They never talk about what it is Bucky can do.
“Thanks for the socks,” Steve says awkwardly one day, his voice an undertone. His shoulders are drawn in and his face looks pinched, mouth tight. Bucky can’t tell whether it’s because he’s hurting or because he’s cold or because he knows what Bucky is, what Bucky might be, and doesn’t like it.
“You’re welcome,” he says, and rubs his thumb against his forefinger where the skin’s still pricked raw. Just a little magic, a heating charm knitted into the wool, but even the smallest of magics needs blood.
“They’re, uh,” Steve says, has to pause for coughing. Pulls his collar up like the thin fabric will block the chill of the wind. “They’re real warm. You didn’t have to.”
“Don’t be so dumb,” Bucky tells him, tilting his head to the side and grinning wide and easy. “Of course I gotta. You ain’t gonna take care of yourself, pal, someone’s got to,” and mentally calculates the cost of enough wool for a scarf, how many nights it’ll take him to knit together that spell.
His fingers sting for days and days, after, but Steve’s cough is better that winter than it’s been in years, and Bucky would give so much more blood than a needle prick’s worth if that’s what it’d take to keep Steve Rogers safe.
Here’s the thing, Bucky thinks dully: you don’t make vows like that even in your own head without someone taking you up on it, that’s for goddamn certain. The new power that fills Steve up is bright and shining, magic Bucky can almost feel under his own skin, but he knows for certain someone shed blood for it. And here he is now, sitting in a bombed-out church somewhere in France, boots so full of muck he can’t tell where the mud ends and he begins, and he’s still keeping Steve Rogers fucking safe, because he knows this, through and through: he ain’t gonna take care of himself, that’s just a fact of life.
They took Bucky’s blood, took and took, strapped him down to a table and worked something into it and filled him back up with it stranger than before, and it feels hot and wrong in his veins. He’s tried the soft little magics he worked before, soothings to help restless soldiers sleep, hastily cast luck charms he used to sing quick as murmuring a rosary, and they fizzle out with as little effect as whisky has on him these days. It burns all the way down but he never gets drunk off of it, not with this misshapen power in his veins. The only thing he’s good for right now is killing.
“It’s late,” Steve says, and Bucky didn’t hear him come in but he’s deep enough in what he’s doing he doesn’t even jump. Just sits back, looks at Steve for the briefest of moments. He looks tired. They’re all fucking tired.
“I know,” Bucky says, “don’t worry, I’ll take lookout post in a minute.”
“What’re you doing?” Steve asks, and Bucky looks down at his hands, the guns laid out before him. His rifle, in pieces, all clean dark metal and not a fingerprint smudging the surface.
“Cleaning my weapons,” he says, shortly, and begins to reassemble his rifle.
“You’re bleeding,” Steve whispers, and Bucky frowns, looks again. Blood smears on the barrel, the muzzle, where he’s fitting the sight. His fingers hurt dully, a pain he can’t quite feel. He's been working these spells for hours, pressing his blood into the metal until he can feel it settle and take. Killing magic, fit for this war.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, and sucks two fingers into his mouth, licks the blood away. Wipes the metal clean, and hopes Steve can’t feel what it is they’ve turned him into.
Every shot Bucky takes is a clean kill. Bullets find their place in every enemy’s heart, and Bucky feels their lives shiver out. He spills so much of other people’s blood he doesn’t even gotta use his own, after a while.
He's not gonna make it.
He doesn't know much but he knows this much: he's burning up slow and secret from whatever shit they filled him with, and he's not gonna make it, and once Bucky is gone there's gotta be something protecting Steve that's not him.
It eats him up for days and nights, and he can tell Steve's broken up about it, the dark shadows under Bucky's eyes giving him away. This is war, he thinks, they made you and they made me. Sides of a coin, Stevie, there's gotta be balance in every bit of magic. That's the sting of it, pal.
They made the shield, too. That's the trick, he thinks, and waits until Steve's asleep. Whispers protection into it. Blood from a bullet graze that heals too quickly, blood from a bitten lip kissed against cold metal. Gotta use his own for this to be worth anything, he thinks, and hopes it'll hold after he goes.
He has no shield, no way to carry protection for himself, but magic never works that way anyway. You can't cast something for yourself. It’s selfless, in the worst of ways. It's okay. He's selfish anyway, selfish in how he'd let everyone else die without a second thought if it’d keep Steve alive, and it's okay and it's okay right up until the metal gives way and he's falling, no magic in the world that could catch his outreached hand. Nothing to protect him from what comes after.
What they gave him, the magic they filled him with, it keeps him alive after all.
He wishes it didn't.
Magic like this, you can dissolve like smoke. A ghost in the night. Leave death in your wake. He feels the pressure of it, building. Spill so much blood, something's gotta give.
“The man on the bridge,” he says. Frowns very small. “Who was he?” Someone worked protection for him. Someone bled everything they had into his defences and I couldn’t get through. That’s never-
Did I forget-
He doesn’t think he forgot. There’s never been a shield he couldn’t shatter. Seventy years worth of stolen blood spilling power into his skin and he’s got blood on his hands, dried dark under his nails, every shot a clean kill except when it’s not. The man on the bridge is filled up with it but he wasn't born with it, he was little before he got big, it’s not his, it’s not- someone bled for him, someone died for him, was it-
He can't get through that fucking protection. It makes him furious. He'll do better, he'll be better. A knife honed sharp, a weapon ready to be put to use.
Was it me, he thinks, and then stops thinking it. It's just.
It feels familiar, is all. Cold metal against his lips.
The man on the bridge drops the shield.
He drops- he drops the goddamn shield, for shits sake, Steve, a shield is only any fucking protection if you goddamn use it like a shield, what good is bleeding himself into it, working desperate protective magic he wasn't even sure would work, if he's not even gonna let it work in the fucking manner it was intended. And now he's down, defences lowered and magic bleeding away and the Asset can cut right through like a knife sliding not into butter but into someone's heart sharp and quick. He knows how to do it. Up below the ribs, catch their softly exhaled breath on your lips, it'll work into a spell worth using. Air from a dying man's lungs, blood-spotted and caught all through with pain, there's power in that.
He drops the shield and the Asset thinks mission and the Soldier thinks hit him just there, flex your fingers, hand like a blade to the throat and something very small and very hidden screams you bled for him for so long.
He drags him out of the water and he leaves him breathing on his back in the mud and he runs. There's pressure in his head and in his blood, born power and whatever they did to him warring until everything trembles like a bomb about to go off. He's bleeding where the man on the bridge punched him. Waits until he's alone, finds a secret place under another bridge, curls in on himself. His shoulder hurts and his head hurts and his blood burns like poison.
Honey and lemon verbena and just a drop for healing, he thinks, and doesn't know how he knows. There's no honey under the bridge. No herb garden. Did I have a herb garden, he thinks uncertainly, and all his thoughts swirl like smoke and just as impossible to catch.
There's water. A puddle, oil-slicked, but it'll tell him what he needs to know. He's still bleeding. Touches his fingers to the cut. Dips them into the puddle. Who am I. Blood and water, give me that at least.
Your name is-
Your name is Bucky, say the water and the man on the bridge and the writing on the wall of the museum, later. He knows it’s true. Knows it in his own blood. Your name is Bucky.
He still runs.
Bucky hides in plain sight. A shitty apartment, a mattress on the floor. A cap pulled low, and just enough blood on his fingertips to fade in any crowd. Existing only as a ghost, still, something he’s learned and learned until it comes easy as breathing, and simultaneously rooted in the world careful and solid. Sun on his face, and fruit, most days. Plums dark with sweet juice dripping like blood down his chin. He drinks rosemary tea every morning, bitter and fragrant. Pots along his windowsill, plants stretching toward the light. He knows how that feels.
He bites his nails when he’s not thinking. A habit he had before, maybe, except these days it’s painful. Rising from a memory to discover his nails shredded, fingertips raw. Gnawing on the skin at the edge of his thumbnail until he has to get up and spit and spit into the sink. Pours himself a glass of water like that’ll wash the taste of iron off his tongue. His plants are drooping; he doesn’t remember when he last watered them. Fills his glass again, soaks them until the earth at their roots is dark and soft. Digs his fingers into the soil like his blood might help, even now.
It stings. He flinches, reflexive. Knocks a pot sideways, and it falls to the floor in a loud explosion of earth and plant matter and ceramic shards. The roots of the sage exposed and pale, and Bucky sits down in the mess, and cries. Tears bitter with salt, rising up, and he thought they bled this out of him. He thought-
He pieces the pot back together. It’s slow and imperfect and Bucky’s fingers stick together with the glue but in the end it’s whole again, of a sort. He fills it again with soil. Sets the sage into the pot, presses the earth down around the roots gentle and tender as he can. Water streams from the cracks where they’re not quite solid, and he sets it down on a saucer, and leaves it be.
It’s Sam who finds him, in the end.
“Been looking for you,” he says, sitting down at Bucky’s table, and Bucky lets him. Watches, cautious, as Sam digs in his bag and pulls out a loaf of bread. A jar of honey. “You hungry?”
Bucky is always hungry, these days. It’s like trying to fill a broken jug with water, like whatever way in which Hydra hollowed him out left him aching with it. He gets two plates from the pantry. A bread knife from the drawer, and he offers it to Sam, handle-first. Saying nothing and hoping the gesture is clear.
The crust of the bread crackles as Sam slices through it. Leaves crumbs on the table. It’s comb honey, translucently golden, and Bucky opens the jar, fishes out a fragment with his fingers. Lets it melt, slow, on the tip of his tongue.
“How did you know-” he asks. Bites himself off before he finishes. Sam’s gaze is gentle. Eyes just the color of rich earth, like maybe Bucky could grow if Sam just kept looking at him the way he’s looking right now.
His mouth tastes like flowers, like sunshine caught liquid.
“What do you want?” Sam asks, conversational and easy. “If you could have it, what would you want?” and Bucky thinks about his herbs on the window, flowers growing wherever they can. A fragile stem unfurling. Finding a crack and blooming, soft.
“A garden,” he says, and it’s true. Sam’s honey sits sweet in his mouth, makes words come easy.
“Would you come home?” Sam says. “Is that what it’d take?” Bucky watches him bite into a slice of bread, thick with honey. There’s a gap between his front teeth and he licks his lips, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Chews his bread thoughtfully, still looking at Bucky.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. Voice rough. “That’s what it’d take, I guess.”
He lifts his fingers to his mouth. Takes out the comb. He’s sucked the beeswax clean.
This homecoming is bittersweet the way all homecomings might be, perhaps. He’d never let himself imagine it. Even in war, even in capture. When I go home, the catchphrase of any bored soldier, a dream and a mantra repeated, and he had bitten it down. Bucky shipped out knowing that was the end. Never dreaming of home, except as a place where Steve might be, and then Steve was there, and Bucky had known there’d be no soft return into a place he’d once left.
Steve still carries Bucky’s protection, shield and blood, and it makes Bucky’s mouth taste of rust and salt. Something burned, maybe. He catches Steve catching his flinch, and it hurts, an ache in his chest, but they can’t outrun this history. Can only sit with it, and wait for it to heal smooth. They’ve still never talked about what Bucky can do. Whatever it is he might be.
Their house is small, probably too small for the three of them, but it’s warm with sunshine and Sam’s laughter. Bucky taps iron nails into the doorframes, pricks his fingertips on a fine needle and touches them against the wood and the metal.
“Warding?” Sam says like he’s curious, and Bucky blinks at how easy he asks it.
“I- yeah,” he agrees. “Something like that, yeah.” Lets himself look at Sam for one long moment. “It doesn’t bother you?”
“Hell no,” Sam shrugs. “You wanna keep us safe, that’s just fine by me.”
Huh, Bucky thinks, and remembers honey and lemon verbena, and before that, Steve’s awkward thanks, his drawn-in shoulders and cautious eyes. This is. Different.
He gets his garden. Carries cuttings home from where he’d run to, rosemary and sage and mint, a thyme plant just beginning to flower, and sets them in the ground, lets them spread sprawling and wild. He grows flowers, too, in blood and bone, earth soft and black under his nails. Iron-dark, and everything blooms so quick he wonders if there’s something more to it. Sam joins him in the garden most days. Quiet, usually, just watching him work. Sometimes with a book, a mission report, reading silently to himself while Bucky weeds. When Bucky glances over at him, Sam’s letting his fingers brush along the edge of a flower petal, so gentle Bucky can hardly breathe for the tenderness.
“I never had anything like this before-” he admits. Cuts himself short instead of finishing. Before the war, before I died, before they changed me. Sits down next to Sam, and gestures at the garden. Sam nods thoughtfully like he knows what Bucky’s saying.
Bucky hardly knows what he’s saying. I never had anything like this before, and maybe what he means is, nobody ever knew what I can do and didn’t mind it. He thinks, perhaps, that if he were braver he might reach out and let his fingers brush against Sam’s just exactly the way Sam had touched that flower.
A bee lands on his finger, so light it’s weightless. Crawls up the length of his hand to his wrist, and Bucky watches it, breath caught between his teeth.
It stings him, sudden and sharp, the pain more surprising than anything else, and Bucky sucks in a breath, shakes it off.
“Are you allergic?” Sam asks, and Bucky shakes his head. Frowns a little.
“I can’t remember,” he admits, “I don’t think I…” I’ve never been close enough to find out, is what he means, except he has a flash of memory, sudden. Warm grass, and sun golden on Steve’s hair. The sharp pain of a sting in the arch of his foot. If “No,” he says, firmer. “It’s fine.” Looks down at the bee and feels a flash of regret.
“Even so,” Sam says, “you still got the stinger in there, man, let me take a look.” He grabs Bucky’s hand. Peers at it, closely, and eases the sting out with the edge of a fingernail, brushes the pad of his thumb over the spot. “You’ll live,” he says, a little teasing, and Bucky lifts his hand to his mouth, sucks at his wrist like that’ll ease the pain. Catches how Sam’s eyes widen fractionally, and thinks, maybe.
It’s not something Bucky would ever ask. You know what I am, you think maybe you might be-
But Sam’s in the garden and Bucky can’t help but think again about eyes the color of dark earth, about honey like Sam knew somehow what it’d take to heal this ache. When he looks at Sam he thinks of flowers blooming.
It’s a hot day; Bucky drags the back of his wrist over his face, wipes sweat wet off his brow. Blows hair out of his eyes. It’s sticking damp to his forehead, and he should have tied it back before he came out here. He glances down at his hands, the dirt on his skin. Blows hair out of his eyes again, ineffective, and Sam laughs.
“Come here,” he says, and Bucky settles into the grass at Sam’s feet. Sam’s hands are gentle, smoothing his hair back from his forehead and gathering it into a braid. His fingers are deft and quick, brushing along Bucky’s hairline, stroking light over the delicate skin behind his ear. Bucky sighs soft under his breath. Tilts his head back into Sam’s touch, and hears Sam laugh again. Bucky is so warm he can hardly remember a time when he was ever cold.
“I don’t have a hairtie,” he murmurs. Glances down at his hands again. His shirt is so old there are holes along the hem; it hardly takes a minute to tear a strip off, loop it into a makeshift band. Sam sighs a little.
“Really?” he says, “that’s how it is?” but he ties off the braid, reaches out, picks a buttercup. Tucks it into the braid, and when Bucky tilts his head back and back so he can see Sam’s face, he’s smiling.
“Am I pretty?” Bucky asks, half-sarcastic and half-serious, and Sam’s smile softens.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “yeah, you’re pretty, alright,” and Bucky imagines Sam with flowers in his own hair. Circling his head like a crown. He knows just which flowers to pick. Dog rose and chamomile daisies and clover, a spray of ivy, and it’s the work of minutes to twist them all into a circle, to let magic settle easy and soft into the stems. The kind of protection spell he’s only ever worked once before, and it’s so much simpler now with flowers in his hands and the sun on his skin.
Sam’s settled more comfortably into the grass, stretched out and face tilted up to the sky. His eyes are closed, face serene, and Bucky lets himself look again, careful, as if his gaze might disrupt this gentle quiet.
“Hey,” he says, “Sam,” and Sam cracks open his eyes, props himself up on his elbows.
“Can I-” he says, biting his lip, and leans in closer. Can I? Can I? Can I put these flowers in your hair, can I get that close, can I protect you with my own blood. Can I kiss you. Will you let me?
“Oh,” Sam says, “oh,” and then he’s smiling again, that smile that makes Bucky want to touch his mouth. Tilting his head for Bucky to settle the circlet of flowers down over his forehead. “Am I pretty, baby?”
“You’re beautiful,” Bucky says, “you’re so- you’re beautiful, fuck, how do you not know that already,” and Sam’s smile softens and softens until Bucky can’t breathe, until he sees it, his protection on Sam’s skin and Sam’s kisses sweet like honey and lemon verbena and the gentle warmth of the sun. Like what Bucky is, what Bucky can do, is beautiful too, maybe. The kind of soft magic he thought he’d lost when he fell.
Do you know what I am, he doesn’t ask, and the way Sam kisses him, Bucky can hear the reply.