“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.”
“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.
In Radon, a couple hundred miles from Warsaw, Bucky washes dishes in a smoky restaurant off the city center, one of so many similar places clustered in a large gray stone square. He only has one hand but he manages well enough that no one cares. Steve wraps up what’s left of the metal stump in black cloth every morning and most people don’t ask any questions. There are a lot of young men with sad eyes and missing limbs drifting on the edges of society. He’s just another one of them here - no one knows who he is; no one knows the codes that will turn him into a monster.
Bucky likes the job. The kitchen is warm and smells of bread, and he likes watching the families around white draped tables through the kitchen doorway. The cook makes beet soup by the caldron and the smell lingering over Bucky’s clothes never comes out.
The owner pays him cash in a white envelope once a week and doesn’t ask questions. He claps a hand on Bucky’s back, big and friendly. His father owned this restaurant and his father’s father. The Nazis burned it down, he tells Bucky, and they rebuilt. Then the Russians tore it down, and they rebuilt.
“People will spend their life tearing you down,” he tells Bucky late one night over beer, “what matters is how you rebuild. We are rebuilders.”
Bucky goes home to Steve, finds him slumped on the rickety couch in the bare apartment they rent week to week. It reminds him a little of Romania: a tiny kitchen, a single mattress shoved in the corner, and windows covered over with newspapers. Their backpacks lean near the door, always packed and always ready. In this place, though, Steve exists more than in just confused dreams and museum pamphlets.
When Bucky closes the door, Steve looks up from his book, furrow over his brow clearing like a dawn. He’s wearing a wool sweater that he got at some second-hand store, navy blue and already fraying at the edges. It softens all his rigid lines. “Hey,” he says, English blurry like his tongue isn’t used to it after speaking Polish all day. He smiles, sleepy and warm. He’s like a fairytale, glowing in the lamplight. His hair is dyed dark, long and floppy over his eyes now. He’s working on a construction crew, blending in with day laborers as they build a school downtown.
He reaches out and Bucky goes to him, settles with him on the sagging cushions. Touching Steve is a habit now, comforting and familiar. The space between them is shrinking, drawing them into a tight orbit that consists only of each other.
This is rebuilding, Bucky thinks. Some type of rebuilding, anyway: scraping a life together from all the ruins. Maybe no one will find them here. Maybe they can stay here for weeks or months or years and Steve will cover the walls with drawings and they'll buy a bookshelf and a plant. Maybe, this time, no one will come and take them away to a war. It won’t be like Brooklyn or Romania. It will be something new.
They work in Radon for nine weeks in all. Then, one evening, as Bucky scrubs the pots, he hears the TV over the bar: “Interpol has issued an advisory in Poland that terrorists and fugitives Steve Rogers and James Barnes may have crossed into the country over two months ago. Citizens are advised to be wary and to call authorities immediately, as both men should be considered armed and extremely dangerous. The FBI and Interpol are currently offering a reward…”
Bucky lays down his dish rag and nods to the cook on his way out.
They’ll be gone by sunrise.
They cross into Lithuania on foot, traveling up the Baltic Highlands. It’s late summer and the air smells like flowers and grass. Old trees tower above their heads and Steve cranes his neck back, sun spilling along his face in dappled shadows. He swings his arms like they’re going on a hike, stripping his sweater off so he’s in his undershirt. The white fabric is tight across his shoulders.
When the cool morning starts to burn into real heat, Steve goes into an ancient market off the road and buys them thick sandwiches and icy bottles of soda. The condensation drips on his wrists and Bucky watches the water droplets race down his skin. They eat on flat rocks in the cooler shadow of dense trees a distance from the small town.
“We never made it this far east,” Steve tells Bucky, licking his fingers. He’s thinner now than when he had first come to Bucky in Romania, cheekbones standing out sharply above his beard. The bright sunlight makes it more evident. “During the war, I mean. This is something new.”
Bucky balls up his wrapper. “I killed a family,” he says, “in Kaunas.” He nods in the direction of the city. Once they crest the next hill, they’ll be able to see it. He can still smell the bread from the bakery that had been down the street, see the dark van waiting on the corner for him. It had been cold, but not quite winter.
Benign, he thinks. I am benign until I am not.
“That wasn’t you,” Steve says, jaw going tight and stubborn like Bucky is a battle to be conquered. If he just finds the right words, he can claim the victory and scale the parapets and Bucky will magically be fixed. Everything in Steve’s life is a war.
“They’re still dead.” He’s not trying to be cruel - but he can see their faces: the father and mother dying as they threw their bodies over their children; the children dying beneath their dead parents.
Steve gets up, all sharp edges and bent shapes. He paces, military footsteps.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky says at length because he never could stand to see Steve defeated. “But you know that they’re coming for me. You could make a deal. You could….”
Steve spins, grabs him by the shoulders, holds him tight. He’s burning, shimmering in the sunlight, a slash of fire between the green trees. “Don’t make me lose you,” he grits out, like the words hurt to say, like he’d rather fight instead. “Don’t…”
He must see something in Bucky’s eyes because he surges forward and his mouth is hot against Bucky’s, their teeth clacking and noses bumping. His beard burns against Bucky’s and Steve seizes the victory, pulls Bucky close and then pushes him away to glower defiantly. Then he softens, melts, anger smoothing out into sweetness.
“Bucky,” he says, prayerfully. “Bucky.”
And Bucky kisses him back.
In a cheap hotel in Latvia, a drunk is banging on the wall next door and a baby is wailing somewhere above.
Steve lies on his side just a hands width away, golden and shadowed in equal parts. His big hand rests on Bucky’s face, covering him from chin to ear, then slides down his face, his neck, calluses rubbing across skin. When his fingers touch the scars, the metal seam still there, they turn gentle and reverent.
Bucky feels heavy, exposed and pinned by the weight of everything that Steve is. Longing, he thinks, the word blurring into Russian in his head. I long for you. I have always longed for you. His heart is thrumming, beating fast like it never does in battle. Looking down the barrel of a gun is cold and steady; this is a wild inferno, blowing him apart at the seams. He reaches forward, slides his palm inside the cotton of Steve’s briefs. If he leans into this hard enough, maybe the trigger words will be pushed from his mind, overpowered by the sheer force of Steve. It’s a nice dream.
Steve’s mouth hitches and falls open, wet and warm. He moans, fingers digging into Bucky’s shoulder, as Bucky’s fingers wrap around his cock. It’s thick and heavy. Steve squirms, needy, and uses his other hand to shove down his underwear, just far enough so his cock juts out hard against Bucky’s hip.
“I got you,” Bucky coaxes. The wanting is hot in his belly, overflowing and making him ache, making him press tighter to Steve, through the sweaty skin and the rough press of the clothes they’re still wearing. His fingers move, pumping and teasing, up to the head and then down to the balls. This is, he thinks, the most home he’s had since he took a boat out of New York harbor. Homecoming. “I got you.”
The moon is outside the window and Steve comes, biting down into the meat of Bucky’s shoulder. He shudders and gasps, hands pressed over Bucky’s ribs, holding them together even as he shakes apart.
Steve’s teeth, right below his neck, are enough and Bucky’s hips stutter, his cock rubbing over the soft skin where Steve’s hip and thigh meet. He jerks and the orgasm starts at the back of his head, pouring like a flood over his brain and he squeezes his eyes, squeezes Steve. He isn’t cold anymore.
When he opens his eyes, Steve is staring back. His eyes are so blue and Bucky thinks, this, I can have this. Not for forever. But for long enough.
In Minsk, Bucky sells flowers on a street corner, thick bouquets of bright petals and leaves that fill the air with fragrance. He brings them home to Steve and puts them in a chipped vase that sits on the window sill of the shabby studio they’re subletting. He trims his hair so it’s around his ears, a bit shaggy. Steve says it brings out his eyes, as he bites his earlobe and buries his fingers in the strands.
Steve’s head is shaved now, jaw smooth. It makes him look narrow, skin stretched sharp over the angled bones of his face. He draws portraits for couples and families at the city center, wears thick glasses and speaks in a stumbling, heavy accent to all the tourists. It’s nearing fall and he wears knit sweaters with long sleeves that hide how thin his wrists have become. He signs his drawings Stefan and charges a few rubles a portrait with an old, empty paint jar set out for tips. It always ends up stuffed by the end of the day, like people think he’s starving. Maybe he is, though Bucky always fills his plate.
Bucky sells his flowers across from him, watches him sketch throughout the day. Steve doesn’t smile often - but he’s gentle and delicate and he captures a certain truth about people, something in the tilt of their mouths or the glossiness of their eyes that makes Bucky mournful and joyous in turn.
They pack it up after sundown, pick up styrofoam containers of soup on the way home, and eat together at their short, rickety table, pressed so close together their knees bump. Bucky smokes out the window, blows rings up at the yellow moon while Steve tidies up his art supplies from the day. The electricity is almost always out so they burn a candle and fuck on the thin mattress, muffling their groans in each other’s skin.
After, they fall asleep, pressed together like pages in a book. Steve seems happy.
This is something. Maybe if there had been no war, no serum, no trains, or aliens; maybe this is what 1944 would’ve looked like.
The weeks meander on and Bucky lets himself imagine a little life just like this. He imagines his fingers, gnarled and aged, still handling bouquets of flowers. Steve would be wrinkled and his hair would be silver, still hunched over his easel. The world would tick on, far above their heads and beyond their notice. They would go home together, grow old together, die together. They could be happy, he thinks, with that small, peaceful life.
(Except, some nights as the days get cooler, Steve slips out from their bed. Bucky pretends he doesn’t know and Steve doesn’t say a word. Steve always comes back, blood on his knuckles and blue eyes steady, victorious in his own private war.)
Two days after the first snowfall, Bucky sees the same man pass by Steve’s easel three times. He’s plain but he walks like he has a gun at the small of his back beneath his nondescript jacket. When he disappears around the corner the third time, Bucky sets down his bouquet and pockets his earnings for the day.
His boots crunch against the new snow and he strolls right up to Steve and taps the narrow shelf that’s covered in his pencils and charcoal. Steve looks up, eyes questioning, and then his mouth thins out. Without a word, he slides his money pouch into his coat and gets to his feet, a half-finished portrait still on the easel.
Together, they leave the square.
They head south, towards warmer weather, skirting through farmland and mountains toward the Black Sea.
Steve grows his beard out again and Bucky lets his hair reach his shoulders. They catch empty cars on long, slow freight trains, sleeping upright and pressed together as they clack over the countryside into Ukraine.
While Steve’s getting them dinner one night outside of Kiev, Bucky takes some of the cash they’ve been saving and buys two thick military wool coats at a small second hand shop. The stern-looking woman at the counter tells him he’s too skinny and he wonders what she would say if she saw Steve. Steve takes the coat without fuss and it barely strains around his shoulders. It makes Bucky feel better to see Steve bundled in the folds.
(It’s not a real memory, just the fading burn after someone turns the lights off in a bright room. It’s the sensation of Steve’s heart thumping under his palm and cold wind blowing through creaky walls. It’s Steve’s fever hot chest, bare and flushed, and fear pooling in Bucky’s stomach that this could be it.)
They spend Christmas under a bridge near the border of Moldova. Snow is coming down in thick, soft flakes and they hunch together in their bulky coats with their sleeping bags laid out behind them. Bucky builds a little fire and uses their one pan to heat water. They don’t have cups so Bucky pours the chocolate powder straight into the pan and they pass it back and forth, slurping the sugary drink off the top in big gulps. Then, they share a bottle of vodka, the burn down their throats helping to chase away the cold.
In the distance, through the snow, Bucky can see the twinkling, colorful lights of a town, bright and cold and peaceful. Bells are ringing somewhere.
“Merry Christmas, Steve,” Bucky says and kisses him slow and sweet, tasting the chocolate and the alcohol. They have no gifts to exchange but this is more than enough.
Steve presses their palms together, sliding so that they’re folded against each other entirely. He tucks his face down into Bucky’s chest, like he’s small again and he can fit all of himself in the space between Bucky’s chin and his knees. “Thank you,” he says, muffled and, together, they watch the snow fall, tucked away and safe.
BBC is on the television at a noisy bar in Odessa. They've been there an hour, hunched over a sticky table in a dim corner, when the local football match is interrupted with breaking news. A Stark Industries plane has crashed in New York. It takes them a few minutes to confirm that Tony Stark was not on board.
Steve squeezes his beer glass so hard that a crack appears, something terrible in his eyes. The bar floor squeaks under his feet as he walks out, pushing open the door and vanishing into the bright sunlight.
Bucky tosses a few hryvnia notes down and follows him, their backpacks in his one hand.
“I should’ve been there,” Steve doesn’t say - but Bucky hears it anyway.
Bucky thinks of his arm, lying in a cold tomb in Siberia alongside Steve’s shield. The metal limb had been a burden, a weight dragging him down to the bottom of the ocean. It's not the same for Steve: he’s being dragged to pieces by the shield’s absence. Bucky leans against Steve, like he can hold Steve here.
“Do you miss them?” he finally asks, his eyes on the white capped swells rolling in off the dark water.
Steve spreads his hands. His skin is brassy in the fading sunlight and he doesn't seem to see the waves. “I have you,” he says without hesitation, even though the words are thick. “They don't need me. I'm not… I can't help them now. We’re better off on our own.”
Bucky watches the way he ducks his head and hears all the words Steve doesn't want to give voice to now. After a moment, he leans in so their weight is balanced against each other. We’re not alone. We have each other.
They stand together on the street corner with the Black Sea behind them until the street lights flicker to life and a cold breeze comes off the water.
“Let’s not go to Bucharest,” Steve says as they skirt along the edge of the Black Sea. The ground is marshy and cold but the temperatures stay a degree or so above freezing.
Bucky rubs his hand over his jeans. They’re getting threadbare, edges fraying and stretching out, or he’s getting skinny like Steve is. He nods.
This is what he remembers from Bucharest: his lonely apartment and his journals. He remembers heavy dreams of Steve’s face on a skinny body. He’d wake up hard in his sleeping bag and jerk himself off while staring at the rain stained ceiling. Then, Steve had come and he had run.
Steve had chased him, and then...
They don’t go to Bucharest.
Natasha finds them in Bulgaria.
Bucky’s working in a kitchen again. He likes the warmth and the smells and the bustle of the waitstaff and the cooks. It’s a small cafe squeezed in between a butcher shop and a bank: nothing fancy but it’s comforting. Tired fishermen come off the sea and sit at the counter and eat thick stews, pulling at some vague memory of Brooklyn that Bucky thought was gone.
One of the young waitresses likes him. She flutters at him and brings him leftover cakes from tables. “Would you like to get a drink after?” she ventures one night when Bucky is already halfway out the door, itching to get back to Steve.
His mouth feels rusty when he lifts it in a half grin. “I’m sorry,” he tells her. “I’m not who you’re looking for.”
A few days later, he sees Natasha through the service window. She takes a table in the corner and orders the special of the day, sits with her hands folded and her face placid, doesn’t look in his direction. She’s willing to wait, willing to let him come to her when he’s ready.
Why didn’t she go to Steve, he thinks. Steve is her friend. Steve is the one she trusts. Bucky is… Bucky is the man who shot her in the desert and choked her in Berlin.
He remembers her at the airport, steady as she faced down Steve. Steve had halted for her, paused his headlong rush toward Siberia and waited for her to make up her mind. There was trust and care and admiration between them - and she had stepped aside to stand between Steve and the king of Wakanda. Yet now, months later, she has chosen to come to Bucky.
At the end of his shift, Natasha is still there so he takes a plate of moussaka and a mug of beer and walks to her table, not bothering with a greeting as he approaches. Her hair is a dirty blonde, long and straight, and her face is turned toward the warmth of the setting sun.
He can feel the waitress watching him sit down and feels a little bad.
“It’s been awhile,” she says in Bulgarian, once he’s taken a bite of his meal. Her head tilts in his direction but she doesn’t move. He can see the outline of her widow’s bites under the sleeves of her sweatshirt. “You’ve covered your tracks well.”
“Will they find us now?” he asks, to be sure.
She shrugs. “They are still hunting but I’m not going to help them.” The sunlight glints in her hair. “Is he okay?” she asks, switching abruptly to Russian, common enough here but it makes it harder for eavesdroppers.
Bucky eats the hot eggplant and stares down at his plate and understands why she came to him and not Steve. “He can’t do this forever,” he tells her, honest like Steve would never be. Steve buttons it up, cauterizes himself so no one would see him bleed. “I need… there has to be a way from him to come in, when it’s time.”
She taps her mouth, fingernails bare even though he remembers them being red. “Tony would help,” she tells him and then reaches across, grabs his beer, takes a long draught. “He’s… he hasn’t said it but he misses Steve.” She doesn’t have to finish it. This is an offer for Steve, not for Bucky.
He nods. It’s as expected. “Get it ready. Please.”
They make it to Albania as spring starts to turn warm, working their way along the hills toward the coast.
Steve picks up a newspaper as they pass through Greece when he sees T’Challa on the front cover.
“They’re not hiding anymore,” he tells Bucky as they hitch down a long road, dust blooming up beneath their feet. “They’re opening their borders to help people.” He sounds like he did back when the war started and he’d watch the footage of the RAF on the newsreels. Wonder and jealousy would rage inside his eyes, festering there like a sore until he’d get a black eye in some back alley.
Bucky presses his shoulder into Steve’s. It won’t be much longer now. He’s been blessed to have Steve, like this, for as long as he did.
“I have an idea,” Bucky says.
There’s a beautiful hotel on a cliff, overlooking the blue, blue Mediterranean, and Bucky books them a room with a balcony. The clerk sniffs at their clothes, covered in days of road dirt, but they have the cash so she hands them keys. It’s not quite tourist season yet and the streets are heavy with a gentle hush as they wait for summer.
They get coffee at an outdoor cafe, hold hands underneath the tables as they sit below yellow umbrellas. They kiss on the beach, lying in the sand with the surf pounding just feet away.
Steve settles in degrees, shadows shedding from his eyes as the sun swells large in the sky. He laughs faintly, mouth tilting up in the corner in a smile. The sight of it does things to Bucky’s insides, makes him ache. He’s a plant, turning toward the sun.
At night, they curl into the squeaky hotel bed and kiss under the covers. Bucky kisses hard, kisses with devotion, kisses like this will be the last time.
In the late afternoon of their last day, they lie on the beach and Steve gets out his sketchbook for the first time since Minsk.
Bucky goes down near the water, where low tide is pulling the ocean back and the sand is wet and packed firm. He starts digging, pulls out a round moat and then starts on towers and ramparts. A fortress, he thinks, looking back at Steve. It’s slow work with one hand but he makes do.
He hears the giggles at his back when he’s pushing sand together for the main parapet. Two young boys stand there, still soft with childhood and already tanned from the sun. They’re watching him, eyes wide.
He’d had sisters. He feels the ghost of small hands slipping into his own.
“Well?” he says in Albanian. “I need driftwood for the drawbridge.”
They scamper away.
When the castle is done and the boys have been called for dinner, Steve comes to stand alongside him, facing the sinking sun. The sea is coming in again, lapping over their ankles and dragging away before rushing back even stronger. Above them, the sky is golden and pink as the tiny stars flare into existence.
Steve’s hand slips into his and he lays his head on Bucky’s shoulder, leaning close like they share the same soul. They sink deeper into the sand, as the waves suck the grains from beneath their feet. They’re growing roots in the very spot, this very moment, anchoring themselves here, to this moment of peace.
Next to them, the castle’s walls slough away under the rushing waves and the beach grows dim and cold.
In Croatia, Bucky works at a narrow newsstand right off a park. He gets in early and stays late and does his best not to look down when the odd paper with their faces crosses the shelves. There are a couple guys with similar newsstands nearby and he gets in the habit of sitting with them during breaks, smoking up at the cloudy sky and listening to them talk about their families and childhoods and futures.
“You have children?” they ask him.
He shakes his head, thinks of the boys on the beach.
“Someday?” they ask.
He taps his cigarette against the bench, watches the ash fall to the sidewalk. “Too busy,” he says.
Steve works construction again. The manual labor clears his mind, he says, tires him out. He comes back to the dreary room they rent stinking of sweat and sawdust. He’s all muscle now, rip corded against his skin, nothing soft left. He’s raw and pushed to the edge.
The world is coming. Bucky can feel it. They’ve been running from it for months now across seasons and borders but it’s only a matter of time now. The headlines are growing more ominous: alien sightings, government corruption, floods, famines, terrorists. Steve clings to him tighter, as if he knows a choice is speeding toward them, waiting for the inevitable crash.
Their nightmares come fast and frequent now. They jerk awake next to each other in the dark, the sound of their neighbors and the rushing cars pulling them back to the present. Steve touches his face and his sides, looking for wounds that aren’t there. “You’re safe,” he tells Bucky. “I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”
Bucky tilts his head into Steve’s neck and thinks the same.
On a muggy Friday evening, Steve gets into a fight. They’re walking home from work, the streetlights have come on in the dusk light, and Steve must see something because he’s crossing the street and hauling a big guy up by the scruff of his neck before Bucky has time to take a breath.
The guy has friends, of course, and by the time Steve has tossed the first guy to the ground, two more are jumping on his back. He shakes them off like annoying fleas. Light from the bar spills across the street and Steve looks huge in the gathering shadows, out of place among mortal men.
Bucky thinks he always looked like that, even when he was 98 pounds. He doesn’t wade in like he used to though; he just sits down on the curb with his elbows on his knees and watches.
Furnace, he thinks, unbidden.
Steve doesn’t throw any punches, keeps his coiled strength pulled back and tamed even as his eyes are ablaze. “Go home,” he instructs the three men when they’re all panting on the ground. “Sleep it off.” He turns and rubs his knuckles over his mouth like he’s exhausted.
“Did that help?” Bucky asks when they’re walking again. He bumps their shoulders together. I’m here.
Steve frowns, kicks the gray stone road with his foot. “I don’t know,” he says, jaw set like he’s grinding his teeth.
They don’t stay much longer after that, leaving the city under the cover of darkness the next night.
In Montenegro, they squat in a deserted warehouse with old farm equipment and stray cats that hiss when they come too close. They sleep on the floor with their backpacks as pillows.
They’ve been moving across the country, getting day jobs harvesting crops for the small farms that dot the countryside. Steve’s beard is shaggy now and his hair is long enough that he occasionally borrows one of Bucky’s hair ties to pull it back.
One of the other workers nudges Bucky as they move across a field of corn. “You come from Sokovia?” he asks in mildly accented Russian, the common language most of the workers speak.
Bucky makes an affirming noise. It’s best to let other people create their own stories about them.
The worker nods, as if knowing. “Many men who come from Sokovia have that look in their eye,” he says, gesturing to Steve. “Families. Friends. Homes. Pffft,” he snaps his fingers. “All gone. Just like that. Battles between heroes and gods and we are left broken.”
That night, a summer rain moves through the town and Bucky lies in Steve’s arms, their sleeping bags zipped together, and listens to water drip from leaky ceilings to rusty metal. He feels Steve’s heart throb against his spine and tries to imprint this (the heat of Steve at his back, the smell of Steve in the damp air, the firmness of his arms around Bucky) into his mind.
It keeps raining.
Late summer storms aren’t uncommon but days and days of rain are. All across Eastern Europe, water is pouring from the sky in buckets, from the mountains to the coast.
Steve looks waterlogged, even with the cheap raincoats Bucky got at a thrift store. He doesn’t seem to mind the rain, walks with his hood pushed back and his face turned up like the rain is cleaning something inside. Water drips down from his hair, runs in rivulets through his beard and clings to his eyelashes like he’s crying.
They ride in the empty cars of trains across Montenegro and Serbia and end up back in Romania (freight car, Bucky thinks as he leans against the wall of the train, Steve tucked close to his side, freight car), sleeping under bridges and beneath overpasses for bits of shelter from the downpour. There’s no work to be had.
Bucky doesn’t like the rain.
In one of the small border towns, the news breaks.
Bucky is at a shabby hotel desk, trying to barter with their limited cash for a room - one night out of the rain and in a bed. He’s starting to feel drowned and over-saturated. A desperate and wild thing is building inside his head: maybe that’s what days without the sun does. They don’t have enough money but the clerk eyes his missing arm and starts lowering the price.
Steve bursts through the door as he’s about to get the room keys and grabs his arm. “We have to go,” he says in choppy Romanian, like English is straining at his tongue. It’s almost second nature for both of them to avoid their native language - but Steve always struggles with it when his blood is hot.
Bucky follows Steve out into the rain and the deserted streets. “What the hell?” he finally asks when Steve keeps striding forward like they have some place to be. He feels grouchy and his hair is dripping in rivulets down his neck and face. He needs a bed.
“The Danube is flooding, in the towns at the foot of the mountains. We have to go help,” Steve says matter-of-factly. The rain slides down his face and slicks his beard against his face - he’s not wearing his hood again. “I found a truck driver that will take us part of the way.”
At the base of the mountains, the sky is never-ending gray and the rain smudges the horizon, pulling all the clouds down toward the soaked earth.
Steve is covered in muck, traipsing in and out of flooded shops and homes with anyone else able bodied from the town. He carries children and pets and precious belongings out of reach of the rising waters on his broad shoulders. He hauls sand bags to help with building dams, double and triple what any other human could. He lifts the roofs of crumbled buildings, wades through waist-deep water with bodies in his arms. He breaks through the ceilings of flooded houses with his bare hands and hauls people trapped inside to safety. He works tirelessly, ceaselessly. People are depending on him and Steve Rogers can go all day.
There are tents set up on the high hills above the river, and Bucky works there. It’s almost like the kitchens of Radon and Bulgaria. Bucky’s seen enough cooking and he takes over the huge pots of soup, dumping in a little of this and a little of that and building something thick and hearty. He watches cold hands clutch the warm bowls and feels like he’s holding the absent sun in his chest.
Steve comes up now and then from the flooded areas, mud smeared across his beard and all down his front. His eyes are bright above the muck and his hands are steady as he holds the bowl Bucky passes him. Something settles in Bucky’s soul when he can watch Steve eat. He wonders if this is one of the constants of being Bucky Barnes, a bare remnant that has survived the better part of a century.
Aid arrives on the second day, hampered by the washed out roads and bridges. Bucky keeps himself small behind the soup table and is glad for Steve’s beard.
“You gotta keep your head down,” he murmurs to Steve at the back of one of the tents while Steve takes a break, changes into drier clothes. “Don’t carry too much or go too long without resting. People are gonna...”
“I’m not gonna do anything less than my all, Buck,” Steve says, bent over his boots, his bare neck soft and clean in the dim light. He sits up and his hair flops over his forehead. There’s mud across his cheekbone, streaking back into his hair. He’s weary but he’d always been one to push past the edge of exhaustion when there were people to save.
Bucky swallows and touches the side of his face. He feels unspeakably tender toward this man. “If... if someone catches on, we’ll have to run,” he says. Not yet, he prays. I’m not ready. Not yet.
Steve looks down at his bruised hands and worn boots. “Yeah,” he says, resigned. “Yeah, I know.”
They get 38 hours before Bucky sees one of the aid workers eyeing Steve as he lifts a fallen tree off of a young man’s leg. The tree had been old and heavy and ten people had been trying with no success until Steve had come, lifting it off with ease so the injured man could be taken to safety. The aid worker trails after Steve for a few more hours, observing him like he’s trying to make a decision. Bucky lurks in the shadows behind him.
That night, the aid worker slips away, out the back of the tent and into the mucky field near the swollen river. The rain has finally stopped but the air still hangs heavy with water. Bucky slides along the shadowed line of trees, staying out of the light spilling from the tent. He can smell the stew he made for the evening, hear the murmur of families starting to rebuild their lives.
“Hello,” the aid worker says in French, “I think I have information on Steve Rogers...”
He never finishes. Bucky slides his hand around his throat, squeezes in just the right place. The man struggles for a second and then goes limp, unconscious. Bucky throws the phone into the river and walks back into the tent, casually, hand in his pocket.
“We have to go,” he says in Steve’s ear. “Now.”
Steve follows him out into the night.
Bulletins go up as they cross back toward the Black Sea, pictures of their faces above a hotline and a promised reward. In the sketch, Steve’s face now has a beard.
They sleep during the day in old buildings and under tunnels, and travel at night, moving steadily toward Turkey. Bucky feels the edge under his own skin, a constant itch of awareness that they’re the prey and the hunters are closing in. He can see the same reflection in Steve’s face.
They don’t go into towns now, stay off the main highways and away from the train yards. Everyone’s a threat. There are plenty of small farms and they take eggs and fruit and bread when they can. Steve leaves money behind, always more than enough.
Steve gets thinner still, and his eyes go flat. Every chance he gets, his eyes go to news stories about the floods, the people that he can no longer help. He’s a shadow now, Bucky thinks, a ghost moving through the dark. He doesn't smile, doesn't laugh. He's wasting like a plant cut off from air.
Steve soldiers on in silence, like he did in Brooklyn and Italy and Siberia and hundreds of other times where Bucky could do nothing but march along behind him. He holds Bucky tighter when they rest, sticks closer as they walk. He's cagey and jumpy and overly protective.
It’s starting to get colder at night and their breaths are foggy puffs in front of them. Soon, it’ll snow again and Bucky doesn’t know what they’ll do if they can’t rent a room somewhere soon. Their money is getting lower and they can’t work with their posters on every news bulletin. They’re running out of options.
“I won’t let them take you,” Steve tells him in the dark as they trek across the wide flat hills, the silver moonlight lengthening their shadows. “I promise you, Bucky. I’ll die first. They won’t take you.”
Early one morning, before they stop for the day, Bucky slides away and goes off into the woods. He pulls out the flip phone Natasha had pressed into his hand weeks ago in Bulgaria.
“Is everything ready?” he asks when she picks up.
She doesn’t miss a beat. “Interpol is right on your tail,” she tells him. “They saw you on a security camera in Levka.”
“Is everything ready?” he repeats.
“Tony is on board,” she tells him, almost gently. “Steve won’t... he won’t sit in a prison.”
Bucky sighs. “Good. That’s good.”
They make it to Turkey, slipping over the border at the Strandzha mountains during the dead of night.
Steve has this vague idea in his head that if they can cross through Turkey, they can get to Georgia and loop around the Black Sea to the Ukraine and up to Belarus or Moldova. “They won’t expect us to head that way,” he tells Bucky as they head toward Istanbul. “And they don’t have an extradition policy there so no one will be looking.”
Istanbul is busy and anonymous and their posters are nowhere to be seen. They rent a single room from a matronly woman. It’s the size of a closet and they sleep curled together on the single twin bed. Bucky finds them both jobs at a tiny market. He works as a cashier and Steve works in the back, carrying the large loads to and from the truck.
“Just a few days,” Bucky soothes him. “Until we build up some cash.”
Steve is constantly on edge, faintly vibrating with the need to run, to hide. He twitches awake all night long.
They've been lucky so far and Bucky thinks if they can just make it a couple more weeks, maybe they have a chance of making it out of this net tightening around them. Maybe they can have a few more months. It'll be winter again soon and they can head west, spend the colder months in Portugal or Spain. They can have a real bed for Christmas this year.
Bucky whispers plans to Steve at night when neither of them can sleep, imagines a wide open future just waiting for them.
On the third evening, their luck runs out.
Bucky is walking back to their room alone from his late shift at the shop. The streets here are quiet, yellow light spilling from open windows and the sound of cars faintly echoing against the buildings.
Three blocks from where Steve is waiting for him, he hears a clatter a ways back, like someone had stumbled over a trash can. He turns his head and sees three bulky men, lingering a few yards behind him, pointedly not looking in his direction. He sees another shadow, shrinking, out of the corner of his eye. At least four men, then. Bucky turns down an alley on his left and listens for them to follow.
There’s a busy street up ahead. He walks faster, hears them speed up to match but not get any closer. They want him to lead them to Steve.
That won’t happen.
When he gets to the main street, he abandons pretense and darts across the intersection, dodging cars and bikes, and then jumps for a low hanging roof, propelling himself up and over.
There are shouts behind, growing in volume and number: more men and more guns. Sirens start wailing. It doesn’t matter. The only goal is to get far away from Steve.
He swings up to a taller roof, feels ceiling tiles clatter away underfoot. The stars are above him here, bright and serene. Bucky leaps across a small alleyway and slides down a drain pipe.
If he can get a little distance, he can call Natasha and tell her it’s time. Tell her to come for Steve. She’ll make sure he’s okay. She’ll...
He skids around a corner and he’s in an open market, still bustling despite the late hour.
Too many civilians.
He has to change course, peel off to the left. There’s a parking lot up ahead and...
A shot slams a couple feet above him and he can see where the bullet made impact in the concrete building - much too close to his head. He dives to the right, rolling under a parked truck and out the other side.
He sees the dull shine of police helmets now, coming closer. Local Turkish. It must’ve been a tip and they’re trying to bag him before Interpol gets here. Either way, they’re too close and they’re not well-trained. They’ll shoot first, not bothering with a capture like Interpol or the CIA might. They don’t care about the Hydra secrets in Bucky’s head. Maybe this will be better, in the long run; just a brief moment of pain, instead of life in a cell.
A breath later and Bucky knows that’s not true. Bucky doesn’t want to die, not here in the street. He wants to go home to Steve and kiss his mouth and his neck and eat dinner cross-legged on the floor. He wants to watch the sunrise tomorrow and walk with Steve down quiet streets. He wants that place where they can live in peace for the rest of their days. He wants so many things.
He’s greedy. He’s selfish. He’s had so much time and all he wants is more.
Steve’s shout is so unexpected that Bucky jerks, almost stumbles mid-step.
No. No. No. No.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. He’s supposed to be alone when this happens. Steve is supposed to be safe and protected.
Steve is running toward him - no coat, that same dark blue, threadbare sweater that he’s been wearing for the last few months. His eyes are huge in his face, bright above the hollows of his cheeks.
I love you, Bucky thinks, feeling all the guns at his back. Then, damn it, I didn’t want you to see this.
Their eyes meet, a thousand whispered words between them in the sputtering streetlights. Bucky can hear the traffic and the market and Steve’s footsteps. He can see all of it: all of the futures they will never have.
Steve lunges the last steps, curling over him, fingers painful on Bucky’s shoulders and his mouth open and wild. His beard touches the crook of Bucky’s neck and it feels like the warm softness of a lazy, early morning. Bucky is tucked inside of Steve like something wholly precious and loved; nothing bad can touch him here.
No, he thinks, but Steve has him held fast in his arms and he’s hurtling them together toward the safety of the parked cars. His body is between Bucky and the guns.
The explosion of gunfire is sharp, an abrupt thunder above the roar in Bucky’s ears. Car alarms blare to life around them, a din of noise echoing off the buildings.
Steve shudders against him, jolts like the earth is shaking all around him. His breath punches out of him and Bucky feels like can’t breathe either. Steve doesn’t make a sound; his shoulders stutter with one impact after another but he stays braced over Bucky like a shield.
They fall together, tumbling between the cars to the dirty asphalt. Bucky scrambles up onto his knees and Steve stays where he fell, doesn’t move even as Bucky reaches for him.
His face is half turned up on the black parking lot, gray in the street lights. His eyes are open, glazed like the surface of a still lake, staring out like he can’t quite believe...
His navy sweater is sticking to his back. Everything is dark and blurry but Bucky can see glistening puddles, spreading like water over his broad shoulders, down to his waist. Blood. So much blood. He runs his hand from Steve’s neck to his waist, feeling the soaked, sticky fabric.
Three, four, maybe five bullet holes, some distant part of Bucky’s brain notes. His shoulder. His upper back. Beneath his ribs. His left hip. Just one exit wound in his left shoulder and Bucky realizes, almost uncomprehending, that it matches a tear in his own left sleeve.
“Steve.” The name feels explosive in his mouth. Bucky gets his hand on Steve’s arms, his face, feels his pulse throbbing in his neck. They have to move. They have to escape. They have to get medical help. Steve. Steve.
Steve blinks, a long drag of dark lashes. Up and down. Up and down. His mouth shapes something like a name, dark blood on his chin, in his beard. His eyes slip to the cars and then to Bucky. “Get... go,” he says, too much air in his voice. “Go. You gotta...”
“Hush up,” Bucky snaps. He’s followed Steve across the countries and he’s not going to go any further without him.
“Stop talking. Not leaving you.” He puts his head over the car hood, peering back at the chasing police. They’re setting up a perimeter, he realizes, trying to hem them in, corner them. Bucky only has a few moments before they start moving in on their position. Steve can’t run and it’ll only be a matter of time before a lucky shot gets Bucky and Steve will bleed out between the cars and Natasha won’t be able to save him. No one will.
Steve’s blinking as if his eyes can’t quite see straight and he has one pale hand pressed against his own chest, like he’s making sure his heart is still beating.
Bucky breaks the window of the car next to them, puts his bare fist right through with a shatter. Blood gets on his knuckles and he shakes glass shards free. No way they’re going to be able to make it out of here on foot.
The Soldier could. Hydra’s pet would plow through the Turkish cops like plywood. He wouldn’t worry about civilian casualties or property damage. He wouldn't care about Steve. He'd be focused on the one mission. But Bucky is not a Soldier. Not anymore.
“I’m stealing a car,” he tells Steve’s white face. “Shut up. This is more important.”
He yanks at the wires under the steering wheel and the engine sputters, groans, then turns over. They’re in business.
Steve tries to get up on his own, makes it to his hands and knees, dripping blood like a leaky faucet. He’s shaking hard and his lip is bloody now, like he’s chewed through it to keep from crying out. “Bucky,” he says when Bucky lifts him up, hauls him into the backseat. Moonlight makes his skin white, everything smearing together until all that stands out are his blue eyes and the blood on his beard.
There’s a musty blanket in the backseat and Bucky lays it over his back. He tries to apply pressure - but there are too many holes, like Steve is a sieve, draining all away. Fuck.
Something is cracking open in Bucky’s chest. He kisses Steve’s mouth, tastes blood and salt, feels how weakly Steve moves against him.
“Stay awake,” Bucky tells him and climbs into the driver’s seat. “Stay the fuck awake, you asshole. Hold on. I’m gonna get us out of here. It’s gonna be okay.”
Steve’s lips lift in the rearview mirror, one corner and a flash of teeth in the headlights as Bucky speeds onto the highway, screeching in the opposite direction of the sirens.
He calls Natasha. “Steve’s been shot,” he says, almost shocked at how steady his voice is. “We need...” They need a miracle.
Natasha breathes for a moment. Bucky can feel something over the phone. He thinks again of her standing in the airport, standing between Steve and his enemies. “There’s a safe house to the north of Istanbul. I can be there with a doctor in three hours. I’m texting you an address.”
Steve groans. “Nat?” he asks, strained and not all the way there, but she’s already hung up.
“Did you hear that, Steve?” Bucky asks. His throat hurts. “It’s gonna be okay. Natasha is gonna bring the doc for you and...”
Don’t be dead, Bucky thinks. Don’t be dead. Don’t die just out of arm’s reach. Don’t die at all but really don’t die alone. Not without me.
Bucky watches the lights of the city fade, watches Steve fade. City streets turn into farmland and thick swathes of shadowy trees and Steve slumps against the window. His hand grips the back of Bucky’s seat, fingers shuddering now and then like the pain is too much to bear.
“Not far,” Bucky tells him. “Hold on. It’s not far. Don’t stop breathing.”
Steve stops responding with words as the moon rises higher, his breathing high and wheezy. He doesn’t respond to his name, to Bucky calling him. His fingers move jerkily and his head nods and he makes half mumbling noises that could be words or nonsense. His eyes flutter now and then, an occasional shine in the darkness.
The trees get thicker, houses falling away, and Bucky turns down a narrow dirt road, black except for his headlights. It’s bumpy and windy and he cringes as Steve is jostled, head lolling against the window. Through the broken glass next to him, he can smell something salty as they get closer to the sea.
Steve opens his eyes when the car finally stops. His breathing’s been getting worse the last few miles, something wet rasping over each inhale and exhale. He doesn’t move much now, barely-there involuntary shivers wracking his frame.
“Where are we?” he slurs, more coherent than he’s been in awhile, when Bucky gets out of the car. The blue of his eyes cracks out from between his dark lashes. “Buck? Don’t...”
“Shh, it’s okay. Need to make sure everything is safe.”
Steve nods. His face twists briefly and his hand lifts, like he’s reaching, before falling back into his lap.
Bucky presses his hand to his cold cheek, feels the multitudes between them. Walking away from him aches.
The house is small and shabby but clean. Threadbare blackout curtains hang over thick, soundproof windows. There’s a wooden table in a cramped kitchen with a single worn couch shoved against the opposite wall. The only other room is a bedroom with a queen-size bed pushed against the wall and a nightstand next to it. A fine layer of dust covers everything. No one has been here for years.
Steve can’t get his feet under him when Bucky helps him out of the car, staggering and heavy. He tries to help but his knees keep buckling. “Buck, ‘m sorry,” he slurs, head sagging on his shoulder. Steve hates showing weakness but Bucky carries him anyway.
Bucky lays him on his stomach on the bed, strokes the back of his head as he breathes wetly. “It’s okay,” he soothes. “Natasha will be here soon. You’ll be okay.”
“Ma?” Steve asks. He moans, stifles it in the bedspread. “Ma is coming?”
There’s a first aid kit under the sink in the bathroom and Bucky snatches it up with all the towels from the cabinet. He runs the rusty faucet into a big bowl, carries it over to the bed.
Steve is faintly greenish in the dim overhead lights, blood slicking up and down his back. Some of it’s dried now, crusting over and sticking to his skin and sweater as Bucky uses the scissors to slice up the middle. Bucky’s hand trembles against the pillow as Steve groans. When it’s done, Bucky drops the ruined clothes to the floor, kicks them under the bed so he doesn’t have to see them.
Bucky cleans him up, bandages him as best he can. He mops the blood up with towels and presses clean cloths from the first aid kit against the wounds. Most of the bleeding has slowed to sluggish pumps, thank god for the serum. His hand trembles and it takes him a moment to make it stop. Bucky briefly misses for the Hydra arm for the first time.
When he’s done, he pulls one of the kitchen chairs in next to the bed and sits down next to Steve, cradles his palm in his hand.
Steve drags his eyes across the room, settling on Bucky. “S’okay,” he says, voice thin. “Buck. It's okay. This is…” he stops and swallows. “I'm okay with this. I saved you.”
Bucky can't stop his pained noise. “I'm not,” he says. “This isn't okay and you don't get to leave me. Steve.”
Steve’s hand jerks in his. He stares at Bucky, scouring his face with an intensity that belies how weak he looks. “Love you,” he says, voice stronger than it's been since he screamed Bucky’s name on the street. “I got to be with you all these months. Don't regret any of it. I'm just… I wanted to keep you safe for the rest of your life.”
Bucky holds him tighter as he trails off, strength dissipating as quickly as it had come. “Steve?” he calls gently when Steve’s eyes close.
“It's okay, Buck,” Steve murmurs. “You're safe. All that matters.” His fingers loosen and Bucky watches him slide away again, back to deep unconsciousness.
“Don't leave me,” Bucky says into the stillness.
The moon is pale and thin and Steve is quiet, fading. He’s been a ghost, Bucky thinks, for months - but now he really is sliding quietly from the world.
Natasha gets there a little before the three hour mark. Her hair is brown now, almost black, cropped close around her skull. Her mouth is set in a harder line than Bucky remembers, but her eyes are almost frantic when she meets his, her lip bitten through.
“Where is he?” she asks as she comes through the door first, moonlight spilling after her. She has a gun at her thigh.
Bucky nods to the bedroom, then studies the woman behind her as Natasha blows past him. “You the doctor?”
Her hair is pulled back in a sharp bun and she nods brusquely. “I’m a friend.”
When they follow Natasha into the room, Steve is barely awake and Natasha’s half on the bed, knee by his shoulder. His mouth is trembling and Natasha is smoothing his brow. “Promise me,” he says as they enter, his hand gripping hers. He doesn’t seem to see them. His fingers spasm. “Nat…”
“I promise,” she returns, gently. “It’ll be okay. Rest, Steve.”
He sighs, eyes closing again, and she looks up.
“He got between me and the guns,” Bucky says. “Someone must’ve called in a tip.”
Nat nods, moving back to let the doctor through to the bed. “I’ve made some calls,” she says. “Laid down a trail - they think you’re heading for Bursa. We have some time.” She must see the way his eyes linger on the doctor, on Steve’s limp form. “Come on,” she tells him, taking his arm. “We’ll put some tea on.”
The night creeps on, silver moon dragging across the sky. Natasha sleeps against the door of the cabin, legs folded in front of her and hand resting near her gun. She doesn’t snore, barely shifts, and Bucky knows she’ll wake at the smallest of noise from outside. Bucky sits by Steve, holding his hand. He wants to say something, find some words to make everything better - but he feels raw and flattened.
The bleeding has mostly stopped. The doctor sewed him up and packed his wounds and removed what bullets she could. Two of them, though, were not so easy.
She’d sat Bucky down after midnight and laid it out straight. There was one bullet wedged against his spine and another centimeters from his heart. “He’d be dead,” she had told him, blunt but not cold, “if either one had been a few millimeters over. He’ll still die, if they move.” To get them out, she needed real tools, a real surgery. She needed more than a cold cabin in Turkey and a handful of old towels. Running wasn’t an option.
“Will Tony…?” Bucky had asked Natasha, putting his face in his hand. It doesn’t matter about me, he had thought. He’ll turn himself in to the police, to Interpol, to the CIA. It doesn’t matter.
Natasha hadn’t answered, but she had left the room with her phone.
Bucky can’t sleep. He watches Steve, keeps his fingers settled on his pulse. He thinks of all the places they’ve been and all the places they’ve yet to go. He thinks of his impossible dream of a little slice of earth where they can be safe.
“Egypt,” he tells Steve. “We haven’t been to Egypt. Or Peru.” We haven’t woken up together and unafraid yet.
Steve doesn’t move.
Bucky puts his head down next to Steve. “I know,” he says, his voice thick because he’s never had the courage to say this out loud before. “I know this isn’t forever. You need… you need to save people and I wouldn’t keep that from you. I want…”
More time. More hours. More mornings of waking up with Steve smiling and Steve pouring cereal. More evenings of Steve sitting next to him at a worn table. More kissing Steve. More holding Steve close. It will never be enough. Bucky will always want more. Steve is gravity and motion, heat and relief, and Bucky has been helpless his entire life in the face of him.
He wants Steve alive more than he wants all that. Steve may be okay with this ending but Bucky isn't.
“Stay alive a bit longer, “ Bucky tells him. “You can go home now. You can go to the Avengers and you can save the world. I won’t… I won’t keep you anymore. You can stop running. Just stay alive.”
Stark comes in without knocking and it’s only Natasha’s steadying hand that keeps Bucky still. He’s still wearing Iron Man, the faceplate down, and it reminds Bucky of Siberia, of a cold, dark place and bright pain and Steve staggering forward with nothing left but grit.
Stark stares at them.
Bucky knows what they must look like. The room stinks of sweat and blood and fear and Bucky hasn't showered or changed his clothes since yesterday; he's covered in red streaks from chin to waist. They're both worn down to nothing, dark shadows and wary expressions. The doc’s in with Steve again because his breathing’s been getting worse and Bucky thinks of all of that must be on his face: terror and exhaustion and heartbreak.
Stark doesn't say anything for a long time. His eyes take it all in and then settle on Bucky, cold and wary. “Where’s Cap?” he asks Natasha. His eyes don’t leave Bucky. She jerks her head and he clanks toward the bedroom. “You. Wait here,” he tells Bucky. “Don’t come in.”
Bucky sinks down at the table, fidgets with his fingers. Stark won’t hurt Steve, he reminds himself. They’re friends. Stark has said he’ll help. It doesn’t matter what Stark thinks of Bucky - as long as he helps Steve.
Through the bedroom door, he can see Stark standing over the bed and a pale sliver of Steve’s face. The doc is saying something softly to him - Bucky can hear the rising timber of her voice.
After a long moment, Stark’s armor pulls away from him, collapsing smoothly into a thin metal band on his wrist. He looks more hesitant with all the armor gone. His shoulders waver for a moment and then he slides onto the bed, hand skimming over Steve’s back and settling on the top of his head. There's something mournful in the hunch of his body.
A vice around Bucky’s chest eases. Stark will help Steve. He’ll do right by him. Bucky doesn't have to be afraid for Steve after he's gone. Steve has Natasha and Stark and Sam Wilson, wherever he is. Steve doesn't need him.
When Stark comes back out, Bucky stays at the table, keeps both palms flat and down on the rough wood.
“The doctor says he needs surgery,” Stark says as Natasha slips into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. This is between him and Stark. Tony sits down at the table, across from Bucky, like they’re about to begin a negotiation.
Bucky nods. “His spine… the serum can heal a lot but there's always a risk and…”
“Did you know Rhodes is just now walking again?” Tony says it sharp and fast.
Bucky puts his head down. “I'm sorry,” he says. “I'm sorry for your mom and your dad. And for… I know you can't forgive me. And that's fine. But Steve…”
The words ache in his chest like he's pulling them over hot gravel, a slow drag that makes him want to rip them out fast. If this is what Stark needs, though - if this is what'll make him help Steve, then it's worth it. Bucky would walk across broken glass barefoot and back. He keeps his eyes down, keeps himself tucked small and non-threatening. If Stark was a wolf, Bucky’d be on his back with his neck bared. Do what you want with me.
Tony passes a hand over his face and then looks down. “There’s a hospital,” he says and his voice is gentler now. “In-patient psychiatric care. About sixty miles from Manhattan and Avengers HQ. Steve could visit you on weekends or whenever…” he trails off and then resumes, stronger. “They have good doctors there. Nice facility. Waterfalls, saunas, massages, the works. I've checked it out myself. Made some calls. If you go straight there and agree to long term commitment, I can keep you out of a cell. I can't promise you'll ever get out of there, but I promise it's better than prison.”
It's a kindness Bucky hadn’t expected and he can't find any words for a long moment.
“I found it,” Tony plows on, “back when Steve was first looking for you. Before. But then,” he waves his hand. Shit happened.
Bucky puts his hand over his mouth. “I don't… will they be able to fix me?”
Tony shrugs. “I don't think there's much precedent for someone like you, Cujo.” He says it bitter, like it's ashy in his mouth, an uncomfortable truth that sits bad and sour against his own gut. He brushes his hands on his pants and stands up like he’s ridding himself of something distasteful. “Okay, here’s how this is going to work. We have a US military quinjet coming. We load up and head back to the States. You surrender yourself into custody. We land. You get transported to the hospital and Steve gets his surgery. I’ll make sure someone keeps you updated and I’ll tell Steve what happened when he wakes up. Good? Great.”
While Stark talks on his phone, Bucky goes back to Steve, lies down on the edge of the mattress. He stretches out so their heads and toes align.
Steve is pale, cheeks going sunken beneath the beard. He’s not awake now, won’t wake up when someone calls his name or rubs his knuckles. The doc says the serum is working - it’s just drawing so much energy that all other functions have shut down to support it.
“This is a good thing,” she says, looking only a little uncertain.
So Bucky lies close by, so Steve can hear him whisper and maybe smell him, know that he’s right there and not leaving. Well, not until he has to. He thinks of all the nights they spent like this: in shabby apartments and leaky rooms and cold tunnels. Maybe, at the hospital Stark’s chosen, they’ll let Steve stay overnight. They can lie in whatever narrow, hard bed that Bucky is assigned and press their hands together like they’re kids. It’s something, at least. He can have a future that includes Steve and that's more than he ever expected.
Natasha comes in and sits down across from him. Her hands fold on her lap, neat and prim. “Stark told me his plan,” she says. “Steve won’t like it.”
Bucky strokes Steve’s hair, feels the delicate curve of his skull. “I know.”
She sighs. “He’s not going to be happy with any of us.”
Somehow, Bucky finds himself grinning. “He never did like when things didn’t go his way.” He presses his thumb to Steve’s temple, the edge of his eyebrow. “This is good,” he says. “He needs you. His team. His mission. You’re his family. He needs a purpose. I can’t… I can’t give him all of that.” It hurts, a barely-there pang that he does his best to ignore, admitting that he can’t provide everything Steve needs.
Natasha is watching him, somber. “I’ll go along with this,” she tells him. “But don’t blame me when he ends up breaking things.”
Stark drifts back into the room as morning approaches, leaning first on the wall by the door and then perching on a chair near the single window.
Out the corner of his eye, Bucky watches him but he stays focused on Steve: the way he breathes and the way his pulse flutters against his thin wrists. He holds Steve's hand, warms his fingers between his, pressed against his chest. Soon, this will be taken from him.
"Steve said you were friends," Stark says after a long silence. He's rigid in his chair. "That’s why he ran with you all across Europe?”
Bucky looks at Steve's face: the bow of his mouth and the smudge of his lashes. He thinks back to those first days in the forests, when they’d been bruised and wary, and how Steve had left everything behind. He had marched into the world with his back straight with nothing but Bucky by his side. "Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you: for where you go, I will go." The words are rusty and his head he sees them scrawled across his Ma's old Bible.
Stark is quiet again. "How long?" he finally asks.
Bucky shrugs, lifts one shoulder, and doesn't pretend to misunderstand. "Forever. But... just a few months after Siberia."
"He's a pain in the ass, isn't he?"
The words startle a huff out of Bucky. He squeezes Steve's hand. "Yep. There hasn't been a moment in his life where he wasn't causing me some sort of grief."
Stark's mouth twists, not quite a smile but something, nonetheless. Then, he says, "They're here," nodding out the window.
Bucky presses a kiss to Steve's knuckles and pushes himself up. "Let's do this." He's glad Steve's unconscious for this part. Stay asleep, he wills him. You don't need to see this.
Natasha stands shoulder to shoulder with him right outside the door of the safe house as the ramp of the quinjet comes down. Bucky appreciates her steadfastness - they could’ve been friends in another time, he thinks. He can see the beginnings of a pink dawn, somewhere over the trees. He watches it, breathes it in.
"Hello, Tony," says a cold, smooth voice.
"Ross. What are you doing here? Don't you have better things to do?" Tony says, suddenly on edge.
An older man with a graying head of hair is standing at the end of the quinjet's ramp. There are black helmeted men behind him. Something's wrong. Ross's eyes are shuttered tight and Bucky can't see any medics. Only soldiers.
Beside him, Natasha goes tense and still.
"I wanted to supervise this myself," Ross says. "This is too important for any mistakes." His gaze goes beyond Tony and settles on Bucky. "Sergeant Barnes."
Tony steps between them. "The deal's been all arranged," he says. "The papers have been signed. I have…”
Ross smiles and it’s not a nice smile. “Things have changed. You can’t keep a nuke in a hospital. You can’t retire a warhead. This needs to be finished here.”
“What does that mean?” Tony snaps.
“It means,” Ross says patiently, “that Sergeant Barnes here will have an episode and my men will kill him in self defense. Then we’ll all return to the States and leave all this unpleasantness behind us. This is a good thing, Tony. This is the man that killed your parents. Justice will be served.”
Tony breathes and Natasha shifts. Bucky stares out into the morning sky. The last star is vanishing into a crisp blue and he can hear bird calls somewhere. This isn’t a bad place, he thinks. But, Steve…
The first trigger word hits him like a blast and he staggers back a step. “No,” he says. There’s a speaker in the quinjet, reading methodical Russian. “No.”
He doesn’t want to die like this, not with the cold, vacant slate Hydra had forced upon him. If he’s to die, let him die with all his memories and feelings. Let him die with Steve’s face in his mind’s eye. He wants the memory of the Christmas under the bridge and the summer in Albania and the little hotel in Latvia. He wants the flowers in Minsk and the soup by the Danube and their first kiss in Lithuania.
Don’t take them, he thinks wildly. Don’t take all the time I had.
It’s no use.
Bucky goes to his knees on the third word, braced on his one hand. “Don’t let me,” he grinds out to Natasha as she kneels next to him, “hurt anyone.” He can hear Tony talking fast, can hear booted feet, and somewhere, beyond that, he can still hear the morning birds.
The numbness is already creeping over him, though, spreading first in his gut so that he’s not afraid and then to the spaces where he loves. His memories are fading, going flat and losing their color until all that’s left is Steve. I love you, he thinks toward the safe house, toward Steve, and then that love is gone too, swallowed in the oncoming nothingness. He’s supposed to fight this. He’s supposed to rage and, he does, screaming into the ground as everything is stolen from him. He grinds his teeth and shakes and then…
He looks up and sees Stark, staring at him, horrified and pale. Their eyes meet and the moment before the last trigger word stretches out into years, from a dark back road and his mother’s eyes to this very second.
I’m sorry, Bucky thinks and then all of it, the pain, the hurt, the fear, is gone.
He wakes up and his mouth is dry. The world is humming around him, inside of him. His head is throbbing, dull but persistent, against his eyes.
A woman touches his wrist, cool and comforting. “You’re safe,” she says. She doesn't smile but he trusts something in her face.
The words don’t make sense, though, so he slips back into sleep.
Steve, he thinks, without knowing why.
Bucky wakes up again and this time he makes out the gray ceiling above him and the noise of jet engines below him. His throat aches like he’s been screaming and his head is still pounding. Something soft and firm is around his wrist and his ankles. Restraints.
“Are you with us this time?” Natasha leans over him, her black hair pulled back in a bun. There’s a bruise on the side of her mouth and a cut on her forehead. “Barnes?”
“Yeah,” he says and then clears his throat when the word is nothing more than a croak. His lips are chapped and dry, pulling hard around the words. “Yes. It’s me. Did I… did I do that?”
Her mouth curls upward, all teeth. “No - that was Ross’s men.” Her hands go to his wrist, loosening the padded cuff. “We’re safe now.”
He sits up. They’re on a quinjet - he can see sky out a narrow window. He’s in one of the bunks along the back and across from him…
“Steve,” he breathes and Natasha moves out of the way so he can see better. “Is he okay?”
Steve is stretched out on his stomach, navy blue blankets folded down to his waist so that the white bandages stand out starkly. His eyes are still closed but he looks like he has more color than he did in Turkey. There's a half full bag of IV fluids dangling over him and the doc is sitting next to him, head in her hand as she gazes at a tablet.
“Still not awake but the doctor says the serum is making progress. He’s gonna be okay.” Her smile is fleeting, like she doesn’t quite believe it herself. Then, she leans forward and undoes his ankles before sitting back. “We’ll be landing soon.”
Bucky rubs his temples, trying to push that thick fog in his head. The last thing he remembers is Stark’s face and… “What happened?”
“They triggered you. They have Zemo in custody so I assume they got the codes from him.” Her eyes cut toward the cockpit and then back to him. “Tony hit you with a stun blast before you could do any damage though. Knocked you out. Ross… he directed you to kill Cap.”
Bucky shudders, hard. “Jesus.” He remembers now: remembers the pain in his head as they stripped all of him away. Almost frantically, he reaches back into his memories. Were they all back? What had he lost this time? He reaches back, seeking the most treasured parts of himself: he remembers the beach and the floods and the feel of Steve. He remembers the morning air and the words… His hand is shaking and he presses it to his mouth. He could’ve woken up to Steve dead in front of him. Steve wouldn’t have been able to stop him and… “Jesus,” he says again and his stomach lurches with bile that he barely manages to swallow down.
Natasha nods and hands him a bottle of water. “He said he intended to stop you before you did… he wanted to get footage of it so he could justify putting a bullet in your skull. But…” she shakes her head and Bucky hears what she’s not saying. Ross wouldn’t have bothered saving Steve. “They're back in Turkey. Tony tied them all up and left them in the house. He’ll go back for them once you and Steve are safe.”
Safe. What did that even mean anymore?
Up in the cockpit, he can see Stark’s profile as he pilots the quinjet and, out the windshield, clear sky. “Where are we going?”
“Wakanda,” Natasha tells him. “After… well. It isn't safe for either of you back in the States now. I made some calls. The king is extending political asylum to both of you. They have medical facilities for Steve - some of the best in the world. They’ll be ready for him as soon as we land.”
Stark doesn’t leave the pilot’s chair the entire flight. His shoulders are stiff. When he turns around to tell them they’ve entered Wakandan airspace, Bucky sees that his cheekbone has been broken.
“Are you okay?” Bucky asks, raising his voice to be heard over the rumbling engines. He’s moved over to Steve’s bunk, sitting back against one wall with Steve’s head in his lap. His fingers are wrapped around Steve’s wrist, pressed into the pulse point.
The doc has said Steve’ll be fine. She’s thrilled they’re going to Wakanda. “I’ve read some of the papers they released on regenerative healing and non-invasive surgery,” she’d told him. “It’s light years beyond the States. They’ll be able to remove the bullets with no problem.”
Bucky is still reluctant to get too far away from Steve’s side. It feels like muscle memory. Stay close to Steve when he’s down, make sure he’s still breathing.
Stark’s eyes flicker across him,like they can’t decide whether to meet Bucky’s gaze or not, before turning pointedly forward. “All good up here,” he says cheerfully. “What’s a little treason to start my morning? Better than Red Bull. I’ll tell you that. They should bottle this stuff.” He doesn’t say anything else and Bucky can’t think of anything to say. When they land near the Wakandan palace, he stays off to the side, arms folded across his chest.
Bucky’s half expecting to be handcuffed when the medics come up the ramp with the stretcher. He keeps his hand half raised as they load Steve onto the stretcher. Natasha said they would keep Steve safe, he reminds himself. This is okay. Whatever happens to him now, it doesn’t matter. He probably deserves it.
He can still see the face of King T’Challa in Romania, after Zemo had killed his father to get Bucky. Bucky knows the look of heartbreak. He may not have pulled the trigger on that death - but it is still on his conscience. They would be well with in their rights to…
A whip of a girl shakes her head at Steve’s IV, drawing his attention. “Such crass methods,” she says. “We will do better here. Do not worry, Sergeant Barnes. Your friend will be good as new. I am the best.” She starts off the quinjet and then pauses: “Are you not coming?”
“Am I allowed to?” Bucky asks, shooting a glance at Stark and then Natasha. “I’m not…” You can’t trust me, he wants to say. It doesn’t matter how many memories I store up, Hydra can still take me back whenever they want.
The girl walks right up to him. She only comes up to his shoulder and her waist is about as wide as his thigh. He could snap her in half - but her eyes are fearless. “My name is Shuri,” she tells him. “I am the daughter of King T’Chaka. My father died in the explosion that the murderer Zemo framed you for. We have all the same enemies, Sergeant.” She touches his arm. “You are among friends now. My brother has long wanted to help you. Now, come with us. You are the Captain’s next of kin, after all. You should be there.” She turns and strides away.
Steve wakes up for the first time that evening. They’ve dressed him in silky white clothes and settled him in a wide room with large windows. On his back, the bullet wounds are nothing but puckered and fading red scars. He opens his eyes as the sun is setting and Bucky is right there.
“Hey,” Bucky says, gently. His hand scarcely trembles as he strokes Steve’s hair. Someone had washed it and its impossibly soft.“You’re alright. Everything is going to be alright now.”
Those blue eyes blink, hazy still. Steve takes a breath, a slow drag of air across chapped lips. “Where are we?” he croaks. His head turns toward Bucky, leaning into his touch. “You okay?”
Bucky smiles, fond. “We’re in Wakanda. No one can hurt us here.” He leans close and kisses Steve’s temple, letting himself linger a few moments. “Sleep. Heal. I won’t leave.”
Steve’s fingers flex, shifting to wrap around the edge of Bucky’s shirt. “I love you,” he says and then slides into sleep.
“I never thought Cap could be so sappy.” Stark is in the doorway, sunglasses on even though they’re inside and the sun is almost gone. His cheekbone looks better, just a fading yellowish bruise left thanks to Wakanda’s technology. “He’s different around you.”
Bucky uses his thumb to smooth a deep wrinkle in Steve’s forehead. “I need… I need to thank you for bringing Steve here - for letting me stay with him. For stopping me when…” he can't finish that thought. He closes his eyes for a moment and then barrels on. “If you want me to go back to the States with you, I’ll go. To the hospital. Wherever. You've done more than enough.”
Silence draws out and then Stark walks across the room, dropping into the chair across the bed. He pushes his glasses up on top of his head, hair sticking up all which way. “You don’t need a hospital,” he says and then holds up his hands. “Well. At least not the kind I was thinking. I don’t know any hospitals stateside that specialize in deprogramming Hydra embedded trigger words. So.” He drags off and stares down at his shoes, crossing and uncrossing his legs.
Bucky waits him out.
At last, Stark sits up straight, leaning forward on his elbows. He looks directly at Bucky. “I don’t like admitting to being wrong. But here I am. I was wrong. You didn’t kill my mom.”
The air in Bucky’s lungs trembles. He sees a dark road, a woman calling for her husband and the feel of her throat…
“I saw you,” Stark says. There’s something thick in his throat and he passes a hand over his eyes. “I saw you outside that safe house. I saw how you went from someone who loved to… nothing. Your eyes were dead - just as much as if they had killed you. I saw how you fought that until it was all stripped away and you would’ve murdered the man you loved and.”
He stops and shakes his head. “You didn’t kill my mom, Barnes. They did. Just like they killed you. Over and over again. They stole your mind,” he says, voice gone quiet. “I didn't want to accept that. I didn't want to believe that could happen but when I saw… you didn't kill my mom. I know that now.”
Bucky can't say anything. There's a delicate flutter in his chest. “Thank you,” he finally manages, even though he's not even sure that's the right thing to say in the moment.
Stark stands up and nods jerkily, pressing his lips together hard. “I can’t stay,” he says after a moment. “I have to go clean up…” he waves his hand like he’s talking about the entire world. “The scientists here - they’re already working on something to help you with the trigger words. They’ll probably come up with something faster than I ever could but if they need anything, I made sure they have my direct line. We’re gonna get you free, Barnes. And a new arm. Something that’s not as much a torture device as the one Hydra strapped you with.”
“Thank you,” Bucky says again. His entire body feels stretched out, flabbergasted by the mercy he’s been shown. “I can’t tell you…”
“Tell your boyfriend, husband, soulmate, whatever, to call me. When he wakes up, that is.” Stark puts his sunglasses back down. “He and I still need to hash out some things. Sibling rivalry. You understand.”
Bucky shrugs. “I had sisters. They’re all dead.”
Stark tilts an eyebrow at him. “You’re a real party and a half, Terminator. I think we’re going to get along just fine.”
Steve recovers in fits and starts, like he's been exhausted for too long and his body is too wrung out to spring back all at once. He smiles at Bucky, blurry, and then fades back to sleep as quick. They say he’s healing: this is the serum doing its work.
Bucky doesn't leave him. He parks himself by Steve’s bedside and clenches his fingers around the blanket. He’ll fight to stay here.
No one comes to make him leave, though, and Bucky slowly relaxes. He relishes in being able to sit still for the first time in months - decades, really. There is no work to go to, no pursuers to flee from, no future to fear. They are safe.
In the long silences where the only sound is Steve breathing, Bucky allows himself to ruminate on Stark’s words, lets them sink deep inside of his marrow. Slowly, like a plant growing roots, they take real form and shape, flowering and spreading. All the dark spaces are not gone, but this is something new and he leans into it, lets it ease some of the old burden. He touches the silk of his clothes and wonders at the softness. He lays his head on a pillow and gets lost in the comfort. He watches the sun rise and his whole body warms in the spreading colors.
Stark’s pronouncement had done something that all Steve’s righteous anger had been helpless against. If Stark, who Bucky had stolen so much from, can pronounce Bucky not guilty, then maybe it is true. Maybe it is possible for him to go home.
Steve just has to get better so Bucky can share all this with him. He wants to see that harsh riptide of Steve settle and ease. He wants Steve to smile, real and soft and gentle. He wants them to touch each other without the pain and grief and guilt and fear. He wants to walk with Steve under open sky and sleep in sunny fields. The world has expanded from the hard scrabble of running. He wants to sit with Steve in stillness and discover the intimate shape of them, how all their parts align together in peace.
When Steve opens his eyes on the third day, clear and wholly present, Bucky kisses his mouth. "We're safe here," he promises him, like he has every time Steve has opened his eyes, feeling the warmth in his chest. They're safe. They're together. He lets the gladness wash over him, lets himself smile wide and bright.
Steve takes his hand and one side of his mouth tugs, but he doesn't smile. His eyes go behind Bucky to the door. "We can't stay here long," he says. He doesn't say it with fear, just dead certainty.
Bucky twines their fingers and settles in his chair a little. "I promise, we're safe," he repeats. "The king extended diplomatic protection to us. Stark is working on a deal in the States. We don't have to..."
Steve closes his eyes and turns his head away. "I'm tired, Buck," he says. "We can talk later."
A day later, Steve leaves the hospital. He thanks the doctors and the princess genuinely - but he's taut, a strained wire of energy that buzzes next to Bucky and makes his hair stand on end. It’s familiar, at least. Steve is a breath from running or picking a fight.
The king gives them a house on the outskirts of the city, wedged between mountains and hills and the lake, close enough that Bucky can return to the palace every day for neural mappings and prosthesis fittings. It's plain and a single room, but it's all they need. A tiny corner of the earth, Bucky thinks, for them to rest.
He can see it, in his mind’s eye. He can sow a garden here. He can have a pen for goats here. Maybe some cows. Here is a coop for chickens and an apple tree to lie under on hot summer days.
Steve doesn’t seem to notice any of it.
Natasha had brought their worn backpacks from Turkey and Steve takes his now, goes through it meticulously as he sits on the bed, laying out the clothes to clean and counting the money left in the coin purse. "We can hike up through Egypt," he tells Bucky as he cleans his boots, patching where the toe has worn through. "Catch a freighter in Cairo. Or over the Sinai Peninsula and up through Jordan. We can get back to Ukraine by spring and..."
Bucky stands in the doorway, halfway in the shadow of the room and halfway in the brightness of Wakanda. Something is breaking in his heart. He looks over the hills and the trees and then back to the taut line of Steve’s shoulders, still braced for a battle. "Steve," he says, just the beloved name.
Steve looks up and there are so many shattered edges in his eyes. How many pieces had Steve left behind on their wanderings? How long would Steve be able to scrape them all together and soldier on before he crumbled in the face of it?
“I can't go," Bucky says. "I can’t run anymore. I have to... those goddamn words. Hydra can,” he snaps his fingers and thinks of Tony’s words. Kill me. Each trigger is a little death. He's been dying for seventy years and he's tired. He wants to be free. “I'm dangerous.” I’m exhausted.
"You're not," Steve says with venom. He throws down his boots and plants his hands on either side of his thighs. He’s spoiling for a fight but he doesn’t have an enemy and nothing frustrates Steve more than that. “Who's telling you this? They're wrong. I know you. I've stopped you before and I…”
Bucky feels the heat of Steve's inferno and basks in it. "If Stark hadn't stopped me," he says, making his voice gentle, soothing, but matter of fact. "I would've died with your blood all over me and I wouldn’t have lived long past that.“
Steve's face twists and he hunches his shoulders like this is a shameful blow, his fury turning inward on a dime. “I'm sorry,” he says. He rubs his forehead. “I’ll be more careful. I promise. I know I,” he swallows, looking pained. “I was reckless. I put us in danger during the floods. I know that's how they found us. I'll be better. I'll do better. We can hide wherever you want. I’ll fit in. I won't…”
"Steve. That's not it. I don't want you to hide I don't want to run anymore. I want us to be safe. Together. Whatever that looks like." Bucky crosses to him, puts his one hand on the side of his head, feeling his beard beneath his palm. “You almost died in that parking lot. They saved you. We can trust them. We can stop running.”
"I can't," Steve says after a silence and his teeth are gritted tight like he's trying to keep something inside. His hand comes up to cling to Bucky's wrist, childlike. "I can't trust anyone with you. Buck. If I lost you again, I wouldn’t... I can't do it again. I've trusted the wrong people. In Bucharest, in Berlin, in Italy, in D.C., in Siberia. I've failed..."
"You can trust me," Bucky says. He wants to reach into the marrow of Steve, wrap up all these broken pieces and cradle them and glue them back together. "Trust me. Trust me to do this."
Steve is silent for a long moment. He’s surveying the terrain, looking for a path to victory. "I chose you," Steve says at last, the words dragging out of him like the worst confession. His eyes go to the door, unable to look at Bucky. He's starting tremble as the words come faster. ”I had to choose between my duty and you and I chose you because I can't lose you again. I can't let you be taken or hurt or killed. So I have to keep you safe because you're all I have left."
Bucky rubs his thumb along Steve's jaw. It used to be so narrow, he thinks wonderingly. “And I have to keep you safe,” he says. “You almost died, Steve. Don’t make me choose between following after you and watching you die or getting Hydra out of my head here.” He hesitates for a breath and then presses his advantage when Steve doesn’t offer a rebuttal. “If we stay, you won't have to choose. I know you’d keep me safe the rest of your life, all on your own. But the thing is, you don’t have to. We don’t have to go it alone - not anymore.”
Steve makes a hurt noise, like he's afraid, and leans forward to put his face into Bucky's ribs. "He tried to kill you," he says, muffled, and Bucky doesn't have to ask who he's talking about. His voice is plaintive. "He was my friend and I trusted him and he tried to take you away. I thought you were going to die and I couldn't stop him. I was going to watch you be killed and I was helpless and all I could do was hope that he killed me too so I didn't have to live with that. I can't take that risk again. I can't do it. Don't ask me..."
It's like a wave finally cresting, a current pulled deep from within Steve's chest and Bucky feels it washing over him, cleansing. Steve is shaking like a hurricane, breaking into pieces. He puts his fingers in Steve's hair, runs them up and down and thinks, like his mother used to do. He feels something wet soak into his shirt and he knows that Steve is crying, silent and messy.
"We're not alone anymore," he says at last, when Steve’s shivering has slowed. Bucky feels calm, steadier like he’s finally found his footing after almost eighty years. He can do this, he thinks, he can bring Steve home. “We’ll be safe. We’ll be together. We can... we can rest for awhile, now, here." He gestures out the door, at the green hills and the pale, golden sunlight.
Steve inhales but doesn't move away. It’s not a surrender but the cannons have stopped bellowing.
Bucky settles his fingers on the back of his neck, feels the tension easing and it makes his heart warm. "You've never failed me, Steve," he says tenderly, easing into the opening Steve has given him. "You haven't failed anyone and you don't have to choose. I'm here. I'm not leaving. We're safe. No more running.”
Against his stomach, at last, Steve nods and he exhales like he’s letting go of something heavy and old. Bucky closes his eyes and holds him tight as slower tears soak into his shirt.
After long minutes, Bucky shifts, delicately, like Steve could spook if he moves too fast. He pulls and tugs Steve until they're lying together, face to face, on the small bed in their small house in the serenity of Wakanda. Steve's expression is cracked wide open, vulnerable and tender and so different than the weathered expression he'd carried all over Europe. His cheeks are puffy and his eyes are bloodshot and Bucky thinks he is beautiful.
"We can rest," he says again and Steve leans forward and kisses him hard, hands pressed hot and strong against Bucky's ribs. He tastes of salt and exhaustion.
Waning sunlight tilts through the windows and Bucky can hear the sounds of insects on the lake. They curl together until there's no space between them and Steve touches the stump of Bucky's arm and Bucky touches the scars on his back. Steve leans forward, buries his face in the crook of his neck and Bucky feels his warm breath against his skin.
Home, he thinks. We made it home.
When Steve leans back a little, Bucky touches the smeared tear trails on Steve's jaw and sees a whole new day dawning in the blue of Steve's eyes, a battlefield finally gone quiet.
He falls asleep like that, clinging to Bucky, and Bucky cradles him close.
While Steve's breathing evens out, Bucky watches the last of the sun beams fade away, watches the glow of the moon across the low, green hills. He stares up at the sky, watching the stars glitter through out an entire unknowable universe that won’t ever stop coming.
For now, though, there is peace.
“I’ll be home soon,” Steve tells Bucky that morning. He presses a kiss to his mouth, interrupting him when he’s in the middle of feeding the chickens. The day is already warm but there’s a cool breeze coming off the lake, sweeping down the green hills and rustling the trees. “Don’t worry,” Steve says, a smile in his voice as he brushes Bucky’s hair back from his forehead. "I’m sure this is nothing we can’t handle.”
Bucky shades his eyes against the sun as Steve boards the quinjet, Natasha and Sam already waiting on board. “Be safe,” he calls and Steve turns back once to salute.
He doesn’t move until it takes off, waving as it jets across the blue sky, heading for Scotland. They’re going to New York after, something about spaceships and aliens that are after some wizard. Tony had called, sounding breathless and worried.
Unease curls in Bucky’s gut - but he shakes it off. There’s nothing he can do about it now. He brushes his hands on his tunic and heads over to milk the goats. With any luck, he thinks, Steve will be home for breakfast in the morning. Maybe Tony will come for a visit and Natasha and Sam will stay over. He'll get out the extra blankets from the closet.
He smiles. They have all the time in the world.
Well, here we are are the end! Thank you dearly for all your lovely comments and kudos. I hope you enjoyed this little story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
I have to take a moment to thank Lena7142 (for the art) and Tippet (for the beta) again. This was a truly great experience. Tippet also has a RBB to post so please look at that! And all the others who are posting for the CapRBB. It was such great fun - from claiming to collabing.
Here is the master tumblr post for this art/fic if you would like to reblog!
If you enjoyed this fic, I'll be back to posting my super long WIP next week!