Director Fury (of S.H.I.E.L.D., which used to be the S.S.R.) wants me to talk with a psychiatrist. That probably sounds crazy to you—excuse the pun—since I'm by myself here. But there's a new gadget now called a 'StarkTab'. (Yes, that Stark. Though it's actually his son, Tony. I haven't met Tony yet, but from what I've seen about him, I think his father was a far better man.) that you can use to talk to people face-to-face over a screen as if you're in the same room with them. It does all kinds of other things too, but you'd really have to see it to understand. The only thing like it I can think of is a movie screen, but it does so much more than that. You can actually watch movies on it, even. I've been using it to watch newsreels of you and the other Commandos during the war.
You'd love the world now, Bucky. This tablet is just one of a million things people have these days. It'd take me the whole rest of my life to tell you about them. I don't think I could've have imagined any of this technology, but you probably would've. You always had such a swell imagination.
I wish you could see it with me. You enjoyed reading science-fiction so much, and now the world is even more amazing than just about anything in the novels or magazine stories you liked.
Of the two of us, you really should've been here instead of me. You'd probably be out there wide-eyed and grinning that beautiful smile of yours, like at the Expo the night before you left. The whole world's like a Stark Expo now, Buck. I just wish you were here to see it.
I just wish you were here.
Got off track there, sorry. I meant to say that Fury wants me to talk to a psychiatrist using the tablet, but I haven't done it yet. I don't like disobeying orders, but I just
can't stand the don't feel comfortable talking about myself to a complete stranger. Fury said that no one thinks anything about it now if you need to 'talk to a professional' (that's how he put it), but it doesn't feel right. After ma died, you were the only person I wanted to talk to, anyway.
That's why I'm writing this instead of using the StarkTab now. I'm writing this in the sketchpad Deputy Director Maria Hill gave me. She said she thought maybe I'd enjoy having the time to draw again. She reminds me of Peggy a little—strong and even a bit imposing, but also kind. It was real nice of her to give me the sketchpad. I feel bad about not using it the way she meant, but I just haven't been inspired.
No, that's not true. I've been trying to draw. But every time I try to picture you all I can see is you falling.
Remember how I have perfect memory, Bucky? (That's kind of a pun too, sorry.) Well, I remember everything, every second of it. All I have to do is close my eyes and you're dropping out of sight. If I'm not thinking about something else I can hear you screaming, still feel the blast of the wind. For everyone else it's been almost 70 years. But for me it was just a few weeks ago.
It hurts so bad that sometimes I don't know how I'm even breathing. Why I'm even alive without you. I shouldn't be—I crashed Schmidt's plane into the Arctic, because it had bombs on board and I wanted to make sure they didn't go off where anyone lived. I brought the plane down in the ice and I
didn couldn't get out of the wreckage and I was sure I was going to die. But I didn't. I just fell asleep for a long time. The S.H.I.E.L.D. docs said it was a kind of hibernation, like I'm a bear or something. I can imagine you laughing and making some crack about my snoring.
I miss you so much.
I wish I'd said I love you. All those years I had the chance and I wasted them on being afraid. I was afraid you'd be horrified that your best friend was a queer. Or even if you weren't, that you wouldn't feel the same. I was even afraid of what would happen if you said you loved me back, because everything would change. And life was hard enough back then, wasn't it? I was afraid of us getting arrested or kicked to death in an alley.
It seems so stupid, now that you're not here anymore. I should've shouted it from the rooftops, Bucky. Let the world know how much you mean to me. You're everything.
How the hell am I supposed to go on without you?
I love you,
I wish you could see the snowfall here. It's beautiful. The entire forest is white, with big snowflakes coming down soft as feathers. Remember the walks we used to take sometimes, when it wasn't too cold after a snowfall? You had that hideous hat Becca knit for you when she was ten, but you still wore all the time. And your nose would go bright red and every time the wind blew your eyes would start streaming. Funny how I never thought about that 'til now. You never seemed to be bothered by the cold at all when we were with the Commandos. Maybe you just got used to it.
Maria Hill called today—just a phone call, not a face-to-face screen thing—to find out how I'm doing. I told her about the snowfall, and that I've been drawing. That's not a lie, I have. It's just that I can't finish anything. All the pictures are of you, anyway. And I keep worrying that I'll get it wrong, forget what you looked like. I know that's stupid, since I have the news reels and my supposedly perfect memory and all. But I can't shake it.
I've been having a lot of nightmares
She wanted to know if I'm okay, all the way out here on my own. She didn't say anything outright, but I could tell she didn't agree with Fury's decision to send me here. It's fine, though. I like the quiet. I just wish I wasn't so far from the nearest town. You and I are city boys—it's strange to go to bed at night and not hear traffic or other people. Even during the war there were always the other Commandos. Remember how loudly Dernier snored? We all figured it'd be Dum Dum, but he was quiet as a mouse compared to Jacques.
They're all dead now too. Everyone is, except Peggy. And me
, I guess. I just feel like I am Peggy's so old, though. It feels terrible to write that, it's rude to discuss a lady's age. But it's true. I want to go see her, but I don't know if I should. Fury says her memory's bad. Senility. He called it 'Alzheimer's'. He says she might not recognize me.
I don't know what's worse, never seeing her or seeing her and Peggy not knowing who I am.
Maybe it won't make a difference either way. Once she's gone there'll be no one who knows me anymore. So if she doesn't know me now I guess it'll be same anyway.
Boy, that's depressing, isn't it? I'd better go to bed, since I'm getting all maudlin on you. The bed's huge—you'd love it, like some kind of swank hotel. But it's too soft, and I guess I'm just used to you being there, since it's kind of hard to fall asleep.
I love you, Bucky. I'd give anything to be able to say that to your face.
I forgot to tell you that the place I am is surrounded by a fence that has lasers guarding it. Yeah, like right out of Buck Rogers. It's because this is a safe house, not just a cabin. That's another reason Fury wanted me here instead of back in the city. It's safer.
It also means I can't go anywhere, which isn't so great. Though I'm sure I could
escape leave if I had to. I don't really mind, though. It's not like I have anywhere I want to go anyway.
Maria called again. I think she's getting worried that I still haven't used the StarkTab to talk to any of their psychiatrists. I told her I don't feel comfortable talking to strangers, but I promised her I would once I came back. That means I'll have to do it, but at least it'll be in person, rather than over a screen. And I suppose I can always pretend it's an interrogation and not say anything, right?
I can see you shaking your head and rolling your eyes. You'd probably tell me to stop being a punk and just talk to someone already. But
I can't I don't want to. I don't want to tell anyone about you. My memories of you are all I have left. And I know it's stupid, but I keep thinking that if I share them, that's it. You'll be gone.
Even when I had nothing, I had you. And now, well, now I have nothing.
I love you,
It gets so quiet here that I turned the radio on. I tried to find a ball game, but all there was was interview shows and terrible music. I ended up throwing the radio at the wall. And then if that wasn't bad enough, I punched a hole in the wood paneling. I feel like a jerk, doing that to someone else's property. Not only did I smash through the wood, I left a nice dent in the wall behind it. At least whatever it's made of was too strong for me to go through that too. The worst part is, I don't even know how I'm going to pay for the damage, especially the wall. Supposedly I've got back pay because I was never officially declared dead (thanks to Peggy and Howard), but I don't know how to access it. I don't have any identification from this century (God, that's still so strange to say), and I don't think anyone would believe me anyway, if I just walked into a bank and asked to make a withdrawal. Maybe Maria can help me with that once I get out of here.
Only three more days. That's not too long.
I like it here, really. It's just that it's too quiet. At night I keep listening for gunfire, or for a squad of Hydra commandos to slink out of the woods. And all the snow. Don't get me wrong—it's beautiful. But it keeps making me think of the war.
And when you
It's also kind of lonely, I have to admit. I'm used to being around other people, but so far I've only seen birds and the occasional squirrel. I did see a deer two days ago, actually. She was beautiful, picking her way so cautiously across the snow. I don't know how she got through the fence. Maybe there's a hole somewhere. I'll have to tell Fury when I see him.
I was all set to draw a picture of the deer for you, Bucky. But you're
You're dead. You're dead. You are dead.
It doesn't seem to matter how often I tell myself that, and I could probably write it a million times but it doesn't change how I keep expecting you to walk through that door, with your nose bright red and your eyes streaming and your stupid knit hat covered in snow. And you'd laugh and ask me what the hell I'm doing, all the way out here in the middle of nowhere by myself?
And I'd say, what do you think I'm doing? I'm waiting for you.
I'm never going to stop waiting.
I love you,
I couldn't sleep last night, so I went outside for some fresh air.
You should see the stars, Bucky—it reminded me of when we were trekking through the mountains. Remember how we couldn't believe that there were that many stars? Only Jacques had lived far enough outside a city to really see them. I can still remember how beautiful they were. And how we lay on our backs side-by-side and spent at least an hour just looking at them. It's funny, but that's one of my favorite memories of being with you, even though it was during the war.
The stars here are like that: so many of them it's like the sky is flooded with light. It's astonishing to think that there are so many millions of stars up there, and with all the light everywhere we can barely see any of them. I lay down in the snow and looked at them for a long time, thinking of you.
Maybe it's corny, but I pretended that one of the brightest stars was you. And that you were looking down at me somehow and smiling. I don't know if there's a heaven anymore, but if there is then you'd be there for sure. A smirking, beautiful angel in a dark blue coat, catching the eye of all the angel dames and dancing every night and smoking even when Saint Peter tells you not to.
I like the idea of you being a star, though. You always were my North Star anyway.
Just promise me that you'll wait for me, okay? You told me you would once—to the end of the line, remember? And you already got out without me, you punk. So I figure you owe me one.
I stayed out there all night, Buck. I didn't fall asleep or anything. I just didn't want to come inside. The safe house is so empty and quiet, and at least outside has all the stars. I'm sure Fury would snap his cap if he ever found out. Probably glare at me with that one working eye of his and accuse me of being suicidal.
I'm not, Bucky. Really. I just miss you.
I'm getting picked up tomorrow to go back to S.H.I.E.L.D. anyway, so I won't have only myself and my maudlin thoughts for company. Maria said she had people to teach me what I need to know about the world now, and I'm going to be training as well, getting back in shape. Don't worry—I'll pretend you're standing on the sidelines ready to laugh or make stupid faces when I trip over my own feet. It won't be the same otherwise.
I'll have to make sure to ask about bank accounts. And paying to replace the radio and fix the wall.
I wish I was looking forward to going back. It'll be better than being alone, I know that. It's easier to be by yourself when you're surrounded by other people, and at least the city has plenty of those. And it'll be good to have something to do. Hopefully there's still a way for me to make a difference. Something you'd be proud of.
Maria said they have an apartment ready for me as well. Apparently it's one of the older buildings. She said she chose it especially because she thought I'd appreciate it.
I told her I'm sure I will, because I know she means well and she's just trying to do the right thing. But the truth is, I don't want to live anywhere that reminds me of everything I lost.
To be fair, though, I don't know if there's any place I'd actually want to live. None of them will have you.
Better stop writing now. I should pack and tidy up for the next visitor. And I'd better make sure and hide this. Last thing I want is someone at S.H.I.E.L.D. reading it by accident. And I don't want Maria to think I didn't appreciate her present because I'm not using it the way she intended.
With love always,
The text says, Come home. Now. So that's exactly what Steve does, giving a tight, insincere apology to the senator he didn't want to speak to in the first place, and then driving his motorcycle barely under the speed limit so he won't risk getting pulled over and wasting time.
He parks the bike right next to the stairwell in the Tower's underground garage and runs up every single floor to the one he shares with Bucky, fast enough that he's actually a little winded when he arrives.
But Bucky's not there.
Steve bangs his way through every room of the ridiculous expanse of their floor, his head flooded with worst-case scenarios (Bucky's been kidnapped by one of the Avengers' enemies; Bucky's had a relapse; Bucky—God, no, please—was taken by Hydra) until he forces himself to get a grip and finally remembers that it's not him and Bucky against the world anymore. Steve has friends. If Bucky was in danger someone would've called him.
Steve has an eidetic memory, but add enough fear and he reverts to type.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.," Steve says, "Where's Bucky?"
"Sergeant Barnes is in the gym," the A.I. says immediately. "He specifically requested privacy, or I would have already informed you of his whereabouts."
"That's okay, J.A.R.V.I.S., thanks," Steve says, because J.A.R.V.I.S. sounds chagrined.
Bucky only holes up when he's really upset. He hasn't done it for months and Steve has no idea what might've triggered him. Steve quickly goes and checks for the box Tony made Bucky for his collection, but it's still in the back of their closet and doesn't look like it's been moved. Steve hopes that's a good sign.
Bucky's destroying a heavy bag when Steve finds him. He's bare-fisted and his hair is wet, his tee-shirt dark and clinging to him. Bucky barely glances in Steve's direction and doesn't stop what he's doing. He's obviously been here for a while—Steve can see smears of blood on the bag from Bucky's split knuckles.
Steve came in at a dead run but immediately slows to a walk. He doesn't go close despite how much he wants to. Bucky has 'don't come near me' all over him, as plain as the rattling tail of a snake.
Steve swallows. "Hey, Buck," he says. "I got your text."
"I can see that," Bucky says. He keeps his attention directed at the heavy bag, the arrhythmic pounding of his fists.
"What's wrong?" Steve asks when it's clear Bucky won't tell him.
Bucky's lips pull back in a snarl and he leaves more red smears on the bag, along with trails from the sweat on his hands. "You," he spits. "You are so fucking wrong that I—I don't—" He cuts himself off with an inarticulate growl and shoves the bag away from him on the next swing, then stalks towards Steve like he wants a fight.
Steve backs up, spreads his hands but stays ready in case Bucky really intends to attack him. "Bucky? You know where you are, right?"
"Of course I know where the fuck I am!" Bucky grits at him. "I have no idea who the hell you are, though." He shoves Steve's shoulder hard enough to stagger him. "Not anymore. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"Bucky." Steve backs up again, keeps his voice calm. "It's me, it's Steve. I'm your friend. I'm not going to fight you."
The noise Bucky makes in response is more like an incredulous bark than a laugh. "Oh I know that, Steve," he says darkly. "I know you're not gonna fight me. You never fight for yourself, do ya? You'll catch grenades for assholes who'd be happy to kick your face in; and hell, you were all set to let me beat you to death 'stead of lifting a finger to stop me—"
"Is this about the helicarrier?" Steve interrupts. "Bucky you know why—"
"No I don't!" Bucky shouts, eerily similar to the fight Steve just mentioned. Bucky stays where he is, though: seething at Steve but not touching him. "I don't know why you pull this shit, Steve. I have no fucking idea what's wrong with you. When we were kids you'd always stand up for yourself, no matter what it'd cost you. You were too dumb to run from a fight, but at least they were your fights. You chose 'em! You didn't just…just…"
He shoves his fingers through his wet hair and stands there with his chest heaving. "Why'd you let them do that to you, Stevie?" he demands finally, and all of a sudden he's not angry anymore, but the desolation in his eyes is far worse. "How could you let them lock you up when you hadn't even done anything?"
Steve stares at him. "What are you talking about?"
Bucky stares right back. "What am I… You don't remember? You remember everything! How the hell could you not remember?"
"I can't remember something that never happened, Buck!" Steve says angrily. He's more worried than frustrated, though, concerned now that Bucky's suffering some kind of flashback. "Please, Bucky," he says more softly, going towards him. He reaches for him, then tries not to react when Bucky steps away. "I don't understand—I was never a prisoner."
"Yes you were!" Bucky bursts out. He looks horrified. "They locked you up one month after you got outta the ice, Steve! Don't you remember?"
"Who did?" Steve asks, bewildered. "Bucky," he tries, "I was with S.H.I.E.L.D. one month after I… after they found me. I wasn't—"
"S.H.I.E.L.D. were the ones who fucking put you in prison!" Bucky yells. "The safe house!" he goes on at Steve's incomprehension. "That fucking cabin in the middle of nowhere!"
Of course Steve remembers the cabin, just like he remembers everything. Even then, he's startled at the blast of revulsion that hits him like a fist in the stomach as soon as his mind turns to his time there. "How do you even know about that?" he demands, realizing only afterwards how defensive he sounds.
"It's in your file," Bucky snaps. "You said I could read it. Or did you forget that too?"
"I didn't forget," Steve says. He's not sure why his face is flushing. "I just…it wasn't important. I didn't think…there was no reason for it to bother you."
"'It wasn't important'?" Bucky parrots incredulously. "'It wasn't important?' Jesus Christ, Steve! They lock you up for two weeks and 'it wasn't important'?"
"No it wasn't!" Steve shouts. "It wasn't important because I wasn't locked up, Bucky! It was a retreat," he goes on more calmly, then has to swallow against something a little too close to nausea lodged in his throat. "They put—they brought me there to help me get my head on straight. Their psychiatrists were sure it'd help me to get away from everyone. And, and they showed me how to set up video calls. If I wanted. It wasn't a prison."
"Video calls," Bucky says flatly. He stares at Steve so long that Steve has to force himself not to avert his gaze. Bucky's eyes are huge and horrified, and he pushes his fingers through his hair again, then leaves them linked on the back of his head. "Stevie," he says, and his voice cracks. "Stevie, don't you even know what they did to you?"
Steve nods. "They helped me. Just like I said."
"No," Bucky says, shaking his head. "No, Steve. For God's sake! How could you… you'd just woken up, right?" he goes on before Steve answers. "Yeah, you'd just got out of the ice, and the world was—the whole fucking world was different. Every God-damned thing... and everyone you knew was gone. And I—" He swallows. "I wasn't there. So, you didn't have… you didn't have anything familiar. And then they put you in a cabin. By yourself. In the middle of the woods. Surrounded by a laser-grid fence, like you're some kinda criminal. For two weeks." He shakes his head again, as if what he's saying is so unbelievable he can't even fathom it. His expression darkens. "You saved the fucking world, and they locked you up! They put you in the middle of nowhere by yourself and you just let them do it!"
Steve realizes his fists are clenched and he deliberately relaxes them. Getting his heart to stop pounding is more difficult. "I didn't—I didn't let them," he says. His voice is gravel. "They thought… they told me that it'd be easier that way. To get used to everything, I mean. If I wasn't in the city for a while. The safe house was… it had older stuff. More familiar. And it'd be easier to think, without all these strangers around."
"That's bullshit," Bucky growls. "That's some fucking line they handed you and you just swallowed it. Why did you let 'em do that to you, Stevie? How could you let them treat you like that?"
"I didn't care!" Steve bursts out. "You just said it—you were gone! Everything was gone, and I didn't care what happened to me!" He takes a breath through his clenched teeth. His hands are balled up in fists again. "I'd gone down in the Valkyrie expecting to die." He'd wanted to die. Or at least not to have to keep going. "And then I didn't die. But you were still gone. Just like everything else I knew. And there was nothing—" He has to stop speaking just to breathe for a moment, then clear the tears out of his eyes. "And S.H.I.E.L.D… they'd been formed out of the S.S.R. to protect people." He ignores Bucky's derisive snort because Steve had no inkling that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been corrupted at the time. "It was a direction. A purpose. Some way I could at least do something good, when I didn't belong anywhere anymore."
Bucky crosses his arms. "So you did whatever they told you to do."
"Yeah," Steve says.
"Including letting them toss you into the middle of a fucking forest by yourself. With no one to talk to who wasn't on a screen."
Steve shrugs. "Like I said, I didn't care."
Bucky sets his jaw. "Yeah. I read your letters. I know exactly how much you 'didn't care', Steve. You were fucking coming apart out there."
"What?" Steve blinks at him. "My letters?" He knows exactly which ones Bucky's talking about, of course, but he doesn't understand how he could've even seen them. Steve's never showed that sketchbook to anyone; he's never even used it. "How did you get them?"
"They were in your file," Bucky says, looking confused.
"What?" Steve's gaping now; his heart bounds back to thundering in his chest. "No," he says, shaking his head as if that would somehow change what Bucky's just told him. "No, that's not… I never showed them to anyone. Not anybody!" He puts his fingertips on his forehead, thinking of all those words like open veins. "They were private," he says, hushed. He finally lowers his hands, looks at Bucky. "I wrote them for you."
"I know." Bucky's throat works for a moment before a scowl mars his features again, but he's not looking at Steve when he speaks. "Fucking S.H.I.E.LD." His mouth pulls like he's tasted something awful. "The letters in your file were photos. You really didn't think they'd have cameras everywhere?"
"No," Steve says distantly. "No. I really didn't." He looks helplessly at Bucky. "I had no idea. No one told me."
Bucky smirks nastily. "Kinda' missing the point if they told you, Stevie. How else could they find out if isolating you was working?"
Steve's so blindsided by finding out that S.H.I.E.L.D. watched him, that they photographed his letters, that he almost misses what Bucky says. "'Isolating me'? What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about standard indoctrination techniques," Bucky snaps. He swipes his hair off his forehead, then makes a face and wipes his hand on his shirt. His sweat's probably drying by now. "Leave the captive in solitary confinement for long enough, he'll get so desperate for any kind of human contact that the second he's back with other people he'll fall into their fucking arms." He shrugs with a tilt of his head. "Been there. Done that. Became the Red Room's pet assassin."
Steve winces at the forced nonchalance in Bucky's tone. "I wasn't a captive. I already told you. It wasn't the same thing at all."
"Steve," Bucky says flatly, "you used the word 'escape' in one of your letters before crossing it out. It was exactly the same thing and you knew it. You just didn't want to think about it, probably because S.H.I.E.L.D. had already done such a fucking nice job of brainwashing you already."
"Are you even listening to yourself?" Steve demands. "I wasn't brainwashed! I wasn't a prisoner of war, Bucky! No one was trying to turn me into their Winter Soldier. I was with S.H.I.E.L.D., not Hydra!"
"But it was Hydra," Bucky says. His voice is completely calm but the words still feel loud enough to shatter Steve's bones. "And they didn't have to turn you into the Winter Soldier, because they already had one. So they turned you into Captain America."
Steve actually rears back like he's been hit. "No," he says. "That wasn't… they…" He swallows. "Fury was the one who ordered me to go there." He doesn't notice the word 'ordered' until it's out of his mouth, but it doesn't sound wrong.
Bucky nods. "Yeah. One guess who ordered him to."
Steve's mouth is too dry to swallow again. "Pierce."
"Yeah. Pierce." Bucky spits the name. "He broke you, Stevie. Just like he broke me. And you fucking let him." His jaw sets, glaring in renewed anger. "You let him. You knew who you were, you knew that what they were doing to you was wrong. But you let them! You fucking let them break you, Steve," Bucky snarls, cold rage curling from every word. "I gave up my goddam life for you, and you go and let them do that—?"
"You were dead!" Steve yells. "Yeah, you gave up your life for me, you son of a bitch—I never wanted you to do that! I never wanted to live if you didn't! But I had to! And…" He grits his teeth against the memories of those months, those years, crowding his throat. "I had nothing else, Bucky! You were dead and I had nothing. With S.H.I.E.L.D. I could at least be a soldier again, do something meaningful. And yeah—maybe… maybe I didn't pay enough attention to what was happening. But I wasn't like you. I didn't have the luxury of forgetting, so I had to do the best I could with my fucking heart torn out!"
For a moment Bucky looks too stunned to speak. Then, "You think I forgot you?" he says. His voice is deceptively mild, but his right hand begins to shake. "They ripped you outta my head, Steve. They had to, because I didn't believe you weren't coming for me. Not even when they showed me all the headlines about you bein' dead." His eyes redden, and when he blinks tears spill onto his face. "My luxury of forgetting you was when they strapped me down into that fucking chair and electrocuted me." His smile is vicious and thin. "You wanna know how many times they had to do it before I stopped calling for you, Stevie? Before I had the luxury of forgetting you?"
"No," Steve whispers, breathless at his unthinking cruelty. "No. God, Bucky. I didn't… I should never—I'm so sorry…!"
Bucky's face smooths into stone. "Fuck you."
He stalks out of the gym. Steve watches him go.
Steve forces himself to wait an hour before he goes after Bucky, though he makes sure J.A.R.V.I.S. will tell him if Bucky leaves the tower. He tells himself it's because they both need time to cool down, which is true, but he knows it's just as much because he doesn't want to face Bucky after what he said. Steve's always had a bad temper. He's not proud of it. But he likes to imagine that most of the time he can at least think twice before he blurts out something he'll regret.
Funny how the ones you love the most can always bring out the worst in you.
Bucky's on the couch when Steve comes into their living room. He's sitting with his back to the armrest and his knees up, with his bare feet on the cushions. Steve can smell the clean scent of soap on shower-damp hair. The room's not cold—it's never cold in the tower—but Bucky's in his moose hoodie. His hands are tucked into the front pouch and he's got the hood up. The antlers are both adorable and completely incongruous next to the closed-off misery on Bucky's face.
The box Tony made for him is on the coffee table. It's closed, but it still twists Steve's heart up to see it there at all. Bucky hasn't needed to sort through his eclectic group of objects for a long time.
He glances at Steve, who's now standing more-or-less frozen with guilt, then Bucky's eyes graze over his box and back to Steve again. "Don't flatter yourself. It ain't 'cause o' what you said."
That's hard to believe, considering, but Steve lets it go. "I'm still an asshole for saying it."
"Yup." Bucky pops the 'P'.
Steve lets out a gust of breath. "Bucky. I'm so sor—"
"I know," Bucky says.
"I don't think you do," Steve says. He ignores Bucky's narrow-eyed glare and goes closer. "I lashed out at you because I'm ashamed."
"Stevie, no," Bucky says on an exasperated sigh, "Y'got nothing—"
"I spent my whole life trying to fight bullies," Steve goes on. "My whole life. I nearly died for it. I…" He swallows. "I lost you because of it. And then to realize that I'd unwittingly been working for the exact same bullies…" He shakes his head, jaw clenched in a fury that's directed entirely inward. "You're right. I let them. And the fact that I let them because I didn't care what happened to me doesn't change that." He cards his fingers through his hair. "I hated that place," he says. It's the first time he's admitted it to anyone, including himself. "I hated being there. I was so God-damned lonely." He has to force those memories back down and away from him again, back to the distant, terrible past where they belong. He looks Bucky in the eyes. "But I could've been anywhere, and it would've been the same. You were gone, Buck. The middle of nowhere was as good a place as any to grieve for you."
"Shouldn't've had to do it alone," Bucky says.
"You're right about that too," Steve says. "And that's on me, that I let Fury—I let S.H.I.E.L.D.—take me away from anything familiar that might've… mitigated the sorrow, however slightly." He exhales on a gust of air. "I hadn't thought about it. I hadn't wanted to think about it. So when you forced me to recognize it, I was ashamed. But what I said to you was inexcusable. And I'm sorry."
Bucky lifts his shoulders in a shrug. "I shouldn't've thrown it in your face like that." He pulls his hands out of the hoodie pocket. He's wearing the child's necklace on his left wrist, as well as three more Steve hasn't seen before, though the fact that they're red, gold and blue is a pretty clear indication of who Bucky got them from. Bucky idly twists the impromptu bangles as he speaks. He's watching the plastic beads catch the light as if it needs all his attention. "I figured out where I was, when they found you and… and all that stuff." He plucks at the blue necklace, pulling it back a little then releasing it to snap against his metal wrist with a tiny clack. "I'd just come back from a mission. In Iraq. Keeping things tense over there." He looks up barely long enough to flash Steve a thin, awful smile. "Shaping the fucking century. Figure I'd been in cryo about a week when you were taken out of the ice. Don't know if that counts as irony or not."
"I wish I'd known you were alive," Steve says. He doesn't just mean in 2011. There's not a day where he hasn't wished that.
"You had no reason to," Bucky says. He snaps the red necklace this time. "Thing is, though, I was alive. And I keep thinking, that if only I'd… if only I'd held on longer. Fought harder. You wouldn't've had to be alone. Pierce wouldn't've been able to get his claws into you, the way he did me."
"Don't. Don't start that again," Steve says immediately, just shy of snapping it. "You fought as hard as you could. You're not responsible for what happened to me."
Bucky glances up at him again. "I dunno, Stevie—the fact I wasn't there's kinda my responsibility."
"No it's not," Steve grinds out. It was mine, he thinks, but bites that back the way he always does. "It was Hydra. Come on, Bucky. You know that."
"Yeah, okay," Bucky says softly. The clack when the looped gold necklace meets Bucky's wrist is quite loud. "It just makes me so sick, to think of what Pierce did to you." Bucky snaps the multicolored necklace this time. "So I got mad at you for lettin' it happen, when I'm really mad at me for not being able to stop it."
"That's not fair, Bucky," Steve says.
Bucky nods. "I know. I'm sorry."
"I meant to you."
Bucky looks up at him again, then back to his improvised bracelets. He shrugs. "Maybe," he says grudgingly. "But I still shouldn't've gotten in your face about it."
Steve pulls up an almost genuine smile. "So, we're both dicks when we're angry. Who knew?"
Bucky smirks, then clacks the blue bracelet again. "I'm glad he's dead. I just wish I'd been able to do it myself."
"That makes two of us," Steve says. Actually, Steve wishes he could've put Pierce in the chair, just once. He's not proud of that vengeful part of himself, but there are some transgressions that are too evil to be forgiven.
Steve lifts up Bucky's feet as he sits on the couch, then puts them into his lap, only to have Bucky yank them away so he can do his Buckysprawl thing instead. Steve ends up laying more-or-less comfortably with Bucky like a lumpy blanket on top of him. Bucky worms his arms under Steve's back and that's not incredibly comfortable either, but Bucky's contented sigh makes it more than worthwhile.
"You gotta promise me something, Stevie," Bucky says after a few minutes.
"Promise me that you'll go on without me, all right?" Bucky says. "Promise me that you'll care what happens to you. You got friends now, people who'll look out for you. Promise me you'll let 'em, okay?"
"God, Buck…" Steve stares up at the ceiling, remembering a sea of stars shining bravely in the fathomless darkness; the agony of loss so deep that even now Steve doesn't think it'll ever leave him, like a phantom pain from a long-healed wound. He wants so badly to say 'no' it's like he can taste the word in his mouth. But he can feel Bucky's tension in the subtle shifts of his muscles, and Steve knows exactly how important the answer is to him. "Only if you promise me the same thing," he says finally, responding the only way he can.
Bucky's silent for a long time. "All right," he says at last.
They hold each other more tightly.
"I love you," Steve tells him.
He can feel Bucky's smirk against his chest. "Sap." But he belies that by turning his head and planting a kiss over Steve's sternum. "Me too," he says seriously. "To the end of the line."
"Yeah," Steve says. He bends his head to drop a kiss into Bucky's hair. He doesn't mention how Bucky didn't actually promise anything, because neither did he.
"To the end of the line," he repeats. Because they already made that promise a long time ago, and it's the only one that matters.