There was something on the table that didn’t make sense. As Steve approached, he could make out the glint of metal and a shape like an empty pile of clothes. Something that didn't belong in this room.
He was still staring when he heard Bucky say his name, soft and glad like he was waking from a bad dream and hadn't expected to find Steve there. And there was Bucky—swaying on his feet and looking bruised and sickly beneath the greenish light but smiling like Steve was the best thing he'd ever seen.
“I thought you were dead,” Steve said. His voice came out sounding very young.
Bucky didn't seem to notice. “I thought you were smaller,” he said. His eyes were wide when they swept Steve from head to toe—confused by the changes but not upset, not angry about what Steve had done. Just like Steve had known he would be.
A shiver went through Steve and he reached out, needing to touch Bucky, just for a second, just to squeeze his shoulder or clasp the back of his neck and feel the familiar beloved shape of him beneath his hands. To prove to himself that Bucky was okay; that he'd gotten here in time. But something exploded in another part of the factory and when he turned back Bucky had moved out of reach and was staring at something off to the side with a look on his face that Steve had never seen before.
Steve swallowed past the sudden thickness in his throat. “Bucky.”
Instantly, Bucky's eyes flicked back to Steve's. Wide but steady. “We can't stay here.”
Steve led the way through the burning factory. Behind him, Bucky was as silent as Steve's own shadow and it felt like he was forgetting something important but he didn't let himself look back.
Bucky was quiet on the walk back to the Allied camp. He didn't seem interested in the guys from his unit and they looked confused when Steve brought Bucky over to show them he was all right. They'd said that no one ever came back from the isolation ward but they didn't know Bucky like Steve did. One of them, a big guy with a mustache and bowler hat, took a step forward with his fists raised but it was just leftover adrenaline from the fight and they left him with his friends to settle down.
“You owe him money or something?” Steve asked.
Bucky didn't answer right away. He had gotten hold of a gun from somewhere and cradled it with the same casual ease as a baseball bat or a neighbor's screaming child or anything else you put into his hands. In the weak morning light he seemed thinner and his eyes more grey than usual, all the blue faded out of them as he scanned the treeline. He was filthy and exhausted but the sharp line of his jaw and the way his hair fell across his forehead still made him look like something from a movie, like something too good to be true. Steve couldn’t look away.
“Ah, you know how some guys are,” Bucky said, the corner of his mouth pulling up in a shadow of the wry grin Steve knew so well. His pale eyes met Steve's. “They just can't stand to lose.”
They let Steve choose his own team. There were a few uncomfortable looks when he named Bucky as his second in command but Steve stood firm: Falsworth might be a lieutenant but there was no one Steve trusted more than Bucky. He couldn't do this without him.
Before their first mission, Steve took Dugan aside. He hadn't taken a swing at Bucky since the factory but he wouldn't look at him either and he bristled every time his name was mentioned. There was a mulish set to Dugan's face but the rims of his eyes grew red when Steve explained that he wouldn't take a man into the field if there was going to be friction between him and the squad's sergeant. Whatever issue Dugan had with Bucky, whatever had happened between them, he needed to let it go because they would all have to rely on each other when they went up against Hydra. Fighting among themselves was going to get someone killed.
Dugan's jaw worked for a moment before he spoke. “You know, he’d talk about you. All the time. All that trouble the pair of you got up to back in Brooklyn. Like that thing with the Woolworth’s. Or the time you stole the iceman's horse and his daddy gave you both a licking so hard you couldn't sit for a week. He used to gas on and on about all that when we were stuck in that damn cage listening to guys hacking their guts out and wondering who was gonna be the next one they dragged away. And then it was him.”
Steve opened his mouth and then shut it again. His heart was suddenly beating very hard and very fast for no reason at all.
“Yeah,” Dugan said under his breath. “That's Jimmy for you. Always running his damn mouth.” He nodded once, sharply, and then rolled his broad shoulders like he was settling a weight across them. “No, Cap. We aren't gonna have a problem.”
In the far corner, Bucky tilted the glass of whiskey he’d been nursing for the past hour and shrugged when Steve glanced over. Whatever bad blood there was between him and Dugan it looked like he was willing to put it behind him too. This was good, this was what Steve had wanted, and it was just the smoke from the coal fire that made his voice come out so hoarse when he said, “You might if you keep calling him Jimmy. He hates that.”
Dugan's mouth pinched in at the corners; not quite a smile. “You know, he never mentioned it.”
Dugan was as good as his word. Out in the field, the seven of them became the kind of team Steve had always dreamed of leading when he was lining up his wooden soldiers beneath his father's unchanging sepia stare. He was the commander and Bucky their sniper but they planned the missions together—Bucky disappearing between one breath and the next to scout out the route ahead and then back, reading the map over Steve's shoulder and offering quiet corrections that Steve passed on to the men.
Bucky did everything quietly these days. He was always there with a sarcastic aside or a smile to raise Steve's spirits but he didn't say much around the other guys and they left him alone. Bucky seemed to prefer it that way, but it picked at Steve. Back home, people had taken note when Bucky Barnes walked into a room: drawn to his quick smile and easy charm and that sudden, unfair way he had of turning serious and looking at you like you were the only other person in the world. Even when they were kids, eyes had followed him wherever he went and he had shone beneath the attention like silver polished brighter with each admiring glance. Now he faded into the background so completely that even Steve—with his perfect eyesight and years of watching hopelessly from across a room—couldn't always find him again.
The Bucky who sat at Steve's shoulder and took apart a rifle with brisk, brutal efficiency wasn't much like the one he had known back in Brooklyn. There were shadows beneath his eyes and a cold stillness at the heart of him that Steve didn't know how to reach and whenever he wasn't looking at Steve he would be staring out at the horizon; eyes narrowed like there was something out there that only he could see.
War changed men: Steve knew this. Bucky was different now but he was still here, still Bucky, and Steve didn't love this new quiet version any less than the smiling boy from his memories.
One night, Steve jolted awake with his hands curled into fists and his throat aching like he'd been crying out in his sleep. He looked at Bucky lying awake beside him in the tent he always insisted they share—face half hidden in shadow but close and safe and so handsome it suddenly made Steve's entire body hurt to not be touching him. Bucky's cheek was like ice beneath his shaking fingertips and his eyes calm as Steve leaned in. Like this was something they had both been waiting for.
When Steve had imagined kissing Bucky he had always thought of the restless living heat of him—the strength in his hands and the satisfied way his mouth curled up at the corners when he kissed his chosen girl at the end of the night. He had thought of how Bucky would feel beneath his hands; the flex of muscle, the softness of his skin. What it would take to be the cause of that low groan Steve sometimes heard from the other bed late at night when he was lying very still and pretending to be asleep.
But Bucky was silent as Steve kissed him, lips cold and dry and so soft that Steve could barely feel them as they parted beneath his own. Blood pounded in Steve's ears and his breath grew heavy and frantic as he pushed forwards, feeling half in a dream, grasping for something that still seemed maddeningly out of reach even now that he had Bucky's mouth against his and their bodies pressed tight together. He tried to get a hand in Bucky's thick hair, tried to pull their hips together and work a hand up beneath Bucky's shirt to feel the hot smooth skin of his back but nothing felt like it was enough.
“Bucky, please,” he finally gasped, ashamed of how weak he sounded.
Bucky touched his forehead to Steve's. The dark fan of his lashes looked like hollows carved into his face. “All right,” he whispered. “It's all right, Steve.”
Steve let Bucky roll him onto his side, his back to Bucky's chest. Cold breath stroked the nape of his neck, making him shiver, and then a hand slipped down the front of his pants. He kept the strokes tight and desperate using the rhythm Steve showed him and Steve screwed his eyes shut until there was nothing but the feeling of Bucky surrounding him, wanting him, loving him, and the rough warmth of his hand and the filthy sweet encouragement he could almost hear breathed against his throat and when he came it was wrenched out of him like a sob.
Afterwards, he lay panting and trembling with aftershocks. It took a while for him to realize he couldn't feel Bucky against his back anymore or hear him over the clamor of his own heart. “Bucky?”
Silence answered. From outside the tent came the creak and rustle of bare branches overhead and the far-off cry of a bird echoing through the night. He didn't dare turn around.
And then Bucky's arm was back around him, a sigh planted like a kiss to the back of his neck. “Yeah, Steve,” he said. “Yeah. I'm here.”
“How long you think this war's gonna last anyway?” Morita asked one night as they huddled around a dying fire. Talk had come over the radio of a Hydra convoy due to pass through this valley in the morning so they had turned back from their extraction point and hauled ass across sixteen miles of open country to intercept it.
Snow had begun to fall as they made camp—not heavy, but relentless. The kind of snow that had always seemed gentle from the other side of glass as it smudged the city's harsh lines and made the neighborhood something soft and pale and strange. It was only later that Steve had understood there was cruelty to it too, that it was the gentleness of something that could afford to take its time because it knew it would win in the end. Dernier and Falsworth rigged up shelters to keep off the worst of the snow, but the mood was low after their long march and the bitter cold that had become harder to ignore as they settled in for the long wait until morning.
Steve looked across the fire at Bucky. The shadows beneath his eyes had grown darker over the past months and his silences steadily longer. He didn't sleep much these days, instead he would sit up and share Steve's watch—the two of them passing a cigarette back and forth as they kept their voices low, like those two kids who used to swing their legs off a fire escape and try to keep from waking the Gillespie baby upstairs.
They never talked about what they would do after the war. Steve had tried, once, but Bucky just said he couldn't think that far ahead and then pressed his lips tight together and wouldn't say anything else for the rest of the night. Before the war, they had talked about driving across America: going to see Bucky's cousins in Indiana, visiting California and the Grand Canyon. Bucky had talked about working his way up at the bank and making manager some day; about putting his sisters through college and getting an apartment with its own bathroom and windows that let in plenty of light. He'd talked about Steve going back to art school and kept talking about it even after Steve told him to knock it off. He'd had all these plans.
But Bucky couldn't think that far ahead anymore and neither could Steve. He had been born knowing how to keep putting one foot in front of the other and do what needed to be done, but he hadn't realized before now how much he'd relied on Bucky to make him feel like there could be more to life than that. To show him how to be happy.
Dernier said something sarcastic and French in response to Morita that almost turned into a fight when Jones refused to translate, but Steve kept looking at Bucky until Bucky noticed and smiled—a thin crooked thing that didn't reach his eyes but warmed Steve more than any fire ever could. Maybe Bucky wouldn't talk about the end of the war because he thought it had to mean the end of this too: that there was no place in Brooklyn for smiles and stolen kisses or the fierce and tender ache in Steve’s chest at falling asleep with the sweet spent shape of Bucky beside him. Maybe he thought this wasn't something that could exist in real life. That this was all they would ever get.
If that was true then maybe Bucky needed Steve now in a way he hadn’t before. If he couldn’t see a future where they could be together then it was up to Steve to show him. He didn’t know how anyone could expect him to give this up.
He and Bucky jumped onto the Valkyrie together. There were Hydra guards on board but they made their way to the control room where Schmidt was waiting. During the fight, Steve was thrown forward and one of his hands landed on the glowing cube. Even through his glove it burned with a desperate icy fire that tore through his veins, clawing into the deepest secret heart of him.
His eyes met Bucky's.
“Steve, don't—” Bucky started to say before a convulsion wracked Steve. Agony like a hook going into his chest and dragging something out of him along the length of his arm and into the cube, which blazed brighter, flooding the room with a terrible blue light.
When Steve's eyes cleared he wasn't touching the cube anymore and Bucky was still standing in the same spot but looked different somehow. Sharper around the edges and with a look of confused horror as he stared down at his own two hands and then back at Steve. He opened his mouth to say something and then Schmidt tackled Steve and made a grab for the cube.
Schmidt shouted with surprise when Bucky immediately threw himself into the fight and they slammed into the control panel in a tangle of limbs and German curses. Steve caught a kick to the chest that sent him flying backwards and looked up just in time to see Bucky and Schmidt wrestling over the cube. There was a crackling sound and then a screech like metal tearing and forks of lightning burst from the center of the cube, wrapping around the two of them like a cage.
“Bucky!” Steve was on his feet, was running to tear Bucky out of that thing with his bare hands.
Bucky's eyes were full of terror. He was staring at Steve, almost within reach, and then the cage exploded and there was nothing where he and Schmidt had been standing except the cube. Steve watched, numb with horror, as it burned a hole through the floor of the plane and tumbled into the ocean.
He followed soon after.
When Steve woke up in the future he learned that Bucky had been written out of history. SHIELD gave him an apartment and files on Peggy, Howard, and the Howling Commandos, but Bucky's file wasn't among them and the woman he was trying not to think of as his babysitter looked confused when he asked why.
“Barnes?” she said, her straight dark brows drawing together. “You mean the guy who died on your first mission?”
That was the official line. History had been changed so that Bucky died in the Hydra factory back in 1943 instead of on the Valkyrie eighteen months later. No mention was made of him being a part of the Commandos. No pictures of him in his handsome blue coat with his collar turned up against the wind and his Betsy resting against his shoulder. Nothing about what a good sniper he was, a good sergeant, a good man. How he had saved the world and how Steve couldn't have done it, any of it, without him.
The world had forgotten James Barnes and Steve hated them for it. He could guess why, of course. He and Bucky had always been careful but someone must have found out and it had been decided that a male lover didn't fit into the story of Captain America that had grown into something unrecognizable while Steve was in the ice. Captain America was a hero: he represented a better, simpler time when men were men and America was great. He wasn’t a queer.
Steve put his fist through the apartment wall. He woke up every night with a scream trapped behind his teeth and Bucky's death flashing in front of his eyes. Most of the time he saw the way it had really happened, saw Bucky burn away to nothing at his fingertips, but the lie had gotten inside him now and sometimes it was Bucky cold and dead on that table before Steve could save him. Forever out of reach
He thought about telling the world the truth, about making them recognize the sacrifices that Bucky had made for this country, the lives he had saved. He thought about everyone knowing that he and Bucky were queers—Bucky's eighty-five year old sister, little Becca, who had idolized her big brother even when he was just a clerk in a second hand suit letting her stand on his well-shined shoes as he danced her around their parents' front room. He thought about the way she had tipped her head back and shrieked with laughter as Bucky spun her, so light on his feet.
He put his fist through the patched-up hole in the wall and then he went out prowling the streets at night in search of something to hit. Something that would hit back.
First he found a gym, and then Nick Fury found him.
When the exhibition opened at the Smithsonian Steve let himself hope that he would find something of Bucky there. The history books might have written him out, but the exhibition was going to use newsreels and previously-classified material to tell what claimed to be the true story behind the Captain America legend. There was no version of Steve's life that didn't have Bucky threaded through the heart of it so even if they stuck to the party line and edited him out of the Howling Commandos there should still be traces. Something they'd missed.
But he had underestimated them. He scoured the exhibition: every paper, every document, the background of every photograph. He watched every newsreel—searching the corners of the frame for a familiar coat sleeve or the shadow of a tall man carrying a rifle, but the lie held here too. There was nothing.
Interviews with Peggy and the Commandos played in carefully-timed loops throughout the exhibition. The men were older than Steve had ever seen them in life and Peggy was suspended between the vivid spitfire he had known and the frail woman he visited for forty minutes every Tuesday afternoon. The interviews talked about Steve far more than he would ever be comfortable with and gave him far too much credit for what he mostly remembered as a lot of dumb luck, but they also talked about their lives after the war which filled him with a mixture of pride and sorrow, that he hadn't been able to see it for himself. That he hadn’t gotten to see the men they would become when they weren’t bowed under the weight of war.
Bucky's name was mentioned exactly twice. Once, during Dugan's interview where he talked briefly about he and Bucky going through Basic and North Africa together—which neither of them had mentioned to Steve—and ended with the lie about Bucky dying in the Hydra factory. Steve hadn't expected anything else, not really, but he couldn't help but remember all the times Bucky had risked his life to save theirs and feel disappointed in his men all the same.
The real surprise came when Bucky was brought up in Peggy's interview. She had been recounting a skirmish on the Austrian border when the interviewer interrupted to ask about the rumors that Captain Rogers hadn't been the same after his friend died. A cloud passed over Peggy's face and her jaw tightened—an expression so familiar that it made Steve ache.
“Well, I think the war left its mark on all of us, don't you?” she said after a pointed silence. She smoothed down the already flawless line of her skirt and gave him a brittle smile. “The important thing is that Captain Rogers always did his duty. We can ask no more than that of anyone.”
Steve was still thinking about that smile when he visited her the following day. Perhaps that was what made him bring up Bucky when he never had before.
“Do you still see him?” Peggy asked. At his confused look she added: “Barnes. Do you still see him?”
There was a vase of flowers on the table beside her bed and the perfume of them was making Steve's head hurt. His eyes were stinging. “He... Peggy, he died. Remember? He died in the war. On the Valkyrie. He and Schmidt were fighting over the cube and it killed them both. They died before I put the plane in the water.”
Her eyes had lost none of their beauty, none of their sharpness. These visits were the only times now when he felt truly seen and that look cut him open, made the words keep spilling out despite himself. “And no one remembers what he did. That he was with us all through the war, every step of the way. Even his family think he died in Austria in 1943. Even his sister. He used to sing her songs from the radio and help with her homework and she doesn't even question it. Nobody does. It's like everyone except you and me has just forgotten about him. Like... like he was never even there.”
Peggy closed her eyes. She looked pained.
“Oh, Steve,” she said.
Some part of him had known. It must have done.
“Do you think it was the serum?” he asked Peggy during his next visit, once he could force the words out past his sense of humiliation. He had been turning it over in his head all week; remembering what Dr Erskine had said about the serum amplifying everything that was inside of him, the good and the bad. In the sleepless early hours when he was small and weak and unable to pretend he wasn't waiting for Bucky to slide into bed beside him, it didn't seem impossible that the part of him that had loved Bucky, that couldn't imagine life without him, had been amplified too and given him a shadow to carry through the war. His own version of the Red Skull's madness.
Peggy frowned. It was one of her better days but those were coming less regularly now and she had called him Michael when he first walked in before shaking her head and impatiently correcting herself. Even on her worst days she was still the only person left alive that he trusted to be straight with him.
“Howard always thought so,” she said, eyes drifting past Steve's shoulder like there was someone standing behind him. The back of his neck prickled. “That the serum was protecting your mind the same way it protected the cells of your body. Showing you what you needed to see.”
Steve was cringing at a hundred memories of Howard's face whenever Bucky had been mentioned when she added, “But I always thought... Well. That never seemed right to me.”
“Grief can do terrible things to a person, Steve,” she said, voice light but the words falling like stones. Most of the time he looked at her and saw the woman he had known during the war, but other times he found himself on the other side of a wall that time had built between them, higher with each year she had lived while he slept, cold and unchanging beneath the ice. “I don't think you need a serum to miss someone you cared about once they're gone and you must have cared about your friend very much.” She smiled. “I should have liked to have met him.”
“You'd have liked him,” Steve said, his voice gone rough. “Everyone did. And he'd have fallen in love with you. Made a fool of himself over it.” But even as he said it he was remembering how Bucky and Peggy hadn't liked each other at all and realizing for the first time that he had done that—created tension where none would have existed. Placed himself in the middle and pretended not to understand why the two people he cared about most had no time for each other. Pretended not to be secretly pleased by the way Peggy only had eyes for him or the way Bucky, easygoing generous Bucky who had been throwing girls Steve's way since they were kids, grew tight-lipped and resentful whenever she was around.
He had tried to talk to Bucky about it once. Peggy had looked straight through him in a briefing and, at the bar afterwards, the Commandos had clustered around a table with five seats like it was the natural thing to do. They had pulled up another chair for Steve but seemed unsurprised when he chose to join Bucky in the corner instead.
“You oughta talk to them,” Steve had told him. “And Agent Carter. Give them some of that famous Barnes charm.”
Bucky made a disagreeable noise. “The Barnes charm is in short supply these days, pal. What I got I keep for you.”
Steve had tried to argue but Bucky shut him up, grey eyes intent over the rim of his glass and a smirk twisting his mouth like he knew something Steve didn't. “The hell do I care if they like me? I'm only here for you.”
Steve had scoffed and ducked his head to hide his pleasure but Bucky must not have been fooled because he'd bumped his knee against Steve's beneath the table where no one could see and Steve had felt like the luckiest guy in the world.
“Oh, I'm sure,” Peggy said coyly and Steve wondered, not for the first time, if Dr Erskine would have been disappointed by his choice if he'd known what Steve was really like.
You didn't grow up between two wars and not see what grief could do to a person, but that didn't make the words sound like any less of an excuse. Something to make him feel better about all the ways he had let down the people who put their faith in him. All the ways he had fallen short.
But there were some things it couldn't excuse.
It wasn't enough that Steve had left Bucky's body to burn in that factory, or even that he'd replaced his dead best friend with a phantom and never noticed the difference: that, perhaps, could be forgiven. But there was no escaping the fact that he'd made himself a version of Bucky who would smile sweetly and act out Steve's fantasies in ways the real Bucky never would have. Fantasies that had been rattling around inside Steve's skinny chest since he was fourteen and began to notice the curve of Bucky's mouth and the warm sharp scent of him when he threw an arm around Steve's shoulders and hauled him in close.
Those touches had been innocent. Steve had seen the delicate way Bucky handled the girls he liked—a light touch to the small of her back; a finger beneath her chin tilting her up for a kiss—and hated himself for savoring every companionable shove or the way Bucky would sigh dramatically at the end of a long day and drape his entire weight across Steve, ignoring any protests or elbows aimed at his ribs, and stupidly trusting that Steve wouldn't let him fall. Bucky had always been an affectionate guy and made no secret of loving Steve but it was never in the way Steve had longed for. Grief hadn't forced him to use Bucky's death as an opportunity to pretend otherwise.
He kept busy. He went back to the Smithsonian to remind himself of what he should have always known. He went on missions. He forced himself to learn how to live in this new world and stop resenting the people around him for not being who he wanted. He didn't mention Bucky to Peggy again and wasn't sure whether she had forgotten they ever had the conversation or was pretending for his sake. She had always been kinder to him than he had deserved.
He met another soldier out running, not entirely by accident, and accepted his invitation to visit the VA without really knowing why. There was something solid about Sam but he was wounded too in a way Steve recognized. It wasn't a surprise to hear about Riley.
“You ever see him after?” Steve asked, looking down at the pamphlets spread in fans across the small table. He touched his fingertip to one and moved it so that its edges lined up more precisely with the one beside it. “Or thought you did?”
The words hung foolishly in the air. He almost apologized, almost forced himself to laugh and steer the conversation back to safer waters, but instead he slid the pamphlet another couple of degrees to the left and tucked his hands into his pockets.
“Sure,” Sam said. “It happens. You get so used to them being there that your brain kinda fills in the gaps and shows you what you want to see. When I first got back there were months when every guy in an ugly brown jacket was Riley. Thought I was going crazy but half the guys here got a story like that. Sometimes the real problems don't start until you make it back home.”
Steve nodded. His throat felt hot and tight and like any sound he tried to make would come out wrong.
“You lost a lot of people, man,” Sam said, blunt but not unkind. “It takes time to lay them all to rest.”
Steve was saved from answering by the girl from the front desk with a stack of papers for Sam to sign. With the interruption, it was simple to make his excuses. Sam nodded easily enough but his eyes were knowing and a little contrite, like he realized he'd overstepped and maybe he had but Steve had been the one to start it so he could hardly hold that against the guy. He left with a vague promise to swing by again and no intention of ever doing so. The afternoon sky stretched above him, pale and a little too bright, as he turned his bike towards the interstate.
The summer he turned sixteen, one of Bucky's neighbors got hold of a busted up motorcycle that quickly became the obsession of half the guys on the block. No one could get much out of that old thing except black smoke and a grinding wheeze but Steve had a clear and perfect memory of Bucky lit by the evening sun and balanced up on his toes as he watched Mr Adler and one of his uncles working on her—desperately curious but not willing to get close enough to risk his new shirt. His lip had been caught between his teeth and he'd had one hand jammed in his pocket, distractedly jangling the loose change that he always seemed to have since he started working after school at the diner. His mom had threatened to sew his pockets shut more than once but the habit stuck with him right up until he left for Basic.
That was also the summer Bucky declared that Brooklyn wasn't the whole world and, first chance they got, the two of them were going to head out and see what the rest of the country had to offer. For a time, their plans had been adapted to make space for their new obsession but it wasn't until the war that either of them rode a motorcycle.
Steve had expected Bucky to ask Howard for a bike of his own or to at least argue about who got to ride up front, but he preferred to have his rifle close to hand so Steve had ridden with Bucky pressed snug against his back; arms around his waist and strong thighs bracketing his. Sometimes, when it was just the two of them in a forest somewhere far from prying eyes, Bucky would squeeze a little tighter and rest his cheek on Steve's shoulder. Just like Steve had secretly imagined ever since he first saw that pile of junk in the lot behind Bucky's building.
Except Bucky had been dead for months by then. Bucky had no more been behind him as he roared along the winding back roads of Europe than he was as Steve hit the Beltway seventy years later. It had all been in his head. Just his brain filling in the gaps and giving him what he had wanted but always known he couldn't have.
What he didn't understand was why his brain would give him that and then take it away again. Why, if Bucky had never been there, not really, Steve couldn't have him back.
When he'd called the Winter Soldier a ghost story Steve hadn't expected it to be one he had written.
The Winter Soldier didn't look like a ghost: didn't hit like one either. He stood in the middle of the street in broad daylight and was faster and stronger than anyone Steve had ever faced, short of a Norse god. The Winter Soldier didn't look like a ghost but something about him raised the hairs on the back of Steve's neck anyway: an empty ferocity in his eyes and an unnatural way of moving that made it seem like there were moments when Steve's punches were going right through him.
And then the mask came off.
After their rescue, Steve asked Natasha for everything she knew. Her lips were still pale but there was half a pint of Steve's blood working its way down a tube and through a needle into her arm. It wouldn't give her the serum's abilities and her body would painfully expel most of it within twenty-four hours, but it would give her a quick burst of accelerated healing that meant she would be back to full strength within twelve hours instead of benched for the coming fight.
Sweat glistened on her upper lip and in the hollow of her throat but her voice was steady when she said, “You first, Rogers. Something tells me you know more about this than I do, for once. Who is he?”
“He's a dead man,” Steve said. “I know that for a fact.”
She searched his face, just like she had back in the hospital before she first said the name Winter Soldier. He let her look. “There were rumors,” she said slowly. “They'd say the Winter Soldier can walk through walls. That he can stop your heart with a single touch. The kind of talk you hear about anyone in that line of work but when enough people are singing the same song you start to wonder.”
Steve's gut twisted. “He's not in that line of work. He would never work for Hydra unless someone was controlling him. Forcing him somehow. He didn't even know me.”
“Who is he?”
Forty-eight hours ago he wouldn't have told her. Everything was different now.
“Bucky,” she echoed. He saw the name click into place behind her eyes. “Barnes. Your childhood friend—the one who died during your first mission?”
The air was cool and still inside the processing plant; he could hear Sam and Fury arguing in the next room and the relentless, indifferent drip of water against stone. He could feel every place on his body where Bucky had touched him. “I went there to save him,” he said. “I thought I had. All through the war I... saw him. Like a ghost.”
Natasha inhaled sharply. “We all have ghosts. We all tell ourselves the things we need to hear to keep going.”
“Yeah.” Steve stood up so he wouldn't have to see the expression she was trying to keep off her face. He pressed his knuckles very gently against the concrete wall and thought about the kind of force it would take to leave a dent. If he could do it or if the bones of his hand would shatter first. “But I'm the one that did this to him.”
Ever since the mask fell and then flickered impossibly and vanished into thin air he had been putting the pieces together. Too slow, but that was nothing new. “On the Valkyrie. Bucky was there—I thought he was there—and I was looking right at him when I touched the Tesseract.” His fingers curled into his palms when he remembered the cold blue light and the shock in Bucky's eyes. The way he had noticed, even in the middle of everything, even without knowing what he was seeing, that something was different. How had he seen that and not realized? “We never really knew just what that thing could do, guess we still don't, but I think it made him real. A real version of the Bucky I was seeing. I did this to him and then I let Hydra get their hands on him.”
For seventy years. What had they done to him? How did you turn a ghost into an assassin and chain it to the people who killed the man it had once been?
Steve didn't know if he'd been expecting Natasha to laugh at him, to tell him he was crazy, but there wasn't a trace of her usual dark humor when he turned around. “That's not your fault, Steve.”
“It's my responsibility.”
She shook her head. Hectic spots of color were beginning to bloom in her cheeks and her breathing already sounded less labored; within hours there wouldn't even be a scar to show where the hole in her shoulder had been. “We don't know how the Tesseract works but we know it's not a magic lamp. It doesn't grant wishes and happily ever afters. I know you want to believe it's given you your friend back but the Bucky Barnes you saw on the Valkyrie wasn't your friend, it wasn't even a person, it was a memory and memories are never what we think.”
The serum made her eyes over-bright as they fixed on him, like she was trying to sear the truth of her words into his skin, but Steve was remembering Bucky's eyes. The disbelief in them as the light cleared and the terror as Steve failed to reach him in time. He was remembering the way they had turned flat and hard as Bucky threw himself on Schmidt and how there had been no difference there between that and every other time in their lives he stepped in to finish a fight that Steve started.
Natasha was still watching him. He set his jaw.
The cot sighed beneath her as she sank back into the pillows. Her smile was the same one she had worn when she told him he might be in the wrong business. “You have no idea what he is.”
“He's my friend,” Steve said.
Bucky was waiting for him on the final helicarrier.
They fought over the control chip. Bucky still moved like a blade falling and hit like a freight train but as the fight wore on he began to flicker around the edges in a way Steve had never seen before. Not the sliding in and out of shadows of the war but a strangely electric stutter, like a signal somewhere was being interrupted. The black leather of his uniform caught the light wrong and threw back slices of blue, of olive-drab, too fast for Steve to process. A patch on his shoulder grew paler, became something soft-lined and familiar, and Steve's attention wavered.
In an instant he found himself flat on his back with Bucky crouched over him; face twisted and eyes a terrible blazing blue as he pushed his hand into Steve's chest.
The touch was a plunge into frozen waters: a sharp descent with no steering. Impact and ice stealing the breath from him and the world falling away, leaving him behind, and it was all right. He'd made his choice. The helicarriers were burning and the world was safe and he had Bucky with him, he had Bucky's cold fingers stroking the edges of his heart, and it was all right to let the ice take him. It was all he had left to give.
And then the ice pulled back. His chest gave a feeble rattle and some distant part of him registered that Bucky had stopped, fingertips hovering an inch from Steve's chest and confusion knitting his brow.
I know you Steve thought he heard a voice say before the world dropped out from beneath him and he was falling again.
The paramedics found Steve beside the Potomac with his lungs full of river water and a severe case of hypothermia that no one could explain. They said he was lucky to be alive; they said it was a miracle he’d made it to shore. The moment he was out of the hospital he went looking for Bucky.
All of Hydra's secrets had been dragged into the light now and it didn't take long for them to find references to a bank vault. The place had been abandoned in a hurry: there were papers scattered everywhere and a strange bitter smell that burned Steve's sinuses and tripped something uneasy in the back of his head that felt more like instinct than memory. In the very center of the room stood a machine made of pale metal and glass whose purpose Steve couldn't figure out. Some kind of vessel, maybe. He circled it slowly, observing it from every angle, and however he looked at it there was something subtly wrong with the lines. Like one of those pictures with an extra dimension. Like something that shouldn't exist.
It was Sam who found the box in the back of an overturned filing cabinet. Made of brushed iron and barely big enough to hold a baseball but the weight of it came as such a surprise that it almost slipped through his fingers. The box opened with a simple clasp and Steve stared at its contents for several seconds before he realized what he was looking at.
Sam stopped him before he took the entire place apart. If there had been anyone standing in front of him wearing the Hydra emblem he would have ripped them to shreds with his bare hands.
He left the box in the vault but took its contents with him, carefully wrapped in a handkerchief and tucked into the inside pocket of his jacket. Two days ago, Sam had razzed him mercilessly about that handkerchief but he didn't say a word now. His face was set in the same bleak furious lines Steve could feel running like steel wires through his own arms and shoulders, drawn tight with the urge to lash out and make the world pay for what it had done, what it had taken from him.
It wasn't a new feeling and it never really went away.
Reports began to come in of Hydra bases being destroyed. Hidden bases, many of them dug deep into the hearts of cities, in warehouses and beneath office buildings. The sites Steve saw looked like a storm had gone through them—all the electrics were fried and the equipment twisted beyond recognition by something with inhuman strength. There were only a handful of bodies left behind and none had a mark on them; just a terrified expression and sometimes a damp patch in the center of their chest. Once, purely by chance, someone got there quick enough to photograph the ice crystals still clinging to the black uniform.
Hydra's ghost had come back to rattle his chains. Steve couldn't find it in himself to be sorry about that: he'd seen the insides of those bases, read the files on Bucky and the other poor souls they'd tried to replicate the process on. Every single person they found laid out among the wreckage of their work deserved whatever punishment Bucky saw fit to give them.
As summer turned to fall the reports began to dry up. They kept looking but nothing new came in and Steve should have been expecting it when Sam sat down across from him after another dead end and said there might be nothing left for them to find. That now he was free of Hydra and had taken care of unfinished business Bucky might have passed over. That he might be at peace.
He should have been expecting it, but the words were a punch to the chest. A pain he had to breathe around while Sam took pity on him and read the menu even though he always ordered the exact same thing at this chain.
To Sam's mind that would be the best outcome. When they'd started this search he still hadn't believed Bucky was a ghost instead of a clone or some kind of double, but as time passed and they uncovered more evidence about what Hydra had been trying to achieve with the Winter Soldier project he had grown quiet. Steve hadn't entirely understood why until their third Hydra base—the first one to contain bodies; the one with the videos of Hydra's early attempts at making Bucky do what they wanted. Normally, Sam didn't touch anything stronger than beer but he had helped Steve work his way through several bottles of Tequila and then sat with him on the hood of the rental car to watch the sun rise.
“I would've brought Riley back,” he'd confessed, a little loose around some of the consonants but the words very quiet and precise. “Back then. If I'd known. If it'd been something I'd known you could do. I'd have brought him back.” He dragged the back of his hand across his mouth and pulled in a wet-sounding breath. “But I shouldn't have. It's wrong and I think you know it. People die and they don't come back. That's how the world works.”
There was no way for Steve to tell him he was wrong, not when Sam had built his life since the service on the unshakable fact that the dead stayed dead and the living had to find a way to go on in spite of it. To the east, the sky was gradually turning pink and orange along the horizon. Once, a long time ago, he had sat and watched a city burn in the distance and it had looked just like that; they'd thought a new day was dawning.
“Think there's still some unfinished business,” Steve said when he could trust his voice.
Sam's eyes lingered on the left side of Steve's chest. “Maybe,” he allowed. “But he's gonna come to it in his own time. Come on, Cap. You got a life to get back to.”
He was wrong about that but Steve went back to New York anyway.
And then one night he woke up to Bucky sitting at the foot of his bed.
Moonlight spilled in through a gap in the curtains, lining Bucky with silver, and it was something Steve had dreamed so many times these past years, since he woke up alone in the future, that he couldn't breathe. Slowly, very slowly, he made himself reach for the lamp and clicked it on.
Bucky looked different from the last time he had seen him. The black uniform was gone, replaced with a hooded sweatshirt and dark-colored jeans; his legs were crossed beneath him and his hair ruffled as if from a strong wind. He looked calm and, more than that, he looked solid in a way Steve hadn't seen since that final salute at the Stark Expo—twisted up inside with resentment and shame, the skin memory of that hug making Steve's entire body feel warm and raw even as he watched him walk away for what he'd had no way of knowing would be the last time he saw Bucky Barnes alive.
“Did you make me?” Bucky asked, his voice the soft sweet scratch of a thousand late night conversations.
“Yes,” Steve said.
Bucky nodded like that was confirming something he'd already known. He was quiet for a moment and then: “When did I die?”
Misery unfolded inside Steve's chest, a space too small to contain it. “1943,” he said thickly. “I was too late. If I'd left sooner or been doing something useful instead of dancing on a stage I coulda made it. I coulda saved you.”
Bucky nodded again but his eyes were distant, focus turned inwards. “I remember that.” One hand curled into a loose fist and came to rest against his breastbone, where his dog tags used to sit. “Dying. And I remember—”
His eyes went to Steve's nightstand. Steve followed his gaze, looking away for less than a second, but Bucky was suddenly a lot closer without having seemed to move between the two points. Like the frame skipping on a projector. This close, Steve could feel a wash of cold coming off of him, like opening a walk-in freezer, and see each individual eyelash and the white gleam of teeth behind his parted lips.
He wasn't looking at Steve.
Every nerve in Steve's body felt electrified and his heart was pounding so hard he was sure Bucky must be able to hear it, but he kept his movements slow and careful as he opened the drawer of his nightstand and took out the handkerchief-wrapped bundle. Even after all these months it seemed to carry a hint of that strange bitter smell that had filled the bank vault. He gently peeled the sides of the handkerchief back and let it rest on the palm of his hand for Bucky to see.
As far as Steve could tell, they were knuckle bones from the hand of an adult man. He hadn't been able to decipher the marks carved into the smaller of the two but the sight of them made gooseflesh break out across his skin.
Bucky's eyes fixed on them greedily before flicking up to meet Steve's. Their color was impossible to make out. “You kept these because you knew I'd come for them.”
“I kept them safe,” Steve managed. “For you.” Like he hadn't been able to keep Bucky safe, not in life or in the strange tortured afterlife that had been forced upon him.
There was no sign that Bucky had heard him. “They're mine.”
“Yeah, Buck. They're yours. Of course they're yours.”
He held out his hand and something pulsed sharp and painful beneath his ribs when Bucky eyed him blankly for a long moment, like it might be a trick, before reaching out and plucking both bones from Steve's hand, so quick and neat that he didn't even feel it. They whispered against each other in Bucky's cupped palm and his expression turned soft as he looked down at them.
“There were more to begin with,” he said dreamily. Too fast for Steve to be sure of what he was seeing, his left arm flickered pale and gleaming all the way up to his shoulder before it was just the sleeve of his sweatshirt again. “They didn't know what they were doing. Then, when they had it, they only needed one, you see? One was enough. The rest were just... just to remind me.” A shadow came and went across the lower half of his face and his thumb stroked the ragged edge of carvings scored into the smaller bone, unbearably fond, like he was soothing a small hurt animal.
He lifted the bones to his mouth and for one horrible moment Steve was certain he was going to swallow them, like an ogre in a fairy tale, but he just pressed them to his parted lips and then slipped them into his pocket, leaving his hand curled protectively around them.
Pain and pressure built inside Steve's chest until he realized it was because he was holding his breath. He hadn't known until that moment that he'd been expecting something to happen once Bucky had the bones back. He'd expected some kind of change. “Sam said I ought to bury them,” he said instead of anything else. “Said it wasn't right to carry them around like a bunch of keys. You got a grave, you know. In Cyprus Hills. Your folks had a headstone made even though they, they never got a body. I haven't been. Becca told me about it.”
There was no reaction to the name. Steve's stomach dropped. “Becca,” he said again. “Your sister. You remember her?”
Slowly, Bucky shook his head.
“You remember me?”
“I know you,” Bucky said, which was both an answer and not. “It's... There's not much from before the war. I got pieces if I look for them but nothing much. It don't feel real like the war does.” His free hand curled around his ankle, thumb resting against the bone. “I had a sister?”
“You had two,” Steve told him. “And a brother. Parents, cousins, uncles, aunts... Sometimes it seemed like half of Brooklyn was some kinda Barnes.” Steve had been bitterly jealous of that at one time, when it had just been him and his mom alone in the world and there was Bucky with family everywhere he looked. It was only later that he'd realized how hard Bucky must have found that.
“Becca,” Bucky murmured to himself, like he hadn't heard the rest of it.
“I could tell you about her,” Steve said. His fingers twisted into the sheet beneath him. “About all of them. Anything you want.”
Bucky shook his head.
Neither of them said anything for a while. This whole time he'd been looking for Bucky, Steve had thought about all the things he would say—all the things he had wanted to tell Bucky but never let himself. He had lain awake counting cracks on motel room ceilings and gently rubbing his fingers against his breastbone while he thought about how he would give anything to have one more conversation with Bucky. To be with him again. And here Bucky was, a gift Steve knew he would never deserve, and the words still felt too vast and too inadequate to make it past the knot at the base of his throat.
“What else do you remember?” he asked, feeling like a coward.
“Oh, different things,” Bucky said, blinking. “More all the time. I remember the war. Sand. Blood. Snow so white it hurt to look at. I carried a rifle.” His hand sketched the shape of it in the air. “I remember it was heavy.”
“You loved your rifle,” Steve said inanely. In the strangeness of this entire situation it hadn't occurred to him before how strange it was to see Bucky without a weapon. During the war he'd always had at least one gun on him and the Winter Soldier had carried knives; cruel shining blades that moved like extensions of his arms and then flickered and vanished when you knocked them from his grasp. One of them had sliced open Steve's forearm during their fight in the street and the skin had felt cold and numb long after the cut had sealed itself shut.
A crease appeared between Bucky's brows. “No,” he said, slow like he was drawing the memory out along with the words; careful like it was made of spider silk and might snap at a sudden tug. “I didn't. I wanted to throw it in a ditch. I was good at it, didn't mean I liked it. You needed me to be good at it.”
In his letters, Bucky had talked about the extra training the Army was giving him and once he was home on leave he'd mentioned being a crack shot in the same offhand way he'd acknowledge a lucky hand of cards or a top mark at school or anything else that came too easily for him to care about. He'd worn the uniform because his country needed him to and he'd been the best because he didn't know how to be anything else but Steve had never thought to ask himself if it had been something he hated.
He replayed Bucky's words. “I needed you to?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “The Howling Commandos had to have a sniper, right?”
All the breath went out of Steve. When Bucky had said he remembered the war Steve had assumed he meant North Africa and the months he'd spent in Europe leading up to Azzano and the Hydra camp. Not this. “No, Bucky, you weren't there. You—you died in that factory and the Tesseract brought you back on the Valkyrie. You weren't with us.”
The crease between Bucky's brows deepened. “Course I was.”
“No.” Steve swallowed, tasting something old and sour at the back of his mouth. “I just pretended you were.”
“But I remember it.” Bucky's eyes slid off to the side, chasing down something only he could see. “The snow. Dum Dum's snoring. A pair of boots hanging from a tree. A chateau with a wine cellar and a... a tiger skin rug. A real one. The missing village. Gabe burning the coffee so often we figured he had to be doing it on purpose. That time Jim fell asleep in a pig pen and then panicked and shot the pig when it woke him up because he thought it was a German.”
The bones rustled inside his pocket. “I never met Jim,” he said quietly. “Not really. But they told him stories about me. I used to sit with them when you were asleep and they'd tell stories. They were my friends. They missed me.”
Steve drew in a shuddering breath.
“I remember other stuff too,” Bucky said, voice still soft and not quite looking at Steve. “I remember you kissed me.”
Steve didn't say anything and after a moment Bucky asked, “Did that happen?”
“No,” Steve said, too quickly.
Uncertainty crept into Bucky's posture but his eyes narrowed in a look Steve knew very well.
“No,” Steve said again, his heart beating itself bloody against the inside of his rib cage. He had always known that those nights in his tent were something he would have to answer for eventually but he had never imagined this. “It didn't. You weren't there. I wanted it so I pretended it happened but it wasn't real.”
Bucky touched his thumb to his lower lip. “It felt real.”
“It wasn't.” The words being true didn't make them any less painful to say, any less mortifying to lay out in front of Bucky like a pile of dirty laundry. He straightened his spine. “You weren't like that.”
“How do you know?”
It was the absolute last thing Steve had expected to hear and it shocked a breathless sound from him. “Bucky.”
“How do you know?” Steve hadn't seen Bucky move but he seemed so much closer now—expression unreadable and eyes a cool blue-grey that didn't reflect the light. The cold coming off of him was less noticeable now but Steve still felt every hair on his body stand on end when Bucky pinned him beneath that unblinking stare. “I don't know what that guy used to want so I bet you don't either. Maybe I did. Maybe I was too chicken to even let myself think about something I knew I couldn't ever have. You don't know.”
Bucky dragged his teeth over his lower lip, bit down, and then said, “Or maybe you're right. Maybe I didn't want it then. What if I want it now?”
“Yeah.” Bucky searched Steve's face and whatever he saw there made him falter. “If you... I mean, if you still did.” He seemed to retreat, going flat and colorless, and Steve reacted without thinking.
They both looked down in surprise at his hand on Bucky's arm. The material of his sweatshirt was very soft and Bucky's arm a solid familiar shape beneath it. “You're asking me that?” Steve's voice shook with something that filled him like anger but came from a different place entirely. “Thought you said you knew me.”
Bucky's arm shifted in Steve's grip; not trying to get away, just testing the hold he had on him. “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” Steve echoed. “I brought you back from the dead, Barnes. What the hell do you think you mean to me?”
“I dunno, Rogers. Probably the same thing you mean to a guy who came back from the dead for you.” Bucky was still looking at Steve's hand on his arm, lashes casting shadows across his cheeks, but the corners of his mouth were slowly curling upwards and Steve's heart gave a helpless little thump.
He shook his head. “Still gotta upstage me, huh?”
Bucky blinked, startled, and then broke into a grin. Not the cocky easy thing of Brooklyn or the stillborn grimace of the battlefield, but a wild bright thing that Steve had never seen before. Something new. Bucky was the one to reach out this time and Steve met him halfway.
It wasn't what he had imagined before the war but it wasn't those shadowed kisses shared with the memory of a dead man either. Bucky's lips were cold and a little too smooth but he clutched at Steve's shoulders and groaned when Steve cupped the side of his face, hungrily pushing into the touch and murmuring, “You're so warm,” in a low astonished voice that made Steve groan too. Bucky's cheek was cold and his hands too as they settled at Steve's waist, fingertips inching beneath the hem of his t-shirt, a cool thrilling touch that made him shiver and pull Bucky in closer. Wanting every part of him to be touching every part of Bucky, warming him up.
“You'll stay?” slipped out without Steve meaning it to when they separated. He pushed his hot face into Bucky's neck.
Bucky made a considering sound, one hand coming up to stroke through Steve's hair, just rough enough to make him tingle from his scalp to the soles of his feet. So good that he almost missed it when Bucky said, “No.”
Panic reared up inside him but Bucky kept talking. “I been thinking about you and me going away for a while. Load up your bike, maybe, and see what's out there. What do you say?”
Steve's heart began to beat very fast but he kept his voice level. “See what the rest of the country has to offer.”
“Yeah." Bucky sounded surprised but pleased. His hand slid down to spread a chill across the back of Steve’s neck, thumb stroking back and forth. “That's right. And not just the country, there's a whole world out there. We can go wherever we like and no one can stop us.” His voice turned hushed as he rested his cheek against the side of Steve's head, the kind of voice that belonged on a fire escape with a cheap cigarette to pass between them and the lives they had always imagined for themselves just out of reach. “You know, I've been to all kinds of places, both when I was alive and... after, but I don't feel like I was really there for any of it. I think I was waiting for you.”
Steve pulled back so he could see Bucky’s eyes and then kissed him, feeling his chest grow tight when Bucky smiled against his mouth like they were sharing a secret between them instead of breath. He touched his forehead to Bucky’s and traced his thumb over the curve of that smile.
“Yeah, Buck,” he said quietly. “I’ve been waiting for you too.”