The nightmares were coming back. It had been two weeks since Bucky had gone back under. Probably almost to the hour, Steve realized, but he pushed the thought out of his mind and shook his head as he sat up in bed. It was late in the day, and considering how much he hated the nightmares it was borderline ridiculous how much he was sleeping. Waking up to the reality of Bucky being gone was worse than the nightmares, and it didn’t help that Bucky’s absence perpetuated them either. It was selfish of him, he thought. Bucky was right, he thought — of course. Best to let Bucky sleep it off, so to speak, until they figured out how to suck all of Hydra’s venom out of his system. If that’s even possible. Steve shook his head again.
He felt guilty, because he felt selfish, because he was lonely again. Bucky was right — but Steve had just got him back. And now Bucky was gone and Peggy was gone and he had gotten damn good at hiding how lost he felt living in a world where everyone who could actually relate to him was either dead or in a nursing home. That skill was waning, and being alone helped. Returning to his apartment in New York had helped marginally, at most enabling him to nurse his perpetually growing desire to stay in bed all day. He missed Tony, yeah. And he missed Nat and Sam. But if he tried to brush aside the aching pit in his stomach and the gap in his heart to which Bucky had so ephemerally returned, he’d go crazy. The others could go back to normal, let Bucky’s absence slide, but not him. He had no idea how Clint did it, leaving his wife and kids. Steve would have dropped his shield and never looked back, and jesus, he did, and he still lost Bucky.
Freight car. The nightmares were almost always in the freight car. And Steve felt selfish again, selfish that somewhere in him he was actually glad Bucky had fallen, glad because if Bucky hadn’t fallen and Steve had woken up from the ice to Bucky old, Bucky dying, Bucky in a nursing home and forgetting Steve’s name every time he walked in the room, Steve would have unraveled. And it was worse, too, thinking about the torture Bucky had endured at the hands of Hydra. Thinking about the fact that Bucky remembered killing Tony’s parents.
And Bucky still couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Bucky couldn’t do anything… not then, and he couldn’t now. But I can, Steve thought. I owe it to him, he thought. But he didn’t know where to begin.
Steve laid back down, turning his head into the pillow and willing himself back to sleep, to get out of reality and back into the nightmare of the battlefield.
He awoke to a pounding on the door. His head throbbed with each bang, and he swung back the covers and wiped his eyes and his forehead, his hair drenched in sweat. That damn freight car. I didn’t catch you then, Buck. But I’d catch you now.
“I’m coming!” he yelled, stumbling into a pair of jeans and out of his room to the front door.
It was Natasha.
“Oh,” Steve said when he opened the door. She raised an eyebrow.
“‘Oh?’ That’s all you got? After two weeks of being AWOL and I get an ‘oh.’”
Steve sighed, and opened the door wider to let her in.
“Right. Okay,” she said, her expression skeptical but wondering as she followed him inside and shut the door behind her.
“You gotta talk to me.” Natasha looked him hard in the eyes with that no-bullshit, firm jawline insistence she did so well.
“I’m sorry, Nat, really I am,” Steve replied, knowing he sounded weary but unable to hide it. “It’s been rough, after what happened, you know…”
“With Stark? Yeah, I get it. We all get it.”
Steve opened his mouth to say and Bucky but shut it and nodded. Best to leave it at that, because saying Bucky’s name wouldn’t do anything except make him want to shut himself in his room and go back to blocking out reality. Go back to that asshole freight car he hated so much and couldn’t leave. It wouldn’t solve anything. Bad move on his part, though — Nat took in his whole thought process like he had just narrated out loud everything that had gone through his head.
“Okay, here’s what I think.” Nat seemed resolute. Steve swallowed, his throat dry.
“You’re Captain America,” she began, and this time it was Steve who cocked an eyebrow.
“But — “ she continued, holding up a hand to show him she wasn’t done. “But, you’re not just Captain America. You’re Steve Rogers. You’re a soldier. You’re a World War II soldier and what that means is that you’re a World War II veteran, Steve. A vet. You’re the weirdest veteran alive but it’s still part of who you are.”
Steve was silent. He wasn’t sure what point she was trying to make. It seemed obvious that yes, he was a vet. So what?
“So what,” Nat continued as though she were responding to his thoughts again, “is that you’ve seen some shit and no amount of the me-time you spent frozen in a block of ice is going to help you get over any demons you’re hiding from the rest of the world. Like a normal goddamn human being.”
“Okay,” Steve responded, getting impatient. “So say you’re right. Prescribe me something to get my head to shut up. What do you honestly want me to do?”
“Just that,” she said wryly. “Well, no, not that exactly, but Steve…” She paused, looking up at him cautiously. “Steve, don’t you think you might have some form of PTSD you’ve never seriously addressed?”
He stared at her. The term wasn’t even as old as he was, how could he know? But she took his silence as an answer. “Okay, okay, sorry. Sorry if that was too forward. But Steve,” — she had that no-shit look in her eyes again — “I can’t help you, but you gotta do something about it. Talk to Tony or call him or — “
“It’s not about Stark!” Steve raised his voice, then shut his mouth quickly, but it was enough. Nat almost looked shocked, but she maintained her composure. A moment passed, and then —
“Bucky?” she asked.
Steve wanted to go to sleep. “Yeah, Nat. Bucky. Okay?”
“But Bucky’s not gone, and now that you know that — “ but Steve was shaking his head again, cutting her off with a sigh.
“Huh uh. No, just… I don’t know what you want me to say, Nat.”
“You don’t have to say anything to me,” she replied, her voice quieter. “But you have to do something, something for yourself.”
A silence fell between them. Natasha looked uncomfortable. Steve felt lost.
“PTSD, really?” he finally said. She nodded.
“If you don’t want to talk to someone right now, Google it or something okay? God, shut up, I don’t know!” she grinned as Steve laughed at her suggestion of him “googling” anything.
“Okay. I’ll “google” it. Who knows,” Steve replied. It felt good to smile. “Maybe I’ll find something.” She nodded, returning his smile.
“You gotta call me if you need help with anything, setting something up for you, a ride, it doesn’t matter.” Her voice was firm.
“Just… don’t get out of touch again, okay?” she implored. He ducked his head and thanked her, and she turned for the door. That was one thing he’d always liked about her. She got done what she needed and she didn’t feel the need to stick around, over-nurse the moment. They said farewell and he shut the door and turned back into the silence of his apartment, her words echoing in his head. He did need to do something. PTSD was a foreign subject to him, a relic of a, well, a newer time. It wasn’t something anyone his age would have thought about, it wasn’t an element of being a soldier then, at least not one that had a label. It was just suffering. But now…
Steve looked around the room. His eyes fell on his seldom used phone, tucked neglectfully away next to a stack of papers on his coffee table. Couldn’t he get Google on his phone? He was pretty sure it wasn’t just a computer thing. Worth a shot, he thought, grabbing it and keying in the phone’s passcode. The screen flashed on with a click, and his fingers brushed clumsily through the little square apps on the screen until he found the one he thought would do “internet.” Sure enough, the rainbow of Google letters flashed across the screen when he clicked on it and he tapped the search bar, carefully keying in letters for his search.
PTSD, his fingers said.
About 23,000,000 results, Google answered.
Steve frowned, and clicked on the search bar again. He tried PTSD medicine, PTSD therapy, PTSD memories. He rifled through Google, coming up with nothing that looked helpful, then —
Injection can ‘cure’ PTSD in Veterans, Google said.
Fox News, Google said. Steve was about to click away from it, having heard enough about avoiding Fox News, but a sentence in the link’s description caught his eye.
“The most marked improvement is in sleep — the nightmares going away,” the sentence read. Steve hesitated. Was it what he wanted? Sleep wouldn’t go away — just the nightmares, he realized. That was enough for him, and he clicked on the article.
A simple injection. 15 minutes, $1,000, apparently a lot of vets who had taken it had shown dramatic improvements. It was supposed to turned off nerve growth factor activity, activity related to massive stress and flight-or-fight reaction. Steve wondered if it could have any effect on him and the super-soldier serum pumping through his veins, but he scanned through the article and re-read the sentence about it helping with nightmares and made up his mind. It was enough. Nat was right, he had to do something. There wasn’t a damn person in the world who could empathize with him — except Bucky. Shut up, shut up! — so it seemed to him that medical treatment had just as good of a chance to work as therapy. Besides, he was an old pro, a really old pro, at the whole injection thing. He smiled, tired but resolute, and glad Nat had stopped by. He knew she’d support any decision he made. He exited out of the Internet and pulled up the keypad to dial Nat’s number. He could somewhat navigate his way through a smartphone, but he still wasn’t quite ready to give up memorizing telephone numbers. Given the surreptitious nature of his line of work, it came in useful sometimes.
Nat didn’t sound totally convinced, but just as he’d thought, she agreed his judgement was best and even offered to help him set it up before he had the chance to ask for her help. Within an hour of their phone call, she had gotten back to him with a time and place, and offered to accompany him. He gladly accepted.
The appointment was in a week. Evidently being associated with the Avengers had its perks, because Steve was pretty sure anyone else would have had to wait much longer than that, gone through background checks, the whole nine yards. It seemed rather amusing to Steve when he thought about the trouble he went through to get into the army. Now sometimes it felt that nothing stood in his way that he couldn’t mold into his favor. On the other hand, he got the feeling Nat could have set the appointment up for the next day, but deliberately chose not to, so that Steve could have time to think his decision over. But, if anything, the additional week just reinforced his longing for the injection. Yeah, he was looking forward to it, but the anticipation hadn’t stopped his nightmares or driven the thought of Bucky from his mind. A heavy sense of selfishness still pervaded his thoughts, nagging him that this wasn’t doing anything to help Bucky, but he knew his current state of gloomy stagnation wasn’t getting either of them anywhere. So when the day arrived and Nat pulled up outside of his apartment building with one of her jokes about him being an ancient historic relic, he was ready.
The process was simpler than Steve anticipated. His expectations for an injection process were alien to anything medically normal, and the absence of the straps on the side of the hospital bed along with the fact that nobody shot his doctor after the process was complete was darkly amusing to him in the context of his reignited memories. The examination pre-injection was simple as well, the doctors hiding their amazement at his vitals as they moved on to inquire as to what were the worst elements of PTSD that he experienced.
With neither hesitation nor specifics he answered that it was the nightmares. It was because of this answer that upon completion of the injection the doctors requested that Steve allow them to sedate him briefly to test whether the nightmares had disappeared. Steve was surprised.
“Just like that?” he asked. “You think they’ll be gone?”
The answer seemed more hypothetical than empirically grounded. “Past procedures were proven successful when the patient was exposed to his source of stress and demonstrated an involuntary lack of a PTSD-induced reaction,” one doctor explained. “For you, if it is true that sleep in any form serves as your main trigger of the nightmares, then it may be plausible that inducing sleep will demonstrate success or failure of the injection.”
Steve was not completely convinced, but it didn’t seem to be a bad suggestion and he agreed that it was worth a try. The doctors had to triple the amount of sedative needed to fight off the super-soldier serum, but eventually he felt himself dozing, falling…
Steve screamed —
snow whirled around the freight car and Bucky was gone, Steve was yelling his name but he was gone —
the rails were shaking, the ground was shaking, someone was shaking him —
“Steve. Steve!” Someone was shouting his name. Steve’s eyes flew open to see the doctors standing around him, their eyes filled with concern and… fear? He wasn’t sure. But he was angry. The injection didn’t work and he’d wasted his time. He tried to sit up in the hospital bed but the doctors stopped him, encouraged him to lie back down. Angry and upset, Steve didn’t want to comply, but he didn’t want to fight, either. Bucky falling was seared in his mind, his skull pounding as Bucky’s screams echoed through his head and Bucky’s eyes stared into his soul, projected in his brain as if they were on a movie theatre screen. He screwed his eyes shut harder, trying to block out the image.
A moment later, he heard Nat’s voice. She entered the room and hurried to the side of the bed, laying a hand on his cheek and asking him to open his eyes. Unwillingly he obliged, shaking her hand from his face as he did.
“It didn’t work,” he said, his voice curt. She looked disappointed, and there was sympathy in her voice when she spoke.
“They told me they sedated you. Who knows if that’s a good reflection of the injection’s effect on you? Maybe natural sleep will give you better results. Sedatives can have unexpected effects on the body.”
Steve looked up at her, dejected, but realized while she was talking that he did feel different. There was something…
“I don’t want to sleep,” he said suddenly. Nat paused to give him a chance to talk, but it was all he had to say.
“I don’t want it. That’s different, that’s a change for once.” He considered for a moment, then just repeated himself.
“Yeah, I don’t want sleep,” he told her. I want Bucky back.
Steve didn’t sleep until late that night when his eyes would no longer stay open. He wasn’t wrong that the injection had affected him, but he was dismayed when he awoke just a few hours later in the morning drenched in sweat from the nightmares that, evidently, had not gone away. He was even more dismayed to find that the person banging on his apartment door this time was not Natasha, but of all people, Tony Stark.
“What the hell is wrong with you? PTSD? Seriously? Why wasn’t I notified?” Tony was pissed but, miraculously, Tony was there. The two men sat in the living room over a couple mugs of untouched coffee and Tony took his sweet time laying out his grievances.
“So Nat told you, huh,” Steve said begrudgingly. He couldn’t blame her. They all knew Tony had struggled, Steve no exception.
“Yeah. Yeah, huh, she did,” Tony said, his voice mocking but to Steve’s relief, his tone harmless.
“So… are we gonna talk, after… or…?” Steve shot him a sideways glance.
“Oh, after you tried to kill me and threw your shield down like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum and stormed out with your long lost Nazi grandpa buddy? What were you wanting to talk about?”
Steve ducked his gaze, but felt a stab of anger inside of him. “You know I did what I had to do, to protect him, Tony.”
“Hey, listen, if you really want to be a guinea pig for shitty PTSD cures, why don’t you try out my virtual therapy experiment I’ve got going. Sure, it hasn’t helped me get over the fact that my parents were murdered, but maybe it’ll help you with — “
“Enough!” Steve shouted. He lowered his voice, and spoke again. “Enough. Look, I’m sorry. And I’m sorry it was Bucky. Okay? Buck knows it’s awful, don’t you get it? It’s why he volunteered to go back under, until everything can be sorted out.”
“But you won’t even tell me where they’ve got him because, oh that’s right, I’m the crazy one.” Tony stood up. “Come on, Steve! You know what happened! He’s a ticking time bomb with a ten-goddamn-word-long passcode that sets him off!”
Steve was getting impatient. “I know. And so does Bucky! He told me himself he thinks it’s safest for everyone that he’s out of the action until we can figure out a way to fix that!”
“So what’s the big plan, hmm?” Tony rolled his eyes. “Whatever it is, you can’t hole yourself up in here forever. You’ll keep coming up with shit ideas like, injections of ‘PTSD-be-gone!’”
“That wasn’t my idea, it was Google,” Steve replied dumbly, and Tony barked a laugh.
“Okay. Okay, cool. I’m leaving. Good to see ya, pal.” Tony showed himself out before Steve could stand up.
Steve rubbed his eyes and sunk back into the sofa. Maybe Tony was right, maybe the notion of turning his problems on and off was ridiculous. He leaned back into the cushions and turned on his side, staring at the light switch on the wall next to his bedroom door. He probably needed to face his problems, but Tony was the last person to whom he was gonna admit that. Turning off his nightmares like a light switch. If only it had worked. Just flip! and they’re gone. Flip…
Steve bolted upright. Oh my god. He had a realization and didn’t have a moment to lose if he was gonna catch Tony before he was gone. He swung open his front door, leaving it ajar in his wake, and ran down the stairs after Tony. He made it to the street, shouting Tony’s name and looking wildly around for Tony’s car, spotting it just as Tony was about to drive off.
“Stark!” he yelled. “Wait!”
The look on Tony’s face was incredulous. “What does the Captain need now?” he mused.
Steve caught his breath. “You can help. I mean, maybe, you can help.” Steve raised his eyebrows. “I mean, if you think you’re up for it, if you can handle it.”
Good play. Tony was interested. “I can handle anything. Specificity apparently isn’t your strong point.” Tony basked in his stupid comment for a split second, and Steve let him.
“Elaborate?” Tony asked.
“The injection they gave me — " Steve began.
“Oh, gimme a break,” Tony cut him off, rolled his eyes, and gunned his car’s engine.
“The injection they gave me can cure Bucky.”
Tony let his foot off the pedal. He took the keys out of the ignition and the car went quiet, the noise of the busy street a blurry backdrop to the silence between the two men. With an eerie calm, Tony opened the door and stepped out, walked smoothly up to Steve until he was within inches of Steve’s face, and spoke quietly without missing a beat.
“That son of a bitch killed my mother. He can rot in hell for the rest of time and I don’t give a shit what you want.”
Tony was back in his car and was gone. Steve hadn’t moved a muscle. The tail of the car disappeared around the corner and Steve turned, dejected and defeated, back to his apartment building.
It was to his surprise that the next day his phone rang, and Tony turned out to be on the other end of it.
“Hello?” Steve said with forced casualty as he pretended not to recognize the number that had flashed across his screen.
Tony was silent. Then — “Okay.”
“Okay… What? Stark, what?”
“Okay, fine, you ass, I’ll help you.”
Now it was Steve who was silent, his voice faltering, but before he could respond Tony spoke again.
“Nat asked how it went, and apparently I told her a hell of lot more than I should have because here I am on the goddamn phone with you.”
Steve breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re gonna help with Bucky?”
Tony groaned. “Yes, yeah, just shut up and get over here and get me the details.”
“Stark, I — " but before Steve could speak, the line clicked.
It was late afternoon by the time Steve reached Stark Tower, the sun glinting off the building's paneling as dusk approached. As Tony guided Steve to one of his labs, Steve wondered if Tony actually could help. After all, Tony was no medical doctor, and he certainly wasn’t a psychotherapist. He voiced his concerns to Tony, who just scoffed.
“The human body is a machine, the brain is an engine, do you need any other bland metaphors to convince you I’ve got this?”
“No,” Steve replied. “But I could use your support.”
“Nat may be forcing me to help you out, but that’s not gonna translate to any type of sappy kiss-and-make-up reunion between me and your pal Bucky.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I’m not asking for it to, I’m just saying…” but he left it at that. No need to push Tony, at least for now. It appeared that he turned out to be wrong about Tony not knowing what he was doing, too. He gave Tony his medical papers and Tony tossed them up onto some invisible screen, drawing up a myriad of formulas and lists of numbers and chemicals as he waved his hands lazily through the air, in complete control of his minimalistic technology. Steve could do little more than stand back and watch Tony work, amazed at how effortless everything appeared but at the same time keenly aware that any compliments would do Tony’s ego no good. The last rays of sunlight were disappearing from the windows when Tony finally stepped back.
“Almost done. Easy.”
“Easy what? That’s it?” Steve blinked in surprise.
“Well, almost easy. Easy for everything on my part. Actually kinda surprised I’d never heard of this type of medicine being applied to psychological maladies before. Maybe the fact that it didn’t work for you is why I haven’t heard of it.” Tony smirked. Steve rolled his eyes.
“Then again, Bucky’s problem is in his blood, not his brain. I mean, technically, duh, yeah it’s in his brain, but you know what I mean. Hydra’s poison. And it’s way easier to apply this to his problem than I would think it’d be to a trauma victim. Worth more research though. Also, by the way, the last step I can’t complete without access to Bucky.” Tony shot him a sideways glance.
Steve sighed. He knew it’d come to this. “I figured,” he told him. “You’re my friend, Tony. And I trust you.”
“After everything.” Steve forced himself not to hesitate.
“What if I’m planning on poisoning him,” Tony stated more than inquired.
Steve winced. Tony shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Stark.” Steve’s voice was quiet.
“I am too,” Tony murmured. “It’s gonna take me a while, and I’m not gonna want to be around him.”
“And I’m not gonna say I overreacted in Siberia.”
“I won’t ask you to.” Steve’s reply seemed to surprise Tony.
“Really?” Tony asked. “Not gonna throw your shield down like a baby?”
“No,” Steve said patiently. He wasn’t going to get this wrong. He’d play all his cards right and let Tony drill him for the rest of their lives if it meant getting Bucky back.
“One question though — can Nat come?”
“Why the hell not.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Let’s invite everyone to the World War II super-soldier reunion.”
Steve was quiet. He felt Tony looking at him, waiting for a response. Steve forced himself to maintain composure.
“Of course she can come, Rogers,” Tony said. Steve caught his gaze and nodded.
“Thanks,” he replied.
The flight to Wakanda seemed to last forever. Natasha snored loudly in the seat across from him, and Tony was nodding off too, his laptop perched precariously on his outstretched legs. Steve had to hand it to him, the jet was comfortable, but he was also getting used to fighting off drowsiness for prolonged periods of time to avoid slipping back into the nightmares. He’d found that the injection had not taken away his ability to or need for sleep, but instead had taken away his desire for it. All he wanted now was to get to Bucky and occasionally he questioned if his lack of desire for sleep even had anything to do with the injection.
He checked his watch and groaned. It would be at least three more hours before they arrived. T'Challa was expecting them, wary of the sudden amends between Steve and Tony but willing to accept Tony’s arrival if it meant resolving Bucky’s situation. It had been a week since Tony had declared he’d help Steve, who still wasn’t exactly sure what Nat said to him but decided to leave it alone. His eyelids drooped, and he leaned his head against the window of the jet, feeling the smooth rumble of the engine against his temple. Just a few minutes couldn’t hurt…
This time he could see Bucky hit the water. He could see his body crack against the rocks. Steve was yelling when Nat shook him awake.
“I’m making this work like a virus,” Tony was explaining. They stood with T’Challa in the Wakandan treatment facility’s lab — a wall, a door, and a cryogenic chamber was all that was separating them from Bucky.
“Not only is it gonna shut off Mr. Barnes’ reaction to his ten activation words, it’s gonna spread through his system and cyclically eliminate the chemical processes enabling that reaction to replicate itself. Give him this injection, and…” Tony hesitated for a moment, but then snapped his fingers and finished with, “just like clockwork.”
Steve caught Tony’s reticence. “Really? No strings attached?” Tony started whistling, I’ve got no strings, to hold and stopped abruptly at a withering look from Natasha.
Steve persisted. “Really, Stark, anything?”
Tony sighed. “Okay, yeah, there’s one thing that has to happen.”
Steve felt his stomach drop slightly. “What’s that?”
Tony looked at him warily. “Nat said the doctors sedated you to test whether the nightmares stopped. Simple testing of a hypothesis, of course, but we gotta do the same thing here. We gotta… test it.”
Steve’s jaw dropped. “Test it? Like say the words to him?! He’s not a lab rat, Stark! We’re not gonna torture him, let alone make him relapse!”
“Well you don’t have a choice.” Tony crossed his arms. Steve did too.
“Ladies…” Nat warned them. T’Challa looked cautious.
“If you want your Bucky to be in ship-shape for the super soldier nursing home, I gotta give him the words and see how he responds.”
“No, you don’t!”
“Steve!” Nat raised her voice. “Maybe he’s — "
Steve cut her off, but lowered his voice. “No. You don’t.” He sighed, and closed his eyes. “I do.”
Natasha, T’Challa, and Tony all three stared at him.
“If anyone’s gonna do it, it’s gotta be me.”
Nat looked as though she was going to say something, but closed her mouth and nodded. Tony nodded as well.
“I hate to say it, Cap. But you’re right.” Tony looked from Steve to T’Challa, who swallowed and said, “Shall we?”
Everyone seemed hesitant. Steve felt wide awake, despite the little sleep he was running on.
“Come on,” he said, and they opened the door to the room of the cryogenic chamber. Steve caught his breath at the sight of Bucky, frozen in the chamber, his face otherwise peaceful despite the thin veil of frost outlining his features. He looked beautiful, and for a moment Steve felt reluctant to pull him out of his sleep, wrench him back into a world in which he was forced to remember the atrocities he committed. The injection would stop him from relapsing in response to the ten activation words, but it wouldn’t wipe his memories. Selfish. Steve shook the thought from his mind with a rough jerk of his head. He could feel Natasha watching him. Tony and T’Challa were already at the cryogenic chamber, flanking it on each side to prepare the unfreezing process.
Lights on each side of the machine flickered to life as they began the procedure, the ethereal veil of ice slipping from Bucky’s face. The process was relatively quick, and Steve moved to the front of the chamber as Bucky’s body regained mobility. He opened the door of the chamber and caught Bucky gently under his arm and the metal cap covering his bare shoulder, as Bucky’s body went limp against him. Nat came to Bucky’s other side and together she and Steve moved him out of the chamber and towards the front room, where a hospital cot had been prepared for him. They lowered him into the sheets and stood back as he turned slightly and then was motionless, as though he were simply in the middle of a deep sleep.
“Do you think he’s going to object to this?” Nat whispered.
Steve shook his head. “He knew I wouldn’t wake him up until I had a cure for him. It’s what he wanted. Besides, he’s not even gonna understand what the treatment is based on. Psychological trauma of war and PTSD wasn’t something boys like us focused on, Nat.” He glanced at her. “Soldiers were welcomed home warmly, but… hero’s don’t get to have emotional baggage. Doesn’t fit the type,” he said almost bitterly. “At least, it didn’t then. I guess things are better now.”
Natasha nodded. “I mean, look at you,” she replied. “That injection experiment you found is why we’re here. And it’s out there because people care more now about the suffering of soldiers.”
“Normal soldiers,” he clarified. “Normal soldiers who weren’t… brainwashed into murdering innocent people.” He looked up to find Tony watching him, a sadness in his eyes that was almost frightening in how uncharacteristic it was.
“We fought a whole war against normal soldiers who were brainwashed into murder, Steve,” Tony said softly. “It’s humanity. Or maybe inhumanity.”
“Maybe there isn’t always a difference,” T’Challa said.
“Bucky’s different,” Steve responded. “We’re talking literal brainwashing.” To his surprise, Tony nodded.
“We should start the injection before he fully regains consciousness,” Tony said, skirting a direct reply to Steve’s remark. “It’ll spread much more efficiently.”
As with Steve, the process did not take long. It felt surreal to watch the injection, and Steve’s stomach twisted at the thought of Bucky being tortured at the hands of Hydra, enduring literal decades of pain that no amount of medical treatment could ever undo. Steve was thankful the process was over so quickly.
“It’s going to be a few hours before he wakes up,” T’Challa said. “It might be best if we leave him be.”
Everyone except Steve nodded. He would stay until Bucky woke up. He couldn’t let Bucky wake up alone in a strange place. The others seemed to understand without further explanation, and left the two of them alone.
Steve pulled up a chair next to the cot and rested his elbows on the edge of the covers, watching Bucky’s chest rise and fall as he slept. They sat in silence for a long time, Steve’s mind clearing as the minutes passed. He relished the moment.
“There’s so much I’ve wanted to say to you, Buck,” he finally whispered. “So much I never thought I’d get the chance to say.”
He swallowed. “Every night after I thought you died. Praying it had all been a nightmare and that I’d wake up and you’d be there with me. And now, every night…” Steve closed his eyes. “Every night. The nightmare of losing you, haunting me. I wake up and you’re gone anyway.”
Steve opened his eyes and looked at Bucky, who slept on as peacefully as ever. This was a conversation that Steve desperately needed to have when it wouldn’t be one-sided.
“But we’re gonna fix this. I’ll wait for you, Buck. Wait for you to wake up. And please don’t be mad at me for what I have to do.” He was nervous that the treatment wouldn’t work, just as it had not worked with him, but the redeeming element this time was Tony Stark, to the least of Steve’s expectations. Steve wasn’t worried about Tony, not now with Natasha and T’Challa there. But he was anxiously ready to see whether Bucky’s treatment would be successful.
T’Challa was right about it taking a few hours, but Steve didn’t shut his eyes once. There was no way he was gonna risk it now, and his stomach was knotted with mixed feelings of worry and delirium. The sleep deprivation was exhausting him but the anxiety was like a barrier to sleep, his mind refusing to shut down his thoughts to a point where he could calmly doze off. The sensation hovered in and out at various levels of nausea, but Steve was glad to take nausea over the image of Bucky falling from the freight car. When Bucky finally stirred, Steve’s worries crescendoed sharply for a moment before his eagerness overcame them. He considered calling in the others, but couldn’t rip himself away from the moment as Bucky’s eyes fluttered open.
“Steve,” Bucky said. It wasn’t even a question. He smiled. Steve beamed. Sleep deprivation be damned, he thought, feeling wide awake again.
“Hey Buck,” he said, his voice more cheerful than he could have expected. He couldn’t stop grinning. Bucky gave him a weird look, still smiling.
“What’s so funny, you dolt?” Bucky said, and for no reason the two of them were in hysterics all of a sudden, doubled over with laughter. Steve laid his head on Bucky’s stomach and Bucky ruffled Steve’s hair.
It took a moment for Steve to regain his composure, mostly a result of his realization that Bucky was going to need an explanation for why they’d brought him back. Thinking of that reminded Steve of what he needed to do, and he sat up, not smiling anymore. Bucky gave him another weird look, but this time it was of concern and confusion.
Before Steve could respond, the door opened and Natasha, T’Challa, and Tony entered the room. Bucky bristled at the sight of Tony, who was avoiding eye contact.
“Steve, what’s going on,” Bucky said.
“Alright, listen,” Steve turned and looked at him. “We’ve found a way to cure you. It’s a medical procedure, we actually did the first part before you woke up.”
Bucky looked at him warily. “And? Is it gonna help, with…?"
Steve nodded. “We hope so. It involves turning off some activity in the brain that occurs when…” Steve glanced at Tony for help, who still was avoiding looking directly at anyone in the room. Steve cleared his throat. “Occurs when you hear the ten words that force you back into… compliance.”
This was harder to talk about than it was to explain. Bucky was staring at him. “But…” Steve continued. “But, we gotta make sure it… worked.” He forced the last word out, feeling again like it made the whole situation resemble a lab-rat experiment, but to his surprise, Bucky nodded.
“So you gotta give me the words,” he murmured, his voice shaking slightly. He was so goddamn brave. Steve’s heart felt like it could break.
“Yeah, Buck, we gotta try.” Steve hesitated, but added, “I gotta try. I said I’d do it. I thought maybe it’d be… easiest on you.”
The room was silent as everyone waited for Bucky to respond, who nodded again. “If it works, then it works,” he said.
Steve nodded quietly.
Bucky looked him in the eyes. “And if it doesn’t work… then you think you saying it would make it the least traumatic for me.”
“But what if instead it makes me fear the person I care about most?”
Steve froze. No one spoke. The silence felt like it lasted forever, but no time passed before Bucky was grinning again.
“Well hell, Stevie. What are you waiting for?”
Steve loved him.
The tension in the room eased up and Natasha said, “We should stay in here in case things get out of hand.”
Steve started to protest, but Tony nodded in agreement and spoke for the first time since entering the room. “Come on, Rogers, you gotta at least restrain him. There’s straps on the cot.”
“He has one arm. And breaking one of these straps would be as easy as ripping a piece of paper for him!” Steve argued. “What’s the point?” He turned and looked at Bucky.
Bucky’s expression was cold, but he shrugged. “It’s probably worth the risk, and if something… happens, they’ll have time to come back in,” he mumbled, a hint of misery in his voice. That did it for Steve.
“Okay, we’re wasting daylight.” He was getting impatient. “You guys just wait outside the door, okay? Any sign of trouble and you’re back in here, easy enough?”
T’Challa, Nat, and Tony nodded, somewhat begrudgingly. They left the room and shut the door behind them. Bucky laid back down in the cot and Steve strapped him down.
“I’m sorry, Bucky,” he said bitterly.
“No need,” Bucky replied, his voice soft.
“There’s every need,” Steve said quietly. “I’m sorry for everything. That I didn’t pull you up from that freight car. That we didn’t go back to look for you, that Hydra got you and tortured you and that I can’t take away — “
“Well goddamn, Steve, I’d rather hear the ten words than listen to you bullshit about something you couldn’t have prevented!” Bucky shook his head incredulously.
“Come on,” he said, quieter. “Let’s do this.”
Steve nodded, and gulped as he pulled a crumpled sheet from his pocket.
“Back up, will you,” Bucky whispered.
Steve’s heart ached, but he moved to the opposite side of the room from the cot. Bucky was propped up in the straps, his face flickering with fear.
Steve cleared his throat, and read the first word.
“желание.” Longing. He looked up at Bucky, whose eyes were wide.
ржaвый. Rusted. Семнадцать. Seventeen. Рассвет. Daybreak.
Bucky stared in horror at Steve, who desperately wanted to stop.
Печь. Furnace. Девять. Nine. добросердечный. Benign.
Steve felt that he was going to be sick, but realized that other than the wretched expression on Bucky’s face, nothing was happening.
возвращение на родину. Homecoming. Один. One.
грузовой вагон. Freight car.
Steve fell silent. Bucky stared blankly.
“Buck?” Steve said cautiously.
“It’s like looking in a mirror, at the bottom of hell.” Bucky’s voice was a whisper, and there were tears in his eyes. “But it’s okay. Somehow…”
That was all Steve needed. He was across the room and next to the cot in a heartbeat, not bothering to undo the straps like a proper human being and instead ripping them from their bases just as the others had feared Bucky would do. Bucky was shaking, and grabbed Steve’s shoulder with his one hand, clinging to it. Steve paused for the briefest moment, laying a hand over Bucky’s,
Their eyes locked; their minds clicked. It had nearly been a century. There was desperately no time left for waiting any longer.
Steve leaned over Bucky, rested a knee on the edge of the bed, took Bucky’s face in his hands and kissed him. Bucky moved his hand from Steve’s shoulder to the nape of Steve’s neck, pulling him deeper into the kiss and holding him there for a moment before their lips parted, their eyes closed as they took in the moment, foreheads pressed together and heavy breaths filling the silence. Steve slid down against Bucky’s chest and Bucky pulled him in to a tight embrace with his arm, holding him as though he would never get the chance to again.
Steve buried his head in the nook of Bucky’s neck, breathing him in, his head clearer than it had ever been in his life, before the ice, before the war, before the serum. “I legitimately thought at the end there that it didn’t work,” he said, his voice shuddering.
Bucky clung to him tighter. “I couldn’t move,” he whispered, “I was terrified, Steve.”
“I could tell,” Steve mumbled into Bucky’s neck, but then pulled himself back up into Bucky’s view. “But Buck, I was with you, you know.”
Bucky nodded, finishing Steve’s thought. “To the end of the line.”
They pressed foreheads their together again, and merged back into a kiss, slow and firm, drawn-out and steady. Steve felt like he could have stayed there for the rest of his life.
There was a knock at the door. The two of them opened their eyes, and Steve sat up abruptly. He turned to look at the door, then back at Bucky, who was grinning again like a goddamn idiot. Steve snorted, and suddenly they were doubled over with laughter again, still in hysterics when the door opened and T’Challa, Natasha, and Tony re-entered. Judging by the looks on their faces, laughter was the last thing they were expecting.
Steve wiped his eyes. “All clear,” he said, and saluted the trio. Bucky howled with laughter.
The flight back to New York was quieter than Steve expected. Tony and Bucky were not making eye contact, though they had managed to make civil conversation throughout the remainder of the stay in Wakanda. Nat was asleep again, but she had seemed more thrilled than anyone, and Steve wasn’t surprised. She had always managed to remain if not neutral, at least friendly to all of the Avengers, no matter what tension crackled between them.
After what had felt like hours of flying over the Atlantic, Tony got up and moved to a back room of the jet. Bucky watched him go, then turned to Steve in the seat next to him. Steve just shrugged.
“It’s alright, Buck. It’s gonna take some time. But things are looking up.”
Bucky nodded, but seemed somewhat unassured.
“Come here,” Steve said, nodding his head towards the window, “and look at the water.”
Bucky moved closed to him, following his gaze to the endless stretch of ocean that seemed so calm from so far above.
“I crashed in the Arctic somewhere north of here. Promised Peggy a dance.” He looked wistfully across the expanse of waves.
“Thought it’d be the last thing I’d do,” he added. Bucky rested his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “Thought I was gonna see you again, Buck.”
“We both fell, huh,” Buck replied.
“I wanted so badly…” Steve’s voice caught in his throat. Bucky sat back up and pulled Steve against him, holding him. Steve sighed and shook his head, reclining back in the seat and into Bucky’s embrace, his head resting on Bucky’s shoulder.
“I just wanted to catch you, Buck,” he whispered. “If you fell and I could have saved you… I just wanted to catch you.”
Bucky kissed Steve’s hair, and rested his cheek there after a moment. “If you’d saved me then, we wouldn’t both be here now.” Steve nodded into Bucky’s shoulder.
“And you got your chance. You got your chance to save me and you did,” Bucky murmured.
“I owed you one.” Steve replied, voice muffled in Bucky’s shirt, and Bucky laughed softly. Steve smiled, and yawned. He was exhausted; he was content. He closed his eyes and pressed himself closer to Bucky, who held him firmly there, and drifted into sleep with the gentle hum of the jet and in the comfort of Bucky’s presence. No nightmares came.