I. Bucharest, 2016
Sometimes the words rattle around in Bucky's head like bullets in an ammo case: rusted, freight car, longing. He shies away from them so they won't load, so the memories which created them won't take hold - those nightmares will visit him at night, so he doesn't need to carry them in the daylight, too.
But sometimes, curled up on an ancient mattress in a makeshift bedroll, he remembers other things. Better things. He takes the brochure with Captain America's image on it and looks at America's hero until the cowl disappears, until he can see the contours of Steve's face, Steve's blue eyes looking back at him through time.
He remembers: Brooklyn in the spring, when their apartment wasn't freezing anymore, but before it started to get stifling hot; Steve's red nose below those sharp blue eyes, and the way Steve sneezed every time a breeze stirred through the open window. Their curtains were threadbare, on the verge of falling apart every time Bucky yanked them open, but he liked the way light poured through them, painting the room soft white.
And then Steve would sneeze again, and Bucky would laugh until his sides hurt, the way Steve's face scrunched up and his mouth made that little o of displeasure. He'd take Bucky's hanky, but resentfully, like it was the hanky's fault.
He remembers: he had an hour before he had to be at work loading freight, and all he could think about was getting Steve back into bed for a cuddle, pressing his mouth to the sharp collarbones above Steve's fast-beating heart to see if he could make it go just a little bit faster. Steve was making eggs in his ma's cast iron skillet, and Bucky was hungry, but not for those runny eggs. He wanted something he hadn't named, then. He wanted Steve in that way that made his ribs ache; wanted him in ways made his stomach hollow out when he caught sight of a corner of Steve's smile, or when Steve pulled his shirt over his head at bedtime.
He had no name for it then, but knew it was precious, and had to be protected.
He remembers: Steve's lips red around his cock, and the way they sprawled together after, with Steve on top of him, the both of them still and quiet. They'd been a little afraid of looking at each other too close, but more afraid of pulling apart. In the distance, a radio playing big band songs, some singer telling a sad story about lovers, and Bucky's uniform in a heap on the floor.
He remembers: talk of taking his dad's car, heading west to see the world beyond their borough, but it was just talk. Their imaginations hadn't grown large enough to carry them past the city, out into the world and away from each other. Steve was all lit up about joining the Army, and Bucky couldn't stop thinking about the day he'd have to board a ship for Europe.
They'd been trying to see into their future, and hadn't known to be grateful for the now.
Bucky's heart had been fragile glass beneath the spot where Steve's fingertips rested against his skin. He'd closed his own fingertips around Steve's, and smiled when he'd heard Steve sigh, contented.
Now he knows the word for the feeling. Longing. He thinks of that day, of the orders in his jacket pocket, of the way he hadn't spoken of them because the thought of leaving Steve had to be adjusted to. Had to be tucked away, into the same place the screams and pain would hide, later. The place of forgetting.
He chooses to remember it all now, so he can make himself forget.
II. Wakanda, 2017
Putting his mind back together was a slow and difficult journey, despite all Shuri's help. Bucky had company when he wanted it; the kids, and the goats, and the curious warriors who occasionally stopped by to make sure he was still there and hadn't reverted back to Hydra's assassin. Once they'd come across Shuri there, and her scolding of them for spying on him had made Bucky turn his head to hide a smile.
Once in a while, he had more exalted company. On this night, T'Challa had come to share a bowl of stew, and see how the ingcuka fared.
"It was not I who gave you this name," T'Challa said, grinning at Bucky in the firelight. "It was the warriors, who heard it first from the children. Now many call you the wolf."
"Better than other names I've had." Bucky smiled faintly at T'Challa. It was kind of him to come, and kinder still that he never had an agenda - no work for Bucky to do, no task to set him upon. Bucky had asked, once, and T'Challa had gestured to the valley.
"There seems to be plenty of work for you here, wouldn't you agree?"
And so there was. Every day Bucky worked sunup to sundown, tending goats and cattle, and sometimes working with wood or fabric to keep his mind still and focused. In the evenings, he sat beside the fire beneath a clear night sky, thinking about the past. About nights spent with Dugan and the other commandos beside tiny campfires, drinking the dregs of coffee from tin cups and spitting out the grounds, and eating half-cooked rabbits and squirrels, when they were lucky.
Even before that, he could recall eating rations in cold dark trenches, with his frozen eyelashes stuck to his face and his body shivering so hard his dog tags rattled against his chest. He'd missed Steve so much in those days, it was like half his heart had been left behind.
His memories were firmly rooted in his mind now, but Steve danced around the edges of those wartime snapshots, more a presence than a face Bucky could see. Too often Steve had placed himself on perimeter or on watch, so he'd been left out of the joking around the fire.
There was one exception, though - the night Steve had rescued them all from Red Skull's clutches. The night Bucky had puked his guts out every mile or so of walking, until finally Steve called a halt and made them all rest. He'd tucked Bucky up against his side like a mama bird with a chick, and Bucky had never been so pissed and so grateful all at once. No campfire that night, but he'd been too tired to care.
He'd spent that night caught between parallel desires - of going home, and of staying with this new, huge Steve - until he realized at last that it all amounted to the same thing. With his face mashed into Steve's damp jacket, and Steve giving soft commands to others while Bucky pretended to sleep, Bucky had realized his home was going to be in the cold mud for as long as Steve was in it, too.
"Your mind is far from this place," T'Challa said softly, bringing him back to their circle of fire. "What troubles you?"
"Not troubled," Bucky said. "Just thinking about how many of my sharpest memories revolve around war. Or fighting. Both, I guess."
"And in those memories, does Captain Rogers fight at your side?"
Bucky looked at him, startled. "More like the other way around."
"Of course." T'Challa nodded. "It would seem so, certainly; you were his right hand, while at war. Perhaps it is an issue of perspective. But is it not Captain Rogers who has sought you out, wherever you might be?"
A thousand contrary answers ran through Bucky's mind, but he stopped short of saying them. Steve's rescue of him in Austria had been a fluke; his discovery of Bucky in the modern world had likewise been an accident of fate. After his fall from the train, Steve hadn't come for him...but he couldn't have known where Bucky was, or that he was alive.
Once he had known, though, he hadn't stopped until Bucky was found. Until he was safe. And that was the trouble, in the end; the fight never left Steve, because the fight was never done. Bucky didn't like that it centered around him now. He'd been the cause of Steve's crusades from the beginning of this mess: his rescue catapulted Steve into becoming the warrior he was born to be; his fall from the train eventually sent Steve into the ice; his run from the Avengers sent Steve into hiding.
Sometimes, loving Steve was like holding a heart full of needles.
Bucky held his right hand up to the fire to warm it. He imagined he could see right through the skin, to the fragile bones beneath, remade by Zola's freakish science into something more than human. How terrible it was that the parts of him could heal, but the broken twisted core of him never quite did.
"You should forgive him for loving you more than he loves himself," T'Challa said. "Since, in the end, it is certain you are guilty of the same offense."
"I thought Shuri was my self-appointed therapist," Bucky said, not quite smiling.
"She may very well be. My sister fancies herself to be many things, not least of all a counselor to kings and warriors. And she is usually correct. As for me...I am content to be your friend."
"As I am yours," Bucky said, in soft, accented Xhosa.
"And as a friend, I have made a decision on your behalf, for which I hope you will forgive me." T'Challa gestured toward the downslope of the hill where Bucky's dwelling sat. A dark shape was climbing toward them, rising up to the edges of the sky on the horizon until it was outlined by starlight.
A familiar shape, broad-shouldered, walking with an uncharacteristic limp.
T'Challa moved forward to greet Steve, to exchange a handshake with him, and then with a wave to Bucky, returned on the path Steve had just followed. Steve moved closer, into the firelight. His hair was too long, greasy from lack of a shower. His uniform, if it could still be called that, was filthy and torn. Weary lines creased his face, and there were shadows under his eyes.
Bucky had thought he could not love Steve more, but even now that feeling was growing, filling in all the remaining empty, time-worn spaces inside him.
"About time," Bucky said, rising from his place by the fire. A slow, tired smile lit Steve's face as Bucky added, "Welcome home."
III. Upstate New York, 2025
Coffee and bacon were the two things guaranteed to wake Bucky up from a deep sleep, no matter how hard the mission before it had been. He cracked open an eye and contemplated moving, but it seemed like a lot of effort. His entire body was a series of bruises; probably most of them were healed by now, but that wouldn't stop him from internally whining about it.
He dozed off again, half-aware of Steve humming tunelessly in the bathroom, and of the TV droning in the living room. There would be a lot of news this morning. Lots of shots of Sam being shiny and heroic, never mind the guy with the metal arm trying his best to keep Captain America from getting his ass shot off. Or his wings. Whatever.
The thought of that made Bucky sigh and turn over, clutching his blanket to him. It was so warm in the bed. He never wanted to leave it.
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead," Steve said, draping himself across Bucky's blanket-covered body like some kind of giant needy cat.
"Bring coffee?" Bucky suggested. He sweetened the borderline demand by lifting his head and kissing Steve's nose - or the area beneath his right eye and adjacent to his nose. Close enough. He could feel Steve smiling, so he tilted his head and was able to score an actual minty-fresh morning kiss out of the deal.
"Sorry, what did you want? I was distracted." Now Steve was burrowing under the blankets, looking for bare skin. Which would be fine, except that said skin was bruised. Bucky yelped and flinched away, and immediately was sorry when Steve pulled back, contrite. And then he yanked the blankets away, which caused Bucky to bleat pitifully as his warm snuggly den was reduced to a cold bare sheet underneath him.
"Nooo," he said, reaching for the blanket, but it was too late. Steve was already running (nice warm) hands over him, smoothing over the remaining sore spots.
"Wow," Steve said, "no wonder Sam is still conked out on the floor of the spare room."
Bucky snickered. "Didn't even make it under the covers?"
"Well, I took his wings off, if that matters. And he's using the shield as a pillow." Steve raised an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you be more concerned about your partner, there?"
"Shouldn't you go get a blackmail photo while he's still out?" Bucky grabbed Steve's hands and pressed them against his cold stomach. "Also, he's not my partner. He's a work acquaintance."
Steve rolled his eyes and wrapped his arm around Bucky's wrist, the better to pull him to the edge of the bed, where Bucky reluctantly sat up and put his feet on the floor. "Get showered, handsome; coffee awaits."
"Get a picture!" Bucky called after him.
Twenty minutes later, he'd worked out most of the worst knots under the hot water, and had put on the rattiest pair of sweatpants he owned, along with one of Steve's henleys, because why not. It was soft. It also fit Bucky better than Steve. It was a luxury, having soft clothes that were well-worn and lived in, and being able to steal Steve's at a moment's notice.
He padded out into the hallway and stopped dead, staring, because every inch of their little house seemed to have been taken over by fairy lights.
"I'm going blind," he said wonderingly, face tilted up as he squinted his way down the hall and into the kitchen.
"You're not going blind," Steve said. He pushed a full mug of coffee across the counter to Bucky. "It's the day after Thanksgiving."
"Which does not explain why the house looks like an airport runway."
"I don't know. I just...I like them," Steve said, and oh there it was, the stubborn jut of chin paired with the puppy dog eyes. "Don't you think they're pretty?"
In fact, Bucky did think they were pretty, but it would be a cold day in hell before he admitted it to Steve. He took a long swig of coffee and contemplated the temperature in hell for a full minute before saying, "Well, they aren't awful."
"I could put the Christmas-"
"Shut it!" Bucky said, throwing up a metal index finger in protest. "No!"
"Well, there go my plans for the gingerbread cake I was planning to bake today."
"And how exactly does a lack of a tree dying of thirst in the living room equate to me not getting gingerbread cake?" Bucky demanded.
"It's a holiday food, Buck! Can't have cake without holiday trappings to make it seem festive." Steve paused, then added, "Or hot chocolate with marshmallows."
"That's low, Rogers."
Steve rounded the counter and sat down on the stool next to Bucky's. The scent of hot chocolate wafted up from his mug. For a moment, Bucky was right back in their Brooklyn flat, the two of them heating milk in a pan on Christmas Day and stirring in cocoa and sugar. The ultimate indulgence. Not really Bucky's holiday, but it was good to share Steve's joy.
Bucky leaned to the right, slowly, until his head landed on Steve's shoulder. Steve rested his head on top of Bucky's, and they sat that way for a while, quiet, breathing together. All Bucky's aches and pains faded into the distance.
"Maybe a wreath," Bucky said. "And those dumb Santa mugs you like."
"Okay," Steve answered softly. He pushed his mug over to Bucky, and took Bucky's coffee for his own.
"Gingerbread cake," Bucky warned. "With icing."
Steve lifted his head and Bucky tilted to meet him, and then there were slow, soft, coffee-and-chocolate kisses, the kind that sent sugar singing through Bucky's blood. This - the two of them, together, steadfast and sure - was everything.
(Even with Sam snoring gently in the background.)