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What Doesn't Kill You...

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“I remember everything.”

 

He remembered saying the words but only when the words came out did the weight of them hit home. Every man, every woman, every child, every office room, every car…every bone break, every blood drop, every rendered wing…Bucky Barnes remembered them all. The good people, the bad people, the people...the ones who fought, the ones who begged, the ones who never saw him coming. He remembered them all – maybe not all their faces or all their names, but every bullet, every knife wound, every strangled breath, every explosion? He remembered everything.

 

And isn’t that a kick in the gut.

 

“You know, this is bullshit.”

 

He is knocked out of his thoughts, out of his brooding, by the voice behind him, the voice laced with annoyance and something that sounds almost hurt. Bucky opened his mouth in reply but couldn’t force any words out because there’s nothing that he really could say to him right now. There’s nothing that he really could say to anyone.

 

“I’m sorry, did I not speak clearly enough? Let me repeat - this is fucking bullshit.”

 

Bucky lifted his head as the man behind him came into view – Sam Wilson, the Falcon, walked, almost strutted, past - his shoulders squared, his chin high, his entire posture defying the clear limp that he was trying to hide as he sat directly across from him, his arms crossed across his chest, more tentatively than the man probably thought he was doing it and his face with that usual look of defiance and challenge that he usually had when he looked at Bucky. He wasn’t sure how much of that was a front to hide any nerves he had around the person who had tried to kill him numerous times, and how much of it was genuine, but it was always strangely reassuring for Bucky, regardless.

 

Bucky was surprised to see him sitting there. Not surprised that he was in Wakanda as Steve had gone to rescue his captured teammates as soon as T’Challa had told him where they were being held prisoner - it was only right after all that the team who had sacrificed so much for Bucky and Steve’s freedom would have returned with Steve to the one place that could offer them some degree of asylum. No, Bucky had known that Sam Wilson would be in Wakanda, but what he was surprised at was that Sam Wilson had, apparently, walked off a jet after having been imprisoned in what was apparently some floating hell hole, and had immediately gone looking for him before he had even said hello to the king of the country that was providing safe haven.

 

The man was a mystery.

 

 

He knew that Sam was loyal to Steve, probably loyal to a fault all things considered, but he had no ties to Bucky and as much as it was nice to see another non-hostile face (or as non-hostile as Sam got with him) with him in Wakanda, it was unsettling as well because he didn’t know why Sam would make the effort to do that so soon. Bucky, frustratingly, still hadn’t learned how to predict what Sam Wilson’s motivations or actions meant, and Sam, for his part, seemed to take some sort of perverse delight in the fact that Bucky never knew what to expect from him. Like he enjoyed trying to piss off an ex-assassin and keeping him on edge instead of trying to keep him placated. God only knew how Steve coped with it every day…

 

God only knew why Bucky enjoyed the feeling of being on edge around him as well – it wasn’t like he liked the guy.

 

When Bucky didn’t respond to his arrival, Sam continued speaking. “’Why is this bullshit, Wilson?’ Excellent question, Barnes - let me tell you a story…once upon a time there was a handsome, charming, dashing young guy who finds himself playing with super soldiers, hot assassins, secret organisations and all that shit. And he’s good at it. He’s not really super himself, but he can hang – he contributes more than he takes and that’s a good thing. So, our hero - let’s call him…’Cam’…”

 

A laugh escaped Bucky before he could bite it back and Sam raised an eyebrow at the sound. “Cam? Couldn’t think of anything to rhyme with Falcon, could you, genius?”

 

“Just wait until Cam meets his nemesis Fucky, Fucky,” Sam said, his lips twitching upwards as he fought a smile and Bucky immediately relaxed, like he annoyingly tended to do in the man’s presence. “Anyway, whilst hanging with his new super soldier and hot assassin friends, he spends two years combing the planet looking for a guy…”

 

“Fucky.”

 

“Fucky,” Sam agreed before snickering. “And, long story short, Cam helps find Fucky, who is the most anti-social asshole you could ever meet, and then goes and fights the whole UN to keep him alive, gets himself arrested, grounded and then put in underwater Gitmo. He eventually gets busted out only to find out that Fucky, the idiot, has somehow decided he’s just going to put himself on ice again, in fucking WAKANDA of all places…because jeez, Cam somehow attracts people with martyr complexes like it’s his job, or something. But that’s not even the worst - poor, handsome, charming, outlaw Cam finds out that not only has Fucky, the idiot, decided to ice himself, but he’s somehow convinced fricken Captain America that it’s also a good idea instead of the worst fucking idea on this or any other planet.”

 


Bucky looked at Sam and shrugged. “Cam sounds like a terrible judge of character, to be honest.”

 

“No shit, Sherlock. Trust me, he judges himself for it every single day.”

 

Bucky really didn’t know what to say – how to explain it so that Sam would understand why he was doing this because everything that Sam was saying was true, and if Bucky were capable of more empathetic thinking, he would probably feel as pissed off as Sam felt right now at him. To have gone through what he went through to keep Bucky safe and then for it not to mean anything must have felt like a slap in the face.

 

Bucky had his reasons though, and Steve got it – in fact, in a way it sometimes seemed that Steve was almost a bit relieved to know that Bucky wouldn’t disappear on him again, that even if he was frozen, just the knowledge that he was safe somewhere was enough. Wilson though? Wilson wouldn’t get it – he was a ‘face it head on’ type of guy and Bucky suspected that 'giving up' after running from them for years would look a lot like cowardice to him.

 

“What the hell, man?” Sam's voice was laced with exhaustion, and Bucky almost felt drained himself at the sound – he didn’t know the full details of what went down when the team had got separated at the airport, but, Bucky knew what happened to captured combatants with information in wartime, and he also knew that Sam had not looked in as bad shape when he had seen him last. The logical conclusions settled like rocks in the pit of his stomach, but he couldn’t face the answer if he asked, so right now, he would play pretend. He could do that better than anyone now. “I’m this close to busting your head and flying you out of here myself. This was not the plan we had in the airport - I leave you guys alone for five minutes and Rogers and Stark are half killing each other and you’re missing an arm and agreeing to be iced by the dude who was trying pretty hard to shred you to pieces not so long ago. This is bullshit!”

 

It was bullshit, but that didn't make it any less necessary or any less appealing to Bucky.

 

“I have to do this. My head…” Bucky's hand came up and rubbed the side of it, as though he could feel the mind control in there, just under the surface. The button that would weaponise him, rob him of himself again. “I’m pretty messed up. The words…it’s like a switch, you know? Not being in control. I didn’t even know that they were there anymore.”

 

“I know,” Sam said with a nod and Bucky wanted to say to him that he didn’t know. That he didn’t get it, but before he could, Sam continued speaking. “Don’t give me that look – I know it’s not the same. Not exactly the same, but yeah, I do get it. I get the triggers over dumb shit, and the nightmares, and the memories and the regret and flashing back to someone you don’t know. I know what you have is different, but at the same time, at its core, it’s the same. People like us, we all have something we want to avoid until there’s a magic potion to fix us.”

 

“Magic potion…” Bucky snorted. “If only.”

 

“It doesn’t exist though –trust me, I’ve looked. I really wish it did – would save a lot of time and a lot of pain.”

 

They were in silence for a moment, but Bucky could see Sam watching him, analysing him and he felt exposed. Their relationship so far had been simple, really. Bucky really had no idea how to interact with anyone, never mind someone that he had attempted to kill numerous times, and Sam had seemingly sensed that and instead of skirting around him, he had seemed to make the decision early on not to treat him like he was an unexploded bomb and instead just needled him, like he hadn’t tried to kill him three times and he wasn’t afraid of him. It had been easy, easier than it should have been, to fall into joshing with him, to yank his chain and seeing how Mr Unruffled would respond and there was a lightness, a joy almost, when his goading was met with an equal jab from Sam or when he could snap back in response without feeling like he was doing something wrong or would be thought less of because of it. It felt…normal and he could vaguely remember the old Bucky acting like that, and he always felt like he was fighting a smile when they were bickering. Like maybe not everyone thought he was just a weapon of mass destruction with an itchy trigger finger. Like maybe he could just be a regular guy and not someone who needed to be mollycoddled.

 

Like maybe there was a chance for him to be some version of himself again who could tease and joke and maybe even laugh one day. And he craved that feeling.

 

He wished he could hate Sam Wilson for even letting him entertain the idea that that was a possibility because as easy as it was with him, it was so much harder with everyone else.

 

Like Steve.

 

 Like Stark.

 

“I remember. Everything. Every one.” Sam exhaled sharply and gave a curt nod at Bucky’s words, encouraging him to continue and he didn’t know why, but he did. “There were a lot. Not just Stark’s parents.”

 

“397 at Shield’s last ‘official’ count, apparently,” Wilson said without flinching or judgement. Of course, Bucky thought – Sam was a soldier and he would know everything about the man he had been looking for. He probably knew more about Bucky than Bucky did. “I figure they were mostly combatants and I’d guess we could probably double that since those are just ones on the books, right?”

 

Bucky nodded, and swallowed the lump in his throat. He had no idea how he had the numbers, or how he could say it so calmly but there wasn’t much he could do to lessen the horror, even if he had the words to do it. He felt ashamed of himself and he wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to get out from under the weight of everything. Or if he would ever be able to look someone like Sam in the face again.

 

“It feels like a lot of souls on your conscience, I bet.”

 

“It’s a lot of blood on your hands,” Bucky corrected, as he raised his hand, as though he could see the dripping liquid. “Too much.”

 

“I know it is. I can tell you that it isn’t your fault, and it’s not, but I know that doesn’t change the fact that it was you that has to carry the weight of it around with you. What you have to remember though is that it was Hydra who called the shots,” Sam paused and grasped around for the words as he continued. “I think in a lot of ways, you were as much collateral damage to Hydra as the names on that list were - more so, maybe. You didn’t wake up every morning and think ‘I know what I’ll do today; I’ll go blow up an office block, or wipe out a car full of people.’ You were programmed, shit,” he ran a hand through his short hair. “Brainwashed. Not programmed, you aren’t a fucking machine…”

 

“More’s the pity.”

 

“Yeah, cause machines can’t do any damage to the world, right? Listen, I’m going to buy you a beer one day and we’ll talk about what machines can do…and we’ll start by asking Wanda or Rhodes about it, and then you’ll buy me a drink right back and say ‘you were right, Sam – thank God I wasn’t a machine, why do I ever doubt you?’ and I won’t even say ‘I told you so’ when you do.”

 

Bucky didn’t know what he was referring to in regards to Wanda and Rhodes, but he understood what the implication was and although he wasn’t sure if the offer was serious, he felt a slight pang of sadness at perhaps not ever getting to have that conversation in a bar with Sam, or anyone.

 

Neither of them said anything for a moment. It was strange – the silence. Bucky never really got silence with Wilson – there was always a comment, or a look, or a throw-away observation, or laughter or the sense that someone was sitting on a line, just ready to throw it when the other walked into it…this though? This was different. It was loaded, but with something he didn’t understand. When he sat with Steve, the silence was filled with the weight of missing memories, of former lives and expectations and hope and it often felt like it was crushing him. It was oppressive, but he knew how to handle that – he knew why it was oppressive and he could prepare himself for the feelings, the inadequacy, because it would never go away.

 

This was just Sam though, there were no missing memories, no expectations on how to behave, no lifelong bond at risk by not knowing what to say or do or the inside joke – he was, for all intents and purposes, just a guy who Bucky had tried to kill a few times and who barely tolerated him. Yet he didn’t feel like that was all he was, and he still felt heavy under the weight of it. Still felt pressured into not driving him away because, for whatever reason, Sam Wilson made him feel real, not like a ghost of someone else, and he wanted him to stay more than he wished he would leave.

 

Even with his messed up brain, he knew enough to know that.

 

“I think you’re making a mistake,” Sam broke the silence eventually, slowly, quietly. Bucky looked up and met the strong gaze of the man across from him, a bruise fading under the dark skin at his eye. “I think everyone is letting you make a mistake because they don’t know what to do with you, and you’re so used to complying that you’re doing it because it’s easier than the alternative and that isn’t fair on you. You deserve so much more than that from everyone.”

 

He wanted to argue, but he couldn’t really refute any of that, but still it rankled. This guy was a virtual stranger to him – he didn’t get to psychoanalyse him, even if he was right. It was easier…but he had earned easy. Surely if anyone deserved easy it was him?

 

“And I know right now that you’re pissed at me,” Sam said as he stood up and held his hands out to his side, in a gesture that looked almost like surrender if a man like Sam Wilson would ever surrender to a man like Bucky Barnes. “And I hope you are pissed at me, because frankly, you should be pissed at someone and I can take it. You’re a grown man and you’ve lost more years of your life to someone else’s control than anyone should lose, and you should be pissed that anyone is even contemplating letting you give up more. You don’t need to atone like that – that’s not how it works.”

 

“You don’t understand, Wilson. I could flip in a second - it could be you, it could be Steve, it could be some kid running in the street, and I wouldn’t be able to control it,” Bucky lifted his good arm. “I wouldn’t even need a weapon. I am the weapon, even with one arm.”

 

“Bullshit,” Sam growled low, and Bucky froze in shock at the sound, surprised at the vehemence. “You aren’t a weapon – no matter how much they tried to make you one, you fought it on your own. You broke free on your own. You didn’t want any of that when you had a choice – you fought against them dehumanising you, so do not undo all that by dehumanising yourself. You’re not a weapon, Barnes - you’re a man who has been given a beyond shitty hand and is tired of fighting.”

 

“And is that really so wrong?”

 

“About this? Yes! I mean, jeez, Barnes…self-inflicted torture isn’t atonement. Your suffering now doesn’t bring back Stark’s parents or undo anything else. And don’t say that this isn’t that – you think I’m a dumbass who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but for as much as I don’t know about you, there is a helluva lot that you don’t know about me as well so get over yourself and realise that maybe I know a little about what I’m talking about here.”

 

Bucky knew Sam’s file – it would have been foolish not to know all about the people who had been tracking him for years, but he knew that’s not what he meant. A file doesn’t tell a whole story and although he knew his name, age, rank, training, and odd mission details, he knew it would take a lot longer to learn the whole, un-redacted story about Sam Wilson. He didn’t need to know that though to know that they weren’t comparable. “Even un-programmed, I have killed people, Wilson. I know that you’re trying to help, but we’re not the same. You saved people, I killed them.”

 

“You can simplify it all you like, but we’re a lot more alike than you want to think,” Sam replied, unflinching under Bucky’s stare. “You’ve given up and I do understand the appeal of that, Bucky - but you are stronger than that. I wouldn’t have chased your ass for years if I didn’t believe that you could handle stuff that the rest of us couldn’t.”

 

“You don’t understand anything.” His voice was almost a hiss, and he would have flinched at the tone being directed at one of the few allies he had in the world, one of the few people who showed concern about his wellbeing, if he wasn’t so angry. And desperate – he didn’t want to want Sam to care about him. He didn’t want to want another tie to this miserable life until he wasn’t a danger to them.

 

But he did and that terrified him.

 

He waited for Sam to flinch, for the brave façade to slip as he realised that Bucky was still dangerous and to back off. He waited to see the sense of relief to flood through him as he realised the benefits of Bucky being someone else’s problem. He waited for a flicker of fear, or a flash of anger, or even a sign of disgust but Sam kept his eyes on him, unflinching – his posture never tensed and his eyes never darted around looking for help in case Bucky attacked.

 

Maybe that defiant look wasn’t an act after all. Maybe he genuinely wasn’t afraid of him. Bucky wasn’t sure what he should do with that knowledge…he never thought the man was a fool, but the alternative was that he was naive about the threat Bucky posed, and no one was that naive.

 

“No?” Sam looked down at last and kicked his foot against the ground before taking a deep breath and raising his head again. “In the first month that I got out of the air force, I tried to kill myself oh…three times? You think I don’t know about giving up? About hating yourself so much that you think it would be better? Starting fights and wanting someone to hurt you because you think you deserve it? About breaking mirrors, hiding from fireworks, sleeping on floors instead of beds and hating people around you who have the audacity not to get how hard living actually is? Walking away when other people, better people, can’t and following orders that keep you up at night… I know about that sort of guilt and self-loathing. Believe it or not, I understand self-destruction better than anyone else here, and that’s why I am asking you, Barnes…I am begging you, to reconsider this.”

 

The anger whooshed out of Bucky’s frame like air escaping a balloon. He had no idea what he had just heard, but the idea of the man in front of him, so strong and brave and loyal ever giving up, ever thinking the world would be better without him, seemed wrong. He wanted to believe he was lying – he knew he was a counsellor and would no doubt try to forge empathetic connections to engage with clients, but as he looked at him, looking so resigned, so uncomfortable with his admission, he realised that this was perhaps something he hadn’t planned on ever sharing. With anyone.

 

And he shared it with someone he didn’t know. Someone he didn’t have any reason to like, let alone care about.

 

 “Why?” he didn’t know what question he was asking – why he did it? Why he told Bucky? Why he would confide that in someone who could potentially use it as a weapon against him? Why he would ever think that the world would be better without him? Why he would make himself vulnerable like that to someone as worthless as Bucky? But he wanted to know the answers to them all.

 

“Why did I try? It wasn’t one thing, really. My best friend got shot right out the sky beside me – I heard the noise and turned and boom – he’s falling through the air and before I can even move, he’s hit again and it’s just pieces that are falling and my first instinct was still to catch those pieces of him but I can’t. I just watch and I can still see the haze in the air as I get blown through it, my wings on fire and by ears ringing as I try and reach out through the mist that is left of his body, thinking I can put him back together if I fly faster. He got hit twice and I know one of those shots were meant for me, but I walked away from it – he had a family, friends, kids, yet he was the one who didn’t get home. How was that fair?”

 

It wasn’t fair, but not for the reasons that Sam was thinking. Bucky knew war, and they were never fair. He wished he knew how to offer some sort of comfort to him in that moment, but he couldn’t. Nothing would erase those memories, or the guilt of surviving no matter how much he wished he could fix it for him.

 

“Anyway,” Sam shook himself out of his own head and continued. “When I was cleared to fly again they tweaked the program so it was less about saving people and more…proactive, and I tried…I thought, ok, I’ll avenge him but one mission was enough and I couldn’t do it anymore because that wasn’t me, even when I wished it were. I wasn't any use to them then so they took my wings and shelved the program and I got out before I was pushed and…well, you know, man – you know how hard it is to get out of that mind-set. I hated everyone so much for it all - for Riley, for what they’d done, what they tried to make me do…for what they’d taken from me. I’d been in since I was 18 and I had only ever wanted to fly and to help people - to do the right thing and I couldn’t do that anymore.”

 

Bucky nodded as Sam took a deep breath, his hands clenching as though he was fighting through something that Bucky couldn’t see so he could keep talking.

 

“I was the best…I’m not saying that to be arrogant, but no one else could do what I did and I was so good at it. I had dedicated my life to it – the training that I did, the learning…all of it? It would have been easier becoming an astronaut than that, but I loved it and I went from being the guy who had everything together, from being the best, to getting knocked back for jobs at a department store, and suddenly I didn’t hate everyone else anymore, I just hated myself instead,” he looked almost embarrassed, but kept talking like he knew Bucky understood and wouldn’t judge. And he was right – Bucky knew what it was like to run out of other people to hate. People to blame. “I have a hundred reasons that seemed right at the time and that seem dumb as hell now. Long story short, I had convinced myself that everything I was feeling was on me - and I didn’t have anyone telling me that what I was feeling was normal, that it would get better, that I was stronger than I gave myself credit for." He rolled his eyes. "You know the platitudes people dish out when they don’t know what to say, that you roll your eyes at but actually do mean something when you really think about them? That was what I needed to hear...but I needed to hear them from people who believed them."

 

"Like ‘everything happens for a reason’?" Bucky whispered, in reply – a faint memory of his own faceless mother telling him that at one point and a young Bucky’s eyes stinging with tears as he dismissed it, too caught up in whatever pain he was in.

 

 Sam lifted his eyes to meet his with a small nod. "Or ‘we'll work it out’ – cause there’s always a ‘we’ involved, right?"

 

"It's all going to be ok." Bucky made a face…nothing ever sounded faker than when he heard that one. And he seemed to be hearing it a lot.

 

"But you're doing so well," Sam added with a roll of his eyes, but his voice had a hint of amusement and it made Bucky want to know who had said that to him to warrant that.

 

"Tomorrow's a new day," Bucky offered with the faint memory of a man in uniform saying it through a rain storm and feeling the disdain he must have felt at the time.

 

Sam looked up and met his eyes with a tight smile. “One step at a time.”

 

“What doesn’t kill you…” Bucky trailed off, his gaze locked with Sam’s as his thoughts drifted to the remnants of his arm. Zola hadn’t killed him. Hydra hadn’t killed him. Shield hadn’t killed him. Stark hadn’t killed him, but he didn’t feel particularly strong right now. Not where it mattered.

 

"What doesn’t kill you…” Sam agreed as his own expression darkened making Bucky wonder what memory that had shook loose for him. How many times should Sam Wilson have died yet somehow survived? At least three times that Bucky himself was responsible for. “We are hard to kill, to be fair, so maybe that’s another one there is something in. Maybe we’re too hard to kill.”

 

“Maybe,” he acquiesced and glanced down to his capped off stump before turning away. Sam gazed off somewhere in the distance, until he turned an analytical eye back to him, doing his best to hide anything other than his complete focus on Bucky, who straightened up, feeling almost exposed under the intensity of the look and the knowledge he now had on the man in front of him.

 

"I know that it’s not the same, Bucky – the hell you went through compared to what I know isn’t the same. I do know that, and believe me, I have no interest in co-opting your pain and your guilt or make you feel like they aren’t valid things, but I do know what it’s like to feel like things will never get better. To be so scared of your own thoughts that you will do anything to make them quiet. I know what it’s like to give up and want easy, and I don’t want that for you. You deserve so much more than that and I can’t let you do that without you knowing that there are other options.”

 

Was that what he was doing? As a man who had acquiesced and relented at every turn when he had a choice to make, something ached at the idea that it was now his go to setting, but what other choice did he really have here? And did someone who had done what he had done, no matter the reason, really deserve anything else?

 

“I don’t want to die,” Bucky eventually forced out and was surprised at how honest he was being. He really didn’t want to die – not on ice anyway. If he died in battle, died doing good, atoning, that would be one thing, but he didn’t want to die like this – without knowing who he was, without contributing something, anything, worthwhile. “Not really. I just…need a break. From fighting and the looks everyone has when they look at me, and having to be him, and being scared of my own head. It’s not forever.”

 

“It’s for long enough, Bucky,” Sam shook his head and walked over towards him, slowly, cautiously – slow enough that Bucky could stop him if he wanted to before he got there. He did want him there though. “You deserve more than this and I don’t know how to make you see that. I get that I’m not Steve – you don’t know me or owe me anything, but I can’t let you do this without telling you that it is bullshit and that it’s unnecessary and that none of this crap that you’re trying to atone for? None of it is actually your fault. Not in any way that counts.”

 

“It is my fault,” he repeated and he could see Sam’s head drop in defeat. “I remember everything, Wils…Sam. They’d ask me to stop and sometimes I would want to, but I wouldn’t because I knew if I stopped, I’d be punished. You wouldn’t do that. Steve wouldn’t do that. I have a responsibility for what they made me do…maybe it’s not just my fault, but some of the responsibility is mine.”

 

“I know that – I do know that, but you weren’t a machine, Bucky. No one is - if someone fried my brain on the daily, threatened me with God knows what and told me it was for the good of the world, you can bet your ass I wouldn’t be some moral crusader fighting back. You were tortured and brainwashed and you…you…” Sam must have seen something is Bucky’s face because he turned around and Bucky watched as his hands came to his head and he let out a frustrated scream that was out of place in the quietness of the room and out of place with everything he knew about the man in front of him. “You are, without exception, the single most infuriating person I have ever met. I can’t believe I got myself arrested to save your stubborn ass.”

 

He stood for a few moments, his back to Bucky and his hands on his head and Bucky could hear him take deep breaths. Bucky looked down at his own feet and tried to work out why he felt as guilty as he did right then – he had done worse, and he was used to disappointing people. He just didn’t want to disappoint him. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Stop apologising,” Sam said quietly before turning back to him, his shoulders squared again and a resigned look on his face as he walked over to Bucky and put his hand on his shoulder. Bucky almost flinched back from the touch but didn’t – people didn’t touch him for comfort anymore and a small part of him was waiting for the follow up slap, or push or pain to accompany it. Of course it never came and he felt shame that he would even expect it from Sam. “For the love of God, and my own sanity, please stop saying sorry for things that weren’t your fault. I have a list of things you can apologise for that you actually are to blame for, but jeez…stop making me actually defend you, man. This whole week has been painful enough for me.”

 

“Wouldn’t want to make your life too easy,” Bucky forced a joke as he shrugged, both of them knowing that he had made Sam’s life anything but easy. He waited a second before he continued, looking at Sam, willing him to understand. “I get to choose this time,” Bucky said again. “It’s on my terms – no one else’s. I get to decide this time. Do you…do you get that? That’s important, for me. That I make the decision before anyone else can make it for me. That I get to choose what and how and where it happens.”

 

Nothing scared him more than being forced into a tube, frozen and waking up as The Asset again – brainless & soulless. At least here, doing this, he was as sure as he could be that that wouldn’t be the case and if they got the programming out of him, there would be no way for people to make him snap back.

 

“Bucky…I wouldn’t let anyone make that choice for you,” Sam said quietly, but firmly, leaving Bucky in no doubt about the sincerity of the words, his grip on his shoulder tightening as he spoke. “I would fight any of them, all of them, if they tried to do that to you again. Steve and I both would. You don’t…if that’s the reason you’re doing it - because you think it’s going to happen anyway, you don’t have to do that. Hell, we fought our own friends and teammates - you think we’d blink at taking out anyone else?”

 

And they wouldn’t – he knew that. But how many wars could he ask them to fight for him?

 

And even if he could be that selfish, it wouldn’t matter - they were brave, but they wouldn’t be enough. Not against him. Maybe Sam had been the best at saving lives, but The Winter Soldier was the best at taking them.

 

“I know, but, believe it or not, people continually going to war over you isn’t as flattering as you’d think,” Bucky cocked his head and shrugged, as Sam’s lips quirked into a forced smile. Bucky knew he had won, but somehow the victory tasted a lot like defeat. “I know you get it. I know you don’t agree, but I know you understand what I mean. I can’t risk waking up wiped - being anyone’s weapon again. If I do it again, there won’t be any coming back from it and they won’t stop chasing me now that they know the programming is in there. If it’s not Hydra it will be Ross and if not him, someone else. The world isn’t big enough to hide in with so many people looking for me and I don’t trust myself to fight it. They would find me, and I wouldn’t come back from it this time, I would never be me again. Or a version of me that I would want to be.”

 

“I’d shoot you myself before I ever let that happen to you again, Bucky.” Sam met his eyes and held his gaze steadily, the weight of the words lingering in the air between them. “I won’t ever let it happen. I swear to you – I’d put my last bullet in your head myself. I’d make sure you went out as you – even if it was the last thing I did.”

 

And Bucky knew that was the truth and he couldn’t voice the gratitude over how much that knowledge meant to him. Sam got it…he knew, like Bucky did, that there were some things worse than death and he, like Bucky, would do whatever it took to save the other from that.

 

Friendship shouldn’t sound like a promise to kill you, but to Bucky, that vow, that promise felt like a bond that was forged in fire and it was worth more than a million honeyed words. It meant more than anything else that anyone could offer him.

 

Damn Sam Wilson for that.

 

He reached up and grabbed Sam’s arm, holding the wrist tightly, trying to convey his thanks, his appreciation, and his gratitude through his touch as he did so. He couldn’t offer anything as meaningful in return, but he would do nothing less than protect Sam as vehemently as Sam would protect him and he needed him to know that, even if he didn’t have the words to say it.

 

“Any excuse to shoot me, huh?”

 

Sam’s quirked a tired, sad smile at him as he dropped his hand from Bucky’s shoulder. “I mean, I’ll take any excuse I can get, I suppose. You know, way back in DC, I thought Steve was an idiot. Told him that you weren’t the type you save…”

 

“This before or after I ripped your wings off and kicked you off the helicarrier?”

 

Sam smirked as he looked down. “Before. I knew you were going to be a pain in the ass pretty early on in our acquaintance, and what do you know? I was right – you are a pain in the ass. But I was wrong about you – you are worth saving,” he shot him a sideway glance. “That’s why I need you to be sure that you’re doing this for the right reasons. Are you sure?” Bucky nodded and Sam took a moment before he took a deep breath and then nodded, slowly, reluctantly. “I don’t agree with this, at all, but you do deserve to make your own decisions, even stupid ones like this,” his lips fell into a forced half smile to show that he was joking and Bucky felt himself relax a little, the tension broken. “Listen to me though, Buc…Barnes - I need you to understand and listen to me on this – this can’t be about atonement. If it is…if it is, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons because it will all still be waiting on you when you get out.”

 

“I know, but this is more important. Atonement...I can work that out later. I'll get help for that. This isn't about that. Isn't just about that.”

 

Sam nodded and waited a minute before he spoke. “As long as your atonement mission involves buying me a new car, I guess that will be ok.”

 

Bucky let a laugh out involuntarily at how deftly Sam had changed the mood, & shook his head. “That car was a flashy piece of shit – I can’t believe you are still holding a grudge over that, especially since I was brainwashed at the time.”

 

“I mean you ripped my steering wheel out my hands, when I was using it so maybe a little bit,” Sam conceded with a roll of his eyes. “I’ll get over it by the time you defrost. Maybe.”

 

“Maybe get a new one with more leg room by then - that Volkswagen was cramped.”

 

“Hey, my old car had plenty of leg room. You want to complain about the loaner car, complain to your super-soldier buddy or call shot-gun quicker.” The bantering was easy, probably a little too easy and he felt the smile fall from his lips the same time it dropped from Sam’s, a sense of inevitability seemed to hover over them now – both knew where the other stood and although Bucky knew that Sam didn’t agree with it, he would support him. Because that’s apparently what Sam Wilson did – he was all in, even with lost causes.

 

“Are you sure? 100% certain that this is the only road you can take? 'Cause I wasn’t kidding that I will fly you out of here if you want. I’m already a wanted man in the US, may as well make myself an outlaw in Wakanda too…” Bucky nodded and Sam sighed before offering up a small smile that clearly he didn’t feel. He was a good man…probably too good to be associated with the likes of him, but he would take it. “It’s still bullshit, but ok. Don’t think you’re staying in the fridge indefinitely though so enjoy it while you can, cause even if I have to max out my credit card, I’ll be back here in a few months, and sitting your frozen ass in the sun for a while until you’re back to your sparkling worst. I mean its ok for you, playing Sleeping Beauty or whatever, but I’m the one who is left to play chaperone to Steve and Sharon and make sure she doesn’t steal his 100 year old virtue or something.”

 

“Maybe that’s the real reason I’m going under. You forget, I’ve seen him try to court women before – it ain’t pretty. Boy has no game.”

 

“Oh God, don’t even kid on that or I’ll be rooming beside you in another ice-cube tray,” Sam groaned, his expression losing the tightness that their conversation had caused as he finally sat down, shoulder to shoulder with Bucky, looking out the window into the city. “There are worse places to be than Wakanda, I guess. Inconvenient as hell to get to, but I don’t really expect anything else from you considering the pit-stops you landed in while we were looking for you. I think they’ll look after you.”

 

“They seem to know what they’re doing,” he agreed, thinking back to the numerous scientists and engineers that T’Challa had introduced him to over the last few days while Steve was away rescuing the rest of the team. They even thought they could give him a new arm…although at this stage, he was still unsure about taking them up on that offer or not. “I really do think they’ll fix my head, Sam. I’m not planning on this being long-term. At all.”

 

“Good,” he said quietly, not looking at Bucky as he kept his gaze locked on the window. “I think…that’s good.”

 

“You guys sticking around here? What with you being an international outlaw now and Steve being…Steve?” he hoped they would. It was selfish, but he knew that in Wakanda they would be safe and although he wouldn’t know about it, it made him feel better about going under if they were safe.

 

“I don’t know; depends on Steve and how long his funk lasts about this and how long he beats himself up for everything. No one does a martyr complex quite like you super-soldiers. I’m still pissed at him for this incidentally, but…” he shrugged, and Bucky could already tell that more than pissed at Steve, Sam was hurt and trying to hide it. “I’ll always have his back. Or try my best to - him and his merry band of outlaws. I don’t know how I’m going to avoid going mad being on the run with this crew. Lang already makes me miss your smartass.”

 

“And you hate me, so that is really saying something.”

 

“And I hate you. Exactly,” Sam chuckled as he shook his head. “Obviously. I mean, who wouldn’t?”

 

“Hydra, mostly,” Bucky said without thinking and Sam laughed outright then and pushed him slightly, not enough to really throw his balance off but enough that he immediately reached over and steadied him, just in case. It wasn’t the playful shove that had thrown Bucky off balance though; it was how the words had tripped off his tongue, just…naturally. Joking wasn’t natural to him now though…laughing wasn’t natural. He read the books, he knew it used to be, but it wasn’t now.

 

God, he hated Sam Wilson.

 

“Hydra are an exceptionally shitty judge of character, it’s true,” Sam added with mock seriousness as he looked at Bucky almost fondly before he turned away, his gaze focusing straight ahead as the smile fell from his lips. “Your head better get fixed quickly, Barnes. No slacking off, thinking this is a vacation.”

 

“It will be,” he replied, with a degree of certainty that he didn’t really feel. It had to be fixed quickly because the alternative wasn’t something he wanted to think about. “You guys try not to get in too much trouble without me.”

 

Sam snorted. “You have met Steve, haven’t you? You’ll be in there five minutes and he’ll have found us another international incident somewhere to kill the time. Or maybe he’ll go inter-galactic this time, just to keep it interesting.”

 

“And you’ll be there.” It wasn’t a question – one of the few certainties in his life right now was that Sam would stand by Steve, no matter where that took him or what it cost.

 

“And I’ll be there,” he agreed, his shoulders dropping in exhaustion. “Where else would I be?”

 

Anywhere else – anyone else would be anywhere else other than fighting battles he couldn’t win, against people with powers, and government agencies who would only kill you if you were lucky or trying to talk down brainwashed ex-assassins who had tried to kill you three times, and somewhere Bucky wondered if this was Sam’s own version of punishing himself, for atoning for things he did or didn’t do. If this was Sam’s quest to go out on his own terms, with his own slate clean.

 

He hoped that wasn’t the case.

 

“I’m glad you didn’t do it, you know,” Bucky said quietly after a few moments of silence. He looked around to see Sam’s confused expression and followed up. “When you got out - I’m glad you didn’t do it. I’m glad you’re here, watching Steve’s back and I’m glad you want to watch mine.”

 

It wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t everything he wanted to say to him, but it was a start. A start to what, he didn’t know, but he had time to work that out, hopefully.

 

Sam quirked a smile at him and brought his hand down on Bucky’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “Me too, man. Me too.”