pokes her head out from under the tablecloth to take them then gives him a wink.
"That's not a real name," daddy says. "That's got to be a nickname or something. Did she tell you her last name, at least?"
James nods. "Apple."
Mommy blinks at him. "Applejack Apple? Really?" She smiles like she thinks that's funny.
"Definitely a nickname, then. Her real name's probably 'Alice' or 'Abigail'," daddy says. He takes a sip of water.
"Or Jacki," mommy says, and daddy grunts in agreement as he chews. Mommy smiles at James. "What does your new friend look like?"
"She's got yellow hair, and green eyes, and freckles," James pipes up immediately, pleased to be able to tell his parents about how wonderful Applejack is. "And two ponytails. And she talks like a cowboy and she runs really fast and she's really strong, too. But she says I'm too big to ride her."
"What?" daddy says loudly as mommy gapes. "What kind of girl is this?"
"She's not a girl," James says quickly, scared. He doesn't know why his daddy's so mad all of a sudden. "She's a pony. A little pony."
"A pony?" mommy repeats. "You mean, Applejack's a horse?"
"No, she's a pony," James says. "Horses're different."
Daddy lets out a huff of air and rolls his eyes. "Oh for Pete's sake." He shakes his head and forks up more liver. "Imaginary friends. You're too old for that. Don't you have enough real friends to play with?"
"She is real," James says. "She's right here." He lifts the tablecloth. "Come out, so my parents can see you."
"I don't think this is a good idea," Applejack says, but she comes out slowly and stands next to James' chair. "Howdy," she says, sounding worried.
"James," mommy says, in the way she does when she's disappointed in him.
Daddy breathes out really loudly, then closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Not this again. You know damn well there's nothing there."
James looks at Applejack, then at his parents. "She's right here. She said 'howdy'. Can't you see her?"
"Of course we can't, because there's nothing there." Daddy crosses his arms. "I'm not interested in playing games, James Buchanan. There's no horse next to the dinner table."
James crosses his arms too. "Yes there is! And she's a pony!"
"James," mommy says. She has her hands clasped in her lap, looking earnest but like she's going to be angry soon too. "Pretending is fine in the schoolyard, but not at the dinner table. There's nothing there and you know it." She glances at daddy, who nods a tiny bit. "You know what the punishment is for lying."
James' eyes go wide with fear. "I'm not lying!" he says, quick and desperate. "I'm not lying, I swear! Applejack is right next to me!" He looks at her, puts his hand on her neck. Her mane feels as silky as his mommy's hair when she lets him touch it. "Why can't they see you?"
"All right," daddy says before Applejack can answer. He sounds more tired than angry, but he balls up his napkin and slaps it down next to his plate, then shoves his chair back and stands, taking off his belt. He nods at their tiny living room. "Go stand next to my chair."
"I'm not lying!" James is crying and trembling, white-hot with terror and rage. His little hands are balled into fists, his right one deep in Applejack's mane. "I'm not lying!"
Daddy's holding his belt in both hands like a snake. "Get up now, or I use the buckle."
Later that evening, James is curled in bed and sobbing into his pillow. His bottom hurts, but not nearly as much as the injustice of the punishment.
"I didn't lie," he sniffles to Applejack. "I didn't make you up. You're real."
"Sure am," she says. She puts one of her long legs across his back. It feels as soft and nice as when his parents hug him. Nobody hugged him after he got belted. "I'm awful sorry they didn't believe you, James."
James sniffs again and lifts up onto his side so he can see her better, because sitting up would hurt his bottom too much. "Why can't they see you?"
"I don't know," Applejack says. "Maybe it's 'cause I'm your friend, not theirs."
James swallows. "You're just my little pony?"
"Hey, who you callin' 'little'?" she says in mock offence. Then she grins, nodding. "Yep. I'm yours, and you're mine. Best friends forever."
James beams, then scrambles (carefully) out of bed so he can hug her properly. She rears up on her hind legs and wraps her front legs around him just like a person. The fur on her face feels as soft as cotton balls next to his cheek.
"Are you gonna live here too?" he asks when they let go. When he's standing and she's on all-fours, Applejack's head barely comes up to his shoulder.
"I can't. I'm sorry," she says. "I have my own family, back in Ponyville. I've got a big brother, and a little sister, and Granny Smith, and a whole passel of aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and third and fourth cousins…"
"And they'd miss you," James says, understanding. "I had a little sister too. But she died when I was really small. I don't remember her, but mommy and daddy miss her a whole lot. They're trying to make more babies so it won't be just me."
"Yeah." Applejack nods. "So, I can't stay here all the time. But I'll be here so much you'll barely know I'm gone, all right?"
"Okay." James rubs his eyes, partially because he's tired and partially to push the tears back in. He'd already completely committed his whole being to having Applejack living with him, sharing his room like Becca did before she died. Being told that's not going to happen is breaking his six year-old heart. But he knows about missing family and loneliness, so he tries to be brave. "You promise you won't leave?"
Applejack nods solemnly. "I promise I won't ever leave you. And I always keep my promises."
"Swell," James says, feeling a little better. "Will I see you tomorrow?"
"You sure will." Applejack lifts a hoof and nudges him. "Now get back into bed before your mamma finds out you're still awake. I don't want you to get in trouble again."
James climbs back into bed, being careful of his bottom. "Goodnight, Applejack."
"Applejames," James says, and closes his eyes.
It only takes James a few days to realize that no one else can see or hear or feel Applejack, but it takes him until he's almost eight years old before he gets really good at pretending she's not there when they're around other people.
Now he's nine, and tells everyone to call him 'Bucky'. He likes it a lot better than 'James', especially since it makes him think of bucking, which is something horses and ponies do. And he's fast and tough and strong, all things he learned how to be from playing with Applejack, who's so much faster, tougher and stronger than he is that he has to try twice as hard just to keep up.
Not that Applejack's ever mean about it, even when she wins every race or every wrestling match, or can jump over fences at least as tall as Bucky. And she never lords it over him, either, even though back in Equestria where she comes from, she says she's so fast and tough and strong that she can make all the apples fall out of a tree with just one kick, no matter big it is. And she's the fastest pony around, as long as no one's flying.
She's not as powerful here, though. She's a lot more like the regular horses Bucky's seen pulling wagons sometimes, though she's much smaller. She can't go up on her hind legs nearly as easy, and she can't pick up anything with her hooves. She also looks different in Equestria, she says, though Bucky can't picture her very well with a rounder face and bigger eyes. He thinks she's really swell as a regular pony, anyway.
Of course she'd still be shorter than Bucky, even if they were in Equestria. Which he will never stop being happy about.
Height aside, Applejack is amazing. Even with just regular pony-powers, she's like a four-footed (hooved) superhero who's also kind, generous and never lies. Bucky sort-of maybe loves her, except for how she's a pony and he's not, and how love involves kissing, which is disgusting. Bucky is comfortably certain he's never going to kiss anybody ever. Other than his mom, but that's just on the cheek and it doesn't count because she's his mom.
But if Applejack were a girl, instead of a girl pony, Bucky thinks he might, possibly, kiss her. Sometime. Maybe. Because she talks like a cowboy and knows all the best games, and runs and wrestles and plays just like a boy, and has such a nice smile and cute freckles and pretty green eyes. And she smells like summer and apples and her mane and tail feel like silk and are the same color as sunshine.
So Bucky sort-of loves Applejack, maybe, which makes not being able to tell anyone about her really hard sometimes. He can't talk to her in public, but he's used to that. They have long, whispered conversations in his room when his parents think he's asleep; or he'll walk with her through all the narrowest, least-used alleyways on the way to and from school; or he'll sneak out onto the fire escape to talk or onto the roof of their building so they can play. And when other people are around, Applejack doesn't do anything that might attract attention. She's gotten really good at asking questions he can answer by flicking his chin in a teeny nod, or pretending to cough. Bucky can even touch her by letting his hands dangle by his sides, so he can casually slide his fingers into her mane. No one ever notices anything.
But he can't talk about her. He can't crow about his best friend's strength or speed, or how she taught him to use a lasso, or how they sneak into junkyards together so she can explain how to take apart and reassemble engines. He can't tell anyone about how he agreed to learn piano because Applejack's learning the fiddle. He can't wait until they're good enough to play duets together, even if no one else will hear her part. No one else knows that he's doing better at school because Applejack is thrilled for him when he does well, when his dad and mom just get disappointed when he doesn't.
But the worst part about not being able to tell anybody about Applejack is that he can't tell Steve. So Bucky can't ever tell Steve that it's because of Applejack that Bucky was strong and fast enough to drive off the two bullies beating Steve's teeny, scrawny body to a pulp. Or that Bucky dove into the fight in the first place because Applejack is good and kind and brave and honest, and Bucky maybe sort-of loves her so he wants to be good and kind and brave and honest too.
But anyway, the first time Bucky meets Steve is when Bucky's standing there with his chest heaving after the fight, grinning and sucking the blood off his knuckles. "Hi. My name's Bucky," he says, as he stretches out his hand to help the tiny little boy to his feet.
He doesn't introduce Applejack even though she's right next to him, because he knows better. But he sees the boy's bright blue eyes flicker in her direction, and for a second Bucky hopes so hard the boy sees her that he can't breathe. But then the boy just looks back at him and Bucky knows that this crazy, stupid, reckless kid who's maybe the size of a half-starved alley cat didn't see her either. And even though Bucky just met him, the disappointment's so terrible he wants to cry.
Applejack's still smiling though, nudging Bucky with her shoulder and grinning because she's proud of him. It's like she can't see how obvious it is that the other boy should see her too, and maybe that's because she's only Bucky's friend, the way she said when they were little. But it doesn't feel right, that this sun-haired boy can't see her. It feels wrong and awful and sad.
"I'm Steve," the boy says, and he takes Bucky's hand and Bucky's palm practically engulfs Steve's. Steve's knuckles are already purpling and swelling with bruises, and he's breathing kind of funny, all wheezy like he's sick. But he says, "Thanks for the help, but I had 'em on the ropes," with the words kind of spaced out so he can breathe between them. Then Steve grins around his split lip and bruised jaw like he knows exactly what a bunch of hooey that is.
Bucky laughs, shoving the disappointment aside because he knows he shouldn't've expected anything anyway. "Yeah, you're a regular Jack Dempsey." Steve's on his feet now, and he barely comes up to Bucky's chin. His stack of books looks like it weighs more than he does. "Where do you live?" Bucky asks more seriously, because Steve's still breathing funny, like he's got pneumonia or something, and he sounds terrible. "We should get you home so your mom can clean you up."
"Call me on the carpet, more likely," Steve sighs, or at least wheezes like he's trying to sigh. It's only when he disentangles his hand from Bucky's that Bucky realizes he hadn't let him go. "It's not too far," he adds, then smiles crookedly. "Well, thanks again. I should—"
"Should nothing," Bucky cuts in quickly before the kid just leaves. He grabs the strap around Steve's books—holy cow, they weigh a ton—and heaves them over the same shoulder as his own much smaller book stack. Bucky starts walking back to the mouth of the alley, going slow so Steve can keep up with him. Applejack walks beside him, throwing worried looks at Steve every so often.
"Hey!" Steve pants, trying to run to catch up. He looks alarmingly like he's going to fall over, but Applejack trots up beside him and gently sort-of topples Steve into Bucky. Steve won't feel it, Bucky knows, but it works to give Bucky an excuse to help him.
"Whoops," Bucky says mildly, and then wraps his free arm around Steve's waist. He shoots a quick grin at Applejack, who gives him a wink.
"Sorry," Steve says. Then, "I'm fine," he grumbles when Bucky doesn't let him go. But eventually Steve gives up and puts his arm around Bucky's waist and they keep walking like that. "I just live over there." Steve points with his chin, and it turns out his building's so close to Bucky's that there're clotheslines strung between them.
"Well, whaddaya know?" Bucky drawls. "So do I." And he grins at Steve because it's perfect. He knows he and Steve are going to be best pals forever, just like him and Applejack, and now he gets to see them both every day.
It's not far, but because of Steve they're walking slow as molasses in January. But Steve, despite his skinniness, is warm and solid along Bucky's side, and Bucky's arm around him feels as right as holding Applejack does. And as far as Bucky's concerned that just makes sense: he liked Applejack the first time he met her, and he already likes Steve.
But Steve can't see or hear Applejack.
Bucky keeps expecting him to. He can't help it; Steve and Applejack are so alike they're even about the same size. Steve's good and kind and brave and honest just like she is (Steve always tells the truth, and he only gets into fights to defend the other kids from bullies. And he's always helping people even when he shouldn't, like carrying Mrs. Makey's groceries when he can barely lift the bag). Steve even has hair the same color as Applejack's mane, and eyes as summer blue as hers are apple green. And his narrow face gets spattered with freckles in the sun when he's not bright red from sunburn. And Bucky knows that if Steve's body could match his heart, he'd be as strong as Applejack is too.
But despite all that, Steve doesn't know she's there. Even though he's also Bucky's best friend, and Bucky's maybe sort-of in love with him. The kind where you kiss but not just on the cheek. (Not that Bucky would possibly kiss Steve ever, because Steve's a boy and boys never kiss boys or they go to hell.)
"I hate it," he whispers to Applejack one night. His voice is fiercer than it should be, considering Steve's sleeping and they need to keep quiet. But he's thirteen and angry at the world right now and Steve can't hear him anyway. "I hate it. It's been nearly five years, and I know you…that you like him as much as I do. But it's like you don't exist to him."
"Shh," Applejack says. She's lying next to Steve in his bed, under his quilt with her legs tucked up against her body. They've been taking turns all night, keeping Steve warm until Bucky or Applejack get too hot. Bucky's hair is still wet from his turn. He volunteered to sit with Steve while Mrs. Rogers is working her shift at the hospital. She'd likely have a fit if she knew Bucky was spending so much time right next to Steve and his germs, but Bucky really doesn't give a damn.
Steve mutters something in his restless sleep, then tightens his arm over Applejack's withers, mashing his face so close to her neck Bucky's not sure how he can breathe. Not that he's really breathing anyway. He caught whatever's been going around like he always does, but the instant he gets sick it's as if his lungs stop working. Right now he sounds like he's got a freight train in his chest, and every time he coughs Bucky's honest to God terrified he'll die.
Applejack sighs a soft puff of air from her nostrils. She's probably getting too hot too, with Steve burning up like a furnace. "I don't like it neither, but I'm yours, Bucky. Not Steve's."
"So I'm the only one who can see you. I know." Bucky runs his fingers through his hair, grimacing at the damp sweat. "It's just…He—he's sort of mine, too. And I know he'd think you're just as swell as I do. He could be yours." Bucky shifts uncomfortably in the wooden chair, stretching out his legs. "He should be yours," he says, eyes on his ratty socks.
"Hey," Applejack says, and when Bucky looks up her eyes are luminous in the light from the bare bulb in the main apartment room outside. She smiles at him, though it's thin and worried and sad. "I got you, Buck. That's enough for me."
Bucky tries to smile but he knows it's more of a grimace. "Guess I'm greedy, then." 'Cause it's not enough for him, not anymore. Not since meeting Steve. And it's so unfair, that Steve doesn't know about the other most important person in Bucky's life. It's not fair, and Bucky hates it.
"I wish you were human," he says.
Applejack snorts. "Well, I wish you were a pony."
"Only if Steve were one too." Because yes, Bucky's thought about it: the three of them together in Equestria, the place Applejack comes from where most of the animals talk and there aren't any humans at all. It sounds like a pretty great place. It's peaceful and warm almost all the time, where everyone can do some sort of magic and almost no one gets sick ever and no one's ever poor or hungry or lonely.
Steve wouldn't get sick there, Bucky's sure. Or if he did then they'd find a unicorn doctor to cure him with magic. And the three of them would live in a little cottage in Ponyville near the Apples' farm. And Bucky would help Applejack kick the apples out of the trees, and Steve could spend his days drawing or teaching art to the foals.
It's a stupid fantasy and Bucky knows it's never going to happen. But right now with Steve so sick and barely breathing Bucky wants it so bad he could scream. "Can't you go home and get him some medicine?" he asks Applejack. He winces when she blinks at him and he realizes he snapped at her. "Sorry."
"You're fine," Applejack says, which he knows means he didn't hurt her feelings. "I'd get him something if I could," she says, and she never lies so Bucky knows she means it. "But our medicine's all magic, and magic won't work here. Sure wish I could do something," she adds softly, then bends her neck so she can kiss the wet hair on the side of Steve's head.
"Me too," Bucky says. He swallows, wipes what he pretends is sweat out of his eyes. "You hot?"
Part of why he's asking is because he wants to have Steve in his arms, but when Applejack shakes her head and says, "Naw," in that summer voice of hers he doesn't mind. "He almost knows I'm here, like this. It's nice. 'Least, that part is."
"Yeah," Bucky says roughly. He can't stand that Steve needs to be so sick he's delirious for it to happen, but right now he's holding on to Applejack because he can feel her warmth and the sturdy comfort of her back. He always gravitates to her when she's nearby, and when he's restless she can quiet him down by talking or singing to him. But the instant Steve's fever breaks Applejack stops existing for him. He never mentions her, but Bucky doesn't know if that's 'cause Steve can't remember, or because he just thinks it was a dream. But of course Bucky can't ask.
Steve shifts again and starts coughing, as if to remind Bucky how much of a bastard he is for thinking anything about Steve being sick could be good at all. Bucky instantly runs over to the other side of the bed to help Applejack prop Steve up to make it easier for him to suck air into his lungs. Applejack keeps Steve steady while Bucky grabs the handkerchief from the bedside table and holds it near Steve's mouth.
"Come on, come on," he mutters. "Come on, spit it up, Steve. That's it, get it out." He sighs in relief when Steve manages to choke up a revolting wad of phlegm, greenish and marbled with blood. Just looking at it makes Bucky want to puke, and knowing that's what's in Steve's lungs right now is even worse.
Steve's eyes are dull blue slits, set deep in a face pale as milk except for the bright red spots on his cheeks. Bucky's sure Steve's not actually seeing a damn thing, at least nothing that's actually there. He reaches for Bucky in a vague grope with an arm that's trembling so hard Bucky's not sure how he can even lift it.
"Yeah, I'm here," Bucky says. He sits on the bed and ducks under Steve's arm. Steve holds him as tightly as he did Applejack, burying his face against Bucky's neck.
Applejack's still behind Steve, so Steve's between them. Bucky holds Steve as tightly as he dares with one arm, and reaches across Steve's paper-thin body to put his other hand in Applejack's mane. She leans her head against Bucky's side. Her face is damp from sweat and maybe tears, not that Bucky's going to ask.
They stay like that, keeping Steve warm until he falls back asleep.
Bucky's sixteen when he loses his virginity in the backseat of Claire Bonaventure's car. Claire's family is from New Orleans, and Bucky will take it to his grave that he's with her instead of Maggie O'Rourke because Claire is blond and blue-eyed and short and slender, and has a thick Southern accent.
She's also five years older than he is, and knows exactly what she wants and how to tell Bucky to do it. He learns a lot that night, and the next several nights afterwards. And then when Claire gets tired of him, he practices with as many of the dames as will give him the time of day. He gets really good at flirting, and kissing, and a whole bunch of stuff that Steve never, ever asks about, which is a relief. Except for how Bucky kind of wishes he would.
Applejack never asks, either. And she never tags along on those nights when Bucky goes to the dancehalls or the bars. He looks 18 so he has no problem getting in anywhere. Not that most of the bartenders look twice at him anyway, so long as he's got the clams.
Steve, of course, barely looks 12, so he'd most likely be turned away at the door even if he could take a single breath of all the smoke inside without coughing his lungs up. Bucky learns how to smoke that summer too, but he only smokes when he goes out because it makes Steve cough and Applejack can't stand the smell.
So Bucky goes out alone, and makes time with the dames and tries not to look at the guys so's anyone would notice. And at first it's the bee's knees—he loves dancing, and he knows he's enough of a looker to get just about any dame who catches his eye. But when he stumbles home, sweaty, disheveled, reeking of cigarettes and some dame's perfume more often than not and sometimes bruised and wet-knuckled from a fight, Steve's always on the fire escape waiting for him. There's never any judgment in those big blue eyes, but…something else. And whatever it is it makes Bucky feel defensive and guilty as hell.
Most of the time he'll scowl and snap at Steve about catching his death of cold or keeling over the next day from exhaustion. And all Steve'll do is close his sketchbook and rub his charcoal-covered hands together and say, "'Just wanted to make sure you got home safe, Buck," and smile in that way of his that's so damn heartbreaking Bucky can't even look at him.
Sometimes Bucky'll remember that Applejack used to think he was good and kind and brave and honest, so he'll sit down next to Steve and ask to see what he drew. And if he puts his arm across Steve's narrow shoulders, it's easy for Bucky to tell himself he's just keeping the dumb kid warm.
A lot of Steve's pictures are of Bucky.
Applejack's most often on his bed when Bucky finally goes into his room in the wee hours of the morning. She always pretends to be asleep and Bucky always lets her, and then he crawls into the bed behind her and lies on his side with his back against the wall, so he can put his arms around her. He falls asleep with the smell of summer in his nostrils, replacing the stink of where he's been.
And Bucky wants so badly for it to be a human girl in his arms, just like he wants so badly to be able to pull Steve close and kiss him. Bucky wants it so badly it hurts, like he's got a chasm in his chest where his heart should be. And nothing ever fills it and nothing can, because he can't have the only people who would.
Bucky's handsome and suave and popular, and he's got two best friends who he loves more than his life. And he hasn't felt this alone since he was six years old and crying by himself on the steps outside his building.
He stops going out. He says it's because he's saving money for his own apartment once he graduates. It's not really a lie because he does want his own place, but he doesn't know if Steve and Applejack believe him anyway. But if they don't, neither of them mention it, so that's fine.
Staying home nights doesn't make Bucky feel any less lonely, but it maybe doesn't hurt as much, without all the strangers to remind him of it. That's fine, too.
Bucky's 18 the first time he lets another guy touch his dick.
His name's Charley Rickey, and he works in the same garage. Bucky's had a feeling for a while that Charley might be queer. It's just the little things, like how Charley laughs, or how his smile always goes a bit distant when the other guys are talking about their girls. Or how he looks at Bucky sometimes and it's as if he knows Bucky's been trying not to look back.
It just makes Bucky try not to look back that much harder, mostly. But Charley's got a broad chest and broader shoulders and a face like a God-damned movie star. And even though his hair is almost the same dark brown as Bucky's instead of blond, and even though Charley's tall and built like an ox, he's got a sweet little smile, and freckles, and eyes that are almost sky blue.
So maybe Bucky's trying not to look back. But when, one evening, Charley more-or-less traps Bucky against the door of the car they're working on as Bucky's leaving, and then slides his big hand between Bucky's legs, Bucky lets him do it.
Charley smirks at him and Bucky kind of wants to punch his teeth in for how smug he is about it. But when Charley undoes Bucky's belt and pushes his pants down to his thighs, Bucky lets him do that, too.
They don't kiss—Bucky would, but maybe fellas don't do that, he doesn't know—but Charley sinks to his knees and then God, who the fuck cares about kissing when what Charley's doing feels so good Bucky has to bite his knuckles so he won't scream. 'Cause Rickey Sr. owns the garage and he's just in the office next door, and if he comes in and finds them like this he'll grab the baseball bat he keeps behind the counter and beat Bucky's head in. Maybe Charley's too.
But that just makes it more exciting, somehow, knowing that they're actually in danger doing this. And when Bucky comes, it's so hard his knees almost give out.
Charley stands, grinning and wiping his mouth. "Ready to return the favor, pal?"
No way in hell is Bucky going to admit he's never done this before, so he just grins back and yanks his pants up and re-fastens them, then wobbles his way to the floor to take his turn.
In the end Bucky gives a mental shrug and does what Charley did, as well as throwing in some of what he remembers the dames doing that he liked. Charley seems to like it too, considering how he's whimpering through his clenched jaw and rocking his hips like he can't help himself. It's the berries, having that kind of power, but Bucky's also a little bored and his knees hurt. So he closes his eyes and imagines he's with someone else; someone Bucky actually gives a damn about. Where he'd be doing this because he wants to, not out of a sense of competitive obligation.
Someone who's Steve Rogers, of course. And what kind of fucking degenerate does that make him, thinking of one of his best friends like that?
Whatever fun there was in wrecking Charley, it's gone now, so Bucky just finishes him off as quickly as he can. All the same, he's feeling pretty smug at how Charley nearly brains himself on the car roof when he comes.
Charley makes it a caress when he pulls his hand out of Bucky's hair, and when Bucky looks up the guy's smiling at him like a goof. "You're an ace at that."
Bucky just grins, then pats Charley on his hip. "Better tuck it in, pal, before your old man sees you." He stands up, shaking out his legs. "Better clean up too," he adds, because he'll be damned if he ends up doing it. He checks the clock on the wall, winces. "I gotta make tracks. See you tomorrow."
"Sure," Charley murmurs, sounding a little dazed. "Hey," he says suddenly, and something in his voice makes Bucky suck in a breath. "Are you busy Saturday? I was thinking—"
"Bad idea, pally. You'll hurt yourself." Bucky gives him a smirk and heaves open the garage door. "I'll see you tomorrow," he says over his shoulder, then escapes into the night.
Applejack's waiting for him at the corner.
Bucky shoves his hands into his pockets and walks fast with his head down, hoping she won't see the shame burning his face. "I know. I'm late. I'm sorry," he says before she does. He won't lie to her so there's no way he can say anything else.
"I know what y'all were doing," she says.
For a second the bolt of shock feels like someone dumped ice into his guts. "Don't you have any fucking idea what 'privacy' means?" He's almost as startled as Applejack, to hear what comes out of his mouth. He's never said anything to her in anger ever, let alone loudly enough for anyone nearby to hear. Bucky glances back at the garage, but Charley's still inside somewhere, not watching the guy who just blew him lose his mind in the middle of the sidewalk.
"I sure do—when somepony lets me know what they want," she snaps in return, far more mildly than Bucky did. "I'm no unicorn. I can't magically know what's going on in your stupid head. If you were gonna canoodle with your boyfriend—"
"He's not—it's nothing like that!" Bucky snarls, horrified. He looks around again, then silently thanks God that there's no one there to listen. He's gotten used to counting on Applejack to know when it's safe for them to talk, but she doesn't normally say things like this. Bucky runs his fingers through his hair, grimacing at the axel grease gunking up his left temple. "You can't just say things like that! It's not…it's not normal. And it's not true, anyway. I was just…it was…"
He stops, clenching his jaw so hard it hurts. "I don't want to talk about it."
Applejack turns her head to look up at him. She's grown since they first met, but not nearly as much as Bucky has. The top of her head barely comes up to his chest. "What's not true? And what can't I say? Have you lost your marbles? What in Equestria are y'all talking about?"
She sounds genuinely bewildered, which only makes it worse. "We're on Earth, not Equestria. And if you really don't know, then go ask a fucking unicorn. Otherwise, shut up and don't stick your nose where it doesn't belong."
"Fine! I will, then!" Applejack stops so suddenly her hooves slide on the pavement. "And you can go soak your head!"
"Swell. You do that, hayseed. See you later." Bucky barely glances back at her, ignoring the guilt at being so rude, which is beating in his chest on top of everything else.
"Not if I see you first!"
It is, Bucky's sure, supposed to be some kind of vaguely threatening insult back in Equestria, where everyone's so damn polite that he had to explain to Applejack what the word 'fuck' meant. But it's so ridiculous, especially combined with her thick southern drawl, that Bucky can't help it: he starts laughing.
"Then I guess I'll see you—" he starts as he swings around, only to have the smile drop off his face like a brick. Because Applejack's gone.
Bucky quits the garage the next morning, spinning a yarn about a sick relative on the fly that Charles Rickey Sr. buys hook, line and sinker. It's probably because Bucky combines Applejack and Steve and comes up with a frail but plucky little cousin, dying of consumption and depending on Bucky to look after her in her final days.
Bucky hates lying (good people don't lie. Applejack and Steve never do), but he's real good at it. And he just smiles and acts shocked and delighted and overwhelmed when Rickey Sr. folds a ten dollar bill into his palm when they shake hands. At least it'll keep him in groceries for a while, hopefully long enough to find another job, even if he gives half of it to Sarah Rogers. She's been coughing a lot lately and she always works too hard. Bucky knows if he tells her it's for food or clothes or medicine for Steve, she won't refuse it.
It makes him feel a little less like a son of a bitch. But it still takes all his nerve to look Rickey Sr. in the eye, especially when Bucky's memory of what he did with Charley the night before weighs hot as a brand on the back of his neck. But Bucky can't keep working here. Not after that.
Charley beams and waves at Bucky when he sees him walking past the open garage. Bucky looks away.
He keeps expecting Applejack to be standing next to him, staring up at his face with her big, disappointed eyes. But she's not. Not that morning and not that evening and not for days afterwards.
It takes a whole week before Bucky allows himself to really consider that she might not be coming back.
Steve's on the fire escape again when Bucky comes home. Bucky's nicely lit up, thanks, and the last thing he wants to see is Steve's hunched, skinny shoulders and that blond (summer-colored) hair in the light coming through Bucky's kitchen window. He especially doesn't want to see it since he got his own place and he and Steve don't live in adjacent buildings anymore. It's at least a ten-minute hike back to the apartment Steve still shares with his mom, and it's nearly November and cold enough already that Bucky's breath's misting. Steve's not healthy enough to go back and forth in the cold, and Bucky doesn't need someone snooping around to see what he's doing anyway. But Steve won't give up.
Bucky stops at the side of the building, swaying a little until he leans his hand on the wall. He could go in the front door like a sane, sober person, but that would require enough coordination to get the key into the lock. And getting the key in the lock requires finding the key, which is somewhere in one of Bucky's pockets and he has too many of them to want to bother with right now. The window looks very far away, but at least all he has to do is climb.
Steve wasn't drawing this time, Bucky notices when he gets close enough. There's no telltale charcoal stains anywhere and the bundle of scrap grocery paper that Steve painstakingly threaded together isn't on his lap. Steve's just half balled up, hugging himself in his oversize jacket with his hair flopping in his eyes. Bucky tries not to wonder how long Steve's been sitting here like this in the dark and the cold, waiting for Bucky to come home.
"Shouldn't be out here. S'too cold," Bucky says to him once he's close enough and the building mostly stops spinning. Too late Bucky remembers that he's been bumming cigarettes all night and he'll likely give the poor kid an asthma attack just by breathing on him. Steve's breathing a bit funny as it is; even drunk Bucky's too used to listening for the wheeze not to notice. He slams his palm over his mouth. "Sorry," he says, but it's too muffled so he moves his hand again.
Steve peers up at him through his bangs, and it's so much like Applejack and her huge green eyes that the guilt and misery hit like a slug in Bucky's chest. He turns away so fast he nearly pitches himself down the stairs.
"Bucky!" Steve grabs Bucky's wrist, hard enough that it's uncomfortable even though the cloth of his jacket. Bucky's always surprised at the strength in Steve's hands. "Are you all right? Are you drunk?"
"Yeah," Bucky says. He tries to paste on his most charming grin but doesn't think he manages it, given how Steve's scowling at him. "What? S'free country." Bucky very carefully doesn't shrug because the fire escape doesn't feel all that stable tonight.
"I know. And I know you're an adult and it's your own money and you can do what you want and everything, before you say it again," Steve says on a weak puff of air. "But…" He frowns, sad, and Bucky kind of wants to throw himself off the fucking fire escape just to not have to see it. "This isn't like you, Buck. I mean, you've got work in the morning, don't you? How're you going to keep yourself safe if you're so hungover you can't see straight?"
"I c'n see just fine," Bucky says. Everything's wavering a bit, but he knows that'll go away in a few hours. And he's got plenty of experience over the past couple weeks working with a headache. "S'not like m'doing anything dangerous." Hauling crap around at the docks doesn't exactly need a lot of concentration. It doesn't exactly pay well, either. But with everyone out of a job, even skilled mechanics are willing to work for two bits or less an hour. Bucky couldn't find a damn thing other than a shitty job moving cargo worth more than he'll earn in a year, and he knows he's lucky to have it.
He knows he shouldn't waste it on the panther piss that passes for alcohol in the dives he's been going to. He needs to make rent, after all, and eat. And after giving Sarah Rogers as much dough as he can convince her to take, most weeks there's not much left. And he'd rather starve in an alley than go back to his folks and put up with his little sisters' smugness and his dad's disgust and his mom's disappointment. And besides, he's too old to cross the fire escape and climb through Steve's window anymore.
But it's been a month, and Applejack's still gone, and he misses her like a fucking hole in his heart the size of the Grand Canyon. So sometimes he goes out to drink and flirt with a kitten or two, or sometimes more than just flirt. And sometimes he goes places where there aren't kittens, just tomcats. It fills the hole up for a while, or at least makes it easier to forget about it. And Steve doesn't give a shit where Bucky goes; only if he comes back or not.
Sometimes Bucky wishes that Steve did give a shit, that Steve would even ask. But he won't. He's too kind, too nice to wonder why Bucky lurches back reeking of cologne as often as perfume. He's too good to make Bucky tell him. Because Bucky would. He's never lied to Steve.
But Steve won't ask, so the answer Bucky would give hangs between them like a pendulum—the kind that Poe wrote about, that'll cut you in half.
Yeah, Bucky may be three sheets to the wind, but he can see just fine.
Steve sighs in exasperation. He stands up, holding onto the rail next to the stairs. Sitting too long makes Steve's back hurt, and his tiny wince is another stab of guilt to add to all the rest.
"I didn't ask you to wait for me," Bucky snaps, because he's sick and tired of feeling guilty.
"'Never said you did," Steve says. "Come on. I want to make sure you actually get inside before I go home." He crawls through the open window, moving like someone about four times his age. Steve's only 17, but sometimes Bucky looks at him and all he sees is a frail old man, clinging to life out of stubbornness instead of hope.
Steve pokes his head back out the window when he realizes Bucky hasn't moved. "Come on, get your ass back inside already. Do you…" Whatever Steve sees wipes the irritation right off his face. His big blue eyes get even bigger. "What's wrong, Buck?"
Bucky blinks, then realizes the blur wasn't alcohol when he can suddenly see again. "You're not old," he says. "You're not old. You shouldn't look like you're dying." He swallows. His throat hurts like he's getting sick and his eyes blur again. "It's not fair, Stevie. You're good. But you look so old, and what'm I gonna do when you're gone too?" A sob hits him out of nowhere, and then he's crying like a little kid, holding for dear life onto the rail of the fire escape. "What'll I do when you're both gone, huh? What'll I do then? I can't do anything!"
"Oh, Jesus." Steve climbs out the window again. "I really think you should come inside, Buck." He takes Bucky's arm, gently tugging him towards the window.
Bucky doesn't want to go inside, but he doesn't want to do anything else either. And it's Steve, so Bucky just lets him tug. He's had enough practice doing this that even dead drunk he manages not to bean himself on the windowsill or break his kisser on the floor. He does end up sitting under the window with his back leaning against the wall, but the floor's not moving so he doesn't mind. Bucky blots his eyes with his sleeves, pathetically grateful when Steve sits beside him and puts his arm around his back.
He can feel the labored expansion of Steve's chest before he speaks. "I'm fine, Buck. I mean, I know I've got asthma, and my heart goes too fast sometimes and my spine's a little crooked. And…and all the other things. But I'm fine." He jostles Bucky a little, leans forward and turns his head so Bucky can see him smile. "You know me—I'm a tough little son of a bitch and I'm not going anywhere."
"Don't talk about your mom like that." Bucky sniffs, wiping his eyes.
Steve chuckles. "Well, mom's tough too. Her cough's getting better, thanks to the orange juice you brought. She told me she's even going back to full shifts at the hospital again."
Bucky's head snaps up, and he has to squint until the room stops looping. "She is? But she's…she'll get sick."
"She says she's fine and I trust her," Steve says, though Bucky's not too drunk to notice that Steve looks like he wants to trust Sarah about this more than he actually does. "It's real nice of you to worry about mom and me. I mean, I understand. I worry about you, too. But we're both fine, and we're gonna be fine. We're not leaving you, Bucky."
It takes Bucky at least a minute to figure out what Steve's talking about, and then his gulping laugh is a little too wet and too close to hysteria. "Thanks," he says, because there're no other possible words. He's still scared to death that Steve's going to die, no matter what he says. And yes, Bucky's worried about Sarah Rogers. Of course he's worried, she's a wonderful woman and he doesn't want Steve to be without his mom. But he wasn't talking about Sarah Rogers.
He was talking about Applejack. But Steve doesn't know.
Nobody knows. And she's gone and Bucky can't tell anyone.
The hole in his stupid wreck of a heart feels as big as the world, and he's exhausted and empty and even with Steve sitting right next to him Bucky's so lonely he could die.
"Bucky?" Steve says, gentle and kind and he might as well be sitting on the far side of the moon. "What's wrong? Why are you still crying?"
Bucky swallows, shaking his head. He wipes his eyes with the heels of his hands. "It's nothing. I'm just drunk. Too fucking soused to keep my head screwed on right." He forces his lips into a smile. "You know how it is—drink enough, you get happy. Drink too much and you get blue as all get out."
"I guess," Steve says. He cups Bucky's face, clearing away more tears with his thumb. "But, you know you can tell me anything, right?"
Bucky pulls back before he does something stupid like turn his head to kiss Steve's palm. "I wish I could," he says before he thinks about it.
"What do you mean?" Steve's clearly mystified. "Of course you can." Steve moves far enough away from Bucky that he can look him straight in the face. His eyes are as dark and earnest as the sea. "Bucky, there is absolutely nothing that you could tell me that would make me stop being your friend. You know that, right? I love you. Nothing's going to change that."
If Bucky were a better man, that'd be good enough. That'd be everything, to be the beloved friend of a man like Steven Grant Rogers. But Bucky was only ever good and kind and brave and honest for Applejack, and Applejack's gone.
So, "This might," Bucky says. And he takes Steve's head in his hands and kisses him.
Bucky's still drunk and his heart's trying to hammer its way out of his ribs, and this is the dumbest thing he's ever done in his entire misbegotten life. And he's sober enough to know that this is it: he's just ruined everything.
But he still knows how to kiss, and he's good at it.
It isn't rough or mean; he makes sure of that. Bucky's as gentle with Steve as he is with the wallflowers who don't know how pretty they are, or the boys no one looks at twice because they're short and scrawny and narrow-chested. He holds Steve only hard enough to keep him in place, dips his tongue into Steve's half open mouth but doesn't force anything. Bucky knows how wrong it is for him to be doing this at all, but he'll be damned if he doesn't make it as good as possible for Steve.
Of course Bucky's damned anyway. Because God help him, but he wants Steve more than anything except Applejack coming back. And that's not going to happen either.
Steve's gone completely still with surprise, and Bucky expects him to shove him away any second. And he's not good, not really, so Bucky selfishly uses Steve's shock to kiss him as long as he can, trying to remember as much of this moment as possible before it goes all to hell.
He never expects Steve to kiss him back.
But Steve does. Tentative at first, and then Steve makes a small, delicious noise in the back of his throat and all but shoves his tongue into Bucky's mouth. Steve kisses like he fights: rushing in with no sense of caution or restraint. He grips Bucky's shoulders like he's worried Bucky's going to leave—like there could be anywhere in the world Bucky would rather be than here—and Steve's tongue laves Bucky's mouth like he owns it, like he's trying to lick it clean. It's too fast and too wet and a little sloppy and perfect and what the fuck is wrong with him, that he's letting Steve do this?
Bucky yanks his head back, hauls Steve's hands off his shoulders, forgetting to be gentle in his panic. "Oh, God, oh my God. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me. I shouldn't—" He's sucking air like bellows, scrambling to his feet because he's going to be sick and he can't look at Steve's face knowing what he's done.
"Bucky, Bucky, what's wrong?" Steve calls after him. He's getting to his feet too but he's slow, and Bucky takes advantage of that to get into his apartment's postage stamp-sized bathroom and lock the door. Then he drops to his knees in front of the toilet and pukes up everything in his stomach. It's nothing but liquid, and he thinks dimly that he can't remember the last time he actually ate anything.
He's such a fucking mess. No wonder Applejack's gone. Why the hell would anyone with half a brain stick around?
"Bucky? You okay in there?"
Bucky spits into the bowl then turns so he falls against the bathtub with his ass on the floor. "Yeah," he says, then remembers he doesn't lie to Steve. "No." His chest's heaving like he's run a marathon and he's sweating under his jacket. He needs to take it off and he needs to rinse his mouth, but he just lets his head loll on the metal rim of the tub, with his legs splayed out and his hands on his thighs. "I'm sorry," he says. He can't remember if he already apologized or not, but he can't say it enough times to make this better anyway. "I'm sorry, Steve. That was…I never shoulda done that."
"Done what?" Steve says through the door. "Kiss me? Did I do anything to give you the impression that I thought you shouldn't've done that?"
Bucky's heart's still going like a jackhammer. The bathroom's started a slow spin around him, but as long as he concentrates on Steve's voice it's fine, he won't puke again. Steve's pretty much always been his fixed point anyway, just like Applejack was his shadow dipped in sunlight. She'd be in the bathroom right next to him. Just as well she's not there to see him like this.
"No." Bucky shakes his head, even though Steve can't see him. "But…"
But it's wrong. But I should never have forced my perversion on you. But you're too good to want another man like this. "But I shouldn't've tempted you. It's… Normal men don't do that."
"Tempted me?" Steve demands. "Do you have any idea how long I've wanted you to do that? All those nights, you come back reeking of cheap cologne and now you—" He makes a sound like biting back a yell of frustration, then bangs on the door again. "Bucky, let me in. I'm not talking to you about this through a door."
"We're not talking about it," Bucky counters. The room's spinning faster now, like he's trapped in the spokes of a wheel. He closes his eyes and swallows, hoping he really isn't going to vomit again. "Please, Stevie. I don't want to talk about it. I'm sorry, okay?" He has to stop and clench his jaw until he's sure he's not going to start bawling. "I'm so fucking sorry. You should stay away from me. I'm bad news."
"Bucky…" Steve sounds tired and sad. He's stopped hammering on the door, which is great because Bucky's head is starting to pound in time with his heartbeat. He's really done it to himself this time. "I told you that nothing you said to me could ever make me stop being your friend, remember?"
"'Weren't exactly talking."
"We are now," Steve retorts easily. "I'm not gonna leave you."
"Yeah, sure," Bucky mutters. "She said that too."
"Who's 'she'?" Steve says. "Is this…Are you drinking yourself to death because of a girl?"
Bucky's eyes fly open. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. He can't tell if Steve sounds more shocked or hurt, but neither makes sense and it doesn't matter anyway because how the hell is he going to explain this without lying?
He ends up not answering, because he's too tired and too drunk and his head's aching too much to think of anything he could say that's true but wouldn't make things worse.
"Bucky? Bucky?" Steve sounds worried now. The door handle rattles. "Open the fucking door, or I swear to God I'm going to break it down."
"You and whose army?" Bucky says wearily. He closes his eyes again because it's too much effort to keep them open. "Go away, Steve," he says on a breath. "Please. You can sleep on the couch, if you want. Or in my room, if you don't want to have to walk home tonight. But, please. Just leave me alone."
"Not gonna do that, remember?" Steve sounds like he's speaking through gritted teeth. The door handle rattles harder, like he's trying to shake the latch loose. "Bucky, open the door."
"I don't think I can walk that far," Bucky says honestly. He throws an arm over his eyes. "I'm really sorry for what I did."
"Will you get it through your thick skull that I wanted it as much as you did?" It sounds like Steve kicks the door, and Bucky moves his arm and cracks his eyes open, wondering if Steve's broken the cheap wood. It seems just as solid as ever so he closes his eyes again. "Damn it, Buck." There's a quieter thud, then a sound Bucky's sure is Steve sliding down to sit with his back against the door he can't open. "I love you. I'm in love with you, okay? The only reason I didn't kiss you first was because I didn't know if you'd want that. With me, I mean. I know…you want it with other fellas. And I know I'm no great shakes, but—"
Bucky cuts him off with a sound too strangled to be a laugh. "They all look like you, Steve. Every single damn one of 'em. All the other fellas. They look like you."
"Oh," Steve says after a moment, so quiet Bucky can barely hear him. "But, if you don't… Then why? Why not me?"
"Because you're good," Bucky says simply. "You're good, and kind, and honest and brave and everything I've tried to be my whole damn life. But you—you just are. You don't have to try. And the last thing you need is some degenerate creep pawing you because he's too sick to keep it to himself."
"You really think I'm better than you?" Steve demands. "You think that I'm some kind of…I don't even know. Some kind of superhero who's too, what? Too good for you? I'm so decent I couldn't possibly be in love with you? Is that it?"
"Yeah. That's it exactly," Bucky says.
There's a long, ominous silence behind the door.
"I don't even know where to begin with that," Steve says at last. He sounds defeated. "Bucky, how could you possibly think that you're in any way less good, or decent or kind or any of the things you say I am? Don't you know who you are?"
Bucky smirks. "Sure I do. I'm a useless fuck who likes dick as much as pussy. That's why you should ditch me."
"Stop it! Will you just stop it?" The door bangs like Steve smacked the back of his head against it. "I already told you I wasn't going anywhere." He makes another frustrated noise. "That's it. I've had it." Bucky hears Steve getting up and then walking away, and he lets out a breath that's as sad as it's relieved. He lifts his dead-weight arms and rubs at his eyes with his fingers. Outside the tiny window he thinks he can see the first glow of daylight. God, work is going to be hell, even if it is his own damn fault.
A small noise from the door makes Bucky open his eyes again. Steve's slid a knife between the door and the frame. Bucky watches in dull fascination as Steve uses the blade to painstakingly work the hook free.
Steve comes in glowering, but the anger on his face shifts instantly to concern. "Are you okay? Do you need a doctor?" He puts the knife down on the edge of the sink, looking at Bucky worriedly.
"Naw." Bucky shifts over a little to give Steve more room when he sits down beside him.
Steve sits with his clasped hands between his drawn-up knees. He looks at the peeling wallpaper on the other side of the tiny room. "Can I ask you something?"
Bucky clears his throat, vowing that he'll answer no matter what the question is. "Sure."
"Do you love me?"
Bucky hisses in a breath. "God, Stevie. With every goddam heartbeat."
Steve glances at him sharply, maybe startled. But then he looks at the bathroom wall again, nodding slowly like it was still the answer he expected. "Well, I love you too. I don't think that's a bad thing, Buck."
"There're a hell of a lot of people who don't agree with you."
"I don't care," Steve says. "I don't give a fuck even if the entire world thinks that me being in love with you is wrong. I've been told 'no' my entire life, Buck. Because of where I live and how I was born and who I am. I never listened to that crap before and I'm not going to listen to it now." He takes Bucky's lax hand in his, holding it in a fierce, possessive grip as if daring anyone to try and separate them. "I love you, Bucky Barnes. I love you and I'm not gonna stop just because some assholes say I shouldn't."
Bucky blinks more lousy tears out of his eyes, swipes them away with his free hand. "I wish I were more like you," he says, rasping the words. "I wish I were brave enough not to care."
"But you do," Steve says needlessly.
Steve breathes in, out and in again, each ounce of air crackling like paper in his lungs. It sounds awful, but it's like Steve's so used to not breathing right he doesn't notice anymore. "What do we do about this?"
"Nothing," Bucky says. He can't look at Steve, but he doesn't let go of his hand. "I'm sorry."
Steve lets go of Bucky's hand, then grabs onto the edge of the tub behind him and stands. He still looks so old. "I'm going home. You should eat and drink something. At least get some coffee in you before you have to go to work. And get off the fucking bathroom floor."
Bucky nods vaguely, clenching and unclenching his hand. The palm feels clammy and cold now that Steve's hand is gone. "Steve?"
Steve turns back to him, his hand on the knob of the door.
"You're still my best friend," Bucky says. "'Til the end of the line."
Steve nods. "I know," he says, before he walks away.
Bucky hears the kitchen window close, and then the apartment door open and shut, and then he's alone.
Bucky's sure that's it, he's lost both of them. But when Bucky staggers home from a worse day at work than he'd ever thought possible, Steve's sitting on the fire escape. And he smiles at Bucky like nothing happened, and he's there the next evening, and the next, and the one after that.
Bucky starts coming home as soon as work's over, because it's getting cold and Steve's waiting for him.
Two weeks after that fucking disaster of a night, Bucky walks into his apartment shivering, with snow dusting his coat and his hair and the grocery bag in his arms and Applejack's in the living room.
Bucky only doesn't drop the groceries because he's so shocked he can't move. He can't even breathe. He just stands there like a statue of an idiot. "Applejack?"
"Howdy! I got news! Great news!" Her grin is huge and bright and happy and suddenly he can move again.
Bucky barely takes the time to put the bag on the table before he runs the few steps to her and falls to his knees so he can throw his arms around her withers. He stays like that, hugging her as the snow melts into his hair and the wool of his coat. His face is pressed to her neck and his nose is filled with the smell of summer every time he breathes.
"Applejack. Oh my God, Applejack!" He's crying, getting her mane wet. "I missed you so much. I thought you weren't coming back. I never got to say I'm sorry—"
Applejack lifts her front leg to wrap it around Bucky's back, putting her neck over his shoulder so she can hug him just as tightly. "'Course I came back. I made a promise, remember? I said I wasn't ever gonna leave you."
"I didn't. I didn't remember," Bucky says. "I yelled at you, and then you vanished and didn't come back. I thought I'd never see you again."
"You're my best friend, Buck. One little spat sure won't change that, no sir." She gently tugs away from him so she can look him in the eyes. He wraps his hand around her fetlock, completely unwilling to let go of her. Her eyes are sorrowful, making the green as dark as old leaves. "You really thought I'd up and left you for good?"
Bucky nods mutely.
"Well, you're just a big ol' ninny, then." Applejack smiles, even though her eyes are brimming just like Bucky's. She rears up on her hind legs to hug him like a human. "I ain't never leaving you, Bucky, you hear? I'm yours and you're mine, for always."
"Yeah," Bucky croaks. He hugs her for a long time before he lets go, sitting back on his heels and wiping his eyes. He knows his smile's watery but it's the first genuine one he's been able to give anyone but Steve for weeks. "You said you had good news or something?"
Applejack grins again, so happy she's practically incandescent. "Great news! Look!" She turns so Bucky can see her side. Her haunch used to be the same orangey color as the rest of her fur, but now there're three little bright red apples with tiny green leaves, arranged in a triangle shape.
Bucky run his fingers over them, but they don't feel any different from the rest of Applejack's fur. He looks up at her, beaming. "You got them!"
"I sure did!" She beams right back at him, prancing a little with happiness. "That's where I was," she explains more seriously. "I was trying to find that one, special thing that would make me different from everypony else." She cocks her head so that her mane slides over her eyes. "I went to stay with my aunt and uncle in Manehattan."
"Manehatten?" Bucky repeats, grinning. She'd already told him about Ponyville and Canterlot and her cousin Braeburn in Appleoosa, but this place is new. The names slay him. "Ain't that kind of ritzy for a nice country gal like you?"
Applejack rolls her eyes. "And don't think I forgot about you calling me 'hayseed', city slicker." She chuckles, but then she sighs. "But yep, you're right. I was thinking I'd find what I was looking for. But everyone there's so sophisticated and stuck up…I got so gosh-darn homesick that I couldn't stand it. So I went back to the farm, and wouldn'tya know—the second I was with my family again, my cutie mark appeared!" She dances up on her hind feet, twirling with joy. "I'm a true-blue Apple!"
"That's real swell, Applejack," Bucky says. He's happy for his friend, and so happy to have her back that it feels like his heart might burst. "This calls for a celebration. Let me think." He makes a show of squinting and tapping his chin, though he knows exactly what he's going to say before he grins at her. "How 'bout you and I go dancing?"
For a second he indulges himself and imagines her as a human, something he almost never does because it feels so unfair; like there's something inferior about her the way she is, when Applejack's exactly what she's meant to be. But it's so easy to picture Applejack with her long blonde hair hanging down her back, in a fancy green dress to match her luminous green eyes. He'd love to take her dancing for real.
He'd love to take Steve dancing, too. The two of them would look so good together: petite and summer-gold and perfect on either side of him.
But there's no sense in wasting time wishing for something that he'll never have, and Applejack's right there and golden and perfect just as she is, and she whoops and lights up like the Fourth of July, exactly like Bucky knew she would. It's adorable, how something so simple can make her so happy. He doesn't know if all the ponies are that innocent or if it's just Applejack, but it's one of the things he loves about her.
She reminds him of Steve that way, too. Steve has so damn little in his life, and he reacts to every extra scrap he gets like it's a heap of gold. Bucky brought him and his mom some tea just the day before, and Steve was over the moon.
"Guess that's a 'yes', then. All right, one celebratory night of dancing for my little hoofer, coming right up. Why don't you pick the first record while I get this stuff off and put away the groceries?" Bucky grins, standing up, then unbuttons his coat as he turns back to the kitchen.
And there's Steve Rogers standing in the doorway.
"The door was open," he says, hushed, and Bucky sees the expression on Steve's face and it feels like everything freezes in his chest, like his heart stops beating.
"Who're you talking to, Bucky?" Steve asks in that same awful, hushed voice. And Bucky knows he saw everything.
Bucky nods, even though he already said so.
"And she just…showed up one day? Just like that?"
Bucky nods again. He's tucked in the corner of his ratty couch, all but glaring at Steve like he's daring Steve not to believe him. "Just like that."
His right hand is kind of hovering over the floor, but Bucky's fingers are actually buried in Applejack's mane. Apparently. Now that Steve knows about it he can't believe he never noticed before. But even when he thinks back as far as he can, he doesn't remember anything that might've implied Bucky had…had an invisible animal with him.
But Steve's just spent the last few minutes listening to Bucky telling him about Applejack and their friendship, with frequent interruptions from Applejack herself, to fill in details or correct Bucky on something. Except it's just Bucky interrupting himself with silence, and just Bucky reacting to nothing.
"I see," Steve says, but he doesn't. The only thing he's sure of right now is that Bucky's terrifying him.
Twelve years, he thinks. And he doesn't know what insanity looks like, but he can't think of much that would fit better than someone spending twelve years having conversations with a talking animal that no one else can hear, touch or see. And Bucky was about to put on a record for Applejack when Steve came in, to dance with her. As if she's real.
"I'm not crazy," Bucky says, like he knows exactly what Steve's thinking. He sighs, running his fingers through his hair. "This is why I wasn't gonna tell you."
"I figured," Steve says. He can completely understand that. He's fairly sure he would've made the same choice himself. It still hurts. "Why are you the only one who can see her?"
Bucky shrugs. "I don't know. S'been that way my whole life." He stops, glances at where the talking pony's supposed to be. He smiles, and it's soft and fond in a way that makes Steve's heart ache. He can't imagine Bucky ever looking at him like that. "She says it's 'cause she's just mine."
"Okay," Steve says. "Why is she yours, though? I mean, do other people get ponies? Did she choose you?"
Bucky blinks, like none of that ever occurred to him. He looks at the space where Applejack is supposed to be again. "Well, we were little kids," he says, in answer to something Steve can't hear. "Little kids think everything makes sense." He turns back to Steve. "She thinks she chose me. Or, I called her to me because I was lonely. Or something." He shrugs. "It never mattered. We both needed a friend, so she found me."
Steve licks his lips. "You still needed her, even after you met me?"
Bucky's expression darkens. "I didn't make her up because I was lonely."
Steve wouldn't have guessed that Bucky had ever been lonely. He's incredibly popular, with friends all over Brooklyn. To tell the truth, Steve can't even imagine it. Not even when Bucky was a little boy. "You, uh, have to admit, that's what it kind of sounds like."
"I know what it sounds like," Bucky snaps. "I'm not crazy, Steve! You're looking at me like I'm nuts, but I'm not. I swear it. She's real as you or me." His eyes suddenly widen and he starts snapping his fingers. "You have seen her! Or, you've touched her, anyway. When you're sick."
"Bucky," Steve sighs. "I get sick all the time."
"Not normal sick." Bucky waves his hand like he's pushing that away. "When you were really sick. Sick enough that I'd watch over you so your mom could go to work. In case you… Because you might need help while she was gone. You'd get so cold, shivering like your teeth were going to rattle right out of your head. Me and Applejack would take turns crawling into bed with you, to keep you warm and maybe burn the fever out." His smile is complicated: wistful and relieved and sad. "You'd always roll right towards her, the second Applejack was in the bed. And you'd hold her tight, just like she was a giant teddy bear." He gestures at his nose. "You'd stick your face against her neck. I don't know how you could breathe."
"I don't remember," Steve says. He doesn't. But there's something… It's at the back of his mind, almost, a sense-memory but nothing tangible. Soft and warm and a scent like… Apples? Flowers?
No, not quite that. Or, not just that. But it's ephemeral as sunlight and when Steve tries to gather it, the memory slips away like water through his hands. "I'm sorry," he says. "I don't remember." He almost wishes he could, just to somehow make this okay.
"S'okay," Bucky says. He scrubs his face tiredly but his eyes are pleading when he looks at Steve again. "I'm not crazy, Stevie. Applejack's real. You gotta believe me."
"I want to," Steve says. "It's just, this is a lot to take in."
"Sure," Bucky says. When he looks at Steve his expression is resigned disappointment. Like he was hoping for better than this but knew he wasn't going to get it. He smiles at the same empty space. "Would you mind giving me and Steve a few minutes, doll? Thanks."
Bucky's smile is the same easy, devastatingly charming smile he's always had. Just like his voice is the same, and the way he sighs and drags his fingers through his hair. Then he looks at Steve and says, "I don't know what I can do to convince you I'm not crazy," and of course his voice is just the same too.
And that's what Steve clings to now: Bucky's the same man that he was when they met; whatever this 'Applejack' is, it hasn't changed him.
This is who Bucky's always been. But looking at him, Steve can't tell if that makes it better or worse. Steve's still terrified, now that he's aware of the phantom hiding behind Bucky's eyes.
He would never, ever have suspected Bucky of being less than completely sane. But for all he knows, Applejack is just the first, tiny fissure that will end up with Bucky shattering completely. How long can someone go on accepting as given the existence of something that doesn't—that can't—exist, until the dissonance rips them apart?
Twelve years, Bucky said. But how much longer?
I can't lose him, Steve thinks, and he's terrified. I can't lose him to this. But Steve doesn't have the faintest idea how to stop it.
"Are you gonna say something? Or are you just gonna sit there staring at me until we both fucking die of starvation?"
Steve blinks, realizing too late how rude he's been. "I'm sorry. I was just thinking."
"No shit," Bucky deadpans. But Steve's known him for nine years now, and he can see the tension around his eyes despite the studied challenge in his expression. "And you're thinking that I belong in the loony bin, ain't you?"
"What?" Steve demands. "I never said that! What makes you think I'm even thinking that?"
Now Bucky looks like Steve's the one not making sense. "Because you don't believe me. You think I'm a basket case." He shakes his head with a smirk that's both humorless and cold. "The fucking irony here is, I told you the truth because Applejack taught me not to lie. And you don't believe me."
"I want to," Steve says again. "I can see how important Applejack is to you."
"You want to, but you don't," Bucky says.
Steve nods miserably. "I'm sorry." He swallows. "If…if it makes any difference, I believe that you believe it."
"No, Steve," Bucky says. "Actually, that doesn't make a damn bit of difference. If anything, it makes it worse."
"I'm sorry," Steve says again. He takes a breath. "Maybe this won't help either, then, but it hasn't changed what I feel about you. I know you're still James Buchanan Barnes. You're still the best friend I ever had." He wants to say, I still love you, but he's sure that right now it'll only upset Bucky to hear it, so he doesn't. "I don't know if that helps."
"I don't know if it does either," Bucky says. "You think I'm crazy."
"No I don't," Steve says, and he's certain it's not a lie so he doesn't know why his heart's beating fast like he just told one. "I don't know what to think about this, but I don't think you're crazy."
"I sure wish you could see her," Bucky says.
"Me too," Steve says, meaning it.
Bucky nods, then heaves out a breath and slumps back against the couch, letting the back of his head loll so he's looking up at the ceiling. "I really wish I'd closed the fucking door."
"Yeah," Steve says ruefully. "Why was it open anyway?"
"I hadn't seen Applejack in a while." Bucky says, face still tilted towards the ceiling. "I wasn't expecting her. So I guess I forgot about the door."
"Where'd she go?" Steve asks, then inhales sharply. "Wait—all that stuff you were doing a while ago. Drinking and…and God knows what almost every night. Was that because of her?"
"Yeah," Bucky says. "And yeah, I'm stupid. I know. But she's never been gone longer than a day before. Not ever. And then suddenly it was two weeks and I still hadn't seen her. And I figured she wasn't gonna come back."
And Bucky was mourning his friend, and he couldn't tell anyone, not even Steve. "I'm glad she came back," Steve says honestly.
Bucky snorts. "No you're not. You think I made her up."
"How about you stop telling me what I'm thinking and listen for once, okay?" Steve snaps, harshly enough that Bucky lifts his head to stare at him. "Look, Bucky. I don't know how this works, I admit that. I've never… This isn't something I'd ever even thought about. So yeah, I'm kind of adrift, here. And I'm not going to lie, I'm worried about you. Of course I'm worried—you're my best friend. I worry about you all the time. I want you to be all right." He stops to take a breath, wishes he could tell what Bucky's thinking. "But if you being all right means having an invisible pony in your life, well, I can get used to it. I will get used to it," Steve adds more forcefully. "And I want you to tell me about Applejack, because she's important to you. And friends tell each other about important stuff."
Bucky looks at Steve for a long moment, and Steve still can't tell what's being weighed behind his storm-blue eyes. Then, "Okay," Bucky says. "Thanks." His mouth curls at the edges in something almost close to a smile.
"You're welcome," Steve says, hoping his own smile looks better. "So, what were you two celebrating?"
Bucky shrugs. "She had some good news." He glances towards the bedroom and Steve remembers that Applejack's supposedly waiting in there. He'd completely forgotten about that. "Speaking of, sorry to kick you out, pally. But, you know." Bucky tilts his head towards the bedroom. "It's rude to keep a lady waiting."
"Right. Sure." Steve stands up, blushing with embarrassment. He feels like the worst sort of uninvited houseguest who doesn't know when to leave. "Sorry."
Bucky stands up too. "Don't worry about it. I'll walk you home."
"You don't need to walk me home, Buck," Steve says quickly. "It's not that far and it's really not that cold. I'll be fine." He doesn't want to interrupt this…whatever this is more than he already has, and to tell the truth he's not sure he can stomach seeing Bucky's hands and knowing that he thinks there's an animal walking beside him. And he can take a hint—Bucky didn't answer his question with a lie, but he also didn't answer Steve's question at all.
Bucky looks torn, but he lifts his coat off the hook on the door and all but shoves it at Steve. "Take my coat, then. I'll get it tomorrow."
Steve tries to shove it back. "I can't take your coat, Bucky. What are you going to do tomorrow morning? And my apartment isn't anywhere on your way to work."
"I've got a jacket, and I can walk an extra lousy ten minutes without freezing to death, Steve." Bucky pushes the coat back to him. "Put on the damn coat or I swear to God I'll sit on you until you do."
"God you're stubborn," Steve says. Bucky smirks and it sounds almost real, like this is just a regular evening and they're arguing about Steve's health the way they always do. That, far more than the meaningless threat, is why Steve reluctantly shrugs on the coat over his thin jacket. It smells of cigarette smoke and hangs off him, but it's wonderfully warm.
Bucky does up the buttons like Steve's a child, then straightens up. "Looks good on you," he says, which is complete and absolute bullshit. But he's grinning, smugly pleased with himself, and Steve concentrates on folding back the sleeve cuffs so he won't actually step forward and kiss him.
Bucky squeezes Steve's shoulder carefully like he always is, as if Steve were something precious and not just fragile. "You take care, okay? If I find out you froze your stupid, skinny ass to death, I'll kill you."
Steve rolls his eyes, happy to fall back into a semblance of their routine. "Says the lug who just gave me his coat."
"Says the lug who's worried about you, punk."
"Jerk," Steve says without heat. He opens the door and goes down the hallway and into the night, leaving Bucky and the delusion he calls his friend behind.
Bucky never gets his coat back, or the gloves he left in the pockets, or the two dollars he left in one of the gloves. Eventually Steve stops reminding him and just keeps wearing it. It's the first winter in years where most of the time he's actually warm.
Bucky never talks about Applejack again, either, and Steve doesn't ask. He can't tell if he's more afraid that Bucky won't trust him enough to answer, or that Bucky will. Steve knows that either way he's a coward, but it's easier just to pretend he doesn't know. He's pretty sure it's easier for both of them.
Steve spends a lot of time making sure not to look at Bucky's hands.
But pretending doesn't make things go away. Things have changed between them. In some small, subtle way the ease in their friendship has gone. They're both careful now: careful not to say the wrong thing; careful not to stand too close or look too long; careful not to mention the kiss they shared, or who Bucky spends time with on the now-rare nights he goes out. And Bucky doesn't talks about Applejack, and Steve doesn't ask.
And then spring comes and Bucky turns 19 and Sarah Rogers dies, and before Steve can really parse what's happening through his shock and grief Bucky bundles him into his apartment.
Steve can make it on his own, but Bucky says he doesn't have to so he shouldn't. And Steve's too tired and overwhelmed and sad to keep refusing him. And a couple nights on the couch turns into a week turns into Steve's bed sharing Bucky's room. And between arguing about the chores and cooking meals and negotiating for the bathroom, they forget about being careful and just do what they've always done.
Bucky still doesn't talk about Applejack and neither of them mention the kiss, but they're best friends and easy with each other again. And maybe Steve still gets terrified for Bucky sometimes, when he sees Bucky's hands and knows he thinks there's something there. And maybe, sometimes, Steve sees how Bucky looks at him and wishes one of them had enough courage to do something about what they both want. But he's already damaged their friendship, and he'll be damned if he fucks up like that again. So he doesn't do anything.
It's all right, though. It's still the two of them against the world and 'til the end of the line, and that's perfect. It's enough.
"I'm back," Bucky calls as he comes into the apartment. He barely takes the time to close and lock the door before he goes into the bedroom, small bag clutched like a talisman in his hand. "How's he doing?"
The exhausted, anxious look Applejack gives him is more than enough of an answer. She's on top of the quilt, laying across Steve's thighs to keep him from getting up. It's barely two weeks after Steve's 18th birthday, less than four months after Sara Rogers died. And now Steve's sick and he keeps talking about his mom, but Bucky can't make out if he's trying to find her or go to her grave or what. It'd be desperately sad if it wasn't so scary—Steve's been like this all night, raving incoherently when he's not trying to cough up his lungs.
"I think he's worse," she says.
"Fuck." Bucky goes to the bedside table and puts down the bag so he can get the medicine in it. "Mom can't come 'cause dad's sick too, but she gave me some yeast, if we can get Steve to take it. It's got vitamins." He pulls out the pack of Aspirin. "The pharmacist said this stuff worked for colds." He also got more Vicks Vaporub, even though Steve's neck and chest are already shiny with it and Bucky can't tell if it's working or not.
Bucky puts his hand on Steve's forehead, then winces when he feels how hot it is. "We might have to put him in the bath again." It was awful enough the first time, with Steve barely able to walk that far, and then flat-out refusing to get in the water. Bucky ended up having to manhandle him, and then nearly got a broken nose for his trouble when Steve panicked at the cold.
"Maybe the medicine will work," Applejack says, obviously thinking the same thing Bucky is.
"Yeah," Bucky murmurs. He gently jostles Steve's arm. It feels like a dry stick under his hand. "Steve? Wake up, babe. You need some medicine."
Steve's eyes crack open. They look like wet glass. "Don't fall, okay?"
"Sure." Bucky stopped trying to make sense of anything Steve said hours ago, and it doesn't seem to matter what he answers anyway. Steve's like a dead weight when Bucky levers him upright, but he feels light as a stack of feathers, horribly insubstantial. Steve begins shivering as soon as he's not under the blankets anymore, and then starts coughing—a disgustingly wet, thick bark that sounds like it barely moves anything in his lungs.
Applejack gets off Steve's legs to make moving him easier, but he moans an inarticulate denial and reaches for her. She lies back down across his lap and Steve wraps his arms around her neck. This always happens when Steve's real sick like this, so Bucky doesn't spare more than a wistful thought that it'd be so much better if Steve could see Applejack when he wasn't out of his mind.
Bucky moves the pillows so Steve can sit up, then drops two Aspirin tablets into Steve's nearly-untouched water glass. He waits until the water's cloudy and fizzing and then rubs the back of Steve's neck to get his attention. "You need to lift up, Steve. Time for your medicine."
"Stop. That hurts." Steve gropes blindly at the back of his neck.
Bucky whips his hand away. "Sorry. But you gotta drink this. It'll make you feel better."
Steve grunts in assent and Bucky helps him hold the glass in his shaking hands. He whispers encouragement until Steve manages to swallow most of it, then eases him down again when it's clear sitting up any longer is more than Steve can take. Applejack lies down beside him, being careful not to put any weight on his chest. He already has too much trouble trying to breathe.
Bucky goes to the linen cupboard and grabs his last blanket, then covers both Steve and Applejack with it. Applejack looks sweaty and miserably hot, but she just nods and doesn't complain.
Steve's still shivering, though it's not as bad now he's under the blankets again. But he looks confused as he clumsily pets Applejack's mane. "You're so small. How can you carry me?"
"You're not that big, squirt," Bucky answers automatically, and then he realizes Steve's talking to Applejack, not him. "Oh my God. Steve," he says, hushed and urgent. "You can—can you see her?"
Steve doesn't answer, but he blinks and hot tears spill down his flushed cheeks. "M'not ready."
"Ready for what?" Bucky asks. He leans closer. "Steve," he says more loudly. "Steve, can you see Applejack?"
"What're y'all not ready for?" Applejack asks Steve. She nuzzles his cheek.
"Death," Steve says.
"What?" Bucky demands, too shocked to control his voice. He grabs Steve's wrist. "Steve! Steve, listen to me. You are not gonna die, you hear me? You're not dying."
Steve turns his head so he's looking blearily up at Bucky, tears still leaking unnoticed out of his eyes. "But he's here. This is his horse." He frowns. "But she's too small."
"What are you talking about?" Then Bucky looks at Applejack, with her orangey fur and light yellow mane, and he gets it, and it feels like his heart's trying to crawl out of his throat. "In the Bible, Death rides a pale horse," he says to Applejack, whose large green eyes are enormous with bewildered fear.
"No," Bucky says to Steve, as forcefully as he can. "NO." He puts one knee on the bed so he can lean in closer, taking Steve's head in his hands. "Steve. Steve, look at me. Please." It feels like forever before Steve's eyes focus, eternities spaced between each labored heave of his lungs and each frenzied punch of Bucky's heart. "This is Applejack. She's not Death's horse. She's not even a horse. She's a pony. And she's not pale. Look. Look at her head. It's orange."
Steve just looks at him blankly and then Bucky remembers that of course Steve can't tell what colors Applejack is. He's fucking colorblind. For all Bucky knows she could be entirely grey to his messed-up eyes. "You're not dying. I know you can't see it, but I swear she's not pale, Steve. She's orange and yellow."
Applejack shifts her weight, so Bucky lets go of Steve to give her room. She stands up carefully on the bed, shaking off the blanket. Steve whimpers and reaches for her, so Applejack lowers her head so he can more-or-less hold her around her neck. It looks uncomfortable. "Can you see my cutie mark? It's near my tail," she says to Steve.
Steve blinks slowly at her haunch then traces the three small apples there with his fingers. "Apples."
"Yeah, that's right," Bucky says quickly, snatching desperately at what he thinks she means. "They're apples, Steve. Apples are, uh, they grow. Applejack's not a pale horse, she's a pony. She's an Earth pony. They grow things, and look after animals and help people. They're about life, not death." He looks desperately at Applejack, who nods a well she can with Steve holding her.
"That's right," she says. "I ain't taking you nowhere, Steve."
"Yeah." Bucky nods quickly. "Applejack, she's, uh… She's not here 'cause you're dying. She's here 'cause you're gonna live, Steve. Applejack's here because you're gonna be just fine."
Steve blinks at Bucky again, and Bucky holds his breath, waiting for the cogs to turn in Steve's illness-gummed brain. "Pony?"
Which is about the least important part of all of this, Bucky figures. He nods anyway, forces a smile that feels brittle enough to crack his face in half. "That's right, pal. Applejack's a pony. Not a horse. She's a sweet, apple-growing, bright-colored Earth pony and you're not gonna die."
"Oh," Steve says on an exhale that seems to pull out all his remaining strength with it. "Good."
"You bet," Bucky says. He moves Steve's hands away from Applejack so he can carefully lift him into a hug, holding him as gently as he can when Steve's bones feel so fragile under his hot skin. "You're not dying," he says fiercely, as if that will make it true.
"What about you?" Steve pants.
"I'm not dying either."
"But you'll fall."
Bucky exchanges a look with Applejack. "I'm not gonna fall," he says, wondering what the hell Steve's poor boiling noodle has come up with now. "I'm staying right here with you and Applejack. I'm not going anywhere."
"Don't fall," Steve says, persistent as a fucking cat with a mouse. "You can't die. I love you."
Bucky swallows, holds Steve as tightly as he dares. "I love you too, Stevie. And I'm not dying and I'm not gonna fall. I promise, I won't fall. I'm staying right on the ground with you."
"Okay," Steve says. "M'tired."
"Yeah, sure." Bucky carefully puts Steve down, makes sure he's comfortable, then gets the jar of Vicks out of the bag. He scoops out a glop of the stuff, holds it in his hands to warm it, but Steve still whimpers and flinches when Bucky rubs it on his neck and chest. It seems to help him breathe, though. At least Bucky thinks it does.
Bucky washes his hands then finally goes and takes off his shoes. He puts the kettle on before he goes back to the room he and Steve share, making coffee for him and Applejack. It's going to be another long night.
Steve lasts the night, and his fever breaks and he gets better. July turns into the long, sticky hell of August, and then the weather cools and Bucky buys himself a new coat before Steve starts bellyaching about giving Bucky's old one back.
He and Steve celebrate the start of 1937 in Times Square, watching the ball drop at the top of the New York Times Tower. Bucky throws his arm over Steve's shoulders and kisses his cheek in the flood of fireworks, then laughs at Steve's shocked expression. He can't kiss Steve the way he wants, and he sure as hell can't kiss Applejack, so he settles for hugging Steve and petting Applejack's neck. In the crowd no one even looks twice at him.
Bucky keeps one arm around Steve and the other on Applejack and cheers and whoops with everyone else in the crowd. And he's so used to the small ache in his heart by now that he barely even feels it anymore. He knows he's never going to get what he wants, but he's got his best guy and his best gal on either side of him, and right now he still feels about the luckiest fella in the world.
"What is it, Bucky?" Applejack says.
Bucky doesn't answer. He's sitting with his elbow on the kitchen table and his hand over his mouth, staring at the letter in his other hand. It's a quiet Saturday night. Steve's out. He said he was going to the movies but Bucky's pretty sure he went to another recruitment center to try his luck yet again. Steve's been rejected from so many in New York City that Bucky wouldn't be surprised if Steve went to Buffalo. Hell, maybe he went to Canada. Not that it'll make any difference.
The U.S. Army's not so hard-up for soldiers that they'd take a runt like Steve. Not when there're plenty of able-bodied men they can draft. Like Bucky, who's looking at his name in neat type on the top of the form letter, telling him in precise, military language how very, very fucked he is.
"I've been drafted," he says finally. He drops the letter on the table and puts his face in his hands. "It means I'm joining the army, whether I want to or not. It means I'm going to war, Applejack," he adds, because he's not sure if her silence means she doesn't understand.
"You mean, over in Europe? Where all those people are dying?"
Bucky nods. He lets his arms thump to the table to look at her. "Yeah. It means I'm gonna have to quit my job. I don't know how Steve's going to make rent." He runs his fingers through his hair, staring at the letter. "I don't know what he's gonna do the next time he gets sick and he's all alone here. Damn it!" Bucky hits the table with his fist, hard enough that the table jumps and pain buzzes up his arm. He looks at Applejack, who's staring back with her big, green eyes full of concern but no real clue what this means. "I didn't join up so I could stay here and look after Steve. And now I don't have a choice about it." He makes a growling noise that barely expresses his helpless frustration and fear, drags the fingers of both hands through his hair again, then leaves them holding his head. "What'm I going to do, Applejack? How can I keep him safe if I'm a thousand miles away getting shot at? And if I croak over there, what happens to him?" Bucky gasps, his eyes shooting wide. "Oh my God—what happens to you?"
Applejack blinks at him, cocking her head. "Nothing. I'm staying with you."
"I'm talking about dying, Applejack!" Bucky snaps. "God damn it!" He shoves himself away from the table and stands up, too agitated to stay still. "I know you know what that means." He starts pacing, crossing to the window over the sink and back, running his fingers through his hair until it's a ragged mess. The thought of dying terrifies him, but even worse is what'll happen to Steve and Applejack if he leaves them behind. He stops, whirls on her. "You gotta stay here," he says, voice low and fervent. "I know you made a promise, but it doesn't matter. You've already kept it. Now you have to stay here. I need you to look after Steve. And a war's no place for a filly."
Applejack's snort is very horse-like. "I'm a mare, Buck. I'm not a filly no more. And I'm yours, and you're mine. That means I ain't staying behind."
"You have no idea what you're talking about!" Bucky shouts. "This isn't some—some misunderstanding between you and your friends! There're no magic amulets that you can use and turn Hitler to stone. This is a war. A giant fucking human war that's all over the world! This isn't Equestria, Applejack! People are dying! People are dying out there by the fucking thousands and we don't have magic to fix it. The only things we have to stop the Germans or the Japanese from taking over the whole damn world are airplanes and ships and men like Steve who are dumb enough to want to go die, or men like me who're too fucking unlucky to stay out of it!"
He stops, chest heaving and his breath shuddering as the enormity of what the letter means sinks into him like teeth through his bones. "I'm not taking you with me to a battlefield. You're a little pony, not a soldier. Hell, I'm not a soldier. I never wanted to be one. But I have to go. You don't. And I—I won't be able to live with myself if you come with me and something happens to you."
Applejack's eyes are full of tears. "I won't be able to live with myself if something happens to you."
"Ah, fuck." Bucky goes to his knees so he can hug her around the withers. She prefers standing on her hind legs and hugging like a human, but Bucky's so much taller than she is now that it's awkward for them both. "Don't cry. Please don't cry. I can't stand it when you get upset. You're worse than Steve." He kisses the soft fur right between her eyes, then lays his cheek alongside her neck. "I promise, I will do everything I can to stay safe and come back to you and Steve. But it'll be so much harder if I'm worrying about you. If you stay here and look after Steve it'll keep you both safe, and then I'll be able to do my job and stay safe too."
It's logical, but it's also pretty much blackmail, and Bucky's glad Steve's not there to hear it and give him shit for it. "Please?" he asks when Applejack doesn't answer him.
Applejack tugs away from him, then sits on her butt like a dog. "That was fightin' dirty, Buck." She's frowning, but she's not really angry. She sighs a warm breath of apple-scented air. "But, thing is, I can't stay with Steve," she says earnestly. "Even if I wanted to leave you by your lonesome in that big ol' war you're talking about, I can't. I'm yours. I can't be with anypony else. It won't work."
Bucky drops backwards until he's sitting cross-legged on the floor. He swallows. "What if I can't protect you?"
"Well, I'm darn good at protecting myself," Applejack says proudly. "And maybe we ponies haven't fought any wars, but that don't mean we can't hold our own in a fight. And Earth Ponies are the strongest there is. And the Apples are the strongest Earth Ponies around. Anyone tries to hurt you, they'll get a walloping they'll never forget."
Bucky smirks wetly, then wipes his eyes. "They'll be shaking in their boots, if they know what's good for them."
Applejack nods. "Darn tootin'."
Bucky laughs, because sometimes what she says is hilarious, even when she's not even trying to be funny. And he hugs her again because right now he can, and soon he won't be able to. "We won't be able to talk. It'll be worse than it is now."
"I know. I'm good at keeping quiet."
"And you'll have to listen to everything I say."
"Only if you listen to me too."
"All right." There's no point in arguing. "And you have to promise to go back to Equestria if it gets too dangerous, okay?"
There's a too-long silence. "Bucky…"
"Promise," Bucky says, hugging her a little more tightly. "Promise me that if you're in danger, you'll leave and go home."
"I ain't gonna stay in Equestria."
"That's fine," Bucky says. It's not, but he figures he can work on it. "But you need to promise me, Applejack."
He hears her sigh. "I promise."
Bucky sighs too, feeling a little less hopeless. "Thank you." He closes his eyes, turning his face into the warm silk of her mane. "I love you."
"Me too." He feels the tap of her chin on his back. "Sure wish you were a pony."
Bucky laughs. "Believe me--right now, that makes two of us."
He hears the scrape of the key in the lock and quickly lets go of Applejack, but he's still wiping his eyes when Steve comes in.
"Bucky? What's wrong?" Steve says. "Why are you sitting on the floor?" And then he sees the letter on the table.
Steve reacts to Bucky's draft notice just about exactly the way Bucky thought he would: with a mixture of sympathy, worry, misery, excitement, jealousy and resentment. The last two he hides well, but Bucky's known him for long enough to be able to recognize it. He doesn't mind the jealousy and resentment, though. As far as Bucky's concerned, Steve could hate his guts for being the one healthy enough to go to war, as long as it means Steve's staying safe in Brooklyn.
The only thing that makes basic training endurable is Applejack. She keeps pace with him during the unending laps around the dirt track, prancing and kicking up her back legs and goading him to go faster until he's almost always in the lead. She helps him improve his aim—"Shucks, I can spit watermelon seeds better 'n' that, Buck!"—so that he ends up getting handed a sniper rifle and sent for special training. She helps him memorize all the stupid things that they care about, like how to salute and march and shine his boots, and keeps his spirits up when he wants to either go A.W.O.L. or kill somebody. And she keeps him warm at night when the other poor saps are shivering under their thin blankets.
Bucky kind of hates himself for how happy he is that she's there, because he's still terrified for her every time he allows himself to think about it.
When he's given a handshake and Sergeant's bars, Applejack insists he earned it all by himself. Bucky knows better, but he pretends to agree because it makes her smile.
Saying goodbye to Steve outside yet another fucking recruitment center is the hardest thing Bucky's ever done since Sarah Roger's funeral. The second hardest is boarding the transport ship with Applejack trotting along beside him, chattering excitedly as her head swivels every which way, taking in everything. She's never been on a ship before, or any kind of vehicle larger than a train. She's never been over an ocean, and gleefully runs up on deck when Bucky says it's okay. She can't wait to see England.
Bucky's never been on anything this big, and he's never been on a ship either. He's never been outside of New York. He wishes he could share any of Applejack's excitement, but the ship just feels like a giant, floating purgatory taking him and all his fellow soldiers to hell. He misses Steve like he's hacked off part of his soul, and with every mile that spreads out behind the ship it feels more and more likely that Bucky'll never see him again.
He won't lie to Applejack, but he does his best not to let her know how low he's feeling. He's pretty sure she notices anyway, but she's kind and doesn't ask him about it.
She has a brand-new cowboy hat her friend Rarity made her especially for the voyage. Bucky feels stupid at how looking at her wearing it kind of makes him want to cry.
The Hydra soldiers march them for days.
Bucky does his best to stick with Dum Dum and Gabe and the rest of the 107th who survived being captured. But he got his bell run but good when Applejack more-or-less trampled him out of the way of one of those disintegration blasts from the giant tank, and occasionally he gets so dizzy he can barely see or walk in a straight line. He's sure that if it wasn't for Applejack he would've collapsed or wandered off the road by now. He has his hand wrapped around a lock of her tangled mane and she makes sure he doesn't stagger in the wrong direction or anything. She's limping on her left front leg, but Bucky hasn't had a chance to look at it.
She hasn't complained, though. Not a word. And she won't leave him. Every time he tries to push her away, she just grabs his wrist in her teeth like an angry dog.
He begged her to go, while he was trying to stay conscious long enough to crawl out of the ditch. He'd hissed at her about her promise, then even fought dirty and told her he probably wouldn't make it if he had to look after her as well as himself.
Applejack just glared at him, then bit the collar of his jacket and used it to drag him the rest of the way out. And now they're both here.
They've slipped so far back in the line that Bucky can't see Dum Dum anymore, despite his size. He knows he could've leaned on Gabe or Dum Dum—hell, Dum Dum could carry him without breaking a sweat—but he's seen the soldiers guarding the line drag out the clearly injured prisoners and shoot them in the back of the head. So Bucky's not asking for help, and he's hoping he can keep walking long enough to get to wherever they're going.
He doesn't know if he'll survive wherever they're going, or if any of them will. He heard the stories about the death camps, same as everyone else, but like everyone else he dismissed it as paranoid rumors. Because no one could be that evil, not even in the middle of a war. And then he saw the giant tanks that shot blue energy that could blast a man to atoms, and now he's one of at least a hundred men being forced to march to some God-forsaken place where it seems the point is to cull the herd as much as reach the destination. And now Bucky doesn't know whether those rumors were true, or kinder than the reality.
All he knows is that he's so exhausted he's fallen asleep walking more than once, and that he'd probably be starving since they haven't been given more than hardtack and water, except that he slips most of his to Applejack because he's too nauseous to eat. And he knows the only reason he's alive at all is the little pony beside him. But she has to go back to Equestria. She's hurt and exhausted too, and given what she normally eats she has to be suffering. He's absolutely certain that if she stays with him she'll die.
Bucky takes a breath, glances carefully around, but the guards are further forward or back in the line and all the men around them are too miserable to care of he starts talking to himself. "Applejack, please, I'm telling you—"
"How y'all think Steve's training's going?" Applejack pipes up, talking over him. Her voice is warm and chipper, despite the weariness in it. "Remember the thing he did with the flag? I wish I could've seen the look on the sergeant's face when he figured out how to knock it down like that."
"Don't do that. Listen. I don't want—"
"'Course, I could've kicked the flagpole over myself. Though it would take a lot more kicks here." She turns her head to look up at him, careful not to dislodge his hand. "What would you've done, you think?"
"Applejack!" Bucky hisses. "Listen to me!"
"No," Applejack says, stubborn as a mule. "I made my choice. I ain't leaving you and that's that. I said the day we met that we were gonna be best friends forever, and if forever ends here…" She stops talking, her eyes clouded, but then shakes her head like she's dislodging a fly. "Well, then it does. But no way in hell am I going anywhere. So stop telling me to."
Bucky grits his teeth until it feels like his skull vibrates. "You promised me."
Applejack snorts. "I sure did. I promised you I wasn't gonna leave, and I ain't. Careful of that rock." She shuffles them both sideways, hopping awkwardly on her one good front hoof. "I wish Steve said more in his letter about what he was recruited for. Some kind of vitamin thing, right?"
Bucky doesn't answer.
"It was something to do with vitamins, wasn't it?"
"You fucking promised, Applejack. You promised. And you never lie."
"No I don't," Applejack says seriously. "But the first promise I ever made you was that I wouldn't leave. And that's the one I'm never breaking. So don't you dare try to make me, James Buchanan. I'm yours and you're mine, and I'm staying. That's all."
Bucky swallows, sniffs. "I don't think I can get through this if you're not safe."
Applejack whaps him in the ass with her tail. "You damn well will." She glowers at him when he stares at her. He's never seen her this angry. "You're going to get through this because Steve's waiting for you, and because I can't be safe if you're not. Don't y'all understand? I'd rather limp all the way to hell and back with you than leave you to wherever we're going on your own. I love you, you big, stupid…draft horse. I love you and I ain't leaving."
Bucky drops his head, defeated, but that really hurts so he has to lift it again. "Okay," he says, because Applejack's as stubborn as Steve when she puts her mind to something. And Bucky has nothing left in him to argue with anyway.
"So, did I remember Steve's letter right?" she goes on breezily. "Was it vitamins?"
"Yeah," Bucky grinds out. "Vitamins."
"Maybe he won't get sick so much, then."
"That'd be good."
"Darn-tootin'," Applejack says. "Dip in the road up ahead."
Bucky's not exactly sure why he gets dragged off to the back room at the massive factory/labor camp, though it probably has something to do with spitting on that one guard's goggles.
Since no one else saw her, Applejack stayed out of the cage when Bucky and the rest of the prisoners in his group were randomly shoved into one of the bizarrely round, already-crowded cells. Bucky had a vague plan for her to kick open the lock, then the two of them would try to get everyone else out in the confusion while the rest made a run for it. But even when Applejack put weight on her hurt hoof so she could use both her hind legs, the lock wouldn't break.
It was a longshot anyway, but the clang when she attempted it was a lot louder than Bucky'd counted on, and the very loud noise alerted a couple guards. They'd assumed the soldier nearest the cage door was responsible, so Bucky spit at one of the guards so they'd get pissed at him instead.
That might've worked too well, he thinks dully as he hangs like a ragdoll between the two of them, one of whom has his spit-smeared goggles around his neck. The guard he spit on got plenty sore about it, and his buddy was more than happy to yank Bucky out of the cage so they could get their own back by going to town on him. It didn't help that they figured Bucky was yelling at them when he ordered Applejack to keep the hell away. But the mooks had guns as well as their sticks, and Applejack was so close to them that if they even suspected something was there, they'd just have to aim in her general direction.
So he made sure she got out of the way. At least she kept her promise about doing what Bucky told her.
Bucky didn't make it easy for them, but he started the fight outgunned and outnumbered and he doesn't even remember the hit that put him on the floor. That was about the time some little egghead came puffing up, and kyboshed beating Bucky to death in favor of taking him to the Isolation Ward instead.
The prisoners who were in the factory long enough to hear about the Isolation Ward could only tell him that no one who goes in ever comes out. Bucky's not entirely sure he wouldn't be better off beaten to death.
"Bucky! Bucky! Can y'hear me?"
Applejack is trotting just in front of him, barely staying away from the guards' feet and limping furiously to keep up. Bucky hates how she's stepping in the blood trail that's dropping from his head. He tries to walk, but he can't seem to get his legs to work. It'd help if everything around him didn't keep fading in and out, but he's suddenly past the cages and then down a hallway into a much older part of the building. And then he's in a large, dingy room with a wooden desk, glass cabinets and machines he can't guess at before he can really even register what's happening.
"Bucky! Please, answer me!"
He didn't? That's rude. Bucky manages to lift his head.
He tries to smile for her, but then he's wrenched upright and the world swirls and goes black again. The next time he can see anything he's on his back on some kind of cot and he's strapped down at his chest, legs, wrists and ankles.
There's a continuous loud noise and something heavy that's not a strap on his stomach, and Bucky almost panics before he can piece together the noise and the weight with Applejack, who's on her hind feet leaning over Bucky and bawling his name. She's sobbing with fear, but stops yelling instantly when she sees his eyes are open.
"Go," he whispers. He can only twitch his fingers, which are clumsy because of his injuries and nearly immobile under her weight, but he moves them a little bit on her fur.
The egghead lifts his moonface from flipping through files at his desk. "Mm?" he grunts, as if Bucky would actually have anything to say to him. When Bucky doesn't answer he shrugs and goes back to his files, muttering to himself in German.
"Bucky!" Applejack says. "Thank goodness! All right, you stay right there. I'm gonna get these straps off."
"No. Go away," he says. Even if he can't see or hear her, the shrimp in the glasses won't be able to miss what she's doing, and that'll be as bad as the guards. And the guards are both still standing by the door anyway, in case Bucky's going to leap off the cot and come at them swinging. "Don't. Stop it."
The little shrimp chuckles. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Sergeant Barnes. But I assure you, your feistiness is exactly what I'm looking for." He peers at the watch on his stubby wrist. "Hmm. Enough time to begin phase one, before Herr Schmidt arrives, I think. Ja. Gut.
That doesn't sound good. "Get off," Bucky hisses at Applejack, who at least has the sense to move away from the cot before the German shrimp wonders what invisible, intangible thing's keeping him away. The man—scientist? Doctor?—just chuckles again like Bucky's adorable, then goes to a different part of the room where Bucky can't see him.
Bucky's eyes drift shut, then snap open to a sharp pinch on the inside of his elbow. He cries out and tries to yank his arm away, but it just makes the leather of the restraints cut into him. At first he thinks it's Applejack nipping him, even though she'd never do that. Then he blearily realizes it's a fucking huge needle the doctor's just stabbed into his arm.
The pain and surge of fear wake him up a bit. "Wh-what did you…?"
The doctor just smiles, like he knows something Bucky doesn't. And then Bucky's arm burns like it's been dipped in acid, and it spreads and it spreads and it spreads 'til he's burning everywhere and he can't move or think or do anything except scream and scream and scream--
It goes on forever. Bucky would be grateful to pass out except he can't. He'd be grateful to die. Anything to end it. But it doesn't. He screams until his throat gives out, until his wrists are bleeding from pulling at the restraints in automatic instinct to get away from the pain. He's marginally aware of Applejack somewhere near him, but he can't focus on her. He can't focus on anything beyond how much he hurts. He doesn't exist except as a vector for pain.
Slowly, incrementally, it ebbs. Bucky comes fully back to himself and the hell of his reality sobbing for breath and with the taste of blood in his mouth. He's drenched in sweat, weaker than he's ever felt in his life. All his nerves are vibrating in the aftershocks like overstretched wire.
Applejack is crying, nuzzling his wet face. "Are you okay? Can you hear me? Please, Bucky—can you hear me at all?"
It takes almost more strength than he has to turn his head, but eventually he's looking at her liquid green eyes. He wants to hug her, give some comfort, but he can't lift his hands.
"M'okay," he murmurs, because he hates her looking so scared. Speaking feels like dragging sandpaper over his throat. He has to swallow a few times afterwards and that hurts too. He wishes he had some water. "How…long?"
"Three hours," Applejack says in a harsh whisper. Bucky's too exhausted to even be surprised that it was only hours when it felt like days. She glances towards the door. "The doc's gone, and so are the guards. But I think he's going to come back soon. He said the head muck-a-muck was coming. I gotta get you out of here. Hang on, I'm gonna undo the straps."
"'Kay," Bucky says. Applejack drops back down to all fours, and then he can feel her lips and teeth on his left wrist, tugging at the leather. He wants to help her but it's all he can do to keep his eyes open. He doesn't know how he'll be able to walk to get out of here, once he's free. Right now he's not even sure how he'll be able to get the strap on his right wrist open, once Applejack's freed his left. But he knows for certain that Applejack's going to get him off this cot, so he'll just have to figure it out.
He jerks awake because Applejack is gnawing his wrist in her frantic attempts to pull the leather strap through the buckle. Bucky can hear people coming down the hallway—the smarmy voice of the doctor, and the cooler tones of someone who sounds like the muck-a-muck Applejack was talking about. His left sleeve is soaking with pony spit, but still trapped.
"Get back, they're coming," he hisses at her, just as the doctor and some other guy walk in.
Bucky would know it's the boss even without the snappy uniform, just from the way he's walking and sneering at the shrimp like the owlface doc isn't good enough to shine his shoes.
And then he stops dead and screeches, "Was zu Hölle macht das Pony hier drin?"
For a second Bucky's so stunned he can't do more than gape. He only caught the word 'pony', but it's absolutely clear by the man's reaction that the commandant saw Applejack. He saw her, and that's impossible. It's impossible.
And then the bastard pulls his gun and Bucky rasps out, "Applejack, go! Go! Get--"
But he's warning her as the gun fires, and it's too late. Applejack stumbles sideways, then trips over her own hooves and falls heavily onto her side. Her orange fur is staining crimson, blood pumping out onto the floor. She's not looking at anything. Her eyes are open and fading green.
Bucky fights so hard to get to her that the doc and the commandant rush over to hold the cot down so he won't flip it. He hears something in his right arm snap but he can't feel it; doesn't give a damn. It's nothing, background noise to his frantic cries. The only thing that matters is his best friend lying on the concrete floor in a growing pool of red. He calls her name again and again and again and she doesn't answer. And then she disappears.
His voice gave out hours ago, but it doesn't stop his screaming.
The commandant squeezes Bucky's throat until the world greys and he goes quiet because he can't breathe. Then the son of a bitch grips Bucky's jaw in his other hand until it feels like the bone will break. "What was that animal? What was she doing here?" His English is perfect.
Bucky bares his teeth, eyes streaming with grief and rage. He tries to head-butt the commandant in his ugly face, but the man's grip on his jaw keeps him still. He squeezes more tightly until Bucky can't help the noise he makes at how much it hurts. The commandant's unbelievably strong. "Tell me where that pony came from."
"Go to hell."
The commandant sneers and the bear-paw grip on his jaw increases until Bucky's groaning in pain, and then he hears his jaw crack like a twig snapping inside his skull. He cries out, tries to yank his chin away but the commandant's grip is implacable.
"I can make this a great deal more unpleasant, Sergeant, unless you tell me what I wish to know." He squeezes Bucky's neck a little harder, as if Bucky needs help to understand. "Where did the animal come from and why was she here?"
"Go to hell!"
The commandant's face darkens in anger, and Bucky looks up at those soulless eyes and he's sure he's going to die. His only fear is for Steve, that he'll be left with no one to look out for him. But then Bucky remembers that Steve's in the army now, so he doesn't need Bucky anymore. And without Bucky around, maybe Steve can finally find someone worthy of him—a woman worthy of him. A beautiful dame who'll love him the way he deserves.
But the little doc comes scuttling over before the commandant can rip Bucky's jaw off or finish strangling him. They have a short, hissed conversation in German over Bucky's body, while he lies there with his jaw being crushed and black spots shimmering in front of his eyes.
Bucky hears a word that he's pretty sure is 'serum', which the doctor confirms when he gestures at the syringe he used to put that shit into Bucky's arm. Bucky thought it was just for torture, but the predator smile the commandant gives him makes him sure it's for something worse.
Abruptly he lets go of Bucky all together. Bucky gasps, head swimming with the rush of oxygen and new pain. "I suppose that explains it, hmm?" The commandant playfully taps Bucky's cheek, hard enough to make his jaw pain spike and his brain rattle. "Make sure this one survives long enough to be interrogated, Herr Doktor," he says to Owlface. "Keep me apprised. Hail Hydra." He does a perfect turn on his heel and strides out of the room.
"Hail Hydra!" the doctor calls timidly. Then he looks at Bucky, shaking his head. "Such violence," he says. "Such needless violence." He looks curiously at the pool of Applejack's blood, obviously not seeing it, then spreads his hands. "Now he is seeing invisible ponies." He snorts, then frowns at Bucky. "But you too, ja? I do not know what to make of this—perhaps it is a…hysteria of sorts. A collective insanity, produced by the serum." He puts his pudgy hand on his pudgy chin, sighing sadly. "I thought we would avoid delusions, this time. I really did. Ah, well." He rubs his palms together. "What is it you Americans say? 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again'?"
"Go fuck yourself," Bucky spits.
"No, I don't think that's it," the doctor says, smiling blandly. "Well, perhaps such spirit will help you keep your sanity and live longer than the others. It is to be hoped." He rounds the cot, walking through Applejack's blood. Bucky tries to reach for him, tear him apart. He's reminded of his broken wrist by the flare of pain. "How is your jaw, Sergeant?"
The doctor looks over his shoulder. "Interesting that you can still speak, given that I am sure your mandible is broken. I heard the crack myself. Quite grotesque." He shudders theatrically. "If we are lucky, that will be the serum working. If we are not…" He rubs his chin, considering. "Some people experience pain less deeply than others. We may have to test that. In the meantime, here is your second dose."
Bucky watches the needle go into his arm and tells himself he has to survive because he needs to live long enough to rip the commandant's heart out; he tells himself he has to survive because Steve is waiting for him; he tells himself he has to survive because he refuses to give this psychotic motherfucker of a doctor the satisfaction of killing him.
And then the pain hits again, and he can't tell himself anything.
He loses all track of time. In his few, coherent moments, he listens for information he pretends he'll be able to give to Colonel Phillips when he's rescued, or tries to free himself until his wrists and ankles are like raw hamburger and the rest of his skin under the straps goes black with bruising. He manages to tip the cot over once—maybe more than once, he can't remember—and he's pretty sure he breaks something. It's hard to tell. It's just more pain, and he's already in so much of it that he can't pin it down to a particular part of his body anymore.
He's pretty sure he's still alive, and he knows he wants to stay that way so he can kill the commandant and the doctor who's doing this to him. He wants revenge for Applejack, and he wants to get back to Steve. He's just not sure how much of him will be left when he gets out of here. He's forgotten part of his service number. Sometimes he can't remember where he is or what's happening, or why he needs to live or even his name.
But he doesn't die, and his bones heal and the bruises fade (maybe they're healing too fast, or maybe he's been there for years), and the pain crests and ebbs but never goes away.
Until it does, but by then he's so used to it that he doesn't notice anything's changed. Until he hears someone who sounds like Steve calling his name.
When Steve goes to find Bucky, he's sure it's just to bring home his corpse. The men he rescued were adamant that no one comes back from the Isolation Ward, and Bucky was taken there more than a week ago.
But Bucky's alive.
He's alive, and he looks…not unharmed, but nothing near the bleeding mess that Steve expected. Bucky's too thin for sure, and he's so groggy that it takes Steve jostling him before Bucky stops the mindless repetition of his name, rank and part of his service number. But he can stand, and by the time they're back down the hallway he sounds almost normal and he can walk by himself and even run up the stairs with Steve when their way is blocked by an explosion. He's pale, and his eyes are dark and streaked and haunted, but he seems fine. He seems just fine.
And then Schmidt tauntingly greets Captain America from the other side of the factory, and Bucky goes berserk.
"I'LL KILL YOU! I'LL KILL YOU, YOU FUCKING SON OF A BITCH!" he screams, and all but throws himself past Steve to get to the bridge. He goes at Schmidt like an animal, like a demon. Schmidt, who was coming to meet Steve on the bridge, loses his cocky grin as Bucky comes for him, back-pedaling like a bully in an alley.
"Bucky, no! What are you doing?" But short of grabbing Bucky and hauling him back, there's nothing Steve can do. Nothing except watch his best friend try to take Schmidt apart.
Bucky leaps for Schmidt, tackling him to the metal walkway, then starts hitting him like he wants to bash in the man's skull. There's none of the controlled brutality Steve remembers from growing up watching Bucky fight. There's a wildness and savagery here that's frankly terrifying.
"Bucky, Bucky stop! We need to get out of here!" Steve yells, but Bucky either can't hear him or doesn't listen. He rakes at Schmidt's eyes with his nails, and comes away with a strip of skin, leaving a wide swath of dark red blood underneath.
But it's not blood. It's Schmidt's face.
"What the hell?" The surprise of having a mask, not skin, in his hand stops Bucky cold. Schmidt takes the opportunity to shove Bucky off him, and he actually goes flying, like he was thrown by a giant. He lands nearly at Steve's feet at his end of the bridge. Steve grabs his arm to make sure Bucky doesn't slide off the edge of the platform then hauls him to his feet.
The small, rotund man behind Schmidt yanks on a lever and the bridge separates, leaving the four of them on opposite sides. Schmidt pulls himself to his feet, casually ripping off the rest of the mask, exposing a hideous red skull instead of a face. He sneers. "Curb your dog, Captain."
"Shut up!" Bucky hollers. Steve's hand is still around his arm, and he can feel him shaking.
"He's a man! Which is more than I can say for you!" Steve shouts.
"I am an Übermensch, Captain," Schmidt says, smirking from the elevator. "So are you, but you are afraid to admit you've left humanity behind. Unlike you I embrace it proudly, without fear."
"Then how come you're running?" Steve shouts, but the door's already closing.
"You'd better not have one of those," Bucky says. It sounds like a threat.
"Not that I noticed."
Another explosion kills any notion of getting out that way, so they go up again.
And somewhere between Bucky's hellish tightrope walk and Steve making the long-jump of his life, Steve assumes Bucky's rage comes from what they did to him. He understands that completely. He wants to kill Schmidt for what he did to Bucky, too.
Then comes meeting up with the surviving escapees and the long, wet, miserable march back to the allied lines. And sure, Steve notices how quiet Bucky is, how little he smiles, how alone he seems to be even with Steve and his fellow soldiers gathered around him. But Steve has to take care of over 100 men and get them home safely. And Bucky, despite how Steve found him, is better off than most. Steve knows something's wrong, but he promises himself he'll find out what it is when they're back at camp and have time.
Mostly he's just so glad Bucky's safe and alive that he's perfectly happy not to worry about how the haunted expression never leaves Bucky's eyes, or how he keeps his hands in fists at his sides like he's about to take on the world. Or how he won't so much as mention anything that was done to him.
And then they're all back at camp and he's being debriefed and celebrated and putting together a team to destroy all the Hydra bases he remembers from the map in the Isolation Ward. And Bucky shares a drink with him and makes fun of his stage costume and complains about Peggy ignoring him. And Bucky's enough like his old self that Steve can almost forget how much he knows he's actually not.
The night before the newly-formed Howling Commandos (the name is Jim Morita's idea) leave on their first mission, Bucky knocks on the door of Steve's private quarters at one in the morning.
Steve was fast asleep, and he's awake and at the door before he fully registers that he's only wearing briefs and his shield. "Who is it?" he asks through the wood, because if this were official business the person knocking would've said something by now. But if it's Agent Carter he would really rather be dressed for it.
"It's me," Bucky says.
Steve opens the door immediately then locks it as soon as Bucky's inside, setting his shield down against the wall. Bucky, who's wearing his uniform pants, boots and an undershirt, does a fast sweep of Steve with his eyes, then looks away like he's just done something shameful. "Sorry," he says. "Shoulda figured you were asleep. I'll just…" He points his thumb vaguely at the door.
"Bucky, it's fine," Steve says, though he knows he's blushing. He puts his hand on Bucky's shoulder, making Bucky look at him. "Obviously you haven't been sleeping. What's wrong?"
Bucky opens his mouth but closes it again without speaking. Instead he takes Steve's wrist and moves his hand off his shoulder. He doesn't let go, just keeps his fingers wrapped around Steve's wrist, so that Steve's arm is bent between their torsos. Bucky sweeps his gaze over Steve's body again, and the blue of his eyes makes Steve think of the deepest heart of a flame.
Steve can feel his body reacting, knows there's no way for Bucky to miss it. "Tell me what you want, Bucky," he says softly.
Bucky licks his lips, swallows. "You," he says, voice rough. "Please. I…"
"I'm yours," Steve says.
Bucky makes a sharp, broken sound, but then lets Steve's wrist go so he can cup Steve's face and kiss him. It's no less gentle than Steve remembers, but it's like he can feel the frantic need buzzing beneath the surface. He's keenly aware of how desperately Bucky is holding himself back.
But Steve's not fragile anymore, and he's wanted Bucky longer than he's let himself think about. So he puts his hands on Bucky's waist and pushes him the two steps backwards until he's against the closed door. Then Steve closes the distance between them so that his body's flush with Bucky's and takes over the kiss, letting Bucky know in no uncertain terms that he doesn't have to hold back anything.
Bucky moans with something like relief and starts kissing Steve like his life depends on it. He slides his thigh between Steve's legs, nudging his rigid cock, and the pleasure that rockets up his spine from that touch alone has him gasping, then stuttering a breathless laugh into Bucky's mouth.
Steve pulls away, putting his thumb over Bucky's lips to hold him still when he grunts in protest and tries to yank Steve back to him. Bucky sucks Steve's thumb instead, and that's so inexplicably hot that Steve almost forgets what the hell he was trying to say. "Bed," he manages, and at Bucky's nod Steve extracts his thumb so he can put his arms around Bucky and lift him. He knows Bucky's lighter than he should be—still too thin after the privation of the Hydra facility and the long march afterwards—but Steve still loves being able to carry him. It makes Steve feel like he can protect Bucky now, which he knows is ridiculous. His strength is no more a guarantee of Bucky's safety than is the depth of Steve's love for him.
He carefully sets Bucky on the bed, ignoring Bucky's arched eyebrow because Steve's not going to throw him around just because he's not a dame. His boots aren't tied so it's easy to tug them off. Steve puts them down carefully too, because he doesn't want to wake any of the other officers and he especially doesn't want anyone to wonder what the noise is. He removes Bucky's socks, then tickles his foot a little to see him smile, but Bucky just twitches his foot away and starts undoing his belt. Steve pulls off his pants when Bucky lifts his hips, then spends a moment taking the belt out of the loops and folding the pants neatly over the back of his desk chair.
"Jesus Christ, we're going on a fucking suicide mission tomorrow, and you're worried about ironing?" Bucky shakes his head as he sits up to yank his shirt off, then defiantly crumples it in his hand and throws it at the door. He lies back down and shimmies off his underwear, tossing it after the shirt. He's beautiful; Steve's always thought so. But it's too easy to see his bones, the sharp lines of his skull and the hollows around his eyes. Steve has the awful sense of watching someone slowly being whittled down to nothing.
"C'mon," Bucky says, seeing Steve hesitate. He lifts his hands, reaching out in clear invitation.
Steve takes off his own briefs, dropping them next to the bed to show that he can. Then he climbs onto the bed and over Bucky, bracketing Bucky's body with his own but holding himself up on all fours so he can look at Bucky's face. "The mission tomorrow's dangerous, but it's nowhere near suicide, Bucky. Are you okay? If you're concerned about the mission you need to tell me. I want—"
"I don't care about the damn mission," Bucky snaps. He grabs Steve around the shoulders and lifts his legs to wrap them around Steve's hips, using his weight to drag him back down to the bed.
Steve gets his forearms on either side of Bucky's shoulders, holding his body up so he won't crush him as they kiss again. Their erections are trapped between their groins like this. The pressure is great but the lack of friction is maddening. Steve shifts so he can make short, shallow thrusts with his hips.
Bucky groans against his mouth but then turns his face away. "No, stop," he says, panting. "I don't want to come like this. I want you to fuck me."
Steve stops moving to blink dazedly down at him. He knows what Bucky's talking about. He's never done it, but… "Don't we…need something for that? Vaseline?"
Bucky smirks, but it doesn't look amused, just tired. "Don't worry, I'll walk you through it, Snow White. You can use spit. It'll be fine."
Steve knows Bucky doesn't lie to him, but everything about this feels wrong. "No, Buck. I'm sorry. I'll do whatever you want, but I'm not going to hurt you."
Bucky glares up at Steve. "I said it'd be fine."
"I know what you said. And I'm saying, I'm not going to hurt you."
"Fuck you." Bucky shoves at him and Steve obediently moves to give him room, sitting cross-legged. "Maybe I want it to hurt."
"That's your choice," Steve says evenly, "but then you'll have to go to someone else. I'm not going to hurt you, even if you say you want it. I'm sorry, I can't. I can't do that."
Bucky stares at him for a long moment, then gives a single, sharp nod. "Fine." He turns away from Steve and gets off the bed, going to retrieve his clothing.
Watching him preparing to leave feels like it's snapping Steve's heart in half. "You're leaving?"
"What does it look like?" Bucky asks like Steve's an idiot. "You don't wanna do what I want, fine. I'll go somewhere else, like you said." He shrugs, elaborately nonchalant as he yanks up his trousers.
"Where?" Steve demands. The idea of Bucky going to anyone who's not him is horrible, but so is the idea of Steve purposely doing him harm.
Bucky shrugs again. "I'll find someone. Plenty of cocksuckers around."
"You let…you let people hurt you?" Steve realizes he's balled his hands into fists and deliberately relaxes them.
"Not yet." Bucky comes over to the bed to grab his boots with the socks neatly tucked inside.
Steve blinks at him. "Then why—"
"Because it's better than feeling anything else." Bucky sits on the end of the bed to put on his socks, studiously looking at the floor.
"What else?" Steve asks. He moves behind Bucky and lifts up onto his knees to hug him. Bucky stiffens but doesn't move his arms or pull away. "What don't you want to feel, Bucky?"
"Anything," Bucky says. "Anything else. After what…after what they did. I'm so angry I want to burn the fucking world down. I'm so angry I can't breathe." He wraps one hand around Steve's wrist, like he's not sure if he wants to keep Steve's arms around him or push him away. "I just want to be able to breathe."
"Oh my God," Steve whispers. "Bucky, what happened? What did they do to you?"
Bucky goes still, then abruptly shakes his head, pulling Steve's arms down. "It doesn't matter." He steps into his boots but doesn't tie them up, then walks to the door. His hands are in fists at his sides like Bucky's ready to take on the world. (Burn it down, Steve thinks.) The way they've been since Steve rescued him.
Fists. Like there's nothing there.
"Bucky, wait. Please," Steve says.
Bucky stops with his hand on the doorknob, turns around expectantly. Steve can see how studied his lack of expression is, but he can't blank out his eyes, and they're burning. "What?"
Steve swallows. There's a cold, hard certainty coming down on him, like winter in his chest. He hasn't made himself look for a long time, but he remembers how Bucky holds his hands. Held his hands. "Bucky, where's Applejack?"
For a bare second Bucky looks like Steve just shot him, like he's just realized he's going to die. And then he squeezes his eyes shut and turns around. He leans his temple on the closed door, shoulders hunched like he's trying to hide. He's almost completely silent, but Steve can hear the tiny hitches in his breathing as he cries; it sounds like every inhalation causes him pain.
"Bucky!" Steve scrambles off the bed and goes to him, pulling him into his arms. He holds Bucky against his chest as Bucky trembles out his grief. Steve's completely undressed, but it feels like Bucky's the naked one here, stripped bare and vulnerable as a newborn.
"It's okay, it's going to be okay," Steve says. He rubs Bucky's back, kisses his hair, curling his body around him as if there was anything external to protect him from. But all the hurt is inside, and Steve can't save him from that. He can't do anything but whisper platitudes that he barely believes himself.
"He shot her," Bucky says. "That fucking red-skulled bastard shot her. I was—I was where you found me. Strapped down. I couldn't move. And he shot her. I watched her die."
"Oh, God, Buck. I'm so sorry."
Bucky lifts his head, palming the tears out of his eyes. "He saw her. Schmidt saw her, Steve." His breath catches but he grits his teeth then goes on. "My entire fucking life, no one could see her. Not even you, and you're good. You're so good…" He swallows heavily, pulls in another wavering breath. "But Schmidt saw her. Not you. And he shot her and now she's gone.
"She's gone, Steve." Bucky's voice is hushed with a kind of terrible awe, like he's only just now realized what's happened. "She's been with me my whole life. She was mine. And she's gone. I'm all alone. I'm all alone. What am I going to do?"
"You're not alone, Bucky," Steve says. He pulls him back to his chest, gratified when Bucky lets him. "You're not alone. I'm here, I'm right here. And I'm not going to leave you. I'm with you 'til the end of the line."
"No." Bucky shakes his head. "You will. You have to. We can't… You're not—"
"I'm not going to leave you," Steve says. "I'm yours, just like Applejack. I love you. I love you, and I'm not gonna leave."
"You have to," Bucky says again, but leans more heavily against him. "I miss her so much."
"I know," Steve says. "I'm so sorry, Bucky."
"No you're not," Bucky says with a weary kind of anger. "You didn't even think she was real."
"I know," Steve says again. "I know, and I was wrong. I believed you, but not…not in her. And I should have. I'm so, so sorry."
"Doesn't matter anymore. She's dead."
"Of course it matters. You loved her. Of course it matters," Steve says. "But you're not alone, Buck. I'm here. I'm always going to be here."
"I want them all to die, Steve," Bucky says. "Every single Hydra motherfucker. I want to kill them."
"We will," Steve says. "We will, I promise."
The Howling Commandos' first mission isn't suicide, and the happiest Steve's seen Bucky in weeks is when he's watching the base they raided burn.
It's a hollow, brutal kind of happiness, but it's there. Steve grins with him and slaps his back, and tells himself that at least it's something other than grief and anger, and that maybe it means Bucky's on his slow way back to himself.
Bucky tells Steve about Applejack too—the small things he told Steve about before, that evening Bucky left his apartment door open; the things he can bear to remember. He tells Steve what she looked like, and about the ribbons in her mane, and how she liked coffee and how much it irritated her that on Earth she couldn't use her hooves like hands. He tells Steve about her huge family and her Southern drawl.
But he doesn't tell Steve how he and Applejack met, or very much about the things they did together. When Steve asks about her personality, all Bucky says is, "She was a lot like you."
Steve thinks he would've liked her.
He and Bucky talk more, and Bucky's always at his side or two steps behind, guarding his back. He smiles a little more often, laughs sometimes, and grins with all his teeth when they tear another Hydra facility down.
Except Bucky goes to someone else, on the few nights when they have the luxury of staying in a town, or when they're back in London on leave. Steve's gotten very good at not noticing, but even if he doesn't notice, he still knows. He can't not know, despite how careful Bucky is. Steve knows him too well for that.
He's not jealous, exactly. He doesn't begrudge Bucky scratching an itch or taking some pleasure where he can. It's just that the one Bucky's with should be Steve.
Steve finally gets sick of it one night before a raid that might actually cost them their lives. It's a stupid plan. He knows it is. Steve's going to let himself get captured. If he's not lucky, Schmidt will just shoot him before the other Commandos can come to the rescue, instead of spouting off and giving up precious intelligence the way Steve figures he will.
And if he's not lucky, if he dies tomorrow, Steve decides he should at least get one night with the only person he's ever wanted. So when Bucky crawls into his tent after his turn at watch, Steve's waiting for him.
"What are you doing here?" Bucky whispers, though it can only be obvious. Steve's lying on Bucky's bedroll. He's wearing his uniform pants and boots, just in case, but he's shirtless.
"Waiting for you," Steve says. He grabs Bucky by the front of his jacket and tugs, not quite as gentle as he normally is, pulling Bucky down so he's lying on Steve.
It's dark but the moon is out. There's enough light for Steve to see Bucky's face with his enhanced vision, and he can see the desire in Bucky's eyes that he can't bank quickly enough. And Steve can feel it where Bucky's lower body is resting on his.
"No." Bucky tries to crawl out of the low tent but Steve still has him by his jacket. "Let me go. We can't do this. Let me go."
"I will," Steve says, "but you gotta listen to me. Will you please listen to me, Buck?"
He sees Bucky's tiny, reluctant nod and opens his hand. Bucky instantly scrambles up to all fours like he can't stand the idea of them even touching. It's disheartening as hell, but at least Bucky doesn't leave.
"I know you seem to think that you, I don't know, corrupt me or something with your presence," Steve says. "Which is why you…go to other people instead of me. But you don't have to. I want you to come to me, Bucky. You've never done anything I didn't want."
He can hear Bucky swallow, then see him shake his head. "You're good, Steve," he says. His voice is so small it barely moves the air. "You're good. You're not like me. I'm damaged goods. Some kinda pervert. I can't stop myself from wanting things I shouldn't." He sighs a soft gust of warm air over Steve's chest. "It ain't right of me to make you want it too."
Steve takes in a huge, frustrated breath. "I swear, sometimes I want to shake you 'til your teeth rattle." He reaches up and puts his hand around the back of Bucky's neck instead. Not pulling, just trying to give some reassurance with his touch. "You don't 'make' me do anything. Can you hear that, finally? You have never, ever, made me want anything I didn't want already. Hell, Buck…" Steve takes another deep breath, but this time it's for courage. "You keep saying that wanting fellas as well as dames isn't natural—well, I must be really unnatural then. Because I don't even want the dames."
He can just make out the flutter of Bucky's lashes as he blinks. "Wait. You mean, you're a homo?"
"Well, if you want to use a particularly ugly word for it, yeah," Steve says. "I've never really been interested in women. Not in a romantic way, I mean. Just guys. And really, just you."
Bucky blinks a few more times. "What about Peggy? I thought…I was sure you two were gonna get hitched-up, once the war was over."
"Peggy's an amazing woman," Steve says. "She's a good friend. But she knows I don't love her the way I love you."
"You should marry her anyway, if she knows," Bucky insists. "What are you going to do, otherwise? You're Captain America—you can't be queer."
"Captain America is what I do, it's not who I am," Steve says. "Who I am is the fella who wants you as my best guy. I always have and I always will, and if I have to choose between being Steve Rogers and having you or being Captain America, I'll choose you, every time. If that means I'm a homo or queer or whatever, then fine. I guess I am. It doesn't matter as long as I'm with you.
"Bucky?" Steve asks a moment later, because Bucky still hasn't answered him.
"Sorry," Bucky says, voice thick. "I just…" Steve can hear him swallow. "You really want me that much?"
"Yeah, Bucky," Steve says. "Always. I love you."
"Oh, God. Steve." Bucky doesn't sound happy or even relieved, just broken; like he reached the end of his rope and decided to let go. When they kiss, it's hungry and desperate and Steve can practically taste Bucky's despair. "I love you too," he gasps when they break apart. "God, Steve. I love you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He starts kissing Steve again, like he can't get enough of it. Like this is the last time.
Steve kisses him back and pretends Bucky's apology was for making Steve wait for him. But he knows what it was really for.
"I always figured your cutie mark would be a shield," Bucky says, speaking quietly so no one else can hear them over the wind. "I mean, if you had one."
It's deep winter and they're up in the mountains. In a few hours a train will pass and they'll use the zip line it took them days to set up to land on it and hopefully not die in the process. Right now they're just trying to stay warm. Bucky's sitting between Steve's legs, wrapped in Steve's arms. He's wearing Steve's gloves, though they're a little too big for him.
All the Commandos are huddled together like puppies for the warmth. Dum Dum's got Morita on one side of him and Monty on the other, and Gabe and Dernier are hugging like long-lost brothers. If any of them even care that Captain America has Sergeant Barnes practically in his lap, none of them have mentioned it.
"Those are the destiny symbols, right?" Steve gently bumps his forehead against Bucky's temple, hoping it shows his gratitude that Bucky's willing to share this with him. "You really thought it'd be a shield?"
"Yup. You were always trying to protect everyone." Bucky shrugs. "Made sense."
"Good guess," Steve says. "What about you?"
He can see the slow slide of Bucky's grin as it fades. He's been telling Steve a little more about Applejack here and there, sharing his friend like a precious gift. And he's been smiling more recently, and even laughing. But he's not happy, not really. Sometimes Steve doubts Bucky ever will be again.
"A shield with an apple inside it," he says, voice flat like he's trying to make it not matter.
That's incredibly sweet, but Steve doesn't say so because he knows Bucky wouldn't want to hear it. "I'd love to see that," he says honestly. "But, neither of those are yours. What about your own special thing?"
"That was my own, special thing," Bucky says. "To look after you both. I've never wanted anything else." He's staring straight ahead, at the train tracks far below on the other side of the mountain. "'Doesn't matter anymore anyway. She's dead, and you don't need me to look after you."
"I'll always need you, Bucky," Steve says.
"You're Captain America," Bucky says, as if that means Steve will never need anyone, but he goes on before Steve can argue. "I used to have this fantasy, when we were kids. It was stupid, but…I would imagine us together. All three of us, only Applejack would be human, and everyone could see her. We'd have this little farm outside the city. I'd own a garage in town, and we'd have an orchard for Applejack, and we'd sell the apples. And you wouldn't get sick anymore, from all the fresh air and sunshine. And you'd get to draw all day and you'd become a famous artist or something." He shrugs. "It was dumb."
"It's not stupid to want to be with the people you love."
Bucky turns his head, leaning his cold cheek against Steve's. But then all of a sudden he stands up, tugging off Steve's gloves. "How soon until this God-damned train comes, anyway? My ass is numb." He reaches behind him to hand Steve the gloves. Steve takes them and pulls them on. They're warm from Bucky's fingers.
"Come on," Bucky says. "You're gonna freeze to the ground if you don't get up." He's still not looking at him.
Steve's barely cold, but he grabs his helmet and shield and gets up anyway, so he can stand next to Bucky on the outcropping. The world around them is grey and bleak with snow. He wishes they were back in Brooklyn, that they were anywhere but here. Bucky's eyes remind him of the sky.
"Don't," Bucky says quietly. "Don't. Whatever you were gonna say. She's dead. Nothing's going to change that."
"I know," Steve says.
Steve moves closer to him and Bucky leans against Steve's side, blowing on his hands. It's something. "After this mission we can go back to London for R&R," he says, hoping Bucky understands what he means: You have a future. You have things to look forward to. I'm here. You're going to be all right.
"Sure," Bucky says. "It'll be nice to be warm."
But Bucky doesn't get a future. He falls.
Bucky falls, and Steve learns what it means to want to burn down the world. But when he dies, it's in ice.
His first memories are blood on snow and terrible, piercing cold. There's nothing else for a long time. Then there's just pain.
They give him a new arm and they teach him how to speak again, but to say nothing unless he's on a mission or responding to a question. They teach him how to move with intent and how to kill, but to make no decisions beyond what the mission requires. They teach him how much it hurts when he doesn't obey.
They call him The Winter Soldier or Yasha or Ivan or nothing at all. They send him out on missions and he kills for them and then they bring him back. And he is empty, empty, empty except for what they need him to know, and he is no one except who they need him to be. All he remembers is how to kill and how to obey and how to feel pain.
In 1953, he turns on his handlers, killing three of them before he's subdued. There is no explanation. (There was a scientist: male, with blond hair and blue eyes. Later someone will watch the video of the incident and note how intently the Winter Soldier stared at the man before he attacked. The scientist will be killed to ensure no further such incidents.)
He's kept in cyrostasis when not on missions after that.
The Winter Soldier remains complaint until 1972, when he's sent on a mission to New York and disappears for three days. They find him wandering in confusion, trying to find a building that was demolished in 1968. His handlers attribute it to a sudden, inexplicable failure of his programming. (They saw him watching the tourists in the horse-drawn carriage, but didn't consider it significant. The horse wasn't significant, it was ordinary brown with a white blaze.
It was the red ribbons braided into its mane and tail.)
When he's found again, the new protocol is to wipe his mind after each mission. These instructions are given to Hydra when they buy him from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1990.
Hydra refers to him as the Asset when they talk about him but they don't give him a name. He learns very quickly to do what they want or the punishment is worse than it was before. They only speak to him when giving him orders. He was the Winter Soldier before, but now he's nothing: a knife; a bullet; a ghost story and a shadow in the dark.
He learns to live in the silence between thoughts. He learns to anticipate the emptiness that comes after the cold. He doesn't exist then. He's free.
And then it's 2014 and he's shaped the century, and there's one last thing they need him to do.
His name might be James Buchanan Barnes. Or Bucky, he isn't sure. He failed his mission to kill the man on the bridge but he knows him. He knows him. His name is Steve Rogers. He's Captain America. They've known each other their whole lives. (Bucky loves him.)
And there's someone missing. Did he kill her? He remembers blood, but his mind is full of blood. Steve Rogers was bleeding when he fell.
Bucky fell too. He thinks he might be Bucky.
All he really knows is pain. His head is aching like he's been in the chair, has been ever since the fight on the helicarrier. There's a malfunction in his left arm that's sending damage signals like electric shocks all the way down his spine. His right arm is broken, and so are his ribs from when the girder fell on him. He can feel them grinding when he breathes. His abdomen feels too hot and too tight under the skin. It hurts when he touches it.
He's soaking wet and cold and in pain and there should be snow, he thinks. He fell, didn't he? He remembers falling—
Steve was the one who fell, out of the helicarrier. He dove after him. But he fell too.
His head hurts too much to think.
The Triskelion and the Potomac took the brunt of the destruction of the helicarriers, but the explosions scattered debris. There are plenty of damaged buildings on either side of the river. He guesses it's midafternoon when he stumbles into what's left of a bar. Part of the roof is gone, and enough of the back wall that he just ducks through the hole to get inside.
There are only a few steps to the mostly-intact part of the building, and the long, still-pristine bar and all the chairs and tables. He tries, but he's shaking so badly that he can barely walk, and then his legs just kind of give out. He falls against the bar, knocking over chairs like tenpins, and then slides heavily to the floor. He sits there, leaning against the bar amongst the new wreckage of the chairs, just breathing through the pain.
He's used to being injured and in pain, but removing his armor is…difficult. It feels likes there're razorblades slicing his lungs every time he inhales, and there's a large, dark grey stain down his side. Touching it makes him gasp.
He's clammy with sweat by the time his upper body is bare, trembling with pain and effort and cold. It feels like winter, but the light's wrong, and there's no snow. And Steve should be with him. He doesn't do well in the winter. Bucky would never leave him alone—
But he did. He knows he did. Why?
Helicarrier, he thinks, but for a long time the word means nothing.
He's so tired, weight like centuries of time holding down his limbs. It's not safe here. He's not capable of functioning normally and anyone could find him. But he has no strength left to continue. He can barely move.
He'll rest a few minutes, then get up and start walking again. There'll be handlers waiting for him at the vault. They'll fix him like they always do.
But the idea of going back to the vault feels like death. He doesn't want to go back. He wants to go home. He wants to find Steve. Little punk'll just do something stupid if no one's there to look out for him.
There's still someone missing, but when he tries to think of her there's nothing but grief and blood. Maybe Steve knows where she is. Maybe he knows how to get home.
As soon as he's rested and warmed up a bit, he'll figure out where the hell Steve is. It's not much of a plan, but it's the only one he has. He's so tired.
He closes his eyes.
He dreams of being lost and alone and hunted though the wreckage of a bombed-out city. He's trying to get home. There are people waiting for him, he's sure of it. But he doesn't know where home is, and the thing in the dark is going to find him and tear him to shreds—
He wakes up lying on the floor in front of the bar and gasping in the waning evening light. He shoves himself up and lashes out in automatic reflex at the animal touching him. The sudden movement hurts so much that he makes an involuntary noise and curls into himself.
The small horse dances back before his fist connects, then stares at him with wide green eyes. Her body's light orange with a bright yellow mane and tail, tied back with red ribbons. There's a cluster of three round, white scars on her left side near her shoulder, and three red apples in a triangle on her haunch, each one with a small green leaf.
"Bucky?" she says. "Are you okay?"
He stares back at her, edging closer to the bar behind him. Horses don't talk. He knows that as much as he knows anything. But this one is so small, and there's something…
"I know you," he says.
"Yeah," she says, hushed. "I'm Applejack. Don't you remember me, Bucky?"
He shakes his head, because she's familiar but he doesn't know why except that it's something terrible. "Go away," he says. He clenches his fists. He knows she's not a threat, but something terrible happened and he's afraid. He doesn't want to remember.
"I'm not gonna hurt you, Bucky," she says. Her voice makes him think of summer, and the welcome hiss of water on hot pavement. She hunkers down nearly to the floor and crawls closer, keeping her whole body low and unthreatening. Her eyes are brimming with unshed tears. "What happened to you?"
He shakes his head again, tries to edge further away but there's nowhere to go. "I don't know," he says. "I fell." He realizes he's reaching for her and yanks his hand back. She feels safe, but she can't be. Nothing is safe. There's no safety anywhere for him. "Why do I know you?"
"Because I'm your friend," she says. "I'm Applejack Apple. We've been together our whole lives. Until…until I got hurt and had to go home."
"Friend," he whispers. He has no friends. He has handlers and missions.
"I've always been your friend," Applejacks says. She crawls a little closer, looking up at him. "I tried to get back to you once I'd healed up, but I couldn't. The portal wouldn't open anymore. I thought you were dead."
"I am dead," he says, because ghost stories and weapons aren't alive. "I know you. But…" The blood. He looks sharply to his left, where he remembers seeing a pool of her blood all over the floor. But there's nothing there but broken concrete. "You died," he says. He's breathing too fast, remembering. His ribs hurt, but the memories are worse. "I saw it. I saw you die."
"You're not dead," Applejack says, shaking her head almost frantically. "And I didn't die. I didn't die, Bucky." Applejack's close enough now to touch him, but she doesn't. "I had to go back to Equestria to get healed. But I didn't die. I hated leaving you in that terrible place! I was so scared about what they were doing to you, and you were all alone. I tried so hard to come back, Bucky, but the portal wouldn't open anymore. What happened to you?" She's crying now, tears darkening the orangey fur on her face. But horses don't cry either, just like they don't speak. "What happened to your arm? Where's Steve?"
Bucky swallows. He extends his left arm, grazing the white circles with his fingertips. He can feel the rigid whorls of scar tissue but not the softness of her fur. He lifts his head, looking into her big, apple-green eyes. "You're not a horse."
She shakes her head again. She looks older, he thinks. She had more freckles before. He doesn't know why he's so certain.
"I'm a pony," she says. "I'm your little pony, Bucky. Remember?"
He doesn't, not really. But he remembers the blood and his rage and the gaping void inside him where she'd been. "I missed you," he says, so softly he can barely hear his own voice. He reaches for her with his right hand, moving slowly because he doesn't want to hurt her and because he's afraid she'll disappear. "You were gone, and I wanted to burn down the world."
"Bucky." She surges forward and he throws his arms around her withers, pressing his cheek to her neck. Her mane smells like summer and feels like silk. "I missed you so much. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I had to leave you. I didn't want to, but I was hurt so bad. And then…I thought you were dead. I thought I'd never see you again. But then I found you, and I could come back."
"Applejack," he says. He's shaking, throat thick with an emotion he can't name. It's like relief, like gratitude for the absence of pain, but so much more than that. He knew what it was, once. He turns his face to kiss her neck, breathe in her summery scent. He feels warm for the first time he can remember, like maybe he can go home.
"I'm here. I'm right here, Bucky." She wraps her foreleg around him, hugging him in return. She's strong enough that it hurts and he can't help the tiny hiss of air.
Applejack leaps away from him. "Good heavens, your injuries! I forgot, I'm sorry. How'd you get bruised like that? What happened?"
"My ribs and my right arm are broken, and my left is malfunctioning. And I might have a concussion. And some internal bleeding." Bucky was trained to report his injuries as accurately as possible, but then he sees her expression and feels badly for upsetting her. "But, I'm okay. I just need to rest."
"The hell you're okay," she says. "You look half-dead! Bucky, what happened to your arm? Did…did that awful man with the glasses do that? What did he do to you?"
"I don't know. I don’t know what he did." Bucky remembers he was different after Steve rescued him, but maybe that was just his rage. "I have to find Steve. I left him—he was on the riverbank. But I, I don't…"
"It's all right. It's all right, Bucky. We'll find him," Applejack says. "We'll find him, okay? Just, you're really hurt, and I'm worried about you. You need help."
"No. I don't need help." He can't. The idea of anyone touching him… "I'm fine. I just need to rest. Steve needs help more. We have to find him." He grabs the top of the bar with his left hand to pull himself to his feet. He's shockingly weak but he ignores it, hauling himself up with the one arm. But as soon as he tries to take his weight something wrenches inside him.
He screams and collapses back to the floor, wrapping his arms around his torso. Before he can even try to control it he's gagging and throwing up blood.
"Bucky!" Applejack's staring at him in fear. She reaches for him with a foreleg but stops. "I don't wanna hurt you, but, can you get up if I help? You need a hospital."
Bucky shakes his head again. "No," he says, panting. "No hospital. Hydra. I-I can't. They—"
"Bucky, you're gonna die! Please! Let me help you." She edges closer, nudging her nose under his right arm. He sucks air because even that hurts; he's never been this injured. "C'mon, get up. You gotta get up. On three, ready?"
She starts counting before Bucky can refuse, then straightens her legs, lifting with all her strength. Bucky grabs the bar top again so he won't topple over, then tries to pull himself up with her help, but just raising his arm above his shoulder hurts too much. "Stop. Stop, please. It hurts."
Applejack backs away from him immediately, letting him slide to the floor. "I'm sorry!"
Bucky looks at her out of half-closed eyes, struggling to stay conscious. "Not your fault." His mouth is full of copper. He doesn't realize that he's keeling over until Applejack darts in and carefully lowers him onto his side, away from the blood he vomited. He reaches for her, smiles faintly when his fingers sink into her mane. He doesn't remember doing it before, but he remembers what it feels like.
Applejack swallows. "I'm not gonna let you die, Buck." She slowly steps away, disentangling herself. Bucky doesn't want to let go, but he won't do anything that might hurt her. He's hurt enough people. He hurt Steve and he won't hurt Applejack too. His hand slides down her neck and thumps onto the floor. She presses her lips together, then takes a breath deep enough to make her sides heave. She nods like she's come to a decision. "I'm going to get you help." She lowers her head so she's looking into his dulling eyes. "I'm gonna have to go for a little while, Buck. But I'm coming back, I promise. I promise," she repeats fiercely at the tiny, frightened whine he can't control.
"No. Don't. Don't leave."
Applejack's eyes well again, but she takes another step back, resolute. "I'm not leaving you, Bucky. Not ever. I'm gonna come back. Just, stay here, all right? Don't…Don't give up. I'm coming back. I promise."
"No." He's trying to reach for her as she disappears. And then she's gone again and he's alone.
He's alone and there's nothing left and maybe she was never there at all. Maybe he just saw her because he's dying.
No, that's wrong. Weapons can't die. He's already dead.
He drops back to the floor and closes his eyes, waiting for the cold and the emptiness. At least after that there won't be any pain.
He dreams he's about to fall.
It's the kind of dream that feels absolutely real. Bucky remembers falling, but only as an abstract sense of movement and terror and sorrow and loss. His first real memory, before the agony of the surgeons sawing off what remains of his arm, is cold. Nothing else. There's no knowledge that goes with it, no comprehension of where he was or what happened. There was red and white everywhere around him but it had no meaning. He was hurt too badly to even feel pain. That came later. Pain became his entire existence soon enough.
He doesn't remember anything before the fall itself. Not getting trapped in the train car or picking up Steve's shield to protect him from the Hydra mook with the fucking huge blue energy gun. He doesn't remember the impact that sent him flying, or his desperate grab at the door handle of the blasted-open train car. He doesn't remember Steve urging him to hang on, to grab his hand, or how the last thing Bucky ever saw of the man he loved was Steve's expression as the handle broke and Bucky fell.
He doesn't remember any of that, except he does. He's dreaming he's about to fall, and he knows with a certainty that goes deeper than what's left of his soul that this is exactly what happened.
Bucky's hanging, trying to reach for Steve who's trying to reach for him, and he's so close, so close… And then Steve screams, "NO!" as the handle snaps, and Bucky's still reaching for him, still reaching—
He shouldn't be able to hear her through the screech of the wind or his own screaming or the terror roaring in his ears. But he can and he looks up to see the fucking flying unicorn almost on top of him, with the blond girl riding on its back like a God-damned Valkyrie. She's gripping a hank of the unicorn-pegasus' dark blue mane and she's almost horizontal, she's leaning so far out towards him. And he reaches back, and against all logic or possibility, she catches his hand.
And he doesn't rip her arm off or pull her off the flying unicorn, either. Instead she swings him up behind her like he's some kind of princess, and he grabs her around her waist. And he starts laughing because he should be dead, but instead he's holding onto some pretty girl on the back of a dark grey flying unicorn. And this can't be real—no chance in hell—but it feels real.
"I'm dreaming, ain't I?" he says, yelling it into the shell of the pretty girl's ear so she can hear him over the wind.
She grins at him over her shoulder, her green eyes sparkling above the smattering of freckles across her nose. Her long blond hair is pulling free of the red ribbon tying it in a loose ponytail.
"You sure are," she says happily, and holy fuck it's Applejack. She's wearing a feminine version of his Howling Commandos uniform, he realizes, except her quilted jacket is dark green, and she has her cutie mark on the sleeve in gold instead of his wings.
Bucky laughs again because this is nuts. This is amazing and fantastic and insane, and even if he could remember any other dreams he's sure this would still be the best one he ever had. He hugs Applejack a little harder around her waist, tucking his chin over her shoulder and giving her a kiss on the cheek.
Applejack bumps her temple against his, then points at the sleek, dark grey head of the unicorn-pegasus carrying them both. "This is Princess Luna. Her specialty is helping people work things out through their dreams. When I told her what happened to you, she wanted to help."
"Thanks," Bucky says, stunned. They're following the train as it snakes its way through the mountains. He can just make out Steve, still holding onto the outside of the car. He should go back in before he falls too, Bucky thinks.
Even from this distance, Steve looks devastated. It's hard to see him like that.
"You are most welcome." Luna turns her head to speak to him, taking his attention from the tragic sight of Steve so far below. Her voice is deep and sonorous, as regal as any talking animal could possibly sound while flying after a train. "No pony can change the past, but I can help you remember it, and reconcile with what was done to you. It will take time, and parts of it will be painful, but you will emerge whole. I promise."
"Thanks," Bucky says again, because he's sure it's rude not to answer a princess when she's speaking to you, even if this is some crazy, fantastic dream he's having while he's bleeding to death in the wreckage of a bar.
"You're not dying, Bucky," Luna says, though Bucky is absolutely certain he didn't say that part out loud. "You are with Applejack in Canterlot. Our physicians are healing your body while you and I together will heal your mind."
Bucky blinks. He looks at his hands, which are definitely hands and not hooves. They're both flesh and blood too, and warm, despite the cold and the wind. "But…I'm not a pony."
Luna laughs, deep and rich. "That was most evident, I assure you. But Canterlot's physicians are exceptionally skilled, and a human with warm blood is not, ultimately, so different."
"Oh. Okay." It makes as much sense as anything else, Bucky figures. And even if all this is the last gasp of his desperate brain as he kicks the bucket, he can think of worse ways to go. "I'm in Equestria? Really?"
"Yep!" Applejack says happily. She's still grinning, her human face flushed from the wind, eyes bright, bright green. She would've been one of the wallflowers back at the dancehalls in New York, he knows—she's too sweet looking, not nearly sophisticated enough, and her hair's too long. But to him she's beautiful; always has been. "I can't wait to show you the farm!"
"There will be time to show your friend everything once he's recovered, Applejack," Luna says. She smiles, and it's oddly wicked for a princess. "But for now, you have a monster to fight, Sergeant."
"What?" But even as he asks Bucky hears a roar behind him.
He looks sharply over his shoulder, and there's a giant fucking hydra crawling rearing up out of an enormous cave. It's black as starless midnight with eyes red as blood glaring from at least twenty heads, all waving and undulating like worms on their long, snaky necks. There's a blood-colored star right between each set of glowing eyes.
The heads bellow in challenge, showing mouths the size of Cadillacs full of pointed white teeth. And then the hydra starts running along the cliff face towards the train.
Bucky hasn't read anything that wasn't required for a mission in 70 years, but he's never been stupid and he can see a metaphor when it's about to fucking eat Captain America. He also knows that the spine-shattering terror he's feeling has nothing to do with the physical hydra itself, but with the monsters it represents. But he's so scared now his body's practically vibrating with it, so bad he's not sure he's going to be able to hang on. All he can do is watch helplessly as the monster gets closer and closer to the train.
"You're safe, Bucky. We're right here," Applejack says. She holds Bucky's wrists, keeping his arms tight around her waist. Keeping him with her, keeping him together.
"You are not helpless, Sergeant," Luna says. "Get ready."
"Here!" Applejack lets go of Bucky with one arm, only long enough to reach and grab something from an outcropping as Luna flies next to it. She hands it to Bucky and he takes it shakily with one hand, the other still gripping her waist.
It's his sniper rifle, but it looks different—shining brass and glowing, like what his rifle might be like after Howard Stark got through with it. If he hadn't murdered Howard Stark.
Below him the hydra roars again, as if in pleasure.
"Howard and Maria Stark's deaths were Hydra's doing, Bucky, not yours," Luna says. "It will take time for you to understand that, but you will. But for now, you have the means to destroy the monster threatening you and those you love. If you wish."
Bucky looks at the rifle in his hand. It's warm, like something alive, and it gleams like a vicious promise. And he can use it to destroy that fucking thing that destroyed him. If he wants to.
Oh yeah, he fucking wants to.
He has to let go of Applejack to put the rifle to his shoulder, but it's easy. His balance is perfect, the wind barely an inconvenience. He's not afraid anymore.
But he is really, really angry.
His anger flows into his rifle as he exhales and pulls the trigger, and then into the bullet as it flies right into the center of the first red star. The hydra's head explodes, taking out the one next to it too. None grow in its place.
Bucky whoops, punching the air.
Applejack laughs in malicious glee. "That's it, Bucky! Blow 'em to hell!"
Bucky grins. "Yes, Ma'am."
He shoots again, and again and again. At some point Applejack starts helping with a shotgun of her own. Hers looks like the kind of double-barreled farmer's weapon that's used for shooting rabbits, but it takes down the hydra heads as well as Bucky's. He loves it.
He loves Applejack, and he's getting pretty damn fond of Luna too, for letting him do this. He's perfectly aware that none of this is real—he still remembers the cold and the pain after his fall, and he's beginning to get back every second of hell that came after the Russians found him.
But it feels absolutely real, and somehow that's good enough for Bucky's fucked-up psyche. It's like he's getting his own back from every single one of the assholes who ever strapped him down or sliced him up or stuffed him full of poison or ripped out his mind. It's like vengeance, and he and Applejack keep blasting the hydra heads to bits, and none of them grow back.
Maybe that's not saying much, but it definitely is the best dream Bucky's ever had.
He wakes up laughing at something Applejack says in his dream, and when he blinks his eyes open she's beside him in a surprisingly huge bed in a warm, airy room, grinning in joy.
She's a pony again, and he can't help the tiny pang at that. But she's lying next to him the way she used to back in Brooklyn: all those nights when she kept him company, or kept away nightmares, or kept him warm.
Her grin fades as she looks at him until she's still smiling but it's a little uncertain. "Y'okay, Bucky?" she asks. "You're not hurtin', or nothing?"
Bucky shakes his head. He can feel that he's still injured, like a kind of heavy lethargy beneath his skin. But nothing hurts. He touches her nose with his hand, then grins delightedly to feel the soft warmth of it against his palm.
"Don't be concerned, Applejack. It's a side-effect of what he was given to reduce his pain," Luna says.
Bucky turns his head to blink at her. Everything feels slow and easy and liquid, like he's still dreaming. "You're so tiny," he says. She is: she's taller than Applejack, sure, but she was huge in his dream. "Why are you all so tiny?"
Luna blinks back at him with her luminous dark eyes. "I believe it is you humans who are overly large," she says, but he doesn't miss her smile.
He smiles back, then reaches out to her, tracing her horn with his fingertips before it occurs to him that it might be rude. It's the same dark grey as her fur, and feels like a whorled seashell warmed by the sun.
Luna steps closer, allowing the touch, still with the same patient smile.
"How come your mane is…windy?" Bucky asks her. He's moved his hand so he can pet her up and down her blaze, from the base of her horn to her nose, the same way Applejack likes.
Luna's smile widens a little. "Magic," she says simply. She steps back, gently ducking her head out of his reach. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Sergeant. I look forward to helping you vanquish more of your demons."
"Thank you," he says. He licks his lips. They're a little dry, but not uncomfortable. He's about as comfortable right now as he ever remembers being. And with his past that might mean nothing, but he'll take it. It's nice. He grins. "Can I shoot 'em?"
"Some. Not all," Luna answers seriously. "I must attend to moonrise, but I will see you soon, Bucky. Look after him, Applejack," she says to her, belying the command with another smile. "Please let one of the servants know if you need anything."
Bucky dimly listens as Applejack and Luna exchange farewells, letting the heavy lethargy tug him down. He cracks his eyes open when Applejack moves.
"Shh," she says. "It's okay. I'm just getting comfortable. Go back to sleep, Bucky."
"You don't have t'stay," he murmurs, before he reaches for her.
"I know," she says. She carefully lays her head on his shoulder. "I want to stay. I said I wouldn't leave you, and I won't. Not ever again." She nuzzles his jaw. "Go back to sleep."
"Okay," he says, and does.
Bucky's injuries heal quickly, a combination of his body's own abilities and the physicians' magic. He regains his strength first by stumbling around the room using Applejack for balance, then by taking longer walks outside. When he's well enough he races Applejack, or wrestles with her like when they were kids. She's far stronger here than she ever was on Earth. She can knock down giant trees with a single kick, and when they spar Bucky ends up losing far more often than not. But then, he always did. It's familiar and comforting, and so good to not have to worry about hurting anyone.
When he's released from the unicorns' care, Applejack takes him to her family's farm in Ponyville and introduces him to her friends. There's Rainbow Dash, who's a tough, fearless pegasus who decides Bucky has to learn every Equestria sport ever invented, whether he has the right shape to play them or not. Twilight Sparkle is smart, thoughtful and bookish and kind of reminds Bucky of Steve. Apparently she helped make the extremely potent painkillers the doctors used on him. Fluttershy is another pegasus, and she's sweet and shy as anything and coaxes Bucky out of a panic attack like he's one of the animals she looks after.
The strangest one is Pinkie Pie, who's bouncy and adorably loony, and who caused the panic attack by screaming her excitement at meeting him at the top of her lungs. Rarity reminds Bucky of a movie star, and sews him a couple sets of clothing, intrigued by the challenge of his non-pony body.
He likes them all and enjoys spending time with them, and he loves Applejack's easy competence and pride in her farm and family. It's peaceful and quiet and safe, and Bucky is relaxed and unafraid and comfortable for the first time in almost a century.
Mostly, though, he sleeps.
Even without any medicine, he's constantly exhausted. He's sure it's because his brain is finally healing from the brutal mindwipes, but he's also just getting to rest. The Winter Soldier had his injuries tended and his arm repaired, and then his mind was wiped and he was put in cyrostasis. He didn't sleep. They never let him sleep. And after 70 years it's like all the fatigue he couldn't even recognize has caught up to him at once.
So he sleeps. And he dreams.
Princess Luna is always there as soon as he closes his eyes, a constant guide and anchor and shield through the treacherous darkness of his mind. She gives him the courage to fight the demons of his memories, confront the specters of his torturers and ask forgiveness from the Winter Soldier's victims. She helps him understand that he was a victim too, that none of it was his choice; that if he'd been present in his own head he would never have hurt anyone.
And Luna shows Bucky what he hadn't been able to remember: How hard he fought against it, even when they'd first found him on the riverbank, nameless and bleeding and helpless as a child. He fought becoming their weapon with every last shred of his being, until they were forced to create the cyrostasis chamber and the chair to keep him from turning on them. Or turning his weapons on himself.
Bucky realizes that he wasn't weak, or stupid, or evil; that he never let them hurt him or somehow secretly wanted it. He realizes that he's a good man and that he never stopped being good. He was forced to stop being.
Sometimes when his dreams are nothing more complex than monster hunting, Luna brings Applejack along in her petite human body and Howling Commando uniform to help. Applejack loves it, taking her own revenge for every terrible thing that was ever done to him.
But even when she's not in his dreams she's always there, whether he wakes up crying or screaming in sorrow or rage or fear. She nuzzles his hair and kisses his tear-streaked face and never complains no matter how tightly he holds her. And when he's calm enough she makes him tea. Or if it's nighttime and he can't sleep again, she walks with him through the moonlit apple orchard, or takes him to the nearby river where they swim together in the dark.
He worries about Steve and misses him horribly, and the other Commandos, and his family, and everything he remembers now and knows he'll never have again. Some days the knowledge of what he lost, of what was stolen from him, is overwhelming. Some days the world he unwillingly helped create is a terrifying abyss he dreads returning to. He knows he could stay in Equestria forever, and some days he even wants to. It's so much easier here and so much safer, where even the worst threat can be overcome by love and friendship. And Applejack's breathless joy at the thought of him staying is almost enough to make him say he will. Almost.
But he's human, and he knows Steve's looking for him because Bucky would search to the ends of the Earth if Steve were the one who disappeared. And Equestria won't ever feel like home, no matter how much he might wish it did. No matter that his true home doesn't exist anymore.
And he's getting better. Bucky stops needing to sleep so much, and when he does he gradually stops waking up with his face wet and his throat burning. And Luna comes less and less often, until one night she only appears to say goodbye. She's done all she can and he doesn't need her anymore. The rest is up to him.
And Bucky knows he's ready to go back.
Before he leaves, though, Pinkie Pie insists on repairing his arm.
Actually, she insists on throwing him a farewell party, but she repairs his arm first. It turns out that as well as being adorably loony and a surprisingly meticulous party planner, she's a gifted engineer. Mostly she uses her talents to construct things like improbable musical instruments and hazardous obstacle courses, but she's adamant she's going to fix his arm.
Bucky's wary—it's his arm, and Pinkie Pie's nuts—but Applejack vouches for her, and Applejack doesn't lie. And something about the way Pinkie Pie screams, "BEST! DAY! EVER!" when he agrees makes him think that it's probably okay.
And Pinkie Pie is a light pink Earth pony, with a curly, dark pink mane and tail. She's nothing at all like the scientists who attached the arm to him or the technicians who repaired it. And she's overjoyed because she gets to fix something, not terrified because it's the Winter Soldier's arm.
And she's his friend, not a handler. He knows she doesn't want to hurt him, and that she'll care if it hurts. And she'll stop if he tells her to.
He's still frightened, because he has no good memories of the arm getting repaired. At best the pain wasn't incapacitating. At worst he passed out and woke up days or years later when they took him out of cyro again. Even sitting at Applejack's kitchen table with his right hand gripping her mane, it's hard to keep his mind from sliding back to the chair in the vault, or the examination table in the Red Room, or the first time he woke up and understood what they'd done to him—
"Hey, it's all right," Applejack says to him. "You're with me now. No one's gonna hurt you."
Bucky nods mutely, tries to ease off a bit on the death grip he has on her mane. He risks a glance to his left, where Pinkie Pie's peering so intently into the open arm casing that her pink pony nose is nearly snuffling the wires. She's squinting through a pair of goggles with about 100 magnifying lenses stacked in front of her eyes. Bucky figures she can probably see individual atoms.
She's using things that remind him unpleasantly of dentist's tools, though he can't understand how she can hold them at all, let alone manipulate them without fingers. But she is, and apparently without effort, and he can feel the tools working inside his arm. The sensation is weird, but not unpleasant. He just wishes he could stop waiting for it to hurt.
"I've almost finished getting the squiggly bits reattached to the thingamabob," Pinkie Pie says brightly. "Snap your fingers."
Bucky does. It makes a strange little metallic clang.
"I wondered what that would sound like!" Pinkie Pie pokes her nose closer and does, actually, take a long whiff of the mechanism. "Yeah! Smells like victory!" She yanks her head and her tools out, then slams the casing shut. "Try it, try it!" she enthuses.
Bucky obediently lifts his left arm, working to calm his breathing. He rolls his shoulder, bends and straightens his arm, makes a fist and wiggles his fingers. It feels perfectly responsive, like his right hand. And for the first time since it was attached to him, there's not even a hint of pain.
He grins at his hand, then at Pinkie Pie. "It's better than new."
She lifts her front hooves in the air. "I did it! BEST ARM EVER!" He was expecting the screaming this time, so he's able to laugh instead of cringe. And even Applejack winces, which makes him feel a little better about wanting to slap is palms over his ears.
Then Pinkie Pie cocks her head, looking at his shoulder. "Is that red star your cutie mark?"
"No," Bucky says, smile vanishing. "No. That has nothing to do with me."
"You don't have to keep it, Bucky," Applejack says. "You can change it to whatever you want."
Bucky blinks. The red star was forced on him just like the arm itself. It never even occurred to him that he could change it. He looks at Pinkie Pie. "You could do that?"
"Sure, I can do that!" Pinkie Pie nods. "And by 'me', I mean Rarity. Rarity can totally do that. Wait here--I'll be right back!" She scrambles off the table and bounces out the door.
A second later she sticks her head in through the open window. Bucky's used to that as well by now so he's not entirely startled out of his wits. "What colors do you want? Green, right?"
"Red," Bucky says quickly, before Pinkie Pie bounds off and comes back with Rarity and fourteen shades of green paint. "Red, white and blue. And a little bit of green."
"Excuse me, Captain Rogers," J.A.R.V.I.S. intones neatly over Tony's invisible P.A. system, "but it seems there is a Sergeant Barnes in the lobby requesting to see you."
Steve manages not to drop the coffee mug he'd been sipping miserably in the kitchen. "What?"
"Sergeant Barnes is in the lobby of Avengers Tower, asking for you," J.A.R.V.I.S. repeats, surprisingly gently for an A.I. programmed to be good at sarcasm.
"Seriously?" Tony gapes at the ceiling, then at Steve, then at the clock on the stove. "It's, like, two in the afternoon. And he just walked in? Not even the least bit murdery? Are you sure he doesn't have an arsenal stashed in his underwear or something?
Steve doesn't bother to respond to Tony's comment. He can't say he disagrees with his concern, though, considering how violent Bucky was the last time they met.
The timing is also suspicious. Steve just got back to the tower after spending four fruitless months with Sam trying to track Bucky down. They'd given up when the last of Natasha's leads came to nothing. Steve didn't want to stop the search, but there were no clues left. Just dead end after dead end, like Bucky had vanished off the face of the world. Steve was terrified Bucky was dead, horribly certain that even if he wasn't, he'd never see him again.
Steve left an exhausted Sam in Washington and came to New York to hole up and lick his wounds. Steve's been here for all of a day and a half. He hasn't even started dealing with this new loss, after the hope that Bucky might be returned to him. He's barely begun to mourn.
And now Bucky's here.
"Let me see, J," Tony says, and instantly a holographic screen hovers in front of them, showing the lobby with the best camera angle on Bucky.
And it is him. There's no question, no other possibility. He's leaning casually against the front of the reception counter, glancing around idly but unerringly seeing all the places where the cameras are hidden. He's wearing the combat boots Steve remembers being kicked with, but the rest of his Winter Soldier uniform is gone. Instead he's in blue jeans and a white button-down shirt. The cuffs are a little long, maybe to help conceal his metal hand. Both the shirt and pants look tailored but homemade. His hair's still too long but it's neat and clean and his face is clean-shaven as well. Steve can tell he's a little nervous, but he's not wary.
He looks…beautiful, Steve thinks, but that's not a useful judgment so he goes with 'healthy' instead. There's no sign of the injuries Steve inflicted on him, and his eyes are accessing but alive; not flat and dead or wild with fear the w'ay they were the last time Steve saw him.
"It's Bucky," he says. "I mean, it's him," he adds when Tony snorts. He tears his eyes away from the screen to look at Tony, trying to get him to understand. "He looks the way he did before. During the war, I mean. He's…I think he's okay."
"Based on what? That he's dressed like a human being and he hasn't killed everyone yet?" Tony says. Steve can't blame him, but it still sets his teeth on edge. "J, get Fury on the line. We're—"
"Wait," Steve says, holding up his hand. He leans closer to the screen. "I think I saw something."
"What?" Tony leans forward as well. "What is it? I don't see anything."
"I thought I saw…" Steve trails off. He did see something. A tail. A long, yellow horsetail held together by a red ribbon. It's barely visible, its owner almost entirely hidden behind the end of the reception desk.
And then Bucky drums his fingers a couple times against the desk, the way Steve's seen him do a hundred, a thousand times, and the tail disappears. And then a very small, orange and yellow horse walks out from behind the desk and goes to stand at Bucky's side, and he threads his fingers into her mane.
Steve stops breathing.
Bucky looks down and smiles at the horse: a soft, fond thing that Steve hasn't seen in longer than he wants to think about. She bumps affectionately against his leg and then lifts her head to smile up at him. There's a red ribbon holding back her mane.
"Oh," Steve says. Because it's not a small horse. It's a little pony.
It's Applejack. He can even see the cutie mark Bucky told him about: the three apples in a triangle. But she died.
Then again, Bucky died too.
"It's really him," Steve says. He's gripping the kitchen counter because his legs feel weak. He dimly thinks he needs to ease up before he cracks the granite. "I can't—I can't explain it. But I know, Tony. I know that's him. He's back. That's not the Winter Soldier down there. It's Bucky. It's my friend."
Tony stares at the screen for what feels like a terribly long time. He swallows, then looks at Steve. "Let him up, J.A.R.V.I.S. Steve's floor. Go," he says to Steve, jutting his chin in the direction of the elevator. "What are you waiting for?"
The elevator doors open on Steve's floor and Bucky steps out, one hand still in Applejack's mane. He stops about two feet away from the car, as if he's sure he'll have to go back in. "Hi, Steve," he says. Both his voice and his smile are tentative.
"Hi, Buck," Steve says. His eyes are wet. He takes a step closer but stops, thinking about the file Natasha gave him and choices and personal space. "Can I hug you?"
Bucky blinks at him. "Are you kidding?" He lets go of Applejack to go right to Steve and wrap him in his arms. He holds him so tightly that Steve can practically feel his ribs creak, but he doesn't care. Bucky could snap every single one of them and Steve wouldn't care. And Steve knows he's hugging back just as hard.
"Oh, God, Bucky. Oh my God. I thought—I thought I wasn't going to see you again."
"Sorry," Bucky says tightly. Neither of them try to let go. "I had to…hole up for a while. Get my head screwed on right."
"Yeah," Steve says, voice rough. "I read your file. About…about what they did to you."
"'Wish you hadn't," Bucky says. The buzz of his voice against Steve's neck seems to hit every one of his nerves at once. "It's not pretty."
"I know." Steve wants to tell Bucky how sorry he is, but that feels so inadequate he can't make himself shape the words. "Are you…are you okay?"
Bucky moves back from Steve, but only far enough to let Steve see his face. His smile is sad, but it's also warm and real. "Yeah. I'm okay."
Steve smiles back, though he knows his is a hell of a lot more tremulous. "I'd really like to kiss you."
Bucky's expression somehow manages to be full of fond exasperation and disbelief at once. "Why the hell do you keep asking?" he says, then puts his hands on either side of Steve's face and all but hauls Steve to him.
It's not the first time Steve's kissed anyone in 70 years, but it's the first time he's really wanted to. The heat and taste of Bucky's mouth are exactly like Steve remembers, the small eager noises just as hot and endearing. It feels like a gaping wound in his soul has finally closed, like Steve's finally whole.
They both pull away when even super soldiers finally have to breathe. Steve leans his forehead against Bucky's, panting and laughing and just so God-damned happy. "I love you."
Bucky grins. "Sap." But he tilts his face up to plant a quick kiss on Steve's lips. "Me too."
"Sap," Steve says. He takes a breath and steps back, still holding Bucky's hands. He looks at Applejack, who's been standing quietly the whole time, looking at the two men kissing with an expression that's both wistful and full of joy. "So, are you going to be a gentleman and introduce me to your friend?"
Bucky's face goes absolutely blank. "What?"
Steve grins and crouches down in front of the pony, hoping he's not actually telegraphing how nervous he is. "Hi," he says. "You must be Applejack. Bucky's told me a lot about you. I'm really glad we can finally meet."
"You can see me?" Applejack breathes. She looks at Steve in wonder.
Steve nods, his throat tight. "Bucky's right—you're not pale at all."
"I don't believe it!" She rears up on her hind legs and all but throws herself at Steve to hug him.
Steve wraps his arms around her solid little body, feeling the silkiness of her mane against his cheek. She smells like summer and apples, and it's that scent, combined with the heat of her body that nudges at a memory. He closes his eyes and concentrates, pulling it free.
He gasps, eyes flying open so he can look at her. "I remember you. You kept me warm." He looks up at Bucky, who's staring back with the same kind of rapt astonishment. "She's why I survived the winters, isn't she? You kept me warm, both of you." He turns to Applejack again. "You saved my life. You saved my life, and I didn't even know you were there."
Applejack nods. "I knew," she says.
"Thank you." Steve hugs her again, and then Bucky kneels and hugs them both. It's awkward and ridiculous, and the best thing that's happened to Steve in a very long time.
"You're sure this is okay?" Steve asks. He's trying to do the right thing, but it's a little hard when Bucky's barely stopped kissing him long enough to breathe.
"Yeah, it's fine," Bucky answers so distractedly that Steve's sure he didn't even hear him. He yanks at Steve's shirt. "C'mon, get this off. Off, off."
"Bucky." Steve grabs Bucky's wrists. It still feels strange to be holding his metal one—it's as warm as his right, but too smooth and unyielding. Steve wants to ask if Bucky can feel anything with it, but reminds himself that's not important right now.
Bucky glares at him, but he doesn't pull out of Steve's grip though Steve is very aware of how easily he could. "Yes, Steve," he says with clear impatience, "Applejack knows that we're in your room preparing to fuck each other, if you ever get your clothes off, and she is okay with it. She's happy for us, as a matter of fact. In case her, y'know, being happy for us wasn't clear enough."
Steve rolls his eyes but he's smiling too much to sell it. "I just don't want her to feel…" He shrugs, uncomfortable. "You know, left out."
Bucky stares at him. "Steve, she's a pony."
"Yes, I did happen to notice the mane and tail," Steve says, though he can feel how deeply he's blushing. "But…you know what I mean. You told me once how you wished she were human."
"Yeah, well, she wishes I were a pony too, sometimes." Bucky shrugs, expression a little regretful. "But we are what we are and that's not gonna change. And even if it could, she has a whole family and life and everything back in Equestria. And believe me, it's a swell place but you really need to be about four feet tall and have hooves. And I love her too much to want her to change, you know? She's perfect just the way she is. And she's mine. Just…" He shrugs again. "Not the same way you are."
"All right," Steve says, relieved. All the same, he can't help glancing at the closed door, as if Applejack would somehow materialize inside the room with big, sad eyes. "But I'd be okay with it. If she were human, I mean. And um, yours the way I am."
"That's…really sweet, Stevie," Bucky says. "But, could we talk about it later, maybe? I want to be with you. I've been waiting months for this. Actually, no." He stops, thinking. "I'm pretty sure I've been waiting my whole damn life."
"Me too," Steve says. "I mean, for you to want this as much as I did." He drops Bucky's wrists, but just to tangle their fingers. "I love you. I don't want you to think this is wrong, Bucky. It was never wrong."
Bucky nods. "I know," he says. "That's… One of the things I got straight in my head was about that." He smiles crookedly. "And it helped to be with a bunch of folks who don't give a damn who you're with, as long as you're happy."
"Are you happy?"
"Yeah, Stevie," Bucky says seriously. "I'm happy. I want this. I want you." He smirks. "Though I'd be happier if we could actually get naked, here."
Steve laughs, then leans in and kisses him until Bucky moans against his mouth.
Bucky pulls away, lips red and wet and as gorgeous as the rest of him. "Yeah, okay," he says, then lets go of Steve's hands and grabs the hem of his shirt.
Steve obligingly helps Bucky get his tee-shirt over his head, then starts undoing the buttons on Bucky's. Someone put a lot of time and effort into making it and he doesn't want it ruined. He tugs it off Bucky's arms but stops when he sees the new symbol painted on Bucky's left shoulder.
It's a series of concentric circles painted in the same colors as Steve's shield, except instead of a star in the center there's another white circle, and inside that is an apple with a tiny green leaf. "I remember you telling me about this," Steve says softly. He carefully touches the apple. "Is this a ruby?"
Bucky nods, blushing an endearing shade of crimson. "Rarity painted the design—she's one of Applejack's pony friends. She loves that kind of stuff."
"She did a great job," Steve says. He grins. "Though since it's your cutie mark, I'm surprised it's not on your butt."
"It's not a cutie mark," Bucky protests. "It's a symbol of… Fine. It's a cutie mark. Happy?" he grouses when Steve starts laughing.
"Yes," Steve says, meaning it with all his heart. "Yes, I really am."
Bucky's half-asleep, but a soft, familiar touch makes him open his eyes. He smiles at Applejack, who's standing next to Steve's bed. It's late, though Bucky doesn't know how late exactly, since he and Steve kind of lost track of time. But it's as dark outside as it ever gets in a big city. Applejack's eyes shine like black water. He reaches for her. "Thought you were sleeping. C'mon, hop up."
He helps her onto the bed, mostly so she doesn't land on him or Steve. Steve grumbles something but doesn't wake. Applejack lays down on Bucky's stomach and he automatically starts carding his fingers through her mane.
"I was sleeping," she says. "But I woke up, so I wanted to check on you and Steve."
"We're fine," he says gently, then lifts his head so he can see her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm all right," Applejack says. "It's just…" She breathes out a long, warm apple-gust of a sigh. "I got used to being with you all the time, is all. And now Steve's here and I have to share. And that's just fine," she adds quickly, lifting her head so Bucky can look her in both eyes. "I mean, I sure do love him, and he can even see me now. But…" Her mouth quirks unhappily. "He's known you forever, but he doesn't know me."
"I can now, though," Steve says. Bucky hadn't heard him wake up, but Steve rolls onto his side, moving closer to them. He puts his head in his hand and starts petting Applejack, long strokes up and down her back. "It must be the serum."
"Guess that explains Schmidt," Bucky says darkly. "Fucking asshole. I should'a killed him."
"The Tesseract killed him, which is poetic justice if you ask me," Steve says. He threads his fingers through Applejack's mane, smiling softly. "I remember this texture. And how you always smell like summer and apples. You were with me the whole time, weren't you? Whenever I was with Bucky, I mean."
"Uh-huh." Applejack bobs her head. "I'd stay with you when you were sick, and your mamma and Bucky couldn't be there. All day, sometimes." She smiles. "You were so sweet, never wantin' to let go. And in the winter I tried to keep you warm. Well, you know that part." She bumps his chest with her nose. "You used to snore like a freight train."
"Still does," Bucky says.
Steve smirks. "It was the allergies, and the colds. I couldn't even breathe through my nose half the time." He scratches Applejack between her eyes and she sighs happily. "Thank you. For staying with me. I'm sorry I didn't know." He looks at Bucky, his eyes grave and glistening in the dark. "I can't tell you how sorry I am that I didn't believe you, before Applejack…before she got hurt. I believed you--I always believed you—but not that what you told me could possibly be real. If I'd found out after the serum and, and Schmidt, with everything I'd done and experienced, I know I would've believed that Applejack wasn't just…" He swallows. "Some kind of delusion that you'd managed to live with. But I found out when I was a skinny, angry kid from Brooklyn who'd lost too much to still believe in magic."
"You might've thought I was nuts, but you stuck by me anyway," Bucky says. "That means a hell of a lot. I don't know anyone else who would've done that." He smiles. "'Cept Applejack."
"Thank you, for taking care of him when I couldn't," Steve says to her, now methodically stroking up and down her nose. "And thank you for…" He exhales loudly. "For finding him, after the helicarrier. You saved him. I can't ever repay you for that."
"What do you have to repay me for?" Applejack looks genuinely confused. "He's my best friend. I love him. 'Course I was gonna help. 'Sides, Princess Luna did a whole heap of a lot more than I did."
"Bucky told me about her," Steve says. "I'd love to thank her in person."
"That'd be real nice of you," Applejack says. Then she tilts her head pensively. "I don't think I could take you now, though. You ain't mine yet."
Steve blinks at her. "What?"
"Like Bucky," Applejack says. "He needed me, so I found him and he's mine. But you can see me now. And I think…I think you could be mine too. If you want."
Steve blinks again, then gives her one of his beautiful grins, so bright it could light up the whole world. "I would. I'd like that. Thank you." But then he looks at Bucky, his expression clouding. "But not if I'd get in the way or anything. I mean, you two—you've known each other longer than you've known me. Your relationship is really special. I'd hate to do anything to disrupt that."
"Stevie," Bucky sighs, "the first time we ever met, I remember how fucking disappointed I was that you couldn't see her. Way I figure, you always shoulda' been hers, and she shoulda' been yours, too. Right from the start."
He wants to add, Just like me, but doesn't. He wanted to belong to Steve from the moment they met, if he's honest, but he was always too afraid.
But he's not afraid anymore, so he rolls up onto his side too, facing Steve with Applejack snug between them and more-or-less pinning them under the blankets. And he reaches across and cups Steve's face with his left hand, tracing the curve of his lips with his thumb. He can feel the warmth of Steve's skin and even the texture now, ever since Pinkie Pie fixed his arm. "I can't think of anything I've wanted more than for Applejack to be yours, too. It shoulda' always been all three of us."
He can feel Steve's smile against his thumb. "I wish it could've been."
"You didn't need me," Applejack says. "You weren't hurting, and you weren't alone."
Steve nods. He takes Bucky's hand and links their fingers. Bucky's arm is resting on Applejack. "It was just me and my mom, but she was…she was really good to me. I was lucky."
"Yeah," Bucky says, a little rough. "Yeah, you were."
"I was," Steve agrees, "I am." He grins. "I survived a plane crash, and I got you back, and now I have another friend too." He lets go of Bucky's hand to bury his fingers in Applejack's mane. "I honestly never thought I'd live to see 30. And now I'm 95, and I've got the Avengers and my best guy, and Applejack." He smirks. "You know, I always wanted a pony."
"No you didn't," Bucky snorts. "Idiot."
"You're both dweebs," Applejack says with authority. She squirms a bit, getting more comfortable. "Now stop yapping. I wanna go to sleep."
"Wow," Bucky says, deadpan. "Nice going, Steve. It's been like, two minutes and the magic's gone."
Applejack opens her eyes to peer up at him. "Nope. Not possible. Friendship is magic."
Bucky blinks at her a few times. "You did not just say that." He looks at Steve. "Tell me she didn't just say that."
"I don't know, Buck," Steve says, smiling innocently. "I think our friendship's pretty magical."
"Oh, my God," Bucky groans. He flops onto his back and flings his arm over his eyes. "I take it all back. I hate you both."
"I feel it. Really," Steve says. He hugs Applejack. "At least I've got you, Applejack. The pony I always wanted."
"You're my favorite now," Applejack tells him very seriously. "Why, I reckon we're soulmates, even." She shifts slightly closer to Steve. "Yep. Friendship sure is magic."
"Hate. You. Both," Bucky repeats, though he knows he's grinning too hard to even pretend to mean it. Because he's warm and safe and Steve's an arm's length away and Applejack's cozy right between them. Bucky's got his best guy and his best gal and himself, and he's just so damn happy. And maybe it's magic and maybe it's not, but right now he feels about the luckiest fella in the world.