There’s a click and a hiss, and the whole mess comes undone.
The sound resonates over the concrete walls and Steve breathes in, exhales, tries not to focus on the brief flashes, the recollections, flitting through his mind —
— he’s in the Alps, he’s reaching through the biting snow beating at his hand, he’s cold, he’s not quick enough, and Bucky’s falling. The cold spreads —
— and hits him like a blow to the gut; but it’s warm now, and the warmth spreads, thick red blood spilling over his fingertips as he tries to plead, tries to remind Bucky who he is as the world erupts around them —
And then he’s back in the present, and he can barely believe it’s real. He watches with morbid fascination as the cryo chamber steams and deactivates; tries to subdue the anxious churning in the pit of his stomach as it all happens too slow and too fast, all at once. He’s not ready and he’s never been more ready.
He wonders, in the back of his mind, how many times he’s still going to have to let Bucky slip through his fingers, how many more times he’ll be forced to watch him disappear.
Sam stands a few feet behind him, giving him space in a gentlemanly display of consideration, radiating pure support as only he knows how to. He knows Steve, and Steve’s attachment to Bucky, and he understands.
The ice sheet slips away and Steve aches for a scrap of paper and a pencil, craves to immortalize the first glimpse he gets of Bucky’s face (not a camera: too garish, and it wouldn’t be the same, somehow). It’s almost grotesque, the whole idea — Steve knows, but he can’t halt his thoughts running rampant. And it’s a childish longing, perhaps; too sentimental for his line of work.
But he wants to remember, he wants to be able to look back and feel the pounding of his heart, tearing through flesh and bone, reverberating through the walls and shaking him to his very core. He wants to remember this, like he remembers —
— Bucky grunts, dropping to the ground in a tangle of tired limbs, grime plastered to his sweat soaked skin. His hair sticks out every which way, decorated with a mess of wayward twigs from whichever forest they navigated through to cross the Austrian border.
“You never listen, do you, Steve?”
Bucky is grinning, cigarette between his teeth as he fumbles with a lighter. He exhales smoke and Steve files the image away (sketches it later, when Bucky’s fast asleep and Steve can’t quite stop his heart from racing).
“We never would’ve made it out if I made a habit of followin’ rules.”
Bucky laughs, lifts his fingers to the cigarette (two hands: real, warm, human). His eyes are bright, sparkling, and then —
The chamber jolts and hisses and Steve, eternally steadfast and unwavering, flinches like a frightened child. He can sense Sam reaching out, then thinking better of it and withdrawing his hand. Steve wants him to know the sentiment is appreciated, but can’t find it in himself to tear his gaze away from the temperature on the display: rising, rising, rising —
— Bucky’s eyes rise to meet his own and Steve sucks in a breath through gritted teeth. They’re not the empty blue shells he stared into on the burning hellicarrier, nor are they the eyes of Sergeant James Barnes, 107th.
“You used to wear newspaper in your shoes.”
They’re the eyes of someone who’s trying to remember how to smile, to recall how it is to be alive —
Sam doesn’t speak and Steve doesn’t know if that’s what he really wants: if he prefers the suffocating silence, or needs a distraction.
Too slow, it’s happening too slow. He wants to see Bucky now, wants to break into a run and grab him by the wrist, pull him along and keep running; wants to keep running until they’re alone, until Bucky’s safe and they’re together. He wants to tear apart anyone who’s ever laid a finger on him.
“You got it bad,” Sam quips eventually, and Steve cocks his head to glance behind him. Sam leans against the far wall, arms crossed over his chest, and smirks. Steve tries to mirror the expression and fails: too strung up to smile, to move a single limb, too anxious to think of anything that isn’t Bucky.
He snaps back to attention as the chamber beeps once, then twice. The light on the control panel flashes green and Steve can feel his blood pressure rising, his heart lodging somewhere in his throat.
And it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion: watching the safety locks unclasp, steam rising from exhaust valves. Steve stares on, transfixed, like a curious onlooker too jarred to react.
His thoughts race, his heart trashes against his ribs.
The final hatch dissipates.
Bucky looks tired and well-rested all at once, eyes fluttering open as he takes a gasping breath. His right hand wraps around the steel bar at his side, the empty socket motionless where his other arm should be. It still jars Steve, seeing Bucky this vulnerable.
Steve’s nostalgic moment of hesitation lasts a few seconds at most and then his legs are moving, across the concrete and towards the chamber, the blood rushing in his ears suddenly the only sound in the room. There’s an overwhelming feeling of clarity as he steps closer, a dawning realization so vivid it hurts.
Bucky’s eyes flit upwards and widen — in surprise, recognition, a spectrum of other emotions Steve thinks he may be projecting. His breath comes in erratic bursts like he’s only just getting used to the feeling of having air in his lungs again.
The distance between them closes and Steve cradles Bucky’s face between his hands and presses a punishing kiss to his lips, tugging him closer, away from the locks and restraints. Pulls Bucky against his chest and vows never to let him go again, never to let him slip out of his grasp. He vows to do everything he’s been given this second chance to do: everything he'd been too scared to do before.
Bucky gasps against his lips and lifts his hand to Steve’s waist, wrapping his fingers in Steve’s shirt like it’s the last thing keeping him grounded, like the air from Steve’s lungs is the only oxygen left in the world and it’s what’s bringing him back to life.
A breathless shudder passes between them and Steve pulls away, realizing he hadn’t quite given Bucky a chance to collect his bearings since he’d been called back to consciousness. Though, Steve finds he doesn’t regret it: immediately smothering Bucky with unbridled affection, regardless of how his actions would be interpreted.
And yet, he pulls away and Bucky doesn’t stagger back, doesn’t frown and demand an explanation. He twists his fingers into Steve’s shirt to keep him close, and laughs, clear and bright.
His voice is unsurprisingly hoarse from disuse, but Steve’s certain he’d be alright if it were the last thing he was ever to hear in his life.
“Let a guy thaw out, would ya, Steve?”
There’s a snicker from the back of the room that Sam doesn’t even bother to conceal — not when he’d been rooting for them to get their heads on straight from the moment he'd realized Steve would put his own life in jeopardy just to keep Bucky safe (and not nearly as covertly as he’d thought, however: it must have been something about his comments on Steve’s lonely, loveless, melodramatic life that gave it away).
Bucky doesn’t quite jump at the unexpected presence as he does half-roll his eyes, shooting Steve an exasperated glare for his entirely overdramatic grand romantic gesture. Steve, who crashes through walls like it’s less work than turning a knob, all for the sake of theatricality. It’s all the more endearing, in the end.
Steve allows himself this indulgence, tugging Bucky closer once more, looking at him as if he would never tear his gaze away again. He pointedly ignores Sam’s amused presence, making a mental note to send him a gift basket someday, to apologize for all the touchy-feely Bucky related nonsense he’d had to witness over the years he’d spent at Steve’s side.
But, he can’t be bothered to think about anything else now, not when the entire world is melting away and the only thing Steve knows for sure is that he’d do this all over again, given the chance. He knows that if he could go back in time, stop Bucky from falling, he’d pull him back aboard the train and crowd him against the wall, pressing kisses over every inch of his skin.
He’d go back in time and do everything all over again, the right way.
“Promise me one thing, Buck,” Steve murmurs under his breath. “Promise me you’re not gonna leave again. You’re not gonna disappear. I can’t let you — ”
His voice breaks, breath hitching with something alike to a sob, and he bites down on his lip to force down the embarrassed flush creeping up his neck.
“I won’t go,” Bucky says. His fingers tighten against Steve’s body like he’s trying to cement his oath. “Don’t let me go again.”