Ten years, three months, and six days after Steve died.
Bucky’s daily circuit, without fail, takes him to the small plot of land where Steve is buried. The proud tombstone has slumped lower and lower into the earth as the years have drifted past, battered from the wind and grit, a slow fade into ruin along with the rest of Brooklyn.
Bucky sets his heavy, battered satchel down on the single stone bench left standing near the grave. This used to be a park: winding, green trellises with sprigs of white flowers. Birds had built nests in large, spreading trees and rose bushes had blossomed in the springtime. Bright sunshine had filtered through green leaves, framing blue sky. After they had returned to Brooklyn from Wakanda, this had been their sanctuary - an oasis of peace in a slipping world.
Now, the walls, a bird fountain, stone planters have decayed to broken stone. The birds and plants are long gone. Even the blue sky no longer remains.
Steve, though… Steve is still here.
So, Bucky returns.
With one hand, Bucky pulls his oxygen mask away from his mouth, lets it hang from its straps around his neck. He doesn’t like talking to Steve through the plastic mask. The air tastes of grit and ash and Bucky pulls out his canteen, unscrews the cap, takes a long swig of the lukewarm water, tilting his head back so the hazy, barely-there sunlight falls over his neck and collarbones. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, smears the dust across his cheeks.
After a long moment, he pulls out a clean cloth from his pack, tucked into an inner pocket every day for this purpose, and wets it down from the canteen. Then, he settles on his knees to rub away the fine layer of gray dust that has accumulated on the front of the gravestone since he last made this stop yesterday.
“Hiya, Steve,” he says softly, when the burnished copper lettering starts to become visible, a bright glimmer amongst all the grime. “I watched that Disney movie you loved last night. Snow White. Those little dwarves are creepy, pal. I don’t know if you ever noticed.”
Steve’s name is fully cleaned now and he stops scrubbing so he can rest his hand on the under loop of the first e, like he’s letting his fingers skim the side of Steve’s cheek. “Want to go over today’s soil readings with me?”
He sits back, turning so he can lean against the gravestone, and pulls out his tablet. It’s nothing like those long ago evenings in bed, leaning back against Steve’s broad chest while he read over mission reports - but it’s the closest Bucky has now. He stretches his legs out in front of him, pretends that he can feel Steve’s heartbeat beating against the back of his ribs. “Quadrant A6 is no change, even after mixing the new fertilizer so we can call that experiment a failure. Quadrant B2 is showing increased acidity - but the toxins are actually down so we’ll keep an eye on that.”
Bucky scrolls down his list, going meticulously through the dozens of little soil patches spread throughout the boroughs and some of Jersey. He’s no gardener or botanist - but considering he’s the last person left on Earth, it’s his job to analyze each of the carefully designated sites daily. So, Bucky has faithfully done his rounds almost every day for the last seven years - even if sometimes it feels like he’s just charting the decline of a planet damaged beyond repair.
That’s what happened, after all, when the all of the soil died. There is a more technical explanation on what had happened, involving radiation and carbon and potassium and aluminum and a complex interaction of negatively and positively charged ions… that’s about the point Bucky’s eyes always glaze over a little. Most people called it the Dirt of the Dead.
It came as the consequence of an almost four year war with an invading race of advanced, predatory aliens, intent on taking the planet for themselves. Their name had been unpronounceable to humans so most had called them Scavengers: large, nasty creatures with four long, muscular arms and hundreds of teeth. The Scavs had been merciless, decimating whole cities with their foot armies and space armadas. One third of the world’s population had died in the Scav Wars.
Steve had died.
In quiet moments, Bucky can still smell the smoke of battle; the way entire neighborhoods had simply been scorched from existence under the massive alien weaponry. Steve had been in Mexico, evacuating civilians from coastal towns as Scav platoons swarmed out of the Pacific Ocean. They’d been nearly done, helicarriers filled to the brim with desperate people, ready to take them to the military bases up in the mountains. Steve had been doing one last sweep of a neighborhood when a Scav scout had sent an energy beam into his gut. It had almost cut him in half.
Under a scorching sun and alien fire, Bucky had held Steve while he had bled out into the hot dirt. At first, he had tried to stop the bleeding but it had been like trying to stem a flood, too much damage to ever hold back. So, Bucky had just held him and rocked him, stroked his hair, kissed his mouth, tried to murmur comforting things while Steve had slowly stopped struggling to breathe and then had slid away, in a way Bucky would almost call peaceful. Bucky had carried his body back to Brooklyn himself.
The war had dragged on another almost two years after that. The entire West coast of the Americas had been lost. Parts of Asia and Europe had been lost. Australia had been lost. Africa was just hanging on thanks to Wakanda - but it was only by a thread. In those desperate moments, a coalition of the world’s leaders had made the decision to donate a massive new super weapon, created by Hammer Industries, about a mile above the ground in order to knock out the Scav’s flagship. There would be civilian casualties right under the blast - but the loss had been determined tolerable.
T’Challa had been the one dissenting voice on the United Earth Council. Steve would have disapproved as well - but he wasn’t there and T’Challa was overruled.
One year, eleven months, and four days after Steve died, the weapon had been used in the airspace directly above Texas, right at the heart of the Scav armada. Bucky had been in Florida, at the Atlantic Command Center, and had seen the flash across the horizon with his naked eye. The massive armada that had terrorized the globe for months had come down in a rain of fire and brimstone, killing almost 10,000 civilians in the immediate blast zone. The Scavengers had been militarily crippled, the sky turning to smoke and flame as their armada burned and their armies retreated.
It was a short-lived, pyrrhic victory.
Plants started dying within hours. First, it had just been around the immediate blast zone. Next was all of North America. Then, the jungles of South America began to wither: ancient trees shriveling to husks within days. Within four weeks, it was global. Nothing would grow. Existing plants, no matter how hardy, decomposed once the fall out reached the soil.
Crops died. Grass died. Trees died. Tiny home gardens died. Carefully cultivated greenhouses died. Nothing was left unaffected and no country was immune to the damage.
Food shortages were worldwide within weeks. Supermarket shelves emptied and livestock began to perish.
Bucky doesn’t like thinking of the Great Famines. He remembers, in weak moments, being grateful that Steve had already been long dead and buried by then and had missed the terror and panic: families eating rats and snakes, riots over loaves of bread and handfuls of rice. Hydroponic farms had started to be built, but they couldn’t produce food fast enough to feed all the starving people. Almost a quarter of the remaining population had died in just three months, emaciated bodies just giving out after years of the Scav Wars and then starvation.
It had been Shuri, with the help of Stark and Banner, that had saved them all. Algae, growing deep within the ocean and not in the ground, had escaped the fall out. They built giant harvesters to reach the deepest oceanic canyons and brought the stringy green algae out by the ton. It was dried and processed into thick food chips that were probably healthier than the food before the dirt died - but definitely not as tasty. Within weeks, they started setting up massive tanks along the shorelines to grow more and the Great Famines slowly ended.
The algae hadn’t solved all their problems though. With no vegetation, every single continent was quickly turning into uninhabitable wastelands. The dust and ash from the initial explosion and the destroyed armada had spread through Earth’s atmosphere, partially blocking the sun’s rays. Dust storms that were the size of cities kicked into existence. Sea temperatures rose from the lack of trees while land temperatures dropped from the fading sunlight. Massive hurricanes built up in the oceans, sometimes heading miles inland before dissipating. Huge flash floods and mudslides became common. Global oxygen levels began to drop - plankton and algae were still producing oxygen but going inland soon became akin to climbing Mount Everest.
Children wore oxygen masks to walk to school. Lung cancer diagnoses soared. That’s when Project Lifeboat was born.
Giant spaceships, the size of large cities, were built. They were in the shape of large eggs, shiny metal and crystal glass. Hydroponic farms were installed along the upper portions for food and for replenishing oxygen. They were beautiful. Bucky remembers when they’d hovered over each of the remaining population centers, shiny like jewels in the brown sky. The ships had looked like hope.
Slowly, the remaining population of the world had shuffled on board the Lifeboats, with their few belongings and pets and dreams, and had abandoned the planet they had called home.
Bucky had watched them all go from the ground.
When Bucky looks up now, staring at the almost permanently brown sky, he sometimes can see a shiny flicker of the edge of one of the ships, floating just above the atmosphere. All of humanity, hovering just out of reach, patiently waiting for their planet to heal.
He’s been up there a few times. Once every few months, he takes the small airpod that Shuri had left for him and travels up with soil and water samples for the scientists to slide under their microscopes. Then, they’ll send him back with more fertilizers, more seeds, more trimmings of plants and he’ll dutifully treat the soil, plant the seeds and the saplings, water them, monitor them, and report back that, yet again, none of them survived. They never give up, though. Even now, Shuri is working on ways of using a combination of vibranium and radiation to drive toxins from the soil and everyone is very hopeful. Bucky respects that.
Then, for Sam’s 50th birthday last year, Bucky had gone up to the Lifeboats for almost a week to celebrate. It had been his longest stretch aboard the ships since their launch.
He’d stood with Sam and Natasha in one of the high arboretums, surrounded by carefully cultivated hydroponic gardens and underneath a wide expanse filled with nothing but stars. Bucky had thought he’d never seen anything so beautiful.
There were new wrinkles around Sam’s eyes, gray filling in at the edges of his goatee. He’d been just as annoying as ever though, picking at Bucky’s beard and his hair and his smell. Natasha’s hair was still impeccably flaming red but her eyes crinkled more than they used to, tiny crow’s feet spreading out above her cheeks.
“To Cap,” Sam had toasted and Bucky and Natasha had raised their glasses.
Bucky’s eyes had burned as much as his throat as he’d swigged down a bottle of scotch that was apparently almost as old as him.
“What would he have thought?” Sam had wondered aloud as they leaned on one of the railings, staring down at the carefully designed barracks and offices and classrooms of Lifeboat 7.
“He would’ve been proud we’re surviving,” Bucky had answered, knowing it was true.
Humanity had taken an extinction level event and they had survived. He could see the hydroponic farms churning away, the classrooms for children to learn and grow, the medical facilities where babies were being born. People were growing up, getting married, building careers, starting families. They were thriving.
Steve would be proud. The Lifeboats were a marvel.
Bucky, however, always came back down to the Earth.
Tony regularly accuses Bucky of punishing himself. He says that Bucky blames himself for Steve dying and he’s doing some sort of endless penance, forcing himself to live a drab and lonely existence in a wasteland.
Bucky ignores him. Someone needs to be down here conducting all of the soil experiments that Tony and Shuri and the other scientists cook up. Bucky, thanks to the serum, is uniquely equipped to survive in the incredibly hostile environment that the planet has become. It’s practical. It’s logical.
So the fact that he can visit Steve’s grave every day is just a bonus. Bucky likes feeling that they’re still together. He likes knowing that Steve hasn’t been left alone down here to rot on a mortally wounded planet.
Besides all of that, Bucky has never felt truly at home in the sterile quarters allotted to him on Lifeboat 2. He doesn’t fit in with all of the clean faced men and women as they start new lives, try to move on from the past. Bucky still can’t let it go - he’s not even sure if he wants to. The people up in the Lifeboats sense that about him: they give him a wide berth when they pass him in the halls or see him at the annual Remembrance events. He sees the way little children look at him with wide eyes, staring openly in a way their parents don’t. He’s the beginnings of legends already: the crazy hermit, the rugged explorer, the boogeyman.
By the time he has finished reading over his notes from the day, it’s almost nightfall. The dusty sky makes an orange and pink sunset that peeks between the empty, hulking buildings of Manhattan.
It’s cold almost instantly when the sunlight disappears below the horizon - the entire earth has become like one giant desert.
Bucky stretches in the half light, lays a hand on Steve’s grave, like he’s clasping his shoulder. “See you tomorrow, okay?” he says. “Same time, same place.” He hesitates, lets his hand smooth over the worn stone, trying to feel as close as he can to the man buried beneath it. “Good night, Steve,” he murmurs and settles his oxygen mask back into place.
Bucky lives in a squat bunker right near the Brooklyn Bridge. The old highway there makes a natural runway for the airpods that come down from the Lifeboats on their supply runs. Tony had retrofitted the bunker from an old SHIELD building after Steve and Bucky had decided to move back to Brooklyn from Wakanda, muttering something about a tardy wedding present. He’d put in three stories below ground and two stories above ground with blast proof windows and vibranium enforced beams. He also made sure the whole place operated on its own renewable energy source, independent from the power grid. In a spurt of foresight, Tony had also fitted the place with a sophisticated air filtration system and airtight seals, originally intended to guard against chemical attacks - but now protected Bucky from the toxic air and vicious storms. During the Scav Wars, the below ground floors had been turned into a bomb shelter and command center from which battle operations could be coordinated globally, without the profile of Stark Tower or Avengers HQ.
The top two floors had been Bucky and Steve’s home for the last years that Steve had been alive.
They had found peace here. Steve had been so weary after Thanos, exhausted and rubbed raw in ways that Bucky had never seen him. Here, though, back in Brooklyn, living in each other’s pockets, they had found a home. Steve had been training up the younger Avengers, leaving the day-to-day running to the new and younger members. He’d been painting in the evenings, going for long runs along the East River in the mornings. Bucky had been volunteering at an animal shelter and a soup kitchen and snapchatting with Shuri.
They’d been so happy.
Bucky steps from the decontamination room into the living room of their home. He keeps heavy blackout curtains drawn now - but he remembers what it had been like, those years before the Scavs had come. Sunlight had streamed through every window. Steve would be in the kitchen, barefoot and with a mug of coffee in his hands. There would be paint across the front of his shirt and his hair would be missed from his fingers. “Hi,” he would say.
Now, the rooms are dim, lit by lamps when Bucky bothers to turn them on. The living room shelves are still lined with books and movies. Steve’s sketchbook still sits on the coffee table, pencil wedged between the pages.
He climbs the stairs to the master bedroom on the top floor. Their bed is still there, positioned on the far wall, away from the windows. Steve’s sketches are pinned up where they always were, near their closet, even though they are starting to fade with age. After a couple years, Bucky had managed to move Steve’s clothes to the closet down the hall - but Steve’s boots are still next to Bucky’s right inside the walk in closet door. There is a picture of them, arms slung around each other, at some gala at Stark Tower, sitting on the bedside table.
Like always, even after the decontamination room, his clothes are full of dust and Bucky strips carefully in the master bathroom, throwing the clothes right into the industrial washer before stepping into the shower. They hadn’t done a lot of testing on the potential effects of long term exposure to the dirt, but Bucky figures it can’t be anything good.
He stands under the hot spray, lets it run through his hair and down his shoulders. Carefully, he twists his prosthetic, sensitive to any clicks or scrapes in the mechanisms. The dirt can play havoc with some of the delicate joints so he has to perform maintenance on them regularly.
Not cleaning them leads to grinding and cranking and a trip up to the Lifeboats where Shuri teases him and Tony snipes at him until Bucky is ready to pull his whole arm off and call it a day.
All of the joints sound good now so he washes his hair quickly and steps out of the shower.
He dries off while the steam from the shower slowly evaporates around him. His gaze catches on his own reflection almost involuntarily. He’s leaner than he was before the Scav Wars: a steady diet of algae has stripped any softness from bones. The scar tissue around his shoulder has faded to something softer and paler, thanks to Shuri’s stubborn insistence. He rotates the limb clinically - no pain in his back or hips or ribs. He pulls his damp hair into a bun. It’s past his shoulders now.
His electric razor is sitting out on the counter and he picks it up. His beard is starting to get a bit shaggy, growing down his neck in dense patches. There’s no one down here to impress - but when his beard gets too long, it collects dust like a vacuum. He trims it down with clinical precision, taking a little bit more care around the parts that occasionally get stuck in the straps of the oxygen mask.
The hair falls away and he stares into his own gaze through the foggy mirror. His eyes are more silver than they used to be, he thinks, all of him aging like an old shirt. There are lines around his mouth, a groove in his forehead. A few gray hairs fall from his beard to the sink. Would Steve have a few gray hairs now too?
It’s so easy to put Steve next to him, staring into the mirror as he shaved too. There would be a deep line across his forehead, the place where he always furrowed up whenever he was disappointed. There would be a bit of gray at the edges of his beard, near his ears. When Bucky would lean close, he’d be able to spot silver mixed in with the bright blonde near his temples. He’d tease Steve about it and Steve would laugh.
They would be so happy to grow old together.
Bucky turns off the sink and braces his hands on the counter, letting the silent emptiness grow around him. He stares at his old face, alone in the mirror. There is no one next to him. There is no laughter.
His call with Lifeboat 4 is scheduled every other evening at 8 pm sharp down at the command center in the lowest floor of the bunker. Bucky pulls his hair back into a bun and sets up his tablet on the low table in front of the webcam. Tony is there today - he’s often too busy or too distracted to join in on the daily calls. Shuri used to be on the calls more frequently, but lately her efforts have been focused on the current agriculture endeavors of the Lifeboats and not the dead planet below. She’s moving on, just like she should be.
Bucky walks them through the readings from his rounds for the last two days. They’re not happy about the lack of change in Quadrant A - but Bucky is just the messenger.
“You’re planning another run out to the West coast in a couple months?” Tony confirms near the end. He looks tired in the artificial lighting of the lab, thinner and older than he’d ever been on Earth. His hair is mostly white now, darker gray lingering in his goatee and around his ears. They’re all getting older - while Bucky just chugs onward.
“Yep - gonna take the quinjet instead of the airpod. It does better getting over the mountain ranges.”
“You have enough fuel? And the emergency beacons? Do we need to make a supply run down to you?”
“I have everything I need, Tony.” Bucky taps his fingers on the tablet. “It’s going to be fine.”
Tony gives him a long serious look. “I promised Cap I’d look after you, you know,” he reminds him, as he does frequently.
Bucky finds something to look at on the left of the screen. He is always left discomfited when others talk about Steve to him. “That was about the US Government not prosecuting me as a terrorist. Not a life long mission.”
“Yeah, well.” Tony’s face does something soft and complicated. “Be well, Wall-E,” he says, at last.
“You too, Tony. Everything okay up there?”
Tony shrugs. “You know. Hammer is being a pain in the ass. Keeps going on about some science project he has going but won’t let anyone see it.” Tony rubs his face. “That guy is like a cockroach. I’ll let you sleep now, though. You look exhausted.”
When the call is over, Bucky heads up to the living room, then, with his bag of salted algae chips and kicks his feet up on the coffee table in front of the TV. He turns on one lamp, pulls the old afghan that Steve had once curled underneath over himself.
“What should we watch tonight, Steve?” he asked the silence around him. He flips through the choices. “How about Dumbo? I don’t think we ever got around to seeing this one. You were sick and then…” he swallows. “Dumbo, it is.”
He falls asleep on the couch, the movie flickering over his still face.
Bucky Barnes has been alone on Earth for almost seven years.
Ten years, three months, and eight days after Steve died.
When Bucky first sees the dark shape of something falling against the dreary afternoon sky, he assumes it’s a satellite
It wouldn’t be unusual. Thousands of satellites were damaged beyond repair in the Scav Wars and float aimlessly until the right combination sends them hurtling back into Earth’s gravity field. Mostly, they burn up on reentry. Some of the larger ones maintain enough mass to make little explosions when they collide with the land.
He keeps one eye on it as he treks across lower Manhattan on his rounds. He’s on the four-wheeler today since he went all the way up to Westchester this morning to check some of the farther testing sites. He spotted a dust storm gathering in the distance when he was out there and he’s going to have to hurry back to make it before it hits.
Dust storms can grow up to the size and strength of hurricanes in this desolate world, vicious and brutal things that can strip skin from bone. Bucky has no desire to get caught in one today.
He’s getting close to what used to be Wall Street, winding carefully around the mounds of half shattered bricks and blackened cars that fill this part of the city, when he sees the object veer east sharply, heading right toward him.
That’s not a satellite.
He throws on the brakes and pulls out his binoculars, letting the thick, tinted goggles he wears dangle around his neck. The dusky orange sky is blurry but he finds the dark, little object after a couple seconds.
It’s an airpod. One of the smaller one-man ones that people on the Lifeboats take out for short excursions between ships. They’re not typically used for trips down to the planet - too little to handle the heavy winds that often buffet the surface. He frowns.
Why would someone be taking one of those down now? The supply runs were meticulously scheduled and they’d never come down with a dust storm that size barreling toward the city. Bucky focuses away from the little craft and toward the horizon line. The billowing dark brown cloud of the dust storm is building, gaining steam as it rumbles toward them. It’ll be here soon. There’s no way an airpod that size could make a smooth landing with the storm raging - and yet the little craft is puttering right toward it.
Bucky revs the motor on the four-wheeler, tightening the goggles back on his face. He’ll need to get back to the bunker quickly. There isn’t much he can do on the ground - but he can maybe try to warn them off, direct them down to the coast to another landing site.
The streets of Manhattan are a confused cluster of shambling stone and rusting cars but he’s pretty well picked a path through the clutter over the last few years. He guns the engine across the island, tracking the progress of the aircraft overhead and the storm directly before.
The little airpod is catching the afternoon sun, glinting brightly even as the first tendrils of the dust storm swirl across the air. It’s not doing too well, wavering and weaving in a strange pattern like the pilot is looking for something, dipping low near where the Statue of Liberty still stands, her crown partially broken and a large chip out of her nose. The airpod wobbles upward for a moment, toward the slouching skyscrapers of the old Financial District. Smoke is trailing out of one wing now, leaving a sputtery path across the sky.
When Bucky hits the Brooklyn Bridge, the craft is crossing the Hudson, getting lower and lower. He can see a weird wobble in its wings. Could there be an engine be malfunctioning? Why would a pilot take a small, broken short-run airpod down in the middle of the storm?
Up ahead, the cloud of dirt and dust is a living wall of roiling grit, taller than even the skyscrapers, moving faster now. It’ll be here sooner than Bucky even thought. The pod either needs to land or get above the storm. It’s much too small to handle flying right into it - the dust storm will tear the pod to bits like it’s made of paper.
“Goddamnit,” Bucky says with feeling and guns the engine as he gets across the bridge. The strip of highway that the normal airpods land on is just ahead - but there is only going to be a narrow window for the little craft to land before the storm hits them. He jerks the oxygen mask down around his neck. “Hey!” Bucky shouts, waving his metal arm as he heads down the runway on the four-wheeler. “Hey!”
Land the pod, he wills the pilot.
Bucky screeches to a stop at the front of the bunker and pulls the oxygen mask back up around his mouth again, thick grit beginning to fill the air as the storm approaches. For good measure, he pulls up his heavy scarf as well, winding it around his neck and lower face as extra protection. He got trapped in a couple storms, back in the early days before he learned better how to survive down here. He has to focus on protecting his face, keeping himself steady. As long as he doesn’t get knocked around too badly, he’ll survive the storm - but the sand is moving fast enough that any exposed skin will get covered with some nasty cuts and burns.
The pod wobbles again but lines up for the runway, leveling off like the pilot is holding it steady by sheer force of will. Bucky waves both arms now, standing with his back to the oncoming storm.
It’s a rough landing: the pod is going to a little too fast when the first bit of its landing gear hits the asphalt. The whole craft bounces like a child’s toy, skidding and burning rubber across the bumpy road. The back end bucks and slides sideways as the pod shudders forward, screeching louder than the wind. The wobbling throws it left and Bucky winces as one side scrapes along the old divider wall with a bright shower of sparks.
With a heavy crunch, the pod veers directly into the highway median, and flips gracelessly, landing on its top and sliding painfully another dozen yards before stopping against one of the old abandoned semis that line the sides of the road.
Bucky starts running before the pod fully comes to a halt, vaulting over the concrete barrier. Flames are sputtering against the backside of the pod, flickering eerily in the murky air. The dust storm is blocking out the sun now, casting a long shadow as it looms toward them.
“Hey! Hey! You alright in there?” Bucky slides to a stop on his knees, tagging the pod’s side like he’s grabbing the home plate. He braces his flesh arm against one wing and uses his metal arm to clear out the shards of broken glass from the cockpit.
He sees a broad shoulder, a large hand, slack on the controls. “Shit.” He leans further, stretching his arm so he can reach the thick buckle and undo the flight harness. He catches a glimpse of blond hair, blood streaking down the side, and a darker beard before he grabs the guy’s thin pants and drags him from the cockpit by his legs. The man is wearing a thick flight jacket and it slides up around his face as Bucky pulls him free.
The storm is meters away. They’re not going to have time to make it back to the bunker. They’ll have to hunker down here and wait until it goes by them. Hopefully, the pilot isn’t injured too badly.
He gives a final tug and gets the guy out of the broken cockpit, barely looking down as he tries to see how much time he has left before the storm fully hits. Bucky pulls his scarf free of his neck. It’s big enough to wrap around both of their faces. The pilot doesn’t have goggles or an oxygen mask but Bucky can cover the rest of him with the flight jacket and…
The roar of the world slips sideways as he pulls the flight jacket away from the pilot’s face. Bucky’s heart thuds in his throat, large and suffocating him like the storm has suddenly swelled in his chest.
“Steve?” he asks, even though the pilot is limp and his eyes are closed. “Steve?”
He’s finally cracked, Bucky thinks, clear as a bell over the confused thrum of his brain. All that talking to Steve and the grave and the isolation and this awful planet, it’s all done it and he’s gone crazy and the proof is lying right in front of him. Sam will never let him hear the end of this. Steve is dead in a grave in Brooklyn. His body is buried deep below the dead earth. Bucky had carried his cooling corpse into a quinjet and cradled him to his chest all the way back to New York. He’d run his hand over that beloved face to close his staring eyes, knowing that he’d never see that exact shade of blue ever again. He’d stood in a cool morgue, alone, and washed blood and dirt from this chest and these hands, understanding that this was the very last thing he could do for the man he loved.
Bucky had stood in Brooklyn for ten years and wept over this grave.
Yet, despite all of that, Steve lies before him now, blood trickling down his face. His breath is delicate and warm on Bucky’s fingers. His pulse thuds regularly in his wrists and he smells of sweat and engines and something sourly chemical.
A heavy rush forcibly pulls him back into the physical world. The sand storm. He hunkers down, pulling the heavy, thick scarf across both of them and tugs Steve tight against his chest, like he’s the gravestone now, as the storm swallows them both in darkness.
Steve is limp and quiet while Bucky drags him away from the wreckage of the small aircraft and down to the bunker.
The world is newly browned over by the passing dust storm, only half burned out sunlight flickering through the haze. It turns Steve’s hair golden. Bucky strips off the thick flight jacket and leaves it out on the stoop. It’s clearly doesn’t belong to Steve, too big around the waist and too small across the shoulders, and filled with too much dirt to save. He hoses them both down brusquely in the decontamination room; though, he can’t bear to fully undress Steve of the thin, beige medical scrubs the other man is wearing.
When they are both as clean as possible, Bucky settles Steve on the worn couch in the living room and sits down heavily on the armchair across from him, elbows on his knees as stares at the strange, familiar body. His hands and feet feel tingly and he can’t stop the fine tremor in his flesh fingers, even when he presses them into his mouth.
Someone must’ve cloned Steve Rogers.
It’s the only explanation that Bucky has managed to come up with between the dust storm and hauling Steve’s firm, solid, real, physical form back to the bunker. In the decontamination room, he watched real mud sluice down his face and his neck, watched the thin scrubs he’s wearing grow damp and cling to the muscles in his legs and chest.
He’s not a ghost or a vision. The only other option is that Bucky’s mind has broken so hard that it’s now creating incredibly corporeal hallucinations to torment him further. Steve is breathing (about ten breaths per minute - Steve’s respirations were always slower than average when he was at rest). He smells (sweat, dust, bleach, grease). He twitches, little movements like he’s asleep and not unconscious. His skin is soft and his beard is a little reddish at the edges of his mouth and the underside of his chin. The body licks his lips just like Steve did. Does. Did.
A bloody cut is already healing across his hairline, where his forehead bust have slammed into the console. Dirt is smudged at the collar of his shirt from the storm. He’s barefoot. His hair is a little long in the back, like it had been when he’d died.
The cloning thing could make sense. Someone could’ve swiped some blood or hair or skin or whatever from the morgue, when Bucky had left him alone there, just before burial. There hadn’t been an autopsy but Bucky hadn’t stood vigil over the corpse the entire time. Sam had made him leave: made him shower and eat and lay down. Someone could’ve snuck in then, while Steve was defenseless, and taken some piece of him. They could’ve stored it in some safe place through the wars and the famines and the journey up to the Lifeboats - only to bring it out now to, to… to what? Make some mascot for the population? A morale booster? Maybe they even thought they were doing the right thing. Maybe they thought a clone of Steve would be better at being a singing and dancing puppet for their amusement.
Though, given that Clone Steve is now lying on a couch in Bucky’s living room with the smoking wreckage of a pod outside, Bucky thinks they may have been mistaken about the tractability of any being with even a hint of Steve’s DNA.
No matter which way Bucky slices it: the body in front of him can’t be Steve. Steve is still dead. Steve is buried three blocks away. Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable… It’s an immutable fact that Steve died in Bucky’ arms. Nothing can change that.
So why can’t Bucky get up? Why can’t he tear his eyes away? He should go to Steve’s grave. Steve will miss him. He should be with Steve, the real Steve, and not this imposer.
He shifts forward in his chair, considers standing up. Steve’s hair has fallen over his forehead and Bucky’s fingers itch to brush it back.
What could it hurt, really, to pretend for only a few moments that Steve is really here? He squeezes his fists so hard that his bones and metal joints creak. It would be so easy. Steve is just napping. He’ll wake up soon and they’ll make dinner and watch a movie before going to bed together. They will curl together in that big empty bed and Bucky won’t be lonely.
It wouldn’t be wrong - just pretending for a little while. No one could blame Bucky for a small indulgence after all these years…
The urge is too strong to resist. Bucky stretches forward with his flesh hand, ignoring how his fingers are still trembling. He touches Steve’s forehead and brushes back the blonde hair where it’s flopping over his darker brows. He lets the pad of his index finger linger on the delicate skin of Steve’s temple, feeling the familiar bones. Steve is warm. Steve is soft. Steve is...
Steve’s mouth purses and before Bucky can draw his hand back, his eyes snap open.
Bucky freezes, every part of his body shrieking. He’s falling into a deep hole, too fast to even make a noise. All he can see is the blue of Steve’s eyes, endless like a deep, warm ocean. He can see sunlight and stars and planets in them. He can see own broken heart.
“Bucky?” Steve asks, his voice rough and dry. His mouth goes slack a little around the end of the word, surprise and happiness. He reaches for Bucky.
Bucky jerks back before they can touch.
His voice is the same, like sleepy mornings after long battles. Bucky tucks both of his hands beneath his thighs, like that’ll provide any protection from Steve’s burning presence. No words will come, even when Bucky tries opening his mouth.
Steve groans and sits up, rubs his hand over the healing wound on his scalp. Flaking blood clings to his fingers. He’s healing fast, as fast as Steve does. Did. Does. His eyes scan the room, take it all in, evaluating and careful. Then, his gaze turns to Bucky, assessing him, looking for answers, trusting Bucky will provide them.
“You crashed your airpod,” Bucky tells him, carefully. “On Earth.”
Steve huffs, low and self-deprecating in that way he gets sometimes. “I’m good at crashing things, I guess. I was just trying to find you.” He looks around, the bookcases still filled with his books and the same throw blanket tossed over the back of the couch. Something in his shoulders relaxes, like he’s found something familiar and safe in the room. Steve would’ve felt safe here. Steve would have recognized every inch of this place down to the careful alignment of the coasters. This imposter wouldn’t - it shouldn’t feel safe here.
Bucky swallows. “Why were you trying to find me?” How would’ve a clone known about him? About their home? Were Steve’s memories transplanted into this fake body? His stomach rolls at the violation and he wants to vomit or cry or, or… He wants to go up to their bed and pull the covers over his head and weep because this is the cruelest agony: to have Steve so close and, yet, not have him at all.
Steve squints at him. “Something’s wrong,” he says, his voice gaining that modulated edge it always did when he realized a mission was about to go south. The muscles in his thighs tense and his eyes dart from corner to corner, looking for something in the shadows of the room.
“Are you a clone?” Bucky can’t do a single thing to stifle the question, coming more from his gut than from his head. His heart has been breaking for hours and he needs to know before he shatters entirely.
“What? No.” Steve’s answer is just as forceful, his mouth parting in real shock as he shakes his head. Bucky can see the way his eyes widen and his fingers splay a little - so much like Steve. “Why would I be a clone?”
“You’re dead!” Every drop of anguish from lonely days and nights fill each sound. “You died. I held you and you died and I carried you home and you were dead.” Bucky can’t stay seated so he leaps to his feet, paces across the room. His eyes snag on Steve’s sketchbook, pencil slotted between the pages. “I buried you,” he says, flinching at how raw and wrecked his voice sounds. “I’ve mourned you, every day. Because you’re dead.”
Steve is white, eyes huge in his bloodless face. One hand hangs in the air like he’s reaching for Bucky - but his eyes are distant, seeing some long forgotten dream. His throat works and the silence drags around them for long moment as Bucky breathes raggedly.
“I remember now,” Steve says at last, sounding as wretched as Bucky. “I didn’t before. But… we were in Mexico, right? Evacuating the villages on the coast. The Scavs were coming out of the ocean. I was…” His hand goes to his stomach, touching the place that energy beam had pierced through him, like the wound would still be there. “I was cold and you were holding me and I didn’t want to leave you but then it was so hard to breathe and…” he trails off and his face goes even paler if possible. “How long has it been?” he asks, sounding like Steve when he was desperate and afraid.
“Almost ten years,” Bucky tells the clone, strangled with how his throat is filling up with something wet and heavy. He pictures the bronze dates on Steve’s grave, sees his own fingers resting on the numbers because that was as close as he could get to touching Steve when he was six feet down and cold.
Steve presses his hands to his lips and squeezes his eyes eyes shut. “I don’t… I woke up two days ago. On a of some sort spaceship floating just above Earth. They told me I’d been injured and I was recovering. They told me you’d be there soon.”
“How’d you get down here then?”
If Steve notices the challenge in Bucky’s voice, it doesn’t show on his face. “Something was wrong. I knew they weren’t telling me everything. I snuck off to a computer as soon as I could and tried to find you. It said you were on Earth. In Brooklyn. So I snuck off to the landing bay and took the first ship I could find. I knew if I just found you everything would be okay. But then New York,” he swallows, slowly shaking his head. Grief is thick in his eyes, almost liquid. It’s so real - so easy to believe. “Did we lose the war? The Scavs destroyed Earth? Why are you still down here?”
It’s the mockery of Steve’s sadness that pushes Bucky after the edge. Fury subsumes Bucky’s own shock and grief. Steve is dead and this thing (the word is dripping with venom in his own head) is so much like the man he lost. A seeping wound that has never really healed is being dragged across hot gravel and it’s hurting worse than ever before. There’s only one thing left he can do.
Bucky strides past Steve, straight to the utility closet set next to the decontamination room. He can’t look at him any longer. He can’t stare at those familiar blue eyes even a second longer without knowing for sure. It’s ripping him to shreds.
Guns and ammo line the walls and he lets his hand drag over their tops, but his aim is the shovel leaning in one corner.
Steve, the thing with Steve’s face, has moved to stand in the entryway, just outside of the door. He has his hands holding his own stomach, like he’s trying to stem that long ago wound. “What are you doing?” he asks and he sounds a little afraid.
“Digging up your grave,” Bucky tells him. He throws the shovel over his shoulder like he’s some sort of miner, large flashlight in his other hand. His mouth is so dry. “It’s not going to be pretty. But, come if you want.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. It’s dark outside and Buck marches into it like he’s out to find monsters. He hasn’t felt like this since the days just anger Steve had died. His blood is singing with hot rage and his heart is pounding against his ribs in some misguided fight or flight response. It’s a seething feeling, boiling up his arteries and making his whole brain feel tight and overloaded.
He doesn’t realize that the thing with Steve’s face (more than his face, all of him: his hands and his arms and his shoulders and his ears and all of the parts that Bucky has loved and lost and remembered) is following him until he’s already halfway down the block. The clone, or whatever it is, stays a couple yards behind him, but Bucky can feel the tension against his back.
“Is everywhere like this?” Steve asks when they cross in front of a structure that never got rebuilt after the Scav Wars. It’s a dark husk, hollowed out to almost nothing.
Bucky kicks a rock, watches it bounce over the broken streets. “Most of this planet, anyway.”
The moon is half risen, pale and blurry in the late evening sky. It makes the ruins, the slumping buildings and abandoned cars look all the more decrepit. Bucky can hear the clone stumbling now and then, tripping over the broken sidewalk obscured by shadow. Bucky knows this trek like the back of his hand.
There had been a big ceremony here, when the mayor had renamed this little park Steve Rogers Memorial Garden. Back then, it had been lush and serene. Now, it’s filled the ghosts and shadows. Everything is crumbling back to dust, along with the body below the ground. The only structure left still standing is the gravestone, preserved through Bucky’s careful ministrations.
He marches right up to it and drops the flashlight so he can jam the shove into the hard dirt.
“Hey, Steve,” he whispers and touches the top of the S like he’s clasping Steve’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about this. I’ll make it quick.”
If the clone hears him, he doesn’t say anything. As Bucky starts digging, he crouches near the broken bench. There’s something shattered in the familiar blue eyes and it hurts Bucky to look at them too closely.
The dirt is packed and solid and it’s slow going. He’d forgotten his O2 mask and his lungs start to burn with the grit and the poisoned air.
Bucky is digging through years of grief and pain, shoving his fingers into a deep wound that never fully healed. So much of his life, he thinks as he scoops dirt out, has revolved around papering over this anguish so he can press on, fight another day. It has always been a shadow in the corner of his eyes, forever there, but now, after years of carrying on, he can manage to not look directly at it most days. Steve wouldn’t have wanted him to give up so Bucky hasn’t. It has been one of the hardest struggles of his long life. Now, he’s scraping away all of the padding and the deep loss underneath is gaping.
Halfway down, he realizes he’s crying, hot tears making his eyes blur over. He sniffs hard, stops to rub his sleeve over them.
“Buck,” Steve says and it’s so raw that Bucky forgets for a second that he’s not really back and his entire body shakes with the force of it.
“Just stop,” he manages, not letting himself lift his head and look up at that face. “Please. If you… if there’s enough of Steve anywhere in there to care, you won’t hurt me like this.”
The thing falls silent and Bucky resumes digging.
The sickly yellow moon is high when Bucky’s shovel jams into something hard. All Bucky can smell is the acrid scent of old, poisoned dirt, rotting and unwell and thick in his nostrils.
Bucky wipes sweat off of his forehead and then scrapes away the rest of the dirt. The coffin is metal - not vibranium, but something almost as tough. Shuri had sworn it could withstand a nuclear bomb blast on Manhattan. There’s an inscription of the front but Bucky can’t bear to read it again now.
Steve’s body is leaning over the grave, looking down.
Bucky fingers the old latch, dirt clogged into the little hinges. “I’m sorry, Steve.” He’s cold. Bucky had never expected to see Steve again in this world and, now, here he is.
He tries to prepare himself. Steve won’t look like he did when he was alive. He won’t even look like he did that day in the morgue. This will be hard - but it has to be done. Bucky will do this.
With a grunt, he uses his metal fist to pull off the lock and then swings open the lid.
The coffin is empty.
Six hours since Steve came back.
When Bucky’s legs give out, it’s Steve who reaches down and pulls him from where he’s slumped, half in the coffin and half against the grave wall.
“C’mon, Buck,” he says and he’s so warm and his hands are calloused in all of the familiar, right places. “I’m right here. It’s okay. It’s really me. I’m here.”
Bucky gaps, his lungs struggling in this dirty air like this is the end of a marathon. He clings to Steve so hard that his own knuckles ache. “Steve?” he asks and his voice sounds so afraid. “Are you a ghost?”
“Not a ghost. It’s me.” Steve leans their cheeks together, stubble on stubble, like the scrape will click them back together.
Bucky pulls back though, fumbles at Steve’s shirt, tugs at the hem and Steve frowns before understanding, lets the rough cotton be lifted over his chest. There’s a white scar bisecting his middle. Bucky touches with all the reverence of a worshipper, runs his fingers over the length of it like he used to touch the gravestone.
“You’re back,” he says. “How…”
“I don’t know,” Steve repeats. He fumbles with his shirt, tucks it up under his armpits so it’ll stay in place and reaches for Bucky with one hand. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know.”
His eyes are burning and it’s not the dust or the poisoned air. It’s Steve. He’s standing above an empty grave and the moon is harvest yellow and Steve is breathing next to him.
“Oh god,” Bucky says. His insides feel shattered, bowled over by some swirling force. “Steve.”
Steve drops his shirt and Bucky realizes there are tears all down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Buck,” he says again. “I don’t know. I’m so sorry.” He falls forward, gripping Bucky so tight that Bucky swears his metal arm creaks. Steve is shaking in earnest, damp face pressed into Bucky’s neck, and they shudder together in the gritty night in the middle of Brooklyn’s ruins.
The torrent of rage and grief is cooling now, mellowing into something sweet and beautiful and wondering. Bucky takes a deep breath, tastes the death dirt on his tongue, and lets himself fully believe.
This is Steve.
“Thank God,” he says, though really he has no idea who he should be thanking - but he has a pretty good suspicion that God had nothing to do with this. “Oh. Thank you.”
Steve’s heart throbs against his chest, taming the wild pace of Bucky’s. It feels like coming home after a long war. Bucky pulls back a little and Steve makes a tiny protesting noise until Bucky kisses him, licks into his mouth. He almost gasps at the warmth, his insides thawing from that frigid control that he’d maintained for a decade.
Their last kiss had been in the morgue, Steve dead and cold on a steel table. He’d been cleaned by the attendants, blood wiped from his face and a sheet pulled up to his chest to hide the ugly wound that had killed him. His eyes had been closed and his hair had been soft and freshly washed. Sam and Natasha had been just outside the door, already having said their goodbyes. So, Bucky had leaned down and, for what he thought was the last time, pressed his lips to Steve’s. They’d been cold and limp and soft and faintly chemically. It had been empty, devoid of warmth - but it had been a goodbye.
This kiss, though, hot and unyielding and so alive, is a promise.
“Don’t you dare,” Bucky says into his mouth, “don’t you dare ever leave me again. I’m not going to be strong next time. Okay? So you die, I’m coming right after you.”
Steve makes a deeply pained noise. “I know,” he says, “I know.”
Bucky leaves the grave open, coffin lid ajar and tilted carelessly to one side of the grave wall, and they walk back to the bunker. He can’t take his hands off of Steve, wraps his fingers around his wrist so he can feel his pulse.
Steve looks a little dazed, face blank but his shoulder bumps Bucky’s in time with their steps. He’s still trembling, both of them are, a deep shock working its way through their systems.
“What did happen?” Steve finally asks when they’re almost back to the bunker. They’re walking along the highway and from here, they can see all the way across the river, to the shattered remains of Manhattan, dark, jagged shapes looking like an ancient ruin in the moonlight.
“We won the war,” Bucky tells him.
“This is winning?”
Bucky looks down at the pocked and ragged asphalt. “They were desperate after you died,” he says. “The Scavs were winning and people were giving up. So, they came up with a plan. Hammer had some super bomb that they used to blow up the Scav’s armada. It worked. We disabled their fleet enough that they had to surrender. But the fall out,” he gestures, trying to encompass the city, the mainland, the entire world. “Well, the planet was pretty much uninhabitable within weeks. That’s when the Lifeboats were built to save the people.”
“The Lifeboats?” Steve echoes.
“Where you woke up. Giant spaceships with clean air and clean water and clean food. They have crops and animals and doctors and schools. Hell, they even have gift shops now.”
“And everyone fit up there?”
Bucky feels his mouth twist. Unbidden, the images of dead bodies piled together spring to the forefront of his mind. At the height of the Great Famine, they’d been digging mass graves to keep the dead from piling in the streets. Sometimes, he wakes up at night with the stench still in his nose, tears and sweat soaking his sheets. “Well, there weren’t too many left by the time they were finished. But, yeah, everyone fit.”
“You’re still down here though?” Steve drifts closer, so their elbows brush as they walk.
“I couldn’t leave you,” Bucky says simply. Maybe it sounds crazy but Bucky’s been alone on an empty planet with his dead lover for years and years. He’s entitled to a little crazy. “Plus, someone had to keep an eye on things. I’m like… the groundskeeper. I try different fertilizers that the scientists up there cook up to see if we can get the soil to start growing plants again. Tony sends down supplies and….”
“Tony’s up there?”
Bucky frowns. “Yeah. Didn’t they tell you?”
“Didn’t tell me much of anything. They didn’t want me leaving the room I woke up in.”
“Do you know what ship it was?”
Steve’s brow wrinkles. “Maybe 9?”
“The hospital is on 2,” Bucky says quietly. “There are smaller medical facilities on all of the Lifeboats but if you were really recovering…” Something cold lodges in his belly. “Did you get any names?”
Steve shakes his head. “I didn’t know any of them. They didn’t want to tell me anything but I kept asking about you so they finally told me you were coming. I think it was just to shut me up.”
Bucky opens the door from the decontamination room and immediately sees the red light over the stairs that go down to the bunker is flashing. “Shit. I missed my check in. I need to call the labs.” He hesitates at the top of the stairs, looking back to where Steve hovers in the entryway, looking both too large and too small in the familiar space. What does this space look like to Steve? Is it exactly how he remembers or does it feel changed? Can he see the long, lonely decade stamped across the things Bucky couldn't bare to touch? He doesn’t want to let Steve out of his sight. He wants to velcro himself to Steve’s back and spend forever no more than a hair’s breadth away at all times.
Steve rubs a hand down the side of his beard, gaze fixed on the red light, and Bucky can see all of his own emotion reflected back to him. “Don’t tell them about me,” Steve says, after a moment. “I trust Tony but… whoever those people who woke me up were, I don’t trust them. Something was wrong. They tried to keep me there.”
Bucky nods and then looks back down the stairs. He feels overly bulky, clumsy and awkward now that someone is sharing his space again, even if it is Steve. “Wait here, okay, pal? I won’t tell them and we’ll figure this out. I’ll keep you safe.”
Steve nods and his face is warm and soft. “I’ll go scrounge around the kitchen.”
Bucky manages a weak grin. “I have some bad news about food, pal. There’s some algae chips in the cupboard.”
Steve’s incredulous, “algae?” follows him down the steps.
Tony answers instantly, like he’d been tapping his fingers next to the button for hours. “Barnes?” he snaps. “What the hell. The lab manager told me you missed check in. You better be okay.”
“I’m fine. I just missed my alarm and slept through the call time.” Bucky plasters on what he hopes is a soothing, sheepish smile that hides the nerves jittering under the surface.
He gets a skeptical look for his troubles.
Bucky clears his throat. “There was a dust storm that kicked up. I thought it was moving slower than it was and almost got caught in it. Missed some of my rounds. I’ll get ‘em tomorrow.”
Tony nods, at least a little mollified. He taps something on the computer. “That’s fine. As long as you’re sure you’re okay. You look a little funny.”
“I’m good, Tony. I had to scrub extra hard in the decontamination room.”
“Okay,” Tony draws it out like an accusation. “Well. Here, we’ve had some excitement. Hammer sent out a fleet wide APB that some prisoner escaped from Lifeboat 19 and took off in one of those little airpod shuttles, tried to take it down to Earth. Seems the guy managed to pick the one with the busted left engine and knew enough to turn off the flight computer - so no one knows where he went. Poor fucker probably crashed it into the Atlantic Ocean somewhere.”
Bucky swallows. “A prisoner?” he repeats.
“That’s what Hammer said. You know how cagey he can be about these things. I had to sit in like five briefings with Hammer today and I think some of his spray tan got into my mouth. Where he still gets that stuff, I have no idea. Anyway, Hammer seemed pretty freaked out even though he kept emphasizing that it was no big deal. So,” Tony shrugs. “You may get some request to do a recon down the coast to look for wreckage. Feel free to say no.”
Bucky tries for a chuckle. “Okay. That’s good to know. Thanks.”
He’s grateful when the call ends.
If Steve is ripped from him again… Bucky won’t allow that to happen. He can’t do it again. He won’t.
Bucky goes upstairs to Steve, watches him put out plates and forks and napkins like this is a real dinner. He’s still in those scrubs, they swish around his bare ankles, and Bucky can see that he didn’t get all the grime that had accumulated on his feet off yet.
He starts a little when Bucky comes into the kitchen, like he’d been so deep in thought that he hadn’t heard him enter into the room.
“Sorry,” Bucky offers, even though he knows that’s not the right thing to say. A thin curdle of shame spirals in his belly. How different must he seem to Steve? Bucky’s kept the books and the movies and the dishes all in place - but he hasn't been able to stop changes to himself. He feels itchy in his own skin, suddenly, like a snake wanting to shed. Bucky rubs his beard, smooths a hand over the side of his hair. Had it been this long during the Scav Wars? How many grooves are dug in around his eyes and mouth that hadn’t been there before?
Steve smiles at him, a half quirk of one side of his mouth but Bucky sees a tension in his eyebrows that wasn’t there before he had gone down to take the call. Steve is unsettled too, tension percolating just behind his eyes.
The air between them has shifted since Bucky went downstairs - the sheer elation wearing into something uneasy, like they’re both afraid they’ll step on a landmine if they bumble off in the wrong direction.
Maybe before, Bucky would've sidled across the room and bumped their shoulders together. Maybe, Bucky would've cracked some joke or suggested a movie or… Bucky used to know all the right things to say or not say - the delicate balance he had to walk between comforting and coddling Steve. He used to be able to touch Steve’s back and feel the tension melt away. Now, he feels clumsy and awkward, too big for the fragile air between them.
They’re like a disused car that can't quite start. Bucky can hear the engine clicking but nothing makes it to ignition.
They sit down together and it’s another strange revelation to see a face across the way from him again, sharing the tiny kitchen space once again and eating in someone else’s presence. The cut on Steve’s forehead is a thin pink line now, furrowing and wrinkling as Steve shovels into the food like it’s his first meal in days.
Steve needs more calories than Bucky. Bucky will have to check his stores - make sure they have enough food. A thrum of nerves go up his spine. It’ll be up to him to make sure Steve has enough to eat - that neither of them starve. Steve may have come from war but even the 1930s hadn’t prepared Bucky for true starvation. Steve doesn’t know what it’s like. He won’t understand. That’s okay. Bucky will understand it for both of them.
Food is still a precious commodity on this planet. He’ll have to make a schedule and map out their needs. Maybe they can build another algae harvester. He has to be sure they have enough. Steve can’t go hungry. Steve can’t ever experience… Bucky swallows and refocuses to the moment, to the Steve before him now.
He seems so young, Bucky thinks. Young and exhausted. He remembers the exhaustion from the Scav Wars, how Steve never seemed to get enough rest. He’s exactly the same. Bucky is the one who has changed, grown older and colder, wearier. How many times can they break apart and fit themselves into a matching set again?
Steve looks up after a while, self-conscious in the way he only really is about his appetite. “Sorry,” he says, wiping his mouth with the napkin and then rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. “I don’t…” he laughs and it's only a little awkward. “I realized as I was sitting down that I don’t actually remember the last time I ate. Maybe year-old k-rations in the quinjet down to Mexico.”
Bucky doesn't want to talk about that. He doesn’t want to talk about food or Mexico or death. The algae goes dry in his mouth and he swallows quickly, then scratches at his beard. Maybe he should shave, trim it back to where it was before the Scavs ever came. Maybe if he looks the same, he’ll feel the same. “Don’t worry about food,” he says. “We have enough.”
It’s the wrong thing to say. Steve can’t understand all the history behind that fear, more than Brooklyn or World War II. Bucky drops his gaze. He feels itchy in his own skin.
Steve shakes his head, a little too quickly, hunches his shoulders to make himself smaller in the chair, like he’s afraid he said the wrong thing, even though it was Bucky. “Okay, Buck.” He falls quiet again, mouth turning down and face closing up as he works over whatever is in his head.
All the words die up in Bucky’s head before they reach his mouth. He wants to comfort Steve. He wants Steve to comfort him. He wants to feel like he did in Wakanda when Steve first came to him and they sat by the lake in such an easy, soft silence. He wants the space between them to be warm and familiar and simple. He wants things to be as they were.
It's so odd, to look at a man and know him so well, and know that you're the one who has changed beyond recognition.
After they’ve cleaned up, Steve follows him up the stairs to the bedroom, lagging a few steps behind with his shoulders hunched up around his ears. “I don’t want to presume,” he says when they’re in the hallway with the master bedroom on one side and the guest room on the other side. He says it firmly, lifting his chin like this is the start of an argument.
Bucky feels like he’s eight steps behind and he takes a moment to study Steve, circles back in his mind over Steve’s words and… so that’s what has been bothering Steve since before dinner. Bucky bites his inner cheek. Sometimes the absurdity of Steve Rogers takes his breath away - his determination to keep what he regards as his own selfish wants so small that no one would ever feel inconvenienced by him. This is familiar. This is Steve.
Meanwhile, all Bucky wants is for Steve to be large - for Steve to take up all the oxygen and space and make Bucky forget that a world without him as the center ever existed. He wants Steve to remake him into the man he was before so they can slot themselves together once more. He wants to forget the last ten years ever happened.
Bucky takes a breath, lets it out. He reaches inside and finds that old instinctive part of him that knows Steve and leans into it. Then, he spreads his hands wide, encompassing the hallway, the house, the entire planet. “See anyone around here I could’ve been making time with?”
Steve blinks and then stubborns up like always, his jaw pushing forward. “I should’ve asked earlier. You go up to the boats, you’ve said you do. Ten years is a long time, Bucky.”
“There was no one,” Bucky cuts him off, saying it plain so Steve can’t argue. “From the day you died until today, there has been no one. I’m not saying I thought it would’ve been wrong or you would’ve disapproved… but first there was the war, then there was the famine, then there was this,” he nods to the whole empty Earth. “It just wasn’t important. It wasn’t…” Bucky hesitates because how would he ever put into words how his grief had consumed him for years and then how his skin had crawled at the idea of letting someone else near him? He doesn’t want to make Steve feel guilty or hurt so he swallows roughly and shakes his head again. “There’s no one,” he says again, almost at a whisper. If they don’t fit together anymore, like they used to, then Bucky will take whatever scraps he can get - but he won’t let Steve wedge something between them out of misunderstanding.
He looks up and Steve is studying him, something soft and so tender in his expression that Bucky thinks he must’ve heard all of the words that Bucky didn’t say.
“C’mere,” Steve says, holds out his hand.
They go into the bedroom together and undress together, letting their clothes mingle in a heap on the floor. Bucky hesitates for a second over his own body. There are new wrinkles and scars. Does he look older and ragged and unkempt and worn out? Steve doesn't give him time to be bashful, steps up into his space and puts both his hands on Bucky’s hips like he had done so many times.
“Look at me, Buck,” he says and when Bucky looks up, he recognizes the mountain of love spilling out of his eyes and it's like no time has passed at all. It almost bowls him over. Time had dulled his memory of just how powerful Steve’s eyes could be, how the depth of his devotion overflowed and wanted to swallow Bucky whole.
When they’ve lain down on the big bed together, Steve kisses him, gently. They’re both naked and Bucky wriggles and presses himself full length to Steve, so the tips of his toes slot between Steve’s feet.
They fit, he thinks wonderingly: maybe his shoulders are a little broader and his hands are a rougher. It doesn't matter. Steve can still hold him. Bucky can still lay his head on Steve’s shoulder. Even after a decade, Steve still comforts him like he did.
After awhile, Bucky realizes his lashes are blurry with tears. He’s crying again without even realizing. He puts his flesh hand to his face, feels his damp cheeks and his breath hitches in his chest. It’s not the full out sobbing at the grave - but it’s something quiet that almost feels like a relief.
Steve catches his hand and kisses the tear trails on his cheeks, wipes at them with his thumb. He makes gentle hushing noises that just makes the grief come faster. Steve smoothes both hands over Bucky’s hairline, framing his face like he’s holding something precious.
“I’m right here,” he says, so close that Bucky can taste the words on his own tongue. “I’m right here.”
His thigh nudges between Bucky’s leg and Bucky realizes he isn’t hard - neither of them are. It’s exhaustion, Bucky thinks - physically and mentally they’ve been pushed to the very brink. Bucky wraps his arms around Steve and leans close, kisses his collarbone, runs his fingers over his ribs.
They don’t need to rush, he thinks wonderingly. There’s no urgency. This isn’t a dream to snatch at before it vanishes into thin air. He will wake up tomorrow and Steve will be here, right next to him, and every day after this. They will relearn each other. They have time.
“I’ve been so tired,” he says now, in the warm inches between them.
Steve hums under his breath, his touch turning to long, soothing strokes. “Sleep then. I’m here, Buck.”
So Bucky does.
When Steve died, Bucky’s entire existence had shifted, a river suddenly diverted from its original destination. A foundation upon which he had carefully rebuilt his existence after Hydra and the Accords and Thanos, had dissolved under his feet and he’d spent years trying to regain some semblance of footing.
Now, Bucky feels that foundation slotting back into place, like it had never left at all. It’s partly terrifying - he’d spent so much time learning to live without it and he can feel all that hard work sliding away as he easily falls back into Steve’s presence.
The message from Lifeboat 19 comes through the next morning while Bucky is flipping through the fertilizers he wants to distribute today. The comm center flashes red and then the message loads.
“Be advised: Two man landing team from Lifeboat 19 departing at 0700. Landing Home Base at 1100. Reconnaissance mission. Please confirm.”
This isn’t normal. Reconnaissance missions were rare and schedule months in advanced. They’ve never only come down with a few hours notice. No one from Lifeboat 19 has ever come down. He swallows hard and takes a moment to stare at the screen.
He could tell them there’s a storm - except they’d be able to check that himself. He could say he’s not well - but that probably wouldn’t stop them from coming. If he doesn’t respond, they’ll know something is wrong. Subterfuge isn’t a muscle he has needed to flex in a long time. Bucky pulls up his radar screens and checks for incoming storms. Maybe there would be something he could…. There’s nothing, just a single far out storm gathering steam above what used to be the Catskills - but that would be days in hitting, if it hit at all.
Carefully, he types a message back. “Message received. Vessel is cleared for landing.”
Steve is upstairs. He’s changed into some of Bucky’s work clothes, heavy gray canvas pants and a thick brown work shirt. In the duskier light of day, he looks thin and tired and pale, recently come in from a long, hard war. He’s sitting on the couch, leaned back against the cushion as he eats algae chips straight from one of the vacuum sealed bags. His beard doesn’t look as straggly, trimmed neatly around his chin now. The sight of him is a burning beacon in Bucky’s brain, swallowing up all the oxygen and casting everything else in shadow. He clears his throat.
“We’ve got to hide you,” Bucky says shortly. ‘Two men are coming down from Lifeboat 19 on a reconnaissance mission. Never had that happen before. They’ll be here in about four hours.”
Steve drops the bag of algae chips, brushes the crumbs from his lap. “Where do I go?”
“First, we gotta clear the plane wreckage. They see that, they’ll know someone is here.”
Eighteen hours after Steve came back.
It takes two of them and Bucky’s four-wheeler to drag the torn up pieces of the airpod up the abandoned interstate to the bridge. Bucky knows the places where the railings are rusted and old, weakened by years of rain and wind. They bend back some of the bars in the place where the metal is the weakest, and then shove the whole pod over the edge into the river. They watch as it slides beneath the waves, bubbles burping to the surface as it sinks down and down into the murky water.
Bucky stares back the city and remembers those last days: the crush of humanity trying to get out of Manhattan, trying to find food and safety, somewhere. Two weeks after the soil had died, New York City had been set on fire. Whether it was deliberate arson or just bad luck, Bucky has never known. He’s glad Steve didn’t have to see that: the city that had been their home for decades filled with flame and smoke while desperate men and women had fled for their lives. It’s almost like he can still see the smoke now, weaving between the dark ruins.
“What’s going on, Buck?” Steve says at last, when the silence has stretched so long that the airpod has disappeared completely. He’s been wearing Bucky’s O2 mask and his voice is tinny, thin through the thick plastic. His pale hands are gripping the rusting metal of the bridge, dirt already worked into every groove of his fingers. His eyes are fixed on the broken buildings of Manhattan as they stretch up into the sky like charred fingers into a wilting fire. He’s surveying a battlefield for an enemy, but there’s none to find - just the loss left behind.
Bucky turns away from the ruined city and looks out into the morning sun. The light is obscured by the thick haze of dust, turning it orange and unearthly. Around the sunlight, the sky is faded to a dusky gray, the color of something spoiled and dying. “I don’t know,” he says, quietly. “I can’t… but it’ll be okay. We’ll get through it.”
Steve turns on the railing, contemplates him. Then, he pulls down his O2 mask. There are thin red lines where the mask had dug into his face, making him seem achingly real, brilliantly vibrant against the brown world. “You seem older,” he says, wistfulness making the words too delicate for the ugly air. He reaches out, presses his thumb to the spot where Bucky has recently spotted a deepening wrinkle around the corner of his left eye. Steve leaves his hand there, stroking the sign of age reverently. He stares at Bucky like he’s trying to map all of the changes, learn him anew from the marrow up.
Bucky pulls down his own mask and leans into him, meets him where he is, twines their fingers together, and studies him right back. Steve looks the same as he did that day he died. Bucky has tried to his best to keep Steve’s face fresh in his mind over the years, holding tight to the little details: the bend in the bridge of his nose, the smattering of freckles beneath his eyes, the way his beard curves on his upper lip. Despite his efforts, there had been blurry places that Bucky had lost to time: shadowy and cancerous things that had eaten gradually away at his mental image of Steve. Now, all of those lost pieces are slotting smoothly back into place, familiar as the backs of his own hands. Bucky never wants to stop looking.
“I’ll show you,” Bucky says, meaning every bit of his whole wretched self. He would flay himself bare so Steve could learn him again as well. He swallows. “We can go away. We can find some place we’d safe and it would be just us.” It sounds crazy in his own mouth but he can’t resist the fantasy.
Steve comes close, leaning so Bucky can feel the sweat beading along his arms. “The work you’re doing here,” he says, waving his hand to the city. “It’s important?”
Bucky casts a glance but all he can see is brown. He thinks of his tiny patches of soil, none of them sprouting. He thinks of everyone up on the Lifeboats, how they’re all waiting to come home. “Yes,” he says, at last. He wants all of them - the new children and the old soldiers, the tired and the hopeful - he wants them all to be able to come back down someday.
Steve smiles, gently and Bucky sees sadness on the edges of it. He looks down at the railing and then back at Bucky. His eyes are so warm and proud, like Bucky is the most amazing thing in the whole universe, just for doing some gardening in the dirt. His shoulders are straightening out too, like he’s preparing to take on Bucky’s burden as well. After a long moment, Steve puts his hand onto Bucky’s shoulder. “I won’t leave you again. All of this, what you’ve built, it’s more important than me.”
The words sound brave but Bucky can see how his shoulders struggle to broaden fully, the way Steve leans on him just a little too heavily. What would it be like, Bucky wonders, to come straight off the battlefield to this desolate planet? He’s so young and so old all at the same time. Bucky wraps his metal arm around Steve, holds him tight.
Steve had nightmares last night, had woken clutching Bucky like he was dying. Bucky had watched him shiver under the warm blankets, had pressed little kisses to his forehead. He knows what Steve was seeing - innocent people stumbling out of vaporized cities, boils on their skin and blood in their eyes. Wave after wave of soldiers cut down as more and more cities fell before the approaching horde. Bucky used to have nightmares like that until they were supplanted by Steve dying in his arms and mass graves and a starving planet. Then, as the years had marched onward, those had faded too. They hadn’t left, just joined the pantheon of other nightmares that he has built up over his long life. It’s all fresh for Steve though. He’s still at war and he’s tired.
Bucky wants to give him peace. He wants to run. He wants to take Steve to some hidden place where no one can find them. He wants to stop planting seeds that never sprout. He wants to stop fertilizing ground that never bears fruit. He wants to forget the funeral and the war and the famine and ten years of loneliness. Bucky could do it. He could pretend the last decade never happened, be as he once was. It would be so easy.
But, they can’t.
Bucky brings his other arm up around Steve’s shoulders, pulls him tight. He swallows and does his best to let the silence grow around them, wanting this moment to stretch on and on.
“I missed you,” he says, instead of giving voice to all the rootless dreams. “Every moment of the day. All of the days. All of the nights. There wasn’t a moment I didn’t want you by my side. Don’t think I left you behind or that you’re not the most important thing… Don’t think I’ve outgrown you. I’ve…”
Steve kisses him, firm and sweet. His hands brush across the ropey muscle of Bucky’s back, going up to his hair, to cup his head. “I won’t leave you again,” he says to Bucky’s lips.
It’s not a promise Steve can make. Bucky knows that better than anyone - but he leans into it anyway. He lets himself believe.
“Then we’ve got to hide you,” Bucky says at last, when he manages to pull back from the kiss. “C’mon.”
The safe room of the bunker hasn’t been used in years. After all, there’s not many enemies left on Earth that can be escaped by hiding. Still, Bucky has done his best over the decade to keep it clean and well stocked. It never hurts to be prepared.
He has to move the heavy steel cabinet where he stores soil samples, old paper records, and extra scientific equipment out of the way first. Filled to the brim like it is, it would take at least three pretty strong guys to even budge it a little. The wall behind it looks empty and plain until he presses his thumb to what looks like a natural whorl in the poured cement and the entire slab splits down the middle like a seam.
Inside, there’s a single twin size bed pushed up against the back wall. Cans of food and military rations line the shelves. A fully functional toilet and a faucet with fresh water are in the back of the room.
When Bucky moves back, Steve steps inside and looks around. He doesn’t say anything, his fingers brushing the stack of books on the bedside table. All of them are paperback sci-fi novels, creased covers with cracked spines, but his fingers shuffle them carefully like he’s looking for something in their battered facades. Whatever it is, Steve seems satisfied at last, stacking them up like they’re costly treasures instead of cheap books Bucky has scavenged out of the ruins to pass the time. He surveys the lamp next and then turns back to look at Bucky.
It’s like he knows. Bucky looks down, rubs the back of his neck with his hand. After Steve had died, when the bedroom upstairs had been too painful, this had been where Bucky had slept whenever his responsibilities had forced him back to New York. This had been where he’d hidden from his grief. Can Steve see the place he’d sat in the corner, back against the wall? Can he see how Bucky lay on that bed, sat on this chair, and drowned himself in these books until he could almost pretend Steve was just upstairs?
He swallows and then tucks his hands into his pockets. “When things were getting bad,” he said. “I put this together. Just in case. Tony helped. It’s not really meant to keep people hidden - but Tony kept it off the floor plans so no one will be looking for it. I don’t think they’ll even come down here at all, though.”
Steve looks down. His hands drift back to the books, reshuffling the order. He looks out of place in the small room, too large and too bright in this space where Bucky had hidden from his memory for days and days. When he finally meets Bucky’s eyes, his mouth is twisted like he’s unsettled, no anchor in sight.
“Wait right here.” Bucky hadn’t thought of it last night but he runs up the stairs now, all the way to the bedroom. There’s a safe, underneath the bed, pushed far into the back so Bucky has to lie on his belly and stretch his arm all the way out to pull it free. He spins the combination quickly and the door opens for the first time in almost ten years.
He reaches inside and pulls out the square wooden box. He hesitates for a moment, runs his fingers over the smooth sides and well crafted hinges. Then, he takes it back downstairs.
“Here,” he offers, holding out the box in the metal hand so it doesn’t tremble. “I couldn’t…”
Steve looks up from where he’d been sitting on the bed, flipping through one of the books, a cover of a bright sun dawning over a dark planet.
Bucky clears his throat and tries to go on. “I couldn’t bear to… I kept them safe. This is what matters. You’re Steve. I’m here. We’re together. Whatever comes, we can handle it. That’s what matters.”
Steve stands up and takes the small box in his big hands, holds it tenderly, before flipping open the lid. Bucky sees the bright flash of the two rings, lying side by side in the dark velvet interior.
They’d been planning to get married: something small and intimate and quick. They’d bought the rings and written their vows. Then, the Scavs had come and all that had been pushed aside in the chaos of war and survival. They’d been meaning to do it at some point - maybe try to sneak a day in New York in the next few months - but Steve had been important. He’d been a beacon of hope above the fear, rallying people behind him in the face of a powerful, unstoppable enemy. No one could spare him, not even for a day.
Then, just like that, he’d been cut down down. Bucky has no doubt that the Scavs had purposefully picked Steve off. They’d known what he was to Earth, as a leader, a symbol - they’d known how demoralizing it would be to see him die.
So, there had been no wedding day for Bucky to remember and he’d hidden the rings away.
Steve takes both rings in his palm. They’re made of tungsten and vibranium, the two metals layered together flawlessly. Bright and dark metals interwoven to create something seamless and elegant. They’d taken Bucky’s breath away when Shuri had presented them to him. Steve chooses his from the pair, slides it onto his finger. It fits perfectly.
Then, he holds the other one out to Bucky.
“We’re not married yet,” Bucky says, uselessly, already reaching for the ring.
Steve’s mouth twists upward in one corner, eyes sparkling a little. “’Til death do us part,” he says, the irony thick in his tone.
Bucky stares down. What if it doesn't fit? He inhales and then slides the ring onto his flesh hand. It goes easily over his knuckle and settles comfortably. It's as perfect as the day he first tried it on. He admires it for a moment and then looks back at Steve. It takes him a breath or two to refocus: to see Steve as he now is and not how he had been on the day that he’d first presented these rings. Steve is weary and thin. Bucky is old and tired.
Steve is studying the ring and after several beats, he lifts his head to look back at Bucky. He’s scared, Bucky thinks, the old part of him that has catalogued every single nuance of Steve’s expressions snapping back to life. This is an old look, from Brooklyn on dark nights and the European front and countless battlefields between then and now. He tries to see Steve as he is now - not as Bucky’s truest dreams come to life, but a man once again out of time.
Bucky steps closer. He wants to touch Steve, put his hands under his shirt and count all of his ribs with his fingers, trace the edges of the scar that had killed him. He wants to close the door to this room so no one else can even get near them. None of those things are possible so he settles for saying something true. “I don’t know,” he says, “what brought you back to me and what it means - but I know I’m glad for it. Whoever they are.”
Steve sits down on the bed, worries the ring with his other hand. “Someone must want me for something if they went to the trouble,” he gestures to his body, to the length of muscle and bone and serum. His face twists.
Sometimes even Bucky forgets that he’s lived with this body for less time than he lived with previous one. He’s used to people demanding his service in payment for his very life and limb.
“They won’t take you,” Bucky swears softly. “No one will make you do anything you don’t want, Steve; not while I draw breath. We can stay down here. We won’t tell them you’re here. If we have to… Sam, Shuri, Natasha. They’d all support whatever you want. They’d all protect you too. But we don’t have to tell them anything either. We could just be here, together.”
He feels like he’s talking too much, rambling like just the sound of his voice will somehow soothe Steve, to make up somehow for all the small ways Bucky has forgotten how to settle him. It’s years of being alone, of talking to Steve’s ghost, all spilling out of him at once like a storm. The only thing Bucky’s been able to do for a decade is fill the empty silences and now it’s like he’s forgotten how to let a silence be. They used to be able to do that, he remembers. They used to be able to go through hours in quiet companionship. They could understand each other’s silences like they were whole books.
Steve looks grateful for the words, though, as scattered and tumbling as they may be. He nods sharply, puts both his hands flat on his thighs. “Be careful out there, Buck,” he says, in that deliberate way of his, like he’s putting thousands of feelings into each consonant and Bucky wants to cry because, at last, he can still hear all of them. His eyes are soft and warm, like he’s trying to wrap Bucky up in a blanket.
Bucky had missed that so desperately. He’d missed having someone alive in the world where he could hear the paragraphs behind the phrases. Bucky’s throat feels itchy suddenly, crawling hot up the backside of his skull and pooling behind his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah. You too.”
Bucky reaches and, this time, Steve is the one who meets him, getting up from the bed to pull him close. He feels just as strong as he did before. Their heartbeats thump and Bucky thinks, with wonder, that this part, at least, hasn’t changed at all.
The reconnaissance team arrives promptly. They land on the deserted highway with none of the skidding and flipping Steve had done yesterday. Bucky doesn’t recognize either man as they climb out of the cockpit and he keeps arms crossed against this chest. He’s left his oxygen mask off, likes making the two men feel like outsiders as they approach with their thick masks and hoses in place.
Both of them are wearing the black uniforms of the Lifeboat 19 prison wardens, the regulation stun batons at their hips. Neither of them have any guns that he can see.
“Mr. Barnes,” the taller of them greets, pulling his oxygen mask down around his throat. “I’m Warden Fletcher and this Warden O’Neil. Chief Warden Hammer sends his greetings.”
“Technically,” Bucky says, and smiles so that all of his teeth show. “It’s Commander Barnes. Got promoted during the Scav Wars if you recall.” He never uses the rank, just like Steve never did. By the time Steve had died, he’d technically been the Commander of the North American Infantries, reporting directly to the United Earth Council. Everyone had still called him “Cap” though.
Fletcher and O’Neil exchange glances and Bucky keeps up the toothy smile. He knows there are rumors up on the Lifeboats about him. He’s the crazy hermit still trawling around on the dead planet, already almost an urban legend among the children. He sees the looks he gets when he’s up on the boats, sidelong glances at his dirty clothes and scraggly beard. The Lifeboats are so polished and clean, shining full of hope and life. He’s a reminder to everyone of all they had lost.
Today, that’s going to be an advantage.
“Commander,” O’Neil says, conciliatory like he’s not quite sure what Bucky will do if they don’t comply. “We’ll do our best to not get in your way. We’re just here to make sure that the escaped prisoner isn’t hiding out here somewhere.” He smiles, tight-lipped and cold.
“Haven’t seen anyone,” Bucky rocks back on his heels, goes for relaxed, letting his words drawl out slow. He spreads his hands wide. “Not much to see down here.”
“Even so,” O’Neil says. “Chief Hammer is paying us overtime to have a look around so we’ll give it a go. Just to be sure.” He salutes, some half ass, sloppy thing and Bucky knows he’d never served in the actual military a day in his life.
They set out on foot, heading north along the river, with little handheld scanners. Bucky watches them go and then turns toward the garage. He needs to distract himself.
His four-wheeler needs some maintenance so he busies himself changing the oil, checking the brake lines, and patching a slow leak in one of the tires.
Maybe he’ll head down to the algae harvester next. Some of the pipes could do with a good cleaning and it’s been…
He halts in the middle of closing the garage door. Steve’s grave. It’s still all dug up. It’s empty. If they wander by the graveyard…
His stomach drops, bottoming out around his toes. There’s no reason for them to head to that part of Brooklyn, he tells himself. They were headed up the coast. They’d be looking for wreckage along the shoreline so they wouldn’t need to head inland… unless.
Unless, they know and they’re specifically looking for traces of Steve.
Bucky reopens the door to the garage. The space is mostly consumed by gardening and maintenance tools, but, under the desk, is a holstered .500 Magnum.
Carefully, he loads up a couple flats of seed pallets onto the back of the four-wheeler and kicks off, forcing himself to take a slow, meandering route to the gravesite. If he sees them, he can pretend he’s just on his way to his rounds and hopefully fill in the grave with them none the wiser.
The day is dimmer than before, though Bucky can’t see any clouds behind the grimy air. Shadows drag long over washed out ruins and a thick, cold wind is blowing in from the East from that storm he’d spotted inland last night. It must be getting bigger.
His four-wheeler splutters and coughs over the bumpy ground and he makes himself stop at one of his normal sites, scraping a little of the brittle soil into one of the collection tubes. He doesn’t want this to be a fight. He wants to scrape by on subterfuge and have more time before he’s forced to be a weapon again.
He sees O’Neil before he even stops the four-wheeler near the edge of the torn up walkway that leads to Steve’s empty grave. The man is facing Bucky, arms folded across his chest. Now, Bucky can see the gun at his hip. He’s still wearing the thick goggles and O2 mask so Bucky can’t see his expression - but his shoulders are strung tight enough to snap at any moment.
“Afternoon,” Bucky offers as he kicks the brake on the four-wheeler and dismounts. He smiles and keeps his arms loose at his sides. Beyond O’Neil, he can see Warden Fletcher stand up. His pack is leaning against Steve’s tombstone and he’s right next to the open hole of Steve’s dug up grave.
“Commander Barnes,” O’Neil says.
Is this something that Bucky can play off under the auspice of grief-driven insanity? Is there an explanation he can find? Bucky glances at the tense lines of Fletcher’s arms and knows that the only way out is forward.
O’Neil cracks first. “Where is he?” he asks.
He must be young, Bucky realizes. Beneath the mask and all of the gear, this guy was probably in his teens during the Scav Wars. He only remembers the legend of Steve and not the reality. Otherwise, he’d know how dumb it was to ask that question of Bucky Barnes.
“Who?” Bucky says, wanting to make him say it.
“Steve Rogers.” O’Neil squares his shoulders, smart enough to pick up that a fight is looming. “Don’t play dumb. We know he’s down here. There’s no wreckage on the coasts and,” he gestures to the grave.
Bucky doesn’t answer. He can feel the smooth metal of his wedding ring on his finger.
O’Neil tugs at the straps of his O2 mask. “There’s a reward,” he says. “Chief Hammer… a million dollars for his safe return. He won’t ask questions and…”
So Hammer was directly involved in this. How many others in the leadership circles?
Bucky shakes his head, folds his arms over his chest. “I don’t want to hurt you boys,” he says. “But you need to leave.”
O’Neil takes a step forward. “You don’t understand,” he says. “Maybe even Hammer would cut you in on the deal. You can negotiate. There’s…”
Bucky looks past him to the grave, the place that he'd thought of as Steve for all these long years, now flayed open and cold. He thinks of Steve in the dark room downstairs, safe and healthy and warm and alive. There's no limit, he knows, to the lengths he would go to keep Steve with him this time.
He jerks the gun out of his waistband and fires a shot at O’Neil’s feet, makes the dirt kick up in a thick plume. “I told you,” he says shortly. “You need to leave.”
O’Neil jumps, his own hand wavering near his gun.
“Don’t try it,” Bucky warns. “It won’t end well, son. I’ve been going to wars long before you were born.”
Fletcher already has his hands up.
After a long moment, O’Neil lifts his as well.
Bucky leaves his four-wheeler behind as he frog marches them back to their airpod. He’d considered killing them, shoving both of their bodies into Steve’s empty coffin and filling the grave back up.
It wouldn’t be hard, he thinks as Fletcher stumbles again over broken pavement, to convince the Lifeboats that they’d just disappeared on their reconnaissance. Hammer probably would’ve sent another team but it would’ve bought them some time.
He can’t do it, though. Bucky hasn’t killed anyone since the War. There are so few humans left, just the scant few in the sky, every single one of them precious and if Bucky can preserve one life, he will.
They clamber into their airpod, shooting him looks like he’s going to crack and shoot them at any second.
“Tell Hammer,” Bucky says, just before he slams the airpod door closed. “That if he wants Steve, he’d going to need to bring an army down.”
He watches them take off, their plane a dull gleam into the darkening sky. Bucky can see the first darker clouds of the storm whipping up inland. It’s a big one, getting bigger. The air smells of ozone, the sharp scent of a huge storm looming on the horizon. No one from the Lifeboats will want to fly down if there’s a chance they may get a stuck in it. Hammer’s never been that good at thinking on his feet.
They have some time.
Before he goes back to Steve, Bucky sits down at the communications console. They’d be expecting him for a check in tonight. He hesitates over the keyboard, staring at the test tubes and seed packets stacked on shelves all around him. He doesn’t want to abandon his job - but protecting Steve comes first.
He types a quick message to Shuri and attaches a record of all his reports and findings over the years, just to be sure someone has it.
Storm coming. Will be out of contact for awhile.
Bucky hesitates and then adds: Be careful of Hammer. Don’t trust him.
After the message has fully sent on Shuri’s secure, encrypted channel, Bucky shuts down the communications console entirely, blocking all messages from the Lifeboats. There are many on the ship he’d trust with his life - but who knows what promises Hammer had made to members of the High Council? T’Challa wouldn’t be able to stand against them all. It’s better to assume the worst, that the entire fleet will be against them, and hope for the best.
Steve looks up when he opens the door to the safe room, dim basement light racing in to touch the golden pool from the reading lamp on the side table.
“They gone?” he asks, standing up with his thumb still between the yellowing pages of a book. Bucky can see the dark stripe of the wedding ring on his finger.
Bucky goes to him, striding across the floor and sliding his arms around Steve’s waist. He can feel all of his ribs, the bumps of his spine, and the ridge of his sternum. “They’d come for you,” he says when Steve’s arms wind around him in return. “They said…” he swallows, can’t finish.
Steve twists and drops the book back to the bed, so he can hold him tighter. Bucky can feel himself shaking against Steve’s grip, a deep tension in his muscles vibrating up to the surface.
“I didn’t kill them,” he says and Steve makes a soothing noise, running his hand from the top of his spine to the bottom in a long firm stroke. “I sent them back up there. They wanted to take you. It’s Hammer. They said he’s offering a reward for you. He’ll send others. I know he will. It’ll be fight.” He knows Steve hears the crack in the words, a fissure that goes straight to his heart.
Steve steps back, keeps both hands on his shoulders. He’s staring at Bucky, searching for something, brows heavy over his eyes. “I didn’t mean,” he starts and then swallows. “I didn’t mean for this to…”
“None of this is your fault,” Bucky tells him, wants to cut it off before it even begins. “Jesus, Steve. You were dead. You’ve been alive not even three days and already you think everything everything that happens is all your fault.”
Steve takes a little step back and Bucky sees that familiar flash of his hackles going up, like he’s offended not everything in the world is his responsibility.
Bucky dashes a hand across his face, scrubs the itch of wetness from his eyes. “I know what you’re thinking. I know you think that maybe I’d be better off or you’ve ruined something or… but it’s not true. I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to kill. I don’t want to go back to war. But, some things are worth fighting for and dying for and killing for and you are that thing for me. I will…” he swallows and the enormity of what he could promise Steve rises up in his gorge like sick. All of the world, all of himself, his soul, his heart.
Steve’s brow pinches over and his hand reaches out, tentative at first, then more firmly, drawing Bucky to him. He leans in and presses a kiss to Bucky’s forehead. “I have a second chance,” he says, gently. “I just want to be happy with you.” He takes a long, slow breath. “I’m sorry I’ve brought a fight again. I’m sorry I brought trouble down even if I am grateful for every second that I am with you again. I want to protect you even if you don’t need protecting.
The overflow of words settles something in Bucky’s gut and he takes a deep breath himself. “We’re safe for now. There’s a storm building inland and no one will chance flying in to it and getting stuck. We have time to make a plan.”
Steve goes back with him to get the four-wheeler, using headlamps to pick their way across the ruins of Brooklyn. The moon is high, dully yellow in the jagged spaces between the crumbling buildings. Halfway back, Steve reaches out and takes his hand, holds it gently, almost questioning.
After a second, Bucky tightens his fingers around Steve’s in return, and they walk on through the rubble together.
Two days after Steve came back.
Bucky wakes up from empty dreams to a reality with Steve in his bed, sheet twisted around his bare hips. Murky light comes through the alf open curtains, stretching across the carpet, onto the mattress, then crawling up Steve’s smooth skin to the place where the scar bisects his middle.
He’s asleep, breathing peacefully with his chest rising and falling. It’s not a fantasy or an illusion. Bucky reaches out with his bare hand, touches the curve of his hip bone where the weak sunlight is beginning to warm the skin. He lets his thumb drag upward to smooth over the ridged edges of the scar tissue.
It hadn’t been a scar when he’d last seen it. This had been a wound, stitched closed with thick, black, precise strokes. The skin hadn’t knit together, even hours after Steve had died, pulled apart in a dark, unnatural way. He’d been buried with the stitches.
His hand ghosts onward, pressing over Steve’s heart, feeling the steady thump. The beat is strong and sure, like it had never even stopped at all.
Last night, they’d showered after they returned with the four runner and then fallen into bed, too exhausted to do more than stretch their palms together before sliding into sleep. Bucky had woken briefly to hear a dust storm passing overhead, rattling the panes and howling across the roof - but had quickly fallen back to sleep until his dreams had woken him now.
Fletcher and O’Neil would’ve made it back to the Lifeboats by now. They’d have told Hammer everything. Bucky lets his head settle back to his pillow and lets himself be content. No matter what came next, he and Steve will face it together.
Steve opens his eyes only minutes later, blinks them twice like he’s clearing his vision and then smiles, something slow and warm and sweet. Bucky leans close and kisses him, lips catching on the dry skin at the edge of Steve’s mouth and then pulling downward to rest against his lower lip. It’s easy and unhurried, like they have all the time in the world. The distance between them the first few hours is gone, replaced by something as familiar as breathing.
It’s odd to do this, to open himself up and be vulnerable in small and big ways to another human being again. Sam, Natasha, Shuri, Tony... they were all his friends and he trusted them with his life and body and future. But the quiet intimacy of letting another person smell his morning breath or touch his ribs or smooth the hair back from his forehead: that had all been lost with Steve.
Bucky had forgotten how delicate it feels: an almost feather-like sensation of Steve's existence slotting into alignment with his.
This was how it had felt in Wakanda, after he had woken up wholly himself for the first time in decades and Steve had walked off the quinjet on a stormy summer day, and smiled at Bucky. Steve had been the one to reach out then, both hands spread wide and honest. He'd kept his movements slow as he'd slid into Bucky's space. "Good to see you," he'd said and, that night, Bucky had settled himself into the breadth of Steve and understood.
Steve sits up after a while, stretches his long arms and rubs a hand over his beard. Bucky watches him, watches the strange polluted glow of this dying planet fall over his blonde hair. The late night dust storm had left an extra haze in the air, like the crispy brown pieces of toast.
“I’m getting tired,” Steve says, looking out the window at the new covering of dirt over the landscape, “of waking up to changed worlds.” He’s vulnerable beneath the words, a wide stretch of fear and longing and exhaustion that Bucky feels in his own soul.
“It’s not so fun watching the world change around you either,” Bucky says.
Steve lies back, turns on his side so that the hollows and hills of his body block out some of the sun. His brow is heavy over the brightness of his eyes and he’s staring at Bucky now, the weight of his gaze lingering on as the sun drags across the sky. “I keep leaving you behind,” he whispers after a long time and Bucky is almost surprised he said it out loud. He’s used to reading Steve’s silences more than his words.
Bucky reaches out and finds Steve’s hand with his own, curls their fingers together like a children’s puzzle. “As long as you keep coming back.”
Would this be their destiny? Bucky wonders as he scoots closer, lets Steve hold him in lieu of making promises neither of them can keep. Would they spend the rest of eternity being torn apart and reuniting only for brief shining moments before the cycle began again?
He closes his eyes and thinks he could fall asleep again: let his carefully scheduled routine slide away, forget about the Lifeboats and Hammer and just wile away away the morning in Steve’s arms. If all they get are these small stretches of time, Bucky will make the most of them.
Steve is quiet too, breathing steadily as if any sort of movement might break the peace. His thumbs move a little against Bucky’s hips, a small repetitive motion seemingly meant to soothe himself more than Bucky. When Bucky dares to look up, his eyes are closed and his mouth is pressed together. He looks like he’s praying.
Bucky doesn’t disturb him.
Instead, he settles his head down, lets the cloud of his long hair stream behind him. Flyaway hairs fall across his cheeks, tickling his nose. He still doesn’t move.
Finally, as the morning sun starts rising past the top of their window frame, he says to Steve’s chest. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” He hasn’t told Steve about the comms console. Maybe he should.
Steve tightens his arms. His chin bobs and he leans down to kiss Bucky’s head, demonstratively tender in a way that Bucky doesn’t always expect from him. “It’ll be okay,” he says to Bucky’s hair, warm breath gusting over his scalp.
They will have to drag him away, Bucky thinks, fitting his fingers to the grooves in Steve’s ribs. They will have to put Bucky in the ground and drag Steve away before he let them be parted again.
Breakfast is dried algae chips with powdered milk. It tastes like sawdust in Bucky’s mouth, like it always has. With Steve’s knees knocking against his underneath the kitchen table, he notices the taste anew though, cataloging the expressions across Steve’s face as he chews the tough chips and swirls the gray milk with his spoon.
“Up on the ship, they eat better,” Bucky offers. No one starves anymore, he doesn’t say. “Fresh fruits and vegetables. Shuri… she’s a whiz at horticulture. They have cows and goats for milk and chickens for eggs. It’s not so bad. I can start bringing more of it down so…” He swallows and looks down at his bowl. He’s existed, he thinks, just churned away weeks and years without really living. He’s eaten because he needed strength to make his rounds across the city - because he’s seen what happens when someone starves. He’s slept because exhaustion had forced him to. He’s cut his hair and trimmed his beard because the dirt was unbearable.
Steve makes him want to live again. He wants to bring Steve fresh fruits and eggs. He wants to stand in this kitchen and cook full meals with more than one ingredient. He wants to watch Steve eat a first course and a second course and a desert. He wants to know that Steve will never go hungry.
Steve looks up, spoon in his mouth. He swallows and takes another spoonful, deliberately chomping down with an exaggerated motion. His eyes crinkle at the corners, fond and chiding, like he can hear every single one of Bucky’s thoughts.
It’s nearing the heat of the day by the time they’re in their gear and outside, swollen sun making the dirt glow orange across the river banks. The air feels especially heavy around them, extra raspy against every bit of exposed skin. Steve has wedged himself into one of Bucky’s thick work coats and the rough canvas is stretched tight over his shoulders. He’d left behind the oxygen mask again, though he did agree to wear a pair of Bucky’s goggles.
While Steve walks the perimeter of the bunker, eyeing the dilapidated walls, Bucky goes up to one of the low walls and stands on top. He uses his binoculars to scan the brown horizon. Out over Jersey, clouds are gathering on the cusp of the orange sky, a building and rolling darkness that blots out the light around it. Even at this distance and through the haze, Bucky can see the fast glimmers of lightning as it darts among the clouds. The storm. It’s bigger than he’d expected. Dread curdles in his gut.
Storms like these are much less common here on the coast than they are inland, not like the dust storms that sweep through every few days. It’s been several months since Bucky has seen one getting this close. He takes a deep breath, tries to taste the storm, see if it’s headed this way.
The breeze is sharp on his tongue. He bites the inside of his cheek, tries to not let himself imagine the worst case scenario. It’ll probably miss them. The winds are pushing south right now so the storm will stay inland. They’ll get some rain and wind - but it won’t be too bad.
“Can we patch this up?” Steve asks from behind and Bucky turns. He’s crouched near a place where the barrier wall has crumbled entirely. It had been worn down by the spring floods a couple years ago and had slowly collapsed into disrepair as the windstorms and dust storms had battered it. Steve pushes his goggles up into his hair and Bucky can see a thin film of dirt has already formed on his face, making the skin around his eyes look milk white.
“There are rocks we can haul up from the river.” Bucky hops down from the wall, speaking loud to be heard through his own mask and the low rush of wind coming through the spaces between buildings. He leans back and looks at the whole wall with a critical eye. He’s spent his time keeping the house seals tight, the water lines maintained, the algae harvester in working order. These walls hadn’t been a priority, but if there are men coming for Steve… He shakes his head and tries to look at the bunker like a soldier. “Won’t do much good under real fire power.”
Steve stands up and kicks a couple rocks free, clearing them so the the slouching gap is clear to be rebuilt. “We don’t need it to stand up to real fire power. Up on the ships, I didn’t see much in the way of battering rams. We just need to make sure they can’t surprise us.”
Most of Steve’s words, Bucky thinks, have always been reserved for strategies. “They bring any big firepower down, they’re gonna have to use this airfield. None of the fields inland or down the coast are gonna be sturdy enough to land on. Plus, with the air out there, you’d be shredding your lungs if you stayed out there too long.”
Steve hums. His hands are on his hips and his mouth is pursed together in that way he has when the battles are coming. After a long moment, he puts the goggles over his eyes and heads down the river.
The algae harvester is on stilts in the shallows of the river. During the floods, the water will lap right up to its top, and, during the height of the dry months, the ground around it will be sucking mud.
Bucky takes the mechanics apart, shows Steve the thick tubes where the water pumps in to be purified and then is held in the giant tank while the algae matures. Giant paddles circulate in the bottom, moving the water at the perfect speed to encourage algae growth. When the crop is ready, the water drains and the algae is caught by filters and dried in the sun before being processed into rolled tubes that Bucky carries back to the house and cuts into smaller rounds before baking them in his oven.
Steve watches patiently as he walks through each part, asks the right questions, but Bucky can see the distraction in the tilt of his head. Engineering, mechanics, biology - they had never been Steve’s favorites. Steve liked physics and history and strategies. He liked the intersection of motion and force. The intricacies of small pieces moving together in harmony didn’t captivate him like they did Bucky. Steve wanted the big answers, not the tiny movements. He doesn’t appreciate how tenuous the barrier is between survival and starvation.
That’s okay. Bucky will take care of this for both of them.
“This isn’t a defensible spot,” Steve says when Bucky has closed the tank lid, sliding the freshly dried rolls of algae into his bag. He’s right. The river bank is wide open, within a stone’s throw from the shadow of the bridge. There are about ten yards between the harvester and the first part of the sloughing city rubble. A talented sniper could sit on the bridge’s ballasts or even crouch in the ruins across the river and they’d be sitting ducks.
“Haven’t had many people to defend against,” Bucky says as he traipses back through the shallow water to the shore. He can feel muck clinging to the outside of his pants, weighing them down. He’d been more concerned about picking a relatively sheltered place in the river, buffered from the stronger currents by a low strip of peninsula.
Steve lingers on the muddy shoreline, staring across the water. After a long moment, he turns to look at Bucky. There are trickles down his face where sweat has cut through the dirt. His hair looks dull now in the sunlight, filled through with dust and grit. His eyes are sad. “Every time I’ve woken up, Buck,” he says, “there’s been a war, whether people admit or not.”
A particularly strong gust of wind sweeps by them, tossing Steve's hair across his face. Bucky feels little bits of air seeping into the loose areas of clothes, the grit sticking to his skin. He looks up, toward the horizon, and sees the distant haze of a dust storm in the gathering twilight. They’re coming fast and frequent now, harbingers of the massive storm roiling inland.
There is a war, he thinks, just with an enemy who doesn’t sit in sniper’s nests or draw battle lines.
“We should go inside,” he says. “Don’t want to be in the storm in the dark. It’s like a blizzard - you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You could be sitting on your own doorstep and not know it.”
Steve falls into step next to him, clomping through the mud and then up the riverbank to the broken up, old sidewalks.
"You should wear your mask," Bucky tells him, the words finally breaking free after he swallowed them down all day. "The air's not good for your lungs."
Steve looks over, goggles obscuring his face again. He wipes a hand over his mouth. "Alright, Buck," is what he says, the words too gentle for the destruction around him.
They strip in the decontamination room, shedding first the thick canvas coats and then the work shirts and the pants. Bucky does this regularly but it's still a new experience to see the pale, clean skin of Steve's chest revealed, see the stark lines of dirt at his neck and his wrists, the splotches around his middle where the hem of Bucky's coat had been slightly too short on him. He stays obediently still while Bucky hoses him off, turning this way and that and letting sluices of dirt run down his bare skin into the grated floor.
Mud from his hair runs down his back, creates little rivers down the peaks and valleys of his torso. He rubs his hand through his beard roughly dislodging the dirt that caked in at the sides of his face.
"That's why I keep my beard short," Bucky tells him. He'd had his hair up in a bun all day and he shakes it free, lets it tumble down around his face in long, uneven waves. The strands go below his shoulders now, overdue for a cut. Whenever it gets long enough to annoy him, he tends to grab the kitchen scissors and chop it off right around his neck, just long enough to still be pulled back. He drops his neck back and holds the nozzle over his forehead, lets the lukewarm spray drench over his hair. Not all the dirt will come out until they shower, but it's a start.
He opens his eyes and sees Steve staring, one hand still reaching for the thick canvas bag holding their clothes.
"What?" he asks, through the water dripping down his eyelashes. An old feeling tugs in his gut.
Steve blinks and his hand closes around the laundry bag. "I'll... I'll... I was going to take these up to the laundry. I can get it started. If you want to... If you want to," he gestures helplessly and a red flush is spreading higher on his cheeks, above his beard, made all the more evident by the little droplets of water still lingering. It’s spreading down his chest too, towards his belly and the indents of his hips, to the place where a thick curl of hair starts between his legs.
Bucky’s limbs tingle, something as foreign for him in this new world as grass. He’d forgotten how exhilarating it is to make Steve speechless with just his body - to be wanted by someone so desperately that even the smallest movement invites awe. He ducks his head, looks up from under his hair and licks his lips, tastes water and salt. “What do you think I want?” he asks, turning off the water. The words and tone feel rusty, an old bicycle pulled from the shed that creaks a little when you kick it into motion.
Steve’s hand flutters in the air, like he doesn’t know where to touch first. Then, like always, stubbornness breaches the apprehension and Steve surges forward, takes both of Bucky’s bare biceps in his hands and slots his leg between his. He lifts Bucky, with no discernible effort, pulls him close so their chests meet as Bucky winds his legs about his hips and his arms around his neck.
He backs Bucky into the wall of the decontamination room, body heat mixing with the cool metal. Steve is kissing his neck, mouthing at the place where his shoulder curves up. Steve drops his hands and wraps them around Bucky’s thighs, hitching him closer so Bucky’s pre-cum smears across his belly.
Bucky can’t breathe. He could come just from this, he thinks - Steve’s warm, naked body pressed against his, Steve’s mouth moving across his skin. Then, Steve reaches between them and his damp hand closes around Bucky’s dick, thumbing the head and stroking downward to touch his balls. Bucky gasps, wildness surging up his throat.
“Steve,” he says, mouth opening and closing. “Steve.”
Steve kisses him, bites at his lip. “Right here. Look at you, Buck. You’re so beautiful. Most beautiful thing and you’re mine and I’m not leaving you. Can you feel me? Can you…”
Bucky can’t hear him anymore as he comes so hard his brain goes white, the orgasm shuddering through every inch of him like a freight train.
“Yeah, sweetheart,” Steve says. “You’re so good. My precious Buck.”
Bucky huffs because Steve was always a sappy, talkative bastard in bed. He leans back, letting his legs drop back to the floor and he realizes Steve is still hard. He smiles.
“Let me,” he says and spins them around, pushing Steve back against the wall and holding him there with his weight. Even after all these years, Bucky is pleased to find he still has the bulk to push Steve around a little.
Steve’s eyes go a little glassy as Bucky presses full length against him, mouth red. Bucky’s cum is splattered across his stomach and his hair is sticking up in all directions. He looks so debauched that Bucky feels fresh arousal curling in his gut. There are more important matters right now, though.
Bucky lets his hands skim down Steve’s body as he goes to his knees. He wraps his fingers around Steve’s hips and leans in, takes him in his mouth.
This he had definitely missed.
Steve’s hands flutter over his head and shoulders, wanting to hold on but not wanting to yank Bucky’s hair and Bucky rolls his eyes at at the familiarity of it. He hums around Steve’s dick and then leans in, taking as much of it as he can until the head bumps against the back of his throat.
Steve gasps and his head thunks back against the wall. “Buck,” he whines as Bucky pulls back, licking a stripe across the underside. His stomach is heaving, muscles tensing and relaxing as he sucks in air. “Oh god.”
Bucky grins and takes a deep breath through his nose as he leans in again, hollowing his cheeks. The only way to get back on the bicycle is just to do it.
It doesn’t take much. He feels Steve frantically tap out his shoulder but he doesn’t move, just relaxes his throat as Steve comes, feels him jerk and then bend over, hand petting Bucky’s head almost frantically.
He swallow neatly and sits back on his knees.
Steve drops to his knees too, cups his face. “I love you,” he says.
“Bet you say that to all the boys who suck your dick,” Bucky snarks back and then softens when Steve’s thumb strokes the side of his mouth. “I love you too.”
They spend the next day repairing the wall, carting thick river rocks up the bank and stacking them together like some weird game of tetris. It’s slow, tedious work and Bucky ends up with scratches down both sides of his arms and hands. On the western horizon, he can see thick, billowing gray clouds growing larger. The dirty air beneath them is a blurry brown, heavy rain and wind smudging the landscape.
“I think it’ll miss us,” he tells Steve, staring across the barren land as the heat of the day starts to spool across the sky.
Steve pauses where he’s fitting two large stones together. His lips are tight. They hadn’t had anything like these storms before he’d died. There had been the backlash of hurricanes across the eastern seaboard and blizzards - but superstorms like these were something that wholly belonged to the new world.
“How big is it?” he asks at last.
Bucky shrugs. “Hopefully we won’t have to find out.”
Steve nods, look back at the wall. “We should get as much repaired as we can. Just in case.” In case of the storm. In case they come for him.
Bucky nods, glances up at the orange sky; though, in all honesty, the walls won’t do too much good for either threat. If Hammer’s men come for Steve, their best defense won’t be the bunker - it’ll be the harsh hand of nature. He know this planet, knows its crags and its traps. If they come after them, he will hide them so deep within the ruins that they would never be found.
They’re soft up there, grown used to the climate controlled cities and the carefully scheduled rain and the perfectly filtered air. Steve may be concerned with the perimeter - but Bucky knows that their best defense is the planet itself. Its hostility may not discriminate but Bucky has spent the last seven years learning how to slide beneath its notice - someone fresh off the Lifeboats would not have that advantage.
He glances back at the clouds. None of them will dare come for Steve with that thing so close by.
Shuri calls them superstorms. She tracks their movement across the inner continent from up on the Lifeboats, measures their electrical output and the disturbance they leave behind. Bucky’s watched recordings of them with her: seen how the clouds roil and churn together from far above. Shuri is awed by their power and force, the magnitude of land a single storm can cover, sometimes stretching two hundred or three hundred miles before they slowly dissipate.
Bucky has only been inside of one. Four years ago, another storm had swept close, coming down the coast from Maine and blotting the sun for what seemed like weeks. He’d boarded up the windows, stockpiled his supplies and had tied down everything outside that he could. Then, he’d sat in the center of his house and listened the wind, rain, thunder and lightning batter the house. He’d heard the high whine of tornados, churning nearby. He’d heard great rumbles and crashes like the world was coming apart all around them. By the time the rain had slowed to a thick drizzle, he thought he’d prepared himself for what waited outside the walls of the bunker. He hadn’t been ready for the absolute devastation that greeted him. He’d had to relearn the world all over again.
Heavy cars and machinery that had been stationary for years were flung on their sides, overturned and crumpled like toys. Roofs had caved in, walls had crumbled. The river had overflowed its banks and left thick mud caking what had been clear paths. Steve’s gravestone had been overturned, the dirt churned up and the bench cracked down the middle. It had taken days for Bucky to put it all to right.
He tries to keep Steve in his sight lines all day, doesn’t protest when Steve starts checking other parts of the wall and making plans for fortifying the rest of the sections. If it makes Steve feel better, they can fix all of this. He still hasn’t told Steve that he cut off communications. Steve has enough to worry about. Bucky can take this part on - Bucky will keep him safe.
Steve stops on his second circuit of the wall, pushes his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know this is… I know you think this is a lot.”
“I just…” Steve shakes his head, hard. “I keep expecting to see the aliens coming over the hills, with their ships. Remember when we evacuated Houston? They came in from the water and we tried to hold them at the beach and…”
Bucky does remember. The water and sand had turned red, a deep, sick color that had looked like death tasted. It had been near the beginning and they hadn’t had any hope of winning - their only goal had been buying time, slowing the advance of the Scavs so more civilians could flee inland. He and Steve had been on the last chopper out of the city - they'd watched from the air as aliens swarmed over the dead bodies they’d had to leave behind. How fresh is the memory for Steve? Can he still smell the salt and iron and ash? Does he remember the names of the men and women who died in the shallow waves?
“I remember,” he says, trying to be as gentle as he can. “It was a long time ago for me, though.”
Steve nods, staring inland, toward all the places left behind.
“Look what I found,” Steve says as Bucky clomps up the stairs after putting away the soil samples from that day. Bucky may not be calling the Lifeboats anymore, but that’s no reason to not keep continuing to monitor his little gardens.
Steve’s wearing sweats and a white t-shirt, his wet hair dampening the collar of his shirt. He’s smiling, one of those rare full grins that make him look younger than he has any right to be. He’s holding a pot in one hand that Bucky’s pretty sure he hasn’t used since before Steve died. In his other hand, he has a spoon. Steve tips the pot forward and Bucky sees something dark and chunky inside.
“Vegetable stew. There were a couple cans way in the back. I found some salt and I crumbled some algae chips for topping.” Steve sets the pot on the table. Two of the emergency candles from the closet are in the middle of the table, sputtering merrily. The nicest bowls are sitting out on the table, spoons lying next to them on some old cloth napkins that Bucky doesn’t even remember having.
“Are you sure the cans weren’t expired?” Bucky asks as he comes closer, leaning down to peer into the pot. It smells like tomatoes and spices, like the world before the famines. His hand touches the cloth napkin and his heart does something funny in his chest. “I think you might’ve bought these so they’re at least 14 years old?”
Steve shoots him a look that says are you really concerned food poisoning is going to kill us?
“So what you’re telling me,” Bucky says as he sits down, “is that you’re ready to risk throwing up over the toilet later in order to not eat another one of my algae and milk dishes?”
Steve pats his own stomach with a grin. “Yes.” He walks across the light switch and flips off the kitchen lights so the only light is the golden lamp filtering in from the living room and the candlelight. “Also, I wanted to do something special. For you. We haven’t had a date in fifteen years, Buck.”
A warm glow builds up in his lungs. “Steve,” he says. The candlelight makes Steve’s beard go golden and the few flecks of green in his eyes flicker. Maybe Bucky should be angry. This isn’t a good use of resources. This is an indulgence. Bucky finds he can’t bring himself to care, though. Maybe this is the turning point - maybe this is the signal Bucky should stop focus on survival and start looking to the future.
What was that line from Star Trek that Tony liked quoting? Survival is insufficient.
Steve sits down, reaches across the table to take his hand. “It’s you and me, Buck,” he murmurs. “Whatever comes. We’re in this together.”
Three days after Steve came back.
The next morning, when Bucky goes outside to collect the algae crop, he tastes the change in the wind almost instantly. Fuck.
Out over Jersey, the clouds are a large, black bank, lightning leaping inside of them like long fingers. Bucky can almost hear the crackle. The wind is a low howl now, blowing out to the ocean. This storm is going to slam right in to them.
They have five… maybe seven hours? If the wind doesn’t pick up speed. Bucky takes a deep breath and heads down to the harvester. The newest crop won’t be fully dried - but he can finish it up in the oven. With that, plus his emergency stores, they should have enough to last them a few weeks, even with two of them.
The wind grows steadily while he fastens down algae harvester more securely, tightening the bolts on the anchored struts. The last thing they need is for the harvester to wash downstream - not when Bucky’s cut off contact with the Lifeboats. They need to be self-sufficient. He double checks all the anchors one by one. This thing survived the last superstorm but he can’t be too careful. By the time he’s done, the first drops of rain are starting to fall, cutting through the swirling dust eddies kicked up by the wind. The entire world looks blurry through his goggles.
Steve is outside when he gets back to the bunker. He’s wearing goggles and an O2 mask, staring out at the storm.
“It’s headed this way,” he says as Bucky comes up next to him. Thunder rumbles around his words.
“Yep. We have about six hours. I need to get over to Jamaica Bay to secure some of the testing sites. Can you tie down the machinery in the garage? Can’t have it blowing around.”
Steve nods. His blonde hair is starting to stick to his forehead as the rain thickens around them. “Be careful,” he warns. He rubs a hand across his beard, where the straps of the O2 mask must be tugging.
Bucky doesn’t want to leave him. He wants to go inside and close the doors and the storm shutters and turn the music up loud, create a tiny pocket world for them in the midst of the storm. He just nods, though, and sets off on the four-wheeler.
By the time he’s on his way back, the wind is picking up in earnest, whipping rain and dirt across his face. The East River is choppy, brown waves breaking over the dilapidated concrete barriers. The storm is growing larger, swallowing more and more of the horizon as it moves toward them. They have an hour, maybe, before they won’t be able to go outside. The rain is pounding in earnest now - Bucky can barely see the dark ruins of Manhattan through the water.
Steve meets him at the door as Bucky comes in from the decontamination room. “Got everything tied down,” he says. He’s grim and serious, eyes going beyond Bucky to the storm rumbling closer. A storm is not an enemy that requires a tactics and Bucky can see the discomfit in his shoulders.
Bucky looks toward the kitchen - he can smell the earthy, seaweed-y scent of baking algae. “We got food to last a couple weeks - plus my stores from the basement. We won’t starve.”
Steve’s mouth flattens completely. “We’ve gone hungry before,” he says. “I can do it again.”
“We don’t need to, though,” Bucky tells him as he stacks the algae in the dry cupboard. “I can take care of us, Steve. It’s okay.”
He tries to say it firmly, puts confidence in his tone that he knows Steve will hear right through. Bucky will go hungry himself before he lets Steve go without food.
Outside, he can hear rain beginning to pound at the windows, the low wail of wind working its way through the ghostly buildings. Beyond that, the distant rumble of thunder rolls across the sky. The storm will be here soon.
Steve has closed all the storm shutters and turned on the lamps. When Bucky comes down from showering, he’s sitting on the couch with his hands steepled together. He’s staring at the dark television. “Should you call the Lifeboats?” he asks, though his tone says he’s not asking a question.
Bucky winces. Of course Steve had figured it out. His damp hair is soaking through the back of his t-shirt and he runs his fingers through the top. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I just…”
Steve presses his hands to his mouth. “I don’t care about them, Buck. You don’t have to protect me. I’m not fragile.”
“I turned off all the comms,” Bucky says. “It’s not that…” he swallows. “It’s not that I think everyone up there is our enemy. I just can’t risk it. We need to know more. I can’t trust any of them until then.”
Steve blinks and his elbows fall off his knees. “Buck…” he says.
Bucky can’t take the guilt in his eyes. “Don’t,” he manages. “You’re back. It’s okay. You’re all I need.”
“Bucky, you…” Steve shakes his head and stands up, hands on hips. He stares around the room and then faces Bucky fully. “Do you know how amazing you are?” he asks. Thunder rumbles behind his words. “If you’d died in the war, I wouldn’t have…. I wouldn’t have done any of this. I wouldn’t have been able to. I remember thinking, back in Houston when we were running for the helicopter and you were behind and…” his voice slides off for a moment. “I remember thinking that if I lost you, if you didn’t make it, I’d go back to the beach and just take as many of the motherfuckers out as I could on my way to you. I didn’t care about the world.”
Bucky drinks in his face, at the conviction in his eyes, even though he knows Steve is wrong.
“You, Buck. You’ve always been stronger. I looked at your papers, you know. When you were out there. I know they made you Commander after me. I know you led the armies and you are the only reason everyone didn’t die.”
Something curdled wells in Bucky’s stomach. He wraps his arms around himself and stares down. “I’m not,” he murmurs. “They still detonated the bombs. Steve. Everyone was dying and starving and I was… there was nothing I could do. I can’t… people follow you because you inspire them. I was never meant to lead like that. I can’t. I…”
Steve crosses the room, grabs Bucky’s hands. “Don’t you think you inspire them even now? Buck. You’re not giving up. You’re their hope that they can come home. Maybe you don’t see that, but I do. You…” he swallows and his eyes go down before coming up, more determined. “Don’t give that all up for me.”
Bucky touches his face once, just on the corner by the edge of his beard, and then kisses him. “I was just existing,” he murmurs to Steve’s skin. “Until you came home.”
“What a pair we are, huh,” Steve says, huffing a laugh.
They keep the metal shutters tightly pulled and Steve turns music on when the wind becomes an angry screech that rattles the whole of the city. Day and night blend together with no sunlight penetrating the clouds - time becomes one long piece of unbroken yarn, winding around and around as rain drowns out the thunder and then wind drowns out the rain and then thunder drowns out both of them again. They listen to big band and slower show tunes and jazz, modern pieces mixing in with the ones they remember from being teenagers and clustered around the big radio in the living room.
Steve sits on the sofa with his head tipped back against the wall, fingers tapping a rhythm against his thigh as Fred Astaire sings. His eyes are closed and his face is relaxed, like he can slide away from the storm and the all the unknowns just by listening to the music.
On the second day, Bucky brings his computer out and starts analyzing soil trends for the last couple years. Steve opens his old sketchbook and sits in the armchair under the lamp, sketching. Bucky likes looking over, seeing the heaviness of his brow and the way his teeth bite at his lower lip.
When the song turns over to My Funny Valentine, Steve starts humming first and then singing snatches of words. “You make me smile in my heart,” he says under his breath, off key and out of tune.
Bucky lets his hands still on the keyboard, looks up so he can watch Steve trail off in a hum and then continue, “so don’t change a hair for me…”
He’s not looking at Bucky, gaze firmly on his paper, so Bucky gets up and slides across the room, puts one hand on the sketchbook and Steve looks up. The song trails off and the rain rattles against the windows and Steve smiles.
The sketchbook is set carefully on the side table and Bucky slides into Steve’s lap, with his knees on either side of his thighs in the wide armchair. He bends down so his hair drapes over Steve’s face and kisses him as something warm and jazzy starts up.
Steve tastes like toothpaste and powdered milk.
On the fourth day, Steve leans back against Bucky’s legs and asks, “if you could have anything, Buck, what would you want?”
Bucky squints down at his reports and then at the top of Steve’s head. “An orchard full of oranges,” he says. “Peaches and plums and mangoes too. Just… fresh fruit and big trees, far as you can see.”
Steve huffs. “Something I can give you, how about,” he says, his left hand wrapping around Bucky’s ankle.
Bucky swallows. “Just… don’t leave.” Outside, the wind screams against the roof, ripping across the thick metal of the storm shutters. Bucky imagines what remains of Brooklyn crumbling around them, being blown to bits under the force of the storm.
Steve turns so he’s sitting on his knees in front of Bucky’s chair, reaching out so his hands cover Bucky’s hands on his knees. “You survived,” he says and his eyes are soft and liquid in the lamplight. “The war, the famines, this,” he waves his hand to the storm raging beyond their walls. “I don’t know how to say thank you.”
Bucky lays a hand on his cheek. He looks better, Bucky thinks, than he did that first day when the battlefield smell still came off of him in waves. He looks like he’s finding some sort of peace in this house, this land, with Bucky. “I want peace,” Bucky tells him. “I want to have a home with you, wherever and whatever that looks like.”
Steve smiles. “I think,” he says, keeping his eyes fixed on Bucky’s. “I think I’ve died in war enough times. I think the next battle is not a war.”
On the fifth day, Bucky awakes to a roaring noise, like a freight train charging through a tunnel. It goes on and on, building and cresting in waves. There’s a sound like something grinding and then a tremendous, heaving crash that Bucky can feel through the mattress. He sits up in bed, feels Steve touch his back as he sits up as well.
“It’s the wind. It probably took out one of the buildings.” he says, staring at the shut window. He imagines buildings with beams and slabs flying off under the force of it, this dying planet trying to erase the existence of humanity once and for all, finish what the Scavs started. “This will be the middle of it.”
Steve passes a hand over his hair as the banging roar crescendos again. “It sounds like the whole world is ending.”
Bucky clutches the blanket in both hands, works the fabric until he can convince himself that he’s here, that he’s with Steve. “The world already ended,” he said at last. “This is just aftershocks.”
Steve shakes his head. “No,” he says, gently. “You survived. This is no ending.”
When the wind starts fading and the rain picks up the beat again, Bucky gets up and puts on his heavy canvas coat. He probably shouldn’t go out either. There’ll be flooding and lightning and the air will be thick with mud and debris - but he has to see. This is his home and he needs to see what else has been lost. Maybe there’s something he can save. He thinks of Steve’s gravestone, wonders if its been overturned. The last storm, that had been his priority but it’s not important now. He has Steve here with him - there’s no need for a tombstone.
The priority is the algae harvester. With the comms off, who knows when the next supply run will be and two of them will eat through his stores within weeks. They could go hungry. They could starve. Just like all those people did during the famines. They would wither away into unrecognizable skeletal figures. Panic claws at his insides and he takes a steadying breath. In and out. There is food in the pantry, he reminds himself.
“You don’t have to come with me,” he tells Steve.
Steve has already pulled on his boots and is doing up the buckles on the overcoat. His eyes snag on Bucky’s and the incredulity there makes Bucky huff.
“Okay, well at least wear your O2 mask.”
Steve gave a half-ass salute. He was so good at irritating anyone giving him orders.
The rain hits his face like a wall the moment Bucky steps from the decontamination room. His boot sinks into the mud, instantly flooding over the top of his shoes and sucking him down into the ground. The wind is shrieking and Bucky can’t see more than a foot ahead.
He ties a long climbing rope to the edge of the door and hooks himself to it at his belt. “Stay close,” he tells Steve, flicking on his flashlight. “We’ll go check the harvester.”
Steve touches the small of his back. Okay.
It’s midday but the sun is completely hidden behind the clouds. When Bucky looks up, all he sees is brown swirling above in a maelstrom. The ruins are creaking around them - he can see the dark shadows of them swaying in the gale force winds.
Bucky hears the river before he sees it, an all encompassing rushing noise that drowns out the wind and the lightning and the creaking of the ruins. He can just see the towering dark shadow of the bridge. His flashlight doesn’t do much to cut through the mucky air but he can see an impression of movement, swirling and surging.
He stops them on the edge of the embankment, squinting his eyes against the rain. Everything is too dark and too muddled. He can’t see… what if the harverster is gone? He’s spent so much time bolstering it and anchoring it deep into the river floor - but if it’s been stripped away, it’ll be in pieces all the way down the river, out to sea. All their food and future, gone. They’ll starve, just like Bucky should’ve years ago.
Bucky leans forward, stretching against the rope and Steve’s hand at his back. If he can just see, if he can just know…
The toes of his boots slip against the mud. He feels them give, feels his weight shift forward and he flings one hand back to compensate. His fingers brush the canvas of Steve’s jacket and he hears the beginning of his name in Steve’s mouth - and, then, the entire bank gives way under his feet. The river swallows him whole.
He hits the waves face down and all the air leaves him with a whoosh. He can’t breathe. He can’t see. The water smells of death and rot and ashes. His body is jerking like a fish on the line, held to the shore and to Steve by his waist while the current tries desperately to drag him away.
Don’t breathe in, he tells himself sternly, thinking beyond the panic and the chaos. He tries to center himself, pull his limbs in, find the rope with his hands. Steve will be on the shore, trying to pull him out of the water. He just has to…
Something large and heavy slams into his side. It knocks him above the waves for a moment and he thinks he hears Steve shouting his name before he’s plunged back down. Water fills his mouth when he inhales on instinct, thick brackish water all down his throat and his lungs and his stomach. His entire body heaves. The world goes darker, narrowing to a bright pain in his ribs and the heaviness in his chest.
He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe.
Red is spreading at the edges of his vision and he claws against the water, trying to get above the surface. He needs to cough, needs to breathe. All other thoughts are blotted out and he’s left with just the animal instinct to get his head out of the water. He convulses, feels the rope around his waist yank hard.
Steve, he thinks. Steve. Steve.
His entire body surges out of the river, rolling from the waves to the shore like a cork pulled free of a bottle. His shoulder hits the mud and he’s coughing, vomiting, even before he’s stopped sliding around in the mud. His eyes are still closed and he can feel hot, involuntary tears going down his face, joining with the rain and the mud.
Warm hands are tugging at his coat, pounding his back. Fingers press against the pulse point in his neck.
“Breathe, Buck,” Steve is saying. He sounds desperate and scared. “Bucky. Jesus. Bucky. C’mon. There you go.”
Bucky gets both his hands in the muck, pushes himself up so can draw in a full lungful of air. He gets halfway and vomits up more dark water. It comes out his nose and burns against his eyes. “Steve,” he says and topples sideways into Steve’s chest. He blinks and sees red in the dirt through the rain. He’s bleeding. Everything hurts.
“You’re okay.” Steve is scrambling, lifting him up like Bucky’s no more than a child. The rain pounds against his upturned his face, washing away the muck.
Bucky feels his ribs jostle as Steve leaps up the bank.
“I’m gonna get you back. You’ll be okay,” Steve promises and his voice sounds muffled by the wind and rain.
Then the world goes sideways and dark and the next thing Bucky knows is Steve stripping his coat off of him in the decontamination room.
“Buck?” he says and his big face looms over Bucky’s. “You back with me?”
His head is pounding and his ribs are throbbing. He manages a groan, flailing a hand out so he can get his fingers on Steve’s arm. “I’m okay,” he says. “Just got…” he tries to take a breath and starts coughing again, his throat burning and his chest screaming. “Just got the wind knocked out of me,” he finishes, thready with pain. He goes for a sheepish grin.
Steve give a watery laugh and tugs off Bucky’s pants, running the water from the hose over his chest.
When he tilts his gaze down, Bucky can see livid red and purple spreading up his side toward his metal arm.
“Jesus, Buck, I thought you were going to…” Steve goes quiet and his hand gently works the water through Bucky’s hair, mud mixed with blood running down toward the drain in thick rivulets. “You’re bleeding pretty bad. You took a nasty hit on your head and I think your ribs are broken.”
Bucky nods. Definitely broken.
He’s shivering now, shock and cold and pain all blurring together in one horrific sensory overload. “The harvester?” he asks, the words scraping over his aching throat.
Steve ducks his head. “It’s gone,” he says, quietly. “I’m sorry, Buck. Part of the tank… that’s what pulled free and slammed into you.”
Bucky closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to cry. It’s just a machine. Heat prickles behind his lids anyway, surging over the physical pain. He had spent so much time taking care of the harvester, building it and maintaining. Without it… he remembers the gnawing hunger of the Famines, the neverending headaches and weakness. He can’t do that again. He can’t let Steve starve before his eyes.
He remembers the withered bodies in the mass graves. Steve can’t experience that. It’s too much. There’s no food. They’re going to starve because Bucky’s harvester is gone. He’s shivering violently now, teeth clattering his skull. The years blur and he sees Steve as he was as a teenager, scrawny and sick and all his ribs pushed against fragile skin. He sees Steve laying in a dug up grave. Tears leak out and join the dirty water trickling from his hairline.
“It’ll be alright, Buck,” Steve croons, petting his sides. There’s a tremble in his voice too. “We’ll be okay, I swear.”
Bucky tried to believe him. They can build another one. They still have rations. They can stretch them out. His fingers wrap around the edges of Steve’s shirt and he clings. They’re together. That’s what matters.
Steve finishes rinsing him down and carries him straight up to their big bed, wraps him in all the blankets and settles him in the middle of the mattress before getting the first aid kit.
Bucky lies very still while Steve dabs at the side of his head, watches the way his mouth cringes every time he thinks he’s caused Bucky pain. The world still feels a bit hazy, like Bucky’s looking at it all from underwater.
“You saved me,” he says, quietly. “If you hadn’t been here…”
“Don’t say it,” Steve snaps. He stops whatever he was doing with the antiseptic wipe and braces both his hands on the mattress, leaning hard and closing his eyes. “Christ. I thought…” He opens his eyes and all Bucky can see is love, overwhelming and overpowering as Steve stares down at him. He feels hot and cold all at once, cut wide open by the strength of Steve’s emotions.
He lets his right hand spider creep across the bed, taps on Steve’s fingers until he lets their hands fold together. “I’m okay.” He pushes the thoughts of starvation from his brain, swallows down the terror. He’s alive. Steve’s alive. They can figure out the rest.
“You’re not,” Steve says. “Your ribs are broken. There’s a gash the size of midtown in the side of you head. You swallowed a gallon of that river and god knows what’s in it or the dirt or…” Steve stops, takes a deep breath. His face is all pinched together.
“We have to call the Lifeboats,” he says after a long moment. “I understand wanting to put it off and keep ourselves safe. But…” he swallows. “We can’t do this alone. The harvester is gone and… We don’t want to do this alone. The rest of humanity is up there and we need to do this all together. They won’t take me, Buck. I know I left you before but I’m not going to do that again. I promise.”
Bucky starts to take a deep breath and then stops as his ribs flare into red hot pain. “Okay,” he says when the pain has dulled a little. Facing whatever is going on up there is better than starving. “Okay. We’ll face it head on. We should call Tony as soon as a signal gets through.”
Steve bends and kisses his forehead, his cheeks, both of his hands.
Steve brings up dinner that night, doesn’t want Bucky even getting out of bed for as second. “You need to heal,” he says, sitting on top of the covers with both of his legs kicked out in front of them.
Bucky’s head is sutured and his ribs are wrapped and he’s eaten some of the elephant size pain meds he keeps for emergencies. When he’d checked his ribs while Steve was downstairs, the bruising was already livid and ugly, like the injury is a couple days old rather than hours. He’ll be up and walking tomorrow.
“Yes, sir,” he tells Steve, leaning back against the pillows. “We need to talk though. About the ships. What we’re going to do.”
Steve nods, strokes his hands down Bucky’s hair. “You said it was Hammer who sent those men? I don’t remember seeing him when I was awake.”
Bucky grunts and tries to call to mind what Hammer had looked like before the War - back when Steve was alive. He’d been greasy with smooth skin and shallow eyes. “He’s changed a lot since the Scav Wars. Here…” He drags over his laptop and flips it open. He finds the photos from when the Lifeboats were getting ready to launch. “Here he is.”
In the picture, Hammer is craggy with a misshapen nose and a slumping forehead, like his whole face is moments from caving in all together. He’s standing in the background of a stage while T’Challa gives a speech at the podium.
“He got hit by an alien weapon pretty badly. Maybe a year after you died,” Bucky tells him as Steve leans closer in to see. “He needed a lot of plastic surgery to get his face looking normal again. Then he was one of the chief proponents of using the bombs.”
Steve inhales and nods. “He was there when I woke up - in the doorway. He was trying to stay out of sight but he was definitely there.”
“Hammer is in charge of the prison ship and Lifeboat security.” Bucky tells him, wincing as his ribs ache as he closes the laptop and shoves it to the side. “He’s not on the High Council because no one actually trusts him enough to vote for him.”
“He must’ve been acting alone,” Steve says, his gaze on the shuttered window like he can see the wind howling outside. “Everyone was taking orders from him and there weren’t many others around. He was definitely in charge. If he’s planning something… we should let everyone up there know as soon as we can.”
Bucky nods. “I know…” he hesitates. “Hammer’s been unhappy for awhile. He doesn’t like that Shuri is Chief Science Officer. They don’t get along. He could’ve been trying to make you his bargaining chip to get a more prestigious position on the Science Council or he could’ve been trying to make you his personal puppet for the security teams.” Bucky hasn’t spoken to the man in years but he’s heard Tony and Shuri and even Sam complain about the man enough. They’d put him in charge of the Prison boat mostly to keep him out of everyone’s hair - there weren’t many criminals to prosecute since the great famines.
Steve grimaces, a purse of his lips and a heavy exhalation. No matter how many times humanity lets him down, each new betrayal is a fresh ache. Bucky lets him sit on it, mull over the news.
“What’s the best plan here, Buck?” Steve says at last and Bucky blinks a moment. Steve trusts his opinion and values his input - but it isn’t like Steve to ask his opinion first. This is a new thing for a new world.
“We should tell the High Council, lay it all out. Hammer doesn’t have many friends there and even if he’s managed to buy off some people, he doesn’t have much power. We should go up there, in a couple weeks, make sure everyone sees you in person so Hammer can’t pull anything.”
Steve nods. “Okay. I trust you.” He settles down on the bed, curling close into Bucky. “We’ll do this together.”
Bucky wakes up on the morning of the tenth day and the rain is nothing but a gentle patter, sliding down the windows in a gentle trickle. The wind is gone and the only thunder Bucky hears is distant, far off down the coast.
“Steve,” he murmurs, turning into the sleeping man next him, brushing hair from his face. His side only protests a little. “Steve, the storm’s gone.”
Steve opens his eyes, blinks like he’s still seeing a dream. “It’s quiet,” he says, wonder softening his face.
The rain had temporarily cleared the air and soft sunlight filters through the window. Bucky rolls closer to Steve, settles into his side.
Peace, he thinks, as he watches water droplets roll down the glass. Maybe this peace will last.
That evening, when the ship’s simulated day/night cycle is around mid afternoon, Bucky sends an encoded text message to Stark on a private channel that was set up long ago but has remained unused. He’s not sure if it’ll get through the storm - but it’s worth a shot.
He gets a voice call an hour later on the same private, secure line.
“Jesus Christ, Barnes,” Tony snaps. “Do you know how worried we’ve been? We lost contact with the ship the wardens sent down. Then your comms went dead. What the hell happened?”
Bucky hesitates over the speaker, listening to the wind whistle outside the walls, the last traces of the storm. Steve is in the kitchen, heating up some powdered milk. “Is anyone else listening to us?” he asks.
Tony goes quiet. “No,” he says at last. “Just encrypted this channel further. Only person who could hack this line now is Shuri.”
He’s expecting Tony to think that Bucky has at last lost his mind, that the years down here have finally meant that he has cracked for good.
Instead, Tony lets out an explosive breath. “Oh thank god,” he says, “he did make it.”
“If you’d been picking up your goddamn phone, Barnes,” Tony says, “you’d know that we arrested Hammer last night for illegal human experimentation, human trafficking, and theft of a corpse.”
Bucky squeezes his fingers together. “Steve.”
“Steve,” Tony confirms softly. “Right as we were loading the Lifeboats. You were off in Africa, remember? Coordinating the evacuation. Brooklyn was already mostly abandoned so he…” Tony sighs over the phone. “He kept Cap in cold storage on Lifeboat 19, according to the records we found. Thought he was a dead body.”
“What happened?” Bucky asked, feeling his throat close up. All that time that he thought he’d been down here, close to Steve: Steve had been up there in a fridge.
“Hammer was going to sell the body to the highest bidder. Some alien from somewhere wanted the body for experiments. Thor found out and only days ago and managed to get here yesterday morning to tell us. Well, they thawed Cap out to get him ready for the transfer and he woke up. Heartbeat, brain waves, whole nine yards. Hammer freaked out and, while he was trying to figure out what to do, Cap gave him the slip. The two guys he sent down after you were his henchmen. We found video, all his notes, communications with the alien buyer. A couple scientists that had been on his payroll turned informant pretty quick. We didn’t know what had happened to Cap after he took off in that airpod though. You hadn’t said anything so I didn’t know…”
“He made it,” Bucky says softly. “Crashed himself on my front doorstep in the middle of a sand storm. He’s here.”
Tony goes quiet for a long moment. “I’ll come down,” he says at last, “when the storm totally clears up. I know Wilson and Romanoff will want to come too. How is he?”
Bucky looks toward the kitchen. He can hear Steve humming as he puts dishes on the table. “You remember the War,” he says. “Right before Steve died. You remember…”
“Yeah.” Something shuffles on the other end. “It was bad.”
“Steve just walked in off of that,” Bucky says. “He’s tired. He wants to rest. He wants to not see aliens coming over the hills.”
Tony makes a choked laughing noise. “Well. You are the only two living things on an uninhabited planet. I think you might get that peace.”
Bucky hangs back when Steve goes out to greet the airpod. He rubs his chin and stares off at the ruins of New York when Sam and Natasha embrace Steve. Tony shakes his hand because Tony is just as good as Steve at putting emotion behind several thick barrier walls.
Steve’s face is cracked open and happy, like it was that first night with Bucky. He’s not wearing his O2 mask or goggles and the dirt is already lining his face, getting into the creases where he’s smiling. Bucky watches him, inhales this like it is clean air. For once, he does not think about all the friends and allies and acquaintances and strangers that were lost when the Scavs came and the planet died.
This is the world shifting back into axis. This is a new beginning.
They go back up to the Lifeboats with them that day.
“Not for long,” Steve tells him, promises him without Bucky even having to ask. “We’ll be back before you can even miss it.”
Bucky almost asks who would miss this place, this ruined and dying planet. The words are in his mouth, except, he realizes, he will miss it. This is his home. Steve knew it before Bucky could even really put it into words.
He swallows the words down, takes Steve’s hand.
Steve smiles at him and the airpod takes off into the sky.
In the elegant offices of the High Council, high up on Lifeboat 3, T’Challa greets Steve with all the gravitas befitting a warrior returning from battle.
“You were missed, Commander,” he says as they shake hands. “The outcome may have been the same but I believe the events of the war would’ve been easier with you among us.”
Steve nods and Bucky sees how his shoulders widen as if taking more responsibility on board with those words. “I would’ve done my best, your Majesty.”
T’Challa gestures and an aide comes forward, carrying a slim box. “This, I believe, belongs to you.”
Steve opens the lid and Bucky sees the flash of red and blue. His throat catches.
Bucky hasn’t seen it since the day the Lifeboats left for the sky. He’d given it to Sam as he’d boarded. “This doesn’t belong here,” he’d said. “This is a symbol. Steve would want you to carry it.”
Since then, the shield has hung in the High Council room of Lifeboat 3, a reminder of courage and justice and strength. Seeing it again, seeing it in Steve’s hands… pride and fear and exhaustion war in Bucky’s chest.
Steve flips the shield in his hands, stares down at the painted face, smooth and as perfect as the day Howard Stark had first given it to him.
“It is yours to do with as you like,” T’Challa says.
Steve smiles and lays the shield back in the box. “If you don’t mind, your Highness, I think I’ll leave it in your capable hands for a little bit longer. Don’t have much need of it back on Earth right now.”
T’Challa nods. “You will stay down below then?”
Steve turns and Bucky feels the weight of all the unspoken words between them as Steve’s lips quirk up in a half smile. “I think,” Steve says, not looking at anyone but Bucky, “I’ve earned some quiet.”
just the epilogue left!
Three years, eight months, and seventeen days after Steve came back.
Bucky wakes up to a cold bed and a rooster crowing below. “Who,” he says, muffled into his pillow, “thought it would be a good idea if we had chickens?”
He gets up anyway, splashes water on his face and goes downstairs. There’s a pot of coffee keeping warm next to a pita bread slathered in jam. Steve hasn’t left a note, but his plate is in the sink and his coffee cup is overturned on the drying rack.
Something soft winds around his ankles and he looks down to see their cat staring back at him.
“What?” he asks, crouching down to run his flesh hand over her soft head. “I know Steve wouldn’t have left without feeding you.”
She meows up at him and slides away in disappointment.
Bucky grins after her. She was the first new member of their household. They’d gone up to the Lifeboats for a supply run and Steve had come back to their airpod, holding a tiny little brown fluff ball in his hands.
“Sam says he can’t find anyone to take her,” Steve had said, piteously, and Bucky had agreed much too easily when confronted by Steve’s big blue eyes.
Steve had named her Julia and spoiled her rotten. Having a cat meant more frequent travels up to the Lifeboats for supplies, which meant Steve started stocking up on the perishables and comfort foods Bucky had long eschewed. Bags of coffee found their way into their cupboards, along with the popular flat breads from the ships. Bags of dried fruit appeared in drawers and jars of pasta sauce and sacks of rice and noodles, along with cans of cat food and bags of kitty litter. Steve gets a recipe book and stashes it above their oven. He makes stir frys and casseroles and soups.
“You need to eat more,” he frets at Bucky and Bucky indulges him.
After that, had been the dog: a brown and white, fluffy thing that at first seemed to be more enamored with Julia than either Steve or Bucky. Steve adored the dog, named him Oliver and spent hours training him to fetch and sit and play dead and shake. Bucky liked that Oliver slept spread out over their feet. He liked watching Steve smile at their new pets.
Then, had come the goats.
“Goat milk is good for you, Bucky,” Steve had informed him seriously. “And goats can live on algae and don’t need a lot of grazing ground and you know Julia would love a little milk.”
Bucky had caved easily. He’s always had a soft spot for goats.
Of course, the goats meant that they had needed to build a barn, insulated and on its own air filter with a replenishing water source. When that had been completed with the help of Sam and Tony, a goat and its two babies had joined their little clan.
Steve hadn’t even asked before he’d shown up with a couple chickens in a coop just a handful of weeks later.
“Eggs, Buck,” he’d said, excitedly. “When’s the last time you had scrambled eggs? And since we already have a barn…”
Around that time, Tony started calling him Farmer Bucky. Steve was Farmer Steve and their little home was no longer the bunker but the farm.
Bucky settles his oxygen mask over his face and steps out into the morning sunlight. According to their most trend data, the air is starting to clear, slowly but surely. At the current rate, it would be decades before people should walk around without oxygen masks, but it made the world look a little brighter, a little clearer.
The space around the bunker is cleaner now too. Steve had spent a lot of time clearing out the wreckages of cars that had sat untouched for a decade and then had used a jack hammer to start pulling up the wrecked slabs of asphalt. As a result, they have a smooth clearing right around their home, stretching from the garage with the supplies to the barn with the animals, all the way down to the closest algae harvester along the banks of the river.
It looks lived in, maintained, cared for. It looks like a home.
Bucky goes to the barn first and cracks open the first door to call through to Steve. “I’m headed out to do the sample rounds. Want to come?’
Steve appears, just a shadowy outline between the thick plastic that keeps the filtered air inside. “Yep, coming.” A goat bleats behind him and then Steve appears, with Oliver at his heels, a red flannel checkered shirt pushed up to his forearms and a little bit of straw in his beard. His hair is getting long, curling at the edge of his neck and behind his ears - soon it’ll be time for Bucky to drape a sheet over his shoulders and give him a trim. He looks as far from war as possible. “Got the milking done and we have about six new eggs this morning,” he says as he pauses in the small decontamination space to pull on his coat and thick work pants over his shirt and jeans. Oliver sits next to him, panting happily.
“Omelets for dinner?” Bucky asks.
Steve smiles. “Omelets for dinner. We still have some mushrooms and onions and that new cheese Shuri sent down.”
They ride the four-wheelers across the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun crests the top of the dark Manhattan skyline, spilling golden light between the hulking buildings, chasing away the shadows. Oliver sits on the back of Steve’s, eyes closed like he’s enjoying the breeze through his fur.
As Bucky makes his stops, Steve wanders into the half-slumped buildings nearby, collecting pieces of stone or colored glass, turned smooth and shiny by the howling wind and sand. Oliver trots behind him, wearing a little pouch across his back that Steve uses to hold the best pieces. He’s been building something, out behind the barn, some sort of statue or sculpture or installation (his word) out of the little bits of brightness he finds in the slowly decaying city.
It had started off as Bucky finding little, bright trinkets here and there in his trips across the island and bringing them back to Steve like a crazy magpie or something. He’d enjoyed how Steve would polish them until they were smooth and clean, setting them out in the sun. Then Steve had started taking them out back, winding them together with wire and twine and glue so they moved with the wind and sparkled against the dirt.
“I want people to know,” he tells Bucky one night as they lay in bed, “that there’s still beauty down here. That there will be beauty here again.”
They reach their farthest stop a little bit after the sun starts setting, a red and purple sunset spreading across the western sky. Steve is by the highway, kicking his way through the mounds of crumpled metal that have built up all along these stretches as cars slowly crumble back to the earth. His oxygen mask is sitting on the four-wheeler - no matter what Bucky does he can’t get Steve to wear it with any consistency. Oliver is sniffing at an abandoned truck, tail wagging a little.
Bucky heads over to the carefully cordoned off plot of land, wedged between a tough bank of dirt and the sloping wreckage of what used to be a gas station, and crouches down over it, getting out his test kit. He’s been seeing good things with acidity levels in this particular patch and he thinks if they add a little bit more of Shuri’s compound…
His mouth goes dry as he stares down at the dirt, identical from all the others he’d just gone through, except in one key way.
There, in the middle, surrounded by carefully tilled up soil, bright green leaves are pushing above the surface.
Bucky swallows, feels something large and unnamed welling up inside of him, and pulls down his O2 mask so it hangs around his neck. “Steve,” he says, barely loud enough, but Steve hears him like he always does.
“Yeah?” Steve comes up behind him, crouches down.
“Look,” Bucky says.
Steve wobbles beside him and puts his hand on the small of Bucky’s back. His breath slows like he’s afraid this moment will shatter if he breathes too hard. “Is that…” he says, sounding as awed as Bucky feels.
“Yeah,” Bucky murmurs.
It’s a weed - not even one of his carefully planted seeds from the ships. Bucky will have to get out one of his agriculture books but he thinks it’s one of those small hardy things that always sprouted up between cracks of the sidewalk in Brooklyn, pushing determinedly through cement and trash and all the other shit toward the sun.
He laughs in delight. A goddamned weed.
Steve leans into him, kisses him hard. “You did it, Buck,” he says. “You did it.”
Bucky isn’t 100% sure what he did precisely but he can’t stop smiling. They’d survived, he thinks breathlessly. Throughout death and destruction and everything that sought to wipe them off the earth, they had survived.
A new beginning was coming and Steve and he would be there, together, to see it happen. They are alive.
He takes off his glove and touches the small, baby leaves with his flesh fingers.
Hello, he thinks, welcome back.