Thanos makes landfall with his endless navy, his infinite ships, and it takes years of war to force him back into the water. Bodies and flotsam wash ashore for miles up and down the coastline, and Bucky wakes with the taste of sea salt and smoke on his lips.
He’s filthy and bloody, but he has been for years. It only matters now because the war is over.
“Weddings,” Clint says, red-eyed and pale in the hazy morning light. They slept where they fell last night, just barely past the tideline, half-blind in the smoke and the dark.
There were bonfires, Bucky remembers. All along the shore. They burned bodies, and flags. Ships full of Thanos’ dead. Everything the enemy left behind.
Bucky’s hair is a tangled mess of knots, curled up and stuck together with the blood that dried there overnight, hanging half in his eyes. He brushes it away from his face, and he watches Clint watch him.
He’s beautiful, even now, even like this. Dirty and weak and so tired Bucky can almost track the thoughts slowly stitching themselves together behind his eyes.
He’s still beautiful somehow, despite everything. But that’s not Bucky’s concern anymore.
“Clint,” Bucky says.
Clint shakes his head. “Weddings after war,” he says. He pushes himself up onto his knees. The sand clings to him, shifts and settles restlessly beneath him.
Bucky opens his mouth, but he can’t think of a single thing to say. Well, maybe there isn’t anything left.
Last night, after everything, they crashed together like waves on rocks, like bodies against a barricade. Bucky knew the whole time that it was the last time. He watches the realization form on Clint’s face. He doesn’t look away. He watched men die, watched his own hands bash a man’s skull into a split frothy mess.
If it hurts, he thinks, that’s good. It means you aren’t dead yet.
But it’s different when it’s Clint. It’s always been different.
“Wait,” Bucky says. He starts to sit up, but Clint presses him down, hands on his shoulders, leaving Bucky in the last place they shared together.
“I knew,” he says. “I always did. It’s fine. It was worth it.”
Out of the two of them, Bucky’s the one with rank. Weddings after war, but Bucky’s the only one with a ring. He wears it around his neck, on a chain he keeps tucked under his clothes. It came with a letter, one of the three he’s received since the arrangement was made. Bucky wrote a dutiful three letters back, and, since the third, he’s received nothing else.
For over a year, there’s been nothing except a promise neither seems to want.
Bucky reaches up to his chest, presses his hand over his heart. The ring is just a slight bump under cloth, but it’s well-forged and sturdy, shining even now. If Bucky ever shined, he went dull years ago.
“Don’t go,” Bucky says. “To the wedding. Clint, you don’t have to--”
Clint’s hands tighten around his shoulders, and Bucky stops, forces himself to swallow back the rest.
“It’s your wedding, Buck,” Clint says, with a smile so hollow it’s like they didn’t win anything. He leans forward and presses a kiss, feather-light, to Bucky’s forehead.
“I’ll be there,” he says, but then he’s gone.
When word came that Thanos had turned his eyes on them, Gotham and New York brokered a peace that had evaded them for decades. It saved them from annihilation, but that alliance is an unsteady thing without an enemy to lean against. The Waynes and the Starks are sometimes careless, but they’ve never been fools. Even while they prepared for war, they planned to protect the peace that was meant to follow.
The heirs were spared the indignity of marrying old enemies, but the diplomats merged lesser families with little restraint, stitching up the bleeding borders and sending second sons and lesser daughters to marry the cousins of nobles they’d put in the ground.
Jason Todd, even as a disinherited exile, is considered quite the step-up for someone like Bucky. Jason brings no lands to the marriage, but he is legally a Wayne, and he has amassed considerable wealth through his wandering years.
Nobody in polite society would call Jason a mercenary or a murderer. Nobody talks about what he did in those years when he was out of Wayne favor. He came home when Gotham was burning, and all was forgiven after that.
Although, if all were truly forgiven, Bucky can’t imagine that Bruce Wayne would allow his adopted son to be sold off to a northern knight with no family or wealth to speak of.
“You don’t have to,” Steve says, the morning of the wedding. Prince Grayson and his court have been in the capitol for a week, but Jason has yet to arrive. “I could talk to Tony. We can—Buck. Listen to me.”
“I know what I promised,” Bucky says. The promise was never his choice. He was given a contract with his name already printed, and all he did was sign. He didn’t choose Jason, and Jason didn’t choose him, but they both signed. They sent rings. They swore.
Whatever they wanted, whatever they may have planned, they are bound to each other now.
“Bucky,” Steve says. He’s been at a loss since the war ended. They are all soldiers without a war. It’s difficult, being useless after being so critical for so long.
“It’s all right,” Bucky says.
“Maybe he won’t make the wedding,” Natasha says. “He seems inclined to disappear again.”
But word comes through less than an hour later that Jason Todd has made the city, that he’s been here since last night. Four separate pubs have run dry of ale, and the streets are flooded with drunks toasting the wedding that has yet to happen. The word – from Prince Grayson, through Clint – is that this is only to be expected.
They are lucky, apparently, that nothing is currently on fire.
“Well,” Sam says. “At least he’ll liven up the place.”
“Do you have to be so handsome?” Clint asks, when Bucky’s dressed for the wedding and waiting for word that Jason has stopped drinking long enough to don his formal clothes.
They haven’t been alone since the war ended. Clint’s been evasive, and Bucky hasn’t chased. He has no right. He never had any right. He should’ve ended things as soon as he hung that ring around his neck.
“I suppose you can’t help it,” Clint says, studying him.
Bucky wants to reach for him. He wants to kiss him. He wants to say he hasn’t slept, can’t sleep without him. Keeps waking up half out of bed, heart beating hard in his chest, convinced that something’s wrong, that someone came in the night and took Clint away.
He wants to say he misses him. But it’s cruel. Clint’s loyalty is a blind, limitless thing. He’d give Bucky whatever he wanted, if he were callous enough to ask for it.
“Natasha picked the clothes,” he says.
“She’s heartless,” Clint says, but he says it laughing.
This is the very best way this could have gone, so Bucky doesn’t know why it hurts so much. They’re still alive. Improbably, unbelievably, they’re both still alive.
“Where will you go?” Bucky asks. “Afterwards.”
“Ah, well.” Clint shrugs. Before the agreement, before having a title or land meant getting married to an old enemy, Clint used to joke with Tony about what parcel of the realm he would be gifted for all the times he saved the heir’s life.
Afterwards, he refused every offer Tony made. And now Bucky has a keep and a husband-to-be, and Clint has nothing.
“I thought I’d see your new keep,” Clint says.
Bucky swallows. “Clint, you can’t—you have to let this go. You have to let me go. Please.”
“I will,” Clint says, chin up. “I’m going to. But I want to see your keep.” And Bucky’s spent a whole lifetime arguing with Steve, so he knows a stone wall when he sees one. “I want to see where you’ll be.”
A moment later, his face softens. His eyes drop, studying the intricate weave of the carpet. “I want to be sure,” he says, slow and quiet, like it’s shameful, “that I know the way.”
He asks for almost nothing. He gives everything he has. There’s nothing Bucky could deny him, however much it costs.
“Yes,” Bucky says, a room away, too far now to ever touch him again. “All right.”
If Jason Todd is drunk at the wedding, it is impossible to tell. His feelings on the marriage itself are infinitely easier to read.
He slouches through the ceremony, sighs heavily when it drags. When prompted for his ring, he stares blankly for a long second and then turns to grimace at Roy Harper, who fishes the ring Bucky sent out of a pocket and throws it over the heads of two rows of assembled dignitaries. Jason catches it out of the air and slides it onto his own finger.
Bucky thinks he couldn’t possibly be more derisive, couldn’t convey his contempt with any more clarity. And then the priest presiding over the ceremony invites the two of them to kiss, to confirm their commitment in front of their gods and their kings, and Jason looks into Bucky’s eyes for one heartbeat and then another and then he tips his head to the side and spits right onto the marble floor.
“I thought for sure he’d leave,” Dick Grayson says later, after the feast and several cups of wine. He’s the heir, and he should by rights have stopped speaking to them so casually years ago, but, although he seems to have resigned himself to the weight of his title, he never quite grasped the extent of its privileges. “I never thought he’d actually go through with this.”
“Bit disingenuous,” Natasha says. “Offering a prince you don’t intend to give.”
Dick shrugs. “Harper was going to stand in.”
Roy Harper is another disgraced son, but he isn’t a Wayne. He’s a duke’s son, not a king’s, and, as such, he’s much closer to Bucky’s equal than Jason is. If he hadn’t been assumed dead when they were drafting the marriage contracts, it’s likely that his name would’ve been written across from Bucky’s.
Bucky thinks the truth of the matter is that nobody expected Jason Todd to survive the war. Or, perhaps more fairly, nobody expected both Jason and Bucky to survive.
But here they are. At peace. And married.
If it feels like another kind of war, Bucky supposes they’ve earned that. What would any of them do with peace?
“Do you think he intends to stay?” Bucky asks. He shouldn’t. The look Natasha gives him is painful in its kindness.
Dick smiles, but it doesn’t make it past his mouth. His eyes have been sad since Bruce Wayne summoned him back from Bludhaven to put that circlet on his head. “I’ve given up thinking Jason intends anything at all.”
“So,” Jason says, later, when they are drunk and alone in a bedroom that someone has decorated with entirely too much enthusiasm. “Do you want to fuck?”
Bucky’s had knives to his throat that felt friendlier than that question. He stares at Jason, tries to parse why he would even think to ask. Does he want to?
“I believe,” he says, “that it is tradition.”
Jason laughs at him. However mocking he was at the ceremony, he seems friendlier now. Maybe it’s the wine. “I don’t have much respect for tradition.”
“Yes,” Bucky says. He knows that. He thinks everyone in this city and this country and this part of the world knows that.
“I don’t kill on command,” Jason says. “I don’t march on command. I don’t fuck on command. So if you want to fuck, I’m not opposed. But I did my duty playing polite for the wedding. That’s the extent of my obligation to tradition.”
Bucky raises his eyebrows. “You spat on the floor.”
Jason smirks. He’s flushed from the wine. Muscular and bright-eyed and handsome. Bucky can’t decide which is worse: the idea of putting his hands on Jason, or Jason putting his hands on him. “Didn’t spit in that old man’s face, did I?”
Bucky looks at the bed.
He’s done so many things he didn’t want to do. He’s killed men in beds like this. He’s killed men who begged him not to. He’s left bodies in fields to rot and putrefy, and he’s sent bloody soldiers back into battle, sent them to buy time with their lives so the rest of them could retreat.
Jason, he’s told, once ambushed a camp at night with his outlaws and slit the throats of fifty unarmed men before disappearing back into the night. He decapitated the heads of seven of Thanos’ spies and sent them to him, rolling loose and half-rotten in a reeking canvas bag. He killed one of Thanos’ generals by burning her alive.
He’s a nightmare, a story soldiers tell each other in hushed undertones. He’s merciless. He’s a monster among monsters.
They’re a matched set, the two of them.
When he blinks, the bedcovers swim before him, and, for just a moment, he’s looking at a pool of blood.
“No,” he says. “No, I don’t think I want to.”
Jason shrugs like he couldn’t possibly care enough to be insulted. “Well,” he says, a moment later, “would you like to fuck someone else? That blonde archer? Your captain? I have some new friends at the pub who would happily welcome me back if you’d like some time without me.”
There’s a ring on Bucky’s finger, and it is meant to symbolize an unbroken promise. There’s a ring on Jason’s, too.
“We did swear,” Bucky says, “not five hours ago that--”
“Oh, come on, Winter Soldier,” Jason says, eyes bright, grin crooked. “We aren’t the type of men who keep our word.”
Bucky looks away. He breathes in over his teeth, concentrates on the way the air fills his lungs. There is no reason, he thinks, to allow Jason to hurt him. Jason’s a cat playing with a string; he doesn’t care who it’s tied to.
“I would like to sleep,” Bucky says. “It’s been an eventful day.”
Jason stares at him for a moment and then shrugs. “Sleep, then,” he says. Like what Bucky does is nothing to him.
But when Bucky undresses and maneuvers under the blankets, Jason falls in beside him, still half-dressed, drinking the dregs of wine straight from the decanter he carried all the way from the feast. He sets the decanter aside, perilously balanced on a nightstand, and sighs heavily.
The sheets are pushed down to his waist. Bucky has seen men more scarred than this one, but they were old men. There’s some kind of unremarkable tragedy in the layering of all that raised scar tissue over young, golden skin.
“Changed your mind about fucking?” Jason asks.
He doesn’t like it, Bucky thinks. Being stared at. “No,” he says, and he pulls the sheets up to his chin, closes his eyes.
Jason doesn’t say anything else. He leaves the candles burning. Bucky doesn’t put them out.
He wakes up with a knife to his throat. And that’s fair, he supposes, because his own hand is curled around Jason’s neck.
“Oh good,” Jason says. “Awake?”
Bucky blinks muzzily down at him and carefully releases his grip on Jason’s neck. “Did I start this?” he asks.
“Arguably,” Jason says. He lowers the knife. “You moved over me.”
“I get out of bed sometimes,” Bucky says. He opts not to disclose why.
Jason nods and then breathes out, stretches his shoulders as he resettles. “Well, you’ll have to go the other way. I don’t like people crawling over me in the dark.”
“No,” Bucky says. He can understand why. “Sorry.”
Jason yawns. He’s much more reasonable, Bucky thinks, in the middle of the night. “’s fine,” he says.
He doesn’t apologize for almost slitting Bucky’s throat. But a moment later he sits up and puts the knife on the nightstand. Still within reach if he stretches, but not so close he’ll grab it on instinct again.
So this is peace, he thinks. He wonders if it’s agreeing more with Clint. But, if it is, he doesn’t want to know.
If the roads are passable, if the bridges haven’t been burned, it should take them ten days to reach Bucky’s keep. He’s never seen it. The knight it belonged to betrayed the Starks and allowed Thanos’ army to move freely across his lands, and so, once they’d routed him out, Bucky had dragged the traitor back to the capitol and executed him in front of Howard and Maria Stark and a crowd of cheering onlookers.
He didn’t ask for the land. But it had to go to someone, and the Starks were running short on loyal knights.
It’s a small company, headed north. Jason seems amused to find Clint waiting, dressed in new clothes but carrying the same bow, the same worn quiver. He walks toward the archer, and Bucky catches his breath, tries to remind himself that inexact handling of Jason Todd could very easily start a war. With Todd’s outlaws, at least, if not the rest of the Waynes.
Clint’s watching Jason with wary eyes, but whatever Jason says seems to catch him by surprise. His face flickers and then falls, cautiously, into a smile. By the time Bucky makes it across the courtyard, Clint’s smiling that familiar rueful grin.
“You can tell Harper,” he says, “that if he ever wants a rematch, he knows where to find me.”
“Does he?” Jason asks. “And where will that be?”
Clint’s expression doesn’t change, but his eyes dart briefly toward Bucky and then back to Jason’s face. He hesitates, for just a second too long.
“He’ll be coming with us,” Bucky says.
Jason looks between them. It’s impossible to know what he thinks. It’s impossible to guess what he knows. Bucky feels outflanked. He shifts, reflexively, between Jason and Clint.
The inquiring expression on Jason’s face seems to resolve, but Bucky couldn’t say what that wry twist of his mouth means. “Good,” Jason says, sudden and decisive. “I always feel more comfortable with a good archer around.”
Clint nods, half-smiling, but, as they watch him walk away, he seems just as uncertain as Bucky feels.
This is, Bucky thinks, a terrible decision they’ve made. But it’s just the latest in a long string of them, and, anyway, it doesn’t seem like Jason much cares.
Still. There was something in his voice. Not bitterness, but something related. I always feel more comfortable with a good archer around.
Bucky catches him halfway to the stables. “You could bring Harper,” he offers, “if you wanted. If you’ll--- you won’t know anyone there. You shouldn’t be lonely.”
They didn’t win a war to be alone. They didn’t do all of that just to lose everything anyway. They didn’t.
Jason looks at him and then he looks at Clint. When he turns back toward Bucky, he smiles. Softer than Bucky expected, almost wistful. “I’d be lonely anywhere I went. But you should bring your archer.”
Bucky stares at him. He should say something, but he’s lost. He’s used to battleplans, to strategy. To wins and losses, clearly marked, easily known. He’s used to war. Maybe it’s all he’s meant for.
He’s thinking, somehow, about Jason in the dark, with a knife to his throat, and the way he’d relaxed as soon as Bucky looked at him like he knew him.
All those scars, all those lessons the world tried to teach him, and Jason still didn’t draw blood when he woke up scared.
I’d be lonely anywhere I went.
He thinks about the letters Jason wrote him, rambling and wry and clever, with intricate sketches of new weapons he and his outlaws had spotted Thanos’ soldiers wielding. He thinks about the short missives he sent back, polite but distant, with maps of dangerous roads and fallen strongholds clearly marked.
He wore Jason’s ring around his neck for years, but they are nothing to each other. That isn’t Jason’s fault.
“You’ll have to visit him in his own rooms,” Jason says, giving Clint a considering look over Bucky’s shoulder. “Because if he climbs over me in the dark, I’ll gut the both of you.”
But they’re bound to each other. And whatever Jason may think, Bucky is a man who keeps his word, whenever he can.
“It won’t be like that,” he says. When Jason laughs, he shakes his head. “It can’t be like that.”
He watches Jason spin the ring he gave him around his finger, watches the way he looks at Clint. When Jason reaches up to clap him companionably on the shoulder, it’s the first time he’s touched him, except for when he held a knife to his throat.
“We’re supposed to be dead,” he says. “We were supposed to die a dozen times over. So I think, the three of us, we can do whatever we damn well please.”
Whatever we damn well please sounds like a lie, a fairytale. But so did peace during wartime, and here they are anyway.
“It won’t be like that,” Bucky says, one more time, just so Jason knows he means it.
Jason smiles at him, and this one must be honest, because it’s the first time it’s reached his eyes. “For your sake, Winter Soldier,” he says, “I hope that’s not true.”
Whatever it will be, it won’t be what it was. For the first time, that thought doesn’t settle like a body dropping into a grave.