Tell them all I know now
Shout it from the rooftops
Write it on the skyline
All we had is gone now
Tell them I was happy
And my heart is broken
---James Arthur, Impossible
Bucky leaned over the couch back, crunching a mouthful of apple in Steve's ear. "How come I got wings?"
Steve hesitated, his pencil hovering just above Bucky's ankle in the drawing, where he'd finished the lowest feathers of Bucky's wings. He'd been filling in the details, trying to figure out which shade of red to use to color them when Bucky came in. Steve should've closed the sketchbook, but he'd kept drawing instead. He'd always been reckless.
Maybe he'd hoped that Bucky would see the wings and they would mean something to him.
"No reason." Steve looked up at Bucky, making sure he shrugged and smiled, not a care in the world. "I was just messing around."
Bucky hummed and leaned farther, holding the apple behind him so it wouldn't drip on the paper. "Is that my Commando uniform?"
"Do you remember it?" Steve asked before he could help himself. He'd drawn Bucky from the back, his head turned as he looked down over the chasm between where they'd camped and the train tracks on the other side. The wings curved out from his shoulders, heart shaped. Ruffled from the wind.
It wasn't a real picture. It hadn't happened like that, but Steve would torment himself with it every once in a while: imagining what could've happened instead of what did; fingers in a wound.
Instead of answering, Bucky straightened and took another bite of the apple, then grinned at Steve as he chewed and swallowed. It was one of his artful ones, the kind he'd used on teachers and parents and the girls he wanted to impress before the War. The kind he didn't mean. "You tryin' to make me into an angel, Stevie?"
"Now why would I do that?" Steve smiled at Bucky's laugh, then very carefully turned back to the drawing. He didn't hold the pencil too tightly and snap it, or press too hard and rip the paper.
He very carefully didn't say, you used to be one.
Steve found out what Bucky really was in 1927, a few months after they met. Steve was sick, again. It was the flu—again—but this time he couldn't shake it. This time he was dying.
It was January, freezing in the tiny, inadequate apartment Steve shared with his ma. He was cold, even buried under every blanket they could find, beg or scrounge. Bucky had brought the quilt right off his bed. Nothing helped.
Ma was trying to heat Steve up until his fever broke, but ice ran in Steve's veins and ice coated his bones. He kept begging his ma to close the window because all the snow was coming in, drifts piling up around the bed and dresser. He worried she'd get sick from the cold.
Time didn't mean much, other than sometimes he couldn't see and others the light hurt his eyes. He'd ask where Bucky was and Ma would tell him he'd come 'soon', or 'later', or 'tomorrow'. Except tomorrow would arrive with too much brightness and cold and Bucky wouldn't come. Steve was sure Bucky had died from the cold and wept tears that froze on his cheeks.
That was the same night when instead of going to work, Ma called the priest in. When the man left she knelt next to Steve's bed and held his hand. Her skin burned like frostbite.
At some point she fell asleep and Steve drifted like snow through his dreams until he heard the window open and close, felt a gust of frigid air that made his shivering worse.
Ma slept with her head on her folded arms. She'd turned into the Snow Queen, blue and white with cold. Mist floated from her mouth when she breathed, wreathing her head like a crown.
Someone sat next to him and took his other hand. "Hey, Stevie," Bucky said, soft as the snow.
The ice in Steve's spine cracked as he turned to look up at his face. Frost broke from Steve's lips when he smiled. "Are you here to take me to heaven?"
For a second Bucky looked so horrified Steve thought he'd cry. "No!" he said. "No, I ain't here to do that." He glanced out the window behind him, as if he was worried someone would hear. When he turned back to Steve he leaned forward, speaking even quieter like he was spilling a secret. "I'm supposed to keep you alive, Stevie—that's why I'm here. I would've come sooner, but Mom wouldn't let me 'cause she's worried I'll catch what you got and give it to my sisters. I had to sneak out." He put his hand on Steve's forehead. His palm was warm.
"You're not supposed to die now. You got too much to do first. So I'm going to fix you right up, all right? But you gotta promise you won't tell anyone."
"Okay." Steve wanted to tell Bucky how glad he was that he wasn't dead, but it was too many words and he was already so tired.
"Don't be scared. I promise everything's gonna be fine." Bucky put his other hand on the pile of blankets over Steve's struggling chest, and smiled at him like summer. And then wings opened behind him and spread out until they were wide as the room. They passed ghostlike through anything they might have touched. Not like the wings weren't real, but like everything else wasn't.
They were red.
Red. For years Steve wouldn't even know what the color was. He was colorblind—for him 'red' was just another shade of muddy yellow. Red was hypothetical, something that existed only because other people confirmed it. He used the crayons his teachers gave him; he read the labels and pretended he knew what they meant. But for him the world was grey, and dull yellow, and occasionally vibrant blue.
He'd never seen the color of Bucky's wings before, but they were incredibly beautiful. It was a warm color, and Bucky's body was warm, blazing with light. It melted the ice and snow, turned his mother back into flesh and blood. It roared through Steve's bones and veins and shattered the ice inside him. By the time the glow faded, Steve was warm.
He didn't die that night. The next morning his ma woke to find him sitting up in bed and asking for breakfast. She called it a miracle. She called it another one when it only took days, not weeks, before Steve was strong enough to go back to school. That had never happened before. Maybe, she told Steve, it meant he'd turned a corner and would never be so sick again.
Steve couldn't wait to play with Bucky, but he couldn't. Bucky was sick.
Bucky never got sick, Mrs. Barnes said. Barely more than a sniffle since he'd been born. But now he was flushed and glassy-eyed, thrashing with delirium when he wasn't coughing his lungs up. Ma would only let Steve sit with him for a few minutes at a time, for fear he'd catch this new, terrible illness so soon after surviving the last one.
Bucky stayed an ordinary, sick little boy for two weeks, then had to recover for a month afterwards. Steve brought work for him from school to make sure he didn't fall behind.
"Did you get like this 'cause of me, Buck?" he asked once when they were alone in Bucky's room. Bucky was propped up in bed with his textbook on his lap. Steve turned the pages for him because it was hard with the way his hands still shook sometimes.
Bucky nodded. "You were real sick. It took a lot of work to heal you."
"Will you get better?"
"Sure. It'll just take a while," Bucky said, easy like he hadn't come close to dying himself. He put his hand on Steve's shoulder and Steve could feel Bucky's bones. "Don't be sad, Stevie. S'not your fault. It's just the way it is. I'll be fine, promise."
Steve took Bucky's hand. Bucky was so thin now his fingers reminded Steve awfully of his own. "Will you get your wings back?"
Bucky laughed. "I never lost 'em, Stevie." He was still strong enough to tug Steve closer to hug him, and when he kissed the side of Steve's head it felt as normal and necessary as air.
When Steve woke up in 2011, the first thing he did after he ran into Times Square and Fury found him was to look for more angels.
He didn't know why, really. He didn't want a new angel. He wanted Bucky, but Bucky was dead in whatever way angels could die. Steve was never going to see him again.
He kept looking anyway. Maybe because angels were one of the few things he recognized in this strange new world. Maybe because it was the only way of keeping any connection to Bucky alive. Maybe because they'd be the only vector where he could legitimately direct his rage.
Ultimately, Steve didn't care why he expected every new person he met to have wings. It gave him a focus beyond his grief and confusion, and that was good enough. Angels were hard to find, though. Steve was sure Nick Fury would have wings—the man was imposing enough, and he certainly wanted Steve for something—but his back was bare. Steve tried Bruce, then. And then Natasha. Nothing.
In retrospect, it shouldn't have surprised him when he saw the almond-colored wings on Agent Coulson's back. The man seemed nothing but officious and stolid, even faintly ridiculous with his doe-eyed hero worship. But Coulson, it turned out, had a core of steel and a quiet shrewdness that reminded Steve of Bucky.
"You can't replace him," Steve said, as soon as he had Coulson cornered.
Coulson just gave him one of his deceptively bland smiles. "I'm not here for you."
He died hours later, in whatever way angels could. But it took weeks before Clint talked to Steve about him.
"You knew what he was, didn't you?" They were on the roof of the Tower, with the artificial glow of the city spread below them like a dream of daylight. Clint hadn't drunk from his beer in over fifteen minutes. Steve barely bothered to drink anymore.
"Yeah. I did."
"What happened to yours?"
Clint eyed him with the grudging curiosity of someone with only a disaster in common. "Fell? As in, 'Fallen'?"
Steve swallowed. "Fell as in, hit the ground."
"Ah." Clint took a drink of his beer, slapped Steve's shoulder a few times. "Well, you know what they say—it's not the fall that kills you."
"No it wasn't," Steve said. He'd looked for red against the snow long after he couldn't see Bucky anymore.
"Whoever he used to be…the guy he is now…he's not the kind you save," Sam said, and Steve whirled on him and pinned him to the rail of the dam.
"You abandoned him! You'd forsaken him!" he yelled. "Don't you dare tell me we can't save him! You owe him! You owe him for what you let happen!"
"Hey, we never forsook him," Sam said, as calm as if Steve wasn't thinking of tipping him over the side. His jet black wings rippled softly, like banners in the breeze. "He chose to go with you. He made that decision. He knew he wouldn't come back."
"What?" Steve's fingers trembled around Sam's arms. "He…he knew? What…what the hell are you talking about?"
"Just what I said. I'm sorry," Sam's voice was terribly gentle. "He didn't know how or when—none of us do, the universe doesn't work like that—but he knew it was a one-way trip when he volunteered to watch your back."
Steve relaxed his grip, impatiently swiped at his tears. "Why? Why would he do that?" Steve had never forgotten finding Bucky strapped down and vacant-eyed, repeating the same words over and over again. It was seared into his brain like the red of Bucky's wings. Then afterwards: I can't feel 'em anymore, Stevie. And the wild fear in Bucky's eyes, the way he insisted at walking at Steve's side even when he was burning with fever and so thin Steve could hear his joints grind when he moved. "Why would he volunteer to die for me?"
"You know why," Sam said.
Peggy Carter's wings were the same shade as her hair—something he didn't quite believe until the dull, non-color on her head blossomed into rich chestnut the instant Steve came out of the Project Rebirth chamber. He had to ask her what the color was called.
She wasn't a guardian, she told him. She was there for the war effort, specifically to make sure Erskine and Stark's work stayed in the right hands. Peggy had also been tasked with saving Howard Stark from himself, at least long enough to have his son. Howard was a genius, but his son would save the world.
"I guess you'll be around for a long time, then," Steve said.
He'd been joking, but Peggy nodded. Her smile was wistful. "I imagine I will."
She wasn't surprised that he could see her wings. Once a human saw them, she explained, they never stopped. Like seeing color, or grieving. Some things, once begun, didn't go away.
Steve never imagined that Peggy would mourn him. He didn't kiss her before he climbed into the Valkyrie, and she didn't try to kiss him. He loved her, but he wasn't hers and she wasn't his. There was only one angel who'd ever have his heart.
"Do all guardian angels end up in love with their charges?"
"Hell if I know." Bucky's breath blew softly over Steve's lips. "Am I boring you?" He rolled his hips and Steve gasped, arching the little he could with Bucky's thighs straddling him. Their hands were linked on either side of Steve's head, Bucky holding him down. Bucky's wings were half-open, falling on either side like a tent. It was hot, but it made Steve feel safe and protected.
"Y-yeah," Steve panted, grinning. "I was thinkin' about a nap—" The words elided into a hoarse cry as Bucky rolled his hips again.
"What was that?" Bucky chuckled, pleased with himself, until Steve rocked his own hips and his dick rubbed over the place that made Bucky shudder and moan. "Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Keep doin' that." He dropped his head, moving in counterpoint to Steve's thrusts until his wings snapped wide, trembling as he came. The light blazing from Bucky's body turned the world red even through Steve's closed eyes. Three more thrusts and Steve followed Bucky over the edge.
The light faded as Bucky folded his wings. He carefully pulled off of Steve then rolled onto his back, tugging Steve with him. He settled Steve's head on his chest with his arms around his back.
"What made you fall in love with me, then?" Steve asked a little while later, once their breathing calmed. He waited reflexively for his asthma to come back, but he never had trouble with his lungs when Bucky was with him. He shivered as the cool air of the room touched his skin.
Bucky wrapped his wings around them both and Steve was instantly warm again. "I don't know," he said. "Guess I just got a thing for mouthy little guys who'd rather die than walk past somebody gettin' treated badly." He dropped a kiss on Steve's hair. "You got a good soul, Stevie." He paused. "No, that ain't it. You're not just good. You're the best. You always want to do the right thing, make the world better. There's no way I could'a not fallen for you, with a soul like that. I've always been a moth to your flame."
"I don't think there was a time I didn't love you," Steve said. "Whatever light I got, it's from you. Reflected."
Bucky went quiet for a while, carding his fingers through Steve's hair. "You'll…think about me, when I'm not with you anymore, right? When I'm gone?"
Steve gasped, then pushed himself onto his knees so he could look at Bucky's face. "What are you talking about? Where are you going?"
"Nowhere." Bucky grinned at him, but it was the kind he put on when he was upset and didn't want anyone to know. Steve had never been fooled by it. "It's just, one day, maybe you won't need anyone looking out for you anymore." He reached up to cup Steve's face. "I don't want to go, but I'll have to."
"No!" Steve said immediately. "No, you can't! You can't leave me. I need you. I'll always need you! I love you!" Steve put his hand around Bucky's wrist, as if that would keep him there. He turned his head to kiss Bucky's palm. "You can't leave, Bucky. Don't leave me."
Bucky swallowed. He caressed Steve's cheek, looking up at him with so much affection that Steve's breath caught. "Okay," Bucky said softly. "Okay."
Pepper Pott's wings were translucent white, hanging down her back in a neat line with her suit. When she shook Steve's hand she smiled like she knew him.
"Peggy told me good things about you," she said. She glanced over to the bar, where Tony was fixing drinks for the three of them. "Give him time," she went on even more quietly. "Part of him is still certain Howard loved you more than him. It's been hard, meeting that kind of rival in person."
Steve grimaced. He lowered his voice to match hers. "How can I convince him that's not true?"
"You can't." Pepper linked her hands in front of her. "That's one of the reasons I'm here."
"I'm glad he has someone," Steve said.
She smiled. "So am I."
"Does he know what you are?"
"No." Pepper sounded amused and sad at the same time. "Tony doesn't tend to see things he can't believe." She glanced at Tony again, and the love in her eyes reminded Steve so much of Bucky it hurt. "I suppose it's just as well. If he knew one of us had been sent to help him in Afghanistan fully aware he'd die in the process...Well, he carries around enough guilt already."
"Quit making time with my girlfriend, Spangles." Tony came over with three glasses balanced in a triangle between his hands. "Thanks," he murmured when Steve rescued two of them. "What were you two whispering about, anyway?"
Steve gave one to Pepper. She smiled conspiratorially at him, then turned her beaming smile on Tony. "Captain Rogers was telling me how brave you were, during the battle."
Tony snorted as he took a drink, but he couldn't hide the childlike glint of hope in his eyes when he looked at Steve. It was painfully obvious he wanted it to be true. "Is that the nice way of saying you wish my trip through the portal had only been one-way?"
"No! Not at all. I'm really glad you made it back," Steve said, startling himself with his own vehemence. "And what you did was incredibly brave, and selfless. That was laying down on the wire, Tony." He tried to imbue the words with the kind of ringing truth he hoped Tony could actually hear. "You're an asset to the Avengers, and if I'd known you back during the War, I would've been proud to have you fighting with me."
"Oh." Tony blinked, startled. "Well, um, thanks. I didn't…" He made a face somewhere between a smirk and a wince. "After our little dustup on the helicarrier, I kind of thought you wished I were my old man, instead of version 2.0."
"And I kind of thought you wished I'd never been defrosted." Steve grinned, and stuck out his hand. "But I meant what I said, Tony. We couldn't've won without you."
"Likewise." Tony sounded a little hoarse, but his handshake was firm. "On the not winning without you thing. And on you being an asset to the Avengers thing, too. And, well, all of the stuff about being proud and fighting, et cetera. You're probably the one good thing about Global Warming."
Steve laughed, and clinked his glass against Tony's and Pepper's and drank the exceptionally good whiskey. Pepper beamed at both of them, and Steve could feel the gratitude like the warmth from her angel light.
Pepper extended one wing across Tony's shoulders, and he blinked again, then smiled dopily at her like she'd done something wonderful just by existing.
Steve had to look away.
"Why doesn't Natasha have an angel, if you did?"
Clint's smirk was a small, ugly thing. "She did. The Red Room only took little girls with angels."
Steve stared at him, dread like blocks of stone in his chest. "What happened to them?"
"The girls killed them." Clint nodded with the same nasty smile when Steve gaped. "The grand fucking prize for being broken and remade as the perfect assassin."
"Oh my God."
"Yeah," Clint said, rough. His smile was gone, his jaw working like he was in pain. "Her angel's wings were purple. That's the only thing she's ever told me."
Purple. Steve thought of Hawkeye's uniform, and the tiny arrow around Natasha's neck, and how a glimpse of red could still make him whirl to look, heart pounding. "Did you always have the same colored uniform?"
"That's why I'm still alive." Clint drank his beer and kept his hawk eyes on the cityscape, like his grief was written on the skyline. "Funny how things work out, huh?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "Funny."
When Steve broke into the Hydra factory, he knew Bucky was alive because all the prisoners were surrounded with red.
The glow was so faint it was like an early morning haze, fading like a breath in winter. But he could still see it easily, limning each man in an ethereal shield. That was why they all could stand up when they saw him, and why they all looked weary, and hungry, and ragged, and scared, but all of them were ready to fight; all capable of it.
It made Steve's job so much easier, but the sparsity of the light terrified him. God only knew what it had cost.
Steve found Bucky in the Isolation Ward, just like he'd been told. Bucky was the only prisoner not hallowed in red. The only red on him was blood. Steve couldn't see his wings.
He expected Bucky to stay incoherent for hours (not days. Not forever. Dear God no, please), to be too weak to stand. But Bucky recognized him almost immediately, was able to walk in seconds and then to run. He insisted on marching in the front with Steve, despite the fever roaring beneath his skin, despite how he could barely sleep or keep his food down.
Steve had expected the fever because he'd seen it before. He'd expected Bucky to collapse, to tumble into delirium the way he had all the many times Steve needed healing. Steve expected that at best Bucky would be sent home to recover. He hated himself for how much the idea upset him, but he still hoped that would be how Bucky's war ended, nothing worse.
In his heart's core, Steve really expected Bucky to die.
None of that happened. Bucky stayed at Steve's side all the way back to camp, and then through the debriefings. He managed to duck and grin and lie his way around the mandatory medical exam and laugh and joke with the men whose lives he'd protected for weeks at the expense of his own. He went on leave instead of recovering in a hospital. No one mentioned sending him home.
It didn't make sense. Steve wanted to be happy Bucky was okay, but it was impossible. Something was very wrong, but Steve seemed to be the only one who could see it.
"Are you all right?" he asked, any time he could get Bucky out of earshot of the others.
Bucky just blinked at him, faintly puzzled, smiling like a lie. "Yeah, sure. I'm fine."
Bucky was always fine.
Until the night when he stumbled into Steve's quarters and fell into his arms, shivering so badly his teeth chattered. Steve could feel each of Bucky's bones.
"They're gone." He was in Steve's bed, fully clothed except for his boots. Steve was holding him and so hot under the covers he was sweating, but Bucky wouldn't stop shaking. "They're gone. I can't feel 'em anymore. I always could, before. Didn't matter how sick I got. But I can't anymore. They're gone."
"They'll come back, Bucky. They always came back before, remember? They'll come back now, I promise. It'll just take time."
"They're gone. I'm not an angel anymore. I can't feel them." Bucky was crying, the tears on his face were hot.
"Sure you are," Steve said immediately, trying to quell the panic in Bucky's voice. "Your wings'll come back as soon as your better. You'll see."
Bucky shook his head. "I don't mean my wings."
"Hey, I was jogging," the angel with the jet-black wings said.
Steve just widened his stance and crossed his arms. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't bullshit me. I know what you are."
The angel put his hands on his hips, lifting his eyebrows in mild challenge. "An Air Force veteran? A VA counsellor?"
Steve glared. There was no one else around but he leaned closer and lowered his voice anyway. "I can see your wings. I don't want another angel."
"I know you can see them." The angel quirked a little smile. "But you gotta stop thinking we're all here for you, man. Narcissism ain't healthy." He stuck out his hand. "Sam Wilson."
"Steve Rogers." He shook Sam's hand. Now he was feeling contrite, embarrassed and still angry, though Sam's geniality made it hard to hold onto. "If you're not here for me, why are you here?"
Sam's grin widened, but weariness crept in around his eyes. "Right now? To help save the whole damn world."
"What is this? Why are you doing this?" Bucky was on the floor of their living room, loose drawing paper scattered around him like leaves. One of Steve's sketchbooks was on his lap, two others open next to him. He had his hands on the sides of his head, fingers deep in his too-long hair as he stared down at the pictures. Early morning light spilled through the window behind him, turning him into a pillar of shadow. Every drawing was of Bucky with his wings.
"How long have you been here?" Steve hovered at the end of the hallway, heart kicking at his lungs. "Have you been in here all night?"
Bucky ignored him. "I don't understand." He looked back and forth between all the pictures. Most of them were in black and white from before the War, but the book on his lap was open to the picture Steve had drawn days ago, with Bucky's wings in wide, glorious red. He finally lifted his head to fasten his bewildered gaze on Steve. "Why are you doing this? Why do you keep drawing me with wings?"
There was nothing Steve could say that would make sense to an amnesiac angel; nothing to assuage the fear and confusion in Bucky's eyes. Steve's realization of how badly he'd fucked up made it hard to breathe. "You…" His throat was like sand. He swallowed and tried again. "You used to have 'em, Bucky."
Bucky blinked at him and then his mouth twisted almost like a smirk. "You're outta your mind."
"It's true." Steve went into the living room and crouched on the floor just outside the circle of paper. "You're an angel. Or, you used to be. You had big, beautiful wings the color of Peggy's lipstick. Remember that red? You're—you were my guardian."
Bucky burst into genuine laughter even if there was a thick rope of hysteria woven through it. He snatched up the sketchbook and spun it around, presenting the picture to Steve. "This is me as your guardian angel, Stevie?" His grin was full of teeth. "You know what I was doing when you were frozen all those years, 'stead of guarding you? I was murdering people. Torturing 'em. Killing little kids. That sound like a fucking angel to you? How about when I nearly smashed your face in on the helicarrier, huh?" He made a noise of rage and abruptly threw the book into the wall. The spine split as it fell, pages drifting like feathers. "Is this some kinda joke? You think I don't feel bad enough about everything I did, you gotta rub my nose in it?"
"No! It's not like that." Steve held his hands out though he was too far to touch. "I'm not joking. I'm not trying to make you feel worse. I'd never do that. It's true, Bucky. It's true, all of it. You were my guardian angel. I don't…I don't know what you are, now. If you're just human now. But, you were an angel. My angel. You died protecting me."
"I died because I was dumb enough to get trapped in a different train car," Bucky snarled. "I died because I couldn't hold your goddam shield well enough. I died because the fucking handle broke. I didn't die for you! I didn't have the chance!" He surged to his feet, fists clenched and chest heaving. "I didn't have the chance to die for you, and instead you killed yourself! You crashed that plane like some kinda idiot when you could've got away! You could've got away! You wanna know where your 'angel' was when you were freezing solid, Stevie? I was pissing myself in a KGB cell, begging them to stop hurting me. You understand that? Your angel got turned into a demon after he left you to die." He stalked across the circle he'd made, kicking drawings. He loomed over Steve with rage in every trembling line of his body. "I'm not your fucking angel. I'm a killer with so much blood on his hands he'll never be able to square it. That's what the red is. It's not wings, it's blood. I'm fucking covered with it."
Steve stood as well, never breaking eye contact. "That blood is on the hands of the people who tortured you, not yours," he said simply. He took Bucky's wrists because his hands were still balled up and shaking. "You're not a murderer and you're not a demon. You're my angel and I love you."
"No I'm not!" For a moment red light flared around him like a physical force, violently separating them.
Steve cried out and stumbled backwards, throwing his arms up to shield his eyes. He ended up sitting heavily on the floor. When he could see he found Bucky under the window, arms crossed over his ducked head like he expected to be beaten.
"I'm not. I'm not an angel. I'm a demon. Demon. Demon," he repeated like a chant. 'Demon' sounded like de-yay-mon. Obviously Russian.
"Oh, no. No, Bucky." Steve scrambled over to him then pulled Bucky into his arms. "No, you're not. You're not a demon, Bucky. God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry anyone made you think that. But you're not. You were never a demon. You're an angel."
Bucky shook his head mutely, clinging to Steve. "No," he said with horrible desperation. "No, I'm not. I'm not. Please."
"It's all right." Steve rubbed Bucky's back, tucked Bucky's head under his chin, rocking him. "It's all right, you're safe. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. Everything's all right."
"I'm not supposed to remember," Bucky said, like he was revealing a horrible secret.
"Fix him. Please, Peggy. You have to fix him."
Peggy stepped back from her door, wordlessly letting Steve and Bucky inside. It was late at night but she still looked impeccable in her uniform. Her wings hung half-folded on either side of her like a cape.
Steve pulled Bucky into her room after him. Bucky had walked to Peggy's quarters under his own steam, carrying himself like he was just fine the way he had for days. But he'd begged Steve not to take him, and he'd hovered outside Peggy's quarters as if all he wanted to do was bolt.
Now, Bucky kept his gaze averted until Peggy closed and locked the door. Then, to Steve's astonishment, Bucky dropped to his knees with his hands clasped like a man at prayer.
Steve stared between Peggy and Bucky, completely bewildered. Peggy stood with her hands on her hips, reminding him of how she'd introduced herself to the Project Rebirth candidates. "Bucky, this is Agent Carter. She's, uh, she's like you. She—"
"She's not like me!" Bucky hissed, then grimaced and dropped his head again. "I'm sorry, ma'am."
"Quite all right, Sergeant," Peggy said. "Please, do stand. I'm getting a crick in my neck just looking at you."
Bucky hesitated, then nodded and warily climbed back to his feet. Steve grabbed his arm when he swayed. If anything, Bucky felt hotter than he had before they'd walked here. "What do you mean, she's not like you? You're both angels."
Bucky shook his head, keeping his gaze on the floor.
"I'm a Power," Peggy said. "Sergeant Barnes is a Malak." She began to card her fingers through Bucky's hair. He gasped and shuddered, closing his eyes. Steve couldn't tell if it was in enjoyment or pain. "I outrank him. Considerably," she added, clearly for Steve's benefit.
"Can you help him?" Steve still had his hand around Bucky's arm, prepared to yank him away from her if it seemed like he was in danger.
"Yes," she said simply. Then to Bucky, "Brace yourself, Sergeant." She barely waited until he nodded before she took his face in her hands. There was a sudden flash of pure, white light, and then Bucky cried out and his knees buckled. Steve grabbed him around the waist to keep him from falling. Peggy pulled the chair out from her desk and Steve set Bucky down on it. He needed to hold Bucky by the shoulders so he wouldn't keel over onto the floor.
"What did you do to him?" Steve demanded. "Bucky! Bucky!" He shook him a little, then was so relieved when Bucky batted listlessly at him that Steve locked his knees so he didn't collapse himself.
"'M okay," Bucky slurred. His eyes were closed, his head lolling against Steve's arm. "Jus' gimme minute."
"I restored his strength," Peggy said. She ran her fingers through Bucky's hair again and he smiled faintly without opening his eyes. "His fever will break tonight, and he'll be well enough to keep carrying out his duty."
"Protechew," Bucky murmured. "Thankew, mam."
"You're welcome." Peggy smiled fondly at him.
Steve frowned. "He doesn't need to protect me anymore."
"Always," Bucky said.
Peggy gave Steve a look like she'd expected better of him. "He's your guardian. Of course he needs to protect you." She thinned her lips unhappily, still running her fingers through Bucky's hair. He turned his head to press his face against her thigh. "I wasn't able to restore his connection, I'm afraid. That's beyond my Sphere. But it will return on its own, in time."
"But it is going to return," Steve said, as if stating it outright would make it true. "He'll get it all back, including his wings."
"Yes he will, if given enough time."
Steve heard everything she said, and because of the serum he'd remember it for the rest of his life. But he was so relieved he didn't think about how she'd said, if given enough time. Like Bucky wouldn't be.
But the truth was, even if Steve had thought about it, it wouldn’t have mattered. Part of him was absolutely certain they had all the time in the world.
He was so certain that even when Steve was clinging to the outside of a blasted-open train car, Bucky reaching hopelessly for his hand, he was waiting for Bucky's wings to appear and save him.
He waited for Bucky's wings to save him until long after the man he loved dropped out of sight.
Sam flew with mechanical wings from the Air Force and his real wings folded tightly to his back. It was ridiculous but it worked, and Steve wasn't so foolish as to think Sam could've used his actual wings without anyone noticing.
Sam did use his actual wings, though. Not when Bucky ripped off one of the metal ones and kicked him off the helicarrier deck, but when Sam had been forced to choose between jumping out a window and burning alive.
He jumped, and used his wings to slow his fall so the helicopter could catch him. Steve had been fighting for his and Bucky's life at the time, and Sam had—wisely—not bothered to mention it.
Steve stared at Natasha, wondering if he'd had enough drugs to affect his hearing. "He jumped out of a window into a helicopter?"
"Uh-huh." She grinned, enjoying his amazement. "He could've flown the whole way down, but someone definitely would've noticed that."
"Yeah, I guess they would've," Steve said, still blinking. "I'm really glad he's all right."
"Me too." Natasha leaned back and crossed her booted heels on the end of Steve's bed. Her grin faded to a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I always hoped my angel would take me flying, one day." She shrugged, a tilt of her uninjured shoulder. "I never got the opportunity."
"I'm sorry," Steve said, meaning it. He found another smile of his own for her. "Maybe Sam will take you."
"He might," she said it like it didn't matter, but the way her eyes went distant made it clear that it really, really did. She shrugged again, the same dainty bob of a single shoulder. "I could ask."
"You should." Steve decided he'd ask for her, in case she didn't. The least he could do for his friend was give her the opportunity to fly.
"Did you, ever?"
"Did I ever what?"
"Go flying. With your angel."
"Oh." Steve looked out the window. It was a beautiful day, no sign of the damage on the other side of the river. Surreal, like nothing had actually happened. "No." He had to clear his throat. "No, I never thought to ask."
"Maybe you'll be able to." He could tell she didn't really believe it.
Steve didn't really believe it either.
"I didn't choose the emblem," Steve said. "They just, ah…" He gestured at the side of his helmet. "I think they're supposed to be, um, for eagles."
Bucky nodded distantly. He didn't lift his eyes from the dark blue jacket he held in both hands, gaze fastened on the gold wing.
"I'm sure I can make them change it. Maybe the shield—"
"It's fine." Bucky lifted his head but he couldn't quite manage a smile. "It's good. The gold is nice. I like it."
"I'm sorry," Steve said, meaning so much more than the stupid emblem. "If I'd known, I would've told them to make it red."
"I'm glad you didn't, then." Bucky tilted his head in a kind of shrug. "No point." For a fraction of a second his face was suffused with so much grief that Steve could barely look at him. And then Bucky smirked like it didn't matter. Besides." He stood, pulling his new jacket on. He gave Steve a dazzling smile. "I think gold's really my color." He turned to his right, put his left hand on his hip and tossed his head like a catalog model. "See? I'm a regular Sergeant York, ain't I?"
"You're beautiful," Steve said.
Bucky smirked again, no humor in it. "Yeah. Like a God damned angel."
They found Bucky in Germany two years after the helicarriers went down, with his left wrist stuck inside some kind of machine. His hair was still too long, but otherwise he looked…all right. Better, anyway. This wasn't the soulless killer from the bridge, or the terrified berserker from the helicarrier. He wasn't really Bucky either—not yet—but when he saw Steve his shock wasn't from fear or rage, but recognition.
Except he still didn't have his wings, and he couldn't see Sam's.
"Did you know?" Steve asked Peggy. He poured himself more alcohol, wishing to hell he could get drunk. Right then he would've carved his own heart out just for a few minutes without pain. He sniffed, wiped his eyes as he looked up at her. "When you helped him—did you know he was going to die?"
"Yes," she said, in that brutally direct way of hers. He'd always appreciated it before now. "Not how. But that he would."
Steve sniffed again. He could feel the rage simmering inside him, but he was exhausted with grief; pulling it out felt like too much effort. "So you could've told him."
"I could have." She righted a chair and sat in it. "It wouldn't've changed a bloody thing."
The glass bottle shattered in Steve's hand, coating his skin in dark red like blood and leaving a line of real blood across his palm. Apparently he wasn't too exhausted for rage after all. "You don't know that!"
"Of course I know that." She pulled out her handkerchief and balled it up over the deep gash he'd made. "Hold that." She folded his fingers over the cloth, then held his hand in both of hers. There was a flash of light and when she opened his fingers the cut was gone. She took her handkerchief back, but still held Steve's hand. "If I had told you a month ago, that you would die if you went with him into battle, what would you have done?"
Steve opened his mouth, closed it, and then gritted his teeth. He shook his head. "Nothing," he ground out, hating her because it was the truth. "I wouldn't've done a fucking thing."
"Exactly," she said, not unkindly. "Give your angel the dignity of his choice. We both know he damn well must've thought you were worth it."
Steve couldn't tell her that he wasn't worth it, that nothing could be worth this agony. So instead he said he was going after Schmidt, how he wouldn't stop until all of Hydra was either captured or killed.
Once, a country and a lifetime ago, he'd told Dr. Erskine he didn't want to kill anyone. But he'd had a guardian angel then, and a reason to be a good man. Now Bucky was dead, and Steve didn't give a damn anymore.
"You won't be alone," Peggy told him, spreading her wings. He knew she wasn't talking about the Commandos or the SSR. Nothing Earthly.
He was sure it was supposed to be comforting, but Bucky was dead and Steve didn't give a damn. He could go into battle with the entire host of heaven behind him, and it wouldn't make a difference.
He was already alone. He would always be alone.
"I'm not gonna fight you. You're my angel." Steve's shield tumbled to the river below his feet. He didn't think he'd see it again. He didn't think he'd come out of this alive. He probably should have cared more than he did.
"You're my mission," Bucky said, like he was tired of having to explain.
They were both exhausted, and Steve was fairly sure he was dying. He was absolutely sure they'd both die if they didn't get off the ship. But he let Bucky tackle him to the deck, let his angel hit him over and over again.
If Bucky didn't remember him…Well, Project Insight had been stopped. There was still Sam, and Natasha and the rest of the Avengers. They didn't need Steve anymore. If this was the end of the line, that would be all right.
When Steve told Bucky to finish his mission, he meant it. He was done. He'd been without his angel for four years. He didn't want to do it anymore.
He was only peripherally aware that the deck broke and dropped him into the Potomac like another piece of debris. But he was almost certain that the last thing he saw before he hit the water was Bucky diving after him, his wings wide and bright and red.
"Hey, Butch and Sundance. J is giving me some weird readings from—it's a bomb! Get out! Get out! Get out!"
Steve and Bucky looked at each other, then ran like hell back the way they'd come. The Hydra base had been a bust anyway, with no personnel and no relevant info. But now the signal they'd gone all the way into the bowels of the place to investigate made a lot more sense.
He knew even before the world blew into heat and light that they weren't going to make it, and unlike when he and Natasha had survived a drone strike there was no makeshift shelter to save them. All they had was Bucky's arm and Steve's shield, and that wouldn't be enough—
"It's okay. It's okay. You're safe. I got you."
Steve blinked open his gritty eyes. He and Bucky were on their knees, surrounded by the remains of the fortress. He was in Bucky's arms, held tight against his chest. They were both haloed in red light and Steve was wrapped in Bucky's wings.
"Bucky?" Steve pulled away, leaving his hands on Bucky's arms. Bucky's wings were still around him, strong and warm. His light tinged everything the color of a sunset. A cool breeze blew over Steve's face through the giant hole above them where the ceiling of the tunnel used to be. "Bucky. Oh, my God."
"Steve." Bucky's eyes were huge. He pulled his wings back, looking at them with a mixture of shock and a kind of fearful joy. "Steve. Steve, I don't…I—"
"Captain! Soldier! Are you all right? Answer me!"
Steve and Bucky both snapped their heads up at once. Natasha was on all fours looking down at them, white with astonishment.
"We're fine! We're fine," Steve said quickly. He put his hands on Bucky's shoulders. "It's all right, Bucky. They're you're wings." He laughed though there were tears in his eyes, his heart so full of relief and elation that it was almost more than he could bear. "They're your wings, Bucky! You got back your wings!"
Bucky turned his head from shoulder to shoulder. He ran his fingers along the spine of one wing. It twitched, then Bucky shivered. He blinked, looking at Steve. "My wings," he said breathlessly. "Steve. I…I can feel them. The others, they're there." His laugh was shaking, but his face was alight. "I can feel them."
Another huge chunk of the wrecked ceiling blasted away. Bucky gasped and threw his wings around Steve again, light flaring. But it wasn't the rest of the fortress coming down. It was Tony, hovering like an anxious mosquito. "What the fuck just happened? Why aren't you dead?"
"You almost gave us both a heart attack, that's what the fuck just happened," Bucky said to him. He sounded the same as he always did, but Steve was still wrapped in his wings.
"Well, you both just gave the rest of us heart attacks, can opener. So screw you."
"We're okay, Tony. Thank you," Steve said.
"Hence my, 'what the fuck just happened? Why aren't you dead?'"
Steve grinned at Bucky. "Guess I've got an angel looking out for me."
Bucky's grin wasn't quite as certain, but his wings were as solid and real as they'd ever been. "Yeah, I guess you do."
"Oh gag me," Tony said.
"Why are you still here?"
"Really? We're doing this again?" Sam let out a deep breath and sat up, wings twitching. The motel bed was cheap enough that Steve could practically see it sagging under Sam's weight; he was a little afraid to try his own. "You know I love you, man, but I'm still not your damn angel."
"I know," Steve said. He tried out a smile and was amazed he managed it. Things had been horribly uncertain since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. He was grateful to have a direction, even if all their attempts to find Bucky had so far been useless. He was incredibly thankful that Sam had agreed to come with him, too. But he still wasn't sure why Sam had, and he couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something. "But, you can't be here just to help me find Bucky. I mean, I'm grateful, believe me. But…why are you still here?"
"Oh." Sam's grin started slow, but it lit his whole face. "Well right now, I really am here to help you find Bucky. He's one of ours," he explained before Steve could ask. "And maybe we never forsook him, but, yeah. We do owe him. So I'm paying that back."
"And then what? Once we find him?" Not 'if'. Because they were going to find Bucky. Steve simply couldn't accept anything else. He forced a grin of his own. "You keep saying you're not my angel, but you're still following me around."
"That's only 'cause I do everything you do. Just slower." Sam chuckled at Steve's smirk. He stretched, wings spanning the room. One slid through the tacky art print above his bed and the other through the closed bathroom door. "But once we find your boy, I'll be able to scale it down a little. Go back to protecting one person at a time."
"Oh yeah?" Steve ruthlessly stamped down the jealousy. He already had a guardian angel, and he was alive and Steve and Sam were going to find him. All the same, it was nearly impossible to dredge up another smile. "Anyone I know?"
"I expect so," Sam said casually. "You did ask me if I'd take her flying."
Bucky didn't take Steve flying much.
It wasn't that he didn't want to, but Steve was both a little taller and a little bigger than Bucky was. Anything but a bridal carry was awkward and, well, a bridal carry was kind of awkward anyway.
Steve loved to watch Bucky fly, though. He'd sit with Clint up on the roof of the Tower, watching Sam soar with Natasha and Bucky fly on his own. Clint would bring beer and Steve would bring Tony's latest experimental vitamin water, and they'd laugh and whistle and catcall. And if Clint occasionally had tears in his eyes, Steve would either ignore it or put his arm over Clint's shoulders, whatever it seemed like he needed.
Today, Clint needed the arm over his shoulders; Steve was happy to oblige him.
"I know I don't need an angel anymore," Clint was saying. "I mean, we got Sam and Bucky—and Pepper—and the Avengers all look after each other. So, I don't need one. But…"
"But you miss him," Steve said.
Clint nodded, watching Sam whirl through the air with Natasha laughing in his arms. "Yeah," he said, voice cracking. "I miss him."
"I'm sorry," Steve said. That grief wasn't his anymore, though he could still remember the loss so intimately that sometimes it stole his breath. "But, you do have all of us. You're not alone."
You won't be alone, Peggy had told him. Steve also remembered exactly how meaningless those words had been, but he had nothing else to give.
Bucky dove for the roof like a peregrine intent on suicide, only to spread his wings and swing his legs down to land neatly on his feet. He grinned his thanks at the dripping bottle Steve tossed to him. He screwed it open and took a long drink, only to make a face once he got a real taste of it. "God, that's disgusting." He frowned at the label, then scowled at Steve. "I fucking hate black cherry. Asshole," he added when Steve just laughed at him. "Seriously, you're a dick." He recapped the bottle and tossed it at Steve's head.
Steve caught it easily, then drank the rest of it. "Black cherry's great."
Bucky shook his head. "Something is really wrong with you. Shove over." He sat down next to Steve, putting his arm around his waist, and stretched his closer wing out along Steve's back and then Clint's as well. He didn't react to Clint's gasp, or how Clint silently pressed himself right against Steve's side, so that Bucky's wing could more easily envelop him.
"Hey, Clint," Bucky said quietly. He was leaning against Steve's shoulder, and Steve could feel Bucky's breath gust softly across his chest. It was like a miracle: each puff of air was another bit of proof that Bucky was alive and himself and right there with him. His angel.
Clint looked at Bucky, wiping his eyes. "Yeah?"
"You're not going to be alone," Bucky said. Then, "What?" because both Clint and Steve were staring at him. "It's true." He patted his chest. "I'm connected, right?" He grinned with the same incredulous joy he always did every time he mentioned it. It made Steve grateful and a little sad. "So, I know this. You're not going to be alone. But…" His mouth quirked. "Yeah. You're not going to see it coming."
Pietro Maximoff had white hair and bright green wings and could run even faster than he could fly. He was also an arrogant, obnoxious little shit who introduced himself to Clint by knocking him over, and then nearly died a day later saving his life. Clint sure as hell never saw him coming.
Clint never stopped complaining about how awful an angel Pietro was, his terrible attitude, and how much nicer it would've been to have his twin sister Wanda as his guardian instead. Wanda had scarlet wings and actual manners and reasonable hair. Unfortunately for Clint she protected Vision, so Clint was stuck with Pietro. And complained about it. A lot.
Steve had never seen Clint so happy.
He knew exactly how that felt.