Deciding to go back in the ice is easy.
Telling Steve is harder.
Bucky waits one day, two. Watches Steve watching him like he's afraid Bucky will disappear when he's not looking.
(He has before. He might again. He's not sure, yet.)
Finally he's curled up on the couch in their living area, a nature program playing quietly on the television and Bucky hasn't heard a word of it, and he hears Steve before he sees him.
"Hi," he whispers, because it's late, and Steve peels out of the dark doorway, sits down next to him.
"I don't do that so well," Bucky admits, and knows it's time. "Steve. Stevie. You know what I'm gonna tell you."
"You don't have to do this," Steve says, and Bucky thinks he'll probably hear that again before he goes under. "You're safe here."
"I know," Bucky says. "Yeah, Steve, I know I'm safe. You know what I'm gonna say, though."
"I do," Steve agrees. "Don't make it any easier." Bucky doesn't say anything to that, just looks down at the back of his hand, and then at the screen. Closes his eyes, and thinks about the shape of waiting.
"There are things can live in ice," he says eventually, tilts his head toward the tv. "You know that? Organisms that are so sturdy they'll survive freezing for a hundred years."
"Not quite a hundred," Steve mutters, and Bucky smirks.
"Near enough," he says. "It's not forever, is my point, right? I'll survive. You can watch over me, and all."
"Like Snow White," Steve says, maybe earnest or maybe a little snarky, and Bucky frowns.
"Yeah, okay, jeez, you don't have to wake me with a kiss, or anything," he teases, and Steve actually even blushes. "Snow White, Jesus, Steve, you're not ten years old. The point is, you'll figure it out, and you'll wake me up." If he doesn't think too hard, he can almost believe it. He thinks, maybe, that Steve actually does. Bucky's just tired of thinking at all.
"This is shallower cryosleep than you are used to," T'Challa's scientists tell him solemnly the next day. "You may experience residual brain function."
"You mean I'll be aware?" Bucky asks, and tries not to panic.
"No, James Barnes," T'Challa says. "They are saying you might dream."
"Oh," Bucky says, and doesn't know how he feels about that, but it's too late to change his mind now. Steve's eyes look like he's losing something deep, and Bucky doesn't want to look (except he has to. He has to. He chose this, he can hold Steve's gaze one last time.) "Well," he says, "I guess I'll see you later," and leans back in the tube, and closes his eyes.
The ice is gentler this time. Superior Wakandan science, or maybe it's just that they care about him as a person and not a weapon to file away in cold storage. Bucky feels it creep up the back of his neck, darkness as easy as falling asleep. It's peaceful, is his last thought before the glass closes. Perhaps Snow White felt the same way.
When he opens his eyes, it's to Steve sitting in the grass in a park. There are rays of sunlight picking out individual glints of gold in his hair, and he has a crown of daisies, lopsided over one ear.
"You've got flowers in your hair, you mook," Bucky mumbles, and leans over to straighten them. Steve's hair is very fine; it catches on the stems of the flowers, on Bucky's fingers, and he has to go carefully to avoid breaking the looped chain. His fingers are warm, and Steve sighs a little in what sounds like pleasure when Bucky strokes his hair smooth.
"Yeah," Steve agrees, "you put them there, remember?"
"I did?" Bucky asks, a little confused, and tries to remember the daisy-chain of events that's resulted in this golden-soaked afternoon. His hands, left and right, gathering up flowers. Splitting the stems deftly to make the links. His left thumbnail is tinted a little green. He lays back in the grass, looks up at the sky. It's very warm, and Bucky feels so peaceful, and he wonders what it'd be like to roll over until his cheek is pressed against Steve's knee.
Far off, there's the sound of birds, and then a child shouting, the soft noise of a bicycle bell passing. "Central Park," he says, or remembers, "we came here one summer, right?" He hadn't put the flowers in Steve's hair, just made the loop and left it lying in his lap. Let it fall to the grass when they'd got up. "This isn't real," he says, and has a moment of panic, "this is-"
"What's not real?" Steve asks, still smiling, and when he turns his head to look down at Bucky, his eyes are so blue Bucky wonders if he's stolen bits of the sky.
"Well," Bucky says, "for starters, you got big, buddy." Steve looks down at himself, and shrugs a little, muscled shoulders moving smoothly, and then lies down next to Bucky, their hands just brushing.
"You got me on that," Steve says, "want me to go back?"
"Nah," Bucky murmurs like it doesn't matter, and in a careful act of bravery he links his little finger against Steve's. "Anyway, mostly what tipped me off is Central Park never smelled this good back when we still burned fucking coal for heat." Steve laughs, eyes crinkled closed, and slides his hand properly into Bucky's, squeezes it a little.
"Okay, so it's not real," Steve says, his voice a shrug like it doesn't matter. "Why are we here, then?"
"I dunno," Bucky mutters, "it's just a dream." Steve rolls toward Bucky, props himself up on one elbow, reaches over and flicks Bucky in the forehead. "Ow! What was that for?"
"It's never just a dream," Steve says solemnly, "come on, why'd you bring me here, Sleeping Beauty?"
"Don't you think we're a little too old for fairytales?"
"Hmm," Steve says, "that's not what I remember when you read to me, those times I was sick and ma was at work," and Bucky flushes.
"I thought you were asleep, you lunkhead, Jesus, I was just-" Steve grins. "Okay, fine, fairytales, what am I, under a magic spell or something?"
"You tell me," Steve says, and Bucky is suddenly infuriated, shoves at Steve's shoulder until he collapses back into the grass, pins Steve down and glares at him.
"Why've you gotta be so difficult?"
"I'm just trying to help," Steve says, blinking lazily up at him, and it would be so easy to kiss him right now, except Bucky didn't, so he doesn't. "Maybe it'd be easier if we added some illustrations?" He blinks again, and the air shimmers, and then he's delicate and small under Bucky's hands, and clutching a comically oversized pencil.
"You changed," Bucky says, shifts his weight back so he's not gonna crush Steve, and Steve just squints down at himself, touches his skinny chest.
"Huh," he says, "I did. Lookit that. What, you don't remember me drawing once I got muscles?"
"Guess I don't," Bucky shugs. "Come on, then, what are you gonna draw?"
"Well," Steve says, "if it's a fairytale, you've gotta have a prince, right? Or a knight?"
"In shining armor," Bucky agrees, voice very dry, and touches one finger to the daisies that are still in Steve's hair. "Well, you've already got a crown, so. Guess that makes you the prince here to save me? Oh, what, does that mean I'm the princess in a castle here?"
"I don't know, it's your dream," Steve says reasonably, and there's another shimmer, and the daisies weave themselves into a tangled gold circlet almost the same color as Steve's hair. "If it makes you feel better, I won't draw you a dress."
"Gee," Bucky mutters, "thanks," and lies down again next to Steve, wraps one arm around Steve's ribs, pulls him in close. They fit together like this, Bucky's body remembering it - cold nights when the heat went out, Steve's back all bones against Bucky's chest in the narrow bed, Bucky doing his best to warm Steve up and stop him coughing - and he blinks away the prick of tears. "Miss you, Stevie," he whispers into Steve's hair, and Steve takes a breath like he does too, like neither of them are these young dumb beautiful kids anymore and it's a spell they can't break, and Bucky all of a sudden aches for what they've lost.
Maybe they fall asleep - can you sleep inside a dream, Bucky wonders - but the light doesn't change, just goes on being perfectly three o'clock in the afternoon, sun softly warm enough that Bucky thinks he could almost forget what it's like to be cold. He and Steve might have been lying here for five minutes or half an hour or fifty years for all Bucky knows by the time he sits up, runs a hand through his hair.
"Okay," he says, "okay, big artist Steve, what are you gonna draw?"
"You tell me," Steve says, holds his pencil up to the air, and Bucky chews his lip.
"A shield," he decides, and Steve sketches a circle, adds a star and a handle, catches a painted garbage can lid as it tumbles towards his hand.
"Hmm," he says, testing the weight of it, "not bad. Do I need a sword, too?"
"Why not," Bucky says lazily, and watches Steve draw two lines, a cross-hilt, the point of the blade. It's made of wood, scraps nailed together, a child's toy made in a time before plastic-molded waterguns, but Steve spins it like it's whistling-sharp, grins at him.
"Sure you don't want a dress? A princess veil?" he suggests, and Bucky pokes him in the thigh, rolls his eyes. "Okay, okay, fine, what am I gonna fight for you, Buck?"
"You fought a dragon already," Bucky says thoughtfully, "cut off one head and two more grew back, how'd that go for you?"
"Could do it all day," Steve shrugs, "but you're right, there's not much elegance to it as far as storylines go. What else?"
"I dunno, you broke the spell once before," Bucky tells him, and Steve frowns.
"What do I gotta do," he asks, "weave a shirt out of stinging nettles?"
"Yeah, only you didn't finish the sleeve, and my arm won't change back," Bucky says, looks down at his hand, but there's nothing there except smooth skin, fingers grass-stained, the freckle over his wrist he'd forgotten he had. "Anyway, you're mixing the stories up," he adds, "you're the prince, not the princess, next you'll be searching for Rumpelstiltskin's name."
"Hmm," Steve hums, "I figured that one out, it was Alexander Pierce. Easy."
"Okay," Bucky says, "okay. That's. Names. That's how you did it, last time. Names have power, right?"
"Oh yeah," Steve agrees, "true names, sure. But I've known yours forever, James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky."
"I know," Bucky nods, "Steve, I know you know, but I- you know I'd forgotten." Steve's mouth falls open.
"An enchantment," he says slowly, and Bucky wants to touch the fullness of his bottom lip.
"Yeah," he says instead. "The spell."
"It's not gonna work that way this time," Steve says, shaking his head. "It's not- look, it's more like, I don't know, a bramble forest that grows sharper every time I touch it, except they're buried in here." He taps Bucky's forehead, and then rumples his hair, leans in against Bucky more easily than he's ever done in Bucky's memory. "An enchantment that changes shape when you try to push it back."
"A Gordian knot," Bucky mutters, "can't unpick it," and feels Steve nod against his shoulder. Bucky closes his eyes again, just for a moment. "I could stay here," he offers, "we could stay, Stevie, it's not so bad, right?"
"No," Steve sighs, "no, it's nice here, Buck, you can rest here as long as you want, but..." and when Bucky opens his eyes, the park is surrounded by a tangle of thorns, and he knows what they'd do if he touched them. Желание. Ржавый. Семнадцать. Ready to comply, soldat?
"Let's go someplace else," he says, closes his eyes again, and this time when he opens, they're standing on a pier. The ocean is just as blue as the sky, just as blue as Steve's eyes, and when he turns to look at Steve he's big again, broad-shouldered in khaki wool. "You look like you're about to ship out," he says, shades his eyes, because Steve is very bright. "Jeez, is this what I looked like when I signed up?"
"Nah," Steve laughs, "you were much better-looking," and Bucky flushes a little, ducks his head.
"Where are we going, anyway?"
"Oh," Steve says, suddenly serious, "you know how it is in all the stories, you gotta cross the sea before you can start. There's an ocean voyage in every fortune."
"We did, right?" Bucky asks, "we shipped out, came back different. Hey, you lost your sword."
"Still got the shield," Steve shrugs, and slings it onto his back. "Come on, Bucky, haven't you figured it out yet?"
"Figured it- hey, come on, if you know the answer can't you fill me in?"
"You know that's not how it works," Steve tells him, and Bucky leans on the pier railing, stares into the water, thinks about it for a while.
"If I know," he says in the end, "if I think I've figured it out, will you have to walk out ahead of me, not look back?"
"Naw," Steve says, "this is a fairytale, not Greek tragedy, you haven't died yet. Just a little curse, is all. You know what you've gotta do?"
"What we've gotta do," Bucky agrees, "it is a Gordian knot, and I know what to do with those. And you were wrong about one thing."
"Was I?" Steve smiles, and Bucky nods.
"You know my name," he says, looks at Steve, because he can't look away, "it was always gonna be you, Steve." Steve's smile gets wider, eyes soft and full of wonder, and he leans in, touches Bucky's hair and cheek and shoulder and then, finally, his mouth.
"About damn time," he says, against Bucky's lips, and Bucky lets out a slightly outraged huff.
"Yeah, okay, fine. Wake me up, wouldya?"
"Hey," Steve tells him, "I'm you, buddy," and Bucky takes a deep breath, and opens his eyes.
"You were not supposed to wake yourself up," someone's saying when he comes to, "that is not meant to be possible," and Bucky has the brief horror of unfreezing from cryo too fast and too slow all at once, his chest still locked solid while his lungs are insistent they need to draw breath. He wheezes for air, coughs, finally comes out of it and drags in a shuddering breath, two, reaches out with one hand and touches his face, his chest, his shoulder. Cold metal against his fingertips, and then nothing, and Bucky thinks about weaving daisy-chains and grass under his fingernails, and barely holds in a sob.
"Sorry," he says, voice rough, "sorry, I- Steve? Stevie?"
"Your friend is on his way," T'Challa tells him, very gentle, and Bucky opens his eyes into darkness and shuts them again.
"Why'm I- I can't see anything," Bucky gets out, and T'Challa rests a hand on his wrist.
"You need to rest," he says firmly, "waking yourself up from cryosleep is not advised for a reason, Sergeant Barnes, your body's functions will return in time."
"I'm not blind?" Bucky asks, and practically hears T'Challa smiling.
"No," he says, "you're not blind. Not permanently. Go to sleep, James. Steve will be here when you wake."
"How long," Bucky says before he drifts off, and maybe he only imagines the answer. Four months. It'd felt like an afternoon.
When he wakes up next, Steve is there, blurry at first and then reassuringly solid. Bucky makes a face, drags his palm over his eyes, licks dry lips.
"Feel like something died in my mouth," he mutters, and Steve looks startled before he laughs.
"You want a drink of water?"
"Yeah," Bucky agrees, "and I want this shit out of my head, Steve, and I know how to do it, but-"
"But-?" Steve asks, pauses where he's pouring water into a glass.
"You're not gonna like it," Bucky predicts, and drinks like he's dying of thirst.
He's right. Steve hates it. Hates it.
"I don't..." he says, truculently, works the muscle in his jaw. "I don't see how this is going to work. I don't want to do it to you, Buck."
"You gotta," Bucky says shortly, and wishes Steve was slightly more compliant. He'd really been spoiled by the dream version, in hindsight. "I know you don't want to. You gotta, Steve. It's the only way. Or I can go back in the ice again." Steve flinches, and Bucky sighs, thinks about lying in warm grass, tucking a loop of daisies into Steve's hair. Maybe they can have all these things, later. Maybe Steve will let him pin him down under the curve of the sky and the heat of the sun. Maybe Bucky will kiss him this time. He'll never know, if they don't do this.
Steve takes a deep breath. "You're sure this is the only way," he says a little questioningly, and Bucky nods.
"Yeah," he agrees. "Don't ask me how I know. Divine intervention. I just know, Steve. Come on, возвращение на родину."
"Vozvrashcheni," Steve says, obediently, and Bucky shakes his head, taps Steve's mouth.
"Vozvrashcheniye," he corrects. "Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu."
"I can't believe I have to learn Russian for this," Steve mutters, but he mouths the words carefully, and Bucky feels the distant tug of them in his head.
"Yeah," he says. "Better. Keep going."
When they do it, Bucky's strapped down at his own insistence. He's pretty sure this will work, but if it doesn't- well. He doesn't want a repeat of Vienna, is all. Steve looks distressed, but the straps are wide, distributing pressure without hurting, and compared to the metal restraints Hydra used, it's more than fine. Odysseus bound to the mast, and a siren song Bucky is more than familiar with.
"Okay," he says. "Okay. Do it."
Steve looks at him, and Bucky looks back, relaxes his shoulders, smiles a little. It doesn't seem to reassure Steve.
"Zhelaniye," Steve says, careful, not tripping over the syllables this time. "Rzhavyy. Semnadtsat'. You with me, Bucky?"
"Yeah," Bucky murmurs. "I'm with you." He can feel it, the spell, the enchantment, the trigger, whatever it is, but it's overlaid with something else. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. My name is Bucky.
"Rassvet," Steve continues. "Pech'. Devyat'. Dobroserdechnyy."
Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.
Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu.
Your name is-
Bucky your name is Bucky-
Ready to comply, soldat?
Bucky? You with me?
"I'm with you," Bucky slurs, rolls himself out into it. He's never been so relaxed. Comply, his brain insists, it's Steve, comply, soldat, Bucky, your name is, your name is Bucky, and Bucky breathes, lets himself go slack.
"Bucky," Steve says again, and it feels so good, his name in Steve's voice when Steve is directive, and Bucky thinks about magicians and spells and knots that can't be unpicked.
"Ready to comply," Bucky whispers. "Steve. Ready to comply."
"Override," Steve orders, and it stalls out. Override. Denied. Override. Directive override.
"Override denied," Bucky says dreamily, and Steve frowns.
"Where are you, Bucky?"
In a park. There are flowers. Somebody dropped a sword.
"You know what to do," Steve says, and Bucky does, Bucky knows what to do, Bucky's floating in dream-space and comply and your name is Bucky your name is your name is Bucky and this is, this is Steve, putting the sword in Bucky's hand and giving him the push.
Gordian knot, Bucky thinks, and pushes at his programming like a sore tooth. The knot tangles tighter, ends disappearing, and Bucky reaches down, picks up the sword. Wood splinters against his palm, but the blade sings sharp, and he sets the edge against the first layer, begins to slice through silken rope.
Zhelaniye, it screams insistently, the cord a snake with forked tongues and bright scales, and Bucky winces.
"Hurts," he mutters, and hears Steve as if from a distance.
Comply, Steve says, and Bucky complies, and cuts through the first snake and the second.
Semnadtsat', says the third strand, hissing words that sink under his skin, remember when you were seventeen, you looked at him like he was the whole world, you sat in the sun and braided daisies for his hair, don't you want to weave them into his hair, soldat, don't you want-
Comply, Bucky hears in Steve's voice, your name is James Buchanan Bucky your name is, and slides the sword through the rope like it doesn't hurt at all. Rassvet and pech' and devyat' are next, easy, and then dobroserdechnyy, harder but Bucky does it with gritted teeth and Steve's voice ringing in his head, and then-
Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu.
You never came home, don't you want a home just the two of you, the bed and his back to your chest, and it's harder to remember what his name is now, harder to feel that floating dreaminess that is Steve directive Steve he knows your name Steve directive, and Steve, far away, gives the order again. His voice sounds full of tears, maybe, and Bucky wonders what's hurting, there. This hurts, there's a sword in his hand and splinters in his palms, he's deep in the knot and it would be so easy to give up, to find homecoming and curl up safe, and-
Bucky, Steve says, hard. Comply, and Bucky gathers up his strength and shoves all the way down to the final layer, cords made of steel now.
Gruzovoy vagon. You're on a train.
He's on a train and Steve just has to take his hand, that's all, it's not far but Bucky can't reach, and he can feel the snow on his face, he's on a train, gruzovoy vagon, and he can feel himself falling, the knot tangling around him, it's going to reshape itself, he's on a train and he doesn't have a name he's just soldat, tin soldier, the enchantment is strong and he's only armed with a toy sword and he's nobody, just a soldier falling from a train, gruzovoy vagon, comply, comply, soldat, it's so cold, comply-
"My name," Bucky says, "is Bucky," and grits his jaw, and cuts.
The knot falls apart.
"Bucky," Steve says, "comply," and Bucky grins at him all sharp teeth.
"Nah," he says, "get me out of these ropes, Stevie, I got shit I want to do already," and Steve draws a shaky breath, and fumbles at the straps with hands that don't quite seem to work.
"Sorry," he whispers, "sorry," and finally gets Bucky's wrist free, and the first thing Bucky does is touch Steve's hair, reverent, and that has Steve pausing, leaning in, forehead pressed to Bucky's forehead. Bucky slides his palm down to the nape of Steve's neck, holds him in place, closes his eyes.
"Missed you," he admits, and that has Steve laughing, still sounding like he's maybe been crying, and when Bucky just gives up and kisses him already, he tastes like salt and the iron of a lip bitten through. "What've you been doing to yourself?" he chides Steve, licks at his lip to soothe it, and Steve shrugs, fiddles with the straps to finish getting them undone.
"Directive," he says, "it's harder than it sounds, Buck. How'd you know?"
"Came to me in a dream," Bucky says lightly, so that Steve won't quite ever believe him, and shakes himself all over. "Hey, you think they got daisies in Wakanda?"
"I... Honestly, I have no idea," Steve says, "why?"
"Just," Bucky tells him, "something I want to do."
There are no daisies. Bucky fills Steve's hair with lush flowers he doesn't have names for, and turns his face to the sun, and sets his fingers to the earth until there's dirt under his nails and he feels like he could grow, and grow, and grow.