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Miracle Max

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Steve stands in Bucky’s apartment in Bucharest and feels a strange mixture of pride and despair.

The pride comes from the knowledge that Bucky is trying to be a person. The evidence is scarce but unmistakable; the stash of candy and junk food that is piled on top of the fridge indicates that Buck still has a sweet tooth the size of the Empire State, and the knowledge is like glimpsing the sun through a crack in grey winter clouds; the row of shelves made from cinder blocks and rescued planks which holds a strange assortment of junk that is arranged neatly, like they’re treasures. Steve doesn’t spare much time to look, but his brief glance registers some hair ties, foil gum wrappers that are folded neatly into little origami animals, a glass marble, and a small broach that is missing some rhinestones, but which sparkles prettily in the dim light filtering through the newspaper covered windows.

The despair washes over him when he looks at the small mattress with the sleeping bag and stained pillow (Steve’s sheets at home are probably a sin they’re so soft, and Bucky only has a worn sleeping bag; the sad nest means Bucky probably sleeps though, or tries to, and that’s good, Steve reminds himself), the mildewed walls with torn wallpaper, the chipped dishes, but worst of all the little book nestled away under the piles of candy. Steve opens it, scanning the rows of Buck’s neat handwriting, but is unable to parse the sentences that seem to be in English yet make no sense. Code perhaps, or maybe Bucky went insane.

In the middle of the book Steve finds a pamphlet from the travelling Captain America exhibit, the one that Steve had gone to shortly before everything went to shit. Before he learned that Bucky was dead in the ways that mattered most.

Mostly dead is slightly alive, Steve thinks. Sam had made him watch Princess Bride in the aftermath of all of that, insisting on giving Steve his guest room and mothering him, and it hurt and helped in equal measure. Steve had entertained revenge fantasies after that, thoughts of storming the scattered Hydra bases and screaming “My name is Steve Rogers, you killed my Bucky, prepare to die.”

Mostly dead is slightly alive, and maybe with a miracle…

Lost in maudlin thoughts (always so dramatic) Steve almost misses the small creak in the floorboards that Bucky makes to announce his return. Steve turns quickly, a flash of guilt passing through him as he notices Bucky’s eyes dropping down to the journal that is still clutched in his hand.

Bucky.

His hair is still long but it’s clean. He hasn’t shaved but he doesn’t appear ungroomed, managing to look more like a rock star than a vagrant. Steve’s greatest fear was that Bucky would be malnourished but Bucky appears healthy, like he has managed to gain weight. Bucky steps towards the counter and places a small bag of plums on top, gazing at Steve with trepidation but no animosity. No hatred.

Steve allows a small curl of hope to bloom in his chest.

“Do you know me?”

Such a simple question and yet Steve knows that no matter how Bucky answers it’s going to be devastating. If Bucky doesn’t know him it will feel like a knife in the gut. If Bucky does know him, has known him the entire time and never reached out to him, it will be a fucking grenade in his chest. Steve can see Bucky considering his answer and knows the truth before Bucky even opens his mouth.

“You’re Steve… I read about you in a museum,” Bucky says, his eyes dead and his mouth curled down sadly.

Fucking liar, fucking goddamn liar, you son of a bitch, Steve doesn’t say. He’s so mad that under normal circumstances he’d gladly beat the shit out of Bucky until the truth came welling up with the blood. But time is extremely limited and Steve has to get Bucky out of here before he gets put down like a rabid dog. He sucks it up and plays nice, but he’s saving the yelling for later. Bucky is gonna get the fucking lecture of a lifetime.

“I know you’re nervous,” you lying shit, “and there’s plenty of reasons to be, but you’re lying. You know me.”

Bucky tries to deny it but Steve doesn’t have patience. Sam is on the roof, scouting for activity. A traffic situation is working in their favor and the tactical vehicles carrying the strike force are caught behind a couple of very convenient accidents. Steve knows it’s bought maybe five minutes. They have to move, but Steve has to know.

“You pulled me out of the river. Why?”

“I don’t know…” Bucky won’t meet his gaze and Steve clenches his fist.

“You’re lying.”

Bucky says nothing and Steve bites his tongue hard.

“Get your stuff, we have to leave before the strike force gets here. They’ve been ordered to shoot you on sight,” Steve says.

Bucky nods and swallows, “That’s smart,” he murmurs and Steve wants to hit him again. “Good tactic.”

“Now,” Steve growls. Bucky marches over to one side of the kitchen, punches through the floorboards, and retrieves a black backpack. He takes the journal from Steve and tucks it into the front pocket.

“How much time?” Bucky asks, following Steve out the door and into the stairwell.

“Minutes, maybe,” Steve says, and in the interest of getting out of the building quickly and efficiently, vaults over the bannister and lands a couple flights down. He hears Bucky curse gently before following, landing heavily beside Steve. They get halfway down the building before Bucky grabs Steve and drags him towards an exit that leads to a balcony.

“Better if we avoid the ground. Civilians,” Bucky explains, and then takes a running leap over the balcony, landing about forty feet below. It’s Steve’s turn to curse, but he follows immediately. Sam’s alert comes seconds later, the strike force finally reached Bucky’s nest, but Steve and Bucky are already three rooftops away. 

~*~

Sam considers himself to be a patient man. You have to be when you’re friends with Steve Rogers, who is the biggest fucking drama queen in the world. People don’t know that about Steve and Sam doesn’t tell ‘em. Knowing secrets about Captain America would make his thirteen year old fanboy spontaneously combust with pride, but now? People that know Steve, really know Steve and not the shiny Captain America “Steve” that is brought out for strangers and television, know that Rogers is frustrating as hell. It’s not that cool.

Sam knows that Steve is smart, he knows that Steve has common sense and a fine tuned self-preservation instinct. It’s just that Steve has decided that he really, really wants to be an idiot instead. Usually when Barnes enters the equation. And Sam is helpless, because Steve is Steve (Sam pretends it’s about Captain America—he knows that that’s just a cover, though; Sam and Steve would have been soulmates even if Captain America had never existed, and Steve had just been a simple guy). Sam will follow Steve into hell, because Steve doesn’t know how to give up; Riley didn’t know how to give up either, and Sam wonders what it says about him that he devotes his life to saving people who live their lives playing a game of chicken with God on a daily basis. Probably nothing good.

So, when Steve asks for Sam’s help in tracking down the sullen faced Winter Soldier Sam prepares himself to watch Steve burn. Sam will stay in the fire with Steve because Sam is stupid too and he loves Steve too much. They’ll both be consumed by the explosion that is Bucky Barnes and then Sam will drag them out again. He’ll piece Rogers back together. They’ll figure it out.

Sam is not prepared for Bucky to be coherent and cooperative.

Rogers and Barnes waltz into the abandoned warehouse that’s acting as a temporary base of operations. While it’s currently vacant, it shows signs of recently being colonized by teenagers, drug addicts, and giant fucking rats, which Sam is having a real hard time dealing with. Shoot at him, rip his wings off, stab him, but don’t make him deal with rats.

Sam tries really hard not to reach for a weapon because he wants to do right by Steve but his hand drifts down anyway and Bucky is immediately reaching for a weapon of his own. Sam’s only human and this guy fucking threw him off a helicarrier.

“Stand the fuck down,” Steve says, looking at both of them. The uncharacteristic use of profanity has the intended effect of shocking Sam and Barnes out of their mutual hostility. They relax away from their weapons and focus on trying to kill each other with their minds instead.

“Buck, this is Sam,” Steve says, gesturing towards Sam.  “Sam, this is Buck.”

“What, you want us to shake hands or somethin’, Cap?” Buck says, raising an eyebrow. “I tried to kill him. I don’t think he appreciates you pretending like I’m not a fucking threat.”

“You’re not a threat,” Steve says immediately.

“The hell I ain’t,” Barnes says at the same time that Sam says “The hell he ain’t.”

Steve makes angry noises at Sam but Sam thinks that Bucky looks gratified that Sam has agreed with him.

“Your friend is smart,” Bucky says, finally, and that shuts Steve up. Olive branch. Barnes seems to be trying. Fucking hell, Sam can’t leave him hanging.

“Yeah, well, someone has to be the brains in the operation. It sure as hell isn’t Steve,” Sam says. Barnes smirks and tension drops immediately. Sam knows that Barnes might be deadly but he’s definitely Barnes and not the Winter Soldier. At least for now.

“Oh, great, now I’m gonna get it in stereo,” Steve groans.

“I thought you wanted us to play nice,” Barnes says, flicking a stunning grin at Steve. Oh man, Sam thinks. Steve is grinning back, dazzling and young in a way that he’s never been before, but then his expression darkens. He turns his back on Barnes and walks away, into the back room that they’re sleeping in. Barnes frowns after Steve but doesn’t follow.

Sam rocks back and forth on his heels, wishing he could follow Steve but knowing he shouldn’t. Steve is feeling emotions and it’s best to let those storm clouds pass in solitude. The man can be such an asshole when he’s processing stuff and Sam’s pretty certain there is a lot of stuff to process. The fact that Barnes obviously knows him is a double edged sword that Steve is probably repeatedly impaling himself on.

“Sooo…” Sam says, raising an eyebrow at Barnes. “You’re… not as stabby as I thought you’d be.”

Barnes’ passive expression goes even blanker somehow and Sam worries for one second before Barnes barks out a laugh.

“Yeah, well, these days I’m tryin’ to resolve my conflicts with words before resorting to violence,” he says. Great, he’s a smartass just like Steve.

“You hungry? I got some leftover sarmale,” Sam offers.

Bucky nods as he lowers his bag, opening the top and fishing around inside. The worry creeps back under Sam’s skin until Bucky straightens and hands him a bag filled with seven perfectly ripe plums. They eat in silence, ignoring the sound of Steve breaking things in the other room.

~*~

It’s not that Bucky didn’t want to reach out to Steve. The part of him that is Bucky wanted nothing more than to go home and home is Steve. Home has always been Steve. But Bucky isn’t the only person in his head. He’s also the Asset and some third thing he doesn’t identify. His brain is like a fuckin’ iceberg and the part that he’s aware of versus the shit that’s barely staying under the surface...

The serum in his veins has been healing his mind, returning memories in dribs and drabs. It was jarring at first but he feels less and less alarmed the more he gets used to his mind piecing itself back together. He dutifully writes down new memories, does research when he can to try and verify the memories that are worth verifying, and ignores some of the memories that are better left alone. The rest of the time he just… lives. Maybe not as well or as fully as people who weren’t hollowed out, but he’s doing it. He’s making himself a person again.

He’ll probably never fully remember everything but he doesn’t feel pity for himself. He’s practical enough to know that he’s got more than he could have hoped for.

The part of him that is Barnes, Catholic and human, wants to feel guilt.

The part of him that is the Asset is like a blind man given sight and set before the ocean—freedom is confusing, frightening, so epic, but… he’d kill a million people for this feeling, this new sensation that is overwhelming and addictive.

God, Barnes had forgotten chocolate. He’d forgotten the taste of beer, honey, sex warmed skin. The sound of music (Jazz in a smoky bar, a choir at a church he attended briefly in Italy, and even the tepid jingles that accompany commercials). It feels like he’s been reborn.

In the past two years he’s lived so much, embracing hedonism like a cherished friend. Embracing hedonism the way he wants to embrace Steve but can’t.

He didn’t lie, really, when he tried to say he didn’t know Steve, didn’t remember him really. He does and he doesn’t.  Bucky changed but Steve changed too. Even before he fell from the train there was tension, jealousy, and something else weighing down on him, making their easy friendship difficult and awkward. It wasn’t just because of the outside changes, which were shocking enough. Steve changed inside too. Before, Steve had been just as angry and directionless as Bucky. It was them against the world. But Steve had a purpose now, a steady drive that focused the anger and left Bucky feeling wrong footed and alone. Steve was gonna save the world and Bucky was just along for the ride, a side kick when he was used to leading. It rankled.

And then seventy years. A lifetime. Yeah, Bucky was asleep for a lot of it and the times he wasn’t asleep was mostly spent being emptied out and used, but he’s still been awake longer than Steve. He’s done more, seen more, been more. He’s a different person. Hell, he’s three different people, most days.

Bucky is a misanthrope but he’s trying to be human. He knows that Steve is probably still alive because of Sam so he’s trying to keep his hostility in check. The part of him that is still The Asset knows how to keep his captors happy and that’s what he’s relying on right now. Muscle memory is keeping him from being overly offensive, allowing him to read Sam’s mood enough to keep up a mindless conversation about Romanian cuisine. Almost pleasant.

Steve has gone quiet in the back room and Bucky is resisting the urge to get up and make sure Steve hasn’t hurt himself. Steve is a real asshole when he’s feeling things and Bucky doesn’t think he can handle it right now. He doesn’t know how to comfort Steve anymore.

Sam seems to sense the drift in his thoughts and turns to look over his shoulder at the doorway that Steve disappeared into an hour ago.

“He’ll probably sulk for another hour, give you a loud ‘lecture’ followed by a gentle hand on your shoulder, and then it’ll be like nothing happened,” Sam says, turning back. Bucky snorts.

“Nah, not this time,” he says. “This ain’t gonna be fixed with a fight. I don’t think there’s anything to fix, which is the problem.”

“You remember him, though,” Sam says, frowning.

“Yeah, I remember everything, but… we’re different people now. I don’t know how to be his friend,” Bucky says, wondering why he’s talking to Sam about this.

“It’s not that hard,” says Sam, smirking at him. “You rescue him when he gets himself into trouble, you yell at him when he’s being dramatic, and you clap him on the shoulder when he gets choked up. Rest of the time, you talk shit to him, and call it good. He’s simple.”

Bucky laughs but it hurts a little. “Yeah, I don’t know if I can do any of that anymore.”

“Well, if you can’t he’ll still follow you to the end of the earth, Barnes,” says Sam, leaning forward. “I’m gonna say this once, and you’re not gonna repeat it to anyone, ever.”

Bucky nods, unconsciously mimicking Sam and leaning forward.

“I love that man,” Sam starts, and something twists inside Bucky. “I wasn’t doing well, before I met him. I didn’t admit it until… until later, until I saw how I was with Steve and how I was before Steve. He brought me back to life, gave me a chance to be the self I still wanted to be. He’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole. I was mad at you for a long time for hurting him, breaking his heart. Still mad at you. I don’t like you, because… because Steve looks like a kicked dog every time you come up in conversation. But he smiled at you, when you were talking shit to him, and it was like that part in Wizard of Oz where everything goes from black and white to color. You did that, man. You made him look like that.”

Bucky can’t look at Sam anymore, his eyes drift to the floor and he sits back.

“The thing about Steve is that you don’t even have to try, Barnes. Whatever you are, whoever you are… Steve wants you with him. Maybe you are different, maybe you aren’t really Barnes, but Steve saw enough to drag your sorry ass outta that place and bring you here. If you’d been someone else, I think he would have saved you still, because he’s Steve, but he wouldn’t be so angry. You followed him. You know him. He knows you. It’ll be enough.”

Bucky can’t say anything so he grabs another plum and concentrates on the taste and texture, escaping into the spark of pleasure that starts on his tongue and tingles into his jaw and along his scalp. It’s tart and sweet, and better than the bitterness he feels. He doesn’t hate Sam, can’t hate someone that loves Steve so much, but he sure as fuck resents him. Resents whatever he has with Steve, even if he won’t let himself think about why.

A movement at the doorway drives a spike of adrenaline through Bucky’s chest but he calms down when he sees that it’s just Steve, finally done with sulking. Sam turns and pats the milk crate next to him, inviting Steve over.

Steve looks like shit. He’s been crying and his knuckles are bloody. Sam hands him a plum and Steve bites into it savagely, very carefully not looking at Bucky. Bucky rolls his eyes, affection and irritation mixing together, and realizes that Steve might not have changed that much after all. Sam is right about how it’s going to play out. Sulking will lead to yelling will lead to a gentle hand on the shoulder and an assurance that… 'til the end of the line. Bucky can’t handle hearing it. If Steve tries to say it, Bucky’s going to punch him in the mouth.

“Plums are good,” Steve says, licking juice off his bottom lip.

“In season,” grunts Bucky. He dives into his bag again and pulls out a bar of chocolate, breaking off a piece for Sam and a piece for Steve.

 It’s nice to have something to share with people, he finds, and the feeling sparks a memory from during the war. A little girl in a small town in France had given him a bag of boiled sweets and Bucky had shared them with the commandos around the fire that night. Everyone had been so delighted, so Bucky started trying to make sure he had something nice to give the boys as frequently as possible. Just little things to keep spirits up.

He grabs his journal and dutifully writes down the memory, and the event that triggered it. He’s filled four journals this way and someday he’ll take them all out and line up the memories and try to see if he can make sense of his life. For right now he’s just trying to gather all the pieces.

He can feel Steve staring at him but he ignores the feeling. He’s not going to make eye contact, because that will be the opening for Steve to start yelling at him. He’s not going to look. He’s not.

He looks up, drawn into the gravity of Steve, like always. Steve holds his gaze, blue eyes filled with anger and other emotions. He opens his mouth and Bucky winces internally, but then Steve drops his gaze, mouth closing in a firm line.

“I’m gonna walk the perimeter, make sure we’re good, and then I’m gonna get some shut eye,” he says quietly, standing up and leaving before Sam or Bucky can say anything.

“Hm, that’s probably not good,” says Sam, echoing Bucky’s thoughts out loud.

~*~

Tony knows he’s pretty fucked up because he’s a smart man. He doesn’t do anything about it because he’s also a stupid man. He tried talking to Bruce once, because he trusts Bruce, but it didn’t really help. Bruce insists he’s not “that kind of doctor”, but Tony can’t go to “that kind of doctor” anyway, so it should have worked. Whatever.

Tony allows himself to miss Bruce for a moment, feeling the pain in his chest where the arc reactor used to be.

He walks a tightrope daily over a chasm of issues that threaten to drown him should he fall. The precarious balance he maintains comes from the strength of the family that he has with Pepper, Rhodey, and the Avengers. But he also carries a complete set of family issues (mint in the box), so it’s not great that his main coping mechanism relies upon a system that he doesn’t trust, a concept he can’t truly understand.

When Pepper asked to take a break the Avengers kept him above water long enough to claw his way back up out of the pit.

But now…

Steve. Fucking perfect Steve, with his perfect teeth and his moral compass that is never really called into question. Why is Tony always the one that has to defend himself? He knows that Natasha has sided with him against Steve because she has a thing about appearances. He knows she wants to tell the UN to fuck off as much as Steve does, but Tony is still grateful for anything he can get. He’s grateful for Vision back at home, keeping Wanda safe. Grateful that Clint stayed out of it, even if it hurts to think about never being on the field with him again.

He just wants to keep his family together. He couldn’t save his parents but he has a chance to save Steve and the Avengers and instead Steve turns and runs away to save Barnes. The man who shot Steve three times and beat his face in, that shot Natasha years ago, that tried to kill Fury twice (and Tony hates to admit it, but Fury is part of his family too—like a very weird, very grumpy, potentially immortal uncle that Tony loves anyway. Seriously, end of the world you’ll find Nick Fury trying to order the cockroaches around).

The only thing Tony really wants is a family but it’s like the universe keeps telling him no. No, Tony. You don’t deserve it. Well, maybe he doesn’t deserve it but he still wants it and he doesn’t know how to do anything except try to get what he wants. Usually with minimum efficiency and maximum casualties.

Fuck, he never does anything right. The wave of self-loathing takes a couple seconds to stick in his throat and accelerate the beating of his heart.

So, he’s going to try to save Steve even though Steve is an idiot because Steve is… Steve is the closest thing besides Rhodey to a brother that Tony has. Someone that he can hate and love in the same moment, someone that he knows he can trust beyond a shadow of the many, many doubts that plague him, someone that understands who he is. Tony wishes he could go back to a moment when he hated Steve but it’s not possible. Steve is family, forever, and even though he’s breaking Tony’s heart, Tony will sacrifice everything for him if it really comes down to it.

“Barnes wasn’t at his apartment,” Natasha tells him as she walks in.

“Guess we spooked the spook?” Tony quips.

“Or Steve got there first.”

Tony grimaces but that’s probably exactly what happened.

“I hope he’s happy,” says Tony, and even he isn’t sure if he means that sarcastically or genuinely. Natasha gives him a look but doesn’t say anything.

“I hope not,” says Thaddeus Ross, stalking into the room. “If Steve is assisting a wanted criminal, the wanted criminal, than we need to consider issuing a kill order for Rogers too.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warns Tony. He notices Natasha running a finger over her wrist and wonders if she’s got a hidden weapon. He frowns at her and she smiles at him.

“No, I don’t want to do that,” agrees Ross. “But if the UN decides that Rogers is a threat…”

“I’ll get Rogers on board sir, and I’ll get Barnes,” Tony promises. He’s going to clean this mess up, he’s not going to lose his family. He feels the beginnings of a panic attack and hopes that Ross is nearly done trying to threaten and posture.

“You better. You have 36 hours to bring them in before I have to assume Rogers is a fugitive aiding Barnes.”

“Sure thing,” Tony nods, and thankfully Ross leaves.

Panic swells as soon as the door is closed and Natasha walks over and helps Tony get his breathing under control.

“Tony, we’re going to get through this. You’re going to get through this. Steve is going to get through this. We always find a way,” she says.

Steve finds a way,” Tony gasps, and they both know it’s true. Tony is a genius when it comes to some things (most things, really), but tactics? Politics? Paying attention to the mundane details? That’s all Steve. Beyond that, Steve knows how to inspire people. Tony can lead people along a train of thought, painfully explaining each detail until they arrive at the conclusion he made light years ago. But Steve can make them think on their own, get them to come up with out of the box ideas that make the difference between eating shawarma as a team at the end of the day and burying an Avenger.

“We have to try anyway,” Natasha says. “I’m not going to lose my family.”

And Tony thinks maybe she didn’t just side with me ‘cause it was easier, and the thought that Natasha needs the Avengers as much as he does, that they’re both orphans who want a family… Tony feels a little less like he’s drowning and he grasps upwards, climbing back up to his tightrope.

“What’s the plan?” she asks, once Tony has stopped hyperventilating.

“I don’t know. I don’t fucking know,” Tony says, but it doesn’t make him panic. Tony will do anything to save his family. They’ll figure it out together.

~*~

Helmut Zemo allows himself five minutes to seethe when he learns that Barnes and the Captain have disappeared. Barnes is essential to his plan. Zemo cannot fail; he made a promise.

Five minutes elapse and then he calms down instantly, allowing the molten rage to cool back into the iron of his will. Success is the only outcome possible and he knows that he has the one thing every “villain” that has attempted to destroy the Avengers lacks: conviction.