He stares down at the letter and then over at the bed, where Steve’s tucked under every single blanket they own and still shivering anyway. Two months to the day since Pearl Harbor and Steve’s already tried to enlist three times, only the first under his own name.
Of course they’ll never take him, no matter his name. And Bucky never risked enlisting because he can’t leave – not his ma and the girls, and not Steve.
He doesn’t have the choice, now. And with him gone, who is going to pull Steve out of alleys, keep him alive, make sure he’s got heat and food?
There’s gotta be something he can do to make sure Steve is safe.
He rips up the letter and tells everyone he volunteered.
Turns out, he’s not just good at back alley fights. He aces training, gets a single visit home to see Ma and the girls and Steve, and then he’s off to the Pacific. He spends six months fighting before he gets sent home injured, given time to recuperate while the higher-ups decide where to send him next.
He helps train kids way too young on using guns because he broke every record they had.
Bucky only tells Steve the good stories.
Bucky doesn’t remember much of his ma’s ma’s ma, but there was a story she told. About how, if someone really needed something, they could pray at a source of running water and something would appear to grant their request – for a price, of course.
He survived the Pacific, but he knows he won’t survive in Europe. Maybe it’s that touch of foretelling ma’s ma used to say ran in their family, maybe he’s just being pessimistic… but he can’t risk it. He’ll be getting his orders in less than a week, and then he’s back in the war, gone from Brooklyn and ma and the girls and Steve.
He waits till Steve’s asleep, the hottest night of the year so far, and then he walks to the East River. He finds a spot where he can kneel and put his hands in the water, and then he prays. Maybe he should feel guilty, but he – he stopped praying to his parents’ and Steve’s god in the Philippines.
“To the wish-granter of where the water runs,” he whispers, the words Ma’s ma’s ma had said, “I humbly beseech thee for a boon.” It sounded better when she said it in her old country’s language, but he never learned enough. Ma hadn’t liked it, had said they were New Yorker’s now. He repeats the words five times, steadily growing more desperate. He doesn’t believe it will work, not really, but he knows he can’t walk onto that boat and go die if he hasn’t tried.
Then he hears a rushing wind and “Why have you summoned me, child of Elisabeta?”
Dumbfounded, he says, “My ma is Winifred.” He pulls his hands out of the water and turns to face – it’s only a shadow.
It laughs. Bucky shudders. “Her mother’s mother’s mother’s mother summoned me to ensure her son lived through his first night and every night thereafter.”
Bucky swallows nervously. “What was the price?”
The shadow sighs. “She did not live to see him grown tall and strong, and that name could never again be used for her bloodline.” It floats forward and Bucky doesn’t move. “Tell me, James Buchanan Barnes, what it is you would ask of me.”
Right. Bucky nods. “My friend, Steve. I… I’m going away soon and I won’t be able to look after him. But he, he’s always getting in trouble and he’s constantly sick, and he needs to be healthy.” Bucky pauses to take a breath. “Please. Whatever the price is, I’ll pay it. Just… make him healthy and strong. Please.”
The shadow laughs again. “The price for this boon, James Buchanan Barnes, is that you will indeed be lost in war.” The shadow comes closer and Bucky trembles as it brushes against his face. “But Steven Grant Rogers will be given strength.” Even though the shadow is still touching him, Bucky can’t help the sigh of relief. “Do not fear, child of Elisabeta,” the shadow murmurs.
With the sound of rushing wind, the shadow is gone and Bucky’s kneeling alone, listening to the river.
They go to Stark’s expo and Bucky leaves with both his and Steve’s dates, and he goes back to the apartment just before dawn, where Steve’s sitting at the kitchen table.
“You’re gonna be fine, Buck,” Steve tells him.
“Yeah, Stevie,” he lies, “of course I am.”
They have time for one last tumble and then Bucky grabs his pack. He looks at Steve for a long moment, mostly asleep in their bed, and he leans down to kiss Steve’s forehead, the tip of his nose, his chin. “I love you,” he whispers. “You’re gonna be healthy, Steve. I was never gonna last, anyway.” He shoulders his pack and locks the door behind him.
Just because he knows he’ll be dead soon is no reason for Bucky to stop looking out for his men. When the choice comes down to certain death or surrender, he makes it.
The first time Zola burns him from the inside out, he thinks it was a mistake.
When he sees the shadow’s boon, Steve tall and strong, he thinks it was all worth it.
The first moment they get alone is three miles from the husk that was the Hydra factory. Bucky demands the rest of the story, beyond joining the army and Steve tells him all about science experiments, good becoming great and bad becoming worse. That red-faced guy was the worse; Steve’s the great.
For just a second, all the time it takes Steve to lean down and kiss him, Bucky wonders which he is – but he knows he won’t live long enough to know.
Steve gets his own team, of course, and everyone he asks agrees to join up. Bucky figures out pretty quick that he’s definitely been changed by that little rat doctor because he can actually keep up with Steve, he’s faster and he’s stronger, and while his eyesight has always been good, he can make shots now that he couldn’t before.
But it doesn’t matter. The war’s gonna get him soon. All he can do is watch Steve’s back ‘til the time comes.
Five days into the New Year and they’re going after the little rat doctor. Bucky almost backs out, almost says he can’t do it –
But he knows this is it. Maybe it’s the foreteller in his blood, or the shadow letting him know. Whatever it is… he takes a deep breath and follows Steve onto the train. He fights Hydra as hard as he can and then he picks up the shield because Steve’s down.
His only regret is that he didn’t say goodbye.
He hadn’t expected Hell to be so cold. He can’t – there’s nothing, just cold and wind and, and – he tries shouting when he first wakes up but –
By the time they find him, he doesn’t even care. It’s too cold to think.
They take him. No matter what happens, he never struggles, too thankful to be warm again. He keeps expecting flames but there’s – there’s saws and knives and beatings and they use his mouth and his ass, but there’s no lake of fire, no billowing smoke and screams.
He even sees the little rat doctor a few times, so he’s glad that at least that bastard got what was coming to him.
They strap him into a chair. He supposes it’s a new form of torture.
Lightning streaks into his head and there’s –
Sometimes, while in storage, the asset sees a shadow. The shadow calls it the child of Elisabeta, which is inaccurate because the asset has never been anyone’s child – but the asset never corrects the shadow. The asset is corrected; it does not correct.
The shadow tells it, “I warned you. But be not afraid, James Buchanan Barnes. Soon, this suffering will end and you will find new meanings of torment.” The shadow brushes against the asset’s face. “Oh, you poor boy. I know it does not comfort you now, but you should know that Steven Grant Rogers is at peace. He will return to the world soon, healthy and strong and alive.”
The asset simply stares at the shadow. The shadow brushes against its face again and whispers, “Sleep, child of Elisabeta.”
The asset is awakened. Assigned a target, a team. The asset succeeds. Recalibration, fuel, storage.
The asset is awakened.
The asset is awakened.
The target –
The target –
’til the end of the line
I’m not gonna fight you
James Buchanan Barnes
The asset walks away, malfunctioning. Does not return to the retrieval location. Vanishes.
The asset dreams of a shadow. “Out of the frying pan, child of Elisabeta,” the shadow says, “and into the fire.” It laughs, caressing the asset’s face. “You were lost to war, as I promised. Your Steve is healthy and strong, as you wished. And now, as I swore to dearest Elisabeta, you have life again.”
“Who are you?” the asset asks, and wakes to the shadow’s laugh.
The asset wanders. If it finds Hydra, it destroys Hydra. It cleans itself as needed, refuels and recharges when necessary, stares at the sky when it desires to do so. It dreams of the shadow every time it sleeps. The shadow, and –
Oh, Stevie, what am I gonna do with you? Kisses. Caresses. Warmth and laughter.
Buck, Bucky, please, c’mon, I can take it and then the other way around. The asset wakes wanting –
It stares at the sky, gasping for air. Steve, it thinks.
Bucky Barnes returns in waves. He thinks of himself as Bucky, he shaves his face and cuts his hair, dresses in clothes that fit. He smiles at strangers on the street, holds the door for women and elderly, leaves big tips for the wait staff. He watches the news. He researches Captain America, Bucky Barnes, the Howling Commandos, Hydra, SHIELD.
If he comes across Hydra, he’ll destroy the cell, the agent, the what or whoever it is. But he doesn’t seek them out.
The first time he dreams of the shadow after deciding to be Bucky again, he asks, “Why’d you keep me company?”
The shadow laughs. “You are an investment centuries in the making, child of Elisabeta. Of course I would visit now and again.”
“What are you?” Bucky asks. “I doubt a demon would’ve taken the time to comfort me.”
He can hear the smile in the shadow’s voice. “You wouldn’t have heard of me. You should rest, by the way. Your Steve is catching up.” The shadow laughs again. “He’s definitely my love’s favorite.”
Bucky wakes and can hear the footsteps downstairs.
Steve is… completely healed. Bucky stays seated on the sleeping pallet, watching Steve slowly approach. The shield is on his back, his hands spread to show they’re empty. His eyes are wide, face –
“Bucky?” he asks. Bucky can hear the tears he’s holding back.
He sighs heavily and nods. “Hey, Steve.”
It had been – difficult, to realize he had never died. Never gone to Hell. Had given himself to Hydra without a fight. He’d been… very angry.
To see Steve alive and whole and healthy and so amazingly strong makes up for most of it. He figures he has the shadow to thank for the memories of being the asset feeling muted and faded. Oh, he can call up the information and knowledge whenever he needs to, and his body remembers – but it doesn’t hurt like it should. It helps him be Bucky.
Steve slept, his research had showed. For all those decades, Steve was safe.
Now that Steve’s in sight, Bucky can’t keep his eyes off him. Steve’s paused just out of reach, fingers digging into his own thighs as he tries not to grab at Bucky, pull him close, never ever let him go again. Bucky knows because he feels the same.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky finally says. Steve’s brow furrows. “For not being strong enough to hold on,” Bucky explains.
Steve’s mouth drops open and his expression – Bucky recognizes that one as Steve’s righteous rage. “Don’t you ever apologize me for anything about your fall and what Hydra did.”
“Steve,” Bucky says, very slowly and telegraphing every move, rising to his feet. “I didn’t fight them.” That, if nothing else, he needs Steve to understand. “I thought I was dead.” He looks away. “I thought I was in Hell, and I didn’t fight.”
Steve flinches back and Bucky glances over in time to his entire face crumple. “Oh, Steve, no,” Bucky says as Steve just lets himself go down and huddle on the floor. Bucky goes to him instantly, wrapping both arms around Steve and pulling him as close as he can.
He hears more footsteps. Immediately, he relocates Steve, grabs his nearest firearm, and readies himself to defend the mission.
“Steve?” It is Sam Wilson, he determines. “Hey, Steve, buddy, you alive in there?” There is apprehension in Sam Wilson’s tone. Fear. Anger.
Sam Wilson is wearing a communication device; he hears Natalia Romanova say, “Falcon, status?”
He feels Steve stirring behind him. “Sam, everything’s alright!” Steve shouts, one of his hands resting on –
Bucky shudders, sagging down against Steve. It’s been weeks since the last time he blanked.
Wilson peers around the doorway. “Stand down, Widow,” he mutters. “Steve, don’t you frighten me like that.”
“Sorry,” Steve calls. “I just…” His forehead is resting on Bucky’s back. “I just had a shock, is all.”
Wilson shakes his head. “C’mon in, Nat,” he says. “Things’re calm.”
Bucky closes his eyes, turning his face towards Steve. “I won’t let them lock me away,” he murmurs. If they try, he knows the asset will handle it. He doesn’t – he doesn’t want to kill Steve’s friends, but he won’t ever let himself be caged again, no matter who is doing the caging.
“Neither will I,” Steve murmurs back. “I swear, Bucky. Me and you against all comers, just like it used to be.”
Bucky knows they both hear Wilson’s reaction to that, but he focuses on Steve’s heartbeat, steady and strong. So strong.
“Okay,” Bucky says, opening his eyes.
When the shadow appears while Bucky is awake, he knows. “You said lost in war,” Bucky laughs mirthlessly. “You didn’t say which.”
“You look like him,” the shadow muses, swelling until all the light is gone. “The first mortal that ever dared to summon me. He wanted to protect his people; the price was that they alone would remember him fondly. Next was Elisabeta, child of Vlad’s line.” The shadow rests against his face, his throat, his flesh arm – everywhere that skin shows. “And then you, James. Bucky.”
He sighs into the shadow. “What is the real price?”
The shadow pulls back. It condenses until all of it is contained in a pair of wings, just floating in the air – and then pure white eyes open from nothingness. Bucky flinches back from the brightness. “You are a warrior, James Buchanan Barnes. And you will fight for me.”
Bucky nods. “So long as Steve stays healthy, I’ll do anything.”
“He is my love’s,” the shadow says, those unblinking eyes still focused on Bucky. “He pledged himself, if only you would live again.”
Everything in Bucky stills. “I never died,” Bucky says softly.
“And that’s almost the best part,” the shadow chortles.
There is no other choice. Bucky lets himself loosen. “So what’s the best?”
The wings come forward to wrap around him while the eyes disappear. “The best part?” the shadow whispers. “The best part, child of Elisabeta, child of Vlad, is that Steven Grant Rogers would have become Captain America, deal with you or no.”
And the shadow’s gone just as Steve steps into the room. “Bucky?” he asks softly. Worriedly. And Bucky just starts laughing and can’t stop.
When he was a kid, Bucky hadn’t really cared that much about their family history. His father was the son of immigrants from Ireland; his mother was the daughter of immigrants from Romania. Both of them grabbed onto life as Americans with full hands and ignored their heritage, which is where Bucky supposes he gets it. He remembers now that his middle sister, Olivia, had soaked up as much of their grandmother’s knowledge from the old country as she could. Olivia’s dead now, of course. He’s sure there must be some record she kept, but James Barnes is dead. He can’t – he has to stay dead to stay free.
The asset was mentioned in Hydra’s records, but not who it had been in life before. Only two pictures still exist, both in the file Steve has secreted away somewhere. There is nothing else, thanks to Steve’s friends. (… and probably thanks to the shadow, too.)
So, Bucky can’t be sure. But a Vlad beloved by his own people and hated by everyone else? It’s not that hard to figure out.
He should tell Steve. About his deal with the shadow. That he knows Steve made a deal of his own. That both deals were pointless but made anyway.
He should. He doesn’t.
They’re bedded down under the stars in the Gibson Desert in Australia because neither of them had ever been to Australia before and (most likely) no one would think to look there. Bucky had suggested leaving because he had no place in New York with the Avengers, and he honestly didn’t want to fight anymore. (Not until the debt was called in.)
It had surprised nobody but him when Steve said he’d be going, too. And Bucky had tried (half-heartedly) to argue, but Steve had just grabbed both his hands, looked him right in the eyes, and said, “The world can save itself next time. My place is with you – unless you don’t want me there.”
And he could’ve lied so that Steve would stay with the heroes… but he just couldn’t.
So they left and wandered around. Saw the Grand Canyon. Went to Disneyland and World. Checked out Universal Studios and Six Flags and all sorts of stupid touristy crap in the United States, since neither of them had ever had the time to travel except – well.
“Where to next?” Steve had asked one bright morning.
“What about Australia?” Bucky suggested.
And here they are.
“Bucky, you awake?” Steve asks softly.
“Yup,” Bucky answers just as quietly.
He hears Steve take a deep breath. He holds it for almost five minutes before exhaling to say, “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Steve traded his soul to an angel calling itself Akrasiel for Bucky’s life.
“It was a trick, Steve,” Bucky mutters. “I never died.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees. “You weren’t dead. But that doesn’t mean you woulda come back if Akrasiel hadn’t made the deal with me.”
Bucky sighs in disgust. He knows he won’t win this argument.
He also slaps Steve upside the head because “You were just prayin’ wide open? Anything coulda answered. Would you have dealt with anyone who showed up?”
Steve’s sulky silence is answer enough so Bucky swats him again.
Akrasiel will call on Steve for a major conflict, along with the souls of various other warriors, healers, and peacemakers. That’s all Steve knows.
They silently stare at the stars, curled up together, before Bucky says, “There’s something you should know.”
Steve, of course, slaps Bucky upside the head because “You don’t even know its’ name!?”
“Well, apparently my ma’s family has been calling on it for centuries!” Bucky argues. “So, it’s sorta like a guardian angel or something!”
Steve just swats him again.
As the sun is rising, Bucky asks the question that’s been bothering him since the shadow told him its love had claimed Steve.
“What if we’re on opposite sides?”
Steve turns his head to look at Bucky. “You think a little thing like that could become between us?”
Bucky smiles, leaning across the tiny space that separated them to kiss Steve with as much love as he can.
What foolishness are you doing now? Michael asks as Akrasiel returns from Earth. That is by far most angels’ favorite name for the world, though it has many, of course. As do all the worlds. It is populated by the shortest-lived species in all of the worlds, and their brief lifespans are quite fascinating. They manage to pack in so much for such a short amount of time. Michael’s favorite are called the Mitsukurina owstoni. Akrasiel has chosen to no longer mock Michael for it.
Unfortunately for the locals, quite a few of the angels enjoy playing games with the natives of Earth. However, no matter what Michael believes these days, such frivolities are in the past for Akrasiel now.
I’ve helped a poor boy, is all, Akrasiel says. I’ve given him hope.
Michael sighs. Surely that glimpse of the other world was enough to show us all that the creatures of Earth are to be observed, not interacted with.
Of course, Michael, Akrasiel says. I’m tired. Please, excuse me.
Akrasiel’s nest is far out of the way, in a quiet, dark place. Ozryel is already there.
Akrasiel holds out Steven Grant Rogers’ shining soul. Ozryel grins, flicking James Buchanan Barnes’ shimmering soul into the air between them. Such strength, and so much potential. Two deals well struck.
There is a war coming. They both can feel the Mad Titan drawing ever closer, but even Michael, as yet, has not noticed.
And now, Ozryel says, pulling Akrasiel into the nest, we wait.