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Far Strayed

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 April 2016

“They’re not going to stop coming after me,” Bucky tells Steve, somewhere in the air above Siberia. 

“Let them come,” Steve replies, furious still.  

Bucky can't look away from how Steve’s hands flex on the controls, bruised and broken fingers empty without any shield to hold. 

This is familiar: Steve’s blood seething for hours after a fight. Bucky wants to reach out and touch, just put the one hand he has left on Steve’s bruised skin and see if some of his heat will seep into his own veins. He’s been cold for decades, he thinks: a long, slow freeze. He shivers, feels it down his cracked ribs and the jagged metal where his arm was blasted away.

Steve glances back like he can hear his thoughts. Blood is dried down the side of his neck, soaked into the collar of his uniform. His cheekbone is knitting back together, turning green and yellow under his eye. “I'm not ever going to let them take you,” he says, putting the whole weight of his anger behind the words. He lifts his chin like he’s expecting a fight.

Bucky can't meet his eyes. Steve’s devotion is almost crushing. He'd forgotten how it feels to have all that intensity and will power solely focused on him. It stirs an old and nameless greed in him - makes him want things lost so long ago. 

In the bunker, when Stark had loomed over him, Bucky had been ready for it to be the end. He is old and tired and half frozen. He'd been prepared for an ending. Then, Steve had looked at him with brimstone in his gaze and Bucky had followed him, like all the times before.

Maybe there is a place where they can go. Maybe there’s a tiny corner of the earth where they can be alone and sheltered and warm. Bucky imagines somewhere no one can find them, not Hydra or Stark or the UN - a hidden spot, just for them. They can rest there, together, at long last. The mirage shimmers before him, golden and lovely, until it vanishes into the cold air around him. 

There's not a happy ending to this story. There hasn't been since 1943. Bucky shifts, feels his stump of metal rasp and burn. The arm may be gone but Hydra lurks still, living and powerful, in the space behind his eyes, hunting for a way to seize control of him, no matter how tightly he clings to Steve. It roils up like a great monster, taking away what Bucky loves most.

Longing. Bucky longs and Hydra takes away.

He looks back to Steve but he’s facing forward now and all Bucky can see of him is the broad shape of him against the bright sky.

A memory slips through the cracks, settles over Steve like a ghost: a pencil clutched between swollen knuckles and a skinny jaw set stubbornly. 

I won’t let you go down with me, he promises and that thought lets him breathe a little easier, through the inescapable chill. That’s his mission now.

Next to him, Steve is crackling, like air just before lightning strikes, and the quinjet streaks across the sky, toward something new.

 

They dump the quinjet in the Barent Sea. 

Steve puts it down on a desolate, windswept beach and Bucky watches as he peels out of his bloodied uniform, shedding it like a dead skin. They both put on civilian clothes and Steve kicks the uniform away like it hurts him to look at it.

Before they go, Steve cuts the charred wires and jagged metal from Bucky’s stump as best he can, trimming it down so it won’t snag on his shirt sleeve. “We’ll have to find something to grind this down,” he says, running a thumb over the blackened and ragged edges. He won’t look at Bucky, mouth twisting around the words like his stomach hurts; but, his bruised hand lingers inside the stump, on the exposed circuitry. “Does it hurt?”

Bucky shakes his head and wishes he could feel the delicate touch of Steve’s fingers. He thinks about catching hold of them, pressing their palms together. Steve would meet his eyes and there wouldn’t be any need for words. They used to do this, he thinks. They used to touch freely. They used to warm each other, comfort each other, know each other. Bucky remembers craving Steve’s touch, jealously reaching for Steve in any spare and hidden moment. Instead, now, he sits quietly until Steve steps away. 

Together, they load up two backpacks and Bucky waits on the rocky shore while Steve programs a self-destruct sequence into the controls. There’s a thick marine layer rolling in from the sea and Bucky watches the swells surge out of the fog, counting the beats between the waves. He feels off balance without the arm, still learning the new weight of his body in its absence. It’s like being unmoored, knocked free from his anchor. Does Steve feel the same without the shield? 

As the quinjet lifts off the ground, Steve comes to stand beside him, close enough their shoulders almost touch. ”I’m glad you’re with me, Buck,” he says, as they stare after it while it heads deep into the cloud bank. When it's gone from sight, Steve turns, marching up a shrubby hill toward the tree line. 

Bucky stays a moment longer, watches the fog light up with the explosion, before following him. 

They march across Russia and toward Estonia, keeping to back roads and trails. For the first days, they take it slow as their injuries heal - but Steve never wants to stay in one place for too long. He looks hunted, Bucky thinks. 

It’s nearing summer so they can make do with small campfires and sleeping bags. They don’t talk about where they’re going or where they’ve been: a familiar, knowing silence. It’s soothing to fall into the monotony of the march. 

Bucky can feel himself realigning, his body reorienting himself around Steve like a clock that’s finally been repaired after years of being out of time. They rise in the cool dark of early morning and hike across the terrain until they’re too tired to go further, huddling in low spots between trees and eating the ration packs from the quinjet. 

“It’s like the war,” Steve says, as they sit by the flames one night. He is wind-burned and jittery, something tightly strung beneath his skin.

Bucky turns so he can watch him, watches the flames flicker across his face: the new hardness he doesn’t remember from Italy or even Romania. It’s not like the war, he thinks. War is offensive measures and battle lines and eventual homecomings. War is a flag on a hill and allies behind you. There is none of that here. There is no chance of a homecoming, no allies, no strategies. They’re not marching toward a battle. They’re running. 

It doesn’t matter, Bucky decides as Steve stares into the darkness, as long as they are running together. 

Carefully, Bucky shifts until his side is settled against Steve’s shoulder. Steve is warmer than the fire: a deep, familiar furnace. This is what he’d been missing, Bucky thinks, for all those years in the ice and in Romania. This was that missing piece. As the orange sparks fly off the wood, Steve takes a long, slow breath and then another, relaxing in inches. They stay pressed together long into the night, until the fire burns low and the cold forces them into their sleeping bags. 

The next morning, they rise and continue their march, the same as before, but the space between them begins to shift. 

Steve touches him more, lingering against him as they brush by each other. Bucky hoards these moments and reaches back, daring to touch the inside of Steve’s elbow, his ribs, feel the heat burning inside Steve for himself. Steve pushes into every touch like he's just as hungry and desperate for the closeness. Something fragile is blooming between them and Bucky can't put a name to it. 

Some nights, Bucky opens his eyes and sees Steve watching him over a low, ashy fire, like he’s working out some great truth. Other nights, Bucky watches Steve sleep, puzzles through all the pieces of his mind, trying to put a name to the longing Steve awakens in him. 

An old scripture rises from a faded image of Sundays spent in hard backed pews, Steve by his side. For where you go, I will go. 

A couple days’ hike from the Estonian border, they follow the signs on the highway to a remote town, hemmed in on either side by dense wilderness. There’s a single Internet cafe there, and Steve slips inside while Bucky sits on a park bench across the way and smokes a cigarette up at the gloomy sky. 

Steve comes out a few minutes after sundown, street lights flickering to life as he crosses the street. His hair is brassy and the shadows around his eyes are deep. 

“Natasha already got them out,” he says softly in Russian as Bucky crushes his cigarette with the toe of his boot. “Sam and Wanda. All of them. She says Wakanda is giving them sanctuary.” He shoves his hands deep into his jacket, shoulders hunching together, prickly and defensive.

Bucky studies him in the dim light and his stomach twists oddly within him. He wants to smooth his hand over Steve’s back, treat him sweetly until he settles under his fingers. Nothing is better, he thinks, than the feel of Steve mellowing under his hands. “They knew you couldn’t come,” he says. 

Steve nods sharply and his breath is a long, smoky cloud in the air. “We’re both…” he swallows. “We’re on the terrorist watch list. They’ll all be looking for us. Natasha says it's a kill order. They’ll shoot us on sight. She said Wakanda would give us refuge too, but it's too dangerous for them for us to be there. I can't put them at risk. Not anymore than I have.”

“You could…”

“I am not fucking leaving you,” Steve snaps in English, a blast of fury that has been waiting for an outlet, maybe for days. His hands are fists and his jaw is mulish and crooked. “Do not fucking even say it.”

Bucky reaches out, settles his hand on the back of Steve’s neck, feels the short hairs and the bunched tendons. The privilege of touching Steve like this makes him warm. “I was just saying you could dye your hair,” he says instead, also in English. There’s no one around - it’s not that much of a risk. “If we’re gonna be goin’ on the run.” The words drawl out of him in an accent he barely recognizes himself. 

Steve’s anger breaks like ice, like he’d been waiting for a scrap of his Bucky. He starts off toward the windows of a still open drugstore, shoulders widening now that he has a mission. 

“I’ll just follow you, then,” Bucky says to his back. The breadth of Steve’s shadow trails behind him and Bucky settles himself into it, like a habit.