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Breathing Alone Is Not a Sign of Life

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“Caught in the riptide
I was searching for the truth
There was a reason
I collided into you.

Calling your name in the midnight hour
Reaching for you from the endless dream
So many miles between us now
But you are always here with me.”

 

 

It had been seven months since he’d returned from the world’s very own version of hell. The waking hours that Bucky spent in his small apartment seemed to span for eternity, empty of purpose, skipping between reality and hallucination, but he counted his blessings that he wasn’t asleep. That was a shadowy place he feared returning to every night; a realm he begged to every god who would listen to just give him a dreamless sleep. But the gods never listened though, and sleep sucked him back into hell the past, back to relive his nightmares and mistakes guilt and regrets.

The rare strangers friends left in his life tried to help him, but even they opened his door with a tentative gaze – just another reminder that he wasn’t quite the same person who they had welcomed home back.

Home was not something that existed anymore.

Bucky was a coward an imposter in his own life as well as inside his mind. Not a day could go by without a whistling of a kettle, the static of the television or the reverberating clap of thunder reminding him of what he was trying so hard to run from.

Someone brought him his medication every day – the little white pills were always there when he woke up or came into the kitchen, like some sort of twisted Wonderland. Sometimes it was Nat who brought them, sometimes it was a monster wearing her clothes, while other times it was a short scientist in a lab coat, and Bucky would stare up from the bed he was tied to on and feel the tears burning behind his eyes, fearing what would come next. The coming and going of demons visitors were the only routine event that let him know the passing of time. He had pills for the scars on his body and pills for the deeper scars in his mind, but the drugs were no matches for his unconscious.

Whether it was a ten minute reverie or a three hour nap when he couldn’t keep his eyes open for any longer, sleep didn’t discriminate – it still brought back all of the horrors from seven months ago and the numbness of what came after. It swallowed him whole and left him on the other side doubled over on all fours, struggling to breathe and praying for death.

Sometimes Bucky dreamt of what happened. Other nights, of what he didn’t do that resulted in an absence that a folded flag just couldn’t fill.

 

He had been fighting the urge to fall asleep for days – his demons always seemed worse when he closed his eyes, when they came out the shadows to play tricks on him, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there during the day. He ate his scattered meals with hulking monsters and hot-breathed demons that curled their claws around his throat; he showered quickly so that the mud wouldn’t rise up from the drain and suck him down; double and triple checked the locks over and over so that they couldn’t get in and take him during his weak moments of sleep.

It had just ticked over to the fifty-eighth hour when he lost his battle with his unconsciousness and unwillingly succumbed to the darker powers that lay inside his head, eagerly waiting for their chance to reach out and snatch him into their depths. In the early hours of the new day, as he watched the outside world slide by at his kitchen table, Bucky slipped from one delusional world to the next.

 

His heart was already pounding before he even took in his surroundings. The house was not his own, nor one he recognized. An isolated red light illuminated the sparse room around him, desperate, hot fear building inside when he realised he couldn’t move. Somewhere in the distance of his unconscious, Bucky knew a clock was ticking, but all he could hear was the vast space of silence, before the red light started pulsing softly like a heartbeat. It spilled towards him, covering his hands and feet, warm as sunlight, before it started creeping up his arms.

Entranced by the red light, Bucky realised too late that it was turning to blood, soaking his clothes and staining his skin and weighing him down until he was sinking to the floor. He struggled against the weight, trying to scream against the crushing weight of it as it dragged him through the floorboards, everything snapping and screaming and tearing–

 

He was suddenly standing again. Bucky had the knowledge that only came with dreams that he was on a lower floor of the multi-levelled house – how many floors were below him he didn’t know.

Despite the white walls and floor, it was darker and cooler down here. A flickering light came from above yet there was no celling, and a breeze swept through from around the corner ahead of him. He followed it, his footsteps echoing before the cold breeze wrapped around him and tugged him deeper into the house until Bucky found himself suddenly in front of a red door.

Don’t open it. Run!

He backed away from it, but it started rattling and shuddering from whatever was on the other side. Bucky stumbled and tripped, clutching at the floorboards to try and get back up, get up, get up, get up…!

But he was too slow, there were tentacles wrapping around him, strangling him, dragging him backwards through the door. He screamed and kicked and clawed but there was just pain and the smell of metal and burning flesh and a dark sticky mass that he was sinking into filled with bones and blood and oh god

 

Bucky was jolted awake, yelling and gasping before his whole body started trembling and couldn’t seem to stop. He had fallen asleep propped up against the window frame in his small living room, and he braced himself against the sill, head ducked as he hyperventilated, blood dripping from his hair. When he looked back up at the glass, he saw a reflection move behind him and he flinched, spinning around in his chair and saw tentacles climbing the wall nothing. The floor creaked and Bucky’s heart pounded. He pulled his feet up onto the chair and hugged his knees, brushing the mud dust off his feet, convinced that the floor was about to break open beneath him all over again. A cold sweat was covering his back and he shivered as the monster’s breath a breeze brushed over him.

The noise in his head was so loud, that he almost reached out and took the pills left for him in the small bowl, presumably by Nat, before he stopped.

Bucky was lucid enough to know that what he was doing to himself was toxic and unhealthy, but he also knew that he didn’t care anymore.

His arm ached from where the shrapnel had buried into it when he was shot down, burning through him like a knife every time he moved it, but he refused, in a twisted, self-loathing way to take anything that would make him forget. Bucky’d be damned if he was going back to that hollow, empty place he’d been stuck in for months. A part of him longed for silence, for reprieve of all of this noise, these delusions and hallucinations, but – he caught sight of the flag folded into a triangle sitting in the wooden frame on his bookshelf – a mantle he had unceremoniously swept everything else off of to make room for along with the little velvet box that sat next to it – and knew he was making the right decision. Bucky was not going to forget him. He was not going to leave what they had behind and pretend he was okay.

“That’s not how they work,” Nat had tried to tell him once, “They help you, they help take away the pain.” She looked hurt, sad even – she pitied him and for fuck’s sake, he didn’t want anyone’s pity. Lord knew he didn’t deserve any sort of service or help – he just wanted to be left alone with his penance.

 

The door always started rattling and shrieking before he tried to run, but he never got far before he was taken over by the monster that lurked within and dragged backward through the portal. No matter how many times he tried to run, or was dragged bodily through the door, Bucky would never reach a lower level of the house inside his subconscious. Instead, he would wake up tied to a metal table with a strap of leather between his teeth, other times he was being picked at by sharp things, like fucking Prometheus reincarnate.

 

A month passed, and as his shoulder got worse, Bucky got less and less better at staving off sleep. He had a permanent shake in his hands that only got worse every time a grenade would go off door was slammed in the building, and his scars felt like they were dripping with burning oil. Sometimes he would wash his face and look up at the mirror to see blood seeping through his skin as it tore and melted away in his hands. The blood was never his though, and he would spend hours scrubbing at it, desperately trying to rid himself of all the blood staining his conscience.

One time he grabbed a knife from the sink, ready to drain it out of his veins when a soldier Nat walked in on him and screamed, grabbing it from him. But he cried out when the tentacle her hand wrapped around his wrist and he shoved the monster her away, stumbling to the ground. He looked up to find himself on the battlefield, dirt plumes and explosions rattling through him, and the shakes in his hands spread through his whole body.

 

This time he couldn’t stop his hand from reaching out and twisting the brass handle of the red door. The throbbing, rapid drumbeat of his heart grew faster in his ears as the door creaked open to reveal the looming monster within. He cried out and fell backwards, but not before he caught a glimpse of the face of the monster lurching to grab at him. His heart pinched when he was met with the same mess of dark hair, pale skin, and pain laced inside the same blue eyes, the dark shadows around them making the blue ice cold and just as distant.

He stumbled and felt the tentacles dragging him down–

This new, lower level was softer, filled with a shifting fog and pale glow of a steam room. Slowly making his way through the gentle mist, he stopped when a shadowy silhouette appeared before him through the shifting fog, fear creeping through him again. But then he heard a voice echoing around him – a voice he hadn’t heard in so long. Where was it coming from? Bucky spun – it was calling his name!

“Bucky…? Bucky where are you?”

“Steve?” He called, spinning and getting lost in the mist as it grew thicker.

Please don’t leave me, Bucky…”

 

He woke with a moan; the little bowl of pills already there on the coffee table, like they had been expecting him. Bucky wiped away his tears angrily and instead of flushing them like he normally did, he picked the bowl up and swallowed the meds dry. Then he adjusted his helmet and crossed the camp to the kitchen to find the rest.

His hand automatically went to the sink to fill the glass, but then he hesitated. If he was going to make a cocktail, he may as well do it right.

There were fourteen pills for his injuries left, and his prescription only ever asked for half a tablet, while Nat had recently opened a new bottle for his psych meds, plus standard painkillers in the cupboard. The strongest spirits he had was rum, figured it was good enough and took a few sips before heading to the bedroom, pausing to let a group of soldiers pass. On the way there, he saw the light glint off the top of his bookcase and he glanced over to medal that sat there. Instead of hesitating, Bucky raised the bottle in a salute, tears still shining in his eyes and mouth pushed into a thin line.

“Here’s to dancing together.” He whispered, before taking another long drink from the bottle.

Bucky choked on the third swig of rum and handful of pills, but could already feel the concoction blurring his nerves and finally taking the buzz off of his imagination and the fucking delusions it concocted. He slid to the wooden floor of his room, the grenades little bottles scattered around him. A few handfuls later he could feel himself slipping into a plane between unconsciousness and sleep, somewhere soft and sucking and slurring and his heart skipped and jolted before slowing down. Bucky remembered thinking that this was peaceful, this was what he’d been desperately searching for all this time, some quiet and softness, completely free of pain…

  

“Nobody knows why
Nobody knows how and 
This feeling begins just like a spark
Tossing and turning inside of your heart
Exploding in the dark.

Calling your name in the midnight hour
Reaching for you from the endless dream
So many miles between us now
But you are always here with me.”

 

The electricity sizzled under his skin, and he screamed around the piece of leather in his mouth. He was tied to a metal table, and the straps strained and tightened around him. The shrapnel in his chest and shoulder twisted and seemed to conduct their own electrical force that stole his breath and made his jaw lock. His fingers ached as they gripped the handlebars so tight his dry skin split. The current stopped and he heaved for breath, wanting to beg them to stop but the strap in his mouth wouldn’t let him.

 

“Again. Up the voltage… Clear.”

A jolt punched through him so deeply he felt his whole body lurch and he gasped–

 

His mouth was so dry that when he swallowed, he could feel a lump like sand below his Adams apple drag itself up the back of his throat. His eyes wouldn’t open but he felt tears sliding down the sides of his face and into his hair. He couldn’t lift his head and felt it flop to one side.

“Easy, Mr Barnes.”

Bucky flinched against a hand on his good shoulder and frowned at the stranger’s voice. He heard a beeping noise grow steadily faster as he tried to breathe, tried to fight out of the grasp of the scientist–

“You’re safe.” The voice said, and while all of his instincts were screaming at him, Bucky was aware that he wasn’t tied or strapped down. Even his arm wasn’t aching. He coughed and felt it bounce back in his face, the oxygen mask pinching the skin above his ears.

The weight in his body was uncomfortable, unwanted. This crushing weight of being alive.

Finally Bucky was able to open his eyes and saw the room slowly fall into place around him. A doctor stood near him and smiled softly, and Bucky was taken aback at how similar he looked to Steve. But his eyes didn’t light up the same way – his kind smile didn’t reach them, instead they remained calculating and watchful, like Bucky might lash out like a vicious animal at any moment. His hair and nose were too short – plus Steve was wider in the shoulders, his waist narrow and–

Bucky closed his eyes, wincing when he swallowed and tried to shift in the bed, to roll away from the doctor and his judgment.

“Rest for now.” He told him, “Try and build your fluids back up. You’re breathing and that’s the main thing though.” Bucky didn’t think this was an adequate sign of life.

The doctor fake-smiled kindly, “I’ll be back a bit later to ask you some questions, okay?” Bucky must have nodded because he took his hand off his shoulder and left.

 

He dozed, and while it was free of nightmares, it was not totally free of noise. The din of the hospital was incorporated into his sleep, so Bucky didn’t feel like he had slept at all, rather walked around his military camp with closed eyes.

When the doctor returned it was darker outside, and his questions were both expected yet unwanted.

“How are you dealing with your trauma?” “Are you sleeping?” “Do you dream of people in the war?” “What triggers your hallucinations?”

Bucky’s replies were short and used as few syllables as possible, but then the doctor started asking specific questions. Questions about suicidal thoughts, questions about loosing his closest friend during battle.

And now, Bucky didn’t reply. The doctor repeated them, worded them differently, but Bucky didn’t respond.

He didn’t tell him that the two of them were had been so much more than that. He didn’t dare say that they’d been lovers, or how they’d fucked each other behind the medic bay the night before Bucky had flown out to Austria.

Bucky didn’t add anything about the months he’d spent captive there, tortured and beaten and screaming Steve’s name as they cut, tore and electrified their way to answers he couldn’t give them. The doctor had files for that.

And he didn’t tell the good doctor about the overwhelming relief he’d felt when he had moaned out Steve’s name and the man himself was there to reply because the idiot had flown through a battle zone to get him and the squadron out before the train departed for Poland the next day.

“You didn’t think I was just gonna let you forget about your promise did ya?”

Bucky’s head swam from everything they’d done to him, but something about what he said sounded familiar. Steve saw his eyes trying to connect the dots, trying to remember, as he swung Bucky’s arm over his shoulders and took his weight, readying themselves as Bucky choked back a groan.

Steve’s voice was hot and brushed against his neck as he whispered,

“You still owe me a dance, Sargent.”

Bucky grinned, his own voice hoarse in comparison, “Aye, Cap’n.”

 

Bucky didn’t tell him about the moment he inhaled fresh air for the first time as Steve dragged him out of the complex and helped him onto the back of a truck as the signal rose amongst the rescue team to get out and get out right now.

Steve grinned at him, stepping up onto the bumper as the truck started pulling away, moments before the ground shuddered and gunshots rang out after them. A bloom of red burst on Steve’s collar and he cried out, losing his grip on the handle of the truck’s side, and he seemed to hover there before another explosion of red shot through his chest and he snapped backwards, crumpling away from the truck and for the thousandth time, Bucky screamed out his name, but they didn’t stop and Steve wasn’t getting up (get up!), and Bucky desperately shot forwards because if he was gonna die then by god, they would die together, but hands dragged him backwards and he was screaming and crying and fuck, Steve get up! but he was getting smaller and smaller and Bucky could still see him on his knees in the mud clutching his chest watching them drive away and Bucky was howling for him, because they had promised each other god dammit, they had promised they would come back together.

Bucky didn’t tell anyone about the moment he saw Steve drop boneless to the mud, or the pain that ripped him apart from the inside, and never stopped tearing, not after he came back, not after the meds, not even now.

The only thing that made some sort of impact towards healing was Steve’s flag. Steve had no family left, and thanks to a female officer, to whom Bucky felt unbelievably grateful towards, he had been granted the folded flag and medal of honour Steve had been awarded for saving Bucky and his squadron.

 

The doctors gave up on him, as did the psychiatrist, and a week later, he was returned home to the demons that lurked around every corner.

“You want me to stay for a while?” Nat smiled, “I could make some dinner.”

Bucky wanted to smile at her, thank her for her efforts but truthfully, he resented her for finding him when she did, for believing in him when he had finished believing in himself. Bucky was keenly aware that the only reason she was there was because she fancied him, and it made him wish he had reached for the bleach instead of the rum.

  

“Oh inside me
I find my way
Back to you
Back to you.”

 

Bucky slowly made his way through the mist, stopping when the silhouette appeared again. The same fear took hold of him, but then the shadow moved forward and he saw that it was a little taller and thinner, stood with confidence, and had a military cap tilted at a jaunty angle. Instead of fear, Bucky’s heart lurched with both hope and grief as the figure stepped closer still, appearing out of the mist.

“Steve?” He whispered, and watched as his best friend smiled at him once more.

Somewhere through the mist, a storm was rolling in, the trembling bass travelling through the air.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” Steve shook his head, a frown making his eyes sad. In the distance, a shot of thunder rang out, and with it, a plume of red burst through Steve’s shoulder.

Bucky gasped at it, but Steve was oblivious to the wound, still staring at him questioningly.

“Doing what?” He heard himself say. Bucky was stuck between being bewilderingly happy to see him and bursting into tears that his heart ached.

“Blaming yourself. This was not your fault.” Steve’s voice was soft and echoing, but the storm was getting louder, and another ricocheting clap made the earth beneath them begin to rumble, and another bloom of red blood stained the beige uniform.

Bucky was struggling to stand as the ground quaked beneath them, his best friend a statue of concern, and he didn’t want this moment to end so soon. Not now, not when he had just got him back after so long.

“I came back. You didn’t.” He made himself say, the words choking through his throat, and a crack spread through the ground between them. The fog started swirling, and the storm kicked up a wind and threw down another vault of lightning, the flash momentarily obscuring Steve from view. When he appeared again another wound had opened up on Steve’s uniform, and his face had become scratched and dirty, yet he still had that easy smile in his eyes.

“Did you?” Steve asked simply, his voice almost lost over the clamour, and he gestured to the storm and the ground that continued to break open beneath their feet.

Bucky couldn’t answer; he didn’t want to risk losing everything all over again.

Steve shook his head and smiled kindly at him,

“Don’t feel sorry for me, Buck. You’re the one who’s still trapped there, forced to deal with it all.”

“I can’t stop thinking about you, Steve. About all of it. I should have been with you–” he winced against the sob that wracked up his throat.

Steve was immediately in front of him now, only an arm span away and Bucky so badly wanted to hold him, to feel him pressed against him again that he ached with longing until it made him gasp for breath. The ground rumbled low and a reverberating boom made the ground beat like a heart.

“You’re with me now.” Steve whispered, reaching up to hold Bucky’s face and a hitched sigh slipped past his lips at the feeling of his flesh against his own again.

“That wasn’t your fault, you know that, right?” Steve frowned; like it was absurd to him that Bucky would have thought so.

He found himself nodding that yes, he did, but tears welled in his eyes.

“I can’t do this without you, Steve.” His voice was thick and hot and a quaking whisper in the din, but Steve somehow heard him. “You are my home. And I don’t know how to feel like myself without you.” He felt his feet vibrating on the ground that was breaking open beneath them, but still Steve remained immune to it.

“I am always with you, Buck. We promised, remember?”

The sob Bucky had been holding back broke free and his vision blurred through the tears. He smiled a broken smile filled with sadness and love.

“I remember.” He mouthed the words more than he spoke them, reaching out for Steve before the ground exploded beneath him and Bucky lost his footing and fell through the mist–

 

“Calling your name in the midnight hour
Reaching for you from the endless dream
So many miles between us now
But you are always here with me.”

 

He landed heavily on the floorboards and heaved in huge gulps of air, the mist sweat rolling off him. It took him a while to gather himself, and longer for the dream to sink in. Longer still, for his thoughts to begin to make an impact and turn into the beginnings of an idea. A wish. A plan.

Hours turned into days, and when the scientist Nat came to visit him, she looked at him with more disgust hesitation than she did before. Months Days turned into a year week by the time Bucky had made up his mind after dozens more dark nightmares that were never going to stop. The scientists had broken him, taken away his guiding light and torn him away from his home – now he was getting it back.

 

An empty bottle of Jack slipped from his fingers as he stumbled into the garage below the apartments. Lower and lower he went, like he was making his way down the levels of his dreams again, back to the answers, back home.

Again he saw the mist surrounding him and it grew thicker and thicker. He coughed and breathed it in, tears streaming down his face until he saw Steve smile at him.

It seemed the gods finally gave him what he truly wanted. For the first time in a long, long time, Bucky slipped into a dreamless realm.

 

“Two words
In your hands
In your hearts
It's whole universe.

You are always here with me.”