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Love Among the Ruins

Chapter Text


 

 

Sarah’s tired, a bone-deep weariness that started when Joseph left for the Front and worsened when he never came back. In those long years since, the world has become a thing behind glass. The only thing reliably vivid is Steve, her astonishing, sunlit son.

She pushes open the door to Winifred’s tenement and hears the boys scuffling, Becca’s high voice. Winnie’s by the stove and smiles at her. George isn’t here tonight, so everyone's more relaxed. Steve and Bucky are wrestling on the floor, Steve’s laughing and Bucky shouting, ‘I don’t need rescuing!’ 

Steve’s giggling. “It’s Sleeping Beauty, Buck, but don’t worry, I’ll get you out.”  He flourishes like he’s wielding a sword, clips Bucky’s ear and Bucky unceremoniously shoves Steve's face into the rug.  

Winnie meets Sarah’s gaze, grins, beckons her into the kitchen with a tilt of her head. Sarah follows, frowning. It should be funny, tiny eight year old Steve being the prince to rescue Bucky, a year older and nearly a foot taller, but nothing about that particular story makes her smile. She’s owned that book for years. Joseph gave it her because he thought she’d like Rackham’s illustrations. She thought she did like them, at first — because it was from Joseph, because she was happy, because she was in love — but since then the empty spaces where people should be just became too true to bear.

 

 

She picks up a knife, starts peeling potatoes. The kids are whispering under the table. It’s all warm, sweet and ordinary, but Sarah’s chest is tight, long years of grief packed down below her ribs. 

Don't think of it. The cursed forest of the Western Front, blood and barbed wire. Don't think of strange sleep either, the hospital, the new sleep therapies, those people silent, suffocating, half-dead. Her history and her working day tangle with the fairytale and a line from the story keeps running through her mind.

“The briers held firmly together, as though they had hands, and the young men became stuck in them, could not free themselves, and met their death in the thorns.” 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 1934

 "Whatcha looking for, Stevie?”

“Gotta find this book,” Steve says absently. He’s balanced precariously on a chair, rummaging through his ma’s shelf of hardbacks. It has to be here, but it isn’t. Damn. He climbs back down.

“What book?” Bucky’s clearly only mildly curious. It’s too hot to care much about anything right now since there’s hardly any breeze, and it’s so sweltering that all anyone can do is lie in the shade and pray for the sweet kiss of death. Least-ways, that’s what Becca keeps saying, but then she does have a flair for the dramatic. Steve grins to himself, and heads into his ma’s room.

There are some papers on the floor by his ma’s bed, and yes , here it is. Steve kneels there, indifferent to the wood hard against his knees, and looks at the cover. Sleeping Beauty, as told by Charles Sneddon Evans, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

“Stevie?” Bucky sounds more curious now, and as Steve returns to the room he notices he’s changed position. Now he’s lying on the floor by the window, his arms folded behind his head. He’s shirtless, and sweat is gleaming at his collarbones.

Steve swallows, makes himself look away. He’s on a mission.

Bucky sits up properly as he watches Steve rummage among the mess on the table, then sit down to set up his sketchbook. “You’re drawing something?” He stands, stretches, and Steve determinedly doesn’t watch. Sometimes he dreams about Bucky moving so liquid. Besides, right now he has to focus.

That’s a bit harder to do when Bucky sits beside him, draping his warm arm over his shoulder. “What’s this?”

Steve grins, “I had an idea.”

Bucky groans and drops his head to the table. “Not again.”

“No, Buck, this is a good one.”

“Yeah,” Bucky replies with fond skepticism. “You said that when you suggested we start our own vigilante chivalric fucking order to roam alleyways and rescue anyone needing help, too.”

Steve can’t help laughing. “It wasn’t a chivalric order, Buck! It was —”

“Uh huh. Tell me about this.” Bucky’s looking at the book with undisguised interest now.

“Well,” Steve feels his cheeks grow warm. “It’s just — I was thinking. About … work.”

He has all Bucky’s attention now, and his face is so close. His arm is still around Steve’s shoulders, and his expression has become both more gentle and somehow harder to read. “Go on, Stevie.”

“You know I’ve got some jobs doing lettering, but ... it’s not enough. I need something steady. And I couldn't get the clerk jobs ‘cause they said I'm too sick, couldn't rely on me to work regular." He tilts his chin.  "I mean, I’m sure I could have done it. I’m stronger than I look.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, but his arm tightens. His pale blue eyes are still fixed on Steve.

“So,” Steve grits his teeth. “I had an idea, something I could maybe do.” He’s defiant, like he wants to fight someone who says he can’t do it, someone who says that he isn’t good enough to do this thing, but there’s nobody saying that. There’s just Bucky, warm against him, listening and still watching him with that attentive and opaque gaze. So Steve takes a deep breath and says it.

“I thought I could maybe go beyond lettering, and — illustrate. Books. Like this guy, Rackham. He drew the pictures. Or the dime novels, they need art. And, like Amazing Stories, and the funnies. Maybe — maybe I can do something like that.” Despite himself, his voice quavers.

He knows that Bucky knows how hard the endless rejections have been for Steve. All he wants is to help his ma work fewer hours at the hospital, to pull his own weight. He knows how much he costs — the asthma cigarettes, the liver extract for the anemia, the nebulizer, the doctors. He wants to earn, and he can’t.

Bucky doesn’t say anything for a second, just keeps looking at him in that strange, soft way. Then he says, “That’s an amazing idea.”

“It is? I mean, yeah.” Steve looks down, disconcerted by something in Bucky’s expression. “Well. I thought I could try.”

“We’re gonna start now.” Bucky sounds determined. “What are you gonna draw first? Do you have to take it to someone?”

Steve leans forwards. “I’ve been looking in the papers, and there are publishers, they advertise for writers. I figured I’d draw some, like, examples, of what I can do, and then take it to them. To see if they — if they like what I’ve done.” He straightens, “And if that’s not the right way to do it, maybe one of them will tell me what is. But I need work to show first. I thought if I illustrated something it would prove I can.”

“And you chose this?” Bucky pulls his arm away from Steve’s shoulder to reach for the Rackham text, and Steve is acutely aware of the lost contact. Bucky leafs through the book, pausing. “Wow, Stevie. These are beautiful. Kinda weird, though.”

Steve leans over the book too. It’s true, the images are kinda weird. Most of the time Rackham just uses silhouette, so a viewer only sees postures. Some pictures show bodies straining towards each other, while others are whimsical figures, dancing in forests or marching. The featureless figures are eerie.

 

  

 

“Yeah. Well, I thought it would be good, ’cause it’s — kinda hard to forget them, once you’ve seen them. I thought I could try and do something like that, but I could maybe illustrate it a whole lot of different ways? You know? Show I can do what they need. And everyone knows the story.” He’s gripping his pencil so hard it’s starting to hurt his hand. He really needs this.

Bucky smiles, cuffs his shoulder. Steve still can’t quite read his expression. “Get started, champ.”

Steve does. Half way through, he dimly registers that Bucky’s silently put a glass of water and a cloth beside his arm — he’s clearly used to Steve drawing for hours and emerging smudged and thirsty. Steve stays inside the drawing for at least an hour, and when he blinks up from the page the evening sun has turned soft.

Bucky’s asleep.

He’s lying on the floor by the window again, and the warm end-of-day light could have been made for him. He’s on his back, his arms folded back behind his head, his head tilted. He’s still shirtless. Steve can’t look away. Bucky is golden, perfect. He looks like everything Steve could ever want.

He bites his lip, stares down at his drawings, unseeing. He knows what he is, what he feels. He’s not supposed to feel like this about another man, but he does, and that’s all there is to it. He’s spent his whole life with other people acting like he should be ashamed — of being small, being sick, being frail — and he’s not about to willingly accept some other damn story of shame. There is no shame in loving Bucky, just a searing, implacable sureness. But Bucky isn’t like him. Bucky’s … normal. They can’t ever be what Steve wants.

Still, he can’t resist moving closer. Holding his work, he walks over to sit in the corner opposite Bucky. The room’s getting darker now, but Steve doesn’t care. He just can’t look away from Bucky, his dark hair loose from the pomade, the fringe flopping over his brow.

Steve swallows, and opens his sketchbook. He’s drawn Bucky all his life, and one of the first clues he had to what he wanted was the sight of his own drawings. Each pencil stroke is a caress.

When the longing to hold Bucky is too unbearable, Steve pours his yearning into graphite and paper. The white, un-drawn space always seems to ache, because Steve can’t draw himself coiled around Bucky, holding him. That white space is a wound.

Steve turns to a new page and starts to draw Bucky’s profile. The tenement is unusually quiet, missing the typical sounds of close neighbors through thin walls. Maybe the heat has subdued them too. Steve keeps going.

He’s drawing beauty. Sleeping.      

 

---***---***---

1935

 

“Mrs. Rogers?” Bucky’s voice shakes as he stands at the entrance to the room. It’s dimly lit, a single lamp throwing the frozen tableau at the bed into sharp relief. Sarah’s hunched over Steve, her golden hair in disarray, her face sheened with sweat and fear.

She’s so absorbed she doesn’t hear him arrive, then startles, turns. He is struck again by how like Steve she looks, and by how different they are in so many other ways.

“Bucky, thank God. He keeps asking for you. He’s… he’s sleeping now, but he’ll want you soon, I know it.”

Bucky swallows, takes quiet steps into the room. “Is it bad, this time?” he asks, and cringes, because clearly it’s well beyond bad. His ma’s told him that it looks like Steve isn’t going to make it, and he knows for a fact that the priest has visited.

Sarah gives a choked kind of laugh, rubs her eyes fiercely with the back of her hand. “The idiots say he’s going to die,’ she says baldly. ‘But they don’t know Steven.”

Bucky’s silent as he takes the second chair by the bed. It’s true those people don’t know Steve. Steve is a force of nature, his astonishing determination constantly overriding his frail body. Bucky would never underestimate Steve Rogers’ ability to defy death through sheer stubbornness.

But Bucky also knows quite how fragile Steve is. Sometimes, he is struck by how Steve’s delicate bones and pale skin look almost … what’s the word … ethereal? Like the angels they keep hearing about in Church? Bucky doesn’t know about angels, but he knows about fire and beauty, and Steve has both. Bucky isn’t sure where these thoughts are coming from exactly. All he knows is that when he thinks about how beautiful Steve is, it feels like a kind of prayer.

He looks across the bed to where Sarah is hunched, still staring at her son. She isn’t noticing Bucky now. He’s here because Steve needs him, but Sarah doesn’t care about him beyond that. Sarah doesn’t care about anything beyond Steve. That’s one of the things that kind of makes Bucky hate her, if he’s honest. Because despite Sarah’s intensity, she doesn’t see Steve. She wants to protect him, and she doesn’t see what he needs.

Steve needs to fight. He needs to fight all the time . He’s either fighting against cruelty, or fighting to prove himself, or fighting for a dream. He just never stops. Bucky knows that. It drives Bucky up the wall, but he loves it too, and he knows his job is to make sure Steve can — can keep fighting.

Oh God, Stevie. Keep fighting.

He looks again at the figure lying between them. Steve’s so desperately pale. His breathing’s quiet — it wasn’t pneumonia this time. Ignoring Sarah, Bucky leans closer, straining to catch the sound of Steve’s breath in … out … in. Somehow, in the dark room, the closer he gets to Stevie, he feels like he’s drawing near to a candle. He’s shining. Bucky closes his eyes and fights tears. Stevie. Don’t go.

The single light is casting shadows that make Steve’s cheekbones seem even sharper than usual. Bucky wants to stroke them. He wants to brush them with his lips. He doesn’t do either of these things.

Then Steve shifts, turns, and opens his eyes. He doesn’t seem to notice Sarah. He’s looking straight at Bucky. His lips twitch in a tiny hint of that crooked smile. Bucky’s frantic fear subsides, even as Steve’s eyes close again.

Bucky waits there, in the dim room with the smell of sickness and sweat. Silence pools around them, but Steve’s light doesn’t go out.        

 

---***---***---

 1936

 

Steve lets himself into the silent apartment. His ma’s on night shift tonight, and the place feels even colder and more uninviting than usual. Shafts of winter light are coming through the narrow windows, and it’s harder than usual not to notice the grime, the general air of a place not cared for.

They’re both doing their best, but it’s hard when there are only two of them and his ma still works at the hospital. She’s been able to cut back her hours since Steve starting getting piecemeal illustration work, but she can’t quit entirely, and Steve’s getting worried about her permanent cough.

Steve’s under no illusions. He knows Sarah fights every day with something he can’t see. It's as if, when his father died in the War, his ma was forced into a War herself, a conscript to a lonely combat that nobody else can reach. It makes him wonder. It feels sometimes like everyone he knows born before the War is carrying some scar from it — someone they lost, something they saw. Sometimes both.

No time to think about it now. Without fuss, Steve sets to work. He does what he can with the potatoes and cabbage, cleans the kitchen floor, makes the beds. He’s tucking a blanket over the second when he hears the door open, and he smiles to himself. “Hey, Buck.”

“Stevie.” Bucky briefly leans through the bedroom door, “Gimme a second, gotta get these things off. I’m soaking wet.”

“It’s started snowing again?” Steve yanks the blankets back off the bed. Like hell is he going to let Bucky get cold.

“Yeah.” Bucky’s voice is muffled, and Steve emerges from the room just in time to see Bucky with his back to him, pulling a new undershirt over his head. The muscles of his shoulders and back are flexing and for a moment Steve feels his mouth go dry. Then Bucky shakes his head through the top and turns to smile his lopsided smile, bending to grab a towel and starting to rub his hair. ‘Hey, Stevie.’ His voice is softer now. “Food smells good.” He looks worn out, and … something isn’t right. Steve narrows his eyes.

“What’s wrong, Buck?”

“Nothing.” Bucky doesn’t meet his gaze.

Steve walks up to him, grips his shoulders, stares up. “There is.” Something’s really wrong. It’s so clear, now that he’s really paying attention. Bucky’s eyes are forlorn.

“Stevie, can we just …”

Steve’s thinking fast, rifling through possible causes for — whatever this is. “Weren’t you seeing … er … whatshername today?” He doesn’t try and keep track of the girls. He tells himself it’s because there are too many of them and they change too fast — and God knows that’s the truth, Bucky doesn’t seem to go out with the same one more than twice in a row — but the truth is that Steve is so jealous of them he could spit. “Did something go wrong?”

Bucky looks baffled and then gives a strange choked laugh. “What? Hannah? No. I called it off with her yesterday. I — it doesn’t matter, Stevie, let’s just eat.”

Steve isn’t going to drop it, and he knows Bucky knows that, but he wants to get him warm so they head to the table. Bucky drapes the blanket over his shoulders, and seems oddly hunched as he shovels down the soup. When he’s finished he sits back and closes his eyes.

Steve asks carefully, “How’s your ma and Becca? And your brothers?”

“They’re OK.” Bucky’s voice is subdued and he still has his eyes closed, head tilted back.

“And your dad?”

Bucky doesn’t reply.

Steve finishes his bowl, and clears the plates, giving Bucky some time. Then he walks unselfconsciously behind Bucky’s chair and bends to wrap him in a fierce hug. Bucky swallows audibly and hugs him back, his eyes still closed. They stay like that a long time.

Then Bucky says quietly, “It’s bad tonight. It’s best if I get out of there. Less likely he’s going to kick off.”

Steve fights a swell of rage. He guesses he should feel sorry for George Barnes, because he’s another person who seems to carry the War with him. But while his ma endures the War as a scar, as a permanent grief, it’s made George cold and unkind. People say he was different before the War, although Steve finds it hard to imagine that that detached, cloudy man could have ever been expressive. In any case, whatever he was doing to bear the hidden weight of the War has stopped working, and now he’s started drinking instead.

So George is hiding in a bottle, and when he can’t tell what’s what anymore, then he says things Bucky can’t seem to shake off. He doesn’t tell Steve what they are. But now, in Steve’s arms, Bucky mutters, “It’s like he doesn’t even like me anymore, y’know?”

Steve can’t speak for a minute, the urge to punch something is so overwhelming. Then he manages, “Then he’s a goddamn idiot. Because you’re — you’re great.”

Bucky smiles lopsidedly and cuffs Steve’s shoulder. “Thanks, pal.”

That night, lying in bed, Steve’s fury seems to expand and fill him. He’s starting to think that if he has to punch anything, it’s the War. The War that seems to stay with people, that doesn’t ever leave them, until everyone around them is poisoned too. It’s like — like once you get into the War, you never get out. Like being lost in a forest, and everyone around you gets caught there as well.

He’s damn well not letting it trap Bucky.

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text


 


A week later, Steve is shoving his way through the busy corridors of Brooklyn City Hospital. He’s come to get Sarah. He’s becoming so uneasy about her cough that he wants to try and help her get to and from work at the very least. Hell, he wants her to quit, but she always refuses.

He’s reached the ward where she usually works. It’s one of the less shabby ones, down near the electrocardiography unit. The hospital is proud of being one of the first in New York to have that machine, and Steve was fascinated, as a kid, by the machine that turned heartbeats into writing.

There she is, wearing her wide-winged cap and bent over a bed in the far corner. Steve walks over without hesitation. He’s spent so much time in hospitals as a patient that these spaces do not feel strange to him, but this time his confidence only lasts until he reaches the bed and sees the figure lying there.

She — this woman honestly looks like she should be dead. She’s paper thin, paper white. There is something profoundly shocking in seeing a human body that emaciated. The absolutely unnatural thinness is somehow magnified by her expression, because the woman is conscious, and her eyes are huge with obvious terror. Deep purple shadows make them seem even larger, protuberant, as her cheeks seem to fall in. “Please,” she’s whispering, “please — no more sleep.”

Sarah is bent over her, holding a spoon of cloudy liquid to her lips. Steve can tell his mother is trying to be soothing, but also that she’s deeply distressed. “I promise,” and Sarah’s voice is low and emphatic, “I promise this isn’t for more sleep. It’s the opposite. I swear it.” There is a terrible urgency in the low-voiced exchange. Steve feels obscurely like he is on the edge of a dreadful struggle.

Tears pool in the woman’s eyes. “Poisoned,” she whispers, “poisoned dreams, and you can’t move.”

Sarah’s other hand convulses into a fist for a moment. Steve sees the effort she makes to retain her semblance of calm. “I swear it,” she repeats. “This is not for sleep.”

The woman holds Sarah’s gaze fixedly, and then she seems to break or surrender, and her eyes droop. She opens her lips for the spoon and Steve looks away, aware of intruding. He’s deeply troubled by what he has just seen.

Sarah resettles the sheets around the woman, smoothes her hair away from her skeletal face, and moves away, Steve in her wake.

“Ma,” mutters Steve, as Sarah dons her coat, “What happened to her?”

Sarah gives him a brief look, and bites off one word. “Narcosis.” She looks around, “But not here, Steven. Walk.”

Steve obeys for once, but only because he wants to understand and he can see she can’t say more while in the hospital. They walk quickly through the corridors, Sarah coughing intermittently, and they don’t speak until they’ve descended to the smelly claustrophobia of the subway.

It’s a short ride. As the car rattles into the tunnel the lights flicker, and Steve thinks again of the woman’s eyes drooping, of her dreading the dark of sleep. “Ma,” he mutters, “What is it? And why can’t you talk about it at the hospital?”

Sarah’s jaw is tight. “Questioning that treatment isn’t welcome right now. A few people have been brought in after it, and one nearly died, but if you ask questions — one nurse was already fired.” She looks troubled. “I don’t know, Steve. It’s supposed to be a treatment to help the mind. They say it can heal sleeplessness, sadness, even madness. It’s something they do in the … specialized hospitals.”

Steve knows what that euphemism covers, everything from luxurious medical institutions for the wealthy through to weird psychiatric sanatoria. “Maybe it can do those things, but — ” she hesitates, “that lady was with us because her heart nearly gave out after a month of it, and she needed heart specialist work. We have the facilities for that.”

“Her heart nearly gave out?” Steve is baffled. “What kind of treatment is this?”

Sarah doesn’t reply for a while. Then, grim, “She told you that already, Steve. Poisoned dreams, and you can’t move.”

 

---***---***---

 

Now it’s winter, and Steve’s lying in bed, drawing. The apartment seems even quieter now that his ma’s gone to the sanatorium. It’s been two months since she left, and two weeks since he heard from her. The landlord’s been merciful and cut the rent while she’s away, but that won’t last, so who knows how long he’ll have a place. The silence and waiting are a cumulative strain, and he’s started coping with the quiet evenings by drawing Sarah. Memories, things he wishes for her. He tells himself that the drawings aren’t goodbye, and he almost believes it.

When he manages to think of something other than Sarah, Steve often finds himself thinking of the woman in the ward. He’s used to seeing people in extremity in hospital, but what is so strange is that it was treatment that hurt her that way. And the other thing — the even darker thing — is the way she clearly didn’t want it. She was terrified. Thinking of it now, Steve shifts uneasily. It makes him want to fight something. He doesn’t know the antagonist, doesn’t have a target, but he does know Sarah hates that treatment, and he’s absolutely sure he does too. It takes him a long time to fall asleep.

Then someone’s knocking, and Steve comes awake with a jolt, bleary. It’s probably the drunk neighbors, but Steve gets out of bed, opens the door, and the world falls apart.

Bucky’s swaying, eyes closed, holding onto the edge of the door frame. He opens his mouth, as if to say something, but all that happens is that he spits blood.

“What the hell?” Steve’s pulling him inside, and for once he’s the one all but carrying Bucky. He gets him on the couch, and starts scanning his face. His heart’s pounding. It’s not like either Bucky or Steve are strangers to a black eye or broken nose — hey, Steve practically collects them — but Bucky can usually handle himself just fine, and just, again, what the hell. Bucky’s knuckles are unscathed. It’s the middle of the night. He doesn’t smell like beer, and that wouldn’t be like Bucky anyway. Nothing about this makes sense.

Steve crouches over him, tries to assess the damage. Black eye, split lip, cut on right forehead, and he’s grimly certain that’s not all. “Where else?” Bucky doesn’t respond right away, then lifts his shirt. Someone’s kicked him in the ribs hard enough to break skin, and it’s already starting to bruise. “Bucky, what happened? What were you doing?” Steve’s getting water and salve and cloths so hastily that he drenches his own shirt as he rushes back to the couch.

Bucky gives the saddest attempt at a laugh. “Breathing, I think.” He’s lisping, and more blood fills the corner of his mouth.

At that, Steve gets it, and his fist clenches on the cloth. “I’m gonna kill him.”

“It doesn’t matter, Stevie.”

“Don’t talk, Buck. Just — for fuck’s sake —” Steve’s hands are shaking as he tries to mop the cut.

“He said I’m a fairy.” Bucky’s eyes are closed and his voice is singsong, and it’s hard to make out the words through the blood and saliva.

Steve drops the cloth for a second, then manages to get a grip and resume wiping. “Don’t talk, Buck.” He can just about keep a lid on his rage if he keeps his voice low and concentrates on his friend’s face. But Bucky keeps mumbling. “He thinks I’m queer. He doesn’t believe the girls.”

“Bucky, don’t.” Steve’s voice is low and rough. He feels desperate. He needs to patch Bucky up, but this is — he feels like they are terribly close to a tragedy, that something might break here between them. That George Barnes’ viciousness could make something happen here, make something be said, that can never be mended. He can’t lose Bucky and Sarah both. He just can’t.

Bucky falls silent. His eyes are closed and he’s leaning back on the couch now. Steve keeps working with the cloth. He’s cleaned the forehead cut — luckily not jagged, should heal smooth — and is wiping the blood from Bucky’s nose and jaw. Bucky’s flinches and Steve winces too, tries to move as tenderly as he can. His own wet shirt is starting to make him shiver, but he ignores it. He starts wiping the graze across the ribs.

“You have kind hands, Stevie.” Bucky sounds almost drunk, but Steve knows he isn’t, unless someone can be drunk from despair. The injuries Steve can see aren’t the ones that have devastated Bucky. His dad’s words did that.

Steve picks up the salve. His hands are still shaking, but he has to apply it to the rib graze. He reaches out and — he can’t — he simply can’t touch Bucky right now, but he has to. When he rests his fingers on Bucky’s ribs he has to close his eyes. His heart is breaking. He’s touching him, but he can’t really touch him, and nothing has ever made that clearer than Bucky’s visible agony at what his father said.

Steve tries to muster anger, but for once he can’t. He feels hollowed out, poured out. Yet still he has to move, to try and patch up this most beautiful person, this kindest person, this person he cares for more than anyone, and to try and ignore the way that even like this, touching Bucky is sweet torture.

Steve steels himself. He has to wipe Bucky’s lip. He looks up at Bucky’s face, and Bucky’s eyes aren’t closed. He’s gazing directly at Steve, and Steve doesn’t think he has ever seen him look so sad. “’m sorry, Stevie.”

Steve’s suddenly filled with a kind of panic. Does he know? It’s all too much, this whole thing is just not endurable. He has sworn to himself to never feel shame for this, and now he’s crushed with it. His lips part and he tries to reply but for a moment he can’t speak, and he realizes his cheeks are wet.

Bucky frowns, and his face starts to faintly mirror Steve’s panic. “Stevie —” Bucky’s reaching out and stroking tears from his face and it’s just the last straw. Steve has to pull away.

“God, Buck.” His voice is torn. “Just … stop.”

But Bucky’s looking at him properly now. “Your shirt’s wet! Jesus, Stevie, are you nuts?” and Bucky’s wrapping the blanket around him now, and his arms are so gentle, and Steve just can’t, he can't do this, this is it, no more, and he pushes the blanket away and stands. He has to go. He has to get out.

“Stevie!” and the sheer pain in Bucky’s voice makes Steve stop halfway to the door. There’s no power on earth that could make him able to walk away from Bucky in that kind of agony. “Stevie, are you going because you think I’m queer?” Bucky sounds absolutely defeated.

Mercifully, the words achieve what nothing else has. They bring back Steve’s rage, and heat floods him, almost dizzying. “What?” and now he’s facing Bucky, incandescent. “You think that would make me leave?” He’s walking towards him now, blazing, fury carrying him like wings, and in the end it’s easy. “I’m queer, Bucky. I am. And I’ll be damned if I let anyone make me feel it’s wrong, even you!”

Everything stops. Bucky’s eyes are wide. Steve’s breathing fast and his fists are clenched. They’re staring at each other. A long minute passes.

Very slowly, Bucky stands up, still holding his ribs. He’s not looking away, and Steve’s suddenly acutely aware of how cold the room is, of the wet shirt sticking to his chest, the silence of the night around them. Bucky’s eyes seem so dark.

Bucky walks to him. His breathing is strained – he’s obviously still in a lot of pain – but he’s not looking away. He’s close enough to touch. His eyes trace Steve’s face, his mouth. Then, unexpectedly, he smiles, tender and secretive. “Stevie.”

“Buck.” Steve is dazed. The sodium streetlamp has both their faces in darkness, but somehow Bucky is glowing. Then, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, Bucky bends and kisses him, gentle as a question.

He steps back and waits. He’s vulnerable. Radiant.

Steve can’t understand why he didn’t see it sooner. Bucky’s love is a shining thing, and Steve is warmed by it right to his fingers. He moves into the vacated space, and strokes Bucky’s hair back from his bruised face, cups the one uninjured cheek in his palm. When he slides his hand over Bucky’s skin, it’s less a caress than a kind of learning. He feels like he’s seeing him for the first time.

He takes Bucky’s hand, one arm around his injured side, and they move to the couch. He lays him down gently, like a treasure, and crawls up over him, straddling his lap.

They should probably be talking about this, Steve thinks, dazed. This is ... this is ... but Bucky's hard under him, and suddenly it's like all the years of yearning, the years of wanting, have flared into a blaze. Bucky's skin is under his hands now and Steve can’t think any more. “Bucky,” he hears his own voice ragged. Bucky tilts his head back, parts his lips, and says almost soundlessly, “Please,” and Steve finally lets himself move like he’s wanted to for what seems like forever.

He slides both hands under Bucky’s neck and pulls it up, letting Bucky’s head fall back, throat exposed. Then he presses his open mouth so, so gently to the un-cut corner of Bucky’s lips, licking inside tender but irresistible.

It’s intoxicating, Bucky’s mouth wet and open under his, then he tastes Bucky’s blood and pulls back, alarmed. “Did I — you’re bleeding again.”

But Bucky’s smiling, he’s smiling so deep and real. “Stevie,” he murmurs, “It’s fine. I can’t believe we’re here, sweetheart.” At the endearment, Steve is wordless, helpless. He has Bucky’s face still cupped in his hands, stroking his thumbs over his high cheekbones, just gazing. How can George have hurt him? How could anyone ever hurt him?

Steve bends to brush his lips tenderly against each cut on Bucky’s beautiful face, each bruise, and Bucky goes boneless under his hands. Steve goes lower, moves his mouth along Bucky’s chin, along the strong lines of his neck. This is worship. This is prayer. Every brush of his lips says I love you. I’ve always loved you.

Bucky’s trembling now, his head is heavy in Steve’s palms, and Steve moves down to kiss his neck, his chest, moving his shirt aside to gently touch his lips to the bruise at his ribs. Bucky’s breathing fast. Steve doesn’t take his mouth off Bucky’s skin. He wants to learn him with his lips, with his tongue, every inch, every mark. Wants to kiss every graze, each time a promise. I will keep you safe.

They should stop, this is too fast, Steve just means to kiss and care for him right now, but somehow Steve keeps working down Bucky’s chest, his belly, and Bucky’s hips are canting up. He’s visibly hard, and he’s moaning, and now he’s pulling Steve back up to kiss, heedless of his wounds. They’re moving against each other, grinding fierce and kissing soft, gasping against lips and fumbling at buttons, Then their hands are on each other, wet and warm, urgent, slick, and the sheer glorious shock of touching Bucky so hard and perfect makes Steve’s climax mount so fast he hasn’t even got time to speak.

Steve’s coming into his best friend’s hand, and it feels like pain and it feels like home.      

 

---***---***---

 

Two Months Later

 

Bucky’s been to lots of funerals, but this one was — well, it was unbearable. It just was. Funerals are about a whole bunch of family, a team of survivors, coming together to console each other and celebrate the passed and generally, in Bucky’s experience of the extended Barnes family, to get drunk and end up squabbling over the food.

Funerals aren’t supposed to be like this. Steve sitting all alone in the mourning family’s row, his tiny shoulders absolutely straight in the too-big suit. Steve expressionless as the priest delivered a monotone rote eulogy about his ma as a sainted woman. Steve having to stand and accept platitudes from all the mourners as they filed past. Steve at the graveside — oh God — receiving the first handful of earth to throw into the grave. By that point Steve was so white Bucky was sure he was going to faint.

Bucky just wanted to take him the hell away from the whole horrific mess. There was nothing healing about it. Nothing consoling. It was — well, it was just awful, that’s the truth. Then Steve vanished, right after the interment, and Bucky nearly went out of his mind with worry. His ma noticed too, and gave Bucky a significant glance. “Go,” was all she said, but her voice was urgent and low, and he knew she’d seen everything he had. Bucky left without ceremony, and now he’s back at the tenement, running up the stairs before Steve can work out where the key is. Steve’s rummaging in his too-big pockets and stumbling at the doormat and Bucky’s just so relieved to see him that for a moment he can’t speak. He kicks the brick over, grabs the key. “Steve — I was gonna ask —”

“I know what you’re gonna say, Buck. Thank you. I just — I can get by on my own.” Steve’s standing rigid.

“I know you can.” Bucky speaks gently. The last thing he wants to do is question Steve’s resilience. “Thing is, though — you don’t have to. I’m with you to the end of the line, pal.”

Steve looks down for a moment, Bucky’s declaration clearly the last straw for an already overwhelmed heart. Then looks back up and gives a smile that’s honestly like sunrise. Bucky swallows. Please let me work out how to help him. “Let’s go inside, Stevie.”

As soon as they enter, Bucky shivers. Sarah was in the sanatorium for months before she — died, so the apartment shouldn’t suddenly feel so different, but it really does. It 's full of Sarah. She’s at the kitchen, looking exhausted over the stove. She’s sitting at the window, staring out at the street, somehow unseeing. She’s holding Steve as he struggles to breathe. Oh Sarah. You tried so hard. I’m sorry. I didn’t really understand.

Steve’s sitting at the table now, still in the gigantic suit. He’s hunched over, elbows on the table and forehead in his hands. He seems crumpled in on himself, and with a jolt Bucky realizes Steve’s struggling to breathe.

He grabs Stevie’s satchel, dumping out sketchbooks, hands shaking. That contraption isn’t here. Fuck. Steve’s breathing is now a tearing, heartbreaking sound. "Stevie," Bucky pulls his chair right up behind Steve and forces Steve’s arms down, pulls off that damn jacket, “Stevie," he’s just gonna keep saying that, make his voice low and clear like Sarah used to do, back when Steve was a kid and they didn’t have that contraption yet.

He pulls Steve backwards, nestling his back against his own chest, and gently raises Steve’s chin while Steve shakes and gasps. Open the airway. He remembers seeing Sarah do this. He can’t fix this terrible day but at least he can damn well help Stevie get some air. “Stevie, breathe with me, come on, slowly.”

Steve’s body feels unbearably fragile against Bucky, trembling as he strains for breath. It feels like it takes a hundred years, but eventually Steve’s breathing becomes less ragged and Bucky feels him slump. Bucky’s heart twists with tenderness and he bends to kiss Steve’s sticky forehead, smooths his hands over Steve’s cheeks and hair. Lets his head rest on Steve’s shoulder, by his ear.

“Thanks, Buck.” Stevie’s voice is hoarse. “Hasn’t happened in a while.”

They stay like that for a long time. Then Steve extends one hand one of the sketchbooks tumbled on the table, and turns the pages without looking. He pulls it towards Bucky, but doesn't turn his eyes to it himself.

Bucky looks at the page and can’t help flinching. It’s a complex drawing, and at the center is Sarah’s face, staring out of the page — delicate-boned, fragile, but with eyes somehow burning. Somehow Steve’s captured that agony that she lived with, the pain that Bucky had learned to ignore and even grow impatient with. At the funeral, the priest spoke of Sarah as a loving mother, a kind nurse. She'd been both those things, yes, but she'd also been Sarah, jagged and prickly and ever so sad but somehow never giving up anyway.

What is shocking about the picture, though, is the way that Steve has drawn her locked in a mesh of thorns, a cage of dark branches. It's not just Sarah. Next to her, he recognizes Steve’s dad from the photo on the mantelpiece — serious-faced, just a little older than he and Steve are now, taller than Sarah but not tall, with pale hair and a firm jaw. Beside him is a slight man who looks a lot like Sarah — her brother?

Then with a jolt Bucky recognizes his own dad. George Barnes’ detached, cold face is there too, locked within frozen branches. There are other faces too — Clem who runs the grocery store but rarely talks, one of the older priests, people from their life. The whole picture is deeply disturbing — familiar faces, brier-trapped.

Bucky reaches out to touch one of the thorns, but for some reason he feels uncomfortable as his hand nears the page, and he pulls his fingers away. His hand is cold. “Stevie?” he whispers. “What is it?”

“It's the War.” Steve’s voice is thick and Bucky thinks he's crying. “It traps people. Like — some kind of goddamn cursed forest. She was haunted, Bucky. I couldn’t save her.”

Bucky feels absolutely helpless. “Stevie,” he manages, “you did — you were everything for her. She — “ He swallows, he's so out of his depth, but he can't let Steve be in this misplaced regret alone. “She wasn't always sad. When she was with you she was happy. Sometimes with my ma, too. My ma loves — loved her too. You know she did. Oh, Stevie,” because Steve’s crying properly now, thin shoulders shaking in his best shirt. Bucky knows Steve’s not only crying because his ma has died, but because her life was so bleak for so long, and Steve couldn't help. “Come on, pal, just …” he’s uselessly hugging Steve, stroking his shoulders and neck, trying to calm him. “Please Stevie, look at me.”

Steve looks up abruptly, his eyes even bluer than usual and his pink lips bitten and parted. Bucky can't help it. Without thinking about how wildly inappropriate it is, he kisses him.

Steve hesitates only a moment before meeting the kiss. His face is still wet, and Bucky’s heart is breaking for him. He wants to wrap Steve in tenderness, cushion the agony, and Steve is like a flower desperate for sun. He’s tangling fingers in Bucky’s hair to grip him even closer, making the kiss deeper, and Bucky’s responding with everything he has.

Words aren’t enough, but he says them too, says them for the very first time. “I love you,” whispers it against Steve’s lips, “I love you,” against his neck, against his leaping pulse, “I love you,” desperate, into his mouth.

But Bucky needs much more, and he thinks Steve does too. This isn't the time he would have chosen to do it, but he can’t not. He wants to get as close to Steve as he can. “Stevie,” he gasps against his mouth, “don’t stop. I want — will you put it in me? Do you want to?”

As soon as Bucky hears his own words out loud, he feels himself flush with embarrassment at how utterly crass the question was. What the hell is he doing.  

In the weeks since they started ... this, they've spent every night they can wrapped around each other in dizzying pleasure, hands and lips. They haven't done this, yet, though they've whispered about it. Thought about it. Now is so not the time, but it is. Bucky's shaking. He has to get closer, break through all the edges, be as near to Steve as he can. 

Steve freezes.

Then he chokes, “Please,” and he’s kissing Bucky like he wants to climb inside him, open-mouthed and ravenous. He’s pushing Bucky back towards the bed, and Bucky’s stumbling with desire and disorientation. Steve whispers against his mouth, “Get your clothes off.”

Bucky swallows, fumbles to undo his pants, to shuck off his shirt. Steve’s stripping quickly, but Bucky’s acutely aware of his gaze on him the whole time. Steve’s eyes are burning.

This is... this is probably a really stupid time to do this, but oh God, Bucky wants to, and it's so clear Steve does too.  They're tangled together, sweating, and Bucky's under Steve, Steve's hand warm and solid, working him, getting him close. Bucky fights it, though, pushes Steve away enough to twist over under him, pushing his ass back up against Steve, blatant invitation, request, demand. 

Steve inhales, ragged. Bucky feels his lips in a gentle press on the back of his neck, and then Steve's hand sliding down his ass, stroking.  This is happening so fast but not fast enough.  Bucky’s trembling. He’s touched himself that way, but nobody else has, and his cheeks are warm. He’s so experienced with girls that it feels shameful to be inexperienced here. “I like it, Stevie, don’t stop.”

Steve’s hand is gentle. “I just — I don’t want to hurt you. I need to get some stuff. Just —’ he pushes Bucky’s hand onto his own cock, “touch yourself, sweetheart. I – I want you to feel good.”

Then Steve’s weight is gone and Bucky’s eyes are closed. He can hear Steve walk towards the bathroom, but he’s not looking, he's kneeling and jerking himself like Steve asked, and God he’s so close even with that, to know Steve told him to and now he’s obeying. Then the bed dips and Steve is against him again and his hand is sliding between his legs and this time he doesn’t stop, he slides a finger right in.

Bucky jolts. It really burns. Steve’s leaning around him, watching him intently, hair flopping over his forehead. His eyes are nearly black. “Sorry,” he mutters, “it’s – I got the Vaseline. It can hurt to start with. Is it okay?” He sounds nearly scared.

Bucky swallows. It’s not brilliant, to be honest, but then Steve bends his finger and suddenly the feeling of his own hand on his cock and Steve's finger in his ass has him achingly close to coming, balls drawing up tight, his whole body arching, eyes closed. He feels Steve press a gentle kiss to the side of his forehead, feels Steve’s lips curve in a smile, and his finger keeps moving in him ever so gently, ever so slowly —  turning him on, getting him slick.

Then it twinges and Bucky flinches. He opens his eyes, and Steve’s staring at him. Steve is visibly nervous, eyes dark and hungry. “This can hurt,” he repeats. His voice is gravelled. “I can … if you want me to stop —”

The pain has cleared some of the fog of desire, enough for Bucky to realize the important thing here. “Steve. You, it hurt you. Didn’t it.” It’s not a question.

Steve’s silent a moment. Then, “A lot, the first time, but I wouldn’t do that to you. I promise, it can be … it can be amazing,” and Steve presses his cock against Bucky’s thighs, his lips hot against Bucky’s neck. Whispers into Bucky’s skin, “Just have to take it slow, make you slick.” He crooks his finger again and Bucky doesn’t care about the pain anymore because it’s starting to change to unbearable pleasure. He can’t help it, he reaches one hand to jerk his own cock again, and as soon as he touches himself he hears Steve gasp.

They're both going to be quick on the trigger, Bucky can tell. Steve mouths his neck, bites Bucky’s jawline, mouth open, soft.

Then Steve’s pushing his own cock against his hole and Bucky wants it and it should feel amazing but it’s too much and he gasps, “Wait.”

Steve freezes, the tip of his cock still breaching him. Steve’s breathing is uneven and Bucky’s desire is suddenly doused by a cold wash of anxiety – is this even physically too much for Steve?

They breathe together for a while, shaking. But it’s amazing to feel Steve on top of him, against him, his face buried in the nape of Bucky’s neck. The tip of his cock is barely inside him and the sheer shock of it all hits Bucky again. He can’t help sliding back further.

Steve’s answering moan is ragged. Bucky’s never heard Steve make a sound like that before, and suddenly he needs to hear Steve fall apart. “Stevie. Please.”

Steve mutters, “Are you sure?” and Bucky's so fucking sure, he can’t remember his own name right now but he knows he’s sure about this.

Steve inches in. Bucky can feel his breathing, his heartbeat, his fragile body tight above him, against him. Inside him, God. Bucky’s trembling too, his head drooping. His forehead is nearly to the bed and he looks back between his legs and sees Steve buried in him to the balls. The rush of incredulous arousal takes him unaware. “Stevie,” he gasps, “don’t stop,” and instinctively he tilts his ass to take him deeper.

Steve groans and starts to thrust, and it hurts but it’s right, every part of Bucky is YES and then Steve makes the most perfect, broken sound. Bucky’s whole body convulses and Steve’s coming inside him wet and warm, but Bucky doesn’t stop moving. He pushes back on Steve’s cock, unashamedly grinding on that perfect violation, twisting and working to prolong his climax into impossible bliss while he spills thick and white all over the sheets.

Bucky’s knees crumple and they fall together, tangled in a loose embrace. He can feel Steve’s heart gradually easing. His own body feels heavy, warm as honey.

After a while Steve pulls out, and that feels strange, but all Bucky can think of it is how he needs to hold him close.

He twists around, slides his arms around Steve, the dear curve of his twisted spine, rests his head on his narrow chest, his ribs. Steve is so fragile yet his spirit is so unbreakable — he is pure fire and paradox.

Bucky's cheek rests gentle against his heart.  They lie there together. Steve’s breathing slows, and Bucky strokes his chest, his arm, palm flat, moving slow and tender. 

It should maybe be shocking, that they did this instead of whatever grieving is supposed to look like, but it doesn’t feel shocking at all. It feels right.

He leans up to brush Steve’s hair from his face. Steve's eyes are closed, and his face is twisted in the most complicated expression. Bucky can’t look away from him. “You OK, Stevie?”

Blue eyes snap open and catch Bucky in their brightness, their grief. A wry smile. “Well, I’m going to miss her. But, Buck —” Steve pushes him back down, slides his body half-atop his. Steve’s hair is tumbled over his forehead and his expression is incredibly tender. “I love you too, Buck. Of course I do.”

The mingled joy and sadness are piercing. Bucky holds Steve against him, hands gentle on his body, and Steve's astonishing, new — a jewel, a pure thing. Sarah’s gone, and George is a bastard, and there isn’t much work and no real future for either of them, but he’s in Steve’s arms and Steve’s in his. This is something perfect, against the dark.

 

 

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 

November 1939

Bucky's at work, and Steve's huddled at the kitchen table with soup that isn't warm enough to drive out the cold. He's concentrating on the newspaper, turning to the classifieds in his perennial search. He's built up a decent record of freelance work, though they rely on Bucky's income.

He turns a page and a picture hits him like an blow.

It's huge, sprawling across two pages, and filled with somehow melted, surreal forms. A body falling from a tower. A horse bleeding in a square. A soldier crumpled, sword shattered. A mother huddled over a dead child, and a bull, looming, gloating at the abject despair.

Even black and white in a newspaper the image is astonishingly powerful. Steve stares. The overwhelming impression is of human bodies helpless against brutal force.

Eventually he drags his eyes from the image to read the article. Apparently the picture is named after a town in Spain. It was symbolic of Republican resistance to Franco’s fascists, but had no military significance, no defenses. In April 1937 the Nazi Luftwaffe used the town to experiment with aerial "total war," and systematically destroyed the town in over two hours of continuous aerial bombardment.

It was engineered slaughter.

Steve realizes he is gripping the edges of the newspaper so tightly the delicate paper is tearing. He lets go, moveshis hand slowly towards the image. He's trying to take in its scale, its choreography of violence.

He knew about the Spanish Civil War, of course he did. And he knows that Nazis are occupying countries in Europe, and he knows Britain joined the war just months ago. But this picture crystallizes something for him. This particular event happened two years ago. What kinds of localized suffering have happened since? What permitted cruelties? What savagery?

He keeps reading, and realizes the mural is here. Here, in New York. MOMA has it right now.

Within minutes Steve is throwing himself outside into the wind and rain. The weather is appalling, and the streets are relatively empty, but Steve doesn’t care. He leans to fight against the wind as he struggles to the subway. He has to see it. 

 

 

 

 


 

---***---***---

 

When he enters the exhibition chamber he can’t breathe for a moment. The mural is colossal, nearly eight meters wide and three and a half meters high. Its sheer scale, its monumental massiveness, makes the brutality of the image even more overwhelming. This painting is a bludgeon.

The colors are muted, almost monochrome, a kind of despairing pallor across the scene. All hope has been leached from this place, and a figure holds a light aloft, illuminating the horror.

Most visitors look at the mural and flinch, can look only briefly and then have to move away. Voices are hushed. It's as if the painting is a cenotaph, a grave, an act of remembering a cruelty so profound that remembering it properly is impossible. All that can be represented are fragments and huddled figures.

A woman, falling.

Steve stands there for a long time. People come and go around him, but he's compelled. It's like the cruelties of the nightmare forest, but made explicit across human bodies, and as he looks at the figures coiled in terror at the base of the picture Steve realizes distantly that nothing is going to keep him from fighting this. He'll fight it with everything he has.

Somehow, he's getting to Europe.  

 

 

---***---***---

  

Bucky’s decidedly less convinced.

They’re languid, post-coital. Steve practically leapt on Bucky as soon as he got home, having no other outlet for the pent up rage and recklessness that’s been building under his skin ever since he saw the mural. He pushed Bucky up against the wall the instant he got inside, kissed him near-viciously, and Bucky had as usual gone willingly, responding with alacrity, until they're gasping together, Bucky under him.  Bucky usually prefers to feel Steve inside him, though it’s fine with Steve either way. Now they’re lying in dirty sheets, Steve’s arm stretched over Bucky’s chest, legs entwined.

Bucky’s languor is rapidly evaporating.

“We aren’t even at war, Steve! And you know what people are saying. We won’t get involved.” His jaw is visibly tensed.

“We should be at war.” Steve’s determined. “We should be doing all we can to make sure America gets involved. We should protest, march—“

Bucky makes a sound of pure impatience and throws himself off the bed. “Stevie!” He paces across the room, heedless of his nakedness. “Marching? You can’t even reliably walk up the fucking stairs without collapsing! You want to protest? You want to go to war?”

Silence. Steve is suddenly aware of how frail he must look, alone in the bed. He’s painfully conscious of his delicate bones, his thin body. He feels his chin go up.

Bucky runs his hands through his own hair and says quietly, “’m sorry, Stevie. That was —” He pauses, seems ashamed. Then, gentler, “Look.” He sits on the bed. “We can march if you want. There are probably people doing that kinda thing. We can — we can do that.”

Steve just looks at him. Gets out of bed and reaches for his clothes.

“Stevie?” Bucky’s voice is hesitant, and he reaches out a hand to Steve’s elbow.

Steve shrugs on his undershirt, reaches for his pants. Bucky doesn’t say anything else, just sits and watches him. His sorry fills the space between them, and Steve can feel the tenderness in it. When he’s dressed, he turns back to look at his lover. Bucky’s still naked, still watching him, wearing an expression one part exasperation and two parts desperate fondness.

“I have to get over there, Buck.” He swallows, “I just can’t do nothing when this is happening.”

He’s trying to put into words the absolute impossibility of him sitting out a fight, of him not doing all he can — but he doesn’t have to, because Bucky sighs and pulls him into a kiss. Murmurs against his lips, “I know, pal.” He feels Bucky’s beautiful lips curve into a rueful smile. “I know you.” 

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

August 1941 

Bucky’s dancing, long-limbed and loose. Steve can see the sheen of sweat on his neck and wants to taste it.

He will, later. He loves going out dancing with Bucky – Steve gets to watch him, and Bucky’s always voracious afterward. Meanwhile, Steve sits near the back of the dance-hall, sharing a table with a couple of girls he doesn’t know. They’re in earnest conversation, and he’s just watching his wild, dark-haired boy.

One of the girls beside him leaves to dance, and Steve glances at the one remaining. He frowns. She looks ill. She’s desperately thin, and her skin is chalky. She’s visibly trembling as she takes out a cigarette holder and tries to insert a cigarette. but she’s shaking too much to do it and bundles them back into her purse.

Steve looks at her more carefully. She has red hair, beautifully coiffed, and her blue dress looks silk, expensive. He thinks her eyes are green, but they’re cast down under long eyelashes as she watches her own hands, tangling her fingers together. She’s wearing a white fur shrug, and as she shifts uncomfortably in her seat, it slides off her right arm. Steve catches a glimpse of dark bruises clustering around elbow and wrist.

“Excuse me, miss. Are you all right?”

She jumps, and green eyes sweep him in that comprehensive assessment Steve’s always braced for. Girls always patronize or ignore him after that.

Surprisingly, she doesn’t do either. Instead, she smiles briefly, faint but seemingly genuine.

“No.” Her voice is husky. “I suppose I will be. But I just got out of … hospital. I thought I was well enough to come tonight, but it may have been ambitious.” She has an elusive accent, slightly Southern, and her pattern of speech is unusual, kind of refined.

“D’you want some water?” As soon he saw the bruises he wasn’t going to just ignore this girl. She seems so afraid.

She gives another smile, this one a little longer lived. “I wouldn’t say no.”

As Steve makes his way back from the bar he sees Bucky dancing with a new girl at the center of a circle. Bucky gives him a small, secret grin, and while Steve watches, he tilts his head back, keeping his gaze on Steve, and licks his lips, mischievous. Steve’s grinning as he returns to the table. Bucky has always known he’s beautiful.

Steve slides the water in front of the girl, and figures he’d better introduce himself. “I’m Steve Rogers.”

“Marlene Hamilton,” she replies, and Steve can’t help but raise his eyebrows. “Marlene?”

She smirks. “You a fan of hers?”

“We —” he corrects himself, “Yeah, I am. She’s amazing.”

A silence falls. Marlene takes her cigarette holder out of her purse again, but doesn’t attempt to fill it. She taps it on the table, looking at her hands.

“Marlene, your arms …” Steve can’t just leave it. His half-question makes her hunch in on herself, and defensively tuck the shrug more securely over her shoulder. Her reply is terse. “It was treatment.”

Steve nods. He doesn’t plan to ask anything further, but then Marlene straightens, almost defiantly, and visibly re-assumes her poise. Almost flirtatiously, she says, voice touched with that Southern lilt, “You know how doctors are. Never less than thorough.” It’s jaunty, self-mocking.

Steve doesn’t respond immediately. Then, “I do. Know how doctors are.”

Her sharp poise softens a little as she looks him over again. “I guess maybe you do, sugar.” She takes a drink, then says bluntly, “It was narcosis.”

Steve’s heard it mentioned a few times since that day he saw the woman suffer in his mother’s ward. It’s too expensive to be available to most of the people he knows, but it’s becoming more common. The details remain a grotesque mystery, and he wouldn’t ever dream of prying, but he’s never forgotten the horror of that woman’s fear, her terror that more sleep would be forced on her. He has to ask. “Marlene — did you want the treatment?”

Marlene looks at him, shrewd now. She doesn’t reply directly. “You’ve seen it, haven’t you.” Her voice is softer now. “You’ve seen what it does.”

“I — once.”

She looks ahead, her expression briefly unseeing. “It’s …it depends how they do it. There are so many ways. Some of them maybe aren’t — so bad. But others — it’s a kinda torture. You can’t move. Sometimes the fog lifts enough for you to stand, with help, but you can’t balance, or walk.” She swallows convulsively and her hands grip her cigarette holder again. Then says quietly, almost to herself, “But — the thing I hated most was the way I couldn’t speak. You can try, but all you can do is … kinda groan. Like — like not even a person anymore.” She takes a quick drink of water.

Steve is listening, appalled, and she gives him a bruised half-smile. “It’s hard to explain to people that sleep can become — dreadful. Mostly they don’t believe you.”

Steve says, “I do.”

A quick glance, purely grateful.

Steve continues carefully, “It sounds terrible.” She hasn’t answered his question. How voluntary had this even been?

“Oh, it is.” The brittle smile’s back. She exaggerates her Southern drawl. “It is quite, quite terrible. Such clever men doing such clever things to all these sad girls. A needle to make them sleep a hundred years.” Her mouth is trembling.

“Marlene,” Steve’s voice is low. “Are you safe?”

This time, her glance has a kind of desperate candor. “I don’t know. It depends if my parents think I’m cured, I guess, and since that’s always seemed to mean being happy to get married, I’m probably fucked.” The profanity in that refined tone is a shock, but no more so than the despair he briefly glimpses.

Steve’s looking at her properly now. He feels he is seeing her clear. She’s iridescent, objectively beautiful, hard as diamond but incredibly fractured. Something terrible has happened to her. He wants to smash something, and all he can do is mutter, “I’m so sorry, Marlene.” It’s nowhere near enough.

“Me too.” This time her smile is sincere, and very sad.

“Marlene, honey? Are you okay?” Her friend is back. She’s shorter and plumper than Marlene, far less glamorous. She has brown hair and a gentle face, and Marlene’s expression when she looks up at her tells Steve everything.

“Sugar, come sit with me. This nice young man,” Marlene inclines her head with flirtatious formality to Steve, “has been listening to me talk about my recent adventures at the tender hands of those kind men of science.” She’s still shaking, and it doesn’t escape Steve’s notice that below the table Marlene entangles her fingers tightly with her friend’s. “Steve Rogers, this is Jenna Darden. Jenna, this is Steve.”

Jenna nods to Steve, eyes warm. “Thank you, Steve.”

“It was my pleasure,” says Steve quietly. His heart is breaking, watching them.

“Honey, I’m going to take you home.” Jenna’s voice is soft, and they’re curved towards each other. The tenderness between them is tangible.

“Marlene, I hope —” He can’t finish it.

“Me too, Steve.” Now her voice is low. Then she’s gone with Jenna, out of the hall.

Steve’s staring at his drink, unseeing, when he feels Bucky slide into the chair beside him. “Steve? What happened?” Steve looks up and is hit with a sharp blend of gratitude and grief. Gratitude that he can be with Bucky, and grief that so many others like them … can’t.

“Those girls, Bucky. They’re like us. And they can’t be — like us.”

Bucky doesn’t reply for a moment. Then, softly, “Shit. That’s horrible.”

They sit together a while, untouched by the hubbub around them. They’re in a small, still place, together, in a world that doesn’t want them to be together at all.

 

 

  

---***---***---

 

September 1942

 In the end, it’s Bucky who goes.

“What time’s the train?”

They’re lying in bed, curled close in the dark. It’s about three in the morning. The windows are open — it’s unusually warm, considering it’s nearly fall. Steve remembers drawing Bucky in sweltering warmth in these very rooms, years ago, racked with yearning. Now he can reach out and kiss that strong throat, pull that beautiful mouth down to his, make him moan.

Soon he won’t be able to do any of those things.

“10 o’clock.” Bucky is subdued. His head is tucked into Steve’s neck.

They’ve already made plans about money, practicalities. Now they’re just holding each other — no, they’re clinging, Steve realizes. They’re both deeply aware of time slipping away. Bucky’s eyes keep gravitating to the clock.

“Hey,” Steve gently but firmly pulls his chin up to face him. “Don’t look at the time.”

“It’s hard not to.” Bucky’s voice is rough, and when he looks up at Steve he can see he’s fighting tears. Steve is so full of love and sadness that his own throat nearly closes.

“I’ll follow. You know I will.”

Bucky gives a sad attempt at a laugh. It’s more of a hiccup. “You’ve already tried enlisting, what, three times?”

Steve just grins back, unabashed. “I’ll keep trying.”

The room is so quiet. Steve suddenly remembers his ma telling him, from her days in the hospital, that 3 a. m. is the time that dying people are most likely to pass over. It’s as if the darkest time of night has an equal eclipse in the human body.

Steve instinctively tightens his arms around him. Let no darkness come to him.

Bucky closes his eyes and loops his hand around Steve’s neck, pulls his lips down to meet his. Now they’re kissing with a kind of slow panic, falling into each other, fighting the drag of separation that is already clawing them apart.

This time they come together in a frenzy, desperate, nearly violent, and when Steve finally fucks into him he feels like he’s trying to burn the impress of his body against Bucky’s skin, marking him. Promising him. Steve cannot get close enough. By the end he’s driving into Bucky almost savagely, his whole body straining, searingly aware of his lover stretched and nearly sobbing under him.

Steve resists his climax hard. He needs to stay here always, in just this moment, lost in the musk and warmth of Bucky, as his long muscles and lean lines bunch and flex beneath him, around him. Don’t come yet. Let this last forever.

They twist and gasp, and neither can tell what salt they taste is sweat, and what salt is tears.   

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 

February 1943

Bucky’s gone, and Steve’s drawing. Drawing for hours. Partly it’s because he has to — he’s managing to add some illustration work to his lettering commissions, and in Bucky’s absence he really needs the money. But even after he meets the day’s tasks he’s still bent over the table, clutching graphite and carving his longing onto paper.

He’s drawing Sarah and Bucky. He's drawing things he hopes for and things he fears. It’s a kind of conjuring, he knows that. The tenement flats are never really quiet, the walls are too thin and everyone lives too close together so that you can’t help but hear voices, footsteps, even sighs. He’s never fully alone, yet these rooms held those two people for so long that their absence is a physical ache.

So Steve keeps drawing. Conjuring.

When the absent presences become too demanding, he leaves the apartment and walks. He’s still trying to enlist and he’s tried to get into shape but running even a few steps had him choking for breath, so now he just walks. When he’s not drawing or trying to persuade the United States Army to take a chance on him, he goes to see their friends. The others in the life.

The backroom bar is already busy. “How’s Bucky doing?” Charles’ eyes are as sharp and kind as ever under the shadow and paint. Steve admires his defiant glamor, the fairies’ brave femininity. He tries not to think of when Bucky did that, because the stab of desire is too unbearable.

Steve shrugs, pretends at nonchalance. “He’s fine, I think. His letters aren’t very long. Wisconsin doesn’t sound very exciting.” He can’t quite meet his friend’s gaze, but when Charles gives nothing short of a snicker he can’t help but glance up in surprise.

“Look at you, honey.” Charles chucks him under the chin, and his smile now is both mocking and affectionate. “You can’t even decide what you feel most, missing him desperately, or jealous as fuck that he gets to play soldier and you don’t.”

Steve bristles. “He’s not playing soldier, Charles, he’s —”

Charles looks wildly amused. “Oh hush, darling. None of your righteous indignation with me, we know you too well. You just want to be out there, getting dirty and hitting things.” He looks prim, brushes his fingernails. "A baffling impulse, to be honest, but everyone to her own tastes."

Steve can’t help grinning now. “You’re a menace.”

Charles smirks, licks his lips. “I am, darling. Now stop moping over your hopeless longing to beat up the Hun, and have another drink,” and Steve does. But he doesn’t stop wanting and trying as the weeks go by.

Narcosis seems to be getting increasingly popular at the private clinics. It’s an incredibly expensive treatment, often taking weeks or months of care requiring round-the-clock nursing, but there is sometimes funding for it now from anonymous private benefactors. It’s even offered to some of Steve’s far-from-wealthy friends when they end up in hospitals in distress, or frail, from living on margins and in shadows. Steve never hesitates to voice his absolute opposition, and people learn to stop mentioning it when he’s around.

He keeps focused on drawing, on planning, on trying. He has to get to Europe.

Then Bucky comes back for one day of leave before embarkation — and Steve meets Erskine.   

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

September 1943, Western Front

Bucky’s an asset. He overheard Colonel Phillips saying that last night. Bucky supposes he is an asset, if an asset is a person with an uncanny ability to kill people from exceptionally far away while fucking hating themselves.

Right now he’s stretched full length, strapped along the branches and trunk of a tall tree in an Italian forest in at night. He can’t hear any sounds back from his own camp, he’s so deep in the wood, and all his attention is focused on the enemy’s position. His spotter is at the base of the tree and he suspects he’s asleep.

Bucky’s been up here for five hours. Latrine breaks strapped to a tree are creative, but about as literally shit as everything else.

Bucky thinks a lot, these days, about Steve’s drawings of war as a forest that never lets people escape. The twisted thorns, the desperate faces. Bucky thinks Steve probably had that bang on right, because he can’t imagine ever getting out of this now. He has seen and done so much that is cold and terrible that he doesn’t believe he will ever really not be here, even if he does survive. Part of him is always going to be on the Front, mud on his face and blood on his hands and despair in every bit of him.

He doesn’t think he’s going to make it, though. After months of this, he’s developed a fatalistic sense of who will go and who won’t. Steve would have been safe — he’s too golden, too righteous, not to be — but thank God he’ll never get touched by this mess.

Oh God, Stevie. Bucky’s perfect, neutral mask wobbles until he pushes his beloved away in that far corner of his heart, some tiny piece of him that has somehow stayed unstained through this whole nightmare that they call war, and that should be called horror.

He hears an infinitesimal sound, and instantly, silently, looks, adjusts his gun, pulls the trigger. A man falls, and another. Bucky is still breathing evenly, absolutely poised. He’s thinking about how fucking awful death is and he's handing out more of it. God, he’s a hypocrite.

Calmly, he does it again, and again. He’s an asset.

He wishes he were Bucky instead.    

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

October 1943

The sounds of the USO troupe fade as Steve walks deeper into the theater. Yet another performance in yet another city — he’s never been to Chicago before. Hell, he’d never left New York until this strange, dazzling sequence of stages and applause and movie studios.

It’s wearing on him. It’s a different kind of shame. When he was small and fragile, people looked at him with pity or contempt, but at least he knew he was always living up to his own perennial rage. Now he looks like a weapon incarnate, but he’s not fighting. They don’t want him to fight, and he’s acceding.

It’s even quieter now, as he moves through dusty narrow corridors, floorboards creaking. He turns a corner and freezes.

It’s the forest. It’s the nightmare dreamscape. Tall brooding trees over deep sweeps of shadow, and through everything, vivid red roses and thorns, winding and twining and claiming an ancient castle drowned in sleep. Briers curl wicked along overgrown paths, and the overwhelming impression is of an space hostile to the human. A place of threat.

Steve looks around in a kind of wonder. He’s seen a lot of the paraphernalia of theater recently, but something about this particular scenery in the half-dark seems almost magical. It’s a stage set, of course. Ranks of painted plywood, and chalked on the back of one panel is the legend SLEEPING BEAUTY BALLET — cf. Sadler’s Wells.

Without thinking, Steve reaches up to grip a corner and lightning pain slices his palm from rough metal.

It wakes him up.

The pain in his hand and the strangeness of the scene hit him like shaking loose from a spell that’s had him in its grip ever since that moment he stepped out of Stark’s Vita-Ray coffin. That sudden shock of colors so bright, smells an onslaught, and the intoxicating power of a body so utterly strong, so wholly responsive to his will. Everything was so vivid in that moment, like entering a hallucination, a cartoon, a painting.

Who would have thought that such empowerment could feel so much like falling into a dream?

He feels his new power and body as a shock anew. He’s surrounded by a painted wood, he’s looking at blood spilling warm down his upraised hand, and he’s damned if he’s going to stay in the States. He goddamn wasn’t made for bond sales.

He clenches his fist around his own blood and it trickles in a curve down his forearm, the light etching its muscles in high relief. He’s standing in a fake forest of sleep and he’s suddenly awake again.

Somehow, he’s getting to Europe.    

 

 

---***---***---

 

November 1943

Steve’s staggering through an Italian wood with his arm looped around the cherished weight of his lover, impossibly retrieved but hurt and torn, wounded. Around them he can hear the sounds of the other soldiers, explosions in the near-distance, shouting, screams. He’s getting Bucky away, he has to help him, has to find a place to set him down and hold him and press his cold skin back to warmth.

Seeing Bucky on that table was … Steve will never be able to describe the horror of it. So pale, so pierced. A veritable mesh of needles piercing each arm, face bruised, but the most terrible thing was the lost look in Bucky’s eyes. It’s still there.

They slump against the trees and Steve’s frantically searching Bucky for more injuries. Bucky looks so young, eyes wide and haunted in his smudged face. “Stevie —”

“Don’t talk, Buck.” Steve’s voice is low and urgent. God, Bucky’s so thin. You can even feel his ribs. He’s breakable, in a way that Steve could have never imagined. Steve’s gone to war and become impervious, and Bucky’s become fragile.

“So you got here after all.” Bucky’s voice is only a weak imitation of his old cocky flair. He keeps giving Steve sidelong glances, taking in his transformation, but he doesn’t look incredulous.

“I guess it’s hard to believe,” Steve tries. The strange thing is Bucky doesn’t look like he’s having a hard time believing at all. If anything, he looks resigned.

Bucky drops his head back against the tree. He looks desperately vulnerable. “Hey, if this War can have monsters, it can have heroes too. You were always going to be one of those.”

Steve frowns, there’s something — “You are too, Buck.”

Bucky’s mouth twists. “Stop it, Steve. It’s too late,” and now he opens his eyes, and Steve is lacerated by his expression. “Even before they took me — you don’t know what I’ve done.”

“Bucky. I know you , I know you,” but the words don’t reach him, his eyes are still bleak, and Steve casts caution to the wind, seizes Bucky’s shoulders, cups his head, strokes his cheeks. “Bucky .” It’s a cry from the heart. Come back to me darling, more precious than my blood. I’ll tear down the world to keep you safe. I’ll do anything.

Bucky smiles, but there’s no hope in it. “Let’s — let’s just go back to the camp, Stevie.”    

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

February 1945

Lots of the men scream at night. That’s not unusual.

Bucky doesn’t.

Steve knows how Bucky used to sleep — loose and easy, his long limbs stretched, gorgeous in rest. But now he sleeps curled in on himself, fetal, his shoulders hunched against dreams he can’t escape.

He isn’t the charming, confident boy Steve’s known all his life. He’s still beautiful, still charismatic, but he has an unrecognizable reserve. He’s quieter, more careful. He doesn’t chatter. Steve often catches him staring unseeing into the fire, the trees, and then Steve has the fantastical feeling that maybe he never rescued Bucky after all — that Bucky’s still there, somehow, on that hideous table.

Steve feels obscurely that Bucky is leaving him. He can’t bear it.

Battle fatigue. If men can’t function, they get sent home, get their heads sorted and then get packed back to the front. Bucky, though, is still functioning in terms of lethality in the field — in fact he’s exceptionally effective, even disturbingly so. He’s a phenomenal marksman, sergeant and soldier. Even now, he is attentive to the men in the unit, can criticize and motivate, can shore up weak points. Yet for all his efficacy, he is gravely changed.

Peggy notices, of course. Peggy, beautiful and brave — Steve loves her too, in a different way. She and Bucky are prickly together, but they respect each other, and Steve has a sense she looks out for him.

“Barnes isn’t doing well.”

Steve’s in the officer’s tent, flipping morosely through written orders. Paper might be rationed but the Army sure seems to like wasting it on unnecessary reports. Peggy’s comment makes him look up sharply.

She’s standing there, as perfectly put-together and crisp as ever. Steve doesn’t pretend to not understand. “I’ve already asked him if he wants to ship back, or get support. He says no.”

Peggy nods, but Steve can tell she’s not finished. He stiffens, ready to rebuff again, but her reply surprises him. “I agree, but Steve,” her eyes are serious, “be careful. The medics are implementing a new strategy for battle fatigue. It’s just come to the Front. It’s called narcosis, and —”

Steve’s standing before she can finish, rage lifting him like wings. “Never.” He’s shaking.

Peggy doesn’t seem startled at all, just puts a hand on his forearm. “Steve, I agree. I don’t like anything about it. Some English psychiatrists are at the forefront of this, writing scientific articles. All kinds of things seem wrong about it to me, and — Steve, no. They can’t have Barnes. Just — we must be careful. We mustn’t let too many people know.” The rest goes unspoken, but Steve hears it. How strange he’s become. How deeply hurt he is.

Steve swallows, nods. It’s a pact.     

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

When Bucky has a chance he often walks away from their camp into the deeper wood. The forest seems to compel him. Predictably, as they reach their base for the night, Steve sees him drift towards the trees. Steve orders Dum Dum and Dernier to set up the camp, and follows him. The tension that’s been building in him is peaking. He has to reach Bucky. He can’t lose him.

Bucky clearly knows Steve's following, but he doesn’t slow or turn around. After about five minutes walking he rests his hand on a birch and kicks the base, obviously assessing it for climbing, but he doesn’t grip the lower branches. Instead, he rests his forehead against the trunk.

“Buck,” Steve’s voice is gentle, and they are far enough away from the camp for him to do put his hands on Bucky’s shoulders, turn his unresisting body around, stroke the hair away from his desperate eyes. “Bucky, sweetheart. Please let me help you.” It’s a Herculean effort, to control himself. He wants to burn down the world that could do this to Bucky, that could hurt this loving, generous man.

Steve forces himself to seem calm, seem soft. He isn’t anything close to either of those things.

“I never wanted you to come.” Bucky’s muttering, not meeting his eyes. “I wanted you to stay free of all … this.” Bucky swallows and his gesture takes in the trees, the War, the endless pain. “The War just got you in the end. It gets everyone.”

In the face of Bucky’s strange fatalism Steve’s feels his own rage surge as a blessed, familiar thing. “I’m here to make the War stop, Bucky!”

Bucky’s expression of grief and despair doesn’t change. “No. We’re all just here to feed it.” He slides down the side of the tree, slumping in the leaves and mold of the forest floor. “We aren’t ever going to stop fighting now.”

The words have the chilling ring of a prophecy, or a curse, and they remind Steve of something long-forgotten. Something from … childhood? A story? But the half memory slips away and Steve resolutely doesn’t chase it. He grips Bucky’s shoulders, desperate, trying to pull him back to him, back to the light. “Bucky, you’re going to be okay. I saved you.”

“Did you?” mumbles Bucky. “But for what?” Now, finally, he smiles, but it’s a bleak and shaken thing. “For more of this,” and he slams the tree, he’s tearing at the bark, he’s sobbing and Steve’s holding him and they’re gripping each other on their knees in a forest, knees wet and eyes wetter. “I’m never getting out of the fight now, Steve.” The words are hard to hear, Bucky’s crying so hard. “I’ll be here always,” and Steve is holding him as if he’s bleeding, every part of him crying No. We can make it. For God’s sake don’t give up.

Speaking’s no good. He kisses Bucky rough, abandoning his facade of calm. He isn’t goddamn calm. He needs Bucky to know he’s back. Bucky’s body under his hands feels newly thin, breakable, but Steve’s kiss is relentless. He’s calling Bucky back with his mouth and his breath and his desire and he isn’t being gentle about any of it anymore.

Bucky yields to Steve’s mouth at once. They’re sprawled in decaying leaves and moss and neither of them cares. Steve’s achingly hard. He wants to bury himself in Bucky, to make him gasp, to bring him home, but there’s no time, they have to go back, and all he can do now is loosen their buttons and bring them together. It’s intoxicating but it’s nowhere near enough.

Without ceremony Steve bends to take Bucky in his mouth, and now he’s working him, relentless, sucking him down hard, but no delight, just desperation. Bucky’s moaning underneath him, thrusting helpless now, all "ah, ah, Steve —" and Steve has a hand on himself, jerking savagely. He can taste how close Bucky is, precious bitter-salt-sweet, but even now it feels like Bucky’s being pulled away from him. Steve’s half-mad with the frustration of it.



Then Bucky’s spilling into his mouth, and Steve's forcing the climax, prolonging it, letting go of himself to milk Bucky ruthlessly. Each pulse is torn from Bucky with a groan almost painful, and Steve swallows him like he can never have enough, his own cock jerking untouched, spilling into the leaves. By the end Bucky is almost flinching.

Steve pulls Bucky close, shifts them up to lean back against the tree. They lean their heads together, lips barely brushing, and Steve folds his arms around him.

They’re both still exposed, and Steve settles one hand protectively over Bucky's cock, still wet. Steve feels no relief. Something like cold is creeping into him, the slow ice of despair’s contagion.

They’re breathing each other’s air. They’re so close together and a thousand miles apart.

Mist is gathering, and they are still in the wood.     

 

 

---***---***---

 

They never do get out of the trees. Weeks pass in a dream, and now they’re on the forested mountain, they’re on the train. The wind’s whipping past them, Steve’s screaming and reaching, and Bucky’s falling, falling into ice and snow.

Days later, Steve falls too.   

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text


  

2011

Steve doesn’t wake with a kiss, and there isn’t a prince.

There’s still fighting, though. Turns out Bucky was right about that.  

 

 

---***---***---

 

Walking through New York is dizzying, it’s so shockingly changed. The buildings, the clothing, the hairstyles — the catalog of transformations could go on forever. Yet the most disorienting moments are not the moments of difference but those of familiarity, where for a second the silhouette of a building or the sound of an old-timey Brooklyn accent strikes a sharp pang of recognition. It is his city, and it isn’t.

He goes to their old apartment, or at least to where it was. The whole tenement has been pulled down and replaced by a concrete block. He stands across from it for a long time, looking up, trying to locate the confined rectangle of space, the specific spatial volume that they had lived in.

The space that he and Bucky had moved through. The space they had loved in.

Then he goes home, to a place that isn’t. 

 

 


SHIELD gives him numerous briefings to acclimatize him to the twenty-first century. The first thing he asks is whether Bucky’s body was ever found, and the professional young woman looks regretful. “I’m afraid not, Captain. But there are two commemorative sites, one at Arlington, one in Greenwood. Ah,” she flushes, “you’re also, um, commemorated at those sites, but we’re working on correcting that misapprehension.”

Steve just smiles blandly. It’s true he’s not actually dead, but he’s not entirely sure, yet, if he’s quite alive either. Certainly he feels strikingly detached from this fantastical new world. Since he woke, people have been trying to head-shrink him, as if he hadn’t had enough of that in the ‘thirties with doctors saying his asthma was psychosomatic. He wasn’t weak then, and he isn’t weak now. He’s fine.

Talking won’t bring Bucky back.

One of the SHIELD briefings updates him on medical advances of the last seventy years. Apparently a lot’s happened. They’ve sequenced a genome, whatever that is, and can move organs between people, and can keep people alive even when they’ve stopped breathing. Wild ideas, like Bucky's Amazing Stories magazines, but there is something Steve wants to know. He interrupts.

“What about narcosis?”

The briefer — a young man this time — looks momentarily thrown. “Narcosis?”

“The treatment? Forced sleep? They used it on soldiers, and — and other people.”

The man looks baffled but quickly recovers his poise, taps at his computer. “Ah —” he’s skimming the screen, and his eyes widen at whatever he sees there. “That ‘treatment’” — the word is clearly held at arm’s length — “fell out of favor in the late ’fifties after the, uh, death rate climbed too high. At least, in the West. Apparently it continued to be used for longer behind the Iron Curtain. Which is a nice link, actually, to our next topic, Cold War geopolitics …”  

 

 

---***---***---

 

He goes to see Peggy, of course. She’s still beautiful, still strong, still quintessentially herself. Towards the end, though, she grows confused. “Is Barnes coming?”

Steve swallows. “No, Peg. Remember, he — he didn’t make it.”

“Right!” Peggy says. She clearly doesn’t remember, looks a little thrown, but clearly she's trying to cover it. “Right, of course. Some other day, then, perhaps.”

Steve can’t reply, just squeezes her hand, and he leaves soon afterwards.        

 

 

 

Steve visits Bucky’s grave in Greenwood, his own still there beside it. Steve brings roses, but he doesn’t say anything, or have a deep feeling of catharsis or peace.

The graves are empty, and so is he.          

 

 

---***---***---

 

2012

Aliens fall out of the sky and Manhattan crumbles around him. He fights a god, by the side of another god, two assassins, a genius/giant green monster and a genius/giant red jerk. Steve likes most of the new team, although Tony veers between charming and infuriating. Steve can admit he’s probably cleverer and kinder than Howard, though equally exhausting to be around.

After the horrors Loki wrought, Steve carves out a kind of life for himself working black ops for SHIELD. He moves to D.C., where art least the semi-familiarity of New York is no longer a torment. He meets Sam, so charming and wise and grounded. SHIELD keeps telling him he has a purpose, that there is work he can do. He jumps out of a plane without a parachute, and it doesn’t kill him.

Then he learns that Hydra survived inside SHIELD.

He learns that Hydra’s in the U.S. government.

He learns that Bucky’s alive.    

 

 

---***---***---

 

2014

Ever since Sam opened the door to an ash-covered supersoldier and superspy on that sunny Washington day, his life has become increasingly strange. A guy yanking the steering wheel out of his car while driving at 65 miles an hour on the interstate, that was pretty damn memorable. As was having one wing ripped off and being kicked off a helicarrier. All round, it's safe to say Barnes made a hell of an impression.

Now Sam’s about to actively seek him out.

“I guess there are some risks to hunting for a sniper.” Sam’s comment is casual but pointed, while he stacks supplies in the jet. Tony’s been characteristically generous with money and materiel, and they’re certainly going to be equipped to rain fiery hell on Hydra.

They won’t be the only ones with guns, though.

“Mmm.” Steve doesn’t sound very concerned. He’s folding paper maps of some of the parts of Siberia and the Ukraine which Natasha thinks are worth checking out. Steve’s been told about GPS, but in reply pointed out that (a) manual backup methods are always worthwhile and (b) he already spent two years hunting for Hydra off the beaten path in a war zone so he has pertinent skills, thanks Sam, which, okay, fair point.

“He was unit marksman when we fought together. We didn’t have snipers in the U.S. Army then. He was always a helluva shot, though.” Steve looks fondly into the middle distance. Sure, it’s weird — Sam doesn’t think he’ll ever get entirely used to Steve’s affectionate contemplation of Barnes’ capacity for lethality. But it’s not like Sam doesn’t already know that nothing Barnes is or does is going to dilute Steve’s ferocious dedication to finding him.

Sam just hopes Barnes wants to be found.     

 

 

---***---***---

 

2015

Apparently, he doesn’t. 18 months of searching, living on the jet, in small hotel rooms, an occasional tent in remote Siberia. It’s a cavalcade of cold climes and colder leads.

Sam's put so much on hold. He knows, abstractly, that this is unwise. He'd been painstakingly rebuilding his life, helping vets, making a difference in local, patient, real ways. He missed the adrenaline, but that wasn't it. He just needed to help Steve, in this. Not Captain American, Steve.  He knows it can't last indefinitely. Soon he will need to go back to his life.

Steve's relentless. Searching for Barnes means searching for Hydra, and as they scour every base and outpost Sam watches Steve get more and more bleak, and he wonders.

Eventually, he asks. He’s waited this long since he figured he’d give Steve time to volunteer it. Clearly the man’s not going to open up, but supersoldier or not, Sam doesn’t think living in silence with that much yearning can be good for anybody.

“So — Barnes.”

It’s been a dead fortnight, no new leads and no imminent targets. They’re still crunching the data they retrieved at the last site. They’re both still soldiers rather than spies, and Nat helps, brilliantly, when she can join them. She finds patterns in information, secrets in plain sight, but most of the time it’s just him and Steve wading through data both dry and disturbing.

Now they’re in the jet on the high Siberian tundra, and Sam’s acutely aware of the vast silence of the landscape outside the plane.

Steve’s visibly stiffened at Sam’s words, but his expression isn’t giving anything away. Sam sighs. “I gotta ask, Steve. Your life is yours, I’m not gonna pry. But sometimes it can help to talk to a friend if you’re going through stuff. And you are.”

“I’m fine, Sam.” It’s the Cap voice, all stoicism and Public Service Announcement.

“Yeah, you’re not though. That’s cool. You don’t have to talk about it. But if you want to, I’m here.”

Sam thinks this time is going to be no different, and is about to turn away, when Steve murmurs, “He’s my … friend,” and the weight of grief and longing in the syllable is devastating.

Sam swings his legs over a chair to sit on it backwards, and waits.

“He doesn’t deserve what happened to him. Nobody does. An American prisoner of war needs to be rescued, and Hydra needs to be destroyed. Those are good enough reasons for —“ and Steve’s gesture takes in the jet, their nomadic lives, their frayed connections to the everyday world of people with lives beyond an increasingly futile search. “But yeah, those aren’t the only reasons I can’t stop looking.”

Steve’s looking at his hands, flexing his fingers slowly, as if trying to remember a feeling. “He’s … he’s deeply kind. He’s gentle. Hell, I mean, sure, he could always fight, he could handle himself, but he wasn’t ever a bully. He takes care of people. He’s kind, and he’s beautiful.”

The word falls like a shining thing, and Steve’s eyes meet Sam’s, all blue fire. “I love him. I always have. We were lovers — we were each other’s . We always were.”

Sam feels his own smile, wide and warm. He’s not surprised, how could he be? He’s sensed the shape of this since that moment he stood on that bridge and heard that Steve say he won’t ever see Barnes as the kind you stop.

He touches Steve’s shoulder lightly. “I’m glad you told me.”’ Hesitates. He can’t not say this, or it would be a lie, a betrayal of the gift Steve’s given him. “Steve, I — I know something about that too. About loving a guy, and being in the military.”

Steve’s glance is piercing. “Your wingman.”

“Yeah.” Sam can’t meet that gaze.

“I’m so sorry, Sam.” Steve’s voice is soft.

A pause, then Sam shakes himself. ‘“So, hey. Can’t have been easy, back in the ’forties?”

Steve's grin is quick and sharp. “Maybe not easy, but not always hard either. You think the twenty-first century invented gay bars and drag?” Sam feels his own face making a complicated expression, mingled hilarity and constraint. Steve firms his jaw. “What?”

“Nothing, man. Just thinking Fox News would freak.”

Steve laughs, abrupt. “Yeah, I—” For the first time in this conversation, he looks awkward, rubs the back of his neck. “I guess I should have noticed that fight too. I’ve never been ashamed of loving him, Sam.” There’s steel in that voice. “It wasn’t only my story to tell, and now—” Steve looks out the dark windows, into the silence and night, and his voice is soft, “now I don’t know what we are.”

Sam is struck with new clarity by the way it’s such a reckless, human thing, the choice to risk the grief of loving.

He reaches out and holds Steve’s shoulder. Silence stretches between them. The jet is a delicate bubble, and the darkness presses in.      

 

 

---***---***---

 

2016

Bucky’s fighting sleep. The jet’s growling a kind of lullaby, and the hours of shock and disorientation are soaking in. Since he and Steve boarded this jet in Germany, fleeing fire and rage and Avengers’ vengeance, Bucky’s felt the drag of that drowsiness that he knows so well. Mission complete. Slide into the dark, Soldier.

When SWAT locked him under glass he didn’t resist, but he fought with all he had when that man started talking. The incantation pulling him under was not benign, and no kind of homecoming. Then again, if home is where you live, those words were his home. For decades those words shaped the space his mind could inhabit, interrupted only by jagged cold and electric horror. Steve knows about those. He doesn’t know about the rest.

Bucky twists, trying to shake off sleep, and Steve notices him move. Bucky meets his gaze and swallows. “What’s going to happen to your friends?”

Steve stares out at the mountains, his jaw set. “Whatever it is … I'll deal with it.”

That’s just so Steve, and a heartbroken fondness washes through Bucky. Steve hasn’t changed at all, but Bucky’s changed, beyond recognition. He’s a murderer, an assassin, a brainwashed cyborg. That moment he saw Steve in his shitty apartment he wanted to touch him, and he knew he couldn't. Whatever he and Steve once were is so far beyond thinkable now.

Bucky’s heart twists as he manages, “I don't know if I'm worth all this, Steve.”

Steve spins to face him fully. “Buck,” his voice is urgent. “What you did all those years — It wasn't you. You didn't have a choice.”

Bucky has to close his eyes at Steve’s earnestness. Oh, Stevie. You’re still a spitfire, still so sure, the truest kind of steel. “I know,” he manages. “But I did it.” He keeps his eyes closed, and swallows a whole weight of guilt and grief. At that, Steve’s voice cracks. “God, Buck,” and then Bucky feels Steve’s arms around him.

The effect of the contact is so overwhelming that for a moment Bucky’s vision nearly whites out. Warmth floods him. He feels like he’s been drowning for seventy years and has suddenly gasped back to the surface. Steve is so warm, his grip is so sure, and it’s Steve , the shocking reality finally filters through, he’s really here, they are both here.

In that moment, Bucky realizes that the last two years have been a kind of long delirium, a gray patchwork of self-building and flight. He didn't know who he was for much of it, and lived in a blur for the rest. The shock of Bucharest and Germany — plums in a bag, Steve right there in his apartment, flight from SWAT, all of it — was like a continuation of a dream.

He hasn’t felt real for seventy years.

Until now, when he yields to Steve’s warm arms, and buries his neck in Steve’s neck. He inhales the smell of Steve’s sweat like it’s oxygen, and now Bucky’s crying, feeling his tears hot against his own cheek, and Steve’s holding him with all the determination he always had even before his body had caught up with his extraordinary will.

To be held like this, to be touched with kindness. To be held, impossibly, by Steve. Bucky feels Steve’s pulse under his cheek, and before he can think about any of it he’s blindly turning his mouth to seek his lips.

Steve meets his kiss with equal desperation, his own face wet. They are tasting tears and tasting each other and the seventy year gap is still there -- but they’re reaching across it with everything they have. They only pull their lips apart when they have to breathe, and they stay clasped, foreheads pressed together, breathing into each other. “Bucky.” Steve’s voice is ragged.

Bucky can’t talk at all, but he knows he doesn’t need to. He’s home. He’s safe.

They’re flying.   

 

 

---***---***---

 

Then the bunker. Then the fight. Then clambering out of the stale dark, their bodies straining, surrounded by the smell of blood, Bucky protected in Steve’s arms. The wind is louder now, metal creaking on all sides from the rusted vehicles. Bucky pulls away from him for a moment when they reach the jet, leaning over to spit blood into the snow.

Steve will never quite be able to remember what happens next. When he will think about it (later, and for the rest of his life), it will seem to him as though the white spaces around him must have entered his mind for a moment, creating a space in him. A memory gone, just like seventy years left no trace.

Just like Bucky’s gone.

It takes Steve a moment to realize it. His body is the first part of him that receives the knowledge, his chest clenching with a cold that has nothing to do with Siberia.

Then cognition catches up. Bucky isn’t here.

He was bleeding, wounded, slumped and Steve only released him for a second. This isn’t possible. “Buck?” and he’s turning, turning faster, heart picking up, moving back to the bunker — he wouldn’t go back down? — but no, flakes are already falling across the threshold, and there are no prints there. There are no prints in that snow at all.

The ice around the jet is frozen hard, and seems to show no tracks. Steve starts scouring the nearby abandoned trucks, tearing at metal doors, moving faster. Somehow Cap falls away, all that composure and self-control, and now he’s just Steve, desperate, tearing at rust and steel while his heart tears too. For a while everything is a kind of frenzy and then suddenly, with a jolt, he halts mid-motion, letting the metal drop. Moving isn’t helping.

He stops. Listens. He’s distantly aware that his hands are bleeding.

There’s nothing but the creak of corroded metal and the whistle of wind. He reaches out blindly to the side of the jet, and slides down to slump against its edge.

Now there’s just blood in snow.     

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

When T’Challa finds him, Steve hasn’t boarded the quinjet. He's still kneeling in the icefield, looking at bloodied snow.

T’Challa takes him home. 

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

Wakanda is beautiful, but Steve struggles to see it. He can’t settle. It’s like he’s looking at everything through a glass wall. He’s on this side and the others are there. Sometimes it feels like everything on the other side is pale, leached of color, and the sounds of the voices are garbled and faint. He is hollow, and so is the world around him.

He can still function, though, and if anything he’s even more ruthlessly effective in the field. One of the first things he does on arrival in Wakanda is liberate Clint, Sam, Wanda and Scott from the Raft. T’Challa provides a jet, materiel and intelligence. Wakandan science and surveillance are decades ahead of anything he ever saw at SHIELD. It’s like something out of one of Bucky’s old copies of Amazing Stories.

Bucky will like it here, when they find him. He will come here, and he will be amazed.

Steve punches through a wall in his room, breaks a supporting truss.

They’re all in various states of wreckage, to be honest. Scott and Clint went back to their families. Wanda and Sam are staying in Wakanda. Natasha arrived soon afterward — she’s on the run too. T’Challa has his intelligence scouring the world’s networked not-so-secrets. Nat’s headed back to Siberia to work her contacts.

Steve is coiled and waiting.  

 

 

 

---***---***---


Natasha’s following a hunch. She doesn’t think Hydra would have taken Barnes far from the bunker near Oymyakon, and it’s conveniently close to other erstwhile Soviet black sites. One of the coldest locations on earth, it’s always been an excellent place to hide.

Most of the sites she’s hitting have been long abandoned, and this one is no exception. A vast concrete structure, it has that heroic grandeur that so often characterized triumphal Soviet design. How ironic, then, that concrete crumbles after mere decades. Gritty flakes in the snow.

The Widows weren’t ostensibly created for guerilla wilderness warfare or industrial infiltration, but her skills are transferable. She moves through the ruin like the dancer she is, delicately traversing decay.

Then a lab. A Chair.

And — documents? Most destroyed by mildew and time. She skims them rapidly. Details of surgeries. X rays. Medical files. They look old, but it’s him.

She scowls. How incredibly convenient that all this is here, arranged for her. She doesn’t like being played.

She moves deeper into the complex. The smell of damp and mold is nearly overwhelming now. Dust is lying thick in the shadowed corridors, but there are more recent footsteps in the gray, too. The smell is changing. She recognizes it, sweet and gut wrenching. She knows exactly what it means.

When she turns the corner and sees what’s in the room, she doesn’t flinch. But she does close her eyes, and think, Steve.

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

When Steve sees Natasha’s expression on the conference computer screen he realizes the news will be beyond bad, it will be annihilatory. There will be life before this call, and something after it – it won’t be life, not in the usual sense.

“Steve,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Then there are words, pictures. Unbearable knowledge. She found him. It’s undeniably Bucky. Body burned beyond recognition, except for most of his face. His beautiful face. The delicate cheekbones, the cool sweep of his jaw. Eyes, pale blue, fixed in death.

Steve isn’t there. He dimly realizes he is standing, the room is moving, someone is reaching for him, there are hands. But he's somewhere else, he can’t be there. A ghost is holding him, cold is clasping him and the snow is laughing. The snow is laughing.

 

 

 


Sam’s videocalling Natasha, and they’re facing the fact Cap is crumbling.

“He’s not coping.” Her voice is cool and low.

Sam sighs, leans back. “Man had to crack eventually. He’s a supersoldier, sure, but he’s still human. Just think about it. His best friend dies.” His eyes flick to Natasha, and she arches an eyebrow. Does she know what Barnes was to Steve? He doesn’t expand. “Steve sacrifices himself days later, wakes in a new century. He’s lost nearly everyone he knew. Has to fight insane battles. The organization he died to destroy turns out to have never gone away, then Barnes comes back and he loses him again. Frankly, bigger surprise is that he’s held it together this long.”

Her green gaze is calm. “What will you do?”

Sam shrugs. “I’m here for him. I’ll help him avenge Barnes, if that’s what he needs. I’ll just keep doing what he does. Only slower.”

Nat’s lips twitch faintly, but her expression stays somber. Sam’s always wondered about her response to Barnes. They were both poured out and remade by the same people, after all, through years of hallucinatory pain. It’s not just Steve who lost a chance to finally connect with someone else who shared an impossible experience.

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

After Nat’s call, T’Challa sent a jet to bring Bucky’s remains to Wakanda. He's standing here with them now, radiating regal calm. Sam’s very aware that without T’Challa the ragtag quartet wouldn’t have lasted for five minutes. Beside them are specialists, including Vuyo, the senior forensicist. Sam wonders briefly about the hardships of such a profession, and is struck by her kind eyes, her sense of calm. Wanda’s there too, looking grave. That kid’s already seen too much loss.

Steve’s standing with eyes cast down, jaw and fists clenched. His fundamental benevolence usually disguises his sheer physical power, his astonishing capacity for violence, but any such facade has gone now. Right now, the man’s frightening.

Nat disembarks first, her expression blank, but when she looks at Sam something about her eyes pulls at him, and he moves to her side, solid and warm. She hands Vuyo what looks like x-rays and mildewed paper records. Then technicians wheel out the stretcher with the covered remains.

Sam doesn’t think he will ever forget the moment Steve sees Bucky’s draped body. He gives a kind of groan, deep and ragged, and then he’s by the side of the stretcher, ripping the zip. Sam instinctively takes a step forward to try and hold him back, but Vuyo rests a gentle hand on his arm.

Steve stares down at whatever he sees, his jaw working. The smell is charred, sickening. Steve doesn’t move for about a minute.

Then he bends and … he presses his lips to the lost fragments, the residue. The pieces of his heart.

Steve’s whole body is tensed, the phenomenal power in those muscles coiled and straining against unbearable pain. He tries to pull himself away, but he just can't do it. Vuyo releases Sam’s arm and he’s by Steve’s side instantly.

Any doubts over what Barnes was to him would be removed by this scene. Steve’s weeping for someone who was the center of his world. Someone he loved.   

 

 

 

---***---***---


Watching Steve over the next two days, Sam is struck by the way what is happening is less a crumbling than a glaciation, a slow ice metaphorically spreading over Steve’s pale skin. It keeps him from being touched. Steve doesn’t invite help, though Sam makes it clear he’s there for him in any capacity, including just chilling together. Though, chilling is something Steve seems to be doing in quite a different sense, the slow and devastating freeze of despair.

It’s strange, though. Last time, Steve grieved, but he carried on enough to win a war and down a plane.

Though — maybe downing that plane wasn’t coincidental after all.

Sam thinks of Riley, and swallows. He knows this, too: when someone you love more dearly than life goes, your own grip on life grows frail.  

 

 

 


Vuyo confirms it. In case the identical face wasn't enough, Nat recovered Hydra’s medical records for Barnes, including x rays sufficient to match the dental profile. They don't have Barnes's DNA he wasn't in SHIELD's custody long enough but they have more than enough evidence, and what is even clearer is that Hydra gave them the records on purpose.   Hydra really wanted them to know.

Compassionate, Vuyo brings the news to Steve. He doesn’t really react, just says, “I know. I saw his face.”

It’s true, Barnes’ face is intact. When Sam sees it he is surprised by how young he looks, as if the seventy years of murderous suffering have been washed away and he’s the man he was back in Brooklyn. How strange that so much suffering could be so wholly erased, even the deep set lines on his face. 

For a brief moment Sam wonders if a terrible mistake has been made, if this perhaps ... isn't Barnes? 

Yet Steve is sure, and the jaw X rays match.  It's probably just ... muscles slackening in death. Sam feels the tragedy of James Buchanan Barnes in a newly piercing way.

T’Challa, perennial voice of generosity and grace, asks Steve what he wishes to do for a funeral. Steve still doesn’t really engage. “Bucky wasn’t religious, and I’m certainly not now.” The way Steve’s body tenses as he says it, Sam would bet against God if he faced this bereaved soldier. Steve’s lost his comrade in arms, his best friend. Much more than that.   

 

 

 

---***---***---


The elderly Wakandan woman standing on his threshold has quiet, calm eyes. “Captain. My name’s Andiswa. The King asked me to come to you.”

Steve grits his teeth, tries not to snap. T’Challa’s generosity has been extraordinary, but he’s beyond capacity. “I really don’t want to talk.”

She bows, grave. “I won’t ask you to. I am here to tell you what we plan to do, to lay Sergeant Barnes to rest, but I can leave.” There is no antagonism in her voice. He’s reminded somehow of a river, something gentle and strong that won’t cease the movement on which it is intent, but doesn’t need to crash or rage.

Despite himself, he steps away from the door and indicates a seat. They sit silent for a beat, then Andiswa begins. “It is important to us that our loved one be laid to rest in their home lands, the place they were born and grew, the lands that nourished their body, that are already part of their body. We deeply regret that we cannot lay Sergeant Barnes to rest in this way. But we have done what we could, and I had two ideas. First, for you to choose a place for him in our lands — there’s a lake, or other sites I can show you. And I had an additional idea.”

Steve looks at Andiswa in sudden surmise, his eyes narrowing. “May I ask what you do?”

Her eyes crinkle, knowing. “I’m a trauma counselor, Captain. And while I do not think you wish to avail yourself of my help, I am here if you do.”

“I’m fine.” The response is automatic.

“And you’re an artist.” The sheer randomness of the reply shakes Steve out of his defensiveness and her next words startle him even more . “I thought you could draw for him. You could draw his lands, the place he grew up. A canvas, maybe, to inter with his body.”

Steve’s so taken aback he doesn’t reply.

Andiswa doesn’t pursue it. “Early in the morning, we eat with family and loved ones. Then we lay them to rest, and we sing and speak. It is the Umkapho. We send messages with them to the Ancestors. We ask them to remember us, and we ask them to forgive us.”

Forgive. The word is unbearable to Steve. How can he ask for that? He didn’t keep Bucky safe.

He didn’t keep Bucky safe.

He can’t speak.

“The bereaved wait for a year. Then there is another ceremony. We lay a stone at the grave.” She smiles but it’s a strange thing, both wise and sad. “There is a feast to welcome them … back. Because by then they are part of the Ancestors, and so can come back to see us, to watch over us. They are back, but changed. They are hidden. But one day —” she leans forward, her calmness gone, and Steve suddenly sees her as sheer fire. “We will see them.”

Steve feels his chest spasm, like in the old asthmatic days. His eyes are wet.

He feels suddenly ridiculously young. Her strength makes him think of Sarah, and he suddenly knows that Andiswa has known pain too, known it intimately. But she’s so different from his ma. Andiswa’s seen agony but it hasn’t destroyed her.

Steve says, faltering, sounding like a child to his own ears, “Is this a … a religious belief, in God or …”

Andiswa smiles, leans back, her intensity diminishing, but he won’t forget it’s there. “No, Captain. For us, a funeral is a sending home. What waits for us in the ancestral lands is just — people. People we knew and loved.”

Steve had been expecting the funeral to be a hideous repeat of Sarah’s, that cold church, the impersonal voice of a priest who didn’t even know her. What Andiswa is describing is so different.  

As Andiswa stands and moves to the door, Steve asks abruptly, “Is there somewhere I could get pencils?”

She meets his gaze. “I will bring them, Captain. You can prepare.” A flash of that fire again. “Grief is work too.”  

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

Steve looks at the canvases, the sketchbooks. The task is almost overwhelming, but he’s damned if he isn’t going to try.

But … the truth is, Bucky’s home is distant not only in space, but also in time. So Steve is drawing Brooklyn in the thirties. He’s drawing the steps up to the tenement, the stairs down to the subway. The awning over Clem’s grocery shop near school, where they used to shelter when it was raining after class. The movie theater where they watched sci-fi. The stall where Bucky used to buy his dime novels. The dingy backroom bar where they spent time with their friends, carving out a community and friendships in a hostile world.

He’s drawing every inch of the apartment. As the pencil flies over the canvas he’s seeing Bucky again. Bucky opening the door, looking so tired but smiling at Steve as if just the sight of him rejuvenates him. Bucky laughing by the kitchen sink, covered in porridge. Bucky leaning towards him over the table, hair tousled and blue eyes shining, challenging Steve, charming him. Bucky gasping under his hands on the bed.

Bucky asleep, flushed and dreaming, so beautiful that Steve’s heart twisted.

Every new page is a conjuring, just as it was when he drew Bucky after he left for training. But now the conjuring is impossible, He’s never going to see or speak with Bucky again. He’s never going to hear his voice.

His fingers move over the lines and canvas, shaping a prayer that can never be fulfilled now. You’ve gone too far, my sweetheart. Don’t go somewhere I can’t follow.

The pencil lines are blurring. His hands are growing wet.

Bucky’s smile, under Steve’s tears.  

 

 

 

---***---***---


Sam was startled when he saw the drawings Steve did in preparation for today, not expecting the delicacy and force in the lines. Steve Rogers set aside so much when he picked up the shield.  Now, though, they’re outdoors, by a lake. It’s shining in the sunshine, reeds bending over the pool, peaceful.

Sam, Wanda and Natasha are standing around Steve, a kind of honor guard. They’re all soldiers, after all, as well as a kind of family. T’Challa is officiant, and Andiswa is beside him, red robe blowing in the breeze off the lake. Sam’s grown to know her a little in the last few days, and his respect for her is boundless. 

Barnes’ body is brought out. He’s swaddled in cloth, lying on a litter by the open grave. He’s covered with scarlet flowers that are beautiful and strange to Sam, jagged and bright.

T’Challa says something. Andiswa sings, with several other women and men. Then T’Challa says, ‘The Umkapho. We now speak to the dead, with messages or songs to send them on their way.’

There’s a short pause, and Steve steps forward to kneel down by Barnes’ swaddled body, and kisses the top of his head and mutters, “I love you, Bucky.”

Then he says, “I’m supposed to ask for forgiveness.” Now he isn’t talking at all anymore, but shaking in some desperate trial, all that strength and power bent, trembling. He’s still on his knees in the dirt.

Sam doesn’t hesitate, nor does Wanda. They instantly kneel down beside him, on either side, and they’re kneeling tall, kneeling with him, their bodies warm right beside Steve, adding their strength. They don’t console Steve, or put their arms around him, or tell him it’s okay, because frankly it isn’t fucking okay for James Buchanan Barnes to have been tortured and brutalized for seventy years and then forgotten, to die alone and unremembered, with only one person to stand and speak of him.

That’s when it happens.

Natasha, small and slender and strong as a reed, steps forward and without a trace of self-consciousness begins to sing. It’s a simple lament in Russian, pure and heartbreaking. Then she sings it again in English.

 

 

A flood of tears
followed by total isolation
as if a beating heart is painfully ripped.
But still he walks
hesitant, alone.

Where are you, my unwilling friend?
Captive of my Satanic years.
What miracle did you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage round the circle of the moon?

I send you my salutation
and farewell.

 

It takes Sam’s breath away. She’s singing about endings but something’s beginning for him there, by that grave, as she sings so raw and real and he sees the passion that is just as much part of her as her cleverness and stealth and strength.

The funeral is ending. Barnes’ body is laid to rest, and flowers are thrown. Sam is grateful for the unfamiliarity of the ritual, and he thinks Steve is too. The tension in Steve’s body seems to … not soften, but deepen, during the ceremony. Sam has the impression suddenly of someone settling in for a marathon, a long haul, disciplining their body to submit to an endless campaign. He wonders, uneasily, what decision Steve is making by the side of that grave.

Wanda takes Steve’s arm and Andiswa moves to his other side, and they turn to walk back with him to the apartment. They’re going to light a candle, Sam remembers, dazed. Natasha’s moving past him, composed again, and he reaches out to catch her arm. “Nat. Can I keep you company this evening?” It’s awkward phrasing. He isn’t asking because he thinks she needs him. It’s just that he absolutely can’t not offer his own presence, his human warmth, to counter whatever cold ghosts of Russian suffering her song might have woken.

Nat looks at him. Her eyes seem uncharacteristically unguarded. “Sure,” she says quietly. “But first, I think I need to go and see our friend.”

Sam winces, and nods.  

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

Steve’s standing by the window when she comes in, looking out, but Natasha’s willing to bet he’s not seeing Wakanda. He hasn’t turned the light on, and the only illumination is coming from the candle that Andiswa’s lit in the corner of the room. It will burn all night. She said it offers protection.

The room’s falling into twilight, edges blurring between table, and chair, floor and wall. Natasha thinks of a line from a song. I would shelter you, and keep you in light.

The song is about how you can’t do that, not even for the people you love. The best you can aim for is to teach night vision.

 

 

 

---***---***---


“You knew him.” Steve doesn’t turn around, but he hears Natasha move to the sofa and sit.

“Yes.”

“How well.” He’s resigned. He knows the answer, and it’s not like it matters now.

“Not as well as you.”

Exasperated, Steve turns, but her expression takes the heat out of him. She looks plainly sad.

“He helped train me. Later, we were lovers, though it wasn’t for long. He didn’t remember that he was James, or that he was American, or —” or you, Steve hears it clearly. “But he was brave, and sad.” Natasha leans forward, earnest, and he sees her letting him see her.

“Steve. The poem I sang at the graveside. That was from Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem. She wrote it about the horrors of Stalin’s Purge and later, about structural torture, about decades of Russian grief at the hands of institutionalized terror. I sang it for James. But I sang it for others, too, who didn’t make it.” She swallows, the legendarily composed Natasha Romanoff. “Don’t blame James, Steve. I had very little, and he gave me kindness, just for a while. He was lost, too.”

Steve manages, “I’m glad he had you to help him, at least for a bit.”

They are silent a while. Then Natasha stands, comes to him. Looks at him clear. “Steve, people will always tell you to be hopeful, reach a sense of peace with your loss. But sometimes you have to be Russian and just say fuck it, this is shit. It just is.”

Her cold small hands are in his and he feels her tuck a scrap of paper into his palm. Then she moves to the door. “Sometimes it’s kinder not to say ‘you can bear it’ but to agree it’s unbearable."

She pauses, her delicate hand gripping the edge of the doorjamb.  "Akhmatova wrote those lines you’re holding, too.”

After she’s gone, Steve unfolds the paper and reads the words.

He reads them twice. Then, eyes still fixed on the page, he sits down.  It’s not comfort, but something far more precious — the deep-seated relief of being seen.

He stays in the dark a long time, holding his grief on paper. 

 

 

 

It isn’t me, someone else is suffering. I couldn’t.

Not like this. Everything that has happened,

Cover it with a black cloth,

Then let the torches be removed.

Night.

---***---***---

 

 

 

 

(If you would like to hear Natasha's lament sung, DM me at twitter or discord #daphneblithe#8498. pale_anactoria sings -- thank you.)

Chapter Text


 

 

Steve’s still waiting. There is nothing to wait for anymore, it’s all over, but it turns out there is something on the other side of the ending of everything after all.

It’s more war, of course, but its face is changing.      

 

 

---***---***---

 

T’Challa calls the quartet to a conference. Nakia’s there, beautiful and grim.

"The CCB." Her voice is clipped. "The South African Civil Cooperation Bureau, active during Apartheid. Government-sponsored special forces death squad, They’re old now. Most are dead, all are hated, but not all were unmasked. Some seem to be forming links with members of the international community who share their white supremacist leanings."

“Natural allies for Hydra.” Steve’s rage feels too wide, too hot, to be held in his skin.

Nakia meets his gaze, her fire matching his. “Exactly. And now apparently they’re branching out.” She stands and gestures at a screen on the wall. It flickers and displays a nightmare image.

These bodies are adult-sized, but their forms and edges are smudged in ways that recall early fetuses. They’re suspended in liquid, in a nightmarish stasis of contorted flesh. Wanda makes a small, anguished sound.

"They apparently do not yet have their procedure operational. We found this lab because we were looking into an increase in kidnappings in townships outside Cape Town. The lab was outside the city, within the Koeberg nuclear exclusion zone. They were using the bodies of the victims to make — these. And there’s more."

She gestures again, and the screen cycles through CVs and photographs. "Hydra are still subdued globally, but in certain locations they’re staffing up. Specifically, we suspect a genetics sequencing corporation in Novosibirsk of being a Hydra front, and they have been hiring aggressively. Furthermore," another flick, a new screen, "An English psychiatrist vanished while in South Africa, a man with ties to both the Novosibirsk corp and people funding this lab" — flick, back to the image of tortured, silent bodies.

Sam looks troubled. "Why psychiatry?"

"We assume they’re still interested in mind control, but we admit, we don’t know how this ties together just yet." T’Challa’s voice makes it clear they’re determined to find out. "The psychiatrist has an odd specialty, and we can’t see how Hydra would weaponize it."

"What specialty?"

This time it’s Nakia who replies. "He’s an experimental research psychiatrist and an academic historian, specializes in a technique from the forties and fifties. A sleep therapy."

Steve stiffens. "Narcosis." This? This again?

All eyes in the room go to him. "You know of it, Captain?" T’Challa’s voice is quiet.

Steve’s grim. "I’ve seen it. I know what it does." The woman lying in the bed in Sarah’s ward, rake-thin, death-pale, terrified of sleep. Marlene, shaking and bruised and gallant, tormented by needles for being who she was. "But I gathered it fell out of favor."

Nakia shrugs, but her clever eyes are watching him closely. "We hadn’t heard of it before. It’s ineffective and dangerous. You can hardly use therapy to mind-control a participant if it kills them in the process. If Hydra want to revisit psychiatric failures of the twentieth century, that seems less urgent than the genetic threat."

Steve looks at the dream of horror on the screen.

"We have intelligence that there may be one last lab within the Koeberg exclusion zone. There are risks." Here T’Challa looks at the other three, none of whom flinch in the least at the prospect, even though they hardly share Steve’s tolerance of radiation.

"Yes." Steve doesn’t waste time. "Give me everything you know."     

 

 

---***---***---

 

The images flickering on the screen are appalling. Bodies are stretched in anguish, tortured through means archaic and modern.

The base’s resistance collapsed like paper, with nothing that could match Nakia, Natasha, Sam, Wanda and Steve. Now Nakia and Wanda are searching for prisoner survivors in the cells, and Steve and Sam are watching Nat raid the computers in search of information they might need to help prisoners on site right now. A red light shines intermittently over everything. The emergency generators came on half way through the assault. Steve’s watching the screen.

Then: a video of a man screaming under similar electroshock apparatus.

The rage is so fierce Steve's vision goes white. Steve goes rigid.

He hears Sam inhale sharply beside him.

"Steve, let’s go. We have to get this equipment back to Shuri."

Steve doesn’t reply. He stands, turns.

The twisted heap of electronics and metal in the center of the room is menacing in the flickering red light, and the young man huddled in the corner is still watching him, still clearly terrified. His hands are still raised in surrender. He hasn’t dropped them since they entered the base’s nerve center and killed everyone who offered resistance.

Steve walks over to him, picks him up one handed, and throws him across the room.

"Steve." Sam’s beside him. "You gotta calm down now. Just — " Sam’s pulling him forcibly, getting him away. The boy is crumpled strangely, his spine bent. He’s not moving.

Steve lets himself be dragged away. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

Now Steve’s with Nat, in his room far above the glittering beauty of Wakanda. That urban splendor, its kinetic force and dazzling light, but none of it touches his numbness.  The only thing that feels real to him is the quiet presence of Natasha behind him, small and cold and quiet, but somehow tethering him to reality like a steel cable.

“T’Challa says you can go on the next assault. They know it was an unusual situation. They all still have faith in you, Steve.”

“They don’t know.” He’s looking out the window, back straight, jaw taut. “They think I’m still ... ”

He hears her rustle, leaning back in her chair. “They always found it hard to see you clear.”

“You can, though.”

“Ah, Steve.” He can hear the wry smile in her voice. “I know what it’s like when there’s nothing behind your own face.” 

 

At the next meeting, T’Challa is as steady and composed as ever, but his sister certainly isn’t. Shuri’s fresh from wrestling with the mass of secrets and metal they had brought back from the base. Her back is straight and her eyes are burning. Nakia’s there too, somewhere between the two siblings in terms of composure and contained rage.

“We have intelligence.” T’Challa gestures to Nakia. It surprises Steve that Wakandan intelligence has managed to rip the world’s secrets apart so effortlessly when it had spent so many years in deliberate isolation. When he’d asked T’Challa about it, the King had looked amused. “The rest of the world might not have known of us, Captain, but that does not mean we didn’t know of them.”

Now, Nakia gestures, and a globe nanosand construct flickers into being above the table, circling. “The data we brought back from the lab implicated three sites. The South African lab,” it zooms in to the Southern Cape, “with — macro organic wet work, but all indications from retrieved intelligence are that this was really a side project, opportunistically exploiting local networks of racist violence. They had no on-site R&D. it seems Hydra just gave them material to play with. It’s not surprising it was a failure — Hydra had no interest in what they were doing. Just ingratiating themselves with a potential white supremacist affiliate by giving them a vicious toy. We have shut them down. All the figures involved are now dead or arrested.”

Nakia gestures again, and the projection silently scrolls news footage, figures marching blank-faced between police. A small group of people trying to force the world back into old dreams of pain.

“But we have more to do. The root of the project is here,” and the globe moves to show a marker in southwestern Siberia. “The Novosibirsk corp. is the center of substantial flows of money and scientific acumen. They have infrastructure and expertise to do a lot. As for what the project is —” she glances at Shuri, who impatiently clicks her fingers, and another image materializes above the globe. It’s much larger, a dynamic web of interlocking spirals. Steve has no idea what it means.

“All evidence is that they are trying to use a combination of adult stem cell transfer and new gene-editing techniques to pre-prime human tissue for a subsequent procedure, as yet unclear. But —” Shuri hesitates, looks back at Nakia. Before Nakia can respond, Natasha speaks.

“You said three zones. What’s the third.” It doesn’t sound like a question. Steve straightens as he looks back at Nakia’s globe, looking for a new threat here, something he hasn’t noticed.

Nakia purses her lips. “They seem to be searching for something. They’re sending … sorties out to remote parts of Siberia. To locations where nothing’s happened for years.” She hesitates, then adds, seemingly unwillingly, “All we can find out about some of the sites is that they used to be used for human experimentation, too, decades ago, under the USSR.”

Natasha doesn’t look surprised at all.

“We need to know more about this Novosibirsk operation.” T’Challa’s decisive. “Nakia, Natasha, you can infiltrate.”

Well, Steve can admit it’s the right call — combined, the two of them will open Hydra’s secrets like a zip. Steve still wishes they could just smash the thing open like an anthill.   

 

---***---***---

 

Wanda’s laughing, walking with Andiswa in the palace gardens.

Even in his detachment, it warms Steve to see her here. Wanda’s working with Andiswa on something amazing, using her psychic skills to develop an entirely new kind of trauma healing, visualization and memory retrieval and rebuilding. Wanda’s happy here, growing like a flower, blossoming in all her strange and marvelous strength. He’ll never regret defying Tony’s attempt to cage her.

Sam shifts beside him. They’re sitting together at the edge of the gardens. “So — Nat and Nakia are over there.”

“I’d still prefer to take it out now.”

“Yeah.” Sam’s response is heartfelt. “But let the spies do their thing. Then we soldiers will do ours.”

 

---***---***---

 

“May I come in?” Wanda sounds tentative. It’s evening, and Steve’s alone in his rooms. He doesn’t feel like company, but she looks so hopeful he doesn’t have it in himself to refuse.

“Sure, Wanda. Come in.”

She does, and takes a seat on the sofa. She’s clearly come for a reason, but seems unsure how to start.

“I’m glad you’re happy here, Wanda. It’s nice. You seem very relaxed.”

Her eyes light up. “I am so happy here. I am so grateful to you, that I am here. And –“ she stretches her arms in expansive, unabashed glee, “I can help people, not just destroy.”

“Destroying can still be useful sometimes.” Steve is wry.

A mischievous grin. “Yes. I am not forgetting that.” Then she hesitates, and when she speaks again her words are slow, careful. Her huge eyes are luminous. “Trauma leaves stored pain, in body and mind.”

Steve hears what she isn’t saying. He meets her gaze evenly.

Wanda swallows. “With Andiswa, I am finding a way to help people do something more than what Tony did with Binarily Augmented Retroframing. To see the event again, that is not enough. The person needs to … be inside it, feel it in their body. Andiswa calls it embodied remembering. Reaching a tolerance. Getting to know the pain.” Her voice is so soft now. “Learning to bear it.”

The impossible sentence hangs between them for a while.

Her voice is even softer. “Trauma does not ever really go away. It stays in the body and in grooves of the mind. I can help the body be heard, and soften the grooves. It is still hard work. For … the person.”

Her silent offer is so loud.

Right now, though, he can’t accept it. It’s hard to express why, even to himself, but it’s something to do with needing to stay as close as he can to the people who didn’t make it. Not just Bucky, but all the others from his old life, from, what still sometimes feels like his real life, before the sleep of ice.

“You’re doing important work, Wanda.”

His silent refusal is loud too.    

 

---***---***---

 

Steve knows there is still a task for him. Whatever it is, it will emerge from the twisted pile of metal and secrets Shuri’s analyzing in her lab, the intel Nat and Nakia are finding. It will be something final.

Then I can stop too. I can stop forever.

It takes a few weeks, but Natasha and Nakia eventually return. Natasha looks uncharacteristically grim. Before they go into the conference room she pulls Sam aside. As soon as she puts her small hand on his arm, Sam turns to her, his whole body shaping itself into attention. There’s something between them now.

Natasha whispers to Sam urgently, and Steve sees Sam’s gaze shutter. Sam meets Steve’s gaze. So. Natasha thinks the briefing will trigger him.

Nakia begins as soon as they’re seated. “Most of the corporation seems legitimate, but a minor side project has no obvious commercial relevance and match the adult stem cell and gene editing work Shuri described. It’s called Operation Zhar-ptitsa — Firebird. Like a phoenix.” 

“Hydra rising from the ashes.” Sam’s voice is dry. ‘Two mythological creatures for the price of one.”

Natasha hasn’t finished. “The projects seem to be missing crucial preparatory data. They’ve stepped up the Siberian searches. Whatever they’re looking for, they need it before they can go further.”

“Then we should beat them to it.” It’s obvious to Steve. “We need to map out where they’re looking, correlate it with what we know of USSR human experimentation. Then get there first.”

“That makes sense, Captain.” T’Challa’s clearly amenable, but Nakia’s hesitating.

“There’s more.” Nakia speaks directly to Steve now, and Steve sees Natasha tense infinitesimally beside her. “As I indicated last week. Hydra really is in a nostalgic mood. Throughout the project notes they speak of another ‘Red Book’,” she audibly handles the word with tweezers, “Like the one that —”

“Bucky’s,” Steve realizes he’s already standing, his chair pushed back and fists clenched.

Nakia makes a pacifying gesture with one hand. “Not quite the same. I don’t think it’s meant literally. They speak of it as if it’s something … multiple, dispersed. Maybe several documents, or collections of scientific data. We cannot even be sure if it is digital or some other medium. Whatever it is, they have not got all of it, and they want it.”

“We go to Siberia.” Steve’s implacable. This is it. This is what he can do, the final thing. He can make sure that the horror that tormented Bucky doesn’t happen to anybody else.

T’Challa is watching him thoughtfully. “Yes. A small team might be able to find something. We’ll collate intelligence for you. But, Captain —” and he leans forward, his eyes wise, seeing too much. “This is exploratory, yes? You will return to Wakanda, to fight alongside us?”

Steve’s smile is mirthless. “What else would I do but fight?”

There’s an awkward silence.

“We’ll process the intel.” Nakia stands. “It will take a few days to get things in place.”    

 

---***---***---

 

Steve starts dreaming about a red book. This book was a bitter script, shaping Bucky’s life in unspeakable ways. He knows the old one had a dark red leather cover, but in his dreams the book takes on an organic quality. In his dream the book is larger than in reality, and the cover feels slippery. Fresh, bleeding.

He opens it, steeling himself to face the words, the awful facts, but as soon as it opens the writing starts moving, twisting. The black ink is growing, turning into thorns, climbing out of the page, twining in a madness around his arms.

He tries to drop the book, but he can’t, the briers are growing faster, winding up his body, the thorns drawing blood. They’re scarlet with the liquid now, squeezing tighter, and they’re still pouring from the book in a convulsion of hideous growth.

Now the cover is twisting in his hands, dead flesh but somehow moving. He tries to let go, but he can't.

Bucky did say they’d never get out.     

 

 

 

“Siberia hasn't got any warmer.” Sam’s smile is wry. He and Steve are stacking the jeep, and the wind’s starting to whip around them. Nakia’s already heading back to Wakanda in the jet, but they can call for exfil as soon as they need it.

Steve can’t reciprocate the smile. It’s not the same. They were looking for Bucky then, and now they’ll never look for Bucky again. He'll never hold Bucky again. He slams the weapons rack closed. “Let’s go.”

Their first target is an abandoned compound. They have a list of ruins, most of which will probably be dead leads. But it feels right to Steve, to be here, moving through this snow, the mist, the wind that sings with many voices.

He can hear ghosts in that wind, but none are the ghost he dreams of. 

 

 

Chapter Text


      


 

He’s gray and fading, a desperate shadow. His body’s edges have crumbled into air, and he twists into terrible emptiness. Then silence.

One word left to him, one word in the world. Think that word. Hold it close.

Steve.

Color flooding back, and agony with it. A chaotic scream of light and he’s moving, there’s a tunnel, an archway, a corridor, a passage, the space is tearing him, he is flayed by thorns.  These are places he knew and things he heard and wounds he took, and they have all been waiting for him all this time. They want him back.

Walls are peeling like skin, touching him with tendril fingers. Briers caress and carve him. He smells mold, mildew and ash. He smells earth and death. He is lost in blue decay.  

 

 

---***---***---

 

When Bucky wakes, he is emptied out of hope. A gray space has been carved out inside him. He feels dead.

“I’m sorry, James. This must have been very disorienting.”

A male voice. Mellifluous, refined, a clipped English accent. Gentle, no obvious cruelty. Bucky steels himself and opens his eyes.

He recognizes some of what he sees. The dilapidated chamber is the room that shimmered through his earlier hallucinations — it’s an abandoned hospital ward, nearly empty except for rusted old-fashioned bedsteads with no mattresses. The walls are a mess, wallpaper peeling in strips, plaster crumbling and visible water damage in the far ceiling, and what color remains is a deep dark blue, like being underwater. It smells of damp. It's a far stretch from a sterile hospital environment.

The sheer surreality of it all is intensified by the way he himself is in a modern bed under three floor-standing spotlights, a white island in a sea of gloom. The familiar Hydra restraints are on his arm and … yeah, his legs too. A mild ache at his groin makes him suspect a catheter. Then Bucky sees the rest of the equipment, and his whole body tenses at the sight.

It would probably look innocuous to someone else. Two IV drips, one standing loose, and the other hooked into a cannula in his hand. A large jug of cloudy fluid, placed on a table beside needles and white folded cloths, and two nurses, dressed in white, seated with their hands in their laps, gazing ahead blank as dolls.

They show no evidence of having noticed his waking. Their clothes and wide-winged white caps seem anachronistic to him, but in his daze he hasn’t the mental resources to reflect on how.

Everything about this tableau fills Bucky with horror, but he can’t quite remember … why. Then all his limited energy is snagged by the man sitting quietly by his bedside.    

 

 


He seems wholly unassuming. Tall-ish - maybe 5’9 — lanky, slender. Tumbled wavy brown hair. Pale skin, high cheekbones, unusually full lips. He’s not wearing a Hydra uniform but some kind of gray suit, and his voice is soft. “I am sorry to wake you, James, but I think it’s time for us to talk.”

Bucky swallows, tensing his arm against the restraints, but they’re intact and he's too weak to break out. Something is weird about this. Since when have Hydra engaged him in conversation or called him anything but “Soldier”? “Who are you?” His voice is weak.

“I’m Leander.” Surprise at receiving a reply only briefly pierces Bucky’s emotional fog. Being told a name doesn’t change anything — he's still locked down, trapped, facing inevitable torture. He’s lost Steve. He’s back with Hydra. He’s going to become a killing machine. For a moment the numbness is almost welcome, ‘cause he doesn’t want to imagine the anguish he’d be feeling otherwise.

“What do you want.” It's a hopeless question. He doesn’t expect an answer, and certainly not a true one.

“I want to you to sleep, James,” comes the unexpected reply. “I want you to drift. I want —’ he pauses, and Bucky feels the prick of another needle in his arm. “I want to make your mind beautiful, in the way it used to be.”

“Beautiful?” Bucky’s voice is hoarse, leached of any strength. Wrongness is creeping in like mist under a door. Even in his weakness, he notices the strangeness of the personal pronoun. This man — Leander? — is speaking in the singular, not the collective “we” of Hydra.

“I know you feel dreadful now, James. It’s just a side effect. But I think it will help if you understand what I am trying to do here.”

Again the singular. What is this? Nothing about this makes sense. He can’t even summon defiance or cleverness, he just asks it outright. “Are you Hydra?”

Leander laughs, “Not exactly. Their whole octopus kick is a little outré, wouldn’t you say?” He makes a mocking moue with his mouth.

Bucky stares. “What are you here for, then?”

Leander doesn’t reply immediately, just lifts a syringe and holds it to the light. “Do you see how simple this is?” He tilts the hypodermic, and Bucky sees the light catch the liquid sliding in the syringe. “So pure. It’s nothing that special. Nothing like psychotropics and hallucinogens. Nothing so artificial. This is just … insulin, James.” His voice is almost caressing. “Such an ordinary thing. We all have it, its structure is wholly un-mysterious. People have known how to synthesize it for decades. And for a long time, people used it to help.” For the first time his voice changes from light smoothness, to something more real and ragged, but it’s just a brief shiver in timbre.

Then he turns back to Bucky, and his smile is peaceful. “It helped you, James, back then. I want it to help you again. I want —” he leans forward and slides the needle into Bucky’s upper arm, and whispers again, his lips close to Bucky’s ear, “I want to make your mind beautiful again.”

The repetition has something terrible about it. Bucky feels Leander’s cold fingers holding his wrist, and wonders why the man didn’t just deliver the drug through the IV cannula.

Long minutes pass. Leander doesn't say anything else, but stays holding Bucky’s wrist — perhaps he's taking his pulse?  — though he isn't holding it right for that. Bucky’s dizzy, cold. Clammy.

Leander’s started stroking the delicate inner skin of his wrist, the tendons, the curve down to his palm. Bucky feels his head fall back, his throat stretched and exposed, and now he’s dimly aware of Leander’s long fingers stroking up his throat, sliding under his neck.

Then the gray claims him. He is lost in clouds. He is suffocating in hungry clouds.    

 

 

---***---***---

 

Bucky sleeps restlessly, but sleep he does. Days pass, turning to weeks.  He rises to consciousness with the itch of sweating skin on sheets, legs and skin twitching against covers. He sometimes tries to speak and can only moan. Even when he manages to open his eyes and croak out words, his hands and body continue to shake.

Some of the drugs are inhaled, and they hang in the air permanently, a suffocating chemical sweetness. Their cloying, burnt reek is the first thing he’s aware of as he emerges each time, and smell is the last sense he loses. In his brief periods awake, the nurses are attentive if dispassionate, but they rarely let him eat. His brief periods of wakefulness are dominated by hunger, the nurses cleaning him, changing catheter and handling his bodily functions of elimination and scarce nutrition with indifferent efficiency.  Then the slide back down into into the gray dark of restless sleep. It’s like being under a spell.

It’s hard not to draw the obvious comparison — that story Becca used to play. Sleeping Beauty, trapped in the forest. He and Steve would tease her. Now, Bucky can’t even manage a self-mocking smile - it looks like the joke’s on him. He lies there, thinking of Becca’s games long ago, Steve’s laughter. 

Now he’s here, going mad, and Becca’s long dead.

Whispers. The hospital feels full of hungry ghosts. He knows this place. He’s been here before. He dreams of it sometimes, as it was: a white hospital, sterile, shining, bustling, with wide corridors and arched ceilings.  In the dream, something happens. Something breaks. The people moving through the space freeze, motionless as statues. Briers and roses grow through the ruin, and the bodies dwindle to dust and ash. The building itself starts to change and the walls peel away.

The structure’s skeleton emerges, and it reaches for him.

He wakes gasping every time, the dream clinging.

As the Soldier, he was kept in bank vaults, in secure locked locations. He was an asset, and stored like one. He’s sure that he’s never been kept anywhere so dilapidated, so decayed. Sometimes they wheel the bed to different rooms for Hydra technicians to examine the stump of his arm, and he glimpses weird grandeur, wide arched corridors with flaking, blue walls. The floors and ceilings are cracked and moldering. Electricity only works in parts of the site, and in some places the smell of damp and ash and ruin is so thick that it makes him choke.    

 

 


Why are Hydra here? It’s barely habitable even in the sections they’re using. It’s as far away from a sterile hospital or scientific site as he can imagine getting. Why deliberately seek out an abandoned hospital?  

 

 

---***---***---

 

Sometimes, he dreams of bliss.

He remembers the shock of Steve’s warm mouth on him that first time, summer heat beating through the tenement and Steve’s hands sweat-slick on Bucky’s hips. He remembers Steve, small and delicate, face in shadow, bending over him to touch with long, gentle fingers, pushing into him while their tongues met. They’re dropping to the floor, pulling at each other’s clothes, frantic, craving skin.

In this dream, Bucky’s need for more isn’t about pleasure, it’s about survival, Steve calling him out of the ice and thorns and cruelty. He wants to melt like wax under the hard heat of Steve’s body. He wants to feel Steve move inside him, work inside him, his large hands strong on him. His own body arches back like the stem of a flower. He’s yielding. Supplicant.

When he wakes from that dream is face is wet.

A nurse is adjusting the bed to a seated position. He’s still restrained, and he tries to speak but his tongue is thick in his mouth. His groin hurts — they must have changed the catheter. He’s nauseous, but can’t lean to vomit.

The gray waves of disorientation ebb only slowly. After — maybe an hour? — he is able to sit enough to swallow dry bread, though he gags on each attempt. His tongue is clumsy from disuse. The expressionless nurse holds it to his lips, then some kind of protein shake. Getting food is unusual enough to be disturbing.

“<What’s happening next?>” His voice is hoarse. At least he can speak Russian.

“<The Doctor will be here soon.>” She doesn’t say anything else, and once his meal is done she sits with her hands folded, gazing into the middle distance like an old fashioned marionette.

That's what's so strange about her clothes — the nurse’s cap looks like the one Sarah Rogers used to wear. Why would a Hydra nurse be wearing a 1940s cap in the twenty-first century?

This time, when Leander arrives, he doesn’t waste time with civilities. He says baldly, “Captain Rogers isn’t looking for you, you know.”

Bucky doesn’t reply.

Leander throws an envelope onto his lap. “Really. He’s not looking.”

Now Bucky does glance up, and there’s nothing good about Leander’s smile. Bucky looks back down at the envelope. Foolscap. Heavy. It’s going to contain photographs. He thinks he knows what’s in it, and he’s right.

His own blue eyes look up at him, seeing nothing, His own face. Head and body charred.

Bucky thinks, Steve. The nausea returns and he can’t help but retch. Oh God for Steve to see that. The impassive nurse brings a bowl beneath his lips. Eventually his convulsions come to a shaking end.

Leander hasn’t moved, lounging relaxed by the bed.

“It took a lot of work.” His voice is conversational. “Well beyond my pay grade, of course. The powers that be started the project after your gallant friend the Captain,” mocking, “wouldn’t stop looking for you after the D.C. mess. He’s very — indefatigable, your boy, wouldn’t you say?”

Bucky can’t say anything. The thought of Steve’s agony is too much to bear. Oh. And this means no rescue, too.

“Do you want to know how they did it?” Leander’s tone is still verging on chatty, but now his hands are moving, he’s filling another syringe. The nurse is opening Bucky’s gown and attaching an electrocardiogram monitor, connecting wires. “I think a story would be just the ticket, James. A nice story to help you sleep.”

“No,” mutters Bucky, knowing it’s pointless. He can't reject Steve’s grief, Leander’s cruelty, the imminent needle. He can’t refuse any of it.

“Oh, but yes. Be excited, James! This isn’t the usual narcosis, oh no. We’re breaking new ground here today, my dear. I want to find out if panic changes the narcosis response. You see? It’s very scientific,” and he slides the needle into Bucky’s — wrist? That's not the place the insulin is usually injected.

Whatever it is hits Bucky almost immediately. He can hear a rustling, a deep sound, something too low to be human. He looks around, wild. Thorns are climbing up the sides of the walls, heavy with black roses, climbing with unnatural speed and murmuring as they move.

Leander isn’t looking at them. He’s gazing intently at Bucky’s face, predatory. Expectant.

“Is it working?” he asks softly. “Do you feel the world changing?”

Bucky does, everything tilts, and it’s as if he’s spinning into madness. He’s still here, in this decaying room, but he’s also spinning, and the roses are climbing fast.

Leander’s still speaking, and now he’s watching the ECG. “So they chose some people, you see. Not volunteers, of course. Your build, your height. They cared a lot about matching the shape of the skull. They found seven in the end, I believe.”

Bucky’s heart is beating so fast that it feels like it’s going to shake out of his chest. The roses and thorns have reached the ceiling and the whispering is even louder. Now they are starting to crawl across it, winding through the shadows and scraps of ruin and damp. They’re getting closer.

Leander’s voice is languid. “It took months. Plastic surgery was first, of course. Had to leave maximum time for the scars to heal, although burning the body and head  conceal a lot. Orthodontic work too, although Hydra wasn’t very patient there, and regrettably found it necessary to use some rather, er, forcible procedures in some cases. If a jaw shattered, the candidate was disposed of. The teeth really mattered, you see. They had to be able to X ray, to create fake records. But several candidates survived.” His tone is encouraging, malicious.

“Then it was a waiting game. Snatch you - and that was surprisingly easy. You think Stark’s the only one to master cloaking tech, and just to use it for that overcompensating jet he likes to fly over New York? You think those twins were the only invention Hydra produced? And Hydra knows that base. They drug you with the cocktail they spent decades perfecting on you, drop you instantaneously. The wind and scraping metal hide enough of your fall. When safe to move, get underground. Rogers never found the other entrance to the bunker.” Leander sounds amused. “He cried, do you know that? Then wait for Rogers to start searching for where we took you. Work out where he’s heading, and just leave the … spare.”

Bucky’s shaking. He’s in a nightmare, between the certain knowledge of Steve’s real grief and the fake horror of the hallucinations. Seven more people tortured and dead as part of Hydra’s twisted games. He’s drenched in sweat. The whispering flowers have covered the ceiling completely now, terrible in their vegetal hunger.

Then Leander leans close, and whispers, “I’m told you burn beautifully, James.”

With that the agony peaks, and Bucky arches and screams. Fire is winding up the thorns, starting at the floor, tendrils of red lacing upwards. The smell of charring is terrible, and it’s not the smell of burning plants, it’s his own skin.

Leander slams a mask over his nose and mouth. Bucky stops breathing.

“No needle today, James.” Leander’s voice is cruel in his ear. “Too slow that way. You can inhale insulin, you know. It works faster. Sleep will drag you under. Make the nightmares go away.” He keeps talking, and Bucky can hold his breath for long minutes but even he can’t last forever.

‘Yes, good boy, good boy, take it now, open up for me darling.’ Leander’s crooning and stroking his hair, and all Bucky can smell is phenol, sweet and sharp. He’s breathing the insulin and the thorns are still burning and so is he.

It isn't quick. For long minutes, a hundred years, he’s in a delirium of fire and pain. The last thing he thinks is Steve.  

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 


 

 

Steve looks at the white, featureless expanse, the long cusp where steppe begins to blur into tundra. It’s beautiful and strange, here, thousands of miles north of Novosibirsk. Natasha's told him that Bucky spent so much of his life here, far longer than in Brooklyn. He must have known this place on a bone-deep level. Maybe being here should make him feel closer to Bucky's memory in some way, give some kind of comfort.

It doesn't.

“Gear’s stowed.” Sam’s come up beside him. They don’t have much. The point of the mission is to be swift and low-profile — just the two of them, a jeep and a tent. Nakia brought them in a jet, and they can call for exfil at any time with a maximum hour extraction time.

Steve sets his jaw. “Let’s go.” 

 

 

Another compound of dust and decay. There were sheds here, once, but they’ve collapsed, and now the planks are falling back to earth. Concrete floors are exposed to the elements, cracked in a thousand spiderwebs under the lashing of snow and rain.

It smells familiar, and Steve straightens in surprise as he recognizes it — the woods of the Western Front. Damp fallen branches, rotting wood. How strange to smell that war here too, amid Siberian snow.

Maybe not strange at all.

He moves with Sam, silent and wary. While the outlying buildings have fallen, the central one still stands. It looks like brick and metal, designed to last longer, and parts of it have; but much of this, too, is fallen. The roof collapsed long ago. As they enter the ruin, Steve glances up, and tattered steel tears the sky.

There’s nothing here. They search for hours. It’s a place of ash, and silence, and sadness. The most poignant details are the odd fragmentary remainders of human habitation. Chairs still huddled around a table, covered with dust like a shroud. A single glass bottle, intact, on a shelf.

A sapling, growing in the center of a ruined chamber, reaching up to the broken roof.

There’s life here, but it’s not human anymore.

 

 

---***---***---

 

After each raid they have to scrub themselves in their improvised field shower. The sites stain them as they move through them, mark them with grime and and a smell that clings, corrosive and penetrating. The dust is almost organic, a sweaty, clammy grit. It clings to human skin as if it’s hungry for it.

Such a strange mission. They’re not rescuing anyone, or stopping a violent assault. There’s a purpose, yes, but the basic point is to raid long-empty sites in the hope they’ll find … paper. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

Before they left Wakanda, Steve was shown different forms of recording media they might encounter. Recently, flash drives or blu-ray discs. Further back, thicker discs, computer hard drives, big boxy machines like the ones in Zola’s bunker in Camp Lehigh.

“To be candid, though, electronic media probably isn’t relevant.” Sam, Steve and Natasha had been taken to Wakanda’s palace library, an astonishing place of interconnecting chambers, high vaulted ceilings and a vast skylight. The place abounded in books and 3D screens, perused by silent, absorbed readers. A space for reflection, for battles of the mind. A senior archivist, Nomthandazo, took them to a smaller room, colder than usual, with tables of glass and steel. She explained what they would be looking for.

“From what we can tell, the places you’re going to have been out of use since the sixties or even fifties. So frankly, you’re looking for paper.”

“Paper will have lasted?” Sam sounded surprised.

“Well, it depends. It’s highly vulnerable to moisture. But if it’s kept somewhere dry and airtight, and is in a low-acid formulation, then yes, paper can last a long time. Centuries, even. We still have some of Wakanda’s most beautiful poetry from the fourteenth century in the original manuscripts.” With a smile, she indicated the closest cabinet.

Steve pored over the illuminated manuscript, vivid and beautiful, shining under glass.

“Climate controlled,” she murmured. “Like this, it can last for centuries. Whatever you are looking for, though — that won’t be so well protected.”

“What could have preserved it?” Steve was clipped. Every minute they were waiting was a strain. He needed to be in Siberia to scour the snow for that hideous book, in whatever form it would take.

“Lockboxes. Safes. Something with a hermetic seal. It will almost certainly be metal — remember plastics weren’t popular until the sixties, and while plastic degrades very slowly, the seals are more likely to fracture and let in moisture. Metal won’t withstand water damage indefinitely either.” She smiled apologetically. “To be honest, your saying of a needle in a haystack is optimistic in this case. It is almost certainly an impossible search.”

Steve nods, curt. “Impossible is fine. We’re going.”

 

 

---***---***---

 

Steve remembers all this as they move through yet another building. He’s not giving up, even though he increasingly suspects the archivist was right about impossible. That’s not about to stop him, or even slow him down.

They keep going, entering each new site of the tumbled fragments of long-gone human life.

To Steve, it’s starting to feel like a kind of a kind of … burial. Choosing to immerse himself in the detritus of the past instead of an unbearable present. Choosing ash and grime and broken things. 

 

 

Sam’s learned that it’s not a quick process, setting up camp in the sub-zero temperatures of the palearctic. Even Wakandan tech can’t fully overcome the challenges, though it certainly helps. They’re not far enough north to be in the unbroken icefields, but are far enough to be in serious cold.

He muses, sometimes, how grimly appropriate it is that Steve’s combat experience was primarily forested wilderness and Sam’s was desert, and they’ve ended up somewhere that’s the opposite of either but draws on some of the skills for both. They’re not in the taiga or boreal forest proper, but the territory is liminal enough that there are sometimes enough coniferous trees to make progress hard and Steve’s knowledge useful. And in his own case, while the deserts of Afghanistan were wholly different from this, what is similar is the need to think constantly about … water.

The first laws of palearctic hiking are to stay hydrated and to avoid sweat. They’re in a constant battle to try to gather drinkable water and to prevent their supply from freezing, and the rhythms of their day hinge around water, melting it at night and in the morning. So strange, to be surrounded by water and unable to use most of it.

Now it’s twilight, and as usual, they’ve stamped out a platform for their tent with snowshoes and shovel and built a snow wall. They’re letting the ground re-freeze for an hour before securing the tent with snow anchors, and meanwhile they’re huddled around a fire in the lee of the snow wall, melting snow for the next day’s water supply.

Sam’s noticed Steve hunch in on himself every time they leave the tent. He clearly hates the cold, but he never mentions it. Sam can’t imagine what kind of legacy being frozen for seventy years would leave in terms of temperature phobia. Right now, Steve’s close to the fire, watching it burn. Sam’s transfixed by the flames too, so surreal and vivid against the darkened snow.

He swallows. Riley would have liked it.

 

 

 

“Sam. Tell me about him.” Steve’s eyes are kind.

Sam exhales slowly. “Riley?”

“Your wingman.” Steve reaches his hands out to the fire. “I just — you’ve never told me about him. If you want to, I’d like to listen.”

Sam would. It’s been so long since he put any of it into words, though, that at first he’s not sure how.

“He was —” The gold of the flames makes it so easy to recall Riley’s hair. Strawberry blond, never tidy. Blue eyes, and that wide, easy grin. Similar coloring to Steve, now he comes to think of it, but they are so different. Steve is all coiled determination and rage and fire, and Riley was … Riley was …

  

 

---***---***---

 

“Sam, there’s no time for more.” Riley’s laughing.

“What? Tired you out?” Now they’re both laughing, and Sam’s rolling back over him, curling his arms tight around him, brushing his lips over Riley’s cheek. He can’t help it. They’re sticky with heat and sex but Sam can’t imagine anything better than the warmth of him in his arms, the warmth of his smile.

Loving Riley is so effortless.

Sam’s taking in each detail of his face, and Riley meets his sudden stillness with his own, his eyes crinkling. “Hey.” Softly.

“Hey you.” They’re still looking at each other. Sam’s dog tags are grazing Riley’s neck.

Riley’s grin widens. “Just gonna look?”

Sam smirks. “Maybe.” But he can’t stay teasing, because what he feels is too big to fit into that. He hasn’t got words for it. He’s already said I love you, but this feels bigger.

Riley exhales, eyes suddenly knowing. “You’re thinking too much, honey.” His voice is a whisper, and Sam feels his hand slide behind his neck. “You know I love you. Just —” and he pulls Sam’s lips down to his. Sam moves with him, letting his body say everything there aren’t enough words for. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

 “Sam.” Steve’s voice is quiet. Sam looks up, and realizes his own eyes are wet.

“Sorry. I just.” Sam rubs the back of his hand over his eyes abruptly. “You know. Memories.”

“Yeah.” Steve hesitates. “You don’t need to talk about it. I just. If you wanted.”

“No, I’d like to try. It’s …” Sam smiles, wry and lopsided. “I was never good at words about him. Or to him. He was ...” His voice trails off, and he tries again. “A kind guy, a funny guy. Always making people laugh, on the team. I mean, we saw some shit.” Don’t go there, it’s hard enough to remember this, keep the rest locked away right now. “But Riley somehow kept — shining.”

Steve reaches out and holds Sam’s shoulder, and Sam lets himself feel the proffered strength. Steve’s friendship is as fierce as the heat of the flames, and far less fragile.

“It can help in the field—” Sam’s reaching for practicality, trying to dial back his emotion — “to have a connection like that.” And oh, that’s a bittersweet body memory, the way Sam could always tell where Riley was.

A kind of radar location of the heart.

“I know.” Steve’s voice is wry.

Of course. Steve does know.

Sam lifts his eyes to Steve’s, and they look at each other a long while. They’re so close.

Sam suddenly realizes how easy it would be to hide in each other, to escape from their mutual grief for a while. It would be so easy to fall into the coiled ferocity of Steve. It wouldn’t be right. Whatever Sam has going on with Natasha is new and young and strange but incredibly precious — and the last thing Steve needs is more people using him.

Hey, ever since Steve joined the army that’s virtually all that’s happened to him. Sam grits his jaw. Sam won’t. But he can hold him. He can give him that.

“Steve,” and Sam reaches over, slides his arm around those broad shoulders. They lean together, silent, remembering the dead they loved. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

They’ve both become adept at this, wedging their toes into the powder, scaling it at an angle. Sam’s climbing behind him, and they’ll set up camp soon.  The cold is so overwhelming that it’s not even like an ambient temperature, a thing outside you. It’s a thing inside, occupying your body in the same way as your blood, your bones. It becomes impossible to imagine a time you weren’t this way.

As the snow crunches beneath his feet, Steve’s thoughts keep running on the Red Book — what form it might take, where it might be hidden. Fragile paper lasting decades, holding terrible secrets.

He keeps walking, forcing his body into the cold. 

 

 


Bucky’s on his back under him, and Steve’s fucking him hard and sweet. Steve claims his mouth, swallows his moans, thrusts deep, and again, and there

… and it’s fading, fading, gone.

Steve’s grinding his hips into a camping mattress in a tent in Siberia, and Bucky’s dead.

Steve crumples around himself as if he’s been wounded in the chest. There’s nobody to see — Sam’s still asleep at the other side of the tent. The left side of his torso feels carved out.

Steve’s grown used to taking his body’s power for granted. Ever since that extraordinary moment that Stark’s machinery unlocked and he could breathe deep and free for the first time in his life, he has felt his new body to be his, responsive to his will, powerful. His strength is solid, unshakable. He knows it is there.

Here, though, shaking in the pale light of a cold dawn, he’s acutely aware of twin vastnesses that might, in the end, swallow his strength without a thought. The relentless indifference of Siberia’s sky and steppe — and the loss of Bucky and seventy years of his life.

 

 

---***---***---


This time they’re raiding a vast industrial site, melancholy embodied in concrete and rusted steel, pillars and spans and decay. It’s so intricate and jagged in ruin that even moving through it will be a challenge, yet Sam seems oddly cheerful. “Hey, man, I’ve relevant experience in this kind of terrain.”

Steve arches an eyebrow. “Flying going to help here?”

“Hell, no,” smiles Sam. “This will.”

He throws himself into the tangled concrete chaos. For a moment Steve thinks he is flying, he’s moving with such grace. Sam’s climbing a ladder, swinging across a pylon, and jumping straight towards a wall, hitting it with his feet and using the momentum to spin to reach an adjacent roof. It looks exhilarating.

Steve dives after Sam into the wonderland of rust. As he moves through the place, he smells oil, and rust, and creaking metal. It’s not hard for Steve to catch up, and he swings up to land beside his friend. Sam’s bent over, wheezing and looking delighted. “Sam, what the hell?” Steve’s amused despite himself.

Sam’s grinning. “Parkour, man. My teenage years heavily featured falling off walls.” Steve looks pointedly over the edge of the unforgiving drop, and Sam lifts his jaw, smirks. “Hey, I got better.”

Steve grows somber again. “Good, because this isn’t for fun.” He looks at the bulk of the tangled structures in front of them. Sam follows his gaze and quietens too. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

They’ve jumped and struggled their way into the heart of the compound. For the last section they had to chimney climb, inching their way up between walls, and now they are perched above a forest of writhing metal, a surreal industrial ruin. God knows what it must have been used for — a kind of combination of scientific and munitions manufacture, maybe, but now it’s all broken through the violence of time.

Sam looks over the edge. “Yeah. Not an option for B.A.S.E. jumping.” He’s joking, breathless.

Steve looks down. He jumped out of a plane without a ’chute, the distance isn’t the problem — except that down there is a mess of ragged steel, shards taller than a person.

If speared, nobody would walk away from that. For a moment he can see it, tattered flesh, bloody ribbons — and it should be horrifying, but instead there is the incredible lure of … silence. Vacancy. Rest.

Steve moves to the edge, suddenly entranced.

“Steve?” Sam’s voice is newly sharp, but it doesn’t touch Steve.

He jumps.

The first thing he feels is a blessed familiarity and relief. He’s falling, falling like in the Valkyrie, falling like he did from the SHIELD jet. Then it’s a blur of metal and darkness and he feels a slash of pain in his right arm, in his left thigh. Then impact.

Steve.” Sam’s screaming, and Steve swallows. Straightens, leans back against a pillar. What the hell am I doing? “Sam,” he manages. Not loud enough. “Sam. I’m fine.”

Sam sounds angrier, more shaken, than Steve’s ever heard him, but he’s still professional. “I can’t get down there, so you’d better sweep that level. I’ll take the top. Then we meet at the exit.”

“Sure.” Steve’s voice sounds hoarse even to himself.

“Yeah.” Then, “Don’t think you’re getting out of talking about this, Rogers.”

Steve moves through the wreckage, shame still bitter in his mouth. As usual, the site is devoid of anything of value. Feeling a kind of baffled rage — partly at himself — Steve heads to the exit.

Sam’s waiting. His arms are crossed.

“This is not the Valkyrie, Steve. That is not what this is gonna be.” Sam’s eyes are blazing, and Steve’s jolted back to awareness of Sam’s utter refusal to take Steve’s shit. He’s not a supersoldier. He’s a wise and generous man who has repeatedly put his own life on hold for Steve, and even for Bucky, back when they searched for him for years.

Steve can’t find words for a moment. “Sam.” He swallows. “I’m sorry.”

Sam’s never cruel, but he’s relentless when he has to be. “What, Barnes has gone, so now you go too?”

Is it that simple? Is that what he’s doing? “No.” Yes. “Sam, I’m sorry.”

“What are we doing, Steve? Why are we here? Do you want this red book or not? Or do you just want to die? Because I didn’t sign up for that. I will never sign up for that.”

Steve shakes his head. “I want the book. We need to find it.”

Sam glares at him a minute longer, then something seems to give way in him. He rubs a hand over his face. “Steve.” He sounds helpless.

Steve sets his jaw, looks back steadily.

Sam licks his lips, swallows. “Look, Steve, you — after this is over you gotta talk to somebody about the whole self-sacrifice kick you’ve been riding since 1943.”

Steve stiffens. “Sam – “

“Man, you have to promise.” Sam’s eyes are pleading. “I know taking risks is your thing. But there have to be limits. There have to, Steve.”

Steve closes his eyes. For a moment he can see it again so clearly, the bridge of the Valkyrie, the helicarrier, can hear the scream of the wind of the descent. He can remember the sheer denial that filled every cell of him. He didn’t want to die, either time. But ... he’d lost Bucky both times.

He did want to fall.

His thoughts are too tangled to make sense of it, and Sam thinks talking will change that. “Sam. Talking isn’t going to fix this. It’s not that easy.”

Sam makes an inarticulate sound. “Steve, there is nothing easy about it. Not for you, not for anyone.”

Steve jerks his head away from that steady regard. Rage is building, and Steve tamps it down. “Sam. I’m not—” To hell with it, he’s going to have to explain. “All of you, you like to — talk.”

Sam seems to have realized Steve is trying, reluctantly, to tell him something. His posture softens, and he waits.

Steve throws his shoulders back, looks at Sam straight. “I had asthma.”

Sam’s brow furrows.

Steve’s anger is mounting, and now he can hear it edging his words. “I had asthma,” he repeats. “Do you know what that meant? In the ’thirties? Doctors thought I was weak in the head. Bats. Doolally.” He struggles for something more contemporary, and can only come up with, “Messed up. Nowadays you have—” he gestures, “Better medicine, you don’t — you don’t see it that way. But then, they did.”

Steve swallows, but now he’s started he’s going to finish. “They’d say that when I had an attack it was because of the child inside,” his words drip with irony, “crying for mother. I wasn’t fucking imagining it, Sam. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t—“ What is this? His throat is closing, there’s the smell of sweat, the vice closing across his chest, the light fading at the edges of his vision— “couldn’t—“

Hey.” Sam’s beside him, a hand warm on his shoulder, everything about him warm and strong and real. He’s here and it’s now, it isn’t then. “I get it. They said it was psychosomatic.”

Steve jerks his head up. “I was never weak, Sam.”

Sam’s worried expression becomes complicated, almost amused, his lips quirking in a half-smile. “Steve, I never thought you were. And it’s a good thing you aren’t, because talking through it all won’t be easy, not for one second.”

Steve looks away. Talking won’t help, he knows that. These modern people all have such faith in headshrinking, but—what else can he try? He can’t punch his way out of this one. For a moment he remembers the lure of the fall, the dizzy temptation of the edge, then he straightens. Meets Sam’s gaze, direct. “Yes.”

Sam still looks desperate. “Yes?”

“I’ll talk to someone, after this is over. About – how did you put it?” Steve’s lips twist, wry, “‘the whole self-sacrifice kick I’ve been riding since 1943.’”

Sam’s mouth quirks in an answering semi-smile. His shoulders drop, and he throws his head back, takes a deep breath. “Thanks, Steve. Seriously.” His voice is low, fervent. “Thank you.”

They don’t say any more. After a while they head down the hill on the long hike back to camp. 

Behind them, the compound stands dark against the clouds.

 

 

---***---***---


“You might need me for this one, boys.” Nat’s a welcome sight, and not just to Steve. Sam’s perked up visibly on her return, and she’s smiling at him, her lips parted.

Steve’s less distracted. “What do you know?”

“It’s a live site.” Nat indicates the map showing the next place they’re planning to hit. “It’s transmitting data, so we’re pretty sure a Hydra sortie’s already in place. We could —”

“— find out more about what they’re actually looking for.” Steve straightens. “Let’s go.”

 

 

 

The guys are taking strain. Sam’s still superficially relaxed, but Natasha can see the tells of weariness and tension, and as for Steve, there’s a banked savagery to his movements that tells her how close he is to the edge. They need to make some progress with the mission.

They’ve infiltrated the building and are crawling across the voidspace of the interfloor between first and second floor, trailing the Hydra team below. They’re avoiding visibly decayed beams. Natasha holds her palm back to halt the others and leans forward to listen.

“<I hate this.>” The first man shifts from foot to foot, keeps brushing dust from his sleeve in what looks like an unconscious nervous twitch. “<These places are disgusting.>”

Natasha shakes her head infinitesimally. Hydra’s formality has ebbed so much in the last two years. They lack the ferocious discipline they had before.

An older man is occupied with GPS and maps. “<You know we need to recover that data.>”

The younger man hunches his shoulders. It couldn’t be more clear he doesn’t want to be here. “<It would help if we had a clue where to look. Any progress on Operation Rusalka?>”

“<No. But I know they’re kicking it up a notch soon.>”

The first man shivers. “<It’s spooky, man. I mean, why do they even think that dead-eyed zombie is gonna be able to help us locate the records?>”

“<What?>” Natasha can tell that the other man’s feigning his nonchalance.

“<Oh, come on! And keeping him in an abandoned fucking hospital? The whole thing is just weird. Who is he, anyway? And what are they even doing there?>”

He has all the other man’s attention now. He sets the GPS device down with a soft click, and asks, dangerously quiet, “Are you questioning your superiors?”

The subordinate blanches visibly. “<No. No, definitely not. Sorry, sir.>”

Nat turns her head slightly and meets Steve’s fierce blue gaze. Softly, “We may have a new lead.”

Steve’s eyes narrow, and he nods once.

 

 

---***---***---

 

Steve follows Nat through the voidspace as the Hydra team move onward, but there are always risks with covert infiltration when a building’s structure is so fragile.

Sam’s the first to fall through the lathes, twisting in the air to minimize damage like the expert he is. Steve and Nat drop after him and the Hydra duo are wholly taken by surprise, as is the six-person STRIKE team that materializes soon afterwards.

It’s a relief to fight, tension uncurling through muscle and sinew. Steve fights savagely, deliberately, giving no quarter. He is absolutely aware of what he is doing, and what he is doing is brutal. It’s over too soon, and when he looks at the blood on snow, he doesn’t feel anything at all.

They seize the data, the maps, and leave the site, fast and silent. None of them speak until they’re back at camp, but as soon as they reach it Steve turns to Nat. “Report.” He’s still charged up, wired, and if there’s a new lead, he won’t wait to act on it.

Natasha’s composed. “They’re interrogating someone in an abandoned hospital, to try and get information on where the red book data might be. They called it Operation Rusalka, which — well, let’s just say Hydra clearly like their menacing mythological creatures.” Steve arches an eyebrow and she replies laconically, “Cruel water spirits, like to drown people.”

Sam’s watching Natasha shrewdly. “You don’t like this.”

She spreads her hands. “To be honest, no. Something’s definitely weird. Hydra’s bizarre, but it doesn’t usually set up ongoing ops in, what, ruins? It sounds like the person might know something about the location of the red book or data, but why take them there? Hydra’s more than capable of torture and information extraction in more traditional and secure sites, and it sounds like the subject is already substantially traumatized. But sure, it gives us a new search lead.”

“We’ll go to every abandoned hospital in Siberia if we have to.” Steve’s uncompromising. “Get the intel, and get ready.”

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 


 

 

[To avoid any reference to non-consensual touch, please see the edited version of this chapter available at this link. There are only two moments where this occurs in this chapter, but I want to make it easy for people to avoid.]

 


Has it been weeks? Months? An endless sequence of drowsing, hunger, needles. His body’s thin from starving and his mind’s hollowed out by dreams.

“Soldier.” It’s Guseinova, the lead scientist. Bucky hasn’t had much to do with her, but he’s wary of her — it seems obvious that she’s the most powerful person on the base. She always seems icy, composed, her dark eyes watchful, her dark hair in a chignon. So far Hydra seem to have entrusted him to the weird care of Leander, but Bucky isn’t an idiot. They are going to weaponize him soon enough, and he suspects she’ll be the one to do it.

“Open your mouth.” He hesitates, just long enough for her to smile, sharp. He could refuse. They will force him, especially given his weakened and restrained state, but he would refuse, if he didn’t feel so disoriented. This isn’t giving in.

“Good.” She swiftly swipes the inside of his cheek. Then she packs up her equipment and leaves. Hydra never were inclined to chat.  Leander’s an exception in all kinds of ways, and the thought isn’t reassuring. 

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

“James.” Leander looks at him oddly, then raises an eyebrow at the nurse, who nods. Bucky’s gritting his teeth. She’s just removed the catheter, and it’s painful.

“Today’s a little different. Did Guseinova tell you?” Bucky doesn’t reply, but Leander doesn’t seem disconcerted. “I know she took a saliva sample. I’m here to take something else.” He nods at the nurse and she leaves quietly, pulling the creaking door closed behind her. This is — new.

“So, James.” Leander is at the surgical table, pulling on a latex glove. “You and I,” Bucky flinches at the intimacy, “are working together on two projects. We might call them, well, sleep and remembering.” He looks wildly amused at himself, and Bucky tries to tell himself he doesn’t care why. “We will be working on sleep for a long time, James — there are so many things we need to do together. We’re only at the start. Guseinova,” his lips twist, “works on something else, a genetics initiative that might make you obsolete.”

Bucky has no idea what Leander’s talking about, but he’s not taking his eyes from his hands or the table of instruments. He can’t quite make out what they are. Leander’s still talking. “They don’t need you for the genetics project right now — they will later, that will be interesting — but they do need, ah, material from you now.” He snaps on the second glove and gives Bucky a beatific smile. “I said I’d take it.”

*** It hardly takes a genius to work out what’s going to happen next. Bucky figures he should be grateful for the relative privacy of the closed door.

He expects Leander to come and jerk him off, but it doesn’t work out like that. Leander approaches the bed and matter-of-factly pulls back the sheets, pulls back his gown, and with delicate quick movements, efficiently binds his cock in some soft, flexible net with some kind of complex plastic-and-steel reservoir encasing the head. There’s nothing in the least erotic about it, and Leander seems to be touching him as lightly and as little as possible. Bucky doesn’t react at all, just fixes his gaze on the ceiling. He’s off-balance, nonetheless. It isn’t what he expected.

Then Leander sits in the chair by the bed, and looks at him. “Comfortable?” Bucky still doesn’t answer, but his unease is growing. “You’re going to be here a while, James.” Leander leans forward, adjusts the pillows at his back, “and actually …” he slides one beneath Bucky’s hips, “that will help, I gather. Though,” his tone is amiable, “I guess queers like you would know better than I.”

It takes a moment for the slur to register, then Bucky’s eyes slam back to Leander’s. Leander’s grin broadens. “So it’s true, then? There were rumors, you know, you and Rogers. Ah, well. Maybe you’ll enjoy this. In any case,” brisk now, “I’ll be as quick as I can.” He moves around the room gathering instruments, but Bucky’s determinedly not looking, returning his focus to the ceiling. Then Leander’s back, and he’s sliding two fingers inside him.

Bucky grits his teeth. It hurts, of course, but he’s braced for worse. Just detach, detach, detach. Then … some other object, slick and cool but — ah, and Bucky jolts, he can’t help it. It’s hit that sensitive and reactive spot.

“Okay.” Leander’s tone is placid, and that’s all he says. He keeps working it into him, massaging, but he doesn’t go anywhere near Bucky’s bound cock at all. In fact Leander doesn’t show the faintest hint of sexual interest. When Bucky glances quickly at his face Leander’s actually looking over at the far wall, expression blank. Bucky thinks wildly that Leander seems more excited about the insulin needles than this — this weird sterile clinical rape.

Bucky has to speak, he can’t just submit to this in silence. “Wouldn’t it be quicker to just jerk me off?” Despite the defiance, he doesn’t meet Leander’s gaze. Leander’s still working it into him, peaceful and relentless.

“Well, this way has advantages.” Leander sounds so clinical. “We’ll get more this way, so it helps their project. And it makes you ashamed, which helps mine.”

Bucky’s cheeks warm. “I’m not ashamed,” but he can’t look at him.

“You are.” Leander’s tone is almost friendly. “And it’s useful.”

Bucky’s eyes are closed and every muscle’s tight. This shouldn’t be so hard to take. It isn’t the first time he’s been exposed or treated like this. In the dreary delirium of the years of ice and thorns, of not-self, the Soldier was violated in countless ways. Pleasure was something rare, and then self-given under the orders and amused regard of technician or handler.

But it’s the first time it’s happened as Bucky. He’s regained his own boundaries so painfully, so carefully, with such effort. Piece by piece, he rebuilt his jigsaw of a self. Now this — the shame and grief are suddenly unbearable.

Leander’s voice is soft now. “In the end, I’m trying to take you back to an earlier, more compliant time. There are worse ways to start.”

The words shouldn’t be a shock — he knows why he’s here, knows Hydra will un-make him, but all at once the sheer despair is too much. On top of the weeks of insulin coma, the endless gray of tormented sleep, this finally triggers a breaking point. Bucky can’t hold back a choked sob.

“Yes.” Leander’s voice is still detached, but there is a hint of kindness. “You can cry, James. You will be losing a lot. But soon you won’t need to cry anymore.”

For long minutes Bucky swallows down his agony, breathing fast on the bed, while Leander doesn’t pause even for a second in his precise, cold penetration.

Eventually the first sharp despair ebbs, and Bucky slumps in the restraints. Leander’s rhythm hasn’t changed, and Bucky’s humiliation is growing. He’s burning with it, acutely aware of his exposed cock and balls, the teasing relentless pressure of the toy, Leander’s indifference.

It continues for long tortuous minutes, ten minutes, twenty, half an hour. Leander’s still not talking. The pleasure is getting hard to ignore. Bucky’s getting to know the patches of decay on the ceiling well, though it harder to keep that focus when Leander switches to a vibrator. It feels like he’s been in the silent torment for hours. His cock’s dripping, but he’s still entirely soft — until Leander twists the toy and suddenly all the pleasure that’s been building tips over and Bucky starts to fill, his cock pressing against the bindings.

Leander yawns.

Bucky’s trying to control his breathing, but it’s too much. He shifts his hips, squashes his desire, but it’s still building and it’s different and deeper from any kind of climax he’s known before and God it’s so good, it’s so so good, and he’s arching, warmth flooding him.

He comes back to himself, gasping, can feel himself dripping, but still painfully hard, and the pleasure keeps building. He knows this is going to end. Might as well get it over with. Self-betrayal bitter in his mouth, he closes his eyes and cants his hips up, seeking friction even while awash with shame for it.

“Ah.” Leander still sounds so detached. “A bit more though, I think.”

Another fifteen minutes of torment. By now Bucky is fully erect and he just wants this over. He’s aching for friction but still has nothing, only the increasingly tight bindings and the cold of the steel. Leander still isn’t going anywhere near him.

“Right.” Leander tone is soft.

Bucky opens his eyes. He’s drenched in sweat and what he can see of his cock is angry red. The bindings are so tight now. “This next bit is regrettable, James, but I’m afraid I have to — very briefly — touch you.”

Bucky has a moment to hate himself for thinking just do it, and then Leander very lightly brushes a single cool latex-covered finger at the base of his cock then up the shaft through the bindings. Then he joins his thumb and index finger in a tight circle around his shaft and pulls down, hard and sharp —

— and Bucky comes so hard his vision whites out. It doesn’t stop, his cock’s pulsing and his body arcs and he’s coming into the bindings convulsively, over and over, exquisite and relentless.

Leander doesn’t stop working the toy inside him, forcing out every drop. His hands are again nowhere near Bucky’s cock. “Hmm.” His voice is still placid. “That’s enough, I think.” Bucky’s shaking with aftershock. There’s a kind of smile in Leander’s voice now, and then he says something strange. “Clay under my hands after all. Sculpture.”

Bucky can’t think about that. He’s trying to calm his ragged breathing. His eyes are closed, and he feels Leander quickly and delicately loosen the bindings, take it all away. He’s unbearably sensitive, but mercifully Leander doesn’t even brush him, and Bucky’s humiliation somehow intensifies. Leander quickly pulls the gown and sheets back over him in efficient, practised motions, then leaves, and closes the door.

Bucky lies still. He opens his eyes and looks at the sheet over him, covering him all clean and white.

He is still shaking, but he’s fine, it doesn’t matter.

This wasn’t anything at all. Nothing at all.

 

 

---***---***---


Leander doesn’t do anything else like that in the brief times Bucky is awake, but Bucky keeps catching him watching him, his expression greedy and secretive.

Bucky wonders about the Words. Leander hasn’t used them, hasn’t even hinted that he knows them, but Bucky’s constantly braced for syllables that take away his self.

The nurses start reading to him, both while he’s dimly awake and, he thinks, while he is asleep. Their voices are always there, lulling him in a horrible music. They’re reciting dates and details of past missions, his mission reports, statistics and details of places he was kept, things he was made to do. After a while the terms and codes take on the quality of an incantation, a strange chant.

Some of the words trigger odd memories as he emerges from sleep and slides back down. He doesn’t know what Leander’s doing, but his dreams are changing. Sometimes it feels like he’s never stopped marching, and has always been a ghost soldier. Spectral, he moves through shadows of past missions, past places.

Leander’s sculpting his mind.

Amid the grey confusion, a particular place is starting to shine out clearly for him. It stands solid and white and heavy in his dreams, as as if the building is somehow more real than the people and memories, the scurrying shadows that move through it. It’s a strange place, almost beautiful. Majestic, in an icefield.

One evening, as he emerges from nightmare, he dimly remembers what happened there. Zola changed him.

Bucky closes his eyes. It feels like he always knew that, at some level. The haunting, the voices, the older times they kept trying to resurrect for him. They want him to remember something he did or saw, long ago, before he was even the Winter Soldier. A time when he had lost a name, but hadn’t yet got a new one.

He knows that place. He fears it. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

The next time Bucky wakes, his bed is in a different room. He’s still strapped down, and Leander’s lounging in a chair by the side of the bed, an eyebrow arched. “Was the sleep different this time?”

It takes Bucky several attempts to reply, and at first he can only gasp. Leander just watches him clinically.

Eventually, Bucky manages, weakly, “What?”

Leander smiles, cold. “Insulin isn’t the only lullaby. Paraldehyde. Hysoscine. Luminal. Sodium amytal. Somnifaine. Barbiturates. Cardiazol.” He lingers over the syllables, weirdly sensuous. “You’ll learn the textures of sleep under my hands, my dear.”

Bucky stares at him. It’s suddenly clear to him that Leander’s mad, but why would Hydra give him to someone unhinged to play with?

Leander’s lips twist, amused. “Ah, James. You think I’m what, a fantasist? Let me regale you with some historically pertinent records.” He reaches theatrically for some papers on the surgical table. “Let us enjoy together, for example, John Rawlings Rees’s 1945 treatise on military psychiatry in World War II, describing ‘a tendency to move away from straight persuasion and hypnosis to the chemical methods of sedation, narco-analysis and modified insulin therapy.’ Or let’s savor the remarks in the 1940 article ‘Acute War Neuroses” by Sargent and Slater, those noble English pioneers, who recommend continuous narcosis despite the fact that results were “disappointing” due to delirium, confusion, hallucination and seizures. And of course Isabel Wilson’s Study of Hypoglycemic Shock Treatment from 1936, and Sakel’s Neue Behandlungsmethode and a profusion of other academic work —” and now he suddenly leans close to Bucky, and his tone turns vicious, “that confirms that sleep can sculpt your mind. They didn’t reliably find a way to use sleep as a molding knife, but I will.”

For a moment all his feigned languor vanishes, and Leander’s unequivocally savage.

Bucky swallows. After months of starvation and sleep torture he has so few reserves to even process — whatever this is. He pulls his eyes away from Leander and glances around, apprehensive.  High-ceilinged, with a huge arched window, this room must have been beautiful once. Now, the walls are encrusted with green damp and trees outside are reflected in a pool of water on the floor. There’s nothing to do here but drown. 

 

 


The rustling leaves outside are strangely at odds with the silence of the decaying room. Bucky looks around at the walls, the arches, and feels dizzy.  Being here feels oddly familiar.

“Do you recognize it, James?” Leander’s watching him, bright eyed, curious. He seems calm again, lounging elegantly on his chair. “You’ve been here before. That’s why we’re here in this old hospital, in fact, you know. I admit it's not exactly top of the line,” he glances around the dereliction, “but my job — part of it — is to help you remember. To remember something special, James. A story we need to know.”

Bucky’s eyelids are drooping again and he’s struggling to concentrate, so it takes him wholly by surprise when he feels a needle slide into his wrist. Not insulin, then. He’s learned that’s always the upper arm, so it’s something else from Leander’s fucked-up list. Leander’s still talking.

“I wanted to make it easy for you to remember. You were treated here with sleep and electricity — the two things were used together in so many ways, often at the same time. Cardiazol was even a precursor to ECT and much more elegant — they could have you convulsing and amnesiac in seconds without needing all that cumbersome later machinery.” His tone is contemptuous. “Those engineers, always so crass.” His delicate fingers sketch a shape of scorn in the air.

Then he stands, and Bucky forces his eyes to focus, to track him as he moves through the decayed space. The white coat and languid movements are somehow surreal in the ruin. “We made the nurses look the same, too. Their clothes. But sadly we couldn’t recreate the site in all its glory. I studied these places, you know. Oh, not Russian hospitals,” he laughs, “English ones. Narcosis wards of the ’forties. They were beautiful places, James.”

Now his voice is wistful, and he pauses in the center of the room, gazing around him as if he sees something that isn’t there. Bucky follows his gaze involuntarily, but all he can see is rotting wood and mold.

“Beautiful places,” repeats Leander, dreamy. “Rows of people, kept in sleep, forced under, over and over, day after day. Weeks and months under the needle. Some people called them Palaces of Sleep. Think of it, James. Palaces.”

Bucky does think of it, and suddenly very much wants to be sick.

Leander’s peaceful voice takes on the sing-song quality of a lullaby or fairytale. “You know, for a while in the forties, Hydra was covertly funding experiments in narcosis in other places, too. Private clinics liked it. It was glamorous, even. They used a few places in America and England for trials — even a hospital in Brooklyn. Then your Captain messed things up, and those kinds of plans had to be put on hold for a few decades. People forgot what sleep could do. But now —” Leander’s voice is suddenly much closer, and Bucky can feel his breath warm on cheek. “Now Hydra has me. And I’m so glad to help. We can start all those plans again. Palaces, Bucky. Palaces of sleep. And you’re helping make it come true. You are part of the project.” His voice drops to a sensuous, salacious whisper, “It’s called Project Rusalka.”

Bucky shivers. He knows that word. Spirits of water who pull you under, drown you, who hate human warmth and want to make skin cold and wet and dead. Bucky’s mind is growing bleary, dark with dirty water.

His eyelids are too heavy to keep open. He feels Leander take his wrist and stroke it, and then slide his thumb to massage the center of Bucky’s palm. It’s intimate, oddly overwhelming, and Leander keeps murmuring, lips grazing Bucky’s ear. “Such meticulous care, James. 24/7, dedicated nurses for each each patient, because of the risks of death and seizure.” Leander drops his hand and Bucky feels the sheet pulled away. “Every care and attention.” Now his hands are on Bucky’s thighs, between his legs, pulling back the sheet, the gown, exposing him. “Do you think this is the first time I’ve done this? Those supine sleeping patients. I had to give them pleasant dreams.’

Bucky can’t speak or move or open his eyes and sleep is pulling him, but he’s fighting it. He feels lips brush his mouth, and Leander whispers, “You were made for sleep, James. I will sculpt your mind with sleep.”

Then he moves back and the next moment Bucky feels his cock held in terrible softness, moist warmth. No. He tries to struggle in shock, but he’s firmly trapped, and sleep is pulling him down. He can’t even open his eyes.

Then — the door opens? Footsteps. The mouth withdraws, leaving his cock cool and wet, bare.

“Yes?” Leander sounds entirely composed.

Guseinova’s voice, cold. “Change of schedule. The next phase of Rusalka happens tomorrow.”

Bucky’s dimly aware of Leander standing, abrupt. He sounds angry. “That was not the agreement.”

“Irrelevant.” Her manner is as terse and professional as ever, but it’s impossible not to hear the malice. “You’re out of time, little mind doctor. Someone took out one of our search teams, and we don’t know what new operatives are on the board. After this phase is complete then asset will be returned immediately to Novosibirsk.” Her voice is all smiling knives. “Personally, I don’t know why they’re humoring you with even this. I will take pleasure in advising them of the outcome of your eccentric project tomorrow. After you fail.”

“He’s not ready.” Leander’s voice is furious, nervous.

Guseinova’s voice is adamant. “You’re out of time with your games. I still don’t know how you persuaded them to give you this much leeway. We move out tomorrow.” The door slams.

A long pause, and Bucky hears Leander walk back to the bed. The creak of the chair, and Leander’s long cool fingers taking his hand, rubbing inside his wrist, along his forearm. Sliding under his neck, and then his lips, urgent, close by his ear. “Remember, James. You need to remember. You need to remember now.”

He tries. Bucky’s dreams are thronged with old chambers, tall rooms, the thorns of needles and pain, always pain.

The ghosts are calling.

 

 

---***---***---

 

Chapter Text

 


[If you wish to avoid the two scenes with non-consensual elements, please click this link for an edited version of the chapter. If you have any doubt, please read this edited version.]

 

2004

The housekeeper smooths her hands over her skirt, and steels herself to open the door into the parlor.

It’s dark, as always. The mahogany décor and faded, thick red velvet curtains make it feel claustrophobic despite the high ceilings. Leander’s never expressed any interest in changing it, ever since his parents died two years ago and he took over ownership. He never wants to change anything, and that’s why she’s nervous now.

He’s draped over the chaise longue, one leg swinging idly over the edge, and staring, sulky, at the empty squares on the walls where paintings recently hung. He hasn’t turned on the light, and twilight is thick in this room of dust and shadows.

She swallows. “The auctioneers have taken the statues, and most of the pictures. They said they will come for the rest tomorrow.”

He doesn’t respond straight away. Then he murmurs, “All our family’s riches, all the art. Sold and forgotten.” His tone is oddly light, almost playful. “We dwindle, we once-great English families. Our glories fade.”

She bites her lip. He’s right. The modern world hasn’t been kind to minor aristocracy, and Leander’s seething resentment of that is not news to her. She knows enough of Leander not to trust his seeming lightness, and is glad to shut the door behind her. 

 

---***---***---

 

2007

The British library clerk is frowning at the acquisitions database when someone approaches the desk. She’s new in the role, and a bit overawed.

“These journals, please.” The hand proffering the request slip is shaking, and she looks up at the man as she takes it. He looks… strange, almost manic. His gray eyes are shining, his hair’s in disarray — he seems to vibrate with a quality of tamped-down frenzy.

She accepts the slip warily, and scans his user card. It all looks in order. He’s a medical student at King’s. The only unusual thing about the request slip is that he wants … wow, really old journals, from the 1930s. Med students rarely want the older stuff, that’s usually the Humanities crowd.

She sneaks another glance at him. He’s ... definitely intense about this. It breaches protocol to ask, but she’s curious. She smiles at him as she pushes his card back across the table. “Medical history research?”

His half-smile is charming, making his intensity somehow less jarring. “Maybe not just history. Perhaps we can use it now.”

She casts an involuntary glance back down the request slip. There’s a lot of “1936” and “1945” in that list for it to be of contemporary relevance. “Really?”

His smile widens, and he leans across the desk. His voice has dropped, and she has to lean in slightly to hear it. “Did you know,” he says slowly, his eyes on hers, “English psychiatrists were in some ways pioneers of some sleep therapies in the thirties?”

“Er, they were?” The conversation has taken a bizarre turn but somehow she can’t quite look away. She suddenly has an image of her brother’s butterfly collection, iridescent insects pierced.

His smile widens, and his eyes don’t leave hers. “It was glorious, you know. Pioneers of care. English psychiatry was special. They used sleep to heal.”

“Sleep?” She’s feeling a bit disoriented, but can’t quite see how to extricate herself from this exchange.

“Maybe some of that cleverness should be resurrected, hmm?”

Slightly dazed, she murmurs something noncommittal, and he takes his card and leaves, with one last cryptic glance.

After he’s gone, she looks back down at the desk and sees that he left the additional request slips after all. She lifts one up, thinking she might process it anyway but… something makes her hesitate, and she puts it back down. He can wait. And she couldn’t say why, but for a moment she has an irresponsible urge to crumple them up and throw them out entirely. That would be a sackable offense, it’s a ridiculous idea — but when she does eventually key in the request codes, she feels cold.

 

---***---***---

 

2012

Harry’s drowsy. He’s never been good at night shifts, and even after qualifying as a nurse three months ago he finds them hard. The prospect of working on a psychiatric ward had unnerved him too, but really it’s a ward like any other. Actually, on this particular ward an unusual number of patients sleep pretty heavily, dosed up on Haldol and Ativan or even Propofol.

Harry at first expected night shift to be silent, but it’s far from quiet — it’s a murmuring sussuration of breaths, the organic, uncanny sound of collective sleep. His own eyelids are drooping.

Suddenly he jerks back into alertness, his heart hammering. Someone is standing in front of him.

That someone smiles, slowly, “Sorry to alarm you.”

Harry puts a hand to his chest. “Fu—sorry, Dr—“ he rummages for the name, “Askin-Worland.” The day shift had told him on handover. Askin-Worland will drop by for sure, he’s really conscientious about night shifts.

Harry’s aware the doctor is watching his flustered gestures, and he tries to pull himself together. “Sorry, I might have drowsed off.”

The doctor narrows his eyes. “Perhaps a walk will refresh you? I was going to take one myself.”

Harry hears the implied command and stumbles to his feet. He trails the doctor along the ward’s corridor, peering into each side-ward. Askin-Worland pauses at the second private room, ducks inside, and after a moment Harry follows.

There’s a woman, fast asleep. The doctor pauses by her bed, and Harry follows his gaze. She’s pale, with long black hair, and deep in chemically induced oblivion. She’s breathing slow, her hands still on the coverlet. Her left arm is bandaged – she must have sustained injuries in whatever crisis brought her to the ward. The IV bag hangs over her head.

Harry glances at Askin-Worland. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything except watching. Harry’s not sure what the doctor is assessing for, and isn’t sure if he should be doing anything to help. He shuffles slightly, and it seems to break a spell.

“Sometimes,” says the doctor, musingly, “Sleep reminds me of drowning.”

“Uh?” manages Harry, intelligently.

“Well, think of it,” the doctor’s voice is light, maybe teasing? “You can almost imagine this young woman, under water, that dark hair swaying as she turns pale and cold.”

Wait… what? Harry blinks. That’s – that’s definitely not a normal comment, is it? “What?”

The doctor's watching him now, eyes sharp. “I’m saying the room’s too cold, nurse. You need to be more careful of the patients.”

“Uh… yes.” Harry stammers, glances at the window and… yeah, shit, it is pretty wide open, despite the barriers, and there’s a sharp breeze. He hastily moves to close it. He doesn’t earn any further reproofs during the rest of the round, but when the doctor leaves Harry finds himself staring after him.

He can’t shake a strange thought. That doctor likes sleep too much. 

 

---***---***---

2014

Jay swears, and flips his long dark hair away from his face in a gesture of pure exasperation. Leander’s late, as usual. He’s seriously inadequate as a boyfriend and hardly adequate as a friend-with-benefits. He’s damned if he’s going to wait up for him any longer.

Leander will be at the library or the lab, up to his ears in the research results or the new grant proposal about revisiting that weird old sleep crap he never shuts up about, often with a weird nationalist sideline on English psychiatry’s past glories and how much better society was in the forties. He's even getting bizarrely nostalgic about forties futurism, despite the fact that a lot of it it was clearly fascist. He’s got even worse ever since he won the postdoctoral award and started getting his sleep research published. The last thing he needs is academia encouraging his fucking nostalgia for 1940s sleep treatment.

Jay is fed up with him. Leander’s pretty and he’s clever, but he’s also a twit. When he sees him tomorrow he’ll make it clear they’re over. He goes to bed.

He sleeps deeply, always has. But something is pulling him, dragging him. He’s on his back, dazed, his knees forced back, and it hurts, it’s tearing where he’s inside him and. What. What the actual fuck.

“Get OFF me.” He’s abruptly awake, appalled, it’s Leander, he’s still pushing into him, apparently unfazed by Jay’s clear horror. Jay pushes hard at his chest and, as Leander pulls back slightly to look at him, slaps him hard.

That stops him. Leander looks at him, his eyes weirdly calm and distant. For a moment he’s expressionless and Jay’s feels a surge of pure inexplicable terror, but then — Leander pulls off him, out of him.

Jay can’t hold back a sob of relief, and he’s shaking as he pulls a sheet up over himself. He always sleeps naked, but right now he desperately needs covering.

“What the hell were you doing?”

Leander still looks calm. “I thought you’d like it.”

Jay narrows his eyes. He’s still shaking, every sense on high alert. “No you didn’t.”

Leander actually has the gall to grin slightly, shrug. “Well to be absolutely honest, darling, I wouldn’t have minded if you stayed asleep.”

Every part of Jay is cold. He can’t compute this, but one thing is clear. “Get out.” His voice is low and ragged. “Get out, and stay away from me and my friends.”

Leander drops his smile, visibly schooling his expression to perform mild contrition. “I’m awfully sorry for the misunderstanding, darling.” He dresses quickly and leaves.

Jay spends a long time looking at the door, then he bolts it and puts on the chain.

He doesn’t go back to sleep.

 

---***---***---

2016

Caretaking the old hospital’s hardly a demanding job, but George prefers it when he doesn’t have to come out to show visitors around on a cold autumn evening. He unlocks the door, and the gentleman steps through. He’s smartly dressed in a peacoat, and looks out of place, delicate and fastidious in the shabby corridors.

George follows him in silence. It’s not the first time this man’s come down from London to see the old hospital. George has a vague idea that he writes about it.

“So beautiful.” The man is murmuring. “All those lives, held right at the edge of death, forced into sleep hourly, daily. I came to say goodbye, you know.”

Baffling. George just grunts. He’s not keen to encourage reverie, he wants to go home and warm up over dinner, but the visitor doesn’t seem discouraged.

“Oh, yes. I’m going to South Africa and Russia, of all places. I’ll be working to help make something like this, again, on a grand scale. They are visionaries, you see. They appreciate,” he visibly preens, “my work. I didn’t expect Russia to be part of how I’d do it, but it’s fine to start there, and I’ll have an excellent subject on whom to begin.” His expression turns greedy.

George is unnerved. He feels something is expected of him, but all he can manage is, “Right.”

Leander suddenly smiles at him, his gaze direct and sharp. “You don’t understand. Most people don’t.” He inhales a deep breath, throwing his shoulders back, expansive, smile widening. “But that’s fine. Things are going to change. There will be order, even if it comes through pain.”

George is too taken aback to reply. He watches, wide eyed, as the gentleman walks back to his car. The autumn leaves rustle, and George shivers. Winter’s drawing in.

 

 


 

[Alternative version of chapter to avoid non-consensuality - if you have any doubt, please click this one]

 

 

Waking hasn’t been pleasant for Bucky for a long time. Waking trapped to a metal surgical table is worse.

‘<Prepare.>” It’s Guseinova. She’s wearing surgical scrubs and addressing adjacent medical technicians. Bucky grits his teeth. Okay, this time it’ll be torture. More conventional torture, rather. He’s not sure what to prefer, that or the sing-song horror of Leander’s experimental narcosis — and terrific, he’s here too, smiling behind Guseinova.

“The pain will be worth it, darling.”

The scientist’s eyelids twitch at Leander’s endearment, but she doesn’t comment. Why have Hydra given him to Leander? What the fuck is going on here? But any effort to make sense of the inexplicable dynamics of this mysterious base stops when one of the medics approaches his shoulder and stabs a scalpel into the center of the scarred wound.

The pain is searing and he screams and blacks out, only to return in and out of consciousness during the next few hours. He has no way to tell how much time has passed. He’s just enduring from second to second in a delirious merry-go-round of agony and shrieking and blood.

Then he’s coming around, panting, covered with sweat that’s starting to chill in the cool air. The room seems darker now, the blue shadows even more decayed. It feels like hours have passed.

He has a new arm, heavy and gleaming, even complete with the red star. It looks virtually identical, and the familiar weight pins him to the bed as much as the restraints. They’ve completed the cybernetic neural linkup, but the restraints are secure, and as usual he can’t get out of them.

Bucky’s flooded with horror, then relief, then sadness. He can’t sort out what he’s feeling at all. All he has is images: the revulsion the time he first examined his hand — the memory of slamming it into Steve’s shield — the delicacy of holding plums. He curls the fingers softly, filled with grief. They haven’t given him this hand for gentleness.

Guseinova, Leander and the surgical technicians are standing around him, and the technicians look shaken, but the scientist is staring coolly at Leander. She speaks in English. “You wanted to take over at this stage.”

“I do,” smiles Leander. “Thank you. You can go now.”

The way she pauses at that makes it very clear she doesn’t see him as someone in a position to be giving her orders. “I’ll give you an hour.”

Leander doesn’t acknowledge her as she leaves. Bucky’s still shaking from what’s been done to him, and his body feels limp, wracked, yet it's too early to be relieved that it's over. He watches Leander warily. Something is even more amiss than usual.

Leander approaches with another syringe, and this time he gently strokes the inside of Bucky’s wrist, brings the needle close. Bucky tenses, remembering the horrors of the burning thorns, but Leander strokes the veins with cool fingers and murmurs, “Softly now, James. This will feel … different.”

And oh God it does.

Bucky’s mental daze abruptly lifts at the same time that his body becomes completely heavy. His eyes close and he can't move his limbs, yet amid this near-paralysis, his senses are rapidly ratcheting up to near-intolerable levels. He feels properly awake for the first time in weeks. He’s suddenly newly aware of the rough texture of the sheets, the smell of mold, the sweetness of ruin and decay, and his own blood, metallic, hanging in the air.

As the drug takes hold his whole body loosens even further, absolutely lax, his breathing slow, his heart rhythmic and easy. Though his eyes are shut, his mind is hyper-aware, every sound, every pressure, every brush of air. Then he feels Leander’s hands, pushing back his gown. He’s still naked underneath, and the cold air on his newly sensitive skin makes his breathing hitch for a fraction. But he can’t even gasp. The drug forcibly soothes him into peace. It must even look as though he is … sleeping.

Now Leander’s hands are grasping his knees and forcing them apart and back, and Bucky feels a cold strap looped under each, pulling taut. Leander’s winding it in an intricate pattern around his knees and thighs, strips that feel like leather, digging into him tight. Loops, again and again, pulling him open. It must look like a web. He’s trapped.

Bucky realizes, distantly, that he should feel panic, but his heart-rate and breathing are still slow, his eyes closed, his body unclenched, loose. He feels the sheets against his bare back, the straps holding back his knees, and the cool, decaying air over his exposed cock and balls and thighs.

Then he smells the sharp bite of latex, and hears the click of a plastic lid. He knows what’s coming, wants to panic, to tense, to brace himself — but he can’t. He’s enchanted, stuck in a hideous fucking fairytale where the only magic is pharmaceutical and there’s nobody coming to rescue.

Then fingers at his unbearably sensitive hole, cool and sticky, ever so gently gliding, pushing in and working the coolness. At the same time his soft cock is wrapped in a warm mouth that just … holds. The contrast between cool and warm amid hyper-acute sensation makes Bucky want to scream, but — his body still rests, heart slow, lungs rhythmic, every muscle liquid. He's slamming against the walls of his own skin.

The torment lasts for ages, so slow, the implacably gentle hands working some liquid, tortuously tender. The mouth around his cock gently starts to suck, licking the underside of the head, rolling its softness around the warmth of tongue and cheek and mouth.

In between sucking, Leander starts whispering “Shhhh, my darling.” Bucky feels like he’s going out of his mind. But … he still can’t move or open his eyes. His breathing is calm. His body is at peace. His body is a prison.

The mouth is gone, and he feels Leander lean over him. Although Bucky’s eyes are still closed, he can tell Leander’s face is blocking the room’s dim light. Then Bucky feels Leander so gently, oh so horribly gently, breach him.

Bucky’s so thoroughly loosened and slick, and Leander is smaller than Steve, but with Steve it was so different. Bucky ached for him, wanted him to fill him. This? It doesn’t hurt, his body has been so painstakingly prepared, but even just the tip is a brutal intrusion. All Bucky can do is breathe peacefully, and lie, and the breathing is a lie.

The terrible strain is giving way to hallucination. A cloud of black butterflies covers him, briers grow over him, and the rough sheets are jagged. He’s been suffering these caresses for a hundred years. He’s surrounded by a century of stillness and decay. His mind is snagged on thorns. Yet he still can’t move or open his eyes, and his body’s entirely relaxed.

Leander pushes in with excruciating slowness, an inch at a time, whispering “Shhhh” with each push. One of his hands is stroking Bucky now, his chest, his stomach, his hips. When he’s fully seated he pauses, then leans his hands on either side of Bucky’s head and bends to brush his lips over his face.

It’s not a kiss, but something stranger. Leander’s mouth and breath move across his skin in a cobweb caress.

Then he starts to move. Bucky’s body is still entirely loose, and as Leander’s thrusts push him up the bed, the sheets feel like they are tearing his skin. Bucky has a brief vision of his back flayed open, blood pooling thick in the white sheets -- but there’s nothing like that. Just the soft rustle, as Leander’s thrusts into his body push him back and up, back and up, as his rapist rocks into him so cruel and gentle.

With unspeakable effort, Bucky finally manages to open his eyes a tiny fraction. He sees Leander over him, almost fully-clothed, but Leander’s gaze is fixed down, towards the point where they are joined. He is fucking him now, driving in hard, breathing ragged. He glances briefly back to Bucky’s face, and when he sees his eyes are open the most inexplicable tender expression crosses his face. He reaches up and strokes Bucky’s cheek with nauseating softness. Murmurs, again, terribly, “Shhhhh.”

Bucky’s cock is still entirely soft. After an almost savage thrust, Leander palms it possessively, pressing it down against Bucky’s belly as he works his own cock rough inside him. Now he is curling forward over him, hardening unbearably more, and Bucky’s eyes close again, helpless, as Leander pulses and comes.

Leander groans, grinding hard up into Bucky again, again. Then he slumps, a heavy weight, but only for a moment. He pulls out, and Bucky feels the cool air at his tender hole like a wound. Leander’s weight is gone, and his footsteps retreat. Bucky is limp in the restraints, his eyes closed. He’s alone in a ruined room, exposed and used.

His breathing is sleep-soft slow. 

 

---***---***---

 

When he wakes, he’s in the Chair.

He struggles against the restraints, desperate. If he could have ever escaped them he can’t now, so weak and changed.

“They used to combine them, you know.” It’s fucking Leander doing his nonchalant Cheshire cat impression, perched on the edge of a metal table. “Insulin shock with electroshock, a happy blend of ways to reset the human mind. The two together were effective.” He sniffs. “Those idiots in America saying you became ‘erratic’. Uninformed barbarians, no sense of history.” His smile is radiant.

As the technicians come between them and bring down the crown, Leander’s watching. Then there’s nothing but unbearable light.

 


The Soldier’s been walking a long time. It’s taken days to get here, even with the vehicles, and his legs are weak, keep giving way under him. The small team of soldiers and engineers with him is silent. He knows where they’re going. He knows the mission.

Something is strange, though. Something is wrong. It started the first night, when they slept on the fringes of trees at the edge of the taiga. He kept finding his eyes drawn by the ragged shape of the dark conifers against the sky.

He realized that he’s known such a forest before, and something golden, bright. Something a forest couldn’t smother. He tried to hang onto that, this shining-pure-fragment, but he couldn’t. All he could find in his mind were tendrils and shadows and a hungry waiting.

Another night and day of marching. The next night, the same memory of gold amidst tangled leaves, then hands moving across paper, drawing forests and faces. The Soldier didn’t know what it meant, but he held the memory close through the long hours of the dark.

Now, the small team has reached the heart of a great silence. As they approach the vast white structure, he feels weary relief. He’s been looking for it for a long time. He knows this place, and it knows him. It made him.

They’re in the center of the ruin, and it’s overgrown with brambles, thorns. Everyone else is in anti-radiation gear and silent, visibly tense. They’re waiting for him to move.

The Soldier’s dazed. He’s trying. He’s trying so hard. His mind holds traces of the corridors that riddle this compound, and he moves forward, still in a dream. He’s cold. Something is turning for him, some memory. It happened here. But it’s too hard to grip.

He’s weak and sick and scared, and there’s nothing golden, nothing bright, no way through these briars.

Golden.

Steve.

Steve isn’t here.

He stumbles. He’s Bucky. 

He’s kneeling in the ruins, shaking. He hasn’t completed the orders. He doesn’t know how. “<Sorry,>” he gasps.

The figures around him are still. Then Guseinova gestures, and the soldiers begin to withdraw. Leander grabs Bucky’s shoulder, his grip hard even through the gloves, and pushes him to the exit. The soldiers are moving quickly — everyone clearly wants to get out of there.

Back at the temporary base he’s pushed into the decon showers, and he submits, dazed. He’s Bucky again. He remembers what happened. The march through forests and fragments of memory — Steve, his golden hair, his drawings — then standing in the ruin, knowing he must search, but dazed. The conditioned dream slipping away, falling to his knees, and Leander’s blow.

He feels sick and weak. The technicians dress him, their hands rough, and he’s bundled out to face Guseinova.

“Well.” She’s speaking English, so it’s for Leander’s benefit. “That was clearly a rousing success.”

There’s snickering among the soldiers. Leander looks at her, venomous. “This is far too subtle for menials to understand.”

“I think I can recognize failure pretty easily, actually.” She turns on her heel, indicating to the soldiers to follow. “The genetics project was always more viable than locating the data through old sleep games. The Soldier will be relocated tomorrow and Zhar-ptitsa will be accelerated.” She spares Leander one last contemptuous glance. “Don’t worry, little mind doctor. We still need you for the next phase of Rusalka, you’ll probably get it working eventually, all those little sleep-hospitals you like to dream about in Europe and Britain and America. But this effort Is a washout. I will have to report.”

She leaves, and most of the soldiers follow her rapidly, all but running to depart the toxic site.

Leander, however, stays. He comes to Bucky and yanks him to his feet, and his mouth is twisted, ugly. “You stupid fucking queer. You messed it up for me. You let me down, James.”

Bucky’s still disoriented, still terrified. He’s acutely aware of failure, but apart from that his mind is too tangled for thoughts. He is still in the grip of a strange compulsion to move through this space, to find a secret. It’s here. He doesn’t know what it is, but something’s calling him. There’s something waiting.

Then Bucky gasps, Leander’s slapped his face hard, and Bucky realizes he had been sliding back to his knees. Now the soldiers are pulling him away, and he’s looking back at the snow, at the white ruin.

He knows he will come back here. The thorns in this place never let go. 

 

---***---***---

 


Bucky emerges into dim consciousness, clammy, muscles weak and trembling. He hears himself groan. Then a wet cloth covers his nose and mouth, reeking of ether, and at the same time a body lays on him, heavy. He’s struggling to breathe, choking.

The cloth’s removed and Bucky gasps, eyes streaming, and sees it’s Leander — but he looks different. His pupils are unnaturally dilated and his cheeks are flushed.

Bucky tries to register what’s happening, what’s been done to him. The room is dark, so it’s still night. There’s surely no pretense at medical treatment now. This will be punishment, for failing in the ruin.

His arms are locked in the usual way, but his knees are folded back and the unbreakable ankle restraints have him locked to some metal device. He can smell rust, corroded steel. It must be apparatus from the abandoned hospital. When he tries weakly to move his feet metal tears his skin, and blood’s already trickling down his calves. He can't break free.

The sheets have been pulled off and his gown torn off. He can feel Leander’s bare cock, wet already, pressing to breach him. Fuck. This is going to hurt, but he’s damned if he’s going to just give in.

“Is this more,” Bucky gasps, “fake psych stuff?”

Leander’s smile in the dark is vicious. “Oh the narcosis is real. I care about that more than anything. I will make it work.” His lips and warm breath move over Bucky’s cheek, his mouth, “But the sex? Yeah. That’s been for me all along. And this time I just want to fuck you.”

And with that, he thrusts in, brutal, to the hilt. He must have slightly prepped Bucky when he was unconscious because he penetrates him with relative ease. Bucky tries to twist away, but the only part of himself he can move is his hips, and his writhing makes Leander’s cock rub his prostate. Bucky chokes as he feels his own cock start to fill. He closes his eyes tightly, turns his head. “I don’t want this.” It’s a whisper to himself.

Leander murmurs, “No?” He pushes himself up off Bucky’s body with one arm, and then any gentleness vanishes. He grips Bucky by the hair and yanks his head up, forces him to look. Bucky closes his eyes and turns his head immediately, but not before he’s seen it: Leander buried in him to the balls and his own cock swelling.

Leander slams his head back down hard enough to make Bucky see stars. Then he murmurs, tender again, “That’s it. Just take it. You’re beautiful. Stay. Still.

Then he keeps moving, and Bucky is trembling with the effort to stay motionless — not to comply with the command, but because he cannot let himself get any pleasure from this.

With every thrust his legs are scraped against the manacles, tearing, and the blood is pouring fast now, sharp pain, tattered skin. Leander’s lean body is working fluid and rhythmic as he chases his own climax, but he's still talking, his tone conversational but breathless. “There are rumors, you know. Did you let Rogers fuck you, hmm? Hold your ass open for his cock?”

The coarse question juxtaposed with mention of Steve makes Bucky flinch, his whole body tightening. Leander laughs, and it’s a high, delighted thing. “Ah, so he did — but it was romantic. Was it tender, James? Was it gentle? Did you make love?” Now he shifts his weight back and starts driving into Bucky harder from different angles, testing.

With the next thrust Bucky jerks and moans, he can’t help it, and Leander hisses and keeps driving against that spot. Bucky’s flooded with terrible pleasure. “What do you think, James?” Now the hiss is cruel. “What would your captain think if he could see you getting hard with me inside you?”

Bucky’s making a broken sound with every thrust. He's trying not to move, not to breathe, to will his own erection down, but the unforgivable bliss is building.

Then the floor lamp at the door snaps on, and Bucky hears a subdued salutation in Russian. One glance shows it’s the night nurse, expressionless and unmoved. Leander doesn’t break his rhythm at all, doesn’t bother turning to look. Instead he leans forward, breathes in Bucky’s ear, “She can see I’m fucking you —” he slows his thrusts to languid, salacious — “and she can see you’re not fighting.”

That’s too much. Bucky can’t bear the passivity any more. He twists, frantic, with all his limited strength, but all he achieves is grinding around his rapist’s cock and it’s enough to bring Leander to his peak and ignite his own desire. Leander fucks him hard and Bucky’s climax is shattering. Appalling.

When Leander groans and comes inside him, Bucky’s staring, eyes wide, at the pool of light on the ceiling. 

 

---***---***---

 

Bucky’s weeping in the dark. He started about an hour after Leander left. He’s still exposed, knees still bound back, legs still bleeding, and the very posture is humiliation incarnate.

What’s killing him is knowing he liked it.

There are shadows in his mind. He can see things that happened before out there in the icefields, in the white ruin. Memories have been returning ever since Leander started the hypnotic reading, and although Leander calls it mind sculpting, for Bucky, it’s more like summoning ghosts. The words and reading were less brainwashing then … incantations. Inviting haunting.

Well. The ghosts have heard, and they’re hungry.

As the long hours of the dreadful night wear on, Bucky feels the barrier get thinner. It’s ironic. Leander thought the sex was just for his own sake, no relevance to helping Bucky remember at all, but it turns out that being degraded, helpless and in terror of losing himself — that’s deeply familiar.

It echoes his unmaking.

And now he knows. He can feel it, a body memory that will unfurl if he returns to that ruin. He will be able to retrace the ways he moved, the places Zola took him, the things that happened. He’s in the dark, cold and crying. His thoughts are tangled as briers.

Hours lapse. Then a sound at the door, and the floor lamp snaps on. It’s the nurse with the usual night insulin dose, but there’s something different about it. She leaves him bound, doesn’t even loosen his legs or cover him up, and she doesn’t offer water. As a final strangeness, she’s not quite as impassive as usual. She inexplicably pauses at his upper arm with the insulin needle, and her eyes meet his.

There’s a flash of — apology? It’s so disorienting to see it, a glimmer of human feeling on a Hydra nurse under Sarah’s old cap.

Then she murmurs, in English, “Goodbye, James,” and the needle slides home.

She withdraws the needle, hesitates, gathers her equipment. She walks to the door, and before she leaves she looks back at him. Her expression is cryptic but … yes, Bucky’s sure of it, she looks sad. Then she extinguishes the floor lamp and Bucky’s alone, still bound, in the dark.

At least an hour ticks by. Bucky feels sick, dizzy. Colder than usual, clammy. Then — it’s — this isn’t right — trembling, every single muscle shivering. Visceral unease is drowning any other thought. Something is deeply wrong.

Then snap, his head jerks back and he’s inside a storm. His body is filled with light and shaking and agony. It carves him out.

He’s translucent with pain. He is glass.

Then he breaks, and there is nothing any more.

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text


Sometimes, the light over the snow makes the world look fantastical. Steve’s artist’s eye notes the weird luminescence, the sharp edges of the shadows cast by the reflected light. Sam’s still asleep back in the tent, but Steve’s finding it harder and harder to rest, so he’s pacing outside, watching the dawn. As far as he can see, there is nothing but snow and low, white-covered shrubs. The cold is still relentless. He’ll never get used to it. These ice fields don’t feel like places for humans to be. Trackless. Desolate. Humans shouldn’t be alive here.

Except that’s nonsense, and he knows it - western-centric, arrogant, forgetting that of course people have lived in, used and loved this terrain for millennia. The hostility and desolation he finds here says more about himself than the land.

He shifts uneasily. His thoughts keep returning to Sam’s words in the compound. The self-sacrificing kick you’ve been on since 1943. Steve didn’t want to hear it, but he has now, and the words keep returning, re-framing his own history. 

He refuses to think about it. Not until the mission’s over. They need to find the red book, whatever that may mean now. In his nightmares, it’s become an engine of cruelty, manufacturing endless pain.

Natasha’s been gone for a week. She called for Nakia who came in the jet, and the two of them headed off in search of intelligence. Meanwhile Sam and Steve have continued their futile exploration of targets on the original list. 

Sam's moving in the tent. Enough dreaming — time to get to work.

---***---***---

 

It’s dusk when they hear a cloaked jet. Both take a defensive stance, but Steve’s not surprised when the jet's revealed to be Wakandan. Natasha and Nakia emerge, pushing back fur-lined hoods, and Nakia speaks without ceremony. “We’ve found it.”

“The hospital?”

Both nod. Natasha’s grim. “It’s been empty for decades, and then six months ago people at the nearest town noticed increased traffic out that way, even though it’s hard to reach. Anyone who went out to look was politely encouraged to leave, and told the site’s being, ah, redeveloped.”

“To be what?”

“Residential.” Natasha smirks at Steve’s raised eyebrows. “Yes, apparently a long-disused medical institution fifty miles from the nearest town, with no reliable winter access, is to be turned into desirable homes. It’s not the most plausible cover story Hydra’s ever produced." Her scorn is obvious. "They’re so sloppy now.”

“Don’t underestimate them. Numbers?”

Nakia’s brisk. “Judging from the food supplies being bought in the town, it is a small team, even if they are airdropping additional supplies. I estimate 10 to 15, to include scientific or medical staff. They’ve clearly been keeping it small to minimize risk of detection.”

Steve feels less relief than bleak determination, the familiar groove of a mission coming into clear focus. “We head there tonight, and attack before dawn. Nakia,” he looks at the elegant spy, “will you join us?”

She nods calmly. “They have a prisoner. I want to help, and the more project data we can acquire for Shuri the better. Natasha and I can prioritize intel retrieval, and also fight.” Of course, yes, both spies are lethal combatants. Sam and Steve’s skills are rather more one-dimensional.

“Nat?” Sam’s watching Natasha, and when Steve follows his gaze he sees she’s frowning.

“It’s … familiar.” Natasha speaks slowly. “That place. Familiar in a way that tends to mean I really don’t want to remember why.”

Sam’s eyes round, and Steve understands. This is personal. A place out of Natasha’s own history, a story scarred and strange and only partly known even to her. She doesn’t share it lightly.

“What do you remember?” Nakia’s tone is practical.

Natasha’s still frowning, eyes unfocused on the middle distance. Then she moves her arms slowly, like a sleepwalker. She holds her left arm out in front of her and puts her right palm onto her left upper arm, then her wrist. “Needles,” she breathes. “Injections. But … I can’t remember why.”

“Serum experimentation?” Steve’s impatience is reaching cracking point.

“N — no,” Natasha’s voice is still slow, her gaze distant. “I don’t know what the needles were for, but I’m absolutely sure they were not to make me more powerful. Quite the opposite.”

Steve can’t pass this up, even if it distresses her. “Nat, try to remember more.” Sam shifts at his request, and moves closer to Natasha. She nods to Steve, pale but composed. “I’ll try.”

“Let’s go.”

---***---***---


Sam and Natasha are packing equipment in the rear of the jet. They’ll empty the jeep and leave it here under arctic camouflage, and fly back here after the raid to retrieve it.

“Steve’s taking strain.” Natasha’s voice is carefully neutral as she stacks the camping gear in the racks.

“Yeah, he — “ Sam halts. He doesn’t even know where to start. “Nat, he was reckless at the compound.”

She arches an eyebrow and her mouth quirks. Sam rolls his eyes, “Yeah, okay, obviously reckless is his default mode, but.” He swallows. “This wasn’t Cap.” I think he wanted to die.

Natasha’s expression softens, becomes at once kinder and somehow unreadable. “He hasn’t been Cap for a long time, Sam.” She says it gently, as if to someone wounded.

The sheer magnitude of Steve Rogers’ many losses hangs between them for a beat.

Sam murmurs, “He’s promised to talk to someone about his — self-sacrifice thing.”

She purses her lips and nods slowly. She doesn’t look as relieved as Sam expected. “Okay.”

They carry on loading the gear. Glancing outside, Sam sees Steve standing tall and rigid, gazing with laser intensity in the direction of travel. Every part of him looks tensed to strike. 

---***---***---


They’ll take the cloaked jet to within 10 miles of the site, then hike the rest of the way. It’s not an easy place to reach. Nakia and Steve are in the cockpit, and Sam and Nat are in the back, talking quietly, their heads close together.

Steve finds it restful to be around Nakia. He doesn’t have to make small talk. She’s calm and professional and skilled. So like Natasha in those ways, but without the same tragedies of her making. 

The jet’s on autopilot, and Nakia’s processing intel using a Wakandan tablet that projects a 3D display.

“The psychiatrist!”

Steve looks up at Nakia's exclamation. “What?”

“The English psychiatrist we mentioned at T'Challa's first briefing, the man with ties to the Novosibirsk corporation and the South African supremacists, who vanished from Cape Town six months ago.”

Steve stiffens. “He’s here?”

“After this site became an area of interest we started remote monitoring a video feed in the nearby town to see if any people of interest were recorded. We have 86% positive facial match on him.”

This is no coincidence. Steve knows they are getting close. “Report on subject.”

Nakia taps her device and it projects a photograph. “Dr. Leander Askin-Worland. Research psychiatrist, was affiliated with King’s in London. He’s held several postdoctoral posts, some prestigious. Has been active on multiple research projects exploring soporifics and the psychological effects of sleep and sleep deprivation. He is also,” she gestures, and the device adds to the projection a detailed resume, lists of publications, “an academic historian, with a second doctorate in medical history. His research specialty is 1940s sleep therapies, narcosis, especially deep insulin coma therapy, specifically as deployed in English hospitals and on the Second World War front line. He has written extensively on the ways English psychiatrists adapted the treatment from the Continent. The treatment is not well known now,” she glances at Steve, inclines her head, “but of course you know of it, Captain.”

“And now this guy’s in Siberia in a ruined hospital.” Sam sounds resigned. “Hydra just have to be spooky.”

“He’s also minor landed gentry, the last surviving heir to a rural baronetcy in south-east England.” Nakia gestures again, and the projector adds a sepia photograph of a tree-surrounded mansion beneath Askin-Worland’s likeness.

Steve’s looking at the man’s photograph. He’s half-smiling, gaze direct to the camera. He looks nonchalant, kind of aristocratic. Something about his jaunty flair reminds Steve a little of Monty Falsworth, but there is a cruelty to the twist of those lips that Monty never had.

“I don’t like bullies.” Steve’s voice is soft, speaking to himself.

Nakia snaps the device closed. “Nor do I, Captain.” Her tone is matter-of-fact. “We will stop this one.”

 

They reach the hospital just before dawn. In the dim light, it looks like a kind of castle — delicate turrets, now crumbling, nearly swallowed by a wilderness of trees. Beeches gleam against the cold sky.

“This is supposed to have real estate potential?” Sam’s tone is dry.

“Places.” Steve’s focused on the mission, and the team quietens and takes on its usual operational efficiency.

Steve moves through the compound and it feels like a dream. As he pushes through a mesh of briers, he remembers something from years ago — a drawing he did after his mother’s death, showing the faces of people he knew caught in cruel thorns. He thinks of Sarah, haunted by grief, and of the Howlies, resilient but scarred, all of them, by the grinding cost of war.

He thinks of Bucky, beautiful and brave, stretching like liquid in the sunlight of their old apartment. Huddled in the Italian forest, broken beneath that tree.

He thinks of Bucky, falling.

The team’s quietness makes moving through the overgrown wreckage of the building even more fantastical. Can this even be called an interior, when it’s so broken, so open to the elements? Walls and ceilings have partially caved in, and brambles sprawl along the corridor floors in a living carpet of thorns.

Steve smells wet earth and mold. He hears life all around him, the rustling of nocturnal animals, the rustle of leaves. Two sudden gleams in the darkness — a fox. Shining eyes looking back at him, a vivid stillness. Then it’s gone.

He keeps moving through this strange sad dream of a place. Someone here needs saving, someone who might know where the red book is, what forms it takes now. Then he finds the first guard, and he can let his body take over.

---***---***---

 

It’s easy to quell the team on the base. There’s a STRIKE team of about six who don’t offer anything to trouble the four of them, and two nurses and a white-clad — scientist? technician? — opt for the surprising retro finality of cyanide capsule.

The dark-haired scientist succeeds in biting it a second before Steve dislocates her jaw. As she dies, she’s watching him, and her expression is … challenging, somehow personal? He has no time to think about it. At the lab, Natasha and Nakia set to work retrieving intel, and Sam and Steve set to sweeping the rest of the site.

This wing of the building is still a mess, but at least electricity’s been partially restored. Dim lighting runs down a corridor that frankly belongs in a horror movie.

 

Then Sam enters the next room and gasps, a sharp, shocked sound. “Steve, wait —”

It’s too late. Steve’s in the room and —

 

it’s Bucky

 

he

 

he’s bound, and bleeding

 

it’s Bucky.

 

Steve,” Sam’s shouting, he’s already by Bucky’s side, “smash the restraints,” and Steve’s there, slamming fists down to break manacles at wrists and ankles. It’s Bucky. Steve’s consumed at once by incredulous joy and pure horror.

Bucky’s unconscious, naked, they’re bringing his legs out of the restraints, out of weird black cords, his legs are covered in blood, torn at the ankles, it’s Bucky, he has a new arm, he’s not moving, he’s so thin. “Get the kit.” Sam’s abrupt. Steve obeys, wrenching the first aid kit out of their gear, it’s Bucky, and Sam’s holding Bucky’s wrist, rolling back his eyelids, looking more grim with every second. “Steve, search, find medication, anything, any clue,” and Sam’s hands are moving quickly, as practiced in the arts of succor as of violence.

Steve’s instantly ripping the room apart. Sam’s talking, his voice very clear. “Barnes. James. Can you open your eyes? Can you lift your hand?” Steve’s wrenching open drawers, containers.

There. Vials and bags of liquid, different colored labels, a small black case, “Sam.”

Sam catches a vial one handed, glances at it, and his eyebrows rise. “What the fuck?” and now he’s grabbing for the case, pulling out some plastic device, doing something to Bucky’s fingers. Steve’s by his side, agonized, every part of him screaming.

A vivid drop of blood appears on Bucky’s skin and Steve clenches his fists involuntarily. Sam squeezes the blood into the device and stares at it.

Then he’s moving incredibly fast, sliding a needle into Bucky’s hand, “Get a vial labeled dextrose 50%.” He’s terse and very tense, bent over Bucky’s hand with a needle attached to tubing.

Whatever Sam is trying to do isn’t working. His jaw tightens and he bites his lips. He tries to insert the needle again. He’s sweating visibly now.

Tries again.

And again.

The room is completely silent. All Steve can see is to Bucky’s thin body. The hollowed cheekbones, the shadows under those beautiful eyes, now closed. Oh, God let them open again. Let his eyes open again.

Then scarlet’s spilling into the tubing at Bucky’s hand and Sam’s taping across it, grabbing the vial from Steve, filling a syringe and inserting the needle. He leans back and takes a deep breath as he pushes the medication, but he’s still nowhere near relaxed. His fingers are around Bucky’s wrist again and he’s watching his face intently.

Long seconds pass. Minutes. Sam rubs a shaking hand over his eyes, keeps watching. His other hand never leaves Bucky’s wrist. Bucky’s as pale and pierced as he was at Azzano, but so thin. So still.

After long minutes, the faintest color returns to Bucky’s lips, his cheeks, and his breathing becomes more audible. Sam’s shoulders slump in visible relief, and he looks up, finally meeting Steve’s gaze. “He’s gonna make it.”

Steve closes his eyes. His chest feels torn open and the world is suddenly in color again. Steve hadn’t even noticed it wasn’t, until now. It’s as if his own blood is thawing, starting to flow again, only to be spilling from him, pouring into snow. He can’t keep his eyes closed for long — he has to stare again at Bucky, and he does, drinking in every detail of his face. “What happened?”

Sam rubs his face with his palms, takes a deep breath. “He was in coma from severe hypoglycemic shock. Artificially induced, Steve.” Sam shows him the vials, with labels Steve doesn’t understand. “Someone tried to kill him with an overdose of insulin. That doesn’t kill quickly. After it’s injected it starts dropping the body’s blood sugar, but it’s slow. Takes an hour, even ninety minutes, to really hit. In an overdose, people sweat, get dizzy. If they get way, way too much, then … seizures. Neurological damage, coma, death.” Sam’s silent a moment. “Looks like they injected him well beyond the human limit and left him to die alone.”

Steve’s fury is so incandescent he can barely speak. He knows who’s implicated. “The psychiatrist.” His voice is hoarse.

“Looks that way.” Sam’s attention is on Bucky again, and he’s carefully assessing his other injuries, his lacerated calves, the bruising under his thighs. Then Sam’s jaw tenses and his face goes carefully blank.

Sam pulls a sheet over Bucky’s legs and torso, gently lifting his hand with the tubing. With his next words, he doesn’t meet Steve’s eyes. “Steve.” Sam’s voice is even. “I guess you realize what else they have been doing to him.”

Steve knew, on some level, the instant he saw him. Bucky wouldn’t have been bound like that for any other reason. The terrible fact has been here all along, as sharp and unforgiving as another needle.

Sam’s eyes meet his again, and he speaks as plainly as Steve can always trust him to do. “It’s — he’s not injured externally. There’s no blood, but ... there’s —” He takes another breath and says it clear. “Ejaculate, and — “ Sam visibly swallows, “I obviously can’t say whether he was — conscious. But Steve. We have to focus on getting him stable.” Steve knows what Sam is saying. Don’t freak out. Focus on what matters right now.

Steve suddenly has a body memory of visceral clarity, the moment when they entered the lab and he broke the neck of one of the Hydra team. He can feel the slick crack of bone snapping under his hand.

He doesn’t speak.

Sam glances at his watch, and when Steve does too it’s a jolt — it’s only been about ten minutes since they entered the room. It’s felt like a hundred years. Nakia and Nat still don’t even know, but Steve doesn’t care. He’s back to watching Bucky and his color is truly coming back now, though he’s still painfully thin and pale.

The fierce joy within Steve is getting brighter, more blazing. The whole world is narrowing to Bucky’s face.

Steve leans close. He cannot not do this. He feels like a candle, like fire, desperate to rekindle, and he bends and presses his lips to Bucky’s pale chapped mouth, so cold and still.

Bucky’s lips part under his.

Steve’s closes his eyes and fights tears at the rush of gratitude, sharp as prayer. Then he pulls back and looks.

Bucky’s eyes are dazed, bleary. Open. 

---***---***---

 

Chapter Text


 

 

Bucky’s emerged from gray unconsciousness so many times now, but this feels different — he’s aching with cold, a bone-deep chill, and every part of him hurts. Mostly he feels pure despair. There’s no reason to open his eyes.

Then, impossibly, warm lips on his. Lips he knows, and when he opens his eyes, a golden blur.

A moment of wordless disbelief, then it’s Steve, wrapping around him, his huge body full length against his own, his mouth against his hair. It can’t be true. It is true. Steve’s real and warm, bright as flame.

“Steve.” Bucky’s tongue is thick, he’s utterly disoriented, but he knows there is something he must say, something crucial. “I wasn’t dead.” Even in his confusion one thing is absolutely clear to him — he has to take away that grief. Steve mustn’t be hurt by that thought for a moment longer.

“Oh God, Bucky.” Steve sounds choked. “I know.” He’s holding him even tighter.

Bucky can’t speak. He closes his eyes. Right now, he’s safe. He’s wrapped in gold.

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

 

After a while something else comes to Bucky, a dizzy sense of a story. “You made it through the thorns. You said you would.”

Steve freezes for a moment, then grips him almost cruelly close.

The gray swallows Bucky again for a while, but this time it’s not as unbearable — Steve’s a firm weight against him, warm against his body. An anchor. Bucky’s not sure how long he drifts in and out of awareness, but gradually his vision clears and he can think in slightly straighter lines. Steve’s still wrapped around him and — Wilson? — yeah, it’s the Falcon, he’s bandaging Bucky’s bleeding legs. Steve’s not budging, gripping Bucky with his usual determination and stubbornness.

Wilson’s posture relaxes infinitesimally. “OK. Barnes is stable enough now. Call for exfil.”

No.” Bucky’s filled with a wave of panic. “Stay. I have to stay.” He tries to push himself up, to move his legs off the bed, and he’s falling.

“Bucky!” Steve catches him, broad arms tight around him. “We need to get you to medical help —”

“Goddamnit, no.” They have to get back to the white ruin. This pain cannot have been wasted. “Steve, fuck, I’ve remembered what they wanted me to do now, and I have to go there.”

Sam mutters, “Calm him down, Steve,” and Steve grasps Bucky’s arms.

“Okay, Buck, okay. Just — we can’t go yet, just — just rest a bit please, sweetheart. Then you can tell us what — where we need to go. We will go there, Bucky, I promise.” Bucky looks at him, desperate. Steve’s blazing with earnestness.

Bucky can trust him. Of course he can.

He yields, his shoulders drooping, and buries his face against Steve's chest. Steve’s arms are around him, and against his cheek his heartbeat is a hammer, strong and sure.

 

 

---***---***---

 

Bucky’s shivering, and he still looks disoriented at intervals, but he’s not trying to get off the bed anymore and Steve’s counting that as a win. He’s still weak and pale, and there are needle marks all over his arms. He must have been starved for a long time for those not to heal near-instantly.

Their prisoner had been Bucky, all along. A dead-eyed zombie in an abandoned hospital. Steve’s fists clench again as he watches Sam wipe the blood from Bucky’s legs. Sam’s attached butterfly-strips and bandaged the worst wounds, and now he’s taping carefully over the needle in his hand that was so hard to get in in the first place. He’s clearly planning to leave it there for now. There’s a sound at the door, and Steve glances over.

It’s Natasha. Her eyes are wide, fixed on the bed, and for a brief moment the supremely self-possessed Natasha Romanoff is visibly shaken. “James.” There’s a pause, during which she doesn’t seem to have words.

Sam moves to her and she curves her body towards him, but her report, professional, is to Steve. “The base is secured. No sign of the psychiatrist. He must have been offsite.” Her voice is measured, but she’s paler than usual.

Bucky looks up sharply, “Leander?” His whole body has tensed.

Steve pulls him closer. “Leander Askin-Worland?”

Bucky’s now staring fixedly at his own hands. Mutters, “I never got his last name.”

Sam looks at Bucky, purses his lips. Glances at Steve and raises his eyebrows, and Steve nods. If the base is secure they have at least a few more minutes, and Bucky needs to be cleaned and dressed. Steve should be the one to do help — they have to preserve as much of Bucky’s dignity as he can, especially now.

Sam moves to the door with Natasha, murmurs, “I’ll explain what we know. Let’s get Nakia.” His arm is around her shoulders before they’re out the door.

Steve’s already focused entirely on Bucky. “Can I help … clean you up?” Steve’s tentative. Bucky’s uncharacteristically porcelain, thin enough to snap, newly delicate, maybe, in ways the healing factor can't fix.

Bucky nods, dazed. He’s still drifting in and out of awareness, which may be a mercy. Steve slides off the bed, takes the sterile wipes from the kit.

He’s already had his arms around Bucky, but touching him again, deliberately, like this, is overwhelming. The blood and sweat are so tangible, Bucky’s so tangible, right here under Steve’s hands. Steve cleans him tenderly, wiping the rest of the sweat and blood from his legs, his arms. Then he pulls the sheet away from his torso, and what he sees makes him momentarily blind with rage.

Bucky’s naked body is emaciated, the ribs clearly visible, and his abdomen’s unmistakably stained. Steve’s hands shake as he wipes semen from Bucky’s body. He can’t let himself think about this yet. Like Sam said, he has to focus — there is no place right now for fury.

Steve swallows, sets the wipes aside. “Can I get your clothes?”

Bucky is definitely looking more lucid. He sits up. “Yes.” He’s hoarse but resolute. “There.”

Steve opens the indicated closet, and — well, this is different. It looks like the Winter Soldier tactical gear, but it’s … creamy, off-white?

“Arctic camo.” Bucky reaches for it and Steve brings it over. His lopsided smile is not at all amused. “They used to use me out here a lot. They had the right kit for it.”

Steve helps Bucky swing his legs over the edge of the bed. Bucky manages his own underwear and undershirt and tac pants, and reaches out for the jacket. The arctic Winter Soldier gear is visibly insulated and padded so it bulks up his emaciated form, and Steve’s grateful to see the insulation. Bucky’s struggling with the buckles, though, those ridiculous straps too much for his shaking fingers.

Steve reaches out to help, but his heart twists as he fastens them, starting at the waist. So many buckles, tying Bucky down, locking him in. He can’t help pausing, his fingers hesitating to fasten the next, and Bucky’s gray eyes lift to his, sharp and clear.

Still watching Steve, Bucky rests his own hand over his. He doesn’t say anything. Very gently, he moves Steve’s fingers back to the cool metal.

It’s a request. It’s a choice. Bucky wants to wear this. Steve swallows, drops his own gaze, and complies.

 

 

---***---***---

 

 

Bucky still can’t walk, so Steve scoops him up tenderly, bridal-style, and his heart could burst with the sweetness and pain of it. Bucky’s alive, but relief changes so quickly into desperation. Protect him. Keep him safe.

Steve strides out of the terrible room, holding his precious burden. The other three are standing ready on the other side. Their faces are grave, and they fall wordlessly into formation around him — Nakia ahead, Natasha to his right, Sam taking the rear. Together, they move silently through the strange ruin.

Steve is a thousand times more aware than he was on entry to this place. He noticed every detail before, sure — even when he’s emotionally numb his senses are still enhanced — but now everything strikes him with new sharpness, new horror. The crunch of the brambles sprawling over broken floors. The smell of earth and death.

This place nearly buried Bucky.

Steve’s grip tightens, holding Bucky even closer, and Bucky moves his cheek gently against Steve’s neck. Protect him. Keep him safe. It's a litany.

Bucky still seems drowsy, and he starts shivering convulsively as soon as they emerge into the cold. Then he abruptly seems to fall back into heavy sleep, his head falling back, neck exposed.

Sam’s instantly by their side, holding Bucky’s wrist, lifting his eyelids. He frowns. “Not coma, but we need to get him to camp, get him warm. Hurry.”

It’s sharp agony and joy to cover those last miles, aching with fear for Bucky, consumed with the weight of him, the sight of him. Steve can’t help staring even while he needs to watch the icy ground. Bucky’s so beautiful, his dark hair stark against the snow.

When they reach the camp, there’s no time to stamp the snow — they pitch the tent precariously in the shelter of the jeep. Steve wraps Bucky in blankets and gets the heater running while Sam uses the finger-blood-device again. He looks unhappy at the result. “Get one of the bags, 10% dextrose.” Steve leaps to obey — they brought all those labeled vials and bags from the hospital — and Sam clips it to the lamp holder tag in the ceiling, hooks up a syringe. With absolute gentleness he takes Bucky’s thin hand and slides the needle into the tubing.

He catches Steve watching. “It’s a glucometer. Tests his blood sugar. It’s low again, but not as serious as before. I mean, anyone else, and I’d have them on the jet, but —” Sam’s shrug and affectionate mock-weary eye roll simultaneously communicates supersoldiers and I’m not gonna gainsay you on Barnes. “He’ll come around soon. You stay here, keep him warm. I’ll help Nat prepare the snow for pitching the tent.” Nakia left soon after they got back, heading off to process intel and take material from the base back to Shuri.

Sam stands and moves to the tent’s awning, and hesitates. “Steve — they really did a number of his metabolism, but he’ll be okay. We got there in time.” His warm eyes are gentle, then he ducks out into the cold.

Inside the delicate canvas, it’s gold and silent. The heater’s whirring and the lamp gleams, its light making the beige canvas yellow.

Steve can’t let go of Bucky. He half-sits, half-lies by his side, doing his best to warm him. Skin to skin occurs to him but he resolutely shoves that idea out of his mind. Not after what he saw. His hands tighten on the blankets and he pushes down his fury. No time for that right now. Just help Bucky. Bucky’s here.

Steve can’t look away. Bucky’s so thin. Face more narrow and sunken, but still him. He looks at the metal arm, thinks about Tony shearing it from him, and now that’s back again too, gleaming silver under the red star. Steve doesn’t know whether to be glad or sad about that. All he can feel is terrified joy, a sharp fear that Bucky will vanish again.

He’s failed Bucky so many times.

Steve holds Bucky’s flesh hand and waits. His world is in the tent with him. Steve’s thawing all over again, the beautiful pain of coming back to life.

Bucky opens his eyes. For a moment he looks wild, then his gaze falls on Steve and instantly his body visibly loosens. “Steve.” If relief could be a sound, it would be that syllable breathed from Bucky’s pale lips into the warm air.

Steve can’t take Bucky’s flesh hand with the needle, but he seizes his metal hand in both of his, weaves his fingers around it tight. Kisses his fingertips. “I thought you were dead.” His voice falters. Such a simple statement for such unbearable grief.

Bucky swallows. Tries to reply, can’t at first, then manages, “They took people. Seven.” His voice is low, ragged. “They changed them. Leander said it took months. Then they burned them. They wanted to make you stop looking. You.” Bucky’s eyes meet Steve’s, and there is no doubt he means it in the singular.

Steve bends his head against the rush of guilt. “Bucky. I’m so sorry. I —” He licks his lips. “I did stop. Just like —” Just like the train. When you fell into ice and snow, screaming, and I didn’t look for you.

“Hey.” Bucky’s voice is soft, and he reaches over with his metal hand, touches Steve’s hair, his cheek. “You found me.” Steve closes his eyes and turns his face into his cupped cool hand. The heater breathes warm, and the lamp glows.

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

It’s been two hours, and Bucky’s feeling much stronger. He’s ravenous and Sam’s been letting him have soup from their limited MREs — “That’s all you can have right now, Barnes. I know it’s shit, but I’m damned if you’re gonna get sick from refeeding syndrome, so just drink it.” Steve seemed inordinately pleased at Bucky’s hint of rebellion. He hasn’t moved more than two feet from Bucky since they reached the tent.

Steve’s told him that his team are still on the run from the U.S. government, but that the terrifying cat guy — T’Challa — turned out to be a friend and let them all take refuge in his country. He’s funded this whole mission If it weren’t for him, Bucky would be dead. It’s a lot to take in.

Debrief is imminent, Bucky knows it. He’s going to have to describe what happened. He feels sick at the thought and the bland soup catches in his throat. Steve notices immediately, curves over him. “Bucky?”

Bucky grits his jaw. “You need … you need me to tell you about it.”

Steve looks worried. “Only if you’re ready.”

Bucky gives him an incredulous glance, and Steve has the decency to actually blush. Since when has a team member’s delicacy been a reason to delay debrief or risk opsec? Certainly the Western front never saw that restraint. But Bucky can’t keep up the tease. He knows why Steve’s so desperate. He’s practically vibrating with it, his guilt, his need to protect Bucky, to destroy any threat. Oh Stevie. You just need to get out of your head.

A mission will help Steve do that. Bucky has to pull himself together, help Steve gets something to fight. He forces himself to swallow another mouthful, and lies. “I’m ready.”

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

The tent’s crowded once Sam and Nat are huddled in with them, but both Steve and Sam insist Bucky has to stay warm, so debrief is happening here. Steve’s on Bucky’s left, his arm looped around his waist, and Bucky’s right hand is hooked up to another drip bag. He keeps passing out without warning, but the intervals are getting longer and Sam anticipates he’ll stabilize soon.

Steve begins. “Wakandan intelligence found out about a Hydra-related genetics project, codename Zhar-ptitsa, Firebird. We tracked it back to a Russian corporation in southern Siberia. Nakia and Nat infiltrated the corporation and found they were searching for some lost Hydra data. They kept referring to that as a new, well, red book,” his arms tighten around Bucky as he says it. “Hydra were sending sorties out to parts of Siberia to search, and so Sam and I came to Siberia to look too.”

Bucky knew about that genetics project. Leander had used it as an excuse to — he dodges that thought, grimly concentrates.

“We didn’t really know what we were looking for, but on one sortie we heard about another project, codename Rusalka, which was keeping someone —” Steve’s voice roughens — “in a remote hospital, someone who might be able to help Hydra find the lost records. That’s how we found you.”

Bucky’s mind is spinning. “So you knew about Rusalka." He remembers what Leander said, that he and Bucky were working on “sleep and remembering.” The jerk thought it was funny. Bucky tries to muster anger, but when he thinks of Leander he can only feel sick.

“We did.” Steve’s voice is soft. “But we didn’t know they had … you. And we don’t know how they thought you could help them, or why.”

Bucky’s lips are suddenly dry, and he runs his tongue over them.

He realizes the Widow is watching him. Her green eyes are cool, but something about her expression strikes him as oddly vulnerable. He has a sudden sense that the Widow is personally affected by this. Of course — she was Red Room, and though he doesn’t remember ever meeting her, she probably also experienced the horror of medicalized brainwashing.

The thought’s … amazing. Dizzying. Two of them made it out. She seems to register his sudden emotion, and she meets his gaze with a half-smile. It’s a small, sad thing, and quickly gone, and she resumes her usual professionalism.

“Actually, Steve,” and here she looks grave, “we do know more. Nakia and I did a preliminary analysis of the data from the hospital lab, and it’s already told us a lot. As we suspected, the new red book isn’t literal. It’s a range of old documents. Turns out they thought that revisiting old records of ... serum-related experiments would be of value now, in a new way, thanks to new work on mitochondrial DNA and gene-editing, knowledge Zola couldn’t have used to make sense of data. New expertise, brought to bear on those old records, might make replicating serum success possible. That is their plan.”

Bucky’s eyes widen. A project that could make you obsolete. Leander had even told him. That’s why Hydra wanted him to remember the place Zola worked on him? But this makes no sense. “They wanted Zola’s old data? Isn’t it all in ... databanks? Computers?”

“Not after Pierce annihilated Camp Lehigh.” Natasha’s factual. “And Zola’s work wasn’t necessarily all digitized. He … worked .. on you for decades before computing was stable and widespread. It’s quite feasible that some records weren’t computerized.”

Steve shifts, and when Bucky glances at him, he’s frowning, thoughtful. “What’s the psychiatrist’s role in all this?”

Natasha nods. “The lab had extensive data on the second project. Rusalka. It was about exploring sleep, спячка, but,” she hesitates, “the word is closer to hibernation. Prolonged sleep, perhaps not a human thing. More … dormancy.”

Suspended in a nonhuman state. Sounds about right. Bucky shivers and fights the urge to retch.

“From what we can tell, they wanted to redevelop the old narcosis methods. They were practicing on James, but obviously his system is deeply atypical, so they planned to ramp it up and launch trials in private clinics around Europe and America. Pitching it as the next alternative health trend, you know?”

Bucky swallows. Oh God, no, Palaces of sleep. Leander had told him all along. He mutters, “Leander said they tried it once before. Back in the thirties. He said — a hospital in Brooklyn.”

Steve stiffens, and Bucky looks up at him. His face is blank, but Bucky can read him. “You knew.”

Steve’s eyes narrow. “I guess I suspected, looking back on it now. My ma told me about it, there was pressure in the hospital to go along with mopping up some of the fallout when it went wrong at a private hospital, something like that, and I saw —” and now his grip on Bucky is ferocious. “I saw someone. A woman. Her heart had nearly given out from narcosis at a private clinic in Brooklyn, and she was in my ma’s ward.”

Bucky’s heart twists, thinking of that nameless woman and all the others who suffered in those places. His skin crawls and he leans into Steve, slides his metal hand over Steve’s forearm. He can’t hug him, his hand is still full of that needle, but he can pull Steve’s arm closer.

Natasha says carefully, “The lab records also indicated that a combination of hypnosis and narcosis was central to the attempt to get James to remember clues to help find the red book data. A report by the scientist Guseinova says that the subject — James — did take people to a specific site, but that the attempt to locate data failed. She was very specific about Askin-Worland’s project being unsuccessful. The effort to get James to remember didn’t work.”

Suddenly Bucky’s completely exhausted. I have to tell them. He knows he must, and he wants to end this whole ordeal, but still — part of him yearns to say no. To let the story slide.

How strange to be so tired, after so much sleep.

There’s silence in the tent. It’s getting warm, now, the five of them so closely gathered, but somehow Bucky’s feeling colder every moment.

“There’s one last thing.” Natasha‘s eyes meet Bucky’s, raw and open. “Hydra tortured you, but they valued you, what you could be for them. You were not … disposable, for them. But when the memory retrieval failed, it seems Askin-Worland decided you were a liability for him personally.” She looks at him, steady. “He made a decision, on his own authority, one that I can’t imagine his Hydra superiors would have approved of when they learned of it after the fact.”

“Overdose.” Sam’s voice is steely.

“Yeah. It — the order to the nurse was signed by him.” Natasha drops her gaze.

Bucky stares up at the ceiling of the tent. So Leander ordered him killed. He supposes he should have some feelings about that, but right now he feels so hollowed out he’s not sure he’ll ever have feelings again.

He can’t delay this any longer. He has to say it. He grits his teeth.

“It did work.” The others look at him, but he doesn’t look at them. “Well. It took a while, but … I did remember. In the end.” He swallows, forces himself to say it. “Zola.” Steve stiffens, but Bucky is resolute, he’s going to say it all. “They wanted me to remember things he did, things I did. Places that he ... worked on me.”

He closes his eyes. “I know where to look.”

“You can take us?” Sam’s voice is quiet.

Back into that gray dream. Every part of Bucky recoils, but he knows what he has to do. “Yes. I mean — I think you’d need to — to make me sleepy.” He feels rather than hears Steve make a low sound behind him — something like pain, like refusal — but Bucky makes himself keep going. His heart’s pounding. It’s as if the fever-dream vines are climbing over him again, and he’s about to burn. He can’t lie here so passive any more, he has to move.

“Not insulin, not drugs. But it’s it’s so close to the surface now, they’ve made it so close. It’s there, I know how to move in the place, how to find it —” Bucky’s pulling himself out of Steve’s arms, struggling to his knees, and Sam’s widening eyes make him realize how wild he must sound, must look. The truth is he isn’t calm, he’s frantic, he suddenly just has to get out of here, has to find the book, has to get this over with, make this end.

He’s ripping at the needle in his hand and there’s blood, someone’s gasping, there are hands, Steve’s, Sam’s, but he’s shaking them off, he’s trying to stand. “Bucky,” it’s Steve, agonized, and Bucky’s falling.

His head is against Steve’s chest. His hand’s bleeding. He doesn’t look around but he can hear the others shuffling, leaving the tent. Steve’s arms are warm around him and silence spreads like a blanket.

After a while, Bucky mumbles, “I need air. Let’s — let’s sit near the entrance. He can feel Steve wanting to demur, but Bucky’s unchained from the needle now and he’s damn well not asking for permission. He’s not a damsel. He gets to his feet unsteadily and moves to sit by the tent awning.

Steve sits beside him, and Bucky feels his attention heavy on him, tangible as a caress. He feels seen, and seen with love.

Steve says, carefully, “If you want to talk about it, I’m here. If you don’t, I’m here anyway.”

Bucky does want to speak. He wants to say so much. The buried words are an ache, but how to say it? How to say any of it? He mutters, “It was like dying.”

Steve pulls him closer against his body, and Bucky yields, leaning into his side, but he doesn't turn his head to look at Steve. It's hard enough to say this while looking away.

“Forced sleep. Over and over. After a while I wasn’t always sure when I was awake.” He swallows. “Steve. I have to do this. You can’t — you fucking mustn’t stop me.”

Steve’s lips are warm against his forehead, and he’s silent a while. Then, “Can you just tell us where to look?”

“No, it’s —” Bucky closes his eyes, fights the nausea. “It’s a kind of body memory, like a dream. Like sleepwalking. I need to go there, and move through the building. They tried to make me do that, and I nearly could. They said the words and took me there, but I — I thought of you. I remembered you somehow, it took days, but — somehow the trance broke. And I couldn’t — I couldn’t quite reach the memory. But —”

Bucky’s voices cracks and he can’t keep talking. For a moment he is there again, bound in the dark, crying and ashamed as the memories swirl. Don’t stop. You have to say it. “But — other things happened. He pushed me harder. I … I remembered. Just before you came.”

Steve’s arms are suddenly so gentle around him. Bucky knows what Steve must have seen. The last memory he has is of being bound and exposed, and the next is Steve holding him. Sam and Steve must have untied him, must have realized what Leander did.

Steve needs to know the rest, too. Bucky has to tell him. He deserves to know.

“Leander —” Bucky falters, tries again. “He did a lot of stuff.” Understatement. Try again. “He — you know about the sleep. But he —” Go on, Barnes. But he can’t say it. He just can’t. All he can manage is, “Sex. But I didn’t want to.”

Steve doesn’t change his posture, just keeps holding him close and soft. He knew already, then. “I’m so sorry, Bucky.”

Shame is bitter in Bucky’s mouth. Steve doesn’t know all of it. He doesn’t know the worst thing.

Steve pulls back, looks down at him. He looks incredibly sad and tender. “What do you need? What can I do?”

“I can’t lie here anymore. Please. I don’t want to go there either, but I can’t — can’t just …. rest.” He’s struggling to find the words for the gray suffocation, the panic is rising, but Steve catches him, pulls him close, his big hand firm at the back of Bucky’s neck. “Okay. Okay, yes. Nobody will keep you trapped, Bucky.” His voice is deep, sure. Steadfast. “We’ll go if you want, but I go with you.”

So they’re heading back to the white ruin, back to the cold dream, but this time Steve’s with him. Steve’s gold will fight the gray.

 

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 


 

 

Sam’s at the edge of the camp, watching Steve help Barnes walk. It’s been 48 hours, and Barnes is still weak, his muscles atrophied from disuse, but he’s gaining strength quickly. The healing factor is incredible, now he’s actually getting calories to fuel it. Hydra must have known from previous experiments that he’d recover if they needed him too — at least until that warped psychiatrist decided to kill him. Then again, if the genetic project worked, maybe Hydra wouldn’t have cared whether he recovered or not.

It burns Sam up, that a psychiatrist could have been part of this. It’s appalling that any medic could turn to torture, but there’s something about training to heal the mind and then using it for that — it doesn’t compute. And that bastard is still out there. Sam’s frowning as he walks closer.

Right now, Barnes is at work on a basic physiotherapy routine to rebuild calf and thigh strength. Never skip leg day. Steve is always there, of course, never happier than when he is holding or helping Bucky. Steve’s transformed, energized, his ravenous focus wholly on Barnes. Some people would find it overwhelming, but Barnes seems to soften under it, lean into it.

“Hey.” Nat’s come up beside Sam. Sam turns, sees how pale she is, how composed. He can’t not think of her singing by the side of Barnes’ grave. They’ll probably never know who it was laid to rest by that Wakandan lake, but Sam will never forget her song.

“How are you, Nat?” There’s a lot he’s not asking. Are you okay? Seeing your ex-lover, like this? Knowing what happened to him?

Her smile is wry. “We were both prisoners. It wasn’t a match made in heaven, we were just … trying to survive. He doesn’t even remember.” She glances at the pair.

Steve’s entirely oblivious to them, his hand curved under Bucky’s elbow as he takes more steps. Steve’s body is curved around him, and his attention is a laser.

Natasha raises her eyebrows at Sam, nods back at them. “Steve is exactly what James needs, to come back.”

Sam doesn’t even glance at the two men. His eyes are only on Nat, all her steel and strength. “What do you need, Nat?”

Her eyes flick up to him. “Not many people ask that.”

“They should.” He doesn’t look away.

Natasha looks down and runs her tongue over her upper lip twice. “I remember the needles too.” She keeps her eyes trained down.

Sam makes an abortive movement to reach to her, restrains himself. Waits.

“I don’t remember it well. It happened, though. I’ve been there, locked in that same sleep, but —” and now her expression is purely sad. “I don’t know when, or why. And in a way, I didn’t wake up for years, until I defected and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. I suppose I was still asleep then too.” She sounds bitter, self-critical.

Sam’s quiet. Then, “You wanting to do the right thing — that wasn’t a dream.”

Her face softens, and she meets his gaze again, smiles, small and warm. “Walk with me?”

Sam turns his back on Steve and Bucky, and moves with Nat through the camp. Something’s growing between them like a flower.

 

---***---***---


Steve has one hand under Bucky’s elbow, and they’ve walked a short distance from the camp. Sam’s decreed Bucky needs at least three more days’ recovery before attempting the raid. Still, he’s so much steadier and stronger, his body already improbably filling out.

It’s incredible to have Bucky here, beside him. Steve can’t help looking over at him. Right now, his face in profile is pensive.

“Sam says we have to wait a few more days.” Bucky’s tone is neutral.

“Yeah.” Steve hesitates. “I mean, normally, you’d be off the field, but” — Bucky looks up, eyes widening in alarm, and Steve lifts his free hand, placating — “we’re staying. We’ll do it the way you need.”

Bucky bites his lower lip and nods. He looks back down at the ground, and they keep walking.

After a while, “You know,” Bucky sounds thoughtful, “if we’re staying here a few more days, we could do with more space.” There’s suddenly something lighter about him.

“Uh …?” Steve’s puzzled. “We have two tents …” He’s been sharing with Bucky, and Sam has the other. Nat’s rarely at the camp overnight. Why need another tent? Bucky’s looking around, his brow furrowed. Then, decisive, “Come with me.”

Bucky’s limping with new purpose now, heading towards a snowdrift a short distance west of their camp. Straggled trees and shrubs cluster in a dip about two hundred feet away, their branches near-buried under the weight of snow. Bucky’s reached the drift and is pressing it with both hands.

Then he looks back at Steve and actually smiles.

Steve’s dazzled. Everything inside him lights up. He smiles back, wondering.

Bucky juts his chin towards the trees. “Get some sticks, long ones — about two feet should do it. I need about five.” He’s back to pressing the snow.

Steve jumps to it, heads to the trees. He grabs about ten sticks, branches off the ground and others direct from the bough. Bucky looks pleased when he takes them back, and brings them to his nose, inhales. Steve notices it too, the sap’s sharp smell.

“Green wood.” For a moment, Bucky’s eyes are mischievous. “Always so impatient, Rogers.”

Helplessly charmed, Steve shrugs, his cheeks warming.

Bucky is concentrating now. He limps around the drift, tries to climb the bank beside it, and Steve’s by his side at once, looping an arm around his back. Bucky only seems to want to get halfway, enough to push the sticks into the top.

It requires force, driving the wood through the packed snow. Bucky stabs the dry sticks through, precise and effective. The green boughs are too soft to use, and Bucky just wedges them in part way, kinda decorative. He grins back at him. “Smell nice, though.”

Steve flushes again, reaching to rub the back of his own neck. He’s warm all through, at once embarrassed and delighted.

Bucky slides back down the drift. “We need two shovels and a ski pole.” Steve responds with alacrity, runs back to camp.

Sam’s by the snowmobile when he gets there, and his eyebrows rise when Steve starts rummaging among the packed tools. “You need a ski pole?”

“And shovels. Bucky wants them.” Steve doesn’t pause to chat, swings them onto to his shoulder.

“That’s cool.” Sam sounds amused. Steve’s not going to be distracted, and heads back as fast as he can.

Bucky’s pressing the snow more deliberately now, using his gloved flesh hand and metal hand to pack it firmly. “Come help,” he orders, and Steve does. Bucky directs him and they dig out the base of the drift, excavating slowly. Steve can tell what they’re doing, but why is beyond him. Making a cave in snow?

Bucky’s working systematically, probing the snow from the inside as they go. They work for forty minutes. When Steve scoops at the ceiling and a twig pokes through, Bucky catches his arm. “Careful. That’s the marker for the ….”

“… two-foot thick roof. Got it.”

After an hour they have a low tunnel entrance in the packed snowdrift, which, when you crawl inside, goes up a short slope and widens into a cozy chamber. Bucky looks satisfied. “This slope keeps the warm air in. It’s much warmer than a tent.”

They both have so many reasons to dread the cold.

Bucky stabs the ski poles through the ceiling to create ventilation shafts, and as a final touch he directs Steve to carve out shapes for a central table and even a kind of wide double chair in one curved corner. Bucky’s been giving brief explanations as they go. “We can bring in ground mats, the sleeping bags. Put a lamp on the table.” Now they’re both smoothing down the interior walls. “This helps with condensation.”

Wan light filters through the air shafts and the tunnel, bluish-white.

It makes sense, that Bucky knows all this. Steve supposes he should hate that Bucky does know it, given how he learned it, but he doesn’t. Not at all. Watching Bucky work here, in this landscape, is extraordinary. His pale arctic tac gear makes him look like a mirror image of the Winter Soldier — and yet he’s still powerful, still dangerous, perfectly suited to the terrain. Taking no one’s orders now, just wild and free.

He’s graceful, strong, a natural part of this terrain. Still powerful, still dangerous, but also beautiful and somehow wild.

When Bucky shakes his shaggy hair back from his face Steve suddenly laughs out loud. “You’re a wolf.”

Bucky looks back at him. “Hmm?”

“You’ve been reminding me of something and I just got it. Arctic wolf.”

Bucky’s grin deepens. “I’ve been called worse things.” He keeps smoothing the cave walls, his metal hand perfect for the job. “You get any canine comparisons yourself?”

Steve frowns. “Well. Some of the Avengers call me a golden retriever.” He can’t help that his voice spikes. indignant. He spent so long being mocked when he was skinny and small, and he knows he’s still defensive.

Bucky’s grin gentles. “Huh.” He looks back at his work, keeps smoothing the snow, and so does Steve. There’s silence for a while, and then Bucky says, “They’re wrong about that.”

“What?”

Bucky looks back at him, meets his gaze straight. His expression is hard to read. “You’re not a golden retriever. They’re gentle, and you’re not.”

Bucky’s always understood him.

The cave isn’t big, and they’re kneeling close together in the dim blue light. Bucky’s still staring at him. Then, hesitantly, he reaches his gloved flesh hand to Steve’s cheek, brushes his thumb across his cheekbone. Steve’s not breathing.

Bucky bites his lower lip, pulls his hand back, and Steve can’t help it, he leans forward, chasing the contact, aching for the touch.

Then somehow they’re holding each other. Bucky’s heavy in his arms. They just breathe together for a while.

“We can just stay here for a bit,” Bucky murmurs. “We won’t be cold.”

Steve smiles against Bucky’s hair. He mutters, “White wolf,” and Bucky shakes with silent laughter in his arms. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

 

Bucky looks at the lowering shape of the vast ruined building, silhouetted against the sky. It looks the same as the day he brought Hydra here, only to fall and fail. Bucky flinches at the memory of Leander's revenge for that. Now Bucky's back, but this time it's his choice. He's going to end this. He's going to find what Hydra were looking for, and this dream will be over. Bucky grits his teeth and stands taller.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Sam’s eyes are on him. Bucky feels cold but determined, and he nods.

Given the lingering radiation at the site, he and Steve are going alone. He knows he’s resistant from the way Hydra used him around radiation for decades, and if he is then so is Steve. They can decontaminate afterward, and there’s no sense risking the rest of the team.

“Okay.” Sam’s eyes flick to Steve. “You know what to do. If Barnes passes out, you bail the hell out of there.”

Bucky hasn’t fainted for 24 hours, his strength is increasing hourly, and he just wants this over with. “I’m ready.” Steve is beside him, warm and solid. Leander's not here any more.  

Sam’s still frowning, but he nods, straightens his shoulders. “Fine.”

Bucky knows Steve isn't happy about the plan either, but he had to agree it made sense. Bucky’s been so deeply conditioned that the dream state is ready, there, just within reach — he just needs a fraction of help to get into the semi-trance. Sam will use basic hypnosis, nothing weird like Leander’s fucked-up toolbox, but still too close to it that Bucky isn’t looking forward to what happens next.

He has to do this, to go into the gray dream. When he comes out, Steve will still be there.

Sam murmurs, “Barnes. Breathe…” and then he is breathing and counting backwards and imagining descending stairs and ….

…. the memory of movement fills Bucky’s body. He can sleepwalk in the ruin. 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 

 

Bucky’s walked these halls before. This place saw him bleed and struggle. He knows this, but is numb. He’s in a dream.

They’ve reached a wide arched corridor, dusty and decayed. Bucky keeps moving with slow steps, carried by body memory. Ghosts shuffle beside him. It was different then, white and clean, shining. A place of science, to craft new instruments of violence. Instruments like him.

He keeps moving through the memory. He’s dimly aware of voices shouting, and now Steve’s running, is ahead of him somewhere, but Bucky’s in another time and on a different path. He turns down the passageway, away from the sounds, and moves into the room his body remembers is there.

It’s enormous, wide and broad and high, so huge that it’s hard to make out the marks of decay on the far wall. It’s dark, the only light coming in shafts through the broken ceiling. Bucky doesn’t have time to notice more, because what happens next makes the calm of the hypnosis blow away like rags of cloud in wind.

There’s a single slender, tall person in a haz-mat suit. The figure turns, pauses, then reaches up to remove the helmet.

It’s Leander, smiling, vicious. “James.”

Then, “Zhelaniye.”

Bucky stumbles back, heart pounding, and sprawls in the rubble. He’s saying the Words. He had them all along.

“Did you think I didn’t know them?” Leander’s nearly laughing. “The tentacle fuckers even taught me how to pronounce them. I was your handler, James. You hadn’t noticed?” His contempt is palpable. “I just didn’t need the Words. I was trying to do something more permanent. But now,” he licks his lips, “Zhelaniye. Rzhavyy. Semnadtsat’.”

Bucky’s hands are across his face, his head is splitting, he’s kneeling in the dust, and the words are breaking him. He pleads, “No,” but there is no hope in it. Leander’s not going to stop.

 

 

---***---***---

 

 

Taking out the team of Hydra soldiers didn’t take long, but Steve’s lost track of Bucky. He’s frantic, trying room after room, then turns into a wide space and sees —

— Bucky, kneeling — a dark-haired man — and Steve recognizes that smug face.

Steve’s across the room in a second and slams his open palm into the bastard’s chest, crashing him up and back against the wall hard enough to crumble the plaster around his whole body. He feels bone crack beneath his hand, even through the suit. “You raped Bucky.” He doesn’t recognize his own voice.

The man gives a wet gasp, seems to try to smile. He can only twitch his lips. He’s starting to convulse – Steve probably hit him hard enough to puncture lung or heart. Damnit. So much for interrogation. Good fucking work, Rogers, Steve thinks at himself savagely. They’ll get no new information here now, but right now he can’t find it in himself to care.

Askin-Worland coughs, a wet, tearing sound. Blood’s spreading on his lips, but he manages to speak. “I did. Do you know what I liked best, Rogers?” His mouth is scarlet and his eyes are shining — demonic, vengeful. He clearly knows he’s dying, and he knows Steve’s killed him. Whatever he says next, he’s going to make it hurt.

His last words are a hiss. “The way he moans when he’s close.”

Now his eyes are rolling back and he convulses again, blood dripping from his chin onto Steve’s hands. Steve lets go, dumping the body in disgust and horror.

He turns back to Bucky. who's huddled on the floor, bent over and hugging his own knees, visibly shaking. “Sweetheart,” Steve’s by his side at once, quashing his rage, yielding to the flood of tenderness. “He can’t hurt you now.”

The words clearly don’t comfort Bucky in the slightest. His body is tight, and he’s not relaxing into Steve’s grip at all. He won’t look up.

“Bucky, please.” Steve’s desperate.

“It’s true.” And now Bucky does look at him and his expression is so lost, so hopeless. “What he said. I’m guilty.”

Steve’s baffled. “You’re — what? Look, just we’ll find Sam, he’ll patch you up. We’ll — we’ll come back when you’re ready.”

Bucky surrenders, comes with him, but his lost look doesn’t change.

 

---***---***---

 

Sam sighs, steeling himself. Steve returned from the mission wild-eyed, all but carrying Barnes who looked shrunk in on himself, totally out of it. They went straight to the improvised decon station set up outside the camp first, and now Sam’s waiting, a bad feeling heavy in his stomach.

He’s started boiling water for a hot drink. They have to do this repeatedly throughout the day anyway, and usually have to add butter for extra calories — nothing about the palearctic is easy on the human body. While coffee’s a pretty inadequate response to whatever new supersoldier disaster is about to emerge, his mom is a fervent advocate of the hot drink response to crisis and Sam often suspects that Darlene Wilson’s wisdom outstrips a lot of his psych training.

Now they’re out of decon, heading back. Sam narrows his gaze, assessing from a distance. Steve still looks desperate and Barnes looks — huddled.

“Sam! You need to help Bucky.” Steve all but throws him into Sam’s arms and Sam staggers back, catches the poor guy, steadies him. He looks back at Steve, arches an eyebrow. “I’m gonna need more to go on.”

Steve runs a hand through his hair. He looks ready to burst. “Askin-Worland was there. He spoke to Bucky.” A pause, then, belatedly, “I killed him. And, uh, a Hydra STRIKE team.”

Sam’s assessing Barnes. He’s steady on his feet, but avoiding eye contact, flinching when touched. “Barnes, let’s just — get you to the tent, check your vitals.” Sam glances at Steve, jerks his head towards the stove. “You do the coffee.”

Steve leaps to the fire like it’s a military priority, and Sam helps Bucky to the tent.

 

 

---***---***---

 

“Bucky’s struggling.” Steve leans against the jeep where Sam’s stowing the gear. Bucky’s resting, for some value of resting, in the tent. He’s been silent and disoriented ever since the return from the abortive mission, barely speaking while Sam checked his pulse and blood, and quick to retreat behind canvas.

Sam stacks another bag into the jeep, turns to Steve. “That’s understandable.”

“How do I …”

“How do you help him?” Sam’s calm. “I’d say, ask him what he needs. Let him know you care.”

“I’m doing that already.”

Sam waits.

“He feels guilty.” Steve bites out the words. He’s betraying Bucky by saying this, but he needs to know how to help him.

Sam nods slowly. “Very common. Hell, he had enough reason to feel complicit even before. And rape can ... Okay, rape’s appalling, always. Sometimes there’s an involuntary physical reaction and that can make people feel complicit. It doesn’t make it any less horrifying.”

The way he moans when he’s close. Steve feels sick all over again, remembering Leander’s mocking eyes as he slid into death.

“Yeah,” mutters Steve. “Yeah, I’m getting that.”

He can’t let Bucky endure that misplaced guilt, and Sam is the only person here who has any remote expertise in supporting someone through this. Steve needs to make sure Bucky has all the help he can. “You need to tell him.”

Sam hesitates, then nods slowly. “I agree he needs to hear it.”

 

 

---***---***---

 


Later, Sam finds Barnes out at the snow cave. He leans into the entrance. “Hey, Okay if I come in?”

Barnes nods. He’s staring fixedly at his hands. Sam crawls in, looking about as he goes. It’s cunningly crafted, appreciably warmer than the tents — a kind of blue-lit shadowed refuge. If only all Barnes’ knowledge was like this. Sam’s eyes flick back to him and he settles himself opposite, on Steve’s ground mat.

“Barnes. I’m just going to lay something out here, okay? You don’t need to reply. If you want to ask me about it afterward, or later on, you can. Or you can never say anything about it. It’s up to you. No expectations.”

Barnes is so tense he’s practically vibrating. He’s looking away from Sam, his dark fall of hair hiding his face.

Sam takes a deep breath. “People who survive sexual assault can feel guilty. They think they could have fought more. They think that if it felt good for even a fraction of a moment, that they’re somehow responsible, that they chose it.”

Barnes is very still now.

“Rape is violence, Barnes. It’s about power. Forcing you to feel pleasure is just as much violence as anything else. It doesn’t mean you’re guilty. Just like none of the countless other people this has happened to are guilty. They aren’t, and you aren’t.”

He doesn’t reply, but something’s changed in his posture. Softened.

Sam’s voice softens too. “Just — if you need to talk about any of this, I’m here. Steve, too. Just — Barnes?”

Finally he turns, those beautiful pale eyes wide and liquid. Sam feels his own heart tug. How can Barnes still be so — human, still so manifestly hurtable, after being hurt so many times? He has no — defensive scar tissue. No stiffness. He’s still raw. New.

“Barnes, I’m glad you’re with us.” It’s from the heart. He is glad. Years of searching, and he thought it was for Steve’s sake, but it wasn’t just that. Barnes was worth all this.

Barnes smiles, tentative but real. Sam can see a glimmer of the charm that caught Steve eighty years ago.

“I’m glad too.” His voice is quiet.

 

 

---***---***---

 

“Bucky?” Steve’s tentative, pausing just inside the snow cave’s entrance. “Do you want me to sleep here?”

Bucky’s been subdued most of the evening. He sat at the fire with Sam and Steve — Nat’s left again — and helped melt water for tomorrow, but he hasn’t talked more than the minimum. Still, it seems to Steve that he’s moving easier, is holding himself looser, less hunched. Whatever Sam said to him has started to help. Bucky’s clearly thinking through things.

“Sure, Steve.” Bucky’s in his sleeping bag already, leaning on his metal arm, watching the lamp on the snow table.

Steve crawls in, straightens up, and moves to his own berth. Attempts a neutral tone. “Do you want to talk? About …” Steve’s so out of his depth.

Bucky doesn’t move his gaze from the lamp, but Steve sees his shoulders stiffen, curling protectively. He sits up and pulls his arms across his chest. It’s a clear “No,” and Steve doesn’t push it. He strips off his outerwear and stashes it near the entrance to dry, starts rolling out his ground mat and sleeping bag.

Then Bucky says, “Can you. Will you hold me.”

Steve drops everything and is beside him at once, pulling him into a fierce grip. And oh, the sweetness of it, Bucky warm against him, the barrier of the tac gear gone, the hard planes of muscle of his back under Steve’s hands. Protect him. Keep him safe. It’s still a litany.

Bucky mutters, “He knew the Words.”

Steve’s hands freeze as he takes in the implications, then he pulls Bucky even closer. “Well, he doesn’t fucking know them anymore.” It’s probably not a psych expert’s ideal response, but it’s what he has, and he feels more than hears it when Bucky snorts into his shoulder.

Bucky pulls back enough to look at him, and his expression’s bleak. “Sure. But others do, Steve. I can’t trust my own mind.”

Steve’s helpless, his palms automatically still moving to soothe, stroking Bucky’s back. Then he has an epiphany. “Bucky — Wakanda —”

He looks quizzical. “With the Cat King?”

“T’Challa, yeah — it’s our, well,” Steve hovers over home, settles for, “base. There are experts there. Wanda’s there. They’re working on new trauma therapies, new methods.” He has to try and communicate Wakanda’s incredible advances. “Bucky, it’s like science fiction. You remember your Amazing Stories? It’s like that. If anywhere has the expertise to get rid of the triggers, it’s Wakanda.”

Bucky’s silent a while, seemingly taking this in. His head is resting on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve never wants to let go. Then Bucky mumbles, “I guess we got to the future after all.”

That startles a laugh out of Steve. To remember that, of all things, walking out of the alleyway together, Steve covered in trash, heading to the Stark expo. “I guess we did, sweetheart.”

The endearment hangs between them, shining.

Steve suddenly remembers their brief time on the quinjet, Bucky’s mouth opening under his. He pushes the thought away, appalled at the timing. “It’s, uh, actually warm in here.”

Bucky murmurs, “I told you a snow cave would be warmer than a tent.”

It’s true, and since ice won't leave them alone they'll damn well learn how to live in it.

"I’m going back. I’m not giving up."  Bucky's voice is muffled but determined. 

Steve fights down his instinctive protest. "I know."

Bucky leans into him, and Steve pulls him even closer, his whole body aching to protect, to cherish. He listens as Bucky's breathing becomes slow and deep. He holds Bucky a long time after he’s fallen asleep, watching him, feeling the miracle of him. Steve’s arms are full of warmth in a cave made of snow.

Bucky’s here, held and safe. Bucky’s real and breathing and here.

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 

 

Waking has been terrible for so long that Bucky’s grown used to tensing as soon as awareness starts to creep in. Even before he can move or open his eyes, his heart’s racing — but this time waking is different.

He’s safe. He’s sure of it even before he’s fully conscious. He is held, and his body is rocked by his own rhythmic breathing and that of the person beside him, around him. Steve.

Bucky opens his eyes just enough to see Steve’s sleeping face, his rumpled hair. His arms are so tight around Bucky that Bucky wouldn’t be able to move without waking him. Pale gray light is building in the cave. It’s barely dawn.

He closes his eyes. Nightmares will be back, dread of the trigger words, Leander’s death and his last cruel act. Those horrors aren’t finished — but right now, like this, Bucky’s not afraid to sleep. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

Steve wakes up happy, face buried in Bucky’s hair. There seems to be more of it than usual, but Bucky’s body is relaxed and warm and perfect, and Steve’s turned on. Drowsy, he grinds up against Bucky’s thigh, then he feels Bucky move and Steve wakes up properly and oh God what is he doing?

Steve pulls away sharply and scrabbles out of the sleeping bag.

Bucky blinks sleepily, his gray eyes hard to read, but perhaps amused? Steve’s too flustered to tell.

Steve runs a hand through his hair, looks directly at Bucky. “Sorry.”

Bucky nods slowly, his eyes never leaving Steve. There’s no mistaking the affection in his expression now. “It’s fine. It’s you.”

It’s amazing to see Bucky like this, soft with sleep. He needs peace so much.

Bucky reaches out and rests his palm on Steve’s chest. “You’re about to ask if I still want to do it. To try the raid again today.”

Steve doesn’t deny it. “Do you?”

Bucky nods, his eyes somber. “I need to end this, Steve.” He doesn’t move his palm, gentle against Steve’s heart, and Steve covers it with his own hand. “But after that —” Bucky’s voice lightens, “maybe we can go to that future you were talking about.”

Steve’s relief is a tide. He seizes Bucky’s metal hand with his spare one, pulls it to his lips. “Yeah, Buck.” The words come out tight, but Bucky seems to hear what Steve can’t express. Bucky rests his head against Steve’s chest.

Soon they will leave the cave, prep for the mission. Bucky will slide into the cold dream, and Steve will watch and guard.  

 

 

---***---***---

 

Natasha and Nakia are back, and the five are seated for a briefing before the next attempt on the compound. Bucky’s beside Steve, and Steve’s arm is around him.

Bucky’s braced, a deep tension within his core, his back, his shoulders. He knows what this discussion is going to cover, and he doesn’t look at the others yet.

“Okay.” Steve’s deep voice is calm. “Are you okay to talk about this, Bucky? Debrief?”

Bucky nods once, jerkily. Need to get it over with. “I have to get back to the white ruin. We should make sure we know what we’re dealing with first.”

“Okay.” Steve’s hand is rubbing along his spine, soothing. “Askin-Worland expected you to go back …”

Bucky shrugs, that one is easy. “I had led them there before. They’d spent months conditioning me to try and remember it, and then I did. It didn’t work the … first time, but then they. They.” He glances round at Steve, eyes wide, and sees the instant Steve understands his appeal.

Steve intervenes smoothly, “But then they interrogated you more, put you through more, and you remembered. Yeah.” A pause. “It’s … Askin-Worland signed the death instruction, yes?” Steve looks to Natasha for confirmation.

She nods decisively. “He did.”

“Why’d he try to kill you?” Sam sounds honestly baffled. “They’d spent months trying to get you to remember this, why throw it all away at the last minute?”

Bucky swallows, and closes his eyes. He’s suddenly there again, with Leander waking him, the thick smell of chloroform in his nose, the weight of his body. Nausea’s rising but he chokes it down. “Because he was angry.” His voice comes out stifled, as if he’s speaking through the wet cloth again, but no, no, don’t think about that. “He was so angry. Guseinova she was the scientist she was the one in charge, really, Leander couldn’t even speak Russian, he was an outsider. He thought he was important but he only had control over … me. When the attempt on the white ruin failed she mocked him, laughed at him. I’d made him ashamed. He wanted to hurt me. And —”

Bucky pauses, rubs his face with both hands, then looks up at above the faces around him, unable to look at them, “He was high. When he when he did the last stuff. His eyes were all dilated and his cheeks were red.” Bucky swallows, but he’s not going to back out now. He straightens his back, just says it. “And his mouth tasted different, somehow chemical.”

He doesn’t meet their gaze. They already know how he would know that. It’s fine. It wasn’t Bucky’s fault. He didn’t choose it. Like Sam said, it was violence.

He still can’t quite meet their gaze.

Nakia speaks coolly, “Clearly he was not in a state to make wise decisions. And it is true that signing your death order was really not wise at all. Natasha and I,” and Nakia leans forwards, gives Steve a small tablet, “have found more information in the Novosibirsk genetics team. Hydra definitely wanted you alive.”

She looks at Bucky, her expression calm and compassionate. “Hydra had much planned for you, Sergeant, in the Firebird operation. If Askin-Worland had successfully killed you, he would not have survived long himself. He was lucky Hydra did not find out he attempted it. If they had known, he would have been dead before you found him.”

Steve’s frowning when Bucky looks back at him. “Okay, but there is still something odd. Leander’s there, he sees you’re back, in trance, his whole fucked-up plan has finally worked, you’re finally doing the thing he wanted. Why would he wake you up?”

Bucky shivers. The memory is so clear. He was moving in a dream through the compound, the familiar-unfamiliar corridors unfurling around him. It was like being on a train track, knowing where to go, how to move, and then…

“Shock.” The visceral cold is back, even in memory, his whole body flooding with wakeful terror. “I saw him and it pulled me out of trance. It was. It was shock. He saw I’d woken, he had to do something, he didn’t even have STRIKE there to help him because they were off somewhere fighting you. The only thing he had was the Words.”

Steve’s arm tightens around him, and Sam’s eyes widen. “He had the Words all along? Why didn’t they just use those from the start?”

Natasha shifts, and when Bucky looks at her she’s looking straight at him, her expression sad. Her answer, though, is directed to Sam. “Because the Words are about forgetting, Sam. And they wanted James to remember.”

The team are silent for a moment, and Bucky can feel their sympathy in waves. Suddenly it’s too much, almost cloying. He gently pushes Steve’s hand off his shoulder and stands.

“Right.” His voice is low, rough. “I know what to do, and I am going to do it. Because I choose to. I choose to. And there is something you all need to realize.”

He stands straighter, looks at them, steady. He’s the goddamn Winter Soldier, he’s not defeated by this. “This is sleepwalking. Sleep walking. I’m not lying down. I’m moving.” He takes a deep breath, settles his shoulders back. “I’m ready.”

 

 

---***---***---

 

Bucky#s so strong, so incredibly resilient, and Steve will never refuse him. He still hates this place, though, and wishes they could just leave. Bucky’s been hurt here so many times, and now he has to go through it again?

Bucky’s beside him, pale and blank. Watching him fall into the semi-trance tears Steve’s heart out. He’s beyond done with all of this, but Bucky insisted and Steve can’t deny he has a right to end it. He’s agreed to not touch or rouse Bucky unless he’s physically injured. He bites down on what he wants to say, and they move in.

Sam and Nat are on the perimeter, watching for Hydra to come back — they will — but at the moment the ruin seems deserted. There’s no sound except their footsteps as they move through this place of dust.

Bucky’s walking like a puppet, limbs somehow both lax and jerky. He’s following some path he knows. Steve can see no pattern, but follows him, tensed and watchful. When they reach the central chamber where they found Leander, Bucky falters and Steve draws close. Leander’s body is gone, so Hydra have been here again. They’ll be back, or may still be here.

After a moment, Bucky keeps walking. He seems so small in this huge place. Now they are heading down, down, through a labyrinth of corridors and confined spaces. They both see well in the dark but total blackness is no use even to them, so as they descend Steve turns on a helmet torch. His eidetic memory has tracked their path, but it’s complex. What with that and the lingering radiation, this place doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

They’re about three floors underground when Bucky pushes opens a heavy door. It grinds in the silence, and then they’re in a … lab? A cell? 

Steve looks around in mounting horror. The walls and floor are concrete but the center of the room is scarred with the wreckage of metal fittings, half torn out. Some large apparatus was here.

Bucky moves to stand between the fittings, his head bowed. Steve swallows. A Chair? He scans the rest of the room. Chains in a corner and dark marks on the concrete floor. He’s sure it’s blood. Bucky suffered here. Steve’s cold with that certainty.

Bucky’s head is still bent, and he is silent. The room is in shadow, and as Steve’s torch shifts, the shadows move with it. The darkness curls around them, hungry.

Bucky lifts his head. His eyes chill Steve, they seem to be looking so far away — so long ago — and Bucky starts to speak in a halting, dead voice.

The hairs on the back of Steve’s neck rise. Bucky’s speaking Russian, but it doesn’t sound like him. He’s speaking slowly, his voice graveled and hoarse. The shadows seem to shift.

Then Bucky screams and falls to his knees. He’s holding his right arm, his collarbone. Steve’s kneeling beside him instantly, his hands curved, helpless. It’s agony to see Bucky relive torture. He promised not to wake him, but he has to end Bucky’s fear and pain.

The scream stops as suddenly as it started. Bucky’s gaze is again blank, his face smooth. He stands and moves out of the cell like an automaton, and what follows is a dark dream.

Steve follows Bucky deeper into the ruin, down through twisted corridors, strange paths. These walls and interiors have lasted, buried so far away from wind and snow, but mold is flourishing and Steve’s lamp illuminates strange organic masses. Decay has gripped the heart of this place, squeezing humanity out and bringing something new. The walls drip with damp and their feet squelch over fungus, disturbing, fleshy.

Eventually, Bucky stops at a flat concrete wall. He lifts his metal palm, presses against it, leans his cheek against the concrete and closes his eyes.

Steve’s helpless. His torch illuminates them in stark light against shadow, and the place is silent. Bucky doesn’t move but stays leaning, body tensed. He’s somewhere deep on a journey Steve can’t follow.

But Steve can guard. He shifts his stance, stands taller. The underground silence settles like snow.

  

 

---***---***---

 

At some point in the 1960s, Bucky was taken to the ruins of a Stalinist gulag in the taiga, the forest. People were forced to mine nearby. Radiation shivered through the rocks they worked, and it bled into the miners, too. It changed their blood and made their organs bloom with a thousand cruel flowers.

When he saw those ruins, those people were all gone, buried under the hungry rocks that killed them. Then the Asset forgot them too, between sleep-fog and electric pain. He lost his own name, and he never knew theirs. But he never forgot the silence of the place that took them.

This white ruin is also hungry, and its mortar and concrete hold the same radioactive death. As he and Steve work down through the building, Bucky moves through ghosts of the site’s past horrors.

The cell, the lab, the wreckage of the Chair — how strange to see this place with doubled vision. In the instant he blinks his eyes it is a bright gleaming room, filled with metal and the promise of knives. When he opens them the room is empty, the Chair a mere metal scar in the floor and his blood long dried on the concrete.

As Steve moves, his headlamp casts shadows. There’s a tide in the dark like deep water, like currents that want to drown.

Bucky remembers, then, words from a man long dead, and he speaks them, voice low and hopeless. They are words about changing him, about unmaking. The words precede blood and pain.

The labyrinth next. Double vision here, too — when he blinks, he’s in well-lit corridors amid white-clad technicians, being escorted down to the secret places. When his eyes open, it is darkness, Steve’s bright torch, and above him the weight of stone. Burial.

Then Bucky becomes dimly aware that he’s leaning against a wall, the stone velvet wet against his forehead. It’s dark and quiet, Steve’s torch the only light. The trance is gone, but —-- he’s found it.

“You’re back?” Steve’s face is anxious under the grime and the dazzle of the headlamp. At first Bucky can only gasp in reply.

“You brought us down here. Do you remember?”

“Yeah.” Bucky swallows, feels sick. “I remember all of it. This is his place.”

“Whose?” Steve’s tense, pale under the glare of the lamp.

Bucky rubs a shaking hand across his eyes. “Zola. It’s his — suite, I guess. He had them bring me here, sometimes. Made me stand and guard for him. I think he liked to watch me. He used to say he made me.”

Steve’s quiet a moment. “What do you want to do?”

Bucky straightens and looks at the wall. I remember all of it. And suddenly the sheer horror of it changes from overwhelming to enraging. Every muscle tensed, his body’s floods with adrenaline, and he is going to bring this down. No more. They made him a machine, calculated to destroy, and he’ll use that. He’ll use it against them and he will make Hydra burn. No more running, like he did in the gray years of building a patchwork self. Now he’s turning destruction on them, and it starts here.

Bucky takes the breaching charges from their kit, the triggers. Steve seems to realize that Bucky needs to do this alone. He stands watchful, gazing back behind them. Bucky focuses on his task, and when the explosives are ready he gestures to Steve to move back. They retreat together.

Bucky narrows his eyes, and presses the trigger. 

 

 

---***---***---

 

The roar of the explosion, confined underground, disorients even Steve. When the dust settles, they stride through, Bucky moving first.

Inside, it’s not at all what Steve expected.

It’s an office, a series of rooms. Brown tables, orange chairs, a filing cabinet. It looks kind of futuristic, to Steve’s eyes, like a science fiction movie.

“He walled it up.” Steve’s incredulous. “He left it just like this.”

Sealed away it may have been, but it hasn’t escaped the mold. It climbs in strange clumps over the orange-circled carpet and clusters on the walls. Maybe it likes the radiation.

Steve thinks about Zola’s arrogance. This fits. He’d have taken the records he thought mattered, and left this as a shrine to his cleverness. He wouldn’t have thought it mattered — if he hadn’t found meaning in the remaining work, nobody else would. He was the brightest.

And after all this, after all Bucky’s suffering … there are no papers intact. They are all rotted to tattered ribbons and eaten by thick fabrics of mold. If Hydra’s serum-related genetic research depended on finding something meaningful in this, then it was always doomed.

Steve looks around. Nothing’s made the slow dwindling of Hydra clearer to him — it’s still ruining lives around the world, but ever since the S.H.I.E.L.D. takedown it’s losing focus, losing vision. Now Hydra’s hoping for improbable answers in decades-old discarded research, reaching for past “glories”. No phoenix will rise from this.

It’s pathetic.

For this, Bucky suffered for weeks and months? For this, and for some cruel plan to develop narcosis for a re-launch, to resurrect poisoned sleep? Steve’s so angry he can hardly swallow.

Bucky’s pale but determined. “We burn it. All of it.”

They systematically stack the room with explosives, then retreat to the safety of the further corridor. Bucky’s shaking infinitesimally, and Steve pulls him close, one arm around him, and presses a kiss to his hair. Protect him. Keep him safe.

The explosion is a mere shadow of Steve’s fury and fire.

  

 

---***---***---

 

They’re nearly out of the ruin, walking through the silent corridors, when Bucky suddenly stops and exclaims.

“Bucky?” Steve’s beside him quickly, but Bucky doesn’t look alarmed at all, just startled.

“I remember.”

Steve’s heart sinks — so far that hasn’t come with anything good — but he’s jolted out of that thought when Bucky seizes his hand and starts striding back the way they’ve come.

“Buck?” Steve’s entirely thrown. What is this? Bucky’s certainly not sleepwalking now. He looks alert and determined, even eager, but why would he want to stay any longer in this irradiated ruin? What else could be here?

“I want to show you something.”

For once, Steve doesn’t argue. He follows even when Bucky starts climbing stairs and, where those are rotted through, swinging himself up via metal railings. They work their way to the upper floors. The higher they get the more fragile the building, broad shafts of light breaking through broken walls.

Snow blows in through the wider gaps and ice gathers on the metal. As they climb, Steve smells rust and decay, and the shifting metal shrieks.

They swing and jump, seamless, strong. They both move in impossible ways, mirrors of each other as they pull themselves up through dust and grime and ice, Steve remembers what Sam said, about that link in the field, that heart-connection, the bone-deep awareness of your lover, of him-loved-above-all, as he moves with you through danger. There is such joy in moving together like this.

At one point they face a wide chasm, a long fall to a far-off ground barely visible. Bucky doesn’t hesitate, jumps first, and Steve’s heart twists as he watches him jump. Bucky leaps like a dancer, dark hair flying. He’s glorious.

They emerge into brightness, unadulterated light. Steve is dazzled. They’re reached the top, under a ragged roof, and seem to be at a panoramic lookout point — a wide circular corridor, with windows running continuous around the exterior walls. The glass is long broken, a few shards still visible on the floor.

Snow furs the walls and floor with a dizzy dream-like carpet, and above them tattered steel creaks in the wind, swinging. Steve glances up, and sees the sky through a lattice of metal ruin.

“Come and see.” Bucky moves to the empty windows, leans out.

It’s majestic. They’re so high up he can see the whole landscape clear, right to the first smudge of the forest proper. It’s harsh and unforgiving but — yes. There’s grandeur here. There’s no glass barrier, and the snow is in the ruin with them. It’s like hanging in the sky.

Then Steve turns and sees Bucky, and for a moment he can’t breathe. Bucky’s perfectly still, his dark hair’s moving in the wind, and he’s so pale and so searingly beautiful that Steve can’t find words for it.

Bucky’s gaze flicks to him and a fine line appears between his brows. It looks like he’s trying to work out what’s distracted him.

Steve swallows, manages a shaky half-smile. “You take my breath away, Buck.”

Bucky looks puzzled, then, shockingly, his cheeks flush. A tiny smile teases the edge of his lips, and his chin lifts. Just for a moment, there’s a hint of the boy who knew he was beautiful.

Steve’s heart is swelling wider than the endless tundra, wider than the sky. He doesn’t look away. They’re poised on the edge of something, together at the edge of the world.

 

 

---***---***---

Chapter Text

 

 

So they’ve reached the future after all. Steve was right — Wakanda’s like a science fiction dream. For the first few hours all Bucky can do is stare. It’s better than Amazing Stories or his dime novels. Wakanda’s capital is an extravaganza of electric beauty and kinetic force, and Bucky loves it immediately.

He’s more wary of the cat king, T’Challa — last time Bucky saw him he was trying to rip Bucky’s face off with claws. It’s a bit of a shift to get his head around the fact that he’s actually an elegant, compassionate guy who’s sheltered Steve’s whole team and financed extracting Bucky from Hydra’s latest horror.

T’Challa has asked to speak with him in the palace gardens, so Steve’s brought him here. He’s hovering beside Bucky now, tense and protective. “I’ll be fine, Steve.” Bucky says, fondness welling.

Steve frowns, nods, attempts neutrality. “I’ll be over there,” and he gestures to the benches where Wilson and Maximoff are talking earnestly. Steve stays long enough to greet T’Challa, although rather more fiercely than usual. Bucky smothers a smile.

Once Steve’s gone, T’Challa looks at Bucky frankly. “I am sorry, Sergeant Barnes. As it turns out, you were right to run from me.”

Bucky’s body eases. “Thank you.”

T’Challa’s gesture invites him to walk, and Bucky follows. The flowers are astonishing, all blazing color. “I did you a grave injustice, and I am glad you are here. Wakanda is a refuge for all of you, as long as you wish or need it.”

Bucky glances at him, sidelong. He’s heard a bit about the fallout since the Avengers’ … well, civil war. Howard’s son still isn’t speaking to any of them, Natasha’s joined Steve, and Steve sprung Barton, Maximoff and Wilson from some sea-based supermax prison. Bucky suppresses a sigh. Weird is clearly not stopping any time soon, but at least here nobody seems keen on electrocution or drug-induced coma.

For the first time in a long time, he is with friends. The word tastes odd, even to think.

“You’re very quiet, Sergeant.” T’Challa’s tone is gentle.

“I’m just thinking, it seems like Steve didn’t have the friends he thought he did, after he woke up.”

The king’s eyes are sharp. “Perhaps there will be reconciliation, in time, but meanwhile, know that my friendship is not a thing that wavers.”

Bucky believes it. He reaches out his flesh hand and T’Challa clasps it warmly in both of his. This is refuge. Perhaps even peace.

 

---***---***---



Bucky’s staying in Steve’s suite. In the few days since he was rescued, he can face sleep if he has Steve’s warmth. His golden presence presence holds back the gray fog and cold water. They sleep wrapped close together, clinging, fierce, as if something is trying to pull them apart — ice, or thorns, or time.

Bucky wants him, but he doesn’t act on his desire, not yet. He’s not sure why, but it’s like he’s waiting for something to happen, to be unlocked. Something that might make the horror of sleep — of Leander — start to lose its sharpness.

  

 

---***---***---

 

Wanda’s smiling. “Bucky.” All Steve’s team call him different things — he’s Barnes to Sam, James to Natasha. Wanda always calls him Bucky. Perhaps because that’s how Steve thinks of him, and Bucky always suspects she is more aware of everyone’s internal life than she lets on.

He likes her, though. Her solemn eyes are kind.

He’s sitting close beside Steve on a couch in a sort of — clinic? He supposes that’s what it is, although it isn’t the sterile kind of place he links with the word. The walls are green and hung with Wakandan tapestries in intricate patterns, and there’s a table holding vases of some kind of china. One wall is sheer glass with a French door open to a private garden. Bucky can smell flowers and hear birds. They are here because Wanda is working with a Wakandan specialist on trauma, and Bucky has questions burning on his tongue.

The woman who enters the room walks deliberately, and she has a clear gaze and a firm grip when she shakes his hand. “Sergeant. I’m Andiswa. You already know my colleague, Wanda.” They exchange a glance of mutual respect.

Wanda nods, her gentle gaze still on Bucky. “We have fought together.”

Andiswa’s eyes are knowing. “And Sergeant Barnes has been fighting a different kind of battle since. I’m glad you came to see us, Sergeant. What do you wish of us?”

Bucky swallows, and Steve’s arm slides around his shoulders, steadying. “I have trigger words. I expect you know. Can you help me get them. Out.”

Andiswa nods, thoughtful, unsurprised. “We will explain what we can do, and what we can’t. Wanda?”

Wanda turns her serious eyes on Bucky. “We cannot take away all trauma or trauma-induced conditioning in a sweep. We cannot do anything — it is the person who does the things. We can help that person to soften the edges, wear them away.”

She stretches out her long-fingered hands. “Trauma is something too much to witness. A mind recoils, it turns away. The experience was never quite known.” She smiles sadly. Simply, “It was too big. I can come into your mind, help share the strength to feel it, the sensation and emotion, so you can knit it into your story. It hurts,” her voice is so compassionate, “but it can be done. The pain and the triggers, they can be diminished, changed. You will not need to lose yourself again.”

Reliving it, then, but apparently with — company? Bucky swallows. It could be a lot worse. He opens his mouth to agree, but before he can speak. Andiswa stands. “Sergeant, have you heard of kintsugi?” Bucky shakes his head. “It’s a Japanese art.” She moves over to the vases he’s noticed. They are unusual — the china is decorated with glittering metal in an intricate and unpredictable pattern. “In this art, broken china is repaired with gold, or other precious metals. The broken thing is not thrown away, it is repaired — but not restored. The breaks remain.”

She sits back down in the chair. “A kintsugi story does not deny the break, does not deny the fracture. Yet it is a kind of broken wholeness. A resilience. That is what we can offer.”

Bucky doesn’t hesitate. This is worth it, without question. “I want to try.”

Andiswa nods. “We will arrange it.”

This is so different from Leander’s twisted mind-work, but there is something else he needs to know. He says slowly, “Andiswa, can you tell me about narcosis?”

He feels Steve stiffen, but Bucky doesn’t look away from the counselor. She looks at him, steadfast, and nods. “I can see how you might need to understand it.”

She sighs, leans back. “For a long time, would-be healers of the mind in the West had so few strategies. It was different here in Wakanda — we have always been more advanced — but the West spent a long time locking people up if they were different, or distraught, or epileptic — so many excuses. In the early twentieth century, some people hoped they were finally finding ways to cure instead of just incarcerate. The work of Freud and Charcot was getting better known, but also, there were pharmaceutical and mechanical innovations. Narcosis was one of them.”

She pauses, her expression bleak. “It started on the European continent in the 1930s. The logic was that sleep can help the mind repair itself, so forcing sleep should accelerate repair. They used it for so many things — psychological instability, insomnia, combat trauma, headaches. Many different methods were used, many drugs, but the most influential was artificial insulin coma — giving daily overdoses of insulin so people would semi-sleep for days, weeks. Some were starved — like you, Sergeant — others were overfed. All suffered. It caused hallucinations, neurological damage, seizures. ”

Bucky’s stomach twists. He remembers the hunger, the convulsions, the aching hours in that ruined place.

Andiswa’s still speaking, her voice gentle now. “It was often used alongside electroconvulsive therapy, and was also called insulin shock treatment. It was popular for about twenty years. In the late 1950s, the medical community reluctantly accepted that the death rate was too high.”

“Death rate?” Steve’s voice is sharp.

Andiswa nods, grave.

Steve closes his eyes, and Bucky has the strong impression Steve is thinking of someone else, someone he knew before. Bucky has another question, though, and cannot be distracted. “You said it was popular. Were there — wards? Hospitals?”

Andiswa nods, and after a moment of hesitation she gestures with the wrist wearing a beaded bracelet. A screen materializes on the wall opposite the window, and displays black and white photographs of rows of beds and white-sheeted bodies. Nurses in wide-winged caps bend over them. Tall, arched ceilings cover the space and doctors move through it, aloof.

Bucky smells the sharp bite of phenol and gasps. Palace of sleep. Supine figures, breathing in the gloom. He’s drowning, suffocating, and Steve is gripping him, desperate, saying something but Bucky can’t tell what. Gray is closing in.

Then Wanda’s there, her face calm, her long fingers curved around his head. She is not touching him but somehow holding the air, tender, kind. Scarlet. His world is washed with red and her eyes are shining, and she’s in his mind.

He can feel her, gently making him aware, a wordless kind of greeting. Then she turns him around somehow, back to face the memory, the intimate knowledge of suffocation. She’s beside and within him, silent but there. He can let himself feel.

He can let himself feel.

He does, and it’s terrible, a wave of dark water. He’s drowning — but he isn’t. Somehow Steve and Wanda are holding him, warm against the water.

It is a beginning.

 

 

---***---***---

 

Steve wakes, and his arms are empty. He sits up.

The sheets slide off his bare shoulders. It’s 3 a.m. and the palace is quiet. He slips out of bed and pads to the living room. He’s topless except for sleep pants, and his bare footsteps are quiet.

Bucky’s sitting on the couch in the dark, looking out at Wakanda. He’s wearing sweatpants but no shirt, and has a blanket draped round his shoulders. His hair falls dark over his eyes, and his profile is in shadow. He doesn’t turn when Steve comes in.

Steve sits in a chair opposite. “Can’t sleep?

Bucky’s mouth twists. “Done enough of that.”

Silence stretches. There’s something delicate here, a bubble between them. In this darkness, outside the normal rhythms of the day, it feels like something new might be said.

“I didn’t want it.” Bucky’s voice is low, fervent. He’s still gazing out the window.

“I know.” Steve’s reply is automatic.

Bucky shifts, and now he’s looking at Steve. Then he drops his gaze to Steve’s mouth.

All Steve’s thoughts stop. He can’t move.

Bucky meets his eyes again, and stands, deliberate. He shrugs the blanket off his shoulders and comes over to Steve, takes his hand, pulls him to standing. Steve can’t look away. Bucky’s so incredibly beautiful, his dark hair framing his pale face. Haunted.

Bucky reaches his flesh hand to stroke Steve’s jaw, his cheek. His eyes are wide, so clear and gray. “I want this,” and he kisses Steve gentle, then not gentle at all.

Steve tries to hold his hands back, to keep the kiss soft, but as soon as Bucky’s tongue touches his any such self control melts like snow in flame. With effort he manages to pull back just enough to mutter, mouth against Bucky’s lips, “Buck, are you sure? Are you sure?”

Bucky pulls back so Steve can see his face. His eyes are so dark. “Steve,” he breathes. “Don’t let him be the last man who made me come.”

Steve groans, it’s too much, he can’t resist this any more. He presses Bucky back by the exposed brickwork and tangles his hand in Bucky’s hair.

He’s holding himself back, he doesn’t want to overwhelm, but Bucky has no such restraint. He slides his hands round over Steve’s ass and Steve gasps at the bite of the metal fingers. Bucky’s pulling him right in against him, and oh God, he’s already hard, unmistakable through the thin fabric. 

 

 

 

Bucky’s gripping the curve of his ass, all the while grinding his own length against Steve’s. Their hands are on each other, and the only noise in the room is their gasps and the sound of wet friction.

It doesn’t take long. Steve closes his eyes, shaking as pleasure crests — and then Bucky’s spilling over his hand too, his whole body arching.

Then they cling to each other, panting. Bucky’s hot in Steve’s arms, trembling. Alive. Steve buries his face in his hair, breathes in the sheer warm miracle of him. His joy is raw in his chest. That Bucky wanted to do this, felt safe to do this. There aren’t enough words for the marvel of it.

His hand gentles around Bucky’s wet cock, begins to let go, but then … Bucky’s cool metal hand slides around his hand, holding it tight around him.

Steve tenses, unsure, but Bucky’s lips are warm against his ear. “Steve.” The whisper is barely a breath. “I need you inside me,” and with the words he slides his hands back down over Steve’s ass, pulls him close again, and Steve can’t help it, he’s still so hard and he wants this too.

Steve’s beyond talking, but when Bucky starts sliding Steve’s pants off, he helps, then helps Bucky with his. Bucky’s still-hard dick gets caught in the waistband, and for a moment they both actually giggle. It’s silly and sweet.

The room’s so quiet, it’s like they’re inside a secret. Tenderness and love surround them like a bubble.

Undressing has made them both calmer, and when they come back together there’s something deliberate about it, conscious. Steve kisses Bucky closed-mouthed and their bodies get closer, and it’s a slow thing, now, the way they move, the way they flex and twist in each other’s arms.

Bucky’s abs and cock are sticky and Steve reaches down to stroke their mingled sweat and come across his belly in a wide swathe, rubbing it into his skin, feeling hard muscle turn liquid under his hands. Then he cups Bucky’s face between his come-wet palms and kisses him again.

Gasps and sweat and sighs, and Bucky’s body straining in his grip. They’re not calm now, they’re grinding hard, and Steve’s working slick fingers into him, making him twist and moan. Then he cups Bucky’s ass, hoists him up. Bucky immediately wraps his legs around him and keeps kissing him, ravenous.

Bucky’s hard against Steve’s abs, already wet again at the tip. His head falls back, his lips parted, and Steve’s overcome with the body memory of how they did this so many times before — on their old mattress in their apartment, in snatched moments on the Front.

He runs his lips along Bucky’s jaw and remembers lamplight on his skin. Bucky moans, and Steve catches the sound in his mouth.

Then Steve’s sliding into his tight heat and the seventy years are gone.

 

 

 


---***---***---

 

 

Two days later, Steve’s walking through the palace gardens. Bucky’s sitting on the bench outside their suite by those incongruous roses. Two generous Wakandan botanists trained the non-indigenous flowers by their rooms on a whim, to make the new arrivals feel welcome.

Bucky’s in soft warm clothes, and reading, and looks happy.

The sheer miracle of it makes Steve’s chest heavy and tender, warms him with a bone-deep joy. Bucky’s always loved books, the more fantastical the better. Science fiction, fairy tales. Strange stories, sometimes dark ones, but always with a .... happy ending?

Maybe a kintsugi ending.

Bucky hears him, and looks up. His smile is the one Steve's seen all his life. It's the smile he saw under his pencil as he grieved. Steve runs the last steps and all but falls into the hug. He can't speak at first, but Bucky seems to understand.

They just hold each other, and the flowers keep growing.

 

 

 

---***---***---

 

“Can I come in?” Bucky’s standing, diffident, at Natasha’s door. She’s just back from Novosibirsk, and she doesn’t look surprised to see him.

They sit together in the kitchen. She seems to be sharing the apartment with Wilson, to judge from the jacket Bucky recognizes and other subtle signs of cohabitation. Bucky’s glad for them.

She sits in front of him and waits.

“I heard you sang for me.” Bucky speaks with difficulty. It’s not often one talks about one’s own funeral with an ex-lover one doesn’t even remember.

She nods slowly. “I did. Not — just for you.”

Bucky inclines his head. He thinks again of the people of that gulag — uranium-changed, dead and forgotten. So many people, in so many countries, who haven’t escaped torture, even ongoing right now — yet somehow he and Natasha sit here. They made it far from the Red Room, even if always in its shadow.

“Steve told me about the poet you read. Akhmatova. I found some.”

He clears his throat. He’s chosen an English translation — he’ll say this in his first language, and so mix two parts of his story.

 

“I have a lot of work to do today;

I need to slaughter memory,

Turn my living soul to stone

Then teach myself to live again . . .

But how. The hot summer rustles

Like a carnival outside my window;

I have long had this premonition

Of a bright day and a deserted house.”

 

His voice falters as he finishes, and when he looks up he sees she is smiling at him through tears.

They lean together, silent. Here, now.

 

 

 

---***---***---


“Nat and Nakia are working up the data on the genetics project at Novosibirsk now, to prep for the op. We’ve got what we need. We can shut it down.” Sam pauses, and his tone takes on a careful neutrality. “You want to fight this one, Steve?”

It shouldn’t even be a question. Steve can already feel the satisfaction, slamming through bodies and barriers, shutting down cruelty. Stopping the bullies. That’s what he does, and it feels sometimes like that’s all he’s done since the War. Since Azzano, when he pulled his lover off a table of pain and swore to stop the people who could do this.

Yet … Bucky’s here now, fresh from another table of pain. Hydra had him for decades, not just weeks. They turned him into an instrument of lethal force, wiped his memories, poured him out over and over, relentless for decades. Somehow he’s here, and still Bucky, with sparks of mischief and hints of confidence returning. Still haunted, his dreams a cold torment of pain and ice.

This time, nothing’s going to make Steve leave Bucky in the snow.

He looks at Sam, direct. “I have a different fight right now.”

Sam’s answering smile is blazing. “Steve,” and he pulls him into a grip that shouts relief and pride. “Hell yes you do. You fight for Barnes, you keep him close. Damn, Steve,” and Sam’s eyes are watering. “Took you long enough to demob.”
 

 

 

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There’ll be more fighting. Steve knows that. Siberia, too, is unfinished for them — Bucky’s remembering things, and he wants to go back, to understand his own past and to unearth old secrets that could become present threats. They’ll never be wholly out of the forest, and Bucky still has ghosts to lay. They will go back there, he and Bucky moving together through the landscapes of the ice tundra, the steppe. There is more work to do there, and they’ll do it together.

But right now, they’re here, warm against each other, by the window to the gardens.

Steve shifts his arm protectively. Bucky’s nestled in his clasp, fast asleep. The Wakandan flowers are vivid, and the smell of the rare roses hangs sweet in the air. Sunlight’s bathing Bucky in that golden glow Steve remembers from decades before.

The warm light is still made for him.

There is so much he wants to give Bucky. So much they can do here, now, thanks to his team and T’Challa’s kindness. They can learn about Wakanda, its astonishing beauty and histories and science fiction marvels. Bucky’s always loved mechanical things, and Shuri’s said she’ll show him her lab.

Most of all, there is love to make, to have. Skin to stroke, to taste. He’ll drown the hundred years of thorns by shaking Bucky’s body into bliss a hundred times, a thousand times.

Bucky stirs, opens his eyes, smiles up at him. Steve strokes his forehead, smooths his dark hair from his face.

Bucky’s voice is sweet, lazy. “Was I sleeping?”

Steve’s answering kiss is gentle. “You’re a beauty.”

 

F I N

 

 

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