The bed is empty when he wakes up, sheets cooling but with still enough warmth that when Bucky draws the blankets around himself, none of his carefully hoarded heat escapes and for a second, he slips his eyes closed and imagines that he can still hear the distant rattle of his mother shifting plates around in the kitchen. It was the sense memories that always got to him first, how he could wake up in the morning and still smell the distant, acrid scent of his father’s tobacco long before he could ever put a face or a name to the memory. The single mother that lives in the apartment right below them has twin daughters and he can hear them singing as they get ready for school, off-key and high-pitched and exactly like his sisters, who used to drive the neighbors crazy, always banging on the walls to get them to stop but they never, ever did.
Bucky’s phone buzzes and he swipes it from his bedside table, thumbing it open. There are two new messages; one, a series of goodbye emoticons from Steve and the other, a selfie from Rikki, a great-niece who has Rebecca’s chin and his mother’s nose and who wants to show off her latest tattoo, the Howling Commandos insignia done up in intricate white lines on her brown skin. Bucky’s chest tightens with an aching sort of fondness. He sends her back a series of exclamation points before letting the phone fall to the bed, eyes slipping shut once more.
He sleeps until ten, New York noise be damned.
He goes from dead asleep to fully awake in the span of thirty seconds, one hand already digging for the knife he keeps tucked behind the headboard before the low humming registers, before he recognizes the distinctive sound of Rikkis’ worn-in sneakers shuffling across the wooden floor of his kitchen and he sinks back into the pillows, knife left firmly tucked into place.
Bucky takes a deep breath. In and out. In and out, just like his therapist taught him.
His name is Sergeant James Barnes. It is the year 2015. He lives in Brooklyn, in DUMBO, with a cactus, a bamboo plant and Steve.
Someone is playing Boston’s More Than A Feeling loud enough from their car that he can hear it all the way from the street below, filtering through his bedroom window.
Bucky scrubs a hand across his face and laughs, shoulders shaking with it. Twenty-fucking-fifteen.
“You good?” Rikki says, leaning against the door jamb, a bowl in one hand and a wooden stirring spoon in the other.
“Yeah, I’m good. Don’t you have class?”
“Yeah, ‘course, I have Gender, Markets, and Global Cities on Thursdays. Remember, I sent you the readings for today’s lecture? It’s not until 3, though, I have plenty of time.”
Bucky rubs at the back of his neck, a self-satisfied smile slipping across his face that he doesn’t even try to stop. They’ve known about Steve’s trip to Geneva for months now; you don’t get called before the U.N. General Assembly for a summit on human rights and global security without a decent heads up beforehand but it still felt like it snuck up on them a little. They didn’t let themselves think about the particulars, about how it meant two weeks apart when they’ve barely gone a day in months. So sure, he’d settled in on the couch with Rikki’s readings while Steve set to packing but then Steve had stopped in the middle of it, a tie dangling from each hand, eyes a little bright and expression a little bit gobsmacked, looking at Bucky like he was something precious and dear and surprising still after all this time.
Bucky never knows what’s going through Steve’s head when he gets like that. He just knows that it makes him feel young and soft, maybe a little uncomfortably so, and the only thing he can ever think to do is to kiss that expression away, to turn it around and focus it into something that’s a little more mutual.
It’s a miracle they didn’t break the couch; it was a near thing.
Rikki scrunches her nose up. “Please tell me that the counter is safe, I already started work on the pancakes.”
“Counter’s fine. Might want to stay away from the kitchen table, though.”
Rikki blinks, giving him a deeply unimpressed look. “Old people sex. That’s fucking gross.”
Bucky throws a pillow at her and she back steps away from it it neatly. “Don’t you have your own kitchen, Barnes?”
“I like your coffeemaker better than mine, Barnes,” Rikki tosses over her shoulder.
They make the pancakes and eat them standing up over the kitchen sink, jostling each other and taking turns hogging the coffee pot, and it’s never gonna stop hurting, knowing how his family had to bury him without a body to place into the cold, hard unforgiving earth, but Rikki, with her stubborn chin and her born and bred Brooklyn accent, is proof positive that they lived long, full lives after him and in the end, maybe that’s the best thing that he can take away from it all.
That they lived.
The walk to the Brooklyn VA is a short one but there’s still the last gasp of winter’s chill in the air and every few feet, his heavy boots kick at stubborn piles of snow. Bucky tucks his hands into the pockets of his fleece-lined jacket a little tighter.
There’s a voice inside his head that pipes up as a well-dressed businessman hurries past him on the street, that says it can’t quite believe that James Buchanan Barnes would let himself walk around looking like such a schmuck, but it’s a small one, and getting smaller with every day.
His memories were not a blank slate but a tangled thread of real and not-real, true and false, and it’s a true blue fubar if there ever was one, this goddamn mess that they made of him; just like his mother’s yarn when the neighbor’s cat would get into it. The more he untangled, the easier it became to pick out what was before and what was after and hate it when he found a difference, like his mind and his body were a battleground and every loss conceded to the present was a victory for HYDRA that couldn’t be borne.
He wore his cheap suits and his slicked back hair as best he could, before, and it meant the world to him to be able to walk down the street and turn heads, like people thought he was someone who could go places.
But if the slow, groaning process of recovery has taught him anything, it’s that there’s a lot of ways to walk down the street and feel at home in your own skin, and it’s not always gonna be the same way from one day to the next.
This is the first, hardest lesson: his mind and body may be a battleground but it’s his fucking battleground and no one else’s.
The heater in the VA meeting room is on the fritz, and even with the room packed tight with body heat, all fifteen of the regulars circled together on metal folding chairs, it’s cold enough that they can see their breath, making him thankful for the extra layers shrugged on.
Carol drops into the seat next to him, bundled up in a parka and a bright red, yellow and blue knit cap, her blonde hair sticking out the sides at odd angles. “This fucking winter will never end, I swear to God.”
“Tell me about it,” Bucky grouses, sinking low into his chair, the cold of the metal still felt through his jeans. There’s something reassuring about this, that seventy-something years can pass, and winter is still one of the best things to bring people together to complain; a collective camaraderie meted out in chapped lips and delayed train schedules.
“Hey, Barnes,” Carol says, turning to give him a pointed look over, her smile small and pleased. He gets her well enough by now to know that this hesitance, it’s not something she deals in lightly or often. “You’re wearing the hat I made you.”
Bucky reaches up a hand to adjust it, tugging the navy knit hat down over his ears. “‘Course I am, it’s cold as shit outside.”
“And inside,” Carol says. “Sap.”
“Oh, I’m the sap?” Bucky says, shifting to face forward as the meeting starts but the quirk of his lips into a grin betrays him anyways. “Who’s the sap who knitted the thing in the first place, Danvers?”
Carol just elbows him in the gut.
Here is the thing.
How he loves Steve now? That’s different too.
Loving Steve before wasn’t complicated, or at least he didn’t see it that way. It was casual, more than anything else, the way they fell into each other at sixteen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-four. There was no rhyme or reason to the pattern, just brief stretches of time when this thing between them, it grew a little bigger, a little harder to ignore, and fighting it, hell, that would’ve been a waste of time.
Bucky’s never been a big fan of wasting time. The slope where Steve’s shirt fell a little loose, a little low, revealing the pale skin of his collarbone, that was the first thing that ever taught Bucky what it was to want, and it was seven-hundred and thirty-odd days too many later when he finally got to know what it was like to press his lips to that slope, to find out all the sounds Steve could make when Bucky scraped his teeth across that pale skin, leaving a sharp, angry red mark behind.
Wanting Steve was as easy as breathing, and just as necessary.
There's this one time, before, in the Spring of '41. It's the sort of thing he could never tell anyone about mostly because they'd never fucking believe it anyways but he closes his eyes, and the memory is right there, in all the ways that really matter.
Bucky wasn’t the only man that Steve ever took home; he knew that, intellectually, even if he’d never seen it. He knew it in the aftermath; knew it through the bruises that thin, cheap clothing never did hide as well as it should’ve and through the sly grin that Steve was never any good at fighting down. Girls didn’t give him the time of day back then; it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
So maybe Bucky shouldn’t have been surprised, dropping in on Steve unannounced like he did but he was fresh off the bus from Basic and itching in his finely pressed uniform, feeling too small and too big for his skin all at once, like his life was getting away from him and he didn’t know how to catch up to it just yet.
And bursting in on Steve like that, catching him in bed with a man that Bucky’d never seen before, maybe that felt a little like getting left behind too.
Seventy-something years later and Bucky can’t remember a single fucking useful scrap of information about that man outside of his name, Cesar. But he can still picture the way Cesar’s eyes shifted just-so from shocked and fearful to too-bright and intent in the dim light of Steve’s apartment.
It was an easy sort of thing, to slouch against Steve’s bedroom door, knowing exactly just how good he looked in that uniform, knowing that neither answer would be a no, and to make them an offer, all cocksure grin and low, husky octaves. Because sure, he didn’t feel right just yet in the starched, heavy wool of the olive drab but hell if James Barnes didn’t always know how to fake it until he made it.
Him and Cesar, they’d shared a cigarette on Steve’s balcony after, sore and sweat-slick and dead pleased with themselves. “Do you fuck all your friends?” Cesar had asked, both hands rising up and cupping the cigarette to light it as the flame flickered in and out, in and out, casting shadows across Cesar’s face. He was handsome, that much Bucky remembers, for all that he had a crooked nose.
Or hell, maybe it was the crooked nose that’d made him handsome.
Bucky had tipped his head back against hard brick, a slow, lazy post-coital smile curling around the edges of his lips. “Nah, just Steve. And I guess you, now, if you wanna call us friends, pal.”
Cesar had snorted, pinching the cigarette between two fingers, rolling it back and forth between his fingertips, and there was something sharp and deliberate to the movement, like the boys in school who used to square their shoulders a certain way so it made them look tough, made them feel grown up when they knew they had dirt on you.
It was like he knew something that Bucky didn’t.
Because this thing with him and Steve, he never took it seriously. And he’s mostly sure that Steve didn’t either, for all that he’s shit-scared to ask now. It’s too late, anyways, and what fucking good would it do now, to know the truth of it. He’s got a bagful of regrets enough as it is.
Shame had nothing to do with it; it was a fine cocktail of self-delusion and youth and stupidity, blinding them to what they had when they had it.
But in the here and now, he knows what he has.
Bucky marks it down as a point in the future’s favor.
“And then -- and then this motherfucker, he has the gall to look me in the eyes after all that, after I carried him halfway through a warzone kicking and screaming and crying like a toddler, and he still goes and calls me sweetheart.”
Sharon’s hair is falling loose from her tightly wound bun and her cheeks are flushed, and it’s only Bucky’s quick reflexes that save her beer from tipping over the edge of the countertop onto the floor when a wide, sweeping gesture knocks straight into it.
Bucky rights the beer, setting it back down in front of her with a soft clink. He wants to see where this story goes; he’s hoping it ends with her kicking some asshole military contractor in the nuts.
He’s pretty sure it ends with her kicking some asshole military contractor in the nuts.
“So I kicked him in the nuts,” Sharon says, slapping her hands down against the concrete countertop in triumph.
Bucky winces reflexively, for all that he got the exact ending that he wanted, right down to the letter. “Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
Carter women are not to be fucked with; he’s found that this is a lesson that most don’t learn nearly fast enough for their own goddamn good.
Sharon hops down from the bar stool to pull them out another two beers, cracking the caps off on the hard edge of the countertop one after the other. “Barnes, what’s my name?”
She just raises an eyebrow, taking a step back with a bottle in each hand, effectively holding the beers hostage. “Barnes, what’s my name?”
“Agent Carter, ma’am,” he says, swift and snappy as anything. If it were anyone else, he might feign an old fashioned sort of charm here but with Sharon, it’s all shit-eating grins and spinning tales, like he’s right back with the Commandos again.
If he tried to charm her, she’d probably sock him in the nose. That’s why she’s his favorite.
“Maybe think about dropping the ma’am and you’ll never get on my bad side, Sarge,” Sharon says, placing a beer in front of him and lifting herself back onto the bar stool.
“Noted,” Bucky says, taking a deep swig of his beer. “Ma’am.”
“Jackass,” Sharon says, but it’s mostly fond. “Hey, you holding up okay?”
“What, with Steve gone?”
“You asking because you want to know or are you asking because there are nosey higher-ups who want to know if the Winter Soldier is mentally stable without his minder?”
Bucky doesn’t mean for it to come out bitter but he’s earned the right to his bitterness; he clawed it out for himself right around the time when he re-learned that it was normal to feel anything at all that wasn’t a muzzy, sick confusion.
Sharon picks at the bottle label with a thumbnail. Bucky thinks that he used to be good at this; at wheedling and charming people, at stringing together just the right mix of words to get them to open up. He still could be, probably, if he wanted to.
Bucky lets it go.
She’ll get to it when she gets to it. It’s her choice to make, not his.
Sharon shrugs. “Both?”
Bucky traces a metal finger through the condensation crawling down the side of his bottle before idly wiping it off on the side of his sweatpants.
Steve has been gone for one week, five days and twelve hours, give or take.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spies the hat that Carol made him sticking out between two pillows on the couch. It’s exactly where he left it, when he took it off and tossed it aside two days prior; when he finally dug into the readings that Rikki sent his way and he got so into them that even just looking where he was throwing his hat seemed like too much of an extra effort.
“I’m good, actually.”
Sharon goes sniper-still, beer bottle label abandoned, and her attention stays fixed on him for maybe a beat longer than is comfortable, and Bucky, he stares right back. She’s never looked more like Peggy to him than she does in this moment. The two of them, they have this way of seeing right through you, as if that sharp, assessing gaze could go all the way down to his bones.
Bucky has a lot of experience with people seeing right through him; usually they did it so that they could figure out the best way to take him apart. Sharon and Peggy, they do it so that they can figure out the best way to hold it all together.
Eventually, she nods. “You are, aren’t you? Good. You know I don’t like lying to Fury.”
“You fucking liar. You love lying to Fury.”
“I’m sorry, what was that? You fucking liar, who?” She leans back in the barstool and it creaks with her. The shit-eating grin is back; it’s a little bit smug and a little bit daring. It’s probably for the best that she and Steve don’t take that many missions together. What a fucking nightmare that would be.
“You fucking liar, Agent Carter,” Bucky amends.
They lapse into silence; Sharon scrunches up her nose in thought.
Bucky has half a mind to tell her that she looks exactly like his great-niece when she does that but he doesn’t know how to say it the way he means it, like it’s still a relief that that any of this is happening at all.
Finally, she works up to it, whatever it is that’s going on inside her head. “You know, to hear Fury tell it, it’s like he thinks you wouldn’t know how to live without Steve around.”
And there, the pin drops. That this is less about him than it is about her, or maybe it’s about both of them, about the questions that wake them in the dead of the night, when they are open and vulnerable and closest to their true selves.
Who is Bucky Barnes without Steve Rogers?
Who is Sharon Carter without SHIELD? Without the looming shadow of Peggy Carter’s legacy?
Bucky lets out a low, groaning sigh, one hand rising to rub at a knot in his shoulder absently. This long winter puts an ache in his bones, metal or otherwise, that’s hard to shake off. Suddenly, he is weary and so much older than his sum and total years of consciousness add up to.
“Trust me, Carter. The only person you can’t live without is yourself.”
Steve gets in at 2 in the morning, the tell-tale thump of his heavy boots against hardwood and the clink of the shield being set down the only notice Bucky needs as he makes the shift from a shallow, uneasy sleep into consciousness.
Bucky stretches his arms over his head, the movement causing his thin shirt to rise up and his sweatpants to slip down, as he blinks up at Steve through his eyelashes. The light in their bedroom is dim, just a sliver of moonlight through the closed blinds but that’s okay, neither of them have any need for anything more.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Steve says, as he sets his duffle down next to the laundry basket and starts to toe off his boots.
“S’okay. You know me, a pen dropping two apartments away would’ve woken me.”
Steve hums, slowly and methodically stripping down to his briefs, depositing everything into the basket without a second thought. He leaves his socks strewn across the floor, though, just like he always has, and Bucky will have to pick them up in the morning, will probably do it and then throw them in Steve’s face, and laugh at the way his nose wrinkles at it.
Steve stops at the foot of their bed, looming over him and casting a shadow across grey sheets, and it will never stop being a little strange, probably, that this giant of a man is his little Steve Rogers, but if it’s brought them to the here and now, alive and mostly kicking, Bucky thinks that he can live with the dissonance, safe with the knowledge of how Steve’s chest rises and falls to a steady beat now.
Steve is lost in thought. He’s got that face on, the serious Captain America face, like he’s been spending a bit too much time inside his own head lately. It’s harder to shake him out of it now than it used to be; Steve picked up patterns and habits of his own in the years that they spent apart and most of them just left him lonely, left him isolated even in a crowd of people.
“How was therapy while I was gone?” Steve says at last, crossing his arms over his chest, and Bucky’ll never know for sure if this is a self-conscious gesture or if Steve gets the dissonance too sometimes, and tries to make himself smaller just to try it on again for a change.
Bucky shakes his head. “Really, Rogers, we’re gonna start with that? You fucking disaster. Try that one again.”
Steve uncrosses his arms, and there’s a flash of uncertainty there for just moment before it passes quick as anything, and Steve visibly shakes himself, sinking onto the bed and crawling his way across it until he’s got one leg slung over Bucky’s hip. Bucky rises up a hand to steady him. Steve’s skin is warm and smooth and reassuringly there right under Bucky’s fingertips. “Hey pal,” Steve says, nosing at the stubble dotting Bucky’s jaw. “I missed you. Did you miss me?”
“Eh,” Bucky says, shrugging.
“Fucker,” Steve says, but kisses him anyways. His lips are cracked and dry, and Bucky tastes copper on his tongue but ignores it, curling a hand into the fine hairs at the nape of Steve’s neck and drawing him in ever closer.
“Actually,” Bucky says, pulling away a second later. “You know what I couldn’t stop thinking about in therapy the other day?”
“You remember that time you talked me into screwing around in an empty tent on the edge of Luna Park? I don’t think that I’ve ever been so turned on and scared shitless at the same time before or since, you goddamn lunatic.”
Steve drops his forehead to the crook of Bucky’s neck, shoulders shaking with laughter. “You could’ve said no.”
“You had your hands down my pants, ‘course I wasn’t gonna fucking say no, you asshole. We could’ve gotten arrested, you know.”
“But we didn’t,” Steve points out.
“But we didn’t,” Bucky admits, “and it was another out of many in a long list of times the universe could’ve saw fit to teach you a lesson about the damn fool ideas that come out of your head but it didn’t, and now here we are how many years later, and you’re jumping off high-rises without a parachute. What does that tell you, Steve?”
“That I’m a very lucky man?”
“Yeah, pal, that’s one way of putting it,” Bucky gripes, pressing an absent kiss to the tip of Steve’s ear.
“So, we’re not doing this now, then?” Steve says, but there’s no heat to it.
“Nah. Not now. S’okay. You know how much I like morning sex. You get all loopy and stupid.”
“I do not,” Steve protests, as he lifts himself off of Bucky and falls to the other side of the mattress with a thump.
“Do too,” Bucky says. He kicks out at Steve’s leg with one foot. “Don’t fall asleep without brushing your teeth, don’t be gross, Rogers.”
Steve makes sure to stand in full view of the door as he brushes his teeth, raising both eyebrows pointedly, and using Bucky’s toothbrush while he’s at it like the disgusting asshole that he is, and it’s such a small, stupid moment, so seemingly inconsequential that Bucky knows that this couldn’t ever be anything but real.
Steve slips into bed a minute later, flopping onto his stomach with one arm thrown across Bucky’s torso, a warm tether tying them together, and it is just enough contact to remind them that they are present.
Outside, a car radio is blaring yet another cheesy 70s rock ballad tinnily. Twenty-fucking-fifteen.
Bucky closes his eyes and falls asleep in minutes.